Kathryn Bigelow’s Soviet submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker had a no-doubt premise, a top-tier movie star, and an established, bankable action director. It’s the kind of total package that studio executives snuggle up to as they drift off to sleep.
Naturally, the film was a total disaster.
To understand how K-19 went so wrong, let’s turn to a story Bigelow herself shared in Time Magazine.
“I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, ‘O.K., but who are the good guys?’ ‘What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.’ ‘No, I mean who are the Americans?’
That quote has mysterious depths. Stare at it too long and you might see sounds or swallow your tongue. Here was Bigelow—still at that time known primarily for the megahit Point Break—peddling a tale about a heroic crew racing against time to avert nuclear disaster. The stakes: no less than the survival of every living being in the world. The story contains tension, danger, sacrifice, and a couple of meaty roles to attract big names for the poster. And the story happened to be 100%, absolutely true. Roll your money wheelbarrow to the back of the line, please.
The only way we could make more money is if the submarines make out.
But even for an America that’s left the Cold War behind, that’s shifted its attention to the burgeoning superpower of China or the specter of global terrorism, the fact that the story’s main characters wear Russian uniforms was enough to transform K-19 from no-brainer to a tough sale. The true story of the K-19—not actually called “The Widowmaker” by anybody, but given the far-sketchier nickname of “The Hiroshima” after the incident—remained classified until the 1990s, 30 years after it nearly wrecked the world.
In July of 1961, the ship was performing maneuvers out in the Arctic, pretending to be an American sub attacking Moscow. The Cold War was good like that. On the way home, the K-19 sprung a reactor leak that turned the ship into a nuclear oven. Considering the state of international relations, everyone reasonably presumed a seaborne meltdown could be perceived as an act of war and so, rather than allow their deaths to put fingers on the big red buttons, the ship’s crew underwent drastic, deadly measures to save the reactor. If you didn’t start your day wrestling with a giant cancerous rat for the last known can of chicken soup, then you probably know how the story ends.
With yellow shirts and, somehow, Fredo Corleone.
Bigelow’s first attempt to finance a film adaptation was halted by the release and mediocre box office of the 2000 sub drama U-571, and so, frustrated, Bigelow turned her attention to The Weight of Water, a movie that developed a toxic reputation at festivals before languishing away on a distributor’s shelf. That movie eventually made it out into the wild, but not without some problems of its own.
In the space of a few years, Bigelow’s bright career had suddenly flickered. Originally, she had wanted to tell the story of the K-19 crew. Now, she needed to. Bigelow eventually found her funding, but all outside of the traditional studio system, making K-19 the most expensive independent film ever made at that time. So not only did Kathryn Bigelow seemingly need K-19 to be a hit, but so did a bunch of investors whose pockets weren’t as deep as one might expect.
(One of the film’s major contributors was the National Geographic Society, who may have had their plans to enter the big budget movie scene dashed by K-19’s failure. This melancholy little site is still out there, promising that the film is opening this July 19th, every July 19th, the internet equivalent of the Mary Celeste. Somewhere, a marketing guy’s wife stands on the shore, hoping he’ll someday find his way home.)
To be fair, I’ve included a healthy amount of my own speculation into this history, and it’s hard to really know for sure what Bigelow was thinking or what she wasn’t. Maybe Bigelow approached K-19 like just another movie, and maybe the version that finally made it to the screen is exactly the movie she always intended to make. It’s irresponsible for me to just assume that the film was compromised except, well, K-19: The Widowmaker just feels so damned compromised.
“This time, nerds, I can breathe because I’m inside the sub.”
There was a magical time in the movies when all you needed to open your blockbuster was Harrison Ford on the poster, and baby, Harrison Ford is all up on this poster, despite the fact that he’s all kinds of wrong for the part. The term “miscast” doesn’t even cover the notion that fans would line up to see Ford, the most Midwestern-American action star to ever grace the screen, play Captain Vostrikov, the crusty leader in charge of this particularly crusty ship. Worse, somebody allowed Ford to do the part in a blisteringly awful Russian accent, which Ford delivers like he’s trying fit his mouth around the fat part of a soda bottle. In 2013, it seems crazy to think that Ford would have been handed this role while a perfectly good Liam Neeson is standing right there, but in 2002 it was Ford’s name and face that held the burden of bringing the customers.
“Four-Quadrant” is a marketing term meaning that a movie appeals to every demographic, and K-19 does its utmost to be a four-quadrant performer. The threat is appropriately apocalyptic, but surprisingly clean, barely leaving a mark on the crewmen dying of radiation sickness. The K-19 herself is one of the most brightly-lit submarines in the sea, revealing a dull, repetitive set design. The sitcom-style lighting dispels the ship’s shadows and opens the place up. Gone is the claustrophobia needed to bring the setting to life. For a story that could have ended with the annihilation of the world, it’s strangely antiseptic, with all the sharp edges dulled so that it’s safe to handle. Even the film’s cumbersome title suggests a compromise between two different names in an effort to make everyone happy.
“We can all agree that we’ve eliminated ‘Was’sub!?’ as an option, right?”
