January 2020 – Cinema Roundup

1917

Usually, my finger nails are allowed to grow out until Manchester City’s next big game unless an unexpected wave of anxiety forces my teeth to chatter them down. After watching 1917, I looked down upon nearly nail-less fingers. 

Why did I endure such a nerve-shredding experience? Roger Deakins.

Hail Mary for this god of a cinematographer. For those few who are unaware of who he is, he is responsible for:

Deakins is now, alongside long-term collaborator Sam Mendes (Skyfall), responsible for one of the most technically astonishing films of the decade. And we are a month in. 

1917 follows two young soldiers who are tasked with delivering a message to neighbouring Allied forces to call off an attack. To do that, they must travel through no-man’s land. The Germans appear to have retreated and be on the ropes, but new information reveals the Allied attack would result in calamity, including the death of a brother of one of the protagonists. The plot is simple and effective. The way it is executed, however, raises the stakes, the experience and one’s senses when watching. 

Filmed as a ‘one-shot film’, the viewer becomes the third person in the party. The execution of this method is beyond impressive with only a couple of obvious cuts throughout the runtime, and one of which is done to display the passage of time. Whilst 2014’s Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance used this technique for completely different reasons. In Birdman, a character-study, displayed the protagonist’s instability through constant camera movement and the quiet struggle of his every action when the camera’s stillness appeared to halt time. In 1917, it makes the soldiers’ every action questionable. At one point, the camera floats along the water, like a predator, as the soldiers struggle around it. At another, it moves like our eyes would in a videogame spotting one enemy and then another and leaving us to question where the violent-less path is.

Whilst Birdman (2014) popularised the one-shot technique in the public consciousness, an earlier film that used it was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Check it out.

The audience is never allowed to be lulled back into a sense of security, Mendes does not afford us that pleasure as no soldier was ever afforded it. As soon as we experience the first set-piece, a trip-wire in an empty bunker, the nerves and continually wrecked until you leave a beaten and bruised audience member. Even the production design and props intensify the horror. When the camera waded through a hoard of flies over the skeletal corpse of a rotting horse, I instantly felt more immersed in the world than I had in any war film since Saving Private Ryan.

And when the experience couldn’t get any more visceral, the film has a terrific score. At one moment it will float between eerie synths that rumble indistinctively, as if you have to keep your ears out for movement. Seconds later, the tension has snapped and the pounding of drums and horns pummels around you as the race against time and for one’s own life is afoot. 

Nonetheless, the film knows when to be quiet. Whether we close in on a character to allow sorrow to sink in, or we retreat to nature to remember that life is what these characters are fighting for. And within these moments, the characters are allowed to show glimpses of themselves. It is only within these brief instances of shared laughter and comradery that any light manages to penetrate the bleak darkness of this film that displays the horror of war in the starkest way imaginable. 

The scenes shot at night are where Deakins’ cinematography is most elegant.

Like I said though, these moments are not the bulk of the movie. Thus, circulating arguments that the two protagonists, portrayed by Dean Charles Chapman and George McKay, are not developed enough do have merit. The film is like Dunkirk in a sense, incredible filmmaking with very little character development. Despite this, I did not find sympathising with these characters hard. Their actions speak things that their words do not. And whilst their shared stories add an air of believability, it is the moments when they speak about medals and family that reveal the most about them as people. The sheer fact that you are taken as the third member of their party throughout made up for the lack of characterisation through dialogue. 

Interspersed throughout their journey is a number of fleeting cameos from brilliant actors, which really help to add a punch to many of the dialogue scenes. Andrew Scott’s turn as a make-shift nihilist of a lieutenant was my favourite and a curveball away from the archetypal stoic British officer with their chin held high, eyes directed below and chest puffed out. Which unsurprisingly is the characters portrayed by Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch with little nuance separating the three of them.

The film is not about the actors or the characters though. It is pure technical excellence. See it on the big screen.

9/10

JoJo Rabbit

I feel like I can write normally again now I’m discussing a film about an imaginary ironic Hitler. I watched 1917 and JoJo Rabbit the same day. To say I couldn’t have seen two wildly different approaches to World Wars in films is an understatement.

The film, helmed by writer-director-actor, Taika Wahtiti, follows the journey of Johannes “JoJo Rabbit” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a young Nazi fanatic who has become indoctrinated by nationalist ideology. As he puts it, he’s “massively into Swastikas”. So too, was Wahtiti once upon a time, who confessed in an interview he would obsessively draw them around his books and house. Superbad style. Only to realise what he had done and forge them into windows and sometimes houses. Wahtiti’s honesty and quirkiness permeates the fractured world he conceives and the characters that inhabit it. 

