Out of the trenches: Director Sam Mendes offers a unique vision of the First World War in ‘1917’.
1917 ***1/2 (119 minutes) MA
When it comes to recreating the reality of war, the bravest directors strive to transport audiences into the very heart of the horror. That’s what director Sam Mendes and his crew have accomplished here with a remarkable film specifically designed to drop you right in it.
Based on a simple premise and using a daring single-shot filming technique, 1917 is a very, very good war film about a very, very bad war.
It’s certainly one of the best films yet to recreate the wholesale slaughter that took place on the blood-soaked battlefields of the First World War, as seen through the eyes of two young soldiers charged with an urgent mission.
On the eve of a major offensive, two lowly lance corporals, William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are tasked by their commander (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to a distant battalion in which Blake’s brother is serving.
The missive simply commands the battalion commander to cancel a planned attack on a German position, for a trap awaits. If the two soldiers fail to get the message there by morning 1600 men will needlessly charge to their deaths.
While aiming for the same level of veracity achieved by Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan, though without being as explicit, Mendes covers the journey entirely from their point of view with a series of very long single takes designed to create the impression the whole film is composed of one continuous shot.
Cinematically, the technique works powerfully on many occasions, usually in tense scenarios where a prolonged and deceptive calm builds a dreaded anticipation that something horrible is about to happen or come into view.
Some epic scenes involve hundreds of soldiers moving through the frame as our two messengers scramble through trenches and shattered French villages, the abounding detail reflecting exacting research.
Indeed, one of the things about the brutal nature of battle that 1917 gets absolutely right is the nightmarish truth so many veterans have spoken about in countless documentaries, being how heavily bombarded battlefields were largely composed of mud and corpses, some fresh, some decomposing in their uniforms.
The “one shot” format produces some very powerful images – such as when it glides over the muddied water at the bottom of a giant bomb crater as the soldiers work their way around the sides – yet it does suffer from over-use.
As effective as the technique is in generating tension and illustrating scale – the logistics and orchestration that must have gone into the film’s more intricate shots are truly jaw-dropping – there are times when the device looks a tad gimmicky and you do pine for a wide shot or a wily cut to another angle.
We saw a more judicious use of single take cinematography by Alfonso Cuaron in Children of Men, Gravity and Roma, which allowed the director freedom to harness the power of a good edit. Mendes could have done with such options here.
Storywise, there are some stumbles. As good as the central performances are there is a tendency for the film to become melodramatic and delve into war-movie cliche, something not even Christopher Nolan could avoid in Dunkirk.
Sam Mendes also loses focus mid-way on the “race-against-the-clock” imperative, which is established within the film’s opening minutes. There are two major scenes where the pace really slows for the sake of some corny cinematic poetry that, again, indulges war-movie cliche. Given how every second is supposed to count in the quest to get this all-important message through, these scenes jar.
And, pray, there are too many scenes where our heroes seem remarkably impervious to German bullets, even when fired at close range and with the element of surprise. Are the German soldiers firing blanks or are they just bad shots?
Visually, the film is unarguably impressive and Sam Mendes has delivered a cinematic vision of war we haven’t quite witnessed before. It’s a pity then that the flubs in pace and plausibility in 1917 keep an intermittently powerful war film from hitting true greatness.
THE GENTLEMEN ****1/2 (113 minutes) MA
In what is easily his best film yet, writer/director Guy Ritchie delivers a fabulously entertaining, wickedly funny crime-comedy thrill ride that plays on the vicarious joys we derive from sharing the dangerous daily lives of shady characters who dwell on the far side of the law.
With ex-pat American weed entrepreneur Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), Ritchie takes the notion of the likeable criminal, a movie archetype that goes back a century, and catapults it to the next level.
Mickey is a smart businessman devoted to his work and his goddess of a wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who operates a semi-legit car business.
Despite a tangle of amusing difficulties, Mickey has built a formidable marijuana empire with his network of hidden green houses spread across England’s heritage-listed greenery.
The time has come, though, to sell up. All he needs is a deal with a fellow crim who knows a good deal when he sees one. This is where Mickey’s troubles begin.
