Quick Hit: Creative, emotional, and epic.
War films are pretty much a genre of film on their own. Some of the stories seem better told in long form storytelling – like Band of Brothers or The Pacific. Others make very good standalone stories – look no further than Platoon or Saving Private Ryan, which drop you right into the experience of the soldier. But I can’t remember any war film that feels as immediately engrossing and claustrophobic as Sam Mendes’s 1917. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, hot off his first Academy Award, the entire film has been constructed to look like it’s a single take. What initially seems a bit like a gimmick quickly builds to one of the most immersive experiences I can remember in a theater.
Part of it starts with the story that is being told. It develops quickly – two young men are lounging next to a field when a commanding officer states that the general needs to speak with them about a task. They’re told that they need to call off an attack that is scheduled the next morning, and that if they don’t, the entire company of men will walk into a slaughter of a trap. This includes one of the young men’s older brothers. It’s immediately established, and there is little to no thought that goes into the reasoning behind this – it is family after all. From there, our two characters begin their slow descent into hell – starting with a slow trek across no man’s land, where dead horses and men seem to lurk inside every pit, and eventually into an underground bunker.
Our two main characters are Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of Game of Thrones) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay, probably best known for Captain Fantastic). They are given a minor fleshing out – Blake is more excited about the prospect of the rewards that come with a mission well-done. Schofield seems to be more world weary and battle tested, despite making some immediately apparent mistakes, like pulling back barbed wire with his hand. But their chemistry is immediate, and the actors disappear into the roles fairly quickly – Mendes has publically stated he cast men that had very little in the terms of recognizable faces or acting credits so that these would seem as just two other men in the service.
I won’t spoil what comes to pass throughout the film – so much of it hinges on the ability of the audience member to not expect what is coming. Suffice it to say that there are some strikingly emotional scenes that occur at some (for me at least) totally unexpected moments. One of the best gives rise to one of the best uses of a song in a film that I can remember. It’s these little moments that build the characters to the point where they totally overwhelm you as a viewer. I found myself with tears in my eyes more than once. This is all while maintaining the “one take” illusion, which I can only think of two occasions where the seams feel visible.
Overall it’s a beautiful film, and I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. I’m giving it an “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
Quick Hit: A blow to the heart for anyone that has one.
Scarlett Johansson (ScarJo) joined elite company this year when she was nominated both for the Best Performance by a Leading Actress and Best Performance by a Supporting Actress. She also maintains a presence in one of the biggest franchises in history, playing Black Widow in the Avengers series. Adam Driver, for his part, found his way into possibly the only other franchise that could dwarf the Avengers, playing Kylo Ren in the Star Wars saga. And yet, they both found themselves as nominated actors in today’s Best Picture nomination, Marriage Story, director/writer Noah Baumbach’s slow burn dramedy about a couple’s marriage disintegrating before our eyes.
On a personal note, those who know me well will note that this is a subject matter that at times was difficult for me, and other times fascinating as well. I, like Charlie (Driver), am a bit of a crier in movies, due to my sheer investment in the story and characters (providing they’re well-written and acted). I found myself tearing up multiple times in the film, and physically reacting in others – shifting forward in my seat, wrenching backwards, and a myriad of others. So is it any surprise when I have such a good grade when I have such a personal connection to the material?
The movie starts almost as if a collection of home movies, accompanied by voice over. First, we have a description of both Charlie and Nicole (ScarJo) in their own words about the other. These are filled with obvious love and affection and a depth of relationship that anyone in a long term relationship will remember. Then, we find out the context of these letters of love – they’re sitting in a mediator’s office prior to their divorce. The letters are to remind them of the reason they got together in the first place, before the mess that is to come. It’s a sweet, fitting tribute to the end of a relationship that perfectly captures the differences in personality that emerge when you share your life with someone, and how having a child changes what you love about your partner as well. Despite its rough beginnings, both Nicole and Charlie seem ready to move on amiably and are more than happy to compromise in order to keep the other happy.
That is, until lawyers get involved. This starts at the behest of a colleague who gives Nicole the card for Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a high-priced lawyer who represents women during the divorce. After some threatening calls from Nora, Charlie gets his own lawyers – first Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who is quick with a joke but also maddening in his continued insistence on things that he says won’t or will occur, and then a high powered lawyer named Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), who charges a 25,000 dollar retainer for his services. This is something that Baumbach continually points to throughout the film – the cost of a divorce, both in monetary value and life change. It’s clear by the end of the movie that rarely does any side truly “win” in a divorce. Even when one side gains things they were asking for, it’s often at the expense of something else. The biggest loser – a point that is mentioned continually – is the child.
