Napoleon’s Complex: Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from UNCLE”
After the release of Die Another Day (2002), the future of James Bond was in flux. Though the film had become the highest grossing one in the franchise’s history, Die Another Day tapped into a kind of ridiculousness that was, even for a series whose real life veracity was rarely ever of concern, unpleasant for most critics and fans. An invisible car, DNA replacement therapy, Madonna trying to act. In an effort to recall an old fashioned Bond, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade began to adapt Ian Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale, and, in the midst of a litany of legal issues regarding the rights to the series between MGM and Sony Pictures, (perhaps) inadvertently imbued Bond with a sense of what critics noted as world weariness. Casino Royale finally saw its release in 2006, and this new Bond colored by misanthropy was an element amplified by Craig’s style of acting, at once brutish and cognizant that the very anger and figiidty was itself a shield for vulnerability. This Bond was a hardened, human Double O, more aware of his sociopolitical climate, and of himself, than he had been before. This kind of disdain for his own iconography would continue to inform the subsequent films, becoming more and bitterer, angrier, and numbed, peaking in Spectre, where you get a sense that Craig (and the writers) don’t sincerely believe that Bond should even exist within a contemporary context.
So, while the evolution of the Bond films has grown grittier, darker (per Roger Deakins), dustier (per Hoyte van Hoytema), and even, if one is to believe the opening text of Spectre, deader, we enter a fantasy version of spying under the guise if “how it used to be”, but whose superficiality and very cleanliness is as indicative of the same sort of cynicism. Opening with a bunch of archival footage splashed in red, it’s not that images of Berlin being bifurcated is indicative of communism, but in sardonicism. It makes its “verisimilitude” stylish in a way that conventional filmmaking declares it shouldn’t be. Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1960s show, also not coincidentally conceived by Ian Fleming, The Man from UNCLE is selling a poisoned love letter to the past and present. (Even the font of its subtitles is funny!) Read the rest of this entry »
Die Another Day: “Skyfall” and the Nolanization of James Bond
My contempt for the Bond formula has been extensively chronicled, especially my blame against Goldfinger for starting it all. It was thrilling, therefore, to see Casino Royale go in another direction, a very “back to basics” version of the franchise that was reminiscent of even earlier entries in the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love. In those films, action, plot, and character were balanced precariously, yet perfectly. And in Casino Royale, that balance was brought back; Bond was suave without being a superhero, the political context was intact without being a punchline, and the stakes were high enough without a muddled plot.
Skyfall went somewhere else. It is unlike any other Bond film in the rest of the franchise. It literally is something else. And James Bond is someone else. At its core, it resembles 1995’s GoldenEye and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but I’d hesitate to call such a comparison disingenuous because the former is one of the best Bond films, and certainly Pierce Brosnan’s best entry, and The Dark Knight is one of the strongest superhero films in recent memory. It’s that tone of morbidity of the latter, and its re-envisioning of its character, which seems to inform how many perceived what some might call The Nolanization of James Bond. Read the rest of this entry »
Gazed At and Confused: The Transformation of the Male Gaze in Contemporary Cinema
(Author’s Note: Once upon a time, I made a shitty video essay for my Sex on TV class. And here it is. There are moments where it’s hard to understand what I’m saying because I messed up the sound levels of the music, so below is a complete transcript.)
Cinema is everything. Whether we know it or not, it’s how we filter what we know about the world. And cinema is constantly changing. Not only technologically, but critically and ethically. The thing is, we are not the only ones who view films. Films view us as well. Films can look at something, which we in turn view in a voyeuristic way.
Although Laura Mulvey’s iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” posits that any film that anyone saw was inherently from the perspective from a heterosexual male, time has changed since that essay was published in 1975. We are no longer living in a limited world where heterosexual white males are the only audience and the only ones looking.
What we are looking at in the cinema now can be taken from multiple perspectives. The Heterosexual Male Gaze. The Female Gaze. The Queer Gaze. All of these ways of looking at film are relevant. Audiences are more diverse and, what is more important, that diversity is now more visible to the public eye. Read the rest of this entry »
Skyfall Into Place: Skyfall
Like many past traditionalists, I was initially skeptical of how Daniel Craig would be as James Bond when he took the role in 2006 just before Casino Royale would blow my mind. Actually, I was probably unfairly vehement. Having grown up watching Connery, Moore, Brosnan, et al., the very different nature of Craig’s demeanor, not only how he looked, was off putting. However, I have since come to realize that Craig’s acceptance of the role is one the best things that ever happened with the franchise. Fifty years, twenty-three films, and enough martinis to make any sane liver quiver, Bond returns once again in Skyfall, and he is never more potent and more relevant than now. As a long time Bond fan, I can definitely say that Skyfall is not only one of the best Bond films ever made, but one of the best films of the year.
