Aquaman (2018)

2019 #55
James Wan | 143 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Aquaman

DC Comics have had a turbulent time of it on the big screen these past few years. After Zack Snyder’s Marmite Superman reboot Man of Steel they tried to get in on the Marvel-inspired “cinematic universe” boom with the unfairly-derided Batman v Superman and the behind-the-scenes mess that was Justice League, in between which the similarly “buggered about in post” Suicide Squad did them no favours. But they also attracted a lot of praise for Wonder Woman, mainly because it starred a female superhero (not unheard of, but a rarity on screen, and even rarer for a female superhero film to be good), and, earlier this year, Shazam! So maybe their fortunes are on the up again, especially as anticipation is high for both of their 2020 efforts, February’s Birds of Prey and June’s Wonder Woman 1984.

In amongst all of that, in pretty much every respect (release date, critical standing, etc), we have Aquaman. Like Wonder Woman, its tied to the Justice League attempt at launching a shared continuity between these films; but, also like Wonder Woman, it doesn’t seem to have been tarnished by that association, grossing over $1.1 billion at the box office (Justice League maxed out at just over $650 million). While something about it obviously clicked with the general audience, in some respects it’s as much of a Marmite film as Man of Steel — although, tonally, they could hardly be further apart.

For thems that don’t know, Aquaman is Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a half-human half-Atlantean chap, who was raised as the former by his lighthouse-keeper dad but has the underwater fish-communicating powers of the latter, which he uses to do superheroic things like rescuing submarines from pirates (those being modern high-tech pirates, natch). Arthur also has claim to the throne of Atlantis, but he doesn’t want it and there are plenty in the kingdom who would dispute it. But when the current king, Orm (Patrick Wilson), attempts to unite the undersea kingdoms to attack the world of men, his betrothed, Mera (Amber Heard), goes in search of Arthur, to convince him to return to his rightful place and blah de blah de blah.

Searching for something. An understanding of the plot, probably.

Yeah, the plotting is mostly sub-Game of Thrones fantasy gobbledegook, attached to an Indiana Jones-inspired quest plot that sends this sea-based superhero to the Saharan desert (in which he arrives to a rap-based cover of Toto’s Africa. I shit you not). That’s just one reason the film stretches out to a mind-boggling 143 minutes (aka almost two-and-a-half hours). It does feel like several movies stitched together; like someone couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to do “medieval fantasy but under the sea” or “a globetrotting Indiana Jones adventure”, so just did both at the same time.

Along the way, some of it is thoroughly cheesy — the dialogue, the outright fantasy-ness, the vibrant colour palette, the music choices (see above). It’s hard to know if it’s being deliberately cheesy, or if someone felt this stuff was a good idea in seriousness. Whether or not it works is a matter of personal taste, but at least it’s noticeably different from its po-faced label brethren or the slick factory-produced adventure-comedy tone of the Mouse House competition.

There’s an odd vein of ’80s-ness, too: some of the plot directions, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score, that aforementioned song choice again (whether you despise that song or find it kinda tackily amusing is perhaps a bellwether for your opinion of the film.) This feels like the kind of undersea adventure movie someone would’ve made in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Conan the Barbarian, if only they’d had the effects tech back then. Except, of course, by using all the CGI that current tech allows, it’s also very much a modern graphics-laden blockbuster. Those two eras, the 1980s and the 2010s, kind of butt up against each other — it’s not being outright an ’80s emulation like, say, Stranger Things; it’s more this weird influence that sometimes rears its head.

Imagine this in IMAX 3D. Just imagine.

That includes in some of the action scenes, which were shot on real sets with real actors (gasp!) Not all of them, naturally (there’s a mindbogglingly massive undersea battle involving thousands of soldiers and sea creatures), but those that were done for real are incredibly staged and shot — a running rooftop fight in Italy is beautifully done. The general imagery is often fantastic, too. Not always (sometimes it’s just fine; sometimes it’s too much), but there are incredible, impressive, comic-book-panel-on-screen shots here. So it’s a real shame that Warner have forced a choice between 3D or a shifting IMAX aspect ratio on Blu-ray. As regular readers know, I enjoy 3D and I love a shifting aspect ratio, so being forced to pick is upsetting. Marvel normally tick both those boxes by including the IMAX ratio only on their 3D releases — annoying for 2D-only IMAX fans, I know, but I’m well set. Warner have done the opposite, however, with the 2D releases including the IMAX ratio and the 3D remaining locked to 2.40:1. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement, because the 3D adds so much to the big sequences, but I can imagine the IMAX ratio shift would too — together, they’d be perfect, but Warner won’t let us have that. So, I did enjoy the film’s 3D a lot, but at some point I’m going to make time to watch it again in 2D for the ratio shifts. I’ll plump for it in 4K too because, considering that the film’s colours are already pretty vibrant in SDR, I bet they’d pop delightfully with HDR.

Setting format complaints aside, I had a lot of fun with Aquaman. The spectacle is so genuinely spectacular, and the humour and/or cheesiness is so don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-groan fun, and the overlong running time stuffed so full with so many different ideas, that I couldn’t help but find the whole heady mix downright entertaining.

