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Sun03292020

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A couple of British World War I soldiers stationed in France face a harrowing time in 1917, a war action/drama from director Sam Mendes that is one of last year’s greatest technological achievements in cinema—and one of last year’s best movies.

Mendes—along with his special-effects team, his editing crew and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (finally an Oscar winner for Blade Runner 2049)—designed the film to look like one continuous shot. They do a seamless job, to the point where you’ll stop looking for the places where edits might be happening and just take the whole thing in. The story never suffers in favor of the filmmaking stunt.

Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping at the beginning of the movie. Blake is ordered to wake up and report to command; he takes Schofield along with him. The two pals figure they have some sort of assignment coming their way involving food or mail delivery.

That’s not the case. In a plot that reminds of Saving Private Ryan, Schofield and Blake get their unusual assignment: They are told to go beyond a recently abandoned German front line and reach the next British battalion. It’s up to them to save the lives of 1,600 soldiers, one of them Blake’s older brother.

The movie is set in motion … and it never really stops. Schofield and Blake venture into a body-riddled, fly-infested battlefield with little time to spare. Deakins’ camera follows as if you are a third party along for the mission. The result is a completely immersive experience. Lesser talents may have made a film with a first-person-shooter video-game feel, but Mendes gives us something that feels hauntingly authentic and very real. He paces his film masterfully.

Familiar faces show up along the way, including Colin Firth as the no-nonsense general who must use two soldiers to deliver his life-saving message, because the land lines were cut by the exiting Germans. Other officers along the way are played by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, displaying varying degrees of regimental disgust and, understandably, only mild compassion. The actors all do a fine job of showing the frustrations that must’ve been grinding on these men.

As Mendes’ film clearly displays: World War I was awful and horrifyingly nasty. Captains stand in trenches weeping furiously as their officers try to advance. Sleeping soldiers are propped up in trenches, in such a way that you’ll wonder how anybody could’ve survived these conditions. Crashed pilots lash out at their rescuers. Rotting corpses float in every body of water the soldiers come across, be it a large pond or raging river. Large rats cause all types of mayhem.

Chapman and, especially, MacKay deserve credit for crafting two well-rounded, deep characters within this spectacle. Mendes and his performers achieve a nice balance of dramatic heft and technical wizardry. The story the film is telling is straightforward and uncomplicated, but it feels big and important, helped along by a magnificent score from Thomas Newman. Mendes, who co-wrote the film, dedicated the movie to his grandfather, Alfred, a World War I veteran. It was the stories Alfred told his grandson that birthed the idea for this movie.

The film 1917 is a mammoth achievement, and a fine tribute to the men who fought in the Great War.

The film 1917 opens Friday, Jan. 10, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Daniel Craig-led James Bond movies have represented the franchise’s high point.

The films starring Craig have included a little thing called “genuine emotion.” The series peaked with 2012’s Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Javier Bardem as a classic Bond villain.

Mendes has returned for the latest installment, and this time out, the action is amped up. Spectre has some terrific set pieces, including a dizzying helicopter sequence to open things up, as well as a nasty fight on a train. That’s what’s good about the movie.

What’s bad? Regrettably, a good chunk of it is bad. After the full experience that was Skyfall, Spectre feels incomplete and shallow.

During a layover in Italy, Bond finds out a few hard truths about his origins, and that much of the pain he’s gone through in his last few chapters is attributable to one man. Christoph Waltz shows up (barely) as Oberhauser, a past acquaintance of Bond who is now leading a dark society called Spectre—responsible for terrorist attacks worldwide.

Of course, Bond will get a girl along the way. This time out, it’s Madeleine Swann, played by Léa Seydoux of Blue Is the Warmest Color. Not only does she fall for Bond; she falls for Bond in a way that kind of makes her look like an idiot.

Throughout the film, there’s a sense that Craig is getting a little tired of the Bond shtick. He just doesn’t seem fully committed at this point. Also—and this is a rather strange observation, but I’m going to just put it out there—he looks totally gross when he’s kissing women. I’m going to go ahead and call him the worst Bond kisser ever. (Yes, worse than Roger Moore!) He looks like he’s out to eat somebody’s face. Seydoux probably had to check for her lower lip after takes.

Waltz is fun in his few scenes, but saying his villain is underdeveloped would be an understatement. He barely gets a chance to register. Ralph Fiennes returns as M, and his portion of the story—regarding the Secret Intelligence Service being in danger of getting shut down—is actually interesting. It’s a bad thing when the subplot is more interesting than what Bond is actually doing.

