Thursday, February 4, 2016

SPECTRE: Blu-ray (EON Productions/MGM 2015) Fox Home Video

Gosh almighty, I am so very much done with the inelegant James Bond as depicted by Daniel Craig: that thug-muscle, gun-toting hypocrite who affects a taste for fine wine, expensive cars and hot women, but cannot help but wind up shirtless and pathetically soaked through with hard liquor while wallowing over the loss of his beloved mommy-figure, ‘M’ (Judi Dench) and deceptive lover, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), even more so, suffering Bond’s general disdain for that lavish government expense account for which most any of us would sincerely trade a few teeth and a kidney. I also wish Mr. Bond would quit banging twenty-cent tarts or philandering married gals of a certain 'prime' with equal aplomb and noblesse oblige. Sean Connery’s Bond would never have been caught this sloppy and unawares; ditto for Roger Moore’s laid-back – if morally ambiguous, though deliciously amused 007. The secret to either man’s longevity as Bond – James Bond, that is – remains steadfastly affixed to each’s ability never to take themselves or the work of super-spying quite so seriously. In the shadow of film makers like Terrance Young, Guy Hamilton and John Glenn, among others, who intuitively understood part – if not all – of Bond’s sex appeal lay in the cream of the jest (he actually ‘cures’ Pussy Galore of her lesbian tendencies in the novel, Goldfinger); also, the series’ perpetually sundrenched and appealingly exotic locales.  I observe, with more than a modicum of regret, no such thoughts have crossed the mind of director, Sam Mendes who continues to inveigle his Mr. Bond in convoluted and badly realized vignettes mired in the dank, dark despair of post-postmodernism run amuck. Spectre (2015) is one of the bleakest, weakest and most graceless footnotes to the Bond franchise in a very long while, morbidly afflicted by our present-day preoccupation with a theater of death.
In fact, after the mercifully reinstated, trademarked gun barrel opener, the pre-credit sequence to Spectre takes place on ‘The Day of the Dead’ celebration in Mexico City; Bond attempting to kill three would-be terrorists plotting an international incident. Bond’s interception is foiled by a hotel explosion. Once again, James has come too late to this party. In the good ole days, MI6 would have debriefed their numero uno answer to Nietzsche’s superman who, thereafter, would have become the catalyst to stop these baddies in their tracks. But no – it’s a new day for James, increasingly the bungler of such clean kills that turn into very messy and blood-soaked grindhouse likely to leave Connery and Moore with their heads in their hands. The hotel explosion leads directly into a somewhat tedious chase through the congested streets, all shot with the frenetic ‘Steadicam’ energy of a break-dancing chicken by cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema; Bond on a die hard mission to apprehend ringleader, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) – the real assassin who survived this attack. In the ensuing struggle, Bond and Sciarra board a helicopter; Bond eventually tossing Sciarra from it to his death; though, not before he recovers a ring with a stylized octopus etched into its band. Given Bond’s previous outings with this international spy syndicate known as Spectre, the fact he needs MI6 clarification, and a little help from Ms. Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) to identify the emblem, remains something of a curiosity. Perhaps too many knocks on the head have finally taken their toll on our Mr. Bond.   
Personally, I don’t like to think on my own mortality. But I especially do not believe it proper to put a chronically sullen and squinty-eyed Bond on display as the proverbial piñata, enjoyed for a good swift kick (and far more), repeated marked as a dinosaur for extinction, and cruelly blamed for all the wrong and ridiculousness in the world; a sort of anti-heroic worldview adopted by the denizens of dreck in Hollywood these days and increasingly favored by audiences. To paraphrase Bonnie Tyler, “I’m holding out for a hero!” It is a good thing I am sincerely not holding my breath too, because somewhere along the road to this Bizarro-land degradation, where virtues and traditions are trampled on and disdainfully observed with increasing moral ambiguity, as a society we have replaced the definitions of good vs evil with the laissez faire ‘gray area’ and treaties that market such unadulterated swill masquerading as art – high, low or (and, in most cases) indifferent. Viewed from this repugnant quagmire, one could almost champion a pervert like Christoph Waltz’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld as doing the morally ‘good’ work by drilling holes in Bond’s cranium with a Black and Decker.  Grotesque torture scenes like this one have become the norm in Bond movies since Daniel Craig took over the role. In Casino Royale, Bond had his testicles thrashed with fetishistic aplomb by Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre. In Spectre, Waltz’s Blofeld goes after the other head, enjoying Bond’s cringe-worthy suffrage for a few excruciating moments that leave much to be desired since – no kidding – we are assured Bond will always survive whatever hellish circumstances befall him – even this crude pseudo-lobotomy.     
