Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)

Spectre-t2-007

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

The opening sequence is excellently staged and visually stunning. A prologue set in Mexico City, it features thousands of extras in fabulous Day of the Dead costumes and beautiful make-up. The first shot lasts 234 seconds, finds James Bond in the crowd then seductively follow him into a hotel, up in a lift, into a bedroom, out onto the balcony, across rooftops and finally into his sniper position. There appear to be three ‘hidden’ edits, but the audacity of the scene – the scale, the ambition, the done-for-real image of Daniel Craig jumping from one building to the next – is sensational. The whole sequence is graceful and intriguing, and the music is terrific too. Sadly, the rest of the film just can’t live up to it. Spectre is a basic story about bad guys wanting surveillance technology – hardly cutting-edge stuff. And despite a countdown to the system coming online, no one is really under any immediate threat so there’s precious little tension. It’s A-to-B plotting with Bond stumbling from one vague clue to the next, and there’s some remarkably unpolished dialogue. The fatal phrase “As you know…” is said twice, while Moneypenny gets a clunker in a scene with Bond: “I think you’ve got a secret, and it’s something you won’t tell anyone.” Also, whereas Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall had self-confidence and took risks, this nervously plays to the crowd. For example, it keeps reminding you that you’re watching a film. For geeks, there are *numerous* nods to old Bond movies (From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die…); for Joe Public, there are cheesy gags involving sofas and Frank Sinatra songs. After the panache of the earlier Daniel Craig films, it’s disappointing to see the series run home to mummy. It’s Bond, so of course it’s watchable. But it’s also riddled with problems. Seven cuckoos out of 10.

Bond: We see his London flat, which is sparsely furnished. (“Have you just moved in?” asks Moneypenny.) For the first time in the film series there’s significant discussion of what happened to 007’s parents (they were killed in a climbing accident). We also get a look at a psychological-assessment form Bond’s filled in: he’s answered ‘Do you feel scared?’ and ‘Are you regretful?’ with two out of 10; but ‘General temper/mood’ gets six. In this film, 007 never seems to be hurt physically – even when repeatedly battered by a sumo-sized henchman or, you know, *actually tortured*. It’s a shame after the work the other Daniel Craig films did in making Bond less of a cartoon superhero. Given the chance to kill the main baddie at the end, Bond pretends he’s out of bullets, walks away and resigns from MI6. He then drives off into the sunset, perhaps marking the end of Craig’s tenure…

Villains: Assassin Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) features in the pre-titles and is killed by Bond. Andrew Scott plays Max Denbigh, the smarmy head of the Joint-Intelligence Service, an organisation made up of the merged MI5 and MI6. His official code name is C, which is used by the heads of the real-life MI6. Right from the word go it’s clear he’s bad news – and not just because they’ve cast Moriarty from Sherlock. In Rome, Bond spies on a gathering of criminal cartel Spectre. There we meet Franz Oberhauser (a fruity Christoph Waltz), who was Bond’s foster brother during childhood. We’re also introduced to Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista), a mostly mute man-mountain of a henchman. Thanks to something he overhears at the meeting Bond then tracks down Mr White (Jesper Christensen), the shadowy bad guy who worked for Quantum in Daniel Craig’s first two movies. There’s an attempt here to retcon the previous three films and turn the whole post-reboot era of Bond into one grand, unified story arc. It’s not convincing, especially when it comes to the events of Skyfall, while the unpopular Quantum of Solace is notably referred to less often than the others. When Oberhauser re-enters the story at the 97-minute mark (yes, 97 minutes – of 142), it’s at his desert retreat. The fact the base is hidden inside a crater should tip you off what’s going to happen next: he reveals that he’s rechristened himself Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He has a white cat and everything, and plans to control the global flow of surveillance information (yawn). After being caught in an explosion, he ends up with a distinctive scar on his face. The fact that Oberhausen is actually Blofeld was the worst-kept secret in geekdom, but it’s a strange thing to hold back. The reveal has no power in the story. (Man we’ve never heard of now uses different name! Film at 11!)

