Dunkirk is, so far, the best of this Summer’s big hitters. Engineered to within an inch of it’s life by Nolan, the film tells three separate stories (land, sea and air, spanning one week, one day and one hour respectively) that intersect during the evacuation.
The film succeeds because it tells a visual story that would remain intact without the dialogue and has characters that show us, rather than tell us, who they are. It also has the confidence to remain under two hours, telling a story that casts time as the enemy and chooses visceral experience over sweep. When Nolan does sneak in a moment of beauty, a gliding aircraft, a shipwrecked soldier shrouded in a blanket like the sea was a desert, it’s always shared with the characters and never exclusive to the viewer.
This is what it feels like when we don’t treat the past with dead-eyed biscuit tin reverence. You never get the feeling that Nolan thinks his characters are better than us and he isn’t in the business of mythologising war. The past feels alive in Dunkirk and, although we experience about 1% of what it must have been like, we get it.
If we’re being honest, once you strip away the technical wizardry (and it really is), War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) is all rather too familiar. It feels like a film cobbled together from parts of more energetic and original genre movies. Its being spoken of as the antidote to the rest of Summer’s ‘event movies’ but, like all of them, it falls apart brilliantly in a final third that sees the film stretched well beyond its logical runtime.
Imagine if this actually had the stones to be a small revenge movie? Or a large war movie? (Why are none of these films named correctly?) Or a retelling of Exodus? Or if they had even just shown Woody Harrelson’s ‘Colonel’ actually being the antagonist that he spends so much time telling us about..? It would be spectacular, and in ten years’ time we might have had a movie that was remembered as more than a technological milestone.
What none of these films do that the original series did (even in the much weaker entries), is anything remotely startling. Obviously it’s hard to compete with a series kicked off by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling but I think there are a couple of other reasons. The first is Charlton Heston. His performance in the first film turns a few throwaway character lines into a deep vein of cynicism that makes the ending feel tragically inevitable rather than melodramatic. It seems to infect the whole series and can be heard long after Heston’s departure.
The second is the apes themselves. The modern films are technical marvels, stunning even, but the old ape makeup was abstracting and allowed room for symbolism. Like the most recent Jungle Book movie it’s all too literal and surface level. Sure the films have meaning but there’s no iconography, there’s no moment of shock or mirrors being held up. There’s nothing as chilling or interesting as Heston’s laugh.
90 – 100 mins of Spider–Man: Homecoming (2017) are one of the best movies that Marvel has made, the remainder of the 133 min runtime is filler, most of it featuring Robert Downey Jr. It doesn’t kill the film but it does make it drag and serves as a reminder that Marvel’s worst tendencies are not going anywhere.
To be honest, it would take a lot to kill this movie. Tom Holland is good in the central role and the film plays as a solid adventure comedy. It helps that the events are more grounded with the main antagonists being a gang of robbers, led by the fantastic Michael Keaton, who are trading in weapons made from the debris left in the wake of the Avengers’ work. This world has more in common with Jessica Jones (2015 – ) than Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and that is a major plus, as is the move away from the dead eyed ‘classic banter’ of the Avengers towards a more situational, personal and slightly odd style of humour.
But there is a bad taste here. As the movie is essentially the view from the cheap seats in relation to the events of the previous films it also has interesting political ideas. The real disappointment is that although the world logically suggests push back against these billionaire wizards and new gods, the industrial model in which the film is made can’t abide this. In another context the suggested Icarus tale (escaping a rigged game through determination and technology only to be brought down by hubris) would be a tragedy, in the Marvel Cinematic Content Delivery System its labelled villainy and must be stamped out.
After all, what would happen if we didn’t love Tony?!
Hidden Figures (2016) is good old fashioned Hollywood razzle-dazzle. It takes a little known story, mixes in some smart poetic licence and instantly likeable performers, and turns out a belting piece of mainstream entertainment.
There is no doubt that Hidden Figures is precision engineered to pull at your heart but it is saved from being the same tired worthy film we’ve seen before by focusing on a central trio who overcome adversity with action. From the opening scene onward the film repeatedly makes the argument for equality through sheer utility and every strand tells us that we can reach the stars if we just dump this baggage. This turns it from a film about suffering and the past (and in turn a comfort blanket ensuring us that ‘aren’t we better’) into a positive, activist film that is utterly relevant.
I noticed last night that Micheal Mann’s The Keep (1983) is currently available on Netflix UK. Despite being screened occasionally on Film4 this is welcome news for anyone still clinging onto their VHS or, like me, their poor laserdisc to DVD copy. Unlike the Amazon rental the Netflix version retains the widescreen format even if the picture quality isn’t brilliant (although it’s as good as I’ve seen it).
