1917***** Masterpiece

IT’S A SIMPLE enough story. We’re deep in the mud in one of the Allied trenches during the First World War. Aerial reconnaissance has determined that the sudden quietness of the German troops doesn’t signal retreat. It signals a trap. The German forces have relocated strategically to lure a newly arrived deployment of allies, who are readying for an attack, into what would be a massacre. The only way to avoid this is to get a message to them before it’s too late. An emissary, whose brother will fall into the death trap, has been chosen to sneak across a potential slaughter zone and stop the allied attack before it’s too late. He has about eight hours to do so. He chooses a friend to accompany him.

And so this story of daring, courage, fear, hope and the mindless brutality of war begins.

It’s an extraordinary and breakthrough piece of film-making. The entire story seems to unfold, breathlessly, terrifyingly, In real time during two long seemingly uninterrupted takes. The camera (guided by the masterful director of photography, Roger Deakins) is a relentlessly observing eye that simply follows the increasingly bizarre, picaresque journey of the two men as they battle to stay alive against all odds. The technique shatters the wall between us, the observers, and the action on the screen. We become the camera. We’re there with the lads, in the field of slaughter; we’re with them as they flee an inflamed, crashing aircraft that threatens to smash into us; we’re there, pushing past bloated corpses floating like human buoys from hell.

The movie removes the abstraction of “war is hell” and immerses us viscerally into its reality (without needing to shock us with scenes of exploding bodies etc). It’s not a story seen through the eyes of its increasingly numbed protagonists; we see it, feel it through our own eyes.

Whereas that other powerfully immediate war movie, Saving Private Ryan dwelt at some length on the idea of the ‘cost’ or value of the individual life, director Sam Mendes has been careful not to overlay too much philosophical and literary niceties into his narrative, lest they distract from the immediacy of the experience. (Not that it’s absent of multiple pleasing narrative touches: a pail of fresh milk – where did it come from? Who left it there? – is a life-saver later on; an act of heroism ends in tragedy etc.)

And it isn’t just the one take technique that’s so stunning; there’s an attention to detail (what research he must have done!) that contributes to the absolute veracity of the story even as Thomas Newman’s (Skyfall) magisterial, atmospheric score underlines the movie’s emotive clout.

The two lead principals, Dean-Charles Chapman (Tommy Baratheon in GOT) and George MacKay (The History of the Kelly Gang), along with a supporting cast of stellar Brit actors: Daniel Mays, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Colin Firth, are outstanding. MacKay is particularly compelling. Over the day of his journey, he matures from the juvenile, profoundly reluctant messenger to a scarred-for-life, determined, traumatized, profoundly reluctant hero. The man who emerges after the end of the eight hours of so in hell is a different man.

Of course, a movie that’s as technically stunning as this one (The sets for instance had to be designed to suit the time frame of how long it took the actors to walk from one location to the other and to ‘read’ their lines) is testament to more than the director’s orchestration. It demands a knit of talents that fabricate the illusion of real time action and that really drives home just how collaborative an enterprise movie making is. Here, the tremendous work of the set designers (led by Dennis Gassner), the invisible magic of the editor (Lee Smith), Nicoletta Mani and Emily Richardson’s continuity stitching and David Cossman’s and Jacqueline Durran’s costume designs pull it all together…

  1. What else can I add, but that it magnificently lives up to the deserved hype.


  1. Dir: Sam Mendes. Writers: Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. With: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Mark strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Score: Thomas Newman. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner (Blade Runner 2049). Editor: Lee Smith (Dunkirk). Costume design: David Cossman and Jacqueline Durran. Continuity: Nicoletta Mani and Emily Richardson


BLADE RUNNER*** Out of the world

Beware: there may be some minor spoilers within

THIS IS A lush, sensuous piece of cinema. The terrific combination of director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”, “Arrival”), cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Sicario”, “Skyfall”), production designer Dennis Gassner (“Spectre”, “Skyfall”) and the brooding menacing score by Hans Zimmer (“Dunkirk”) have brought to life – quite spectacularly – the desolate, ruined, ever raining, garish, neon-lit world of LA in 2049. The figures are often dwarfed, lost in the unnatural light, the foggy mists of this post-apocalypse city where holographic Elvis concerts and sinuous naked women play out to faceless, indifferent passers-by.

The visual impact is stunning, and so seductively engaging that on many occasions, you’re forced to concentrate on what’s being said rather than being distracted by the eerie, melancholic strangeness on the screen.

The story follows the search by LAPD officer, K (Ryan Gosling) for one or maybe two babies that were born (miraculously) thirty five years before. They are potentially the offsprings of a human (maybe)/Android coupling; between the old blade hunter, Rick Dekard (Harrison Ford), whose humanity remains ambiguous, and his replicant lover.

Things have moved on since the days when Rick hunted down replicants gone bad. The newly created replicants, like K (whose name, humanized to Joe by his lover, deliberately mirrors that of Kafka’s alienated Josef K) are more obedient. And Gosling’s slightly bored, almost robotic acting style suits the role to a T.

But, in a world where the real and the unreal are almost the same, things begin to go awry for K after he begins to intuit that one of his childhood memories may well be real, and not just an implant.

Though there’s a boast that the replicants are more human than the humans, their mastermind, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto…replacing the original intention to cast Dave Bowie) bemoans their lack of two essential qualities: a reproductive womb and a soul.

K’s increasingly obsessive search for the babies shatters the myth of his replicant obedience. It makes him a target of the State lead by a ruthlessly badass, and ironically named, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). But it also leads him to Rick, the father of the twins, with whom he bonds.

