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

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September 29, 2016

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton reunites with his Dark Shadows star Eva Green for a more successful outing than that fiasco, but not any meaningful escape from Burtonworld.

DF-07237 - Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) takes aim at her powerful enemies. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) runs a home for peculiar children on a Welsh island, but this story is really about young Floridian Jake (Asa Butterfield). When his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) is murdered, apparently by monsters, Jake is left with instructions to seek out the Children’s Home Abe lived in the 1940s after fleeing Nazis. Encouraged by psychiatrist Dr Golan (Allison Janney), Jake’s sceptical dad Franklin (a bafflingly miscast Chris O’Dowd) brings him to Wales. But they find Miss Peregrine’s Home was bombed by the Lutwaffe in 1943 with no survivors. But Jake in exploring the ruined mansion meets fire-starter Olivia (Lauren McCrostie), homunculi-manufacturer Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), and Abe’s lighter than air former girlfriend Emma (Ella Purnell). Miss Peregrine must explain the time-loop she has created in forever 1943, and the threat posed by Mr Barron (Samuel L Jackson).

The work of Burton’s now regular cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is completely obscured by the 3-D: I’ve never seen a film so badly plunged into darkness by the act of putting on 3-D glasses. Ransom Riggs’ novel has been adapted by Kick-Ass and Woman in Black scribe Jane Goldman, but despite rattling along more efficiently than any number of Burton’s recent films this never really soars; undone as it is by an endless explaining of time-loops, as well as cliché, and Burton’s customary shortcomings. Burton seems to be targeting the YA audience to restore his credit rating after Dark Shadows and Big Eyes, but he can’t help himself. His love of the grotesque overcomes feigned interest in romance, and spurs him to depict villains feasting on mounds of children’s eyeballs, and go close on a character having his eyeballs showily removed.

Burton’s enduring reputation, born of confusing gothic with grotesque and fascination with evil as psychological darkness, continues to attract actors of high calibre; and, as so often, Burton has nothing for them. Judi Dench and Rupert Everett are almost comically under-used, and Kim Dickens seems to be in the movie because she wandered onto the wrong soundstage. It’s always great to see Stamp in action, and Purnell injects some life into her melancholic lead, while Butterfield is an effective hero, but there’s a hand-me-down feel to too much of the proceedings. Jackson’s Frankenstein’s monster of previous performances (Unbreakable, Jumper, Kingsman) is a lowlight, alongside Burton shamelessly lifting a Ray Harryhausen showstopper for his finale, and the pervasive X-Men-lite vibe emanating from a mansion housing children with superpowers and the betrayals of an elderly mutant who fled Nazis and speaks RP.

Tim Burton, on his 18th feature, is not going to suddenly change his stripes, and this is as wildly unsuitable for marketing to children as his warped Batman movies.

 

2.5/5

September 8, 2016

Anthropoid

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star in a brutally compelling take on the cost of assassinating the Butcher of Prague at the height of WWII.

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Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) parachute into Czechoslovakia after years in exile. They quickly discover how deep the occupying Nazis’ regime of fear and infiltration has gone in their attempts to make contact with the Resistance. But with the help of Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) and Marie Moravec (Alena Mihulova) they begin a life of deep cover in Prague. Fake girlfriends Marie Kovarnikova (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafkova (Anna Geislerova) help to deflect suspicion at these two loitering unemployed men, but it also raises the question of the nature of their mission. Josef is at peace that he has signed up for suicide, but Jan is eager for an escape plan after the assassination. And the assassination attempt itself raises moral questions; articulated by Resistance chief and Doubting Thomas Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski).

If killing Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command after Himmler and a chief architect of the Final Solution, would lead to the reprisal execution of 30,000 Czechs, is it morally justifiable to do so? At what point does informing on a handful of men to save thousands of men become morally defensible, or is it ever so when faced against an evil like the Nazis? Sean Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin don’t have any answers to these knotty questions, but allowing the characters to raise them elevate this film from gung-ho heroics. The deepening attachments between Josef and Lenka and Jan and Marie could become stock, but that the philosophical divide between the two men is amplified by the women; Lenka in particular is a breakout performance by Anna Geislerova as a soldier in the shadows of formidable steeliness who, like Josef, regards their death warrants as signed.

