Skyfall (US - BD RA)
Gabe thinks on his sins and enjoys the James Bondiest James Bond film ever...
Following a near-death experience, James Bond's (Daniel Craig) loyalty to M (Judi Dench) is tested as her past returns to haunt her. 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost. When Bond's latest assignment goes gravely wrong and agents around the world are exposed, MI6 is attacked, forcing M to relocate the agency. These events cause her authority and position to be challenged by Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the new Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. With MI6 now compromised from both inside and out, M is left with one ally she can trust: Bond. 007 takes to the shadows – aided only by field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) - following a trail to the mysterious Silva (Javier Bardem), whose lethal and hidden motives have yet to reveal themselves. (From MGM’s official synopsis)
Following some truly terrible motion pictures, it was necessary for the James Bond franchise to recast and reboot the character for the post-9/11 era. Casino Royale arrived just in time to save the (still popular) franchise from itself for the third or fourth time since its origination 44 years and 21 films previous (depending on your tolerance for certain versions of the series). It’s difficult to mark any one of these films as the series’ best, but Casino Royale made many, very good arguments in its favour. Riding high on the hog of audience affection and massive critical acceptance, the keepers of the Bond kingdom rushed out a second Daniel Craig starring feature, Quantum of Solace. Quantum of Solace was made with a good idea in mind – directly continue the Casino Royale storyline, making it the first explicit sequel in the series – but they dropped the ball when the good idea proved to be overcomplicated, messy, and even boring. Another seemingly good idea gone wrong was the choice of moving from stalwart action director Martin Campbell (who successfully rebooted Bond twice between Goldeneye and Casino Royale) to doe-eyed dramatist Marc Forster ( Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball). Forster was bowled over by the size of the production, the writers were rendered impotent due to a horrible schedule, and the final product came out looking undercooked and over-salted.
But Quantum of Solace still made a lot of money (even though it was ridiculously expensive to make). It was plenty clear that Daniel Craig and the grimmer tone were not the problem, so the ‘soft reboot’ stage was set for the 23rd official Eon Productions release. All-star director Sam Mendes was brought on to the project quickly after Quantum of Solace’s release, but MGM’s financial problems kept production from ever commencing for a solid three years. Tragedy turned to fortune, however, because Mendes stuck around and the break in production gave him the time to once again re-introduce James Bond. He’d just have a more familiar face than the last time he was re-introduced. In the end, I hesitate to call Skyfall a better movie than Casino Royale, but it certainly makes a better pairing than Quantum of Solace; a film that, thankfully, can now be all but forgotten by those of us that can’t see its place in the series (those that still like it can take, ahem, solace in it not being entirely moot).
It’s safe to say that Mendes is the key component in this monumental group effort. Since Michael Apted was hired to direct The World is Not Enough in 1999, the Bond series has unsuccessfully dabbled in hiring award-winning independent/arthouse directors to deal with their big, dumb action movies (including Lee Tamahori and the previously mentioned Marc Forster). Mendes at first appears to fit this frame, but was still something of a chance, because he’s a firmly established name. A director on his fame scale hadn’t been considered since Lewis Gilbert directed You Only Live Twice (and even that is pushing it). At the same time, Mendes may have also needed Bond just as badly as Bond needed him. Following the huge success of his unnaturally strong feature debut, American Beauty, and its reasonably popular follow-up, Road to Perdition, Mendes floundered with the beautiful, but listless Jarhead and had his first genuine creative failure in Revolutionary Road. After re-situating himself with the pleasantly lo-fi yet entirely forgettable Away We Go, Mendes seemed primed for a career resurgence on the scale of Skyfall. It’s important to note, however, that no filmmaker has ever successfully stimulated a floundering career with a Bond film. I’m not even sure a promising career has even grown more promising after a Bond film. If anything, history has taught us Bond films ruin promising careers.
Thankfully for everyone, Mendes gets everything right on his end. Films like these are just too big to lay their success or failure at the feet of a single man, but I also don’t think there has been a modern Bond movie this obviously in tune with a filmmaker’s sensibilities, nor have those sensibilities ever fit the formula so snugly. The big question in mind as the film was released pertained to Mendes’ skill with cinematic action, something he’d never dabbled in with any sincerity ( Jarhead actively avoided war). When Martin Campbell shoots a good action scene, it’s not a surprise, even when he’s effectively aping a modern action style he’s otherwise unfamiliar with – this is what Campbell does (apparently he doesn’t work so well with digital effects…). When someone like Marc Forster tries to do the same, he loses sight of the basics of large-scale vehicular chases, gunfights, and fight choreography – namely the fact that such things should probably make an iota of visual sense.
Any questions concerning Mendes’ skills for this, his first action outing, are immediately put to rest during the seemingly never-ending pre-credit sequence. The tradition of the Bond pre-title sequence goes way back and, at some point, became all but completely separated from the rest of the film. Mendes bucks tradition by spitting his audience directly into what he lovingly refers to as a ‘Russian nesting doll’ sequence. As a small series of actions evolve into something much bigger, the director maintains a palpable, understandable sense of momentum and geography and even, gasp, holds the camera still long enough to capture millions of dollars of mayhem for his audience. Another outstanding bit of action is the brief fisticuffs between Bond and Patrice (Ola Rapace) after the mercenary shoots his target. Mendes has the balls to let the entire fight take place in silhouette as the camera gently pushes in for the climax. The light of digital jellyfish outside dims just enough that it almost burns out the image completely, yet the audience can still tell who is winning the fight and where punches are landing. The shot becomes something of a piece of expressionist art that doesn’t betray the purpose of the scene or hide the stunt team’s efforts with stupid camera shakes or unnecessary staccato editing.
Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been writing Bond movies since The World is Not Enough. Despite also writing Die Another Day, they were not thrown out with the bathwater when Craig came on to the franchise. They were instead coupled with sap-meister Paul Haggis, who was fresh off an Oscar win for writing/directing a craphouse of a white guilt anthology called Crash. The same three wrote Quantum of Solace under great duress, which led Haggis to leave and be replaced by John Logan, the man behind some epic screenplays, like Gladiator and Aviator. More recently, he dabbled in existentially-laced children’s film like Rango and Hugo.
The story Logan crafted with Purvis & Wade is certainly epic, to the point that it could be marked as overlong, but their slightly weird, four-act structure feeds the excessive screen time very well. Better even than Casino Royale, which, no matter how perfect it was in parts, was somewhat overdrawn. The writers also get a tad precious as they shrewdly re-introduce classic characters to the Craig-Bond timeline, but their versions are likeable new twists that aren’t unfaithful to the source material. These four acts (possibly more like three and a half acts) divide the story up in a typically episodic manner without losing a sense of greater story, which might actually be a first for the entire 007 franchise. There also isn’t a particular sequence that can be pointed to as obviously extraneous. At worst, the Macau sequences add a bit of fat that requires additional chewing, but they still pays off in terms of structural propulsion and help complete the film’s eclectic tone. The plot also makes sense, which isn’t actually a prerequisite for a good Bond film. I admit that I don’t have a particularly talent for staying ahead of espionage plots and that a certain degree of confusion is part-and-parcel with the genre, but I found myself largely baffled by Craig’s previous 007 outings. Skyfall remains engaging without dumbing down the mysteries Bond joyfully unravels.
Given his pedigree (especially Rango and Hugo), we can assume that Logan’s presence is felt mostly in the stronger characters. Craig’s Bond has worked well throughout the series without many specific character traits and Casino Royale featured one of the strongest Bond girls ever in Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, but Skyfall ups the ante by pushing personality over plotting and even spectacle – both of which it still has in spades (I’ll discuss Roger Deakins’ wonderful photography in the ‘video’ section below). These powerful personalities begin with Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva. Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) aside, even the best modern Bond impressions tend to suffer from weak villains. Apparently, the superhero movies have stolen the bad guys. Silva is not the first villain to mirror Bond – in fact, he at times reminds me too much of Sean Bean’s 006 anti-Bond in Goldeneye. But Silva represents more than a character – he’s almost a manifestation of the anger overtaking Bond since the Craig reboot. A proper doppelganger. And he doesn’t even physically appear for an hour and ten minutes (unless you count his silhouetted façade during the credit sequence), yet the dread of his presence is felt from the instigation of his threat. Then, when Bond finally comes face to face with his nemesis, Silva turns the tables on audience expectations with a calm, mocking tone. He delivers a soliloquy worthy of Hannibal Lecter, marching slowly from the other end of an epic set, and makes not-so-subtle sexual advances on Bond, who takes it all in icy stride. In lesser hands, this interaction would’ve been nothing more than a gimmick, but Bardem works in to the ‘threat’ so organically that it just seems an inevitable part of his impossibly compelling character.
Another way that Skyfall is set apart is its treatment of the traditional Bond girl. Bérénice Marlohe fulfills the femme fatale role as Sévérine – an ambiguously aligned, sexy, chic woman that Bond seduces to gain access to the villain – but she’s not the ‘romantic center’ of Bond’s universe. He’s fond of her, sure, but she’s mostly a means to an end. Craig has more chemistry with his male quartermaster, Q. Ben Whishaw does play a rather metro-sexual Q, but the typical Q/Bond banter defined by Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese takes on a definitively flirtatious tone. Ultimately, Skyfall’s real Bond girl is M. She’s the one Bond defends at all costs and the one that garners the uncharacteristic Vesper Lynd/Tracy di Vicenzo-level emotional impact on him. This ultimately leads into the film’s most innovative narrative aspects and that almost revelatory fourth act.
The series’ writers have walked a tightrope since Craig was introduced – how much humanity and history do you give a character like James Bond before he’s no longer James Bond? More modern takes on Bond, like Jason Bourne, John McClane, or even superheroes like Batman and Superman, are defined largely by their humanity, while screenwriters have spent 50 years fighting against Bond’s humanity. Casino Royale proved that he could feel love and remorse, while Quantum of Solace unsuccessfully turned him into a machine driven by vengeance. Skyfall seems to embrace all aspects of the character throughout the decades, including his toughness, his sense of humour, his sexual prowess, and his intelligence, but also takes new chances in delving back into his pre-MI6 history. For the first time ever in one of his movie adventures, we get to learn something specific about Bond’s childhood (aside from mostly off-the-cuff remarks in Goldeneye) and the information isn’t just more random fan-service – it’s an integral part of this unique motion picture. I can certainly say I had no idea this slick and sly Bond was going to take a sudden turn into Straw Dogs/ Rio Bravo territory and am still pleasantly surprised by how well such a diversion ended up working.
Old school filmmakers continue to struggle with the advent of digital HD filming techniques. Film has lost the exclusive support of older generation geniuses, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, while younger directors, like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, continue to hold tight to the old ways. I find the discussion more interesting when I’m not taking a side and simply noticing who has moved on and who is remaining steadfast to ‘the cause.’ With Skyfall, James Bond has moved into the digital arena and it has taken long time 35mm supporter Sam Mendes along for the ride. Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins had previously dabbled in digital photography when he shot Andrew Niccol’s In Time, but Skyfall marks a much more natural approach to the format. According to specs, most of the film was shot using Arri Alexa rigs, but some second unit action was apparently shot using Red Epic cameras. The effect is nothing short of brilliant. I’m unwilling to rank Skyfall as ‘the greatest Bond film,’ but I have no problem marking it the most beautiful. Apparently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agrees with me, because Deakins is the only Bond DP ever nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
This 1080p transfer, framed at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio (when shown in IMAX the frame was reportedly opened to 1.90:1) is a lovely sampling of the digital format’s unique abilities and the ways it can mimic standard film stocks. Though very clean in terms of digital grain, the general look isn’t overly stylized or flat. Detail levels are consistently dictated by focus choices, including some incredible foreground and deep-set background textures and patterns. There’s little to no edge enhancement or similar sharpening artefacts and the softer backgrounds feature only minor noise, no low-level blocking or banding effects. Equally important in terms of clarity here are Deakins’ shadows, which are used like curtains the characters can walk between. These require deep contrast levels without sacrificing gradation. It’s also nice to note that, despite the continuing clarity of the image, the digital effects (save maybe a komodo dragon or two) stand up to quite a bit of scrutiny. Classic techniques aside, Deakins does embrace many of modern digital photography’s visual vernacular, specifically in terms of his colour choices. The palette is relatively diverse and defined by location, but there is an over-arching theme of golden warmth and an almost neon blue cool. The colour quality is tight, the backdrop blends are fluid, and the poppy highlights are quite vibrant. Those looking to test their set’s colour abilities will likely want to skip to the assassination or ‘jellyfish’ sequence or any shot establishing the architecture of Macau. Those looking for extreme details, on the other hand, might want to check out the sequences set on Silva’s creepy prison island or the IMAX-worthy shots of the road to Skyfall.
