Scene by Scene: SKYFALL Pt V – ‘New Digs’

As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall

War remains a key part of the British psyche. ‘The War’ is becoming less of a familiar colloquialism to new generations but the spectre of World War Two looms large over the James Bond series, and larger than ever at points over Skyfall.

Following the attack on the Vauxhall Cross MI6, now deemed according to 00 section mandarin Bill Tanner to be “strategically vulnerable”, the security services go underground – quite literally. Gone is the glistening paean to open modernism that was the attacked structure. It is instead welcome to the “new digs”, described by Tanner to Bond as having been part of Churchill’s bunker during WW2, with a history that even long predates Britain’s most famous Prime Minister, dating back to the 18th century. “Quite fascinating, if it wasn’t for the rats.” Tanner quips, a comment which will gain added resonance for Bond once he finally meets the villain who has forced MI6 into the depths.

Tanner’s comment about “new digs” is, of course, a sarcastic rejoinder from John Logan’s script, redolent of the character’s dry sense of humour (nicely underplayed by Rory Kinnear). MI6 have retreated into their bunker, cowed by the fear of an attack that goes beyond borders and boundaries and develops the post-9/11 anxiety in the Bond series about villains who eschew ideology. This is no IRA bomb or secret Russian move. This is a highly sophisticated attack with a personal agenda. “The assailant hacked into the environmental control system, locked out the safety protocols and turned on the gas. All of which should have been impossible. On top of that they hacked into her files. They knew her appointments, they knew she’d be out of the building.” Tanner claims and Bond rightly guesses that it was all about M seeing the attack, watching those people die, ultimately for nothing. Skyfall immediately places conflict in the context of vendetta and psychological motivation, to a degree no other Bond film previously had.

“We’re on a war footing now” Tanner claims, but this isn’t Britain against a pushy Argentina or a fascist Germany. Skyfall pits a wounded MI6 against a shadowy menace lurking in cyberspace who challenges the Bond series’ preconceptions of war itself.

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Scene by Scene: SKYFALL Pt IV – ‘Enjoying Death’

As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall

Death stalks James Bond through life at every turn so it is no real surprise that when it comes for him, in Skyfall, he would enjoy it.

Having passed through the underworld in the credit sequence, a Morpheus within his own consciousness, facing ghosts of past, present and future as he sinks into the watery depths of a Turkish river, Bond is now revived by the twin promises of sex and alcohol. Sam Mendes never feels the need to show us Bond climbing out of the river, finding a way to stem the bullet wounds he’s suffered, seeking shelter etc… his film has the confidence to skip these moments, rightly aware that his audience can fill in the blanks. This is James Bond, formerly at the peak of his powers. He has survived worse than a sniper having an off-day, as the surfacing spectres of his youth across Skyfall will attest.

We pass instead through to Bond’s uncanny, Fleming-inspired purgatory. This is an empty, rugged world where 007, largely having now recovered from his wounds – though he still takes painkillers for the shrapnel in his shoulder, establishing how he is alive but low in fitness, and he looks visibly drained and drawn – lives in a beach shanty having casual, meaningless sex with a local beauty so incidental, she isn’t even named (played by Tonia Sotiropoulou, the script references her as ‘Bond’s Lover’). In films of old, she could well have had a greater function, perhaps to die at the whims of a villain a la Corinne in Moonraker or even Solange in Casino Royale, but Skyfall has little interest in the traditional ‘Bond girl’ trope. She might as well be a figment of Bond’s recovering imagination as he traverses this world between worlds.

What this largely wordless section is designed to do is reintroduce Bond as divested of his casual armour, his impenetrable shell, and physically stripped to the bone. He is waiting here for either slow death or revived life.

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Scene by Scene: SKYFALL Pt III – ‘Retirement Planning’

As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall

After the thrill ride of the pre-titles sequence and the subsequent barrage of avant garde imagery of James Bond’s voyage into the netherworld, Skyfall settles down into more practical matters.

A quiet calm rests over London following the storm in Turkey. M is faced with Bond’s obituary, officially recognising his title of Commander – the first Daniel Craig-era nod, in fact, of Bond’s naval history, a long-standing factor in Ian Fleming’s source material and the Roger Moore & Pierce Brosnan-era films particularly. It’s on brand for 007 – brief, clinical, and redolent of the traditional Establishment values the character embodies. M has no idea what to say beyond the varnished facts, given the secrecy of his work. Skyfall will chart a journey toward a quiet admission of care and emotion between these two people as the film unfurls, but at this point Bond is, despite being M’s best agent, another dead government employee. His obituary, for all Bond’s heroism, will reflect the passing of a normal, traditional serviceman.

