Bond Recycled



(dir. Sam Mendes)

Before hitting shores in America, the word on the 23rd James Bond film, Skyfall, was out: it was very good. In fact, good enough for Roger Ebert to call it the best Bond flick in years and make him finally believe Daniel Craig was James Bond. I may be reacting to a new hyper media hellbent on over-pronouncing every little criticism, but the latest Bond flicks seem too interested in reassigning the identity of James Bond in some fashion. After the Pierce Brosnan entries ended in boring generics, the new order is to continue to find different ways to imagine who James Bond is and what he stands for. Daniel Craig is lucky enough to be our cinematic guinea pig. Like most fans of Bond, a number of changes I am a fan of, some I think are unnecessary, and others are over hyped. Still, word should be assigned the interest in commenting on Bond.

After 20-plus films of following the same chronology along the lines of serials, it wasn’t hard to accept the producers might be interested in restarting the series. Certainly enough time passed. The difference is that the series being re-done now means it is no longer going to be the serial story the way the other Bond films were. After the first two Craig entries, it was difficult to see how that was going to play out. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were continuation pieces on Bond’s early years that was roughly broken into two parts. Revolving around the influence of Vesper Lynd, her relationship to Bond, and their romantic fallout, James Bond went from rough special agent to fully formed super agent. Now we have Skyfall and the training wheels for Bond have to be taken off and asked to proceed without the full assistance of the first two stories. Bond has grown up since then, but the question Skyfall asks, is how?

The first bit of disappointing news is that in Skyfall, Bond has already graduated to elder statesman as an agent and the film has a litany of “past your prime” themes to remind him he has seen better days. It’s the complete opposite of what the first two Bond films were doing. What’s annoying is that documenting themes around the beginning and end of a story seem to be a lot easier. Dramatic implications don’t need to be developed as much. With the idea of a Bond remodeling, I was more interested to see how his middle years would develop, meaning his relationship with Felix Lighter, the new Spectre-type organization in Quantum, and whether Bond ever comes near a real romantic relationship with another woman. The last could happen since in the early films, it wasn’t until the 6th film that Bond fell in love and lost everything. As a gentleman spy, he may not be above finding love again. Implication in Casino Royale is that when he lost Vesper, he lost his soul and ability to care.

Of course, the last bit isn’t so simple. Continuing with Solace, Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) goes more into focus. Still burdened by a hard dedication to his job and seeking it out til the bloody end, Bond seemingly finds a mother-son relationship with M and she with him when she ditches government protocol at late stages in the film and says her alliance (when Bond’s motives are questioned) is with her agent. They have a tempestuous, caring relationship while she seems to be all he has for immediate relations. Skyfall does take advantage of a more natural development of the previous entry by putting M into peril and again having Bond being challenged with potentially losing someone he loves.

As spoilers go, the whole story of Skyfall is a lead up to M dying.  In the film, Bond only gets a whiff of life after her. Essentially, it’s cliffhanger drama. The question being what awaits Bond after. Another peg in the development of Craig’s version of Bond is another attachment to his human being cut off. But, even though I said the film is dealing with an aging Bond, the film also re-introduces common characters like Q, Moneypenny, a new M, and a familiar office. All of this is stylistic throwback to how the series used to feel. Some twists happen in that Moneypenny and the new M are former agents and can handle themselves. Bond even has mission history with Moneypenny (detailed in Skyfall) so there is opening for detailed development there. Still, to move forward, it seems the film took a long road back to Connery origins in basic story makeup.

The most interesting thing about the new film is how the story recycles so many elements of Bond’s past in the literal story and film past (well before Casino Royale) and takes some pretty easy license with things. One tidbit in Casino Royale is that a back story is explained to how Bond got his famous BMW car (it’s done through a card game) so instead of remembering Connery’s famous 60s vehicle, the audience could have a new BMW to idolize. In Skyfall, there is a scene where Bond goes through his storage and takes out the very same 1960s car Connery used. M then makes a reference to the time period no longer being the 1960s for him or her. Instead of continue with a new history from previous two efforts, the film is recycling old things from the past 50 years of Bond history and meshing it with new things.

Super hero movies like to play too deep with the genre license and replace lucid storytelling with references which will appease the fan base. For me, it just hogs up time in a story and instead of trying to better develop a story, a film will attempt to be both relevant dramatically and filled with enough quotes to satisfy an audience. One can argue since Skyfall spends a lot of time with using old references to find a way back to the beginning of the series where Bond can finally deal with familiar things like Moneypenny, Q, a similar office space for work, so the film is using the reference points to make them more dramatically in-sync than just continuously providing anecdotal information which mostly helps nothing. There is a point to that, and thankfully, Skyfall isn’t full of dumb 1960s references when there shouldn’t be any.

I always come into any Bond flick as a genre fan. I don’t doubt even the best movies in the series are born out cliches which could not hold up in any sophisticated story. With that, I announce my unlikely and somewhat subjective position I favor Quantum of Solace over Skyfall even if the former doesn’t hold up to much respect with others. It is now easily dismissed for the condition in which it was made. The film was going into production during the writer’s strike and the director had to do some serious pre-production work with no script in hand. Daniel Craig even said he was contributing lines of dialogue during shooting to help out. For a visualist like Marc Forster, it allowed him chance to be more inventive with camera technique while hammering away at a story that was pretty generic. There is artistry in that filmmaking which hasn’t been present in any Bond ever. Sam Mendes is the noted director in Skyfall and why he manages to instill European flavored shots into the sequence, he bows down to more stale action techniques and standard filmmaking. Luc Besson (in his 80s and 90s work) had a better idea how to form technique with story approach and merge the two together. In Bond, Mendes has to have extravagant action sequences and somehow go to over-dramatized scenes just moments later. Just following rules of the series now. Mixing in a well lit shot that focuses on the silhouette of Bond or a bad guy in beautiful coloring is just Mendes poking his head up to remind the audience he is still a director with some independent touch.

