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Spectre (2015)

MV5BMjM2Nzg4MzkwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA0OTE3NjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It’s hard to keep a franchise that can almost count its decades on one whole hand fresh and relevant, but Daniel Craig’s time as 007 has done just that. Starting with 2006’s magnificent Casino Royale, we got a grittier Bond, a man with a bruised psychology that was interested in more than just how many bad guys he could callously kill and sexy ladies he could securely seduce. It was a franchise that modeled itself more after the Jason Bourne films, and it worked tremendously, giving the 40-year-old franchise new relevancy for modern audiences that have grown up on the Bond canon. 2012’s Skyfall was the biggest bond hit of all time, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. It was going to be a hard act to follow. Spectre, for all intents and purposes Craig’s franchise farewell, is a lousy swan song. It’s the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond era but that claim would require me to rewatch 2008’s Quantum of Solace; however, just from memory, Solace had more engaging moments, stunts, and even a better theme song, so I’ll stick with my proclamation: Spectre is the most mediocre Craig Bond.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is hunting the organization responsible for the deaths of those closest to him, namely Vesper (Eva Green) and the prior M (Judi Dench). His path has lead to the nefarious SPECTRE terrorist organization and its mysterious and feared leader (Christoph Waltz), who has his own personal reasons for causing Bond misery.

maxresdefaultThe movie’s biggest mistake was its insistence that the audience will want to know how all the events tie together as a whole. Due to this position, it makes Spectre the awkward retcon exercise it is, trying to provide winks and nods to past Craig Bond outings while saying, “Oh yeah, all that evil stuff, well this guy is The Guy behind it all.” Adding an extra layer of a criminal conspiracy doesn’t somehow make those events more interesting or provide the need for conclusion; it piggybacks off the earlier movies and pretends it has shown its own work. Spectre thinks the accumulated plot events and deaths of three movies is the same as properly setting up a story and its villains, and that’s just not the case. The other problem with trying to connect the dots to three previous movies is that Spectre has even fewer chances to stand on its own merits, which are admittedly fewer. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) is a bland addition as a Bond Girl, and oh does she pale in comparison to the capable and indispensable Rebecca Ferguson in the latest Mission: Impossible sequel. Their relationship is never as interesting or as properly developed as the film thinks. The stakes of the movie (surveillance abuse) feel too abstract and low-key, or at least poorly articulated, to feel important. If you’re going to turn the focus of the narrative on offering an apparent climax for multiple movies, it better deliver and feel like it was worth the effort, and Spectre just does not feel like that.

The other thing hat just doesn’t work is the bad guy, which is puzzling because Waltz was born to play a James Bond villain. The Craig Bonds have followed the more stripped down route even in their villains, once the parlance of the most colorful megalomaniacs that action cinema had to offer (and there’s also the eccentric henchmen). There’s a delayed buildup to revealing Waltz (Django Unchained) where other characters will talk in hushed whispers about just how dangerous and powerful the man in charge of Spectre is. A nagging problem is that we’re too often told these things without being shown them. A similar problem affected Skyfall where we spent half the film being told how dangerous and skillful its villain was, but at least Silva (Javier Bardem) lived up to the hype when he arrived, at least for a little while before degenerating into your standard psychopath. Waltz has exactly two sequences before the final showdown. That’s it, and for one of them he’s almost entirely in shadow at the end of a large table of shadowy figures. He’s not given a strong angle to play with his villain (spoilers) and his ultimate personal connection to our 007 agent feels far too forced and slight. Just like the rest of its hasty retconing, Waltz’s connection is meant to feel significant but its not dealt in any way like it should be significant. It’s almost a casual toss-off. It’s even worse when Waltz calls Bond his “cuckoo,” meant to be dark but is just really silly. Waltz is completely wasted in what is little more than a perturbed middle manager role. His climactic showdown with Bond feels impractical even for Bond movies. His downfall is even worse and made me laugh out loud how easily it all comes crashing down. If the emphasis of your movie is how the Big Bad is responsible for all the previous misfortune, then you better make sure the character was worth the wait.

