Nightmare Beach: Dunkirk is a turning point for Christopher Nolan, flaws and all


Christopher Nolan, thanks to the massive success of movies like The Dark Knight and Inception, has become one of the few Hollywood directors with enough cache to do whatever they want. There is a small army of Nolan fanatics out there who will attack any film critic who gives their favorite director a bad review, but there is no doubt that the appeal of his movies extends beyond these obsessives. Regular people pay good money to see the new Christopher Nolan movies. He’s become a brand; his movies, an event. The brand is recognizable to anyone who’s seen his work: complicated narratives (usually science fiction) in which a man (always a man) tries to solve a puzzle in order to find deliverance. With his latest movie, Dunkirk, Nolan seems to be stepping into a decisively different direction from his previous work. It’s not a huge departure, but Dunkirk is different enough from the template he set for himself to suggest this might be the beginning of a new phase in Nolan’s career. A phase that promises some very exciting filmmaking, finding a way to work around some of the director’s weaknesses, while others persist. For there is no director more seemingly meticulous, and yet so effectively sloppy as Christopher Nolan.

Unlike most of Nolan’s previous work, Dunkirk is a historical drama. It’s World War II and the Germans are expanding. The French and British troops have been cornered in the northern coast of France. With nowhere to go, the troops wait in the shores of Dunkirk to be taken across the channel, and back to the (relative) safety of England. “[The Germans] can pick us up like fish in a barrel” says one British officer, and he’s right to be pessimistic. Anyone who looks at the circumstances would agree these guys were fucked. That’s why it’s so impressive that the British Military managed to get more than 300 thousand soldiers off the continent. Some people called it the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” which doesn’t mean it wasn’t a harrowing experience for those involved. That’s when Christopher Nolan comes in.

The very first shot of Dunkirk is jaw-dropping. Describing it won’t make it sound like a particularly shocking shot -it features a group of soldiers walking through an empty street, papers flying in the wind- but it’s the size and clarity of the image that takes your breath away. I saw this movie in 70mm IMAX film, which a lot of people insist is the “only right way” to see this movie. Usually, I would call these people pedantic, and while I don’t agree this is the “only way”, I do think it’s well worth spending the money to see the movie in IMAX if you have the chance. The sheer size and resolution of the image is overwhelming, but Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema put it to especially good use in this movie. The quiet scene that opens the movie quickly transforms into an escape. The soldiers are being attacked by the enemy, they must escape to the beach. And that’s just the beginning of their problems.

One of our soldiers manages to get to the beach, where he finds a wounded body. Now he and another guy try to get the body on the ship that’s about to depart to England, and so they’re running through the beach and then over a broken pier and what’s that oh no the German planes are coming and are starting to bomb the beach hoping to decimate the troops as they wait for their escape. It’s overwhelming, exhausting, incredibly tense. It’s also incredibly effective filmmaking. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. There is very little dialogue in this opening sequence. It’s all images, movement, and very loud sound. It’s straight-forward and lean in a way that practically no Christopher Nolan movie has ever been. It’s not lost in a bunch of big ideas and science fiction nonsense. It’s simple. It’s raw. It’s survival. It’s the best part of the movie.

Dunkirk doesn’t stray completely from Nolan’s predilection for non-linear storytelling. He doesn’t do anything too crazy this time around. He settles for presenting the story in three different timelines. The first timeline follows the soldiers waiting on the beach, which starts out one week before the evacuation. The second, follows the British civilians who answered the call of the British government for extra vessels and took their boats to Dunkirk in order to help bring the boys home. This timeline starts out one day before the evacuation and focuses mainly on one boat piloted by Academy Award-winner Mark Rylance. The third timeline focuses on the air force pilots in charge of protecting the beach from German bombers. This one starts out one hour before the evacuation.

So, after the initial sequence I described, the movie starts to cut back and forth between the three timelines. Each of them comes with their own strengths and weaknesses, which is fine. The real problem comes from the fact that, when the timelines come together for the grand finale, the payoff isn’t quite as spectacular as the movie wants it to be. The filmmaking remains visceral and propulsive, but everything that was focused about the opening sequence becomes confusing. There are aspects that don’t pay off and plot-points that aren’t clear to the degree that I wonder if Nolan just didn’t realize there were things in his movie that don’t quite make sense. It could be a conscious formal decision to represent the chaos of warfare, which would make the finale even more disappointing, because how many times has that been done already?

That is the recurring issue with Christopher Nolan. He crafts these complicated puzzle structures, and then leaves glaring holes all over them. His public persona presents him as a precise obsessive in the style of Stanley Kubrick, but he’s always struck me as much more of a James Cameron. His strengths don’t lie in complicated ideas and cold headiness, but in visceral thrill-rides and blockbuster energy. With a few exceptions (mostly The Prestige), a Christopher Nolan movie will always entertain at first, then show its questionable choices and evident weaknesses. Dunkirk avoids most of Nolan’s weaknesses: Clocking at less than two hours, it’s his shortest movie, and the first one in at least a decade to not feel bloated. And by focusing on action instead of dialogue, it highlights Nolan the director, who has always been a better filmmaker than Nolan the writer. But it can’t avoid all.

