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My Favorite Movies of 2012

In Movies on January 1, 2013 at 6:14 am

A lot of people do year-end lists at this time of year. I didn’t pay enough attention to books published or music produced this year. I did see a lot of movies, though.

Here’s my top five movies of 2012:

Skyfall

I’ve said enough about Skyfall in another blog so I’ll just link you to that here.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a post-apocalyptic fairy-tale of survival and coming of age. Best film I’ve seen set from the point-of-view of a child that didn’t doubt a child’s wisdom but was realistic about the limits of her understanding.

The Master

The Master: An alcoholic befriends a charismatic self-help cult leader in the 50s. The main reasons to see this are the compelling performances from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.

The Avengers

The Avengers expertly pulled off an impossible task by creating a light but intense superhero movie with five leading men and one leading lady who wasn’t simply the love interest. Bravo.

Cabin in the Woods

Cabin in the Woods was just fun. There’s one “Oh Shit!” moment that is worth the price of admission. It helps if you’re a fan of horror movies, but fans of Joss Whedon should enjoy it as well.

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Elba. Idris Elba.

In James Bond, Movies on November 20, 2012 at 3:57 am

Have you heard the rumors about a black James Bond? This is old news (as far as the internet is concerned), but while I have seen doubts about the movie-going public’s ability to accept this possibility, I have yet to see anyone discuss the history of filmmakers’ reluctance to cast black men as sexually voracious heroes.

Before I get into my take on this, let’s unpack the history of this rumor.

On October 23rd, The Huffington Post posted an interview with Skyfall cast member Naomie Harris. She’s currently shooting a film with Idris Elba, who is well known for playing Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire or DCI Luther on the BBC series Luther.

In regards to her current cast member, she said, “[Elba] said that he met Barbara Broccoli [James Bond producer] and that it does seem like there is a possibility in the future that there could very well be a black James Bond.”*

The internet took this to mean, “Idris Elba is James Bond!” Surprisingly, the reaction to this I’ve seen from everyone, online and In Real Life, is “Hell yeah!” I was surprised because, while being a London native, Elba is black, and this kind of racially blind casting has been publicly decried by hardcore fans in the past. Case in point: when Elba himself was cast as Heimdall, a Norse god, for the Marvel film Thor, comic nerds and mythology scholars cried foul. However, everyone I’ve come across seems to recognize that Elba, regardless of race, expresses the right combination of coolness, charisma, and danger that is essential for playing secret agent James Bond.

But hold your horses, internet. Neither Elba nor the Broccoli production company has verified this rumor. Also, the current Bond, Daniel Craig, is contracted for two more movies as 007. So your excitement might be a bit premature.

And although the majority of Bond’s audience seems to think the idea is cool,** will mainstream filmmakers think it is viable to cast a black man as a character who is known for his sexual aggressiveness? James Bond travels the world, and has sex with women of every nation, ethnicity, and race, most of them white. Unless they severely limit where Bond travels to in the future, a black James Bond will be having a lot of interracial sex.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Why would this be a problem? I’ve seen all kinds of interracial relationships in movies in the last 20 years.” Sure, but the vast majority of them were between a white man and a black woman. Zoe Saldana, Thandie Newton, and Halle Berry are three actresses that pop immediately to mind as black women who’ve had white male love interests in their films. Halle Berry, in fact, played the love interest for James Bond in Die Another Day.

However, when the leads are a black man and a white woman, the only time a sexual relationship happens between them in mainstream cinema is when the controversy and trouble of the interracial relationship is the point of the movie. Idris Elba, in fact, starred in a movie, Obsessed, in which the physical attraction between him and a white woman was shown to be something that was, not only taboo, but dangerous. On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Pelican Brief, starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. In the book by John Grisham, the two lead characters have a romantic relationship. Yet this is totally absent from the movie. Honestly, I can’t recall a movie since Shaft (1971) where a black heroic male lead has sex with a white woman.

This leads me to believe that commercial filmmakers see a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman as something that is still too taboo for most audiences. It’s as if stereotypes of white feminine purity and black male savagery are still in effect in the public imagination. These are tropes that have existed since the beginning of cinema history. They have their cinematic origins in, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) in which the Ku Klux Klan form after a white woman dies hurling herself off a cliff to avoid being, presumably, assaulted by a pursuing black man. Keeping black male and white female leads from having sex in modern movies is the cinematic equivalent of protecting the virginity of white women from the dark, lustful impulses of the Negro.

In light of this, and that Craig is Bond for two more films, I think it’s more likely that Elba is being tapped for a role other than 007. My guess is he may replace Jeffery Wright, who we saw in Casino Royale as CIA operative Felix Leiter. He could also play the Caribbean MI6 agent Quarrel who was seen in Dr. No, but hopefully with Bond treating him as an equal this time instead of his servant.  There’s also the possibility of Elba as a villain and that idea gives me goose bumps almost as much as the idea of him playing Bond does.

But who knows. I could be totally wrong and Elba is the next Bond. Maybe the world is ready. After all, in the ‘60s both Batman and Star Trek had episodes that featured the white male leads kissing a black woman (Catwoman and Uhura, respectively) and despite fear of sponsors pulling out, or stations in the South dropping the show, both shows survived and remain iconic. And let’s not forget the U.S. reelected a black president and Washington State legalized marijuana and gay marriage. Within that context, a black James Bond doesn’t seem that controversial.

*Go here for the full interview

**I haven’t done any actual polling myself. I’m just judging by the reaction I’ve seen.

Bond Movies Catch up to Books in Quality After a Mere 50 Years

In James Bond, Movies on November 13, 2012 at 2:33 am

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond 007 film series, and while I have identified myself as a serious James Bond nerd, and I loved this year’s film, Skyfall, I have always had very mixed feelings about secret agent James Bond.

When I was a kid, I hated his movies. I thought they were stupid, that Bond was a smarmy jerk whose entire purpose was to get laid and make corny jokes while killing people. While this was the reason a lot of people believed Bond was cool, he reminded me too much of the bullies that harassed me throughout junior high, high school, and later. He was kind of a killer frat boy for the British government. And this is not even to mention how absurd and cartoonish his adventures became. Dick Tracy was grittier and more realistic than some of Roger Moore’s Bond films.*

However, I’ve always been interested in cultural icons and popular mythology and so out of curiosity I read Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, when I was a teenager. Through Fleming’s writing and characterization, I suddenly found James Bond intensely fascinating.

The main difference between Book Bond and Movie Bond is that Book Bond, while being an intensely dangerous individual, was undeniably vulnerable: physically, psychologically, emotionally. By contrast, Movie Bond was an invulnerable super-hero. Nothing phased him, not the violence that he doled out or was directed at him, not any physical encounter with any number of women, and not the constant death of those women either. **

Book Bond did not enjoy violence. He was effective at executing it, but he didn’t make witty remarks after killing someone. In fact, at the beginning of the book Goldfinger, he’s getting drunk in an airport bar to drown his depression over having killed an assailant at the end of what should have been a bloodless mission. He was also not immune to the violence inflicted upon him. In Casino Royale, Bond considers leaving MI6, not because he’s fallen in love (which is what the movie heavily implies) but because his near-death-by-torture has him rethinking his ability to handle the danger of espionage. This also has him rethinking the ethics of “The Great Game”. The fact that he’s fallen for Vesper is another nudge towards resignation, instead of being his prime motivation.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I think Book Bond is a wonderful human being, just a three-dimensional one, especially in comparison to Movie Bond. His author, Ian Fleming, didn’t see Bond as a role model by any stretch of the imagination. In a letter to his editor, Fleming wrote “I had become increasingly surprised to find that … young people were making a hero out of James Bond.”*** So Fleming decided to write The Spy Who Loves Me as a cautionary tale to show how “Bond himself is in fact no better than the gangsters [he fights in the story]”. If Bond’s a hero at all then he is a classical, not a modern, one: powerful but very flawed. And while his exploits make for entertaining reading, he is definitely not someone to be admired or emulated.

Skyfall is so good because the filmmakers bring this vulnerability and gritty, flawed heroism to the core of Movie Bond. It is easily the best Bond film not adapted from an Ian Fleming novel. I’m still mulling over if it’s the best film in the franchise’s 50 year history. Skyfall reveals the current series of Bond films starring Daniel Craig to be a serious reinvention of James Bond in much the same way the BBC TV series Sherlock updates Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In both franchises, the technology and time period have been brought to the 21st Century, but what’s essential about the character is kept intact.

Director Sam Mendes also does with Skyfall what he does best. While this is definitely an action-thriller with plenty of stunts, sex, and violence, Mendes weaves in a subtext that places Bond in a contemporary family drama turned on its ear (ala his previous work: American Beauty, Six Feet Under, Road to Perdition). Though the film’s plot is concerned with retrieving a hard drive containing a list of undercover MI6 agents, underneath it all M, played by Judi Dench, is the strict mother and Bond is the rebellious son. The family, AKA The British Secret Service, is already in trouble at the story’s beginning and then events shake them up further and they find they must come together and reconcile or be destroyed by the coming crisis.

I do still have my mixed feeling about James Bond and our fandom around his adventures. What does his popularity say about our beliefs around masculinity and macho in our culture, the glamorization of government extra-legal powers in espionage fiction, our respect for violence as a sign of strength? I have so much more I could say about Bond, and I probably will. However, for now I will acknowledge that I am happier than I have been previously about the state of the James Bond films if Skyfall is any indication for the future.

*I’m not even making a joke here. Read Dick Tracy vs. Mrs. Pruneface and then watch The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker  and tell me which was less ridiculous.

**Yes, there’s the exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it’s considered a minor footnote in the history of Movie Bond, as opposed to a defining characteristic.

***Source: James Bond: The Man and His World by Henry Chancellor