Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Spectre (Sam Mendes)

Spirited away
Word has it this latest Bond flick doesn't live up to the promise of the previous, better-regarded installment; that in fact this is the worst Bond movie in thirty years. Word-of-mouth like that will make you walk into a theater with head held low, in case the sheer awfulness onscreen catches you full in the face. 

Well paddle my butt cheeks with a brass carpet cleaner--tain't bad at all. 

Is the picture long involved and slow at times? Is it complex, requiring a fanboy's fanatically detailed knowledge of the Bond mythos? Is it overindulgently dark, to the point of killing not just innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders but the audience's willingness to sit still? Yes yes and yes--but that's exactly what's so endearing about it. If in Casino Royale we're given Bond the fledgling thug, scar-tissue armor not fully formed and still vulnerable to base human emotions like love; if in Skyfall we return to Bond's roots, enabling him to bid farewell to both ancestral home and initial master--in Spectre we're introduced to his prime adversary (his archenemy, in comic-book parlance) who, as all adversaries are prone to do, tries him. Tries his endurance, his resourcefulness, his determination, even (a far more grievous sin) his audience's attention span to the point of destruction (or in our case distraction). 

Which I submit is director Sam Mendes' point; as he puts it in an interview, he wasn't interested in making a movie to please everyone, only himself. Most folks would feel insulted; I sympathize--actually subscribe to the view that the only art worth taking seriously is art that doesn't compromise for mere mass entertainment (as opposed to well-made entertainment, which shouldn't be taken seriously but should be savored, nevertheless). Not that this picture is art, but Mendes tries his level best to elevate it, and unlike in his better-known efforts I say (as a consistent nonfan) that he succeeds here better than at any other time in his checkered career; I respect and salute the attempt. 

I think it helps that Craig is so exasperated with the role he's ready to move on; the stench of an actor's burnt-out feelings carry to the screen, come to represent the character's own burnt-out feelings. Think it even helps that Christoph Waltz plays the Bond villain with a sense of impish mischief--he's nothing like Javier Bardem's Silva, no brilliant yet erratic full-blown psychopath, on one level driven by a need to prove himself to some absent or rejecting parent, on another level still shackled by Bond movie cliches (as I say in my Skyfall post said psychopath on nearing his goal suddenly goes blind, repeatedly missing his target by a moon-river mile). Waltz's is a fairly well adjusted Bond villain who has fully integrated his childhood trauma to the point that when served with a serious setback (with accessory matching scar) he doesn't lay himself down in despair but immediately shifts to yet another insidious backup plan, an even more elaborate deathtrap for Bond, an equally longwinded speech to torment our hero's hapless ears.  

Does the Bond Girl make a crucial decision that (ostensibly) marks her as an independent will but (predictably) turns out stupid? Does Bond on escaping the latest deathtrap ride out in style, on a hi-tech speedboat straight out of an earlier movie (Where would he find the time (he had mere seconds) to fuel and prep that boat? What were the chances the motor after years of inactivity would even turn over? Why would British Intelligence leave such an expensive piece of equipment behind?*)? Does Bond have the balls to actually pull out his handgun and shoot high-flying aircraft out of the sky? 

*On second thought, strike that last question--history has shown that the British Empire time and time again thoughtlessly abandons its most loyal and valuable assets; the movie is just being consistent.

Mendes doesn't seem to do any of this to strain our credulity--we were supposed to check that in at the ticket booth--but to poke fun at our expectations. In effect This is Not a Bond Film but a parody of one, or at least Mendes' somewhat perverse take on one--less concerned with going through the motions of entertainment than with working out Mendes' notions of what entertainment is, or should be, or can be. 

This incidentally is easily the best-looking Bond I've ever seen, not just in terms of cinematography but production design, special effects, action sequences (Skyfall had the masterful Roger Deakins, but Hoyt Van Hoytema--who has worked with Christopher Nolan, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, and seems to be Tomas Alfredson's cinematographer of choice--benefits from Mendes' finally unfettered (some might say unhinged) sensibility). When the picture opens with a four-minute tracking shot across Mexico City's Day of the Dead celebrations, following Bond as he takes off his skull mask and stalks his target across rooftops, one is reminded of the long glide through the streets of Tijuana in Welles' Touch of Evil, the funeral procession in Kalatozov's I Am Cuba. When Bond fires at a pipe valve and an entire secret installation--located in a crater,** natch--explodes in gorgeous orange flame, one feels Mendes' joy in celebrating the art of miniature sets shot on 35 mm film, this sequence being as lovingly rendered and intricately detailed as in the glory days of Derek Meddings and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson
**Tunisia crater formed by meteor strike, not classic volcano.

Is it the best Bond ever? Settle down; let's not lose our sense of perspective. Wouldn't rate it above the first half of Irvin Kershner's underrated Never Say Never (the latter half straying into overfamiliar Thunderball territory, and hence stale ennui); wouldn't rate it above the original even more wildly demented Casino Royale, or the sharply poignant On Her Majesty's Secret Service; certainly not over Goldfinger, in my book (and, arguably, Anthony Burgess', and Robert Bresson's) the finest Bond ever forged. Mendes' career best, I say, and the first Bond I've enjoyed since Kershner's, over thirty years ago.

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