There are a number of head-scratching choices in the movie. Like, why did Nolan choose when to use and not use IMAX cameras. The aspect ratio (and image quality) change is noticeable, and it doesn’t really serve a narrative or thematic purpose. It happens practically at random, and if 75% of the movie was shot using IMAX cameras, then why not the rest? And why not make an aesthetic choice about it, especially if your brand is “meticulous”. Also, Hans Zimmer’s effectively tense score heavily features a ticking clock sound, which is weird since this isn’t really a ticking clock movie. It’s not like we’re counting down to one specific event, but rather that the soldiers are waiting for rescue. The way the ticking is used feels like time is running out, not like we’re buying time, so what gives?

These are only some of the elements that seem to stand in clear opposition to the movie’s goals. The biggest one of course is the question of why tell the story using three different timelines in the first place. There doesn’t seem to be a particularly good reason other than the fact that Nolan gets to introduce the characters played by Rylance and Tom Hardy (who plays one of the pilots) from the beginning of the film. And honestly, it’s questionable if we needed those two story-lines at all. The movie could have been as effective (if not more) if it focused solely on the troops stranded at the beach. The Hardy story-line bring up some extraordinary aerial photography and visual effects, but it didn’t need the non-linear structure to be part of the movie.

The Mark Rylance storyline, on the other hand, is clearly the weakest link. Rylance is a great actor who brings a lot of pathos to the material he is given, but this is the most dialogue-heavy part of the film, in which a boy that’s too young to help sneaks into Rylance’s boat, and then they find a shell-shocked survivor (played by Nolan favorite Cillian Murphy). Rylance feels like a representation of the unbreakable British spirit, keeping calm and carrying on no matter what. Needless to say this part of the movie plays into the sort of story-telling stereotypes and wartime sentimentality that are absent from the rest. It also features the least impressive filmmaking. It’s surely meant to be the emotional heart of the film, but the movie didn’t need it. It is so tense and visceral it’s already an exposed nerve.

The structural choice also means that the climax arrives unannounced. It’s kind of shocking when the movie starts wrapping up and you realized the “final battle” has already past. Maybe the brain was too focused on trying to keep track, wondering if the timelines had aligned yet or not, but Dunkirk felt like a big crescendo that didn’t really payed off the way it was setting up to do. The score does a lot of the heavy lifting, to let you know the end is coming, by turning sentimental. The movie itself turns sentimental, really, with an inspirational speech that felt weirdly out of place in its patriotism. It is undoubtedly inspirational that these men managed to survive, but the movie started out as such a raw portrayal of the unbearable intensity of war I didn’t expect it to end in such a sentimental place. Or maybe it’s just a weird time for patriotism. There are, of course, already a dozen think-pieces asking what Dunkirk says about Brexit.

I Hate Every Ape I See (From Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee)


An interesting experiment would be to try and make a movie in which everything that happens is ridiculous to the point of comedy (like, say, a chimpanzee riding a horse with a shotgun strapped to its back), but is all presented in the most straight-forward, earnest, self-serious fashion. The result would be a sort of avant-garde experimental film, I suppose. It would also most definitely be a satire. There was some satire in the original Planet of the Apes movie, released almost fifty years ago. There is no satire in War for the Planet of the Apes. This is a serious movie. There is barely a laugh to be had, or a warm feeling to be felt. It is the most joyless summer blockbuster I have ever seen. It wants to be relevant and important. It is the movie equivalent of someone telling you to “eat your vegetables”, only it has never occurred to them that vegetables could taste good. In War for the Planet of the Apes, the more disgusting the vegetables are, the better they will be for you. This is a movie made by people who have wrongly equated seriousness with competence, and dullness with importance. By the time one of the apes gets brutally whipped in what is basically a concentration camp, the movie’s attempts at relevance have turned from tedious to grotesque. Not since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland have I hated a movie this much. This is the polar opposite of good cinema. This movie is trash.

How did we come to this? How did we get to the point where a movie that is basically Schindler’s List starring a bunch of apes is a summer blockbuster with overwhelmingly positive reviews? Just before going to the movie, I watched the original Planet of the Apes for the first time since I was a kid. It feels like a movie from a complete different galaxy. The original movie plays like a longer Twilight Zone episode, in which an astronaut (played by Charlton Heston) crash-lands in a planet where apes rule and humans are treated like animals (in fact, the script was co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling). It’s a rather dubious allegory for exploring what it’s like to be an oppressed minority, but also a sincere and emotionally effective attack on rigid, unthinking societies. All these years later, one can still feel the immense frustration of Heston’s character trying to be treated equally and thoughtfully by a council of stuck-up apes. It’s a pretty effective movie, and one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s the kind of movie in which an ape says something like: “well, you know what they say: human see, human do…”

That original movie was followed by a number of increasingly ridiculous and more overtly political sequels, including Escape from the Planet of the Apes, in which a couple ape characters from the original movie travel to the 1970s in an overt satire about race relations. Watching some of those low-budget sequels you will get a sense for the reputation the Apes movies had when I first encountered them as a child. They were goofy. Coming into the new millennium, a time in which movie studios will attempt to build franchises out of every once-successful property, the Apes franchise was remodeled into something that would more closely resemble a modern blockbuster. Except that the first film in this new franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apeswas anything but a typical blockbuster. It flashed back to the origins of the series, and focused on a chimp named Caesar (played through performance capture technology by Andy Serkis), who is experimented on and becomes the first intelligent ape. He realizes the horrible way in which apes are treated by humanity and organizes a small rebellion. It feels more like a mix of a “magic animal” and a “prison escape” movie than a blockbuster. It’s like a mix of Pete’s Dragon and The Great EscapeIt’s a good movie.

