Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall Review

Directed by Sam Mendes
Released in 2012

The first image we see in Skyfall is an out-of-focus silhouette at the end of a narrow hallway. We know this is James Bond, for obvious reasons — who else could it be? — yet we cannot be sure. The scale of the shot matches the trademark “gun barrel” sequence that has opened almost all other Bond films. Instead of obscuring Bond in shadow, as in the early films, or bathing him in bright light, as in the more recent ones, Skyfall does both. Backlit by the sunny window and masked by the dark hallway, Bond just stands there in a distorted haze. This teasing shot captures Skyfall in micro: an immaculately photographed film that places Bond between past and future, paying tribute to his history while forming a distinctly new identity.

Movies today obsess over being the next big thing so much that they overlook the pleasures of fusing multiple, smaller things. Skyfall is not a “high concept” film, in that it cannot be summed up in a one-sentence pitch. Casino Royale, the first in the so-called franchise reboot with Daniel Craig, aggressively distanced itself from its legacy — “Vodka martini.” “Shaken or stirred?” “Do I look like I give a damn?” — while the last film, Quantum of Solace, posited Bond as an action hero when, as Roger Ebert puts it, “he is an attitude.” That attitude returns, with Bond once again bedding beautiful women (Bérénice Lim Marlohe) and taking time to adjust the sleeve of his suit after jumping onto a collapsing train. But director Sam Mendes and screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade shroud Bond in a layer of doubt and mystery that the recent films have flirted with yet never fully developed.

In action films, there are few ways to trigger an existential crisis both profound and palatable, but killing off the main character 15 minutes in must be one. After a reliably thrilling pursuit through the linen shops and fruit markets of Istanbul, M (Judi Dench), the head of British intelligence agency MI6, orders field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot,” with both Bond and a bad guy in the crosshairs. The bullet hits Bond, who falls off a moving train and plummets into a raging waterfall a good 100 feet below. This scene transitions into Adele’s title song, with visuals dominated less by the usual naked lady outlines and more by Gothic, visceral and M.C. Escher fractal imagery. There is one animation where Bond shoots mirrors surrounding him, suggesting a split in identity or some Freudian metaphor primed for over-analyzing. It all sets the tone for the “resurrection” motif that runs through the film; both Bond and M must confront their age and failings in order to reconcile them with their duties.

Bond — who doesn’t really die, in case you’re worrying — and M face a conflict that is, in more ways than one, the fault of their own actions, particularly M’s. A hard drive containing the files of cover MI6 agents falls into the hands of the baddie (Ola Rapace) Bond fights in the opening sequence. Since he gets away, his boss, Silva (Javier Bardem), now has the power to slander the image of MI6 and enact vengeance on M, who he believes betrayed him in the past. The compelling part is that M did, indeed, fail him, which places her cold-blooded determination to get the job done — “Take the bloody shot!” — on shaky moral ground. Dench has been the series steady since 1995’sGoldeneye and Skyfall affords the Dame her meatiest role yet. Only Bond surpasses M in screen time, and she rivals in lines spoken. M treats Bond like a son, with all the impatience a mother would have for such cheek, and the script has fun with their relationship, inverting romantic staples like “Why didn’t you call?” to mix arch authority with maternal concern.

Even Silva has some strange “mommy” thing with M, though his obsession with killing her belongs more in the house of Atreus than any working relationship. Javier Bardem balances the camp of the Blofelds and Goldfingers before him with the composed anarchy of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Silva takes more than a few cues from The Dark Knight: Always one step ahead, he compares himself to a “rat” (remember The Joker’s dog analogy?) and fascinates us with a mix of humor, sadism and disfigurement (and I’m not referring to the wig). Of course, Bardem owns the part. What starts as a superficial display of strength — pay attention to how he rolls his eyes and forces a laugh — stiffens to homoerotic queasiness before unraveling to full-out animalism. This is the best Bond villain in decades and the best movie antagonist since Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

Skyfall may be the first “auteur” Bond film, and I’m not referring to the work of director Sam Mendes. The soul of this film is indebted to cinematographer Roger Deakins, Hollywood’s greatest living cameraman, known for his collaborations with Mendes and the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink through True Grit). Deakins enhances the globetrotting adventure typical of a Bond film by imbuing each locale with a distinct color and lens technique. The Chinese port city of Macau glows yellow against inky black skies, balancing fantasy with sharp acutance. Harsh sunlight saturates the ransacked island colony where Bond first meets Silva. The fog of the Scottish Highlands extends into oblivion through careful manipulation of natural light reminiscent of Days of Heaven (a nod to The Third Man in a sewer chase and Apocalypse Now during a helicopter attack). Skyfall’s most stunning set piece is in Shanghai, which apparently radiates blue everywhere — tunnels, road signs, computer screens, escalators, you name it. The metropolis looks like the futuristic nightclubs in the Mass Effect video games. It serves well for a noir-esque action scene in a skyscraper, where shadows cloak Bond as he sneaks through glass doors to take out an assassin. The hand-to-hand brawl is pitch-black, save for a few muzzle flashes from the assassin’s rifle. Even with such theatrical presentation, the sparse use of light and exacting audio pack a punch. Deakins heightens the exoticism intrinsic to the series by transporting Bond not only to different cities but singular worlds.

