1917: A masterclass in genre blending

1917 film image from IMDb

There have been many movies about the First World War over the years. The first ones came out while the war was still being fought, and it seems every generation since has tried on multiple occasions to try to understand the bloody conflict through a movie camera lens. Sure, the list of films that depict the war’s much more devastating sequel is much longer, but the fact remains that any filmmaker that wants to attempt a WWI film of his or her her own faces a daunting challenge: how to make the film interesting, and not simply a retread of the same thing over and over again. How do you make it fresh?

This was the challenge that faced director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) when he went to make his own film about the horrors of war in the trenches of the Western Front. Mendes was inspired by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a Trinidadian author who fought in the war and shared his experiences with his grandson while he was growing up. One wonders what conversations were had in Hollywood studio offices as Mendes pitched 1917, a film inspired by his grandfather’s stories. Obviously, this pitch was successful, as 1917 is nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture. So, how did Mendes manage to make it fresh?

By taking that figure of speech, “horrors of war”, literally. See, while 1917 may technically be a war drama, it isn’t filmed the way a classical war drama would be. Instead, it takes its cues from the horror genre. Its pacing, lighting, editing, framing, musical score, and cinematography are all much more reminiscent of Halloween or The Thing than All Quiet on the Western Front. They even include several jump-scares!

Now, to be clear, this film has no ghosts, monsters, or slashers. It doesn’t need them, as seeing what actual soldiers who fought in the Western Front had to go through is scary and horrifying enough. The result is an incredibly effective film that is truly edge-of-your-seat tense, as it makes you frightened for what is going to happen to the two soldiers (played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) who are the film’s main protagonists.

Now, I have to give credit to the two actors for their compelling portrayal of a pair of British soldiers trying to complete an incredibly dangerous mission all on their own, but the film has one more ace up its sleeve to keep us invested. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, No Country For Old Men) decided to pull a stunt that appears to have become popular recently, and film it all in a way that makes it look like a single, long take with no cuts. This is a very difficult way to film, and requires quite a lot of skill to pull it off well. I am happy to report that they succeeded with 1917, and the end result helps to keep the tension going as it means you never really get a break in the action.

While we’re on the subject of things this movie does well, I would like to give a quick shout-out to the attention to historical detail this movie had. Set during Operation Alberich, a strategic German retreat to a much stronger and more easily defensible position, our two main characters are British soldiers sent to warn a unit that is pursuing the Germans that they are walking into a trap. As a result, they have to make their way across a landscape that has been devastated by the fighting. The filmmakers did an excellent job of portraying what life on the Western Front was like and showcasing historical details that often get missed by other filmmakers. For instance, time is spent to showcase how far superior the German trench-works and rations were to those of the British. We see scenes of devastated French towns that look just like photographs of those ruined towns taken at the time. The film even acknowledges the more than 2.8 million soldiers fighting for the British who came from across its vast global Empire.

This film is an excellent example of genre-blending done right. It showcases how thinking outside the box can make something you’ve seen before feel completely new, while also paying respect to the people who actually fought in the First World War with its attention to detail. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for history buffs and for horror movie buffs. As of writing, I don’t know whether it will get the Academy Award for Best Picture or not, but if it does, it will have truly earned it.

To the Stars through a Difficult Viewing

Ad Astra Per Aspera – Latin for ‘to the stars through difficulties’ – is the official motto of the state of Kansas and the South African Air Force, and is widely used among many other governments, organizations, and universities, as well as being referenced in music, literature, and popular culture. It’s almost surprising that it has taken this long for a science fiction film about space exploration to reference this well-known phrase in its title. I was first made aware of the film Ad Astra while watching baseball on TV, as a trailer for the film played during the commercial break. A major Hollywood production about a space adventure starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones? And it isn’t an adaptation of a comic book or part of a decades-old franchise? I just had to see it for myself.

Then I left the theater, and it took me a while to put my finger on why, exactly, I didn’t like this movie.

At first glance, I should love it. Ad Astra is a work of “hard sci-fi”, a sub-genre I really enjoy that focuses on the “science” part of science fiction with super-realistic and grounded predictions of future technology and actual physics. Think movies like The Martian or Gravity. Ad Astra attempts to imagine what a future where humanity has colonized the moon and Mars would actually look like given the state of current technology and global politics. It stars two very good actors who are giving excellent performances. It has an excellent premise: astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) learns that his long-lost father (Jones) may still be alive at the edge of the solar system, conducting a deep-space experiment that threatens to wipe out all life on Earth. It’s a premise that has built-in emotional tension and a mystery you want to see the hero solve.

I also have to complement the film on its attitude toward exposition. All too often, sci-fi and fantasy stories have to explain to the audience the background for what’s happening through either a ton of awkward narration or the inclusion of an audience-point-of-view “fish out of water” character who has to have everything explained to him or her. Ad Astra eschews that. Instead, it takes a “show, don’t tell” approach to world-building, trusting the audience to be smart enough to put the pieces together. All the characters we follow live in this world, and treat it as everyday and normal. The futuristic and fantastical elements of this world that we see are exposed to the audience through the characters’ mundane interactions with these elements. It’s a challenge to do this type of exposition well, and Ad Astra definitely succeeds.

Yet for all this film has going for it, I can’t help but feel it is constantly undercutting itself. The biggest piece of this is the direction. The cinematography and style of a hard sci-fi film should feel just as grounded and real as its setting, like a PBS documentary. Instead, director James Gray (The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z) decided to go for a super-stylized, surreal, dreamlike look and feel for his movie. This film is super-artsy, with odd cuts, fancy fades between scenes, bizarre lighting choices, and lots of Dutch angles, to the point where it becomes quite distracting and you get the impression he was trying too hard. Even worse, it was apparently decided at some point along the way that we needed to constantly hear Roy McBride’s inner thoughts as he goes about his mission. It quickly gets very distracting.

That’s another thing I couldn’t enjoy about this movie: its hero. Our main character is a real jerk. On the surface, he looks and acts like a stoic, calm-under-pressure, competent astronaut, but as we hear practically everything he’s thinking, we can see that he sees himself as far superior to all the idiot normals around him and doesn’t really like or trust anyone. Admittedly, this is just a personal preference of mine, but I want to like the protagonist of a movie I’m watching. I want to root for the hero, and I can’t do that if the hero is a terrible person.

Lastly, the film has a few plot twists that seem very contrived and convenient. Sure, the film knows how to world-build when it comes to technology and society, but when it comes to the actual interactions between the characters and events that advance the story, the writing is just weak. It feels like they were more interested in forcing the film to move on to the next plot point than letting the characters get there naturally. Not only that, but some decisions that the characters make during this film’s runtime just seem downright stupid.

I don’t hate Ad Astra, and there are parts of it that I genuinely like. Unfortunately, its flaws don’t outweigh its strengths to me. As much as it is disappointing for me to do so, I have to give it 4 out of 10.

A Big, Bohemian Mess of a Movie

Queen was one of the most unique and iconic bands of the 1970’s and 1980’s, with a style and charisma all their own. Lead singer Freddie Mercury has gone down as one of rock history’s greats, and he certainly lived like a rock star in his day. That a movie about this band would be made was surely inevitable. However, I did not expect it to be this kind of movie.

This is an Oscar bait film.

First of all, the film was released near the end of the year, a tactic often used by films that are hoping to snag some Academy Awards in order to be fresh in the minds of Academy voters. It also picked a subject matter that plays at Hollywood’s love of nostalgia. What really gives it away as Oscar bait, though, is the movie’s style.

The cinematography has that characteristic, super-serious “I’m a biopic about some important person in history and you should take me seriously” style. Over-lit and washed-out with lots of white; conversations filmed and edited into a bog-standard “shot-reverse shot” series of close-ups. Every scene having a self-important sense of gravitas. The sort of film-making that characterizes such films as The King’s Speech or Argo or 12 Years A Slave. Not that that’s a bad thing; I do enjoy that sort of film. I’m just not convinced that it’s appropriate for the story of a band as rebellious, as energetic, and as fun as Queen. The style and the subject matter clash at a very fundamental level.

So, why? Why make this an Oscar bait movie? Well, I don’t know, obviously; I wasn’t in the Hollywood boardrooms where these decisions are made. But I do have an educated guess, and it all has to do with the film’s director: Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects).

See, there have multiple accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Singer, and in 2014 he fought multiple lawsuits over these allegations. It wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that Singer was hoping that winning some Academy Awards would redeem him in the minds of his Hollywood peers and the general public, allowing him to move past these allegations. Again, that’s just a guess on my part, and I could be completely wrong. Regardless of what Singer’s intentions were, he was fired just one month before filming on the movie was completed, and Dexter Fletcher had to step in to finish the film.

In any case, the style choice clearly works to this film’s detriment. This movie makes Queen look boring and lame, two adjectives that by rights should never be applied to this band. When the band’s most iconic songs are played – something any movie about any band would obviously want to do – it feels like a crutch. “Remember this song? Don’t you love it? Don’t you, by extension, love this film?”

