dunkirk (christopher nolan, 2017)

Dunkirk is a success in almost every way. I've liked every Christopher Nolan film I've seen (Dunkirk is my 7th), with Insomnia and The Dark Knight at the top, but here, I think he uses his bag of tricks not just to show off, but to help the audience along, which turns out to be an excellent idea.

There are three basic stories in this telling of the Battle of Dunkirk, land, sea, and air. The sea is the most famous part of the story ... the civilian boats coming to rescue the troops are iconic reminders of the event. The troops waited on land ... meanwhile, aircraft provided cover for the boats. Nolan's structure for telling those stories is fascinating and effective.

I tend to get lost in plots, and in something like Nolan's Memento, well, confusion was partly the point, wasn't it? But I never got lost in Dunkirk, despite the fact that Nolan diverges from "real" chronology. The soldiers were on the beach for a certain amount of time, the boats took a certain amount of time to arrive, and the planes had their own timetable. Nolan mixes and matches in order to emphasize the importance of each story, perhaps most clearly in the flight of the fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy. Nolan doesn't worry about making Hardy's story match up correctly with the others in terms of chronology. Instead, he matches the dramatic arc for the pilot with the dramatic arcs for the other stories, so that Hardy's adventures make dramatic and emotional sense, even if they are not "correct". This video from The AtZ Show does a fine job of getting at this:

Dunkirk is intense from start to finish ... I think it benefits from a relatively short running time (at 107 minutes, it's Nolan's shortest feature). And I'd like to give a shout out to Hans Zimmer, whose score got an Oscar nomination (the film got 8 nominations total, and all of them are reasonable).

A couple of notes I couldn't fit anywhere else. Tom Hardy is a favorite of mine, and when we first see him, almost his entire face is covered. All we see are his eyes, yet I immediately thought to myself, hey, it's Tom Hardy. And I didn't even know he was in the movie. Also, when I think England, I think tea drinking, and there is a lot of tea drinking in this movie.

Finally, here's another great video explaining something I couldn't come close to putting into words: how Zimmer and Nolan add to the intensity of the movie using something called ... well, watch this:

#269 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

by request: three billboards outside ebbing, missouri (martin mcdonagh, 2017)

It's easy to point out what is great about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as is evidenced by its 7 Oscar nominations (and not in categories like Special Effects ... the film got 3 acting nominations, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture, among others). The acting nominations, in particular, are worthy ones. Frances McDormand is the emotional core of the movie, while Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson will likely cancel each other out for Best Supporting Actor. McDormand's Mildred Hayes is fired up, at times unlikeable, in just the ways that resonate today when women are fighting battles that should have been won long ago.

While I was unimpressed by McDonagh's first film as a director, Six Shooter (which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short), I liked his feature debut, In Bruges, which was also carried by the acting, especially Brendan Gleeson. After that, Seven Psychopaths was a terrible disappointment, not because McDonagh emulated Tarantino but because he emulated bad Tarantino. Three Billboards is better than all of these.

A lot of people seem to have been transformed by the movie. I feel a bit funny, because I liked it quite a bit, but my reaction wasn't really emotional. So I'm puzzled by the reactions of others that I read on a Facebook thread I started. "Loved it but took me awhile to get my brain back." "Great movie, rough movie, and still working through the reactions/thoughts/feelings engendered by it. We talked about it much of the night last night and again several times today discussions have been triggered." "It definitely brings up complex emotions." "It blew me away!" "Startling and fine film."

None of these people mentioned the backlash that has formed against Three Billboards. Several writers have written powerful essays on the topic of the movie's approach to race, including Alison Willmore and Alyssa RosenbergHanif Abdurraqib was especially eloquent, speaking of Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist and abusive cop. Dixon's character arc is unique in the film, since it's pretty much the only such arc. As well-written and acted as Mildred Hayes is, she doesn't change much over the course of the movie, nor does Woody Harrelson's sheriff. But Dixon's character achieves the beginning of redemption. Yet, as Abdurraqib notes,

The first thing we learn about Dixon is that he was responsible for the torture of one (or more) of the town's black residents while questioning them. There are no details given, and the viewing audience doesn't actually see the torture, but the understanding is that Dixon has tortured black people and kept his job as a police officer....

The failures of the film are not in the performances of the actors, but rather in the script, which presents a conclusion that left me frustrated, given the way it turns a portion of its focus from a grieving and determined mother to the redemption of a racist and abusive police officer....