4 out of 5

Aquaman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

2018 #47
Michael Bay | 155 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 + 2.35:1* | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: The Last Knight

Here we have the fifth Transformers film in 11 years from director Michael Bay. At this point you ought to know what you’re getting — the style hasn’t fundamentally changed since at least the third movie, arguably since the first, so if you dislike those then most probably there’s nothing for you here. I say “probably” because I’ve seen at least one review from someone who despised the fourth film but enjoyed this one, so clearly there’s always room for variability.

We’re dealing with variations on a theme, then, and The Last Knight brings a few fresh-to-the-franchise plot spins to add a different flavour and texture this time out. Firstly, a prologue tells us that Transformers were already in England about 1,600 years ago, when they fought alongside King Arthur and Merlin, the latter of whom didn’t wield magic but actually Autobot technology (and is played by Stanley Tucci, hamming it up something rotten). This relates to the present day because… well, I could explain it to you, but it gets fiddly and, frankly, if you care then you’ll find out when you watch it. But, basically, in present day America Transformers are hunted and Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is an outlaw helping hide some of them and rescue others. When a MacGuffin from Arthurian times attaches itself to him, he winds up on his way to England to meet Sir Anthony Hopkins, the last in a long order of… oh, yeah, I said I wasn’t going to explain it. Anyway, only Marky Mark and Clever English Totty (Laura Haddock, playing the kind of Oxford professor who dresses like a secretary in a porn film) can save the world. Who do they need to save the world from? Optimus Prime! Dun dun duuuun!

Now he's called Nemesis Prime, for no good reason

It’s all nonsense, of course, but then the inherent concept of Transformers never made any sense so what does it matter? Adding in Arthurian legend and making Optimus Prime a baddie doesn’t make it any dafter than it already was. And that’s only the half of it — there are more disparate story threads and subplots than a particularly complicated miniseries. Despite being shorter than the last movie, it’s still indulgently long — and needlessly so, too. There’s a ton of stuff that could be cut to streamline the plot, from individual shots and lines (the Arthurian prologue is probably twice as long as it needs to be) to whole characters (a street girl Cade basically adopts, Izabella, contributes nothing of major significance in the end). After about an hour, the story basically stops and starts again — that’s how long it takes to get to Sir Hopkins. Stuff from the first hour remains relevant, certainly, but I’m sure there were other ways to handle it. By getting through the first hour of the movie in half the time, for one thing. For another, don’t introduce major-seeming characters that you’re then just going to set aside and ignore for the next hour while you introduce whole new ones.

It’s remarkable how the Transformers movies can have way too much plot and not enough plot all at once. If you want to follow it you have to pay attention, not only because there’s a lot of mythology to take in, but also because Michael Bay chops it all up into bite-size chunks amongst frenetic action sequences. The film is cut like one long trailer — but that’s been Bay’s MO for a while, so, as I said at the start, no one should be surprised. It remains, in its own way, impressive. As I previously said in my review of Age of Extinction, it’s almost avant-garde: a tumble of images and sound that give you an impression of what’s occurring rather than straightforward traditional storytelling. And I say it’s impressive because it must be so much work to create — all the camera setups involved; events staged for a single, fleeting, couple-of-seconds shot; and then edited together with non-stop dynamism, rarely pausing for any notable period.

Non-stop Bayhem

And if you think that’s mad, wait until you see how Bay uses aspect ratios. Thanks to Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight blazing a trail, we’ve now had a fair few movies that use the IMAX format for select sequences, and emulate that on home media by allowing the aspect ratio to change — for laypeople, that’s when the black bars at the top and bottom disappear and the picture fills the screen. As I say, generally this is used for specific sequences, or occasionally for a particularly grand individual shot; and usually there are two ratios, approximately 2.40:1 (with the black bars) and approximately 1.78:1 (without). Bay uses… more than that. And he does so almost indiscriminately. They’re so all over the place that you can’t miss them. Like, there are standard shot-reverse-shot conversations between two characters, but each character has a different aspect ratio… and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, halfway through the scene one side will switch to another ratio! It just leaves you wondering why and how it ended up this way. What was the intention? What was the point? Well, that’s not a new question with Bay — he still uses five shots when one would do, so why not extend that same thinking to the film’s aspect ratio?

Despite the faffing around, much of it still looks impressive in a purely visceral sense. Like every modern tentpole, it cost a fortune to make ($217 million), but at least it looks like it did: there are so many grand sets and large-scale set pieces, much of it built or performed for real — not the giant robots, obviously, but there are car chases and human stunts and so forth that they did in real-life rather than in a computer. The money is splashed all over the screen, to the nth degree. Is that inherently a good thing? Eh. But it makes you wonder where some other $200m+ movies spend their money — especially when you consider that apparently production difficulties resulted in a lot of material being filmed but never making it into the final cut. How much? Well, supposedly a whole hour of footage was ditched from the original cut to get to the theatrical version. As I’ve already said, the film’s too long as it is, but it’s a shame there are no deleted scenes available because I’d be kind of fascinated to know what more was meant to be there, and to see how much money it looks like they wasted on it.

