Friday, 9 June 2017

REVIEW REVISITED: Stick It (2006)

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This is a reprint of my review first published on this blog in 2014, with a number of minor revisions. You can read my original review here. 

Stick It (USA, 2006) 
Directed by Jessica Bendinger 
Starring Missy Peregrym, Jeff Bridges, Vanessa Lengies, Maddy Curley

Female characters in sports films are often dealt a very poor hand. At best their narrative journey is frequently depicted as ancillary and largely complimentary to those of the male participants, and at worst they are reduced either to eye candy or to bitchily carping from the sidelines. Sports films which focus primarily on women are rare and often tackle a particular sport or discipline in a much more patronising way than if the same sport were being practised by men.
All of this makes Stick It such a refreshing piece of filmmaking. Jessica Bendinger, the writer of the cult classic Bring It On, steps behind the camera to deliver a film which rises above its more conventional aspects to give a valuable, impressive insight into a sport often reduced to empty stereotypes. It remains a hugely underrated teen comedy-drama with a young lead who deserves much greater recognition.
In my review of Gregory's Girl, I spoke about how coming-of-age films are "better remembered for the careers they launched rather than their artistic merits." Because the structure of coming-of-age stories is so predictable, we often find ourselves relying on the performers to help us through a story we could tell in our sleep. It's a blessing and a curse for the performers in question, who achieve immortality through a given role but at the cost that they can never escape being associated with it.
Like Phil Davis from Quadrophenia before her, it's fair to say that Missy Peregrym has yet to shake off the mantle associated with Stick It. Part of this could be attributed to her superficial resemblance to other actresses: from a distance you could easily mistake her for Kristen Stewart, and her toothy smile is very similar to that of Hillary Swank. In any case, Peregrym's lack of subsequent success is wholly unfair; she is a highly charismatic performer, with attitude, mischief and believability to spare.
Peregrym is helped in this regard by the writing, which is an improvement on Bendinger's previous work. In Bring It On, all of the female characters had a bitchy quality, and it was sometimes difficult to know whether said bitchiness was a satire of cheerleading or a lazy representation of it. While Stick It has its fair share of cattiness and name-calling, the women are much more varied in their make-up and motivations.
Writing convincing, three-dimensional female characters is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. Because men (or more specifically white, straight, English-speaking men) have long been the standard foundation for any given character, the obvious pitfall is to write women as 'not men', defining them entirely in terms of their relationship to men rather than treating them as people in their own right. This is a trap that male writers often fall into, but women can often be just as guilty.
This trap can partially be avoided by writing women as 'people who just happen to be female' - in other words, to ignore or dilute any aspects of their character which involve their gender or sexuality. But while this is preferable to writing women as 'not men', ultimately it is not enough to make them completely believable. Women, like men, are constantly interacting with the culture around them, and their identity is partially defined by a reaction to gender and social expectations derived from said culture. In other words, you have to reference their womanhood, even if only to challenge the expectations of how a woman should behave or be written.
What is so refeshing about Stick It is that is a film driven primarily by women which deals with their relationships to social standards without preaching or whinging. Even though its main character has a tendency to mope or run from her problems, it treats her like a complex, difficult human being rather than a trope for men to shape at will. Jeff Bridges may be the main big-name star but he's on screen for a relatively short amount of time, and even then he doesn't play as active a role as you might expect.
People often talk about women in film in terms of empowerment - the writers or directors getting women to do things that are either not normally associated with women or which they have been traditionally denied by men. A lot of the time this is presented in a clunky or confused way, such as the Bride in Kill Bill: it may be a woman doing all the fighting, but she's still fulfilling male fantasies about powerful women as much as being a strong, independent lady.
Stick It succeeds because it doesn't try to shove any message about women down our throats. It gets across a message about the absurdity and hypocrisy of professional gymnastics just as effectively as Smile did for the world of beauty pageants. But throughout its running time it is more interested in allowing women to speak for themselves and demonstrate their talents than it is about using them to make a point. In short, it's empowering because it doesn't constantly shout about empowerment.
Purely as a piece of physical spectacle, Stick It is pretty remarkable. Most of the main cast had little or no experience of professional gymnastics, and yet they vault, pirouette and twist like they had been rehearsing for the Olympics all their lives. Bendinger's visual style is less conventional than Bring It On's, relying much less on slow-motion or montage than most sports films. Even when it comes close to anything resembling a training montage, the film confounds our expectations by focussing on the painful failures of the characters rather than building up to any one success.
Stick It has a welcomely rough and funky edge to it, which at least makes it appear less conventional than similar coming-of-age stories. The film is shot by Daryn Okada, whose work is generally more plastic and mainstream: in amongst the very fine Mean Girls, he also lensed Lake Placid and American Reunion. The soundtrack compliments this vibe, ditching classical accompaniments usually associated with floor routines in favour of Missy Elliott, Green Day and Blink-182.
For the most part, Stick It is a film that refuses to play by the rules and more often than not pleasantly surprises us. But it does have some sequences where it comes up short, settling for convention when just a small step further would have made it truly great. While most of the character development is well-played, the film loses its step when one of the gymnasts gets a boyfriend; while it makes sense in terms of her character arc, the relationship isn't written as well as the rest of her character.
Likewise, the relationship between the lead character and her mother is underdeveloped. Many of the parents in the film are pushy stereotypes, reduced to unintentionally belittling their children and providing some rather forced comic relief. Ultimately it is not their story, and including them mainly for comic purposes is rather an underwhelming or cheap trick. This doesn't detail the drama, but it is a distraction.
Stick It is a hugely underrated slice of comedy-drama with some of the best-written female characters that the sports genre has to offer. Missy Peregrym shines in the lead role, with Jessica Bendinger maturing as a writer and proving that she has quite a bit to offer as a director too. While not quite groundbreaking enough to be considered great, it is a great deal more inspiring and surprising than many sports films you'll find, and comes with a very hearty recommendation.


