Skyfall: The Best Bond Film Yet?


(I was going to put this in reviews, but honestly, it delves so much into Bond movies in general that it seemed to stand alone.)

What constitutes a James Bond movie is different for everyone. The first few 1960s films established a routine amazing mainly for its spectacular and unvarying success: tall attractive male lead with touch of British dry humor and menace, fine tailored suits, fancy cars, explosions, three acts, anywhere from one to five Bond girls, and exotic locales. There may be minor tweaks re goofy gadgets and variety in chase scenes and the amount of violence (realistic or otherwise), but all in all, the formula has remained the same. And what makes the best James Bond movies is how they update and interpret that basic formula.

To trace the evolution of the Bond series is not so much to evaluate different Bond actors as to ascertain whether the particular movie interprets that formula adequately. Critical consensus displays this admirably: Casino Royale, Skyfall, Goldfinger, and From Russia With Love all are feted for stripping down and sticking to the bare bones of that formula, albeit with extra flourish depending on the film. The actor who plays Bond is crucial, yet only because he is the central element of the formula. A decent Bond like Brosnan couldn’t rescue a movie like Die Another Day that sunk under the weight of its excessive flourishes, for example.

And of those four movies above, I would contend that Skyfall is the best James Bond film yet due to its singular interpretation of that formula. In order to lay out my argument let’s break down the formula further.

1: The lead. Justifiably, people criticize the Bond series for glorifying or promoting Western male imperialistic attitudes. Some films unconsciously do so, others lampoon that attitude, and still others skilfully employ their villains to accuse Bond of arrogance and crimes. Since the Bond movies are clearly escapist, most of that debate seems rather irrelevant to me, but I can accept its validity. Consequently, Skyfall’s focus on James Bond’s personal history and role in a world that no longer has true empires is the canniest treatment of the issue. In the movie, Bond’s motives for staying loyal to MI-6 are laughed at by Raoul Silva, the villain, as he speculates Bond of stubbornly clinging to notions of Queen and country, which were antiquated even in the 1960s.

But Silva misses the point that Skyfall, in building off Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, intends to make. Bond isn’t a spy for Queen and country: he’s a spy because it’s a job that he is uniquely well suited for. He isn’t motivated by patriotism, but by his relationships and paychecks. Casino Royale set this up fairly well, displaying a Bond who is ready to give up service because it’s a soul-killing job and because he found someone. Quantum of Solace showed Bond in turmoil, grimly doing his job because it’s what he does best, after all, and someone needs to do it. Plus, of course, he enjoys it, and although it may turn him into a murdering machine, at least he does it well, and the people who pay him are usually on the right side.

Earlier Bond movies made this point somewhat. The first few Sean Connery films showed Connery as a dashing agent who was devoted to Queen and country, but mostly to winning and personal professional satisfaction. Every Bond movie shows Bond cheerily flouting protocols in favor of personal rewards, either in the form of women or revenge or the thrill of confirming his skill and egotism. Skyfall does this best since it shows the final thing that really ties Bond to his job: his relationship with M, which powers his sense of duty. Is that sense of duty merely the Queen and country, imperialistic attitude? No, it’s merely a sense of duty to his job, which, luckily, usually results in Bond being the good guy.

But not really a good guy, as Skyfall shows. Bond may have a spark of conscience left, but he follows orders more to the letter than ever before, a far cry from the Bond of Casino Royale who disobeyed orders to cruise the Mediterranean. He leaves a comrade to die and uses a woman to get closer to Silva; with regret, of course, but still, he’s a good agent…not a good man.

Earlier Bond movies tried to have it both ways. You’re always supposed to cheer Bond on, but Skyfall made it clear that when we place ourselves in Bond’s position, we do terrible things to people for sometimes unclear reasons. Obviously, it’s all coated in a veneer of panache and snappy sardonic wit and usually clean moral goals (since this is escapism, after all), but Skyfall makes that point better than most.

