1917 review

For F*** Magazine

1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast : George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Jamie Parker
Genre : War/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : PG13

1917-posterHollywood has made many World War II epics, but not quite as many World War I movies, likely because of America’s increased participation in World War II compared to World War I. Still, there are several movies set during the Great War which are considered masterpieces, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Sam Mendes directs and, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writes this relentless war film that takes place over two days in April 1917.

In Northern France, British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with a vital and seemingly insurmountable mission: they must deliver an order from Army Command to tell a battalion of 1600 soldiers to stand down from an assault, as a trap set by the Germans lies in wait for them. Schofield and Blake must cross No Man’s Land into treacherous enemy-controlled territory to deliver the message in time. For Blake, the stakes are personal too, as his older brother is among the soldiers who will die if this information is not conveyed. Braving enemy gunfire and the elements, Schofield and Blake bravely undertake the mission of their lives.

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Filmmakers strive to achieve immersion, to make the audience feel so engrossed in watching the movie that they forget they’re doing so. 1917 achieves this. This is an awards season film, but unlike many prestige movies that vie for the Oscars and other awards, 1917 is far from a stuffy, airless affair. Mendes breathes life into the historical event, closing the 100-plus-year gap between World War I and the present day with an intense and involving epic. He was inspired by the stories of his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes, a Trinidadian World War I veteran and novelist, which increases the personal investment Mendes has in the subject matter. The result is almost akin to a cutting-edge exhibit at a museum, not entirely unlike The Scale of Our War at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, an exhibit that tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign using oversized hyper-realistic sculptures.

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There is an immediacy to 1917, but while the movie seems constantly gripping, it is also a masterclass in pacing – there are peaks and valleys, quiet moments and frenetic, intense ones, all carefully yet organically situated within the story. This is a movie that effectively essays anxiety, with the throb of Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy score signalling dangers around every corner. Several set-pieces are among the most visceral and thrilling of any war film in recent memory, yet Mendes executes them with just enough restraint.

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George MacKay anchors the film, with Dean-Charles Chapman right alongside him. The film doesn’t need much to make these characters feel compelling, and just a few interactions between the two establish who they are as soldiers and as people. MacKay is remarkable in the role, especially when the film calls for him to look exhausted and tired. Our two heroes are put through the wringer and face obstacles which are incredible but never implausible.

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There’s not a lot that doesn’t work here. Some reviews have cited the lack of character development as a flaw, but this movie is focused on the experience of the characters and on putting the audience in their shoes, and doesn’t need a lot of back-story or a heartfelt monologue about their childhood to accomplish that.

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One element of the film that is possibly distracting is its big-name supporting cast. The structure of the movie means that actors like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott show up for roughly one scene each. They play people whom our two heroes meet along the way, meaning there is even less to them as characters than to Schofield and Blake. As such, it is possible that their appearances, which almost seem like cameos, might break the immersion, but this did not happen for us.

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Spectre, the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, opened with a pre-credits sequence shot and edited to look like one continuous take. Mendes ups the ante here, presenting the entirety of 1917 as if it was filmed in one continuous take. This might sound like a gimmick, but the film deploys it as an excellent storytelling tool. The film’s first moment of violence is a small one – Schofield cuts his hand on barbed wire. This reviewer winced more than he normally would, realising this is because the single take approach increases the subjectivity. Cutting away means retreating, however momentarily, to safety. 1917 offers no such safety.

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Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins can add yet another notch to his belt, and credit must also go to Steadicam operators like Pete Cavaciuti. Deakins also deployed remote-controlled cameras on wires, flying across the battlefield. Editor Lee Smith deserves plaudits too, as after a while, the game of looking for the hidden cuts becomes just too hard to play. The device of making the film look like it was magically filmed in a single take calls attention to itself because it is hard not to marvel at the technical mastery required to pull it off, and yet, it is also invisible, creating immersion rather than detracting from it.

