There has been a lot of anticipation of what will win Best Picture for the past two months. Lately the recently-released 1917 has become the front-runner. Does it have what it takes to win it?
One thing we should keep in mind is that this is not a completely true story that takes place during World War I on April 6, 1917. This is a story about a messenger delivering a message during the war. According to Sam Mendes, this is a story that has been lodged with him as a child. It’s quite likely the stories came while listening to the tales his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, would tell. In fact he dedicates the film to him ‘for telling us the stories.’
Another thing we should remember about World War I is not just how it would be the most brutal war in history before World War II, but also of how it changed how wars are fought. In the past, soldiers would fight on horses with swords. Here in World War I, it was mostly ammunition related which made horse fighting useless from this point on. Also with the airplane being invented back in 1903, this was the first war ever that would involve airfighting. That would present a new danger for soldiers fighting on the ground as they would also have to avoid shooting from the air.
We should also take into account that despite the advances in warfare, communication between infantries were limited. It seems odd to see the need for a message to stop a battle to be sent through two men. I remember seeing messages submitted in such fashion in Lincoln which was set during the Civil War. One in today’s modern world would find ‘walking’ this message from the trenches to former enemy territory to the infantry to be an odd thing, considering the technologies we now have. We shouldn’t forget that during World War I, the most communication they had was either Morse Code or landline telephone. As you would see when the scene approaches, the infantry of which the leader would need to receive the message would have no access to any of those forms of communication. Telephone lines were cut out in the field and ‘walking’ the message to the infantry would be the only way they can be reached.
We’ve seen war movies in the past. Most war movies consist of frequent battles and action scenes. Mostly to stir up excitement for the purpose of being an action movie. This is a different story. This is a message of two men who are given the responsibility to deliver a message to a battalion to cease fighting and prevent huge loss. This is not just a message a soldier has to relay to prevent a devastating battle, but one in which threatens his brother. Blake not only must deliver the message but have someone else as the second should one die. He chooses his best friend Schofield who’s reluctant at first. The two put themselves out in the mission but encounter danger after danger. Blake is stabbed to death and then it becomes Schofield’s mission to deliver the message. This is a story that focuses less on battles and more on getting a task done. If you get into the story, you will see this is a task which will put one in the middle of the horrors of war. This being a war movie, there are scenes of action and intensity. Those are scenes that can’t be compromised in a war movie and there’s no compromise here. This film also shows a lot of the horrors and devastations caused during World War I like a devastated town, a brutal plane crash, rat-infested areas, bodies left around decaying, and even how every soldier had to see people from another army as the enemy. No exceptions. This story is a telling account of what those fighting in the war had to deal with.
I know I’ve seen many films by Steven Spielberg where he not only tells a war story but also shows how the war was done back then. Often when he does his story that occurs during times of war, it’s like we receive a lesson of how war was done and are even reminded of the politics and hostilities of the time. Sam Mendes takes a different approach in telling his story in 1917. It’s not as telling as how World War I was done as a Spielberg movie would be, but it does remind you of many horrors a soldier would endure. Keep in mind, this is a single story of a message to be delivered and the treacherous journey to deliver it. One can go through enough horrors in that one journey to know how much war is hell. Even the stories from one person is enough to be a telling account.
Mendes does do something in which Spielberg never did in any of his war movies. Mendes makes this a ‘follow-around’ story. I’ve seen films which have been cases where the story is told by following the lead protagonist around. It’s added to the story in most cases. Here in this film, it not only tells the story but makes one part of the journey. It makes the audience experience the horrors and dangers as they happen. Another addition to the story is how it makes like this film is all one take. It’s not really a single take for almost two hours. In fact I saw in Birdman how they’re able to make a film set in real-time appear to be only one take through some cinematography and editing angles. This is the same here where it does an excellent job of making it look like one take from start to finish. There are many times in which the story is done in real-time and there are time elapses where the audience won’t notice. Nevertheless it works for the film and for the storytelling.
Top acclaim has to go to Sam Mendes. I have something to tell you all. Back when I first arrived in Vancouver, I celebrated my first weekend there watching American Beauty in the movie theatres. It left me captivated from start to finish and I never checked my watch once! Which was rarely the case for me back then. That film, as well as other films that made 1999 a landmark year for film, and the Oscar race that followed would kick-start my enthusiasm for film and the Oscar Race.
Mendes does an excellent job in directing the story and using multiple angles that add to the story instead of distract. The story in which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns is actually the very first feature-length film script both have written! Wilson-Cairns however has had more experience as she’s written for television and various short films. This is a unique story and a unique way in filmmaking of telling the story. The story succeeds in delivering excitement and intensity as the viewer watches it. The journey ends in a manner different from how the viewer would expect it to end, but it ends on the right note. It even ends on a personal note as Schofield confronts Blake with the bad news. The ending is possibly the most human note of the film and it reminds you of the dignity of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to fight or prevent tyranny. I admire Mendes and Wilson-Cairns for incorporating that in the story.
As for acting, this is a film that doesn’t allow too much in terms of a developed ensemble cast. Many action films and war films usually don’t have room for well-developed acting; it’s mostly action-oriented. Even the role of the protagonist Schofield, played by George MacKay, is not exactly a role with too much dimension. I do give it credit as the film is more about the story than it is about the characters. Nevertheless I do admire for MacKay delivering a solid performance with a role that lacked dimension. Actually he succeeds in giving the role its most feeling at the very end. The acting of the main supporting role of Dean-Charles Chapman was also very good. His role was given more feeling as this was the character’s brother he was most concerned about. Chapman also does a good job with his role. Most of the other supporting roles had minimal screen time in the film. Nevertheless the performances of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Maaser and Richard Madden were well-acted despite how limited their roles were.
The film also has a lot of stand-out technical efforts too. First is the cinematography of Roger Deakins which is unique for a war-film and it adds to the thrills and excitement. Next is the film editing by Lee Smith who successfully makes it look like a single take. Next is set designers Lee Sandales and Dennis Gassner for recreating the trenches, battlefields and sunken bridges of the war. Another of top acclaim is the score from Thomas Newman. Newman has composed scores for six of Mendes’ seven films and this is his fourth Oscar nomination for a score for a Mendes film. The score fits the intensity of the story and moments of action. Finally the visual effects team did an excellent job of recreating the war and the battle scenes.
1917 isn’t your typical war movie. It’s a movie that takes you on the journey and involves you in the drama. It even reminds you of the horror while restoring your belief in humanity.
And there you have it! That’s the last of my reviews of the Best Picture nominees! This makes it nineteen straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar Night! Just a review of the Oscar Shorts and my Oscar-winner predictions yet to come.
I’m good at keeping count of all the years I’m able to see all the Best Picture nominees, but I don’t know how many consecutive years I’ve seen the shorts. However I did it again this year. I lucked out and saw all the shorts for this year’s Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film categories. There were a lot of differences of the films, but a lot of similarities too. Here’s my review of the films:
LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS:
The col thing about this year is that two films — Fauve and Marguerite — come from Canada. More specifically, Quebec. The five films nominated are very different in genre and story, but all are deserving of their nominations:
Detainment: dir. Vincent Lambe – This is the most controversial of the five films. February 12, 1993 started off as a day in which two 10 year-old boys named Jon Venables and Robert Thompson simply played truant from school and stole items from nearby stores. That all changed when they saw 2 year-old James Bulger standing outside the butcher shop unattended. The film focuses intensely on the police interrogations. Both Thompson and Venables are interrogated separately. Both boys’ parents are in the room listening in, and in complete paralyzing shock.
The film is based off of some of the recorded interrogations of the two boys. The film appears to be a character study of the two individual boys. Thompson appears defiant and remorseless while Venables is constantly lying and frequently cries, even hysterically. The film also relives the moments such as when adults butt in and how they walked Bulger the long distance to the track where he died. It becomes gripping without getting too disturbing.
