Movie Review ~ 1917

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two young British privates during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Sam Mendes

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we come to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, many have been looking back at the past ten years in movies and musing on how the medium has evolved.  Could we have predicted ten years ago that a service that used to deliver DVDs by mail would become a heavy-hitter film studio producing movies that are becoming more and more friendly with Oscar?  Would we know that the biggest hits in the end-of-the-year box office tally would be dominated by franchise pictures and the mid-budgeted flicks that kept theaters packed in the ’90s would largely be wiped out?  Even the way we watch movies has changed from having to physically go to the video store to nowadays when we can view thousands of choices at the press of a button.   What hasn’t changed is the process of getting out of your house, battling traffic, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with others to have a shared experience of movie-going.  Sure, the seats are reserved now and more comfortable (and heated!) than your chairs at home but there’s no comparison to being in a cinema seeing a movie on the big screen.

Films about the first World War aren’t as common as those set in WWII (like 2019’s Midway), Vietnam (2015’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam), or in more recent wars that still play a large part in our daily news headlines.  The Peter Jackson-produced documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a staggering piece of filmmaking using real footage from the first World War but for me it wasn’t able to overcome some narrative challenges that were almost unavoidable considering the approach.  That’s why the imminent arrival of movie like 1917 is so exciting to me.  Here’s a large scale war film that, overdone as the genre may be, strives to be something unique and not just because of its well-publicized “one-shot” cinematography.

By 1917, the “war to end all wars” had been going on for four years and had claimed thousands of casualties.  Shortly after the German armies had retreated from their trenches in France, officials received intel the German drawback from their enemies was a well-set trap and now a British battalion of over 1,500 men was walking straight into an ambush.  Two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded by the Light) and Schofield (George MacKay, How I Live Now) are called up and tasked with delivering news of this ensnarement to the front lines before men are sent to a slaughter they are unaware of.  Though the stakes are already sky high for the British forces, the importance of success is even greater for Blake because his brother is in the company that will be sent out on the attack first, facing certain death.  The two young men set off on a breathless mission through enemy territory that will bring them up through idyllic countryside that masks hidden dangers and enemy-built trenches designed to slow their progress.

Based partly on the recollections of his grandfather, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and the two have crafted a corker of a war movie that hits the ground running and doesn’t offer much reprieve over 119 minutes.  That forward motion is largely a direct result of Mendes working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) to shoot the entirety of the picture as if it was one long interrupted take.  Without these obvious moments of cuts, the effect on a viewer is something akin to a relentless rollercoaster with moments of flattened cruising that are small respites to harrowing drops and spins.  It’s clear there are moments when Deakins had to cut to use a different camera but aside from a few obvious splices they are hidden so well you’d have to be focused solely on finding these moments to really see them.

Utilizing state-of-the-art technique, “how’d they do that” camera moves, and lighting nighttime scenes to increase their intensity tenfold, it could have been easy for the movie to become all about this trickery but thankfully everyone involved doesn’t let the technology overshadow the story.  Mendes helps this along with the casting of Chapman and especially MacKay as the young men on a mission who risk their lives to get their message into the right hands.  Chapman’s bravado at the outset hides the fear of arriving too late to save his brother while the more world-weary MacKay has his eyes further opened as he encounters civilians and other troops along the way.  The two aren’t totally familiar faces to audiences and that works to the advantage of the immediacy and “anything can happen” created by their mission.  The inclusion of more known names/faces such as Mark Strong (Shazam!), Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein), Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) could be seen as a distraction but all play their roles succinctly without much preening for the camera.

This is really a boffo film that knocked my socks off.  I’m not usually so enamored of movies about the war but there’s something in the humanity on display from Mendes and Wilson-Cairns that moved me on a whole other level.  Aside from the jaw-dropping filming from Deakins that is truly incredible (if he doesn’t win the Oscar this year, I’d be stunned) there is rarely a frame that feels out of place or extraneous.  While some war movies can drag on and be a punishing sit, 1917 uses its running time wisely by never letting the characters (or the audience) rest too much.  As I watched the film I became conscious that I was holding my breath for a few reasons.  First off, the tension created was so spot-on and could only be achieved by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.  The second is that I didn’t want this spell to be broken and for Mendes and his team to make a misstep.  Thankfully, I believe Mendes achieved the mission he set out for and 1917 is one of the very best movies of the year.

