16 November 2015

First Impressions: SPECTRE

A new Bond film is always a special occasion - after all, we've only got 24 of them. It's the prototype for the modern movie, the modern action blockbuster, a series whose longevity and sustained popularity has guaranteed that everyone in 2015 knows who Ursula Andress is. It's a franchise so eternal that even years of horrible, horrible films in the franchise won't destroy it. It's immortal unlike so many other pretenders to the throne, with a truly interchangeable line-up of actors and directors all contributing to one boozy, womanizing narrative that weaves in the occasional jetpack and mild racism.
Aiieee!! Bond in a tactileneck!

So that brings us to SPECTRE (2015), which comes hot on the heels of Skyfall (2012), which is totally the best Bond movie made in the lifetime of anyone who reads blogs (even if I picked the one that inspired the video game that caused my eyes to bleed in the late 90s). Expectations are pretty high, with most of the core talent returning. The end result is obviously disappointing. We'll get to that, but let's take a second and talk about what works. SPOILERS everywhere, so tread carefully. Or just close the window and never return. I dare you.

SPECTRE unfortunately never gets better than its opening, but holy shitballs, what an opening. It's obviously the best introduction to any Bond film ever, and probably the best of the year. Largely wordless, the camera tracks a Day of the Dead celebration in Los Mexico, in particular one sinister looking douche in a white jacket, and then a mysterious dude in a bones-suit (be Bond for next Halloween!) and mask, strutting with a pretty lady. There's a split second where you see Daniel Craig's eyes, which incredibly convey everything you need to know to identify Bond. It's an intense, analytical focus, scanning his surroundings for both his prey and how he might apprehend him.

It's a little jarring to see Bond in disguise, because he really doesn't go maskless too much. Bond's whole thing is that he never uses codenames, which is what Archer always makes fun of, although he has done worse. But his rapid change into the classic debonair suit gives a solid pay-off. Part of why Daniel Craig works so well is that he can wear the hell out of a suit. He looks so damn good and completely comfortable cajoling around the rooftops of Mexico City, sauntering with determined purpose and an effortless melange of cool, casual, class, and bitter darkness that make it impossible to take your eyes off him.

The scene then escalates more and more with severe repercussions that we eventually learn about. Bond is acting without MI6's jurisdiction here, which makes him more or less a rogue assassin, a point that's eluded to a few times in the picture. All this really deliberate and captivating pacing is lost a bit in the helicopter action sequence that enfolds. There's less an action-reaction flow of beats than a prolonged struggle that gets muddled without significant changes or little consequences to make the action engaging. I wouldn't have totally picked up on this without Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) or this video essay. So, thanks a lot for ruining complacent, meaningless action for me, George Miller.

This is something that continuously bogs down SPECTRE. Every time the film shifted into action my mind wandered and waited until we got back to the narrative at hand. So let's talk about John Harrison.

I can see that becoming nomenclature as infamous as "nuke the fridge" but at least Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is finally leaving a mark on pop culture, as ignominious as it may be. I don't totally understand the rationale there - I suppose it's to create this mystery box where the audience doesn't know that a major antagonist is actually in the movie, but there's not a tremendous point when the reveal makes no difference to the protagonists so nothing is actually shocking. It's weird fan service that's actually disservice because it deprives us of hype. Hype us up!

For those of you lost, Star Trek Into Darkness insisted that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing a new character named John Harrison instead of the most classic villain ever, Khan Noonen Singh from Wrath of Khan (1982). Of course, he was revealed to be Khan, and no one really cared because they were told that Khan was a bad dude rather than experiencing any pain that Khan actually caused that was the original reason for the Galaxy to fear him.

SPECTRE swore to its dying breath that Christoph Waltz was Franz Oberhauser and not Ernst Stavro Blofield, who hasn't been seen on film in an astounding 44 years despite being Bond's most classic nemesis. Of course Waltz was Blofield. Technically he's also Oberhauser in the film, but of course he's Blofield. And he is introduced very well. There is an absolute dread to his introduction scene that Sam Mendes draws out with spectacular precision. But the name doesn't matter at all. Why not just go with Blofield the whole way instead of swearing up and down that you're not doing it?

Despite being in the film for a relatively short period of time, two-time Academy Award winner Waltz's Blofield is a totally sinister presence that perhaps walks a line that doesn't quite know how to straddle between menace and goofiness. The final scene in the derelict, bombed-out MI6 headquarters plays like something the Joker would conjure up for Batman - but is that really appropriate for the character of Blofield? The most feared man in the underworld? It's entertaining but doesn't quite gel with the rest of the film.

