Blade Runner 2049

© 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

RYAN GOSLING as K in Alcon Entertainment’s action thriller “BLADE RUNNER 2049,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment release, domestic distribution by Warner Bros. Pictures and international distribution by Sony Pictures.

This review contains spoilers, as do most reviews or op-eds of any intellectual value for that matter.

Roger Ebert described PEARL HARBOR as, “a two hour movie squeezed into three hours.”  That is precisely how Denis Villeneuve’s BLADE RUNNER 2049 plays.  While the 163-minute sequel to Ridley Scott’s rather loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, succeeds in more complex world building, it doesn’t achieve a depth of story that couldn’t have been told in half the running time.

In a future where synthetically-engineered humans called Replicants were banned and purged from Earth, a police unit of so-called Blade Runners is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” them.  K (Ryan Gosling) is assigned to this unit.

While pursuing one, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista featured too briefly in a role that showcases a real talent for subtle acting), K unearths a corpse of particular novelty, the discovery of which sets off his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), and attracts intense interest from Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind, eccentric founder of Wallace Corporation, which acquired the assets of Tyrell Corporation.  Inventors of the replicants, Tyrell Corp fell into bankruptcy after the death of Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), a more believable corporate profiteer who saw himself as more engineer than demigod.  Real villains never see themselves as the villain.

Wallace sends a lieutenant of his own, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow K and acquire the corpse.  I feel like Hoeks has something to say, but it’s muddled by the writers’ tendency to relegate her to glowering looks and lots of leather-clad Bad Girl/Fighting Fuck Toy high kicks.  In the end, she’s still a servant, just like Joshi, but Villeneuve and writer Hampton Fancher have little, if anything, to say about it.

In spite of daily “baseline resets”, a mantra designed to clear the mind of emotional disturbances (think of the Mentats in DUNE), K sets upon a journey to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the old-school Blade Runner who supposedly holds the key to this mystery.  His partner in this journey is… a sexbot named Joi (Ana de Armas).  And this is where the problems begin.

Betwixt a technocratic allegory to Ancient Egypt and the Let’s Go Find Harrison Ford plot, there’s so much dead space.   It isn’t used, however, to establish any sort of social commentary about the enslavement of females save for a couple tears shed by Luv.

See how meticulously the scene compositions of BLADE RUNNER 2049 are crafted:  Inside the catacombs and chambers of what appear to be the leftover Ziggurats of the defunct Tyrell Corp., golden light dances and follows Luv and Niander, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere.  Roger Deakins, who famously commented that films today tend to be overlit, gorgeously captures the fantastic textures of character actors like Bautista with barely anything but a rim light curling around his cheek.  Gosling’s face, bruised and beaten, the cobalt light turns the blood and dirt black—similar to the look of a Day-for-Night scene in MAD MAX FURY ROAD.  But this too is child’s play for Deakins.  Recall the glowing lanterns in SKYFALL.

Especially at a time when geek and film culture is beset by scandal after scandal, one would hope that filmmakers take as conscientious an approach to character and story design as the lighting and cinematography.  Gosling’s K evokes a familiar everyman, whose troubles are assuaged by his holographic sexbot.  That the entirety of her personality can be contained on a device the size of an Amazon Fire stick says as much about technological advancement as it does about female disenfranchisement.  But to the average viewer this will merely come off as a plot convenience.  There’s no deeper commentary on K’s dependency on a mindlessly-devoted, sexy female companion to define and enrich his humanity.

Let’s count:  The Macguffin is a dead woman.  The protagonist has a generic sexbot.  The mustache-twirling villain has a generic Fighting Fuck Toy, and a penchant for unnecessarily murdering his disposable women.  Mackenzie Davis (HALT AND CATCH FIRE) is completely wasted as a hooker.  The police Lieutenant seems to be written as a man cast as a woman—where either they have femininity or they are leaders, but can’t have both.  If you marvel at the casting but not the story, consider that all the casting directors are women and the creative team all men.

Even with its many locales in and around a future Los Angeles, the film is surprisingly shallow on diversity unlike its predecessor.  As I noted in my review of Ridley Scott’s original BLADE RUNNER, street scenes show us a hodgepodge of races, many speaking a sort of hybrid language similar to Esperanto.  Rain-soaked streets and alleyways are bustling with people like Osaka at night.

Yes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 alludes to environmental chaos sown by overpopulation, but are we to believe it only wiped out all the nonwhite people?