spectre-daniel-craig-monica-bellucciSam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) returned to the director’s chair and stages some nicely photographed sequences, but with the exception of a stirring opening sequence, the action of Spectre is quite tame and forgettable. The opening in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations has an interesting atmosphere and an ongoing tracking shot to pull us in from the start. From there, Bond has to take out a high-profile Spectre baddie and their struggle eventually carries over into a helicopter, both men punching wildly and trying to hold on for dear life as the copter whizzes upside down repeatedly. It’s a good set piece with some fun and unique aspects, like Bond escaping the crumbling wall of a building, but it’s the sheer thrill of watching the battle inside the helicopter that makes this opener a doozey. After that, I was sad to discover that nothing could measure up. Skyfall also peaked with its opening action caper but it still held my interest as it barreled toward its conclusion. I was resisting the urge to go to sleep with Spectre. An air chase over the trails of a mountain is interesting but doesn’t evolve, which is something vital to all exciting action sequences. If the action is static, it’s most often not going to be good after the initial rush wears off. There’s a decent car chase late at night in Rome but I got to think why Bond would be fleeing just one henchman even if that paid muscle were played by physical brute David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy). The film’s budget was reportedly $245 million and I just do not know where that money went.

The Craig era will be known for revitalizing the franchise, saving it from its self-parody excesses that were swallowing the series alive. We were watching Craig’s version of 007 become the hardened, quip-heavy, flippant killing machine and womanizer, except that he doesn’t feel like that character by the end of Spectre. If the course of four films was to bring the Bond we know into fruition, then it didn’t quite work, and that personally thrills me. Craig’s character is far more interesting, haunted by the people he couldn’t save, than the action hero Bond staple. However, while Craig’s character maintained a trajectory that staid true to its aim of bringing more depth to its central hero, the series was starting to hew closer to the classic Bond mode of empty bombast, and Spectre is the final proof of this. It’s getting closer to the crazy villains and spy hijinks of old territory. It’s a story that wants climax and resolution but cannot supply it without relying heavily upon the three previous movies to supply the weight this one lacks. It’s a rather lackluster farewell for Craig, an actor who deserved better. Judging by his interviews, I think he’s just happy to be out. He’ll be missed. Spectre will not. Now bring on Idris Elba please!

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond franchise, one of the most enduring of all time, has been open to criticism since it came back in a big way with 2006’s Casino Royale. Fans have started to whine that the Bond movies are no longer the Bond they remember, and they’re probably right. In 2006, the producers decided to go back, reboot the series, and introduce a more grounded Bond, a man with more demons than quips. This backlash to a successful reboot seems so funny to me, especially considering the dubious nature of these older Bond movies. Can we all just take a moment and objectively admit that half of the Bond movies are absolutely awful? Skyfall is the third in the new Daniel Craig Bond era, and it’s received universally ecstatic reviews. It’s a fine work, surprising and satisfying in equal measure, but it’s no Casino Royale for me, but what can be?

James Bond (Craig) is recovering from a serious injury after a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally shoots Agent 007. In her defense, he was atop a speeding train battling a baddie and her boss, M (Judi Dench), ordered her to fire. In the weeks that follow, Bond is struggling to adapt. He’s lost a step physically and now has to deal with his own doubts. Naturally, this isn’t the most opportune time for crises of faith. MI6 is under attack by one of their own, a former agent turned powerful techno-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem). The man has a serious grudge against M and is exposing MI6 undercover agents to punish her. After an attack at MI6 HQ, the agency is left scrambling and sends Bond out to nab Silva, even if Bond isn’t physically ready to return to field duty. Silva is determined to kill M and destroy the agency that left him for dead.

While Skyfall is indeed a good Bond movie and worlds better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it still cannot meet the rapturous applause it’s receiving among critical circles. It starts off strong with a nifty action sequence in Istanbul (the go-to action setting for 2012). Bond is chasing a bad guy, and we go from foot chase to car chase to rumbling on top of a speeding train. And there are natural complications that take advantage of geography! When Bond hops on the train, he climbs into a construction crane to fight back, smashing open the back of the train car. It’s a terrific opener that gets things starts briskly, and the sexual chemistry between Craig and Harris (28 Days Later) is palpable. Then the movie pretty much deflates in the second half. There’s a build-up to the villain and his master plot, but once that plot is revealed the film can’t live up to the hype. There are enough plot elements that feel important but eventually get discarded. Here’s a minor example: Bond is given a handgun programmed to his palm print, so it will only fire with Bond wielding it. It’s the only gadget in the movie, so you’d expect it to be utilized in a significant way. One nameless thug uses it then gets eaten by a Komodo dragon. That is it. Seems like an awful waste of funds for it to be thrown away so casually.

