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 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

April 21, 2017

Rules Don’t Apply

Warren Beatty finally releases his Howard Hughes project, and the result says more about Beatty than it does about Hughes.

Marla (Lily Collins) is an enthusiastic starlet from Virginia who has passed up a university scholarship to seek fame in the movies. She’s assigned personal chauffeurs Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) and Levar (Matthew Broderick), working alternate shifts, and attends dance and acting classes with the likes of Mamie (Haley Bennett), but, much to the chagrin of her mother Lucy (Annette Bening), is not met by Howard Hughes, and cashes paycheques while never being given her promised screen-test. But Frank is in the same boat. When they finally get to meet the eccentric recluse, their mutual attraction is already in danger of getting them both fired for immoral behaviour, if the deranged antics of Hughes; locked in conflict with TWA shareholders, Merrill Lynch money men, his CEO, and paranoid about being declared paranoid; don’t destroy their careers and/or their lives first.

One hesitates to say that Warren Beatty is so vain he made a film about himself, but the long build-up to the first appearance of Hughes, his persistent appearance in dim lighting to hide the rigours of age, the power-tripping of keeping people endlessly waiting for no reason, the constant baloney of stringing people along with projects that are never going to happen, the phone calls at all hours of day and night that must be answered, and the endless cooing to Hughes of his genius by pretty young women, all seem to speak more to the actual Beatty that emerges from Peter Biskind’s biography than to any real portrayal of Hughes. And let’s remember that Beatty; actor, co-writer, director, producer; has been working on this script since about 1980. This was, par Biskind’s narrative, to be the magnum opus.

2/5

Handsome Devil

Writer/director John Butler follows The Stag with a film that is somehow much better put together yet actually more infuriating.

Ned (Fionn O’Shea) complains volubly to his father and stepmother (Ardal O’Hanlon, Amy Huberman) about being sent back to boarding school. They don’t care. He complains volubly to his principal (Michael McElhatton) about being forced to share his room with a rugby player Conor (Nicholas Galitzine). He doesn’t care. He then complains volubly to the audience about the importance given to rugby in this school; which is apparently meant to be Blackrock, but somehow seems more like Clongowes; and how awful it is to be a gay student in a heteronormative school. Little does he know that his new roommate has a secret, a big one, that by the end of term will change the school forever.

There is a reference to the Berlin Wall as if it’s still standing, and our hero plagiarises The Undertones, so it’s the 1980s, right? Except for the prominently featured poster of the cover of Suede’s debut album, from 1993. But that doesn’t really matter, right? I mean, it’s not like that year has any special significance. It’s only when Ireland decriminalised homosexuality, so it probably doesn’t impinge on the seriousness of Andrew Scott’s teacher being outed to the principal. It is unfortunate for such slapdash writing to reach Irish cinemas mere months after the innovative and spot-on recreation of period detail in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, which was actually concerned with replicating the felt experience of life in 1979 California.

2/5

April 7, 2017

Table 19

Anna Kendrick stars in a slightly unusual romcom that is notable for being more amiable than the usual Hollywood fare.

Kendrick is Eloise, the ex-maid of honour, who is still attending her best friend’s wedding despite being ditched from the bridal party after breaking up with the best man Wyatt Russell, brother of the bride. To avoid awkwardness she is relegated to the back of the room, Table 19. And as she planned the wedding Eloise knows just what a humiliation this is: seated next business acquaintances of the bride’s father, Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow, a nanny, June Squibb, a ‘successful businessman’ who is clearly nothing of the sort, Stephen Merchant, and a frustrated teenage lothario, Tony Revolori.

The Breakfast Club is an obvious point of reference for Table 19, and there is an undeniably goodhumoured spirit to proceedings that counts for much. But the presence of the Duplass brothers as original screenwriters makes you wonder what this movie was envisioned as in earlier drafts, especially as a striking camera movement when Eloise dances with a stranger and the best man sees it almost feels like a leftover from a draft where the real time wedding was being imagined as one single long take.

Table 19 isn’t hilarious, but it is more thoughtful than one would imagine and hides its grand romantic gesture with some glee.

3/5

March 31, 2017

The Boss Baby

Alec Baldwin is the star of the show as the voice of the titular infant in an animated comedy aimed at a surprisingly niche audience.

