Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in 1917

1917

Although many audiences would disagree, not all movies need to be fun, and Sam Mendes' 1917 is the perfect example of a film that's not only more fun than it needs to be, but more fun than it should be. An ostensibly harrowing, purportedly real-life tale of two British soldiers sent on an impossible World War I mission, the director/co-writer's dramatic action thriller is scary and gripping and staggeringly well-shot. Yet at no point did I witness our protagonists' bravery and suffering thinking, “How on earth did those men endure that?” Instead, I generally thought, “How on earth did Sam Mendes do that?” In an end-credits dedication, Mendes pays tribute to his grandfather and all the other Brits who fought valiantly during the Great War. 1917, however, ultimately pays tribute to no one so much as Mendes himself (and cinematographer Roger Deakins), and its aggressive “Look at me!” showmanship winds up pulling you out of the experience at least as often as you're pulled into it.

Last week, the movie received Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Director, and much of the reason for the film's early acclaim lies in its presentational stunt: Excepting one extended blackout halfway through, 1917 has been designed and shot to suggest one continuous, unbroken take from first image to last. Attempted in works as varied as Hitchcock's Rope, Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar-winning Birdman, it's a technical challenge that very quickly (and usually amusingly) calls attention to itself, and at first it seems like it might ideally complement Mendes' and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairs' narrative. Set on April 6 of its titular year, the movie finds two young British soldiers – Lance Corporal Black (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) – stationed in the French countryside when word comes of an impending attack on British forces. It appears that a German brigade that has seemingly retreated from the front line has, in actuality, planned a surprise ambush on an advancing battalion of 1,600 troops, all of whom will likely be massacred if they're not immediately ordered to stand down. The only way the message can get to them is by land; given the demolished state of most area roads, more accurately by foot. And so Black, whose older brother is one of the 1,600 in peril, and Schofield head out to deliver the missive, enduring no end of battlefield dangers – barbed wire, trip wire, snipers, explosives – along the journey.

Deakins' camera is with them for every step, and I don't think the one-continuous-shot conceit is ever more effective than it is at the very start, with Black and Schofield ambling through a bucolic meadow into a series of serpentine trenches amidst mud-soaked soldiers and then into an underground catacomb where their superior officers are safely ensconced. The effect is almost literally like going from day to night in a few short minutes, and suggests that Mendes' and Deakins' approach will offer a first-person perspective on World War I combat with true immediacy and you-are-really-there veracity. Even early on, though, it's not hard to spot the invisible edits that occur within the clouds of smoke and debris and the transitional wipes from one locale to another; the film wears its one-shot-wonder label so proudly that we're practically being dared to recognize the moments in which cuts took place. (For we movie geeks, finding them becomes a game not unlike the “guess the celebrity voice” challenge in animated comedies.) And with Black and Schofield barely registering as specific individuals, you end up focusing not on them and their plight – or the fates of the 1,600 they're sent to save – but on the technique, the stunt, of the filmmaking.

Colin Firth in 1917

This isn't altogether unfortunate. When Deakins and his crawling, racing, restless camera are following our leads over and through boggy trenches littered with corpses, or into an underground retreat previously fortified by Germans, 1917 boasts a nearly visceral intensity and power, and you deeply appreciate the immersiveness of the stylistic conceit. Deakins' camera becomes a character – or rather, allows you to become a character – and the ugly realities of WWI combat become painstakingly evident. (In the film's most heartrending employment of camera-as-us, our gaze is momentarily diverted away from a deadly knifing that might have been prevented if we were only paying attention.) More often, however, the “unbroken” camerawork appears to be in practice solely for thrills. I almost wrote “cheap thrills,” even though nothing about this movie seems cheap. But the director of Skyfall and Spectre can't seem the shake the James Bond out of his system, and so for every moment that feels emotionally and logistically grounded, there's at least one more – a desperate run from a crashing plane, a balance-beam walk across a muddy crater, a panicked race across the battlefield – that seems there only to elicit “Whoa!”s and “Wow!”s from a properly awed crowd.

As a box-office decision, and maybe as an awards-bait decision, this makes sense, and for what it does, 1917 does it remarkably well. (Nobody likes a show-off … except, sometimes, movie audiences and Oscar voters.) I also don't mean to denigrate Roger Deakins' masterful cinematography, although I do find his work here more arresting in its still compositions, as when we venture inside a rural village lit only by a raging bonfire, than when we're traveling shoulder-to-shoulder alongside Chapman and MacKay. Yet the camerawork, the fastidious production design, the surging strains of Thomas Newman's score – they're all in service to what, in the end, comes off as the most prestigious big-screen video game ever attempted, with Blake and Schofield as avatars hoping to get from one increasingly treacherous skill level to another. And even this wouldn't be especially problematic if Mendes' film wasn't simultaneously brandishing its Significance and Importance like badges of honor, with that end-credits dedication – while no doubt sincere – signifying a deep, unifying emotionalism that the movie itself is barely interested in exploring. Mendes' latest wants to be both Saving Private Ryan and Skyfall, and winds up less satisfying than either.

A word, too, about the casting – though not the casting of Chapman and MacKay, who are sympathetic and endearing, if not terribly interesting. I'm referring to the special-guest casting that's every bit the distracting stunt that Deakins' one-shot approach is. Colin Firth shows up almost immediately as the commander who sends our heroes on their mission, and with his quiet, weary gravitas, he's quite good. Even better is Andrew Scott, who pops in as a sardonic troop leader whose subtly anxious demeanor – an Andrew Scott specialty – suggests a soldier teetering this close to the abyss. But then, at about the halfway point, a character actor arrives visible only from the waist down, and for a long, momentum-halting moment, we struggle to place the voice before the camera pans up to reveal his identity: Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Mark Strong! And even more damaging to film's illusion of reality is the thespian coup de grâce that Mendes saves for the finale, with the camera inching ever closer to a figure with his back to us, until the man finally whips around and reveals himself like Diana Rigg in the opening credits of The Avengers … or Alec Baldwin parodying her in the opening credits of 30 Rock. For those who don't know about his participation, I won't divulge the name of the celeb in question. But my fellow patrons instantly chuckled at the reveal – probably because he was too familiar a face for the grunt-level “honesty” of the movie, and also, maybe, because he's practically the poster boy for prestigious British Oscar bait. When the film is at its most intense, exciting, and affecting, audiences are right to wince and gasp at 1917. What they shouldn't be inspired to do, especially as Mendes' directorial assault reaches its climax, is laugh.

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

JUST MERCY, LIKE A BOSS, UNDERWATER, and THE GRUDGE

If you're caught up on your big-ticket holiday releases and aren't up for another viewing of any of them or a still-running Thanksgiving hit (though in the case of Knives Out, you certainly should be), early January can be a grim time for film fans, as our options are routinely restricted to lackluster comedies, fright flicks, and Oscar wannabes that didn't quite pan out. Yet this year's quartet of Just Mercy, Like a Boss, Underwater, and The Grudge – a.k.a. all the films that aren't 1917 – actually isn't bad. None of them are must-sees, and a couple of them might be don't-sees, but two weeks into 2020, I'm at least grateful that we're currently without any please-for-the-love-of-God-don't-sees.

Awards bait in extremis, director Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy tells the true story of civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson and his years-long quest to reverse the death sentence of, and get a new trial for, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, a middle-aged man wrongly accused of the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old girl in rural Alabama. For Oscar odds-makers, this one seemed to have everything: nobility of purpose; political correctness; revered-nonfiction source material (the film is based on Stevenson's book); indictments of racists and the criminal-justice system and racists within the criminal-justice system; an up-and-coming director of acclaimed indies; a tireless-crusader lead played by a burgeoning superstar (Michael B. Jordan); a pair of Oscar-winning actors (Jamie Foxx, as McMillian, and Brie Larson) in support; moving speeches; dramatic peril; gentle comedy; echoes of previous Best Picture winners In the Heat of the Night and Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book … . Just Mercy's Oscar prospects, however, never fully came to fruition, in large part because Cretton's movie was deemed so by-the-book for its type that it never emerged as spectacular. That's actually what I liked about it.

Make no mistake: This is a pro forma inspirational drama all the way, with every carefully designed narrative turn arriving exactly on cue, and I may have audibly groaned whenever it dug too deeply into its bag of genre tropes. (The blustery southern bigot is a tired archetype that no performer, it seems, can do anything with, and every time Rafe Spall spoke as the film's requisite mealy-mouthed district attorney, I wanted to hide my face.) Yet in the performances of Jordan and Foxx, and of Rob Morgan as another death-row inmate, Cretton's movie boasts a thoroughly lovely and engaging simplicity – it feels so emotionally authentic and geographically precise that it doesn't have to strain for effects in order to be moving. Jordan is particularly excellent whenever Stevenson, a Northerner making his first trek to the deep South, has to mask his fear and panic behind a veneer of calm, and the actor is wondrous when silently, tearfully registering his unease during a strip search or after watching a convicted murderer put to death. Just Mercy isn't great, but it's solid and involving and never dull, and makes quite a compelling argument for the continuation of Oscar-bait projects that might, nowadays, be somewhat too square for the Oscars.

