SPECTRE [Spy vs. Spy Review]: Fourth Time’s the Charm (?)

“El Sacerdote” J.L. Caraballo Twitter @captzaff007
“El Sacerdote” J.L. Caraballo Twitter @captzaff007

SPECTRE is the latest James Bond film, the fourth featuring leading man Daniel Craig, and while it opens with a great opening scene, it is undercut by several curious character decisions, and an editing process that oddly drains its multitude of action scenes of any energy…

The film starts promisingly enough, with Bond off on his own to Mexico City, where he has tracked down Marco Sciarra (Alessandra Cremona), a man with ties to a mysterious, global criminal organization. This scene — much as in the opening to 2012’s Skyfall — is technically impressive, and one of the strongest Bond pre-title sequences since GoldenEye‘s bungee jump 20-years ago (damn…has it really been that long?).

The action starts with a single uninterrupted tracking shot that swoops in down over a Day Of The Dead parade, focusing in on Bond, and following him and a leading lady into a hotel, into an elevator, into a room, and out into a balcony. It’s beautiful stuff, and the first shot of its kind in the Bond franchise. This is the sort of stylistic indulgence the franchise should showcase more often, and here it works beautifully. Chaos ensues after Bond blows up a building wherein his quarry is staying, and then the action leads to a fistfight in an out-of-control helicopter.

Sure beats Uber Pool.
Sure beats Uber Pool.

It is really, REALLY difficult to perform a barrel-roll in a helicopter, so much so that there is only one pilot certified to do so (imagine who plays the pilot in this film?). The chopper does three barrel rolls, and only on the third one is it shot in such a way that we see the stunt in full. And it’s sad, because it’s an amazing stunt.

Ultimately, editor Lee Smith undercuts most of the action in this film by seemingly not knowing how to cut action. The dialogue scenes drag a bit as well (Cristoph Waltz‘s introductory scene could’ve been shortened by about three minutes), and the night-time Roman car chase, featuring the gorgeous, gadget-ridden, made-to-order Aston Martin DB10, suffers from a lack of spatial relation between Bond’s car and that of Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, the single great part of this film), and also by a cutting style that doesn’t emphasize speed (throwing in a few dodging pedestrians or vehicles would have helped escalate the stakes as well. Seriously…the streets of Rome are NEVER that empty).

The editing also creates a few weird gaps that I couldn’t help but notice: in an Alpine resort, Bond takes the ski-lift up, but finds a plane to get down during a chase? In the excellent fight between Hinx and Bond on the Morocco train, Bond and Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) are sitting in a restaurant car with at least two other couples and a waiter, all of whom we see clearly…once the fight starts, there is no one else in the train, even though they go through three cars, and several rooms (also Hinx just appears on the train. There’s no indication as to how he figured out their location).

"Get to the Choppa" he said...
“Get to the Choppa” he said…

There is a mountainside chase between Bond in the aforementioned plane-that-just appeared, with the plane losing its wings, most of its fuselage, and tail section, careening through a barn, into a land rover and then…Bond runs out, shoots a guy, and the scene just peters out. There’s no climax. It’s a weird de-escalation of energy, one that undoes all the action building that Sam Mendes (American Beauty) proved he definitely can do well. It seems as if the script and editing just didn’t know how to get back in lock-step with what the story was trying to do, and the theme and pace weren’t up to the task of moving quickly enough for us not to notice (something at which Skyfall excelled. There are many, many plot holes, but since the story and theme are so engaging, we don’t notice until well after the fact).

***Spoilers from here on out…because these points are why the movie doesn’t work for me*** And the story…look. I’m not gonna hide the fact that Waltz plays Blofeld. I don’t mind admitting that, because once he does reveal his identity, none of the characters reacts any differently.The name means nothing to any of the characters, and he is playing a character who hasn’t been seen since 1983. The audience couldn’t have been less interested, and since the universe is rebooted, none of the characters care either. He could have said his name was Jean-Baptist Basquiat for all the good it did.