The Silver Bullet ~ 1917



Synopsis
: Two young British soldiers during the First World War, are given an impossible mission: deliver a message, deep in enemy territory, that will stop their own men, and Blake’s own brother, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Release Date:  December 25, 2019

Thoughts: Every year around this time it becomes pretty clear who the Oscar front runners are and the pundits start to put their ballots together with ballpoint pen.  There’s always those last slots they keep open, though, for the movies that don’t screen until very late in the season and that’s where a movie like 1917 will play a big factor.  Last time I checked, no one had seen this World War I film from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) yet and that’s fairly unheard of in mid-November.  That creates a bit of an electric excitement because there’s hope this could be a game changer and knock a few sure things off their paths to Oscar gold.  Paired again with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who finally won an Academy Award for Blade Runner 2049) and supposedly shot to look like it was filmed in one continuous take, Mendes appears to have something fairly mighty on his hands and history buffs are hoping 1917 can succeed where another anticipated war film like 2017’s Dunkirk couldn’t and snag some top prizes come year end.

Movie Review ~ Blinded by the Light

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Stars: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell, Dean-Charles Chapman

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s nice to know that in this climate of constant disagreement, there is something we can find common ground on.  Though we may not be able to see eye to eye on politics or the environment it seems that we all can agree that Bruce Springsteen is, in fact, The Boss.  The New Jersey singer/songwriter that experienced his, ahem, glory days in the mid ‘70s through the late ‘80s and has enjoyed a steady career since has a way of unifying even the most contrarian among us.  A 2016 biography of his rough upbringing was a national bestseller and a subsequent solo show on Broadway was the hottest ticket in town.

Ever since Bohemian Rhapsody became an unlikely hit (like, totally unlikely given how bad it really is) there’s hope that even the smallest bit of rock and roll nostalgia will equate to big box office.  May’s Rocketman, a musical biography of Elton John, was an absolute delight and danced circles around Bohemian Rhapsody but it didn’t have the same staying power and though Yesterday marketed itself as a light-hearted romantic fantasy set to a Beatles score, in actuality it was a total misfire that was sent back to Abbey Road without any fanfare. I haven’t checked lately, but I’m sure other long gestating projects inspired by the songbooks of classic musicians gained some traction thanks to the Freddie Mercury/Queen film.

All that being said, it’s easy to see why Blinded by the Light is hoping to draw those Springsteen fans in based solely on name recognition alone.  Yet, like Yesterday, filmgoers are getting the old switcheroo and are in for a movie that feels different than what was advertised.  Far from the breezy and fun promise put forth in the trailer, this film that was inspired by a true story goes in hard on tired tropes and an astounding amount of cliché.  I arrived at the screening knowing nothing about the movie so had no preconceived notions of what to expect and was still left feeling let down.

It’s 1987 and Javed (Viveik Kalra) is coming of age in a small town in England.  This is during the time of Margaret Thatcher when the economic situation for the middle class was turning dire and the racial tension against non-British was heating up.  Living with his traditional Pakistani parents who work tirelessly to make ends meet, Javed hides a secret wish to become a writer.  Composing poetry in the privacy of his room and away from the watchful eye of his strict father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed’s world is changed when a classmate gives him a Bruce Springsteen cassette.  By this point, Springsteen was already a worldwide sensation with numerous number one hits…and he’s also seen by the teens of the time as old news.  So when Javed starts to dress like Bruce and quote his lyrics like scripture, it doesn’t get him a free pass to sit at the cool kids table.

Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) can’t seem to find an element of the movie to hone directly in on so everything plays a bit like an episodic chapter book.  Secondary characters like Hayley Atwell (Avengers: Endgame) waltz in and out of the action at will and it creates a disjointed feel that interrupts any rhythm the director is going for.  That’s partly on Chadha the director but mostly on Chadha the screenwriter and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor.  There isn’t a stereotypical stone unturned in Javed’s rebellion against his father and no development that isn’t telegraphed well in advance.  While this isn’t a spoiler review site, if I told you the climax of the movie hinges on a Big Speech Javed gives that suddenly, somehow, opens the eyes, ears, and hearts of those that previously didn’t understand him…would you be at all surprised?

That’s all fine because, you know what, there’s space for these kind of formulaic films as well but it’s all in the execution and Kalra simply isn’t a compelling enough lead for us to care if he gets to go to Springsteen concert or not.  It’s strange, as an audience member I never seemed to be on his side when the movie truly wanted us to be.  The lucky thing for Kalra is that Chada has cast the engaging Ghir as his withering father and the memorable Meera Ganatra as his strong-willed mother.  Ganatra’s quiet pain when her husband loses his job and she has to sell off her wedding ring to help pay the bills is heartbreaking…I kept wanting to know what kind of music SHE was listening to.

The oddest thing about Chadha’s film is that it so desperately wants to be a musical that it almost can’t help itself.  One musical interlude with Javed, his friend, and a punk girl he develops feelings for, is modestly entertaining but clumsily performed.  I kept feeling like if Chadha had gone all the way with incorporating more of Springsteen’s music into the movie as fantasy sequences or with more creativity (and not just having his animated lyrics flying around the screen) the film would have garnered more interest.  At nearly two hours, it was frankly a bit of a bore to sit through.

A biographical film of Bruce Springsteen will most certainly get made but who knows when that will be.  Until then, it’s unfortunate that Blinded by the Light is the only movie out there representing The Boss’s work because it lacks the same forthrightness that have made his songs enduring classics.  While it’s endearing to see how the blue collar musician’s music stretched over the pond and had an impact on the life of another and empowered him to aspire higher, the workmanlike delivery by the filmmakers keeps it frustratingly grounded.

Movie Review ~ Breathe

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The inspiring true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, an adventurous couple who refuse to give up in the face of a devastating disease.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Diana Rigg, Miranda Raison, Dean-Charles Chapman, Hugh Bonneville

Director: Andy Serkis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If Breathe seems a bit familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve also seen The Theory of Everything.  That film, about the life of Stephen Hawking, has similar themes and won star Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for his miraculous portrayal of a man whose body is failing him with a mind still sharp as a tack.  I found that movie to be filled with good performances (co-star Felicty Jones was also Oscar-nominated for Hawking’s strong-willed wife) but lacking in overall emotional heft.  While Breathe was always bound to draw comparisons, the surprising news is that it has the same memorable performances and the resonance The Theory of Everything lacked.

Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man) is a newlywed living with his pregnant wife Diana (Claire Foy) who contracts polio before he has turned 30.  Paralyzed from the neck down and given mere months to live, Robin is resigned to his fate and unable to even look at his infant son.  Not content with letting her husband fade away without a fight, Diana becomes his advocate and helps him leave the hospital ward and into their house in the English countryside.

Over the next several decades Robin will defy all expectations for those with his same affliction and become a rare voice for patients with conditions that left them unable to move or enjoy the world like everyone else.  With advancements in technology that Robin played a part in helping to design, he is able to live a full life as a husband and a father.  There are setbacks along the way and painful realties that have to be dealt with, instances that the film doesn’t totally gloss over but does treat them as speed bumps instead of potholes.

The first film directed by actor and famed motion-capture performer Andy Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Breathe looks wonderful and has grand performances as well.  Garfield is charming throughout, even when he’s at his depressive worst, and he’s balanced nicely by Foy’s stalwart acting that maintains the dignity in both her character and Garfield’s.

It would be easy to let Breathe slip through your grasp and if you happen to miss it in theaters keep your eyes, ears, and heat open for it to pop up for home consumption.