Dunkirk / **** ½

dunkirk-posterFor the second time in a row, I find myself reviewing a movie that undoubtedly has flaws on a character level, and yet is a movie that I find myself recommending solely on the technical merits of the filmmaking. Last time, it was Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, where the film leaned on archetypes in favor of stylish, musical style and editing. But now comes Christopher Nolan’s visceral, intense Dunkirk, which focuses on the experience of those living through the Dunkirk evacuation in frightening, relentless detail, eschewing all but the barest character beats. And while a lack of almost any character depth would be an issue in almost every other film, Dunkirk makes it work, simply by virtue of focusing on the experience of the war as a whole, and making that the story of the film.

Unfolding in an unconventional three-part structure (more on that in a moment), Dunkirk follows the evacuation on three fronts: land (represented by the soldiers waiting to get home), sea (following the English citizens sailing their private crafts to the beach), and air (I. This case, a pair of RAF pilots running interference against the bombers constantly straying the beach and the boats). There’s little dialogue to the film; our main soldiers barely speak, our pilots are largely restricted to mission talk, and the only characters we somewhat get to know are our three primary civilians, a father and son accompanied by a close family friend. Instead, Nolan throws us into the action early and fast, letting the characters be defined by their action – and just as importantly, their reactions, as they cope with the danger around them. For the beach-stranded soldiers, that’s relentless German strafing of guns and bombs; for the boatsmen, it’s the constant and worrying presence of those same bombers, and the worry of the stranded men they find along the way; and for the pilots, it’s the worry that they may look behind them to find themselves in the gunsights of an enemy fighter.

As he did in Inception, Nolan plays the three threads against each other, letting the tension build in each simultaneously and cutting among them to keep the dread and unease building without pause. Instead of keeping that to the climax, though, Nolan pretty much juggles tension and dread through the entire film, with only one notable pause along the way that I can think of. Meanwhile, bombs are dropping, men are dying, ships are sinking, and there’s hardly a moment to catch your breath. The end effect is equal parts nerve-wracking, exhausting, and incredibly effective – rarely has a film managed to make audiences feel the dread of war so constantly without giving them an easy out.

That goes double if you’re lucky enough to see the film in 70mm as Nolan intended. Often using every bit of the massive frame, Nolan immerses you into this world, particularly in the aerial combat sequences that emphasize the space and the distance at all times, or an early overhead shot of the pier, beach, and water in an incredible tableau that drives home the scope and horrible beauty of all of this. Even more effective, though, is the deafening and relentless sound of the IMAX system, whose overwhelming and brutal roar reminds you that war isn’t exactly a quiet affair.

So, yes, on every technical and filmmaking level, Dunkirk is a knockout. But in other ways, it has some deep, critical flaws that keep it from being the masterpiece it could have been. The biggest is the lack of character work; while it’s understandable that the film focuses on the experience of war and the nature of these battles, there’s a sense that we care about these people because they’re human, not because we know them. And while there’s something interesting about that – that it doesn’t matter why you’re in the war, you deserve to be saved – it makes the film drier and colder than it could have been otherwise.

But the bigger issue to me is that three-part structure, which borrows another conceit from Inception – namely, that each part takes place over a different period of time, and only gradually does the film reveal the points at which they connect. It’s a showy gimmick, but one that never benefits the film; indeed, all we tend to think when we see those connections is about the film, not about the story. In other words, they end up taking you out of the film more than immersing you in it. It doesn’t help either that the film doesn’t make this time dilation particularly clear; even though each part is labeled “one week,” “one day,” or “one hour,” there’s no explanation of what that means, and I heard several people still not understanding the connection after the film ended. (To be fair, I don’t know that I would have gotten it worth having known about the idea before seeing it.) The result feels more like Nolan showing off than it does something for the benefit of the film, and the confusion and disorientation it brings detracts from the experience.

