Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road is a film set in the 1950’s and decidedly so, but that is just happenstance because the story it tells could happen anywhere, in any time period. The setting, though elaborately, meticulously and unobtrusively staged, is just the gilding on this suburban tragedy of restlessness, shaky ideals and marriage at levels of disintegration that prove combustible.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet join forces again as Frank and April Wheeler, a seemingly harmonious white picket fence family who have achieved the American Dream. Cute little house in a sunny neighbourhood, two adorable children, he has a rat race office job while she plays homemaker. Idyllic, right? Anything but. These two are monumentally unhappy in ways that prove complex enough to haunt the viewer later on. She’s unwilling to hammer down that last corner of settled life and give up on further dreams, he simultaneously hates and depends on his worker bee employment like a security blanket. They make plans. Life, and the both of them get in the way. It’s kind of a vague premise to just read about in a review or synopsis and you have to watch the thing to get its rhythm and timbre, but what it has to say is important, heartbreaking and timeless.
Leo and Kate follow up their sweet, innocent tragedy of Titanic with a love story eons removed, a bitter tale of two people who’d love each other if they didn’t hate each other so much, and hate each other if they didn’t love each other so much. It’s a tricky, multilayered pair of performances to nail in tandem but they’re there in synergistic equilibrium and both give what might be their finest work. Suburbia is populated by supporting characters who revolve around them cautiously but never get fully sucked in to their destructive orbit. They’re played by the sterling likes of Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn, Dylan Baker, Jay O. Sanders, Max Baker and Michael Shannon in a fierce cameo as a sort of Greek Chorus type individual who comments on this couple’s plight with acidic abandon. Mendes chooses locations over a soundstage which is always tricky, but the level of authenticity you get once that is pulled off can’t be compared. 1050’s suburbia seems to come alive as we feel each breeze come in through an open window, see the tree lined street just beyond the borders of a real house they’re shooting in and watch the automobiles actually wind their way down a street. Thomas Newman provides a score that doesn’t cloy or manipulate but follows along dutifully while humming away in the wings to let Leo and Kate sing for themselves.
Not an easy film to watch, it’s essentially two people in a collective downward spiral observed in an intimate fly-on-the-wall fashion and that can become downright uncomfortable at its lowest points. But this is important stuff, a microcosm of two individuals that asks you to step outside what’s considered norm in society and examine exactly what exactly is expected of each man and woman and how that affects their actions throughout life. Brilliant film.
What are the key ingredients in a Bond film? Chase sequences. Gadgets. A sexy chick, maybe two or even three per film. A flamboyant, megalomaniac asshole bent on world domination or some other far flung quest for global chaos. Flashy cars. Admirable stunt work. Cringy one liners. What else? Not much, unfortunately, and it’s these formulas, mostly stuck to like a well worn blueprint throughout the franchise that have made me a self proclaimed Bond non-fan, aside from a few specific entries. That changed when the Daniel Craig iterations came along, thoughtful, self aware reworking that peaked with Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, which is arguably the best in the whole canon, and definitely my favourite. For the first time there’s thought put into 007’s arc, a personal backstory, connections to others that are rooted in emotion and a refreshingly intelligent script that both calls loving attention to and subtly sends up the franchise tropes. Craig’s Bond is an implosive, haunted warrior whose quips are never cavalier or cheeky, but feel rather sardonic with a touch of sadness. What made him this way? Well, a solid career of killing people and having extreme bodily harm inflicted upon him I’d imagine, the effects of which are readily apparent on his rough hewn frame and weary expression like never before in the franchise. The cryptic title of the film also calls back to his past, never thoroughly explored but hinted at just enough to accent the character. Then there’s the villain, a blond dye job piece of work named Silva, given the devilish, over pronounced charisma of Javier Bardem, who handles the dangerous monster, playful joker and petulant brat aspects of the character in harmonized synergy for a scene stealing and franchise best Bond baddie. Although admittedly a power-mad despot like any other, Silva’s ultimate endgame is something far more personal, which makes for a stronger character than some freak who just wants to blow up the moon with a laser. Most of the characters here shirk the standards and become something more than their allotted archetypes. Judi Dench’s hard-nosed M takes centre stage as not only the steely shot caller behind the desk but as a well rounded character whose choices behind said desk come back to haunt her. Ralph Fiennes’s salty aristocrat Gareth Mallory proves more resourceful and intuitive than that perfectly tailored suit n’ plummy accent would let on. Naomie Harris’s badass Eve is a cracking field agent with the wits and charisma to match Bond, and Ben Withshaw’s Q gets to intone more than simply the function of a few well placed, elaborate gadgets, of which there are indeed few, if any on display here. The only one who remains squarely in the imprint of past 007 films is Bérenicé Marlohe’s sultry but short lived Severine, who almost proves unimportant to the plot beyond obligatory eye candy and could have been left out. Pretty much everything works here, and better than it has for any prior Bond film, particularly the clever, wry dialogue, emotional element and iconoclastic trailblazing. Roger Deakins makes visual poetry yet again with his camera, from the neon soaked skyscrapers of Shanghai to the floating lantern casinos of Macau to the comfortably rain streaked brick of London, this is one flat out gorgeous film to look at. Couple the technical prowess with that oh so weighty, thoughtful script, Craig’s craggy and well worn warrior Bond and the fresh feeling rogues gallery of characters around him, not to mention Adele’s heart-stopping original song and you’ve got something truly special and elevated from any other 007 film out there. Oh, and the courtroom scene where M quotes Tennyson? Bloody time capsule worthy.
SPECTRE is the James Bond film that a lot of us have been waiting for: the Daniel Craig film that is his own. I have very much enjoyed the Craig series, but the films have been muddled in each of their own respects. CASINO ROYAL was the unnecessary franchise reboot, QUANTOM OF SOLACE was the adrenaline fueled action film, and SKYFALL was the epic blanket film that absolutely everyone could love. SPECTRE did a brilliant job of building off all the archetypal elements of the previous three Craig films, and made this film as seminal as YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE or ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that this will be a divisive film, especially coming off of SKYFALL. This is a film that a lot of the more recent Daniel Craig Bond fans won’t fully understand. But for those of us who have been waiting for this film, this film excels with everything. The gun barrel sequence opens the film, the cheeky humor, Dave Bautista as the classicly eccentric henchmen, the macho alpha respect Bond has with M, the flirty tension with Miss Moneypenny, Q and his gadget room, a fantastic opening credit sequence, an excellent title sequence, and above all: a be-all-end-all Bond villain.
The ambiguous timeline of the Bond films as a whole is an interesting beast. The plot points and ending of SKYFALL certainly meshes with the Connery films. Why Bond respects M, why Bond has a flirty affinity for Miss Moneypenny, and now in SPECTRE, we’re given the wonderful homage to the main villain’s secret volcanic base, the inevitable scar over his eye, and why the villain hates Bond so very much.
Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan walked a fine line with with SPECTRE. They delicately and retroactively connected the previous three Bond films into the heart of SPECTRE, yet they kept true to Bond form by making a contemporary film about global chaos and digital espionage. SPECTRE has made the previous Bond films better, by connecting them in the way the Connery Bond films (including Lazenby’s singular film) were all connected by one thing: a shadow conspiracy.
There is no doubt, regardless of all the tabloid games that have been played recently, that Daniel Craig will return for at least one more film. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam Mendes returned for the next film as well. Sam Mendes, John Logan and Daniel Craig knew exactly what they were doing and have struck gold with SPECTRE.
Full disclosure: I have owned every Bond film, sans NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, from VHS to Blu Ray, and I will quadruple dip on the 4K Blu Rays next year.