Looking Back: The Immigrant

James Gray’s new film, The Lost City of Z, is currently showing in theaters and is making some waves. I thought it might be worthwhile to dust-off my review of his previous picture, 2013’s The Immigrant.

James Gray’s The Immigrant has one truly magical moment: a performance by operatic tenor Enrico Caruso for the poor souls stuck in limbo on Ellis Island. His voice soars and fills the space of the sparse room, and at once the world is stunningly, astonishingly alive with sublime music. It’s a recreation of an actual historical event, but the setting and performer are so marvelously incongruous as the transcendent briefly cuts through the thick melancholy and gloom of sorrowful tale.

According to Gray, The Immigrant is an attempt to capture something of opera’s blistering sincerity and emotional resonance (in particular, it was inspired by Puccini’s agonizingly tender Suor Angelica). If nothing else, Gray certainly succeeds in capturing opera’s earnestness. The Immigrant delivers old-fashioned melodrama (there’s a touch of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables here in its protagonist’s beatific suffering and in the film’s final, surprisingly merciful moments) with a very straight face. If only The Immigrant had some passion.

The story centers on the seedy underbelly of New York in 1921, but the tactile reality of the period is sublimated beneath restrained, tasteful beauty: Gray’s ornate vision is, essentially, romantic, and he has little interest in getting his hands dirty. His direction is ever at a remove from the events on screen, unwilling to break from its stately manner to surprise or startle. The Immigrant‘s parade of prostitutes seems positively demure in the golden-glow of Darius Khondji’s cinematography, and Chris Spelman’s score accentuates the proceedings with quotes from notable opera scores by Puccini and Wagner. But even Spelman’s score shies away from emphatic emotion. It’s as though Gray is so petrified of tipping into sensationalism that he embalmed the film.

Opera, after all, thrives on its expressiveness: it’s sincere, but bold and immediate, interested in the vast emotional peaks of passion and hate, love and desire. The somewhat-aimless script certainly tries to find such moments, but never guides its characters in ways that make these moments reverberate. It’s evident from the film’s conclusion (which, to its credit, features one of cinema’s most magnificent shots, and one for which Khondji deserves an Oscar nomination) that what Gray is hoping to achieve a sense of of spiritual awakening in the wake of unrelenting grief, but he never quite finds the right road to that destination.

Perhaps, with a stronger script and a shift in Gray’s direction direction, the film’s central trio of performers (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) might have balanced out Gray’s reserved aesthetic approach. The script only seriously begins to adopt its more melodramatic form about halfway through the film, as the film’s victimized, desperate protagonist, Ewa, finds herself caught between two cousins, Bruno and Emil, both of them manipulators who offer false promises of hope. It’s a dynamic that is insufficently balanced and explored.

Of the three, Phoenix’s performance seems the most miscalculated. Phoenix invests Bruno, Ewa’s manipulative pimp, with all the manic energy of his performance in The Master, but the role of Bruno actually demands for something more delicate and nuanced. His earliest scenes, where he strikes an appropriate balance of charm and menace, are the most promising, but the script unfortunately shifts Bruno from manipulator to madman. Released from his constraints, Phoenix’s energy essentially steamrolls over the character, and so when we get to the finale, which demands a great deal of precision, the character is awash in a sea of mannerisms and grunts that obscures, rather than clarifies, the character’s complexity and emotional entanglement.

As Bruno’s cousin, Emil, Renner is the film’s most charismatic presence, a charming rogue with a a career as a touring magician. For the dominant amount of his screentime, the film positions him as the kinder, more viable love interest to Phoenix’s Bruno (Renner’s introduction coincides with Caruso’s performance at Ellis Island, signalling the hope he represents). His courtship of Ewa plays out with a tedious inevitability, and only in his final scene does the film effectively move past the bullet-points of their relationship and reveal a dark undercurrent of sadism running beneath his boyish exterior. It’s too little, too late, though, and rather than play with that tension, the film abruptly sidelines him.