His character’s true name and intention doesn’t matter in the long run because it doesn’t matter to Bond; he’d never heard of Blofeld before this movie, and no one had heard of Spectre either (I suppose it’s no longer an acronym). And that’s one of the elements of the script — which is tonally all over the place — that seemed the most jarring and unnecessary, and one which speaks to a large part of where our popular culture has been heading for the past few years.

The real Professor Zoom.
The real Professor Zoom.

SPECTRE is rife with callbacks, a lot of which are unearned and serve to distract from the story, which suffers most in the laborious third act. Blofeld performs a complicated, elaborate–if effective–torture, just two movies after Le Chiffre blew the lid off the concept of elaborate tortures. He monologues for long stretches (often while reciting, verbatim, passages of dialogue from the Bond novel Colonel Sun), years after The Incredibles, of all movies, satirized that very concept.

Also, the modern trend of “everything is connected!” is so…boring and blase and tired. It’s all world building and universe-setup, and hitting the very tropes and cliches that it had spent three movies subverting and distancing itself from, and, damn…somehow in all the franchise building — for a franchise that spans half a century — they forgot to tell a simple story. How and why did Judi Dench’s late M find out about Sciarra, and why did she leave it specifically for Bond, who spent most of two out of three films as a rogue agent?

Monica Bellucci‘s Lucia Sciarra gets seduced by Bond mere hours after the funeral of her husband…who Bond just admitted to murdering (although it is refreshing that both Bond ladies make it out of this film in one piece)? And she’s seduced with all the subtlety and tact of all of the women Roger Moore seduced in Moonraker alone. It all feels lazy. The title feels lazy. SPECTRE: I can only imagine what roles two actors known primarily for playing villains (Waltz and Andrew Scott) in a James Bond movie called SPECTRE could be!

"Now, just imagine me 30-years younger."
“Now, just imagine me 30-years younger.”
  • The score is lazy. Thomas Newman returns, and I immediately recognized three musical cues that were reused verbatim from Skyfall, and two cues from Casino Royale…which he didn’t even score.
  • Half of the action is lazy (i.e. the aforementioned car chase. And, at the first of two climaxes, the villain’s base completely explodes….somehow?).
  • Sam Smith‘s theme is an a-melodious snore on par with Sheryl Crow’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” (although, to be fair…how can anymore immediately follow up Adele’s instant classic without falling short?)
  • The script is beyond lazy (callbacks, Easter eggs, and constant references are NOT clever if they’re included without context. This is a Bond movie, not Ready Player One, nor Terminator Genisys. You need to have a story first before you can make references.)
  • Hell, even Daniel Kleinmann‘s typically beautiful, thematic title sequences feel lazy (his octopus motif would play better if the reasoning behind why Spectre uses an octopus symbol were ever explained).
  • It’s almost as if once Kevin McClory passed and Eon got the rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld back, they just crammed those elements into the next story. And it doesn’t really work. This is close to being the Star Trek Into Darkness of the Bond franchise in regards to unearned references it makes (a comparison to which I’d previously made with Die Another Day)…and I HATE Star Trek Into Darkness. With a passion.
The life aquatic.
With a high of negative 12-degrees.

The James Bond series is one that has been through the ebb and flow of quality. I was expecting, after the beautiful, thematic, classic highs of Skyfall, for the follow-up to not quite be up to par. But whereas the classic Casino Royale was followed up with the lean, if misguided Quantum Of Solace, at least that film set out to tell a complete story; the editing and choreography might have seizure-inducing, but it at least concluded a tale and tried something new for the series. And at least that film clocked in at just over 100-minutes.

And where Skyfall indulged itself with its run time, it had thematic weight and beautiful cinematography. Hoyte van Hoytema (whose work in Interstellar and Her were impressive) does a serviceable job using Sony’s gorgeous new 70mm Primo lenses; although, again, the opening scene is a gorgeous, colorful bit of beautiful indulgence and the best single sequence of the entire film, and better than most of the action in Quantum of Solace, and it was clear that Mendes had something to say about Bond. The plot strands that began in Casino Royale were seemingly tidied up by the end of Skyfall, with the the stage set for moving on to a new storyline. But SPECTRE undid all that, throwing us back into plot points we’d already gotten over — while awkwardly doing its best to ignore most of Quantum of Solace — and once again forcing a rogue Bond to question his place in the world.

