Sunday, November 25, 2012

Just Surviving

On October 5th of this year I was fortunate to attend a special event at the Motion Picture Academy celebrating the history of music in the James Bond series, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the release of DR. NO in England on that very day. It was an enjoyable evening, featuring appearances by the likes of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY composer Bill Conti, lyricist Don Black and best of all legendary guitarist Vic Flick who performed the James Bond Theme on the same guitar he first played it on in 1962. Throughout the night clips from the films were naturally shown—a number of the famous title sequences but also various scenes that spotlighted the music featured, seemingly at random, on both 35mm and digital (you can guess what looked better). It was a reminder of how these movies in particular gain from seeing them on the largest screen possible—I wonder if anyone there got as much of a kick out of seeing the climax of A VIEW TO A KILL projected more than I did. One other such clip shown was from DIE ANOTHER DAY which in just a few minutes managed to spotlight some of both the good and bad of that film in equal measure, moving from the cool enjoyment composer David Arnold brought to the Cuban section to the misguided spotlight put on its female lead.
Probably the most spectacular entry starring Pierce Brosnan and a huge hit besides, its success didn’t stop the producers at EON from making the surprising decision to reboot on the next film with a new star beginning completely from scratch and now a full decade after its release the reputation of DIE ANOTHER DAY seems to have maybe spiraled downward as an offshoot of that decision. The first thing that comes to mind revisiting the film is the terror upon realizing just how fast time has gone since November 2002 but once I’ve calmed down I find myself placing it in the context of the time—the overriding feeling of CGI sound and fury that was really beginning to be prevalent during that period while also coming at a point before the BOURNE influence really began to be felt all through the action genre. I can’t bring myself to totally dislike the film since I can never allow myself to be that negative about any Bond film but it remains a case where throughout there are elements that I find myself enjoying that are continually negated by all the noise and effects. Even though I’m not quite ready to put it on the list of all time worst Bonds that some do—there’s at least an energy found in all the mayhem a few entries that might be worse really don’t contain—I still wish the film would at least try to meet me halfway.
After a mission to North Korea is botched resulting in Bond (Pierce Brosnan) being held captive and the presumed death of Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) Bond is held captive for 14 months and when he is released in a prisoner exchange for Zao (Rick Yune), Moon’s second in command. After M (Judi Dench) informs him that his status as a 00 has been compromised Bond escapes heading on the trail of the diamonds and of Zao, who he learns has headed to Cuba. There, while preparing to infiltrate a private gene therapy clinic Bond meets the mysterious Jinx (Halle Berry) who clearly has her own interest in whatever is going on that intersects with what the rogue agent is investigating. The diamonds Bond recovers on the site leads him to a mysterious billionaire known as Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) sending him back to England where he encounters Graves’ assistant Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike) and another encounter with M that sends him off to Iceland on the trail of Graves and what he may really have in store for England, Korea and the world.
As I write this it’s November 2012. SKYFALL has happened, quickly becoming an enormous success and I’m still trying to process exactly what the film is. Whatever that might be, it feels so different from what has come before, not just in a light/dark way, that much as I admire some of the film I’m still trying to place it in the context of the series. Due to the nature of the ending I’m very curious where things might possibly go from here but as for DIE ANOTHER DAY the series as we then knew it of course went nowhere from there. Eventually it was learned that Brosnan was out, done after four films, sent off to the character actor salt mines. The rumored Halle Berry/Jinx spinoff movie never happened. Any arguments over how the concept of canon could possibly work in the James Bond universe were null and void. As Daniel Craig made his first appearance in the opening of CASINO ROYALE, none of them happened. James Bond as we knew him was dead. Long live James Bond. We didn’t see any of that coming on opening night of DIE ANOTHER DAY which at the time felt like it had more hype attached to the release than any of them ever had before. I think they all will from here on to the end of time.
