When Carl Theodore Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (ten years after the events of the film in question here) he did not invent the close-up, he merely mastered the use of it as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Likewise, Sam Mendes did not invent the idea of filming a movie in one long continuous take, he merely mastered the use of it for 1917 (along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) as an artistic tool to convey an emotional story. Like Dreyer’s film, 1917 is an absolute artistic masterpiece. It is the height of its craft.
While the technical artistry achieved with the continuous shot did not come as a surprise, what did for me was the emotional undercurrent of the film. At its core, it’s a classic riff on the timeless hero’s journey. Mendes and Deakins chose the one shot technique as a way to mirror the film’s central conflict. These poor soldiers only have one shot to deliver crucial orders. The attention to detail both in the script and what appears (or doesn’t appear) in the shot gives the film a gritty immersive pull. We’re constantly moving forward, our adrenaline racing along with the characters as they try to deliver time sensitive orders across enemy lines to stop a massacre at the shifting front of battle in France during WWI. The performances (especially from the young leads) cannot be dismissed and are currently underrated. The actors give the film and the classical story its heart, and the reverent sentimentality of the script and Mendes’ direction (that never romanticizes war, but instead reminds us of the humanity of those thrown into its chaos) pulls on our heartstrings as much as the suspense gives us a lump in our throat.
1917 borrows liberally the visual elements of horror, thrillers, 1st person video games and classic war films. The nighttime shelling of the ruins of a French village is some of the greatest cinematography ever captured. A hungry rat tripping a wire in an underground bunker. A shell-shocked soldier waking in the darkness. A soldier leaping from a stone wall into a river that sweeps him away into rapids. Cherry blossoms. A battalion waiting in the seemingly peaceful woods listening to one of their own sing a folk song before entering the trenches. Longing to be reunited with your family. Everyone will walk away with their own indelible image, feeling, and favorite scene. What’s even more astounding is that all of it was pulled together to seem like it was one shot. 1917 is mythic movie-making at its very best.
Early on in Patty Jenkins’ confident and electrifying big-screen Wonder Woman epic, after getting rescued by the film’s hero (a robust yet appealingly vulnerable Gal Gadot), our guy in distress (a somewhat charming gritty Ken Doll with a sense of humor, Chris Pine) upon being asked about how he stacks up to other men says, “I’m above average.” In some ways, that’s the best way to describe Wonder Woman in comparison to every other superhero movie. It’s above average. But to leave it at that would be deny the film’s subversive charms and contextual place in the pantheon of fantasy films as mirrors into the audience’s psyche.
Let’s not dismiss, however, just how fun it is to simply watch an above average film in this over-saturated genre. Jenkins and her crew show great creativity and tactical savviness in their treatment of all the genre clichés while choosing a relaxed and serialized pacing in the action, following each big set piece with moments of more intimate drama and character development (witness celebratory Belgian villagers and our heroes dancing in the streets in the evening snowfall that seems ripped from a great war-time romance).
The film’s inherently silly exposition (routed in Greek myth) is made palpable thanks to beautifully rendered Renaissance-style paintings of Greco-Roman fantasy come to life – smartly linking the lore and art of old with modern comic book pages and colorful cells flipped through feverishly by childhood’s fingers. Playful camera angles bring to life a rousing aeronautical flyover of an exploding enemy bunker and battle horses and motorcycles racing through war-torn woods, while slo-mo is used judiciously when warranted and not just for the sense of style. Continue reading →
Our sweet-natured, sad-soul heroine Laurel anticipating her life to begin after a string of bad luck toiling away in the gloaming of the titular cove. Waiting for love to find her.
Hank, Laurel’s brother who has returned home from Europe after losing his hand, newly betrothed and anticipating a fresh life to begin outside of the shadow of his cursed homestead.
The handsome flute-playing mute named Walter who finds his way into the cove and into Laurel’s heart always looking over his shoulder anticipating his good luck to run out and his past (and the authorities) to catch up to him.
A nation anticipating their native sons to return from a war-torn Europe to safer shores.
The reader anticipating something…anything…interesting to happen in Ron Rash’s lukewarm but evocative Southern-spun WWI-era gothic romance. Don’t worry…it does…eventually.
It’s telling that Rash would follow-up his masterpiece, Serena, with a novel drenched in atmosphere and taking place in a gloomy hollow, eternally in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains (the same mountains where in Serena the Pemberton timber empire loomed ominously and supreme) which cast darkness on the hearts of the inhabitants there. It’s almost as if Serena Pemberton is casting the greatest shadow, as Rash will never be able to conjure a character to match her nor can one imagine a follow-up novel that could scale the same mythic heights. Continue reading →