Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Big Sick

If comedy and tragedy were people, they'd be the lead characters in The Big Sick. Kumail Nanjiani (Kumail Nanjiani) (I'm not just repeating his name for the sake of it, he plays himself) is the stand-up comic whose life as a Pakistani immigrant in Chicago is a bottomless mine of hilarious cultural awkwardness, while therapist Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) is his foil: a pixie dream girl of the refreshingly non-manic variety for whom fate has Very Bad Things in store. Thrown together in an inevitable meet-cute, Kumail and Emily, in their guises as comedy and tragedy, enhance and feed off each other to create a romtragicom of surprising depth, pinpoint perception and deceptively powerful sweetness.

Nanjiani - who wrote The Big Sick with the real Emily, his wife Emily V. Gordon, about the turbulent first months of their relationship - understands the combined powers of comedy and tragedy better than most, and their script revels in the former for its first act before throwing an almighty spanner in the works and becoming something quite unexpected. When tragedy strikes, it isn't a cue for comedy to take a back seat but for it to evolve; to become a crutch, a unifier, a lubricant to ease the healing process.
The Big Sick isn't about comedy per se, but it uses it so deftly that its script deserves to be picked apart by future generations of comedians. Barely a joke goes by that's just there to provoke a laugh: every gag enriches the characters or wrings its context for added value. There's a 9/11 joke in there that would be amusing enough if you heard it at a gig, but delivered in the framework of the story it's possibly the funniest moment in cinema this year. And Judd Apatow's involvement as producer is barely noticeable in the best way: dick jokes, tedious fratpack back-slapping and shouting and swearing in place of actual humour are nowhere to be seen here (OK, there's shouting and swearing, but for once it's actually funny).

What it is about, quite shamelessly sentimentally, is family, and the intricate complexities thereof. The surreal nature of arranged marriages in Muslim culture is juxtaposed with the western ideal - which is laid bare as hardly any more likely to succeed - and the relaxed comfort of surrogate families, whether they're lifelong friends or just people thrown together by circumstance. That might all sound excruciatingly worthy and unfunny, but it really isn't: the supporting cast - including Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Four Lions' Adeel Akhtar and Bollywood legend Anupam Kher - all chip in note-perfect performances that add individual brands of lols without resorting to stereotypes.
If there's a bum note then it's in the improbable swiftness with which one of the staple elements of the romcom is executed, but it's necessary to move the plot on before the already troubling two-hour running time swells any further. The Big Sick never outstays its welcome though, comfortably riding a wave of charm, wit and old-fashioned feelgoodery to find itself one of the year's best comedies. And, for that matter, tragedies.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Dunkirk

To coincide with the release of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan curated a season of films at the BFI which influenced his WWII carnival of trauma. "Our season explores the mechanics and uses of suspense to modulate an audience's response to narrative," Nolan explained, and while he might have sounded like some kind of emotion-curious automaton, that declaration of intent - alongside the films he chose - reveals much about Dunkirk's provenance and objectives. Speed's 'Die Hard in a lift / on a bus / on a train' mission statement, for example, can be transposed to Dunkirk's 'Die Hard on the beach / in the sea / in the air' approach; the visual storytelling of silent classics Greed and Sunrise is a key tool in Nolan's dialogue-light, action-heavy movie, and the impact of the climactic plane crash in Hitchcock's tremendous Foreign Correspondent is also blindingly apparent - although for different reasons, Nolan could just as easily have picked Hitch's Lifeboat.

But despite the umbilical connections to all these cinematic progenitors, Dunkirk is first and foremost very much its own thing: a unique, bold, experimental film which - while probably not quite Nolan's greatest achievement - could only have been made by someone with his clout and ambition. And given that, for me, Christopher Nolan's ambition often outstrips his storytelling abilities (unpopular opinion: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are all loaded with promise but trip over their own narrative shoelaces), it's a welcome relief that this time he's crafted more of an experience than a story. Virtually ditching characterisation and traditional notions of narrative, Dunkirk is less a movie than an ordeal. And I mean that, for the most part, in a good way.
Opening with the title in that familiar Univers Bold font and the sound of the director's own pocket watch ticking away with relentless urgency, Dunkirk is immediately and obviously a Christopher Nolan film. Tick-tick-tick mutates violently into a deafening rat-a-tat as a troop of British soldiers ambling through the deserted streets of Dunkirk are fired on by unseen German snipers, and there's no safety net in the casting to let you know who will or won't survive the attack: all these young men are anonymously similar. Most of the lead characters don't even get named - only in the end credits do we find out that one of our protagonists is wryly named Tommy, for whom ze var is most definitely not over.

