Tuesday, July 25, 2017
At its best, ‘Dunkirk’ is a tense, immersive and visceral experience that practically screams to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The dogfights are staged so that the vast expanse of sea and sky are abruptly juxtaposed with the claustrophobic interior of the Spitfires. Scenes of men trying to escape torpedoed or dive-bombed ships strive for a Brueghel-like level of hellish intensity.
There is enough in ‘Dunkirk’ that works – and works well – for me to hesitate in calling it a failure or even outright say that I was disappointed. I was perplexed, though, that’s for sure – Nolan makes some aesthetic and narrative decisions that are frankly baffling – and I was more than often frustrated.
Things start interestingly enough with a group of English soldiers, who may have been separated from their unit or may be deserters – sneaking through the narrow streets of Dunkirk, seeing what they can steal from deserted households. German planes are dropping propaganda leaflets, two of which our immediate and ostensible hero Tommy* (Fionn Whitehead) grabs from the air and stuffs down the front of his trousers. Not too much later on, he’ll drop his breeches on the beach to take a shit and the inference is that he’s saved Adolf’s best efforts at demoralisation purely to wipe his arse on. But Nolan, for all that he’s half an hour off gleefully wallow in blood and bashed-in heads and third-degree burns, tiptoes away from Tommy’s required toilet break and even stages the scene such that Tommy might not have answered the call of nature anyway.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that Nolan should have gone all real-time defecation à la ‘Kings of the Road’, but if you’re starting your movie with an I-wipe-my-arse-on-Hitler’s-propaganda note, then don’t be fucking coy about it. Anyway, Tommy’s possibly postponed poop sees him make the acquaintance of Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) whose name is subsequently revealed not to be Gibson but the script doesn’t give him any other name so I’ll continue calling him Gibson. Tommy and Gibson decide to get off Dunkirk beach by any means necessary, first by impersonating stretcher-bearers (they’re booted off the ship by the medical orderlies), and then by a feigned act of heroism in front of an officer which sees them herded onto the next troopship. Which is promptly torpedoed and they find themselves back on the beach.
Their travails are intercut with the sea crossing of Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their friend George (Barry Keoghan) after the navy requisition Dawson’s pleasure yacht as one of the flotilla of “little ships”; and a dogfight with the Luftwaffe by RAF flyboys Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy). I use “flyboys” not as a derogatory term but to indicate how the script portrays them. Remember that ‘Family Guy’ episode where Stewie, on trying to join the RAF, is asked what his qualifications are and replies, “I have a British accent, I’m possibly homosexual and my wife’s just awful”? Well, that’s the level of characterisation on display here.
Nolan straight-up tells the audience from the outset that these three points of view occupy temporally different spaces: a week for the scenes on the beach, a day for the “little ships” to make the channel crossing, collect survivors and return; and an hour for the dogfight. He proceeds to intercut between them according to dramatic beats and the rhythms of Hans Zimmer’s score**. And at the cost of any sense of continuity. Granted, when he pulls all three timelines together with the tension ratcheted to the absolute maximum, it’s a genuine coup de theatre and pretty much justifies the ticket price.
The fact that we’re two-thirds plus through the film before he effects this coup de theatre, however, is indicative of the wider problem. As with so much of his work, Nolan approaches the story of Dunkirk as an exercise in non-linear experimentalism and showy imagery. His grasp of character and how men interact in the theatre of conflict is flimsy at best. Peckinpah would have focused on group dynamics and the mindset of the soldier; hell, even David Ayer would have known where to focus the drama. Nolan, to put it bluntly, misses the real story even as he continually stumbles over bits of it.
Case in point: Tommy tries to join a line of soldiers on the beach and is basically told to fuck off (“Grenadiers, mate,” a gruff squaddie says, eyeballing him). The military as a class system in microcosm: a fascinating angle Nolan could have explored, but no – a single throwaway line of dialogue and the theme is never revisited.
Case in point: James D’Arcy’s colonel is appalled by the bland assurances of Kenneth Branagh’s commander and seems, just for a moment, as if he were about to vent anger at the callous idiocy of the top brass back home, but no – the moment passes and he remembers he’s a British officer in a war movie.
Case in point: someone notes that the tide is coming in, another character asks how they know, and the curt response is that the incoming tide washes the dead – those drowned, burned or shot during an earlier (failed) evacuation attempt – ashore. Cut to a column of men, knee deep in the sea, waiting on a ship that might not even fucking exist, pushing away from them said incoming corpses. They do so hesitantly and respectfully but not without some measure of disgust. Or maybe despair.