One hurdle K-19 had to overcome is that the submarine movie is well-traveled. People know what a sub movie is supposed to look like and sound like, and any deviation or experimentation in the form comes off as false. Unless your sub is helmed by Roy Scheider and has a talking dolphin in the crew, your ship better look like a damn submarine. The K-19 doesn’t really cut it in a world where Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and all of its gloomy tension exists. For a sub movie to make its own mark, it has to find another way to distinguish itself, such as the way Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide filled the cramped setting with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s war, and while there’s a little equivalent tension in K-19 between Neeson and Ford’s characters—and even a minor mutiny subplot—it never really gains traction. Instead, the audience has to decide how invested they are in the struggles of the crew to stop the leak, and the film provides few reasons to get invested, especially since we already know the ending. Films like Crimson Tide and others get around that problem by making the obvious global stakes seem deeply personal, but we get very few hints about the lives of the soldiers away from the sub, or about the people they personally hope to save. Their noble sacrifice is both suitably epic and really, really generic, as if Bigelow expects the fact that the crew is Russian to make us surprised when they start acting like human beings.
This person is in the movie for 10 seconds and is the most significant female in the film. This is not a joke.
K-19: The Widowmaker strikes me as hollow and false. Again, maybe this is exactly Bigelow’s movie, and I’m totally wrong, but she’s never made anything that felt so lifeless and inert before or since. K-19 is little more than a series of facts capably strung together in the proper order, like IKEA furniture that somebody forgot to screw together—it looks like the real thing, but a gentle tap is enough to tear it apart. That just isn’t how Bigelow works. Whether her films are up or down, and she certainly has enough of both directions in her career, they are always personal. Even The Weight of Water, for all of its problems, feels like an artist is guiding the movie in the directions she wants it to go. The film still feels like a statement.
K-19 doesn’t feel like anything other than perhaps a missed opportunity. Bigelow has made a career out of exploring makeshift families, especially within groups of men—the SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty; the bomb squad in The Hurt Locker; the desperate bonds between the main characters in Strange Days; the surfers in Point Break; the bikers in The Loveless; the vampires in Near Dark are like a family of cowboys, and even the girls are covered in dirt and absorbed into the whole. Here, Bigelow has at her disposal a group of men who rely on one another, live and die and each other’s mistakes, and who agree to make sacrifices to save lives. Do they care about the rest of the world, or is the sacrifice only to save the man who sleeps in the next bunk? We’ll never know, because the theme goes almost entirely unexplored. This movie feels like it was shipped in from someone else entirely.
It’s easy to suppose that after Strange Days flopped and Bigelow ran into trouble financing her next projects, that she threw up her hands. She went from being one of the most electric and in-demand young filmmakers to an outsider nearly overnight. It’s hard to imagine men like James Cameron or John McTiernan being given so little rope at that same time. (McTiernan, especially—he directed the legendary bomb Last Action Hero, but still had a new, great Die Hard sequel out two years later.) I’m sure that K-19’s disappointing reception made that film executive, the one who wondered about the Americans, feel pretty good about himself. But K-19’s failure doesn’t seem to come from its premise, but from a filmmaker who’s pushing the material in an uncomfortable direction, a filmmaker exasperated by needing to prove herself again so soon. K-19 feels cynical, which could explain why it failed to connect with pretty much anybody. After its release, Bigelow retreated to television for years, waiting until the right project came calling. Which, of course, eventually, it did.
I’ve wasted an unusual amount of fake ink in this post discussing the business end of K-19, its budget, its failure, and all of that boring stuff. But in trying to appreciate and explore the career of Kathryn Bigelow, it helps to understand how something as impersonal and blank as K-19 can even happen. A career is a weird journey, and it helps to know why sometimes we end up on the calmest, least interesting of seas.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
7. K-19: The Widowmaker
Bonus: The Loveless
(Sorry for the lateness of this review, my last from AFF. Check out my other AFF reviews ATL Retro!
You’ve probably heard of Rule 34, the tongue-in-cheek internet law that states that if a thing exists, somewhere in the depths of the internet, there is porn of it. As the landscape of the web continues to fracture and reform into infinite tiny and tinier niches—Fan of a show? What about a character? What about an episode?! TEAM SUPERNATURAL EP#615 NEVER DIES!—the law itself seems increasingly redundant. If something exists, anything about it can be found on the internet.
The internet continued our march to filling every niche by helping fund Magic: The Gathering: The Musical, a delightful little short film I managed to catch last week at the Atlanta Film Festival. If you’re feeling alone, depressed, despondent because nobody understands your need to see muppet-style puppets sing songs about the world’s geekiest card game, then never you mind, child. There is a place for you in the world at last.
Director Molly Coffee (I now regret forever not having a name that awesome) premiered her film to an appreciative, screaming crowd at “Touch the Puppet Head,” an evening of puppet-themed shorts and live performances. Her film was the last of five to screen—the first four were mostly delicate, elegiac fairy tales produced by Heather Henson—and it was welcomed by a cheering, thriving crowd of locals. Group support has been a staple of the project, a grassroots indie project that collected its budget from the goodwill of others through a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film features a hand-performed cast of geeks and nerds converging on a comic book shop for a Saturday Magic: The Gathering tournament. Those familiar sports movies will recognize the types. Jake is the talented everykid whose just out to have a good game. Doofus is the sad nerd who never wins because he’s a little lost. Heidi is the sexy roleplayer who can’t hear her Vampire LARP over the sounds of geek card gaming.
OK, so I think maybe her type is new.
The trio sing their felt hearts out as they go through a day of ups and downs, cheating and betrayal, wins and losses, and a triumph of sportsmanship over win-at-all-costs. The songs are all original, catchy and bouncy and more than a little influenced by the irreverence of the most well-known of puppet musicals, Avenue Q. (The intro song title is the same as the film’s tagline: “It’s a Magical Fucking Day”) Coffee has a background as a production designer and artist, and her skills shine through as the puppets sing and dance their way across a stage that honestly looks like a million bucks. Every Kickstarter dollar and then some is on the screen. I got lost in one scene just admiring all of the original art pieces lining the walls.
This is a film by and for geeks, and the more hardcore will enjoy spotting references. As a man who once did my fair share of World of Darkness LARPing, I had a blast listening to Heidi sing about her Giovanni Embrace, a reference that’s going to sail right over most fans’ heads. But the ones who get it, well, Coffee’s got them locked in for life, and that same in-crowd spirit shines through in a number of bits, from comic book references to bits borrowed from other films.
The only geekly faithful who might be disappointed are, surprisingly, the fans of Magic: The Gathering. Wizards of the Coast (owners of the Magic game) refused to sanction the film when asked, and so Coffee was forced to limit the game as seen on screen. No actual cards or even game mechanics make it into the film, which feels to me like a gross mistake on the part of WOTC. Fans of Magic are the ones most likely to eat this project up, and Coffee’s film could have been a fun bit of sanctioned free advertising, and the company’s refusal to play ball comes off as weird, corporate, and a violation of the community trust geeks usually extend to the people who make the stuff they like.
M:TG:TM is review-proof. It will find its audience and delight them no matter its level of quality. That the film also happens to be fun, charming, and well-made is nothing but bonus. After the show, Coffee explained to the crowd that the film’s origin came from a drunken Jesus Christ Superstar sing-a-long. If so, this is the best musical related to Andrew Lloyd Webber in many years, and a damn fine endorsement of getting drunk with your friends.
Magic: The Gathering: The Musical is making festival rounds at the moment, but will likely make it online at some point in the future. Follow the film’s progress HERE
(I’m helping to cover the Atlanta Film Festival for ATLRetro, but for movies without a retro angle, the reviews are going to live over here. Enjoy!)
We all know the beats of this story. A child is missing, the parents are frantic, and the police walk into the home full of questions and grim determination. No matter what, they will find this boy. Congratulations!, a new film by Mike Brune and local Atlanta group Fake Wood Wallpaper, sets up these familiar story beats, but then turns them inside out. In this surrealist spoof of a procedural, police work is the very last thing on the film’s agenda. Instead, the movie tilts off into unusual and unexpected directions, creating something funny and fresh, equal parts weirdly exhilarating and exhilaratingly weird.
A little boy named Paul vanishes from his own living room, and Detective Skok (John Curran) leads a team charged with cracking the case. But none of Skok’s efforts get him any closer to Paul. Actually, none of Skok’s efforts even make sense. The script acts as an anti-procedural, gleefully turned in on itself. Paul went missing at home, so the police focus their efforts there, plastering the house with posters and searching every room dozens of times. A hundred times, whatever it takes! Skok leaves no stone, rock, or clothes hamper unturned. As the weeks drag on, the police become part of the family, pitching in on household chores and learning the weekly schedule while occasionally continuing their efforts to find Paul, mostly by looking around and shouting his name.
The film’s premise seems designed for a lean single comedy sketch, but Brune finds surprising legs in the concept, dragging laughs out of the material long after the audience gets the joke. Most of the laughs come from the film’s deadly straight-faced tone, as the actors treat every ridiculous incident and line of dialogue as if it were all that matters in the world. “We will never stop looking for your son,” Skok promises. “They say ‘never say never.’ Well, we say it all the time.”
Skok is the key to the film. Played by Curran as a lonely man married to the job, Skok is Dirty Harry by way of Andy Sipowicz by way of Sledge Hammer!, a gritty man so obsessed, he’s willing to stay in the house long after the rest of the force has given up hope and gone home. His single-minded devotion to such a silly search anchors the film and keeps the audience invested through a story that, by definition, never really expands or changes at all.
Congratulations! is a film to see with an audience. The sold-out crowd around me laughed hysterically at all the right beats, but the laughs gave way eventually to a different kind of vibe. If you see enough movies, occasionally you catch one where the comedy on the screen feels dangerous and subversive, and the people sitting around me seemed overjoyed at the film’s audacity to choose such a non-story, shoot it with such love and care, and cast so many talented actors to portray it. The film feels like a trick being played on the movies, and the experience of watching it is like seeing Brune and Fake Wood Wallpaper get away with something in real time.
Congratulations! drags a bit towards the end, but never quite wears out its welcome and earns its running time with a hilarious finale and a pitch-perfect final shot. Those exhausted from decades of Law and Order and CSI’s neat little mysteries and tidy solutions will enjoy this movie, which proposes the joy of the mystery isn’t in the destination, it’s in the pleasures of not getting there.
The AFF has added a second chance to see CONGRATULATIONS! on the screen. It will now play on Sunday night, March 24, at 9:00 pm in the Plaza’s upstairs theatre.
(Now that Skyfall is on home video, here’s an update to fit it into the Bond list. As with all of my Bond reviews, this is very, very heavy on spoilers. You’ve been warned.)
