Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

April 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXVIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-eighth portmanteau post on matters of course!

Doesn’t suit you, sir

I’m not sure exactly what happened at the end of the 1960s to cause it, but it seems to me that suits suddenly became considerably less sharp. The final post-Mrs Peel seasons of The Avengers see Steed’s suits bend more and more towards the hippy Carnaby Street style pilloried by excess in Austin Powers, but also just become less distinguished somehow. It’s tempting to attribute this to mere ego, that Patrick MacNee was designing his own outfits more and more and displacing Pierre Cardin’s wares. But that doesn’t explain what happened to that less suave spy of the era more or less simultaneously. Watching Diamonds Are Forever with the awareness it is by the director of Goldfinger is a major jolt on several levels, as it lacks the sophistication that comes through so naturally in nearly every aspect of the former. Sean Connery wasn’t attempting to tailor his own look though, so it really does say something about the fashions of the era that the suits in his final Eon outing look very shabby next to his mid-60s outfits.

November 15, 2018

From the Archives: Casino Royale

An unprecedented journey into the past finds amidst the uncollected material from even before the pre-Talking Movies archives a review of the film that brought James Bond back from the dead, where, in retrospect I find that I had been very willing to leave him after suffering thru Brosnan’s quartet.

I hate 007. It’s important to clarify this at the beginning so you will understand that it is through extremely gritted teeth I have inform you that not only is Casino Royale brilliant, but it is brilliant in all the specific areas where a Bond film has no right to be even half-decent. Specifically a strong female character, an element of realism, a coherent plot, a lack of cheesiness, a believable torture scene and Bond displaying human emotions.

The screenplay is credited to three people. The writing partnership of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who wrote the last three execrable Bond films drafted the script, which was then completely rewritten by one Paul Haggis. I am not a fan of Haggis. I had a mean gag lined up about him being renowned in Hollywood by which I would mean not his back-to-back Screenplay Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby but rather his ability to make Oliver Stone look subtle. It is with seething fury then that I have to tell you his contributions to this film are masterful. He locates Bond firmly in the real world of post 9/11 intelligence, complete with MI6 cleaners to get rid of dead bodies. We meet 007 assassinating crooked agents and investigating two bomb plots, all with thrilling believability, before he finally discovers who is financing these terrorist activities: a private banker named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Bond must defeat Le Chiffre at a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale where his buy-in is supplied by Treasury official Vesper Lynd. Their first meeting on the train to Montenegro is delicious. Over dinner the pair verbally dissect each other’s characters based on their first impressions of each other. Bond is cruel but Vesper hurts him back with interest. Eva Green plays the first Bond girl who really is his equal. Furthermore in his relationship with Vesper we actually see James Bond displaying human emotions! There is a scene with Vesper slumped in the shower trying to wash blood off her hands after helping James in a gruesome murder which is jaw dropping: Bond makes no gags and does not try to take sexual advantage but actually just sits next to, and comforts, her.

The much touted castration torture scene meanwhile is gruellingly tense, blackly comic and utterly believable. This film has no Bond jokes. The funniest gags in the film are funny simply because they are unexpected unlike the double entendres of yore. David Arnold refrains from using the Bond theme for the entire film making its entrance incredibly impressive. Indeed the film’s final Get Carter style image confirms that Daniel Craig’s gritty Bond is in debt to Michael Caine’s unglamorous 1960s spy Harry Palmer. What’s more this scene makes us as impatient for a sequel as the promise of The Joker which ends Batman Begins. Damn…

4/5

November 5, 2018

From the Archives: Quantum of Solace

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up from the depths Daniel Craig’s pointlessly reviled outing; whose problems derive from the strike everybody knew about but affected not to.

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in Quantum of Solace, which features a lot more action than Casino Royale. It doesn’t quite measure up to its mighty predecessor, but it does offer an intriguing re-invention of Bond’s 1960s foes.

