Monday, February 29, 2016

Film Review: Spectre

There's a pattern I've noticed with the James Bond series.  For any given set of entries starring a particular actor, the fourth entry is the one where things go bad.  For Pierce Brosnan, it was Die Another Day, which sucked.  For Roger Moore, it was Moonraker, which sucked.  For Sean Connery, it was Thunderball, which... didn't exactly suck, but still wasn't as good as the last movies.  And now we come to the fourth Bond film to star Daniel Craig.  Will it manage to break the "fourth-film curse" or not?  Find out in an encore presentation of the 007 Golden Jubilee!
Spectre
  • Publisher: MGM / Columbia
  • Studio: Danjaq / EON Productions
  • Genre: Action
  • Release: 26 October 2015 (UK), 6 November 2015 (US)
  • Director: Sam Mendes
  • Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
  • Writers: John Logan, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth

The Girls: The primary Bond Girl is Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a psychologist and the daughter of Mr. White from Casino Royale and Quantum of SolaceFor most of her role, she keeps complaining about the way Bond protects her from the bad guys, so her chemistry with Bond starts out rockier, and she doesn't exactly leave the best first impression.  I will say that unlike most of his flings these days, Bond does seem to earn his night of sex with her, coming after they fight off Mr. Hinx.  Rides off into the sunset... er, cloudy London morning with Bond.  3 out of 5.

Earlier on, Bond has a fling with Lucia Sciarra (Monica Belucci), the widow of a Spectre assassin.  Being 50 years old during filming, signora Belucci is the oldest actress to play a Bond Girl.  This decision caused some controversy among netizens, to which Craig (himself 47 years old) said, he's just dating women his own age.  Well said.  Still, wrinkles aside, Lucia Sciarra is basically an older version of Severine from the last movie.  She's basically there for Bond to protect, get information from, screw, and forget about.  And feminism marches on!  ...Without them.  Left under CIA protection.  3 out of 5.

The Villain: Franz Oberhauser, a.k.a. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the leader of Spectre.  He has a backstory with Bond: after Bond's parents died in a mountain-climbing accident, Franz and his father adopted him, only to allegedly die later on.  I could probably best describe his portrayal as a cross between Donald Pleasance as Blofeld (from You Only Live Twice) and Javier Bardem as Silva (from Skyfall).  In other words, he goes for the subdued menace of the former but cannot quite achieve it, ending up a bit quirky and too casual, which stands out especially considering the work he's done with Quentin Tarantino.  Herr Waltz seems like he would be more at home portraying someone like Steve Jobs (although to be fair, you could say Apple is basically a real-world evil organisation anyway, lol)  Arrested by M. 4 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), a hitman working for Spectre.  Just as Silva from Skyfall proved to be the first iconic villain of the post-reboot era, Mr. Hinx could very well be its first iconic henchman character.  In many ways, Hinx is reminiscent of Oddjob from Goldfinger.  They both have similar physiques, hardly ever speak, can hold their own against Bond, and even their actors are both Asian-ethnic Americans with backgrounds in pro wrestling.  Although, his introductory scene, where he kills a fellow Spectre member by jamming his thumbs in the guy's eyes, is a little hard to watch.  Thrown off a train by Bond.  5 out of 5.

Max Denbigh, a.k.a. C (Andrew Scott), the head of the private Joint Intelligence ServiceAs it turns out, he is in fact working for Spectre, who intends to use the countries' intelligence against them.  C, as he is nicknamed by Bond, is just a touch snarky and not exactly apologetic about stealing M's job.  I could imagine him working out as 007's new boss, if not for the fact that he already got a new one in the last movie.  And besides, Ralph Fiennes's M is just badass.  Accidentally falls to his death in a fight with M.  4 out of 5.

The Gadgets: Q (Ben Whishaw) introduces to 007 the Aston Martin DB10, which exists only a concept car in the real world, and here comes equipped with guns, a flamethrower, and an ejection seat... only to give it to agent 009 instead and leave Bond with a watch.  To be fair, the watch has a time bomb inside.  That doesn't stop Bond from stealing the car anyway and using it in a chase with Hinx's Jaguar C-X75, another prototype car you will never be able to buy.

The Locations: Mexico City, Rome, Austria, Morocco, and London.  The Mexico City scene was filmed during the Day of the Dead festival, as the opening one-take shot brilliantly shows off.

The Theme Song: "Writing's On the Wall" by Sam Smith.  Sam Smith has always struck me as being a technically talented vocalist, who wastes his range on the most boring songs, and "Writing's On the Wall" is the most egregious example of this paradigm.  In fact, this very song won my wildcard slot for Most Boring Song at this year's SDP Music Awards, if you recall.  The song itself is about standing up to impending doom, but coming from Sam Smith, I don't feel it.  He sounds too weak-willed, especially when you compare it to stuff like Tom Jones in "Thunderball", and even Adele's theme from Skyfall.  I don't want to be too hard on this song, because it is melodically beautiful and has a few good themes in the lyrics.  But I don't know, it's just not something I'd want to listen to outside of this movie.  2 out of 5.

The alternative-rock band Radiohead also submitted their own title song, simply named "Spectre".  Obviously it was passed over, for some reason, but the band released it themselves online, at https://soundcloud.com/radiohead/spectre.  It has the same kind of orchestral ambience of the Sam Smith song, but with an actual drum track... which I'm honestly not a fan of.  Its irregular pattern tends to throw me off.  And honestly, it's not too much of an improvement on the not-boring front, even if it does build up to something musically.  I for one won't lose sleep over its exclusion in the film, but I guess you have to be a fan of the band in order to appreciate it fully.

The Opening Credits: Features ink and octopus motifs.  The octopus has long been a symbol of the Spectre group, with the animal's tentacles symbolising the insidious reach their activities have all over the world -- AND NOTHING ELSE.  There also flashbacks to characters from earlier in the Daniel Craig series (like what they did for On Her Majesty's Secret Service), re-creations of locations seen later in the film, and some shirtless shots of Bond in between all the silhouette girls, presumably in the interest of equal-opportunity fanservice4 out of 5.

The Source Material: The SPECTRE organization has largely been avoided in the official James Bond film canon, due to its ownership dispute between Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory.  But you already knew that.  Well, it turns out that in 2013, MGM, Danjaq, and the McClory estate finally settled the issue, returning the film rights of the Spectre name to MGM.  However, I've noticed that in this movie, no one refers to Spectre by its old acronym (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), so either that wasn't accounted for in their deal, or they just nixed it for the retcon.

The Plot: Our story starts in Mexico City, where James Bond foils a terrorist attack during the Day of the Dead festival, and steals a ring belonging to one of the perpetrators.  Cue opening credits.  Back in London, the new M is displeased over the collateral damage from that operation, and has 007 suspended.  But what he doesn't know is that Bond was following instructions from his predecessor (the one played by Judi Dench), who sent him on the trail of a secretive criminal organisation.  Bond uses the ring he found, along with the widow of one of the attackers, to infiltrate a meeting of this organisation, named Spectre.  Meanwhile, M and the 00 section are being dogged by a man unofficially code-named C, who is the head of a new private intelligence company.  In addition to shutting down M's department, C also campaigns for the formation of "Nine Eyes", an intelligence-sharing network of member nations, including Britain.

Meanwhile (again), based on intel taken from the Spectre meeting, Bond heads to the Austrian alps to meet Mr. White, who left his Quantum organisation (but not before being mortally poisoned).  He tells Bond to find and protect his daughter, Madeline Swann, before committing suicide.  From there, Bond travels to the clinic where Swann works, and rescues her from Hinx and his Spectre goons.  Q also tags along, using the ring from before to discover that the villains from the last three films were, in fact, being controlled by Spectre.  From there (again), the two head to a hotel in Tangier, Morocco, where Mr. White hid a secret room with information on a secret Spectre base in the desert.  They get there by train, fighting off Hinx along the way.

At the desert base, Bond and Swann are greeted by the leader of Spectre, now named Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Blofeld announces to Bond that he was the mastermind behind the events in the previous movies.  He captures and attempts to torture Bond, but Bond escapes and torches the place.  Back in London, Bond returns to join forces with M and their other ex-MI6 friends, in order to stop the Nine Eyes program from going online.  M and Q succeed in doing so, with C accidentally dying, to boot.  Meanwhile, Bond and Swann are captured and taken to the old MI6 building (the one from Goldeneye on), which is about to be demolished.  Bond rescues Swann, escapes the building in time, and shoots down Blofeld's helicopter.  As Blofeld crawls out of the wreckage, he is arrested by M, leaving Bond to ride off with Swann.

The one word I would use to describe Spectre is "redundant".  It tackles a bunch of themes already addressed by previous movies.  Most notably, there's the question of whether or not the 00 agents are necessary in today's intelligence climate, which was already answered by the very last movie before this.  Although, the NSA leaks from 2013 arguably make this discussion more relevant this time around.  Apart from all that, there are many plot points from, and other references the rest of the series, almost to the degree of Die Another Day.  And Spectre doesn't even have the excuse of being a milestone celebration!  I mean, who commemorates a 53rd anniversary as a special occasion?  And it's not just within the Bond franchise -- at a basic level, the plot is virtually identical to that of the recent Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.  It even has scenes in Austria, Morocco, and London, to boot!  Intentional or not, it sure was savvy of Paramount to move their movie's release up to the summer, instead of trying to compete with Spectre in November.

Also, I can't help noticing how many funny moments there are in this movie.  The highlight of humour has to be the early car chase between Bond and Hinx, where the former tries and fails to use his car's gadgets, and later on gets blocked by an old man in a Fiat.  They stand out because of the more serious portrayal of James Bond during Daniel Craig's tenure, and this very movie is no exception.  Arguably, this just makes the humour funnier, as the jokes' juxtaposition against the rest of the movie's hard-edged tone offers effective contrast.  I don't know about you, but I'd take that over a hundred Roger Moore one-liners.  Quality over quantity, people.

Speaking as a longtime James Bond fan, Spectre left me more confused than anything.  The film attempts to retcon into existence a backstory which links all of the Daniel Craig entries together, when they worked well enough without it.  (Although I will say, the involvement of the Spectre group would make Silva's escape and assassination plot from Skyfall quite a bit more plausible.)  Writers, just because you can use the Spectre name to replace whatever you were building beforehand doesn't mean you should!  But all the same, it doesn't exactly bring those other movies down; it just gives the impression that the writers were making up stuff as they went along.  So, is Spectre still a worthwhile film?  Yes, actually.  The action setpieces are brilliant, the big reveal is built up well, and its musings on the role of intelligence in today's world are still relevant.  So yeah, the fourth-film curse probably does apply here: it may be the worst Daniel Craig film, but by no means is it truly bad.

The Call: 75% (B-)

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