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Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers in the world that can do anything he wants. He’s reached a level of critical and commercial success that he has earned the leeway to tell the stories he wants with a blank check. Apparently he’s been eager to tell the big screen story of Dunkirk, the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach in World War II, and it would be the first film of his career to not have a crime or science fiction slant. If this is what he has to turn into in order for mainstream Oscar attention then please go back to making your sci-fi puzzle boxes, Mr. Nolan, and let someone else make the underwhelming WWII epics. Don’t believe the effusive praise from critics saying this is Nolan’s masterpiece or the finest of his career. Dunkirk is Nolan’s least engaging film and maybe even the least ambitious of his otherwise storied Hollywood career.

Dunkirk is less of a cohesive movie and more a series of moments, never eclipsing the next or coalescing into a larger, more meaningful, more satisfying whole. We keep cutting from primarily three perspectives (air, sea, land) but it fails to feel more than a check-in before moving onto the next vantage point. It’s a shame because the opening ten minutes launch you immediately into this world of danger and Nolan sets up the different perspectives with effective visual clarity. I thought it was a great moment having the soldiers collect the fluttering propaganda fliers meant to remind them about how the enemy surround them. The initial burst of violence is visceral and unnerving. The burial of a soldier in the sand is a somber moment. Things were getting good, and then I kept waiting for the movie to escalate, to hit a new gear, and it never came. Instead it repeated the same plotting that just forced the bland characters from one curtailed escape to another. Screenwriting is about setups and payoffs, and that is strangely absent throughout Dunkirk. Bad things just kind of happen, and then they happen again, and then you tune out. That’s even before Nolan throws in needless non-linear elements that I was ignorant about. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and yet it could still stand to lose even more. After a while, your mind drifts when all you’re watching is poorly written characters, many of whom you can’t identify, jump from one crummy situation to another without a stronger storytelling drive. If you want a more personally involving retelling of the heroes of Dunkirk, just watch the film-within-a-film of the underrated 2017 gem, Their Finest.

The miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation is really lost in this film. Without a more involving story, it’s hard to get a sense about the personal sacrifices and risks of the evacuation. The scope feels mishandled. We’re told that 400,000 men were rescued but I did not get any sense of that scale. We’re stuck to a small corner of a beach, or a small section of the sky and sea, for the far majority of the film, which again traps the film at a lower register. We don’t adequately sense the monumental scale of what is at stake. The embodiment of the threat is condensed down to a single German fighter plane that Tom Hardy has to chase for half the movie. It’s like this guy is the freaking Red Baron. Another aspect that exacerbates this issue is Nolan’s haphazard command of screen geography. When the camera is inside the various ships, your sense of space is uncertain. When things go bad, it just all feels like a mess, with no clear indication of where the characters are, their proximity to others, or even the interior design of the ships. Without a coherent sense of geography, the action and suspense is going to be inherently limited. Nolan locks into a claustrophobic sensation at the expense of audience clarity, and without better-developed action and interesting characters, it’s a decision of diminishing returns.

The characters are so indistinct that most of them in the end credits didn’t even merit names (Irate Soldier, Shivering Soldier, and Furious Soldier are among the lot). This is one of the biggest mistakes of Nolan’s movie. By not providing characters that an audience can engage with he’s handicapped how much an audience can care. We don’t learn about any of the main characters we follow, with the slight exception of Mark Rylance’s even-keeled seafaring father. I challenge audience members to even remember a who’s who of the young men because I don’t think I’d be able to identify them in a lineup. I was still trying to recall which of them may have died. I haven’t had this much trouble keeping people straight in a war film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With Dunkirk, there are faces we follow really more than characters. The most recognizable is Tom Hardy and that’s because he’s Tom Hardy and not because of anything related to his character. Kenneth Branagh’s character just seems to be here to stare off into the distance with awe and say something about “seeing home.” It’s as if Nolan had no interest in telling a war story from a human perspective, which is a vastly strange approach considering the large-scale human cost.

Nolan is a smart filmmaker. He has to know these characters are thinly sketched ciphers at best, so the question becomes why is Nolan choosing to make Dunkirk this way. If I had to hazard a guess I think Nolan was trying to accomplish a visceral, immersive war experience to echo the hopelessness and confusion of those men in jeopardy. They’re meant to be faceless everymen. This would explain why it feels more like a series of moments, of jumping from one failed escape to another and one fraught encounter to another. Nolan does a fine job of introducing conflict (in a wartime setting this also shouldn’t be too hard) but without more distinction he runs the serious risk of everything feeling like more of the same. At the end, thousands of soldiers are ferried back to England and congratulated. One of them is incredulous, not feeling like retreating is worth the fuss. “We just survived,” he says. “Well that’s good enough,” the other says. It’s like Nolan intended to place the audience into a crucible where just getting out was enough to satisfy demands. I don’t think it is.