The opening establishes that this is less the talk-talk-bang-bang formula of Casino Royale and more bang-bang-bang-BANG! The opening sequence is an incredibly frantic car-chase, after which we have to put up with the godawful Jack White song and sleazy silhouettes of naked ladies, but then it’s straight into the interrogation of Mr White, the villain Bond caught in the final scene of the last film. This scene features a shock so good it took me 20 minutes to get over it. 20 minutes of action as Bond travels to the Caribbean for a vicious Bourne style fist fight in a bathroom and a boat-chase. It really is surprising just how much action Marc Forster, the director best known for Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland, has crammed in here. He only comes unstuck with an aerial dogfight which comes perilously close to returning the franchise to Roger Moore style campiness but just avoids doing so, and only displays art-house leanings with a silent shootout in Vienna wonderfully sound-tracked only by the opera the characters have been attending.

The sheer preponderance of action over meaty drama though makes this film feel like a victim of the writers’ strike. Paul Haggis’ rewrite of the script was infamously delivered mere minutes before the strike began last year and it could have used more character beats, even though there are great unexpected moments throughout. There is an absolutely priceless gag involving Bond’s distaste for cheap accommodation amid many other quotable lines. The CIA is depicted as morally bankrupt, willing to turn a blind eye to any right-wing dictatorship’s human rights abuses if there’s a plentiful supply of cheap oil to be had, while a high-ranking member of the British Government is revealed as a member of Quantum, Haggis’ reinvention of super-villain organisation Spectre. The rights to Spectre are owned by Irish writer/producer Kevin McClory so Haggis has re-imagined Bond’s 1960s foe as a network of ex-spooks and shady businessmen and politicians. This film pays further homage to the 1960s with the death of a major character, a score which evokes the softer, and more sinister, moments of John Barry’s scores, and a desert lair in Bolivia which is pure Ken Adam in its set design.

Mathieu Amalric, a god of French cinema, is slightly underwritten as Quantum villain Dominic Greene but makes his ‘environmental philanthropist’, who’s secretly plotting to seize control of the natural resources of Bolivia, a worthy foe for Bond. Olga Kurylenko, who graduated from taking her top off in French films (Le Serpent) to taking her top off in Hollywood films (Hitman), miserably fails to escape the shadow of Eva Green’s Vesper. Her character has an intriguing back-story but the parallels between her search for vengeance and Bond’s search for closure evaporate due to her inert screen presence.  The best relationship is between M and Bond who develop almost a fraught mother/son bond by the end. Craig is once again magnificent as Bond; physical, but also offering glimpses of the inconsolable grief behind his driven pursuit of Mr Greene. This is a good film and well worth seeing, and the consistently brutal action combined with some clever conceits left unresolved suggest that Craig’s next Bond film may surpass Casino Royale.

3/5

June 8, 2018

Trailer Talk: Part IV

In an entry in this sporadic series I round up the trailers for some of this autumn’s most anticipated films.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Buffy the Vampire Slayer great Drew Goddard returns to the director’s chair, and he brings his Cabin in the Woods star Chris Hemsworth with him for what looks a lot like a glorious cameo as the villain. I fear the trailer may give away a bit too much regarding the nefarious folk that hang out at the El Royale and the bad times that go down there, but Goddard has an undeniable flair for comedy and has assembled a terrific cast of newcomers and established stars. There are echoes of The Cabin in the Woods in the notion that characters who think they’re doing their own thing are being watched and manipulated by a mysterious management. It’s also hard not to wonder if Hemsworth might be playing a Charles Manson type, given the setting, and that Manson seems to be in the air in Hollywood as the 50th anniversary of the Helter Skelter massacre approaches. Let us see what mixture of comedy and gory bombastic deeds Goddard has produced.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Rooney Mara does not return. Claire Foy is now Lisbeth Salander. David Fincher also does not return. Fede Alvarez is now David Fincher (sic). And, stunningly, Stieg Larsson does not return. Fede Alvarez and others are now writing for him. So, 2 films in and this has turned into the James Bond juggernaut; where the creatives are easily replaceable and only the original author’s title or some riff on it survives the adaptation process. I had always wondered how they would solve the problem of the supervillain Niedermann that Larsson unwisely introduced into his later novels; a man part Hulk and part Wolverine inserted in a previously grimly realistic universe. Little did I suspect the solution would be throwing away those two novels… Alvarez and Foy are both great, but the firing of Mara and Fincher to make way for them leaves a sour taste that may be impossible to overcome; especially as the Salander as avenging angel motif is clumsily played up so astonishingly literally in this trailer.