Skyfall is middle of the Bond pack for me. It definitely graduates from previous Bond efforts in looking stylish in every modern sense of the word. Previous Bond works tried too hard to look stylish for their respective periods and suffered the fate of staleness. Not sure whether Mendes’s small attempts to go against the grain and make certain shots look cooler or more intriguing will pay off down the road.  Bernard Shaw once said a good piece of political or social art should only have a shelf life of 100 years before becoming irrelevant. Bond films looking cool and cutting edge seems to only last 10 years at best. Of course this dig is the least important because it doesn’t matter. Problem is that delving deeper into character doesn’t matter to. We get with Bond films what we get. The surface details are the discussion.

Quick Hits: Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down

20 years ago, this film would have seemed more ordinary than its already ordinary nature. The simple contrast to our movie world is that it’s an action film which deposits more of its time to building up a story, characters, and a relationship instead of just blitzing the audience with detailed effects and then dabbling in moments of drama. Just like Swat from 2003 and also starring Colin Farrell, the film’s nice quality is its own simplicity and ability to tell a story.

In the story, Farrell is a man who is on the inside of a gang that killed his wife and child. They believing he is also dead, he is able to reinvent his identity and become a member so he can fulfill revenge methodically. There is an element of terrorism to systematically killing member after member, sending packages to taunt, and even holding one as hostage. The wrinkle in the story comes when he meets his neighbor, a facially disfigured woman, (played by Noomi Rapace) who also has vengeance on her mind. Plot conveniently enough, she witnessed Farrell kill a man from her window and recorded it on her phone. She wants him to kill the man who caused her car accident because he was negligently under the influence at the time. Farrell is reluctant to become anyone’s gun-for-hire.

The meat of the story is how the two come together and combat each others thirst for vengeance. She starts to like him and find moments of happiness in her life but knows Farrell has it in his mind the only way to kill everyone is a grand suicide form of killing. He believes she should be above vengeance and try to find better moments in life. At late stages in the story, both try to foil the others plan for the sake of the others livelihood.

The good thing about the film is that while the trailer has a lot of action sequences, the film does not. It’s methodical and only focuses on a few elements personal relations between the character. The film is too plot ridiculous and could have found ways to reign it in, but after all said and done, the film feels like it holds back than other effect efforts. By the end, there are a few legitimate tender moments that are earned. Definitely fails in feeling withdrawn compared to smart dramas or better handled thrillers.

I mentioned the terrorism element to the story. It’s interesting to me since a number of Hollywood movies pit “good” guys against bad guys and the manner in which the characters operate has a lot of terrorist identification. It isn’t a serious Battle of Algiers debate on whether terrorism seriously can ever be ethical, but more of a comment on our cultures attraction to violence and how if we can sympathize with the ends in a fight, we don’t quibble too much about the means a character will go about settling a score or fighting something heinous. The Matrix is still the king of this genre. No comment necessary about Dead Man Down since it’s just a personal vendetta and smells like suicide bomber means by the end. For me, just always interesting to watch a movie and add it to a very unlikely club.

Holiday Season with the Indie


Silver Linings Playbook

(dir. David O’Russell)

An independent darling in film circles last year was Silver Linings Playbook. Unlike The Artist the year prior, praise has been mostly justifiable. This is a talented film. Definitely uneven, but when I look at other O’Russell ventures, I see the same thing. No idea if the novel is to blame and the filmmakers could have hoped for a better source to draw from, but it seems what corrections needed to be made, definitely could have. O’Russell has a history of second guessing himself. Case in point, he even admitted if he had to go back and redo a film like Three Kings, he would have probably added a darker ending. The happy ending in that film definitely felt like the filmmakers didn’t know how to come up with anything better.

As far as independent cliche goes, Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy/drama is because it takes an unlikely romantic situation and still manages to fulfill too many cliches by the end. In the film, Bradly Cooper is a former teacher who separated from his wife after a violent spell which involved him going ballistic on her secret lover. Jennifer Lawrence is a young widow. Her version of recovery from the death of her husband was to develop manic spells and gain a reputation of sleeping with too many men around her. Interest wise, the audience is drawn into their apparent incompatibility to see how the spell of love will eventually win both of them over. She has trust issues with men and doesn’t know what to make of Cooper’s character, but yet she is enthralled that his being ostracized from his life has allowed him (in her eyes) to be more honest with the world around with disturbing thoughts. She, too, feels stifled by polite society around her and wants something more genuine.

Still, what the film has going for it is sincerity to its subject. The story is committed to staying with Bradley Cooper’s character at every embarrassing interval of his recovery. Since a majority of his “recovery” is living in some delusion his wife wants to be with him, the film knows how to let Cooper lead with the performance. O’Russell also spikes the showcase with constant whip-around movements by the camera so you feel like you’re someone in the moment with Cooper and trying to keep up with his manic energy. It’s a nice balance because the filmmaking accentuates the performances instead of handicap how much of it you can/can’t see.

I also like how the film didn’t try detail the diagnosis that Cooper’s character was bi-polar (or something else). It had no interest in the clinical explanation of what he was going through. No secondary characters really went in depth with it. Sometimes it happens to moralize a character who may be losing grounds of appealing to the audience. All it focused was on them trying to deal with Cooper and keep up with whatever his new tantrum may or may not have been. Lawrence’s character is more the same, but a little different. She’s more in control of what and knows how to process it. Result is a startling honesty of the negative things she did and why she felt it was important/non-important. The film doesn’t get sympathetic. She’s mono-tone with how she explains herself and overly defensive when Cooper’s character criticizes her without (seemingly) knowing that he is. He’s that deluded for most of the film. Their coming together revolves around them training for a dance competition, but the process has more personal bumps between both characters than I can remember in any (even offbeat) romantic film. The spars do get very personal and uncomfortable. All seemingly part of the plan to make the ending feel more refreshing.

Bradley Cooper is still diversifying his acting credential plate after a breakout performance in The Hangover and years of playing every kind of role under the supporting character sun. The performance has a lot of technical exuberance and the potential to drown out moments of humanitarian concern. Cooper does fine work to lift believability at every stage of the story. The film has enough of a realist tract to make the gymnastic talent of going up and down with the character physically the main ingredient to the meal. Lawrence (like shown in Winter’s Bone) has the talent to play a more restrained character. Her main stronghold is being able to show a character at a vulnerable crossroads in her life but still confident in her jadedness against everyone around her. Lawrence has to be able to continually tear down protective layers of herself with Cooper and give the audience a peek hole into someone slowly learning how to trust again. Where Cooper’s performance is physical bravado, Lawrence has quiet sensitivity to convey.

