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Reviewers sometimes give away films without meaning to. In the case of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest cinematic experiment, it is hard to give away anything because it is genuinely hard to say what the film is about or what happens in it. About the only consistent explanation for this tale of Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) and the events in their home is that it is a cinematic rendering of psychosis, but to describe it as such feels reductive. It could potentially be a supernatural tale of raising unearthly powers, but the film’s avoidance of indicative horror tropes undercuts that interpretation. Or it could be a dramatisation of the creative process, the characters metaphors for parts of the mind, but that explanation also fails to work across the whole film. What I can say is what the film does, which is put its viewer through a relentless, gruelling and singularly extraordinary experience. Aronofsky eschews narrative logic but offers just enough plausibility to keep the film grounded, while the ever-escalating pace of his direction increases the tension to nerve-shredding levels. Long, travelling shots mix with 360-degree pans, abrupt cuts and subjective angles that place us uncomfortably inside the action that takes place in a (literally) disintegrating location. The performances are superb, especially Lawrence who is onscreen virtually the whole time, her increased franticness becoming more and more hysterical, which is of a piece with the film as a whole. Bardem offers a calm contrast that is more chilling than comforting, while Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) are suitably disturbing. Quite what is going on is very open to interpretation, as is the film’s genre that combines jet black comedy with relentless horror with Biblical allegory and fantastical sequences. The only thing that seems certain is mother! will have an effect on you, but it is a film that demands to be seen, partly because it’s a bold, experimental and genuinely surreal experience, and partly to find out just what your reaction is.
2013 is almost over and, like so many a critic (which is, of course, everyone), I’m compiling my top films of the year. In the process, I realised that I neglected to post on some of the films that impressed me the most, so I’m rectifying that omission now.
Two arthouse offerings that I saw early in the year made my long list for films of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines featured in my top five of 0.5 halfway through the year, and its remarkable power has not diminished since. Derek Cianfrance’s tale of fathers, lovers, sons and sins balanced the epic and the intimate in a touching yet mournful way, and performed a quite remarkable narrative feat. At 2 hours 15 minutes long, and starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, along with Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta, I expected intertwining stories of criminals, cops and the people around them, perhaps a blue collar version of Heat. What I got instead was a trilogy of equal length, largely self-contained stories that are only loosely connected to each other. The first 45 minutes focus on Luke Glanton (Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist who moonlights as an armed robber. The next 45 minutes were concerned with Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop who crosses paths with Luke once, and then continues his story, encountering police corruption en route to fulfilling his political ambitions. The final 45 minutes are concerned with the sons of these two men, Jason (Dane DeHaan) and AJ (Emory Cohen), who, by a coincidence that only happens in the movies, find each other and create a whole new drama.
Based on its synopsis, The Place Beyond the Pines should not work. Three distinct stories that could easily stand by themselves? Three loosely connected stories placed in sequential order so that we effectively abandon the earlier protagonists? An epic saga of intergenerational sin shot with the claustrophobic intimacy of Cianfrance’s debut, Blue Valentine? How can this work? Commitment is the answer, as Cianfrance never wavers in his piercing glare into the hearts of his characters and, more broadly, the community in which they live. While the sequential stories are different from Michael Mann’s multi-stranded narrative, The Place Beyond the Pinesdoes feel like a blue collar Heat, replacing the freeways and concrete canyons of Los Angeles with small town upstate New York. The interconnections between the different characters are both familial and sociological, such as Luke’s criminal association with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who utters the film’s best line: ‘If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder’, as well as Romina (Mendes), the mother of his child, who lives with her current boyfriend Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Romina and her family later encounter Avery and corrupt officers led by Peter Deluca (Liotta), prompting Avery to seek advice from his father Al (Harris Yulin) and forge an alliance with District Attorney Bill Killcullen (Bruce Greenwood). Fifteen years later, the connections between these characters continue to haunt Avery as well as his son AJ.