Sure beats microwaveable Jimmy Dean.
Sure beats microwaved Jimmy Dean.

Why does the world need James Bond? GoldenEye asked this question. Casino Royale asked it. And Skyfall once again asked (and confidently answered) the question. Thematic elements are a rarity in the Bond ouevre — as well they should be, as every Bond film that managed to find a theme in which to tap has been a classic.

In SPECTRE there is no theme, only the illusion of one. And just because a callback is made to a prior film, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is smart. While it is refreshing to see Craig finally relax and have fun with the role (fun! Who knew that could be such a refreshing idea!), it is a shame that the story (which is credited to FOUR writers. Four.) is all over the place and has no idea on what to focus. And while it is refreshing to see Seydoux in another spy action film… her character has no reason to stick with Bond. At all. Their relationship is one built entirely by the needs of the franchise…not even to the story.

And this is the sticking point. This is the franchise hitting all the familiar notes, but not knowing why they work, despite spending two whole films deconstructing the tropes to show us why they did in the first place.

I'm cold.. I mean COOL.. yeah, that's the term. (Brr)
I’m cold.. I mean COOL.. yeah, that’s the term. (Brr)
  • Gadget car? Check!…but let’s undercut the action to show the cars more clearly; and let’s let the villain allow Bond to keep his gadget watch.
  • Mountainous henchman? Check!…but let’s get rid of him (the most interesting character) in the second act in a pretty tepid way.
  • One-of-a-kind action and stunts? Check!…but let’s not show the spatial relations between characters and vehicles, nor edit the action coherently, nor effectively end action scenes; let’s just make vehicles appear out of nowhere and scenes just kind of end.
  • Mysterious, classic villain?! Check!…but let’s make him vaguely related to Bond for absolutely no reason, and not explain anything substantial about him, his organization, his motives, nor his ultimate goals.

This is the Bond series having its cake and eating it too after spending three films getting the ingredients together. And that’s fine! I love Bond with a passion, and this series is the sole reason I’d wanted to make movies. And even the worst Bond film (Die Another Day/Moonraker) has at least one great thing about it (the glacier chase/the opening mid-air fight), and these remain the quintessential event films: these are Bond movies. They come out only once every two years, and are worth watching in theaters. SPECTRE is no different, and it is definitely worth watching in theaters. Just keep in mind, this is Craig’s Diamonds Are Forever. And that’s fine. Because James Bond will return.

And he’ll be back better than before.

3 (out of 5) Sugar Skull Masks.
3 (out of 5) Sugar Skull Masks.

 

 

 

 

 

 




S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

(Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion)

or

SPECTRURDE

(Seemingly Pointless and Empty Cinematic Title Ultimately Resisting Definitive Exegesis)

Internal Briefing, Office of “M,” MI6 Intelligence, Re: S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

Jason "Bad Preacher" Bud
Jason “Bad Preacher” Bud

First inscribed into literary panache-hood in 1953, Ian Fleming’s licensed-to-kill cocksman, James Herbert Bond, has been with us for over 62-years now… Hebert?! You fucking kidding me??!! Yeah…Fucking HERBERT!!! If one is to play true detective here, they will find that Sir Ian’s alter-ego has been portrayed by a total of 14 different actors across the media spectreum of television, radio, and film. Perhaps surprisingly, the first bloke to ever play this most prestigious of philandering playboys and killer spies, was an American, by the name of, Barry Nelson – who first portrayed 007, in a 1954 adaptation of, Casino Royale; initially televised on the American anthology series, Climax, on CBS.

Following, is a literary review, initiated for intra-departmental dissemination, regarding the MI6 Cinematic Experience Operation, known chronologically as, James Bond 24:

The James Blondian Era of Daniel Craig, has been professionally quartermastered with allusions to legends and lore of a Colder War, and this 21st Century Spectre of Sam Mendesian persuasion, remains rife-to-form with Double-O-entendre; encapsulated within its very namesake – and all the way through, to the very ink of its cephalopodic core…

“The Dead Are Alive…”

As Spectre opens, Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) gives us a spectral lens imbued with amber hued-precision, and he delivers this optic radiance throughout James Bond 24; beginning with an ingeniously extensive tracking shot that surgically lances our eyelids off, upon a devilishly delicious Dia De Muertos extravaganza that appears to be inhabited by all of Mexico City’s mortals. This opener is one of the Bond franchise’s best ever; and I swear to you, the jealous ghost of Orson Welles can be seen wrapped up in his fat skeleton suit admiring it from within, if you look hard enough into the crowd! The eye candy comingles heavier here, than a cornacopia of candy corn macraméd into a collective bikini capable of encapsulating every Bond Girl of All Time.

After Danny Bond absconds from the Muertos crowd, with a stunning Mexicana ingénue to more suitable romantic digs, he immediately sheds his deadhead costume with Supermanian immediacy; and he uncharacteristically leaves his lady behind without nary a press of the flesh. Traversing rooftops askew in feline-fashion, we track Bond on his way to his intended mark – an assassino Italiano, monikered as Marco Sciarra (Alessandra Cremona), who brandishes an octopus-insignia ring. What can happen, when assassins track assassins? Things don’t always go as smoothly as a .338 Lapua Magnum round, down a greased sniper barrel… And this is the point where Spectre first falters into the realm of bone-brittle dust.

This game is taking longer than reading both of these reviews.
This match is taking longer than reading both of these reviews.

Let me tell you however, without revealing every detailed iota that, this initial action sequence begins with cardiac-thumping testosterone – only to have it almost immediately emptied out, like a cadaver’s jackknifed thoracic cavity. Sauntering over in broad daylight, to snipe a baddie, with a visibly bright and blue laser sight, when only tens of yards away from him, when said baddie has a superior view of your cover and surroundings??? How fucking amateurish-bush-league-imbecilic can a Bond man be??? I couldn’t contain my own outer madman’s cackle at such ridiculous dumbfuckery; and interestingly, I was the only one in the theatre who seemed to elicit true villainous laughter at such a stupendous plot blunder as this. The impending Crackle-Boom-Blam-Blum-Thud that was released after a volley of gunfire that culled in body count and enigmatic explosion/demolition, was actually of consequential surprise; and the sensory overload that followed Bond’s oh-so-fucking-stupid moment, still enticingly enthralled.

Dusting himself off amidst the detritus of his own creation, without even need for his tailor to mend him into his form-fitted suit again, Blond sees almost immediately that his aim was not true; and he spies a bloodied Sciarra running the rubble, towards Zocalo Square. A frenetic footrace ensues, as we witness hero and foe, haul ass through an elegant coterie of skeleton costume-clad revelers. Buzzing the Mexico City skyline like a black propellered bat, is the helicopter that will spirit Sciarra away… The pistolwhip-and-fisticuffs sequence that ensues aboard this aircraft between Bond, Sciarra, and the lone pilot, is thrilling in its nipple-hardening nihilism; and had Editor Lee Smith really understood the dynamics of what the fuck to do with such an unheralded fight scene as this, I would have undoubtedly struck forth furious lactation from my own lascivious manboobs! But alas, I was disappointed, without so much as even a single drop to glisten from yours moobly… James Bond helicopter-barrel-rolled with the bad guys on the Day of the Dead, and all he got was this fucking octopus ring…

That girl behind me a little too happy for someone making $72/8.
That girl behind me a little too happy for someone making $72/8.

Credit Sequence Tentaclizes

Target: acquired, through unknown assassin’s gun barrel. Sight: fixed, upon Anglican and martini-infused swagger, stacked within Tom Fordian tuxedo. English Steve McQueen’s already dropped his Walther hammer, right down our assassin-vision pipe, and we bleed out into the 24th Bond Song. No apologies here: Sam Smith’s vocal stylings simply lack octaval bravado, and he sheepishly whimpers the lyrics to, “Writing’s On the Wall,” behind one of the most insatiably compelling opening 007 credit sequences of all time. The way in which Daniel Kleinmann effortlessly fuses the glitter and glow of precious metals with the shades and ghosts of Bondian Past, in such luxuriant ink-fueled ethereality is undeniably squididinous.