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For more of my thoughts on Quadrophenia, check out The Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio.


NEXT REVIEW: X-Men (2000)

Saturday, 3 June 2017

DEBUT FEATURES: Mean Creek (2004)

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Mean Creek (USA, 2004)
Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan

Coming-of-age films and films about the loss of childhood innocence have often used the natural environment as a means to contrast the naivety of their protagonists with the harsh realities that they come to understand. An interesting by-product of this is that films of these sub-genres reflect the environment of the country in which they are set, and the means by which that environment is personified. In a densely populated country like Britain, films as varied as Heartless, Tyrannosaur and The Selfish Giant all take the built-up, urban environment of major cities and make them the embodiment of all that is chaotic, faceless, unpredictable, violent and, in the case of Philip Ridley's film, evil.
 
In America, where whole sections of the country are more sparsely populated, different parts of the country take on this characteristic. While the major cities of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are often associated with aspiration and hope (albeit ironically in the case of Chinatown and Mulholland Drive), the deserts, mountains and canyons take on this mantle of the cruel, heartless, unforgiving wilderness in which humans struggle to survive. As well as inspiring a whole litany of westerns, this aspect of America has given rise to films as eclectic as Deliverance, Stand By Me and Fargo, in which people go to pieces in the middle of nowhere. Mean Creek joins this illustrious company, managing to embrace all their component parts while still carving out an identity of its own.
 
Out of all the films previously mentioned, the closest comparison is with Stand By Me, Rob Reiner's much-loved adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Body. There is an obvious similarity in the set-up; both stories revolve around a group of children (mainly boys) getting into scrapes in the wilderness, and the main plot point is based around a dead body. And there is also a thematic similarity, beyond the obvious point about the loss of innocence; both groups of people learn the consequences of violence through a series of events which shape the people they become as adults.
 
One of the major differences, however, lies in the visual approach to the two stories. Reiner takes a very considered, almost choreographed approach, heavily relying on tight close-ups of individual characters during the tensest moments - which works wonders on the scene with the switch-blade and the gun towards the end. By contrast, Jacob Aaron Estes (in his first feature film) opts for a more low-key, naturalistic approach, using hand-held cameras and more middle-distance shots. While in Stand By Me we are a conscious voyeur, peering into the boys' world and deliberately getting caught up in it, in Mean Creek we are a more passive observer; we just happen to be along for the ride, so that when things go south it quickly becomes shocking.
 
