Entertainment » Movies

Spectre

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Nov 5, 2015
Daniel Craig as 007 in 'Spectre'
Daniel Craig as 007 in 'Spectre'  (Source:Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

"Spectre" marks the 24th 007 franchise installment, and it is quite a dark film -- literally, not figuratively. The murky cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema) had me squinting pretty often and sorely missing the lush and captivating camerawork of Roger Deakins ("Skyfall").

As far as content, this James Bond entry more than hints at a dark, challenging storyline but, with little exception, delivers much of the same-old, same-old. And for a Bond movie that would normally be enough, except that "Skyfall" raised the emotional probing ante of its hero's psyche. There's no going back and not feeling cheated, even for fans.

"The dead are alive" are the intriguing words displayed onscreen right before we are cine-planted smack dash in the midst of a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City and bombarded with skeletal images bouncing about. A "Touch of Evil"-like tracking shot follows one costumed celebrant after another, finally leading us to Bond himself (Daniel Craig), who is (shocker) with a gorgeous woman (Stephanie Sigman) at his side, en route to fornication. The rendezvous is predictably waylaid by an assignment that becomes another visually dazzling, literally-explosive adventure as we watch (through a turbid lens) our protag pursue and assassinate an Italian mobster, all the while showing off his sexy swagger as he swiftly walks a high ledge, showing no signs of fear or vertigo.

(It struck me that director Sam Mendes seems to enjoy filming Daniel Craig the same way David O. Russell delights in photographing Jennifer Lawrence. I'll leave the reader to ponder that.)

Oddly, Bond never returns to his date, something he surely would have done as played by Roger Moore. This becomes a slight metaphor for the entire film, where the man and the movie tease but end up disappointing.

The always-highly anticipated credit sequence adds to the promise of the opening sequence. Sam Smith's lilting "Writing's on the Wall" blasts on the soundtrack while images of the last three Bond films appear, specifically, those figures in his life that were taken from him, as well as the villains responsible. And there's a fabulous skeletal octopus whirling about.

The anticipation that this might take off where the psychologically complex "Skyfall" left off and give us some insight into who young Bond might have been is slowly dissipated as the convoluted plot takes over. But there are quite a number of treats making this outing good Bond that should have been great Bond.

For his rogue assassination of the Italian, Bond is suspended by NuM (Ralph Fiennes), who is under pressure from his new National Security boss, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who is reorganizing Brit intelligence and wants to do away with all things 00.

Despite his orders to stay in London and with the help of Moneypenny (a sadly underused Naomie Harris) and Q (the quirky delight that is Ben Whishaw), Bond speeds off to Rome, where he beds the mobster's widow (Monica Bellucci) and discovers the existence of a secret organization called SPECTRE, led by the enigmatic Franz Oberhauser (Christof Waltz).

What prompted Bond to murder this criminal in the first place was a brief video recording of M (Judi Dench) asking him to.

To uncover what SPECTRE actually is, Bond seeks out an old enemy, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), leading him to White's daughter, Madeleine Swann (an entrancing Lea Seydoux), who more than bonds with Bond.

I will cease with any more plot synopsis, since typing it is giving me a headache... oh, and, I wouldn't want to give away anything important. Suffice to say, we are treated to the expected sweeping locales (London, Rome Tangier, Mexico City and the mountains of Austria), only it's a bit diffused this time around by the aforementioned grim cinematography.

As villains go, Waltz is surprising understated and does a decent job with what he has; unfortunately, he isn't allowed much beyond boasting to Bond, "I am the author of all your pain." That provocative notion is never truly pursued.

The film does link Waltz with Bond's past, and had that been truly explored it could have made for a much more potent examination into the mind of this elusive assassin. As it stands now, I miss creepy Javier Bardem.

That dark "Skyfall" cloud seemed to cast a pall over most of "Spectre." Perhaps that's why van Hoytema decided on such a cloudy, shadowy look. Hell, even when someone turned on a light switch it didn't seem to illuminate the picture. (Sorry, I am fixated. I'll stop.)

The entire endeavor felt like it might have been compromised, like there was a battle going on behind the development scenes between picking up where "Skyfall" left off and delving deeper into Bond vs. keeping the audience entertained. Did genius director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," "Revolutionary Road") and his team of too-many talented writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth) lose too many battles with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson)? I'm just speculating.

I do know that it now feels like it was a massive mistake to kill off Dench's M. That decision was supposed to raise the stakes and signal more mental anguish for Bond to cope with.

Bond's love/hate, mother/son, mentor/mentee relationship with the Dench M is sorely missed, and as good an actor as Ralph Fiennes is, he cannot replace Dame Judi's gravitas. It doesn't help that the script has him turn on Bond almost immediately. So whom is Bond left to care about? Some new vixen half his age, of course! Because that's all middle-age secret government hit men are allowed to care about.

There was hope of a less clichéed Bond relationship early in the narrative when he hooks up with the gorgeous and age-appropriate Bellucci. Alas, the script completely discards her right after the encounter.

So we are left with tired surveillance-terror hokum for plot. More dull done-to-death mano-a-mano action crap to keep the tween boys from texting. A strangely predictable villain played by an actor who is anything but (predictable, that is as Waltz is plenty strange). And an ending that seems to promise a probable repeat of another type of typical Bond plot machination.

Bond does make a significant decision at the very end of the film that surprises (and might piss off the NRA), but it didn't completely gel with me.

Craig is perfectly suave, and always manages to allude to character paradoxes that are shamefully never fully explored by the creatives. When Swann asks him why he's an assassin, Bond replies, "I'm not sure I ever had a choice." Craig's delivery is rich with speculative wonder as if it's the first time he's ever bothered to meditate on such a profound personal question.

"You're a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond," Mr. White warns. And that's what he should be, but why is that kite so attracted to hurricanes? Perhaps the next Bond will dare to go there.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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