One of the cool things about Rise of the Planet of the Apes was how neatly and effectively it inverted the situation of the first movie. Caesar’s quest mirrors Charlton Heston’s quest in the original movie quite a bit. The zoo-like facilities in which they are held even look similar. One smart human in a world of apes was flipped into one smart ape in a world of humans. And it worked. The metaphor, regardless of whether you think it’s an appropriate one, still tracks. What’s more, the movie feels like its own unique beast. The second movie in this new franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, feels very much like a regular blockbuster. And a pretty boring one at that. It has a few cool ideas about what it’d be like for a bunch of intelligent apes to start a new society, but abandons them in favor of big action and cheap villains. And so, we come to War for the Planet of the Apes, which doesn’t quite feel like a regular blockbuster, but only because this level of bleakness is usually reserved for the most masochistic of European auteurs. The movie’s main interest is not on big action and cheap villains, it wants to be something more. It wants to be important.

What is the metaphor in War for the Planet of the Apes? What is the movie about? It focuses, again, on Caesar as he tries to protect the small ape civilization that’s developed in the last few years from an evil human Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who is intent on wiping those disgusting apes off the map once and for all. The Colonel attacks the ape village, and then a bunch of convoluted things happen, and the apes end up being captured. They are taken to the aforementioned concentration camp for apes, where they are treated horribly and forced to build a -you guessed it- wall. The movie is tightly focused on the point of view of the apes, but the clearest attempt at a metaphor seems to come from the human characters. I guess the movie is trying to portray an old and tired order trying to grasp at whatever faint power they have left, as a new generation marches forward. This would continue on the metaphor of apes as oppressed minorities while incorporating contemporary politics. A critique of white nationalism, I suppose. This is in and on itself not a bad idea for a movie. Genre film, after all, is one of the most fertile places for exploring big ideas and societal grievances. The problem is with the way in which the movie goes about its message.

Here’s a quick run-down of the kind of gruesome shit that happens in War for the Planet of the Apes (spoilers, I suppose): Caesar’s wife and family are brutally murdered by humans, Cesar has to mercy-kill a sick human, Caesar is haunted by the ghost of an ape he killed in the last movie, apes are crucified, there is a ape concentration camp where apes are horribly whipped, Caesar is taken to the concentration camp, whipped, and then crucified because he is -you guessed it- a Chris figure. And all of this happens with an unrelentingly somber and bleak tone. Are people supposed to enjoy watching this movie? Because if they are, then the people who made it are dark and twisted in their core. And if they are not supposed to enjoy it, then why make it in the first place? This movie is a relentless parade of misery, and what’s worse, all of its misery is predictable. Would you be surprised to learn there is a little mute girl who is rescued by our main apes, tags alone, and then cries when one of the apes is killed in battle. Will you believe that in the middle of this grimfest, there is a comedic relief chimp who talks funny in a Gollum-meets-Jar-Jar-Binks sort of way? I bet you can imagine how jarring it is when we cut from apes being tortured to this funny monkey saying a funny line.

That’s the thing about War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s so relentless in its seriousness that it becomes disrespectful. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a blockbuster, designed to appeal to a massive audience and make a lot of money. Is this what constitutes entertainment? A movie with torture prison camps that evoke the Holocaust, Christ’s Passion, and the horrors of slavery? What about that, but with a bunch of computer generated apes at the center? This is movie is disrespectful. This movie is gross. I felt sick after watching it, wondering how can this movie exist. After some deep thinking, I’m convinced this is the perfect (if you can call it that) marriage between the idea that darkness equals importance with our current fascination with the aesthetics of realism. This movie is obsessed with realism. It is obsessed with having its apes look as close to real apes as possible. It is obsessed with having its gruesome battles be as close to real war as possible. But what’s the point?

The crude realism of War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t make the movie feel any more emotionally real. The fact that its characters are boring and its plot full of cliches doesn’t help, but even then, realism doesn’t make a good movie. Movies are stories, and stories are fantasies. I don’t mean dragons and wizards. I mean the kind of mythic, essentially human storytelling that addresses the most crucial elements of life through a fictitious prism. The kind of storytelling narrative cinema is perfectly designed to tell. This movie is so obsessed with being realistic it leaves no room for fantasy, for imagination, for magic, for dreams. It forgets to be a movie. Whatever this is, it’s the opposite of cinema.

The Best Movies of 2017 (So Far)


We’re halfway through the year, and look at us, we’re still kicking. The old cliche is that Hollywood saves all of its best movies for the Fall, thinking that it will better the movies’ chances to get Oscar nominations. I don’t know how much of that statement is true, but I do know that 2017 is as good a contender as any to dispute the fact that great movies come only the second half of the year. This year has already given us a very nice mix of quality Hollywood entertainment, strong work by independent auteurs, and quite a few foreign imports. In the spirit of celebration, I’ve listed my ten favorite movies of the year (so far). Hopefully, you’ll take a chance of them if you haven’t seen them yet. They’re all worth your while.

