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You can watch my review of DUNKIRK on WATCH THIS

****

Back in April, Their Finest depicted the British Ministry of Information backing a feature film about the civilian nautical craft evacuation of Dunkirk during World War Two. Now, Warner Brothers has spent a hundred and fifty million bucks on the same subject, and Britain gets a very expensive bonus slice of inspirational propaganda. Reserved, dignified, proud and brave, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is nothing if not very, very British.

I have to admit, I didn’t know about the civilian-aided evacuation effort, and the fact that it features in two prominent films this year might say something about our need for everyday heroes. It was an extraordinary event and it is given extraordinary technical respect here; this is a film where superlatives concerning the technique can’t help but get a bit heady. Utilising practical effects – real planes and boats from the era, including some boats that actually took part in the actual evacuation – Nolan has made a heartfelt connection with the past. It must have been something to launch those nearly hundred-year old vessels on a recreation of their proudest day. It must have given Nolan goosebumps…

…which is more than I can say Dunkirk did for me. I was blown away by its technical audacity, and I’m also in thrall to its intricate screenplay, which not only tells the film’s central story from three perspectives, in three different time-frames, but also allows for multiple interpretations of the same events, allowing for the subjectivity of memory. I learned a lot and was maybe a little inspired. But I cannot say I was moved. The human beings in the film function much as the boats and planes do; they are pieces to be shifted around on Nolan’s magnificent (IMAX!) canvas rather than memorable individuals. There are two exceptions: Mark Rylance’s stoic pleasure-boat captain makes a dignified impression, and Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot is fully realised, despite the actor’s face being covered in a massive pilot’s mask.

For the rest, though, the grunt soldiers who actually bear the story’s spine – I found them interchangeable to the point that I didn’t actually realise that there are three young leads. They’re all “fresh faces” – their names are Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles (he of One Direction) – and they didn’t land an impression on me. For all I could really tell, what happened to each of them happened to a bunch of them – they were simply more and more of the 400,000 soldiers on the beach, rather than three we were meant to care about. Their anonymity gave them universality while undercutting their emotional weight.

The film is full peril, danger and death, but I can’t recall a single drop of blood. Unlike every big-budget war film since Saving Private Ryan, it doesn’t stylistically crib Saving Private Ryan. The carnage is portrayed less graphically and eschews the “bullet zip” and sped-up camera effect that  made Ryan’s scenes so devastating. It’s a little more old-school, a little more… British.

I appreciated the supreme virtuosity of the film, but I wasn’t really needing it in my life (except as an incredibly staged history lesson). While bravery is always a noble theme, nothing about Dunkirk speaks to the here and now. It’s timeless, classical filmmaking on a massive, modern scale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, daresay I, ‘tis nothing to be sneezed at.

A fun observation: Kenneth Branagh, as the highest-ranked officer on the beach, must have the tightest performance area of any actor in a big epic since the naval commanders on the bridge of Tora Tora Tora! Stationed at the end of the “mole”, Dunkirk’s long pier, Branagh occasionally takes a step over here, and, later… perhaps a step back. Cuppa tea, anyone?

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***1/2 (out of five)

Sofia Coppola’s new Beguiled, crediting both the 1966 novel and the 1971 screenplay as source material, is a surprisingly snappy and relentlessly atmospheric slice of “Southern Gothic”. Although Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gleefully fetishise the Spanish moss, southern live oak trees and glamorously decaying architectural features of their gorgeous south Louisiana plantation locations, Coppola and her editor, Sarah Flack, refuse to dwell on them. The melodramatic, sultry story takes precedence over the pretty pictures, marking what some will claim as a maturing of Coppola’s style (I will), while some may miss the lugubriousness of The Virgin Suicides, which is her closest film, aesthetically and thematically, to this one.

Top-billed Colin Farrell plays a wounded Union soldier who is sheltered within a grand girl’s seminary in Virginia. The small group of women living there claim it is Christian values keeping them from immediately handing him over to the Confederate soldiers – their soldiers – who are omnipresent nearby and who routinely check in on the women at the seminary gates. In reality, it is sexual desire. Farrell’s entrance into the house sets each and every one of their hearts and other parts aflutter, and as they individually make plays for his affection, so too he, as clever as he is handsome, plays them off against each other. Of course, this is southern gothic, and you don’t need to be Tennessee Williams to know what kind of trouble all this furtive flirting may lead to.

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The film is completely apolitical. Coppola has said as much in multiple interviews, and also freely discussed shooting Farrell with an unapologetically objectifying gaze. He does look too gorgeous for the given circumstances – his haircut, for one thing, is too sharp for a soldier’s shears – but thankfully he doesn’t have the modern Hollywood Male Body, which would have made him ludicrous (that said, his body looks fantastic, just not condom-full-of-walnuts). The film is also not particularly interested in history and certainly not the details of the war (the Louisiana locations, with their hanging moss, even defy the vegetation of Virginia). Really, the film is set in an American south during an American Civil War; it is abstracted, fairy-tale.

