Sunday, October 15, 2017

Victoria and Abdul

Alternate Title:  Most Unorthodox!
One sentence synopsis:  An aging Queen Victoria befriends a young Indian servant, who becomes her teacher while earning the enmity of the rest of her court.

Things Havoc liked: In 1997, British director Stephen Frears made a film called Mrs. Brown, starring Dame Judy Dench and Billy Connolly as, respectively, Queen Victoria, and John Brown, her confidant, friend, and rumored lover in the years following Prince Albert's death. Mrs. Brown was a fine little movie, as are most films that ask Judy Dench to play imperious royalty (her role in Shakespeare in Love was good enough to earn an Oscar nod, despite receiving all of nine seconds of screentime), so much so that twenty years later, we find ourselves with an unofficial sequel of sorts, once more focusing on Victoria's relationship with the next in what appears to have been a long list of friends and confidantes that she amassed throughout her reign. It's good to be the queen.

In 1887, as Victoria was preparing to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, every component nation of the British Empire showered her with gifts from all corners of the world, and sent pages and representatives without number to present said rarities. Among these was Abdul Karim, a Muslim prison clerk from Agra (site of the Taj Mahal), who found himself roped into being sent halfway around the world to present a commemorative coin to the Empress of India, and who of course would come to do much more for the sovereign than that. In the film, Karim is played by Indian actor and model Ali Fazal as a wide-eyed young traveler who isn't quite sure what he's doing in the far off land that he is presently inhabiting, but who is happy to simply make the most of whatever happens, neither intimidated by royalty or the trappings of Empire nor shy about babbling semi-coherently about his homeland and the things about it that fill him with joy. This would probably be insufferable, but the film wisely supplies Karim with a fellow traveler in the form of the world-weary and cynical Mohammed, played by The Big Sick's Adeel Akhtar, whose role it is to suffer from the English climate, food, and imperialism, and to despise all three in equal measure. All comedy is based on pain.

But let's be honest with ourselves here, this movie exists and always existed from inception to showtime, as a showcase for Judy Dench at her Judy Denchiest. Reprising her role as Queen Victoria, Dench is covering old ground in this film, but she's so damn good at playing the tempestuous, impatient, power-addicted queen, that she basically knocks everyone else off the screen. Short-tempered, imperious, and capable of cutting men dead with a single disgruntled stare, this is and has always been Judy Dench's best sort of role, be it as a literal queen or empress, or some sort of substitute figure of unmatched authority (there's a reason she lasted longer in the Bond movies than Pierce Brosnan). Over half the movie is spent with Judy Dench cutting dead a slew of officials, servants, and officious busybodies who are, to a man, scandalized by the fact that she has dared befriend an Indian (the repeated mistaking of Karim for a "Hindu" by officious twits who know nothing is both hilarious and on-point for Victorian Britain). As an excuse to give Judy Dench scenes in which she destroys people with her cut-glass speeches, it's a fairly transparent device, but it's a good deal of fun for that, particularly when the said official is her son, the future King Edward VII (or as he's known in this film, "Bertie"), played by none other than Eddie Izzard, almost unrecognizable under mutton chops and morning dress.

Things Havoc disliked: The problem with a film that's so transparently about giving an actress known for being good at a specific thing a chance to do that thing, is that the film cannot, almost axiomatically, be about much else, particularly with a run-time of less than two hours. As such, the film rather breezes over a lot of material that would probably have been useful to have more of, such as a better sense of what Karim's life in India was like, and a more detailed process of just how it was that he was able to get Victoria's ear in the first place. As it stands, Karim takes the first opportunity he can to start running off in fifty directions about whatever seems interesting to him today, while VIctoria patiently indulges him, something she seems rather uninterested in doing when it comes to anyone else. I understand what the filmmakers are going for, that Karim's wide-eyed innocence is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the stifling atmosphere at court, I just wish it was better established is all, rather than forcing me to rely on the fact that I've seen this movie made fifty times before. There are occasional scenes, such as one between Victoria and Abdul alone on an island in the Scottish Hills, wherein Dench is allowed to give her character more emotional range than "Head Bitch in Charge", but they are few and far between.

There is, of course, also the question of historicity, which is a subject you are all sick of hearing about, and that is just too bad. I normally have little patience for reviewers who excoriate a film because its political content doesn't match with their opinions in every way, but in fairness, there is something to the claims that the film is mired in historical revisionism. The movie goes to extreme lengths to paint Victoria as a liberal, forward-thinking pan-humanitarian, which is, to put things mildly, an... 'interesting' take on the life and opinions of one of the most rabid imperialists in British history, a woman who once threatened to resign her office and retire in disgrace to Germany because the British government was being dilatory in their conquest of the Sudan. The movie professes, among other things, that Victoria was unaware of the provenance of the Koh-i-Noor diamond (captured during the second Anglo-Sikh war of 1849), and so detached from the events of the Indian Mutiny that she was unaware of what role the Muslim people of India played in it, neither of which seems likely given Victoria's obsession with her Empire. I am not a stickler for absolute historical truths in every film, despite my reputation, and I both understand and support the concept of being able to tell a simple royalist fantasy once in a while (to say nothing of one who's primary message is one of tolerance for and by Islam), but there is some part of me that sits poorly with a film that not only does all this, but then contrasts it with the thuggish, racist, and reactionary behavior of Edward VII, who in reality was one of the most forward-thinking (and wildly popular) monarchs of his or any age, a man who once publicly upbraided the German Kaiser for his (widely held) opinions that Europeans were of superior bloodstock to the subject races of the colonial Empires.

Final thoughts:   Lest I start sounding like the very reviewers I have no use for, no, Victoria and Abdul is not some gross insult heaped upon the altar of history. It is a semi-fantastical story about an old queen and a young clerk and the friendship that develops between them, one that is, in all but tone, fully grounded in historical fact. Abdul Karim existed, did become close friends with Victoria, did teach her to speak and write Urdu (which she was fond of lapsing into during conversations with impenetrable bores), as well as give her lessons on Islam, the Koran, and Indian history. Efforts were made to erase his contributions in the years following Victoria's death, by a government none too interested in having him remembered, efforts which were, until only a few years ago, entirely successful. The impetus to want to record such an event in film, not to mention take the opportunity to allow for Judy Dench to do her thing, is one I understand well. So when all is said and done, register my objections as mere... uneasiness with some of the elements of the film, and not a rejection thereof.

