Dunkirk: An Assault on the senses

Recommendation of YES

Summary: The film tells a triptych of stories on land, sea and air about the successful military retreat of Dunkirk.

 

A friend of mine was confused as to the relative brevity of Dunkirk (a zippy 106 minutes) having expected it to be 2h 30 min as all modern blockbusters are somehow required to be. I jokingly asked if, since Christopher Nolan billed Dunkirk as a thriller and not a war movie, he would be able to survive three hours of tightly wound tension. As it happens, he barely survived the 1 hour 46 minutes.

So the above is quite an opening, and may raise expectations for Dunkirk to be some sort of demolishing assault on the audience, one that would be irresponsible to extend in length lest it kill someone. These are expectations that no multi million dollar wide release film can live up to, but Dunkirk is, if not the most tense thing, a harrowing, tense thing nonetheless.

Right from the first, Dunkirk punctures the quiet of some obligatory historical film exposition cards with the sound of gunfire from the spectre of an advancing German army (unseen save for their aircraft that periodically molest the evacuees) and through a near persistent audio visual assault on the audience, never quite relents. Be it through the loud cracking of gunfire, the whir and creaking of ships and their engines, the howling and roaring of the areal assault, the panicked and pained screams of dying soldiers (mostly also left off screen so you can imagine the horror), or Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score that comes complete with the sound of a ticking clock, Dunkirk uses its sound design to present a suffocating intensity that is evocative and impressionistic in the sense that Nolan only sometimes achieved with Interstellar. Though the success of Dunkirk over Interstellar may also be because they have somewhat opposite approaches to delivering the film experience to the audience.

Where Interstellar was an exposition and dialogue heavy film with unintelligible dialogue, the narrative, such as it is, of Dunkirk has been kept purposefully thin and divvied up into a triptych with three different time scales. Firstly we have “The Mole” (herein describing a solid structure that is often used as a pier, and not a spy), detailing one week in the life of 400,000 British soldiers as they attempt to evacuate while German forces push through French defenses. Secondly, we have “The Sea”, detailing the day long voyage Little Ships that the British Navy requisitioned to aid the evacuation. Thirdly we have “The Air” depicting 1 hour of three spitfire pilots engaging German fighters and bombers in intense dog fights to protect the rescue ships and soldiers on the beach.

Each of these segments focuses on just a handful of individual characters, though it would be fair and accurate to say they are almost entirely thinly characterized. They are there for one purpose, to let the audience vicariously experience the horrors of the evacuation. Without this narrowed perspective, and without the characters being somewhat tabula rasa, Dunkirk could not do what Dunkirk sets out to do. For the very point of the thing is to be a purely cinematic emotional experience of war rather than any specific narrative with any particular themes or arcs to explore.

I have in the past said that Christopher Nolan does not do emotion well; that his films were puzzles and exercises in cinematic mechanics. I do for the most part stand by that, but I must admit that Dunkirk bucks the trend. That is to say in as much as pervasive anxiety is an emotion, and Dunkirk trades in pervasive anxiety, it is perhaps the most authentically emotionally affecting Christopher Nolan film I have seen.

Even the mechanical experimentation one would expect from a Nolan Joint serves as a means of maintaining tension. As noted  above, the film is a triptych that operates at differing time scales. They are constantly cross cut between rather than shown chronologically, only to eventually have them converge by the film’s climax. This converging of the narrative threads serves to bring the film to its emotional climax as well. Due to the differing time scales, the constant cross cutting never allows you to orient yourself in time and space. When we are in a sinking ship next to the mole at night, we may then end up in a late afternoon dog fight over nondescript ocean before finally settling upon a pleasure yacht plucking up a shell shocked soldier off the skeleton of a sinking warship.

Dunkirk is a constant anxiety engine. Its mission statement is to depict a constant state of anarchy spawned from war, and it does so audio-visually with minimal dialogue through blank slate characters at a level that someone smarter than I may say is approaching “Pure Cinema”, being elemental sound and motion with little reliance on exposition. Or probably not. That too may be overselling things, but it does its anxiety making well while looking great and sounding even better.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming. Skipping Class

Recommendation of Yes

Synopsis: The surrogate son of a perennial billionaire industrialist fuck up goes to to to with a blue collar family man that his surrogate father’s overreaching amends making put out of business, serving only to break things, endanger lives and destroy a mostly innocent family.

