Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Spectre: A re-review


Last year, I wrote a pretty long, mixed review on Bond 24. Before it leaves theatres, I watched it again to see if, with some distance, I could clarify how I felt about it. Plus it might be Daniel Craig's last hurrah and it would be nice to see him on the big screen one last time (although based on this movie, I really hope it is not).

Here are my viewing notes, in vaguely chronological order:
  • Daniel Craig has had 4 different gun barrels (more than any other actor), and this is his first traditional one. I didn't really pay attention the first time, but this time I really liked it. He doesn't telegraph the turn as much as Dalton, and he moves incredibly fast. The gunshot is nice and loud as well. Very satisfying. Perhaps not as impactful as Casino Royale's, but very strong nevertheless (my favourite remains Brosnan's -- just perfectly pitched) 
  • First overall note: The editing for the entire movie feels slack. I mentioned it in my previous review, but it just feels like Mendes lingers on too many shots. I felt it the most in the snow chase scene, but there are a few moments during the opening when Bond is chasing Sciarra through the crowd that felt like they needed to be tightened up.
  • The helicopter fight I like conceptually, but it feels oddly drawn out and lacks stakes. I never really felt any sense of peril, and the way the fight concludes lacked... something. I always like it when the pre-credit sequence ends on a money shot, but here it just kind of goes on too long and then randomly segues into the main titles.
  • Hate to admit it, but the song is growing on me. The title sequence itself bothers me, and not for the tentacle porn. It just feels on the nose and haphazardly put together. Daniel Kleinman's sequences for Craig's previous films were tight little mini-movies with a simple structure which tied into the key ideas/images of the movie, but this one just feels like a jumble. Bonus points for the shirtless Craig (got to give the people what they want); minus points for the callbacks to the previous movies -- now I am just going to spend MORE time comparing this movie to the last ones.
  • The character of Denbigh is... dumb. I don't know if it is just a matter of casting or scripting (seems a bit of both), but it is too obvious that he is the bad guy. It does not help that he is the 'new guy on campus', and that everyone seems to hate him from the off. I don't know what they are trying to do here. Do they want his motivations to be a twist? I heard that in early versions of the script, it was Max who was the main bad guy and Blofeld was just a red herring, but they decided to go the other way and keep Blofeld as Number 1. Either way, it doesn't work. Having two villains really undermines the impact of both.  The double villain thing did not really work in The Living Daylights and it does not work here.
  • This will come up later when I talk about Madeline Swann, but this whole subplot with M and Max feels unnecessary. It does not help that Captain America 2 already did this kind of thing. I also have an issue with how M is acting as a conscience for why this mass surveillance is bad -- I need more justification as to why someone in his position would be against it. It just seems vaguely hypocritical considering the lengths they are willing to go to in other respects.
  • With M as this strangely humanist figure, it also blunts what they are trying to do with the ending. When Bond makes his choice not to kill Blofeld, having Ralph Fiennes there to stand in for the inhumanity of his job does not really resonate after M's talk of a licence to kill also being a 'licence not to kill'. He seems like a fairly understanding chap. Bond's choice would have had more power if it was Judi Dench's M standing on the bridge -- he has a history with her, and her cold approach to him and the job would have made his choice to leave more emotionally cathartic. I don't know, that's just what I thought.
  • The stuff with Q is great. No complaints. I did not miss him from Craig's earlier movies, but they've made him a significant character. And Ben Wishaw is fantastic. Love the 'one piece' joke.
  • A word about the title cards -- don't like 'em. The font is weird and with the white colour it just feels slapped on. I miss the titles from Quantum of Solace -- the way they would emerge out of the establishing shots was really cool and evocative. There are not a lot of things I like about that movie, but the titles were one thing I do miss.
  • The Spectre meeting is cool. The way Bond gets in did feel silly though. He just needs to show a ring and he's in. Really? What's worse is that after he's let in, the bald henchman then signals to his mate to do an ID check. As I said, dumb.
  • A thing about the Spectre meeting that felt weird -- I get what they're trying to do by building up Blofeld's mystique, but the way he's whispering to subordinates was so unnecessary. The things he was telling them were not that important -- just use  the mike right in front of you.
  • Bond recognising Blofeld is a mistake -- we have no idea who the character is, Bond spends the whole movie keeping the information to himself and then we learn it too late to give a crap. 
  • The car chase is fun, but once again, there is a lack of urgency. Possibly this has to do with the almost complete lack of traffic and pedestrians -- it made the chase feel really old fashioned, and not particularly Craig Bond. Still, love the fact that half the gadgets don't work, and the irate driver in the Fiat.
