Friday, November 16, 2012

Skyfall (and a brief mention of Wreck-It Ralph)

                But I Was so Much Older Then, I’m Younger than That Now                … Oh, Wait.  No, I’m Not.
                               Review by Ken Burke
James Bond is back for the 50-year anniversary of the most celebrated spy in fictiondom with a darker story than usual that resets the franchise for future installments.

            As you may know by now from my ranting in preview reviews, the constant interruptions from my real job at Mills College (a premiere liberal arts institution for women—and, no, that’s not why I stay so busy here; besides, not only am I perpetually satisfied with my marvelous wife, Nina, but there’s also the reality that if I sampled the merchandise [so to speak] she’d kill me with one swing of her machete [no joke, it hangs on the living room wall] rather than the slow method of arsenic in my bran muffins that she’s currently doing [she kids me about that all the time … at least I think she’s kidding]—at the undergraduate level, so send your daughters or your mothers here [we take all ages] and help balance our finances [I’m on the Budget Committee and about a half-dozen others; that’s where the time really goes]) make it difficult for me to get my reviews written until about a week after I’ve seen something so by now there’s not much point in me making comments about the long, proud history of the James Bond franchise because I’m sure you’ve already read about it in a hundred other places by now (but if you’d like a great reference to that sort of thing I’ll steer you to, a retrospective look at Bond films over their 50 years in the theatres along with links to information on many of the ones previous to Skyfall, and, the official 007 site; yet another good one that links you up to a lot of useful info is at  Along that line of thought, suffice it to say that 2012 has been quite the year for 50th anniversaries with the reunion tour of the Beach Boys, the attention building for the reappearance of the Rolling Stones (although Keith Richards insists that their real anniversary comes next year, celebrating the release of their first single rather than this year’s commemoration of the band’s beginning), and—on a much more serious note—the avoidance of a near-global tragedy (that, were it not still so much of a haunting reality for those of us who were there at the time, would have made a great plot for a Bond film, as 007 would somehow scramble the navigation systems of the Russian warships headed for the Caribbean) with the last-minute resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  That’s all appropriate for reminiscing with Mr. Bond, though, because his 1962 appearance on screen in Terence Young’s Dr. No, especially as personified by the charming, cocky (of course the pun is intended) Sean Connery, fit in perfectly with the atmosphere of those Kennedy Camelot days of upbeat music, emerging sophisticated technology, a confidence that the triumphant American century was really at hand after victories over both the Depression and the Fascists, and a shift to an energetic Baby Boomer youth culture ready to embrace the sexuality, the gadgets, the gin, and the infectious optimistic attitude so evident in the wonderful world of Bond.

            Now, 23 films later (or 24 if you count Connery’s long-awaited return in the renegade Never Say Never Again [Irvin Kershner, 1983])—although if you get really picky we could up that to 25 with the 1967 parody version of Casino Royale [too many directors to bother to list]) we come to the latest Bond story, dramatically led by the latest Bond actor, the impressive Daniel Craig who’s taking us in directions that Connery and Roger Moore seemingly never considered, although there are hints of this more world-weary secret agent in some of the outings that starred Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.  With Craig’s characterization, though, we have a Bond who’s a bit shorter than his predecessors, blonde instead of brunette, not yet prone to joking references (although in interviews Craig implies that may return in future episodes), and, for the first part of Skyfall, burned out enough with his job and his boss that he abandons the spy game entirely for a long dose of R & R in some tropical location where he’s not so particular about how his booze is served (or even what it is, although unless it zipped past me when I was in a semi-comatose state—as I often am at the end of a week, trying to stay alert while watching new release films—I never saw that much-discussed Heineken anywhere, but maybe that was just in promo ads for the movie, not actually in Skyfall), nor so interested in keeping up his skills that when he does return to save England once again—although, more specifically, Judi Dench’s M as the embodiment of all that he still respects about England despite her current troubles—he’s not even sharp enough to pass the needed athletic and firearms skills tests needed to be re-certified for fieldwork.  This is truly a Bond we’ve rarely seen, not worn down by age so much (although the chronology of his life would not correspond to his years on screen anyway or he’d be drawing a pension rather than a pistol) as by frustration:  frustration with the constant calamities that his profession imposes on him so that his life is forever in danger; frustration as not truly being the lone wolf that he’d like to see himself as, given that he still reports to a hierarchy, one in which he’s just as expendable as his adversaries (as shown by M giving the long-distance order to another agent, Eve [Naomie Harris], to take a rifle shot at Bond and his quarry as they rush out of position on top of a moving train, leading to Bond being wounded and falling seemingly to his death in a river far below); and frustration that despite the opportunity to continue playing dead, thereby relieving himself of the above difficulties, his loyalty to those same infuriating superiors pulls him back in, just as surely as Michael Corleone’s mob associates pull him back into their underworld just as he thought he’d cleansed himself of their illegalities in The Godfather: Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990).  As M notes to him, they’ve both been at this spy business a long time so that duty calls enticingly to Bond—despite his secret desire to escape his obligations—as it does to all of our fictional social guardians who can’t resist the siren’s invitation to challenge danger and disruption once again.

