Thursday, July 13, 2017

DUNKIRK


Christopher Nolan is a director of superlative technical skill, and his new film of the evacuation of DUNKIRK lives up to that billing.  However, in his choice to strip it of all historical context, and to keep a close-up on three sets of anonymous character tropes, he has created a film that has no epic sweep; that fails to convey the magnitude of Dunkirk; and that fails to move.  Where it works, it works because of fleeting nuanced moments of acting brilliance.  But this is no LAWRENCE and he is no Lean: he has failed to combine the epic with the personal.

So, some context, because the film gives you none. (I wonder if this will affect non-British audiences' ability to engage with the film?) We are in the early months of World War Two. Ignoring captured intelligence to German plans, French, Canadian and British and other allied troops have been lured into Belgium by a German feint and have now been encircled and driven back to the French coast. Roughly 340,000 men - the principal strength of the British army - crowded the beach at Dunkirk - a port protected by a mole, or sea wall, from which they could board the large vessels sent to ferry them back across the English channel.   In doing so, they were hugely aided by the French forces tangling up the German troops sent to cut them off at the Siege of Lille. They were also hugely aided by Hitler's inexplicable decision to order the Luftwaffe not to pursue the troops.  

The evacuation took days, and combined large ships taking people off the Mole with small requisitioned commercial vessels collecting soldiers from the shallows. All the time, the troops subject to aerial assault on the beach and in the water, and the risk of being torpedoes once aboard. The scale of the battle was thus immense - with the RAF flying 3,500 sorties and engaging the Luftwaffe in dogfights away from the beach (hence many soldiers wondering where the fuck they were) - 36 Royal Navy destroyers ferrying men home as well as the Small Ships flotilla - and c340,000 soldiers ultimately evacuated.  It was both a great military failure and a success - because as humiliating as the lost Battle of France was, it enabled Britain to survive to fight on with its men and materiel largely intact. 

Christopher Nolan makes the decision to avoid all of this explanation, and to give us a Dunkirk that focuses on the personal experiences of the war by land, sea and air.  These theatres are inter-cut but take place along different time-scales.  The land evacuation takes place over the week, although frankly days merge into each other and I couldn't keep track.  The sea rescue takes place over a day and the RAF dogfight takes place over an hour, roughly corresponding to a Spitfire's fuel limit.  I rather liked the concept of intercutting the three, and although we do get a cute crossover with the same character appearing in two of the theatres, Nolan doesn't make it too intrusive or incredible. 

Where I think his claustrophobic personal approach works best is in the air battles.  Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden play RAF Spitfire engaging in dogfights some distance from the beach. With IMAX cameras mounted on modified Yaks, Nolan takes us into the air for some quite spectacular aerial photography.  Nonetheless, the downside of this approach is that one gets the impression that the men on the ground are right to ask where the RAF are - that the scale of the aerial assault is minute when it wasn't.  I also find it absolutely incredible that a RAF pilot, knowing how desperate the British were for materiel, would risk his plane in the way that Hardy's character does.  This utterly took me out of the film. 

The sea battle is also done very well from a technical perspective.  We get a sense of the claustrophobia of being aboard ship, the shell-shock and the terror of a watery death, especially when combined with lit gasoline.  I thought the acting was by far the best in this segment.  I very much liked Mark Rylance's quiet earnestness as a civilian sailor sailing to Dunkirk with his son - the quiet communication between the two of them with glances - the profound sympathy toward Cillian Murphy's traumatised rescued RAF pilot.  And the scene of soldiers drowning under a fiery sea is one of the most memorable and rightly horrific in the film.  But I also had deep concerns with Nolan's portrayal of the naval evacuation.  He has Kenneth Branagh's Colonel declare that the Navy is only risking one Destroyer. This is just untrue. There were 36 in use! In general, his character summarises the worst of the writing on the film. He's not a character so much as a Patriotic Reaction Machine. When he gets teary at the sight of the Small Ships as Elgar floats up through the score (superbly done by Hans Zimmer), Nolan is telling us to shed a tear.  When he looks concerned at the Luftwaffe flying overhead, this is a cue for us to get concerned.  And when at the end he remains in peril to help the French, we are meant to think, ah well, this has been EXCLUSIVELY from the perspective of white male Brits, but never mind, we sorted out the French too.  Appallingly crass stuff. Still, this being Nolan, Branagh will probably get an Oscar nom for this nonsense.

Nonetheless, it is on the beach itself that this film ultimately fails.  We have small nuanced scenes of brilliance - a soldier decided to commit suicide by walking into the water - or the quietly proud smile of a Royal Engineer who has built a makeshift pier out of trucks - but there is no sense of scale or chaos. According to Nolan, the beach at Dunkirk was filled with about 3 columns of about 200 soldiers neatly waiting to be evacuated, and ducking and turning on cue to the director's megaphone. There's no fear, panic, chaos, disorder at all.  There's also no sense that we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of men.  Ultimately, then, Nolan has made a gross error.  He has given us a film that tries to convey intimacy - without ever naming a character or making a character more than a trope - and he has chosen NOT to convey the epic sweep of battle. Worst of all he has made gross historical simplifications and some outright errors that massively impact our understanding of what is happening.  And his refusal to name the enemy as the German army is simply perverse. 

DUNKIRK is rated PG-13. The film goes on global release the weekend of July 19th.

Monday, July 10, 2017

THE BEGUILED


Sofia Coppola's remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film, THE BEGUILED, is shorn of much of its historicity and hysteria, and teeters dangerously close to absurdity.  That is survives to become an enjoyable viewing experience is down to the evocative, romantic cinematography of Philippe le Sourd, a delicate score from Phoenix, and its perfect casting.

The story is based on a pulpy Southern gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan, and is set in Civil War Virginia.  A brutally injured Union soldier called McBurney (Colin Farrell) has deserted the battlefield and is rescued by a young schoolgirl at a pretentious plantation seminary run by two teachers and five girls who have no safe homes to go too.  McBurney may be crippled, but his charm is in tact, and he lays it on thick to ensure that the ladies don't turn him in to the Southern army or force him to find his own regiment. And the ladies are no less collusive in the decision to keep him on, justifying their own decisions in the echo chamber that is the claustrophobic schoolroom.  Each of them is beguiled - the younger girls claim special friendships - the teenager Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning) flirts with him outrageously - the younger teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) harbours dreams of marriage but secretly wants sexual fulfilment - and the headmistress, Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), seems to delight in the sheer companionship of an adult, but also comes close to a kiss. 

Sunday, July 09, 2017

BABY DRIVER


With BABY DRIVER, writer-director Shaun Wright moves from British pastiche comedies to a stylish, beautifully choreographed American action movie. It's exhilarating, funny, moving and (weirdly) unique.  

The conceit of the film is that it's young protagonist "Baby" was involved in an horrific car accident as a child that left him scars and tinnitus;  a love of old-fashioned ipods stocked with great music; and a gift for both boosting and driving cars.  This leads him into debt with a local gangster who exploits his unique talents as a getaway driver, for a different crew every heist.

Naturally, this leads us into the territory of derivative genre-tropes.  Kevin Spacey's "Doc" is a cool calm business like crime boss straight out of a Tarantino movie, and the kooky collection of colourfully nick-named thieves are similarly Tarantino-esque.  Ansel Eglort's Baby is the classic good guy in a bad situation, doing that One Last Job before his debt is cleared, but like Al Pacino in Godfather 3, pulled back into a life of crime that wears him down.  And Lily James' diner waitress Debora is nothing more than a pretty vacuous heart of gold character upon which Baby can fashion his dreams of escape.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

THE BIG SICK


THE BIG SICK is a culture-clash romantic comedy based on the true story of how stand up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (SILICON VALLEY) met his wife Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan - RUBY SPARKS).  He grew up in Pakistan and though settled in Chicago his mum and dad (Anupam Kher) still expect him to be an observant Muslim and to marry a Pakistani wife, a parade of whom happen to drop by for family dinners so that he can choose one.  Even when Kumail meets psychology student Emily, and even when they both fall in love with her, he can't envisage a future with her if it means giving up his family who would ostracise him.  And so she breaks up with him and that should be that.  However, as in real life, Emily gets sick, goes into a medically induced coma, and Kumail realises how much he loves her. He also starts to bond with her parents - played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter - nuanced characters who both resent his treatment of their daughter, but realise he loves her, and are battling with their own relationship issues.  The sickness also gives Kumail the courage to tell his parents how he feels, and to tentatively navigate a new relationship with them based on truth, chipping away at their froideur. 

WONDER WOMAN


Beating an admittedly low bar, WONDER WOMAN is unquestionably the best movie in the DC franchise. It has some of the darkness of BATMAN VS SUPERMAN but never feels pretentious or portentous; and in the place of SUICIDE SQUADS' maddeningly shifting tone and offensive objectification of Harley Quinn we have a movie with a straightforward compelling story and a courageous and often subtle take on modern sexual and racial politics.  The result is a film that's both highly enjoyable and yet deeply meaningful  - a long overdue strong heroine in a universe full of macho posturers. 

The movie opens in contemporary France with Batman reaching out to Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), but it's essentially a long flashback and origins story, told in live action and with beautifully designed animation and the most seamless use of CGI.  We see the young child growing up on an island of Amazonian woman - fierce warriors created by Zeus to protect humanity from the corrupting influence of his son Aries, the god of war.  Diana herself is moulded from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen - GLADIATOR), and made live by Zeus himself. Accordingly, she is herself a god, sister to Aries, although this fact seems to escape her logical notice.  The Amazons have been holed up on a magical island while World War One is raging around them, until US spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine - STAR TREK reboot) crash lands in their midst.  A brave Diana then returns with him to wartime Europe, supposedly to bring an end to war by killing Aries, whom she believes is German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston.)

Saturday, June 03, 2017

CROWN HEIGHTS


CROWN HEIGHTS is an earnest, plodding and ultimately redundant film adaptation of the true story of a miscarriage of justice.  In 1980, West Indian American immigrant  called Colin Warner was wrongfully arrested and convicted for murdering a man in Brooklyn, New York.   The evidence was scant, and his conviction apparently rested on the testimony of a young teenager who contradicted himself on the stand.  Although sentenced to 15 years to life, Colin served over 20 years because every time he went up for parole, he refused to admit that he'd committed a crime.  He showed no remorse, and was therefore refused parole. Luckily for him, his friend Carl King campaigned for his release, raising money for lawyers and gathering much of the testimony himself, at the expense of his marriage and job.  This resulted in Colin finally being released and receiving a justifiably handsome payout.  This story was the focus of a WBEZ podcast as part of the This American Life series (you can listen here) and benefits from the voices of the protagonists - their personalities, and the tension of how the story unfolds.   Within its hour running time we can a real sense of their character, relationship and the sheer effort it took to get Colin released.  It was listening to this podcast that inspired writer director Mark Ruskin (BOOSTER) to create this fictional treatment of the same story.