Tim (voiced in Wonder Years style narration by Tobey Maguire) has a perfect life. Loving parents, who sing him ‘Blackbird’ as his own personal song, a faithful alarm clock that talks to him in the dialogue of Gandalf, and an active imagination, obviously. Which is ruined when a baby in a business suit pulls up in a taxi, power-walks into the house, and demands attention at all hours of the night and day from his parents. When Tim discovers the baby can talk, and does so in the voice of Alec Baldwin, he tries to figure out what is the what before his parents’ love for him is entirely consumed by the demands of the boss baby…

The Boss Baby is a curious creature. Baldwin’s delivery of “Uh-uh, cookies are for closers” is one of a handful of jokes aimed at parents, the other pick being Baldwin’s query if Tim’s parents are actually Lennon & McCartney when he complains how they are now singing his personal song ‘Blackbird’ for the baby. But there is precious little here for parents. Indeed, there is at times precious little for children either. There is, mercifully, none of the usual Dreamworks shtick about how the most important thing in the world is to just be yourself, but instead there’s a message targeted at what can only imagine is a fairly niche child audience. 7 year olds dealing with jealousy at a new sibling. Indeed if a 7 year old was dealing with jealousy at a new sibling they might be as irritated as a cinephile by the painfully protracted ending in which Tim and the Boss Baby get what they want, but…not what they need.

2/5

February 16, 2017

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures tells the neglected story of the black women mathematicians behind the scenes during the early days of NASA.

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Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) works as a computer in the backrooms of NASA as the fledgling agency tries to put a man in space. She is tapped to work out analytical geometry for hard-nosed director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), and suffers the contempt of Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who resents her attempts to gain credit for her work on his project. Fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) have parallel struggles. Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) wants Jackson as his engineer, but she must jump through Jim Crow hoops to achieve that title, while Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) offers no help to Vaughan in her quest to be given the title of supervisor of the coloured computers given that she’s doing the job. Their difficulties are mirrored by America failing to keep pace with the USSR.

Always be suspicious of important films, they are rarely good. And always be suspicious of films based on a true story, they usually make pig-swill of history and defensively claim artistic license even as they demand Oscars for their fearless dedication to telling true stories. Director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder’s script is full of transparently bogus movie moments that are the hallmark of screenwriting designed purely to create Oscar ceremony excerpts: Costner desegregates NASA with a crowbar, Henson gives her boss the sort of haranguing that in reality precedes being escorted from the premises, and, in perhaps the most delirious touch of all, to symbolise how Johnson despite her important work had the door slammed in her face by white men, Melfi has Johnson hand over her important work and have the door slammed in her face. Indeed.

Spencer hasn’t changed her shtick since I disliked it in Ugly Betty but is Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress. Spike Lee’s calculated tantrum reaped 6/20 black acting nominations this year, but Spencer is nominated when Greta Gerwig is not for 20th Century Women, and you wonder about that during Spencer’s jaw-dropping put-down of Dunst (who is obviously a snob not a racist). A put-down redolent of the current cultural moment’s disquieting joy in fault-finding witch-hunts which insist dissent from the (ever-changing) party line betrays a racist/sexist/et al mindset which might not even be conscious of its own white privilege/toxic masculinity/et al. Hidden Figures, like Supergirl, is rather effective when it gets off its soapbox. Monae translates her soul star charisma, Mahershala Ali plays quiet grace, Glenn Powell is an ebullient John Glenn, and the rise of IBM in rocketry is fascinatingly handled.

Hidden Figures is entertaining, despite missed opportunities to dig deeper into black identity via radical Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge), but its depiction of history needs to be taken with a whole cellar of salt.

3/5

February 11, 2017

Prevenge

Alice Lowe, star and co-writer of Sightseers, makes her directorial debut with a misfiring black comedy about a heavily pregnant woman guided by her unborn child.

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Ruth (Lowe) is looking for a pet for her son. That’s what she tells a pet store owner, anyway. Just before slitting his throat, at the behest of her daughter; as yet unborn but already very demanding – and rather homicidal. And so it goes. Ruth targets men and women for sudden bloody murder, and nobody sees it coming, because who would suspect a woman in her final trimester to be capable of such violence. But as it becomes clear that Ruth is working her way through a very particular list of transgressors, she starts to have doubts about the wisdom of what she’s doing.