Under the Silver Lake

And David Robert Mitchell is cutting his film, after a brutal reaction at Cannes. Nobody should ever do anything based on brutal reaction at Cannes. Nobody should do anything based on reaction at Cannes. The worst films get lauded and the best films get crucified in that unnatural atmosphere, and the world is the poorer for it when this forces changes. Let’s not forget people at Cannes booed The Neon Demon.

January 31, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part VII

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Dead Sparrow

When a movie has its release date shifted repeatedly, when its trailers shout about how many Oscar nominations and actual Oscars its cast and crew have, and when its studio eventually abandons it in the betwixt Oscars and between blockbusters wastelands of March you can draw your own conclusions. Jennifer Lawrence could really use a hit about now, after Passengers and mother!, to prove she can top the box office when not Katniss, and it looks like this creepily hyper-sexualised retread of Nikita is not going to be it. So, far from her deigning to return for another X-Men movie in November, as it initially appeared, it now looks a lot more like the X-Men are doing her a solid by putting her in a big movie guaranteed to achieve a review-proof basic level of box office gold.

 

“You should pick a name that is not my company”

It’s hard to get very excited about the commercials for summer blockbusters that used to be such an attraction of the Superbowl. Too much CGI, too many comic-book movies, too many remakes, reboots, and spin-offs. But if like us you are less interested in the football than in seeing if Justin Timberlake does or does not do a Prince tribute in the Mini Apple, there is one bizarre series of ads this year that will be right up your alley. Check out Keanu Reeves advertising website builder Squarespace via the emotional rollercoaster of creating the website for his own motorcycle company, Arch Motorcycle. Click through for the longer version: https://www.maxim.com/entertainment/keanue-reeves-super-bowl-commercial-2018-1

 

“It’s meant to be ironic” “Excuse me, you need to go back to grad school”

Just over a month after a lengthy piece hereabouts on the Roger Moore Bond movies, occasioned by ITV 4’s absurdist week of nightly 007 outings, comes depressing news. Netflix has put up the Bond back catalogue and the snowflakes, or Generation Wuss as Bret Easton Ellis dubbed them, are not impressed. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5315501/Millennials-watching-old-James-Bond-not-impressed.html) So of course they are performing their displeasure in public, online, as always. I’m not tackling those comments here, but the flap instantly made me think of this scene in Donnie Darko, and how those of us who grew up watching Bond and didn’t turn out moral monsters are now in the role of Drew Barrymore; being hectored not by an uncomprehending older generation, but by youngsters. The ‘you need to go back to grad school’ jibe is also strangely relevant, as these hurlers on the ditch utilise a Newspeak of academic jargon to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with them. Poor old 007…

December 22, 2017

More Moore, Roger Moore!

ITV 4’s recent decision to screen all 7 of Roger Moore’s Bond movies in prime time from Monday to Sunday as a dementedly late in the year tribute has been a fascinating exercise in nostalgia and re-evaluation.

The great paradox is that while Moore is remembered as the supremely nonchalant Bond, the films in which he appeared were themselves supremely lacking in confidence. Live and Let Die tries to cash in on blaxploitation, The Man with the Golden Gun tries to cash in on kung fu, The Spy Who Loved Me desperately tries to remake You Only Live Twice with added megalomania, Moonraker tries to cash in on Star Wars, and A View to a Kill shamelessly recycles the ‘criminal mastermind uses explosion in San Andreas fault line to contrive earthquake’ plot of Superman. And then there’s the music. Coming across Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me on the same Sunday that A View to a Kill aired it was very noticeable that Jay Roach and Mike Myers were plundering John Barry’s 1960s Bond scores for their parodic purposes. Barry sat out a number of Moore’s films, and even when he was there he seems to have been on autopilot.