A very good, but very different take on Bond.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Daniel Craig
SETUP: James Bond pursues an enemy agent through Turkey to recover a stolen hard drive containing the names of every NATO undercover agent in terrorist cells around the world. After a brutal, harrowing chase that sees Bond taking a bullet to the chest, he catches up with the thug on top of a speeding train. Unfortunately, Bond is shot by a friendly agent (acting on M’s orders to take out the thug), and our hero plunges to the river below, absolutely without-a-doubt dead.
BUT IN REALITY: Whoa, don’t throw away your popcorn. Dry your girlfriend’s tears. I know it seemed really convincing for a second, but Bond is not dead. Instead, he disappears to a tropical paradise to work through the pain of realizing how expendable he is, but he returns to MI6 when a mad former-spy named Silva (Javier Bardem) uses the list to reveal hidden agents and target M (Judi Dench). Bond tracks Silva to his island and captures the guy, but—stop me if you’ve heard this one before— that was what Silva wanted the entire time. After thwarting Silva’s attempt on M, Bond takes his boss to Skyfall, Bond’s childhood home, for a final, tragic, fatal confrontation with Silva.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: It’s a doozy. Silva once held a special place at MI6. Basically, he was Bond before Bond, the best agent of the 90s (oh, how fans would have shit if the part had been played by Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton), but M sold him to the Chinese when he started acting squirrelly. Silva tried to take his cyanide capsule but he somehow survived the poison, and was instead disfigured when the chemical dissolved his bones and teeth. He wears a prosthetic to shore up his hollow face.
THE MUSCLE: We’re three movies into the Daniel Craig era, and it appears the villain’s cartoonish muscle may be a thing of the past. Silva’s only notable henchman is Patrice (Ola Rapace), a thug who’s surprisingly adept at standing up to Bond but, alas, still only human. He takes a plummet from a building in China (and never actually shares the screen with his boss.)
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: The most noteworthy Bond Girl in the film is Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe), a woman in thrall to Silva. She’s more of a prisoner than a lover (shades of Maud Adams in The Man With the Golden Gun), and asks Bond to kill Silva for her. Unfortunately, Silva takes the upper hand and murders Severine before Bond can rescue her. This plot line is a bit uncomfortable, but more on that later.
The true Bond Girl of the film is M. Played for the 7th time by Judi Dench, M fills every role in the plot usually reserved for a Bond girl except the sexual. She’s supportive of Bond but acting on her own agenda. Her decisions nearly get Bond killed, but he comes back to support and protect her. And the film’s tragic conclusion promises to affect Bond in a manner similar to the fate of Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The shoe doesn’t totally fit, but at the very least, M is the most significant and memorable female presence in the film.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: For the first time in the Daniel Craig era, we have a Q. Ben Whishaw plays the role as a little pigeon-chested hipster, but he has that crisp dialogue delivery and prickly manner that both clashes with and complements Daniel Craig’s blunt-force bruiser. Q’s introduction—admiring art of a fading battleship being towed to wreckage—is one of the film’s highlights and he’ll no doubt become a fan favorite if he sticks around for further adventures. He’s not Desmond Llewellyn. He’s different. But he’s still Q, recognizable and welcome.
He delivers Bond a couple of minor trifles in a call back to the early days. He delivers a new Walther PPK and a radio transmitter for SOS calls. Both gadgets are among the first items ever given by Q to Connery’s Bond, although they have the requisite 21st century upgrades, like a gun grip coded to 007’s palm. Oddly enough, the radio he provides Bond is larger and clunkier than the one Q provided to Bond in Goldfinger almost 50 years ago.
Speaking of that movie, Skyfall also boasts the original Goldfinger-era Aston Martin, complete with original tricks like ejector seat and headlight machine guns, but the film implies Bond provided those upgrades himself without Q’s involvement. Seems a bit cute for the Daniel Craig version of Bond, but whatever.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Skyfall is a weird movie from a social-justice perspective as it seems to take one step back for the ones it takes forward. Let’s tackle the major complaints in order.
1.) Moneypenny: This one bugged the hell out of me on the first viewing, but I’ve rethought my position. Basically, Bond’s unnamed field partner in the opening scene, the woman that shoots him played by Naomie Harris, is remanded to desk work after shooting Bond and later expresses a desire to get back into the field. Bond suggests that she’s not meant to be a field agent, and so she settles into a role as M’s secretary. And her name is Eve Moneypenny. Some people take that as a suggestion that women aren’t fit for field work. Here we are in the 21st century, and the kick-ass action hero female regresses to a copies-and-coffee job by the end of the film. Good. Gravy.
I get that complaint but, after watching the film again, yeah, Moneypenny pretty much sucks as a field agent. Not only does she shoot Bond, but she nearly loses Patrice in the car a couple of times. Bond literally has to steer for her at one point and, once Bond’s on the train, M has to scream at Moneypenny to remind her to get back into the car chase as she just kind of dumbly watches the train disappear. That’s in a high-pressure situation, but even in a low-pressure surveillance later in the film, Bond has to remind her of simple day-one espionage stuff, like not touching her ear while she’s talking on her secret transmitter.
