Thursday, 17 August 2017

Logan Lucky

(M) ★★★★

Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Cast:  Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank, Katherine Waterston, Sebastian Stan.

"The name's Bang. Joe Bang."
NO one ever really retires these days.

Every retirement is followed by the inevitable comeback, whether it be a one-off thing or a fully-fledged return that retroactively morphs the "retirement" into an "hiatus".

Take, for example, Steven Soderbergh, who retired from making movies in 2013 following Behind The Candelabra, his Liberace biopic for HBO. Since then he's done some TV (including the well-received The Knick) and some painting, but given his eclectic and rapid cinematic output over the years, it always seemed unlikely that he was done with film.

And here we are, in 2017, watching his comeback film, because no one ever really retires.

But it's a good thing Soderbergh is back, because Logan Lucky is quite a return. The obvious descriptor is that it's the redneck Ocean's Eleven - a hillbilly heist film that is similarly playful but set far further down the intellectual and socio-economic scale. Soderbergh himself called it the "anti-glam" version of his Clooney crim trilogy, noting the central robbery was based on "rubber-band technology". This home-spun idiocy is all part of the charm.

The hicks behind this heist are hard-luck divorcee Jimmy Logan (Tatum), his one-armed brother Clyde (Driver), their beautician sister Mellie (Keogh), incarcerated explosives expert Joe Bang (Craig) and his dimwitted brothers Sam (Gleeson) and Fish (Quaid). Their target is the Charlotte Speedway - the home of NASCAR - on the biggest race day of the year.


Soderbergh has always followed the "one for the studio, one for me" film-making ideology, and this falls into the former category, while still being unlike anything else he's ever done before. The fun-lovin' tone is perhaps closest to his Ocean's films or maybe Out Of Sight, but really its beats and quirks give it more of a Coen-esque quality.

As a result it lives or dies on its cast, and Soderbergh's ensemble is mostly spot-on. Craig is particularly good, outshining the quality duo of Tatum's everyman Jimmy and Driver's dour Clyde, who also have to compete with scene-stealers Quaid and Gleeson. McFarlane, sporting an English accent as distracting as his moustache, is probably the only mistake the casting agent made. Equally unsatisfying is Keogh's character Mellie. It's not Keogh's fault - she seems to be given plenty to do but sadly little development to go with her actions.

Much like Tatum and Craig in this film, the script (reportedly written by UK writer Rebecca Blunt who is rumoured to not exist) is a little flabby. By the time Logan Lucky slides into its fourth act FBI investigation (a nice cameo from Swank), it starts to wear out its welcome, but there's a satisfying ending with a little bit of a sting in the tail to make it all worthwhile.

Predominantly this is a joy to watch. The heist has a wonderfully homemade quality to it that makes the film a lot of fun, especially when mixed with the humour delivered by a wonderfully deadpan cast. A sequence involving a makeshift explosive is hilarious, as is a prison stand-off centring on Game Of Thrones.

Its always hard to rate Soderbergh's back catalogue because it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges and tractors, but this is certainly in the top bracket of his output alongside the likes of Out Of Sight, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, The Informant!, Magic Mike, and Sex, Lies & Videotapes. Welcome back, Mr Soderbergh.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets

(M) ★★

Director: Luc Besson.

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Kris Wu.

"Are you sure we didn't mix up our uniforms?"
"Pretty sure."
WIKIPEDIA tells us that early in Luc Besson's career, he was part of movement critics dubbed cinéma du look, which was a classy way of saying Besson and his fellow French directors à la mode favoured "style over substance, spectacle over narrative".

More than three decades on, Besson's latest film Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets tells us nothing has changed. It must be this eye for the visual that has kept Besson's name as a selling point, because it sure as hell isn't his scriptwriting if Valerian is anything to go by.

More than 20 years on from his international career-defining one-two punch of Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson has managed to make the biggest film of his career - a love letter to the French graphic novel that inspired The Fifth Element and Star Wars, to name but two sci-fi descendants of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières' comic book series. But much like many of his films since The Fifth Element, the script is a mess. Valerian is visually stunning, no doubt, but its screenplay leaves a lot to be desired.

The story focuses on government agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), who have been tasked to retrieve an item from an intergalactic marketplace. That item has a major role to play in something sinister that's taking place on Alpha, which was originally the international space station but in the 28th century has become a universal hub for aliens from every corner of the cosmos.