Then there’s Marion Cotillard, who, as Ewa, continually modulates between wide-eyed anguish and cold determination as Ewa suffers in hopes of freeing of her sister (who is effectively imprisoned on Ellis Island immediately after their arrival). Gray seems rarely interested in Ewa as a person beyond these tragic circumstances, with Khondji’s lens continually framing her as an unearthly icon of suffering. The film offers too few glimpses of the Ewa who existed before this tragedy, of an Ewa with different dreams and pleasures. Of all the film’s failings, this is perhaps its most unfortunate. Only in seeing Ewa as a person beyond her immediate struggle can we truly appreciate the depths of her anguish. If The Immigrant is, as Gray claims, “a verismo opera written for an actress,” it’s one that never gives its lead actress an aria.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part II

Casino Royale‘s delightful title sequence evokes the dust jacket of the first edition of the Ian Fleming novel. Title designer Daniel Kleinman, a true asset to the franchise since he came on-board with GoldenEye, takes the card/casino motif and runs with it: crosshairs become roulette wheels, spades become bullets, and thugs disintegrate into cards. Bond stalks through this cartoon world as an unstoppable threat, dodging attacks and his assailants, until he stands alone, staring defiantly at the viewer (it has always bothered me to an irrational degree that this final image of Craig has clearly been distorted to stretch him out vertically; the effect just seems so unnecessary).

The title sequence briefly breaks out of the cartoon surrealism for a “real world” image of Bond’s “00” status being confirmed in a computer system, clearly a holdover from earlier drafts of the script, which proposed that the entire title sequence should be built around Bond’s ID being printed, which was a rather prosaic idea that was thankfully discarded for this more hypnotic dream. This makes it the only other Bond title sequence to break into the “real world” other than Casino Royale‘s predecessor, Die Another Day.

Chris Cornell’s machismo-injected rock anthem, “You Know My Name,” fully evokes the burly, headstrong essence of the bulked-up Bond of Casino Royale, and it ranks as one of the better Bond songs when all is said and done. Sure, it’s extraordinarily cornball–practically all of the Bond songs are (it’s a feature, not a bug)–and it sounded dated even back in 2006, but it’s vibrant and fun and catchy, even if the odd sound mix used for the film doesn’t do the song many favors.

It may be utter folly to parse Bond song lyrics, which are typically nonsensical in the extreme. But I intend to make a habit of paying the lyrics at least a little attention in this series, in part because there seems to have been a concerted effort on the Craig Bond songs to truly reflect the narratives of the films (which is not something that has always been true of the Bond songs). As far as “You Know My Name” is concerned, I’m struck by these lines, in particular: “I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights / but you yourself are nothing so divine.” Given the Craig era’s heavy emphasis on Bond being a orphan, I find it tempting to read the line as a oblique reference to the death of Bond’s parents, who tumbled to their death in a fatal climbing accident (“Skyfall,” the name of Bond’s ancestral home in the Craig film of the same name, has a similar resonance).

Composer and “You Know My Name” co-writer David Arnold weaves instrumental versions of “You Know My Name” through his score as a proto-theme for Bond, given that the Monty Norman/John Barry theme has been held for the end credits. It’s very high praise when I say that that the “You Know My Name” cue has more than enough swagger to fill the gaps left by the Bond theme’s conspicuous absence. The theme may actually be underutilized in Arnold’s score; it gets full statements in a few “scene transition” moments, but the lengthy action scenes cry out for a robust, fist-pumping statement of the theme that never arrives.

The titles lead us into the muddy backlot of Pinewood Studios! Sorry, “Uganda.” It’s not exactly a convincing mock-up, and, it’s not the only time that Casino Royale can seem a little cheap (indeed, Casino Royale on the whole will feel fairly artificial, giving it all a slightly more cartoonish vibe than its successors). It’s a brief scene, so it’s easy to forgive the fakery. It’s not as easy to forgive the clunkiness of the writing as we’re inelegantly introduced to three major players here in quick succession: Mr. White, Le Chiffre, and Steven Obanno.

Let’s start with Steven Obanno, played with gusto and menace by Isaach de Bankolé. Obanno belongs to the Lord’s Resistance Army, though the film never specifies that detail in dialogue. Earlier drafts of the script did more to establish the bizarre religious ideology of that group (in the script, Obanno had a short anecdote about the child soldier who ends up playing pinball in the scene), but in the finished film, his “Do you believe in God, Mr. Le Chiffre?” is reduced to a non-sequitur that has nothing to do with anything. (It is a sample of what I call “trailer dialogue”–dialogue that sounds “cool” when taken out of context for a promotional video, but really means nothing at all in-context. I’ll be using this term a lot when we get to Quantum of Solace.)

