Movie Review: Let’s not confuse “The Great War” with “1917”

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Here’s a well-intentioned World War I quickie designed to steal a smidgen of the thunder of the Oscar-contender, “1917,” which debuts Christmas Day in some of the country.

“The Great War” is about racism in the segregated American Expeditionary Forces in the last hours of World War I.

It stars a mostly-unknown cast, with the commanding Ron Perlman as U.S. General John J. Pershing, and Billy Zane as an apparently fictional top aid to the general.

Perlman looks nothing like Pershing, and if you’ve never thought northern Minnesota, where this was filmed, looks anything like WWI France, you’re not alone.

It’s an ahistorical tale about the patrol that has to fight its way through German lines to track down a “lost platoon” of African American soldiers in the Argonne as the Germans frantically try to grab territory that the screenplay suggests they could “keep” after the 11-11-1918 Armistice.

Never happened. But here’s what writer-director Steven Luke, who directed a WWII movie no one saw called “Wunderland”  as Luke Schuetzle, was probably inspired by.

General Pershing’s nickname, related by Perlman in the film, was“Black Jack” (a “softer” version of the nickname) thanks to his service leading Buffalo Soldiers, African American cavalrymen, in the 1890s. The film suggests his admiration for African American fighting men, even though the Army was rigidly segregated during the war. African American combat units did fight — under French command — because Pershing was determined to keep “real” U.S. troops under U.S. command.

What those who fought it came to call “The Great War” did have an instance of American troops “lost” behind enemy lines, the famous “Lost Battalion.” 

But as World War I on the Western Front was fought almost entirely on French soil, with the losers (the Germans) in general retreat right up to the Armistice. It’s idiotic to imply fierce fighting was going on “to hold ground” when it was French territory, both before and after the war.

So one can praise the idea of putting the racism,” how most of the men feel about colored troops,” on display in a ?”Saving African American Privates” mission the most racist among them resent and complain about. It’s just that the guy who wrote and directed this pine forest-set, guys-with-anachronistic weapons war movie didn’t make much of an effort to get it right.

Bates Wilder plays the shell-shocked captain who, with the help of an African American doughboy guide (?) played by Hiram A. Murray, must lead a platoon of Brooklyn Italian-American racists and guys who sing the old Confederate marching song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in search of fighting men pinned down by the Huns somewhere out there.

Perlman’s Pershing reads aloud from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln, the searching soldiers pass by a Red Cross aid station, quarrel, suffer losses during firefights and use the word “boy” a lot.

And the African American officer (Leonard Searcy) leading those trapped Buffalo soldiers gets off the best line of the picture.

“If it ain’t black, kill it!”

The script is mostly recycled war movie cliches, with the props — guns, explosions, etc. — occasionally giving away the paltry budget. The picture may pursue an interesting angle, but the writing, performances and unconvincing combat (high school drama “stage punches” are thrown), makeup make it impossible for characters to engage us in their story.

The seed of a good idea is here, but Luke ignored the historical record, something he could have easily written around, even made Billy Zane a French-accented officer who urges Pershing to save this “lost platoon.” And Luke staged and filmed the quest in the the least dramatic ways, and he didn’t have the money to polish what he ended up putting on the screen.

No wonder he changed his name. I wonder if he’ll do it again.

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MPAA Rating:R for war violence

Cast: Bates Wilder, Hiram A. Murray, Jordan McFadden, Ron Perlman and Billy Zane

Credits: Written and directed by Steven Luke.    A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:48

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Movie Review: “En Brazos de un asesino” (In the Arms of an Assassin)

 

 

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Here’s a straight-up mob moll hides out with a hitman thriller, with a few Latin American twists.

“En Brazos de un Asesino” (In the Arms of an Assassin) is a Dominican production, set in Mexico, about a young woman, Sarai (Alicia Sanz of “Billionaire Boys’ Club”) held as a sex slave by a drug lord. When a hired assassin (William Levy, who produced and co-wrote this) shows up to be paid for his next assignment, Sarai sees her chance and escapes from the clutches of Javier (Roberto Sosa).

Javier, of course, wants her back. She’s his “favorite,” we hear. Even though the killer insists, in smoldering Spanish (with English subtitles) that “Interfering is not my business,” she demands that he “Take me to the border.” As if that snub nose .38 she’s holding on him will see to that.

What follows is a pursuit and a series of bust-ups and shoot-outs as the bad guy (the assassin) kills legions of badder guys, all to keep this woman he seems to regard as “a bargaining chip…a guarantee” alive and out of the clutches of the gang.

Simple, right? It’s every “Transporter” movie, and a whole lot of “hitman” romances, including TV’s “Good Behavior” from a couple of years ago. How can you screw that up?

Well, one way is to treat this as the potential franchise debut (it’s from the first in a series of novels) it is, and slow-dance past the climax — which arrives just over an hour into the picture.

Everything that follows, more violence, sex scenes, intrigues, villas and private jets and even a sexed-up “Eyes Wide Shut” sex party for the rich — is just 33 minutes of anti-climax.

The trick to launching a franchise is to make the first movie so good that it leaves open the possibility. The fights here are crisply rehearsed, staged, shot and edited. The hero is a rock-hard-abs hunk, and the heroine sexy and fiesty.

There’s nothing original much to this, no surprises. The villain’s violent sexpot sister (never ID’d by name, so I have no idea who she is in the credits) is a hissable monster, and Sosa makes a fine heavy. It’s just that “En Brazos” is never anything more than servicable hit-man/romance filler.

The film’s forward motion comes to a halt with that climax, and nothing afterwards gets it back up on its feet.  

Matías Moltrasio made his feature directing debut with this, but blaming the misfire on a “rookie mistake” doesn’t take into account what the producers wanted out of this, the film’s real shortcomings.

Maybe we’ll see more from this “Killing Sarai” series. If not, “En Brazos de un Asesino” is stark proof of why that didn’t happen. 1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for bloody violence, sexual content and nudity

Cast: William Levy, Alicia Sanz, Adrián Lastra, Roberto Sosa

Credits: Directed by Matías Moltrasio, script by Jeff Goldberg and William Levy, based on a novel by J.A. Remdenski. A Pantelion/Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:41

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Netflixable? French dancers “Step up” for “Let’s Dance”

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Not everything is better in French, even though it sometimes feels that way in movies.

“Let’s Dance” is a light, artsy and sweet French variation on “dance battle” genre, home to many “Step Up” installments, “You Got Served,” “Battle of the Year” and the like.

It’s every bit as athletic and graceful — on the floor — as those films. There are cute touches, not the least of which is its central premise — bringing a corps de ballet to hip hop.

But whatever its French charms, its a “Step Up” movie without any sexual heat and nothing resembling sweat. Director Ladislas Chollat keeps his camera too far removed from the exertion and action far too often for the dance to pull us in.

The story’s clever deviations from formula don’t plug the holes in the picture’s heart. Romance is shortchanged, heartbreak is brushed over and serendipity overrules anything logical about the plot.

The leads are likable, and the comic scenes of conflict, inspiration and culture clash pay off. But the whole is missing too much to be a compelling 100 minute sit-through.

Three friends show up in Paris, 20ish dancers ready to join a crew and compete in the Masters of Hip Hop competition.

Joseph (Rayane Bensetti),  Emma (Fiorella Campanella) and Karim (Mehdi Kerkouche) are gambling that they’ll be able to crash at Emma’s brother’s tiny flat, that they’ll be able to land jobs to support themselves, and that Emma’s inside-track on joining the crew of choreographer/dancer Youri (Brahim Zaibat) isn’t just for her.

Youri comes off as a jerk, bully and a spurned lover when Emma shows up with hunkier Joseph in tow. But one backflip-filled Joseph audition (45 seconds in length) later, and they’re in. Just like that.

We know it won’t last. The “my girl,” “No, MY girl” (in French, with English subtitles) tiffs grow, and Joseph and Karim find themselves knocking on a man’s door in the middle of the night, kicked out of Emma’s life and Youri’s dissolving crew.

The first interesting twist is this man they’ve come to stay with Rémi (Guillaume de Tonquédec) and Joseph have history. And as we’ve heard Joseph’s voice mail to his father, announcing he’s run off to Paris, we know he’s not his father. All we know is that he has a ballet school, used to be a dancer and is irritated as all get-out that the kid has shown up at his door.

