Tuesday, November 27, 2012


"What makes you think this is my first time?"

SKYFALL, the latest James Bond thriller, begins with a splendid high-speed chase involving all manner of transportation and a capable female colleague who seems to be able to match Bond stunt for stunt and quip for quip.  Eventually Bond is fighting a villain atop a speeding train, with the female colleague perched far away with a rifle trying to get a clear shot at the bad guy.  Bond falls to what looks like his death, and there’s a rather sticky situation – not only does the bad guy get away with vital information about every single British Intelligence officer serving in the field, but the shot that takes Bond down was fired at M’s specific command, despite the lack of a clear enough shot to ensure Bond’s safety. 

Bond lays low for a while, hiding out in some tropical place, drinking and screwing himself senseless.  Meanwhile, British Intelligence is having a rough time of it – as supervillain Raoul Silva (a marvelous and genuinely frightening Javier Bardem) has decided to take some revenge on the entire organization in general and Judi Dench’s M in particular by publishing that vital information  online.  Computer messages with the words CONSIDER YOUR SINS pop up on M’s computer before assorted bad things happen, Bond sees TV coverage of a particularly nasty event and decides to report for duty, and we’re off.

There’s no denying that SKYFALL is a substantial improvement over the previous outing, the lackluster QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  The story is clearer, the action scenes better handled with none of the handheld jittery camera and bad editing that made certain scenes in QUANTUM damn near incomprehensible.  SKYFALL is a return to solid action movie-making, and that turns out to be a blessing and a curse, as the film also thinks it has something important to say about the state of the world, and the high price of keeping us all safe, and the vexing question of how far the good guys can go before they become bad guys too -- M gets an extended speech that touches on all of those issues, and it seems characteristic of the film that it only touches on those issues. 

It is hard to understand what the film is trying to tell me – mixed messages are the order of the day here.   It turns out that British Intelligence has already gone pretty far in being Bad Good Guys, and they’ve become a pretty nasty and arrogant bunch – Bardem’s Silva has a pretty solid grudge against them in general and M in particular, M having sold Silva out to the Chinese in return for some captured agents and the smooth transition of power in Hong Kong. Silva’s experiences in a Chinese prison have left him a physical wreck and ready for some payback, and I for one don’t see how anyone can blame him for wanting to wreak a little havoc.  The film’s more than casual racism cannot be denied, as the film’s heroes are damn near exclusively White and British, and the film’s villains are damn near exclusively Neither.  It has to be noted that the only person of color to survive to the end of the film does so by taking a notably servile role – the sharp and smart black woman who makes such an impression in the film’s opening sequence is finally revealed as the new Miss Moneypenny (new for this version of the franchise, anyway).  The really tasteless moments when Bardem as Silva suggestively strokes Bond’s skin at one point brings back all kinds of ugly memories of stereotyped gay villains from the bad old days of the past, and would be really appallingly offensive if it wasn’t mitigated somewhat by the real justice of his grudge, and the overt symbolism of his Bond-executed final dispatch – Silva gets stabbed in the back.  The film’s surprisingly forthright criticism of the arrogance of British Intelligence, best shown by Ben Whishaw’s snotty young Q who damn near brings down MI6’s entire computer network due to sheer conceited stupidity, doesn’t fit well with the film’s ending, in which a Great White Male Authority Figure is installed in M’s position, with Bond's full support and respect because well, he's the new guy in charge and loyalty and all that. 