There will never be another high-school comedy like Superbad (2007).

Originally dreaming of becoming a Nazi war hero, JoJo goes to a Hitler youth camp only to show his inner squeamishness when refusing to snap a bunny’s neck and then, in a moment of zealousness, blows himself half to hell with a hand grenade.  Thus, he is resigned to handing leaflets around town and picking up metal in a robot costume, whilst being constantly being spurred on by his imaginary friend and stand-in father figure. Adolf Hitler.

In a caricatured performance of Hitler by Wahtiti, a role he admits no respectable actor would wish to play, he strays away from imitation and instead embodies the goofiness of a child’s own imagination. One moment he is a clown and sidekick, the next he is an enraged satire of dictators, kicking chairs in frustration. 

Bursting the bubble of Nazi ideology is just the springboard for the film’s comedy. All the actors have fun with their roles. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson relish the opportunity to be camp and gratuitously over-the-top as the leaders of the Nazi Youth Camp. Whilst Alfie Allen, is Rockwell’s silent shadow, staring at his superior with a loving twinkle in his eye. JoJo’s friend Yorkie, portrayed by newcomer Archie Yates, crops up occasionally with perfect tone and comedic timing. Meanwhile, stalking around is a bug-eyed Gestapo officer…

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

…That is seven feet tall (Stephen Merchant) and contributes to an entire minute of characters saying ‘Heil Hitler’ and somehow, somehow, all these actors make it funny. 

There has been a lot of criticism surrounding the film. That it is one dimensional. That it is childish. That it isn’t funny or touching enough to cut to the heart of the subject matter. But, for me, this was the first time in a while that I had heard an entire cinema audience laughing. Out loud.

When the film switched to its more emotional core, as JoJo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is harbouring a Jewish woman, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), it pulled it off just as effectively as the humour. JoJo begins to rethink his alliances, as he forms a love-hate relationship Elsa, and thus the ideology that has infested his mind.  When his worldview changes, as does his imaginary inflection of Hitler. The film then deals with tragedy and pathos, focusing on the tenderness of human connection. It is about discovering where our biases come from and how humanity can hate so blindly. All of which are universal themes that resonate just as much now, with dictators rising again, as ever. Just because critics do not find it funny enough, think of it as beneath them and subconsciously comparing it to the profoundness of other war films, such as The Pianist and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, does not mean it is a bad or offensive film. It means they are missing the point. The focus on how conflict saturates all walks of society, down to the children that it shapes, should be fulfilling enough.

8/10

Dolemite Is My Name

The costume design in this film is COOL.

Dolemite Is My Name was not a film that raised my attention all that much. Other than the constant conversation about this being Eddie Murphy’s glorious comeback, I didn’t see much to be excited about this film for. And yet, watching something with little to no expectations is the best way to watch films. 

Dolemite was the most uplifting and ‘feel-good movie’ I have seen in a long while, as it traces the ascendance of Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy) from stand-up bum to self-made movie star. Whilst I first struggled to empathise with Murphy’s character, Rudy, who starred in the cult Blaxploitation film Dolemite in 1975. He begins with an air of self-importance and bitterness as he hasn’t met the expectations he set for himself. The eventual narrative of how he attempts, through pure force of will, sweat and tears, to achieve his dreams is a universally relatable and inspiring one. 

The characters around him that strive to beat his dreams down are manifestations of someone that everyone knows, the people that tell you no and that look upon you with a raised eyebrow and sarcastic slits of smiles while you pour out your dreams upon them. This figure was encapsulated by Wesley Snipes’ diva director, D’Urville Smith – who I found consistently making me laugh than the rest of the cast. This excellent performance by Snipes also finds the ying to its yang in Rudy’s leading lady, Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The relationship between herself and Rudy is the emotional heart of the movie and this trio of actors uplifted the film to new heights. 

Whilst the moments of comedy and the performances are what will stand out for most, it was the story of people coming together and forcing a movie into creation and thus, their love for it and determination defeating the high and mighty Hollywood figures, that I found the most empowering and fulfilling. If you need some laughs and smiles, I couldn’t recommend a new film more than Dolemite Is My Name.