When telling any kind of story about revenge, one has to deal very quickly with the moral question - in other words, how an audience is expected to feel about the actions being perpetrated by the people we have paid to watch. This decision can be the difference between a film which questions people's own moral compass and foisting upon them two hours of nothing but meaningless violence. Any director worth their salt has to put their cards on the table very early on, so that we can decide if we want to sit through the consequences.
 
What separates, say, Get Carter from, for instance, I Spit On Your Grave (besides the subject matter) is the moral hypocrisy of the latter; we are expected to endure the graphic rape scenes as justification for the return brutality, and are also expected to gain enjoyment from the retribution being meted out by the main character. Notwithstanding the film's many other problems, its gleeful disregard for human life makes the whole experience of watching it at once offensive, depressing and tedious. Get Carter, on the other hand, recognises that revenge ultimately destroys the people doling it out just as much as their victims, either by literally killing them or, in the case of something like The Hitcher, leaving them just as hollow and warped as the villains they were fighting.
 
Mean Creek wins points for intelligence in this regard, taking a familiar set-up (a boating trip that goes wrong) and turning it into an examination of the inward-looking nature of bullying. Josh Peck's character, who goes on the trip under false pretences, uses insults to defend himself against his own insecurities; the video footage at the end reveals him to be much more of a gentle soul, who lacks the means to articulate who is really is and uses force to get what he wants in the meantime.
 
This aggression, and the image he projects as a result, is what leads to George getting killed - but Estes is also smart enough to convey that the same projection to cover insecurities is what drives the other characters as well. It's put across to an audience in different ways, and the facade lasts varying amounts of time; while Millie goes to pieces pretty quickly, Marty uses outright aggression as he tries to keep the truth from getting out - and in doing so, he becomes the same kind of bully as George, albeit with actual blood on his hands. The film is brilliant at showing the moral disintegration of the characters, filling you with anger at what they have done but also sadness that their childhood has been wrenched from them.
 
When Mean Creek was first released, it was compared to films like River's Edge and Bully, which attempted to, in the words of Roger Ebert, "deal accurately and painfully with the consequences of peer-driven behaviour." Ebert's analysis of how the film approaches "situational ethics" (how our notions of right and wrong change based on circumstance, rather than being measurable absolutes) is very astute, as are his comments about the film being useful as an educational resource for teenagers. But an equally valid, if unusual comparison, is with the South Park episode 'Toilet Paper', in which the boys enact revenge on a teacher by covering her house in said material. Take out all the references to The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather Part II, and you have a pretty close comparison in terms of how friendships become strained and unravelled, both by the deed itself and the resulting fear of judgement and punishment.
 
The main performances in Mean Creek are really compelling, and unlike many coming-of-age films have stood the test of time. Rory Culkin - the brother of Mccaulay and Kieran - atones for his previous performance in Igby Goes Down wringing out the full dramatic potential of his part and making the tension between him and his older brother believable. Josh Peck - who voices Eddie in the Ice Age films - is very convincing as George, both in his slow, lumpen physicality and the pent-up, impotent anger in his delivery. The entire ensemble hangs together very well, though it would have been nice for Carly Schroeder to have been given more to do as Millie.
Mean Creek's visuals are both one of its most distinctive qualities and one of its main drawbacks. Besides the use of middle distance I referenced earlier, the film has an evocative, washed-out palette filled with earthy tones thanks to the work of Sharone Meir, who would later lens Whiplash. But while this suits the setting very well, some of the camera movements are either unremarkable or rather amateurish; a couple of scenes on the boat draw attention to the hand-held camerawork in a way that takes us out of the action. There's a reason why the film did so well at the Sundance Film Festival - besides its many qualities, it goes out of its way to look like an independent, low-budget film, and eventually that starts to grate.
 
