Produced by: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jaybe-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall, Brian Oliver
Written by: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: George McKay, Dean Charles-Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Claire Duburcq, Benedict Cumberbatch etc.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music by: Thomas Newman
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
If Roger Deakins doesn’t win every single award for best cinematography in the world, I will be completely shocked! Together with Sam Mendes’ and their respective creative and production teams they have delivered a barnstorming, aggressive and beautiful work of pulsating cinema with 1917 (2019). In fact, the whole project is such a feat of technical brilliance, I think Sam Mendes will probably win best direction and the film will most likely win best film at the 2020 Academy Awards.
The form and style of the film are dictated by Mendes and Deakins audacious decision to film in one long continuous take. Set, as the title states in 1917 during World War I, we open with a long tracking shot and from there the shot never ends. Establishing the main protagonists Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), the camera glides along as they make small-talk, creating humour, warmth and calm before the storm to come. That storm derives from their mission to carry a message through perilous territory and prevent 1,600 British soldiers falling into a German trap. Immediately the stakes are high and these two brave men set out to achieve this dangerous task.
The choice to film in one continuous shot is a fascinating one and here it is executed brilliantly. Of course, there are occasions where a cut has occurred, but this is masked by darkness, water, camera movement or CGI. I personally am not a massive fan of longer takes though. They can be seen as a stylish, but empty process and usually work best in opening scenes. Moreover, by not cutting or using montage techniques I feel you can lose suspense, impact and pace from a film. However, that is certainly not the case with 1917 (2019). Here it works perfectly with the camera following, tracking, running, falling and stalking the characters, so much so, the audience becomes the camera. We are right in this war with them!
As we track Blake and Schofield through bunkers, trenches, fields, farmhouses, derelict buildings and villages, the stench of death and destruction surrounds them. Mendes and his writing partner, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, also create some heart-sweating and explosive set-pieces for the soldiers to overcome. Indeed, the pace with which they regularly find themselves under attack, married with the filmmaking style, puts you in the heart of the action and fight. The final battle where Schofield valiantly strives to reach his final destination and relay the message is utterly exhilarating and spellbinding cinema.
As the two everyman soldiers, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman give convincing performances. MacKay is especially memorable as his tall frame, hollowed cheekbones and haunted eyes dominate the screen. Furthermore, the two leads are supported ably by a “who’s-who” of British actors. The likes of: Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott puncture the action throughout with their quality. Scott is especially excellent as a cynical officer, drunk and bereft of hope. The two heroes ignore his jaded battle worn persona, but soon find themselves surrounded by corpses, quickly coming to understand this character’s despairing heart.
Like Dunkirk (2017), the film is arguably thin on characterisation and character development, but stylistically impressive in it’s rendition of the horrors of war. Indeed, when the events switch to night, Deakin’s lighting skills dominate as he paints images with darkness, moonlight and fire with majestic results. Thus, overall, one could argue this is just one long chase film; an extended version of the climax of another World War I classic, Gallipoli (1981). However, the cinematic marvel that is, 1917 (2019), overcomes it’s narrative and thematic familiarity with an amazing technical achievement in both form and style. Awards glory beckons for all involved; and more importantly the film pays fine tribute to the gallant soldiers who served in an ultimately senseless war.
