Tag: sam mendes

1917


1917 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Since phone lines are down, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked to deliver a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, about nine miles away from their current location. Should they fail to accomplish their mission by next morning, 1,6000 men would perish against the Germans who have set a trap for the British soldiers. Executed with a clear and precise vision by director Sam Mendes (who co-writes with Krysty Wilson-Cairs), “1917” reminds viewers that too many war pictures tend to look like glamorous, stroll-in-the park action movies. It dares to look into the jaws of war and wrestle with its horrors without flinching. There is a sadness and quiet to this film that lingers. There is no doubt it is one of the best movies of the year.

The work is filled to the brim with specific moments. Right when we lay our eyes on the two corporals as they rest under a tree, the camera and timing is so alive, we gain an appreciation of their relationship even before they say a word. Every step taken by the duo during the seemingly unbroken shot is informative, pregnant with purpose. We become convinced they have been around one another for quite a while so that they are able to trust each other. Notice, too, that when an over the shoulder perspective is employed, the chemistry between Blake and Schofield continues to crackle. It creates a foreboding feeling that the two may not make it to their final destination. While their partnership proves to be a strength, it can so easily be exploited by the enemy in life-or-death situations.

They meet people along the way. Every one of them has his or her own story to tell, from the general who must remain resolute in face of a potential massacre (Colin Firth), the traveling platoon in which the young soldiers appear to look as though they do not possess a thorough understanding of what they are about to get into, to the French woman with a baby in a dresser drawer (Claire Duburcq). And yet the material limits our time with them—they appear on screen no longer than five to six minutes. They may be worthy of exploration, but we are reminded there is a bigger picture at play. We remember each encounter for the impressions they invoke. For instance, Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) may appear to be a disheveled alcoholic with a wicked sense of humor, but perhaps it due to the possibility that he has grown familiar and numbed by the pointlessness of war. He gives off the impression that it isn’t his first time leading in the trenches.

Like the characters, the environment also receives great attention. A particularly harrowing sequence involves Schofield and Blake entering a seemingly abandoned German bunker. There is heavy dust all around, rickety beds are invaded by rust, and walls wear random scribblings. Although the camera is constantly on the move, our eyes make it a habit to examine every corner. Is there an enemy soldier waiting in the shadows of that particular corner?

When outdoors, it looks as though there is thick mud as far as the eyes could see. We notice flies feasting on corpses, both of man and animal. Rats scurry around from one buffet to another. We can almost taste the stink in the air. Dead bodies floating on water look real. Observe how white and bloated they are. Our protagonists must wade through the dead and climb on top of them in order to get on land. Here is a work that takes its time to get details, both in look and feeling, precisely right.

The most powerful moments of “1917” brings to mind one of the greatest war films ever put on film, Elem Klimov’s unforgettable World War II diary “Come and See,” from its use of animals, how there is horror and danger in every corner, down to the delicate moments when the camera stops the story from moving forward and simply fixates on the protagonist’s face so that viewers are inspired to consider what he may be thinking or feeling. The work proves to be far more interested in how war affects a person rather than just parading epic images of war. This is the difference between an effective anti-war film and nonsense recruitment propaganda.

Spectre


Spectre (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

After an unsanctioned mission in Mexico which resulted in a catastrophe during a crowded national holiday celebration, M (Ralph Fiennes) orders Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) from participating in any future assignments—active indefinitely. Unbeknownst to his superior, however, Bond is partaking on a different mission altogether—a more personal mission—out of respect for his former handler (Judi Dench) which involves an international organization believed to be involved in recent targeted terror attacks.

“Spectre,” directed by Sam Mendes, is a less polished Bond picture, certainly less emotionally involving, and more interested in tying together the three films that came before it. Thus, at times it comes across as though it is suffering from an identity crisis. And yet despite this shortcoming, it remains a solid action picture since it commands highly watchable, thrilling, and occasionally creative sequences.

The pre-opening credits sequence is an obvious standout. Notice the control from behind the camera as it sashays between celebratory crowds while remaining focus on Bond and his partner, through a posh hotel, up a lift, and along the rooftop. Tension is slowly generated as we wait for the movement to stop. Even though we have little idea in regards to Bond’s mission, the entire sequence demands full attention. The tight editing ensures that we blink—and flinch—as few times as possible.