2: The three acts. Skyfall’s plot has its own issues, but its true success comes with it capping the Daniel Craig trilogy of Bond films; in short, being the perfect third act, or the end to the meta-formula. Other fans have delved into the Bond universe, detailing how James Bond could be a secret identity and code name, and thus continuity between the films is actually ensured, since it’s simply different British agents with similar backgrounds who assume the identity of James Bond. Others ask why we even go to that bother, since they’re just movies. Still others poke holes in the theory, showing how in Skyfall James Bond’s parents’ gravestones are actually shown, and how Lazenby’s wife was killed, but Sean Connery in Diamonds are Forever seems rather ticked off that his wife is dead, and Roger Moore visits Lazenby’s wife’s grave…all of which can be explained away fairly easily by some contorted reasoning.

But let’s establish the background. Let’s presume that Daniel Craig portrays a brash, bold secret agent in his early thirties who is picked to be the new 007 and James Bond, mainly because of his skills, but it just so happens to be that his real name is James Bond (not that uncommon of a name, actually). That takes care of the back story and continuity. In Casino Royale, he attains 00 status, meets the love of his life, and encounters a huge terrorist ring. The first act, so to speak, which ends in his gradual growth as an agent. In Quantum of Solace, he becomes an even better agent, brutal and ruthless, and takes down the terrorist ring.

Skyfall is the third act, in which Craig’s Bond is now presumed to be in his late thirties or early forties, and it is some years after Quantum of Solace. He is veering fairly close to the age where secret agents (and really all combat soldiers) start assuming desk jobs. Even if you stay in excellent condition, your body simply starts breaking down in your late thirties on average, and Bond worries if he is obsolete, along with M. (This physical concern mirrors his dissatisfaction with his job and the fading allure of what he does, referenced above.)

However, he proves himself once more, showing there’s a place for a 00 even in the 21st century, and the movie ends with a perfect segue into the first few James Bond films: Moneypenny, Q, simple gadgets, and even a male M. Skyfall ties together not only the trilogy, but also (admittedly with holes and gaps along the way) knits together a plausible theory of the entire series, as well as the winning Bond formula in a nutshell. From here on out, Craig’s Bond will be more like Connery’s Bond, with a familiar cast of supporting characters, a firmly closeted past involving a dead wife/lover, and the wit, wisdom, and war-readiness of a seasoned spy.

(Quick edit: On Reddit and elsewhere there are claims that Skyfall shows Bond was human and failed at virtually every mission, and ended the film with the greatest mistake of all: taking his boss alone to an old mansion with no backup. I’m not quite sure how the film consists of Bond’s failures. True, collateral damage occurs, and Bond is reminded that he is human, but he does take out a squad of terrorists, initially capture Silva, defeat the man who shot him in the opening scene, and overall show that even if he makes mistakes, he’s still one of the best agents MI6 has. As for taking M to Skyfall, thematically it fits the close of the trilogy with Bond returning to his roots (and the cinematic Bond Craig returning to the old structure of Q, a male M, Moneypenny, and more). And the move to Skyfall does make sense: there’s less collateral damage. M and Bond don’t know whom Silva has corrupted, so they take refuge in each other. Plus, last but not least, thematically M and Bond have the mother-son relationship Bond never truly had. In essence, she is the most important woman in his life, but in order for him to become an even better secret agent, he has to lose her too, in order to become the Connery Bond.)

3: The acting, cinematography, whatnot. Every single shot in Skyfall could be a painting. Trust me; I’ve seen it far too many times. Daniel Craig has never been more assured as Bond, and even manages to come close to Connery’s levels of charm and menace in scenes with Moneypenny and Silva. Ralph Fiennes and Judi Dench are superb, as to be expected, while Naomi Campbell and Ben Whishaw both take on the familiar roles of Moneypenny and Q with gusto. The action scenes are well-choreographed and filmed, with the usual death-defying Bond stunts still managing to impress.

In short, what I like best about Skyfall is that not only does it serve as a great reboot film of the series (and having Casino Royale as a reboot makes the most sense, with the whole James Bond saga starting over after every 20 films), it also pays homage to the most successful elements of the Bond formula that enabled it to get to 20 films in the first place.







Khakis vs. Chinos

(image from

The other day I was shopping for a new pair of pants on Amazon, Frank and Oak, and Bonobos. As I clicked through link after link, hunting for something elegant yet durable (I only buy used jeans at thrift stores, as they are so comfortably, beautifully worn), a horrible realization dawned on me: despite my pretense of being at least somewhat stylish, I hadn’t the least idea of how to differentiate between khakis and chinos.