From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is often breathtaking, no more so than in its mesmerizing sound design. Nolan uses brilliant sound tacticians to heighten your senses and build a sense of dread. An oncoming fighter plane tearing through the sky can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The sound does the heavy lifting when it comes to creating tension. The score by Hans Zimmer is very effective in that regard as well. Its central musical element sounds literally like a ticking clock, which instantly heightens any scene. Granted adding a ticking clock sound against anything would make it more fraught (you’ll never fill out boring paperwork the same way again). Visually, the aerial photography is gorgeous with the IMAX cameras able to take in such startling depths. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) has some beautiful visual compositions, especially as different boats capsize and the water rushes in at odd angles. This is a film that has commendable technical achievements. It’s Nolan who lets down his team.

War movies often run the risk of being overly reliant upon broad themes of heroism, nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, and such, which can be in replacement of a strong narrative and well developed, interesting characters. War is a film genre like any other, and there are inherent genre shortcuts that can be abused. However, it’s like any other genre in that, regardless of the setting or situation, you are expected to tell an interesting story with characters the audience cares about. Nolan sacrifices all for the immersion in his war experience machine, providing listless, interchangeable characters and a story that amounts to a collection of harrowing moments but not a movie. My pal Joe Marino chided the movie as akin to visiting a planetarium, sitting back, and taking in the wonderful visual spectacle but walking away unmoved. It’s like Nolan has created the Dunkirk Experience: The Ride instead of an actual worthwhile story.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Interstellar (2014)

MV5BMjIxNTU4MzY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM4ODI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_While arguably the industry’s most ambitious blockbuster filmmaker, Christopher Nolan hasn’t released a film to his name that I would call a misstep; even the weaker but still altogether thrilling Dark Knight Rises. Until now.

In the twenty-first century, food shortages and climate change will render Earth inhabitable. The planet is dying and the only hope is to find a new home in the stars. Conveniently, a wormhole near Saturn has opened and a secret NASA mission sent 12 brave astronauts through to send back information on the 12 potential worlds. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is the best pilot in the world, a former NASA employee, and trusted by the project’s leader (Michael Caine) to lead a team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) to the other side of the universe. Cooper is hesitant to leave his children behind, particularly his ten-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who says a peculiar ghost is haunting her in her room. The greater good wins out, and Cooper reluctantly blasts off into space to save his children and all Earth’s children.

Interstellar is clearly a personal film for Nolan. It’s about nobility, exploration, sacrifice, but really it’s about a father trying to get home to his daughter (the son doesn’t really seem to matter as much in the story). Nolan’s catalogue of films has been able to straddle the line between blockbuster and art, providing mass appeal with uncommon intelligence and nuance. However, I don’t think Interstellar is going to work for most audiences.

Interstellar-05Maybe I’m just too savvy for my own good having seen plenty of movies, but I could accurately predict every single plot turn and Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan made it easy. When we’re told about a ghost within minutes and it’s a movie about space travel, you shouldn’t need any help. And then the ghost ends up speaking in Morse code and communicating, “stay,” that’s Nolan hitting you over the head with what to expect by the end (a conversation how parents are ghosts for their children is too much). You should also be able to figure out who Ellen Burstyn is going to be, and it’s not going to be Talking Head #3 in a television interview. Likewise, the illustrious astronaut Dr. Mann is referred to but purposely never shown, so you can assume it’s going to be a familiar face, which it is. Then once that A-list actor is onscreen you know there has to be more to this character because why would a movie star agree to play a part that amounts to merely, “Yeah, this planet is good. We’re done here”? Because of the slow nature of the film it makes the easily telegraphed plot turns more frustrating. The supporting characters are presented so incidentally, as if they didn’t merit extra time. Amelia (Hathaway) has one mushy monologue about the power of love, tipping the film’s philosophy, but that’s all there is to her character. The rest of the cast amounts to stuff like Black Guy on Ship and Bearded Wes Bentley. Nolan’s past work has been very generous to the characterization of his supporting players, especially with the Dark Knight trilogy. These people mattered. With Interstellar, their impact is purely in the name of plot and serving the father/daughter relationship.

