Dunkirk

August 9, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

In the spring of 1940, well before the US joined the allied forces in WWII, things looked pretty grim for Europe. Germany had taken Poland, and had advanced into France, while England became a sitting duck. German forces pushed English and France armies to the brink, bringing them to the shores of Dunkirk, a beach along the coast of France. Christopher Nolan’s noble “Dunkirk” attempts to retell the evacuation attempt and rescue on that beach; for the most part, he achieves something unique: a war movie without a central narrative. It’s somewhat disjointed–which is on purpose–but that does bog down the dramatic elements of the film.

It’s split into three parts: The Mole (beach), which takes place over a week; The Air, which takes place over one hour; and, The Sea, which takes place over a day. Each parts, to me, represent three elements of the body: the head (The Mole), the heart (The Sea), and the muscle (The Air). Most of the sequences in the air are tightly shot, with dogfighting between Spitfires being the primary focus. There are some outside shots illustrating the scope of the fight; but mostly, we’re drawn right into one-on-one battles.

On the Mole, we’re introduced to two main characters: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and “Gibson” (Aneurin Barnard). Tommy is the sole survivor of his unit after being attacked by the Germans (who are never shown onscreen), in the town. He escapes and makes it onto the beach, encountering Gibson burying someone. Instead of having a conversation about it, they’re immediately whisked away to wounded as Germans keep bombarding the beach. They carry a stretcher to a boat with wounded, but are only just about to make it, after being turned away by officials. As stowaways, they are safe–until the ship is leveled and everyone is poured out into the water, and forced back to the beach.

The Sea features probably the strongest story in the film. A father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), take their private yacht to Dunkirk to aid the evacuation. This was part of a huge project urged by Winston Churchill (also never shown onscreen), that civilians take part in aiding the stranded soldiers back to England. But Dawson, instead of having the Navy support him, takes his boat for himself to head his own rescue. George (Barry Keoghan), their teenage assistant, comes along. On their way, they pick up a wounded soldier who survived a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy). The soldier is shell shocked and extremely tense, insistent that he doesn’t want to go back to Dunkirk. Dawson continues on, to the dismay of the soldier, who winds up accidentally pushing George down and hurting him badly. The yacht eventually picks up a pack of soldiers either from downed planes or destroyed ships, and attempts to bring them back.

The Air has the most action, and as said above, tightly executed so it comes off very realistically and intense. Farrier (Tom Hardy) is the main focus as far as the characters, and seems to be the most accomplished fighter pilot. His mission is to stave off German fighters from attacking the ships trying to leave Dunkirk. His heroics are certainly some of the strongest of the film–and provides some of the much needed drama that’s lacking elsewhere.

That would be The Mole. While there certainly is plenty of ground to cover dramatically, we don’t get a real sense of intimacy from the characters. They’re just faces and mouths shouting at each other. Tommy is quiet, Gibson speechless; but another character, Alex (Harry Styles), barks and distrusts both of them as they all try to escape the beach in ill-fated attempts. Alex accuses Gibson of being a German spy since he won’t talk, and thinks Tommy is a traitor. But none of that really goes anywhere, and seems to be a waste of screen time. The other central figure on the beach is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who mostly paces around hoping for a miracle to happen. Branagh has the easiest part to play here, as the stoic commander just whispering “home” and watching as the ships come in.

The Mole represents “the head”, because it comes off as the more intellectual story. Trying to show these soldiers as literal rodents scampering and desperately surviving can be a useful metaphor; though, it’s not a full on allegory. But it has the most use of dialogue, even though there is a lot of silence among characters as well. But it falls flat as a narrative, since it really lacks a main character arc. The sea is the heart because the story of Dawson and his son, and mate George, is the most moving. And, seeing all of these ships from civilians come onto the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue their countrymen, is very powerful. I think the entire film could’ve revolved around this and been a stronger film. The air, of course, is where most of the best action comes from. The muscle, literally keeping this film in motion. Hardy is always reliable as an actor; and he pulls off Farrier extremely well.

The weaknesses of the film don’t outweigh the potency of its story and purpose; but, it could have been a much stronger picture. I think Nolan sometimes lingers on the pretentious, thinking he can do better than sentimentality–which is fine, except you need to fill that with something meaningful. “Dunkirk” suffers a bit from having too little emotional empathy at times. Besides that, some of the questionable music cues weigh down the film’s authority as well. In the air, I felt there was no soundtrack necessary. Just the whizzing and pops of the bullets, mixed with the whaling of the fighters, was enough. That part of the film is so raw anyway, that music was a distraction.

“Dunkirk” does succeed in telling a good story about faith and hope; it’s not the strongest WWII movie by any means, but it does serve its purpose telling a unique story. I think Nolan could have simplified the story–or, told it in either a trilogy of films or a miniseries of some kind. That would have given it more time to breathe, rather than constantly leave us breathless.

It’s still going to make you feel overwhelmed when you see those ships come to shore, however, and watch these brave soldiers come “home”.

My rating: :-)

Shutter Island

March 6, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Mystery films with a twist. This concept has been done so many times in the last 10 years, badly, that I think as an audience we spend more time just trying to figure out the twist at the end than pay attention to the narrative of the story. M. Night Shyamalan has almost single-handedly ruined the sub-genre in itself by making hokey, cheap “twists” to his already weak and thin narratives in movies such as “The Village” and “Signs” that when you see a film advertising† “The ending will BLOW YOU AWAY!” the eyerolling is almost a reflex.

