It’s been kind of a weird summer here at Mildly Pleased, as we had our most post-filled month of 2017 in July, due in no small part to our deep dive into the Criterion catalog. But I think also due to Criterion month, June was kind of a dead zone due to our preparation, while August has also been similarly dead due to us being burned out on talking about movies.
Which is a bit of a shame, because by all accounts 2017 has been one of the best summers for movies that I’ve seen in a while. Sure, there have been some clunkers like the obligatory Transformers or The Emoji Movie, which apparently was underwhelming, even by the extremely low expectations one would set out for a movie called The Emoji Movie. But here I offer a review of three of the better high profile movies I saw this summer, because I’m sure you haven’t already heard people talk about them enough already, right?
In a perfect world, every summer movie would deliver what Baby Driver delivered – high-octane pulp fun, with a reverence for high-octane action sequences that wishes to do nothing but entertain. Baby Driver was even a bit of a surprise hit at the box office, despite it not being a sequel or based on any kind of recognizable property (unless “rockin’ car chase movies” is a recognizable property). Which was nice to see, considering director Edgar Wright has seemed to have had a bit of a shaky path toward Hollywood filmmaking. But I think Baby Driver has possibly cemented him as a mainstream force to be reckoned with.
Mainly because Wright just gets the car movie genre so well. I haven’t done a ton of digging into the production of Baby Driver, but all of the car chase sequences (which includes an open chase that’s as good as any movie car chase in the last 20 years) were clearly done with actual cars, and are all the more thrilling for it. I think it’s just that thing where even if your eye aren’t consciously aware that what you’re watching is CG or not, you can feel it, and it clearly adds to the movie’s almost exhaustingly fast-paced nature.
Of course, another reason for the film’s kinetic nature is it’s non-stop use of music, which includes everything from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to multiple Stax hits to Dave Brubeck. The film’s titular character is listening to his iPod throughout every chase, and despite the somewhat technologically obsolete nature of the iPod and its weirdly nostalgic use here, the movie clearly understands the modern mash-up aesthetic of how we process music these days.
Though, as you’ve probably noticed, everything I’ve commented on so far about this film has been its more technical, surface-level attributes. Baby Driver is perhaps so committed to its car movie genre-ness, that it sometimes fails to avoid cliches even while making the film so bare bones plot-wise that it seemed like it was trying to avoid the cliches. And in the process, pretty much all of the characters (except maybe Baby) are a bit forgettable, though I’d say Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm do give solid performances in spite of that. Which perhaps makes Baby Driver a flash-over-substance kind of film, but while you’re watching it, it’s the kind of flash you can’t take your eyes off of.
I’m now realizing that all three of the movies I’m reviewing have the attribute of managing to feel fresh despite being in pretty well-worn genres. However, The Big Sick doesn’t so much try to boil down its genre to its bare essentials (like these other two films), but instead just tries to be very sincere about the particular story it’s telling. And fortunately, it’s a story the rings very true, because as anyone who knows anything about this movie knows, it’s based on the unusual real-life love story of its writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon.
Nanjiani basically stars as a younger version of himself, still trying to make it in the Chicago stand-up scene, while having to deal with the realities of confronting an arranged marriage, because of his Pakistani background. He then meets Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), and they first hit it off, but can’t quite make the relationship work. Then they kind of break up, and Emily ends up in a coma. Kumail then spends much of the movie in this awkward limbo while getting to know Emily’s parents (played wonderfully by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), and weirdly getting to know Emily better.
Again, the movie avoids any sort of romantic comedy cliche just by virtue of its odd circumstances. Having one of your two romantic leads in a coma for half the movie is a strange, but weirdly effective choice story-wise, though I don’t know if it would work if the movie wasn’t as sneakily funny as it is, or if it wasn’t as much fun watching Nanjiani and Romano hang out and have just the most dryly funny conversations. Also, its honest depiction of what it means to be a 21st-century Muslim doesn’t hurt either.
But I suppose the one thing that stuck out to me about this movie (other than that it’s really good), is it felt like the first true “Apatow movie” in a while. Which isn’t to say that the mega-comedy producer hasn’t been doing good work in the past few years, or at least helping other talented people get their shit made in the last few years. It’s just that The Big Sick (which Apatow produced) to me had that same feel of a Knocked Up or a Funny People, where you have a lot of funny people hanging around being funny (there are bunch of backstage scenes between comics, played by Kurt Braunohler, Bo Burnham, and Aidy Bryant), but are also dealing with this uncomfortable situation.
Also The Big Sick has that underlying sweetness that you can count on in a top-tier Apatow production. And it’s not an overt sweetness, which I’d say his last directed film Trainwreck kind of leaned into a little too hard. But it’s a kind of sweetness that buries itself within dick jokes and awkward situations, and comes out in a surprisingly honest way. Which The Big Sick can’t help but do, since it’s based on a disarming true story that they managed to not muck up in translating to the screen.
I couldn’t tell you whether Dunkirk does a good job of translating the true story it’s based on to the screen. Because if I’m being perfectly honest, World War II battles that don’t involve Americans just isn’t something I’m terribly knowledgeable about. Also, whether Dunkirk is a historically accurate depiction of the battle that shares its namesake is kind of beside the point. Much like Baby Driver, Dunkirk is all about pure, visceral experience, but I think is even more effective because it clings so tightly to that idea, while trying to make methodical sense of the madness of war.
The way it does this is with a somewhat unconventional structure, as it follows three separate sets of British soldiers – one on land, one on sea, and one in the air. Each of these viewpoints also take place at different points in the Dunkirk invasion, though they all eventually catch up with each other and intersect as things become increasingly chaotic as the looming threat of the German Army converges on this mass of troops.
Which all makes this feel quite like a Christopher Nolan movie, even if its minimal length, dialogue, and presence of a dead wife would seemingly say otherwise. Nolan has always been a master of parallel action, and the way he weaves these different storylines in these different crescendos of chaos, while its effective Hans Zimmer score punctuates every one of these crescendos, is nothing short of breathtaking.
I guess one thing to address with any Christopher Nolan movie is the director’s fanboys, all of whom seem to be ardent IMDb users. I honestly don’t know if Dunkirk is a movie for the Nolan diehards, since it’s currently ranked lower on the IMDb top 250 than The Dark Knight Rises, despite being possibly his most critically acclaimed film yet. And maybe I have a more similar relationship with him as that of a film critic, since I’ve always enjoyed Nolan’s films. Though Inception was probably the last time I can recall his directorial bag of tricks really giving me a thrill the way his films can when they’re firing on all cylinders.
And a big reason why I (and I’m sure plenty of critics) are a fan of Dunkirk, is that it cuts away a lot of the things that can sometimes bog down his movies. You don’t see characters having long drawn out conversations explaining what’s going on in the plot. Instead, everything’s already going on, and much like the charge of war, the movie forces the viewer to go headstrong into battle or get left in the dust.
Perhaps it gives the movie a bit of a cold feeling, since this is ultimately a film more about survival than hope. Though I think this is a pitch perfect approach for a chapter in World War II that happens so early on in the conflict, with nothing but the fog of war shrouding everything. And considering I’m always more impressed with Nolan’s knack for massive construction than his knack for character stuff, Dunkirk has made me a fan, if just for one day.