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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

DAMN Good Movies -- SPECTRE





This may be the end of an era.


Yes, time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on Spectre, the latest in the James Bond film series.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...Time to report for duty...

Three years after the very successful fiftieth anniversary outing Skyfall, we finally see the return of MI6 agent OO7, once again under the direction of Sam Mendes.  The infamous 2014 Sony Pictures Entertainment hack revealed several memos claiming that the film was over budget, later reported to be somewhere between $245 to $300 million, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made.  Early drafts of the script written by (also returning) John Logan were leaked as well, along with memos of Sony's frustration with the project. Eon Productions later issued a statement confirming the leak of what they called "an early version of the screenplay."


Once again, Mendes wants to depict Bond as a character drama rather than a thriller or action movie, only this time to much less effect.  We have another two and a half-hour running time that feels so painfully slllooooooooow at times, as we see characters standing around in lengthy thoughtful moments, or walking (and walking, and walking) in between fleeting sequences of action.  The film could've easily lost a good twenty minutes in the editing room and would've been much better off for it.

Returning composer Thomas Newman doesn't help either, churning out another unremarkable score that feels nothing like Bond and more like you're listening to a period drama.  The only hints of Bond's traditional theme come at very beginning during the updated gunbarrel opening, and at the very end during the closing credits as people start dashing out of the theater to beat parking lot traffic.

We start off with a superb extended tracking shot in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival, following Bond as he leaves the costumed crowd below with a female companion, goes up to her hotel room, removes his skeletal mask and costume, climbs out of the window with a sniper rifle, and walks along various rooftops until he arrives to take out a man named Marco Sciarra, who is plotting with some other men to blow up a stadium.  This leads to an exciting brawl in a mid-air helicopter swirling dangerously over the huge crowd of festival goers below, and results in Bond obtaining Sciarra's all-too-familiar octopus ring that plays an important part throughout the story.

So far, so good, right?  This takes us to the opening credits, with Sam Smith's mopey and disappointing "The Writing's on the Wall" making a lot of us really miss Adele.  The visuals, meanwhile, are a retrospective of Daniel Craig's era as James Bond -- Vesper Lynd, Le Chiffre, Judi Dench as M, Mr. White, and so on -- hinting at a connection since Craig debuted in 2006's Casino Royale.  And perhaps...an ending?

Returning to London, Bond is removed from field duty indefinitely by the current M, who finds himself up against Max Denbigh, a loathsome member of the British government seizing power after a merger of MI5 and MI6, referred to as "C."  C, it turns out, is pushing his "Nine Eyes" intelligence cooperation agreement between nine countries, closes down the "OO" section, and prepares to move everything to his glossy new Centre for National Security building.

From there, we follow Bond as he travels to Rome, against M's direct order to remain in England, which leads him to a shadowy meeting of a shadowy organization behind everything led by a shadowy figure.  Anyone who paid attention to the film's title and watched a Bond movie from the Sean Connery era or On Her Majesty's Secret Service knows exactly what's coming, even with the pathetic attempt as misdirection by naming "Franz Oberhauser" as Christoph Waltz's character.  I gather the Bond producers learned absolutely nothing from the Benedict Cumberbatch reveal in Star Trek Into Darkness.

After a nifty little car chase with Mr. Hinx through the streets of Rome that ends with Bond pointlessly dunking his multimillion-pound car in a river, we travel to Austria, where Bond picks up Dr. Madeleine Swann, the daughter of now-dying Mr. White.  Bond has his second run-in with Mr. Hinx before meeting up with Q, who finally tells us what's with with that damn octopus ring.  Swann provides the necessary exposition about SPECTRE, which presumably still stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

The trail leads to Morroco, where Bond and Swann check out Mr. White's secret room of old VHS tapes, maps and coordinates that point them to a facility in the desert.  They travel by train, which gives us Bond's third and final run-in with Jaws-wannabe Mr. Hinx.  After being met by "Oberhauser" with the prerequisite Bond villain monologuing, Bond is a given a revelation straight out of Austin Powers in Goldmember (I'm not kidding), subjected to a rather squeamish bit of torture, and quickly allowed to escape and destroy yet another supervillain facility in a remote location.

Everything shifts back to London in the final act, of course, as Bond, Swann and Bond's supporting cast team up to stop C, and a showdown with "Oberhauser" that ends smack in the middle of Westminster Bridge.  With everything neatly tied up after four films, Daniel Craig's James Bond gets the girl once again and drives off in the classic silver Aston Martin for what actually feels -- given Craig's recent public disparaging of Bond films -- for the last time.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

JAMES BOND -- In his fourth and possibly final outing as Bond, Daniel Craig once again gives us the secret agent driven by demons, but this time lacks any sense of actual charm. Everyone is a tool for Bond to use to achieve his personal agenda, damn any consequences, making him come off as more antihero than superhero at times.  At the end, he's left a good enough place for Craig to say farewell to the role, so we'll see if he does.