They really did hang Marky Mark out the side of a speeding vehicle, donchaknow

In what we did get to see, the size of the endeavour and the impressive quality of the imagery is emphasised by how it was filmed. A large proportion of the movie was shot in IMAX 3D (apparently 98%, but I’m certain there was more than three minutes in non-IMAX aspect ratios), and there are innumerable moments that benefit from the depth and scope of the format. Post-conversion has come a long way, but I’m not sure it can always equal doing it for real, especially on a format with the quality of IMAX. That said, the visual splendour didn’t strike me as much as it did in Age of Extinction. Perhaps that’s because, as Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker review, Bay’s “sense of speed works against his sense of scale and of detail. All the best moments in the movie — pure images, devoid of symbol and, for that matter, nearly empty of sense — go by too fast, are held too briefly, are developed too little.” There are some great shots in here, but the rapid editing just races past them. If you wanted to find and appreciate the shots fully, you’d have to damn near go through the whole thing frame by frame. I’m not sure they’re that good.

Although Bay and his directorial style always get a critical slating for these movies (more so than others he’s made in the same period — Pain & Gain and 13 Hours both attracted a reasonable amount of praise), they let him keep making them, and he keeps wanting to. The former makes sense: although you rarely find someone who admits to liking them, they keep making money (The Last Knight is the series’ lowest grosser worldwide, thanks to a particularly poor US showing, but it still took over $600m). As for the latter… no, I don’t know why he keeps coming back. Can you think of another blockbuster-level director who’s made five films in the same series? No one instantly comes to mind for me, and even those who are close (Lucas with Star Wars; Spielberg with Indiana Jones) did so over a long period of time with many films in between. I mean, if Bay wants to do it then why not — it’s his life and career — but I don’t quite understand it.

The three-headed robot dragon that I almost forgot

As I said nearly 1,500 words ago (I never imagined I’d have so much to say about this movie — and I haven’t even mentioned the three-headed robot dragon, or the C3PO-alike comic relief butler), everyone should know what they’re getting with the Transformers films by now. The Last Knight shares the same pros and cons as the other entries in the series, to one degree or another — by which I mean that, for instance, I found the plot a little more coherent than last time (though still totally barmy), but I wasn’t quite as bowled over by the visuals (which are at least half the point of these films, I feel). On balance, I’d say it’s one of the franchise’s better instalments.

3 out of 5

Transformers: The Last Knight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The listed ratio for The Last Knight is 1.90:1, because that’s the tallest, but its shifts into various other ratios are very obvious, as I discuss in the review. The three I’ve listed are the most obvious, but one of the trailers was shown to use eight slightly different ratios, so who knows how many there really are? ^

Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

2017 #90
Michael Bay | 165 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I thought I was done with Transformers movies. I watched Dark of the Moon back in 2014 and hated it — I gave it two stars and later couldn’t remember why I’d given it more than one. Fortunately that rounded out an initial trilogy, so when this fourth movie came out I didn’t feel I had to bother, especially when the reviews were even worse. When it made its debut on Sky Movies, rather than watch it I summarised other writers’ insightful/amusing commentary — though I acknowledged that “maybe one day I will cave and check out this renowned piece of cinematic excrement, because I am a completist and having seen three of the films I feel compelled to watch every new entry that turns up”.

Obviously, that day has come. The reason is 3D.

Regular readers will know I caved to imminently-obsolete technology back in April and bought a 3D-capable 4K TV (I wrote about it here). Long story short, the third and fourth Transformers movies were shot in 3D and are well-praised on the format. So after I rewatched the third in 3D and enjoyed it more than I remembered, the fourth called.

Here come the Transformers... again

On a purely technical level, Age of Extinction is a masterpiece. As well as 3D, significant chunks of the film were shot for IMAX, and the IMAX 3D stuff is incredible. Sometimes director Michael Bay uses it for just regular scenes, like Mark Wahlberg driving his truck or walking around an old theatre, and even those bits are a riot of depth and dimensionality. So when it opens out to show wide scenery, or for the action sequences… wow! And Bay chooses to use IMAX, like, all the time — as I said, for low-key regular stuff as well as the “epic” stuff you know it’s made for — so much so that it’s kinda weird they didn’t just shoot the whole movie in an expanded aspect ratio. (There are at least three aspect ratios used. I believe the fifth movie has five or more.) Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-ray, finding it odd when the screen suddenly fills up. Age of Extinction has the opposite effect, feeling odd when black bars appear to make it 2.40:1 for the odd shot here or there. Personally I love a shifting aspect ratio, but generally that’s because it’s the expansive IMAX stuff intruding now and then to impressive effect — when it does the opposite, it has a lessening effect.

And to round out my praise for the film’s technical merits, the sound design is positively thunderous. On a pure show-off level, this may well be the greatest Blu-ray I’ve ever seen.

