By: Kevin Jordan
Can you handle the truth?
If you are into war movies, there are two major ones from which to get your fix. By now, you probably already saw Midway and, depending on what city you live in, might have seen 1917 as well. If not, you are waiting with bated breath for January 10 to get here, which is when 1917 rolls out everywhere. And, I sympathize with you because Midway was not what one might describe as good. Rather, it is what one might describe as “definitely a movie,” or even “the opposite of how to make an interesting movie.”
War movies tend to be really good when the plot is narrowly focused on a specific event. For those of you who have seen neither Midway nor 1917 (or their associated previews), one is focused on a specific event and the other covers several events that take place over a significant amount of time. Based on title, you would assume Midway is the specific one. There was only one Battle of Midway during WWII, so the movie has to focus on that, right? Conversely, 1917 is an entire year of the Great War, in which at least three major battles were fought. Surely, the film will give us a look at the horrors of that year, including the Battle of Cambrai, which was the first time battle tanks were used on a massive scale. If you haven’t already guessed, the opposite is true of both films.
(Side note: Midway should have followed in Dunkirk’s footsteps, but chose to follow in Pearl Harbor’s footsteps. Even worse, Midway didn’t even have great special effects. But enough about Midway; that is not why you are here.)
If you have never seen pictures or heard first or second-hand descriptions of WWI battlefields, think of your worst nightmare, feed that nightmare into a meat grinder, then double it. What little we were taught about WWI in school probably included trench warfare, covered the deployment of new weapons like airplanes, machine guns, and tanks, and briefly described the space between opposing trenches (no-man’s land) as a mess of barbed wire and land mines and thousands of flying bullets and artillery shells. Maybe, just maybe, you had a teacher who also mentioned the bodies that littered no-man’s land, but probably only in the context of a lot of men dying whenever one side would order its men to charge the other side’s line. They never got into the facts that retrieving bodies from no-man’s land was next to impossible, the massive use of modern artillery and chemical weapons left a maelstrom of craters filled with people/poison soup, or that many of those suicidal charges involved horse-mounted cavalry. The point is do not eat any food while watching 1917.
That is not wood floating in the river next to him.
1917 corrects the error of American history classes by showing us that nightmare. British Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are ordered to make their way nine miles forward to warn a 1600-man brigade that is unwittingly marching into a trap. Like them, our immediate question is how they make it a dozen steps before being mowed down. Don’t worry, their commanding officer (Colin Firth) assures them. Aerial surveillance shows the Germans have retreated to lines further back and that the duo can cross no-man’s land safely. The surveillance is also how they know about the trap. Pshaw (or bollocks), we say in unison with Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott). Leslie tells them where they can cross the barbed wire (directions which include “cross through at the horse”), while simultaneously assuring them they will die. Oh, and don’t fall into the craters because we know they are half-filled with water and nobody knows how deep they are. This is half of the recipe for the movie-long tension that begins the moment the men peek their heads above the rim of their trench.
You want to go out there on purpose?
The other half, as my Ruthless colleague John has discussed, is the lack of film cuts throughout the film. Director Sam Mendes wanted to build the tension and realism by putting the audience into the trenches, no-man’s land, and gutted towns with Schofield and Blake and removing cuts is a great way of doing that. You probably have never consciously noticed that a cut allows you take let your breath out or blink your eyes, artificially releasing a bit of tension and momentarily pulling you out from whatever film you are watching. About five minutes into 1917, I realized there had not been a cut yet (for reference, the average length of a shot is 2.5 seconds) and that my eyes were really, really dry. I did my best to look for them, but it was really difficult once the meat grinder was on full display. There are plenty of clever ways to hide cuts, but they just weren’t there. What was there were Black and Schofield crawling through mud, barbed wire, and craters filled with rancid liquids, rats, and body parts and rotting faces glaring at them for having the audacity to not also be dead. Oh, and the horses the dead rode in on.
Cut me a break already.
Since Mendes did everything possible to make the film appear as one long cut, the tension almost never breaks. Like the two corporals, we are expecting bullets to fly at any moment. For one of them to step on a land mine. For an artillery shell to explode. For Germans to be around every corner. Even worse, and just like in life, nothing happens when you expect it to, instead happening out of sync. If I chewed my fingernails when I got nervous, I would have nothing left below the elbows.
Like Saving Private Ryan and other great war films, 1917 works because the war is the setting instead of the plot. We can experience the war by observing it with Blake and Schofield. For this film and for our benefit, they channel the experience of the entire Allied army. As they navigate the obstacles of the war to accomplish their mission, not only do we see all of those things we learned about in school (tanks, trenches, biplanes, artillery, death), but we see all of the things no one told us about. The simple plot of two men risking their lives in a suicide mission for the greater good is a far better story than trying to cram half of WWII into a two-hour Midway, I mean movie.
Rating: Do not ask for any money back and don’t forget to unclench.
By: Kevin Jordan
Harking back to earlier times.
Ranking things has become a staple of American media and might be what they spend the most time and effort on. From power rankings to best-of rankings to “which candidate was the least deplorable during last night’s (pick your party) debate” rankings, they have majorly impacted the way news is presented and consumed. Heck, I do it myself every year in my annual Year in Review piece. So, with the release of James Bond 24 – Spectre – it was predictable that nearly every entertainment outlet would rank all things James Bond. From Bond Girls to villains to henchman to cars to gadgets to the movies themselves, those sites ranked everything short of Bond haircuts (and it wouldn’t surprise me if a search turned that up as well). While these are fun exercises, they get old after the thousandth one written and are always biased depending (mostly) on the age of the writer (if you want to test that theory, find a baby boomer and tell him Pierce Brosnan was a better Bond than Sean Connery. Then, duck the incoming punch). I’m not going to rank anything here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least answer a similar question – how does Spectre compare with the other Daniel Craig Bond films?
