Friday, July 28, 2017

Dunkirk: War Is Breathtaking Hell

Soldiers swim to rescue in Christopher Nolan's staggering "Dunkirk"
There have been bloodier war movies—grisly productions committed to depicting the visceral horror as bullets tear through flesh. And there have been more provocative war movies, those that reenact armed conflict to make a political statement on its nobility or its lunacy. But there has never been, in my estimation, a war movie of such relentless, gripping intensity as Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s stunning World War II epic. The adjective “white-knuckle” has wilted into clichĂ©, but as someone who spent the majority of this film with his fists clenched in involuntary apprehension, allow me to offer a word of advice: Before seeing Dunkirk, clip your nails. Otherwise, you’re liable to tear them right off.

The sheer magnitude of Dunkirk feels unprecedented, but it’s in keeping with a director who has made a career of smuggling brainy, stimulating ideas inside packages of overpowering brawn. Size matters to Nolan, and not just in the way you might think. Yes, Dunkirk is a gigantic film, shot extensively on 65-millimeter IMAX cameras, which help convey the enormity of its scale. (For the record, I watched the film projected in non-IMAX 70mm, though I intend to make a trip to the IMAX for round two.) But even as he’s painting on a sprawling canvas—showing you the vastness of a beach, the infinite reach of an ocean—Nolan is simultaneously compressing the carnage, paradoxically resulting in an expansive claustrophobia. Consider an early scene on the title city’s famous coastline: Thousands of soldiers scattered along its sands freeze in unison, their ears picking up the faint whine of an approaching German bomber. The horizon seems endless, but there’s nowhere to go. As the plane zooms past overhead, all they can do is flatten their bodies and cross their fingers.

Friday, July 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes: No More Monkeying Around

Andy Serkis' Caesar is on a mission in "War for the Planet of the Apes"
Columns of soldiers goose-step in perfect rhythm, staring upward with reverence at their messianic leader. Behind them, enslaved prisoners, chained and starving, lug giant blocks of stone, piling them into a towering wall. A flag, emblazoned with religious symbolism, hangs firmly alongside an embankment, like gang colors marking territory. The loudspeakers blare an anthem, and the foot soldiers unleash a thunderous war cry.

You might think, from this bleak and jingoistic description, that I’m discussing a documentary on the Third Reich. But the anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and the flag is colored red, white, and blue. So when the leader orders his zealots to purge the world of an inferior race, he isn’t just marshaling his troops for battle. He’s putting America first.

Such is the chilling subtext of War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ tense, bracing new saga of conflict and community. As you can gather, the politics on display here are not exactly subtle, even if their allegorical impact may be more acute than intended. (Shooting took place well before the 2016 presidential election.) But while the film’s nationalist rhetoric and iconography may feel distressingly plausible, they are not the movie’s primary draw. No, what makes War for the Planet of the Apes so successful is that it’s a genuinely thrilling action movie, replete with exhilarating combat sequences and grand adventure. Had it been released ten years ago, it would still feel essential, getting both your blood pumping and—in more of a surprise—your tear ducts flowing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Big Sick: Funny Games, Then the Coma

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in "The Big Sick"
“There’s not just going to be a magic spark,” a mother tells her son early in The Big Sick. “You have to work at it.” Honestly, has this woman never seen a romantic comedy? One of our most durable and pleasurable genres, it is undergirded by the notion that cinematic serendipity—the meet cute, the screwball misunderstanding, the shop around the corner—is very real, and could happen to you. Well, what better way to illustrate this than by telling a true story? The script for The Big Sick, Michael Showalter’s sweet and sensitive new movie, was written by real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and it chronicles their first date, ensuing courtship, and subsequent complications. Emily is portrayed by the terrifically talented and perennially underrated actress Zoe Kazan, but Nanjiani plays himself, lending further authenticity to a production already steeped in personal and locational detail.

Yet while the pieces are in place for The Big Sick to establish itself as a contemporary rom-com classic, it doesn’t quite do that—not because it’s a bad movie, but because it isn’t really a romantic comedy at all. Sure, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and for its first half-hour, the film executes the rom-com playbook with competence and conviction. As it progresses, however, The Big Sick becomes harder to pigeonhole. It operates, at varying times and often simultaneously, as a ruminative character study, as an exploration of the American immigrant family, and—most startlingly and most effectively—as a weepie.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Local Schoolboy, Coming of Avenging Age

Tom Holland is the new Peter Parker in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"
Both Peter Parker and Spider-Man are great movie characters, albeit for different reasons. Peter’s appeal is one of drama and narrative; ignore the whole vigilante crime-fighting thing, and he’s the perfect embodiment of nerdy boyhood angst, a decent kid juggling the all-too-familiar teenage problems of school, work, and girls. But Spider-Man’s allure is distinctly cinematic. His particular abilities—the way he springs from one edifice to the next, the way his sticky webs lend his movements physicality and coherence—are uniquely suited to visualized heroism. When Peter struggles to muster the courage to ask a crush to a dance, you can empathize with how he’s feeling. When Spider-Man strains to yank two halves of a splintering barge back together, you can understand and anticipate what he’s actually doing.

Perhaps this blend of thoughtful characterization and dynamic action explains why Spider-Man: Homecoming is Sony’s sixth title to feature Spidey in the last 15 years. Or maybe the studio just likes making money. In any event, Homecoming cannily capitalizes on its hero’s twofold potential, even if it falls short of genuine triumph on both fronts. The gold standard for Spider-Man movies—and for all superhero movies, for that matter (hell, maybe for all movies, period)—remains Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi’s transcendent fusion of bold adventure and plaintive desire. This ain’t that. But Homecoming, which was directed by relative newcomer Jon Watts from a script by a bevy of writers, is at least a quality effort, a spirited quasi-reboot that captures its hero’s quintessential pluck and delivers a few moments of exhilarating web-based suspense.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baby Driver: Start Your Engines, and Your Jukeboxes

Ansel Elgort is an unflappable wheelman in Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver"
As much music video as movie, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is part symphony, part sonic assault. The music plays wall-to-wall in this giddy, extravagant thriller about a gifted getaway driver who’s paralyzed unless he’s blasting funk and soul into his ears by way of white earbuds hooked up to a rotation of oh-so-retro iPods. Stricken with tinnitus, the oddly monikered Baby (Ansel Elgort) can only concentrate when he’s listening to classic jams, the better to drown out the incessant humming. This fusion of underworld pulp and musical obsessiveness is Baby Driver’s raison d’ĂȘtre; there have been countless films about bank robbers and quite a few about wheelmen, but this is surely the first where the driver snaps at his cohorts to wait before commencing a heist because he needs to restart a song to regain his rhythm.

Baby’s condition is in part a clever conceit, an excuse for Wright—the pop-culture connoisseur who once interrupted a life-or-death action sequence in Shaun of the Dead while his characters discussed which old vinyl records were worth saving—to cram the film’s soundtrack with his favorite tunes, ranging from The Beach Boys to Queen to Young MC. Yet it’s also possible to view Baby’s affliction as a surrogate for his director’s own peculiar anxiety. A supremely capable and distinctive filmmaker, Wright here piles one flourish on top of another so that Baby Driver eventually reaches vertiginous heights, threatening to topple under its own weight of cinematic cool. It’s a blast, but it can also feel like style for its own sake, Wright working so feverishly to keep you entertained that he seems terrified of that inevitable moment when the music stops.