After a mission that goes wrong and results in 007’s death, a mysterious cyber terrorist begins taunting MI6 by posting the names of undercover agents on the web. With the whole of the English government on the watch, Bond resurrects himself from the dead, so to speak, to find the man behind the threats and, in doing so, must travel back into the past to acknowledge things about himself he hasn’t wanted to for year.
The nice thing about the Bond films is that every so often they will feel the need to prove their relevance, regardless if we asked them to or not. Bond is, essentially, a “relic of the Cold War” as his prickly boss M (Judi Dench, then and now) once described him in 1995’s GoldenEye We, even the Americans, still needed a cartoonish action hero to believe in in From Russia with Love; we still liked having that security in The Living Daylights, and we definitely were aware that whatever peace had been reached after the Cold War might not last forever, acknowledged in GoldenEye. Aside from those films, and maybe another couple in there, Bond’s evolution and acknowledgement of the world around him has been minimal at best; that is, until Casino Royale. With Martin Campbell’s gritty and real action epic, Bond was pretty much created from scratch to fit a very post-9/11 world. Why do that? Why not just continue making random action film after random action film? Because, thankfully, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson realized it was time for a change. Maybe they took a nod from Nolan’s Batman Begins, but they knew that this was a new world with new dangers not like the ones from before. And they needed a character who would fit that.
That is the beauty of the character, one could suppose: he is, if anything, flexible. Even if he and his films didn’t always acknowledge whatever context was needed, you knew perfectly well that he could if he wanted to. With a character like Bond that has no strict canon, even in the novels, save for a few details, this flexibility seems inherent and necessary. Not only does reinvention from scratch help with context, one can play around with origin stories, which Casino Royale showed could be done successfully. You could make your character three-freaking-dimensions, even if it meant getting the occasional accusation that your Bond was more Bourne than, well, Bond. (Accusations are silly, and I like to blame it on Marc Forster. Actually, I like to pretend that mediocre mess Quantum of Solace never actually happened.) And that flexibility and acknowledgement of change brings us to the twenty-third Bond film: Skyfall.
Skyfall does both of these things: it acknowledges the context of a very contemporary and very real universe and it continues to dabble into Bond’s past and origin, without ruining the so-called canon. And not only does it do these things well, it does these things so well, that Bond’s 50 year screen history seems comparably young yet obviously there.
Casino Royale hinted and alluded to the post-9/11 thing a little bit, especially when M refers to the stocks crashing, but the rest of it was primarily built subtly around the style of the film. Skyfall aims to be more overt about the changes, and this, surprisingly, works in the film’s favor. There is, shall we say without spoiling, a very analog versus digital argument in the film that thematically travels in the three Craig films, and is in this one put to an end, I suppose. There is a complete and total admittance that this is a new world; there are terrorists that we fear with technologies we can hardly fathom; that we do need a hero. And that’s what James Bond is for, right?
To my recollection, there are only really two Bond films that have gone at any lengths to explore the protagonist’s past, the two being GoldenEye, in which Bond’s former partner 006 (played by always-going-to-die Sean Bean) returns from the dead and tries to steal money via satellite and Casino Royale, where, as you know, we start from scratch. The interesting aspect of Craig taking on the role of Bond is that there seems to be a new part of the canon being made. As aforementioned, the previous Bond films never paid much attention to continuity and they didn’t have to. This might actually be changing slightly, as least in terms of back story. We get, for the first time, a look waaaay back into Bond’s past. Think origin story, sort of. In Skyfall, we get a peak and Bond’s psyche and self-destructive nature; how hard he is willing to push himself; and how is indeed willing to serve Queen and Country, the Queen being M.
Skyfall is, in a way, one of the weirdest James Bond films primarily because it has one hell of an arsenal of cast and crew. While it has had Judi Dench as M since 1995, she was never really fully utilized until now. She has a role in the film; an important one. Through M, we are allowed to explore what kind of person Bond is and what he is willing to sacrifice. Yes, here, Dench is stunning, real, and raw, and M, for the first time in the franchise, is more than just “the boss”. Ralph Fiennes joins the cast as a government person named Mallory. He fits in with the cast quite well, almost immediately able to pick up the pace when it comes to repartee with Bond. We have Naomi Harris as Eve, both talented, agile, and stunningly gorgeous. We have Berenice Marlohe, whom, I suppose, while certainly adding something to the film, might be Skyfall’s one “weak spot”, though hardly marring the experience. She’s good, no doubt, adding to the Asian atmosphere and certainly introducing Bond to something key, but perhaps inessential in several ways. We have Ben Whishaw as the new, young, snappy Q. Whishaw is actually quite adept at creating a new persona for his new Q while being able to, again, glide into that traditional verbal jousting. Aaaaand, of course, you have your Big Three: Bardem, Mendes, and Deakins.
