Sunday, November 04, 2012

Spoiled: Skyfall and One For The Money

For the first time, I'm reviewing a Bond film less than a fortnight after it's been released (4 days here in Singapore) so there's going to be things you might not want to read if you like surprises. But first I'm going to talk about going to watch a Bond film in Singapore. If you don't want that, just skip down to here.

For a country that takes film censorship to a new level of excellence, Singapore has an awful lot of different cinemas. There are IMAXs wherever you look, lots of investment in 3D, and unfeasibly loud sound systems (as I found out last week when we saw Premium Rush). The different cinema chains try to differentiate the experience of sitting in a darkened room somewhere in a climate-controlled shopping mall, and our closest cinema, the Golden Village, has settled upon Gold Class as being the way to do this.

You pay $50 for your ticket, rather than the usual $10, and in return you're ushered into a hushed room where you're fed a meal and brought wine, before being taken into a cinema with only thirty or so seats, all enormous ones that recline and raise foot rests at the touch of a button, and part way through your film you're brought dessert and coffee, and it all feels quite civilised.

And ridiculous, because the food is acceptable but not worth paying $40 for, the wine is ... ok but again not brilliant, the service is Singaporean, which means it would like to be efficient and polite but is haphazard and you are asked by three different people whether you want coffee, and you still end up being brought tea with your dessert instead, and then through the film there's the constant sound of cutlery as some people eat their entire meal in the cinema, which makes it feel as though you're at home watching telly with your parents eating dinner, and in any case the kind of person who'll pay that much for a ticket is a bit odd, as demonstrated by them applauding at the end of the film, and $50? Each?

We didn't pay $50 each. Because it's a Bond film and has been talked up as the event of the century, in some moment of madness we paid $99 each, which borders on the obscene if not the insane, and puts complaints about the price of cinema tickets in the West End of London in some kind of perspective.

So bear in mind that as I watched the film, there was this background hum of psychic unease that I suffered from, worried that I was doing something that had crossed some line demarcating acceptable behaviour from that which is wrong.

Because it's Singapore, there are several adverts before the film for Singaporean National Service, which all have the hardly-concealed subtext that it's the patriotic duty of every Singaporean man to go out on military exercises, and for every Singaporean woman to make dinner for their man. And people complain that Bond reinforces outdated gender stereotypes.

And so to Skyfall...

From halfway through the film I was struck by the unfortunate parallels to the Jimmy Saville scandal. No, I don't just mean the strange voice and the dodgy blonde hair. There's the mention of Silva's name being erased from the MI6 memorial, just like every mention of Saville up and down the land. And there's the obsession with mother figures, whether that's Dench or the Duchess. Javier Bardem even fixes it for Daniel Craig to play a game of William Tell with a posh looking (and criminally underused) Berenice Marlohe. When every day seems to produce another disgusting detail of BBC complicity, it's sad not to find some refuge in the high fantasy of Bond.

The film starts well, in a series of threatening rooms in what turns out to be Turkey, but the rooftop motorcycle chase doesn't come over at all well. Every shot of Daniel Craig looked far too digital, as if FX have got worse since Pierce Brosnan was blue screened on a hovercraft ten years ago. Off the motorcycles and on the train, things are more visceral again; there are shades of the crane chase from the beginning of Casino Royale, and the shot that Moneypenny takes nicely confounds expectations.

The title sequence left me less than enthused; it felt like a greatest hits of the worst 80s titles, all silhouetted women and explosions, although Adele wasn't the travesty of a Bond theme some moaners have suggested.

Bond on a beach, drunk, is quite fun (but he's snapped back to action by more terrible CGI when the MI6 ziggurat gets exploded); it's a shame that we have so much of him being unhappy and unfit for duty, when in the good old days a montage would have saved us some of that abject misery. Not to worry: the mission to Shanghai is a blinder, although it's a shame that the closest we get to local colour is giant adverts on the sides of buildings. I suppose although Shanghai has a lot of interesting history, it hasn't done so well out of Western agents running around. On the positive side, those shiny adverts make a beautiful backdrop for the fight between two desperate killing machines.

Then we go to Macau. Bond hasn't been to Macau since The Man With The Golden Gun, and I was distracted by how far from reality this had been. Macau is pretty much a concrete jungle with enormous, soulless casinos that resemble factories run by the PLA to remove money from Chinese gamblers with the absolute minimum joy possible. There aren't quaint floating houses where Daniel Craig can get his shave on, and the casino he meets Severine in just cannot exist. As far as I can tell, it's in the middle of the reservoir by the ferry port in Macau; that's about as glamorous a location as sticking Bond in a high class hotel overlooking East Croydon station.

Still, the human mind can only tolerate so much reality, and a casino with carnivorous Komodo dragons is nothing to complain about. I was baffled by the wigs though. It's hard to tell if the cashier does overtime as a croupier, or all the ladies have platinum blonde bobs, or ... Don't think. If you think about it, it fries your brain like an egg.

