Bond #3 — SKYFALL Reinvents, Restores Bond

(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.

Titles

. . .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.

Patrice Fight

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.

Silva

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.

M

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.

Q

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.

Shower

MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENTSkyfall 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.

Scotland

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

Craig

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.

Casino

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.”

England

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.

The James Bond Project

2. ???

3. Skyfall

4. Casino Royale

5. Goldeneye

6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

7. Tomorrow Never Dies

8. Octopussy

9. The Spy Who Loved Me

10. Thunderball

11. Dr. No

12. For Your Eyes Only

13. The World is Not Enough

14. Live and Let Die

15. Licence to Kill

16. The Living Daylights

17. You Only Live Twice

18. Quantum of Solace

19. Die Another Day

20. The Man with the Golden Gun

21. Diamonds are Forever

22. A View to a Kill

23. Moonraker

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Bigelow #8 — THE WEIGHT OF WATER Drowns Ironically in Shallow Melodrama

Titles

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.

You're pretty sure you'd remember this.

“Hmmmm…. nope, sorry. Not ringing a bell.”

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?

Liz Hurley

“Eyes on the narrative, please.”

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 kind of thing that makes the Academy drop their Oscars on the floor.

That sound you’re hearing is the Academy whipping out their Oscars.

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.

pictured: the movie

pictured: the movie

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 movie starts kicking once Deathstorm arrives with the blue filter.

She seems more comfortable once Deathstorm arrives with the blue filter.

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

6. ???

7. The Weight of Water

Bonus: The Loveless

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Interview: Dwayne Epstein Discovers the Real Lee Marvin in His New Biography, POINT BLANK

Lee Marvin

 

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.

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Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Loveless’ Favors Mood Over Mayhem

The Loveless

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.

More brooding

That this shit is coooool.

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.”

Like right now.

Like right now.

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.

Ladies, every inch of me is sweating right now, and you don't care.

Ladies, every inch of me is sweating right now, and you don’t care.

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.)

One of them loved the hell out of some staring.

One of them loved the hell out of some staring.

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.

The Girl

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

7. ???

Bonus: The Loveless

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SKYFALL Says it All in the Credits

There are some mild spoilers about Skyfall in this post if you’re sensitive about that stuff.

Skyfall is a great James Bond movie. Sure, it’s action-packed and well-written, and it’s been photographed beautifully, but what makes it truly great is that it’s a story about the character of James Bond, who (as much as I obviously enjoy his series of films) is usually more of an environmental force than a person–he never changes and he never stops. That’s why Bond’s villains and lovers get so much attention, because they’re the only people in his movies who seem to want anything or do anything beyond a stock set of programming. Between this film and Casino Royale, two of the very best Bond films made in the 50 year history of the series have been made in the last few years, and it’s mostly because the character of James Bond is finally on the table.

Whether or not we’re living in a golden age of Bond movies (there is that pesky Quantum of Solace to talk about), we’re definitely at the peak of the pre-credits sequences, and I say that as a guy who went through puberty on the Maurice Binder’s franchise-defining work. But ever since Daniel Kleinman came onto the job for Goldeneye, his work has taken the sequences to such heights that they’re one of the highlights of the experience. And the Skyfall credits are his best work yet. Just look at this piece of art:

There are so many incredible images to unpack in there. It’s the whole movie laid out right in front of you. Some of it is literal, some of it is symbolic, but it’s all right there. And one of my favorite bits was so subtle that it took a few viewings for me to notice it. The whole sequence seems to be pushing forward through a wave of images, and on two occasions the camera zooms in on a manor house with a chunk ripped right out the side of it, and a pair of steely cold eyes staring out.

The first time this happens is around 1:10 on the video. Here’s the shot:

When I first saw those eyes, I didn’t know the context of the image or the manor, but I instantly read those eyes as Daniel Craig’s. They’re a little smoother than Craig’s eyes but, hey, Photoshop. But at the end of the video, at around 3:30, the same image appears…

Except it’s totally not the same image. THIS image is Daniel Craig. Look at those eye jowls! But then who is that in the earlier pic? From the context of the film–it’s revealed that the manor house that appears in the credits is actually Bond’s childhood home–I can only assume that the first picture is actually of Bond as a child. That jibes with what we learn about him in the film, that (again, spoilers) his parents’ death sent him into the walls of the building, literally underground, to hide, and when he returned, his childhood was over.  The manor house is both a symbol and a literal location that forges his personality.

And there it is, bam, right in the opening credits. (Also, the credits have a preoccupation with doubles and mirrors, which is a theme that runs throughout the film. This flick was very, very carefully planned.) I’m going to write up Skyfall for the James Bond project when the film hits DVD, but until then, take this as a sign to go hit up the film in theaters and watch this amazing credits sequence on a massive screen with blaring music. I’m going back as soon as I can.

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Hollywood Project – Kathryn Bigelow

The 2010 Academy Awards took place on a Sunday, as per usual. The jokes were just as bad, hosts Steve Martin and Alex Baldwin just as hit-and-miss, but something was different. The tone felt self-congratulatory. Faces in the crowd lit up with the expectation of history. People at home fidgeted on their couches, called their children to the TV with pride, and practiced their excuses for skipping work the following day. Crowds in Times Square huddled together in the cold, crossed their mittenned fingers, and prayed.

A woman was about to win Best Director.

OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit about the national anticipation, but it’s true that Kathryn Bigelow’s big moment had a bit of that old weight of history about it. Even Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron, against whom she competed for the Oscar, beamed with pride and leaped to his feet when her name was called, just moments after presenter Barbara Streisand issued a dramatic pause and a button before the announcement—“the time has come.” But when Bigelow stepped on to the stage and became the first woman in history to accept the Best Director Oscar, her acceptance speech dumped that history and cut to the chase. No long polemics about her struggles, no messages to the little girls watching at home. In fact, beyond the usual thanks, Bigelow didn’t say very much at all.

It’s almost as if Bigelow shrugged her shoulders at history and decided that, really, it’s not that big a deal. After all, Bigelow may be the first female Best Director winner, but it’s not like women had been completely shut out of consideration throughout the history of the award, right? I mean, literally dozens and dozens of women must have been nominated over the years, and—

Um, OK, Mr. Skeptic, I’ll check my figures, but I’m sure—

/scans book

Only four? That can’t be right. There has to be way more than four women ever nominated for—

/checks again

Huh. Four. That’s… that’s actually not a lot at all.

OK, but this is Hollywood. It was an old boy’s club until, like, last Wednesday. Until the 1960s, nobody even got a job directing pictures unless they were male, white, and 80-dead. One time, somebody walked an urn full of ashes onto a Hollywood golf course, introduced it as Roger, and got it a three-picture deal. So it’s not like women really even had opportunities until—

/flips page

Dorothy Arzner, huh? Directed throughout 1920s and 30s. Alice Guy-Blache directed over 400 films and may have shot the first ever narrative film on the planet. Oh my. Hundreds of other names? Well, this is just embarrassing.

Yeah, it turns out women have been integral, vital, and vibrant voices in cinema since the very beginning, which is a statement that falls right into the category of “no fucking shit,” and Kathryn Bigelow, only the fourth ever female nominee for Best Director, and only the second American woman, was the very first ever to win the biggest award. In 2010. That matters. It really, really matters, and Bigelow left the moment on the table.

But is that such a surprise? Bigelow has never been one for speeches in her work, either. Her earliest films are almost anti-dialogue, carrying the weight of the story in symbolism, mood, and environment, and even her most obvious message movie, The Hurt Locker, avoids actually stating the message. Bigelow frequently deflects questions about her gender and what it means for her work, even as critics and pundits refuse to talk about anything else, primarily because of the types of films she likes to make.

Bigelow works almost exclusively in the action-adventure genre, and her films primarily draw young men and boys to their violence and sexually-charged intensity. That pop you’re hearing is the cognitive dissonance in a world of critics who see Bigelow’s types of films as adolescent, juvenile, male nonsense but see Bigelow as a careful, thoughtful filmmaker. She so obviously thinks through her meaning, so how can she shoot and promote films with such outrageous violence, especially when it’s so often directed towards women?

In other words, why doesn’t she make lady movies?

After her Oscar win, I became briefly preoccupied with the question, wondering about what her win really meant—not for Bigelow, but for the Academy. I don’t care what Bigelow chooses to make, but I found it insulting that it took a woman working in a traditionally male genre to break through with the Academy. Was her win a victory for women (yes), or a sad mark on the Academy for needing a female director to cater to them a little more before finally handing out a statue. Bigelow had to put on masculine camouflage before finally being allowed into the circle of men, and she did so by making male movies and OH MY CRAP, I’M DOING IT TOO!