The last act has a protracted finale in Scotland, exploring Bond’s ancestral home and his tragic backstory. I’d like to think the insights we’re offered are important but I don’t believe they are. Bond was an orphan (the best recruits, says M) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) was his quasi-father figure/caretaker. It’s not enough to compensate for the slack pacing and encroaching boredom present. The good guys are holed up in an estate, waiting. And that’s what you want in a Bond movie, let alone any action film, for the heroes to sit and wait. An action movie should be building to a climax of intensity, thematically as well as plot-wise. Skyfall is that rare Bond film that flirts with coming undone; each passing action sequence seems less interesting than the one before.

With Mendes directing and Roger Deakens, the greatest working cinematographer, at his disposal, this has to be the best looking Bond movie. The shot compositions are often stunning, making fine use of the visual space and the balance of light and shadow. There are even some shots that might remind you of Mendes previous films like American Beauty or Road to Perdition. Added with some above average action, it makes the thrills an even better sight. There was a fight sequence in a Chinese high-rise almost completely in unbroken silhouette, with the neon tentacles of advertisements dancing in the background. It’s a wonderful image. Even when the movie was losing me at points, I could at least admire the visuals. I was worried that Mendes would not have a deft feel for action. After all, another indie director mostly known for dramatic work, Marc Foster, helmed Solace. That selection did not work out so well, though the script was notably weak. Mendes, on the other hand, can stage some pretty exciting action sequences with judicious editing, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. He’s not exactly a knockout when it comes to constructing action sequences, but the results are more than adequate for a guy whose last two movies were Away We Go and Revolutionary Road.

For the previous Craig entries, it feels like the movies have borrowed more from Jason Bourne than Bond. They’ve gone for a grittier, darker, more realistic portrayal. Skyfall takes a very interesting angle with the character, showing a Bond coming to terms with his physical limitations. It’s a Bond that has to confront his most nefarious foe: aging. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells the agent that the whole spy business is “a young man’s game.” In the old days, you needed men with lairs in volcanoes and giant doomsday lasers. Now you can send the world into irreversible chaos with a laptop. Skyfall is at its most engaging when it confronts the old world of spies and the scary new world of technology. Can the Queen and MI6 compete or will they be left behind? Bond and his organization must confront their limitations and mortality, and this added dimension of vulnerability makes the series far more emotionally resonant.

Here’s my main problem with the villain: it’s a bait and switch affair that leads to unfulfilled potential. Silva has been spoken of with such awe, a man who could bring governments to their knees with the click of a button. He’s made out to be this dangerous cyber-terrorist genius. So what happens for the second half of the movie? He chases people around and shoots guns. It’s like Skyfall completely forgets what made their villain special. Bardem gives a flamboyant performance with an extra dash of actorly nuttiness, but it’s nowhere near the memorable menace of 2007’s No Country for Old Men. That’s an unfair comparison, I know, but where the movie really starts losing it is when Silva loses it. He becomes just another garden variety psychopath, though one with a creepy oedipal complex. Psychopaths do not work in the James Bond universe. Agent 007 needs a foil that is smart, not crazy and a mad genius rather than mad. I recognize that Silva’s psychological shambles is meant to be a sign of the potential fate of all agents, let alone agents that are given up by M. That doesn’t mean you abandon all the traits that make the villain who he is. The problem with Silva, despite a rather jarring monologue about the effects of surviving a cyanide capsule, peaks with his first appearance. He has a grand entrance and places Bond in a very precarious position, forcing him to confront his physical failures. That’s the villain I want to see. And the awkward handsiness of Silva will also lead many to question whether he’s gay, which wouldn’t matter if the movie wasn’t so clunky.

It also feels like Skyfall may be the conclusion to this incarnation of Bond. I know Craig has been signed for two more films, and that’s great news as he’s fully made the character his own at this point, but the movie seems to setup the Bond we’re better acquainted with. We started from scratch with Casino Royale and now the familiar world, with the reemergence of familiar characters, is coming into focus. The scenes with the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a gangly whiz kid, are enjoyable and they contribute thematically to the old vs. new/age vs. youth conflict at heart. This feels like a transition film, meant to pass from the bruising realism into the polished pyrotechnics of the franchise’s past. There’s a reason the famous gun barrel shot happens to conclude the movie, because by the end of those 142 minutes, it now feels like the formation of James Bond has completed. There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Bond aficionados to lap up. Even the (lackluster) title song by Adele is in the vein of the old Shirley Bassey numbers.

