Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

I’m in love with the opening shot of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. After a pitch-black title card, we smash-cut immediately to six soldiers wandering abandoned streets in a daze, being showered by flyers that read “surrender and live”. Everything about it, from the sudden brightness to the air of desolation, is disorienting, but for a moment its oddly, eerily beautiful. Then the gunshots come, and terror with them. A lot of Dunkirk is beautifully filmed horror, but that disorientation finds its way into the narrative structure and tears it apart somewhat. It serves some purpose to the mood of the film, but does away with a most of the emotional investment and poignancy along the way.

One aspect is worth praising unreservedly right out of the gate: Hans Zimmer’s score drives this movie, and in many ways the video feels like it serves the music rather than the other way around. There are perhaps two quiet moments in the entire film, but otherwise, the score is constantly pounding, sometimes reduced to ambient drones and sometimes to a simple metronome, but always propelling the film forward.

The score is particularly important as a glue, since the film takes on a highly nonlinear structure. It’s divided into three overlaid pieces told over different timespaces; a week with a soldier trying to escape the beach, a day with a civilian ship attempting to rescue survivors, and an hour with an ace pilot defending the ships. The three stories intersect at pivotal moments, but in such a way that when the ship encounters the pilot, it’s intercut with scenes of the pilot twenty minutes into the future. This is a risky structure, and by far the most “auteur” aspect of the film. Nolan may not have made an arthouse war film a la The Thin Red Line, but its certainly more formally daring than Saving Private Ryan.

However, I don’t think the risk pays off. In the final cut, too many climactic scenes get cut up and spliced between the three narratives, and not always with a clear emotional throughline between the action. One particular scene on a shot-up vessel should be harrowing, but instead of focusing on it during the action, we’re constantly diverted to the pilot checking his fuel gauge again. It’s one thing to ask the audience to logically follow the events, but quite another to ask us to maintain emotional investment when the narrative refuses to linger. In some aspects, the structure feels like its covering the weaker elements of the film. In particular, the sea story centers in parts around a kid who tags along with the vessel, with embarassingly maudlin and mawkish results. Additionally, he pilot’s storyline has much less going on than the other two, and effectively vanishes from the film for a good chunk, as if Nolan ran out of things to do. As a standalone story, or a continuously told one, the pilot’s lonely birds-eye view could have been touching, but instead it drags. Things are a bit more steady on the beach, but it suffers a bit from the fact that all of the British soldiers look exactly the same, which made it sometimes more difficult to follow than it should have been.

But Dunkirk does have its moments. Nolan stages some beautiful shots; my favourite is perhaps a sinking ship filmed in the ship’s frame of reference, with its mast still straight while walls of water come at it from the side. And even with the excessive cutting, there are some incredibly tense scenes here, notably three which make drowning feel real and deeply terrifying. When it reaches those moments, Dunkirk is as good as the best war movies ever made. For the most part, its just kind of a mess.

C

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Dunkirk (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Note: In the theater I saw it in, one of the speakers started acting up a bit towards the end. I cannot stress enough how much of Dunkirk relies on sound, so this definitely affected my viewing experience. If you can’t see it in a big theater, at least make sure to see it somewhere with one heck of a subwoofer.

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Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Director Edgar Wright’s bread and butter, ever since and including Spaced, has been in making genre parodies that don’t only embrace the genre, but flourish in it. Shaun of the Dead, for example, has a lot of fun with zombie clichés, but it works perfectly well as a zombie movie in itself, and has a lot more visual style than most of its straight-faced kin. Baby Driver, Wright’s newest, is similarly aware of the tropes of its genre and picks fun at them, and gets away with it because it, first and foremost, is a good heist thriller. Yet, there is no mistaking Baby Driver for a parody; this is a fun thrill ride almost all the way through, and any laughs to be had at the genre’s expense are purely incidental. Playing it straight maybe makes Baby Driver a less novel outing than Wright’s previous, but the energetic flow, charismatic performances, and dazzling automotive stunts make for a hell of a fun time.

As one might have gathered from Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Wright is one hell of a kinematic director, and the audiovisual vibe he creates throughout is what really sets Baby Driver apart. Baby (the driver) has tinnitus, and always listens to an iPod to drown out the ringing. This simple little plot device gets exercised throughout the entire film, which Wright directs a lot like a music video, with everything from elevators to automatic weapon fire synchronized to guitar solos and trumpet blares. It also makes for easy (but effective and sparingly used) moments of dramatic tension whenever the music cuts out. The mood is so entrancing that when the choreography gets interrupted, we’re just as disoriented as Baby.

The cast is also more than game to play with some archetypes. In particular, the crowd of crooks have an interesting dynamic that could fill up a much longer movie. Kevin Spacey’s ringleader Doc never really comes into focus, with a few consequential moments in the third act that seem to come out of convenience to the plot rather than naturally from the character. However, the dynamic between Ansel Elgort’s Baby, John Hamm’s Buddy, Eiza Gonzalez’s Darling, and Jamie Foxx’s Bats is tense, fraught, and goes in some truly unexpected directions. Foxx almost takes over the movie in a nasty way as a hotheaded stick-up artist, but it ends up being his contrast with Hamm’s more level-headed Buddy that provides the second half with much of its thrust, and both actors relish that chance to play the heel. Outside the crime, Baby romance a waitress played by Lily James, who really only exists as an avatar for escape, a romantic ideal to make Baby wish he was in a different kind of movie. James is charming enough to make it work, but the script is clearly only interested in her insofar as she (a little inexplicably) cares about Baby, dulling the central drive of the second act.

Baby Driver isn’t Wright’s masterpiece. It’s either ten minutes too long or twenty too short, and its central character is not quite as nuanced as I might like. The ending is also a bit haphazard, with a climax that gets a bit too ugly and a bit too chaotic, as a setpiece set against Brighton Rock gets away from Wright’s otherwise steady flow. But it’s a hell of a fun time for the most part, and the kind of popcorn movie that will be endlessly rewatchable on home video. In the post-streaming era, it’s maybe the Blu-Ray release I’m looking forward to most since Fury Road. That should speak volumes louder than any little quibbles.

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B

Baby Driver (2017)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Mass Effect: Andromeda has its priorities in the wrong place

Mass Effect: Andromeda is maybe mostly disappointing because of what does work well about it. The setup, of the Milky Way races seeking new worlds and having to find their place among a native population, is perfect for a series where exploration has always played a role, and opens the door for some acute social commentary. The mechanics are also fantastic overall. The RPG elements have been greatly streamlined, and the options to let your character’s skills evolve in new ways hours after character creation are much greater. Suddenly decide that you want to give biotics a try? No problem! Just spend some points there and you’ll get access to those class perks. The combat is also greatly improved from the previous entries in the series, allowing you to jump-jet around while satisfyingly throwing out ammo and biotic charges in equal measures. All of this adds up to make Mass Effect Andromeda perfectly enjoyable. But it lacks the spark that made the first trilogy, even the buggy and mechanically turgid first entry and the somewhat overburdened third entry, so special*.

Even after putting 70 hours into the game, completing nearly all of the side quests and trying to squeeze every bit of dialogue out of my squadmates, it took until the last moments of the game to really come up with a good reason why this is the case. Mass Effect 1 presented you with a plethora of choices that had dire effects on the characters, the world, and the future games. Maybe the ambition of it all made BioWare’s life harder when it came to Mass Effect 2 and sowed some regret, as the choices in Andromeda pale in comparison. There are decisions to be made, to be sure, but outside of the requisite romances (this is still a space-banging simulator at its heart), none of them seem to really affect the major characters for more than a moment. There is only one squadmate whom you can make mad enough to leave your squad, and no major deviations in the climaxes for their individual arcs. You have some choice in terms of how much power the Milky Way races cede to the native Angaran race of Andromeda, but it’s mostly window dressing; the way the world is at the end is more-or-less independent of your decisions. It all seems to be set up for inertia to make sure a sequel can follow without being too dependent on your decisions, but it also makes for a game about blazing a trail that seems to be far too much on the rails. Andromeda also leaves too many plates spinning at its end, as if a sequel (and our attention) is all but guaranteed. Even stories about beginnings need endings.

Because it wants to make a 50+ hour game that exists mostly to set up sequels, a lot of Andromeda feels half-baked. While the combat mechanics are great, the actual combat scenarios get repetitive well before the end of the game, with no unique fights to speak of; a couple of neat minibosses (Remnant Architects, Kett Ascendants) show up a few times, but there are no boss battles to speak of. But since the combat works so well, the game throws cannon fodder at you constantly in terms of scavengers, outlaws, and anti-human activists. While the armies of Kett feel fine and satisfying to plow through, the shoot-first approach to the others runs in direct opposition to the narrative, where the Tempest crew are generally seen as agents of peace (there doesn’t seem to be quite a full-Renegade option here). The side quests are nearly all disposable, even the ones that aren’t fetch quests with a reward of 100 XP and a single line of dialogue. The loyalty quests for the squadmates are a highlight though, with an overall lighter feel and some really fantastic setpieces (Liam is the worst, but his gravity-bending pirate-fighting loyalty quest deserves to be in the conversation for best Mass Effect mission). The squadmates as a whole don’t quite measure up to the best of Mass Effect, but I generally liked all the non-human ones (as per Mass Effect tradition, the human ones are the worst). Andromeda isn’t a total failure, but considering its pedigree, it’s not difficult to imagine how great it could have been.

kett

C

Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017)
Developed by Bioware Montreal
Published by EA Games

(*) Mass Effect 2 is a perfect gem and I will hear no arguments against it.

Mass Effect: Andromeda has its priorities in the wrong place