Dunkirk (2017)

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Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cllian Murphy, Tom Hardy

How many times can Chris outdo himself?

Life can deal you such cruel hands. I am the biggest Christopher Nolan fan so I’ve been excitedly awaiting Dunkirk ever since it was announced three years ago. I’ve been avoiding every trailer and every clip in fear of needless spoilers and have been savouring every review since its release. Now, almost one month after its release I have finally been able to see it! If it was any old film then I would’ve seen it on the day of its release, however this is a Christopher Nolan movie which means that it has to be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the full effect.

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So I took a trip up to London to catch Dunkirk on the BFI Imax, the biggest screen in England and I can safely say that it was worth the wait. Dunkirk is quite possibly the greatest cinema experience I have ever had, or at least the best since Interstellar which created similar immersive intensity in IMAX. But even without the gargantuan screen and crystal clear sound, Christopher Nolan has created not just the greatest war film ever but one of the greatest films of any genre. It is truly a one of a kind film, breaking all kinds of war movie conventions and doing things that have never been attempted in any film before it. Extraordinarily, Nolan has outdone himself once again.

Dunkirk is the equivalent of a cinematic pressure-cooker. From the moment the film begins, it’s put on high heat and it barely lets up for its entire 100 minute running time. The opening scene is sensational. We watch as a tragically young soldier picks up a leaflet depicting how British troops are surrounded by Germans. There’s an instant atmosphere of dread and panic which only intensifies when the first bullet explodes out of nowhere. We’re used to guns firing all the time in films. This is the first time the sound of a bullet has sent shivers up my spine. The noise is so loud and so sharp that I found myself jolting in my seat and for the first time in a war film, feeling the same sense of fear the soldiers on screen are feeling.

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The weight of the situation really hits hard. The idea that these people could die at any moment feels Earth-shatteringly real. This is largely down to Christopher Nolan’s directing which tries to squeeze as much realness and tension as possible out of everything. Long takes are used as well as very few CGI effects. The images feel so real that you almost forget that you’re watching something that was staged. There’s a moment near the beginning when a German plane flies over the troops and the roar of the engine matched with the fear in the soldier’s faces and the over-powering dreadful score make it one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever seen on film. When the bombs hit, it’s utterly devastating.

Unlike most war films, there isn’t a conventional or linear plot. There is no main character or much dialogue at all, instead the film is more interested in capturing the entire event of the Dunkirk evacuation. The main focus is on a story which presents a week of soldiers trying to survive on Dunkirk but there is also a more talky story which sees Mark Rylance taking his little boat out to Dunkirk to pick up some stranded troops as well as an almost dialogue-free story where Tom Hardy (face-covered again) has a go at shooting down enemy planes. It could have been messy but in the hands of Nolan these stories are expertly weaved and executed to perfection.

Unsurprisingly many audiences haven’t quite taken to the film. Average moviegoers expecting an ordinary film with characters you can root for are going to be disappointed. Dunkirk is pure cinema and is something that cannot be described or put into words, it’s something you simply have to experience and feel. It’s the reason why I love films and why I go to the cinema, to be taken on a journey. This is why I’m a fan of directors like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick whose works consistently provide an immersive escapism into another world. Dunkirk is exactly this. It’s a film which sweeps you along with it and completely immerses you in the world of the film.

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Whatever you look for in a film though, you can’t deny the technical mastery of Dunkirk. I mean no hyperbole when I say that Dunkirk features some of the most spectacular images I have ever seen in a film. Planes sweeping over oceans, thousands upon thousands of soldiers lining up on a dark beach, ships sinking and engulfing people in water. These are some of the most breath-taking and indelible visuals I have ever come across. However, there are also quieter moments which haunt my mind. An older soldier throwing himself into the ocean and a heart-breaking final montage which ends each story on a spine-tingling powerful note are just as spectacular as the monumental set-pieces.

Hans Zimmer also deserves a mention for providing yet again another remarkable score. Music always plays a big part in Nolan films, but in Dunkirk the music almost becomes another character. It’s often dark and brooding but also serves to ratchet up the tension with a constant ticking which adds to the nail-biting intensity. At times of relief though, it’s uplifting and gave me perhaps the biggest chills I’ve ever had whilst watching a movie.

Dunkirk is more than just a film; it’s a work of art. I can’t think of a more intense movie experience than this. By the time the film ended I felt shaken and adjusting to reality outside of the cinema was difficult. This is the first war film to actually drop you in the middle of the war. It’s definitely worth going to see on IMAX for the full experience, but it’s just as unmissable on your teeny weenie TV at home. Hopefully the Academy will now finally recognise Nolan for the incredible talent that he is after Interstellar was cruelly snubbed. Dunkirk is truly extraordinary.

perfect-10

 

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Don’t Breathe (2016)

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Director: Fede Alvarez

Stars: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette

You won’t be able to!

Being a horror fanatic, I’d been in the know about Don’t Breathe for months before the trailer had even come out. It had premiered at some weird festival and started generating a lot of hype. “The best horror movie in decades!” You know that sort of thing which people seem to say about every good horror movie coming out. So I’d been excited about it and I was also a fan of Fede Alvarez’s fun Evil Dead remake. I avoided any trailers and tried to put aside the general hype after being disappointed with Green Room earlier in the year and just went in with the mindset that this was going to be an above average horror film. I needn’t have worried because Don’t Breathe totally lives up to the hype.

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Don’t Breathe is exactly the kind of horror film I love. Intense, thrilling and relentless. It’s set mainly in one location and follows three young tea leafs robbing an elderly blind man. Fede does a great job of crucially making us care for these criminals, or at least one of them. Jane Levy is the girl you’ll be rooting for here and we’re given a lovely bit of context which outlines her desperate situation so that our sympathies lie with her. It takes just enough time to build the characters and the plot so that we care about the rest of the film.