Watching The Avengers on ITV 4 recently it was hard to miss their plundering of Barry’s 1960s Bond sound to a point where you expected Steed and Mrs Peel to have start fending off Eon process servers. Yet the Moore era witness a weird degeneration from being so confident that other peopled copied you to being so insecure all you do is copy instead. Marvin Hamlisch quoted Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker sees John Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind five tone melody appropriated, and ‘California Girls’ takes over the soundtrack for comedic purposes in A View to a Kill, while the 1970s scores are awash with funky wah-wah music and then disco beats in a desperate attempt to sound like the hit parade. The SPECTRE themes of the 1960s are entirely absent, Barry’s dashing secondary Bond theme only appears in Moonraker, and there is no readily identifiable Moore signature music whereas Connery’s body of work has at least five recognisable suites of music. Indeed when the music improves in Moore’s final outing, it is because Barry has wheeled out a reworking of a 1960s idea with brassier instrumentation than his string-drenched Octopussy compositions.

My mother’s contention that action sequences could be transposed from Moore movie to Moore movie without affecting coherence overly is strengthened when you realise that not only do Moore’s film bring back characters between films simply to observe mayhem and be gobsmacked by it, and begin a tradition of random hopping about the globe compared to the more located Connery films, but also Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me; simply switching out start a nuclear war, kill everyone, and live underwater for bomb the earth from space, kill everyone, and live in space. This becomes funnier and ever more meta when you consider that their shared ur-text You Only Live Twice was itself a self-confessed rehash of Dr No by a desperate Roald Dahl who had little to fill his blank screenplay pages other than the setting of Japan and an instruction to have three Bond girls: a bad one who dies, a good one who dies, and a good one who lives.

 

August 27, 2017

The Dumb Waiter

Artistic director Michael Colgan bade a sentimental (and almost self-parodic) farewell to the Gate Theatre with a festival of Beckett, Friel, and Pinter one-act plays.

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Gus (Garrett Lombard) and Ben (Lorcan Cranitch) are waiting to go to work. Mind you, the nature of that work is not exactly specified. But Gus, the young partner, is impatient, and critical of falling standards in their accommodation for such waiting gigs. Ben, the older partner, is tired of his job, and possibly of Gus. So he tries to ignore Gus’ gripes about being stuck in a basement in Birmingham with tea bags but no gas to light up to boil water. But his attempts to read the newspaper are foiled by arguments about whether Aston Villa are playing at home, whether everyone is always playing away no matter where they get sent, and who really killed a cat in the news. And that’s before the antique dumb waiter in the basement starts acting up, leading to more aggro…

I’ve haven’t seen The Dumb Waiter since the UCD Dramsoc production directed by my friend Priscilla Ni Cheallaigh in 2000, starring Patrick Fitzgerald. Pinter done at anything but the right pace can drag to deathliness, even the Gate’s 2015 The Caretaker wobbled, but director Joe Dowling gets the pace here spot on; drawing out comedy. Cranitch’s raised eyebrows and shuffling newspaper at Lombard’s antics, including business with spare matches and shoes, bring out a level of slapstick that is amped up further when he starts howling “The larder is bare!” at the dumb waiter after they’ve loaded it with odds and ends of food. Oddly enough Cranitch and Lombard’s mania at satiating the unknown operator above actually reminded me of John Olohan and Eamon Morrissey’s ludicrous struggles with a mysterious telephone call in Druid’s 2010 production of The Silver Tassie.

Dowling and set designer Francis O’Connor utilise the full space of the Gate to create as much distance as possible between Gus and Ben, and make the stage very spare; almost a visual equivalent of how silence lingers between them, pregnant with tension and absurdity dependent on how Pinter’s dots on the page work. And Lombard continues to show a real flair for delivering Pinter’s absurdist speeches. Joan O’Clery’s costumes look down-at-heel until they’ve properly dressed; but even still these two are more Harry Palmer than James Bond. For the first time, instead of thinking of these characters as hit-men out of Pulp Fiction, as was inevitable back in 2000, I wondered – what if they’re cleaners? What if they’re plugging MI5 leaks MI5 with extreme prejudice, taking out the Burgesses and Macleans of the world; morose from that squalid task.

