Tag Archives: Sam Mendes

On With the Show

Empire of Light

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There are certain actors – you know the ones – who seem to put out a film every year right at awards season. The people who somehow never have a straight-to-VOD indie or a summer romp, just yearly Oscar vehicles.

For at least one of these people it is a welcome return visit, year after year.

Hello, Olivia Colman.

Seriously, is there anyone who does not love her? Any filmmaker, any actor, any moviegoer? Her performances are shamelessly, giddily human, authentic to a chilling degree. Her force of nature in Sam Mendes’s ode to the cinema, Empire of Light, is no different.

Mendes’s 2019 epic 1917 showed him a master of pacing, understated emotion and visceral thrill. Back in 2012, he made an almost Shakespearean Bond film, easily the strongest in the entire franchise with Skyfall. For Empire of Light, the filmmaker ­– who also wrote the script ­ – returns to the more sentimental content of his earlier career.

Colman is Hilary, the troubled, often melancholy manager of a coastal England cinema in the very early 1980s. A wonderful supporting cast – from the kindly Toby Jones to the prickly Colin Firth, the tender Michael Ward to surprising Tom Brooke ­– surrounds Colman with sparring partners up to the challenge.

Mendes’s tale, at its heart, revels not just in the magic of the movies, but of the movie house itself. Most of the patrons seem to come to the screenings alone, looking to escape the loneliness, the mundane, or the rising tide of extremism right outside those glass doors.

And though the crowds aren’t as large as they once were, the theater still has something to offer – as does Hilary. Her dutiful existence is shaken by the younger Stephen (Ward, outstanding) joining the crew, and together they start exploring some forgotten areas of the once majestic cinema.

The metaphor isn’t subtle, and the film’s tone is overtly nostalgic, but because Colman’s character is anything but typical, Mendes punctures his own sentimentality before it can become overbearing. Gorgeous framing from the great Roger Deakins doesn’t hurt, bathing it all in a grand beauty that reinforces what power can come from that certain beam of light.

The pandemic has drawn out no shortage of filmmakers who’ve been understandably inspired to assess their life’s work. With Empire of Light, Mendes is wearing his heart on his cupholder, imploring us to value what the theater has to offer.

This film can offer the exquisite Colman and a stellar ensemble, and that’s just enough. Through them, Mendes finds impact in his sweetness, rising above the moments that seem engineered for an ad that runs right before the one telling you not to talk or text.

Indirect Message


by George Wolf

War. Maybe you’ve heard of it lately.

Taking inspiration from the past, director Sam Mendes has crafted an immaculate exercise in technical wonder, passionate vision and suddenly vital reminders.

The inherent gamble in crafting a film via one extended take – or the illusion of it – lies in the final cut existing as little more than a gimmick, spurring a ‘spot the edit’ challenge that eclipses the narrative.

1917 clears that hurdle in the first five minutes.

It is WWI, and British Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay, both wonderful) are standing before their General (Colin Firth) amid the highest of stakes. Allied intelligence has revealed an imminent offensive will lead straight into a German ambush, and the corporals’ success at traveling deep into enemy territory to deliver the order to abort is all that will keep thousands of soldiers – including Blake’s own brother – from certain death.

Mendes dedicates the film to the stories told by his grandfather, and it stands thick with the humanity of bravery and sacrifice that ultimately prevailed through the most hellish of circumstances.

Blake and Schofield head out alone, enveloped by ballet-worthy camerawork and pristine cinematography (Roger Deakins, natch) that never blinks. The opportunities for edits may be evident at times, but the narrative experience is so immersive you’ll hardly care. We’re not merely following along on this mission, we’re part of every heart-stopping minute.

Anyone who’s seen the actual WW1 footage from Peter Jackson’s recent doc They Shall Not Grow Old (an irresistible bookend to 1917) will recognize a certain sanitation to the production design, but the trade-off is a fresh majesty for familiar themes, one that’s consistently grounded in stark intimacy. Mendes and Deakins (buoyed by a subtly evocative score from Thomas Newman) brush away any dangers of “first-person shooter” novelty with a near miraculous level of precise execution that succeeds in raising several bars.

1917 is absolutely one of the best films of the year, but it’s more. It’s an unforgettable and exhausting trip, immediately joining the ranks of the finest war movies ever made.

The Spy Who Fell Short


by Hope Madden

Three years ago, director Sam Mendes took the reins of the Bond franchise, pitting cyber terrorism against old fashioned knuckle and grit, employing the most talented international actors working, and crafting the single best 007 film of its then 50-year legacy, Skyfall. Hell, it even had the best song. That’s a big martini glass to fill with a follow up, and his Spectre can’t quite live up.

In what’s rumored to be Daniel Craig’s last go-round as Bond, cybercrime and the possible end of the Double 0 program are again the causes of conflict. M (Ralph Feinnes) has a new boss who’s more interested in a global surveillance than man-on-the-ground spying, but Bond can’t be worried about that right now. He has a secret mission and an old adversary to deal with.

Christoph Waltz, an ideal candidate as a Bond villain, is the puppet master, and through him Mendes gets to toss in scores of nods and winks to the entire span of 007 films. There are gadgets, familiar names, enormous henchmen, Bond girls, elaborately staged chases, cheeky one-liners, and cocktails being “shaken, not stirred.” There’s even a board meeting of evil worthy of an Austin Powers film or a Simpsons send-up.

There’s too little else, though.

The film starts off gloriously enough with a brilliantly filmed action piece set in Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade, but Mendes and crew soon settle into a muddled, anti-climactic mishmash of old tropes and familiar ideas. Spectre offers dozens of gorgeously framed, eerily lit, elegant images, but the drama and style of the previous effort are missing.

Shallow writing full of ludicrous sequencing and convenient decisions rob the film of the resonance Skyfall offered. Lined up against most Bond efforts, Spectre is a fun, lively bit of entertainment. It just so badly misses the high water mark left by Skyfall that it can’t help but feel like a let-down.