            But this time the disruption is presented in ways that confound the very nature of the espionage world that has drawn Bond in ever since his childhood when his parents were killed (his backstory has been a long time coming; however, it’s doubtful we’d have expected it to parallel that of Batman, but maybe at some point they’ll forge a trans-Atlantic alliance pitting their wits and machineries against some global-lusting madmen on a scale that will land just inside the realm of plausibility relative to what powers are needed to ward off the kind of villains that trouble the hospitable Transformers or the superheroes of the Avengers’ singular and collective movies).  Instead of seeking world domination through the use of stolen nuclear bombs or satellite-fired lasers, this Bond baddie, Silva (Javier Bardem), simply wants to use his arsenal of cyber-weapons to take revenge on M, first humiliating her as he steals records of spy identities so that agents can be outted and killed, then devising an attack on MI6 headquarters itself to show her as incapable of defense against a brilliant terrorist, and finally tracking her down in hiding to murder her in retaliation for the decision she made years ago in Hong Kong to give him up to the Chinese when he worked in her office but compromised their actions with his double-agent deviations.  Never have we seen the machine of protection itself so vulnerable and rarely have we seen a Bond villain so focused on such a personal vendetta that leads not to amassing an illicit empire but simply exacting punishment on a singular basis.  (What he’d do relative to the standard schemes of world conquest after M’s demise will never be known, given Bond’s preventative protection—Oh, come on, do I have to announce spoiler alerts every week when I’ve made it clear that’s part of my weekly retrospective ruminations!  Besides, do you really believe that after all this wait and the surefire box-office profits awaiting Skyfall that there’s any doubt Bond survives, to not Die Another Day [Lee Tamahori, 2002] but return in many a sequel yet to come?—but at least for the duration of this grim, harsher-than-usual Bond narrative, all Silva cares about is rectifying his past, mostly the part where he endured 5 tortuous years in a Chinese prison.)  By making M the focus of the meticulously-planned attacks, Skyfall gives us much more depth on the workings of this CIA-like government agency and allows us to face the real-world doubts of just how much guardianship such structures can offer in our factual environment where terrorists can cause chaos from afar using super-secret cyber-weapons (just as were actually used to interfere with Iran’s ongoing nuclear program) and where we have to constantly question the human weaknesses behind these so-called walls of defense (as we’re learning on a daily basis with the ongoing scandal involving General Petraeus and who knows how many others, undermining the faith we’re supposed to have in those entrusted with the highest echelons of protection but who can’t even seem to protect themselves from spurned lovers and incriminating emails).