Look, progress rules, but the film establishes a Moneypenny that is straight up going to get herself killed if she remains a field agent. And while, given the Bond films’ track record in gender equality, it’s extremely tempting to call this a big step backwards, it’s hard for me to believe that a film that idolizes M like Skyfall is saying that women can’t do this job. I’d rather have a Moneypenny who tried field work and failed than one who was hired from the typing pool in the first place, so there’s still an underlying suggestion that MI6 isn’t quite as backwards as it used to be. Besides, the film clearly suggests that Moneypenny’s job is more than clerical. It’s after she starts working in the office that she winds up watching Bond’s back in the casino, so I think this is less a step backward than a step to the side, one that positions Moneypenny in her familiar position, but generally mixes up her job description and makes her more of an active participant in the chaos. Verdict: I’m good with it.
2.) Gay Panic: Silva’s introduction scene is one of the all-time classics. He takes the stage across a long room, telling Bond a story about an island full of rats that’s dripping with meaning. He then tries to convince Bond to join his team and, when that doesn’t seem to fly, he moves into a seduction. The issue here is that homosexuality has been used before in Bond villains as a way to distinguish them as something less than manly or just as creepy-weird (the assassins from Diamonds are Forever, to name one obvious example.) It’s disappointing that a 21st century Bond movie would dip right back into the gay panic playbook to make Silva disgusting to the heteronormal crowd.
Except, is Silva really gay? He’s certainly flamboyant, but the film seems to suggest he’s more bisexual or, really, just into the power he can hold over a person. His sexuality never becomes an affectation, never gets mentioned again, and his vamping around seems motivated by his insanity. He reminds me more of Heath Ledger’s asexual Joker than a homosexual predator. But gay, straight, or in-between, is it OK anymore to paint a Bond villain as sexually ambiguous? To me, the scene is a way for Silva mess with Bond’s mind. He’s read the file, and he knows Bond is a womanizer, and so he makes a move designed to unsettle and maybe prick Bond’s steel trap and trigger a response. The way to really gauge the film’s perspective is to see how Bond reacts, and that’s a breath of fresh air. Trust me, a Sean Connery or a Roger Moore Bond movie would have had Bond reacting with rage and revulsion. Our new modern Bond takes what Silva offers and flips it right back to him. That’s progress of a sort. Verdict: Push
3.) Severine: And now we remember that for all of Bond’s slow progress, the Bond writers can make a dumbass move. Severine, our sultry Bond Girl from the Chinese casino, plays coy with Bond until he pins down her backstory with a couple of key observations. He deduces that she’s been a sex slave since she was a child and that she fell in with Silva as a way to get out of the trade. Now, of course, she’s back in bondage and at the will of powerful men. That’s a very heavy, tragic backstory for a Bond movie, which makes what happens next even more bizarre.
Severine invites Bond onto her yacht so that she can take him to find and kill Silva. Great. But you know what you shouldn’t do with a former sex slave, Bond? You probably shouldn’t get naked and sneak up on her in the shower, huh? The actress even goes into shivers and shakes because SHE seems to get how fucked this is, but Bond just does his thing and then does very little to save her life after they get to the island. Silva murders her, and all Bond can get out is a quip about scotch. Some things change, but some things something something Bond hates women. Verdict: Oh, come the fuck on, Bond.
WORTH MENTIONING: As of this writing, Skyfall is the highest-grossing Bond film of all time, even adjusted for inflation! That means that, dollar for dollar, Skyfall has made more money than even Thunderball or Goldfinger, the phenomenon films that had people lined up around the blocks in America. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the widening of the foreign markets, but that’s still incredible…. Thanks to MGM’s never-ending money problems, production on Skyfall was halted completely for almost a year, well after director Sam Mendes had gotten involved. Rather than abandon the project and move on, Mendes stuck with it and refined his plans, resulting in a very carefully designed and executed film…. In the lead-up to this film, Daniel Craig appeared as Bond in a skit with the actual Queen Elizabeth II to open the 2012 Olympics. That’s the equivalent of an American Olympics that began with President Obama being escorted to the stadium by Superman…. The main theme, sung by Adele, became one of the most successful Bond songs of all time, and the first Bond tune to win the Academy Award for Best Song.
OVERALL: I spent a lot of time deciding where to place Skyfall on my list of Bond movies, and the decision hinged on figuring out what kind of list this actually is. Is my list a countdown of the best Bond MOVIES or a countdown of the best BOND movies? Because there’s not much of an argument against Skyfall being the best Bond film of all time, from the writing, to the performances, to the incredible cinematography and direction. So Skyfall is great, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t much resemble James Bond.
Part of that stems from the state of the franchise, as Casino Royale and especially Quantum of Solace kept shucking Bond elements in an effort to make the spy more contemporary and relevant. The other factor is the script, which goes places in the Bond world that we’ve never been before. After traipsing around the globe in every kind of exotic location (even space!), it turns out that the final frontier is Bond’s mind. The Bond series is about big villains and grand plans, but Skyfall ends with low-fi home defense and constructs a villain who spends years of planning and millions of dollars checking off boxes on a global scheme with a summary that reads “kick open door, shoot old woman.”
