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Dunkirk and Issue of Genre Legitimacy

The release of Dunkirk has been interesting in many ways.

Most obviously, it seems to confirm Christopher Nolan as a brand name unto himself, managing to open a blockbuster war movie with no stars to speak of to impressive box office results in the middle of July. The film has been widely acclaimed, both by critics and by movie-goers; it scores well on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, IMDb and CinemaScore. There is already talk of a massive Oscar push for the film, with reports of Academy screenings being so packed that additional screenings had to be scheduled.

However, beneath all of this success, there is an interesting narrative forming. There is a recurring suggestion that Dunkirk is not just a great piece of cinema from an incredibly talented director, but that it in some way represents a maturing of Nolan’s talent. Some of the critical narrative of Dunkirk has been framed almost as a cinematic “coming of age” story for Christopher Nolan, as if the veteran forty-six-year-old film maker is finally delivering on potential that has been teased over the past seventeen years.

In a not-untypical comment, David Fear at Rolling Stone reflected, “Everyone knew he had a mastery of the medium. Dunkirk proves he knows how to use it say something.” At The Guardian, Andrew Pulliver suggested that Nolan had finally earned one of the stock comparisons that had been (misguidedly) following him for most of his career, “With Dunkirk, Nolan may at last be able to walk the Kubrick walk.” The implication seems to be that Nolan’s previous nine films were all creative dry runs, cinematic confectionery suggesting (but never delivering on) true artistic talent.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. Nolan arguably established himself as a bona fides film maker with Memento, which was an impressive theatrical debut. Memento was structurally ambitious, thematically rich, and exceptionally clever. Nolan followed that up with Insomnia, a remake of a Scandinavian thriller. He then segued into a big-budget reimagining of the Batman mythos with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, interspacing them with his own projects of interest, The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar.

Whatever an audience member might make of individual films on that resume, and some are undoubtedly better than others, it seems quite clear that Nolan has been doing good work for a long time. Dunkirk is not a break in the pattern. It is in many ways a continuation and extrapolation of his earlier work. It is not so much a quantum leap forward in terms of technique, but simply a nudge in a different direction. So, why is Dunkirk being treated as a vital moment in Nolan’s career? It seems likely because Dunkirk belongs to a much more respectable genre than its Nolan stablemates.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Counterpoint (Review)

Counterpoint is a spectacular episode of Star Trek: Voyager, a highlight of the fifth season and of the seven season run in general.

Counterpoint is meticulously constructed, put together with a great deal of care and consideration. This is most obvious in the plotting and characterisation in the episode, in the way that the focus of the story remains constant while peeling back the layers on the characters involved. Too many Voyager episodes indulge in a contrived sequence of “… and then…” plotting, while Counterpoint is an episode that understands what it is about and is content to explore its ideas and its characters to their logical conclusions.

Playing it pitch perfect.

Counterpoint benefits from two superb central performances. Mark Harelik is one of the strongest one-shot guest stars to appear on Voyager, playing Kashyk as an endearingly ambiguous figure caught half way between a conventional romantic lead and a fascist thug. However, Counterpoint works best as a showcase for Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway. Mulgrew has always been one of the strongest members of Voyager‘s primary cast, but the production team always struggled to play to her strengths while building a consistent character.

Counterpoint is an episode that plays perfectly to the strengths of all involved, creating a symphony where all of the orchestra is playing both in key and in time with one another. At this point in the run, Voyager should be producing episodes like this with much greater consistency.

Near kiss.

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The 250, Episode #17 – No Country for Old Men (#171)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men.

Lives are thrown into chaos when a drug deal in Texas goes horribly wrong. Llewelyn Moss stumbles across two million dollars in drug money, and finds himself drawn into a world of violence and chaos as cartel hitman Anton Chigurh is on his trail. If this is not the mess, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 171st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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No, Christopher Nolan is not “the Next Stanley Kubrick”

Another Christopher Nolan film, another round of stock comparisons.

To his credit, Nolan sparks genuine critical debate and discussion online, even if there’s an uncomfortable whiff of sensationalism to the coverage. Is Christopher Nolan responsible for everything that is wrong with Hollywood right now? (Spoiler: No. Not at all. Not even slightly.) Is Christopher Nolan a pompous and privileged douchebag for wanting audiences to see his film in the format that he has intended? (Spoiler: While he could probably be a bit more mindful that one size doesn’t always fit all, dude has a right to have a preference about how his work is consumed.)

