Talking Movies

August 31, 2020

Tenet

Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated new film is an intricate and satisfying puzzle piece housed in a less satisfying blockbuster frame.

John David Washington is the protagonist who has a mysterious close shave with a bullet that seems to whip out of woodwork and away from him during a terrorist siege of the Kiev Opera House. Shortly thereafter Martin Donovan informs him that he has been recruited for an international mission involving Robert Pattinson’s British agent that will take them from Mumbai to London, Oslo to Tallin, and deep into the cold heart of Siberia trying to unravel the secrets of Kenneth Branagh’s vicious Russian oligarch arms dealer. An uneasy alliance forms with Branagh’s estranged wife Elizabeth Debicki, as Washington and Pattinson try to understand why an arms dealer is able to anticipate all their moves as if he already knew them, and why ‘inverted’ bullets may be the least of their worries as a wider more sinister conspiracy unfurls itself.

And so to ‘inversion’… Time travel, but not really time travel. If you liked cult Ethan Hawke flick Predestination then you will like this. If talk of closed loops, grandfather paradoxes, and the like makes your nose bleed then you will not like this. Nolan’s script features the same deeply satisfying feeling as Interstellar and Dunkirk when a piece of the puzzle slots into place and you understand that there was more going on than you apprehended first time around. But this satisfying feeling is surrounded by the scaffolding of a blockbuster that doesn’t truly stand tall when the scaffolding is kicked away. Crashing a large airplane into a building for real is great fun to watch, and the chase with cars driving inversely on a freeway is also entertaining, but there is no true knockout punch of a sequence.

Some of this is because this is less fun than Inception, almost as if Tom Hardy and JGL’s roles had been collapsed into one and Robert Pattinson (rediscovering his inner Cedric Diggory) couldn’t possibly deliver both those notes at once. Some of it is because this has less heart than Interstellar, with the Debicki/Branagh dynamic not humming as it ideally should as the emotional motor of the movie. Nolan regulars Hoyte van Hoytema and Nathan Crowley are present and correct but the largely Northern European settings are neither as crisply shot as one might expect nor as intriguingly designed; indeed the finale recalls the crumbling Russian industrial hellscape from Hobbs & Shaw. Jeffrey Kurland provides some notably sharp suits and elegant dresses for the ensemble, but Hans Zimmer’s replacement Ludwig Goransson struggles to impose himself with any truly memorable motifs.

Tenet does not reach the hoped for heights, but it is devilishly clever and always absorbing; one wonders if perhaps making it on a smaller scale, more noirish, less blockbusting, might have been wiser.

3.5/5

February 28, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Reloaded Revisited

I recently watched The Matrix Reloaded all the way thru for the first time in many years when Sky One idly decided to screen it. Oh, the wasted intellectual time and energy that went into trying to make this movie more than it was when it came out in May 2003. To indulge in hyperbole, between May and November 2003 sci-fi fans engaged in more delusional counterfactual speculations and fantasias than people wasting their time trying to disprove Darwin since 1859. Some of these fantasias were rather good, unfortunately the execrable Revolutions dynamited all the sophisticated ways that people had sought to frame Reloaded as both smarter and more successful artistically than it was. It is awful. It is memorable in places. But that is not enough to make it not awful. The film is almost an object lesson that merely subverting expectations doesn’t actually achieve anything. Cutting your climatic action sequence to pieces at the start and end of a film, ending a film with the climactic action beat being impenetrable polysyllabic gobbledegook in a room, having your plot be a ‘get that thing, to do this thing’ which only starts 40 minutes into the damn movie – all of these choices subvert expectations. And they are all awful. The proof of the pudding is that nobody has taken these models of subversion and run with them in the way that Skyfall and The Avengers both pilfered “The Joker planned to be caught. He wanted me to lock him up in the MCU!” from The Dark Knight. The Architect is memorable, but that scene is awful. Lines from it, bitterly engraved on my soul from fruitlessly going over and over the VHS, and from the memorable Ferrell/Timberlake MTV take-down of it, float across my consciousness from time to time. As Michael Gove lays the foundations for flouncing out of trade talks that haven’t even f***ing begun yet by announcing an impossible and arbitrary timetable one line seems … apropos. At some point it might even be uttered by M. Barnier to Gove. On being flatly told, “You’ll cave, Germany needs British car sales to survive”, he might riposte – “There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept”…

Billie Eilish mourns 007?

