Monday, September 15, 2014

Dr. Who series 8 (Deep Breath, Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Listen)

(WARNING: story lines and plot twists in Season 8 episodes discussed in detail)

Don't look now

but Steven Moffat seems to be regaining some of the creative juices he lost since his memorable start as head writer of the Fifth Series of Dr. Who.

Take Deep Breath: perhaps not as funny, but a darker, less frenetic season premiere than that first effort. Peter Capaldi as the Doctor babbles, but it's closer to the babble of a madman (a paranoid schizophrenic?) than ever before--Tennant mostly came off as a gregarious blabbermouth and Smith like an easily distracted child; Eccleston was a swaggeringly arrogant jerk, despite which he's my favorite from the new series. So far.

Reinforcing the 'madman' concept is the Doctor's tendency to see things from the strangest perspectives ("Who invented this room?" "Doctor, please, you have to lie down." "Doesn't make any sense--look, it's only got a bed there. Why is there only a bed in it?" "Because it's a bedroom."). Moffat is constantly trying to explore or redefine the meaning behind this or that detail in the Whovian mythology,* in this case the new series' tendency to use younger and younger actors (Madame Vestra on the Doctor: "I wear a veil as he wore a face. For the same reason." "For what reason?" "For the oldest reason there is for anything: to be accepted.").   

*Something he also does, to varying degrees of success, with Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Speaking of veils, Smith's Doctor wore the face of a young man, through which cracks peek the visage of an older being. It's the opposite with Capaldi's Doctor: the face of an old man through which peeks the eyes of a younger, more immature, perhaps more helpless child.

Arguably the most unsettling--and here you see Moffat's eagerness to shake things up--aspect of this Doctor is his bleaker, more calculating sensibility: he will pause for a moment to consider abandoning his companion (Jenna Colman as Clara Oswald) behind but only for a moment: if logic (or his idea of it) dictates, he will leave. Clara's panic seems genuine, not to mention unprecedented (can't recall it happening ever, at least in the new series, and never to her); it's enough to cause one to lose faith in the Time Lord completely. The Doctor does respond when Clara reaches her hand out blindly backwards in a late gesture of faith, but the absolute trust (of Clara, of the audience) in the Doctor has been broken; wonder if Moffat will make more of this in future episodes

Interesting that the mechanisms collecting body parts in this episode are somehow related to the equally acquisitive clockwork robots in The Girl in the Fireplace; Moffat seems to like machines or situations trapped in faulty programs or circumstances--seems to mirror his fascination with human lives locked or trapped in timey-wimey loops or currents (see my thoughts on River Song).  

Love the steampunk sensibility, from the clockwork opening credits (inspired by a fan video) to automatons in Victorian upper-class garb. The future often seems less and less interesting from a production point of view nowadays--the hero either runs down a featureless metal corridors or featureless plastic corridors (take your pick). At least with steampunk you can hope for wood paneling and brass fittings, not to mention the occasional hissing gas lamp.

Love that despite the Doctor's more calculating nature there is an attempt to endorse him, bottle-cap prying brows and all, to Clara's care, and who else to speak up on his behalf than the previous, much-beloved Doctor? Moffat's default tone seems to be smart-alecky wit than anything else, but he's also skilled at the small poignant moment (think of Officer Billy Shipton and his much-delayed date); Moffat's moment here (thanks in no small part to Matt Smith) seems sharper than it has been for some time. 

Moffat shares writing credits with Phil Ford for Into the Dalek. Premise is simple: the Doctor goes all Fantastic Voyage on us, is miniaturized and then inserted into a dying 'good' Dalek in an attempt to save it. Yes, I know; yet another Dalek story--but I submit Moffat introduced new chills in an earlier attempt ("Eggs eggs eggs eggs") and does so again here, this time operating on a microphage level, allowing us insights into the complex relationship between a Dalek and its computer-mediated armor, and--as with the earlier episode--again trying for a radical redefinition, this time of a classic Who villain. 