The disc’s picture-perfect HD video is met with pitch-perfect DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The pre-credit sequence alone is enough to mark this mix as a force to be reckoned with. This scene works as a tour of your system’s abilities, beginning in utter silence and slowly expanding into a symphony of sound – like an overture of the noises you will be hearing throughout the film. Delicate, echoing footsteps move out into a wider world of a bustling Istanbul where Patrice the merc leads Bond and Eve on a car chase that turns into a motorcycle chase that turns into a gun fight and fist fight aboard a moving train. Even the music follows a sort of storyline of sound, ebbing and flowing from organic to electronic and soft to bombastic. Then, it all goes completely silent as Bond is accidentally shot. Shockingly silent. Cue Adele’s theme song. There’s plenty else to celebrate in terms of sound design, too, including cityscapes, more punchy action sequences, a giant subway crash, and the crackling fire of the ‘home invasion’ scenes, but I think the one most defining and, at times, unique aural element is the subtle build to crescendo throughout the busiest ambience, specifically crowd noise, which then, just like the opening, cuts to total silence.
Composer David Arnold has been doing his best John Barry impression since 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. Throughout the past five films in the canon he’s managed to create exciting and definitively Bond-ian scores, but the music has, overall, mostly disappeared into the atmosphere of these films since even before Barry retired. Mendes has replaced warhorse Arnold with the man he’s been working with since American Beauty – Thomas Newman. Newman’s name isn’t an automatic mark of quality, of course, but, when he’s on his game, he’s among the best composers working in the Hollywood system. His music for Skyfall stands apart in the best possible way, creating memorable cues and melodies that stay true to the franchise’s fashion, yet are still memorable and thrilling in their own right. It’s also one of only two Bond scores to be nominated for an Oscar (Marvin Hamlisch’s The Spy Who Loved Me score was nominated in 1978).
It’s possible that Sony/Fox has another, more extensively extras-packed version of Skyfall on the horizon (it did make over a billion dollars, after all), but until then, this release is more than sufficient. The special features begin with two feature commentaries. Because this screener arrived after the disc’s release date, I didn’t really have the time to run through each commentary from top to bottom and took merely a sampling of each. The first track features director Sam Mendes alone. I haven’t ever been the biggest fan of Mendes’ commentaries over the years due to his placid tone, but he’s never not informative. This track follows that lead. Mendes spends a bit too much time just describing the storytelling, but often this drives him somewhere where he can discuss the behind-the-scenes production. The most valuable sections for me are the bits where Mendes discusses his research into Ian Flemming’s original books, which I’ve never read. The second track, which features producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson along with production designer Dennis Gassner, should be the better track. These people have been with the series for some time and should have plenty of bigger perspective that Mendes couldn’t possibly understand, but the space is mostly filled by descriptions of on-screen action and profuse thank-yous to the cast and crew. Based on my sampling, it doesn’t appear that the track gets any better as it goes on. If anything, it became more difficult to find spots where the participants were actually talking.
