Movie of the Week: 1917 (2020)

Sam Mendes directs George MacKay, Dean Charles Chapman and Mark Strong in this immersive WWI thriller were a pair of Tommies must cross No Man’s Land with new orders before a doomed attack is launched.

I wasn’t expecting this to be the best film of the year. Mendes always struck me as an overly precious director who had kinda fumbled his early promise. When you look back over his filmography there’s admirable stuff but none of it came close to the killer opening blow of American Beauty 20 years ago. Now a lot of 1917’s success is down to Roger Deakins… but you need a strong director to furnish one of the all-time greatest cinematographers the freedom to execute such an ambitious project. I saw a trailer for this openly explaining the film would feel like one seamless shot and the camera would swoop and swap through orchestrated location work. I was sold on a film where the camera would be a stuntman jumping from cranes to running steadicam to gorgeously composed tableaux. You ain’t ever seen anything quite like the ruins of the bombed-out village of Écoust-Saint-Mein dancing from the flares and fires of war. Mission accomplished. This is an immersive marvel matched only by Nolan’s similar Dunkirk. This film has better character work and the broader lapses into theatrical sentimentality feel reverential to the historical tragedy the film exploits. It is utterly gripping, switching from epic to intimate. Thomas Newman’s score manipulate us perfectly. George MacKay excels as the hero, an ordinary man of great courage who sensibly would rather avoid derring-do and medals if at all sensible. There are tons of nicely executed cameos from Brit stalwarts. Mark Strong feels especially well deployed. This absolutely wowed me, a masterful combination of set pieces, drama, reverential celebration and cinematic risk. We watched a matinee screening where some park bench drunks brought in their tinnies and barked and cackled and burbled inappropriately at the big screen. Their heckling and brain farts couldn’t diminish what an amazing movie this is.

10

Bombshell (2019)

Jay Roach directs Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie in this recreation of the toxic atmosphere of sexual harassment and CEO abuse that was revealed at FOX News at the start of the #metoo movement.

Here’s a thing about echo chambers… by the time those of us outside hear what you lot have amplified into a big issue among yourselves we only see the absurdness of the interaction rather than the merit in looking at what problem has been overblown. Here’s a good example of that. The story of whistleblowing and gender discrimination at a reviled US media outlet… advertised to the UK audience with the image of three women getting into a lift with no further explanation. Outside of the US and certain tribes on Twitter these women are unknown, not the stars playing them, but the news anchors and interns we are supposed to care about. Given two hours in their company of semi-fictionalised drama… I do care. But the drama as told here isn’t particularly nuanced or free or smart or sympathetic enough to do anything more than rake over the bold headlines of another country’s gossip. We don’t really get to the heart of the abuses raised by a film whose voice is one of sitcom sheen and toothless satire. All three leads are fine in underwritten roles, John Lithgow proves excellent as beast CEO Roger Ailes and the support cast is full of familiar faces from quality TV. Yet it is hard to have a lot of sympathy for those who took million dollar paydays from FOX News Corp, a station that actively promotes politics that misinform the poor and channels their thinking to belittle people in similar boats to the working environment we are supposed to find horrendous here. This glossy, opportunistic movie never squares that round peg.

4

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Ana Lily Amirpour directs Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi and Mozhan Marnò in this Iranian set vampire romance.

Had high expectations for this very well reviewed debut… and had enjoyed Amirpour’s gruesome follow up The Bad Batch. The monochrome look of it is amazing but it plays out like a very stretched out music video. There’s just not enough narrative to suspend all these gorgeous images and moments of disturbed longing. The style is wild, the substance lacking.

6

Heavy Metal (1981)

Gerald Potterton directs Rodger Bumpass, Jackie Burroughs and John Candy in this adult fantasy animation anthology where warriors and future taxi drivers and horny robots and zombie bomber pilots are connected by a green glowing orb.

The stories vary in quality but the vibe is overpoweringly teenage boys Warhammer wank bank. You can almost smell the socks, deodorant and model glue. You get stacked women fucking droids. Stacked woman riding bugs into the sunset. Stacked women slicing up mutants with broadswords. Often in the nudie nude. Sex. Violence. Rock N Roll. Some knowing wit, equal amounts of misogyny. I found the juvenile extremeness of it all really alluring. My favourite episodes were “Harry Canyon”, “B-17” and “Den” in that order. They have their live action descendants in The Fifth Element, Overlord and Conan respectively. Silly, epic, dated, metal – watched as part of the Edinburgh Filmhouse’s Uncanny Valley Late Night series.

8

Grabbers (2012)

Jon Wright directs Richard Coyle, Ruth Bradley and Bronagh Gallagher in this Irish sci-fi horror comedy where killer aliens swarm a remote community.

Shaun of the Dead go Bragh. Tremors with a drinking problem. Craggy Island Gremlins. Whatever the pitch was, it worked out. This is an undemanding one watcher with impressive creature FX and likeable performances. I enjoyed Ruth Bradley’s big city Garda a lot, she stands out among the stereotypes. The conceit that the monsters won’t kill the extremely drunk because of their dehydrating blood alcohol opens things up solidly. Follows the rule book slavishly, delivers the goods with surprising conviction.

6

Starry Eyes (2014)

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer directs Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller and Noah Segan in this Hollywood horror where a wannabe toys with the offer to submit to a demonic casting couch for a breakthrough role.

Strong on nervy paranoid atmosphere but lurches into some awkward directions – there’s a gore sequence that feels like it is there for the trailer, not the narrative. Essoe is good as our frustrated lead, and there’s some strong body shock imagery but you can’t help but keep thinking you are watching a poor man’s Mullholland Dr.

5

End of Watch (2012)

David Ayer directs Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña and David Harbour in this found footage buddy cop movie where two patrol officers police a hellish district.

A modern update on The New Centurions full of great and horrific moments. The “camera in story” conceit doesn’t work one itty bit and the introduction of some BIG BAD cartel villainy comes straight outta a comic book. To make up for these faults you have Gyllenhaal and Peña’s smoking camaraderie and Anna Kendrick dancing to the Birdie Song… Yo!

7

Vera Cruz (1954)

Robert Aldrich directs Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster and Caesar Romero in this action western where a struggling plantation owner and a gregarious bandit become mercenaries for the Mexican emperor.

A cowboy action extravaganza with the unusual twist that the white hat and the black hat become friends. Vera Cruz is a progenitor of both the spaghetti western and the buddy movie. This is an electric entertainment, powered by the fact we know our stars are going to have revert back to their natures and face off over the gold, girls and freedom fighters floating around the plot. The ending is thrilling and unpredictable. Lancaster is all teeth and smiling menace in one of his best early roles.

9

That Sinking Feeling (1979)

Bill Forsyth directs Robert Buchanan, Billy Greenlees and John Gordon Sinclair in this crime comedy where a group of unemployed Glasgow lads plot to steal a warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.

A quirky little low budget number littered with nice moments but a bit too thin and amateurish to hold your attention for its entire feature length. The running joke about the boy who really gets into impersonating a cleaning lady for the sake of the score has aged the best, surprisingly.

5

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

Abbi Kiarostami directs Behzad Dorani, Farzad Sohrabi and Noghre Asadi in this Iranian arthouse drama about an engineer stranded in a remote village waiting for an elder to die while he struggles to acquire milk and phone signal.

Kiarostami sure loves middle aged men driving around outskirts of towns meeting people and considering their mortality! I’m not sure I do quite so much but this was watchable.

6