NOTE: The film has attracted a lot of controversy because of its subject matter. The James Bulger murder is a murder that still upsets the UK, especially Liverpool, to this day. The mother has gone on BBC speaking her anger and demanded the film be removed from the list of nominees. That’s why even though I think it’s the best film of all five, I feel it should not win the Oscar. I don’t see it trying to bring any sympathy to the two boys, but it still upsets many from the UK to this day.
Fauve: dir. Jeremy Comte – Two boys, Tyler and Benjamin, are playing an innocent power game. They first do it around an abandoned train. However they decide to take their game to a surface mine for a concrete factory. Then the game becomes deadly as Benjamin finds himself sinking in the wet cement. Tyler tries to help, but to no avail as it stops him too. Any help from Tyler helps to no avail. Then the aftermath as a woman offers a ride home tells a lot.
The film is a good short story. The story starts off as simple fun and games, but then turns to a dark tragic drama when you least expect it. Even the ending leaves you asking questions at the end. Very good short.
Marguerite: dir. Marianne Farley – Marguerite is an elderly lady nearing the last years of her life at home. She is nursed on a daily basis by a young nurse named Rachel. One day, she overhears a phone conversation between Rachel and another woman. It sounds romantic. Later, Marguerite notices Rachel’s phone in the bathroom and sees romantic photos of Rachel and the other woman. One day, Marguerite unearths a photo album. The photos are back in the 1960’s and are of her and another woman named Cecile. It brings back memories of the two. Cecile would later marry a man. After being put to bed early because of a fall, Marguerite confesses in her bed to Rachel of Cecile and why she never ‘loved’ her.
This is a story that is slow, but it tells a lot. It’s about two women, both lesbians, who are a product of their times. One couldn’t love a woman because it was considered a ‘mortal sin’ and was criminalized. The other is free to love another woman without guilt. It’s there where they share their special bond at the end. That’s why I declare this my Should Win pick.
Mother: dir. Rodrigo Sorogoyen – Marta is relaxing at her place with her mother around. Her son Ivan is on the coast of the French Riviera with his father on vacation. Soon Marta receives a phone call from Ivan. Ivan is alone on a remote area of the coast. The father abandoned him. Nobody except a strange man is around. The battery in Ivan’s phone is dying. Soon Marta calls the police, but the police have no way to locate Ivan as Ivan doesn’t know where he is. Then a second phone call from Ivan happens. That leaves Marta even more frightened and causes Marta to rush out.
The film’s best attribute is that it captures the moment. It’s between cellphones and Marta’s domain. The qualities are what we know and what we don’t know and it builds on the suspense. The weakness is that it appears to be part of a film rather than a full film. It feels like it has a beginning and a middle, but no end. I’m sure the purpose of the director was to give us a film that leaves us in suspense, but it leaves you wondering what was the point of this partial-film? Social message? Suspense story? What?
Skin: dir. Guy Nattiv – Troy is a ten year-old boy growing up in a remote area of the southern USA. The father, Johnny Aldd, is bringing him up to be rough and tough. The father even teaches Troy how to shoot a real gun with the help of his neo-Nazi friends. One day at a supermarket, Troy smiles at an African American man just simply buying groceries. Johnny gets angry and shouts racist slurs, but the black man walks off calm, collect, but angry and lets him know it. Johnny response by getting his friends to rush over and beat the black man up near his van while his family watches in horror, and Troy watches on.
Days later, Troy and Johnny go out somewhere, but the father is captured by a van of African American men. They put a sleeping injection in Johnny and a tattoo artist goes over his racist tattoos, leaving you wondering what will come. After eleven days, Johnny is dropped back at his home. The tattoo artist completely covered him in black, to Johnny’s horror. As Johnny tries to come home, his wife and son react in fear. It ends with a surprise ending.
