Time is a foundational element of cinema, as the medium captures and manipulates, plays and re-plays, deconstructs and reconstructs, presents and re-presents time. An eternity can be reduced to an instant and an instant extended to an eternity. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story explores time and our fluctuating perception of it, and is also a mournful and moving story. How does our perception of time change when we cannot adjust to a world changed by loss? Grief keeps us locked in the moment of loss, the famous five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – related to the moment of someone being gone, rather than the revised state of the world in which they are gone. Lowery explores these concepts with exquisite focus and restraint, using the specific possibilities of cinema to portray the experiences of grief, time and timelessness with precision, grace and humanity. We see the film’s central characters C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) experience events in their lives that are remarkable in their unremarkableness: a discussion about moving house; investigating sounds in the night; listening to a song composed by C. Following the death of C, and his haunting of their home under a white sheet with eye holes, scenes are played out with varying presentations of time. What could be days, months or years pass in seconds, while in one bravura sequence, M eats an entire pie in almost a single take. This scene is almost unbearably uncomfortable, conveying the non-time that M and the watching ghost experience, completely separate yet unable to disconnect. The long take is the film’s most used and effective device, as it not only prolongs uncomfortable sequences, but also impacts on the viewer’s expectations of cinema. Various shots continue far past the point at which we expect a cut, highlighting our engagement with cinema and with time itself. Much like the ghost, we constantly wait for things to move on, and when they do not we may be discomfited but then again we may embrace the film’s conceit of reassessing our engagement and experience of time. A Ghost Story invites such responses but never provides answers, offering only the most tantalizing questions as an experience that is both frustrating and compelling.
For most of its running time, Matt Reeves’ new entry in the remarkably durable simian franchise is that finest of blockbusters, combining a grand and at times awe-inspiring sweep with a fine eye for detail. An electrifying early sequence tracks soldiers moving through dense undergrowth, while supertext informs the viewer of the previous Rise and Dawn, before the scene erupts into furious and harrowing combat. This macro and micro scale continues throughout the film, as Reeves leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is a war both for the planet and for souls. Key to understanding these inner and outer wars is the phenomenal performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, his journey echoing that of many a war film protagonist. Serkis’ performance is enhanced by the extraordinary visual effects that suggest you could plunge your hands into the thick fur of Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar’s most trusted friend and at some points his conscience. Equally impressive without digital make-up is Woody Harrelson as the terrifying Colonel who commands the military force against the apes, a chilling combination of Apocalypse Now‘s Kilgore and Kurtz who will stop at nothing to achieve his fanatical purpose. The movie echoes Vietnam war films in other ways such as the guerrilla/gorilla tactics of both sides, shifting loyalties and the steady loss of empathy and humanity among humans and apes alike. Indeed, some sequences echo Holocaust dramas, including a seemingly direct nod to Schindler’s List. Some of the echoes are effective but others too on the nose, while the final act is overly drawn out and there is unnecessary comic relief in the character of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). The film is at its finest when it is unrelentingly grim, DOP Michael Seresin presenting the horrors and suffering of war with a cold, stark beauty. While Reeves carefully elides outright gore, there is no doubt that many characters are killed and just as many suffer agonies both physical and mental, including an early moment that is quite heartbreaking. Yet WFTPOTA also offers moments of great tenderness and compassion, its most moving moments when Reeves uses a subjective camera that has characters staring directly at the audience. It may be a cliché to present eyes as the window to the soul, but nonetheless a great deal is communicated through these bright eyes that convey the soulful struggle and hard fought war for this planet.
From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.
Blistering Bayhem! We’re halfway through 2017 and, if you’re like me, you may be thinking ‘Where has the year gone? And what have we done with it?’ One thing I have done is enjoy lots of movies, 30 new releases to be precise. It’s been a varied six months with great stuff as well as dross. After intense thought, I have assembled the following as my top six films of the first six months of 2017.
An exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale.
2. Wonder Woman
A dynamic, inventive, witty and diverse superhero adventure of duty, will, evil and love.
A beautiful, haunting folk tale of survival, solitude and transcendence.
A beautifully composed, exquisitely painful, warm, witty and moving portrait of family, grief and community.
A haunting, soulful, beautiful, exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.
An enlightening, compelling and inspiring story of mathematics, race, technology and history.
An underwhelming, painfully obvious franchise set-up that suffers from being literally too dark.
What will the rest of the year bring us? The simple answer is, plenty…
Baywatch is a film of bits. Some of those bits are funny, but the unfunny bits outnumber the funny, so mathematically the film is a failure. And yet, it is a film that’s hard to dislike. The humour comes largely from the mismatched partners in lifeguarding Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and Matt Brody (Zac Efron), whose comedic bantering offers some surges of laughter, while slightly damper laughs come from the schlubby Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass) and his crush on CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) that is the source of much awkwardness. Aside from that, references to the TV show (complete with cameos) are laboured while the drug dealing plot needs more than CPR to make it move. But despite the bagginess of Damien Shannon and Mark Swift’s script, Seth Gordon’s direction has enough straight-faced absurdity to keep the film moving, and every time he is on screen, Johnson’s charisma enervates the potentially soggy material. Baywatch is far from a cresting wave, but its comedic current is diverting enough.