Thursday, July 21, 2016

Spectre: Unexpected, Unspectacular Bond.

Movie Review: Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes

Reviewed: Started 31 December 2015; Finished 21 July 2016.

jamesintexas rating--**

Regrettably, Spectre is minor Bond, a true let-down after the magnificence and electricity of Skyfall. Sam Mendes opens the film with a memorable long take in Mexico City, complete with skeleton masks, a Day of the Dead parade, and high-octane action with buildings crumbling and helicopters diving, but the film never sustains that initial burst of power. Daniel Craig is back as Bond in his fourth and probably last appearance (the ending seems like a good-bye, particularly), and despite his intense physicality and some gorgeous scenery, the film fails because of its structure and its decision to take the character to a place that feels inauthentic. The film's denouement violates the tenets of the character of James Bond, but that is Mendes's (and Craig's) right as artists to do so. I just think there is no way that Ian Fleming's James Bond does what he does in the last frames of this film.

Bond receives a message from beyond the grave in which M orders him to investigate a criminal which leads him to unexpected places. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) produce a  burned photograph from Bond's childhood, and an octopus ring leads to a shadowy underworld organization in Italy. A late-night street race through the old city is a highlight, as does a spooky meeting of the criminals that calls back the Connery films. A clinic in the Alps introduces the mysterious Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), and various fighting and sleuthing leads them to Tangiers and a train ride into the desert and into the desert lair of the enemy.

There, the ghost-like villain Hans Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) appears more than an hour into the film, and after announcing his plans for world domination that involve filming and listening in on all the major security systems of the world, the film marches predictably to its conclusion. Lea Seydoux's character as written does not suggest to me the seismic shift that she causes in Bond, and she shrinks, in my opinion, to the deep crater left in James Bond by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) of Casino Royale. Mendes attempts to have the four Craig films tie together into one overarching conspiracy culminating with Oberhauser, the self-proclaimed "architect of all [Bond's] pain."

Yet, declaring something is different than effectively building a world where the pieces fit and an overarching narrative does not just feel retrofitted. There are four writers, three people credited with story, and, of course, Ian Fleming, behind this project. I just sigh and wonder what it would be like for the James Bond character to get more of a vision instead of a decision by corporate committee. I think in my heart I was hoping for a darker film.

I am disappointed that Oberhauser's announcement of who he is and why he is fails to intrigue or satisfy. Mendes did such deft work in referencing the deaths of Bonds parents and the fall of M in the previous film that it was unexpected to see him stumble here with Oberhauser. Especially with an actor of Christoph Waltz's stature. Waltz brought such unforgettable malevolence to the role of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds; I wish that he were that level of character here instead of a strange bird, wearing shoes without socks. And Ralph Fiennes, a revelation in The Grand Budapest Hotel, seems to shrink here in the diminished role of M. Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw are fine here as Moneypenny and Q, and it is nice to see some of the work around the edges (a view into James Bond's sparse apartment).

The filmmakers made choices at the end that simply did not work for me. If I am ranking the four Daniel Craig films, I would put Casino Royale and Skyfall as tied for best, and this one above Quantum of Solace. I just do not know what this film was trying to do.

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