No question the main theme of the film is about racism. However the film is also about cliques and breeding fear into people. The film can say that the culture of fear can also be why the United States has a gun problem. Seeing how neo-Naziism exposed its face in the Unite-The-Right rally in August 2017, this is a film very relevant to our times. Even with its bizarre story and surprise ending. That’s why I pick it at my Will Win pick.
This makes for a very eclectic five films chosen for this year. One of the films is from a Canadian animation company. However there are two American films that hint they may have some Canadian ingredients:
Animal Behaviour: dirs. Alison Snowden and David Fine – Various animals walk into a psychology group meeting with a dog doctor leading the meeting. All have a problem to confess. However problems arrive when a gigantic ape with an anger problem comes in. He doesn’t want to be helped. The pig, the leech and the moth are all cooperative, but the ape is disruptive. Then the ape confesses his problem, but also throws a fit in the process and all havoc is wreaked. Right at the end, and with all the damage done, the ape appears helped and will be back next week.
This is some clever 2D animation that may appear simple and crude by most, but fits the story well. Also the whole story of all the animals involved and their problems makes for funny hilarity.
Bao: dirs. Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb – A Chinese-Canadian woman makes dumplings for her busy husband, but one comes alive. She raises it to be like her own baby. She mothers it with her caring nature, but the son grows up out to be rebellious and even leaves to marry a white woman he loves. She can’t handle it and eats him. Heartbroken after ‘eating’ him, she wakes up to find out it’s just a dream. She’s a mother going through empty-nest syndrome and the child dumpling in her dream was mirroring her own son’s life. It ends on a happy note.
This is the short shown before Incredibles 2. Once again, Pixar adds another excellent writer to its dream team. Director Domee Shi started as a storyboard artist for The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out. Here she has a chance to let her creativity flow with a charming story which transcends race and delights people of all ages and backgrounds.
Late Afternoon: dirs. Louise Bagnall and Nuria Gonzales Blanco – Emily is an elderly woman who is constantly tended to by Kate. Frequently Emily’s memory goes back to her past from moments in her childhood and her carefree nature and then to moments in her young adulthood. Her memory keeps going in and out. Then at the end, she’s reminded Kate is her daughter.
This does seem like a heavy short as the story appears to be either about Dementia or Alzheimers. The use of animation helps with the drifting of Emily’s mind from the present to the past back to the present again. A very good short, but it may be too deep for some.
One Small Step: dirs. Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas – Luna is a Chinese-American girl with dreams of becoming an astronaut. She lives with her father, a shoe cobbler. He has always let Luna know how much he loves her with the shoes he crafts for her and with his business. He uses his money to promote Luna’s dream. As a young child, Luna cherishes every minute of her father. As she grows up, she becomes more distant from her father and even too busy with her college work. Things take a turn for the worse as she starts failing courses and is denied acceptance into astronaut training. Then one day she comes home and learns that her father has passed. Heartbroken, she then turns her life around and starts a new ambition. This leads to the happy ending we all want.
The story is a very good story as it deals with a common theme of father-daughter relationships. The story may appear heartbreaking, but ends with the positive energy it began with. The animation was excellent and the story, with no dialogue at all, told us a lot. I call this my Should Win and Will Win pick.
Weekends: dir. Trevor Jimenez – A young boy living in downtown Toronto in the mid-1980’s is divided between the time between the homes of his father and his mother. The father is more playful with an imagination into samurai swords. The mother is more serious while she’s dating a man who doesn’t take well to the boy. As the stories shift between the two world, they become intertwined with the boy’s dreams and the dreams tell a lot about the realities of the home lives he’s going through.
Trevor Jimenez has been a storyboard artist for Pixar films and has his chance at doing his own short film. It’s all hand-drawn which adds to the effect of the story. The point of this story was to mix the eerie dreams with the boy’s unfriendly reality. It does a great job in creating the right environment for the film and the drama.
And that’s my look at this year’s Oscar nominated short films. Last year I was better at predicting the shorts winners, but this year looks to be very open. There are some that look like clear winners, but anything can happen in these categories. It will all be decided on Sunday the 24th.