revisiting the 9s: dunkirk (christopher nolan, 2017)

[This is the tenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

When I first saw Dunkirk in 2018, I wrote:

Dunkirk is a success in almost every way.... here, I think [Christopher Nolan] 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.

A second viewing helped me realize that one of the best things about Dunkirk is the way it defines heroism. Too often, even an anti-war film gives us heroes to believe in who are essentially good at war, so we're rooting for people who go against the movie's theme. Nolan mostly bypasses this problem, perhaps because the story of Dunkirk isn't a story of victory, but a story of successful evacuation. The most memorable heroes, exemplified by Mark Rylance as Dawson, one of the civilian sailors called on to save the day, are steadfast, but their job isn't a gung-ho slaughter of the enemy, but rather to pull off a rescue operation.

The tremendous special effects (not CGI) truly bring home the horrors of war. Dunkirk is an amazing technical achievement. I don't know that I'm ready to give it the treasured 10/10, but it wouldn't bother me if someone did so.

Hans Zimmer's score is tremendous. I liked this video so much that I included it in my original post, and I'm going to include it again here.

david attenborough: a life on our planet (alastair fothergill, jonathan hughes, and keith scholey, 2020)

New technology (better to say  "new-to-me technology") is problematic, at first, precisely because it can be so impressive. I spent so much time enjoying the quality of the 4k picture on A Life on Our Planet that I often forgot to pay attention to the message David Attenborough was trying to get across. Which is no criticism of Attenborough, who is a veteran of explaining nature to us. The irony is that, while I am admiring the new-to-me technology, part of me can't wait for the inevitable moment when I will no longer consciously notice the improvements over past technologies.

It's not that Attenborough tells us something new in this 2020 film. Our world is in danger, or rather, while nature always abides, the changes we are making to it could lead to the extinction of human beings. He refers to the film as his "witness testimony" ... he's been there and done that, and his presentation of nature here is personalized. He carries an authority with him that is convincing, and there is a sadness as he describes the ways we are screwing up. But the final section of the film is more positive, for Attenborough doesn't think it is a lost cause, at least not yet. There are things we can do, starting immediately, that will help restore nature to an earlier state, one that will lead to balance, a place with room for humans. It's effective, because his list of problems are believable, and then he carries that believability over to his proposed solutions. Of course, humans still have to act on those solutions, and there's no guarantee that will happen.

Meanwhile, the beauty of nature in the film makes you want to preserve it, to rebuild it. That beauty is in some ways the film's best argument in favor of nature.

what i watched

The Kid Detective (Evan Morgan, 2020). Someone recommended this to me, although I admit I have no idea who that person was. I doubt I would have seen it if the mystery person hadn't suggested it. It's written and directed by Evan Morgan, who is new to me, and stars Adam Brody, who I know little about. There were a couple of That Guys in the cast (Tzi Ma, Peter MacNeill), and Sophie Nélisse, who impressed me as the younger version of Melanie Lynskey's character in Yellowjackets. Morgan plays around a bit with the detective genre, and things move along nicely. It's a good enough way to spend 100 minutes, but I suspect in six months, I'll have forgotten I saw it. Here are the first nine minutes:

Geezer Cinema: Downton Abbey: A New Era (Simon Curtis, 2022). This one is easy to summarize: if you loved the show, you'll love the movie (and you've likely already seen it). If you know nothing about Downton Abbey, you don't need to watch this movie. Curtis and creator/writer Julian Fellowes take care of the fan base from the start. If you are a fan, you'll enjoy seeing all of the characters get their moments, and of the new cast members, there's Dominic West and Nathalie Baye to enjoy. I've been with Downton Abbey since the beginning, and while I have my problems with its representation of the class structure, it does suck you in.

geezer cinema: rush (ron howard, 2013)

At this point, reviews of Ron Howard movies write themselves, i.e. I can just cut and paste from earlier reviews and it will make perfect sense. He has made movies I liked OK (Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon) and movies I really didn't like (Apollo 13), but I've never loved any of them. I once wrote of Howard, "Ron Howard is the great disappearing director of our times. He doesn't make bad movies, he doesn't make great movies. He makes movies that get 6 out of 10 and he makes movies that get 7 out of 10. In other words, I don't have the slightest idea what Ron Howard brings to a movie." And about Cinderella Man, the story of boxer James Braddock, I wrote, "When asked why he fights, Braddock says it's to keep milk on the family table, and there's Ron Howard in a nutshell ... while this movie has tiny pretensions towards statements about poverty, they are overwhelmed by sappiness, and the sap is never, ever balanced with even a bit of knowing irony ... Ron Howard believes in that glass of milk."