My general viewing in July was an eclectic mix of splendid art cinema and excellent genre television shows. So, here’s what I watched with marks out of eleven and MASSIVE SPOILERS:
ANT-MAN (2015) – SKY CINEMA
Saw this in the cinema last year and it was one of the most entertaining films of 2015! It’s simplistic narrative-wise but what it does have is a fizzing script full of zingers and comedic moments as well as some great action set-pieces built around the well-orchestrated final act heist. It is just terrific seeing charismatic Paul Rudd in big-budget film plus fun supporting cast including: Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena and scenery-chewing baddie Corey Stoll all add class to proceedings. This is great fun and proves that not ALL superhero films have to be HUGE as sometimes small is beautiful. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
DAREDEVIL (2016) – Season 2 – NETFLIX
I absolutely loved this noir superhero show. Season 1 was brilliant and, despite the faceless one-dimensional Ninja villains, this was as good, if not even better! We follow on from Daredevil’s capture of the “Kingpin” Wilson Fisk as he finds new friends and foes in Frank Castle, “The Chaste”, Elektra and “The Hand”. This has it all including: amazing fight scenes, bloody violence, rip-roaring action and hellish derring-do. I think John Bernthal’s “Punisher” takes the plaudits with a fine origins story and great Lee-Marvin-Charles-Bronson-tough-guy-bone-crunching-performance. Once again Charlie Cox as Matt Murdoch is brilliant combining subtlety and physical prowess during his turn as blind lawyer AND the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORELL (2015) – DVD
This seven-part fantasy-period drama had everything: wonderful effects, dark villains, magical narratives and sterling performances from Bertie Carvel, Alice Englert, Eddie Marsan and Marc Warren. However, at times I was perplexed and a bit bored because unfortunately, despite the stunning imagery, design and imagination on show the narrative stumbled from beginning to end failing to create empathy for the main characters and entertain me with cogent plot strands. Susanna Clarke’s original novel is apparently a literary classic thus perhaps it may have benefited from a connecting voiceover. Yet, it remains a prestige BBC product which many will love; it just did not connect with me on an emotional level. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
MEN AND CHICKEN (2015) – CINEMA
This is one of the most hilarious, unsettling and philosophical comedies you will see in a long time. Similar in tone as last year’s terrific arthouse hit The Lobster (2015), Anders Thomas Jensen has written a cross-pollenated comedy-slapstick-art-horror film that centres on two adopted brothers and their search for their biological father. Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik portray the siblings who find quite disturbing answers on the Island of Ork where all manner of genetic experimentation has been carried out by their father. This is a weird yet compelling story which lurches from hilarious physical violence to examinations of religion and science that I can only describe as being like the Three Stooges meet The Island of Dr Moreau. One of the most original, odd and strangely moving films you will see all year.(Mark: 9 out of 11)
THE NEON DEMON (2016) – CINEMA
Being an admirer of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy, Bleeder and Bronson films I am well aware his films do divide opinion. Drive (2011) with Ryan Gosling was a brilliant noir romance yet his last film Only God Forgives (2013) (with Gosling again) was nihilistic, brutal and virtually unwatchable. However, I think his latest The Neon Demon works really well as a surreal horror film that savagely satirizes the fashion industry. The film moves at a glacial pace with an anti-narrative style and strange acting more down to the director’s strategy than poor performance. Nevertheless, it is a magnetic watch with a succession of beautifully designed shots which are way more imaginative than the usual multiplex popcorn fodder. The sumptuous photography, score and grand gore throughout make it a welcome return to form for the always intriguing formal cinematic anarchist Winding Refn. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013 – ) – Season 1 – NETFLIX
Waspy-blonde-rich-spoilt-bitch-Private-Benjamin-type gets banged up the slammer for a historical crime and we’re meant to feel empathy for her? That’s what the premise of this excellent drama asks the audience to do AND actually succeeds in doing through compelling writing and a marvellous ensemble cast. Taylor Schilling portrays the brattish Piper Chapman brilliantly and there’s fine “inside” support from Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Udoba, Taryn Manning and Danielle Brooks to name a few. The structure follows newbie Chapman as she fails to cope with prison life; plus variant flashbacks filling in details of her and inmates’ prior life events. It’s a gripping and funny show with lots of character twists and turns; and somehow it remains fresh despite the potential cliché pitfalls within the subgenre. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
