Monday, November 9, 2015

DOWNFALL: a review of "Spectre"

Based upon characters and situations created by Ian Fleming
Story by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Screenplay Written by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth
Directed by Sam Mendes
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

The higher you fly, the harder the fall. And this one was definitely a crash landing.

Three years ago, I was supremely elated by a cinematic sight that I really thought that I would never really see: an unquestionably GREAT James Bond movie. For a bit of background, throughout my life, I have seen every single James Bond motion picture adventure from the Roger Moore years onwards. While there have been some that I enjoyed very much, including "Live And Let Die" (1973), "For Your Eyes Only" (1981), "GoldenEye" (1995) and "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997), several of the films (perhaps too many of them) were ones that I felt either indifferent towards or even found to be terrible, the worst offenders including "A View To A Kill" (1985), "The Living Daylights" (1987) and "The World Is Not Enough" (1999). 

Essentially, and as I have expressed on this site in the past, I think I liked the idea of James Bond more than as an actual character. And yet, I continued to see the next adventure, possibly because it was just time to see another one...and truth be told, it felt to me, to an increasing degree, that new James Bond films were being made for no other reason than it was time to make one.

My feelings towards this series changed dramatically once Daniel Craig took over the iconic role and emerged in Director Martin Campbell's thrilling and terrific "Casino Royale" (2006). Where Campbell and Craig delivered the requisite Bond action set pieces with a newfound vitality and two-fisted, white knuckle energy,  it was a film where, for the very first time, I truly cared about the proceedings as Bond transcended his own archetype and became a compelling character with a backstory, a psychological outlook that demanded exploration and a welcome sense of pathos, especially concerning the most effective love story shared with Eva Green.

The success continued with the slightly abbreviated yet feverishly paced "Quantum Of Solace" (2008) from Director Marc Forster. But it was with the outstanding, towering "Skyfall" (2012) where Director Sam Mendes delivered what I thought would have been impossible after all of these years, the finest James Bond film that I had ever seen. Everything, and I truly mean absolutely everything, from the performances, writing, action sequences, cinematography and even Adele's theme song, came together superbly within "Skyfall," as James Bond's journey was undeniably emotional and psychological as well as sensationally exciting and placed him against a most formidable and frightening adversary in Javier Bardem. "Skyfall" reached a level of greatness that, in my mind, informed me that the series had reached a new level; a level that needed to be equally matched in future installments because, as far as I was concerned, there was no reason whatsoever to return to those lackluster, assembly line level Bond films of the past ever again.

Now, we arrive with "Spectre," and what a tremendous fall from grace this is.

Sam Mendes, who returns to the director's chair for this 24th official James Bond film, has unfortunately delivered a bomb. Believe me, I am as stunned to write those words as I am certain that you are with reading them, but even so, "Spectre" is awful. It is a lifeless, uninspired experience just as the series should be flying over the top. But, there I sat in my theater seat, shifting uncomfortably and often, even yawning several times throughout for as uninterested I was in the proceedings which were so elongated, I wondered if this 2 1/2 hour film had even undergone an editing process. While "Spectre" has already earned a box office fortune and will continue to rake in more dollars, for those of you who have not yet seen the film, trust  me, use your hard earned dollars and go see something different for "Spectre" is a time waster so tremendous even 007 himself would declare it as "rubbish."

For all intents and purposes, Sam Mendes' "Spectre" essentially serves as the culminating installment after the previous three Bond films, as agent 007 James Bond (again played by Daniel Craig) encounters the titular sinister global criminal organization for the first time. Again aided by new MI6 head M (Ralph Finnes), M's assistant Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and computer expert/gadget inventor Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond embarks upon his globe-trotting escapade which leads him to his ultimate confrontation with SPECTRE mastermind Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a figure who has not only served as the puppeteer of Bond's most recent excursions, but a man with whom Bond shares a dark secret as well as one who possesses an identity familiar to Bond iconography.

As much of a surprise as the greatness of "Skyfall" was to me, so much so that it made everything so familiar about the James Bond universe feel striking and refreshingly new, "Spectre" presented a James Bond experience at its most mundane and tired to the point of exhausted. Now truth be told, the film certainly did not begin at such a sub-par level. Quite the contrary, the pre-opening credit sequence, set during a Day Of The Dead festival in Mexico, is sensational. Beginning with a virtuoso unbroken and beautifully choreographed long take to a dizzying set of fisticuffs inside of a helicopter, dangerously spiraling over the heads of the crowd down below was so razor sharp, so spectacular an opening, I was already feeling that we would have another Bond success upon our hands. But, after that opening, and Sam Smith's theme song, "Spectre" settles and nearly solidifies itself in the cement of cinematic time and space.