Equally strong is the night car chase in the streets of Rome. This chase serves as the catharsis after a mysterious business meeting that concludes in a brutal murder. Complaints are surely going to be made because the expensive and stunning cars appear to not go very fast. But the suspense and thrills do not go hand-in-hand with speed. Instead, these are correlated with the sudden turns and the unexpected hindrances along the way. It shows our protagonist’s ability to think quickly—and the sheer luck critical to propel him forward.

One feels the heft of the film’s one hundred fifty minutes. Part of the issue is the dialogue. There is often a lack of complexity in the exchanges. We already know that the characters are highly intelligent and yet there are a handful of scenes, particularly those that involve Bond and Dr. Swann (Léa Seydoux), that sound too expository. Problematic, too, are the exchanges between Bond and the leader of the Spectre organization (Christoph Waltz). We expect every look and every word given to one another to be incendiary given the supposedly profound history that ties them together. I found the charade to be pedestrian.

Slightly better are the exchanges between M and C (Andrew Scott), the latter working to close down the MI6’s 00 program. The seething anger and annoyance between the two men of power is quite entertaining. It is a small but welcome surprise that there are a number of moments where office politics outshine what goes on in the field. However, although they are given their moments, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), M’s secretary and the head of MI6’s research and development, respectively, are not used enough. Harris and Whishaw are so charming but the screenplay fails to make the audience love their characters even more.

Unspectacular but still solid, there are a handful of sequences to recommend in “Spectre.” The mano a mano aboard a moving train quickly comes to mind. If the screenplay had undergone more alterations such as eliminating the expository chunks in the middle (and one or two monologues) or changing them in order to amp up the intrigue—especially when it comes to the shadowy organization of interest—it would have been a level above more satisfying.

Skyfall


Skyfall (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two MI6 agents lie dead on the floor while the third sits on a chair as he bleeds to death. The item of interest, a hard drive which contains the identities of NATO agents currently immersed in undercover work among terrorist organizations, is taken from a laptop just minutes before. M (Judi Dench) insists that James Bond (Daniel Craig) retrieve the item at all costs. A failure in Turkey means putting lives at risk as well as a justified questioning of the effectiveness of MI6’s current leadership.

“Skyfall,” written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, is a concerto of thrills and suspense in which the highly destructive action sequences balances with nuanced, smart, and playful dialogue. The film has a flair for presentation which makes its individual scenes both a sight to behold and an enveloping experience. It understands the value of range and how to utilize its techniques with efficiency.

Take the scenes set in Shanghai in which the visuals point to excess. The skyscrapers are majestic under the heavy shade of night with their lights so bright and hypnotic, it is like being dropped in the middle of downtown Las Vegas on acid, so much to see and digest while the camera teases, only giving us glimpses of its beauty. On the other hand, scenes set in a casino in Macau provide us a smaller scope without sacrificing the elegance and grandeur of the place. As it should be, each destination that 007 visits has something special and memorable for its audience so we feel excited at the thought of what it might offer in the following exotic locale.

Despite the glitz and glamour, the goals that need to be fulfilled are always clear. Once the assignment is met with success or failure, it is onto the next scene, unpredictable at times in whether the screenplay is going to increase the ante by introducing yet another drop of complexity or giving us two seconds to release the tension that has accumulated in our bodies via a well-placed joke or banter. Bond’s interactions with the brainy Q (Ben Whishaw), effeminate but dangerous Silva (Javier Bardem), and inexperienced but determined Eve (Naomie Harris) are so enjoyable, I wished their conversations are longer. By playing with our expectations, not simply focusing on making the action scenes bigger and louder, the picture jolts our brains from going on autopilot, just waiting to be entertained.

Notice that there is not one completely original action sequence and yet all of them work because it is able to draw inspiration from the game-changers and construct the stunts in a such a way that it feels fresh to this universe, from an appropriate number of beats between uncomfortable silence and utter chaos to specific shots cheeky enough to remind us that Bond remains a legend and an inspiration because he is the epitome of a debonair man in a timeless suit.