SPECTRE (2015) – SKY CINEMA
Overall, I was disappointed with this Bond outing from last year. I mean there was a lot to like, notably: Daniel Craig’s performance; the stunning cinematography; the brilliant opening ‘Day-of-the-Dead’ and fight-on-train set-pieces; plus the criminally underused Christophe Waltz. However, the story, from a usually reliable John Logan and his screenwriting cohorts was non-existent; relying mainly on callbacks from the previous Craig outings and Bond films of yesteryear. The action was decent but the anorexic plot and weak romance left much to be desired. For a proper moan see my review from last year below. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
STAR TREK: BEYOND (2016) – CINEMA
I was bored by this. Even as a summer blockbuster the film fell short; and finally Star Trek has been turned into a soulless-plotless-video-game with set-pieces “stolen” from other better popcorn films such as Jurassic World (2015) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The cast are decent but the formidable abilities of Idris Elba were masked under deep make-up for most of the film. Even if it was to be a latter second act reveal Elba’s presence was given away in the trailer so why not build his character up from the beginning. Plus, the “rogue” agent storyline was done much better in Into Darkness, which I enjoyed as a spectacle. Let’s hope the forthcoming Netflix series has more character and depth than Beyond. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) – SKY CINEMA
The final of the Next Generation movies which ended the franchise prior to JJ Abrams’ hit-and-miss reboot, is a pretty decent science-fiction actioner with enough brains to keep you interested. A very young Tom Hardy plays the Reman rebel out to destroy Starfleet and Jean Luc Picard specifically. The themes of cloning, doppelgangers and telepathy serve the action very well and the set-pieces are decent enough. However, as Picard and Data get much of screen time the rest of the crew seem to side-lined throughout. This is not as good as the other Next Gen films but it is still more involving and cerebral than the soporific Star Trek: Beyond. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
STRANGER THINGS (2016) – NETFLIX
Oh, Netflix – I love you! Not only do you present affordable boxsets, docs, TV and film product, but you also produce some damn fine original programming. Netflix’s latest sci-fi drama is an excellent nostalgia-fest which evokes the 1980s perfectly in design, sound and look. Indeed, it wears it’s Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter and George Lucas influences not so much on its sleeve but as a whole outfit. Written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, it centres on the search for a missing child in (where else) Indiana, an ultra-dimensional netherworld and a telekinetic kid called Eleven who’s on the run from a secretive and nefarious US Government facility. Archetypal characters such as embittered drunken cop (David Harbour), distraught nutty mother (Winona Ryder), Gooniesque geeky teens all try and track their missing friend in a drama which has some wonderful stand-out and monstrous moments throughout. Arguably, the eight episodes were padded out in places and it could have been culled for pace but overall it was an excellent watch with a terrific score and soundtrack to boot. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
TALE OF TALES (2015) – CINEMA
Having directed the brutal and gritty kitchen-sink gangster film Gomorrah (2008), filmmaker Matteo Garrone, completely changed style with this ultra-imaginative set of grim fairytales based on the ye olde short stories of Giannbatista Basile. Like a medieval Pulp Fiction the film weaves tall tales called: The Queen, The Flea and the Two Old Women in a superb fashion as flashes of horror, fantasy, amorality and comedy clash with bizarre beasts and bloody death. The cast including: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, and Shirley Henderson all get on board amidst the insane plot occurrences and overall I found it a fine anathema to the bland kids offering Hollywood churns out. While the original stories were taken from an anthology called Lo cunto de li cunti (Entertainment for Little Ones), this is definitely for adults and not the little monsters at home. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
WAKOLDA (2013) – DVD
