SPECTRE (2015)

SpectrePosthumously ordered to Mexico by the previous M (Judi Dench) to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret organisation that connects Quantum and the deceased cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). He infiltrates a meeting of SPECTRE in Rome, following a tip-off from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), where he is introduced to the group’s leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is dispatched to take care of Bond, stalking him all the way to Austria — to the workplace of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who 007 has promised to protect in exchange for Oberhauser’s location. With Bond AWOL, and both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) suspected of aiding and abetting his illicit investigations, M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in conflict with C (Andrew Scott), who wants to disband the 00 programme as part of a controversial reform of the secret service that will see MI5 and MI6 merged to form a Joint Intelligence Service.

The James Bond film series is a mess, and always has been. Spanning over fifty years and twenty-four movies it has seen the lead role re-cast, the creative team replaced, and the narrative revised so often that James Bond now exists more as an icon than a character. It is this iconography that holds the series together, so that a Bond movie is as identifiable for containing a Bond girl and a Bond villain as it is for featuring Bond himself – heck, the main character has to introduce himself at the outset of every movie just so that the audience knows who is on this particular occasion supposed to be playing him. This formula has produced a number of memorable adventures, but the repetitiveness has made it predictable and over time this has rendered it rote. There is no character development, no narrative progression, no end in sight, just an apparently endless succession of explosions and innuendo that can sometimes stimulate but can rarely satisfy.

It is for this reason that Sam Mendes’ Skyfall — EON’s twenty-third production — was such a success, both critically and commercially. Tasked with celebrating fifty years of Bond, Mendes was really the first director to sit down and think about who the character is or where the series might be going. Even the fact that he was ostensibly operating in a rebooted timeline barely two films old couldn’t stop him from producing the most engaging and comprehensive Bond movie in decades — one that was both emotionally resonant and culturally significant. Skyfall simultaneously operated both within and outwith the series’ established continuity, referencing previous adventures while reinstating fan favourite characters who were nevertheless unknown to Bond. This allowed Mendes to comment on or even slyly mock established tropes while also hitting all of the usual marks. It was at once a standalone adventure and a distillation of everything the series stood for; in many ways it was the definitive Bond movie, and may either have been used to bring one of cinemas longest running sagas to a triumphant conclusion or stand it in good stead to see out the rest of the century.

Obviously, there was little chance that Sony was going to retire one of its most celebrated and lucrative tentpoles, and the existence of SPECTRE shows that of the two options it was going to go with the latter. To the film’s credit, it approaches the idea that James Bond has to adapt to survive head on: Andrew Scott’s character explicitly questions the relevance and validity of the 00 programme in the 21st Century, and spearheads a Joint Intelligence Programme that favours surveillance over espionage. Unfortunately, however, it stops at lip-service, and rather than reach for new horizons the film — as its name suggests — resurrects an organisation that hasn’t been seen onscreen since 1971 to concern itself with instead. Mendes, who after much convincing agreed to return for SPECTRE, is clearly aware of his film’s shortcomings, but having killed M off at the end of Skyfall he is no longer able to refocus attention away from narrative inconsistencies and onto the characters. He overcompensates, contriving to retcon a shared history between Bond and his latest antagonist, but it is neither as convincing or as compelling as the relationship he once had with M. Realistically speaking SPECTRE may only be as incomprehensible as half the other films in the series (it’s certainly as stylish), but after Skyfall it feels all the more inconsequential.

In an age of shared universes and multimedia storytelling, Bond really is beginning to show his age. Like Skyfall, SPECTRE may continue to mirror and directly reference past events (though a fight on a train and a video tape labelled Vespa barely registers as fan-service at a time where Marvel is cross-pollinating between sub-franchises and Fox is commissioning films with the express intention of reinstating some semblance of continuity) but it doesn’t have the same focus or sense of purpose as its predecessor — it confuses matters when it should be clarifying them. Rather than use Skyfall as a jumping off point for new adventures or dynamics, SPECTRE feels more like an epilogue, an after-party, or perhaps just a hangover. The franchise hasn’t been renewed, it’s outstayed its welcome. The suitably stand-out Day of the Dead sequence might have been more than a prelude; it may have been a premonition.

2-stars

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2013)

MandelaWith peaceful protests getting his cause nowhere, and racial equality as unlikely as ever, Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) is forced to join the African National Congress and participate in organised guerrilla warfare against apartheid. His wife, however, is struggling to care for their two children, and with her husband spending more and more time behind bars she is left with no option but to leave. He then meets and marries Winnie (Naomie Harris), who takes over the fight for freedom when he is eventually arrested as a terrorist for inciting violence. While he and his accomplices bide their time in prison, sentenced to life but destined only to spend 27-years inside together, Winnie becomes radicalised and increasingly militant, until she finds herself at odds with her ever-more estranged husband.

Adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s 1994 autobiography — and directed by The Other Boleyn Girl‘s Justin Chadwich — Long Walk To Freedom finally arrives in cinemas only sixteen short years after Anant Singh first acquired the film rights. The man lived an incredible life, and provided bountiful source material for the filmmakers to exploit. Unfortunately, the one-time President of South Africa didn’t live long enough to see the finished film for himself; having suffered from a respiratory infection for many years, Mandela tragically died on December 5th, 2013 — the day of the film’s UK premiere.

Mandela did get a chance to see the final scene of the film, however, and — according to Harris — even mistook Elba for himself. While in long-shot the clothes, hair and gait might be sufficient to convince audiences that they are watching Nelson Mandela in action, up-close the likeness is far from uncanny. Elba is very good, but the more prosthetics he is forced to wear as his character gets older the more his performance suffers. Harris, playing the apparently ageless Winnie, is much less impaired, and much more consistent; she enjoys the film’s most extreme arc, from the love of Mandela’s life to his ideological opposite. Ultimately, however, it’s very much a two horse race, and aside from Elba and Harris nobody else makes that much of an impression.

You can’t help but feel that the filmmakers have bitten off more than they can chew. Mandela isn’t simply one of the most famous, loved and respected men of the moment, but a key political and humanitarian figure from world history. He’s a husband, a father, a lawyer, a revolutionary, an ex-President and a national — as well as international — hero. The film all but skips his childhood (where he earned the nickname “troublemaker”), speeds through his first marriage (to Evelyn Mase, here played by Terry Pheto) and turns 27 years of incarceration into little over 27  minutes of screentime (during which he is transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, and then onto the much lower-security Victor Verster Prison). There is the sense throughout that the film is only scratching the surface.

Whether the filmmakers would have been better off adapting only a portion of the full memoir is difficult to say. While Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom might be unsatisfying it is still a respectable effort, boasting a couple of very good performances and a number of charged confrontations between the two key players. That said, it’s hard to imagine that this is the definitive biographical film about the life and works of Nelson Mandela.

3-Stars