2017: Part 2

Dunkirk. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Notes from August 9, 2017: Two weeks ago, I saw Dunkirk in a 70mm IMAX show at my favorite IMAX venue, the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater in Manhattan. As I have probably said numerous times in earlier reviews, that screen provides the definitive IMAX experience for viewers in New York City. I was doubly excited in this instance because I went to Dunkirk with a good friend of mine who did not grow up in New York and who had never been to this particular IMAX theater. (I am happy to report that she was indeed astonished by the immensity of the screen, even more so since we were sitting in the last row, almost exactly in the center.) I mention all of these details because they helped inform how I processed the overwhelming magnitude of Christopher Nolan’s latest film.

From the moment the film started, I was firmly ensconced in the narrative. I felt as though I were actually in the movie. Every heart-pounding tremor boomed out of the sound system and was transferred directly into my seat. It was easy to be captivated by the simple story of young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) since his struggle is universal: to survive. The close-ups of Tommy were breathtaking in IMAX, although perhaps I was specially attuned to them because I often study and write about the impact of faces and bodies in cinema. It is for this same reason that I was also blown away by the performance given by Aneurin Barnard as another of the main soldier characters, Gibson. Barnard has marvelously expressive eyes, a real gift for him to have as an actor since Gibson moves through his scenes in silence.

Indeed, much of Dunkirk’s intensity relies on visuals and on the actors’ abilities to express themselves without dialogue, just like in silent cinema. The subtlest changes in a person’s face can shape a language of their own. You may hear from other viewers and critics that Dunkirk’s characters lack development and the story lacks the types of expected dramatic arcs that accompany traditionally fleshed-out characters, but I do not believe that filmmakers “owe” those details to an audience, nor do I need to know those aspects of a character’s life, either past or present, in order to care. I identified with Tommy as he fought his way through obstacle after obstacle; he felt fear and panic, and I know those emotions intimately. I have been fortunate never to have experienced warfare firsthand, but the fact that Christopher Nolan’s film allowed me to connect so strongly with its soldiers, sailors and heroic citizens is an extraordinary achievement.

Besides Tommy, Gibson and Alex (Harry Styles in a reasonably successful film debut), who are the soldiers we follow on the beach, the film also observes two high-up military officials, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), as well as the valiant work done in the air by pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) and by sea via the civilian vessel captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and one of Peter’s schoolmates, George (Barry Keoghan, who will be seen as the young lead of Yorgos Lanthimos’ next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in November). Another key member of the cast is Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), the unnamed British serviceman who is found in the Channel by the Dawson boat and whose experiences at Dunkirk have left him shell-shocked. All of these performers do incredible work, but Murphy is especially affecting.

Don’t be fooled by reviewers who say that Dunkirk has no one protagonist, though. In spite of the tripartite storytelling created by Nolan (as we have seen throughout his career, he is obsessed with narratives about the manipulation of time), there is no doubt that Tommy is at the center of the action. He is the first character we pay attention to in the film, and the last person we see onscreen. Other characters carry their sections of the narrative, but Tommy is the beating heart of our viewing experience. Christopher Nolan has compared Fionn Whitehead to a young Tom Courtenay, and I absolutely agree.

It should go without saying – although I will say so anyway – that the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (he has shot several big-deal movies in the last decade: Let the Right One In, The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Interstellar, Spectre) and the editing by Lee Smith (he has cut every Christopher Nolan film dating back to Batman Begins) are top of the line. Think pieces from the past few weeks have criticized various aspects of Dunkirk, including the lack of diversity and the fact that the characters refer to “the enemy” rather than Nazis or Germans, but one of the most crucial components of artistic license is the ability to tell a story from the perspective of one’s choosing. First, Nolan’s choice of language does not negate the evilness of the Nazis, and second, I do not believe that Nolan intended to depict the entirety of the Dunkirk experience. We do not see the faces of every single person on the beach. Instead we concentrate on four soldiers, two pilots and three civilians. Their stories are their own, not anyone else’s (even though Tommy was evidently written as an Everyman figure). No film should be held to the same standards expected from a comprehensive, thousand-page textbook.

Tonally, Nolan’s film is closer to the mood of World War I stories like Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory or the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun, rather than what we usually expect from modern films made about World War II. The brilliance of Dunkirk isn’t just in how it portrays the effects of psychological trauma on soldiers who are barely old enough to shave, let alone fight and die in battle; it is also in the knowledge that Tommy and his comrades must reckon with two opposing truths, the importance of the Allied cause versus the utterly cruel and harrowing realities of combat. World War II movies don’t have to show limbs flying everywhere, like in Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge; we know that that happens in war. But Dunkirk still communicates the lows and eventual highs of this historic evacuation by showing pain, doubt, loss, but throughout it all the strength of the human spirit. I applaud the bravery of examining the grotesque nature of war seen through the eyes of young men while simultaneously acknowledging how necessary it was for World War II to be fought and won by the Allies; one does not cancel out the other. Therein lies the significance of the film’s final shot and the greatness of Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece as a whole.

Kong: Skull Island. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Notes from September 10, 2017: Following Godzilla, the second creature feature in Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse is Kong: Skull Island, a suitably larger-than-life take on everyone’s favorite giant ape. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts turns the clock back to 1973, when the US was split between those who supported the Vietnam War and those who opposed it, each side vehemently defending its stance. Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads a group of scientists (including Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz and Tian Jing) and an antiwar photographer (Brie Larson) on a top-secret mission to Skull Island, aided by a jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a lieutenant colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) who is angry that Americans are leaving Vietnam, and a number of soldiers (including Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Jason Mitchell) who are on their way home from Saigon when they are asked to do this one last task for the government.

No one but Bill Randa realizes the dangers that inhabit Skull Island – and even he doesn’t know exactly what to expect – so the team of explorers is in for the world’s rudest awakening when the helicopters attempt to make landfall. Mighty Kong is on the rampage and many soldiers lose their lives, but it turns out that Kong is actually the territory’s protector; the real threats are the “skullcrawlers,” beasts that could definitely give you nightmares. Kong is the last line of defense against those other ancient predators, and no matter how much the humans try to help, it is up to the king to save the day.

Kong: Skull Island is a decent popcorn experience, a mainstream diversion that consistently entertains you for two hours, but I have one major bone to pick with Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Comparisons with Apocalypse Now are apt; certainly many other critics have noted the aesthetic homages that Kong pays to Coppola’s classic; but Kong tries way too hard to drive home the idea that it is somehow better than the standard mainstream adventure flick. Vogt-Roberts one pretentious film school lesson after another into the proceedings, whether it’s the rapid-fire editing by Richard Pearson, the cinematography by Larry Fong (especially in the scene where we first meet Tom Hiddleston’s character in a neon-lit bar, but elsewhere in all the super-saturated greenish-gold tones on the island) or the wall-to-wall soundtrack of choice 60s/70s rock songs. Any one of these elements would be impressive, but the onslaught of everything altogether seems to say “Isn’t this movie so much better than its predecessors?” A young filmmaker should focus more on getting good performances out of his actors – only Samuel L. Jackson and a particularly well-cast John C. Reilly as a World War II vet who has been stranded on Skull Island since the 1940s – than on whether he has crammed in all the techniques you might see on a professor’s checklist.

Once Upon a Time in Venice. Directed by Mark Cullen. Notes from July 29, 2017: I should probably be more cautious about which films I decide to which simply because a favorite actor is in the cast. Case in point: Thomas Middleditch, the absurdly talented star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Cinematically I am sometimes rewarded, as with the irreverent joy of his performance in The Bronze, while other times I witness the career-low stupidity of the Hangover rip-off known as Search Party; Once Upon a Time in Venice is much closer to the latter than the former.

Middleditch plays John, the younger partner in Steve Ford’s (Bruce Willis) vaguely shady detective agency. Los Angeles gumshoe-ing aside, this ain’t exactly The Long Goodbye. The comedy here plays to the lowest common denominator, substituting dick jokes, pornographic graffiti and needless sex scenes for nuance, wit or even a hint of film noir-style cool in the many action sequences. The humor is supposed to arise from us all laughing warmly at Willis being too old and grizzled for his role, but that gag has run its course.

The plot is primarily concerned with Willis and Middleditch retrieving Willis’s stolen dog from various drug dealers, a narrative which last year’s Keanu employed first (albeit with a kitten) to more amusing effect. Jason Momoa earns a few chuckles as a cocaine kingpin called Spyder, and Adrian Martinez scores in his small role as one of Willis’s beleaguered compadres, but I have no idea why Famke Janssen took the thankless and boring job of playing Willis’s sister, nor do I understand what John Goodman is doing in this movie as Willis’s best friend, Dave. The part requires nothing of Goodman except to play a more stoned version of his sidekick character from the Big Lebowski. I am similarly puzzled as to why Kal Penn, Elisabeth Röhm, Billy Gardell, Christopher McDonald, Ron Funches and David Arquette contributed cameos, but I guess there’s not much point in my asking further questions of this disappointing movie.

P.S. One of the few funny lines: Thomas Middleditch’s character describes himself as “I’ve been told I’m a bit of a young Roger Daltrey, if he spent a lot of time with computers.”

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Directed by Jon Watts. Notes from July 30, 2017: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good selection for a diverting night at the movies; it delivers high-octane action without ever quite reaching the emotional heights of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy or even the schmaltz of the Andrew Garfield-starring reboots. It’s not Tom Holland’s fault that I’ll only ever be able to see Tobey Maguire as Marvel’s beloved webslinger, so I commend Holland for giving us a spirited and thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of Peter Parker.