And yet, for all of those flaws – and they’re not insignificant ones – I still find myself recommending Dunkirk as a theatrical experience, and doubly so for 70mm. In some ways, it reminded me of my feelings about the film Avatar, a deeply flawed and simplistic film that I found myself realizing the flaws of throughout, and yet found myself incredibly swept up in as a theatrical experience. I don’t know that Dunkirk will ever play as well on a small screen as it does on the 70mm IMAX, or even just a good theater. But I can say that, even while I recognized its issues , I can’t deny the exhilaration, tension, and cumulative impact of the film as a experience, nor could I ever say that it’s not powerful, incredible viewing, taken all in all.

IMDb

Baby Driver / **** ½

baby-driver-posterI frequently cite Roger Ebert’s famous quote, in which he argued that “a movie is not about what it is about; it’s about how it goes about it.” That rule informs so much of my opinions about Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, because if all you focused on with Baby Driver was the story, you’d be pretty let down. This is a heist movie, and pretty much every character in it is an archetype, at best – the Good Kid, the Crazy Psycho, the Femme Fatale, the Good Girl, etc., even down to that famous One Last Job. What unfolds, by and large, is what you expect, with few true surprises or shocks.

And yet, I’d be lying if I said any of that mattered that much, because Baby Driver is so wonderfully stylish and well-executed that I forgive pretty much all of those flaws. Because, yes, it’s a heist movie, or even a car chase movie…but it’s also one that basically turns the genre into a musical, with every gunshot, punch, swerve, brake, and accident timed out to the beat of the constant soundtrack, and the energy never flagging. And it’s hard not to get swept up into the fun of that, even before you realize that Wright isn’t just doing it in his action sequences – it’s his dialogue, his solo walks, his briefings, all of it. (Even better is an early-film tracking shot where the graffiti and passerby all sync up the music quietly, without ever drawing attention to themselves.)

So, yes, Baby Driver has some issues. Almost nobody surpasses their archetype in their role (though I think Jon Hamm does better than most), and Jamie Foxx’s character is particularly underserved by the film, bringing evil and violence for their own sake in a role that could use some fleshing out. (And yes, it’s a heist film, which is a genre that uses archetypes as a rule, but these are pretty flatly presented ones.) Even our hero and his love interest don’t really exist much beyond the confines of the plot or their roles in the big picture, and that’s a bit of a letdown. And yet, every time Baby gets behind the wheel of a car, or the laundry in a laundromat spins in time with the beat, or Wright times all of his pieces so masterfully that you can’t help but just giggle in happiness, all of my complaints washed away. Yes, Baby Driver is all style, no substance…but when the style is this well-done and this entertaining, I’m pretty okay with that.

IMDb

Spider-Man: Homecoming / ****

ono08hbmbenyI am, at best, an agnostic towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and that may be generous. I’ve skipped most of the entries in the MCU, and by and large, the ones I’ve seen have been fine, but forgettable – in other words, they’re boring, empty calories. Yes, there have been highlights – the weirdness that James Gunn brought to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Shane Black’s surprisingly subversive plotting in Iron Man 3 – but for the most part, I haven’t even been able to motivate myself to watch more than a couple of them. And making it all worse is watching interesting, talented directors and actors being sucked into a world where everything comes out as the same generic, homogenized product.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, I wasn’t that excited about Spider-Man: Homecoming, even before you take into account the needlessness of another reboot. And yet, what I was excited about was the chance to take my son to a superhero movie, because one of the things that the MCU has done is pitch so hard for an older audience that it’s forgotten to be there for kids, who can’t always deal with big, apocalyptic battles or constant double entendres (especially if your kids already get anxious easily). But with its high school setting and wisecracking character, I got the vibe that this might be the perfect one to take a ten-year-old boy to go see in theaters.

And I’m glad I did – not only for him (he loved it), but because I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up really enjoying it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming does a lot right, but one of the most welcome changes is the lowering of stakes and the resulting focus on more personal connections. The film’s villain, played by the always welcome Michael Keaton, isn’t interested in taking over the world, or killing people, or destroying a universe. He wants to provide for his family, and little else matters to him. What that means is a villain without some big, grandiose plot – no giant glowing columns of energy; even more to the point, no attacks on civilians at all – but instead, a human being, and a sympathetic one. Yes, Keaton is the film’s villain, but he’s likable, and more importantly, he’s understandable. He’s terrified for his family and their lives – and those are stakes that can matter to us.

Similarly, with its focus on high-school life and Peter Parker’s inexperience and age, Homecoming makes its themes more interesting than “responsibility” or “power” or “justice”. Instead, it’s the story of a kid who wants to be taken seriously, who wants to figure out his place in the world and to be special. That’s prime material for a superhero story, and Homecoming makes it work, making it echo through every part of the film, from Parker’s high school life to the combat sequences. And when things like “responsibility” do come up in the film, the movie has a way of making them sneak up on you, playing with the risks of super-powers more effectively than most, and reminding us how they can do a lot – and that works in a lot of ways.

But best of all, Homecoming echoes the best lesson from Logan: the best superhero films realize that “superhero” isn’t a genre in of itself, but an element. Where Logan was a Western injected with superhero DNA, Homecoming feels like a high school film – one of those where a nerdy kid gets the chance to prove himself as something more, only using superhero material to elevate it all. And what that results in is something that feels like an actual movie, not just an extended trailer for a film yet to come.

Mind you, there’s still some of my usual Marvel grumbles – for instance, the way that at least two different characters are clearly there only as placeholders for greater roles to come, or a general lack of interesting style of any sort. But by and large, the film overcomes its MCU obligations nicely, handling them with humor and wit (see the clever method of recapping Civil War as the film opens, or even better, the final credits scene), or else making them vague but solid subtext (the villain gets his start cleaning up battle sites from the earlier films). And instead of worrying about spending too much time about what’s to come or what may happen (or, for that matter, on telling a story about Peter’s uncle that we’ve heard too much), the film can focus on being its own satisfying, engaging story. And really, that’s what I wanted from a superhero movie in the first place. Yes, some style would be nice…but in the meantime, I’ll settle for fun with an emphasis on character and world.

IMDb

It Comes at Night / **** ½

it_comes_at_night_xlgLast year, at the Chattanooga Film Festival, I caught a phenomenal film named Krisha, written and directed by a newcomer named Trey Edward Shults. Telling the story of a family’s Thanksgiving that gets crashed by a long absent relative, it was a searing piece of drama, filmed with a natural talent that blew me away and telling an emotionally powerful story in an exceptional way. In short, it was one of those debut features that leaves you knowing that you just saw the birth of a new talent, and someone worth keeping an eye on.

Now comes Shults’s second film, It Comes at Night, which offers up no end of surprises, even before you actually see the film. For one, I wouldn’t have expected Shults to make the jump to bigger budget, wide release films so quickly; even more surprising, though, is the fact that Shults has left behind domestic drama for the tougher genre of horror. That’s a tough genre, and while Krisha was undeniably tense and emotionally fraught, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a horror film from Shults.

What I got, though, was superb, marrying the “family under pressure to the breaking point” themes of Krisha with the paranoia and isolation of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and using shadows and silence to phenomenal effect. It Comes at Night is the story of a family who’ve isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods; while the specifics of what’s happened to the rest of the world never become entirely clear, it’s obvious that a disease has wiped out much of the population, and left the rest fending for themselves. But when the family gets discovered, questions of trust and loyalty come into play, and the characters are forced to deal with a simple question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Shults’s strengths as a writer and director are evident from the get-go here, especially as regards the performances, which are uniformly excellent, with nary a missed step in the batch. Joel Edgerton is one of the only “names” you might recognize, but he’s rarely been better, getting a role that befits his masculine practicality and gruffness. And Kelvin Harrison, Jr., the film’s de facto lead (as much as there is one), uses his youth to phenomenal effect, internalizing the horrors around him as he attempts to make his peace with the violent world he’s forced to live in, and figure out his own moral compass.

