James Bond’s Bimbos & Almodovar’s Ladies

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



I had two realizations upon
witnessing Jones unveiled. The first was that my vocal cords were frozen. I
tried to force words through them–something like "What rot!"
or "Who do they take me for?"–but what came out was a strangled
mass of consonants that sounded like "Hhcckklq." A Pavlovian response,
to be sure, and proof of the Bond films’ low animal cunning.


The second thought, following
on the punch-drunk heels of the first, was that Denise Richards in short shorts
and a clingy tanktop is not what the Bond series needs right now. She’s
the opposite. She’s Jill St. John in Diamonds Are Forever–a
pneumatic sight gag built for poolside lounging, not espionage action; a sex
toy for Bond, not a worthy companion or foil. As a silent camera subject, Richards
is magnificent–a bombshell, a dirty cheerleader fantasy, a Vargas girl.
But when she opens her mouth she’s a one-woman spell-breaker. Her monotonous,
Valley-Girl-American voice and strapping, corn-fed voluptuousness are not a
good match; she fits into the film’s breezy, brutal fictional universe
about as convincingly as Jessica Rabbit.


What are Richards and her
pitiful excuse for a character doing here? I’m not sure. Maybe Jones was
inserted into the script at the behest of producers as a misguided nod to 60s
and 70s convention–or a sop to American viewers who presumably need a Yank
to identify with (or ogle). In a recent wire story about the film’s production,
a journalist asked director Michael Apted–yet another real filmmaker dipping
into the cash trough of the Bond franchise–how he could justify the tanktop
and the short shorts. He replied, "We’re not making Chekhov."
On first glance, Apted seems to have a point: The most intelligent Bond films
have to still be pretty dumb, otherwise they wouldn’t be Bond films–they’d
be something else, something respectable.


Nevertheless, Apted’s
flip, defensive response devalues the baby-step maturation of the Bond series
in the 90s. Despite mediocrity in the action-setpiece department, The World
Is Not Enough
–which pits Bond against a Russian international terrorist
(Robert Carlyle) who has been rendered literally unfeeling by a bullet to the
brain–continues the Brosnan-Bond tradition of serious light adventure.
Apted is the director of Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the
Mist
and the biographical, nonfiction Up series, the latest of which,
42 Up, is currently showing at Film Forum. He’s clearly more interested
in the characters than the stunts and locations. That’s not necessarily
a bad thing. From Arnold Schwarzenegger to Indiana Jones, all modern big-budget
action pictures are, to some degree, variations on the Bond format, and that
format is tired. The long-term future of this series lies in characterization,
however cartoonish, not in endless variations on the same old ski chases and
shootouts.


GoldenEye, Tomorrow
Never Dies
and this film are on the right track. They bear the same relation
to previous Bond pictures as The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine
bore to the original Star Trek: they give the audience the preposterous
thrills it expects, but with intriguing and worthwhile new wrinkles. They serve
up escapist fantasy that is tethered, however lightly, to current events (think
of GoldenEye’s deftly caricatured portrait of the former Soviet
Union overrun by gangsters, and the Rupert Murdoch-style media baron in Tomorrow
Never Dies
who started wars in order to cover them). They surround the hero
with Dickensian-doodle supporting characters played by real actors–Carlyle,
Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench and John Cleese as R, the successor to Desmond Llewelyn’s
gadget-master Q. And they have the mild temerity to ask how Bond could be Bond
and not go mad–then suggest answers. (I’ve always liked Brosnan as
Bond–unflappable, rueful, focused, an attack dog for England who secretly
likes the tug of the leash. In action sequences, his stone face and alert eyes
suggest that 007 is a born killer who wishes the killing bothered him more.
I might as well just say it: Sean Connery did it first, with unique gusto and
charm, but Brosnan is a more psychologically plausible James Bond. Let the stoning
of this heretic begin.)


In light of all these factors,
Jones seems a blast from the past in a bad way–a retro bimbo. Juxtaposed
against the film’s other Bond girl, Sophie Marceau’s regal, brooding
oil heiress Elektra King, she’s even more trifling and unnecessary. Frankly,
it’s a disservice to call Elektra a "girl," even when the intent
is to honor the conventions of Bond mythology. Though she’s a comic book
character in a film stocked with nothing else, she’s a comic book character
with psychological heft. In adolescence, she was held for ransom by Renard and
cruelly raped and tortured until she shot and killed two of Renard’s henchmen
and escaped. She’s now a compulsive risk-taker who breezily assumes control
of her murdered father’s company, insists on checking out remote oil pipelines
personally (on skis!), and bets a million bucks in a casino on the draw of a
single card.


