James Bond's Bimbos & Almodovar's Ladies


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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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