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A cryptic message from the past sends James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a rogue mission to Mexico City and, eventually, Rome, where he meets Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci), the beautiful and forbidden widow of an infamous criminal. Bond infiltrates a secret meeting and uncovers the existence of the sinister organisation known as SPECTRE. Meanwhile, back in London, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), the new head of the Centre for National Security, questions Bond’s actions and challenges the relevance of MI6, led by M (Ralph Fiennes). Bond covertly enlists Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to help him seek out Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of his old nemesis, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who may hold the clue to untangling the web of SPECTRE. (From MGM/Sony’s official synopsis)

 Spectre
Twice now, the Daniel Craig era of Bond films have pulled the series out of meandering doldrums. Martin Campbell Casino Royale (2006) course-corrected the tail end of the Brosnan era, but the creative team (including writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis) was so focused on directly following-up/re-creating the story and tone that Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008) felt like an afterthought – as if someone had found Casino Royale’s previously deleted fourth act and padded it out with other cutting room footage. Then, Sam Mendes’ more flamboyant, forward-moving Skyfall (2012) was set forth to right Foster’s wrongs. Classic Sean Connery and Roger Moore era characters and organizations were appropriately modernized and, though it was certainly a fun and even campy exercise, Mendes’ expert direction helped root Bond back into the intimate drama by the end of the film. When Mendes announced he would be returning as director – along with writers Purvis, Wade, and Bond series newcomer John Logan – the assumption was the filmmakers would build on their momentum. In addition, Bond’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, would be making his first appearance in the series since Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever back in 1971.

Once again, the results did not meet expectations.

Despite being a better film, Spectre (is it Spectre or SPECTRE?) is more frustrating than Quantum of Solace. Forster’s movie was so undercooked and shoddily constructed that it’s easy to dismiss as a simple blunder. They tried for more of the same and it didn’t work out. They lived, learned, and rebounded with style. Spectre, on the other hand, had the benefit of hindsight and decades of old material to appropriate, yet, just like Solace, Spectre seems to have been made by people that misunderstood its predecessor’s successes. Bond reverted to an angry man on the run from his own agency, once again seeking revenge for the crimes of Casino Royale (not to mention Quantum and Skyfall, and his personal ties to the villain are made maddeningly literal (I don’t want to spoil a particular plot point for the readers that haven’t seen the film yet, but I would recommend they get their eyes ready for rolling). It seems that Craig’s Bond simply will not be allowed to move onto the more episodic adventures that have served the best films in the series (including, in some ways, Skyfall). The screenplay is structurally sound, I suppose, and probably the only Bond movie I’ve been able to follow without losing track of a thread since, I don’t know, Live and Let Die? But the structure is meaningless when every plot point feels so inevitable, despite the sometimes illogical means in which conclusions are drawn.

 Spectre
Purvis, Wade, Logan, and Mendes are going through the motions, joylessly dragging Bond from plot point A to plot point B, and it eventually devolves into probably the most compulsory and lifeless final acts in the franchise’s history. I don’t have many good things to say about Quantum of Solace, but at least it ended on a cogent and relatively unique high-note. Following two hours of lethargic pacing, Spectre arrives at a logical climax that, while not entirely satisfying, at least feels like an ending. But then it keeps going, dwindling into twenty minutes of lapsed logic, uncharacteristically weak action, and a supposed send-off for Craig that is basically meaningless, since he’s still contracted to make another movie. It’s such a dopey piece of nonsense that it has spawned ridiculous conspiracy theories from fans, hoping that the filmmakers didn’t simply make a dumb finale. Furthermore, aside from the breathtaking pre-title sequence, Mendes dials back on the studious and deliberately paced action of Skyfall’s early acts, opting instead for more of the brute impact of its finale. There are funny gags and moments of surreal wonder, but, even as Mendes and his stunt team succeed in establishing the geography and weight of their car chases and fisticuffs better than 90% of their contemporaries, the coverage is course and the editing is jagged. Of all the things to change about the Skyfall formula, why revoke the wonderfully unusual and colourful tones of the more over-the-top or ‘Bondian’ elements?

I’d like to note again that, despite cineastic fears that superhero movies are taking over Hollywood (there were only three wide-release superhero movies in 2015), this was an epic year for spy thrillers, including David Koepp’s Mortdecai, Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Paul Feig’s Spy, James McTeigue’s Survivor, Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Aleksander Bach’s Hitman: Agent 47, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Mendes’ film, and Bharat Nalluri’s Spooks: The Greater Good. The Bond series hasn’t had this kind of competition since the 1960s, when the original Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television shows were being broadcast and European filmmakers were cranking out 007 rip-offs/spoofs at a breathtaking rate. And, with a November release date, Spectre was poised to follow in the footsteps of a whopping eight movies. As the prestige brand of spy film for the last five decades, there was little room for error and, though it won the battle at the box-office, it was bested creatively by two spoofs* and a very by-the-numbers Mission: Impossible sequel.

