The parameters, mutually agreed upon by my editor Danny Kasman and myself, are these: A bi-weekly (every two weeks) column, entitled "ON MUBI OFF
," covering two films—one currently available on the MUBI streaming platform in the United States, the other screening offsite (in theaters, on VOD, Blu-ray/DVD, etc). The movies may share some similarities in approach, execution and theme, or they may not. Mostly, my own interests and curiosity will dictate what films are covered and in what way, and I hope you'll find the prose, the pairings, and/or the analysis compelling enough to follow along.
Sight unseen, I thought Stephanie Rothman's 1973 exploitation cheapie Terminal Island would make for a good inaugural article lead-off—something Z-grade disreputable to complement the A-level sleaze (not necessarily a criticism) of the other movie covered in this column. (We'll get to you momentarily, Mr. Bond.)
I haven't watched any of Rothman's six other features, which boast titles like It's a Bikini World (1967) and The Velvet Vampire (1971), and it's easy to look at those names and sniff derisively. Based on Terminal Island, however, Rothman appears to have more artistic chops than her particular genre trappings might suggest. The film initially plays like a riff on Peter Watkins' faux-doc cri de coeur Punishment Park (1971), though the meta media critique is mostly relegated to a pointed prologue in which three news show producers comment on a report about the eponymous isle, where anyone convicted of first degree murder is sent to fend for themselves.
From there, the movie gets more endearingly goofy than outraged, scoring an inmate-arrival montage to a twangy country ditty titled "It's Too Damn Bad" (sample lyric: "It's too damn bad what they made of her/'Cause now she's too damn bad for her own good") and reveling in the nubile pleasures of the multi-racial cast. That's actually not much of a problem since Rothman is an equal opportunity ogler. There are, to use the appropriate terminology, copious boobs on display, mostly courtesy Barbara Leigh (late of Peckinpah's Junior Bonner) as Bunny, the island's resident mute waif. But no less gawked at is young Tom Selleck as the reprobate community's physician Dr. Milford, whose hirsute chest alone—displayed as it is through a raggedly unbuttoned blue-collar shirt—feels like it could cure cancer.
The pleasures Rothman takes in the flesh, and the cast's willingness to display it, offset the perils of the threadbare plot, which is mainly concerned with a rebel faction's attempts to overthrow the island's tyrannical leader, Bobby (Sean Kenney, nicely commingling his character's fascist and horndog impulses). Films of this sort frequently suffer from pacing issues, with violence and nudity used as both a tease and a goose to keep things lively. (The anticipation of the next flashed breast or bullet to the head, whether it actually comes or not, has to be enough to maintain a viewer's attention.) Terminal Island, however, moves at a engrossingly steady clip, and Rothman keeps a nice hold over the shifting tones, even in broad farcical scenes like the one in which the lecherous Chino (Geoffrey Deuel) gets what can only be described as a honey-and-bee-lubed comeuppance.
There's a weighty subtext beneath all the surface tawdriness. It's true that all of the characters have committed heinous crimes. But at worst they seem like spoiled brats who have gotten the gun-toting run of a verdant asylum, while at best they come off as free thinkers excommunicated from a society that refuses to countenance their permissive ways. Indeed, it's easy to forget, pre-credits sequence aside, that they're all murderers, and it's telling that the noblest among this outcast society ultimately win out. Rothman uses the low-art framework as the bold means to a bohemian-glorifying end.
Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)
Glories of another sort await in Spectre, the latest (and rumored last) film to feature Daniel Craig as the Ian Fleming-created British Secret Service agent, code name 007, with a taste for shaken martinis and pussy galore. I haven't minded what some have referred to, in the Craig era, as "the Christopher Nolanization" of the James Bond mythology because neither the iconic film series (in relatively steady production since the 1960s) nor the current leading man ever seem at the mercy of the pop cultural moment. Though Spectre retcons all three of the previous Craig entries (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall) so that they effectively form one ridiculously convoluted story, the character at the center of this maelstrom—a "kite dancing in a hurricane" according to returning villain Mr. White (Jesper Christensen)—and the gorgeously oafish actor playing him couldn't give a damn.
