Monday, July 24, 2017

Dunkirk

Dunkirk opens in an eerie silence, as a group of young British soldiers wander through a ghost town near the French coast. Paper flutters down from the sky, and one soldier grabs it – German propaganda informing the men that they are surrounded. We don't see any enemy soldiers but we soon hear them; gunfire explodes around the soldiers and they run for cover. The camera follows one of them, played by Fionn Whitehead and named in the credits as Tommy, as he scrambles over a wall and away from danger. This opening sequences sets the tone for Christopher Nolan's film, which creates a sense of anxiety that is sustained throughout; death can come from anywhere, and there is no sanctuary, even as Tommy races towards the relative calm of the beach.

400,000 men spent over a week on that beach, pinned between the German forces on one side and the Channel on the other. Attempts to evacuate the soldiers were stalled by the Luftwaffe bombing any ships that came within range and periodically attacking the sitting ducks on the beach. How must it have felt to be standing there, trapped between the enemy and the sea, shivering against the cold, and knowing that another wave of attacks could come at any moment? Dunkirk puts us on the beach alongside those men and makes us feel their panic and fear, and their desperation to find a way home. Tommy and another young soldier (played by Aneurin Barnard) pick up a wounded man and attempt to jump the queue to a ship by being stretcher-bearers, but they know that even if they do make it onto one of those ships there's no guarantee of surviving the crossing, or even escaping the port. The view from the beach is desolate indeed.

Nolan approaches this story from three angles. The primary section takes place on land, where the young soldiers await their fate, while other narratives are introduced on sea and in the air. Dunkirk develops a gripping momentum as Nolan eventually draws these strands together with a clockwork elegance towards the end of the film but, this being a Christopher Nolan film, the clocks are all displaying a different time, and that's sometimes a problem. While the land-based section is introduced with the title “One Week”, the sea-faring exploits of Mark Rylance and his little ship get “One Day” and Tom Hardy's Spitfire pilot has “One Hour.” The three stories eventually overlap, with events sometimes being replayed from multiple angles, but every time Nolan and his editor Lee Smith cut between them it necessitates a mental reset to recall exactly where these characters are in the grand scheme of things. Until the narratives converge, Dunkirk has a habit of interrupting itself.

Still, it's not hard to reorient oneself and get pulled back into the movie, because on a moment-by-moment basis, Dunkirk is riveting in a way few films are. Each strand of the film contains its own little mini-dramas in which characters are forced to make quick life-or-death decisions. When the boat being manned by Rylance's intrepid fisherman picks up Cillian Murphy from the wreckage of his ship, the shell-shocked soldier refuses to return to the beach, and a tense, understated stand-off ensues between these characters and the two youngsters (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) on board. Likewise, when Tom Hardy's pilot has to decide whether he should turn and engage with the enemy despite running low on fuel, the dilemma plays out entirely in the actor's eyes, the only part of him that's visible behind his mask. Dunkirk is a brilliantly cast film and Nolan uses his actors well, with the unfamiliar faces of the soldiers on the beach being complemented by these more experienced performers, who can help steer the drama and express a multitude of emotions with just a glance.

That kind of shorthand is crucial for Dunkirk. You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned many character names here, and that's because you won't know most of their names until the end credits. Dunkirk runs for just 106 minutes, making this the first time Nolan has come in below the two-hour mark since Memento and Insomnia, the two films he made before entering the blockbuster sphere. What has been elided in this tightening of focus are some of the more unfortunate hallmarks of his recent films; the burden of exposition, the narrative bloat, the clumsy dialogue. Instead, Nolan can put all of his energies and his considerable filmmaking gifts into recreating Dunkirk as an immersive experience. Since Saving Private Ryan in 1998 many war films have attempted to outdo each other in delivering a visceral experience for the viewer, with standard-bearers such as Black Hawk Down and Hacksaw Ridge being particularly indelible. Dunkirk lacks the ferocity and gore of those films, but it succeeds instead by overwhelming the viewer both sonically – thanks to the deafening sound mix and Hans Zimmer's bombastic score – and visually.

The main reason to see Dunkirk, and to see it on a big screen, is to drink in the images that Nolan and his talented cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created. The decision to eschew CGI wherever possible and shoot entirely on 65mm film gives the film an immediacy and clarity that is frequently breathtaking. In particular, the aerial sequences are stunning; every time Nolan cut back to the spitfires swooping out of the sky and over the vast, deep blue of the ocean I was staggered both the gleaming beauty and the intimidating scale of the view. For all of the dazzling visual effects of contemporary blockbusters, little has made me gasp in a recent film of this scale as the way Nolan has filmed land, sea and air here. There are many reasons why Dunkirk feels like an anomaly in the summer movie season – the practical effects, the slender running time, the lack of any sequels, spin-offs or universes – but above all it feels like an essential cinema experience.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Practical Magic in Little White Lies

To mark the release of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, Little White Lies magazine asked me and my Badlands Collective colleagues Ian Mantgani and Craig Williams to write a manifesto celebrating the continued relevance and importance of celluloid and old-school filmmaking techniques. The resulting article can be found in the latest issue of the magazine, where it is accompanied by wonderful artwork by Nathalie Lees, but you can also read it online now at LWLies.com.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Silent London Podcast - Bologna Special

This weekend I was invited to discuss the many highlights (and occasional lowlights) from this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna on the Silent London podcast. You can hear me chatting with Pamela Hutchinson and Pete Baran about Med Hondo, Helmut K√§utner, Ivan Mosjoukine, Cary Grant and more by following the below link:

Silent London

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017

No two experiences of Il Cinema Ritrovato will be the same. The festival’s vast and eclectic programme offers so many options for the curious film fan, there’s really no right way to navigate it. Some will choose to revisit old favourites screened from original prints or restored copies, while others will focus on rare titles and unknown quantities. Treats are to be found in every corner of the festival, along with a number of very difficult choices. On a single evening in Bologna, you could see one of the following: D.A. Pennebaker introducing Monterey Pop on Piazza Maggiore’s huge screen; the Austrian silent film Die kleine Veronika presented on a carbon projector; or a new restoration of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with Dario Argento himself in attendance. It’s not always easy being a cinephile.

Read the rest of my article at Mostly Film

Monday, June 19, 2017

Slack Bay

Whatever happened to Bruno Dumont? After seven films that established his reputation as one of the most uncompromising and provocative filmmakers on the arthouse circuit, his 2014 miniseries P’tit Quinquin was a bewildering change of pace. It still looked and felt like a Dumont film, but the dour tone of his previous work had shifted into a lighter mode, and he displayed an unexpected gift for eccentric comedy. P’tit Quinquin was something truly unique, a film that seemed to act as both a parody of his own ultra-serious work and an ambitious attempt to explore his usual themes in a fresh way.

But if you thought Dumont would revert to type after scratching his comic itch, think again. Slack Bay is pure slapstick. The tone is set early on with the appearance of two detectives, played by Didier Després and Cyril Rigaux, who bear an uncanny resemblance to Laurel and Hardy. The gap-toothed Després is so corpulent his every movement prompts squeaky sound effects, as if his joints are straining under pressure. And Dumont clearly recognises the time-honoured comic value of a fat man falling over – Després spends much of the film tumbling down sand dunes with his wide-eyed colleague scampering after him.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies