Tag Archives: 1917

Underwater

11 Jan

 

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It turns out “1917” isn’t the only beat-the-clock film this weekend. “Underwater,” a 95-minute race against time, gets its start early and rarely lets down. No, it’s not as harrowing, sharp or intelligent as “1917,” and that’s not because it’s a sci-fi thriller that asks a lot of its viewers – it’s because it’s an ersatz hodgepodge of genre cornerstones that have come before, namely “The Abyss” (1989), the “Alien” films and so on. To say more might spoil some not-so-surprising twists.

We begin with ominous news clippings about mysterious tremors off the Pacific coast and plunge quickly down to a drilling platform 7 miles beneath the ocean surface. There Kristen Stewart’s Norah, a mechanical engineer and one of 300 workers on the rig, brushes her teeth casually as the ring-shaped structure shifts and groans worryingly. More groans, a droplet of water and then all hell breaks loose. By the time we come up for air – and it’s a jittery, frenetic sequence, maybe the film’s best – most of the structure’s gone, as are most of those 300 employees. In a sealed-off section, Norah and five other survivors come to the unhappy realization that they’re trapped, with no serviceable means of returning to the surface, and the rest of the gigantic structure is collapsing slowly down on them.

The answer, as the rig’s captain (Vincent Cassel) has it, is clunky robotic diving suits designed to withstand all that pressure and an iffy, near blind amble across the ocean floor to an older facility that may have resources to get home. Up to that point, and at the onset of that sojourn, the film’s pretty gripping (think “Deepwater Horizon” inverted) but then something weird and ghostly swims by and our budding character study becomes a creature-feature fear fest – and not a very compelling one.

Directed by William Eubank, who showed poise and promise with the mind-bending thriller “The Signal” (2014), the film’s composed competently enough, and production values are high. It’s just all weighed down by an inert storyline that doesn’t even feign putting a new spin on old tropes: As they prepare to make the trip, Norah tells the other surviving woman, Emily (Jessica Henwick), to take off her pants, as they won’t fit in the deepwater diving suit, though the goofball big boy of the group (T.J. Miller) fits into the unisex exoskeleton just fine. Later on, like in Ridley Scott’s 1979 deep space thriller, there’s a panty-line payoff; it’s not egregious, but most definitely worthy of an eye roll. Through it all, the bespectacled Stewart (in an Annie Lennox bob) maintains a commanding hold of the screen, casting palatable emotions as needed. Without her, “Underwater” might have been a full-on collapse; even with, when the camera starts to settle on Norah and her mates and something crashes down or swims in from the dark, it reminds us that these humans are just chum. Best not to get too attached.

1917

10 Jan

‘1917’: They’ve only a short time to save lives, and we go with them through the hell of war

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When it comes to war movies, there’s plenty about World War II but far, far less when it comes to chronicling its bloody predecessor. What exists is pretty rich and powerful, including classics such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “Gallipoli” (1981, and a classic!) and “Paths of Glory” (1957), which all captured the barbaric horror of trench warfare – inhumane hellholes of mass slaughter where heroics were measured by the last man standing. A couple of years ago, Peter Jackson fittingly embraced those lost heroes with the cinematic ode “They Shall Not Grow Old,” the “Lord of the Rings” director’s first documentary; and looking to add to that list, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty” and “Skyfall”) drops a taut, face-paced shot of adrenaline on us in “1917,” which might not be long on plot, but pins you to the edge effectively as the clock ticks and ordinance explodes overhead.

Much will be made about the long-shot cinematography by Roger Deakins (“Fargo” and an Oscar winner for “Blade Runner 2049”). It’s absolutely brilliant, and any of those pooh-poohing it as a gimmick likely don’t understand the technical complexity involved. Deakins’ artistry gets put on display from frame one as we meet up with young lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) lazing wearily in a field. Brought bleary-eyed before their C.O., they’re ordered to deliver a message to another allied outpost several clicks away: The grim circumstance of the situation is that communications are down, and if they fail to make the drop before the next sunrise, some 1,600 British soldiers will march into a trap and be slaughtered. Blake’s brother, as we’re informed, is among the unaware – the sense of urgency’s not just paramount, its personal.

From that brief, officious interlude, we’re off, following the lads down into the trenches, through the bomb burst, across the wire and into German-controlled French countryside. Along the way, mangled corpses hang from barbed wire entanglements and bob in the mud pits and streams they must cross. Then there’s the close encounters with the enemy, including the pilot of a downed biplane, when a brief moment of humanity turns deadly. The whole harrowing ordeal unfurls in real time, with the two constantly flushed, harried and under fire. In its pressure-cooked pace, “1917” invokes the same fraught “what could possibly go wrong next?” anxiousness that “Uncut Gems” rattled us with just weeks ago.

What’s most impressive about Mendes’ salute to valor is the seamless synergy of choreography, action and sound (both ambient and Thomas Newman’s soul-shaking score). It’s an immersive effect that embeds you with the soldiers as if you were there, following as they charge through the trenches and duck enemy fire. That POV, while wholly visceral and unique, also makes “1917” feel a bit like a video game, in which depth of character becomes secondary to the next eye-popping visual. Chapman and MacKay are plenty fine, mind you; they’re just not given the theatrical real estate to expand. It’s all action, all the time. Pauses along the frenetic path do give us a chance to breathe when the pair check in with higher-ups (played by Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong), but then it’s onto the next bullet-blazing gauntlet.

Bisbee ’17

23 Sep

‘Bisbee ’17’: Company called up the cattle cars, a deadly ‘deportation’ for its striking workers

 

For his riveting documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012), Joshua Oppenheimer tackled the grim matter of a 1960s Indonesian massacre by providing cameras to the heads of the militias and hit squads doing the killing, so each could make a film reenvisioning their involvement. In “Bisbee ’17” Robert Greene captures something similar in a mining town just miles from the Mexican border and down the road from the O.K. Corral. Just as America was entering the First World War and metal production was key – namely copper, the motherlode of Bisbee – a miner strike drew the ire of townsfolk, who armed themselves, rounded up the 1,300 agitators and activists, put them in cattle cars and sent them off to the New Mexico desert, dumping them with steep odds of survival.

That inhumane act has become  known as the Bisbee Deportation. Many of the “deported” workers in 1917 were foreigners, what we today would label as “undocumented.” The town back then was pretty much set up and run by the Phillip Dodge Corp., which brought in the sheriff from Tombstone to spearhead the roundup. The mining camp now is a ghost town; what remains is a strip mall epicenter and 5,000 residents, with a complexion representative of the white industrialist settlers and the native and brown people who toiled under their demands. The town was divided back then on the Brisbee Deportation and remains so, and that’s where Green strikes his vein: For the centennial, the town stages a reenactment, which Green films in perfectly choreographed sequences, interspersing interviews with descendants, including those of a brother who rounded up his own sibling and the first Latino woman to win local election. Yes, Brisbee then and now proves to be something of a microcosm.

Beyond the rote talking heads, the film’s something of a dreamy cinematic wonder, be it the stunning shots of scarred and gutted land framed by Jarred Alterman’s lens, the mood-sparking score by Keegan DeWitt or the pain-streaked folk songs sung by the re-enactors.