Tag Archives: Skyfall

Manners Maketh A Genre

Spy movies are old hat. Well, least the slick James Bond ones are. Movies like Goldeneye have either been deconstructed by the Bourne movies (or even by more recent Bond flicks, to an extent) or lovingly lampooned by the likes of Chuck and Archer. Now, this isn’t bad (I love Chuck and Skyfall). Spies aren’t the sort to smoothly enter in a suit with a myriad of fancy gadgets, they’re gritty people in dark, realistic worlds. If you aim for a more lighthearted approach, chances are the genre’s used as the setting for another story, be it a workplace comedy or romance. There’s been a dearth of pure spy movies.

Enter Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman. Though it may seem like a deconstruction — it plays with and pokes at a couple tropes — ultimately, it’s a reconstruction. Now, Skyfall was to an extent a reconstruction in its own right as it defended the relevance of the government-run spy agency (as opposed to, say, rogues like Jason Bourne) in a very modern world, keeping as much of the spy-gadgetry we’d allow in a grounded film. Kingsman on the other hand, decides to amp things up a couple notches.

The throwbacks to classic gadgetry are present in Kingsman: the heroes have weaponized pens, hidden shoe-blades, bullet-proof umbrella shields, and hi-tech glasses. The agents dress in tailored suits and a great deal of emphasis is put on the way one carries oneself. And, of course, this is a slick movie with good guys being awesome and an evil madman trying to take over the world. It’s a straight up spy film.

Now, it’s not all spies-on-missions. The first half of the film focuses on Eggsy training to be one of the impeccable spies. But even though he’s not actively going after the villain, it still feels spy-ish as the candidates go through increasingly harder trials with more and more flair. It’s over-the-top, sure but it’s great fun to see this kid from the wrong side of  the London’s tracks grow into a super-spy.

I think what really makes Kingsman such a wonderful ode to its genre is its tone. Classic Bond had this strong sense of romantic adventure to it and many of its imitators followed in its steps. Kingsman returns to that spirit, though it does so older and wiser. The movie knows that a jet pack’s been done to death, so the film uses a mothballed high-altitude balloon from Reagan’s SDI. Similarly, the gadgetry feels appropriately futuristic for a more modern setting (see the AR glasses mentioned above). This keeps it from feeling too old-fashioned, but a technology update alone wouldn’t push it from good to great. The movie knows it’s a spy movie, as do its characters; Eggsy and the others are almost Chuck-ish in their knowledge and meta-commentary on spy tropes. This doesn’t diminish it, rather it keeps the film feeling decidedly present while still keeping a decades old tradition alive.

This is how you breathe new life into a genre. You take all of its flaws and preposterousness and roll with it, accepting its prior deconstruction and morphing it into something new — in other words: reconstruction. Pacific Rim created a world where Mecha made sense and where Kaiju were cool; Godzilla once more had the titular monster a force of nature while still making sense; Star Trek accepted Roddenberry’s idealism and made space opera cool again. Kingsman makes being a suave, well-dressed badass integral to being a super spy. Manners maketh man and all that.

Writing off a genre as being silly unless you take it apart bit by bit is foolish. But every now and then deconstruction needs to happen. Casino Royale had to show the ramifications of being a super spy so Skyfall could ultimately show why it’s still needed and so Kingsman could deliver its pulpy fun. It’s fun to see things deconstructed — it’s what makes The Cabin In The Woods such fun — but it’s not the only way to make an old genre new again. Look at Kingsman, Skyfall, Star Trek; you take the thing apart so you know how to put it back together better than before.

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Quality and The Oscars

So it’s Oscar time. Which means award times. And, well, I’m mildly disappointed with some of the nominations. I find that movies, video games, and so on can’t be judged subjectively or comparatively. Least not on a flat scale of quality+writing+cinematography+explosions.

Here’s how I judge stuff: did it accomplish what it set out to do, and did it do it well? It’s an odd scale, yeah, but it’s one that works. Like Lincoln, the movie that snatched a dozen nominations: Spielberg set out to create the definitive cinematic biography of Linocln and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Not only did he accomplish that, he made it look good. So yes, Lincoln was a good movie.

In a similar but different vein, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter presented itself as a biography of Lincoln’s life, only this time vampires were woven in as the primary antagonist. Did it pull it off? Yep. Was it the dramatic/kickass action movie it billed itself as? Oh yes. So yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was also a good movie. But it would never win an Oscar.

Do I want Lincoln to win Best Picture? No, not really. It’s a great movie, but it’s, well, it’s obvious. I guess Amour is too, though I haven’t seen it and won’t say anything. I’m going to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild sometime before tonight because I want to see it.

And the others? Zero Dark Thirty had the best portrayal of a military raid in cinema that I can think of. Not only did it follow proper procedure, but the whole way it was done gave it the tension and moral ambiguity that it deserved. Les Miserables was a great musical and definitely deserves the nod, but that’s about it.

I read Life of Pi seven years ago on a ship in Norway and enjoyed the book and the movie captured it perfectly. Lastly, Django Unchained is Tarantino being Tarantino, and hey, no complaints there. It’s not as good as Inglorious Basterds, but it’s not crap either.

That leaves Argo and Silver Linings Playbook and they’re my favorites of the nominees. Why?