Craig's Bond is a bruiser in perpetual forward motion; he may have a tortured past, but he isn't freighted by it. If anything, he finds the old days a distraction—synaptic flashes that can't be helped, but should be quickly junked. There's a potent scene here in which he comes across a video interrogation of Casino Royale Bond girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and he seems mostly irritated at the fleeting memories the tape (which he never plays) conjures. What's the point of dwelling on places and people long gone? Especially when—per the onscreen title that precedes the film's elaborate Dia de Muertos opening sequence—"The dead are alive."
There's always been a bit of Frankenstein's monster to Craig's Bond, which jibes with a series that has maintained its retrograde attitudes despite changing times. Outwardly, the movies have gotten glossier and more alluring (look at the way Craig's impeccably tailored suits hug his frame like dapper armor), not to mention tentatively gender-fluid in the way Bond is objectified as much by men as by women. Sam Smith's longing, falsetto-heavy title sequence ballad, "The Writing's on the Wall," is the apex of this queer-flirting experimentation; it's as if Michael Bay had hired Klaus Nomi instead of Aerosmith for Armageddon.
Yet the Bond films still remain splendidly rotten at the core. When our antiheroic operative seductively interrogates the widow (Monica Bellucci) of the hoodlum he kills in the opening sequence, no amount of evocative framing (by ace DP Hoyte van Hoytema) or natural magnetism can negate the sense that we're watching a beautifully orchestrated rape scene. That's not a case of insensitive cluelessness on the filmmakers' part. This is the truth of Bond's character; his charisma and his depravity go hand in hand.
Of course his primary conquest is named Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), calling up visions of both Proust and a virgin to be defiled. The screenwriters (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth are credited with this particular patchwork) and returning director Sam Mendes do their best to give Madeleine agency: "I don't need to teach you anything," says Bond as he watches Madeleine demonstrate her knack with a pistol. Yet after a superbly staged close-quarters fight with the sinewy henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista), a breathless Madeleine turns to Bond and asks, "Now what do we do?" PG-13 coitus follows, and it's easy to intuit which of the two of them suggested that.
It's a man's world, baby. And I really wouldn't have it any other way in the context of the James Bond extended universe. (When it comes to the debased art that we love, each of us picks our poison, and this is mine.) What I appreciate about Spectre as the potential capper to the Craig series of films is how it finally embraces the absurdities that Casino Royale, Quantum, and Skyfall tried to quell (to varying degrees of success) with oh-so-serious emoting. Here, the self-stated "author of all [Bond's] pain" is revealed to be a literal Big Brother—Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) whose jealousy over the adopted Bond's relationship with his father drove him to psychosis. Now he's concocted a fiendish plan to build a Trojan Horse-style global surveillance system that will give him power beyond measure. He's also currently going by another name: Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who the Bond faithful know is the head of the terrorist organization SPECTRE and our secret agent man's eternal nemesis. (Both the facial scar and the Persian cat appear, surely giving Mike Myers additional fodder for any future Austin Powers installments.)
Blofeld is a cartoon villain intent on driving Bond out of his mind. But his adversary isn't much human either. There's an inspired torture sequence in which Bond's brain is literally drilled into, and it's not surprising that all the threats of permanent lobotomy amount to naught. Bond's an empty vessel fitted with a custom-made person suit—six official iterations and counting. (Blofeld may as well be boring into the Omega watch that's expertly flashed to camera several times over.) Is it any wonder this Bond's final onscreen conquest isn't flesh and blood but metal and rubber (that ever-resilient Aston Martin DB5)? He's his own advertisement, and an ever-pliable poster child for studio-, state-, and spectator-sanctioned debauchery. Serving at her majesty's pleasure, indeed.
ON MUBI / OFF is a bi-weekly column exploring two films: one currently available on MUBI in the United States, and the other screening offsite (in theaters, on VOD, Blu-ray/DVD, etc).