DUNKIRK***** Tour de Force


THIS IS A fabulous, tour de force piece of film making: Director Christopher Nolan’s decision to fragment the time frame into three interweaving narrative segments spread over an hour, a day and a few days allows him to offer us the full, agonizing human intensity of the battle from both an intimate, micro scale and also from the broader, sweeping panorama of the action. He -mercifully- spares us the, usual, porn of bloody intestines, without for a moment compromising on the visceral horror (sometimes you just have to duck as the German bombers swoop down) of what was happening.

The movie’s focus is of course centered on the Allies’ inglorious retreat from the German onslaught, when over four hundred thousand soldiers were trapped on a beach, hemmed in on all sides, battered on the land, in the air and at sea…and with no means of escape. The movie drops the viewer immediately into a world of anonymous soldiers, running, scampering here and there, dying like ants; a dark choreography of death quickened by Hans Zimmer’s strong, atonal score.

Nolan builds his picture…of desperation, fear, resilience, failure and, ultimately, and barely there, of heroism…by focusing in on the small details; those easy to miss nuggets of observation. One minute we’re there with the retreating soldiers, deafened by the noise of the screams, the bombardment, then, in silence, we’re underwater, struggling for air; and the next, we’re the detached observers with a disinterested view of all that’s happening. We see a man trying to squeeze water out of a dry hose, a defeated officer calmly walking out into the dark embrace of the cold sea, a soldier under fire, desperate to take a shit, a Spitfire crash-landed on a beach and then set alight (hope vanishing in a cloud of thick smoke).

It’s an impressionist canvas where meaning emerges through a layering of images.

The story, in as much as there is one, pulls you into the hand-trembling terror of the escape – the need to save yourself at any cost – from these series of small moments. Initially we’re with two desperate young soldiers, (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard), who pretend to be part of an emergency evacuation crew ‘armed’ with an dead soldier on a stretcher. They muscle their way on board a hospital boat. In another time frame, a rescued half-drowned soldier (Cillian Murphy) panics at the thought of being dragged back toward the shore. He lashes out and inadvertently kills one of his rescuers. Cowed men hide in a beached vessel which soon becomes a death trap from unrelenting hull-piercing German target practice.

And balanced against this debacle of flight is the refusal to give in, by those brave souls who go the other way: into the line of fire. Nolan focuses on three people (icons really, as he – deliberately – shies away from character development): Mark Rylance is an aging sea captain (part of the civilian flotilla dragooned into an ad hoc rescue operation) who heads out to sea himself with his young sons, rather than give up his boat to the navy. A squadron of Spitfires, all three of them, (led by Tom Hardy) take the battle to the Germans even as their limited gas tanks run dry. An officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) stays with his men and refuses to make an escape.

Most of the time there’s no dialogue. Nolan lets his images do the talking… from which two powerful themes emerge: one examines the idea of (real, not super-hero) heroism. Even if the story’s only acknowledged hero (in as much as there’s a short note in a local newspaper) is ironically the young man killed by accident, the civilian sailors in their fishing boats and pleasure craft who braved the German torpedoes, the outgunned Spitfire pilots, the lone officer, steadfast in his refusal to be cowed, all emerge as quiet, modest and ultimately unheralded icons of true heroism.

What emerges as well is an old fashioned, uncynical sense of British ‘character’. For though there’s no proselytizing or jingoism, the stoic sense of duty, of “…fighting on the beaches etc” (Churchill’s presence hovers somewhere in the background, but it’s a subtle, minimal presence and seems to be more a description of intent than an exhortation) of defending the motherland at all cost is strongly there. Perhaps Nolan is suggesting that these twin virtues: down to earth, contained heroism and a resilience of character are what persevered in the face of the Nazi onslaught.

And as Britain prepares for another inglorious retreat from Europe, the country will certainly need these virtues, long vanished from the political class, once more.