Perhaps most importantly, Sam Mendes, the director, plays upon his strengths as a filmmaker whose work is mostly rooted in intimate drama. Most interesting being that as the film slinks toward its third act, it has a feeling of something personal at stake for Bond. While he remains a cool-headed professional, the difficult, almost inescapably desperate, circumstances remind us that even though he is trained to be as tough as steel, as calculating as an apex predator, and as cold-hearted as a bullet set on a specific trajectory, there remains a humanity in him. While Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” gave us a Bond with emotional fragility, Mendes’ “Skyfall” is a fitting complement because it gives us a Bond with depth and physical vulnerability.

Happiness


Happiness (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Happiness,” wrriten and directed by Todd Solondz, is one of the snarkiest dark comedies I’ve seen about a very dysfunctional family and several people connected to them. Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) thought she had a perfect life but was completely unaware that her husband (Dylan Baker) was lusting over little boys, Helen (Lara Fylnn Boyle) was a successful author yet she could not find contentment within herself and had to turn to a creepy caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with serious sexual dysfunctions in order to feel better, and Joy (Jane Adams) was a struggling musician/saleswoman/teacher who decided to sleep with one of her foreign students in hopes of finding true love. Meanwhile, their parents (Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser) decided to separate. This film reminded me of a darker version of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” in terms of the amount of characters it had to put under the spotlight. However, I had more fun with this movie because, while it was not as elegant and subtle in establishing themes, it was quicker and sharper in pointing its fingers at both the audiences and the characters. “Happiness” puts life-in-suburbia movies like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” to shame because it is far less pretentious but funnier because it actively argues that all of the self-denial, sickening realizations, self-hatred were a part of human nature. While it does make fun of those attributes, there were sensitive moments when the characters felt real pain, such as when the father finally admitted to his eleven-year-old son that he molested other children, between the black comedy punchlines. I thought the movie was daring because it was not afraid to push the audiences into watching uncomfortable scenes, slapping us around a bit with tricky verbal masturbation, and making us look and endure through the characters’ decisions–the very same decisions we probably would have chosen ourselves if we were just as desperate and suffocated. Fans of over-the-top social satires will most likely find “Happiness” delectable although I am not quite certain they will be craving for more after two-and-half hours of misery, isolation, and even exploitation. Generally, I have a positive outlook of the world but I love movies that ooze of negative emotions and self-deprecating characters. I’m not sure if most people who share similar outlook will fully enjoy the movie because it is at times difficult to sit through given its many taboo subject matters (there’s also a twisted murder mystery which I wish the picture explored further). However, it cannot be denied that Solondz’ “Happiness” pushed the envelope beyond the laughs and hopelessness.

Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” was about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin) who had to go on a run from a mobster (Paul Newman) after the mobster’s son (Daniel Craig) murdered the wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the younger brother (Liam Aiken) out of jealousy. I saw this movie back in 2002 but I don’t remember much of it. Watching it again eight years later, I thought I was in for a hardcore action picture that involved gun-wielding gangsters but it turned out to be much more than that. Hanks completely blew me away because even though he was a hit man and had to be tough (the members of his family always kept a distance), there were moments of real sensitivity to his character, especially the interactions with his son when they were on the road. While it did have intense action scenes which involved Jude Law (also a hit man who happened to photograph dead people for a living) and Hanks in the diner and the hotel room, the movie was more about the slowly strengthening bond between a father and a son. Equally, it was about the father’s moral conflict between his family and the person he worked for as well as his own hopes of his son not turning out like him. All of the elements came together and created real tension so I was glued to the screen. While the picture had an ominous feel to it, it also had a great sense of humor such as when Hanks would rob banks specifically from the mobster’s accounts. The way Hanks delivered his lines to the bank managers made me feel like he was really having fun with his character. I thought “Road to Perdition” was a well-rounded film in terms of script, tension and unpredictability. However, it excelled in terms of acting and not playing on the obvious. Newman was not an ordinary mobster boss because he was gentle with children and the people he liked. But at the same time, his patience was short when it came to certain people, especially his son, and we really got to see how of much of a monster he could become. As for Law, as usual, he was very charming as he was lethal. He provided a nice contrast to Hanks’ dominating presence because Law didn’t seem dangerous at first glance. If I were to nitpick for a weakness, I would say that Hoechlin’s character could have been explored more. I argue that he was the main character (instead of Hanks) because he was narrator right from the opening scene. While he did go through some kind of evolution, he wasn’t as multidimensional as the other characters mentioned prior. Nevertheless, “Road to Perdition” is a strong film because of the organic manner it unfolded aided by very exemplary performances.