Salma Hayek, Tiffany Haddish, and Rose Byrne in Like a Boss

In director Miguel Arteta's Like a Boss, Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne play lifelong besties whose floundering cosmetics company endures a passive-aggressively hostile takeover by Salma Hayek's beauty-product magnate. In all honesty, the movie had me at “Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne,” because there are few circumstances, especially in a raucous R-rated comedy, under which I wouldn't want to watch either of them for two hours straight. And happily, Arteta's slapstick with sentiment is even more enjoyable than I hoped it would be, partly because the film (praise be!) is only 85 minutes long, and mostly because Haddish and Byrne are an absolutely inspired comic team, fully believable as the best of friends and both delivering exactly the quick-witted sharpness their presences promise. The script (by a pair of young white dudes, natch) is endlessly stupid, with most of the heartiest laugh lines appearing to be improvised, and nothing that happens in the narrative will remotely surprise you. Its aspirational finale is also a total botch, seeming to last roughly a third of the film's not-quite-hour-and-a-half, and I'm not quite sure what Hayek and Karan Soni, as her beleaguered assistant, are doing with goofy stereotypes that aren't improved by odd vocal flourishes. But Arteta gives his stars plenty of breathing room and sometimes appears to let their scenes run long just for the pleasure of being in their company, and Jennifer Coolidge and, especially, Billy Porter steal their every second of screen time. January's a traditional cinematic wasteland. I appreciated Like a Boss for, oh so briefly, making it feel like slightly less of a waste.

Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel in Underwater

A team of aquatic scientists endures both a devastating seaquake and the scaly, fanged monsters it unleashes in Underwater, director William Eubank's sci-fi action thriller that brings to mind the brainchild of a stoned Hollywood executive who muttered “What if we … you know … did Alien … but … you know … in the ocean!” And then they did. Seriously, Alien's producers should sue for a cut of the profits, not that there'll likely be any: there are claustrophobic sets and characters barking at each other in fancy hazmat suits; an intestinal-looking creature is foolishly brought aboard the craft for “study” and future jolts; Kristen Stewart runs around in the bikini underwear and tight tank top that might've been stolen from a shoebox in Sigourney Weaver's closet. Yet Eubank's action sequences, at least when the too-gloomy cinematography isn't hiding them, are reasonably inventive, and the pacing is swift. (This one clocks in at just over 90 minutes, and I'm praying that, as with Like a Boss, brevity winds up the key motif of 2020 releases.) Some of the imagery is appealingly, and appallingly, suggestive, with the shot of the subterranean creatures' ginormous boss mama a sight of unexpected, grisly grandeur. And while I could happily have done without T.J. Miller as the research team's resident wisenheimer – a feeling clearly not shared by the youths in the back of my auditorium who giggled at every single thing the guy said – Stewart appears more focused and emotionally alert than she usually does, while Jessica Henwick performs admirable sidekick duties and John Gallagher Jr. wins a scene merely with a perfectly timed flash-grin. It's all silly and it's derivative as hell, and Underwater still might currently be the most guilty-pleasure movie fun this side of Cats.

Demian Bichir in The Grudge

By contrast, its present neighbor in cineplex horror The Grudge is a far more accomplished piece of work, but very little fun at all. I almost mean this as a compliment. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce's remake of the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar outing – itself a remake of 2002's franchise starter from Japan – is so well-acted that there's considerable pleasure to be had merely in watching the fierce, impassioned portrayals of Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, William Sadler, and scare-flick icon Lin Shaye. And Pesce has a true gift for queasy imagery; the sight of a dismembered hand massaging shampoo into Cho's scalp may (deservedly) be the film's poster, but I also won't be forgetting the languid bathtub emergence or the blurry, faraway shot of Riseborough's son leaving for school anytime soon. That said, this Grudge is almost sadistically devoted to making us feel like crap – the victims of its murderous supernatural entity include a grade schooler, a pregnant woman, and a senior dying of cancer – and the intertwining-flashback structure, while novel, keeps us too removed from the crises to ever feel genuine empathy. I can't say I liked The Grudge. As a January release, though, I'll settle for kind of admiring it.

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