Essentially, all the best gangster films – Godfather, GoodFellas, Scarface, Casino, Bugsy, The Long Good Friday, Sexy Beast, Fargo etc – are actually business movies. It’s only when crims double-deal, steal or step on the territory of fellow crims that things get nasty.
In Mickey’s case he’s got a fabulous ensemble of underworld characters to deal with, a roster of rogues Ritchie has folded into an impeccably sculpted, engrossing plot where the codes and rules criminals live by are of prime, and often lethal, importance.
One poignant scene involving someone surrendering a confession to a crim powerfully illustrates how in this netherworld the notion of “respect” is regarded as a form of currency. Show it and you get it back. Violate it and it’s a world of hurt.
With his signature drawl accentuating his outsider status amongst all the slang-fuelled Cockney banter, McConaughey totally sells his good-guy crim persona.
It’s a superbly composed portrait. Mickey sees himself as a company man whose product causes no real harm and is on the verge of legalization. With a charming smile and buoyant good humour, he wields power judiciously and only wrongs those who dare wrong him.
As far as movie bad guys go, Mickey is eminently likeable; his criminality seems to be largely technical. He even goes to the trouble of distinguishing himself from those who destroy lives to turn a dollar.
Plugged into Mickey’s world is a host of strongly motivated second-tier characters steeped in the lore of the streets who add much colour and texture to the underworld ambience.
Aside from his no-nonsense wife Rosalind there’s: Ray (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey’s loyal lieutenant; Dry Eye (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians), a fierce competitor; Matthew (Jeremy Strong, unrecognisable from The Big Short), a wily businessman; Coach (Colin Farrell), a local youth worker; and Fletcher, a weasel-minded, extortionist freelance reporter who serves as the film’s narrator. He’s perfectly played by a wonderfully slimy Hugh Grant.
It’s convenient to describe the near-brilliance of The Gentlemen as a “return to form” for Ritchie, and it’s easy to see why given how the quality of his films have been so erratic it’s scary.
There was the early success of crime larks Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000); we then got dogs such as Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005); RocknRolla (2008) saw him return to the London badlands; then came passable multiplex fodder with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and the Sherlock Holmes films (2009, 2011) before the mega-turkey of King Arthur (2017). In a timely reversal of fortune he also helmed the live-action version of Disney’s Aladdin (2019), which took a little over a billion.
Yet rather than being a return to form, this film’s wit, pace, accomplished style and relative brevity mark it more as his graduation (with honours) as a crime film maestro.
If Lock, Stock and two Smoking Barrels was his Reservoir Dogs, The Gentlemen is his Pulp Fiction.
LITTLE WOMEN ***1/2 (135 minutes) G
Beautiful, thoughtful, challenging adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel, written and directed by indie acting darling Greta Gerwig, who also directed the wonderful Lady Bird (2017).
As aspiring writer, inspirational sister and good-hearted iconoclast Josephine March, Saoirse Ronan is warm and feisty, leading an impressive cast including Emma Watson, Florence Pugh (a real scene stealer) and Aussie actress Eliza Scanlen.
To this impressive quartet of sisters Laura Dern plays mother, Timothee Chalamet plays a potential romantic buddy while Meryl Streep chimes in with a memorable cameo as their craggy Aunt March.
As you’d expect, the film looks luscious and Gerwig directs the four sisters as an ensemble, creating a naturalistic air that contrasts to the formal feel in some previous adaptations of Little Women, such as Gillian Armstrong’s fine, very successful 1994 version.
As with the source material a proto-feminist theme propels the story, though Gerwig is wise not to push matters to the point of it feeling anachronistic.
Yet there is a modern touch to the film, with Gerwig taking some admirable risks and introducing some notable changes, especially with the climax. Purists who love the novel might take exception to the liberties Gerwig has taken, yet it unspools on film as a change that enriches the work. It has certainly succeeded in generating a lot of worthwhile discussion about the process of adaptation.
Gerwig’s winning, crowd-pleasing take on Little Women is the seventh movie adaptation alongside at least six TV series. Each generation seems to want its own interpretation of the story and few other books from the 1800s can claim that kind of purchase on modern popular culture.
So, what accounts for its enduring appeal? It could have something to do with the theme, embedded in the narrative, of a woman fighting for her own place in the world.