It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption.... 

Black people in this movie largely exist as victims, seen and unseen, of the town's violence, and as I watched I found myself wondering why they existed there at all.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri absolutely crushes the things it is good at. McDormand is as good as she ever has been, and while there are problems with the character of Officer Dixon, it must be said that Sam Rockwell does wonders with the part. For many, the movie will elicit a strong emotional response. Whether that response is positive or negative depends on what you think of Dixon and the black characters of Ebbing. #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


by request: star wars: the last jedi (rian johnson, 2017)

As I once said about The Empire Strikes Back, "It’s time to admit that I am not the audience for these films." And that's one of the series that I liked.

The Last Jedi is 2 1/2 hours, and I won't say that's too long, but it's too long for a non-fan like me. The Last Jedi didn't stink, and the supreme annoyance that is C3PO thankfully didn't get much screen time. But I don't really care about these characters, and not a lot of effort is made to convince me otherwise. Adam Driver is a very fine actor, and his face lends itself to tortured emotions that live just under the surface. But it was him that interested me, not his character. It's nice to see John Boyega of Attack the Block, and Daisy Ridley's spunky Rey is a good idea, although I wish the franchise wouldn't be so self-congratulatory about featuring an ass-kicking female character when there are many other good examples (Starbuck, Buffy, Furiosa). Hell, the original Leia is a more important cultural landmark than Rey.

So I don't care about the characters, and the plot is too obviously serviceable in the way so many second-in-a-trilogy movies are. That leaves the action, and if CGI is your thing, this is some great stuff.

As I watched The Last Jedi, I found myself thinking of several other productions. Two were television series. Battlestar Galactica had its space battles, and it had its archetypal characters. But the battles were always secondary to the rest of the show, and the archetypes quickly offered depth, more so as the series progressed. Battlestar Galactica was about identity, and politics, and religion, and the military ... Star Wars is about parent-child relationships and space battles. I also thought about The 100, which doesn't really have the budget for a space opera, so they concentrate on other things, regularly surprising us with how far they are willing to go to blow past whatever stereotypes you might have about a series on The CW where the title refers to teenagers. As showrunner Jason Rothenberg said, "Remember, you signed up for a post apocalyptic nightmare. Don’t be surprised if that’s what we give you."

I also thought about the Mad Max movies. Compared to Fury Road, the action scenes in The Last Jedi aren't all that. And face it, lightsaber fights are boring, especially when you consider what is being done in movies like The Raid films.

I realize there is an audience for the Star Wars franchise, which is why the only relevant point here is that I am not that audience.

Here is the trailer from my favorite John Boyega film:


the square (ruben östlund, 2017)

The only other movie I've seen by Ruben Östlund is Force Majeure, which I liked, although I had no idea there was humor until I read reviews. So it's progress of a sort that I laughed a few times during The Square.

You might call The Square smug ... at the least, it is quite proud of itself. Some of the set pieces (and there are several) seemed to exist solely to have something to show off, and I imagine they'd work out of context ... one notable scene with a monkey man (or whatever he was ... he was played by "animal movement specialist" Terry Notary, recently seen as the title character in Kong: Skull Island) might be interesting if you watched it on YouTube without knowing any context. I loved lead actor Claes Bang, who I had never seen before. He was perfect in the part, and reminded me of many other actors that I liked ... maybe like a Danish Sebastian Koch. And Elisabeth Moss is always surprising, plus she has that ability to look odd and completely beautiful, often at the same time. (That she had a pet chimpanzee was a bit much.)

The Square has a lot to say about the art world, and the people who live in that world, and most of what it says is pretty cutting, if not quite mean enough. None of the characters come off well, although they are pleasant enough on the surface and not exactly evil underneath. It's too long at almost 2 1/2 hours, but you knew I'd say that. I wasn't bored, so it didn't really matter.

And as for Oscars, it's the first Best Foreign Film nominee I've seen, but I much preferred First They Killed My Father, which didn't get nominated.

