My recent replay of “GoldenEye N64” has brought James Bond, my tried and true problematic fave, back to mind. I had begun informally revisiting the Roger Moore films with a pair of snarky recaps, but those are sort of the low-hanging fruit of the franchise for feminist critique.
Instead, I decided to turn my attention to my James Bond: Pierce Brosnan. Being an ‘89 baby, he was the first face I remembered thanks to his 1995 debut. And probably for that reason, I felt as though he was the best of the bunch: he had Connery’s suaveness without the abrasive misogyny, he could handle the lighter scenes without being a Moore-esque goof, and there was an overall air of competence and physicality.
Having already spent a fair amount of time thinking about Goldeneye, I decided instead to focus on my second favorite film of his: The World is Not Enough. Or at least, it was my second favorite the last time I thought about this. After rewatching it, I’m really not sure why. Let me take you on a journey to try and explain.
But it is such a perfect place to start, my love
We open to Bond and his very professional looking glasses strutting down the streets of Bilbao, Spain. He’s led to a meeting in a bank, where he is searched (and yes, he was packing heat). “If you can’t trust a Swiss banker, what’s the world come to?” But…you brought the gun…so…
The main banker, Lachaise, is blathering about how he’s being honorable by returning “Sir Robert’s” money to Bond, after taking out appropriate convenience charges. His assistant, who is horrifyingly credited as “Cigar Girl” because she offered one to Bond, hands our agent a paper and asks if he’d like to check her figures. “Oh, I’m sure they’re perfectly rounded,” he answers, in this kind of weird, breathless way that makes you wonder of Bond might have some sort of sex-addiction problem. She rolls her eyes and you can tell that this isn’t the first time she’s been creeped on at work.
The money Lachaise retrieved had been lost when Sir Robert King tried to buy a report that was stolen from an MI6 agent, who died because of it. Bond is under the impression that the banker would have insight into who killed the guy, and keeps making bizarre insults at the man for being Swiss. Lachaise points out that he’s just a middle-man in the situation, so Bond presses a little button on his glasses that makes his gun fire (it was randomly sitting on the table after his frisk), and in the confusion, takes down every guard. Then after pointing his gun at Lachaise’s head, the dude is like “oh well now that you mention it I know just who killed the MI6 agent” (how.), but oh no, someone throws a knife into the back of his neck before he can talk. The clompy heels let us know it’s Cigar Girl, who is definitely dressing for the job she wants, not the one she has. As you know, a secret-assassin.
Bond can’t chase her though, since the whole kurfuffle drew the attention of the local police, so he has to shut himself inside the room. One of the henchmen he took out pops back up, but someone outside the building has a sniper scope on him, and kills him before he can hurt Bond. I think it’s also supposed to be Cigar Girl, since Bond runs to the window immediately after that happens (like anyone would do with an active sniper…), and the camera pans from building-to-building while the clompy heel sound effect continues.
The police knock on the outside of the door, and Bond gets the brilliant idea to rip a cord from the window, and tie it to one of the henchmen lying on the ground. Then he grabs the briefcase full of money, smashes the window, and leaps off the balcony, like one does. And luckily for him the cord was exactly the right length, and he didn’t go plunging to his death.
Normally this necktie-adjusting-moment comes at the end of a pre-title sequence, but no, we’re transported to MI6 Headquarters in London. There’s a very odd scene of Bond personally stacking money into a vault and looking very pleased with himself, before he heads Moneypenny. It’s super charming and very clear that they both skipped the HR training on sexual harassment in the workplace. Before horrible cigar-puns get out of hand, M calls Bond into her office, where she and Sir Robert King are giggling with each other. He thanks Bond for getting his money back, and then runs off so that he can go touch it too.
M gushes about how smart her friend is, until Bond points out that they just had to send him to go recover over three million pounds for the guy thanks to his blackmarket report-purchasing habit. But then M is like, “oh yeah, this report right here!” so… Does that mean they just helped Sir Robert steal the thing? Why does he get the money back for this?
Turns out it’s a stolen report from the Russians that King thought might help him identify terrorists attacking a pipeline he’s trying to build. Which is more or less the plotline of this movie: Oil Tycoon.
“Interesting,” Bond says, scooping ice into his drink, “But it doesn’t exactly explain why somebody would want me out of their office alive.”
See, both he and M think it was really shady that Cigar Girl helped him escape, and yet apparently they didn’t bother double checking the suitcase full of cash to make sure it wasn’t bugged, or I don’t know, FULL OF EXPLOSIVES?
Yeah, it’s the latter, which Bond finds out when the ice he held starts frothing. At least his alcoholism can be useful from time to time. He jumps up and runs out of the room, while M gets on the intercom and says “Moneypenny, stop King.” But she does jack-all, and Bond can’t run across this ridiculously large building with annoying automatic doors in time, so Sir Robert steps into the vault and the thing blows.
Bond runs to survey the damage, which includes a major chunk of the exterior wall missing, but oh no! Cigar Girl is on a boat chilling on River Thames, this time rockin’ a sweet action-leather suit (now this is how to dress for the job), and she’s pointing her sniper mark at Bond. I wonder if she used Expedia to be able to have beaten back an MI6 agent like this. I also wonder if she knows that she’s the only lead, so maybe turning up and being super obvious wasn’t the best play?
Bond ducks the bullets and then runs through the building in a different direction, where he find’s Q’s office. There just happens to be a boat there on a water track that leads out the building.
So we get one of those great James Bond boat chase sequences! There’s shortcuts across London streets and fiery explosions, though I’m still a little haunted from the days of Billy Bob to truly enjoy this.
Cigar Girl realizes that Bond is going to catch her (why did you come??), so she tries to get away by hijacking a hot air balloon. Unfortunately the million dangly ropes make them the worst get-away vehicle, confirmed when Bond leaps from his boat and grabs hold of one. Cigar Girl realizes she’s done for and moves to shoot the propane tank. Bond is all, “I can protect you, don’t do this!” but she says, “Not from him” and blows it up, while he lets go and falls to a rooftop in what is somehow not his death.
This might feel like a dead end for some, but “him” is a pretty big clue in Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.
Title sequence time! The clever visual motif is oil, while Garbage reminds me that this is a 90s flick still.
Professionalism in the workplace
Time for a Scottish funeral, featuring Bond in a sling! It’s for Sir Robert, and M brought the entire MI6 squad, because that’s appropriate. Charles Robinson, the Deputy Chief of Staff, apparently forgot to read his briefing since Bond has to tell him that the girl M is hugging is King’s daughter, Elektra. All things considered, it was a rather nice atmospheric scene. There’s even bagpipes playing.
Post-funeral festivities include a briefing at MI6’s Scottish headquarters about the attack on their building. Wow, Sir Robert’s funeral must have been thrown together really quickly if they’re only now getting to this. Bill Tanner explains that King’s lapel pin was a replica with a radio transmitter in it that caused the boom (science?), which means there was an insider. Then the genius Deputy says:
“We know it was someone close to King, and our only lead committed suicide on that balloon. But given the size of King’s organization…it could be anyone, anywhere.”
Everyone has access to the dude’s pins?
But horror of horrors! Crashing onto a roof and dislocating a collarbone means that Bond is on the inactive roster. So he does the only logical thing and fucks the MI6 doctor to get her to agree to fake medical information for him. And luckily, Dr. Molly Warmflash (yup.) doesn’t give a shit about ethics or the fact that these two have clearly fucked before. I’m starting to wonder if there is no HR department.
Bond swings by Q-branch so that he can see Desmond Llewelyn off, who introduces him to his successor, John Cleese. Oh the simple times, where the Bond franchise was fond of levity. Gadget of very specific function from the scene: a jacket that envelops the wearer in a giant padded snowball.
And finally to cap off his busy day, Bond decides to do some very basic research on Sir Robert King and his history with MI6, which leads him to all these files on that time Elektra King was kidnapped by a terrorist and ransom money was demanded. The exact same amount of money as was in the briefcase that blew-up.
Bond goes to M who locked the files on the kidnapping and asks for the full story. Elektra was kidnapped, Sir Robert asked for M’s help, the British don’t negotiate with terrorists so rather than pay the ransom they tried to find the guy responsible. I’m not really sure he needed an unlocked file to piece this one out.
We then get yet another MI6 briefing on the terrorist/kidnapper Renard, who they refer to as “the anarchist.” This is never in evidence, and as you’ll see, the guy’s entire scheme revolves around market profit.
After the kidnapping, 009 shot the anarchist in his head, and Molly Warmflash literally just pops her ass into the meeting at the perfect moment to explain how Renard is still alive. The bullet is apparently traveling down his medulla oblongata and will eventually kill the guy, but until then he’s losing his sense of touch and smell so he can “push himself harder, longer than any normal man.” For some reason he’s not losing sight or hearing too, and my 3-second Google search that told me how the medulla oblongata contains the control centers for the heart and lungs is apparently irrelevant. Dude can’t feel pain, so that makes him scarier. Cool.
M says that Renard already got his revenge by killing King and humiliating MI6, but Bond points out Elektra could also be in danger. Then Moneypenny conveniently pops her ass into the meeting to tell M how Bond’s off the inactive roster, while trying to shame Warmflash for fucking him.
