Review: “Spectre”

I was really enjoying “Spectre,” the 24th film in the James Bond series, for the first hour and a half.  Had it ended there, this would be a positive review.  But it didn’t.

It’s hard to talk about this film without delving into spoilers, so I’m not even going to try.  You’ve been warned!

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Sam Mendes, responsible for the previous (and best) entry, “Skyfall,” returns to the director’s chair.  He brings his fluid sense of action and a knack for making sure every penny of the budget shows up on screen.  The film opens in Mexico during a Day of the Dead celebration.  Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema craft an elaborate long take which follows James Bond (Daniel Craig) as he tracks a target through the festivities.  I suspect friend of the blog, Ben, would call this an embodiment of the Bond experience:  exotic locations and grand spectacle mixed with intrigue.

As things are wont to do in this franchise, everything goes to hell.  Bond finds himself running from a collapsing building and then chasing his target right into a departing helicopter.  (So much running!  Where’s Tom Cruise when you need him.)  Here we have a spectacular blend of what looks to be location photography and a gyrating set, the actors rolling and bouncing inside, as 007 tries to take control of the aircraft.

Bond discovers that he’s embroiled in a larger conspiracy involving a nefarious organization known as Spectre.  After learning that a former nemesis, Mr. White, has ties to the group, he pays him a visit.  In an attempt to gain leverage over the man, Bond vows to protect his daughter Madeleine (Léa Seydoux).  Simultaneously, M (Ralph Fiennes) is wrestling with Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), a member of the British government trying to coalesce intelligence organizations from several countries into one massive, Orwellian security group.

Now, things aren’t all expensive tuxedos and vodka martinis during the first half of the film.  There’s some eye-rolling dialog like, “As you know, 007, [insert something that Bond clearly does know but we the audience don’t].”  And poor Dave Bautista (more on him later) and Monica Bellucci are completely wasted as a henchman and Bond girl respectively.  But it isn’t until shortly after our hero meets up with Madeleine that that delicious vodka martini ends up all over that nice tuxedo.

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Few and far between are the Bond girls that develop any real connection to James.  That’s certainly attempted here, but the film doesn’t lay the groundwork.  By the end of “Spectre,” we’re to believe that Bond would give up his double-0 license for a life with Madeleine, but we’ve no reason to think their relationship is any more special than the countless women he’s shagged.  Frequent callbacks to Vesper Lynd, perhaps the best Bond girl in the series, don’t help.  She was smart, resourceful and complex in her own right.  We saw her relationship to Bond develop in “Casino Royale.”  Not the case here.

Now we come to the film’s other crippling problem.  The head of Spectre is Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  He is and always has been the franchise’s big bad.  The Joker to Bond’s Batman.  The Moriarty to his Sherlock.  That Waltz is playing Blofeld will come as a surprise to no one who’s even a casual Bond fan.  But the film certainly wants it to.  Hiding his identity, we initially know him as Franz Oberhauser.  Franz is a brother of sorts to James Bond.  After the death of Bond’s parents, Franz’s father looked after him, and Franz felt that James supplanted him in the eye of his dad.  So he killed his father, faked his own death and took the name Blofeld.

Wait, there’s more…

“Spectre” retcons so many elements from the previous three films.  As it turns out, Blofeld has been Bond’s puppet master for all his life.  He’s responsible for everything that’s happened during Craig’s run.  All those baddies worked for Spectre.  In addition to making the universe that much smaller (even Auric Goldfinger avoided the mantle of Spectre), this is lazy, lazy, lazy writing.  Instead of constructing a worthwhile villain or setting up the evil organization in the previous entries, the filmmakers trot out a fan favorite (with tired daddy issues to boot) and hang the plots of “Casino,” “Quantum” and “Skyfall” on him.  He says to Bond at one point, “I’ve really put you through it all these years.”  If you say so.