A large degree of the film’s off color nature is also the secondary characters and situations. Chris Tucker plays a rehab chum of Cooper’s who has a habit of pretending like he is discharged when he’s not and getting caught in slightly amusing fashion. There is also a family life at Cooper’s home which revolves around weird OCD behavior in many of the characters and a large love for Philadelphia Eagles. If there is a dry moment, a situation involving the Eagles and gambling fills up space. Tucker’s character becomes relevant for a few scenes of interaction later with Lawrence when pairing the two for some simple dance moves brings out unexpected jealousy in Cooper. It’s one of the early signs he likes her. The OCD, Eagles, and gambling just shows a lifestyle Cooper was around in his household and how nothing is ordinary.

Of course, the questionable things in the film come later. It isn’t just the last ditch romantic run for the one Cooper really loves. It all begins when the film makes a plot grandstand over the fact De Niro’s character (Cooper’s father in film) is obsessive compulsive with what he thinks is good luck for Philadelphia Eagles games. It’s one thing to showcase a character like that and have it be a contrast to Cooper’s to show there is a lot of emotional instability in the family, but it’s another thing to stretch out a scenario where Cooper’s dance finale will completely play into De Niro winning a huge bet and getting the restaurant he always wanted. Also add on the dance is a peak moment for Cooper to challenge his feelings for Lawrence and his wife, too. It’s all way too convenient for easy drama. For me it was way too much of a detour from a fine realistic approach to the story.

The end moments where Cooper runs off Lawrence and she has her Romeo and Juliet moment where she thinks all is lost is definitely a movie cliche. Not only is the sequence and music overplayed, but it’s always struck me as faulty drama. If both truly love each other, it’s not going to matter if the person running off gets home or not. The person chasing them with eventually catch up, pour their heart out and the other will accept because they are that much in love, too. However, what I did like about the idea of the romantic finale is the sudden change-of-heart for Cooper’s character. No rationalization for why he suddenly loves Lawrence and can look beyond his wife. What it feels like is the time traveled together in the film finally caught up to his character and he found himself wishing he wasn’t going to lose her. The film is about steadying Cooper’s character down until he finds something relaxing in being with Lawrence’s character and working on a dance routine. Presumably, a very simple love and attachment settles in.

Still, another talented output by O’Russell and both performances were excellent by the leads. Hard to really fault the very good.

Continued Interests


Side Effects

(dir. Steven Soderbergh)


The further down the road Steven Soderbergh gets from Traffic, oddly, for the public, it seems the further he is separating himself from his better days and getting to the part of his career where one wonders if its more auto-pilot. Now I certainly can’t argue Haywire or Magic Mike is anywhere near the ambition or interest of Trafffic, but I would argue there has been filmmaking development. Enough that I think if Soderbergh could have tackled his classic 2000 film today, more reel muscle would have been flexed. With his days winding down before a “retirement” from filmmaking, it seems right now Soderbergh is drawing me in more than ever before. While story and full production result is not perfectly coming together, Soderbergh is finding a way to make beauty out of than less the top scripts going around Hollywood. At his own speed and interest, Soderbergh is doing some mastery things.

Simply, I love Soderbergh’s filmmaking. Over the past few years, he’s become our Allan Hollinghurst in that he perfectly knows how to write a cinematic sentence. I go to Hollinghurst and his novel The Line of Beauty whenever I want to reference a novel that is perfect with the sentence. Simple as that for a statement because there isn’t a grander style at work where we can say he is borrowing from a documented theory or approach and the reference would qualify. Sure, if Soderbergh is doing thriller, it’s almost impossible to elude a Hitchcock moment here or there, but Soderbergh isn’t going out of his to be the typical “auteur”. Like Hollinghurst, he just knows how to communicate the scene as well I know someone doing so.

For what Side Effects is, the filmmaking is pitch perfect.  Not only does Soderbergh link the scenes together well by cutting out typical things by like introducing exterior shots first, but he has a beautiful way of keeping you connected to how seamless the story feels between scenes and events. Soderbergh will find a way to make focusing on a prop for just a moment feel important to the dramatization. The gradual rhythm of the camera and cutting got me to focus on edits more than a usual film. When Mara’s character drives a car into a wall, the shot of just her foot pushing the gas was enough of a divergence from the film’s norm that I felt the incoming onslaught of something bad happening. In another film where the editing has a ton of different shots per scene, that simple cut and edit doesn’t feel as important. I always feel too many films are detailed in their editing patterns to just be detailed. It’s a story norm today to be have a lot of cuts so the attention span isn’t lost. Not a great rationale. Soderbergh really makes every edit and composition count.

The seamless flow between scenes has been prevalent in Soderbergh’s filmmaking as of late. A film like Haywire is still an action vehicle at the end of the day, but in the hands of Soderbergh, there is the addition of offbeat jazz in the soundtrack and edited together scenes that have more fun with the camera going up a staircase or in between buildings than just depicting how intricate a fighting sequence can be. Soderbergh still cuts the fighting sequences to the bone and draws the viewer in by heightening tension. Of course, but he isn’t heavy handed with how drawn out the fighting is. Generally the scenes don’t last too long. In my viewing experience, European filmmakers have been better about sticking to genre code and finding interesting filmic ways to explore around a story. The interest in American cinema is to see how far a genre story can be extended out in its dramatic potential. Stories are bi-polar in one moment being about a dramatic scene (the kind that in a dramatic film would take the entire film to get that pay off moment) and then casually feature an overwhelming action scenario. A film about a super hero can have special effect sequences that is worth the budget of 30 independent films and also have the dramatic ambition of any of those films. The problem is too much ease by critics and the public in giving acceptance to works which are short changing a lot of essential story ingredients. Soderbergh has more of a European cool in keeping the genre elements in check.