The mind has a LOT of screen time to figure out this relationship — hustler-lover, uncle in the arts, first teacher — before the Big Reveal on what they are to each other.

What’s less mysterious is series of absurdly fortunate events that solves every character’s most urgent dilemma. Joseph and Karim need work. Joseph, now leading cast-offs from Youri’s crew, needs to learn how to choreograph.

And Rémi needs these messy, freeloading punks to pull their weight, pitch in, and oh — by the way — save his job at the ballet school that bears his name.

Teach his ballerinas and danseurs (the men) “to let go…dance like CRAZY!”

He contradicts himself in suggesting that Joseph and Karim teach “what cannot be taught,” but no matter. All of their problems can be solved by injecting this “new blood” into the stodgy school.

And maybe the hip hop crew can benefit from the relationship, too.

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Scenes show the corps rebelling, then contemptuously slow-walking through Karim’s amusing, energetic routines. Rémi shows Joseph how to see dance in everday life as the street life of Paris pedestrians is transformed into a big, brief dance number.

There’s a cute, stubborn ballerina (Alexia Giordano) as uptight as her hair-bun, until Joseph ridicules her in class — “I don’t want to see the little rich girl! I want to see the DANCER!”

To its credit, the movie doesn’t lose itself in the “battles,” and the standard conflicts in such movies are played down. Youri disappears, and the “battle” is limited to an opening audience, and a finale. There are still conflicts, but the “love triangle” set up here is a non-starter.

Kerkouche, de Tonquédec and Giordano have the showiest roles. Bensetti has a kind of Garrett Hedlund in baggy camos quality, but doesn’t give us much more than his good looks in this performance. Some of it’s the writing, but there’s not a lot of flash in the actor behind the character, either.

Having reviewed all of the “Step Up” movies in theaters with the films’ target audience, I’m curious as to who will be interested in this PG (instead of PG-13) rated dance-off dramedy, in French (unless you switch languages for it) and with subtitles.

Sure, “Step Up” is ancient history now. No reason to assume anybody under 18 has seen any of the films, or even the Youtube series that spun out of them. Is the demand still out there for this genre, and if so, will they dig it without all the muscular, sweaty and sexual close-ups and the romances that spin out of that Invitation to the Dance?

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MPAA Rating: TV-14

Cast: Rayane Bensetti, Alexia Giordano, Guillaume de Tonquédec, Mehdi Kerkouche, Fiorella Campanella, Brahim Zaibat

Credits: Directed by Ladislas Chollat, script by Ladislas Chollat and Joris Morio. A Netflix (Pathe) release.

Running time: 1:49

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Movie Review: Twists and tension make “I See You” a sleeper worth tracking down

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“I See You” is a thriller of urban legend topicality and Hitchcockian plot twists. Well-acted, cleverly-plotted and directed with extra attention being paid to tone, menace and hiding its secrets, the best word I can think of to describe it is so archaic as to risk an “OK, Boomer,” from the inexperienced and unread who use that  put-down.

It’s a corker.

Oscar-winner Helen Hunt stars as a small-town therapist and marriage counseler, married to a cop (Jon Tenney of “Scandal” and the most recent “True Detective”), mother to an enraged teen (Judah Lewis).

Why is Connor so mad? Mother Jackie Harper has cheated. Greg, the dad, is sleeping on the couch. And nothing Jackie does to begin the process of patching this up is working, especially with the kid.

“You ruined our family, and you should f—–g PAY for it!”

But this marital melodrama isn’t what “I See You” is about. It’s background, a major setting, a “Psycho” sidetrack for the coastal town’s bigger problem.

Young boys are disappearing. We’ve seen one ride his bike into the forest, and SNATCHED from it by an unseen force. The community is organizing mass searches.

The cops are leaning on Greg’s partner, Spitzky (Gregory Alan Williams) to provide clues. The modus operandi of the disappearances matches a case he handled 15 years before.

And strange things are happening in the Harper house — weird noises, doors slamming shut behind the inhabitants, coffee mugs and silverware turning up in odd places, hamster escapes.

