Why I Didn’t Love Skyfall

[N.B. This isn’t really a review so much as an analysis, so it’s chock full of spoilage. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to wait to read this. Or not! But just so you know what you’re in for –]

This is not timely: as much as I love Daniel Craig as Bond, I actually saw the last Twilight film before it because Bertie insisted we go (and it ended up being a lot of fun because there was big werewolf/vampire carnage with heads rolling). The day after I finally saw Skyfall I heard the news about the death of 832F, the alpha wolf of Yellowstone. Described by some as the “rock star” of wolves, this grey lady’s importance lay in her clear demonstration of the fact that the alpha female led the pack, not the alpha male as so many scientists had assumed. Apart from all the issues her shooting raises about the hunting program in place now that’s once more eroding the endangered wolf packs, it also marks the end of her providing information about the daily lives of these creatures from her electronic tag.

Her death also resonated because that’s what really irritated me about Skyfall: let’s kill off the alpha female. In fact, let’s kill off any chance of an alpha female. One of the delights of the most recent Bond films has been the tough leadership of M as embodied by Judy Dench. I don’t know if she wanted to leave the series, but her exit from it is so irritating I still scowl thinking of it. And it’s so unbelievably Freudian that I can’t help seeing it as the product of someone who’s had some therapy (but not enough). I don’t know which of the ‘&’ and ‘and’ screenwriters who might have had the greatest effect, but with those designations, it could be anyone or meddling from above — it’s difficult to know how the process works.

But the theme of belligerent masculinity seeking to destroy the feminine (especially mother) is pervasive: it’s not even subtext in parts. The oozing abjection of Bardem’s Silva! He spells it out: mother did this to us, so she must die. In the opening sequence, Bond has seen this is true, because the prize is more important than him, so M tells the dithering Moneypenny to shoot. Mommy doesn’t love me best! And of course it highlights the incompetence (and even more, the lack of confidence) of his female colleague who eventually and presumably rightly ends up behind a desk (and probably back to the fawning Moneypenny of old in future films) because ‘field work’ is for boys.

Silva seems to offer the example of what happens if you love Mommy too much; his feminised monstrosity is the real danger; Bardem’s over the top homoerotic shenanigans contrast with Craig’s confidence. He can play along without it affecting him, as in the nude torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s like the Pegg-Frost dynamic: we’re so cool and hip and masculine that ‘we can pretend to act gay because you will never believe that we’re gay’ ever.

But the message comes across: there’s been too many women around this place! This is why we need Daddy Fiennes to come in and set things right again. He’s suspect at first because they’ve been living in the feminised world too long. He ‘used to’ do field work, but is he up to it any more? Of course he proves himself sufficiently manly in action, although with a slight wounding to make sure he’s not really a threat to the son’s masculinity.

There’s an anxiety about field work that seems curious coming from the cosseted world of big budget Hollywood. These perpetual adolescents who imagine they’re doing hard work that’s somehow comparable to, you know, hard work have a skewed sense of their own importance. Just the same is their glamourising of a narrow sort of masculinity in the endless explosions of all the big budget thrillers; the trailers before the Bond film were an endless parade of brainless gun fests from yet another Die Hard (all about father-son bonding) to some Arnie film that seems to make  heroes of wacko trigger-happy gun nuts and like most films, seems completely devoid of women.

The most telling moment of gender politics: when M receives her dressing down in the Parliamentary hearings, they make sure to have an Iron Lady (Helen McCrory) attacking her. You can practically hear the meetings: “We have to have a woman attack her, because if a man does it, it will seem misogynistic.” Gaah! It’s the same reductionist thinking that goes into equating a “strong female character” with “give her a big gun”! It shows a complete inability to see women as people. Instead they’re all not-men.

This is the main issue: the Hollywood problem in a nutshell.

The film is also über-American: British gets reduced to the kitschy tat of the little bulldog statue and the ‘estate’ which has to be destroyed because, you know, it’s re-enacting the national teenage rebellion (I guess — whatever!). And the film is suffused with the same outraged alarm that also permeated the Republican elite this past and seemingly endless election cycle: Who are these people who question our privilege?! And how do we stop them?

