27 November 2012

First Impressions: Skyfall, Part II: The Bond Classicims and Iconoclastic Moments

Yesterday we gave a brief rundown of where Skyfall (2012) lands among both the entire Bond Franchise and the Daniel Craig films specifically. Today it's time to dig into just what precisely makes this film one of the greatest Bond adventures of all time, along with how it continues to criticize and deconstruct this great cultural character. SPOILERS once again abound.

The Classic Bond Elements

There are many things that all Bond films are bound to share, no matter how iconoclastic they may be, such as the prolonged trippy opening sequence, alcoholic scenes, flirtatious scenes, and a truly sadistic villain. Skyfall in part gets away with its critique of the Bond character by having some of the greatest of these elements of any film. It sure as hell gets off on the right foot with one of the more perfect Title Tracks in recent memory. Seriously, what other Bond Tune since Tim Dalton can you hum right now? That Madonna one? She can fence all she wants, Adele owns this.

Skyfall just keeps maxing out on awesome. Q is finally reintroduced, really almost as if they were really seeking to lock someone up like Desmond Llewelyn for the next 50 years. I just still feel bad for poor John Cleese's R. I'm sure he was hoping that would last at least one film after Die Another Day (2002). The gadgets are simple (really just the coded gun, which is just uncampy and actually useful enough to be pretty appealing [but then Bond doesn't retrieve it from the Komodo Dragons! What the hell, bro?!]), and the car is instantaneously one of the more gorgeous in recent memory (a pristine silver 1965 Aston Martin DB5, for those keeping track at home).

Then there's Silva. Javier Bardem shows us again that he really makes the greatest villain characters, although this flamboyant, crazy, loquacious incarnation is a far cry from his Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (2007). He's the near-perfect Bond foil. He's an agent treated fairly similarly to Bond by M - lied to, abandoned, and scarred. The main difference of course is that Bond's scar is just a knick in the shoulder while all of Silva's insides basically melted. Sorry, chief.

Bardem just kills it here, though. Literally, he really does kill everything. Like everything in Skyfall, he's perfect because he's such a classic Bond villain while also being a critique of villains. He's properly ruthless and even has an evil Island Fortress. He's distinct though, because he's not bent on world domination or gold or riches or anything. His Island Fortress isn't a paradise filled with shark tanks or luxurious women. He kills the only woman there and instead fills his desolate land (Skyfall seemed to take a big note from the Limbo from Inception (2010) in the design here, by the way) with computer wires and busted statues. In many ways he's actually the evolution of what an Agent should be in the modern world. He doesn't solve his problems with guns, he solves them with computers (and actually, when he does use guns he tends to fail much more miserably - despite apparently awful British Security in guarding half its ministers in a single room). Bond is still this blunt instrument while Silva uses technology and intelligence to succeed. It's no coincidence then, that Bond needs to journey back in time to an isolated age and location that robs him of this advantage in order to defeat him. In a movie that constantly seems to question the place of Bond in a modern world, this seems to assure the audience that Bond actually is a relic, only powerful in a bygone era - outwitted and beaten repeatedly in the Digital Age.

There's another Batman reference here - Silva allows himself to be captured, just as the Joker did in The Dark Knight (2008). It's more and more disheartening to realize how much Skyfall rips off from contemporary films, but at least they work to its advantage rather than the shakycam Bourne-esque hell of Quantum of Solace (2008). Silva is in this because of M and a personal vendetta. This isn't Bond out there dealing with an external threat. Silva's threat arises because of MI6 and he only really seeks to attack MI6. Again, this limits the usefulness of Bond in a modern world, a point of continuous contentious debate by the characters in every level of this film.

Skyfall slowly moves towards fashioning itself into a classic Bond Tale. The last third strips the story down to Bond literally defending his history and his boss against hordes of baddies. All the while he's armed with shotguns and driving that vintage Aston Martins. The only thing that really gives this part of the flick away as contemporary is how he must have obviously been inspired by Home Alone (1990) in setting a few traps. I was just waiting for a red-hot door handle and paint cans flying down the stairs.

Not only does Skyfall take this literal journey back in time with Bond's history, but it honours the legacy of the character. After Sean Connery's turn was so popular, Ian Fleming adjusted the spy's personal history to accommodate the Scottish heritage. Here, for the first time do we see that heritage laid out on the Scottish Moors. Craig's films have always been about pealing back the layers of Bond to see what makes him tick, so it's only natural that this Trilogy (of sorts - Craig has signed up for two more films, but this certainly feels conclusive to the character narrative started by Casino Royale (2006)- see Part I for much more on this idea).

