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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 10, 2020 - Volume 48 Issue 02
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Viscerally magnetic 1917 an immersive WWI triumph
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

1917
Now playing


The premise of director Sam Mendes' (Skyfall, American Beauty) spellbinding WWI drama 1917 couldn't be simpler. Under orders from General Erinmore (Colin Firth), Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is tasked with making a perilous trip through the German lines in order to deliver a message to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) canceling a morning attack. If he fails, 1,600 men, including his brother, will likely die. Armed with his wits, a map, the message, his rifle and few additional odds and ends, and joined by his friend (and not-so-enthusiastic fellow "volunteer") Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), Blake sets out immediately, the fate of all those fellow soldiers uncomfortably resting upon his jittery shoulders.

That's it. That's the plot. No deep descent into the personal lives of a platoon of soldiers. No examination of the historical complexities of the war. Instead, this is a visceral bird's-eye view of what it may have been like to be sitting in a muddy trench, especially the terror that must have flowed through their veins when ordered to step foot into the pulverized, godforsaken territory between each opposing force's frontlines known as "No Man's Land." That's honestly as far as the story goes.

I'm leery of saying too much more because, as rudimentary as this plot might sound, Mendes and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns still have a small handful of surprises hidden up their sleeves. Likely surprising no one, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield encounter several lethal obstacles on their trek to deliver General Erinmore's message, and whether or not both men will finish their quest is a heartbreaking open question. It's a harrowing journey overflowing in mud, blood, tripwires, collapsing underground tunnels, crashing fighter planes, snipers and a number of additional roadblocks that pop up like random flashes of gunfire from an undisclosed location. I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen, and for almost two hours I sat in the theatre spellbound curious to discover what Mendes was going to choose to show me next.

From a purely technical standpoint this film is utter perfection. Shot and edited as if to appear to be one continuous shot, this way of leading the viewer through these events is more than just a cute trick crafted by a talented director trying to show off. For me, this style fully immersed me into this world. I felt like I was the third, at times ethereal, observational member of the team sent out on this mission. Roger Deakins' (Blade Runner 2049) cinematography, Lee Smith's (Dunkirk) editing, Thomas Newman's (Bridge of Spies) score and Dennis Gassner's (Into the Woods) production design all combine with glorious precision, the look, feel and most of all sound of the environments stunningly realized to a jaw-dropping degree.

Both Chapman and MacKay are superb, the latter arguably Oscar-worthy even when considering the crowded field of likely Best Actor candidates already competing for one of those five precious nominee slots. I also feel like Mendes' handling of the material is the best of his lauded career, and while I've been up and down on the director over the past couple decades I'm still nothing less than flabbergasted by what he has accomplished here. This motion picture flies by in the proverbial blink of an eye, its gut-wrenching spectacle intermixing with the inherent emotional humanity at its core with striking authoritative resolve. 1917 is magnificent, and as someone who has seen it twice I can't wait to sit down and watch it again for a third time as soon as the opportunity to do so arises.


Dramatically candid Mercy a compassionate wake-up call
by Sara Michelle Fetters - Now playing

JUST MERCY
Now playing


Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) has graduated from Harvard Law School with honors. It is 1988 and he has the pick of almost any high-profile, well-paying job he could want. But instead of going to New York, Los Angeles or Washington, DC, Stevenson chooses to take a Federal grant and head to Alabama to provide free legal services to those who did not receive or afford proper legal representation during their trials.

One of the first men he meets is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). He was condemned to Death Row for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman even though there's an avalanche of evidence proving he couldn't have committed the crime. Stevenson is certain that once a new judge looks at all the facts McMillian will be immediately released.

The powers that be led by local Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) and newly elected D.A. Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) disagree. Not wanting to lose face they pull out all the stops to keep this innocent man behind bars. It will take all of Stevenson's investigative and legal efforts to see justice is done and that his client is reunited with his family, certain that facts matter and those with hearts unclouded by bigotry and hate will mercifully see the truth.

