Saturday, July 22, 2017

Christopher Nolan bombs, and other Dunkirk thoughts

There are plenty of times I have been out of sync with the Metascore for a movie. That probably goes without saying. I'll come home, go to the site, and think "Huh." Baby Driver is one very recent example, as 86 seems extraordinarily generous for a film that is entertaining but quite flawed. Then again, I knew its Metascore before I even entered the theater.

I can't remember a time feeling as shocked by this disconnect, though, as when I came home from Dunkirk last night.

Dunkirk has a 94 on Metacritic. I think it deserves less than half that.

In fact, the one score of 38 on there -- and I sighed in relief that at least one person agrees with me -- might even be too generous.

I ended up giving the movie two stars on Letterboxd, but I wanted to give it 1.5.

What's wrong with Dunkirk? Where to start. This is one of the most dramatically inert films in recent memory. For all the somber energy invested in meticulously recreating a famous World War II battle -- is it even a battle? -- Nolan couldn't give a whip about character development or even mounting tension. Hans Zimmer's bludgeoning score -- seriously, it's even worse than the one for Interstellar -- tells us that every moment is overloaded with dread, but otherwise we'd have no idea that anything was at stake. Images are disconnected from consequences, things are happening for apparently no reason, and the little character arcs that are meant to occur make no impression whatsoever. Oh, it's not that Nolan disregards the notion of human drama altogether in opting for something more abstract and expressionistic -- it's that the dramas he chooses are utterly uncompelling.

What went so wrong? Nothing, according to most of you. When I went on Letterboxd to log my two-star rating, I saw a five-star rating from a person I trust on the landing page. Of the film's 50 positive reviews on Metacritic, 29 are grades of a perfect 100, including three critics whose opinions I've held dear throughout my career: Joe Morgenstern, Dana Stevens and Richard Roeper, all three of whom I've spoken to, and the last two of whom I've had my picture taken with (including Dana Stevens just in May).

Why did I see such a different movie than most of these people? It's hard to say. When you are in the minority on a film, the inclination is of course to view it as a "you problem." You figure you must lack some essential component of your critical faculties that allows you to appreciate what the film is doing. Or, you demand a film to fit into a certain conventional box, the inability to fit into that box being what makes it great. Maybe that is indeed the case with me and Dunkirk.

But I don't think so. This film is a fucking bore. Christopher Nolan is so impressed with his ability to film fighter planes moving in space -- an undeniable strength of the film -- that he doesn't seem to care whether he gave us any characters to relate to. I don't mind that we don't know their names, as there are some great films out there where we never learn any names. I mind the fact that they don't have names or personalities. They are just pawns in Nolan's desire to mount a moving Life magazine photograph. And that's all he's done.

And that's not enough.

I look forward to engaging with other people on this, figuring out the deficits in my character that led me to have so totally missed the boat, so to speak, on this film. But I can't do that for now. In fact, I can't even read Dunkirk's one mixed review -- thank you, Rex Reed -- or Dunkirk's one negative review -- thank you, Jake Cole -- for now. The reason for this is that I'm recording a podcast about this tomorrow night, and I want my bile to be untainted by the bile a few others have already spewed on the topic.

A very few others.


On this podcast, my fellow podcaster will insist that the reason I didn't like it was that I was drunk when I saw it. And the reason he will say this is that I told him I was drunk in a text message about 20 minutes before the movie started. And the reason I know he liked it, even though we don't usually share our opinions on the films before we meet for the recording, is because he pleaded with me to go the next day to an IMAX screening when I was sober, rather than seeing it on Friday night with four glasses of wine in me, at a theater that has no really big screens.

The four glasses of wine -- and a beer -- were courtesy of a volunteer thank you party for my contributions to the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) earlier this year (though mostly last year, when most of the heavy screening occurred). I had expected this to be a tame little affair that I could quickly skip out of -- it had been held in the organization's tiny office the year before -- and I planned to stay no longer than 30 minutes, leaving in time to watch a 6:40 showing of The Beguiled before my 9:20 Dunkirk.

