Skyfall

Having first been introduced to Bond films at an early age by my dad, I like to think I have a relatively well-tuned ability to appreciate the franchise. It’s hard to describe the boyish thrill I felt when first seeing the updated Casino Royale, but it suffices to say it was an incredibly nostalgic experience. Quantum of Solace, however, didn’t have the same impact. Coming two years after the previous instalment, it felt rushed and this was reflected in the quality of the film (that heinous Jack White/Alicia Keys collaboration on the theme song didn’t help, hard to believe they passed over a Shirley Bassey contribution for it).

But four years seems like the perfect amount of time to wait for a new Bond. Like the four years between Die Another Day (ugh, I just remembered that Madonna song) and Casino Royale, it gave time for the franchise to breathe. It’s common belief that massive film franchise are subject to significantly diminishing returns, and usually this is the case – look at the precipitous drop from Iron Man to Iron Man 2. Skyfall has waited this long, and the hype has built and swirled around it for some time now – with no small thanks to the promise of Sam Mendes’ direction and Javier Bardem’s casting as the film’s villain. Mercifully, the wait was not for nothing.

Typically, the film opens with an action-packed set piece. Motorcycles, bazaars, trains, that sort of nonsense; it’s reminiscent of the excellent one that sets the stage for Casino Royale. In this case, the initial sequence segues beautifully into the mostly terrific title sequence, which is let down only by two things: bad CGI for Chinese dragons, and the slightly underwhelming nature of Adele’s titular theme song, which is good but never great. Even in a cinema with terrific sound, it lacks the punchiness of a classic theme. That said, it’s certainly the best of the three Craig films.

After a failed mission, Bond (Daniel Craig) disappears. Obviously, he’s not dead, and so we find “grief-banging the entire Pacific Rim”, to quote Archer. If you haven’t watched that phenomenal TV show, I suggest you do so either before or after Skyfall, there are an alarming number of parallels – appropriate since the show’s lead character is loosely based on Bond, but even moreso because several plot points in the film bear more than a passing resemblance to episodes of Archer. An attack on MI6 headquarters reveals that M (Judi Dench) is in danger, so Bond returns to help fight the threat.

The threat is revealed through Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe in an excellent appearance) to be Silva (Javier Bardem), whose past connection to M proves him to be a considerably menacing threat. Skyfall is very preoccupied with the idea of new versus old. Bond is seen to be part of the old guard, a parallel pushed by the introduction of the new Quartermaster, or Q, played by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw’s role has been talked up a lot by some but I didn’t feel his presence was a particularly significant one. The whole thing seems very much like the franchise wrestling with itself to separate it from the Bond of old and the Bond of new.

And distinct categories they are. Those who rush to proclaim this the “best Bond ever!!!!!!” are wildly off the mark. This is a distinctly different Bond, clearly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s game-changing take on the Batman franchise. The Bond films of old were coloured – and I use that word deliberately – by a sense of the fantastical. Camp, if we’re being honest. These days, however, grittiness is what it demanded, and grittiness is given; this is not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but I think a line definitely has to be drawn somewhere. And I draw that line just before Skyfall being babbled about as the best Bond film of all time. It is excellent and deserves inclusion in the Bond canon, but newness lends itself to hyperbole.

Craig is solid as ever as the tortured Bond. He has the perfectly expressive face to portray this incarnation’s tortured self, tough but sad in equal measure. Performances and casting are great all round, with Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes giving good turns, and a terrific Albert Finney bringing light and depth in a relatively brief role. Bardem as the villain Silva is, typically, fantastic. Intimidating, menacing, and just a touch of the flamboyant, he feels like a nod to the Bond of old both literally and metaphorically. A brief scene of “sexual intimidation” that Silva initiates is clever for the way it directly addresses the inherent and often overwhelming homoeroticism of the Bond character and films.