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Summary: 1917 drops audiences onto the Western Front and is exciting, emotional and harrowing, its visceral impact the result of finely calibrated filmmaking. Inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, Sam Mendes crafts a masterpiece. 1917 captures the weariness, the adrenaline, the desperation, the horror and the sadness of war like few movies before it have.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Blinded by the Light review

For inSing

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast : Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Dean-Charles Chapman, Aaron Phagura, Meera Ganatra, Nikita Mehta, Tara Divina, David Hayman
Genre : Biography/Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 15 August 2019
Rating : PG

            From the director of Bend It Like Beckham comes ‘Sing It Like Springsteen’, a coming-of-age tale about a boy whose life is changed by an encounter with the music and lyrics of the Boss.

It is 1987 and Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a 16-year-old kid growing up in Luton, a town in the east of England. Javed is British-Pakistani and feels trapped by his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). Javed has a secret passion for writing but knows that his father will never abide it. When Malik is laid off from his car factory job, Javed’s seamstress mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) must work twice as hard to provide for the family. Javed’s sister Yasmeen (Tara Divina) is about to get married, and Javed feels like in his family, only his other sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta) understands him.

On his first day of Sixth Form college, Javed bumps into Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh classmate who introduces him to “the Boss”. Javed becomes enraptured by the music of Bruce Springsteen, feeling like the New Jersey singer somehow understands all his struggles. In the meantime, Javed finds his relationship with his childhood best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) affected by their differing musical tastes, while he attempts to woo student activist Eliza (Nell Williams).

Javed’s English teacher Ms Clay (Hayley Atwell) encourages his writing and his enthusiasm for Springsteen, while his father becomes enraged that Javed wants to write for a living. In the meantime, racial tensions in Thatcherite England mount, as Javed and his family find themselves the target of National Front extremists. It’s a lot for a boy to deal with, but he finds the Boss leading the way.

Blinded by the Light is based on journalist and documentarian Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiography Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll. This film’s themes will be familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age movie or two, but its specificity to the context of growing up in 1987 Luton gives it a meaningful point of view.

Movies like this can be insufferably rote or feel manufactured as they try to be inspirational. Blinded by the Light is sometimes cheesy and corny, but it is powered by the sheer force of its earnestness. This is a movie that whole-heartedly believes in the transporting power that resonant art can have, and that as overly dramatic as it might sound, art can change one’s life.

Every stage musical heroine and by extension, every Disney Princess, has an “I Want” song, in which they sing wistfully about their dreams and desires. One of cinema’s most beautiful, poignant scenes is of Luke Skywalker gazing out over the Tatooine Dune Sea as the twin suns set behind him in Star Wars, yearning to be part of something greater.

           Blinded by the Light is a distillation of that energy, of the desire to be something more and find something better, a desire articulated by the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Through his music, Springsteen voiced his frustrations, a feeling of being trapped and needing to escape, a vital desperation and rebellion. “Born to Run” is the most obvious example of this, with “Born in the USA” being a song about the plight of Vietnam War veterans who had been forsaken by their country, dressed in the appearance of a typical patriotic song.

While there are similarities with Bend It Like Beckham in that both films are about a South Asian teenager in the UK who is inspired by a prolific celebrity to pursue their dreams while facing opposition from their family, Blinded by the Light is less broadly comedic. It feels like an evolution of Bend It Like Beckham, a little more nuanced and with more pain lying beneath its feel-good movie exterior.

Newcomer Viveik Kalra is an appropriately shy, endearing lead, his eyebrows constantly knitted in a mixture of frustration and embarrassment. Watching Javed blossom and gain confidence as he learns to express himself and is empowered by Springsteen’s music is gratifying and even thrilling.

The film deals with all Javed’s different relationships surprisingly well – his relationship with his parents, especially with his father, and his siblings is well-defined. His falling out with his long-time friend Matt and his newfound friendship with Roops play out in believable ways. The role his teacher Ms Clay plays in nurturing his interest in writing is heart-warming. The way the conflicts are resolved also feels earned, rather than all tied up neatly in a bow. Javed’s romance with Eliza is probably the part of the film where it gets the most conventional, but Nell Williams delivers a charming performance.

Blinded by the Light is strongly acted and has a good tonal balance of comedy and drama, confronting heavy issues without ever becoming bleak. Its good-heartedness is its strongest asset and it overcomes the more conventional aspects of its coming-of-age narrative with a clear-eyed realness and irresistible sincerity.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Commuter movie review

For inSing

THE COMMUTER

Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Dean-Charles Chapman
Genre : Thriller/Action
Run Time : 1h 45 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : PG-13

Commutes to and from work generally aren’t fun. We get on the bus or the train, and just want it to be over with. It’s less fun when the mass rapid transit system breaks down, or shuts down for full days for maintenance. No, we’re not speaking from personal experience, why do you ask?

For Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), his commute home from work becomes something worse than “not fun” – a matter of life and death. Michael is a New York police officer-turned insurance agent. On the Metro North Hudson Line, Michael is approached by Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a woman whom he’s never met. Joanna gives Michael a task to solve, promising a financial reward. This mission seems simple, but gets deceptively complicated.

The puzzle soon turns deadly, and Michael must track down a mysterious passenger on the train and secure a sensitive item they’re carrying, or disastrous consequences will ensue. In addition to the passengers on the train, the lives of Michael’s wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) are at stake. Michael turns to his former police partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for help, but the shadowy forces controlling the game are watching Michael’s every move.

The Commuter re-teams Neeson with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Neeson did not star in Collet-Serra’s last film The Shallows, truly a missed opportunity to have Neeson voice the shark. It’s easy to see why the star and director were attracted to the screenplay, written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. This promises to be a Hitchcockian mystery thriller, a little bit Strangers on a Train, a little bit North by Northwest. It’s a safe distance from the generic “guy holding a gun while grimacing” action thriller, which Neeson has done his fair share of.

Collet-Serra is adept at setting moods, and while he has overdosed on the stylistic flourishes in previous films, there’s just the right amount of flashiness here. We get moments like the camera pulling through a hold punched in a train ticket that’s slotted into the back of a seat, and a Vertigo-style dolly zoom effect for good measure. It offsets the dullness of the train car setting. Production designer Andrew Bridgland does a commendable job of creating an entirely believable set.

However, it soon becomes clear that this train is on a somewhat rickety set of rails. The set-up is so engrossing and the tension so masterfully constructed, one can’t help but think “the pay-off can’t be that good, can it?” When all is revealed, it’s far from a cop-out, but is still something of a let-down. The conspiracy at the heart of Michael’s predicament is patently mundane, and while the film runs through as many twists as possible before reaching the denouement, said denouement is hardly surprising. The climactic action set-piece is also a mite overblown, heavy on the visual effects and at odds with the grounded feel the rest of the movie was going for.

Neeson is as dependable a leading man as ever, and some aspects of the character have been tailored to him – Michael is an Irish immigrant, so Neeson gets to use his natural accent. Michael is meant to be a relatable everyman, but was also a cop, which functions as a built-in excuse for why he’s so good at fighting. Even so, several sequences strain suspension of disbelief, but they’re as exciting as they are outlandish so we’ll let that slide.

Neeson is pulling almost all the weight here, and the supporting cast features several interesting actors who are almost entirely wasted. Jonathan Banks, familiar to Breaking Bad fans as Mike the Cleaner, gets a nearly non-existent part. The Conjuring stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who don’t share any scenes here, are both somewhat memorable but still underutilised. Sam Neill does almost nothing. Perhaps it’s part of strengthening the red herring effect, in that we know so little about all the other characters that everyone is a viable suspect, but it’s disappointing that Neeson doesn’t get to play off any of these other performers.

