Spectre

Spectre movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: John Logan; Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Spectre, a proposition with so much weight and symbolism behind it it required four writers to collaborate on the story. Four writers means four times the quality, right?

Right . . . ?

After three years James Bond comes flying back into action in Sam Mendes’ parting gift to fans of a franchise that’s by now half a century old. The literal sense of ‘flying’ is certainly more applicable as Mendes spends precious little time setting up his first action spectacle involving a helicopter, a stepping-stone of a henchman and a backdrop of Mexico engulfed in the Day of the Dead festivities where everyone looks like skeletons. A none too subtle reference to the fact Bond is now literally up to his neck in death. It’s an inescapable entity.

Metaphorically speaking? Well, if we’re talking big picture — and why not, this is a pretty big picture after all . . . arguably second only to that movie about wars amongst the stars coming up in December — Bond doesn’t so much come flying back as he does carefully, calmly touch back down with parachute attached, in the vein of one of his many improbable escapes in this movie.

Spectre had one hell of a steep mountain to climb if it was interested in besting its visually spectacular, emotionally hard-hitting predecessor, though it’s going to have much less issue summoning the spectators who are curious as to where Bond’s threshold for enduring misery and pain comes, if it comes at all. Invoking the sinister organization that gave Sean Connery a bit of grief back in the ’60s is one way to attract the masses (not to mention, something to build an aggressive marketing campaign around). Budgeted at an almost incomprehensible $250(ish) million, it’ll go down as one of the most expensive productions of all time.

Recouping that may not be as much of a challenge as I’m thinking it might be right now. When word gets out that Spectre is merely decent and not great — and it will soon enough — it will be interesting to see what happens. Will a lack of ambition deprive it the opportunity to become a major contender for top grossers this year? I suppose I better hold my tongue because anything can and does happen.

Ignoring its business potential, and for all of its shortcomings, of which there are disappointingly many, Spectre is still good old-fashioned James Bond, emerging a stylistically superior product — sleek and ultra-sexy, bathed in shadow and whipping slithery, shiny tentacles with menace in another memorable opening title sequence. Yet for all the familiarity this is the least Daniel Craig-y Bond we’ve seen. It’s a bizarre mix of some of the heaviest themes the franchise has yet visited with a comical edge reminiscent of the Pierce Brosnan era. (I won’t go as far as to bring up Roger Moore’s name . . . whoops.)

In some ways it makes sense; Mendes probably felt he needn’t overdo the dourness this time as we’ve been thoroughly bruised by what 007’s sacrificed in Casino Royale and now Skyfall. These aren’t DC Comic film adaptations; they shouldn’t be all punishment. The film should have some balance, and while the humor’s less punny as Brosnan’s brand, the way it’s introduced draws attention to itself in often jarring ways. Something doesn’t quite feel organic.

Spectre‘s concerned with shaking Bond to his core, as a man and as a professional assassin with a British accent and impossibly high-class taste in women. He’s going to get rattled even more so than he was in the last outing, where he basically lost everything. Mendes finds ways to make it more personal as we move beyond M and start digging into Bond’s familial history. Bond stumbles upon a mysterious ring that has an octopus symbol on it and sets out learning about its origins and who else might be wearing one. There’s also an old photograph, with parts of it burned away so you can’t make out one of the faces in it.

This hunt, unapproved by MI6, leads him on another exotic globetrotting mission — these transitions feel considerably less inspired than in times past — that takes him from Mexico to Austria, Tangiers to a desolate meteorite crater in Morocco and ultimately back to MI6 headquarters in London. On the way he comes into contact with friends both new and old — top of the list is the daughter of a rapidly ailing Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, who is somehow even sexier than before), whom he must protect even when she insists she can protect herself thank you very much. But she doesn’t factor in Dave Bautista’s brute of a hitman, Hinx.

Madeleine turns out to be a handy traveling companion as she helps Bond get closer to finding out what the octopus ring represents. She, with a dark past she would rather soon forget than get into another gun fight, is reluctant to join Bond in seeking out the lair of one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). She does anyway because the script is that insistent. (So no, to answer the question: four writers does not necessarily equate to four times the quality.)

