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!

Fall Movie Preview

Well, it’s that time…my favorite season for movie watching.  Fall is when studios tend to release their better films (i.e. the ones they think’ll make a splash during the end-of-year awards).  Prestige season begins in earnest for me on September 18 — seven days and counting — so I’ve compiled a list of the films I’m most looking forward to.

September 18 sees the release of “Black Mass” — the story of real-life mobster, Whitey Bulger.  Johnny Depp plays Bulger, and judging by the trailer, this looks like a welcome return to his more menacing and nuanced work (think “Donnie Brasco,” which happens to be another crime film).  On top of that, I was a fan of director Scott Cooper’s first feature, “Crazy Heart.”

Also out on September 18 is “Sicario.”  (It’s in limited release that weekend and goes wide on September 25.)  The trailer for this drug war drama makes it look like a real nerve shredder.  It’s from another promising young filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve.  After “Prisoners,” itself a lesson in suspense, this seems like another fruitful collaboration with could-make-a-dumpster-look-great cinematographer, Roger Deakins.  The cast is spectacular as well, headlined by Emily Blunt (in full bad ass mode), Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin.

I haven’t liked a Ridley Scott film in several years — really since the Director’s Cut of “Kingdom of Heaven” — but I’m hoping that will change on October 2.  “The Martian” is about an astronaut left for dead and his struggle to survive on…you guessed it…Mars.  Scott’s susceptible to selecting scripts that are beneath his talent, but Drew Goddard (of “Cabin in the Woods” and “Daredevil” Season 1) is the screenwriter here.  And again, we have a phenomenal cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Peña.

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And then there’s the pairing of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle, whose film “Steve Jobs” hits screens on October 9.  The former is a self-described writer of “People talking in rooms” and the latter’s known for his bold and vibrant filmmaking.  Michael Fassbender plays the titular tech genius.  He’s one of my favorite actors working, but I’m mostly excited to see what Sorkin and Boyle bring out in one another.

The weekend of October 16 is stacked.

First up is “Beasts of No Nation.”  It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the man behind the first season of “True Detective.”  It stars Idris Elba as an African warlord recruiting children into a civil war.  The film is getting a very limited theatrical release, but it’s also going to be available on Netflix streaming the same day it hits screens.  I love “True Detective,” so I’ll see anything Fukunaga touches.  The positive buzz for the film has only gotten me more excited.

Bridge of Spies” comes out the same day.  This one’s from a young, upstart filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.  (I see big things for this guy.  Very talented.)  The director’s track record has been spotty lately, but even mid-tier Spielberg is better than most.  I’m excited to see him reunite with Tom Hanks, who plays a lawyer focused on rescuing a US pilot who went down over the Soviet Union.  Oh, and the Coen Brothers have a screenwriting credit!

But the movie I’ll see first that weekend is “Crimson Peak.”  Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors working, and this marks his return to the haunted house genre.  If you haven’t seen “The Devil’s Backbone,” you should remedy that right away.  Based on the trailer, the visuals looks as lush and vibrant as you’ve come to expect from del Toro.  Yet another great cast here with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain.

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And finally, “Room” comes out in limited release the same day.  I’ve heard good things about the novel on which the film is based, but there’s one reason I’m really excited for this one…and her name is Brie Larson.  She gave a stunning performance in “Short Term 12” (actually my favorite performance of 2013).  I was disappointed to see her relegated to Love Interest in “The Gambler,” but it looks as though “Room” will be another opportunity for her to flex her acting muscles.

November 6 brings the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, “Spectre.”  “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes returns here.  Aficionados will recognize Spectre as the nefarious organization that reared its head in early Bond films.  The inclusion of talent like Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux and Andrew Scott is very exciting.  The only thing that gives me pause is that, after the release of “Skyfall,” Mendes stated he’d said everything he had to say about Bond.  Presumably, the studio offered him enough money to keep talking.  That’s usually not the best reason for a director to sign on, but based on the strength of the previous film, I’ll be there opening weekend.

On November 20, “Carol” gets a limited release.  Director Todd Haynes tackles a similarly taboo subject matter as his own “Far From Heaven.”  This one’s about a younger woman falling in love with an older woman in 1950s New York.  Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star, and they’re two of the best actresses working today.  The film’s screened at festivals to rave reviews.

This year brings not one but two Pixar films.  After the summer’s “Inside Out,” I’m really looking forward to “The Good Dinosaur” (November 25).  The premise is pretty basic — What if the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct?  (The trailer plays this out in a hilarious visual gag.)  When the animation studio is on its game, there’s nobody better.  The film’s had a troubled production, with Disney announcing in June that nearly the entire voice cast had been scrapped.  Still, “Inside Out” felt like a real return to form for Pixar, so I’m hoping their latest picks up where it left off.

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The performer pairing I’m most excited for is Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in “Macbeth,” which is getting a limited released on December 4The trailer is gorgeous.  I’ve already talked about how much I like Fassbender, but Cotillard is every bit his equal (if not superior).  The prospect of these two playing off each other in a Shakespeare adaptation sounds fantastic.

Finally, we come to it — the main course!  “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is unleashed on December 18.  When the first teaser was released last November, I wrote about my reluctance to get excited for this new trilogy.  But as we’ve gotten closer to release and with the second teaser, my hesitance has almost completely faded…except for a minor concern that the film may delve into fan service (see: director JJ Abrams’s own “Star Trek Into Darkness”).  But I’m so ready for this!

