1917

The reason you wait till the end of the year to give your top films of the year is simple, movies like this. Here is a film that has a limited release merely to qualify for awards consideration. It is currently playing in just 11 theaters across the country. It is however getting a major push from the studio, including TV advertising, to build for a wide release in January. That will attempt to capitalize on the critical response and word of mouth developed in the narrow window currently in place. It should work for some pretty basic reasons.

This is the Best film of the year. Maybe that is premature since there are still five days left in the year and several films I have yet to see, but I feel pretty confident of my claim. Writer/Director Sam Mendes has taken stories passed down from his grandfather to create a vision of “The Great War” which is horrifying, compelling and tension filled. He and his co-writer Kristy Wilson Cairns have crafted a straightforward, time based adventure story and told it as a real world event. This feels like an incident that could have been a part of the war, even if it is not based on a real historical event.

The camera follows two soldiers chosen for a time sensitive mission as they must cross into enemy territory to deliver a message. The plot is laid out in a single sentence but the movie is more compelling than that brief description. The film is shot as if we the audience were a third member of the mission, observing everything from the perspective of our two protagonists. We are briefed, we have to wade through the back field of trenches to get to the front and we need to crouch down with them along the way. Much has been made of the notion that it is shot as if it was all one take. Since it took three months to shoot, and we know how a movie is complicated to make, it obviously can’t really be a single shot, but you will be hard pressed to see the seams. There were only two moments when Mendes used the same technique as Alfred Hitchcock when filming “Rope”. We alo have a passage of time that is accomplished by a character blackout. The movie still feels all of a single piece and is all the more hypnotic as a result.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins has turned in another stunning piece of work for Mendes. Having made “Skyfall” the best looking James Bond film ever, he uses some of the same lighting tools to make the landscape of France in the Spring of 1917, alternatingly ugly to encounter and beautiful to behold.  The nighttime chase through the ruins of the town near the final destination of the mission, is imagined as a variation of hell, with red flames projecting shadows on rubble and destroyed edifices while gun shots ring out and ricochet with sparks in the gloom. Our protagonist and the enemy are all able to use those shadows to hide in, but unlike the mudpile that is “The Lighthouse”, Deakins allows us to see what is going on and fear what we can see. Thomas Newman, who has scored 14 Academy Award nomination without winning, can clear a place on the shelf for this score which ratchets up the tension at the right moment, but does so in a sparse manner that does not draw attention to itself.

Landscapes and locations are a key part of the story telling and Mendes shows us these places in sustained tension filled reveals. The ruins of a farmhouse feel like a foreshadowing of a haunted moment. Cherry trees are shown as devices to covey the wanton destruction of war and simultaneously,  the promise that war is a passing moment in the land’s history. There are desolate moments in the film where the bodies of the dead are an impediment to the mission, and the act of getting through a landscape without vomiting should be the basis for awarding a medal.  Years ago, I heard some film maker say that all war films are really anti-war films because inevitably, there is tragic waste revealed by the machinations of war. I don’t know if that is true for all other films but it is certainly true with “1917”.

There are two central figures we follow in the story and those actors, Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are excellent in meeting the demands made of them. Lance Corporal Blake is determined  and motivated by his personal desire to save his brother. Lance Corporal Schofield is more cynical and war weary, but proves to be a stalwart partner in the enterprise. The physical efforts required to do the roles is daunting merely to think of much less to perform.

I suspect I will do a revisit on this film, and when I do I will have more to say about the themes and the story. For the moment however, my mouth is agape at the technical excellence of the film and the emotional experience that I was put into by the choices of the director. That’s why I think it is deserving of the label I gave it at the start of this review. Best of 2019.

Double O Countdown: Skyfall

We made it to the end. I don’t know how my fellow bloggers who post on a daily basis manage to find time to do so. It has been an exhausting four weeks. Everyday I have been scanning the films, compiling a list, capturing shots, finding images to share and it was always so much because I wanted to look at everything. It has all been worth it. This post is going up the morning of the day I will be seeing the new Bond film “SPECTRE”.  I hope it has helped wet your appitiete as much as it has mine.

“Skyfall” is just about perfect in my mind. I have seen haters out there who have had the audacity to say it is a bad film, they have no idea what they are talking about. This movie is packed with things that action film lovers will want to treasure, that Bond fanatics like me will geek out over, and it has qualities that film professionals have honored in numerous ways. Here are the Double O Seven ways it did it for me.

001  Adele gives Shirley Bassey a run for her money.

The title song is lush, mysterious and romantic. It kicks in with a chorus that is dramatic and brings the intensity level up very effectively. That it is played over some spectacular title images adds to it’s luster.

002  Judy Dench Classes up the film like you can’t believe

This was the biggest role for Dench in the series, she plays it tough and has just the right amount of vulnerability in the key scenes. She gets to participate in the climactic battle at Bond’s ancestral home and she is completely believable. In the opening, she is unsentimental in risking Bond’s life in pursuit of the Macguffin.

When the HQ of MI 6 is attacked and a half dozen are killed, she is a isolated figure with the world against her.

She has to defend herself at a public hearing where she will be humiliated for political reasons, still she does not give an inch.

As she and Bond flee London to draw their nemesis into a fight away from others, she is not alone, but still feels the weight of the world and the isolation with 007 at her side.

003  Let’s Hear it for the Movie Magician Roger Deakins

He makes beatiful images even more beautiful, see the reds pop in this image.

The lighting and shadows in some scenes recall the glory days of post war film noir.

Shadows that tell the story as well as the pictures and words do.

Backlighting for effect and hiding the face of the character in the bright red light from a fire, awesome stuff.

Composition is another of the arrows in his quiver.

I know “The Life of Pi” was beautiful, but Roger Deakins was robbed at the Academy Awards this year.

004  Once again, the villain makes the movie.

Javier Bardem as the betrayed and bitter ex-agent Silva, is all quirky body movement and lilting articulation when he speaks.

The story he tells of his Grandmothers Island and the rats is creepy, but watch the way he tries to get to James by delicately manhandling him.

Of course Jame’s response was classic bravado with a twist of humor.

Even when he is captured, Hannibal Lecter-like, we know that he is a snake that is too dangerous to let live. A terrific character matched by a terrific performance.

005  Fan Service from Aston Martin

I’m only slightly kidding when I say I may have peed myself when the lights go on in the garage. “Goldfinger” is my favorite Bond film, but this one proves there is always a chance it could be replaced. At least as long as a car with Machine Guns and an Ejector seat is in the mix.

006  The New M

Ralph Fiennes is well cast as a younger but mature new head of the Secret Service. He also know how to handle himself as he shows in the attack on the public hearings.

He starts off in the film as an uptight prig but turns into the wise and knowing heir to the Evil Queen of Numbers.

As he and Bond meet in the very last scene, and Bond addresses him as “M”, my heart soared and I anticipated the new film every day for the last three years.

007 The Perfect Summary of 007

He kicks ass, chases the bad guys around town on every kind of vehicle you can imagine, shoots a bucket load of bullets, and still cares about how his clothes drape properly.

If you don’t jones on this shot, why are you reading any of this?

James Bond Will Return in “SPECTRE”