As for the film itself…

Just normal people, standing around normally like normal people do

Age of Extinction is not really a movie for anyone interested in such trivial things as plot or character or internal logic. They certainly don’t concern Bay. He’s almost solely driven by the visual. It’s almost a different way of approaching the movie. If you can take it that way, I think it at least explains how some of its apparent missteps come about. For example: Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter is dating a 20-year-old fella — barely worthy of a raised eyebrow here in the UK, but a Shocking Thing in the US where the age of consent is (mostly) 18. But in Texas, where the film is set, they have this thing called the Romeo and Juliet law which, long story short, makes the relationship okay. Except the guy has this law printed on a card in his wallet. How skeevy is that?! I mean, why does he need it on him at all times in the form of a handy little card? What’s that for? But you see, here we are applying real-life logic. In BayWorld, having a little card with the law on it is a handy way to quickly dramatise the existence of said law and get it on screen. No, I agree, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense — as I said, if you think through the implications of why the character might possess this card, it makes the guy a massive creep — but the way Bay uses it in situ, I can kind of see what he was thinking. This kind of reasoning — of moviemaking driven more by visual thrust and expediency rather than plot coherence or character motivation — can be expanded to explain almost every plot hole, logic gap, or sudden time jump in the whole movie.

Elsewhere, It’s like someone set a challenge for how many explosions it’s possible to have in one movie. It’s just… mind-boggling. The film makes little sense as a story, or a series of events with cause and effect, or a paced action sequence with ebb and flow — it’s just a relentless assault of set pieces; things that would be a showcase stunt or effect in another movie just piled atop each other in a never-ending tumble of action. It’s, in its own strange way, impressive.

SPLOSIONS

It’s hard to describe the cumulative effect of these features, because the impact it has on the viewer is so rooted in the visual, the aural, the… not emotional, because there’s little feeling. The adrenal? As in adrenaline-generating. It makes no sense, and yet it makes its own sense. It’s almost avant-garde.

However, lest you think Bay is deliberately thinking everything out, just in a different way to the rest of us, there’s plenty of evidence that he isn’t. An obvious one is the film’s weird vein of anti-American-ism. Not overtly so, but it presents the CIA (and other US law enforcement) as corrupt and the government as incompetent because it can’t oversee them properly. This feels very odd from Bay, who’s usually so worshipful of the armed forces. Maybe he’s actually one of that weird breed of right-wingers who think it’s somehow most patriotic to hate the government and all of its institutions? Or maybe Bay is secretly left-wing — I mean, the entire ethos of Transformers is pro immigration and asylum. Or maybe he just doesn’t know what he is, or doesn’t see the inherent contradictions in what he’s putting on screen. Yeah, that version sounds about right.

It’s definitely way too long. In fact, it’s so long that when it finally finished I felt the same as if I’d just binge-watched an entire miniseries. Ironically, for a movie that doesn’t care about plot, there’s too much of it. Ironically, for a movie that uses visual shortcuts for expediency, it allows some scenes to run much longer than they need to. You could easily lose 30 to 45 minutes of this movie, either by ditching some of the plot or ditching some of the repetitive explosions; or, ideally, a bit of both.

It's a sword... that's also a gun!

Despite supposedly being a fresh start for the series, Age of Extinction spins out of the events of the last movie (it’s set five years later, with both Autobots and Decepticons persona non grata after the destructive Battle of Chicago), but doesn’t even mention Sam (Shia LaBeouf’s character) or any of the other films’ humans. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee don’t seem in the least bit bothered to have nothing to do with their former friends. Why? Who knows. Do we care? I guess not. Maybe it’s just that the Autobots, the film’s supposed heroes, are actually horrible, horrible people. Rather than good and kind and fighting for righteousness or something, their behaviour is frequently mean and cruel. A couple of them are desperate to give up on humanity (the only reason they don’t? “Optimus said we can’t”), while another kills an alien just because it looks ugly. That’s literally the only reason.

At least with the humans there are actually seeds of character arcs, and attempted developments and payoffs too — like Marky Mark and Stanley Tucci both being inventors and so sharing a commonality, or the rivalry between dad and boyfriend that eventually sorts itself out (and creates one of the film’s few genuinely good lines). But screenwriter Ehren Kruger still doesn’t really know how to do his job — or, if he does, Bay must’ve come along and torn it up to the point where it doesn’t matter — so while you’re left able to see the germs of an idea and the broad shape of how it should work, it still kinda doesn’t quite gel (unless you’re kind enough to fill in the blanks yourself). Tucci, incidentally, is great. Goodness knows what made him agree to do the movie, but he’s clearly having fun with it.

A robot knight riding a robot dinosaur, as you do

As a narrative movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction probably merits a two-out-of-five, at best. Approached purely as a demonstration of the visual splendour possible with IMAX 3D, it deserves full marks. As a sensory experience that combines both those things and everything else you get with a movie, it’s somewhere between the two.

3 out of 5

The fifth Transformers movie, The Last Knight, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday. I’ll be getting it in 3D, of course, and reviewing it at a later date.

Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • Money Monster (2016)
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – Big Screen Edition (2009)
  • Headshot (2016)


    Money Monster
    (2016)

    2017 #36
    Jodie Foster | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Money Monster

    Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of a silly financial advice TV show, produced by his mate Patty (Julia Roberts), who one day is taken hostage live on air by a guy (Jack O’Connell) who followed one of Gates’ tips and lost big.

    Director Jodie Foster’s topical thriller takes aim at both Wall Street finagling and satirising media consumption, but has bitten off more than it can chew. Some of its points are on target, they’re just so obvious it barely matters. At least it works quite effectively as a straightforward throwback-style thriller (it’s a bit ’90s), especially on a couple of occasions where it subverts expectations — like getting the hostage taker’s pregnant wife on the phone to talk him down, only she starts laying into him; or when the charming TV host pleads with the public to raise a company’s stock price in order to save his life, but the price goes down. That said, in the grand scheme of the movie these are quite minor niceties — the overall narrative goes exactly where you’d expect it to.

    Perhaps its greatest point comes at the end: the Wall Street guy is exposed as a total villain… and everyone just goes back to their lives. We all know these people do bad shit, but because everyone’s just kind of accepted it (and the people with power to perhaps do something about it are disinclined to attempt it, for $ whatever $ reason $), they’re allowed to just keep on going. You can shout about it all you want and however you want — by making a thriller movie with big-name stars, perhaps — but the best you can hope for is a shrugged “yeah, we know, it sucks”.

    3 out of 5

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
    Big Screen Edition

    (2009)

    Rewatchathon 2017 #19
    Michael Bay | 150 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen IMAX

    “Big Screen Edition”? This is the version of the second Transformers movie that was released theatrically on IMAX, and later made available on Blu-ray exclusively at Walmart in the US. Which is why I’m only watching it now, when I picked up a cheap second-hand copy. As well as including two big sequences at a more IMAX-esque ratio, it’s also extended — by 30 whole seconds!

    30 seconds isn’t much in the first, and even a die-hard fan would struggle to spot them because they’re frames-long additions here and there. The full details can be found here, should you care. The expanded aspect ratio of the the IMAX scenes are more noticeable. I love a changing aspect ratio, and these are effective at adding scale to the two sequences they’re used in — the midway forest battle that (spoilers!) results in Optimus’ temporary death, and part of the climactic battle. On the downside, two action scenes in a two-and-a-half-hour movie isn’t very much, really.

    As for the film itself, I don’t know if I enjoyed it more than the first time, because I gave it quite a kind review then, but I kind of liked it (enough) for what it is — a big, dumb spectacle. It’s still too long, poorly written (in part a victim of the writers’ strike), and has all kinds of awkward and uncomfortable bits. It’s not a good film, but it is a decent(-ish) movie.

    3 out of 5

    Headshot
    (2016)

    2017 #92
    Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian & English | 18

    Headshot

    The Raid’s Iko Uwais stars in this actioner as Ishmael, a man who washes ashore with amnesia thanks to a bullet wound in his head — so far, so Bourne. Bad people are out to get him, of course, and when they kidnap the kindly doctor who nursed him back to health (Chelsea Islan), Ishmael goes on a violent rampage to save her and uncover his past.

    Beginning with a focus on the sweet kind-of-love-story between Ishmael and the doctor, Headshot has a slightly different feel to your usual beat-em-up-athon at first, almost like an indie romance drama. That changes pretty sharpish, of course, and we’re thrown into an array of highly choreographed punch-ups. It’s pretty entertaining as that, with some inventive bits here and there, but nothing to challenge the pair of films Uwais is best known for.

    Put it this way: I enjoyed it while it was on, but I sold the Blu-ray on eBay the next day.

    3 out of 5

  • Dunkirk (2017)

    2017 #102
    Christopher Nolan | 106 mins | cinema | 2.20:1 | UK, USA, France & Netherlands / English | 12A / PG-13

    Dunkirk

    Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises. Memento. The Prestige. Interstellar. Inception. The Dark Knight. Of his previous nine feature films, Christopher Nolan has seven on the IMDb Top 250 (in descending order as listed). I’m sure Following and Insomnia have their advocates as well. Nonetheless, many reviews are hailing Dunkirk as his best film yet. Some are even say it’s his first genuine masterpiece. Some that this is the film where he finally lives up to those endless Kubrick comparisons.

    And some just harp on about how we have to see it in bloody IMAX, even though most of us can’t.

    Personally, coming out of it I felt pretty much the same way I have about every Christopher Nolan film bar The Dark Knight: it was very good, but was it great?

    We shall wait for them on the landing grounds

    I don’t know how well the Battle of Dunkirk is known outside British shores (a lot better after this film, I’d wager), but I think it has a kind of ‘national myth’ status here; the sort of thing the phrase “our finest hour” was invented for. In 1940, British and allied troops retreated from the Nazi advance across Europe, ending up with their backs to the sea on the beach at Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue from the British Navy. As their ships were plagued by German bombers and U-boats, eventually civilians were mobilised, with hundreds of fishermen and hobbyists sailing their tiny craft across the Channel to save as many as they could — in the end, over 330,000 troops. That’s ‘The Story’, anyway — I’m sure the truth is more nuanced. It’s also what provoked Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is probably even more famous.

    So why hasn’t Dunkirk been more widely depicted on screen before now? Well, it didn’t involve the Americans, so I imagine that’s a big part of it. Also, it was technically a defeat — not exactly uplifting fodder. And where do you lay your focus? To take D-Day as a counterpoint: sure, it was a massive operation involving multiple beaches and thousands of troops, but you pick a handful of men to follow and you’re depicting the general experience. With Dunkirk, you’ve got the men who made it on to boats, those left on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue, the sailors, the airforce… Or maybe I’m trying to make it sound more difficult to film than it actually is, and it all just comes back down to “the yanks weren’t there”.

    Wherever did they find sand for all those bags?

    But Christopher Nolan is allowed to basically do what he wants nowadays, and so Christopher Nolan is the one who’s finally made a film of Dunkirk. (I say “finally” — there have been others, a long time ago.) Despite it being the shortest film of his Hollywood career, Nolan gets round the perspective problem by making it an epic, driven by spectacular visuals and universal themes rather than a focused tale of just a character or two. In aid of this, it’s a three-pronged affair: in separate storylines we follow the soldiers on the beach and in the boats; a civilian craft on its way to rescue them; and a pilot providing air cover.

    To complicate matters, Nolan stages each of these stories at a different time period — respectively, one week, one day, and one hour before the film’s climax — but intercuts them all as if they were happening at once. At times, literally: rather than limit each storyline to whole scenes one by one, events in each (like, say, a boat sinking with the soldiers on it and the pilot in a dogfight) are intercut as if they’re occurring simultaneously. It’s… an unusual choice. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m not sure what its goal is, exactly. For the film as a whole, it works effectively, especially spotting background details in each story that then crop up again later when other storylines catch up to them.

    Background details

    I think the main effect Nolan was aiming for is intensity. Not of war, so much, but of survival. That this is a PG-13 war movie caused some to balk — how can you depict war nowadays without blood and gore? But this isn’t a war movie per se, it’s an escape movie. It’s not about the reality of someone getting their arm or head blown off, it’s about escaping a sinking ship, or running out of fuel, or keeping going when the odds are against you. Couple this with the aforementioned visual spectacle, and a thunderous sound mix, and Dunkirk is definitely an Experience.

    Indeed, for those without access to an IMAX — and, let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of viewers — the film’s sound is the main reason to see it in the cinema. It’s loud. I saw other people in my screening actually covering their ears at some points. That’s not just because my cinema had the volume too high (well, I don’t think it is), but I think it’s purposefully part of the effect. Of course, if you’ve got a decent sound system at home and are prepared to crank it up, maybe the Blu-ray will yet offer a similar experience. Certainly, in terms of the visuals, the disc release is likely to use the film’s IMAX Digital version, which features 80 minutes of 1.90:1 footage (vs. the constant 2.20:1 framing that you’ll see in most cinemas); and, if we’re lucky, they’ll include the IMAX footage in its full 1.43:1 ratio too (they did for Nolan’s Batmans, but not for Interstellar). It’s kind of ironic that this is a new-release film from a director hell bent on the sanctity of the theatrical experience (you probably saw his comments about Netflix earlier this week), where most of us will better see his intended visuals on a home video format than we will at the cinema.

    We shall wait for them on the beaches

    In trying to think how to sum up, I’ve come to the conclusion that early reviews have put too much weight on Dunkirk. I’m sat here pondering “is it Nolan’s best film?” or “is it the greatest war film ever made?”, rather than just “how was it as a film in itself?” On first blush, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by The Dark Knight, or even Inception, but in some respects it’s a more mature, maybe even more cinematic, movie than either of those. As for being the greatest war film, I can’t help but instantly think of Saving Private Ryan, whose opening scene remains the one to beat, but also follows through with the rest of its story; and if we expand our scope to allow cinematic TV series, can anything top Band of Brothers? But, as I said earlier, Dunkirk isn’t trying to out-war those war movies.

    So, setting aside questions of its place in film history, Dunkirk aims to be an intense experience about trying to survive events bigger than yourself. In that regard, it’s as successful as the evacuation itself.

    5 out of 5

    Dunkirk is in cinemas everywhere now. It’s also been released in IMAX, donchaknow.

    It placed 9th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

    2015 #15
    Brad Bird | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UAE & Czech Republic / English | 12 / PG-13

    Mission: Impossible - Ghost ProtocolWith Bond going “real world” and gadget-free in the Daniel Craig era, and the Bourne series having blazed a trail of “we shot it all handheld and shaky and grainy so it must be real” veracity, it seems the task of providing audiences with a contemporary version of the spy action, just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, and larger-than-life spectacle that the Bond movies specialised in during the ’60s and ’70s, has fallen upon the Mission: Impossible franchise. For my money, it’s taken the baton with aplomb.

    This fourth instalment finds Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) having to enact the titular protocol when IMF are blamed for a terrorist attack and disbanded. What that means is going it alone with a small team of loyal compatriots — newcomers Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who harbours a secret, and Jane (Paula Patton), who’s cowed by a failure in her previous mission, as well as returnee Benji (Simon Pegg), upgraded from office-bound tech-head in the last film to field agent tech-head here. They have to find the chap who did do the bad thing, and stop him from doing something even worse. Naturally that means trotting around the globe, engaging in adrenaline-pumping action sequences, and, the franchise’s speciality, performing vertigo-inducing stunts. For real, because, you know, Tom Cruise is crazy.

    Naturally, the latter is the film’s most memorable asset — there’s a reason the Burj Khalifa sequence, where Cruise scales the outside of the world’s tallest building using only some magic gripping gloves, was all over the trailers and the only image on most of the posters (apart from the one I’ve used…) There are several great action sequences, but that — and the chase through a sandstorm that follows soon after — are the best. SandstormySomewhat unfortunately for pacing, they come halfway through. The climax is a mano-a-mano fight in an automated car park. It’s good, but feels underwhelming by comparison, with Michael “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Nyqvist’s middle-aged businessman villain never feeling like a credible physical threat to Cruise’s action hero. (Someone like the other Mikael Blomkvist, on the other hand, would’ve worked.)

    This is a bit of a recurring theme with the Mission: Impossible films now, though. M:I-2 had numerous big sequences but ended with a knife fight on a beach, while the third one climaxed with a run around some houses. They worked in their own way — 2, in particular, because the rivalry between Hunt and the villain is so thoroughly built up throughout the film that their final face-off matters — but here the villain is underdeveloped, the threat he poses pitched as a broad “end of the world” type thing for most of the film rather than something specifically tied to one man, so the one-on-one showdown doesn’t feel earned.

    Elsewhere, the film works in a nice subversion of another of the series’ stock-in-trades — namely the insanely good masks, which were so vital to the plots of the last two films. Possibly realising their effectiveness couldn’t be topped, or just fancying a change, here a situation is engineered where they must go without. It also means Cruise and co stay on screen as their characters, rather than having another actor embody them for what turns out to be a tense, key sequence. Bonus.

    GadgetsThere’s a host of other gadgets to be going on with, though. It may be a side effect of having the writer-director of The Incredibles at the helm, but the stuff they’ve dreamt up here is pretty cool. Okay, the plausibility is dubious… but not everything has to be super-real, does it? Can’t we have some actiony spy fun? I think we can; and it can be done without needing to apply the excuse of “well, the film’s basically a comedy, isn’t it?” that other (enjoyable, in their own way) films of the past decade-ish have used. The tone is clear right from the pre-titles, which feature one of the film’s best gadgets (no spoilers!), so I think it sets out its stall early enough. You’re not going to think you’re watching a moderately strait-laced movie only for an invisible car to turn up halfway through, put it that way. If you’re not on-board after the opener… well, there are plenty of Bourne and Bourne-a-like films to go back to.

    Another aspect that may have been brought by the Pixar alum is a nice vein of humour. Most of it comes courtesy of Pegg, unsurprisingly, though Cruise’s ability to be light and amusing is one of his lesser-praised, but very able, qualities. It doesn’t undermine the action (as it does in some of the Moore Bonds, for instance) but adds welcome tonal variety.

    Not all of Brad Bird’s decisions are to my liking, though. Reportedly, 25 minutes of Ghost Protocol were shot on IMAX. That’s about 19% of the film. On Blu-ray, the amount of the film afforded a Dark Knight-style shifting-aspect-ratio IMAX treatment is a whopping 0%. This was on the orders of the director, but it’s a shame. No, IMAX footage on a TV is not the same as watching it in an IMAX theatre, but releases like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire have proven it can still have a strong impact. I bet the Burj bits in particular looked stunning, and it’s a shame we’re not allowed to enjoy them in a form closer to how they were shot. What are you up to? Just hanging outStill, that’s a fault of the home entertainment release, not the film itself. In all other respects, Bird’s work is first-rate. I like that the series consciously changes director with each new film to provide new ideas and voices, but if they were going to break the pattern then Bird would’ve been a good guy to allow back (certainly a superior pick than the third film’s J.J. Abrams, anyway, who was originally slated to tackle this sequel too).

    I’ve always been a fan of the Mission: Impossible series — indeed, the oft-derided second one is among my long list of favourite films — but Ghost Protocol I particularly enjoyed. After a third entry that sometimes bordered on becoming formulaic or rote (saved primarily by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain), this feels like a breath of fresh air. I was even tempted to go for a full 5 stars, but there are some bits that push the cheesiness too far (mainly the final poorly-green-screened scene), and the villain is underdeveloped. Ultimately these are minor complaints; fleeting niggles in a spy actioner of the highest calibre.

    4 out of 5

    The fifth impossible mission, subtitled Rogue Nation, is in cinemas tomorrow.