Now of course this could all be very much the point, but I'm going to have to say that it never feels like the point.  Over-reaching has never been a characteristic of the James Bond franchise, until SKYFALL.  A shame, as the Daniel Craig version of the franchise had upped the ante considerably over the earlier incarnations, as we got to watch Craig's Bond learn the hard personal lessons of being a killer for hire.  SKYFALL seeks to up the ante still further, and it just doesn't work.  I hope they settle for less next time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

For the last few years I've been attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a great and glorious occasion held each July at the Castro Theater. Here are some notes from this year's festival:

WINGS – a brand new restored gorgeous print, with live music from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and live foley sound effects by Ben Burtt. The film is beautifully made, no question, with some still damned impressive aerial fight sequences that only get more amazing when one remembers that those are real planes really zooming around like that. WINGS was the first Oscar winner for Best Picture and it sets the template for so many Best Pictures to come in that it manages to sidestep any serious issues that it might have dealt with. The movie just plain hasn’t got much on its mind, especially in comparison with earlier World War I related films like Vidor’s remarkable THE BIG PARADE, which is far more forthright about the real horrors of war in general and WWI in particular. WINGS settles for being a romance with a wartime setting, and even then it leaves a lot to be desired. CASABLANCA it ain’t. A good part of the blame has to go to Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, who doesn’t let the horrors of war do anything to diminish his essential Bright Eyed And Bushy Tailedness -- no one has ever seemed less affected by the experience of war. On the other hand, there are some fine performances from Richard Arlen, who actually manages to imbue his character with a measurable IQ, and of course the magnificent, irresistible Clara Bow. There’s even a cameo from a pre-stardom Gary Cooper. Cooper, who can’t be onscreen for more than three minutes, frankly obliterates Arlen and Rogers in a dazzling display of what I can only describe as Magnetic Underplaying. He’s absolutely natural and at ease onscreen in ways that Rogers in particular can’t come near.

Next up was a film from Ernst Lubitsch, THE LOVES OF PHAROAH, a German super-production made with some backing from Hollywood. Big sets, big story, lots of stuff going on all the time, and unfortunately it just never got off the ground somehow despite all the spectacle and wackadoo plot games. A big story like this demands a painterly eye and some real control behind that camera, which means that it required the Fritz Lang of METROPOLIS or DIE NIEBELUNGEN to get it going and keep it interesting. There’s one moment early in the film when the Pharoah makes a grand entrance through a gigantic pair of doors, and I remember thinking at one point in the film that Lang would have made damn sure that both parts of that door swung open at exactly the same time, and Lang’s big set pieces never fall as flat as the ones in Lubitsch’s film. Lubitsch did get some fine performances from Emil Jannings and Albert Basserman in particular. Emil Jannings really goes for broke here – heavy emoting and stylized hyper dramatics, culminating in one of the most remarkable stunts I’ve ever seen an actor pull off. Basserman, who was one of the last German actors to escape Europe before WWII really broke out, has a tiny moment of real power that I can’t describe without giving away some hellacious spoilers, but trust me on this – he was marvelous.

And then came MANTRAP, a comedy from Victor Fleming that I can’t believe hadn’t come my way before. The plot concerns Ralph, a successful divorce lawyer who seeks to escape his flirtatious clients by going on vacation in the wilds of Canada. Ralph is rescued by Joe, a local shopowner married to the alluring Alverna. Ralph soon falls victim to Alverna’s charm, hardly surprisingly as Alverna is embodied by the impossibly appealing Clara Bow. Plot, schmot. The movie is really about how we must all fall madly in love with Clara Bow, and I can’t imagine anyone not falling madly in love with Clara Bow. It can’t be helped. Her energy and enthusiasm and sex appeal and just sheer total animal joy are absolutely intoxicating, and it is to the film’s credit that it resists the temptation to go all Moral on us, tacking on a righteously lecturing ending. Everyone lives happily and presumably sexily ever after. Works for me. We should all be so lucky.

THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA was next, a German film starring Brigitte Helm, best known for her work in Lang’s METROPOLIS. Here she plays the a woman who falls for a junior military officer, the problem being that she’s already the kept woman of a higher-ranking military officer. Love and tragedy ensue. After all these years of knowing Helm only from METROPOLIS it was a real pleasure to see her do something else, not bound by the rather rigid demands of playing Extreme Purity (METROPOLIS’s almost too saintly Maria) or Extreme Wickedness (Robot Maria from the same film). Her Nina Petrovna comes off as a prototype of a von Sternberg heroine, sacrificing all for love. She’s got some wonderful moments during her big seduction of a rather clueless Lederer, who keeps not getting the idea that he’s supposed to make the first move. A lovely performance in a fine film that deserves to be better known, I think.