But as great as the performances are, what really floored me here was Shults’s command of mood and tone. This feels like a low- to mid-budget film; the scares are few, with more reliance on an atmosphere of dread and unease than on jump scares. More than that, Shults keeps us in the head of his characters more than we realize, leaving us questioning people’s motivations and understanding the stakes at any given moment. The result is maybe more of a psychological thriller than a true horror film, but the lines are blurred, and the film’s use of night and darkness leave no doubt as to where its genre roots lay. And it’s in keeping with Shults’s independent-film roots all the way to the film’s ending, which is destined to leave some mainstream audiences grumbling and unhappy, but which floored me pretty well.

It Comes at Night is going to be one of those cult horror films soon, one held up alongside The Witch and The Babadook and others as a reminder of how the decade was home to a rich new burst of creative, interesting horror movies. And more than that, it’s a sign that Shults is a talent to be watched; with his first two films, he’s hit two home runs. You better believe I’ll be there for attempt #3.

IMDb

Get Out / *****

get-out-new-posterThere’s a lot that I love about horror, but one of my favorite aspects of the genre is the way that it so often reflects the fears and worries of a society. From the way that Vietnam influences so many horror films of the sixties and seventies to the way that technology becomes a source of influence into itself in modern times, horror is often a response to our worries, and a way of making clear fears that we’re already suffering. That’s led to a burst of great horror novels as of late that grapple with racial fears in the guise of horror novels, from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom to Matt Huff’s Lovecraft Country.

And now, you can add to that mix Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a superb, taut piece of horror filmmaking that’s not always as scary as the best horror, but manages to wring astonishing tension and unease out of its premise, beautifully satirizes and makes explicit its commentary and worries about race relations, and does it all while telling a fantastic story and delivering a brilliant, tight script that only floors me more and more as I pick it apart.

In its early going, Get Out is only a horror film in terms of the discomfort and awkwardness it raises, as it follows an interracial couple home to meet the (white) girl’s family. Once they arrive, things get uncomfortable quickly, although not in the way you might expect. There’s no overt racism here; indeed, the girl’s parents are liberal, and go out of their way to make her African-American boyfriend feel comfortable. They praise Obama, they talk about Tiger Woods, they bring up NBA…in other words, they end up being every bit as racist, condescending, and uncomfortable as more overt racism might be, and the discomfort and awkwardness is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And in the able hands of Jordan Peele, who’s making his feature debut here, we’re immersed in the perspective of Daniel Kaluuya’s calm, exasperated male lead, giving even (and maybe especially) well-meaning white audiences a taste of what it’s like to put up with this sort of garbage. It’s a bravura piece of directorial work, and does a bang-up job of making its points clearly and carefully, and using its unease to maximum effect.

Because there’s more to Get Out than just this racial discomfort. There’s also the few other African-Americans Kaluuya sees in his time with the family, all of whom are unfailingly kind, and servile…and strange. There’s an awkwardness to them, an unnaturalness that’s hard to pin down. But it adds to the discomfort, as we, like Kaluuya, are forced to wonder, is this just a truly awkward, really bizarre, ultra-white family get together? Or is there something else going on here?

Peele has been vocal about the way he’s using The Stepford Wives as a tonal inspiration for the film, and it shows here, giving us a weirdly placid society that seems like it would be utopia for some people, but truly unnatural for others. And like Stepford Wives, much of the film’s unease comes from that careful balancing act, where we’re never quite sure if the film is going to become a true horror film, or if the horror is more personal and less actual, if that makes sense. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Peele does a masterful job here, foregrounding his character’s unease, answering questions satisfyingly but leaving doubt, and turning the screws carefully but unrelentingly.