The other problem with Mean Creek is an occasional lack of atmosphere. Once the incident with George has happened, the tension ratchets up rapidly, but there are unnecessary longeurs in the build-up where the action drifts, somewhat aimlessly. The lack of a memorable score (by TomandAndy, who would later score The Strangers) means you don't get that creeping sense of dread that made Deliverance work so well - the sense of terror potentially lurking behind any tree as the company makes its way down the river. The film isn't fatally hamstrung by this, but it is one area in which Estes can improve as a filmmaker.
 
Mean Creek is an impressive and largely successful debut feature which manages to put a fresh spin on a potentially well-worn subject. Buoyed by its talented ensemble cast, it is an engrossing and generally efficient 90 minutes which lands nearly all of its dramatic punches and provides food for thought as well as quickening one's heart rate. Whatever Estes goes on to do in the future, this is a confident debut which will please both fans of the genre and people examining these issues for the very first time.

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You can check out my thoughts on other renowed cult classics, including Deliverance, The Hitcher and Heartless, by checking The Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio.

NEXT REVIEW: Stick It (2006)

Sunday, 21 May 2017

DRAMA: 8 Mile (2002)

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8 Mile (USA, 2002)
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer

When musicians turn their hand to acting, the results can often not be pretty. Even if the film in question isn't already a vanity project about the musician's life (Glitter, Purple Rain, Moonwalker and so on), there's a tendency for singers to either play themselves or needlessly draw attention to their presence. Sometimes this can work to the film's advantage - for instance, David Byrne in True Stories - but for every figure like David Bowie who can serve a role, there are a dozen singers who simply can't fit in. Sometimes you get even both phenomena in the same film, as was the case in Ken Russell's Tommy: Tina Turner excels as the Acid Queen, while Eric Clapton (with both a real and a fake beard) is barely credible.
8 Mile came at a time when Eminem was at the peak of his powers. On the back of The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, which brought him both hit singles and critical praise, it would have been extremely easy for him to coast on a project like this. Instead, we get a very fine performance in a film which avoids some (but not all) of the cliche-ridden pitfalls of the rags-to-riches story. While not perfect, or Curtis Hanson's finest film, it is a gritty and absorbing project which still holds up very well after 15 years.
One of the first challenges that any film about music has to do is to explain the appeal of the music and its surrounding culture to an audience that may have no familiarity with it. Because of the prevalence of rap and hip-hop in mainstream culture, it would be easy to assume that the paying public would go along with every aspect of the world that is put in front of them. But because this is a period piece, which takes place in a very specific context within the history of American music, that simply isn't an option. This is the mistake made by Notorious (no, not the Hitchcock film), which assumed that its audience would already be experts on Notorious B.I.G. and therefore didn't feel the need to rationalise the hagiographic reputation it accorded him.
8 Mile's first success is that it triumphs where Notorious sank without trace. Even if you're not a fan of rap music (and I include myself in this category), the film gives us a sufficient grounding in the world of mid-1990s Detroit to understand why this music has a pull on young men, and why Rabbit would feel the need to prove himself in this way. Just as the mod movement in London in the 1960s provided an outlet for young men who laboured away in factories by day ("the dirty jobs" of Quadrophenia), so the rap battles provide an outlet for the all the frustrations, ego and anxiety experienced by these young men.
By focussing on the plight of disenfranchised, alienated young men in an unforgiving landscape, the film merits close comparison with La Haine, and by extension Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. While there are some clear narrative similarities - the protagonists are all three young men, who undertake some form of manual labour to get by and feed their respective vices - there is a big difference in emphasis. Both Mathieu Kassovitz and Karel Reisz are interested in the social conditions which could have produced their leading men, whether it's the banlieues of Paris or the post-war streets of Nottingham. Hanson, by contrast, keeps Eminem and his character's journey front and centre, with the setting increasingly fading into the background.