Away We Go


Away We Go (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This movie came as a surprise to me because I remember wanting to watch it in theaters (I wanted to see John Krasinski because I love him on “The Office”) but decided against doing so because I thought it was just going to be another one of those quirky small indie comedies that’s all style and no substance. How quickly I was proven wrong because the story was actually quite poignant. Krasinski and Maya Rudolph decided to travel across the country to find the perfect place to live for their child who was about to be born in three months. Along their travels, we got to see their friends and family members, all very different and all very, very colorful (to say the least). I loved Allison Janney as the mother who had no filter especially when she negative things to say about her children and husband (Jim Gaffigan). Even though she did make me laugh out loud (literally–every time she talked, she was so blunt and umcompromising), there was something about that particular family that was very sad in its core. The disdain and possibly even hatred was reflected in the facial expressions of the children and the husband. I also enjoyed the new age parents played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton. At first I thought they were just quirky but by the end of the visit, I thought they were borderline crazy. Gyllenhaal was absolutely perfect in her role despite her limited screen time. Lastly, I loved the visit with Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey because it showed that families that were really happy on the outside may not necessarily be happy on the inside. That third visit was very realistic and really painful as we got to the truths regarding the characters and the solace that they choose to embrace despite certain hurdles they couldn’t quite jump over. The emotional content of this movie really took me by surprise because it had a certain insight which made me realize that I have a lot more maturing to look forward to. There was that brilliant scene when Krasinski and Lynskey were considering if they were “fuck-ups” prior to their cross-country trip and by the end they realized that they actually had it pretty good. I thought that was a very good message because we often wallow on our own insecurities, when, in reality, others have it so much worse. “Away We Go,” directed by Sam Mendes, is more than worth a hundred minutes because not only did it make me smile and laugh, it made me think and feel hopeful for the future.

Revolutionary Road


Revolutionary Road (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Even though “Revolutionary Road” is set in the 1950’s, it’s still very relevant today. Directed with such skill by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), he tells the story in a non-linear fashion and it works because the audiences are asked to immediately contrast how the couple was like when they met and after they’ve been together for a couple of years. I will be surprised if Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Kate Winslet do not get nominated for an Oscar. Even though I don’t think this is DiCaprio’s best performance, I think this is one of his most mature and he deserves to be recognized. It’s about time he wins an Oscar for consistently giving us characters that are both memorable and worth caring for. Winslet is magnificient in every movie I see her in and this one is no exception. To be honest, the reason why I loved this film is that I got to watch these two extremely talented actors (with great chemistry) scream at each other for long periods of time; they gave me some sick satisfaction because they are so good at it. I keep reading complaints from reviewers about the selfishness of the characters and how that quality makes it hard to relate to them. I cannot disagree more–I think selfishness is what makes them relatable because that’s a quality that everyone has whether he or she realizes it or not. And it’s not like the characters are selfish for no apparent reason: DiCaprio thinks his job is pointless but won’t quit because he knows that he has to provide for his family, while Winslet is desperate to move out of suburbia because she’s dying on the inside and craving for some excitement. All that frustration is not expressed in a healthy way so they lie, play mind games with each other, and become selfish because they couldn’t get what they need from one another. I thought the film was raw and realistic; at some points during the film, it made me reflect on my childhood when my parents would fight in front of me. Mendes managed to catch the awkwardness, shame and crushed egos after a big argument. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the film was the morning after a big fight and how Winslet and DiCaprio pretended like nothing happened. I thought that scene was haunting because that’s when I realized that they act more like strangers when they’re peaceful with each other. In some ways, even though the tone of the film is sad and depressing, there are pockets of darkly comedic moments. I don’t know what it is about me but I always find something amusing when it comes to depressed rich people living in suburbia. This is the kind of movie that I would recommend to couples everywhere who think that they’ve fallen in love after only going out for a short amount of time. In essence, this is a cautionary tale for people who believe in love at first sight.