Consequently, I decided to do a little research, emphasis on the adjective, beginning with the background of both types of pants. As I discovered, khakis and chinos are inextricably intertwined in history, running as parallel as the creases on corduroy.

According to Mr. Porter and Historical Boys’ Clothing, khakis originated when the British army transitioned from scarlet and white uniforms to the stony, dusty khaki uniform, the better to blend into mountainous, desert regions. Given its cheapness, heat tolerance, and durability, the uniforms were made from cotton. And thus the official khaki was born, the word khaki coming from the Urdu word for dust.


But what about chinos? Chino is a Spanish term for Chinese (confirmed), and once the U.S. acquired the Philippines in the Spanish-American War in the 1890s, China became a major manufacturer of trousers for American troops stationed in the eastern theater. And the name chino gradually came to refer to the tapered pants American troops would tuck into their boots.

Of course, chinos were directly descended from khakis, as they were of similar color and fabric (given that cotton’s properties rendered it useful in tropical climates). And although they were more of a military garb at that time, the World in the world wars eventually made the sight of khaki uniforms and trousers familiar to everyone. ManToMeasure posits that the G.I. Bill was responsible for spreading khakis and chinos in American universities, which then spread into the American way of life, which eventually became substantially influential around the world.

Which leads us to present day, wherein chinos and khakis are sold and classified distinctly. What happened in between?

Well, those original khakis were made from cotton twill, with criss-crossing ridges woven together. No pleat, no fancy ornamentation, merely flat-fronted or tapered pants with a few functional pockets. And chinos were khakis in all but name, originally. However, as time has gone on, ManToMeasure states that chinos are more comfortable and possess fewer pockets than khakis. There is no data in that source to back this up, so I delved into the depths of the Interwebs myself to riddle this out.


This is what I discovered: chinos are the slightly more fashionable brothers of khakis, nowadays. What has happened since the GI Bill in the 1940s and 1950s is that chinos, the less-familiar name, were seized upon as the segment of casual cotton pants that could be tinkered with, leading to more tailoring and color experimentation. Nowadays, khakis connote flat-front, un-creased, four-pocketed, light brown cotton pants.

Chinos, on the other hand, although very similar, are more likely to be classified as such when the pants are tapered, slim-fit, brightly colored, or in some other way distinguish themselves beyond the supposedly drab khakis. Hence they are supposedly somewhat more fashionable, according to AskMen.

So there you have it: they’re basically the same, historically speaking, and only differ as a marketing term or classification today. Of course, there are some who claim that chinos differ in the cut of the front, with less overlap between the fly and also fewer pockets on average, but those differences are piddling, and fall under my prior classification.


Alt-J’s Weird Sweetness and the Buzzwords of Job Listings

Alt-J performed in the KeyArena at Bumbershoot, a giant venue that, as the keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton put it, “may be the biggest place we’ve ever played in”. I was in the crowd, amid packed flocks of people (most of whom seemed younger than me…or else I look and feel older), during their show.

Alt-J’s genre has been described as reedy rock, or chillwave, or that eponymous label indie rock. But they are more genre-spanning and indefinable, uniting choral harmonies with somewhat atonal, arrhythmic instrumental lines, before submitting more familiar melodies. Joe Newman, the vocalist, determinedly stays high and nasal as he sings what are probably Alt-J’s defining characteristic for me personally – the lyrics.

What’s odd about them is that even though they are weird, they’re ultimately quite sweet. Breezeblocks is probably one of their biggest hits, and it captures this contrast perfectly. The music video is gorgeous, a perfect little dark story of obsession and manslaughter, that ultimately inverts your expectations of the apparently formulaic story by telling the story in reverse. The weird darkness reveals itself to be ultimately sweet. Other songs reference sharks sniffing blood in the water, and draw comparison between that and memories of a lost love.

That flip is what I think drew the crowd to Bumbershoot; just enough of a melody to make it hummable, but enough depth to lend gravitas. Sadly, however, depth doesn’t translate necessarily to a huge, packed crowd. I had the strangest vibe while in the crowd that even as they swayed to whatever recognizable bass and drum combo that occurred, there was a very real lack of connection between the music and the audience.