The epic scope of the film echoes classic crime dramas like Heat, Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time in America and, yes, even The Godfather, but unlike those films, Cianfrance and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit present something much more down to earth, largely eschewing long shots of grand vistas in favour of extreme close-ups that bring the viewer uncomfortably close to the characters. There are stylistic flourishes as well, especially the opening long take that lasts several minutes as Luke walks towards the cage where he performs his stunts, but the seemingly perpetual handheld footage gives an amateurish slant to the visuals, rather than the slick, polished look of Mann or Scorsese. This is not a criticism, however, as Cianfrance’s style suits his characters and even his genre. Down to earth, gritty and unsteady cinematography blends superbly with the different social levels explored in the film, while the scope of the narrative demonstrates that, with the right treatment, everyone’s story is epic.
A very different film style, like none other, is found in another arthouse offer from 2013: Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I’ve been a huge fan of Malick since his metaphysical war film The Thin Red Line (1998), and found The New World (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011) to be entrancing developments of his poetic filmmaking. To The Wonder continues this conceit, as its simple story of characters musing over their relationships and lives is beautiful and beguiling, but never straightforward. Neil (Ben Affleck) is almost silent apart from his voiceover, an environmental inspector who is almost literally of the earth, trying to choose between the free-spirited Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the more practical Jane (Rachel McAdams). Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) also muses on the weights of his mind, wrestling with the difficulties of counselling others while struggling with his own faith.
Malick’s free association approach to editing largely excludes continuous narrative, as cuts are often motivated by a word or a look from a character, the film then presenting another image with a purely conceptual link. Cuts are also motivated by purely visual matches between skylines and landscapes, or indeed contrasts between the rolling fields of Oklahoma and the dramatic coastline of Normandy. People stand both in isolation and unity within these landscapes, their lives uncertain in the film’s beguiling yet beautiful ambiguity.
Like The Place Beyond The Pines, To The Wonder brings the viewer close to the action, but is more concerned with philosophical than sociological connections. What binds people together? What are our connections to the land, the sea, the sky? Malick’s film, like all his work, is a visual monument to the wonder of creation, most explicitly in The Tree of Life, but found here as well. To The Wonder does a fine job of placing Malick’s philosophical filmmaking in the contemporary context, as Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World are all historical, while The Tree of Life encompasses the timespan of the Earth (as you do). While To The Wonder is not the easiest film to engage with and is likely to frustrate some sensibilities, for me it was a beautiful and provocative piece of work. Furthermore, it was different, distinctive and, frankly, unique amongst the films I saw this year.
The penultimate hugely anticipated film of 2012 was the 23rd instalment in the world’s longest running film series, reaching a triumphant 50th year of James Bond, 007. Skyfall carried not only the expectations of being a major blockbuster, and a franchise instalment, but it was also a landmark film which had to both honour what had come before and show the old dog had enough life for another 50 years.
There are several ways in which Skyfall met this challenge. One of the most celebrated aspects of the film was its director, Sam Mendes. The first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film, Mendes brought a particular set of baggage with him. Most successful with intimate personal dramas such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, Mendes’ forays into larger scale stories, such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead, were mediocre at best. Skyfall would be his first franchise film and his first action film. Despite Mendes’ prestige, the pedigree for a director like him was not promising, as Marc Foster is a director also known for more sedate fair than Bond, such as Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland. Quantum of Solace was generally regarded as a failure, and the pressure was on for the 23rd film to return to the quality established in Casino Royale.
This quality brought with it further expectations, as Daniel Craig was being spoken of as the best Bond, even before the release of Skyfall. After his lean, intense yet vulnerable turn gave Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot something different, fresh and exciting, the failure of Quantum of Solace seemed something of an aberration. Surely something had gone wrong and a Bond film featuring Craig should somehow be better. I think Craig makes a very fine Bond, and the problems with Quantum of Solace mostly relate to the director. Foster fails to give the film any suspense, as scenes go from a standstill to a breakneck pace, not allowing for build-up. Foster’s skills are ill-suited to directing action sequences which, as I have written before, require tension that needs to be built up. To have everyone suddenly burst out of their chairs and running like mad is too sudden a transition to allow any tension.
