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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+

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Free Fire (2017)

I don’t understand the praise and hype heaped upon filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He’s got a nice eye for visuals but whenever I see his name attached as a screenwriter, my expectations sink. His 2016 film High Rise was on my list of the worst films of last year. To my mind, Wheatley is Nicolas Refn (Neon Demon) lite, and I don’t even care for Refn. With that being said, the premise and star power for Free Fire looked enough to even out my immediate hesitation about watching another Wheatley film. It looked like fun. How could it not be? Well I’m now debating whether I disliked Free Fire more than High Rise, a scenario with no real winner.

In 1978, two gangs meet in a Boston warehouse to make an exchange of guns and drugs for money. Things go wrong, tempers flare, and bullets are exchanged. Both parties are pinned down, fighting for cover, and looking to come out alive and on top. There’s Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley among this dingy dozen.

Exiting my theater screening, I got into a discussion with my pal, Ben Bailey. He was adamant that the story premise of Free Fire could not be done as a feature film and was, at best, the sort of material for a 20-minute shoot-em-up short. I argued that with the proper development there could be a scraggly feature film here but the key phrase is “proper development,” something that is sorely lacking from Free Fire. Ultimately it feels more like Ben’s assessment: 20 minutes of thin material and thought stretched out to an interminable 85 minutes.

Once the shootout commences, it feels like Wheatley just succumbs to the cacophonous confusion of the action and more or less gives up. For a solid twenty minutes or so, the movie is nothing more than a series of disjointed shots of people firing and people taking cover from wooden boxes and planks, rarely if ever coalescing to produce a sense of direction, momentum, and geography. I didn’t know where anybody was and especially in relationship to anyone else. That is a crucial factor in action sequences especially in a limited location action sequence. You need to know who is where and establish different mini-goals and new challenges. Wheatley only introduces new elements late into the proceedings, and when he does they are anticlimactically resolved.  When complications do arrive they are brushed aside and we go back to shooting. Why not involve the guns in those crates as something to be fought over to gain extra leverage? That seems like an obvious goal but not to the characters on screen. I lost track of which characters were with which side, and the movie even tries to make the same joke, as if knowingly acknowledging this aspect forgives Free Fire for its plotting misfires.

As minute after minute of blind shooting went on, I started making connections to a question I have had with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song to Song) movies, namely how does one edit these things? If you’ve never seen a modern Malick movie, first consider yourself fortunate, but the man is known for his whispery, stream-of-consciousness spiritual connections with nature. My question with Malick movies: how does someone know that this shot of light through the leaves needs to be here, and definitely before this shot of a caterpillar moving along a tree branch? How do you edit what is bereft of a traditional coherency? I wondered the same question during Free Fire. Without those mini-goals, how does one edit just gunshot after gunshot after gunshot without any credible change in the story’s impetus as guidance?

Compounding my boredom and general confusion is the reality that these criminal lowlifes are dull characters and not worth the investment. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump fail to provide interesting personalities or quirks or anything memorable to enliven these tough-talking bad-shooting bad guys. Some of them have accents, one of them is a woman, one of them likes to smoke pot, but really they’re all slight variations on the same excitable, profane, and shallow archetype, the kind of character that gets their own poster in marketing with a nickname like “The Kid” or something cool-sounding like that, but it’s all posturing. I thought that Free Fire might be reminiscent of the rise of Tarantino knockoff films in the 90s (The Big Hit, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings) but this movie actually made me yearn for a Tarantino knockoff.

These people are so lifeless. I didn’t care who lived and who died. They were all boring. Some faces are recognizable like Hammer and Smiley and Murphy but a majority of the characters are not, at least initially visually distinctive. It’s a failing of creativity to separate them, make them distinct. Much of the acting is just reacting to squibs going off and squirming on the ground. If you have a fetish for Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island) wriggling, this is your film. By default the best actor is Copley (Hardcore Henry) as he seems to be on an uncontrollable improv stint, rapidly saying whatever things comes to mind. Something has to fill the audio between gunfire.