I was gripped by this slow-moving drama set in 1960s Argentina. It follows a hotel-running family and their encounter with a mysterious Doctor. Writer/director Lucia Pacenzo carves out a compelling story which finds the Doctor inveigling himself into the family’s world and carrying out seemingly innocent medical procedures which ultimately have a horrific impact. The film is a real eye-opener into the terrors of the time with many South American countries harbouring fleeing Nazi criminals and Àlex Brendemühl’s performance as the charismatic Doctor expertly glues this fascinating story together. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
Z-NATION (2014) – NETFLIX
Fox’s The Walking Dead has quite rightly taken a lot of plaudits for its incredibly well-written, humanist take on the zombie-horror drama. It offers rich character development, political analogy and of course some fine gore. Z-Nation on the other hand offers something far more fun and humour and downright silliness with zombie dogs, babies, rednecks and bears on the menu. Basically, a ragtag group attempt to transport a zombie-experiment-survivor to a medical facility while assisted by DJ Qualls isolated NSA computer geek. The group fight off an endless supply of zombies, cannibals and religious cults in a tremendous show that counts as a fantastically gory and comedic guilty pleasure. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. . . It becomes a substitute for experience. (Larry Law, Images and Everyday Life)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
Life is all about managing expectations. I mean we don’t why we’re here on this planet and we don’t know why we’re alive. Is there a point to life? Perhaps there is no point? If that’s the case then why carry on living? Why not kill yourself or go berserk and do what the hell you want and be damned to the consequences. Well, it doesn’t really bear thinking about does it? Thus, generally, we block out such existential questions – well I do – by filling our life and times with things we enjoy doing, seeing, feeling, and eating, hearing and experiencing.
One of the major things I use to distract me from the inquisitions of life is going to the cinema. I am obsessed with films. I could perhaps, rather than watch films, raise a people’s army and seize control of the state? But what system would I put into place instead of the necessary evil of capitalism? I could eschew society and live off the land growing my own vegetables; but whose land? All land is now owned by some person, persons or shadowy corporations. I could become a criminal and finagle the law in order to avoid the punch-clock drudgery of life; but I’d like to sleep guilt-free at night and hurting others does not sit well with me. I could train a pack of ants to perform tricks for money in an Ant Circus; but that would just be silly. I could go on…
What I am saying is films and television are helpful in drawing a big thick line between the sane and insane shit in life. They are a big deal for me. Not as bigger deal as my loved ones but pretty close. So, when a new series of a current show I love such as Doctor Who or South Park or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Game of Thrones is released I am very happy. Life is good. That thing called hope rear its head and says, “Hi, it’s me again!” The same goes with film releases from my favourite directors or movie franchises or series. It happened at the fag-end of the 90s with the new Star Wars trilogy and also when the new Indiana Jones film was released; hope came a knocking and expectations were raised. Unfortunately the Lucas’ space opera prequels were pretty bad and least said about Indiana Clones and The Kingdom of Crystal Dulls the better!
So, what I am saying is, AND I realise this is a sad thing to admit, A JAMES BOND FILM IS A BIG DEAL TO ME! I know Karl Marx, Guy Debord and Edward Bernays are all correct in that the media is corrupting the proletariat, BUT WHO CARES – IT IS JAMES BOND and CHRISTOPH WALTZ IS THE BAD GUY! I got my hopes up! I was really looking forward to it! It stopped me from thinking about reality! I failed to lower my expectations. So, what I am saying is I liked Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Bond but not as much as I’d hoped. I shall explain why.
I have seen Spectre twice now and it is very entertaining. Was it was good film? Yes – it was fine. Was it a good Bond film though? Yes and no I would say. I should qualify this by saying I thought Skyfall (2012) was a cracking film in its own right; a fantastic action thriller with fine characterisation and a formidably nasty, yet playful, villain in Javier Bardem. Thematically it was very strong with Bond’s orphan background and relationship with M (other) providing a fulcrum to the narrative. Skyfall was also lusciously shot with fantastic set-pieces and direction but it wasn’t necessarily a great Bond espionage adventure like From Russia With Love (1963) or The Living Daylights (1987) or a combustible boy’s own adventure like Casino Royale (2006). It was an Oedipal soap opera with explosions and the past destroying the present. Spectre is very similar in fact although the destruction is much larger in scale.