Lombard and Cranitch make a formidable double act, bringing Pinter’s early classic to humorous and doom-laden life. Oh, to see them as Mugsy and Stephen in Dealer’s Choice here.

4/5

March 22, 2016

Any Other Business: Part XI

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eleventh portmanteau post on television of course!

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper - The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper – The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery – Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

The Height Manager

At first I thought The Night Manager might be a good three episode show trying to escape from a six episode run. But then, as I found myself fast-forwarding through sweeping shots apparently accompanied by mislaid John Barry Bond cues, I started to doubt that. As I started fast-forwarding through protracted suspense sequences and pointless tracking shots I thought there might be a decent movie buried trying to escape from John Le Carre’s story. As I started fast-forwarding through dialogue scenes because a piece of spy-craft involving ice creams resembled an SNL sketch I stopped thinking and just hit delete on the DVR. I will remember little in a few months of The Night Manager except how director Susanne Bier dealt with Elizabeth Debicki’s great height: never stand her directly next to Hugh Laurie or Tom Hiddleston if possible, and if they must stand beside each other, cheat. Debicki stood in bare feet next to Laurie standing in shoes, so that both were standing at the same height. And, even more farcically, Debicki walked beside Hiddleston on a steeply sloping beach, but closer to the ocean so that he appeared fractionally taller. Jed “I don’t care who sees me naked, I do care who sees me crying” Marshall brought to mind Richard Yates’ castigation of Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley as not a real character but merely a ‘high-school masturbatory fantasy’. It’s baffling that Debicki chose to slum it in such a vacuous role, but what exactly is the fuss about female directors all about when Bier so ridiculously upholds the convention of leading man looming over leading lady?

Jerk-Ass Seeley

Bones has long been a startling exemplar of decline without any obvious parallel. In its marvellous first season it was a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags delivered by complicated characters. In its current eleventh season it is an average intelligence forensics sitcom with constant average gags delivered by characters whose level of complication can be gauged by new addition FBI Agent Aubrey being defined as gourmand. Bones’ trajectory has been so consistently downhill that each season is observably slightly worse than its predecessor. Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember social niceties and her conversation suffered from total ignorance of pop culture. By season 6 she was, so to speak, consciously unconsciously anti-social. And it’s only got worse. After 11 years of working with Seeley Booth, during which she has observed his example of what to say and how to act in nearly every conceivable circumstance, she has not only not learnt, but has regressed: becoming ruder and given to hideous attempts at humour. But a recent NSA episode, transparently about Snowden, was truly jaw-dropping. The penultimate episode of season 1 tackled the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. By contrast the NSA episode of season 11 saw Booth snarling like a deranged bear at everyone, and Hodgins deferring meekly to Booth’s party line that if you didn’t serve, you have no right to speak. Given that the leak in question was about not just illegal spy programs but an NSA hit-squad operating without Congressional oversight you have to wonder if Booth just wants all but a handful of his Army Rangers buddies disbarred from voting. After all if you didn’t serve, are you really worthy of voting on where to support the troops next? How did Bones get to this state of shocking disrepair?

MARVEL'S AGENT CARTER - "Better Angels" - Peggy's search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on "Marvel's Agent Carter," TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal) HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER – “Better Angels” – Peggy’s search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal)
HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