No one cares, so Bond gets sent off to Azerbaijan (after M feels the need to tell him not to fuck the woman he’s assigned to protect, because that shouldn’t be a given or anything), where Elektra is overseeing a pipeline’s construction.
Then my father was wrong
The villagers are protesting, but Elektra King basically flips off her security staff and shows up anyway. Bond watches and is moderately impressed as she and a priest have a meeting in Azeri, where she agrees not to build a pipeline through their church. When she passes on this information to her foreman, he’s all like “but your father approved this route!” and then for some reason looks to her Chief of Security (Davidov) to get that crazy woman in-line. Uh guy, she’s the sole owner now, isn’t she? Elektra doesn’t care though, and says in so many words that her father was an idiot.
And yes, to be clear, as I’m writing about her here now, I realize I’m low-key stanning her.
She then gets yet another doofus to deal with, this time in the form of Bond, who tells her she “may be in danger.” She laughs in his face and points out that she’s currently overseeing a new pipeline through the Middle East (and has very serious competitors), she just had to deal with a riot, and her father was murdered like two days ago, but thanks for the info.
But not so fast! There’s survey lines to check (for what, exactly?). She and Bond set out on a grand skiing adventure. Apparently the strong winds dictate that the helicopter can’t land, and also can’t get anywhere near their destination. So we’re treated to a solid few minutes of Bond and Elektra skiing while happy music plays.
Then we learn that her father really was a fucking idiot, because he built his pipeline over a glacier. Did no one explain to him that they flow?
Bond: So this is where they meet, the two ends of the pipeline. Your father’s legacy.
Elektra: My family’s legacy, to the world.
Honestly, I don’t blame her for the clarification. Turns out it was her mother’s family who discovered the oil here, so her dad was more of the project admin guy. Who did not consult with a single engineer. It also turns out that Elektra’s only goal in this excursion was to be able to stand and look at the spot where the pipelines join for three seconds.
They’re interrupted when a few parahawks with gun-toting pilots drop by. Bond orders Elektra to split off from him so that he can draw them into the trees. What follows is a fairly decent ski-chase scene (ah, The Spy Who Loved Me flashbacks), with fairly decent music, and mercifully no snowboarding.
He outmaneuvers all the parahawks and meets back up with Elektra, but turns out causing them to explode in an area with avalanche warnings can be a little risky. One comes to gobble them, but luckily Bond has that coat-of-very-specific-function and shields them inside a snowball. Then he calms Elektra down from a panic attack and the two climb out.
Okay, pause. I’m sorry to say, I have to ruin the movie for you right here, because it is impossible to explain these events without knowing it. Elektra is the bad guy! Boom! She is actually in love with Renard, her kidnapper (or it later gets implied that she turned him?), and the two are teaming up with the nefarious plan of stealing weapons-grade plutonium and blowing up Istanbul, because that’s where all of her competitors’ pipelines run through. Then her pipeline will be the best pipeline. Really, it’s not that dissimilar to Kananga’s soul food/opium plan: Elektra wants to control the market to be able to jack up prices. Renard, the anarchist, is apparently into helping her achieve this goal. Oh and also she hates her dad and MI6 for doing diddly squat when she had been kidnapped.
The first time through, this reveal is fairly decent, but on rewatch everything becomes nearly incomprehensible. Bond is the assigned MI6 agent, and he showed her that they know King’s lapel pin was switched, so everything that happens from there on out has to be viewed as Elektra manipulating him to seem innocent. Faking a panic attack to seem weaker is actually clever.
However, we learn that these parahawks belong to the Russian Atomic Energy Department (let’s just call it “RAED”). If you need a refresher, they’re the dudes that wrote the report that was stolen and purchased by King. They’ve also got a scientist named Doctor Arkov who is working with Renard (and therefore Elektra), who we later learn provided these parahawks for this operation.
So, okay, there’s the RAED who had a report identifying terrorists that attacked King’s newest pipeline (which I think was just a separate attack by competitors?), and Renard has teamed up with their scientists. Then 009 stole the report and was killed by Renard’s people, so that Renard could turn around and sell it to Sir Robert King for the exact same amount as he had demanded in ransom for Elektra years ago, probably to prove a point that the guy was willing to shell out for his company but not his daughter. And somehow a Swiss Banker living in Spain employing a Cuban woman got hold of the money again, while King also received the report.
The only rationale for hiring the parahawks for Team Renard/Elektra (Team Drill Baby Drill) in this moment was to make her look more innocent to Bond? Or to kill the MI6 dude who showed up and began poking his nose around? And she was totally fine with this taking place as she was skiing in an area known for avalanches? Because she could have really easily died, especially if Bond didn’t have a coat with a specific function that no one would have guessed existed. She’s just really committed to this duplicity, I guess. Or maybe it’s part of her whole thrill-seeking nature, since her catchphrase is “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive.”
The Night Shift
We’re next treated to a scene of Elektra begging Bond to have the sex while Davidov and her security staff sulk outside her room. Bond turns her down, and then heads to a casino where he dons stupid looking sunglasses that serve as x-rays, which he uses to ogle the women in the room—I mean, to cleverly pin some rando to a counter with his own knife so that Valentin Zukovsky (from Goldeneye!) will agree to see him. Even though the guy had no reason not to see him.
Bond shows Valentin a piece of one of the parahawks from earlier, and the guy identifies it as RAED’s seal (you’d think a British secret agent who we later learn speaks Russian might have been able to do that, but whatever). We also meet Mr. Bullion, Valentin’s adorable henchman who doesn’t trust banks.
I guess this was necessary for Bond to confirm Renard being behind the parahawk attack, or in bed with the RAED, or something. But before Valentin gets into the finer points of Renard working “freelance” now (a freelance terrorist? Is that a thing?), Elektra waltzes her ass into the casino, because she wants to play a really, really fun card game with Valentin. Or wait, no, she gives Bond this reason:
Bond: What are you doing here?
Elektra: The same thing you are. Looking for the people who tried to kill me.
What kind of casino is this, exactly?
Valentin invites her to sit at her father’s chair, and keep his gambling credit line of one million US dollars, and Elektra thinks this is nifty. The game? One card, highest wins.
Elektra loses and Bond gets sad, even though there’s really no reason for him to care what the oil tycoon does with her money. Then she skips back out of the casino, and asks Bond to have the sex again. He agrees, because it has been a whole fifteen minutes so circumstances totally changed. Elektra has an ice kink, and Bond thinks her story of survival from her kidnapping is pretty cool.
We’re also treated to a scene of Davidov and RAED scientist Dr. Arkov meeting with Renard, and if I hadn’t already told you the plot of the movie, this would have been shocking. So let me spoil something else: Renard has teamed up with Arkov because this Russian nuclear scientist gives him the cred he needs to be able to steal a nuclear bomb from a Russian military base in Kazakhstan, where the International Decommissioning Agency is currently working. So this guy is rather crucial to the entire operation. Davidov is some rando who oversaw Operation Almost-Kill Elektra, who fucked up by not actually killing Bond. If that’s what the point of that was.
Arkov points out how the parahawks were supposed to be returned, and that people might ask questions of him, so “maybe we should scrub the rest of the mission.” Because of this completely reasonable and mild hesitation, Renard decides his best play is to shoot Arkov and have Davidov impersonate him, because why would the International Decommissioning Agency verify the identity of the dude who they’re giving a nuclear weapon to? Brilliant. I wonder if Arkov knew that the end goal was to create an oil monopoly.
This plan gets even dumber when Bond, sneaking out of Elektra’s bed, follows Davidov, kills him, and decides to impersonate him impersonating Arkov.
He lucks out in that a) Renard is not there himself, and b) Renard’s henchmen also don’t care about verifying identities, even though they were outright told Davidov would be replacing Arkov.
Henchman: What happened to Davidov? I was told to expect him.
Bond: He was buried with work.
Bond is taken to a Russian military jet, where the men on-board ask for “the grease.” Turns out they are new pairs of sneakers, and that explains the Russian involvement, or something.
They land at the ICBM base in Kazakhstan, and Bond—err, “Dr. Arkov”—is introduced to Denise Richards…I mean, an atomic physicist named “Dr. Christmas Jones.” And boy does Denise play the part of a rocket scientist convincingly.
Colonel Akakievich (commanding officer at the site): Don’t bother. Not interested in men. Take my word for it. This year we decommissioned four test sites. Not even a glimmer.
Christmas Jones: (to Bond) Are you here for a reason? Or are you just hoping for a glimmer?
She checks Bond’s paperwork while he asks basic questions about nuclear testing sites that give away his ignorance on the subject, and then he skips down into the underground testing chamber. There, Renard and his buddies (with their new sneakers) are in the process of taking an atomic bomb. Glad the Decommissioning Agency and Russian military let them go ahead and start that process before the RAED scientist who placed this order even showed up.
Bond is able to attack Renard and holds him at gunpoint, while the guy does that thing all Bond-villains do and explains the plot.
Renard: I did spare your life at the banker’s office. That’s right. I couldn’t kill you. You were working for me. You delivered the money, killed King. Now you brought me the plane.