While not living up to the exultant hype machine, Skyfall is certainly a good Bond movie, though not nearly good enough to be in the conversation of the best. The action starts strong but is prone to diminishing returns especially as the movie transforms into a more ordinary action thriller. The most memorable sequence is in the opening, which isn’t a very good sign for the rest of the movie. It’s still a suitable action movie, and one that pays closer attention at character for a character that’s lived for 50 years in various film incarnations, but just because it pays more attention to character doesn’t mean it does it well. Perhaps I’ve just become spoiled after the artistic and commercial heights of Casino Royale. This is still an entertaining movie that often looks great and has some great actors doing suitable work. We’re still far and away from the loonier Pierce Brosnan episodes, so there is that. I imagine audiences will be more favorable than I am and make Skyfall the most successful James Bond film in history. That’s fine because it feels like, with everything established, that we’re about to hit a new and exciting phase with Craig’s version of the character, and that will leave me shaken and stirred.

Nate’s Grade: B

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Never as good as a film should be given the talent involved, nor as bad as its detractors might have you believe, Cowboys & Aliens is an entertaining genre mash-up that’s about 60 percent Western, 30 percent alien thriller, and 10 percent naked Olivia Wilde, which is too small a percentage in my opinion. For a solid hour, the movie follows the rhythms of classic Westerns and Daniel Craig has a face vividly made for the Western canvas. The sci-fi elements feel well integrated in small doses, however, when the movie goes all-out intergalactic gun slinging is when the narrative gets swallowed whole by the crude blockbuster nature of this beast. The plot is pretty standard Man with a Dark Past stuff, and can we put a moratorium on people suffering amnesia and choosing to be better people? The characters never really feel real but they feel believably stock for their genre. For a PG-13 movie, the violence can get pretty gruesome, especially in its gooey disembodiment of the alien invaders. You almost feel sorry for these nefarious gold-hoarding (yes, you read that right, the aliens are after our gold – Glen Beck was right!) creatures. The action sequences are a notch above average, the emphasis on practical effects is appreciated, and the movie takes some darkly comic turns, which kept me amused even when the movie’s IQ was dropping at a precipitous rate for the last act. Cowboys & Aliens never pretends to be anything more, or smarter, than its blunt title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Nothing says holiday treat for the whole family like a nearly three-hour movie about rape. Late author Stieg Larsson’s best-selling trilogy made three very successful Swedish films, all released last year in indie theaters. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood optioned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, benefiting those averse to reading subtitles. At least they hired the right director in David Fincher, a man used to plumbing the depths of human depravity in films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Fincher’s take is pretty dark and hardcore, but once you wash all that perfectionist grime off, I prefer the Swedish film in just about every way.

Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is smarting from a court case that found him guilty of libel. He’s commissioned by a wealthy businessman Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his granddaughter, Harriet. Henrik strongly believes she was murdered by one of the sinister members of his extended family, a group of shady characters with some allegiance to Nazism. Mikael is assisted by the unorthodox computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a rail-thin Gothic gal clad in tattoos and piercings. Their partnership sometimes gets blurry as they grow closer over the course of the investigation. Together the pair investigates a series of grisly, ritualistic murders related to Harriet’s disappearance, and the closer they get to discover the truth the more dangerous things get.

So the burning question: is Fincher’s take better than the original Swedish version? Well, in some areas yes but in many areas I’d have to say no, that I prefer the lower budget, no-name Swedish version. Obviously a director of Fincher’s caliber is going to significantly raise the quality of a production, and the technical merits of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo are without question. This is a seedy, grimy, prurient, and very dark (in both lighting and thematic material) little movie. There’s always been an eerie beauty to Fincher’s cool aesthetics, and it’s on display here as well. Many of Fincher’s Social Network crew carried right over to Dragon Tattoo, so the editing is crisp, the cinematography sleek, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is a storm of ominous tones. Their plaintive score is actually a fairly unmemorable muddle, never approaching the energy, intricacy, or diversity of their Oscar-winning score for The Social Network. However, the extra polish and the glut of familiar actors takes away from the intrigue of the movie. When something meant to be gritty is too artistically stunning, it detracts from the thematic intent of the story. That sounds like a contrary way to insult Fincher for making his movie look too good, but perhaps that’s the best way of stating the point. Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere near the filmmaker that Fincher is, nor did he have the budget or creative freedom afforded Fincher, but perhaps someone of lesser talents was better suited to best tell this tale. By all means, the American Dragon Tattoo is a more visually alluring film, but Oplev’s film is more fully felt. I recently rewatched the Swedish version again for points of comparison and found myself much more involved in the characters, the story, and the actors, even though I had already seen the movie. Fincher’s version may be the better-looking movie, but surprisingly Oplev’s is just the better movie, period.