But for all of its oddball uniqueness, Skyfall earns a lot of goodwill from Bond fans for finally, finally setting the stage. We now know the details of Bond’s tragic childhood and the cold old home he grew up in, and we can put those pieces together with the puzzle of his betrayal by Vesper Lynd in Royale, and finally say that we understand Bond’s character. We know why he distant and cold, and we know why he might find it necessary to find work as a killer. Now audiences can follow him into the next round of his adventures while knowing him as more than just an indestructible superspy, which is something that no filmmaker pulled off or even attempted in the previous 50 years. The last decade of genre cinema has been about tearing down our superhero icons and picking them apart to identify the interesting bits. Think about Nolan’s Batman trilogy and how astonishing it is that Bruce Wayne’s a more important character than Batman or any of his loony villains. The same can be said for Sam Raimi’s version of Peter Parker or, if trailers can be believed, Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman. James Bond has at last become the focus of James Bond films, not his gadgets or his girls, and it’s therefore both exciting and alarming to see the pieces fall into place at the end of Skyfall to bring Bond back to his status quo. Bond is either an anachronistic fossil or a sleek, modern warrior. Is it possible we can have both at the same time?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Casino Royale was a line on the map, a new beginning that abandoned all that came before. The original cycle of Bond films has Sean Connery as its model, and the next 20 Bond films could be looking back to Daniel Craig. If that’s the case, then Skyfall is Craig’s Goldfinger, the third film in his run where the pieces finally clicked after a bit of experimentation and discovery. For a film that ends with such a strong affirmation of Bond’s past, Skyfall has much more exciting things to say about his future.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill
Let’s be honest with one another. You haven’t heard of this movie. I know you haven’t. You know you haven’t. Let’s not play games.
Even if you have heard of the movie, the odds are fairly amazing that you’ve never seen it. The box office and rental numbers back me up here, so it’s OK. Don’t be nervous. We’re going to get through this together because that’s what I’m here for. Why don’t we ease in with a metaphor?
Imagine your perfect high school reunion. You look great! You hug all of your old friends, make cracks about Jimmy’s beer belly, and dance like crazy to songs you used to love. Man, what a party. But then, near the punchbowl, you meet Larry Stintsfield. You don’t remember Larry, but boy howdy does he sure remember you. You took classes together. He can draw a map to your old neighborhood. He knows all the in-jokes, even the secret handshake from that one band trip to the state finals. But all you can do is nod vigorously while looking around and hoping Jimmy shows up to save your ass, because you’re wracking your brain and, nope!, no Larry in there.
If Kathryn Bigelow’s films had a reunion, The Weight of Water would be poor Larry Stintsfield. The Hurt Locker is dancing with the prom queen. Near Dark and Strange Days are getting high together behind the gym, and Point Break keeps pranking everyone by showing “the goat.” And there’s The Weight of Water, hanging out in the corner, anonymous.
And that’s pretty incredible, really, because The Weight of Water is not the kind of movie you’re supposed to forget. The film is based on a bestselling novel, has a totally stacked cast, and hits those art house beats that usually translate to critic cred, but still it’s a ghost. Even the skin flick crowd ignores it, and they’ll watch anything if it has a pair of famous boobs, like Anne Hathaway’s Havoc or Alyssa Milano’s Embrace of the Vampire. Right smack in the middle of The Weight of Water is a very topless Elizabeth Hurley at the peak of her powers, but nobody knows that. If the movie can’t please the film lovers or the flesh lovers, who does that leave?
The film had big ambitions, at least. Based on Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel, the movie follows two women through a dual narrative across two time periods. Catherine McCormack plays Jean, a journalist in the present writing a story about the true-life Smuttynose Island murders off the New Hampshire coast in 1873, in which two women were killed and a fisherman hanged for the crime. Jean’s investigation suggests that the sole survivor, Maren (Sarah Polley) might have been more than just a lucky witness, and while she looks into that idea, she and her poet husband, Thomas (Sean Penn), vacation with Jean’s brother (Josh Lucas) on his boat. His girlfriend, Adaline (Hurley), has more on her mind than sunbathing, however, and while Jean is distracted with the case, Adaline makes a play for Thomas. While this love triangle unfolds, the film flashes back to Smuttnose Island and explores the circumstances of Maren, speculating on the truth behind the very mysterious crime.
The Weight of Water wound up as a Kathryn Bigelow film kind of by accident. For many years, Bigelow pursued a big budget action project about Joan of Arc, even working with Luc Besson on the idea until they had a falling out over the casting of Milla Jovovich in the lead role. Besson went on to make The Messenger without Bigelow and wound up in court when she sued him over the use of her historical research and script. Forced to give up on her dream project, Bigelow moved on to the true story of K-19, the Soviet sub that narrowly averted causing nuclear war, but even that project stalled when Universal released its own submarine epic, U-571. Bigelow suddenly found herself with a free schedule and, I presume, a whole lot of frustration, and so she decided to turn her attention to the much-lower budgeted, much more manageable historical drama.
The first thing to know in any discussion of The Weight of Water is this: Sarah Polley absolutely rocks. This should come as no surprise to people familiar with her Canadian work, or even to Americans who know her as the determined hero of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, but The Weight of Water provides a fresh reminder. Polley layers her performance with nuance and weight, and when the script fails her (which it does often), she finds a way to elevate the material. She fills her simple line readings–that is, the reading of simple lines–with nuance. Sometimes she’s chillingly detached; sometimes she seems just barely in control.
The stars of the present day story can’t get their engines revved in the same way. Despite all the star power Penn, Hurley, and Lucas provide, their story just isn’t that interesting. Penn brings his standard holy-shit intensity, but the story boils down, frankly, to a bunch of rich intellectuals fucking around on a boat. The script leads its characters by the hand through scenes where you can’t believe what they’re saying to other scenes where you’re stunned they’re saying nothing at all. To name just one example, despite the very obvious threat to her marriage, Jean baffles for ages by failing to act, speak up, or even acknowledge what’s happening in front of her, what’s sometimes happening right in the same room. Her total plan appears to be staring and looking pensive. Actually, that’s a huge portion of the film: people looking pensive.