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(The next two are technically Winter titles, but what’s dinner without a little dessert?)

On December 25, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” will go into limited release (with a wide release soon to follow).  It’s about a group of bounty hunters — and a valuable quarry — holed up in a cabin during a blizzard.  Tarantino is one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers working.  I’m excited by the prospect of him tackling something with a limited setting.  If “Inglorious Basterds” was any indication, with its farmhouse and tavern sequences, he knows how to wring suspense out of a confined space.  And there’s a great cast: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow up to “Birdman” also comes out on Christmas Day — “The Revenant.”  The trailer is tense as hell, and the images (composed by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) are breathtaking.  There looks to be an extraordinary amount of movement and coordination within the frame, as you’d expect from the DP of “Children of Men.”  Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy star.

So those are the movies I’m most looking forward to!  What about you?  What are you excited to see this Fall?

Lists: Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 (Part 2 of 2)

If you missed the first half of my list, be sure to check it out. Now, my five most anticipated films of 2015!

5.) “Inside Out”

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Release Date: June 19th

The last few years have been a bumpy road for Pixar.  We got “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” which both felt like cash grabs.  But “Inside Out” will be Pete Docter’s first time in the director’s chair since “Up,” and I’m holding out for the studio’s return to form.  The film has an intriguing premise, centered around small creatures who live in our bodies, each representing and governing a particular emotion.  It’s an original production — only the second out of Pixar’s last four films — by screenwriter Michael Arndt, who previously wrote “Toy Story 3.”  I’m hopeful that he and Docter will bring the balance of humor and pathos that made “Up” and the third Toy Story so remarkable.

4.) “Crimson Peak”

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Release Date: October 16th

I’ve written before about what a valuable and distinctive voice Guillermo del Toro is in pop cinema. After delivering big-budget science fiction films like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy II,” del Toro returns to the genre where he cut his teeth as a director. “Crimson Peak” is a horror film with a bang up cast, including Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston (as husband and wife) as well as Jessica Chastain. It was reported out of Comic Con 2014 that del Toro’s gothic story called for a particularly extravagant chandelier, but the studio wouldn’t approve the expense…so naturally he bought one out of pocket. Del Toro’s passion and willingness to put his skin in the game is one of the things I find most endearing about him. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for his latest.

3.) “Spectre”

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Release Date: November 6th

Even after the excellent “Casino Royale,” Sam Mendes took the Bond franchise to a whole new level with “Skyfall.” He returns to the director’s chair for 2015’s “Spectre,” and Daniel Craig is back as 007. Having established Moneypenny and the new M (played by Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes respectively) in the last outing, this new entry reboots another familiar Bond element: the terrorist organization known as SPECTRE. It’s still unclear who’s playing the juicy part of Blofeld, the organization’s leader, but surely it’ll be newcomer Christoph Waltz or Andrew Scott. Either would be a fantastic choice! Audiences are probably familiar with Waltz’s Oscar winning turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Scott is a bit more of an unknown, though if you’ve seen BBC’s “Sherlock,” you know he can play The Evil Mastermind like nobody’s business!

2.) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Release Date: December 18th

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I’ll never not be a Star Wars fan, but after the utter disappointment of the prequels, it was hard not to approach this project with a bit of skepticism. Then they announced J.J. Abrams as the director, a very solid if unsurprising choice. Cast announcements were made: John Boyega, Adam Driver, Max von Sydow, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, and…the cast from the original trilogy! And then they released that teaser — filled with wonderful tactile details and scratching all the right nostalgic itches while still leaving a lot of mystery. Instead of doubts, now I have questions: What’s happened in the years since the events of “Return of the Jedi?” How will the original cast be integrated into this new trilogy? What causes the Force to awaken?

God damn it, I’m excited!

1.) “The Hateful Eight”

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Release Date: Fall 2015

What’s the only thing that could topple Star Wars? Why Quentin Tarantino, of course! A force in his own right, his films are like a full course meal. You get your comedy, drama, action, indelible characters, great music selections, and incredible dialog. You also get fantastic actors, and “The Hateful Eight” is full of them: Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell and many more. Set just after the Civil War, it’s about a group of bounty hunters that get entangled in a dangerous plot…but are there any other kind in the world of Tarantino? Of all his films, “Death Proof” is the only one I could take or leave, and the rest I adore. Simply put, he excites me more than any other filmmaker working today.

Here’s the complete list:

1.) “The Hateful Eight”
2.) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
3.) “Spectre”
4.) “Crimson Peak”
5.) “Inside Out”
6.) “That’s What I’m Talking About”
7.) “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
8.) Steven Spielberg’s Untitled Cold War Thriller
9.) “Silence”
10.) “Tomorrowland”

And here are some honorable mentions:

“Macbeth” — Screen adaptations of Shakespeare tend to be hit or miss, but this one stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Yes please!

“The Sea of Trees” — Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe star as two men lost in a forest near Mt. Fuji. Gus Van Sant directs.

“Midnight Special” — The latest from Jeff Nichols, the director of “Take Shelter” and “Mud.” Stars Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Michael Shannon.

Thanks for reading! What films are you looking forward to in 2015?