That's not to say, of course, that Hanson's rendering of 1990s Detroit is completely unremarkable or inconsequential. He's assisted ably in this regard by Rodrigo Prieto, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Silence and Brokeback Mountain. More pertinently to this film, he shot Amores Perros, and the film benefits from his gritty use of handheld cameras and claustrophobic lighting choices. While the rendering of the landscape is not the most groundbreaking for its subject matter, it is effective in getting across what might be called the prison of familiarity: the main characters are desperate to get out of their situation in some way, but always end up staying because this world is the only one they know.
Reviewing the film for The Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert praised the film for essentially not having a third act. In the traditional rags-to-riches model, the protagonist goes through the many trials of the story to emerge intact, leave the confines of the society in which they found themselves at the start, and go off to achieve their dream and enjoy success. Ebert wrote: "[8 Mile] "avoids the rags-to-riches route and shows Rabbit moving from rags to slightly better rags... I would love to see a sequel in which Rabbit makes millions and becomes world famous, and we learn at last if it is possible for him to be happy."
Deliberately neglecting to have a proper third act is not a creative decision that works well in all situations - Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, for example, suffers greatly from ending in the wrong place. But in the case of 8 Mile, it's a narrative decision which pays off, because it compliments the gritty feel for which Hanson is striving. Situating fairy tales in a gritty environment can work brilliantly well - Hard Candy and Heartless being great examples - but you have to establish the rules of engagement very early on. Introducing a fairy tale ending to a gritty, realistic story can regularly prove jarring, turning an earthly drama into a cheap and frothy melodrama.
With 8 Mile, there is a conscious effort from Hanson and Eminem to hammer home the disjunct between the emotional feeling of success and the practical benefits that it brings. Rabbit rises in status by the end of the film, earning respect after his initial failure, but in the end he is still living in a trailer park with his family, working a boring, unrewarding job and just about staying on the right side of the law. The downside to this approach is that the film occasionally feels repetitive or drags; we know that some kind of uplift is coming, because the story is well-worn, and there are times of wishing that it would just cut to the chase. But the film deserves credit for not taking the Hollywood route at the ending; it may not be making any kind of profound political point in this decision, but it is the right way of doing it.
All of which brings us on to Eminem's performance. Rappers have in the past been particularly guilty of just playing themselves in films; Ice Cube has carved an entire film career out of shouting and chewing the scenery (Boys n the Hood notwithstanding). But even though Rabbit's story is a partial reflection of Eminem's own life, there is nothing either self-conscious or narcissistic about his performance. There's a vulnerability to him which isn't always present in his music, and he commits to the character, fighting any urge to showboat or break the fourth wall. It's a very fine performance, culminating in the excellent final rap battle and his Oscar-winning rendition of 'Lose Yourself'.
Outside of Eminem, the supporting cast of 8 Mile do a very good job. Casting Kim Basinger as Rabbit's mother was a sore point for many critics, who felt that she was too glamorous to pull off the part. But Basinger, who worked with Hanson previously on L. A. Confidential, acquits herself perfectly well, consciously and deliberately downplaying even her most emotional scene so that Rabbit's story and experience is always in the foreground. Britanny Murphy, who was great in Girl, Interrupted, adds a real spark as Rabbit's love interest, adding it to her impressive roster of compellingly fractured supporting characters. Watch out also for brief appearances by Boys n the Hood director John Singleton (as one of the bouncers), future Percy Jackson star Brandon T. Jackson and fellow rapper and Pimp My Ride host Xzibit.
There are a couple of issues with 8 Mile which prevent it from being a masterpiece. For all its attempted departures from convention in the final half hour, it's still a deeply generic beast which makes too little of its opportunities to depart from the Rocky formula. And despite us knowing for the most part where the story will go, the film is still very loosely edited; it doesn't have the raw, breakneck intensity that made La Haine so good, and there's only so much we can look at a run-down street before we start to lose interest.
8 Mile is a gritty and gripping drama which has generally aged well and remains one of the highlights of Eminem's career. While it's hardly the most original story ever told, and some of its execution could have been tightened up in the editing suite, there is enough in both the narrative and the performances to carry us through and keep us interested. If nothing else, it's a good reminder that singers can occasionally hold their own in cinema, and while it isn't Hanson's greatest film, it is still a worthwhile watch.