The fact is, the dual storylines never feel like they’re from the same movie. Beyond Polley’s great performance, the historical story feels like a reenactment you might see on a cheap cable channel. (Frankly, it’s difficult to believe this was the followup to Bigelow’s kinetic, powerful direction of Strange Days) But ironically, it’s the story of the boat that pulls the production underwater. The boat is a big floating melodrama machine that never earns its place in the story until a convenient, god-sent storm arrives to do something appropriately apocalyptic in the film’s final act. It’s only here that the film almost—almost—earns all the hand wringing and misty-eyed stares of the first two acts.
In an article entitled “Cherchez la femme; The Weight of Water and the Search for Bigelow in ‘a Bigelow film,’” author Deborah Jermyn suggests that the film’s melodrama is a Kathryn Bigelow signature trait, one that’s just left to stand on its own without the trappings of genre. Where some people have reductively labeled Bigelow an “action” filmmaker–or, even worse, a masculine one–Jermyn argues that Bigelow is still being Bigelow in this film, and the audience simply missed it.
The Weight of Water isn’t such a surprise or aberration at all. Rather its sibling rivalries, its exploration of a marriage in crisis and the unspoken jealousies and resentments that haunt Jean and Thomas…. all sit firmly within the melodramatic interests that have underlined Bigelow’s films…” — Deborah Jermyn (Buy the book!)
Jermyn may be right, but my opinion is that this hurts Bigelow more than it helps her. Melodrama fits more snugly into the genre films on which Bigelow cut her teeth than it does something that relies on emotional truth like The Weight of Water. In movies about vampires and gunfights and bank-robbing surfers, the emotions can match the outsized tension of the plots. But when you strip those elements away, and all that’s left is The Weight of Water, then I’m moved to the uncomfortable conclusion that maybe Kathryn Bigelow just isn’t that great with melodrama. Instead of a cypher to understanding her work in a positive way, The Weight of Water is an unsettling little signpost that threatens to take her entire early filmography down a peg or two by suggesting that Bigelow needs genre to keep from being exposed as less deft with drama. I’m not saying that’s true, necessarily–The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty suggest otherwise, if nothing else–but it’s that lingering doubt that keeps The Weight of Water standing in the corner.
The Weight of Water faced mixed reactions on the festival circuit and took years to find distribution, finally arriving in the states in November of 2002 before vanishing, a disappointing result for a disappointing film. Her attempt at an intimate drama—her only attempt to date—failed, and so she quickly moved on to the comforting embrace of genre by getting K-19: The Widowmaker off the ground. The film should have been so much more than it is, but in art, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Just ask Larry Stintsfield. Not everyone gets to dance with the prom queen.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
7. The Weight of Water
Bonus: The Loveless
I occasionally moonlight over at the fun Atlanta site ATLRetro, and I recently had the chance to interview Dwayne Epstein about his new biography on Lee Marvin. Anyone who knows me knows that I consider Marvin and his late 60s contemporaries (Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood) to be part of the first and best wave of action movies. Everything they did by changing the rules on screen violence aided and abetted those 1980s muscleheads that followed. (Although The Last Stand is pretty great–go see it!)
Anyway, I read Mr. Epstein’s book and learned to appreciate an entirely new perspective on the man kind of hilariously nicknamed “The Merchant of Menace.” CLICK HERE to check out the interview, and don’t forget to track down the book. It’s a great read if you’re a fan.
Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s The Loveless is one of those movies for which the term barely applies. Movies are supposed to, you know, move, and large portions of this one are devoted to staring at characters who are staring at something else. And since the film takes place in a tiny rural haven, there’s not even very much to stare at. The movie has little dialogue and even less action. (Put aside any hope of an actual plot.) But it’s a film that’s surprisingly squirrelly, capable of working its way under your skin and nesting in your brain. It’s a failed, mostly-forgotten student film, but it lingers like a haze.
The film concerns the “story,” such as it is of Vance (Willem Dafoe), a top dog in a small biker gang traveling from Detroit to the Deep South for a stock car race. Along the way, a bike breaks down and the gang stops for repairs in a deeply rural community, where the locals don’t warm to pompadours and rock music. Cultures clash over the course of one long, lazy day, culminating in a violent, deadly confrontation. The story is straight pulp, a near-clone of the famous Marlon Brando flick, The Wild One. But where Brando’s film is mannered and alarmist, The Loveless ducks biker movie tropes and abandons cheap thrills in search of a more profound truth.
The film began life in New York at Columbia University as a joint idea between fellow students Bigelow and Montgomery. They spent months hammering out the sparse screenplay with a goal to make a movie that felt like cheap exploitation, but that had more on its mind, something in the wheelhouse of Kenneth Anger’s experimental biker short, Scorpio Rising, which likewise favored image and ignored narrative to give its fierce personalities room to exist. Although The Wild One was certainly an influence, Bigelow and Montgomery’s script changed directions. For comparison, look at the first part of the clip below. Brando’s Black Rebels are a roaming party, and when they motor into town, they wield thick accents and kooky lingo like a biker-minstrel show, taking pride in needling the terrified locals.