We sense the evil, and perhaps the next target. Or perhaps the target’s the perpetrator. That’s when a seemingly random death complicates matters, a body must be buried and this tale takes a turn toward the bizarre. Twist upon twist turns in on itself.

No spoilers here, save for this one word, not nearly as current as it once was — “phrogging.”

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The frog that best applies here is the one, out of hundreds of misfiring indie thrillers one reviews in a given year, that a critic kisses and is shocked to see turn into a prince.

“I See You” was directed by Adam Randall, whose only prior feature film credit was “iBoy,” and he cooks up a polished picture of ominous aeriel shots, creepy extreme close-ups and actors giving utterly convincing renditions of confusion, guilt, pain and panic. Little that we see is alarming. The overcast skies, fracturing family and “zing” sound effects when a knife shows up just contribute to the dread that the film feeds on.

Hunt anchors a fine cast, which includes Libe Barer and Owen Teague in the latter acts. But first-time screenwriter Devon Graye is the break-out star, here. He’s an actor, perhaps best-known for playing the young serial killer of serial killers “Dexter” in episodes of that series. Here, he sets us up for one movie, and abruptly shifts into “What were we REALLY seeing/hearing back there?” mode.

That sudden change in point of view is handled just gracefully enough to not take us out of the movie. And as it sets up the twists folding into twists that follow,  he shows real skill at weaving in disparate storylines and manipulating the arc of characters.

In other words, SOMEbody was paying attention to those “Dexter,” “C.S.I.,” “American Horror Story” and “The Mentalist” scripts he’s been reading and acting-out for a dozen years.

Taut, smart and satisfying, “I See You” is the sleeper of the month, and should put Graye on the radar as a screenwriter to watch. And it should remind Hollywood that if smart cookie Helen Hunt sees something in it, this is a project worth filming.

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MPAA Rating: R, for violence and language

Cast: Helen Hunt, Jon Tenney, Judah Lewis, Libe Barer, Owen Teague and Gregory Alan Williams

Credits: Directed by Adam Randall, script by Devon Graye. A Saban release.

Running time: 1:38

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James Bond has “No Time To Die”

Partly because he drives the most collectible Aston Martin on Earth.

Looks pretty cool for an April thriller, launched to get an early jump on summer.

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Movie Preview: “The Last Full Measure” makes the case for a forgotten hero of the Vietnam War

An accomplished cast, including William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson and Sebastian Stan, impressive combat footage, a potentially compelling story?

Too bad “Roadside Attractions” has“The Last Full Measure.”Nobody’ll see it when it comes out Jan. 24.

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Movie Preview: Aussie film takes another look at its most famous outlaw, “True History of the Kelly Gang”

I’ve seen a couple of Ned Kelly biopics over the years.

He’s generally portrayed as Australia’s Billy the Kid. A rebel, cunning, ruthless, celebrated, infamous.

Here he’s starting “a revolution.”

George MacKay is Kelly, with Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult in the cast. Let’s hope it gets decent U.S. distribution.

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Movie Review: Wrap your consumerist nightmares “In Fabric”

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Here’s a devilish dose of macabre, masochistic guilt for everything you bought on Black Friday, and just in time for Christmas!

With “In Fabric,” horror auteur Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy,” “Berberian Sound Studio”) takes on consumerism, wage slavery and the global curse that is fashion, viewing them all through the prism of the lurid, kinky ’70s horror films of Dario Argento and his ilk.

It’s a tale of a dress possessed, giving everyone who wears it a rash. As if that’s not enough, this stylish 1970s “Ambassadorial Function Dress” has a mind of its own. If the rash and the dreams it provokes don’t drive the wearer mad, the damned thing will slide its metal hanger down the metal rack of your closet — screech screech — and try to suffocate you, or worse.

Returns? Even harder in Britain than they are in America. Especially when you’re dealing with a staff that just checked out of the Hotel Transylvania.

A dark comedy awash in style that creeps you out and pins the “ick” meter won’t be to every taste. Violence isn’t the half of it. Menstruation to masturbation, this one covers a lot of bases, none of them pleasant. But with each passing minute that “In Fabric” weaves its chillingly comic spell, it wraps the viewer in a shroud we can’t escape without tripping as we do.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste of “Secrets & Lies” and TV’s “Without a Trace” is Sheila, a newly-separated bank teller with only her rebellious teen painter son (Jaygann Ayeh) for company. She could do with a little companionship, and this being the age of landlines, rotary phones, answering machines and personal ads in the local weekly, she’s starting to date.

