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Schultz reviews: ”1917," "Just Mercy," "Like a Boss" & "Underwater"

Schultz reviews: ”1917," "Just Mercy," "Like a Boss" & "Underwater"

Carl Schultz

“1917” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 119 Minutes, Rated R, Released Dec. 25:

The wartime reminiscences of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes’ grandfather provided the foundation of “1917,” the new drama from Universal Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios. Like Peter Jackson’s recent documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Mendes’ picture effectively puts viewers into the trenches of in the front lines of World War I France with a terrible immediacy that makes the film often difficult to watch, but impossible to look away from.

It’s 1917, and on the battlefields of France the German and Allied armies are at a stalemate. Aerial photography reveals that the German Army’s recent withdrawal from the front lines was not a strategic retreat, as suspected by Colonel Mackenzie, but a military ploy to lure the advancing British Army into the open. Mackenzie’s troops, attacking at dawn to crush the remnants of the Germans, are walking into an ambush. The withdrawing Germans have cut communication lines to the front. And unless the attack can be called off, some 1600 British soldiers will be slaughtered.

The only hope for averting the attack and unnecessary massacre is to warn off the unsuspecting Colonel Mackenzie. So General Erinmore selects two raw recruits, Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake, to personally carry a letter to Colonel Mackenzie ordering him to call off the attack. Erinmore is aware Blake’s older brother serves under Mackenzie, and that the emotional connection will provide extra impetus for the resourceful corporal to succeed in the mission. And together, Blake and Schofield must make their way to the front, through the man-made hell of World War I’s No Man’s Land.

Brilliantly directed by Mendes, “1917” runs a certain risk of resembling a World War I version Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” crossed with Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” — or, worse, an especially intense and gruesome video Game. But aided by subdued and heartfelt performances from a handful of old pros and a few relative newcomers, Mendes with “1917” serves the viewer an immersive and impactful experience which illustrates the futility of war while celebrating the sacrifices of the men who guard our countries.

“1917” has been imaginatively photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins in a process which makes the picture appear to have been the result of one long continuous uninterrupted shot. But far from resembling a motion picture gimmick along the lines of Hitchcock’s famous experimental thriller “Rope” in 1948, Deakins’ brilliant work lends the picture an intimacy and immediacy that makes the viewer unable to avoid even the most horrifying parts of trench warfare.  

The two enlisted soldiers fight their way through the mud, stench, rats, and rotting corpses of the World War I battlefield, encountering along the way the best and worst of human nature — savagery and kindness, monstrous cruelty and unexpected tenderness and generosity. In scenes which capture the cardinal lunacy and waste of warfare, “1917” illustrates the intimacy of life in the trenches, the spectacle of battle, and even the terrible beauty of a bombed out and ruined town lighted at night by dozens of falling flares.

Among the cast, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch appear in brief cameo appearances as stiff upper lip British officers General Erinmore and Colonel Mackenzie. The versatile Mark Strong contributes an effective presence toward the film’s middle as a battle-weary British captain protecting his men on the front lines. And in the pivotal roles of Corporals Schofield and Blake, youngsters George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry most of the film’s weight with performances that are always persuasive, sometimes funny, and often moving. 

“1917” was released on Christmas Day to just 11 theaters in large cities across the United States and Canada. But buoyed by receiving the Golden Globe Award for Best Dramatic Picture of 2019 on Jan. 5, “1917” on Jan. 10 opened into a wider release pattern of 3,434 theaters across the United States and Canada, and quickly fought its way to the top of the Box Office Mojo Top Ten with $36.5 million in box office earnings.

“1917” is rated R for violence, disturbing images and language.

“Just Mercy” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 136 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Dec. 25:

Based on an actual case and adapted from attorney Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” the new motion picture “Just Mercy” is the story of Walter McMillian, an independent tree cutter and pulpwood worker arrested and imprisoned in 1987 for a murder he did not commit. All evidence today points to the conclusion that McMillian was unjustly imprisoned mostly because of his race — he was a black man in a predominantly white community.

In Nov. 1986, 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, a Caucasian dry cleaning clerk in Monroeville, Alabama, was murdered at her place of employment, shot several times from behind. Walter McMillian, a man with no prior felony convictions, was arrested for the crime in June 1987 despite the testimony of a dozen or so witnesses who placed him elsewhere at the time of the crime. Instead of being placed in a holding cell at the local jail, McMillian was sent immediately to Alabama’s Death Row in Holman State Prison ... and remained there for 15 months, awaiting trial.

McMillian was eventually charged with murder, and awaited trial still imprisoned on Death Row, as if conviction and a death sentence were a foregone conclusion. A motion for a change of venue was denied without reason, and after a trial which lasted only a day and and half, a jury of 11 whites and one African American convicted McMillian of Morrison’s killing, and recommended life imprisonment. The judge, a man named Robert E. Lee Key, overruled the jury’s recommendation and sentenced McMillian to death. McMillian spent the next six years on Death Row, awaiting execution.

In 1988, 28-year-old attorney and Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson formed the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center in nearby Montgomery, and took up the task of appealing McMillian’s case. Stevenson charged that the state suppressed evidence and denied McMillian due process of law, and demanded a new trial.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton from a screenplay adapted by Andrew Lanham and the director himself, “Just Mercy” turns out to be an earnest and well-balanced courtroom drama, augmented by solid performances from a talented cast led by Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson. The picture seeks to avoid scenes which might be expected in the wake of legal dramas from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962 through the somewhat similar fact-based “Brian Banks” in 2019, and eventually builds to a richly satisfying conclusion, but ultimately lacks the narrative punch that might’ve turned the picture into a modern classic.

Playing Stevenson, rising superstar Michael B. Jordan carries the picture’s heart as the young attorney taught since childhood to “always fight for the people who need the help most.” Jordan’s good in the role, but is never quite able to convey the sense of simmering moral indignation and righteousness conveyed in the Academy Award-winning performance of Gregory Peck in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Instead, Jordan maintains a sense of detachment and distance, even as his own civil rights are being violated by the bigoted lawmen of 1980s Alabama.

In a sort of extended cameo appearance disguised in a curly brown mop of hair as a legal assistant to Jordan and manager of his Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center, Brie Larson seemingly seeks to remind viewers that prior to her career as a Marvel Comics superstar Captain Marvel she was an Academy Award-winning actress in such hard-hitting dramatic fare as 2015’s “Room” and the 2017 adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ memoir “The Glass Castle.” Like Jordan, Larson’s performance is technically good ... but it’s ultimately tough to get past the knowledge that it is a performance.

The best performance in “Just Mercy” is contributed by Jamie Foxx as the unjustly imprisoned Walter McMillian. Never relying on a sympathetic characterization or attempting to simulate pathos, Foxx plays McMillian as a man hardened by the legal system, physically beaten but not broken, no longer allowing himself the luxury of any dream other than to maintain his dignity and die with courage. Only after months of legal interactions with Jordan’s idealistic Stevenson do Foxx’ eyes betray an unfamiliar emotion: Hope. If Michael B. Jordan provides the heart of “Just Mercy,” the Academy Award-winning Jamie Foxx supplies its soul.

“Just Mercy” is receiving excellent reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 82% from Rotten Tomatoes and 68% from Metacritic. Audiences polled by CinemaScore assign a rare grade of A-plus to the picture. Released on Christmas Day in a limited pattern to only four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, the picture was expanded on Jan. 10 into 2,375 theaters across the United States and Canada. The film earned some $2.66 million during its first week in wide release, capturing fourth place in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind “1917” in first, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in second, and “Jumanji: The Next Level” in third.

Monroeville, Alabama, where “Just Mercy” is set — and where the actual events described in the picture took place — was the childhood home of authors Truman Capote and Harper Lee, and the inspiration for fictional Maycomb Alabama in Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The connection to Lee’s novel and its film adaptation are referenced a number of times throughout “Just Mercy,” and provide a more heartbreaking coda to Lee’s iconic American drama than her own “Go Set a Watchman” did when published in 2015.

“Just Mercy” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, including some racial epithets.

“Like a Boss” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 83 Minutes, Rated R, Released Jan. 10:

Lifelong friends played by Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne own a marginally successful New York City cosmetics store. When Byrne’s creative bookkeeping results in an overwhelming debt, the two reluctantly agree to a corporate purchase from a global cosmetics conglomerate headed by the duplicitous Salma Hayek ... who hides a clause in the contract awarding herself controlling interest in their company and its original products if she can break up their friendship.

Directed by Miguel Artera from a script by Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly and originally entitled “Limited Partners,” “Like a Boss” is that rare animal — a movie comedy devoid of laughs or funny situations. Crude, raucous, sexist, abrasive and borderline racist, the picture can’t even be redeemed by performances from the always-appealing Haddish and Byrne. A sample line: “You smell fresh and clean ... like a thermometer before it goes in your butt.” And somebody should’ve told the writers that jokes about drug abuse haven’t been fashionable since the 1980s.

