Talking Movies

July 28, 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan follows his longest film with his shortest since his 1998 debut Following, with which it shares a tricky approach to time and story.

France is sucker-punched and on its way to falling. The British Expeditionary Force is leaving it to its fate and retreating through the only open port, Dunkirk, that England might still have an army with which to fight on. On the Mole Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) spend a week organising the evacuation of soldiers, with the difficulty of a shallow beach and one quay making a perfect target for Stuka dive-bombers. On a Little Ship Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his way across the Channel over a long day, with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and stowaway George (Barry Keoghan). On a ticking clock of one hour’s fuel RAF aces Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) attempt to fend off some of the Lutwaffe’s endless attacks on the beach and convoys. Their stories intersect tensely, complexly.

Nolan hasn’t made as abstract a film as this since Following. To a large degree the presence of some Nolan repertory and a host of familiar faces lends a degree of depth to the characterisation not perhaps there simply in the spare scripting. And it is spare. The majority of screen time belongs to Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who meet on the desolate beach, and try to stay alive thru repeated attacks, and the dubious comradeship of Alex (Harry Styles). And for the majority of their screen time, they are silent. But the film is not. Viewed in IMAX this is absolutely deafening, with Hans Zimmer’s score interrogating the line with sound design as it throws anachronistic synth blasts amidst the ticking pocket-watch effect, and, startlingly, quotes Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ Variation at high points of tension and release.

On his second collaboration with Hoyte Van Hoytema it’s still unclear whether he and Nolan are less interested in the shadows and earth tones of Wally Pfister’s palate or simply have lucked into two stories that required large swathes of white and blue. One thing that looks unique is the aerial dogfights, IMAX cameras attached to Spitfires these have a dizzying sense of reality: this is a pilot’s eye-view of combat and it’s madly disorienting. And, as the inevitability of Hardy’s choice to not return from France approaches, symptomatic of this film’s remarkable sense of dread. You can no more criticise Nolan for not following the Blake Snyder beats than you could attack Jackson Pollock for failing at figurative art. He can do that supremely well, he’s choosing not to. And making you look, follow, and feel without using words.

And, without using any words, Nolan plays a game with time that makes Dunkirk a film that will amply repay repeat viewings. As the timelines intersect you realise that events that looked simple are a lot more complicated, sometimes even the reverse of what you thought you’d understood. And the same is true for characterisation. At times it feels like Nolan is answering the tiresome critics who attacked Inception and Interstellar for having too much exposition, even as they complained they couldn’t understand them – for all the explanations. And, if those critics insist on taking the ridiculous Billington on Stoppard line of Nolan being all head and no heart, he has the ultimate conjuring trick; Nolan makes us care, with our guts in knots, for people whose names we’re not even sure about, let alone their back-story and motivations.

Nolan has taken a touchstone of British culture and produced a film with a lean running time but a Lean epic quality by viewing the world-changing through the personal.

5/5

July 19, 2017

Who cares what critics say anyway?

Uproxx.com had a much-discussed piece recently arguing that critics should not have to watch and review films like Transformers 5, because it’s bad for them to see a film they’re going to hate, dulling their palate, and not much use to anyone else either; as critics constantly carping about unstoppable cinematic behemoths gives the impression of rarified and tiresome elitism.

In that light it’s interesting to see that websitebuilder.org have an interesting new infographic

Click here for the link: https://websitebuilder.org/resources/online-reviews-infographic/

How do people make decisions on how to spend their money when they go to the cinema? It turns out that it’s not Rotten Tomatoes, the bane of many a studio executive and film director, but rather IMDb that is the most trusted source online. In fact, Rotten Tomatoes comes 5th in the ranking of importance in this infographic, behind even the late Chicago Sun-Times’ man legacy website RogerEbert.com. To wit, audiences do not care what critics on the most discussed critical aggregator say about new movies nearly as much as they care what other punters say about new movies. This is assuming IMDb’s ratings are driven mostly by punters not pundits, which is reasonable given that IMDb’s Top 250 is topped by The Shawshank Redemption, not Vertigo or Citizen Kane. This leaves film critics somewhat at a loose end…

Intriguingly Twitter meltdowns, like the official Ghostbusters account endorsing Hillary Clinton as a gesture against the imaginary patriarchy who weren’t going to its film last year, might also be even more spectacularly counter-productive than you’d think. The infographic from websitebuilder.org has it that if a retailer responds properly to a negative review on social media or online ratings site there is a 33% chance that the negative review will be deleted or changed into a positive. Or, you know, a major studio could just let someone start a Twitter war, shouting abuse at the very people they are meant to be politely asking for money, and see how that works out for the bottom line…

The takeaways must be that word of mouth is stronger than ever, but now in an online form, that critics are definitely not gatekeepers anymore, and that studios need to be very careful about how they respond to the ever proliferating trolls online for fear of digging holes even deeper.

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

July 11, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis, via motion capture, returns one last time for more monkey business as Caesar, the Moses of intelligent apes.

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Caesar is in the woods, with his apes, and just wants to be left alone; to brood over his murder of rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), and raise his new young son. But not only have Koba’s followers started to collaborate with the humans against Caesar in order to avenge his death, the humans have also become menacingly organised under a new leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). An early bloody skirmish is followed by a night raid with the Colonel himself attempting to terminate Caesar’s command, with extreme prejudice. Caesar abdicates his duties as leader, vowing revenge. While the apes set out for the promised land beyond the desert, Caesar, with trusted lieutenant Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval), and two gorilla bodyguards, sets out to assassinate the Colonel. But matters are complicated by a new mutation of the virus assailing humanity.

War for the Planet of the Apes would be more accurately titled Commando Raids for the Planet of the Apes. Indeed a large portion of the movie is Prison Break for the Planet of the Apes, cycling back to the pivotal sequence of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes where super-intelligent Caesar was incarcerated with regular chimpanzees – because he chewed off a man’s fingers for being rude. Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ does not advocate having your hero chew off a man’s fingers for being rude to elicit audience sympathy, quite the opposite really. Yet we are expected to automatically root for Caesar through three films progressively less interested in human characters. If one could call the ciphers in this franchise human. This is surely the worst written trilogy this decade, and logically so; if an audience accepts ciphers, why bother sweating writing characters? If an audience accepts Gary Oldman’s noble sacrifice to save humanity resulting in nothing, why bother even setting up protagonist and antagonist humans? Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough is the only articulate human, and even Harrelson can’t excel with this straw man antagonist. Hard to credit this franchise was spawned by Rod Serling’s mischievous screenplay.

Rupert Wyatt in Rise, and Matt Reeves in Dawn, both threw in striking sequences of directorial bravura to try and paper over the poor scripting. But here, there is nothing going on in that department, which is a tremendous surprise given that Reeves returns as director. Where are his visual trademarks – the lengthy tracking shots following chaos exploding into frame, the fixed-position sequences, the Hitchcockian visual suspense? This is all the more surprising given the unsubtle references to the visually extravagant Apocalypse Now: slogans daubed everywhere, a shaven-headed Colonel expounding on history, culture and morality, a mission to exterminate (‘The only good Kong is a dead Kong’), Jimi Hendrix, and, just in case you didn’t get it, ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ graffiti. It’s as if Reeves has just given up, going through the motions in a permanently 3-D darkened landscape of snow and concrete that renders things verily sepia-vision. Steve Zahn as a nebbish ape is a highlight, mostly because, when dressed akin to Bob Balaban’s Moonrise Kingdom narrator, he appears to have wandered in from Wes Anderson’s Planet of the Apes; the idea of which is more entertaining than this tedious movie, dragged out by its insistence on ape sign language.

The powerful and emotive finale is unintentionally hilarious when you realise just how literal the Caesar as Moses motif is being taken, but it’s just one final plodding mis-step. Caesar blows up the Colonel’s base and yet escapes the fiery blastwave because it is all-encompassing but apparently all to one side just to avoid enveloping him, Caesar’s final confrontation with the Colonel sees him extend a character redeeming mercy that looks uncannily like the height of cruelty, and the new mutation of the virus, which reduces humans to mute amiable simpletons, leads us seamlessly into the world of the Charlton Heston classic. So, we are required to cheer for the devolution of the human race into mute amiable simpletons, and yet that isn’t presented as a somewhat challenging proposition when even 2008’s disastrous The Invasion noted the paradox of rooting for free will at the cost of world peace. To reference another 1979 film that’s been in the air this summer Caesar’s story involves us losing the ability to produce another Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Ingmar Bergman, Gustave Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Paul Cezanne or even understand who they were or appreciate what they did. Hail, Caesar?

0.5/5

July 2, 2017

RIP Barry Norman

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of former BBC film critic Barry Norman. I can’t add to the obituaries, all I can contribute is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

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Barry Norman for a whole generation was the archetypal film critic. His avuncular remarks from his comfy chair in the studio that morphed with changing fashions over the decades let you know exactly what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. His retirement from the BBC in 1998, volubly aghast at what Hollywood was purveying as their stock in trade, seems like a merciful escape for him now that some American film critics are writing serious thinkpieces about their duty to avoid reviewing much of Hollywood’s current (even worse) stock in trade lest it destroy their critical palate. I watched Film 98 and its previous incarnations religiously, and howled in outrage every summer as Norman buggered off on his holliers just as we all most needed his guidance on what blockbusters were worth watching.

Norman was famously unimpressed by the ego and entitlement of famous actors and directors, from John Wayne to Mel Gibson, and would never have stooped to the recycling of breathless press releases gushing about the all-time record box-office grosses just achieved by … (never of course adjusted for inflation, for painfully obvious reasons) that drives so much of online film commentary. Instead he took the long view, a very long view indeed. His 1992 book 100 Best Films of the Century ostentatiously dwelt mostly in the past; a duty given the tremendous present bias that afflicts our culture; with only 5 films being made after 1980. I read it an impressionable age, and when revisiting it after a decade was aghast/amused/astonished to discover I had been parroting many of Norman’s contentions under the genuine belief they were my own opinions.

Not of the individual films, I hasten to add, but the broad sweep of cinema as outlined in his contextualising introduction to his picks. Some of the lines about certain films still resonate, Apocalypse Now being the best example; I read his piece on it before seeing it, yet frame in my mind in his terms. Barry Norman was such a fixture that something similar happens with Back to the Future II. I didn’t see it in the cinema, but I think of his review on BBC and the scene he picked to illustrate it whenever I see that scene in the movie. What he talked about on Film affected what I thought was worth watching, even if I disagreed. He valorised Woody Allen for years, and I never got it; but I eventually investigated 1970s Woody and thus began to appreciate the body of work. Alas, I never made it to the Helix in DCU years after he’d stopped presenting to see him speak on some of his favourite Old Hollywood films, but I still have his book, and helpfully someone on IMDb has used it to create a watch-list of Norman’s picks: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls055207230/

The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, The General, Napoleon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, Top Hat, Modern Times, La Grande Illusion, Oh, Mr. Porter!, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Vanishes, Pygmalion, La regle du jeu, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Grapes of Wrath, The Thief of Bagdad, The Bank Dick, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Bambi, To Be or Not to Be, Double Indemnity, Laura, Les enfants du paradis, I Know Where I’m Going, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Sleep, The Best Years of Our Lives, My Darling Clementine, A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations, Bicycle Thieves, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Red River, The Red Shoes, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore!, The Third Man, Orphee, Rashomon, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, The Lavender Hill Mob, The African Queen, Jeux Interdits, High Noon, Pat and Mike, Singin’ in the Rain, Genevieve, Shane, Seven Samurai, On the Waterfront, La Strada, Bad Day at Black Rock, Pather Panchali, Richard III, The Searchers, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Nights of Cabiria, Paths of Glory, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, A Bout de Souffle, Lawrence of Arabia, The Leopard, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, The Wild Bunch, M.A.S.H., The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Cabaret, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Sleeper, The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Gregory’s Girl, E.T, Ran, Hannah and Her Sisters.

While some people may worship at the protean altar of the crowd-sourced IMDB Top 250 or the too cool for film school hipster fashions of the Sight & Sound poll this will always be for me the North Star of cinema. An unapologetic focus on Old Hollywood, foreign films picked because they made a huge impact not because you need to fill a quota, the silent era dismissed in just 5 films rather than (as Sight & Sound’s polled experts are wont) pretentiously behaving akin to a lover of the theatre who bemoans everything since the Greeks, and the recent past put on hold to see how it sets before celebrating it: only 5 films since 1980 in a list compiled in 1992, and only 12 films admitted from the 1970s. Norman never pretended the present moment was uniquely awesome.

Barry Norman’s legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or dilettante, will have internalised for life Barry Norman’s scepticism of commercial success being equated with artistic quality as well as his sardonic “…And why not?”

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