Opening this week:
1917—It’s April of the title year in France, and two young British soldiers are ordered to take a hike. Their mission, which they have no choice but to accept, is to cut across no man’s land to warn another battalion a few miles away but cut off from radio communication with headquarters, not to attack as planned; they’re heading into a German trap. One of the men has a brother in this battalion, hence his choice for this hazardous errand.
So, we follow them as they encounter barbed wire, dead men, dead horses, booby traps, rats, a downed German pilot, muddy roads, sniper fire, mortars and much more – almost too much more. The perils are piled so thick, especially toward the end, that any more adversity might push 1917 over the edge into risibility.
There are a few seconds of blank screen – indicating unconsciousness – around midpoint in the film; it has the feel of an act break in a play. Otherwise, this tense war epic, directed by Sam Mendes (based on war stories he heard from his grandfather, the novelist Alfred Mendes), is designed to create the illusion of “real time” and of a single, unbroken take.
This isn’t the first time that this effect has been attempted, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) springs to mind. But Rope took place in a single apartment, while 1917, shot by the great Roger Deakins, rambles around from open countryside to narrow trenches and tunnels with supple effortlessness. Even allowing for CGI effects, it’s a dazzling, at times almost balletic piece of cinema craft. Film buffs may find themselves wondering how some of the camerawork was accomplished; it would be distracting if the pulse-pounding story, and the touching performances of George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as the lads, didn’t maintain a hold over us.
Perhaps in response to its centennial, World War I has been well-represented in movies the last few years, from a neglected new version of Journey’s End in 2017 to Peter Jackson’s grim documentary They Shall Not Grow Old in 2018. For better or worse, 1917 seems easier to watch; unlike most films about that horrific, life-squandering war, there’s something to root for.
Midnight Family—We’re informed, at the beginning, that there are fewer than 45 government-run ambulances serving the 9 million people in Mexico City. The difference is made up, to the extent that it can be, by private ambulance crews, madly racing each other to the scenes of accidents and crimes, then trying, often unsuccessfully, to get paid by the victims they treat and transport.
This astounding film by the American Luke Lorentzen follows the Ochoa family, who operates one such emergency vehicle on the night shift. Though it shares some of the immediacy of Anna Zamecka’s Polish film Communion, Midnight Family is really like no documentary you’ve seen before – it has the high drama and visual polish of a top-notch fiction film, yet the likable characters have the unmistakable, inimitable quality of real-life people.
The Ochoas struggle with everything from crooked cops to smart-alecky little brothers, and most of the time they’re broke or close to it. Yet the enjoyment they get from their reckless, headlong lifestyle is clear, and it’s just as clear that, at bottom, they genuinely want to help people.
At Harkins Arizona Mills:
Reality Queen!—Julia Faye West plays the title character, on the comeback trail in this fake-documentary spoof of reality-TV stars of the Kardashian or Paris Hilton ilk. She’s London Logo, veteran of a sex tape (co-starring Mike Tyson), a vacuous TV series and the like, but she’s really famous for being famous, or rather, in her case, sort-of-famous for being sort-of-famous.
Behind her traditional bombshell appearance and airhead manner, Julia Faye West shows the occasional glimmer of wit and self-awareness, and the movie, directed and co-written by Steven Jay Bernheim, features a few name players, including Denise Richards as London’s beta female and the late lamented John Witherspoon in one of his last roles. Bernheim seems to be trying for the feel of a Christopher Guest comedy, albeit with broader, coarser and at times tasteless gags. I can’t deny it made me laugh, but nothing in it seemed more imbecilic than “real” reality TV.