Friday, June 20, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Sam Mendes

...Could Frame Thy Fearful Symmetry

Samuel Alexander Mendes was born August 1, 1965 in Reading, Berkshire, the son of a college professor and a children's author. They divorced when he was quite young, and Mendes grew up in Oxfordshire, eventually attending Cambridge where he received a first in English. Whilst there, Mendes began directing theater productions, and at the tender age of 24, directed Judi Dench in a production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." This was followed by a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in 1990 he was named artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, where he branched out, staging musicals (such as Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," and his acclaimed re-thinking of "Cabaret."

He has won the Olivier Award three times for his stage direction. His first film would win an Oscar for Best Director.

American Beauty (1999) Steven Spielberg loved the script (by Alan Ball) about a business exec going through a mid-life, post-job crisis, and the simmering boiling points being reached behind perfect suburban settings, but he also knew he wasn't the right person to direct it. Meanwhile, stage phenom' Sam Mendes, whose dark take on "Cabaret," "Oliver!," and "Company," had wowed critics, was looking for a project to break into directing films.* With the strength of Spielberg's Dreamworks studio producing, Mendes was given a large safety net for his first effort.  

Depressed suburbanite Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is fired from his office job, and goes into a middle-age crazy tail-spin.  He overcompensates by fantasizing about his 16 year daughter's friend, cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari), buying a sports-car, and taking a job at a fast-food drive up window.  His ambitious wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) re-doubles her efforts as a real-estate broker, but begins having an affair with a competing broker. Meanwhile, the Burnham's daughter (Thora Birch), who despises both her parents, begins to spend more time with the odd neighbor boy (Wes Bentley) who obsessively video-tapes everything, perhaps to keep from focusing on his dysfunctional parents (Chris Cooper and Allison Janney).  

Beauty proved a darling with critics and, for its bawdy take on transitional males (many of whom ARE critics), with audiences, and with awards folks.  Its deeply-rooted cynicism, biting humor, and focus on the camouflaging facade of American life seemed in tune with the end of the Clinton administration where affluence prevailed with a disintegrating moral core. By the turn of the century, the mood of the country turned to outside threats, while the Middle Class all but disappeared and the country splintered into the Have-Nots and the Have Everything's. The film, satiric in nature, doesn't have the staying power to outlast its times.

One sees immediately that Mendes does not stray too far from his theater roots when directing for film, using the frame as a stage, its edges as a proscenium arch, usually situating things so that your focus is center-stage at all times.  This would be a stylistic consistency with Mendes, especially working with the rigorous elder cameraman Conrad Hall. Also, Mendes would find a constant collaborator in Thomas Newman, whose ambient score twitched and hummed with manic intensity.

Road to Perdition (2002) Based on Max Allen Collins' graphic novel (illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner) and a script by David Self, Road to Perdition was the final film for two movie icons, actor Paul Newman (who played the head of the minor crime family John Rooney—based on an actual Illinois crime family named Looney) and cinematographer Conrad Hall. The adaptation takes the basic story-line—equal parts true-crime incidents and the Japanese manga "Lone Wolf and Cub"—of Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) ,the favorite "torpedo" of a crime-boss (Newman), who, through the complications of a "hit" screw-up involving his son (Daniel Craig), decides to make the sacrifice of eliminating his favored hit-man as well as the collateral damage of his family. 

The attempt misses its mark, killing Sullivan's wife and two of his children, leaving Sullivan and his remaining son to become fugitives, bereft of their family, until they can either clear their names, or eliminate the death threat. Complications arise when the Rooney mob sends out a perverse hit-man (Jude Law) to freelance the assassination of Sullivan by any means necessary. Part road movie, part crime drama, Road to Perdition takes the bare-bones of Collins' conceit, strips it down, throws out some of the comic-book theatrics, and makes a dour study in double-revenge that seems slightly uncomfortable in American crime-drama, rather than feudal Japan.

Teaming again with Conrad Hall, Mendes compositions are again theatrically based, with an insistent center line that frequently is too spare in detail towards the end, with empty rooms that seem like empty stages, begging to be filled with something—anything. Perhaps that's a comment on the bric-a-brac filled frames of most gangster movies, as opposed to Sullivan's status for most of the film as an outsider, keeping his eye on the far (if empty) horizon for on-coming threats, but it feels too much like a conceit to pay off the final image—Sullivan's son at the ocean shore, contemplating a limitless horizon, free of threat. 

In 2004, Mendes' production company is formed.

Jarhead (2005) The war in Kuwait was Mendes' next subject, (at a time when the U.S. was invading that war's aggressor, Iraq) following Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) through basic training and then into "the big sandbox" of the war, the film feels like standard stuff that's been explored since the Vietnam war (especially in Full Metal Jacket, which this film seems to use as a template). Like FMJ, Jarhead starts in basic training to watch the breakdown of the individual to become a unit member. Dispatched to Kuwait, the drill is to wait. And wait. And wait. Trained as a sniper, Swofford goes through the entire war without firing his weapon, and when the war ends, he and his unit discharge their rifles into the empty sky.

