Archive for Christopher Nolan

Beach Front

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2017 by dcairns

There’s a moment early in the brisk 100 minutes of Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK that struck me as rather false, and it kind of took me out of the movie, although in fact I stayed in the movie and saw all of it. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead, having reached Dunkerque beach, pauses to take a dump in the sand. But we don’t get a strenuous, epic Wim Wenders type defecation. It’s just a quick drop-trou, look nobly into the distance, and then pants up again jobbie. No troublesome, uncinematic wiping or anything like that. This made me worry for our hero’s comfort during the rest of the film, and I wished he’d waded into the cleansing English Channel to do his business.

I suppose you could argue that maybe Mr. Whitehead’s poo was hygienically solid, tough and tightly assembled, like MEMENTO. But I fear that after the foreign environment, army food and the stress of battle, it would be more likely to be splashy, explosive and incredibly protracted, like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

(I could take this comparison further. After days of tension and combat, Mr. Fionn Whitehead’s pooing would resemble THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in the way it would drown out dialogue, cause people to put on masks, and bring tears to Sir Michael Caine’s eyes.)

Worse, Mr. Whitehead defecates on a sand dune, gazing out to see, with the likely result that anything emerging from his bottom would roll downhill and end up in his trousers.

I felt a lot of concern about this since, in my haste to attend the 10 a.m. press show at Edinburgh Filmhouse, where the film screened in 70mm, I narrowly avoided a humiliating toilet accident of my own which would have made me late. There. You don’t get that amount of confessional detail from Kenneth Turan. Not even from Harry Knowles.

Travelling further back in time, like the protagonist of MEMENTO, I passed a restless night in which I dreamed that there was a SECOND Bologna film festival in July, and that I was missing it. So, Christopher Nolan has successfully incepted a dream into my head. In reality I was subconsciously worrying about oversleeping and missing DUNKIRK, only my dream made it much more suspenseful by making it something I would really care about. In the event, Lord Momo, our cat (a rare Tonkinese Battlehorn) woke me up in plenty of time, at 5 a.m., by screaming his head off and randomly batting objects from shelves. He’s better than any alarm clock, is Momo, except that (a) you can SET an alarm clock and (b) you can STOP an alarm clock. You don’t have to just carry it through to another room and shut it in.

But back to DUNKIRK. I enjoyed it. It has that effect of making war seem like a lovely, heroic, colourful adventure in which you end up maimed or dead.

It has three stories/timelines, furiously intercut like the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. The three narrative thrusts are each introduced by a superimposed title: THE MOLE: 1 WEEK; THE SEA: 1 day; THE AIR: 1 hour. These intros baffled me, and I spent the whole film trying to figure out what they meant. As the end credits rolled, I figured it out. So, in case you’re not brighter than me (I’d say there’s a good chance you ARE), I’ll explain what I figured out. The Mole must be a nickname for Whitehead’s inept beach crapper. His story lasts a week, mostly spent waiting on the beach or trying to inveigle his way onto rescue craft. The journey by boat of the BFG (played by Mark Rylance) takes a day. The flight by Mad Max (played by Tom Hardy) takes an hour.

So by intercutting these different timescales as if they were happening simultaneously, the movie is playing a game similar to that of INCEPTION.

“I didn’t see why the subconscious should have so many explosions in it,” said my friend Toni Dove after INCEPTION.

“Well, that was a weird sort of Brexit fantasy,” said my friend David Sorfa after DUNKIRK.

And indeed, the film is all about ESCAPING FROM EUROPE. And we seem very keen to LEAVE THE FRENCH BEHIND. But then, at the end, Kenneth Branagh magnanimously says they can come too, now that we’ve gotten ourselves out. So it’s having its gateau and eating it, in a fine cinematic tradition.

I recommend the cast list: it’s hilarious. Characters include IRATE SOLDIER, SHIVERING SOLDIER and FURIOUS SOLDIER. But not IRATE, FURIOUS, SHIVERING SOLDIER, which would have been the role I’d have accepted if they’d offered it. But the cast list does not include Michael Caine. I thought I heard his voice, coming in over Tom Hardy’s radio, explaining why we’re leaving from Dunkirk and not Calais, in the kind of mistimed and unnecessary exposition Nolan seems so fond of. Since Sir Michael has valuable experience winning THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, it would be nice of his mate Nolan to ask him along.

I’m not alone in having found Nolan’s direction of action confusing and irksome in the past. Nothing to worry about here: he’s helped by the very clear geography of the beach: sea over there, land over here. Germans up there, Brits down here. In the aerial combat, he might have gotten into serious trouble (three-dimensional battlefield) but by restricting our POV to the British pilots, he keeps it very sharp and taut and lucid. When the Spitfires are sneaking up on Heinkels we see it from the Brit pilot’s viewpoint. When the Germans sneak up on the Spitfires their ack-ack is a complete surprise, as it would be if you were there. This means losing out on dramatic he’s-behind-you irony but gaining pretty solid clarity and audience identification, better than in several of the old war movies I’ve run.

