Monday, December 31, 2012

Purple Rain (1984)

It's been decades since I first saw this, but when it debuted I recall going to 13 showings, before it left the theaters, then enjoying a couple of screenings when it came out on VHS.

Since a large part of the movie was deliberately campy even 28 years ago, it's hard to say what is really dated and what is not. Even back then, Morris Day's clothes and antics were not supposed to be "normal" and Prince's stylings were always considered unique. Those things didn't actually represent the eighties and were probably viewed as whimsically odd then as they look now. I think it's chiefly the dialogue that has suffered over time.

But the music has held up well. Maybe I didn't get as much of a thrill from the film sequences playing along with When Doves Cry ran, as I did back then, but that pulsing beat still works and Prince's stage presence is/was undeniable. I wanted to run out and buy a Prince Live DVD and spin some of his hits from before and after Purple Rain. If I still had a turntable, I'd dust it off for Dirty Mind, Raspberry Beret, Little Red Corvette, and remember that there's no particular sign he's compatible with Prince just wants my extra time and my . . . kiss! What an incredible, innovative talent he was. He's still brilliant today, but everyone has caught up with him, so it's easy to lose sight of just how original he was back then.

The movie's musical performances are still good, but today the plot is not only as thin as it was in 1984, but more troubling than it would have been perceived then. I can't imagine a contemporary audience laughing at the way Morris Day had a pesky one night stand thrown into a garbage dumpster in 2012. It makes you squirm just like watching Jimmy Cagney shove a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face does now. Of course, Prince (or The Kidd) is much worse. He grew up watching his father beat his mother (and was probably pounded on himself), making largely failed attempts to rescue her. So, it's realistic that when his own girlfriend frustrates him, he reflexively strikes her. The movie lets us see that this is a cycle of violence, but not necessarily something that is tormenting Prince.

He honestly seems as sorry that his alcoholic, abusive father never made it in the music business than that his mother was victimized. After the father shoots himself, his wife sits tearful vigil by his hospital bed and Prince looks on them tenderly. There's no sense that maybe the father's death would have finally brought peace or been justified and no promise that when he recovers he will have learned his lesson and will no longer bully his spouse or even that cessation is one of her priorities. Prince's girlfriend, Apollonia, is more upset that he hurt her feelings in a jealous pique than she cares that he smacked and pounced on her.

When he throws her on the pavement in one scene, she dares him to hit her and says it couldn't pain her more than he has already by mocking her with the delicious Darling Nikki diddy, which labeled her a "sex fiend" and demeaned their relationship. I don't think that implementing a "no tolerance" violence policy ever occurred to her, as a condition of reconciliation. Her acceptance of his assaults is particularly irksome due to his slight physical stature. The petite Apollonia is probably the only person in the world that Prince might be stronger than (he is barely taller than her in his heels), so for him to physically intimidate her speaks of a cowardice that is very typical of abusers. Very realistic and yes very common, but still not something to be taken for granted or glossed over so lightly. The attacks were played for shock value, rather than character failings. I suppose it would be hard to find a 25-30 year old movie that was not laced with misogyny. But this one might be worse than most.

All in all, this movie was a triumph and a good documentation of Prince at his peak. I saw him in concert many times and he was every bit as mesmerizing live as he was on stage in this flick. Prince wasn't a particularly good actor, but he had a devilish, adorable smile that brought the "Baby, I'm a Star" lyrics to life. Morris Day was charming in a surprisingly natural way, given the over-the-top role. Freckled, funny, crazy, human. Wonder what ever happened to him and The Time. The moment when he taunts his rival, Prince ("how's the family") but then pauses in thoughtful shame is still touching and true. People say and do many things when they have an audience that their conscience would take back later.

It's also sweet when Prince is cleaning up the cellar that he wrecked after his father's attempted suicide and finds Apollonia's discarded earring. A gift that he gave her. He picks it up and tosses. She catches it. We did not know that she was sitting on the cellar steps, reunited with her love. Nice reunion reveal.