That opening scene sets the tone for the next hundred minutes: tension, disorientation, a hidden enemy and extremely loud noises are very much the order of the day. A disparate bunch of unknowns spend the next week desperately trying to get the fuck out of France and back home in one piece while Nolan amusingly forces Big Names to stay in one place and do very little: Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy barely leaves the confines of his cockpit-set close-up, Cillian Murphy shivers with PTSD, Mark Rylance is stuck at the wheel of his fishing boat and Ken Branagh stands on a pier looking stoic. Even Michael Caine is relegated to a voice cameo.
The lack of complex characters might draw criticism from some, but it's a deliberate choice. Dunkirk is about the experience of survival, and Nolan strips away everything that might get in the way of us feeling on edge for the duration of the film. There are no moments of Spielbergian melodrama, no chances to get to know anyone's tragic backstory and certainly no attempts to show that hey, those guys trying to kill our boys are just flipsides of the same coin, man. We never cut to bloated generals pushing model planes around a map in Whitehall and we never see a single German face. Nolan isn't interested in war as a complex investigation of humanity, where the best and worst aspects of mankind can be found in the unlikeliest of places; for his soldiers, war is an endless, merciless death machine to be escaped from as quickly as possible, whatever the cost.

It's odd, then, that Dunkirk remains a bloodless affair. Nolan's decision to focus on suspense rather than the flying limbs and guts of, say, Saving Private Ryan's visceral opening and closing scenes lend it an incongruous air of false safety at odds with the thick seam of authenticity running through the rest of the film. It's a minor quibble, but the odd splash of claret could have upped the stakes even further. Instead, in an effort to heighten the tension, Nolan allows Hans Zimmer the freedom to carpet bomb the film with his most ludicrous, histrionic and distracting score yet. Barely a scene goes by without screaming strings or electronically enhanced horns blasting out at comically overblown volume, wilfully overlooking the dramatic effect that a well-placed moment of silence or two can bring.

Fortunately, Nolan's eye for a shot more or less makes up for his cloth ears. There are images in Dunkirk of such aching wonder - especially if witnessed on the appropriately majestic scale of an IMAX screen - that blow the mind. Dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe are reminiscent of George Lucas' best X-wing moments (ironically, since Lucas shoved footage of WWII films into Star Wars before aerial sequences were finished), the beaches of Dunkirk stretch off into infinite bleakness and the scale of everything is brain-boggling. Tiny figures of men dot the vast expanses of sand, ridiculously tiddly fishing boats pootle across miles of unforgiving English Channel to aid the rescue, and even those Spitfires and Messerschmitts find themselves almost lost against the beauty of a clear, bright sky. The idea that all this is somehow cosmically futile is expressed with elegant awe.
Nolan lays all this out in typically tangled fashion, cutting between the week-long experience of the stranded soldiers, the day-long mission of the "little ships" that stepped in when the Navy was found lacking, and the hour-long airborne skirmish with a deliberate disregard for temporal sense. It's a technique that boosts the tension, but on a first viewing it's also unnecessarily confusing for too long, distracting attention from the story while your brain tries to hop between timelines. And while I'm nitpicking, I have no idea what the mechanics of Dunkirk's ostensibly climactic moment were: Nolan spends most of the film avoiding cliché, but then inserts a late flourish of heroic action which is unexpectedly directorially bungled.

Nevertheless, Dunkirk is quite an achievement even by Christopher Nolan's standards. It's a commendably original, ruthlessly effective sensory assault that pushes cinema further than anything else has for a long time, and that's not to be underestimated. It's also subtly patriotic without being jingoistic, especially in its treatment of the ordinary folks back home who risked their lives sailing their rickety tugboats across the Channel to pick up complete strangers in dire need. The Dunkirk spirit soaks through every frame, and it's a timely reminder that if we're so desperate to get away from Europe then we're going to need every drop of it.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Given the well-worn Hollywood maxim "If at first you more or less succeed, reboot and reboot again", it was only a matter of time before the barely-settled cobwebs were dusted off the Spider-Man property and ol' webhead was re-resurrected for Generation MCU. You know the drill by now: teenage boy (played, if possible, by someone whose teenage years are some distance behind them) with the proportional strength of a spider swings through New York, fighting technologically enhanced criminals while wearing a skintight onesie and struggling to get off with hot girls. You are familiar with this concept because since 1962 it has been laid out in comics, TV shows and - in the last fifteen years alone - five blockbuster films of alarmingly disparate calibre.

