Skyfall (2012), directed by Sam Mendes

I’m shocked by how popular this movie seems to be. It made a butt-load (official measurement) of money opening weekend and has drawn lineups and sold out shows, around here anyway. It’s a big one.

I’m not sure why I’m surprised. I guess because it has been four years since Quantum of Solace, which most everyone seemed to despise (I liked it, but haven’t seen it since, so who knows?).

I think too that I’m always shocked in general that modern, North American audiences respond to Bond. Not pointing any fingers here, but some North AMERICAN populations aren’t particularly fond of characters and locations that are not within their own borders. On top of that Bond is a suave, level-headed, droll spy, not a flashy action star or a comic book hero (how English do I sound right now?).

They are very British movies, really.

I have been a Bond super-fan since childhood. I used to watch the old Sean Connery and Roger Moore films with my father. Then I would go to school and try to convince all the other children (maybe 9 or ten years old) how cool Bond is. They were hard to convince. Movies from 1964 didn’t hit the spot with kids growing up in the ’90s.

It’s actually embarrassing, but I wanted to have the nickname “James Bond” or “007.” I wrote “aka James Bond” at the bottom of a school assignment. I brought in a cassette of all the James Bond themes for my class to listen too, which got shut off about the third track in (apparently Tom Jones wasn’t as popular as Nirvana or Metallica or whatever the normal kids were listening to).

Aside from some form of confession I’m not sure what the point of this, except to illustrate how big a part of my life Bond movies have been. And I guess because the stuff I’m into isn’t often the stuff the wide general public is into, that’s another reason the popularity of Skyfall surprises me.

Despite all that Skyfall manages something I would have never predicted: it is unlike any other James Bond movie ever made. And I’ve seen them all.

I knew it would be different with Sam Mendes behind the wheel, because he is a well-renowned director with his own style who would undoubtably add his own vision to the series. And he does through some rather theatrical set-pieces (Mendes comes from a theatre background) and a deeper sense of character than previous entries.

But his involvement is also likely a factor in the general overall introspective aspect of the film. I say this is unlike any other Bond film and the reason, among others, is it focuses on Bond, on MI6, on M in a direct way. Much of the film takes place in England. Much of it deals with Bond aging, with his past, with his commitment to his service and country. Much of it has to do with the betrayal by that same country of another agent.

It’s the internal memo of Bond films.

And while we’ve seen some of this before (the bitter ex-agent in GoldenEye, the “deep” Bond in Casino Royale, the questioning of Bond’s commitment in Licence to Kill) I can’t say we’ve ever seen a Bond movie so introspective as a whole.

Did I like the movie, you may be wondering? What with this being a review and all.

I did, very much so, although I would like to see it again to really appreciate it for what it is. I was too busy having my expectations cast aside to focus on what else it was accomplishing. Because it really threw away some of what I consider makes Bond Bond (I guess Quantum did too, but it had been so long since I had seen it I forgot).

Part of me missed the world-domination bent villains, the clearly drawn lines of good and evil, the simplicity of ‘us versus the Ruskies’ Bond. I missed the femme fatale with an X-rated name (here we get “Eve” and “Severine”…snore). I wanted some cool gadgets.

But I also appreciated that the film was very consciously rejecting those things, and did so in an intelligent, self-aware and entertaining way. Q is great, even though he really only gives Bond a gun and a radio. Bond at least seems interested in women again and I do recognize the misogyny of the old films and a slight move away from that (but come on…). It was great to see the old DB5, and then what happens to it was both heartbreaking but kind of fun.

And expectations aside, it’s a great movie in general. It’s filmed marvelously well (I especially liked the silhouette fight in the hotel), the story is riveting, the action is outstanding and very rarely over-the-top insane (except for the rooftop dirt bike chase), it has a classic Bond villain (even if they made his questionable sexuality an evil character trait, which is so lazy, stupid and homophobic) and it’s generally a very well crafted, exciting, entertaining movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Nothing is sacred in new Bond. And while that can sometimes be frustrating as a longtime fan, it also keeps the series fresh, current, interesting and, evidently, popular.

I look forward to Mr. Bond’s return.

Skyfall is in theatres now.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), directed by David Fincher

Well it finally happened. I finally got to see David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In my fall movie preview post from September I listed it as my most anticipated movie of the season and wrote that it will either be a big disappointment or the best movie of the year. Well, it ended up in the number two spot on my best films of the year list, so I wasn’t far off. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is fantastic.

This is a fun movie to review and the series as a whole was somewhat of a mainstay for my blog in its former location. I read the books, watched the Swedish films, wrote lengthy reviews of them all, had mixed feelings overall and then waited with bated breath for the American adaptation. To some this may sound like biased philistinism. But personally I find a bias against anything American based on snobbery to be as bad, if not worse, then a lack of interest in anything foreign. “I don’t like American movies” irritates me just as much as “I don’t like subtitles.”

