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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: 1917

1917 Chapman mackay

A journey to deliver a message to stop a battle during World War I leads to an intriguing drama in 1917.

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.

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Rhapsody

In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek captures the essence of Freddie Mercury to a tee.

The musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody came out in movie theatres this year. We’ve seen music biographies before. The big question is does this film simply chronicle Freddy Mercury’s life? Or does it do much more?

The film begins just as Queen is about to step to the stage to perform in the 1985 Live Aid Concert. The film then flashes back to 1970 when Smile is an English band consisting of Brian May, Roger Taylor and singer Tim Staffell. Faroukh ‘Freddie’ Bulsara is a Farsi immigrant who studies and also works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport. Freddie faces a lot of discrimination for the color of his skin and mockery because of his hyperdontia which makes him look like he has a mega-overbite. However Freddie does lose himself in rock and roll.

One night, Staffell quits Smile in disappointment. Freddie was there attending the show. When he sees what happened, he asks to join the band. The band gets a rocky start as they play at small college gigs, but it looks promising and Freddie fully believes in them all. The rock singer gig does not go well with his family who feels he should earn his living more ‘honestly.’ Freddie also wins the attraction of college student Mary Austin during a clothes shopping trip. They start dating and romancing.

Over time, Queen gets bigger and they soon have to record an EP. It will cost a lot of money and Freddie agrees to sell the van for money. The EP is a success and it attracts major music producers including one from EMI Records interested in the band. The band changes their name to Queen and Freddie even legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury. The band is acquired by John Reid, Elton John’s manager, and assistant manager Paul Prenter. They bring the band to a gig on BBC’s Top Of The Pops where the band lip syncs Killer Queen. As success grows, including success in the US, Mary and Freddie get engaged. However soon after Freddie learns of his bisexuality.

The band try to record their album A Night At The Opera and the song Bohemian Rhapsody, but the song is too long and hard to perform. On top of that, producer Ray Foster is antagonistic on the band for both the song and the music for the whole album. After Foster refuses it as a single, Freddie gets a local DJ to play Bohemian Rhapsody. The song opens to a lot of negative reviews, but also scores big on the charts worldwide. However Freddie starts an affair with Prenter and has to call off the engagement with Mary. Mary is devastated, but agrees to remain friends.

In the film, the band has continued success in the early 1980’s with We Will Rock You. However the band experience tension both by Freddie’s lavish partying lifestyle and the increasing controlling ways of Prenter. Freddie even cheats on Paul with a waiter, but the waiter tells Freddie to find him after he finds himself. The friction between Freddie and the band grows to the point Freddie leaves the band to record a solo album upon the direction of Prenter. However it becomes obvious how much Prenter wants a piece of the action and Freddie both breaks up with him and fires him.

Soon Freddie learns he has HIV right when the devastating AIDS epidemic was at its most troubling times. He returns to the band confessing it was wrong for them to leave. They’re offered an appearance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert which will be broadcast worldwide to raise money for food supplies during the famine in Africa. This will be the band’s comeback concert, but it will take a lot of effort to bring the band back to their level of performance.

Just before the concert, Freddie confronts his parents to make peace with them. Freddie is also supported backstage by a pregnant Mary along with her husband David. Bob Geldof is hoping for a lot of call-in donations through this concert. Then Queen get on stage and it’s like they never missed a step. The crowd is blown away, television crowds are dazzled, and the donations accelerate like nobody’s business. Queen was back and alive!

There have been musical biographies in films done many times before. In order to make a winning story about a musician, the film will definitely have to include the music. That’s what made the musician great. The film will also have to include key events of the person’s life: the artistic moments, the triumphant moments and the struggles, even any tragedies. It’s all a matter of deciding the right moments for the right beginning, middle and end of the film.

The film does a smart move in making the Live Aid Concert the pivotal moment for Freddie Mercury both as the scene where the movie starts before flashing back in time and ultimately ending. The film also does a good job in picking out moments such as when Freddie joins the band Smile, changes it to Queen, first hits it big with Killer Queen releases their iconic Bohemian Rhapsody, faces friction as well as declining fame in the early 80’s, Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, and their return to winning the public at Live Aid.