As an example, the first post-title sequence of Casino Royale is efficiently built up as Bond and his fellow agent Carter (Joseph Millson) watch their target in Madagascar, then move in towards him which increases the tension. Then the scene accelerates into a chase with Bond heading after Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) through all manner of obstacles, the famous free-running through a construction site, fighting on top of a very high crane and culminating in a running gun battle through an embassy. This scene increases the stakes and in doing so raises the tension, whereas Bond chasing after Mitchell (Glenn Foster) in Quantum of Solace comes out of nowhere and, after the initial shock, the viewer is left disorientated and disengaged.
Mendes said in interviews that he was especially concerned about making the opening sequence memorable, as Bond has a distinguished history of opening sequences that grab the viewer’s attention. Skyfall pulls this off impressively, as we begin in Istanbul with Bond slowly pursuing a stolen hard drive, then missing a shadowy figure in the corridor. He meets with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and there is a brief car chase culminating in a marketplace, which is followed by a motorcycle chase over the city rooftops. From there the chase progresses onto a train, with Bond making use of a convenient earthmover and gets wounded, then the chase moves through the train itself and eventually on top of it, before Eve is ordered to “take the bloody shot!” This line is significant, as it is the culmination of this sequence that is intercut with a parallel scene in London in which M (Judi Dench) barks instructions. The intercutting between the chase and the supervision heightens the tension by raising the stakes, and the finale of the chase creates further anticipation for the rest of the film.
Even at this early stage, Skyfall is playing to the audience’s expectations, and throughout displays an acknowledgement of what the viewer wants to and also expects to see. No viewer would believe that Bond is actually killed at the start of the film, and Skyfall understands the audience’s position as Bond’s re-appearance is hardly a revelation. Rather, we get to enjoy Bond’s hedonistic retirement in a tropical paradise, and his shadowy re-introduction at M’s home. Skyfall acknowledges the viewer’s expectations – this is a Bond film so he will come back at his own instigation – but also exceeds the expectation through the inclusion of Bond “enjoying death”, as well as the continued lively relationship he shares with M.
This is but one of many expectations that are rewarded, exceeded, and acknowledged. Many moments in the film refer to Bond’s history, much as The World is Not Enough did with lines such as “I never joke about my work, 007” and the reappearance of gadgets from previous films. Similar gags appear in Skyfall, such as Bond receiving his new gun, a Walther PPK, just as he was issued with in Dr No. Similarly, in a moment that might as well have featured a wink direct to camera, Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, made famous in Goldfinger. No explanation is given for him having this remarkable vehicle, which possesses a few modifications, and this is part of the fun – the film and the viewer share a smirk at the inclusion of this piece of nostalgia. Even Bond’s early “death” echoes You Only Live Twice, the viewer well aware that Bond cannot be killed at the start of the film, if indeed at all.
However, Skyfall retreats from excessive technology, at least as relates to Bond himself. When issued with his gun, another smirk is shared between viewer and film as Q (Ben Wishaw) admonishes: “What did you expect? An exploding pen?” This is both contemporary and nostalgic, as over the years, Bond’s gadgets became increasingly outlandish, culminating in the invisible car of Die Another Day. Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 serves as a watershed in the franchise’s history, with the reboot Casino Royale acting as a return to a more gritty, “realistic” spy thriller. Quantum of Solace continued the emphasis on physicality, and Skyfall develops this conceit further, continuing the trend for physicality and reliance upon one’s own wits and abilities. Computer hacking gives way to machine guns and helicopters, then to jerry-rigged mines and pistols, and eventually to knives and unarmed combat. A disdain for sophisticated technology is demonstrated in a repeated gag about the “latest in communications technology: a radio transmitter”. At key moments, both Bond and his nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) make reference to radio transmission, as if slapping the face of the computer boffin Q and his ilk. When Q inadvertently plays into Silva’s hands through his expert hacking, Silva admonishes the younger man with the message “Not such a clever boy”, before all hell breaks loose.
