Dunkirk (2017)

Written for RAF News July 2017

Dunkirk is not what you might expect if you somehow you hadn’t heard about it already. Don’t expect a typical story, this is white-knuckle experience of the desperate fight for survival.

It shows the infamous Dunkirk evacuation from three different perspectives: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) one of the many troops stranded on the beach, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) captaining his own personal boat out to bring them home, then there’s Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) two spitfire pilots protecting those on the ground. Surrounded on all sides with Messerschmitt’s raining fire from above, the squaddies are forced to wait up to a week with their backs to the sea, those on the water are left exposed for a day, and the airforce have only an hour of fuel.

These different experiences are wrapped together with the same frantic and frenetic intensity, cutting through time and leaving you without a moment to unclench. You can see why its Christopher Nolan’s shortest film since his debut – there’s no way you could keep this pace up. It’s exhilarating to the point of exhaustion.

Using a young and largely unknown cast for the soldiers on the beach, except of course the debuting Harry Styles who isn’t half bad, you are forced to consider how young and inexperienced these soldiers were. Their fear and desperation is magnified when shown huge stretches of shoreline, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers with nowhere to go. Shot completely in large format, and mostly on IMAX cameras, the beautifully vast coast of Dunkirk becomes a symbol of vulnerability and hopelessness.

Amidst the chaos though we have the calming presence of Mark Rylance, a compassionate civilian intent on getting over the Channel with two young boys to do his bit. When warbirds roar overhead he reassures the boys, and the audience, that this sound should be reassuring – the Rolls Royce Merlin engine of the greatest plane ever engineered. But no sooner are we told to relax than we are thrust into the cockpit to experience a dogfight first hand.

Nolan’s fondness for practical effects mean that a lot of stunts are happening for real, dozens of real ships in the water, shot with cameras mounted on real spitfires – and you feel the weight of it. The dislocation of chasing a target through the clouds and the deafening rattles of gunfire. Masked and muffled (and with a similar coat) you can make out just a little more of Hardy than his turn as Bane, but this isn’t about coherence, in fact it’s just the opposite.

Dunkirk is a joyful assault on the senses that fills you with a welcome dose of suspense and adrenaline. A cleverly made epic that is deceptively complex.


Personal Opinion Sidebar: I was lucky enough to see a preview of Dunkirk at the IMAX in Waterloo – the largest screen in Europe. I understand the song and dance being made about seeing it in this format because it is shot precisely for this format, for the experience. I saw Interstellar here for this reason.

The difference is I could watch Interstellar on a phone* and still take something from the story, whereas I feel Dunkirk, being an experiential film is made for this set-up. It clearly did what it set out to do, to an extreme, but I’m not sure what else is to be found here. Maybe I’m wrong but I have no intention of watching the film again. Fun though ay.

*Just to be clear, I would never. I swear to Lynch.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond (2017)

There have been countless documentaries made about The Beatles. Martin Scorsese made a 3 and half hour film about George Harrison. George for fucksake. Ron Howard just released 8 Days A Week earlier this year, covering the US tour and Shea Stadium, and now It Was 50 Years Ago Today picks up in where Howard left off, though with a good half hour of overlap, focussing on the release of one of the most important albums of all time: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.

Sketch show Portlandia had an episode parodying this idea, based around Fred Armisan wanting to make a Beatles documentary despite their being so many already and not having the rights to play any of the music. This joke becomes reality in 50 Years as no music was cleared and so you have to put up with a smattering of bored and boring talking heads.

With so much ground covered over and again, the film focuses on a short period of time in the life of The Beatles and examines it in great detail – this it does to an extreme for better or worse. It looks at the context from which this groundbreaking record was birthed: a concept album fronted by alter-egos, influenced by psychedelia and Indian mysticism as well as a kind of carnivalesque surrealism – there’s a lot to unpack here, and yet it does this without ever playing any of the music.

There is a great deal about the development of the album’s style and sound, to a microscopic level in some respects. Presumably this documentary is made for those who have a fondness for The Beatles equal to the filmmaker, having memorised the catalogue and wanting some broader understanding or interesting trivia. There are some really interesting bits of information that root some of the iconic imagery – McCartney’s growing of a moustache to cover a broken tooth that he got from a motorbike crash, or Pete Best’s lending of his medals for the album cover shoot.