However the film also risks disappointing a lot of Queen fans because of how inaccurate the story is. Despite Jim ‘Miami’ Beach being the film’s co-producer and May and Taylor being music consultants, The five biggest inaccuracies Queen fans are most likely to notice are, firstly, Freddie was actually introduced to Brian May and Roger Taylor of Smile by singer Tim Staffell when Staffell wanted to pursue further studies. Secondly, We Will Rock You was written and recorded in the late-70’s rather than the early-80’s. Thirdly, John Deacon was actually Queen’s fourth bassist rather than the original bassist. Fourthly, Queen never split up nor did they get back together at Live Aid. Freddie may have had solo work — the most famous being Barcelona: the duet with Montserrat Caballet — but Roger Taylor also had a solo album too. Fifthly, Freddie learned he was HIV-positive in 1987: after Live Aid. Those that know the true Queen story will know that a lot of these moments in the film were mostly common music-movie cliches rather than the truth about Queen.

Despite failing a lot of Queen fans with some of the inaccuracies and cliches, the film does succeed in a lot of ways and even presents some truths even Queen fans knew. Freddie did credit his extra teeth for his singing, he adored his cats, he held outlandish parties, the song Bohemian Rhapsody was considered too long and too ridiculous at first, Freddie did keep his ordeal with HIV and AIDS private as he did not want to be an object of pity, and finally his friendship with Mary Austin lasted until his death and she did live next door to him even while married to David. The film does stick to the truth in a lot of areas, including that of how Paul Prenter was a controlling person in Freddie’s life. However another added quality is that the film does an excellent job of capturing the essence and feel of Queen’s music. Those that haven’t heard much of Queen’s music will experience songs they never heard before. Those that are fans of the band will fall in love with the songs again. Also those that want to be rock musicians themselves will be inspired to pursue their dreams after watching the film. You not only hear the music, but you can also get the feel of a rock performer too.

The film has already grossed $844.4 million worldwide at press-time with $210.6 million coming from North America. However the film has also faced a ton of heat during the awards season. The cause for all of this was for director Bryan Singer. As you know, Singer has faced criminal charges of being a sex offender. How it happened that Dexter Fletcher stepped into directing the remainder of the film upon the departure of Bryan Singer is that Singer was fired after having violent clashes with Rami Malek. Singer, and not Fletcher, was credited as the film’s director. The awards season has seen the film win many accolades which many have voiced their displeasure about. Possibly due to hostility during the #MeToo movement, many are speaking their mind as if they’re saying a win for Bohemian Rhapsody is a win for a sex offender.  I personally feel that Fletcher should have been credited as director. However despite the fact that Singer was fired, people are still unhappy. Makes you wonder what will satisfy them all? Denying the film a release and trashing it altogether? This is a reflection on how toxic and bullying the free speech of social media can be.

Anthony McCarten in cooperation with Peter Morgan may have written a story that was more cliched than truth, but it did capture a lot of the essence of Queen and a lot of the essence of Freddie Mercury. As for the ending, I can understand why they went for the heavy drama by ending with the Live Aid Concert. I’d rather they went with the moment Freddie records The Show Must Go On. Those who know the story behind that will recognize it as one of the biggest triumphs of Mercury’s career and a testament of his mental toughness.

The film also captured the essence of Brian, John and Roger well too. Co-director Dexter Fletcher did a very good job of picking up where Singer left off and creates an exciting experience for the audience. However the biggest triumph is the performance of Rami Malek. Until Bohemian Rhapsody, he was facing the common difficulty of actors of Middle Eastern descent with limited opportunities. It almost seemed like the biggest thing he would ever be known for is playing the Pharaoh in the Night At The Museum movies. This also was not an easy task because Malek was not originally a fan of Queen. However that all changed when he was given the role. Malek was excellent in his performance and will blow away anyone who sees this film.

The actors portraying Brian, Roger and John — Gwilym Lee, Ben hardy and Joseph Mazzello, respectively — also added to the film. Lucy Boynton was also excellent as the friend Mary Austin. Even minor performances like Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, Mike Myers as Ray Foster, and Allen Leech as Paul Prenter did very well with the roles they were given. Julian Day did a very good job with the costuming, Aaron Haye did an excellent job with the set design, and the producers did a very good job in choosing the right songs for the film.

Bohemian Rhapsody has some noticeable errors in the film. However the film succeeds in capturing the spirit of Freddie Mercury, capturing the music of Queen and capturing the experience of a rock star. No wonder it dazzles those that see it.