Spectre — a review

Excuse me, nothing to see here...just going to kill somebody, that's all.

Excuse me, nothing to see here…just going to kill somebody, that’s all.

Spectre, the latest James Bond film, begins with a lively sequence in Mexico City with Bond tracking a spy with in one continuous shot. It’s an impressive feat, with the camera following Bond and a girlfriend from the street, in an elevator and into their hotel room–only to have the girl be disappointed when Bond continues walking out on a balcony, armed with a special sniper rifle. We wind up with a building crumbling to the ground and a wild helicopter ride over thousands of people in a city square. The one long continuous tracking shot ends with the downfall of the building, and so does the sense of fun.

Directed by Sam Mendes, who also did the superb Skyfall, Spectre tries once more to examine the life of 007–but at times it feels like it’s trying way too hard. There’s a second storyline with Andrew Scott (who’s very good as Moriarity in the Benedict Cumberpatch version of Sherlock) playing a pencil pusher who’s eager to do away with the Double-O spy service entirely. Once again we’re treated to the dreary argument that the spy game that Bond plays is now ancient history, and that it (right along with ‘dinosaurs’ like Bond) must be swept away for a nice, neat computerized version of spy vs spy.

So this is where the writers dumped us, huh?

So this is where the writers dumped us, huh?

The problem is that we’ve seen this whiny argument taking place within Bond films for the last twenty years, now–starting with the Peirce Brosnan Bond films–and seeing it rise its petulant head once more here just drags Spectre down as we watch ‘M’ (the always great Ralph Fiennes) going from office meeting to office meeting like a beggar in a bid to save his section of licensed-to-kill assassins. It seems as if the writers were trying to give characters like ‘M’, ‘Q’ (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) more to do, when in a traditional Bond adventure they’re usually on the sidelines (it’s Bond who we really want to see, anyway).

They're out of Star Wars tickets?! Those sodding bastards!

They’re out of Star Wars tickets?! Those sodding bastards!

Still, Daniel Craig shines very brightly here, proving himself to be one of the best Bonds since Connery (no small feat there). He has plenty of super cool moments in Spectre, like when he casually warns a security guard to back off by yelling sternly “no…stay!” as if he were a dog (and sure enough, the dude stays put). And former wrestler Dave Bautista also comes on strong as Mr. Hinx, the hired muscle for the bad guys in the same tradition as Oddjob was from Goldfinger.

But Spectre ultimately falls flat because while it’s trying too hard recalling the good old days (with action set pieces, like the battle on a train, resembling scenes from classic Bond films) it’s still reminding everybody just how un-PC Bond really is when it should be busy re-inventing Bond for the 21st century. The ending of Skyfall was perfect, with a newly reinvigorated Bond reporting for duty. But instead of offering a newly reinvigorated Spectre for 007 to fight, we get a tired soap opera with ridiculous plot twists that are so lame it made me want to watch something good, like Goldfinger, or Casino Royale, or Skyfall. The James Bond films are the Rolls Royce of action films; it would be really nice if their makers would drop the constant second guessing about their main character and embrace who and what he is fully and just run with it, already. –SF

The Man From Uncle (2015) — a review

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum from the original series.

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum from the original series.

The Man From Uncle was a light and breezy take off on the James Bond craze of the 1960s. Airing for four seasons in the ‘60s, Uncle (which stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Solo was an American and Kuryakin was Russian, which must have been a pretty far out idea back in 1964 (the year that the series debuted). Solo and Illya reported to Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), who was their version of ’M’, James Bond’s boss.

Did we escape the film critics? Do you see any of them down there?

Did we escape the film critics? Do you see any of them down there?

The remake of Uncle, starring Armie Hammer (as Illya) and Henry Cavill (as Solo), was directed with great flair by Guy Ritchie (the 2009 version of Sherlock Holmes and its sequel; Lock, Stock, and Smoking Barrel, Snatch). The first thing I’ve noticed was that the film version takes place in the early sixties, and this was a great idea. If you had Uncle take place today with the same characters, it would lack the charm of the 1960s spy era, which seems more innocent when viewed side by side with the modern and more gritty (and just as great) Bond films. Set to a jazzy, sixties film score, the new Uncle turns out to be just as much of a fun romp in a posh, polite era of gentlemanly behavior (at least on the surface) while attending various glamorous social functions in order to get the intel needed on what a criminal organization in Italy is up to with nuclear weapons.

What? Can't a girl catch up on the news from time to time?

What? Can’t a girl catch up on the news from time to time?