The adaptation by Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List) actually hews closer to Larsson’s book than the Swedish film, though Zallian redirects the film into a new ending. But the additions don’t seem to add anything of substance to the narrative (Blomkvist’s teenage daughter; dead cat), and the new ending feels more confused than helpful. Most of all, Zallian’s script devotes less time to the characters of Lisbeth and Blomkvist. I had a better understanding of these characters and their complicated, shifting relationship in the Swedish film. That narrative was much cleaner with helpful, clarifying procedural details and a dose of ambiguity. Simply put, the story just flowed better in the Swedish film. The personal connection Blomkvist had to Harriet (she was his babysitter long ago) has also been severed. Many of the story’s problems are still the same regardless of language or adapter. There is a clear disparity when it comes to audience interest in the two leads. What’s more interesting, a punky, bisexual, computer hacker or a disgraced, somewhat bland journalist? Exactly. Also, the story takes far too long to put our lead characters together, over an hour at that. The murder mystery is filled with murky plot points, pieces that seem like they might be integral but then turn out to be incidental. It takes a good while to process and familiarize oneself with the expository details of the case, but under Zallian’s draft, the mystery is given less room to breath. For a movie clocking in at 150 minutes, things feel untidy and rushed. The resolution feels drawn out to ungodly Lord of the Rings-lengths; I swear there must be a solid 20 minutes after the eventual serial killer is dealt with. It just feels like it goes on forever. Still, the characters are what ultimately makes Dragon Tattoo engaging, and Zallian’s efforts cannot dampen the captivating, curious nature of Lisbeth Salander.

Both Craig and Mara give fine performances but I prefer both Swedish actors to the A-listers. Craig is certainly a better actor than his Swedish counterpart, but the role is a middle-aged journalist and not James Bond, and thus a better fit for the unknown Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist (Mission: impossible: Ghosts Protocol). Blomkvist isn’t supposed to be an ass-kicker. As a result, you don’t feel his terror as he gets in deeper and lands in serious physical jeopardy. Likewise, following in Noomi Rapace’s  (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) shoes was going to be a difficult feat for any actress, but Fincher got the girl he wanted, Mara, who tore down Mark Zuckerberg with precision in The Social Network. Mara commits herself completely to the role and undergoes a severe physical transformation (bleached eyebrows, wiry frame, nipple piercings), but she lacks the intensity of Rapace, the spiteful attitude, the recklessness and the resourcefulness. Rapace felt like a caged animal that could explode at any moment; Mara feels more like a lost puppy. I’m being intentionally cavalier with my word choice. Mara is quite good as Lisbeth; it’s just that Mara can’t quite measure up to the preceding tattooed girl. It feels like there’s a lot more going on with the Swedish Salander, whereas the American (still Swedish) Salander is waiting for her cue. It’s like Mara has dressed the part and waits for the character to just click over.

I’m not one for lazy analysis, but I feel like the uncomfortable issue of sexual violence/ voyeurism needs to be addressed, and I find that everything I wrote a year ago in my original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review could readily apply to its Hollywood counterpart. So here goes: “The book’s original title was ‘Men Who Hate Women’ and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies’ appeal.”

For those new to Lisbeth and Larsson’s sordid saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will more than likely play well, a squalid thriller with the nicest coat of gloss you could ever hope for given the material. This is dark, rape-heavy stuff, and an odd adult drama to position as a Christmas release, but the collective appeal of the best-selling books should guarantee so many butts in the seats. It’s likely a safe bet that a high majority of those paying customers are unfamiliar with the Swedish version of the same story, which is a shame because, short of a few technical advances, I believe the Swedish film to be the superior movie. It had better acting, more appropriate casting, a rounder narrative that fleshed out the characters, their relationships, and their histories better, and a better score (sorry Trent, better luck next time). It’s still a movie that registers a “good” on most critical accounts, and Lisbeth Salander is still a fascinating person, a wounded warrior that catches the imagination. I’ll be curious to see if the subtitle-free Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does well enough at the box-office to warrant filming the next two decidedly lesser books. Whatever the case, there will always be the Swedish films and Ms. Rapace’s star-making performance.

Nate’s Grade: B

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