SPECTRE: Mendes does Bond’s greatest hits

Poor old Sam Mendes. In some ways he’s a victim of his own success. Skyfall broke a billion at the box office so it was a tough act to follow. Particularly if that act was yourself.

But Dan and Sam formed a superb working relationship on Skyfall, so why wouldn’t they roll the dice again? And roll they did, upping the stakes by introducing the shadowy organisation SPECTRE, helmed by the Bond franchise’s favourite go-to bad guy, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).

For SPECTRE we start in Mexico in an impressive Day of the Dead sequence which sees Bond bring his usual suave and swagger to proceedings. A solid opener.

So far so Live and Let Die.

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From there – much like the whole of the Craig era so far – the story continues to explore the path of the previous films, particularly Skyfall, with Bond and the double O programme being seen as obsolete in a modern world where drones and data reign supreme. Leading the charge is the nefarious C (Andrew Scott); giving M (Ralph Fiennes) a foil of his own. Old school versus new school you might say.

And as the story unfolds echoes of Craig’s reign as Bond keep cropping up, almost like a final send-off. Is this his last film?

And as well as the Craig era references it seemed Mendes bowed to fan pressure and brought back a number of classic tropes. You could probably play a drinking game with the deluge of Bond references on show and end up hammered way before the second act.

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Generally though, in terms of a Bond story, this does feel tonally like it’s closer to the original books, perhaps more so than Casino Royale (still the best Craig Bond). But the problem this film finds itself in, more than anything, is despite attempting to have a natural evolution from the past few stories, it feels cobbled together. Our hero races from one set piece and country to the next and it all feels forced. With loose threads and characters dropped at various points to keep the story moving along it seemed the writers had leapt on a runaway train and had no idea how to stop it.

Simple stories are often the hardest to tell and, in this case, it feels as if the filmmakers have overcomplicated things. And somehow, bafflingly, they’ve put themselves in a place where, despite trying to continue the story from past outings, they still have to world build and introduce new characters. And that always takes time.

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So for me, SPECTRE the organisation and SPECTRE the film promised so much but delivered relatively little. Again, this is probably partially down to Sam Mendes impressing us all with his first go round, but for the most part this latest franchise entry just underwhelmed me.

Trying to pin down the reasons behind my feeling (or lack of it) I think was partly due to the story feeling clunky and numerous characters being short-changed. And when they did show up they barely made an impact (Monica Bellucci and Dave Bautista, the top suspects). Those that did get more scenes also didn’t really leap off the screen (Andrew Scott for example, just seemed unhappy to be there).

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And some just didn’t seem to fit the film properly at all; specifically Lea Seydoux as Bond’s love interest. Now she’s French, so I wonder whether they were trying to replicate the Eva Green effect with Craig? That fizzled at the time. Here though, Seydoux does perfectly well, but just seems too young and cute to be the right fit. Whether it’s actually an age thing I don’t know (Craig is 47, Seydoux is 30), but I’m not entirely buying that. Chemistry is chemistry, and here it didn’t work.

Or maybe Mendes just had other fish to fry? In particular Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. Waltz, if you give him good lines, will make them sing and dance for you. Yet here, as the powerful and troubled head of SPECTRE, he didn’t seem that frightening. He also didn’t have many scenes which really came alive. He’s undoubtedly a terrific actor, but it seemed like he was either coasting or didn’t have much to work with.

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Now many critics (and fans) have raved about this film already. Strong opening weekend, Mendes, Craig and the gang back together again and all that… so maybe I’m being harsh but I’ll stick to my guns. Bond is the longest running franchise in cinematic history (excluding the Carry On films, wahey!) and its standards are high, so we expect more. And I’m not even a rabid fan.

I am, however, a huge fan of Casino Royale and Skyfall and some past Bonds (I grew up in the Pierce Brosnan era), but each new instalment should surpass the last, and this one just trod water. Which simply isn’t acceptable. Judi Dench’s M would never have stood for it.

Pride: a heart-warming tale of pits and perverts

There’s a scene in Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise’s Jerry accuses Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Rod Tidwell of having no heart. He responds angrily with, ‘No heart? I’m all heart motherfucker!’ That’s what you get with Pride. It’s all heart. And it very much wears it on its big gay sleeve.

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Although saying that, it’s not as flamboyant as you might think. In fact, given the ’80s working class setting and the fact that it’s split between London and a quiet mining town in Wales, there’s a very down-to-earth, British style humour on display and inevitable comparisons will be drawn with films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off. Also perhaps with films such as Cemetery Junction, as it’s half told as a coming-of-age tale from one of the younger character’s point of view.

The film starts with the group’s leader, Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) watching police clash with miners in Wales on TV. Behind him what looks to be a one-night stand says he’ll leave his number and he’d like to see him again. Mark ignores him, completely focused on the TV as an idea forms. From the off, this tells us a lot about him as a leader, he’s thoroughly committed to the cause.

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His idea: his gay friends (and one lesbian, at least initially) should support the miners. In them he sees a group of kindred spirits. They’re being bullied and harassed in the same way the gay community has for years. And so he gets buy-in from his gang, L.G.S.M. (Lesbians and Gays Support Miners) is born and they head to Wales to support their new comrades.

Throwing together an exuberant bunch of gays and a rough and ready group of Welsh miners, you could go either way. Happily director Matthew Warchus (who’s recently succeeded Kevin Spacey as creative director at the Old Vic) opts for comedy over drama for the most part, but finds time for dramatic moments throughout. As a result these scenes stand out and give the film real depth and humanity.

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When was the last time you heard the audience applaud at the end of a film?

It happened at the screening I attended. Ok, it was the Hackney Picturehouse, so you’re already playing to a fairly diverse bunch, but the point stands – this film makes you feel good. A lot is down to the characters. They’re interesting. You care about their plight and want to spend time in their presence.

Whether that’s quiet old-timer Cliff, fighting police on the picket lines (a dialled down Bill Nighy and all the more brilliant for it), flamboyant actor Jonathan (Dominic West on excellent form) disco dancing with the town’s ladies, or his quieter, more reflective partner Gethin (Andrew Scott), a local lad returning to Wales for the first time in years after being persecuted growing up – they’ve all got a fascinating story to tell and – thanks to Warchus’ direction – each make great use of the scenes they have.

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There’s a few scenes here and there which you feel Warchus cut short for the sake of keeping the story tight and focused. Probably more backstory and great character moments, but perhaps not needed if you’re being strict.

Overall the film’s message is clear and consistent throughout. It’s about sticking together, solidarity and friendship, particularly from places that you least expect when you need support the most. Oh, and (slight spoiler) you get to hear a little Welsh lady say ‘Where are my lesbians?’, which has to be worth your ticket price alone surely?