1917 (2019)

1917 (2019)

1917 posterDirected by: Sam Mendes. Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay. Runtime: 1h 59 min. Released: December 25, 2019 (limited).

Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a technical marvel, made better with breathtaking cinematography (by Roger Deakins) as it tells the story of two young British soldiers. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) take on a mission deep in enemy territory to stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap set by German forces. The direction here by Mendes is flawless as he leads an innovative effort that immerses the audience into its real-time story, as it’s designed to look like one continuous take.

There are obvious spots where editor Lee Smith might have cut and started a new take, but when the film is happening, I couldn’t notice any edits and it looks seamless. The real time storytelling makes us feel like soldiers as we see every part of Blake and Schofield’s journey. The one-take aspect never feels like a gimmick, but some aspects of the film underwhelm.

The pacing doesn’t allow time to really develop the characters, so there’s a detachment there at the beginning. They do get better towards the end, but there’s not an emotional investment I’d anticipated. There are also stretches where there’s nothing really happening – and there’s a lot of walking. The actors carry the film well, however. Dean-Charles Chapman is good as Blake, the one who wants to get the message to the battalion because his brother’s also there. The random British stars (I won’t spoil them) that show up could add enjoyment to some, or be distracting to others.

George MacKay really the carries the weight here, looking exhausted by the end of the ordeal. His character and performance is why I felt emotionally invested by the end  of the film, as he gets some needed character development. The performances here are natural, too, and the way it plays out feels like it could easily be a stage play and we have front row seats for the realities of war it depicts.

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George MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman in 1917. (IMDb)

This is a war film that’s about the experience, similar to Dunkirk in the way it immerses in the event in lieu of immediately developing its characters. In 1917, some uneventful moments come with the experience of war. The camera feels like it’s always rolling and it can’t cut out MacKay simply climbing a hill, it would take away from the mystique. Mendes puts us in the trenches, but the uneventful moments make the film’s greatest moments more rewarding.

There are strong scenes of suspense like when the pair don’t know if they’ll be shot by German soldiers, even though they’re told they’ve retreated. A chase by an enemy soldier that ends with a swim is absolutely enthralling. The scene where Schofield steps out of the trenches as explosions go off behind him is the best moment here and showcases the direction, writing (also by Krysty Wilson-Cairns), cinematography and score by Thomas Newman. To give cinematographer Roger Deakins a bit more credit, the way the town of Écoust is lit up by fire and flares is incomparable.

I like this film because of the five or six amazing sequences that thrill. The humanity in war is also shown well once we get to know these characters. The film’s also about bravery like every good old-fashioned war film, and there’s enough action interspersed with the mundane to maintain interest.

Score: 75/100

29 Days of Romance, Review #23: Casablanca (1942)

29 Days of Romance, Review #23: Casablanca (1942)
Casablanca poster

Casablanca. Directed by: Michael Curtiz. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid. Runtime: 1h 42 min. Released: November 26, 1942 (New York City).

Casablanca is filled to the brim with some of the greatest movie quotes (“Here’s looking at you, kid,” “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”) but one of my favourite quotes here is one I’ve never seen mentioned, spoken by an uncredited character. While the usual suspects are being rounded up after a pair of German couriers have been killed, a pickpocket (Curt Bois) is surprised to learn that a British couple hasn’t heard what’s going on.

The character, Pickpocketed Englishman (Gerald Oliver Smith) says, “We hear very little, and we understand even less.” Watching the quote back, he’s probably talking about the fact that not everyone in Casablanca, Morocco, speaks English, but I took it as they’re just stupid and that’s why I think this monotone line is very funny.

The story: It’s December 1941 and Casablanca is a temporary stop for transients trying to get out of Europe. The best place to drink and gamble is Rick’s Café, owned by ex-pat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). The story gains speed when his former lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his gin join with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).

He’s just escaped from one of Germany’s concentration camps and is trying to return to America. Standing in their way is Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Nazi who oversees Casablanca, as well as the prefect of police in Casablanca, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Reins). Meanwhile, Rick must decide if he wants to help the couple escape French Morocco.

