Saturday, 31 October 2015

LEGALLY BOND: REVIEW OF SPECTRE THE NEW JAMES BOND

SPOILER WARNING - THIS REVIEW CONTAINS INFORMATION YOUR EYES MAY NOT WANT TO SEE JUST YET....

North Americans have to wait for November 6th to see the 24th official James Bond film, SPECTRE, released - however, it has now been playing since Monday in British cinemas, so it is hardly reasonable, after hundreds of online media reviews, for Eyewear to hold back any further, especially given a) our longstanding history of engagement with the Bond franchise which we take seriously and b) since the film itself is about intelligence gathering (and leaking).

The series was rebooted in 2006 with Casino Royale, after the Pierce Brosnan age, which, in retrospect seems a sunnier, more upbeat time, more like the Roger Moore films, and turned over to the ruggedly (even lopsidedly) handsome Daniel Craig, who brought a Rugby player's physique to the role (and, as the series developed, a surprising humanity). Casino Royale introduced a shadowy cabal of villains out to get Bond, a cabal that was sort of shelved (it seemed) in the ill-starred Quantum of Solace, only to be, Russian Doll style, re-inserted into a larger embracing structure of evil incorporation under the umbrella of SPECTRE. Skyfall was a surprise global hit (the biggest in Bond history) and upped the stakes, and the auteur behind it, Sam Mendes was brought back for the Skyfall sequel, which this very much is.

However, the scriptwriters have decided that this was also a moment to take the Craig Quartet, and form a mythic substratum of plot and identity, thereby rebooting a reboot, and adding new depths to old tricks. Bond films have long traded in pastiche, homage, self-reference, and post-modern games, so this is nothing new, except the complexity is perhaps more sophisticated this time around. The Year Zero for all Bond is the trilogy of masterworks, really, Dr No-From Russia With Love-Goldfinger - a template never bettered, in terms of setting, pace, romance and ingenuity. If you add the eccentric critics' darling, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (which introduced Ernst Stavro Blofeld as the snowy Alps-based madman) you have the four cornerstones on which the Bond franchise was forever after built - and which SPECTRE references constantly, and rather blatantly.

From Dr No they take a pleasingly exotic villain's lair (this time a meteor crater in Tunisia); from Russia they pluck a hyper-violent train battle; from Goldfinger they take the Ur-torture scene (then a laser, this time, well, I won't say); and from Her Majesty's they acquire the Alps, and - yup, Blofeld, complete with white cat. So all the elements are there, plus a great car chase through the streets of Rome, complete with holy music as we approach the Pope's home, and a bravura opening scene that references Live and Let Die's morbid opening. Clearly the screenwriters owned the box sets, and had their favourite memories from the vintage films.

Yet, this is not simple fan fiction, but an attempt to create a fiction of some impact and quality. As such, and for no good reason, given the homages cited above, the writers and director also decided to incorporate clear visual echoes of Touch of Evil by Orson Welles (itself opening in Mexico with a long tracking shot that ends in an explosion, and thematically about a lawman who has lost his ethical way in the quest for justice; a man haunted by past loves and physically past his best-buy date); and, less logically, key references to classic Hitchcock films, including Vertigo (the Bondgirl here is named Madeleine Swann - a Proustian reference to time and memory), North by Northwest (the train journey romance and planes), and The Birds. It also clearly borrows from the Nolan Batman trilogy, especially in relation to The Joker's threats to Batman over choosing to save loved ones faced with death, and a celebration of chaos and ruin as a new start. So, SPECTRE is a feast at the cineaste's table.

So, what is good about this very long Bond (148 minutes)? The fight scenes are thrilling. The two Bondwoman/girl relationships are erotic and fraught, if not as well established as perhaps required for emotive resonance - and both are darkly twisted - first Bond, a pure Machiavel/ Richard III seduces a widow whose husband he has just murdered, then later beds a bereaved daughter whose father he has helped to commit suicide.

In general, Bond is given some witty and perverse lines - the direction here is to emphasise the ways in which Bond is a disruptor - a man able and willing to kill for his country, and also to sleep around and destroy property to do so. In the battle between mavericks and mandarins, Bond is the oxymoronic terrible beauty of anarchic order.  He clips the wings of his own plane turning it into a Kamikaze weapon of destruction in a key wintry scene, reminding us that Bond usually is the frontline of any violence he has to commit - a major theme in this film being Bond is not a robotic drone, but a man of conscience (really, didn't he used to be a sociopath?), who looks the bad guys in the eyes, before dispatching them. Justice is not legally blind, it is just ruthless.

This theme of drones bad, two boots (Bond boots) on the ground good, is eagerly pounced on by the writers to make this the most digital age Bond yet - and tediously so. In the age of IS(IS) and Snowden, do we need to be reminded of surveillance and snooping? The Bond films were always geopolitically topical (the Cuban Missile Crisis arguably informs a dozen of the 24) but also, at times, imaginatively futuristic in their perils (a madman has still not, believe it or not, since 1945 stolen a nuke and blackmailed the West with it).

