Film Review: ‘1917’

‘1917’ (2019)
***No spoilers***

It is not often that I get to see a current film that has just been released in the cinema. But I thought this WW1 epic from Sam Mendes warranted a trip into town to see it on the big screen.

Sadly, my local 3-screen cinema decided to show the film in Screen 3, the smallest one they have. I complained to the ticket lady, saying it should be on Screen One, with has a conventional big-screen experience. She advised me that they were still showing ‘Frozen 2’ on that screen, as ‘It is more popular than war films’.

I suppose that’s what I get for living in Norfolk!

‘1917’ is a war film, set during the latter half of WW1. It has attracted much critical acclaim, and hundreds of positive reviews. I have seen it described as ‘The best war film ever made’, and also ‘A Masterpiece’. For me, it was neither of those. But it is still an excellent film, and well-worth seeing.

The main reason I say that is because the film is shot in an unusual way, and also contains some powerful imagery that will stay in your mind. For those of us used to seeing WW1 films that show huge sweeping frontal attacks, or the effect of shelling on terrified combatants, Mendes offers something different.

Two junior-ranking soldiers are tasked with an incredibly difficult mission. They must get through the abandoned enemy trenches, and past a town still occupied by the Germans. Near that town is a wood, where a British regiment is waiting to attack. That attack must be cancelled, as they are walking into a trap, and will be massacred. There is a reason why one of the soldiers has been chosen. His older brother is serving with the doomed regiment, and that will give him the incentive to get the job done.

From that point on, we follow the journey of the two young men. We do this in a way that makes us feel we are there. The camera is close in on the leads. Face to face, just behind them, or off to the side. It really does feel at times as if you are a ‘third soldier’, as you experience everything in what feels like real time, in one take.

It wasn’t filmed in one take, or in real time, but seamless editing and great camera angles provide that impression for 90% of the film. One of my old friends suggested that this made it feel like a video game. I know what he means. If you have ever played a ‘first-person shooter’ game, it might feel like that. But it wasn’t so for me, and I just felt that it immersed the viewer in the action in a good way.

Concentrating first on the positives, I have to say that historical authenticity was very good indeed. Equipment, uniforms, weapons, all seemed accurate. The reconstruction of the trenches was superbly done, especially the way the film showed how much better the Germans were at constructing more solid and safer trench systems on their side of the line. Special effects are few, but well-done where they are used. Rotting corpses in shell-craters, the decaying carcasses of dead horses, and the tangled mess of the barbed wire. All totally convincing.

The star of the film is the landscape. The war-torn countryside of France, the blackened tree stumps, the desolation of the mud-filled No-Man’s Land, contrasted by the green and pleasnt fields beyond the area being fought over. Definitely the best I have ever seen on screen. A ruined French town, illuminated at night by flares that float slowly to the ground. A burning building making a sound like rushing water. All superb. This film is a treat for the eyes, and a directorial triumph.

Full marks for the casting too. The young male leads are played by George McKay and the fresh-faced Dean-Charles Chapman. McKay is particularly good, and obviously has a great future. Then there are the ‘big names’. Well-known British actors who are more than happy to have just a few minutes on screen. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Daniel Mays, Richard Maddern, and many more. Each one makes the very best of their short scene, and leaves their own mark on the film overall.

So, on to what I was less impressed by.

Despite some wonderful, often eye-popping visuals, and a soundtrack that suited the film perfectly, I just didn’t believe the story. The whole concept of the plot felt contrived, and the fact that one of the soldiers is hoping to save his own brother felt unnecessarily sentimental to me. And that aspect was overplayed throughout, in my opinion. It felt as if Mendes had decided we needed something extra to make us interested in the film, and for us to be suitably invested in the characters. Well, I didn’t. It would have worked for me without that rather obvious sentimentality.

But that’s all. Just that one gripe.

This is a great film in most respects, with a dynamic cast all delivering, and the ‘one-take feel’ alone makes it worth watching.

If you are interested in films about WW1, I will add some links at the end.
Meanwhile, here’s a trailer for ‘1917’.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058263/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050825/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020629/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regeneration_(1997_film)
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1418646/
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022787/

Watching Films, and Writing Fiction

Ever since I started to publish fictional stories and longer serials on this blog, many readers have asked me where I get the ideas for them. I usually answer that I get the idea for a title as I am walking around aimlessly with my dog Ollie, lost in thought.