Intelligent storytelling would have more deeply examined the nature of the differences between male and female enslavement, rather than conveying them nakedly (literally in one case).  On message boards and in discussions about Hans Zimmer’s rushed score replacing Jóhann Jóhannsson’s, many readers remain transfixed on Vangelis’ vaunted accompaniment to Rutger Hauer’s brilliant Tears in Rain soliloquy.  One of the most iconic scenes in science fiction, and reportedly improvised on set by Hauer himself, it shows a male slave resigning to his fate, almost naked, clutching a dove.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.  Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.  I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.  All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…

Regard that image for a moment.  Think about its femininity, its vulnerability, its defiant transcendence.  Then watch the mindlessly physical work of the male slaves in this film from beginning to violent end—its slapdash coda constructed as afterthought.

In the 35 years since BLADE RUNNER opened, I can think of one instance alone that reminds me of this scene.  In Spielberg’s massively underrated film, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE—arguably his masterpiece—Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), when taken away by police, exclaims, “I AM.  I was!”  Just shy of utter brilliance, the scene plays in the safe space of heteronormativity rather than taking a more subversive route, yet Steven Spielberg remains one of the few, if only, directors who gave the sexbot the humanity the protagonist couldn’t find.

 

Suspiria

Jessica Harper as Suzy Bannion in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA.

Admittedly, my knowledge and experience with Italian horror is weak.  So I begin my education here, with Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, brilliantly restored for its fortieth anniversary.  As one colleague points out, however, SUSPIRIA is straight Italian horror and not Giallo (Italian for “yellow”, so named for the inexpensive pulp stock that dimestore novels were printed on).  The former is a supernatural thriller whereas Giallo, a genre established by Mario Bava in 1967 with the visually sumptuous KILL, BABY… KILL, may invoke the spirit but leans heavily toward the murder-mystery elements of noir.

American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) travels to Freiburg, Germany, to study at the prestigious Tanz Academy.  From the moment she arrives, however, something feels amiss.  A girl rushes out the entrance, frightened out of her wits.  When Suzy rings the intercom, a voice answers abruptly telling her to go away.  The following morning, the headmistress, Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and Directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) explain that the girl simply disappeared.  Not so.  What follows is a descent into occult madness and terror that’s part ONIBABA, part BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS… You’d swear that the blind pianist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), was Z-Man in the flesh.

Writer/director Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA returns to screens in a new 4K restoration print that is among the best I have ever seen.  Co-written by Daria Nicolodi, shot by Luciano Tovoli and scored by prog-rock group Goblin, the story itself is the genesis of Argento’s induction into the annals of cinema legend.

There are two ways to unpack the narrative:  One is as a fairly bigoted wives’ tale against Romanians who figure prominently in the occult ongoings at the ominously crimson Tanz Academy (the film is an admixture of an account told to Nicolodi by her maternal grandmother and several excerpts from Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis).  Another is as allegory to the ways in which unscrupulous women oppress other women to maintain some semblance of power in a patriarchy.  However, a lost opportunity lies in the character of Professor Verdegast.   A Mengele type played by Renato Scarpa, undoubtedly the inspiration for Daniel Schreber in Proyas’ DARK CITY, Verdegast could have been the mastermind of a psychotropic experiment only disguised as occult hysteria—ideas recently, albeit tangentially, explored by Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE and Panos Cosmatos’ BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

The most terrifying character of all is not, as you would suspect, Verdegast.   It is not even The Black Queen whose aura casts dread throughout the third act.  Rather, it is Tovoli’s dynamic use of lighting as diegesis.  Late in the first act, Suzy passes by one of the Romanian housekeepers/cooks inexplicably brandishing a sharp-edged glass prism.  Suddenly, Suzy becomes delirious and disoriented.  Cutting back to the housekeeper, the hallway is now awash in diffuse light and a strange mist.  Bathed in a color best described as “angry pink”, accompanied by the swell of Goblin’s score, the scene telegraphs an evil omnipresence.

The creeping paranoia and the excellent setups that make you suspect various players until the true story starts to unfold creates an unsettling feeling of dread, absent from American horror cinema which shifted quite a bit to gore and body horror for a good couple of decades until, probably, THE SIXTH SENSE… but even thereafter, what most filmmakers took from Shyamalan’s film was not the buildup of dread, but rather the mystery box and the twist, weakening the emphasis on narrative and suspense.

The colors are absolutely brilliant and the film looks exactly as it should have. The restoration of picture is true to the three-strip Technicolor process and color timing of the original.  The Technovision anamorphic aspect isn’t corrected or altered in any way… the optical barrel distortion toward the far left and far right of the frame (common for many anamorphic lenses outside of Panavision) adds to the disorienting mood.  True to the original, the oddly unbalanced 4 track re-acquaints us with the ungodly loud score and looped dialogue with no modification.