ERNST STAVRO BLOFELD/FRANZ OBERHAUSER -- Christoph Waltz pretty much reprises his character of Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds here, which makes sense considering who's he's ultimately revealed to be playing.  As mentioned above, Blofeld is given a familial connection to Bond, which feels terribly forced and convenient in an attempt to make things personal between the two.  We get an explanation for Blofeld's traditional facial scar, which was nice, although the final confrontation between Blofeld and Bond feels a bit empty and hollow.

DR. MADELEINE SWANN -- Léa Seydoux is an interesting Bond Girl, at least when the script allows her to be.  Filled with daddy issues, Swann is present for all the major moments following her introduction, helping out here and there, only to keep fading back into the background.  Things do feel a bit creepy between her and Bond, however, with Daniel Craig looking more 57 years old than 47 against Seydoux's very youthful 30.

Q -- After making little more than glorified cameos in Skyfall, Ben Whishaw gets quite a bit more to do this time, as Q provides cover for Bond's unsanctioned personal crusade and after dodging bad guys in Austria, later meets up with Bond and Swann to explain the connection with Sciarra's ring and the previous three Daniel Craig movies.  He's also there as part of Bond's running crew to take down C and stop the launch of Nine Eyes.

M / GARETH MALLORY -- Now formally established as the new M, Ralph Fiennes shows us the political and bureaucratic machinations in play as a result of SPECTRE's global conspiracy.  M is under huge pressure this time, and given his own rival in C that ends in a physical struggle between the two within the CNS building.

EVE MONEYPENNY -- Naomie Harris get the short end of the script this time, relegated to visiting Bond's apartment to bring him the few surviving items from the fire at Bond's family home Skyfall, providing information that leads him to Mr. White, and being part of the aforementioned running crew.  It was very disappointing to see Moneypenny so underwritten after such a strong introduction in Skyfall.

MR. HINX -- Fresh from his fun and lively role as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, Dave Bautista fills the mandatory henchman role here.  Saying absolutely nothing until his final disappearance, Hinx feels like the illegitimate offspring of Oddjob and Jaws, frustratingly silent and seemingly unkillable.  If Hinx somehow returns for the next Bond film, I definitely won't be surprised.


C / MAX DENBIGH -- Andrew Scott, as anyone who watched him as Jim Moriarty on Sherlock knows, is terrific at being someone you absolutely love to hate.  As M's rival, C is the typical "new blood" bureaucrat who steps in to force out the old gang for no good reason, smugly pointing out how outdated they are and begging someone -- anyone -- to punch him in the throat.

MR. WHITE -- Jesper Christensen returns for his final outing as Mr. White, last seen in 2008's Quantum of Solace.  White brings the Daniel Craig era full circle, connecting everything back to Casino Royale.  His final scene with Bond is gripping drama, appropriately set with the two facing off across a chessboard before White ultimately ends himself.

DEAD M CAMEO -- A very welcome surprise was a cameo from Dame Judi Dench as a recorded video message, left for Bond in the event of M's death.  The image of Dead M is shown during the showdown at the ruined MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross, taunting Bond with everything bad that happened during the Daniel Craig era was all Blofeld's doing. Yeah, that's plausible.

All in all, Spectre feels like the final chapter for Daniel Craig as James Bond...or, at least, like it should be.  It's not as satisifying as I'd hoped, especially following Skyfall and finally getting the return of Blofeld and SPECTRE, but thankfully, it's better than most critics seem to think (No surprise there).  It's a perfectly decent outing, and certainly would be a much better sendoff for Craig than Die Another Day was for Pierce Brosnan.  Most important of all though, James Bond will return...

And for those who may be wondering, here's my ranking of the twenty-four official James Bond Films:

1. Goldfinger (1964)
2. Casino Royale (2006)
3. Skyfall (2012)
4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
5. You Only Live Twice (1967)
6. GoldenEye (1995)
7. Live and Let Die (1973)
8. From Russia with Love (1963)
9. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
10. The Living Daylights (1987)
11. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
12. Spectre (2015)
13. Doctor No (1962)
14. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
15. Quantum of Solace (2008)
16. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
17. Moonraker (1979)
18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
19. The World is Not Enough (1999)
20. Thunderball (1966)
21. Octopussy (1983)
22. Licence to Kill (1989)
23. Die Another Day (2002)
24. A View to a Kill (1985)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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