Monday, January 13, 2020

War!: 1917 and Liberation

Will wonders never cease - AMC accidentally set the times for a couple of movies in such a way that you could build a thematic double feature without having to kill an hour in between!

It also gave me a nice chance to check out the new Dolby Cinema screen at Boston Common, which is basically the same as the ones at Assembly Row and South Bay, except maybe smaller - the screen's a good size, but it doesn't seem particularly deep, with just fifty or sixty seats. Not bad, considering they're recliners and all, and even the first row isn't right up under the screen, but kind of a shock when it pops up in the app, compared to the old-school auditoria next to it which seat a couple hundred.

After that, it was downstairs to screen 1, where I was apparently the only person catching the 10pm show of Liberation despite being right next to Chinatown. Not necessarily surprising, considering it's only playing three cities in the U.S. (New York, Los Angeles, and Boston); a good chunk of exhibitors must have taken a look and figured the audience would say "nah", even without a good number of movies hitting screen this week after the post-Christmas lull. I don't know how much it being obvious propaganda played into it, but it was kind of strange to be reading social media about the Taiwanese elections (a rejection of closer ties with the Mainland) and then seeing what would become the Taiwanese flag used for this movie's villains, even if most are played as misguided more than evil.

The previews were an odd batch, too; usually, when there aren't enough Chinese-language trailers on the hard drive, it's just big action movies, but this was mostly a reel of foreign-language films with award hopes. Most look pretty neat, especially Les Miserables, which I am surprised and delighted to see has more or less nothing to do with the musical. On the other hand, the last was for Dante Lam's new one, The Rescue, which looks like it's as big as Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea, but which also had its trailer pretty badly dubbed into English. I wonder if the studio is going to try to push this particular Chinese New Year picture onto more screens around the world, even if I'm pretty sure that this particular theater will be showing it in Mandarin.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2020 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

It occurred to me, when I first heard this was put together a certain way, that I would have liked to go in without knowing, even though that's kind of an odd, meta way to approach watching and thinking about a movie. Still, it's very difficult to just get caught up in things the way one is meant to in these cases, rather than watching what the camera does and guessing how many objects in the foreground are effects meant to hide seams. Rather than drawing me in and not giving my mind time to jump elsewhere, it had me thinking about a lot of things that weren't on screen.

Maybe it improves on a second view, once that's out of one's system. I suspect that once you get past that and the often stunning cinematography/lighting/design, 1917 is a capable-enough war movie of the new school, careful to foreground the horrors lest the audience get too excited by the ticking clock. Sam Mendes wants the audience invested but not excited, and that's a very fine line for him to walk. The film often feels calculatedly random, like everything happens in such a way as to reinforce the idea of chaos, and outright cheats in others, such as how sound design is very important for much of the film but a whole division in trucks can just suddenly be right there.

It's still too good to dismiss, of course - Roger Deakins and company do amazing work, Mendes's decisions may be cynical but they're effective, and the cast is terrific up and down. There's something about the tendency to cast great, recognizable character actors as the officers in this, like we're expected to trust Colin Firth or Mark Strong rather than question things, although, again, it works; it's one of the best little roles Strong has had recently (he is so much more interesting when not playing villains).


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2020 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

Coincidentally arriving in a few American cities the same weekend that 1917 opens wide, Liberation suffers from opposing faults. It's busy to the point of frenzy rather than meticulous, rushing through every cheap play for audience sympathy it can with bigger firefights and explosions coming at a rapid pace just in case that's not enough. It's lurid but made to please crowds, even though the filmmakers aren't that great at making the action effective. It's one of the tackier bits of recent myth-making to come from the Chinese movie industry, which is saying something.

Starting out in January 1949, days before the Tianjin campaign that would serve as a turning point in the Chinese Civil War, it initially introduces the audience to a team of Communist soldiers aiming to infiltrate the city to help get artillery sightings, because the revolutionaries aim to take the city with relatively little damage. Cai Xingfu (Zhou Yiwei) has other reasons to lead this mission - wife Xiuping (Yang Mi) is still in the city. Among the Nationalists, Director Qian Zhuoqun (Philip Keung Ho-man) is especially cruel, lording his power over entertainer Yan Mei (Elane Zhong Chuxi) and locking up quartermaster Yao Zhe (Wallace Chung Han-Liang) for a ferry accident, though he is using the aftermath to attempt to push that Nationalists into a harder line. Zhe attempts to escape with six-year-old daughter Junlan (Audrey Duo Ulan-Toya) only to run headlong into Cai's mission, and the two would be at odds even if it weren't likely that Cai's son Jifeng was on the sunken ferry.

There's a lot going on and the filmmakers spew it at the audience in rapid-fire manner to start, efficiently and earnestly talking about firing solutions that will not in fact be a major part of the film, finding the hackiest possible way to reveal Yan's hatred for Qian, and letting major parts of the story just hang there uncommented upon. It puts Yao Zhe directly at the center of the action but doesn't particularly do much to establish his interests and loyalties beyond his daughter, to the extent that it's easy to initially peg him as a spy rather than someone pushed up against the wall. Things start to shake out later on, but initially viewers are likely to have their attention on the wrong things, and when characters show up later so that there can be action in more places, it's hard to be sure whether they've been introduced but offscreen until needed or if they're new.

Full review on eFilmCritic

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