The relationship she forges
with Bond, who has been assigned by MI6 to protect her, is unexpectedly touching.
It’s an affair between loners who know what it’s like to kill for
survival and revenge–and who, for professional reasons, couldn’t be
completely honest with each other even if they wanted to. Their affair, brief
and contrived though it is, convinced me; it’s the most complicated relationship
the Bond character has had with a woman since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s
Secret Service
. It demands an emotional investment from Bond–skillfully
played by Brosnan as the most strategically closed-off action hero in recent
movies. When Bond accuses Elektra of duplicity and she reacts by slapping him
across the face, the blow hurts Bond much worse than a beatdown by steroidal
henchmen, because by that point in the story, we believe that Bond loves her–or,
in a less treacherous world, could love her. She makes him question his
premises. Can anyone remember the last time Bond questioned his premises? Has
he ever?


The writing of Elektra’s
character, coupled with Marceau’s fairy-princess-in-ruins star turn, deepens
both 007 and Brosnan’s performance. Bond and Elektra are equals–equally
strong-willed, equally manipulative, equally damaged. I believed in them so
completely that when the film introduced the vacuous, top-heavy American chickie-bird
Jones and positioned her as a plausible rival for Bond’s affection, I wanted
to gag. (In scenes with Jones, Bond looks like he wants to gag, too. The screenwriters
don’t even bother to justify why she’s along for the ride, except
to give Bond another beautiful object to rescue. She’s like Spridle stowing
away in the trunk of the Mach 5 on Speed Racer–Spridle reincarnated
as a Playboy bunny.) Bond isn’t Hamlet, nor was he meant to be, but in
the Brosnan era the character does have a thimbleful of dramatic integrity.
That the movie would violate it so easily confirms that certain powerful people
in the Bond empire are determined to stick with old and irrelevant gimmicks,
even if it means insulting the audience and reducing Brosnan’s sleek, serious
Bond to the level of Roger Moore’s fey, trivial facsimile.


I’ll be interested
to see how well this latest Bond picture does at the box office. It will probably
be a hit because the last two were hits–but not quite on the same juggernaut
scale. The action scenes, which include a boat chase, a ski chase and countless
gunfights, are competent but unmemorable. The best of them are vastly inferior
to the ones in GoldenEye, which was directed by one of the finest action
filmmakers in the world, Martin Campbell. (Campbell’s glorified 1994 B-movie
No Escape is a lean, unfussy slice of pulp savagery that deserves a second
look.) And the plot, which has Renard plotting to blow up Elektra’s oil
pipeline across Russia, is muddled even by Bond film standards. There are good,
relevant touches–a multiracial Russia, the deforestation of oil sites by
helicopters with buzz saws, copious surveillance by satellite–but they’re
drowned out by the standard mix of travelogue footage and pyrotechnic absurdity.


More importantly, I suspect
this new Bond film’s flirtations with emotion and consequences might turn
off the series’ core audience–daydreaming boys of all ages who like
their hero shaken but not stirred. The pulchritudinous Jones will give them
some consolation, but not much. A babe is not enough.



Tumbleweeds
directed by Gavin
O’Connor


It’s a shame that
Tumbleweeds and Anywhere But Here arrived in theaters so close
together. They’re not exactly the same movie, but their plots are similar–eccentric,
effusive single mother and troubled daughter relocate to Southern California
and struggle to find happiness.



Based on the novel by Mona
Simpson, Anywhere But Here was made at studio prices. It has two big
stars, Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, and is directed by Wayne Wang, an
easygoing dramatist who does good work on every budgetary level. Tumbleweeds
is an indie through and through–a labor of love. It stars rising British
stage actress Janet McTeer (A Doll’s House) as the mother and newcomer
Kimberly Brown as her daughter; it’s based on an unpublished novel by Angela
Shelton and was directed and coadapted by her ex-husband, filmmaker and actor
Gavin O’Connor (who also acts in the movie).


Both films are exceptional
in different ways. I give Anywhere But Here a slight edge because of
its atmosphere, its mundane details and Roger Deakins’ outstanding widescreen
photography, which puts the characters and their struggles in context without
diminishing them. The shaky handheld camerawork in Tumbleweeds is affected,
sometimes phony. It’s like the faux-Cassavetes camerawork on the otherwise
superb NYPD Blue–random shakes, tilts and jittery zooms that are
meant to signify grit and authenticity but serve only to call attention to the
photography and cast aspersions on the whole enterprise.