See, gender can become a very thorny issue down here in the trenches. You have to take as your premise that there is no such thing as “male” and “female” subject matter, regardless of what audience shows up to watch the movie, otherwise you risk discrediting Bigelow’s win in some way. (Thank goodness The Hurt Locker is actually pretty great, for history’s sake.) Gender matters, but it also doesn’t matter at all. I can’t ignore, say, the way Bigelow intentionally confuses sex and violence, or the somewhat-androgynous female leads that love her male heroes, but who’s to say that Bigelow’s gender played a part in those choices? It’s a question that I’ve decided to make an attempt to answer here.

Name

Kathryn Ann Bigelow

Birth

November 27, 1951, in San Carlos, California to Ronald Bigelow (a factory manager) and Gertrude Larson (a librarian).

Bio

Young Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be a painter, discovering art from her father, a factory manager who had aspirations of being a cartoonist. She attended the Art Institute of San Francisco, but her obvious talent propelled her across the country to a full scholarship at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, where she improved her craft under the tutelage of artists like Vito Acconi and Richard Serra. Somewhere along the line, Bigelow became attracted to the wider audience of feature filmmaking and turned her focus towards painting with a camera instead of (or sometimes in addition to) a brush. Collecting prestigious universities like some folks collect baseball cards, Bigelow moved on to Columbia University where she earned a master’s degree in film theory and criticism, and where she shot her first short film, an experimental piece contrasting violence and scholarly dialogue called The Set-Up (1978).

Bigelow teamed with fellow student Monty Montgomery to produce her first feature, the moody and meandering biker film The Loveless (1982), a film most notable today for introducing a very young Willem Dafoe. It would be five years before Bigelow made her solo directing debut with the redneck vampire tale Near Dark (1987), which she quickly followed with a string of violent, sexually charged studio thrillers, including the megahit Point Break (1991). During her rise, Bigelow met, collaborated with, and in 1989 finally married another wonderkid of the system, James Cameron, and the pair remained an influence on each other’s work for years, even after their divorce in two years later.

After the failure of Strange Days in the 1995, Bigelow diversified. She moved into television projects (Homicide: Life on the Street) while searching for new film opportunities. After a few more misfires, Bigelow met writer Mark Boal and became interested in his stories of shadowing a real bomb squad unit in the war zone of Iraq. Bigelow and Boal adapted his stories into what would become the defining project of Bigelow’s career, The Hurt Locker. The film brought Bigelow widespread acclaim and, as you may have caught earlier, the Best Director Oscar, as well as the award for Best Picture of 2009. Both awards for Bigelow’s tiny film were won at the expense of her ex-husband James Cameron’s mega-budgeted Avatar. There’s a headline in there somewhere, I’m sure.

Trademarks

• Works almost exclusively in genre cinema, but looks for fresh and unexpected angles
• Makes films that explore violence, adrenaline, and the addictive nature of combining the two
• Uses mostly male protagonists, with sexually ambiguous relationships or love interests
• Combines visual trickery (first person cameras, etc.) with painterly eye for color, especially deep blues or dusty oranges.

 

A painting Bigelow made for The Hurt Locker.

Eligible Films

7, with two special additions(see below)

What’s Out

Bigelow dabbled in a lot of fields while building her career. She’s directed short films, music videos, hours and hours of TV, and, I can safely say, will be the only director ever featured on this site to have modeled for The Gap. I’m not going to cover her TV work or her short projects like The Set-Up or Mission Zero. Her debut feature, The Loveless, is technically ineligible for the countdown because she worked with a co-director who, from all accounts, was heavily involved. That makes it difficult to parse out who did what work, but the film is so interesting that I feel like I have to write about it, so I’ll include it as a side article but not for the countdown.

Also, I’m going to completely skip her newest film, Zero Dark Thirty, during the initial pass at this project. Once the film is out on DVD and has had a few months to sink in, I’ll decide where I’d rank it and add it to the list.

Connection to Previous Project?

A huge one. Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a few years and their careers are heavily tangled up together.

Oh, and it seems likely that both Bigelow and the Hughes Brothers turned down Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There’s no deeper meaning behind that, it’s just weird.

Miscellaneous

I’m doing away with my categories for this project as an experiment. I think I might have more freedom to write in my style and, just maybe, that might help me complete articles in a more timely fashion. Or maybe it’ll make things worse. No way to know until I try. Please stop on by next week for The Loveless before we kick off this countdown for real.

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13 Reasons Why You Should Come See TRICK ‘R TREAT!

I’m hosting another Hollywood Projects screening with the help of Tugg.com on October 30 at the Plaza Atlanta, and I’m very proud to be presenting, for what I believe is the very first time in Atlanta, a theatrical screening of Michael Dougherty’s cult Halloween film, Trick ‘r Treat!