The Commuter is a good deal more interesting that your average disposable released-in-January action thriller, thanks to Collet-Serra’s confident direction and an initially-fascinating mystery. Liam Neeson is also doing a little more than the typical running and gunning we’ve seen from his recent oeuvre. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of unintentional silliness to contend with, and the resolution to the mystery is efficient but ho-hum.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Before I Go To Sleep

For F*** Magazine

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP 

Director : Rowan Joffé
Cast : Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff, Dean-Charles Chapman, Jing Lusi, Rosie MacPherson
Rating : PG13 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)
Run time: 92 mins
The thought of losing one’s reliance on memory is a frightening one. What would it be like not knowing the fundamentals of one’s personal history and not knowing who to trust? In this psychological thriller, Nicole Kidman plays Christine Lucas, a woman who suffers from anterograde amnesia following an accident years ago. Christine loses all the memories she has made in a given day when she wakes up the next morning, her mind “resetting” to how it was in her early 20s. She is cared for by her husband Ben (Firth), struggling with his wife’s predicament but choosing to remain strong for her. However, Christine begins to doubt if she can trust Ben and begins secretly seeing neuropsychologist Dr. Nasch (Strong) in the hopes that he can devise a cure for her condition. However, the more Christine uncovers, the more she loses track of as she awakes the next day.
            Before I Go to Sleep is adapted from the best-selling 2011 novel of the same name by S.J. Watson. Writer-director Rowan Joffé pulls the viewer in with an efficient set-up – the premise justifies the chunks of exposition delivered at the beginning of the film. It also allows Joffé to play with the structure a little. However, it’s not long before all the conventions used in the telling of this story become evident. We’ve seen anterograde amnesia used as a plot device in films from Memento to 50 First Datesand there’s a distinct reason why memory loss has become associated with predictable soap opera-esque melodrama. There is an effort on Joffé’s part to spin something new from this shop-worn trope and the film’s first act does establish an air of plausibility and tension. However, by the time the climax rolls around, Before I Go to Sleep has leapt down the generic thriller rabbit hole, leaving head-scratching dangling plot threads in its wake.


            One major thing Before I Go to Sleep has going for it is that it’s very smartly cast, playing on audience expectations associated with each of the three stars. Nicole Kidman’s performance as a character who’s vulnerable but is not about to take what’s happening to her lying down is sufficiently compelling and, for the first two acts of the film at least, helps the audience overlook the inconsistencies in the narrative. Ideally, a film of this type should make one go “what would I do in a situation like this?” and Kidman does accomplish that. The film reunites Kidman with Colin Firth, her on-screen husband from The Railway Man. There’s a different dynamic here and Firth is able to strike a balance between sympathetic and suspicious even though the material doesn’t give him quite enough to play with. Mark Strong is known for his ability to play “sinister”, but he can just as easily play “steadfast, reassuring and concerned”, which he does here. Anne-Marie Duff rounds out the cast as Claire, a friend from Christine’s past whose appearance in the story calls events into question. Given this, she is little more than a plot device.

            As far as whodunits go, Before I Go to Sleepis far more straightforward than one would expect, the potential for truly mind-bending psychological thrills left somewhat unmined. At its weakest moments, the film strays into “Lifetime Movie of the Week” territory. During the denouement, Edward Shearmur’s score goes into full-blown cliché thriller mode, heavy on the “Psycho strings”. All this said though, the film does manage to be absorbing and chilling in the moment and it’s only upon later reflection that it begins to crumble. As much as the logic of the twists and turns matter, it comes down just as much to how entertaining it is. While the big reveal isn’t quite as ludicrous as that in the Liam Neeson-starring amnesia thriller Unknown, Before I Go to Sleep falls short of the satisfyingly explosive thrills of that film.

Summary: It’s well-acted and initially engaging, but Before I Go to Sleep is ultimately unremarkable psychological thriller fare, complete with the plot hole or two that comes with middling entries in this genre.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong