FBF – Spectre (2015)

British, Christoph Waltz, Daniel Craig, films, James Bond, Ralph Fiennes, reviews, spy, TBT, terrorism

So, you may have noticed that this week’s Throwback Thursday post has actually become a Frowback Friday post. Last night was my work’s Christmas party so I was a little too busy to be posting. It also means, considering I started work at 7 am this morning, that I had no fucking sleep so I’m totally exhausted. So, I imagine this is going to be a pretty dire review of Spectre. I meant to write it as soon as I got home but, because I’m such a pathetic individual, I fell asleep instead. I’m not even 30 yet and I can longer cope with a night of shenanigans without every muscle in my body aching. It’s not as if I was even hungover. At least that would make sense. I’m just pathetic. Anyway, I’m here to review Spectre, which I watched for the first time this week. I loved Skyfall so was really interested in seeing how the follow up would work out. There was a time when it was believed to be Daniel Craig’s final time in the role so it was kind of bittersweet. I wasn’t entirely convinced that Craig would make a good Bond but he’s really grown on me. I think he’s perfect so it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. I love T Hiddle but really don’t think he should get it. Equally, I think Tom Hardy is amazing in every way but I have my doubts. My top choice? Idris Elba. Do I think it’s likely? Well, he’s getting on in age a bit so who knows. Anyway, Spectre has a lot to live up to for many fans. Skyfall had done so many wonderful things and we all felt Craig deserved a decent farewell. Plus, it was the first film for ages without Judy Dench. I bloody love that woman and everything she did within this franchise. I know The Grand Budapest Hotel really turned me around on Ralph Fiennes but I still wasn’t sure he could live up to the Dench. I mean she doesn’t give a shit about the CIA. Her role as M was phenomenal. But I digress and I really do need to get to bed asap.

Spectre takes us to just after the events that ended Skyfall. The old MI5 building is in a state of disrepair and the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is having to cope with a potential takeover from the Joint Intelligence Service. In light of recent events it looks like the JIS will scrap the 00 programme all together; something that becomes all the more likely after Bond causes utter devastation whilst in Mexcio. It turns out 007 got a posthumous message from the Judy Dench M and James is now on the hunt for a secret villain who could threaten everyone’s safety. However, after his actions, Bond is given a suspension from field work so must work in secret with the help of Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). As James finds out more information, it becomes clear that the present case has a strong link with his past. But who is the mysterious figure at the centre of everything?

I didn’t really know what to think about Spectre going in. I was excited but I’d heard mixed things about it when it came out. Obviously there was a chance this was just post-Skyfall fallout where anything the film did would have been seen as not good enough. However, it could just be a fairly underwhelming film. At the very least, the opening song by Sam Smith was the worst Bond song since Carly Simon’s effort. I mean I didn’t like Skyfall but this made that seem fucking amazing. It’s even more of a shame considering the opening title sequence is visually stunning. I’d say it’s one of the best ones ever made. A bloody great start to this film.

Just as the pre-credits sequence is perhaps the best thing we’ve seen in the Daniel Craig era of Bond. We see James in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, wearing a skull mask and walking through the carnival with a beautiful lady. He then leaves his companion and casually strolls over rooftops to spy on his target. It’s such a brilliant and understated piece that just works so well. It’s the kind of gripping sequence that should be saved for the end of a movie not the beginning. It’ll have you hooked.

Which is good because the rest of the film is a little less solid. The storyline follows up from Skyfall’s link with Bond’s past and makes 007’s vendetta with the big bad personal. Apparently, it’s not enough just to want to stop people endangering lives anymore; you have to want to stop them because they’re wronged you personally. There is a lot to this film that just makes it seem like they aren’t even trying any more. It’s a pain by number Bond that you could, genuinely, play 007 Bingo watching. We have the insane gadget that only becomes useful in the final seconds before Bond’s potential death; the two women who get very little development but are lucky enough to shag Britain’s horniest agent; there are enough car chases in weirdly quite cities to satisfy anyone who loves everything Jeremy Clarkson says; and there is the return of a villain who has had more comebacks than the Rolling Stones. This is the perfect Bond film for any fan of the franchise as a whole.

