FlixChatter Review – 1917 (2020)

When I heard that Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of American Beauty and one of my favorite “James Bond” films, Skyfall, was releasing a World War I film, I was beyond intrigued. Centered around the spring of 1917 during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich, Mendes wanted to incorporate a story his grandfather Alfred Mendes told him about a messenger and his heroic task during the war. The film, appropriately titled 1917, is takes place on the front lines in northern France, as the British 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment is planning to mount an attack on the retreating German forces. The Germans have mounted a retreat to the Hindenburg Line, but are planning to ambush the 2nd Battalion, a company battalion of 1,600 men, in hopes of catching the British forces by surprise.

Colin Firth in 1917

The movie opens on two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) napping underneath a tree at the edge of the British trenches in northern France. Suddenly, Lance Corporal Blake is awaked by his commanding officer, telling him to pick a partner and report for further instructions from British General Erinmore (Colin Firth). General Erinmore tasks the two Lance Corporals to deliver a message to halt a British force of the 2nd Battalion before they walk into a trap laid by the German army. The General informs Blake and Schofield that among the 1,600 men of the 2nd Battalion is also Blake’s own brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden), and that they must to do the impossible: cross over No Man’s Land, evade enemy forces, and stay alive long enough to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the front line that his 2nd Battalion is walking into a trap, set by the German Army.

Dean-Charles Chapman + George MacKay

After Blake and Schofield cross into No Man’s Land, with some careful instruction from a Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott), they reach the original German front, finding the trenches abandoned. Their worst feelings come true, as they find that the abandoned trenches turn out to be booby-trapped by the Germans in hopes of killing as many British soldiers as possible. Thanks to some (extremely large) rats who set off one of the booby-traps, the ensuing explosion almost kills Schofield. Thankfully, Blake is there to help Schofield out and they manage to run out of the collapsing bunkers just in time. Having to take shelter in ruined buildings, and sidestepping over unseen obstacles, Blake and Schofield arrive at an abandoned farmhouse and witness a dogfight between British and German planes nearby. SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) – As a German pilot is shot down and crash lands near them, Blake and Schofield try to rescue the pilot from the burning wreckage, but the German soldier turns his knife on Blake and mortally wounds him.

As Schofield is now tasked to deliver the message to Colonel Mackenzie alone, he is picked up by a passing British contingent and dropped off near the bombed-out village of Écoust-Saint-Mein. Dodging snipers and climbing over collapsed bridges, Schofield is injured and gets knocked out by a ricocheting bullet. As he wakes up hours later, it is nightfall and Schofield tries to navigate the bombed out and collapsed buildings of Écoust-Saint-Mein, as the German soldiers set fire to large building, creating a giant blaze in the middle of the night and helping Schofield light the way around the town. Unfortunately, he also becomes the target of numerous German snipers, managing to evade them before he finds shelter in an abandoned basement, where he stumbles into the hiding place of a French woman and an infant. He leaves them some canned food and milk he had found at the abandoned farmhouse that he and Blake had found.

Bound by completing his mission, Schofield leaves the woman and infant, but not before learning that the place he is looking for is just down river from the village he was in. He runs past more German soldiers and snipers, and ends up jumping into the river, going over a waterfall and finding more dead bodies of soldiers from both sides. In the morning, he comes across a part of the British 2nd Battalion, as they wait and prepare to go into battle.

From them, he learns that they are actually a part of the second wave, and that while attack has already begun and Blake’s brother is among the first wave to go over the top, he still has time to reach Colonel Mackenzie before it’s too late. He sprints across the trenches and actually climbs onto the battlefield to reach Colonel Mackenzie, who is at first reluctant to call off the attack, but ends up relenting and follows General Erinmore and British Command’s instructions. Schofield is left to find Lieutenant Joseph Blake, SPOILER (highlight to read): and to inform him of his brother’s death. Lieutenant Blake thanks Schofield for his efforts and leaves Schofield to sit by a tree, finally able to rest after successfully completing his mission.

 

For 1917, Mendes collaborates again with award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, award-winning composer Thomas Newman and co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Mendes and Deakins decided to shoot the movie as one long take, without cutting between scenes. Since it’s told from the point of view of Blake and Schofield, Mendes and Deakins rely on lead actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman to take the audience from the trenches, to the battlefields and abandoned farmhouses and other building. Both MacKay and Chapman tackle this challenge with much success, but it is really MacKay that makes the emotional connection needed to make his character relatable yet resilient. Chapman plays on the youth and inexperience of Lance Corporal Blake to make it seem like he needs Lance Corporal Schofield to succeed.