Of course, referring to the film as ‘Michael Mann’s The Keep’ is slightly misleading as he has all but disowned it and it lingers unloved with no notable DVD release let alone a Blu Ray. The film is also disowned by F. Paul Wilson who wrote the novel on which it is based and didn’t like the changes made by Mann. Fans of the book can get a better idea of what Wilson had in mind for the movie by reading the comic book adaptation, which is essentially his version of the film. A feature length documentary about the film was due for release in 2013 but is yet to appear with pre-orders currently suspended.
Despite all this, I still quite like the film. Even with it’s weaknesses it’s full of interesting ideas and images, a decent cast, and has a score by Tangerine Dream. Unloved and uneven I think The Keep is a great piece of cult cinema
I liked I, Daniel Blake (2016). It’s a good film that talks to ideas that I buy into; that there needs to be a social safety net and that people can be easily broken against institutions, especially when those in charge of them seem more interested in dismantling them and stigmatising those that need to access them.
And that is part of the problem. I didn’t go to this film to be challenged. I went on the promise of being able to tut at the current U.K. government. I went to our local cinema’s ‘On the Fringe‘ night and felt comfortable, with my free glass of wine, as I had all my thoughts mirrored on screen and wondered how people could be treated that way. I don’t think anyone in that room learnt anything.
The problem is the distribution. I don’t doubt that Ken Loach still has plenty of life and vigour in him and his films remain as urgent as ever but at this point who is watching apart from the converted? HBO’s recent genre series The Night Of (2016) made similar points about the U.S. justice system. It was a police procedural that re-trod very familiar ground (and actually fell apart a bit during the final episodes) but crucially it was made and marketed with a general audience in mind. The Night Of and it’s ideas will actually be talked about outside of critical and well-meaning social circles, I, Daniel Blake won’t.
I’m not casting any aspersions on anyone’s intent or talent here, the film is very good, evidently heartfelt and relentlessly human, but there’s surely a lesson to be learned about how we share ideas…
Moments can lift or sink a film. Ten seconds can make ninety minutes seem like time well spent or kill everything that went before. Last night I watched Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and for better or worse the moments were in full swing.
Bone Tomahawk is a rather slight western tale of kidnapping and the posse that goes to rescue the girl. It’s standard stuff with square jaws, old timers and Kurt Russell’s moustache and then there is a moment, a moment that harks back to the glory days of pre-cert ‘did you see that film where..?’ VHS. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen the film, you probably won’t forget it, if you haven’t it’s worth watching and it lifts the film and carries it, perhaps throws it, over the finish line.
Then there was Rogue One, the first in a planned series of Star Wars side stories and fingertips away from being perfect. Visually it’s stunning, with great practical and CG effects. It also has the characters, in particular the central pairing of Jyn Erso and Cassien Andor and their team, the actors, the director, the story, the themes and ideas and Forest Whitaker, my word Forest Whitaker! It’s brilliant and fun and then there’s the fan service, moments of redundant film buried in the uncanny valley and a fancy dress approximation of a classic character (or did he always look stupid and I’ve only just noticed?).
I’m going to go back for a rewatch because the good stuff is wonderful, it’s just such a shame that the current cinematic obsession with the miscellany of fan culture gets in the way of a perfect object. As for Bone Tomahawk, I’ll never watch it again but absolutely, heartily recommend that you spend some time with it.
With a heap of amazing visuals and an even more interesting cast, Dr Strange (2016) falls down because it just isn’t, not in the slightest. When we enter the Mirror Dimension all we find is the same ‘brilliant man undergoes a superficial change and remains brilliant’ story staring back at us and anything that is interesting merely reflects other, better movies. ‘Like that corridor fight but more’ is the creative vision, enlightenment tourism in Asia the weary trope.
…but I’m being too harsh because there is fun to be had here If you hadn’t seen a Marvel movie before I might suggest this one (although I probably wouldn’t as the Captain America stuff is by far the best). The Stan Lee cameo made me laugh, it’s got Tilda Swinton and Madds Mikkelsen in and you liked Inception (2010) and that bit in Ant-Man (2015) right?
Oh for another Hellboy movie. They were magic.
So maybe I watched this one too soon after seeing the recent Brian De Palma documentary De Palma (2015) after watching a run of De Palma movies. Maybe I’m too big a fan of the 90’s films where Micheal Douglas’ manhood (mental and physical) and some shlocky plotting act as a gateway for a really interesting discussion about gender roles and machismo, or any one of a number of filmmakers who used genre to make us think and talk.
The Girl on the Train (2016), whilst being a decent film is perhaps a little too ‘decent’ for it’s own good. Despite a cast that’s game there isn’t enough fun or provocation within the film to get it over the hill of the final act revelations. Recent thrillers like Side Effects (2013) and Gone Girl (2014) knew that they were indecent and just went for it as the directors had the skill to play with the form. The Girl on the Train seems a bit preoccupied with ‘quality’ to really play any games… which is a real pity as there is so much fun to be had with the way that ‘story’ and viewing are placed front and centre.
It should have been wittier and it’s very telling that the only conversations I’ve had about the film concern it’s structure.