He also tells Bond that Elektra is going to die in 20 minutes if a “certain phone call isn’t made,” and proceeds to brag about how he got to rape her during the kidnapping fun times. Bond figures he’s bluffing and goes to kill him anyway, though as he’s about to, Renard pulls out Elektra’s catchphrase too.
Also, a wild Christmas appears with the colonel. She figured out that the guy who knew nothing about atomic testing sights isn’t actually a nuclear physicist, so she Google image-searched Arkov, unlike every other person on the site. Bond tries to explain how Renard’s men are the imposters stealing the bomb, and Colonel Akakievich thinks everything is shady enough to ask everyone to get up to the surface. Renard and his people begin murdering everyone, even though Bond had just got done telling him “firefight will bring down half the army from above.” Lucky for them this never happens.
Bond grabs Christmas Jones and leaps into a pit in the middle of the room, and despite the fact that they’re being shot at and a terrorist is trying to steal an atomic bomb, she is entirely fixated on figuring out who Bond really is. It’s odd; she more or less acts as if she sees this shit every day.
Cue an action montage where Bond fails to stop the theft of the bomb, and Renard attached a bomb to the underside of the elevator so that as he goes to the surface, it detonates (did he know this was going to happen? Was he planning on blowing up the place anyway?). Bond hops onto a little pully and rides ahead of this giant explosion, while Christmas watches with mild interest until he tells her to close the door.
Then the two escape the exploding building while she continues to hound him for his name. I appreciate her ability to multitask, but is this really the time for that?
Oh, also, one of Renard’s men removed the locator card from the bomb so they can’t track it. This is very important to the plot later.
Doesn’t exactly take a degree in nuclear physics
Bond goes back to Elektra’s digs and accuses her of having Stockholm Syndrome because Renard found her catchphrase nifty. Oh, also, there was a moment where he grabbed Bond’s shoulder and it hurt him, because remember how the guy is injured and shouldn’t have been on the active roster?
Elektra: So he knew where to hurt you, is that it? You had a sling on your arm at the funeral. And I didn’t have to sleep with you to find that out.
I really hate that he’s right about her, because she makes exceedingly good points and calls him disgusting for assuming she’d fall in love with her rapist due to a few words. I also forgot to mention, but while he was gone, she video conferenced M to tell her that Bond fucked her and left her and she’s scared, so M is en route.
Elektra begins shaming Bond for using her as bait to get to Renard, just like her father and MI6 did before, and God, why did movie have to take this set-up and instead go in the direction of “oh Elektra is actually the bad one, and she won Renard to her cause (not the other way around) because she thinks her father is the pits”? Whatever, she gets a very conveniently-timed phone call about an attack on her pipeline, so she and Bond head to a pipeline control center where M meets up with them. She and Elektra headnod at each other.
Bond hands M the locator card (important) and tells M his suspicions that Elektra is the lapel-switching insider.
M: She kills her father and attacks her own pipeline? Why? To what end?
For some ungodly reason Christmas Jones is hanging out at this King Industries center, and tells them that there’s no sign of the bomb in the area (what?).
But oh no, there’s an unresponsive observation rig inside the pipeline, and Bond deduces that Renard stuck the bomb on it. “So now do you believe me?” Elektra asks him. Smooth, very smooth.
Bond decides that he’s going to go deactivate the bomb by hopping onto an observation rig himself, and Christmas volunteers to come with him since she actually knows how to do that and he doesn’t. They get inside the pipe and Christmas takes the controls, since operating it “doesn’t exactly take a degree in nuclear physics.”
The bomb catches up to them, and Christmas goes to defuse it, once again being cool as a cucumber.
Bond: You’ve defused hundreds of these, right?
Christmas: Yeah, but they’re usually standing still.
Bond: Yeah, well, life’s full of small challenges.
She notes that half the plutonium is missing so it can’t “go nuclear”, but there’s plenty to still kill them if the triggering charge goes off. Bond tells her not to deactivate it, and two jump off the rig which they let explode.
Back at the control center, we find out that the charge blew up a 50-yard section of the pipe. With Bond supposedly dead, Elektra decides now is a great time to show M her father’s real lapel pin and reveal that SHE WAS THE INSIDE WOMAN. MWAHAHA!
Turns out she wasn’t thrilled with M’s “let Elektra rot” advice during the kidnapping, and meant for the bomb that killed her father to take M out as well. However, she realized that she could use Bond as another chance to murder her, because she…foresaw that he would ditch her after sex and M would be willing to fly to meet her out of guilt?
We cut back to Bond and Christmas climbing out of the pipe, Bond patting himself on his back for faking his death. Christmas is confused why Renard only put half the plutonium in the pipeline, and pulls out this little bitty metal box, which supposedly contains 6 kilos of the stuff. This confuses me, because if she is holding the plutonium, that means she took away the stuff that would have made the explosion really bad. Sure, the triggering charge blasted 50 yards of pipe away, but had she and Bond truly failed to deactivate the bomb, wouldn’t a lot more of it have been damaged? So shouldn’t Elektra know that something was really fishy?
Bond remembers the one loose end: that time that Elektra happily wrote Valentin a check for one million dollars in the world’s worst card came. If they had just rigged a round of blackjack instead, I wonder if Bond would have been stumped. As usual, Christmas doesn’t seem to give a shit about anything but Bond’s backstory.
Christmas: By the way, before we go any further, I just wanna know… What’s the story with you and Elektra?
Bond: We’re strictly plutonic. What’s your story? What are you doing here in Kazakhstan?
Christmas: Avoiding those kind of questions, just like you.
I really want an alternate version of this script where she’s like, “I’m decommissioning nuclear weapons? For my job?? You met me at the test site I was cleaning???”
However, in this version, she needs to get the plutonium back or someone is going to “have her ass.” Is there a reason she’s responsible instead of the Russian military who didn’t bother to vet the people that wanted to take the bomb?
The insurance company is never going to believe this
They go to track down Valentin in his cavier factory (oh, did I forget to mention that’s his business now?), while Renard and Elektra reunite in Istanbul. He lets her rub some plutonium, and then she shows him how she stuck M in a cell.
He and M have a nice little chat about who is more to blame for Elektra being all murdery, and then he tells her that the entire city is going to die. He then sticks a clock on a stool just out of reach and tells M to “watch the hands” because shit is going down at noon the next day. Once he leaves the room, M discovers that she has the bomb locator card in her pocket! This becomes an entire subplot, as she finds a cane in her cell (?), which she tries to use to drag the stool with the clock towards her.
But it’s not like this is her only play and the entire fate of Istanbul is in her hands, so naturally she gets impatient and knocks the entire thing over. Wrecked.
Bond and Christmas arrive at the caviar plant in his super-conspicuous car, because what’s the good in faking your own death if you don’t undermine it right away? We then learn that Mr. Bullion is actually working for Elektra, and he calls her to let her know the situation.
She’s in bed with Renard who is pissy that she enjoyed the sex she had with Bond. This was a much needed scene. She orders Bond dead.
Back at caviar-ville, Bond for some reason orders Christmas to sit on a couch and look alluring for Valentin, even though the guy would have walked into the room anyway. Before the two men can discuss the million dollar payoff, a bunch of King helicopters with tree-trimming blades show up to murder them. The wharves get torn up, Bond’s car is sawed in half, and somehow Valentin ends up falling into a tub of his own caviar where he almost drowns even though that stuff is mega-salty. Still, it was a useful plot-device to get Valentine talking. And we learn that Christmas eats her caviar with sour cream!
We also learn that the payoff was thanks to Valentine’s nephew in the navy smuggling machinery for Elektra. They gang sets off to Istanbul to check in on good ol’ Nephew Nikolai at the Federal Security Bureau’s office. They piece together that the dude was delivering a submarine to her, which is where they’re going to jam in the plutonium and create a nuclear explosion “making it all look like an accident” and wiping out the competing pipelines. What an unnecessarily complicated get-rich-quick scheme for an already-rich lady. Or is this about revenge? Or the supremacy of Azerbaijani oil, because Elektra feels more connected to her mother’s side of the family?
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul
I hope the clock subplot was keeping you on the edge of your seat. Elektra pops into M’s cell and says “Good morning” before realizing that she had literally no reason to do that.
Before she leaves again, M asks her what the time is, and Elektra helpfully puts the clock on the bars of M’s cell before peacing out. M then connects the locator card of the bomb to the wires inside the clock (that’s convenient) while epic music plays, even though the only thing we’re watching is a septuagenarian pulling out a battery.
This makes something go beep at the Federal Security Bureau’s office, and Bond, Valentin, and Christmas learn that it’s coming from Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul. To add three seconds of tension, Mr. Bullion tries to murder them all with a bomb; Bond and Christmas get away, only to be captured three seconds later by Bullion, and it sort of looks like Valentin died.
Meanwhile, at Maiden’s Tower, Renard tricked Nephew with poisoned snacks! The entire crew is dead, so now they’ve got the sub and the plutonium. He goes to say goodbye to Elektra, who’s about leave the city by helicopter (she’s kind of cutting it close), and they have a kind of awkward make-out session. Cute.
She heads inside to find Bond and Christmas. Despite the fact that the entire city is about to blow up anyway, Elektra orders Christmas to be taken to Renard, but not before talking about how she and Bond were former lovers. I guess this love triangle is slightly less terrible than the one between Bond, Moneypenny, and Dr. Warmflash.