Getting into genre specifics, Side Effects is a thriller with a twist at the end. For me, the perfect twist ending to a thriller was Kurosawa’s High and Low. It was left field from the story, but it still matched perfectly with the environment of the drama leading to the conclusion. When it was revealed who it was and why, the revelation was like an, “Of course!” moment since it played into the sociological possibilities of the story. Side Effects is a little long winded with its twist ending, but what it has is a good dramatic inclusion of certain social trends which create political situations. In the story, Jude Law’s character loses everything when he is tied to a murder case involving his patient. It’s not proven he is responsible , but dominoes with others begin to fall as well and you see why he is pushed out of his practice. Protective of his livelihood, Law begins to look into the facts of the murder and discovers a conspiracy which was perpetrated to take advantage of certain holes in the pharmaceutical industry and how people can react to the side effects of drugs. Considering the rise of prescription drugs today, the story is certainly worth telling. Side Effects is excellent because it has a story that can highlight some complexities of the issue and not totally bow down to casual-reference-art to only appear serious.

I say the ending is long winded because the twist requires too much story. First, there is a build up of Mara’s character being depressed and suicidal and accidentally killing her husband while sleep walking. It’s all a ruse and the plot was a development in the making for years by Mara and her previous psychiatrist. What makes sense is the ability to con your way to money through the illusion of how bad drugs can affect those afflicted with mental illness, but the story feels like it’s stretching itself thin by taking Zeta Jones character (not very detailed) and all of sudden giving her roundness with a fully filled out story which involves new histories for herself. Of course this detail only really exists through dialogue explanation and a few flashback scenes, but it’s meant to be deep enough to allow the story to change the necessary trajectory and head to an exciting conclusion. For me, when a film gets a few revelations deep into its story, it has to be a little more restricted with how carefree it gets with changing character diagrams.

Steven Soderbergh reminds me of Sydney Lumet:a consummate professional who could go from project to project and find the best way to lift up the story. Soderbergh doesn’t have the classic works that Lumet does, but to appreciate both filmmakers, you don’t need to be concerned about the overall product of the film. The way they could extend themselves was the development. Both went from project to project to stay working and professional. In an interview recently, Soderbergh said 50% of the films he made came by chance. We would like to think there is more strategy to planning out a career. Directors can’t just be mindful of which path their career is going to go the way fans hope. If you looked at Lumet’s last 20 years in filmmaking, there are lots of fine films but nothing comparable to 12 Angry Men or Dog Day Afternoon. The Verdict is his final great work. Those last years weren’t lost. They were just spent traveling the road of different project. For what is left in Soderbergh, it’s been a fascinating ride.

Filming Controversy


Zero Dark Thirty

(dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow certainly knows how to take the bull by the horn. After years of being a successful filmmaker of action stories (most noticeably, Point Break), she has had her own Sam Peckinpah transformation and found a way to dramatize the dangerous elements of life without fully neutering the explosive details in the story. A few years ago, The Hurt Locker was a detailed and excellent staging of a soldier losing himself while in combat and seeking the thrill of danger. Now Bigelow stays in battlefield and gives the film world its first major budgeted account of the search for Usama Bin Laden. Due to the incredible press coverage and notoriety already, for better or worse, it’s going to stand as our cinematic landmark of what the search for Bin Laden entailed and what the costs of it were worth. In simple terms, a film which feels to be an unabashed interpretation that not only was torture (enhanced interrogations, for the defenders) used in the hunt for Bin Laden, but it was essential in the process.

For me and the torture issue, the reprehensible thing is that the film paints torture to be a considerable share of what it took to make the gain in developing intelligence over the course of the years. An excellent conservative magazine, Commentary, made the point the film is ambiguous with torture because what really got the crucial evidence in the end was the chief interrogator being nice and humane to a prisoner. Misses most of the point. If you took the film as some totality to what the investigation was for years, you would see torture taking up a much greater piece of the pie than probably true. The first ten minutes of the film is a tone establishment to what torture meant for “breaking a person.” After years of torturing a prisoner, the final straw was broken when they showed compassion to someone. He didn’t talk because of compassion. He talked since the effects of sleep deprivation got him to think he already talked. The investigators made him believe a terrorist plot was foiled when it wasn’t but their knowing the details meant he revealed confided information.

If a film was pro torture and false historically, I could still support it if the quality was good. The film isn’t horrible, but it’s the kid brother to The Hurt Locker in a lot of unfortunate ways. Both films are about characters driven to a soulless existence because they encompass their lives with one passion and lock out meaningful human contact. Bigelow is good enough to know if you dialogue out this theme, it’s meaningless, but the method of approaching the theme here is to stretch out an investigation story and watch a simple character bend herself over to its cause. If the main character’s identity gets lost in the process of a bigger story, a single shot can propel a hundred emotions. It can dig at those feelings of  Bigelow wants that moment when Chastain is alone on the aircraft carrier and is exhausted she has seen the single purpose of her entire CIA career come to an end.

The approach is nothing new. Problem for me is the investigation story has to skip over a lot of details and branches of the investigation. It wants to encompass a bigger story it’s not going to do justice for and also be about the personal story of someone as well. We see Jessica Chastain’s character go from naive to torture to its major facilitator. On the way, she develops friendships with characters around. Tragically, and coincidentally, they die in various battlefield situations surrounding the search for Bin Laden. Instead of see the deaths as warning she is getting close to the brink, she sees her continued existence as a calling she is meant to see things through until the end. It’s a prophetic vision to make the capture or killing of Bin Laden the only thing worth doing. Better films about an individual losing themselves in a case begin to realize the who did what or didn’t or how it all comes about doesn’t really matter too much. Circumstances are different here. The filmmakers were blessed with intelligence access and while making the film, granted the actual news Bin Laden was killed. They had to report what they found to everyone. I doubt I would have minded the last 20 minute sequence which was a detailed look at how the Bin Laden kill went down if I felt the previous scenes were more detailed and a better umbrella.