A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE: FARMAGEDDON *** (87 minutes) G
There’s no denying the cuteness of Shaun the Sheep, nor is there any sensible challenge to how clever and enjoyable the latest film version of this hugely popular animated children’s TV character is.
Funny to a fault and sporting old-school stop-motion animation, the newest barnyard adventure involves the visit of an extraterrestrial to Shaun’s farm. Much like ET from ET, the alien is lovable, mischievous and largely harmless, but with the local authorities in hunt the animals of Mossy Bottom Farm must protect their new friend until it can find a way home.
As you’d expect, the film brims with references to classic sci-fi movies, from 2001 to Close Encounters, and maintains the same cheeky, child-like humour as 2015’s hugely successful Shaun the Sheep Movie, the film that turned the animated TV sheep into a big-screen star.
Most admirable about the film, however, is that it relies solely on visual cues to tell its story. This has become the style signature of Shaun the Sheep, and more power to it.
It was brave for Aardman Animations, the British studio that gave us the Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts, to adopt the dialogue-free story-telling techniques pioneered in the silent era, as it requires the audience to actually think. In the present era, that’s some achievement, indeed.
MY SPY ** (100 minutes) PG
The strained attempt to fashion mean-looking ex-pro wrestler Dave Bautista into a family-friendly star a la Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson falls largely flat in an action-comedy that feels like something in dire need of another edit or two.
With eyes you can barely see – the man appears to be forever squinting – Bautista plays CIA agent JJ who, with his daffy partner (a wasted Kristen Schaal), has to keep surveillance on a mother and her nine year-old daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman).
Being a typically wiseacre movie kid, Sophie soon discovers what they’re up to and blackmails them, promising not to tell so long as JJ teaches her how to be a spy. Initially reluctant, the hard-nosed, inexpressive JJ inevitably gets to like her as she warms to him as a surrogate father figure.
There’s a small handful of decent gags about tough-guy cliches sprinkled throughout and Bautista pulls off a few brief moments where some charm comes through. Essentially, however, his manner is too gruff and wooden to bring the necessary warmth needed.
Best known as the shirtless Drax the Destroyer from the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avenger movies, Bautista’s character doesn’t have that soft spot, that vulnerability that we’ve seen in other films where big men play opposite little kids.
Johnson is an obvious example; so, too, John Cena; Vin Diesel pulled it off in The Pacifier (2005) and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger set the standard way back in 1990 with the neo-classic Kindergarten Cop.
Also, for reasons unknown, the film features a violent opening action sequence with lots of gunfire and killing. Was there really no way for the makers of a family film to think up an action scene that didn’t involve the need for machine guns and a body count?
SPIES IN DISGUISE **1/2 (102 minutes) PG
Broadly speaking there are two types of animated film these days.
On the one hand there are those brilliantly conceived, classically designed, thoughtful films that sear into your memory. Toy Story. Frozen. Zootopia. You know the ones.
On the other are those high-speed, rapidly paced cartoonish affairs that go in one eye and out the other. They’re enjoyable, no question, but five minutes afterwards as you’re walking out the foyer you find yourself struggling to remember anything about it.
Spies in Disguise is such a film. Made by Blue Sky, the studio that gave us Ice Age, Rio and The Peanuts Movie, the film is a flurry of action, colour and sight gags designed to provide the kind of fleeting satisfaction you get from a hamburger – and that’s not knocking hamburgers.
Featuring a host of characters with nicely exaggerated features, the story follows the ego-maniacal secret agent Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) who is accidentally turned into a pigeon thanks to Walter (Tom Holland), a brilliant but clumsy technician who Sterling fires from the world-protecting agency he struts at.
The villain of the piece is Killian (Ben Mendelsohn in his umpteenth role as a baddie), a technological mastermind with a squadron of killer drones he intends sending to Washington DC to destroy the HQ of Sterling’s agency.
This is a perfectly enjoyable popcorn entertainment, a family-friendly time killer that will engage you while it’s in front of you, then slip out of your mind completely until, three months later, you recognize the title on your streaming index and think, “yeah. Good film. Can’t remember it much, though. Let’s watch it again”.