Here is one of the more talked-about scenes in the movie:

There is also a funny scene featuring a person with Tourette's, and I am crude enough that I am a sucker for Tourette's jokes. Partly because of that scene, I was reminded of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which also relies on cringe humor. So I'll leave you with this, a restaurant opening where the chef has Tourette's:


logan (james mangold, 2017)

There are good superhero movies and bad superhero movies and everything in between. It's not my favorite genre, but it's hard to avoid them at least once in awhile in an era when it feels like half the movies you see in the theatre fall into that grouping. I do like some of them ... Wonder Woman and Dr. Strange, to note a couple of recent ones. A lot of the time, though, I can't remember if I've seen one or not. And the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe thing just confuses me. Iron Man seems to turn up in all of them, but there are only three movies with Iron Man in the title, and while I'm sure I saw the first one, I'm not so sure about the others. And there are things like the X-Man being owned by a different studio, so they aren't in the MCU, so they invented the Inhumans (I have no idea if I'm getting this right), who are basically X-Men with different names. The Inhumans got their own TV series that flopped, and they turn up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is fairly popular. I know there are people who really care about this, whereas my involvement mostly revolves around wishing they hadn't cancelled Agent Carter.

All of which is a long way of saying I'm not the audience for superhero movies, but I'm not immune. Still, what makes Logan stand out is all the ways in which it isn't typical. Arguably the biggest difference is that it is rated R. It's well-earned. The IMDB Parents Guide calls the violence & gore "severe" ("Realistic depictions of bloody violence are shown", "On-screen body count: 76"). Profanity also gets the "severe" marker ("48 uses of 'fuck', similar number of uses of 'shit', one use of 'dick' and several uses of 'motherfucker'"), and "Frightening & Intense Scenes" ("Numerous intense scenes throughout, including a home invasion, child abduction, a torture scene and attacks on children and adults."). I watch plenty of movies like this, but they aren't usually big franchise pictures.

One result of this is that Logan might appeal to people who didn't bother to see other Wolverine movies. The film doesn't really require any knowledge of the backstory, although that would help. Despite the violence, it's a character study in its essence. Even the action scenes struck me as different, less CGI, more like a Daniel Craig Bond movie.

You know Logan has crossed over when you learn that it got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. There is simply more going on here than just a bunch of powerful mammoths throwing each other around.

What I'm saying is, Logan is a very good movie. In her film debut, young Dafne Keen as Laura is great ... I can see her turning up in future X-Men movies. Her ferocity is another reason Logan affects us ... seeing a kid performing Wolverine-style killings is startling. It's one of the things Wolverine passes along to Laura, when she admits she has done terrible things: "You're gonna have to learn how to live with that." 

The film makes calls to other movies ... Shane is obvious, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome a bit more subtle. Even then, it reminds us of older movies that exist outside the superhero universe. Unlike most of those films, Logan can stand on its own.


film fatales #36: mudbound (dee rees, 2017)

It's difficult at times to figure out what a director's contribution is to a film, since movies are such a collaborative art form. One assumption I make is if a movie has a bunch of good performances by the actors, the director should get at least part of the credit. Well, the director and the person in charge of casting. Mudbound has several actors who are perhaps lesser known than big stars, but who have a track record of good work. Garrett Hedlund will always be Dean Moriarty to me, which is silly, but he has a charisma that warrants a bigger profile. I may just be lucky, but I've seen several of Carey Mulligan's movies, and every one of them has been at the least good. Jason Clarke is always popping up in things where I first think "hey, it's that guy" only to realize he's more than that. Jason Mitchell is just getting started, but he made quite an impression as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton. Jonathan Banks really is a That Guy (IMDB says he has 167 acting credits). And, of course, Mary J. Blige has been nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here (she also has a nomination for Best Song).

So yeah, I think Dee Rees deserves praise for the universally strong performances in Mudbound. (Don't want to forget those heads of casting, Ashley Ingram and Billy Hopkins.) Honestly, I'm a bit surprised Blige got an acting nom ... she's fine, for sure, but she doesn't jump off the screen. Maybe that's why it works ... she underplays a role that could go into all sorts of excesses. And whenever she and Rob Morgan (who plays her husband) are on screen together, they avoid sentimentality and are more believable for it.