Skyfall reminds us how old Bond is — surely a meta-commentary during the franchise’s 50-year anniversary. James Bond’s redemption in this film doubles as a resurrection of the character’s vitality for our age. Skyfall takes on new with old (Albert Finney plays a figure from Bond’s childhood), old with new (youthful Ben Whishaw brings the MI6 Quartermaster “Q” to the 21st century) and composite with middle-aged (Ralph Fiennes as the male complement to Dench’s M). But as Q reminds Bond at their first meeting inside the National Gallery, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.” For those unfamiliar with names like “Bernard Lee” and “Desmond Llewelyn,” Skyfall remains a uniquely modern film, approaching a story that began in the Cold War with relativist sensibility and production values both visionary and state-of-the-art. And for those of us who consider the Bond canon one with our own, let us collectively weep at the sight of 007 driving his Aston Martin DB5 across the Scottish countryside as the soundtrack strums “duh dadada duh da da da duh dadada duh da da da …”

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Our Picture Perfect President

With Nov. 6 a full week behind us, the implications of President Obama’s reelection and Mitt Romney’s defeat should have settled in by now. So, now would be an ideal time to talk about it all, right? Wrong, actually. News outlets have moved on (hello, General Petraeus), and the public is just thankful the election is over. Imagine how peaceful Ohio must be at this very moment. Frankly, I am just tired of all the encomiums for Nate Silver and autopsies of Karl Rove, as on the nose as both may be.

Pushing politics, demographics and numbers aside, what can we learn from the most expensive campaign in American history? Not much, to be honest, but for me it reaffirmed the importance of a candidate’s image. Voters consider personality a decisive factor — a vital and uniquely human facet of our decision-making process. As much as we heard about how Romney is the perfect father, husband, parishioner and so on, he had a bit of a branding problem on the campaign trail. In comparison, voters signed onto another four years of Obama because, for all his failings and empty promises, they still trusted that he could see the job through. To visualize this dichotomy, think about the most memorable images of Romney and Obama in the last few months of the campaign.

For Romney, is there any answer other than his blurry profile from the leaked “47 percent” video? A supporter may hold Romney’s reflection at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in high regard, but it is hard to detach the overt political motives of that photo-op from any compassion he may have felt. When watching the infamous Mother Jones video, it is impossible to detach the surreptitious angle of the camera from a sense of illicit voyeurism. We, not just the “47 percent” but the 99.9 percent not wealthy enough to afford a plate at such a fundraiser, are not meant to see the contents of that video, so the forbidden images sear into our minds. And what ugly images to remember. The hidden camera is distant, unfocused, ensconced between fancy glassware and obstructed by passing waiters. That its pixel resolution is no greater than that of common smartphones only inspires more unsavory associations. How do we react to amateur videos on YouTube? With laughs, embarrassment, shock and nausea, but certainly not tears or goose bumps. The aftermath of the video leak was a defining moment for the campaign, the power of media and the priorities of the electorate.

The electorate chose Obama, and, if there is one sublime image that encapsulated his homestretch promise, it was shot on the devastated shores of my home state. In the picture, the President holds close New Jersey resident Donna Vanzant, who stands about a head shorter than him. Hurricane Sandy destroyed her marina and livelihood. Tears well up in her red eyes. The digital camera’s high-resolution brings out the wrinkles on her face yet emphasizes Obama’s smooth skin and salt and pepper hair. He looks both strong and wise. He remained optimistic, as he was reported to have said, “It’ll be OK. Everyone’s safe, right? That’s the most important thing.” This snapshot is worth a thousand words and the complete picture is worth closer to a million. To his left, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks on in silent gratitude — to the G.O.P.’s dismay, he did not stay silent, as he appeared on all the major news networks, Fox News included, to praise the President. The Obama camp now had beautiful proof that their compassionate candidate was also a capable and bipartisan Head of State.

President Obama is no stranger to moving images, in both senses of the phrase. Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza shot a poignant photograph that hangs in the White House to this day. In it, Jacob Philadelphia, a five-year-old black boy, told President Obama, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” He replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” The President bowed 90 degrees for Jacob to touch his hair and realize that, yes, the most important man in the world has hair that feels just like his. In the other definition of “moving images,” Obama has an active online video presence, as his “BarackObamadotcom” Youtube account has tallied 270 million views over six years of uploads. Stars like Will Ferrell and Jon Hamm endorsed Obama without too much fuss; more impressive is the prolific output of shorts that aim to both inspire and inform — within Democratic parameters, of course.

