[Early Review] 1917 (2019)

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Dubercq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Screenplay: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns

119 mins. Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language.

 

I knew very little of 1917 until I caught it at an early screening. The single trailer I had seen looked impressive, but I didn’t know about the task of creating the film that led to its most incredible and jaw-dropping feat, the fact that it was filmed and styled to look as though it were shot in a single take. At first thought, this film seemed like one that’s narrative may not allow for something as difficult as that to actually successfully happen, so how did it all turn out?

Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Before I Go to Sleep, Blinded by the Light) has been tasked with delivering an urgent message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, Avengers: Endgame), and he has less than 24 hours to do it, as Mackenzie and his men are about to walk into an ambush that could lead to the deaths of 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s older brother. Now, Blake and his fellow soldier and friend, Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Been So Long), have precious hours to complete their mission, and time is their greatest enemy in the journey.

Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Away We Go) always has a unique vision to his projects, and 1917 is no exception. It would seem that his time with the James Bond films has upped his ambition, and 1917 proves to be his most challenging visual film. As I stated earlier, he and cinematographer Roger Deakins (the greatest DP is history, just saying) have crafted their film to look as though it was shot in one long-continuous take. This requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, as obviously their mission took longer than 120 minutes, but it’s more about the journey it puts the audience in than the realistic time-frame of the mission. For the most part, too, it’s an incredible feat of filmmaking. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the expertly-planned shots, and it did trick some people into thinking the film was done in a single-take.

Care should also be given to the editing. A film like 1917 wouldn’t work without someone able to stitch the whole thing together and create the illusion of a single-shot, single-take. The pacing of the overall film as sequences flow from one to another is only able to keep interest if the editing works, and it does.

Our two leads in Chapman and MacKay do some pretty good work together. Neither of them are the best of the year performers, but given minimal dialogue and a mostly physical performance from both, there’s a level of strained-friendship and brotherhood between the two of them, something that war and battle have the ability to create in its soldiers.

The screenplay, Mendes’s first, co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairnes, is mostly incredible, but I feel like it didn’t service the two leads with enough character development to really flesh them out for the audience. There’s some emotional beats in the film that would have been better served if the characters were more-layered early on in the film. Blake and Schofield are developed through their actions quite nicely, but I just needed more character.

The rest of the supporting cast is exemplary in the film. In order to elevate the two relative newcomers in the lead roles, Mendes and the casting director placed as many upper-talent supporting roles in place to help, and it’s great to see so many fine actors supporting the journey, and it works to elevate MacKay and Chapman through interaction.

1917 is an excellent war film, one of the best ever put to film. This is an instant classic in so many ways as it illustrates the unrelenting nature of battle and war and the toll it takes on those involved. It’s also a story of brotherhood among soldiers and a promise made, and I was absolutely enthralled in it from start to finish. For a film done seemingly in one shot, there are countless sequences that are seared into my brain and I can’t stop thinking about it. This will stay with you long after leaving the theater.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Sam Mendes’s Spectre, click here.

Rocketman (2019)

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Screenplay: Lee Hall

121 mins. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content.

 

It’s about damn time we got an Elton John biopic, and boy was this one worth the wait.

Elton John (Taron Egerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Sing), in classic biopic form, needs to go to rehab, and while he’s there, he recounts all the moves in his life that led him to this place, from his friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot, The Adventures of Tintin) to his explosive working relationship with music manager John Reid (Richard Madden, Ibiza, TV’s Game of Thrones). In his recollection, Elton begins to see that the biggest obstacle in his happiness might just be the reflection in the mirror.

Rocketman might just be the best musical biopic I’ve seen in a long time, and perhaps the best one, though I’m speaking as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it and just saw it. Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle, Sunshine on Leith) has seemingly craft a film that is equal parts musical extravagance and true life biopic storytelling. The events are somewhat incorrectly placed on a timeline, but it is done in the service of the character and the story, and I didn’t mind. What Fletcher does so well in this film and in previous work is that he has such a flair for making his style its own character without sacrificing the story and characters. His style has the similar effect as what Quentin Tarantino does with his musical choices. He uses them to aid his characters. If he has a flaw in the film (and it’s really only a nit-pick), it’s that he goes full classic biopic by having the main character recount his entire life in rehab, a move that almost feels cliché now, but I brushed past it.

Taron Egerton is on fire here. It’s his best performance of a small but impressive career. He owns the screen in every scene, aided by John’s impressive wardrobe (someone start talking Best Costume Design here), but it is his performance, a richly-layered look at Elton John on the inside and outside, that is the biggest takeaway from the film. He blends into Fletcher’s visual storytelling so well, and the chemistry between him and the supporting players is astounding. Then there’s the singing (Egerton does his own in the film), which, although not sounding exactly like Elton John, aids the character he is playing and has a real feeling to it that doesn’t feel like he’s just trying to match someone else. I’d rather have it this way.

The supporting cast does a great job when not overshadowed by the grandiose nature of Elton John. I really like Jamie Bell and it is great to see him get some impressive moments to shine in conversations with Egerton. Richard Madden needs to be in more movies after work in Game of Thrones and Bodyguard, and he plays John Reid in such a menacing and cruel way that works well without seeming completely mustache-twiddlingly villainous. Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World, A Dog’s Way Home) appears in the film in a physical transformation as Elton’s mother Sheila, and it’s some of her best work as well. Dexter Fletcher has a knack for collaborating and getting the absolute best from his actors, and it’s on full display here.

Rocketman has become my favorite film so far this year. It’s an impressive feat that showcases why filmmakers like Dexter Fletcher need to be getting more work, and it is a great standout performance from Egerton. See this one as soon as you can. This is one film we’ll be talking about for some time.

 

5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2016oscardeathrace] Cinderella (2015)

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Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgard, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter

Screenplay: Chris Weitz

105 mins. Rated PG for mild thematic elements.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Costume Design

 

Disney has always been hit-or-miss on their live-action adaptations of their animated classics. I was less-than-enthused about 2014’s Maleficent, but with Cinderella, and a solid director in Shakespearian artist Kenneth Branagh (Frankenstein, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), it seemed like they had a real chance.

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The new iteration of the classic tale presents more backstory on Ella (Lily James, Wrath of the Titans, Burnt), her wicked Stepmother (Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Carol), and the Prince (Richard Madden, TV’s Game of Thrones, A Promise) she falls for. With the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club, Suffragette), Ella becomes a beautiful princess for a night of magic and dancing with the Prince in his kingdom. When the night ends, the Prince must do anything to find the mysterious beauty he has fallen for.

From a storytelling perspective, the film reminded me a lot of the Halloween remake from some years back (I know, strange comparison), which chose to flesh out backstory to bulk up the characters and story. Both films do succeed in this dangerous endeavor, though Cinderella definitely doesn’t need all the build-up. Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) elected to grab from other versions of the tale to add new layers to the film, and it works.

Lily James and Cate Blanchett absolutely own their performances here, fitting right into the narrative nicely, and they are aided by Madden and thespians like Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Derek Jacobi (Gladiator, Anonymous).

Often, Branagh uses his superior storytelling tactics from his time studying the plays of William Shakespeare to influence his filmmaking style. It worked well in Thor, and it continues to elevate his craft here.

I must point out the masterful costume design, though likely not to win the Oscar this year, still looks astounding, especially in the ball sequence. The set design aids it well.

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Cinderella is one of the better Disney live-action adaptations, and while the film’s pacing comes into question more than once (too much exposition boggs down the film quite a bit), it succeeds in a lot of other ways and is worthy of a viewing.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, click here.

For my review of Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, click here.

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