And yet, the movie also precariously dips into the danger zone of boredom. Quantum physics isn’t going to be a popular conversation topic for your average moviegoer. There’s a reason that Back to the Future has a wider audience than Primer. By no means am I advocating for a lobotomized science-fiction experience, but Nolan seems to only have two modes when it comes to his characters and their dialogue here: treacle or science jargon exposition. I paid attention but it’s easy to zone out or just have your eyes glaze over as characters talk about the ins and outs of time travel, black holes, relativity, and gravity. The equally frustrating part is that all of the emphasis on science is thrown out the window for the film’s protracted resolution, offering a climax that intends to close a time loop but really only opens further questions when you know the identity of the “they” in question making all the plot mechanics happen. It all just ends up as a simple message to spend more time with your kids. The plot is dense without being particularly complex. The pre-space sequences take up far too much time and in general the Earth plots just don’t compare with the alien planet space exploration. When Cooper is venturing into a rocky alien world, I don’t want the film cutting back and forth between that struggle and his daughter on a dusty Earth. I wish all of the Earth sequences post-liftoff were jettisoned from the screenplay.

For a solid chunk in the middle, Interstellar becomes the exact film I wanted it to be. The crew has traveled through the wormhole to another galaxy and now has to deliberate. Which planets will be visited? What are the risks? Is data more important than human messages? Is returning home more important than fully exploring the worlds? What happened to the explorers? I could have dealt with the entire movie playing out this intriguing and conflict-driven scenario. You feel the immense magnitude of every one of their decisions. The future of humanity depends on them. Every planet provides a new mystery; what’s it like and what happened to the explorer? When you’re dealing with a finite supply of fuel and time dilation, there are debatable options as to what is best for the numbers. There’s always Operation Repopulate as well. If you have to start somewhere, McConaughey and Hathaway are not bad genetic pools. For this stretch, Interstellar is fabulous. It’s a shame then that the film then engineers a plot conflict that dominates the direction of the third act.

Interstellar-Matthew-McConaughey-850x560Nolan hasn’t lost his gift for crafting eye-popping visuals and bringing a rousing sense of scale to his movies. Interstellar is blessed with spectacular images of our universe, alien worlds, and mankind’s place in the whole realm of the cosmos. Nolan’s usual DP, Wally Phister, was unavailable, taking time to direct his own debut, Transcendence (probably the last film he directs as well, like Janusz Kaminski’s little-seen, little-remembered Lost Souls). The change of DP does Nolan good, giving the film a different, Earthier feel under Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Let the Right One In). Nolan isn’t the greatest stager of action but he is remarkable about putting together memorable set-pieces, and Interstellar has some standouts from the hostile alien environments to a thrilling space-station docking that is not for those susceptible to motion sickness. The special effects are terrific and the retro cubist robots are a fun addition. The only technical element I found lacking is the score by Nolan’s usual accompanist, Hans Zimmer. It’s bleating organ music intended to add a spiritual sense to the cosmic awe but it mostly becomes annoying. It sounds like a church organist died atop their instrument.

There is one great moment of acting in the film. Not to say there is an overabundance of bad acting, more like over emoting with a script and dialogue that do not deserve the waterworks. It involves Cooper after a mission, catching up on video messages sent from his children on Earth. In this very efficient scene, the magnitude of the consequences of Cooper’s decision is emotionally raw and he is overpowered with regret. McConaughey has been on a record-breaking tear of supreme acting performances, especially if you count his mesmerizing turn in HBO’s True Detective. Nolan allows the moment to play out, to sink in, without overdoing it, and it succeeds wildly. The other times Interstellar tries to wring out emotion feel too facile and maudlin to be effective.

This is my first real Nolan disappointment, a bloated film struggling to be important and say Important Things about the Human Condition but coming up short. It has its moments of excitement and awe but more so those moments are surrounded by too much dead space. The story is dense while still being undercooked, with too many listless supporting characters that amount to nothing, and easily telegraphed plot turns that are frustrating. Interstellar snuffs out all the intriguing possibilities it has to come back to its sappy father/daughter relationship that never truly feels earned. By no means is Interstellar, Nolan’s space travel opus/ode to Stanley Kubrick, a bad film. Unless you’re a sucker for easy sentiment, it will likely be a disappointment in some way, whether it’s too long, too boring with its science, too cloying with its emotional tugging, or just underdeveloped and overcooked at the same time. Interstellar is ambitious with its vision but seriously flawed and ultimately an obtusely personal sci-fi snoozer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Let’s be honest, The Dark Knight Rises movie was never going to meet fan expectations after the high-water mark between superhero movie and crafty crime thriller that was the pop-art masterpiece, The Dark Knight. Whatever director/co-writer Christopher Nolan put together was fated not to match the pulpy big blockbuster alchemy that he worked so well in 2008. Minus Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic performance, a role that set the film on fire whenever he was onscreen, there is going to be a certain void to this capper to the trilogy. Now having seen the movie twice, including once in sphincter-rattling IMAX, I feel that I can truthfully state the most obvious: The Dark Knight Rises is not as good as the previous movies. While a fine finale for an ambitious series, this is definitely the weakest movie of the trilogy.