Oh dear, here we go again… Sam Smith’s derivative and embarrassing caterwaul ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ should have tipped us off that Spectre‘s artistic decisions were not coming from the top drawer. Now we finally have Billie Eilish’s much anticipated Bond theme ‘No Time to Die’, and it is a mournful dirge. Why is it a mournful dirge? What happened to the musician who wrote the earworm hook of ‘Bad Guy’? Why is it that only Adele seems to have really nailed the archetypal Bond song in all of Daniel Craig’s outings? (Though Chris Cornell comes a close second).  Perhaps this was Eilish’s genuine musical response to seeing an early cut of the aged Craig in action, which should make us very afraid for what No Time to Die is actually like. I don’t know that there’s much that Hans Zimmer can do with this barely there song in the score, but that’s okay, John Barry twice magisterially ignored songs he didn’t like in favour of other songs for his Bond scores for Thunderball and The Living Daylights. Back in 2015 I suggested pressing Radiohead’s celebrated cover of ‘Nobody Does It Better’ from the mid-90s into action instead of Sam Smith. This time round I am not that exercised. I fear this song may accurately reflect a lethargic tiresome film.

November 17, 2019

Notes on Le Mans ’66

Le Mans ’66 was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

A more accurate title would be The Road to Le Mans ’66 and in America rather than Ford v Ferrari it should be Ford Middle Management v Shelby Racing.

Le Mans ’66 starts promisingly with a startling recreation of racing Le Mans at night, mist obscuring a dark country road interspersed with fast cars being handled recklessly. But at 2 hours 34 minutes this is more accurately The Road to Le Mans ’66 as it is a good 1 hour and 42 minutes into the film before Bale sets foot in France. The script by the Brothers Butterworth and Jason Keller is fairly rambling, and leaves a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth after the epic run time. Bale’s performance is a curate’s egg: the showy weight loss, the Brummie accent that frequently hits Liverpool, the nervous tics and arrogant mouthing off like Liam Gallagher crossed with Bale’s meth-head in The Fighter. His quietest moments are most effective, so you wonder why Mangold sanctioned this way of playing Miles.

Damon is on far surer ground as Shelby, a man continually trying to find his footing as the world keeps changing on him. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders devolve into generic Zimmer for the finale at Le Mans, but prior to that provide an interesting score inflected with the jazz of the time; with numerous delicate touches of rich double bass and whispering drums. Mangold’s semi-regular cinematographer Phedon Papamichael provides some dizzying shots of high-paced vehicular mayhem, but you yearn for an artsy long-take from a low-mounted camera to really capture the feel of the perfect 3:33 lap so often mentioned. Ultimately this isn’t really Ford v Ferrari, so much as a battle of wills between talented people who are experts in their field and just need money versus people who are complete idiots but for egregious reasons have money.

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November 15, 2019

Le Mans ’66

Director James Mangold reunites with his 3:10 to Yuma star Christian Bale for a less satisfying movie about driving fast cars.

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) wins the 24 hour endurance race at Le Mans in 1959 only to be invalided out of motor-sports by a dodgy ticker. Instead he tries to run a racing team of his own, dealing with irascible driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) with the help of trusted mechanic Phil (Ray McKinnon). And then Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) comes calling, desperate to make Ford cool again by importing some European glamour to the brand by taking down Ferrari. The ego of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) leads to an attempt to magick into existence a car capable of winning Le Mans. But Ford II’s ego is matched only by his underling Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). He is not as forgiving as Ken’s wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe) when Ken Miles bluntly speaks his mind…

Le Mans ’66 starts promisingly with a startling recreation of racing Le Mans at night, mist obscuring a dark country road interspersed with fast cars being handled recklessly. But at 2 hours 34 minutes this is more accurately The Road to Le Mans ’66 as it is a good 1 hour and 42 minutes into the film before Bale sets foot in France. The script by the Brothers Butterworth and Jason Keller is fairly rambling, and leaves a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth after the epic run time. Bale’s performance is a curate’s egg: the showy weight loss, the Brummie accent that frequently hits Liverpool, the nervous tics and arrogant mouthing off like Liam Gallagher crossed with Bale’s meth-head in The Fighter. His quietest moments are most effective, so you wonder why Mangold sanctioned this way of playing Miles.

Damon is on far surer ground as Shelby, a man continually trying to find his footing as the world keeps changing on him. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders devolve into generic Zimmer for the finale at Le Mans, but prior to that provide an interesting score inflected with the jazz of the time; with numerous delicate touches of rich double bass and whispering drums. Mangold’s semi-regular cinematographer Phedon Papamichael provides some dizzying shots of high-paced vehicular mayhem, but you yearn for an artsy long-take from a low-mounted camera to really capture the feel of the perfect 3:33 lap so often mentioned. Ultimately this isn’t really Ford v Ferrari, so much as a battle of wills between talented people who are experts in their field and just need money versus people who are complete idiots but for egregious reasons have money.

