Untenable Tenet

tenet2Continuing my impromptu season of Christopher Nolan movies (after Inception the night before) I dared to give Tenet a re-watch. I shall now invert this post so that I can read it in December last year and thus reveal to my earlier self immediately that no, it really doesn’t make any more sense a second time (Claire bought me this 4K for Christmas, and instead of being the gift that keeps giving its rather the gift that keeps confusing).

I tried, God knows I tried. I even switched the subtitles on midway, having grown exhausted trying to decipher the at times unfathomable dialogue lost in the audio mix (is Nolan being deliberately obtuse?), but alas even when reading all the dialogue exposition the film doesn’t make any more sense than it did when I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. One of the characters early on tells another to “don’t think it, feel it” or something along those lines; perhaps its a message more intended towards the audience. Its telling that Nolan doesn’t even name his main character, literally he’s ‘The Protagonist’ and nothing more. A few times when watching this film I had to wonder, is the joke on us?

On the one hand, perhaps I should applaud Nolan for outdoing his confusing tinkering with Time in Dunkirk, Interstellar and Inception. On the other hand, perhaps I should berate him for appalling crimes against storytelling. Sometimes you can be just too clever for your own good. Nolan is clearly inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick, but Kubrick’s films, 2001, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, as obtuse as they may seem on first viewing, they ultimately have a sense of logic and make sense, even if it has to be explained to us.

Besides, I have the suspicion, in just the same way as Interstellar and Inception both tend to eventually slide into silly nonsense, that Tenet rather gets so wrapped up in twists of logic and Time-paradoxes that it rather cheats its own rules. I’m not sure Tenet plays fair with its audience. Maybe on some subsequent re-watch I’ll have some “Eureka!” moment but at the minute, I think Nolan’s playing a bit fast and loose here. I’m not certain Tenet ever makes coherent sense no matter how many times I’ll watch it. 

Which is frustrating, because the general premise is fascinating and worthy of a better movie, even if that premise (we are at war with the Future to prevent Armageddon), itself doesn’t make much sense (how does killing everyone on the planet in the here and now help the unborn Future?). I think a film with more traditional time travel would have worked much better- Nolan is trying to be too novel with his ‘inverted’ objects and characters, it is sophistication for sophistication’s sake. Its Skynet trying to confuse us to death.

I’m still trying to fathom how Kenneth Branagh’s Fitbit would trigger Armageddon whenever it suddenly can’t find a pulse, when said bomb in Russia seems to be on a countdown clock anyway. We’re just expected to accept all these info dumps of exposition and go along with it, just enjoy the spectacle and assume people cleverer than us can make sense of it all. 

At least it looks pretty: the 4K disc is quite gorgeous, particularly the many Imax sequences for which the aspect ratio opens up to fill the whole 16:9 screen. Detail and depth are breath-taking at times, the apparent depth of field making it look almost 3D. I just wish it made a bit more sense, or ANY sense, really. I’m afraid this is another example of Nolan finding a way of financing extraordinary set-pieces with his big fancy film-making Toybox. 

No wonder he was annoyed at the Warner slate going to HBO Max this year. What’s the point of a Nolan film (Imax, extraordinary set-pieces, imponderable audio etc) if it just ends up in someone’s lounge? Inverted messages from the Future please to the comments below…

 

A 4K Inception and the Old Soul problem

inc4kLast night I re-watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Yeah, another re-watch – I’ve so many discs in my collection that I haven’t watched/re-watched and are just sitting on the shelf, I think I’m coming to the point at which I finally have to put them to some use. That being said, it actually wasn’t my old Blu-ray that I watched this time around- I’d noticed the 4K release of Inception being reduced recently (its been in several offers over the past few months) and gave it a punt; yes the 4K format and double/triple-dipping really does seem to be the Devils work. So what finally got me around to watching the film again was it being the 4K edition, would I have ever re-watched that Blu-ray? 

Regards that 4K… well the HDR as usual proves to be the winner here, adding some considerable depth to the picture, but details etc didn’t seem a pronounced improvement on the Blu-ray, albeit I haven’t actually watched that disc in several years. A curious thing I have noticed is that sometimes 4K discs don’t immediately seem to be much of a difference, until I play the Blu-ray edition out of curiosity and suddenly the improvements become quite surprising (this 4K disc comes with the film and extras on two Blu-ray discs making my old copy absolutely irrelevant). I do like the new/revised cover art over the Blu-ray edition- the slipcase looks really nice (the revised artwork for some 4K releases of catalogue films often seem to improve on earlier editions).

Did I just extol the virtues of a slipcase?