That is the truth, in most cases. The title appears in my head for some reason, and I then begin to construct a story, working back from an ending that I imagine suits that title. I have no idea if this is unique to me. For all I know, many of the better-known writers may well have discovered their own inspiration in a similar fashion.

I started to regularly watch films at exactly the same time I began writing short stories. That was a long time ago, when I was around eight years old. Not that I copied the plots of those films for my stories, you understand.
What happened was that I would see the stories in my head, not unlike the way I had just been immersed in watching a film for two hours. My characters would come to life in my mind, with their clothes, faces, expressions, and actions as real to me as if they were on a screen in front of my eyes.

I soon learned that you cannot just transcribe what you see, and make that into a short story, or longer serial. It would be a huge volume. Imagine trying to write down what you saw in just one long scene in your favourite film. Think of how enormous film scripts are, with their movement directions, and descriptions of scenery, reactions, and close-ups.

By the time I had started to work out how to whittle all this down to a readable story, I had grown up, left school, and started work. I had no time to write fiction any longer, and I was eventually married, and embarking on a career as an EMT.

In 2012, I retired, started to blog, and later tried my hand at fiction again, after a gap of more than forty-five years. I had many misfires, and wondered if I had lost any talent for story-telling. Then I remembered how I had seen those stories like films in my youth, and went back to that method. That definitely improved my writing, and resulted in the long serials and short stories that I was publishing by the early part of 2018.

I conclude that I have to thank a lifetime of watching films for enabling me to rejuvenate my love of writing.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

Good cartoons.

No idea why, but I woke up thinking about cartoons today.

I know we now have adult cartoon shows, like ‘The Simpsons’, and ‘Family Guy’. Younger adults are also well-served by the Japanese animators, with their amazing imaginations. Kids have Disney Pixar and Nickelodeon, and the tiny ones have things like ‘My Little Pony’ and ‘Paw Patrol’.

But I never see any of the old ‘good cartoons’ anymore. Ones like these.

Or the ones I grew up with.

At the cinema, cartoons always added to the enjoyment.

Many became household names, and endured for decades.

When television came along, we had cartoons to enjoy at home too.

I was happy to watch these into my late teens,and always enjoyed the antics of the familiar characters. But then longer cartoon shows took over, like the awful ‘Scooby-Doo’, ‘Hong Kong Phooey’, and many more. Pop groups like the Jackson 5 had their own cartoon show, and very soon the essence of the short cartoon seemed to have disappeared without trace.

Political correctness, merchandising of associated products, and the power of the networks put an end to the cartoons I had enjoyed for years.

Let me know what cartoons you miss, by leaving a comment.

Film Flops I Have Seen (2)

I am continuing this series of film flops with this completely unnecessary remake, from 2004. As a child, I went to see John Wayne starring in ‘The Alamo’, in 1960. It was a more-or-less factual account of the famous defence of the Alamo Mission in 1836, against the superior Mexican forces led by Generalissimo Santa Anna.

For some reason best known to themselves, Touchstone Pictures, and producer Ron Howard, decided to do a by-the-numbers remake, 44 years later.

They scraped together a decent, if far from stellar cast, including Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid in the main roles. Both leading men had been in far better films, and it is fair to say that both were in the autumn of their film careers. It is also fair to say that the ‘target market’ for such a film had already seen the 1960 original, probably many times. And like me, they undoubtedly retained a fondness for it. Besides that, it was on TV all the time, dirt cheap on DVD, and there was zero demand for it to be remade.

From anyone, anywhere.

Disney refused Howard’s over-optimistic budget, and the original cast members Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke left during the financial arguments. The director insisted on complete historical authenticity, and many details were changed from the John Wayne version. Deciding on presenting a ‘serious’ view of the Alamo battle proved to be the film’s undoing.

The critics didn’t like it. The public didn’t like it. Too much detail, too much talking, and action sequences that were not as exciting and involving as the 1960 film. With the critical panning, the audiences stayed away in droves. It wasn’t 1960 anymore, and they had all seen bigger and better historical blockbusters. Then there was that John Wayne original. It was undeniably a better film. More stirring, more involving, and overall more exciting.

