Spectre (2015)

★★★★

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Spectre PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Release Date: October 26th, 2015 (UK); November 6th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography was all the rage at the Oscars earlier this year, and Hoyte van Hoytema has tapped into the technical furore. Spectre begins with a Birdman-esque gallivant through a musty Mexican city, hollow drum beats slowly drowned out by the fluid orchestral waves of Monty Norman’s classic Bond theme as proceedings manoeuvre away from Day of the Dead festivities and towards 007’s (Daniel Craig) ensuing mission. Bond shoots at his target, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), causing an enormous explosion that ought to terminate the wrongdoer. But just when you think it’s mission complete, Sciarra escapes. We momentarily meander back into the slow-moving parade before barrelling skywards aboard an out-of-control helicopter.

Director Sam Mendes is clearly having fun playing with our expectations, teasing tonally and pacing-wise. It is a super sequence in mechanical terms, but also a celebration of Bond: throughout the five-minute long take we see spying, shooting, surviving, and seducing. And, deviously, the film eliminates a would-be model Bond villain in record time — at one point the camera catches Sciarra looking like a cross between Jaws and Raoul Silva.

The main title montage then springs into life, this particular incarnation both encapsulating and artistically rich, affording meaning to Sam Smith’s otherwise uncertain lyrics. Perennial opening credits creator Daniel Kleinman delivers a montage that is all about retracing familiar steps, and Spectre does a lot of backwards walking. Bond, no longer in favour at a spatially revamped MI6, finds himself working outwith the espionage structure of government moderniser Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), aided covertly by Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw).

The film is an entirely different prospect to Skyfall; this, in many ways, is Bond back to basics. Somewhat shunned by the morose undercurrent of its predecessor, Spectre revisits the franchise’s sly vein of humour. Ben Wishaw continues to grow into the role of Q, his pinpoint comedy timing affording the character greater charm. We dash all over the globe, though admirably the outing never succumbs to the artificial sheen of a travel brochure. Snowscapes make a comeback — there’s something to be said for beautiful blanket-white mountain locales and Bond often speaks fluently in this regard.

Just when you think the film won’t eclipse its previous action set piece, an even bigger and better one explodes on screen. Heck, we even get a hulking villain in Hinx, the bruiser given personality by Dave Bautista whose terminally arrogant-cum-ominous grin suggests total control. He brawls with Bond aboard a train in a punch-up that looks and sounds brutal — words such as vigour and pulp spring to mind as you begin to think Hinx might actually be a Terminator.

Some shots could have easily been borrowed from a Sergio Leone western, prompting quite the departure from what is otherwise a modern espionage jaunt. These pit Bond as the ageing gunslinger, a field agent feeling the brunt of a very real existential crisis provoked by Denbigh’s mechanical tactics, but also an operative who is still able to get the job done. Taunted by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who, like Denbigh, is also plugged into the new world, Bond must confront the ghosts of his past in order to remain operationally relevant.

See, while reviving the franchise’s historical spirit, Spectre also roots itself in present day amenities. Denbigh is the corporate stooge infecting our treasured institutions, the guy who wants to take MI6 “out of the Dark Ages”. He heads up the Centre for National Security, or “George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” as M (Ralph Fiennes) puts it, a base designed to undemocratically scrutinise the globe. His vision is all-encompassing, a desk-based surveillance system that identifies and eliminates potential targets. Keyword: potential.

As Bond battles enemies in the field, seeing Fiennes and Scott engage in a dual over career politics is a warranted change of pace and one that never ceases to intrigue. A paranoid air arises based on the premise that any misstep might be critical, and this trope no longer only applies to Bond. The argument relayed by the old guard, essentially, is that espionage is too cloudy to be conducted in an impersonal manner.

This clash between old and new also incorporates Waltz’s Oberhauser, though the less said about him the better. He struts on screen encased in a cloud of shadow, Hoytema’s cinematography imbuing the character with immense mystique. We know exactly what Christoph Waltz looks like and yet we can’t help but wonder what sits beneath the darkness. Interactions between Oberhauser and Bond are few and far between and you do find yourself yearning for more, but perhaps the restraint employed by Mendes and his team of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth all contribute) is what funds the tantalising energy surrounding both men.

Romantic (or unromantic) strands are still odd and awkward to sit through, especially in 2015. Bond’s infallibility when it comes to courting women remains a key characteristic that is tough to get along with, though his relationship with Lea Séydoux’s Madeleine Swan is at least sort of understandable — Madeleine is, after all, the daughter of spy. His fleeting flirtation with Monica Bellucci, playing a grieving widow, isn’t quite as logical.

A word finally on Daniel Craig, who looks like he is once again enjoying himself after the stunning solemnity of Skyfall. Spectre may or may not be his last tux session. Either way there is no denying the actor’s quite remarkable achievement since donning the attire in Casino Royale: imperfectly humanising a foolproof iron man. I’m not so convinced viewers these days aspire to live the life of Bond, and that is a good thing.

