Skyfall (2012) – Sam Mendes

After a close shave with death and a prolonged absence, James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to the British secret service to defend both M (Judi Dench) and the British national security from a dangerous figure from M’s past.

My mom and I went to see this together after Thanksgiving dinner.  The first Bond movie I’ve ever seen in its entirety!  Now I understand what I’ve been missing all this time.  This film is straight up sexy.  Every aspect of it is sleek and shiny, from Bond’s demeanor to his high-tech weaponry to the women he seduces at every turn.  As far as action films go, Skyfall is an aesthetic triumph, clean and precise, with ample use of dramatic silhouettes against vibrant backgrounds to boot.

The Bond tradition brings with it a lot of clichés, and Skyfall pays homage to those earlier films without being stale.  The score, while mostly original, occasionally incorporates in the familiar Bond theme, and Bond gets the obligatory, “Bond. James Bond” line out of the way without too much trouble.  In the bar in Macau, we see the bartender shaking a martini for him.  “That’s perfect,” he says, hinting at but not outright saying the also obligatory, “Shaken, not stirred”.  These little references are quaint nods to legacy that precedes this film, and they’re understated enough not to be hokey and distracting.  There are, of course, also some references that are more tongue-in-cheek (it must be hard to resist); after presenting Bond with his weapons, for instance, Q (Ben Whishaw) asks with mild humor, “Were you expecting an exploding pen?”

In general, this film is packed with allusions. Especially towards the end, I noticed several — perhaps unintentional — Hitchcock references.  Bond and M lure Silva (Javier Bardem) to the Scottish moor, a setting not unlike that of The 39 Steps.  The final showdown is shot at twilight (a directorial choice that I thought was brilliant; the milky blue light slowly deepening into night provides added sense of urgency, not to mention it’s gorgeous to look at), which is reminiscent of Scottie and Judy’s twilit confrontation in the churchyard in Vertigo.  And the final combustion of Skyfall seems to be a nod to Manderley’s burning at the end of Rebecca, both mansions being filled with haunting memories from the past.

Haunting memories from the past are all over this film.  Bond has his own demons to deal with, the climax of the film taking place at his childhood home.  He is himself in some ways a memory from the past, everyone having assumed him to be dead until he reemerges unscathed (well, not quite).  And Silva is a previous agent of M’s, come to have his revenge for what he sees to be a betrayal.  His hacking of her computer reminds her, “Think on your sins.”

Javier Bardem’s performance as Silva is both haunting and weirdly charismatic, as all good villains should be.  Physically he is unsettling to look at; the blonde hair is peculiar with his complexion.  Interestingly, he is dressed often in light colors, browns and creamy whites, whereas Bond and M are always in blacks and grays — reversing the common symbolism of dark = evil, light = good.  This is fitting, as Silva is a bringer of chaos, attempting to dislodge Bond’s loyalty to M and to paint her as heartless and manipulative.

Silva’s sexuality is ambiguous throughout the film.  When he first captures Bond, he caresses Bond’s chest and runs his hands briefly over Bond’s thighs.  Later, when attempting to kill M, he begins to breathe heavily while holding the gun to her face, almost as if deriving sexual pleasure from the thought of killing her.  At first I was a little apprehensive of Silva’s physical flirtation with Bond (I wasn’t fond of the idea of homosexuality being used as a weird, unsettling quality in the film’s main villain), but with his reaction to holding a gun to M’s face, I realized that Silva is getting off on chaos and violence more than anything else.  His complete ease with himself and willingness to do pretty much anything is what makes him strangely charismatic and alluring — a quality that heightens how frightening he is.

My only real complaint with the film is the character of Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) — or rather, the role she plays in the film.  She serves more as a plot device than anything else.  Mysterious, beautiful, and entangled in some really dangerous business, Sévérine has all the makings of a classic femme fatale.  And, like all femme fatales, her fate is to be either punished or redeemed — to die or to be saved by a man from her sinful ways.  In Sévérine’s case, her fate is not a happy one. Within a half hour of screen time she provides Bond with information and a route to Silva, sleeps with Bond, and is killed in one of Silva’s wicked games.  Sadly, her death does little but demonstrate Silva’s cruelty and provide Bond with a clever but (I thought) somewhat cruel one-liner: “That’s a waste of good scotch.”

To me, Sévérine’s story is a tragedy to which the film does not do justice.  Even in her brief time on screen Marlohe gives a beautiful performance, flashing radiant smiles whose transience belies how rehearsed they are.  I was disappointed both in the blasé way Bond handles her death, and in the fact that an interesting character was eliminated so quickly.  There is certainly a tradition of chauvinism in the Bond films, and these women have come a long way — but while Sévérine’s character could have been worse, I do think she also could have been more fleshed out and given more agency.

Otherwise, I loved this.  Loved it.  It had all the thrills and chase scenes and explosions of a good action flick, but it was also ideologically rich and cohesive.  It was even a little funny.  And my god was it beautifully filmed.  Bravo.

Seven Psychopaths (2012) – Martin McDonagh

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I saw this twice in theaters.  Gotta love these dark, existential comedies.