Having inspired so many other horror films, SUSPIRIA is terrifying in ways many American horror films simply aren’t. The score, by Goblin, isn’t used to punch up the film’s few jump scares. Instead, the wailing, screeching and bells, casts an aura of horror over each buildup, punctuated by silence when the evil actually strikes.

The creeping paranoia and the excellent setups that make you suspect various players, until the true story starts to unfold, creates an unsettling feeling of dread absent from American horror cinema which shifted quite a bit to gore and body horror for a good couple of decades until, probably, THE SIXTH SENSE… but even thereafter, what most filmmakers took from Shyamalan’s film was not the buildup of dread, but rather the mystery box and the twist, diminishing the emphasis on narrative and suspense. The closest I’ve seen in recent memory is probably THE BABADOOK, borrowing from Argento as much as it borrows from Kanedo Shindo.

Overall, SUSPIRIA ranks as my favorite 4K restoration from Kino Lorber, bringing back to the screen (this week at the Landmark Inwood in  Dallas) in pristine form one of the most harrowing horror films ever produced.

RoboCop (1987)

(L-R) Nancy Allen as as Officer Ann Lewis and Peter Weller as Murphy in MGM/Orion Pictures’ ROBOCOP.

Metro police officer Frank Fredrickson identifies criminal mastermind, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who orchestrated the killings of three other officers.  In response, the police force in Detroit is being privatized by conglomerate Omni Consumer Products.  The police union reacts, threatening a strike.

OCP wants to commoditize law enforcement purely so they can gentrify urban areas.  Of course, they will assume the commercial real estate development as well.  Sound familiar?

This is the backdrop of Paul Verhoeven’s shrewd satire disguised as action/sci-fi.

“209 is currently programmed for urban pacification, but that is only the beginning,” says OCP President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).

ED-209, a heavily-armed robot resembling a cross between a minotaur and a helicopter, is a visual gag of comical genius from effects supervisor Rob Bottin, bookended by a cleverly poetic reference to Theseus with a staircase standing in for the labyrinth.  Filmed in stop-motion, the sentry’s hulking mass moves clumsily, like a Harryhausen miniature in CLASH OF THE TITANS.  ED is unveiled in one of those corporate demos that takes place in a sprawling, ornate boardroom larger than you’ll ever see in any Fortune 500 company.  There’s also an entire wall of monitors directly behind a podium, oddly placed perpendicular to the backs of half of the Board.

Granted, neither the podium nor the monitors serve any explicit purpose in the presentation, except as aesthetic embodiments of corporate excess—and a stretch of a setup for the film’s denouement.  This is Verhoeven’s reductive genius at work, part of a weapons demonstration that: a. Should never take place in any office setting, ever.  b. Does a better job of satirizing presentations gone awry than would a Q&A with PowerPoint slides.

“You call this a GLITCH?” barks the Chairman of the Board (Dan O’Herlihy turning a mean streak completely opposite his jolly alien Grigg from THE LAST STARFIGHTER), right before hearing out Vice President Bob Morton’s (Miguel Ferrer) proposal to temper the program with a cybernetic mind—ideally recruited from the best officers Detroit PD has to offer.

Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller).  Assigned to Metro PD South precinct, Murphy is paired with Officer Ann Lewis (De Palma favorite Nancy Allen; DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT).  Eventually, Murphy and Lewis are cornered in a steel mill (the ideal location to dispose of bodies, according to Apple’s Siri™).  To Verhoeven’s credit, Lewis never falls for RoboCop.  She’s her own woman and an equal partner aligned with Murphy’s relentless pursuit of justice.

Riddled by bullets from Boddicker’s gang, Murphy is airlifted to a hospital where OCP reconstructs him into a cyborg.  In one draft of the story, Murphy was to retain some of his flesh but Verhoeven instead chose, wisely, to conceal his humanity behind a cowl, like Batman.  Only Peter Weller’s prettyboy lips remain, droning mindlessly in monotone until the climactic return to the gangsters’ steel mill hideout where the reveal of his humanity is so meticulously and deliberately mirrored on Yul Brynner’s striking gaze as the Gunslinger in WESTWORLD.

Weller reportedly studied ballet to inform the way RoboCop moved—unlike C3PO, he emulated the graceful and fluid movements of, rather appropriately, an industrial robot from an automotive plant.  While many sequences in the film are too tightly shot to appreciate Weller’s physicality, you can see these influences in the wider-angle cinematography of Boddicker’s takedown at a cocaine distribution center run by the local drug lord, Sal.  Rather than the conventional narcotics slime-ball, Sal is played by the venerable character actor Lee de Broux, whose credits span television (Mannix, Baretta) and film (CHINATOWN).  He resembles Robert Duvall, as if Tom Hagen had left Staten Island to branch into his own criminal enterprise.