As for Inception, I hadn’t seen the film in several years (it is so strange how time races by, and no that’s not some meta-commentary on Time in Nolan’s films). I was coming back to it assuming I’d remember it and follow it easily, but no, I was floundering for the first thirty minutes or so. I think that’s more to do with Nolan’s obtuse style of storytelling and audio design than any early signs of dementia on my part, at least I hope so. Part of Nolan’s appeal is the complicated, labyrinthine plots of his films; critics love Nolan’s ‘clever’ filmmaking, but its something which has become increasingly tiresome for me, so much so that I keep on wanting to re-watch Tenet if only to try work out what the fudge that thing is actually about: first time around, it made no sense at all, and I suspect I’ll feel the same after watching it again. Interstellar was more silly nonsense than anything profound (but it looks nice), and Dunkirk ruined what could have been a definitive and classic retelling of important British history with three storylines confusingly jumping around in time (but it looks nice). I have the growing suspicion that Nolan’s labyrinthine plotting is just a subterfuge to disguise how silly and empty they really are.

What all Nolan’s films actually do well is the technical side, the production aspects; what he puts up on screen is always impressive and at times jaw-dropping, but they also seem to get bogged down by that – the intellectual and technical aspects of making each project increasingly losing the narrative and characters. He particularly seems fascinated with Time; toying with it in all his films in often novel ways but also at odds with basic storytelling. 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably his favourite movie, he seems to aspire to that film in every film he makes.

I think Inception may remain his best film if only because it better balances his intellectual and technical strengths and validates their excess within its premise. In this case, the dream-worlds the characters go into better excuses all the sophisticated stunts, layers of time and plot-twists without it all distracting from the narrative and collapsing into confusion. God knows Inception confuses but at least there seems a valid reason for it, it feels naturally part of the film and not distracting.

Except really for the ‘Old Souls’ sequence and the whole subplot about Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to get back to his children. This is what largely breaks the film for me. Cobb reveals that he and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) experimented in ‘deep dives’; going deep into dreams where time passes by more slowly than in the real world- in this case, during an afternoon forty years would go by for them within their dream-world ‘paradise’ where they could be alone and grow old together. But at the same time, this would mean that they would spend forty years away from the same children that Cobb is so obsessed with returning to. I appreciate that, in reality only a few hours would pass, but intellectually and experience-wise, they would live forty years away from their children, family and loved ones. Now, two things spring to mind. First, nobody would ever do that, its selfish and crazy and ridiculous. Secondly, ‘living’ forty years would change someone, as you ‘aged’ in the dream world and time passed, you’d change as a person (and possibly lose your mind living in an essentially empty cage). Cobb didn’t need to plant an idea (an ‘Inception’) into Mal’s mind to drive her crazy about what is Reality, the experience would do that all by itself. At one point, I began to wonder if Cobb’s children were ever ‘real’, that maybe their existence was an Inception of its own, perhaps placed by Mal, but seeing memories of her on the beach with their children would seem to infer they were indeed real, and just make that whole deep dive/grow old together as silly and irresponsible as I stated before. Its an intriguing idea on the surface but like so many Nolan sub-plots that crowd his films, one that doesn’t hold up when examined.

Now, it would make a fascinating movie, just all of its own, to see the two characters spend forty years together and grow old and slowly ‘forget’ the real world (it would essentially become like a distant dream) and then when they woke see them suddenly having to re-adjust to Reality and being young again with their children not seen for forty years. There is, intellectually, a fascinating film in just that idea. Deep-dives into the dream-state essentially is a door to immortality, living tens, hundreds, thousands of years in the virtual worlds of constructed dreams. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking it; its hard to tell when considering Nolan’s films.

Some connections:

Christopher Nolan also directed Tenet and Interstellar.

Leonardo DiCarprio starred in The Revenant, (a sobering reminder that I bought it on 4K and haven’t watched the disc yet).

Stowaway (2021)

stowI’m not sure why exactly, but there was something of Michael Crichton about Stowaway, something about how the high-concept premise was grounded by realistic characters/scientists trying to survive a dangerous situation against mounting odds. The title says it all really: a three-man mission to Mars is scuppered by a fourth person being accidentally stowed onboard. Its a neat premise even though eminently unlikely- the kind of thing that might work for a thirty-minute Twilight Zone as a neat idea (thinking about it, wasn’t it the plotline of the 1960s Lost in Space?). Stretched to a full movie though its hard to suspend the element of nagging disbelief. Indeed it almost ruined the whole thing for me, as I kept on expecting some major revelation towards the end that would answer my doubts and questions. 

Just how does a launch platform engineer get trapped inside a space capsule bulkhead, without anyone realising he was missing, and then only retrieved from said bulkhead by unscrewing the panel trapping him inside like some kind of space age reversal of The Cask of Amontillado? It didn’t make any sense to me, and the characters plea of ignorance/amnesia too convenient to really convince, either. I maintained doubts and a hope that my questions would be answered, but they never were, so consequently it was a constant distraction that almost ruined the whole thing for me and left me frustrated at the end.

