Film review: Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

When Christopher Nolan’s latest project was announced to be a big-screen interpretation of the famous evacuation of the Allied troops from Dunkirk beach in May 1940 during World War II, it seemed like an unusual choice. His recent output has concentrated on science fiction and fantasy; between directing the Dark Knight trilogy and his subsequent involvement with the Man of Steel films, he also found time to craft two epic science fiction films in the form of Inception and Interstellar.

A war epic felt like a shift into reality. Whilst nobody could doubt his credentials, such a film would certainly rely more on realistic-looking non-CGI special effects. It’s also true that getting these effects wrong would have ruined the authenticity of his art.

dunkirk

In the run up to the release, the controversies and concerns trickled over the media, though they were far outweighed by the plaudits from those lucky enough to see the film in previews.

One of the biggest concerns was the casting of pop singer Harry Styles in one of the lead roles. I can confidently say that any worries about his ability to act are completely unfounded. He does an excellent job in his debut role.

The entire cast are excellent. The most well-known amongst them – Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy – need no praise to confirm their ability. It is the newcomers that really shine, amongst them Fionn Whitehead and Tom Glynn-Carney. The latter is a real coup for Nolan, having only acted on stage previously and even then in small quantities. He clearly has a bright future ahead of him.

Visually, the film is stunning. Everything feels real, rom the harshness of the conditions to the shock of the relentless attacks, and contributes to the most stressful and involved journey I’ve been on during a film since The Revenant. It is an ordeal from start to finish, with the stress reflecting in a small way exactly what the soldiers were going through at the time.

Nolan has made a bold but effective choice in the non-linear storytelling method utilised. It is told in three intertwining parts that slowly converge into one storyline. In ‘The Mole’, the soldiers stranded on the Dunkirk beach (Styles, Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard) have a gruelling week-long escape story as Branagh’s Commandor Bolton repeatedly tries to execute an escape route for his men. In ‘The Sea’, Rylance’s Mr Dawson takes his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) across the English Channel on a leisure boat to rescue evacuees, picking up an unnamed British soldier (Murphy) along the way, in a story that spans one day. In ‘The Air’, Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot Farrier’s story takes one hour to complete as he and Pilot Officer Collins (Jack Lowden) take out enemy planes in their Spitfires. As these play out, we often see visual reminders from the other storylines that serve to anchor each one alongside the others. The stories feel inextricably linked from the start, but it’s a joy to see them play out so perfectly together.

Hans Zimmer’s score is effective in unsettling the viewer throughout. It was explained recently in a fascinating article on Business Insider. “There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a ‘Shepherd Tone'”, Nolan informed them. “It’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the Dunkirk script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”

This effect is never more evident than during the final climactic moments as the score track ‘The Oil’ plays out. It’s simply breathtaking.

Christopher Nolan has made a career out of crafting cinematic experiences that feel part of one person’s vision. Like other contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Nicolas Winding Refn, they are experts in their field partly because viewers can watch their films and within seconds recognise their work. They are auteurs. That Nolan seems to be achieving this in such a wide gamut of genres is all the more remarkable.

Dunkirk is a film you have to see right now. It is the film you have to see right now.

Film review – Okja (Bong Joon Ho, 2017)

Remakes, sequels, animated children’s film. Say what you want about the film studios, but if they’re judged solely on how to make money from well-marketed films, then they know how to do it. But when you look at the UK box office for 2017 on an artistic level, the top 10 leaves a lot to be desired.

Of the top ten, only La La Land isn’t classed as a remake, sequel or children’s film. You have to stoop as low as numbers 16, 17 and 18 to find Lion, Split and Get Out respectively, to start really finding good original cinematic enjoyment for adults wanting something fresh to think about.

Paul Dano

So whilst Okja, Bong Joon Ho’s latest futuristic sci-fi action film, was booed at Cannes Film Festival when the Netflix logo appeared at the start of the film, it isn’t a surprise that the popularity of the service has really grown exponentially in recent times. In the month of June, both Okja and the excellent The Circle landed on the service, along with women’s wrestling series Glow and the new drama series Gypsy, which stars Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. I’ve finished watching all but Gypsy, and it was often the case that I actively decided to stay at home to watch these instead of going to the cinema.

My decision wasn’t financially motivated. It was because they looked like better options.