 Spectre
Now, as promised in my Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation review, I’d like to (once again) briefly mention the key plot/theme similarities found in the rush of recent spy thrillers. Hopefully, by now, someone smarter and more eloquent than myself has written an essay concerning the socio-political dread of modern counter-terrorism and the NSA scandal, and how this led audiences to crave escapist entertainment about good government agencies taking down Big Brother organizations. I understand that ‘inside threats’ are an oft-used trope for espionage fiction (it is a mainstay for the Mission: Impossible series), but the reemergence of this trope and the frequency with which it has been implemented is still staggering. And even more interesting than that is the fact that three groups of screenwriters working on three different espionage-themed blockbusters – Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Rogue Nation, and Spectre  – came to generally the same conclusions on how to deal with the introduction/reintroduction of nemesis organizations ( Kingsman: The Secret Service used a variation on this trope, but, as a new property, it didn’t have an established nemesis). I’m not interested in spoiling all three movies, so I will merely suggest that HYDRA, The Syndicate, and SPECTRE have similar very world domination plans and that they execute those plans from within the ranks/under the noses of their counterpart organizations while those organizations struggle with obsolescence in a post-NSA world.

* For the record, I very nearly hated Kingsman as a movie, but there’s no denying that Vaughn and company took more chances with the well-worn spy model.

 Spectre

Video


Skyfall is, without a doubt, the most beautifully photographed Bond movie ( On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Thunderball come in second and third) as well as the first Bond movie shot with digital cameras. For Spectre, Mendes moved on from cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was pioneering digital photography, to Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema ( Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar). Perhaps Mendes was uncomfortable shooting pure digital without Deakins, but, based on Van Hoytema’s reputation with 35mm, he probably just wanted to make Spectre a visually different experience. Assuming that was the intention, I’d say Mendes and Van Hoytema succeeded, because this desaturated, browned, dark, and generally unattractive photography certainly couldn’t be confused with Skyfall’s eclectic artistry. I didn’t think it was possible for Mendes to make an ugly movie, especially not when fitted with a $250 million budget, but I guess I was wrong.

The final results are a mix of 35mm film and digital HD (Alexas and Reds) and the footage is so heavily graded in post that it is difficult to delineate the differences. Generally speaking, this is a clean and crisp transfer, but Mendes and Van Hoytema throw a lot of grit at the screen in the form of floating dust, smoke, diffusion, and darkness. This leads to occasionally heavy grain, choppy gradations (especially considering how many of the dark backgrounds are completely indiscernible), and some fuzzy edges. There’s a dichotomy here that makes the image difficult to parse – the filmmakers aimed for something rough, but also put the footage through so many filters that it looks utterly unnatural. The key issue, as far as I’m concerned, is the hideous colour timing. Spectre is full of nearly monochromatic palettes. These include an orange/yellow hue that looks like unhealthy urine, a blue/teal hue that looks like the fake urine they use in diaper commercials, and some super de-saturated, nearly black & white shots (i.e. the snow and interrogation scenes). Thankfully, this transfer is vivid enough to draw out the minor highlights, including very subtle variations on the aforementioned colours, as well as some slightly more naturalistic skin tones and purple/red pops during the ‘white out’ scenes.

 Spectre

Audio


Spectre is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound and meets all of the over-the-top, explosive expectations of a James Bond movie. The Mexico City pre-title sequence alone is enough to qualify this as a demo disc – from the abstract crowd noise to the perfect placement of the musical elements (as Bond moves from location to location, the efforts of percussion, mariachi, and a flamenco groups meld into a single ongoing song that switches speakers, based on his placement in frame), the explosive crumbling building, and the multi-channel assault of the helicopter crash. The rest of the film follows suit with well-centered dialogue, subtle environmental elements, and bombastic explosions. Skyfall composer Thomas Newman (who also scored Bridge of Spies in 2015) returned along with Mendes and the writers. His new themes offer plenty of tonal texture (especially that Mexico City scene and the beautifully rendered chorus during the Rome scenes), but it is his alterations to the classic motifs that really shine this time. I’m always happy when a composure doesn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Then there’s that title song. Cough, cough.

 Spectre

Extras


  • Spectre: Bond's Biggest Opening Sequence (20:10, HD) – A substantial breakdown of the pre-credit scene shot in Mexico City. It includes cast & crew interviews from on and off the set that cover planning, costumes, production design, make-up, the difficulties of the long tracking shot, helicopter stunts, and fight choreography. The featurette is capped off by footage from the Mexico City premiere, where set-pieces were reused on the red carpet.
  • Video Blogs – A series of short promotional clips:
    • Director: Sam Mendes (1:30, HD)
    • Supercars (1:40, HD)
    • Introducing Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci (1:40, HD)
    • Action (1:40, HD)
    • Music (1:50, HD)
    • Guinness World Record (1:20, HD) – Concerning the film’s record-breaking explosion
  • Image gallery
  • Teaser and two theatrical trailers


 Spectre

Overall


Spectre isn’t the worst Bond movie by any stretch – tt might not even be the most disappointing one – but it certainly represents a franchise falling off the rails. It might also represent another creative hole for director Sam Mendes, who already rebooted himself once after succumbing to his own hype with Jarhead (2005) and (ugh) Revolutionary Road (2008). Bond needs another Skyfall-style film that leaves behind the heavy narrative weight of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Mendes, in the meantime, should probably take everything down a notch and make another light-hearted Away We Go (2009). Fox/MGM’s Blu-ray looks as crisp as this purposefully gritty film/digital footage mix can and features a demo-worthy DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The extras are pretty weak, which is sort of the standard for this series lately.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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