Now comes “Shutter Island”, based upon a novel by Dennis Lehane. The film revolves around an escaped prisoner (or “patient”) at a maximum security mental institution called Ashecliff Hospital on Shutter Island, off the Boston Harbor. US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are assigned to the case and after a shaky boat trip–Daniels tries to “get a grip” of himself while having sea sickness–the two embark on the case, involving dealings with mad people, and an enigmatic doctor named Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley).

Like any mystery film, there are red herrings and booby traps, and while you’re trying to figure out just what is going on at this asylum, you’re also unravelling the backstory of Daniels’ life. He was a WWII hero, who took down a death camp in Dachau; he also experienced trauma when his wife burned in a fire that was caused by an arsonist that Daniels’ reveals to his partner–may be on this island as a prisoner. As the two investigate the place further, there are more inconsistencies in Dr. Cawley’s approach and philosophy versus how the asylum is actually run, that the two of them believe they’re in danger of being kept there.

The paranoia, along with Daniels’ past sufferings coming back to haunt him, make the film more and more brooding as it goes along. And while you are trying to figure out the “twist”, it becomes more clear as the film progresses–and you can take the journey with Daniels as he starts to battle his own madness, that it makes for a perfect payoff in the end.

The film’s theme of being your own prisoner and how we torture ourselves works well, and the answer in the end to all the questions is not only well done–it’s the only way the film could work. The directing is masterful, once again, by Scorsese. The atmosphere is dark, and at times claustrophobic. It has a touch of film noir that makes the film sexy and lethal. It wants to terrify you, entice you, and tease you. And all three are pulled off perfectly.

This also features some brilliant performances by its lead actors: Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the off-putting and seemingly villainous doctor; Max von Sydow plays another mysterious character, another psychiatrist that Daniels doesn’t trust; Di Caprio is aggressive and powerful as the tormented Daniels in probably his best role since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”; and even Michelle Williams is impressive as Daniels’ wife who appears to him in his dreams and visions throughout the film, haunting him and plaguing him with self-doubt.

This film is extremely well executed and worth more than one viewing. While it’s a bit long (clocks in at about 138 minutes), it never feels though it’s too long and I never felt uncomfortable watching it. It’s a great movie experience. One that should have been recognized by the Academy. But how often does the Academy get it right?

My rating: :D

Inglourious Basterds

August 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

It doesn’t take much knowledge on world history to know what really happened in WWII, regarding Adolf Hitler. It’s pretty obvious Quentin Tarantino is trying to give a history lesson with his new film, “Inglourious Basterds”–but he is taking on quite a task: revisionist history for the purpose of Hitler getting his, the way he should have gone out. If you’ve seen “Der Untergang” (“Downfall”), you get a real glimpse of what actually happened to Hitler in his final days (apparently he wasn’t too happy with things the Cubs did in their off season, either). But I won’t compare those two movies, because they’re different films and different forms of fiction. “Inglourious Basterds” is, at its heart, an action/adventure film with a wink and a smile.

If you’ve seen one Tarantino film, you’ve seen them all, in terms of his film style. This film is broken into 5 chapters, and each serves almost as its own separate short film, but it all comes together in the end. This film isn’t broken up in time the way “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservior Dogs” is but the narrative style follows the same pattern. And like all Tarantino films, the characters talk a lot. For me, it’s refreshing to see such energetic and delicious dialog being bounced back and forth, even if the scene is fifteen minutes long–you never feel it in a Tarantino film.

The plot itself follows more than the title suggests: while it does go through the story of the Inglourious Basterds (headed by Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt who you can see has a lot of fun with this role), it also follows a survivor of a Jew Hunter Nazi colonel (played wonderfully by Christoph Waltz, who will certainly be looking at an Oscar nod next season). She escapes a farmhouse that housed her family once they are “snuffed out” by Colonel Landa, but stays in France and runs a cinema that has to play German films. But it’s one German film in particular that the film eventually revolves around. A pesky German private who attempts to woo this girl, named Shosanna (who has changed her name to Emmanuelle† since escaping the farmhouse), had a film made about him when he was a sniper in a bird’s nest and killed hundreds of enemies. His filmmaker? Joseph Goebbels. It also just so happens that this film will be viewed by Adolf Hitler himself.

A plan is hatched by the Basterds to sabotage this film festival, but Shosanna has plans of her own for revenge, and the entire film of “Inglourious Basterds” eventually reveals itself to be, in a sense, a film about revenge and needless violence that serves no purpose but selfish ones. Tarantino takes a very serious situation such as the German Occupation and only lightly touches on the Holocaust, smartly; and, he turns this into somewhat of a charming adventure story. The characters are very well drawn out, and charismatic. Even the scenes of long dialog has context of tension, and build up of suspense. While they may be meandering through meaningless chattering, it eventually culminates in some kind of a shootout or explosive pay off.

The film does offer a few twists in its plot that are interesting, but there were some pay offs I was waiting for that didn’t happen. It wasn’t enough for me to enjoy the film any less, and overall this is Tarantino’s best work since “Pulp Fiction”. The climactic ending is more than worth the price of admission, and the events leading up to it are fun and engaging. There are a few weak performances (sorry, Eli Roth) but for the most part the acting is superb. Pitt offers some laughs, and Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent (who plays Shosanna) literally steal scenes.

But the film isn’t all fun and games, and some of the seriousness of what was going on at this time is given its due. The film’s themes of revenge being pointless, to me, are even more effective than in Spielberg’s sprawling but sputtering “Munich”. It clocks in at over two and a half hours, but if you’re a Tarantino fan, or a film fan in general, you will not feel the running time length.

It’s a shame that some of the better movies this summer have come at the end of it, but that’s why we have August I guess. I don’t see the point of August otherwise.

My rating: :D