‘Superpig’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it

Okja tells the story of a new breed of superpig that has been created by the Mirando Corporation as the flagship programme for new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who has inherited the company from her controversial family and is looking to create a better image for their brand. In 2007, 26 superpigs were distributed around the world to various farmers. Now, in 2017, the corporation will crown the best pig as they simultaneously launch products using the meat from the huge slaughterhouses being used to house and kill 1000s of the new species. The ten-year-old daughter of one of the farmers, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has grown close to the titular superpig and attempts to stop the competition from going ahead, teaming up with a band of animal rights activists that include Jay (Paul Dano), K (Steven Yeun) and Red (Lily Collins). Jake Gyllenhall also stars as eccentric television zoologist Johnny Wilcox.

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando

Bong Joon Ho has created something exceptionally special here, getting excellent performances from all of his lead cast. But it is the performance by newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun that really captivated me. The opening sequence of the film may be all bravado and sensory overload, but the film soon settles into a much more naturalistic tone as we learn about the relationship between the young girl Mija and her best friend and childhood companion Okja. Its remarkable that the relationship feels so visceral given that there is nothing but animation for the superpig. There was a foam head made in the likeness of the eventual CGI creature to give her something to interact with. It’s an age-old technique but one that has resulted in an intimate and captivating coupling.

Jake Gyllenhall as Johnny Wilcox

The message contained within the film is at least on some levels for the viewer to consider the origin of the meat they are eating. “Okja is real,” director Bong Joon Ho said in a recent Independent interview. “It’s actually happening. That’s why I rushed making Okja, because the real product is coming.”

I personally felt disgusted by the end of the film and it brought back memories of Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary ‘Food, Inc.’ Thry weren’t particularly positive memories, but they certainly were effective.

Given so many people have Netflix and can watch this film at no extra cost, it’s a no-brainer to seek it out and watch it. It might be the start of a new era of high quality original cinema heading first to home streaming platforms. Given the state of the year-to-date box office, it’s a movement everyone should be supporting.

Film review – 縄張はもらった / Retaliation (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1968)

Arrow’s release of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza film ‘Retaliation’ is well with picking up alongside another release from the same director, ‘Massacre Gun‘ (which I have previously written about). I will admit that these are films in a genre for which my interest far outweighs my actual experience in, but as usual the Arrow discs serve not only as an excellent way to view the films but also to immerse yourself in the history of the company and background to the films themselves. But more on that later.

The film is a tale of gang warfare. Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi) returns to the streets after eight years in prison to find that much of his former life has moved on – his gang is all but completely disbanded and the city he knows and loves is now in the midst of a land dispute over farmland, with two gangs using heavy-handed methods to acquire land off farmers to sell on at a profit to a company that wants to build a new factory there. Jiro approaches the leader of the Hasama family to offer his assistance in settling the dispute and is given two promises: he can complete the task his own way and he will get control over the area once the task is complete. Jo Shishido also stars as Hino, a former gang rival waiting to kill Jiro after his escape from prison, and there is an early performance by Meiko Kaji (as Masako Ota) as the love interest of Jiro, years before her starring roles in Lady Snowblood and the Stray Cat Rock series.

The plot does, at times, feel overly complex. This is perhaps due to the need to introduce characters of interest in each of the gangs, plus a lead character, plus a backstory between two of the Nikkatsu Diamond leading men and a love interest. There’s also an unexpected homosexuality twist near the end, which was undoubtedly controversial at the time. At its heart, however, is a simple turf war story that is the bread and butter of any mafia or yakuza film.

Nikkatsu may have later become known for their sexploitation films, with Yasuharu Hasebe even turning his hand to several “pink” films, but at the time they specialised in yakuza action films. Hasebe’s directorial technique is quite distinctive. The content is, invariably extremely violent (for the time, at least). He was a specialist in violence, and threw in elements of S&M briefly and a sexual assault that should have warned Nikkatsu of what to expect when they eventually gave him complete freedom to direct a number of sexploitation films in the late 1970s.

Another technique is to use foreground blocking to affect the composition of the shots. This is particularly used in fight scenes and in quiet meetings between gang members to give a sense of the action being the kind of thing you usually find behind closed doors, almost as if the cameraman has hidden away and is filming the characters, but if they realised then he’d be in danger. It’s a clever way to raise the intensity of the film.

As previously touched on, there are some essential bonus features on both this disc and that of ‘Massacre Gun’ that are well worth discovering. The half-hour interviews with film historian Tony Rayns are fantastic insights into the company and serve as a video essay to establish the background to the company at the time the films were released and also a means to discover more about the director Hasebe and one of the stars Jo Shishido. Additionally, Jo Shishido is also interviewed on each disc, providing an unfiltered take on the filmmaking process and his memories and experiences about the studio. In the booklets, Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp provides a long essay on the film and the studio that is also well worth reading.

