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Josh Reviews 1917

Sam Mendes’ riveting war film, 1917, takes place over approximately twenty four hours in April, 1917.  The British have discovered that a German retreat isn’t what it looks like but is in fact a trap being set for a large contingent of British soldiers.  With telephone lines cut and no other way to warn the 1600 British troops (the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment) who are about to walk into this trap, two young British soldiers are sent on a desperate mission to cross no-man’s land and tell the Second Battalion to call off their attack before they are annihilated.

Sam Mendes is an incredibly talented director.  I became an instant fan when I saw American Beauty in 1999, and I have enjoyed all of his subsequent films (with the exception of the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, which I thought was a huge letdown).  But, generally, I think Mr. Mendes has an extraordinary eye, and he can be counted on to create beautiful, deeply moving films.  1917 is no exception.

The film is shot to feel as if there is not a single edit made; the entire movie feels like one continuous, uninterrupted shot.  This is an extraordinary achievement, and I was continually impressed by the skill of Mr. Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and their entire team.  This is an extremely cool device; the result is that 1917 is an impressively immersive experience.  It’s a movie best seen on the largest screen possible.  We the audience feel as if we are right there with the two young men, Will and Tom, as they undertake their incredible journey.  The camera glides gracefully through the terrain, staying with the characters, and it’s as if we the audience are right there with them.  I can’t begin to imagine the complexities of staging and performing these lengthy, unbroken sequences.  The movie would have been great without the use of this technique; but it elevates 1917 into something truly special.

George MacKay plays Will Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman plays Tom Blake, the two men sent on this perilous journey.  Mr. Mendes made the right choice when he chose these two relatively unknown actors to play these roles.  This allows both men to be a type of audience-surrogate “every-man” character into whom the audience can invest.  But both men have strong resumes, and they bring great skill to these performances.  Dean-Charles Chapman played Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones (in seasons 4-6), but he’s grown up and I didn’t recognize him at all.  His wide-eyed, boyish face brings an endearing innocence to Tom.  George MacKay’s Will, on the other hand, looks like a young man who has already seen terrible horrors in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spectre

Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Flemming’s James Bond, is not a completely terrible film but it’s a huge missed opportunity for the franchise and is probably the worst of Craig’s four Bond films.  (That’s right, I think Spectre is weaker than Quantum of Solace.)  This film should have been the triumphant and thrilling return of the best and most iconic Bond villains — S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld — after forty years on the shelf, but instead it’s a humdrum head-scratcher and I am left wondering what the heck went wrong.


Spoilers ahead, gang.

One of my favorite things about the Daniel Craig Bond films has been the continuity between the films.  I loved that Quantum of Solace directly picked up on the events of Casino Royale, specifically Bond’s grief at Vesper’s betrayal, as well as bringing back characters such as Mathis and Mr. White, who was revealed to be connected to a criminal organization called Quantum (or perhaps Q.U.A.N.T.U.M.).  (One of my complaints about Skyfall, which I enjoyed but didn’t view as the triumph that most everyone else seemed to, was that it was a stand-alone adventure that didn’t continue the development of Quantum.)

This sort of continuity in the Bond series feels like a radical new idea, but in fact it’s a very old one.  Though the series became famous for each film’s being a totally stand-alone adventure, the original Connery Bond films had a gentle continuity between them.  Characters carried over from one film to another (such as Sylvia Trench) and we gradually got to learn more about S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the criminal organization behind much of Bond’s troubles, and its leader Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

A turning point in the Bond series — and what stands as the series’ greatest missed opportunity (though boy does Spectre give it a run for its money) — is the abandonment of that continuity following the terrific cliffhanger ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  That film under-performed and audiences did not respond well to the newly re-cast Bond, played by George Lazenby.  And so while the follow-up should have been the grand culmination of the story that had been slowly developed over the course of the first six films, an emotional and epic climax to Bond’s fight with S.P.E.C.T.R.E., now taken to an intensely personal level following the murder of Bond’s wife, the producers made the decision to totally abandon that story and quickly do away with Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.  From that point forward, the films became stand-alone adventures and, following a brief and stupid appearance of a Blofeld-like character in the opening of For Your Eyes Only, that was the last we ever heard of Blofeld and … [continued]

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Fifty Years of 007: Josh Reviews Skyfall

Well, after an unexpectedly lengthy hiatus, James Bond has returned, just in time for his fiftieth anniversary.  To the pleasure and relief of fans of Bond, James Bond, Skyfall is evidence that the redoubtable secret agent (and his franchise) has plenty of gas left in the ol’ Aston Martin tank, though I must confess that this is the second Bond film in a row that doesn’t quite succeed at living up to the promise suggested by Casino Royale.

NOTE: This is a hard film to write about while avoiding spoilers.  I will avoid ruining any of the big plot twists, but I would nonetheless advise not reading this review until you’ve seen the film.

The Opening/The Music: Skyfall’s opening sequence is thrilling, surely ranking amongst one of the very best Bond opening sequences. It’s a spectacular extended chase sequence, from car to motorcycle to train and beyond. (It’s a far more coherent action sequence that Quantum of Solace’s thrilling but hard to follow opening car chase.)  It’s a tremendous, thrilling opening, and I was totally hooked in. But thing got a little shaky as soon as Adele’s theme song began, and for much of the next hour I was a little worried about how things were going.  More on that in a few minutes.  I am lukewarm on Adele’s theme song.  It’s fun to have a Bond song once again using the same title as the film (after two films in a row in which the songs had different titles than the film, a divergence from the standard Bond-movie procedure), though trying to make a song based on the bizarre title of Skyfall, without spoiling the terms’ meaning in the film, is a task in which Adele and her team do not quite succeed.  Also, I tend to prefer my Bond songs to have a bit more of a propulsive beat, and to be a bit more hummable.