Writer Edward Neumeier and Director of Photogaphy Jost Vacano worked together on Verhoeven’s Riefenstahl-meets-Republicans pastiche, STARSHIP TROOPERS.  The result: A scathing social commentary loaded with layers of metaphor not immediately recognizable to my twelve-year old self, I’ve been digesting thirty years hence.

“Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock.  I will notify a rape crisis center,” says RoboCop to a sexual assault victim he rescued with his “Big Fuckin’ Gun” (A Beretta M93R dressed to look like a coffin).  Aside from the obvious poetry of RoboCop’s shiny metal ass facing the camera under a smug OCP Billboard touting its Delta City project (“The future has a silver lining”), the deeper subtext here is a commentary on privatization.  Displaying no emotion or concern, RoboCop’s utterance carries the blithe tone of a faceless customer service representative’s apology for “inconveniencing” one of Corporation XYZ’s millions of customers.

As with Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE, Verhoeven’s sociopolitical introspection is everywhere, especially in the Reagan-era ads for everything from brand-name artificial hearts (“By Jensen! Yamaha! You pick the heart!”) to belligerently large sedans with horrible gas mileage (the 6000 SUX, or, as my wife points out, presciently one letter away from “SUV”), and 30 second soundbite-driven news.  Executives live in high-tech mansions while homeless men wander the streets and there’s seemingly no middle ground.  Incidentally, the heedlessness and hedonism of the upper class would have its comeuppance six months after ROBOCOP’s release, culminating in Black Monday—the largest single-day decline in the stock market since the Crash of 1929.  Nonetheless, the catastrophe trickled down to us all.

Basil Poledouris’ score punctuates this cynical burlesque with clank and bombast reminiscent of his Anvil of Crom from CONAN: THE BARBARIAN.  Like Milius’ and Howard’s titular hero, RoboCop has a code of honor, in the form of three Prime Directives:  1. Serve the public trust.  2. Protect the innocent.  3. Uphold the law.  Murphy becomes the property of OCP brainwashed by a set of rules that serve his corporate masters. Not himself.  In a theme common to Verhoeven’s fictions (TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), the protagonist wrests himself away from external ideology in deference to his own innate understanding of right and wrong.

Theseus conquers the minotaur.


ROBOCOP is currently in limited re-release for its thirtieth anniversary.

IT

© 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

(L-R) JAEDEN LIEBERHER as Bill Denbrough, JACK DYLAN GRAZER as Eddie Kaspbrak, FINN WOLFHARD as Richie Tozier, JEREMY RAY TAYLOR as Ben Hanscom, SOPHIA LILLIS as Beverly Marsh, WYATT OLEFF as Stanley Uris and CHOSEN JACOBS as Mike Hanlon in New Line Cinema’s IT, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

According to the CDC, bullying and child abuse are the leading causes of childhood suicide resulting in roughly 4,400 deaths per year.  While these themes have recurred in the periphery of many coming-of-age films, so rarely has cinema tried to deal with it head on without sensationalizing the matter.

Generally, the horror genre seems to have been a Christian apologetics ministry to warn against the evils of premarital sex—with rare exception.  In Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER, a young girl’s father murders her occult-obsessed uncle but proves himself to be an incestuous lech.  In M. Night Shyamalan’s film, THE SIXTH SENSE, a subplot involves Munchausen-by-Proxy.  A young girl played by Mischa Barton is being poisoned by her mother.  She tapes the incidents and, after her death, reveals the tape to Cole (Haley Joel Osment).  The mother is caught just as she’s beginning to poison the girl’s younger sister.

The first cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (previously incarnated as a rather incomprehensible mini-series) personifies evil in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård).  Reputedly a centuries-old eldritch demon, Pennywise (a.k.a. “It”) feeds on the fears of children in the mining town of Derry, Maine.  He’s first encountered when Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher; MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), floats a paper boat along the neighborhood street curb.  Georgie loses the boat down the sewer drain, where he discovers the peculiarly cherubic Pennywise who utters ominously, “We all float down here.”

A year later, still guilt-ridden (he let Georgie go out alone) and determined to find his missing brother, Bill and several other bullied/abused children discover the demon lives in an abandoned house—some kind of nexus of evil incidents that have left hundreds of children dead or missing over the past two hundred years.  Each of the children has encountered It in one form or another: Overcompensating for his insecurities with mom jokes, the bespectacled, diminutive Ritchie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) fears being abducted and forgotten about.  Never without his inhaler, Eddie Kaspbarak (Jack Dylan Grazer) fears asphyxiation.  Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) fears being picked on for his Judaism, though he is also deeply skeptical of religion.  Mike Hanlon, the only minority among the group, fears ostracism from the all-white community but also lives with the memory of watching his family burn to death.

While many of the others have run ins with the school bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), it is the overweight eccentric bibliophile (and secret NKOTB aficionado) Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), for whom Nicholas is a personal, external tormentor.  Likewise, Bev’s (Sophia Lillis) father (Stephen Bogaert) abuses her.  To me, it is inevitable that Bev and Ben would be the most hardened of survivors among this so-called Losers Club.

Directed by Andy Muschietti and written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, IT is replete with “jump scares” and visual/body horror.  However, the film shines when focused on the children’s relationships with one another, their mutual distrust of authority (adults act oblivious, almost purposely, to the disappearances; one draws parallels to child abuse scandals within the Church), and their pact to fight back.  Still, the director and editor don’t allow these scenes to breathe for a beat or two, cutting right back into the headlong violence.

The children’s resolve to defeat Pennywise also bears elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, as do many of King’s stories which revolve around childhood traumas, survival through shared struggle and conquering personal demons—figurative and literal.   But like another monomyth, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the protagonist does not emerge unscathed.

Many critics and viewers took to calling out M. Night Shyamalan’s use of the Final Girl trope in his thriller, SPLIT.   In Shyamalan’s film, the Beast tells her would-be hero that he preys only on the unbroken because they are weak.  This drew serious criticism from psychiatric circles that fear such dramatic mischaracterizations underplay the severity of prolonged damage done by abuse.

The difference in both King’s novel, the miniseries, and presumably the planned sequel to this film, is that twenty-seven years later when the demon returns, the children are each deeply, psychologically scarred in their own ways.  For them, as well as for Bilbo Baggins, the “hero” in Tolkien’s mythology, the battle scars are too many.  Those of us who have endured years of bullying and/or abuse are not “heroes” in any sense.  Our memories are often vacated as the only means by which we cope day to day.  Like the evacuees of Dunkirk, all we did was survive… and that was enough.

Logan Lucky

© Fingerprint Releasing | Bleecker Street


Daniel Craig stars as Joe Bang in Steven Soderbergh’s LOGAN LUCKY, a Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street release. Photo: Claudette Barius / Fingerprint Releasing | Bleecker Street

Rising from the earth like some howling, primeval monster, John Goodman remains a defining cinematic memory of my youth.  The bizarre yet hilarious visual was perfectly emblematic of its source: the Coen brothers’ criminally underrated RAISING ARIZONA, a hapless-Southern-couple-as-well-meaning-kidnappers caper film starring Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter.  Steven Soderbergh’s LOGAN LUCKY gifts us with similarly quirky and empathetic criminals who inhabit a Southern cultural microcosm so well-meaning and authentic, one is hesitant to leave.

Working stiff Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) falls prey to bureaucratic red tape and is suddenly left without any means of income with which to support his beloved daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie).  Sadie is a cheerful and complex little girl, who loves to help her pa fix his car while she isn’t competing in little miss beauty pageants.  Mellie Logan (Riley Keough), Jimmy’s whip-smart kid sister, provides maternal care for Sadie when she isn’t in the custody of her biological mother, a pristine yet detached Katie Holmes.

The Logan clan’s resident pessimist is Clyde (Adam Driver), is a truck stop watering hole bartender and amputee veteran.  He attributes his questionable luck to the Logan Family Curse, which has dogged their lineage through multiple generations.  After an invigorating knock-down fight with a customer who insults his prosthetic, Clyde is convinced by his brother Jimmy to throw caution into the wind and force lady luck to finally acknowledge them.

Their hare-brained, and almost Rube Goldbergian, scheme hinges on the complex, subterranean maze of cash-delivery tubes beneath the NASCAR race track.  From hastily assembled cardboard mockups to a staged prison riot, their plans fall – no, collapse – into place against all odds and reason.  It seems for this one heist they’ve been blessed with the Reverse Logan Curse, perhaps due to the influence of Joe Bang.  A dandy convict played with contagious glee by Daniel Craig, they enlist Bang for—wait for it—his  explosives expertise.

LOGAN LUCKY is a delight, peppered throughout with clever set-ups and pay-offs beset only by an over-abundance of characters.  Some (like Sebastian Stan’s type-A health nut NASCAR driver, or Katherine Waterston’s kind-hearted mobile clinic physician) appear in scarcely more than a single scene.  We are left wanting to know more about them.  There Soderbergh showcases his expertise; he gives us just enough to satiate, plus just a little extra to keep us salivating.