While this is basically a buddy movie comedy with Illya and Solo struggling to work with each other on their first mission, the bad guys and the threat they pose are still taken seriously. But all through the spy happenings, Guy Ritchie’s witty sense of humor still shines through. There’s a funny moment when Hammer, as Illya, tries to use the sink in the men’s room, but is thwarted by a trio of bullies who won’t move aside. He proceeds to close the door, locking himself in with them, and the men, still laughing at him, abruptly stop as they get that ’oh shit’ realization–the kind of moment of clarity that comes (usually too late) when a jerk realizes that he’s pushed somebody too far. Only Ritchie could properly emphasize a moment like this for a humorous touch.

I've gotta  say, this is the strangest therapy session I've ever had, but I quite like it so far.

I’ve gotta say, this is the strangest therapy session I’ve ever had, but I quite like it so far.

Ritchie also has fun with a boat chase scene, throwing away the standard spy movie trope by offering us a nice (as well as funny) character moment with Solo instead. And there’s an amusing scene–one that made me laugh out loud–where Alicia Vikander tries to flirt with the uptight Illya, all while set to Solomon Burke’s Cry To Me. Ritchie stages and shoots the proceedings almost as if you’re watching a movie that was made in the sixties; there are scenes in Italy that look as if Mario Bava shot them, and this, along with a superb collection of off the wall soundtrack choices, goes a long way to help keep the film’s bouncy 1960s vibe buoyant.

The Uncle movie bombed at the box office, and Ritchie is already working on his next film, the first in a series of movies based on the King Arthur myth, so we’re not likely to see the further Uncle adventures of Cavill and Hammer. But at least we have this enjoyable film, and if it points the way for youngsters to watch the equally fun original TV series, then that’s all for the better. –SF

San Andreas — a review

Hollywood gets a new name, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Hollywood gets a new name, courtesy of Mother Nature.

When I was nine, my mother took me to see Earthquake (in sensurround!) back in the Super Seventies. Directed by Mark Robson, who also directed Von Ryan’s Express and Valley of the Dolls, Earthquake was co-written by Godfather author Mario Puzo (with George Fox) and had a large cast of up and coming actors along with fading A-listers like Charleston Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy and Lorne Green. The only thing that I remembered about the movie was that the sensurround effect (a series of large speakers that supposedly created the sensation of an earthquake) was a big mound of nothing, and that the movie was pretty boring–save for the rocking and rolling earthquake parts, which my nine year old self really appreciated. I remember thinking at the time that the movie would be much better if only there were more of the earthquake scenes.

(Side note: for weeks after seeing Earthquake, I would play out its storyline by building up a little town filled with toy Matchbox cars and then destroying it in a massive quake; sometimes either Godzilla, or an invading army–or both–would step in to make a bad situation even worse for the denizens of my little town. The insurance premiums in that imaginary place of my childhood must have been sky high.)

Whoa, wait a sec, wasn't there a city surrounding me just a few seconds ago?

Whoa, wait a sec, wasn’t there a city surrounding me just a few seconds ago?

Today we have San Andreas, a new earthquake movie that takes its name from the fault line that runs through California. Starring Dwayne Johnson–formerly known as the wrestler The Rock–as a helicopter rescue pilot whose estranged wife (the always great Carla Gugino) is already shacking up with her new wealthy boyfriend (the always reliable Ioan Gruffudd, who played Reed Richards in the two Fantastic Four movies). When the Hoover Dam breaks apart under a massive quake, the Rock gets called to duty, forcing him to break plans with his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). But Reed Richards offers to take Blake to San Francisco so that she’ll be right at ground zero of the major earthquake that’s about to hit California.

Looks like the Glee Club will be canceled today.

Looks like the Glee Club will be canceled today.

Well, that’s not really the storyline, but you know what I mean. The real star of this epic is the earthquake itself, and the characters need to be properly set up on the chess board–as far apart from each other as possible–to make their reunion a true quest of epic Arthurian legend. The silliness factor is upped considerably when it’s discovered that it’s not just one earthquake, but about a half dozen or so, and they seem to be chasing the Rock as he flies around, trying to rescue his ex-wife and daughter. The always great Paul Giamatti co-stars as an earthquake specialist who serves as the thankless exposition guy (“Ermigerd, the earthquake is even bigger and angrier than we thought it was! AND IT’S HEADED YOUR WAY!!!”).

See all this shaking? I predicted it.

See all this shaking? I predicted it.

But despite the overwrought goofiness of San Andreas, I liked it. Maybe it’s the nine year old inside of me who had been waiting for a decent Earthquake movie all these years, but the CGI effects were well done. Unlike the CGI scenes in a Transformer movie, which look somewhat pretty but you have no idea what’s going on, here the CGI is well-directed, resulting in some pretty spectacular shots while still serving the story. As for the silliness (the Rock driving his boat vertically up the side of an incoming tsunami wave), well, it’s a popcorn movie, after all. If you’re looking for a fun spectacle to have with your popcorn, you can’t go wrong with this one. Now excuse me while I go dig out my Matchbox cars. –SF