Based on Stevenson's best-selling memoir, Just Mercy is a solid rebound for Short Term 12 filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton after the shockingly forgettable mediocrity of 2017's The Glass Castle. Co-writing the script with Andrew Lanham (The Shack), the film is a straightforwardly candid procedural featuring a strong Jordan in the lead role and an outstanding Foxx in superlative support. While there are few surprises and the destination is never in doubt, Cretton keeps things emotionally grounded while also crafting an authentically hardscrabble milieu that is bracingly sincere. It's a good movie that grows in intimate power as it goes along, the story's ending an honestly moving denouement that brought genuine tears to my eyes.

Not that many risks are being taken. Even considering the timely nature of the themes or the explosively heinous reality of the American judicial system as it pertains to minorities, Cretton isn't digging particularly deep. He's content to play things out entirely on the surface, never going anywhere that isn't unexpected as he brings McMillian's truth out of the fog of so many odious and egregious lies. The director doesn't overplay his hand but he also isn't above adding a few layers of melodramatic contrivance (i.e. soaring music queues, soft-lit hero shots, long closeups of characters breaking down into tears). All of this gives the film a formulaic aesthetic that doesn't always fit, and I can't say I was as personally connected to Stevenson, McMillian or any of the other characters as much as I wanted to be.

The flipside is that the filmmaker never loses sight of whose story it is he's telling. There are no white saviors, no characters who take the focus off where it needs to be. Even with Cretton's go-to actress Brie Larson (she's the star of both Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle) popping up in a key supporting role and veteran character actor Tim Blake Nelson portraying a convict with vital information pertaining to McMillian's guilt or innocence, neither becomes the drama's focal point. Instead, events are seen through Stevenson's POV which is exactly as it should be, all of which gives the film a startled, eye-opening urgency that builds to crescendo during the climax.

Jordan is great even if the role doesn't allow him the same amount of freedom to emote or evolve as some of his past efforts like Fruitvale Station, Creed and even Black Panther have afforded him. Still, his resolute stoicism and contained fury are put to good use as Stevenson, making moments where the lawyer wonders if his efforts for his clients are all for naught hit home with palpable authority. Jordan stands strong at the center of this production with an iron-willed tenacity that's compelling, his ability to see through the shroud of ignorance, subterfuge, illegality and overt racism leaping off the screen.

As good as he is, Foxx is even better. The Ray Oscar-winner delivers one of the best performances of his career, taking a character who easily could have been a compendium of judicial racism melodramatic clich├ęs and instead infuses him with layers of complex depth that are magnificent. Every time McMillian was up on the screen I couldn't take my eyes off of him. Foxx is a naturalistic powerhouse, the subtle breadth of his performance frequently catching my surprise. I can't say the film as a whole knocked me out in quite the same way. As refreshingly radical as it might be to have an old school major studio Hollywood narrative like this seen through the eyes of a minority character like Stevenson, Cretton still utilizes a traditional template as far as his dramatic structure is concerned. He doesn't buck convention the same way he did with Short Term 12, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that a small part of me wasn't slightly disappointed that he didn't make an attempt to do so.

None of which means I still didn't enjoy Just Mercy. Cretton presents a timely story that needs to be told and should be seen by as broad an audience as possible. Stevenson's fight against judicial malfeasance and racial bias in the legal system shines a spotlight on ingrained societal ills that need to be erased. By challenging audiences to recognize and understand this fact, Cretton is adding his voice to the growing chorus attempting to see that this happens, and that is in and of itself reason enough to give the director's latest a look.








A decade of great Seattle theater: 2010-2019
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Whim W'Him presents three world premieres by internationally celebrated dance makers in XPRESS
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Viscerally magnetic 1917 an immersive WWI triumph
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Dramatically candid Mercy a compassionate wake-up call
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