Then she has Bond shoved into a torture chair with a neck-breaking garrotte in it.
Elektra toys with him for a bit before revealing that she turned Renard with her evil ways!
Elektra: I’ve always had a power over men. When I realized my father wouldn’t rescue me from the kidnappers, I knew I had to form another alliance.
Bond: You…turned Renard.
Elektra: Just like you, only you were even easier.
I have no clue what to make of this. We could chalk it up to her point-of-view bias, though the narrative seems to want us to take it at face value, since it’s followed up by the reveal that Renard wouldn’t hurt her to “make it look real,” so she cut off of piece of her ear herself. I guess we can talk about the power-dynamics between a kidnapper and his victim, though it does very much seem as though she did all of the planning for this operation and Renard just did the leg-work for her, so I just…I don’t know. It’s the James Bond franchise; of course the first true female villain is a wily femme fatale with a past trauma that’s entirely unexplored (and even discounted).
Pierce Brosnan sells the hell out of a dude about to get his neck broken, though. Oh and at some point Elektra is all “I could have given you the world,” and Bond responds with the name of the movie, which is also a callback to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s actually (“Orbis non Sufficit”), and it’s so awkwardly delivered that I half-expected Ron Howard to pop up and go “hey, that’s the name of the movie!”
There’s sudden gunshots, and Valentin storms in looking “for a sub. It’s big and black, and the driver is a good friend of mine.” Elektra just fucking shoots him, but as he’s on the ground about to die, he aims his walking stick/gun (don’t ask) very, very, very slowly at Bond, and fires, breaking one of the arm cuffs. Despite this being wildly deliberate, Elektra just shrugs and assumes it’s all fine, which she tells Renard over a walkie-talkie.
Bond frees himself, grabs a gun, and begins to chase Elektra up some stairs, pausing to free M from her cell. Once he catches the lady, he orders her to call off Renard through the walkie. She says into the speaker, “Renard… DIVE, Bond is—” and Bond fucking shoots her to stop the warning.
Now, I have to imagine Renard heard this? But he doesn’t question it, so he lowers the submarine below water, while Bond does a beautiful swan dive, and boards the thing. Once there, he finds a guard and demands to be taken to Christmas. Oh right, she’s a thing.
He comes up with the plan to raise the sub to the surface so that it’ll show up on satellites and “bring out the navy,” but unfortunately the genius pulls the levers in the wrong direction, forcing the sub to take a nosedive to the bottom of the Bosphorus Strait. Like, we have seen Roger Moore of all people successfully steer a sub.
The impact with the bottom causes things to flood, because Bond messed up that badly. Meanwhile, Renard turned the plutonium into a rod that can fit inside the reactor, and if he shoves it into the reactor, everything blows up. I have no clue if the rest of his crew knows that this is his plan, but it’s nice of them to have come along for the ride if soo. He locks himself inside the sub’s reactor, and we’re treated to an action sequence that revolves around Bond swimming outside the sub to a hatch, and Christmas having to press a button as the room she’s in floods.
Once inside the reactor, Bond and Renard fight for a bit, and then Bond finally reveals that he killed Elektra.
Bond: Are you really gonna commit suicide for her?
Renard: You forget, I’m already dead.
Bond: Haven’t you heard? So is she.
Despite this being obvious thanks to the previous walkie-talkie incident, Renard flies into a rage, gets the better of Bond (thanks to the guy’s dislocated collarbone), and locks him under a grate. To be fair, it’s not like Renard can call this off at this point, he is legitimately going to die with the bullet in his head anyway, and maybe the person slated to inherit King Industries after Elektra is like some COO she was really fond of or something.
As Renard goes to shove the plutonium stick into the reactor, Bond luckily finds that right next to him is a digital pad that controls whether or not reactor rods can go shooting out. I shit you not.
He activates it and fires the rod through Renard, killing him. “She’s waiting for you.” That was actually more on the touching side of things, considering.
However, between the sub’s crash landing and whatever the fuck sticking the rod in that far did in the first place, the hydrogen level is “too high” and the sub is about to blow. Bond and Christmas make their way to the torpedo bay and launch themselves to the surface. Mission fucking accomplished.
It’s a James Bond movie, so all that’s left is the celebratory scene where M tries to thank him, but Bond is too busy fucking to accept the call! This one features Christmas puns.
Bond: Always wanted to have Christmas in Turkey.
Christmas: Was that a Christmas joke?
Bond: From me? No. Never.
Christmas: So isn’t it time you unwrap your present?
See, he and Christmas changed into formal-wear and poured themselves glasses of champagne without bothering to make contact with MI6 to confirm that they’re alive. So reasonably freaked out, M, Bill Tanner, Moneypenny, and John Cleese use a body heat scanner to find him. And catch him in the act. Oh tsk tsk.
Then the movie closes on the best exchange in cinematic history.
Bond: I was wrong about you.
Christmas: Yeah? How so?
Bond: I thought Christmas only comes once a year.
Aaaand that’s the show!
To the job in hand
I can’t believe I’m saying this…I found myself missing the Roger Moore films. Sure, the racism and sexism of those were an anvil to the head, but at least that made it obvious to spot. I’d think even the most closed-minded individual would find the film with the premise of “all black people are evil” concerning.
With this? It was the first Bond film that attempted to give us a female antagonist, but it did so through concerning tropes, a lack of follow-through on rather heavy subjects floated, and, as usual, a plot that is more and more illogical the longer you think about it. I will give a half-hearted clap for their attempts to make Denise Richard’s character useful, and a full golf-clap for a guilt-driven M.
But can we please get another attempt at a Bond film with a woman as the antagonist? Or with a woman as Bond? Or a woman in the writing room? Anything?
Okay, maybe not anything.
Images courtesy of United Artists
Star Wars Rewatch: The Critic Awakens
Ah, would that we could return to that bygone year of 2015. Things seemed so much simpler then, especially with the promise of a revitalized Star Wars franchise. After the bad taste that the Prequel Trilogy (PT) left in even many mouths—even with the 5 seasons of damage control that was The Clone Wars (TCW)—it was an understatement to say that the fandom was salivating for a return to quality. This anticipation only increased when it was announced that the entire Original Trilogy (OT) cast was reprising their roles.
Still, it is somewhat difficult to gauge the quality of this film, as it is only the first of three parts. That said, with its riveting pace, numerous unanswered questions, and fantastic new characters, most viewers agree that The Force Awakens (TFA) is a solid addition to the franchise.
Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm was nothing short of monumental when it happened. What did you think of the news when it was first announced?
Ian: I’d have to say I was cautiously optimistic. After what the prequels put me through in the 2000s, it was difficult to imagine what a good new Star Wars movie would look like. As details trickled out though, like Abrams’s use of actual sets and practical effects, I warmed to the concept. I was never much of an Extended Universe (EU) fan outside of one or two novels and comics, so the eradication of the old EU canon did not affect me. Having seen Abrams’s Star Trek adaptations (which is a subject unto itself) I felt he was competent enough to get the job done.
Gretchen: I honestly didn’t think anything specific when I heard it. At the time, it had been years since I was fully invested in the Star Wars fandom. Like Ian, I’d only ever read a few EU novels, so the switch to Legends didn’t mean much to me. I think I shrugged? A lot has changed since then.
Zach: When I first got news of the merger, it was because Disney had canceled TCW on Cartoon Network. Then I learned that Disney was doing away with the EU and calling it “Legends.” To say I was “frothy” would have been an understatement. Several of my favorite characters from the Clone Wars era now had their powerful and moving stories erased completely, specifically Jedi Masters Aayla Secura and Shaak Ti, neither of which had featured very heavily in TCW. I was fit to be tied, and I promised to never watch the new series out of pure spite.
Then, from out of the darkness came Julia’s fantastic retrospective on Han and Leia’s relationship and suddenly I began to reevaluate my priorities. A few rewatches of the OT and retrospectives later, and suddenly I could not wait to see the new movie. I guess you could say The Fandomentals saved Star Wars for me.
What were your feelings on the movie going in?
Zach: Good gosh, I was so nervous going into this movie. On the one hand, it was a new series and a new generation of characters. On the other hand, I had been burned before. Although I was too young to feel the complete disappointment of the PT, as I grew up and got standards, I realized how bad they were. I was afraid to get my hopes up, though at the same time I could not help but feel excited.
Ian: Excited as f$%&! I don’t remember feeling as excited or as nervous for a new movie opening ever before, not even for The Phantom Menace. I actually took half the day off work that Friday to go see it and beat the crowd. So jazzed. So pumped. Couldn’t wait.
The feeling I had going into Revenge of the Sith was more like obligation. I guess I should see this thing. I’ve seen all the others. I felt trepidation this time as well, like should I be this excited? Am I setting myself up for disappointment? I hadn’t been spoiled on the movie, only heard some whispers that, yes, it’s good, rest easy, friends. So, excitement tempered with nervousness.
This time, after having watched it a number of times, I feel like it still holds up. It’s still exciting and funny, and I was happy to watch it again.
