Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk: give it an E for effort

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been garnering amazing praise, the result, I believe, of the fact critics have become so subsumed by the hype (as I was to an extent) that they have suspended their critical judgement. The closest this film approximates is Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. The movie indeed does put the viewer in the centre of a war zone, and prolongs that over more than an hour and a half, much longer that the immersive scenes of the Spielberg movie. The film begins with no prologue but puts the audience directly into the action, which doesn’t let up. This is good. Also great is the sound score, a cacophony of siren-like sounds and loops of increasing pulsating industrial-like rumble, sometimes sounding like an overwrought industrial engine, which led me to wonder if this was an accurate way to underline the visual drama. As far as the visual is concerned the scenes take place largely on the expansive Dunkirk, France, beach under an overcast if slightly sunny sky, which creates an uncomfortable, menacing atmosphere. The story is about the massive and heroic evacuation of some 400,000 troops pinned in by the Germans, strafed as they are on the beach waiting to be rescued. No large ships can sail into the shallow waters so the British government calls on a vast flotilla of small boat owners to sail the Channel, about 20 nautical miles from England. This is one of the most heroic stories of the Secord World War, at the end of which Winston Churchill’s great speech “We shall never surrender” takes place. The film rotates among three stories – a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) as part of the perilous evacuation, Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, one of the citizen skippers sailing to the rescue, and two British air force Spitfire pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy), providing air cover. Throughout, the action is intense and never lets up. The acting is generally good including newcomer Whitehead and especially Rylance. But here are my problems: The movie indeed was shot in modern day Dunkirk and it shows. The streets are too colourful and pretty. There are even contemporary-looking buildings along the shore. Close-up shots of the pilots in their cockpits obviously aim for the realistic, their masks indeed looking like they came from the period, and that’s a problem. If this was real, wouldn’t their gear be newer looking? Also, visually, for a film that strives for exact realism, we never see the vast flotilla of citizen boats but rather only about 10 or 12. And, back home in England, the interior of the train coaches look newish. And, finally and most importantly, while I appreciate the film’s intensity, it’s simply not dramatic enough. I found myself looking at my watch twice. There are, for example, redundant scenes of ships bombed and turning over and soldiers thrown under water, and of troops gathered aimlessly on the beach. In fact, the film’s main fault, ironically, may be that in trying to be too in the moment for an hour and 46 minutes, it missed the opportunity to build drama. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Coppola's Beguiled a colossal disappointment

Yes, Sophia Coppola won Best Director at Cannes for this second take on author Thomas P. Cullinan's novel A Painted Devil, the first by Don Siegel in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. To say the least, it’s a colossal disappointment. I was expecting much more from Coppola than a very pedestrian, low key, flat-lined plot. The story is about the discovery by a group of women and girls of a Yankee soldier Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), wounded and gone AWOL, during the Civil War. The women are in a mostly abandoned southern plantation housing a girls’ school. Nicole Kidman is the school principal. She dutifully tends McBurney’s wound and cleans him up, almost fainting after touching such a perfect specimen of masculine virility. She and the rest of the eight-person household also fall in love, or infatuation, with their supposed prisoner. They primp, dress-up and flirt. But the corporal really has eyes for only one: teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). Or so he says. Morrow catches him in bed with Alicia (Elle Fanning) and hell is to pay. She knocks him down the stairs, reopening his wound. Now the leg will have to be amputated. After sedation, he awakens and discovers he's missing a limb. And hell is paid again – this time by McBurney - on the occupants. He, pistol in hand, holds them under, er, house arrest. Until, that is, they come up with a plot to end their captivity. There are many faults to the film though the actors did their best to work with what they were given. The first – and big – problem, is the lack of plot development. More than an hour went by before the first critical juncture, which really got the tension going. But essentially there is only one more act: McBurney’s capture of the women and their revenge. Perhaps this is the original story’s fault (I’d been expecting a played-out series of conflicts, even tortures). But Coppola could have embellished by creating more drama between the various women and McBurney. Instead it’s subdued. Moreover, she could have spun it like she did her 2006 Marie Antoinette, also starring Dunst. There, she used New Wave music over period scenes, an exhilarating juxtaposition. This film is singularity unexciting on many levels.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The "female" Lawrence of Arabia