Not all Ron Howard movies are sappy, and as I say, once in a while he makes a good movie. But there is no way to tell in advance, because Ron Howard's directing is anonymous.

Rush is about the rivalry between two Formula One drivers in the 1970s, Niki Lauda and James Hunt. I admit I knew nothing about either driver, or about Formula One racing in general, which actually helped in a way ... I didn't know how the rivalry would turn out, so that aspect of the film had suspense for me. The movie centers on their relationship more than it does on the racing ... the racing is the background for the relationship, rather than the other way around. Hunt and Lauda are different kinds of people striving towards the same goal, and those differences drive the film (no pun intended) in good ways. The racing scenes seem realistic, although we're constantly being told by a track announcer what is happening, because it isn't always clear the way it is during a horse race. There are some women characters, but they are very secondary ... this isn't about them, except as they fit into the lives of the racers. Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth give appropriate performances as not-too-perfect heroes. The editing of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill is effective, as is the score by Hans Zimmer.

There is no reason not to see Rush. It's appealing, it's not boring, it's got Thor. It's just that I've about given up hope that a Ron Howard movie will ever be better than "no reason not to see it".

geezer cinema: wind river (taylor sheridan, 2017)

A bit of a cheat in the Geezer Cinema tradition. It was my wife's turn to pick, but she had hip replacement surgery, so she told me to pick for her, i.e. not what I wanted to see necessarily, but something she might have picked if she wasn't on pain meds. As it happened, I'd been intending to watch Wind River for some time, after it was recommended to us by our nephew. So it was an easy choice, and he was glad we finally got around to it ("it's about time!").

I knew nothing about this one coming in, which makes for a nice surprise when the movie is as good as Wind River. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen co-star in roles completely different from their Marvel appearances. Renner is a game tracker in Wyoming and Olsen is a young FBI agent who comes to Wyoming to help with a homicide that took place on a Native American reservation. The refreshing thing about Wind River lies in how it sidesteps clichés so common you expect them without thinking. The tracker and the agent appreciate the skills each brings, and they become closer over the course of the film, but they don't get romantic. There's none of that first they fight, then they come together routine. There is an awareness of the conflicts between the Native Americans and the whites, but it's not simple, and there is crossover respect in some cases.

I haven't seen other movies directed by Taylor Sheridan, but he is familiar to me, not least for his time on the series Sons of Anarchy. He wrote the scripts for Sicario (a good film), Hell or High Water (a better film that won him an Oscar nomination), and Without Remorse (which wasn't very good). He gets good performances from his cast in Wind River, and the whole film is a success on the level of Hell or High Water.

geezer cinema/film fatales #137: mothering sunday (eva husson, 2021)

Before watching Mothering Sunday, we saw a preview for the latest picture in the Downton Abbey franchise. I watched Downton Abbey, even saw the first movie, even enjoyed it, but I never got over thinking that Julian Fellowes was a bit too fond of the upper classes.

Eva Husson never makes that mistake with Mothering Sunday. The upper classes aren't vilified (and it's only fair to note that the people in Mothering Sunday aren't as rich as those in Downton Abbey). They are characters with good points and flaws, just like the rest of us. The central romance, between the wealthy Paul and the maid Jane, is a problem for them both in that Paul is engaged to another wealthy person, and thus Paul and Jane will never be accepted openly. But not only do both of them recognize this, Jane can live with it just as much as can Paul, maybe even more so. Jane is eagerly observant ... it's no surprise that she eventually becomes a writer. She values her relationship with Paul, but it doesn't define her, nor does she let her place in the class system stop her from achieving her dream of writing.

The novel on which Mothering Sunday is based was written by a man, Graham Swift, but the film was written and directed by women (Alice Burch and Eva Husson respectively), and they explicitly offer a work that sidesteps the male gaze with a woman-centered perspective. We don't see Jane as Paul sees her, we see Jane as she might see herself. This is especially clear in the many scenes of nudity. The sex scenes are intimate without being exploitative, and the nudity isn't about how hot actors Odessa Young and Josh O'Connor are, but about how comfortable they are in their own skin. There is a lengthy segment where Jane, alone in Paul's estate, wanders the rooms, naked, learning about Paul's life, pausing at things that interest her. She's naked because they made love before Paul left, because it's natural, not because she is hot.

