Sunday 27 August 2017

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

Of all the modern directors who are artistic descendants of Stanley Kubrick, perhaps the two most notable are Christopher Nolan and David Fincher.

Both partake of Kubrick's chilly brilliance to some extent. But, for my money, David Fincher is the better and more interesting film maker. Because his movies have humour and passion. 

Whereas Christopher Nolan's pictures tend to be intellectual puzzles — Memento, Inception, Interstellar — and now Dunkirk. 

Although it's theoretically a straightforward story of an historical event, Dunkirk has a complex flashback structure that I didn't really grasp until the second time I saw the movie. 

(There are onscreen titles to explain the structure, but they just confused me further.)

In fact, in an interview, Nolan says, "It's the most experimental structure, or radical structure, I've taken on since Memento."

To go back to the comparison with Fincher for a moment, even at their most ferocious, Nolan's movies (for example, the Batman franchise) don't match the harrowing impact of Fincher at his best (Seven, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl).

But there is plenty of ferocity on display in Dunkirk. The combat scenes are painfully suspenseful and very powerful. Indeed the movie shocks and seizes you in its opening moments and never lets go.

We wince and flinch at the perpetual assaults from an unseen enemy. And they are actually called 'the enemy' throughout, not 'the Germans'. Similarly the heroes don't talk about getting back to England — they always speak of 'home.'

Was this a cynical ploy by Nolan to simplify the story for young American audiences who know nothing about geography and even less about history? 
If so, it worked, because the movie is an enormous hit in the States.

Or was it an attempt to raise the conflict to something emblematic, universal, mythical? 
(When he first pitched the idea of Dunkirk to Warner Bros, Christopher Nolan emphasised the "potentially universal appeal. The simplicity of the story, the primal nature of the situation.")
If so, it worked too. Because Dunkirk is certainly a masterpiece which will reach out to any audience, anywhere, and perhaps in any time.

It has its flaws, though. Since they're all wearing uniforms, most of the actors look so similar it's impossible to tell them apart. 

The early section of the movie seems to be the adventures of a pair of identical twins. And this is before their faces get covered with oil.

Nolan praises Alfred Hitchcock for his ability to engage us emotionally. "Nobody was better than Hitchcock at manipulating an audience's sympathies." But the confusing similarity of the leading men is not a mistake Hitchcock would ever have made. 

And then there's Hans Zimmer's score. It incorporates the sound of a pocket watch of Nolan's which has "a particularly insistent ticking." The resulting music delivers such unremitting harrowing tension that it eventually becomes a nuisance. 

And when it finally breaks into a big rhapsodic climax — to welcome the arrival of the rescue boats — the music fails to measure up, conjuring soupy synthesiser schmaltz.

But the beautiful colour photography is simply stunning. Nolan has spoken of the superiority of real film ("photochemical film") over digital photography. "Digital is never going to be like film... I think it has a very unique impact."

And Dunkirk certainly supports his thesis. The brilliant cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also did Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of my favourite films of all time.

And taken in its entirety Dunkirk is a remarkable success, both artistically and commercially. You should certainly see it, and see it on the biggest and best screen you have access to. (It was shot in IMAX).

Yet when I walked out of the cinema I didn't feel elated or uplifted — or that I'd seen a great movie. I just felt numb.

In the end, perhaps Dunkirk's greatest achievement is to make me look forward keenly not to Christopher Nolan's next movie, but David Fincher's.

(The Christopher Nolan quotes are either taken from the Radio 4 program which I've linked to above, or Sight & Sound Magazine. Image credits: A surprising plethora of posters at good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday 20 August 2017

Atomic Blonde by Johnstad and Johnston

Set just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller starring Charlize Theron as a British operative, Lorraine Broughton, sent on a dubious mission which will involve considerable killing, betrayal, smoking and lesbian sex.

Sounds irresistible? Well, the movie begins as the usual confection of glib comic book violence (indeed it is based on a graphic novel series written by Antony Johnston and drawn by Sam Hart). 

But oddly, and agreeably, it grows more serious as it goes along. Eventually you actually find yourself caring whether Eddie Marsan's Stasi defector (codenamed 'Spyglass') survives to join his wife and child in the West.

Marsan is dignified in what could have been a really one dimensional role and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond, Kingsman) turns in what may be her best performance yet as Delphine Lasalle (good name), a French spy whose involvement with Broughton becomes more than professional.

But the main support for Theron is David Percival (James McAvoy), the principal British agent in Berlin. He smokes a lot and wears sleeveless sweater vests.

I have to say I'm getting bored with James McAvoy doing his shtick. Like Ewan McGregor he's an immensely talented actor who is becoming calcified by his mannerisms, seemingly giving the same default performance repeatedly. 