Spectre isn’t out of the realm of possibilities for a post-Connery/Moore Bond flick. But that is not saying much and precisely, it proves my point. It hovers in the foggy ether as a nondescript installment to this once highly anticipated and Teflon-coated franchise, steadily brought down several pegs with each subsequent installment since Moore’s exit, and with Spectre a fait accompli to the unremarkable era of the ‘every Bond’ movie; dangerously close to the precipice of being just par for the course. Certainly, Craig – who has repeatedly threatened with each new installment to be ‘un-officially’ done with his alter ego, seems to be going through the motions herein. He’s older too; at 47, less buff and more sullen than serious, looking to move into his emeritus years and/or diversify his portfolio with roles apart from the one that continues to make him a star. Personally, I am not one of those Craig worshippers who, having idiotically labeled him “the best Bond ever!” now seem as myopically shaken and stirred by the prospect of facing that day when Craig will no longer be Bond. Actually, I am rather looking forward to that day, and hoping Spectre is Craig’s swan song; goodbye, and don’t let the Aston Martin run you down on the way out. For a while now I have had my own ideas as to who could – and should – be the next 007; the list beginning with Henry Cavill, Clive Owen or Ewan McGregor. Each would bring something new and likely invigorating to a role Craig seems willfully to despise with increasing frequency, holding out for his even more obscene paycheck to reprise the part.   
Spectre is the 24th Bond from Eon Productions and, at 148 minutes, one of the longest and most self-involved. Here’s hoping the golden 25th has more to offer. I cannot rightly say what went wrong. Superficially, at least, #24 had everything one might associate with the classic Bond thriller: stylish sets, exotic international locales, outlandish action set pieces, and a turbo-charged erotic femme fatale.  Still in absentia: the uber-clever Bond super villain a la an Auric Goldfinger or Hugo Drax; although Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld retains the traditionalist evil-doer’s verve for pointlessly labyrinthine ambitions about conquering the whole world, doomed to remain an avatar’s pipedream in the end. Everything one could imagine on a $300 million budget is present and accounted for, and yet, none of it looks the part…well, maybe, Léa Seydoux forthright Bond girl, Madeleine (no, no misogynistic monikers like Dink, Pussy Galore or Holly Goodhead…this Bond girl is all grown up, though predictably bumped out in all the right places). I keep reading a lot of pseudo-feminist critiques about Bond movies refusing to ‘move with the times’ and accept a strong woman in supporting role. Indeed, poor Daniel Craig had to dodge a militant press corp. repeatedly browbeating him about the so-called ‘problematic views’ of women in Bond movies. Note to anyone harboring the misguided notion any Bond girl, past, present or future, is designed to be anything more than a sultry, slinky sex kitten for our Mr. Bond to bonk – she’s not. Deal with that reality and maybe you will be able to have a good time when watching the next Bond movie or any that have gone before it. Or simply give up this idiotic level of expectation and go see another installment of The Hunger Games. Clearly, Bond movies are not your cup of tea – Earl Grey, breakfast or orange pekoe aside.  
To be fair, Spectre addresses some, if not all of ‘the problem’. My question is why should it? Léa Seydoux gets in a few licks, but has the ever-loving snot and wind knocked out of her by steroidal henchman, Hinx (David Bautista). Face it girls; he is meaner, uglier and ramped up on better synthetics than Madeleine. She never had a chance. But to be clear, Bond movies of yore were created to appeal to a male audience: real men and boys who couldn’t wait to grow up and aspire to be James Bond. Poor deluded devils! Personally, I do not want my Bond getting in touch with his feminine side. According to a recent Cosmo poll, neither do real women, who would prefer a ‘take charge’ protector alpha male to a sensitive ‘yes’ man – especially, in the bedroom. So, perhaps, Bond’s only genuine flaw is he is not apologetic about being that surrogate for guys who have already surrendered their testicles to the chemical castration of the mainstream media’s representation of today’s man; their urges, needs and inherent behaviors viewed as bad – or at the very least, wrong – while everything their significant other does is celebrated as clever, inspiring and structured around high-minded principles of altruism. Oh, who’s telling tall tales now? But I digress. 