Girls: In the Mexico City scene, Bond is with a beautiful woman (played by Stephanie Sigman) but we never learn anything about her. His investigation then leads him to Sciarra’s widow, Lucia. Monica Bellucci is appropriately sexy in the role, but it’s a nothing character. In the film for just seven minutes, she sleeps with Bond and helpfully gives him his next clue. After an hour, Bond meets Dr Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), who’s Mr White’s daughter and a psychologist working at an institute in the Alps. She has a few nice moments but – despite all the usual PR guff about her being different from all the previous Bond girls – is a very passive character. She’s a damsel who needs saving/protecting; stands around while men discuss the plot; then wanders off simply so she can get captured. Looks great in an evening gown, mind. There are also a few mentions of the much better Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale – not a helpful comparison.

Regulars: The MI6 team established in Skyfall is back. M (Ralph Fiennes) is again tremendous and soulful. Q (Ben Whishaw) is again classy and funny. Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) is again difficult to like – it’s an example of a film thinking a strong female character has to be cocky and cold. Also returning is Rory Kinnear for his third appearance as MI6 chief of staff Bill Tanner. No disrespect to Kinnear, an actor I like very much, but why go to the bother of reintroducing Moneypenny and then keep Tanner? Having both is redundant. She has nothing to do after the 45-minute mark and it’s embarrassing how she’s reduced to holding folders and sitting in cars. Early on, an uncredited Judi Dench cameos in a video the previous M recorded before her death. She sets the plot rolling without actually giving Bond the key information he needs. Felix Leiter gets a mention. As well as Blofeld in his first Bond movie for over 30 years, his cat also returns.

Action: The pre-titles sequence has a big explosion, a collapsing building and a punch-up in a helicopter. A car chase is Rome is skillfully combined with a conversation about the plot (love the shots of Moneypenny on the other end of the phone, looking in her fridge as she chats to Bond). However, the action takes place in bizarrely empty streets. Rome, one of the world’s busiest cities, is *deserted*. The same problem exists elsewhere too – Bond’s bruising brawl on a train with Mr Hinx doesn’t attract a single other passenger or conductor, while the film’s final act must be the quietest that central London has ever been. In Austria, Bond (in a plane) chases Mr Hinx (in a car). The destruction of Blofeld’s Moroccan base features the biggest explosion ever carried out for a movie – it used 8,140 litres of kerosene and 24 charges, each with a kilogram of high explosives. The film’s final half-hour includes a car crash, lots of running around the old MI6 building in Vauxhall, and a helicopter smashing into Westminster Bridge. Nothing in the film matches, say, the flamboyance of Casino Royale’s foot-chase or the grandeur of Skyfall’s climax.

Comedy: The first laugh comes when Bond slides off a building and lands on a battered old sofa. (When I saw this film at the cinema, a guy behind me laughed so hard I assume he’d just discovered how a joke works.) When Bond visits Q’s lab, Q prepares an injection. “Now, you may feel a little–” he says. Bond yelps in pain as the needle hits. “–prick,” finishes Q. A moment later, Bond is shown a flashy Aston Martin DB10 but then told it’s for 009; instead Q just gives him a watch. “Does it do anything?!” deadpans an angry 007. In a scene where she finds a present from Bond on her desk, Moneypenny is asked by M if it’s her birthday. “No, sir,” she replies, then adds to herself: “That was last week.” During the Rome car chase, Bond tries activating one of his Aston Martin’s gizmos – but accidentally switches on some camp music. In a hotel room with Madeline, James playfully aims his gun at a mouse (“Who sent you?” he says). If you’re a Bond nerd like me, a safe house called Hildebrand will make you chuckle. Near the end, M gets the best line in the film. Denbigh (aka C) has been revealed to be a traitor and pulls a gun on M. He suggests that M stands for moron, but then discovers his gun isn’t loaded. M smiles: “And now we know what C stands for…”

Music: A second James Bond score from Thomas Newman. It’s really good – especially during the action climax when it’s relentless and a bit Dark Knight-ish. The theme song, Writing’s On The Wall by Sam Smith, is amongst the most boring pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

Personal connection: I first saw this film at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road with my pal Fraser Dickson on Thursday 29 October 2015.

My 30 favourite films

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So, a few years ago – in order to complete an Empire magazine readers’ poll – I set about compiling my top 10 films. Narrowing them down that far was too tough, and I ended up with a shortlist of 30. Since that time, I’ve made one change: GoodFellas was reluctantly dropped for the most recent movie on the list.