"Welcome to the suck," says Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) during training, and a better description can't be found. The war is a bit of a waste. Boots are on the ground but most of the fighting is done with air-strikes, some of which put American troops at risk. There's a lot of preparation for combat in the arid desert conditions, but no actual fighting. The soldier's there are a "presence," but that's about it—a well-funded, well-hydrated fighting machine that doesn't run, but marches through a blasted landscape of retreating Iraq troops and burning oil-fields to do...nothing. There's a lot of energy, a lot of ambition, a lot of testosterone, and a lot of training that isn't being channeled and so the level of frustration among the troops is high. They're stuck there while relationships go south back home, and their lives fall apart...for what end?

One starts to see a pattern of stories that Mendes is attracted to direct: individuals who are subsequently turned into cogs in a machine, and their desperation to re-assert their individuality in a trapped situation. His next film followed the same line.

With the Death of Conrad Hall, Mendes turned to veteran cameraman Roger Deakins to film Jarhead and employed legendary editor Walter Murch to edit.

Revolutionary Road (2008) Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (at the time Mrs. Mendes) back together again, but this time the sinking ship is their marriage.

Based on Richard Yates' landmark 1961 novel about the American dream factory turning domestic bliss into a machine-driven nightmare. It's a bit like American Beauty set in the 1950's, but without the satiric snark and done with a seriousness that's a bit stultifying.  

April and Frank Wheeler meet at a party and have big dreams of living a bohemian life-style, which gets derailed when April becomes pregnant. While April has dreams of being an actress, Frank is stuck at a New York office job that he hates. Realizing that neither one of them is happy, they decide to move to Paris, but when Frank is offered a promotion to start in the new field of computers, and April finds out that she is pregnant with their third child, they cancel the plans and the fracturing of their marriage begins anew, this time with the added wedges of mutual infidelities tossed into the mix.

The acting is top-notch, not only from DiCaprio and Winslet, but also Kathy Bates and Michael Shannon as the mentally troubled son of her character. But after all the drama and sadness of Revolutionary Road, it was time for Mendes to lighten up...and maybe find a solution to the domestic traps he'd already filmed.

Away We Go (2009) After four very heavy dark-tinged movies, Mendes lightens up with a script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, enhanced by a grand group of improv stars (headed by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph). Burt and Verona are young mobile professionals without roots. She's pregnant and thinking about nesting. His parents live in the same state, so they'll stay put so their children can have grandparents nearby.

But when his folks reveal that they're moving to Belgium to retire, the couple realize that they'll be without roots and start a cross-country trip to see friends and relatives about the best environment to start their family and also seek some perspective on the best way to raise their kids.  

The five stops they make along the way is instructional, yes, but not in the way they intended. Mostly, they experience what not to do (frankly, they could have saved themselves the expense by screening Mendes' earlier movies!).

The various dysfunctions along the way are played with humor and a certain amount of panic, and the film ends unresolved, but hopeful. Mendes' direction is a lot less static, too, working with a low budget and without his usual team of collaborators. Like the couple themselves, the entire movie feels like a fresh start for the director, but as it wasn't successful at the box-office, Mendes returned to his theater work...and then, something big happened and Mendes got an offer he couldn't refuse.

Skyfall (2012) It was Daniel Craig who suggested Mendes as director for the 23rd official James Bond movie* (as Craig had worked with him on Road to Perdition). Even though they are "just" Bond movies, it has become clear since the Broccoli kids have taken over the franchise from their late father that the director is the most important link in the spy-chain, and Mendes was determined to bring some of the cheeky insouciance back to the Bond series, after the seriousness of Craig's previous two Bonds. And Mendes' staging seems to fit in nicely with the old theatricality the early films possessed (but was softened somewhat over the years).

Bond is supposedly killed on assignment, but is merely hiding out with extreme prejudice, until an attack on MI-6 headquarters and his boss "M" (Judi Dench), brings him back to the fold. Still injured, and a little slow on the up-tick, Bond must run down a man from "M"'s past (Javier Bardem) to protect her and all of London. Tough job, as his boss is also being attacked from within by British officials (led by Ralph Fiennes) for losing a list of agents embedded with terrorist organizations.

Mendes and the writers change things up a bit (a new, young "Q" played by Ben Whishaw, moving MI-6 to an underground bunker, delving deep into Bond's past, and blowing up his Aston Martin), but by the end, it feels exactly like the start of a Bond movie—an old Bond movie—with a flirting scene with Miss Moneypenny (now Naomie Harris) before going into the oak-paneled office of "M" to receive a new assignment. James Bond has returned.