On the other hand, his breathtaking work in Split — an otherwise failed film, should have earned McAvoy an Oscar. But here, as usual, he's busy being the sleazy operator, smoking and swearing.

There's altogether too much swearing in Atomic Blonde. (And the smoking. It just gets ridiculous.) The film isn't as funny, daring or transgressive as it seems to think it is. But it's still a pretty good action movie...

The screenplay is by Kurt Johnstad (who worked on Act of Valor and 300) and the director is David Leitch. This is his first directing credit but he has extensive experience as a stunt coordinator and stuntman.

And it shows. The best thing about Atomic Blonde are the gritty hand-to-hand fight scenes. Charlize Theron acquits herself well and is suitably athletic (though I never bought her British accent for a second).

But, for my money, if you want an action movie about a kick-ass chick involved in espionage shenanigans, there are at least three superior examples which I'd like to bring to your attention...

Salt starring Angelina Jolie — a spy movie which was apparently written with a male star in mind before Jolie stepped in and asked for the script to remain substantially unchanged. She did her own stunts, too. Go, Angelina!

Haywire, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Gina Carano, who was actually a professional kick boxer and martial arts champion. And the hand-to-hand combat in this film is unforgettable, giving Atomic Blonde a run for its money and maybe even outclassing it.

Then there's Unlocked, a well written and engrossing espionage thriller in which Noomi Rapace displays a tremendous physicality in the action sequences. And her character, Alice Racine, is so professional and ruthless she could eat Lorraine Broughton for lunch. No sexual innuendo intended.

Atomic Blonde isn't bad and as, I said, it gets better as it goes along. But if you're in the market for a female spy movie to rival Jason Bourne I'd recommend any of those three. Particularly Unlocked, which may still be on a big screen near you.

(Image credits: all posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 13 August 2017

Valerian By Besson, Christin & Mézières

I am not necessarily a huge fan of Luc Besson, so normally if I'd heard he'd invested vast sums of his own money in a movie, and the movie had tanked, I would hardly be moved...

But as it happens, my heart goes out to him. Because that movie is Valerian, and it's enormous fun. I urge you to go see it before it disappears. 

(And, judging by the empty cinema where I saw it last Saturday night, that may not be long. Which is a real shame.)

I first encountered the Valerian comics, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières when I was working on Doctor Who, and I found them enchanting. 

The thing I remember most vividly about these colourful science fiction adventures is how they featured exotic creatures and their behaviour, instead of exotic devices and their function  — biology instead of technology.

And writer-director Luc Besson has succeeded in being true to this. Indeed, it is a pleasure to report how well he has succeeded, generally. Valerian (or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, to give it its full unwieldy title) may be rather silly...

But it is fun.

In fact, Besson seems to have absorbed the lessons of the Guardians of the Galaxy and has crafted a colourful, exotic, fast-moving science fiction romp which is cheerfully entertaining. In short, it's a Gallic Guardians of the Galaxy.

The movie's theme and treatment Besson also seems to be interestingly influenced by Ender's Game, another science fiction film with a baby-faced male lead. Plus, there's a dash of Avatar in here.

Now, the Valerian comics are actually a double act — Laureline and Valérian (the acute accent over the 'e' seems to have got lost to simplify matters), with the hero's female partner getting equal billing.

In the movie Laureline is played by Cara Delevingne, a successful model who began her career in movies with Face of an Angel, one of my least favourite films of all time. 

Here, though, she has a worthwhile movie, and her acting ability has developed pleasingly. And of course Besson is a heavily visual director, so it's no surprise that Delevingne looks so fetching clumping around in space armour and big boots. 

The eponymous Valerian is played by Dane DeHaan, who recently starred in the curious but memorable horror movie A Cure for Wellness. The two principals share baby-faced good looks and diminutive stature and have a routine, but entertaining, spiky almost-romance thing going on. They make a good team. 
Alexandre Desplat's music is another asset of the film. In an early sequence on the planet Mül he does an astonishing job of modulating from paradisiacal bliss to apocalyptic terror.

But it is in its visuals that Valerian is at its most stunning. Thierry Arbogast's cinematography is outstanding, and so is Hugues Tissandier's production design.

And Olivier Bériot's costumes must also be singled out for praise. (In the long list of credits at the end for the costume department there's the hilariously bleak one 'Dying and Ageing'.)

If Valerian has a weakness it's in Besson's dialogue — people bark "Copy that" in response to information, no less than seven times during the film. And there are plenty of other verbal clichés. 

So it's a pity the writer-director didn't get someone to do a quick dialogue polish for him. Particularly since his script is deceptively superb in its deft structure, expertly interweaving its plot threads and action sequences. (When this sort of thing is done successfully it looks easy, but it's actually very difficult to achieve.)

Incidentally, a re-writer might also have been able to fix an egregious lapse of scientific knowledge. Because unfortunately Besson seems to think "700 million miles" is a huge distance in space... 

