Watching the opening credits to the new James Bond thriller Spectre, I leaned back in my seat, smiled, and thought, "Man, I love these things." Not Bond movies, per se, but their opening credits. The lushly rendered colors. The serenely gliding camera pans. The artful poses and undulating torsos. The charming, deferential formality of the star's name followed by " ... as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007 in ... ." The mystery of the accompanying pop song, which is as likely to be atrocious as marvelous. (Spectre's "Writing's on the Wall," sung by Sam Smith, leans more toward the former. And call it gender bias or even blatant sexism, but I do think that unless you're Paul McCartney or maybe Simon Le Bon, these duties should really be handled by women.)
But my absolute favorite thing about the James Bond title sequences is that in the 53 years since Dr. No, they've hardly changed a whit, meaning that those serving such below-the-line positions as second-unit assistant director, supervising sound editor, and "Mr. Craig's makeup" get listed at the start right alongside Ian Fleming and Daniel Craig themselves. It's a lovely gesture and a touching hat-tip to the series' longevity, and it's got to be cool for those professionals whose names usually flash on-screen while patrons are leaving the auditorium. I bet it's cool even if, as in Spectre, your eye is being averted from those names by the silhouetted octopus tentacles shown embracing Bond and his two nubile lady friends. At first, I wondered: Why an octopus? To suggest the elastic, multi-limbed reach of evil? To prepare us for an underwater Bond in the vein of Thunderball? I never really got my answer, but after two-and-a-half punishingly long hours, I started thinking the creature was merely there to create a perverse nostalgia for the comparative wit and excitement of Octopussy.
As usual with Bond movies, the credits are preceded by an action scene. As is oftentimes the case with this franchise, this scene is the film's best one. Opening in Mexico City during a Day of the Dead celebration, director Sam Mendes stages a wonderful, seemingly uncut tracking shot in which Craig's 007, in full skeleton garb, escorts a young woman amidst throngs of parade attendees while tailing an apparent bad guy. Mendes' camera follows Bond and Unnamed Bond Girl through the streets and up a staircase and into his hotel room. And just when you're getting used to Mendes' Bondman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) stunt, the whiz-bang editing kicks into gear, bringing with it human stunts, an explosion, Bond sliding down a crumbling rooftop, and a rather harrowing bit involving a perilously out-of-control helicopter. It's a good, strong opener, and later we're given car chases and shoot-outs, some brutal fisticuffs between Craig and Dave Bautista, and a mechanized needle that burrows into Bond's head and threatens to remove all memory of his love for Spectre's principal Bond Girl, the French cutie Madeleine Swann. Given how vacantly Léa Seydoux plays this insultingly shallow role, though, that would hardly be a loss.
Which brings us to the movie's chief disappointment: After the prelude and title sequence are over, everything is a disappointment, or at least everything we traditionally enter these movies hoping to love. Seydoux and Monica Bellucci are bland as the requisite vixens, even if it is refreshing, in the latter's case, to finally see an age-appropriate Bond Girl. (With Bellucci 51 and Craig 47, she's practically a Bond Cougar.) Our super-agent's support team of Ralph Fiennes' M, Naomie Harris' Monneypenny, and Ben Whishaw's Q is strangely inconsequential this time around; the stranded-looking actors appear to be waiting for script pages that haven't been written. (Apparently, the series has also moved long past the reliable amusement of Q's gadgetry, and when Bond was handed a mere wristwatch here, at least Craig had the sense to look crestfallen.) Craig is a reliable tough guy, yet a depressingly uninteresting one here; Hoyte Van Hoytema's unadventurous cinematography is a steep comedown from Roger Deakins' Skyfall lighting; the stunts and effects are adequate but unmemorable.
And sadly, Bond's nemeses are the most disappointing elements of all. Andrew Scott, playing an unctuously untrustworthy Joint Intelligence Service suit who wants to shutter the double-oh program, is too familiar as Sherlock's lunatic Moriarty to deliver similar shivers here, and beyond being generically evil, he's been given one of the most embarrassing exits in the history of Bond-villain dispatchment. (He's basically one flailing arm away from Murray Hamilton tumbling down Psycho's staircase.) As for Christoph Waltz, whose malevolent motives as Franz Oberhauser can be effectively summarized as "daddy issues," there would probably be more fun in his casting, and his performance, if the actor hadn't already been playing a Bond villain in every movie he's made since Inglourious Basterds. I realize I've now gotten to the end of my Spectre review with barely any regard to the plot. I also realize that couldn't possibly matter less. When nearly every ingredient on a pizza tastes undercooked or spoiled, is there a point in even mentioning the crust?
THE PEANUTS MOVIE
During its early stages of development, there must have been considerable pressure put on its filmmakers to make The Peanuts Movie more "relatable" to today's kids - by having Charles M. Schulz's comic-strip characters listen to Vince Guaraldi on their earbuds, for example, or by having Charlie Brown and company reveal themselves to be superheroes. Consequently, the highest compliment I can pay director Steve Martino's animated entertainment is that, 3D presentation aside, it could've easily run on a double bill with 1969's beloved A Boy Named Charlie Brown. It might've even been the preferred feature, as there aren't any sappy Rod McKuen tunes - or any signs of modern technology (characters talk on clunky black rotary phones), or pop-culture references, or fart jokes. You won't even register any distracting celebrity voices. Kristin Chenoweth is credited for enacting Snoopy's fantasy girlfriend Fifi, but when I saw the performer's name listed at the end, I'll be damned if I could think of a single sound she made.
What you will be given in the determinedly old-fashioned (and G-rated!) The Peanuts Movie is a 90-minute onslaught of sheer charm, and, for older viewers, maybe more trips down Memory Lane than you can count. The personalities of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, and the rest are just as you remember them, and even the central storyline, in which Charlie Brown tries to make a good impression on the Little Red-Haired Girl, inspires a tingle of recognition. But I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that every minute of this film boasted at least one detail that made this longtime fan grin. Many of them were hoped for and expected: the sprightly twinkle of Guaraldi's recognizable piano tunes and the gorgeous melancholy of "Christmastime Is Here"; Snoopy in shades and a Joe Cool T-shirt; Lucy, during the end credits, setting up Charlie Brown for football failure. But so many more I'd forgotten since my last exposure to the Peanuts gang: Peppermint Patty calling Charlie Brown "Chuck" and Marcie calling him "Charles" (also: Marcie addressing Patty as "sir"); Sally cooing over her "Sweet Babboo" Linus; Shermy, at the school dance, doing that move where he walks in place with his arms outstretched like a zombie. And when the film isn't referencing, it's generally mighty clever: Charlie Brown managing to stand under a raincloud even in the middle of a gymnasium; the misguided kid searching in vain for what he's heard is the most challenging book ever written - Leo's Toy Store by Warren Peace. (While I smiled far more than I laughed at the movie, I did let out a cackle when Charlie Brown finally got his mitts on Leo Tolstoy's War & Peace and fell asleep six words into the first chapter.)
Faithful in spirit and beautiful in execution, The Peanuts Movie is a thorough delight, and not even the superfluous 3D effects - which won't add much to the experience beyond extra bucks for 20th Century Fox - can sully its considerable appeal. I do, however, have two caveats. The minor one is that there are a few too many time-killing sequences involving Snoopy's aerial adventures with the Red Baron, which are nicely animated but seem to exist solely to account for the 3D surcharge. The major, far less forgivable one is that the film is preceded by yet another of those increasingly irksome animated shorts involving Ice Age's Scrat and his eternal quest to consume that pesky acorn. This one, titled Cosmic Scrat-Tastrophe, is borderline hideous - a noisy, charmless, desperately unfunny outing that sends its prehistoric squirrel to space and, unfortunately, refuses to let him die there. Between its obvious nods to adult sci-fi fare such as 2001 and Gravity and its nauseatingly hyperactive slapstick (at one point, Scrat gets crushed in the "nuts" by a nut), this short is like a brain-damaged version of some "Itchy & Scratchy" parody from The Simpsons, and 100-percent the wrong way to begin something as warm and gentle as The Peanuts Movie. (Denis Leary delivers one line as his saber-toothed cat Diego, and sounds rightfully mortified even to be doing that.) See Charles M. Schulz's creations on-screen for sure, but try to arrive at their film 10 minutes late; prefacing The Peanuts Movie with Cosmic Scrat-Tastrophe is like gearing up for Sophie's Choice with a segment or two of Jackass.