            Even worse for our British neighbors, Bond couldn’t fully protect M even as he kills Silva in a low-tech manner with a hunting knife, thrown into his back no less, another deviation from the Bond standard of the past, showing us a more plausible hero who may be able to accomplish a lot with spontaneous defense strategies (as with his surprise slaying of several Silva henchmen about midpoint in the movie) but at times must resort to the most pragmatic methods available to prevent a simple trigger pull from ending all of the conflict in a more realistic rather than fictionally-flamboyant manner.  If there’s anything flamboyant about Skyfall (that is, after the magnificently choreographed opening chase through Istanbul and into the countryside with Bond hot on the heels of Silva’s accomplice who steals the hard drive with all the NATO agent names) it’s Silva, with Bardem as effectively evil as he was in his Best Actor Oscar role of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Cohen, 2007) but now more elegant, more complex in his plotting, and more dangerous with all of the “soldiers” and weaponry at his command, although at the end it’s just him and Bond in an abandoned chapel on the virtually-abandoned Bond ancestral estate, Skyfall, with M’s life on the line, then over the line as injuries sustained in the onslaught catch her and us off-guard.  Despite all of his resources Silva finds that Bond’s resolve in protecting the parent-substitute that M has become for him (at least in this movie, not so much in the others where Dench has played the role since 1995’s GoldenEye [Martin Campbell, with Brosnan as Bond]) proves more than even Silva’s army can overcome, although that final killing of Silva brings us back to Earth again with Bond as a desperate mercenary using the last weapon at his command in a very undignified—yet necessarily effective—manner.  We also see the more plausible aspects of Silva as well with his pure revenge motive for all of his complex schemes, essentially setting M up for a lot of mental torture as her agents are killed, her stronghold is breeched, and her public credibility is in the process of being skewered just before Silva and company come after her with gunfire at the hearing where she’s already under political fire, along with her entire agency, as being obsolete in a world where it takes more than superior firepower to bring down a determined enemy (a serious concern underlying the normally fanciful Bond domain, furthering the ongoing more-plausible, more-dramatic rebooting of the series not by starting over as the recent Casino Royale [Martin Campbell, 2006] might have implied [but then we get a clear understanding that Craig’s Bond is simply the latest face on the perpetual 007 body when he takes the Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) Aston Martin out of storage, both to drive M to Scotland in an untraceable vehicle and to use its twin machine guns as a weapon against Silva’s likely assault] but by admitting that the world has changed drastically since 1962 and that however long Bond has been in service his world has changed drastically as well, so that this continuing series will still serve us a fine regular helping of escapism but it will also start making us think about more significant matters than shaken martinis and babes in bikinis).

            Ultimately M’s demise (at least with Dench in the role) opens up the series to recast its primary players and clear away the residue from the Brosnan era as we end up with agent-turned-office worker Eve revealing herself as the new Moneypenny (with strong implications that this time around she may be more successful in getting MI6’s premiere operative into the sack [although it does open up a continuity problem in terms of leaving the implication that no such character existed prior to Skyfall despite our knowledge of her frequent presence, a minor consideration but still one to note]), Ben Whishaw at the new, much younger, and more computer-focused Q (but with the understanding that he could simply be the latest in that agency role of Quartermaster, head of the research and technology division of MI6, as the older versions played in the official canon Bond films by Peter Burton [1962], Desmond Llewelyn [1963-99], and John Cleese [1999-2002] could have all been the same older gentleman character—just as there’s been only 1 James Bond character despite the several actors and there could have been 2 M’s over the years [with the first one played by Bernard Lee (1962-79) and Robert Brown (1983-89) and the second (there’d have to be a second, given the gender change) by Judy Dench since 1995]), and Ralph Fiennes as the new M, moving over from his position as a government higher-up questioning the relevance of MI6 to realizing the need for both the agency and its lead agent with his license to kill.  (This raises another possible continuity question about the whole concept of M and Q being referred to in that manner as a way of concealing their true identities, even from those who work directly with them, as a means of captured agents not being forced to divulge the names of their superiors—at least that’s how I’ve always interpreted this strange nomenclature—but with Dench’s M the target of a major media scandal [again, with life now imitating art in the recent Patreus debacle] and Fiennes’ government official, Lieutenant Colonel Gareth Mallory, also a known quantity I now see no sense in these seeming code names, but then I’m not raking in millions writing these Bond scripts and making the movies so who cares about my silly questions?)