I’ve added links to any films I’ve blogged about elsewhere on this site, whilst clips indicate my favourite five…

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

D.O.A. (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

Skyfall

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

The most recent James Bond outing is tremendous entertainment, full of vim and zip and energy. It’s also an engaging character story that weaves M and Bond’s pasts together for a sensational final act. “Where are we going?” asks M at one point. “Back in time,” replies Bond… The last half-hour is mostly set at Bond’s childhood home, and sees him given two surrogate parents. As the trio defend the house from the bad guys’ assault, the movie becomes some kind of hybrid of Straw Dogs and The A-Team, and it’s gripping stuff. After the clean slate of Casino Royale and the po-faced Quantum of Solace, director Sam Mendes is deliberately embracing classic Bond traits and motifs. We get a new Moneypenny, a new Q, the return of an Aston Martin DB5, and even a belting title song sung by a large-lunged diva. The final few moments coalesce our new team, and the final scene is set in a deliberately 60s/70s/80s M office. But it’s far from by-the-numbers. After a great opening action sequence, which starts in a small dark room then constantly opens up and gets bigger and bigger in scale and ambition, we get surprises galore – M’s moving death, a new M, the new Moneypenny, what the film’s title refers to. Huge chunks of it are set in London, which is great fun and new for a Bond movie, and the whole film looks amazing. Director of photography Roger Deakins gives each location its own colour scheme and feel: Shanghai is bright neon, expensive sheen and glass; London is grounded and everyday; Macau has the soft, warm glow of lanterns and lots of yellows, reds and oranges; the Highlands are desolate and airy, while Skyfall itself on fire at night produces some beautiful and surreal imagery (pictured). It’s such a shame the superstructure of the plot is so poor – when you sit back and analyse Raoul Silva’s plan, it’s reliant on monumental coincidences and him knowing precisely what would happen when far ahead of time. The film loses a mark because of this haphazardness. Nine ceramic bulldogs out of 10.

Bond: In three films, he’s gone from reckless rookie to washed-up veteran. He says “bring me to him” when surely he means “take”. When Silva tries to unnerve him with a bit of homoerotic flirting, 007 acts nonchalant (“What makes you think this is my first time?”).

Villains: Ola Rapace plays assassin Patrice. There are numerous heavies and bodyguards, none of whom is featured. Headline bad guy Raoul Silva enters the story at the 67-minute mark (a beat after the DVD layer change, in fact!). He’s an arch, melodramatic lunatic who knows full well he’s a Bond villain. Javier Bardem plays him camp and cruel, and excels in the character’s brilliant opening scene (he’s introduced with a monologue all shot in one lengthy take as he walks from 30 metres away up to the camera). It’s a shame his plan is head-scratchingly full of plot holes.

Girls: Bond has a beach-hut shag, who we don’t learn anything about, and there are some bob-cut babes working in the casino. French actress Bérénice Lim Marlohe – Jesus Christ, how beautiful is it possible for one human being to be?! – plays Silva’s haunted girlfriend Sévérine. She’s not in the film for long, but it’s a terrific performance. (The less said about Bond twigging she was a sex slave from the age of 12 then shagging her in the shower the better.) Basically, Judi Dench is Skyfall’s female lead…

Regulars: …M has a large and vital role in the story; Judi Dench is excellent, as always. She is absolutely Bond’s equal in their various one-on-one scenes – it’s the best ever Bond/M relationship, butting heads but always conveying underlying affection. Also, Dench becomes the first person in a Bond film to say fuck. Her aide, Tanner, returns from Quantum of Solace. We meet three new characters who will presumably become our new gang of regulars. Eve Moneypenny (her name is held back until a few minutes from the end) is initially a slapdash agent cocking up a mission, then gets grounded and becomes a secretary (anyone remember feminism?). Naomie Harris is distinctly unlikeable in the role, and she and Daniel Craig have no chemistry whatsoever. Conversely, Bond and the new Q (played well by Ben Whishaw) instantly strike up a fascinating relationship of grudging respect. He’s a young, anorak-and-glasses geek who’s clearly off-the-chart clever and a bit stuck-up. Their first meeting is a lovely scene that nods to the past and also inverts the clichés. Finally, Ralph Fiennes (really excellent) appears as Gareth Mallory, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. He’s one of the genre’s great you-think-he’s-a-twat-then-he-proves-his-worth characters, and by the end of the film he’s earned both Bond’s trust and M’s job.