That’s just the beginning of this movie’s problems. In any biopic, you want the movie to be about something. You want to focus on one aspect of the character or historical event you are portraying and really drive home your thesis about it. Operation Finale did a great job with this, taking a deep look at what kinds of men its main hero and villain were. Bohemian Rhapsody, in contrast, feels like it just doesn’t know what it wants to say. Is it about the struggles of an artist against the system? About the complicated relationships in Freddie Mercury’s life? A cautionary tale about the dangers of hard living? It feels like the film just can’t make up its mind. The whole movie is just one plot thread after another that starts and stops with no real coherence to them and no satisfactory conclusion to any of them.

One aspect of the movie that really suffers is the haphazard and mishandled “exploration” of Mercury’s backstory. We see hints at his troubled relationship with his family, and the clash between the sort of man Farrokh Bulsara (Mercury’s real name) was and his family’s conservative Indian traditions and values. Yet we only see glimpses of this conflict in a handful of scenes. In fact, for most of the movie’s runtime, it’s easy to forget that the film ever brought the singer’s family up at all. It’s like it’s there just to be a little token lip service to Mercury’s heritage. Heck, there are two specific times in the film where people throw racial slurs at him, and that is literally all that we see of Mercury having to deal with racism. I mean, if you are going to bring these topics up, you should actually examine them!

Having said all of that, I didn’t hate the movie. It has many good parts. Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, The Master) does a phenomenal job portraying Mercury. The scenes where we watch the band crafting their most memorable songs really work well at showing the creative process and the way the dynamics between the band members helped shape their music. My favorite scene is the one where the band members argue over “I’m In Love With My Car”. Yes, really.

The strongest part of the movie, however, comes in the final act. The climax is centered around Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, and it is a real tear-jerker. It is a very powerful, emotional, and effective ending to the movie. If this movie does win any Oscars, it will be for Malek’s magnificent performance in these final scenes. It’s just such a shame that the rest of the movie couldn’t be as good as that ending.

Between the super-serious biopic style, the confusing mess of half-formed plot threads that covers most of the runtime, and the lack of any coherent message or theme, this movie’s good parts just aren’t enough to elevate the whole. I’m giving it a 5 out of 10. Another one bites the dust, indeed.

Operation Character Study

In 1941, at a mansion outside Berlin, fifteen key figures in the Nazi SS gathered to decide on a “Final Solution” to what they called “the Jewish Question”. One of the men who gave a presentation at this conference was a former door-to-door salesman who was now in charge of the SS’s “Jewish Affairs” division: Adolf Eichmann. It was at this conference that plans were made for the genocide of six million Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe. Eichmann was put in charge of the efforts to round up all the Jews that the SS could get their hands on and transport them to infamous death camps such as Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

As World War II ended in a German defeat, several key Nazi leaders committed suicide rather than face the consequences of their monstrous actions, and numerous others were put on trial by the victorious Allies for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, quite a few Nazis managed to evade capture without committing suicide, forming a secret organization called “ODESSA” that helped fellow Nazis flee Europe and rebuild new lives in South America. Eichmann was one such fugitive from justice who wound up living in hiding in Argentina. However, in 1960, a group of agents from Israel’s national spy agency, Mossad, managed to capture him and bring him to Israel, where he was put on trial for being the “architect of the Holocaust”.

Operation Finale is MGM’s portrayal of the Mossad operation that netted Eichmann, filmed on location in Buenos Aires and directed by Chris Weitz (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Twilight Saga: New Moon). The film follows Peter Malkin, one of the key figures in the operation.

Malkin is played by Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Promise), who is starting to become a big name in Hollywood. He really works well in this role, as at first you think the character he’s playing is just another bland, macho, never-wrong hero archetype of the sort you’ve seen in a hundred films, but gradually you start to recognize that there is far more going on underneath the front he puts on. It’s often in the subtlest of things that one can truly see his acting talent.

However, one can’t mention acting talent without talking about the man playing Eichmann, the legendary Ben Kingsley. The man will probably always be most famous for his role as the title character in Gandhi, but I would argue that his performance in this film easily deserves to be remembered among his best. He does a remarkable job, not only because he is portraying one of the most horrid monsters of a regime full of horrid monsters, but because he shows how a seemingly ordinary human being can become such a monster. You really get a sense of what kind of person Eichmann was.

This leads me to one of the most surprising things about this movie. I went into the theater expecting to watch a spy thriller. Instead, what I got was a very well-done character study dressed up as a spy thriller. This is far from a criticism, by the way. The strongest scenes in the film are focused on who Isaac’s Malkin and Kingsley’s Eichmann are as characters, investigating what makes them tick.