“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Sayre’s Law

As the differences between the status of men and women narrow, Hollywood seems determined to make the most of exploiting the tiny gap. As Sayre observed, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” The stakes are very high in Hollywood: the politics may not be the most bitter, but they have the most guns and explosions. It’s an awful lot of sound and fury — does it signify anything but a fading type of masculinity?

Judging by its astronomical success, it’s one a lot of people are clinging to —

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: 22 Bullets

In the crime zone lately (I have so much to catch up on!) although last night we watched Resident Evil: Afterlife which might as well be called Resident Evil: We Don’t Even Bother with Narrative, as they just string along a bunch of things that happen and shoot a lot of zombies and edit poorly and leave huge gaps of logic for you to fill in on your own time.

Ahem.

L’Immortel, released to English speaking audiences as 22 Bullets has a few gaps of logic and/or huge plot holes and dubious scenes of varying believability, but it also has Jean Reno. And as the target audience of ResEvil doubtless thinks about Milla Jovovich in tight-fitting trousers, that can be enough to keep one interested for the length of a fast-paced film.

The plot, as capsulised by Wikipedia: “For three years [retired gangster Charlie Mattei] has led a peaceful life and devoted himself to his wife and two children. His past catches up with him when he is ambushed in a parking lot and left for dead with 22 bullets in his body. Against all odds, he survives to take revenge on his killers.”

Based on the book L’Immortel by Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the film retells incidents from the life story of real gangster Jacky Imbert, whose ‘nickname “Jacky Le Mat” means “Jacky the madman” in Provençal.[1] He is also known as “Pacha” and “Matou”.’ I can only guess that either the novel or Imbert himself came up with those fanciful scenes of high speed chases on a motorcycle, as it’s a difficult thing to do with one arm paralysed. It’s a good bit of mayhem and double crossing, as you know will happen once you have three young men in a flashback swear to be friends even into death.

It’s kind of nice to see the casual diversity of the French crime world; whereas the American or British crime films tend to represent different ethnic groups as traditional opponents, there’s an interesting mix of cultures without any grandstanding or exoticism.

It’s kept from being a Movie With 1 Woman by the (for this film) nuanced portrayal of the dogged investigating officer, Marie Goldman (Marina Foïs) who battles her own despair and thirst for revenge for her husband’s death against the practicalities of working for a corrupt boss and penetrating an intricate criminal network.

Worth a look; see Todd’s blog for the round up of over looked films.

The Claddagh Icon

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: London Boulevard

You know I’m a sucker for Ken Bruen, so why has it taken so long to catch up with this 2010 neo-noir film? Not spectacularly successful, I’m not even sure it made it to American shores, my home at the time. I can see why it did not make a splash; people who were impressed with the PKD-lite shenanigans of Inception and the Loadsamoney obsessions of The Social Network would have no truck with this dark slice of crime along the Thames despite its all-star cast and a Bruen novel scripted by director William Monahan.

Short explanation: London Boulevard is neo-noir.

What do we know about noir: people are going to die. Things are not going to turn out cheery for everyone. Triumphing against the odds in a Hollywood finish? Not going to happen.

Colin Farrell’s Mitchel gets out of Pentonville at the start, picked up by his childhood friend Billy (Chaplin), who’s responsible for his being there, naturally. Mitchel turns out to be the sort of rough character with an idiosyncratic sense of honour that Bruen loves so well. When a couple of thugs kill his homeless friend, he pursues them doggedly, slightly distracted by becoming security for the reclusive star played by Knightly and being pursued for recruitment by Ray Winstone’s gangster Gant (channeling Michael Caine). The ham-handed heavy tries to get on Mitchel’s good side by grabbing one of the black gang who beat him up, but he’s so callously racist he doesn’t realise he’s made a mistake and doesn’t care. Add into the mix Mitchel’s increasingly erratic sister who refuses to take her meds (Friel), a kind-hearted doctor (Bhaskar) and David Thewlis’ bizarrely singular actor/addict/producer Jordan who’s too unpredictable to trust.

There’s a wonderful little monologue from Knightly’s character about women in films that’s sharply accurate of the state of mainstream films (even this one: Knightly is little more than a dream of what might be, present or absent when needed by the male lead). Of course there’s the Bruen touches you expect: black humour, Rilke and some obsession with Francis Bacon paintings (not your usual crime fare).

Well worth checking out; be sure to see the round up of overlooked gems at Todd’s.

Reviews: Harry Nilsson/King’s Speech/True Grit

I have no doubt about the finest film I saw last year this past year: hands down, it was Winter’s Bone. I’ve heard people carp about how “accurate” it was, especially people who felt it portrayed their part of the world unflatteringly. I don’t know — there’s plenty of areas like that, even here in upstate New York. And if “accuracy” is going to be some kind of gauge for best picture of the year, there’s an awful lot of statues to be handed back. All the trailers I saw before True Grit today claimed to be “based on a true story” which always makes me groan. The truth is no basis for a story: too messy. But let me save that rant for another time.

Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him) offers an insightful look at the brilliant singer songwriter and his life. The film benefits from the ailing Nilsson’s decision to try to record a kind of autobiography, the found tapes proving a real treasure trove of commentary that makes the late singer a very vivid part of the film. It helps too that his family including his third wife, Una, with whom he had six children and seemed to be as happy as he found possible, were also cooperating. The tragedy of course is that someone so talented was also so troubled. Paul Williams’ description of Nilsson as a great big bunny with real sharp teeth captures that succinctly. He had many hits, collaborated with the Beatles and the Pythons, but wasn’t able to shake the ghosts that haunted him, from the father who abandoned him to the friends near to him who died like Keith Moon and John Lennon. As a bonus there are so many extras, too — as if they couldn’t bear to part with any of the footage shot, including Eric Idle’s tribute song. They talk to all kinds of people who worked with him from Richard Perry to Van Dyke Parks and with his wives and kids. Excellent: I highly recommend it.

The King’s Speech has already received laurels a-plenty which has a lot to do with its cast: they are indeed splendid, including many fine actors in tiny roles who get a couple of lines each (like Claire Bloom, alas). Like so many films now, the background is left enigmatic (well, you know the history, fill in the details yourself, I guess) and only the central actors received development. That really only means Rush and Firth: Helena Bonham Carter is reduced to appearing with corgis and going “there, there” on occasion (AKA a MWW masquerading as a MW1W). The direction is bizarre at times, especially in the first half hour, with angles that take you out of the narrative wondering where on earth the camera is supposed to be. Worse, in the set-up scene between the Prince-soon-to-be-King and the Aussie therapist, the camera work is so bad as to make it look like they’re both gazing off into space rather than talking to each other. What really makes the film fall flat is the overwrought ambiance, from the overplayed music to the mountain-out-of-a-molehill plot. Yes, as someone once crippled by the thought of public speaking and who overcame it, I know what a trial it can be for people, but to have someone who treated men just back from Gallipoli call the pampered royal “the bravest man I’ve ever known” (as do half the people in the film) is just ridiculous hyperbole. If you love Firth, you’ll still enjoy it, I guess.

True Grit is like a truly satisfying meal when you’re really really hungry. The Coens have a great team of people (apparently Matt Damon has his own whole team, too, according to the credits) from Carter Burwell’s musicians to Roger Deakins’ seemingly flawless eye. You know Jeff Bridges is going to be good, and yeah, I’ll admit it though it burns me a bit, that Matt Damon can be truly skillful when he wants to be. There’s a whole host of grizzled frontiersmen, too: Peg and I were joking after the film that they must have put out a call for the ugliest character actors with the tag, “Must have abundant facial hair.”

The real star is Hailie Steinfeld. Like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, here’s a young woman who more than capably carries the film flanked by powerhouse actors who might easily intimidate many a seasoned performer. From the get-go Steinfeld strides into town and into the part with all the certainty of the true believer that she is. You believe her, the grudging respect she wins from the men and when her faith falters, you see that she is a child yet and so very young. It’s incredible work. For the Coens, this is a bit different from a lot of their work because there’s not that distance that allows ironic humor (we have to be able to laugh at Barton Fink’s sufferings because they would be too harrowing; A Serious Man walks that razor’s edge with dizzying grace). It’s a straight-forward adventure. Don’t get me wrong; there’s humor, but as in Shakespeare’s dramas, it’s there to give you a breather from the tension. Well done: go see it.