Directed by Lee Tamorhori, the film at the very least feels more dynamic in its staging than the somewhat anemic Michael Apted-helmed THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH but, like the opening gunbarrel which this time adds a bullet zooming directly towards the viewer, it also feels more hyperactive while at the same time considerably more overbearing and leaden in its approach. It’s as if it’s trying way too hard to get excited about every single piece of action, adding in the occasional swooshing camera effect as if trying to boost up the excitement by any means necessary--even the opening bursts of the familiar theme at the start of the gunbarrel feel just a touch overblown. Part of the film’s reputation in memory seems to be centered around the prevalent invisible car Bond is given by Q which quickly became a Jar Jar Binks-type shorthand for everything wrong with the film and maybe even everything wrong with the series up to this point. To be charitable, this may be one of those cases where the good becomes a little forgotten due to how much the bad stuff is allowed to overtake everything else. There are elements in there (written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade) that feel right if you look for them but they’re just on a different scale and belong to a different film than they’re making--the enjoyable interplay between Bond and the Kerim Bey-type Cuban sleeper agent Raoul played by Emilio Echevarría never really amounts to anything beyond just a pleasant stop along the journey but it’s a nice diversion in the middle of all the mayhem while cutting 007 loose from Universal Exports for much of the first half allows for a looser approach both from the film and Brosnan’s own performance, looking ahead to how he would really loosen up while playing this sort of role in THE MATADOR a few years later.
From the moment Bond in tatters strolls nonchalantly into that Hong Kong hotel to the point he reaches Iceland for the big Gustav Graves presentation I honestly feel ok with the plotting of it all. There’s some funkiness, some eccentricity that comes from Bond wandering around Cuba with his tour around the Cuban gene therapy clinic briefly taking on a certain MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN vibe and Bond’s clandestine meeting with M feels like an opportunity to not only fill things in on the exposition front but also to settle down and in this unusual location of a mysterious abandoned Undergound station (“I’d heard of this place. Never thought I’d find myself here.”) acknowledges the mystique as well as the tradition of the entire series, lending a genuine sense of weight to all that surrounds it. It’s sort of a revenge story allowing Bond to get back at who betrayed him in North Korea, but not really—the Brosnan entries generally seemed unwilling to focus on one clear goal in the stories and too much of the time the film goes for the spectacle it all has to culminate in, that overwhelming feeling of sound and fury to the point where many things are barely noticeable or just too much overall--the opening surfing sequence which was probably hell to shoot but goes by so fast you barely noticed it while the fencing sequence where Bond and Graves spar off goes on so long and so loud with music blaring everywhere (this sequence aside, I like David Arnold’s score for the most part this time out) that all the fun just seeps out of things and it becomes too much of a slog. It’s a sequence that may have played as nimble during the Roger Moore era of shooting a henchman out of a tree and simply walking away with an eyebrow cocked but here just becomes too overwhelming for the sly ridiculousness that maybe should be felt.
And as much as the film pays lip service at the start to presenting a Bond in a somewhat different place things soon return to how they usually are—based on M telling him “While you were away the world changed” his reply “Not for me” indicates that even 9/11 doesn’t change James Bond (I guess it took the producers of the series to ultimately do something about that). By a certain point Bond just becomes another figure within all the CGI madness and it’s possible that the apparent aim to also make the film something of a vehicle for Halle Berry, maybe the biggest star to ever be a Bond Girl, makes things somewhat lopsided. Certain early reports had the actress playing a villain—whether true or not (it’s understandable that they would have wanted the recent Oscar winner to be the lead, not to mention any touchiness that may have come from an American portrayed as a bad guy soon after 9/11) and if this was how Michael Madsen as CIA agent Falco was originally going to be a part of things that would make sense of why his character never seems to serve any purpose. In the case of Berry’s Jinx this is the rare Bond film where the first girl Bond meets is also the final girl he winds up with in the end—not that this is automatically a bad thing it just turns them slightly more problematic in terms of the focus in relation to what the established formula is. The script seems to portray Jinx as a somewhat enigmatic figure from the start but the way the film presents her and how Berry plays the character she really can’t turn out to be anything other than what she is and in terms of dialogue she’s never written very much beyond wisecracks—all we know is that she’s named Jinx because she has bad luck from being born on Friday the 13th, but that never really matters. Much of Bond, even during the Brosnan era, is meant to remain an enigma but he’s James Bond, with decades of association to him and Berry never gives off any indication that there’s anything going on under the surface to make her the she badass needs to be. She’s just kind of a showoff and it’s not enough. Plus the lack of any mystery to her makes it a little too obvious where the plot is going--on first viewing I thought the film might pull some kind of triple bluff with the revelations involving Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost but instead of intricacy to the plotting it just goes in straight for the kill, maybe only interested in the action that things have to build to and ultimately it’s not very satisfying.
