1917: Movie Review.


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I have a recurring dream.

It’s a common one.

In it I am a soldier trying to evade the grasp of my enemy in a war zone.  I sneak around fields, towns, villages often being spotted, running for my life.  Sometimes I spot the enemy from afar preparing to attack and a sense of dread overwhelms me.  It last all night.

The dream interpreters, not particularly surprisingly, suggest this reflects some form of conflict one are facing in one’s life.

Today, in the cinema I witnessed that dream come to life, imagined by Sam Mendes in a Hades like no other.

It’s terrifying.

Totally and utterly terrifying.

It’s a true story based on the experience of Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred, who shared a fragment of what happened with his grandson.

Mendes’ career is largely theatre-based, and many film critics believe theatre makers do not make good film makers.  Yes, they might be strong on dialogue and characterisation but they tend to be weaker on cinematography.

One way to resolve this is to create your movies with Roger Deakins, surely the greatest cinematographer in history – given not only his ridiculously great eye but also the technology he has to further enhance his art.

There can be NO doubt that this is as much Deakins’ movie as it is Mendes’.  He was Oscar nominated 12 times before he finally landed one for Bladerunner 2049 (along the way his greatness has blessed No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo and The Assasination of Jesse James…). This will be his second.  There can be no doubt about that.

The combination of stunning grading, extremely long takes and unworkeoutable steadycam technique defies logic, description and understanding.  It is mesmerising.

Remember the first 20 minutes of Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan, arguably the greatest War movie of all time?  Would you agree with me that the remaining 90 minutes is patchy at best?  Well, 1917 begins more slowly, but no less electrifyingly, as we settle into Deakins’ art.  The difference though is that the remaining 90 minutes of 1917 grab you by the throat and do not let off.

It’s completely overwhelming.

Technical movies of this competence don’t always have great acting performances.  And this won’t win George Mackay an Oscar, probably not even a nomination, but he does not let the side down, neither does his supporting actor Dean-Charles Chapman, but although this is SUCH a human story it’s the sheer scale and bravado of the overall thing that is what makes it such a compelling piece of filmmaking.

Some will lament the fact that this is so, but I believe Mendes has found the balance.

One other thing; Thomas Newman’s soundtrack is so gripping, so menacing that jeopardy is maintained for its entirety – it’s a significant achievement.

He has created a nightmare vision that out-horrors even the likes of The Exorcist, because this is no fantasy, this is reality, and it feels like it.

Truly a seminal cinema experience.  This will only be half the movie on your TV set so get up and get down to your local big screen, before it’s too late.

Peerless.

The movie of the year (although I’ve yet to see Parasite) in an already epic year.

Note:  I have now and I think 1917 is a better movie.

 

 

 

A stunning visualisation of WWII


Clearly this has been gathering some momentum, with over 1.5 million views on Youtube, but I only just discovered it.

In the year that we commemorate the beginning of the first Great War here is a moving infographic that shows what happened to the balance of powers between the Axis countries (Germany, Italy and Japan) and the Allies with the Norwegians and The USSR adding further complexity on a day by day basis from the start to the end of WWII with a moving soundtrack underscoring it.

The blue represents the Allies and the brown the Axis countries; those in white remained neutral and you can see when the Italians and Russians turned Allied as the video progresses.

It is an outstanding piece of work by EmperorTigerstar…

If you like this there’s a lot more here

Dunsinane by the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre of Scotland in association with The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.


The Godfather Two showed that sequels can better their original by walking the same path but more deftly, building on its foundations with style, wit and great, great writing.

Dunsinane, is technically a sequel but could hardly be described as usurping its predecessor (Macbeth) as David Grieg neatly finds a way of avoiding the direct comparison by writing it in something approaching the modern vernacular.

And so, Macbeth is merely a plot device to set up a thoroughly modern parable on the pursuit of power and the appetite that man (and woman because Lady Macbeth, Gruach, is the hub of all the conflict in this extraordinary play) has for eternal conflict.

“Peace is not the normal state, peace is like the days when the sea is flat calm, the prevailing condition is war.” says King Malcolm (I think, and I paraphrase) to the English commander, and star of the show, Siward played monumentally by Jonny Phillips.  And that’s what lies at the heart of this electrifying production; the fact that war is pretty much the need state of those in power, because war makes things happen. And I don’t mean war results in reshaping of civilisation, no, war turns the wheels of industry and is the dynamo for political momentum.  The second world war was what got the world’s major economies booming after all.  The Gulf War revitalised America’s sluggish economy.

Thatcher knew that when she blasted Argie to kingdom come.

Blair thought he did when he catapulted the UK into the single most futile decade of power-mongering.

However, where Thatcher sensed the mood of the nation and used the Falklands to reignite her popularity Blair just stuck his big bloody size tens in and created an absolute shambles around him.  It’s Blair’s approach that drives the narrative of this play because the Post Macbethian 12th Century Scotland is a photofit of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whilst the English may have assumed that Lady Macbeth (Gruach) left this mortal coil alongside her beloved husband, we soon find out that as the saying goes “to assume is to make an ass out of u and me.”  Oh no, Gruach is very much alive and well and, as Queen, she believes her offspring are heir to the throne and by God she’s gonna do her damnedest to give them the chance to take their rightful place – even if that means sleeping with the enemy.

And so, Gruach (a mesmerising, flame haired Siobhan Redmond) emerges as the key political figure in this drama; she calls all the shots and she delivers them in an often tense and powerful dialogue between herself and Siward.  Always on the front foot, driving the poor man crazy with both lust and frustration.

Meanwhile, the King of Scotland, Malcolm quietly (weakly?) surveys the scene with an air of weariness and a large degree of slightly camp cynicism, increasingly frustrated by Siward’s inability to strategically manage the conflict.  His performance (by Brian Ferguson) is initially hysterically funny but gradually turns colder and more focused as the drama unfolds.

Both the directing (by Roxana Silbert) and the writing by David Grieg are breathtaking.  Grieg doesn’t write a script so much as a wholesale political essay on the state of the nation that leaves you almost gasping at its vision and insight. Remember this play was written 18 months before Salmond swept to power in such a way that the state of the Union has never been more open to question in modern times.  Surely conflict is a potential outcome.

And it’s the sheer range of this play that impressed me most.  Starting out, frankly, like a Monty Python comedy (it really did stir up memories of Life of Brian) it moves gradually through a series of episodes to darker territory.  Barely a minute passed in Act One without a chuckle, and often a belly laugh.  Act Two starts as it left off, but only for moments before the real meat of the problem is tackled to almost preternatural effect.

Honestly this play reaches right inside of you.  It moves along like a runaway Express, charged as it goes by a brilliant folk rock trio that inject pace and punctuation that is echoed by a duet of Gaelic singing lassies.  And whilst the ending stutters just a little it’s a lean back moment as the curtain closes and one is transported back into the real world.

Or was what we were watching the real world?

This is Champions League stuff.

I’ve seen several immense performances on the Lyceum stage this year; Stanley Townsend, Peter Forbes and Frances Thorburn in particular, and there have been a number of incredible ensemble casts ; Age of Arousal and Earnest spring to mind.

But this has both.

And this has three, maybe four or five stellar performances; Siobhan Redmond of course, and Jonny Phillips, but so too Tom Gill as the boy soldier, Brian Ferguson as Malcolm and Alex Mann as the hilarious Egham.

Mark my words. They will be talking about this show in hushed tones many years from now.

Bassett by The Lyceum Youth Theatre at The Traverse (until Saturday)


This is  Christie O’Carroll’s first, and stunningly, directed show for Lyceum youth and it is blessed with not only a cracking script by James Graham but also a gifted cast; in particular the quite mesmerising performance of Aaron Jones as the central and most troubled teen, Leo.

He’s not alone in deserving acting plaudits.  For a start it’s an excellent ensemble show and cleverly written to give all 14 young actors their moments to shine.  But inevitably there are stand outs.  For me they were the aforementioned Aaron Jones who, although slight of build, puts in a gargantuan performance.  In a smallish but rocket fuelled cameo (it’s much more than that really, but her spell in the limelight is a true short sharp shock) is Lucia D’Inverno as Lucy and throughout the laughs are provided by Hannah Joe Mackinlay as Zoe and on slightly more cerebral level by Tom Palmer as a quietly understated Amid.

The play delivers 40 minutes of changing mood and pace and centres on a school classroom in Wooton Bassett the day that a local hero is repatriated from Afghanistan in a wooden box.  The dead ‘hero’ is Charlie an ex pupil and idol (in different ways) to many of the classmates.  His death and the resulting ritual parade through Wooton Bassett are an incendiary device to the class who are inexplicably locked into their classroom by a particularly inept supply teacher just as the parade is about to happen.  This enrages Leo who gradually winds up his classmates as he himself becomes convulsed by the situation.

This ignites a classroom discussion which covers just about every subject a class of fifth formers would typically cover in their social life; sex, politics, slagging each other off, sex, toilet humour, being gay or not, sex, x box versus PS3, sex and swearing.  Oh, and sex.

It’s laugh out loud hilarious at times but gradually darkens as the mood swings from resentment at being excluded from the parade to bitter political ideological debate about the futility of war, nationalism (racism really), sexuality and religious belief.

It’s a tremendous script.  It’s expertly directed and it leaves the audience really quite shell shocked.  Although I have not yet seen Black Watch live I suspect it has that sort of visceral impact.

I strongly recommend that you see this.