Spoilers prevent further explanation of the plot, but so does the plot itself. The story is such a tangled confusion of poorly thought-out strands that it defies explanation. When the various machinations and half-baked ideas are somewhat explained in the final act, it elicits an "Oh" from the audience - not in surprise and awe, but more an "Oh - is that what they were trying to do?".

Which brings us back to the "style over substance" thing from Wikipedia, which is so scarily accurate in this case that I wouldn't be surprised if someone recently created the "cinéma du look" page purely in response to having seen Valerian.

The film looks incredible. Every one of its €200 million has been spent on piling the pixels sky high to create worlds and aliens that would give George Lucas funny feelings in his pants department. There is no shortage of creativity on display and its visual spectacle has to be applauded, even if a lot of it feels like it's there for no reason other than showing off.

But its all way too much pretty tinsel piled onto a dead Christmas tree. Contributing to the failure of the story is the depiction of its main characters. Valerian and Laureline vacillate between annoying and stupid and the script throws them headlong into an awkward relationship that is really hard to get on board with straight up. Easing us into their uncomfortable workplace situation might have made it easier to stomach and made it feel a little less "I should report you to HR".

Laureline occasionally gets to be a butt-kicking heroine, but all too often feels like a bunch of reductive stereotypes, while Valerian is primarily a jerk. DeHaan and Delevingne do their best individually but lack chemistry together. After that, everything else is doomed to fail. No one in the cast comes out of this smelling of roses, except probably John Goodman in a brief voice role.

All Valerian has going for it is its stunning visuals, an occasional good idea amid the mess, and a destiny as a cult favourite, which is what usually happens with similarly over-stuffed sci-fi films. The reality is that this is the next Jupiter Ascending, as opposed to being the next The Fifth Element.

Friday, 11 August 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Cloud Atlas

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Tom Tykwer & The Wachowskis.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy.

This picture encapsulates why I don't go to pubs anymore.
Are you ready for my most self-indulgent blog to date?

Here goes.

One of the trickiest aspects of film reviewing is trying to get it right after just one viewing of a film. My theory has always been 'once to feel it, twice to watch it', but as a reviewer you're very rarely afforded the luxury of seeing a film twice before penning a critique. And so reviewers become accustomed to simultaneously feeling (ie. sitting back and letting it wash over you) and watching (ie. studying) a film on the first go.

It means we're sometimes wrong. I would say that 19 times out of 20 I'm on the money, but sometimes I'm off. In my summary of Christopher Nolan's career, I highlighted my overly generous star ratings for The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, although the reviews themselves were fairly close to my current thoughts. I once did a podcast on this topic titled I Was Wrong (but it appears to have since disappeared from the internet) highlighting in particular my overzealous reviews of the Matrix sequels. I also canned Step Brothers probably harder than I should have.

All this brings me to Cloud Atlas, which I watched again recently (thanks to F Project Cinema in Warrnambool).

Here's my original two-star review from 2013. If you can't be bothered reading it, it's okay because this present review of Cloud Atlas is actually masquerading as a review of my own Cloud Atlas review of 2013. It's a bit meta and masturbatory but this is basically the long way round of highlighting this particular thing I said in 2013:

"Going back to soak (Cloud Atlas) in again and again could make this film a rich experience that rewards over time - it's likely this is destined for cult status."

Before going to watch Cloud Atlas again recently, this notion kept ringing in my ears. The film is dense with ideas and interwoven themes - no surprise given it tells six parallel stories across six different eras spanning roughly five centuries - and I was curious to see whether I was right about the whole "destined for cult status" thing.

I think I was (yay, we got to the point I was trying to make all along). In 2013, I was overly enamoured with David Mitchell's incredible book, hence giving the film two stars, which was a little harsh in hindsight. But despite the same flaws still weighing the film down, Cloud Atlas is definitely a film worthy of cult status. There is a lot to take in - it's the cinematic equivalent of a Where's Wally book. There's so much going on you can't see it all in one sitting, and it practically begs you to come back and dig deeper into it.


The problem is it's still a haphazardly structured three-hour monster with wavering entertainment value. It struggles to balance its six stories, occasionally cutting back to one narrative for mere seconds, seemingly simply to remind you that storyline still exists in the film. It also misses golden opportunities in its editing - as much as it tries to line-up similar events in different eras, it fails to do so as often as it does. So we watch Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) involved in a bold escape from an old folks home, then later we watch some other characters pull off a bold escape. The tone of each is different but it gives the film an unwelcome sense of repetition.