Montages of still photographs and bursts of retro TV ads for “The Sales” reinforce the idea that this is Britain in the ’70s, and that January — the big post-Christmas shopping frenzy — awaits. That’s when Sheila sets out to buy the dress.

The store she chooses is the most peculiar clothier this side of “Seinfeld’s” version of J. Peterman. And the Slavic-accented sales clerk (Fatma Mohamed) promises her “a panoply of temptation,” a dress that will flatter her and fill “the crevices of clarity” in her date’s mind.

Damn. That’s some sales pitch. Miss Luckmoore (Mohamed, a mainstay of Strickland’s films) is pale as death, dressed in black and given to the plummy locutions of an exotic Mistress of English as a Second Language.

“Your dressing room awaits…your dress to coalesce into a simple union of wonders!”

Thus begins Sheila’s dark night of the retail fashion soul — a rash, nightmares, a dress that literally does battle with her washing machine and might just smother the insufferable and insulting artist’s model (Gwendoline Christie) who has taken up with her son.

Better keep the receipt, honey.

Sheila’s battle with the scarlet dress — what to do about it, with it — is but the opening salvo of a war. Others will be helpless in its thrall. And with the perverse rituals Miss Luckmoore, her boss (Richard Bremmer) and staff perform on store manikins after hours, it’s no wonder. That dress is ready-to-wear Satanic possession.

The British emigree Strickland makes his home, if not his movies, in Budapest, Hungary. His obsession with Transylvanian Gothic reaches full flower with “In Fabric,” from its blood-red dress-of-death to the Daughters of Dracula sales staff in the women’s wear department at Dentley & Soper’s.

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He finds humor in sex scenes, with one or two partners. He scores his satiric points not just in caveat emptor, or let the covetous beware. Through Sheila’s two weirdo (gay, nosy and invasive) bank bosses (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) Strickland scores points on the rising imbalance in the employer/employee relationship.

Their clucking voices have a touch of passive aggression and threat, their eyes close in almost orgasmic delight at noting every imagined shortcoming, every psychological issue extrapolated from some idiotic invented transgression that they lay on Sheila in their best human resources-speak. An “insolent salutation” could be a black mark on her record.

Mohamed is the break-out in this fine cast, her deft way with the florid, Slavic-accented poetry of retail scripted by Strickland is a thing of rare beauty.

The score, by Cavern of Anti-Matter, smacks of electronic harpsichords swirling into power chords — a Walter Carlos before Wendy Carlos came to be evocation of the ’70s. The montages of still photographs — people shopping, street scenes, etc. — have a “Night of the Living Dead/Zapruder Film” tint.

“In Fabric” takes a while to settle in, and that goes for the viewing experience, too. It takes a few minutes for us to surf the wave Strickland wants us on, to get in sync with the vibe he’s going for.

But rare is the horror movie that finds off-the-rack laughs in everything from ’70s fashions and consumerism to ’70s British sex and slang, and does it with haute couture style.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including a scene of aberrant behavior, and some bloody images

Cast: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Fatma Mohamed, Hayley Squires, Leo Bill, Julian Barratt and Steve Oram

Credits: Written and directed by Peter Strickland. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:58

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Movie Review : Taylor Cole, Kilmer, Berenger, Billy Baldwin and Denise Richards star in “1st Born”

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You want to get your indie comedy financed and distributed? Sign some “names” for the cast. Advertise them as the “stars.”

So sure, Val Kilmer’s only in a single scene, as “President Biden, nightmare in chief.” Put his name above the title.

Get Billy, pardon me, WILLIAM Baldwin to play a hard-nosed campaign guru who’d like to help Tom Berenger get into the White House.

Denise Richards? Make her a hard-hitting TV journalist. Drag Dominique Swain (“Lolita”) in to play a trashy neighbor.

That was enough to get me to review “1st Born,” so I guess it worked, right?

But the film stars Reza Sixo Safai and Taylor Cole as an LA couple desperate to have a baby. Well, you can see why the producers played up the others.

The wannabe-parents get the bad news that their unborn baby has prenatal health issues thusly.

“We have to abort this baby!”

That’s from the doctor (Greg Grunberg), who mugs and hums and hams his way through just enough scenes to call himself a standout in this Cast of Infamy.

The baby needs bone marrow from its two grandfathers. So Kate (Cole) has to convince her politico dad, Tucker Jefferson (Berenger) to pitch in. And Ben (Safai) much reach out to his estranged father back in Tehran. That would be infamous anti-American activist Hamid (Jay Abdo), whom we meet as he flips off reporter Christine (Richards) in a TV interview conducted in Iran.

Kate and Ben have lied to their parents’ about who and what their fathers are. Hamid is a “pistachio grower,” so far as Tucker knows. Hamid thinks his new daughter-in-law’s dad owns a push cart hamburger stand.

The illusion disappears just in time for a “You ARE the Axis of Evil!” and “YOU are the GREAT SATAN!” shout off.

These bitter enemies somehow have to find a way to take one (a long needle) for the team and donate bone marrow before they cause an international incident.

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Random characters and bit players pass by the camera and fail to find anything funny to say or do. The veteran players don’t humiliate themselves. Embarrass themselves? Almost. Abdo takes the right “Soup Nazi” approach to the material. Baldwin has aged into a growling clone of older brother Alec, Kilmer doesn’t look anything like Biden — and makes so little effort that we see a mustache in the offing — Berenger sputters a bit and Richards can’t make this reporter’s “funny” lines funny.

That’s because “1st Born” is built on a script so awful you kind of wonder why they didn’t follow up on that abortion joke and abort the works. The film’s only laughs are in the blown lines — by American actors reciting that butchered English.

“Are these all your luggages?” “He first entered into American soil…” “Allow me to the be the first to call you Mister Grandfather!”

Veteran character player Robert Knepper, playing a demented Desert Storm veteran, gets off the best one-line review of the picture.

“In this country, we say the word ‘bomb’ quietly!”

Yes. Yes we do. Unless we’re talking about a cross-cultural comedy that fails on pretty much every level — music, direction script and the cast that performs it.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, crude language, sex jokes

Cast: Reza Sixo Safai, Taylor Cole, Val Kilmer, Denise Richards, Jay Abdo, Tom Berenger and Billy Baldwin

Credits: Directed by Ali Atshani, script by Sam Khoze, Tarek Zohdy and Mahdi Alimirzaee. An LA Independent release.

Running time: 1:20

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Movie Review: Into the melodramatic maelstrom of “1917”

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Sam Mendes’ “1917” is a gripping and quite entertaining Tommy’s-eye-view of The Great War” as viewed from the trenches of France.

Mendes (“Jarhead,” “Skyfall”) didn’t get his tribute to the men and their sacrifice in World War I out in time to coincide with commemorations for the end of that conflict. But he’s cooked up an immersive, heroic tale that humanizes a conflict canonized for its faceless slaughter and waste, a “Lost Generation” grimly depleted on the Fields of Flanders.

The story could not be simpler — two British soldiers (nicknamed “Tommies”) are sent across nine miles of No Man’s Land and enemy occupied territory to halt an attack that will only get their fellow soldiers slaughtered. The attack’s at dawn tomorrow, so you’d better get cracking, lads (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman).

Lance Corporal Black (Chapman, of “Game of Thrones”) is determined to save the “Second Devons” (Devonshire Regiment), at least partly because his own brother is a lieutenant serving with them. The general (Colin Firth) picked him for this mission because he’s good with maps, and he’ll be extra motivated.

Lance Corporal Schofield (MacKay, of “Pride” and “Captain Fantastic”) was just unlucky enough to be Blake’s chum, the one he picked to accompany him. Schofield didn’t survive the bloody horrors of The Somme to get killed on some suicidal sprint to hand deliver a note. Medals, ribbons and “a mention in the dispatches” are no enticement to him.

But radios were not yet in common use on the field, and the “Gerrys cut our telephone lines,” so there’s nothing for it.