One of the real pleasures of the festival was a program of silent Felix The Cat cartoons, from the era when Felix was more popular than Mickey Mouse. Several shorts were shown, all of which had delights. There were plenty of marvelous gags, including some flat-out bizarre moments of the kind that Disney never really got into. One strange cartoon set in Toyland featured the silhouette of a lynched clown suspended over a chessboard, for example. A wonderful program.

These extraordinary works were followed by an extraordinarily ordinary little film called THE SPANISH DANCER. I don’t have a lot to say about it. Despite some fine flourshes and a rather entertaining climax, the film never quite got as much steam going as I’d wished, due at least to a lackluster male lead, one Antonio Moreno, who was no Douglas Fairbanks, as was made all too evident at the screening of Fairbanks’ great comic adventure THE MARK OF ZORRO the following day. Fairbanks, as Zorro, has a great time in the dual roles of the kinetic Zorro, merrily doing improbabl stunts with the greatest of ease, and Zorro’s altar ego Don Diego, virtually immobilized with boredom and doing strange tricks with his handkerchief. The plot is rather unwieldy, and if I have to say that Fairbanks’ more serious moments can be a bit of a drag on the film, well, the plot moves quickly enough and Fairbanks is never very serious for very long.

The real attraction this year, though, was a glorious restoration of G.W. Pabst’s PANDORA’S BOX, starring the luminous Louise Brooks as Lulu. I’d seen the film before, of course, but never on a screen as huge as the Castro’s, and never in such sparkling clarity, and the score by the Matti Bye Ensemble is one of the finest in my experience. I was just plain staggered by the film. I felt like it finally made total sense this time out, in ways that I can’t really put my finger on, and I had friends in attendance who felt much the same way. My friend Phillip and I had to go for a walk afterward to get our bearings, we were so hammered by the experience. The film is the story of Lulu, a kept woman in 1920s Berlin who seems able to charm any living male and many living females. Lulu’s no seductress or Garbonian vamp: she’s completely delightful in every way, able to make everyone she meets believe that they’re the most important person in the world. Not the least of the seduction jobs Lulu pulls is the one she plays on the audience, as American actress Louise Brooks could seduce the Pope himself. The film charts Lulu’s rise and pretty terrible fall, as well as the rise and pretty terrible fall of those in her orbit. Poor Lulu’s ugly fate is particularly interesting when contrasted with the fate of MANTRAP’s Alverna, who will clearly keep on delighting all those lucky enough to bask in her magical, infuriating, delightful presence. Of course, MANTRAP is a comedy, a film of the light while PANDORA’S BOX is very much a tragedy, a film of the shadows. I think it is a measure of MANTRAP’s accomplishment that I can think of it at the same time as I think of PANDORA’S BOX without feeling that a disservice is being done to either film. A great comedy is the other side of the coin from a great tragedy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Damn it has been a while. Here are some capsule thoughts on some things:


"Well, dammit, what were you then?"

The Cold War was never colder than in the novels of John le Carre, and this latest film adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (a famed BBC version with Alec Guinness as master spy George Smiley was made in the 1980s) manages to lower the temperature to near freezing levels, keeping the action slow and the talk hushed. This is a a daring move in these days of full out in your face action thrillers, but this is no James Bond/Tom Cruise Mission Impossible adventure. In le Carre’s shadow world of intrigue and betrayal and counter betrayal and assassinations both physical and emotional, a wise person keeps himself under wraps, giving away as little as possible, and, as Smiley, Gary Oldman delivers an astonishing display of the power of underplaying, using only the smallest of gestures and the quietest of voice levels; in one scene a shift of his head a fraction of an inch to the right speaks volumes. The basic plot couldn’t be simpler -- Smiley is re-called from a forced retirement to hunt down a highly placed traitor in British Intelligence. A deceptively simple storyline, stated that way, but there’s nothing simple about le Carre’s novel or this film. Keep your eyes and your ears open, and you’ll have a great time. For my money, the best film I saw in 2011.