The Ten Best Movies of 2017 So Far (in Alphabetical Order)

The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola has gotten some flack for the representation of race relations (or lack thereof) in her latest movie, which pits a conniving Union Soldier (Colin Farrell) against a group of repressed Confederate women (Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and the great Nicole Kidman). I find these complaints both accurate and more complicated that some of the critics are willing to admit. In any case, why don’t you be the judge? Whether or not you find it “problematic”, you will at least start an interesting conversation. And you will experience some top-notch film-making as Coppola applies her delicate touch to what is essentially a steamy and pulpy B-movie. (In theaters now)

The Big Sick
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon wrote a screenplay detailing the story of how they got together in the form of a romantic comedy. A rom-com in which Emily (played by Zoe Kazan, Kumail plays himself) falls sick unexpectedly and must go into a medically induced coma. Believe me, it’s way funnier than it sounds. And don’t worry, it’s as emotionally satisfying as the best movies in the genre. What’s more, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are both fantastic as Emily’s parents. (In theaters now)

If you’re in the mood for more World War I-related stories after watching Wonder Womanmay I recommend this period drama from that melodramatic Frenchman Francois Ozon? In the years after The Great War, a grieving German woman notices a mysterious Frenchman who keeps visiting and leaving flowers on her deceased fiancé’s grave. Based on an old movie by Ernst Lubitsch, Frantz is a truly emotional drama shot in beautiful black and white. (available to rent on V.O.D.)

Get Out
Who would have expected a low-budget horror movie from the guy from Key & Peele would become the movie event of the year? A treasure like Get Out only comes once in a blue moon. This is the kind of movie that defines a moment in culture. Not only did this movie -about a black man trapped in a nefarious white community- exorcise the right demons at the right time, it’s a wonderfully made movie in its own right. Carefully scripted, and precisely directed by Jordan Peele, who I’m sure will have a long and successful career. (available to rent on V.O.D.)

Hermia & Helena
A delightful comedy inspired by the work of William Shakespeare, in which an Argentinian woman comes to New York on an artist’s fellowship, only to find the connections between her lives in the two countries to be more complicated than they seemed. As in any good Shakespeare comedy, everyone is falling in and our of love at all times. Director Matias Pineiro knows it’s hard to decipher what the heart wants, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun to try. (making its way across the U.S. in limited release)

This is a documentary about cats. The city of Istanbul, in Turkey, is known for its quite large population of roaming street cats. This movie follows some of these cats in order to understand their place in the city. It’s a movie that tries to tell us something about humanity and empathy, but it’s also a movie about a bunch of cats doing cat stuff. In other words, it’s freaking adorable. (available on YoutubeRed and in limited release)

The Lost City of Z
Director James Grey set out to make the kind of adventure that is not made anymore, and more importantly, try to make it in a way that would be acceptable to contemporary politics. This is the real life-inspired story of explorer Percy Fawcett and his multiple journeys into the Amazon searching for an ancient civilization. The real Fawcett disappeared into the jungle and never came back. We don’t know if he found anything, but Grey’s interpretation of his quest turns an old-fashioned adventure epic into a spiritual experience.(available to rent on V.O.D.)

This is one of the two Netflix movies controversially included in the Cannes Film Festival, and now that I’ve seen it, it’s clear that Okja deserved a spot at the biggest cinema celebration in the world. Korean director Bong Joon-ho has made the kind of movie that I wish more big studios were making (and putting in theaters), an exciting and idiosyncratic adventure about a young girl and her genetically modified super-pig. This is a great, fun, funny, dark, moving movie with a point of view. (available on Netflix and a couple theaters across the U.S.)

Personal Shopper
People said Kristen Stewart was a horrible actress. Now people say she’s the ebst of her generation. I’ve always somewhere in the middle, but if any movie was going to put me in the “she’s great” camp, it’d be this paranormal drama by French auteur Olivier Assayas. Stewart plays a medium trying to communicate with her dead brother, and the fascinating thing is I couldn’t call her performance good or bad, it’s a whole other thing in and on itself. Will she change acting forever? Who knows, probably not, but it’s fascinating to wonder. (available to rent on V.O.D.)

French veterinary school looks rough. Following on the trend of horror movies that are less scary than they are disturbing, the debut feature by director Julia Ducournau was a bit of a sensation when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year, boosting its profile thanks to reports that people were passing out during screenings. This is the story of a young woman, a vegetarian, who goes off to veterinary school where she inadvertently develops a taste for live flesh. An obvious metaphor for female repression and sexual awakenings, perhaps, but a wonderfully made one. (available to rent on V.O.D.)

Portrait of a Psycho Killer: A Review of The Book of Henry

The Book of Henry

This is the story of a precocious boy who helps his longtime neighbor escape an abusive family situation. No, wait, this is actually the story of a woman who must overcome personal tragedy in order to step into the motherly role she’s been avoiding. Actually, now that I think about it, this is actually a movie about a little kid teaching his mom how to murder someone. These sentences are all accurate descriptions of The Book of Henry, but none of them successfully describes the bizarre result that comes out of those three plots being part of the same movie. Focus Features’ decision to advertise The Book of Henry as a quirky inspirational drama isn’t entirely honest, but I don’t blame them. The only accurate way to advertise this movie would be with two words: fucked up.