Mudbound looks great, which gives me a chance to tip my cap to history: Rachel Morrison is the first woman to get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

Rees does a good job of showing us who these characters are. None of them are mere stereotypes.  The history of America is such that we always know things can take a dark turn, and in fact they do ... very dark. But we are especially affected by the darkness because Rees takes her time getting there. It hurts more knowing these people as intimately as we do. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #35: first they killed my father (angelina jolie, 2017)

There is a big Hollywood name attached to this movie: director Angelina Jolie. But Jolie manages to helm a film that has little of the feel of Hollywood. It's easy to imagine a more mainstream approach ("mainstream" meaning "easy for U.S. audiences to watch"), but Jolie does nothing to make the movie easy. The cast is all-Cambodian, as is much of the crew, and the film is in Khmer. We can be forgiven for wondering what this rich white woman knows, what she can contribute to a story that seems to demand a Cambodian perspective. But First They Killed My Father never seems like anything but a Cambodian movie. Jolie doesn't disappear ... it's not like there is no director serving as a guiding force for the film. But she gives herself over to the material. Jolie read the original memoir by Loung Ung and reached out to the author, beginning a long friendship that eventually resulted in this film (the two collaborated on the screenplay). And while Jolie works to let the Cambodia story emerge from a Cambodian perspective, she is not just a typical rich white woman. She has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Cambodia.

The key artistic decision was to tell the story from the point of view of young Loung, who was five to nine years old during the period depicted in the movie. Jolie sticks to this point of view almost without fail, giving a strong, centered feel to the film. There isn't a lot of explanation here ... you learn a lot about Cambodia, but this may not be the best place to start if Cambodian history is your interest, because the insistence of the focus on what Loung experiences effectively narrows what we see. When you are living through troubled times and you are five years old, you might not know why things are happening, but you nonetheless experience them. Ultimately, First They Killed My Father is one of the finest movies about war from a child's perspective.

Special mention must be made of Sareum Srey Moch, the young actress who plays Loung. Like the movie itself, she offers greatness without exactly drawing attention to herself. You can't always see her acting, not because she seems amateurish, but because she seems naturally "real". Without her, the movie would still have good intentions, but with her, the movie approaches greatness. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

atomic blonde (david leitch, 2017)

You've got Charlize Theron as a stylish, ass-kicking spy. You've got some good fight sequences. What more could one ask for?

Well, I could ask for Mad Max: Fury Road, for starters. Atomic Blonde promises a fun time, and for the most part it delivers, but that's it. Without Charlize Theron, you've got nothing. She looks cool, she did most of her own stunts, and she's reasonably believable in the ass-kicking scenes. (Heck, she's taller than her Fury Road co-star, Tom Hardy.)

But, as is usually the case with spy thrillers, the plot lost me ... I'm not sure I even understood the final reveal, which is OK, because I didn't understand most of them. You're left with Theron and those fight scenes, and she's fine, but I just rewatched Fury Road last week, and Atomic Blonde is no Fury Road. And the fight scenes are pretty good, but the standard has been raised in recent years. Anyone who has seen The Raid or The Raid 2 will be unimpressed by Atomic Blonde. Theron is good, but sometimes she seems like Tricia Helfer with an Oscar. (If it's not clear, I mean that as a compliment to both actors.) 6/10.


strong island (yance ford, 2017)

Yance Ford presents this documentary as if it were an art film. Of course, all documentaries, indeed all films, are to some extent "art films", but documentaries often rely on a straightforward offering of facts. There are "facts" in Strong Island, but Ford's use of unusual transitions (fading into and out of black in order to shorten lengthy interviews) and the specificity of his camera shots (Ford's mother, a key interviewee, almost always appears in medium shot, while interviews with Ford show him in extreme close-up) work to direct us away from the narrative. Ford has a story to tell, but he seems more interested in the arc of the lives of the characters than he is with giving us "what really happened".

This is not a Rashomon-style film, with multiple perspectives describing the same event from different perspectives. Ford wants to show emotional realities, and when the various people tell their stories, he shows how events change their lives. Strong Island is about the murder of Ford's brother, but there is no recreation of that event, and only a few times do we even get details about the murder. Whenever we do get details, the purpose isn't to explain the crime, but rather to demonstrate how it affects the people who lived, family, friends, all of whom have their lives changed by the murder. Everyone at some point blames themselves, trying to figure out what they might have done differently to prevent the situation that resulted in death. Throughout, Strong Island is extremely emotional ... at times it's hard to watch, especially when Ford speaks in closeup.