So I suppose one’s entire enjoyment of the film is predicated upon how easily one can accept its premise and lack of explanation. Certainly there is plenty to enjoy- the art direction is absolutely top-notch, its as convincing a setting as I can remember in recent space films (perhaps taking a nod or two from Ad Astra) and the characters are just as convincing too.  Ships commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) is an astronaut veteran of previous Mars missions, calmly reassuring and nudging her two crewmates, scientists Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim, who quietly steals the show). Both Kendrick and Kim are rather endearing and most importantly quite convincing as scientists trying to prove themselves and validate their research (possibly the Crichton element I referred to). Stowaway Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) is a prospective applicant for a later mission who seems to have inadvertently circumvented the application bit until its realised that having an additional consumer of ship consumables endangers everybody.

Its a dramatic film and really quite impressively made, technically- I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the science, as the MTS is set to revolving in order to maintain an artificial gravity reminiscent of how Christopher Nolan did it in Interstellar and then an extension rolls out like some kind of counter-balance and solar array but surely the centre of gravity was subsequently wrong (surely the MTS would continue to be the centre of gravity, but instead this shifts to the Solar array instead). I watched external visual effects shots of the ship on its journey and it just seemed at odds with what I’d seen earlier but never mind, maybe that’s just me missing something, or I saw it wrong, but this coupled with my nagging doubts about some guy being somehow sealed/screwed-in behind an important bulkhead panel left me troubled.

I suppose this film is the very definition of a flawed film, then. Maybe another viewing would alleviate my suspicion/disbelief, and likewise I had to wonder about how healthy a canister of oxygen would be having been blasted by deadly cosmic radiation, but that latter point is really the lesser of my concerns. When the central premise of  film, the crux of the whole drama, is predicated on something that just did not satisfy me at all, then I guess the film’s in some trouble. Either I missed a central piece of dialogue that answered everything or the film deliberately rushed past everything bluffing its way through (I suspect it was the latter). But its definitely well worth a watch, and no disaster.

Joker

Someday a rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets….Oh, wrong film.

Sorry, that was a cheap shot. Bad joke. Lets try again.

joker1As I write this, Joaquin Phoenix has last night won the Oscar for Best Actor, after last week winning the BAFTA for best leading actor, for his role as Arthur Fleck/Joker in Joker. That’s really some achievement for a comic book movie and a sign that either the film industry is taking such yarns seriously now, or that those yarns have taken over Hollywood regardless. Well, with 22 Marvel movies now (or 23? I’ve lost count, but I suppose it really depends on when you are reading this- it could be 30 or 40 someday), I suppose it was inevitable.

A long continuous chain. Then suddenly, there is a change. Ah, sorry, there I go again.

You know what really bugs me about Joker? Its that on the whole, its quite brilliant. Sure, it owes a lot – an awful lot- to other, better movies, and sure, one film in particular but that’s not really a problem (other than THAT films director really not thinking much positive of comic book movies), I mean, lots and LOTS of films owe a lot to other, older, better movies. The important thing is, Joker is intended to be a thing, a certain film, and it is that thing, it manages it. It is what it is. Its really quite brilliant; it has this philosophy, this heart of darkness thing that, love it or loathe it, separates it from everything else Warner/DC has done (except perhaps parts of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films., and on the whole, Joker does it better).

So last night I watched Joker on 4K UHD and it looked absolutely gorgeous. I doubt it looked quite that good at the cinema. Beautiful, gritty detail, lovely use of HDR that just exudes such a sense of depth to the image. Just fantastic image quality, with a great soundtrack, and to top it all, it turned out to be a pretty great movie. Not perfect by any means, but it really pretty much measured up to all that hype this thing has had since its cinema release last year. I really enjoyed it.

But what bugs me, is that they are going to ruin it. This thing turned out to be not only a pretty great movie, it turned out to be one that made lots of money -over $1 Billion in fact- and no studio can leave that alone. You’d have to be someone like Spielberg to have sufficient clout to block a E.T. Returns or a James Cameron to block bringing the Titanic back to the surface with a frozen Jack ready to thaw out.

I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard. Damn, sorry, couldn’t help it.

I hope we don’t get another one. Maybe one is really enough. Its a dark and empty film, a film for our times, where all the complex issues of our society can get narrowed down and simplified into soundbites and truth turned into fake news, and anything can be ‘right’ if the right person says it often enough. Joker is a monster, and I think that perhaps the film dangerously reaches a point where it forgets that, exults in sudden violence and murder in just the same way as Taxi Driver does, but that film had a point, a message, and proved a document of its time. If Joker proves a document of our time, well that’s pretty depressing, and that thought is enough to set me digging a deep hole I can hide myself in.

