Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Beach Front: DUNKIRK



Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a logistical triumph about a logistical nightmare. The film tells the story of one of World War II’s nerve-wracking retreats. It’s 1940. British and French forces are repelled from the mainland, trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk with nothing but the water behind them. Off in the distance, perhaps, they can almost convince themselves England can be seen. Alas, it’s so close, yet so far away, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers sitting ducks for the Nazi bombers thundering overhead and the encroaching Axis ground forces held back by Allied gunners behind makeshift sandbag perimeters. As the film unspools, the desperate stranded men look for ways to help speed up their rescue, while we know that help is on the way agonizingly slowly. Nolan’s film has something of a Hemingway spirit about it. Dialogue is terse, to the point. The narrative is in the details, the soft surf of the tides and sea foam, the oil and explosions, the eerie quiet in the air and the dirt under fingernails, the wet hair and panicked expressions betraying stiff-upper-lip duty-bound effort. Nolan, operating at the height of his filmmaking powers, marshals his resources to not so much tell any single man’s story, but to orchestrate an experience that’ll do the real stressful cacophony justice.

He shows us this war story by land, by sea, and by air. With a deft structural trick, he weaves together three distinct speeds and perspectives with which to pass through this historical moment. By land, the soldiers (like those played by Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, and Harry Styles) and their commander (Kenneth Branagh) fret and plan and hope while under constant threat of enemy fire as they await evacuation, a story taking place over a week. By sea, we find British citizen sailors called in to help speed up the transporting of the troops (an event tenderly memorialized from the homefront’s point of view in William Wyler’s 1942 classic Mrs. Miniver) because the Navy’s destroyers can’t approach the shallows near the beach. We follow one of the boats (captained by Mark Rylance) as its crew makes its way into battle with a sense of dutiful patriotism and a solemn desire to help, a journey there and (hopefully) back again that takes a day. By air, we find the air force, strategically sending a small squadron (led by Tom Hardy) to provide cover in the final stretch of the rescue effort, a crucial dogfight taking place over the course of an hour. Nolan, with his usual crisp, precise, and confident cross-cutting (think Inception’s dream layers, Interstellar’s time change, or Memento’s backwards-and-forwards design), tells these three actions simultaneously, cutting between them to heighten suspense and danger, often in clever matches – floods of water, rat-a-tat guns, grim expressions. 

By the time the stories start to intersect, weaving details in and out, allowing us to see, say, a plane crash first as a moment from above, then floating next to it with another group of character’s later. Eventually, all three storylines converge, climax upon climax upon climax, every character’s peak danger and despair in the same moment of converging crescendos. This remarkably effective structure – experimental, but completely coherent in its logic and effects – is in service of an impeccably detailed recreation. Although the characters it focuses on are sketched quickly, fictional composite stand-ins for the masses of people involved and impacted, the overall sense of fastidious reenactment gives the film the historical weight under its immediacy. This is a lean, tense true-life thriller, every moment pulsing with the unforgiving tick, tick, tick of time running out (further emphasized by Hans Zimmer’s relentlessly simmering score). Shooting on film, and full IMAX film for many scenes, allows cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to craft shots of remarkable size and scale, with tangible texture and detailed grit, expansively filling the frame with eerie pale light, foreboding blank beaches, cavernous clear skies, and vast expanses of ocean. The men huddled against the forces of warfare are arranged in patterns and lines, formations and orders, holding steady to rules and regulations even in these desperate hours. 

These groups of men are buffeted by elaborate and concussive suspense sequences, immersive effects and booming sound design building dread out of the roaring engines of approaching bombers, the slow smack of waves against a tiny boat, the sputtering propellers of a struggling aircraft, an unforgiving howling wind whipping at frayed nerves. The individuals involved are merely part of the crowd. They aren’t given lengthy moments of backstory and exposition, or made into easy heroes and villains. In fact, the enemy remains unspoken, barely glimpsed behind their weapons of war. Nolan’s focus is on the effect the situation has on the groups of people involved under the vice grip of unceasing peril. They simply do what they must, in every moment, in hopes to see the next. This is an extraordinarily well-made, exceptionally well-crafted film of beautifully elaborate detail building a work of startling simplicity: three straight lines concluding in the same inevitable. It’s a film about process and strategy, how they hold together and fall apart under tough conditions when survival instincts kick in. It’s about how even in defeat you can find dignity, even in fear you can find small acts of heroism. Best of all, it’s an experience that’s uniquely cinematic, overwhelming in its scale and power.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Careful What You WISH UPON