Ellis acts as his own cinematographer with a noticeably grainy aesthetic, almost a homage to Zapruder’s JFK footage. This is not a sumptuous recreation of occupied Prague, it is focused on the details of espionage, weapons manufacture, and assassination, and invites comparison with Jason Bourne for extended wordless sequences of practical spy-craft. Oddly enough the timing of the assassination places this structurally beside The Dark Knight, but building towards a climax of historically accurate honourable heroism that is as alien to Hollywood storytelling tropes as (the previously fantastical) 47 Ronin‘s finale. If there is one quibble it is that Bill Milner’s At’a Moravec is so ostentatiously introduced as a violinist, at which point your stomach knots that the ability to play will be taken from him; because sadistic cruelty is the modus vivendi of the Gestapo.

Anthropoid is not a tale of derring-do, but a muted study in suicidal bravery, which will leave an audience saddened beyond measure but glad to have seen such heroism.

3.5/5

October 14, 2015

David Lean at the Lighthouse

As the last thoughts of an Indian summer disappear, the leaves fall everywhere, and scarves and hats are disinterred and pressed in to use, the Lighthouse announces a Lean season.

David Lean landscape Low Res

Afternoons with David Lean will take place throughout November, with one of England’s finest film directors working on the largest cinematic canvasses imaginable. And Lean’s precision as a director and the scale of his work have no finer representation than the first film Lawrence of Arabia. Meanwhile the 50th anniversary of Lean’s Russian revolutionary romance Doctor Zhivago is marked at the end of the month with a newly restored re-release.

 

Lawrence of Arabia

1 & 4 Nov, 2pm

Lean may have clashed with cinematographer Freddie Young (“Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs” the older man barked at Lean), but their collaboration betrays no signs of that tension. Shimmering sands are scored by Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable theme, Omar Sharif’s arrival is legendarily menacing and mysterious, and Peter O’Toole makes an unforgettable leading man debut as TE Lawrence. Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Anthony Quinn co-star as the Machiavellian players surrounding the enigmatic Lawrence’s attempts to inspire an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in WWI.

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=330

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

8 & 11 November, 3pm

This World War II drama marked the beginning of Lean’s epic phase, with a tremendous use of a whistled ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’. POW British soldiers begin construction of a bridge under the leadership of Alec Guinness’ noble commanding officer. But James Donald’s Doctor soon realises that Colonel Nicholson has lost his grip. Jack Hawkins and William Holden are in the jungles on a mission to destroy the bridge. Little do they know that by its completion they might as well propose blowing up Colonel Nicholson…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=18344

 

Ryan’s Daughter

15 & 18 November, 2pm

Lean’s third successive collaboration with Freddie Young and screenwriter Robert Bolt proved the moment when the wheels fell off the wagon, leading to a 14 year cinematic silence from Lean. The heroine was played by Bolt’s wife Sarah Miles, a less than convincing young Irishwoman, and her affair with a British soldier was doomed by the casting of troubled Christopher Jones who didn’t act onscreen for thirty years after this outing. Trevor Howard, John Mills and Robert Mitchum all did their best, but a love story with unconvincing lovers…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=12884

 

Brief Encounter

22 & 25 November, 4pm

The sole entry in this season from the smaller-scale Lean is a love story scripted by another frequent collaborator Noel Coward from his own play. Housewife Celia Johnson is tempted to have an affair with a doctor she meets by chance at a train station, played by Trevor Howard. Brief Encounter’s use of Rachmaninov’s heart-rending 2nd Piano Concerto was extremely influential, and it remains a key influence on cinematic romance. Repressed, simmering passion of noble, thwarted lovers is quite similarly at play in Wong’s In the Mood for Love.