As someone who has never had any kind of film or media training and with no formal qualifications behind me, items like these serve time and time again as very effective mini film study courses. I’m able to watch a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, learn more about it from experts, immerse myself into the history of the company behind it and then check out more films from the era if I wish to. It’s easy to take this kind of situation for granted, but 20 years ago it simply wasn’t possible without finding a rare VHS copy and doing significant research at libraries or enrolling on a course. Indeed, I would probably never have even heard of the film let alone giving it a chance by watching it.

A must have for budding Japanese film fans and one that you need to act fast on since only 3000 copies were released.

 

Film review – レッドタートル ある島の物語 / The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2017)

The Red Turtle may find it hard to be discovered by a dedicated mainstream market. This is almost inevitable for a feature-length traditionally-animated film that involves no spoken words at all, with a simple but thought-provoking story line. Its limited release reflects a genuine assessment of the expected appeal to the wider market. 

This is a shame because the film is a genuine triumph.

The film opens with a man being thrown around helplessly in an unnamed ocean. Struggling to fight the waves, he falls unconscious, later waking up on an uninhabited island. 

The nameless man never speaks, aside from the occasional “Hey!”, whilst his heritage is also somewhat ambiguous. Shipwrecked on an island and left to fend for himself, he busies himself with building a raft to escape and reunite himself with the outside world. However, a large red turtle prevents him from escaping, attacking the raft every time he attempts to leave. When it unexpectedly washes up on shore, he faces a conundrum – free it or exact revenge. 

If you have any fears about The Red Turtle maintaining your attention, you needn’t. It’s one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen this year.

The beauty of the film comes in its simplicity. With no character back stories, no names, no requirement to set the scene beyond the initial opening gambit, we’re left to ponder its surprisingly inspirational content.

Around halfway through the film, the man’s decision to flip the turtle on its back is doubtlessly divisive. Left without much else to focus on, my mind inevitably ended up wondering what I would do in the same situation. The turtle dies, which the man immediately regrets and feels great sorrow for. I felt equally guilty for feeling like he wasn’t completely in the wrong. A senseless murder of an innocent animal, but one that felt partly justified as revenge.

It’s a simple act that drives the more fantastical second half of the film. The lifeless body of the turtle disappears and is replaced with a young, beautiful woman, whom the man subsequently falls in love with.

Clearly, this is a film that is steeped in the metaphorical, encouraging the viewer to think about the deeper meaning of what they are seeing – and giving them the space to do so.
The turtle is a visual representation of man’s relationship to nature. Even as the stranded man fights against the tides and tries to leave the island, the turtle forces him back onto the island, on which he has everything he could possibly need to simply continue to survive. The turtle evenrtually provides him with companionship and, later, a child, this providing him with a fulfilling life too. 

It is a tale in part about man’s short-sightedness towards a nature that gives him everything, highlighting the knee jerk reaction to things he doesn’t understand. It is about the cycle of human life, about the destructive nature of humanity and about the forgiving nature of the surrounding environment – a nature that is forced to adapt to humanity’s shortcomings and still provide a platform for all life – human or otherwise – to continue.

For anyone with a passing interest in the future of the planet, beautiful animation or engrossing stories, this is a must-see.

Film review – Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)

Two decades before Jackie Chan broke into Hollywood with box office smash Rush Hour, he was making another significant breakthrough in his career. Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master were both released in 1978 by Seasonal Film Corporation. They marked Chan’s first mainstream success as a lead actor and showed him to be a realistic option to fill the gap in the market left by Bruce Lee following his unexpected death in 1973.

Chan had worked as a stuntman on two of Lee’s biggest films: Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. But it took the two action comedy films in 1978 for him to rise to prominence and make the world pay attention to just how entertaining he is on screen.

Drunken Master, which has recently been remastered and issued in HD on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, tells the story of Wong Fei-hung (Chan), a young martial arts trainee with more confidence than ability. A couple of incidents in his local town lead him to be disowned by his father – a martial arts master – and he is forced to train with the great but harsh Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien). Beggar So is a master of the secret martial arts techniques of the Eight Drunken Immortals, and Wong must train with him to master the techniques to defeat the notorious killer Yim Tit-sam (Hwang Jang Lee).