Not that Silva is above using technology: his nefarious schemes necessitate a global reach that is facilitated through him being an expert hacker as well, allowing him to destabilise governments and attack MI6 headquarters. But whereas previous Bond villains established their bases in volcano craters (You Only Live Twice, Goldeneye), undersea complexes (The Spy Who Loved Me) and even space stations (Moonraker), Silva’s lair is eerily simple: an abandoned city on an isolated island in the South China Sea, a ghost town that reinforces the almost supernatural influence that Silva enacts over the world. The scene that introduces Silva is a master-class in minimalism, as the mise-en-scene is a crumbling building reminiscent of a church, filled with computer base units and a few screens. This serves as a contrast to the steel and glass MI6 headquarters, a symbol of power that Silva easily infiltrates through his technological skills. Visually, Silva’s introduction is stunning, as he emerges at the end of the long hall and steadily walks towards the camera in a continuous shot. This long take further exacerbates the viewer’s anticipation for Silva to reach the foreground, while his silken tones echo through the cavernous space, emphasising our awareness as well as Bond’s that this is Silva’s domain.
Silva himself is a remarkable and impressive feature of Skyfall. The most effective Bond villains have been those that serve as a dark reflection of Bond himself, such as Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye. With Silva the reflection is multi-faceted, as he is not only a (former) successful MI6 agent, who like Bond has officially “died”, his relationship with M is a twisted version of the one she has with Bond. As in No Country For Old Men, Bardem delivers a thoroughly chilling performance of a genuine psychopath (despite a bizarre haircut): quiet, poised but with an evident relish, like a cobra that will smile as it strikes. Also, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to get under Bond’s skin, as evidenced in the homoerotic encounter between the two as Silva unbuttons Bond’s shirt in a seductive manner.
Craig’s films have downplayed Bond’s seductive powers, which became tedious and even painful during the Moore years. None of the last three films have ended with Bond in the arms of a lady lovely, and in Skyfall there are only a couple of such scenes. This emphasises a different relationship that is central to the film, between Bond and M, as well as Silva. Serving as the dark reflection of Bond, Silva is also coded as the bad son to Bond’s good son. Bond’s bristly but ultimately devoted relationship with M provides the emotional core to Skyfall, personal dramas adding to the plot developments.
As mentioned earlier, MI6 contrasts with Silva’s dilapidated headquarters, but there are different locations used by MI6. After the grand offices on the Thames are attacked, they move underground into a back-up HQ built out of Churchill’s WWII bunker. Thus begins the film’s concern with “Britishness”. Curiously for the British Mendes, Skyfall was his first foray into presenting something British, and nationality remains prominent throughout Skyfall. A key trope of the Bond franchise is exotic locations, which do appear including Istanbul, Bond’s “retirement” in the tropics and part of his mission that takes him to Shanghai and Macau, and from there to Silva’s island. But afterwards, the film takes place entirely within Britain, and uses its locations to interesting effect. Churchill’s bunker brings with it connotations of Britain under fire, and a chase takes place through the London Underground and into Westminster, with Silva disguised as a British copper. The film’s final act involves going “back in time”, travelling into the highlands of Scotland to a stately home. Both for Bond and for the film as a whole, the final act is a return to the past and to homeground, defending Britain against invasion.
Other tropes of “Britishness” appear: M has a china bulldog, decorated with a Union Jack, that becomes a talisman for Bond despite his dislike of it; Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), initially presented as an interfering Whitehall bureaucrat, is revealed to have a military history serving in Northern Ireland; Bond’s mission to Macau carries postcolonial connotations, the British agent exploring a former colony. The past haunts Skyfall, both in its narrative and our understanding of it. The past of the franchise itself explicitly returns when Bond enters M’s office, which is identical to the office of years gone by, visited by Sean Connery since 1962. I always remembered the door with leather padding, and seeing it behind Daniel Craig was an interesting blend of the old and the new. Clearly the blend of elements in Skyfall worked, as it has now become the highest grossing film ever at the British box office.