It begins with territory well trodden but steers it into the more obscure showing revelry for the bands abilities and achievements leading to Sgt Pepper. In surprising fairness though, it shows the group coming undone in it’s wake – trying to reach outside their grasp with an apparent naiveté, from wanting to run a fashion boutique to their own school.

Despite these efforts the documentary appears limited to those who already have an obsession with The Beatles and don’t mind hearing an album meticulously described without hearing so much as a note.

nirvanna

Thanks to a tip from YMS I have found a new obsession in the work of Matt Johnson and in particular Nirvanna the Band the Show. The below video I have watched many many times, and I still laugh. Every time. I have no idea if it’s niche and not for everyone because of I find it so funny.

The show that they often pitch as Flight of the Concords meets Ali G, is put this way to try and communicate the plot and style respectively: two idiot best friends trying to make it as a band, immersed in the reactions of real people.

It’s a narrative show, there are episode arcs and themes and call backs, but a lot of it seems shaped by real events and interactions with real people. This remains ambiguous for the most part, which is its beauty. Or sometimes there are just real moments in contrived situations between Matt and Jay themselves. They could be pretending to fight and start to laugh, and the sincerity is noticed and kept it.

It is also drenched in film references, some hideously more obscure than others – which makes it all the more personal and rewarding when you watch. I’m not sure if it feels exclusive or in-jokey to those who don’t get any of its references, but this makes it so appealing to me, even when I’m excluded. With mainstream comedy being so broad by its very definition, it’s great to see something that’s not afraid to alienate by referencing or even building a story around some tiny insignificant detail that few are bound to pick up on. It is fast paced, self aware and self referential which reminds me a lot of Rick and Morty.

I have turned into an evangelist for this show, passing it on to people I know will love it. On more than one occasion they have mistakenly started watching the original web series that was made 10 years earlier when Matt and Jay were recent graduates AND YET they didn’t mind the scrappiness and loved it the same. I just went back and watched this 10 part series and really enjoyed it for the same reason I like the Viceland series – it is well crafted and has an arc that plays out over the series (which apparently they will be doing more of in seasons 2 & 3 which which will be coming soon).

Watch this show, the Viceland one, it’s brilliant. Then pass it on, this deserves to be seen.

The Shepherd (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

Anselmo Garcia (Miguel Martin) is a humble and unassuming shepherd who lives in a small farm house with his dog. A man of simple pleasures who sees no use for a television or telephone, Anselmo appreciates the simplicity of life: in food, coffee and classic literature – but now they are trying to take that from him.

 

When two men representing a construction firm propose to buy Anselmo’s land in order to build a new housing complex, it is clear that he is not even tempted. Miffed by his apparent disinterest in the money they turn aggressive. What soon transpires is that Anselmo’s land is the last piece of the puzzle, and that all of his neighbour’s have already signed away their property. In order for the deal to be closed, they are reliant on Anselmo parting with his property, and so he finds the pressure increasing from all sides to leave behind the life that he knows and loves.

One of Anselmo’s neighbour’s is the sharply dressed slaughterhouse owner Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchía). When he takes Anselmo to his sterile factory floor filled with steel machinery, it is clear that this life is the complete antithesis of the shepherd’s – harvesting animals as opposed to rearing them. But despite his appearance, Julian is in great looming debt and beginning to get desperate.

The morals guiding this storyline are cut and dry from the outset and the money-hungry suits make for pretty two dimensional villains. What is impressive is how the film imbues a romanticism into the shepherds way of life through the images on screen and with a modest budget. Capturing a flock of sheep on this rural Spanish landscape in the early lavender hours of the morning and the firey colours of dusk.

The story is a most definitely a slow burn with performances from the supporting cast that are pretty ropey for the most part, but there are moments which incapsulate the argument of simple living over the stress of modern life quite nicely.

pendulum

Turns out children are a pretty complex species, which I’m sure I’ll learn to accept soon enough. But craving consistency I keep thinking the child has locked into a certain way of being, his personality decided – for better or worse.

There was a patch where he was pure evil. And what I mean by that is that he was curious to the point of defying instruction. Perfectly normal it turns out. So when he would see his bowl full of cereal and think about what reaction it would have, that I would have, if he were to swipe it off the table and proceed to splash around the milk whilst holding eye contact with me, I’m sure he was just seeing what would happen, and that it wasn’t a demon taking residence in the body of my child. Ahh the rosey tint of retrospect.