The plotting of Bond’s investigation leading to involving Gustav Graves is kind of a mashup of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER with LICENCE TO KILL along with dashes of a few others in there and I can’t even bring myself to say very much about it since I find most of the stuff involving Graves and North Korea to be uninteresting—the detail of the character not being able to sleep, a presumed side effect from the genetics surgery, feels like just another one of those details tossed in that never amounts to much, like Robert Carlyle’s bad guy in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH having a bullet in his brain. As the 20th film the film has subtle and no-so-subtle tributes to each of the other films throughout including the beats I’ve already mentioned but one favorite of mine might be Brosnan aping a Connery THUNDERBALL move by popping a grape in his mouth while slinking through the gene therapy clinic. These touches are in DIE ANOTHER DAY if you want to look for them but the film is more interested in the big stuff to allow for a satisfying narrative—the CGI, the gargantuan action setpieces, trying to keep Brosnan happy by giving him enough to do in scenes while also tailoring it as a stealth vehicle for the other star. With all these pieces taped together the structure that is DIE ANOTHER DAY is sort of able to remain standing but not very securely. The Iceland setting is fantastical which I don’t mind but all the sneaking around soon turns into action that goes on forever, with some terrible CGI and after a half-hour of all this there’s still the climax to go. It’s at least not a half-hour climax like TOMORROW NEVER DIES but fun as it sounds to have it all take place on a burning plane cutting back and forth between the two fights happening simultaneously it’s all just more noise. Maybe that’s all these movies are meant to be in the twenty-first century. Of course, CASINO ROYALE found another answer to the question of ‘what should a Bond film be?’, so I guess I’m allowed to continue asking.
Whatever he may have thought of the material, Brosnan exudes total confidence in the role by this point, confidence that comes through in the character’s declaration that he threw away his cyanide capsules years ago. Whether or not he knew this was the last shot at it he’s fully comfortable in the character’s skin, particularly during the first half when the character goes rogue. Berry is more problematic—I honestly prefer her in roles outside of her ’00-’04 career peak (BULWORTH mainly, but she’s also very good in the recent CLOUD ATLAS) but here she doesn’t seem to be playing anything other than “Halle Berry Movie Star”. She looks great, no complaints as far as that goes, but there’s no character and during those moments where she puts a ‘scared’ expression on her face she doesn’t seem to realize how playing it this way kills how cool she could possibly be here. Toby Stephens manages the appropriate sort of arrogance as Graves, while Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost feels like a character that could have used some sharpening in rewrites but she does a terrific job, bringing an unexpected intensity to even a few lines during her quiet briefing with ‘M’ and is one of those cases where it feels like a little bit of a letdown when she’s revealed as ‘just’ a bad guy, nothing more. Colin Salmon as Charles Robinson, Samantha Bond as Moneypenny and John Cleese as Q make their final series appearances (I’ll bet Cleese in particular just assumed that he’d be playing this part until the end of his days), Dench does solid work as ‘M’ with maybe the strongest tension ever felt between Brosnan and her, Madonna sings the (not very good) title song while also appearing briefly as Verity during the fencing sequence (“I don’t like cockfights,” she intones flatter than a pancake) and Michael Madsen plays CIA agent Falco, looking as if he has no idea what he’s doing there but the bit where he pops a cigarette in his mouth as soon as the threat is vanquished at the end is the most human moment in the entire film. Too bad he never got to play the role again either in further Bond films or whatever that Halle Berry spinoff movie was going to be.