Henry is the protagonist. He’s a precocious eleven year-old who is much smarter than every other kid in his grade. He is also super kind, which is why everybody loves him. He is played with saintly blandness by Jaeden Lieberher, which his appropriate because he is a seemingly flawless character. He is written to be the purest, most exceptional child that ever was. In practice, he comes off as unbearably obnoxious. Henry is better than everyone else at everything. He is better at making money than his adult mom. He is also better at taking care of his little brother than his mom. He is even better at giving out cancer diagnosis than a professional neurosurgeon. Most importantly, though, he is better than everyone else at noticing that the girl living next door is being abused by her stepdad.

There is no point beating around the bush, The Book of Henry is a terrible, terrible movie. I would hate it if anyone anywhere in this big wide earth were to pay any money to see something this incompetent. Now, I want to go a little bit deeper into why exactly this movie manages to be as bad as it is, and to do so I will to give away what happens in it (I was going to write spoil, but there is nothing to “spoil” in such a rotten movie). God help your soul if you want to watch this movie and not know what happens. For the sane ones amongst you, here it goes: Henry wants to do something to help his neighbor, but nobody believes his accusations because the girl’s stepdad is the town’s well-respected chief of police. Then out of nowhere, Henry starts having seizures and is diagnosed with terminal cancer (yup, Henry diagnoses himself). Because he doesn’t want to leave this mortal coil without helping the girl next door, he comes up with a brilliant plan to do so from beyond the grave. The plan: to get his mom to shoot the stepdad in the face.

I am not exaggerating of being facetious. Henry leaves behind a series of tapes for his mom in which he gives her instructions on how to buy an assault rifle in the black market and murder the chief of police without getting caught. Of course what this guy is doing to his stepdaughter is horrible but… what? You would think an eleven year old would have a mighty hard time convincing his mom to commit murder, but you’ve forgotten that Henry is better than everyone else at everything. He is so smart, he is able to anticipate every single thing his mom will think and say while hearing his tapes, and in an insufferable bit of quirk, recorded them accordingly. Because nothing says heartwarming comedy like a dead child teaching his mom how to kill. Here’s a brief approximation of how these scenes work:

Henry (from beyond the grave): Mom, you have to kill the chief of police.
Mom: Surely, there must be another way to help.
Henry (still from beyond the grave): I know what you’re thinking and there is no other way and here’s why…

These are by far the stupidest, most unwatchable scenes in the movie, culminating in an unintentionally hilarious exchange in which dead Henry’s recording tells his mom that in order to pull off this murder she needs to be as quiet as a ghost, to which she replies: “…like you”. It’s worth mentioning that the mom is played by Naomi Watts, an immensely talented actress who simply does not deserve to be straddled with such a uniquely horrible role. The plot takes such bizarre turns that we must conclude the character is simply insane, but even before we can come to that conclusion, Henry’s mother is presented as an offensively incompetent woman. She can’t take care of her children, she can’t bring food to the table, she spends most of her life sitting in front of the t.v. playing violent video games, and she defers to her eleven year-old son to make any important decision in her life.

The mom character is the worst offender in a script that is rooted in casual misogyny and a rather twisted understanding of human morality. Henry represents the essence of narcissistic masculinity. He reads to me as the result of a very masculine fantasy of wanting to be the best at everything, and wanting to be the most noble and righteous person in the world. Even more disturbingly, the women in Henry’s life wouldn’t be anywhere without him. His mom is completely adrift and lost without his presence, either while he was alive, or through the many notes and instructions he leaves once he’s dead. And the neighbor girl, similarly needs to be saved by Henry’s selfless actions and ghostly machinations. There is even a suggestion at the end of the movie that a handsome doctor (played by the always handsome Lee Pace) might fill in the void Henry is leaving by becoming the sturdy man who will keep this girl save and this daffy woman grounded. And I haven’t even mentioned the ridiculously creepy scene in which Sarah Silverman kisses Henry on the lips.

At this point we’re probably asking ourselves the same thing: why does this movie exist? The screenplay for The Book of Henry was written decades ago by a guy named Gregg Hurwitz. It failed to be produced for years, and would probably have remained that way if it weren’t for director Colin Trevorrow. He is one of the young directors (mostly white and male) who go from directing a modest hit at Sundance to being given the reins of a major Hollywood franchise. In his case, the prize was Jurassic Worlda bad movie that nevertheless made billions of dollars at the international box office. Trevorroow’s reward for making a lot of money is he got to make a small movie that he was passionate about… and he chose this.

What Trevorrow found so inspiring in such mawkish and cloying material is beyond me. This is the kind of movie that shamelessly reaches for the cheap tears, depicting the death of an eleven year-old in the most exploitative, tear-jerky kind of way, then features an even more shameless scene in which his younger brother cries “it should have been me!” It features both a scene of a kid building a whimsical cupcake-making machine and a scene of Naomi Watts running through the streets with a giant assault rifle. This is the kind of screenplay that could only be written by someone who has never seen a movie in their entire life, or a lunatic with a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be a human being and have emotions. It stopped rating movies on a scale from 1 to 10 a couple months ago because I find it a rather reductive way of approaching cinema. But if I were still grading movies on a number scale, The Book of Henry might have been a zero.

