Tuesday, January 28, 2020

1917: riveting detail but lacks panoramic scope

Sam Mendes’s 1917 is in many ways a visual stunner and the acting is superb. But it unfortunately doesn’t measure up to one of the greatest war movies of all time. First, the visuals. There’s no question Mendes’s depiction of World War I’s trench warfare is extraordinarily realistic. One of the first opening shots follows the movie’s two principal characters, Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they walk through hundreds of feet of trench filled with countless soldiers in all manner of deportment, encased in the grime, sandbags and detritus only found in such a wartime cavity. The realism is so stark it almost looks like a painting. These scenes and another trench warfare shot near the movie’s end are perhaps the best features of this visual celluloid extravaganza. 1917’s five film crew members nominated for the Oscars’ Production Design and Visual Effects' categories surely deserve to win. Then there’s the acting. MacKay and Chapman are just amazing in their lack of self-consciousness as two low ranked infantrymen given an assignment to warn the leader of the “Second Devons”, another fighting unit, not to attack the supposed vulnerable German Front. Aerial reconnaissance has found the Germans had pulled back, but as a ploy to lure the British troops into a massacre where 1600 men would die. With phone wires cut, Blake and Schofield must traverse several miles through no man’s land and extended country to reach the battalion in peril. 1917’s accurate depiction of trench warfare is matched by the gruesome scenes of the corporals’ crossing of no man’s land and the further ruins in the French town of Écoust-Saint-Mein. Again, these scenes of destructive wasteland have an abject painting-like quality to them. In fact, with apologies to Mendes, they’re so real the term “battlefield porn” came to mind. 1917 also has something very similar to Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film, Dunkirk, with its kind of otherworldly beige or white background that stands in for sky. (I'm not sure this is a good thing.) But, for all of its genuinely good qualities, 1917 as a film still seems to lack the panorama of the very best war movies: of countless men in battle - and frequently; and with interwoven macro and micro narratives and themes.  That’s because it is, for all intents and purposes, a stage play. Eighty per cent of the movie follows only the two characters. With appropriate stage sets and pyrotechnics a similar gruesomeness may also have been affected. So, yes, for production and design, cinematography, even direction (there are no Oscar nominations for acting), 1917 deserves to win. But in terms of epic scope the movie comes up short.

Michael Apted’s 63 Up (last weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre) is the ninth edition of the famed British documentary that follows a group of Baby Boomers from their seventh birthday, every seven years, to check in on how their lives are going. Now 63, this group (there has been one death) are mostly retired or semi-retired. For those who have not seen earlier Up episodes there are flashbacks for each of the characters. Some of them may have become more successful professionally than others – a taxi driver versus a librarian versus an elite barrister. Success, however, is relative and others may have had more fulfilling lives. Perhaps most fascinating is Neil Hughes, a one time drifter and now local politician and part time church minister, who still seems lost and in emotional pain.  Yet overall what we see are entirely ordinary people opening up and because of that the doc is fascinating. My only peeve is when Apted brings up politics like Britain’s Brexit: all the characters seems against it. But how representative is that of the British population or are the characters just pulling punches? Moreover, Apted only asks political questions of the men.

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