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Dunkirk

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Director: Christopher Nolan

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy

Released: 21st July 2017 (UK)

Reviewer: Ren Zelen

Possibly the film event of the summer, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been long anticipated by fans and critics alike. Dunkirk marks Nolan’s first film since 2014’s Interstellar and is a departure from his previous excursions. It is the first Nolan movie to be based on historical events as all of his other movies have either been original scripts, remakes, or literary or comic book adaptations.

Dunkirk is instead a portrayal of a particularly poignant historical event of WWII – the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk – and concerns the battle between German soldiers and Allied troops that lasted for ten days in 1940, and which ultimately led to the evacuation of more than 330,000 Allied troops. This history is recent enough to have some survivors of the actual evacuation present at the premiere of the film.

Dunkirk opens as hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces. Trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea they are sitting ducks facing a massacre when the enemy inevitably breaks through the fragile Allied defences.

The action (the film has surprisingly little dialogue) is seen from the land, from the sea, and from the air, and concentrates what would be thousands of personal stories into a handful of characters and their heart-stopping efforts to reach the safety of British shores, faintly visible on the horizon, yet frustratingly out of reach. The title Dunkirk itself is divided into three segmented colours, sky blue, dark blue and orange, referring to the triptych plot of Air, Sea and Land.

Nolan departs from the conventional narrative framework of a war movie – the boot-camp training, family life disrupted, comrades supporting each other in battle and so on, and plunges us immediately into the middle of the action. But here again Nolan plays with time, using 3 intercutting stories on 3 different time frames to tell his story: the beach with the infantry (including Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), the evacuation by the navy requisitioning civilian vessels (featuring Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance) and then in the air (with Tom Hardy engaging in aerial dogfights).

Speaking about the narrative structure in Premiere magazine, Christopher Nolan stated: “For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry only an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple.”

With regard to the Battle of Dunkirk’s importance, he added: “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate, and the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in the war and in the history of the world. A decisive moment. …The success of the evacuation allowed Churchill to impose the idea of a moral victory…Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane, it is a colossal victory.”

After hearing first-hand accounts from the survivors of the Dunkirk evacuation, Nolan realized how young and inexperienced many of the soldiers had been, and so decided to cast mostly young and little-known actors for the beach setting, bringing home the idea of young men cut down at the beginning of their lives, and the terrifying waste and indifference of war.

This is balanced out by the experience and skill of the more seasoned members of the cast. Long-time Nolan collaborators such as Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, but also some of the most celebrated British thespian talent, including Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. Rylance’s performance again astounds by its naturalness. Without a spare gesture or sentence, Rylance can communicate a range of quiet and subtle emotions – unlike other actors, even some of the best, one is never conscious of his ‘acting’.

Because the film has minimal dialogue, Nolan also found it useful to investigate silent films to see how they handled crowd scenes and what kind of techniques were used to maximize the feeling of awe and suspense. He decided to use the real naval destroyers for the sea battle sequences (there were 62 ships in use during filming), cardboard cut-out props of soldiers and military vehicles placed in the far background of shots, to create the illusion of a huge army.

What is unique about Dunkirk, is not just that Nolan can assemble a stellar cast, but also that he has the clout to choose the methods he wishes to employ to get the effects he wants, and he can also insist that he shoots on film, an increasing rarity. Rarer still is that he can get 70mm film prints to play in theatres, requiring them to find a real live projectionist.

The film is also Christopher Nolan’s sixth collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer who delivers an unusually restrained score. (They previously worked together on The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Zimmer received an Oscar Nomination for both Inception and Interstellar).

Dunkirk clocks in at 107 minutes (the director’s second shortest film to date) but it is edge-of-your-seat filmmaking, focusing on the deeply moving efforts of soldiers to survive the onslaught. The tension never lets up. The film has been described as, “one unending big moment” and the decision to shoot on 70mm “delivers a completely immersive and intense experience that you can’t get on a traditional digital print”. Dunkirk is the type of story that exploits the scope of the format. Warner Bros is busy proclaiming that Nolan’s WWII epic will be the most widely released 70mm film in 25 years.

Dunkirk will also show in IMAX auditoriums, but unlike typical studio fare that is ‘up-converted’, much of the film was actually shot using the IMAX process, usually reserved for high-quality nature documentaries. IMAX cameras not being the nimblest to use, film buffs will know this is unusual territory, especially within today’s ‘download- to-your-phone’ conditions.

On 70mm the film was impressive, the IMAX screenings are bound to be utterly immersive. Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk’s cinematography has been highly admired, the aerial photography being especially thrilling. New collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema (who replaced long-time DP Wally Pfister on Interstellar) may be singled out for praise for some inventive camerawork.

But where might his newest venture fit within Nolan’s body of work? Christopher Nolan has become known for his innovative approach to storytelling and the originality of his ideas. He uses methodically structured timelines in keeping with the ambiguous nature of his films, which often require repeated viewings to become ultimately satisfying.

Nolan possesses a marked interest in the interaction between narrative and characterization. Literary theorists have long studied narrative form and Nolan admits that his time as a student of literature in the department of English at University College London has informed his film-making and led him to “…Start thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors have enjoyed for centuries.”

His debut Following (1998) was made on a budget of around £6,000, but along with his subsequent critically-acclaimed films, Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010) the movie was seeking to explore and extend the limits of film structure and technique. In all of these works, Nolan refused to provide his audience with definitive conclusions, preferring instead to encourage them to extract their own meaning from endings which remain ambiguous.

In Dunkirk, however, Nolan is dealing with a story whose ending is famously known, so instead he arranges the time frame in a way that highlights the plight of the individual’s need to survive, and the trauma and consequence of being caught up in violent, life-changing experiences.

What are the ramifications of making life and death decisions? How does the individual deal with scenes which may cause indelible mental scarring, or may put others or one’s own person at risk? In Dunkirk Nolan may again be seen to examine his central themes and preoccupations of memory, time, trauma and identity.

To make it clear how battle can appear different from the air than it does on land or on the sea, the audiences’ perspective is shifted from one to the other, informing our understanding of how one’s proximity to violent or harrowing scenes may affect the choices we make.

Dunkirk reinforces Nolan’s commitment to celluloid and increasingly to IMAX, one which offers the audience an enhanced experience of film – ‘something special, something extraordinary’ as Nolan insists.

Nolan also has a canny awareness of the advancements in technology for the dissemination of his films as well as for offering opportunities for interacting with an audience. At the same time, he is striving to advance the traditional craft of filmmaking. A consummate filmmaker, he eschews CGI and a second unit, overseeing all aspects of production, preferring to shoot the entirety of the film himself to maintain full control of his artistic vision.

He is also concerned about the experience of cinema for the audience – “There’s a very real danger in watering down the theatrical experience… and with the confusing proliferation of digital technology, there isn’t any stable digital archiving medium.” Cinemas must ‘drastically improve’ or lose audiences, he warned when discussing the potential ‘death of film’. Not an event likely to occur too soon while he and a handful of other directors continue to work within the medium.

In Dunkirk Nolan again brings his assured and very distinctive vision, this time to a real-life story, creating an epic and gut-wrenching cinematic spectacle, yet also at times manging to remain affectingly intimate.

Editor-in-Chief of Movie Marker. Likes: Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino Dislikes: The film 'Open Water' I mean, what was that all about?

Movie Reviews

LFF Review 2018 – Madeline’s Madeline ★★★★

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Director: Josephine Decker

Stars: Miranda July, Molly Parker, Helena Howard

Released: London Film Festival

Indie favourite actress/director, Josephine Decker premiered her third feature, Madeline’s Madeline at Sundance earlier this year where she received praise for her unconventional take on mental illness.

16 years old Madeline suffers from unspecified mental health problems which have created a wedge between her and her slightly over bearing mother (Miranda July). Spending most of her time alone, she finds comfort when joining an experimental theatre troupe and even develops a strong bond with its ambitious director, Evangeline (the psychotic Molly Parker). When Evangeline starts to use Madeline’s delicate mental state and personal issues with her mother as part of her play, the line between reality and illusion quickly starts to blur.

‘The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s. You are not the cat – you are inside the cat’. So begins 15 minutes of blurred and beautifully shot sequence that immediately puts the audience in a state of daze. When we are officially introduced to Madeline, we find an energetic young woman who would much rather disappear behind wild animals in theatre rehearsals than have any serious discussion with her mother. Sharing the screen is the interesting Evangeline, who is as passionate as inspiring but whose play doesn’t seem to make much sense to anyone, including herself.

The film’s stand out is the acting and nothing ever feels rehearsed. Helena Howard as Madeline is terrific and easily switches between the disturbed teenager, the cat, the seductress, the turtle and the actress, always bursting with energy and vulnerability.

The film has its witty moments, particularly when during an acting exercise Madeline decides to punish Evangeline for using her personal confessions by simulating a painful childbirth, in the hopes of terrifying the freshly pregnant teacher.

Decker also explores the interesting duality of the role of the artist. Often torn between the idea that creating is disappearing behind someone’s else story or on the contrary it is all about using real experiences to bring depth and authenticity, Decker seems to suggest it is a little of both and that both extremes could end up with either an artificial or violating result. No one understands what Evangeline’s play is about at first and when she finally finds substance that speaks to others (Madeline’s personal issues), she chooses to entirely focus on it instead of adding her own substance and ends up being kicked out by the troupe.

Madeline’s Madeline is visually stunning thanks to Ashley Connor ‘s imaginative cinematography and both Howard and Decker bring to life a condition that is still misunderstood and dismissed. The storyline does takes its time to emerge and the daze occasionally mixes with confusion. Howard keeps the audience in her mental maze throughout the film. It is messy, unusual and dense and maybe that was the whole point.

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LFF 2018 Review – A Private War ★★★

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Director: Matthew Heineman

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander

Released: London Film Festival 2018

‘ I see it so you don’t have to!’ Rosamund Pike, as war correspondent Marie Colvin, spits out at her Sunday Times editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) towards the end of A Private War  as they argue on the banks of the Thames which rolls serenely past. She means the atrocities of war which she is compelled to return to time and again to report on despite hating her own compulsion. She does it, she believes, to give a voice to the ordinary men, women and children who are fodder for the military and political ambitions of dictators and leaders themselves safe in their palaces, well, until the mob gets to them and takes selfies with their mutilated corpse as we see later in the film.

Marie Colvin was a much celebrated war reporter who was killed in Syria in 2012 along with her interpreter/guide. She achieved fame in her lifetime for her fearless, uncompromising journalism but also for the black eye patch she wore after losing an eye in Sri Lanka when reporting on the Tamil Tigers in 2001. Her death will still be fresh in the minds of those who follow current affairs as will her extraordinary persona.

It’s a testament then to the tremendous power of Rosamund Pike’s performance that minutes into A Private War she becomes Colvin. The deep gravelly voice, the Long Island accent, the no nonsense, blunt manner of speaking are not only completely captured but taken possession of by the very English rose Pike.

She embodies Colvin with a natural ease which exposes the private vulnerabilities of a woman who could have been simplistically portrayed as a one of those annoying ‘strong, uncompromising women’ that Hollywood seems to think raises the female profile but real women find unbearable. Pike is not afraid to make the chain smoking, heavy drinking, conflicted Colvin unlikable at times. But it’s in the quiet, reflective moments of Colvin’s life when she is alone with her ravaged eye and light desire for the normal suburban life she rejected that Pike is at her most effective. This is a film about the psychological damage of seeing what the rest of us don’t have to as much as it is about the grotesque mess of war on the battlefield.

Colvin wants a child and considers it with the man (Greg Wise) she’s already divorced a couple of times despite having suffered two miscarriages. She may or may not be prone to seeking connection through other convenient liaisons. Her friend tells her she’s an alcoholic and she thinks about convincing a psychiatrist she’s sane so she can leave a rehab clinic she’s an inpatient in before she’s really up to it. She’s plagued by flashbacks and nightmares.
We learn all this about her but, like her, don’t have time to fully process any of it before she and we are whisked off to Iraq. There she meets a freelance photographer, Paul Conroy, (Jamie Dornan – Fifty Shades Freed) and the two quickly form a professional partnership with Colvin very much in the driving seat as to where they go and what risks they take. In one case this involves her confidently flashing a gym membership card to get through a heavily armed checkpoint. The friendship which builds between the two is not explored enough and Dornan is not given enough to do but when the inevitable danger which is foreshadowed throughout the film befalls them it’s intense and a swallow-hard moment.

Even though we know her death is coming , when it actually does, there’s a real sense of loss, largely due to Pike having brought Colvin to life so brilliantly beforehand. I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of Rosamund Pike during awards season for this timely film produced by Charlize Theron about a very modern heroine.

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LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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