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

Spectre

For F*** Magazine

SPECTRE

Director : Sam Mendes
Cast : Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear
Genre : Action/Crime
Run Time : 2 hrs 28 mins
Opens : 5 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
The world’s greatest superspy returns to tackle his most dangerous foe yet in the 24th Bond film. While in Mexico City, James Bond (Craig) discovers the existence of a shadowy terror network known as “Spectre”. Back home, Bond’s boss M (Fiennes) is locked in a power struggle with Max Denbigh aka “C” (Scott), head of the Joint Intelligent Service who aims to abolish the Double-O program. Bond’s allies Q (Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Harris) render their support as Bond pursues Spectre. Through Lucia Sciarra (Bellucci), the widow of a Spectre hitman, Bond finds his way to a figure from his distant past, the sinister Franz Oberhauser (Waltz). Bond must protect Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist with familial links to Spectre who’s working at an exclusive private clinic in the Austrian Alps, from Oberhauser and his hulking henchman Mr. Hinx (Bautista). As the staggering reach of Spectre’s tendrils become apparent, Bond races against the clock to prevent Oberhauser from enacting his devastating schemes.
After winning a long legal battle known as the “Thunderball copyright ownership controversy”, the Bond movie producers finally secured the rights to depict the criminal organisation Spectre, integral to the Bond mythos. Fans were excited at the prospect of seeing James Bond come face to face with the éminence grise apparently lurking behind the shadows since the events of 2006’s Casino Royale. Skyfall director Sam Mendes returns for Craig’s fourth outing as 007, and it is evident that he is trying to hit as many mile markers associated with classic Bond as possible. Craig appears in a white tuxedo for the first time, there’s a scene set in a snowy locale, a scary henchman in the Oddjob and Jaws mould and a tricked-out Aston Martin. Sure enough, there are many moments in Spectre that made this reviewer cheer, but alas, after the smoke clears, it seems that the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
On the level of spectacle, Spectre certainly is an accomplishment. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, succeeding Skyfall’s Roger Deakins, crafts many shots that are striking in their elegant composition and breath-taking in their scope. The film’s pre-title sequence begins with a long tracking shot which follows Bond and his companion Estrella (Stephanie Sigman) through a massive procession as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. Second unit director Alexander Witt and stunt coordinator Gary Powell, both Bond veterans, assist Mendes in assembling major eye candy set pieces including a skirmish to the death aboard a helicopter spinning out of control, a car chase that roars through the streets of Rome and a spectacular plane vs. Land Rover convoy battle in the Austrian Alps – not to mention the single largest explosion ever detonated for a film. This reviewer, along with the majority of Bond fans, doesn’t fully enjoy Writing’s on the Wall, the rather limp theme song performed by Sam Smith. Thankfully, the Daniel Kleinman-designed main titles do enhance its effectiveness. However, there is some imagery that undermines the overall haunting effect of the sequence: expect to hear some tittering from audience members cognisant of Japanese tentacle erotica.
While Craig (in)famously told journalists that he’d rather slit his wrists than play Bond again, he delivers an intense, committed performance, with the character finally getting into the swing of things. As expected, he acquits himself well in the many action sequences and handles the moments of humour better than he did in Skyfall. His portrayal of Bond has sometimes been decried as too self-serious, so it is amusing to see him partake in several well-judged moments of levity that are almost Roger Moore-esque. There is some brooding, to be sure, but Bond gets right in the thick of it and stays there for the duration of the movie.
Christoph Waltz’s casting was met with much fanfare and speculation as to the true nature of his role. Waltz is fine as Oberhauser, but there’s very little here the Oscar-winner hasn’t done before in other roles and this reviewer was expecting him to have more of an impact. All of the primary villains in the Craig-starring Bond movies have been creepy European dudes, and Oberhauser is no exception. The Spectre meeting at an Italian palace, designed to evoke an arcane secret society ritual, is a genuine nail-biter of a scene and is marvellously acted by Waltz. However, when Oberhauser states his motivation, it is disappointingly contrived given all the build-up, since he’s been positioned as this ultimate baddie. Even though there’s obviously more to the character than is told to us in Spectre, the feeling of “wait, that’s it?” is pretty hard to shake.
Seydoux’s turn as the lead Bond girl is understatedly affecting, even if the character isn’t one of the more memorable women in the Bond canon. With Madeleine Swann, screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth are aiming for a character who isn’t either extreme of “fragile wallflower” or “kicker of ass who can give Bond a run for his money”. Even then, the arc in which she is initially sceptical of and almost hostile towards Bond but eventually warms to his charms is very predictable. It is a wonder that the sultry, glamourous Bellucci hasn’t been in a Bond film until now, so it is even more of a let-down that she is criminally underused in an all-too-brief appearance. The Lucia Sciarra character is also little more than the “kept woman” archetype we’ve seen many times throughout the Bond films, from Domino Derval to Solitaire to Andrea Anders.
The support system of Bond’s allies M, Moneypenny, Q and Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear) is integrated into the plot instead of coming off as ancillary, which is to Spectre’s credit. The crisis at MI6, secondary compared to Bond’s tangle with Spectre but still pretty serious stuff, is rooted in topical security concerns, with C planning an invasive universal surveillance program. Whishaw gets several humorous moments and Q does go out into the field in this one, but it isn’t taken too far (see Octopussy). Scott, best-known for playing the dastardly Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, is far more restrained here, which means the character is believable but often dull. Bautista as the silent, musclebound Hinx is excellent casting. Henchmen with silly gimmicks are one of the most often-parodied elements of Bond films, so it’s commendable that Bautista manages to hark back to that without taking one out of the movie by being silly.
This reviewer found Spectre agonising, not because it’s a bad film – not by a long, long shot – but because of how unsatisfying it is once one takes a step back. There are a few references to Bond films past that cross the line from “cute” to “smug”. In the moment, it is entertaining and thrilling and there are action sequences which stand up to the most memorable in the series, but the overarching plot, especially where it pertains to the villain, leaves a fair amount to be desired. For a film that hits so many high points, true, sublime greatness remains out of Spectre’s grasp.
Summary: There are thrills and instantly classic scenes galore, but on peeling back the layers of Spectre, it isn’t quite the ghost with the most.
 
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong