Tag Archives: Sam Mendes

“1917” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

A snapshot of war.

I didn’t have any words to describe how I felt in the theater after 1917 ended. I still don’t. How do you describe something like that, something so harrowing, vivid, and unflinching? Watching 1917 shook me to my core. I didn’t feel relief as the movie ended, I felt shell-shocked. Yes, my cinematic experience ended, and like the soldiers that left the battlefield in the movie, I was able to go home. But as I laid my head down on my bed and looked up at the ceiling, I didn’t feel like I even left the battlefield. I’ve had those images ingrained in my memory that will stay with me forever, the same ones that those soldiers took home with them when the war finally ended.

One of those images that are stuck in my mind is the last dedication the film offers before the credits roll: “In memory of Alfred Mendes.” When I looked up the name later on, I realized that Alfred Mendes is, in fact, the grandfather of director Sam Mendes. The movie itself is a loose adaptation of Alfred’s own life experiences fighting in World War I, though not so much to the point where it doesn’t carry the same truth with it.

1917 follows two young British soldiers named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) that are given an important assignment: cross the German front lines and deliver a message calling off the second battalion’s attack the next day. See, the battalion believes they have the Germans on the run and that they’re going to snuff them out. They’re wrong. The Germans have made a tactical retreat past the Hindenberg line to counterattack with vicious artillery. If the battalion doesn’t pull back, all 1,600 of their men will be wiped out: including Blake’s brother Joseph.

When 1917 begins, the camera follows Blake and Schofield through a beautiful tracking shot that captures everything that’s a part of these young boys’ lives: the muddy grounds they sleep on, the mess tent where all the soldiers eat, the medical bay where the wounded are treated, the trenches where men have shot and bled in. It’s all captured in immaculate and stunning detail. When the boys step down into a bunker to get their orders from the commanding general, I noticed that 10 minutes have passed and the film hasn’t cut away to another angle or shot. As the next 10 minutes passed, I realized that the movie was never going to. It was just going to be this one long, continuous shot through the whole movie.

This one-shot technique isn’t new to modern-day cinema. Best Picture winner Birdman utilized this same one-shot approach in 2014, and Sam Mendes even mimicked this style in the opening sequence to his 2015 James Bond film Spectre. But here, he’s escalated the technique to a whole other level by incorporating it smoothly into a war picture. It’s difficult enough executing this technique within the walls of a worn-down Broadway theater or in the streets of Mexico during Dia De Los Muertos. Doing it in the blood-soaked battlefields of France during WWI sounds next to impossible.

Yet Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins pull it off spectacularly, and in the most masterful way possible. With the one-shot technique, it would have been too easy for the camerawork to seem jarring or distracting, like how a film student might capture everything through a shaky hand-held video cam. But the sweeping cinematography is absorbing and immersive, capturing the full scale of war violence and casualty but not missing the smaller, more intimate moments of personal torment these soldiers experience. It’s like Mendes took a snapshot of war from his grandfather’s scrapbook and placed you immediately in the moment when the photo was taken. Few films immerse you in their reality as powerfully as 1917 does. I truly have never seen anything like it.

With this one-shot technique, Deakins deserves all the praise for pulling off this masterstroke in the expert way that he did. But the truth is he did not accomplish this alone: everyone involved with the film lent to its sense of isolation and loneliness, from the editor Lee Smith who seamlessly transitioned between long takes without you noticing to the monumental sets by Dennis Gassner. Even the extras, some sequences requiring more than 500, were vital to making this film feel as vivid and real as it was.

But Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay especially deserve praise for shouldering so much of the film’s emotional weight. These guys had to deal with not only bearing already challenging performances of two soldiers facing off against the entire German army, but they had to pull it off with the extra pressure of filming in several long, continuous takes. I make no exaggeration when I saw both of them were flawless in their acting. Dean-Charles Chapman is phenomenal as the ambitious, bright-eyed soldier desperate to save his brother, but MacKay is especially moving as his best friend. There was one emotion-stirring scene where he has to run across a battlefield while explosions are going off all around him, yet he runs with the tenacity and conviction of a soldier desperate to finish his mission, even if it kills him. Nothing in either of these men’s performances feels rehearsed or unnatural. Everything just flows and feels completely seamless and alive.

The most heartbreaking thing you realize about 1917 as it slowed down to its final moments is that this isn’t just a film: this is a snapshot of the full tragedies and anguishes of war, and we’ve only experienced a small part of that in the theater. Can you imagine what Sam Mendes’ grandfather had to endure during this same conflict? How many corpses he passed by on the front lines, how many friends he’s lost, and how many nightmares and sleepless nights he had to endure when he finally came home? And yet, the saddest thought that crossed my mind when 1917 ended wasn’t everything that these men experienced during the first World War. It was knowing that there was a second one after it.

