1917

1917

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.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

By: Kevin Jordan

It sucked, but not because it’s a sequel.

Just before the movie It released and shattered box office records, a bunch of Chicken Littles wrote a bunch of articles bemoaning the poor summer box office returns, reheating a classic groupthink explanation for those poor returns.  Variety provided a great example of this intellectual emptiness, stating “Yes, all the aforementioned titles are reboots or part of a major franchise. Yes, that’s precisely what summer ticket sales indicate audiences are tired of.”  Really?  That must mean the highest-grossing movies of the year aren’t reboots, sequels, or franchise entries.  Strange, that list isn’t mentioned or referenced in the article, so we’ll have to go somewhere else and look and, oh…

  1. Beauty and the Beast
  2. The Fate of the Furious
  3. Despicable Me 3
  4. Wolf Warriors 2
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  7. Wonder Woman
  8. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  9. Logan
  10. Transformers: The Last Knight

Huh.  Not one of those movies is even remotely new material.  But, surely those movies at least have lower grosses than the top films from last year.  Checkiiiinnnnggg, nope, pretty much the same numbers and the top two movies this year eclipsed the top two from last year (which were also not original).  Oh, wow, we still have Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Star Wars VIII, and Pitch Perfect 3 left this year?

After reading several more piles of similar drivel, I starting writing up a rant in my head to counter them, but came across a piece in The Atlantic that seemingly stole the rant right out of my brain.  Without reciting the entire article, the author makes very good points about how nobody complains about television shows being recycled.  I’d like to take that argument down some parallel roads.  Nobody ever had a good first date, then turned down a second date because it featured the same people.  Nobody ever ate a good slice of pizza and turned down a second slice because it was made with the same ingredients.  Nobody ever watched a sporting event and vowed never to watch another game from the sport again because now they know what to expect.  Nobody ever had sex and turned down a second romp because been there, done that.  I’d bet my house that if you haven’t expressed that very same “Hollywood is just reboots and sequels” cliché, you’ve heard at least seventeen other people say it.  And every single time it sounds just as vapid.

Two people nobody wanted to see in this film.

With all that in mind, wow, did Kingsman: The Golden Circle sequel suck.  The first movie received well-deserved accolades and reviews and the sequel takes all of that goodwill and wipes its ass with it.  Movies like this are one of the reasons why the aforementioned cliché won’t die.  But it didn’t suck because it was a sequel.  It sucked because it was a poorly written and lazy movie.  What it did do that a lot of other crappy sequels have done is completely fail to understand what made the original so likeable.  After watching the original, you almost undoubtedly reminisced about the church scene, the bar fight scene, the chick with the sword legs, or everyone’s head exploding into a shower of fireworks.  It was the perfect blend of insanity, political commentary, comedy, and action.  The Golden Circle is none of those things, barely even trying to be at times.

(SPOILER ALERT)

The best way to describe the components of The Golden Circle is watered down.  As stupid as Samuel L. Jackson’s lisp was in the first film, he was at least a great villain in all other respects.  This time, we have Poppy Adams, a bland villain phoned in by Julianne Moore with no interesting or memorable characteristics.  Poppy is the head of a drug cartel that makes $250 billion per year and makes her headquarters in some Cambodian ruins partially made over to look like a 1950s era main street.  Hilarious, right?  Also, she is stupid.  I don’t mean just the character in general, but she’s actually written to come off as really stupid.  Early on, she blathers about how humans can’t be trusted and we meet her robot dogs, robot hair stylist, and…no other robots.  $250 billion a year can buy a lot of robots, so why does she still have so many humans working for her?  This contradiction is punctuated when she forces a henchman to feed another henchman into a meat grinder.  And her evil plot?  She has laced all of her drugs with a poison that gives people blue veiny rashes, causes them to dance, paralyzes them, then kills them and told the leaders of the world that she will release the antidote once they legalize all drugs.  Her stated motivation is to be a legitimate businesswoman so she can move out of Cambodia.  Think about that for a second.  If her cartel was a country, it would have the 45th highest GDP in the world, but she decided to risk it all by stealing the Joker’s plot from Batman so people would like her.  I never thought I’d miss the lisp.

