‘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 * * * *

‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *