Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: DUNKIRK

On spec Dunkirk reads like a defeat. The Germans blitzkrieged to the beaches of France, ready to pick off a great mass of allied troops and keep going across the channel. A little deeper and the evacuation, a success against massive odds, left the British standing army largely intact and served to halt that threat. It's a compelling event in the history of the war. So, when I learned that Christopher Nolan was driving it I jumped to attention and exclaimed: hmmm.

Nolan has stretched my affection beyond breaking with the great bloated epics made of okay ideas like his Batman movies, Inception and Interstellar. All of these would have been the kind of pop cinema saviours they were touted if Nolan had just remembered that the film that shot him to their director's chair was a lean and clever thriller that surpassed rather than deflated the promise of its trailer. Then it was welcome to Bombast World with Chris Nolan (though I'll give him The Prestige). So what were we in for with this one? A two fortnight epic with four hour digressions into spiritual hurdles and conundra of physics? Actually, that was what sold the ticket (along with IMAX and film projection): 116 mins. Not 3 1/2 hours. That's Memento territory. If he gets an epic in that time he might consider it a rude but well-meant memo to himself.

So what's it like?

We open with some history lesson title cards but get right down to the action as a small group of British soldiers walk through a deserted French town trying to get to the beach without being killed. This isn't easy but one makes it through and sees lines, queues of soldiers who tell him to go to the right queue. Ah, the ol' spirit o' the Blitz. Trying a second time at a secluded bowel movement. He makes a friend in a fellow soldier by dint of the two of them being in the same hopeless predicament.

And then it's off to the officers who give us some exposition. Before that sounds like a smart arsed comment I should point out that this is kept to a minimum and never sounds like anything less than military conversation. Kenneth Brannagh, a naval captain provides one of the gravity points amid the the strange intense blend of survivalist urgency and good old mustn't grumble waiting.

Meanwhile there is a thread to represent some of the genuinely heroic work done by the fishing boats and small craft. The salt of earth Mark Rylance helms a boat over the chop and picks up casualties along the way in a thread that involves the greatest concentration of time slipping. At the beginning we are given locations like The Mole (pier), The Air etc and a time frame like One Day or One Hour. The centre of this involves a military vessel meeting the path of Rylance's boat as well as a German bomber with a pair of fighter escorts and a trio of Spitfires to stop them. This is where Nolan comes into his own with a skillful weave of timelines to show us the fullness of an incident from different perspectives and get us used to thinking of represented time as incident-based rather than a linear flow. This is pretty neat. It gets a lot of action in and adds a great deal of depth while never once feeling anything but urgent.

Kudos to Hans Zimmer the composer, here, who provides a constantly tense mix of orchestral scope with electronic violence to provide a score that never settles, ensuring that we never do.

And hardware? Heinkels, Spitfires, ME 109s, ships, intimate and epic in context, the terrifying sight of an approaching torpedo. In a film that must promote humanity itself as the lead character the conflict between this and the exhilaration of watching the five second bursts of fighters snatched from the effort of lining up excruciating shots must find a middle. That comes with some characterisation that while scant and left mostly flat is just enough to suggest universality. Right down to the very final shot which is brief, funny and humbling all at once.

Nolan's done it, folks, after all this time. Now let's see him do it again.

MIFF Session #9: CLAIRE'S CAMERA

Min Hee is in Cannes for the film festival with her film distributor boss who fires her over a vague charge of dishonesty (no details are given). Min Hee reconstitutes herself after the shock and takes a passive aggressive selfie with her boss who reddens with confusion. A brief dialogue about mistakes at the beach between the boss, Nam, and the guest director So who admits that most of his errors have been made while drunk. So, at a cafe is engaged in conversation by a Parisian, Claire. They speak in halting English but establish that he is a director and she a teacher. Soon Claire Nam and So are having fun at lunch chatting about the pictures Claire is taking and how an image might change the photographer's perception of the subject. So notices a photo of Min Hee among the small stack that Claire hands out. You know that the reverse is going to happen and that links are going to be tightened and conversations are going to be gaining a lot of weight.

This festival's third Hong Sang Soo film is a delight, a showcase of awkwardness vs crucial realisation that happens through conversations in plain settings. The Korean characters talk to each other in their native tongue but all conversations between them and Claire are in English so careful that it sounds like they've learned it in a coma. The communication, however, is the same blend of jolting candour and coyness. Hong has used multi-lingual dialogue before and luxuriates in the extra comedic tension it brings to the table (and there are always lots of tables in these films). And when words fail against the stiffness of a first meeting the facial acting and body language take over (the dizzyingly funny first conversation between So and Claire which collapses into embarrassed smiles and eye-avoidance).

And it is always about the communication. And the communication always reveals the true wish and it always blurts out like an old saying or a platitude. We are left to piece the fragments we have received this way ourselves and the resulting sense that we have arrived at the starting point of a long elliptical course is both pleasant and strange. Radiant Jang Mi Hee as Min Hee and the industrially magnetic Isabelle Huppert as Claire hold the centre of a gang of actors familiar to any who have seen a few Hong films. They are welcome on the screen the way that players in rep are. And Hong is always welcome on any screen I watch.

Monday, August 14, 2017

MIFF Session #8: YOURSELF AND YOURS

A young man is chatting to a friend and learns that his partner has been going out, drinking too much and causing scenes. He finds it hard to credit but it sticks with him.

In the next scene a middle aged man stops by a cafe to get a iced Americano and is locked by the sight of a woman he knows at the shady end of the cafe. He approaches her familiarly but she claims not to recognise him, eventually conceding that he must have mistaken her for her twin sister. Persisting through the awkwardness the man suggests a drink and is not turned down.

Then we see the woman getting into bed. Her partner wakes up and we see that he is the man from the first scene. The gossip about her is borne out but she denies it. Angered, he breaches their relationship by accusing her of lying. She leaves. He implodes.

Hong Sang Soo's mastery of conversation as battle takes a leaf out of Bunuel territory here as shades of That Obscure Object of Desire wafts in like a breeze. It's not a direct lift but if you persist in working out if the female lead is lying, amnesiac or really either one of a pair of twins you will get no joy from this piece. It's a film you just need to flow with. If it were a neo-noir and she its femme fatale that advice would sound like wank supreme but this is Hong Sang Soo and he is taking us again into the realm of the contemporary comedy of manners. Come to think of it, another reference point here is The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind done to similar effect but none of the effects.

I was also about to write that this is a departure for the writer/director but really he has done little but depart from starting position with each new entry, particularly with last year's self-rebooting Right Now, Wrong Then and this year's On a Beach Alone at Night. It makes me think that with such a lean style this filmmaker achieves something that those in similar territories like Whit Stillman have not, extended their range and remained themselves. It failed the likes of Hal Hartley but I think we're looking at sterner stuff.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

MIFF Session #7: THE IDEA OF A LAKE

Ines' imminent motherhood has brought memories of her own parents to the surface. When one of those parents disappeared in the Peron years while the family was on holiday the nostalgia has a sting to it. She is preparing a photographic memoir of the years, particularly the holidays they had by the lake in the south of Argentina.

Meanwhile more concrete memories are being called through forensic archaeologists who are seeking to identify the remains of people killed during the Dirty War. Ines' brother complies with the request for a blood sample but their mother feels only the pain beneath her anger. Ines' estranged husband worries about the stress' effect on their unborn child.

Woven through this are beautifully drawn scenes of summer holidays including a disarming fantasy in which the young Ines performs a water ballet with the animate and now amphibious family Renault to the sounds of Neil Diamond's Songs Sung Blue. But this is nostalgia, art directed memory, the real thing, the facts and their sensory impressions begin to bleed in as she recalls the kids playing hide and seek in the woods which for all its cuteness leaves the young Ines unsmiling and the poignant sight of her father leaving the candlelit table of partying family friends and walking into the darkness. Here, the memory is too painful but can't be trusted to nostalgia. She can only go as far as the spectre of him softly crooning a lullaby to her infant self. All further investigation is unbearable.