Judi Dench also gives a notable performance as M, a character she has played since 1995, and it’s nice to see the character explored in a little more depth. The film is photographed beautifully by Roger Deakins, proving that cinematography is hugely key to the modern action film. Deakins’ use of space and colour hugely enhances Skyfall as viewing experience, and helps give John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s script both lightness and weight where required. The set pieces are uniformly great, fight sequences well-choreographed and photographed, and the seemingly daunting two hour and twenty-three minute runtime flies by.

Realism in Bond is something I can now appreciate but still struggle with to some degree, solely because part of the fun of films like Goldfinger and so on are their sheer silliness. Realism in a film like this also raises intriguing moral conundrums – mostly about innocent casualties, in the case of Skyfall. I’d like to see one of the future films explore the impact of terrorism on a larger scale. Presently, Craig’s Bond is extremely bogged down in the personal, and it almost makes the character come off as selfish despite the film’s insistence otherwise. There are many roads down which they can take 007 beyond his 50th year, so hopefully the 24th and 25th movies are willing to think a little bigger. So no, not the best Bond ever, but a damn good one all the same.

Grade: 8.3

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The Master’s Meaning

If you follow film with any degree of doggedness, chances are you have heard of The Master. Hell, it is nigh impossible – Paul Thomas Anderson directing a film about a cult? It set the film world on fire; after the triumph that was There Will Be Blood, we all waited with bated breath for five years for his next work. The run-up to its release now seems to very much echo the film itself: lurching, staggering and vague, but crafted, clever and ultimately beautiful. It’s a powerful film that only seems to loom larger in the rearview mirror as you speed away from it across a dry expanse on a motorcycle.

An intoxicating character study, as you view it it unfolds with an almost confounding lack of structure or narrative thrust. But The Master unfolds like the intricate work of a master wood carver. As he works, he appears only to be whittling away at an unsightly piece of wood. To the eye it is different from every angle, and just when it seems as though progress is made, it is gone as soon as it appeared. Yet it is only when he steps back from the finished work, breathes and brushes away the shavings, chips and splinters of labour do you realise that you are suddenly considering an achievement and a vision that is wholly his.

The finished work in this case, however, is no delicate chaise longue. It seems to be more along the lines of arborsculpture, something distinctly crafted but natural in its unnaturalness; something haunting and recognisable but also distinctly wrong. After all the proclamation and all the hype we are left with a film that courts the eye but tantalisingly pushes away the mind. It now feels almost typical of Anderson to essentially be the Oscar-frontrunner practically since the film’s announcement, only to produce something that even the Venezia jury seemingly could not quite wrap their head around.

That is not to say The Master is, for example, on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of ambiguous brilliance. This is a film with defined faults – unavoidable ones, to be truthful – though relatively minor in hindsight. Throughout the second half it will be common for audiences to be asking themselves, “Well, where exactly is this going?” and the film will, by the end, have made very few steps toward answering that question of its own accord.

Thankfully, that is what we have critics for, yes? You would think. Not only is it nearly impossible to not have heard of The Master, it is also nearly impossible to not have heard of its ties to Scientology. Yes, most interviewers and many reviewers seem to tacitly say, this film is about Scientology. See, there is a burgeoning cult movement borne of the 1950s! There is a method similar to the practice of Dianetics! And they all rush to the supercilious conclusion: cult. 1950s. Processing. SCIENTOLOGY.

It is rare that, as an avid consumer of film criticism, I feel rather disappointed with the approach to a film of so many. But this recurring inability to separate actual Scientology from the very obvious metaphor that The Cause – the cult in question – represents in the universe of The Master is baffling and infuriating in equal measure. As critics, is it not our job to avoid the most obvious, superficial analysis of a film and dig deeper? And what could possibly be more superficial than an entirely fabricated religion steeped in science fiction? And then, many months after Anderson himself essentially said, “Nope, it’s not really about Scientology, guys.”, to press the question in interviews? It came as a complete surprise.