Let’s just get this out of the way up front – Casino Royale was a nearly perfect film and none of the subsequent Bond films have come close to matching it (I didn’t write a full review of Skyfall, but I found it slightly overrated, as noted in my 2012 Year in Review). Having said that, I enjoyed all of them because they are well-produced, Craig is fantastic, my wife will go see them with me, and they are better than nearly every other action movie out there. Spectre is no different, delivering well on all three of those qualities. However, some chinks in the armor are beginning to show.
Spectre is a bit of a throwback to pre-Craig iterations. Remember all of the jokes in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me that ridicule the clichés of Bond flicks? Well, pretty much every one of those clichés was on full display in Spectre and, disappointingly, the movie was only aware of one of them (I’ll get to them in a moment). To me, the lack of these clichés is what made the previous Craig films so good and refreshing, so bringing them back was a head-scratcher. So, let’s talk about them.
Adele set a very high standard with “Skyfall,” so following it up was going to be a tough chore for anyone. Unfortunately, Sam Smith and the producers decided not to even try. I’ve always wanted to use the word caterwauling and singer Sam Smith was caterwauling with the best of them in “Writing’s on the Wall,” one of the worst openers for any Bond movie. Smith himself said it took half an hour to write the song and the demo version was used in the final cut of the film. I’m guessing the folks who approved had listened to the demo shortly after firing guns without wearing ear protection. Guys, that ringing in your ears wasn’t exploding gunpowder, it was Smith.
Previous Craig films wisely stayed away from the silly gadgets of yesteryear, but director Sam Mendes apparently thought it was time to bring them back. Exploding watch? Check. 60’s era toggle switches in Bond’s car to set off fire, bullets, and ejector seat? Check. Nanobots in Bond’s blood to track his vitals and location? Check. Headshakes from me every time one of these appeared? Check. To be fair, the film is mildly aware of this trope, adding a toggle switch in the car for pre-selected music (the car was intended for agent 009) and, upon receiving the watch from Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond asks “Does it do anything?” to which Q responds “It tells the time.”
Every Bond movie has a car chase (or four) and this one features an Aston Martin DB10 with the previously mentioned toggle switches. Every Bond movie also wrecks Bond’s car, which I find tired. I know it goes along with the recklessness of Bond’s character, but couldn’t we save the car just once? Or at least, can’t Q give him a car that doesn’t cost three million pounds (Q actually tells us the cost, which also made me wonder why he used ten cent toggle switches. Whatever).
Some people think Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) counts as a Bond girl, but I don’t think so. Bond girls are one of two things – the damsel in distress or part of the villain’s gang (or both). Sleeping with Bond does not make a Bond girl, though all Bond girls sleep with him. That leaves Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – damsel, and Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) – part of the gang (though only by marriage). Nothing sets these two apart from most Bond girls, especially Bellucci, who serves no purpose in the film other than to have sex with Bond after Bond eliminates her assassin husband. But, hey, they’re hot so…mission accomplished?
Did anybody miss the villain’s right hand man? Me either. But what true Bond villain doesn’t have a cartoon character henchman to execute his evil plans? Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) fills out that role while almost over-filling out his suits. His job is busting heads without asking questions and if he had any lines at all, I don’t remember them. He doesn’t have metal teeth or razor-edged hats, but he does like to kill people by pushing his fingers through their eyes, so he achieves the same effect – ewww, gross.
The villains all tend to be the same – super intelligent sociopaths with ridiculously complex evil plots and some quirk. Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) is the leader of the evil organization called Spectre, which contained Quantum, the previous evil organization thought to be THE evil organization. Franz claims to be the one responsible for all of the bad things that happened in the last three movies and to that I say – really? But he’s not done. He’s also trying to get a system approved and online that connects national surveillance systems all into one system that he would control because…um…hmmmmm. Actually, we never find out. He’s actually pissed off at Bond for a completely unrelated reason – and had daddy issues – thus creating the wildly convoluted plot of Spectre. And Franz has a cat, aka – his quirk.
The “Death Ray”
Invoking The Spy Who Shagged Me again, remember when the bad guys capture Powers and the villain decided to kill Powers with an elaborately designed device, but the villain’s son says “why don’t we just shoot him right now? Here, I even have a gun” and the villain argues with his son? Yeah, well, Franz has a remote controlled chair will drills on either side that he uses to drill holes into Bond’s head. Egads.
Every villain has to have an absurdly elaborate lair, right? The villain in Quantum of Solace had a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, powered by hydrogen-fuel cells. The villain in Skyfall had an abandoned village/island filled with computer servers. Franz has an energy-independent compound inside a crater in Africa in which his surveillance system is housed. Also, the drill chair is there. I rest my case.
Every Bond movie reflects current real-life politics. In addition to mass surveillance, Spectre throws in drones, plus, another worn-out trope – the spy agency is obsolete, so must be dissolved. If there’s one thing to truly dislike about this movie it’s the idea that MI6 needs to be dissolved because we have drones now. I’m pretty sure a Predator drone is incapable of wearing a suit and dancing without someone noticing that it’s an airplane.
If you’re like me, you will be disappointed that this movie took several steps backward by bringing back many of the silly tropes and clichés that previous Craig movies had seemingly (and thankfully) moved beyond. But, you will forgive that for the reasons mentioned earlier (production, etc., etc.), plus good performances from Ralph Fiennes (M) and Andrew Scott (C – you know him as Moriarty in Sherlock). And if you still want to know where Spectre ranks, even in just the four Craig movies, I’d say Brosnan over Connery.
Rating: Ask for a dollar back because there really should be a penalty for Mendes caving in to nostalgia.