            But just in case any of you care, let me leave you with one more question that might become relevant as this über-spy series continues to weave its way into the 21st century:  If MGM and the new generation of the series-producer Broccoli family want to once again bring in a younger actor to keep the franchise fresh (as was the case with Dalton, then Brosnan, replacing the aging Moore) how effective will that be with Craig, already 44 and as a character agreeing with Dench’s M that he’s been in this spy business for a long time already, maybe too long?  Don’t get me wrong, if anyone can help me forget the gold (finger; sorry, couldn’t resist, despite the “finger” that Sean finally gave to the series) standard that Connery developed for this role it’s Craig who puts a fine personal stamp on his version of Bond, but we’ve now got a guy who won’t be able to realistically run around on top of moving trains for that many more years (and I doubt that we want to see a wheezing James Bond, admitting that time is no longer on his side, as was the case with Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [Steven Spielberg, 2008]—even though Ford, Spielberg, and Lucas all are hinting that another Indiana episode might be on their fast-receding horizon) playing a character who shows that he’s not just a younger replacement as Dalton and Brosnan were so I just have to wonder if we’re ever going to be able to get back to the suave, smooth-talking, unflappable Bond of yesteryear where You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967) is not a lifestyle limitation (the very qualities that made him so different from the grim, no-nonsense Jason Bourne) or are we going to stay in increasingly middle-aged darkness where a growing, difficult anti-terrorist agenda may make us want to just Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, 1973) or as Dylan once sang (when I could understand what he was saying), “Then time will tell, just who has fell, and who’s been left behind, when you go your way and I go mine” (“Most Likely You Go Your Way [and I’ll Go Mine]” from the Blonde on Blonde album, 1966; if you’re feeling a bit cynical about Bond’s future you might want to sing along with a much younger Bob at  Hopefully, though, Craig’s Bond will evolve in some way that “You want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind, and you think maybe you’ll trust him, for he’s touched your perfect body with his mind” (Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne,” from Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967; if you’re more optimistic about the new directions for Bond you could travel back to a 1970 version of Cohen at for a different tone of your sing-along).

            We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next time around, but if the new Bond direction is to keep using directors as talented as Sam Mendes, who brought great gravity mixed with intense action to this latest offering (although there were some interesting distractions that surprised me a bit, leaving me to wonder if Mendes is recycling other films or if he’s just slipping in some familiar homages to give us visual security in the midst of the many Bond transformations in Skyfall:  when 007 is stalking the Istanbul thief later in Shanghai the night setting and colorful skyscraper accents easily reminded me of Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982]; when he journeys to Macau to confront Silva we see the villain’s dilapidated fortress to be similar to the deepest level of the mind’s disturbed, crumbling psyche in Inception [Christopher Nolan, 2010]; and when Silva is temporarily captured he’s put in a cell in the middle of a room that easily takes me back to Hannibal Lecter [Anthony Hopkins] in a similar situation in The Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme, 1991]—and as the ever-insightful Nina noted to me, when the old Bond estate goes up in flames toward the end of our story you can’t help but think a little bit about the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind [Victor Fleming, 1939]; otherwise, Mendes seemed to be on familiar ground with his own past hits, more so in tortured family trauma [again, if you accept M as a conflicted mother-figure for both Bond and Silva] than visual resemblances, in terms of the downbeat mood of Skyfall echoing the psychological harshness of American Beauty [1999] and Revolutionary Road [2008]), then I foresee Bond and his globetrotting adventures continuing to be relevant for as long as I’ve got energy enough to write reviews.

            And, briefly, speaking of energy, another movie guy who has as much of it as Bond is the animated Wreck-It Ralph in Disney’s new video game story of the same name (directed by Rich Moore).  I don’t find myself at that many PG-rated screenings, but I’ve got to admit that this silly tale of an old-school low-def villain (in a game mostly about a hero, Fix-It Felix [Jack McBrayer], who magically rebuilds everything that muscular Ralph destroys) who wants to change his fate and move over to the hero side is a pleasant romp as Ralph (voiced nicely by John C. Reilly) goes through video game Central Station in his arcade (actually just a huge multi-plug electric socket) to land in the Sugar Rush game where he meets up with kid car-racer Vanellope (Sarah Silverman)—shades of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999), even more relevant now that Disney has purchased Lucasfilm and will soon be churning out more stories from that galaxy long ago and far away—and even drags in a heroic storm trooper-like helper, Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), in his quest to win a medal and be honored by his home-game characters rather than live alone in the town dump.  The whole thing is very active, colorful, and easy to watch—especially compared to the somber, gray tone of Skyfall (which matches Bond’s suit, but even there you sense that Craig is more comfortable in a T-shirt; he just doesn’t have the sense of entitled formality that we’ve come to associate with this character, indicative of the likely changes that we’ll need to acclimate to with this revised version of 007).  You can embrace the frivolity of Wreck-It Ralph on your own or if you feel heroic yourself you might try escorting a gaggle of underage energyballs because I guarantee they’ll have a good time but I’m just as sure you will too (depending on the energyball quotient in the theatre).  There’s nothing particularly marvelous about Wreck-It Ralph so if this were a real review I’d give it only 3 stars, but it’s a pleasant hour and a half of diversion that you’d likely enjoy.  If you want to know more about it a good place to start is the official Disney site at

            But if you’re interested in more adult fare and would like to know more about the fierce tensions in Skyfall here are some suggested links: (16 min. interviews with Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, and Bérénice Marlohe; interviewer is Jake Hamilton, that bubbly guy from Houston again, whose fawning comments are endearing if sincere, but based on the two times I’ve seen him there seem to be no films or actors that aren’t his all-time favorites—and he’s quite willing to strip down to his underwear for his two “Bond girl” interviewees, but that’s not so unusual if more male interviewers were totally honest about being that close to these foxy ladies—uh oh, gotta go; here comes the machete!)

            And one last thing.  A week ago I finished off the review with a totally partisan shout-out to President Obama for winning re-election.  I wouldn’t be a properly loyal Oakland Athletics fan if I didn’t do the same for A’s skipper Bob Melvin who just won the American League Manager of the Year Award (making him a member of a very select group who have done that in both leagues).  I know that much of the local attention here in the Northern California Bay Area has gone to the San Francisco Giants for winning their second World Series and for catcher Buster Posey being elected National League MVP, but let’s give credit also to Bob for his leadership in guiding a bunch of underpaid rookies and castoffs (sorry, guys, no insult intended, and I know you heard that description all year) to the American League Western Division Championship when they were predicted to rot in the cellar.  Maybe next year it will be even better (if we can ever get past Detroit who knocked us out of contention this year and in 2006), but for now big congrats to Bob Melvin and Gold Glove right fielder josh Reddick.  I made a bargain with the Universe (God, the Devil, Oprah, whoever runs the show) that if Obama would get in again that I wouldn’t complain about the well-funded, media-rich Giants winning the World Series.  OK, that’s all even now.  For 2013 it’s back to GO A’S!

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  1. I bet you had no problem knocking out term papers in your college days! I did like Bond's return to his simpler roots where his weapons were more realistic and the consequences of decisions were not always politically correct. I think Cyber weapons such as depicted here are a bit of a stretch other than those capable of temporarily disabling certain functions or perhaps causing a machine to run uncontrolled. Reminds me of the year 2000 panic that had "intelligent" computer savoy people stockpiling for the end days! Even the NSA could not quite get it right when their Iranian cyber attack "escaped" to the wider internet and as such became public. Even that attack is reported to have required German equipment manufacturer's help and the use of a handheld flash drive to deliver the worm. Nevertheless, as indicated, a decent reboot of the franchise. Personally I liked Timothy Dalton better than Craig but Dalton may not have wanted the acting stereotype. But then again, what ever happened to Dalton?

  2. Hi rj. When I was in college (as a student, rather than now on the other side of the desk) I did enjoy doing research for term papers (I still enjoy research, even for these reviews; I do a lot of Internet surfing before I finally decide that enough's enough), but the writing has always come more slowly for me (thanks to the Universe--which probably is run by Oprah--for computers; I was killing entire forests with my need for erasable paper before the '90s) and it still does, which is another reason that I take so long in getting these reviews posted because between the exploratory links gathering and the constant revisions, even at the posting level, I spend more hours than I've got just getting these things out, even on a weekly basis.

    I agree with you that cyber weapons likely aren't as sophisticated as "Skyfall" imples, but I can easily get drawn into the movie's storyline because of the minor problems my wife and I have had with hackers and unintended access to our mailing lists (or lack of access to our own accounts, as was the case this morning when I forgot how I had spelled the answers to one of my security questions and literally couldn't overcome the problem without help from the organization).

    Anyway, thanks for reading and please keep up the commentary. It's always useful to hear what you have to say--including about Timothy Dalton who does seem to have fallen off the radar, at least relative to his outsized presence in the Bond films. Ken

  3. Hi Ken, great review. I personally loved the new Bond and am eagerly anticipating the next one (watch out for my review!) and enjoying this new directio of the series which is long overdue.

    I also enjoyed reading Wreck-it Ralph, being a big gaming geek, and enjoy remembering the good old days of pumping money into arcade machines, I think I will enjoy this movie, looking forward to seeing it.

  4. Hi Whoompa_1. Thanks very much for your comments and for reading my rambling thoughts. Ken