Victoria and Abdul is not the best film of the year, nor the best film to cover such well-worn territory. In some ways it is profoundly flawed. But's a fun little fantasist view of the last days of a legendary queen's life, and of the young man who made them richer, and it needs no further justification for existing than that.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  How do you remake a Ridley Scott film?  You give it to the Quebecois.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Alternate Title:  'Murica!!!
One sentence synopsis:  A devastating attack by a mysterious assailant forces the Kingsmen to enlist the aid of their American cousins, the Statesmen.

Things Havoc liked: 2015 was one of the best years in this project's history, and of all the films that graced it, the one that was the largest surprise to me was unquestionably Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service, a movie in which Vaughn continued his career policy of only making movies adapted from the comics of legendary indie comic author (and gargantuan asshole) Mark Millar. This is a very strange policy for a director who previously made excellent films like Stardust and X-Men: First Class, but the results have been uniformly great, so who am I to complain. Kingsman was a smash hit by every metric, so it's not surprising that a sequel should have been commissioned, and given how flat Kick-Ass 2 fell without Vaughn's direction (even though I liked it), it's not a surprise that Vaughn should be tapped to actually direct the followup this time. And thus here we are.

Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) has certainly come up in the world. Not only did he save the world during the events of Kingsman 1, joining an elite organization of super-spies dedicated to world peace and making off with riches and panache in the offing, he has since become one of the foremost agents of the Kingsmen, pursued his relationship with the Crown Princess of Sweden, and is otherwise enjoying his life as the world's foremost throwback to James Bond (and who could blame him). Obviously it's no spoiler to state that his idyllic existence is about to be upended, but Edgerton remains an excellent actor who can handle both the camp and the serious aspects of the film with aplomb, and his mugging for the camera is helpfully supplemented by the addition of a half-dozen other actors who are just as good at doing so. Mark Strong returns as Merlin, the Q-analogue of the Kingsman world, who is brutally and violently promoted into active status with a sudden, devastating assault on the Kingsmen from assailants unknown. Any casual reader of my reviews knows that it is my concerted opinion that Mark Strong is the man, and the man he remains here, with a running joke of his character's appreciation for John Denver of all things being used particularly well. Colin Firth returns as Galahad, a surprise the trailers themselves could not wait to spoil, and which I shall as well. It's unquestionable that his character's presence in this movie is a massive plot shoehorn designed to let him play again, but at the same time, his performance in the first one was one of the best thing Firth has ever done, and I'd be very churlish to object to more. Firth retains his refined Mr-Darcy-as-James-Bond charm from the first movie, and it's just awesome. If, like me, you simply loved the first movie and wanted more of it, Golden Circle offers just the dish.

Which is not to say that there aren't new elements here, nor that those elements are uninteresting. For one thing, Julianne Moore (I got her name right this time!) plays a villain drawn directly from the same stable as Samuel L. Jackson's Mike Tyson/Steve Jobs crossover from last time. Her character is Poppy Adams, a fifties-obsessed Pleasantville escapee who has reconstructed an amalgamated theme park version of the 1950s in the Cambodian jungle, and uses it as the headquarters of her worldwide drug empire. If this sounds absurd, that is because it is, and the movie wastes no time in having her find a number of dogs to kick to establish her off-brand evil, even as she prepares a diabolical plot to poison the very drugs she is pumping out abroad to force the world to legalize her product. Moore and I have not had the best of relationships in movies before (I was so mad at the last Hunger Games movie that I accidentally started ranting about a completely different actress), but this is her sweet spot, where she can play a totally deranged killer with a dose of syrupy sweetness, perfectly fitting with a movie like this. And the fact that a major element of her evil plan involves kidnapped Elton John (playing himself), and forcing him to play his greatest hits at gunpoint certainly does not detract.

But the biggest addition is the Statesmen, the American cousins of the Kingsmen, and this, right here, is the movie's strongest element, because the Statesmen are insane and ludicrous in all the right ways, a campy send-up to the most American stereotypes imaginable. Front and center are agents Tequila and Whiskey, respectively Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal. Tatum is a veteran of super-campy movies, of course, and as a fine character actor, does better, I find, the more ludicrous the role (see Hail, Caesar! for evidence of this). But oddly, given the billing, Tatum's role is far less important than Pascal's, whom I've been a huge fan of since Game of Thrones' fourth season, and who in this movie is awesome, a drawling cowboy who does battle with six shooters, a retractable bullwhip, and an electric lariat that can saw people in half. Pascal is awesome, he's been awesome in everything I've ever seen him in, and so having him play the lion's share of the Statesmen roles in this round is no slight whatsoever. Rounding out the Statesmen are Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges, the former playing Mark Strong, and the latter playing himself. Just think about it, and you will realize that this is perfect.

But there's more to like here than the characters. The whole aesthetic of the movie is genius, as it was in the last film, but moreso here. The Kingsmen are, after all, a hyper-stylized version of both what
the world sees of Britain, and what Britain sees itself as. As such they are invincible super-spies in impossibly well-manicured bespoke suits, their entire look and feel being that of Saville Row and Buckingham Palace. Only such a mentality could have resulted in a film in which the protagonists' main weapons are cuff links and umbrellas. The Statesmen, existing in the same universe, are the equivalent hyper-stylization of what Americans see of themselves, and what everyone else sees of them, and thus they are cowboys and gunslingers, their entire aesthetic being firearms and mahogany, not Saville Row but a hunting lodge. The Statesmen are headquartered in a Kentucky whiskey distillery, their weapons of choice the tools of cowboys, their affect a southern drawl, even when the actors themselves can barely manage it. Every element of this is perfect, over-the-top, sensationalized, steriotypical, awesome, and deeply appropriate. Keeping its eye forever on the salient themes of the series, the movie never allows itself to forget that this is a universe in which it is a completely normal part of human existence to have Colin Firth and Elton John battling killer dog robots with bowling balls.

Things Havoc disliked: The plot is a mess, of course, but that was also true of the first one. It may or may not be a bit more of a mess here though, with plot cul-de-sacs galore, such as the question, awkwardly brought up and resolved, of whether Halle Berry's Agent Ginger Ale can be promoted to a field agent, or Pedro Pascal's Agent Whiskey's motivations for his actions throughout the movie. Various characters, some from the first film, some brought in specially for this one, have very little to do, either being killed off rather unceremoniously, or in one case getting literally stuffed in a refrigerator to wait for the film to end. None of these things are truly crushing blows to the film's overall quality, don't get me wrong, but they do speak to a somewhat larger problem at work here.