Javier Bardem should, no doubt, go into the hall of fame for making awful hairstyles into iconic traits of some of the nastiest villains on screen. YES, you heard me, I’m including Bardem’s Silva in that superlative! Maybe it’s Bardem’s theatricality (sans scene chewery), maybe it’s the weird blonde hair, maybe it’s the connection to Bond’s past, but Silva is, name notwithstanding, the most memorable Bond villain to come around in ages. He has, in the (comparably) short time span of 2 hours and 45 minutes, earned a place in the Rogues Hall of Fame, next to Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, Alec Trevelyan, and Le Chiffre (or maybe I remember him because he’s played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelson?). There is something very wrong and very twisted about Silva that seems so much more damaging than most Bond villains. Maybe a little Freudian on the part of excellent screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, but Bardem’s new villain is one of the most menacing and, dare I say it, one of the most memorable since Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The last “good” director, as in reputable, they got to direct a Bond film was, arguably, Michael Apted in 1999 for The World is Not Enough. Apted is well known for directing the Up documentary series (in which a number of kids from different socio-economic backgrounds are followed and caught up with every seven years; there’s, like, 8 films in the series), but his entry in the Bond franchise is, sadly, known as one of the weakest. This time, we get the Oscar winner of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road (which is the most depressing film I think I’ve ever seen, in case you were wondering). Does the high caliber of the director make a difference? Here, it looks like it does. AND WHAT A DIFFERENCE. When the film could have had a lot of dull moments (like the ones really anal people complained about in Casino Royale), Mendes makes these moments barely a lull in the story and, instead, a way to further character examination. The film is arguably one the most perfectly paced in the franchise, with nary a dull moment. It balances the high drama and character study with the thrilling action without much fault. Oh, yeah, the film is one of the most thrilling action films of the year, with set pieces worthy of any Bond film. Mendes’ mark on the Bond series will be indelible.
Which, I suppose, leads me to Deakins. Roger Deakins is very well known for working with the Coen Brothers on films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink, etc. So, getting him to do cinematography for a Bond film is, quite honestly, one of the best decisions ever made. Skyfall is one damn fine looking Bond film: the best looking Bond film of the franchise. Without taking away from the story or even the atmosphere of it being a Bond film, the film looks stunning. Golds, blues, and impeccable lighting fill the film throughout, making you wonder, “Damn, why hasn’t Bond looked this good before?”
The last thing to address is brief: it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise, and much like the fortieth anniversary, which coincided with the release of Die Another Day, there are some clever allusions in the film (much cleverer and much more subtle than the aforementioned film). There’s the DB5 from Goldfinger, there’s an allusion to an exploding pen, etc. But while the first two acts of the film is filled with these little references, they all serve a greater purpose: to acknowledge that there is kind of a history and then to, essentially, make way for a new one. I posit that one of the cleverest decisions made on the crew’s part was to include the innocuous anomalies to the franchise and then discard of them towards the end as we “enter Bond’s psyche” and look into his past. That, I think, was done to really show that the character of James Bond, Agent 007 has truly evolved from just a dapper dandy playing baccarat or poker to a human being facing the world’s new demons at the same time he’s facing his own.
Skyfall isn’t just a great Bond film; it’s a great film period, and one of the best of the year. Exploring new facets of Bond and M, acknowledging the context of the world and universe the film takes place in, and truly allowing the character evolve is all the things this film does right. There’s stunning direction, a bravura performance each from Craig, Bardem, and Dench, and the film looks incredible (see it in IMAX!). If this is the direction Bond is heading towards in future films, count me in. The film left me shaken and stirred. And, most importantly, it reminded me that it’s true: when it comes to saving the world, nobody does it better.
2012 in Film: #81 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
2012 in Film: #81
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) | Directed by David Fincher
Thoughts: David Fincher’s vision for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an interesting, unrelentingly ferocious film. It combines the book’s languid, slow pace but includes the brutality of the characters and their psyches. Rooney Mara makes a star turn as Lisbeth Salander, a performance that is able to show both the character’s fury and fragility. While it may not be Fincher’s best work, it is nonetheless an example of his ability as a director. Here, Fincher directs a film as multifaceted as its female protagonist. Sinister, damaged, pierced, fragile, and fantastic.