SPECTRE (Sam Mendes,2015) The gunbarrel sequence is back in its traditional place (indicating that Daniel Craig's Bond has finally settled in) and the franchise is comfortable enough to play around a bit and lighten up—things are a bit less angst-ridden, and Bond can find himself landing on convenient couches, playing an Aston Martin chase scene for laughs, and plotting the return of an old traditional enemy. Nostalgia seems to be the order of the day. But, one of the strengths of the recent Bond's has been the toughness that moved beyond the self-satisfied smirkiness of the Moore/Brosnan Bonds and made things matter. Here, they really don't. Oh, it's nice to see Bond finally "get" the girl at the end again—Bond drives off with girl in his restored Aston Martin—and the film has its moments now and again. But, the winking at the audience is back, and that undercuts the tension at every turn. If Craig's Bond has learned anything over the last few movies, it's that one should throw away the past. Now, the movie-makers have to learn it.

SPECTRE does something I never thought possible—it makes Quantum of Solace look like a better film in comparison.

1917 (2019)  One shot

That's the strongest take-away from Sam Mendes1917, based on stories told to him by his grandfather, and which Mendes adapted, along with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, to make an extremely inclusive World War I film, with that one difference—make it appear as one continuous "take," seemingly without edits.

Two soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are summoned to partake in a trip across "No-Man's-Land" to meet up with a unit poised on a mission that intelligence has determined will be suicide—the enemy has wind of the attack but the commanders don't know that they know. So, Schofield and Blake must make their destination before dawn—with the added incentive that Blake's brother will be in on the attack. Risk their lives to save hundreds. 

The Devil of the trip is in the details and they come in the form of booby-traps, rats, blasted out landscapes, snipers, armed aerial reconnaissance and the general fog of war. Mendes' usual one-point perspectives keep a viewer focused on what's up-front, but the ever-moving camera has you exploring the edges of the frame, looking for hidden dangers that just might be slipping into view. The focus is constantly changing, although still hampered by the camera frame, giving one a 90° vantage of what is surrounding Blake and Schofield, immersing the audience in the step-by-step journey while also limiting the field of view. Yes, it "puts you there" but it is also frustrating that your vantage is from a letter-box. At times, it has the feel of a FPS video-game (without the woozy headaches), but even then, you're controlling where the field of view looks. In this, you're just a prisoner.

Photographed by Roger Deakins, the film, despite its raw subject matter is often ravishing. As beautiful as it is, though, one wishes there was more to it than that. For Mendes, of course, it's a personal tribute and a sentimental journey, a technical challenge well met, and impeccably done. At the end, however, one just feels a bit empty. Perhaps, that is as it should be, given that war, given that carnage, given its lasting effects on a generation—the "lost" generation, as it has become known in artistic circles. It is a story well-told, but not much of a story, as personally heroic as it might be. The monstrosity of that war and its futility has been better recounted for as long as there's been film...or near about's.
Empire of Light
(2022) It is 1980 in the coastal village of Margate and the Empire Cinema is a movie theater/former restaurant-bar-and-ballroom that is now reduced to just two large screen theaters. We meet Olivia Colman's character, Hilary, who is the manager of The Empire and has just returned—tentatively—from a medical leave where she was at a psychiatric hospital. Evidently, there was "an incident" and she was incarcerated against her will. That's the past. She's taking her Valium and all her co-employees welcome her back with the edge of "Yes, yes, we all know what she did" in the background.
But, a big event is coming up—the Empire is going to be holding the local premiere of Chariots of Fire and it's going to be quite the to-do. Boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth)staffs up with a new recruit hiring Stephen (Micheal Ward), a work-horse of a different color—he's black (everybody else is "pale"—it's England). But, Stephen is affable, cute, and gets along with everybody, and pretty soon he's ingratiated himself with the staff, who start to see him as Stephen, rather than "the black kid." Hilary is particularly taken with Stephen—after a brief dust-up—for his fascination with the grand old building they work in and the informed and tender way he treats a wounded pigeon he finds in The Empire's abandoned upper floor.
One can see where this leads: Hilary has a job of responsibility (so, ego), but is feeling a bit fragile and this interesting blank slate she has no history with becomes a "new experience"—because her past she wants to forget—but, there are complications...and medications.
They say that every great film is a miracle—there is that magic "something" beyond the basics—the proverbial good script brought to life by great performances from actors well-cast and fit their roles like gloves. If you keep it in focus and the director doesn't try to do gymnastics with the camera to the point where you can't follow it, it's all good. 
But, you need that spark, whether by design or accident, to make a great film.
Sadly, Empire of Light, although laudatory in every detail of movie-making has a script—by Mendes—which doesn't congeal. It just doesn't hang together. There are too many sub-plots and hurdles in the film to cross over for it to gel into a movie. But, on the plus side, any movie shot by Roger Deakins is worth watching at least once. And he never disappoints.

* Mendes became the sixth rookie director in Oscar history to win a Best Director Oscar after Delbert Mann (Marty, 1955), Jerome Robbins (Co-director West Side Story, 1960), Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1981), James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983), and Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, 1990).  Given that Mann directed the property already on television, Robbins was fired by the Mirisch Brothers during filming after a third of the WSS was shot, Redford and Costner were "in the club," that would leave him and Brooks.

* Well, as Craig explains it, he was drunk at a party, ran into Mendes and just asked him, and then realized maybe he should see what the producers thought of the idea first.  Skyfall became the first Bond movie to make more than $1 billion worldwide.

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