Dunkirk


I was thinking recently that there are few really intellectual movie directors these days – or maybe it’s the stories that are missing. I mean stories that really challenge and make you think, that posit alternative views or defy established frameworks. Most movies these days are entertainment, though sometimes the entertainment is high art, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed. I have no argument with that, and take as much pleasure in it as the average man in the street – I love movies. There are view though that start with an intellectual viewpoint – most are fantasies in some way, or renderings of reality either historical or fictional. They are human dramas that explore feelings and confrontation, or escapist pictures that take us on an extended ride. Often times you’ll come out of the cinema and for hours later the images will reverberate in your mind, and possibilities echo – but equally the story will be forgotten come the next day.

Probably my favourite modern day film-maker is Christopher Nolan. Recently I sat on my couch and re-watched a couple of his big movies, Inception and Interstellar. Both are fabulously imaginative films that bend and warp your mind with the possibilities and conjecture they present. I love both movies, as much the second or third time around as the first. For someone who loves to believe in extraordinary possibilities I lap these up.

I’m a man who wants to believe in the extraordinary, in ghosts and vampires, in alien worlds and time travel. I love physics, and the thought that we are the tiniest of tiny specks at the corner of a tiny galaxy is both astounding and thrilling. I want the world to be more than it appears because I like mystery and wonder, want to be intrigued and led on by it. I want more than what I see, and yet I’m also a rational being – I can believe in the physics, but no matter how much I wish it I can’t conceive of heaven or hell.

Christopher Nolan is of similar ilk if his movies are anything to go by. He is fascinated by the same possibilities – fake realities, black holes, mind bending possibilities. He is such a master that the worlds he creates have both depth and intelligence. Is he an intellectual movie director? I don’t doubt he has a significant intellect, but though our minds become engaged with his films, they operate on a level that is more visceral. The wonder we feel comes from our gut. Later I might find myself exploring his worlds with my mind, reminded of the wonder, but I am not made to think differently, just more.

On the weekend I caught up with his latest movie, Dunkirk. I’m late to this party, with it being much lauded when it came out a few months ago. It’s different from Nolan’s more recent films in that it deals with a historical moment. Like Saving Private Ryan, it is a rendering of a key moment in World War Two.

It shares a kind of fidelity with Saving Private Ryan: it feels true, it seems authentic. This is what it was like, you think. You realise how rare it is to feel that. This was more than entertainment, it was supra-entertainment. It was different to Saving Private Ryan in that it does not contain the hectic onrush of action, but rather is a series of set-pieces that move forward with their own momentum before joining together a single narrative thread. It’s a much quieter movie, without the bombast, and certainly not the brutality and gore of the other movie. Nolan is less interested in representing that.

I was surprised in fact in how little the enemy intruded into the story. They were represented obliquely, a presence over yonder, pressing hard but unseen; and in the disembodied presence of Me-109’s doing battle over the English Channel, and HE-111’s swooping in to bomb minesweepers. Nolan is telling England’s story.

I used to be a big student of military history. I knew well that Germany had squandered its chance to drive the British and French allies into the sea at Dunkirk. Instead Hitler had called a halt and gave permission to Goering’s Luftwaffe to make the kill – at which they failed abjectly. History might be different now had Hitler let Rommel have his head – the English were ripe for the execution. Even knowing all that I was surprised at how ineffective and remote the Luftwaffe were as rendered in this movie.

This is a great human story that very effectively gets at the complex set of emotions the various participants experience and deal with – the shell-shocked survivor, the admiral trying to get survivors off the beach, the desperate soldiers looking to flee thwarted at almost every turn, and the decent, gentle English sailor doing his bit to save the day.

As entertainment this was enthralling, like watching a story with a ticking clock. I know how history tells how it turned out, but it was the individual stories that kept me at the edge of my seat. As I said, it felt so real – this is just a movie but, you think, it happened just like that. If not this salty skipper, then there was another just like him on that day.

A lot of people are saying this is the best movie of the year. I can understand that. It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year, and I can’t wait for Nolan’s next.

This is not an intellectual movie in the sense that it poses questions of us, but it is a movie conceived of and made with great intelligence and intellect.