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NEXT REVIEW: Mean Creek (2004)

Saturday, 29 April 2017

RIP Jonathan Demme

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For the second time this month, the film community has lost an extremely talented visual artist. Following the death of Michael Ballhaus, we now have to say goodbye to Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, who has died at the age of 73.
Much of the tributes and praise for Demme has focussed, quite rightfully, on The Silence of the Lambs. To this day it remains one of only three films (the others being It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) to have won the 'big five' at the Oscars - Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. While many Hannibal Lecter purists would hold that Michael Mann's Manhunter is better, or lament the way the series subsequently progressed, 'Lambs still holds a lot of its original power, thanks in no small part to Demme's deft means of dealing with actors. Like Billy Wilder before him, Demme's background in screenwriting allowed him to keep character empathy at the centre of his film, making his stylistic choices feel constantly naturalistic.
But there was much more to Demme than his Oscar triumph. His career had many twists and turns, bringing us a number of classics in each of their given genres. With Stop Making Sense, he gave us one of the greatest concert films of all time, catching Talking Heads at their peak and showing that there was still life in the format in the same year that This Is Spinal Tap called it into question.
Married to the Mob still holds up as both a great vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer and a very funny comedy sending up the conventions of the gangster film. And Philadelphia - which earned Tom Hanks his first Oscar - is a powerful drama which played an important role in bringing the AIDS crisis to wider attention in America. Even his weaker films, like his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, still have a spark to them thanks to Demme's energy behind the camera.
If you want to pay tribute to Demme, any of the films I have mentioned above would be appropriate; I would personally opt for a double bill of Stop Making Sense and The Silence of the Lambs. I'll leave you with this wonderful behind-the-scenes image from the latter. RIP.
Daniel

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

BRIT PICK: Spectre (2015)

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Spectre (UK/ USA, 2015)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw

One of the most obvious characteristics of the Bond series is that each instalment of the franchise can sit on its own. Modern audiences are asked to believe that the character has been the same age for more than 50 years, and the series has bent or tinkered with its conventions ever so slightly as the decades have rolled past in order to stay relevant. While this has kept the Bond series as a whole firmly in the realms of fantasy, it has allowed individual entries in the series to push for something more gritty or realistic; if it works, it's embraced and carried forward, and if not the series reverts to type with very few tears.
Since the franchise was effectively rebooted with Casino Royale, an approach more becoming of comic books has been employed: different writers and directors come in and somehow try to stitch all the character's actions together into an overarching narrative. Doctor Who, Sherlock and Star Wars have all shown that this is not an easy thing to pull off, and it's harder still to convince an audience that such an undertaking was always intentional. Spectre attempts to tie together the events of its predecessors with a story about chickens coming home to roost - and while there is much to applaud about Sam Mendes' film, it is also riddled with problems.
The first such problem is the amount of emphasis given to each of the previous films. You would imagine that any story which seeks to claim that the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were all an elaborate means to bring us to this point would place an equal weight on each instalment and the events therein. Instead, Quantum of Solace has been practically airbrushed out of history; besides the odd mention of Quantum, we get no reference to its plot and Dominic Greene is never seen on camera. The refusal to even hint at it is too constant a factor for it to be an accident; it is as though the whole production threw up their hands, admitted that it was terrible, and then asked us to forget that it ever existed.
A related problem is that the script for Spectre is deeply conflicted, especially when it comes to the film's female characters. Madeleine Swann is written like two completely different people who have been composited; one moment she's being icy cold, compelling and giving Bond a run for his money with a gun, the next she's being captured for the umpteenth time and needing to be rescued. For all the steps forward that the Daniel Craig era has taken, it still can't resist a damsel in distress.
None of the women in Spectre are given a fair crack of the whip. Even if we put Léa Seydoux to one side, that still leaves us with Monicca Bellucci. The film has a great opportunity here, casting an older woman with the promise of a deeper relationship. Instead, she gets five minutes of screen time to look scared, sleep with Bond and then leave. Dressing her in stockings is at best a nod back to Teri Hatcher in Tomorrow Never Dies and at worst just lazy fanservice. Not every woman in Bond's life has to be helpless without him, and the series has been at its best when the women are equal to him - either in a fetishistic way, like Xenia Onatopp or Bambi and Thumper, or something more mature and three-dimensional.
Then there are the villains to consider. Sherlock's Andrew Scott waltzes through the whole film like he has "bad guy" tattooed on his forehead, but at least he's fully committed to what he is doing. Christoph Waltz, meanwhile, is completely underwhelming as Blofeld. Having Bond and Blofield as adopted brothers is workable, but Waltz can't decide whether to play it as the Jew Hunter from Inglorious Basterds or as a straight-up pantomime. He seems uncomfortable in the costume, looking like Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II but without the threat. Either it's just a bad performance, or Mendes didn't know what he wanted from the character.
Further evidence of a confused director can be found in the torture scene. The rope torture and poisoning scenes in Casino Royale were justified; they were both an effective means of moving to a grittier style and a meaningful way of showing Bond's vulnerability. Torture has been used as a novelty in Bond films before - there's a lot of it in the Brosnan era, whether Xenia's thighs in Goldeneye or the neck-breaking chair in The World Is Not Enough. But here it feels all too routine, as if Mendes said: "We need a torture scene here" and then got the specifics from a trip to the dentist.
Like Skyfall before it, Spectre makes a number of conscious nods to its back catalogue. There's a lot more references to the Connery era this time around, with the DB5 and the gadgets on the DB10 nodding to Goldfinger, and Blofeld's cat and base borrowing heavily from You Only Live Twice. The sequence on the train is essentially a more stereoidal take on the train fight in From Russia With Love, and Swann's appearance particularly in the dining car is strongly influenced by Tatiana Romanova. But unlike its predecessor, these references are here for their own sake rather to make any attempt at justifying the franchise's longevity.
There are a lot of plot details in Spectre which don't make sense or which are disappointing - another probable consequence of having four writers. The DNA scan on the Spectre ring is both a very arbitary gadget and a contrived plot device, asking us to accept both the technology and the fact that all the people involved would have worn the same ring. Then there's the ease with which Bond is able to blow up Blofeld's base, or the comparable ease with which Blofeld is able to wire up the whole of the MI6 building without anyone noticing. The final act is deeply anticlimatic, falling emotionally short where The Bourne Ultimatum hit a home run.
In the midst of all these niggles, flaws and frustrations, there is an awful lot about Spectre which can be enjoyed, at least in the moment. For all its concessions to cliché, the film does make some interesting points about our increasingly surveillance-driven world and how easily it can be manipulated. The set-pieces are beautifully filmed, with Mendes lending excellent coverage to both the car chases and the long opening shot in Mexico. If you only watch Bond films for the car chases and fight scenes, rest assured they are still exhilirating enough to allow you to gloss over the plot holes.
There are also improved performances within the supporting cast. Ben Whishaw's Q in Skyfall was essentially Brains from Thunderbirds, but here he becomes more rounded and appealingly tetchy. It's a different Q from Desmond Llewellyn's, but it still feels like a kindred spirit. Ralph Fiennes was always going to have a hard job following Judi Dench as M, but here he rises to the occasion, taking the tension he exhibited in In Bruges and bringing along some devil-may-care attitude for the ride.
The best aspect of Spectre, however, is the scene involving Mr White - if nothing else because it is the most effective at tying up a part of the overarching story. There's a wonderfully bleak, pathos-ridden quality to the scene, with one man utterly defeated and the other delaying the inevitable. The writing is unpredictable but coherent, with Craig and Jesper Christiansen dualling brilliantly and the latter giving a sad, dead-eyed performance. Hoyte von Hoytema, who shot Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, does a fantastic job, contrasting the dark, oppresive colours in the cabin with the stark, deathly white of the snow.
Spectre is a watchable slice of the Bond saga which pales in regard to two of the three films which preceded it. It's still heaps better than Quantum of Solace, if only because it always has a rough idea of where it is going even during its moments of writing conflict. But while its visual spectacle can give Casino Royale and Skyfall a run for their money, it doesn't have either the brains or the heart to rise above them. Bond fans will embrace it, but the rest of us will be expecting more effort next time around.

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NEXT REVIEW: 8 Mile (2002)