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

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

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Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

January 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave

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Steve McQueen directs his first feature without Michael Fassbender in the lead, and the result is a more straightforward but very powerful film depicting slavery.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in upstate New York, much in demand at local dances for his skills as a violinist. He is also a free black man in the politically divided America of 1841, but after a trip to Washington DC providing music for a circus-owner (Scoot McNairy) he wakes up to find himself in chains about to be transported to New Orleans to be sold to whatever Louisiana plantation owner buys him. Viciously whipped for protesting his free status he is further brutalised by slave-trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) for not adopting his slave name of Platt, but he is bought by humane plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognises his intelligence. However, conflict with vicious overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) leads to Solomon being handed over to drunken and maniacal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), where Solomon finds himself embroiled in the struggle between Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) and Epps’ slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)…

12 Years a Slave is a remarkable film in which McQueen brings his distinctive visual aesthetic to bear on Three Kings scribe John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s shocking memoirs. The casual brutality of the slavers towards their victims is shocking, and McQueen’s camera is as unflinching as always in observing it, from the fixed-position long-take that observes Solomon’s first beating, to the already infamous and almost unbearable climactic long-take with a camera roving around Epps, Solomon and Patsey during a prolonged vindictive whipping. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay, andShame about bodies in motion, this is about bodies in torment. A decanter of whiskey is casually thrown into a slave’s face, a wound is ripped open with a scratch of nails, runaways are lynched besides Solomon, and Solomon himself is left hanging from a tight noose for hours while most of his fellow slaves strategically ignore his plight. This lacks a sequence where the mundane becomes transcendent, probably because of the subject; the closest we get is fire dying away at night with Solomon’s hopes.

The way McQueen’s camera silently observes the slaves being treated like livestock is more condemnatory than any polemical dialogue. Ridley’s script inserts a subtext into certain scenes about the insecurities and fears of the slave-owners, hidden behind their racist bluster, which makes even Fassbender’s vicious bible-thumping alcoholic more complicated than he first appears. Teabits sings about killing runaways to the new slaves, but is terrified of being shown up as an engineer by a slave. Epps’ wife is horrified at being replaced sexually by a slave, while Freeman breaks up a family because the daughter’s father was a master and this white blood increases her sexual desirability and price. Garret Dillahunt’s fallen overseer notes that masters must convince themselves the slaves are not human or repress their guilt. Ford tries to be good in this system, while Epps exploits it mercilessly and perhaps self-destructively. Regrettably amidst this intellectual subtlety Hans Zimmer’s key motif is instantly recognisable from his Inception score…

Steve McQueen is due a disaster, but so far he is proving to be something very rare –a film director who only makes masterpieces.                                               

5/5

February 14, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

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Bruce Willis returns as NYPD’s finest terrorist/master-thief-killing  Detective John McClane, once again in the wrong place at the wrong time; this  time with his son.

McClane is horrified to find his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) has been  arrested in Moscow for killing a man in a nightclub. He flies to Russia, heeding  the warning of his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) not to make a bad  situation worse. He then, of course, proceeds to make it catastrophic. Jack is  actually an undercover CIA operative trying to protect Komarov (Sebastian Koch),  an oligarch become political prisoner. Komarov has incriminating evidence on  ex-business partner Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), a man sympathetic to terrorism  and on the point of becoming Defence Minister. Jack’s cover comprehensively  blown by dad he retreats to the safe house run by his Agency handler, Collins  (Cole Hauser). But the unstoppable killers Alick (Radivoje Bukvic) and Irina  (Yuliya Snigir) seem to be one step ahead of the McClanes, and Jack mulishly  refuses John’s advice…

Director (and Dundalk native) John  Moore proved with Behind Enemy Lines  that he could deploy every weapon in the stylistic arsenal, but since then he’s  been serving time putting a glossy sheen on mediocre material. This is his shot  at the big time, but you suspect, despite his unwarranted criticisms of Die Hard 4.0, that he’s still putting a glossy  sheen on sub-par material. The spectacular car-chase following John pursuing  Alick tracking Jack and Komarov doesn’t stint on the vehicular destruction and  Alick’s beast of a machine is a joy to watch. Moore also has a lot of fun with  the thudding ballistics of a helicopter gunship tracking the McClanes down the  façade of a hotel. But, this film is half an hour shorter than all previous  instalments, and that missing 30 minutes would’ve usefully housed humour and  character moments.