Catching up with this movie was not a bad way to spend holiday time. I hadn't forgotten why I was such a Prince fan. I didn't need a reminder, but a good time never gets old and even in 2012, we still want to party like it's 1999.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

During the opening sequence, I certainly noticed that the lines in the faces of both Bond and M were deeper and more pronounced than usual, but I had no idea that would be the movie's theme: that they were old dogs, incapable of learning new tricks and evolving with the digital times. Just three movies in, it seems premature for the producers to start foreshadowing this Bond's retirement and, though worn, he doesn't look all that decrepit, despite characters trying to convince us otherwise, neither does M for that matter.

As always, the movie starts with a chase. Bond is after a villain who has stolen a list of all MI6 NATO operatives. If Bond doesn't get it back, all of those agents' lives will be in danger when their cover is blown. M is monitoring the chase through an earpiece. We all hate bosses who micro-manage, but M is taking it to a new level. As Bond and an assistant are driving, running, and ducking for their very lives, M is constantly bugging them for a continuing status update and barking out new orders for them to follow. The fact that Bond even acquiesces shows that he's not as "old school" as the film would have us believe. Only someone who grew up under the watchful eyes of a nannycam would put up with this level of disruptive, no dangerous, supervision.

The assailant Bond is chasing has shot another agent, Ronson, who lays dying by the time Bond reaches the apartment. He needs immediate aid. Bond wants to stop to help him. M barks that there's no time. She'll send a medical evacuation unit to Ronson. Bond says that they'll never get there in time. M doesn't care. Bond is to LEAVE. The dying agent hears M. He doesn't beg Bond to stay, but he doesn't tell him to go either. On the way to meet his maker, he looks like he wouldn't mind receiving a little compassion from a fellow man. He took a job where he's asked to risk his life for his country, but those type of jobs usually promote brotherhood and loyalty, rather than undermining it. When your life is placed at risk every day, you tend to depend on your colleagues, the only other people in the world who know what that feels like. A soldier never leaves a fellow soldier. Firemen, policemen, they follow the same creed. But secret service agents don't. At least not the ones under M's rein. After hesitating, Bond finally obeys M and leaves the fallen agent behind. To die.

He runs after the villain with a nameless assistant by his side. He has to leave their car to climb on top of a train to get the MI6 list back from the assailant, while the assistant is left to follow him in a car and keep M updated every second. The train is headed under a tunnel, with Bond and the villain struggling on its roof. M tells the assistant to try to shoot the assailant. She can't get a clean shot. Take it anyway, M commands. But it's not a clean shot. Not only is the train moving, but so are the fighting men. She could shoot Bond. Take the shot, M yells over the earpiece. TAKE THE SHOT. The assistant reluctantly shoots. Hits Bond, who falls. The killer part of this scene is that after Bond falls, she DOES have a clean shot at the villain before the train enters the tunnel. She has several seconds when she could have hit him easily, but she doesn't. To me, she should have been fired for this failure (which she doesn't relay to M over the earpiece) more than for shooting Bond.

The scene is very powerful because even though we know that Bond will not die, the tension still mounts. He can hear M in his headpiece as clearly as we can. "Take the damn shot!" She's told that she might hit Bond and yells again, "take the damn shot." When the bullet flies and hits Bond we're shocked. Yes, we know he won't die, but there will be emotional consequences. We begin to feel them as soon as his body starts to fall.

Bond falls into the water and is presumed dead. M writes his obituary. We see Bond drinking on an island, an anonymous woman helping him heal. He lounges. Plays drinking games (with a scorpion on his wrist) and tries to forget. But when he's watching the telly and sees that the MI6 building has been blown up, he returns home. Or breaks into M's apartment, to be more precise. M greets him with, "where the hell have you been."