Without any emotional stakes or character investment, the back half of this film feels tedious.  It dives head first into most of the Bond clichés the Craig movies have spent ribbing, but they feel half-assed, like the director’s heart isn’t in it.  Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is a completely unremarkable henchman.  He’s got metal thumbnails, a fact that I needed to be reminded of after my screening because they’re such a non-entity, which he uses to gouge out a foot soldier’s eyes.  And he’s dead by the middle of the film.  You remember Oddjob and Jaws.  You remember their names.  (I had to look Mr. Hinx up.)  You remember their quirky character traits, Jaws for his nasty chompers and Oddjob for his lethal propensity for hat throwing.

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Not once, but twice, this film falls into the elaborate scenarios that Bond always escapes from.  The first is a torture scene with a series of small drills and James’s head.  The second is an escape sequence.  Blofeld sends Bond on a chase through the bombed out MI6 to find Madeleine.  If he can’t find her in three minutes, they’ll both be killed when the building is completely leveled by another bomb.  This sequence left me wanting to scream, “Just kill them!”  Same old villain falling for the same old tricks.

As another friend of the blog, another Ben, put it, “I can see what they were trying to do.  They wanted an updated version of the cheeky, kitschy fun of the late Connerys.  Watches, quips, muscle men, countdowns.  That could be fun in small doses.  But to build an entire film on those references isn’t borrowing classic fun from the franchise’s past.  It’s inviting back all the problems of banking on those references to captivate an audience, or even keep them vaguely involved.”

Is “Spectre” as bad as “Quantum of Solace?”  Not quite.  It’s got too much polish for that.  But it was a lot easier to slap a tourniquet on “Quantum” and brush it off.  This one, thanks to its ties to the other films, ain’t gonna be that easy.  Stir it or shake it up, I hope the producers do whatever they need to right this ship.

Have you seen “Spectre?”  What did you think?  Let me know in the Comment section!

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Conversations: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

As promised, my thoughts on Marvel’s latest box office juggernaut, “The Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Also as promised, I roped in my good friend, Ben DeLoose.  I’ve known Ben for over seven years.  He has worked for USA Network, NBCUniversal, and most recently, Starz Entertainment.  He and I also collaborate on 3bythree, a Youtube movie review channel.  Before we get started, a brief plot synopsis, but be warned, our discussion will contain spoilers: “Guardians of the Galaxy” tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a young man abducted from earth who traverses the galaxy looking for rare artifacts (think:  a goofier Indiana Jones).  He joins a ragtag group of misfits, which includes:  Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a trained assassin; Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscular alien who takes things a little too literally; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon with a propensity for technology and weapons; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid plant and Rocket’s partner.  They will work together to try to stop Ronan (Lee Pace), a radical fundamentalist, from obtaining an ultimate weapon.

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Gar:  Hiya Ben, thanks for joining me!  I’m gonna let you start us off:  What did you think of “Guardians of the Galaxy?”

Ben:  What a fun ride!  A fantastic summer entertainment and another winner from Marvel.

Gar:  I thoroughly enjoyed myself!  Though it carries the Marvel banner, it had a bit of that new car smell.  It’s not an original property, but it’s based on a comic book that I had no familiarity with.

Ben:  Same here.  I had absolutely no knowledge going in.

Gar:  I’m reluctant to call “Guardians” a GREAT movie, though.  Marvel plays things a little too conservatively for that.  Even “Iron Man,” which is still their best, has that really standard third act (crash-bang action, monologuing villain, etc.).

Ben:  They are, by no means, making revolutionary films.  Consistent entertainment?  I’d say so.  Non-stupid blockbusters?  Absolutely.  But they do regress back to their comic book roots.  There’s some clunky dialogue in all their films, including this one.  Flat exposition dumps, characters blandly stating their inner intentions and feelings.

Gar:  An instance that stands out to me was Thanos, this intergalactic warlord, revealing that Gamora (pictured below, left) was his favorite daughter in front of his other daughter Nebula (pictured below, right).

