‘Spectre’ – The Global Criminal Organization Returns to Haunt James Bond in the New Millennium

WRITER’S NOTE: The following review was written in 2015.

James Bond fans will be thrilled to know that the gun barrel sequence has been returned to the opening of this latest 007 adventure. For the past few Bond films, it has been relegated to the end to make clear just how rebooted this long running franchise became when Daniel Craig came on board to fill that tuxedo and enjoy the shaken, not stirred martinis. But now it precedes the action-packed prologue, and it’s just as well because “Spectre” aims to be more along the lines of the classic 007 adventures where the suave spy does battle with a secret organization which is bent on world domination and ends up seeing so much more than the NSA does on a daily basis. Still, it does have a strong focus on character as the past continues to haunt Bond to where the dead are not really dead.

First, let us get this out of the way: Is “Spectre” better than or as good as “Skyfall?” No, but this was kind of a given since the previous installment reached such extraordinary heights which the average Bond film usually never reaches, and this includes grossing over a billion dollars at the box office. In the end this did not matter much to me because, on its own, “Spectre” is a compelling and thrilling movie which reunites Craig with the brilliant Sam Mendes whose work on the last installment was impeccable. With this latest Bond film, they both are determined to dig even deeper into 007’s fractured and turbulent history, and it reintroduces us to certain character types and criminal organizations which defined many of the early Bond adventures.

After a thrilling action-packed opening sequence in Mexico, one of this franchise’s very best by the way, Bond is informed by M (Ralph Fiennes) he is being suspended from duty as his mission there was not authorized by him or the British government. However, we later learn he received a cryptic message from a previous mentor informed him to kill a man in Mexico and attend his funeral in Rome, and this is just the beginning to his uncovering the criminal organization whose name is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Suffice to say, they got everything covered.

Mendes hasn’t lost a step here, and he is also served well by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) who gives even the dirtiest scenes an inescapable beauty. This movie also has a great opening and unbroken shot which lasts several minutes as we watch Bond attend a Day of the Dead parade, head upstairs with a lovely lady presumably to bed, and then he suddenly goes out the window in pursuit of his latest nemesis who has seriously pissed off her majesty’s secret service.

The main villain is Franz Oberhauser, and he is portrayed by the brilliant and endlessly entertaining Christoph Waltz. This is the same actor who gave us one of the most fiendish villains in cinematic history in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” but he’s not out to replay Hans Landa here. When we first see Franz, he doesn’t even have to speak up or raise his voice to show how powerful he is. Everyone simply stands at attention, and no one questions his decision making at any point. This makes Waltz’s job even easier as his character clearly exerts a power very few bother to question. Some claim he is too quiet in his first scene, but for him to yell at everyone or shout to keep everyone in place would strike me as being desperate to keep everything under control. Franz doesn’t need to do this because everything has long since come under his control.

As for the Bond women (calling them Bond girls does not feel the least bit appropriate anymore), they are played by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. Bellucci plays Lucia Sciarra, the widow of an assassin killed by Bond, and she mesmerizes us in the far too few minutes she appears onscreen. Bellucci is said to be the oldest Bond woman ever, but does this really need to be pointed out? I don’t care how old she is because she still sizzles and holds her own against Craig even as he seduces her to the audience’s delight.

Seydoux is best remembered from her role as the beautiful but cold-hearted assassin in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and here she plays Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who has a link to a person Bond dealt with in the past. She proves to be a strong Bond woman here as she brings up her tragic upbringing which has informed her defensiveness around those she doesn’t know very well, and she makes clear of how she has a strong dislike of guns. She’s a wonderful presence here, and she and Craig make quite the couple.

Dave Bautista co-stars as Mr. Hinx, a character designed to spark our nostalgic memories of Oddjob. Mr. Hinx is a henchman of few words, but his actions speak a lot louder than his words and leave a lot of damage in his path. This is not a henchman content with throwing a hat around as his hands do all the work and leave quite the impression.

Ralph Fiennes confidently fills the shoes of Dame Judi Dench’s M as Mallory, and like the previous head of MI6, Mallory finds he can control Bond as well as she could, which is to say only so much. Naomie Harris returns as Eve Moneypenny who has since settled in to becoming M’s assistant, Rory Kinnear remains reliable as always as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, Jesper Christensen reprises his role as Mr. White from previous installments, and Ben Whishaw steals every single scene he’s in as Q. Seriously, watching Whishaw is such a delight this time out as he infuses the role with a wonderfully dry sense of humor as he reminds Bond of how he has a mortgage and two cats to feed.