Gretchen: When I heard they were making more movies, I was mildly annoyed. My first thought when they announced a new trilogy was, “This again? Why can’t they leave well enough alone?” I expected to hate it, but also secretly wanted to like it. The OT was classic sci-fi for me and had formed a huge part of my childhood, so the opportunity to have that experience as an adult had me both nervous and excited. Going into the rewatch, I had a similar mix of feelings. I liked TFA when I came out of the theaters two years ago. But, the fandom soon soured me on certain aspects of it, and I spent a good portion of 2016 grumpy about it. Engaging with the books and comics of New Canon in 2017 gave me some perspective, though, so when I sat down to rewatch TFA, I wasn’t sure which side would win: the Grumpy Side or the Fangirl Side.
What did you think of the characters, new and old?
Gretchen: I’ll start with our new heroes, and the answer is I love them. While there are things I don’t like about TFA, the new trio of protagonists isn’t one of them. I unabashedly adore Finn, Rey, and Poe with all my fangirl heart. While many have pointed out that they echo the original trio in many ways, what I find fascinating about Rey, Finn, and Poe is how they switch who they’re echoing. None of them are a straight up copy of Han, Leia, and Luke despite how their story beats play off of ones in the OT.
Zach: Hell yes. I would let Rey punch me in the face and I would thank her for it afterward. I know that there was a lot of … shall we call it “inexplicable” backlash against Finn for a while, but that has mercifully died down for now. Gretchen points out that they are echoes of the OT trio, not direct copies. As George Lucas said: “It’s poetry… it rhymes.” We could do an entire article about how these characters echo each other. I think it is telling that, when people have any praise for the Prequels, it is usually for the story, while the Sequels have received their due praise for their characters. I think it is easy to tell which one is more compelling.
Ian: The new characters were what sold me on this movie the first time through. Plot holes and regurgitated ideas from the OT can’t make me love Rey, Finn, or Poe any less.
Gretchen: SAME. As far as old characters go, I’m still a bit salty about the original trio in many ways. After reading Bloodline and Legends of Luke Skywalker, I understand the intention behind the character choices better. However, I still don’t like certain aspects of it. More than anything, not getting a Han/Leia/Luke reunion on screen felt like a punch to the gut. Oh, and can you let Han and Leia kiss for the love of the Force???? They might bicker and have drifted as they dealt with their grief over losing Ben in different ways, but these two love each other goddamn it. LET MY MIDDLE-AGED OTP KISS ON SCREEN.
Ian: I’m a little bummed we never got to see Leia go full Jedi. If she’s as powerful or more powerful in the Force as Luke is, one could reasonably assume she would want to learn to use it. We get some brief flashes in TFA, but nothing more. I understand Carrie Fisher wasn’t in the best physical shape of her life, so I wasn’t expecting a big action-y fight scene, but just something that hints at her power would have been nice, like Galadriel in LOTR. I consider it a lost opportunity.
Zach: I think most of JJ Abram’s direction for the OT trio was “How can I make it as angsty as possible without any of that soft and squishy stuff.” He seems to have a mild understanding of their characters. Based on the things that the cast and crew have said when they worked on TFA, Abrams had no idea how to justify any of his choices for their direction, but he did it anyway. Just like we agreed in our reviews of the PT, the expanded canon stuff does not excuse sloppy writing in the film itself. We should not need that expanded canon stuff to understand what happens on the screen.
I feel that I should warn you all right now that I have a lot of Opinions™ about J.J Abrams.
Gretchen: Don’t worry, I do to. Very few of them are glowing.
Zach: Another of my Opinions™ about Abrams’s direction is how he writes about Darth Vader. He seems to be deliberately ignoring all the previous films’ information about Anakin Skywalker, like his motivation and redemption. It seems like no one knows that Anakin was redeemed in the end. This is especially thrown into sharp relief with Han’s comment “He’s got too much Vader in him.” What does that mean? A fierce love for people and a willingness to do anything to protect them? A feeling of constant inadequacy? Disillusionment with a corrupt system that is attempting to control him? Vader’s evil was a consequence, not his goal.
Ian: Yeah that’s a little weird. Kylo’s worship of him seems out of place as well for those same reasons. What was it exactly that Vader started that you’re going to finish, Kylo? Was it having a decent relationship with his kids?
Gretchen: This is another one of those times that Abrams love for ~secrets~ got the better of him. We all saw Vader choose Light in the end, so give us one on-screen reason why Kylo would want to follow in his footsteps. It doesn’t have to be the main reason, just one that makes sense. Even “I hate my Uncle Luke and wish Vader would have killed him instead of the Emperor” would have been better than a handwave. “…Reasons” just isn’t going to cut it.
One thing I do appreciate, however, is what the film is trying to say about this new generation of heroes lacking mentors and authority to ground them. Han and Maz are the only mentors our heroes have, and neither of them are Force wielders. Han is a former skeptic. Poe is the only protagonist with a sense of direction, and he’s given the least screen time, which I think is on purpose. Our two main heroes have very little to go on to find their way and decide between right and wrong. Rey doesn’t even have anyone to lie to her about her family like Luke did. She literally has nothing. Same with Finn. The sense of being adrift and lacking any reliable authority is a message that I think has a lot of meaning to our current generation.
Zach: TRUTH. I had not even thought about it like that.
Ian: What about Kylo? He had a mentor. He had Luke. How did that turn out? Not good. So the two characters cast adrift ended up in better shape than the one with his family intact, and a teacher to boot. He had all that and he rebelled. Hard. Now he has a new authority figure, one that’s feeding him the things he wants to hear. What does that say about the current generation’s relationship with authority?
Kylo himself I found pretty compelling. He’s my least favorite of the new batch, but I think that’s by design. I do like the way he seems out of control. His emotions get the better of him time and time again. I think that is indicative of some of the shortcomings in being a dark side user.
What do you love most about this movie?
Ian: Mostly, the sense of fun and adventure that the film brought back. The prequels were such odd things. They professed to telling this emotional story about the fall of a great hero, and love and betrayal, but it was all so devoid of emotion. Blame the acting, or the direction, or the extensive use of green screen, but those films don’t have any humanity to them. The moment–THE MOMENT– that sealed the deal for me with TFA, the moment where I sat back in my seat and breathed a sigh of relief and knew I was in good hands was that line from Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) when he is brought before Kylo Ren. They stare at each other for a beat and then he says, “So who talks first? Do you talk first?” I laughed. The whole theater laughed. After that, I was all in. We have real characters. They are allowed to be funny. They are allowed to be human. That moment I think is still my favorite in the movie just because of the memory it brings back of that first watch in the theater.
Gretchen: Same. I love that they established early on that these characters, and the films, have a real sense of humor (not one that relies on racism and stepping in poop) and adventure about them. We’d get more honest, human, and real characters rather than tropes. I adore that line from Poe for the same reason. It gave me hope that we were getting something truly good.
Zach: For me, the moment in the movie that sealed the deal for me was Rey’s introduction scene. While I do have a lot of Opinions™ on Abram’s writing of characters, I cannot fault his handling of the new characters or the cinematics. Both of them come together beautifully, stunningly, in Rey’s introduction. We spend several minutes following her around her home on Jakku. She never says a single word, but we get a real sense of who she is as a character and we bond with her immediately. I think Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the character goes a long way too.
Ian: I love Rey. She’s fantastic. I have no problems with her seemingly quick grasp of the Force, or her aptitude in combat or piloting, or mechanics. Anyone who says she’s a Mary Sue either doesn’t understand what a Mary Sue is, or wasn’t paying attention when they watched the movie.
Gretchen: Preach. Gotta love how most of the people who complain about this don’t seem to lob the same complaints at Luke in the OT or Anakin in the PT. An unusually gifted hero just waiting to discover their power is a well-established trope in fantasy literature, yet “Mary Sue” seems to only be a complaint thrown under specific circumstances (hint: like when the protagonist is a woman). The only thing that annoyed me was the whole “she knows the Millennium Falcon better than Han” thing, and that was a minor nitpick, really. Han may not be an intuitive mechanic like Anakin, but the one thing he does know is his own ship.
Ian: I love Rey and Finn together. They are both damaged in a way that they compliment each other so well. That hug on the Starkiller base is another favorite moment.
Gretchen: They drew me from the first moment I saw each of them alone, and then again when they finally met each other. They’re fantastic as both a matched pair and foils. They’re both so lonely and aching for a real home. Both lack a family and are defined by their relationship to their past. Rey can’t let go of hers, no matter how incomplete and tenuous it is. Finn, on the other hand is desperately trying to forget who he is. Rey wants to go home; Finn wants to run away. Neither know who they are and neither has any strong heroic aspirations at the outset of the film—like Luke’s desire for adventure in A New Hope (ANH). However, together they find both family and begin to help each other find the balance between their opposing positions regarding their past. Just…this is everything I love about found family narratives and breaking the cycle of violence.
Ian: I love the whole tone of the movie, too, the way it moves from a kind of breezy adventure to some heavier action. The visuals are stunning. I don’t know, I can’t decide.