 

DUNKIRK. Dir: Christopher Nolan (also written by). With: Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh. Music: Hans Zimmer. . Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Spectre”. “Interstellar”)

 

THE REVENANT*** Brutish


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ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU’S “The Revenant” is a brilliantly filmed, cinematically rich, totally exhausting affair. It’s the story of one man’s incredible will to survive… driven by a fierce desire for revenge. Hugh Glass (Leo DiCaprio) is a guide to a group of wild-eyed, lawless, quasi-savage trappers journeying home with their bounty of hides. They’re out there somewhere in the uncharted wastes of a wet, wintry, muddy land. You can feel the cold seeping into their bones, into their iced up beards and snow-cracked overcoats. The miseries of this murderous weather is nothing compared with a tribe of Arikara Indians in search of the chief’s captured daughter: Powaqa. And when they attack, the ensuing battle (never has a flight of arrows felt more inescapably lethal) is a brutal, savage affair, with the trappers more concerned with protecting their stolen hides than their own hides, even as they are cut down and scalped.

By the end of the first fifteen minutes, Iñárritu (The Mexican director who also gave us the magnificent “Birdman” and “Babel”) has made his point unambiguously clear: we’re at a place where the restraints and trappings of civilization have disappeared. Here the moral code has been reduced to its most basic: kill or be killed. The niceties of our human nature have been replaced by instinctual behavior; and Glass is the unconquerable spirit – the guide – to lead us through this wilderness of savagery… to some form of savage grace (“Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine”, he says finally when revenge is his to have)

The trappers, lead by Glass, manage to evade the relentlessness of the Indians. But they still must evade the bone crushing cold, their own in fighting and the beasts that roam the countryside; this is nature red in tooth and claw. And it is Glass who is caught out by a mother bear bent on protecting her cubs (not unlike the Indians bent on recapturing their squaw). The attack by the bear on Glass is cringe-worthily nasty. She grabs and bites and brutalizes Glass, him stabbing and stabbing and stabbing her, as she flings him here and there, the spittle and blood dripping from both their mouths, necks and wounded bodies.

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There’s a brutish purity to this fight. He is defending himself; the bear is defending her family. It is when he’s ‘killed’ and then half buried by the brutish amoral John Fitzgerald (a wonderfully nasty Tom Hardy…who’d be a great Bond), trusted – and paid- to protect and care for him while the rest of the troop seek out shelter and help, that this ‘purity’ disappears. If Glass, like the Indians, are of the land (in one scene Glass enters into a disemboweled horse to warm himself and is reborn symbolically one with the elements) Fitzgerald epitomizes the man-made greed and avariciousness that is the real threat to the order of things.

It’s the likes of Fitzgerald, and the rampaging, conquering cavalry whose aftermath we glimpse in the images of raids and raped, slaughtered Indians, that, much more so than nature, are the real threat to this world we’ve entered. Here is the so-called world of civilization, the world of the White man as he savages whatever he meets, once there’s a profit to be had.

This is DiCaprio’s year for an Oscar. They’ve always favoured their actors to deform themselves (as Charlize Theron did for “North Country” or as Eddie Redmayne does as a woman in “The Danish Girl”). And here DiCaprio suffers and suffers. The movie’s PR blitz has made his real life suffering, as he filmed the move, quite clear. This isn’t so much a case of great acting (for that you’ll have to see – the un-nominated- Tom Courtnay from “45 Years” or Michael Shannon from “99 Homes”) as great, barnstorming, exuberant, no-holds-barred suffering. Oscar guaranteed.

As for Best Picture, “The Revenant” is up there with the rest of them. Along with his skilled cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s a wonderfully well-realized cinematic experience, a sort of film-maker’s film (as was “Mad Max: Fury Road” or last year, “Gravity”). But it’s a picture of broad stokes, with an emotional arc that starts in misery and ends in a little less misery. DiCaprio’s character suffers a little, then a whole lot, then a bit less. Don’t look for the thoughtful probing you’ll find in “Bridge of Spies” or “Brooklyn” (which should, incidentally be the hands down winner). Yes, you can certainly find references to the present (capitalism sucks; we are screwing nature; the White men are racist), but don’t expect an artist’s nuanced perspective on it.

But my Oscar journey is yet in its infancy. Here in London, these movies are dribbled out. “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” aren’t starting until next week.

