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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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The X-Files – Redrum (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Redrum is perhaps notable as the highest concept episode of the eighth season of The X-Files, a character drama that unfolds backwards.

As a rule, the eight season is more conservative than the seasons around it. In terms of narrative, it may be the most conservative season of The X-Files since the show’s first year. Redrum is perhaps the season’s biggest formal experiment. While very few high-profile prime-time television shows would attempt to tell a story backwards, Redrum feels a lot less bold than something like HumbugJose Chung’s “From Outer Space”Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, The Post-Modern Prometheus, Bad Blood, Triangle, X-Cops or even Improbable.

A tangled web...

A tangled web…

On paper, this should be a highlight of the season. Redrum features a guest performance from Joe Morton, receiving a coveted “special guest star” credit for his work. (Notably, Kim Greist did not earn a similar credit on Invocation.) The high-concept premise of the episode seems like it would make a great pitch for Sweeps, like X-Cops did only a year earlier. In fact, Redrum was produced as the first stand-alone episode of the season, priming it for the slot occupied by Drive and Hungry in earlier seasons.

There is a sense that the production team are wary of Redrum. The episode was pushed back from its production slot relatively deep into the season. It was with second-last episode of the eighth season to air before the Christmas break. The show attracted a relatively small amount of publicity, particularly as compared to the “where’s Mulder?” hype of that greeted the début of the season. There is a sense that Redrum would have garnered more attention only a year or two earlier.

"The teacup that I shattered did come together."

“The teacup that I shattered did come together.”

It is easy to see why the production team were so wary of Redrum. The eighth season is a point of transition for The X-Files. The show is still reeling from the loss of David Duchovny; there is a sense that the show never moves past that. The agenda for the eighth season is to convince viewers that The X-Files is still a viable television show, even without the lead actor who helped to make it famous. While the show is smart enough not to downplay the change, the production team are keen to demonstrate the show can still do what it always did.

As such, the eighth season finds the show adopting a “back to basics” approach, harking back to many of the tropes that made The X-Files such a breakout hit in the first place. There is a lot more horror and mood in the eighth season, a lot more of the traditional scares. That means that Redrum ends up feeling very much like the odd episode out.

It's all gone a bit Martha Wayne...

It’s all gone a bit Martha Wayne…

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The Prestige & Schrödinger’s Magician: Would the Real Robert Angier Please Stand Up?

No one cares about the man who disappears, the man who goes into the box. They care about the man who comes out the other side.

– Robert Angier

I am a big fan of Christopher Nolan. Anybody who regularly reads the blog will attest to that. I believe, genuinely, that he’s one of the best directors working today. However, my favourite Nolan film is a rather eclectic choice. I appreciate all his films, but I think that The Prestige stands as the pinnacle of the writer’s work to date. After all, in a career built around movies exploring the power of narrative, it’s hard to resist the film that compares cinema to magic. I think it’s a deftly-constructed and cerebral film, one of the few movies that still intrigues and confounds me when I stick it on. Of course, the narrative is relatively straight-forward once Nolan reveals the technique and the tricks in the final act, but I always find it rewarding to chew over the implications in the film, the story of two dueling magicians who take their rivalry as far as possible, and even beyond that.

Are you watching closely?

Note: By its nature, this post will include spoilers for the film. I have written a review of it, in case you are looking for a recommendation. It’s the most divisive of Christopher Nolan’s films, and I’d recommend seeing it at least once – love it or hate it, it’s a film that you won’t quite forget.

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Non-Review Review: Chinatown

“You may think you know what’s you’re dealing with,” a character warns private detective Jack Gittes at one point during Chinatown“but, believe me, you don’t.” Later on, Gittes confesses to his lover that, when he was a police officer working in Chinatown, his beat consisted of doing “as little as possible”, an anecdote that screenwriter Robert Towne reportedly heard from an officer who had actually served in Chinatown – rather than an officer involving himself in some sort of event that he couldn’t possibly comprehend, the police would actively disengage themselves from the community. That’s the core of the corruption at the heart of Polanski’s film – how little anyone actually knows about what is really happening, and how it’s easy to ignore these things rather than attempting to deal with them.

A nosey detective...

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Non-Review Review: Memento

I figured, what with Inception coming out and all, it was the perfect time in introduce my better half to the rather impressive (and amazingly consistent – indeed, only one of his films did not make my “top 50 films of the decade”) director Christopher Nolan. I discover that she had yet to see Memento, Nolan’s first major American release. We immediately decided to rectify the situation.

Picture perfect...

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