In doing so, we both get another Batman treatment (Bond is a wealthy orphan), including a Butler (Kincaid, here played by Albert Finney. I know I wasn't the only one who thought this may have been Connery, and the role seemed written for him, but Connery's not going near a Bond film anytime soon, and that kind of fan service is best relegated to the Starsky and Hutches of the world anyway) and a man who seems to care less for his family's legacy than the job at hand while causing his mansion to burn down.

Skyfall is doing many things here. It goes where no Bond has gone before in explicating a more thorough backstory, which, depending on the level of purity of your personal Bond beliefs, either articulates or denigrates the character. It has a lush treatment of Bond's Legacy in showing these moments, but also destroys them. It's a service to the character of Bond himself as he initiates the house's destruction - his eyes are full of regret and longing as he looks at the flame-engulfed mansion one last time, yet he's still compelled to dodge his feelings and let out a quick quip. While this is a very classic Bond reaction to similar situations, it's out of place here. This is precisely what Skyfall excels at accomplishing - pointing out the absurdity of many Bond moments by juxtaposing them against unprecedented events. It creates both a critical lens to the character as well as adds tremendous depth.

Breaking Down an Icon

While so much of this movie preserves Bond's Legacy and demonstrates some of the greatest elements in any of the series, it also shatters much of what makes Bond himself tick. As we've said, Bond isn't necessary anymore. Craig plays him much older than many, many actors have actually played him, but also as a reckless nail, a product of an older age when shifty organizations and Russians were lurking behind every corner. The film goes far beyond just this political critique, though.

Bond is really only good, happy, and even competent when performing his duty - killing people. During his time off after his supposed death, he's restless, alcoholic, and ultimately returns due not only to his unwavering love of country, but because he's not really good at anything else. In fact, he doesn't really know how to do anything else. He's exaggerated to the extent that he can't even actually save anyone in this film. Following the tradition of Casino Royale, anyone he's close to dies as he's more and more jaded to it. He doesn't seem to care when his childhood home burns or the chick he just banged is shot in front of him. He can't save her when he needs precise marksmanship, but moments later he's fine killing people with the same required precision. The years of agency have not only made him lose his humanity, but his ability to actually be anything more than a tool for killing. It's also blurred to the extent where it's difficult to tell whether or not Bond is still hiding his broken emotional core or if it's entirely depleted.

The three major tenants of the Bond Character are his violence, his drinking, and his women. While this Bond is stripped down to being capable of nothing but violence, his drinking here, while briefly mentioned in films such as GoldenEye (1995), is far out of control. It's not cheeky or classy anymore. He's not elegantly sipping martinis at High Society functions, he's guzzling booze at beach bars while hiding from the world.

The last really huge element here is how Skyfall toys with sexuality. After a scene of Bond akwardly trying to undress a fellow Agent who later turns out to be Moneypenny and she rebukes him, a similar scene plays out with Silva. I have some problems with this old and tired homosexual villain stereotype, but the manner in which it turns Bond's seductive qualities on its head are revolutionary. Suddenly we find ourselves in the place of all those girls who may not have exactly desired Bond hitting on them, but played anyway. No one wants to bang Mr. Hollow-Mouth, though, right? Is it hypermasculine or egotistical enough, though, to always think that every woman desired Bond? That's certainly the popular image - one that Skyfall again dares to play with.

Finally we have M. Judi Dench's M has become an integral part of the series, and she actually becomes more of a Bond girl here - protected not unlike From Russia With Love (1963), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), or even GoldenEye. It's a tired Bond staple, but the twist here is not only that it's Bond's boss, but it further explores the maternal relationship between her and both Bond and Silva. Silva clearly also had some kind of maternal love for M, made all the more painful by her abandonment of him (perhaps we even see a bit of sibling rivalry of sorts here as Silva fumes over M's new chosen wonderboy). Along the way is really M's largest role in a Bond Film ever.

M becomes the closest thing Bond has to a working relationship with another human being. She dies as does every other human who gets close to him. With each death though, Bond becomes a better agent. With the muddy maternal relationship between her and Bond out of the way by film's end, Bond is truly set to be a true professional, though and to become the Agent we all know him to be. He's set up to no longer display Craig-like depth and emotion, instead able to be as dark as Connery, as ephemeral as Moore, and as irreverent as Brosnan.

Is this the greatest Bond Film? It certainly has the most to say about the entirety of the franchise, and is so a fitting cap to the 50-year mark, if anything. It is able to create nostalgia, montages in memory, cultural reverb, new classic moments, a critique of the character, while simultaneously setting him up for proper execution and portrayals in both past and future installments. One more note - it's certainly the best looking Bond, probably ever, thanks to Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who really deserves an Oscar for this thing. It's a mammoth achievement, really, and a hell of a lot better than The World is Not Enough (1999).

26 November 2012

First Impressions: Skyfall, Part I: The Craig Trilogy and Bond's Cultural Appropriations

So, a new James Bond film has been out for a while and it's about time we talk about it here. It's already the highest-grossing film in the 50-year old franchise to date (by a tremendous margin) and it's also one of the better reviewed in the series. There is so much to talk about when discussing Mr. Bond, from the series classicisms and iconography, its high and low points, cultural appropriations, and cultural ramifications. Let's start chatting directly about Skyfall (2012), SPOILERS to come, love.

Context in The Craig Trilogy

In many ways, Skyfall serves as a conclusion to a Daniel Craig Bond Trilogy that began with Casino Royale (2006). That film was part of an attempt by many dormant or disastrous franchises to re-boot themselves into grittier, more realistic incarnations (the films most closely follow Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy through its whole run, more on that later). Casino Royale threw away much of the garbage that had accumulated in the Bond franchise to that date, mostly from the Pierce Brosnan films that grew more ridiculous, campy, and poorly executed in each subsequent installment. While both Brosnan and Timothy Dalton played some of the best Bonds, the shitty films they found themselves in will always limit their cultural impact.

Daniel Craig has brought unparalleled complexity to the character of James Bond. It's actually even difficult to say this because many people have different ideas of what James Bond should be, dating back for the past sixty years. Purist fans of the original novels and short stories will even still hold Sean Connery's portrayals in low esteem, so it's difficult to judge whether or not Craig is the best Bond or not, because it just becomes a meaningless debate. What we can say, though, is that Craig mostly displays a tragic, hopeless Bond, who often finds himself simultaneously labeled a renegade hothead and a hopeless loyalist to Country.

The contemporary Craig Bond films have always played with who Bond is and what his role should be in a global political environment drastically different from that of his inception. The Brosnan films played with this in GoldenEye (1995) (and indeed there a few similarities with the basic set-up then and now, with the Rogue Agent Villain who serves as a Doppelganger or counter to Bond of sorts), but without much more idea of where to go after that, those films grew increasingly silly in their ideas of what Bond should be doing (and no, neither Die Another Day [2002] nor this weekend's Red Dawn [2012] should convince anyone that North Korea is a believable global threat).

Casino Royale visually sexualized Bond like many previous films had done with its women (Skyfall also spins this tradition, also more on that later). It tried to provide an origin story, but mostly it was a "first adventure" sort of story. It told less of how Bond became a spy than of how Bond became Bond. Casino Royale elevates James to a highpoint with his leading lady, and while a Roger Moore film would have ended there, Craig's film keeps going, killing his love and providing the foundation for the remainder of the trilogy that surrounds Bond with Death and leads him less and less capable of dealing with it with any kind of human emotion. The Craig films are more a tale of how Bond became the caricature in culture he was during the first forty years of the franchise's existence.

Quantum of Solace (2008) in many ways was disappointing in continuing this concept. While both Casino Royale and Skyfall bravely played with Bond tropes while honouring them, the conceit of Quantum promised a unique Bond revenge-centric adventure, but instead ended up as a very typical, and at times incomprehensible installment within the franchise. It ends up being one of the worst Bond Films out there and the full circle of Craig's Bond may be better elucidated through Casino Royale and Skyfall alone.

Skyfall continues to de-humanize Bond. Everything he loves or touches dies and he cares less and less, or at least expresses it less. He fails to protect the innocent (note as he watches security guards murdered, quips at the Sévérine's death [though in doing so, she at least avoids become a Fridge Girl], and is fazed less by violence and terror around him than he is by boredom and actually saving people). By the film's end he's completed his transition from human to an agent. He no longer has any ties to a past life or the comforting matriarchal relationship that Judi Dench's M offered. He becomes a pure tool for his government, without an actual personality, backstory, or relationships. In essence, Skyfall tells how and why Bond becomes the greatest secret agent of all time, because these fleeting personal effects are detrimental to his career.