On top of these themes, there are the themes of family drama (half-brothers, dead husbands, fathers, and mother-figures like M); Time and Memory (as mentioned above); the nature of duty and love; vision, eyes, sight, blindness, optics, optical nerves, Central Nervous Systems, Lear-like torture of eyes; and theories of societal evolution (meteors, extinction, technology). It is a weird rich brew that only four screenwriters could concoct.

This, then, is a very good four star film, with a superb soundtrack by Thomas Newman and beautiful cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, of Interstellar and the original Let The Right One In, and fun standard Bond erotic-weird credits, with a good flamboyant theme song by Sam Smith. However it is not the masterwork it so clearly aimed to be.  It shot, it missed. Why? Forgive me for refusing to claim its homages and overly literary subtexts ruin it, for I welcome this sort of texture. Instead, the film fails precisely where its creators should, and could, have been expected to succeed: old-fashioned suspense.

This witty, stylish, elegant, romantic, action-packed film has it all, except the one thing that Hitchcock (and Welles even in his layers and trickery) knew was essential - suspense. By this I mean, you need to know something big is at stake for the characters you care about - and something bad is going to happen to them, UNLESS/UNTIL - what? That what is the thrust of your film, and why we watch. SPECTRE is SPECTACLE but not SUSPENSEFUL.
 
And here is the major disappointment of the film for this viewer: Christoph Waltz as Oberhauser/Blofeld, the shadow side of Bond, his half-brother. I love Waltz.  His work with Tarantino is sublime, and if anyone else could play a Germanic megalomaniac better it would be hard to believe. Perhaps expectations within my pulsing fan brain are too high, but I wanted a Donald Pleasance* level of genius here. Somehow Waltz is faintly comic, even hapless at times, due to what his character is given to say and do and be and plot. His Neru-jacket, borrowed from Dr No, is ill-buttoned. His meteorite display seems pitiful (even Bond makes a joke about it) and his weird torture device inexplicably dissociated from the film's richly stocked larder of images, unless we are here introduced to Kubrick as yet another inspiration (his 2001 white room moved to A Clockwork Orange). Well, I guess it could be Orwell's Room 101 updated via Brazil?

I won't spoil all the fun and terror of the key sequence in Tunisia - it has some wonderful formally stiff moments that I love about Bond (the villain's unctuous minions never kill Bond but at first offer him luxury accommodation and champagne) - but must remind you - where is THE SUSPSENSE? What is Oberhauser's plan? What is he going to do that must be stopped? Set up a spy agency? That's it? Even the scriptwriters must have thought they needed oomph, because it turns out Oberhauser has a sideline in family revenge tragedy out of Hamlet (and just as tardy) and also wants to degrade Bond and rob him of all the women he has loved by killing them - especially the new Bondgirl - and somehow we get this peril by blowing up a building already set for demolition, and a woman Bond (never one for attachments really, bar Vesper and his wife) has only laid eyes on a few days before.

Why does SPECTRE not have a plan for world-shaking evil? No mass killings? No blackmail? No nukes? No plagues to be unleashed? No nano-bots? Just surveillance? It is all very real.  Down to the dangers of human trafficking that we never see (though SPECTRE the gang does profit by it). But Blofeld might as well have tied his Penelope to the Tunisian train tracks.  It is all a bit melodramatic. I needn't detain you too much longer - but the film is book-ended by helicopter shots/ helicopter's shot - a bad cinema pun meant to be clever I guess - and one yearns for the day when Blofeld had a more sophisticated sort of escape vehicle, one that could withstand a single bullet - Bond's aim being great, it is still impossible to hit a moving target with a pistol at that distance (boring I know).
 
So, I won't spoil the ending, except to say, just as in Skyfall, which upended key tropes to surprise, this movie does the same, ending with two major reversals of Bond-as-usual that are pleasing, the second one being perhaps the most positive ending to any Bond film, and a very sweet, gentle erasure of the rather savage tragedy at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. In this way, all's well that ends well. SPECTRE ends as a comedy. Did I love it? Not quite - but about 70% of the time I was enthralled and very happy. But next time, please let the villain be EVIL again, and place the world or a key city in some sort of immense danger. We need our Commander Bond to be saving more than his own, his agency's, and his lover's, skin.
 
 
PS - I liked seeing Moneypenny, Q, and M all have expanded action roles. Fun idea. More next time? Monica Belluci was sexy but under-used; and Seydoux effectively charming.

* Donald Pleasance increasingly looks like a character actor of genius, who made every film he appeared in exponentially greater, especially Halloween.
 
- review by Todd Swift, copyright 2015
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