Many directors have a certain oeuvre that ties closely with a specific genre. There are tons of directors who stick only to action films (e.g. Guy Ritchie), or mafia films (e.g. Martin Scorsese), or comedies (e.g. Mel Brooks), or science fiction (e.g. J.J. Abrams), or thrillers (e.g. Alfred Hitchcock). In sticking to a common theme in their films, these directors can easily jump from one screenplay to the next as long as it’s within their genre. Marketers love these kinds of directors because they can slap on the “from the Director of” tagline onto any movie that follows in the footsteps of their success. That being said, there are directors that defy the limitations of genre. These directors can take any type of film and create a masterpiece, whether it’s a modern war film, historical mobster piece, dark comedy, or action blockbuster. This week’s two films highlight the varied genres of director Sam Mendes.
Length: 122 minutes / 2.03 hours
It’s not often that directors strike gold right out of the gate. In fact, in the Academy’s long history, only six directors have won Best Picture and Best Director with their debut film. Sam Mendes is the most recent member of this list. That’s not to say he hasn’t had experience elsewhere before venturing into the field of celluloid. For many years prior to directing American Beauty (1999), Mendes spent considerable time directing stage plays. And yet, only nine years passed from when he began directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company to accepting his first Oscar for Best Director. The dark comedy about life in the American suburbs was not to be his last foray into the comedy genre, having since directed the comedy-drama Away We Go in 2009. Still, American Beauty stands as a triumph and his most awarded film to date.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) hates his job. Working in an office for many years has finally caused him to snap. One day, he decides it’s time to quit. Fortunately, his exit strategy involves blackmailing his boss for $60,000. With money in hand, he now has time to relax and become infatuated with his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), while working at a local fast-food franchise. He also takes up smoking marijuana that he obtains from Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the kid next-door who is oppressed by the overbearing parenting style of Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper). Learning that his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) is having an affair leaves Lester unfazed as he just doesn’t care anymore. Finally able to follow through with his pedophilic infatuation, Lester realizes that he has responsibilities, but only has a few minutes to change his life plan when he is shot in the back of the head.
Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours
Action films often require a certain amount of drama to work well. This broad genre can be further refined to sub-genres, each with their idiosyncrasies. Sam Mendes has directed most of these sub-genres in his short, but spectacular career. While he did direct a film that satisfies the pure drama genre with Revolutionary Road (2008), he has also seen varied success with a prohibition-era historical film (Road to Perdition (2002)) and an Iraq war bio pic (Jarhead (2005)). Both of these are examples of Mendes’ ability to intertwine action with drama. It is then no wonder that he was chosen in 2012 to direct the next installment of the James Bond franchise. Skyfall (2012) proved that these somewhat “pulpy” movies can have backstory and plot that can rival any successful dramatic film. Perhaps Mendes finally found his niche, because he then went on to direct the follow-on Bond film, Spectre (2015).
On a mission to recover a hard drive with vital, personnel information, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) track the mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) to Istanbul. Atop a moving train, Bond is accidentally shot by Eve and falls to his assumed death. Afterwards, M (Judy Dench), while undergoing investigation for the botched mission, avoids a terrorist attack at MI6, thus bringing James out from hiding. Even though he is no longer fit for service, M sends him out to find the mastermind behind the MI6 bombing. Crossing paths with Patrice again in Shanghai, the mercenary dies before he can divulge that he works for Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a disowned MI6 agent out for revenge. To keep M safe, Bond takes her to his boyhood home of Skyfall where they stage a rag-tag opposition to Silva’s relentless attacks.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Mendes masterpieces