As Bond is off galavanting about, the situation on the home front is turning rather dire as MI6 has become absorbed by a larger network of secret service agencies, the CNS, spearheaded by Andrew Scott’s sneering and highly enjoyable Max Denbigh. His rhetoric is not as newsworthy as the filmmakers would like us to believe it is. He wants to shut down the 00 sector and replace human field agents with drones and computers, arguing one man in the field is no match for technological upgrades. He’s right.

But it doesn’t matter because with Bond being Bond, especially now with Craig taking the role in a direction that’s ever more hinting towards the muscularity of a Jason Bourne and away from the debonair of Sean Connery, there’s little they can do to prevent him using his License to Kill. I don’t care how threatening you may appear in front of Ralph Fiennes, you can’t take scissors to a card and denounce Bond’s status as an agent. You can scrub him from the official files, I suppose. Alas, the old argument: the instincts and emotional judgment of man versus the unfeeling, calculated efficiency of A.I. Sigh. This is, unfortunately, where we go in Spectre. And as for the family matters, the less said about it the better (take that as both a good and bad thing).

Mendes’ last entry is a good film on its own terms but it shrugs off its responsibility to be the most compelling entry in the franchise thus far, at certain points seeming so disinterested in upping the ante and instead revisiting many classic Bond moments in a pastiche that feels both unnecessary and awkward. Save for the aforementioned supervillian, who is by turns thoroughly disturbing and darkly funny — here’s where the humor would be a bit too sophisticated for the Brosnan era — Spectre introduces precious little new information. It’s a painful thing to say, but perhaps this sector is indeed obsolete at this point.

Recommendation: While not vintage James Bond, Spectre offers enough to fans of this long-standing franchise to keep some momentum going, even if quite a lot is lost. A good film with more than the usual number of flaws, is this film yet another victim of the hype machine? What do you think?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.tinypic.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: American Beauty (1999)

Unlike last week’s discovery, sometimes putting off a movie you’ve been aware of for many years is a strategy that pays dividends. Of course today we’re going to be looking at a movie that is so radically different that comparisons need not be made. I suppose the point of all this incessant rambling is for me to declare August 2015 as the month in which I finally decided to do something about those movies sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house, collecting dust. Unlike the CD it’s clear to me that good, old-fashioned DVDs will remain relevant even as we journey into a future filled with Netflix originals and online distributions and other, more modern forms of accessing cinematic entertainment. Some movies belong on the DVD shelf, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Today’s food for thought: American Beauty.

Stuck in a cinematic mid-life crisis since: October 1, 1999

[DVD]

It doesn’t matter that I’m only 16 years late to the party. It doesn’t matter that I’ve likely missed the most fervent discussions about one of the most striking suburban dramas American cinema has ever produced (and it doesn’t matter that the film wasn’t made by an American director, either — curiously he, Sam Mendes, of British stage and film background, would go on to make the film that reaffirmed Daniel Craig as the James Bond of a new generation). It doesn’t matter at all, because now I’ve seen American Beauty.

That is a big check mark on a list of films I have been meaning to see for some time. You’ll have to forgive me for a TBT post that is going to rehash what millions have already said (and said better), but at this point I think it’s all but impossible to stage a novel argument in defense of Mendes’ directorial debut, one that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

American Beauty is a kaleidoscope of themes and stories, all wrapped up in a mesmerizing cinematic package that would later rename Kevin Spacey as Best Actor of 1999 (though his co-star Annette Bening didn’t receive the same level of recognition her sensational turn as materialistic wife Carolyn Burnham all but demanded); Sam Mendes as the director of the moment; and would identify the Alan Ball-written screenplay superlative amongst all other original screenplays that year. Given its numerous interpretations since, American Beauty could almost be taken as an anthology. However, its rumination on beauty, youth, aging, sexuality and, perhaps most interestingly, how we define domestic bliss are all in service to Spacey’s Lester Burnham, whose trajectory from bummed out and frustrated to amped up and care-free can only be described as a mid-life crisis brought on by his chance encounter with a friend of his teenaged daughter.

The title itself seems almost too obvious, but when becoming familiar with the power dynamics that drive the Burnham household — it’s a family of three, with the moody and misunderstood Jane (Thora Birch) stuck in the middle of her parents’ drama more often than not — American Beauty becomes ever increasingly more ironic, encompassing both the physical and psychological manifestations of beauty. And despite the focus on Spacey’s character in particular, the numerous thematic explorations involve the film’s sprawling cast, most of whom turn in award-worthy performances as well.

The Burnhams have new neighbors moving in on their right, disciplinary father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper, who has no trouble rising to the challenge of matching the intensity of his co-stars’ performances) and his obedient son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is obsessed with documenting the world around him with his videocamera, including the girl next door. That relationship rivals the Burnham’s marriage in terms of tumultuousness and distrust. A heartbreaking performance from Allison Janney as Mrs. Fitts gives the impression that this family unit is in fact more damaged. While these people exist a little more on the fringe they nonetheless contribute significantly to the eye-opening drama. Then of course there’s the dialogue between Jane and that flirty friend of hers, Angela (Mena Suvari), who, as is the case with many teens, are constantly talking about which person at their school they should date next. Their obsession with looks and social status say much about the rest of the film’s focus on adults trying to come to terms with their position in life.

Mendes’ direction is perfectly polished, barely trumping the perceptiveness of Ball’s story. (Incredibly, the man has only gone on to write one other film since.) Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something very discomforting about watching a grown man up and quit a secure job at a magazine publisher only to take up a day job serving fast food. Equally distressing is seeing him change around his daily routine to include working out and taking long jogs so he can taylor his physique to Angela’s liking. He trades in his crappy old Camry for a shiny new sports car, a rash decision that, by most people’s definition, represents a mid-life crisis in and of itself. This breakdown (more like rediscovery given the amusing change in tone) doesn’t spring out of nowhere, mind; in Lester’s own words: “[Carolyn] prefers I go through life as a (swear word) prisoner while she keeps my (man-parts) in a mason jar under the sink. I’m so sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist in this family . . .”

As a credit to Ball, American Beauty is a film that perpetually skirts around cliché, but even more than that, it creates situations and emotions that feel unique and original, rather than merely offering surprises on the virtue of its subversive tendencies. It’s uplifting watching this man’s transformation when really it ought to be troublesome. Well, actually it is troublesome but it’s never downright depressing. The scene at the drive-thru window is a particular highlight, when in reality it is a low point in this marriage. A burgeoning romance between Jane and Ricky catches us somewhat off guard. Not to mention, the mood in which this film begins — home video footage revealing a clandestine plan to solve Jane’s problems of being ignored, despite the fact that she’s the only daughter in this broken family — is brilliantly given context later on. (Okay, so really what I’ve just described relates more to direction than the writing but without the sharp dialogue and the delivery thereof, the manipulation of timelines wouldn’t be as effective.)

Looking back on this film is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. American Beauty is so 1990s, and yet times haven’t changed so drastically that its most pressing questions are now foreign to a modern audience. How exactly do we define domestic bliss, and how long does it last? How do we define physical beauty? Is that healthy? How long has the model of the perfect family unit — the house, white picket fence, three kids and a dog — been out of date? I’m quite sure I know none of the answers, but it doesn’t matter because American Beauty doesn’t really either. It may satirize a number of cultural flaws but it doesn’t pretend to have a solution to them. That’s what makes this a classic.

Recommendation: To anyone who hasn’t yet seen American Beauty (I don’t know how many people I’m speaking to here), I urge you to devote two hours out of your day to this extraordinary work. It satisfies on so many levels it’s all but  impossible to name them all. What stood out the most to me were the performances, the writing (specifically the narrative’s ability to maintain a serious dramatic undertone while being incredibly funny simultaneously), and a bold, dramatic conclusion that is brilliantly understated. The perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: The title of the film refers to a breed of roses that while pretty and appealing in appearance, is often prone to rot underneath at the roots and branches of the plant. Thus, the tagline “. . . look closer” tells the viewer that when they look beyond the “perfect suburban life” they will find something rancid at the root.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com