Doesn't seem like a big deal, but think about it: an insane Dalek fights out of love or a sense of wonder; a sane Dalek fights the way it always fights, out of hate. It can fight for bad or (in this episode) for good, for or against its fellow mutants, but there can only be one  ruling desire: the utter destruction of whatever has been targeted. I'll admit Daleks have been around too long and too often to be frightening anymore, have been reduced to being a popular Halloween costume. Perhaps the most Moffat's idea can do is induce a brief pause, where you consider what he's saying; if you allow the point to drive home, though, that pause can be followed by a delicious little shiver (hate serving good or hate serving evil is still hate). That the Dalek chooses to fight his own people due to the Doctor's own hate--that's the tragic little fillip that adds piquancy to Moffat's concept.

Call Robot of Sherwood a palate cleanser, Mark Gatiss' attempt at silliness. Uncharacteristic--the titles of Gatiss' episodes usually announce his intentions (The Unquiet Dead; Night Terrors; The Crimson Horror), comedy not usually one of them. That said, being threatened by the charisma and relentless cheer of Sherwood's merriest bandit seems exactly what the Doctor needs, and he rises to the occasion with  inspired petulance, crotchety-old-man style. The plot doesn't make sense (why would alien robots want so much gold? Why are the robots themselves so slow and altogether lame?), but the banter between the Doctor and his equally legendary rival (even if the Doctor himself doesn't approve) is a lovely little change of tone, a brief evocation if you like of Matt Smith's early days

Like it that the Doctor, meeting a living legend, tries to cast the situation in "is he or isn't he real?" terms, and Gatiss' story concludes with a third possibility: that the relationship between legends and the people who inspire them isn't necessarily linear, much less logical. Interesting point, for an ostensibly lightweight episode.  

If The Eleventh Hour is Moffat's elaboration on The Girl in the Fireplace and Deep Breath its implied sequel (the clockwork Victorians in Deep being cousin to the clockwork Frenchmen in Girl), call Listen Moffat's attempt to do another Blink.  

Plenty of chilling moments--the chalk rolling across the floor, the figure under the bedspread, the knocking on the ship's hull--without matching Blink's intensely ratcheted suspense (for that you need a brilliant plot developed cleanly and clearly, the tension prioritized over ambiguity and atmosphere). Not all of the thrills are even original--the knocking I submit is Moffat's shout-out to Midnight, one of Russell T. Davies' best scripts. 

In one sense the episode is even more stripped-down than Midnight: instead of a handful of characters it bears down on three; instead of an unseen villain it basically has none. The mind in danger hasn't been taken over so much as traumatized--the damage was there all the time.

But Listen seems more than all that--more than just another scare episode along the lines of Midnight or Blink. It ranges from the end of the universe to the Doctor's childhood; it skips from Clara's bedroom to a London restaurant to a crashed ship to a Gallifreyan barn. It careens through wildly different emotional tones, taking time along the way to sketch out the outlines of Clara and Dan's budding (if rocky) romance.

Listen doesn't have the sharp poignance of Billy Shipton's story, or the wrenching loss of Madame de Pompadour's, but there is I submit something moving here in a broader, even deeper, way. The episode takes Moffat's tendency to tinker with the meaning of bits and pieces and raises the stakes considerably: Deep Breath tried to redefine the significance of the Doctor's younger incarnations, Into the Dalek a Dalek's relentlessness, Robot of Sherwood the relationship between a man and his developing legend. Listen seems to want to redefine nothing less than the Doctor's deepest motives: what makes him seek out companionship all the time (humans in general, females in particular); what makes him want to help others; what makes him run--maybe even what made him steal a TARDIS in the first place, flee into the vast reaches of space and time. Easily the best episode of the season so far, and possibly Moffat's finest script in some time. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012); Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964)

On the occasion of the classic film's 50th anniversary reissue, a reposting of an old article:

Backwards Bond

(Needless to say, story and finale discussed in detail here)

Not really a big fan of Sam Mendes--thought American Beauty a plodding, watered-down version of Blue Velvet, thought Road to Perdition a pretentious if handsomely shot adaptation of the graphic novel. Mendes has talent, but it's difficult to get a read on him as a filmmaker--there isn't a much of a distinct personality, visually or emotionally speaking.

Which makes it a pleasure, I suppose, to say Mendes has finally found his metier, as an above-average director of Bond films.