It wasn’t the artists; Alt-J put on a fine performance. It’s just that their music isn’t quite danceable. It doesn’t need to be, but it felt like the crowd wanted it to be. Rather an interesting disconnect, and one that I have observed more and more frequently while perusing job listings.

They have the same buzzwords across pretty much every industry: “customer obsession”, “ambition”, “compelling”, “data-driven”, “passionate”…I have to give props for Redfin for employing “tenacity”, “grit”, and “fire”.

It is similar to the standard rock that Alt-J inverts, and I think that listings could invert expectations and drum up more interest by doing something similar. Hence I propose these alterations:

“customer allurement”

“gut-rumbling hunger for rewards in this world and the next”


“reasonably engaged”



Post-Grad/Syria/Electric Lady/LinkedIn

Given it’s a meme, rather unsure of its copyright, but most likely nonexistent

The 3rd degree contact at LinkedIn is always such a tempting target. Should I reach out through the tenuous thread of relationships to exploit opportunities? How do I do so in such a way that people feel happy to do so? This study appears somewhat relevant. In which case, I should just ask people for help in everything…

NBC News

…which leads me, very tenuously, to an interesting point that arose in a discussion of Syria last night. My father, elder brother, and I were debating as to what the proper course of action was in the whole tragic debacle. My brother opined that humanitarian refugee camps were the only suitable option, as aiding either side could result in another Afghanistan. My dad stated that there was simply a dearth of information. The fog of war obscures too much; were the rebels possibly committing war crimes also? Could the use of chemical weapons be confirmed?

The answer is, of course, that there are no good choices. There are only varieties of thorny, slippery choices, which may very well prove to be wrong in coming decades. I’m of a mind with my brother as the refugee camps being the lesser of these evils; people are desperately pleading for such help, and providing refuge is not something that can breed as much resentment as feeding supplies to one side. It really comes down to who sheds whose blood and by what means, and in that case, the refugee camps seem the best option…

Image from

…I don’t really have a segue here, but the omnipresence of smoldering conflict in the Middle East got me to thinking about other surprisingly long-running things, and I’ve been enjoying this album heartily ever since I got wind of it.

Ms. Monae has steadily built a rather intriguing story-line of human-android society, weaving a tale of rebellion and oppression through soul and R&B while casting a futuristic veneer of electronica and dance. Her vocals are astounding, the production tightly wound, while the genre mash appeals to all of my sensibilities, but in the end, what is most intellectually intriguing is her casting of a future android as basically a civil rights leader. She envisions a dance-filled, fanciful yet serious future wherein androids as human-robot hybrids stand up for their rights.

Whether or not this will actually happen is beside the point. What’s more interesting is that she at least attempts to grapple with some of the ethical implications of intelligent human hybrid life. Ms. Monae is firmly on the side of the androids, drawing directly from the ongoing rights clashes of not only race but also gender in the past few years. That, in the end, is perhaps the album’s only intellectual weakness (although frankly in a dance electronic pop album, I hardly look for intellectual content); she is so firmly android that perhaps she misses out on the chance of hopping over the fence and looking at androids with more skeptical eyes.


The Fascinating Depths: Yeezus, Vampire Weekend, and Mad Men Season Six

The experience of looking down from a great height is intoxicating. After all, why do people climb mountains, if not to look down from a great height? (Unless they’re really into sweat and thin air.) Whether literal or figurative, depths are fascinating.

I recall submerging in Lake Chelan’s limpid green waters, ten feet down, and looking out through the cold clear waters as my heartbeat rang in my ears. I recall standing on top of a bridge, peering down at the flowing river far below, and leaping on a sudden whim, even as my breath caught in my throat. It’s a strange fascination…not exactly a death wish, but rather some odd desire to know exactly what depths we can plumb.

And of course, in Mad Men, those depths are nearly all metaphorical. Don Draper has descended to the depths of depression and depravity before, but this season most heavily underlined those themes than any prior. It opened with Don reading Dante’s Inferno on a beach, just to ram that point home. Even though Don grappled with crushing depression and alcoholism in season four, and prior seasons saw suicides and deaths, this season was even darker, not merely in its portrayal of a nation reeling in the dark late 60s, but also because the darkness pervaded every area of Don’s life.