I'm also curious what Blofield's evil plot actually was. The film wisely avoids any villainous pontificating, but it's still not really clear. Sure he's going to control the Intelligence of the world's nine most powerful countries and stimulate terrorist attacks to stir fear to get what he wants (echoes of this past Friday's tragedy in Paris run strong - although conflating ISIS with corporate machinations is a dangerous fallacy), but then what? He also wanted to destroy Bond, but it's not like he sought him out. I's more happenstance that Bond followed M's orders and wound up stumbling upon Blofield. Speaking of that, how did M get the tip on the dude in Mexico City anyway? She's SPECTRE!

If you can't tell already, some of these inconsistencies start adding up, and despite a film that has all these really great moments the whole of it feels incomplete. There's almost this complete journey from the stripped down, no gadgets, no help, "realistic" Casino Royale (2006) to SPECTRE, which has a lot more of these classic campy elements, but isn't necessarily a campy film. Compare the torture scene in Casino to SPECTRE. Blofield's mind drill machine emulates nostalgic Bond but also don't really fit with the Casino Royale modern Bond. Not like that's bad, they were still good scenes, but it represents this slight tonal shift that's more on the heels of updating classic Bond rather than tearing it down and rebooting it. One has got to think this is motivated by the success of Skyfall. We even get as close as you can get to a secret Volcano lair without being totally ridiculous.

And actually, the torture didn't work, right? Like, it didn't scramble Bond's brain. What was Blofield trying to do? It ended up being another needless scene that didn't offer any lasting damage. Bond is like, picking off guys with expert marksman precision moments after getting a drill in his brain. What the hell?

This is still the most complete Blofield we're going to get in the modern era. Although the reveal that he and Bond were sort of foster brothers sounds waaayy too much like the Austin Powers / Dr. Evil reveal in Goldmember (2002) for me to be totally comfortable. I'm awfully curious to see if they keep Waltz for future installments, even if more and more it seems like the Craig era is drawing to a close.

As far as other baddies go, Dave Bautista's Mr. Hinx has a name that slides in very well with classic Big Bond Henchmen, and he's a total menace on screen with another great introductory scene, but Bautista is sort of wasted after he showed he can actually do some acting in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Not like he's not a huge and terrifying presence whenever he's on screen here, but it seems like a step back for him rather than the step forward it could have been had he had a little bit more personality.
Finally, a Blofield who likes milk!

All of this works to finally truly provide an updated Bond for the modern century, although it did so at the complete expense of the normal Bond continuity that only held its previous movies to the loosest standards. It's clear in SPECTRE that this is all the chronicle of a very specific iteration of Bond in a specific stretch of time. It's an odd thing to complain about, but the film had too much reliance on the previous three films, which bogged it down quite a bit. Perhaps that's just because of the odd things it chose to latch on to. I have no idea who Mr. White is, he was never a major character until now, despite appearing in both Casino and Quantum of Solace (2008). I'm also still to this day confused about the nature of Vesper Lynd's death, and it'd be nice if that was something that they focused on as still haunting Bond, and while it's clear that it is, it's clearly on the periphery. Bond is more notable for being solo outings, these were tenuous connections that came off forced instead of relevatory.

SPECTRE also stood out to me as letting all the other cronies get involved, which seemed novel for a Bond film. It's not often that M, Q, Moneypenny, and even good ol' Bill Tanner are all in the mix in the field. I think I liked that aspect. It's certainly more interesting to have that sort of power structure, even if it'd be nice if Moneypenny fired a gun once in a while. She is a trained agent, after all. It's at least better than this.

And that just about sums up where the Bond Franchise is now. No matter how misplaced or misfired things may seem, when you have a fifty-year history to fall back on there's always someone who did it worse. It allows for a forgiving bent to reviews like this, but I'm left feeling really divided over SPECTRE. If I were to slot it in to that Definitive List of Bond Flicks, I might split For Your Eyes Only (1977) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1981) in the 7th spot. That's pretty good, I guess. Its positives end up outweighing its negatives. At least in the first twenty-four hours of seeing it. Maybe I'll change my tune in thirty years.

Oh, and Monica Bellucci was also totally wasted and probably raped. Why didn't they learn to not have date rape after Skyfall? And this wasn't even date rape, it was like, rape rape. Not really okay.

11 November 2015

The Definitive Ranking of Bond Films, from mostly Childhood Memories

I've seen every Bond film at some point or another. More often than not this was during my formative years when I'd crush Bond after Bond from Blockbuster. That's a very old-fashioned sentence. I say this because after seeing a ton of rankings and lists this past week in build-up to SPECTRE (2015), I was compelled to re-examine what I've always thought to be the good ones and the shitty ones. I'm totally influenced by being a 90s kid and typically fueled by fun camp. Before we go any further, I do want to reiterate that there is actually one definitive assessment of every Bond ever, and that's Film Crit Hulk right here. Spend a few days on that (literally) and then come back. I'll be here.