 

 Tickets available here:  http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=20967

 

Doctor Zhivago

From 27 November…

After the all-male heroics of Lawrence, Lean, Bolt, and Young reunited for a romance on a similar epic scale. Spanning decades of modern Russian history Boris Pasternak’s novel became a totemic cinematic love story, with Maurice Jarre’s balalaika-led ‘Lara’s Theme’ taking on a life of its own. Omar Sharif’s titular medic spends his life torn between two women, Geraldine Chaplin and Lara herself, Julie Christie. Tom Courtenay, Rod Steiger and Ralph Richardson are memorable supporting players fleshing out the fall of Tsarist Russia and the madness of the Russian Civil War.

 

 Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=355

April 20, 2011

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Dr Who returns to our screens on Saturday so here’s my ha’penny worth on how ace writer Steven Moffat’s first season as show-runner and chief writer went.

Moffat, of course, was responsible for the best and most ingenious episodes of the first three seasons with his rousing two-part Blitz story, incredibly poignant linking of the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour over the course of her life, and the incomparable ‘Blink’ in which his terrifying villains the Weeping Angels, who can only move when you don’t look at them, made their debut. The fourth season saw a slight dip in the quality of plotting in his two-part adventure but he still created a hugely memorable character in Alex Kingston’s River Song. The news that Moffat was going to replace Davies as show-runner led, after the initial jubilation, to the fear that in stepping up to write so many more episodes a year the quality of Moffat’s work would inevitably fall. Well, it did, but only slightly. His season premiere, ‘The 11th Hour’, was an amazing episode, full of many Moffat trademarks, like the heartbreaking realisation that the Doctor came back years rather than minutes later after promising the young Amy Pond he’d return, and which triumphantly announced Matt Smith as a worthy Timelord by giving him a fantastic speech before he walked thru a hologram of his previous incarnations.

Moffat managed, without writing ‘Blink’ every week, to knock out more episodes yet still insert conceits that would make your head explode, such as Liz 10 in ‘The Beast Below’ being finally revealed as Queen Elizabeth X, and hence ‘subject to no one’; and his two-part Weeping Angels story was by turns hilarious, terrifying, upsetting, and also just dazzling in its cleverness. The fact that Moffat was still operating at such a high level though created an all new problem, which, rather than current scapegoat Matt Smith, may explain the falling ratings. Moffat’s writing is so good that it makes the rest of the writing staff look really bad. When Davies was show-runner there was a uniform level of quality that only Moffat rose above. Now that Moffat is show-runner there’s a uniform level that no one else can rise to… This means that while ‘The Lodger’ with James Corden was hilarious, you might just as easily tune into the sub-par ‘The Vampires of Venice’ or Richard Curtis’ embarrassing ‘The Doctor and Vincent’; where Curtis felt impelled to give Van Gogh a trip to the future to have Bill Nighy tell him how great he was, before Van Gogh killed himself anyway. In other words Dr Who has become incredibly hit and miss; if Moffat isn’t writing you must lower your expectations, but the casual viewer will not know that and so may easily watch half a season and pronounce it rubbish – by missing every Moffat episode.

Last year Stephen Fry, decrying the infantilising of television, instanced Dr Who as an example of something that was brilliantly written but was for children, not mature adults. Moffat’s filthy gags and general sauciness are probably no more unsuitable for children than those of Davies (while being considerably better) but Moffat avoids the cheap sentimentality that marked Davies as pandering to children. His season finale ‘The Big Bang’ was for adults as it thrillingly showed a whip-smart writer having immense fun with the non-linear narrative possibilities of time-travel, while it also showcased the quality of an old soul in a young body which had secured Matt Smith the part of the Doctor in the first place. The incredibly feel-good ending with Amy Pond remembering her imaginary friend the Raggedy Doctor and insisting that he was real, he was, but that she’d forgotten something she once knew, something that the Doctor had told her (in very carefully chosen words) about who he was and what the Tardis was; it was something old, something new, (we suddenly realise the Doctor was counting on Amy’s impending wedding triggering her memory of him), something…. borrowed, (cue a very familiar sound), something… Blue (enter the Tardis and the Doctor in a tux); exemplified how Moffat outdoes Davies by achieving wonderful emotional effects with a smidge of cleverness over pure cheesiness.

So perhaps Fry was right, Davies surely infantilised the audience if they can’t recognise that what Moffat’s doing is brilliant…

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