DUNKIRK – Racing Against the Clock

 

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Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

From the opening shot of a group of young British soldiers walking through the streets of a battleground French town during World War II, Dunkirk ignites its time bomb narrative and makes you hold your breath for the duration of the film.

Nolan’s penchant for cutting between different points of action simultaneously and muddling our perception of time between events was first showcased in the tunnel sequence in The Dark Knight, repeated again in Inception’s final dream collapse, and now here in Dunkirk, it has finally been used to its fullest effect. The film structures itself in three intertwining parts: The Mole* (where the majority of stranded British soldiers remain), The Sea (where ships hope to carry them back home), and The Air (where British jets fight with the Luftwaffe).

Nolan even quickly spells out the background of the Dunkirk situation with title cards, where German forces had cornered British and French soldiers at The Mole and the British were waiting for ships to take them home and escape death at the hands of the Germans. Of course, the Luftwaffe was flying around trying to sink any naval rescue the British had in mind. Thus, the situation was dire and the clock was ticking as the Germans were closing in.

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

Adding to the technical innovations, the politics of the film, a topic which is almost impossible to not touch on in today’s climate, are in themselves unique in comparison to how Hollywood deals with war. Modeled more closely after Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line rather than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Nolan concentrates on time, survival and the impending fear of death rather than the blood-and-guts patriotism (there is no blood in this movie) most war films aim their eye on. Sure, the pride of Britain is on display especially in Mark Rylance’s character, who is fundamental about his duty to his countrymen, but even that is more often discussed in the film as a general act of “doing good” rather than a soapbox stance for national pride. He continually says he needs to save people, not necessarily Brits. The idea of the “nation” or “citizens” is actually missing from a lot of the movie. In fact, the Germans are identified only once or twice as the enemy. In this approach, the film posits that the bravery and will to fight on for these soldiers stems from the fear and desperation that compound with each minute. They are strictly fighting to live.

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Within the film’s race-against-time narrative, there are several microcosms of the same theme peppered throughout, where two young soldiers try to carry an injured man to the boat before it sails off, a pilot crash lands in the ocean trying to get out of his cockpit before it fills up with water, soldiers try to escape from the ship’s kitchen before being trapped and drowned. All of these moments are handled with efficiency by Nolan, who lays all of his cards on the table and replaces his often critiqued overwritten dialogue with well directed and nerve-wracking action sequences beautifully captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Part of me thinks Nolan used this as an opportunity to shut all the critics up about his inability to direct action as well as Michael Bay or Michael Mann.

Dunkirk is exhausting, and it hits you like a machine gun. Every moment runs at fast-forward and every cut jumps from one tense moment to the next gripping us in with an ambiguous sense of time that leaves us hanging in the balance at each second. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s deafening score which features a relentless ticking of a clock in your ear, Christopher Nolan embarks on a 106-minute sprint of directorial showmanship in what may not be his best, but at least at first watch, I can say is easily his most technically accomplished film.

 

Cinderella

CINDERELLA
Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015)

This is definitely a Kenneth Branagh film. Or, at least, it undoubtedly looks like one. The tradition of the Branagh literary period piece has sets, costumes, and atmospherics which swallow us whole and transport us straight into the time and place of the story. Every shot is an establishing shot, with actors are figures in a grand opera of lavish linens, and cathedral ceilings. Hairdos and makeup are perfectly researched and implemented for the particular time-period in which the characters live. One thing that you can be sure of when watching Cinderella is that its going to look absolutely spectacular as a live-action film.

What I ended up questioning throughout the entirety of the movie however, was whether there was really any purpose to this movie other than to take a beloved children’s Disney animation and let a showman like Branagh go wild with art direction. One of the major plus points the film has received over its run is the fact that it remains traditional in an era of Hollywood cinema that seeks to constantly update and revise past classics for a new generation which is too cool to look back at cinema history. A culture where we now consider the way movies were made in the 50’s or 60’s as passé and conservative. In that sense, I guess you have to give Branagh points because he is adamant about his classical Shakespearean roots and his passionate and detailed stitching and weaving of set-pieces akin to that of a Cecil B. DeMille or a Lucino Visconti. For those of us who sometimes long for the “the way they used to make ’em” kind of cinema, Cinderella gives us the closest thing to our hearts desire… but sadly, this is only in terms of production values.

What Kenneth Branagh completely forgot, was the fact that the meat of the film, its story, its characters, and its whimsy, gave us nothing new or improved from Disney’s original animated film. With live-action, there is always a subconscious need to be more realistic in dealing with the story’s fantasy. The talking and wise-cracking mice were dispensed of in the live-action version. An added backstory of Cinderella’s family, the death of her mother, and the leaving of her father after re-marrying were all added to give a familial context and a real-life emotional dilemma that we could connect with as humans. This came at a cost however, because it was rushed and compromised on any emotion in order to push the story along (this one is longer than the 1950 Cinderella, but it is much faster paced). Disney has usually done marvelously when dealing with emotionally wrenching family tragedies (let’s face it, we all cried during The Lion King), but Cinderella’s father’s death and her entrapment in her house with an evil stepmother didn’t feel like a tragedy, but rather, simply a plot point we had to get past. It seemed, throughout the duration of the film, that it was not only us who were swallowed whole by Branagh’s sets and decorations, but all emotion in the film got inhaled as well, leaving the characters with a rather cold set of dialogues with little to no feeling in them. We didn’t really get a new Cinderella or a new story here, just one which gave us a chance to see animation translated into live-action as closely as possible… a transition of purely technological advancement and not one of any personal depth. Aside from a few instances where Hollywood production values could be taken to their limits (the ball, the search for the mystery girl, the ending crowning ceremony), much of Cinderella maintains true to its source material but Disney’s 1950 original Cinderella was a classic that works as well today as it did back then because of its dramatic heft. It is an antique sculpture with some stains and dents of course, but still beautiful because of its history and influence. Branagh’s film ends up as not much more than a newly polished replica in a gift shop.