This screenplay wouldn’t work without incredible performances by both its leads and its supporting players. ScarJo and Driver are fantastic – giving performances that spread the full performance range – from sadness to anger to overwhelming happiness and love. They sell it, and even give vocal performances courtesy of some well-placed Sondheim. It’s a beautiful performance that is truly carried on their backs. But Dern and Liotta do some heavy lifting as well, as they present the case that the system is the only villain in this story. Nearly everyone has their own chance for an extensive monologue, with Dern’s being one of the most moving in the story, in a bit of a direct shot towards Kramer v. Kramer. Hers consists of the discussion that it’s nearly impossible for a woman in court because she has to show both a consistent motherhood to a child and an ability to work as well, because frequently mothers have their own jobs held against them in court.
Baumbach also shows just how much ammo any marriage can generate into barbs during a court battle. From a small misstep on the stairs to a discussion about a move many years prior, it’s all brought into court as evidence of the other’s inability to be a consistent or responsible parent to their child. It’s a haunting conclusion – many think the courts are there to be fair and just – that the system we support is corrupting us as we feed it’s practictioners.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with the film. It’s nuanced and subtle, brash and bold, colored and monochrome. It covers the spectrum of any relationship, and I’d highly advise everyone to watch it. It’s one of my favorite films from 2019. I’m going to give it an “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
Quick Hit: Tarantino’s penultimate film is a one that is clearly all his own.
Quentin Tarantino has a variety of films, some of which we’ve covered on this site. He is one of the most vocal advocates of the “hang out” film; which is a film where the plot becomes decentralized to the idea of simply watching interesting characters be interesting. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood serves as Tarantino’s love tribute to these types of films, along with also serving as an example of exactly why he can be such a wonderful and frustrating filmmaker. These factors, along with the fact that he has stated he wants to finish as a director of 10 films (this being his ninth), combine with the feeling that this may be one of his most personal films.
As stated previously, there is an extremely loose interpretation of the word “plot” that occurs throughout the film. The year is 1969, and it starts by introducing us to our leads separately – we first meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he is on the end of his career as a television star. He is told by an agent (Al Pacino – the second time he’s appeared in the Best Picture nominations this year) that he needs to go to Rome to keep his star shining and appear in those famous “spaghetti westerns” of the late 60s and early 70s. Rick is less than thrilled about the idea, particularly since it means departing with his stunt man of many years, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). We also follow the story of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising actress that married Roman Polanski and… we’ll get to what she’s most known for in a minute.
The layout of the film is a bit confusing, as we frequently follow our characters into actual performances from movies and television, flashback in time, and jump to characters that essentially have no interaction together. This creates some really memorable scenes – like Cliff fighting Bruce Lee, but it also gives the film a bit of a disjointed feel. But it allows each character a moment to shine alone. DiCaprio gets to show both an expanded ego and a huge vulnerability in regards to his performances. His best scene involves a conversation with a young actress as he contemplates his own impending irrelevance. Pitt has a bunch of his own scenes that are frequently violent or just have a feeling of danger. I think my favorite was when he ends up at a former movie set that is now being housed by a complex of hippies. There is a drastic tension that drips from every moment in the scene that is largely carried by Pitt’s performance.
A lot was made while the movie was on the festival circuit of Robbie’s role in the film. She, in truth, has very few speaking parts, and has a drastically reduced screen time compared to the rest of the characters. However, she has one of the most emotional scenes in the movie, as we get to watch her enjoy the film that she stares in. These moments, as she relishes in the faint praise from the laughter she gains, are incredibly moving in their own way, and it makes later actions in the movie that much more heart-wrenching.
That’s because what Sharon Tate (told you I’d come back to it) is most famous for is being murdered by Charles Manson followers. Tarantino always seems to return to scenes that feature extreme violence, and he lights the fuse that has slowly been burning throughout the movie in the last act – giving a conclusion that will cause more than a few winces from viewers. It’s filmed in his normal up-close and personal style, and even reflects on moments from previous portions of the movie that originally seemed like throw-away jokes.
But probably what is best about the film is how it immediately gives you the feeling that you have been transported to the year 1969. From the music, which gives you familiar songs sung by different artists, to the allusions to cinematic history sprinkled throughout with props and backgrounds, it really does feel like you’re back in that time period. It is a terrific piece of work that slides you effortlessly into the past, made all the more poignant when viewed through the lens that Tarantino uses to bring a grittiness and a bright yellow feeling to his scenes. It’s a terrific film, but I don’t know if I can rank it among his best. I prefer the feeling of a Django or an Inglorious Basterds, which have more concrete plots to follow.
So, without further commentary necessary, I’m going to give this one a “B+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"