The supporting performance consists of two one act dramas written by young writers on the Traverse’s Scribble initiative.  Tonight I saw “Is this it?” ( a thought provoking and very mature piece by Kiera McIntosh-Michaelis & Alex Porter-Smith) and Bang by Kelly Sinclair, a highly amusing insight into life in a detention class.  These pieces rotate on a performance by performance basis with four other, presumably very short, scripts.  Each are acted (with scripts) by members of Lyceum Youth and both were very enjoyable.

Let England Shake by PJ Harvey


A career highpoint

PJ Harvey used to be so strident that you had to take valium before slipping one of her discs on.  She was hard work.  But as she’s matured her work has become much less strident.  That’s not a bad thing and her latest offering, Let England Shake, is no less challenging than in her stridency days.  It’s a sort of concept album, certainly it’s all about war and it’s stunning.  Beautifully written and produced it shows off Polly at her most innocent almost, questioning and challellenging the point of it all with a beauty and charm that is totally affecting and engaging.

A must buy and early contender for album of the year in a field that has yet to really emerge so far.

Look at this crazy performance of the title song.  I mean Jesus wept, when did you last see a “rock star” do a solo performance with a zither!

And this, this video leaves you stunned.

Or this.

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow


noun. A figurative place where someone is said to be or will be, if they are getting or expect to be getting hurt or beaten.

You may not agree with the politics behind the invasion of Iraq (I certainly didn’t support its invasion and will, forever, despise Tony Bliar [sic] for his misleading of the parliament) but whatever your stance one must surely support the troops that operate there.

This film takes a rather too pro-American stance in that it positions most Iraquis as “the enemy” in a fairy broadbrush way.  But that is about its only flaw, and if you can overlook that we are talking epic war movies here.

The film draws you in from the get go as we follow the episodic adventures of a team of bomb disposal experts filmed (documentary style) on the streets of an unnamed Iraqui city.

The insurgents will go to any extremes (hence why they’re known as extremists I guess) to ply their dirty trade, most gut-wrenchingly by creating a human bomb out of a murdered 10 year old boy (maybe it should have been called a cadaver bomb).

It’s pretty much a three man performance but the acting plaudits go principally to Jeremy Renner, a died in the wool adrenalin freak, and his more considered  colleague, played by Anthony Mackie.  I am not familiar with either of their work previously but both deliver measured and moving performances.

The central axis of the film is around Renner’s character SSgt William James who has defused over 800 bombs and approaches the task with a bravado that terrifies his more conservative collegues.  (In fact the movie’s opening line essentially captures his ethos; “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” )But he always gets the job done in the most difficult situations.  He’s positioned as a cold and callous redneck but, as often in these movies, the cracks begin to show and an entirely more human soldier emerges which revolves around his relationshp with a cheeky young Iraqui market trader (perhaps the only sympathetic Iraqui character in the movie).  This ends with a delicious twist that I’ll not spoil here.

There is no question that Bigelow deserves her place at the top table come Oscar time and might even win.  It would be amusing to see her put one over on ex-husband James Cameron who is propbably also in the running for Avatar.

This is a grown up movie with a really powerful hit.  It powerfully captures the emotion of war and sense of place that few war movies do (Thin Red Line by Terence Malik being an exception as well as the excellent made for TV movie, Occupation, made earlier this year with James Nesbitt; and also set in Iraq).

A big fat 9 out of 10 from me.

recent reading. D-Day by Antony Beevor


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It took longer for me to read this than it took the Allies to take Paris.  That’s because it is an intense and extremely detailed account of the D-Day landings, the Normandy battles and the march to Paris.  It covers the action from four sides; the British under Monty (portrayed as a fool throughout by Beevor – he clearly has a thing against Monty), the Americans under Patton (The top dog in Beevor’s eyes),  the Germans under Hitler and Kluge and the French under De Gaul.

Actually, the D Day section is no more than quarter of the book.  The vast majority is dedicated to the battles in Normandy, and focusses heavily on the ultimate victory when the allies trapped the Germans in the Falaise Pocket.  His description of the feelings of the Allies landing on the beaches of Normandy are so vivid and visceral that it makes you flinch.

If you don’t like extreme detail this book will not be for you, but if you can deal with the unceasing map reading and referencing, and if understand your east from your west and your left flank from your right you may well love this.  The language is real and hugely engaging.  But the thing that really grips one in reading this account is the huge degree of human suffering, unneccessary death and the sheer scale of retribution, rape, murder and looting that went on on all sides.

The French play a big part in this book as both heroes (it would not have happened without The French Resistance) and villians (there was an incredible amount of both forced and willing prostitution going on all over France).

For me the single most engrossing aspect of the whole thing is Beevor’s description of The Bocage.  Thousands of tiny Normandy fields with huge hedgerow surrounding them that had to be taken on a field by field basis with German booby traps and dug in Panzers everywhere.  To say progress was slow and dangerous would be the understatement of the century.

Beevor’s skill is to turn the delivery of historic fact into a form of prose that grips one from start to finish.  He truly is a unique talent.  Stalingrad is equally compelling and I would not hesitate to recommend either of them.