She wonders why he didn't call. He reminds her of the last words he heard her speak, "take the damn shot" and decided he needed a little break. She says that his life wasn't worth the 20 she could have saved if she had been able to prevent the theft of that secret service list. He doesn't say she should have put his life above others, but she should have trusted him to do his job and get the list back, rather than assuming he would fail and forfeiting his life. She shrugs it off. That's their job. I guess he comes to accept this, but I don't. When an agent does something reckless (and Bond certainly has in the other 2 films, but not in this one) and puts everyone at risk, then leave him to die. But when he's giving his all and following orders for a change, then the country (or at least his supervisors) need to give their all too and not abandon him -- much less put a hit out on him. I don't think you can build a force of agents or soldiers or gang members or even teachers who will sacrifice everything for the common good, unless they know they have a support system and they are considered valuable. They'll fight for you until death, but they have to believe that someone will fight for them that hard as well. If you make them feel expendable, then their job will be as well. I don't buy the premise that until now M has been a successful head of MI6 with an attitude like the one she is displaying here.

Later in the movie she says that orphans (like Bond) make the best recruits. That's true of many professions. That's why pimps hang out at train stations looking for runaways. They take someone who doesn't feel wanted, doesn't belong. They give them a sense of family and then, once they create trust and dependency, they take advantage of it. If you skip the middle step, if you never make the lost person feel that they belong to something, if you never give them the surrogate family that was lacking, then they won't sacrifice everything for you. Not unless you're using force (like the pimp eventually does). In this case, it would do no good for M to recruit orphans if she keeps them in an environment that's lonelier than the broken homes they came from. You may have a maverick like Bond who thrives on the isolation, but you'll never build an army or agency of loyal operatives if you don't give them something solid and nurturing to which to attach that loyalty.

M tells Bond he's needed back at work and suggests he go take a shower. He says he'll go home and change. His flat has been sold and his belongings placed in storage. After all, he was presumed dead. He should have called. He says he'll find a hotel. Of course he will, she assures him. He's not bloody well staying with her! Back at their temporary headquarters Bond spies a familiar statue on M's death. An ugly bull dog wearing the flag as a blanket. The whole MI6 building burned up and that thing survived, he asks in disbelief. M counters that she never relied on his taste in interior decorating.

He will have to pass physical and mental tests before he's allowed back on active duty and she wants him to take them seriously. M is in hot water herself. The prime minister's aid, Mallory, cites the number of recent security breaches and tells her that she's going to have to "resign" in two months. She was once the best, but she's become soft and is not objective when it comes to Bond (really, because she just gave the order that "killed" him). They'll give her the highest commendations and make it seem like she's leaving on her own terms. But she has to go. Fine she says, but she's not leaving the agency worse off than when she got there. She's going to find the enemy who took the list of agents. Meanwhile, whoever it is has infiltrated MI6's computer system (including M's own) and is releasing the names of 5 agents every week. When their cover is blown in a foreign country, unless MI6 can get them out in time, they're violently killed. M bows under the weight of guilt she feels over agents who have died because she is forever one step behind of this anonymous adversary.

Bond prepares to return to work. Physically, he exhausts easily. His body is stiff and sore. His target shooting is way off. He meets the assistant who shot him on the train. She's been taken out of the field and is now working for Mallory, but she wants to get back out on active duty. Why Bond wonders. It's not for everyone and he, personally, would feel safer with her behind a desk.

Bond has a psychological assessment. Say the first word that comes to mind: murder= employment. M = Bitch (M smiles from behind the one way mirror where she is observing). Skyfall = this session is over. When Bond hears the word, he abruptly stands up and walks out.

He digs shrapnel out of his own chest wound and has it examined. It's a special type of uranium that is only used by 3 people, one of them is known as "Patrice". Bond will follow that trail. He meets with the agency's new quartermaster. A college aged kid who gives him a gun (which recognizes Bond's palm print and will only shoot for him) and a radio transmitter. Bond is surprised that that's all he's getting. If Bond is looking for an exploding pen, they don't make those anymore, the young quartermaster informs him. Bond thinks he's too young? He thinks agents like Bond are antiquated. while they're out chasing each other, he can do more spy work and cause more destruction to their enemies on his laptop before even rolling out of bed than Bond can. Bond thinks the computer wizards who only spy from their computers in their pajamas like the quartermaster (whom Bond dubs "Q") don't know what the real job is like.