Prevenge is a strange beast indeed. You seem expected to give a standing ovation to Lowe for not only writing, but starring and directing in the semi-improvised romp, while she was herself in her final trimester. But if the resulting film isn’t any good, what does it matter what the circumstances of its production were? Teeth and Jennifer’s Body are the films that came to mind while watching this, and that’s not a compliment. At first it seems Ruth is killing men for making 1970s sitcom double entendres, or for not being interested in having children. Then she murders a woman uninterested in having children and prejudiced against women who are and waste her time faffing about with maternity leave. By the time you understand her motives it’s already too late.

Prevenge is a mean-spirited film, and perfunctorily so. Each victim feels like a vignette, as if Lowe had taken the modus operandi of Kind Hearts & Coronets, but dispensed with the delicious calculation and Alec Guinness’ delightful gallery of twits and bounders.

1/5

October 29, 2016

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog returns with a typically eccentric documentary on the internet which explores many fascinating topics with the likes of Elon Musk.

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‘Lo’ was the word, caused by a crash during writing ‘login’, that uttered in the world we now live in. That is the starting point of Herzog’s interviews with the men who created the internet as a means for computers to talk to each other to ensure human annihilation during the Cold War, and which now allows humans to talk to each to ensure … well, exactly what the internet ensures is something Herzog ponders over in the 10 chapters of the movie. He meets a family trolled with unbelievable cruelty so that the grieving mother seems not off point when she mutters that the Anti-Christ is entwined with the internet, as well as computer addicts whose lives have been ruined by the lure of the screen. But he also meets Elon Musk, full of enthusiasm for the internet on Mars, and scientists conducting experiments to see if thinking a thought can someday be used to issue commands to a computer.

‘Does the internet dream of itself?’ is the trademark bizarre Herzog enquiry, but this is a film filled with nightmares. If Napoleon was undone by the length of his supply chains to Moscow then humanity itself appears to be in an equally perilous state of being drawn ever further into the soon to be icy grip of our own Russian winter. Herzog unleashes a barrage of scenarios in which the world can no longer function, even down to feeding the population, as life has become too automated for its own good.

5/5

October 21, 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach returns from his Sinatraesque retirement with a film that leads you to question not Tory policy but the line between art and propaganda.

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Geordie carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is unwell. He had a heart attack, nearly fell off a scaffold, and is waiting for doctors to clear him for work. The Kafkaesque welfare system deems him fit for work, however, so his benefits are stopped. Trying to appeal is impossible until a phone call from the ‘Decision Maker’, which should though have preceded the letter cutting off his benefits. Dan is forced onto the dole, where he must prove to a veritable Eichmann of the Welfare Office, Sheila (Sharon Percy), that he is indeed actively looking for work he is physically unable to perform. Humiliated Dan befriends another victim, Londoner Katie (Hayley Squires), who has been moved up North with her children Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan), by Tory plans to gentrify London by cleansing it of such benefits scroungers.

Watching I, Daniel Blake is like being trapped in an empty carriage with Jeremy Corbyn on a slow train from London to Newcastle, it’s like being bludgeoned on the head repeatedly with Michael Foot’s 1983 election manifesto, it’s like having John McDonnell endlessly throw Mao’s little red book in your face from an infinite supply. Screenwriter Paul Laverty artistically stacks the deck, loads the dice, and magnetises the roulette wheel, so comprehensively does he put his agit-prop puppets (poorly disguised as characters) thru the wringer in a plot so unrelentingly grim and ploddingly signposted that its ‘moving’ finale becomes unintentionally funny. My mind wandered so much I wondered whether Laverty and Loach tackling Free-born John Lilburne might have forced them to make actual art, rather than blatant propaganda, by dint of having to use allegory for their contemporary political points.

Daniel is told some employers want video CVs recorded on schmartphones. Loach might have been better served uploading a short screed decrying the Tories, because futility hangs over this. WH Auden said his verse didn’t save a single Jew from the Nazis, but Loach did force change once – with Cathy Come Home, in 1966; before the fragmentation of Britain’s TV audience. But who is he talking to now? I, Daniel Blake is absent from Savoy, Dundrum, IMC Tallaght, and has but 2 shows tomorrow in Cineworld where Jack Reacher has 8, on considerably larger screens. Loach is making clarion calls for the working-class, which will be viewed as art-house fare by some of the middle-class; champagne socialists perhaps. Watching this clumsy tub-thumping film, complete with Hollywood’s clichéd ‘precocious young girl’, is like having a screw slowly hammered into your head…

The only rational response to I, Daniel Blake is to fall asleep in the cinema or undo Loach’s work with the liberal application of screwdrivers at the nearest bar.

0/5

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