But yes, cult film, totally. Three stars this time around. I doubt it will go higher than this because it's far too flawed to be a true masterpiece. Also its yellowface/brownface/whiteface effects have aged badly. A slightly Asian Hugo Weaving is one of the more unsettling things seen in cinema in the past five years. But who knows? Maybe it will be a four-star film next time I watch, whenever that may be.

But if nothing else, Cloud Atlas is a noble defeat. It attempts to wrestle an unfilmable book into a watchable beast and works surprisingly well in places. Some of its core themes and notions about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything get a little lost amid the mass and mess of the storytelling, but there are some bravura moments in the editing room chaos. Everyone gets their time in the sun, with Hanks, Grant, Berry, Broadbent, Whishaw, and Sturgess shining on occasion (in between some dreadfully hammy performances). Best all-rounder, surprisingly, is Grant who is excellent in every one of his guises.

All of this is a long winded way of saying "I was sort of mostly right but also a little bit wrong".

I watched Cloud Atlas at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

The Queen Of Ireland - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Big Sick

(M) ★★★★

Director: Michael Showalter.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant.

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the cuteness."
If you're getting tired of the typical rom-com fare Hollywood has been serving up in recent years, grab a seat at the table for The Big Sick.

This rom-com is utterly refreshing, like a big bowl of ice cream after a serving of spicy food. Probably strawberry. Or chocolate. Whatever flavour you like - this film is that flavour.

The back story behind The Big Sick is also the err... front story (front story?). It's the true tale of Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and his wife/co-writer Emily (played by Zoe Kazan, just to confuse matters).

After several meet-cutes and despite their best efforts to not fall in love, Kumail and Emily inevitably fall in love, only to fall out again very quickly when Emily discovers Kumail's Pakistani heritage means he will most likely be forced into an arranged marriage with a Pakistani girl.

But soon after the break-up, Emily falls ill and has to be placed in a medically induced coma. This leaves Kumail sitting in the hospital alongside Emily's parents (Romano and Hunter), who have never met Kumail but are fully aware Kumail and Emily have recently broken up.



It's interesting (and totally pointless, but when has that ever stopped me before) to wonder if this film would be as good if you knew it wasn't based on a true story. The plot almost feels too bizarre - it's in the realms of having people scoff "that would never happen in real life" even though it actually did. And obviously the film doesn't play out exactly like it happened in real life (these things never do), but the absurd situation is such a wonderful set-up, and its milked for every possible laugh. This weird mix of a culture-clash romance and a worst possible Meet The Parents is laden with potential and Nanjiani and his wife/co-writer Emily V. Gordon don't let it go to waste. The style of humour is wonderfully natural amid a strangely unnatural setting.

Nanjiani is great as a nervier version of himself. He's hapless, earnest, and dorky, making (hilarious but) ill-timed 9/11 jokes and having mental breakdowns at fast food drive-thrus or comedy open mic nights, but you want him to be your friend. It's easy to dismiss the performance of someone playing themselves, but he does a good job with the role, particularly when he's required to do some emotional heavy lifting.

He's surrounded by good co-stars. Romano has never been better and is perfectly cast as the hang-dog middle-aged dad, while Hunter is always excellent and shows the required mix of spark, spunk and maternal drive in a great role that blends the comedy and the drama. Kazan is also good, giving Emily the right amount of Pixie Dream Girl, but leaving out the Manic and making her seem like a real person for the bookending bits of the film when she's awake and gets to actually do stuff.

And then there's Kumail's family, who have fewer big moments but are just as important and just as well played. Bollywood legend Kher and scene-stealing Shroff as Kumail's parents are great, while Akhtar gets some hilarious lines as Kumail's brother.

The Big Sick has such an excellent set-up but could have been so easily botched. By keeping the tone predominantly light and the comedic style natural, it works a treat. This is perfect for date night and one of the better rom-coms in recent years.




Sunday, 30 July 2017

Christopher Nolan - From Best To Worst


From 2000 until 2010, there were few directors who could rival Christopher Nolan. He had a Pixar-like strike rate of awesomeness. Across six films - from Memento (2000) to Inception (2010) - he did incredible things. He made us think backwards, rebirthed an iconic character, made the greatest superhero movie of all time, gave us remarkable performances from the likes of Robin Williams and Heath Ledger, and took us into a dream inside a dream inside a ... well, you get the picture.

Then he made The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar and oh how those films annoy me.