But this year the party was held in a private room at a pretty cool bar, and when 6:30 rolled around and I was still enjoying myself, I gave Sofia Coppola's film with the middling reviews (at least among my friends) a pass. And got into one of those rambling, animated cinephile discussions with two women about films we love and hate, using the thinnest of connective tissue to jump from one film to the next -- the kind of discussions that are especially well lubricated by wine. I became so engrossed that I nearly didn't leave in time for Dunkirk.

Given my thoughts on the film, I am immensely glad I did not sacrifice that experience for the movie, and also that I did not shift around a Saturday with my family in order to see Dunkirk on IMAX (and pay for it out of my own pocket, something I wasn't having to do on Friday night on the smaller screen).

But the question is, did being "drunk" -- how far along on that spectrum I was is debatable -- impact my enjoyment of the film?

As I am biased here and predisposed to endorse my own decision making, I'm going to say "no." But I guess I can't really say for sure, because I can't see it for the first time sober as a point of comparison.

What I can say is that falling asleep was not a problem as I watched the film, which I always figure to be the biggest danger in a film starting at 9:20, whether you're drunk or not. As I said, I was bored, but it was not because the alcohol was making me distractable. It's because Christopher Nolan made a boring film.

I don't even think IMAX would have helped. I was able to appreciate this film's visual accomplishments just fine on the screen where I saw it, and I honestly don't think this is a case where those accomplishments, given a proper showcase, would have rendered some of the film's shortcomings less important. In fact, even in a state of somewhat compromised perceptions, I was glad to feel clear-headed enough not to be swayed by the sweet persuasions of impressive visuals. A film needs to either have a compelling story to be a success, or if not that, then just be a straight art film with no story whatsoever. Nolan's middle ground in Dunkirk is a bad place to be.

July 20th -- again

Methinks Christopher Nolan needs to concentrate more on making a good movie and less on making sure that movie comes out on July 20th.

And incidentally, how can July 20th fall on a Friday every single year?

July 20th was of course a Thursday this year, but movies get released on Thursdays in Australia, so the 20th was its release date indeed.

It may be a Warner Brothers thing, but Nolan's movies have long been perceived as a late-summer sort of counterprogramming, or maybe just a delayed infusion of prestige to a season that has already included its share of Pirates of the Caribbeans and Transformerses.

The July 20th trend got started in 2008 -- on July 18th. That's when The Dark Knight hit theaters. Its predecessor, Batman Begins, was a June release, but I guess The Dark Knight felt right in late July.

So right, in fact, that they duplicated the release strategy for Inception in 2010. It being two years later and without the benefit of any leap years in between, Inception could not land exactly on July 20th either. So July 16th was the chosen release date.

We finally get to an exact July 20th release date, with the benefit of a leap year, two years later for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. That date may of course be etched into your memory for being the night of the horrific theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

Warner Brothers deviated from the strategy with a November 2014 release for Interstellar, but it's back with Dunkirk -- a film whose awards aspirations might have more logically dictated a November release date than Interstellar. Though I suppose some of these things have to do with when a film is actually ready to go to print.

What relationship does the release date have to the quality of the film?

None, of course. And I'm sure my criticisms of Dunkirk don't seem very substantive, since I haven't delved in to why I dislike it so much.

I could. Believe me, I could. But I guess I already feel like enough of a grinch for raining on the parades of readers who may have already bought their tickets for a screening at some point later in the weekend, but happened to do their Friday check-in with my blog before then.

But as a wise friend told me last night when I texted him my initial reactions and then apologized for shitting on a movie he was excited to see, "Maybe I will love it, maybe not. It will have nothing to do with you. When any movie comes out, there will be people who don't like it."

In the case of Dunkirk, just not very many of us.

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