Friday, August 18, 2017

20/20: #13 Dunkirk (IMAX)

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days...
...*cough*... yeah]

2017, d. Christopher Nolan - IMAX

Every time a new Christopher Nolan movie comes out, I feel a twinge of sadness, as I'm reminded of a dear friend, Braz, who passed away in 2013.  We use to have rather glorious debates about Nolan's movies.  Where I have yet to be truly disappointed by a Nolan film, always enjoying the experience both in scale and technical proficiency, Braz would almost dismiss the technical and look for the heart and the heat.  Nolan's films are accomplished puzzles, thrilling and stimulating intellectually, but at the same time Nolan almost has an inability to make a picture where it's the characters or the characters' emotional (or erotic) journeys that take precedent.  Interstellar, with its father-daughter connection, is about as close as it came, but even then there's still an overwhelming sense of distance, and it was the space travel and unique robots that drew and dazzled the masses.  The closest we get to a love story in any of Nolan's films was perhaps Memento (but that was really a mystery), or Dark Knight Rises (which put Batman and Catwoman together almost by default), or Inception (which was more about loss that love).

Nolan's latest, Dunkirk, is remarkably affecting.  You certainly feel a lot watching the film.  But it's not an emotional connection to any character, it's all situational.  Nolan makes you feel the gutwrenching pain of war, its brutal uncaring nature, its randomness and maliciousness.  War is all about throwing bodies at a problem, particularly early in the 20th century.  So when 400,000 English soldiers are pinned down on the shore of Dunkirk, France, with only the French army staving off the direct onslaught of German forces, you feel the hopelessness, the desperation, the uncomfortable pain of the inevitable.  When you see how desperate dying men are as they get bombed or drowned or picked off you feel, you can't not feel.  Nolan knows how to capture a scene.

War is horrific, but unlike Saving Private Ryan which used its opening half hour to show the horrors of war with a visceral Grand Guignol-style bloodbath, Dunkirk is an almost bloodless affair.  Nolan, for all his inability to connect emotionally with his characters, here he masters the ability to connect emotionally with moments, with groups and a crowd, to feel the weight of the situations.

Once again, Nolan crafts a film with a fracture timeline, and makes it logical and sensible as a single narrative.  It's something he does with seeming ease at this point.  The story features three timelines, the one hour flight of a trio of RAF fighters over the straight of Dover, the one day journey of small private fishing and luxury boats to rescue the trapped soldiers, and one week on the mole (a sort of pier or breakway crossing the water) on the beaches of Dunkirk.  When the stories start to cross in the third act, it's absolutely awe inspiring.  Events you saw earlier in the film present themselves from different perspectives, providing additional context.  It's what Nolan does, and it's astounding.

The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is breathtaking.  He captures intimacy with equal adeptness as isolation.  Hoytema uses the IMAX scale to maximum effect (roughly 80% of the film is in that scale) composing some absolutely stark and beautiful (yet equally awe inspiring and heavy with meaning) imagery.  It's a gorgeous film.

It's hard to say that I enjoyed Dunkirk.  It's a remarkable movie, but its effect is overwhelming.  It's uncomfortable, unbearably so.  It's hard not to empathize, and it's even harder to try and realistically picture one's self in such situations.  By stripping away character, by stripping away almost any connection with the actors by giving them very little dialogue (mainly they're just acting or reacting to the situation), there's only the events themselves that we can connect to, and as foreign as they are to our daily life, the reality is they happened to real people, perhaps even a parent or grandparent.  Without ever making a single statement, it's as potent an anti-war screed as ever.  And yet, with even a nominal understanding of what World War II was about, the necessity of fighting that war is hard to ignore.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

20/20: #12 Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days...
...Well... 10 days with a 20 day break then one post and another day break.  Sigh]

2017, d. Luc Besson - in theatre

It's been said that this is the film Luc Besson has been wanting to make his whole life.  He's been an unabashed fan since childhood of the Valerian and Laureline series of comics (popular in Europe but barely known in North America).  His 1997 somewhat-classic The Fifth Element was in many ways an homage as well as perhaps a proof-of-concept for a Valerian film.  It took him 20 years, but with a massive number of commercially successful productions under his belt (most as producer, but a few genuinely great directorial efforts as well), and technology finally at the state that it is, Valerian could be a reality.

Now you know at this point I'm a big time comic book nerd, and I have to be absolutely honest in saying that not only have I never read a Valerian comic, I've never even heard of them.  It's been said that they are quite influential, even upon Star Wars, which makes me wonder how I've never came across the name or thought to seek them out.  Sci-fi and comics, big space epics, things that influenced Star Wars... those are, like, my things, man. 

It's unfortunate then that Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn't feel like the influencer, but rather the influencee.  It feels at time partly like Star Wars (more the Phantom Menace than any other entry in the series) and Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy and a multitude of other stories which are probably the bastard descendants of Valerian's influence.   It unfortunately never feels innovative.  That's not the worst thing in the world.  Countless films, even really good ones, emerge without innovating strictly by telling a fun story with likeable characters.