Dunkirk

Copyright: © 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

TOM HARDY as Farrier in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller “DUNKIRK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR where a distant wave on an exoplanet crests hundreds of feet above sea level.  The tension of this moment builds and builds until the crewed shuttle makes their narrow escape.   DUNKIRK begins at that crest, followed by another, and another, and another, each more terrifying than the last.  It plays like a visual translation of Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War”.

Brusque in my dismissals of Nolan’s past work, I see a director evolving.  With MEMENTO (2000) I had yet to be convinced that the backward chronology was more than a gimmick to conceal an otherwise mundane narrative.  In THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and INCEPTION (2010), Nolan’s successes gave way to excesses of action and incoherent editing to further conceal an apparent distaste for cogent narratives.  Credit where credit is due, the man knew how to shoot a scene.  He just didn’t know how to connect them together properly.

Two films, THE PRESTIGE (2006) and INTERSTELLAR (2014), are exceptions in his oeuvre.  In the former, Nolan created a compelling, Dickensian noir about two rival illusionists, each grasping at immortality–metaphorical and literal.  In the latter, Nolan scored a massive international success with a drama of familial bonds disguised as science fiction paradox.

The same man who spun his grandiose ideas out of control just four years earlier told a relatable yet philosophical father-daughter story about the cosmic permanence of love.  I could even forgive the soppy dialogues, irrational female scientist, and Matt Damon, as my own beloved Ophelia¹ sat, rapt, for the last twenty-five minutes as Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) conquered space and time to return to his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).

Enter Nolan’s tenth feature.  In 1940 at the Battle of Dunkirk, 68,000 British and 48,000 French lives were lost.  Another 330,000 survived because of a plan enabled by the Wehrmacht’s so-called Halt Order, giving Allied forces three days to stage Operation Dynamo—a massive evacuation.

Reportedly, Nolan and his wife, producer Emma Thomas, started writing the story after traversing the English channel by boat, learning about the historic defeat on the shores of France.  He spent the last twenty-five years polishing and paring down that script to just seventy-five pages of slug lines and sparse, almost nonexistent dialogue.

DUNKIRK, shot in a combination of IMAX and Panavision 65mm, dramatizes the battle in a triptych on land, sea, and in the air.  The film opens on five soldiers, including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), barely surviving a shelling in the city.  Their commanding officer dead, they scramble aimlessly across the Maginot line until one reaches the shore where thousands of troops are being evacuated on destroyers and medical frigates, many carried out on stretchers.

From here, the three perspectives are intercut:  1. Tommy attempts to board a doomed frigate.  2. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son join other affluent civilians on yachts, enroute to aid in the massive evacuation.  3. RAF Pilot Farrier³ (Tom Hardy) and his wingmen give air cover to the evacuees.

If Hoyte van Hoytema’s visual story interprets Holst, apropos that Hans Zimmer’s score steers clear of the kind of cacophonous bombast that Spielberg might commission from John Williams.  Instead, his amorphous swell rises sparingly, precisely when it must.  The effect is like the atonal, orchestral crescendos in The Beatles “A Day in the Life”.  Then, he rests us gently back down, like Farrier’s plane coming ashore, in the arms of a new derivative of Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations.

And it’s just like that.  Amidst the crests and troughs of the battle sequences, the images tell us of the Dawson’s war-hardened shrewdness and personal tragedies; of Farrier’s unflinching trust in his wingmen as he takes down five², perhaps six, Messerschmitt Me-109’s in his Supermarine Spitfire with its roaring, Rolls Royce Merlin engine; and Tommy’s epiphany as an elderly man hands him a blanket.  His shipmate, Alex (Harry Styles) remarks snidely, “All we did was survive.”

The man, a veteran likely blinded during the Great War, replies, “That’s enough.”

There’ll be endless editorials about the 70mm film shoots, in-camera/practical fx, the live extras, the real planes and ships, but DUNKIRK’s triumph owes to the simplicity of the finished product, not the complexity of the technical inputs.  That masterful distillation is the piece that Nolan has finally brought under his command.

Footnote: The AMC IMAX where they screened the film made an absolute mess of the sound, which I expected.  I suspect that the 70mm presentation I’m seeing this weekend at LOOK Cinemas Prestonwood will be much more tightly managed.


  1. Ophelia is a dog.  She loves watching science fiction with daddy.
  2. This is perhaps based on the feat of 605th RAF Squadron Leader Archibald “Archie” McKellar, who shot down five Bf-109’s in a day during the Battle of Britain.
  3. The British surname Farrier is of French origin vis-à-vis the Norman conquest of 1066.  While it means “blacksmith”, its root is the French word for iron.  Either an “iron-haired” (silver-haired) ancestor or, more likely in this case, iron will.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.  Twentieth Century Fox-TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”

In Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn, a dialogue takes place between an ape and human who hash out the self-destructive history of intensive agriculture.  The gorilla, named Ishmael, questions the uniquely human, mythological conceit that we are the apex of evolutionary biology.

This is the bookend that seems to drive Matt Reeves’ final chapter in the current PLANET OF THE APES trilogy.  In the rebooted 2011 and 2014 installments of the franchise,  humans are infected by a virus engineered originally as a drug treatment to combat Alzheimer’s.  The primate test subjects of the program, however, flourished physically and mentally.  With most of humanity eradicated by the Simian Flu, the third film opens in the heat of a territorial battle between Caesar (Andy Serkis), the de facto leader of the apes, and troops under the command of his unhinged opposite, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

Caesar and his closest advisers conclude that they must relocate to the desert on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Harrelson’s Kurtz/Ahab archetype is obsessed with avenging the inevitable extinction of his species.  In parallel, Caesar harbors anger at humans though not to the degree his rival, Koba, did in the two films prior.  A large orangutan, Maurice (named likely for Maurice Evans, a.k.a. Dr. Zaius, in the 1968 original) reflects that they failed to understand just how much darkness Koba still carried within him.  The third chapter reminds me of the triumph of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING, of which Roger Ebert observed, “a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.”  Replace “race” with “species” and there you have it.

Occasionally the imagery and the score rise above the limits of cinematographer Michael Seresin’s and composer Michael Giacchino’s repertoire, e.g. when Caesar leads a small group across a beach to a military fortification as the sun glistens off the water–the music, the imagery and the story forming a contrapuntal scene composition.  However, the real feat of Reeves’ APES is in its character arcs.  We’ve been trained to think Caesar is noble, Koba is flawed, and the Colonel is evil.  The truth is that Caesar is flawed, Koba is a victim, and the Colonel is weak.

Reeves’ film muses over a self-evident truth about protagonists and antagonists: we all begin with intentions we believe to be right.  If you know where PLANET OF THE APES (1968) begins, then you know where the Simian Flu takes the story.  If you don’t: A mute child, whom the apes later name Nova (Amiah Miller), bridges the gap of understanding between the Colonel and Caesar.  How she does so, I will not reveal.

In the middle chapter, Caesar’s prejudices blinded him to the betrayals by his own kind.  We see both men haunted by their mistakes:  Caesar has nightmares of Koba, darker than I would have imagined.  We probably overlook the Colonel’s anguish, both because of the way he caricaturizes himself to create a fearsome image, and because of how recreational and self-medicating use of alcohol permeates our own culture.  There all the time, we may not immediately recognize that the Colonel is, in fact, an alcoholic drowning in the sorrow of his own personal tragedy.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES closes metaphorically where Quinn’s Ishmael begins, “With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?”

Wonder Woman

© 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

GAL GADOT as Diana in WONDER WOMAN, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Clay Enos/ TM & © DC Comics

The best thing about WONDER WOMAN will be all the little girls emulating their heroine the way I and my friends emulated Indiana Jones when we were kids.  The worst thing about WONDER WOMAN is that it’s a D.C. film.  The in-between isn’t great but it isn’t entirely bad, either.

Director Patty Jenkins enters into a beleaguered franchise, opposite industry giant Marvel and rather late to the game.  The hope, perhaps, was that they might rush a product out ahead of CAPTAIN MARVEL and have bragging rights to being magnanimous toward women.

On the isle of Themiscira (based on the region, Themiscyra, of Greek myth) the Amazon women live, learn and train in armed combat like men of Sparta under the tutelage of Antiope (an under-utilized Robin Wright).  The world of men, they believe, is corrupted by the god, Ares.  Queen Hippolyta’s (Connie Nielsen) daughter, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot, also played by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey), is born and bred for war, but raised with the Amazonian values of maintaining peace.  This cannot last, as World War I falls on their doorstep, literally, when Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crashes at their shores, followed by German battleships.

WONDER WOMAN has the temperament of Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.  Aside from shifting the Trevor timeline to World War I, there are benefactors (David Thewlis) and there are rogues (Saeed Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) in a race to stop the destructive Danny Huston—err, Ludendorff, who feels too much like a Nazi caricature (Weimar Republic be damned).  Destined to play villains, Huston and his congenital scowl just can’t catch a break.

