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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Mendes’

It is perhaps a sign of the magnitude of the psychic scar left by the First World War that we can’t seem to stop making movies about it, even as the events themselves slide inevitably out of the realm of living memory. It seems to me that in recent years we’ve had more films about the First World War than the Second – the centenary of the conflict may have had something to do with this, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t also to do with the way the two wars are popularly perceived: the Second World War was a ‘good’ or just war, a battle against an undeniably evil ideology. That kind of thinking feels odd in today’s deeply cynical and morally compromised world, so perhaps inevitably we are drawn to a war which is generally regarded as a futile, pointless slaughter: industrialised murder with human beings treated as raw materials, an appropriate curtain-raiser for the modern age. I could always be wrong. Regardless of all that, here to join the ranks of First World War movies is Sam Mendes’ 1917.

As you might be able to guess from the pleasingly numeric title (I say pleasing because it allowed me to walk up to the ticket desk and say ‘One fo(u)r nineteen-seventeen in two-D at two fifty in (screen) one’ with a reasonably straight face) the movie is set in 1917. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay play two young British soldiers who are selected for a special mission and dragged in front of a general (Colin Firth). The assignment is not the cushy food-collecting detail they are hoping for. A failure of intelligence (whichever way you want to look at it) means that a battalion has been tricked into thinking an enemy strategic withdrawal is actual a retreat, and is about to launch an attack on what is actually a heavily-defended stretch of the German lines. A message has to be delivered halting the advance before nearly two thousand men are sacrificed. Blake (Chapman) is younger and keener and his brother is amongst the endangered troops; he is highly motivated to succeed in the mission. Schofield (MacKay) is older, more jaded by his experiences, less inclined to take risks. But orders are orders, even if it means a hazardous crossing of no-man’s-land and a trek across territory where the Germans may still be operating…

The element of 1917 stressed most by its initial publicity was the decision to make it as immersive as possible, by creating a film which gives the impression of being a single very long take. There’s a little bit of disingenuity and careful choosing of words going on there, not least because the story requires a very obvious break in the narrative at one point. You do find yourself looking out for the occasional moments when the two main characters pass through a pitch-black tunnel for a couple of seconds, or there’s another moment where they’re both out of sight and a sneaky digital edit could be done – in short, this isn’t even trying that hard to look like a genuinely single-take picture.

I suppose this is comparable to what’s happened to the special effects movie as a piece of cinema: advances in technology mean that doing a single-take movie (or apparently single-take movie) is much easier now than it was even a few years ago. When Hitchcock had a go, back in the 1940s, he was limited by the fact that film cameras could only shoot for ten minutes at a time, and Rope was structured accordingly (there’s an ‘invisible’ edit every ten minutes or so). Genuine ‘one take, no cuts’ feature films still tend to originate from outside the English-speaking world – the Spanish movie Victoria got a release over here a few years ago and was the longest example of the form at the time, while the Japanese spoof Don’t Stop the Camera! also fleetingly appeared in order to spoof the form in dazzling style – and even the ‘cheat’ version preferred by American film-makers is not especially common.

One wonders as to the extent to which the decision to film 1917 in this style was a creative one and how much the critical plaudits won by Birdman in 2015 (including, let’s remember, a slightly controversial Best Picture Oscar) were an influence. In the end I don’t think it really matters, because in the end it’s not about whether this genuinely is a single-take picture, but the impact it achieves by appearing to be one. And the fact is that a few minutes into 1917 I was able to sit back and relax, confident that I was watching a very fine movie indeed (something I don’t feel I get to do nearly often enough).

The performances by the two young stars are both very good – George MacKay has been doing quite big movies for a number of years now, and hopefully this will raise his profile even further – while the structure of the piece basically means a string of other actors turn up to deliver brief cameos, usually as British officers. Apart from Firth as a stern but benign general, Andrew Scott appears as a jaded lieutenant, Mark Strong as a worldly-wise captain, Richard Madden as a brother officer, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the man they’re trying to reach (I hope that’s not too big a spoiler). (It feels like I haven’t seen Mark Strong in a movie for ages, but then at one point he was turning up in five or six films a year.)

Most of these actors, fine though they are, are to some extent playing stock types, and the film has no very new ideas to offer about the First World War – but what the style of the film does is to plunge you into the hell of the trenches and the landscape around them. It is as a visceral sensory experience that 1917 really functions, and as you stumble with the characters through booby-trapped enemy positions, with rotting faces jutting from muddy ramparts and rats skittering everywhere, you get the faintest inkling of a sense of what it must have been like for the people who were really there. Did it have to be made this way? Well, probably not – there’s a school of thought that we don’t experience the world as a single take anyway; an eye blink is nature’s version of a cut – but the thing is that it does work as a movie, making you understand and care. Someone who begins as an everyman becomes truly heroic by journey’s end. Needless to say, it is often visually startling, as well as moving and technically accomplished. Not quite entertainment in the traditional sense, but still well worth watching, especially on the big screen.

