Sam Mendes’ unforgettable World War I 1917 epic reminds us that youngsters fight wars. He brings to vivid life an event from his own family history that beggars belief. Two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are sent on a hazardous mission to cross No Man’s Land, a devastated swath of death and danger separating the soldiers from German enemies to find a British outfit deep inside. The message they are to deliver is to stop battle plans immediately because the Germans have laid a massive trap.
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Blake is keen to go to see his brother but anti-war Schofield = they’ll survive. Mendes takes this fraught story to a higher level by shooting it as though it was a single moving shot and the effect is utterly mesmerising. The drama is unbearable – in a good way – as they face attack, lack of water and food, fear and bewilderment with the results of war they encounter along this torturous journey. The “single” shot choice brings the messages personal and global home viscerally, you feel you’re in harm’s way alongside the boys, and Mendes cinematic experiment has everything to do with that. This is a must-see, an education and top-flight entertainment. Also stars Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.
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Greta Gerwig’s time-fluid version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women is my dream movie. Both nostalgic and suitably modern, it melted my heart from the get-go thanks to Gerwig’s masterful efforts. It’s a familiar story, Marmee (Laura Dern) and her boisterous daughters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) taking care of themselves in their middle-class home n Concord, Mass, as their father is away in the Civil War. They’re adjusting to this difficult state of affairs when an unexpected ray of sunshine appears in the form of a handsome new neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) who moves in next door with his grandfather. The youngsters amuse themselves staging plays, writing, exploring, skating, occasionally fighting with one another and attending balls, allowing Chalamet to show off his dazzling waltz moves. Great -Aunt March (Meryl Streep) holds her wealth and snobbery over the family to its detriment and so is the Villain of the piece. The storyline of Jo’s efforts to be published is especially encouraging at a time when women didn’t write books, and today, thank you very much. She broke the rules, as ever, and then … oh, go see the film! Also stars Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton and Bob Odenkirk.
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Adam Sandler’s literally running for his life in the frenzied crime caper/character study Uncut Gems from Josh and Benny Safdie. Sandler plays a New York diamond merchant whose street smarts and charismatic personality have made his store a gathering place for the criminal, the ambitious, the lovestruck and the debt collectors. He’s doing OK but suddenly he’s given some insider dope and places a bet, feeling lucky and that he’ll grab a fortune. Problem is, he’s beset by his wife, mistress, gangsters and obstacles brilliantly captured by high style, fast-moving camera work; our anxiety rises as his does. The harder they make things for him, the more cunning he becomes, eyes on the target and the better life he imagines will come with it. Somehow this too feels all too real, thanks to the Safdie’s confident work and Sandler’s astounding performance. Also stars Julia Fox, LaKeith Stanfield and The Weeknd! In limited theatrical release Christmas Day then Netflix. You may need to lie down with an ice pack and a scotch.
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Destin Daniel Cretton’s courtroom drama Just Mercy takes on the discouraging story of 80’s death row prisoner Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) who was convicted of the murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama, ironically, the home of anti-racist author Harper Lee. The problem was that McMillan was innocent. Investigators and law enforcement cooked up a case against him based on race despite multiple eyewitnesses who saw him at a church picnic at the time of the crime. Not only did an all-white jury convict him, but the judge threw out their recommendation of life in prison and sentenced him to death. An idealistic but green young civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) decides he can’t let this pass and takes on his case, knowing that a win is a near impossibility given the outright racist environment. McMillan meets other men of colour in prison punished for crimes for which they were not responsible. Stevenson sums up the black male problem in Alabama succinctly – “Guilty from the moment you’re born”. White officials continue to harass McMillan and his family for years as the case wears on, and it seems he’ll never be free. It’s a stark reminder of the state of things then and a reflection of things now sadly. The unimaginable twists and turns in this heartbreaking story begin to age McMillan before his time, but Stevenson never lets him down. Also stars Brie Larson, Rob Morgan and Tim Blake Nelson in an incredible performance as a dull-witted witness pressured to lie on the stand.
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Francois Girard, the Quebec filmmaker whose poetic musical films Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin helped pave the way, along with his opera productions, for his latest work The Song of Names. It’s a fact-based Holocaust story about a Polish boy violinist who played music for prisoners and later in life helped create the titular song of prayer for the Holocaust dead. It begins during the war when he and his best friend were brought together through unusual circumstances; their bond was cemented through music. They lose touch but one of them, now an adult searches for the other, who seems not to want to be found. An emotional performance of the titular Song is the heart and soul of the film. Stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen as the adult musicians, Luke Doyle and Jonah Hauer-King as the young ones, with Catherine McCormack and Eddie Izzard and featuring music by Toronto native and multi-award-winning composer Howard Shore.
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Britcom fans!! If you’re not on BritBox yet, today’s the day to jump in! James Corden’s 2007 series’ seasonal offering Gavin & Stacey: A Special Christmas streams as of today. Gather round and enjoy the hip holiday hilarity. Dig it!
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Critics Choice Association/AWFJ/TFCA/FIPRESCI