The plot and motivations are melodramatic and overcooked, deliberately and enjoyably. Each of four generations of actresses gets to have enormous fun straining their desire against their tight corsets: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Australia’s own Angourie Rice, who remains uncannily brilliant in her mid-teens. If anything, I would have liked to see all of them allowed perhaps ten percent more scenery to chew; because the film is so fast (it’s all done and dusted in 93 minutes) their motivations seem to be a step behind their actual actions. I actually suspect that a lot more was shot, with the intention of letting the film breathe and luxuriate in the style of The Virgin Suicides, and then a radical decision was made to accelerate everything in the editing suite. If true, that choice may have made for a few jarring moments, but has resulted in Coppola’s leanest, meanest film, and one that is less an objet d’art than a guilty pleasure.

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Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the 1971 version.

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You can watch my Baby Driver review via my Web TV show Watch This, on skipi.tv

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***1/2 (out of five)

Baby Driver starts with an outstanding car chase shot, edited, sound-designed and basically completely engineered around the song Bellbottoms (1994) by The John Spencer Blues Explosion. It is a thrilling sequence of pure cinema, exquisitely crafted and cool as f**k. Nothing in the film reaches those pre-credit heights again, and almost every scene that doesn’t have a car or a gun in it is cringe-worthy, but as an aesthetic rush and a fun romp it’s worth taking in at the best cinema you can. You want to see and hear this thing properly.

Edgar Wright, like Nicolas Wynding Refn and Ben Wheatley, is a European “star” director; their names are prominent on the poster and are considered marketable assets, often more than the actors. All three are directly and unashamedly influenced by Quentin Tarantino and, like Tarantino, more by other movies than by real life. Wright kicked off his motion picture career with the classic zombie parody Shaun Of The Dead (2004), achieved brilliance with Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and then had a big stumble with The World’s End. Shaun, Fuzz and End – known as “The Cornetto Trilogy” – are linked genre riffs, while Pilgrim is a legit comic adaptation and Baby Driver, like Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), is a legit “driver” movie, descended from Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver, about a getaway driver with nerves of steel and very few words.

Drive took its driver into the darkest possible territory, and Refn’s spin was graphic violence: The Driver meets Taxi Driver. Wright’s spin is pop music, and his film is bright, colourful and as eager to please as a fluffy puppy – The Driver meets The Blues Brothers. The gimmick is that our driver, actually named Baby (Ansel Elgort), due to tinnitus and a childhood traumatic event, can’t drive properly without listening to his groovy mixtapes, and has earphones (specifically connected to a range of retro iPods) constantly feeding his brain. This allows Wright to virtuosically stage the film’s five or so big set-pieces to music in a blatantly self-conscious way, incorporating slamming doors, gunfire and even lines of dialogue into the beat. The term “balletic” has been applied to gun-battles since John Woo’s work of the 1990s, but these action sequences are literally choreographed to the music, so that, essentially, they feel like dance numbers in a musical.

Elgort (who has a big young female audience from his role in The Fault In Our Stars) manages to hold the centre as Baby, although halfway through I imagined mid-90s Edward Norton in the part, and can’t get the perfection of that, impossible as it is, out of my head. Lily James plays a very sweet very adorable very innocent diner waitress who, of course, has no problem helping kill bad guys two days after meeting Baby. Kevin Spacey is surprisingly adorable as the Big Bad Boss, Jamie Foxx is menacing if often inaudible as the heist team’s most unstable element, and Eliza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, Lanny Joon and Flea (!) round out Spacey’s stable of thieves. But one performance stands apart, lifts the movie and gives us something more to enjoy than music and motors. John Hamm plays the most complicated and intriguing of the crims, and he’s fantastic. Like all the others, his character Buddy is an archetype, another spin on another trope, but Hamm gives him texture and depth. Amidst the chaos and the iPods, he makes you care.

 

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Brian in Chicken People.

**1/2 (out of five)

Hopefully, you’ve seen Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Best in Show (2000), about the lead up to the “Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show”. It follows diverse dog owners, played by Guest’s regular ensemble of impeccable improvisatory comedians, as they prepare, pamper, promote and ultimately present their pooches for judgement. It’s hysterically funny from start to finish, up there with Waiting For Guffman as Guest’s best and funniest work. In fact I daresay it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.