By then I may have revised my opinion about “Brooklyn”. Stay tuned

 

The Revenant. Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu. With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter (“We’re the Millers”). Screenplay: Mark Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki (“Birdman”, “Gravity”). Production designer: Jack Fist (“Water for Elephants”)

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Crazy. Manic. Spectacular


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MAD MAX, FURY Road is a visual masterpiece; it’s simply spectacular.

In a brown sand-drowned, post-apocalyptic, lifeless world, wild-eyed, heavily armed feral hordes, fed on breast milk and blood, drive vast surreal machines to the sound of thumping drums and heavy metal, in search of enemies of the state. The vast wasteland they all inhabit is a world that looks like the crazed spawn of Julie Tamor and Peter Jackson after a night of bad acid and wild delirium.

Every now and again, a movie comes along that puts a strong visual stamp, an imaginative leap, that helps stake out territory that will be the roadmap for generations of future imitators. Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner movies did this, as did Spielberg’s CGI leap forward with “Jurassic Park”, the slo-mo swirling bullet trails of “The Matrix”, Peter Jackson’s fantastic take on “The Lord of the Rings”, Ang Li’s “Life of Pi” etc.

George Miller (whose last major movies, would you believe, were “Happy Feet Two” and “Babe: Pig in the City”; he also did the original “Mad Max” back in 1979) has brought us a visual confection whose ‘real-ness’ makes the usual super-hero action flix look silly and artificial. In particular the recent “Avengers; Age of Ultron” really does seem to be little more than an animated, and respectful comic book when compared with this hyped up, adrenalin junkie extravaganza. Miller manages to convey the impression that all the action, all the exploding vehicles, all the whirling flying bodies is real; there’s no trace of the falseness you get from Marvel’s invincible super-heroes.

In his stoned dream of the future, there are three basic tribes: the dense faceless half starved, water-deprived masses (which sounds like LA by next month), a ruling class of whacko zombie-like blood-lusting men; and the women-folk: now reduced to the role of bovine milk suppliers or breeders for the men. Into this we find Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) who has just been chased down, captured and, lashed like a hood ornament to the front of one of the hundreds of war machines that bounce up and down the sandy dunes of the future, has become a blood-donor slave. And somewhere, out there, veering off her prescribed course is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a close cropped, one-armed division leader leading a small convoy of rebels who have recently rescued a group of (attractive, scantily clad breeders) and is speeding away in search of “the Green Place” (Gatsby’s “green light”?).

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What little story there is concerns the alignment of Furiosa with Max and their explosive flight away from the evil masked despot, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe throws everything at them: various booby traps, exploding spears wielded by men on swaying poles, machine guns, kamakazi armoured rigs that explode on contact, in a relentless choreography of operatic death and destruction that never dies down for two heart racing hours. They’re driven on by what seems to be a troupe of Japanese drummers led by a prancing, hyperventilating, heavily amped guitarist, the Doof Warrior (one iOTA, an Australian singer/songwriter who made his name as Hedwig, he/she of the Agry inch).

It isn’t just Max that’s mad; it’s the whole damned lot of them, starting with Miller and his production wizards: Colin Gibson (“Babe”), production designer, John Seale (“Cold Mountain”, “The Tourist”), cinematographer, Shira Hockman (“Defiance”, “Hotel Rwanda”) and Jacinta Leong (“The Matrix”, “Star Wards, Episode III”) art directors, and Jenny Beavan (“The King’s Speech” and “Sherlock Homes”), costume designer.

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And amidst all this kinetic overstimulation rises Charlize’s performance. As Imperator Furiosa, her eyes shine through a visage mainly smeared with oil slick and sand. She’s by turns fearlessly badass without becoming a cartoon and mournful without becoming maudlin. In all the noise and mayhem, she’s often a presence of stoic calm. Frankly if you wanted to put your trust in someone to rescue you, you’d give it to her well ahead of rough tough Mad Max.

This is probably the most feminist movie around

As Max, Tom Hardy is a muscled, macho, taciturn fighting machine with demons of the past he’s trying to face down. This is of course his movie but he pales into the background every time Chalize appears on the screen (mind you, for me, pretty much everyone pales into the background when Charlize appears on any screen). And as Miller plans (as he’s probably doing even now) his sequel to this world of madness and mania, let’s hope the Imperator Furiosa is still part of the action.