And I couldn’t help thinking that this is where the real drama was. Imagine being one of those men on the beach. Lined up in columns. A pretence of military discipline enforced even in the aftermath of abject defeat. No certainty of rescue. The Germans pushing ever closer. Stukas strafing the beach. The promise of being on the next ship cruelly mocked by the previous ship erupting in flames then keeling over and being taken by the cold grey waves. This is where the drama is: the hope, the despair, the terror, the horrible sense of inevitability as the whine of a Stuka’s engine cuts across the sky. This is the story Nolan should have told. And yet he takes pains – and teeth-grindingly clichéd and melodramatic pains at that – to keep Tommy and Gibson off the beach. His only real focus on the men on the beach is the opportunity they present to frame a shot. He flips from the OCD delight of constructing purely geometrical images, to the childish delight in flipping over the first domino in an elaborately constructed sequence and chuckling as he watches them fall.
Likewise, the focus on Dawson does real damage to his portrayal of the “little ships”. For eighty solid minutes, you’d swear it was only his pleasure yacht making the channel crossing. Nolan doesn’t show a single other non-naval vessel until the last 15 minutes when a metric fuckton of them suddenly appear out of nowhere and Hans Zimmer loses control of himself on the soundtrack. What should be the key moment is reduced to here-comes-the-cavalry cliché.
What really kills the film, though, is two moments of bilious melodrama – one in a beached fishing boat where Tommy, Gibson and some other deserters basically re-enact that ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about the nuclear shelter but with a fishing boat instead of a nuclear shelter; and one on Dawson’s boat which makes the histrionics of ‘Dead Calm’ look like a piece by August Strindberg. Nolan’s preference for these moments over the genuine human drama of the men waiting on the beach speaks volumes about the film ‘Dunkirk’ could have been.
On a technical level, there’s little to dispute, however the performances are serviceable at best. Branagh squints and delivers his lines with all the engagement of a man who’s wondering when the pub opens. Rylance is dismal, trying for Everyman but forgetting that only the super-rich – whether it’s 1940 or 2017 – own yachts; his line readings are stilted and I’m still trying to figure out what accent he was attempting. Everyone else is basically forgettable. In fact, it says something that Harry fucking Styles is the film and his “performance” is functionally better than Mark Rylance’s!
Then we have the score. If the film itself hangs together at odds in the sum of its parts, weird tonal and aesthetic disconnects jarringly obvious from scene to scene and even within individual scenes, then the score summarises that feeling. I can only describe it as a score of two halves, not that it delineates so neatly in terms of its application throughout the film’s running time. It’s as if two entirely different scores had been commissioned, chopped up, and scattered across the film. The first uses two atonal motifs – one suggesting the inevitability of the tide, the other a thuddingly obvious “ticking clock” motif – and in the second is the kind of let’s-rip-off-Elgar-and-Vaughan-Williams orchestration that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hovis or Warburtons commercial.
But the biggest failing is Nolan’s insistence that the audience’s engagement be entirely based on a handful of cardboard cut-out characters. Dunkirk was an evacuation. The experience was collective. The odds against both soldiers and the pilots of the “little ships” were phenomenal. For all that he fills the film with carefully constructed long shots of beach and sea and columns of men, Nolan fails to communicate any sense of scale.
*Yes, Nolan wrote a script where an English soldier’s name is Tommy. Yes, my reaction was pretty much as you’d imagine.
**I will have more to say about Hans Zimmer before this review is over. It will not be pretty.
Thursday, July 13, 2017
Trey Edward Shults’s second feature film is an austere and controlled enquiry into what happens when— … No, wait. Almost wandered into spoiler territory there.
The genius of ‘It Comes at Night’ is that is takes a set of immediately recognisable genre tropes and— … Bollocks! Almost did the spoiler thing again.
It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this film in anything but the vaguest terms without inadvertently giving something away. Or rather giving away the one incisive point that every aspect of the film is moving toward, and to which every aesthetic decision by its writer/director contributes.
Subject of its writer/director: Shults is twenty-eight. This is his second film. It’s almost sickeningly well made. He worked on Jeff Nichols’s modern classic ‘Midnight Special’. The star of that film – Joel Edgerton – took the lead role in ‘It Comes at Night’ and lent weight to the project by acting as producer. Trey Edward Shults – I say this again – is twenty-eight. Talented bastard!
The film opens in Romero territory with a small group of people – in this case a family – holed up in a farmhouse in the backwoods. It’s either the present or the very near future. Some form of virus is sweeping America, possibly the world. Patriarch Paul (Edgerton) has adapted to the crisis by the application of strict routine and rigorous self-discipline, the better to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Measures include donning gas masks when venturing outside, obsessive personal hygiene, and maintenance of a small armoury in case of attempted intrusion. One such intrusion is by Will (Christopher Abbott), who mistakenly believes that the house is abandoned. Swiftly disarmed by Paul, Will tells him that his family are holed up at a residence some miles away and while they have sufficient food they are running low on water. His incursion was to scavenge for same. Paul and Sarah discuss the situation, the latter being of the opinion that moving Will and his family and whatever supplies they have into their house offers strength in numbers against possible other intrusions. Against his better judgement, Paul accompanies Will on a journey through a stretch of woodland that might not be entirely empty of antagonist.
That’s really all I can say. What follows relies on character dynamics and interactions. There’s Paul and Sarah’s interracial marriage – no big deal in the twenty-first century, huh? But the sight of Paul (white, bearded, rifle slung across his shoulder) barking orders at his (black, wary, slightly subservient) wife and son gives the audience something uncomfortable to think about. The contrast between Paul and Will is handled effectively; in a screenplay that doesn’t waste words, every scrap of dialogue between them accumulates meaning. Nuances, pauses, a slip that could be lie, half-truth or simple misunderstanding – these things keep the audience unsure. Where, if anywhere, do your sympathies lie? Then there’s Travis, on the cusp of adulthood, vulnerable to the attentions of another father figure, not to mention— … ah, but I very nearly went waltzing down Spoiler Street again.
‘It Comes at Night’ is cannily scripted and, once you get past a draggy and rather po-faced first 15 minutes, generates slow-burn tension with a single-minded focus. Shults perhaps overuses Travis’s recurring nightmares to generate a horror movie vibe; the “jump” scares he effects by such means are the most generic aspects of the film and not as effective as the genuine moments of horror that are derive from the darker corners of the human psyche. Nor is he quite as acute a chronicler of the way men behave around each other as, say, Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, but that might be down to his comparative youth. Shults has talent to burn two years shy of thirty. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t, in the coming years, deliver some outright masterpieces.
If ‘It Comes at Night’ doesn’t quite stretch its toe into masterpiece territory, it’s still damn good. Shults is smart enough to take his time and let his characters drive the narrative rather than the other way round (a failing of plenty of filmmakers twice his age). He knows how to stage a scene for maximum squirmy tension, how long to hold a shot and when to cut away. Self-evident stuff, you might think, but done with such intuitive confidence that half an hour into the film I hitched up onto the edge of my seat and, despite all of the bleakness and lack of hope on offer, grinned in anticipation of how it would play out, knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.
Tuesday, July 04, 2017
I went into Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ not knowing what to expect – the trailer couldn’t have been more generic if it had tried – but with the mindset that all it had to do was be a damn good car chase movie. It’s been too long since we’ve had a good car chase movie. (And anyone who’s rehearsing a “but the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise” argument can leave by the garage door: those things are what a Michael Bay movie would be if the Transformers stayed as vehicles; they’re porn with Turtle Wax instead of cum shots.)
‘Baby Driver’ is the opposite of porn: it’s a pure romance. It’s a love letter to cinema. A love letter to music. A love letter to movement – be it a car chase, a foot chase, or some ad hoc dance moves on a city street – and the exuberant energy of things simply being in motion. A love letter to enigmatic loners who don’t say much and the winsome girls who fall for them anyway. A love letter to smart-talking crims and meticulously planned heists. A love letter to abandoned warehouses and underground car parks. A love letter to the city and the freeway.
It’s almost a romantic musical and certainly a love letter to a city, and it does a damn sight better job in both respects than ‘La La Land’.
And at its absolute best – at its purest and most joyously infectious – it’s an abstract work of cinema that meshes kinetics and soundtrack for the sheer love of what it can do with music and motion, iconography and editing. As such, there’s little point in talking about the plot (a wholly derivative affair) or the acting except to note that everyone turns in a performance that is exactly what the film requires to sustain its non-car-chase bits. Kevin Spacey is typically deadpan, John Hamm ought to have a bigger film career, and Eiza González wins the Agitation of the Mind Girls With Guns Award for being a total badass and hot as hell with it.
Where ‘Baby Driver’ finds itself on shakier ground its during the last half hour or so where Wright suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be making a genre film and the tyre-squealing fun gets cudgelled and locked in the trunk and the film goes on a slow plod through the demeaned streets of Cliché Town. Wright clearly wants to have his cake and eat it à la Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’, another film-as-experiment where the genre trappings provide a comfort zone for a mainstream audience; but whereas Wheatley mines a cynical vein of gallows humour that is integral to his film’s aesthetic (there is a streak of cruelty that runs through all his work), Wright never fully convinces when he piles on the macho thrilleramics in the last act. It just comes across as hollow posturing. Likewise, the series of flash-forwards that conclude the protagonist’s story are just plain dull: the moment Ansel Elgort slides from behind the wheel or doesn’t have Lily James’s too-sweet-to-be-true waitress to interact with, he ceases to hold any interest for the viewer.
It’s not a bad enough ending to derail the film entirely (I’m looking at you, ‘The Forest’!), but it certainly undoes some of the good work that’s gone before. In a perfect world, there’s a 90 minute cut of ‘Baby Driver’ with 50% less dialogue, where the cars get star billing and Eiza González firing off two machine pistols fulfils the quota of gunplay. That film would be a pop-art masterpiece.