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Faraway worlds


Having made comment on the respective merits of the two Blade Runner movies the other day I went home thinking back on the original. I prefer the sequel, but there is a scene in the original Blade Runner which is one of my favourite movie sequences of all time. It’s a favourite with a lot of people, for good reason. It’s Roy Batty’s soliloquy when he knows he can’t fight it any more, when he knows his time is done – and yet feels wonder, and some pride, at the life he has been afforded:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Some time after I had reached rock bottom this scene popped into my head, and in the weeks and months after was never far away. I felt a little like Roy Batty. I had lived a life. I had seen things few do, had experienced moments of wonder and profundity. I had immersed myself in experience and been richly rewarded for it.

All that was true, but there I was, with nothing, and with nothing concrete to hope for. I clung to a life I once had, grateful for it – grateful at least that I had that – but isolated by my present circumstances. I wanted to proclaim it, I’m not this homeless man, I am rather the man who has seen these things, been to these wondrous places, live moments of sublime insight.

Once something is gone, it’s gone. I remember when my grandmother died, then my mother years after, how those worlds died with them. They live only as long as they are in someone’s mind but, even so, they fade, they are of a past that cannot be returned to. It’s one reason I write, I think, to pin down and make permanent that sense of transient life.

I have moved on, but sometimes those words still return to me, like a reminder. They are still true to some meaning, though it less defined now that I have at least something, though very little.

Regardless, it’s one of the great movie scenes.

I like the new Blade Runner better than the old


I have an admission to make: I never really got into the original Blade Runner. For years this puzzled me. It felt as if it was a personal flaw, and so I would watch and re-watch it again and again in different cuts. I always enjoyed it, but I never loved it. What was really strange was this was just about the perfect movie for me to love. It had all the elements I like in story-telling and movie-making, and yet…

I would watch the movie with great admiration. It was a terrific story. Visually it was fantastic. It was moody and imaginative. It had memorable characters played by excellent actors. As always I found myself admiring Ridley Scott’s skill as a movie maker. Every element just about ticked the box for me, but as a whole it seemed a little less than the sum of those elements. For years I wondered at that, before finally concluding that I was not as emotionally involved in the fate of the characters as I should be.

There is a coolness, an emotional detachment, which is perhaps common in Scott’s movies. Generally you get so wrapped up in the gripping story that it never really occurs to you. The Alien movies are basically monster movies elevated to high-art. The story-line races along, and for those couple of hours you are thrilled to be taken away to inhabit a strange, perfectly imagined other world where you find yourself fascinated, and sitting at the edge of your seat. Scott is one of my favourite film makers, and he is in his element creating fantastic worlds and directing narratives headlong and building tension. His movies are high art, beautifully shot, and masterpieces of set design. Blade Runner is that, but at its heart is a story which I could appreciate, but never really feel.

So on Friday night I went and saw Blade Runner 2049 with the guys. It’s not a perfect film, but I think it a better film than the original.

So why isn’t it perfect? There is so much that is breathtakingly good. Visually it’s as stunning as anything Ridley Scott ever designed, and more. Some of the set-pieces are literally awesome. The soundscapes are perfect, and add so much to the atmosphere. It’s a brilliantly conceived world, and executed better than anything we’ve seen before. As a story it’s even better than the original – really, a worthy sequels, as so many aren’t. The characters are great, the acting fantastic, many of the sequences compelling. It’s a little too long to be perfect, perhaps, a little too ambitious to be perfect.

For me these are small things, and are made only in reference to how a movie like this might be shaped. Both my friends enjoyed it, but neither loved it, and both thought it about 30 minutes too long. I could understand, and from a purely technical perspective they’re probably right – but speaking for myself, I was happy for that extra 30 minutes.

I loved that they didn’t take the simpler option. There would have been a very satisfying movie without the additional elements, but for me those elements really topped it off, taking the story from impressive to poignant. Most will see it as gilding the lily, but it’s that stuff I live for.

Setting aside the sheer film making, super-impressive as it is, it’s the story that lifts this well above the average movie. The story-line is elegant, fascinating, and ultimately profound – and the writing matches it.

You can see this movie as a superior piece of entertainment if you like, like the original Alien say. I think that’s what my friends were looking for, and so will many others. It is that, but the ambitions of the director and writers go beyond that. There is a philosophical thread throughout this which goes to the human condition, and indeed, what it means to be human. This is inverted, our expectations confounded, but in so doing the point is pressed deeper. This is a sci-fi action movie which is really a character study, and which engages with some high end questions of identity.

I applaud them for that: it’s bold film making, and I wish there were more film makers willing to risk that. This is not just a sci-fi movie, and if you are willing to immerse yourself in it you’ll come away with questions in your mind, wonders in your head, and in your heart a sense of humanity we too often miss. This time my emotions were fully engaged.

Equal love, equal recognition, equal rights


Last night I watched A Single Man again. I’m already on record exclaiming at what a beautiful movie it is. Visually it’s fantastic, with vivid colours and great angles. It is a work of artistic vision, very personal I suspect, and so often very clever. There’s a knowingness that is true both for technique and content. It feels so real, and at the same time, so true – different things. Some of that is simple, such as the light, and the neighbourhood, familiar to me at least as someone who grew up in a similar world in far

Some of that is simple, such as the light, and the neighbourhood, familiar to me at least as someone who grew up in a similar world in far away Oz. Of course, the truth goes far deeper than that. This is a movie that charts human emotion in the most poignant way. Certainly I, watching it, recognised much that hitherto was set aside in some dark internal place. Movies such as this, and great art in general, bring such things to the surface. They touch on the universal in such a way that is new to us, reminding us of the depth of things we overlook in the busy act of just living. For me, experiencing such things, there is a bracing reminder that that’s what I want, in fact, that’s what is meaningful even in such a melancholy film as this. To feel deeply, truly, both the razor’s edge and the sublime.

Watching, there is a heart-rending scene early in the film that made me think of the looming same-sex marriage plebiscite here in Australia. George has just heard on the phone that his dearly loved partner has died in a car accident. He is undone, but holds it together in a very British way while talking to the far away cousin of his partner. George is lucky to be told at all, and it is clear that the family view his connection with shame – it is only this cousin, Ackerly, who has been decent enough to do the right thing. George inquires about the service, and is told that the service is for ‘family only’. He is not wanted there. Though George has shared his life for 16 years with their son, he is not of the family, and is an embarrassment they want nothing to do with. It is truly awful, if not downright ugly.

George must mourn alone, without even the solace of a service to bid goodbye to the person he has loved above all else. He is bereft, without even the comfort of the dogs they shared and loved so much – they too were victims of the accident. He has gone from perfect happiness to devastated isolation in the course of a short phone call.

This scene to me is a neat parable illustrating what we are voting for next month. Everyone is capable of love, and in our willful hearts, there is no division between love for someone of a different, or same sex. Love is independent of us all and can’t be legislated on. Where we do discriminate is how we recognise that love, and it’s that legislation we come to battle over. This story is all about recognition. The right to recognise the love and relationship of two people regardless of whether they are of same or different sex, indeed, the opportunity to celebrate it. It is

This story is all about recognition. The right to recognise the love and relationship of two people regardless of whether they are of same or different sex, indeed, the opportunity to celebrate it. It is time we reached out to say that you are as equal as us, and what you feel for your partner is no different in nature from what we feel for ours. Any argument to the contrary seems ugly and bitter and just downright wrong. A no vote cannot be abided.

Who in their heart would deny George his grief, or indeed, his love? It is a truth that can no longer be ignored.

Absurd truths


Wednesday night TV is the most fun night of TV in my house. I start off with Micallef on the ABC at 8.30. I couldn’t miss this. Not only is it bloody funny, it’s right on the money more often than not.

I reckon Shaun Micallef is some kind of absurdist genius. He takes the events of the week, most of them political, and presents them satirically. There’s a lot of material these days, and much of it naturally absurd – which is the pity of the times we live in. Doesn’t matter how much they are mocked by clever comedians, our politicians blithely continue doing their dumb and evil things.

Despite that Micallef has a unique take on things that will often get me laughing out loud – a rare event, believe me – and sometimes wanting to cry at the cruel truth of it. If you haven’t caught it you should.

Right after that is Working Dog’s production of Utopia. This is probably the fourth season, but just as with Micallef there’s a never ending stream of material.

For those who haven’t seen it it’s another satire, this one set in a government organisation called the Nation Building Authority, or NBA. They are tasked with conceiving and executing huge nationwide infrastructure projects. It’s a sexy sort of organisation and naturally subject to the whims, fancies and political nonsense of the minister and the government of the day.

Tony is the much put upon head of the NBA. He’s a voice of sense and reason who each week is overwhelmed by the collective nonsense of marketing spin and political expedience. I watch it laughing, knowing that so much of it is real. It echoes the headlines, and sometimes anticipates them. It’s true all over.

It’s familiar in a more personal sense too. Often I’ll watch with a knowing eye having witnessed or been the victim of similar shenanigans within the office.

This weeks episode was a case in point. It focussed on a doomed government portal which had been much hyped, but proven to be a technical disaster through it’s many manifestations. The experts at the NBA, asked to assess it, advised it was too expensive to fix and it should be dumped. The minister seized upon the idea that it could be fixed, and with a political glee chose that option, waving off the cost.

Recently in my office there was a substantial and poorly managed project rolling out a new function to customers, which included as key requirement a website customers had to log into. I sat listening to all the stories of woe as the project rolled out, sometimes shaking my head, sometimes laughing at the absurd improbability, and sometimes at the blind incompetence.

The website broke several times. It was replaced with different versions. Each one failed. In the end they created a simple façade without the functionality they originally conceived, but at least it would crash. It meant a whole lot of extra work though.

Most of that could have been prevented had it been properly planned and tested. There should have been load testing and testers should have been asked to try and break it, and all the usual things, none of which happened. Typical of the planning was a date field that had no validation, and so when people entered a date in a format other than what was expected an error would occur. Elementary stuff really, but very real.

Last week I was involved in something which is a good example of how political and marketing imperatives overtake operational need.

One of the issues in ops here is that people don’t close jobs. They keep them open because they’re not sure, or because they over-service, or because they want to game the system. The result of that is open jobs clogging the system and poor productivity.

Now these people have been told repeatedly they should close these jobs and have been provided with data sheets telling them what to do. It still happens, and it frustrates management mightily.

One of the things I know about people is that everyone takes in information and direction differently. Some people are visual, others verbal. Some like detailed instructions, others just want the vibe. Some need to understand themselves before they take it on board, and others don’t need a reason.

In any case I created a pithy solution to make it simple, and complement the other advice that’s been provided.

I created a poster. It was simple, direct, but had a little humour. Have you…then close the job. Have you…then close the job. And so on. Do not pass go, close the job.

The kicker was at the end. It needs to resonate. Slogans are good. Catchcry’s. You want to get their imagination and have them engage with the concept.

The poster finished with: Pull the trigger! Close the job.

That lodges in their mind. Pull the trigger. They get reminded by their colleagues: have you pulled the trigger?

Naturally it got knocked back. Too politically incorrect. Too violent.

Good grief!

A winter’s heart


Sometimes when you sit down on a Sunday night you’re looking for a particular kind of diversion. For me, often, it’s pure entertainment. If I can watch a decent mystery, comedy, or action movie then I’m happy. Sometimes I need a laugh, sometimes a thrill, but it all amounts to the same thing. For those couple of hours I want to escape my world for the fantasy world on screen.

Other times – rarer for me – I’m looking for something more profound. I like to think, I like to be moved, but movies of that ilk are less common, and often on a Sunday night – the night before work – I don’t want to think too hard. Besides, I have books for that.

Last night was different. What it was I couldn’t say, but I felt the need for a deeper mode of entertainment. I wanted to be stretched, less so intellectually than emotionally. I wanted to feel, and in feeling to ponder the profound meaning of that feeling.

What I settled on was an old French movie, A Heart in Winter (Un Coeur en Hiver).

This is one of my favourite movies. It’s intelligent, artistic, and heart rending. It’s sat there on my movie queue for about 2 years, and though I’ve paused often at it, until last night I hadn’t clicked on it. Last night was just right though.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it now. About 4 or 5 I reckon. It came out in 1992, which seems an eternity ago now, and whether I saw it then or later I can’t recall. In my mind I group it together with other French movies of similar type and from around the same time, particularly those of Krzysztof Kieslowski (his Three Colours: Red, Blue, and Double Life of Veronique are also all time favourites I wish I could share with others).

A Heart in Winter is, like those other films, profoundly human. It deals in the fears and frailties, the hopes and delusions of common man. That’s the appeal of films like this when done well. You can watch these movies and recognise so much. As always in the best art you come to a truth of something you know deep inside, but which previously has not been raised to a conscious level. We live and operate with these truths just beneath the surface of our skin. They influence our behaviour without our conscious awareness. We are those things, but it’s rare we acknowledge or understand that.