But yeah, I enjoyed it, it was pretty fine. Not many films can carry so many nods to a classic like Taxi Driver and get away with it.

joker2Sadly though, we’d have to be as crazy as Arthur Fleck to think that there’s not going to be a Joker2. They might call it Joker: Still Laughing, but that is probably the limit of the imagination involved when its really going to be about the money.  Whats to stop Warner smelling the money and making Joker into some kind of anti-hero? Sure, okay, a sequel might come out and it might be just as brilliant as the original, hell, it might be able to go somewhere new, but really, the odds are against it.

Shaking off the weary, darker Batman of Batman v Superman and Justice League, Warner is currently off making a brand-new rebooted Batman with Robert Pattinson playing a new, younger Batman with the Catwoman and a parade of villains like The Riddler and The Penguin and will somehow try to stop itself looking as silly as the Adam West show.  I hear they are shooting it in Glasgow or something. Gotham’s really going downhill.

Todd Phillips’ Joker is from some other alternate universe, it doesn’t fit in with that kind of Batman saga… mind, what kind of Batman with his cape and pointy ears could measure up to Joaquin Phoenix without being laughed (sorry) off screen?

One thing that Phillips got tellingly right in Joker is that they really are brothers. Two sides of one coin. Sure, the film wisely backtracked from breaking with established mythology regards parentage etc but fundamentally, it was right. Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne are two brothers on the same Stygian boat into Darkness. Imagine if Joker had been three hours long, and had gone on to examine Bruce Wayne after his parents deaths in the same way as it had Arthur’s fall into madness. They could have called it Joker and Batman. What a film that might have been, a deconstruction of that most famous comics mythology. Ends with Bruce Wayne becoming Batman and Joker getting out of Arkham Asylum. Fade Out. The End.

I got some bad ideas in my head. Hmm. Anyway, moving on… 

Interstellar Strikes Back

inter1In the spirit of all things Ad Astra, I’ve elected to embark on a rewatch of similar sci-fi films (maybe it would be more pertinent that I should get around to that 4K edition Apocalypse Now first, but I’m sure its time will come, having just given that sets Hearts of Darkness doc a rewatch yesterday). First on the list was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which gave the me the opportunity to watch it on a 4K UHD disc that I bought last year and never watched.

Well, as far as 4K goes, I couldn’t really tell much difference in the picture quality, other than some nice careful use of HDR (the Black Hole effects at the end really benefit)- what I did find improved was the sound, with a nausea-inducing low level on the bass that threatened the walls of my house. I don’t know if its the same track as the Blu-ray but goodness its a loud and energetic track.

This time around the film held a few surprises- I  discovered  that Timothée Chalamet, who is playing Paul in Denis Villenveuve’s Dune project, featured in Interstellar, playing the young Tom (son of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper). I really hadn’t realised I’d already seen him in something- turns out Hollywood really is a small world. Speaking of which, David Gyasi, who played scientist Romily on the mission through the Wormhole, was featured in Carnival Row that I watched a few days back- he played Agreus, a Puck and therefore a performance under considerable make-up (one of the most noteworthy roles in the series, I thought). Of course the film also stars Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, who will both turn up in the next film on my list; The Martian.  So yes, small world indeed. I won’t mention that McConaughey also featured in that ‘movie’ I saw the other night because, well, we’re all pretending I didn’t see it.

While I did enjoy rewatching Interstellar, it remains a difficult film to really connect with- something I find true of many of Christopher Nolan’s films. They always seem detached, films of soulless characters in admittedly astonishing situations. Something like Interstellar, I should probably love, but I don’t, and I think that as its true of all his films, that’s down to Nolan’s style.

inter2What Interstellar undoubtedly is, is a fantastic audio-visual experience. Its use of music is pretty extraordinary, abetted by a brilliant Hans Zimmer score which dominates the film more than anything else in the picture. I think its Zimmer’s second-best score of his career (Thin Red Line having the number one spot, naturally), and it works so well in the film it never fails to ‘wow’ me. Of course much of its success is in the editing of the film, as it really seems to be edited to the score, rather than the other way around, and it really is a huge part of the film’s success.

The usual things still bugged me however. Nobody builds rocket engines alongside a conference room. I can never see those doors/wall slide open to reveal the silo next to them (that conference room must have extraordinary soundproofing) without a groan and I’ll never understand that thing of the NASA complex actually being clandestinely built to be spaceship. For a film that purports to be a serious science fiction film with real science etc, I’ve never been at ease with some of its ‘leaps of faith’ that would rankle Kubrick and Clarke no end.