It’s been eight years since Gotham City last saw the likes of Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is an older man, hobbled by age, and living as a recluse in his mansion. His trusted friend and butler Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps encouraging Bruce to seek a life outside that of Batman. In those eight years, Gotham’s police have cracked down on organized crime thanks to the Dent Act, a law named after the late district attorney Harvey Dent (a fallen idol that only a handful know the real truth about). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is growing sick with the secret of Harvey Dent and looks to retire from the force. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is a businesswoman eager to restart Wayne’s clean energy project, and a woman interesting in getting Bruce back on his feet. There’s also Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a.k.a. Catwoman, a master thief who gives Bruce a new challenge. But then along comes Bane (Tom Hardy), a master terrorist and figure of brute strength. His goal is to fulfill the League of Shadows’ plan and destroy Gotham City and expose its rampant corruption. He sidelines Batman and takes over the city, unleashing criminals and hordes of the downtrodden upon the wealthy. There is no escape from Bane’s plan, his wrath, but Bruce Wayne must rise to the occasion and be ready to sacrifice the last of himself for the people of Gotham.

Firstly, Bane is no Joker. The bad guy lacks the fiendish charisma of Ledger’s Joker and he’s not as well integrated thematically into the movie. The Joker was an anarchist that wanted to tear down the pretensions of society and watch people “eat each other.” And we watched a city come unglued. We explore the notion of escalation and what the blowback would be for a man fighting crime in a costume. With Dark Knight Rises, Bane wants to take up the mantle of Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and wipe Gotham off the map. He’s got moments of being a master planner but really he’s just a big heavy. He’s the big tough guy that beats up old man Bruce Wayne, and Bane is continuously diminished in the film as it goes. A late revelation with the character completely diminishes his role and turns him into the equivalent of a mean junkyard dog. His big plan is simply to rile up the masses and wait for the inevitable. Hardy (Bronson) is a great actor prone to mesmerizing performances. This isn’t one of them. He’s super beefy but the facial mask, looking like some sea urchin, obscures half his face. It’s all physicality and eyes for his performance, along with very amped-up dialogue that you can tell was rerecorded after filming. Every time Bane speaks it’s like he has a speaker system installed in his face. And then there’s the matter of his sticky accent, which to me sounds like German mad scientist but to my friends sounded like drunken Sean Connery.

Bane keeps espousing about the corruption of Gotham but you really never get a strong sense of what that corruption has lead to. Catwoman talks about the Gotham elites living large while the rest of the city struggles; but rarely do you get a sense of this. So when Bane flips the tables, and the elite and wealthy are stripped of their decadence and put on trial by mobs, it feels improperly set up. Just because you have characters talk about wealth disparity and the city’s corrupting influence doesn’t mean it’s been established. Nolan’s Batman movies are a reflection of our modern-day anxieties in a post-9/11 world, so I wasn’t surprised to see a society rotting away from the sociopathic greed and wanton excess of the 1%. But rather than serve up a wealth disparity parable of class conflict, the movie simply turns to mob rule, a far less nuanced and interesting dissection of current events and fears. It’s like the French revolution took a trip to Gotham City (Gordon even quotes from A Tale of Two Cities). It’s a society built upon a central lie, the idol of Harvey Dent, but the movie fails to make the corruption felt. In the end, this is all pretty weak social allegory. And would it have killed Bane to be a little more brutal to stock exchange short-sellers?

