Saturday, December 22, 2012

REVIEW: Skyfall (2012)

It's not a good idea to dig too deeply into James Bond.  I grew up on him, and there's a strong chance you grew up on him, but you scarcely need to break the surface to find reactionary politics and sexist fantasies underneath.  And, if we're to be completely clear-eyed and objective here, we should admit a great many of the 23-odd Bond films aren't very good: for every peak like From Russia With Love or Goldeneye, there's Live and Let Die or Die Another Day.  Indeed, an argument can be made that Bond hasn't actually set any trends since the 60s, but has been more than happy to latch on to whatever is popular.  So when the blaxploitation cycle was at its crest, Bond got sent to Harlem; after Star Wars hit it big, Bond was given a laser gun and shot into space.  And so, after Christopher Nolan made dark, brooding origin stories in vogue with Batman Begins, Bond got a dark, brooding origin story of his own.  It is for this reason, as well as the fact that he can continually be re-cast and re-modeled, that this is the only franchise that I can see going on for...well, not forever.  I assume that western civilization will collapse at some point, and even 007 won't be able to stop it.  But as long as there's new technology and global tension, and men have a taste for exotic, disposable women, Bond will be with us.  So please, for your own sake, don't think too hard about James Bond—he's not going anywhere.

Following the franchise is a series of peaks and troughs, so it's pleasing to note that, after the more or less undistinguished Quantum of Solace, comes another peak.  Bond was always permutations of a formula, but the basic conceit of the Daniel Craig years has been that this isn't your father's Bond, less of swinging playboy and more of a raging bull.  (Accordingly, one of the best touches of Skyfall is that, after his own side leaves him for dead at the beginning, he sullenly goes to the tropics to drink and fuck around instead of immediately reporting back for duty).  But Skyfall takes this and turns it into backstory of your father's Bond.  The film essentially ends where Dr. No began, and the remarkable feat of Skyfall is that it so successfully celebrates Bond that it revives enthusiasm for a formula that was ditched for being out of date in the first place.  All of which is to say that it's a lot of fun.  And with Roger Deakins handling the photography, it may be the most technically-accomplished Bond to date, adding all sorts of tricks with shadows and reflections to the action in a way that hasn't really been done in the franchise before.  More than one person I've talked to has said "it's not a great movie, but it's a great Bond movie", which is a canny distinction and an apparent consensus that I won't dispute.

Now, only three paragraphs in, I'm going to break my own rule.  I'm going to dig deeper into the film, if only because there are two elements that deserve special notice.  First, I'm not quite sure what to make of the fact that they made the villain, Javier Bardem, flamboyantly gay.  It's not particularly subtle, and if it went further, we'd be in a 21st century revival of the "deviant villain" archetype that makes Zack Snyder movies extra douche-y.  But also added to this, and muddying the waters, is the hint that Bond himself may have had homosexual experiments in his youth, which I haven't seen many people comment on, presumably because adding sexual curiosity to the Bond canon is so against the grain that it's easier to write it off.  Call it a subject for further study.

Secondly, there's a problematic scene involving one of the film's two Bond girls.  Here's how it breaks down.  She's in the thrall of the villain and looking to escape.  She meets Bond and tells him to join her on the villain's boat before it leaves.  She waits.  He doesn't show.  The boat leaves.  Convinced he missed it and that she's alone, she hops in the shower—only to have, a moment, a naked Daniel Craig hop in with her.  They do their thing, PG-13, tastefully lit from behind.  So far, this is pretty much par for the course for Bond.  Bond frequently surprises women by starting to have sex with them without asking first, only to find that they're instantly, invariably into-it for an is-it-rape? fantasy that has justifiably ruffled many feathers over the years.  (Academically speaking, it doesn't help that sex with Bond is apparently so great that it can change your politics or, depending on how you want to interpret Pussy Galore, your sexual orientation as well).  But what's different about this instance of Bond-rape is that the character in question has been an abused sex slave since early adolescence.  And Bond knows this.  It adds an extra element of, shall we say, exploitation and moral ickiness to his decision the more you think about it—or rather, it highlights the moral ickiness that was already there.  Sexual PTSD shouldn't be combined with screen fantasies, or maybe sex with Bond can change that, too.  Not even tasteful lighting could make it feel right.

Anyhow, this is the franchise as it stands in 2012, with techno-terrorism and intelligence leaks as hot-button issues and Q revived as a Silicon Valley-type hipster.  It's also the series at its (almost) best, self-consciously celebrating a 50-year anniversary and gearing up for 50 more.  Take it or leave it.

4 out of 5 stars.

Skyfall is currently in theaters, fading out to make room for The Hobbit.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Trio of Capsules: Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, and Rust & Bone

Three prominent new releases, in 125 words or less.



In which Mr. Spielberg walks through the valley of politics, acknowledging what a cynical, ironic, underhanded game it is, while still emerging with his optimism intact.  The playwright Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer for Angels in America and who also wrote Munich, adds an extra dimension to Spielberg's work, a worldliness that doesn't conflict with the director’s trademark faith in humanity but gives it an enthralling context: this isn't (just) a story about an admirable, mythic leader, but about how noble goals are accomplished through dodgy means. This means that while Lincoln has all the virtues/drawbacks you'd expect from a Spielberg historical piece, it also leaves you with much more to think about than its detractors would have you believe.  His best in years.

4 out of 5 stars. 

Cloud Atlas


The daftest folly of the year, and well worth appreciating because even its most mind-boggling missteps are so outside convention that there's nothing quite like it. It's kitschy, genre-hopping pop-philosophy on a cosmic scale—admittedly closer to Star Trek: Voyager than 2001—with a fragmented narrative that doesn’t articulate coherent meanings so much as invite us to a fun game of spotting our own.  But as it shuffles its cast in six stories over six eras and six genres (with actors sometimes swapping gender or ethnicity, for weirdness’s sake), its best statement isn’t parallelism but asymmetry, so in some lifetimes Tom Hanks gets to be a lover, in others a villain. But in any era, beware of Hugh Grant.
4 out of 5 stars.

Rust & Bone 

Here is a drama of survival, and a movie with everything except a reason.  Marion Cotillard is amazing and the direction from Jacques Audiard, whose A Prophet was one of my favorites of 2010, certainly "hits hard", as they say.  But it errs uncomfortably close to a Francophone version of what I like to call “tragedy porn”: stories in which darkness descends and characters are cold to each other for no other reason than to get a rise out of the audience.  It’s a thin line between this and genuinely effective drama, and the difference here is that the narrative and the meaning waver between obvious and inarticulate.  See it for the craft, but don’t feel surprised if you feel empty leaving the theater.
3 out of 5 stars.