What's crucial to the success of Movie Spidey v3.1 is that, unlike its Andrew Garfield-shaped predecessor, it knows that you know this. Spider-Man: Homecoming features no radioactive spider-bite, no discovery of wall-crawling abilities and no cruel twists of fate leading to the deaths of platitude-spouting uncles. Peter Parker's superheroic origin is tossed off with delightfully casual indifference in the briefest of exchanges between him and awestruck best pal Ned, during which Peter's response to Ned's enquiry about the radioactive spider is simply "The spider's dead, Ned". And along with it, Spidey's cinematic past. Time to move on.
Not entirely sure about the new costume though tbh

Unshackled from all that baggage, everyone involved in Homecoming is free to do their own thing, trusting us not to sweat the details. It's enormously liberating to watch as a Spider-fan, and even when the film hooks up with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - as inevitably it must - it does so in the smartest of ways, allowing it to function effectively as a standalone piece but enhanced by the sardonic charm of Robert Downey Jr's wonderfully-executed surrogate uncle, Tony Stark.

The plot of Homecoming is flimsy and hardly worth mentioning, except that Peter's nemesis this time is Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture), reimagined from the comics' grouchy, slaphead OAP in the shape of Michael Keaton: part Batman, part Birdman. The script glosses over his transformation from salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar contractor to mad flying bastard, but it's in keeping with the best Spidey villains: ordinary Joes who find themselves pushed that little bit too far by bureaucracy or let down by an uncaring world. Keaton is so much fun to watch that it's a shame he wasn't allowed to explore his beef with society further, and once he dons the Vulture mask he disappears completely into anonymous pixels.

Fortunately we're left with Tom Holland, who might just be the actor to have finally nailed Peter Parker's youth, intelligence, awkwardness and unbridled glee at being able to swing through Manhattan's concrete canyons on ropes of wrist-jizz. Holland is delightful, occasionally reminiscent of a young Michael J Fox, and holds the screen remarkably despite all the necessary noisy fireworks that characterise the modern superhero movie. He revels, too, in Spidey's New York stand-up patter, of which Andrew Garfield made a fair fist and which all but eluded Tobey Maguire, and his scenes with the grown-ups (Stark, Toomes, Aunt May) portray Peter's teenage naivety as skilfully as those with his schoolmates demonstrate his growing confidence (unless the schoolmate happens to be intimidatingly sexy and intelligent).
And Ned is *very* sexy and intelligent

Where Homecoming really lands, though, is in its writing and direction. The script makes the most of its umbilical connection to the MCU, allowing Toomes to develop improbably advanced tech with minimal exposition, while simultaneously exploring the hitherto underinvestigated practicalities of being Spider-Man, such as how he might get from A to B without any convenient skyscrapers to swing from (the answer is hilariously prosaic). And it never forgets that we need to be as invested in Peter Parker's problems as we are in Spider-Man's - a situation which allows for the amusing motif of Peter repeatedly running away from terrifying encounters with girls to the much safer ground of battling murderous super-villains.

Enormous liberties are taken with the characterisations of the comics' stalwarts that might give fanboys the fear, but they feel like necessary updates for a progressive, multicultural, seen-it-all 21st century audience. Basically if the casting of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May upset you, you're going to need to forget everything you know about Flash Thompson, Betty Brant and even Mary Jane Watson. Jon Watts, meanwhile (literally, who?), directs with welcome clarity and satisfying reverence: one scene recreates a famous panel from issue 33 of The Amazing Spider-Man that brought all kinds of nostalgic feels to my usually stone cold heart.

It's a pity that Watts' CG Spidey seems to have taken a step back in quality from the relative success of Marc Webb's films towards the videogame awkwardness of Sam Raimi's first entry, and it also grates that yet another superhero film climax has to involve a one-on-one punch-up in the dark, but where these issues just exacerbate the problems of, say, the current DC films, here they survive as niggles in what is largely an enormously successful entry in the genre, hugely boosted by the fact that it's bags of fun and often riotously funny. Spider-Man is back, even if it felt like he never went away, and he's rediscovered his bite.