The underlying theme ... it's more than subtext, but it's secondary to the emotional trauma ... is of race in America, and how it destroys lives, one at a time. Ford worked on the film for ten years, and when he started, names like Trayvon Martin were still in our future. Ford carefully constructs the history of his family so that we know that the story would be quite different if they were white. And in the ten years he was making Strong Island, it gradually seemed like every week there was another story of a dead African-American male taken down under racist circumstances. The story of Strong Island fits into those patterns, but Ford mostly leaves it to the audience to place things in a social context that reflects on our country's racism. Ford wants to show how his family was destroyed by the murder of his brother ... we can extend that to a general dissolution of society, but what grabs us as we are watching is the intense emotionalism of the Ford family story.

Ford doesn't present the material in a chronological fashion, and he cheats a bit by withholding some information until the movie has run for an hour. But by the time we get that information, Ford has given us equally important information about the Fords and their history, from the time the parents married, to the birth of their kids, to their move to Long Island, so that when tragedy strikes, it hurts especially hard because we know these people. 9/10.


what i watched last weekend

Call this my "Let's Guess What Will Get Oscar Nominations" post.

Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017). Icarus is only the second feature (and first documentary) directed by Bryan Fogel. Fogel is, among other things, an amateur cyclist who decides to try performance-enhancing drugs to increase his chance of winning a big amateur race. His scheme leads him to Russian Grigory Rodchenkov, who is the real star of the movie. He has charisma, he has a backstory (he was the head of Russia's anti-doping lab, where he worked to help Russian athletes escape being caught using drugs), and he is the gateway for an examination of Russia and doping that leads, cliche or not, right to the top, i.e. Vladimir Putin. This would make a good one-hour documentary, even 90 minutes if you include the unreliable narrator aspect of Rodchenkov's presentation of himself. But Icarus runs two hours, with Fogel wasting far too much time on the setup, in which he is, of course, centrally involved. If Fogel had spent a couple of minutes explaining how Rodchenkov enters the scene, he'd have a more focused (and shorter) movie. Instead, Fogel, purposely or not, puts himself at the front of the narrative more than is necessary. Icarus is a solid film, but it's no classic. 7/10.

Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Here we have a "based on real life" historical drama about England, Churchill, and World War II, set in May 1940. Wright doesn't make any mistakes about who is the center of his movie: the larger-than-life Winston Churchill (with an interesting performance by Gary Oldman, who stops just short of hamming it up in creating a believable Churchill). Darkest Hour is close enough to the real events that it's mostly nitpicking to point out where it deviates. Ultimately, your reaction to the movie may depend in large part on your opinion of the real-life Winston Churchill. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make sure to include just enough unlikable details to forestall any criticism that they have created a hagiography ... Churchill drank all the time, he smoked stinky cigars all the time, none of his fellow politicians liked him. But we get nothing of his imperialist tendencies, and I suppose it could be argued that this not a movie about that, but nonetheless, I liked the film less because Churchill was the hero, and I distrusted the film a bit because, well, because Churchill was the hero. I might feel differently if I were British ... it is certainly true that Churchill was vital in leading Britain during the war. Suffice to say that the Churchill family apparently likes the movie.

There was one scene I found objectionable, and I'd think most would agree with me, except Owen Gleiberman called it a "showpiece sequence". At a crucial moment, Churchill decides to take the subway, and ... well, I'll let Gleiberman explain:

He introduces himself to the citizens, communing deeply with each one of their names, and asks them whether Britain should stand tall against tyranny. The answer comes roaring back, from citizen after shining-eyed citizen: Yes! Stand against tyranny! The scene culminates with Churchill offering words of Macaulay that are completed, in a flawless quotation, by a vibrant black Londoner. It’s all so rosy and multiculti and inspiring that you feel like you’re seeing a remake of “My Beautiful Laundrette” directed by the ghost of David Lean.

Of course, that’s what’s utterly fabricated and even eye-rolling about it. It’s a scene that’s — transparently — too good to be true. Yet it plays as Oldman’s Oscar-clinching moment: the clip that was made to be shown, in triumph, on the telecast. It’s the best scene in the movie, or the worst. Or maybe both.

Count me on Team Eye-Roll. The black guy ... the only black guy on the subway car, pretty much the only black guy in the movie ... he's the one literate enough to complete Churchill's quotation. He's a concoction designed simply to show that Churchill listened to all of the people, even the black guy. Churchill, the man who famously said, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

So you have a lead performance worthy of an Oscar in an interesting movie that, when it falters, fails miserably. 7/10.