1917 – Film Review

Sam Mendes returns from the world of James Bond (after the absolutely awful Spectre) with a World War One movie, in memory of his grandfather who fought in the conflict.   It’s an Oscar favourite, the kind of film that ticks across several categories, and its being sold as a triumphant achievement in filmmaking that has to be seen on the big screen.  The chances of the film falling under its own weight, and ‘one-shot’ style, were very high going into this one.

It’s 1917, and two young soldiers who have already seen their fair share of action are given the mission to get behind enemy lines to pass a message on to a commanding officer.  That simple, effecting plot, pushes the film forward with great force in the film’s opening.  Before learning how insane the job is, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Prince Tommen from Game of Thrones) picks partner Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Pride) to go with him, and they set off in haste after receiving the orders from a chubby Colin Firth.  The commanding officer they need to get to is in charge of a company that is unknowingly walking into a German trap of great armaments, and it is a company Blake’s brother is a member of.  And so, despite Schofield’s hesitations they rush to jump over the trenches into no man’s land.  This set up allows for a thrilling first twenty minutes, where the two men hurry through the trenches, the Steadicam pulling in front of them.  Going over the front line, the stress of moving across no man’s land is inevitable, and Mendes evokes a lot of tension with his fluid camera, like the mission they are on, however, this has a time limit.

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The one-shot, unedited, constant rolling picture is thankfully not a gimmick here, at least for the first half of the film.  It is a very effective technique when characters are walking towards something, and there are variations in height and scenery to keep it interesting.  Probably the most mind-boggling shot of the film is in that first sneak to the German line, where the camera goes down into a crevice, tracking the two men across a body of water.  It is an exciting build-up, that is unfortunately let down once they have made it past the German trenches.  Not to say the film is particularly dull from there on, but certainly the highlight of the film is that gripping, daring hop over the front line.  Then comes the one cut in the film, that’s right, an obvious unhidden cut in a one-shot movie.  This is not a problem; however, it does signify a big slice down the middle of the film.  In this second half, Mendes slips into one of his classic characteristics – over-sentimental, florid imagery that comes across as incredibly pretentious.  Schofield dashes through a film set playground of catholic church iconography, that looks so fabricated that it cannot repeat the tension of the opening act.  Then the energy of the Steadicam is lost in a silly and melodramatic central scene that stops the plot dead in the tracks.

Mendes’ emotional connection with the story is obvious, and what he does manage to capture is the absolute horror of war, at times replicating the same feeling that The Thin Red Line does – the feeling of fear and hopelessness of the soldiers.  This is a respectable viewpoint to take, though it leads to a flawed film, whereby Mendes floats too long in mushy motifs and makes the one-shot idea pointless for a good chunk of the runtime.  Luckily, he has crème de la crème of Hollywood cinema Roger Deakins shooting for him, meaning there are some extraordinary shots towards the end of the film that stop the film from being boring.  The inclusion of the odd huge star popping up throughout the film was welcome as well, which is usually distracting, but here it added some gravitas, and a new lease of life at times when it really needed it.  George Mackay does his best with some awful lines of dialogue, and Mendes should have really kept the focus on the camera rather than the actor.  It is possible to achieve empathy in a war movie, rattling along, not worried about having scenes of quiet to prove it cares about the people too.

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The forceful nature of those quiet scenes really tarnished the anticipation of the initial conceit of the film and leaves it nowhere near greatness.  It is one of those films, where it’s curious to wonder about those who have been completely amazed by it.  The film has a fine pacing and fine message, and is expertly well constructed, but there is nothing extraordinary about it.  Its nomination in Best Editing at the Oscars is a strange one (one in your face cut, and a few covert ones) and its nomination in Best Original Screenplay is even stranger.  The script is a bad one, and a World War One film working on the memories of a family member is not entirely original concept, whether Mendes (and Krysty Wilson-Carins) penned it from scratch or not.  Although it is hard to dog on a film this noble, it is another example of a product sold to mainstream audiences as a filmmaking feat, where really it is just extremely unremarkable.

Little Women – Subtle Poetry

Something fresh that filmmaker Greta Gerwig brings to the Little Women story, in the new adaptation, is the elements of meta.  Her screenplay weaves in biographical details about Louisa May Alcott, the original author of the classic novel, creating a sense of reverence for the writer that establishes the real-world accomplishments of the source text.  It is a wonderful notion, that doubles the meaning of the work, in both a fictional and historic manner.  Aside from that, Gerwig presents a further meta about writing and directing, whereby the plays of Shakespeare are discussed in the film in terms of work that managed to be both poetic and popular.  Little Women 2019 is the perfect example of a repeatedly told story, that is newly remarkable because of talented authorship, and the reach to artistic achievement in a sellable mainstream affair.

