The Films of 2017: The short takes of summer

We’re more than halfway through the year in film, a good time to take stock of what I’ve missed and what I need to catch up with.  Some thoughts on three recent viewings:

I’ve never been much of a Christopher Nolan fan, but his latest, the WWII historical drama Dunkirk, is splendid: it approaches the material with a restraint and a tactfulness that feels somehow quintessentially British, and at 106 minutes it’s just the right length.  There’s none of the pretentiousness or bloat that has (pardon the pun) capsized Nolan’s previous work, even if his playing with chronology makes things unnecessarily complicated at points.  It also sports a superb performance by Mark Rylance as a middle-class English civilian whose determination to do his part in rescuing his imperiled countrymen drives the most compelling of the film’s various plot strands.  Recommended.   

Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja could be seen as a spiritual sequel to his last film, Snowpiercer—another broadly conceived political fantasy featuring a large international cast.  (Korean newcomer Seo-Hyeon Anh appears alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Tilda Swinton in, of course, dual roles, wearing, of course, wonky teeth.)  Where Snowpiercer was an action thriller for the Occupy Wall Street era Okja tackles such hot-button issues as genetically modified food and animal rights.  As with Bong’s previous films, it’s cartoonish and fun enough that the crashing obviousness of its “points” ends up not mattering all that much.  Recommended, but don’t expect, say, Brazil.

More subtle is Asgar Farhadi’s The Salesman, a domestic drama that’s as suspenseful as any of this year’s thrillers.  Set amongst a group of stage actors putting on a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, its utilization of a personal crisis as a means of exploring larger ethical questions recalls such other great works of drama as Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.  Ostensibly the story of a high school teacher’s quest to take revenge on his wife’s assailant, it slowly morphs into a pitiless and ironic satire about the fragility of the male ego.  And there’s something of the nervous tension of Roman Polanski’s apartment films in the opening scenes of the film, as the central couple moves into a unit in a housing complex still crowded with the belongings of the previous tenant.  Recommended.       

I’m tempted to make a joke that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z ought to be retitled The Lost City of Zzzzzz.  But I don’t want to beat up on this film too badly, because it’s such a lovingly mounted period piece, photographed in burnished gold tones by Darius Khondji (with whom the director previously collaborated on The Immigrant).  While long and not particularly gripping, it’s also sensitive and thoughtful.  Recommended, but with some reservation.    

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