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Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. (IMDb)

I’ll start with Rick. This is the first time I’ve seen this, 78 years after its release, but Humphrey Bogart is just so effortlessly cool. Any time he speaks he demands attention with his calm demeanor. He doesn’t want to get involved in his customer’s business but is apt to help if no one makes a big fuss about it. His moral code is clear – but does not want it celebrated. Bogart is incredible and gets a bulk of the famous lines. This is my first Humphrey Bogart film, too, and he is so suave he would have made a great James Bond had he not died at the age of 57 in 1957.

His romance with Ilsa is great and so is their chemistry. It can’t happen in the present, but they’ll always have Paris. Bergman is charming and her fight is passionate, and the way she has to choose between Rick and Laszlo is fascinating, too. She’s a force alongside Bogart.

I love Arthur Edeson’s cinematography in this film, especially the way he captures Bergman. The way her eyes look on 35mm in black and white is just stunning, and I love the one shot where light is reflected in her earrings. As for Laszlo, his character and background is fascinating and Paul Henreid is great, though obviously Bogart and Bergman’s pairing is the true star power here.

I know this isn’t big headline news 78 years later, but I think Casablanca is a perfect film. It’s 102 minutes but the pacing is excellent and it feels like it goes by in a breeze. Every scene matters and the way the letters of transit, which would let Ilsa and Laszlo escape Casablanca, drive the story is flawless. It’s a simple story, but it’s a great one.

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Paul Henreid and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. (IMDb)

The screenplay’s fantastic, written by Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, and the romantic scenes are made better by Casey Robinson’s uncredited rewrite. The supporting characters like Carl (S.Z. Sakall) and especially Sam (Dooley Wilson) the piano player are excellent.

I think an interesting thing about Casablanca is when Major Strausser asks Rick who he thinks will win the war. This made me realize that I had never seen a World War II film that was filmed during the Second World War, where the outcome (obviously) was not yet decided. It’s a compelling conversation as they don’t who will win or when it will end. There’s not much of a point to this observation – I’m not eloquent like Humphrey Bogart – I just think it’s interesting.

I know this film isn’t billed as “comedy,” but I think it could be. It’s probably not considered comedy because the funny moments are so small. Some of the best moments are when Captain Louis (who is also such a great character) shuts down Rick’s Café on the request of Strauss. Louis uses the establishment’s gambling as an excuse to shut it down and then a guy gives him his winnings and he says, “Oh, thank you!”

I also love the pickpocket in this film, played by Curt Bois. He goes around taking people’s wallets and warns them, “This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere. Everywhere!” It’s better the second time when he says and then bumps into Carl and Carl checks his pockets to make sure he wasn’t robbed. I also love the way the pickpocket says vultures. With scenes like these and other countless small comedic moments that are made funny because of line delivery, I really question why “comedy” isn’t one of Casablanca’s official genres. The film’s charming as hell and funny, too, and I think it should be considered comedy in the same breath as its romance and drama.

Score: 100/100


29 Days of Romance: Review #4, Dear John (2010)

Dear John poster

Directed by: Lasse Hallström. Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins. Runtime: 1h 48 min. Released: February 5, 2010.

I don’t consider myself a fan of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but there have been 11 big-screen adaptations of his novels and I’ve seen eight of them. That number includes today’s review, Dear John, as it wouldn’t be a “29 Days of Romance” marathon without a review of a Nicholas Sparks movie.

The film is set in 2001 where John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is on leave from the Army in Charleston, North Carolina, where he meets the kind-hearted college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) and sparks (Nicholas Sparks?) fly.

The part of the film that works best for me is Richard Jenkins as John’s father, simply called Mr. Tyree, and it would be nice if he had a real character name. He has Asperger’s Syndrome and the character doesn’t have much depth, but his hobby of coin collecting is charming. He specifically collects “mules,” imperfect coins that were minted improperly. The writing uses it to say something about the film’s imperfect characters, too, and the best scene of the film for me is the story of Mr. Tyree’s favourite coin.

It tells how he and his son John shared a love for coins, but John’s passion for it went away. This aspect is sort-of heartbreaking because it’s such a big passion for his father and then they had nothing to talk about. It’s not explained why John stopped liking coins, but perhaps it’s because it was all they talked about.

Savannah’s developed as a compassionate girl who wants to work with autistic children. A conflict in the film is that John’s offended when Savannah notices that his father is on the spectrum, and he seems offended because Mr. Tyree was never diagnosed. The film’s use of the R-word to describe the situation also didn’t sit right with me because it feels like such an outdated word and someone who wants to work with autistic people wouldn’t use that word, even if the film is set in 2001.