Free Fire wants to be a scuzzy, crazy, fun movie that knows it’s trashy and revels in its bad taste and loony characters with nose-thumbing glee. Instead, Free Fire is a nihilistic and tedious enterprise lacking entertaining characters, coherent action, and most importantly any general sense of fun. Watching characters that are unmemorable, who you don’t care about, fire guns indiscriminately for a long time is not a movie, and it’s most certainly not a good movie. It’s a glorified training manual for firearms. Free Fire takes too long to get started with poorly developed characters and when it does kick into action the movie doesn’t really improve too much. Free Fire is a Tarantino knockoff that doesn’t have the courage of its own B-movie convictions. It thinks just dressing the part is enough, substituting style and a blithe attitude for not even substance but the appearance of substance. It only has one truly memorable, queasy death, so even when it comes to bizarre violence it falters. This is one movie that wants to look cool and irreverent but ends up merely firing blanks.

Nate’s Grade: D+

In Time (2011)

Andrew Niccol is a filmmaker that has earned my respect and my hard-earned money. After The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War, this guy has me hooked. I forgive him 2002’s S1mone, which had some good ideas in need of a better plot. Lo and behold, his latest film, the sci-fi thriller In Time, falls victim to the same issue. Niccol’s premise is more intriguing than the people onscreen.

In the near future, science has solved the age-old question or mortality, for a price. Every human has an internal clock somehow embedded in his or her arm. It kicks in at age 25 and then people have one year remaining. Time is the only currency that matters. People work jobs to add minutes to their time. When it comes to a cup of coffee or a bus fare, you pay in minutes off your time (a hooker says, “I’ll give you ten minutes for an hour”). The rich are well stocked in time but the poor must fight every day just to keep alive. Sam (Justine Timberlake) works in a factory just to make ends meet. His mother (Olivia Wilde, we should al be so lucky) gives her son an extra 30 minutes for his lunch; humans can “pass” time from one to another through touch. This will come back to bite her. One day Sam meets a tall dark stranger who’s lived for over 100 years and is tired of it all. He donates all his time to Sam. This is a no-no in the future. The timekeepers are a police force, lead by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), that polices time allowances. They’re paid to basically make sure that time remains the property of the upper class. Sam hobnobs with the elites, including Philippe Weiss (Vincent Kartheiser), a man who owns thousands of years. When the (Van Damme-less) time cops come looking for Sam, he makes a run for it, taking Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) as his hostage. The two eventually fall for one another as they dash across the country stealing time.

In Time has all sorts of ideas running through its system. What it doesn’t have it much of a plot to go with its heady sci-fi setup. Will is a fugitive but he never really formulates any sort of tangible plan. There’s no higher plot or goal here other than “sticking it to the man” but what exactly does that mean in this context? I understand he’s upset about losing a loved one, but his plan for vengeance or justice or whatever you want to call it lacks needed clarity. It feels like he and his cohort are just making it up as they go along. The film is at its worst when it descends into a populist, sci-fi Bonnie and Clyde, where Sam and Sylvia storm these time banks and redistribute the minutes, becoming heroes to the day-to-day drudgers. The ease that these two people have at knocking over bank after bank, armed only with a handgun, seems hard to swallow. The banks aren’t going to have tougher security especially after word gets out? Niccol adds plenty of chase scenes to fill out his plot but it doesn’t do much more than pad a half-baked story. The end confrontation goes in a direction I shall shamefully describe as “action movie idiocy.” You’re going to tell me that a timekeeping pro doesn’t pay attention when his clock is minutes away from death? Furthermore, I’m stunned that the people onscreen don’t act with more urgency when their time runs out. When death is on the line, I imagine a human being would resort to any kind of irrational desperation just to get a few minutes more, yet In Time shows a demoralized populace that just seems to give up. That makes the heroes-as-revolutionaries storyline even more implausible. Here’s a tip to Niccol: if it’s Sylvia’s last day on Earth, maybe you don’t have her racing for her life in heels. I’d think the gal would have purchased some decent running shoes by this time.

The ideas presented are compelling, though I wish Niccol had continued to push further. The social satire is pretty on-the-nose about the class system. I would have liked Niccol to be more biting in his social critique, perhaps carving up the rich as more venal than pampered. It’s true that they can live forever… unless something violent happens. This may be the future but there’s still no cure for a bullet to the head. The rich may live but they must live in sheltered, insular communities; a life encased in bubble-wrap. There is much potential there that goes unexplored. I also wanted a global sense of what was happening. Is time traded on the stock market? Are there different values placed on human time based upon geography? Is a Japanese life more valuable than a Ukrainian? The glimpses we do get about how the world operates are enticing and clever. The time roadblocks, tolls asking increasing amounts of time to pass into more affluent communities, feel authentic to the world and a cruel way to limit class mobility. When Sam pays for his expensive dinner he tells the waitress, “And take a week for yourself.” The timekeepers are only allotted a day at a time, so they can’t get carried away (I think it’s the futuristic equivalent of having the pizza delivery guy only have twenty bucks on him so he’s less likely to be the victim of theft). For the most part, In Time feels like it has some of the neat sociological quirks down but misses the psychological ramifications of its premise. People stop aging at 25. What does that do to a person’s sense of self? What about the peculiarities of dating? There’s definitely a sexual farce waiting to be written here. But let’s focus on the main dilemma – scrapping every day for just enough to stay ahead of the countdown. It’s an apt allusion to the working poor, but we never really see the tremulous stress that such a situation demands. This is life and death stuff, folks. The panic of inflation should also have been something Niccol paid more attention to. Just upsetting their time budgets could rock people’s world. There’s a lot more human drama inherent in this story that Niccol ignores, or flat out dismisses, for some standard Hollywood frills, namely chases and contrived romances.

Timberlake has shown that he has some chops when it comes to acting in shrewd supporting roles (The Social Network, Black Snake Moan). His skills aren’t really well utilized by In Time. The role of Sam is pretty bland, lacking edge or depth. This part could have been played by anyone not befitting Timberlake’s genetic credentials. Timberlake can make a credible action hero, though his charm covers up for his lack of intimidating presence. There is one regrettable moment where he wails at the death of a loved one, and it hits the wrong notes and feels laughably awkward. Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) also turns on a dime from being a scared hostage to a romantic partner. Her role gets reduced to being dragged by the hand by Timberlake; she’s human luggage. Murphy (Inception) does a fine job of being a dogged, Tommy Lee Jones-style pursuer. Kartheiser works that reptilian sleaze he’s perfected on Mad Men. The guy is like a younger version of Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Daybreakers), possibly the most reptilian of all living actors. The strangest part about casting is that it’s an Alpha Dog reunion (Timberlake, Seyfried, and Kartheiser all had supporting roles).

In Time is a better idea than a movie, and it’s an idea that deserves more examination. Niccol’s film has some interesting ideas and concepts, but it seems too slavish to a typical Hollywood blockbuster boilerplate. The characters are pretty bland and the thrills are too. I wanted to spend more time in this brave new time-obsessed world; I just wanted to spend it with other characters. The populist Bonnie and Clyde plotline doesn’t seem to gel. If the rich can control the arbitration of time, why don’t they just ungodly raise the price of things? In a a generation or two, the rich will weed out all lower classes thanks to near literal social Darwinism. The social commentary is a bit heavy-handed and simplistic. I wish Niccol had ditched his young heroes/lovers and explored the particulars of his world more, especially the portent psychological implications. In Time doesn’t feel like a complete movie, just a finished one. Ultimately, the film’s greatest sin may be that it wastes too much of your own time.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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