And, of course, Mendes brings back composer Thomas Newman to give “Spectre” an emotional and propulsive film score which will has me eagerly awaiting its release on compact disc. I especially enjoyed his collaboration with the Mexican contemporary classical percussion group Tambuco on the music they composed for the Day of the Dead scenes. As for the theme song “The Writing’s on The Wall” which is performed by Sam Smith, it’s good but nowhere as priceless as Adele’s “Skyfall.”

But let’s not leave out the man of the hour, Daniel Craig. Ever since he made his debut as 007 in “Casino Royale” he has not only made this iconic role his own, but has also given Ian Fleming’s classic character a humanity and a depth his predecessors hoped to give as much of. His respect for Bond is never in doubt as he brings 007 around full circle to where we learn even more about his past than we did previously, and how it has come to define his present state in life. It’s still up in the air as to whether this will be Craig’s last time playing the famous British secret agent who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, but I have to believe he has at least one more Bond film left in him.

How you come to view “Spectre” may depend on the kind of expectations you bring to it, and it’s hard not to have high expectations after the brilliant “Skyfall.” Do yourself a favor and leave them at the door and just enjoy it for what it is; a gorgeous and extravagant Bond film which, while a bit too long (editor Stuart Baird is missed here), has us wondering where 007, a man who another character describes as being a “kite dancing in a hurricane,” will go from here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘No Time to Die’ – Daniel Craig Gives Bond an Emotional Swan Song

Ah Mr. Craig, Mr. Daniel Craig. How nice of you to return as James Bond for a fifth and final time. Despite your infamous interview with Time Out where you declared you would rather slash your wrists than do another one, even you realized there was still one more chapter in your interpretation of Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Besides, no one should have been asking you about doing another Bond film while you were still in production on “Spectre.” Heck, the last thing anyone wants to think about is the next 007 picture when they haven’t finished making the latest one. Even I would not have asked you that question on a press day.

But here Craig is again for “No Time to Die” which does indeed serve as a fitting swan song to his time as James Bond. Despite a running time which exceeds “Spectre’s” (163 minutes to be exact) and some flaws here and there, it proves to be a highly satisfying concluding chapter. But as thrilling and exciting as it is, my breath was taken away by how emotional it proved to be. Granted, “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” were full of emotions also, but this one seriously took my breath away to where I exited the theater saying to myself, wow.

After a prologue which hints at relationships which will have shocking revelations later on, we catch up with Bond who has since retired from active service and is living a happy and quiet life with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Of course, once we hear James tell Madeleine they have “all the time in the world,” you know the shit will hit the fan, and hit the fan it does with quite a loud and sudden bang. From there, Bond realizes he can no longer fully trust Madeleine, and he finds himself lonelier in the world than ever before.

Cut to five years later, and Bond finds himself drafted back into service not by MI6, but instead through his old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, finally and thankfully returning to the franchise) who alerts the former 007 about the theft of a bioweapon which contains a dangerous new technology which could wipe out millions in an instant. It doesn’t take too long for Bond to jump back into action as he reunites with several friends, a few enemies, and a number of surprises which may shock longtime Bond fans, but should also serve as a reminder of why Craig and the filmmakers went out of their way to break the rules in this endless franchise.

While it is bittersweet to watch Craig here, it is also a lot of fun to watch him inhabit 007 in a far more debonair manner than ever before. Seeing him dish out delicious one-liners particularly, in his first meeting with the new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), is priceless and had me laughing harder than I have in a long time. Never once did I see him going through the motions as he invests this iconic character with a wounded humanity which has long since started showing its age.

And with “No Time to Die,” we get a new director in Cary Joji Fukunaga. Best known for his work on the first season of “True Detective,” he also directed the brilliant “Beasts of No Nation” which could have gotten Oscar love were they not so white the year it was released. After seeing Sam Mendes direct one Bond film too many (and I did like “Spectre” by the way), Fukunaga, along with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, succeeds in giving this 007 installment a unique look which distinguishes itself from its predecessors, and for the most part he balances out several terrific action scenes with ones focused solely on the characters. Granted, the running time could have been shorter, but Fukunaga along with screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and the fabulous Phoebe Waller-Bridge keep you guessing as to what will happen next, something I do not always expect from a Bond film.

More importantly, everything is brought around full circle here. By that, I don’t just mean with Bond. Whether its Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Felix Leiter or Q (Ben Whishaw), everyone gets a proper ending. We have followed these actors for some time now and, like Craig, they have made these iconic roles their own. Considering how “No Time to Dies” ends, this is likely the last we will see of them as this franchise will now undergo another overhaul. It would be great if any of them returned, but it might cause needless confusion when the next Bond actor arrives on set.

And yes, I loved the Bond women here. Lashana Lynch quickly turns Nomi into a formidable 007 and is ever so cool from start to finish. Even when James gets the best of her, Nomi is quick to get right back on her feet, and seeing her stare down with such a beautifully icy glare is worth the price of admission alone. As for the lovely Ana De Armas, she makes Paloma into a wonderful tease of a Bond woman as she initially looks to be out of her depth, but then delightfully shows us how lethal she can be. The only shame is that Armas disappears from the proceedings early on, and it would have been great to see her some more.

If there is any disappointment to be found here, it is with its Bond villain. While Rami Malek gives Lyutsifer Safin an imposing and intimidating presence, the character is left hanging in the shadows for too long and is only given so much to do. Even after his first masked appearance onscreen, Malek seems to give a largely one-note performance to where I wished he had dug much deeper into his role. While Safin says he looks at Bond as though he is his mirror image, he says it with nowhere near as much depth as Javier Bardem gave us as Raoul Silva.

I also would have loved it if the filmmakers would have brought back composer David Arnold. I have been missing his music ever since Mendes replaced him with Thomas Newman, and this is with all due respect to Newman. Fukunaga brought in frequent collaborator Dan Romer for “No Time to Die,” but he left over “creative differences” and was replaced by Hans Zimmer who appears to be scoring every other Hollywood blockbuster these days. All the same, Zimmer gives us a terrific film score which heightens both the action and emotions and pays tribute to Bond themes and songs from its celebrated past. Granted, at times it sounds like he is echoing some of the themes he created for “The Dark Knight” trilogy to where I wondered if he steals from himself the way the late James Horner often did, but still.

As for the obligatory theme song sung by Billie Eilish, it is a thoughtful and moving song which captures Bond’s history and the past he needs to put behind him. It is no “Skyfall,” but it is miles better than Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” which somehow inexplicably won an Academy Award.

With Daniel Craig’s reign as James Bond now at an end, it will be interesting to see where the 007 franchise will go from here. I cannot help but fear for the actor who will step into this iconic role as he will have big shoes to fill, but I do remember feeling the same way when Pierce Brosnan was cast aside after “Die Another Day.” Part of me believes Barbara Broccoli and company will return to the over-the-top action spectacles which dominated Brosnan and Roger Moore eras, or perhaps they will find another action movie franchise or trend to mimic so the series can keep up with the times. Hopefully, they will remember how Bond needs to have an edge and not just be another clean-shaven spy.

Nevertheless, these past five Bond films have been a godsend to a franchise which was in dire need of an overhaul 15 years ago. While many say you cannot do this or that in one a Bond film, Craig and company said rubbish and did it anyway, and it resulted in many invigorating cinematic adventures. Hell, we even here the word “fuck” in this one, and if there is another 007 film where this happened, I have missed it.

Godspeed Mr. Craig, and thanks for all you have done.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Reader’ Features a Brilliant and Galvanizing Performance from Kate Winslet

The Reader movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

The Reader” has been getting mixed reviews, and I can’t understand why. I was expecting a good movie with great performances when I went in to see it, but I ended up getting a lot more than that. My father was with me when I saw the movie, and he confirmed it was astonishingly faithful to the book it was based on. Indeed, “The Reader” is an emotionally devastating journey through the beginning of an affair between a young student and an older woman, and of the aftermath it lays on both of them. Every single performance here is extraordinary, particularly the one given by Kate Winslet. If she does indeed get nominated for this movie or “Revolutionary Road,” she will certainly deserve the Oscar this time around.

Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz who works as a ticket taker for the local trains going in and out of the town, and she encounters young Michael Berg (David Kross) who is sick and depressed. She takes care of him and even walks him home. Michael later returns to where she lives to thank her for what she did, and from there the two have a secret affair which involves both sex and reading. Hanna asks Michael to read to her before they make love, and he does so with tremendous enthusiasm to say the least. This deepens their relationship even while it remains a secret between the two of them, and it lasts for several months.

Part of the movie’s success in affecting you may depend on how much of yourself you see in the character of Michael Berg. Many of us would not like to remember ourselves as ever being weak, but something deep in our subconscious would certainly have entertained the idea of having an affair with an older woman, let alone Kate Winslet. As a teenager, your hormones are jumping up and down on an ever-expanding trampoline in the realm of puberty, so thinking about something other than girls will be a bit challenging. All the same, common sense might kick in somewhere which can, and should, stop us from being involved in such a relationship.

In many ways, “The Reader” is an argument against this kind of a relationship as this one elicits even more heartache, confusion, and emotional scars which can last a lifetime. They say the first love is always the hardest because of the eventual break up which hurts like a son of a bitch. Clearly, there are not many break ups or separations which can hurt as much as the one experienced by Michael and Hanna.

2008 may be remembered as the year of Batman, the late Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr. and many other things. I do hope it is also known as the year of Winslet. On top of “The Reader,” she also has “Revolutionary Road” coming up which is directed by her husband Sam Mendes. She needn’t have been nominated for an Oscar five times already to convince us of what a superb actress she is. Winslet manages to do many things I cannot see another actress doing as effectively, and she superbly handles the aging of her character without overdoing it or falling into some caricature of an elderly person we may have preconceptions of. Winslet immerses herself into this role ever so fearlessly, and she gives us one of the most compelling and emotionally devastating performances of the year.

Winslet also does something which at first would seem unthinkable and horrifying; she gives a human face to the SS officers who were later prosecuted for their role in the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. From a distance, we would simply shout down at these people because of the horrible things they have done. Winslet wisely does not make us sympathize with what her character has been through, but she makes us see Hanna’s pain throughout the trial as she is caught up in a situation she does not entirely understand. This later leads to a revelation about her which I will not reveal as it will destroy the mystery of her character for the audience this movie deserves. But this secret is something Hanna feels much more ashamed of than her role as an SS officer.

It also brings up an interesting point worth dwelling on. These officers are being prosecuted for their role in the worst kind of atrocity, and probably rightly so. I say probably because in the end, these are just soldiers who were ordered to do their jobs by a genocidal maniac named Adolf Hitler. As history shows, the hierarchy of an evil or highly immoral regime seems to get off somewhat easier than the soldiers whom, whether we agree with their actions or not, were simply doing the job they were commanded to do. For them to simply not do their duties would have led to their deaths by a simple bullet in the head. Obviously, the atrocity of the Holocaust brought on a strong need for revenge in its aftermath, and prosecutors went after perhaps the only ones who could be easily prosecuted as Hitler killed himself before he could ever be captured. While I watched the movie, my dad leaned over to me and said, “Just remember this when they prosecute those soldiers from Abu Ghraib and not Donald Rumsfeld.”

As much as “The Reader” may seem like the Kate Winslet show, there are many other performances to admire other than hers. The one performance which might come across as the most underrated is the one given by David Kross as the young Michael Berg. Throughout all the scenes he has with Kate, he more than holds his own with her as he conveys the hell of an emotional turmoil he goes through both as a teenager, and later as an adult. In retrospect, Kross has the hardest role in the movie as he has to convey many things about his character without saying a word. We know why Michael is going through so many conflicting emotions, but the characters around him don’t know this. Furthermore, they cannot know as this would implicate Michael in a situation he will not ever be able to escape from. I have not heard of Kross before this movie, and I am interested to see how he got the role as his performance is nothing short of astonishing.

And of course, we have the great Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael Berg, and he conveys how the character never moved on fully from the affair he had so many years ago. Fiennes portrays him as a man who knows he is more emotionally distant from people than anyone should be, and he is aided by Kross’ performance as we see why this is the case.

Director Stephen Daldry previously directed the film adaptation of “The Hours” with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Along with “The Reader,” he seems to be working with a recurring theme of women caught up in a world they are desperate to escape from. Even if such an escape lasts only a brief moment, they are caught up in a world not necessarily of their own making, and it threatens to kill their soul completely. Daldry certainly isn’t afraid to venture into emotionally charged material, or of material many will simply view as depressing.

“The Reader” is pretty certain at this point to have a place on my list of the best movies of 2008, and not just for the brilliant performance given by Kate Winslet.

* * * * out of * * * *