It doesn’t take away so much from the character, but the Savannah’s compassion seems to be the extent of her as a person, and the compassion’s limited in that word. Anyway, I think Seyfried plays her well for the most part. Rounding out the “core” cast is Henry Thomas as Savannah’s next-door neighbor Tim. Tim has a kid named Alan, who has autism, so that’s another reason Savannah wants to work with autistic children. Tim’s used as a way to develop John as a character, as well. At one point, John advises Tim to tell Alan that his mom isn’t ever coming back, since John’s mom left and he spent too much time waiting for her to come back.

Other than that and John’s relationship with his father, that’s the bulk of his development. There’s little to him other than also simply wanting to fight for his country. John seems like a brick wall with an anger problem. I legitimately like Channing Tatum but the character is just so boring to me.

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Amanda Seyfried in Dear John. (IMDb)

The couple’s chemistry is never amazing but it’s passable. Their initial two-week love affair is boring, but I liked the letter exchange portion of the film, and there’s a period of about 20 minutes during this where I thought the film was charming. Though, the passage of time during this letter correspondence is handled poorly.

I think these scenes are well-directed by Lasse Hallström as sort-of montage scenes showing their everyday life. Obviously, John’s at war and the only interesting thing Savannah does is visit Mr. Tyree. I think that’s when that’s when the film is at its most charming, when John, Mr. Tyree and Savannah are together. Jenkins is the glue that held this film together for me and the character is perhaps the glue for their relationship, as well.

The story is run-of-the-mill so there’s little holding it together in that respect, as all Nicholas Sparks films feel the same. The writing by Jamie Linden for this film is dull but if the source material isn’t that strong in the first place, it’s hard to make a strong film. Still, there’s one key emotional moment in this film where the order of the scenes and vagueness makes it lose emotional impact.

As for Hallström’s direction, there are many awkward directorial choices here. This is most notable at an airport where John and Savannah reunite. John lifts her up and they’re making out and we see a pervy-looking guy in the background taking off his belt, staring at them. It’s off-putting until I remembered they’re in an airport and he’s taking his belt off to go through security, not for other reasons… And that seemed to be the implication for a second there. I can’t tell if that’s on bad directing or bad editing that it made it to the final cut.

The film also falls apart in the third act, from story to direction. I don’t think the conflict in the film is ever strong but the third act has a story direction that I don’t think is completely necessary. It made me lose interest in the characters, even though I was never particularly invested in the first place. The chemistry just becomes worse, as does the drama, acting and direction.

This is the point of Dear John where it truly does not feel “directed” as there’s a scene here where Hallstrom would have gotten another take if he still cared about the project. In the scene, Amanda Seyfried does a “surprise face” that is some of the weakest acting I’ve seen from her. Tatum isn’t much better in this scene and it’s like no one wanted to actually act on this day of shooting. It didn’t seem like anyone cared and they just wanted to finish the film. As an audience member, I didn’t care, either.

Score: 40/100

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
The Zookeeper's Wife poster

Released: March 31, 2017. Directed by: Niki Caro. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh. Runtime: 2h 4 min.

The WWII era makes for some fascinating films. I sometimes like them more when they have different perspectives or depict main conflicts other than with the German Reich.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the former, offering a woman’s perspective on the war from a heroic woman, which makes this unique. It tells a behind-the-action tale set during Germany’s Invasion of Poland, also offering a point-of-view of the war from those affected in Warsaw, Poland.

Antonia (Jessica Chastain), a sympathetic animal lover, and Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), the zoo director, are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of Europe’s most thriving zoos in the 1930’s.

Their world changes in September 1939 during the German invasion of Poland, as bombs damage the zoo and kill many of its animals. As Polish resistance collapses, German forces began to use the zoo as a base and it effectively closed the zoo.

Despite the Nazis being in their backyard, they essentially created a temporary haven for Jewish people to evade German forces.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautiful because of the Zabinski’s sheer bravery – and director Niki Caro earnestly captures their humanity. Their humanity is not only the focus but the film’s beating heart, and it doesn’t flatline.

The film’s a celebration of Antonia’s bravery. Caro directs a stellar cast, and Chastain is the strongest link. She gives a performance that’s sympathetic, earnest and moving. She’s fantastic and elevates the forgettable screenplay to new heights.