And I have news for any aspiring Bond director in the future who believes the next Bond movie should tackle ‘the problem’ by presenting Bond with a female counterpoint every bit his equal in the field or while playing the field. You will lose half, if not all, of your loyal Bond viewership if that day ever comes to pass. After all, it is a James Bond movie we have paid to see: not James Bond…and friends. One of the most grotesque tragedies befallen a great many Bond movies in more recent times – is a weak villain. Spectre, alas and a lack, has one of the least inspired of the lot. The oversight becomes even more glaringly curious when one considers how maniacally sinister Christoph Waltz can be, given the right part and more than an arm’s length of experimentation to discover it for himself. Waltz ought to have been the linchpin to propel Spectre into that top-tiered echelon still occupied by the likes of an Auric Goldfinger. But he never gets this opportunity and quickly slips into just another ineffectually bitter and grimacing cliché of villainy. Since Casino Royale, each subsequent Bond movie has tried to provide plausible ‘cause and effect’ to carry over from one movie into the next. Too bad Bond movies were never intended to be trilogies, quadrilogies, prequels, sequels etc. but stand-alone entertainments with a certain level of threadbare continuity factored in for good measure; the gadgets, pithy one-liners, merciless riding of Bond by his superior, ‘M’, gadget master, ‘Q’ and Miss Moneypenny; the Bond girls, with no head, except what they gave to the cause of satisfying our James, and so on.
The plot to Spectre is suspiciously like too many other more recent Bond adventure yarns; James taking one for the team yet again, officially and indefinitely suspended from field duty by M (Ralph Fiennes). As a parting gesture, ‘M’ has ‘Q’ (the as ever ineffectual Ben Wishaw) outfit Bond with a sort of glamorized version of the ankle bracelet – an injectable chip that can be monitored from anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, ‘M’ is in the midst of a power struggle with ‘C’ (Andrew Scott), head of the privately-backed Joint Intelligence Service, consisting of the newly amalgamated MI5 and MI6. We get flashes of the old home guard caught in the crosshairs of their debate; the gleaming white edifice that once housed Judi Dench’s MI6, now a crumbling façade slated for the wrecking ball. It’s the end of an era, or rather, the forced obsolescence of this once galvanic espionage leviathan now viewed by ‘C’ as a foundering Cold War relic to be put down once and for all. ‘C’ promotes his agenda in parliament. Britain will join with eight other countries to form a consortium with the code name, Nine Eyes; a global surveillance and intelligence initiative.
Against direct orders, Bond convinces ‘Q’ to quietly stop monitoring his whereabouts. He travels to Rome, attends Sciarra’s funeral and confronts the widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci) in the presence of some Spectre bodyguards. Their tête-à-tête signs Lucia’s death warrant. That evening, as she prepares for her assassination, Lucia is instead surprised when Bond suddenly reappears, easily dispatching the henchmen sent to kill her before predictably making love to her to seal the deal. Lucia confesses to Bond Spectre is behind everything; their international consortium closer than ever in their plans to rule the world. Learning the whereabouts of their next clandestine meeting, Bond secretly infiltrates the gathering; unnerved when its leader, Franz Oberhauser – a.k.a. Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) turns in mid-address to the group to acknowledge him directly. Bond is pursued by thug-muscle henchman, Hinx. In a harrowing car chase solely meant to afford Bond the opportunity to show off the new toys affixed to the revamped Aston Martin he has stolen from ‘Q’s laboratory, James narrowly escapes this assassin. Previously contacted by James, Moneypenny now informs him everything about Spectre’s plans points to Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) – a former member of Quantum, since revealed to be a subsidiary of Spectre. Traveling to Austria in search of White, Bond finds the recluse hiding inside the basement bunker of a remote and seemingly abandoned chalet. White is dying of thallium poisoning. But before the inevitable, he strikes a bargain with Bond, pleading with him to protect his only child, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) who is sure to become a target.  
Offering White the honorable out, Bond leaves the room and White shoots himself. James enters the Hoffler Klinik, a mountain-top retreat, under the pretext of becoming a patient. But Madeleine is both hostile and unwilling to accept Bond’s protection. Meanwhile, ‘Q’ has discovered a sinister link between former agents Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene and Raoul Silva. All of them belonged to Spectre. Meeting up with ‘Q’, Bond and Madeleine narrowly escape Hinx; a daring chase by cable car, air and automobile, ending with a near death experience for all concerned. Madeleine agrees to take Bond to L'Américain; her late father’s favorite hotel in Tangier. There, a secret room in White’s suite reveals the whereabouts of Oberhauser’s base of operations in the desert. Traveling by train to this remote outpost, Bond and Madeleine are once more confronted by Hinx. In one of the most brutal of all hand-to-hand combat sequences ever featured in a Bond movie, the brutish Hinx, who once gouged a man’s eyes with his bare fingers, now attempts to toss Bond from the baggage car like a rag doll. Instead, Bond gets Hinx leg caught in a chain link attached at the other end to a series of weighted barrels. Tossing the barrels out the open door takes care of Hinx too. 
Now, Bond and Madeleine arrive at a remote outpost in the middle of the desert, surprised to find an escort waiting to take them to Oberhauser’s base of operations, nestled in the middle of a crater. Oberhauser reveals to Bond how Spectre will soon dominate the world, having been instrumental in securing the Nine Eyes program and thus rendering all international protection agencies utterly useless and at the mercy of his control. Bond is severely beaten by Oberhauser’s henchmen and then strapped into a chair; Oberhauser drilling into Bond’s cranium to extract the mutual history they share – seemingly one memory at a time. Oberhauser reveals to Madeleine that when Bond was a boy, prematurely orphaned, his father became Bond’s temporary guardian too. Jealousy intervened as Oberhauser, believing Bond to have taken his place as the number one son, murdered his own father and then staged his own death; later, to resurface as Spectre’s puppet master, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Oberhauser now suggests he will drill into Bond’s mind, systematically enjoying the slow, sad progression of Bond’s mental and physical infirmity.  Instead, Madeleine intervenes and, with the aid of a gadget watch earlier supplied by Q, she is successful at stopping Oberhauser from carrying out this dastardly plan.
Bond and Madeleine escape Blofeld’s compound, detonating a series of explosions that level it to the ground. Back in London, Bond and Madeleine part company briefly. Although Bond is in love with her, he accepts she cannot – and will not – be a party to this espionage any longer. Unhappy chance, Madeleine is captured and taken prisoner yet again by Oberhauser who now presents Bond with an impossible dilemma. Either he use the remaining countdown to prevent Spectre from gaining access to the Nine Eyes main data base – thereby thwarting Oberhauser’s plans to rule the world – or save Madeleine from certain death, as Oberhauser has hidden her somewhere in the bowels of the defunct MI6 building, destined to be detonated with explosive charges. Bond gives ‘M’ the necessary information to pursue ‘C’ for his complicity in Oberhauser’s plans.  ‘M’ and ‘Q’ ambush ‘C’ at his office moments before Nine Eyes’ directive goes live. ‘Q’ manages to corrupt the program, thereby denying Oberhauser access to the participating nation’s high security files. But ‘C’ and ‘M’ now struggle to regain control of the system; ‘M’ causing ‘C’ to slip and plummet to his death from an open window. Inside the old MI6 building, Bond manages to rescue Madeleine with only seconds to spare. Viewing their escape from a nearby helicopter, Oberhauser orders his assassin/pilot to fire upon the pair. Instead, Bond manages an impossible kill shot, the helicopter crashing into Westminster Bridge. Oberhauser has survived – just barely. He now taunts Bond with this flawed victory; killing him will put an end to their rivalry, but Bond will lose Madeleine’s love forever. Bond is tempted, but ultimately chooses to leave Oberhauser to be arrested by the police. A short while later, Bond and Madeleine are seen departing from his stylish London flat aboard the iconic and presumably completely rebuilt Aston Martin DB-5 – inexplicably blown to bits at the end of Skyfall. But this finale suggests Bond has chosen a quiet life and marriage over more assignments for MI6. Has he? Hmmmm.