Speaking of those small moments--on opening night at the Cinerama Dome the big stunt in the film, that awful CGI effect that’s supposed to be Halle Berry diving off that cliff, got absolutely zero response from the crowd. On the other hand, a throwaway gag with Moneypenny paying off the tension between Bond and her near the very end caused the place to absolutely explode. Sure, these were hardcore fans so they didn’t care very much about Halle Berry but somewhat indicative of how the film didn’t seem that interested in the things that weren’t about all that bombast. The film broke all the expected records at the time but maybe somewhere deep down this feeling was part of what caused EON to change course for the next film. It’s always been a little puzzling to me why they went so drastically different on CASINO ROYALE, a film I absolutely love, and whatever the reasons were they certainly went beyond not wanting to pay Pierce Brosnan’s fee anymore. It’s still a shame that his tenure as Bond seemed to fall short for reasons not so much having to do with him. On the other hand, DIE ANOTHER DAY is still a James Bond film. And considering the drastic changes that have occurred in the series since it’s almost as if it’s is the last Bond film, or at least the last with any real ties to the ‘classic’ continuity. So I can’t completely hate it even though my wishes that I could like it more than I do it will always fall short. As the YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE-influenced David Arnold love theme swells to a conclusion DIE ANOTHER DAY ends with a cheap joke (no surprise) of Jinx asking Bond to ‘keep it in a little longer’ until we get to see what she’s actually referring to. I’ll bet Pierce Brosnan wanted to play the character a little longer too. Of course, even when you get to embody one of the most famous characters ever life sometimes falls short. Maybe I’ll never get the perfect James Bond movie that’s in my mind. Maybe nobody will. Pierce Brosnan certainly never got to star in one, whether his first or his last. SKYFALL really isn’t but none of these are QUANTUM OF SOLACE either so I’ll try to look at the bright side. These films will continue to be fought about by people like me who spend way too much time thinking about them and I suppose as long as we have James Bond films to look forward to over many Thanksgivings in the future there’s always going to be a chance that the perfect one will come along sooner or later.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Nothing Simple About Any Of This

It’s not Brian De Palma’s fault. It’s just a coincidence. After all, much of what happens in life is made up of coincidences. Earlier this year on the night of his birthday I decided to take a look at my Criterion DVD of SISTERS, his early film from 1973. As things would have it Brian De Palma’s birthday is also September 11th and this really isn’t the place to discuss all the feelings that date brings up but there is an unusual moment early on in this particular film where Margot Kidder and Lisle Wilson are taking the ferry out to Staten Island where her apartment mysteriously is located (“Isn’t Staten Island in New York?” she innocently asks him). We pause to linger for a moment as they cross in the dead of night gazing at the World Trade Center, looking as unreal in the night fog as it always did as Bernard Herrmann’s eerily romantic score plays on the soundtrack, one of those moments that certainly plays different now than it did at one time. And there’s not a thing we can do about it. I could point out that this isn’t even the only De Palma film to have some kind of WTC connection—the famous Steadicam shot at the start of BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES filmed right around there, Windows on the World was used as a setting in DRESSED TO KILL and the lobby was even going to be featured in the climax of CARLITO’S WAY before the February ’93 bombing forced that production to change plans. This is all true but there’s not very much to gain from pointing out all this either. Maybe films don’t affect real life very much but real life certainly affects the films, how we forever see them. That’s just the way it is.
