I, like, really liked the cat. So. There’s that.
It was me, James. The author of all your pain.
This is the first disappointing crit you’ll see here – I spent October sharing some of my horror favorites (and a few newbies that turned out only for the best – or at least, I could stretch my brain to see the best in them), so you’re accustomed to quick crits where I speak the beauty of every film I’ve watched.
Odds say this can’t always be the case. I’m a pretty contrary girl.
All the better to talk about it, then. Enter Spectre.
I don’t know that I had high hopes for Spectre – I am one of a hundred million people who loved Skyfall and felt that Daniel Craig’s run as Bond may have been best summed up with that “final chapter.” Sam Mendes brought the stunning visuals, Craig the attitude, and the screenwriters the payoff of three movies worth of character development. It was a great Bond movie and a brilliant stand alone film. I think it probably deserved an Oscar for best picture. At least a nod (they so rarely get it right).
But, however great it was, it was an ending. And here I am in a theatre waiting to watch Mendes and Craig rehash the whole thing. Why? I screamed it out loud at the screen at least ten times, and was elbowed for only about three of them. Even the Bond fanatics seemed a little… nonplussed.
If you think I don’t get it, I do.
Spectre is about a return to form, and therefore, a return to cheek.
A classic Bond film has two things: serious espionage and serious cheek (actually, a classic Bond film has five things: espionage, cheek, objectification of women, gadgets, and Sean Connery). Spectre believes itself to be an homage to a classic Bond, but with a heavy level of respect for the serious anti-hero Craig has created. It’s that reserve, I think, that unwillingness to fully commit to classic Bond smarm, puns, and overt charm, that ultimately fails Spectre.
If you want to break it down to a detail – the failure’s in the dialogue.
Dialogue is central to drama.
In theatre, dialogue is the hallmark of the playwright (so much so that she is often reduced to it, with haphazard directors crossing out her stage directions in favor of their own). In film, especially action film, we look first at the visual composition set before us. In a good action movie (and dare I say, any movie), storytelling through editing and shot composition should be enough to drive the narrative. The best beginning screenwriting exercise? Write a three-minute scene with no dialogue, only description. Can you make the narrative compelling? Can you draw rich, interesting characters through their actions alone? These skills are necessary to visual storytelling. If you need an example of just how well visuals can convey character, look at the work of a still photographer like Gregory Crewdson – each shot may as well be a feature-length film for all it tells us about its setting and its subjects. Not a word of dialogue necessary.
In the typical Hollywood action film, dialogue is surely secondary.
If the fights are beautifully choreographed, the scene artfully shot, and the editing tight enough, the visual narrative will be there. Characterization is achieved almost exclusively through action and quick choices (which wire do I cut? which girl do I save?), allowing for dialogue, when featured, to be as curt, straight forward, and limited as it wants to be. This gives us infamous lines that jump right out of the screen and into our collective lexicon – everything from the exquisitely juvenile,”Yippee Ki Yay, Motherfucker” – to the overtly obvious battle cry, “This is Sparta!” Out of context the lines are laughable (and intensely quotable). In context, the best have an ounce of magic that lifts them from the page and perfectly embodies that spirit of independence, defiance, and rebellion we so relish in American cinema. And with it, a hopeful, possible simplicity that such a spirit is tangible, achievable.
Some dialogue, in this hyper-stylized vein, becomes a character itself.
James. James Bond (there’s a line for you) has always accomplished this through distinctly British cheek – a particular, charming blend of cockiness and confidence that says “I think he got the point.” (name that Bond movie!) When it hits, it hits. When it blows, well…
In your typical drama, dialogue is simply the words the characters speak. They characterize through delivery, word choice, and best of all, through what is not spoken. Absence of dialogue when a character should speak is perhaps the most crucial character builder of all. Skyfall and the other Craig-Bonds rely heavily on the choice of silence. The less Bond says, the more intriguing, mysterious, and brooding he becomes. More akin to a traditional villain, actually – which intrinsically makes our hero more complex, and in the best scenario, all the more interesting.
I think you’ll find this trait integral to a number of contemporary anti-heroes – from Christian Bale’s throaty, whispering Batman to the minimal elegance of Mad Men’s Don Draper. So, when Craig’s Bond starts, rather suddenly, delivering the straight-up cheek of Bonds past, it feels a little… disjointed. Or maybe insincere, is the better word. Because Craig’s Bond is not overtly cheeky as we’ve come to know him. And after the heavy events of Skyfall, it feels intensely different, tonally, if not completely out of character. Although we expect a specific kind of charm, straightforwardness, and appropriate wit from this Bond, the constant punny cheek? It belongs in another movie, to another set of characters, a very previous Bond.
The dialogue of classic Bond is its own character.
It leaps from film to film, from actor to actor. A cultural signature, it appears in parody, jest, and outright nostalgic love in other unrelated films. When someone says “Martini shaken, not stirred,” we all smile a little, knowing its origin, nodding our heads in appreciation of an icon of cinema. But like any great cameo, the presence of classic Bond dialogue can over-stay its welcome. It can take over a scene. An act. And eventually, the only thing memorable about the film is its winking one-liners. Yes, we still love Connery, we still love You Only Live Twice, we still love the damn cat.
But perhaps what Spectre best demonstrates is that while flirting with nostalgia is fun, having a full-on relationship with it can be damaging to the integrity of our stories. Daniel Craig’s Bond is different from all other Bonds that came before him. And his choice of words – perhaps the most defining characteristic of all.
Disjointed is seriously the name of the game, because despite crap dialogue (yes, I finally just said it), Mendes never forgets how to shoot an exquisite scene. Case-in-point the opening scene in Mexico City. I really thought “I was wrong, this is going to be so good,” while watching the most epic Day of The Dead parade march through the dusty streets, skulls out, people celebrating, Bond making an appearance in-mask that alludes to everything that’s happened to him in the last three installments. The scenery is beautiful and the imagery does what Mendes does best – suggest past histories that are unavoidable and inescapable. And Bond gets one real good shot. This is the stuff good action movies are made of.
Other Things To Notice:
-It was incredibly important to me when Spectre was announced that Mendes had chosen Monica Bellucci as a “Bond-girl,” making her the first woman over the age of fifty to play a sex object in a Bond film. Though it’s normally not my thing to relish in the objectification of women, I’m not going to pass up the chance to let a woman as fiercely gorgeous and powerful as Bellucci take over the iconic part. It offers that bit of subversion to the mainstream that’s necessary to change the archetypes up a bit. And frankly, it’s nice to see Daniel Craig’s Bond spend a little one-on-one time with a woman his own age. If only they could have given Bellucci a bit more screen time – speaking of “choosing silence,” her piercing stare and walk alone are enough to fill an entirely silent film. She is exquisite and terribly underused.
–Naomi Harris as Moneypenny continues to be a breath of fresh air and life. She is everything. I cannot wait to see more of her in everything.
–Christoph Waltz. Christoph Waltz. You are wasted here. Please go watch him in The Zero Theorem instead.
-I’m going to guess this is where a lot of people lost it with this film, but I’m just going to be honest – the shot of the white fluffy cat lounging in Blofeld’s secret layer as James wakes up? This is the BEST SCENE IN ANY BOND MOVIE EVER. Nostalgia done RIGHT. High, high camp happening right here and I love it. So, sue me.
If You Like It (or if you don’t and you’d like something better), Watch:
Austin Powers: I really feel that this is the best time to revisit the film that made Mike Myers a superhero to teenagers in 1997. It’s not always good, but it’s often great, and although the clear reference in Spectre is toYou Only Live Twice, you cannot dismiss that Austin Powers’ mockery of that particular Bond and its villain is something Mendes and everyone else on this film has probably seen. It factors, guys. And the jokes will help you, I promise.
Road to Perdition: Spectre is the first film to make me feel that I should go back and watch Mendes’ 2002 period piece with Tom Hanks (and also, Daniel Craig!). I’ve always been a bit bored by it, honestly, in comparison to his other work. But I’m reminded watching Spectre of the strong link between all of the director’s work – from the appearance of the grand, white house at the end of each film to the depression that befalls “classic men” who are only doing their jobs. If nothing else, it is unfathomably beautiful.
Have a movie you’d like to see reviewed? Submit your suggestions in the comments! Everything is fair game.