This is not really a feel-good movie, in fact it’s almost a feel-bad movie, about the struggles of racing guys against middle management, with the villain being the spite of an egotistical empty suit.

3/5

June 17, 2019

Notes on Balloon

An old-school nerve-shredding Cold War German thriller was the film of the week yesterday on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

30 years ago the German Democratic Republic aka East Germany was still in existence, an insanity propped up by Russia. This film is set in 1979 with two families desperate to escape to the West, and taking the unusual approach of running the border by hot air balloon. The first attempt is a failure, and the wreckage of the balloon 200 metres from the border leaves enough evidence for Stasi Lt. Col. Thomas Kretschmann to find them, given enough time. Resources are not a problem. He has 300 agents working by the end on catching 4 people who wanted to live 10 kilometres to the south. As Kretschmann closes in our heroes decide to go for broke and build a second balloon, and composer Ralf Wengenmayr does his best Hans Zimmer and really elevates the film with rhythmic percussion, scurrying strings, and swoops of synthesiser. Director Michael Herbig is best known in Germany for comedy, but this film is a chilling portrait of a society drenched in fear and paranoia, and dripping with well-crafted suspense.

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June 9, 2019

Notes on X-Men: Dark Phoenix

The last chapter in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men saga was the film of the week today in a return to Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

This is the way the X-world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Simon Kinberg first arrived as X-screenwriter with the awful X-3, and now he rehashes X-3 as X-writer/director and makes it even worse, which is perversely impressive. X-3 has some rather nice music from John Powell, strong acting even in minor roles, and a number of upsetting moments (that were doubly upsetting for how badly Brett Ratner handled them) that leaned on the good work of the first two movies. This movie has A-list composer Hans Zimmer only occasionally elevating the material with emotive minimalism, some of the worst acting outside of X-Men: Origins – Wolverine, and absolutely no memorable moments whatsoever in part because there has been no good work done in previous movies to establish anything. Cyclops was killed off 20 minutes into X-3 by Jean Grey to establish she was out of control, and here Mystique is killed off 40 minutes in by Jean Grey to establish she is out of control. Kinberg shamelessly reuses dialogue and the ideas of X-3, but doubles down on them to make what was once annoying now insufferable.

Prior to her merciful death Mystique spends her screentime whingeing about Professor X, after she dies Beast takes up the whingeing baton to the point where you just want to shout at the screen “Why don’t you just move out of the mansion you’ve been living in rent-free for 30 years if you feel that strongly about him being a bad man?” Professor X is the villain of this piece. Somehow. I’m not nearly as sure as Kinberg is that hiding from a girl, who just murdered her mother because she wouldn’t stop listening to Glen Campbell, that her father regards her as a monster and wants nothing to do with her is a morally evil act. How does he think Jean would react to hearing that? Badly? Would she kill many people in her rage? Oh, the rage. In a scene where Jean is moody at a bar one longs for Sarah Snook in this role as Sophie Turner renders Jean Grey’s transformation into Dark Phoenix the temper tantrums of a petulant teenager. Jessica Chastain barely acts as the emotionless alien Vuk, and Jennifer Lawrence projects only deep boredom.

J-Law may be the audience avatar in that respect, fed up so much talent could be squandered on a twice-told tale. Kinberg has Christopher Nolan’s regular editor and composer, and yet there is a cut with the X-jet arriving and the team appearing as jarring as the scene John Ottman apologised for in Bohemian Rhapsody. The cinematographer of Avatar is on hand to, well, hide the action under cover of darkness and big swirly CGI. Watching X-Men and X-2 in recent days they really are films of the 1990s rather than the 2000s with their emphasis on practical effects to which CGI is added; a quaint notion long abandoned by Marvel and DC films that superpowers are more impressive interacting with tangible physical reality rather than being a welter of CGI battling a big swirly thing of CGI in a CGI landscape populated by CGI extras. There is some pleasing practicality here, but this is not a movie to stand beside Guy Hendrix Dyas’ amazing sets for X-2. And let’s remember the big swirly thing CGI that reached its nadir in X-Men: Apocalypse began in X-3 for Dark Phoenix’s powers.

Kinberg reprises it here in another display of creative bankruptcy. What exactly is the point of filming the Phoenix storyline? To plonk an actress down in mauve garb to stare moodily/blankly at everything for two hours while everyone stands around agonising over killing her while repeating that she’s unstoppably powerful and therefore can’t be killed unless she wishes it? Does that sound at all interesting? At this point it seems safe to say that the writing credits strongly suggest that the only X-screenwriters worth a damn were David Hayter, Zak Penn, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman, and everyone else was just coasting off their story ideas. It seems perilously close to the truth to say that, as set up by Bryan Singer’s original decisions, these films rarely worked without Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – the best of the bunch were X-Men, X-2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Maybe the reason for X-Men: First Class succeeding was that the charismatic turn by Michael Fassbender as vengeful hot-headed Magneto stood in for Wolverine. This is a terrible way for the X-Men to end given that they started the Marvel era.

It’s especially bad given that Disney will fold them into the MCU and a Marvel executive seems to think the signal problem with the X-Men was not their farrago of continuity, their revolving door of writers and directors, their recycling of the same stories, their failure to properly establish characters, their over-reliance on one actor, their ever-escalating budgets, their out of control CGI, their limited palette of character motivations and plots, but the fact that they were called the X-Men.

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July 29, 2018

Notes on Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the only possible choice for movie of the week. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a more serious film than its two immediate predecessors. There are far fewer jokes, and even the colour palatte is grimmer: Berlin, Paris, London, and snowy Kashmir. No jaunts to Dubai or Morroco here. Instead we have a film that marks 10 years since The Dark Knight with a very Batman/Joker dynamic between Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and the diabolical mastermind he refused to kill, Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane. Just like Batman and the Joker, Hunt’s refusal to take one life may result in many more lives being lost; where is the morality in that? There’s even an elaborately planned assault on a prisoner transfer as Lorne Balfe’s score knowingly dives into the Zimmer Bat-soundscape of ostinato synthesiser and strings.

July 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Dark Knight

On this day ten years ago I saw The Dark Knight on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. Yeah…

“Where do we begin?” The Dark Knight is a sequel that expands upon and darkens an existing cinematic universe so successfully and unsettlingly that it ranks far above what one would think of as the obvious reference point The Empire Strikes Back and instead starts advancing menacingly towards The Godfather: Part II…

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan are very clever, as evidenced by their last collaboration The Prestige, and see greatness where others do not, as evidenced by reading the original novel of The Prestige. In The Dark Knight they have constructed a story that takes the mythology of the DC comic books and turns it into both high tragedy and violent mayhem.

Christian Bale is superb as Bruce Wayne who is quickly becoming a physical and emotional wreck after one year of being the Batman. What was intended as a short-term project to clean up corruption looks to be nearing its end with a final audacious swoop on the mob’s money-men. Bruce’s only chance of a normal life is slipping away though as his sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most winning), tired of waiting for Bruce, is dating the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wonderfully charismatic Aaron Eckhart who also communicates an underlying instability that could lead Harvey to places of great moral darkness). Bruce can only compete against Dent for Rachel if he can trust Dent enough to retire Batman and leave the crime-fighting to the legitimate forces of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Major Crimes Unit. However such plans are wrecked when the mob in their desperation at Batman’s success decide to fight back by hiring, in the Don Sal Maroni’s own words, “a two bit whack-job in a cheap purple suit and make up”…The Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, physical and unhinged – licking his lips like a snake sensing its prey, blows away the inert Jack Nicholson performance and retires the role for a generation if not all time. Oscars don’t go to films like this but Ledger’s performance here is worthy of consideration. His Joker is blackly hilarious and utterly terrifying, usually at the same time, and even his musical theme is chilling. The Nolan brothers cross many lines in depicting his psychopathic unpredictability. One of the taglines for this film was “Welcome to a world without rules”. Batman cannot understand Joker.  Carmine Falcone wanted power, Scarecrow wanted money, Ras Al’Ghul wanted order, The Joker? –  “I’m an agent of chaos”… His escalating mind games in the film move from straight crime with a superbly staged opening heist against a Mob bank, to terrorist attacks, to sick mass murder and beyond…

The Dark Knight is fiercely intelligent, ingeniously structured (to reveal plot details would be a sin) and gives memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble, while the twisted bond between Batman and Joker that exists in the comics finally receives a cinematic depiction. This is all incredibly realistic looking with 60% of the film shot on location and if seen on an Imax screen, as Christopher Nolan indeed shot it especially for, Gotham becomes a character in its own right with its cityscape lovingly captured in vertiginous shots. Written, played and directed with supreme assuredness this is one of the most gut-wrenchingly suspenseful films of the year that looks to 1970s crime thrillers like Serpico rather than superhero films for its modus operandi with its theme of police corruption. Indeed this is unlike any previous Bat-sequel, as can be seen by the difference between the grisly Two-Face in this film compared to previous camp interpretations, and is even tonally different in many ways to Batman Begins. Wanted may be the most fun blockbuster this summer but the Bat has captured the classy end of the spectrum with a film that combines meaty drama with explosive action.

You need to see The Dark Knight. Repeatedly…

5/5

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

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

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