Then there’s the typical Nolan origami plot with the myriad of subplots intersecting. This is the first time in the series where the plots felt poorly developed. Rewatch Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, as I recently did, and you’ll see there is not an ounce of fat in those movies, not one wasted scene or one wasted line. Sure they got secret super ninjas and Katie Holmes, but those movies were well built blockbusters. I could have done without Bane entirely and certainly would have loved more of Catwoman. Hathaway (Alice in Wonderland) is terrific in the antihero role and brings a very interesting dynamic relationship with Batman. She may be the only person who understands him. I wanted more Catwoman, the movie needed more Catwoman, but alas she is just a plot device to connect Wayne to Bane. She has a larger role in the concluding melee but essentially becomes Batman’s reluctant wingman. The whole theme of the 99% vs. the 1% could have been generously explored with this character, and her spark and charisma would certainly be enough to get Bruce Wayne out of bed again. Then there’s the regular cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doing the unheralded good deeds that so easily get overlooked. Here is an interesting character that, due to some leaps in logic, connects with Bruce Wayne on a unique level. He presents a counterbalance to all the souped-up superheroes, a recognizably regular human trying to do good. It’s then a shame that he gets entirely relegated during the third act so that the superheroes and their super toys can make some noise.

For a Batman movie there’s hardly any Batman in it. The caped crusader has been in retirement for eight years, so it takes some time before Bruce puts the suit back on. But then he’s also sidelined for a good third of the movie, stowed away in a far-off prison. The entire Indian prison sequence really could have been exorcised. It essentially becomes a Rocky training moment for Bruce Wayne to recover and a plot device to explain why there needs to be a time gap in the story. But this part of the movie just feels like it goes on forever, and we all know where it will go so we just keep waiting for the movie to get there. No one wants a Batman movie where Batman sits the middle out. The end feels relatively fitting but any fan of The Iron Giant will recognize some similar key elements.

And while I’m on the subject, let me do some estimates here. The timeline between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is about a year, as the Joker notes to a congregation of mobsters. I’ll be generous and say that the events of The Dark Knight last two months. We learn that Batman never appeared again after the death of Harvey Dent, and now we flash to eight years later with The Dark Knight Rises. So you’re telling me that we only really got a solid year of Batman being Batman? That over the course of nine years he was Batman for only one of them? That’s very little Batman-ing for a Batman franchise.

But even with these flaws in tow, The Dark Knight Rises is still an exciting, stimulating, and mostly satisfying close to a trilogy of unprecedented ambition and scope for a modern blockbuster. The action sequences in this movie are huge and exhilarating. I loved Bane turning Batman’s armada of weapons against him. The Bat fighter plane is a nice addition that gets plenty of solid screen time. The sheer scope of what Nolan produces is epic; from a plane being hijacked in mid-flight and torn apart, to a city being leveled by explosives, to a face-off between a bevy of armored Batmobiles and the Bat plane through the streets of Gotham, the movie does not disappoint when it comes to explosive, large-scale action set pieces. This is also the first Batman movie where the climax is the best part of the film. The last half hour is solid action but also a fitting sendoff for a beloved character. Some will grumble with certain hat-tipping moments at the end, but I found it entirely satisfying. It all comes back to the central thesis of Nolan’s Batman films about becoming something more than just a man, becoming a symbol, and that symbol is meant to inspire others. By the end, you feel that the inspiration has been earned as so has our conclusion.

I want to single out Caine (Harry Brown) who has very few scenes but absolutely kills them. He’s the emotional core of the movie, perhaps even the series, and has always been hoping that his charge, Bruce Wayne, would never return to Gotham. He’s the voice of reason in the movie, the man that reminds Bruce about the costs of a life spent seeking vengeance and sacrificing his body. I wish Caine was in the movie longer but his scenes are pivotal to the plot, as is his absence.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t rise to the level of artistic excellence of its predecessors, but it’s certainly a strong summer blockbuster that works as an agreeable finale to the premier franchise of the era. It’s not quite the knockout we were expecting from Nolan but it still delivers where it counts. I wish it had give a fuller, richer portrait of a city corrupt from the inside out, a society rotting away and ready for revolution, and plus I also wish we had plenty more Catwoman and plenty more shots of Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman cat suit (Michelle Pfeiffer still has nothing to fear), but these are the things of dreams. Nolan’s aim has always been to place Batman in a world that is recognizably our own, and with that comes the responsibility of bringing a stolid sense of realism with all the blockbuster pyrotechnics. This artistic ethos has given us some extraordinary movies, though some Batman purists would object that Nolan’s hyper-realism is not the Batman they grew up with. It’s hard to really get a sense of the accomplishments that Nolan and his team has been able to pull off over the course of three bladder-unfriendly movies and seven years. He’s taken the superhero movie and redefined it, brought it unparalleled psychological depth and philosophical analysis, and given a human quality to what normally gets dismissed as escapism. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as revelatory as its previous entry but it sticks the landing and puts to rest what is indisputably the greatest superhero trilogy of all time.

Now get ready for the reboot in three years.

Nate’s Grade: B

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