I would also compare Spectre to Quantum of Solace (2008) in the context that it is a kind of sequel to the previous outing and links back to Bond’s past. The main difference is Spectre is over fifty minutes longer than Quantum of Solace and certainly feels slow in places. I’m aware that Quantum of Solace is not rated highly in the Bond canon. However, I feel there are some incredible action sequences in there; notably the Opera shootout, great Plane chase and explosive desert hotel/hide-out denouement. While the villain was weak and it failed in terms of narrative, Quantum of Solace succeeded for me as a spectacle and by tying up the loose ends from Casino Royale.
Similarly, Spectre has some breathtakingly cinematic moments. Indeed, the first hour was sensational in terms of pace, action, mood and atmosphere. It’s a film about death and the past and opening at the massive Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City was a masterstroke in symbolism. Bond is an assassin; a hired killer used by the British government to take out the bad guys and where better to do it at a carnival celebrating those that have kicked the bucket. The opening chase, building demolition and helicopter fight is classic Bond and really kicks the film off in style. A spurious plot twist then gets Bond to Rome where he then meets – in the shadows – his nemesis, and the childhood ‘friend’ he thought dead, Franz Oberhauser played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz is one of my favourite actors but is criminally underused in Spectre. Aside from one particularly brilliant torture scene he is not allowed to express that wicked wit and devilish smile witnessed so adroitly in Django Unchained (2012) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).
The Oberhauser backstory does offer an interesting subplot to the main action and a very fun Bond revelation; however, it is similar to the Skyfall revenge-plot with touches of Cain and Abel thrown in. Arguably too it doesn’t quite gel alongside other aspects of the script such as the global “Big Brother” programme to connect ALL the security and CCTV systems across the world which would make the 007 programme obsolete. So, with Bond under threat physically, emotionally AND politically we have an ambitious story with a thin plot that gets soggy at times. Thematically Spectre is strong but Bond feels very reactive in some respects and not always making the decisions. Indeed, there is a scene where a RAT assists him; not torture or cunning or sheer violence but an actual rodent. This moment and the anorexic characterisation of Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) were very much weaknesses in the script.
Sam Mendes and his production team have produced much for Bond fans to revel in. The opening credit sequence is stunning and I loved the Octopus imagery and motifs throughout. It also manages to mask the soporific non-entity which is Sam Smith’s theme song Writing on the Wall. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is a brute of a henchmen and his Rome car chase, Austrian snow pursuit and train punch-up were all brilliant action set-plays. Q (Ben Wishaw), M (Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) all brought fine dramatic and comedic qualities to the film although, again, with SO many characters involved it took away screen time from Christoph Waltz. Finally, the “ticking-time” bomb denouement was well-executed but the film had run out of steam a bit by then.
Spectre is a technical tour-de-force and in Daniel Craig we have an actor who absolutely nails the role. He rocks the action, driving, shooting, running, falling, crashing with a coolness, toughness and insouciance which will be a hard act to follow. Indeed, the way they tied in the strands from previous films tells me this is probably his final Bond. Overall, the first hour-and-a-half of Spectre writes a spectacular cheque the final act cannot quite cash. The big-bad-wolf reveal is not as surprising as I would have hoped and the Orwellian supporting story didn’t feel that deadly to me. And while our villain’s revenge on James was believable I didn’t quite buy the fact that Oberhauser was the architect of ALL Bond’s woes in the previous three films.
I realise it is a very big responsibility to maintain quality in a big movie franchise and Spectre does so but the long running time does it no favours. Paradoxically too by trying to give it more depth in respect of the familial backstory it again lost the espionage stuff I love. We do indeed live in the Society of the Spectacle and this film offered up some solace away from the daily grind. But I must learn to manage expectations and perhaps stop living my life by proxy through fictitious cinematic spies and face the spectre of existence a bit more realistically. (Mark: 008 out of 11)