So it was with welcomed surprise last week that I could stop thinking about moving house as he turned to pure gold. We had our day together – Daddy Dave (the ‘v’ fell into the pronunciation and we haven’t corrected it just yet) – and he was full of love and energy, reminding me constantly of how I’m his best friend and that he loves me. Later I asked what he wanted to do and he proposed that he go to bed, stopping to brush his teeth en route. I follow to read a few him his bedtime stories and he has already tucked himself in. Perfect, if not suspicious, child. Almost more unsettling than when he went full Damian.

So there goes me, smugly reassured of this new angelic child. Until Fathers Day just passed.

We had tried potty training a little while back and it was just to difficult to keep up with the amount of washing when there were accidents. But now, in his newly perfect mode he seemed to be taking to it just fine. Well. Fathers Day. Nico asks the boy if he needs the potty: he looks down at his dry trousers, back up at her and presents his growing piss patch with a stage magician’s “tadaaa” adding a little leg kick as a flourish. At least he’s a showman about it. But all I can think to do is hold him down whilst Nico fetches the bible.

Update: Daddy Dave just passed and the pendulum has once again swung in the other direction. Fully aware and using the potty his ownself, no accidents for four days straight now. Lovely as ever, but I keep my bags packed and holy water handy on the off-chance.

Alone In Berlin (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

When a long-married couple lose their only son in battle they start a silent rebellion in the heart of Berlin. This act of dissent will quickly gain attention from the Gestapo and almost certainly mark them for death.

Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleason) is a foreman at a coffin factory and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) works begrudgingly for the Nazi Women’s league. They are shown to be lowly working class people already disgusted by the ‘German war machine’ and losing their boy takes all purpose from their lives.

Otto is inspired by a Nazi recruitment poster to speak out and does so by writing a warning on the back of a postcard, which he leaves in public. Now with new purpose he begins to write more and more, with political messages provided by his wife, until Detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is assigned the case of finding and eliminating the audacious menace.

Based on a novel that in turn was based on true events, the story is rather straight forward and motivated by complex emotions, however rather than show this through the performances of its impressive cast, it constantly and needlessly reminds you of what is going on. There is so much room for subtlety and yet most of the dialogue is dedicated to expressing feelings, bizarrely even in the stoic character of Otto.

The film looks slickly designed with wondrous use of lighting, however the dialogue and even the moments intended to bring suspense are so artificial and contrived that it removes any sense of realism. That’s not even to speak of the English speaking – German accents affected by all, which is highly distracting.

Alone in Berlin is entertaining enough to keep you for its runtime but it feels like an incredible waste of talent.

 

Dying Laughing (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

It seems a simple formula for success to make a documentary about stand up when you can have it narrated by a huge line up of professional funny people.

Dying Laughing resists the urge to play any footage of stand up and instead shows a number of talking head interviews with the odd cutaway for flavour, talking about stand up. Bagging big names from both sides of the pond such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan, the film dives into the life of a comedian, covering the neuroses and narcissism.

When pressed to explain what makes stand up so special it can’t help but come across pretentious, and the fact that the talking heads are shot in black and white really doesn’t help. As Sean Lock puts it: “the danger of talking about it is you sound like a wanker”. But it is moments of self-awareness and derision like this that bring the comedy back.

It looks at all the elements of being a stand-up comedian from note-taking and joke writing to working the crowd and dealing with hecklers. They talk about ‘the road’, travelling from show to show between run down hotels and comedy clubs with nowhere to go and no-one to be with, the loneliness, the depression; the humiliation of bombing, the elation of killing.

The film purposefully orders accounts of bombing on stage, of being booed or just ignored. One comic compares it to falling that doesn’t end when you come off stage, another describes it as being slapped by your dad at a barbecue: there is no shortage of analogies throughout the film. One comic retells a clearly haunting memory of being humiliated on stage and seems so shaken by the event still that you can’t understand why people would do this to themselves.

But then we hear accounts of what it’s like to make a room of people laugh, and it is described with a knowing sense that you wouldn’t ever understand unless you experience it for yourself, like explaining a drug, and by the sounds comedy is addictive and will have you risk everything for it.

In the end, the sheer number of comedians interviewed begins to eat its own tale as its the most soundbitable clips that lead into the next that make it in. This leads to many broad pithy comments, occasional written anecdotes, but some moments of pure gold where you see the comic brain at work in the moment, off the cuff.