Skyfall is back-to-basics Bond, and yes the producers have tried to breathe life into the tired franchise before, via revamp (the preferred term nowadays being 'reboot') or untimely demise. Here Bond pretty much does die, shot in the chest and dropped hundreds of feet into what looks like an inch of water (Chuck Jones would have milked that setup to, well, death)

Nowhere to go but up, then. The basic premise is that former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) has emerged from the service's shadowed past to revenge himself on Bond and, through him, former boss M (Judi Dench)--seems she once surrendered Silva to the enemy, who tortured him for months; now he feels the need to pay her back the favor, with interest.

Dark and complex stuff which Mendes seems to want to incorporate into his concept of Bond. Basically Bond is at war with himself or a photographic negative of himself, Silva being a less tough, less loyal, less sane Bond. Both are (were) M's favorite sons; both responded to her stern ministrations, betrayal included, according to their respective natures. Both love and hate her in equal measure, with equal intensity.
For the role Bardem dons yet another bad wig, blonde this time --a signal that Silva is every bit as badass as Anton Chigurh, perhaps? A comic response to Daniel Craig's close-cropped pate? Bond as the embodiment of British values with Silva its inversion, his flowing Spanish accent an affront against all those precisely clipped vowels?

It's not bad. The film's real stars are Roger Deakins' gorgeous amber lighting (Skyfall, Bond's ancestral ruins, looks like a beautifully barbaric heap of stones, lit up from within by out-of-control gasoline fires) and Bardem's giggly brilliant psychopath (do I like him better than Chigurh in No Country for Old Men? Sure; here you know what's eating him up inside--can't help but react with revulsion when he's suddenly all tenderness towards M, caressing her like the mother she never was). If I have a complaint it's that they don't do enough with Silva--the man is deadly until he nears his target, then his aim goes bad, his luck turns sour, his brains soften into mush. I suppose it's inevitable, even necessary: if he were consistently brilliant the movie would be over in forty minutes, tops, with M's and Bond's heads on pikes. 

Silva's overtures to Bond are fascinating; equally fascinating are Bond's coy replies ("What makes you think this is my first time?"). His bluff called Silva drops the pose, which is a disappointment--I'd loved to see him persist; more, I'd love to see Bond tempted. "Join me or joust with me; link arms to slay our spiritual matriarch"--that might have been a more interesting conflict. 

But no, Mendes' subversion is a tease; like Silva nearing his target Mendes' aim fails and he flails about, leaving us with Business as Usual and the Occasional Big Explosion. Bond may be abused but will never seek vengeance (at least not against the Crown); he may be enticed but will never be seduced; he may have his heartstrings tugged, but God forbid that it actually break. 

A brief sidenote on the women--but the fact that the women are sidenotes already says something. Dench's M plays a significant role, true; also true that she's helpless for most of the picture (in chess she's the king not queen), makes bumbling decisions, ultimately steps aside in favor of yet another male authority figure (was Dench tired of the role, or did she ask for too much money?). Naomie Harris' Eve is a more entertaining foil to Bond, but doesn't get to bed him; Berenice Marlohe's Severin does bed him, but ends up as punchline to a sadistic joke. Good girl settles docilely behind secretarial desk, bad girl gets screwed in both senses? Bond politics are as retrograde as ever, only nowadays the filmmakers can't use the times as an excuse anymore--actually you're not sure what possible excuse they can offer, or if they have any to offer at all...

Is this the greatest Bond flick ever? Settle down; a little perspective might help. Skyfall is arguably the best recent Bond, but my list of preferred titles would include Never Say Never (for the concept of an aging, worn-out Bond); the original Casino Royale (for sheer anarchic perversity--John Huston and Val Guest as two of six directors; Orson Welles as Le Chiffre (can you imagine if they made him director?), Woody Allen as Bond's younger misfit brother); On Her Majesty's Secret Service (for the moment when Bond does break down, leaving him more emotionally naked than any of his women ever were or could be); and above all Goldfinger (for achieving Bondian perfection on the third attempt).