Yep, Peter Parker is kind of a screw up. He constantly flubs the landing, destroys property, is responsible not once, not twice, but at least three times for endangering the lives of innocents through recklessness, and answers back to his surrogate dad about how he doesn’t understand and won’t treat him like an adult. You know, typical 15 year old boy stuff.

Okay, I was being glib, but if I am being honest, this one movie does a far better job of depicting what happens when an irresponsible person tries to do good outside of due process than all three Iron Man films and Age of Ultron combined. Peter does tend to screw up spectacularly. You know, when you stop to think about it, the MCU can go to kind of dark places without the need to wallow in dour self-seriousness like the worst of the DCEU… But I guess on the other hand, their reliance on safe formula and quip-heavy flippancy does kind of get in the way of all of that hinted at darkness. Either that or they feel like dull homework assignments for the bigger films.

So then colour me delighted when Homecoming’s biggest strengths are that it plays with formula so drastically, while managing to be relatively self contained and tiny feeling. Right down to the absence of glowing CGI doom in the climax.

If you did didn’t remember his introduction, Spider-Man: Homecoming kicks off Peter Parker’s story with a mobile phone recording of the airport fight from Captain America: Civil War. And if I were being unfair, I would say that Homecoming wins points for reminding  me of a better movie. But if I am being honest, I’d have to say that Homecoming does some key things much better than Civil War (i.e. probably having the first genuinely well considered villain in the MCU). And that’s about as much introduction as you’re going to get to Peter Parker. There is no origin story, the spider is long since dead and is dispensed with in a single short exchange, and we don’t have to sit through yet another Uncle Ben (though at one point Tony Stark comes dangerously close to paraphrasing him).

This movie’s narrative arc for Peter is that of a super hero sequel where an already accepted hero has his wits and abilities tested, shortcomings highlighted, and has to rise to the occasion. And in fact, the film’s origin story arc is given to its villain, Michael Keaton as some kind of birdman (The Vulture to be precise). He is introduced in an inciting incident as an average blue collar worker trying to look out for his family and employees, but who is put in a horrible financial situation due to Tony Stark colluding with the US government to take over all clean up duties post Avengers. As a result of him being given the narrative arc usually reserved to a first time super hero, he’s developed into one of the most layered and sympathetic villains in all MCU; a family man at odds with big business and trying to provide for his family and his employees. The Vulture is nothing more than the avatar of a man trying desperately to provide for those who depend on him by any means necessary. Enough screen time is spent with him outside of the suit that he is fleshed out as a human being. And one of these sequences is a claustrophobic and steadily simmering sequence in a car that allows Keaton to do some capital A acting.

And then you see his house with “so many windows”. I can’t particularly fault Spider-Man: Homecoming for introducing politically charged subtext and then fluffing it with what it actually shows off as the characters’ on screen truths, given that Civil War was probably a bigger offender (and the less we talk about the muddled politics of Batman v Superman, the better). But there was more character truth behind the anti big business/big government posturing of Keaton’s Vulture and his gang of merry arms dealers than in the pro vs anti registration kerfuffle of Civil War, until a third act twist puts a damper on it in favour of pulling the rug out from under Peter Parker. Given this is Spider-Man: Homecoming, and not a treatise on capitalism driving men to do morally questionable things, it’s probably for the best. That doesn’t stop the film from being reasonably pointed, and one could argue, posturing at superficial profundity about it in the early goings given it ultimately ends up going no where.

All that said, Homecoming really sings in the small moments. Bits of acerbic comedy are mined from its teenage supporting cast, poking and prodding at Peter in various ways, be it jovial and jocular, or antagonistic. A wonderful, if small contribution by Hannibal Buress as a put upon gym coach, brief asides about a teacher previously having a student die on him on a field trip, and the aforementioned bits with Keaton and co., make up for the otherwise mostly flat action. With the exception of the Stanton Island Ferry sequence shown off in the trailers, there is nothing particularly exceptional, and even then Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2’s train sequence far exceeds it in scope and emotional impact. But it’s really the playfulness and small scale that makes Spider-Man: Homecoming feel fresh, even if in the grand scheme of things, the MCU has offered us better (see Guardians of the Galaxy, all three Captain America films, for example). The willingness to go small, even with its Captain America “cameos” and its stinger are a shot in the arm for what could otherwise have been simply adequate. Ant-Man was adequate, Spider-Man: Homecoming is in some way approaching charming. And honestly, for what is the third rendition of this franchise on the silver screen in recent memory, that is a mighty fine victory.