The history of Bond was not the only reference I found in Skyfall. In my last post on Looper, I commented on the inter-textual connections found in Rian Johnson’s film, as a central element in science fiction. For all its elaborate technology, the Bond franchise is not science fiction, but it also reminded me of other films. The Jason Bourne trilogy is an apparent influence on the reboot of James Bond, with a grittier approach and Daniel Craig constituting a more realistic and vulnerable spy protagonist in the mould of Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin. Specifically, Skyfall’s opening chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum’s frantic dash through Tangiers, including our hero riding a motorcycle up a flight of stairs. Bourne is not the only secret agent inspired by Bond and echoed in Skyfall, as a scene in which Bond moves through the London Underground, in constant communication with Q in a high-tech hub, is reminiscent of 24. When Silva is brought into custody, he taunts Bond and M much like the Joker does Commissioner Gordon and Batman in The Dark Knight, and like the Joker, Silva is both psychotic and physically deformed, as revealed when he extracts a prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal his true features in Skyfall’s most gruesome moment. Silva’s taunting of M also echoes The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps very deliberately. As in The Dark Knight and also The Avengers, Silva’s imprisonment is a ruse and all part of his master plan, a narrative trope that may well continue. John McClane has been described as a blue collar James Bond, and the final attack on Bond’s family home, Skyfall, features a highly organised assault team against a resourceful individual who uses his surroundings to his advantage, much like in Die Hard. To take it even further, Bond defends his home using homemade devices, not unlike Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – not a comparison I ever thought I’d make!
One aspect of Skyfall troubles me: the reassertion of classic Bond tropes brings with it some disturbing gender politics. Since Goldeneye, the Bond franchise has taken some steps to distance itself from Bond being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur”, as M argued in Brosnan’s first outing. Tougher Bond girls have made appearances, such as Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall features Eve, who is Bond’s fellow agent in Istanbul and Macau, and with whom he appears to have a romantic liaison (though we’re spared the details). Eve is a competent field agent, but come the final scene, she is relegated to a secretary and revealed to be M’s eternal assistant, Moneypenny. This is another wink to the Bond fan, but also implies that secretary is the correct role for a woman. M’s fate implies this further, and the final occupant of the office seems a reassertion of patriarchy, as though the franchise has returned to where it belongs with men in the positions of power and agency. This is a disturbing element in a film aware of its legacy, especially in light of the potentially progressive amendments taken since 1995. Skyfall’s conclusion appears to suggest that the Bond franchise is not a place for women except in traditional roles.
Despite this disconcerting reassertion of patriarchy, I enjoyed Skyfall immensely. It was gripping and thrilling, well-plotted with detailed characters, exercised a knowing acknowledgement with the viewer to just the right extent, therefore avoiding being too clever-clever, and looked stunning. Some have described Skyfall as the best Bond ever, and while I think it is too early to say, it is certainly the most beautiful, as Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography looked deep and rich enough to swim in. Digital filming has been growing steadily in recent years, and Skyfall is a film that makes full use of its possibilities. There were points during the film when I wanted shots to linger on the myriad of colours captured in the frame, especially during a sequence in Shanghai. This sequence features one of the strangest fight scenes I have seen in a film, as Bond and his opponent move with a fluid grace within the shimmering beauty of the digital image. Alternately silhouetted and illuminated by shifting light patterns, the hand-to-hand combat becomes an almost dream-like dance, perhaps a microcosm of the dance of light and shadow that is cinema itself. This level of visual invention permeates the film, especially apparent in the climax, when the Scottish moors are illuminated by a deep red, casting an almost hellish yet still beautiful hue over the film’s finale.
Silva sends M a message that reads “Think on your sins”, and the themes of atonement and redemption reach fullest expression during the final sequence on the moors. Not only is the scene bathed in hellish red light, it also features Bond struggling with an opponent beneath the ice of a frozen loch, sinking deeper out of sight. Bond’s emergence from the water adds to the sense of a lone warrior battling the legions of hell, while in a church M awaits her fate. Her fate genuinely surprised and moved me, and I was left wondering whether M achieved redemption or damnation in the end. Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Skyfall does not end triumphantly for our hero. It does conclude with Bond ready to get back to work, but it also possesses a profound ambiguity and sober ambivalence. For a Bond film to offer such ambiguity is genuinely surprising and impressive, enabling Skyfall to excel not only as a Bond film, but as a film in general, one of the most satisfying of 2012. I have previously written about expectations and how they influence our responses: with Skyfall I expected a good Bond film, but not a film that worked on so many levels and exceeded my expectations narratively, aesthetically and thematically. The blend of familiarity and innovation in Skyfall surpassed the (expected) pleasures of The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, providing one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I had in the past twelve months.