The bad: After the terrific opening sequence, the film hits the brakes and it takes a good long while, in my opinion, to really get going again.  The first hour is very hit and miss.  The film looks gorgeous with some truly stunning, cleverly designed sequences.  Bond’s fight with an assassin atop a Shanghai skyscraper, bathed in the reflection of neon lights, is particularly notable.  But I found myself filled with questions as to the unfolding story.  All sorts of little plot points niggled at me.  Why the hell did Bond keep those bullet fragments in his arm all that time?  Why perform surgery on himself when hes right in the middle of MI6, with plenty of trained medics all around him?  Wouldn’t that only further damage the usefulness of … [continued]

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Special ADVANCE REVIEW of the New James Bond film: Skyfall!

November 7th, 2012
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Guest-blogger Josh Lawrence lives in London, where the latest James Bond film Skyfall has already been released.  Josh submitted an advance review of Quantum of Solace back in 2008, and was kind enough this morning to send in his thoughts on Skyfall!  My own review will be up next week, after I see the film this weekend…  Take it away, Josh…

Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the Bond franchise, is an enjoyable action-packed movie that nonetheless will leave the avid Bond fan a bit disappointed.

After a rather tepid mission in Quantum of Solace, Bond is back to the darker, broodier character introduced in Casino Royale. But instead of the newly-minted “00” agent humbled and hardened by the loss of the love of his life, this time around Bond’s dark attitude stems from anger at M.i.6. for interfering with his current mission and, the movie hints, from some deeper secret.  Needless to say, this deep secret is connected to “Skyfall” — how else could one explain such a bizarre title.

For the old-school Bond fan, the movie follows a very familiar trope: Bond saves the world from say nuclear disaster—and is clearly the only agent capable of doing so—but M and his or her cohort and Q all treat Bond like some sort of a rakish self-centered idiot who can’t be trusted to do anything right.  Maybe it would be better for Bond to take a break and recover from his shoulder injury, his superiors suggest, as he is probably not fit for service?  Bond agrees but of course goes rogue — this time it’s personal — identifies the criminal gang behind the next threat, gets some grudging support from key people at headquarters, and then is welcomed back into the fold when he saves the day.

This time around the villain does not have a diabolical plot to radiate the gold supply or give racing horses steroids (phew!), but predictably has spent years developing a needlessly elaborate form of revenge for his grudge.  The story strains to make the point that non-state actors are the real risk in the modern world, and that the cloak-and-dagger services (and “00” agents specifically) are still relevant.

Of course the bigger challenge is in making the Bond films continue to be relevant, and this is where the movie was less successful.  As with Casino Royale, this movie owes a lot to the Bourne movies for its big action scenes, though director Sam Mendes is not as adept at using close-action cameras that lent Casino so much grit and brutalism.

The central problem is that the plot does not stand alone, or rather, could only be credible as a plot … [continued]

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2008 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road!

When I wrote my Top 10 Movies of 2008 list, I began by listing the many movies that I hadn’t yet had a chance to see.  Well, even though 2008 is well behind us, I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the films that I missed.  (I’ve had some time to do so, since these days it is apparently anathema to Hollywood to release any decent new movies during January or February.  Am I wrong??)

Below are two films that were on my missed-in-2008 list.  There were certainly elements of both that I enjoyed, but neither of them would have made my Best of 2008 list even if I had seen them in time.

Gran Torino — Clint Eastwood is a pretty amazing guy.  The man is in his seventies, and he is putting out new films at a pace to rival Woody Allen.  He released two films that he directed in 2008, Changeling and Gran Torino.  For Gran Torino, in addition to directing, he also starred (for the first time since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby), produced, and worked on the soundtrack.  Eastwood plays retired Korean war veteran Walt Kowalsky, a sort of Dirty Harry meets Archie Bunker figure, a man almost gleeful in his anger and constant use of racial slurs.  As you might expect, over the course of the film the lovable fellow underneath shines through, and he learns some valuable lessons and teaches some to others (in this case, a pair of neighborhood kids).

The biggest pleasure of Gran Torino is watching Mr. Eastwood growl his way through every scene.  There’s a surprising amount of humor in the middle section of the film, and his comic timing is impeccable.  (I would love to see how his growls and grimaces were spelled out in the screenplay.  Did someone actually type out “grrr” for those moments, or was that all Clint?)  Eastwood cast a number of non-actors in the roles of the local kids, and although there are some spots of dodgy acting (such as Thao’s supposed moment of rage at a climactic moment when Walt locks him in his basement to stop him from confronting the local gang), for the most part the kids are quite compelling.  The biggest weakness of the film is its one-dimensionality.  If you stopped the film after the first 10 or so minutes, and then wrote down on a notepad what you think will happen to all of the characters, I’d wager you’d be able to pretty accurately predict the remainder of the film.  There just aren’t any surprises as the story-lines unfold.  And the characters themselves are all pretty one-note.  Take Walt’s ridiculous family, for example.  They’re one-dimensional buffoons,