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Since 1962's "Dr. No," we have seen Ian Fleming's James Bond reincarnated as all kinds of Bonds. He's always Sexy Bond, of course. But we've also had Cheesy Bond and Misogynistic Bond, Cartoonish Bond and Campy Bond, Blockbuster Bond and I Forgot That Guy Played Bond Bond. At present, we are in the era of Daniel Craig, which — under the hand of director Sam Mendes — has ushered in the age of Bitter and Haunted Bond, a man who still likes his martinis and statuesque beauties, but who downs both with a hint of sorrow over all the directions he has steered himself with his License to Kill, and all the dead folks he's been forced to sacrifice on the altar of Queen and country.
Though people have mixed feelings about 2012's "Skyfall" (a friend said the ending was a bit too "Home Alone" for him) I loved that flick from beginning to end, finding it to be a lovely rumination on the way the past can dictate your future, and the value of experience and wisdom over youthful enthusiasm and newfangled gadgets. The best thing about "Skyfall," though, was the lovely sense of finally getting the tiniest of glimpses under Bond's very tortured bonnet, rather than just another comic book romp after the indestructible superhero.
I had high hopes, then, for "Spectre," the 24th film in the series, which brings back Craig and Mendes for another bite at the apple. To my dismay, however, it seems Mendes has succumbed this go-round to that most futuristic and boring of modern ideas: nostalgiaitis, which has turned everything from architecture to Detroit muscle cars to films into hollow and half-assed pastiches of the past, invoking just enough of The Good Ol' Days to make you realize that we are no longer in them.
In "Spectre," Bond — working outside his sanctioned jurisdiction at the behest of his dead former boss — does his "North by Northwest"-style globe hopping from exotic locale to exotic locale in pursuit of a mysterious criminal enterprise called Spectre (last mentioned in 1971's "Diamonds are Forever") that may be responsible for most of the pain and suffering in the world, including a good bit of Bond's own. As the Spectre puzzle box is unlocked, Bond meets up with (and beds, of course) Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of an old and dying enemy. Together, they globe trot and look good in evening clothes, slowly working their way up the ladder of evildoers and amoralites to the Sociopath Who Rules Them All (Christoph Waltz, in typically fine form). As this unfolds, Bonds is struggling with tut-tutting from the bean counters and the impending shutdown of MI6, under the Cheneyesque notion that drones and total, worldwide surveillance of the unsuspecting populace can do more than a hundred dudes in bulletproof cars will ever be able to do in the field with their Walther PPKs. Is that all part of the puzzlebox as well? You better believe it.
Don't get me wrong: "Spectre" is not a terrible movie. The opening five minutes — a glorious tracking shot that follows Bond through the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, up an elevator, into a sumptuous room with a lovely woman, out the window, down the parapet eight stories above the street and finally to a sniper's nest where he manages to demolish a neighboring building with a tiny rifle he calmly assembles on the way — is a triumph, and worthy of the best of Bond. The rest of the film, though, feels like it's trying so hard to evoke the past glory of the franchise that it forgets that the franchise has to have a future. While "Skyfall" poked fun at the idea of Bond relying on marvelous toys ("It's the latest thing," Bond quips to the baddie after calling in the cavalry. "It's called a radio."), they're all back in "Spectre," from the exploding wristwatch to the bulletproof car with flamethrower exhaust and ejector seat. Want a campy, 1970s Bond henchman who looks like God got tired of sculpting him out of barbed wire and grade-B oak and called it Beer Thirty? He's there. Even Waltz, as good as he is, looks like he's bored with his character, a fairly one-dimensional Eurotrash baddie who lives in a lair in the middle of a giant meteor crater, has a fluffy white cat to stroke, and wears a selection of collarless tunics from Evil Genius Warehouse's "Bruise Palette" collection. By the time he straps Bond to a chair and starts using tiny, robotic drills to manipulate his brain, you half expect him to start a monologue about Sharks with Frickin' Lasers on their heads, like Dr. Evil in "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." That last there should have told Sam Mendes something: Once an element of your franchise has been so thoroughly used up as to be deserving of parody, it should be off limits, even if you want to make it new again.
Again, "Spectre" is not a bad film. The action is explosive, the locales are typically fantastic, and there are lovely hints again at Bond's shattered heart. I just wish the film put as much energy into the plot as it did into making us think: "Hey! That looks just like ..." Worth a look if you're a Bond or action fan. Wait for it to make it to Netflix otherwise.