Cultural Appropriation

One of the more interesting aspects of the Bond films is its cultural appropriation. Bond hasn't really created his own cultural waves since the Connery films ended. Actually, it hasn't really put forward anything very original iconic since You Only Live Twice (1967) besides the ski chase in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Other Bond films since the 1970s have eerily just simply mirrored whatever else was going on in culture at the time. In a sense, this has allowed the Bond character to just exist in a wide variety of other settings, genres, and even entire films.

Live and Let Die (1973) capitalized on Blaxploitation films, and even seems to somehow predict a few characters from Smokey and the Bandit (1977). The Spy Who Loved Me introduced Jaws, an obvious callback to the indestructible, silent, and fearsome shark from JAWS (1975). Moonraker (1979) tried to be Star Wars (1977). If we flashforward to today, we've already talked about Casino Royale's desire to reboot a grittier, realistic Bond, akin to the success of Batman Begins (2005). What's more disturbing, though, is how much Quantum of Solace attempted to be a Bourne Film, both in its shakycam cinematography, and media technology-driven storyline. While this may seem the norm in spy films these days, we can note how the last third of Skyfall could easily have taken place in 1962 - and that's the point.

Skyfall seems to want to bump Bond back right up to Dr. No (1962). It ends as all those classic Bonds always began - with Bond hanging his hat, chatting up a flirtatious Moneypenny, and then discussing the next mission with a male M. Ralph Fiennes embodies this M with so much a classic British aristocratic zeal to make this transition all the more seamless. These sudden concluding reveals at the end felt exactly like the ending to The Dark Knight Rises (2012) which after three ground-breaking films seemed to put everything in place within a larger established history rather than continue creating one of its own. In this way, the Craig Trilogy is less innovative on its own and more derivative of Nolan's Batman.

Tomorrow we'll discuss the ways that Skyfall both honours the many Bond Classicisms while is still iconoclastic, which is really what cements this film's legacy as one of the greatest Bond Films of all time.

22 November 2012

The Long Halloween Vol. IV: Simpsons Edition - Bart vs. Thanksgiving

Well folks, it's Thanksgiving time again, the best time of the year. Thanksgiving is a time of turkey, football, food, family, turkey, pilgrims, and football. Underrated amidst the growing Halloween and Christmas, Thanksgiving is nevertheless a great holiday to celebrate. All this year, once a month we're looking at a single episode of the The Simpsons to pair with every major Holiday. With Thanksgiving we of course go back in time to the seventh episode of Season Two, "Bart vs. Thanksgiving."

This episode has a bit of everything. There's the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Dallas Cowboys football, family feuding, and a lovely dinner meal. Thanksgiving has become one of the most traditional holidays around, and this episode gets all its marks right.

The Macy's Parade really boils down to terribly lip-synched brief performances and obnoxious balloons. The Simpsons marks its own ascendency with the Bart Simpson balloon that features in the parade within the episode. Bart comments on his own ephemeral status, but clearly his iconic status has grown with one of the longest running shows of all time.

The Cowboys are acknowledged as America's Football Team, which is terrible in its own right (It's clearly the Buffalo Bills [red, white, and blue, great in the 90s, irrelevant today]). Their Thanksgiving Day showcase is meant to be a chance to rally a national fanbase around a common team, but most people today will be cheering the Redskins instead. The Cowboys deserve to be hated for many reasons, but their inclusion here heightens the episode's status as a true slice of Americana.

"Bart vs. Thanksgiving" really works though, because of how well the writing tread the line in complex and realistically fleshed out family relationships, notably the brother / sister feud between Bart and Lisa. There are highs and lows here as Bart ruins Lisa's Thanksgiving centerpiece, deals with it in his own justified way, and is eventually repentant because of his love of her at the end of the day. That's really what Thanksgiving is all about - coming to the realization that you need to love these people around you and learning to deal with family.

So Happy Thanksgiving guys, save a leg for me.

13 November 2012

First Impressions: The Man with the Iron Fists

I know all you're thinking about is Bond this week, but we'll get through a quick bit of The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) first, folks. This is the first ever film written and directed by the RZA, the former champion of the greatest hip-hop group of all time, the Wu Tang Clan. It's nice of the RZA to let us know that he's really REALLY into Asian culture, you know, as if we didn't know that already. Sure, spoilers to follow from here.

The Man with the Iron Fists is explicitly a very specific genre film, and a rare one at that. It's essentially a hyper-violent magical Kung Fu epic, also with an A-List cast and a good dose of crazy. Ultimately, though, it struggles to pull off what exactly it wants to, mostly at the fault of freshman director, RZA.