That being said, I think I’ve made my piece with Gargantua and the bookcase. Its clear to me now that the wormhole wasn’t put next to Saturn, and set for Gargantua, in order for humanity to find a world to live there. Those worlds in orbit/proximity to the Black Hole were never candidates for human colonisation. That was an assumption by the NASA boffins and quite wrong- I’m sure humanity actually uses Murph’s gravity equation to travel to different worlds entirely. No, the wormhole was set for Gargantua simply because Cooper had to fall into the Black Hole and transmit the gravity equation data to Murph so that she could realise the technology to save humanity. It was all orchestrated by the ‘Future Humans’ in a kind of cosmic time paradox. It always bugged me that the last place to settle a human colony would be anywhere near a Black Hole, and rewatching it again I kind of realised that was never the case, whatever the NASA boys thought – in a nice Time Paradox kind of way, Matt Damon’s Space Madness-infected (hey, say hello Ad Astra!) Mann had to behave the way he did in order for Cooper to ‘sacrifice’ himself. So finding habitable worlds near that Black Hole was a fool’s errand rather than the film being stupid.

And I still think a whole film set on that dying Earth would be a splendid thing. Some of the best stuff in the whole film is in that sequence, including things like history being rewritten to show the Apollo landings were a hoax. I love that stuff, and there’s a whole great film in there- I’d love to know whats happening in the rest of the world.

 

4K Premium?

I’m not on the 4K bandwagon yet, but I’ve been noticing some really eye-watering prices for some 4K discs that would make OOP steel books blush. £25 for the recent Dunkirk is bad enough but some other Nolan films are near double that (£45 for Inception).  Are they limited editions or is pressing restricted in the short term? Just wondering. I doubt 4K will ever take off with pricing like that- even £25 seems a bad reminder of the old video disc days when us plebs were stuck with VHS. Is there a conspiracy afoot to push people to streaming and do away with physical discs?  Hardly seems as if the studios are pushing 4K with any energy at all with pricing woes like that.

Superhero movies ain’t easy

supGood superhero movies don’t come easy, it’s hard, really hard, no matter how effortless Marvel makes it look sometimes- in any case, not every Marvel film has been great (although they are always at least ‘good’). But making a superhero movie, and making it good, is supremely difficult. Just look at Justice league. To be fair to DC, there’s all sorts of superhero capers over the decades that have been pretty terrible. Superhero movies ain’t easy.

Inherently, one has to consider that the idea of superhero movies is ridiculous. They are children’s comics that we should all grow out of, wishful power fantasies in universes that are moral playgrounds of plain good and evil, hardly any shades of grey in the four-colour worlds they depict. I am certain that most adults who love superhero films would never dream of ever reading comics, thinking them silly and beneath them.

The fundamental issue for any film is showing a grown adult dressed as a bat without it looking as silly as the Adam West show, a series which at least nailed the absurdity of superhero comics. Someone comes at you dressed as Batman to accost you for littering? You’d either run a mile or call the police. Superheroes transferred to the real-world inherently look like clowns.

spidrBeyond the silly costumes, the superpowers themselves are crazy. When you really think about them, they are plain nuts, no matter how realistically the films portray them. How does someone fly? How does that work? How does someone cling to walls? How does someone shrink to the size of an ant and yet maintain his original mass without falling through the floor? The Flash whizzes around grabbing people stationary and pulls them to safety- if you were standing still and were hit/picked up by someone travelling 1,000 mph, it’d hurt- if he took took you instantly from stationary to 1,000 mph to move you to safety, your brain would be mush, your bones smashed. So some superpowers are more realistic than others, some superheroes easier to translate and suspend disbelief in than others.

I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s Watchmen. I think it was impressively faithful to the original, and most issues with the film are simply that- issues with the original. It’s a dark film with superheroes in the real-world (or at least, a real-world alternate 1980s America), because that’s what the original was- a critique of superhero comics about people who dress up as a bat and asking the question what would it be like to have a superman in the real world? Unfortunately Snyder missed the point regards Watchmen‘s uniqueness and has been asking that same question in all his subsequent movies.

I don’t blame Snyder entirely. Christopher Nolan, coming of his Batman trilogy, was a producer on Man of Steel and his real-world angle from his trilogy constantly impresses on Man of Steel. I’ve no idea how much of this was the studio trying to catch the zeitgeist of Nolan’s trilogy, or Nolan trying to lend the approach to our fave Kryptonian, or if it was just Snyder continuing his approach from Watchmen. But real-world costumed heroes doesn’t always translate across the medium- Marvel may lend some real-world angles to their movies but it’s all superficial, it’s clear their films are not in our world, they are comics brought vividly to life but it’s not Watchmen-style agonising about fitting Captain America in our world or how he impacts on America. It’s a world close to ours, but it isn’t ours. It’s Marvel-world.

Whereas Snyder always seems focused on the DC heroes being in our world, a sense of gritty reality that is constantly at odds with the subject-matter. DC films lose the joy of the Marvel films. It’s fine if you are making Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (although I’d argue the third film was a crushing disappointment that imploded the trilogy, unable to sustain that real-world/comic mythology balance) but if you’re making a Superman movie like a variant of Watchmen you are entirely missing the point. Worse still, this approach infects every subsequent outing. BvS has some kind of God-complex towards Superman, a grimly semi-religious tone that its Batman bristles at and questions/refutes. Our real-world doubts regards the role of America in the modern world, its values and ethics, our doubts and distrust in our leaders, it all infects the modern Superman, who in 1978 represented “truth, justice, the American Way,” an ideal that no longer seems valid. It’s quite daring really as an intellectual exercise, but it’s also very Watchmen.  In anycase, devoid of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ source pages, Snyder seems lost trying to pull it off. It’s also telling that for all its real-world agonising, Watchmen doesn’t take place in our real world, it’s that 1980s alternate-reality.  Snyder’s trying to manage something even Alan Moore wouldn’t dare, a rabbit-hole even he wouldn’t risk plunging into.

A rabbit-hole, unfortunately, that DC has jumped into and are trying desperately to climb out of.

Life’s A Beach

dunkirk2017.36: Dunkirk (2017)

My long-standing opinion of Christopher Nolan is that he is very similar to Stanley Kubrick, in that he is very technically adept with the logistics and craft of film-making, but doesn’t really have the skills to facilitate the dramatic aspects. His films are cold and clinical, more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Further to this, I must make the point that on this intellectual level, Nolan’s films are inferior to Kubrick’s if only because Nolan doesn’t make such interesting films as Kubrick did.  Nolan’s space epic Interstellar is vastly inferior to Kubrick’s 2001, for instance.

This opinion is in no way revised following watching Dunkirk, a film clearly impressive as a work of logistics and craft but as lacking in emotional content (despite the endless hysterics of Hans Zimmer’s noisy score) as anything Nolan has done. It is a very good film and one easy to admire- the sound design is quite extraordinary and many of the visuals highly impressive, but as with most (if not all) of Nolan’s films, I have to question any emotional involvement with any of the characters, any sense of really knowing anybody. The characters seem to be pieces on a chess board moved with clinical precision without really knowing how or why they are there- their mindset or purpose or what makes them tick utterly unknown, almost as if they were the monoliths of Kubrick’s 2001.

Which is not to suggest that Dunkirk is a bad film. It is just that there is a hollowness in Nolan’s films that I find personally frustrating that precludes his films ever really achieving the greatness that so many critics seem so keen to label them with. Of course comparing Nolan’s films with blockbuster fodder such as the  Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, they are practically high art and deserve all the accolades they get, but films can be more. I do worry that such inevitable comparisons elevate Nolan’s work to a stature they don’t truly deserve, for we are where we are in film entertainment and we truly do lack the serious film-making talent of people like Kubrick.

dunkirk2When I watched Dunkirk at my local Cineworld, there was an advert for films in Imax and 4D and 3D, as if all audiences are after is sensory overload and the thrill of the new, whether it be cgi spectacle or the actual methodology of viewing, etc, as opposed to quality drama or acting. It matters if your seat shakes, it seems, or the sound is all around you or if the image is huge or reaches ‘out’ to you in 3D, more than if the film is well-written and directed with skill and dramatic flair or acted well. In some ways Dunkirk is symptomatic of this trend. It is very loud and visually impressive with plenty of ‘wow’ moments and the soundtrack relentlessly hammers at you as Zimmer tends to at his worst (more sound effects design than scoring, here) but does it really involve on a deep level? Do we ever really get to ‘know’ these characters or what makes them tick, really care whether they live or die? Dunkirk portrays an event but what does it say to us about that event?

So Dunkirk is ultimately a frustrating experience, at least for me. Yes I could well praise its editorial conceit of telling three seperate stories over three time-periods that interact with each other at particular moments of the film, or note Nolan’s evident fascination with such plays with time in several of his films. But beyond its success on an intellectual level, does it ever really facilitate any more emotional involvement than a simple chronological telling might have managed? Early on I was distracted by continuity errors in lighting and time of day until I realised what Nolan was doing with his three timelines/stories. No doubt it’s a tricky feat what he was pulling off and many critics adore Nolan for that kind of stuff but I have to wonder what his films gain with it.

So anyway, Dunkirk is a good film but I hesitate to heap the praise upon it that others seem to be rushing to. Maybe I’m missing something. I am sure this film will be very successful at the box office and many will simply adore it. But I fear that there is a trend in film these days to elevate the technologies of film-making over the decades-old basics of good storytelling. Maybe Kubrick would have loved these new tools and made films inferior to Nolans, I don’t know. I just have to wonder what are we losing with everything we gain?

And yes, I hope that Nolan finally really achieves greatness with his films when he realises the skill of empathy and emotional content as much as his skill with logistics. To be fair, that’s a film I really want to see., and I dearly hope to see it. Someday. Dunkirk just isn’t it.