In fact it wouldn't even get you out of our solar system.

Copy that.

(Image credits: Lots of lovely posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 6 August 2017

The Beguiled (the 1971 film) by Traverse, Cullinan et al

This is the original of the movie which was recently and badly botched by Sofia Coppola, as I've discussed. 

As I said in that post, the main virtue of the remake is that it prompted me to re-watch the 1971 version, directed by Don Siegel, which is a seriously impressive film.

I also synopsised the plot in my previous post. Basically The Beguiled is a fever dream about a wounded Union soldier who ends up convalescing in a girl's school behind enemy lines in the Deep South. 

His presence there lights the fuse on a powder keg of repressed sexuality. And it doesn't help that the soldier, McBurney (Clint Eastwood) is a manipulative, lying bastard.

The 1971 movie has some minor flaws. The characters are given a few silly internal monologue voice-overs, and there are a couple of ill judged and somewhat clumsy flashbacks concerning an incestuous relationship between Martha (Geraldine Page), who runs the school, and her late brother.

But other than that, this is a masterpiece

In particular, Bruce Surtees's cinematography is astonishing and beautiful. His method for evoking candlelight is moody, effective and breathtaking, with superb use of deep shadow and colour.

This is in complete contrast to Philippe Le Sourd's dull and insipid work on the remake, which always looks lifeless, colourless and underlit.

Amazingly, The Beguiled was Bruce Surtees's first credit as a cinematographer after years labouring as a camera operator.

Lalo Schifrin's score for the original is also superior to Laura Karpman's for the remake.

But where the 1971 movie really excels is in the quality of the acting and the writing. The cast here is stunning, vastly stronger than in the remake.
For years Eastwood cited this film as his best work and he was right. His performance is startling. I'd tended to dismiss him as a star who didn't act (and didn't need to).

But as soon as McBurney loses his leg, Eastwood's performance moves up several gears. He's entirely effective and believable. 
Mae Mercer as the slave Hallie — a character entirely white washed out of the Coppola movie — is extraordinarily powerful, convincing and dignified.

Then there's Elizabeth Hartman, immensely moving in a beautifully nuanced performance as the spinster teacher Edwina whose love is awakened by the undeserving McBurney.

And Geraldine Page who is frighteningly authentic and hard as nails as Martha Farnsworth, the school's owner.

Special mention must also be made of Pamelyn Ferdin as the youngest girl, Amy, the death of whose pet turtle triggers the final tragic phase of the story.

As well written as the film is, the writing credits on it are a nest of snakes: basically it was begun by the distinguished screenwriter Albert Maltz (This Gun for Hire, Naked City). He delivered several drafts entitled 'Johnny McB'. 

Maltz refused to write anything negative about the female characters, placing all the blame on McBurney. And he flattened out the Gothic and horrific aspects of the story. Maltz was fired and ended up using a pseudonym on the film, as John B. Sherry. 

The next writer was Irene Kamp who also had a strong track record (Paris Blues, The Sandpiper). She wrote two drafts (entitled 'A Nest of Sparrows') which focused heavily on the female characters, marginalised McBurney and — ludicrously — gave the story a happy ending.

Crucially, though, Kamp is said to have strengthened the role of Hallie the slave. After being taken off the picture she too resorted to a pseudonym, Grimes Grice. Apparently the name of her uncle.

The director Don Siegel was very unhappy with all these scripts. He had a clear idea of what he wanted, which was a movie which was faithful to the book. 

(Siegel's vision of The Beguiled was entirely admirable. He perceptively compared the story to the writings of Ambrose Bierce. And he tried to hire the artist Edward Gorey to create the poster for the movie, before the studio overruled him.)

Finally Don Siegel enlisted the help of his associate producer, Claude Traverse, who had a similar admiration for the book and succeeded in coming up with an excellent version of the script.

It's ironic in the extreme that the one writer who managed to crack the story didn't get any screen credit for it. And that the two who did insisted on hiding behind pseudonyms.

So, let's pay full credit to Claude Traverse here. And of course to Thomas Cullinan, whose original novel enabled everyone to go to work and collect a paycheck in the first place.

I have drawn on several books for the version of facts presented in this post. The most informative and useful was Don Siegel's autobiography. Patrick McGilligan's biography of Eastwood also provided some interesting details.

(Image credits: 'His Love... or His Life' is from IMD Forums. 'Isolated Girls School' and a rich variety of foreign posters — including the priceless Spanish one ('El Seductor') where 19th Century soldier Clint is holding a 20th century automatic pistol — are from the excellent site Cinematerial. The black and white ('Never been in a deadlier spot') ad is from The New Bev. The striking alternative poster with rainbow colours by rob3rtarmstrong is from Deviant Art.)