Kingsman 1 was, in many ways, a very complete story, not leaving us with much leverage in terms of sequels, and Kingsman 2 really never manages to get over that particular hurdle. A lot of elements in the film, from Colin Firth's presence in it at all, to the extended action sequence that starts it off, do not seem to exist because they're integral to the story (as opposed to the plot), but because they are the sort of thing (in some cases the literal thing) that was in the first movie and that people responded positively to, and so by God we have to have it in the next film as well. Fanservice of this sort can work, certainly, but it's not generally the place that great storytelling emerges from, and there just isn't much great storytelling, or even really... any storytelling going on in this movie. Plenty of stuff happens, don't get me wrong. Things explode, people get the crap beaten out of them in hyper-cinematic fashion (a fight sequence in the end shot in a dizzying long-take is pretty damned epic), people die, some of them with significant send-offs, and we even get some mechanistic plot advancement for some of the characters, but the entire enterprise is spectacle. Spectacle is good, don't get me wrong, and in fact Vaughn knows how to produce it better than most, but it isn't a proper substitute for a full fledged story arc, and the entire film, no matter how well made it is mechanically, does unavoidably feel like a contractually-obligated sequel at a number of points.

Final thoughts:   I adored Kingsman: The Secret Service, if only because of the tremendous surprise that it was, coming at a bad time on top of a bad marketing campaign and looking like nothing more than a generic action film made to fill space on a calendar. If only by virtue of heightened expectations, Kingsman: The Golden Circle simply can't match the astounding impact of the first film, being neither as astonishing, nor (to be frank) cored around as signature a sequence as the infamous Mr. Darcy vs. The Westboro Baptist Church scene from the original (a sequence that was so jaw-dropping that my first comment thereafter was "I can't believe that someone committed this to film"). It does, unavoidably, carry a hint of empty spectacle within its shooting and exploding. But lest I sound too negative, it is masterful empty spectacle, a ridiculous, campy, ultra-violent, very fun little movie that I did enjoy pretty much start to finish. Is it a great movie? No, ultimately it is not. But it is a good movie, perhaps a very good one. And one should never let oneself get so spoiled, even in an excellent year, that you start objecting to that.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Judy Dench Judy Denches.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wind River

Alternate Title:  Home on the Range
One sentence synopsis:  A professional hunter and an FBI agent try to solve a brutal murder on an Arapaho reservation in remote Wyoming.

Things Havoc liked: As anyone who listens to my end-of-year podcasts already knows (and that is all of you, right?), last year was a pretty dismal year for movies. It happens. But one of the shining exceptions was the neo-western crime thriller Hell or High Water, a superb film set in the bleak landscape of the West Texas plains, about a pair of brothers robbing banks to try and save their family's farm, while being pursued by Texas Rangers. I waxed eloquently over the virtues of Hell or High Water twice, once during the review itself, and once during the best-of-the-year Havoc Awards, but what I did not know when I was waxing-so was that the writer of that film, a man named Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario, was in the process of making the leap from writer to writer-director of another windswept neo-western, this time a murder mystery set in the magnificent desolation of North-west Wyoming.

And it's amazing.

Wind River is one of the best films of the year, a staggeringly-good and unflinching character-and-setting study mated with an excellent murder-mystery. Like Hell or High Water before it, it is a film with a tremendous sense of place, specifically in this case the Wind River Arapaho Reservation of Wyoming, a place which, in the dead of winter, is not particularly conducive to human life. Also like Hell or High Water, it is a quiet, subtle film, taking the time to languish over its setting and characters, indulging in the magnificent desolation of the wintry mountains, and punctuating things when necessary with scenes of brutal violence. I was always a fan of Sheridan's writing, his pedigree alone demanded that, but with this film he has vaulted himself into the ranks of excellent writer-directors, a perilous perch that few can ever attain.

Wind River stars Jeremy Renner, an actor I have long admired, as Cory Lambert, a Fish & Game agent who works in the remote Wyoming mountains. Lambert is white, but his ex-wife, and thus his son and daughter are or were Arapaho Indians, and his job as a predator hunter places him in close contact with the inhabitants of what everyone calls "The Rez". I say 'are and were' because Renner's daughter is dead, killed in unknown circumstances, as so many Native American women are, and found in a remote area with no evidence as to how she came to be there. As such, when he discovers the body of another young woman in the snow, raped and dead of exposure, the daughter of a friend of his, he throws himself into the task of finding out what happened to this one girl with the aid of anyone he can find. Make no mistake, this is a tricky role, as it would be very easy to appear as the typical "white savior", or follow the Dances with Wolves trope of the white man being purged of his evil white guilt by becoming an Indian, but the film is too well-made, and Renner too good an actor to fall into these pitfalls. A standout scene early on in the movie has an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) inadvertently insult the grieving parents of the murdered girl through ignorance and officiousness, only for Renner to show up moments later to ask more or less the same questions, but with a completely different attitude and level of experience with the culture he's dealing with and the people he's talking to. Lest I sound like I'm picking on Olsen, though, she's excellent as well, a fresh-faced FBI agent who knows next-to-nothing about the situation she's been dropped into except for the fact that she knows next-to-nothing about it, which is the most important fact of all. Aware that the only reason she was sent to the Reservation was because crimes there are considered unimportant, she does her level best, conscious of her inadequacy for the task, because nobody else is coming.

But while Renner and Olsen are both very, very good, it's the supporting cast that really sells the film. Gil Birmingham, of Hell or High Water (and the Twilight series, though we'll forgive him for that), plays the aforementioned father of the aforementioned murder victim, a small role that is nonetheless fantastically-well-done, combining existential-grade grief with a practical side generally missing from roles like this one. Graham Greene meanwhile, one of my favorite character actors working,
plays the Reservation Police Chief, whose task it is and has been for years to try and police an area the size of Connecticut with six men. As this is manifestly impossible, Greene's character, like everyone else, simply does what he can do, despite everything, and Greene is exceptionally good at showcasing someone whose choices are cynicism or doggedness, and whose chooses the latter with open eyes despite all evidence to the contrary. There is also an extended flashback sequence involving Kelsey Chow and Baby Driver and Fury's Jon Bernthal as Natalie, the murdered girl, and Matt, her boyfriend, both of whom are superb, as are a host of other more minor actors such as James Jordan. This sequence, though difficult to watch (it involves murder and rape, among other wholesome pursuits), is one of the best scenes of the sort that I have ever seen, a sequence that showcases, without histrionics or dramatic irony, just how the most heinous of crimes can come about through a combination of alcohol, testosterone, group dynamics, and unrestrained escalation. Were the film nothing but this scene, it would justify its existence, but as it stands, it is the jewel in the film's crown.

Indeed, the entire film is remarkably well-made, from the gorgeous cinematography and understated
score, to the brief, brutal flashes of violence that erupt without warning. It calls back, quite consciously, to westerns and crime dramas like Unforgiven, Collateral, or Heat, using referential shot selection and self aware stylism. The soundtrack is all mood-music, western-influenced electronica and rock, primarily scored together by legendary musicians Warren Ellis and Nick Cave (the latter of whom holds the most awesome nickname in history as "Rock Music's Prince of Darkness", bestowed on him by Johnny Cash of all people). The pacing is slower than any of Sheridan's previous works (probably an effect of him directing, this time), but the result is a sombre, windswept, dramatic piece that doesn't luxuriate in darkness or give in to rabid polemic. It's a balancing act that gets more impressive every time I think about it. It's close to being a masterpiece.

Things Havoc disliked: Honestly, there's not much wrong with Wind River whatsoever, at least nothing that isn't clearly done for effect as opposed to sloppiness. Some of the predator/prey symbolism is a bit on the nose for my taste, but that's the risk that comes with shooting movies in the American West, an area rich with scenic mythology and symbolic landscapes. There are also a handful of plot cul-de-sacs that are reasonably well-established before being dropped unceremoniously, such as Renner's relationship with his son, ex-wife, and in-laws, all of whom get time devoted to their setup, all of whom are forgotten about in the aftermath of the film's payoff. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of tonal whiplash on occasion, as the film oscillates between hyper-realistic murder-mystery and sudden, explosive gun battles (I'm not quite sure what the end-game of someone who decides to start a shootout with six cops and the FBI is). But overall, none of these issues mar the film's qualities beyond the occasional quizzical moment.

Final thoughts:   In case I've somehow been unclear, Wind River is a phenomenal film, one of the best neo-westerns I've ever seen, and a strong contender for the best film of 2017. I absolutely love and unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone even casually interested in westerns, thrillers, mysteries, or any one of the fine actors that appear within it. As for myself, I will be watching Taylor Sheridan closely for whatever he does next, as a new filmmaker capable of producing a movie this good can only either continue to make spectacular movies, or can take the Michael Cimino/Tod Browning route, and follow up their breakout hit with a movie so off-kilter that it bankrupts their studio and gets them blacklisted from Hollywood forever.

Either way, it'll be fun to watch.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Next Time:  And now we consider another sober and reasonable film in which Taron Edgerton beats a man with his own arm.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Logan Lucky

Alternate Title:  Ocean's 5 1/2
One sentence synopsis:  Two brothers in West Virginia assemble a team to rob a NASCAR speedway during one of the biggest races of the year.

Things Havoc liked:   I can take or leave Steven Soderbergh. The man makes good movies, at least on occasion, from Ocean's 11 to Magic Mike to Erin Brokovich, but he also makes a whole lot of meandering crap such as Bubble, Che, or Eros (don't ask), and seems to regard filmmaking as an occasion to shower everyone with his insightful views on the world, such as his many public resignations from directing (Logan Lucky being the fifth consecutive "last film" of his, with a sixth in the works for next year), his predilection for pseudonyms (such that nobody's actually sure who the screenwriter of this film is), and his fervent support of internet censorship as a means to save the soul of art (???). That said, when it comes to procedural heist-comedies, at least nowadays, Soderbergh is pretty much the man you look to to get things done. So leaving aside Soderbergh's hangups for the moment, I decided that this one, a redneck-themed remake of Ocean's 11, sounded promising, particularly when it came to the cast.

And what a cast it is. Channing Tatum, a long-time Soderbergh regular, and Adam Driver (of Star Wars), play the Logan brothers, a pair of blue-collar West Virginians, who like all West Virginians in all movies, are fated to suffer under the cruel arm of "the man" while evidencing down-home folksy character and virtue in contrast to the slick hucksterism of the city folk that surround them. Tatum, sadly, gets stuck with not much more than the above character description, but Driver gets a bit more, as a none-too-bright Iraq war vet with a prosthetic arm who gets dragged into his brother's hair-brained scheme for getting rich by means of robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway on the day of an enormous NASCAR race. Driver's an actor I've become a big fan of in the last couple of years, as every performance he gives is so strikingly different from the previous. This time he plays what amounts to the role of a Steven Soderbergh heist character with stonefaced aplomb, and it's perfect.

Surrounding Tatum and Driver are other actors having a grand old time. Brian Gleeson (son of Brendan) and Jack Quaid (son of Dennis) play the Bang Brothers, two redneck idiots with pretensions of religious scruple who are among the funnier things in the film, and whose older brother is played by Daniel Freaking Craig, James Bond himself, as a safecracker and felon brought along to bring his particular knowledge of homemade explosives into the mix. Craig is goddamned amazing in this movie, a screamingly-funny old lecher of a bomb expert who steals every scene he's in and runs away with them. His role is effectively that of Don Cheedle in the Ocean's movies, but an Appalachia layered over. If you've ever wanted to watch James Bond hit on everything in sight... well you'd watch a James Bond film most likely, but if you wanted to watch him do so in a comedy, this is probably your best bet. If nothing else, Daniel Craig wins his way onto the ever-elongating list of British actors whose American accents are undetectably flawless. It must be all the warm beer...

Things Havoc disliked: So, the whole point of a heist film is to watch the heroes work. To see them undertake a seemingly-impossible task and accomplish it through clever planning, outsmarting their rivals, dumb luck, or whathaveyou. That's the whole reason that heist movies make such great comedies, the entire purpose of the film is to showcase how much smarter one group of characters is than another, and humiliation is the foundation of most comedy. You'd think that Soderbergh, of all directors, would know all this, having now made three Ocean's films (with a fourth in the works), to say nothing of things like Traffic or The Good German, which while not comedies, had labyrinthine plots full of people outwitting one another. And yet, judging from the evidence, either Soderbergh has entirely lost the plot or I have, because I have no goddamn idea what happens in this movie.

Heist plots are complex. They have to be, in order to hold the audience's attention, but the point of the entire exercise is to marvel at how clever the characters (and by extension, the filmmakers) are once we see just how elaborate the plan was, that's the been the genre's mainstay since The Sting for God's sake. Yet the whole last half of Logan Lucky makes no damned sense, not in the more common manner of the characters acting out of character, but in the sense that I literally had, and still have, no idea whatsoever of what was intended to be happening. Once the plot is underway we rapidly lose track of what's going on, to the point where it's not made clear at all if the heist is a success, a failure, or some mixture of the two. To be fair, a certain amount of confusion on those points is only natural to the genre, as a means to build tension if nothing else, but it's customary to at least let the audience in on what the hell the plan actually was before the movie ends. I've seen a lot of movies in the last six and a half years, many with plots far more labyrinthine than anything this movie puts together, but I still wasn't sure of what the hell had happened in this thing until I read the Wikipedia summary in preparation for this review. And even then, I wondered how the article's author had managed to puzzle it out. It's not a matter of artifice or winking or the filmmaker trying to show off how much smarter he is than the audience (which would be bad enough). Necessary information to the interpretation of the events on screen is simply not provided.

And it would be bad enough were the plot simply impenetrable, but there's a lot of strangeness surrounding this film, a lot of fat that went untrimmed, so to speak. Fairly major actors, such as Katie Holmes and Hillary Swank, the former of whom plays Channing Tatum's ex-wife, the latter an FBI agent, are barely in the film, to the point where one wonders if there wasn't a massive editing fiasco somewhere in the movie's production. Holmes is there more or less just to make Tatum look long-suffering and saintly, while Swank only enters the film at the very end, with a role that feels rather like its missing two thirds of its character arc (the awful Louis Gossett Jr. impression she adopts throughout does her no favors either). Seth McFarlaine, of all people, also makes an appearance as a stuck-up British racer straight out of a Ricky Bobby movie, for no reason other than to be annoying and get punched once or twice. Meanwhile the film takes an inordinate amount of time dealing with Tatum's family drama, with his ex-wife (Holmes), his adorable daughter , his ex-wife's husband who is of course an abrupt douchebag with more money than him, etc, etc. Admittedly, this isn't the first heist movie to drum up stock family drama to give the hero a reason to steal things, Ant-Man did much the same, but the difference is that Ant-Man established the family and then left them out of the picture for a while so that the heist could take place. This movie, on the other hand, is the first film I can remember that combines waacky heist hijinx with the tired old question of whether Dad will be able to make his daughter's recital/talent show contest, as though the prospect of goofballs robbing NASCAR wasn't a big enough sell, and what we're really here for is the inevitable moment where the father races in at the last minute and shares and understanding nod with his long-suffering child. Awwww.

Final thoughts:   Logan Lucky is a frustrating movie, as it's nowhere near badly-made enough to actually be bad, but all that means is that we feel resentful that the actually good movie we can see signs of doesn't show up. Craig and Driver are excellent in the thing, don't get me wrong, and some of the fifty-three tangents that the film flies off on are actually pretty funny (the demands that the prisoners make during the prison riot are inspired). But the whole thing plays like a mass of dead-ends, truncated plot elements, and tired cliches, layered over with a thick helping of utter bewilderment as to what is actually going on. I know the film has been praised immodestly by critics and audiences alike, but I'm of no use to anyone if I fail to give my honest opinion. And my honest opinion is that this movie, like so much of Soderbergh work, enthusiastically fails to work.

Still, if you're a hardcore Daniel Craig fan, and frankly who isn't, it's not the worst thing you'll have been forced to put up with.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Next Time:  Hell or High Water 2:  Hotter Hell.  Higher Water.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Dark Tower

Alternate Title:  The Lord of the .45 ACPs
One sentence synopsis:  The last of a legendary order of gunslingers and a boy from New York must stop an evil wizard from unmaking all creation.

Things Havoc liked:   "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

Since it was first published in serial in 1978, people have been trying, off and on, to bring Stephen King's Dark Tower to the screen in some form or another. It wasn't until 2007 that active production began on what would become this film, with directors as varied as J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard being attached to the project, while the list of actors offered the role of the semi-titular gunslinger is too long to repeat here. One would have been forgiven for wondering if this Development Hell victim would ever wind up showing its face, but at long last it has arrived, a troubled production of a difficult property, but one with two excellent actors attached to play the leads.

Who am I speaking of? Why Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey of course, taking on respectively the roles of hero (Roland of Gillead) and villain (The Man in Black). Neither role is all that well fleshed out beyond the basic character archetypes of epic fantasy literature, but both actors are supremely fun to watch working even in bad films, and remain so here. Elba is in his element as a world-weary gunslinger of legendary skill, a cowboy crossed with a questing knight, who wields six shooters the way Legolas wields his bow (and with a lot less pretty-boy annoyance). It's nothing revolutionary here, in fact it's pretty much Idris Elba doing a Clint Eastwood impression crossed with a standard fish-out-of-water story when he heads to New York and starts tipping hospital nurses with gold coins, but I'll be damned if Elba doesn't make the most of it. He doesn't make as much as McConaughey though, who gets the juicier role of playing Walter Padick, the Man in Black. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from McConaughey as a villain, but this is pretty much the exact scenario I should have been envisioning, as McConaughey takes the Angus Macfadyen approach to villainy, constantly grinning at his own delicious evilness, as he seeks to do nothing less than destroy the universe by... you know I'm not actually sure what the evil plan at work here is, but it scarcely matters. McConaughey's black magic takes the form not of fireballs and special effects, but of whispered commands that vary from "kill each other" to "stop breathing", and unlike a lot of villains in movies like this, he is given free reign to kill more than just random passers by, decimating everyone and everything that crosses his path all while chortling to himself about how gloriously wicked he is. It's not the most subtle thing in the world, but it works.

Indeed, subtlety isn't the strong suit of The Dark Tower in general, and believe it or not, that's a good thing. Most YA-style fantasy movies are quite pedestrian in their aims and ambitions, with the bad guys pushing the good guys through a hero's journey so standard that one can (and in the case of many a Hollywood film, has) write it all out by rote outline. It's not that Dark Tower is all that different in that regard, but that the film commits to its premise with more aplomb than most of its competitors do. Villains do not take people prisoner for no reason other than to grant the heroes a chance to save them, but instead outright murder everyone they come across, whether a traditional narrative would hold that character important or not. The backstory is not delivered in a massive narration dump, nor does the movie over-emphasize the one plot element that will turn out to be drastically important later on. Indeed, very little is actually established in this movie before it's actually used, which would be bad storytelling in any genre that was less formula-ridden than YA Fantasy, and which paradoxically actually turns this movie into a frankly surprising one at points. And if nothing else, it's the only movie I've ever seen which tries the old "buck up the hero at his lowest point with an inspiring speech routine" by means of giving an untrained teenager a gun to play with, as well as one of the very few whose moral is not that one should be content with the life one has, but that when one is given a chance to go do awesome fantastical things in another world, you say yes.

Things Havoc disliked: That all said, I don't want to give the impression that Dark Tower is some kind of fantasy masterpiece, re-inventing the genre for all time. Oddly enough for a movie called The Gunslinger, there's precious little action to it, and such action as there is is rather lackluster, as the Gunslinger simply shoots his enemies with unerring accuracy, while six thousand henchmen armed with machine guns fail to hurt him. I grant that guns are a fairly one-dimensional tool insofar as awesome action is concerned, but given the premise of a preternatural, divinely-gifted pistolier with weapons forged in crucibles of legend, surely anyone could come up with something a bit more exciting than "shoot a guy, then shoot another guy."

But it's the writing, the Achilles' heel of these sorts of works, that really lets the side down, something which makes the decision not to give the writing much time to showcase its poverty a bit more context. Backstory elements that seem like they ought to merit an explanation or two are simply dropped onto us for no reason at all, particularly a sudden and baffling reference to Arthurian mythology that lands out of nowhere and is never mentioned again. More seriously though, the film commits the unfortunate (and commonplace) sin of having characters explain things to other characters that they already know for the benefit of the audience. Obviously, given a seven-book series famous for its labyrinthine, interconnected mythology, and the need to condense it into a workable two=hour film, certain liberties have to be taken, but there's never an excuse for clunky writing, no matter what the structural pressures the source material layers upon you. References to other Steven King works such as It or the Shining go well beyond the level of easter egg and are catapulted into major elements of the plot with no explanation, confusing what's actually going on for anyone who's seen a movie in the last thirty years, and the unevenness of the script combined with the aforementioned sparseness of detail gives the film a rather arbitrary feel, wherein we get the impression that things happen because the filmmakers made something up at lunch and shot it.

Final thoughts:   I have to admit that my original review of Dark Tower, the one I was formulating in my head as we walked out of the theater, was considerably more critical of the film's flaws, but over time, I've softened on it considerably, partly because all of my viewing companions liked it more than I did, and partly because I realized that the movie it reminds me of the most is 2012's epochal failure, John Carter, the greatest box office disaster in the history of Hollywood. Like Dark Tower, John Carter was a flawed movie, but one that had considerable virtues to it, mostly to do with the cast (Taylor Kitsch notwithstanding), and the overall pulp-irreverent feel of the thing. So many bad movies compound their mistakes by taking their source material over-seriously, while John Carter, and The Dark Tower like it, accepted the fundamental oddball nature of the story they were trying to tell, recognizing that epic fantasy has to be taken in its own terms, and doing just that. As such, while Dark Tower is no masterpiece, it's actually not a bad rendition of a legendarily un-filmable property. It's true that my native sympathy for actors like Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey probably slants my opinion somewhat, but then again the whole point of an exercise like this one is to identify actors and concepts you like, and then go see them.

And if nothing else, rest assured that at least this one's better than Maximum Overdrive.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  Robbing NASCAR, a Steven Soderbergh story.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Atomic Blonde

Alternate Title:  Sexy Iron Curtain
One sentence synopsis:  An MI6 super-spy is sent to 1989 Berlin to extract a Communist dissident with a list of undercover agents.

Things Havoc liked:   And so begins the John Wick ripoffs!

Well, actually, let's be honest. John Wick ripoffs have been a thing for a while now, pretty much since the original John Wick came out back in late 2014. Movies like The Accountant and The Equalizer have been gleefuly stealing a page from John Wick's handbook, to say nothing of the sequel itself, and frankly, I'm all for it. I once famously predicted that Action movies were "over", right before a whole slew of them came out and proved how wrong I was. Not all of this new wave of action films used John Wick as a model but a lot of them did, and why not? John Wick was a breath of fresh air in a stale genre, a move away from the ugly, grimy dictates of shaky-cam into a more stylized and cinematic style of action filmmaking. Not all of the movies made in this style have been any good (The Equalizer was largely a waste of time), but the style itself has earned my attention, and throwing one of the biggest female action stars of the day into one of them was the sort of thing destined to make my film schedule, particularly when the director of the affair is David Leitch, a former stuntman whose directorial debut, all the way back in 2014, was John Wick itself.

Atomic Blonde stars Charlize Theron, the most beautiful woman in the world, of Snow White and the Huntsman, Fast and Furious 8, and Mad Freaking Max (to name only her recent works). I was sold on this one from the word go, as a result, and as far as Theron is concerned, that was a wise decision. Theron is no stranger to action films, of course, nor to inflicting tremendous punishment on herself in order to make them work, and her credentials as an actress have never been in doubt (she won an Oscar for Monster, after all). Theron's character, a late-cold-war spy and ludicrously dangerous killer, is rather thin on detail, but Charlize has so much native charisma that she can take the "tough, monotone badass" interesting to watch despite the paucity of actual material. And she is ably assisted in this one by her supporting cast, including James McAvoy as a gallivanting British spymaster (and drunk), John Goodman as a CIA handler (doing his best avuncular semi-asshole routine), and everyone from legendary character actors James Faulkner, Toby Jones, and Til Schwieger to ubiquitous Algerian badass Sofia Boutella in supporting roles. I will be the first to admit that these guys don't always have a lot to work with, but they're an exalted group of cinematic veterans, and it's fun watching any of them doing anything at all, to be honest.

But John Wick and its imitators are not character-heavy dramas bursting with human interest, they are action movies, and the action in Atomic Blonde is what the movie has to stand on. We'll talk more about the action overall in a moment, but the quality of the work here is superb, by and large, hinging in particular around a showstopper of a long-take sequence in which our heroine has to battle six men inside a Berlin apartment building, a battle which lasts at least six minutes, and spills through corridors, stairwells, and into vacant apartments. Not only is the sequence a masterpiece of action filmmaking, something that should be beyond question with someone like Leich at the helm, but it is a masterpiece of how to shoot a female action lead, as with the exception of a few action movie suspension of disbelief staples (like the fact that anyone can keep fighting after having been thrown down a flight of stairs and struck in the face with a lead pipe), the movie showcases the myriad ways in which a 120-pound woman might well try to fight six men who are each twice her size and weight. The sequence begins with precise, brutal martial arts, and ends with two combatants so exhausted and beaten that they can barely stand, grabbing desperately at corkscrews and shards of crockery to try and stab one another's eyes out. It's marvelous.

Things Havoc disliked: The rest of the film is not.

