Oscar Review – 1917 (2019 Film): War is Bad, Film is Good, Cinematography is Great

A film tries to capture the grotesque sights and claustrophobia of the First World War.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

On April 6, 1917, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are ordered by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to take a message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. It seems that MacKenzie believes that the Germans are retreating from the current line and is trying to pursue them so that he can finish them off. Intelligence has revealed that the Germans were not running away, but instead retreating to the Hindenburg Line, an extremely fortified and heavily armed defensive position. If the Devonshire Regiment attacks, they’ll be massacred. Blake and Schofield are told to give a message directly from the General to MacKenzie calling off any attack, which would likely kill Blake’s brother (Richard Madden). Along the way, they meet a few other famous British actors (Mark Strong, Andrew Scott), because why not.

Image result for 1917 film
We’re never more than 20 feet from one of them, I think.

END SUMMARY

Alfred Hitchcock, the famed British Director, once attempted to make a film that appeared to only have one cut, despite the fact that cameras could only hold 20 minutes of film at a time. That film was called Rope, and I can only imagine that director Sam Mendes was a big fan of it, since this film, similarly, only has one noticeable cut. I cannot fully convey in words the effect that has upon the reader, because we are so used to action films, and films in general, having rapid cuts for most scenes to refocus the scene or allow for more action shots with the actor’s face (except for Saint Keanu). To put this in perspective, this film appears to have two shots of roughly fifty-five minutes each whereas the average shot length of a US film is 2.5 seconds. Now, it’s true that these are not genuinely 55 minutes, but really several 5-10 minute takes cut together expertly, but even that is amazing in modern cinema. Having only one scene playing out also means that we aren’t really given the typical moments to reset and adjust that we’re used to during a narrative. Basically, once the film starts, we’re never given a respite.

Image result for 1917 film
No respite for anyone.

While Hitchcock used the long-takes as a way to heighten the tension of whether or not a murder was going to be uncovered, this film uses it to accentuate the subjective filming of the movie. 1917 is not presented in the way that war films are usually shot, even particularly gritty ones, because in 1917 the camera is supposed to be part of the cast. The film, pretty much from the beginning, is shot in such a way that it treats the camera as if it is a third, silent, invisible party drifting behind them. 

Image result for 1917 film
Sometimes you can almost feel them detecting its presence, but not in a bad way.

Because of this, the film doesn’t feel the need to do any of the normal things that emotionally invest us in the characters, because most of the moments that films use to get those require extended shots or reactions that don’t fit into a film that’s in real time. I’ve been reading a number of reviews that criticize the film for this, but I feel like that’s based on a rubric that just doesn’t apply to what Sam Mendes was going for in this film. We don’t have to project ourselves onto the characters that we’re watching in order to get emotionally attached, because we’re just supposed to be part of it. That makes all of the grit and grime and gore simultaneously more tolerable because we’re not as attached to the characters, but also more visceral because it happens closer to us. In the trenches, we are right next to the actors and suddenly surprised by other parties entering frame from behind, giving us a feel of exactly how closely packed these people were in these conditions. 

Image result for 1917 film
We go through the doorway with them and it is tense.

Thematically, the movie takes a strong anti-war position that tries to avoid the usual issues present in anti-war movies. For example, First Blood, a movie that contains a story about how veterans were mistreated and filled with PTSD, was loved instead for Rambo kicking ass with a machine gun and given several sequels that focused more on that. Apocalypse Now is anti-war, but its most quoted line is “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” This movie tried to subvert that by having the central mission in the movie to prevent an attack. They also play up the grotesque nature of the battlefields through horrific images and show even the typically positive-associated parts of the movie, like killing Germans, to be taking a toll on the characters. Still, I’m sure someone out there was watching it going “war is kickass,” but probably fewer than most. 

Image result for 1917 film
River of bloated corpses is pretty disgusting, unsurprisingly.

Overall, it’s a really well-shot movie and a pretty good movie in general, but I do imagine that it’s not going to be a lot of peoples’ cup of tea. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Mary Poppins Returns – A Practically Perfect Presentation of the Paradox and Perils of Perpetuating Past Performances or, A Good Sequel Showing Why Great Sequels Are Hard (Spoiler-Free)

Mary Poppins returns (surprise!) to deal with another generation of the Banks family.

SUMMARY

It’s the 1930s in Britain and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the prank-loving boy from the original film, is all grown up with three children of his own: Annabel, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson). He’s recently lost his wife and, while his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) tries to help him, it’s revealed that he’s deeply in debt and in danger of losing his home to the very bank that he and his father worked at, Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, headed up by William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth). Fortunately, his household receives a visit from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Bert’s (Dick Van Dyke) apprentice Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) to help get the family through this trying time with magic, music, and the occasional strange relative.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 1Mirror.jpg
And looking damned good for someone who’s at least 50… centuries.

END SUMMARY

Mary Poppins is a hard movie not to love. The songs are so catchy that I bet you can hum two right now, the animation was unbelievable for its time, the performances by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and David Tomlinson are all so defined that they’ve basically become archetypes since the 60s, and the style and tone of the movie are the epitome of whimsy. It’s got a rare 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is an example of a movie where even the imperfect things (e.g. Dick Van Dyke’s Fake Accent) only served to make it more unique and enjoyable. This pretty much doomed any sequel from the beginning, because it’s so hard to follow something that had this many solid elements blended together perfectly.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 2JollyHoliday.jpg
This was the Google result for “whimsical.” 

Mary Poppins Returns is destined to divide. Reading a sample of the reviews right now, it seems like that’s a lot of what it’s doing. Honestly, it’s to its credit that it can even do that. This film manages to try to avert most of what makes a sequel terrible, but also manages to commit two of the biggest sequel mistakes. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Emily Blunt takes over as Mary Poppins and she is wonderful. She’s clever, she’s mischievous, she can be very proper when she needs to be, but, mostly, she’s different enough from Julie Andrews’ portrayal that it doesn’t feel like she’s trying to copy what we’ve already seen while still being similar enough to believably be the same character. She’s a little more explicitly magical in this and smiles a lot more, but it still feels like it’s just the same character handling slightly different circumstances. The only time in the film where I thought “this is not Mary Poppins” is when she performs the song “A Cover is Not the Book.” It’s not that the song is bad, in fact I think it’s one of the more original songs within the film, but she performs it in the style of a Vaudeville Music Hall, something that, while appropriate for the time period of the movie, seems like something I could NEVER imagine Julie Andrews doing as Poppins. Other than that, though, she nails it.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 3Comparison.jpg
Admittedly, they don’t look alike. 

Similarly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance as Jack is similar enough to Dick Van Dyke as Bert to complement Mary Poppins’ character, but it still is distinctly different. Bert and Mary seemed to have a history and a mostly unspoken level of attraction, whereas Jack is more akin to a fanboy finally meeting his idol, but in a good way. Jack’s style of performance is also different, favoring more song and dance over Bert’s physical comedy, and it works.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 4LinManuel
Jack was later shot by Aaron Burr. 

Another big change is the children. In contrast to the disobedient Jane and Michael Banks of the original, the three children we are show in this film are well-behaved and, for the most part, are almost more adult than the adults. They’ve been forced to grow up based on the fact that they’ve lost their mother and their father is more of an artist than an earner. So, unlike the original where Mary has to straighten out the Banks children while loosening up their father, she’s doing the opposite in this and it does play well for Blunt to be a little less uptight than Andrews was in her version.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 5Kids
Georgie’s the most mysterious in that he sometimes walks on the grass.

But, now, we get to the problems of the movie: First, the plot is much more serious. It’s a sequel, so there’s always a tendency to try and raise the stakes, but in this we have the quest to save the Banks home which doesn’t quite gel with most of the scenes. It’s not like there are multiple side-stories that feed into the overall narrative like in the original, this feels like they had 2 ideas for a movie and just jammed them in together. It doesn’t quite work. Also, not only is Michael’s wife dead, but so are Mr. and Mrs. Banks? It’s only been 25 years, people, and they were both in their 30s in the original! Hell, the actress who played Mrs. Banks, Glynis Johns, is still alive in real life. Just saying, it felt like they intentionally shrank the family so the plot felt more dire.

Second, the film has a lot of plot “twinning” with the original, by which I mean that there are a lot of scenes in this that clearly were put in less because they needed to be in the film, but more because they called back to a scene in the original. It’s another common sin of sequels: Trying to do the same thing over again. Sure, the characters feel a little different, but some of the scenes are very clearly just in there to match stuff from the original.

Third, some of the new characters don’t feel “whimsical” as much as “weird.” In the original, all of the magical characters, like the band that plays “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (btw, got it in 1 try) and Uncle Albert, the man on the ceiling, and even the chimney sweeps, all feel like they’re magical characters straight out of a fairy tale. In this… not quite as much. They all have a little too much darkness and reflection to them. A stand-out example of not quite working as well is, sadly, Meryl Streep’s character of Topsy, the upside-down fixer-upper. It’s not that Meryl Streep does anything wrong, it’s that the character needed to be performed by someone who has no intrinsic gravitas, which is the opposite of Meryl “I have 4 Oscars for drama” Streep. She’s great in comedies and portrays the character exactly as it was probably envisioned, but this just wasn’t the right fit. Also, her song is not great, which brings me to…

MaryPoppinsReturns - 6Meryl
WHY WOULDN’T YOU MAKE HER THE ELDER MRS. BANKS?

Fourth, the music is only okay. There are like 3 really good songs in this movie, but, of those three, only one doesn’t blatantly sample from the original Sherman Brothers music. I don’t mean to undercut Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, because they’ve both done great work (Hairspray), but they didn’t come close to matching the Sherman Brothers’ level of quality from the original. “The Perfect Nanny,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “I Love to Laugh,” “Feed the Birds,” Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Step in Time,” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” I can sing most of every line of these songs at almost any point in my life. I only saw Mary Poppins Returns last night and I can only remember 3 songs well. The sequel’s music just isn’t in the same league. It’s like Chumawumba trying to outsell the Beatles; it’s not that they’re bad, it’s that they were never really competing.

All four of these problems come not necessarily from the movie itself, but from the nature of making a sequel. If you try to completely ignore the previous movie, then you’re not paying the proper respect. If you don’t do enough on your own, then you feel like there was no point in making the sequel. That’s why it’s so hard to continue a story that’s complete. Sure, Godfather II, Aliens, and Terminator 2 all work great, but that’s because they’re either A) telling the rest of the story that was still going, B) switching genres, or C) doing a little bit of both in an inventive way. This film tries to tell the rest of the story and add some genre switch (romantic subplot and central villain), but it just never quite pulled away from the original enough. Again, it’s tough to do.

Overall, I do want to say that I enjoyed the movie even if it’s not the lightning in a bottle that the original represented. It’s definitely a movie that everyone should see, if only to make up their mind on whether it’s good or bad.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.