Jesper Christiansen’s Mr. White gets some very fine material in the sequels, but in his introductory film, he is just a man in a suit. The dynamics of his organization (later films label this organization “Quantum,” which will later be retconned as being a cell/project of SPECTRE itself) and his relationship to Le Chiffre remain pretty ambiguous throughout Casino Royale. Does Le Chiffre work for Mr. White? Is Le Chiffre merely holding on to Mr. White’s money? The sequels suggest that Le Chiffre is a full-fledged member, but, on its own, Casino Royale might be read as suggesting that he’s independent. Certainly this scene indicates that they are peers, with the concluding shot of Mr. White staring after Le Chiffre hinting that Mr. White has his suspicions about Le Chiffre’s tactics.

Then there’s Le Chiffre himself, played by the dependably-great Mads Mikkelsen. Le Chiffre’s first memorable action is to take a puff on an asthma inhaler, an odd character tic that comes from the Fleming source material. This establishes Le Chiffre’s unique vulnerability; in a long tradition of Bond supervillains, all malevolent and brooding, Le Chiffre emerges as being merely a middleman, a middle-tier criminal who only turns especially savage after Bond puts him in a tight spot. It’s a nice change of pace, although there’s little in the action or dialogue here that memorably plays off of this new dynamic.

The filmmakers do seem to have hedged their bets a bit, though, in giving the character a sinister appearance to balance out his vulnerability. Mikkelsen has naturally imposing features, and the film goes one step further by giving him an eye deformity (one that has no precedent in the source material). It’s outrageous and gratuitous, but also appealing in that traditional Bond way, where villains manifest their own decadence through physical grotesqueness. The eye deformity will add a note of menace to all those close-ups that become so critical later in the film.

Stuart Baird’s editing is typically commendable throughout Casino Royale, particularly in the action sequences, but there is one odd beat toward the conclusion of the sequence where the negotiations between Le Chiffre and Obanno are punctuated by a strange cut to a glowering LRA soldier. The soldier hasn’t been a player in the scene up until this point, and it breaks away from a sequence of edits that seems to be resolving the three-way power balance between Obanno, Mr. White, and Le Chiffre. I suspect this edit is made because this particular LRA soldier actually appears later in the film alongside Obanno and that they want to set-up that threat, but the character’s later appearance needs no set-up.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part I

Casino Royale was the first Bond novel by Ian Fleming, but it is the twenty-first “official” Bond film. Its selection signified a very intentional reset: for the first time, the EON-produced Bond films broke the hazy aura of continuity that had maintained the first twenty Bond movies, effectively bracketing off the films from 1962’s Dr. No through 2002’s Die Another Day into what we might call the “prime” timeline.

These films, however, are fairly haphazard about continuity, and muddy the waters by holding over Judi Dench’s M (who had appeared in all the films up to that point since 1995’s GoldenEye). This ambiguity about the relationship of these films to its forebears will be exacerbated by references made to the “prime” timeline in later Daniel Craig films. But Dench’s M is not yet in the picture when Casino Royale starts.

Casino Royale starts and concludes so confidently, so defiantly, that it is easy to forget a lot of the rickety stuff that occurs in-between those brilliant bookends. Here, we’re immediately thrust into black-and-white (temporarily deprived of the gunbarrel logo that so memorably opened the previous twenty Bond pictures), with a chilly, snowy vista of Prague.

This feels a bit more Le Carré than Fleming, a tonal shift that sets the stage for the Craig era in general. If the Craig era begins with a return to the source material, it also paints over Fleming’s colorful, hardboiled fantasy with a veneer of moral and political ambiguity that had not previously permeated the series. This is one of many respects in which the Craig films take after the Bourne film series, which might have little to do with Le Carré, but nevertheless preserve his sense that spycraft is inherently dehumanizing and depressing.

But if this opening sequence will set the stage for the Craig era’s enduring dramatic conflict–will Bond stay in the service and lose his soul, or will he get out?–it is also triumphantly bad-ass. This is the most fundamental tension of the Daniel Craig Bond films: they continually underline the dehumanization of his spy work while making that spy work seem so utterly, indescribably cool. And, back in 2006, Bond had not seemed this cool in ages. When Craig’s Bond is first revealed, sitting in noir-ish shadow, it’s a brilliant bit of posturing.