The film lost a fortune. It cost $107,000,000 to make, and took less than $23,000,000 worldwide, including DVD sales.
That left it at number six, of the all-time film flops.

I watched the film the year after its US release, and can only agree with the critics, and the public. Another pointless remake.

Will they ever learn? I suspect the answer is “No”.

Film Flops I Have Seen (1)

It might not surprise you to find out that many films have been financial disasters, failing to recoup a fraction of the cost it took to make them. I haven’t seen all of them, but I have watched my share over the years. It is easy to see why some of them failed, but many of the biggest cinema disasters are actually excellent films. In this occasional series, I will be giving my own opinion about some of the cinema industry’s greatest flops.

The Cotton Club (1984)

This film made no impact at the box office, despite the presence of the big star, Richard Gere. It was also written by Mario Puzo of ‘Godfather’ fame, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who made ‘Apocalypse Now’, so the talent was lined up. Along with Gere, we got Bob Hoskins, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lawrence Fishburne, Nicholas Cage, and Allen Garfield. At least the cast list looked promising.

Then there was the story. The Mob, A Harlem Club, famous gangsters, Jazz, great music and dancing. Add to that the faithful recreation of the club itself, and the feel of 1930s New York, and it had to be a winner. When it was released, the critics loved it, and it got nominated for a slew of awards. It won a Grammy for the soundtrack, but that was all.

But the public didn’t get it. They didn’t flock in their droves to see it, and they didn’t rush to buy the VHS tape of the film either. It had taken five years to make, and the notoriously over-spending Coppola had been lavishing in excess of $250,000 a DAY on the sets, costumes, and musical arrangements alone. As well as arguing with the studio, Coppola took money from Las Vegas hoodlums and international arms dealers to keep financing the project. Puzo was replaced as the screenwriter, and one of the investors was killed in an alleged drug gang hit, when he failed to pay them the promised return.

It all started to go wrong, very quickly.

The film grossed less than $26,000,000 worldwide, leaving the investors out of pocket by an estimated $77,000,000.

I went to see the film, and I actually really enjoyed it. It was not by any means a ‘great’ film, but I liked the period atmosphere, most of the acting, and all of the music.
Sadly, my entrance fee wasn’t enough to save it from being number 23 on the list of all-time film flops.

Afternoon Double Feature

(This is a fictional short story, in 1230 words.)

There was nothing quite like an afternoon double-feature on a weekday. Hardly anyone in the cinema, no queues for the ice-cream lady, and if the films were good, you could sit through them again for the next showing, no questions asked. Fair enough, the first film would be average at best, but the main film would almost always be worth seeing. In between, there would be a newsreel, then perhaps even a few cartoons.

The shorter Easter holiday was always boring for Nigel. For one thing, the weather was often awful, so the usual walk around the seafront was out of the question. Mum was at work until almost six, so he wandered around with his door key hidden under his shirt, suspended from some itchy string. And there was nothing on the television until the evening, but then Mum always decided what to watch anyway.

Stuck in his room reading encyclopedias, world maps, or old comics could only be tolerated for so long. So when Mum gave him his pocket money on a Monday, he knew what he wanted to spend it on, even if that meant having hardly anything left for the rest of the week.

The old Roxy had seen better days, that was for sure. It could do with a coat of paint, and some of the seats were as hard as a park bench. But it was only a ten-minute walk from home, and the interior still retained some of the grandeur of when it opened, in 1926. Almost forty years later, it was showing its age in more ways than one. The projector made a ticking sound as the film was playing, and four decades of tobacco smoke had turned the once pristine plaster-work ceiling a strange shade of orange.

Still, two films, an ice cream, and some small change from his pocket money. That was worth it.

He was outside the doors before they opened. One middle-aged lady stood in the queue ahead of him, her bag stuffed with knitting. It was obvious that she would be whiling away her time knitting a jumper or something, as the films played out in front of her. A man came and stood behind him. He was smoking a pipe, and looking straight ahead. Nigel made a mental note to avoid both of them when it came to choosing a seat. The knitting needle clicking would drive him mad, and the clouds of smoke from the pipe would choke him.