Up next is Shooting Bond (59:30, HD), a multi-part behind the scenes featurette that is a little too EPK to fully impress, yet is till full of enough information to sustain its runtime.
- Intro, an intro to Mendes’ version of the film and its pre-production process.
- The Death of Bond: Opening Sequence, concerning the production of the massive ‘Russian nesting doll’ pre-credit sequence, from stunts to Turkish locations.
- The Title Sequence, concerning Daniel Kleinman’s surrealistic title design.
- Return of James Bond: 007, on capturing a unique version of the character that doesn’t betray the tradition and the process of surrounding him with supporting characters.
- Back to Basics: Q, concerning the reintroduction of the quartermaster and gadgets.
- Behind the Wheel: DB5, briefly concerning the thematic choice of using a classic Aston Martin DB5.
- The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful: Women, which sort of speaks for itself and does not count Dench.
- In the Shadows: Villains, concerning the physical presence and stunt training involved in Bond’s relationship with the silent killer Patrice and his psychological relationship with Silva, along with Silva’s place in the 007 pantheon.
- Action, concerning Mendes’ take on movie action and the process of capturing as much realism as possible in the action design/choreography. This section also features a look at the physical effects achieved for the film.
- Locations, another section that sort of speaks for itself and contrasts the spectacular differences between London, Istanbul, and Shanghai.
- The Sound of Bond: Music, concerning Thomas Newman and Adele’s first time on a James Bond film, including footage of the recording process and an interview with trumpet player Derek Watkins, who has worked on the series since its inception.
- The Beginning of the End: End Sequence, concerning the physical and dramatic grit of the final act’s Rio Bravo climax, along with the tribulations of introducing a helicopter to the sequence and blowing up the set.
- Changes: Spoiler The Death of M, concerning the handing of the ‘M’ title from Judi Dench to Ralph Finnes.
- New Beginnings: The Future wraps things up and teases what’s to come.
Interview subjects throughout include Mendes, Broccoli, Wilson, screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, cinematographer Roger Deakins, first AD Michael Lerman, stunt coordinator Gary Powell, vehicle master Simon Thomas, location manager Martin Joy, FX supervisor Michael Courbold, 2nd Unit director Alexander Witt, title sequence director Daniel Kleinman, aforementioned trumpet player Derek Watkins, production designer Dennis Gasser, art director Dean Clegg, aircraft organizer Marc Wolff, pilot Andy Strachan, explosives expert Charlie Adcock, and actors Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Bérénice Marlohe, Naomie Harris, Javier Bardem, Ola Rapace, and Albert Finney.
The disc ends with footage from the premiere (4:30, HD), a trailer, a soundtrack promo spot, and trailers for other Fox releases.
It wasn’t until I embarked on this second viewing that I realized how much Skyfall had in common with Rian Johnson’s Looper. Both films are structured around longstanding genre clichés, which they both acknowledge and subvert, thus cleverly crafting films that work as pure entertainment, but not at the risk of thematic content. More exceptional, however, is the fact that the two films share the same underlying theme – that of parenthood (more specifically motherhood in Skyfall’s case). I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that Silva’s plan is generally the same as Loki’s in The Avengers, which was also released in 2012. It seems that the best films (featuring ultimately harmless plot holes that help propel the film in the long run) of the last year tended to think alike.
Those looking to own this particularly outstanding chapter in the James Bond canon are in for a treat. This Blu-ray release features an outstandingly crisp and vibrant picture and tightly knit, bombastic sound – certainly reference-level stuff. The extras are thin enough to suspect that there may be something else on the horizon, but Mendes’ director’s commentary is solid and the making-of featurettes are quite entertaining.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 12th February 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, French, English Audio Descriptive
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director's Commentary, Producers and Production Designer Commentary, Shooting Bond, Skyfall Premier, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace
Genre: Action and Adventure
Length: 143 minutes
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