Jon Watts’ version of the classic superhero story focuses on young Peter facing off against disgruntled former engineer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), better known as Vulture. Keaton growls and sneers, but he does not add much more than that to the film, although he and Holland engage in a tense, violence-free conversation in perhaps the film’s finest scene. Holland explores Peter’s struggle to handle the complexities of first love and his duty to protect innocent lives with fresh-faced charm; it is easy to empathize with him, although I find it interesting that the film never once mentions Peter’s childhood, his parents or an Uncle Ben. (Am I forgetting crucial information mentioned during Tom Holland’s debut as Peter in Captain America: Civil War?)

In the footsteps of Rosemary Harris and Sally Field, Marisa Tomei plays Aunt May with a more youthful energy and sense of humor. Contrary to the amount of promotion that Zendaya did for Homecoming, her character (“Michelle”) is not Peter’s love interest; that role goes to Laura Harrier, the tall and graceful performer who plays Liz, another of Peter’s classmates. Harrier doesn’t get too many chances at character development here, but I appreciated her efforts.

Where Homecoming falls short is in its sense of purpose. It is the third “first” Spider-Man film in the last fifteen years, and it does not improve upon previously employed formulas for cinematic success. In spite of Vulture’s penchant for high-tech gadgets capable of vaporizing opponents, I never actually got a sense that the villain (about whose backstory I know remarkably little – the comics probably would have informed me, but the film certainly didn’t) or his weaponry posed a grave threat to New York or to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, Homecoming triumphs in the casting of its smaller roles: televised appearances by Chris Evans as Captain America, constantly reminding school kids of the importance of education, safety and other virtues; Jacob Batalon as Peter’s endlessly encouraging best friend, Ned; Tony Revolori (last seen by me as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Flash, a minor nemesis from Peter’s high school; Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, who will presumably become the Prowler in the sequel; Tyne Daly in a brief appearance as a domineering authority figure at the beginning of the film; a fun cameo from Hannibal Buress as a disinterested gym teacher; and Martin Starr as the teacher in charge of Peter’s debate team – for my money, Starr delivers the funniest line in the movie (you’ll know it when you see/hear it). Maybe whatever good vibes Spider-Man: Homecoming operates on are courtesy of the “Freaks and Geeks” reunion of Starr and one of Homecoming’s screenwriters, John Francis Daley. I won’t mind more of these Tom Holland-led Spider-Man adventures as long as talents like Daley are working behind the scenes.

Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Notes from July 21, 2017: Now the record holder for the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman at $750 million and counting, Wonder Woman proves that the story of DC Comics’ most enduring superheroes can be told with genuine emotion and plenty of awesome action, not compromising one for the other.

Gal Gadot brings tremendous strength and likeability to her portrayal of Diana (later known as Diana Prince), Princess of Themyscira. Diana grows up on that isle, surrounded by powerful women like her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and General Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana is so inspired by them that she decides she must train to become a warrior too. When circumstances bring American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to Themyscira when he is trying to outrun the Germans – outside of the island’s sheltered atmosphere, the real world is embroiled in World War I – he joins forces with Diana, who is convinced that the God of War, Ares, is the cause of the international destruction. What ensues is a series of battles that test Diana’s courage, physical power and her understanding of love.

Gadot is well-matched by Pine, who has become my favorite of the various Chrises (Evans, Pratt, Hemsworth) thanks to his portrayal of Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboots and as the co-lead of one of last year’s finest films, Hell or High Water. Pine brings charm and intelligence to the role of Steve Trevor, as well as having real sparks with Gadot. Both actors bring a ton to the table, in addition to the character arcs created by story writers/screenwriters Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs. Other commendable performances are given by Danny Huston as Ludendorff, head of the Nazi faction that Diana and Steve are hunting; David Thewlis deftly plays Sir Patrick, the Parliament legislator who supports Diana’s quest to stop Ludendorff; Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve’s bubbly secretary; Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock as the other members of Diana and Steve’s undercover cadre; and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru, the unstable scientist responsible for the German military’s most dangerous chemical weapons.

Wonder Woman is not entirely as successful a project as I hoped it would be, given that most of the plot’s twists and turns are easy to figure out ahead of time. There is no denying, however, that the film is a completely entertaining and emotionally engaging package. It is rare for Hollywood to produce such an inspirational and empowering blockbuster.

P.S. I’m tempted to say that Wonder Woman reminds me of Pop Culture Detective’s “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, since Steve Trevor is the first man in Diana’s life and she almost instantly develops feelings for him (and, we presume, he doesn’t have to worry too much about disappointing her in their love scene since she has no prior experience), but Diana also upends the trope; instead of blindly following Steve and believing anything he tells her, for example, she often questions him and rebels against his line of thinking. Their relationship is ultimately built on respect. Besides, as all viewers of Wonder Woman will recall, our heroine is well-versed in literature on sex and sexuality. Diana knows she doesn’t need a man in order to find physical/emotional fulfillment; she wants Steve and that makes all the difference.

P.P.S. More real talk: Diana wants to believe that a god run amok is responsible for the madness of World War I, but the reality is so much scarier: mortal human beings were capable of creating that cesspool themselves, a war that could have been avoided since it never should have escalated as it did.

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