Stick with that video and you’ll see a scene where the bikers dance with their ladies while avoiding physical contact with one another. Both traits are directly reversed in The Loveless. The bikers have little interest in mingling with the locals and keep to themselves at a garage for the bulk of the film, while the women are relegated to sub-second class, barely acknowledged as the men fix their bikes and play macho games, like flicking knives at one another’s feet. (To test their boot strength, one presumes.) The rebels in The Loveless aren’t acting out or putting on a show. They face inward, only interested in their own dynamics, their own bikes, camaraderie, and maleness. If The Wild One’s message is “don’t let this happen to you,” then The Loveless says “this is happening, with or without you, so you’d better just get out of the way.”
Montgomery and Bigelow conceived the movie in the style of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (which explains those long gazes into nowhere), and even planned an Ennio Morricone-esque score before spending the entire music budget on one calypso song. As a student production, money was a constant concern. On the prowl for cheap sets, Montgomery–today a Hollywood society icon and a close friend of David Lynch; he appeared as The Cowboy in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive— booked the shoot in Hinesville, Georgia, a tiny speck of a town outside of Savannah on US-17. Montgomery spent a lot of time in the area as a kid and knew how to make the location work for cheap, as the road was largely abandoned in that stretch, and empty gas stations, hotels, and garages were just standing around waiting to be used. These shelled out sets help give the film its empty, lonely tone, as does the film’s score, provided by another Montgomery addition to the production, Rockabilly musician Robert Gordon. Gordon not only provided music, but also agreed to play Davis, another leader of the biker gang, and to help the struggling production perfect its 50s style and motorcycle lingo. The rest of the cast was filled out with local Atlanta talent, save the lead role of Vance, who went to a young, hungry New York theater actor named Willem Dafoe for a whopping $20,000. The Loveless became Dafoe’s film debut, and if he regretted agreeing to spend the 100-degree Georgia summer in thick biker leathers, he likely didn’t for long. Thanks largely to his role in The Loveless, action director Walter Hill agreed to cast Dafoe in Streets of Fire, kicking off his Hollywood career.
The presence of Hollywood royalty like Bigelow and Dafoe on the marquee is likely why The Loveless still persists today, despite its molasses-pacing and its uneven quality, a side-effect of Bigelow and Montgomery’s process. Like many student films, The Loveless was a training canvas on which its makers could experiment, and the co-directors rethought the process from the ground up, ignoring traditional notions of film authorship to share all duties. The pair literally alternated days as the lead director on set. Montgomery would be the director one day, and Bigelow would sit in the chair the next. On their off days, each director would be close by in case the lead had a question, but otherwise, it was a purely split production.
(It’s tempting to identify shots and scenes that remind me of Bigelow’s later work, such as the gunfight finale, where Gordon fires his weapon with the same kind of sadistic, sexual glee that Ron Silver uses in Bigelow’s Blue Steel, but there’s just no way of knowing who shot which scene.)
Although The Loveless has a cult following, it isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser, and it doesn’t really reward mining for deeper layers. Audiences seem to enjoy just getting drunk on its liquid cool. But there is a message in the film about clinging too closely to those who share your values, about circling the wagons too tightly. The bikers are a clique, an isolated group with their own rules, uniforms, and patterns of behavior, and the film throws them with all of their machismo and hostility up against another closed, insular, and violent group—the town—and the two mix like dynamite and a crowded room. The groups attempt to coexist in isolation, but eventually the clash of values proves to be too much for either to stand and the result is violence. To the people in town, the bikers aren’t just outsiders, they represent the outside, and the town’s secrets can only last on the outskirts. I’m thinking in particular of the young woman (Marin Kanter) who attaches herself to Vance, a girl who carries an ugly secret. If the bikers hadn’t entered town that day, how long would she have lived with her problems, unchanging and helpless? For a long time, I’d imagine.
The Loveless had its American premiere early in 1982, but by then it had already become something of a darling on the festival circuit, and today the Modern Museum of Art in New York boasts a copy as part of its film collection. The film is largely attributed to Bigelow, but that might be because she’s a much more famous name than Montgomery. I’ve always felt like the movie pulses more with his southern rebel blood than with Bigelow’s cool detachment, but who knows? It’s a true collaboration, and kind of a weird, cool, problem child of a film. The Loveless is outsider art about people living and shitting inside their own spheres, rejecting anything else that comes along, but it’s also occasionally a cheap and surface riff on the dangers of rednecks. The irony is that a group of well-educated New York students invaded a small Georgia town to make a movie about northerners invading a small Georgia town, and both the real and fictional groups left damage in their wake. The Loveless unfairly presents the Deep South as a place that’s going nowhere (“Fast,” according to the film’s tagline.) The bikers who ride through don’t know and don’t care about why the town is this way. It’s just another stop for them on their existential ride, and they deliver Northern wrath on their way out.
Only Vance seems to be genuinely touched by the human tragedy that he encounters and the little girl whose life changes because a bike broke down. But earlier in the film, we see Vance’s true colors when he casually molests a woman who asks for his help changing a tire. He makes friends with sociopaths and has little love for the world. We come to realize that there’s nothing moral about any human being in this film. The original title of the film named it after the dead road, US-17, and that title seems even more appropriate, because on that road there is nothing and nobody, just a lost moment in history rotting in the sun.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
Bonus: The Loveless