Zach: PRACTICAL. SPECIAL. EFFECTS. They saved my life in this movie. Just watching it and seeing all these beautiful creatures in the background it really, really sells it to the audience. The PT’s over-abundance of CG effects in every scene immediately pulls the viewer out of the moment. For whatever reason, our brains can know, even if everything on the screen is perfectly right, if something is fake. EVERYTHING in the PT was fake. Compare that to TFA. You have a really hard time trying to figure out what is a puppet and what is CGI, but it all feels real to you. You can believe it more easily.
Ian: God yes. That was one of the things that made this movie feel real to me. They are on location, they have sets, they have actual people and creatures to interact with. The best CGI in the world can’t compare to the real thing… yet…
Gretchen: I barely noticed the effects, and that’s a huge compliment. It’s all so seamless. God and the music! My heart soared so many times hearing those themes again.
Zach: John Williams is back! While his scores are not as good as some of his previous work in Star Wars, Rey’s Theme and March of the Resistance really do a good job at setting the tone and telling the story with music.
Ian: Rey’s theme is the best. I bought the soundtrack for that alone.
Zach: Again, say what you will about Abrams’ writing, but he has a true gift for creating thrilling action sequences. There are a lot of scenes that we could talk about, but I think the most standout among them is Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku with the Millenium Falcon. First of all, it innovates on Star Wars’ signature space-dogfights by putting them in the atmosphere of a planet. The setting is also fantastic; flying amongst the cavernous ruins of Star Destroyers from the old Imperial days serves as both an obstacle to avoid and a grim reminder of what will happen if there is the slightest mistake. Other scenes have fantastic direction too, but that is the one I have singled out. Anyone else have any favorites?
Ian: That lightsaber fight at the end. The overwrought and insanely complicated fights of the PT are gone. We’re back to two actual characters just kind of hammering away at each other. Rey gets a lot of flack for being too good here, but she’s shown her ability with a staff. Plus Kylo is gutshot with a bowcaster, he’s not exactly at one hundred percent. Seeing that lightsaber fly past him into Rey’s hand was a jump out of your seat moment for me, and the fight after was great. (And it’s on an actual set).
Gretchen: That’s my favorite as well. Having just watched Return of the Jedi (ROTJ), the similarity in the sequence stands out so starkly. This is Luke and Vader all over again, only Rey has less training and Kylo less control. Plus, my boy Finn is there, too, and he gets his chance to be ‘Luke’ only to trade off to Rey. It’s a beautifully-shot, beautifully written and choreographed action sequence that’s brimming with thematic significance and character work.
Zach: Kylo Ren is a fun villain. We still have a lot to learn about him in the New Canon, but from what we see in TFA, at the very least he is entertaining. He is a little less murderous than his grandfather when underlings give him bad news, but he is just as extra. The fact that he just has tantrums every so often while simultaneously being an absolutely terrifying and effective villain really gets to me. Though I have difficulty imagining his redemption arc now, I am keeping an open mind about his direction until I see TLJ.
Gretchen: I can see a potential redemption arc, I just really, really want him to earn it. Star Wars is a story about hope and the presence of light no matter how powerful the darkness seems to be. However, I think the sequel trilogy has a real chance to show us how someone lives out their redemption arc rather than just making a death bed choice. Not that Vader’s turn isn’t valuable, but I want a journey to redemption and then a trajectory for life afterward. That’s how it will feel earned to me.
What do you like least about this movie?
Ian: I’ve had a problem in recent viewings with Finn. There is some dissonance to his character and what the movie tells us about him that I find a little troubling, but not story-breaking. Think about Finn’s motivation. He breaks away from the First Order presumably for moral reasons. He sees a fellow trooper gunned down, and then disobeys the order to execute a whole village en masse. Rather than go to be reprogrammed, he breaks Poe out and escapes the toxic situation he is in. One can assume from this that Finn has deep misgivings about the First Order’s methods, and about violence and killing in general. Finn is a victim of the system. He was taken at an early age and trained for trooperdom. We empathize with him even as we root for him to succeed. That in itself isn’t a problem.
The problem comes when in the remainder of the movie, after humanizing one storm trooper, the rest of the storm troopers are regulated to their position throughout the OT as simple cannon fodder. These are all presumably victims of the First Order machine, being forcibly recruited and brainwashed. Of course, there might be some actual bad guys in there, but we don’t really know or care about the rest of them because they have to get blown up by the good guys. Sometimes, their deaths are even played for laughs.
It’s at odds with the reasons why we root for Finn, who doesn’t seem to have a problem with the death of hundreds of his former peers, some of whom he almost certainly shared day-to-day life with. There is a dissonance there that is troubling, but I generally tend to whistle past it. Of course, it could be that Finn is an exceptional case, and that no other trooper has been able to overcome their conditioning, but they are still victims of the First Order military machine, and humanizing one makes it difficult to see the rest slaughtered.
Gretchen: I agree with you, and I think there’s a way to read that as meaningful. That cognitive dissonance is very much in line with what the rest of New Canon is doing. One of the goals, I think, is to humanize the ‘canon fodder’ and force us to recognize that not everyone who participates in the oppressive system does so of free will and malice. The humor aspect is out of place, and I think that’s a sign that something wasn’t executed properly because I think Finn is meant to lead us to acknowledge that there are victims within the First Order, not just outside of it.
My one complaint about Finn stems from the film not doing a good job clarifying that he’s actually a very competent and intelligent Stormtrooper. You have to read the novels to know that he was the best in his class and that sanitation was a standard shift and not a sign of his incompetence or him being unskilled at battle. I think it was meant as a joke, but it has crept into the fandom as a sign that he’s stupid, weak, and untalented (fandom racism is the worst, you guys).
Other than that, what I truly like least about TFA is Starkiller base. It was one plot echo too far, and the lampshading didn’t help at all. No matter how people spin this or how many explanations I read, I still think it was stupid. Sorry, Abrams.
Ian: Yeah, even Han’s snarky lines about Death Stars can’t save that one.
Zach: Oh yeah. Starkiller Base was abysmal. For me, the movie was fine with all its echoes until we hit Starkiller Base and the dogfight over it. It was way too similar to ANH for comfort. The first act keeps me invested, but everything beyond that read like a bad fanfic. I always say “Every story has already been told, so we’re going to judge this by how the story is told,” but I draw the line when a story plays it too close to one that has already been told.
Ian: Nothing about Starkiller base made sense. I know this isn’t hard sci-fi, but it should at least be trying to sound plausible, right? People watching the streaks of red across the sky from Maz’s place is impossible, as is the distance that beam of energy travelled in a short amount of time. It was just too much. Then once that sun is drained, what? The planet flies to a new sun? Really? Just dumb.
Zach: ARE YOU READY TO HEAR MY RANT ABOUT TFA’S ART DIRECTION!? BUCKLE IN, BECAUSE I HAVE OPINIONS™. IT WAS ALL LAZY AS FUCK AND TRYING TOO HARD TO COPY THE OT RATHER THAN IMPROVE IT.
Literally every single bit of this movie was a direct ripoff of the OT. Compare it to the Prequels; for all their numerous flaws they had their very own art style, and canonically they only happen 20 years before the OT. TFA takes place 30 years after the OT, and literally everything is the same. Compare the X-wings. In the PT, the classic T-65 of the prequels had not been invented yet, but we had the ARC-170. With its long nose and splitting s-foils, it is a definite step in the X-wing’s direction, but it has its own distinct silhouette. Compare that to the Resistance’s T-70 X-wing. The only difference is that now the wing-split is down the middle of the wings. If the other starfighters shown in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and walkers shown in The Last Jedi trailers are any indication of the future art direction, it looks like more of the same. Expect more salt after I see that movie.
Ian: Wow, Zach, you have entered a level of nerdery I could only dream about. Well played, sir. Yeah, it’s weird how samey things are there, but then the storm trooper helmets got a total redesign. Does The First Order have a marketing division? “Has Jeff turned in the concept sketches for those new helmets yet?” “Oh yeah, General Hux is reviewing them now.” Like, the TIE fighters just have new paint jobs, the X-Wings are the same, the Star Destroyers are (basically) the same. Why overhaul the trooper uniforms? Maybe the original molding equipment was confiscated or destroyed?
Gretchen: Heck, they even copied the exact same biomes from three of the planets in the OT. If you’re not going to break the “every planet has to have a single biome” rule, can you at least branch out from desert planet, forest planet, snow planet? At least we’re getting a new planet in TLJ. Though I have to admit, a salt planet has me giggling. You might have to move to Crait over the art direction, Zach.
Zach: Oh, believe me, I was actually born there. Abrams was so wrapped up in copying the feel of the OT that he forgot to justify how he got there. When the OT closed, the implication was that freedom and justice had returned to the Galaxy, and TFA’s opening crawl says that there is a new Republic, but that aside we have no idea what is going on in the galaxy. Are we supposed to believe that a galaxy-wide government had no idea that the First Order had a planet-killer just floating around? Why is the Republic not taking an active role in fighting the Space-Nazis next door, and is leaving the fight to the Resistance instead? Why is the Resistance separate from the Republic starfleet? Why does the Republic not oversee the assets that it is funding to fight the First Order? Who is Lor San Tekka, outside of being “[Leia’s] old ally” as described in the opening crawl? Uuuuurgh, I hate it.