Great. Now let's dive in, and without having seen SPECTRE yet, let's go through the other 23 films so far, with mostly childhood reasons why they are or aren't shitty:

The Super Shitty Ones:

23: The World is Not Enough (1999)

Sweet Joseph, Christmas Jones. Sorry, Dr. Christmas Jones. Needless to say, none of these reviews are going to be good - but I thought this movie was really dumb when I was thirteen years old. Thirteen! Isn't everything dumb, loud, and flashy supposed to be great for a thirteen-year old boy?! My surviving memory is some chase in a pneumatic tube or something. It's amazing how many older movies I have more accurate memories of.

22: A View to a Kill (1985)

This was the one with Chris Walken and Grace Jones and somehow the latter was the way better and more memorable villain. Roger Moore was 58 years old when this came out. 58! Something happened on the Golden Gate bridge, I forget what. Was it like a big gas attack or something? I always thought that that would be the view right, from atop the bridge? Damn ambiguous title.

21: Octopussy (1983)

I'm pretty sure I caught this during those marathons they now run on Spike but I think used to be on TNT or something. I have this definitive memory of sitting down to watch this some November afternoon and looking forward to it because the name is obviously very funny. It's still one of the more blatantly-named bonds (eight vaginas! get it?!), but I can't remember a single thing that happened in this one.

20: Die Another Day (2002)

This is the most modern movie that I remember pretty thoroughly that I also remember being fucking terrible. It was far too outrageous, which I think hampered it in the wake of The Bourne Identity (2002), which came out the same year. If you doubt that, check out the first two Daniel Craig flicks, which are totally Bourne-driven. I did think that that diamond-face guy was pretty cool and the North Korea stuff was a new prescient danger, but this plot made no sense. How did this random Korean guy become the super-respectable British Elite Gustav Graves? And Madonna! For fuck's sake. I'm listening to that now, I forgot just how awful that theme song was.

19: Quantum of Solace (2008)

Film School Rejects ranked this #4, and while I typically respect that site, they're way off on this one. The Opera scene is unique, but the always felt like a whiffed punt after the majesty of Casino Royale (2006). It purportedly was to spend its running time featuring Bond hunting down the secret crime syndicate that murdered Vesper Lynd (or did she kill herself? Why was that death so muddled), only to prove that it would gain a modicum of solace (a...quantum), and thus affirm Bond as this cold and distant lover of women and killer of men. Instead it was about some water shortage in Bolivia. What the hell? It does have one of the best themes, though.

18: You Only Live Twice (1967)

I actually saw this on TV pretty recently and was struck by how damn racist it is. It's not necessarily a terrible Bond film, but holy shit, the racism. So much racism. It's clear that Sean Connery is kind of sleep-walking through the role, and it's not surprising that he bolted right after. Even if it has the best Blofield (Donald Pleasance), it can't get out of the way of its own shittiness.

17: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

I've only really seen bits and pieces of this, which is a shame, because Indie Wire ranked it at #1. It's probably better than I remember, but the presence of George Lazenby in ruffled shirts and winking at the audience is always sort of a barrier to big Bond fans. It's low because it had no influence on my childhood at all, but I need to see it again.
Also as a child I couldn't understand
why Richard Kiel wasn't in JAWS (1975)

16: Moonraker (1979)

Bond in Space! It's about time! No, the plot makes no sense, but who cares, this is Roger Moore. Jaws is back as the most Dick Tracy-like Bond Villain ever for no real reason besides the fact that he's a huge popular monster man. Hugo Drax is a really cool name and the yellow jumpsuit costumes are pretty iconic. That's all I remember.

The Not-So-Great Ones:

15: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

This was coming off GoldenEye (1995), which as a nine-year old, was my earliest introduction to a new Bond film. It always gained a lot of good will from that, but it's a clearly inferior movie, despite a red hot Teri Hatcher - real and spectacular. And Keira Knightly's dad from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies! He's there! Oh, he's in there.

14: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

I always thought this concept was really cool - it's a sort of pared down Bond - just him and Christopher Lee being all Saru-Dracula on an island with evil mirror halls and Tattoo screaming at him and giving him chickens and stuff. The investigative murder mystery was pretty engaging and the mono e mono finale is rare for a Bond flick.

13: Diamonds are Forever (1971)

I was about to write this off, but then I remembered that this was a super-Blofield film. I remember something about an elevator shaft. That was sweet. Blofield and elevator shaft. I'm all over it.

12: The Living Daylights (1987)

I'll admit that I never liked the Tim Dalton Bonds as a kid, probably because they were these dark and moody pictures that strayed from the high camp and zaniness of Roger Moore. There's not a lot in my mind that now differentiates these two, but License to Kill (1989) had the coolest title ever, so it gets the bump.