Johan Heldenbergh is good as Jan, though you don’t get to know his character well enough – and he feels like an extension of Antonia’s bravery and humanity. The female characters are stronger, and Antonia’s the star of the show. I liked scenes that express her sympathy for animals and general compassion. It’s a shame that the film about her life feels so unremarkable.

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Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

Daniel Brühl plays Dr. Lutz Heck, the film’s antagonist and Hitler’s zoologist, who is the keeper of the Berlin Zoo. He’s forgettable and I just call him the Nazi zoologist. Brühl is good, but Heck isn’t a good villain.

He has compassion one minute, like bringing the prized animals of the Warsaw Zoo to his zoo in Berlin since it has more resources. Then out of the blue he’s cruel and comes back to the zoo and shoots a beautiful eagle and casually tells a soldier to have it stuffed and mounted.

Creative choices done for his character are bad fictional aspects. The addition of the Hollywood fiction weighs it down, since Zabinski’s story seems fantastical enough on its own.

Though, one of the strongest aspects is the depiction of getting the Jews out of the Ghetto – and it’s a good creative choice because the real way is plain. These scenes are tense and exciting, with a heist-like vibe.

One of the main problems are random scenes that feel like they come right out of left field. Developments come with little introduction and granted, it might be because it’s fitting six years of story into two hours of film, but the editing disjoints the storytelling.

In one scene the Zabinski’s have hanky panky and when you’ve forgotten that, she’s nine months pregnant when we see her again and going into labour. There’s not even a discussion of the pregnancy or anything. I was questioning if I’d missed something or if it was some sort-of immaculate conception.

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Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

There’s a lot that happens in the film but it’s unraveled slowly and pacing becomes an issue. It would have been great if everything moved faster, and the dropping of boring sub-plots would have brought it well under two hours. At least it has really cute lion cubs.

The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t have the impact a film like this should possess, and feels light because of it. The story’s beautiful but it’s a shame that the writing doesn’t match the passion and beauty of Antonia’s story, as it ends up feeling unremarkable. There are a few moving scenes – namely when they get a glimpse into the scope of how many people they’re helping.

It also doesn’t feel mature enough. There are moments that could depict human horrors which would have packed a heartbreaking punch. Chastain delivers a monologue about how people are evil and animals are great, and it would have made the scene have even more impact if we could have seen some of the human evil that she’s talking about. Instead, the film shies away from moments, and it feels like it’s missing out on great opportunities.

Score: 60/100

What’s your favourite WWII film?

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

300 Rise of an EmpireReleased: March 7, 2014. Directed by: Noam Murro. Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey. Runtime: 102 min.

300: Rise of an Empire is a good sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2007 film, 300. There are sequels, prequels, and the odd sort-of meanwhile adventures movie, and this happens to be all three. It’s a prequel because it shows some things that started this war, and at the same time reminding us about it because a lot of people would forget after seven years; a meanwhile adventures because it shows what wars happen on the water while the 300 were fighting; and a direct sequel, following what happens after the mighty 300 fell. They have made quite an influence on this film. This follows the Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), merciless commander of the Persian navy.

While the first film followed the Spartan warriors, this film follows the Athenians, who are fighting for freedom – and represent a not-so savage Greek race, but still show their body armourless abs. Like I said, this film is largely a meanwhile adventures that takes place on the open seas, and it’s awesome watching war tactics happen on the water. The action sequences are spectacular, beautifully filmed, and have the same visual style as the first (not nearly as fresh seven years later, mind you) and a whole lot of gore. What else can one expect from the mind of Frank Miller? Who, by the way, is the authour of the graphic novel Xerxes upon which this is based. The film is better in 3D because one can easily tell where 3D is implied if one watches this in 2D. There’s splatters of blood, spears flying, and it just adds another great visual layer to the experience. At one point when blood splatters there’s even a smudge on the camera, where you’ll probably ask “Can someone wipe that off?”

The cinematography’s strong, even if there is a constant fogginess about it in the background, because of the mist on the water, and a mild glare when the sun is out. But it’s not noticeable when the fights are occurring, thankfully; probably because the editing is so impressive, and who would try to focus on the glare of it all when there are limbs and heads flying everywhere? I love the fighting tactics of the Greeks. The action scenes are definitely the best part of the film; and the drama is solid, as well.

