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The superhero genre groundwork was laid by the Superman and Batman franchises, improved by Blade, and received its first fully formed incarnation with 2000’s X-Men. The subsequent 19 years delivered a further eleven films, ranging from the highs of X-2 and Logan to the lows of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, sad to say, another low. There are many familiar features, from visual renderings of telepathy to energy blasts from eyes, but there is little that’s new or interesting. Writer-director Steven Kinberg displays little flair or innovation, making the viewer pine for the stylistics of Bryan Singer (controversy notwithstanding) or Matthew Vaughn. Action set pieces on a space shuttle and aboard a train pale in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise as well as those in Marvel Studios’ output. That said, Kinberg does manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere, fitting for the steady and dangerous increase of power in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). At their heart, superhero films are always about power and its appropriate use, and Dark Phoenix does continue this conceit in relation to Jean, and also Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but without any significant depth. Indeed, much of the early part of the film is fairly bland, despite potentially shocking moments, though it does pick up slightly when Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) appears. Despite the best efforts of the cast, and a prominence of female characters, the strongest element of the film is the score, with Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmer. Crashing synths and booming Braaaaaaahms abound, adding to the atmosphere even if the end result is somewhat hollow. As a chapter in the franchise, Dark Phoenix feels conclusive, and it is a damp squib for this long running series to go out on. But then again, you can never keep a good (or bad) mutant down.
I have a problem with bare feet. The feel, the sound and the sight cause my hackles to rise. It’s a longstanding phobia that isn’t rational but does make some films uncomfortable viewing. Imagine my dismay, therefore, when it became clear in the opening minutes of A Quiet Place that all the characters were barefoot all the time, as a family move cautiously and silently through a world overrun by vicious predators that prey on the slightest sound. This central conceit of silence shapes the film’s world-building, from the family’s constant use of sign language along with a few moments of spoken dialogue, to their enthralling physical performances where expressions and tiny gestures speak volumes, and the family’s methods of day-to-day life without sound but shot through with constant fear. At times, the silence becomes defeaning before it is overwhelmed with Marco Beltrami’s crashing score that echoes those of Hans Zimmer and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. In addition, there are moments of complete silence that express the perspective of a deaf character, where the superb visual storytelling of writer-director-star John Krasinski is especially apparent as the world is expressed through motifs and clues, rather than expository dialogue or voiceover. The constant threat of attack and the danger of sound leads to nerve-shredding suspense, and the post-civilised world is shown to be merciless from the outset. Some aspects of this world are annoyingly unexplained, such as how the creatures have apparently overrun Earth and how there is still electricity. But these are minor quibbles in what is a gripping and often terrifying ride, and proves that horror is an ideal genre for directors to develop their skills.
Score is very strong this year. Any of these nominated scores make for great listening on their own, while also gloriously enhancing the visuals that they accompany. It’s especially pleasing to see Jonny Greenwood here, after he was omitted from the nominees on a technicality ten years ago for There Will Be Blood. For my money, I was most impressed with Hans Zimmer’s relentless countdown score for Dunkirk, which was a more imaginative musical arrangement than Zimmer has delivered in recent years. However, following success at the Golden Globes and BAFTA, I suspect that Alexandre Desplat will add to his collection come Oscar night.
Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
I’m not familiar with the nominated songs, so as a complete stab in the dark and due to its extraordinary success, I pick “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman.
“Mighty River” from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall, Diane Warren, Common
“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul (predicted winner)
From the delicate subtlety of The Shape of Water to the REALLY LOUD EXPLOSIONS of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, sound has been perhaps more noticeable than usual this year. This is not necessarily a good thing, since one can be drawn out of the film if the construction of the sound is obvious. Happily, in all of the nominees the sound is superbly mixed (no pun intended) so as to enhance the immersive qualities of the world presented. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dunkirk, where the crashing of waves, the roar of explosions and the growl of boat and aircraft engines are sublimely blended with Hans Zimmer’s relentless score and the exquisite images. I think Dunkirk will win Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and I’ll be happy if it does.
Baby Driver, Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini, Theo Green
Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King (preferred and predicted winner)
The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood
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.
Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.
Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.
This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.
Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?
The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.
For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.