The water of this lake is still and deep. Writer/director Milagros Mumenthaler exercises great restraint, trusting her cast to convey much with minimal dialogue but big colourful canvasses that make up for it. Mumenthaler also trusts her audience to understand that she is saying only what she needs to say and they will share the load.

Friday, August 11, 2017

MIFF Session #6: ON A BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE

Young Hee is a beautiful young Korean film star whose recent affair with a married man has sent her into voluntary exile to Europe. She discusses this with her dowdy companion while they stroll the parks and mise en scene of Hamburg. While enjoying the beach one evening she is carried away by what appears to be a stalker.

Later, she appears in a provincial Korean cafe talking to the man she'd loved but it is distant. She appears in another small scale cafe and engages with another man who unsuccessfully conceals his own marital status. Later she, he and the other guy and two female partners share dinner and Korean wine and Young Hee goes postal with the manners

A quartet of the above spends time at a seaside resort as a very dodgy window cleaner videobombs their chitchat. This is a very very funny scene,

Later, she is woken while sleeping on the beach by a member of a film scouting crew who takes her into his company for another edge-burning dinner chat.

This is a Hong San Soo film. It is mostly made of conversation (not dialogue, mind you, this is a studiously careful distinction) and interpersonal dynamics. I know I seem to have taken the piss here but what I am describing is a purely lovely moment of cinema. Stanley Kubrick characterised successful films as being constructed of six insubmersible units, blocks of human interaction that defied further breakdown. Hong Sang Soo makes Kubrickian comedies of manners. He doesn't care who notices. He doesn't care who cares. He just does it and he does it repeatedly and teaches any who will look that good films can come of little more than knowing and loving the material.

I love Hong Sang Soo's films despite the festival darling status he has attained. I love them because they are themselves. I haven't been able to say the same of any filmmaker's work since INLAND EMPIRE and that, my friends, makes me happy.

MIFF Session #5: JUPITER'S MOON

Pre-title cards tell us that Jupiter has many moons, one of which is thought to have conditions that might allow life. Its name is Europa. Fade in to a freight train carriage hauling live chickens as well as a crammed in number of Syrian refugees on their way to find life in the Europa we have down here. They reach the drop point, get on boats and buzz into a surprise reception from border control who fire on them. One young man, Aryan, who has lost contact with his father in the confusion gets to the European side and runs until stopped by an immigration officer who fires three shots into the boy's vital organs and leaves him dead for later retrieval.

We linger on the corpse sadly but then notice that drops of his blood are forming bubbles and rising to the air. Then Aryan's body itself rises slowly over the forest canopy as he sluggishly copes with being alive in the first place and that he is flying. Few of the fleeing refugees witness this, having their own survival a little further centre stage.

Next we meet a jaded doctor fallen from professional favour, waking up in his small, boxy Budapest flat. He gets up with his second cigarette, heads off to give some ill-gotten banknotes to his girlfriend, a nurse at a local hospital and then to the refugee camps to do some rounds with the new arrivals. Here he meets Aryan on a trolley, dead but for the vital signs and then the levitation. Dr Stern is astounded beyond words just long enough to know a good thing when he sees it and whisks the lad away from the confusion of the camp and into the city of lights, possibilities and sheer exploitation as the atheist doctor is already planning on squeezing the religious out of their hard-earned.

But the spectre of a wonder has power and that might just include a touch of redemption. "we live horizontal," says Dr Stern and, "at some point we stopped looking up." We have just seen him take a moment to look on the star filled night sky. He sees stars, including a shooting one, but they are just stars. We have also seen him reach for a sincerity beyond his attempt at redemption through money (no spoilers) and it is through his encounter with Aryan. 