Spectre - Daniel Craig

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Columbia Pictures

Crimson Peak (2015)

★★★★

Crimson Peak PosterDirector: Guillermo del Toro

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Fantasy; Horror

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

The fact that Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering is a carnival of visual ebullience probably won’t come as a shock to anybody out there. A 19th century Gothic nightmare with lots of frothy verbiage, every last word enunciated to the nth degree, Crimson Peak delivers in most of the areas we would expect but not all of the areas we would like. Granted, this is not a horror movie nor does it try to be anything of the sort, but its fleeting moments of fright never quite amount to the haunted atmosphere del Toro covets. The narrative also takes some time to explode into life, eventually doing so with menace. At least until then we have a bedazzling aesthetic to keep us company.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a young woman who seeks to carve her own way in the world without relying on her father’s (Jim Beaver) wealth. She writes (stories with ghosts, not ghost stories), though Edith’s professional hopes are initially dashed under the guise of superfluous reasoning when a superior decries her “feminine handwriting” and the lack of romance in her tale. Crafty and stubborn, she swaps pen strokes for typing but remains steadfast on narrative content. Matthew Robbins co-wrote the film with del Toro and, in Edith, the pair have concocted a female character whose determination to evade tradition is at odds with the prevailing social structure.

She meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when the latter shows up looking for funds to support his clay processing invention, and the duo fall in love. From dad to would-be muse Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), everybody is wary of Thomas’ intentions: “There’s something about him that I don’t like”. Everybody except Edith, who really should have taken the hint upon seeing Thomas converse with his mischievous sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the shadow beneath a large, looming tree.

Crimson Peak’s technical prowess is there for all to see, its rich texture and engrossing visuality arguably on a par with del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. But it lacks that film’s beating heart, perhaps because it is tougher to empathise with Edith here than it was Ofelia there. Pinpointing exactly why the Edith’s plight doesn’t translate as well is difficult; Wasikowska is perfectly fine in the role and her character is not disagreeably construed. It is true that her words are often quite gushy, certainly more so than those spoken by Lucille, and at best on a par with Thomas’ dialogue.

The film isn’t excessively melodramatic but its swirling air of grandiosity can hinder the credibility of characters’ actions — from where, for instance, is Edith’s insurmountable trust in Thomas born? To align grand romantic gestures and sap-filled exchanges with Gothic fiction would be a fair assessment, though I’d argue the genre itself is in that case flawed. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned traits don’t meet the screen with enough grounded authenticity in Crimson Peak, and definitely don’t fit a character who is trying to break free from cultural the norm.

Edith’s mother appears in ghost form, an apparition cut from the same ocular cloth as the spectre in another Jessica Chastain outing, Mama. Chastain has more to sink her teeth into here; as Lucille she is very mysterious, her movements icy and her stare searing. She often dawns extravagant gowns but unlike the bright, undiluted garments worn by her sister-in-law, Lucille’s attire often reflects her dark interior (deep rose-coloured and sharply defined). Her undulating poise sets a tone of torment and, as it transpires, Chastain is a terrific passive-aggressive tormentor. But Lucille is also on the verge of mental collapse — her composure, fake, could come unstuck at any moment.

Tom Hiddleston is also very good, though his role commands a different shade of mystery. He must be both a schemer and a sympathiser, and the actor finds the correct balance between the two. You feel his conflicted plight, yet you still can’t fully trust his crow-esque demeanour. In a sense the film is crying out for more interactions between the siblings, especially during its less compelling first half. A word too for Burn Gorman who is superbly cast as a sly detective of sorts, slinking around in the much the same vein as Metropolis’ Thin Man.

At times del Toro’s film is exceptionally violent. One bathroom-set murder harkens back to Casino Royale’s pre-title brawl, only this one is much blunter and probably much bloodier too. It is part of an effervescent production design that somehow straddles the line between realistic and dreamlike: marvellously crafted sets, eye-catching costumes, piercing sounds (just wait for Lucille’s ceramic-screeching monologue).

Enshrouded in a bleak snowy mist, Allerdale Hall — the mansion that hosts proceedings — could pass for a miniature Voldemort-led Hogwarts. Dan Laustsen’s camera swoops around torn halls and through once-noble doorways as if flaunting the Titanic. When it comes to housing, del Toro is decorative master and he incites every moan, groan, and grumble from Allerdale Hall as possible. Blood red clay seeps from floorboards and bleeds down the walls in Evil Dead II fashion; it’s as if the building is literally sinking into hell.

Crimson Peak benefits from the process of time, with each passing second coaxing greater momentum and a rise in intrigue level, until the film reaches its barnstormingly gory finale. But it also benefits from boasting a cast who collectively prescribe to the mood of the piece, and a director who knows this genre — his genre — better than most.

Crimson Peak - Tom Hiddleston & Mia Wasikowska

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures