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This looks like just another war scene, but it’s threaded with horror. That’s this movie in a nutshell.

I was pretty conflicted about Interstellar and I’m kind of conflicted about Christopher Nolan in general. I, to an extent, agree with most of the criticisms that dog his work. But I also think Inception is one of the best movies ever made, with his Batman movies being some of the most overrated. To say I had low expectations for Dunkirk would be disingenuous because I had no expectations for Dunkirk. Good or bad. I was curious because it was a wartime event that hadn’t been covered in a huge movie, at least as a focus piece (Atonement has Dunkirk-related scenes). I was also curious to see what Nolan would do with a war movie, since he’s been doing high concept genre stuff for almost his whole career. On some level, I suspected that Dunkirk was about the safest move Nolan could have made after Interstellar failed to light the world on fire. I was wrong about this being a safe movie, but my lack of expectation was rewarded by one of the most pleasant and arresting surprises I’ve had in a theater for a super long time.

“Pleasant” is not really a word that you’d associate with this movie except maybe in the way I just did, where I’m really talking more about the feeling of surprise. Dunkirk is not so much aggressive as it is relentless and that energy, an almost constant rising action toward a very rewarding climax, is mostly steeped in the emotional resonance of horror even as it is delivered with familiar tropes of the war genre (duty, courage, banding together, grandiose and personal heroism, and so on). So while this is definitely a war movie, it’s also the second best horror movie of 2017. It is intense and it’ll make you squirm in your seat. A lot. All this while being one of the least violent, but loudest, war movies since Saving Private Ryan changed the game. What helps is Nolan’s mostly unsentimental point of view. This movie is not full of the customary jingoism and sentimentality of the American war film (these elements are present sparingly, and are mostly earned), but nor is it political in the sense of having a clear message about “war” except perhaps that it is something you survive rather than win.

There have been criticisms that there’s no story or characters here, but I think it’s interesting that Nolan stripped down his usual reliance on plot, exposition, and high concepts. He has the most trouble with plot and theme across his work, and these things are less important in Dunkirk than is the craft of telling a story through moving pictures.  There’s very little dialogue, so character comes across subtly through facial expressions and the few important choices that are available to each person. Dunkirk has a small, intimate cast, and approaches the historical events with a clever and almost seamless editing conceit of showing events at different points as if they are happening all at the same time… until they are. Dunkirk is a tremendous movie, and one that deserves to be seen at the best theater you have access to.

KIND OF HARD TO SPOIL THIS MOVIE, BUT FAIR WARNING ANYWAY Read the rest of this entry »

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The cosmic imagery in this movie is as good and as grounded as any yet done.

Interstellar is a film I probably shouldn’t be reviewing yet. Being three hours long and a Nolan film, there’s a lot to unpack here. Maybe not as much as some had hoped, and certainly it doesn’t feel insurmountable now that I think on it, but definitely a lot all the same. People are already talking about how divisive and love-hate this movie is. I kind of get that. At the same time, I think it’s being overstated and collapsed into how much interest and baggage there is around Christopher Nolan himself. Interstellar is a very highly anticipated film and it’s difficult to imagine how it could have lived up to the general ephemera of expectation, let alone the more wary and critical attention of a person who goes into it with thoroughly managed expectations. In case it’s unclear, that’s me.

As mixed a bag (of mixed messages, haha!) as Interstellar is, it still deserves the utmost discussion and consideration. It’s the themes and execution of which that deserve all the attention and that, admirably, are causing most of the hullabaloo. Though Interstellar features more pure cinematic joy than most movies stacked on top of each other, meaning Nolan is really competing with himself and the ghost of Kubrick as always, it is also his least accomplished “original” (as in, not tied to Batman) film on various levels. There is a strange (narrative and technical) bumpiness to this movie that made me feel many times that I was watching something unpolished, something not fully bathed in the precise and cautious attention that made Inception Nolan’s singular masterpiece. Interstellar cannot hope to unseat Inception but when it’s on, it’s so fucking on that it’s uncomfortable to focus on the flaws and mixed messages that sort of undermine the full effect of the movie. But that’s how she goes, and a film that has interesting flaws is often just as interesting, if not more so, to review than one that goes off without a hitch or just falls flat on its face. However, it’s hard to stop thinking about how frustrating this movie’s mixed messages are once you’ve started down that path.

I will also say, before I really get into this, that my specific problems with Interstellar don’t really fall into the same overall lanes as most of the criticism I’ve been reading. If I had to sum it up I’d say this is a movie that falls short of the potential heights it frequently reaches. It’s a film where many sequences and moments transcend some of the nagging consistency issues that plague too much of it. It’s a film that ends somewhat disappointingly not because the message or manner are spoiled, but because the ending feels like it shies away from itself, afraid of being one of those misunderstood movies with an ending that overstays its welcome. And that really defines this movie. Interstellar is at odds with itself, frequently showing us something and then saying something else, bringing up ideas and themes and then abandoning them into a kind of half-explored stew.

But it’s still better than Prometheus. They should put that on the back of the bluray.

Spoilers aren’t impossible, they’re necessary.

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The power of flight means a lot to me.

Man of Steel is the movie that will do for Superman what Batman Begins did for Batman. This does not mean it’s perfect. Like with Batman Begins and due to their having the same writer, there are stretch-marks here and there that feel like the pangs of a mighty child whom suffered a difficult birth. Man of Steel is probably a much better film than Begins, however, if only because as a directorial effort it far surpasses the often clumsy Begins. The only reason I compare these movies is because it is the Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan’s that most directly informs the project. This ends up coming up more as a writing comparison, because of David Goyer, than anything else.

Zack Snyder is making movies at his peak right now and Man of Steel is the finest distillation of his tremendous, possibly unique strengths and sensibilities. He knows what kinds of things people want to see in a Superman movie and he was absolutely the right guy for this job. He understands instinctively how to shoot and score and direct in a way that keeps this movie both epic and grounded which seems to me like a very difficult balancing act. The purest joys of Man of Steel are derived from its cinema, not it’s story. For one thing, Man of Steel is a sensory slam dunk with constantly beautiful imagery accompanied by rousing, grandiose music. I said the same sort of things about Sucker Punch and probably about Watchmen but here is a creativity backed by serious resources and unhampered by the demands of adaptation or of authorial vision. Free from the responsibilities of writing the movie or slavish translating a beloved, singular story, Snyder is allowed to play in the sandbox like the visionary architect that he is.

All credit where it’s due, Goyer is consistently a writer whose work I struggle with liking. His pretentious, on the nose themes and speeches and indulgence in cheesy, pandering one-liners that induce cringes instead of the limp grins they’re going for. That said, Goyer frequently takes ideas and concepts from comics and makes them work on a very different kind of paper. He’s the guy who made Blade work (though he deep-sixed that franchise when he tried to direct it) and he’s likely who we have to thank for fucking ninjas in Begins and the best-written (let alone performed) Joker we’re ever likely to get. Man of Steel is not free from his irritating indulgences: they have been pared down making cringey shit few and far between but also resulting in that shit being even more noticeable and jarring than usual. I’ll get to specific examples later.

FROM THE DEPTHS OF SPACE COME SPOILERS. GO EASY, STAR-SAILOR. Read the rest of this entry »

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