Ian: The politics of the Galactic Republic are very poorly laid out, or not laid out at all, and I found that a little troubling. One would think if there was an Imperial uprising, the Republic military would have been mustered to snuff them out, not some rinky-dink resistance.
Gretchen: A lot of this comes up in the extended materials, like Bloodline and the Aftermath trilogy. They’re really good at filling in gaps. However, I am of the opinion that the films ought to make sense on their own. Casual fans who only watch the movies should be able to understand the basics of how to get from A-to-Space Nazis have a planet-sized wmd that no one noticed. Abrams penchant for “mystery boxes” and unexpected plot twists bit him in the ass when it came to setting up TFA. Way too much was left un-explicated between ROTJ and the sequels, and the film suffers for it.
Zach: We need more Phasma in our movies. She better be more prominent in TLJ.
Gretchen: I literally cannot wait for Finn to confront Phasma again. It’s gonna be so good. (Fingers crossed for Finn leading a Stormtrooper uprising!)
Ian: The Phasma comic miniseries and novel flesh her character out better. And yes, you are right.
The first installment of a trilogy often sets the tone. What did you think of the tone and themes of The Force Awakens?
Gretchen: Ironically, I think the films are the weakest parts of New Canon for me. A lot of my increased enjoyment of TFA this time around comes from my engagement with the novels and comics. More than either of the New Canon films, the print materials lay out the themes and direction for where Star Wars is headed as a franchise. When you engage with them, you can see the threads in the films, but they’re subdued. Part of it is medium, part of it is that the films are meant to reach a much wider audience and have to stand up to that. Part of it is Abrams leaving things out for the sake of ~mystery~.
Still, I do think that TFA fits within the wider tone and themes of the franchise, even if casual fans might not pick up on all the pieces. As mentioned above, I find the theme of disconnection from the heroes and stories of the past quite compelling (though with mixed success as to execution), same with the found family narrative. I have even more mixed feelings about Ben—too many to go into here. I’ve never found the idea of a Solo, Skywalker, or Organa child going Dark Side remotely appealing, so TFA was working uphill to get me to engage with that.
Zach: For me, the themes of TFA that I picked up on initially were a little too close to those of ANH, but on closer examination I think that they are still applicable, especially to our modern times. When TFA was released, white nationalism seemed to be on its last legs. Now, the president defends it. A group of determined individuals fighting against an implacable enemy speaks to me a lot more now.
Ian: I have no problem with the way it echoes certain story beats from ANH. Yes, it is a similar story, and yes, some of the actual story beats are very similar. This does not make it the same story or the same movie. It is not a re-make, and again, anyone who says so wasn’t paying attention. Disney played it safe with this film, and understandably so. This HAD to go well. If this movie tanked, it could quite possibly have killed the franchise. So I understand why they played it safe and went with a similar story. That’s not to say it is the same as some people criticise it for being.
Gretchen: TFA actually goes through beats from all three of the OT films, which I find interesting. That’s what tells me that while it is mixing in elements from ANH, it isn’t a straight-up retelling. On rewatch more than the first viewing I realized just how many beats from Empire Strikes Back and ROTJ end up in TFA. As with the new trio both echoing and switching up the original trio, the film itself does so, too. We get bits and pieces of all three OT films, but in different or sped up order and with different context. We’re seeing bits of the PT and OT unravel and reweave themselves together in a different way. It’s like a symphonic variation, and I really enjoy it.
Ian: I have a hard time with theme because I tend to just turn my brain off and enjoy it. The found family aspect is always there for me. I guess the tone is really what spoke to me. The sense of fun and adventure is back in the series, and that’s a good thing even if thematically it’s not quite there.
With that in mind, what do you expect from The Last Jedi?
Ian: They’re gonna kill Luke. Oh God, no, please don’t kill Luke. No they’re going to make him evil. Look at the posters. He’s in the bad guy position. He’s gonna be evil. They’re going to kill Leia and make Luke evil. No, Rey’s gonna turn evil. Kylo Ren’s going to turn her over to Snoke and then Kylo’s going to turn good. That’s wholly unearned, why would they do that so soon? Oh God, no, please don’t kill Luke. But Rey… But Luke… Leia… Oh, God, this movie is going to rip my heart out and stomp on it! At least there will be porgs.
Gretchen: Honestly? Same. Though having read Legends of Luke Skywalker, I’m less worried about Luke going evil than I was. As far as him dying, with Han dead and Carrie Fisher no long available to do more Leia scenes, it makes zero sense to kill off the other member of the OT. I do, however, fully expect to have my heart broken seeing Leia on screen again. And I have a feeling things with Luke and Rey are going to hurt me as well. It’s going to be a looooong two years until 2019, folks.
Zach: Of course it’s going to be a feels-fest. As Yoda said, “Fandom leads to feelings, feelings lead to being attached to characters, being attached to characters leads to suffering.” I’m with Gretchen in that I do not expect Luke to turn evil either, same with Rey. I think that they might up the ante on Kylo Ren’s villainy and make him usurp Supreme Leader Snoke, but that is pure conjecture. I honestly have no idea what is instore for us in VIII
Ian: I’m scared, you guys.
Gretchen: As Leia said, “hold me.”
Zach: If fear is a path to the Dark Side, I’m toast.
Gretchen: I enjoyed it more the second time around, despite my almost year long salt binge. Extended materials in the Star Wars universe have given me a lot of hope, and a new perspective, on what the sequel trilogy is doing. I love the sense of adventure, the humor, and the strong pathos that the new protagonists bring with them. Also, I adore BB-8 with my entire being.
Zach: It is a long awaited return to form after the prequels. Sure it is pretty derivative, Abrams has no idea what he’s doing with the OT trio, and there is no innovation in art direction. But, the characters, slick pacing, and adventure make it all worth watching.
Ian: I love this movie. It’s imperfect, flawed even, but it has great characters and a lot of fun and drama. It’s just the shot in the arm this franchise needed.
Gretchen’s Score: 7 – Satisfying: Fantastic! Entertaining! I would be willing to watch it again. It isn’t perfect, but it hits an emotional or thematic sweet spot that leaves you glad you spent time on it.
Zach’s Score: 6 – Good: Very watchable and with enough honey-potting it can be considered great. Leaves the viewer with a smile and a desire to see more.
Ian’s Score: 8 – Inspiring: Any shortcomings are nothing but small dots on an otherwise perfect painting. Despite some minor issues, it’s on par with some of the best. I could definitely watch it more than once (or twice).
Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
‘I, Tonya’ Skates The Thin Line Between Comedy and Tragedy
I, Tonya is a breathless tragicomedy based on true events that just so happens to perfectly illustrate how woefully ill-equipped our present set of systems are for dealing with abuse. The movie barrels along with a breathless narrative and a searing sense of righteous fury. To top it all off, it dares us to reexamine a woman we helped turn into a national punchline.
Craig Gillespie brings a Rashomon quality to I, Tonya. Gillespie and his screen writer Steven Rogers based the movie on a series of interviews with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Tonya’s Mother LaVona (Allison Janney), and a producer for Hard Copy played by Bobby Cannavale. Each one tells their own version of Tonya and “the incident.”
“The incident,” for those too young to remember, is this: in 1994 figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man who claimed to be hired by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff. I, Tonya however does more than just examine “the incident” it dares to indict the twenty-four-hour news cycle that all but convicted her as well as us the audience for participating in it.
The search for truth comes from the characters themselves, cauldron of unreliable narrators all seeking vindication. By the end we are only sure of our own complicity.
In other words I, Tonya does quite a lot and to its credit mostly succeeds. Gillespie and Rogers portray the emotional and physical abuse Tonya suffers from her mother and her husband mundane and laconic. The abuse has a matter-of-fact quality that lends an air of horror and immediacy to it. I, Tonya is brutally honest about abuse and the effect the cycle of violence has on a person.
I, Tonya almost methodically lays the groundwork to help clearly illustrate how the systems set in place—then and now—hinder women more than help them. Tonya gets a restraining order against Jeff, and yet still he shows up to her home with a gun. He accidentally fires the gun, grazing her head with a bullet. He grabs her and puts her in the car and is eventually pulled over. As the officer talks to Jeff, Tonya looks to the camera. “He had alcohol bottles in the backseat and the officer found him in possession of two guns. And he never even said one word to me. That’s when I learned…you can’t trust the authorities.”
Over and over again, Tonya is betrayed by the people and things she loves the most. Tonya Harding is one of seven women figure skaters in America to ever successfully pull off a triple axle. But this somehow isn’t enough.
Growing up she is told time and time again that she needs to dress fancier to be taken seriously. Her father skins a handful of rabbits and makes her a fur coat. She is mocked and ostracized. Figure skating is as much presentation as it is talent, and Tonya isn’t presenting the picture the figure skating community wants. Her ambition to go to the Olympics is hampered by the “image” she projects: herself.
Tonya skates to ZZ Top while other skaters play Mahler and Tchaikovsky. She’s a girl from rural Kentucky and the judges don’t let her forget it. She’s told by one judge that the reason her scores are low has nothing to do with her ability but the fact that she doesn’t present the image the association wants to show to the world. They want someone with a model, wholesome American family. “But I don’t have a wholesome American family,” she responds.