It’s not a bad film though and I really enjoyed it. Daniel Craig’s time as Bond has brought the grit back to the series and, in the past 2 films, we have seen a slight return in the camp comedy of Roger Moore’s era. However, story is becoming a problem. There is so much potential, especially with Ralph Fienne’s M (who deserves his own franchise by the way), that I kind of wish had been used more. This film would have been seen as exceptional after Quantum of Solace but we’re in a post-Skyfall era. This just isn’t quite good enough.

Django Unchained (2012)

Christoph Waltz, cowboy, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, review, slavery, violence, Wild West

There is no way anyone with a deep knowledge of film can ignore the influences that have prepared the director for his latest work and there are plenty of sneaky in jokes for them to pick up on. The film would comfortably sit within the history of blaxploitation cinema (with links to films like 1975’s Mandigo amongst others) and, no matter what Tarantino tries to tell us with his talk of “Southerns”, there is little to suggest that Django Unchained would be uncomfortable within the world of Spaghetti Westerns. From the opening credits using the old Columbia logo to the blood-red titles and the whip zooms, the whole thing screams Western. There is an obvious homage to the 1966 film Django thanks to the use of the theme song over the opening titles and a brief cameo by the original Django’s Franco Nero. The final credits of the film utilises music from another influence They Call Me Trinity from 1970. The two films have dramatically different tones with Django being a gruesomely violent melodrama whilst Trinity is a more comic affair where the hero prefers to forgo violence for cheekiness. These two pieces of music sum up the slightly bipolar tone of Tarantino’s latest historical epic. We are treated to an outrageously violent, gruesome Western/blaxploitation hybrid alongside a keen sense of comedy and fun. Although, is this kind of duality the correct setting for a film dealing with such a controversial and risqué topic?

Django Unchainedopens to find our hero, scarred but not yet broken, chained to his fellow slaves before a life changing encounter with German born bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). In need of Django’s help to track down three of his targets, the eloquent stranger offers him the chance to be free. Luckily the recently released slave proves to be a natural at this killing for money malarkey and they go into business together. Years in captivity don’t really seem like the usual training ground for a gifted assassin but Django could easily be up there with the best bounty hunters; standing as an equal alongside Rick Deckard, Boba Fett and Dog. The films first act, following Django and Schultz chasing bounties across the snow covered mountains and plains of Tennessee is incredibly enjoyable and, though not all of it is relevant, is full of genuinely funny moments. Their brief encounter with an inept band of the KKK is pure Mel Brooks.