Because, yes, Get Out isn’t ever quite truly scary, but it’s monstrously tense and unsettling, with some true knockout scenes that work like gangbusters (my favorite is the bizarre image of one of the servants doing his running at night, although Peele’s visualization of the therapy session with his girlfriend’s mother is a beautiful, spectacular image). More than that, Peele has a gift for pacing, letting our discomfort and unease with the racial tensions build, then pushing into more and more upsetting moments before finally giving us some elements that feel beyond what could easily be explainable.

I don’t want to get into what is or isn’t going on; suffice to say, though, that Get Out ends up being a thematically rich film, one where there’s so much metaphorical and thematic depth that you could unpack it for days. Even beyond the satire of well-meaning liberalism, there’s material here about cultural appropriation that’s pretty stunning, to say nothing of the way the film engages with historical and contemporary racial flashpoints. That the film does all that is spectacular; that it does so while never forgetting that it’s telling a story, and a thriller, is even better. The film holds its metaphor together tightly, trusting the audience to pick up on the themes it’s laying down without ever feeling the need to hold our hands. That goes doubly for some of the film’s rich, complex foreshadowing, which delivers payoff after payoff, often so subtly that you won’t realize them until afterward.

(At this point, I’d like to pause and say how much I recommend The Next Picture Show podcast’s episode about Get Out, which features not only some incredible analysis and discussion of the film, but unpacks much of the script’s cleverness, and left me sitting with my jaw agape half the time at the brilliance of it all. And as I read more and more about the film, I realized not just that every single moment is weighted with meaning, but that it’s the rare film that never hammers home its points, trusting its audience to unpack its secrets and be rewarded.)

Yes, Get Out is ultimately a little more successful as a dark satire than it is a horror film. But given how rich that satire is, how thoughtfully complex it is, and best of all, how well executed it is – from the directorial choices to the great acting, from the brilliant script to the tight pacing – it’s hard to complain too much. I loved it when I finished watching it, but as I’ve gotten further and further from it, and thought about it more, I’m all the more swept up by it, and just want to see it again to take it all in a second time. And the fact that Peele says he has several more horror films to come – as well as a TV series based off of Lovecraft Country? Even better.

IMDb

The Lego Batman Movie / ****

cym_yo1w8aqqn_zMuch as was the case with the original Lego Movie, there was really no reason to expect The Lego Batman Movie to be any good. While Will Arnett’s gloriously absurd take on Batman was undeniably a highlight of the original film, the idea of creating a movie that revolved around him…well, let’s just say that such spin-offs don’t have the best track record. But more to the point, don’t we already have enough Batman movies? Did we really need another one?

But really, I should have remembered that I had similar doubts before seeing The Lego Movie, and was pleasantly overjoyed by that experience. And luckily, the same happened here. No, The Lego Batman Movie isn’t quite as wonderful as its predecessor – it lacks some of that film’s surprising depth and heart – but it more than makes itself worthwhile simply by being so ridiculously, wonderfully fun – an underrated virtue in modern superhero movies.

Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that The Lego Batman Movie delivers a pretty great superhero story. Playing off of the Joker/Batman dynamic in incredibly silly ways, the movie follows Joker as he finds a new way to threaten Gotham City; meanwhile, Batman finds himself questioning his life of solitude and isolation as he’s forced into working with others. Yes, in broad terms, it’s all stories you’ve seen done before…but in the hands of The Lego Batman Movie, it all feels winning and charming – and, moreover, it handles Batman in interesting ways, feeling like a bit of a tonic after years of grimdark brutality that reached its nadir with Batman v. Superman.

But, really, what’s most wonderful about The Lego Batman Movie is the sheer silliness of it all. From Batman commenting on studio logos in the opening moments, the film’s joyous, anarchic sense of humor is infectious, with a playfulness that extends to non-stop, rapid fire jokes that come both visually, audibly, and through the dialogue. Yes, a lot of them are even better if you’re a comic book fan (seriously, they go deep into the back catalog here, to some justly forgotten villains), but so often, the movie is just poking fun at itself, at its characters, at Batman continuity, at self-important superhero movies, and really, at anything. And while the movie doesn’t go quite as far meta as its predecessor does, there are still some wonderful carryover jokes – I never stopped laughing at the sound effects for guns, or the “worst villains of all time” that the film introduced. And by the time you start layering in all of the parody posters, the Hollywood in-jokes (which range from obvious to incredibly subtle – even some of the casting is based around jokes), the Airplane!-level pace to the jokes, and more, the result is genuinely hilarious. (Really, it’s hard to know who laughed more, me or my kids.)

