Post1000Tension’s review published on Letterboxd:
Put Sam Mendes somewhere interesting and he will be temporarily cured of his disinteresting style. It worked in Shanghai, and now it works in Mexico City. The film’s still a mess, of course: an entrancing long-take intro, symbolically rich in imagery of skulls and the afterlife, ends with an indifferent frame of people seen talking through a window, when the obvious move would've been to circle around and zoom in on Bond, before cutting away to a reverse shot of his targets. Most of this opening looks like shit, to be honest, caked under clouds of ILM dust and other really bad bits of CGI congealed by practical effects. There are some good shots, but it’s all assembled very awkwardly. So Mendes still can’t really direct, or at least has had his film chopped up by unfriendly hands; but this time it doesn’t matter, as he broke up his decade of Deakins to work with one of current cinema’s best technicians, Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose work lifts SPECTRE into something singularly expressive and surreal. Like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 it may be the best film of an unpromising director’s career, hidden in plain sight as wayward IP; like Delbonnel on HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, Hoyte as SPECTRE DP marks the introduction of an absurdly creative, overqualified DP for a franchise saga’s penultimate main sequence film. Sometimes it really does come down to getting the right cinematographer.
There may be no purer example of the Hoyte Van Hoytema effect than SPECTRE, something like the inverse of what you get with Deakins: even a mediocre director’s film will leave you stunned when he’s behind the camera. You need only look at the drastic improvement of Christopher Nolan’s last four films, liberated at last from the curse of Pfister, to see the kind of evolution Hoyte can induce (I would love to see him and Peele keep working together, after what they came up with on NOPE). I guess we do owe Tomas Alfredson for something after all: Hoytema’s shooting does the heaviest lifting in both of Alfredson’s most famous films, but directors around the world rightly took notice, with David O. Russell somehow the first to scout Hoytema for Anglophone work, and on THE FIGHTER of all films….looks like I’ll be revisiting that one, maybe sometime after I circle around for Hoyte early career high of HER, a film I’m a little embarrassed to call formative, but whose visual style I at least now feel confident defending.
(Around 2014/15 Deakins was shooting SICARIO for Villeneuve, which, for me, just says it all. I do happen to like the look of PRISONERS’ rustic PA exteriors, familiar from my own childhood, and SICARIO is rather pleasing to watch before dissolving under its visualists’ strained seriousness. It’s not like Deakins is unskilled or reliably painful to witness in action. But him spending much of the past ten years split between Mendes and Villeneuve has inadvertently offered us something like a masterclass in less-than-meets-the-eye filmmaking. SPECTRE and ENEMY — maybe the only two good films between this pair of inessential “auteurs” — were both made under the watch of superior DPs, giving us a rare experimental precision for just how suffocating the Deakins patina can be. Even the Coens have largely moved on from Deakins after 12 [!!] prior collaborations; their newest work has been done with the very-skilled Bruno Delbonnel, barring a brief regression for HAIL, CAESAR! And what is their best-looking film, that I’ve seen anyway? INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. It just comes to seem like Deakins is the guy you go to when nobody else wants/has time to work with you; and unsurprisingly, where Mendes is concerned, doubling down on Deakins has led him to an aesthetic dead-end, such that he is now lamenting the death of cinema after nobody went to see EMPIRE OF LIGHT. The call’s coming from inside the cavernously empty designer set, Sam!!!)
Ultimately, SPECTRE presents the same basic problem as SKYFALL: is it worth watching a series of attractive images at the aid of anonymous direction? For me at least, the answer is yes, when the images this time are so much better. There is also more potential in this round of material — as I’d hoped, a soupçon of BLACKHAT has been added — which adds some fun to wondering if it all might amount to anything; and there are times when Hoyte’s images seem to detach themselves from the needless urgency of the plot, like in the first meeting with Blofeld, that are very truly hypnotic. All this wasteful extravagance, but damn does it look and feel good for once. I hesitate to put forward “vibes” as cinema’s vague future, but SPECTRE is an example of something that really does get by on them above all.
One nice thing about the James Bond figure is that he doesn’t have to be a real person. He can always magically know just what to say and do. His overtly fictive nature is what made the backstory elements of SKYFALL feel so needless and ring so flat in Mendes’ hands, in much the same way no one needs to know how Han Solo acquired the Millennium Falcon. Campbell had already alluded to Bond’s hauntingly empty past with craftsmanlike tact, while CASINO ROYALE’s emotional core was more than plenty to sustain this whole sequence by itself. The changing times espionage drama that predominates SPECTRE is good enough, laughable as the framing of “George Orwell’s worst nightmare” can be. Yet it feels like a distraction from the shattered love story with Vesper Lynd, almost too human without someone like Campbell to convince us of the beauty in it; Mendes, by contrast, visibly struggles to balance all these competing plot strands. I think the correct move would’ve been to disperse the SKYFALL material between Craig’s other Bond films, maybe in flashback, before whatever attempts at closure in NO TIME TO DIE. It would surely have made these hefty films even more unwieldy. But then, the needless backtracking at the quintet’s middle offset them already.
Another James Bond feature: the pleasure of watching high-paid professionals do what they’re best at. Not that more money equals a better film — $300 million was hinted for this one, a stupefying amount even for Bond — but it does allow you to pay some expensive people to flex for a while. Aspiring they/them icon Sam Smith steps us briefly outside heterosexuality for the theme song (against a backdrop of softcore tentacle art), while Craig paired with Bellucci commendably adds middle-aged straight eroticism to a long-running fantasy of ageless virility. Seydoux is gorgeous and an actorly choice for the part of Bond girl. I’m sure the casting gives some borrowed gravity to the final film; it just isn’t a role that suits her. Whereas Bautista makes for a good henchman, but thankfully now has the kind of career that allows him to do things like KNOCK AT THE CABIN, in what I’m sure will be a more creative application of his range. Almost time to find out.