There are other structural details. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow isn’t pitting a big story against her personal characterization interest. It’s just about the life of a soldier and his dangerous business. The film can make smaller moments feel bigger and explore the environment of the story more. Of course, I thought the character depiction was better. In Zero Dark Thirty, there is an attempt at more roundness of character development. The beginning of a cause is shown for a CIA agent and in the film, the details of the investigation get her to round out her toughness and demeanor at every step of the invesigation. By the end, she’s barking at her superiors and disobeying rules of politeness to strangers. Her defection to just supporting the cause is the end game of her lost in the details. At the beginning of the film, she was happy to play secondary to other agents and follow their commands. True, she probably felt the long torture scene at the beginning of the film was more productive and fell in line with her every belief later. The film could have been unveiling an already placed mentality one step at a time for dramatic sake of the audience. For me, the attempt at roundness lacked the characterization specifics of what was in The Hurt Locker. The film did fine at pinpointing Chastain’s drive, but not at getting the smaller points of her demeanor across. A less plot objective film like The Hurt Locker had more freedom to explore those things.

Of course, at the end, one still has to wonder how relevant her character was. A Navy Seal involved in the very mission that led to Bin Laden’s murder confirms the real life character shown in the film was “bad ass”. I know Zero Dark Thirty is based on an actual person and I don’t know the circumstances of her story. She may really have been the only cog in the engine searching for Bin Laden. It feels like if that was true, she was doing this more toward the end of the investigation when it needed political push to take a huge risk and that was hard to come by. Her story definitely does not speak for all the earlier years when many organizations were looking into Bin Laden. In fact, Robert Baer (former head of CIA’s arm to the Middle East) says the film has little accuracy. When speaking to Anderson Cooper last December, Baer said he could find no evidence torture is what helped the investigation come full circle. Still, she is connected to that early history of the investigation. I just can’t believe she was instrumental in almost every major development the way the film says. But because the film is obviously detailing someone in the agency who is for torture (I hear it’s evenly split), it’s taking one story and making it feel like it encompasses much more. Maybe too much.

The Fatigued Crusader

The Dark Knight Rises

(dir. Christopher Nolan)

The Hollywood wonder kid has finished his Batman trilogy. Giving a blueprint ideal for all other super hero movies, Christopher Nolan has emphatically stated it’s better for comic book lore to move away from adventure stories and dig deeper into trying to make myth and sociology working components to take unbelievable  plot scenarios and construct full dramatic themes around them. Now that America has over 80 years plus of chronicled super hero history behind it plus a full 15 years of over zealous filmic history to reinforce comic book’s history cultural importance, the benchmark has been set for stories that may have been felt to be ridiculous forty years ago to be implicitly dramatic and important today. The cultural importance of Godzilla to Japan turned into a foreign hit in the United States, but the films never became a series of American blockbusters. In Japan, there are numerous movies devoted the frightening lizard. In America today, we dedicate film after film and many kinds of interpretations to the same super heroes. Their legacy either to Marvel or DC comics is all the American public needs to suspend belief and welcome a hero.

Never mind many super heroes were created in the 1930s under serial conditions and could have an imaginative update. Never mind characters like the Green Lantern and his world should just be dismissed and used to create not only something new, but a little interesting. It was a considerable chore to watch the recent interpretation of the character. Yet because it was established in DC comics, the outdated character got a full fledged movie. I’m told I should amend some of my complaints since the hero was recently turned into the first gay super hero to be affiliated with a major comic brand. I really don’t think his heterosexuality was the problem in the film. Just the film was a last straw in super hero movies for me.

I’m tired of the melodrama that super hero movies inherently carry with them. Because super heroes have farfetched ideas, the films have to continuously invent new ways for the characters and situations to be believable. Characters have to take time to constantly tell other characters how so-and-s0 could come from a gap in the universe they never heard of and how it conveniently led to a problem which can also be explained. When the initial situations develops into new problems and situations for other characters, the story seems to naturally invent new amendments to the original set up. Doesn’t matter it happens all the time and is a dramatic get out of jail free card for any storyteller afraid to contain stories to characters, situations, and what logically could happen. The more amendments, the deeper the drama is because it can go into more history and myth of the surrounding world. Audiences have to generally deal with so much back-history coming from all angles that they begin to care about all the details and work them into running theories which can have a life of their own.

My high school English teacher bashed the book, The Lovely Bones, because he thought it was dumb to have a character tell the story after they were dead. Apparently he was concerned with the limitations of first person narrative, but I think now if Shakespeare had written a sizable play around the experiences of a dead person, there wouldn’t have been this second guess. One could say I am arguing against something due to there being no tradition. I disagree. I imagine if Shakespeare ever dedicated a play to a communicating dead person (not just as a minor character), he would have still followed logical methods of drama and what is really believable for a story. Akira Kurosawa had little problem creating adequate drama involving the testimony of a ghost as if they were another character. Super hero movies seem to be doing more than breaking traditional structure norms. They lack commitment to go beyond talking about set ups and new circumstances. Instead of really showing the drama, all they do is talk around it. Melodrama is rooted in talking around situations and creating drama out of the bubbles of what actually happens to characters and how it afflicts them.

The running storyline in Dark Knight Rises is how the emergence of an underworld figure known as Bane forces Bruce Wayne’s hand and make him come out of retirement to be Batman once again. Attacks of Jim Gordon and word from Alfred that Bane is a former League of Shadows member convince Wayne this is something worthy of Batman. May be a dumb question, but how does Alfred know about Bane’s origins? Even more peculiar is Alfred’s quick identification of Bane in action (courtesy of security camera footage) is how Bane represents something beyond what Wayne himself is even capable of. The dialogue foreshadows the fall of Batman and his human failings. Instead of wait until Batman gets his bat broken by Bane in their first encounter, the film has a fatalistic resolve to downcast the mood of Batman. Doubt the ethos of Greek tragedy is working here. The film feels too critic conscious like it wants everyone to know what the themes are in case they can’t read into any subtext within a fairly simple story. Nolan isn’t trying to rework the boundaries of Hollywood entertainment with his take on a theatrical approach to cinema. The film wants all the standard cues and payoffs you see in other dramas and action films.

The problem isn’t just that the film tries to combine action heroics with the full mood of a serious drama. The problem is that it does neither very well. As Roger Ebert said in his review, theatrics of Batman in action doesn’t really happen a lot. Dramatically, the “talk instead of show” mentality is doubled by some far fetched twists at the end of the story. For me, since I already knew the legend of Ra’s al Ghul (the main villain in Batman Begins and former leader of the League of Shadows), I know from comics he has a daughter. Interpretation of her has varied over time and since Nolan selects what kind of elements he wants to draw from in the comics to show in his movies, I thought the idea of her reappearing somehow could happen. Dramatically, the third film was angling the story back to the League of Shadows by making  Bane a former member. However, that’s as far as the lineage goes. Bane should have stayed more as a standalone villain in the Joker sense. The attempt to bring the dead Ra’s al Ghul back to dramatic life is a little more than desperate. It’s really silly.

An insertion into the third Batman film is a character named Miranda Tate. The head of a firm that sees potential in Wayne Corp’s manufacturing of a machine which can create sustainable power, she continues to meet Wayne in hope he will allow her to get closer for the firm to utilize what it can do. Wayne fears it could be used as a nuclear weapon so shelves the project. When financial push comes to shove, Wayne trusts her with the machine and his emotions. The relationship seems to be nothing more than a fling, but the heads of Wayne Enterprise trust her business reputation. There is no dimension to Miranda Tate other than that she is at the cross hairs of a pivotal plot moment. Then the turn happens. As the climax between Bane and Batman begins to heat up and he is immersed into obsessing over Bane’s history with the League of Shadows, Miranda Tate unceremoniously announces her real name is Talia and the daughter of Wayne’s former mentor, Ra’s.

The table is a complete turn of the plot arrangement. Instead of Bane be the one who was born in hell and made a miracle jump out a prison which could only be escaped by an impossible climb, turns it was Talia who did all those things. Bane was just someone in the prison who helped her stay alive when she was a child. He has no history before the prison. The already murky history of someone growing up in a prison is doubled by the revelation it was Ra’s wife who was thrown into the prison and she gave birth to a daughter. The connection back to the first film is lifted in a flashback scene when Ra’s tells Bruce he once had a wife and she was taken from him. Seems a lot more happened. The simple piece of dialogue from Batman Begins is enough for a left field version of the story to complete the whole story. Lets say I wasn’t convinced by this.

The only precedent to attempt this switch around is the fact Talia is classically established as Ra’s daughters in the comics. Audiences can immediately believe she would yield her hand at some point in the story. Otherwise, there is no reason to build up layers of back story, even if sloppily, only just turn everything on its head. The rationale is Talia pretended to be someone else for years so she could get closer to Wayne and he would desperately fall for her trust at the last second. The same dramatic rationale could be used for Lucius Fox. He also had to incognito for years to gain Wayne’s trust and so he could get into a position within the corporation to be able to use his genius to build machines which could finally destroy Gotham City. If there was a comic bad guy who came close to fitting Lucius Fox’s personality build, the legitimacy would be there, too.

Nolan allows the world of comic book lore in America to cloud his better judgment of how far he can extend the situations in the story. While he is clever with small anecdotes like how Catwoman can get payback in case a deal with a local gangster goes south, Nolan always seems to dribble with the arbitrary when he asks his plot to function for exploration of character or themes. In Inception, a haunting world worthy of Andrei Tarkovsky could have been created, but the film is drowned in an ever continuous number of rules for what happens in his version of “dreams”. The twists and turns eventually are paid off by more action sequences than personal insights into the protagonist. The depth of Bruce Wayne and other themes are understood early. The rest of the film is more showmanship in trying desperately to mix action with drama and thinking any rules can established thanks to comic book enfranchisement.

I’m not the most keen spectator of comic books on film. The more they are rolled out, the more I wonder how much time can be devoted to a mass market which seems to be just repeating itself at a boring pace. One key divergence is the success of Nolan’s Batman is getting every up-and-coming auteur of other super hero films to say they want to create similar dramatic myth around their works. It’s interesting since as super hero movies go more dramatic, another serial creation like Indiana Jones eventually went the opposite way. Both are throwbacks to 1930 adventure structures. Steven Speilberg and George Lucas imagined pretty basic adventure-type interpretations in the 1980s. When reworking the series just last decade, the vision more sillier than the originals. Both sides should have been seeking compromise somewhere in the middle.

Soviet Cinema Found


Letter Never Sent

( dir. Mikhail Kalatozov)

Proving the past can always be felt anew, a few months ago Criterion released Mikhail Kalatozov’s little seen adventure film, Letter Never Sent. While known for work in the 1960s (I Am Cuba, specifically), little has been streamlined to America from Kalatozov’s earlier efforts. Considering his last film came a mere five years after Cuba, it always seemed to this outsider his past was well worth reconsidering. Especially since it’s difficult to even find original reviews of his other films from critics during their heyday. Sometimes the old takes more than a few years to reach our shores. Letter Never Sent is just one film  and only joins The Cranes are Flying as his topical Soviet work to get major release (both by Criterion). On the surface, both seem typical affair for Soviet released entries. Letter Never Sent is a geological exploration story about scientists battling Siberia climate in search of undiscovered diamonds. In the hands of many other filmmakers, the expectation bar would be lowered. With Kalatozov, the finished product  is commendable.

A way of introducing Kalatozov is he shares an unlikely bond with Ingmar Bergman in that both filmmakers distinctly know how to make the 90-minute film feel epic. Bergman digs at specifics of the personal in harrowing ways. Kalatozov underscores dramatic stories with modern action tricks which both extend out characterization and stressful circumstances. Routinely setting his films in either wartime settings or dire personal situations, Kalatozov takes tricks that today would be used for action effect and uses them to dig deeper at themes in his films. While one of many directors at the time taking the camera and using it for more than just shooting scenes, Kalatozov’s films feel a little more modern than the likes of Ophuls and Fuller. Modern filmmakers have no problem praising and referencing their work, but I always found Kalatozov more interesting.

Ophuls and Fuller never had gymnastic routines with their fillmmaking. They relied on different dance glides around the action. The operative function of a camera “dancing” around the scene is that it keeps the characters and action within full visual distance. As far as visualizing the scene, there is no real abstraction of what is happening. However, Kalatozov makes sure the filmmaking is the textural identity of the story. No complimenting. No sugar coating to enhance style or bring closer to any genre. He wants each scene to radiate at different pulses of storytelling. Whether it be the camera running with characters at full speed and losing the specifics of their movements in the foggy dizziness of speed or the camera highlighting fire in the background and swallowing up the full scene. Just a continuous array of varying camera tricks that highlighted his previous films to lesser degrees and seems more prevalent here. Many scenes start out standard and just foreground the scene. The end interest in the film is to long distance the effects and make them inhabit the structure of the story.

Compare Letter Never Sent to another timely explosion of style at the time, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. After spending the first 15 years of his career defining many style norms to come in cinema, Welles may have saw an opportunity for a second renaissance when he adopted new guerrilla techniques of independent cinema and dedicated an entire film to seeing how how many camera tricks he could implant into one genre story. Seems like Welles was less concerned with degree of style in juxtapose to genre and more interested in seeing how story could exist within an ever continuing wheel of  filmmaking ingenuity. The film does not exist for evenness or Hitchcock precision of story-to-style. The film is an unmitigated explosion. The uniqueness is that the filmmaking does not temper the story. As a noir piece of crime-telling, the cliches remain intact. It’s relevant movie-making since swarms of filmmaking movements would be defined by how untypical modes of production could alter the general feel of typical works. Letter Never Sent seems to go the extra mile to ensue the filmmaking fully transforms how the story plays out. If just concerned with theme relation to story and execution, Letter Never Sent always felt more complete. Just lacked historical reputation on the same level of something Orson Welles has done.

As far as making the personal epic goes, Kalatozov has the luxury of exuberant location with Siberia to play with. Unlike other travelogue films, there is less interest here in allowing the scenery change from good to bad be the major sun dial in the dramatic exposition of the characters. Things for the characters get worse and the climate gets too frosty to handle. Peter Weir’s recent work, The Way Back is a roll out of gradual scenery change positioned very keenly the characters triumph over mother nature. If weather has an interest in Letter Never Sent, the tonal change is black and white and how desperate the characters become when engulfed with chilling snow. Just the major dramatic anchor for this is the method of the swooping camera tricks blending with the action of the characters so much you lose sense of who they are and how they really feel. Loss of their sense parlays with the lack of their own resolve to continue on. Unlike The Way Back, there is no real optimism for protagonist. No beacon of filmmaking light which allows the audience to see a way through the madness of impossible terrain and believe, somehow, they will find a way. Kalatozov has to find a way to make intrigue out of a hopeless situation that does more than the story only getting dimmer as it goes along. For all his filmmaker skill, there has to be an exuberance to film the voyage into nothingness.

Considering there is little technical story after the characters introduce themselves, the situation, and the conflict, the template of the film has a little of an open book feel to it. For a visual artist, the chance to fill in the dramatic detail with visual keys to extend out the simple nature of the story must be attractive. Modern filmmaker Tarsem Singh recently said in his exploration for new projects he has rejected scripts that were too well written since they left little visual room for him. He spoke about how he enjoyed the chance to take stories which seem half complete and make them his own. I don’t know the biographical details about Letter Never Sent. The production situation may have been more sketched out than Tarsem’s own feelings. I kind of doubt it. The film is too impressionistic and reflexive with letting loose on visualization marks and inklings it is likely Kalatozov found himself making a film where work in the editing room started early and continued on during the filmmaking since the film thrives at a uniquely rhythmic pulse. Even if the guess isn’t the historical case, it’s the easy imaginative answer for a filmmaker very much home to one of the Soviet Union’s best filmmakers.


Class of 1984


As far as cult movies go, there seems to not be enough knowing for me. Traveling the oddball route is not my foray so when I am subject to watching one, I’m hoping for (at best) decent amount of quirk humor and not too much boredom. Yea, I don’t identify with or enjoy these movies the way my friends do. Movies are the democratic art form (meaning, they can be enjoyed in more ways than other arts) so me disregarding areas of camp should not be too unforgivable. As camp goes, I always enjoyed Parker Tyler writing about it more than anything. However, an exception mild enough to write about crossed my viewing line recently.

Class of 1984 follows the Death Wish and The Substitute line vigilante logic. If the world is filled with thugs and the proper authorities can do nothing to protect the innocent, it is the right of the repressed to act out and institute their own form of vengeance. Goes beyond America’s law of self defense and is more in line with the UN’s law that civilizations under repression by dictatorial governments have rights to fight back. The conflict here is a rowdy school controlled by gangs and a teacher pushed to his limits to see law and order commence. The usual thuggery is enacted and he issues typical complaints to his superiors. Knowing what can and cannot be proved against the students, the principal does nothing but remind him of what iron clad evidence means in America. All the teacher has is hearsay evidence and good assumptions given circumstantial information. For a legal procedural just set in a high school, the film doesn’t start out too goofy.

Then the situations escalate. A witnessed car bombing and knifing happen between the suspected students and the teacher. When all of this is pressed upon as infractions, the principal still has excuses. Continued cause is belief in not being able to actually convict the student. I had to start shaking my head at the logic considering the kids had little protection beyond their own violent means and they were going against a teacher fully willing to see justice served. It isn’t a power situation of the defendant having money and means. Don’t have to reveal more, but lets say the teacher has a full Charles Bronson-Death Wish transformation and personally handles the gang problem in the most violent way. Seemed like a plot natural cause considering everything.

The curiosity for me is how the film ends. Instead the teacher being prosecuted for what was an easy identification of things he did, the joke of an impossible prosecution standard in the film continues when the postscript says the teacher was not convicted “since no one witnessed him do anything.” Obviously a final joke that just tops all the other jokes running throughout the movie. The best cult hallmark the movie has is how it sways between drama and humor and finally reveals a humor identity at the end. For 1980s movies, no movie is better at this than Vampire’s Kiss. When one considers the satire implications, the joke is funnier. A similar effect is found here.

Your Weekly Budget Crisis

Variety posted an interesting quip recently that laments the future of the mid range budget movie (from $20 to $60 million) could be losing opportunities to be made. This isn’t to say they will never be made, but taking chances on movies like American Beauty (surprisingly, cost $60 million) will not just happen as much by studios. In a rapidly changing financial world for studios and their corporate brain trusts who also own major television studios along with a million other things, none of this should be surprising.

Studios fear less taking chances on franchises for blockbusters they have tested will bring back lots of cash. Because with every penny spent on those films is equal cash spent on promoting those films. Just budgeting out a blockbuster gets you to look forward to merchandise potential which includes toys and other accessories. The potential for selling toys can make companies in the hundreds of millions of dollars for every decent franchise. Worrying about budgeting the actual movie (if under $200 million) seems less stressful because bigger box office films will get more play around the world.