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The undeniable brilliance of the original story is important, and it’s why the book keeps getting adapted, and why it keeps working.  Writer and director Greta Gerwig is faithful to the material, and never really messes with the intricacies of the plots, just plays around with the camera, setting and character.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March in an utterly gorgeous performance, splitting the timeline between childhood and adulthood, hued memories and bleak realities.  Her sisters are all given as much development as she is, in slightly less time: Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.  Their mother, played by Laura Dern, is a piece of all of them, in her clothes and the shades of colour in her hair.  In a film full of moving scenes, it would easy to overlook the quieter moments where the sisters are bickering in their family home, talking over the top of each other rhythmically, all written exactly by Gerwig.  This is when you fall completely into the setting and are happy to stay there.  Across the road, in a much larger home, lives Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence, again beautifully performed by Timothee Chalamet, who lives with his austere grandfather, played by Chris Cooper.  In contrast to the warmth of the March house, the Laurence manor is far more masculine and impersonal, only brought to life when the girls visit.  One of the stunning extracts of the film is when Laurie is stood on a chair undergoing a teaching lesson from tutor John Brooke (James Norton), when he spots Amy outside the window, saying to John excitedly: “There’s a girl out there.”  Soon all the sisters are in the study, catching the boy’s infatuation, bringing a spark to the spacious mansion.

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It is in this scene when the little details of acting and directing prowess are ever-present.  Jo gallops into the room inspecting the vast collection of books, and Laurie tracks her with his eyes, in love with her of course, Chalamet has it all over his face.  It’s a look we have all given, and Chalamet’s recreation on screen is a constant, building this mesmerising chemistry he has with Ronan.  Their movements seem almost in sync, dancing together, rubbing each other’s hair, embracing tight and long, agonising for Laurie and comforting for Jo.  If you know the story, then you’ll know that at the heart of the romance is this pair, how perfect they seem for one another, yet it cannot work out.  Ronan and Chalamet’s time on screen together encapsulate this, and the inevitable confrontation they have is truly astonishing cinema.  Due to an excellent screenplay that loses all silliness and exaggerated chivalry, the crescendos confession from Laurie and subsequent rejection from Jo is neither melodramatic nor pretentious, instead feels contemporary and honest to life.  Thanks in part to the tactility, and closeness to their friendship, where it is an absolute joy to see Jo punch Laurie on the arm whenever he is being particularly stupid.  Away from the bonds between characters, the film has modern sensibilities because of the style of the players when they are viewed singularly, such as Jo’s hairstyle, or the way Laurie wears his American Civil War era clothes.  Even Saoirse Ronan’s running has a twenty-first-century beat to it, like the way Gerwig runs herself in Frances Ha.  All of that being said, it is in the editing where Gerwig really brings the story to the now, and the choice to have two narratives side by side throughout is an effective one, being bound only by the families it has the impression of separate readings.  It traverses as expected from a New York trained indie filmmaker, whilst keeping tight with the time period, and it is difficult to not be seduced by its charm.

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There is genuine and sincere poetry in this film.  It has ideas on female recognition, love, contentment, childhood, and writing that are fledged out to a base level.  The film is funny and heart-warming, treats its sadder moments with respect and allows each character to act out in meaningful ways.  And it is all packed into a story that is important to so many and will be seen by huge audiences across cinemas all over the world.  Greta Gerwig has achieved poetry in the mainstream, with subtleties and intelligent casting, matched with a cinematographer (Yorick le Saux) who gives energy to each shot and lighting choice – every time it cut to a new location, I was excited to see what my eyes saw next.  I think we are lucky to have a film like this, one with such magic.  I do not believe the film is radical, nor groundbreaking and I’m not about to try and understand the complexities of a feminist message.  Little Women is ultimately about a level of compromise, and you do not have to squint hard to see Gerwig herself sacrificing a perhaps more impactful protest by succumbing to the pressures of producing a film that can be easily adored.  When you have a film this special, that imagines impossibly strong emotive reactions, at least from myself, you get a free pass into greatness, placed into a column titled: what makes life worth living.

