Film reviews

Dunkirk

Dunkirk Poster

Released 2017. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh.

Spoilers follow.

No film has ever left me speechless. I’ve sometimes said, “I’m speechless”, but those words have always emerged fully formed.

As the credits rolled and the lights came up after Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s World War II blockbuster, I didn’t know what I felt. I didn’t know if I felt anything. I wondered whether I’d missed something. But when I opened my mouth to speak, I had to hold my tongue because I felt my jaw quivering and my eyes welling up. It took me several moments before I could utter a coherent sentence. I’ve sobbed at the ends of films before, but this was something different. This was shell shock.

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Inside Out

Inside Out Group

Released 2015. Directed by Pete Docter. Screenplay by Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley and Pete Docter. Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Kaitlyn Dias.

Significant spoilers follow, including many of the best jokes and the ending, so if you wish to avoid anger I recommend you see Inside Out before reading on. (I also talk about the end of Toy Story 3, but if you haven’t seen that then I assume you have never seen a film in your life.)

As a child, my favourite comic strip was The Numskulls. The idea that tiny maniacal homunculi populated and drove human bodies was captivating and wild, tweaked my interest in science, and made for thousands of great jokes. Now Pixar, the undisputed master of family-friendly cinema, has turned its attention to the same idea. Colour me excited.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

Exodus Head

Released 2014. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Aaron Paul.

This piece talks almost as much about Noah as it does Exodus: Gods and Kings. So if you don’t want to know how two of the most famous stories in the world end, look away now.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a Biblical epic. It tells an epic story, it has an epic budget, an epic cast, and a director who knows his way around epics. But something told me it would be epically dull. The trailers bored me. Christian Bale, while a great actor, doesn’t grab me as a screen presence the way a star should. The glimpses of action in the trailers looked by-the-numbers, basted with tedious CGI. It looked like Kingdom of Heaven when it needed to be Gladiator.

I was epically wrong.

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Gone Girl

Gone Girl Amy Head

Released 2014. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, adapted from her novel of the same name. Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry.

There’s no discussing Gone Girl without giving everything away from the first sentence, and this review leaves no plot point unexposed. Trust me, just see the film.

David Fincher is infamously exacting. While shooting Zodiac, his demand for precision and detail, expressed through shooting scenes upwards of 70 times before moving on, came under fire from some of his actors. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. His response was simple: “The first day of production in San Francisco we shot 56 takes of Mark and Jake – and it’s the 56th take that’s in the movie.” Fincher knows what he wants to achieve, and won’t leave until he has it. For the viewer, it’s reassuring. I feel confident that what I see in a Fincher film is exactly what is meant to be there. Everything is deliberate and necessary.

What this means it that there exists nobody better suited to direct Gone Girl, a crime drama that is about, above all else, image management. Nothing is left to chance. It feeds us information slowly and deliberately, making us suspicious of every gesture, every line of dialogue, every pause. Sets are somehow bare and devoid of action, yet we know that there’s detail and purpose in everything, because we know Fincher.

It’s what any good mystery ought to be, but Gone Girl goes further. It’s not just about a how a woman disappeared and who’s responsible. Solving the crime is just part of the story. Gone Girl is about how the story is told. The different versions different people see or are given. How and why we lie or deceive. What we want others to know and how we get inside their heads to construct narratives they’ll believe. How people change, what they hide from others, how it comes out, rapidly over days or gradually over years, and the difficulty in knowing someone, or even knowing how much you know about them. It’s about the importance and power of perception and representation.

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The Riot Club

Released 2014. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Screenplay by Laura Wade, adapted from her play, Posh. Starring Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Sam Reid.

Spoilers in the review, folks. Don’t fret, I’ll pay for the damage.

I once heard it said that all American stories are about race, while all British stories are about class. If there’s truth to that aphorism – and I think there is – then The Riot Club might be seen as an attempt to deliver the ne plus ultra of the British story. It articulates a hatred between quote-unquote “poor people” (also known as ‘the majority of the UK’) and the Bullingdon Club elite: the hatred of the poor coming from the characters; the hatred of the gentry coming from the film. It’s been an issue since long before I was born, but one which has experienced a surge in familiarity in the public consciousness since former Bullingdon Club member David Cameron took leadership of the Conservative Party. What’s different here is that it’s not dealt with as subtext or a secondary theme, as is typical. It’s actually quite remarkable and energising to see such a direct portrayal of a class distinction of which the entire country is aware and on which most people would surely declare an opinion, if not allegiance. The Riot Club attacks its theme from point-blank range…

… and yet it still manages to miss.

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The Inbetweeners 2

The Inbetweeners 2

Released 2014. Written and directed by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris. Starring Simon Bird, James Buckley, Joe Thomas, Blake Harrison.

When the highest praise I can think of for a film is, ‘Well, it was definitely a film, not just a big TV episode’, then we’re in trouble. The Inbetweeners 2 is the latest in the long line of British sitcoms to enjoy a movie spin-off (indeed, as the title indicates, this series has spawned two cinema excursions), and it’s to its credit that it shows slightly in excess of no directorial ambition whatsoever. But that’s about all the credit I can give it.

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Boyhood

Boyhood 1

Released 2014. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke.

If you know anything about Boyhood before going in, you’ll know that it’s a hugely ambitious project that follows a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he ages from six to eighteen years old, along with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and occasionally-present father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). It doesn’t switch out actors to depict the children ageing. Richard Linklater has been following them for twelve years, semi-improvising a narrative along the way. It’s a small, intimate film with little drive yet it requires three hours to tell its story. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and you absolutely need to see it.

Actually, you need to see it twice.

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Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow Cruise

Released 2014. Directed by Doug Liman. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth. Based on “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton.

Aren’t we getting tired of my reminding you that I reveal plot spoilers in these things? It’s like I’m repeating myself day after day after day…

I had low expectations of Edge of Tomorrow. After Knight and Day, I was wondering whether Tom Cruise should give up the action movies. He’s getting on, after all. I’d seen the trailer and sarcastically summed up the premise as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers meets D-Day from Saving Private Ryan. I was anticipating two hours of unintelligible nonsense with Cruise’s face glued over it in the hope I wouldn’t notice. It looked so… stupid.

I’m so glad to say that I needn’t have worried. While my sarcastic description is absolutely correct, I didn’t realise that there was a good version of that mashup to be made. Edge of Tomorrow is creative. It’s funny. It’s energetic. It eschews darkness and introspection – it’s constantly on the move, doing new things. In some ways it’s a real throwback to the way it used to be done before Christopher Nolan showed up with his grumpy Batman. This is what action movies should be like.

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Godzilla

Released 2014. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Screenplay by Max Borenstein. Story by David Callaham. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston.

The first thing you have to do is see this on the most enormous screen you can find. The second thing you have to do is come back here and agree with me about why you were utterly thrilled and only a little disappointed.

There are two possibilities. Either that I make the wrong demands of blockbusters, or that it doesn’t matter what my demands are because my expectations are so low that I end up pathetically satisfied with whatever I get. I say this because I appear to be the only member of my entire circle of friends and acquaintances who liked Godzilla, and surely they can’t all be wrong?

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