Thus begins a grim odyssey through the World War I experience — the green flowering of spring unfolding under the rotting corpses of men, horses and dogs beset by the flies of April. Mud and snipers, a wrecked tank, miles upon miles of barbed wire, ruined towns, the fascinating over-engineering of German trenches (abandoned in “a planned withdrawal”), booby-traps, dogfighting biplanes rat-a-tatting above — Blake and Schofield are solitary souls on a quest in the middle of the maelstrom of war.

The camera clings to these two as they stumble and grope, under overcast skies or in the dark of dugouts and tunnels, through the quiet hell of a battlefield half-abandoned but sure to be full of sound and fury again, any minute now. Mendes uses “the long take,” a nearly seamless series of scenes unfolding in (for the most part) real time to build suspense and empathy for our two over-matched heroes.

Because this script is hellbent on throwing every peril The Great War was infamous for at them over the course of two hours.

Mendes and his “Penny Dreadful” co-writer hurl the duo into corpse-covered shell-craters and spooky tunnels. Death comes from afar — artillery and snipers — and very close. Rifles and bayonets and bare hands are what it takes to stay alive. Death comes from above — airplanes — and below (a raging river).

Of course there’s a mademoiselle in distress (Claire Duburcq) to be stumbled over, amid the cream of British character actors who play sergeants and commissioned officers (Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Mark Strong) who pass by.

Of course the foreshadowing is obvious, but not heavy-handed.

It’s meant to be immersive, a “Dunkirk” of the first World War. And if it isn’t on a par with that modern classic, you can blame the slack pacing, the heaping helpings of melodrama in the tale Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns cooked up. All these obstacles to overcome, and yet so many longueurs — pauses while the soldiers on this desperate, dangerous time-sensitive mission stop to shake their heads at the waste or consider the Last Milk Cow on the Western Front. Our heroes listen to a soldier singing “When I Cross Over Jordan” and take time to recite a poem — Edward Lear’s “The Jumbles” (“In a Sieve they went to sea; In spite of all their friends could say…”).

“1917” loses its urgency just enough to make you notice and wonder “What are these two doing? Get BACK to the MISSION!”

Mendes gets the blasted landscape of No Man’s Land, the trenches, the kit each soldier carries with him right. The rapidly shifting shadows created by a descending flare make for a striking scene.

But he fritters away some of the tension and the drive of the narrative when he loses the crouching/ducking fear and paranoia that had to become instinct if you were to have any hope of surviving the war.

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The “long take” has long been enshrined as a sort of cinematic rite of passage, something filmmakers indulge in mainly, one suspects, to impress the faithful — hardcore film buffs.

Orson Welles had a hand in elevating these long unedited shots that rely on camera blocking, staging, pre-planning and actors who can remember a lot of choreography to go with their lines. “Touch of Evil” opens with the most famous “long take” in cinema history.

Properly applied, long stretches without a perspective-changing interruption (edit) can build tension, when you’re not distracted and impressed by how many characters and how much ground Robert Altman’s opening to “The Player” has squeezed in. We are conditioned to cuts, and the mind misses them when they’re not there. Suspense builds as we expect something momentous coming at the end of the build-up a long take entails.

Hitchcock took this to its logical extreme with “Rope,” a 1948 thriller whose stagebound origins allowed him to “indulge” in making a film of ten long takes — with only the limitations of a reel of celluloid loaded into the camera determining how many edits the picture would have.

But Hitchcock admitted that “Rope” was just “a stunt.” Editing is the essence of cinema, “the lynchpin of worthwhile filmmaking,” as Sir Alfred put it. Cuts quicken the pace and raise the heart-rate, refocus our attention, zooming in, heightening suspense and connecting us with the characters with emotional close-ups.

You want to see a movie with “no cuts” and nothing but long takes? Hunt down “Russian Ark.” Yes, like “Rope,” that was a stunt. Like “Rope,” it’s “cool” but dull.

So no, the long takes don’t transform “1917” into the cinema event of 2019.

It’s still entertaining, a polished period piece and solid combat film, even if its story leans entirely too heavily on the hoary conventions of the Victorian/Edwardian melodramas that every Briton fighting in it would have recognized, way back then.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language

Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Daniel Mays, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch

Credits: Directed by Sam Mendes, script by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. A Universal/Dreamworks release.

Running time: 1:59

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