    Ghost Protocol placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

    The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

    2014 #15
    Francis Lawrence | 146 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Hunger Games: Catching FireJennifer Lawrence (who, depending on your mileage, is either “the most charming young movie star in, like, forever” or “actually kind of a little bit irritating”) returns as the totally-plausibly-named Katniss Everdeen in this super-successful follow-up to the super-successful kids’ young adult novel adaptation that’s kinda like the new Twilight only actually quite good.*

    Having struck a PR blow to the ruling elite by forcing their hand at the end of the previous Hunger Games, joint winners Katniss and Peeta (pronounced “Peter” (Josh Hutcherson)) are back home. But not for long, because in an attempt to reassert control it’s decided the forthcoming 75th Hunger Games will feature previous combatants — and Katniss and Peeta are their District’s only choice. Cue an almost-rehash of the first film, but with different burgeoning political undertones, and the added twist of the competitors all being previous winners. There are much bigger twists than that coming, though…

    Indeed, perhaps the most striking part of Catching Fire is its ending. That’s not to say the rest of the film isn’t entertaining — it really is, but it’s a variation on a theme; that theme being “the first one again”, even if this is arguably a superior version. The ending, however, suggests things are about to be launched off in a radically new direction, as well as casting a new light on the film we’ve just watched. These closing moments most literally remind me of The Matrix Reloaded: following a surprise world-changing development, our hero lies recuperating on a spaceship with new-found allies among the resistance, while outside in the rest of the world a final showdown brews…

    Katniss' backTonally, however, it’s more similar to The Empire Strikes Back** — indeed, the Star Wars comparison applies to both Hunger Games films and their relationship to each other: the first is the story of an unwitting small-town kid becoming a hero and landing a decisive blow against the evil ruling body in a standalone adventure; but our heroes have only won the battle, not the war, and the evil empire rolls on… Cue Film #2, in which we get a wider view of the world, the bad guys seek our heroes more directly, and everything comes to a head in a blatant “to be continued” cliffhanger that unavoidably draws us on to the next instalment.

    On The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson goes so far as to assert that, not only are they alike, but “Catching Fire’s ending is the most daring “to be continued” since Empire Strikes Back”. She argues that they are executed in a style which none of the multitudinous other cliffhanger-ending-ed films made since (including everything from Back to the Future to The Lord of the Rings) can claim to have achieved in quite the same way. To take her final sentences: “Most serial films end by spelling out exactly how the characters are headed into disaster, and in some cases, exactly what they plan to do about it. Empire and Catching Fire closes [sic] with a sense not just of something continuing, but potentially, even more thrillingly, of something new beginning.” Her whole piece is worth a read.

    The Emperor, or somethingOf course, to an extent the tone of this ending comes from it being an adaptation: the filmmakers haven’t looked at the history of movie cliffhangers and chosen which to emulate, but instead brought someone else’s ending to the screen. Adapting doesn’t mean you have to take the original work faithfully, mind — you could go the Game of Thrones route and rearrange exactly where one book ends and the next begins; or the James Bond / Jason Bourne route of doing just whatever the hell you want. I haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ original novels, but I get the impression the films are pretty faithful.

    Indeed, perhaps the real strength of Catching Fire being an adaptation of a novel is that it’s bedded in one author’s voice. My point being: it wasn’t written and constructed by committee, meaning we’re not subjected to the over-familiar beats of an action-adventure movie. There aren’t regularly-spaced action sequences of ever-increasing scale throughout, for instance — it’s not until halfway through that we end up in the arena, and up to that point it’s all story, the only action being ‘events’ rather than your traditional Action Sequence. This is no bad thing. If it’s adaptations of young adult novels that we need to save us from predictability, to deliver us a story rather than a thin excuse for the delivery of evenly-spaced action sequences, then so be it.

    When the Games do arrive, director Francis Lawrence makes the most of it: as Katniss finally rises into the arena, the aspect ratio subtly shifts from filmic 2.40:1 to IMAX-derived 1.78:1. It’s remarkable how much impact this has even on a TV screen; nothing like what it must have in a proper IMAX theatre, but striking nonetheless — it really feels like things have just gotten bigger, both in terms of events depicted and the cinematography, Not Stormtroopers, nopewhich seems richer, more detailed, despite no genuine increase in resolution. I guess it’s true what they say: if you start with a higher quality source, it filters all the way down. The “bigger screen” effect probably wouldn’t work for a film entirely shot on IMAX — it’d just fill your TV from the start — but, after an hour-or-so of black bars, it really feels like the screen has grown.

    Last year was one of mixed fortunes for the blockbuster, when films that one might deem well-received actually had an equal number of detractors; but Catching Fire stands apart as an engrossing, entertaining, intelligent and invigorating success. I guess it too must have its detractors, but I suspect not as many, and not as deservedly.

    5 out of 5

    The first Hunger Games is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. The next (and penultimate) instalment, Mockingjay: Part 1, is in UK cinemas from this Thursday, 20th November.


    * I’ve still not seen any of the Twilight films, but I remain confident that, when I do, I’m not going to like them. ^

    ** I’m certainly not the first person to notice this: Googling “Catching Fire Empire Strikes Back comparison” brings up about 66,000 results — it used to be more, and obviously it misses anyone who’s making the comparison without using the world “comparison”. ^