Once Chan appears on screen for the first time, his charisma and charm are there in plain sight. He commands the screen and plays everything for laughs. It feels entirely effortless and he inevitably carries the entire film.

The plot and delivery border on the ridiculous. There are comedic sound effects added to every single move in every fight, which may take some getting used to for newcomers to the genre, although why they would start here is beyond me.

The martial arts on display is exemplary, with Chan clearly an expert in his art to the point of making his character look completely believable as a poor student. Also notable are Hwang Jang Lee’s Taekwondo displays, which are utilised to great effect.

Inevitably, if you’re seeking out this film you’re probably doing so to see the origins of Jackie Chan’s career. On that level, you won’t be disappointed as it shows a young actor having fun finding his feet in a lead role. An underrated gem.

Drunken Master can be purchased on Blu-ray now. It is also available on U.K. Netflix.

The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, 2017)

Ellie Kendrick may be familiar to most as Meera Reed in Game of Thrones, but she has been extremely busy outside of Westeros with a series of challenging roles on stage and off. Her latest appearance, this time as the star of drama feature The Levelling, sees her take on the complex character of Clover, a British girl who returns to her farmhouse home after the unexpected death of her brother Harry (Joe Blakemore).

The tone of the film is inevitably dark and the setting is as grim as it is claustrophobic. The whole film plays out entirely within the confines of the farm, as Clover is forced to come to terms with what has happened whilst also dealing with a tattered relationship with her father Aubrey (David Troughton), a man who is either unable or unwilling to open up emotionally and would rather just carry on as if nothing has happened.

You may be forgiven for a reluctance in diving head-first into this film. When the main star is also a bit character in one of the biggest television series of all time, there is a nagging thought that she may have been cast solely to appeal to fans of Game of Thrones. Certainly the cynic in me can’t get past the fact that the timing of the release has been chosen to cash in on it; it is a matter of weeks before it enters its seventh season.

To presume this would be wholly wrong. Kendrick delivers an absolutely phenomenal performance, swaying between headstong frustration to childlike confusion. It’s a great showcase of her talents and a great piece of evidence that there will be life in her career beyond the final season of Game of Thrones next year.

Writer / director Hope Dickson Leach does well with the location of the film to let the audience know that this is a place that is almost uninhabitable. There’s no respite from the damp, grimness of the untended farmhouse and its surrounding land. The fact that she has achieved so much in her debut feature should be enough for the industry to take note. There’s a lot of talent here.

The subject matter may not appeal to some and may be too challenging for others, but this is definitely an emotional journey worth going on.

Film review – Letters from Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, 2017)

Synopsis (taken from the official website)

Letters from Baghdad tells the extraordinary and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. She shaped the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that still reverberate today. More influential than her friend and colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped draw the borders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum. Why has she been written out of history?


Review

First-time directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum have chosen an interesting topic for their debut feature. Gertrude Bell may not be a household name to most, but based on the evidence here she should be. Mixing archive video footage and voice-overs from Tilda Swinton and a host of other character actors, the film brings to life her letters from an important time during Iraq’s formative years.

Bell lived from 1868 to 1926 and was a truly independent woman, defining her life with a series of firsts. She was the first woman to receive a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University in Modern History, the first woman to journey solo into the Arabian desert (1500 miles on a camel across Central Arabia), was the only female diplomat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

This film concentrates more on her time in Baghdad, critical to the formation of what we now know as Iraq. Her involvement came in the final for years of her life, but in that time she managed to define the borders out of the then-named Mesopotamia, before helping in the formative administration of the country and the controversial installation of their first monarch ruler: King Faisal bin Hussein. She was a good choice to spearhead the tasks due to her knowledge of the area after her extensive travels and relationships and understanding of local knowledge.

To appreciate the film fully it’s probably worth knowing what to expect. It is very much a narrative in the form of a book. It may have taken a considerable amount of time to research and compile the video footage from stock libraries around the world, but the visual result is only minimally engaging. There are many photographs from Bell’s personal collection but no video footage of her directly. This is neither good nor bad, just a matter of fact.

The letters and statements from other people associated to her – relatives, friends and colleagues – aren’t simply narrated. Instead, they are delivered in a talking head style to the camera. It may sound unusual, but it does work and there’s no better way to achieve an entertaining result.

This is a great resource for anyone who wants a penetrable route into the life and achievements of one of the greatest women of her time. It may have its flaws but as a ninety minute film it should reach a wider audience than if they published her letters in book form.

A solid documentary.