“How much of the film is based on Scientology?”
“Is the Lancaster Dodd character essentially just L. Ron Hubbard?”
“WHAT DID TOM CRUISE THINK?!??”

Considering that the film actually opens with a scene in which a group of World War II veterans are told about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you would think the pervasive themes of psychology – and to some degree, psychosis – would be slightly more plain. Roger Ebert said, “…when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” but how can a film universally agreed-upon as being dense and difficult be non-corporeal to so many? If nothing else, we all seem to agree on one thing: the film is stunningly shot – almost impeccable purely on a level of craft – and has an Oscar-worthy score of lush beauty and frenetic anxiety courtesy of previous Anderson collaborator, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

My immediate reaction (and that of many others, it has turned out) to the film was, “I need to stew on this.” and I think this is a clear representation of how hype and immediacy are affecting film criticism. Immediately after The Master‘s surprise premiere we already had advance reviews flowing in and tweets battering down our doors. This is the kind of films that stews and is stewed on. You can react instantly to Dredd 3D because of its sheer simplicity and straightforwardness, whereas The Master shrouds itself in opaque folds of its own theses that simply cannot be brushed aside within 48 hours of viewing. Somewhere, in between the sprint to praise and the rush to condemn is the appropriate middle ground, one which we will likely never reach. With the desire for immediacy so characteristic of how film criticism operates nowadays – and we are all guilty of that – a film like The Master is given but a fraction of the scrutiny it requires before opinions are jettisoned off to be clawed at in the Rotten Tomatoes comments section.

I have found myself waiting nearly two and a half weeks to properly put finger to key and write my thoughts on this film, and I am extremely glad I did. That said, when asked almost immediately after the screening what the film was about, my first answer was, “Well, if I had to say anything at all, I think it was about mental illness. But I don’t know.” Now, however, I feel quite confident that I was and am correct. The Master oscillates between delicacy and brutality in its exploration of two broken men, each shattered in incredibly different ways. The clever symbolism of the churning seawater left in each man’s wake is a wonderful leitmotif of their seething illnesses and addled natures.

While Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a confident, controlling superego, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a primal, raging id. They are, seemingly, complementary parts of a whole, with enough cracks in the façade of each to reveal flashes of the other. Freddie’s animalism is repeatedly pointed out, his erratic behaviour often likened to that of a dog. He suffers from PTSD and, put simply, has lost his humanity. He handles this by drinking toxic concoctions that allow him to separate his mind from his actions and his thoughts from reality. Phoenix’s mind-blowing performance is, again, the unnaturally natural – he has all the appearance of a human, but he is grizzled and gnarled and twisted from years – perhaps a lifetime – of harsh winds and extreme conditions.

While Freddie’s violence often shocks, Dodd’s charismatic reservedness is arguably all the more terrifying, and dangerous. At any sign of a loss of sway, an absence of control, Dodd snaps. Dodd refuses to bend or twist, but strains upward toward a light above the canopy of reality he can never reach. Here is where Scientology does legitimately factor into the film: religion as metaphor for mental illness, military service as a cult of masculinity, processing (based roughly on L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics) as education. Essentially, the ways in which a brainwashing cult mirrors so many aspects of what we assume to be normality. The fact that, if heightened only slightly, things that should be commonplace become wild and dangerous.

Dodd’s perilous desire to ‘repair’ Freddie, and how his inability to do so slowly destroys him and his precarious dominion, constitutes the central conceit of the film, the one around which almost all scenes revolve. It is also the parallel that gives The Master its theme and its title a sly double meaning. Any attempt to restrain our essential humanity with superficial vagaries, grandiose proclamations and hysterical superstition sap us of freedom, of openness. We may claim to be, say, writers, doctors, nuclear physicists, theoretical philosophers, but above all, we are simply human, so to speak. Hopelessly inquisitive, nonetheless, but never can we be ‘The Master’.