At 148 minutes long, with a price tag in the $250 million range, Spectre suffers from some serious bloat. For all of that money, couldn’t the art department come up with a better-looking staged photo of Bond during his youth? This movie has one of those photos in which young pictures of the actual actors are Photoshopped together to make it look like the characters co-existed in a past moment. The staged photo looks like somebody used scissors and Scotch tape.

I have no complaints about the action sequences. Dave Bautista shows up as a Spectre goon named Hinx; he’s the one who dukes it out with Bond on the train. He makes for a good Bond monster. In addition to the aforementioned excellent action sequences, the film includes a building collapse in which Bond narrowly escapes. It’s good stuff.

It’s the emotional stuff that drags the movie down. Yes, it was welcomed in Skyfall, but this film feels like it is trying too hard. There are certain things we don’t need to know about James Bond and his past. The past the film paints is completely unnecessary.

Craig is under contract for one more picture, but something feels final about Spectre. If he should return for another go, somebody needs to find a way for Bond to have fun again—because Spectre is a drag.

Spectre is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Skyfall is my all-time-favorite Bond movie.

Mind you, this is coming from a guy who didn't really get it when it came to James Bond. I've warmed up to him over the years, but I used to hate him. The first time I witnessed Bond in action was as a boy, seeing Sean Connery use a bikini top to choke her in Diamonds Are Forever. This act scared the shit out of me, and made me think Bond was some sort of bad guy. (I had similar child-brain confusion with Robert Shaw's Quint in Jaws ... he was just so mean.)

When I was "coming of age," so to speak, Bond got silly, with Roger Moore and stuff like Moonraker and Octopussy. I turned my adolescent attention to the likes of Star Wars, Rocky and The Pink Panther movies. It wasn't until Pierce Brosnan took over the franchise that I started to think the enterprise was OK. Then, I went back and watched the Sean Connery films, and realized those were actually a lot of fun. Sean Connery's Bond was a misogynist, but he wasn't a bad guy.

Which brings me to Daniel Craig (after skipping over George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton ... hey, I have a limited word count). Craig IS James Bond to me at this point. He's made three Bonds in a row that I can tolerate—and Skyfall is a showstopper.

It has a Bond villain that I count as the most memorable since, say, the goofy Jaws guy with the teeth from the Moore era. Javier Bardem plays Silva, a former agent who has a major bug up his ass regarding M (the awesome Judi Dench). His first meeting with a tied-up Bond is perhaps Bond's best meeting ever with one of his adversaries. It's also perhaps the most erotic, which took me a bit by surprise. Bardem relishes a good bad-guy role, as he proved in his Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men. He's a genuinely funny and nasty creep.

Skyfall has stunts and chases that had me fully engaged. When Bond faces off with an assassin atop a moving train crossing over a series of bridges and going through tunnels, it amounts to the year's best action sequence ... and that's before the opening credits.

Those credits, by the way, are a series of astonishing visuals set to a beautiful Bond song—the title track delivered by Adele. As the opening credits played out, I was hooked already, and it only got better from there.

This one comes courtesy of director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), and it's clear that he has a tremendous amount of love and respect for the icon. While the movie gives us an older and arguably dated Bond, it also shows us that a man who is good with a gun and popular with the ladies might win out over megabytes after all.

As for the ladies, there are a few, and they don't register as much as past Bond women. Naomie Harris is on hand as Eve, a fellow agent and sharpshooter. Harris is fine, and she shares an interesting shaving sequence with Bond, but she doesn't make an indelible impression. Maybe it's because she should've been called Serenity Bottoms or some other naughty name. Those tend to stick.

Bérénice Marlohe plays Sévérine, a girl with a tough past—and an even tougher future. She's fine, but again, she doesn't truly register.

The one lady who makes a big impression this time out is Dench's M, who shares a funny, sometimes caustic and somehow sweet, motherly relationship with Bond. This movie pulls her into the plot more than past efforts (including those with Brosnan; she's been around for a while). Mendes offers some great odes to past Bonds, including a sweet Aston Martin and some funny wordplay. By the time Bond faces off with Silva in the film's finale, we get a true sense of vintage Bond as much as future Bond.

There's also some typical product placement, including pitches for Cadillac, Heineken and, surprisingly, Sony VAIO. The film's new and much-younger Q (Ben Whishaw) is seen prominently using a Sony laptop. I found this relatively implausible. Those things freeze up way too much for a high-level British agent to be utilizing one during a tense good-versus-evil showdown. I had one once, and it met its demise by being smashed on the corner of my coffee table after one too many blue screens of death.

This dark, brooding and somewhat deep Bond is a Bond I'm more interested in as a moviegoer. No more choking girls with a bikini top unless they're brandishing a broken bottle as a weapon or something!

Bond has evolved over the years, while staying true to his origins. In Skyfall, he's actually at his most mature ... and his most badass.

Published in Reviews