They don’t usually make horror movies this kind of bad anymore. That’s why there’s something quaint about how entirely ineffective Wish Upon is. This isn’t a found-footage headache, or a scuzzy faux-exploitation wink, or an element of 80’s nostalgia (despite Stranger Things’ Barb turning up in a very Barb-like supporting role). This isn’t a franchise, sequel, slasher remake, or low-budget VOD title. This isn’t a wide, cost-effective Blumhouse release or an art house slow burn. This is an old-fashioned high-concept teen chiller, where good-looking youngsters get tangled up in something that’ll inevitably kill them. Maybe we’re just moving from 80’s nostalgia to late-90’s cycle of YA frights, because this new movie is swimming in the same waters as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (a star of which turns up as father of a teen here), albeit in the shallow end of that pool. In telling a teenage riff on The Monkey’s Paw through a wish-granting evil Chinese music box, the film fails to conjure up striking iconography, scary sequences, or memorable characters. It’s just no good, but at least it’s a different kind of bad than we’re used to seeing.

It follows a mopey teen outcast (Joey King) who cringes and shrinks from the popular bullies, snarks with her pals, and is embarrassed by her trash-picker father (Ryan Phillippe). He’s the one who scavenges the box – in its heavy, ornate, black-and-red design the thing looks like a Hellraiser device – and therefore sets the whole thing in motion. (Of course, it dates further back, to her mother (Elisabeth R√∂hm) who mysteriously hangs herself in the opening scene, and to a century earlier in China, or so a supporting character reads to us off a fictional Wikipedia page.) The girl, not knowing it’s a magic box and just taking a plot-convenient guess, places her hands on the object and wishes her arch-nemesis would go rot. The next day the popular glamor girl isn’t in school on account of a nasty infection. Voila! Next our lead girl wishes for love, riches, popularity, and everything else you’d expect. But it comes at a price as side characters keep meeting grisly ends – a slip in the tub, a ponytail down the garbage disposal, and other sub-Final Destination circumstances (my, how I’d like that series to come back to us!). Quite hilariously, the camera will later spy a newspaper clipping which blares in bold type: “Police Warn of Uptick in Unusual Deaths,” or something to that effect. Barbara Marshall (Terra Nova) had a screenplay with such a great idea, it’s a shame to see it flail with chintzy flimsiness. 

The whole production is pathetically limp. There’s not an ounce of atmosphere to the flat digital photography and over-lit design, though certainly seeing director John R. Leonetti (Annabelle) use staging for maximum PG-13 coyness and strangely flat-footed setups doesn’t help matters. Scenes unnaturally stop and start, chopping away without letting an ominous clue settle in and hacking into the next without any preamble. It feels slapped together, as if moving along fast enough would outrun how ludicrous it all becomes. No character behaves believably, making leaps of logic and avoiding obvious solutions for the sake of prolonging its runtime. (Wish the box never existed! Duh! Why doesn’t anyone mention it, even if only for a clever write-around?) The dialogue clunks and clanks, not allowing any character to develop personality or accrue backstory. It’s cringing and clumsy, about as earnestly stupid as horror movies get. Then there’s loads of inadvertent comedy from the preposterous violence one notch below flat-out slapstick and from the basic fumbling plot mechanics. My favorite laugh comes when our lead wishes her dad was cool. Cut to him serenading her friends by playing saxophone in the living room, complete with a jazz band backup who are never seen before or after. The girls stare at him in awe. The movie is full of such clumsiness, right up to and including a howlingly low-res establishing shot that might as well be sourced from MiniDV. Who could possibly see that and approve it for big screen consumption? It’s all symptomatic of a good concept thoroughly sunk by botched execution at every turn. They don’t make them like they used to. That’s not always a compliment.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Monkey Business: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES



War for the Planet of the Apes, the finale for the trilogy that is Fox’s most recent attempt to restart the venerable sci-fi franchise, is the heaviest picture yet concocted for this series. And that’s saying something, when back in the 70s it gave us a film that ended with the planet Earth exploding, then improbably followed that up with a sequel that kindly supposed three beings escaped the destruction only to see them to their violent deaths a couple hours later. But that was decades ago, and done with a sense of sharp pulp fun. Now, though, War’s director Matt Reeves, returning from the previous entry, treats the ongoing conflict gravely. After Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – a dour, but thrillingly charged allegory for intractable armed conflict – the band of mind-bogglingly convincing CG primates lead by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the smartest of their kind, have continued to retreat into the woods. They fend off attacks from humans, but only in defense. They want to be peaceful, but continue to be dragged into war by men – and they’re all men here – who fear them. Mankind knows its time is up – ravaged by disease and facing apes of undeniable intellectual equality – and would rather go down fighting than slowly die out. 

Reeves takes this idea as seriously as possible. He shoots the film like a Holocaust drama, suffusing a gunmetal grey and mottled mud palate with a somber heaviness as it captures atrocities inflicted upon bodies ape and human alike. Our primate heroes are slaughtered, captured, carted away, and forced into slave narratives and POW trauma. The people – heavily armed, and adorned with graffiti like “Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Ape-pocalypse Now” – get sick, and act sicker. The raw materials of blockbuster dazzlement – effects, explosions, CGI monkeys, and loud armories – have a pall cast over them. Sure, you might think it’d be fun to watch apes ride horses and root for them against dastardly military madmen. But Reeves wants to make sure it hurts, too. This has always been a series of films interested in the damage mankind does to itself and others, the venal and violent tendencies burbling underneath that lead us inevitably to our doom. Sometimes the apes who take over are stand-ins for minorities and the oppressed. Sometimes they also represent, in true Animal Farm fashion, the worst human qualities, as the more like men they become – walking upright, speaking, organizing – the worse they behave. It’s rich sociopolitical text, but War’s grinding depression and repetitive thematic inquiry mutes its impact. As a fitting conclusion to this Caesar’s story – here hoping to take his clan to the promised land, one step ahead of the Kurtz-y colonel on their tail (Woody Harrelson) – it ties up loose ends. As a continuation or furthering of the ideas – visual and otherwise – that were so thrillingly novel in Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 kickoff Rise of the Planet of the Apes and expertly complicated in Dawn, it’s nothing much, flatter and, worse, routine.

The film carries itself with the gravity of a historical epic, moved with grim contemplation and constructed as if preordained. Of course, because this is nominally prequel narrative to the planet of apes Charlton Heston (or Mark Wahlberg) would discover centuries later, it is preordained. We know where this is heading. In his concept of the fall of man and rise of ape, Reeves (co-writing with screenwriter Mark Bomback), makes this film at once sweeping and small, massive in implication and intimate in execution. It follows Caesar and his compatriots across mountains and beaches and forests, and yet boils down to small confrontations, a tiny cast of speaking roles, and tight closeups – chimp and man growling philosophy in terse conversations and patient shot/reverse shot. The planet is irrevocably changed, and it happens largely offscreen, indifferent to the dramas of the players on the film’s center stage. It’s an environmentalist lament about species struggling to survive, a pacifist’s sorrow about the inevitability of violence begetting violence, an idealist’s compromises to gain a better future for his followers. This contributes to the heaviness of the film, but it also gums up the spectacle, growing humorless (a delightful comic relief Steve Zahn ape notwithstanding) and cold. We watch apes slowly put plans into action as men with guns and tanks move into position to take them out once and for all, but not before working them nearly to death to build last-ditch human battlements. It’s involving and interesting without ever tipping over into compelling or emotionally satisfying. Still, the all-consuming mood is effective, enveloping, and hard to shake, a bleak drumbeat of pessimism and glum resignation. Even the rattling action comes booming with a sense of doom, sorrowfully leaving bodies piled high.
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