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

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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)

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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)

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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)

Frantz
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)

Kedi
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.)

Okja
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.)

Raw
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.)