Anyway, to mark the release of Dunkirk (and to respond to this list by my friend and fellow movie buff Eddie) and to fulfil my ongoing need to reduce someone's life's work into a pithy list, here is the Absolutely Definitive And Unquestionably Correct Listing Of Christopher Nolan's Films From Best To The One I Haven't Seen.


1. Memento


This remains the greatest script ever written. And do you know what beat it to the Best Original Screenplay Oscar? Gosford Park. Sheesh. Good film, but sheesh. You don't hear anyone in 2017 going "You know what film had one of the best scripts of all time? Gosford Park". But 17 years on from another oversight by the Academy, it remains mindblowing just how perfectly Memento's Herculean task of screenwriting works. And it doesn't merely "work" - it's not just a gimmick of writing, successfully pulled off. Memento goes beyond stunt-writing and becomes an incredibly enjoyable, gripping and surprisingly powerful film (poor Sammy Jankis and his diabetic wife). It's also surprisingly easy to understand and follow, which is a spectacular feat of directing and editing (as well as writing). Guy Pearce has given so many great performances and his turn as Leonard, the vengeful man with the broken memory, is up there with his greatest, but Matrix buddies Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano give career-best turns. The washed-out LA sunshine provides the film with the look of a faded polaroid and the score gets under your skin like Leonard's tattoos. It's not just Nolan's best but one of the best of all time.


2. Inception


As time goes on, it's becoming increasingly difficult to give audiences something they've never seen before. Inception does it time and time again over the course of its two and a half hours, which is part of what makes it such a stunning piece of cinema. The key visuals are the folding cityscape and the spinning hallway punch-on, but the whole thing is a breath of cinematic fresh air, so much so that you don't even care that almost every line of dialogue is exposition. Nolan's trick here is taking us somewhere new, making it look familiar and continually giving you a kick whenever things get too comfortable. And how good is that cast. And that ending. And that sound. BRAAAAAAAWWWWRRRMMMM.

For the record, I totally nailed how awesome this was in my 2010 review, which almost never happens.


3. The Dark Knight


The greatest superhero movie of all time. The reasons for this are many. Ledger is the key one. His is a benchmark performance. Pity the fool who tries to be a Joker after him (too bad, Thirty Seconds to Leto) and pity anyone playing an unhinged supervillain after this. Ledger's shadow is long. Bale's good too, feeling as comfortable in the Batsuit as he is with his Bruce Wayne mask on. And that's another thing that makes The Dark Knight the best cape-caper to date - it explores the psychology of the superhero more deeply than any other example of the genre (except for Watchmen). Which is more real - Bats or Bruce? And how far will Bats/Bruce go to keep his version of the peace and protect Gotham from a person that probably wouldn't exist if the Batman wasn't going around doing his vigilante thing in the first place? This is all far too profound for silly superhero nonsense, right? And let's not forget that just about every shot in this looks superb.


4. The Prestige


In which Batman and Wolverine start a magical war against each other - now there's a movie idea. But seriously, I can probably live without that knowing I can watch Bale and Jackman as obsessively driven prestidigitators trying to one-up each other at the end of the 19th century. It's a devilish plot, perfectly executed, led by great performances from its two stars (plus some great help from Scarlett Johansson, the late great David Bowie, and Nolan regular Michael Caine). Even knowing the twist, The Prestige remains thrilling, which is probably the real sleight of hand Nolan pulled here.

5. Batman Begins


Nolan's trick with Batman Begins was to treat a superhero movie like a real movie. As simple as that. X-Men and Spider-man were great and relished their comic book origins, but Nolan went dark and deep and forever changed superhero movies. This was SERIOUS. DC built its entire Expanded Universe on this idea, and even Marvel took note for its MCU. "Nolan-esque" became a word with this film, and its definition can be found in the gritty reality he and co-writer David S. Goyer shoved the Dark Knight into, something which was a necessity in order to reclaim the character from the neon puke and '60s throwback of Joel Schumacher's previous Bat-outings. By throwing in Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow to the origin story, Nolan hit upon a rich subtext to drive the whole film - the power of fear. The cinematic superhero league would never be the same again.