I too had the initial reaction of disbelief that Hollywood was already making an American version. I scoffed and ticked as loud as anyone (I know, MOI?). This dissipated when I heard that David Fincher was directing it and disappeared altogether when the first amazing trailer came out. Now I will eat my initial thoughts.

What Fincher has done is take a rather great book with a game changer character and made a rather fantastic movie that makes it all the more apparent how much we needed Lisbeth Salander in our lives. Purely as a movie The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is exciting, tight, extremely well filmed and edited, full of great performances and in general a hell of a good watch. Its running time is around two hours and 40 minutes but it never drags and does what the Swedish films failed to do, which is adapt the book in such a way that honours both the story and the characters without ever sacrificing one for the other.

What the Swedish versions really lacked is a budget. Don’t get me wrong, I am an outspoken advocate of less typically resulting in more when it comes to movie budgets, but in this case more is better. In order for Lisbeth to really have an large scale impact we needed a large, slick, pitch-perfect movie. This is the rare case where it is appropriate to glorify and elevate a character because the character is just that good. We should think Salander is cool as hell, because she is.

Some might argue that it’s inappropriate to feel that way about a character whose traits are a result of her being the victim of rape and violence. H+M, the clothing store, took heat last year when it released a line of clothes based on Salander, the argument being that we shouldn’t glorify being a rape victim, which, detractors argued, is the source of her violent and anti-social style. While it’s not entirely appropriate for me to have a concrete opinion on this, I will say that rebellion against an oppressive society isn’t a bad thing and IS cool and maybe by glamorizing it and making it mainstream it will make an impact. So although people’s primary reaction will be that Salander is awesome and I want to dress like her, it’s not the fact that she’s been raped that they find cool, but her refusal to play nice by the rules that breed a rape society.

Salander is our greatest modern character and Rooney Mara is perfect to play her. I loved Noomi Rapace in the role and I won’t go so far as to say one is better then the other because both are fabulous. First of all Mara looks the part. She is, or at least looks in the film, tiny but has those fierce eyes that show the fire burning within. Her “punk” or “goth” or whatever you want to call it look is very well done and I think having her with bleached eyebrows is a brilliant little touch. Mara infamously got all of Salander’s piercings for real (yes, including her nipple), which, although entirely unnecessary, attests to her commitment.

I have trouble writing about Salander without gushing. I’ll get it over with: I think she is so amazingly cool. Okay, that’s that. There is that level where I am in love with her spirit, her feisty resilience against the world, her no bs approach to life that makes her badass in an “I don’t need to act badass because I am badass” kind of way. She doesn’t take any guff.

But there is that other level that recognizes that she is how she is because of what she has gone through and it comes at the cost of her humanity. She has trouble being vulnerable, which is essential for love. The film explores this towards the end and I think it adds that much needed layer to her character that raises her from being simply cool to being relatable and a symbol of the damage that society can cause. But it never suggests that she should be anything else, that she should give up her individuality in order to obtain the rewards that society offers like security and love. It recognizes the cost but never criticizes the method; she is allowed to be, and is celebrated for being, who she is.

I think she is an important character, as loaded as that word can be, because she is a woman who refuses to live life by others, specifically male, terms, something that women have been having to do for, well, forever. Salander doesn’t though. She dresses and looks how she wants to, finds her own niche in life, sleeps with whoever she wants to, man or woman, and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. Many won’t agree, but that’s admirable. As I said, this comes at a cost but I also like that aspect of her character. The film recognizes that dilemma and her imperfections are what makes her relatable and human. She is not The Woman With No Name. She is a person, one who has been mistreated, has found the way to fight back but has also suffered damage. She is both heroic and complex. She’s wonderful.

Daniel Craig is perfect as Mikael Blomkvist and the realizing of his character is one area where the American version is far superior to the Swedish version. He got shortchanged in the Swede version as they stripped away his layers and the plot points that reveal to us what kind of person he is. Again, he is not perfect, and his steadfast commitment to truth results in an emotional distance that ends up hurting others. His honesty is commendable but he walks that thin line between being honest and being emotionally aloof. Again though, these are all points that make for an interesting character.

So what more can I say? I could write a thesis on this series but let’s leave it at the fact that I loved this movie and think we should all write letters to Hollywood imploring them to have Fincher, Mara, Craig and everyone else involved adapt the other two books. David Fincher is probably our best working director and the first to truly master digital moviemaking, as this crisp, beautifully dark film shows. Throughout my interaction with this series I have longed for someone to get it right and give Salander the movie she deserves. This is that movie.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is available on DVD and Blu-ray.