Tonya cusses, smokes, and shoots guns. She’s also one the most naturally talented and driven figure skaters the skating community has ever seen. I, Tonya shows us the sheer guts of a woman who yearned to be part of something that wanted nothing to do with her. She got even in the best way possible—she became a legend. The tragedy of the legend she left behind is not of her making.
But Rogers doesn’t let Tonya off the hook completely either. As much as she’s beaten down both by her chosen community and her loved ones, Tonya seems incapable of taking responsibility for her actions. “It wasn’t my fault,” is a constant refrain throughout the movie. The phrase becomes more complicated and begins to carry more weight as the story progresses.
Margot Robbie turns in a blistering performance of sheer fury and vulnerability. Gillespie tosses out slow motions, whip pans, and flashy editing, but it’s Robbie that propels I, Tonya. Robbie’s Harding has a ferocity and a tenaciousness that has us rooting for her even when we groan inwardly as she keeps taking Jeff. Her Tonya is less acting and more eerie possession.
Robbie’s performance is all the more impressive when we consider the dazzling and darkly comic manner in which the story is being told. As stated before, the structure is essentially a mockumentary from multiple points of view. This could have resulted in a fractured narrative, but instead it leads to a morbidly nuanced comedic portrayal of class. I, Tonya is never condescending; the humor comes from places of human truth. The stupidity that is mocked is the stupidity of criminals who refuse to admit the limits of their knowledge.
Take Jeff’s best friend and confidant Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). I’ve known people like Shawn growing up, as I suppose we all have. Shawn lives at home with his parents yet boasts about his ‘government ops experience’ and ‘expertise in counter terrorism measures’. When Jeff hires him to mail some threatening letters to Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) we can see the train about to jump the rails from the next county over.
It’s clear why Jeff has Shawn as a friend though. Shawn feeds Jeff’s ego and makes him feel like a bigger man than he is. Jeff realizes too late just how unhinged Shawn is and furthermore what he’s done to Tonya’s life. Sebastian Stan never asks for our sympathies and rightfully so.
Jeff beats Tonya with such a casual frequency that it makes it all but impossible to even like him. Stan’s performance is so tough to swallow not just because it’s so good but because there’s nothing special about Jeff. You can, and have, met Jeff anywhere. He’s not particularly evil but neither is he good. Jeff is somehow the hero but also the victim of his own story which is counter-intuitive until you realize that’s how most abusers see themselves. Stan shows us how Robbie’s Harding could have fallen for him without making us do the same.
Gillespie’s style could easily be called derivative but we should also call it what it is: effective. Though the film has the look of a Martin Scorsese film, it lacks the same sort of daring musical choices that Scorsese is known for. Nor does it bubble with the same wonderful unpredictable energy that Scorsese infuses into his films. Gillespie chooses songs that tell us as what to think and feel as opposed to songs that would add anything extra to the scene or force us to think about the events in a different way.
But this is a minor quibble. Despite the obvious Scorsese influences and obvious song choices it works. It works spectacularly. Margot Robbie is effortlessly amazing despite the less-than-stellar CGI they use to show us the triple axle spin. Robbie is an integral part to I, Tonya’s dizzying momentum. Whenever the story briefly switches to Jeff and Shawn, the film begins to slightly drag.
Allison Janney, it should be mentioned, is brilliant as usual. Her LaVona is a bitter, callous woman who discovers too late that she actually loves her daughter. The violence she visits upon Tonya seems more brutal because of the rage behind it. LaVona denies the accusations while somehow also justifying them. To her, love and violence go hand in hand.
Gillespie’s greatest achievement is how much fun he’s made I, Tonya. It is dark and glaringly honest about abuse as well as classism. But I, Tonya is never a slog to sit through. This is in large part due to the brilliant and deeply joyous editing of Tatiana S. Riegel. She and Gillespie give the film the feeling of a rushed confession without allowing I, Tonya to devolve into a chaotic mass of overlapping voices. It is deeply entertaining and weirdly fun without ever taking any of its characters for granted. Along with the laughs and clever little insights into how messed up our media cycle is and how we’re partially to blame, there is the quiet devastation of a life destroyed.
I, Tonya is easily one of the greatest films of the year. It has unquestionably one of the best performances of the year in Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding. Clear-eyed and loving, I, Tonya portrays its subject in a fair light—at least a fairer light than we were ever willing to give her before.
Image Courtesy of Neon
‘The Shape of Water’ Is A Dark, Enthralling Fairy Tale
The Shape of Water is one of the best films of the year. It is the first film I have seen that threatens to topple Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper from its perch of ‘favorite/best movie of 2017’. Whether or not it succeeds will require further viewings.
Guillermo del Toro is unquestionably one the greatest directors working today, as well as the most visually distinctive. He is a director who seems to have an innate understanding of the term ‘dark beauty.’ Del Toro’s movies are often gorgeous and haunting in the way he weaves dreamlike imagery with achingly tender stories.
What del Toro has done here is quite simply cinematic magic at its peak. He has cobbled together a love story about outsiders, for outsiders, by outsiders, but accessible to everybody. The deftness of The Shape of Water as it moves nimbly from story to story leaves us spellbound as we’re never sure which character we’re going to follow next.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at Occam’s laboratory. She lives next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay commercial artist. The two of them rent apartments above a rundown movie theater. This alone would be enough, but we are also treated to the homes and personal lives of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Colonel Strickland (Micahel Shannon).
Del Toro allows us to see every character as the hero in their own story. We’re never asked to agree with or even empathize with these characters. He is confident enough in his abilities as a storyteller to show us these characters as they see themselves.
This allows us to understand Shannon’s Strickland, a pustule of a human being with almost no redeeming qualities. We’re not meant to understand Strickland though. He’s the villain in del Toro’s fairy tale. But we do come to understand Strickland’s view of his place in the world and how it should operate.
Much in the same way we come to understand Elisa and her view of her place in the world. Hawkins has no dialogue, with the exception of a musical fantasy number, and she commands every moment she’s on screen. Hawkins’ conveys a range of complex emotions with just a flick of her wrists and eyes. She can relay her feelings about other characters by how she stands with them in such a deep and revealing way that it borders on conjuring.
The ‘Asset’ as played by Doug Jones amplifies Hawkins’ performance. Jones’s work is all the more admirable considering the amount of prosthetic and makeup he must act through. The ‘Asset’ is an enigma. We know little of the backstory of where the creature came from. What little we do know comes from Strickland as he recounts it to his superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy).
Jones and Hawkins bring to life a relationship without a single word of dialogue. It is, simply put, cinematic poetry. What del Toro, Hawkins, and Jones achieve is a fairy tale overflowing with longing, companionship, internal understanding, and lust. The history of movies is littered with such couples as Belle and the Beast, the Creature and Kay, King Kong and Ann, along with many, many others. With these films and others, there was an eroticism which was always vaguely hinted at.
The Shape of Water isn’t necessarily explicit so much as it dares to push the word ‘imply’ to the limits of its definition. Refreshingly it’s not shy about Elisa’s sex drive. As the movie opens, we are treated to her morning routine in which she has allotted time for masturbation. Once while eating corn flakes with Giles, he states, “You know corn flakes were invented to stop masturbation.” Hawkins’ silent response to this is a subtle gem of comedic timing.
The humor is part of what makes The Shape of Water so sublime. Del Toro and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor have loaded their movie with a wonderful depth of wit and observance of character idiosyncrasies. For instance when Dr. Hoffstetler, a Soviet spy in reality, complains to his superior. Every time they wish to talk he has to go to the same remote place, exchange the same cryptic phrases, only to be taken to the same crappy restaurant. “I may change my mind one of these days,” his superior responds. “Yes, but you never do.”
Taylor and del Toro wrote a sci-fi film, a cold war thriller, a creature feature, a period piece, a comedy, an erotic love story, and a suspense story rolled effortlessly into one. All while maintaining a sense of magical realism that never veers too far into one or the other. Amidst all of this, they have the nerve, and the audacity to show how we can turn a blind eye to horrors and abuses we know are wrong, just because they upset us.
As Elisa watches television with Giles, she switches channels and lands on a news report of a race riot. Giles walks away, “Turn that off! I don’t want to see it!” Later, after a mistaking a waiter’s patter for genuine interest, he sees the same waiter kick a black couple out for daring to sit at the counter. Giles is then asked to leave himself. He may not want to see it but whether he likes it or not he is just as complicit as anyone.
Empathy and love run through almost every vein of The Shape of Water. These are outsiders not because they choose to be but because they are told they are. Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s friend and coworker, acts as Elisa’s voice. It’s fitting that Zelda be the one who speaks for Elisa, she, after all, knows the pain of having her personhood denied. Spencer, as ever, dominates as she waxes poetic while also complaining about the ups and downs of matrimony.
Dan Lausten, the cinematographer, has shot The Shape of Water in a way that makes you feel damp. Lausten and del Toro lovingly pay homage to the movies of yesteryear without getting bogged down in re-enactments or shot homages. It is a love poem to the movies without demanding you know actor’s names or directors intentions.
The Shape of Water in some ways feels like the movie del Toro has been trying to make all his life. It is a deeply personal film about alienation. But much like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, it is somehow mysteriously relatable to us all.