6. Insomnia


Robin Williams' "Dark Trilogy" of 2002 - One Hour Photo, Insomnia, and Death To Smoochy - provided the late legend with three of his best roles and gave us three of his best performances. That he out-performs and steals the show from Pacino, who was yet to become a caricature of himself, is testament to how good Williams is in Insomnia. On the surface, it feels like a bit of cruise control for Nolan on the heels of Memento - it's a Hollywoodisation of a then-five-year-old Norwegian thriller - but it's actually a supremely under-rated slowburning piece of Alaskan noir. Nolan gets the mood of the eternal sun landscape right and captures Pacino's insomniac cop Will Dormer (Dormer is pretty close to the French word for sleep BTW) mental unravelling beautifully. Well worth a revisit, if only to remember Robin. 

7.Dunkirk


As stated in my recent review, Dunkirk is damned near perfect, except for that annoying non-linear narrative Nolan's got going on in it. If it aims to demonstrate the different passages of time for the various storylines, it doesn't work. It's frustrating because Dunkirk is a powerfully minimalist, precise and punchy look at an incredible WWII story. Stripped of Nazis, flowery speeches and unnecessary characterisation, it's everything it needs to be and nothing more. It's also the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

8. The Dark Knight Rises


This disappointing sequel is agonisingly close to being great, but its plotholes become so overwhelming that most rational brains stop working long before the end. It's a shame, because Bane is a great character and Tom Hardy does a cracking job. But its highlights - Bats Vs Bane, the football field explosion, the nonsensical opening plane stunt, Catwoman - get lost amid a fumbled theme about haves-against-have-nots and an erratic script. Sad end to what should have been one of the greatest trilogies of all time.

Here's my review from 2012, which is on the money but too generous with its star rating.

9. Interstellar


The more I thought about Interstellar, after its initial "wow" factor wore off, the more I hated it. Nolan's attempt at doing his own 2001: A Space Odyssey was ambitious but its final twist was too much for me. It's adherence to the laws of physics is (apparently) impressive and its visual spectacle is stunning, but its bloated running time, frustrating structure, under-developed characters and its plot-turn trickery are deal-breakers. Nolan disappears not into a blackhole, but more likely up his own derriere in this grand folly. McConaughey is great though. 


10. Following


I haven't actually seen Following, but then neither have most people. So hardly anyone is going to be able to tell me I'm wrong about putting it at the bottom of the list. And those that have seen it assure me it's Nolan's least good film, so I'm going to trust them on that. So it's win-win really. As soon as I see it, I'll adjust this list accordingly though and be sure to let you know.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

(M) ★★★★

Director: Matt Reeves.

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Gabriel Chavarria.

Woody wished his sunnies had wipers.
WHEN it comes time to talk about the greatest trilogies of all time, the new Planet Of The Apes films need to be in the discussion.

That's not to say they're better than the original Star Wars trilogy or Lord Of The Rings or Toy Story, but Apes deserves a spot at least in the top 10, maybe even top five.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes were both far better than anyone expected - the first one because the bad taste of Tim Burton's re-imagining lingered, and the second because it was largely assumed the first one was a fluke and sequelitis was sure to set in.

So the expectations on War For The Planet Of The Apes were higher than they'd been all series. And, oh boy, War delivers.

The aftermath of Dawn sees humans and apes in an ongoing battle, with Caesar (Serkis) and his simian colony hiding in the North American woods, only fighting when they have to. But self-styled warlord The Colonel (Harrelson) wants complete victory and pushes Caesar to the edge, sparking a journey into the heart of darkness for the ape leader that threatens to end one of the species.


These films have been so great because they've consistently featured amazing characters and explored the human condition and such deep themes as love, hate, power, trust, revenge, forgiveness and other such meaty subjects. It just so happened that most of those characters were apes played by motion-captured humans, and the themes played out against a backdrop of rebooted dystopian sci-fi.

In other words, writer/director Matt Reeves, Rise director Rupert Wyatt, and trilogy writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver treated them as "proper" films, never letting the spectacle get in the way, and ensuring the incredible CG wizardry on show was used in the service of the story and not the other way around.

War does all of those things too. It takes Caesar - one of the best and most under-rated characters of the past decade - to dark places as it explores how far someone can be pushed before they set their morals aside and give into the bloodlust. Serkis is, yet again, nothing short of magnificent. The CG is seamless, but Serkis makes Caesar real. And then some. Remember how they gave Peter Jackson all the Oscars for Return Of The King, as if to acknowledge how good the whole LOTR trilogy was? They should do that for Andy Serkis. This performance is no better or worse than his incredible work in Rise or Dawn but he's never even been nominated. Give him some recognition, Academy.