 

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“SPECTRE” Review (✫✫✫)

Back to Bond, baby.

The opening tracking shot in Spectre is masterfully filmed and beautifully consistent, following our subjects smoothly through the chaos of a celebratory crowd like an artist’s hand running down his sculpture. What follows after that is a film less consistent, less smooth, and less artistic, but to hell with being artistic. This is a fun movie.

Following up a few months after Skyfall, Spectre places our hero, James Bond, a.k.a. 007 (Once again portrayed by Daniel Craig) in the middle of a hidden conspiracy of overthrowing the world government and taking over the planet. We can’t go a few decades without Bond dealing with one of those every once in a while, now can’t we?

This time, Bond is after the villainous organization called S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which we’re never told what it stands for in the film (Although in Dr. No, it stood for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). At first, Bond doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, only having a clue by the deceased M (Judi Dench) to go by. But as he continues to investigate the organization further and further, he finds deeper connections to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in his enemies from the past, until finally, he finds the deepest connection to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of all: himself.

What do you think of when you think of James Bond? When I think of Bond, I think of a movie icon who is the penultimate vision of masculinity. He’s physically astute and sexually appealing. He’s smooth, suave, and has a way with words that is both comforting and edgy. He drinks a lot, but he can hold his liquor. He can fire a gun better than any marksman, a punch better than most fighters. He dresses up in nice suits and bow ties, although he does a great job at mucking them up on missions. When I think of Bond, I think of a character that men secretly idolize and women not-so-secretly desire. If he were any more larger than life, he would be a superhero.

Spectre continues the trend of Bond being a stylish action hero, and it continues the trend well. I mentioned in my lead that the film isn’t very artistic. That’s because it doesn’t need to be. After the impressive tracking shot at the beginning, Bond gets into a firefight, dodges a falling building, chases a suspect through the streets, gets into a fist fight, then highjacks a helicopter after it flips over on its axis in the air. And it’s not even the first 15 minutes.

This is something I’m impressed by in a lot of Bond movies, which is the action sequences. Minus the mediocrity of Quantum of Solace, the most recent Bond films have always found new ways to make old conventions interesting. For instance, how many times have you seen Bond take a sip of a martini? How many times have we seen him charm a young woman into the bedroom? How many times have we seen him get into chase, fighting, and action sequences involving all sorts of weaponry and vehicular manslaughter? You think we’d get sick of it by now, and yet, the series has lasted past 24 films. The series is doing something right.

I think part of it is because of how well Craig inherits the role of of James Bond. Sean Connery is always going to be regarded as the most significant Bond actor, because he was the first to take on the role and the one to exemplify most of Bond’s characteristics. Yet, Craig is nearly equal in iconic status because he too portrays Bond with multiple layers, and he does all of those layers well. He’s charming and sincere when he needs to be, manipulative and deceptive when otherwise.

Most impressive to me is that, even in the action sequences, the biggest thing I notice is Craig’s mannerisms. Not the explosions. Not the gunfire. Not the people he’s punching in the face. I’m noticing Craig. Why? Because I’m buying him as a character, not as an actor. I see the anger in his face when someone hits him and he’s getting ready to hit back. I see the cold calculation in his eyes as he’s deciding which targets to shoot first. I’m noticing the surprise on his face as his eyes widen, the panic that sets in when he’s discovered, and the fear piercing through his body when someone he loves is in danger. It’s hard to notice someone’s performance in the middle of an action sequence. Craig makes it seem like a cakewalk.

Of course, director Sam Mendes is also credited for the style of the film as well, with the action and the incredible set pieces making up for most of the excitement of the film. Yet, I’m a little disappointed that, after making one of the most definitive Bond films ever in Skyfall, Mendes reverted to a few conventions of the franchise that worked against it.

Take the characters as a primary example. Who do we have here? A secretive baddie hiding in the shadows, a big, burly baddie that walks and fights like a tank, a mentor figure of Bond’s that ushers him a profound warning, and the Bond girl, who is as beautiful and visually striking as ever. Their actors deliver just what is expected of them and what has been delivered before. The secretive baddie hides in the shadows, the big, burly baddie beats up Bond before he is killed, the mentor dies, and the girl hooks up with Bond. Not very original, now is it?

And this isn’t a criticism so much as it is a notice. Casino Royale and Skyfall were significant entries to the series because they saw Bond not as an action hero, but as a human being, dealing with his own hurts and pains by taking it out on the mission and his enemies. Here, Bond goes back to hero mode while we just tag along for the ride. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re used to seeing one thing, it’s a little bit of a let down to see the franchise take a step back on itself.

In the end, Spectre is like Bond’s rebuilt Ashton Martin after it blew up in Skyfall. It may have the same frame, but it doesn’t have the same ride.

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“SKYFALL” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Old dog: new tricks.  

You’re not gonna see this one coming.  No matter what you expect to get from Skyfall, I promise you it isn’t what you expect it to be.  Yeah, its a high-adrenaline action film featuring Daniel Craig, yet again, as the double-daring, martini-sipping secret agent known as James Bond. I think we all pretty much understood that from the film’s trailer.  But oh, is the experience much more than just being a simple action film.  Much more.

Skyfall takes place a few years after the events of Quantum of Solace.  After a bomb threat has been declared on the headquarters of MI6, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is ordered by M (Judi Dench) to find and apprehend the ex-MI6 operative known as Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a cyberterrorist who has some deepening grudges with Bond’s superior officer.  As Bond begins to follow the trail and find out who Silva really is, he uncovers a secret in his past so haunting that it will impact the entire nation of Britain and shake the foundations of MI6 forever.

Here is a Bond movie lived to the fullest potential, an action movie that begins with a sensational chase sequence and refuses to let up on the excitement as the movie progresses.  Written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) and directed by Sam Mendes (Jarhead, 1999 best picture winner American Beauty), Skyfall is a full-blooded action film, a spy movie that completely embodies everything great about Bond, from the lively, exotic locations to the pulse-pounding action that overflows you by the minute.

But this film doesn’t just succeed as another action movie: it also brilliantly serves its purpose as a drama piece.  Being one of the more personal and more deeper Bond films to date, Skyfall is a profoundly mature film that has a deeper introspective into Bond than what we were expecting.  Unlike other Bond movies (including the dreary Quantam Of Solace), where Bond is just an emotionless action hero that goes through the motions, Bond actually has an arc in this movie when compared to other ones.  In the film, Bond struggles with both his morality and past, and both of these conflicts come into full circle in ways nobody expects nearing the end of the film.

The film remembers something important that Quantum Of Solace has forgotten: that James Bond isn’t just an action hero.  He’s a movie character that holds a popularity entirely in his own bracket, a character who holds an iconic presence similar to how Indiana Jones does in his own series.  Daniel Craig inhabits the role well in Skyfall, and shows us the truth about James Bond: that he’s at a level of character fascination entirely in his own caliber.

At the same time though, it isn’t just the hero that makes the film what it is: the villain must be equally as motivated, and interesting, as the main character is.

Enter Javier Bardem as Silva, a villain who is as imposing and daunting as the action itself is.  Bardem is brilliant and chilling as Silva, a man whose past and pains haunt him, M, and Bond through the history that he remembers.  This shouldn’t come as a big surprise.  He did, after all, portray Felix in 2002’s Collateral and Anton Chigurh in his Oscar-winning performance for No Country For Old Men.  Here, he’s just as chilling as ever as a villain who is as deceitful, conniving, and crafty as Silva.  He’s one of the more memorable Bond villains to date, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in the top five for IGN’s top 25 Bond Villains list.

This is a great movie.  The cast is great, the plot is fresh, the action is refined and thrilling, and the story is told through the lens of cinema master Roger Deakins as he flows from one beautiful shot to another.  There is much to love about this movie.

The only weakness, if there is one, is that the film doesn’t go deep enough.  The idea of Skyfall is great, the idea being that Bond is mortal and vulnerable and, like all of the other characters and villains in the Bond series, has a history where his issues have not been resolved.  Writer John Logan was brilliant for making this idea, and Mendes was smart in heading into this great direction.

The problem is that he doesn’t go deep enough.  The film dominates as an action movie, and granted, its a great action movie.  Still though.  Hasn’t there been other action movies that have been as deep and profound as they were exciting and fun?  Inception, for instance.  The Dark Knight.  The Terminator.  The Bourne Identity.  Movies like these succeed not only as action movies, but as compelling dramas.  Skyfall has a tint of that “drama” category, but it could have gone deeper.  It might seem like a small thing, but that’s all it takes.  One small thing would have turned Skyfall from just another great action movie into an instant classic.

This is a weakness on the film’s part, but am I really going to hold it against Bond?  No.  I am not.  Despite the supposed weaknesses, Skyfall is a fantastic thriller.  It revives Bond in ways similar to how Batman was revived in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, and it assures us that not only will Bond survive throughout the years as cinema progresses: it will also thrive on its success and its legacy.

P.S.: You will never guess what Skyfall actually is in the movie.  Seriously.  You will never guess.

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