Fortunately, the core of
the story–a mother and a daughter starting over–rings true. McTeer’s
single mom, Mary Joe Walker, is tough, gutsy and unabashedly sensual, but she
also has tunnel vision. She uproots her 12-year-old daughter Ava for the right
reasons–because mom’s current boyfriend is an abusive lout who poses
a threat to their safety. (Their fight opens the movie on a note of chaos and
terror–nonsensical curses, flying crockery, balled-up fists aching to throw
punches. It’s powerful stuff–the most realistic depiction of domestic
violence since This Boys’ Life.)


After they set down roots
in San Diego, Mary Jo takes a job as a filing clerk, working for an unctuous,
vulgar little pill of a man (well-played by Michael J. Pollard). Ava tries to
fit in at school, make friends, even find romance with a sensitive boy in her
class. But it’s hard to concentrate on her studies when her mom is laying
the groundwork to make the same mistakes over again. She falls hard for a burly
trucker from the East Coast (O’Connor), who loves Mary Jo and makes a respectable
attempt to reach out to Ava; but he’s a rather anal, controlling man, a
slave to routine and to macho ideas of domesticity–a powder keg who could
light his own fuse on a second’s notice.


Like Tobias Wolff, who wrote
the novel This Boy’s Life, O’Connor and Shelton understand
the cyclical nature of abuse. Without blaming the victim, they detail how otherwise
sensible women get sucked into dangerous relationships out of a desire for male
comfort. (Mary Jo wants a father for Ava and also for herself.) The filmmakers
also have a keen ear for how trivial disagreements can escalate into arguments
that can turn violent on a dime. A celebratory dinner late in the film starts
out promisingly but goes bad, thanks to a combination of alcohol, stubbornness
and mutual suspicion.


This is much darker and
more dangerous terrain than in Anywhere But Here–thanks largely
to Mary Jo’s rougher upbringing and her slightly scuzzier milieu. But both
films understand how mothers and daughters, in their determination to stay out
of each other’s way and not risk judgment or confrontation, can actually
reinforce each other’s weaknesses. (McTeer is quite good as the thoroughly
American Mary Jo, though she sometimes overdoes the character’s fierce
lustiness and her Southern accent. She concentrates so hard on getting the details
right that the performance verges on too-perfect–an impersonation of the
kind Meryl Streep is often accused of doing. Brown, on the other hand, is perfectly
natural; on the basis of this performance, she could be the next Natalie Portman.)
In the film’s opening argument sequence, Ava is holed up in her bedroom
listening to the chaos in the kitchen; O’Connor cuts briefly to her pet
hamster in its cage going around and around on a wheel, running desperately
but never making progress. It’s a simple, even predictable image, but exactly
right: Mary Jo is running in place, holding onto her daughter’s hand and
telling her they’re going places.



Framed


Sleepy
Hollow
revisited: I saw Sleepy Hollow a second
time last week and was pleased to discover that my enthusiasm was not misguided.
For what it is–a lavish horror fantasy–it’s just about perfect.
It’s also visually and tonally distinctive enough to turn off as many people
as it pleases.



I spotted even more references
this time to filmmaking (the little boy’s spinning lantern, which projects
cut-out ghosts and witches on the wall), and to the themes of vision and seeing.
(The first time we see the face of Ichabod’s mother in a dream sequence,
it’s a tight closeup of her eyes. The image recurs twice more, in a second
dream sequence and in an horrific murder by the horseman–after which a
severed head’s dead eyes are glimpsed through floorboard slats.)


A couple of corrections
to last week’s review are in order, however. In the film’s courtroom
sequence, Ichabod is arguing on behalf of one defendant, not two; the placement
of a second, unrelated actor in the background of the shot, right behind an
empty torture device, confused me and made me think there were two defendants.
Also, the Headless Horseman’s arsenal of weapons does not include twin
scythes; the latter are used by one of the Horseman’s unfortunate opponents,
whom the Horseman bisects with a broadsword and ax in a ghastly knife-and-fork
maneuver.


And the winner is: If USA
Films is smart, they’ll go all out to push John Malkovich as best supporting
actor for Being John Malkovich. If Malkovich is nominated, I predict
that he’ll win. Reasoning: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
is comprised mostly of actors. This helps explain why Robert Redford and Kevin
Costner each beat out Martin Scorsese as best director for first-time features,
and why Emma Thompson and the team of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have scriptwriting
Oscars for their first produced screenplays (Sense and Sensibility and
Good Will Hunting, respectively). Even sensible actors often indulge
in vicarious narcissism come awards time, voting for fellow actors who are living
out their fantasies instead of rewarding a more deserving, less glamorous candidate.
I therefore ask: Is there a more seductive fantasy for an actor than being nominated
as Best Supporting Actor for playing yourself in a film that has your name in
the title? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.


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