7/10

The Gentlemen

From one comeback, to another…

Guy Ritchie is back on form. He is once again back where he feels most comfortable – an ensemble of gangsters with sharp blades and even sharper words. And the delivery of these words is near perfect. Hugh Grant no longer plays Hugh Grant, now he’s a camp slime-ball journalist with a penchant for the dramatic and its nearly as refreshing as all the whiskey he drinks. Matthew McConaughey is just a perfect fit for a Guy Ritchie film, although I don’t think he gets the best lines or is the best character. Charlie Hunnam is the best I have seen him as the cool and calculated understudy to Mickey (McConaughey), although I still think he struggles to deliver any nuance to his characters. Colin Farrell, meanwhile, is the scene stealer. I wish he was in the film more. 

The story rotates between these four (and many more) characters as McConaughey’s character, Micky Pearson, aims to sell up his multi-million dollar marijuana company to a subtext-speaking American businessman, portrayed by Jeremy Strong. When multiple parties start to smell blood and circle like vultures, notably the Chinese mob represented by Henry Golding’s character and a plait-tracksuit laden wannabee-gang called the Toddlers, Mickey and co. have to navigate many different threats.

The Toddler’s grime video ft. Manchester’s own, Bugzy Malone, still has me cringing…

The quasi-narration that drives the first two acts of the story gave extra vigour to the film but I felt that it got messy in parts with too much zipping and zapping between different story points. As a result, it initially took me a while to get to grips with what is going on onscreen, it can be hard to put with Ritchie’s relentless pace. Stitching all these plot-points and comedic avenues seems like a logistical nightmare from a filmmaking point of view but it is done relatively effectively whilst being constantly enjoyable. Upon first viewing, however, some moments of the editing (especially uses of montage), whilst similar to his signature style, look like a poorer Edgar Wright impersonation nowadays.

Whilst the dialogue is extremely entertaining, sharp witted and hilarious – Shakespearean with more ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’ I believe Nicholas Barber gracefully put it. The drawback in parts, however, is that it almost seems in rhyming couplets with every line having a sort of punchline and when that doesn’t hit, it draws you out of any realism of the words or what is happening. 

But that isn’t really the point, is it? Guy Ritchie’s films are style over substance and they are remembered for that style. And regardless of realism or emotional impact, what doesn’t fail to shine through is Guy Ritchie’s own voice, a voice we have long loved since 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

7/10

Little Women

One of the best parts of seeing this film was viewing the faces of my fellow audience members. 2 o’clock on a Thursday, a scattering of exclusively old women sit down and natter among themselves content to get out the house and see a film that they passionately want to see. Then in comes in a solitary young man dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a puffer jacket. Pure astonishment on their faces.

Little Women is not necessary my ‘type’ of film (I wince a little when I say that). Often films need an element of threat to really grip me. Unless, it is something like Greta Gerwig’s latest outing. This is a near-perfect film.

Adapting Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 book of the same name, Gerwig creates an environment brimming with life as she retells the lives of the March sisters, through past and present narratives of their loves, passions and tragedies. The non-linear storyline is dealt with expertly, especially when I compare it to the messiness of The Gentlemen. The cinematographer’s use of colour to distinguish the two different timelines is so simple but brilliantly effective. The hue of blue indicates the present, especially during the moments of tragedy that take place. Whereas the yellow used for the flashbacks is energetic, it evokes the comfort of home when they were all together and happy, untainted by the realities of their patriarchal world.

Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are all excellent in supporting roles.

It is these moments that gave me the most joy, where all four sisters are together. Each one’s personality is distinct and established from the start. One begins by walking through the masculine hum of a publishing office, the world she wants to break into, where another plays her piano before she speaks a word. When they are all in the same room, these personalities bounce off one another. A spirit of communion radiates throughout their scenes. Their lines almost seem improvised by the way they’re delivered, firing words and interrupting one another in the messy sibling way.

The performances, as I’ve already hinted, are wonderful and make you gravitate towards all these characters. Florence Pugh, in my opinion, is the queen of the stage. A stage they all inhabit together, early in their lives as women with dreams and ambitions. Between them they all inhabit the great cultural art forms – writing, painting, music and performance, and their choices about pursuing these passions or to follow the roads that society has built for them is the heart of the film.

Whilst it isn’t a film which craves me wanting more, that acts like a drug for me, it is nonetheless a beautiful film, from the costume design to the sound mixing. The reasons why Gerwig was not nominated for Best Director remain as much a mystery to myself as it does the rest of the community.

8/10

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