There’s one particularly memorable scene where the leaders of each opposing country have a battle of power, deciding who will come out on top, so to speak. Sullivan Stapleton is adequate as a character who isn’t very compelling, but he’s great in combat sequences. I don’t think I’d ever rush out to see a film he’s leading, but he’s pretty good. Green is brilliant as her character, and she makes cruelty look sexy. She is just awesome in and out of battle, and a chilling villain at times, fuelled by vengeance. She wants to avenge her former king Darius (killed by Mistokles a few years prior at the Battle of Marathon), a motivation she shares with Xerxes, and to get back at the Greeks who killed her entire village, so she’s putting all Greeks in one category for that one. A lot of these characters are fuelled by vengeance, particularly Lena Headey’s Queen Gorga. She’s great, too, by the way. Xerxes gets a cool, origins story treatment told at the beginning, which is a real treat. I have a feeling the graphic novel is called  Xerxes because the villains have well-thought out development, but the hero’s development is light. Evidently, this works spectacularly as an action film, but it’s not strong in the ‘developing good protagonists’ department.

But this is an action movie, and that’s why you’re going to see this. We’ve seen some of this action before in the first one, but at least some of it feels fresh. It’s mostly just action on boats instead of land, so no phalanx formations this time around. The storyline isn’t nearly as strong as the first. It’s partly because the main character isn’t entirely compelling in his development, and this just isn’t as engaging as the great David and Goliath story that is the 300 Spartans. If you go in expecting more of the same with some fresh material at least in terms of fight location, this is a good time at the movies.

Score: 75/100

The Book Thief (2013)

Book Thief, TheReleased: November 27, 2013. Directed by: Brian Percival. Starring:  Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson. Runtime: 131 min.

“The Book Thief” follows a curious German twelve year-old named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) during one of the most interesting time periods in history: the second World War, and a few years prior to it. Newly adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann, Liesel adjusts to her new lifestlye by making new friends and learning to read. She inspires other people with her curiosity, bravery and kindness.

This is based on the bestselling novel of the same name, that is actually a young adult novel, but it can be enjoyed by all audiences. The film is good, and it’s refreshing because it doesn’t seem that there are enough WWII films told by the perspective of the Germans. From this perspective, I think it shows us that, in a time of war, even our enemies still have humanity; and they’re as scared as the people of your home country would have been at this time. Liesel is a character who brings people hope in a time of despair; and she brings them that by the beauty of the written word, and the great messages lying within stories. She has a poetic way of speaking and a thirst for knowledge that is engaging. Her adoptive father Hans gives her a blackboard as a present that she can write down all the words that she learns; and it’s a heck of a lot. This is what shows how much she absorbs from everything.

Since she has learned to read, she needs to find a way to find more books – and sometimes, she has to resort to stealing. That’s why she’s called the Book Thief; but she’s only borrowing, there’s a place where she goes and it’s someone’s sort-of personal library – she just doesn’t need a library card. It’s just the old-fashioned, five-finger discount. It seems to me that she always brings it back. Before I discuss anything else, it’s kind-of funny that these books are in English. One would think that her primary language would be German living in Germany, but she speaks English, and one would think she would learn to read in German, considering that English isn’t one of Germany’s official languages. English is spoken in school and on the street that she lives, so it’s just not that realistic. I guess it beats having to read subtitles throughout the film; but really, all these people have is German accents and German names, speaking flawless English.

But regardless, many might not even notice during the viewing. It’s just funny to think about afterwards. One part of the story that is the most compelling is the aspect of it where Liesel’s adoptive family is harboring a Jew, a young man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement. There are suspenseful scenes and heartwarming scenes created by that component of the story. They are hiding the Jew because Hans has a debt that he feels he must repay to Max’s father; his life was saved by him during a war he fought in. He’s a very kind man that is warm and comforting to Liesel, and he is portrayed beautifully by Geoffrey Rush. Emily Watson portrays the man’s wife, Rosa, a much more sour woman, but she experiences an enjoyable character arc. My favourite performance of the film is by the lead, Sophie Nélisse who captures the curiosity of her character phenomenally well. The story is told from the innocence of her; she is much more accepting than others. This is partly contributed to the fact that her mother was a Communist, making her hate Adolf Hitler like a lot of others. Another character who is accepting is her best friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch), whose idol is Jesse Owens; he gets discriminated against because he idolizes a black man. These prejudices are portrayed really well in a story of the human spirit.