The Lego Batman Movie isn’t groundbreaking or spectacular, the way the original Lego Movie was; it “suffers,” I guess, from a refusal to go back to the same well twice, which is admirable, but makes the movie feel a little less substantial than the original. And yet, for all of that, I wouldn’t change a bit of it; it’s an absolute blast, from beginning to end – it’s wonderfully silly, it’s inventive visually, cleverly constructed, and really, just a genuinely great family movie that’s actually fun, without ever being condescending, snarky, or aiming over the heads of kids. What else could you ask for?

IMDb

John Wick: Chapter 2 / ****

john-wick-chapter-2-posterI wasn’t really prepare for how much I enjoyed the original John Wick, which took what could be an absurd premise – a retired hitman who comes back to avenge the death of his dog – and turned it into something wonderfully original and fun, filling its running time with stylistic battles, wonderful character actors, and a rich and interesting world of criminal interactions and societies. (And that doesn’t even factor in my deep love of Ian McShane, whose presence in anything automatically makes it worth watching.) So there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to see more adventures with Keanu Reeves’ killing machine, and the rapturous reviews that John Wick: Chapter 2 was greeted with only made me more excited.

Now, here’s the thing: I really enjoyed John Wick: Chapter 2, which delivers exactly what you would want from a sequel. You get more of Wick’s brutal headshot delivery service, more exploration of this complex, labyrinthine underground economy of coins and markers, more wonderful character actors making an appearance and taking stock characters and investing them with life and personality. (The standout this time, apart from McShane, is Laurence Fishburne, having a blast as the head of a criminal group made up of the homeless.) And, of course, there’s insane, stylish action, with some brutal use of a pencil, a knockout streetfight, an even match for Wick, and a jawdropping finale in a hall of mirrors that’s just a joy to watch unfold.

For all of that, though, John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t quite hit the peaks of the original film. That’s not to say that it’s bad, by any means; indeed, at some of those above-mentioned points, it exceeds the original and then some. But it’s a far more uneven film, and it suffers greatly from “middle film” syndrome – because, make no mistake, this feels like a setup for John Wick: Chapter 3 at times, and the lack of a true climax is a bit frustrating. More than that, at times, this feels like a bit of a retread; while it’s still fun to watch Wick lay waste to people, there’s a bit of a feeling of “Okay, sure, but what else do you have?”

Now, there comes a point about halfway through the film when everything changes – when this goes from John Wick being on a mission to being the prey, and it’s at that point that John Wick: Chapter 2 really finds its groove, and becomes a joy to watch. That’s the point where the film separates itself from the original, and becomes something new and exciting, and from that point on, the film is a blast to watch. But that doesn’t really excuse the first half from being…not bad, and certainly not boring, and not even unexciting. But not nearly as engaging as you’d hope.

All of this may sound like I didn’t like it, and I don’t mean that to be the case, because I had a blast with this movie. I could watch Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, and others just live in their parts for hours; I love the small details of this strange world, and the complicated rules and bureaucracy we keep catching glimpses of. And I love Reeves’ Wick, a lethal man who just wants to be left alone – he makes for a fun reluctant hero, a man caught back in a life he doesn’t want to be in. And, more than anything else, I love the film’s sheer style, and refusal to do anything in half measures – from laser-drenched concerts to shattered mirror halls, from insane car crashes to fist fights in the middle of subways and fountains, the film goes out of its way to make every scene memorable and unique.

Is it the first one? Nah, not quite. But did I have fun? Oh, yes. And will I see the third one? As soon as I possibly can.

IMDb