But I wasn’t actually moved. The last two movies I saw at the cinema, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, had me quite tearful. The only emotional bit in this was when I started thinking about war movies I like that were made in or immediately after the war. I’m a sucker for the drama of that period. I think possible one reason Nolan’s film left me unaffected in this way was his relentless intercutting, which kills the terror-suspense of all the vehicles filling up with water (great Dutch tilts and even inverted angles on fast-rising waterlines, though). And also the weird unrealistic realism like the gravity-defying poo, and a bit in a boat filling up with water where somehow they all think throwing somebody overboard will allow them to float.

Proprietary pleasure: Brian Vernel, who was in our LET US PREY, turns up. Amused to see that Nolan treats him just as harshly as we did. In an early draft of our film we had his bollocks lopped off. Considering what happens to him here, I’d hate to think what the early drafts were like.

What else? Good use of Tom Hardy. Lots of sound design. No Americans and barely any women. Lots of hard-to-make-out dialogue. A sort of actionably close remix of Elgar’s Nimrod by Hans Zimmer (the man who has repurposed the symphony orchestra as a percussion instrument). Harry Styles from the popular boy band Wonder Erection. The Scarecrow, played by Cillian Murphy, as a man who does something bad and then doesn’t have a character arc about it, which is a novelty in this age. Kenneth Branagh in the Jack Hawkins part, but unfortunately and inevitably seeming more like Kenneth More.

I prefer the Leslie Norman version, but then I would (John Mills never shits on the beach). You could say that this movie, with its state-of-the-art everything, bears the same relation to that movie as Cameron’s TITANIC to Roy Ward Baker & Eric Ambler’s A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. Despite the immersive technique of both modern films, the older ones give you more of an emotional feeling of being there. Something to do with conviction.

 

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Impossible But Necessary

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2014 by dcairns

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“That’s impossible!” “But necessary.” — a very exciting exchange in Christopher & Jonathan Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR.

It reminded me of seeing SON OF PALEFACE as a kid — did I mention this before — a decisive moment in my young life — Bob Hope has to support a jalopy with a missing wheel, holding it up with a lasso rope round the axle WHILE STANDING IN IT as they drive through the prairie. As Roy Rogers rides off to retrieve the rogue wheel, Hope calls after him — “Hurry up, this is impossible!”

I swear, prairie-like vistas opened up for me, universes of possibility. If you can make a joke out of the impossibility of the story your telling, surely you can do anything?

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There aren’t jokes of that kind in INTERSTELLAR — in fact, one of the discredited tropes the film insists on using is a comedy relief robot who has been programmed to be funny. Comedy relief characters in general are a discredited trope since nearly everybody is funny sometimes and nobody is always funny — having a wisecracking droid is just inviting me to question why the Nolan gestalt didn’t program some humour into the human characters, even though that wouldn’t quite be fair because if you have Matthew McConaughey you’re going to get a little wit sneaking in somewhere.

So, no world-changing jokes, but plenty of impossibility, which is par for the course in this kind of thing, and there’s arguably nothing sillier than GRAVITY’s inescapable cloud of debris a planet wide, which I forgave fairly readily. This movie didn’t wow me like GRAVITY but it has lots of impressive spectacle, ideas, actors, plot twists…

The impossibility bothers me a bit — intimations of mortality — when we make films about saving the Earth, we seem compelled to make them absurdly unrealistic. I loved WALL-E, but the human race returns from space at the first appearance of a little sprout, which grows in an upturned refrigerator in defiance of all photosynthesis and sense, and somehow the arrival of thousands of fat people is supposed to make things BETTER? I guess that’s covered by a line in INTERSTELLAR about not telling little kids that the world is ending, but I would be more cheered by hopeful fables that have some element of plausibility. The Bokononist subtext of all these reassuring fantasies seems to be that we’re all fucked.

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We didn’t see INTERSTELLAR in IMAX, alas — exchanging the free tickets we got after an interrupted screening of THE BABADOOK, I got us seats near the front because close = big, but Fiona then made me move back a few rows (early screening, lots of spare seats). After DARK KNIGHT RISES I was looking forward to seeing Michael Caine blubbering on a screen the size of a football pitch — when that bottom lip starts to wobble, you really need Sensurround for the full magnitude — but we settled for booming sound — Nolan follows the Kubrick-Cuaron model, no FX in space, but Hans Zimmer booms away to fill most of the silences.It’s one of those scores where you can hear the temp track filtering through, but quite effective.