Skip Woods’ script shares with his Wolverine plot a terribly disguised  early twist that vitiates a later great twist, and despite being written as a Die Hard it really only latterly feels  like one. There is a glaring reference that cleverly transforms into a traumatic  character death, but while there’re nice moments of musical homage by Marco  Beltrami to Michael Kamen’s iconic score and its appropriation of Beethoven,  frequently we’re treated to Zimmer/Howard Bat-rumblings, and Moore’s hand-held  direction lacks the geographic clarity of McTiernan’s template; something which  Len Wiseman wisely amended his style to synch with in Die Hard 4.0. Acting wise MEW’s bookending  cameo is delightful, while Snigir may (and I say this as a Nikita fan) actually be better than Maggie Q’s 4.0 villainess; her nihilistic rage in  the finale is astonishing. Courtney is physically imposing but he lacks the  endearing charm of Bruce Willis past and present.

This lacks the gleefulness that ‘Yippee-Ki-Yay Mother Russia’ teased, but  it’s an entertaining outing that doesn’t disgrace the franchise.

3/5

September 18, 2012

Any Other Business: Part V

What is one to do with  thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a  proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into  a fifth  portmanteau post on television of course!

RTE  Heart Hans  Zimmer

Have you noticed a  tendency for everything to be drowned in Hans Zimmer music lately? I think it was when I  was watching a serious and rather good RTE documentary on the bank guarantee in  2008 that I  first got annoyed at the tendency to plaster Hans Zimmer scores over everything.  I don’t need the Joker’s musical theme shimmering over tales  of dodgy American sub-prime mortgages and CFD problems in Anglo-Irish Bank to know  that someone is engaged in villainous double-dealing. I don’t need to have the  pulsasting  Batman goes to war music playing over accounts of frantic meetings late at night  to know that action was being taken to avert a crisis. There has to come a point  where talking heads in a documentary are allowed to speak and the audience is  treated as intelligent enough to grasp the implications of what they’re saying without needing a musical cue  of the most bombastic sort. And that’s the other problem. Does everything need to  have The  Dark Knight  or Inception backing  it?These are  very recognisable and quite well-known soundtracks whose constant intrusion into  a serious documentary can pull you right out, as you think about the  Nolan movie instead of what you’re watching. The one free pass I’ll  give anyone regarding use of Hans Zimmer is TG4 booming Inception music for their rugby  coverage  because at least it’s a change from Kasabian (see below…). It’s time to stop  spoon-feeding the audience, and subsidising Mr  Zimmer.

Kasabian:  Born to Rock/Soundtrack Sport

Kasabian are one of  those bands who appear to have the stars aligned in their favour. I went to see  their show in Marlay Park a few weeks ago, only knowing the The West Rider Pauper Lunatic Asylum, and was taken aback at  just how many of their songs I actually knew. There is a story told that Richard  Linklater wanted to use ‘Immigrant Song’ for a scene in his 2004 film School  of Rock and  was taken aback to be asked for 10 times as much money as he’d had to fork over  to use Led Zeppelin for his 1993 film Dazed  and Confused; indeed the amount  asked for ‘Immigrant Song’ equalled the budget for his entire 1993 movie, and  only after much begging was he able to get the price down to a reasonable  level.  Kasabian emerged at a moment when industrial illegal downloading had so  decimated traditional revenue streams that licensing music for TV and cinema was  becoming not just a clever way of getting exposure (a la Moby with Play) but damn near the only  way you could be guaranteed getting paid when people listened  to your  music. Enter Kasabian, whose breakthrough single ‘Clubfoot’ was used on TV spots  for Smallville and 24 and damn  near every action film for a year. Since then they’ve carved out an incredible  niche. I  don’t know how they do it but damn near every song Kasabian release as a single  seems to have the potential to become the  soundtrack to TV sports. ‘Underdog’, ‘Vlad the Impaler’, ‘Fire’, ‘Days Are  Forgotten’, ‘Velociraptor’, and others have all popped up. They provide the  title music for rugby on RTE, the theme tune of football on Sky, and the  background music for fixture lists and league tables while pundits converse at  half-time on several channels. Kasabian have established their music as the  default setting for TV editors. This is both remarkable and financially  lucrative – how do they do it?

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

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