Written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder, the anemic story exsanguinates after the facile introduction to Diana’s home, the Great War, and the vaguely evil plot—to deploy a kind of mustard gas which, as far you see on screen, makes people sleepy—facilitated by a scientist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), grotesquely twisted inside and out.

In spite of these challenges, uneven pacing and the weak third act (typical of Snyder), Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot prove that Wonder Woman herself, contrary to studio excuses, is not and never was the problem.  And while Chris Pine’s levity establishes a usefulness beyond what his phallic gags imply, Gadot shines in a light entirely of her own making.

She cinches Wonder Woman with the same combination of awkwardness and sincerity that made Christopher Reeve the golden standard of superheroes in Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978)—note the alleyway stickup nod to to the latter.

Central to D.C.’s failures with Batman and Superman reboots is this notion that the protagonist must be miserable in equal proportion to the world around him.  Marvel, then, did the obverse with Chris Evans and Captain America, first in Johnston’s love letter to American optimism, and again with a darker poignancy in the Russo brothers’ WINTER SOLDIER, testing a hero’s resolve in the darkest hour with deliberate callbacks to 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE PARALLAX VIEW.  The key, as the School of Donner taught us, is that the world is a mad, cynical place, and what defines a superhero is how they never lose their nerve.

Somewhere betwixt profligate abuse of slow-motion shots of cartwheeling daredevilry, Diana Prince scolds a roomful of stodgy Brits of the War Council.  As if to point a finger back at the studio executives who rationalized why audiences won’t buy into a female lead, Diana looks these men square in the eye and declares that leaders don’t make excuses and hide behind desks while sending poor, young men to die in war.  Leaders, she argues, charge into battle with their troops.

To wit, it only took two women to right a ship that dozens of male D.C. executives, writers and directors, have tried their damnedest to sink.

Through every generation of the human race there has been a constant war, a war with fear. Those who have the courage to conquer it are made free and those who are conquered by it are made to suffer until they have the courage to defeat it, or death takes them.

–  Alexander III of Macedon

Alien: Covenant

M & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT.  Photo Credit: Mark Rogers. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Fifteen years after archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) encountered a parasitic species while attempting to chase down the alien origins of humanity, a colonization mission to Origae-6 goes awry when a radiation burst cripples the ship.

Like the previous expedition, funded by the eccentric Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the human crew is accompanied by an android, Walter (Michael Fassbender). Unlike his predecessor, David (so named for Weyland’s fondness for wearisome metaphor vis-a-vis Michelangelo), Walter’s intelligence is curbed. This seems peculiar, as it was Weyland’s intent to crew an android as a sort of HAL-9000 with an ulterior motive.

ALIEN: COVENANT is the second part of Ridley Scott’s prequel series to the 1979 horror film starring Sigourney Weaver as the protagonist, Ripley. While science fiction cinema has had elements of horror in its mid-century roots, ALIEN emphasized claustrophobia and terror as the primary elements, pushing the science fiction to the backdrop. Ridley Scott, however, hasn’t seemed to successfully move away from the tropes he helped popularize–namely, the Final Girl. Instead, he works backwards from them stuck in a kind of causal loop of intense mediocrity.

The surviving members of the crew are systematically picked off by the “neomorph”—like “xenomorph” but, you know, new… except this is a sequel, so shouldn’t they be protomorphs? Never mind. Scott’s modern Ripley, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming engineer aboard the Covenant, happens upon another android who leads them (unsurprisingly) to a trap.

THE SPOILER: Yes, the villain is David… In spite of escaping a completely unrelated star system, in all the vast universe, somehow the cosmic radiation accident led the Covenant to the exact place where David and Elizabeth landed. And yes, David is going to double-cross them. And yes, he uses a trick that would make Hayley Mills proud (or nauseated). To his credit, Fassbender invokes the same creepy ethical vacancy of Ash in the original ALIEN.  And maybe there’s something to reintroducing that 1970’s-era distrust of technology into cinema at a time when our own fears about the surveillance state are coming to fruition.  In a back room, H.R. Giger’s early concept designs strewn across a table, we discover that David is a eugenics hobbyist, synthesizing and curating the “perfect” being in an attempt to recast himself from servant of one species to god of another.

Sidenote: Fassbender also supplies a hint of homoeroticism or, perhaps, auto-eroticism… but it’s merely titillation, eclipsing that hint of Sgt. Lope’s (Demián Bichir) marriage to Sgt. Hallett (Nathaniel Dean).

A prequel could conceivably take any number of routes to get you to where you’ve been, but Scott seems to be repeating the same storyline again and again only peppering us with bits of mythology like the interesting clues that lead nowhere in the television series, LOST. In the end, they’re all dead anyway.