Archive for category Movies
GASM Media’s newest project–written by me–is DICE LORDS!
A group of roleplaying gamers are mistaken for the characters they play in a magical ritual. As a result, they’re granted incredible powers and a mission: save the world from an interdimensional invasion. The only problem is, the newly gifted Dice Lords are anything but heroic. The world just might be screwed.
The six episode series is up now on youtube and on http://www.dicelords. See what happens when the wrong people have all the luck.
If you’re still out there, subscribed to this blog, then you are truly a survivor, willing and able to weather long, cold stretches of nothingness. What have you been eating? I hope you’ve been writing a memoir to pass the time, because I would read that shit. Seriously.
For the last year or so, I’ve been working with GASM Media, a small media company and sister company to Atlanta geek mecca Battle & Brew. I wanted to take a moment to share a project we made together for the Atlanta 48 hour Film Project, a suspense/thriller called THE WARM VACATION.
I wrote this thing in a few hours, then handed it off to an amazingly talented cast and crew who turned it into an excellent, intense little film, the most gut-wrenching walk in the woods you’ll see today. (Especially for Benjamin Mitchell’s incredible performance as Robert, which was nominated by the 48 Hour Film Project as one of the best male acting performances in the entire festival).
Couldn’t be prouder of this film, so please take a moment to support me and support GASM media and check out our little short, THE WARM VACATION. And when you’re done with that, stick around to see the other projects we’ve been producing at GASM, from comedy series RIVALS to the anime fandom show EYE BLEACH. Enjoy!
If Jamie Lee Curtis is the star of Blue Steel, the gun is her unofficial costar. Scan the poster for another face and you’ll eventually find Ron Silver’s deranged Wall Street broker-cum-serial killer in a tiny box off to the side, less than half the size of Curtis’s drawn weapon. In this image he’s the devil on her shoulder, which makes the gun the angel by default. The gun is good, someone or other once said, and Blue Steel is a believer.
By the time the film begins, even Curtis defers to the gun, as the opening credits play over what I can only describe as a striptease seduction scene highlighting the weapon’s contours and curves. The camera first slides smoothly down the barrel and along the textured grip before peeking softly down into the bullet chambers. The sequence is downright naughty, gun porn all the way, and slyly warns the audience that what they’re watching is a step sideways from the boilerplate cop dramatics. Blue Steel has something else entirely on its warped mind.
BLUE STEEL is not Kathryn Bigelow’s best film. Frankly, it’s kind of a mess. The story, such as it is, concerns Megan (Curtis), a rookie cop disgraced on her very first night on the job by a shooting gone wrong. She confronts and finally kills an armed robber at a convenience store (Tom Sizemore), but the perp’s gun disappears in the chaos, winding up in the hands of a bystander named Eugene (Silver), an oozy stock trader so overwhelmed by the experience of becoming a burglary victim that it drives him insane. He fixates on the gun and on Megan, ultimately committing a series of random murders using bullets he’s etched with her name. While Megan and her partner (Clancy Brown) piece together the murders, Eugene weasels his way into Megan’s life, threatening her family and her friends before finally confronting her.
The screenplay is by The Hitcher’s Eric Red, and like that film’s John Ryder, Eugene displays an almost supernatural knack for his new hobby, and a talent for turning the tables on Megan every time she has him caught. But The Hitcher worked partly because of its isolated location that left its protagonist with no help and with nowhere to go. In Blue Steel, the heroes are cops in the biggest city in the world, and the script has to go through increasingly frantic gyrations to keep its villain from simply being locked away. The result is a film constructed of uncommonly dumb logic and far-fetched decisions. Watch it with care or risk straining your eyes from rolling them too hard.
But Red’s script has a secret agenda, and in Kathryn Bigelow’s hands, Blue Steel becomes something more than the action movie claptrap it seems destined to be. The project was Bigelow’s coming out party for Hollywood after her skuzzy, wooly vampire movie Near Dark (also written by Red) turned heads, and her hunger is unmistakable; a young filmmaker’s eagerness to transform the medium drips from every frame. Bigelow pinpoints the psychological subtext inherent in the script, finds her bin marked ‘subtext,’ burns it, and then with nowhere left to put the stuff, throws it right up there in the text. When she’s done, Blue Steel quits being a cop thriller and instead becomes a Freudian nightmare and the gun a phallic avatar in the war between the powered and the powerless.
Take the character of Megan. Bigelow cannily casts Jamie Lee Curtis whose physical androgyny makes the presence (or not) of her firearm a defining trait. With her gun, Megan can traffic in the macho male cop circles and stand up to Eugene, who has tragically confused his stolen gun with his masculinity. Both Eugene and Megan need their guns to avoid becoming the victim—Megan has watched her mother wilt in an abusive marriage and violates a family code against cops to empower herself, while Eugene feels powerless during the stickup and only gets his strength back when he’s armed.
Megan is stripped of her gun (and, therefore, her power) when she’s removed from the case, and she spends the rest of the film attempting to get back to where she was. She doesn’t seek violence, not consciously, but without her job, her gun, Megan is out of balance. For Eugene, however, balance is never again an option. Somehow, his murders seem only a prelude to the grossest misuse of his stolen power, that of a gunpoint rape that becomes the logical extreme of his other sexually-charged crimes. The movie explicitly suggests that Eugene can’t find arousal without the gun, without pointing it and making a decision to snuff out a life. For Eugene, murder is a sexual release. Folks, sometimes a gun is just a gun, but not today.
If Bigelow has made one thing clear in her action films, it’s the idea that, despite the great myth to the contrary, there’s no such thing as meaningless cinema violence. There’s a communicated message behind every bullet that the audience receives. It’s one thing to depict two men in a room firing guns at one another, but audiences, especially American audiences, have historically layered their own meanings into that action, specifically associating violent success with masculinity. Ask Americans to name the most masculine icon in our history and you won’t have to wait long before hearing the name John Wayne, he who may have fired more bullets on screen for more audience members in the history of the form. Bigelow directed Blue Steel in 1990, during the last days of a decade partly defined by thickly-muscled demigods carrying impossibly large guns. Blue Steel is her answer to that, her first attempt to flip the script on the boy’s club and pop their pectoral balloons.
Bigelow’s ideas, though, bring out the weird and turn out to be more than the film can handle. Silver, especially, mugs like crazy for the camera and as he becomes further unhinged, he just loses his damned fool mind. Bigelow highlights his performance with a visual landscape that’s at turns erotic and frightening, using strategic slow motion and smoke machines to craft a steamy, dreamlike atmosphere. Paired with Red’s disjointed narrative, Bigelow’s style transforms Blue Steel into a fairly surreal, and singular, experience. There’s literally nothing out there in mainstream movies quite like this one. Is it action? A thriller? Watching it again recently, I finally settled on the term “Eroticop.” One gets the feeling that a gunfight or a sex scene could break out at any moment, and neither would be particularly pleasant.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
6. Blue Steel
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