Colin Farrell is Marty, a young writer struggling to put together a screenplay entitled Seven Psychopaths.  When Marty’s friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who runs a lucrative “dog-borrowing” business with his friend Hans (Christopher Walken), kidnaps a local gangster’s shih tsu, the three men find themselves entangled in trouble that will certainly provide fodder for Marty’s screenplay.

You can’t really go wrong with a cast like this.  Phenomenal acting all around.  The characters are archetypal — the alcoholic writer, the adventurous and impulsive best friend, the elderly religious man, the abusive Mafioso — but vulnerable and endearing in their own ways.  Christopher Walken is, predictably, enigmatic and taciturn as the Quaker Hans, but he eventually reveals himself to have a streak of (there’s really no other word for it) badass in him.  Woody Harrelson is frightening and brutal as mafia man Charlie Costello, but he has also a huge, weepy soft spot for his tiny fluffy dog.

Sam Rockwell’s performance is particularly noteworthy, perhaps because Billy is such an outrageous character — stubborn, reckless, rude, and yet oddly adorable and childlike.  He is a force of chaos in the film, reacting delightedly to the violence occurring around him.  When he senses danger heading his way, he does all he can to speed its progress.

Billy’s psychotic behavior is pitted interestingly against Hans’s steadfast religious devotion, and Marty’s dedication to pacifism.  The contrast of these men’s philosophies makes their attempted collaboration on the screenplay difficult, to say the least. (Marty suggests that the seven psychopaths sit and talk — no violence, no final shoot-out, just peaceful discussion.  “No shoot-out?!” Billy practically yells.)

The three main characters’ wildly different views also allow the film to take on a disparate tone, especially in relation to violence.  Some acts of violence are mentioned casually in passing; some are mourned; some are regarded as righteously vengeful; some serve a comedic purpose.  This film may on the surface appear merely to be a funny movie about psychopaths, but it is actually a hexaflexagon of messages, tenors, ideas, and stories within stories.

The most blatant way this is demonstrated is through the elements of metafiction.  Right away, we are primed to anticipate parallels between the screenplay Marty is writing and the film we ourselves are watching.  And parallels we get!  McDonagh thankfully steers clear of blatant connections and cheap one-liners, however; the relationship between the two fictions is actually very complex. The world of the screenplay and the world of the narrative are constantly in flux, fictional characters becoming real and real characters providing inspiration for fiction.  Rather than simply indulging in trite self-referential jokes, McDonagh uses the metafictional aspects of the film to examine the way that we create and pass on stories, especially in the context of violence.  The metafiction actually enhances the profundity of the film, rather than detracting from it.

There are elements of this film that I think border on absurdism.  When the three main characters drive out into the desert, they enter a state not unlike that of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot — alone in an empty landscape for an undetermined period of time, debating art and metaphysics, awaiting Charlie’s arrival.  Instead of dealing in meaningless, however, these characters have the opposite problem: too much meaning.  Every character, fictional or real, brings his own conflicting philosophy.  This ambiguity does allow the film to avoid being didactic, but in some ways I think there is too much ambiguity and too much going on.  McDonagh touches upon many big ideas: religion, the role violence plays in entertainment, the purposes violence can serve, representation of race and gender in stories.  And there isn’t necessarily enough room in one film for so many big ideas.  A lot of interesting things get glossed over because the film is so packed.

That being said, it is a ride.  Even if all the parts don’t tie neatly together the way you might expect, it’s certainly thought provoking.  Great characters, great acting.  A twisting, devilish screenplay with moments of tenderness.  And it’s funny as all hell.

(On a side note — the publicity for this film made me angry.  If you look at the poster, the figures are numbered 1 through 7 to indicate the seven psychopaths.  Not only are half of these characters not the “seven psychopaths” of the narrative (the film takes great care to identify the specific seven psychopaths as they show up), but also some of the characters on the poster actually have incredibly minor roles in the plot.  Namely, the two women — Abbie Cornish as Marty’s girlfriend Kaya, featured in two scenes; and Olga Kurylenko as Charlie’s girlfriend Angela, featured in one scene.

The film does acknowledge the marginal role of its female characters.  When Hans reads a draft of Marty’s screenplay, he points out that all of the women are either idiots or immediately killed.  “It’s a hard world for women,” Marty says, shrugging.  “Yeah, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together,” Hans says.  It’s debatable whether recognizing this problem excuses the fact that all the women in the film are either idiots or dead.  All that aside, I just found it pretty dishonest to put these women on the poster, and to pretend that they play any significant role in the plot.  Come on.  They are not two of the seven psychopaths; on the contrary, they could be removed entirely from the film, and the events of the plot would continue without a hitch.)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) – Tom Tykwer

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It’s a strange coincidence that I watched this film the same day that this article on olfactory art was posted in the Daily Beast!  Check it out – creepy and interesting (just like Perfume…).

Ben Whishaw is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man whose superior sense of smell inspires him to seek a method to preserve every scent.  His passion for perfume takes a dark turn when he begins to pursue in particular the scents of beautiful young women.