Posturing will prove to be a key part of Craig Bond’s appeal, because his Bond is almost entirely about body language, and the films will largely succeed and fail by their willingness to put Craig’s body language front-and-center. It’s worth noting that this kind of “posing” isn’t a big part of the Bond films prior to Brosnan’s GoldenEye, which, like Casino Royale, was directed by Martin Campbell. Connery, Lazenby, Moore, and Dalton all have very distinctive body languages, but scenes are rarely filmed and staged to showcase their body language in the way that the post-GoldenEye Bond films do. Brosnan, who generally moves more like a model than a proper actor given the way he’s directed in his Bond movies, is the first one who really feels like he’s been placed in poses to maximize his own Bond-ness. Craig takes that same emphasis and makes it work for him. Craig’s body language is both unusual and varied, and one of the great pleasures in watching these films is just admiring the way Craig moves, stands, and sits: it’s always fascinating.

Then there’s that stare. Craig’s eyes are his greatest facial feature: they’re piercing and ghostly, even in black-and-white.

Dryden: “Your file shows no kills, and it takes–”
Bond: “Two.”

The smash-cut here to a bathroom brawl (which was not how the sequence was originally written; there’s an extended version of the scene on the DVD and Blu-ray where you can see the original build-up to the bathroom brawl, which injects the scene with more “classic Bond” exoticism) is devilishly effective. It’s a further leap into Le Carré-ian grime, and a dose of vicious physicality that stands not just in stark contrast to the invisible cars and robo-suits of its immediate predecessor, Die Another Day, but to the very ethos of the Bond franchise up until this point, draining the moment of escapist appeal so that the violence loses any air of fantasy.

That said, it doesn’t quite have the same visceral impact of the Bourne films–even at its grittiest, there’s still some kind of blunted, PG-13 staginess to the violence here, something the sequel, Quantum of Solace (which does get very nasty), will discard–but it still works.

“Made you feel it, did he?”

Bond films so rarely linger on the consequences of violence. Violence in Bond is traditionally something that caps a moment of peak excitement just before a punctuation mark seals it off (usually in the form of a quip, either by Bond or the villain).

When Craig pulls back from the sink, breathing heavily, we don’t really get a sense for how he feels–he’s too internal, too much a cipher–but the ugliness of the moment still has time to settle, leaving some existentialism to hang in the air. Someone was here, and is now here no longer. But if Craig’s Bond truly feels anything at this moment, he’s soon suppresses it enough that his second kill doesn’t affect him at all.

The effect of Dryden toppling over in the chair with the whooshing edit is really a nice touch from Campbell and his collaborators Meheux and Baird, even if the sting of David Arnold’s score is a bit over-the-top (as it will prove to be throughout much of the ensuing film).

“Yes, considerably” isn’t quite a quip, but it’s delivered with a kind of bitter self-amusement and efficiency that makes it an excellent punctuation mark for this scene. The sequence could end here and cut straight to the credits.

But, no, we linger, because here comes the the famous gunbarrel logo, now given an origin story as being a depiction of Bond’s first kill. The spin-and-turn into Bond’s “gunshot” pose here is more ferocious than that of any of this Bond’s predecessors (the gunbarrel turn-and-shoot for previous Bonds was often downright leisurely), making it the perfect embodiment of this new, primal Bond, the bringer of death.

The Facts of Death: Introduction

“I never left.”
~ James Bond, Quantum of Solace

Over the past few months, the rumors have been flying: after a few years of great uncertainty about the state of the Bond film series, it appears likely that Daniel Craig will be back as James Bond for one final adventure, capping the journey the character began in 2006’s series reset, Casino Royale.

As a devotee of the Bond film series, I intend to spend the next few months writing this series–which I have entitled “The Facts of Death,” taking its title from the Raymond Benson novel of the same name–and taking a very deep dive into the complexities of Daniel Craig’s four existing cinematic ventures as James Bond (Casino RoyaleQuantum of SolaceSkyfallSpectre). These four films are strikingly consistent, if not in aesthetics or tone or entertainment value, then in their underlying thematic ambiguities and general ambivalence about the place of this icon in the world of the 21st century. Through extensive rambling, I hope to make a persuasive case that these are genuinely interesting and odd movies, even when they are at their very worst (and their very worst is very bad indeed).

I am not so presumptuous as to hope that this exercise, should you choose to take it with me, will be rewarding, but I can speculate with some degree of confidence that it will be pretentious, and perhaps even mildly amusing and occasionally thoughtful.

So to you, dear reader, I raise my vodka martini. Here’s to the blondest of Bonds!