The problem with the $20 to $60 million club is they have to fend for themselves in making cash. They have to get buzz and be able to register with different kind of audiences and usually no franchise help. These films can get routinely greenlit, but they are also inspected like hawks by the studios. Producers will make sure every corner that can be cut will. Of course, after the film is made, the studio will spend the same amount of cash on promoting the film as they did with making the film. I have seen directors say there is less concern about the costs of what advertising offices since promotion can be considered more integral to success. The days of Jack Warner just looking for good stories are pretty much gone in the big picture of Hollywood.

Sure, John Carter and Battleship were huge bombs and not only cost hundred of millions. They also cost people their jobs. However, both parent companies who oversaw the films will see no huge difference since most of their money comes from television anyways. That is how the environment is now. Studios can survive press alarming bombs and the likely continuing pattern is that mid budgeted films will continue to get more scrutiny and less chance to be made. They generally just don’t have an eye popping reward potential so if studios are continuing trying to the change in a new dynamic entertainment world, the mid range movie will have to be the high school band or art class that is first on the chopping block. The more permanent change is serious films by serious filmmakers at reasonable budgets will have to continue to go independent routes for financing. The next wonder king director may have to be more the exuberant Max Fischer than ever before. Talent to get money and means may come before all else.

Biographical Details


My Week with Marilyn

(dir. Simon Curtis)

Arguably no film star has as much fame and aura surrounding her than Marilyn Monroe. She had defining physical characteristics matched with an unforgettable charm and magnetism. And this is talking about is the fame portion of her life. Buried beneath this is a woman full of troubling deficiencies and a personality complex too deep to even consider reining in with simple explanation. In My Week With Marilyn, a matter of fact biography about Monroe at her height, Laurence Olivier tries to sum up the quintessential emptiness which many could (and still cannot) define. The words (not copied here) relay to her lack of self and lack of ability to really love herself. It alludes to all the emptiness that comes when talent cannot find any measure of happiness within. Fine. Thankfully, the film has a lot more detail than this.

The film opened last year to fanfare for Michelle Williams and notes over her performance of Marilyn Monroe. When it came to award season, comment about the performance swept anything. The slanted commentary isn’t without purpose.  Unknown to me, this is the first film to take serious interest in just trying to gain a full semblance of personality. Before, movies tended to focus on the caricature features Monroe made famous with strong hints at deeper troubles. The film also is better for not having a sweeping story which goes from beginning til end of her life. For me, the bigger biographical problem is the full story biographies tend to rely on plot too much and go beyond their means. The shortness of film tends to be better for composed looks at specific detail nuances. My Week with Marilyn achieves this since the headline plot is that a 20-some year old youth spends a week with the movie star, Marilyn Monroe, and falls in love. The easiness of the plot is a deceptive invention into really learning about Monroe.

Relaying the story from a hopelessly well doing and naive young man, the idea is that an impartial viewer of Marilyn is someone who can really see beyond the false headlines. This measure is true in how the film proposes she had too many handlers pushing her in every direction for their own sensibilities. Marilyn’s own sensitive ego allows for the stringing along, but she is also keenly aware of her position and able to comment on it with insightful precision. The failing point is inability to really stand up for herself. In this young man, at least for a little while, she has an ally in someone who only wants her to be herself. Our young protagonist is only an assistant on a movie to Laurence Olivier and he is pushed into her care because Olivier needs Monroe to be less volatile on set. Olivier also hopes him to be a spy so he can figure out the method to win her favor because he intends to bed her. The running dynamic in the film is the politics of what happens on a film set.

Based on a true story and documented in diary that was eventually published in the 1990s, My Week with Marilyn is a travelogue through the events of a timeless week between a simple movie staffer and a famous actress. Simon Curtis grounds the story enough to keep it to the smaller details of what happened. The only thing bordering on movie injected plot is a sideline potential romance that happens with another staffer (played generally enough by Emma Watson), the potential romance is only there so it can be dismissed and show how much our young protagonist is taken by Monroe’s vibrancy. No idea if the this story is true. Question isn’t a concern since it stands the outer levels. The film quickly directs itself to the back and forth game Marilyn plays with herself in showboating the famous person people know and the one who continually struggles in the darkened corners of her life.

The psychological interest is commendable. However, given the structure of pivoting the story from the fascination of a young fan, the film is pivoting a lot of the film on the effect of memory and intrigue into how well Williams plays Monroe. In essence, the story is a fan living out a dream week with his favorite actress and basking in her beauty along with her problems. The enchantment she holds over him does not get him to fall out of love during any troubling point. The audience, most removed from remembering the actress during her day, are supposed to marvel at an uncanny portrayal of Monroe and the effect she had on people. Unlike Frank Langella’s dubious portrayal of Richard Nixon as a domineering figure in Frost/Nixon, Williams understands her subject’s character defects a lot more. Misgiving is in asking for the impossible in being as physically alluring as Monroe was. She just does not have it. The filmmakers help themselves a little by portraying a lot of Monroe’s downcast personal problems, but the film wants the audience to coincide those feelings with enthrallment over her beauty and magnetic charm.

My Week with Marilyn is what I would like to a single ingredient film. The work depends on whether it gets the unique nuances of Marilyn Monroe. For the most part, the film is fine. Williams has been successful in films before but now is trying to occupy an entire story. In our age, Robert Duvall is the actor best suited to minimalist films where his performance could be everything. It’s a tall order to expect here. And because the film is about an iconic figure, the role has more documented information than the standard fiction one. Allows the actor both more detail to help the performance but more expectation to live up to. Val Kilmer lived up my best imagination of what an actor could do to be Jim Morrison. Confused Oliver Stone enough that during audio recordings of songs by the Doors, the director could not differentiate if the singer or the actor were singing. Michelle Williams does about half the job and not the other half. It’s a good film. I just wonder if when the next ambitious Marilyn Monroe biography is made, I wonder how much I will be compelled to remember My Week with Marilyn and whether or not this nameless future film lived up to its better ideals. Could be this forgettable.