Beach bodies

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It’s rare that I write down an appreciation of a film that I’ve already said to the face of the film’s writer, director and producer, in person. But when I was lucky enough to sit with Christopher Nolan last Thursday for a full 20 minutes for an interview that went out on Classic FM on Saturday (you can Listen Again to the two-hour show until next Saturday, July 22), I began by stating for the record that I believe he has reinvented the war movie, and that his images and sound design fuse with his loyal composer Hans Zimmer’s music in a totally innovative way. He said thank you. I meant it. (I’ve said disingenuously positive things to famous film directors – and actors – in the line of duty before, although I’ve always tried to find honest positive things to say to break the ice, rather than lie, as I am a bad liar. I once held back from telling the still-insecure Christian Bale that I thought he was brilliant in American Psycho because I didn’t want to come over as a brown-noser, but he was a stiff interview and when I told him afterwards that I thought he was brilliant, he immediately thawed, and I wish I had told him before.)

So, we have established that Christopher Nolan really has – in my opinion – made what is essentially, and technically, and generically, a war movie, in that it concerns a military misadventure that took place in Northern France between 26 May and 4 June 1940, and yet, he has turned the war movie on its head. In fictionalising the human stories that tell the bigger picture, he has made a true-life wartime thriller whose lives are not true, and yet which tell broader truths about fear, and mortality, and communality, and youth, and survival. Instead of faithfully providing historical context and individual backstory, Nolan drops us into the action without a briefing. We barely find out the characters’ name, never mind where they come from, or what their hopes and dreams are – other than to get “home.” (We are reminded often that, on the vast, characterless beach at Dunkirk, you can almost “see” or “smell” home, which is only a few miles over the Channel.)

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As well as “home”, the other big theme of Dunkirk is “time.” (In a previous collaboration with Zimmer, Inception, there is a track called Time. Themes tend to tendril much further than one film with Nolan.) Dunkirk is – and was – a race against time. In the pure terms of Nolan’s near-mathematical vision, that’s all it is, even though it’s not all it was. As a war movie, it is more notable for what’s not in it, than what is in it. No politicians. No maps. No lengthy captions explaining where in the war we are, other than 330,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian soldiers are on a beach waiting to come “home.” A couple of soldiers are allowed to stand out from the shivering, alert-eyed khaki mass on the beach; they are all played by appropriately-aged relative unknowns. (Unknowns, that is, unless, like me, you watch every drama that’s on telly, in which case you’ll recognise Fionn Whitehead from ITV miniseries HIM, Jack Lowden from BBC’s War & Peace, Aneurin Barnard from Cilla, oh, and War & Peace; Barry Keoghan from Love/Hate, and so on.)

There are big names, too – Mark Rylance as the skipper of one of the “little boats”, Cillian Murphy as an unknown solider, who refuses to even give his name (and remained unnamed in the credits); Kenneth Branagh, channelling Noel Coward as the Commander; and Tom Hardy, as an RAF fighter pilot who – as part of some cosmic in-joke between him and the director of The Dark Knight Rises – acts behind a full face mask for the whole film, rendering him almost Bane-like in his inaudibility.

But nobody in a Christopher Nolan film is as big as the film. Them’s the rules. Even Heath Ledger couldn’t quite eclipse The Dark Knight, except in death. Al Pacino and Robin Williams were bit-part players next to the ice floes in Insomnia. Even Leo, doing his best to impress, in Inception, was lost in time. The star of Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan, or, to be more egalitarian, Christopher Nolan’s loyal crew: his composer since Batman Begins; his cinematographer since Interstellar, Hoyte van Hoytema; his editor since Batman Begins, Lee Smith; and so on. In interview, even though he was happy, relaxed and fully briefed to talk about his relationship with Zimmer, Nolan found it difficult to answer a “crew” question without naming all of those who contributed to any success that might be mis-credited to him alone, right down to Benjamin Wallfisch, who conducted the score. When I asked him about certain key decisions along the way, he said, “some of those I’m copping to, some of them I’m not.” He also smiled, which is rare. He is a very serious filmmaker, and Dunkirk is a very serious piece of entertainment.

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I loved the 1958 original Dunkirk as as boy, directed by Barry Norman’s father, Leslie, and produced by Michael Balcon. But that was a war film in the strictly traditional sense, and the evacuation of Dunkirk formed its climactic third act, after a suitable build up through France. When John Mills, Kenneth Cope and the other stranded Tommies finally reach the beach, we’re a good way through the film.  Much of what happens thereafter is replayed in Nolan’s Dunkirk, but we have no “relationship” with the principals yet, and to an extent, never do. Photos of loved ones are not passed around. Bernard’s character literally does not speak when he and Whitehead “meet” on the sand; they communicate with nods and glances. When a group of young men we have latterly come to identify – one of them played by Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction – are shot at in a boat, Nolan doesn’t show us where the bullets are coming from, or who is firing them; we are with the soldiers, and that is the only POV that matters.

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Incidentally, on the matter of the lad Styles, I can confirm that his star-dusted presence does not topple the narrative boat. He’s just another Tommy with sand in his clothes and salt on his eyelashes. But I do wonder why Nolan allowed himself to cast him – even if, as he claims, he didn’t know of the boy’s baggage when he turned up for the audition. What good can come of it, except in marketing terms? Maybe Nolan is so intelligent, and so clever, it’s a ruse and he has double-bluffed us all! Though Harry doesn’t come off badly onscreen – and many old, non-parents in the audiences won’t recognise him – he owned the fan-thronged premiere in London’s Leicester Square on the evening of our interview and that, to me, seems a shame when you’ve put all that academic thought and collective human effort into a film.

Though I don’t give ratings here, Dunkirk is a five-star film by anyone’s stellar judgement. It’s spectacular and intimate at the same time – and short, too, for an epic; Nolan’s second shortest feature since his no-budget debut Following, and a whole hour shorter than Interstellar. Nolan and Zimmer are now fused; inseparable: it’s impossible to say where the stunning, predominantly CGI-free visuals end and the “music” begins. It’s only in the aftermath of seeing Dunkirk that you start to realise how much has been left out in terms of the traditional war film: no enemy, hardly any exposition, no backstory, no prologue, no epilogue, barely a name, no blood, almost no women (in itself a particularly brave but justifiable jetty to isolate yourself at the end of in these gender-rendered times). I was struck – again, afterwards, not during – that this is something approaching pure cinema.

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Nolan has created something visceral and clear and gripping that speaks of human endeavour and sacrifice without prodding the viewer in the chest like a schoolteacher. He has fought convention on the beaches and on the landing grounds and has said no surrender to expectation. And that pounding, race-against-time cacophony from Hans Zimmer begins with the delicate, sampled ticking of one of Nolan’s watches. So it all comes back to time again, in the end. A spinning top. After Interstellar, Nolan gave Zimmer a watch, which was inscribed:

Now is not the time for caution.

In Interstellar, it was said by a robot charged with saving the human race.

★★★★★

 

2014: My Top 50 Films

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I have a simple, private, binary grading system with films. Once I have logged a film as “seen”, I either give it a star or not. This is quite a relief after the minefield of having to award stars out of five for professional reviewing purposes. Either a film feels like it was worth seeing, or it wasn’t. I sometimes go back and add or remove the star, depending on how I feel at a later date about the film. This makes collating an end of year list much easier, as it sifts the wheat from the chaff before I start. (This is why a bit of airborne nonsense like the Liam Neeson thriller Non Stop gets into the Top 50; I liked it enough at the time to give it a tick.)

Of the 142 films I saw in 2014, 92 were new, in that they were released in the UK for the first time this year. (For quick but odious comparison, of the 153 films I saw in 2013, 122 were new. I don’t know why I saw less films, especially less new films, but it may have something to do with having worked harder for less money in 2014, and having to make some tough choices simply in terms of sparing the time. I regret this.) Here they are, in order – and I have been tinkering with this for about a fortnight. An important note: I did not get to see Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Winter Sleep in December, as it is three hours long and I had no-one to go and see it with. I know in my bones it would be in the list, possibly near the top. Its absence is glaring and unbalancing. So it goes.