Accordingly, “Like a Boss” is earning excoriating reviews from the critics, including approval ratings of just 21% from Rotten Tomatoes and 32% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes in their consensus notes that the picture is “likely to leave audience members feeling swindled out of their investments.” Projected by distributor Paramount Pictures to earn up to $12 million during its opening weekend, “Like a Boss” was able to attract only $10 million in revenues, finishing in a disappointing fifth place in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

Why in the world is a movie about women driven by a creative staff comprised almost exclusively of men?  Executive producer Haddish should’ve known better.

“Like a Boss” is rated R for adult language, crude sexual material and drug use.

“Underwater” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox Pictures, 95 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Jan. 10:

Kristen Stewart can’t catch a break.

Ever since she starred in the mega-successful “Twilight” series of horror romance fantasies, the ticket-buying public seems to have trouble accepting Stewart in any other roles. Even when she contributes terrific performances to non-”Twilight” dramatic fare like 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” or 2018’s “Lizzie,” the films hardly see the light of day. And when Stewart steps outside her comfort zone and performs a viable comedic role in a resounding failure like the recent “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, she ends up shouldering most of the blame for the film’s lack of success.

But the tide might be turning for the actress, thanks to an unlikely source: In 20th Century-Fox’ new creature feature “Underwater,” Stewart plays Norah Price, a mechanical engineer who hires onto an undersea mining operation for the shady Tian Industries. The company has established a mining site at the base of the Mariana Trench in the West Pacific Ocean — ”5,000 miles from land and 7 miles straight down” — and is looking for suckers, or rather workers, to sign up for month-long tours of isolated duty. Hey, the money’s good.

When an earthquake damages the undersea mining complex and renders the station in imminent danger of both structural failure and a meltdown of its nuclear energy core, it looks like the end of the road for Price and the crew. But the captain devises a plan for the personnel to don impossibly clunky pressure suits, conserve precious oxygen, and walk two miles or so through freezing waters across the ocean’s floor to a neighboring mining center. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. Something is out there, waiting for them. It’s big and scary and mean. And it eats people.

Often reminiscent of 1989’s “Leviathan,” with a nod or two to “Alien” a decade before that, “Underwater” earns high marks by keeping expectations low. Produced on a relatively modest budget of $50 million, the picture employs a genuinely likable and sympathetic cast of characters, establishes a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere, and then piles on enough peripheral crises and jump scares to satisfy even the most discerning fans of Blumhouse productions.

Directed by journeyman filmmaker William Eubank from a script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, “Underwater” stresses character over spectacle, and nicely camouflages much of the narrative’s helpful information and plot developments into the dialogue instead of pricey optical effects. And led by Stewart, an able cast seems to realize that the movie’s not “Citizen Kane,” but still work diligently at developing persuasive characterizations. This is the most likable monster movie to lurk into theaters in ages.  

“Underwater” also establishes horror credibility by not shying away from periodically revealing the movie’s monster. Mostly seen in quick there-and-gone cameos, in the grand tradition of Hollywood B movie the monster during some shots is plainly a guy in a rubber monster suit. But toward the end of the picture when the true nature of the beast is finally revealed, it’s the monster movie equivalent of the mothership arriving in Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And, brother, is it ugly!

The sexism police will note that Stewart and female co-star Jessica Henwick spend much of the film’s final 10 minutes running around in revealing underwear while their male colleagues — ahem — do not. But so did Sigourney Weaver in 1979’s “Alien” ... and she made the cover of Newsweek and became a feminist icon besides. If Stewart never quite finds the dramatic role to compel the audience to look past her “Twilight” roots, she can always earn a tidy living as a movie scream queen. As Price is in “Underwater,” Kristen Stewart’s a real survivor.

“Underwater” is receiving respectable reviews from the critics, including approval ratings of 53% from Rotten Tomatoes and 49% from Metacritic. Released to theaters across the United States and Canada on Jan. 10, the picture was expected by distributor 20th Century-Fox to earn up to $8 million during its opening weekend in a crowded release field that includes the wide release of the critically-acclaimed “1917.” The picture ended the weekend with $7 million in earnings, and a seventh place finish in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten. 

Principal photography for “Underwater” was completed in May of 2017, but the picture sat unreleased for over two years while distributor 20th Century-Fox figured out what to do with it. After 20th Century-Fox assets were purchased by the Walt Disney Studios in March, 2019, the release of “Underwater” was finally scheduled for January 2020 to coincide with star Kristen Stewart’s surge of popularity resulting from her appearance in the “Charlie’s Angels” remake, which was expected within the motion picture industry to be an enormous global success.

“Underwater” is rated PG-13 for science fiction action and terror, and for brief strong language.

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