We begin in medias res, with Grenouille in chains, being sentenced to death in front of a crowd of furious people.  The film then takes us back to the beginning of Grenouille’s life, his discovery of his incredible sense of smell, and his teenage years working as a tanner’s apprentice.  Even before we know why Grenouille will be sentenced to a violent death, there is something disquieting about him, something that makes us distrust him.  Whishaw, with whom I became familiar in the very different film Bright Star, is here taciturn, filthy, and vaguely simian in his movements.  Grenouille creates his perfumes with the meticulousness of an artist, but pursues scents with the unthinking instincts of a beast.  Death follows him in his wake, whether he is causing it accidentally or on purpose.

Cinematographically, the film is impressive.  It is an interesting project, to use a visual medium to tell a story that hinges on olfactory experiences, and the result is a visually rich and creative film.  Tykwer makes great use of swift, zooming shots – either zooming across great areas to demonstrate the breadth of Grenouille’s sense of smell, or into smaller, detailed spaces to illustrate his precision.  The film also often employs a series of short, close shots to render Grenouille’s ability to smell a subject: a woman’s shoulder, her hair, her lips.  Through these shots, we are able to see how refined his sense is, as well as the unsettling and almost violating intimacy he is able to reach with it.

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The film makes a few off-putting choices in the presentation of the narrative itself, especially towards the beginning.  The hokey British narrator describes the events of the plot in a theatrically hushed tone, giving the effect of telling a story to small children.  Another misstep is the casting of Dustin Hoffman as Giuseppe Baldini, the Italian perfume-maker who teaches Grenouille the basics of perfume.  Hoffman looks out of place in his make-up and powdered wig, and his Italian accent does not read.  Thankfully, he is featured only briefly – and Alan Rickman’s subsequent performance as Antoine Richis, the father of Grenouille’s last victim, is more believable, bringing us back into the world of the story.

Once you are able to get past these strange distractions (and once you accept that the majority of the film will feature Whishaw wandering around with his eyes closed, sniffing loudly), Perfume actually has something very interesting to say about the power of beauty and pleasure.  As the narrator describes it, it is “a power stronger than the power of money or terror or death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind.”  And in the end it is this power that proves the most deadly, and what starts off as Grenouille’s bizarre fetish ultimately provides him with incredible and terrifying power.

This film is perhaps a more successful aesthetic experiment than anything else.  The narrative is a little absurd at times, but overall there is a certain allure to the film, a tantalizing juxtaposition (and perhaps combination) of the beautiful and the gruesome.

Thumbsucker (2005) – Mike Mills

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This is the debut feature film by director Mike Mills, who today is better known for his 2010 film, Beginners (featuring my one and only love, Ewan McGregor).  In Thumbsucker, Lou Taylor Pucci is Justin Cobb, a senior in high school struggling with college applications, familial issues, crushes on girls, and the fact that at age eighteen he still sucks his thumb.  When his orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) (lol) uses hypnosis to break Justin of his thumbsucking habit, Justin’s world is thrown into chaos as he seeks to redefine himself.  Cast also features Tilda Swinton as Justin’s mother, and Vince Vaughn, perhaps against type, as Justin’s debate team coach.

This film is sweet and quirky, although thematically a little all over the place.  The characters surrounding Justin are multifaceted and interesting, and each seems to have his or her own story to tell.  Justin’s mother Audrey and her infatuation with her favorite TV actor, with whom Justin suspects she is having an affair.  His father Mike and the injury that ruined his athletic career.  His orthodontist’s fluctuating attitude toward his own New Age philosophies.  His debate coach’s strange, inappropriate relationship to his debate team (inviting Justin and the three girls into the men’s bathroom for a pep talk (“It’s all right, I’m a teacher”), expecting Justin to share a hotel room with him instead of with the other students, providing alcohol for the team, etc).

Unfortunately, instead of providing Justin’s story with a rich and realistic backdrop, the other characters actually distract from the main plot.  We catch only glimpses of their tangential stories, and we want to know more.  The overall effect is chaotic and unfocused, Mills scrambling to link these background stories together and to resolve them in a satisfying way by the end of the film.  Some of the stories are resolved too simply – others are only touched upon and are never really resolved at all.

Justin’s journey itself is confusing and winding.  He moves from craze to craze, using his newly prescribed Ritalin to become the debate team champion, then moving on to marijuana and sex, until we as viewers all but forget about the initial thumbsucking problem.  Each stage is interesting and entertaining, but again, the plot features a lack of focus and cohesion.  Every twenty minutes feels like a section of a different film.

That being said, Thumbsucker is funny (certain scenes made me laugh out loud), and there is a lot of humanity in it.  Justin is just gawky and self-conscious enough to be believable, while still endearing himself to the viewer with his sincerity and vulnerability.  There also is a lot of truth to his relationship with his family – the sweetness, the fights, the strange bickering and confiding between brothers.  Swinton is wonderful as the tired but ever-patient mother.

Heartwarming is the word I would use.  Tongue-in-cheek, at times.  The wrap-up at the end may be a little trite, but the film is undeniably enjoyable, sweet.  I didn’t love Beginners either, but I think Mills certainly has potential and I’m interested to see what else he has in store for us.