Once the kids step into the little old house the film really begins and I was left holding my breath until the very end. At first I was a little concerned as I couldn’t see how the filmmakers could spread robbing a blind OAP into a 90 minute film. I mean, he’s blind, how hard can it blummin’ be? It turns out very. This isn’t just any old blind man, this is an ex soldier with ears like a bat who’s still equipped with the skills to beat any grown man to a pulp. He’s a character who you’ll go away remembering thanks to Stephen Lang’s dominant presence as well as the character’s dark backstory which is best left unrevealed.

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Don’t Breathe spends most of its running time squeezing every last bit of suspense it can. It reminded me a bit of the French horror, Inside, although of course far less extreme. Just in the sense that it’s an absolute roller coaster despite being confined to one location and a few characters. It’s a really intense film and at times I was left covering my mouth just in case I made a noise which the blind man could hear. All of the tension comes from Fede Alvarez’s superb directing skills though. We’re given long and still takes instead of quick shaky edits so you can see what’s happening on screen. The use of silence is particularly key in creating tension though and the effect is used to its absolute best here.

Whilst the film isn’t the most original, it still feels fresh and unpredictable thanks to the superb high level of quality across all departments. The directing is masterful, the writing is taut, the music is effective, the acting is good for the most part, although the young Tom Cruise lookalike was a little wooden at times. The film also offers some deliciously dark ideas which I’ve never seen explored before in a horror film. So whilst we’ve seen this kind of scenario before (Livid has exactly the same premise) Don’t Breathe still proves itself to be one of the very best of its kind.

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To say any more about Don’t Breathe would be to spoil the nail-biting twists and turns in store. All you need to know is that it’s a relentlessly intense experience which never gives you a chance to breathe. It looks like Fede will have a long and promising career in horror, as with only two films under his belt, he has proven that he has the skills to create some of the best horror films that Hollywood has to offer. And let’s just take a moment to appreciate all the fantastic horror films 2016 has had to offer. In any other year, Don’t Breathe would’ve been my number one but with films like: The Conjuring 2, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Witch (my personal favourite of the year so far) and the upcoming Blair Witch, we’ve been treated to a surge of seriously high quality horror. Don’t Breathe can still sit proudly among them though. It’s a taut, adrenaline-fuelled ride which I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying.

nine-out-of-ten

Whiplash (2014)

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Director: Damien Chazelle

Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist

Black Swan for drummers

The types of films I love the most are the ones with a real raw intensity. Black Swan is definitely the most intense film experience I’ve had with Darren Aronofsky’s chaotic direction becoming almost suffocating at times. It’s a film which I endlessly admire, as is his second feature, Requiem for a Dream which features a similar intensity with an added emotional punch to the ribs. Whiplash is a film with that same kind of intensity. It’s rare to find a film which grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the credits, but Whiplash manages to do more than that. It actually tightens the grip as the film goes on until you’re just about choking by the end of it all!

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Whilst I don’t think that Whiplash is quite the perfect masterpiece many people have made it out to be, there’s no denying that it’s an absolutely stellar and riveting film. It does for drumming, what Black Swan did for ballet. Imagine if Natalie Portman wanted to be the most perfect drummer in the world and Vincent Cassel was a shouty and overbearing bully pushing her way beyond the limits of human capacity and you have Whiplash.

The film relies a lot on Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating direction. He manages to bring scene after scene of gripping intensity which seems to build and build until the electrifying finale. He directs the drumming performances with lots of close-ups and quick cuts which end up leaving you feeling completely exhausted. On top of that you’ve got JK Simmons shouting at the top of his lungs at the students and wearing them out until they physically bleed. There’s a scene early on where he picks on someone who’s out of tune and it almost made me want to cry like the poor kid he was picking on.

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JK totally earned his Oscar here. It’s a frightening and wildly intimidating performance full of passion and force. His presence fills every scene he’s in and dares you not to take your eyes off of him. Miles Teller, who plays the protagonist drummer boy, is also very good in the role. He manages to be very convincing and you can’t help but root for him to do well. He has an infectious passion for the drums and an admirable ambition. Although, if I was in his shoes I’d kick the drums into touch and take that girl and run!

The idea of watching a film about an ambitious drummer trying to make it in a jazz band isn’t an appealing one. It’s down to Damien’s superb directing and writing skills which make it utterly compelling. It’s also incredibly unpredictable. There are so many twists and turns in the final 20 minutes that you have no idea how it’s going to end. I also quite liked how it ended fairly ambiguously. The final scene is truly extraordinary to watch and extremely similar to Black Swan’s final scene. It’s so intense that it has your fingernails digging into the person you’re sitting next to and your heart thumping like a steam train.

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There are a couple of problems which stop it from being perfect. I thought that the plot lacked more focus which could’ve added to the intensity of it all. In Black Swan we’re made very aware of the days passing to the final performance and so when it arrives we feel almost as nervous as Nina! With Whiplash, it wasn’t made clear as to what the jazz band were working towards half the time. At one point I didn’t even realise that they were performing in front of an audience! There also felt like a lack of character development. However, ultimately these problems don’t detract from the overwhelming experience the film offers.

Whiplash is a masterful little film. Made for only one million dollars and shot in less than 30 days, Damien Chazelle has showed the world that he possesses an undeniable talent for filmmaking. It’s a sensational debut and I defy anyone not to come out by the end of it feeling exhausted. It may not be everyone’s idea of entertainment, but for those who are into dark, psychological and intense films then Whiplash is the film to see. I really look forward to going through it all again.

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