Kong: Skull Island

Recommendation: YES

Summary: Japanese and American World War 2 pilots crashland on a beach and promptly resume trying to kill each other until they are rudely interrupted by a living, breathing challenge to their sense of significance. Flash forward to the end of the Vietnam War and a ragtag team of scientists, a mercenary, a photojournalist, and disgruntled soldiers take part in a “geologic survey” of an unexplored island. Things go wrong.

Would you take this moment to once again welcome King Kong, grandpappy of the American movie monsters, to the cutting edge of trends in big budget Western film making. In this case, the cutting edge is not the bloat and operatic excess of Peter Jackson’s 2005 entry, nor the mind blowing technical wizardry of the 1933 original. No, in this case it’s the trend of plucking up unproven indie film makers with one or two tiny movies under their belt and unmaking their individuality in the fires of Hollywood. Double points for Kong: Skull Island being an entry in one of the very many shared cinematic universe exercises (see Marvel, DC, the Universal Monsters, to an extent Star Wars, and now Transformers?). But I’ll be damned if this film didn’t manage to sneak a bit of persinality in with its monster meyham, much in kind with Gareth Edwards’ Franchise-mate Godzilla (2014). I can’t rightly say whether it’s capital G good or not, but its a heck of a lot more than what the tepid Jurassic World could muster.

So, personality, eh? While Godzilla ’14 was a more slow paced (though some would say glacial), Spielbergian movie with a clear affection for its monsters and a tremendous sense of scale, Kong: Skull Island is tontent to be this weird little pastiche of Vietnam War movies, adventure/monster pictures, and exploitation cinema. There aren’t many PG-13 studio tentpoles that visually evoking something else involving a pole from Cannibal Holocaust. And it’s this “deplorable excess of personality,” to quote a Spielberg film that both Kong and Godzilla quote, that keeps Kong: Skull Island interesting long after its stand out first set piece with Kong.

It is worth noting that muck like Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is sparing win its use of its titular beast. However, they differ in that Kong: Skull Island reveals its hand early (King Kong is on screen within the first 5 or so minutes) and its forward momentum. The film is littered with little bits of action that serve to make Skull Island itself an antagonist of sorts. It may come across as episodic at times given its poor human drama, but there is always some sort of threat around the corner as our hapless human cast come face to face with some unpleasant mega fauna. Credit where credit is due, there is a consideration and care put into the creature design that suggests a working ecosystem that is often missing in films that focus on making eerything look as “cool” or deadly as possible.

This does mean that for stretches it feels like the film is more interested in the way in which the environment conspires against the humans than the humans themselves. Outside of the broadest of strokes, this is true. There is an element of political subtext about the villification of soldiers by the media and the US government’s failure to be serious about the fate of its veterans. Every now and then there are flashes of the characters presenting with PTSD. And once in a while, the film comes close to being a genre film take on teh Vietnam War in the vein of Aliens, with low tech enemies ambushing and overwhelming a high tech military detachment.

And then Kong: Skull Island decides to go off and kill off its cast in sudden, gruesome ways, with no comment other than that it is possibly amusing that this moment that would be big in any other movie was totally deflated by a subversion showing the pointlessness of it all.

Having had time to dwell on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is as successful at being a “Post-Human” blockbuster as Godzilla, but through different means. While Godzilla focused its attention on the monsters and impressed with its excellent sense of scale, making the human characters feel like insignificant lookers on, Kong: Skull Island never quite masters scale in much the same way. Aside from an early bout between Kong and helicopters, it is rather hard to get a read on how large the beasties are in comparison to the humans. No, Kong: Skull Island is post-human by virtue of its constant winking insistence that at best, humans are a minor annoyance, and at worst, their actions are pitiful and utterly meaningless.

As I said, I can’t tell if all of this is a “good” thing or not, but I can say that it’s fucking weird and commits to its weirdness as much as a franchise picture directed by a relative unknown can. At least much more than, for example, the half-assed satire of Jurassic World, or the defanged Robocop remake. And I’d take fucking weird over polished blandkess any day.

If it continues apace, the MonsterVerse will be one to watch; and the news of the attachment of Michael Dougherty to 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters has me very hopeful indeed.