Aside from some strong moments here and there (a fist fight aboard a moving train, a sequence late in the film where Bond is nearly lobotomized), "Spectre" ultimately becomes a film that possesses no momentum, a complete lack of urgency, potency and even purpose. All told, it is the anti-thesis of everything "Skyfall" happened to be.

Granted, it would not be unfair if any of you out there are wondering if perhaps I had set my expectations too high and am being overly harsh upon "Spectre." But, do trust me and the words I write. I entered "Spectre" considerably less with high expectations and moreso with an anticipation I typically do not carry towards new James Bond movies. The high bar set by "Skyfall" simply made me excited to see a new installment and as I watched "Spectre," I just sat open-mouthed wondering just how what I was watching had gone so terribly wrong.

First of all, the molasses ensconced pacing made the film drag on to its interminable length. It was as if Mendes, his cast and crew, expended all that they were able to muster in the film's opening sequence and just refused to become invested in much of anything else afterwards. In fact, it felt as if there had been several films made in between "Skyfall " and "Spectre," and the audience just happened to be witnessing the long-in-the-tooth episode in the series where the cast and crew are along for the ride purely out of obligation (and certainly more than a little bit of money) rather than any vested interest. Daniel Craig in particular just appeared as if he could not wait to be rid of 007 once and for all. Yes, he demonstrated a powerful physicality and he does look smashing in those tailored suits. But even so, he just looked as if he would rather have been anywhere else and if Bond doesn't want to be involved within his own adventure, then why should we sit there and watch it?

Furthermore, whatever sexual tension and chemistry that needed to exist between James Bond and his latest love interest, Dr. Madeleine Swann (played by Lea Seydoux) was negligible. Not only did the relationship feel more arbitrary than authentic (especially after what we witnessed between Craig and Eva Green in "Casino Royale"), this was the first time where the age differences between the actors (Craig has a good seventeen years on Seydoux), looked uncomfortably awkward, as if James Bond was romancing his niece rather than any sort of femme fatale.

And then, there is Christoph Waltz, whose measured line readings can make nearly any dialogue sing thrillingly, but let's face it, he doesn't ave anything approaching Quentin Tarantino dialogue to work with this time around. Yes, he makes for a most shadowy and sinister figure and there are some good moments, but in many sequences, he felt to be almost a parody of the classic Bond villain, you know, the one who just talks and talks about his plans to take over the world ad nauseum. Within "Spectre," there were quite a number of moments where Waltz's dialogue was so voluminous that Bond could have escaped his clutches ten times over and shot him just as many times while he kept blabbering on and on and on.

Basically, I spent much of "Spectre" remembering the feelings I had when I saw Director Christopher McQuarrie's spectacular "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" earlier this year, as I did think to myself about how much James Bond would have to live up to once "Spectre" arrived. Come to think of it, both films happen to share somewhat similar plots, but somehow, McQuarrie and Tom Cruise deftly figured out ways to enliven the long running franchise, making a fifth film in the series that is possibly the best film to date. Through smart, sharp dialogue, a strong attention to the characters and their relationships with each other, plus one eye popping set piece after another and most importantly, displaying a sense of unadulterated fun, McQuarrie and Cruise made a film that I am anxious to see again as well as excited for a sixth installment (long past the time most film series should advance). With "Spectre," nobody, seemed to be having any fun! It was so ponderous, so torpid, so bloated with stagnant just was not enjoyable at all, truly a cardinal sin for a James Bond movie. .

"It's not over," James Bond announces to Dr. Swann late in the film and after yet another cataclysmic explosion. To that line, I let out a long, exhausted sigh (which I hope wasn't terribly audible to the audience members around me), to which I could not hep myself. Sam Mendes' "Spectre" finds James Bond practically crawling to a finish line and dragging us along with him. I realize that it truly is a miracle when films get made, and even moreso of a miracle when the film in question turns out to be a great one. Sometimes the stars just are not in alignment, for whatever the reasons. But, once James Bond returns, as promised at the conclusion of the end credit scrawl as always, I seriously hope that he finds himself properly rejuvenated or else the time to just make another cinematic 007 adventure may come to pass.

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