Tickets are on sale HERE. But since you may be skeptical, here are a handful of reasons why you should be there!

1.) The Date

Trick ‘r Treat may be the best film ever made about the holiday of Halloween. Sure, some movies use Halloween as a setting or a backdrop for a horror scene, but Trick ‘r Treat is a movie takes a step back and looks at the feeling of the scariest night of the year, from the Jack o’ Lanterns to the candy to the silly superstitions that may just save your life. A night out with Trick ‘r Treat is the perfect way to pre-game the big night itself.

2.) Michael Dougherty

The writer-director graduated from the school of Bryan Singer having written one of the most acclaimed superhero movies ever made (X2) and one of the most controversial (Superman Returns). Given a chance to direct his own screenplay, Dougherty jumped all over a live-action feature version of his animated short film, Season’s Greetings. This guy LOVES Halloween and loves genre horror films, and he just directed the hell out of his feature debut, making perhaps THE definitive Halloween holiday movie.

3.) The Cult

Somebody, somwhere got Trick ‘r Treat way wrong. The studio got scared of it and chose to hold it back to keep it from competing with the Saw sequel of 2007 (and The Orphanage, which featured another scary kid in a burlap sack mask). They kept audiences from the film for two years before finally dumping it on DVD in 2009. Unlike most direct-to-DVD movies, Trick ‘r Treat found its audience almost immediately, and in just three short years has already become the new Halloween standard. Trick ‘r Treat toys are hot collector items and some channels run all-day marathons of the film on Halloween. The cult of the movie is growing, and you can get in on the ground floor.

4.) Anna Paquin

All right, True Blood fans. You can see Anna Paquin do the sexy supernatural thing in a role… well, I promise you haven’t seen Sooki do anything like this. That’s her in a Red Riding Hood costume, ’nuff said.

5.) Spooky Door Prizes

We’re going to give away Halloween prizes, from ghoulish toys to scary movies for your Halloween-viewing pleasure. If tickets move quickly, there may be a super special raffle prize to give away.

6.) Brian Cox

Brian Cox is the guy you see in the big-budget political thriller with Oscar-credentials. You don’t see him with crazy hair in a house of horrors every day. That happens here. Trick ‘r Treat. 

7.) The Plaza

The best movie theater in Atlanta, GA., needs your help! In this day of chain theaters and declining film prints, come out to support the oldest operating theater in Atlanta with the coolest crowd of movie lovers in the city. It’s the night before Halloween and the crowd is going to be buzzing for a good scare. Trick ‘r Treat deserves to be seen with a screaming audience, and that can’t happen without you!

8.) Dylan Baker

People who love Dylan Baker’s work in everything from Happiness to Spider-Man 2 don’t need to be reminded of how he’s one of the best character actors working today. Trick ‘r Treat is a showcase for his talent and he’s never been better.

9.) Sam

Aw, just look at the widdle guy. How can you say no to him? He’s the iconic figure at the center of the film, and I promise after seeing the movie, you’ll never forget him.

10.) What’s Helo Screaming About?

Run, Helo! It’s not a Cylon!

11.) 4 Scary Stories

Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology film made up of different scary stories. Nothing like this gets made anymore, and it’s a lost art. Trick ‘r Treat is like a Cat’s Eye or Trilogy of Terror or Black Sabbath for a new generation, and if one story doesn’t thrill you, there’s another right around the corner.

12.) A New Halloween Tradition

Every year, Trick ‘r Treat grows its audience, and it seems destined to be THE Halloween movie experience for years to come. Why settle for another Saw or Paranormal Activity clone when you see ORIGINAL horror that’s  better?

13.) Because Halloween is Supposed to Be Fun

Trick ‘r Treat isn’t some grim and gritty snuff film. It’s a fun time at the movies featuring safe scares and fun characters. Sure there’s blood. Sure there are murders, but it’s the fun kind. You’ll be smiling and scared all at the same time. What better way to spend the night before Halloween than by remembering what it is you love about the holiday?

So that’s it: 13 reasons to come see Trick ‘r Treat with The Hollywood Projects and the Plaza Atlanta and be a part of the fun for only $10 per ticket.

Wait. You’re still not convinced?

Oh, fine:

14.) Hot Monster Chicks

Enjoy.

Trick ‘r Treat is playing for one night only at the Plaza Atlanta on October 30, 2012 at 7:30 PM! Tickets are available at http://www.tugg.com/events/1764!!!

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