This outer search is really K’s inner search for his real identity. Is he a replicant created in a factory, or human? And what really does being human mean? Certainly the love he has for Joi, (Ana de Armas) his AI “companion” who can morph from helpmeet to seductress (joy) in a blink of an eye (and with whom, in the body of a human prostitute he has one of cinema’s weirdest couplings) is real.

Can the realness of this love indicate the presence of a soul? Does this simply mean that he is human or that he’s become a replicant with a soul? And if the latter, then the fundamental divide aggressively maintained by the State, between replicants and humans becomes meaningless.

It’s a beautifully and intelligently scripted movie (by Hampton Fancher – “Blade Runner 1982” and Michael Green – “Logan”). No wonder Harrison Ford found it the best script he’d read. This is the kind of movie the Oscar types love: it’s so rich in that irreplaceable big screen, cinema experience and just enough profundity to make the experience ‘meaningful’, that the gaping flaws are overlooked (like “Gravity” and “La La Land”).

Watch this space.

The problem I found with the movie though, is that despite the script’s yearning for depth and the awesomeness of the production design, as a basic whodunnit narrative, there were countless gaps and holes in the storyline. One of the childten for example, is allergic to germs (symbolically allergic to the world she lives in) and holed up in an antiseptic bubble. Who put her there and keeps her there? Why? K flies around in a beaten up old LAPD car that turns into a rocket launching lethal weapon, taking out several other cop cars whose location he seems to have intuited. Huh?

And it was looong. It comes in at just under three hours. Though never boring, there were many moments when I wished they’d simply get on with the story, which often felt self indulgent…a bit too smugly pleased with itself. Joe Walker who has worked with Villeneuve on both “Sicario” and “Arrival” needed to have tightened the editing far more severely.

That said, it’s an enjoyable evolution on Ridley Scott’s initial story. Thank God he, or some canny producer, allowed him to relinquish control to Villeneuve (and not muck it up the way he’s done with the “Alien” franchise)
We’re always grateful for any small blessing.


BLADE RUNNER 2049. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. With: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright. Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green based on a story by Phillip K. Dick. Cinematographer: Roger Deakins. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner. Composers: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer


HAIL CAESAR!*** I Came, I Saw, I Yawned


ALL THE ELEMENTS are there for a wonderful, and nostalgic screwball comedy in Hail Caesar! – the Coen Brothers’ affectionate homage to the golden era of Hollywood.

The story is largely built around a few days in the life of the production head of Capitol Studios, Eddie Mannix…manic? ( A charismatic Josh Brolin).


It’s his job to placate an invisible powerbroker in New York, manage the direction of his many productions, and at the same time hide the peccadillos of his wayward stars (DeeAnn Moran – Scarlett Johansson as America’s virgin and an Esther Williams type – is pregnant; Gloria DeLamour –Natasha Bassett- is about to be raided for doing a nudie shoot, and his big ticket star, Baird Whitlock – George Clooney – who may be a Rock Hudson-esque closet queen, has gone missing, maybe on a bender). It’s all crippling him with guilt. His mandate of maintaining appearances at all costs comes down to his own small peccadillo of smoking behind his wife’s back. In the world of Tinseltown tales, image is all.


We see peeks into Eddie’s multiple simultaneous productions, all of which are spot-on perfect: DeeAnn Moran is the mermaid-tailed centre-piece of one of those synchronised swimming extravaganzas…except her bulging stomach is beginning to prove troublesome (Mannix must dream up a plausible story to account for the arrival of her child: adoption? marriage to someone the public will approve of? No one mentions abortion, which, duh, you’d think would be obvious);


Burt Gurney – Channing Tatum – is a brilliant singing, dancing sailor who hoofs it in a dreamy routine straight out of South Pacific (except that he’s part of a new group of Hollywood communists…more trouble for Eddie);


Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich from Blue Jasmine) is a Ricky Nelson type crooner who the studios want to cast against type as an urbane sophisticate; and Baird (all looks and no brain) is the heroic star of the eponymous Hail Caesar!, a The Robe/The Greatest Story Ever Told type production with a cast of thousands. But he’s kidnapped by a group of communist writers who call themselves The Future.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Poor Eddie, he’s up against the past, with the warring gossip columnist twins (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) digging up the dirt on Baird, and now also up against the future (the advent of TV, the collapse of the Hollywood Studio system, his own job security, and of course this shadowy group of recognition seeking, equality demanding pre-Blacklist commie writers). Lockheed is courting him and offering him a better image of the future…one that’s secure. It’s an ‘out’, and it’s awfully tempting. Will he be tempted?

And amidst all this happy mayhem, there are some outlandishly funny moments (in particular an hysterical attempt by snooty Brit director Lawrence Lorenz – a pitch perfect Ralph Fiennes – to coach simpleton Hobie Doyle into appearing sophisticated and articulating his words with that peculiarly fake semi British accent that represented Hollywood classiness back in the 50’s).

But for the large part, Hail Caesar lacks the verbal dexterity of a Woody Allen (which it tries to ape in some of the silly discussions about God and Communism), or the screwball plotting of, say a Some Like it Hot. The mish mash of a plot – more loosely connected vignettes than plot per se – never really builds to any sort of punch line and our fearless hero – George Clooney – wearing his Oh Brother Where Art Thou ‘stupid face’ is embarrassing.

George has done some marvelous work in the past: The Descendants, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, Good Night, and Good Luck etc. But Hail Caesar! falls into his group of ‘really bad crap’: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, The Monuments Men, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare At Goats

As for the Coens, their recent creds are almost beyond reproach (Bridge of Spies, Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men etc). Let’s hope this is an aberration from which they can quickly recover.

At least, even during its (many) moments of humourless tedium, the look of the movie, shot be the peerless Roger Deakins (Sicario, Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall etc) is always engagingly watchable