The relationship between Liesel and Rudy is good, and it’s portrayed as accurately as a relationship between two young friends can be; it isn’t as romanticized as it is in other films. Nico Liersch, who plays Rudy, is just okay for me. The story is also told by a narrator, and it’s a bit of an interesting creative choice. The narrator, as you’ll realize quickly, is the Angel of Death; a tonally good choice during such a disastrous time, but I’m indifferent about the creative choice, because some of his dialogue is silly, and in those moments you can tell this aspect of the story was tailored for young readers. Roger Allman is the narrator, and he has a good voice for it – and he sounds particularly evil in parts. He’s okay for me, overall. The film is a good one, with yet another great score by John Williams. It’s hopeful and inspiring, a sound that is really great for the film. This is a good war flick, with a few boring scenes (I guess the idea of someone simply reading can’t be too entertaining), but there are a few great performances that save those scenes, and they save some other aspects of the film, as well.


The Monuments Men (2014)

the monuments menReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: George Clooney. Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray. Runtime: 118 min.

“The Monuments Men” follows a platoon of unlikely heroes at the end of the Second World War who are tasked with retrieving art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. It’s a story about not letting culture die, because if all of this art is to be destroyed, that’s one less piece of history to state that the culture that made it existed.

I think this raises cool cultural ideas because history is an interesting thing, especially seeing and knowing how a culture evolves over time. I’m sure that’s what inspired the real life characters to be a part of this platoon. It’s an educational feature because I hadn’t realized that the Nazi’s stole so much art. The lengths these generically developed characters went through to try to get the art back makes for an okay film.

It’s billed as an action-drama but there’s a limited amount of action throughout, and only a few brief exchanges of artillery, which I find to be a defining trait for any war film. Since that is the case, any action fans out there who are looking for a good war movie with lots of action should seek entertainment elsewhere with the gritty “Lone Survivor.” That one at least has good characters, too. The drama’s okay when it’s happening, but there’s a lot of comedy so its sometimes goofy tone and sometimes serious tone is what makes this have a poor tonal balance.

Director George Clooney is just too eager to please with this one, because he adds so much funny banter it makes many scenes feel quite goofy. I’m one for comic relief in dramas, but the comedy takes too much precedence here for a film billed as a wartime drama, and there are even a few scenes that don’t complement the story, and could just be seen as mere opportunities for the actors to remind us that they can be funny every once in awhile. The scenes are funny, but it leaves me thinking “Well, it might have been funny, but how pointless was that?” There is also one scene that’s pointless, but not that funny, it just feels hollow. Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who seems to be Viktor Stahl’s secretary. Stahl is one of the Nazis responsible for hiding the art, and when Claire spots him moving the art to another location via a train, she says “I see you Stahl!” He looks at her, hops on the train and starts shooting at her as it’s going along. Well, he’s not going to hit her at the distance they are from each other; so is he trying to be menacing, or is he just trying to lighten his gun for no apparent reason?

At least the humour hits when it isn’t too predictable, and they have to spice up a plot so simplistic somehow, if there’s not much action going on and if the characters aren’t the best overall. It’s difficult to remember what exactly their role is within the platoon, but they are introduced at the beginning of the film at their work – in one of those early-on recruiting sequences. Clooney is simply the leader of the platoon, the Lieutenant. Hugh Bonneville portrays a man named Donald Jeffries, who gets the most character development as a recovering alcoholic. Matt Damon portrays a painter who is best characterized as a man who cannot speak French to save his life, as the French person he speaks to tells him to speak in English after two sentences.

As previously mentioned, Cate Blanchett’s Claire is Stahl’s secretary, and also a valuable intelligence source. Bill Murray portrays an architect but really only gets depicted as a guy who likes to tease Bob Balaban, who looked like he was directing a stage play in his recruiting scene where George Clooney just sits behind him smiling. John Goodman portrays Walter Garfield, a sculptor who might as well just be the Funny Guy. Jean Dujardin plays a character I’d just refer to as The Guy Who Can Actually Speak French. The cast does their best because they all do get a few laughs in, and it’s quite an ensemble; but when their characters are generic like this, it’s hard not to think that a certain few (Clooney and Damon in particular) are surprisingly phoning in their performances.

