(Video on Demand, February 2016) What’s going on at EON production these days? Casino Royale was a modern Bond classic followed by the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace, followed by another hit with Skyfall, and now another disappointment with Spectre. Oh, Spectre does have its moments: From the technically impressive (but somewhat meaningless) long tracking shot that opens the film to various moments that show that director Sam Mendes knows what he’s doing, this is a slick blockbuster production with matching results. Everything feels calculated for maximum cross-promotional marketing opportunities and the images on-screen are never less than perfect. Perversely, this glossy surface polish makes the basic bone-headed script problems of the film seem even more glaring. No matter the accomplishment of Spectre’s images, the biggest problems with the film remain story issues. I can’t say enough bad things about the dumb decision to make this fourth Daniel Craig entry try to call back to the previous instalments, especially if they’re going to attempt something as cheap as introducing a villain with family ties to Bond, and half-heartedly trying to make sense of the mush that was Quantum of Solace. It suddenly makes the Bond universe feel small and cramped, unrealistic and petty at once. Spectre also mishandles a post-Skyfall Bond by not giving him a standalone adventure in the classic sense. After the character reconstruction of the previous film, we should have gotten a full classic Bond, not another rebuilding instalment as Bond (once again) goes rogue and his agency is (once again) destroyed. Skyfall was a once-in-a-generation reset: the same trick used in successive films is getting thin—and it doesn’t help that it highlights similarities with the far more entertaining Mission Impossible: Rogue State. The various plotting strands are also confounding: Some secondary characters disappear almost as fast as they’re introduced (giving Monica Bellucci a bare two scenes as a Bond Girl is borderline-criminal), the film doesn’t seem to commit to its own sub-plots and the ending earns the stench of an expected sequel by locking up its antagonist. (And don’t get me started on Andrew Scott reprising his worst tics from the Sherlock series.) One thing is for sure: The Daniel Craig years have been very strange for the Bond franchise, zigzagging between exceptional and forgettable Bond movies. What’s perhaps more confounding with Spectre is how the Bond series, which should be timeless and rely on its own time-tested formula, is now aping the worst screenwriting trends of the moments. Feh. But on the bright side, the next instalment should be better if we go by the series’ on-off pattern.
(On TV, March 2015) I would be far more impressed with this movie had I not seen Mad Men’s entire run: Tales of fifties suburban desperation can only be told so many ways, after all, and while Revolutionary Road truly goes to the limit in arguing about the way the conventional American ideals of a suburban house, a good job and two-point-five kids destroy free spirits, the film does feel like a big plate of reheated leftovers. (At this point, I’d be far more interested in movies arguing about the advantages of conventional suburban living than the good-old tortured-artist take on how many people are being just boring.) This being said, I may not warm up to the film’s depressing subject matter, but can’t help but appreciate the good acting performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes’ precise direction, or a script finely attuned to small nuances. It’s an exceptionally well-made film –too bad it’s successful at something I don’t enjoy at all.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) The James Bond franchise needed to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in style, and Skyfall is just what critics ordered, especially after the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace on the heels of the invigorating Casino Royale reboot. A surprising, intimate celebration/deconstruction of the Bond mythos, Skyfall feels like the most richly thematic Bond yet, indulging into the British machismo of the character while making him fail at nearly every turn. It’s a film that makes a daring series of choices, by nearly killing off the character, graphically exposing his shortcomings, putting him in the service of the matriarchy, flipping the Bond structure as to put the obligatory winks at the beginning of the picture, and delving deeper into Bond’s back-story than ever before. It also features one of the oddest and most effective villains in recent Bond history, as Javier Bardem flamboyantly (yes, that’s the code word) plays an enemy with a straightforward yearning for vengeance. Director Sam Mendes wasn’t the most obvious choice to direct the film, but his handling of the film is immensely self-assured, delivering neat jolts of action alongside the most character-driven moments. It helps that Daniel Craig here solidifies his take as the most credible Bond since Connery, that Judi Dench can sustain a script heavy on her character, and that Naomie Harris fits perfectly in her role. The film’s cinematography is top-notch, and Skyfall is peppered with great moments from a climax-worthy opening action sequence to a one-shot neon-backlit fight to a masterful villain walk-in. Thematically, the film is rich, with real-world allusions crowding symbolism and dramatic ironies. There are too many issues with Skyfall to qualify it as an unimpeachable masterpiece: There’s a lull at the beginning of the third act, the villain’s plan is one of those convenient “everything has to be just so” house of cards, and the seriousness of the picture is the kind of reinterpretation you can only do once a generation. But Skyfall does complete the franchise re-invention process started by Casino Royale: by the time the credits roll, all the pieces (Q, M, Monneypenny, Bond back in service “with pleasure”) have been put in place for another series of installments, preferably ones that goes back to a less serious take on the character now that it has reset expectations.