This perspective informs the film as a whole. I wish there was more to it ... I'm not generally taken with tales of the upper classes. But it's gorgeous to look at, and there is some impressive acting, with Odessa Young leading the cast (Colin Firth is particularly good in the stiff-upper-lip stereotype). It's a good movie, and very promising for director Husson.

film fatales #134: high life (claire denis, 2018)

This is the twenty-fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 25 is called "Arthouse Sci-Fi Week":

So you take sci-fi, a genre known for its contemplation of human nature through the use of futurism, and shove it through the filter of thoughtful, less than accessible cinema, and what do you get?

A headscratcher, probably. But a good one.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Arthouse Sci-Fi film from Rob's list.

I didn't look forward to this challenge category, but looking at the Arthouse Sci-Fi list above, I found several movies I liked, including La Jetée, Children of Men, and Melancholia. And I've liked the few Claire Denis films I've seen.

My favorite bit of trivia about this film: "Claire Denis's first English language film after 13 feature films in French. She stated the reason she made it in English was that she simply couldn't imagine people speaking French in space, only either English or Russian."

The first time I read Faulkner's classic The Sound and the Fury, I was completely confused. The novel is written in parts, each of which has a different narrator. The first narrator is mentally disabled. When I began reading, I found that narrative hard to follow, and at first I didn't know about the narrator's disability, nor did I know there would be other narrators as the book progressed. The non-linear stream of consciousness left me befuddled. Once I had finished the book, once I understood the structure and had an idea of what Faulkner was up to, the novel became, if not completely clear, at least more understandable.

In High Life, Denis uses a non-linear structure, but she doesn't tell us she is doing this. We don't get the usual markers of "THREE YEARS EARLIER" or whatever that are so common today. And so I was confused at the beginning, much as I was in The Sound and the Fury. Eventually the structure becomes more clear, and if I watched the movie again, I wouldn't be thrown off by the opening. But it was unsettling, and while there is nothing wrong with that approach, it threw me off and made me wonder how I would get through the entire movie.

Denis takes her time, but once I connected with the flow of the film, I liked what I saw. The almost hallucinatory feel matched what I imagine life would be like on an endless exploration into space. The interactions of the various people on the ship are intriguing, and the open-ended conclusion is satisfactory. High Life isn't quite up to my favorite Denis movies (Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum), but it adds to the 100% list of Claire Denis movies I have seen and liked. Bonus points for casting André 3000. #379 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

geezer cinema: spencer (pablo larraín, 2021)

I can't say I was disappointed. I am not a fan of biopics, so my expectations were low. Pablo Larraín deserves credit for doing something different than the usual biopic. The story is limited to three days, December 24-26, 1991. There is no attempt to get every event of Diana's life into the movie, and that's a good thing. Spencer is a psychological study of a woman ... it happens that we know of this woman, we probably think we know a lot about her even though we've never met her, and the real-life events that helped make Diana who she was influence the portrait of her in the movie. But it's more psychology than it is a tale of royalty.

I've described a movie I might like. As I say, I'm not a lover of biopics, but Spencer isn't like most biopics, and I am not a lover of movies about royalty, but Spencer is more about Diana than it is about royalty. So why didn't I like it?

I like Kristen Stewart, and before this, I'd never seen a movie with Stewart that I didn't like. She was often the best thing in the movies I saw. Personal Shopper in particular showcased her abilities, not least because she's on screen for almost the entire movie. At the time, I wrote:

Stewart has to carry the film ... I'm hard pressed to remember more than a couple of minutes where she isn't on the screen. She has a way of underplaying that matches well with the movie, and if you aren't paying attention, you might think she's barely acting at all. But she holds our attention throughout, and draws us into her character, which means she's acting up a storm, only without actually acting up a storm. It's a very good performance.

Well, she is on screen for almost all of Spencer, and she underplays, and she's gotten her first Oscar nomination, and she's already won several awards for her performance here, and I'm happy for her, because she is a fine actress. But she is awful in Spencer. Some of it is the fault of the film's construction ... at the beginning of the film, Diana is going through an existential crisis that leaves her depressed, and at the end of the film, the only real change is that she has taken her first steps towards freeing herself of that crisis. But for most of the two hours, she is the same as she was when we first meet her. There's nothing that Stewart can latch onto to show she is capable of more than existential depression. Critic Mick LaSalle went to town on the movie:

It turns a natural talent into a mannered freak. It takes one of the most gifted screen actresses of her generation and casts her out to sea with nothing to hold onto but a hideous script that’s all attitude without depth or understanding.... Stewart is usually the most relaxed of performers, which allows her to follow the inspiration of the moment in her reactions. Here, watching her, one can almost feel her neck tense as she speaks every line. Again, not Diana’s tension, but Stewart’s.