He tried to be an attentive father and husband in season five, while balancing professional demands, and yet he wasn’t able to pull it off. Throughout the sixth season, Don failed his marriage, failed his children, failed in his work, and even failed in his latest extramarital fling. And yet, in the penultimate episodes, he had to explore the depths even further. Don had to blow work off and take his colleagues’ sacrifices and his place for granted. He had to betray his friend and canoodle with Mrs. Rosen once more in an attempt to rekindle his savoir faire, and consequently fail his daughter more grievously than ever before.

These dark depths are seductive, especially when lived vicariously. It’s no coincidence Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the most powerful and compelling shows on TV right now, both explore evil in a very realistic world. Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner know that building a narrative in which we are slowly, almost blindly led into seeing exactly how easy it is to do terrible things, into the depths each of us is capable of sinking to, is how to play to the intoxication of depths.

It took several listens (heck, I’m listening to it right now) for me to realize that was Yeezus‘ appeal also. It’s a different kind of depth; after all, it’s not as if Kanye is capturing his darkness. Rather, what Kanye West seems to be doing with this hasty, intriguing record is plumbing the depths of his imagination, creativity, and audience.

Why did he rush the album through production, and throw in vocals haphazardly? Some critics have guessed that the sound matters the most, or that it’s simply Kanye’s experimentation or boredom with the radio and his own public image. I think some of those are close to the truth, but what’s even more important is that the haphazard nature of the album speaks more to someone who’s rooting out the closet just to find what’s in there.

Tracks like ‘I am a God’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ showcase West’s self-absorption at its most self-aggrandizing, and also his deep urge to address racism…while also conflating such issues with his own past heartbreak. He then mines obscure sounds and throws it all together in Yeezus (which really is best listened to as a whole album rather than singles) in an exploration of his creative depths and those most potent, latent, rooted themes that have pervaded all his work.

Rummaging around in the depths is what also makes Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, intriguing. These themes are extremely religious and relationship-centric. ‘Ya Hey’ and ‘Diane Young’ focus on heavy Biblical themes and doomed relationships, tying together philosophical musings along with the fundamental realities religion grapples with. The depths may not be ego-centric and culture-heavy as those in Yeezus, but they are creative, personal, and spiritual depths all the same.

In the above link Koenig speaks of how he sees this latest album as dealing with more adult issues, which is virtually the essence of true depths. Once you’re a grown-up, the amount of damage you can inflict on not only yourself but others is astronomically greater than the flailing of even the most petulant ten-year-old. Once you’re old enough to grasp how far you can fall is precisely when the depths become most fascinating.

Another critic (the name escapes me, sadly) mused that Yeezus is Kanye’s clean-up record, his method of dealing with all the issues of previous albums, before he embarks on fatherhood. I have no idea whatsoever, but all I know is that the album sounds like someone determinedly creating a meal with whatever was left in his pantry that looked good.

But in the end, the depths are most fascinating because they are what we hope to eventually ascend from to the heights of our dreams. The sixth season concluded with Don’s realization that he simply couldn’t achieve what he wanted if he built everything on a lie (just a snippet of excellent analysis of Mad Men by Todd VanDerWerff which was invaluable to my understanding of the season). Yeezus ends with a cheery chorus and repeated assurance of “Uh-huh honey”, while Modern Vampires of the City overall packages its most disturbing lyrics in its second-catchiest tune, ‘Unbelievers’.

Plunging into the depths wouldn’t be nearly as fun if we couldn’t climb back up on the bridge, or eventually kick our way to the surface, and climb back out into the sun.

(All images are reproduced from non-licensed material, I believe. My dad’s a lawyer; I was trained to exercise due diligence.)


Random Thoughts on Humility Nowadays

The oddest of all virtues, to my mind. It exists to be unnoticed, when it is truly successful. And as for its popularity, one could look around the plethora of articles and rambles decrying the self-absorption encouraged by the advent of social media, personal gadgets, and so on (here’s an example from the Atlantic). The articles are interesting, although often quite unintentionally humorous; in fact, almost as humorous as the consequent denials. 

