Film critic Scott Wilson reviews a major awards contender and that rare thing: a brilliant Adam Sandler film.
1917 – ★★★★☆
After taking the James Bond series to its 21st century high with Skyfall, the news that Sam Mendes would helm a WWI film after his time with 007 was met with some reservations. Worse, its race-against-time premise drew obvious comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, an acclaimed panic attack of a movie. Isn’t 1917 a case of been there, done that? The trailers, filled with explosions and near misses, would suggest so.
It turns out 1917 isn’t that film. Lance Corporal Tom Blake is tasked with delivering a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to call off a planned attack. Aerial intelligence points to them walking into a trap which would end with the deaths of 1,600 men, Corporal Blake’s brother among them. He’s told to bring someone with him, choosing Lance Corporal Will Schofield played by George MacKay, a reliably fantastic actor who’s more than deserving of fronting a film this size.
From there, the camera never leaves their side. This isn’t a true one-shot film like, say, the German crime thriller Victoria, but by never cutting to a new angle or skipping any of the soldiers’ steps, it creates a sense of dreaded anticipation. As they creep across no man’s land, it’s tempting to stop blinking, to breathe slower. The film never invites a natural point for pause because the minute Schofield and Blake go over the top and leave their bunker, they can’t relax.
They feel less like soldiers and more like Frodo and Sam on a doomed journey deeper into hellfire, crossing miles of endless terrain and becoming wearier by the minute.
Which doesn’t mean it’s as actively stressful as Dunkirk. This is a quieter and more elegant film, with an emphasis on scale. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is unreal – so much so it can become distractingly impressive. When the camera appears to glide over water, it’s so noticeably virtuosic that ‘I hope nothing bad happens’ becomes ‘how did they film that?’ But when the camera is behind the Corporals looking forward, the path in front of them seems endless, with no landmarks other than fields strewn with bunkers and corpses.
It’s so apolitical it barely feels like a war film. There’s no gung-ho nationalism, no glorification of any of the behaviours on screen. Why the film works is its focus on Schofield and Blake over the why’s of what’s happening. They feel less like soldiers and more like Frodo and Sam on a doomed journey deeper into hellfire, crossing miles of endless terrain and becoming wearier by the minute.
The film’s success rests on connecting with their journey. Without that emotional core, 1917 is just a masterclass in production, particularly its cinematography and Thomas Newman’s massive score. But if these don’t serve the heart of the story, then they can only be so effective. I fully disclose being an anti-war pacifist, while still being able to find a human element in Schofield and Blake’s mission, of determination and even existential resignation. Our future Best Picture winner?
Uncut Gems – ★★★★☆
Despite a supposed widespread aversion to Adam Sandler and his films, they reliably make a tonne of money and have consistently drawn large numbers on Netflix. Of the latter, one was even pretty great: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, which competed at the Cannes film festival. Watching Sandler act is a sight to behold because – in the least patronising way possible – he’s not made a name for himself as a serious dramatic actor, and yet when he commits to such a role, he’s fantastic. Watching him in Uncut Gems, it’s hard not to feel he’s been cheated out of an Oscar nomination.
His Howard Ratner is a gambling addict who runs a jewellery store, catering to some wealthy customers while the money behind the scenes is tied up with some dodgy characters. He always simultaneously owes somebody something while using that something to place an ill-advised bet. So far, so frustrating.
Uncut Gems is Howard’s actions catching up to him. When he manages to acquire a black opal – which he says is worth a million dollars – basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself) asks to borrow it for good luck heading into the night’s game. He promises he’ll give it back in the morning, since Howard already has it lined up for auction. When Kevin doesn’t show up, the plates Howard’s been spinning begin to wobble, and from there they just get wobblier.
It’s the film’s kinetic energy more than its plot that results in a massive exhale once the credits roll and it’s all over
The Safdie Brothers’ previous film, the Robert Pattinson vehicle Good Time, pulsated like a quickening heartbeat. Its electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never, on composing duties again for Uncut Gems, combined with a night-shoot draped in sickly greens and reds gave it a seedy, illicit feeling, where it similarly felt like inevitability was creeping up on its central figure. In Uncut Gems, all of those button-pushing stressors have been ramped up and outshone by a game cast, all of whom shout – boy do they shout – over and over, often at the same time, until it’s exhausting. Howard’s actions are infuriating to watch and are anxiety inducing in their own right, but it’s the film’s kinetic energy more than its plot that results in a massive exhale once the credits roll and it’s all over. It’s a more stressful experience than 1917.
The Safdies have described Howard as an optimist rather than an addict. It fits the tone of the film, where he believes just one more bet will fix all of his problems. Spending two hours with a character who consistently does the wrong thing yet still – despite cheating on his wife, despite behaving like an idiot – manages to get us on his side is in large part down to Sandler’s performance and how he embodies that optimism. Each consecutive gamble is more ridiculous than the last, and while it’s clear he deserves some comeuppance, he’s also easy to root for against goons who want his blood and celebrities who make a mockery of him. It’s a great film – just don’t have a Red Bull beforehand.