Letters from Baghdad (opening Friday at the Main Art and AMC Classic Fairlane) is an extraordinary documentary about the life of British historian, diarist, adventurer, scholar, photographer, archeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell. The film follows Werner Herzog’s 2015 Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman as Bell, a well-meaning but dramatically unsatisfying treatment of, as she’s been called, the “female” Lawrence of Arabia. Although having greater influence, her tale, due to misogyny has, as the directors, Sabine Krayenb├╝hl and Zeva Oelbaum say, essentially been “written out” of history……Bell, an Orientalist, from a young age had a fascination with Arab culture and spent roughly 30 years in the Middle East between the 1890's and 1926, when she died. Amazingly, for the period, she travlled fearlessly across desert - on one occasion 1500 miles on camelback - writing, charting and studying the region. She, reluctantly because a woman, was hired by British intelligence at the time of the Ottoman occupation, giving way to the British. Some of this you may have heard or read about before. Certainly, Herzog’s film never went into this detail. But what perhaps many don’t know is her integral involvement in creating the modern Iraq state, including drawing its borders. She also was “right hand man” to the British-installed first king, Faisal. The film depicts Bell as a benevolent imperialist, seeking self-determination for Iraqis and ruing the harsh whip of British rule, including bombing villages that didn’t pay taxes. “We rushed into this business with out usual disregard,” she says in one of her more than 1600 letters to family and colleagues back in Britain.  One might eerily draw the conclusion: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” a foreshadowing of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which the film obviously is arguing. Significantly, Bell, who died from an overdose in 1926, is buried in Baghdad. And she created the famed Iraq Museum, ransacked during the invasion. So, yes, Bell echoes through the century…..Perhaps most astonishing about the documentary is the archival footage of film from the Middle East of a century ago, stunningly preserved, much of it having been locked away and discarded for decades. Tilda Swinton narrates flawlessly while actors in extremely realistic period dress (this must be mentioned) are filmed in black and white as Bell’s family and colleagues, all to the mournful but not maudlin sound of Paul Centelon’s score.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Detroit doc plays like drama

Recently, in San Francisco, and accidentally stumbling upon the San Francisco documentary film festival (SFDocfest) (June 7 post), I had time to squeeze in only one film. And what better one to choose than a film about Detroit? It’s Andrew James’s (Cleanflix, 2009) Street Fighting Men……The film follows three inner city Detroit men who are trying to combat crime and joblessness in their neighborhoods. While a documentary, it comes across as a fictionized drama, the characters searingly captured in such a natural way, obliviously to the camera. Also, remarkably, James, so seemingly comfortable filming in Detroit (he lived here a year), was a complete newcomer to the city, his home in Utah. James decided to explore Detroit quite by accident. He was en route to the Toronto International Film Festival. As many around the world have, James had been captivated by Detroit’s modern day de-industrialization and widespread destitution. He read an article in Metro Times about one of the characters, James "Jack Rabbit" Jackson, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. James contacted Jackson, who “was eager to tell his story and we hit it off right away.” In the film, James follows Jackson and two other men - Deris Solomon and Luke Williams – in their day to day lives. Deris is studying to finish high school, and Luke is rehabilitating an abandoned house. Says James, in a response to my query, “I felt that a longitudinal, fly on the wall style would allow me time to get to know the community better and find the story in collaboration with the subjects. This extended time in the field allowed me to form close bonds with the three men, and it gave me a unique opportunity to tell their stories in a very personal and emotional way.” ……The film has still not screened in Detroit but James is hoping to arrange a showing as soon as possible.