I didn't feel the chat-up/seduction of Severine was really strong enough. Bond takes a look at her wrist, sees the Chinese character for 9 and determines she's in the sex trade. I worry about all the times I've written something on my hand. It didn't feel like there was enough meat in that scene, although the fight makes up for it.

Then it's off to a strange abandoned island, an absolutely terrific set that reminded me of the village from Kung Fu Hustle, crossbred with the statue scrapyard from Goldeneye and all the computers from the Matrix. Javier Bardem is a terrific villain, coming out of the gate with a great speech, a bit of molesting of Bond (seriously, after the carpet beating in Casino Royale and that bit of frottage on the Unidentified Island Of Doom, you'd think Bond would have a phobia of chairs - after all this time, is that what the fighting people with furniture theme has changed into?)

Severine's death was a real surprise to me: I thought she'd be a malign influence who would keep reappearing, and after that surprise the film runs on rails for a while. Of course Silva allows himself to be captured - didn't anyone in MI6 pay attention to Loki in the Avengers this summer? Of course he escapes (his accomplices, dressed as police, are a nice touch: I wonder if Mendes was trying to say we've got too many coppers in the UK these days), and although the shoot-out at the inquiry (M playing the part of any BBC official who didn't do anything about Jimmy Saville) is exciting, it feels a bit rote.

So at the end of the second act, I felt a little let down. Perhaps it was the weight of 50 years pressing on it, but it felt a bit clumsy, as though it didn't have space to enjoy itself enough. It was exciting, it was competent, but it lacked a certain flair. Or perhaps it's just that I find Daniel Craig's haircut distractingly ugly.

The final part, as Bond and M travel to Skyfall, redeems the film with a series of terrific crash-bang wallops. Albert Finney seems to be channelling Brian Blessed at times, and the demolition of Skyfall itself feels real, which, after the terrible CGI at the start of the film, comes as a great relief. M's impending demise feels telegraphed from far too far out, but Bardem's death is terrific. I was expecting a cheesy fist-fight at the end, but the knife in the back is brutal and swift.

Then, because it's a franchise, we have to have an entirely predictable bulldog in a box, and introduce ourselves to M and Moneypenny 3.0. And we're done. 23 and not out.

All in all, I don't think it's a great Bond. It's one of the good ones, but I think Casino Royale, Goldfinger and OHMSS are all more satisfying films. It certainly isn't awful like some of the Bonds that have been before, but I felt it could have done a better job of ignoring its own history.

Q is just another (competent) rent-a-nerd doing fan service. The Aston Martin is another fry-your-brain like an egg moment. It is the Goldfinger car (ejector seat, machine guns) but that means it's been around for nigh on fifty years - where did Bond get it from? And (at least for me) the music felt more like a distraction than an accompaniment to the action, like somebody constantly grabbing your sleeve and telling you to pay attention to the screen.

But let's not be too negative. This had probably Judi Dench's best M (watch her stilted performance in Goldeneye now and wonder at how she's made the role better with time). Having heard the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw complain that Bond films are just a series of set pieces with no unifying theme, it's nice to see the leitmotif of Bond falling into deep bodies of water and almost drowning, whether that's a Scottish loch or taking an early Turkish bath. London itself is used thoroughly and well for the first time in a Bond film (even if I expected Javier Bardem to wallop his knackers sliding down the escalator in the Tube). And although Moneypenny is Moneypenny, complete with desk job and de riguer flirting with Bond, she's also the woman who shoots him with a rifle. Things are always evolving.

And so to the last companion of a Bond film. Today, while the rain poured down outside, I downloaded One For The Money, a Katherine Heigl adaptation of a Janet Evanovitch novel about a bail-bondswoman.

The novel is absolute tosh, but in an enjoyably untaxing way: not the kind of thing you're proud to read, but not everything has to be. The film is uneven and bafflingly stupid. It can't make up its mind whether it's gritty or being played for laughs. Heigl's character goes from bra-selling ditz to lethal marksman without so much as a training montage, and there is a parade of low-cholesterol, hygienic prostitutes/stoners/villains that seem to have been hewn from purest plastic. The Ikea of wobbly characterisation, basically.

Finally, after all I said about avoiding spoiling Skyfall for anyone else, all you need to do to spoil One For The Money is to watch the trailer, because that's got all the good bits. Every last one.

Actually, if you really want to spoil One For The Money for somebody, you should just make them watch it. Simple!

The only good things about it are that it's short, and it's sunny, and the principal characters are attractive, rather than orcs squeezed into suits and given haircuts. But since the heroine subsists on cupcakes and cheeseballs, that becomes insanely distracting and ... and ... for the third time I'll have to borrow that phrase from Looper. Try to enjoy One For The Money and your brain will fry like an egg. Skyfall might not have been the greatest Bond of all time, but if I'd watched it after this dreck, I might have thought so.


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