And one could argue that the rise of self-expression coupled with the increasing access to avenues of such self-expression, along with a comfortable cocoon of friends as your audience, could lead to self-absorption getting a free pass. But I’m not so sure. After all, it’s not as if this is anything quite so new. As I said before, humility is unpopular. It’s the least appealing of all virtues, even less so than temperance (I had to go get a Boatswain Double IPA just upon the mere contemplation of temperance). Self-absorption, whether or not it is now even more observable due to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, what have you, always has been around. We’re just seeing more of it, as before it existed only in people’s heads.

Now, lest I fall into the category of people who claim it’s all right, I think the above article has a fair point. The unprecedented increase in the ability of people to draw crowds in virtual realities has never happened before. And I’m sure my self-regard has not been damaged by the preening profile I often present on Facebook.

But is a virtual reality really that effective in establishing a narcissistic bubble that can be sustained in human interactions? The neurological synapses can be fooled by chemicals inspired by online interactions (think pornography or interactive flash games), but can consciousness, really? By this I do not mean that I think arrogance, or lack of humility, can NOT be amplified by self-absorption online. I just happen to think that a combination of that, and the opposite, which is the exposure to numerous other perspectives and opinions online (even in a close circle of friends) may make the narcissistic or even self-absorbing effects rather ambiguous.

Plus, there is already a sizable backlash in mental attitude toward online self-absorption among my peers, and even younger age groups. Having an online profile may be somewhat necessary, but immersion is the mark of the unsavvy (which, according to Google, isn’t a word, but it should be, so there it is). Self-awareness, I’d argue, is the prime characteristic inculcated by my peers’ attitudes toward online absorption in this age, along with a desire to manage personal image to not the most popular configuration, but to a reasonably appealing one.

And that self-awareness, sadly, is not humility. (It often can be, but from personal experience, I am all too aware that being self-aware does not lead to humility…just because you can see your terrible haircut does not mean you acknowledge how bad it makes you look.) It involves doing what everyone does on a daily basis – try to be someone they want to be, especially in public – but it is not the realization and acceptance of personal flaws.

Which is what humility is really all about, right? And why it’s the least popular of all virtues. It’s obscenely difficult. I have to detach myself from my actions and not only think about the mistakes I have made, or am likely to make, but accept that I will probably make some anyways. And I have to be at peace (there HAS to be a better word for “be at peace” in English than that vaguely clunky phrase, but I do not know it) with that fact. So, not easy, whatsoever.

And, hypocritically, I may go on to add it really is a sad thing that there’s not more of it. Being able to admit you were wrong, and that you are capable of making mistakes, for example, is something that is justly admired in a politician (usually after they are dead), on rare occasions. I wish that I had that option on my tests every time I take a test (actually, I have written that down, on one occasion, but it rankled greatly). If bankers and financial pundits could admit they did not know what was going on, but this was their best guess; if we could admit that we make mistakes, being human, and thus risk should be spread around as much as possible; if institutions that depend on a few human choices could willingly proclaim their ignorance and caution…well, that institution would probably go underwater, human nature being what it is.

Perhaps in this information-soaked age, it’s hard (for me, at least, especially as I’ve cultivated a reputation of knowing things – ah, those subtle, sinister effects of successful successive bar trivia nights) for those who feel they SHOULD know because the evidence of what they should know is so easily obtained, to admit they don’t. Reputations are ultra-fashionable suits: they wear very well for the season, but can become tiresome, difficult to wear, or anachronistic quite quickly.

On the other hand, reputations, when best fashioned, really are the classic black suit. They never go out of fashion, and while they may need to be taken out or in, they are about as timeless as an article of clothing can get. Humility may not always be fashionable, but it’s timeless. Even if not very appealing…because, let’s face it, other qualities are much more marketable. Strength, honesty, prudence, even temperance (in an increasingly health-conscious age)…

Well, I forgot chastity. Never mind, humility is always more appealing than that.


More to come, shortly.

Currently figuring out how to edit the CSS/HTML and add some nifty things with newfound coding skills. Hence the delay.