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Ben:  Absolutely

Gar:  Maybe there’s something to be said for Thanos’s arrogance and dismissiveness, but you just knew they were setting up a betrayal.

Ben:  In general, Thanos is a problem for this film.  Will casual viewers realize he was part of the invasion in the “The Avengers?”  Will they remember his stinger scene during the closing credits?  Probably not.

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Hell, the characters in the film don’t even mention the invasion to Peter Quill, despite a clear setup.  I think a character tells him, “You don’t even care about your own world,” and leaves it at that.  Why not mention the attack?  Why not use that as extra motivation for Peter to put a stop to Ronan?

Gar:  Exactly.  Marvel seems to have a villain problem.  Lee Pace is a good actor, but I just didn’t find Ronan compelling.  Some people have compared “Guardians” to Star Wars, which I think sets up a troubling level of anticipation.  Influenced by?  Absolutely.  As good as?  C’mon now.  But the #1 reason Star Wars is better than “Guardians?”  Its villain.

Ben:  Absolutely.

Gar:  Let’s talk about some of the things we liked.

Ben:  The soundtrack really stood out.  The song selection was impeccable!  It created plenty of opportunities for incongruity with the visuals, and it was diegetic.

Gar:  It also gave the film an identity, which the marketing campaign wisely tapped into.  (We should stress we’re talking about the unoriginal music used in the film — ’80s songs.  The original score was pretty forgettable, which seems to be par for the course for Marvel.)  I really enjoyed the songs too.  They added a nice layer to Peter.  You can’t help but be reminded of his mother, which of course pays off hugely at the end of the film.  While we’re on Chris Pratt, let’s go ahead and talk about the cast.

Ben:  Perfect casting.

Gar:  So good!  I am a fan of Pratt from “Parks and Recreation,” and it was great to see him carry a film of this size.

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Ben:  It was also fun to see Karen Gillan as a bad guy (and she’ll be back)!  Though Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly could have had more to do.

Gar:  Yeah, I was surprised by how little screen time Reilly had, ditto Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close.  Those are big name performers!

Ben:  I think they could have gone with character actors for those parts.

Gar:  But ya know who gave the best performance?

Ben:  Bradley Cooper.

Gar:  Yep.

Ben:  You really felt Rocket’s vulnerability under all that bravado.  Yes, the CGI was excellent, but the pain in his voice drove it home for me.

Gar:  He’s got that scene where he unloads this emotional baggage, talking about how he was poked, prodded and sliced while they were experimenting on him.  I really liked his relationship with Groot as well.  One of the moments that made me laugh was Rocket’s conversation with his “house plant,” where they discussed their next move.

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Ben:  It’s basically an internal monologue for Rocket.

Gar:  Absolutely.  Let’s talk a bit about writer-director James Gunn’s work.  I thought the action scenes were great.  They were well structured, and characters were using the environment.  I’m thinking about the first one, this “Raiders”-inspired set piece where Peter steals an important artifact.  A hole gets blown in the wall of this temple, and a couple beats later, our hero uses it as his escape route.

Ben:  Gunn nailed the action scenes.  Clear sense of geography, cause-and-effect, scale — all things lacking from a lot of loud, dumb blockbusters.

Gar:  The smaller ships pushing Ronan’s much larger vessel was a great visual.

Ben:  The will of many against one fanatic.  Fancy that, a visual metaphor in a popcorn flick!

Gar:  You don’t say!  The other thing I really appreciated about Gunn’s work was the way he managed the tonal shifts, from laugh-out-loud comedy to real pathos.  You’ve got Rocket’s monologue or Peter reading the letter from his mother. Ben:  The moment that absolutely got to me:  “We are Groot.”  As he was saying it, I expected “We are friends,” but what they went with was much stronger.

Gar:  So much stronger!  It would have been corny and out-of-character if he had said “We are friends.”  Anything else you wanna talk about, Ben?

Ben:  Can’t wait for the sequel!

Gar:  Me too.  Thanks for doing this!  We’ll have to do it again.

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