To the Wonder: A Review of Wonder Woman

Womanwonder woman

Very early into Wonder Woman, it dawned on me that regardless of whether the movie I was about to see ended up being any good, it was already the most significant superhero movie of the last twenty years. One of the disappointing aspects of our current wave of cinematic superheroes is how banal the movies are. The heroes in these movies save the world over and over again, but do the movies themselves accomplish anything other than amuse the ticket-buying public for a couple hours? It was during the moment when young Diana, Princess of the Amazons, sneaks out to watch the older Amazons train for battle that it dawned on me. Countless real-life Dianas around the world will come to the movies seeking in Wonder Woman the strength to fight in a world that is consistently unkind to them. The parallel is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Judging a film by whether it enacts change in the world doesn’t make for great criticism, but credit where credit is due: Wonder Woman is the first superhero movie that I’ve found to be truly inspirational.

But what about the movie itself. Is it any good? The answer is yes… for the most part. The movie makes a truly terrible choice toward the end, building its final confrontation around an uninspired plot twist. There are also a couple of eyebrow-raising decisions made along the way regarding the depiction of the movie’s World War I setting. But for the big majority of its running time, the movie is a mighty fine piece of blockbuster entertainment. It’s undoubtedly the best “popcorn” movie of the sumer (which sounds like faint praise when you consider how disappointing the summer movie season has been so far, but that’s not the movie’s fault).

Because it’s a mostly good movie, let’s focus on the good things about it. First among them is Gal Gadot, who looks absolutely magnificent and badass as the adult Diana, and plays her as a fearless warrior with the moral compass of a righteous child who has just learned the concepts of right and wrong. It’s this heroic attitude that sends Diana on her quest, away from the island of Themyscira -paradisiac home of the Amazons- and into the trenches of “the war to end all wars”. This is after American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane on the island. Steve must return to London to deliver important intelligence. Having learned about the horrible war being fought out there in the “world of man”, Diana decides to tag along with a personal mission: kill Ares, the God of War who is surely pulling the strings behind this conflict.

From there, Steve and Diana make their way to London in what is the most entertaining part of the movie. There is a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy, as you might expect when you have the strongest of the Amazons walking the streets of London at a time before women were even allowed to vote. The jokes are good, and the fact that Gadot and Pine share tremendous chemistry doesn’t hurt. British actress Lucy Davis is also really funny as Steve’s secretary. This is the section in which the movie most closely resembles an old fashioned action adventure. It also works really well as a buddy comedy, a romantic comedy even. I’m just saying, it’s a lot of fun.

Finally, we get to the Western Front, and we get the scene that will most likely live on as the purest distillation of the movie’s power. Surrounded by wounded soldiers and mortified civilians who speak of the horrors going on at the other side of the trenches, Diana decides that she can’t continue her mission without first helping these people. And so, she climbs over the trench and makes one heroic walk across “no man’s land”. It’s one woman against a whole army, the bullets bounce off her bracelets without hurting her as she moves forward. Unbreakable. Unstoppable. It’s a magnificent sequence, that leads us into the movie’s final third. Sadly, it’s this last sections of the movie that contains the movie’s two biggest problems.

The first problem is the action. We get a couple of really effective set pieces earlier in the film (most notably a German invasion on the shores of Themyscira and a fistfight in a London alley), but this last section at the Front devolves into a big, messy blob of computer generated images. That, sadly, seems to be a requirement with current superhero movies, and movies based on DC Comics characters in particular. The finales of both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad featured incoherent battles against ugly looking CGI monsters, and so does Wonder Woman. What makes this finale particularly disappointing compared to the others is that the movie has been pretty great up to that point.

It’s not like the movie goes completely off the rails in its last fifteen minutes, but it comes really close. There are still a couple good things in this last section: the way the movie pays off the relationship between Diana and Steve is very effective, and the character arc for Diana, in which she is confronted with the possibility that her actions won’t be enough to change humanity’s flawed nature before deciding that humanity is worth fighting for, makes a lot of sense from a thematic perspective. The way the writers decide to get to it, however, involves one of the most underwhelming and tired trick in the current superhero manual, in which the real villain is revealed to be someone we didn’t know was the villain! The cheapness of the trick, combined with the underwhelming characterization and hideous design of the villain made it really hard for me to reconcile this last battle.

The thing is, this last confrontation isn’t particularly bad when compared to the final confrontation in your average superhero movie, and that’s the problem. Wonder Woman isn’t your average superhero movie. It is bound to become the most commercially successful movie directed by a woman. Director Patty Jenkins should be really proud of her work here. People have been waiting for a good movie starring a female superhero, and they finally have it. They have more than that, actually, since this movie isn’t merely good. There is one big flaw there toward the end, but that can be forgiven. Most of the movie is just wonderful.

