Saturday, November 7, 2015

SPECTRE (2015)

The Importance of Being Ernst

The criminal organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (The Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) was the organization behind all the world's trouble in the first six of seven James Bond movies, and it's head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by, respectively Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray) showed up for the first time in the fifth, although he'd been in two of them as a faceless entity stroking a white persian cat on his lap. In those films, his criminal organization had been responsible for toppling American missile launches, pitting the British and Russian spy networks against each other, hijacking nuclear weapons from NATO, sabotaging the Russian and American space programs to create a nuclear conflict, distributing a zero-growth virus as part of an elaborate blackmail scheme, and kidnapping a tech billionaire in order to put a laser firing satellite into orbit in order to offer nuclear supremacy to the highest bidder. These are bad-guys with a ruthlessly entrepreneurial streak.

But they haven't been around for 40 years? Where have they been? Where every bad corporation ends up (unless you're Goldman Sachs)—in court. SPECTRE was created for the first attempt at a James Bond movie in the 50's in a script written by Bond's creator Ian Fleming, producer Kevin McClory, and a screenwriter named Jack Whittingham, in order to create an alternate to the Soviet Union (a potential market for distributing their movie even then), which was traditionally the badski in Fleming's spy series. When the movie didn't pan out, Fleming took the plot and SPECTRE and wrote the novel "Thunderball," based on the screenplay. His co-writers successfully sued Fleming for plagiarism and McClory was given the exclusive rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld. The Bond series couldn't use them anymore. But McClory did when he re-made Thunderball with Sean Connery in 1983's Never Say Never Again (Max von Sydow played Blofeld).

A bevy of Blofelds: Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, Max von Sydow*
The Bond producers (the children of original producer Albert R. Broccoli) only recently acquired those rights from McClory's estate—just as they had bought back the rights to "Casino Royale" to make their own version with Daniel Craig. Now, the long dormant plot element can be legally re-inserted into the series, to be re-invented for this current run of Bond films (the old one having been—oh, "parodied" is a nice word—into unusability by the "Austin Powers" films of Mike Meyers).
SPECTRE has a ring to it: "Vanity has its dangers."
Jesus, that's a lot of back-story for a James Bond movie, but then SPECTRE has a lot of back-story, too, encompassing the entire run of Daniel Craig's Bond. Way back in Casino Royale, there was a "Mr. White" who was part of an unnamed organization that was doing a lot of stock manipulation and he ended up killing the villain of the piece, LeChiffre, and subsequently being shot by Bond. The next film Quantum of Solace started with him being transported to Station I-Italy for questioning by Bond and "M" (Judi Dench at the time) where he cackled: "The first thing you should know about us is...we have people everywhere" then proves it by escaping with the help of one of the supposedly loyal MI-6 guards. "M's" reaction was succinct: "When someone says 'We've got people everywhere', you expect it to be hyperbole! Lots of people say that. Florists use that expression. It doesn't mean that they've got somebody working for them inside the bloody room!" A deleted QOS scene had Bond squaring off against White and a British government official in bed with the organization, which was called "Quantum." It was decided that was one too many endings for the film.**
They use a lot less stainless steel at SPECTRE nowadays.
They're wonderful at recycling at EON Productions—they've managed to make a whole movie out of that deleted scene, grafting "Quantum" into another layer of inscrutability to "SPECTRE," which is a nice touch. They've also thrown in a bit of Skyfall, too. After an unsanctioned hit that causes all too much property damage in Mexico City in the film's pre-credit sequence,*** Bond is disciplined by his new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss "M" (Ralph Fiennes) into some inactivity for the good of just about everybody on the planet.
Jimmy was very bad.
The planet, as it turns out, needs all the help it can get. Nobody's hijacking nukes or space-capsules these days, but there have been sporadic terrorist attacks throughout the globe, that incident in Mexico City being an example. Meanwhile, in London, MI6 is falling down, falling down—it's old HQ on the Thames crumbling from the attack in Skyfall and due for demolition. That's merely infrastructure, but inside the new Service, "M" is under siege. Whitehall is ramping up its "Homeland Security," given the MI6 attack, the previous Lady "M's" death, and the compromising of embedded agents in terrorist cells. There's a new security Czar, nicknamed "C"—Max Denbigh (played by "Sherlock's" mercurial Moriarty, Andrew Scott—whose methods of intelligence gathering involves fewer tailored boots on the ground and more intelligence gathering by remote control and electronic surveillance. There is a Global Surveillance Initiative in the works involving several nations that will soon be up for a vote and "M" is fighting against it, and the highly publicized cowboy tactics of 007 are working against him. Bond is put under heavy surveillance (like that's always worked) to keep him in line, but with the help of "Q" (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), he's able to sneak off to Rome and Austria to investigate the terrorist he dispatched in Mexico, infiltrating the man's funeral and saving his widow (Monica Bellucci, finally playing a "Bond woman" after 25 years of internet speculation) from execution at the hands of her late husband's former business partners.
Caution: double entendre approaching
She gives him enough information (after some prodding) to infiltrate that organization's meeting, which is a combination Mafia conference, Mason's initiation, Illuminati planning session and WWE cage-match. He recognizes—and is recognized by—a man from his hazy past, Franz Oberhauser, (Christoph Waltz, not nearly as good as he could be) which forces an insane car-chase through the streets of Rome between Bond in a purloined Aston Martin DB10 and the assassin Hinx (a mute David Bautista) who has been assigned at that meeting to kill "The Pale King," a name Bond had heard in Mexico (but not from David Foster Wallace).
The "throne room" of "The Pale King"
Bond finds "The Pale King" in Austria and he turns out to have long connections to Bond from the beginning of his career as a "00." That visit is a nifty little scene that recalls one of Fleming's less active short stories, but it leads to a long story of revenge, inspired by another long story of revenge. It makes the final touch of the final confrontation that much more interesting and wise.