Boyhood

1. Boyhood | Richard Linklater | US
2. Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev | Russia
3. Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France
4. Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland/Denmark
5. 20,000 Days On Earth | Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard | UK/US/Canada
6. Dallas Buyers Club | Jean-Marc Vallée | US
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson | Germany/UK
8. Two Days, One Night | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne | France/Belgium/Italy
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 | Lars Von Trier | Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh | Ireland/UK

11. American Interior | Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch | UK
12. Under The Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK
13. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras | US
14. Lilting | Hong Khaou | UK
15. The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US/Australia/Denmark
16. Starred Up | David Mackenzie | UK
17. Showrunners | Des Doyle | Ireland/US
18. Belle | Amma Asante | UK
19. Locke | Steven Knight | UK
20. A Story Of Children And Film | Mark Cousins | UK

21. Nightcrawler | Guy Gilroy | US
22. The Rover | David Michôd | Australia
23. 22 Jump Street | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US
24. Inside Llewyn Davis | Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | US
25. Noah | Darren Aronofsky | US
26. Jimmy’s Hall | Ken Loach | UK/Ireland
27. Cold In July | Jim Mickle | US/France
28. The Past | Asghar Farhadi | France/Italy
29. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes | Matt Reeves | US
30. Chef | Jon Favreau | US

31. ’71 | Yann Demange | UK
32. X-Men: Days Of Future Past | Bryan Singer | UK/US
33. The Wolf Of Wall Street | Martin Scorsese | US
34. August: Osage County | John Wells | US
35. Only Lovers Left Alive | Jim Jarmusch | UK/Germany
36. Northern Soul | Elaine Constantine | UK
37. Her | Spike Jonze | US
38. Edge Of Tomorrow | Doug Liman | US/UK
39. Non-Stop | Jaume Collet-Serra | US/France
40. A Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/Germany/US

41. The Riot Club | Lone Scherfig | UK
42. Maps To The Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada/US
43. The Guest | Adam Wingard | US
44. The Armstrong Lie | Alex Gibney | US
45. The Unknown Known | Errol Morris | US
46. American Hustle | David O. Russell | US
47. The Heat | Paul Feig | US
48. The Two Faces Of January | Hossein Amini | US/UK
49. Easy Money III | Jens Jonsson | Sweden
50. Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

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Really, I don’t think there has ever really been anything like Boyhood, but its technical and logistical achievements might just have been that had it not been for Richard Linklater’s guiding hand and a cracking cast, most remarkably Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, respectively seven and eight years old when shooting began in 2002. Rarely have 165 minutes passed in a cinema without anybody looking at their watch. This film singlehandedly made a case for the occasional preeminence of American filmmaking in the 21st century, where noise and surface are often all it’s got. (I say that, but the US dominates my list, if not the Top 10, as the bulk of the films I saw were American, or American co-productions. As ever, a bit of Danish or French often rises to the top.)

In a year without Boyhood, Leviathan would have sat comfortably at the top of a the pile. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere, symbolically rich tale of contemporary smalltown corruption plays out as a David and Goliath struggle between a car mechanic and a grotesque mayor on the coast of Northwestern Russia over a patch of land (the mechanic, Alexei Serebriakov, lives on it, in a house he built himself; the mayor, Roman Madyanov, wants it). A slow, downbeat, naturalistic and unshowy slice of life, Leviathan nonetheless rears up into moments of pure beauty and portent, not least when one character glimpses an actual whale breaking the surf in the bay, or when the teeth of a JCB tear into a house like a dinosaur searching for prey. It’s all about scale.

I’m pleased that a large number of UK and Irish releases made the final cut – Starred Up, Belle, Locke, Calvary, Under The Skin, American Interior, Jimmy’s Hall – as well as a clutch of documentaries, although I can think of half a dozen I’ve missed, too. I also missed Pride, which I feel might have been in there, had I seen it. Feel free to tell me yours, but don’t take it personally if a film you’ve loved this year isn’t in my Top 50; I might simply have missed it. And I really didn’t like Mr Turner.

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A postcript: I continue to hold a Curzon cinemas membership, and it is my lifeline. It should be noted that in 2014, the chain announced that it had finally recognised the union Bectu and agreed to pay its workers a living wage. So far, this agreement seems to have held, and no funny business has emerged. I am in touch with the previously aggrieved Curzon workers via Twitter and have heard nothing to the contrary. I sincerely hope this continues to remain true. Other cinema chains have not been as willing to compromise, and it blights the whole business of cinemagoing.