The Dream Not Taken: A Review of the wonderful Hermia & Helena

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Anyone who has so much as tried to move to a different country knows it’s not an easy thing to do. From needless amounts of paperwork to ridiculously restrictive laws, reality will put a quick check on anyone’s fantasy of packing things up and starting anew. And that’s not even taking into account the desperation of those who not only want, but need to emigrate. Just living in another country is a weird thing. The more you stay there, the more your life back home feels like a dream. You might as well have moved to a different planet. And yet, life does not stop, and the people back home keep on living and informing who you are and what you do. This push and pull between two places that are equally real but feel similarly fake is explored playfully and honestly in Matias Piñeiro’s wonderful new movie, Hermia & Helena, which opened in (very) limited release this Friday.

Piñeiro is an Argentinian director who’s specialized in making talky indie comedies inspired (but not really based on) the works of William Shakespeare. His name might ring a bell to art-house audiences, who’ve come to know him as a recurring presence at the New York Film Festival (where Hermia & Helena premiered last fall). After making quite a few movies back home in Buenos Aires, Piñeiro moved to New York sponsored by a an artistic fellowship program. That’s pretty much the same situation the protagonist of Hermia & Helena is in. Camila (Agustina Muñoz) is a theatre director who’s made the trip to New York to work on a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Those familiar with Shakespearean comedy will know that the young lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream flow in and out of love with each other quickly and often thanks to the hijinks of a particularly fickle group of fairies. Piñeiro has a lot of fun with this concept. Even though the parallels to Shakespeare aren’t always evident, Piñeiro has made a genuinely playful film, which is often as tricky as the fairies of the play. Like many a Shakespearean protagonist, Camila expresses deep devotion for one lover, only to casually exchange him for another. Then, Piñeiro flashes back to the let us know there was more tot he story than we initially thought. More lovers, more secrets, more hijinks. He repeats this format a couple of times, each more revealing than the last.

This is not only a fun structure, but an effective conduit for the movie’s themes. The thing is, Camila is the type of privileged traveller who already has a pretty comfortable and fulfilling life back home in Buenos Aires. When we first meet her -hours before she has to drive to the airport- she isn’t even sure if she actually wants to travel to New York. She does, of course, but once there she says she’ll finish her translation really quickly and go back home as soon as possible. Only this isn’t truly how she feels. At least not quite. She hasn’t come to New York just to write, there are quite a few other personal plans (people) in her agenda, not to mention the unforeseen plans (people) that present themselves along the way.

Camila exhibits the traits of the young aimless traveller who has nothing to lose; who has their whole life ahead of them, and would rather get into a big mess of a situation than let an opportunity go to waste. Of course, every opportunity that she does or fails to take has repercussions, and involves other people. Camila herself is the product of a couple of such travelers. Her dad (an American) met her mom (an Argentinian) when they were both abroad in Australia. They never saw each other again, but their decision not to let a good opportunity go to waste resulted in a daughter who is (perhaps unwittingly) following in their footsteps.

One of the many great things about this movie is that it understands that this type of people tend to somehow attract each other. It also understands that Camila isn’t the only one making or breaking plans (and relationships) in order to try something new in a different place. There are always new promises to make, and new promises to break. The movie understands the seduction of the desire to reinvent oneself, and the regret that comes later, when you look back. Love can be as quick and petty as a fairy, but pixie dust doesn’t leave a hangover, real life does.

Some who have seen Piñeiro’s earlier work have described this movie as a bit of a step down for the director. This being the first movie of his I have seen, I find it revelatory. The birth of a deep interest in a new filmmaker and his work, that could very well grow into fascination. If his Viola (inspired by Twelfth Night) and his Princess of France (inspired by Love’s Labour Lost) do as great a job as Hermia & Helena of crystalizing their themes and finding new energy in Shakespeare’s evergreen but dangerously deified catalogue, then I can’t imagine them being anything less than extraordinary.

That being said, I would share a word of caution those who will seek out the movie based on this review (and I hope you do). At first glance, Hermia & Helena could be wrongly dismissed as too slight, pointless even. Though it’s really fun to watch, it’s the kind of film whose lack of serious conflict will make some feel like it isn’t going anywhere. Others, like me, will not only feel like it’s going somewhere, but everywhere. I suspect my own personal experience moving from South America to New York played a big role in my loving this movie. Take this review with a grain of salt if you must, but know that this movie spoke to me on a very personal level… and isn’t that what film’s supposed to do?

Space Oddity: A Review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Let’s get the unsurprising thing out of the way first. If you enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, there’s a very big chance you’ll enjoy this one as well. If what you want is more of the same, then you’ll most certainly get it. Actually, a more accurate way to describe this sequel would be to say that it delivers “most” of the same. It’s not a coincidence that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man 3 to feel like the work of a human director rather than a sophisticated computer algorithm. James Gunn has come back as writer-director and seized the success of the first Guardians to turn up the volume as loud as he can on every single aspect of his new movie. Guardians of the Galaxy was praised for being fresh, original, and weird. It wasn’t any of those things. However, Gunn’s unhinged choices make Volume 2 fresher, more original, and weirder than its predecessor. The good news is that the sequel improves on enough aspects of the first film to be considered a good movie. The bad news is that certain irritating things about the original remain part of the package.