Good luck jacking off now!
RZA has potential as a director, for sure. He just comes up short here. He has a definite vision and pulls some great performances from those around him (Russell Crowe and Byron Mann for sure), but his acting himself is kind of shitty and he doesn't know exactly the best way to frame a shot. It makes you realize and appreciate a well-traveled action director like Michael Bay who is able to really capture the craziness happening on screen. Parts of this film seem to be really cool and exciting, but the camera doesn't know what to focus on and so many people are dressed similar that it's tough to sort out who is doing what to whom. Still, the Kung Fu is great and the story has a classic, if not muddled feel.

So, let's go through the cast for a bit, starting with Russell Crowe. Oh, Crowe. Was he wearing a fat suit for this role? Or did he gain a ton of weight for this role? Either way, he looked positively awful, and I loved every minute of it. The weight worked for the role as this insane yet ultimately noble Englishman bumming around China. It's certainly one of the better Crowe roles in recent memory. I can't imagine the time he'll need to put into the gym if he ever makes a Gladiator (2000) sequel, though. Fruits and veggies, Russell.

Lucy Liu is the other big name here and she just kind of moonwalks through her role. There isn't a tremendous amount invested in her. What I'm much more interested in is Byron Mann as the wacky villain Silver Lion, who seems to get more outrageous in each scene he appears in. He completely hams up the role with equal intensity and irreverence that's perfect for this kind of film. He and Crowe understand what kind of film they're in perhaps better than the RZA himself.

There are a few more cool villains here. The big reveal that the mysterious Hooded Boss figure is "Poison Dagger" isn't really that great because we barely remember who that dude was at the beginning of the movie. He's not that interesting, either. The real bad dude is Brass Body, who is basically a gold version of Colossus. Considering that we never really got a good Colossus in either X2 (2003) or The Last Stand (2006), it's fair enough to see that here. Speaking of that bad dude, why did RZA need a flashback before his finishing blow against him? Yes - this is the dude who chopped both your arms off and then raped and killed your girlfriend. Yes, you should kill him. Flashback and sudden insight unnecessary. On that note, too, Jamie Chung is a blatant Refrigerator Girl. She has less to do in this movie than in The Hangover, Part II (2011).

Fastball Special?

There were plenty of great parts of this film, though. I loved the use of American accents on every character. It had a great homogenizing effect to the many backgrounds of people here fighting in the same village. Despite the blurry action scenes, there was some good distinguishing between characters through each of their trademark weapons. Each was creative, from Crowe's gun-knife to the RZA's eponymous Iron Fists. Too bad the actual Iron Fist never made an appearance. No, no, that's very good Danny Rand stayed out of this film.

The soundtrack to this flick is also outstanding. It's a steady stream of Wu Tang-style beats and verses, which play out surprisingly spectacularly against the Kung Fu background. It was always meant to. Hip-Hop often makes good background music with well-developed beats and vocals providing a cadence rather than something to precisely tune in to. Of course, most Wu Tang lyrics were actually intelligent and worth cluing in to, but the style works here.

Like a crazy Asian Robert Downey, Jr...
RZA got into this shit really through providing the soundtrack to Quentin's Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003), and it's interesting to see him joining this little QT / Eli Roth group of hyperviolent auteur directors. In fact, RZA's character was supposed to appear in Quentin's upcoming Django Unchained (2012), but unfortunately it didn't work out. It's cool to see how this little group keeps developing and who else QT may mentor and slap his name on to produce. It's like a bloodier version of the Apatow Clique.

The last bit we'll talk about tonight is the interesting Rise of Afro Samurai Trope. The first Black / Asian connection in pop culture was probably Wu Tang, but it's grown quite a bit since then. There's Bushido Brown on The Boondocks (and most of The Boondocks, to be honest, from Huey to Kickball), Sam Jackson's Afro Samurai,  and know in The Man with the Iron Fists, the truest master of his chi is a Black Man. I start to grow curious as to why this exists but then I think - well, why not? If there's an interest there, there's no fault for cultural re-patronization. Whites do it all the time. Is it racist to say that the RZA is the best martial artist, in that, he's stealing something that originated from another culture? Well, there've been times when Tiger Woods was the best golfer and Eminem was the best rapper - exemplifying seemingly extant cultural appropriations for sure. It's a cool trope when done well, maybe we'll see some more in The Man with the Iron Fists 2: Now He Has an Iron Dick.

See this movie.
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