Saying anything more will just spoil a lot—some shocks, some surprises, some different zigs and zags from "the formula" as well as some bright spots—as SPECTRE takes another two full hours to complete (at 148 minutes, it is the longest of any James Bond film). I've always liked the tone of the Craig Bond's—hyper-serious even in the most outlandish of circumstances—no winking, no eyebrow-raising, no double-taking pigeons, no machine-gunning grannies, a minimum of slapstick (as was present during the Moore years), and in SPECTRE just a little bit of that starts to seep into the film. You won't see Craig mugging at the camera—he's too straight an actor to do that and he is more than aware of just how quickly one can shatter the illusion of tension.**** But, he will conveniently land on a couch when a building collapses around him—that will nicely pre-figure some stuff at the end.
Look at you looking at me
Performances are good throughout—with Craig, the series' longevity and current respectability, the producers can bring in some great talent without compromise, and Léa Seydoux is a great addition to the women of Bond and that's no tragedy this time. As the chief bad guys, Waltz and Scott are tamped down from their potential, and that seems a shame. Bautista is a considerable presence without words, and man, can that guy move fast. He's one of those things that take you aback and genuinely surprise.

If I have a complaint, it's that SPECTRE is not un-expected. There's a trend of making things neatly tied with bows of motivation in movies and the writers—John Logan, Purvis and Wade and Jez Butterworth—make things a bit too convenient. Everybody has fun with all the call-backs throughout the series—of course, SPECTRE HQ must be in a crater—but, one of the things about the SPECTRE stories is they had octopus-like loose ends. Not here. For all the dust-up's, everything is too tidy—right up to the point where we realize we've been watching a SPECTRE series all along.*****
For many, who have been cranky about the films not being "fun" anymore, SPECTRE will be the proverbial quantum of solace, a return to the more giddy days of Bond, just a dash of it, with a knowing panache that informs quite a number of scenes. ****** A bit of silliness here and there, like sugar in the salt-shaker. For me, someone who likes his spy satires in deadly earnest, it's a bit of a tactical retreat. I like it when the Bonds grab you by the scruff of the neck and wreck some furniture, rather than tickling you to death. I like Bonds to be respectable, even if they never, ever really any incarnation. One worries that it's a trend to make the films more comfortable, more complacent, more what the public expects, which usually spells an approaching sea-change in the Bond movie series. "James Bond Will Return" as the last title says, but as what and for how long?
"Think on Your Sins"

* The cat, presumably, is also different every film. That Blofeld is a persian cat-fancier is a trope that has been used since the first Blofeld "appearance" (his face wasn't shown in either From Russia With Love or Thunderball), but it was never mentioned by Fleming for the character—it was purely an invention by the writers-producers. Or was it?

Here's Vincent Price as Richelieu in the M-G-M version of The Three Musketeers:
And I wonder if Marlon Brando was thinking about it when he picked up a studio stray for a scene in The Godfather.

** Which is funny. In the 60's, the "Bond formula" was that the film's ended with the big finale, only to have Bond have his post-mission relaxation spoiled by a determined henchman or something, who has to be dispatched before the credits can roll.

*** That sequence is a corker. After the opening gun-barrel (yay!) the movie begins with a sequence during the Day of the Dead that starts with one long continuous shot that is so elaborate and circuitous, Martin Scorsese is considering becoming a still photographer. In fact, Stephanie Sigman's entire role is contained in that one shot, detailing Bond's stalking of a target and his subsequent attempt to kill him "by any means necessary." It is one of the dizziest and throat-lumping sequences in the series.
**** Craig's commitment to the series has garnered him something that even Sean Connery could never get and caused him to quit the series—a co-producer credit. I didn't notice it, initially, in the Main Title sequence by Daniel Kleinmann (not one of his best) as I was too distracted by inky octopi crawling over naked silhouettes—that tends to happen to me for some reason.

***** I could go into detail, but the film just came out and I don't want to spoil what goes on and how the producers make the progression, or even point out similar examples in recent movie history. That would be telling. And there must be SOME secrets to the world's most well-known spy.

****** My chief problem is the motivation of the villain, who turns out to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, on a mission to not conquer the world, but to control the knowledge of all the world's spy agencies, a super-NSA that can tap into any phone, any CCTV, rather like...oh, the NSA. That very lack of motivation could have inspired a nice little dig. For instance, after Bond's comment that Blofeld is "just a voyeur," really, he could have followed up with:
Bond: And what are you going to do with all this knowledge—this power? Feed the world? Heal the sick? (glances at Blofeld's cat) Open a spay/neuter clinic?

And when he finds out that Blofeld has been, basically, making Bond's life miserable the past few films as revenge for a disappointing past:
Bond: Why don't you act like a NORMAL person and just send me an insulting birthday card every year?

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