As for the present, there’s a new Brian De Palma film out there in the world, a remake of the French thriller LOVE CRIME entitled PASSION. I assume that at some point in the future, hopefully in 2013, I will see it. I do not know when. I only know that as a longtime fan of the director I hope for the best so if you have seen it already and are negative about the whole thing, well, let me find out for myself. Maybe I’m a defender of the guy but that doesn’t mean I’m saying he’s infallible. For a long time now I’ve stalled on writing a BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES piece because whatever would be said (not very good) doesn’t go much against what the film’s general reputation is and what would be the point of doing that? Still, for me Brian De Palma’s best films live, they remain vibrant, within every ounce of whatever illogic that is going on within them they make me want to burst out into song from how glorious they are. An early example of homage coming from the New Hollywood, SISTERS came as his style was still developing so for a few reasons it’s not quite as potent or memorable as some of his later films would be but so much is already right there, bursting full born from the womb of his madness—stabs at social commentary, the staging of certain moments within the frame, the offhand humor, the music, the actors, the fearlessness at getting the ever-elusive answers to what should by all logic be right in front of you. Some may disagree, which is fine, but SISTERS really isn’t a masterwork. And yet it’s clear now that it’s very much the work of someone who would go on to make a few.
When Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) and Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) have a meet cute appearing on the hidden camera game show “Peeping Toms” she kindly helps herself to coming along with him to the dinner he’s won at Manhattan’s exotic African Room. While there she is accosted by her ex-husband Emil (William Finley) and even after getting thrown out he even turns up outside Danielle’s Staten Island apartment when Phillip takes her home, along with the deluxe set of cutlery that she won on the show. After spending the night, Phillip discovers that it’s not only Danielle’s birthday but also that of her twin sister Dominique in the next room. Clearly a nice guy, Phillip goes out to pick up Danielle’s much-needed prescription after which he takes a few minutes to pick up a birthday cake to bring home to the twins…but what happens in the apartment next is witnessed by local reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) who is determined to prove what has happened and what is really going on in the building across her courtyard.
The subject of Hitchcock in relation to SISTERS is unavoidable whether we’re talking about PSYCHO or REAR WINDOW or ROPE or certain other films and it was no doubt obvious at the time of release, just as even Hitchcock himself was taking his dabblings with sex and violence further that he ever had before with the previous year’s FRENZY. We’ve long since gotten used to shocking twists that kill off presumed lead characters early on by now the schematics of the SISTERS plotline doesn’t feel as daring as it once might have and the details aren’t as crystalized as they would feel in some of De Palma’s later films such as how the staging of the murder makes it unclear just how much Grace is really able to witness. Plus on a basic screenwriting level the lack of a McGuffin equivalent to PSYCHO’s $40,000 that tracks the whole way through makes the switch at the half-hour mark almost feel like the film is restarting more than it would otherwise. When the film hits the climax soon after the hour mark it feels like not much in the way of plot has actually happened but, of course, maybe this doesn’t matter very much at all and in some ways makes everything all the more off kilter, more experimental, all the more willing to go in directions that wouldn’t be expected. It’s the showiest scenes in SISTERS that make the most impression whether the shock of the murder that things have been carefully built up to or the extended post-murder section largely presented in split screen, a pair of twins itself, where we’re not following the plot so much as the carefully composed process of what’s happening in each half affecting our own interpretation of what is going on down to the climax which isn’t a climax of plot so much as a climax of complete and total delirium, finally crashing into a brick wall that doesn’t allow anything to be resolved because sometimes in life nothing can ever be.