To be fair, these provocative and confrontational articles at least provide a nice reprieve from the listacles and fan service that define so much of the discourse about modern summer movies. How does [minor character] set up the future of [major franchise]? How many easter eggs did you identify from in [franchise blockbuster]? One of the advantages of Hollywood’s modern franchise-driven mindset is that it makes ranking [entire franchise] articles popular and recyclable. It is exhausting. At least a new Nolan film tends to mean new director-centric debates.

That said, there is one comparison that tends to get rehashed quite a bit. Almost every time that Christopher Nolan releases a feature film, film writers who really should know better stop to ask whether Christopher Nolan is the next Stanley Kubrick. Andrew Pulver addressed the comparison in The Guardian, providing a nice piece of symmetry to an article he wrote almost a decade ago. Christopher Priest, author of The Prestige, made the case only a few years ago.

It is a fairly obvious argument. Both Nolan and Kubrick are directors who worked at a remove from the press, tending to live and work outside the studio system while developing their ideas. They both seem to straddle the Atlantic, both having spent a lot of time living in England and working in America. Neither director ever seemed entirely comfortable talking to the press or doing the publicity circuit. Both produce films that are very stylishly produced, often tending to keep the audience at a slight remove from their characters that some may consider “cold.”

However obvious the comparison might be, it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of both directors.

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The Sound of Not-Quite Silence: The Era of Dialogue-Lite Blockbusters

There are several remarkable things about the blockbuster slate for 2017. The most obvious is that the blockbuster slate for 2017 is remarkably strong.

It is definitely the strongest slate of summer releases since at least 2012, if not 2008. Sure, there have been misfires like CHiPs or Baywatch or Transformers: The Last Knight, but there has also been a lot of great stuff. Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, The Big Sick. Going back to earlier in the year, there is a fine selection of genre material. Get Out, Logan, John Wick: Chapter II. Even the second-tier blockbusters like Kong: Skull Island, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are relatively solid.

However, there is also an interesting trend in how these stories are being told. In particular, the summer blockbusters of 2017 are quite interesting on a formal level. In particular, these blockbusters are very invested in non-verbal storytelling. While the superhero movies of the summer – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming – still conform to a familiar structure of dialogue-driven exposition, a lot of the other films tend to be quite light on conventional dialogue, relying on other ways of communicating character, story and theme.

This is most obvious with War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk, impressive blockbusters that feature a number of extended dialogue-light scenes. When the characters do communicate, it is often in unconventional ways; the technical dialogue plays beneath the soundtrack in Dunkirk, while the apes communicate through sign language in War for the Planet of the Apes. In some ways, Baby Driver is also part of this trend. It is a movie that features dialogue, but is largely driven by its soundtrack. It characters often seem to speak in pulp clichés, with movie’s individuality shining on Baby’s iPod.

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Non-Review Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is compelling in its contradictions.

Dunkirk concerns a pyrrhic victory, a defeat which became a source of national pride. Dunkirk is at once a story rooted in a very particular event and a mythic narrative populated by archetypal characters. Dunkirk follows three parallel stories as they move towards a singular inevitable climax, although those narratives are allowed to move at their own pace towards those epic events and even overshoot one another. Dunkirk is at once chaotic and disjointed, and yet moving with a very clear sense of purpose and direction.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, it is too much to describe Dunkirk as a “puzzle box” narrative. It always very clear to the audience exactly what is going on, and the movie’s mysteries and revelations tend to be smaller and intimate rather than broad and sweeping. Nevertheless, it is a movie consciously unstuck in time, recalling Nolan’s long-standing fascination with shifting his narrative backwards and forwards along a timeline. (Insomnia, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand out as Nolan’s most linear films.)

Dunkirk is a war epic in the broadest possible sense, its narrative bouncing between three separate timelines covering the retreat from the eponymous port. However, there is also a faint sense that Dunkirk itself is unstuck in time. As much as the film is rooted in the reality of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, it speaks to something much bigger and more sweeping. There is a vagueness to Dunkirk which suggests that the film might well speak to realities beyond its specific setting.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

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