It is during his winter as a professional killer that Schultz discovers his companion is married to fellow slave, Broomhilda (a mishearing of the German Brünnhilde by her ignorant subsequent captors). The pair was separated as part of a cruel punishment after an escape attempt so, with the help of his new friend, Django vows to free his love (Kerry Washington). This takes them into Texas to Candyland, the plantation owned by the despicable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where slaves are forced to fight to the death for their owner’s amusement and punishments include being torn apart by dogs. Not that it were really necessary but the audience are given a sneak peek into the future narrative thanks to Schultz’s retelling of the old German myth of Brünnhilde and Siegfried. It becomes clear that Django must become a real-life Siegfried and slay the dragon that holds his wife captive.
Jamie Foxx gives a great performance as our hero and fits the part perfectly. He has all the needed swagger and cockiness that is necessary for the leading man in a good Western. He takes to the role of the avenger cowboy with ease and he looks every bit as heroic and deadly as any cowboy thanks to his cool leather costume and shades. He has the swagger and the bravado but he has the all-important heart and just cause that even his more inhumane actions seem acceptable. However, he is surrounded by much better characters so he often seems like something of a bit-player in his own story. Foxx plays Django deadpan which often jars with his more laidback cohort. His is a very serious story sure but he often comes across as too serious and straight that he gets lost.
For it is his companion that demands much of our attention for the first half of the film as Christoph Waltz is simply incredible as Schultz. He shares director Quentin Tarantino’s love of long, flowing dialogue and he delivers his beautifully formed speeches with ease and a certain amount of glee. It is here that we see an obvious separation from traditional Westerns, which put the focus on action above words. Whilst Clint Eastwood went through the script to A Fistful of Dollars removing dialogue, you can easily believe Tarantino went through his adding more in. As you would expect there is a shedload of extreme violence in Django but it is with words that the real conflicts are fought. The key showdowns between our two heroes and their villainous counterparts only go to highlight their immeasurable skill to offer up a fantastic speech. It is words that are important here and notably the vast majority of the white Americans portrayed here are dim-witted and inarticulate.
Well, all but the disturbing and seemingly charming Calvin Candie who portrays himself as the perfect Southern Dandy whilst he simultaneously forces his slaves to fight to the death. DiCaprio really lets go as Candie and sinks to the utter depths of depravity and villainy. It’s spectacular and wouldn’t have worked had he been too afraid to go that far. Candie is one of Django’s greatest pleasures. He is the childish dictator controlling his vast empire when he’s not having a tantrum because someone failed to call him Monsieur. He is portrayed perfectly and goes to highlight that DiCaprio is only getting better. Candie has the sugary sweet outer layer of Southern charm and civility to hide his dark and poisonous centre. Whenever he is on screen there is a very real threat of violence. The dinner table scene that takes place at Candyland is all the evidence you need to show just how volatile this Southern dandy is. It’s a fantastic scene made all the more impressive thanks to DiCaprio’s injury during filming.
However, as awful as Candie is he probably isn’t even the main villain of the piece. Alongside him is his faithful servant Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), an awful Uncle Tom figure who limps after Candie like the slave owner’s own evil Igor. Jackson plays this role in a way that you can accept no other actor could pull off. Stephen appears as the world-worn, white-haired and limping old slave but there is little doubt how much power he holds. Stephen knows how to work the system. He has the brains and the anger to keep all of Candyland in check. Interestingly, it is only Stephen who is able to see beyond Schultz’s artistry with words that provides a mask to his true identity. Whilst his counterpart Django prefers to shoot first and ask questions later, Stephen prefers to see people slowly suffer whilst letting other people carry out his dirty work. Samuel L Jackson does a wonderful job and, along with Waltz and DiCaprio, easily takes focus away from our more reserved hero who often falls into the background.
But what a background it is. Thanks to the work of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who was last seen winning the Oscar for his work on Hugo (a film so beautiful I cried because of the opening shot – FACT!), Django Unchained is an absolutely stunning film. With some amazing shots of picturesque mountains and Southern plains this films is constantly offering a treat for your eyes. These visuals play alongside Tarantino’s use of cinematic clichés like crazy zooms and grainy flashbacks to ensure the end results are incredibly stylish and fresh.
Django Unchainedis Tarantino’s first film since the death of Sally Menke his long-time collaborator which could explain its ever so slightly rough finish. The slave’s road to retribution is a long one with the running time reaching 168 minutes and it doesn’t quite have the overall polish that Inglorious Basterds did. There are a few plot strands and cameo appearances that don’t really go anywhere. (I’m mostly thinking of the mystery behind the woman with the red bandana. What was that about?) Don’t get my wrong, it is fantastic to listen to characters lose themselves in lavish runaway speeches but it does drag everything out a fair bit, especially when it has the tendency to repeat itself. Whilst I did not necessarily find the film lagging a great deal I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been sharper and more refined.
Still I’m not really complaining. I thoroughly enjoyed Django and was kept engrossed in the narrative for the entire 2 hours 45 minute running time. In fact, my only real criticism was the director’s misjudged cameo towards the end of the film. There has been much debate about the use of violence in the film. Of course violence is a major focus for the narrative but it is played out in such an over-the-top way that it simply feels cartoonish. Django’s quest for revenge results in much death and bloodshed but it is so ridiculously unrealistic (it’s the sort of violence that you see in GTA where you shoot a man in the head and it explodes) that it simply adds to the comic effect and the reference to old fashioned Westerns. It’s all relative and in keeping with Tarantino’s main aim. I think it works.
As for the suitability question, I’m not sure. I think there is a sense that the two tones of the film (comic and dramatic) don’t play well with such a big topic. Placing such horrific and realistic acts of violence towards slaves alongside the indulgent and silly deaths of everyone who crosses Django’s path maybe doesn’t sit well. However, Tarantino isn’t attempting to give us a thought-provoking new insight into slavery in America. Instead he has gone back to that time and, in his typical bloody and brash style, has decided to show it what he thinks of it. And perhaps that is exactly how the issue of slavery should be dealt with in Hollywood. What better way to show the absurdity and horror of slavery than placing it in a loud, extremely bloody, self-indulgent and completely ridiculous narrative? We all know that slavery is bad at this point so why allow it to have any more credence by dealing with it in a sophisticated and reserved manner? Let’s just shoot all the bad guys, throw fake blood over everything and blow shit up. This isn’t Taranino’s well thought out argument against slavery. This is him saying ‘slavery sucks so let’s have some fun at its expense’. And fun, dear reader, I did have.

