Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg's film of Bruce Wagner's Hollywood satire-nightmare turns ludicrous situations into operatic tragedy.
I find it mind-boggling that something as trivial as an action film series could become such a constant presence in my life but that's been the case with the James Bond movies. It's not so much that their span happens to equal mine (to the very week, by the way) as I didn't start following them until I was 9 years old -- but ever since, they've always been around one way or another: from big theatrical openings to re-re-releases in the beat up movie houses of old; from Betamax tapings of network T.V. broadcasts (pausing the machine to edit the commercials), to the great looking discs of today. Every couple of years or so they have made their appearance and I've watched each one dozens of times regardless how good or bad they were, an odd fact for which I've had no reasonable explanation.
While little happens in the first reel of many motion pictures, the Bonds are usually up and running in their first frame. There's consistently something to look forward to, even in their worst examples: "Moonraker" might be altogether ridiculous but it has some fantastic sets and it is never dull. "Licence To Kill" is rather ordinary looking but it's got some of the best stunts in the series. If the plot in a particular movie stunk ("Quantum of Solace") there were always the Bond girls; if its villain turned out to be a dud ("Diamonds Are Forever") we still saw some intriguing gadgets and cars; if every cinematic aspect of an entry failed ("A View to a Kill"), we still got some great looking titles and a fantastic song. Besides, there was also the familiar and beloved supporting cast to look forward to visiting time and time again.
There are few things in life as predictable as a James Bond film and in a strange way, I've always found this comforting. This is why I was disappointed to learn Pierce Brosnan was let go at a relatively young age (as these things go, anyway) and Daniel Craig took over the role. It wasn't so much that he would be the first blonde 007 as I think Roger Moore more than qualified in that category in "A View to a Kill" but I couldn't really picture Craig doing the usual things one has come to expect from the previous Bonds such as dispensing witticism left and right, receiving his gadgets from John Cleese's Q or even surfing gigantic CGI waves. Even though the series' dilemmas had progressively become less B&W, it didn't make much sense for the producers to take the risk of straying so far from a formula that had served them well for so long.
The blueprint of every 007 film since "Dr. No" is still recognizable in "Skyfall" (the latest entry and subject of this review) or at least somewhat discernible anyway. This is the first time I've ever watched a Bond picture that at times I didn't know where it was heading. It is also one of the few that takes its time telling a story without the need to throw in unnecessary action scenes to keep things lively. Those included here are indeed terrific but the movie actually lets us to grow an interest in the main characters while explaining where its main protagonist comes from, with a simple statement from Kincade (Albert Finney) telling more about him than the previous 22 entries combined ("when his parents died, he stayed there crying for two days and when he came out, he wasn't a boy anymore"). Unlike some of its predecessors, "Skyfall" can be defined as a 007 picture made for adults, with three dimensional characters and plenty of sharp but restrained humor. Never before had we seen our hero doubting himself or sporting a gray beard and bags under his eyes; this doesn't mean that eventually he didn't appear impeccably in his tuxedo but this is still a far cry from say, a Roger Moore who always seemed to have a hair dresser assigned between takes (think of his escape from the Space Shuttle flames while completely drenched in "Moonraker" and in the next scene being shown with his hair perfectly in place).
At the center of "Skyfall" is Bond's relationship with M. In the earlier movies there was always an underlined social class rivalry between the snobbish, aristocratic M and the "know it all", connoisseur that is 007 but things never escalated beyond the occasional threat of replacement from the job at hand by a different "double O". Ever since Judi Dench took over the role in "Goldeneye" (1995) she's had an open and ongoing mother/son feud with 007, and why not? If you are going to hire an actress of Dench's caliber, you may as well use her for something more relevant than reading Bond his latest mission and uttering the standard, shock filled "double ooooh seven!" that Bernard Lee used to deliver at the end of the earlier features, when catching our hero in compromising circumstances with the girl in turn. Dench exudes an amazingly powerful personality that has no problem standing up to Bond or the most fearsome villains, and it feels all the more remarkable coming from such a small lady of advanced age.
Just when it seemed that both characters had finally achieved a relationship of mutual understanding in "Quantum of Solace", along comes "Skyfall" where M is now forced to order the shooting of 007 while trying to prevent a list of all MI6 undercover agents from getting out in the open (why someone would load that kind of delicate information in a portable laptop in the first place is beyond me). As a result, Bond ends up falling head first into a body of water from deadly heights, but as any relatively veteran movie goer will undoubtedly know, no protagonist has ever died from living through such an experience and much less at the beginning of his own movie. A terrorist attack on the MI6 headquarters brings him back from his self-imposed retirement and he is forced to face the kind of cinematic villain who's always one step ahead of his pursuers, while trying to get his mojo back, as the picture goes into "The Dark Knight Rises" territory (or "Rocky III" for that matter). Just as M is investigated and grilled by intelligence official Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) for her recent failures, Bond most go the extra mile defend a woman who has sacrificed the lives of innocents for what she's considered the greater good, unapologetically at all times, with the end always justifying her means.
In a movie where 007 can look at the female protagonist for just a few seconds and tell her life story, we also have an evil doer of similar abilities in Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). At first it seems that the actor might end up going overboard with his performance but eventually he gives the character more layers than just about any Bond villain before him. He plays this exMI6 agent as a truly damaged human being whose depravity derives from the tough decisions that M's position has forced her to take. Raoul has a Hannibal Lecter talent for finding his foe's weakness by mixing great shares of truth with a dose of deceit. He makes for a frightening and yet rather sympathetic figure who apparently has no problem recruiting armies of loyal subordinates dressed in matching uniforms and willing to sacrifice their lives at his whim and for his very personal cause.
Silva has been referred by some as the first gay Bond villain but I have my doubts this is what director Sam Mendes intended to convey; his advances on Bond simply seem to be his way of finding the one possible soft spot on an agent who's been hardened by lasers and ropes aimed at his manhood and when Bond calls his bluff, that's the end of that, besides, sex hardly seems to be one of his priorities. Mendes makes sure to enhance the impact of Bardem's performance by placing it in an original and fantastic setting while wisely saving his introduction until halfway through the movie, well after we've gotten to witness the consequences of his evil actions, much like Orson Welles in "The Third Man". This effect is further enhanced with his later reappearance in the final act that is evocative of Capt. Kilgore's helicopter raid in "Apocalypse Now". He's also given a variation of the "villain killing one of his own men" scene but I can't recall a prior case where such an innocent victim is given as tragic a fate. This is as unsettling a moment as any we've ever seen in the series and even though "Skyfall" is one of its more violent Bonds, it contains no more cruelty than the strictly necessary to tell its story effectively.
Asides from having, hands down, the best cast in the series' history, no Bond movie has ever been put together by such a renowned group of filmmakers. There's director Mendes ("American Beauty", "Road To Perdition"), writer John Logan ("Gladiator", "Hugo") and director of photography Roger Deakins, who's best known for his collaborations with the Coen brothers and whose work is the antithesis of the shaky camera in "Quantum of Solace." The end result is a picture with a constant, somber and anxious mood throughout that seems less disjointed than previous Bonds, which often felt like the works of several people assembled together. "Skyfall" is also one of the best-looking entries in the series and the first where many of its images are true works of art. Think for example of the wonderful shots of the vast Scotland plains with a lone vehicle traveling through, bringing to mind those filmed by Deakins in Minnesota for "Fargo." His cinematography does other things I've never seen in prior Bond films like the use of the incredible Shanghai skyline, where the reflections from the neon lights sets up the stage for a shadow fight similar to that in the first "Kill Bill" movie, but going well beyond in depicting all of its grit and danger, even in almost complete darkness. It's hard to imagine a current action picture without CGI and even though there's surely plenty here, it is never evident. The explosion on the MI6 quarters is well done to the point where some people at the screening I attended, actually jumped from their seats. Even the sequence involving the runaway subway train was done for real and proves there is no substitute for such (the wagons seemed to be inexplicably empty but asking otherwise would have been a bit too much).
As the film's final set piece developed with a showdown in the Skyfall state (where Bond grew up), reminiscent of the one at the Victory Motel in Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" (1997), "Skyfall" appeared to be heading into the usual, predictable, Bondish conclusion until out of the blue, it became anything but such, bringing to mind the endings in "Casino Royale" and most specially "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". I found this latest even more harrowing and affecting, the kind that stays with you long after leaving the theater. "Skyfall" commemorates 007's 50 years on screen and it concludes the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, coming full circle to what will undoubtedly become a new starting point that has all the regular players in place (and perfectly cast) in the familiar setting of the old beloved office with the double doors. There will be a major difference though: in the future we likely won't feel as confident that things will always go as expected and all bets will be off. This will be the legacy of the Craig Bonds.
It's not easy giving "Skyfall" its place in the Bond lore so soon after its release though it clearly belongs somewhere in the very top. The film is obviously bigger and more technically advanced than the previous entries, which makes comparisons a clear case of apples and oranges. Even though it has some of the same clichés and inevitabilities we've seen time and time again such as vehicles smashing into fruit carts; a hero taking a bit too long in checking the time in his Omega's watch (for obvious reasons); a sailboat with a shower the size of a living room; and the all-knowing killer who talks more than he should at the wrong time, the picture's biggest merit is managing to feel fresh and innovative, much as the first entries in the series once did. "Skyfall" sets a high standard that will be difficult for future Bond entries to top but it allows us to believe that 50 years from now they might still be makings these things.
There's a sequence two thirds into the movie that helped me make sense of these films' appeal to me. As the beloved Aston Martin DB5 from "Goldfinger" made its appearance in a factory's warehouse, not unlike that once owned by Auric (that entry's title character), several puns regarding a little red button on the vehicle's stick shift were uttered and the particular audience at the screening I attended (made up mostly of teens with their texting devices), remained silent, the only laugh coming from the direction of my wife sitting beside me who up until we met, had never seen one of these films in their entirety. For better or worse, the Bond movies have become a unique subject that's helped me relate with most people around me and that is what has headed me in their direction more times than common sense dictates. Some fathers and sons play catch or go fishing; mine and I have watched Bond movies together.
Captain's log: eight fifth graders, one adult, one James Cameron movie.
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