Man in a Bookcase

inter2Interstellar (Blu-ray)

Last night I re-watched Interstellar. I was just in the mood. (Its great, isn’t it, those times when your mood just gets linked to watching a particular film, as if that’s the only film that will really do at that particular moment. Somehow, if everything is just right, it all clicks and its a great few hours, but really its a mystery why certain films equal certain moods at certain moments. If you could quantify that, reason it out, you’d likely enjoy more movies by watching them at just the right time).

So anyway, Interstellar. Yeah, I really quite enjoyed it. Its as daft as it ever was, as exciting and interesting and frankly as infuriating as it ever was. Distanced from all the hype and madness that surrounded it when it first came out, its easier to appreciate what it got right, as well as forgive (or put up with) what it got wrong.

One observation in the films defence. Watching it this time, its clear to me that it wasn’t really about finding another world to live on. The NASA scientists saw a wormhole appear and reasoned that it was an escape route gifted them from aliens. But it wasn’t. It was really a route to Gargantua, the black hole and its Event Horizon and its revelations about gravity that would, once the data is sent back home,  propel humanity from extinction, in just the same way as the Monolith teaching the man-ape to use the bone as a killing tool moved humanity forwards in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The NASA guys sending astronauts to those 11 or 12 planets was them missing the point entirely. Those worlds were never fit for human habitation/global exodus. I mean, so close to a Black Hole? It just seemed stupid to me back when the film came out and it clearly still is, but I rather think the film knows that too. It just gets itself in a funk trying to reason it out when its really just a method for getting drama (gigantic tides! Matt Damon suffering from Space Madness!) into it.

inter1But really, the central premise of the film. How on Earth would you move a global population to a New World? At least in When Worlds Collide they had the honesty to depict an ark in which a relative few could escape Armageddon and take flight to a new world. Interstellar seems to make it its business to save everybody. To paraphrase Clint, Every Movie Should Know Its Limitations.

The film does take more than its fair share of liberties though. Just how many spaceships have they built in orbit and sent out through the Wormhole to investigate those possible New Worlds? How did they do all that in secret? How much would that all cost? How would you resource it in an (apparently) collapsed economy on the verge of mass starvation?  And just a bunch of Americans at that? At the very least you’d think it would be a global exercise- indeed on the evidence of current capacity for spaceflight you’d expect it be built by the Chinese leaving the Americans behind entirely.Good luck embarking on a New World without the good old USA, eh? I know, I know, I know-  Its Only A Movie, as John Brosnan would say.

(There’s a rather sad thought- I wonder what John Brosnan would have thought of something like Interstellar? Its a sobering reminder that there will be great films made long after I myself am gone, that I will never see. There ain’t no justice).

So back to those NASA guys thinking they have to find an inhabitable planet in that star system across the Wormhole (and the films misdirection of that). Its rather clever in a way, if its really intentional.  A slight of hand worthy of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. The guy travels to another galaxy and winds up in his bookcase back home. It really is that preposterous. But its all intended to be that way, its that exploring of other worlds on the way that is misguided. But I guess that’s how you fabricate a dramatic/exciting space movie if your name isn’t Stanley Kubrick. Imagine if Interstellar had been as dry and direct and logical as 2001: A Space Odyssey, literally just dealing with going through the Wormhole and doing serious science with Gargantua, and getting that data back to Earth via a Bookcase. Talk about the Ultimate Trip.

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The Problem With Superman

Curious having seen Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I rewatched Man of Steel.

Confused as BvS may be, I think it’s actually a better film than MoS. Rewatching it again, I have to say MoS is actually worse than I remembered. It’s such a mess of a film, and a lot of what is wrong about it carries over into BvS,  the lessons from it not learned but rather perpetuated with an anti-Superman dominated by over-the-top CGI hysterics.

stm1The problem with Superman is, well, Superman. They don’t know what to do about him, how to handle the character. Which is weird to me, writing this in 2016 because they nailed it, pretty much, in the mid-seventies with Superman: The Movie, way back in 1978. That film seems to be like the elephant in the room: the Kryptonian scenes were cool and majestic, the childhood scenes wonderful Americana, and the Metropolis scenes with our grown-up hero/Clark Kent alter ego just perfect comic-book escapism. With a template like that, it’s hard to imagine going wrong. So why are Snyder and Warner/DC so seemingly hellbent on distancing themselves from the 1978 classic?

Maybe it’s because Warners tried sticking to that Superman: The Movie template with Superman Returns, which got something of a box-office drubbing when it came out; $390 million worldwide on a $270 million budget (makes BvS something of a huge success with its current haul of $810million worldwide). Superman Returns was hardly perfect, the chief problem was it being overblown and badly produced (although how much of that $270 million was spent on earlier aborted Superman films, I wonder?).  I think it was much better than people perhaps appreciated at the time. It did many things right- particularly casting Brandon Routh who looked the part as Superman and was uncannily like Chris Reeve as Clark Kent. Kevin Spacey was a pretty good Lex Luthor too- indeed both actors are better than Henry Cavill or Jesse Eisenberg are in BvS.