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Some have suggested that the movie shows that Nolan is not, as has been argued, a cold director — I think it shows that he still has some way to go if he wants to be either Kubrick on the one hand or Spielberg on the other. Teenager Mackenzie Foy deserves a miniature Oscar for providing the film’s emotional core, which has to be passed on, relay-fashion, to a succession of other actors as her character grows up — a trick the movie manages surprisingly well with megawatt starpower casting and flashbacks and… other sequences which prevent us from losing sight of Foy altogether. Weirdly, though, the ending, which should be gigantically moving, is fobbed off onto another character altogether, and then NOT DELIVERED. The big emotional scenes don’t happen. I think the Nolans see this as British restraint, but it feels it’s more a discomfort with demonstrations of emotion — which is odd, since we get some more blubbering from Caine. There are plenty of emotional scenes, but insufficient PAY-OFF to a fantastically powerful and protracted drama about a father separated from his children.

Speaking of explaining things — the movie has a really intriguing start, foregrounding the best actors (though it’s nice when Hathaway and then Damon turn up later — Nolan may have actually noticed that AH was the best thing in his third BATMAN — a breath of lightness amid th suffocating clouds of noxious testosterone and doominess), but once we get to space stuff, the authors have apparently given up on any desire to have exposition emerge dramatically and plausibly. There isn’t too much “as you know” dialogue where one character patiently outlines information already familiar to the other, who inexplicably doesn’t say SHUT UP YOU BORING FOOL — but there is a hell of a lot of “As you should know” dialogue, with astronaut McConaughey, for instance, inquiring what will happen if an airlock malfunctions — I think that would have been covered in basic training. Justifiably reticent to infodump the science around a boardroom table, the writers parcel it out in digestible bundles in order to let you grasp vital facts just as they become relevant to the unfolding events, but it’s hard not to notice that our hero must be a remarkably incurious man to have traveled in space for two years to reach a wormhole without knowing what a wormhole is, and that’s only one of the least egregious examples.

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But I wouldn’t want to put you off seeing it — it has a giant talking Kit-Kat biscuit, some lovely space visuals and sound, and a bit where MM reaches out to push a button, and we see, reflected in his space helmet visor, his gloved hand apparently reach forth and touch his nose. It’s a lovely, silly moment that seems to happen by accident — Nolan in no way intended this to be funny — a glimpse of goofy natural chaos in an otherwise predetermined game.

 

Not a Director

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 16, 2014 by dcairns

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It was kind of sad that TRANSCENDENCE didn’t find an audience, excited almost no interest, it seemed. An unconventional, ideas-based sci-fi film should be of interest, and you’d think the Christopher Nolan connectuon would be enough to ensure it opened. But no.

So it seems unfair to pick on it, especially since I couldn’t actually bring myself to sit through it all. Writing about a film you haven#t watched is extremely bad form. I can’t offer a review of its merits as a film, but it did strike me that one early scene indicated fairly clearly that Wally Pfister, an able cinematographer, was uncomfortable in the director’s chair, like a man in very slidey silk pantaloons.

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Cillian Murphy asks to see Johnny Depp’s supercomputer. So they go to see it. Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall come along too. In an establishing shot, with the camera creeping slowly forward down an aisle of humming technology, we see the characters enter.

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And then… nothing. Murphy advances, hits his mark, and stops. The others do the same, arranging into a laundry line composition which can then be cut up into a couple of two shots. The most interesting aspectis that Murphy’s body faces away from the other characters but he turns his face towards them. This is only because the computer interface is in front of him, but we never get a very clear sense of this.

What’s strikingly wrong is that Murphy has come to see something, yet he seems remarkably incurious. He doesn’t look around, he just stops, almost as if there were a chalk mark on the floor, and talks, failing to find a seat or a wall to lean against, or else to walk around and see what’s what. It feels stiff and unnatural. (This is the first film ever in which Rebecca Hall has struggled to bring a lively sense of natural behaviour to a character.)

We also get a couple different sized shots of a computer terminal which Murphy talks to. One shot includes a bit of foreground shoulder, which helps us figure out where it is, but if this is part of a whole wall that Murphy is looking at it might be nice to see more of what he sees.

Others, including David Bordwell, have given precise analyses of the Nolan style, which has only a few strategies for filming talk — the characters stand or sit still and we cut around them, or we track around them, or we track in on one of them as he says something ominous/bad-ass. Those might, on the face of it, seem like the key ways a camera can look at a subject, but if you actually allow the characters to go where they might choose to go if they were real people, a whole wealth of opportunities open up, visually. Or, you could say, a whole wealth of problems, which is how the fearful or inexperienced director might see it. Maybe if Pfister had more experience with other really able directors, he would be freer and more versatile. It’s notable that whenever his shots don’t feature actors, he’s much more inventive.

I wouldn’t give up on him ye, even though I gave up on this film. But I did say on Facebook, “Many films fail the Bechtel test. This is the first to fail the Turing test.”