Friday, August 4, 2017

Dunkirk, Colossal and Baby Driver (spoilers)

As a former filmmaker & storyboard artist it’s sometimes hard for me to fall into the frame of a film. If the film doesn’t catch me with its visuals or wrench my heart through story and performance I click over to becoming analytical.  I watch for tricks & techniques like interesting blocking, or lens choices or pieces of performance and dialogue. The thing of it is that most films can suck me in and wring me out like a rag, leaving to me to ponder them after I have experienced them.  Dunkirk, Colossal and Baby Driver had me pondering while I was watching, entranced and sometimes perplexed.

Dunkirk is a mechanical masterpiece of relentless tension. Telling a pared down version of the WWII true story of the English retreat from the town of Dunkirk while the German mercilessly surrounded English and French forces as they wait desperately for an escape by sea, the film grabbed me by the throat and never let up. Opening with a delicate sequence of young Brit soldiers searching for food and water as they patrol the abandoned town that devolves as an invisible enemy kills all but one, we are lead to the beach in a grand long shot revealing the scope of the allied forces queued patiently on the beach. Title cards in quick sequence allude to the trick of Dunkirk, non-linear time. The story of the hundreds of thousands of men on the beach takes place over a week. A parallel story of commuter boats racing across the channel from England to France to retrieve the troops is a day. A third story of a British fighter pilot struggling to keep the skies clear from the German air force is over an hour.

The main characters of a soldier on the beach, the retirement aged owner of a small boat, and the pilot aren’t really characters. The dialogue for the entire film would fill a handful of pages. They are chess pieces moving around a board, lunging from one set piece to another in a desperate plea for survival. I didn’t ever care about anything other than the primordial fight or flight reflex of watching another person in jeopardy.

Making the film nonlinear Writer/Director Chris Nolan vacuums the air from the movie, removing all of the peaks and valleys and making the cinematic equivalent of the Loudness War in music. Dunkirk has no dynamic range, just tense moments that grow and grow and never release. It is like having your chest slowly squeezed for 90 minutes and waiting for that long sweet deep breath of release that never comes. The film never has a crescendo. There is no catharsis. It simply ends.

We get to breathe.

Colossal is powerful independent film replete with characters and story, its one trick a fantastical one. An out of work alcoholic (Anne Hathaway) is dumped by her boyfriend and left to sleep on the floor of her parents old empty family home.  In a chance encounter with an elementary schoolmate (Jason Sudekis) she finds a new friend group of alcoholics and starts working at Sudekis’ bar as waitress. In a drunken stumble she wanders back to her family home, trudging through a playground, and once home passes out. When she wakes, she discovers a Kaiju (giant monster) has destroyed downtown Seoul Korea. After a second drunken wander through the park she realizes she IS the Kaiju and is responsible for hundreds if not thousands of deaths.

Hathaway has enormous depth as a former journalist who has not yet hit bottom with her addiction. Sudekis is a revelation, initially is kind and charming, falling easily into type until the film turns, and its metaphor is made clear.

Sudekis also has a giant being he can control: a skyscraper sized robot. While Hathaway initially takes delight in the ridiculousness of controlling this remote enormous creature, her conscious wears on her about the death and destruction she accidentally caused. She goes to great lengths to calm the populace and keep her beast from ever appearing again only to have Sudekis playfully tromp his Robot through the city. She confronts him in the playground, her actions writ large in Seoul as the beast shoves, slaps and motions for the robot to leave. Sudekis does so, only after shoving her to ground, revealing a simmering fury. The next morning, she visits his home, a filthy pit of despair where Sudekis has clawed the face out of photos of his ex-wife and child. He begs forgiveness for being a mean drunk and makes an empty promise only to later threaten her. If she should leave, he will go to the playground and destroy the city mercilessly.

Simultaneously her boyfriend visits her on a flimsy premise of giving a presentation. He confronts her about her drinking, and demeans her for living in this small town and working as a waitress. His frustration at her addiction spews out of him as emotional abuse. They visit the bar, where Sudekis take issue with him, and he sets the bar partially on fire, to make the point that she will never leave.

This is the turn. The first half of the film is a silly and charming character study of barflies and hometowns. With all of the pieces in play it reveals itself to be a drama about addiction and spousal abuse. Hathaway is trapped with a man who is willing to harm innocents (Seoul standing in for children) after being abandoned by a man who controls her through co-dependence. She rebuffs Sudekis who then turns back to the playground with the intent of causing mass destruction. Confronted once again, he batters her, leaving her helpless to watch as he stomps across the sand, causing untold loss of life without remorse. Sudekis’ performance as man desperate to possess and control what he can’t have, and cravenly jealous to the bone is staggering. It is like watching a kind but abused dog go bad. There is no warning and the consequences are dire.

The movie makes a slight attempt to justify not only the beasts but the character’s traits as Sudekis is shown to have been a cruel, bitter, jealous child hiding behind charm and kindness. No effort is spent exploring the cycle of abuse and addiction and the message of the film seems to be that once a garbage human being, always a garbage human being.

The film’s climax is what challenged me the most. The monsters as metaphor are a wonderful choice, presenting a drama that is not what it appears to be.  Hathaway forces a confrontation by flying to Seoul, causing her beast self to manifest in the playground, just as Sudekis intends to pound the city in a drunken rage. His robot looms above her and thousands flee, until her beast shadows the sun over Sudekis. He is terrified and immediately tries to run. She scoops him up and he initially begs, then turns to impotent fury and her beast flings him to the horizon, killing him and the robot.

Seoul erupts in cheers, as Hathaway, processing her actions, wanders into a bar and weeps, asking the bartender if she wants to hear a story.

In a drama about spousal abuse, often the character arc resolves with the abused spouse killing or injuring the abuser in order to escape the torment. It is always justified and seems inevitable, but it never seems like murder. The abstraction of the metaphor trips me up and I was shocked by her actions. I didn’t know what to expect. To extend the metaphor, Hathaway’s actions are as if the Shining ended with Shelly Duval laying fatal traps for Jack Nicolson the day before, and push him into them. Unlike a crime of passion, Hathaway actions to save Seoul and more importantly herself are premeditated, though the final choice to kill appears impulsive. I wondered for her soul and I wondered how she would now address her addiction. Colossal is at once hopeful and deeply cynical and left me with a heavy heart and a lot of questions.

Baby Driver is Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead) latest film and unlike his previous works lurches from genre to genre with head snapping speed.

Baby is a driver with tinnitus, caused by the car accident death of his mother and father when he was a child. He uses old IPOD’s, like the one his mother gave him as a child, to play music to drown out the high pitched whine that never escapes his ears. He provides the escape for a series of heists for Doc, a Kevin Spacey type played by Kevin Spacey, and rotating cast of characters including John Hamm and Jamie Foxx. After a thrilling opening sequence escaping a heist through the streets and highways of Atlanta, Baby meets a waitress names Deborah, who is as music obsessed as he is.  He fantasizes about her as if they are in a black & white 50’s film, like The Wild One.

Music is fundamental to the first half of the film, where Baby’s life is in essence a heavily stylized musical punctuated by escalating violence. Everyone and everything swings in an effortless joyful choreography of color and movement, culminating in a romantic dinner, celebrating Baby’s exit from crime. It is cruelly interrupted by Doc, who tells Baby, while he might be square, he is not done.

A final grand heist is planned and executed over a single day. Tensions run high among the team members and Bats (Jamie Foxx) descends into a spiral of death dealing. Darkness becomes a deep wide chord replacing the color and joy of the first half. Deborah’s life is threatened multiple times as the few people Baby cares about are abused and terrorized to force him to be compliant. The deaths mount and the violence grows, building to a car to car battle in a parking garage against Jon Hamm’s Buddy.

Baby and Deborah escape only to be caught. Baby goes to jail and serves 5 years in a montage until he is release on parole.  His 50’s fantasy bleeds into color as they finally get to live their dream, drive west, fast, without a plan.

Baby Driver's fluid Technicolor first half is Busby Berkley homage to musicals. It is hyper stylized, calling attention to the choreography to such an extent that it almost seems ridiculous. Combined with the “aw shucks” cornball dialogue of 50’s style young love, it sidles up alongside La La Land as a charming oddball, until the brutal violence. The second heist of the film interrupts the reverie to establish Bats as being a dangerous unreliable force of nature that Baby tries to keep from killing people. The movie falls back into being a musical but stops dead with the arrival of Doc, and finally abandons it completely as the violence mounts.

This yo-yo in tone and genre makes Baby Driver a complex work that is hard to emotionally engage with. It is easy to react to, but unlike Scott Pilgrim, an earlier film that has an overarching theme filled with genre sequences, Baby Driver feels like less than the sum of its parts. It wants to be a love story but the characters have barely shared an evening together. It wants to be a heist movie but never shows the heists. It wants to be a car movie but lacks the deep fetishistic allure of chrome and power. It wants to be an exploration of the brutality of crime, but only shows the gore.

What is it, is a delightfully a musical, when heads aren’t exploding.

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