We’re laughing because we can’t figure out how you won an Oscar.

Then there are the characters.  Remember all the ones you liked from the first movie?  Well, too bad, all of them are quickly and unceremoniously killed in the first half hour except Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong).  I’m not counting Princess Tilde (Hannah Alstrom) because I honestly do not remember her in the first movie.  At all.  Not even a little bit.  Also, Colin Firth is brought back to life by a magic, rubber head wrap because science (he was shot through the eye and brain in the first film and was definitely dead).  Or director/writer Matthew Vaughn loves soap operas.  Either way, it was a poor writing decision (and I like Colin Firth).  All of the dead are replaced with cardboard cutouts played by a couple of Oscar winners (Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, and Elton John), Channing Tatum, and that guy who played the Red Viper in Game of Thrones (Pedro Pascal).  What’s that?  I made up the Elton John part?  I most certainly did not.  I’ll have you know he delivered the best performance of the film…and that’s really sad.

(Note: All kidding aside, Sir Elton really did outperform everyone else in this movie, maybe because he was the only who realized how truly insipid the screenplay was and really had fun with it.)

The common thread is that the writing is what you’d expect from a ten-year-old second grader.  Go ahead and do the math; I’ll wait.  Throughout the bloated 141-minute running time, bad dialogue competes with stupid code names which fight with pointless actions that are stomped on by humorless jokes, all of which don’t look so bad next to the mind-numbing science/gadgets and soulless love story.  Want some examples?

  • Eggsy steps on a land mine despite having a mine detector.
  • Poppy has kidnapped Elton John (playing himself) and her two robot dogs are named Benny and Jet. (Side note: COME ON!!!!  Tiny and Dancer are the two obvious joke names for two killer robot dogs.)
  • The Kingsmen are named after Knights of the Round Table, which is clever. The Statesmen are named after liquor, which is not clever.  Plus, they are not even consistent – Halle Berry is codenamed Ginger Ale.
  • Eggsy calls his girlfriend to tell her he has to sleep with a girl for his job, thus setting off the rom-com misunderstanding.
  • Immediately after that call, Eggsy fingers the girl with a tracking condom on his finger (I wish I was making that up) because “it has to be in a mucous membrane.” To top it off, this scene somehow features zero nudity (the girl is in her underwear and Eggsy is fully clothed).
  • In order to force a bar fight into the film (ala the last film), after a conversation in a bar between the agents, a random barfly stands up after a short silence and, with exactly zero provocation or even eye contact with the agents, yells at the “faggots to get out of the bar.” Nevermind, the wildly inappropriate and out-of-place usage of that slur (another thoughtless writing choice), you could all but see a cue card for the guy to pick that fight in order to show us that Whiskey (ugh) can CGI-twirl a rope and whip.
  • The Statesmen have baseball grenades.
  • Merlin makes a point of grabbing a gigantic knife before the climax, only to be killed before getting to use it.
  • The traitor (of course there is a traitor) wants to prevent everyone dying from the poison from being saved because his girlfriend was killed in the crossfire of two meth addicts shooting at each other.

Want to see my whip?

It’s important to know that I didn’t hate this movie.  In fact, there are very few movies I’ve hated.  Hating a movie and criticizing a movie for being garbage are two different things.  My friend said he was at least kind of entertained and I can respect that.  I’ve been plenty entertained by terrible movies, too.  Unlike during my screening of American Assassin, I took some notes (no light pen required) to capture corpse count (102, not counting the robots) and novelty deaths (shoved in a meat grinder, impaled by a ten-foot tall scissors, cut in half by Whiskey’s magic lasso) because those things tend to make purposely absurd movies more fun.  I also jotted down some quotes, one of which sums up this movie nicely: “That’s the first decent shit I’ve had in three weeks.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back and stop saying you hate sequels.  You don’t hate sequels; you just hate bad movies.