Gunn’s strategy for the sequel is clear since the very beginning of the movie. After a brief flashback to the eighties, the movie truly begins with our team of intergalatic crusaders fighting off a big gooey monster. We then get an opening credit sequence that calls back to the last movie, only instead of Chris Pratt getting down to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”, we get Baby Groot (who is the same tree creature of the last movie, albeit reincarnated as an infant) dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” while the rest of the Guardians fight the gooey monster in the background. It’s a gag that works better in concept than in execution. The joke of the thing becomes clear pretty quickly, and then we still have two minutes of credits to go through. Part of the problem is that Groot, by virtue of being a computer generated image and not a human being, isn’t a particularly engaging dancer to watch (though I must suspect I am in the minority on not being charmed by the cuteness of this so-called Baby Groot).

Even though the movie slowly won me over, one thing remained true of my disappointing first impression: the use of seventies songs as the movie’s main soundtrack isn’t as inspired as it was in the first movie. This is understandable. The first movie’s soundtrack was so good that even I downloaded it to my phone. I, who didn’t even like the movie. It’s hard for lightning to strike twice, especially when you’ve used up some of the best seventies tunes in your first go-round. The selections in this second movie aren’t exactly bad, but their use is far less memorable. That being said, there’s one significant exception. The movie recognizes the awesomeness of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and uses it to great effect. I give it credit for that.

And so the movie marches along for most of its running time, going back and forth from inspired touches of truly delightful popcorn cinema to the same old schtick of second-tier summer blockbusters. The thing that irritated me the most, as it did in the first one, was the movie’s sense of humor. Not, mind you, the fact that it had humor in the first place. I love to laugh. But the way in which it insists on wearing its humor as a crutch, constantly sabotaging its own jokes and its own efficiency as a movie. There is a particular type of joke (or way to treat a joke, to be more precise) that drives me crazy, and I want to get deeper into it because Guardians of the Galaxy is far from the only movie to be guilty of this. Here’s an example of what happens after Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) vindictively calls Rocket (Bradley Cooper) a “raccoon”:

Rocket: Don’t call me a raccoon.
Peter: Sorry, I took it too far. What I meant to say is “you trash panda”
Rocket: Is that better?
Drax: I don’t know.
Peter: It’s worse. (starts to laugh) It’s so much worse!

The “trash panda” line is funny. I laughed. But then, there are three more lines of dialogue that serve absolutely no purpose other than to keep pointing out the joke. Rocket and Drax’s responses aren’t too bad, even though they aren’t as funny as the panda line, but by the time Peter is explaining that being called a trash panda is worse than being called a raccoon, I had become embarrassed that I laughed at the panda line in the first place. Like Shakespeare said: “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Leave a good joke live on its own instead of murdering it by calling attention to it. I don’t find this kind of thing funny, and there’s a lot of it in both Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

But my beef with the movie’s sense of humor isn’t just that I don’t find its jokes funny, but that the movie insists in using humor to undercut its own drama. This is particularly annoying this time around because the dramatic elements of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are surprisingly effective. The main dramatic arc of the movie involves Peter Quill’s relationship to his absent father, who turns out to be a sentient planet played by Kurt Russell. It’s familiar territory, but effective enough that it made me think Pratt is a better actor when there’s a little sadness to him and not just quippy bantering. There’s an arc involving the sister rivalry between heroine Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and villain Nebula (Karen Gillan) that turns two of the most boring characters of the first movie into people I’m interested about, and even Rocket Raccoon -by far my least favorite part of the last movie- redeems himself with a pretty solid introspection of his assholery.

All of these arcs come together rather elegantly in the last act of the movie. Sure, there is a character who nobly sacrifices himself for the good of the team just like in the first movie, and sure, the movie’s main arc of “a team of ragtags becomes a family” is hardly original, but at least there is no giant spaceship hovering over the Manhattan skyline. What’s more, the character groundwork up to that point is handled with enough artistry that I got quite emotional toward the end, something that no Marvel movie has ever managed to do. I couldn’t care less when Captain America and Iron Man were punching each other in the face last summer, yet I came very close to tearing up at the end of this adventure. Maybe if the movie hadn’t repeatedly pointed out the silliness of its own existence I might have actually teared up, but let’s not ignore the fact that this sort of emotional reaction is kind of a big deal for such a film.

Before I close this review, let me be clear in the fact that I do not begrudge the fact that this movie wants to be funny. James Gunn can be very funny. Some of his jokes get in the way of my enjoyment of his movie, yes, but some others can be truly inspired. Gunn has a particularly good eye for zany visuals, and this is where his “most of the same” approach truly pays off. Not being afraid of cartoony visuals, Gunn goes all in on the most intense colors and grotesque sights he can afford. There is, for example, a visual gag involving heads bending out of shape that is funny in an endearingly immature type of way. It only lasts for a few seconds, but it earns a laugh. And as far as action is concerned, Gunn is willing to give in to Looney Tunes levels (and styles) of violence. The best action sequence in the movie involves Michael Rooker’s Yondu and a murderous, flying pen. It is as much of a comedic set-piece as it is a sight of gnarly beauty; a red light dashing through the darkness, just strong enough to illuminate the bodies it is leaving in its path.

Big studio blockbusters are in a pretty dire artistic situation these days, especially those created by the Marvel machine. It’s becoming harder and harder to find artistry when most of them resemble a mass-produced object more closely than they do a piece of art. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is far from perfect, but it has enough character to think of it as an honest-to-God movie. That is not a small feat, considering its origins.