From “Dunkirk” to “Detroit”

Despite everything you see and hear and read (including here), somethings are evolving … in a good way. As a lifelong movie fan I’m encouraged — for different reasons — by what I’ve seen in two films now playing in a theater near you.

First, “Dunkirk”. Christopher Nolan’s latest movie shows one of the true master craftsmen of modern Hollywood reining in his worst excesses while continuing to push out from the time-worn parameters of theater-style story structure.

There likely isn’t a movie fan who doesn’t look forward to Nolan’s next project. (His brother Jonathan and Jonathan’s wife, Lisa Joy, handle creative functions for HBO’s “Westworld”.) As far back as “Memento” and “The Prestige” it was obvious that Christopher was someone bringing a remarkably high degree of technical precision and imagination to his story telling, camera and sound work and editing. With the mega-hits of his “Batman” trilogy, especially “The Dark Knight”, he entered the pantheon of modern movie makers in whom studios happily risk gargantuan budgets.

But while, like everyone, I couldn’t help be impressed with Nolan’s command of big set action pieces, like the Batcycle chase through Lower Wacker Drive in “The Dark Knight’s” Gotham (aka Chicago) and the stunning opening, mid-air hijack sequence of “The Dark Night Rises”. And there’s no question he got a freakishly vivid performance out of Heath Ledger in the former.

So yeah, impressed. But I thought kept gnawing at me. llA that talent in the service of what? A comic book story built on a psychopathically sadistic mass murderer (redundancy alert)? Plus, “The Dark Knight” was already too long before we got to the grim ferry-boat scene and The Joker’s extended demise. And the 20 minutes Nolan needed to trim from “The Dark Knight” should have been 40 for “The Dark Knight Rises”, which took a deep dive into the quasi-religious existential angst (of a comic book hero) and left me at least with the odd taste of pretentious gloom and cramped-up gluteus muscles.

Prior to “Dunkirk”, “Inception” was my favorite Nolan film. But it was an extraordinarily imaginative story saddled with a corny ’80s-style James Bond snowmobile shoot-out that added 15 minutes of standard-issue “action” to an already long-ish movie that was compelling for reasons far, far more interesting than some third act gun play.

With “Dunkirk” Nolan seems to have accepted that less really is more, keeping his tri-furcated story to a tight 106 minutes while giving his audience all the eye-candy and intensity they can bear.

Again, as a film fan, as someone hungry for a movie that tells its story visually, using all the tricks of craft available to a modern director (operating on a nearly blank check studio budget), “Dunkirk” is a vitalizing experience. The conceit of the three separate story lines, a week, a day and an hour, is clever on the face of it. But it is Nolan’s craftsmanship and discipline, evident in how he binds separate sequences, from the boats in the water to the squadron of Spitfires cruising by overhead. His maintains the audience’s bearings because he is so precise with details of the action, like the reverse angle and sun direction on the planes when we see them from the water looking maybe 20 minutes after we first see the boat from the pilots’ vantage above. That level of control is repeated perhaps a dozen times.

Likewise, the sound effects. I have a friend who went out to complain to the theater manager — twice — that the audio was cranked far too loud. (Others have as well.) But it didn’t bother me either time I saw it in Imax at Southdale. Far from it. From the ticking clock, (Nolan’s own watch, the story goes), to his use, again, of the Shepard tone to create the sense of ever-escalating aural intensity, the film’s sound effects (and score) will inspire years of imitators.

Goggle-eyed fans, critics and other filmmakers have referred to Nolan as this generation’s Stanley Kubrick, in terms of his commitment to craft, and were he alive I think old Stanley would be flattered by the comparison. Nolan is that good. But where Kubrick went that Nolan has yet to go — think “Dr. Strangelove”, “2001”, “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut” (a movie that gets better every time I watch it) — is filmmaking like a truly independent, confident artist, that requires audiences rethink a wide range of hard set presumptions and emotions … while feeding them a rarefied version of the genre spectacle (war movie, sci-fi, gang dystopia) they’re accustomed to seeing.

Given that Nolan is in a position to shoot any story he likes with a studio budget 99% of other filmmakers can only dream of, the challenge I’d like to see him take on, if only once to see how it plays, is an adaptation of ambitious novel. Something that doesn’t require a cast of thousands, a hired air force and the sinking of four ships.

I don’t know what I’d recommend, but the other day I was reading an article about Carlos Castaneda. The film version of “A Separate Reality” could be great fun for someone with Nolan’s gifts.


As for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”, what’s encouraging here is the determination of both Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal … and 31 year-old producer Megan Ellison, boss of Annapurna Pictures, which by virtue of young Ms. Ellison’s father, super billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle software fame, is for all intents and purposes a new Hollywood studio.

“Detroit” has no chance of even getting in the shadow of the box office haul “Dunkirk” is taking in. As a movie going experience it is visceral, but hardly pleasant. The subject matter is the notorious Algiers Motel incident amid the Detroit riots of 1967. Three black teenagers died of gun shots at the hands of white Detroit cops without any evidence they had the gun the cops came looking for.  Its central sequence in a motel hallway, is a relentless exercise in psychological torture and physical abuse. And Bigelow’s intent is to make her audience endure it as much as the survivors did as is possible on a movie screen.

You want a truly unhinged objection to “Detroit”, try reading this from The New Yorker.

(Says the writer, Richard Brody, “As I watched this protracted scene of captivity, terror, torture, and murder in the Algiers Motel, I wondered: How could they film this? How could a director tell an actor to administer these brutal blows, not just once but repeatedly? How could a director instruct another actor to grimace and groan, to collapse under the force of the blows? How could a director even feel the need to make audiences feel the physical pain of the horrific, appalling police actions? I wondered the same thing while watching “Detroit” that I did when watching ‘Schindler’s List’, another film about atrocities that is itself an atrocity.) Dude, take a walk around the block and try that again.

I too have some complaints about Boal’s script, (the bona fide facts of the incident have never been settled), and would advise Bigelow that the darting, constantly shifting camerawork is an effect best used judiciously rather than as a visual theme. But what’s encouraging here is that Bigelow, Boal and Ellison have taken an indisputably relevant topic, the much too frequent criminality of American police forces, and set it loose in our suburban multi-plexes. Not sure Warner Brothers would finance the same movie.

For all its faults, and the film industry’s nauseating, cynical obsession with gun violence is at the top of its worst offenses, (and yeah, that trailer before “Detroit”?, that’s Bruce Willis in the Charles Bronson role in schlockmeister Eli Roth’s remake of the vigilante wet dream, “Death Wish“), Hollywood’s limousine ultra-liberals continue to be a prominent force in shifting public attitudes on vital social issues. There was racial equality. There was gay acceptance. Numerous superb anti-war films have countered the John  Wayne bullshit. And, although this has a long ways to go, Bigelow and Ellison are putting their names, reputations and (enviable pool of) money into making brave comment on the critical issue of racial police violence.

We are currently led by fools and Hollywood, when it isn’t stroking the violent fantasies of the emotionally insecure has sold itself to the fan boy culture of comic book super heroes. But here and there the art form is still pushing boundaries and taking conscionable risks.