After a couple of impossible break ins and close calls (and one close shave, given to Bond by the assistant who almost killed him, when she climbs onto his lap and sultrily uses his vintage straight razor blade to slice the hair from his face) Bond finally finds his way to Patrice's boss' Silva, on a deserted island. Clair Dowar, the woman he goes through to find Silva, seems powerful, but Bond soon detects (from her wildly, almost laughably, shaking hands) that she's scared of Silva. Bond takes a drink. When the bartender shakes it, Bond declares the martini perfect. I don't get the impression that he's ordered it this way (although he did introduce himself to Clair, as "Bond. James Bond.") It's just that has become his preferred drink preparation and when it's randomly made like that, he is pleasantly satisfied.

Speaking to Clair over drinks, Bond notes that the men who surround her are not part of an entourage. They're really her captors. Bond doesn't know her full story, but guesses that she's been Silva's pawn and virtual prisoner for years, since childhood. We learn later it's a parallel to his own story. He was orphaned and recruited by M. In Casino Royale, Vesper said (while profiling him) that he had a benefactor who gave him an expensive education, but that he never fit in with his rich classmates. Was that rich benefactor M?

Javier Bardem's evil Silva oozes sinister all over Bond, even making a sexual play for him, talking about what Bond's first time with a man will be like. "How do you know it's my first time," Bond retorts. Silva smiles. Silva tells a story of growing up on his grandmother's beautiful island, but it was overcome by rats. How to get rid of them? Well, use coconut oil to lure them all into a drum. Then, when all the rats are in, close them in together with no food. They will eat each other. When only the last two rats are left, let them go back to the island. They won't have a taste for its fruit any longer. Their diet has changed. They now hunger only for other rats. One will kill the other. The last rat standing is the winner.

Silva says he and Bond are the last 2 rats. He used to be a secret agent himself, but M betrayed him. Let him get captured. They tortured him for 5 months. He got free and now all he wants is revenge. Will Bond stand with him. Can they join forces and destroy their "mother" together? [Nice that M can stand for "Mother"] She has used them both and will betray Bond like she has him. Silva says she has already lied to him. Bond denies it. Silva says that M didn't tell him he flunked his mental and physical exams and the medical recommendation was that he was not fit to return to duty, yet M put him back out there. Silva makes a point of killing Clair in front of Bond, but when it looks like Bond is cornered and alone, helicopters swarm overhead.
He's called in back up forces on a little thing known as a radio he informs a surprised Silva.

Silva is held prisoner back at headquarters. When M comes to observe, he declares himself glad to see her again. He never stopped thinking about her. She claims to hardly remember him. He says that she betrayed him, gave him to the enemy. He suffered for 5 months then, broken, he broke his back molar where the cyanide tablet is kept and tried to kill himself. It didn't work. It just burned his entire body. He takes out his teeth and gums. His face shrinks, skin wrinkles and all that is left of his mouth is a narrow, black cavern. The abyss. Both M and Bond seem quietly horrified. He puts his mouth back in, slimy saliva smearing his lips as he scowls at them.

Alone with Bond, M tells him that Silva used to be one of the best agents out there (so she does remember him quite well, despite what she said), but that he broke the rules. Start hacking Chinese computers, caused exposure for them all. So she gave him up to the enemy and saved 6 other agents' in exchange and won an easy transition. Bond seems to buy this thing about forfeiting one to save many, but I don't. What M did to Silva is a little different from what she did to Ronson and Bond. Silva's acts jeopardized others and she gave him up to save them, the ones he himself endangered. Ronson and Bond deserved a little more from her. And if agents like them felt that the organization would risk a bit to protect them, then maybe she would have a lot more of them and those with Bond's and Silva's commitment would not be the exception.
Of course, Silva is the classic example of anger being love disappointed. Once abandoned by M, Mother, he put all the single-minded drive and emotion he once gave to the agency into his mission to destroy it.