It’s also impossible not to be reminded of while watching Chicken People, which is an actual documentary about actual Americans (mostly from Ohio) who actually prepare, pamper, promote and present their actual chickens for shows held across the mid-western farm belt. The shows are  far less grandiose than those the Mayflower Kennel Club presents, but the passion of the participants is no less than that displayed by Guest’s wacky crew.

In particular, one of the new film’s subjects, Brian Caraker, will immediately evoke fond memories of one of the greatest of all characters in the entire Guestiverse, Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins), the flamboyant, outrageous, kind, warm, witty and suuuper gay TriBeCa dog groomer. Unlike Scott, Brian is pretty obviously not out of the closet, and may even be in denial of his extremely plain-to-see homosexuality. His descriptions of chickens, layered with unintended innuendo, are very funny, but his plight gives the film some unexpected depth; surrounded by an unprogressive culture, and with no plans to move out of it, Brian seems trapped in a part of the United States that may seem cute but is actually terribly sad. Ohio voted for Trump in the 2016 election, but we now know that Trump doesn’t give a chickenshit about any of these people we see on screen; the more innocent they seem, so the more tragic.

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Scott Donlan (John Michael Higgins, right) in Best In Show.

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*** (out of five)

Writer / director Kerem Sanga’s extremely modest high-school romance is chock-full of awkward moments, wrenching emotions, jealousies, painfully intense longings and savage betrayals. In other words, it really gets high-school and teenage love. In doing so, it stands apart from similar indie fare; the plot is fresh, non-formulaic and carries no narrative guarantees.

Anne (Dylan Gelula) is best friends with Mateo (Clifton Martinez). One afternoon she tells him she’s in love with a notable slugger on the softball team, Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), and her confession sends their relationship into stormy waters.

Gelula is quite brilliant as the tentative, often extremely awkward Anne, who is an academic powerhouse but a social dork; her fitful, at times terrified pursuit of the seemingly confident jockette Sasha can be fist-grippingly cringe-inducing, as it should be. Her emotions, feelings, energies, hormones, loyalties and needs are all over the place. She’s a mess, and feels real as hell.

Some of the behaviors on display are really quite intense, and while the film is hardly a thriller, it definitely has an edge missing from many a “cuter” coming-of-age and coming out in high school festival crowd-pleaser. The conflicts, prejudices and obstacles Anne faces are atypical of the genre because they come from within her small circle; her slack-jawed incredulity at her treatment will resonate powerfully with many. And the depiction of high school as a bureaucracy is wryly brilliant. The film touches on some really serious themes – including the issue of consent – and deals with them believably (which is something you can very rarely say about films set in high school). Overall, a quiet achiever with an enormous amount of integrity.

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Here’s my top ten as of 30th June 2017 (so, before I saw It Comes At Night, which would definitely have slipped in there, to the detriment of Ghost In The Shell). Enjoy! Your comments more than welcome.

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*** (out of five)

Spectacular – indeed, from the two leads, virtuosic – performances, assured production design, an intriguing true story and an undeniably fun milieu only just manage to win a tug-of-war with a formulaic script, pedestrian direction and a shamefully obvious score in Monsieur Chocolat (which was simply called Chocolat in its native France). It’s a super-mainstream crowd-pleaser that glitters amiably like a shallow lake in the sun.

Omar Sy (a global star since The Intouchables, 2011) plays Rafael Padilla, a former Cuban slave performing as a scary “cannibal” in a provincial circus in France in the early 1900s. When the circus’ clown Footit (James Thierrée) faces the axe for an act considered old-hat, the two join forces to create a new act, to great acclaim and success in Belle Époque Paris. But Padilla is plagued by demons, including gambling and pride (more on that in a second) and his behaviour seriously jeopardises his success.

Thierrée – grandson of Charlie Chaplin and great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill – is an established, trained and highly skilled Clown, and it is not surprising to see him perform extraordinary physical comedy of the period. The wonderful surprise is seeing Sy, a physically massive man, match him elegantly in the film’s many, many clowning scenes, which appear to have been filmed without any trickery (such as CGI or doubling). Who knew? I don’t know whether Sy has a background in clowning or whether he learned everything for the part, but he is absolutely believable (helped by the reality of the situation, which was that Footit was the established clown who taught Padilla – “Monsieur Chocolat” – the art of clowning).

The evocation of the period – especially of the two circuses we inhabit – is lovely, but the script is simplistic and blunt: you see what’s coming every step of the way. There is very little context given for the more general treatment of black people in France at the time, and, troublingly, the message of the film – perhaps unavoidably, given the source material – seems to be that the secret to success is to shut up and stay in your box. Padilla’s downfall is driven by a growing sense of dignity and pride in his blackness. By demanding to be taken seriously, he loses everything. For an aspirational movie about a somewhat forgotten black pioneer, that’s pretty disheartening.

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The actual Padilla and Footit.

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