Spectre – Sam Mendes (2015)

It has been forever since I’ve seen a Bond movie. And by forever, I mean, I’ve never seen one on the big screen, and the last one I can remember purposefully sitting down to watch all the way through was a VHS copy of Never Say Never Again that I got from the public library when I was a kid. Sure, I have seen most of the Bond films from the Connery era, all on cable television, and the Lazenby Bond film, and Casino Royale (the first version, with Woody Allen), and bits and pieces of many of the others, also on cable television. And I played Goldeneye to death on the N64 (but have no interest in the film, as Pierce Brosnan always seemed the Bond with the lowest yield). I even read a whole damn big glossy coffee table Bond fanbook from cover to cover! So somehow I know plenty about Bond, without really caring. Based on the trailer, I had no interest in seeing Spectre because, in truth, all the Daniel Craig Bond trailers have looked the same to me – palette of gunmetal, a perpetually cloudy sky, and little in the way of the trappings that have always screamed Bond. I understand the reason for this, as the Craig films are Bond 2.0, with a stripped down, “realistic,” (that is, dark) sensibility, and no taste for camp, cheese, or many of the colors of the rainbow. They have serious actors playing serious villains; no Donald Pleasence (God rest his soul) stroking his kitty while cookie cutter lamebrains “die” by jumping this way and that, but rather heavy hitters like Mads Mikkelsen and Javier Bardem coldly calculating the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Such is Bond in the age of global terror. But I was desperate – desperate for some escapism, and for a movie that wasn’t all talking, but heavier on the doing, even if what it was doing was of little consequence. And I like Christoph Waltz, although, if I am honest, it was the prospect of seeing Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux at 20 foot scale that sealed it for me. And yes, I am happy to report I was mercilessly entertained and even, at times, somewhat moved. (Say what?)

Spectre picks up after the events of Skyfall (which, having not seen, I assumed had more import than they do – more on that later). M (is for Mommy) Judy Dench is dead, and a sense of rebirth and/or the afterlife permeates the whole film. We get this from the first shot, which opens with Bond dropped into the Dios de la Muerte festivities in Mexico City, sent to dispatch an assassin by the end of the opening set piece, which is a goody. Although Bond accomplishes his task handily, new M Ralph Fiennes is none too pleased, as he did it without the proper indemnification, it seems. So Bond is ordered grounded, pending the reorganization of the double aught program into a new MI6 overseen by a young Orwellian data hungry war on terror type (Andrew Scott), C. C is hot to link up all the governmental surveillance operations of the world on the same intranet, and thus keep us all safe in a warm cocoon woven by this unblinking and fiery eye of cyberSauron. Bond, though, has captured a mysterious ring off the finger of the dispatched assassin which he wants to further investigate. He is thus, with a little help from Q (Ben Whishaw), forced to go AWOL, and travels to Italy to get the skinny from the assassin’s widow (a brief, brief, all too brief appearance by Ms. Bellucci). The widow informs Bond that the shady organization her husband worked for (Spectre, duh) is meeting in Italy that same night! Bond hightails it over there, in time to see a new court assassin appointed while discovering that Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man thought dead, is the chairman of the board. Barely escaping the palatial grounds of the malevolent mind-meld, Bond is pursued through the streets (and the rest of the movie) by said assassin, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), who is hard to kill and likes to keep his fingernails long. He of course escapes, and is soon on the trail of Mr. White, a Spectre flunky who holds the secrets of the organization, but is dying of thallium poisoning. Mr. White doesn’t have much time, or incentive, to help, but he does have a daughter who knows where the secrets be hid, and so Bond agrees to protect the daughter if White tells him where to find her. It turns out daughter Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) works on the top of a mountain at an exclusive medical clinic – all the better for a nice set piece as Bond pursues her down the mountain in the clutches of Hinx. Retrieved, Swann and Bond go to Morocco, uncover the secret of Spectre’s location, and are eventually chauffeured there courtesy of Oberhauser – or, should I say, Blofeld! Blofeld and Bond have an interesting shared backstory, and eventually must do battle in London, with Swann’s life in the balance. About the climax, I will say no more, except that we learn how Blofeld got his blind eye (he had the kitty all along, apparently).

Spectre has everything that you want a Bond movie to have, plus some. There are big set pieces, bigger than life baddies, beautiful women, and, thanks to director Sam Mendes, action that is staged with clarity, a minimum of digital stupidity, and a very snappy script. Yes, the climax is ludicrous, and given the outcome is what we expect, they could have gone with a less is more approach. And yes, all of C’s, and M’s, rantings and waxings poetic (respectively) about democracy seem quaint to the point of camp. But this is Bond plus, and it is mostly due to the presence of Léa Seydoux. Not only is her character strong, and often Bond’s equal (although, yes, she does have to be rescued in the end), Seydoux is a remarkable actress and brings what could be a rote role to life, imbuing her scenes with a palpable sense of loss that gives weight to her connection with Bond – we care what happens in the end, and want both of them to live happily ever after. Moreover, Spectre feels like the summing up of the previous Craig Bond films; the introduction of Blofeld, and Spectre, ties together the previous story lines and marks the end of one era and the beginnings of another (post-Craig, perhaps?). In the aftermath of Skyfall, which was curiously flat and underwhelming, with action more fit for a Tom Clancy or Bourne movie and with the tedious and weird Oedipal overtones that made the whole film about M, Spectre plays almost like a swan song to the world of Bond as it was in the 1960s. That is, a world where democracy mattered (or at least seemed possible) and where systems of totalitarian techno control were harebrained schemes of evil geniuses, and not a fait accompli proffered up to techno “wizards” by a passive public. The last shot (which I won’t give away) feels like Bond is retreating back into the era from which he emerged, and to which the logics of his persona make most sense. We feel not nostalgia, exactly, but instead elegiac, sad at the distance between the world as it was, even fictionalized, and as it is now, so debased that it cannot be recouped into fiction without at the same time denying its own reality. Spectre deals with this split deftly, portraying M’s vision of saving democracy not without irony, but also never sneering at it – rather referencing it as the hopeful candy colored dream of a 20th century now long, and definitively, dead. (Or, like Bond, set to rise again?)

