1917

1917 poster

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch

1917 is first high profile World War I film since 2011’s…did you see that tracking shot? …uh, 2011’s War Horse directed by Steven…that tracking shot though… ahem, Spielberg – who has championed Mendes’s career since the beginning… I mean the first one was at least 30 minutes long right! Where did he even cut?… Now Mendes has emerged with his best film since 2002’s Road to Perdition….there are hidden cuts in there; there must be, but regardless – that tracking shot!

image of 1917 set
Don’t screw up…we’re doing this in one take!

Ok, have I drawn enough attention to the obvious elephant in the film? 1917, shot as one continuous shot, is not the first to attempt this style of narrative, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious and successful at it! Films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or as recent as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films Birdman and The Revenant have executed this technique. Sometimes this method is used ironically or as a stunt, but in the case of 1917, it is used to accentuate the point that the events of this film are happening in real time. Brilliant and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully implements Mendes’s vision, all but guaranteeing him his second Oscar in three years after having had 14 straight nominations go the other way.

The plot of 1917 is rather simple: A pair of soldiers are sent on a crucial mission to deliver orders for a Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stand down before walking into a trap that would cost 1600 soldiers their lives. It’s a race against time (hence the single-shot shooting style) as the two men cross enemy lines in an attempt to deliver the message in time. The two men are Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), British soldiers selected by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) because Blake’s brother is part of MacKenzie’s command that will be decimated by the Germans if the message is not received in time. The movie painstakingly documents these men’s journey through the trenches and across enemy territory in the hopes of preventing a tragic tactical mistake.

Mendes does an excellent job of crafting a simple plot but giving us a powerful story, a story that is personal to him. The idea for the film, which is fiction, is based on a story Mendes’s own grandfather, a World War I veteran, told him. The story was one of another soldier tasked with carrying a message into no-man’s land during the war. Sam Mendes used that story as the basis for 1917 and dedicated the film to his grandfather and the many others like him who fought for our freedom. This gives the film an added layer of quality, but regardless, 1917 is a film that is certainly technically brilliant; it managed 10 Oscar nominations without a single one in any acting category, which is precisely what happened with another technical marvel from 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road. Like that film, 1917 is also narratively engrossing in all the best ways making it one of the best films of the year. A

1917 is rated R and has a running time of one hour and 59 minutes.

Spectre

Spectre Movie PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw

The end may be near for James Bond…at least the one that looks like Daniel Craig.  In a recent interview, Craig made it wildly clear that he is not into doing another Bond movie.  While that may change, it means that Spectre, the 24th official Bond film, may be one that passes the torch to a new Bond, a distinction that only five of the films really have (although it gets kind of messy with Lazenby and Connery).  Craig’s four Bond films have been received rather tremendously.  His unconventional approach and downplaying of Bond’s silly side has seemingly revitalized the franchise and brought an air of respect back to the character.  Still, Spectre makes nearly all of the same mistakes that caused me to knock Skyfall last time and Quantum of Solace before that.   Fool me once shame on you, fool me 24 times, shame on me.

****Warning, minor spoilers regarding Christoph Waltz follow.  Do not read any further if you do not want to know about his character.****

Like Skyfall, Spectre starts in classic Bond style with a strong, action-packed opening as 007 sleeks through Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival to track down and kill a man who plans to blow up a packed stadium on behalf of a mysterious organization.  These opening scenes are certainly the crown jewel in the Bond film formula and have been elevated to a new level in the Mendes/Craig era.  The rest of the film revolves around this mysterious organization, later revealed to be SPECTRE, and the hunting down of its leader, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  Unlike many previous Bond installments, the Craig films capping with Spectre are actually a much more woven series of sequels than their predecessors.  Director Sam Mendes, who made the two most recent Bond films, used Skyfall to introduce a thematic thread about chastising the egoism of youth and praising the wisdom of age. The film delved deeper into the inner workings of James Bond and by the end, casual throwbacks to earlier “older” Bond trappings were scattered throughout including vintage Aston Martins and the introduction of a Miss Eve Moneypenny.  Now with Spectre, even casual Bond fans are aware of what director Mendes and his screenwriters are doing here.  Fifty years of films are coming full circle as the supervillain that sought to destroy Sean Connery in From Russia with Love is rebooted and reloaded to strike again!