John Wick for those who don't remember, was a seminal work of action filmmaking, but part of the reason for that was its laser focus on the action and the style. Its plot was so throwaway as to be a joke, a single invincible killing machine wreaking death and vengeance on his enemies for the slight of having stolen his car and killed his dog. Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, based as it is on an Antony Johnson graphic novel (unread by me), tries to be much more than just a grindhouse-style action fest, and in doing so, more or less screws the whole enterprise. Absent that one, stellar action sequence, the movie is almost entirely bereft of major action, instead concentrating on its plot, a labyrinthine, inchoate mess of espionage and double crosses that seems poorly thought out and barely coherent. Characters double and triple cross one another left and right, occasionally seeing through one another's intended double crosses, all without letting the audience actually know what is happening, with the result that most of the film, we spend in a complete fog as to what is happening and why it is doing so. Several times, I thought that one major character had been established as having betrayed and attempted to murder Charlize Theron, only for the characters to pretend that nothing had happened, until all of a sudden they ceased to do so for no discernible reason. This all wouldn't matter so much if Atomic Blonde were a typical action movie (the plots for which are usually thinly-veiled excuses for the action), but this film wants so desperately to be taken seriously as a spy thriller in the style of a John LeCarre novel that it spends most of its run-time laboriously running through the motions of backstabs and betrayals by characters we know nothing about in the background of a grey, grimy city. I'm not saying that all action movies have to be brainless, but the core tenets of LeCarre films like The Constant Gardiner or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are that spy work is not a matter of gun battles or action setpieces, but boring, mundane work performed by dumpy, middle-aged men with no particular combat aptitude. This sort of thing clashes dramatically with high-powered luxury-and-assassins style Bond escapades, created as it was to refute the mythos of the Super-spy as a dashing womanizer with high-tech gadgets and superb fighting skills. Trying to merge the two together creates nothing but a giant mess.

But fine, tone and plot are not what you go to see this movie for. Unfortunately, the film spends so much time on the tone and plot that there's not much room for anything else, not even for the action, which absent the one sequence referenced earlier, is pretty much a complete bust. A handful of brief and un-inventive action sequences, sprinkled throughout the plot as though keeping to a timetable, are all we have to look at between bouts of Charlize Theron wandering rather aimlessly through Berlin in search of this informant or that Macguffin. The filmmakers attempt to raise some interest by providing a lesbian subplot between Theron and Sofia Boutella, playing a young French spy caught up in the middle of this tangled web, but the sequence, for all its progressive credentials, seems entirely pointless, as though it was felt that if Bond has a sexy female spy to fall in with, then Theron must as well. Theron and Boutella share no real chemistry, an achievement of sorts given their respective pedigrees, and Boutella's character serves no purpose that I was able to discern in the movie at all. She's not the only one to suffer that fate. Indeed, it's probably not a co-incidence that Kurt Johnstad, writer of this gnarled mess, made his bones on the epochal 300, another graphic novel adaptation that had an exceptionally simple plot, preferring to focus the movie entirely on narrative and visual artistry. Making a similar choice might have saved this movie, but we shall never know.

Final thoughts:   Atomic Blonde is by no means an awful film, but it is a pretty lackluster one all told, not smart enough to be a proper spy thriller, and too obsessed with pretending it is smart enough to be anything else. I've got nothing against incoherent films if they have compensating virtues, but Atomic Blonde almost entirely lacks these, and the one good action sequence and the prospect of watching Theron parade around East Berlin in thigh-high boots is not enough to retain interest across the board. By the end of the movie, long after I had worked out who was probably going to wind up on whose side based on the time-honored ratio of screentime to billing rank (I have been going to the movies for a while now, folks), I was prepared to simply write this one off as another misfired action film with intellectual pretensions, and that position has not shifted in the days since I saw it.

Still, if all you want to do is watch a bunch of good actors play off one another for a couple hours, I suppose Atomic Blonde is a harmless diversion. For my money though, I'd suggest looking up the one great scene on Youtube, and finding something else to do with twelve dollars and two hours.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  A Steven King adaptation?  Be still my beating heart...

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Alternate Title:  We Shall Bore Them on the Beaches...
One sentence synopsis:  A soldier, a civilian sailor, and a fighter pilot, all participate in the Battle of Dunkirk.

Things Havoc liked:   Christopher Nolan is a bit of a polarizing figure. There are those who regard him as the visionary auteur of modern high-concept classics like Inception, Memento, and the Dark Knight, and believe him to be a genius of tremendous skill and craft. There are also those who regard him as the talentless hack director of incorrigible disasters like Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, and believe him to be a useless waste of cinema-space, incapable of producing a human element to go with his admittedly-pretty pictures. Strangely enough though, I find that very few people regard Christopher Nolan as I do, a director of considerable talents within a narrow range of filmmaking, whose high-concept balancing acts are not always buttressed by sufficient skill to actually pull them off, but who must, at least in some regard, be admired for the attempt. Perhaps there's no room in people's lives for gradations any longer, but I do like Nolan's work so long as he stays within his comfort zone, and given that Nolan's best films tend towards the clinical (Inception being basically two hours of exposition punctuated with explosions and Edith Piaf), I was interested in seeing what he might do with a classical, lavish war film. The cast is certainly no blemish, comprising reliable British fixtures like Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy, and even Michael Caine, and while I've not seen Nolan attempt a war film, I have seen him attain great success through ensemble casts in an intricate plot before. This seemed right up his alley, all told, and given the year that 2017 has shaped up to be, I was very much looking forward to this one.

Things Havoc disliked: So... let's get a few things straight.

I am aware of my reputation, as both a film critic and a historian, for getting a trifle... dogmatic when it comes to "historical" films like The Eagle, or The Flowers of War, or even Dallas Buyer's Club, and of flying off the handle into epochal rants concerning how a bad film has mutilated history, or how the critics of a good one are attempting to do so. With Dunkirk being such a historical film, I can appreciate the expectation that some of my readers have that such a rant, one way or the other, is soon to forthcome, and wish to allay those fears. For while I do have certain quibbles with the history portrayed in Nolan's Dunkirk, they are, for the most part, reasonably minor, and unimportant to the overall question of the film's quality, nor do I intend to stand upon soapboxes and direct fire and thunder at those who have misinterpreted the historical context of the film in making their own criticisms, as I so famously did to Roger Ebert's bafflingly ignorant assertion that Zhang Yimou was in the habit of whitewashing his own films. Cognizant as I am of the fact that most of my audience are not as obsessive about historical questions, I wish to assure readers that I shall not be using this time we have together to rant deliriously about history, real or imagined, within the context of this film.

I shall instead be ranting deliriously about everything else, because Dunkirk fucking SUCKS.

Yes, you heard me correctly, Dunkirk sucks, in fact it sucks with tremendous vigor and velocity, an ugly, tone-deaf, ineptly-produced calamity of a film that stands up to neither logical thought nor emotional judgment. It is all of Christopher Nolan's worst habits rolled into one and combined with new, fresh, entirely unexpected bad habits which he has manifested solely for the purpose of rendering this film an unwatchable, boring mess. The problem here is not that Nolan is an untalented filmmaker, nor that, as a war film, it is highly unconventional (Nolan himself has insisted that it is not a war film, but a "suspense" film). The problem is that whatever you choose to call it, it is one of the most boring movies imaginable, an achievement of some note given that the subject of the film is, theoretically at least, a battle involving hundreds of aircraft, thousands of ships, and hundreds of thousands of men. Except of course that Dunkirk is not about this battle nor the masses of men and machines that fought in it, but about a small handful of characters who do nothing but stare into the middle distance for a minor eternity while the soundtrack attempts to convince you to engage in trepanation by means of your soda straw.