Four stars out of five

Spy – Paul Feig (2015)

We live in a post-comedy era. Why wouldn’t we? We’re post everything else. Modern comedy is all meta; nothing but a funhouse full of indexes that point only toward each other. What this means in practice is that we get comedies made about what we find funny, or don’t, rather than comedies that actually are funny. Trying is so ten years ago. I will happily blame Will Ferrell, the comedic master of a no-style form of humor that references “funny” while delivering a parody of comedy. Being unfunny, lame, or simply badly done becomes the point of the joke, such that any scenario played “straight” (that is, acknowledging of its foolishness while carrying on with it sincerely) becomes comedy. In such a mode, any stupidity or crass conceit succeeds simply by being executed with a po face. In fact, add an out of left field reference to any fairly straight scene of rote dramaturgy, beat the presence of the oddball element to death (or have everyone ignore it), and you have the recipe for the secret sauce. Thus we veer in such films between strange clumps of exposition, where the only cue as to the parodic element of a topic is conveyed by the florid churlishness or stupidity with which it is expressed, and longueurs of profanity filled rants, as characters roll their eyes at having to restate the obvious, the obvious being the way they (and the other characters) fail to fit into expected stereotypes. Yes, we all know what would happen in this type of a situation, and regardless if what is expected happens or not, the characters pitch a fit at having to contemplate which side of the cartoon border they fall on (Tijuana on one side or the arid desert of Wylie E. Coyote on the other). Most often, a character will spit out some over-the-top profanity about how annoyed they are at having to remind the other characters what a stereotype like themselves should be able to expect from a stereotype like these others, and then we are supposed to laugh, either at the stupidity of living in a universe of stereotypes, or at the inclination that anyone could, in the realm of a representation, take their representations seriously enough to expect anything of them. All this adds up to a flat world where what is “funny” is basically playing off of or reinforcing, in sarcastic fashion, what we expect, and is thus “reflexive.” “You expected this, but ha, you got that” trades off with “you expected that, and fie on you, so take this.” The historical nexus of this type of comedy, albeit modulated by fewer profanities, arose, I would guess, in the mid-90s on SNL, the golden era of comedians laughing at their own inert material, playing out gossamer thin concepts until, at the 10 minute mark, you couldn’t believe it wasn’t 1 a.m. yet. Lameness, self-awareness, and baroque concepts were elevated, actual wit, inventiveness, and the visual (unless it be a one-note shock) were forgotten. This is the cinematic world we live in today, a world where we see so much material that is “funny” that we laugh as a conditioned response. We know funny when we see it, and we’ll laugh because we see it – all the better if everyone else around sees it and laughs too, confirming us in our good humor. The result is like Facebook (and much of our culture) – an echo chamber of lame toothlessness that we all “like,” and accept, because that is the nature of being on Facebook. To behave otherwise on Facebook is anti-Facebook. In a similar way, to remain unamused at a comedy is anti-social.

Getting around to the inevitable, Spy is very, very mediocre. I like Melissa McCarthy well enough; she is a solid actress, who, I must say, has not had good enough material yet to prove her mettle. Her elevation to exceptional status and cultural hero says more about the pathetic condition of women within the image factory than it says about her prowess as a performer. If she were really breaking any new ground, would she always be cast in comedies, and always comedies that revolve around how unexpectedly (normal, nice, intelligent, able, sexy, etc.) she is, given that she’s “real?” Anyone who thinks that this film is not primarily humor about being large, dowdy, and female needs to reexamine this film. Yes, we are no longer in the era of making fun of someone for being dowdy; we simply make fun of dowdy. As long as we make the stylish, thin people “mean” or “shallow,” and the large, dowdy, and normal-looking folks “decent,” and on the road to newly discovered self-esteem, it’s all good – we can proceed as usual. I am not offended by such things, I am simply bored senseless. Films like this seem to mistake casual observation for sharp parody. Spy films of this ilk have been self-parodies ever since Roger Moore (even the era of Connery was tongue in cheek) – Spy simply heightens some of the more ridiculous aspects of the genre, has every character comment on themselves, or the goings on, in a self-aware fashion, throws in a damned generous handful of non-sequiturs (truly Ferrell’s biggest contribution to the current style) and voila! Let them eat funny cake. It is all very lazy. For instance, in Spy, technology has become intensely useful and good, to the point that Melissa McCarthy, sitting at her terminal in D.C., has more information about what is about to happen to Jude Law than Jude Law does. She guides him through all the tough parts, like the love child of Siri and Jiminy Cricket. If anyone were to protest how much of the plot is driven by ludicrous technological machines of the deus-ex model line, that person would be laughed at as a tinfoil hat wearing doofus. Of course it’s ludicrous! It’s a comedy! Yes, parody is that which exculpates any type of narrative stupidity, and allows laziness to be recast as a virtue. The problem is, wit is the least lazy form of all. Ultimately, we have the comedies that we deserve – slack affirmations of self-congratulation for the increasingly empty-headed, glazed-eyed consumers we have become. Nothing is deadlier to comedy than complacency, or affirmation. There are indeed some funny set pieces in the film, and if you’re a fan of Anchorman et al., I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. As for myself, I swear my standards aren’t that demanding. Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll give the film a star for each of the laughs it provided.

Two and a half stars out of five