Serkis' fellow apes - Konoval, Notary, and newcomer Zahn - are also great. They never feel anything less than human, which has helped make the series a revelation.

Also great is Harrelson, the Colonel Kurtz-like figure waiting at the end of Caesar's metaphorical journey up river. Apocalypse Now is a big influence here - War is part-that, part-The Road, and part-The Great Escape - and Harrelson embraces that without being slavish to Brando. It also says something for the script and Harrelson's performance that The Colonel is a character that can be empathised with, despite being the Big Bad of the movie.

I have loved all three of these films, yet there's still a feeling of surprise that they're so good. Even now, having been enthralled and moved to tears by all three, it's difficult to shake. If you'd said 10 years ago that a prequel/reboot series of Planet Of The Apes films featuring mo-capped monkeys would become one of the best trilogies ever, you'd have been laughed out of town.

But you would have been so very, very right.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dunkirk

(M) ★★★★

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, James D'Arcy.

The queues for coffee at music festivals are always out of hand.

There are few modern blockbuster directors who conjure up the "what will they do next?" intrigue and anticipation quite like Christopher Nolan.

Even after the disappointments of Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's star is untarnished, such are his talents and his incredible winning streak spanning 2000 to 2010.

Thankfully Dunkirk is a return to form. In spite of its almost self-sabotaging non-linear narrative, it manages to re-tell an amazing war story in a manner that is somehow both intimate and sweeping in scope.

The Dunkirk evacuation of WWII, in which more than 300,000 British and French troops were removed from their prone position on the French coast, is told through three interwoven stories that encompass the land, the sea, and the air.

On the Dunkirk beach, British private Tommy (Whitehead) joins thousands of his fellow army men in trying to find a way home. On the sea, civilian sailor Mr Dawson (Rylance) heads across the English Channel to do his bit to bring soldiers back to Blighty. And in the skies over the channel, pilots (Hardy and Lowden) do battle with the Luftwaffe in an effort to protect the soldiers on Dunkirk beach and the vessels trying to rescue them.


Like all good war movies, Dunkirk puts you in the metaphorical trenches alongside the soldiers - in this case its on the beach, in a small pleasure boat, and in the cockpit of a Spitfire. This creates an unlikely intimacy to the film, despite the scantness of its character development. For such a huge production, Dunkirk feels strangely small-scale at times, which is to the benefit of the film. It's refreshingly short and is very much about doing the bare minimum to maximum effect - this is big-budget minimalism.

Nolan hones in on the action and the necessities, drawing enough depth out of his characters so we care about them and their seemingly insurmountable predicaments, while never wasting a moment of screen time on trivial matters. The cast members are uniformly excellent, particularly seasoned veterans Rylance, Murphy, and Branagh, as well as newcomers Whitehead and Styles, all helping to bring these lightly drawn characters to life.

The film is particularly impressive not just because of what it includes, but also what it leaves out. There are no warm-and-fuzzy moments where characters reminisce about their lives and wives back home, no unnecessary swathes of dialogue, and no stirring speeches (save for someone reading Churchill's famed "we'll fight them on the beaches" bit at the film's end). In fact, in the majority of its best moments, no one says a word. Nolan lets the action speak.

There are also no German soldiers. We know they're there, shooting at the Brits, piloting the Luftwaffe fighters, and firing the torpedoes, but we never lay eyes on a single Nazi. This unseen enemy creates a daunting inhuman threat, as well as letting the focus remain on the imperilled British. It ramps up the tension, and is a neat, almost unnoticed trick.

The set pieces and constant hurdles, especially those facing Tommy, keep the action rolling along. Nolan also crafts a pretty good aerial dogfight in between trying to drown us and disorientate us at every opportunity. In fact, the film is a balance of contradictions, capturing the chaos and the mundane nature of the Dunkirk evacuation, the humanity and inhumanity within the situation, and the personal and the large-scale elements of it.

The only downside is that damned staggered narrative, which plays with the film's passage of time. It makes the audience do extra work, which wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't so unnecessary. This story could have been told just as easily and effectively without the disruptive non-linear structure.

Thankfully it's not enough to sink Dunkirk. It's such a thrillingly compact and direct war story that no amount of ill-judged narrative trickery can undo its worth. It is chilling in places, powerfully emotional in others, and a stirring re-telling of a valiant wartime effort to lessen the impacts of a devastating military defeat. Nolan, being the proud Londoner that he is, has given us the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

I can't wait to see what Nolan does next.