Month: July, 2017

Dunkirk

dunkirkChristopher Nolan’s Dunkirk remains a giant at the international box office despite entering its fourth week of release. What better time than now to offer a belated review and perhaps offer a pearl of insight not observed by the mountain of glowing praise by other critics.  Well, I’m afraid to report that I have little to add to what has already been said about Dunkirk.  So … sorry if this sounds a bit like a broken record.

It is difficult to find fault in a film such as Dunkirk.  Certainly on a technical level the film is flawless and it’s nice to see director Christopher Nolan putting his unique stamp on a film that, from a historical perspective, deserves special treatment. Anyone who is familiar with Nolan’s work will know that he is a master of fractured storytelling.  Memento, Interstellar, and Inception all have their timelines and locales carefully woven together, giving a satisfying conclusion to their fragmented beginnings. Dunkirk is no different.

It offers a snapshot of the 1941 evacuation of four hundred thousand allied troops from the titular French beach, having been surrounded by “the enemy” (interestingly, Nolan decided to use this term rather than being more specific). The film avoids broader political or tactical concerns, instead offering (as best as it can) a first hand experience of a small collection of players within a triptych of theatres; air, sea, and land—surely a wink to Churchill’s famous “We shall fight them on the …” speech.

Dunkirk opens with a scant supply of visual cues to orientate us before thrusting us head-first into the fray of white knuckled intensity.  With no release valve to relieve the pressure, this film proves to be an exhausting experience.  Planes dive bomb like dragons, and the water is rife with torpedoes, while the seconds slip away on imminent help.  Nolan’s masterful orchestration of sight and sound offer a visceral experience that hits home the intensity of war. A decision to err on real craft rather than CGI has certainly paid off here.

My only quibble would be its limited character development and back story. Although, the film’s modus operandi relegated such luxuries surplus to requirements. After all, any film that makes Harry Styles appear like a seasoned actor must be doing something right.

You can see my published reviews here.

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Baby Driver

bdLike all Edgar Wright movies, Baby Driver is a kinetically charged explosion of style. A lively thrill from start to end laced with musical sensibilities. But considering his previous work (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, to name a couple) this should come as no surprise. He is a restless director who seemingly enjoys turning simple plot-lines into hyper-jazzed feature length films … and he does it so well.

Ansel Elgort is the eponymous Baby. A talented getaway driver forever in debt to a criminal king-pin named Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby suffers tinnitus, a “hum in the drum” as the po-faced Kevin Spacey describes, meaning he wears earbuds with a carefully chosen iPod playlist to drown out the constant ringing—a distraction which he finds insufferable. The iPod also provides the soundtrack to his life. He is, in a sense, living in a musical as exemplified in an early scene (that ventures unabashedly into La La Land opening sequence territory) where Baby dances down the street to Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle.

Baby Driver is a fine example of a genre film owing a lot to the crime, heist, and car-chase films of yesteryear.  But its musical sensibilities are what sets it apart in which everything is cut and choreographed very sharply to Baby’s pumping iPod soundtrack. The result provides a modern-retro vibe.  Yes, iPods are now retro (*sigh* … I feel so old).

Elgort’s background in dance is a casting choice that pays off—his sense of movement to the music being vital to the entire movie.  Wright also gets solid (if somewhat predictable) performances from his supporting A-listers. It’s an ensemble cast of pretty big hitters who all seem to be enjoying themselves.  Jon Hamm stands out as a delightfully loathsome Casanova. Fox and Spacey are in fine scenery chewing form, and a twee young-love subplot comes courtesy of Lily James.

By no means perfect, Baby Driver does threaten at times to become an overcooked mess stomping heavily on well-used tropes and pumping out every cliche in the book, but thankfully Wright’s pin-sharp direction keeps things in check. He knows exactly what to do with this material and never loses sight of his audience. Baby Driver is a joy to watch and it’s clear that Wright loves making cinema. This is a pure cinema rush.

You can see my published reviews here.

David Lynch: The Art Life

dlHe is a man blessed with a wild imagination and great hair (his cranial embellishments second only to his kissing-cousin Jim Jarmusch).  An iconic film-maker that has given us enigmatic worlds of fractured logic and narrative ambiguity hearkening back to the surrealists of the early twentieth century (Luis Buñuel, Germaine Dulac, Salvador Dali, et al.).  Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet are just a few of his filmic canon that any cinephile should wax lyrical about … but less is known about David Lynch’s formative years as an artist.

The Art Life acquaints us with the age old conundrum of nurture versus nature, life imitating art or art imitating life, and begins with Lynch declaring; “Every time you do something like a painting, you go with ideas, and sometimes the past can conjure those ideas … even if they’re new ideas the past colours them.”  Documentarian Jon Nguyen uses this assertion as the starting point for his exposé on an artist who belies the dark and sometimes violent nature of his work.

The brooding cinematography of Nguyen’s camera oozes slow tracks and zooms that creep and crawl around Lynch’s tranquil home studio, observing the artist at work, and at times glimpsing the surreal fruits of his labour. We never leave his studio, save for archival footage — it’s a chamber piece that illuminates Lynch’s world of introspection. He explains, “My world was no bigger than a couple of blocks … huge worlds are in those two blocks”. Indeed, for Lynch the devil is in the detail, and here the details are small moments captured with cosmic meaning courtesy of one artist’s solitary mind.

The documentary rummages through the trash of Lynch’s life in a vain effort to find horrific peculiarities and anecdotes that might explain his art’s seemingly dark world.  But in true Lynchian style, conventions and expectations are turned on their head. Instead we are met with stories of house-hold spats, family politics and teenage angst — he is a product of middle America and his upbringing is surprisingly unremarkable. But it presents a striking contrast to his art, and this dichotomy perfectly sums up the enigma that is David Lynch.

Spanning up to where his film career took off, David Lynch: The Art Life is essential viewing for any Lynch fan, but equally rewarding for those simply interested in seeing an iconic artist at work.

You can see my published reviews here.

War for the Planet of the Apes

poaContents don’t always match what is printed on the tin. War for the Planet of the Apes’ lengthy title (let’s just call it WPA) and marketing material suggest that you’re likely to be be subjected to two and a half hours of bloodshed, courtesy of a certain Wellington digital effects company.  But WPA is far more introspective than advertised. Sure, it’s not La La Land, but WPA has a lot less “war” in it than we’re led to believe. Critically, comparisons have been made with Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  Famously, Ford Coppola reworked Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, by expressing its themes of colonialism, self-discovery and the meaninglessness of evil against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. In WPA the astute viewer will pick up on this comparison fairly quickly, but for those not familiar with Coppola’s film, a wall graffiti’d with “Ape-pocalypse Now” is plain for all to see.

WPA picks up where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left off. Chief ape Caesar (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis) certainly hasn’t lightened up since his last outing. He’s not the kind of chap you’d invite over to liven up a dinner party, but he wears his pouty face and moody Batman style voice for good reason — his wife and son have been killed by a sadistic human known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). As Caesar and four other riders “head up river” to hunt down the rogue Colonel, they pick up a mute human girl (Amiah Miller) who provides the film with a welcome human counter-balance to the Colonel’s corruption.

WPA begins as a war film, then becomes a western borrowing heavily from the likes of True Grit, and then descends unabashedly into a POW escape caper. Yes, its a mosaic of different genres that somehow blend into a gripping whole.

What is extraordinary is a narrative which focusses on the ape’s world, with human considerations being ushered into the margins. The plausibility of ape protagonists who communicate predominantly in sign language, with the only significant humans being signifiers of evil, or relegated to speechless vessels, must’ve been a hard sell to the studio execs. But WPA presents its ambitions with total confidence and is bursting at the seams with plausible characters who are brought to life with perhaps the most stunningly believable digital effects to date. When the Colonel stares at Caesar and says “My God. Look at your eyes. Almost human”, it is as much a meta-comment on the incredible digital work as it is on human-simian relations.

Its many parts are curiously engaging and despite the misleading marketing, WPA culminates as a compelling block-buster option these school holidays.

You can see my published reviews here.

Long Way North

lwnLong Way North has finally made its long way south onto our screens. Having screened as part of last years NZIFF, its theatrical release brings about the welcome return of its low-fi animated appeal. The film is a co-production out of France and Denmark and is Rémi Chayé’s debut feature in the directors chair (or wherever directors plant their bum for an animated feature these days).  Chayé had previously worked as assistant director on the stunningly beautiful (and Oscar nominated) Secret of Kells.  By contrast, Long Way North dials things back … but in a good way that compliments this charming coming-of-age story.

It’s 1882 in St. Petersburg, and the Russian aristocracy is in full swing. When explorer Oloukine disappears after a mission to the North pole, the state puts up a million rubles for the discovery of his boat, the Davai. His granddaughter, Sacha (voiced by Christa Théret), is a strong willed 14-year-old girl who laments her loss but stumbles on evidence that suggests they’ve been looking in the wrong place. Her desperate pleas to send out another search are met with frustration, so Sacha decides to take things into her own hands. Fiercely independent, capable and readily equiped with her dogged determination, she ultimately convinces a group of sailors to help her on an intrepid quest to the polar north to find the Davai.

Sacha is an engaging character and an example of girl-power and focussed independence. Although the plot may be a tad lightweight for some, its lack of complexity only serves to shift focus to the film’s exceptional art style.  An interesting decision was made to abandon (for the most part) the drawn line in favour of simple blocks of colour. Its style is enhanced by well considered framing that wonderfully captures the mood and ambience of the film’s various locations, the result being a picture-book style that evokes art from the era (Chayé cited Russian realist painter Ilya Repin as an influence).

Not without some false steps, Long Way North contains a few forgivable historical inaccuracies and a slightly peculiar sound-track that feels at odds with the period (although to be fair, it suits Sacha’s inexorable progression north).  Nonetheless, Long Way North is a beautiful film and although subtitled, it certainly isn’t taxing. So take your kids … they may just appreciate the break from your standard Hollywood animated fare these school holidays.
 

You can see my published reviews here.