Agent Carter: LA Noir

“I drove across town to La Brea then straight north to Hollywood. The canyon road was narrow and winding but there was no traffic at all. We hadn’t even seen a police car on the ride and that was fine with me, because the police have white slavery on the brain when it comes to coloured men and white women.” – Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins noir novels, is set in Los Angeles in 1948. Mosley was born in 1952 and published his book in 1990, but he was interested in capturing a sense of the lived reality of black life in the era of Raymond Chandler’s PI mythologies. The second season of Agent Carter is set in Los Angeles in 1947. Except it’s not. Agent Carter is interested in the 1940s purely for set-dressing and steam-punk plotting. When black scientist Wilkes instantly hits on Peggy Carter and she reciprocates the show doesn’t hear historical accuracy alarm bells ringing. Indeed it goes out of its way to have a white guy make racist assumptions about the pair because he’s a horrible racist, and Howard Stark treats Wilkes like he would a white scientist because Stark’s a great guy. More people will casually watch Agent Carter than will actively read Devil in a Blue Dress, so surely it matters that history is being made into pigswill. And surely it matters that people will be soothed by the idea that people were always decent but a few racists made trouble, when the man who accosts Wilkes and Peggy is representative, not exceptional. Michael Portillo was told in a BBC documentary that there were no signs indicating segregation in Washington DC in the 1940s, black people just knew where they weren’t allowed: racism didn’t need to physically accost, it already had a policing voice mentally inside its victims. I can think of few more terrifying, gut-churning scenes of fiction than Easy waiting to meet DeWitt Albright and hoping upon hope that a bunch of white teenagers will not approach him, only for a white teenage girl to strike up an aimless conversation with him that nearly sees Easy lynched on the pier. It’s depressing to think that having Wilkes means Agent Carter scores a tick on the diversity checklist, regardless of the opiate ahistoricity of his use.

October 28, 2015

Spectre

Daniel Craig reunites with his Skyfall director Sam Mendes for a bloated follow-up that seems more interested in rushing the exit than whooping things up.

mexico_city

James Bond (Craig) is in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, so more people join the ranks of the dead; to the displeasure of M (Ralph Fiennes). M is under pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a connected bureaucrat merging the intelligence services into CNS; a nightmare of Orwellian surveillance. C wants to replace the erratic 00s with drones, and M’s case is not helped by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) enabling Bond every step of the way as he causes chaos in Rome and Austria. Bond murdered Mr Sciarra at the posthumous behest of M (Judi Dench), and, via Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), becomes entangled in the tentacles of an organisation run by ‘dead’ foster-brother Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond’s only lead is old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen), and White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)…

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s opening gambit looked foolhardy in throwing away the film’s best sequence, until you reached the opera assassination, but Spectre’s cold open is its best sequence. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema produce a Wellesian flourish with a mind-blowing long-take following Bond down a street, into a hotel, out the window, and across rooftops for a hit. After that, beginning with the execrable Sam Smith song over misjudged titles, proceedings are less surefooted. Spectre is looong. 2 ½ hours that pull off the paradox of not doing enough. Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and his MI6 crew recall Henry IV: Part Two; all the collegial bonhomie and agency freedom achieved by Skyfall is vanished, and they get little of consequence to do. It is a full 65 minutes before Swann (please let that not be a Proust reference) appears, and her delayed entrance is not for effect like Skyfall’s Silva, but a consequence of Spectre’s deliberately slow pace. The grand summit of Spectre, with Oberhauser creating a frisson of fear from his shadowy chair, is less impressive than Silva’s soliloquising entrance, and this stately subtlety is thrown away anyway with the excessive grand guignol introduction of Hinx (Dave Bautista).

Hinx has a terrific fight scene with Bond, think Robert Shaw’s dust-up in From Russia with Love, which may end with the most oblique Jaws reference imaginable; as pointed out to me by my sometime co-writer John Healy. But it’s preceded by Swann and Bond dining on a train, which constant reminders of dead characters cue us to read like Bond and Vesper’s first meeting. Only one thing is missing: Paul Haggis. Seydoux doesn’t have the material to convince us of her importance to Bond that Eva Green had, and a literal jump-cut to romance is an admission of defeat. Haggis’ Quantum; a network of ex-spooks, shady businessmen, and politicians; was more plausible and scary than de-contextualised Spectre. Waltz’s misfiring Blofeld has a desert lair and a fluffy white cat, what he doesn’t have to go with his premature recourse to torture is psychological depth or cartoonish fun, while Bond’s outrageous marksmanship against incompetent goons is the Austin Powers fodder from which Haggis rescued the franchise. The underwhelming finale poorly replays Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to end with a visual choice between two lives which is absurdly literal. Spectre loses what momentum it had on hitting Morocco, and never recovers.

Spectre has more good elements than bad, but it’s hard not to be disappointed that, having placed all the pieces on the board, Mendes and Craig belatedly remembered they didn’t like chess, and sought a graceful way to bolt.

2.75/5

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