Just as the doors opened, a teenage couple turned up at the end of the short queue. The girl was giggling, and Nigel knew for sure that they would be spending their time snogging in the back row. They probably wouldn’t even remember the films. The uniformed commissionaire looked like a sergeant-major, his grim nod signifying that they could go in. As he stood behind the knitting lady at the cash desk, Nigel was hoping that Pamela would be taking the money. She lived a couple of streets away, and though she must have been at least thirty, she was so glamorous. Like one of the film stars on the screen where she worked.

He was happy when he got to the desk, and saw her big lipstick-covered smile. That meant she would be selling the small tubs of ice cream in the intermission, and he would get to see her again.

Inside, the lights were still on, and Nigel chose a seat at the end of a row, halfway up. Before the first film began, around a dozen more people turned up, coughing and rustling bags of sweets bought in the foyer. Just as the lights dimmed, a thin man came and sat right next to him, placing a musty-smelling overcoat across his knees as he sat down. Nigel had spent enough time in the cinema to know that this didn’t bode well. In an almost deserted afternoon showing, there was usually only one reason why an older man on his own would sit next to an an unaccompanied twelve year-old boy.

As soon as they started to show the coming attractions of next week’s big film, he quickly moved seats, right across to the small single row on the far side. If the man followed him over there, he would have to resort to going outside to tell the commissionaire. Fortunately, the thin man got the message, and stayed put.

The first film was a western. Nigel could take or leave those as a rule, but this one was quite good, especially for the B-film. And it was in colour too. He had checked the poster outside, and noticed the film was called ‘Geronimo’. It starred Chuck Connors as the famous Apache chief, not someone he had ever heard of. But he certainly looked the part, and there was just enough action, between the boring stuff set on the reservation. Still, it certainly didn’t escape his notice that Chuck was not a real Indian, but some other familiar faces made it feel good enough.

Once the lights were on again, Nigel was waiting with his cash, hoping to be the first to spot Pamela arriving with her tray of ice creams and drinks. She usually picked a spot in the middle, on one side, but if nobody walked down to her, she wandered around the aisles in case anyone called her over. On afternoon screenings, business was slow, and by the time she arrived, the lights were going down for the newsreel. So she switched on the small light that illuminated her tray, and the bottom part of her face.

Nigel was the only one who bothered to go and give her some trade. He smiled at her and politely asked, “Vanilla tub, please”. He could smell her perfume, and as she handed him the small tub and wooden spoon, he liked the way her nail polish caught the light from her tray. When she handed over his change, her fingers felt warm, and she gave him a brief smile, the lipstick appearing to be rather congealed on her mouth.

How many times he had imagined kissing those lips.

The ice cream was gone before the main film started, and he dropped the paper tub and spoon on the floor. As the opening credits rolled, he naturally recognised the name of the star, Dirk Bogarde. It was a black and white film, which felt rather flat after the bright colours of ‘Geronimo’, but as it was a world war two film, he was sure he would like it. And it was called ‘The Password Is Courage’, so he was certain it would be full of action The smoke from the cigarettes and pipes of the adults was rising and swirling. Nigel watched as it passed though the beam of the projector, creating a blue haze.

But despite being about the war, and starring the famous Dirk, the film was a disappointment. It was about a soldier who keeps escaping from German POW camps, and Nigel started to wonder if it was supposed to be a comedy. He felt cheated by the title, and even thought about leaving before the end. But he stuck it out.

Walking out into the dark of a dull and chilly evening, he pulled up the small collar of his jacket against the cold. Thinking about next week, he managed a smile.

They were showing ‘The Longest Day’ at The Roxy, and that looked really good.

Rutger Hauer

I have only just heard that Rutger Hauer has died, aged 75. That is a tragic loss to acting, and cinema.

I could write about all the film roles I have enjoyed seeing him in, but I have to pick my favourite, from my current top ten film of all time.

He embodied the essence of ‘Blade Runner’ (1987), as the replicant, Roy Batty. And he gave us one of the most iconic death scenes in the history of acting.

Rest in peace, Mr Hauer. You will be missed.