Scrap, metal

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I’ve never actually been beaten to a pulp in real life, so I can only guess what it must feel like. But I think it might feel like watching the final third of Man Of Steel. It’s a reboot – which is a clear, unequivocal vote of no confidence in that last reboot, which only reached one film – and it’s also an “origins” story. That makes it fundamentally a remake of the first Superman movie, a committee-written affair in 1978, but brought to fruition in colourful, then-groundbreaking style by Richard Donner.

Now, it’s at this point that I must declare an emotional-historical stake in the cinematic birth of Superman: it was our big Christmas movie of that year, I was 13, and it came hot on the heels of Star Wars; it felt, for all the world, as if big, blockbuster cinema was ours. (Remember, we’d only had re-runs of the “Ker-Pow!” live-action Batman and the animated Spider-Man on TV.) My friend Neil Stuart somehow managed to get his hands on an official Superman movie programme, perhaps from a screening in London? (I don’t know how, but I do know we looked up to Neil.) He generously gave it to me. I treasured it. I was that kid who would badger my parents for the flimsy tie-in book of each new blockbuster: the ’76 King Kong, Close Encounters etc. I was at the stage in any nerd’s life in those pre-Internet days when the need to find stuff out and see pictures of stuff and, if possible, own that stuff was overwhelming.

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My friends and I were caught up in the hype and we were more than ready to “believe a man could fly”, as per the marketing promise. (I had also decreed Gene Hackman to be My Favourite Actor, so I was stoked by the idea of seeing his latest movie when it came out, rather than on telly a number of years later.) I was equally enthused about Superman II in 1980 and Superman III, which my brother and I dashed to see in 1983 as we were confirmed Richard Pryor fans by then. The law of diminishing returns did not diminish our desire to return to the Northampton ABC.

So, every time Superman is rebooted, I recoil a little bit and lose some of my strength, just as I do each time the original Star Wars trilogy is ruined by George Lucas. They’re punching my childhood. That said, I am a grown man. And if a reboot is good, I’ve nothing against it in principle. Batman Begins was truly terrific, the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Although it came way too soon, I found much to admire in The Amazing Spider-Man last year. Conversely, I was unmoved by Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, with some people called Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in it as Clark and Lois. (I never watched Smallville.) I had no objection to Zack Snyder having another crack at the man of steel, as I have an awful lot of time for his Watchmen.

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Unfortunately, Man Of Steel is awful. It sucks the life out of the franchise and jumps up and down on any of the first movie incarnation’s charm or humour. (It goes without saying that Man Of Steel is not camp. Even its trademark blue and red are dirty blue and matt red. There are two jokes; I counted them.) This overlong, over-serious, portentous sheet-metal opera seems to have only one setting: eleven. If it was ever satisfactorily wrought, then they must have taken it back in fear and wrought it some more. In the boxing-gloved hands of Dark Knight – and, let’s not be coy, Da Vinci’s Demons – scribe David S Goyer, and the bombast-worshipping Snyder, this new Superman is a charcoal-coloured, bass-note, quasi-biblical apocalypse. And that’s just the opening sequence.

From the destruction of Krypton, we move into a sombre, po-faced re-telling of Kal-El’s evacuation to Earth. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane make a good set of adoptive parents, but The Tudors‘ Henry Cavill, who physically fills the part, has little to play with. His son of Krypton gets bullied, learns the hard way not to show his strength and works out how to “focus” the cacophonous hell his super-senses create inside his head, before becoming a sort of itinerant oil-rig worker so that he can seek out a crashed spaceship in the Arctic?

Not 100% sure about what was going on during this bit, which is where he fortuitously meets and reveals himself to an unconvincing Lois, whose pushy reporter Amy Adams has to work furiously to pump any life into. A Superman film shouldn’t be boring, should it? But I certainly nodded off while Russell Crowe was delivering a lecture in holographic form, and when I awoke, he was still delivering it.

But the meat of the story isn’t Clark’s evolution to a super man (they don’t call him that much, and the “S” on his chest doesn’t stand for “Superman”, so there), it’s his never-ending cosmic grudge match with Michael Shannon’s General Zod, who’s a kind of intergalactic thug whose superpowers match Kal-El’s, hence the climactic battle (or “smackdown” as it’s been more accurately described), which goes on and on and on and on and on. And then, just when you think that Metropolis couldn’t take any more of a beating as these two supreme beings punch each other a mile away at a time, it goes on for a bit longer.