The Three Musketeers (2011)

Christoph Waltz, fucking awful, Matthew MacFadyen, Ray Stevenson, review, swords, terrible
I must admit I didn’t have very high hopes for this latest adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel as any attempt since the 1973 version, directed by Richard Lester, has never quite felt right. Even the one starring Kiefer Sutherland and my love for him has allowed me to put up with a lot of shit over the years. Although, it does star Rome star Ray Stevenson who I appreciate almost as much.

The latest version from Resident Evil’s Paul W.S. Anderson is perhaps the closest you can get to a modernised version of a narrative set during the reign of Louis XIII. For the most part, the film stays close to Dumas’ original: the young D’Artagnan leaves for Paris and is introduced to musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The four then find themselves mixed up in a political plot in which they must stop the villainous Cardinal Richelieu overthrowing the young King.

Although the writers obviously felt that a modern audience would not be able to accept this simple tale of four men fighting for King and country so we find ourselves in a steam punk version of seventeenth century France complete with airships armed with machine guns and flame-throwers. The three main characters become more than the traditional sword wielding defenders of the French Monarchy and find themselves becoming examples of a more modern action hero.

Anderson has certainly attempted to bring some fun into this well known story but it ends up being a ridiculous and mind boggling experience. The film tries not to take itself too seriously and the opening sequence is a perfect example of this. With images lifted straight from Batman, The Matrix and video games, such as Assassins Creed, the three musketeers are introduced in an blur of romance, violence and booby traps. This part of the film is actually well played out, if you ignore the awful slow-motion fight sequences (something that has not only become one of the most annoying of Hollywood clichés but also something that is pulled off much more successfully elsewhere) and the odd faces Matthew MacFadyen pulls as he wields his rapier. Anderson certainly embraces the swashbuckling side of the narrative.

However, there is something about the film that prevents this attempted light-hearted attitude ever fully taking over. Unfortunately for Anderson, there is a lot more to Dumas’ tale than non-stop action. It relies on political treachery, heart ache and double-crossing spies. It is these elements that gives Anderson most of his problems. For the most part he attempts to push them into the background but when it is necessary his attempts are fairly pathetic.

The main offender is the failed romance between MacFayden’s, Athos, and Milla Jovovich’s, Milady. It is something that we are supposed to believe continually haunts Athos but it is barely given any prominence. After the opening scene it is only briefly referred to again in a few conversations. The romance was never believable meaning its destruction is utterly pointless.

To argue that the film’s major positive is that is does not take itself too seriously is both a flimsy argument and, more importantly, a fallacy. A film that is at its heart a political drama cannot completely commit itself to this sense of fun. Anderson seems to be completely perplexed by the actual story he tries to introduce. The plot to overthrow the King is rushed and certainly secondary to the visual aspects.

The film falls down dramatically from it’s poor script and terrible narrative structure. The script is littered with the expected Hollywood clichés as well as more than enough plot holes and unanswered questions. At it’s best the script is laughable and at it’s worst is painful. Take for example any of Athos’ speeches about being a damaged individual driven to drink and despair or the excruciating scene played out between D’Artagnan and his father before he leaves for Paris.

Although, despite the excruciating language, the aspect of the film that annoyed me the most was the overuse of CGI. Mostly because it is an obvious attempt to distract the audience from the poor craftsmanship of the whole thing. The main objective seems to have been to make sure as much was happening on screen as possible in the hope that the audience stopped listening to the words or noticing the acting.

The whole film has an air of desperation after it’s acceptance that there is little substance behind the gaudy spectacle. Of course saying this, there will always be a part of me that finds immense joy from watching these familiar characters outwitting the evil Cardinal and totally annihilating armies of men. Since I first watched the 1973 version I have had a secret desire to one day become a musketeer and, despite his shortcomings, Anderson has reignited my desire to smite my enemies with my trusty blade.