Dunkirk: The Blood-Dimmed Tide

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That it's taken me almost a full week to process my reaction to Dunkirk should say a lot about the effect of the film. I'll usually watch a movie like this twice, once for the experience, a second time for the craft but my first thoughts after exiting the theater was that it was going to be a long time before I am prepared for that repeat viewing. No, I went in thinking this was going to be another war flick, another Nolan vehicle with some clever structure or idea that would engage my brain but about a third of the way into the story a thought surfaced like an enemy submarine in my mind: I am not prepared for this. And then it got worse. This is not to say it's bad or torturous, just that it's the most mature, relentless, grueling film that Chris Nolan has made so far, it fully establishes him as one of the preeminent writer/directors working today and if it doesn't snag him his Oscar in one of the two big categories I'm burning the whole building down to the ground.

Part of the reason I wasn't prepared for Dunkirk is that it's been a long time since I went to the theater to see an actual film film, as opposed to a Marvel movie or a popcorn summer comedy blah blah blah. I watch the heavier stuff at home where I can pause and control the pace or take a minute to distance myself from the ending of, let's say, Okja, that had me blubbering like a small child whose balloon had floated away. Instead, Nolan takes one of his greatest skills, building and compounding tension until it reaches some breathless, seemingly unending stress test, that he normally reserves for the second or third act of his movies and just does that from frame one of Dunkirk. The entire movie is an escalation of suspense that is a little difficult to watch at times as the existential nightmare relentlessly closes in on these laconic, defeated soldiers waiting on the beaches of France. Stylistically, this is going to be called a minimalist masterpiece in visual storytelling, deservedly so, but the real literal unseen champion of the film is also in the sound design which is fucking terrifying.

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The other thing that left me unprepared was my familiarity with both the history of the event and with war films in general. How much suspense could a movie create if you already know how it's going to end? A lot, it turns out. Particularly if there is no grand or epic score from James Horner or John Williams to tell you what to feel and when. Dunkirk is unique in that sense, it hits none of the normal beats that a war movie will do. No one is in charge, not really. There's no funny guy, or tough guy, or a hero type. To be completely honest, there really is very little actual combat that takes place outside of the aerial dogfights and nary a word of exposition or personal history from any of the principle characters. We never actually see the German army, which I found incredibly refreshing, too many WWII films turn into Nazi fetishism. Instead, the audience is left with the grim realities of the world coming apart at the seams. Something I like to keep in mind whenever I start a new book or a show on the subject, is that we view the second World War from the perspective of the victors. But, at the time, success, and as in Dunkirk, even survival, was far from certain. Before the events of The Miracle of Dunkirk, as Nolan points out, it was truly the darkest hour of Western Civilization to this point in history. If a killing blow had been struck, as it almost certainly was about to be, England and the rest of the United Kingdom have no standing army to defend against invasion. If England falls there is no need for legitimate defenses on the Western Front and Nazi Germany turns the full brunt of its forces on Russia and, instead of being stopped within sight of Moscow's towers, rolls on through, potentially knocking their last remaining foe out of the fight, thus completely securing Fortress Europa. This is assuming the North African campaign takes on a lower priority since the oil fields needed by the Reich would be supplemented by the Caucuses regions in….

Anyway. After a few days I changed my mind, I will be seeing Dunkirk again in the near future, specifically, in the theater because that's what the movie is designed for. Nolan is a film purist, a snob in the right kind of way who is keeping the actual medium (as opposed to digital) alive, and who rails against Netflix's distribution model or lack thereof. His theater is a sacred place and this is perfectly true of his latest. It feels important and it was difficult trying to start a review of a movie that just needs to be experienced, because that's what it was, an experience. Afterwards, I felt like I'd been through some shit, as opposed to having just sat in a comfortable chair eating a soft baked pretzel with a beer. The best description and compliment I can give Dunkirk is that after a good movie, I can talk about it freely, I like selling people on something that deserves to be seen. A really good movie will make me think and I'll compose some pretentious think piece on the themes and concepts explored. But this film left me speechless. I was sobbing a little with all kinds of emotions while I tried to remember where I parked my car and I made it about five minutes up the road before I broke down into an ugly cry. And what followed was that remarkable release of emotions, of, again, that tension, and it was as cathartic of a feeling as I've had at the theater in a long time. After years of being coddled and tickled by summer blockbuster fare and tentpole franchises, it feels good to be reminded what cinema and Christopher Nolan are capable of. Is this my favorite film of his? No. I probably won't throw it on in the background while I fold laundry or nurse a hangover some day. Is this his best film so far? Almost certainly, and that's saying quite a bit. Just. Be prepared.

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Chester Bennington: The Sun Will Set

I love writing and I love writing about things I love, even if it's a eulogy about someone who meant a lot to me. On the other hand, it's genuinely difficult to eulogize someone who meant a lot when it comes to suicide. There's this sense of betrayal, an undeniable anger, particularly if that someone has created such a cathartic and honest testimony with their art form in defiance of those feelings of hopelessness and despair that visits anyone with a heart and a head on their shoulders and although Linkin Park has been often maligned in the metal and rock community for committing the unforgivable sin of being accessible, I'll stand up and proudly admit to loving their music. I'll die on that hill. Because any music that is as unabashedly vulnerable and earnest about depression and rage and insecurity as loud and passionately as possible is music that I can relate to because, well, I've been there. And I curl up with a bottle instead of trying to share that pain with a million strangers. I don't have the courage or talent to turn those feelings into something productive and beautiful but Chester Bennington did that. And as mad as I am at him for checking out early, I'm so grateful a friend handed me a copy of Hybrid Theory when I was a kid. And although my first impulse is to be pissed, at the end of the day, I'd rather be thankful.
So, thanks, Chester, for letting me know I wasn't alone when I needed it the most. Thanks for doing what you loved. Thanks for turning your pain into fight. I wish you hadn't used it up showing us how it's done. I wish you'd saved some for yourself.
Thank you, and Godspeed.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming- Feels Like Summer

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This is going to be a less popular opinion than most and I usually don’t like taking a superior position to mainstream reviews but Spider-Man: Homecoming, in its perfectly safe, Marvel-approved, inoffensive, and un-challenging little package, feels much closer to a big budget special series of Agents of SHIELD than an actual addition to the Cinematic Universe. In fact, Spidey feels completely relegated to the JV squad throughout and, for an OG fan from back in the day, this is enormously disappointing. There are major issues with both of the previous film incarnations but one thing that they both did very well, that I now realize was taken for granted, is depict that sense of independence, ingenuity, and self-reliance Peter Parker has always had in the face of adversity and in Homecoming all those things are removed. Instead, this is once again Tony Stark’s world and we’re all just living in it and for Spider-Man to practically require permission and approval from Iron Man to be a superhero on a constant basis was massively frustrating. That aside, Tom Holland is more than capable and a real joy to watch and I get they are trying to reboot the character from scratch but this literal Marvel fanboy, this bumbling, insecure goof, this ain’t my Spider-Man.

Holy Blogpost McBloggington is this movie meta. Like. So meta. There are shots at all kinds of things from the previous Spider-Man movies to the unusual new hotness of Aunt May to Ferris Bueller (?!) to Donald Glover being…. weird Donald Glover. It’s self-aware to the point that I was starting to worry the post-credits sequence would just be a camera view from inside the theater just behind our heads. But this also allows the filmmakers and all six of the credited screenwriters to really have fun with the material which translates really well to the audience Marvel is aiming for: the casual summer blockbuster crowd. More devoted fans of the franchise (i.e. nerds and geeks and me) are going to call out Homecoming for being a big glowing pastiche of what has worked 17 or so times before, minus the stakes. To reference it again, the unfairly maligned Agents of SHIELD has plotlines that easily outmatch this film in terms of scale and scope and the final battle that takes place could have easily been lifted from the small screen. To put a finer point on it, nothing that happens in Spider-Man: Homecoming was an experience unique to the character in particular. To put an even finer point on it, any of the B-List heroes in the Marvel oeuvre could have substituted for Spider-Man at any point in this story and it wouldn’t have mattered. In fact, his actual powers, when not absent entirely, are occasionally inadequate or mocked throughout the movie which brings me to another complaint.

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At some point RDJ is going to bow out of the role and although I will certainly miss the actor’s undeniable charm and wit, my goodness, is Iron Man becoming the deus ex machina of the MCU. He really has turned into the Marvel equivalent of Superman crossed with a Swiss Army Knife where the question becomes, “Why bother have any other superheros show up, Tony Stark probably has an Iron Man suit that can handle it.” His suit is now some combination of Inspector Gadget and the original ’66 Batman utility belt which, luckily, has shark-repellent spray equipped because of course it does. When there are no restrictions on a character’s abilities there is no sense of suspense, no tension and Iron Man has become the screenwriter’s foil; it’s a lazy way to resolve any situation and making Peter Parker basically dependent on one of those suits to do everything is tragic beyond description. Okay, maybe not that bad, but this, again, ain’t my Spider-Man. This also presents the opportunity to make the same AI jokes all over again with a female version of JARVIS, this time voiced by Jennifer Connelly who is, in real life, married to Paul Bettany who voiced the actual JARVIS and is now Vision because META.

Okay, all kvetching aside, where Spider-Man: Homecoming undeniably succeeds is off the clock. The high school setting, this time around with convincing teenage actors as opposed to 30 year old men wearing backpacks, is as much fun as you’re going to have at the theater this summer. The whole cast is a joy, even the bully Flash Thompson, now Guatemalan instead of white and Thor-like, is kind of funny while being a jerk to Penis Peter. A particular surprise was one of my primary objections when the film was first being cast and it’s a complaint that got me in a lot of trouble with some female friends on social media. Up until the announcement of her role, I had never heard of nor did I know what was a ‘Zendaya’ and when I looked her up I recoiled in disbelief. I understand that she is a talented performer and actress, that I get, but my first impression was that she looked like someone had taken a Bratz doll and magically brought it to life. This is not a shot at her to be insulting, she’s undeniably beautiful but she’s also, in my mind, unrealistically beautiful. She’s a product of the fashion world, which is a world that I have no place in or love of, and I could not comprehend her existing alongside Peter Parker, who is destined to be a lowly newspaper photographer struggling to make ends meet. Lo the wrath I took on Facebook for objecting to unrealistic beauty standards. However, I will freely admit to judging a book by its cover, unfairly so, because this ‘Zendaya’ has some comedic timing. She was interesting and weird, if in a Disney Channel kind of way, and I look forward to whatever direction they are going with her, even if we have to wait for the sequel to find out what that is going to be. Plus, Michael Keaton is a national treasure. Seriously, just… be in more movies, dude.

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Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the Spider-Man movie we’ve been waiting for? The one we deserve? The redeemer of the franchise and the character? Sure, if you want it to be. I, however, will be waiting on the rest of the movies to find out. Because, as I’ve said before, this is not my Spider-Man but it’s not really supposed to be. The Web-Head I looked up to was closer to the kind of man that I wanted to be like: funny, independent, maybe a little bit lonely but certain of his responsibility. And seeing this nascent version of that man is okay, I forget that it’s not always my turn. Hopefully, the darker, more mature themes that made the Wallcrawler so compelling will find their way back into this version someday, but until then this will do just fine, in fact, it sincerely is an absolute blast from start to finish and is probably the funniest film in the entire canon. That being said, I really hope that Kevin Feige and company stop painting by numbers at some point and let these characters films grow up. The one thing that kept nagging at me from the beginning was the quaint, solitary SONY logo that appears before the opening sequence of the movie. After the scene plays out the MARVEL fanfare begins with it’s massive logo and hero cutaways and a jaunty version of the 80s Spider-Man theme plays, and you realize who is really in charge. These movies can continue to be a lot of fun without saying anything or taking any chances and if that’s what Marvel wants to keep doing, that’s certainly within their now considerable influence and power. But even though they left the man out with only so much as a passing mention, I remember what a certain someone had to say about great power.

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