Action: The opening chase sees Eve driving erratically, causing chaos and naming the brands of cars for product-placement reasons. Bond then gets on a bike to chase Patrice across Istanbul rooftops and through markets. (It’s a common action-movie trope, isn’t it? Filming a chase in a Mediterranean city? Gotta go across rooftops! This, Quantum of Solace, The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Taken…) There’s the stuff on the train, with a ridiculously tongue-in-cheek JCB gag, then a train-top punch-up. Bond is then shot – accidentally, by Eve – and falls a terribly, terribly long way down to a river. There’s the explosion at MI6 headquarters, with a shocked M watching on from Vauxhall Bridge. In Shanghai, Bond tracks down Patrice to a skyscraper: he hangs onto the bottom of a lift as it climbs dozens of floors, then watches as Patrice assassinates someone. In a tremendously beautiful sequence – impressionistic lighting, constantly moving reflections, lots of shadows and silhouettes – Bond and Patrice fight to the latter’s death. Bond also has a brawl at the Macau casino, and falls into a pit with some komodo dragons. He later kills four or five of Silva’s goons in a sudden burst of ultra-violence. Silva’s escape from MI6’s prison includes Bond chasing him through tunnels and the London Underground – he has a near-miss with a train, has to run along a platform to jump on a train as it leaves Temple station, then slides down the dividing bit of a pair of escalators. (This last stunt makes no sense: any Londoner will tell you those middle bits have regular ‘Stand on the right’ signs sticking out of them.) Silva sets off a small, prepared explosion to cause a train (which is empty for some reason) to crash down towards Bond. Silva storms the parliamentary committee and there’s a huge gunfight. The climactic battle at Skyfall house is all Home Alone improvised defences, machine guns, grenades, fire, gas explosions and helicopter action. Bond and a henchman fight underwater after falling into a frozen lake. During the final confrontation in the chapel, Bond kills Silva – then M dies in his arms.

Comedy: There’s an arch moment of Bond ‘shooting his cuffs’ after his daring leap onto the moving train. When Bond turns up unexpectedly at M’s townhouse (a scene that echoes one in Casino Royale), he’s told MI6 have sold his flat as he was presumed dead. “I’ll find a hotel,” he says. “Well, you’re bloody not sleeping here,” replies M. Bond’s word-association session with a psychologist is witty stuff. When 007 returns to active duty, Tanner says to M, “I didn’t know Bond passed the [evaluation] tests.” M dryly replies, “He didn’t.” Bardem has great fun with his opening scene, hamming it up knowingly. When Bond races along the platform and jumps onto the back of a speeding tube train, a laconic man nearby says to his wife, “He’s keen to get home.” Bond is then hanging off the back of the carriage and shouts through the glass to an off-duty driver: “Open the door!” (Never mind Thor or Jack Bauer, seeing James Bond on the London Underground is the best ‘iconic-fictional-character-rides-the-tube’ moment of recent years.) When James and M are in his Aston Martin DB5 – originally intended to be the motor he won in Casino Royale, then changed to the Goldfinger car for 50th-anniversary hijinks – he threatens to activate her ejector seat. “See if I care,” deadpans M. When they reach Scotland, Kincade assumes ‘M’ is short for Emma.

Music: The incidental music is by Thomas Newman (Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Lost Boys, American Beauty), and it’s great. It’s especially effective during Silva’s escape and his attack on M, when it powers us through and distracts us from asking too many awkward questions. The title song, by Adele, is trad but good: the best Bond song of the 21st century.

Personal connection: I first saw Skyfall with Fraser Dickson and Carena Crawford, on Monday 29 October 2012 at the Odeon Marble Arch. As someone who’s lived in London for 12 years now, I adore seeing lots of locations I know well in the film. I’ve gone past the MI6 building on the 436 bus many, many times; I’ve often been to Whitehall and Trafalgar Square; I’ve been in the undercrofts of the Old Royal Naval College (where the scene with M and the coffins was shot); of course, I use the tube all the time; and – most excitingly – when Bond and M are driving out of London, they turn off Lewisham Way (where I used to live) onto New Cross Road! Whoever thought that grimy student dive The New Cross Inn would be in a James Bond movie?