  • Hinx gets a great intro, and his fight on the train is the film's action highlight, but other than that, there's not a lot to talk about with him. Having the character not speak feels awkward and forced -- especially in the moment when Madeline stabs his cohort with the needle and Hinx just points his gun at her. So weird. He does not have to be a mute. Just make him short and to the point. Plenty of other henchmen manage that, and they're still intimidating. That's the thing with Hinx -- he feels too much like a  homage to those characters rather than one himself. Plus, if you are going to go back to the well for a henchman archetype, do we have to keep going to the Oddjob/Jaws school of mute behemoths? Surely they could be a little more daring and original -- if you're going to pull from the rogue's gallery, take a look at some of the lesser known bad 'uns like Red Grant, or Wint and Kidd, or my personal favourite, Necros from The Living Daylights
  • REALLY like the final showdown with Mr. White. He was such a slimy scuzzball in the previous movies, it was nice to see him again. I thought it was pretty clever that they decided to tie him to Madeline -- it makes sense that the only woman who could get through to a post-Vesper Bond would be someone familiar with the life he leads. This basically makes Mr. White feel like a symbol of what Bond could become after a full life of cold blooded murder. It also provides a nice irony that the man who ruined his life would be the one to provide the remedy. 
  • Let's move on to the good doctor. Have to say, I really liked Bond's relationship with Madeline this time. I liked it before, but it really felt short-changed. This time, I just sat back and enjoyed the moments that were there. Lea Seydoux is great. She has White's poker face and there were a few moments during her introductory scene where I felt like Seydoux was mimicking the way Jesper Christensen moved. She also shares Bond's quick thinking. The bit where she injects the henchman with the drug he was going to give her is badass. 
  • The effort to draw parallels between Vesper and Madeline became way more apparent this time around -- especially the dialogue on the train. It's kind of admirable, but needs more buildup. 
  • The plane chase still feels dull as ditchwater. Part of it is the editing, part of it is the constant cuts back to Q. It just pads the whole thing out. Plus I don't really get what Hinx is going to do with Madeline. Is he going to kill her? If so, when? If they re-structured it so that was his motive, maybe with Swann being chased by Hinx who is being tailed by Bond, then maybe the stakes would be raised.
  • The way Spectre is revealed feels wedged in. Still don't understand how the ring works. Just feels like a half-assed expository MacGuffin. Plus the way they decide to retcon everybody under one umbrella is so unnecessary. It would have been cooler if it was just something like 'Quantum fell apart after Bond's last mission, and Spectre arose from the ashes'. 
  • Speaking of which, the combination of Blofeld and a love story cannot help but remind me of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. They bottle it though -- since this is the first movie to include Bond's old enemy, it feels like they are trying to mash a traditional Spectre mission (e.g. Thunderball) with OHMSS. You get all the traditional Spectre elements (terrorist attacks, the meeting in Rome, the big base at the end), but they feel like another movie that does not really gel with the more intimate, personal story. Though they do a good job (initially) of underplaying them, Spectre is still almost too cartoonish to work in a context with Craig. 
  • While the echoes of Casino Royale were more obvious, the love story in Spectre does share some interesting similarities with OHMSS: In both, Bond gets in touch with an underworld figure for information about finding Blofeld; In both, the information exchange is contingent upon saving the life of the underworld figure's daughter; finally, both women are psychologically damaged but strong, slightly cold people who wind up saving Bond's life and gaining his affection in return. If Seydoux had got as much character development as Diana Rigg's Tracy Bond, then she would be up with the greats. 
  • The parallel action in London is really starting to derail the movie's focus. This is the part of the movie where I feel my attention span start to wander. There are too many layers to this story for any one plot line to breathe. I've found this is a big problem with the Bond series since Moonraker. Most movies since, even some of the good ones, feel needlessly complicated in their plotting, with innumerable double blinds and red herrings. It's like they are afraid to just have a simple plot with a singular objective. Don't try to be clever, just make a Bond movie. 
  • Still, love the hotel scenes. The relationship between our protagonists really grows on me here. I like the uneasy truce -- like a Bond version of It Happened One Night or The 39 Steps. So many good moments: the bit where Craig decides to stop ransacking the hotel room and just get drunk; the interrogation of the rat; Madeline cock blocking Bond when she's drunk. The last one is a bit of a hoary cliche at this point with Bond and 'strong' women now, but it worked here.
  • The Vesper tape was a great touch. Did not like it the first time (once again, stop reminding me of a better movie) but it really resonated this time. You can see that they are really trying to set up those parallels between Vesper and Madeline and they work, just not as well as they should (but we'll get to that).
  • The scene with the gun was a great foreshadowing of the ending, and a nice echo of Bond's first meeting with Vesper. In both cases, Bond gets his view of the woman opposite him destroyed, while gaining a new grudging respect for her. This should have been the start of their relationship not the meat. As is, these train scenes feel like the key points of a relationship that needs more time to build between each one. Too bad, as the scene is good. It just cannot take the weight of a love story all by itself. 
  • The fight with Hinx is great, although I would make a couple of changes to the end -- it would make more sense if Madeline saved Bond here. It would reinforce the echoes with Vesper and Tracy, and reinforce what a match she is for Bond. She kind of does, but it is Bond who gets the final drop on Hinx, which kind of dilutes her contribution. 