In fact one might as well drop the other titles and stay with the gold standard. Anthony Burgess included the seventh Bond book in 99 Novels, his list of the best 20th-century fiction; Robert Bresson confessed to being a fan of the film. Burgess liked the novel, I suspect, because the prose is so evocative--a meal of stone crabs topped by melted butter washed down with iced pink champagne inspires ravenous growls from the unwary belly; a wagered game of golf turns into a thrilling cat-and-mouse competition. 

The novel is divided into three parts: "Coincidence;" "Happenstance;" "Enemy Action." Fleming thought of the story as a series of encounters between Bond and Goldfinger where the stakes grow ever larger, the loathing between them ever more intense; as Bond approaches--first a chance encounter (Coincidence), later an assigned mission (Happenstance), much later an all-or-nothing desperation ploy (Enemy Action)--Goldfinger himself expands in size from card cheat to SMERSH agent to larger-than-life Bond supervillain. It's one of the most elegant plots I know, a magician's trick sapling unfolding and unpacking to bloom into a mighty redwood, in the vague shape of a mushroom cloud.

There's an embarrassment of riches here, from Shirley Bassey's rendition of the title song to Robert Brownjohn's gold-dipped beauties to Ken Adam's gigantic sets, their bunker-cavern feel recalling his work in Dr. Strangelove--another film from the same year that dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age. Screenwriter Paul Dehn may not be adapting literature (though Burgess might beg to differ) but possibly Dehn knew of what he wrote--a year later, he would adopt one of John Le Carre's finest novels to the big screen. The director Guy Hamilton isn't in the same caliber as Sam Mendes, but he doesn't need to be--he's working from Fleming's perfectly structured book, and with the help of Ted Moore (who lensed all the early Bonds) achieves a bright-lit comic-book look that is part adventure, part parody, pretty much all entertainment. 

That said, there are moments when Hamilton transcends his craftsman's credentials--the attacker-reflected-in-the-woman's-eye shot which Bresson so admired, for example. The opening skirmish is a series of lightning-fast lunges across the hotel room floor that ends in a literally electrifying checkmate (said ending foreshadowing the grimmer, even bigger finale). Fleming's crude circular saw is upgraded into a memorably cool laser, with the even more memorable exchange: 

"Do you expect me to talk?" 

"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" 

Harold Sakata's chillingly genial Oddjob works you over with his machine-shop hands, all the while grinning his infuriating grin. The film's climax is set in a fabulous underworld of barred gold (Skyfall for all its exotic locations couldn't top that vision of auric splendor), an atomic weapon ticking away in one corner, Bond standing in another, and--planted in the middle like a parked tank--implacable Oddjob, blocking Bond's way.

All this unfolding at a lean hundred and ten minutes (Skyfall was a distended one hundred and forty): no extraneous fat, no moment of auteurist self-indulgence in sight. 

Goldfinger ends with the threat of atomic Armageddon--what other conclusion is possible, in an age of Mutually Assured Destruction? To be fair Dr. No also threatened nuclear disaster, only reactors don't inspire fear the way bombs do, and looking at the boiling bubbling pool that climaxed that first Bond film one couldn't help think of (it was a low-budget effort) a tricked-out jacuzzi from the swinging '70s. Worse, after this most ultimate of dooms it's difficult to imagine what stakes a Bond supervillain might raise next, or if there were any stakes left one can raise (Thunderball, which followed Goldfinger, employed two nuclear devices--which when you think about it is just the same damned thing, twice). 

One could make the argument that after Goldfinger all succeeding Bond films were redundant; that they could never recapture the same mix of humor, sex, and action; that Bond could never face such impossible odds and beat them with as much invention and stylish flair ever again--and in my book one would be right. Goldfinger far as I'm concerned is the apex of the franchise; everything that followed--no matter how talented the people involved, no matter how many Oscar statuettes floated in their wake--is basically downhill. 



Broken Marriage (Ishmael Bernal, 1983)

Trench warfare

(Warning: the story of Ishmal Bernal's films Relasyon (The Affair, 1982) and Broken Marriage (1983) are discussed in close detail

Film available online (can't link to it directly though--go look for yourself!), which is one reason why I'm reposting this. No English subtitles, alas.