Argo was different. It was a drama/thriller, but it was also funny. It was intense, but it remained fun without negating any of its intensity. Any idea how hard that is to pull off?

Then Silver Linings is about broken people and I love it because it takes a movie about a romance and gives it weight and worth. But it won’t win because it can be passed over as a romantic comedy and who’d want one of those to win? (Also: Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in that movie was fantastic)

So what movies would I want nominated and why? So glad you asked, dear reader, because you’ll find out.

Right off the bat: Skyfall. Yes, it’s a James Bond movie which means it shouldn’t win, but it’s just too dang good for it to not even be recognized. It’s smart, well made, and, hey, I’ve been over this before. At least we all know it’ll get the Oscar for Best Original Song.

My favorite movies of 2012 will forever be The Avengers (with Silver Linings second). Joss Whedon and crew set out to create an ensemble superhero movie and they pulled it off. At least give the man a writing nomination for being able to balance six main characters without any being terribly overshadowed. It’s simply a well made movie but gets precluded due to its ‘light’ subject matter. So no Oscar.

Beyond those two, Looper should’ve gotten a nod at least for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup and Ted for special effects. The Cabin in the Woods had a wonderfully clever script, but we all knew it wouldn’t be nominated.

At the end of the day, though, doesn’t really matter who’d I want to win. Heck, I’ve never even watched the Oscars before (I will tomorrow, though). All they do is piss me off because the movies I want to win never win. I find them to be so… not predictable but routine. Up or District 9 or True Grit would never win because they were either genre or just too fun. By nature Oscar movies have to be better than other movies. Not The Dark Knight better than Batman and Robin sort of better, but rather the Lincoln better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter better. Oscar movies need to be serious, maybe inspirational, but certainly dramatic; earnestness, spirit, and heart need not apply. But movies like Silver Linings Playbook and Argo have heart to spare.

Finally: If Paperman doesn’t win Best Animated Short I will strangle a baby narwhal.*

*Writer’s note: I will not strangle a baby narwhal due to a) my lack of access to a baby narwhal and 2) why would anyone want to strangle a baby narwhal (besides Paperman not winning)?

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But Strong In Will

An argument presented by a sorta-antagonist in Skyfall is that espionage and spying is a relic of the Cold War, of a time when thinking on one’s feet was the most valuable skill. Now, in the world of computers and the Internet where one can shut down an economy without leaving their bedroom, there is no use for agents on the field.

In response, M gives a speech about the relevance of MI6, about how even though technology may march on there will always be a need for boots on the ground. Quoting Tennyson, she extols the necessity of patriotic idealists like James Bond out in the field striving, seeking, finding, and refusing to yield.

It’s all pretty words and a meta answer to a question that’s been floating around in the back of our minds for a while now. In a time when spy/action/thriller movies have steadily gotten darker with stronger takes on violence and the ramifications of their actions, is there still space for an adventure that’s more fun than not?

The Avengers arguably proved it for the superhero movie (as I detailed before), so what of James Bond? Fifty years from Dr. No, is he still relevant?

It’s easy to see why not. James Bond has always been rife with gadgets: exploding pens, ejector seats, laser watches and the like. These tropes have been parodied and played with to the point where it’s really hard to take the concept seriously unless it’s done tongue-in-cheek (and even then it has to be done really well). Spy-cars are spoofed, over-the-top villains and schemes are mocked. These days, that’s just not how you make a movie.

Just compare Taken and Goldeneye. Both arguably fall under the same genre (men singlehandedly going after the bad guy leaving a path of destruction in their wake). But where Goldeneye has Bond driving a tank through St. Petersburg, Taken has Mills travelling much more subtly by foot or car. Mills doesn’t bother with one-liners and is relentless (and quite cruel) in the pursuit of his taken daughter. Bond, on the other hand, positively gushes charm and suavity. It’s old fashioned and romantic, and that’s not how the world works anymore.

Which, pretty much, is one of the central arguments presented to Bond in Skyfall. He’s called a man of the past, an anachronism of an age gone by who has no use in the modern world. Even Q implies that computers have rendered him obsolete.

The makers of Skyfall — and Bond himself — beg to differ. Not only do they claim that there is still a place for action-spies like James Bond, but they still find that there is a place for the typical tropes of the spy/thriller film. No, Q doesn’t walk Bond through a crazy lab with all sorts of fancy gadgets, but he’s still given his gizmos (a radio and a special PPK) and plays the role of command/advisor throughout the film. No, it’s not an exploding pen (which Q points out himself), but it’s still cool.

And cool is where James Bond really thrives. Sure, there’s no bungie jumping off of dams here, but there is running and jumping up under an elevator to catch a ride, or jumping into a newly-opened hole in a train and cuff adjustment. It’s cool and, yeah, still a little over the top, but still Bond-ish.

This is what Skyfall set out to do: establish James Bond’s relevance in the modern era. The result is a sort of gritty romanticism. We have our Bond Girls and a tricked-out Aston Martin. There’s a crazy villain and monologuing. But there’s also a stronger focus on Bond’s character and history than before, making the conflict far more personal for him. He’s also less invincible than before, suffering from an old wound. We’re getting to know the man behind the legend; now he’s human.

But he’s still James Bond.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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