You may have seen the post-election speech where Obama expresses gratitude to his campaign staff and, in a rare shedding of armor, chokes up and lets a few tears flow. This fulfills the meaning of “moving images” on both counts. For all of his decisions and indecisions over the last four years that I disagree with, I watch a moment like that and am stunned that such a man admits he is, after all, just a man. Whether or not that qualifies him for President is not really the point. It simply proves that, even in a year of bloated campaign finance, nothing shapes a candidate’s image like, well, an image.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Flight Review

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Released in 2012

The trailer for Robert Zemeckis’ new film Flight is about perfect, so, naturally, it is a total lie. The two and a half minute spot promises sex, courtroom drama, a screen-filling John Goodman and an upside down 747 skimming just meters off the ground, all jacked to The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the omnipresent movie rock song, if there is any. Flight has all these moments, yes, but the spectacle is a Trojan horse for an unabashed, male-centered melodrama.

“Melodrama” is considered a pejorative term today, which is fair. It has become secondhand for “manipulative” and “exaggerated,” adjectives that can describe even the classics from the genre’s heyday in the 1950s. Hawkeyed critics like Dave Kehr praise them for their subtle contradictions in mise-en-scene (props, scenery, lighting). Take Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life: As a neglected black mother dies in her bed, a dated photo of her shamed, light-skinned daughter leans on her night table, beaming into space. Sirk is in on the joke, and hopes you are, too. The best melodramas are both sappy and ironic — it just takes effort to notice the latter’s undertones in the midst of all the crying, shouting, etc.

So, in 2012, we have Flight. Save for its digital cinematography and black leading man, this film could have been made over half a century ago. You can say it has and point to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Both study the physical, mental and familial consequences of alcoholism and do so with a heavy hand. Your enjoyment (or at least appreciation) of the film balances on whether or not you recognize that hand and its duplicity. Put simply, Flight veers into histrionics here and there, like when airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) stumbles around his lake house with an inordinate number of empty vodka and beer bottles strewn about. Our gut may force a laugh, but are we deriding the performance or the emasculating effects of substance abuse? Oh, the drama of melodrama!

As tempting as all this social commentary may be, you may notice I am dancing around the fundamental question of a review: Is it good? Time for a diplomatic answer: It depends. The macho thriller promised by the trailer is sidelined for an effective domestic drama. Married adults with families will connect; teenagers and unchained college students, not so much. Flight features a masterful opening crash sequence, where pilot Whip saves nearly all of the passengers aboard his flight. There is an ostensible realism to the crash — the erratic descent takes agonizingly long and handheld cameras zoom in on panicked passengers and dolly backwards through the aisle. Memorable though this sequence may be, the rest of the film stays grounded. A fridge stocked with liquor replaces a plummeting fuselage as our object of fear.

Given that he drank liters of liquor not only the night before but during the fateful flight itself, Whip has a nagging feeling that he may be a bit responsible. His only scars are a cut over the eye and a limp leg, while his religious co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) will likely never walk again. Silently repentant, Whip retreats to his family’s lake house and dumps all of his booze into the sink. Even in a brisk montage, it takes a couple of minutes to dispose it all. With the stress of investigations, guilt of lives lost and long-standing family issues flaring up, Whip retreats back to the bottle, his tonic and poison.

While Flight may not always be subtle, Denzel channels the flabby screenplay with remarkable control. Whip lies to everyone, including himself, without pause, and it’s in his eyes where his subconscious betrays him. His gaze lingers too long, with glints of the unacknowledged struggle raging inside. Denzel works on another level here, slipping into his character’s mental state to the degree that I think our CIA should pull a Team America and recruit him as a spy. Expect to see his name on the shortlist for next year’s Academy Awards.

Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood (sporting a Sully Sullenberger stache) flank Whip as a criminal lawyer and airline union rep, respectively. Cheadle either rolls his eyes at a passive aggressive simmer or lets loose at a raging boil, making for an unusually predictable performance. Greenwood’s character is all about staying cool, which he does until he can no longer tolerate the self-destructive actions of his old friend, Whip. A jolly John Goodman also joins the cast as Harling Mays, Whip’s drug dealer and body man. The film steps into a moral quandary when, as Whip lies on the bathroom floor blacked out from boozing the night before, Harling saves the day by administering him a few lines of coke. The scene is played for laughs and, for all the hidden meanings in melodramas, I see no acquitting explanation here.

The female characters in Flight, as Julia Moser ’15 vented on The Sun’s video review online, are static and borderline exploitative. The opening minutes cut from the critical plane crash to the misadventures of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict. She visits a porno set to score some merchandise from her dealer, who pressures her to “act” with him. She does not (*spoiler*), but it’s an unnecessary set piece in which to introduce the female lead. As it turns out, Nicole isn’t even a lead, or at least not provided any insightful lines or actions. Her lengthy introduction ruptures the suspense of the opening, and for no thematic benefit.

With just Denzel under the spotlight, Flight builds to a satisfying close, despite how predictable it may be. Denzel and Zemeckis endow Flight with all its memorable qualities — they manipulate the typical melodramatic tropes to contemplate sin, mortality and redemption. John Gatins’ screenplay does not seem to bother with women, and the two hour, 20 minute runtime will prove painful for those expecting another plane crash. Why anyone would hope to see another plane crash beats me; the title’s a metaphor, get over it.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.