M has to go speak before the prime minister's panel to explain the leaked security list and computer breaches. It is while she is testifying that Bond and M realize that Silva wanted to be caught. He wanted to get into MI6 headquarters. As soon as this becomes obvious, Bond runs to Silva's cell only to find him gone. He realizes that Silva is after M and messages her to leave the hearing and take cover immediately, but she refuses to run. She continues her testimony and gives them a lot of balogna about the job that she is doing keeping them safe. It takes men on the ground, old fashioned agents doing that brick and mortar style espionage to keep the country safe. The digital world can't protect them. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. You think computers can do everything for you? How safe do you feel right now, she demands. Just then Silva and his men break in and start shooting the place up. I think this is supposed to prove M's point that the job that she was doing was not outdated after all. But really the job that she did caused Silva to come after her and MI6 in the first place. Do computers become feeled with resentment towards their former employer and go postal? I think he's a good argument as to why the agency and its obsolete cloak and dagger tactics should be phased out. But it doesn't appear that the movie script sees it that way.

She says her late husband was a poetry lover (so she's been widowed since the last movie) and some of it rubbed off on her, against her will. She quotes Tennyson's Ulysses. "Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Are she and Bond the ones possessing the heroic hearts of equal temper? Like minded in their old guard ways? Outnumbered, but with a determination that gives them more power than contemporary technology ever could.

Bond shows up and hustles M out of the hearing room. This is all her fault she says. Yes, Silva is after her, but they can nab him. Using her as bait, she asks, answering her own question. "So be it," she agrees easily. After all, she was feeling guilty anyway, so this is justice to her, in a way. Of course, would she have sacrificed her life for others on principal, even if she didn't feel guilty, in the same manner that she was willing to sacrifice the lives of individual agents to save multiple lives?

Meanwhile in Q's lab, with Mallory's blessing, they ditch protocol and Q uses software to leave breadcrumbs for Silva, taking him exactly where Bond wants him to go.

On their way there, Bond takes M to an old storage shed and she tells him that there's no way she's hiding there. He says they're only changing vehicles. The shed harbors the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, complete with ejector seat. "Oh, no, that won't be conspicuous at all," M snarks. They drive down barren roads and she complains so much that he touches the red button. "Go ahead and eject me. See if I care," she snarls.

They reach an abandoned Scotland estate and she says, "is this where you grew up." He doesn't answer. She already knows the story, he says. This is Skyfall (Bond's rosebud in a way). She doesn't deny knowing his entire history and comments that orphans are always the easiest to recruit. They go into the home which looks abandoned but there's a caretaker inside. Kincaid (Albert Finney) recognizes Bond immediately, even though he, presumably, hasn't seen him in decades. He was the gunskeeper when Bond was a boy. But they sold the estates and all the guns when Bond was presumed dead.

He only has one shot gun left, a few explosives. But Kincaid thinks that sometimes the old-fashioned methods work best and also lays a knife out on the table to add to their little arsenal. Bond, Kincaid and M lay traps and prepare the house for an invasion. Kincaid asks Bond if he remembers how to shoot as Kincaid taught him. Bond says he thinks he can manage. He's such an excellent shot (he's gotten better since the last MI6 exam, then) that kincaid is taken aback. "what did you say you did for a living again?" Oh, so Kincaid was told that Bond was dead, but wasn't told who Bond was working for at the time? He must not have read M's obituary then. Speaking of which, Bond tells M he read it and he found it appalling. But he liked the part that suggested his love of country. That bit was all right.

There's an old passage way, a priest's hole that will lead to a chapel in back of the house. Kincaid tells M to use it, if they get trapped. He says that when Bond's parents were killed when he was a boy, he hid in that hole during the attack and stayed there for 2 days. When he came out, he was a man.