A Heart in Winter happens to be thematically inspired by one of my favourite books, by Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. It has an extra significance to me for that reason. I read that book at one sitting in the mid-nineties lying on a couch at my dad’s when he lived in Potts Point, having bought it at a local bookstore. I was drawn into the story and identified strongly with the main character, Pechorin. As in the movie, the book is intelligently done, and is the study of a flawed, but highly capable man.

The movie is heart-breaking, and the last forty minutes or so difficult viewing – but it goes beyond that. What could have been a mere drama of sorts goes further to become a tragedy of great human dimension. You recognise it though, or at least I do. You feel it inside you like an echo that doesn’t still until hours later. It makes you think, it makes you remember, and it makes you reflect on the more profound elements of being a human being.

That’s why I chose to watch it last night – I wanted to feel that again. You skate across the surface of things mostly. Life happens by rote and routine. The days and weeks gather up and pass by. Sometimes you remember there is more to existence than that. You recall that the most memorable moments of life are when you are forced to deeply feel something. You miss that. You wish for more of it, but don’t know how. But at least there is a movie there in your queue to experience it by proxy. It’s not enough, but it’ll do in a pinch.

One of the great things about this movie is the music in it. There are some great pieces, but none more so than Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. I listen to it and it’s as if I experience it from the inside out. It seems to mirror human emotion, give musical expression to human frailty and hope. I’d just about do anything to have written something as beautiful and true as that. I can’t write music, but it’s what I try to do in my writing – give allegorical voice to a truth we can all come to understand. If I could achieve that, just once, I’d die a happy man.

Broken covenant


I caught up with the most recent instalment in the Alien series on Saturday night: Alien Covenant. I figure how you respond to this movie depends on whether you’ve watched the other movies in the series, or not.

Assuming you come to this movie without pre-conceived notions and without the legacy of the previous films you would probably come away a happy viewer. It’s well made as most Ridley Scott movies are, and beautifully shot. It’s competent, interesting and entertaining. As a stand-alone sci-fi thriller it ticks most of the boxes. You’d watch it, enjoy it, and move on.

It’s different if, like me, you’ve watched every movie in the series leading up to it, and most of them multiple times. I’m not a fanboy, but Alien and Aliens are great movies, two of the best of their type ever made. Subsequent movies haven’t lived up to that standard, but it’s a tough standard. I still come to each instalment with anticipation verging on excitement.

On that basis Alien Covenant was disappointing, though certainly better than several of the earlier efforts.

On the plus side it returned to the basic and classic concept of the original movies. A group of humans essentially trapped or marooned with a marauding alien (or two). There’s no way out, no real way of defending yourself, and all of that is ratcheted up by the lurking menace somewhere in the dark. Having said that it’s nowhere near as scary as the first two movies.

I found it pretty predictable in the end. Half an hour out I pretty well knew how it would end, but was desperately hoping I was wrong. I wasn’t. That comes down to the screenplay, but also how it was done.

As someone who grew up watching these movies I felt as if there was a subtle betrayal in this instalment. It make entire sense to me, and even if you accepted the premise I felt it took it away from what these movies are about.

This is where the spoiler alert applies, so up to you if you want to read on.

As in most of the Alien movies an android plays a key role. In the most recent movie in the series (Prometheus) we saw the sole surviving scientist (Elizabeth Shaw) of that expedition fly off in an alien spaceship with David, the loyal android played by Michael Fassbender. David turns up again in this movie, but playing a different role.

There’s a bit of I, Robot in how this has been written. From the loyal and obedient android in Prometheus David becomes someone/something different in Covenant. Between movies, off screen as such, David’s ‘consciousness’ had warped. From the loyal servant of man in Covenant he is sinister and bitter, with violent designs upon mankind.

This did not ring true for me. I know it is a classic convention, but it seems contrived in this version. (I rued the lost opportunity of another movie where David and Elizabeth Shaw might encounter the mysterious giant race of Aliens – in this they have been previously destroyed).

What this contrivance means for the story is critical, and in large part foreshadows the predictable ending. It runs counter to the meaning of the series too, in my view at least. It’s like an element has been introduced to artificially direct an outcome, when the beauty of the early movies was that they had their own spontaneous logic.

As an Alien aficionado I’m disappointed – it’s just another movie, and I fear for the next instalment. As a movie fan it is just another movie, albeit entertaining – but no more than that.