For Aryan's part the picture is a little confused. He says at one point that he has his own purpose like everybody else but doesn't name it. He has powers to go with the levitation but we only see them in a strange scene involving a neo-nazi. And it is strange in that apart from the cinematic virtuosity of it the scene seems to serve little purpose beyond demonstrating Aryan's ability to control his power. It goes on for much longer than it should, seems to have come from nowhere, involves no redemption of the bigot and the powers are not seen again. Otherwise Aryan is short of superheroism. He doesn't soar through the skies like Superman, he wades in the air or controls his falls, seemingly doing so for the purposes of creating awe.

That's the bit that had me frowning. Dr Stern's development seems increasingly to be influenced by Aryan's power and the suggestion of his immortality and this is allowed by the film to suggest that we buy into the notion of the miracle. While the magical realist premise of the dispossessed alien having superpowers impressed me the maturation back into the desiccated realm of faith alienated me. The film doesn't quite leave things open enough to keep them interesting.

That's a shame as the piece really does have a lot of charm in its characterisation and evocation of a kind of contemporary earthly hell. The sheer skill of the many winsome Steadicam shooting and one of the best car chases I've ever seen (one shot from the point of view of the pursuit vehicle's bumper bar!) and the levitation is always purely beautiful. But at a time when so much of cinema works such visual miracles as a matter of course I cannot take this leap of faith.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

MIFF Session #4: THE ENDLESS

Brothers Justin and Aaron escaped from a cult ten years ago but the younger, Aaron, who does not remember the oppression that Justin does, wants some closure and decides to return to the commune to seal his farewells. Justin reluctantly agrees to drive him there but only for a day. They drive through the dry western U.S. landscape past a number of strange mini volcanic plugs and arrive at the old site.

It's still going but there are none of the uniforms or void-eyed indoctrinees wandering about. If anything, everyone seems pretty normal. They self-finance through craft beer and artisanal goods like clothes and folky art. A little loopiness here and there but what else would you expect. There is a decidedly un-culty feel to it all. But everyone they remember doesn't seem to have aged in the intervening decade; people who should look forty look freshly twenty. And then there are the strange phenomena around the settlement like apparent force fields and some truly sanity-doubting atmospheric effects. Through this push and pull of alienness and seductive warmth the brothers give their characteristic responses, Justin's cynicism and Aaron's wonder. A lot of good deadpan joking later between them and the settlers later the mysteries only seem to deepen.

Big ideas don't need big budgets. Like anything they are subverted by low production confidence like insufficient attention to acting or missteps in attempted visual effects but most of all there must be the writing. On the higher level of the characterisation and dialogue we're in good hands as the very able cast render their extraordinary dialogue natural. On the lower level there is a middle-heavy drag as the development is hampered by too much labour on key issues and repetitiveness (I don't mean the obvious repetition here but the restatement of information we already have) where action should be taking the foreground. However, the wise decision to reveal the concepts through some astute dialogue that seldom falls into exposition (as it must at points) serve this film well. The effects are modest to the point of elegance and it is good to see this handled well instead of recent grating attempts to reintroduce in camera effects beyond production means (and then attempts to pass their failure off as campiness). Mostly, the central conflict between the brothers is allowed space to develop and take its rightful place.

I enjoyed the scene that harked back to the clever and rougher-shod Resolution and find on checking that not only did this team (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) make that one (and included cast members in reversed roles) but also the intriguing Spring from last year's MIFF. Now that that's established the pattern is emerging: these guys are creating their own fiction realm. It's derived heavily from the name-checked H.P. Lovecraft but where earlier Lovecraftians (e.g. Stuart Gordon or Brian Yuzna) concentrated on the Cthulhu mythos with tentacles and prehistoric birthrights, this team seem more interested in the weirder everyday strange of the Color Out of Space. As with the always watchable works of Britt Marling and crews we could be seeing a new approach to the fantastical on the rise. If I'm right it could be as genre-shaking as J-horror in the 1990s or found footage in the 2000s. Let's hope.