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One piece of news which got relatively little attention in the days just after Casino Royale was released, back in 2006, was of the passing of veteran film-maker Kevin McClory. McClory’s name was not widely known but he was in many ways a key figure in the history of the Bond films, for all that his name only appears in the credits of a couple of them: McClory and his supporters, if no-one else, were in no doubt that the massive, decades-long success of the Bond franchise was in no small part due to the work McClory put into reconceiving Ian Fleming’s literary creation as a big-screen hero with global appeal (the most immediate product of that work being the novel Thunderball, based on a film script co-written by McClory and Fleming – McClory’s involvement being the reason why he retained the rights to make his own non-Eon version of the script, Never Say Never Again).

One consequence of the seemingly-endless tussle over rights between McClory and Eon was a decision for the official movies not to use certain characters and concepts to which McClory had been assigned ownership. With all this now resolved, one way or the other, the way has been cleared for something which I and many other veteran Bond-followers would never have anticipated coming to pass.

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Or, to put it another way, Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE. Following up the huge critical and popular success of Skyfall might have been an intimidating prospect, but the new film is loaded with enough tantalising concepts to make one forget about all of that. Things get underway with a bit of incidental mayhem in Mexico City, where the Day of the Dead is lavishly staged (and Mendes shows he means business by opening with a hugely extended Touch of Evil-style opening shot, which so far as I could see only has one obvious cheat in it).

It transpires that Bond (Daniel Craig) is following his own private agenda, rather to the annoyance of M (Ralph Fiennes). 007 has been put on the trail of an international criminal organisation known as SPECTRE and is intent on following it, orders or not. This leads him to Rome and a very well-scrubbed-up widow (Monica Belucci), then into the heart of his enemies’ schemes, before travelling on to Austria and north Africa, accompanied much of the time by a beautiful young doctor (Lea Seydoux), whose father Bond has occasionally made the acquaintance of in the past.

While all this is going on, M and the rest of the Secret Service team back in London find themselves under a bureaucratic assault by a new intelligence agency headed by the mysterious C (Andrew Scott). C believes Bond’s section is obselete and is determined to see him replaced both by drones and near-unlimited surveillance. But could there possibly be a connection between this and the case Bond is working…?

I know the question you are wanting to ask (always assuming you haven’t seen the film yet, or read its Wikipedia entry, or looked at a review with spoilers in it) – is there a cat in this movie? Well, on the tiny off-chance you don’t know yet, I feel obliged to keep quiet. What I will say is that the film-makers seem very well-aware that the return of SPECTRE and its leader (maybe) is a huge deal for dedicated Bond-watchers – the organisation was the main opposition in most of the Connery films, and involved with some of the most iconic Bond moments and characters. In a similar vein, the new film retcons like mad to establish that virtually all of Daniel Craig’s previous opponents have been SPECTRE operatives of various stripes, whether this really makes sense or not (it seems logical that Quantum was SPECTRE operating under another name, but not really that Silva from Skyfall was on the payroll).

Keeping at least the pretence of mystery over the SPECTRE top man’s return (or not) is presumably the reason why the film works terribly hard to wrong-foot the viewer, throwing all kinds of misdirections and double-bluffs into the pot. Is it effective or not? I really can’t say, but I do wonder whether it’s worth the effort.

Similarly questionable is the decision to establish that (and this barely constitutes a spoiler) there is a long-standing personal connection between Bond and senior SPECTRE figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). What this brings to the story is really unclear, to say nothing of the monumental coincidence involved – it’s not even as if the script and performances suggest these two men have any kind of shared history together. There seems to have been a belief that the story is improved by giving Bond a personal stake in it.

I’m not sure that’s the case, and SPECTRE‘s attempts (as a continuation of Skyfall) to make a Bond movie into something of a sophisticated psychological drama arguably get in the way of it doing all the slightly outrageous, larger-than-life things a lot of people want from Bond. The dear personal friend and valued colleague occupying the workspace contiguous with mine gloomily observed that he felt he didn’t need to see another Bond film ever again, so dragged down to earth has the series become. (Another friend thought it was basically ‘a kid’s film’, although I must say it contains more eye-gouging and skull-drilling than the usual Pixar production.)

Despite all this, I must say I enjoyed most of SPECTRE hugely, as its attempts to reconcile many of the classic Bond staples with a non-ridiculous sensibility are fairly successful. Craig is by now thoroughly comfortable and convincing as Bond, Waltz is very good as the villain (or not), the stuntwork is imaginative and impressive, and there are some very decent jokes. (Although as top SPECTRE heavy Mr Hinx, Dave Bautista is used in an ever-so-slightly perfunctory fashion.) Ever since Eon first cast Judi Dench, these films have had to come up with things for the distinguished actors playing the regulars to do, and this continues here, with bumped-up parts for M, Q, and Moneypenny, but the performers are good enough for this not to be a problem.

The real problem for me comes at the end of the film. One of the things brought to light by the Sony hacking scandal was the existence of a pile of studio notes worried about the fact that SPECTRE‘s climax was both undercooked and underwhelming – and based on the finished movie, I have to say the studio definitely had a point. What’s more, the end of the film is almost the cinematic equivalent of a suspended chord – you’re not so much invited to expect something, you’re almost compelled to, and yet the film doesn’t deliver what seemed to have been promising. I was almost tempted to sit through the entirety of the credits to see if the pay-off arrived in a post-credits scene, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Oh well. I suppose it must be a sign of Eon’s confidence that a further movie is bound to happen (and after 53 years, who’s going to argue with them?). I’m still not completely convinced that the Craig formula, such as it is, is quite guaranteed to meet audience expectations, but it would take a bolder writer than I to say that SPECTRE is anything other than very impressive , even if only as a piece of spectacle.

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It occurs to me that, perhaps, there’s rather more riding on the success of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall than is really ideal for what should be a wholly celebratory golden anniversary outing for the modern world’s greatest hetero-normative fantasy icon. The fact remains that the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is not well regarded, and I’ll admit to wondering whether the much-lauded rethink of the series under Daniel Craig was actually such a wise idea after all – perhaps Casino Royale just had novelty value to commend it after all.

Nevertheless, for the time being at least, a new Bond movie remains a big event and Skyfall has arrived, preceded by an enormous bow-wave of bespoke advertising and tie-in products. This is undoubtedly the biggest movie of the Autumn, possibly one of the four or five biggest movies of the year in terms of profile. It all adds up to a very high set of expectations.

So how does Skyfall measure up to them? I’ll happily confess to being such a big fan of the series that any Bond movie looks good to me the first time round, but – despite a few misgivings which we’ll come to presently – I’m pretty sure this is an outing which will find a place in the upper echelon of the franchise.  The script, from regular Bond screenwriters Purvis and Wade, with John Logan, is so packed with twists and turns and surprises that it would be a shame to describe it in any real detail. Suffice to say that it features an embattled Bond (Craig) in pursuit of a brilliant cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) – a man with, it would appear, a suspicious familiarity with both MI6 and its long-time director, M (Judi Dench)…

The first thing to be said in Skyfall‘s favour is that it’s such a relief to see a Bond film which obviously isn’t afraid to be a Bond film. For me Quantum of Solace came across as much too earnest and even a bit timid – Skyfall kicks off with a terrific, full-scale chase through Istanbul, which showcases immaculate action choreography while still managing to set up the themes of the film to follow. ‘Relax,’ the film seems to be saying to the audience, ‘you’re in the hands of professionals: we know exactly what you’ve come here for.’

What follows doesn’t quite count as Bond at its most outrageous, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the action quotient. Any shortfall in Skyfall on this front is more than made up for by a (relatively) thoughtful and subtle script. In some ways it revisits territory from several of the Brosnan Bonds – at one point Bond is accused of being a superannuated relic of bygone days, and he’s depicted as a much more vulnerable, self-doubting, battle-scarred (in every sense) figure than usual.

It’s a bit of a wrench to go from the relatively inexperienced Bond of Craig’s first two movies to the veteran he’s portrayed as here (the plotline left hanging concerning the Quantum syndicate is never mentioned), but this allows the film to develop a rich seam of ideas all related to the theme of age and regret and mortality. There’s an almost valedictory atmosphere to a lot of Skyfall – one senses the Bond legend being dissected, obliquely, before one’s eyes – which is finely sustained, even when such a tone is clearly not in earnest: Bond is ultimately infallible and indestructible.

This is by no means a heavy film, however, possessing a very dry sense of humour that suits Craig and Dench well, and issued with some very good jokes indeed. Albert Finney pops up as a crowd-pleasing comic relief character, while the revamp of Q is also winning: Ben Whishaw makes the boffin a mixture of spod and steeliness and his relationship with Craig also promises much for future installments. (This is a fairly gadget-light Bond film, with the major exception of a classic Bond item which gets a major role in the third act.)

While Skyfall gets the tone of a Bond movie pretty much bang on, I’m not sure about some of the substance: there isn’t exactly a proper Bond girl in it, for one thing, but funnily you don’t notice that much. More of an issue is the nature of the plot, which is uncharacteristically introspective – this is very much a personal drama, with little reference to the world beyond Bond and his colleagues.  On a related point, Javier Bardem’s performance as a particularly psycho Bond villain has a peculiarly reptilian campness to it – it’s by no means unnuanced, but at the same time it’s much bigger than anything else on display in the movie and occasionally seems to be going for laughs when they’re not completely appropriate.

Nevertheless, this is winning, blockbuster entertainment. And, strangely, my overriding impression of Skyfall is of a movie completing the process of reinventing Bond which began in Casino Royale. Every Bond film of the last two decades has had to try to find a way of living up to the legend established in the previous three, and while I’m not sure Skyfall is obviously more successful than any of the others, by its conclusion all the pieces – the tone, the wit, the regular characters – all of these are in place, as fresh and exciting as one could hope for. This looks like a series near the top of its game, getting ready to conquer the world (as if that would be enough).

(Now, if they’d only move the gun-barrel sequence back to the start of the film where it belongs…)

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