Silva comes with his men, fighting and explosions ensue. We've only known Kincaid for a few minutes of screen time, but he's obviously an instant kindred spirit to the other two and I already feel attached to him and hope he isn't killed. The makeshift defense he and the others have put up are a good match against Silva's expensive weapons. They are outmanned, but not for long. Silva's men fall by the wayside.

M and Kincaid escape through the tunnel to the chapel in back, M's hand has been hit and she is bleeding heavily. Silva chases after them. Bond follows, but he and one of Silva's men fall through an ice hole and Silva assumes they're dead. In the chapel, he ignores Kincaid, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. Since he was looking for a show down between just him and M, why not dispense with the old man who might interfere in it.

Silva tells M that of course they would have to confront each other in the chapel wouldn't they? It's really the only fitting place. "Mother," he says. He grabs her bleeding hand, caresses it, and wants to nurse her wounds. His attitude is faux loving, obsequious, maybe even a little erotic, definitely Oedipal. Putting his face close to hers, their cheeks together. He places his gun in her hand and pulls it to her head, their heads. He urges her to shoot. By doing so, she will kill them both. The bullet will go through her skull and then his, which is joined to hers. They will die together, he says. M doesn't really resist. Not so much because she is scared, but one feels it's because she believes that killing herself will be a small price to pay for ridding the world of Silva, especially considering the agents under her who have already died.

Just as M might pull the trigger, Bond bursts in. Silva is almost resigned to his reappearance and has a weary, but unsurprised, "Oh you again" expression on his face. Bond and Silva tussle. Silva is getting the best of him, when Silva is hit from behind. The forgotten Kincaid has thrown his thrusty old knife into Silva's back. I keep wondering if Silva will seem dead, but then pop up for one last attack, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, but that would spoil the message of the movie. It didn't take fancy, automatic weapons to kill Silva. Silva was an electronic mastermind, creating computer programs that rivaled Q's genius, but they didn't vanquish his enemy or save Silva in the end. A simple knife, wielded during face to face, hand to hand combat, the kind of weapon used by Kincaid and Kincaid's grandfather before him, was all that was needed to bring Silva down for good.

So, Kincaid not only survived, but saved the day. To my surprise though, M was not so lucky. She succumbed in Bond's arms. I didn't even know she had been fatally wounded. Maybe she lost too much blood from her wounded hand. The cause of death was unclear to me. Bond closes her eyes when she passes and puts his lips to her forehead.

Back in London, the assistant brings him a box. The assistant isn't back in the field after all. She listened to Bond. It's not suited for everyone. She places the black box in his hand. I briefly think it's M's ashes and feel, "C'mon. They weren't that close." But then I know what it is. M's will was read and she left Bond this. He opens it. It's the porcelain bull dog from her desk. The assistant laughs. Maybe this means that M thought he should leave the field and take a desk job too, the assistant suggests. "No, Q meant just the opposite," he concludes.

They go back downstairs and Bond tells the assistant that they've never been officially introduced. "It's Eve. Eve Moneypenny." Nice to meet you Ms. Moneypenny.

She works for Mallory now. Bond enters Mallory's office and picks up his next assignment. He thanks Mallory --or M -- and leaves. Closing credits.

Of the three Daniel Craig Bond films, I think I liked Casino Royale best, but this one is certainly better than Quantum of Solace. They don't hammer us over the head with Bond's repressed pain as they did in the last two, but I think that due to M's coldness in ordering the assistant (whom we now know is Eve Moneypenny) to take the shot, the tie between Bond and M which is the focus of this third entry isn't one that's compelling to me. Of course, what binds them is not truly the mother/son relationship that Silva bastardized, even if M did recruit him for the agency when he was just a boy. Instead, what they really shared was the same vision of patriotism, duty, doggedness and sacrifice that the world around them seems to have outgrown, along with the knowledge that the "old" crude ways were practiced so well, so long, not because of a misplaced sense of nostalgia, but because they worked.