Spectre is occasionally a stylish affair, but mostly it leaves a great deal to be desired. The plot is overly complicated and nonsensical. Okay, it’s only a movie, as Hitchcock used to say. But the villain of this careworn world domination scenario is not even clever enough to explain how Spectre’s technological espionage – advanced surveillance via robots and drones – will render whole governments ineffectual and at his mercy. In retrospect, the alliances begun in Casino Royale were the beginning of a quadrilogy capped off by the events as unfolded in Spectre; the lengthy thematic integration of various narrative bloodlines spread out over four movies, heavily influenced by personal motivations with a singular, if overreaching, arch of intrigue, and a not altogether successful parallel between hero and villain who share a mutually flawed past. In Quantum of Solace, Bond became a rogue agent, further muddying the clarity between good vs. evil. But in Spectre, this line in the sand is more obscured – or rather, clouded by chronically shifting alliances. Could the whole thing really have been designed merely to exorcise a child’s grudge match turned into a magniloquent revenge scenario: as in ‘you stole the love of my father so I’m going to kill you’; Blofeld the mysterious ‘architect of all Bond’s pain?!?’ Apparently, and rather simplistically - yes, although it has taken a good deal more time than necessary to unravel this reality.
It still might have worked, except Waltz’s deadpan monologues increasingly take on the flavor of wounded pontifications; soliloquys, actually, devoted to his own self-importance; a sort of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ one-upmanship that will not rest and suggests, however ridiculously, that Blofeld and Bond might have been compatible siblings, if only one was not quite so noble and the other ruthlessly psychotic. Of course, allowing Blofeld to walk away from the fray at the end sets up the not altogether out of the realm of possibility Daniel Craig will return for another Bond movie, despite his increasing prejudice over being typecast in a role that – let’s face it – made him a superstar. Without a doubt, and whatever Craig decides, the Bond franchise is not finished. Not by a long shot. We will get another Bond picture. Give it two years’ time (three tops), and, one likely to mirror the tragic circumstances from yet another (better) Bond adventure – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); the death of Mrs. Bond #2?
Finally, the stunts in Spectre are the most impressive aspect of its production; the aerial helicopter assault during the pre-title sequence, the flaming plane crash and Hummer chase through the snow-capped mountains of Austria, the elephantine holocaust in flames that levels Blofeld’s desert hideaway; these are executed with a frenetic energy, all but ruined by cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema. Rarely, does Hoytema allow his camera to remain stationary or even focused on anything in particular for more than a second or two, the blur in continuity having a discombobulating effect. Action sequences in movies are meant to impress and hold the viewer spellbound in the dark with their all-encompassing feats of full-scale daring. The stunt work in Spectre is so shakily achieved it merely forces one to look away to settle a queasy stomach. Badly done!  Like most Bond movies that have followed Roger Moore’s record-holding tenure, this one is watchable, though unlikely ever to be beloved. It has no staying power and zero credibility as a great work of art, much less a worthy contender for a great 007 adventure. Worse, like too many Bond movies from more recent times it neither sets a new standard, raises the bar, nor helps evoke the time-honored precepts of the franchise as a whole. Honestly, last years’ Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – even, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were more entertaining than this.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is predictably solid. A full spectrum of color saturation, excellent clarity, superb reproduction of film grain and crystal clear detail abound, even during extremely dim lighting conditions. From top to bottom, Spectre looks phenomenal and will surely impress. The image, at least at the theater I attended, was hardly as enveloping and frequently appeared almost monochromatic. To be certain, cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema has tinted certain sequences to exaggerate their mood; the Mexico City sequence, as example, adopting copper-toned warmth; the Austrian Alps looking bluish and icy. However, within this overall ‘color wash’ effect are a lot of variables, magnificently brought forth in this 1080p transfer. The substiles within this palette never fail to astound.  Suffice it to state while I had my issues with the movie, I really have nothing to complain about regarding this video presentation. Wow and thank you! The audio in DTS 5.1 is equally as impressive; the SFX giving your surrounds and sub a hearty workout; dialogue always brought forth with razor-sharp audibility. Extras are a colossal disappointment; a few ‘video blog’ featurettes tied together, loosely representing a ‘making of’ but actually just a lot of sound and fury to promote the movie; also, a trailer and a featurette on the staging of the Mexico City opener. Spectre was a Christmas release in theaters and frankly, I am a little astonished it has made the leap to home video so soon.  So, Spectre is out. It’s not a great Bond movie. I would argue against it being even a passably good one. So, judge accordingly: the transfer is a winner.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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