11: License to Kill (1989)

As you can tell, this is a pretty honest assessment based on having not seen a few of these movies in literally like twenty years. For that reason this is partly based on my own experiences, memory, cultural reputation, and public recognition. I remember really wanting a License to Kill as a kid, and then being disappointed that the movie didn't feature enough explosions or goofy side characters.

10: Live and Let Die (1973)

There's not much more you could ask for here. Snakes. Weird shaman voodoo rituals. Partying in Harlem and in the Big Easy. Awkward American local cops. Jane Seymour's boobs. This is the ultimate Bond films for young and dumb boys, which made it a perfect Saturday afternoon for yours truly. Roger Moore's first effort isn't really his best, but I remain a big fan of who is probably the worst Bond.
"I'll find him for three, but
I'll catch him and kill him for ten."

9: From Russia with Love (1963)

This flick is often considered one of the best Bonds, and for that reason I actually watched it again two or three years ago, and I was struck by how damn boring it was. It's a slow burn for sure, and that train sequence against Quint is great, but it couldn't capture my boy attention. I might need to check it out when I'm less tired, because I'm typically a big fan of the slow burns, but for now I'm shitting on this one. It's still just out of reach of the only eight good films.

The Good Ones:

8: Casino Royale (2006)

You might be up in arms because Casino Royale has a weirdly devoted following, but I'll knock points off for it unashamedly jumping on the mid-2000s Poker Crazy, while having Mathis narrate everything like a tool, and then just refusing to end, ever. The intro is still spectacular, but just think - Bond never kills the bad guy, and actually doesn't really do anything significant at the climax. That may make it the best Bond ever, actually, but it has pacing problems that clutter its final act. Which is totally like a fourth act.

7: For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Only because I'm trying to not look it up - one of these Roger Moore Bonds was the one with the skiing, which was pretty sweet, and the other one I remember thinking would be really dumb because of its wimpy title, but instead, it was sweet. I think this had the skiing and the other one was the one that ruled.

6: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

It's a painful lesson to learn as a little kid -  Bond films with cool titles like License to Kill sucked and ones with wussy titles like The Spy who Loved Me were really good. This remains Roger Moore's most balanced Bond outing before we get into the 80s and a near non-stop string of terrible, terrible motion pictures.

5: Thunderball (1965)

Underwater harpoon shootings! That's my primary Thunderball memory and it's pretty solid. Plus they had that eyepatch guy. Lavro? Largo! Okay, I looked that up. Why did my mind go to Lavro before Largo? These are my reviews.

4: Dr. No (1962)

I don't think I had actually seen Dr. No as a kid for some reason, but I caught it pretty recently, like, within the last five or six years. It's remarkable how much groundwork this laid for the series, which is mostly due to director Terence Young, who was totally just Bond himself. It's so chock full of establishing iconography, from the prototypical evil mastermind's layer to Ursula Andress' beach entrance, which now seems to be referenced every couple of years, even if by accident.

3: Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall is so good that I rank it #3 despite its casual date rape scene and ending return towards proper English patriarchy that's crazily non-progressive. And it's horrible evil gay stereotyped villain is intensely problematic, although I almost like the idea more that he seduces Bond out of the spy's own perceived uncomfortableness rather than a play on the inherent "evil people are gay" thing. So...#3. It's the most beautifully shot Bond ever, has the third best Bond song ever (Behind "Goldfinger" and "Dr. NOOOOOOO"), and is a precisely articulated and orchestrated film with one of the most memorable Home Alone (1990)-themed endings ever.

2: GoldenEye (1995)

Besides introducing us to Pierce Brosnan, who is by far the best Bond to appear in the worst movies, along with some classic Cold War-era villains headed by the perfect evil counter to Bond, and just the right mix of darkness, camp, and intensity, DK and paintball mode, Complex, Power Weapons. Enough said. Yeah, it has nothing to do with the merit of the movie, but c'mon. Jungle. Train. Runway - aaahhh! Runway!

1: Goldfinger (1964)

The best villain, Sean Connery doing his best work as our titular hero, the best Bond Girl, the best plot, the best henchman, and a film that damn well stands up today just as good as it did fifty years ago, Goldfinger is the undisputed end all to all Bond films. I saw it most recently in probably 2007 or 2008, which seems like a long time ago, but hell, that was when Quantum of Solace came out and no one gives a shit about that.

So, what do you think? I need to re-watch a ton of these, I know, but as far as a litmus test of cultural memory goes, it's LEGIT.

Needless to say, Never Say Never Again (1983) doesn't fucking count.

Disagree? You really should. Leave one below.
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