Monday, January 21, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 7): James Bond Vs. the Beasts in the Bathtub

When I told her this weekend I needed to see Skyfall * again, my wife asked, “Do you really have to see movies you've already seen?”

“Well, I did make the rule,” I said. Rule #2 of The Unreasonable Movie Project is ‘every movie must be seen from this day forward.’ It was a fail-safe, a second nuke-key around my neck to make sure the readers got fresh information and that I didn't cheat. It ensures total unreasonability.

Good thing I did follow the rule, because dragging myself to a Sunday-morning Skyfall to comply yielded an interesting discovery. Of the three British movies I've seen, all three (this plus The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Hitchcock) have plot lines about getting older, and two are about Judi Dench getting older.

If only Dench had been available for Hitchcock, she could have made it 3-for-3. She actually looks like Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville far more than Helen Mirren, but I suppose other English actresses need to work too. Still, this smacks of an English version of the Stuhlbarg Syndrome.**

Bond movies tend to be hit or miss, but it didn't bother me at all to see this movie again because Skyfall is a very good action movie. From the more recent Bond flicks, I've enjoyed Casino Royale and, if you remember the Pierce Brosnan era, GoldenEye. This one was as good or better. Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Road To Perdition fame directed, and did very well despite no previous connection to the Bond franchise.

My first experience with James Bond was Roger Moore in Moonraker, which I saw on TV as a kid. I wish I had a cooler story to tell, like I saw all six Connery Bond films before I was 10 years old, but I don't. I was born in the 70's, I saw Moonraker on TV, and I liked it. That Jaws guy was scary.

Skyfall was on my radar for this project because it was getting some pretty heavy pre-nomination Oscar buzz, and not just for the technical awards. It's up for Best Cinematography and four other Oscars, but the Best Picture rumors ended up being just rumors. It's well-represented at the BAFTA Awards, up for Outstanding British Film of the Year, Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress, and Javier Bardem for Best Supporting Actor. It's well-deserved - I give the movie an $8.00.

Bardem, Dench and Daniel Craig are quite good. The entire movie revolves around the team of Dench and Craig and whether they are both too old to be effective in their respective roles. Dench is the aging coach being steered toward retirement for a mistake, and Craig is her star athlete, past his prime, body breaking down. And even though there were are no nominations for him, Craig needs to get something, a tin foil trophy, anything for making us believe even for a moment that his 007 is a drunk not fit for her majesty's service (which he does). If he drinks at all in real life, he's doing it in between reps at the gym.

The other movie I saw this weekend was about as un-Bond as you can get. Of all the Best Picture nominees, Beasts of the Southern Wild will be the one that people most disagree on. Because it's such a spare movie, some will argue that there isn't much to it. Others will argue the opposite, that its simplicity is its genius, and that simple stories have the most depth. The reactions will probably tell you more about the viewer than the movie.

Set in a near-future where southern Louisiana is going underwater from global warming, a levee is built to protect civilization in northern Louisiana and beyond. Most people live north of the levee, but not everyone. There are those who choose to live "in the Bathtub" south of the levee. We're left to guess why these small groups of people have stayed, many on the edge of squalor, some deep in it. They drink a lot, eat lots of crab and crawfish, and seem to be in a state of endless Mardi Gras, perhaps waiting for the world to flood completely.

The people depicted have a certain way of life, neither good nor bad. It is part of the story, but many viewers will be completely distracted by it. The flooded terrain makes what most would consider "normal life" impossible. If you can't get past it, you won't see anything else. And you won't like the movie.

Yes, these characters live in squalor...yes, these characters are making odd parenting decisions...yes, these characters drink a lot. But the movie is about a little girl who is trying to make sense of the world in the time and place she was put into it. Quvenzhan√© Wallis was nominated for Best Actress for her role as Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old who lives with her father and has imaginary conversations with the mother that abandoned them. Hushpuppy is fiercely loyal to her father, despite the fact he keeps her at arms length. He can't imagine living anywhere but "the Bathtub," no matter how high the waters rise.

I found the movie hard to watch. I think I understand what the filmmaker was trying to express, particularly the theme about the connections we have to the places we're from, but the broader "finding our place in the cosmos" thread was less well-developed. The Best Actress nomination for Wallis confuses me too. Almost all the people who appeared in the film were previously non-actors, including Wallis, but I thought Dwight Henry was much more interesting to watch as the father. I'd rate this as a $7.00 movie, without much of a realistic shot at any awards.

There is some fantasy in Beasts of the Southern Wild that I liked, about stone-age creatures encased in Antartic ice being released as the earth warms. I don't know that it quite worked, but I liked it. Maybe it's this same magic that explains how a group of  people, basically cut off from modern society, somehow get their hands on so much beer.

* Stuhlbarg Syndrome Alert: Judi Dench, who appeared in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, appears in Skyfall, although this is her 7th time appearing in the series. Ben Whishaw, who played multiple parts in Cloud Atlas, also popped up in Skyfall as Q, Bond’s quartermaster (equipment/tech guy).

** Definition of the Stuhlbarg Syndrome: The dissonance created by recognizable actors being in too many movies in a given year, thus reducing their credibility for audience members in those roles. At times, can mean certain death for a film. Its presence can be detected by the audible phrase "Hey! I know [him/her]! That's [character name] from [movie or television show]!"

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