1917 **** 2019

1917

Sam Mendes dedicates his Golden Globe-winning epic war movie to a relative who told him stories of life on the front line; it’s a tribute aimed to stoke the flames of credibility. 1917 is a big, expansive war epic that doesn’t always work, but the final effect is substantial, exhausting and pretty effective.

Two Lance Corporals are summoned for a debrief; they’re to be sent on a mission to call off a military advance at a key moment in the trench warfare of WWI. George MacKay is Schofield, Dean-Charles Chapman is Blake, and Colin Firth barks out he orders that they have to follow. Blake’s brother is amongst the men who will be heading to certain death if the message doesn’t get through; the stakes are higher still, with thousands of lives potentially lost. The two soldiers are determined to get through, but obstacles are many and varied, and the odds increase as conditions deteriorate.

1917 lifts the one-shot aesthetic from ground-breaking German film Victoria, where the story was enacted in front of an unblinking camera-lens. 1917’s complex set-ups, with crashing planes and changes of light, entails a wealth of trickery to achieve a less substantial effect; it’s easy to see where passing figures wipe the frame. There’s also an issue whereby the technique seems to detract from the content; at times, 1917 resembles a thrill-ride, or at least a Call of Duty-style video game, toggling between cut-scene exposition and action on a number of distinct planes. Freedom of movement, fast, dramatic action and epic panoramas are all cool visuals, but it’s hard to imagine that many of those who died in WWI will have their stories encapsulated by such cinematic flourishes.

Dunkirk this is not; the you-are-there intensity does not return. And yet, Roger Deakins is a world-class cinematographer, and some of the images are truly arresting; a village reduced to the shells of buildings, glistening trip-wires, deadly to touch, a plane falling from the sky. And the film’s final sequence packs an enormous punch, as time runs out in intense style, leading to a dreamlike confusion. Whatever it’s flaws, and the roll-call of big-name British actors works against the realism of the film rather than for it, 1917 does emerge as a great war movie on the scale of All Quiet on the Western Front or The Longest Day. At a time when acts of war are seen as politically expedient get-outs, it’s worth taking one more sobering look at the obscenity of war.

Monos 2019 ****

Monos

Part of the attraction of awards season is the wild card entry; who had Monos down as one of the possible nominees in 2019? And yet this from-nowhere Columbian film about child soldiers has waged a careful campaign since making waves at Sundance back in January, with selected public previews to drum up interest, critical acclaim and a building reputation as a must-see film. Alejandro Landes’ film isn’t for everyone, for sure, but it’s a worthy recommendation, clear in purpose, effective in delivery, agonising in content.

The Monos are a group of commandos, gathered on a remote mountaintop where they have been detailed to guard a hostage. The reasons for the imprisonment of Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) are never clear, but Monos is very much war from the POV of a grunt, and that kind of information is not disclosed. The names of the kids say it all; Rambo, Wolf, Bigfoot, Smurf. They may carry machine guns, but they’re still children. The idea of kids acting like soldiers is played for laughs in Stranger Things, but the reality is substantially more grim. The kids also are given a valued cow named Shakira, but irresponsibility leads to its death. And when Doctora escapes, the fissures amongst the group crack open like wounds.

Although there’s a couple of striking scenes which place the activities of the children in some kind of wider context, part of the power of Monos is that our focus is tightly within the group; there’s echoes of Lord of the Flies here, and some of the jungle madness of Apocalypse Now, but Monos doesn’t slavishly reference either. The atavistic theme of Heart of Darkness is here, but the focus is more concern for what this specific environment does to the human condition.

Like Beast of No Nation, Monos shines a light on a subject that’s obviously distressing, but there’s no sense of exploitation. The rapid erosion of morals in our political world will have a direct repercussion for the kids that follow, and Monos is quick to point out the potential for decline. Monos is not a lot of laughs to be sure, but it’s an important, sociologically relevant film that resonates in 2019’s changing climate of increased moral anxiety.

The Good Liar 2019 ****

liar

It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.

The Birdcatcher **** 2019

One of the interesting things about the streaming revolution, or rather the tier of film-making and distribution that’s opened up alongside traditional theatrical and DVD/TV, is that some familiar genres have been resurrected back into the mainstream. There’s clearly a substantial audience for high-quality historical drama; Ross Clarke’s The Birdcatcher sits nicely alongside such recent entries at The 12th Man in offering old-fashioned bravery as a welcome central virtue.