Even though we don’t see much of Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden or Colin Firth, they each fulfill their roles to advance the plot line and bring the notion of familiarity and comfort to the audience, who has been carrying along with the two relatively-unknown lead actors. Not knowing the fates of the two lead British soldiers was a clever tactic used by Mendes, and losing one or both soldiers in battle would not be as big of a setback to the viewers if their message would somehow end up reaching its destination. Had Mendes cast household recognizable actors in those roles, it would have been much harder for the story to develop in the direction that it did. Thomas Newman’s score is also very memorable and fits perfectly into the wartime arc of the movie.

This is one my top-10 movies of the year and I’d be surprised if it didn’t get nominated for multiple Academy Awards. It just won the Golden Globe Award for Best Drama this past Sunday, and Sam Mendes won the Golden Globe for Best Director. I’d also like to see nominations for Thomas Newman’s score, Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay and perhaps most of all, Roger Deakins’ cinematography.

This is a deeply memorable film that will be remembered as one of the best World War I movies of all time, and it ranks as perhaps one of the best war movies ever made. It is not to be missed, especially in an IMAX theater and I give it my wholehearted, unabridged endorsement.

– Review by Vitali Gueron


Have you seen 1917? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: Blinded By The Light (2019)

When American rock star Bruce Springsteen wrote the lyrics to his song Blinded by the Light, as a part of his 1973 debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen probably didn’t think that his lyrics would be inspiration for a British teenager of Pakistani descent, growing up as an immigrant in 1987 Britain controlled by Margaret Thatcher’ ruling Conservative Party. Yet, this is precisely what happens to Javed (Viveik Kalra) as he is growing up in Luton, England, amidst the racial and economic turmoil of the later 198o’s Britain. Javed has a very traditional family, with his strict, blue collar father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), his stay-at-home-but-working mother Noor (Meera Ganatra), and his two older sisters Shazia and Yasmeen (Nikita Mehta and Tara Divina).

Directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) and co-written by Sarfraz Manzoor, who’s critically acclaimed personal memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll details Javed’s struggles of writing poetry as a means to escape the intolerance of his hometown and the inflexibility of his traditional father. But Javed feels too ashamed to share his poetry with anyone, including his amiable teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), until his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to the music of The Boss – the one and only Bruce Springsteen! The lyrics have a profound effect on Javed, as he consistently quotes Bruce’s lyrics, with his other friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who is not quite as impressed with Springsteen’s music as Javed. He doesn’t only find solitude and release from the stresses of daily life listening to The Boss, but also the confidence to fight for the things he previously didn’t believe were worth fighting for. Example: Javed has a fight with his activist girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) but learning to control his own emotions so he doesn’t let it be a justification to become selfish, Javed wins back Eliza, who’s always been in his corner.

Viveik Kalra does a wonderful job making you believe that Javed is hearing Bruce Springsteen’s music for the first time, and you feel immediately drawn to his character. He then masterfully articulates just how it is affecting him and his trajectory in life. His tearfully delivered speech towards the end of the film, with his parents watching with tears of their own, is one of highest points of emotion for Javed, his family and the viewing audience alike. He embodies a person who is very easy to root for, despite his faults, sometimes minor, other times much larger (i.e. running away from home and disrespecting his father).

Blinded by the Light is also very true to the way people in 1987 Britain were living under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. There were very few jobs to be had and some naturally born Brits were less than welcoming to other minorities who had immigrated to Britain, especially those who were of Muslim faith and came from Pakistan. Javed’s father loses his job at a car factory in Luton, and this mother is left to do double to in home work, just to support the family. There is also tension between Javed and his father when he tells Javed that he must get a job (and stop listening to the music of Bruce Springsteen, whom he believes to be Jewish (probably because of the last name).

Overall, Blinded by the Light takes the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen to a whole new country and it’s embraced by the next generation of young people who can resonate with it. Especially for Javed and Roops, who pops Javed’s “Bruce cherry”, they feel empowered by the music and lyrics enough to confront a group of white nationalist teenagers at a restaurant by quoting one of Springsteen’s words (in this case it was lyrics from the song Badlands). The culmination of Javed’s efforts come to be when he delivers that speech (referenced earlier) to his classmates and his family. He tells them; “My hope is to build a bridge to my ambitions but not a wall between me and my family.” We also get the pleasure of seeing Javed and Roops take a trip to America – specifically to Asbury Park, Long Branch and other part of New Jersey. The pleasure seen in their eyes is clear and the joy the experience during this trip makes everything that they’ve fought to overcome worth it in the end.


Have you seen Blinded by the Light? Well, what did you think?