One criticism I do have, though, has to do with the pacing. This may be a personal taste thing, but at least in this critic’s opinion, this is the sort of story that would have made a nail-biting one-and-a-half-hour television special. It felt to me like there was obvious padding added in to the film to make it feature-length for modern cinema-going audiences. Yet even here, I have to give credit to the filmmakers for at least making the filler feel engaging and interesting. Most notably, quite a bit of screen time is spent on showing how spies in the 1960s did their work. We see, in detail, all the planning and careful work that goes into a successful espionage mission, and it’s fascinating to watch. So, even my criticism of the film is a bit minor and muted.

All in all, this was an excellent movie that is well worth your time. I don’t care if you are sick of movies about World War II and the Holocaust, this film is different and distinct enough that you should still consider seeing it. Operation Finale is a well-done work of art on all fronts.

Infinite Darkness

Ever since Marvel Studios first proved that comic books, with all of their convoluted and wacky storylines, could be successfully translated onto the big screen with 2012’s The Avengers, they have been teasing and building up to an even bolder experiment: turning the “event comic” into a movie.

For those who don’t know what an “event comic” is, every few years the two major comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, will publish a limited-run special series telling a story that involves nearly all of the comic book characters in their fictional universe. Usually these will involve all of them having to team up to fight some sort of ultimate threat, or in some cases, it will involve the characters all fighting each other for some reason. These are usually marketed as “changing the Marvel/DC universe FOREVER!!!!*” 

*”…by which we mean until we undo it and revert everything back to the status quo except for the one or two changes that fans actually enjoyed a year or so from now.”

Event comics are the penultimate expression of comic books’ soap opera-like character, involving a deep continuity built up from years and even decades of stories about dozens of characters that we have grown to love all being juggled and balanced by the writers as they craft a tale of epic struggle. It’s a real challenge to pull off, with so many plates spinning in the air to keep track of. The best event comics are beloved by comic book fans, while others are made fun of as being among the worst comics in history.

I’m happy to say, Avengers: Infinity War manages to pull it off. The film is directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, in their third outing co-directing for Marvel (they previously had directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War), and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It not only captures the epic scale of the best event comics, it successfully juggles the vast cast of characters that Marvel has built up over the years. No one character overpowers all the others; the script carefully balances each of them to give each of them room to breathe. It also is paced VERY well. Even though we are jumping from one end of the universe to the other as we follow our heroes, it is really easy to follow what is going on and I never felt lost. The plot is not rushed, but instead each scene is given just enough time to really settle in before we are whisked away again.

Also, can I just mention how amazing the visuals are on this film? Fantastical scenes from across space appear absolutely breathtaking and even the more mundane shots set on Earth are beautifully framed. It was a very smart move hiring Trent Opaloch (Elysium) as director of photography, that man knows his stuff. All of the actors brought their A-game for this one, and Chris Hemsworth in particular turns in what is undeniably his best work playing Thor thus far. Also, the film includes an excellent cameo by Peter Dinklage.

I can’t deny that this is the best-made film Marvel Studios has turned out yet. And I won’t be seeing it again anytime soon.

Okay, here we go…

I now know why the most recent Marvel releases, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, were more comedic and campy in tone than most of the other Marvel films. It was for balance.

Avengers: Infinity War is by far the darkest movie Marvel has ever made. Yes, darker than Captain America: Civil War, which looks like a humorous romp by comparison. Darker, indeed, than the recent DC movies that have become quite infamous among superhero fans for being dark films.

Infinity War goes into some really messed-up territory, and I ended up feeling physically ill at the end. It goes into abuse, torture, the dangers of power, and extremism. I really struggled with how to write this without spoilers, as I always find it annoying when film critics include spoilers in their reviews, even if they warn their audience ahead of time. Still, it is almost impossible to talk about this movie without talking about the ending.

Suffice it to say, it is not a good ending for our beloved heroes. I think I’ll just leave it at that.

If you are thinking, as I had, that you want to have a fun afternoon out and watch the latest Marvel film to enjoy some fun action with men in suits while eating popcorn, be warned. That is not what you are going to get with Infinity War.

In a way, part of me applauds Marvel for just being willing to go there. As much as we think of Marvel as a “brand” now, a franchise known for quality movies with comic book characters, it often gets forgotten that a large part of why Marvel is so successful is that it does take risks. This was not something I saw coming, nor, if the reactions of the rest of the patrons in the theater with me were any indication, did anyone else expect this.

Still. The one thing Marvel has always counted on, nay, depended on, to get people to keep coming back to their movies is the promise of fun. This film basically flips that table over.

Will I watch another Marvel movie in the future? Absolutely. But not this one.