Spencer is liked by many critics, and for all I know, Stewart will win that Oscar. I've seen four of the five nominees, and I'd put her at the bottom. And that's why I was disappointed, because Kristen Stewart is worth watching no matter the movie, but Spencer somehow squashes that.

One last thing: I made a note to say something about the music in the movie, which I'll do when I want to remember to praise something. And Jonny Greenwood has gotten a lot of positive attention for his work here. But I honestly can no longer remember why I made that note to myself, and I only saw Spencer two days ago. Blame it on my old age, I guess.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

geezer cinema: cyrano (joe wright, 2021)

I can only speak for myself, but Cyrano would be a lot better if it wasn't a musical. The actual singing is OK ... it is fun to learn that Peter Dinklage can sing, as if there was anything he couldn't do. He is easily the best thing about the movie. But saying he can sing and saying he should sing are not the same thing. He is such a great actor, he doesn't need these songs.

And this goes for everyone else in the movie. Haley Bennett, who plays Roxanne, has quite a nice voice, in fact. The songs are written by members of The National, a band that has been around for more than 20 years, so you know you're getting a level of professionalism, at least (I rarely listen to them, myself, so I have no opinion on their qualities). The songs in the film may help the narrative along, but that is not my favorite kind of music. The presentation of the songs is fairly low-key, which fits with the overall tone of the film, but I don't think people are going to leave the theater singing the songs. Only one of them stood out for me in the entire film, "Wherever I Fall", sung by a few soldiers before they go out on a suicidal mission (Glen Hansard is one of the soldiers).

Cyrano is a family affair. Director Joe Wright has a daughter with Haley Bennett.  Writer Erica Schmidt is married to Peter Dinklage. I imagine it was a nice film to make for all concerned. I usually like Wright's films, especially his Pride & Prejudice. Cyrano is nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, and that makes sense. I've seen three of the other four nominees, and while I'm not the best judge, Cyrano was as good as any of them (I might pick Cruella, which isn't much of a movie, but the costumes raise it up a bit). I'd say Cyrano is a harmless movie, and some people might love it, even if I didn't.

Here is the kind of thing that's missing from Cyrano. You could say the comparison is unfair ... Joe Wright is a fine director, but Steven Spielberg is one of the great directors. West Side Story is an acknowledged classic (although I'd argue it's not nearly as good as its reputation). But you take perhaps West Side Story's most memorable song (i.e. people still remember it many decades later), toss in one of the year's best performances from Ariana DeBose, and let Spielberg loose with a camera and a musical, and you get something like this:

music friday: poly styrene: i am a cliché (celeste bell & paul sng, 2021)

I Am a Cliché is a mixture of approaches that don't always cohere, not that it matters too much. It tells the story of Poly Styrene, lead singer of the punk band X-Ray Spex. It is told in part by her daughter, Celeste Bell, who is co-director of the film and who appears throughout. And, to a much smaller extent, it's the story of punk rock.

Poly Styrene is a fascinating person, worthy of a feature-length film. I found myself wanting more of her, although the story her daughter tells is vital to the film's point of view. At times, though, we move from learning about Poly Styrene to learning what is was like to have Poly Styrene for a mother, which itself is worthy of a film. It makes sense that the two stories are combined here. I just felt like each of those stories deserved more space. Still, it's hard to make a boring film with Poly Styrene at its center.

My reactions are mixed. Am I to look at this as I would any other documentary about a musician? Or is the film overwhelmed by my interest in Styrene and her band? Do I write about the film, or the music? And what about the person at the center (and her daughter)? I may be obsessing in the wrong direction ... I liked I Am a Cliché, although my main interest was in Poly Styrene. You wouldn't go here to look at what the punk community in England in the late-70s was like, because it's not about the community as much as it's about Styrene.

She was about the same age when X-Ray Spex started as Billie Eilish is now. In both cases, there's a precocity that impresses. To realize that these teenagers are so astute about music and culture, and so attuned to writing great lyrics, shouldn't surprise me, but it always does. But again, this is me talking about music when I'm supposedly writing about a movie.

I'm glad the film exists, glad that Celeste Bell was able to connect with her mother in the process of making the movie. But I came to the film for one reason: it's was about a musician I liked. It could have been worse ... it's easy to imagine a biopic that fudged with facts and garbled the context of the times.

I also watched a 1979 segment from a BBC show ... the episode was called "Who Is Poly Styrene?" I love that the BBC thought she was worthy of this.

Here is X-Ray Spex with their most famous song:

And here is an essay I wrote many years ago that was later published in an anthology:

"Oh Bondage Up Yours!: Thoughts on the Rhino Punk Anthology"