So is VatCoaTP a fun story with likeable characters?

It's fine.
Really, it's just fine.

The story is kind of classic 1960's-style pulpy sci-fi.  There's space faring and aliens and action and romance, all wrapped around a mystery (that's not really much of a mystery... conspiracy, perhaps?) that plays out engagingly enough over it's two hours but doesn't seem epic enough in scope to really justify the nearly 200 million dollar expense.  The story is more like a mid-level Star Trek adventure, and never feels sweeping or space operatic.

It's visually fantastic, suitably overloaded with details really dazzling the eye.  The design juggles the beautiful with the chaotic on a regular basis, and there's regularly something curious to behold.  Yet, there are still moments where it feels, spartan an low budget.  Hallways which should be bustling with people and creatures are empty and one big set looks exactly like an airplane hanger that's been converted into a film if the visual effects people forgot to busy it up.  For the film's rather grand big budget, Besson's all too frequent dabbling in modestly budgeted action/adventure films (Taken, Lucy, The Transporter, etc) has given him an eye for shooting economically, not extravagantly.

This is never more true than in the casting, which is probably where I should have just started and stopped when talking about this film.  Seriously, Dane DeHaan?  He's supposed to be the handsome, upright, swarthy, intergalactic playboy leading man?  The guy with the baggy eyes and sickly gaunt face.  I don't want to be too harsh on him because he's a decent actor, but he's not even close to being Han Solo, or Peter Quill, or Captain Kirk (either Shatner or Pine).  He's not unlikeable, but he's not 10% as charming or charismatic as this film absolutely needs him to be.  He's not as tough or handsome, he's not as convincingly resolute in his duty as the character's defining trait of the comics. Cara Delevigne holds up a little better in the charm department but her role as Laureline isn't the equal of Valerian here (though it should be), and so less rests on her shoulders.  The chemistry between the two is adequate but it should be much steamier.  DeHaan just doesn't have "it", and the film's lack of success rests almost solely on that casting decision.

Because even with DeHaan in the lead, if another Valerian film was made, I would be there in a heartbeat.  This film isn't an origin story, but rather feels like a part of a larger series of standalone adventures.  A more inviting, attractive, charming actor would make people desperately want to spend more time with Valerian (same with Laureline), but, I have no such desperation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

20/20: #11 The Leftovers, Season 1

[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer.  It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days...
After a 20 day break, I'm back to fulfil the last 10 of this failed 20/20 run.] 

I don't remember where I read it (probably the AV Club), but there was a poll of prominent TV critics, reviewing the 2016/2017 television season, and listing out the best/favourite of the bunch.  The Leftovers made the top of the list for its third and final season.

I had heard about The Leftovers from a bunch of different people and sources, but David's review had always influenced my impression of it.  Heavy and depressing were most often the terms I heard referencing this show, set in a world where 3% of the population one day just disappears, and what follows after.  I was expecting some Rabbit Hole or Manchester By The Sea-type heaviness, but finally launching into it I was instead faced with a weird sci-fi-esque alt-reality, where there's two very different kinds of cults (one which follows a sort of faith healer, the other a group that take a vow of silence and poverty and absolution from all feeling) and numerous people just trying to figure out how to cope in this world, including the sheriff of Mapleton, NY, his daughter, his stepson, his wife, the town reverend, a woman who lost her entire family and a few others.  I found it far more intriguing than depressing.  There's some world building at play, things that would or could only happen in a reality like this, but also things that are logical extensions of how our world operates today.

Symbolism abounds, much of which makes more sense emotionally than logically.  Religious symbolism particularly has a strange place in the show, as it's quite clear this wasn't "the Rapture" but some other phenomenon.  There's no easy answers, to be sure, and certainly traditional religion tries to help but it can't ease troubled minds.  Psychology fares no better.  The show strives for you to understand all the main characters' viewpoints, to empathize with them if not always maintaining your sympathy as a result of their actions.  There's a lot of lashing out, a lot of displaced anger, confusion, hurt, and especially guilt. 

If anything, it seems remarkably clear that the show is a metaphor for depression, in its many different manifestations.  Everyone in the show is afflicted with it in some form or another, manifesting in different ways, dealt with (or not dealt with) in different ways.  As David said in his review, the show just provides a trigger for it, but not necessarily a cause.  If the flashback episode 9 shows anything, it's that the melancholy was there even prior to the event.  The Leftovers provides an outlet for the purveying sense of existential dread, and doesn't seek to provide answers for getting past it.  If anything, season one shows that it's always a struggle, there are no short cuts, no easy answers, but that the possibility that it can get better does exist.

This is a fascinating show, amazingly acted (Ann Dowd is the MVP as Patti, leader of the local Guilty Remnant), clever and complex.  Season one leaves a few threads dangling, but I hear that the first episode of season 2 is where the show goes from being fascinating to essential viewing by taking off into drastically divergent terrain.  I'm looking forward to it.

I'm just hoping we don't get a flashback episode explaining where Chief Garvey's big back tattoo came from (this being a show co-created by Lost's Damon Lindleof, afterall)