God, where do I even start...

Dunkirk is a film built around three intertwining narratives, that of a soldier attempting to escape France and return to England, an elderly yachtsman called forth to save the British sailors so-trapped, and a fighter pilot engaging in combat over the Channel. All three of these narratives take place on different time-scales, the soldier's ordeal lasts a full week, the sailor's a single dodgy day, and the pilot's an excitement-filled hour. The film interweaves the various threads together in a tangled web, along the lines of better films like Cloud Atlas, but unlike these, the material for each storyline is unevenly applied. The soldiers must escape death some dozen different times, generally through repetitions of the formula "get on boat, boat sinks, get on other boat", something the movie does so many times that it begins to resemble outtakes from Waterworld. The pilots, however, have nothing whatsoever to do for most of the runtime, resulting in entire scenes where a pilot, caught between a dwindling fuel tank and a German bomber attacking a defenseless ship, will resolve their dilemma by looking at the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, before the movie mercifully cuts away to another storyline for a few minutes. Don't worry though, when we return to the pilot after several days have passed for the rest of the cast, he will be looking at the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge...

Seriously, the above sequence repeats itself five times.

But it's not just the macro-editing of the film that's the problem, it's everything. The score, made by legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, who has worked with Nolan on most of his best films and scored everything from Gladiator to The Lion King, is one of the most incompetent pieces of music I've ever experienced in or out of a theater. Not only is it entirely comprised of the same sort of atonal electro-music that Under the Skin tried to use to make whatever its point was, but it does not vary, either in "intensity" or tone, from the beginning of the film to the end of it. Action scenes, danger scenes, quiet scenes of soldiers staring out to sea, heroic scenes where the cavalry finally arrives, all of them are set to the same formless mass of abstract electronica, with the result that the film has no emotional depth, and scenes that are intended to be scary, claustrophobic, or suspenseful, fall completely flat tonally. Not that they wouldn't even without the score, as the film manages to take the massive scope of the Battle of Dunkirk and turn it into a cross between a Vincent Gallo film and a Calvin Klein ad. Hundreds of thousands of men fought in the Battle of Dunkirk. Thousands of ships and aircraft participated. Yet the entire film comprises perhaps five aircraft, half a dozen ships, and maybe a couple hundred extras at the most. This isn't some stylistic attempt to humanize the battle by restricting the perspective to that of a few men, this is the High School play version of Dunkirk. Tiny knots of huddled men stand dwarfed by the enormous, empty beaches that surround them, all while a couple of officers sit on a pier and wonder out loud if a ship might come for them today, or perhaps tomorrow. Once in a long while, a single German bomber will appear out of a clear, empty sky, and drop a single bomb, whereupon the several dozen men trapped in France will fling themselves to the ground in terror, before rising anew and resuming their long, lonely wait. I knew that I said I wasn't going to complain about the historicity of the events in the film, but if the movie is attempting to convince us that these events are small pieces of a much greater whole, it utterly and completely fails to do so. At one point, one of our heroes traverses the distance between the front lines of the German assault force and the beaches where he will spend the next eight or ten days in less than thirty seconds. I have literally fought paintball matches that took place in larger canvasses than this film conjures up for one of the greatest battles of the 20th century.

I could speak here of the actors, but they truly do get lost in the mess, whether it's people I adore, like Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy, or Mark Rylance, or people I've never seen before, such as the bulk of the faceless, characterless soldiers who stare into the distance in this film in the hopes that someone will remember to give them something to do. Hardy, one of my favorite actors working, spends the entire movie hidden behind an oxygen mask, speaking in monotones and staring at fuel gauges (then bombers, then fuel gauges...), while Branaugh has literally nothing to do except exposit information to the audience about the tremendous scale and epic scope of the raging battle taking place off-screen, which we are expected to take his word on, I suppose. The other soldiers meanwhile, so nondescript that I absolutely lost track of which one was our main character, do nothing except board ships, jump off said ships, sit on the beaches staring at the waves, and act stupidly, such as a sterling moment late in the film where desperate soldiers demand that one of their number jump overboard, so as to lighten a ship's load enough to make it off the beach, heedless of the fact that they are currently standing in four feet of water within the ship's hold, water which outweighs the lot of them by a factor of twenty or so.

And this is a film that critics are calling one of the greatest war movies ever made?!

Final thoughts:   Even by the standards of the disaster that was Interstellar, Dunkirk is a gruesome misfire, a truly awful film that, among other things, manages to do what even Red Tails did not, and render dogfights boring. I am well aware of Nolan's stated intention of making a non-war war film, a movie that was more suspense than action and one relying entirely on practical effects, but whatever his intentions, the resulting film is terrible on every level you measure it by, a bad war film, a bad suspense film, a bad historical film, and a very bad film in general. I am well aware that this review stands in stark contrast to the universal acclaim with which Dunkirk has been greeted, acclaim which utterly mystifies me, even when I try and put on my professional critics' hat and see the movie through the lens of people paid to tell you about how their taste is superior to yours. The film's incredibly short run-time (106 minutes for a film that, despite what Nolan wants to claim, was plainly intended at least in part as a war epic), subdivided into three awkwardly-assembled plot threads of uneven length, does not stop the final product from feeling about nine hours long, and if there's any artistic, or god help us, political point to be made in the decision to make the least warlike war film ever, I have completely failed to discover it, either during the viewing or in my research since. It is, in short, a dismal failure of a movie, certainly one of the worst that the otherwise strong cinema calendar of 2017 has offered us.

I've defended Christopher Nolan many times in conversation and in these reviews, pardoning his flaws as a filmmaker, his weak characters and basic emotions, because of his evident strengths of concept and plot. It was for this reason that I forgave him for the unreserved mess that was Interstellar, and for this reason that I was excited to see what he would do with a war film like Dunkirk. Having now discovered the answer to that mystery, I have to confess that, despite all the love I bear Nolan's Dark Knight series and Inception, I will be taking a very long, hard look at any work he does in the future before deciding that it's worth a gamble, as, no matter how often I go see films, no schedule is generous enough to make tolerating crap like this acceptable.

Dunkirk, in short, should be thrown unceremoniously into the sea.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Next Time:  Let the inevitable ripoffs of John Wick begin!

Victoria and Abdul

Alternate Title:   Most Unorthodox!                                                                                                     ...