You might say Ishmael Bernal's Broken Marriage (1983), his follow-up to the successful melodrama Relasyon (The Affair, 1982), isn't quite as commercially or critically successful (the film's star Vilma Santos managed to sweep all acting awards with her performance in the previous production). I suppose it's easy to see why: the earlier film looks at marriage from an unusual point of view (from the outside, or from that of the mistress); the earlier film has a relatively streamlined and somewhat titillating story (a man estranged from his wife moves in with his mistress) with a suitably dramatic finale (death by aneurysm, harrowingly shot and staged by Bernal in a single take). 

Reportedly Ms. Santos, buoyed by the many acting awards earned by Relasyon, was so eager to do well in the new production that Bernal got irritated, locked her in a bathroom, and delivered to her an ultimatum: she was not coming out till she got over her 'hysteria.'

One sees what made the latter so successful, the same time watching this one sees why Bernal didn't want to simply duplicate that success. Relasyon was a lean and elegantly told melodrama that took a sidelong look at the institution of Filipino marriage; in Broken Marriage Bernal wanted to focus on the institution sans oblique glances. He didn't want to film some doomed struggle to keep love alive but something less dramatic, far more difficult to capture: the aftermath of a protracted war, where the ultimate casualty is married love. He in effect didn't want Ms. Santos at her perkiest and most energetic--he wanted her exhausted, looking for a way out, and to her credit Ms. Santos delivers.

The film is a gem of contemporary neorealist drama not the least for what it doesn't have: soapy music (what little there is sounds incongruously cheerful, an ironic ditty for some kind of happy little family movie), fancy production values (the middle-class houses look as if they were actually bought and furnished using middle-class incomes), histrionic acting. As a kind of sly commentary on this Bernal has the wife Ellen (Vilma) working as production assistant to a TV director (Tessie Tomas) working on an endless series of soaps. In one scene Ellen looks on as soap husband and soap wife take the familiar pose of classic melodrama (staring off into the distance, with an expression of haunted tragedy on their faces), intoning kilometric lines of bathetic woe. Contrast this with the fight she just had with her husband Rene (Christopher De Leon, who played philandering husband to Ms. Santos' martyred mistress in Relasyon): messy, unlyrical, jagged in rhythm and emotion and dialogue (one wonders if Bernal had the actors improvise their lines), with an unsatisfying resolution. 

It's actually remarkable how Bernal without being too obvious about it manages to refract Ellen and Rene's marriage several ways. Aside from seeing it through traditional pop media (the television soap), we see it re-enacted through the quarrels of a gay couple--Rene has at this point moved out and into a house serving as residence to an artist's community. He's eating breakfast when suddenly one lover runs down the stairs and starts yelling at the other, who sits sullenly, listening. You can see Rene reacting as he recognizes some of the words--similar if not exactly the same as what Ellen has yelled at him, time and time again (this, incidentally, could be considered one of Christopher De Leon's subtlest, finest performances--impressive, considering he's not known for understated acting). 

Likewise, when Ellen has moved into her mother's house we (as well as Ellen) recognize ourselves in her younger sister and boyfriend albeit at a younger age, with love still in bloom and marriage an unknown adventure. Again the contrast--the occasionally tempestuous love between two youths and the steadier flame between two veterans: scarred, wary, wondering how much more of this they can or need to take.

Bernal shoots most of the film in a series of long takes, much as he would to capture a performance onstage; he has the camera move to frame and reframe actors  when they argue, sometimes indicating a shift in the power struggle between them. When the argument goes on and on Bernal's camera takes on an unblinking, relentless quality, refusing to turn its gaze until frustrated husband and infuriated wife have hurled their last venomous barb at each other and are left, weaponless and exhausted, on a devastated plain. 

The film ends with Rene moving into Ellen's mother's house, and the two attempting reconciliation--an ostensible happy ending. But: one has to remember that the two finally turn to each other when they have no other alternative, when their prospective lovers fail to measure up, when they could not tolerate yet another night alone in bed. Marriage is a slog, a neverending struggle, a source of constant pain--but there are less palatable alternatives out there, and you can do much much worse than to just stick with each other and try make it work. As for the reconciliation? Not a guarantee; an accommodation, a ceasefire ready to be withdrawn at the first sign of struggle. I wouldn't trust them to stay together past the end credits--would you?


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