In these calm, reflective scenes, Sam Mendes works to ground Skyfall in a latent sense of Empire, of the ghosts of British colonialism and patriotism haunting the frame like almost never before in a Bond movie. Being initially developed by two American impresarios in Cubby Broccoli & Harry Saltzman in the 1960’s, for decades the Bond film series often worked as a Stateside impression of austere colonial glamour. Americans could never quite understand it because their very foundation was born as a reaction to it. Mendes reintroduces that sense of old-fashioned empirical Englishness in Skyfall that Bond has maybe never quite seen before in cinematic terms. If Casino Royale returned to the grit of Fleming’s character, Skyfall captures Establishment England in a unique, Flemingian way. No Bond movie has been set more in London and indeed the wider United Kingdom than Skyfall in fifty years. That’s pointed.

Skyfall, in these early scenes, begins to detail how M’s journey will be backwards rather than forwards. Much like Bond, the past will come to haunt her, and the film itself, in a significant way.

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Scene by Scene: SKYFALL Pt II – ‘Let the Sky Fall’

As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall

What’s your favourite James Bond credits sequence? If your answer is Skyfall, it would be nothing to be ashamed over.

Personally, I’m quite partial to the uncharacteristic titles from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only film which saves the signature ‘Bond theme’ (Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World aka the first dance at my wedding – true story) until the end, making do with John Barry’s pulse pounding action theme instead. Most Bond credits sequences have, for over fifty years, maintained a formula established by legendary artist Maurice Binder until his death in 1991 (aside from From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which were Robert Brownjohn), and subsequently Daniel Kleinman since 1995 (with the exception of Quantum of Solace, which was MK12).

The formula was clear – silhouetted women, often naked, in a conflagration with guns, sometimes Union Jack’s, suggestive poses and a general reinforcement of Bond’s Establishment rigour and sexual prowess, always set to a ballad, rocking tune or even electronic missive (here’s looking at you, Duran Duran). That was certainly the Binder template, one which Kleinman adapted post-GoldenEye to suit an evolving Bondian landscape.

Kleinman’s modus operandi with his credit sequences has often involved adding a level of thematic or narrative contextualisation, to a greater degree than Binder who, despite crafting some terrific visual sequences, focused more on evoking the style and mood of cinematic James Bond. Kleinman has a deeper appreciation of how these opening sequences, which it’s worth noting remain an iconoclastic aberration in modern cinema and a distinctly unique Bond movie tradition, factor into the overarching sweep of the tale being told. Take the hammer and sickle, post-Soviet motifs in GoldenEye, or the slick, oily globe of The World is Not Enough, and in the Daniel Craig-era the array of cards and gambling visuals across Casino Royale – which itself was the first sequence to start a Craig-era, modern trend of featuring Daniel Craig himself within the sequence, as opposed to a ‘Bondian’ silhouette or evocation.

The result is that Skyfall could be Kleinman’s best work on Bond to date, and seamlessly gels with the action before the credits, and the drama to come.

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Scene by Scene: SKYFALL Pt I – ‘Take the Bloody Shot!’

As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall

The opening shot of Skyfall feels like a reintroduction to James Bond, which is perhaps appropriate for Sam Mendes’ first 007 movie.

Bond, out of focus, glides quickly into frame—set to an immediate Monty Norman flourish from composer Thomas Newman—at the end of a dark Istanbul hallway, framed behind by light, before swaggering toward the camera as Daniel Craig’s face edges out of shadow into view, raising his Walther PPK almost into our faces. It stands as the first of many glorious shots from Mendes and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins which elevate the 23rd James Bond movie out of mere cinema and into the realm of art.

It also reminds us that our hero will, once again, be front and centre across a story which will dig into 007’s psychology in a manner the series had never before attempted. Fitting for the 50th anniversary Skyfall celebrated since the debut of Bond as a cinematic icon, with Sean Connery’s Dr No in 1962. Mendes’ film, right from the beginning and a pre-titles sequence that for the first time since the Pierce Brosnan-era, truly embraces the Bond formula of old in kickstarting the picture with a thrilling, action-packed mini-movie. Skyfall’s pulse-pounding chase through Istanbul, by jeep, bike and later train, serves as one of the series’ finest.

Four years had passed since Quantum of Solace, a Bond film which, while not without its merits, underwhelmed a vast amount of audiences as largely a post-script to Casino Royale’s bravura introduction to the Craig-era. Skyfall, across the first fifteen minutes, screams loudly and clearly: this is the first true follow up. And it’s going to be an epic journey.

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HANNIBAL: classy yet sleazy carnival horror (2001 in Film #3)

20 years on from the year 2001, I’m looking back at some of the films across the year which stood out as among the more interesting, and year-defining, pictures…

This week, released on the weekend of February 9th, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal

One of the more telling aspects about Hannibal’s occasionally troublesome production is the fact that almost nobody, outside of director Ridley Scott and producer Dino de Laurentiis, truly believed in the story.

Released in 1999, Thomas Harris’ sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which took him over a decade, was more than highly anticipated, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation released that same year, 1988. Due to whip smart, suspenseful direction from Demme and memorable turns from Jodie Foster and especially Anthony Hopkins as the eponymous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs swiftly established itself in popular culture as a tense piece of modern, procedural, psychological horror, inspiring future cultural phenomenon’s such as The X-Files and establishing its main female lead as a feminist heroine.

The moment Harris elected to devise a trilogy around Lecter, which became eventually a ‘quadrilogy’, the film adaptation was a foregone conclusion. Hopkins had won an Oscar for his deliciously unnerving, playful performance, revitalising his career in a stroke. The film launched Demme into the big leagues and even boosted the already successful Foster’s career. Lambs became one of the signature, iconic pictures of the 1980s, which meant any follow up would be overcome by a weight of expectation, as befits any sequel to a beloved movie or property long after the fact.

What surprised everyone involved, however, was Harris’ story for Hannibal.

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SAVE THE LAST DANCE: a hip, hopeful MTV romance (2000 in Film #2)

20 years on from the year 2001, I’m looking back at some of the films across the year which stood out as among the more interesting, and year-defining, pictures…

This week, released on the weekend of January 12th, Thomas Carter’s Save the Last Dance

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s understands the power MTV had on their lives in these formative years. Before the dawn of YouTube, hours could be spent immersed in the cable channels around MTV watching endless music videos from across the decades. This, for many of us, is where our knowledge and appreciation of the music we grew to embrace, in part, came from.

The success of MTV—which had forged the careers of numerous future cinematic auteurs including among others Michel Gondry and David Fincher—logically extended into the cinematic realm with the formation of MTV Productions in 1996 – their movie studio arm. While their reach has today declined, at the end of the ’90s, MTV Productions would develop pictures as diverse as Mike Judge’s juvenile Beavis & Butthead Do America, teen college drama Varsity Blues and Alexander Payne’s erudite, caustic Election, the latter both in the cinematic boom year of 1999. It is hard to square such a wildly different set of pictures from the same production house aside from one common denominator: they were all about, for or aimed at the teenage movie market.

Save the Last Dance is an example of how MTV Productions worked to bridge the gap between the independent movie which had emerged during the ‘90s as an antidote to the dominance of the tentpole blockbuster that came to bear from the late 1970s onwards, and the burgeoning concept of the cinematic franchise that by the end of the 2000s would bear fruit and burst into existence as the 2010s arrived.

It feels like a picture born of both worlds simultaneously.

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New Interview: MYTH-BUILDING IN MODERN MEDIA on Author Interviews

Brand new interview.

I was very pleased to be featured on the excellent Author Interviews site, alongside some rather esteemed contemporaries, to discuss my book Myth-Building in Modern Media, my writing journey and practices, and what I’ve been enjoying reading lately.

This was conducted during the Covid-19 lockdown in the summer but it’s still a relevant window into my process. Here’s a little taster and you can find a link below.

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New Podcast: MOTION PICTURES – ‘Cinematic Royalty’ (The Queen & The Crown)

Brand new podcast appearance.

In the latest episode of Motion Pictures, myself and my co-host Carl Sweeney, joined by special guest Sarah. L. Blair, are talking royalty with the return of prestige Netflix series The Crown.

They discuss the series in the context of films about royalty, such as Stephen Frears’ The Queen, and how The Crown is crossing the bridge between television and cinema…

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Go Go, Power Franchise! Revisiting POWER RANGERS

Craig McKenzie, in the wake of news about a brand new Power Rangers universe, revisits the franchise…

Power Rangers is in the news once again with Hasbro hiring Jonathan Entwistle to head up a shared universe of film and TV adaptations of the franchise. Entwistle has said that he’s working on a “reboot universe” and a “whole new world” for the property. Fans of franchises have heard all this before and will recognise that such phrasing doesn’t always result in a good thing.

I am writing this from the perspective of someone who still counts himself a fan of Power Rangers despite not having watched any of the new output in a long time. When I was growing up in the ’90s I was obsessed with it, just as many my age were, and my love for it has never really gone away, though it’s fair to say I grew out of what it had to offer. My relationship with the show ended somewhere around the Zeo iteration of the franchise and I’ve never had cause to pick it back up where I left off. One thing I did when the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers appeared on Netflix was go back and watch those early adventures, although I never quite got to the point where I’d stopped.

What I found during my revisit was that the charm of the series hadn’t faded for me, despite being well aware of how schlocky it was with the benefit–or drawback–of hindsight. The elements that I once enjoyed were still present and there was an innocent purity to it that remained infectious, even despite the natural cynicism that adulthood breeds.

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