About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Skyfall & the Dark Knight

To my disappointment, while the newest James Bond movie Skyfall isn't a bad movie, it nonetheless bears more resemblance to this past summer's genuinely bad The Dark Knight Rises than it does to the best of the James Bond movies, which are very very good indeed.

I didn't review The Dark Knight Rises when it opened, let me discuss it some now, to explain why I would say that this well-reviewed and well-received movie was (with the exception of the excellent fighting extras used in the climactic battle at City Hall)  genuinely bad.

For one, it is no fun.  It is a comic book movie, but there isn't a fun thing about it.  To me, comic book movies should be at least a little bit fun.

Also, it makes absolutely no sense.  Who is Bane?  What are his motivations?  What does he expect to get out of his plotting against Gotham City?  For all the laborious time spent on flashbacks, there's nothing to explain -- nothing! -- what he's up to in the forward moving story line.  And otherwise, the film is filled with all sorts of preposterous things, the whole plot with the concrete trucks doesn't convince remotely.  

So to summarize, it's a comic book movie which takes itself way too seriously except that it doesn't take itself seriously at all.  Or, to put it another way, it's a mess.

The movie is also assaultive.  The music is overbearing, the bass on the soundtrack excruciating.  And the sound mix so poorly done -- I'd like to think it's intentional because with all the money and resources it can't be as bad as it is, can it? -- that you often can't hear the dialogue.  The person I saw this with thought it was because we were too close to the screen at the Imax but the New  Yorker magazine critic notices this flaw as well, I don't think it was the theatre.

There's nothing like being in a theatre for 2.5 hours watching a very serious movie with a very unserious script that assaults the senses.

So here are some of the things that Skyfall shares with the dreary and dreadful Dark Knight Rises:

It is too long.  My friend Michael, whom I also saw Dark Knight Rises with, pointed out, which I hadn't thought of, that the movie could have ended at the 20-minute mark.  "She could've taken a second shot," my friend said, and he's right.  There are places that could have been trimmed, if not cut out entirely.  I dozed off for a minute or two during the casino scene without really missing much, the scene in the office building in Shanghai was very leisurely, and it's possible the movie could have gotten us to the villain a lot more quickly.  It might have been possible to end the movie nicely in London without going off to Scotland for the very long final act.  

It isn't believable.  This is an odd thing to say about a James Bond movie, which have always been full of unbelievable things.  But, the great James Bond movies are fantasies, and you can believe anything in a fantasy.  The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Dr. No, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, Die Another Day, the list goes on, these movies are completely unbelievable, and that's exactly the point.  Nothing is real, so everything is.  Skyfall, on the other hand, is supposed to be a more realistic and serious and believable and relevant James Bond.  And yet we're supposed to believe that the villain can arrange to have all of these pieces exactly in place exactly at the time they need to be for his extravagant plot on M in London.  What would have happened if Q had been an hour later or an hour sooner with the work on the computer that helps to put the entire plot into gear?

It isn't fun.  Not remotely.  James Bond movies are supposed to be fun.  This movie, you have an opening car chase where some fruit stands are destroyed.  But not in a fun way.  Where's the redneck sheriff in the back of the car like Man With The Golden Gun.  Where's that bit of twinkle when the gondola is cut in two in Moonraker, the lady jabbering away in the phone booth when Bond needs it to make his call in Octopussy?  These are all examples from Roger Moore movies, but the earliest Sean Connery movies were often full of fun bits as well.  

But for all of that Skyfall is flawed, but not bad.  

If it doesn't have the Bond fun to it, it does have one of the most distinctly memorable title sequences in the history of the franchise, and the Adele song doesn't seem like a pop hit but it's moody and appropriate to the film and the title sequence.  

It is a successful and relevant "reboot" for the franchise, if that's what they're trying to do they succeed.  I couldn't done without Jude Dench reading poetry, it reminded me a bit too much of V for Vendetta, and there are other aspects of the movie that remind me of that (or of the Bourne movies, or The Untouchables, or other movies), but that scene also contains a cogent and clear explanation of the relevance of James Bond to a world full of terrorists that aren't state actors, of how this Cold War creation of Ian Fleming is important to today's world of the Arab Spring or drug cartel wars or terrorism.  

It extends some hope for the future.  When we get a glimpse of a room with a coat rack in that particular place right by the front door, we know that Miss Moneypenny has to be in that room, we know that room leads to another room where M will be present.  There is fun to be had with exploding pens, but there is also fun to be had without them, and I can take to a new generation of Q who has other things on his mind.  

It's very well-cast.  Javier Bardem enjoys himself as a Bond villain, at his best less swishy moments it's almost like he's auditioning for the lead villian in a remake of Wrath of Khan, and I say that in a very good way.  Judi Dench is a good M, her aide is just right, Ralph Fiennes is just right as the minister who wants to retire her.  Daniel Craig is an excellent Bond.  The Bond Girls are good Bond Girls.  

It is hard for James Bond.  He doesn't have the action film space quite as much to himself as 50 years ago.  There are so many action franchises that have come, that have gone, that are continuing, that are forthcoming, the producers of the Bond movie have a lot of challenges, and Skyfall is a serious attempt to deal with them.

There is some hope in the last few minutes before the credits that the caretakers of the Bond franchise understand that there are certain fun things like Miss Moneypenny that we want to see, and that maybe we will see them in the next Bond movie.  I hope so.  I'd like to have a next Bond movie that would be twenty minutes shorter, that would be fun, that would be fantastic and transportive enough that I could enjoy it without worrying about whether I believed it.

A note on the sound:  This may be the first movie I saw in the new Dolby Atmos sound system.  Variety's been talking a bit about Atmos, which is just rolling out with relatively little fanfare (the arrival of digital sound with Dolby Digital and DTS and SDDS twenty years ago was given somewhat more attention).  It adds another couple of speakers to the usual array and melds with contemporary digital technologies, and it's supposed to enable any sound to be specifically placed in the auditorium space.  Not "coming from this speaker" or "coming from that speaker" to emulate surround sound, but to actually fully immerse you in the sound environment of the movie.  That's the idea.  On the one hand, modern digital sound systems are so good that I'm not sure anyone can really notice if Dolby Atmos is better, and I wouldn't want to say that it is without seeing five minutes of the movie in Atmos and then in a regular digital sound format.  But I will say that Skyfall sounded terrific in the Dolby Atmos of the ETX screen (#6) at the AMC Empire 25.  And it did sound great very naturally, without ever giving the sense that you were hearing the bullet move from this speaker to that speaker as it progressed across the auditorium.  I'm not convinced it can move the needle on motion picture sound quality enough to drag anyone out of the house for the Atmos alone, but I can say that for me, at least, it's another good reason to pay the $3 ETX upcharge to see a move on screen #6 at the Empire 25.

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