"Wizz pleasure!"

Was I dreading this. A latter-day silent film, winner of multiple awards, about the effect of the advent of sound on the career of a popular actor? Oy. I dragged my feet going in, and found to my delight that THE ARTIST is that rarest of rare things -- a feel-good movie that actually made me feel good. The story of George Valentin, a silent movie star (a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert) whose career falters with the advent of sound, and of Peppy, a young actress whose career takes off with the advent of sound. It sounds familiar, of course, and part of the joy of THE ARTIST is the way it manages to breathe life and energy and basic good cheer into its rather familiar storyline. Jean Dujardin's lauded performance as George is simply magical, he's one of the most appealing leading men in recent memory, with an intoxicating blend of virility and silliness I found irresistible. I gave in at one moment in particular, when George happily bounces downstairs before heading out to work, only to briefly pause at the front door to get an admiring look at a life-size portrait of himself in all his grinning glory -- never has self-regard been made so charming and so appealing, and the miracle is that Dujardin never once crosses the line into obnoxious egotism, and even more miraculously, neither does the film he's starring in.

Well, almost never. There's one ghastly mis-step where director Michel Hazanavicius over-reaches, using a track of Bernard Herrmann's score from VERTIGO that is wildly inappropriate, but it doesn't last long. Overall, THE ARTIST is a treat. It manages to embody the Magic Of The Movies in ways that Scorsese's HUGO could only lecture me about.


"I'm crazy."

David Fincher's film of the wildly popular Stieg Larson novel, with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced magazine publisher, is offered the chance to redeem himself in the public eye if he aids an older tycoon in the search for the tycoon's missing relative. Blomkvist is aided in his search by Lizbeth Salander, the title character, a computer hacker with some serious emotional baggage. The best parts of the film, and the novel, are the opening sections centering on Blomkvist and Salander and their respective lives and growing relationship. And while the investigation into the disappearance is done with some good energy, all of David Fincher's most energetic filmmaking and marvelous set pieces and unexpected touches (one in particular involving a mass murderer's taste in music is probably the comic highpoint of Fincher's career) and an excellent performance from Craig and a better than excellent performance from Mara can't cover up the fact that we're dealing with what is really just another serial killer movie. A real shame -- I wish Larsson had come up with something more interesting for these characters to spend our time doing. There's less than meets the eye here. I doubt I'll bother with the inevitable sequels.


"Your money won't buy you out of this."

A solid bore. Rich white guy Matt King, played by George Clooney, is having a rough time: his wife won't be emerging from the coma she's fallen into following a boating accident, and it soon becomes clear that King's life is in danger of coming apart at the seams, and there's some stuff involving the sale of some important real estate that has been in the family for generations, and you might be moved to care but I just plain never was, try as I might. Only Shailene Woodley, as King's elder daughter, made me even remotely interested in the proceedings, as her character moves from open contempt for her father to a solid affection and respect for him. I hadn't expected the film to be such a bore, it just meant NOTHING to me at all, and it is hard to figure out what the problem is, as the same director made SIDEWAYS into such an interesting and energetic film. But of course SIDEWAYS had the great Paul Giamatti who is always interesting to watch, while THE DESCENDANTS has George Clooney, an actor I've never been able to warm up to beyond his considerable physical charms. There's a reserve, a distance, a sense that he's the smartest/best looking/best person in the room and that he knows it, that I always find off-putting when it comes to generating any real sympathy for any plight his characters might be in. Yeah, I know, Matt King is supposed to be distant and a little lost and a little smug even, but there's something about Clooney's performance, and the film that contains it, that prevented me from giving a basic goddamn about him and what he was going through.