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Dunkirk and Valerian

I'll start with Dunkirk even though it was the second movie I saw this weekend.


Dunkirk made a strong claim for the movie of the year for me. Similar to Fury Road from a couple years back, this is an exercise in sustained action and tension. Its story, although cleverly folded up within three time frames, is remarkably straight forward. The characters in the movie are either trying to get off Dunkirk beach before it is overrun by Germans in 1940 or they are trying to help those attempting to leave. This basic story is told through three threads, land, sea, and air as essentially anonymous characters work to survive. Other than a few blurry shadows and the strafing of dive-bombers, the human enemies are not pictured on screen. It is rather nature itself: water, wind, fire, and steel which closes in on the characters, snuffing out one life after another. A reoccurring image is the screen filling with water, as though the camera gives the audience the POV of impersonal, crushing doom.

I walked into this movie somehow having had this key fact of its structure unspoiled by reviews. And I found the effect fascinating. This is clearly a Nolan film, with big wide vista foregrounded by intimate portraits of fragile, wounded, and desperate people. The way time is handled through the story lines (Land takes place over a week's time, Sea over the course of a day, and the epic Spitfire dogfight of the air occupies a single hour) is engaging and also nerve-wracking. There is kind of dramatic irony at play here, when we already know that a ship characters are boarding is doomed. This puzzle-box quality is put to more interesting service here than in some of Nolan's other works. It's not a gimmick, it's a tool meant to heighten the overall tension of the story again and again and again.

As a side-note, make sure you see this film at least once in 70 mm, preferably at a true IMAX theater such as the one in Reading, Massachusetts (where I saw it). This is a film that really has to be experienced in towering glory, with full surround high definition sound.

The first film I saw this weekend was Luc Besson's Valerian and I really, really wish I could recommend it. In the same year as the vastly superior Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, this looked like a credible offering to something I've seen described as the 'cosmic powers,' genre - a type of space opera less concerned with verisimilitude in favor of colorful, entertaining action. Like Guardians, the goal here seems to be to fill the screen with as much bizarre art-rock cover carnage as possible and set it to some forgotten classic rock hit. Where Guardians had a tight script, appealing characters, and plenty of good-natured jokes; Valerian has a sprawling mess of a story with not just one but two prologues, characters that are merely wooden when they are not actively working to obliterate all audience sympathy, and scant, somewhat mean-spirited humor. I will say the first half hour or so are engaging but by the end it's clear the movie has run out of ideas, energy, and money. I liked this movie less than Lucy, on account of the latter being only stupid, not stupid and boring.

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