The opening CANDID CAMERA-like TV show PEEPING TOMS (probably not many more people get that reference now than they did then) that opens the film lays out exactly what we’re going to see—what we choose to focus our gaze on, what we turn away from even if it’s right in front of us—that’s what the film ultimately is about. Phillip chose not to keep watching Danielle when in front of that hidden camera but he’s very happy to gaze at her when she strips down for him in real life (giving us a nice glimpse at crazy hot early 70s Margot Kidder, incidentally). Throughout the film images seem to comment on other images, culminating in the madness it all builds to. Even the primary setting of Staten Island (a place which is very much in the news now after Hurricane Sandy but that’s just a coincidence too) that sits apart from Manhattan where the recently built twin towers sit oh so prevalent seeming not just a beacon from the city but also strangely representative of the mysterious twins that Grace is investigating. The process of how she learns things is strangely matter-of-fact all things considered, essentially given most of her information by watching a film within this film, provided to her by the helpful editor at Life Magazine played by Barnard Hughes and it’s what it all builds to in her discoveries, leading to the ultra-zoom into Grace’s eye revealing her ultimate nightmare it’s not a revelation of plot but rather a surreal Felliniesque landscape, total madness with every shriek ringing out in the Bernard Herrmann score.
All things considered, I’m not even sure what the climax is supposed to be a climax to. It’s a dream with imagery that comes not only from the film-within-the-film Grace was shown but also from the lunacy of the movie itself as well as the forever unspoken insecurities of the more-or-less lead, appearing uneasy next to the more glamorous Margot Kidder until she’s safely back in her childhood bedroom totally lost from any sort of reason. Nothing makes sense because people don’t (can’t) make sense, so everything can’t all be cleared up Freudian-style a la MARNIE or via Simon Oakland’s endless explanation in PSYCHO. Unlike Hitchcock as his most formal, logic has nothing to do with it. The famous final shot, which gets people to throw up their hands as much as anything also seems somewhat out of PSYCHO as well only this one reveals a character who doesn’t quite know the significance of what he’s looking at, waiting for someone who will never come, watching, forever watching, ultimately seeing nothing and everything all at once. There was no body because there was no murder. It’s all very simple. It’s all madness. De Palma knew it then. It’s still that way now.
The nature of the plot means that there isn’t quite a lead—Margot Kidder certainly has screen presence, shaky French accent aside and expresses total vivaciousness while being just off kilter enough that we can still believe in whatever madness lies within. Jennifer Salt more than holds the screen when she comes to the forefront—her anger seems totally believable and, frankly, if I ever met the actress I’d almost expect her to act just like Grace Collier—and it’s interesting to compare her determined nature with the more confident presence of Kidder. Even their personal environment adds to their performances--compared with the total blankness of Danielle’s anonymous apartment is Grace’s bedroom at her local childhood home, still covered with posters from her teenage years. Wilson expresses a casual likable nature almost immediately from his patient response to his prize on the game show and it’s the supporting performances that stand out even more and where the greatest eccentricities come to the forefront—Charles Durning as private detective Joseph Larch insisting that he knows the right way to do things, William Finley (best known for playing Winslow Leach in De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) as mysterious doctor Emil Breton, Barnard Hughes and his absent-minded curiosity as Life editor Arthur McLennen, Salt’s real-life mother Mary Davenport playing her onscreen mother as well, the abrasive weariness of Dolph Sweet as the investigating police detective as well as an early appearance by Olympia Dukakis as one of the bakery employees who beams as she moves into frame to give the correct names on the cake as if trying to upstage her coworker.
SISTERS is the rare De Palma film that came out so long ago I have no recollection of how it was received so maybe because of this the film has always seemed that much more enigmatic to me. In some ways I’m not even sure how to place it in context with those other films outside of just the director getting started on what was going to be the rest of his career. So what do I respond to? The gazing. The split screen. The Herrmann score. Margot Kidder stripping down. William Finley glancing up at the TV camera as it pans past him in the audience of PEEPING TOMS. The endless way the movie holds on the frame during the first murder scene. The African Room. What Jennifer Salt’s Grace Collier is defiantly insisting on at the very end. That music box-like theme as the ‘Happy Birthday’ greeting is carefully written out on that cake, later on heard again as we view that absurd final shot. Memories of the World Trade Center, still there as characters travel back and forth to Staten Island, insistent there in the reality of this movie and gazing back at me as I stand there at a point in my youth that now feels like very long ago. And there’s not a thing I can do about that. There’s not a thing anyone can do about it.