Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace is a schizoid movie. There’s a definite tension between the material and the intentions of the filmmakers—should the hero be Bond or badass? The question is never resolved, but one needn’t care; the movie was thoroughly enjoyable. Quantum is saved by its odd combination of professionalism and incompetence.

This is the first actual Bond sequel in the 46 years of the film franchise’s existence. In Casino Royale, the promiscuous James Bond (Daniel Craig) found a special someone, Vesper (Eva Green), who turned out to be a double-agent. She defected, but her organization of ne’er-do-wells—the eponymous Quantum—tracked her down and led to her demise. In this movie, Quantum is an octopus with tentacles strong enough to put a squeeze on both governments and counterintelligence agencies. Bond’s superior, M (Judi Dench), is nearly killed by her seemingly trustworthy bodyguard; and, after he’s disposed of, MI6 can still find no paper trail linking him to Quantum. The shadowy organization’s representative, Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric), works hand-in-hand with a guerilla South American dictatorship—which he intends to scam—but Quantum money is lining both American and British pockets, so MI6 is called off. But Bond knows better. Along with Green’s girlfriend, Camille (Olga Kurylenko)—who has her own vendetta against the dictator, General Medrano (Joaquín Cosio), who incidentally happened to kill her parents—Bond goes rogue, and takes matters into his own hands.

The “social consciousness” of the movie likely derives from Paul Haggis (Crash), who wrote Quantum (as well as Casino Royale) with Robert Wade and Neal Purvis (who also penned the pre-Craig Bond movies The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day). Haggis’ conception of the hero is anti-Bond: a super-sensitive super-spy. And, here, his conception of the world is a left-wing conspiracy theorists’: the U.S. is too stretched out, and too corrupt, to stave off an omnipresent consortium of Hawaiian-shirt-wearing power-brokers. Green is a manipulative worm (and phony environmentalist)—a shrimpy businessman who’s no match for Bond physically. He resembles Peter Lorre and Roman Polanski, and perhaps the latter evocation is not coincidental: Green’s dastardly plan (privatizing public water and causing a drought) borrows from Noah Cross’ in Polanski’s Chinatown.

With a Bond that has to buck the system and fight for justice, Quantum is an attempt at being a Dark Knight of the left—James Bond and Bruce Wayne both attended the same Ayn Rand fantasy-camp for budding übermenschen. But, thankfully, the makers of this film hadn’t the heart to match their form with their content. I can’t really buy the notion of suave super-spy Bond as a “complex” character, but Craig embodies that ideal in such a perfect way that it seems credible. Unlike his predecessors, this Aryan rock-formation doesn’t look like the kind of guy who got his job because of his good looks or who his daddy knows; Craig’s is a scrappy Bond—a man who isn’t really sensitive, but neither is he aloof (though he may pretend to be). He’s worked hard to get where he is, but he suffers from an arrested development—exactly what we in the audience are seeking to experience when we go to see a Bond picture. (If we really expected “realistic” or “adult” entertainment, we’d complain that the hero was still alive after the first act.) Craig’s contribution to his character really sparkles when this troubled-teen secret agent is teamed with his school-marm superior, M. Dench’s punctilious Britishness helps make up for the loss of that testy old tech-guru Q—although nothing here makes up for the loss of his trinkets.

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Synecdoche, New York

Watching Synecdoche, New York is like catching up with an old friend whose company you enjoy, but who, slowly but surely, starts to monopolize your time. You know that his blathering is a tic he can’t control, so you don’t want to push him away; alas, you feel compelled to check your watch and marvel, “My! Look at the time!”

One could have hardly expected a linear narrative in the directorial début of Charlie Kaufman, the man who penned Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Synecdoche begins in the real world of stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose production of Death of a Salesman is premiered to great acclaim. For once, the artist-hero’s professional life is spotlessly meteoric; it’s everything else in his life that sucks. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) confesses to having joyful fantasies of Cotard’s death while they’re in couples’ therapy with their self-promoting bimbo of a therapist (Hope Davis). Adele jets to Germany, and takes their beloved daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein), with her. And Cotard has other problems. His health is an H.M.O.’s nightmare: He becomes a baton passed between dispassionate doctors. And, though his artistic stature affords him plenty of opportunities for romantic liaisons, Cotard can never quite consummate his flings—including the one that we in the audience are most primed to want him to have: an affair with the quirky ticket-window lady, Hazel (Samantha Morton). Here’s a man who gets a MacArthur grant—a free-pass to complete his magnum opus—and yet he’s a perennial downer. He’s the Charles Foster Kane of artists.

Cotard wants to use the grant to produce something honest, so he decides to make a play about his life, and procures what appears to be an abandoned warehouse for his theater. Well, it’s really not a theater, for it houses no audience—only an ever-growing scale reproduction of Cotard’s native Schenectady. His play really is his life. Hazel, now his assistant, watches as their doubles meander about and eventually require doubles of their own. And so on, and so on. Cotard does not let his art imitate his life, he uses his art to duplicate his life, and that which is his “real” life becomes a jumbled mash-up of frayed plot threads and motifs. Kaufman deliberately skewers the timeline, and blurs the line between reality and fiction, but Kaufman lacks the patience and lucidity of David Lynch at his best—think Mulholland Drive compared to Inland Empire. Yes, I get that disorientation is his point, and no, it’s not “over my head.” One reviewer called the writer-director a “master of mindfuckery.” That’s rather inaccurate—and if it wasn’t, I might’ve dropped a variant of that ol’ grin-inducer, too. Kaufman isn’t fucking with anybody’s mind; he’s lost in his own.

A “synecdoche” (for those of you not up on your obscure literary terminology or words that rhyme with cities in Upstate New York) is a part of something representing its whole. Kaufman, like Cotard, sees himself as an isolated part of an intangible whole, one voice in a sea of billions. But what occurs in Synecdoche is something of an irony: His voice overpowers our individual responses. The structure may be baroque, but the dialogue and ideas become so externalized that our minds have no room to play; we’re muddled by too great a volume of information presented to us, not by too many layers. That is what distinguishes this cerebral thunderstorm from, say, There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a gift box and lets us shake it; Kaufman, in Synecdoche, tears off the wrapping paper before we get a chance to guess at the box’s contents.

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Martyrs

Seeing the new French horror film Martyrs is like going trick-or-treating and ending up with a frayed philosophy text in your pillowcase. The writer-director, Pascal Laugier, has modernized the biblical story of Job—who lost everything, except his faith in God—by giving it the grindhouse treatment, grafting on the carnage of cheapo slashers. His heroine is stripped of her possessions, loved ones, skin, and this time around, her faith is despoiled, too. The French seem to think they can find art in anything, but is the beauty of this gnostically inclined torture-porn more than skin-deep?

Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) is kidnapped as a child, and abused by faceless captors. She is force-fed gruel—I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Soylent Green—and her only reprieve from the metal chair she’s chained to is getting pummeled by a bald brute. If she passes out from the blows, she’s slapped awake, and treated to more. She eventually escapes her captors, and is institutionalized, but the doctors can’t see the vindictive golem that slashes her wrists, and haunts her waking nightmares. Years later, she locates two of her captors who are now living an unassuming middle-class lifestyle. To appease her golem, Lucie pops them (and their children) full of lead, and her sympathetic girlfriend, Anna (Morjana Alaoui), helps her dispose of the bodies.

The golem returns for Lucie—but from Anna’s point of view, we see that it’s but a product of Lucie’s unhinged amygdala; Lucie loses her battle with the nonexistent demon, and slits her own throat. Anna, however, finds that the torture chamber of Lucie’s recollections is, in fact, very real. She rescues a denatured woman with a metal plate stapled to her skull, but is captured by the black-clad boogeymen-torturers who’d abducted Lucie; they imprison Anna for 17 years, and abuse her just as they had her girlfriend. After scene after scene of senseless, repetitive violence, Anna recalls advice from Lucie: let go. By the time her flesh is shorn, she’s photographed like Christ on the cross or Joan of Arc—her dulled-out eyes pointing heavenward. This has been her captors’ goal; the movie archaically defines a martyr as a witness, and Anna is their witness to l’autre monde. She whispers what she’s seen to the Mademoiselle in charge of the organization (Catherine Bégin), who looks like the chic, caked-up landlady of Mulholland Drive. A rotting gaggle of elderly aristocrats gathers to hear about what lies beyond the grave, but the Mademoiselle puts the barrel of a gun between her lips and recommends to one witness that he “keep doubting.”

Even after the gore-splattered success of other recent French horror flicks (such as the barbaric, but affably daft High Tension in 2003), and Hollywood’s own spate of factory-produced pukers (Saw, Hostel, et al), Laugier ran into difficulty getting Martyrs financed and produced. Censors slapped it with an unprecedented 18+ rating in its native country, which the filmmakers have appealed. One can see how this film could raise such objections: Despite all the choppy camerawork, we can see all the bloody chops. But the film’s spiritualism may make the ickiness run deeper than Lucie’s cuts. Martyrs is a “torture-porn,” all right, but I don’t think it conforms to the tenets of that genre as laid out by David Edelstein in New York magazine. The movie’s brutality is, in its way, cathartic, but we see it clearly from Anna’s sane point of view, and aren’t implicated in the boogeymens’ crimes. Martyrs also seems part of that international wave of movies in which crowd-pleasing violence is paired with warped philosophical underpinnings, and then decreed “deep” by critics who are easily distracted by clever visuals. This dubious genre includes the Kill Bill movies, The Dark Knight, and the absurd revenge-fantasy Oldboy from South Korea.

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