The damnedest thing is that what was wrong about Superman Returns is the one thing that they carried over from it to MoS- namely, taking the title character way too seriously. In Superman Returns the character is saddled with unnecessary Messianic, Christ-like allegory and a semi-religious fixation, complicated with a pointless backstory of Lois Lane and a son.  Superman: The Movie had the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Superman Returns might well have had “You’ll believe a Messianic figure can be dull”. All this anguished soul-searching about Superman’s place in the world and What He Means to us is like a lead weight around Superman Returns and  now MoS and BvS after it.

I really wish they had kept the cast and creative team of Superman Returns for a sequel rather than trying to reboot though. If they had dropped that Christ imagery and just given the character a decent adventure with a bit more action rather than endless dull soul-searching we might have had a cracking movie.

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But they went the way of the reboot, and I can only despair at how they must have scrutinised Superman Returns and tried to analyse what was wrong with it. The main star looks great, let’s drop him. All that moody soul-searching that cripples the story, lets have more of that. But let’s go darker (did they get the notes mixed up, went with the ‘To Drop’ list instead?).

To some extent you have to blame Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight films. Somehow they have been held up so high in critical regard and audience awareness that they are the established measure of how to handle DC characters. Like no-one figured out that Superman and Batman are polar opposites- you can’t approach them the same, the whole point of them is that they are so different. Trying to treat Superman like Batman with his tortured psyche is pointless and ignorant of the real character. Besides, there are quite a few fans of the Batman comics who will rightly contest that Nolan’s Dark Knight films rather missed the ‘real’ Batman anyway.

Hiring Zack Snyder to direct MoS was another bad move. I’ve nothing against Snyder, visually he has a knack for putting comic-book action panels onscreen, but he should be kept clear of producing or script-writing. He seems to think Watchmen is some kind of bible for showing superheroes on film, when Watchmen should really be considered of a genre quite apart from Superhero films. It’s a commentary on the Superhero genre not a blueprint of what it should be. Suggesting that the Superman or Batman comics should be more like Watchmen is utterly missing the point of them.

Snyder seems to think that Dr Manhattan, for instance, is some kind of blueprint of how to portray Superman. Dr Manhattan isn’t that- he’s a commentary by Alan Moore on the idea of a Superman. His powers make him distant and aloof from humanity- he isn’t a hero, he’s a God-like figure increasingly remote from us, less human by the minute. Trying to treat Superman the same way is just crazy- Superman isn’t a God, he’s a hero. He’s an alien, yes, and one with great powers, but essentially he is one of us, actually becoming more human by the minute. Snyder is forcing Superman into some kind of Dr Manhattan figure and it’s totally missing the real point and crippling him and the movies.

mos1For one thing, look at the suit. The MoS/BvS ‘look’ just isn’t, well, really Superman, is it? Just in the same way as the true comic-book character is gone, so is the look. The bright colours of the comic-book, the rich red and blue, is lost, replaced by some muddy, washed-out look. It almost looks like the armour of Tim Burton’s take on Batman and is as much a miss-step as how the character has been portrayed.

It seems to me you can only go so far imagining superheroes in the Real World. Its something the Marvel films seem to have done quite well so far, although with the Avengers films and the upcoming Civil War I have to wonder if they are straying too far into this territory themselves. Comics aren’t Shakespeare, and directors and audiences shouldn’t really expect comic-book movies to be Oscar-bait dramas. They are escapist entertainment, with odd people with impossible powers wearing daft costumes and if Warner/DC go too far they will just ruin what chance they have of the success they clearly crave. Maybe part of the problem is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. It was a solid, brilliant examination of the Batman character in a noir-ish Real World approximation of our world. But it wasn’t really Batman.

Superheroes couldn’t function in our Real World. I guess that was one of the lessons of Watchmen. You can’t really have costumed guys running around outside of the law; how long would that be allowed before the Government brought in the military to neuter the heroes? Before they were outlawed? Frank Miller had Superman acting as an American Super Weapon in TDR because that’s the only way the American government would find Superman acceptable. Its the same kind of thinking that runs through the rather dour X-Men films. It might be realistic but how far down the rabbit-hole do you go before you aren’t making the actual comic-book anymore? People read them because they are mostly escapist fun. Entertainment.

Superman: The Movie had a genius conceit, right from the start. Some kid opens up a comic book and the camera falls into a panel and it comes ‘alive’. But all through the movie, we are still in that comic.  And that’s a central point that Snyder and Warner/DC seems to be missing. We don’t go to see Superhero movies to see what they would be like in our world. We go to see Superhero movies to see what it would be like for us to be in their world. It’s a fundamental difference.