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Huge, looming spaceships, a honking “world engine”, entire skyscrapers falling onto other skyscrapers, more military hardware than you’ve ever seen before, airstrikes, explosions, everything’s massive, everything’s an attack … Transformers springs to mind; as does the first Hulk, whose comedic bouncing style also seems to have been adopted, and that’s not a good look. (Unless you just want to squeeze as much money out of teenage boys as possible, in which case, why make it 143 minutes long? Cut the gooey stuff and make it all battle and run it in at 106 minutes! Cram more screenings in.)

Like any good reboot, it sets up Clark and Lois as fellow reporters for the ultra-modern Perry White, who’s black, so that further episodes can be stacked around them, but if this is how it starts, with what magnitude of a bang is it going to end? And how long with Man Of Steel III be?

Sometimes I think to myself: I just wasn’t made for these times. Superman certainly wasn’t. (I willingly saw it in 2D, by the way. I can only assume in 3D it’s literally unbearable to be in the same room as.)

Peace on earth

A quick round-up of the films I’ve seen in the past week, but which I’ve not had the spare time to review. (It’s all go at the moment.) First, Another Earth, yet another impressive calling-card feature debut in a year absolutely full of them, this time from a writer-director called Mike Cahill, whose background is in editing. Actually, he co-wrote and co-produced the low-budget philosophical sci-fi drama with the film’s star, Brit Marling, so there’s a lot of creativity and interaction here. It’s a simple enough tale: a promising student (Marling) is involved in an accident that changes the course of her life, and the accident takes place on the same night that a new planet is discovered – a planet that turns out to be “another Earth”, and with which contact is made. I won’t reveal any more of the plot, although the trailer, no matter how esoteric, gives away much more. It’s better not to know how it will unfold. Suffice to say, it’s an original mix of fantasy and grounded emotional drama, whose lack of budget means that the impact must come from inventiveness and from smaller moments. Before seeing this film last weekend, I’d read two sniffy reviews, one from Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, the other in my bible, Sight & Sound, both of which picked out Marling for criticism, and seemed to accuse the film of taking on too much. I couldn’t disagree more. I found it moving and involving, and thought Marling to be entirely natural and charismatic. Her co-star, William Mapother – yes, Tom Cruise’s cousin – is a more seasoned performer, but Marling’s lack of experience merely made her character, Rhoda, more believable. The special effects are limited to recurring shots of the “other Earth” hanging, familiarly, in space, but these convey a lot of the film’s mystery and portent.

I recommend Another Earth. I don’t always agree with Peter – although, as I always say, I love his writing – but in this case, I violently disagree. He was way too hard on what is a first film, and which finds interesting and offbeat ways of telling its story visually, and shows great technical promise.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, which I saw on Monday in a big West End cinema, was also a revelation, in that I found Guy Ritchie’s first Holmes reboot tiresome (and I say that as fan of Ritchie’s early Cockney gangster work, and of the work of Robert Downey Jr, who is one of the very few Hollywood stars to have hugged me). However, it was a smash hit, and now has its first sequel, which is much, much better. Unless you’re Eddie Marsan, who had loads to do in the first film, and seems to have been left on the cutting room floor this time. Still, Downey Jr’s back, and is having as much fun as ever, with Jude Law, too, enjoying himself as a bemused Watson, dragged into a globe-straddling adventure when he’s supposed to be getting married. Throw in the redoubtable Jared Harris as the dastardly Moriarty – and yes, it’s the one where the two foes meet at the top of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland – and you have a rip-roaring chase that hops from set-piece to set-piece with witty aplomb. It’s noisy, and fast, and literally very dark, and replete with “bullet time” slo-mo sequences that are more like a director’s showreel than an actual film, and you’d have to be in a pretty sour mood not to get caught up in it.

I like to think of myself as something of a film writer. But I spent the entire film thinking The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo‘s Noomi Rapace was Sadie Frost after having had some “work done.” It was Noomi Rapace. She played a heroic gypsy, which was a welcome counterpoint in the week of My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas on C4.

I’m now starting to wonder if I was too hard on the first film. I did, after all, find myself sitting next to a young man who was not just texting or checking his phone during the film but actually having a conversation on it. Could it be that he actually caused me to dislike the film I had paid to see? If so, Guy Ritchie should get one of his genuine gangster friends to go round and sort him out.

I also caught up with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes on DVD last night, but that deserves its own entry.