Reviews

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.

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.

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.

 

Can I Be Me (2017)

From Kurt and Courtney to Biggie and Tupac, I find Nick Broomfield’s documentaries about musicians to be cold and removed from the artist. Maybe it’s his intention to focus on the death of a musician without muddling in their music or achievements, but it comes across as cynical and leery, in a tabloid journalism kind of way.

The Cobain documentary Montage of Heck and Nick Cave’s 20000 Days on Earth both took on the style of the artist they were exploring and added a dimension to their story that was both befitting and engaging. Asif Kapadia’s Amy was so invested in the talent of Amy Winehouse, it showed such reverence for her as a musician, that you believe the filmmaker experienced the tragedy. By comparison Can I Be Me is a fleshed out Daily Mail article, but with exclusive interview access and archive footage as opposed to just peering through the window of the crime scene.

Using these resources Nick Broomfield attempts to explore the complicated and conflicted life that led to Whitney Houston’s death in 2012.

Showing her humble beginnings singing in church as a child under mother Cissy Houston, we see the stunning talent and huge voice that Whitney possessed at such a young age. Arguably pushed by her mother, Whitney was then carefully moulded into an international megastar.

Coming from a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey it seemed that in order to market Whitney to a white audience her past was painted over. Her songs would be stripped of their soul – taking out any gospel or RnB that could be connected to her culture. Still she was the first black chart-topping popstar and it is perhaps because of this that she was seen as a sell-out to the black community at the time. Whitney’s moment of realisation came at the 1989 Soul Train awards, where she was nominated for an award but booed as soon as her name was announced. According to friends, Whitney was very sensitive and self-doubting and this seriously affected her, only to be made worse by her eventual husband Bobby Brown who she had in fact met at the same awards show – a bad omen overlooked perhaps.

Broomfield finds conflict in many areas of Whitney’s life that could all in some way be contributing factors to her eventual overdose. From her addiction to various substances but also those things in her life that drove her toward them: the way in which she had to compromise her talent and was rejected by the black community, her relationship with her husband and the breakdown of her relationship with close friend and rumoured partner Robyn.

In the brief window of home videos included in the film we get some idea of the real Whitney Houston off stage as fun and darkly funny. So when you see her appearances on talk shows, where she is more careful and considered in how she presents herself, she still appears earnest.Whilst the documentary tries to cover all of the conflicts present in Whitney’s life, it comes across highly speculative, and with so little time acknowledging her talent or achievements, quite cynical. It is the charm of Whitney Houston that carries some warmth in the film but ultimately underlines its tragedy.

Destination Unknown (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

Destination Unknown is documentary based around the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors, each telling their own stories of hope and hopelessness throughout the horrifying genocide.

The film opens on Edward Mosberg wearing his worn blue-striped uniform, saying that he didn’t like to talk much about his experience before, but now that he is older he wants to share.

This seems to be the sentiment carried by most, including Edward’s wife Cesia, who find it difficult to recall what they lived through because the memories remain fresh – permanent and in great detail. Some see it as an obligation to remember and to tell their story, others feel haunted everyday by things they wish they could forget but know they cannot.

We hear the extraordinary testimonies of people who were just children at the time, of how they came to be separated from their families and amazingly, in some cases, how they were reunited. We hear the moments in which they lose hope and give in, but also when they find hope again in the compassion of others.

Survivor Eli Zborowski tours us around the the secret rooms of the house in which he hid with his family. Built by a friend of his father’s in order to hide Jewish people and keep them from persecution, Eli describes him as an angel symbolising hope, not just for the moment but for humanity as a whole.

The film stitches together these unbelievable stories with archive footage and photographs of the survivors at the time. Some revisit the destroyed sites of the camps, instantly overcome with emotion – it is moments like this that show the torment that cannot even be communicated.

Just as some find it their duty to tell their story, it feels like our duty to listen and understand the tragedy that many people suffered, lived through and carry with them today.

 

 

After The Storm (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

After the death of his father, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) moves back home with his elderly mother to get things in order, finding that he doesn’t have much anymore. He doesn’t have enough money to pay child welfare for the son he rarely sees, to the ex-wife that he still loves but who has moved on without him.

The storm of the title could be the typhoon that is due to hit Tokyo anytime now – but it could also refer to the reckoning of Ryota at this moment in time. A once promising writer who has settled as a private investigator with a gambling problem, he isn’t the man he wanted to be. A deeply flawed character who has charm but is sad and saddening. His vulnerability is so great that at one point he asks a colleague to stop being so nice to him for fear that he might start crying.

In this family drama there is an authenticity to the everyday tragedy, to the realisation that things don’t always work out. That being said, the film does have a sense of humour, embodied perfectly by Ryota’s mother in a phenomenal performance by Kirin Kiki which gracefully moves from funny to poignant and back again.

After the Storm is meditative but not slow, full of neatly packaged details and symbols that add a poetic kind of depth to the characters and their relationships. Offering a sweet and unsensational slice of life that doesn’t try to dress anything up or tie it with a bow, it gives us something more realistic and soulful as result.