Spectreurnal Admissions

Although Spectre boasts the biggest budget for a Bond film of all time, at a Quarter of a Billion Dollars ($250,000,000.00!!!), the screenplay delivered by, John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth, does nothing more than deliver unto us the old-fashioned 007 Formula flavor, that we’ve all puckered up for time and again; and if you were to interrogate me into brutal honesty, I would have to admit to you, that this imbues the film with its fundamental weakness (other than the fact that all of the allusions to the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of old are to all of the older Bond films, and none of them are directly related to the Craig Bond Age we live in now): We’ve seen this story all before, and it’s spyline progression is too telegraphed and too predictable.

As mentioned, we are given a delectable hors d’oeuvres in the opening credit sequence, and despite the lack of culinary spice inherent within the vocal palate range of theme song, we find ourselves induced into a state of saliva-laden revelry. The initial course offering of Dia De Muertos a la Zocalo Square, further incites the appetite with impeccable flavor (especially during a helicopter fight sequence, heavily shaken and stirred into oblivion); and the hypnotic realms of other, faraway lands (Rome, Austria, Morocco) keep the visual liquids coursing our veins.

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Spectre’s cast of characters, do Her Majesty’s duty, with plenty of scenery chewing parlayed between them all. Daniel Craig returns with steely-eyed gaze and visceral delivery, that throttles full chokehold on all who would get in his way; even the musclebound avalanche known as Mr. Hinx, convincingly embodied by the leviathanly-muscled 6’-6” frame of former dubya-dubya-E heavyweight champ, “Batista”. Elegantly inverting the score from Bond Girl to Bold Woman, is the ever-stunning Monica Bellucci as Lucia Sciarra; and although it is exquisitely thrilling to see 007 embrace a lover who is actually older than himself, it is disappointing to see that such a scintillating icon of Italian cinema isn’t given the opportunity to engage her irresistible femme fatale upon the Bondsman.

Léa Seydoux is confident and comely in her portrayal of Dr. Madeleine Swann (the character’s name, a reference to the work of Marcel Proust), despite her sudden willingness to give into James’ wiles, which seems to contradict her independent nature. Christoph Waltz’s largely-absent Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavros Blofeld (oh fuck! spoiler!! like you didn’t fucking already know!!!), gives us a Spectre Head that goes full-gamut, when it comes to bringing villainous reprisal; yet his brief moments on screen will leave you wanting more and more of his rhythmically-delivered and enigmatic mischief. Perhaps, that may just happen in James Bond 25, but you’ll have to inspectre this Spectre first, to find out if that may even be of the remotest possibility…

I'm going to "cuddle nights".
I’m going to “cuddle nights”.

Epilogue

In an age where television no longer jumps the proverbial shark, and it slays it cartilage-clean with subversive precision (see Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones, The Knick, Peaky Blinders, The Walking Dead, et. al.), the time is long nigh for film to engage in the same; and up the ante regarding genre pictures, and all other varieties of storytelling besides. In the 21st Century, the old world of Bond is not enough, when we are continually given the same formula that died long before the Wall crumbled, and the Soviets bailed the scene..

The Bondian Film Canon now charts a global wayfaring course of 53 years, 24 films, 15 directors, and 6 different actors. Many will doubtlessly claim, who the quintessential Bond is (and it is the Scotsman, of course), yet despite the clichéd machinations regarding the super-spy film genre as a whole — within which we’ve seen plenty of agents gun and go — there remains no one who does it better, than 007.

By the way, I just heard from some of my mates at Sony Studios, that they’re planning to tap Darrell Hammond, to play a time-warp-Sean-Connery-Bond-doppleganger, who portrays the conscience of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, in James Bond 25. The working title of the film is rumored to be: Prolapse of Rectum, and Norm McDonald is already in negotiations to play NEW Bondian arch-nemesis, Turd Ferguson. Kentucky Fried Chicken is being tapped as a potential sponsor for the film, but there’s no word yet on whether or not Sony Studios will be able to secure rights to feature Colonel Sanders as Turd Ferguson’s henchman…

4 (out of 5) Ersatz Starving Blowfish.
4 (out of 5) Ersatz Starving Blowfish.

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