 

 

 

 

AFTER HOURS & being stressed out

Martin Scorsese’s new movie is coming out on Netflix, could you believe it?  The master of all masters relying on vomit-inducing exploitative true crime friends wanking twitter meme creating cinema killing Netflix to get backing to make what he wants to.  Uncanny and welcome to those dealing with French cinemas unpredictable schedules, and so myself, AND I’M SURE many others delve headfirst into one of life’s contradictions, watching an auteurs vision on your laptop, begrudgingly, as you stew in popular streaming hatred.  Can’t wait.  It has prompted a little look back on said director’s filmography, combing through the hits to find the ones that have been missed by my selective, compulsive brain.  After Hours, 1985, a cult hit known for being the Tim Burton debut that never was, taken on by a man who had won the Palme D’or with Taxi Driver and solidified bankable critically loved status with Raging Bull (he didn’t quite receive GOD-LIKE status until after 1990’s Goodfellas I should think).  At the time, the hacks probably saw it as a strange choice, however that could be the awful spin that Marty has of being a gangster man, I mean the guys made a musical.  In the 80s it could have been an obvious turn for a man with his hands in production companies’ deep pockets, back in the day when skillful filmmakers got access to trouser storage (WHERE ARE YOU DAVID FINCHER?).  Anyway, instead of contemplating on the OBVIOUSLY trampled on ground that is Scorsese’s career, why don’t I egotistically relate an odd movie from the 80’s to stressing out about logistical paperwork and phone sims, as a kind of self-therapy, repulsively introspective way of showing that I can only write about myself.

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The film is about a guy who meets a girl in a coffee shop, by her interrupting his reading to tell him how much she loves the book.  It’s an incel’s fantasy.  She covertly gives him her number, he calls her when he’s home, she invites him round, he accepts, and then a nightmare of a late-night ensues for the guy, Paul (Griffin Dunne), as he effectively bombs around Soho, NYC, trying to get his end away.  Actually, it’s more like he’s doing the exact opposite, but when the opportunity arises to get his end away, he certainly attempts to seize the opportunity.  After a while, he familiarly gets the feeling of just wanting to get home, because he gets stuck in a logistical misunderstanding dungeon whereby everyone in the neighbourhood hates him and the subway fare has suddenly increased.  Dunne is an everyman for sure, part of that beautiful era where leading men were 5 foot 7 twitchy dorks, crossing over from the seventies into a decade of muscle tight Stallone’s.  He can’t believe his luck that an attractive girl wants to hang out with him, until he discovers the catch, and tries to swiftly get away from her.  Kafkaesque would be an understatement and the horror of the uncomfortable situations are where the films protein is, yet it’s the latter stages when it becomes overwhelming where I found myself relating the most.  In the final third, Paul screams to the skies ‘I JUST WANT TO LIVE!’ and sat in my apartment I had a flashback break of trying to find a working printer in an underfunded French university, or filling out a grant form, or arguing with an American landlord over the phone, or panicking that I’m getting charged by the second for my English phone sim whilst living in a different country.

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It’s not an anxiety issue or a mental problem, it’s the stuff that gets in the way of life and it is annoying.  Paul is dealing with suicides, burglars and pseudo Femme Fatales, I’m dealing with slow replies to urgent e-mails.  I think the term is subtext, and I AM absolutely convinced that After Hours is about being stressed about life, and menial irritating tasks that add nothing of value to comfort or satisfaction.  Paul has a boring job, he’s a word processor (RIP), and the one chance he has to do something exciting is crushed by dull problems, such as losing his keys or GETTING HIS HAIR SHAVED INTO A MOHAWK IN A TERRIFYING PUNK CLUB.  The razor blade to the skull is when it bubbles to a far greater worry, a far greater fear that definitely wasn’t in the zeitgeist back then like it is now.  Scorsese makes timeless, eternal works of art of course.  I’m talking about climate change, the planet is screwed with no-one making meaningful policy changes to stop it, thinking about a future of swimming to a job you don’t like rather than walking to it.  It’s compound stress on top of all the other pointless shit, and it’s about the only thing worth getting worried about.  The longevity of the human race and the legacy of what you leave behind trumps the fear of death, and what you’re going to do with a media degree when you hate journalism and working for other people.  It’s kind of a twisted relief, and with some complexity, the paperwork takes your mind off the graduating, then the graduating takes your mind off the paperwork, and then the polar bears going extinct takes your mind off the inevitable half of century in the workforce and then dementia at the end of it.  At least we have films by great directors about grimy city settings, and sub-cultures you’re not a part of, swilling at the bottom of a glass, created by artists that can develop these worlds in their minds and restrict access to those clad in a suit and tie.  After Hours is a film of its time, because I think New York City isn’t a constant crime-ridden Halloween anymore?  I don’t know.  The film can be attributed to representing those lovely first world problems, lovely privileged and BORED day to day issues that make living unbearable and the relentless end to it much more inviting.  Also, the lighting is gorgeous and it’s shot better than any film that has come out post 2000.