  • The cut to hot, steamy sex is a funny punchline, but it's the moment where the movie completely short-changes the central relationship. From this rushed tryst we are supposed to believe that these two people who've known each other for 5 minutes are suddenly head over heels for each other. I don't buy it. Plus it would have been far sweeter if, following on from my change to the train fight, Madeline had to nurse Bond's wounds. With Bond in a vulnerable place, it could have set up a situation where these two damaged people are drawn closer together -- not straight to sex necessarily, but mutual empathy at least. It's always more rewarding (and sexy) if Bond and the woman delay the roll in the hay. It feels more earned. 
  • Before the movie jumps off a cliff (and into a hollowed out volcano lair), I want to lay one major thing down that I felt watching the movie this time. The whole pre-credits and the buildup to the meeting with Mr. White feels really superfluous. It only feels like the important stuff starts to happen around the point that Bond finds White and gets on to Swann. From there until the train, it feels like early act 2 action. But then when we jump to Blofeld's lair and then Madeline tells Bond she loves him, it feels like we're missing 30-40 minutes of relationship building. For a movie that is over 2 and a half hours long, it feels so short changed in terms of dramatic meat. The relationship with Madeline needs to come in far earlier than it does, and there needs to be more of it -- the cutaways to London neuter what is supposed to be the heart of the movie.  If only they could have figured out a simpler mission ('find out who this Blofeld character is before he [blows something up]') and then have Bond and Swann go globetrotting around the world after him while their mutual distrust slowly builds into something deeper -- it would feel so much more satisfying.
  • Really could not give a shit about Christoph Waltz in this. Part of this has to do with how this character is scripted, but I have to admit that I was not a fan of his casting. When I think of Blofeld, I always go back to Telly Savalas. He was intelligent and charismatic, but he was also physically imposing and felt like the kind of guy who could be a leader of men and go toe-to-toe with 007 -- a genuine threat, both intellectually and physically. Meanwhile the other guys, Donald Pleasance and Charles Gray, just come off as minor irritants, not genuine threats. Sadly Waltz falls into the same camp. He just comes off as too weak, especially in his back-and-forth with Craig. As Bond's biggest enemy, he should be outplaying Bond at every turn, yet when Waltz tries to do a comeback he just comes off like a petulant child. In both verbal and physical confrontations, he comes off second-best and that status never changes. Bond's won before a shot has been fired.
  • The torture scene is so ridiculous and overdone. All I could think of as the science fiction doo hickey comes out and drills into Craig's face was Le Chiffre's line from Casino Royale: "I never understood all these elaborate tortures..."
  • Just read that the scene was adapted from the Kingsley Amis Bond novel Colonel Sun (he gets an acknowledgement in the credits). It's nice that they are starting to borrow from non-Fleming books, but they botch it here. In the original version of the scene Colonel Sun just uses basic dental tools to torture Bond (very Marathon Man). It's much creepier and intimate -- this magical torture device just feels silly, and not in a fun way. 
  • The bit with the watch is so cheap. There is no tension in the scene as is, and to have such an obvious out just makes it worse. Waltz's reaction to the watch is also completely insane. For such a smart guy, you would expect Blofeld to IMMEDIATELY jump away, but no -- just stare quizzically at the watch like a moron. Plus, that thing blew up under his feet. How he is still walking is beyond me.
  • The way Craig jogs away from the base while shooting bad guys gives me bad vibes -- as in 'Roger Moore too old for this shit' vibes. 
  • For a record breaker, the base explosion is hilariously underwhelming. 
  • While the 'home team' cut aways have been a pain, I do enjoy the way they work together at the end, and M's stand-off with Denbigh is fun. Actually, when Bond and M are in the car together it made me realise that the movie I wanted to see was a buddy movie in which M and Bond have to go on a mission together. Here's hoping, Bond 25!
  • The bit where Bond is kidnapped feels a tad contrived, but I can't think of any other way to get to MI6. This movie is long enough.
  • The photos on the wall are stupid -- besides, Blofeld has already had fun torturing Bond with his memories. This is just overkill. The 'Madeline is rigged to blow' is kind of silly, although I did get a little nervous as they tried to escape. Finally, some sense of danger in the climax!
  • The final action beat screams of last-minute re-writes. Having Bond use a pistol to shoot down a helicopter is stupid. I don't know what the range is like on a Walther PPK, but I'm pretty sure that they can't reach that far.
  • Bond's final choice -- nice idea, too bad the movie doesn't give enough of a shit to build up to it. All we have is the scene with the gun on the train and M's monologue about the 'licence not to kill', but I forgot all about it until I watched it this time. It made a little more sense, but still feels totally unearned. Craig and Seydoux deserve better.
  • At this point, I'm like 'what-evs'. Bond gets the '64 Aston Martin and drives away with Madeline. Hopefully she's into polyamory. Side note: I have never felt comfortable with Craig driving the DB5 -- it's Connery's ride, and everyone else just feels like an intruder.
And that's it. My exhaustive, half-baked ramblings of Bond 24 -- Part Deux.