To me, this feels like a film with a clear A to B plot. Only a few surprises, a few brief action scenes, but enough humour to keep viewers mildly entertained throughout. The tonal choice to be serious at times, and often too goofy, is fatal. I don’t know if Clooney intended to make this part caper part wartime drama feel as goofy with its humour as “National Treasure” (a fun movie) at times, but that’s the result. Compared to his [Clooney’s] other works as a director, this is disappointingly sub-par.


TIFF 2013 Review: Canopy

canopy 5“Canopy” is a World War Two film set during the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942. The film follows an Australian fighter pilot who is shot out of his plane, and wakes up in the treetops, suspended by his parachute. He must set out on a perilous journey to find sanctuary in this foreign jungle. Thankfully, he eventually finds a companion, a Chinese soldier who is also lost. They must join forces to make it out of this jungle alive.

This is a type of movie that people would see for the art of it, and not the sheer entertainment. But by god, it deserves to be seen. It’s an effective experience, if a flawed one. Disappointingly, some may find their attention wandering during the feature. This is only in some scenes, so it usually does a good job of maintaining the viewer’s attention. The feature is led by a tiny cast. Seng, the Chinese soldier, is portrayed by Tzu-yi Mo. He assists with carrying the film, and he is fairly memorable.

canopy_04Khan Chittenden, whose character is an Australian fighter pilot named Jim, is called to carry the film the most. He does an admirable job. There’s power in his silent performance – he acts well with his eyes and actions. He leaves an impression with what he must do, because it is definitely more challenging to act with little dialogue. For much of the film, it is only him and his thoughts – and the thought of putting oneself into the shoes of this man, is terrifying. He is vulnerable in this unfamiliar jungle, and only keeps going because it is his survival instinct. His performance is realistic and believable.

Aaron Wilson is also a star of the film as director. He may be behind the camera, but he controls this set and he creates a well-written story. It must be challenging to write a story with little dialogue. I only remember there being about less than ten words in English, all near the end; and other words in a foreign language that we could not understand. I think the way he does it is effective. When a foreign language is spoken, there are no subtitles. Jim does not understand what these people are saying, so why should we? The experience is enhanced because of this. These two people who are trying to survive must get over the language barrier and communicate. canopy_03

I like the way Wilson goes about handling this story. I learn from the Q/A after the film that, through research, he found that soldiers don’t remember conversations, but all of the sounds in the unfamiliar land and the actions they made. That is why there is such little dialogue. I’d never thought of that experience would deem true for a soldier, but it seems like a true thought after one thinks about it. It’s an innovative way to go about a film like this. I haven’t seen anything like it before. The characters are simply characterized. They are both soldiers fighting for their lives. It is confirmed that Jim has a family back home, but for Seng, it can be assumed. This film’s characterization is far from conventional. This shows the strong influence war has on humanity, and the impact it will leave on a person. This is a nearly wordless experience, but hardly a silent film.

canopy_02There are constant sounds from off-stage. Gun shots, explosions, twigs snapping, people approaching, which causes a state of panic. The sound design, landscapes, imagery and cinematography are phenomenal. It’s some of the best so far this year, and the surroundings Stefan Duscio shows on-screen are gorgeous. Dialogue takes a back-seat to the focus of sound design. In one scene, Jim is walking around in the jungle (like he does for most of the 80 minutes), and we are looking down on the forest. Audiences might have to look for him for a few seconds before they find him making his way through the terrain. I imagine that is how Jim feels throughout, but it takes him much longer to find any sort-of destination, in this terrifying jungle. That is effective. The two central performances, direction, writing, sound design and cinematography and photography are the film’s best aspects.

CanopyMany will have re-adjust their expectations for this experience, because it is so different. Whoever might be expecting a thriller might be disappointed. It’s heavier on the natural drama than it is on thrills, but has a controlled level of suspense.

This is a technically impressive experience. Some might find themselves bored at times, but it’s usually quite engaging. This experience shows that a story could be effectively told through sounds. There is not many other films like this, and especially not WWII features. It is memorable because it is so different and unique. Both Aaron Wilson and Khan Chittenden have bright futures ahead of them. I learn from Wilson that he has a film that has dialogue is on the way, so I will anticipate that one. Much like the sounds of war that soldiers remember for awhile, this feature leaves a lasting impression, right up to the final shot. Definitely see it, because it isn’t time-consuming and it’s quite an experience.