HIGH LIFE – What Happens After the White Light?

The vertical line is blinking and the only thought running around the room, exterior from any kind of mind space is that the black hole created by god is a sex joke.  Or instead a point of insertion into the discovery of planetary desire or the foundation of human drive, rather than an example of any kind of creation humour.  Perhaps even assigning this idea shows the sickness of the society that physics, chemistry, and biology created, and not the divine one himself.  He only dreams of being that funny.  Science is the canvas and art is the paintbrush, someone must have said – what if the English language was the canvas and Robert Pattinson was the paintbrush, a tool held onto softly by the warm hands of Claire Denis.  That is a simple imagination hovering above a tangible and ultimately pointless object and still, we are dying to know what happened beyond the white light.  Prose guessing your way through digital celluloid has about as much meaning as peeling an orange and eating it, only to digest the fruit and then defecate its remains.  Actually, it’s closer to peeling an orange, throwing it at someone who does not acknowledge its existence then eating it, before vomiting it all back up over the same person who will continue to ignore your cries for attention.  The conclusion to HIGH LIFE has inspired something however, and now staring at the orange, you can only wonder its sugar content and what pesticides cover its skin.

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There is a sweetness to the red-carpet photos of Robert Pattinson holding the baby that played his daughter in the film, a sweetness that is doubled when you discover the child belongs to one of his close friends.  That sweetness is present in the film but seldom in that imagination hanging over it.  It’s not a radical take to note the danger of R Pats in HIGH LIFE, his character Monte is a celibate and a part-time pacifist, which is a much scarier version than the killer he may have once been.  The later scenes with his grown-up daughter are like one setting plays where there is a gun in the top drawer, except the upper-class characters haven’t been adulterous, they’ve been floating through space alone for more than a decade.  And they’ve been off-camera too, away from prying eyes and a judgemental western audience whose only experience of incestuous stories have been on fantasy television shows and porn websites.  It is certainly a twisted thought, and an animalistic brazen view of Monte, who is our unfortunate hero.  Denis’ intentions may have been accidentally cruel on this new platform for her output, and yet they are honest and true in Pattinson.  She cast him based on his intelligence, the kind of intelligence where Pattinson can deliver with clarity whatever is thrust upon him.  This is a total contradiction of course, it is not about clarity, because Denis does not show us the future once they have passed the white light.  Under final assessment, the predicted denouement would not indicate an evil, lustful Monte due to the brightness of Denis’ final shot.  It is far too heavenly.

Death for Monte would be a release, whilst death for his daughter would be a strange beginning.  With this explanation her journey into the world would be a short one, shorter than those flies that are born, mate and perish in a single day.  The drifting space shuttle is hardly anything more than a womb, a holding cell before heading into general population.  Take solace in the peace and dread the incoming small talk.  Monte can keep his daughter’s innocence by guiding her into the sub-molecular hole he’s been avoiding, and it seems she wants it as much as he does.  The step of the pier is a peculiar notion and they must know something we do not, Denis pressing down on the naivety of consciousness.  Our ego and our need for our feet to touch the ground is questioned when all you can hear is the running of a depleting water supply.  This is when the sick jokes and the sick epiphanies about ejaculation and restraint are thrown out of the window.  The chances of there being a fuck room in the next level of reality are slim, and it won’t really matter when sexual organs disintegrate as you do.  Pessimism, with the white light turning into an infinite black one, is an easy road to go down here.  It’s a clear answer and a dull one which is not Denis’ style.

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Optimism is misjudged, the poetic potential of a happy ending is rarely visited.  Denis’ masterpiece BEAU TRAVAIL enjoys a credits scene that rides the line, bobbing up and down in the middle.  Here, she slaps R Pats on the back and tells him to start walking.  It is all sensory and emotional.  Writing like this only occurs because of the success of the film, and the proverbial pasta is being thrown incredibly hard at the wall here.  The orange has become dilute, drowning in a tap water of paradoxical inferences that have a longer reach than what the text is potentially offering.  And this is an offer from Denis, and Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, edging her blouse further down one failed attempt at an American accent at a time, trying to collect sperm cells as the writer, director throws them all onto the table, not carelessly but with an accuracy that could cut through an eight inch wall with a side of A4.  Plotting is a nuisance and cinema is a distraction, the white light theories shattered when the income peaks at one point two mil, leaving the discourse in disarray, colliding against familiar enclosed walls.  Would it be cliché to say that none of it matters when the maker cuts to credits?

 

‘I think you’re foxy and you know it.’

‘I think the painful doom that is meandering towards Earth is really killing my hard-on.’