Rebooting and remaking is definitely the name of the game in entertainment lately and while some are hits, I am not excited about seeing James Bond go back to square one.  This is especially a grim turn for female characters.  Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) does her best to keep this film from being too shallow, but it still may be the most sexist film since San Andreas. Still, the thing that makes Bond tick is the brazen confidence in the face of unspeakable danger, and Spectre has a good dose of that.  The action scenes in this film deliver.  Does it have as much as Skyfall?  No.  Is it miles above other recent tent pole action films in its genre like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation?  No.  To me Spectre feels like a set-up film much like 2013’s Man of Steel felt like a set-up film.  Yes it’s another installment of something that’s been around a while.  Yes, all of the familiar things you expect to see are there, but at the end it feels stretched out, belabored, and even a little monotonous until the end where the hints at what’s to come make you wish you could skip this movie and go right to the next one.

Aside from its pacing, the other unfortunate letdown is Waltz as Blofeld.  What seemed like brilliantly ideal casting at first kind of fizzles out when implemented.  First of all, Waltz does not appear in the film for nearly an hour into the already overlong film.  Perhaps the original intent was to have Waltz’s casting and/or character be a surprise, but the marketing would have you believe otherwise.  Secondly, his introduction after the build-up is absurdly underwhelming, which is a shame when you ponder the potential of having Christoph Waltz play your hero/anti-hero supporting role…it’s kind of his thing!  Javier Bardem’s turn as Silva in Skyfall, while not perfect was far more satisfying than the missed opportunity that is Waltz in Spectre.

Spectre is in full nostalgia mode and not looking forward.  If this is a good thing, remains to be seen, but apparently everything old is new again in the world of Bond. C+

Spectre is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes.

Skyfall

ImageSkyfall marks the Bond franchise’s 50th year and 23rd film in that time. For those familiar with the franchise, it is not rare to see the world of Bond tweaked, updated, modernized, and “freshened up.” Skyfall is a very different Bond film, in that regard. It seems director, Sam Mendes goes out of his way to saturate his film with thematic trappings that chastise the egoism of youth and praise the wisdom of age. This is an intriguing direction to take, but it does slightly miss the mark.

In Skyfall, Daniel Craig reprises the legendary role for his third time. After a tragic mishap in Turkey, Bond finds himself off the grid and at a crossroads. A surprise attack on MI 6 forces his hand to once again enter the fray of espionage where he is met with doubt and reservation both by M (Judi Dench) and newly appointed Chairman of Intelligence, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). It seems the world of espionage has become a digital one and the artistry of the field operative is becoming superfluous. Nonetheless, Bond is reassigned to active duty to track down an ex-operative and cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem), fueled by revenge against those in the British government whom he believes betrayed him.

The Bond films that rest on a revenge storyline are historically some of the weakest entries in the history of Bond, and this one fits nicely in that group as perhaps the best of the weak. The action starts strong in classic Bond style, as 007 chases down a terrorist with a hard drive that contains all of the identities of undercover agents throughout the world. Bond and M’s relationship is explored in Skyfall in much more depth than ever before, and this film does advance the mythology of Bond a bit more than some other previous entries. However, the film does hit a snag as Bond goes through the motions of tracking down leads throughout China. It is in China where Bond delivers his line, “Bond, James Bond,” and it is also where he drinks a Heineken (Heineken reportedly paid $45 million dollars to have Bond sip their brew in Skyfall). Furthermore, the climax, which does reveal the film’s namesake, also feels a bit clunky and hokey. While Bardem’s villain, Silva does provide some memorable scenes, he is simply a melodramatic excuse to allow Bond to remind us not to underestimate the power of some spit and elbow grease. Silva is, instead, a missed opportunity to chew the scenery along side some of the best Bond villains.

Skyfall is not a bad Bond movie, and it is certainly not a bad movie. Sam Mendes accomplishes his goal of creating a heavy-handed thematically driven exploration of Bond’s inner workings. This is by no means a bad idea. However, this deviation from expectations is not executed with precision and allows the film to flounder in parts. There are some sequences that are absolutely heart pounding and the film leaves us eager to see what’s next; just don’t expect to see your Heineken investment pay off just yet. B-

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