Overall thoughts?

Pretty similar to before. I did enjoy the relationship stuff a lot more, and I picked out more of the foreshadowing to the ending, but all of that just made me feel disappointed in the film as a whole. It just felt like they built the bare bones of an emotional arc and then filled it out with the conventions of a traditional Bond movie. Hate to use cliches, but it just feels like they wanted their cake but also wanted to eat the rest of the bakery as well. Every time something interesting begins to build, some Bond trope or old bit comes in and totally undermines it. The action scenes are mostly lifeless, the Blofeld stuff is inert and the surveillance theme feels out of place. On the plus side, the jokes all work, the actors know what they are doing and the cinematography is spiffy (not Roger Deakins, but still good).

The movie it reminded me the most of this time was The World Is Not Enough. That's another movie where there are some interesting ideas and a potentially meaty emotional arc for Bond, but the movie is so anchored to hitting all of the formula beats that whatever was interesting or unique  about the movie gets smothered. Spectre is a far better movie than that example, but compared to Skyfall and Casino Royale, it feels tired and uninspired. Even Quantum of Solace, while not that good, at least felt like it was trying to do something new -- this movie just feels tied to the past. Homage is not a bad thing, but when that's all you have, what's the point?

I really hope Craig comes back. Every other actor's fourth movie has been (at best) underwhelming, so it's not like he's an outlier. The only actor to course correct after his fourth entry was Moore with For Your Eyes Only. It re-energised the franchise and gave it something to build off of after Moonraker. Craig is signed for another movie, and if he is in Bond 25, hopefully it can do what For Your Eyes Only did and end his run on a high (Though he  kept coming back, FYEO was meant to be Moore's last turn in the saddle).

If he does come back, it does make me wonder if they are going to follow through on the OHMSS parallels and kill off Madeline (spoilers for a 40 year old movie). I'll be honest, while I would like Seydoux back, I'm not keen on that. It would mean Craig back on another revenge mission and he's done so many of those at this point, it would just feel repetitive. As previously stated, I really hope she's into polyamory. 

Anyway, I'm going to shut up now. Remember to check in this Friday when the Ramble will return to the world of Russ Meyer with Lorna...

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