It’s clear from the opening frames of The Bird Catcher that Esther (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) is no ordinary girl; a camera-move around a statue of her suggests that her experience will be one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. The Nazi occupation of Trondheim, Norway causes Esther to lose first her family, and her escape from the German forces appears temporary until she decides to find a different form of refuge; she disguises herself as a young boy.

Esther’s dreams of Hollywood are set against the grim realities and sufferings of Nordic Jews circa 1942, and The Birdcatcher manages to create a unique identity for itself by displaying considerable sensitivity to the main character’s unique situation, with a largely female crew bringing it to life. This isn’t a gender-swap film, but a heartfelt tribute to those who fought and suffered against an impossible situation; The Birdcatcher gets genuine tension from Esther’s predicament, living with a young disabled boy and his father, who sympathises with the Nazis, leading to inevitable complications and a fiery, satisfying dénouement.

Esther’s story is so remarkable that it might stretch credulity at times, as gender-swapping stories often do, but Clarke’s film gets some leeway for reflecting the intensity of Esther’s experience of her escape to Sweden. There’s melodrama here, for sure, but the film reflects an extreme moment in history, and The Birdcatcher deserves respect for spinning an entertaining story around events too dark to take centre stage. Brutal films have been made on this subject, Shoah for one; a little artifice is no great sin when attempting to lure an audience back to such painful but rewarding material.

The Birdcatcher makes for good home viewing on streaming, but is best seen in the cinema if possible, by dint of the crisp, atmospheric photography. It has also been selected to be the attractions at the Jewish Film Festival, which tours UK cinemas in November 2019; more films from the programme will be featured on this blog closer to the time.

Signature Entertainment presents The Birdcatcher in Cinemas, Digital HD & DVD from 4th October

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace 1987 ***

superman

The wheels had come off the Superman franchise for some time before Sidney J Furie’s final entry in the Christopher Reeve era; what’s notable here is how many of the original cast are on board for this famously awful film. Of course, Cannon were desperate for respectability, and the Superman franchise was one expected to generate a family friendly hit, even if Superman III was considerably bent out of shape by being reworked to showcase Richard Pryor. The fourth movie has an interesting premise; what is Superman took an interest, not in costumed foes, but real world issues like the nuclear arms race? The discussion about real world violence in Todd Phillips’ Joker movie has some echoes here, but Superman IV doesn’t go down that road at all. In fact, the movie doubles down on ludicrousness as Superman gathers all the world nuclear weapons, rolls them into a ball and shot-puts it into the sun. He does this after making a speech at the United Nations, which, for reasons which can only be to do with penny-pinching, is evoked by using the brutalist exteriors of Milton Keynes shopping centre in England. The real drama, if that’s the right word, doesn’t kick off until Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) takes advantage of the absence of nuclear weapons to create Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who looks like Trey Parker circa 2002. Superman and Nuclear Man fight on the moon in a blaze of sub-standard special effects; co-star Jon Cryer felt that the film was unfinished, and on this evidence, he’s right, Spotting Jim Broadbent, Mareiel Hemingway and Robert Beatty amongst the cast adds to the fun, and it’s strange seeing such an iconic cast phoning it in for a pay-check. Superhero movies have come a long way from this low-point, but for bad movie fans, Superman IV is a bottomless pit of amusement.

Hunter Killer 2018 ****

There’s not much hunting, but a whole lot of killing in Hunter Killer; the subject is submarines in modern warfare, and Gerry Butler is the man with the answers. He’s Commander Joe Glass, a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules; he does things HIS way! Pretty much everything about Joe is a cliché, but Donovan Marsh’s thriller attempts to make up for in incident what it lacks in originality. Glass takes command of the American USS Arkansas at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland; he’s sent on a secret mission deep into the Arctic where another submarine has gone missing. Glass ends up teaming up with Russian sub Konek and it’s captain Sergei Andropov (Michael Nvqvist) to foil a Russian coup d’etat and rescue the deposed Russian president, while back in the US, weasely Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) watches as the action escalates. Oldman is playing a character who ducks responsibility, but he seems to take the role quite literally, rarely clearly in shot and usually scurrying out of frame; rarely has an actor looked like they didn’t actually want to be in a film. Given the manliness on show, that’s no surprise; Hunter Killer is a big, beefy Tom Clancy-type thriller that takes no prisoners. The action is decent, but unfortunately the star is stuck in a tin can for most of it. It’s becoming a modern phenomena that big, reality based action movies (Mile 22, Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon) are struggling to find an audience; Hunter Killer’s straightforward, gung-ho action should pick up a few fans on streaming, with Butler a gruff centre and plenty of entertainment to be drained from the hair-trigger plotline.

The Charge of the Light Brigade 1968 ****

charge

Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.