Dunkirk

Release: Friday, July 21, 2017

→IMAX

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

In memory of my late grandfather, John Little.

In his first historical drama, one that gives the acclaimed writer-director an opportunity to fly that British flag high, Christopher Nolan is deeply committed to creating a singular, sensory experience that goes beyond a mere reenactment. Relying on an intimate relationship between its technical elements as well as time as a constant factor, the acutely distressing thrills of the mighty Dunkirk you will feel in your marrow.

As always, Nolan doesn’t just go for style points. Firmly entrenched within the chaos and destruction of this senses-shattering summer blockbuster lies “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” a story of survival and stoicism nearly lost to the sea of newspaper headlines declaring an embarrassing defeat for the good guys. In fairness, much was lost. This was desperation. Even the British Bulldog acknowledged, sprinkling a pinch of salt upon his heaps of praise for his boys: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

June 1940. The Nazi campaign was steamrolling Europe and had pinned a significant number of Allied forces against the grimy waters of the northern French harbor of Dunkirk. An increasingly desperate Luftwaffe, to whom the task of preventing any sort of escape had ultimately fallen (after a significant delay), had been engaging the opposition on the water as well as in the air. Devastation was catastrophic on both sides, though the Germans suffered greater aerial losses — some 240 aircraft over a nine-day span. In that time 200 marine vessels were sacrificed, including a hospital and the famed Medway Queen, a beautiful British paddle steamer. Out of a total Allied strength approximate 400,000, some 30,000 were either killed in action or presumed dead or captured in this violent and pivotal clash.

Because the Brit has built a career around an intellectual yet highly entertaining brand of filmmaking, the bluntly observational Dunkirk feels somewhat like a departure, if for no other reason than it feels gauche to call this entertainment. The material demands a certain intonation, and as a result Nolan has created his most harrowing, his most sobering movie to date. Even more to his credit, his approach consistently shies away from excessive bloodshed, making this, in some ways, the anti-Saving Private Ryan. The anti-Hacksaw Ridge. The anti-any war film that subscribes to the notion that gore and blood are necessary evils if a viewer is to be properly immersed in the action.

In realizing a significantly world-shaping event, Nolan finds himself as a director adapting to the circumstances. Instead of philosophizing and extrapolating, he takes a more back-door approach to accumulating profound emotion. Empathy for the masses doesn’t require an intimate relationship with any one character. The point is to highlight the commonality found within the calamity. To that end, two things tend to strike you about the film: its narrative style, which follows key role players on each of the three fronts, and the sound design, chiefly realized through Oscar-winning composer and six-time collaborator Hans Zimmer (who clearly took the memo to heart when Nolan told him to make a show of force).

The scenery has changed, yet the element of time remains Nolan’s favorite ball of yarn. Once again he demands it be a malleable object, able to be manipulated in order to heighten the sense of all-encompassing, inescapable danger that crashed upon the stranded repeatedly like waves against the beach. His nonlinear triptych spreads the workload of presenting each unique aspect of the Good Fight across an incredibly efficient 107 minutes, resulting in frequently intense and dynamically intersecting perspectives that show all parts working together. It’s the epitome of cinematic, as opposed to the simple trick-fuckery some critics have dismissed the technique as.

Presented first is “The Mole,” so named after the long breakwater pier upon which thousands stood awaiting rescue, and it describes everything that happens on land. This is where we meet a trio of young soldiers, privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) and a low-ranking soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). We follow them through an obstacle course from hell. Nolan brings aboard a few recognizable faces to give weight to the proceedings, like dry-as-a-box-of-saltines Kenneth Branagh, who doesn’t do much as a British commander, but then the role requires that his hands be tied. James D’Arcy is alongside him as an army colonel.

“The Sea” is the second thread introduced and it develops over the course of a single day. It’s characterized by a death-defying crossing of the English Channel. Mark Rylance gets the distinction of representing this stalwart civilian effort, playing a regular old Joe who felt a great sense of duty to answer Churchill’s call. He’s joined by son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local boy (Barry Keoghan). The purity in this gesture, in their desire to help, is what the movie is all about. Because sometimes actions really do speak louder than words, Nolan keeps dialogue to a minimum in Dunkirk, allowing the actions taken both by the individual and of the collective to drown out even the bombast of Zimmer’s incredible score.

Last but certainly not least is “The Air,” which features all the acrobatics aloft. This segment takes place over the course of just one hour. In it we experience the way Nolan has interpreted the ‘dogfighting’ phenomenon associated with World War II. Needless to say, it’s breathtaking and deeply involving. Bullets ricochet cacophonously. The tin sound is abrasive. Radio comm between the RAF and Farrier screams ’40s simplicity. Some of the most stunning and graceful sequences of combat you will ever see in a war film result from Nolan’s decision to place IMAX cameras on the bodies of actual Spitfires, and returning DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s ability to create unique, disorienting angles. Don’t blame Nolan for any confusion. If anything, lay it all on Hoytema, who turns cameras sideways as we sink into the water to give the impression ‘the walls are closing in.’

As time ticked away and spirits and ammunition ran out, the thousands — mostly British and French, but among them a smattering of Belgians and Canadians — stared longingly across the Channel, wondering if they’d ever make it back to the familiar shores of their hometowns. Others looked skyward, hoping for a miracle in the form of the Royal Air Force, only to be disheartened by the sight of a Messerschmitt dive-bombing right for them. And the lucky left wondering if they’d ever see (and hear) the end of this unrelenting period of undulating, unbearable stress.

Nolan’s latest test piece is about so much more than an historic military debacle. The pearl that lies inside, the drama that lies underneath the drama as it were, is that Churchill got ten times the number of men that he had hoped would bolster the effort in the inevitable Battle of Britain. The moral victory that resulted from Operation Dynamo’s success, the widespread cooperation, epitomizes why Nolan makes movies. As do the incredibly high stakes. The cumulative effect gives modern audiences a better idea of how close we had actually come to living in a world in which the Nazis had conquered more than Europe.

Recommendation: Relentlessly intense and loud, Dunkirk poses unique problems. As an event film that embraces a wide audience, I saw a number of people exiting the theater with their hands over their ears. Perhaps its ambitions as a senses-throttling experience do have drawbacks. But there is no denying the approach makes this a unique war film, and the epitome of a Christopher Nolan production. It doesn’t get much more profound than this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’m on him.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The BFG

'The BFG' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Great Gallywampers and fiddly tweezlesticks, I is very pleased indeed that Steven Spielberg has delivered the goodles in his very first venture into Roald Dahl‘s brilliant imagurnation. The BFG is breathtaker beautiful, and not just thanks to its scrumptioutious imagery, neither. It recalls the warminess and serenity of Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated adventure and ‘n fact it mighty jus’ be more endearin’ because of the live-action interplayery.

No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna speak in Dahlian tongues for the entire review. That’s just my overly dramatic way of expressing relief that The BFG turns out to be the real deal, rather than a pale imitator. The story is clumsier than you might expect with a Spielbergian production — we find as many lulls in the story as we do frobscottle-induced farts (excuse me, whizzpoppers) — but that’s merely the product of a director’s faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg otherwise hits every major note with an assured and playful touch, his knack for conjuring powerful feelings of wonder and awe giving this sweet summer diversion a personality all its own.

Indeed, The BFG is mostly a success in that it doesn’t create any new problems. It merely inherits those of its ancestor — namely, the aforementioned inconsistent and at-times sluggish pace and a few leaps of faith in logic in service of a narrative that just may well be Dahl’s strangest and most fanciful. Story concerns a young girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away one night from Mrs. Clonkers’ Orphanage by a huge, hooded creature and to Giant Country, a wondrous place filled with beauty. Do I smell a Best Visual Effects nomination? I do, as a matter of fact: that sequence in Dream Country by the dream tree is simply mesmeric.

But Giant Country isn’t total paradise, it’s fraught with danger as well. The other giants among whom the BFG ekes out a quiet existence as a Dream Blower are much larger, meaner and they eat human beings (or, beans, rather). After learning she’s not leaving Giant Country anytime soon, Sophie encourages her big friendly giant to stand up for himself and to rid the land of these brutes, led by Jemaine Clement‘s Fleshlumpeater, once and for all. The pair seek the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her Royal Army back in the real world to do just that.

As is the case with a great many Dahl adaptations, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite and that ability serves viewers well here, especially as the fearless Sophie encourages the two worlds to collide. The performances anchoring the film are so good they allow us to overlook many a flawed concept. And there are more than a few. Spielberg’s potential new muse in Mark Rylance loses himself in the role as the titular giant and very well might have upstaged David Jason’s original voice performance that made the larger-than-life being an unforgettable creation. His spoonerisms and awkward turns of phrase were a highlight of that original as they are here as well, and once again it’s a joy watching ten-year-old Sophie trying to update and expand his childlike vocabulary.

Rylance doesn’t do it alone, though. He gets tremendous support from the young Barnhill who embraces Sophie’s wide-eyed curiosity about the strange world surrounding her with real gusto. She’s also brilliant at balancing the heartbreak of growing up without parents with a sense of maturity that makes her as well-rounded a character as you’re likely going to find with a child actor. All those years ago Sophie had already been made a strong character thanks to Amanda Root’s precociousness and intellectual curiosity, and those qualities are only bolstered by Barnhill’s live-action incarnation. Most importantly, the quasi-parental bond between the two isn’t lost in translation. The problem of loneliness is resolved with respect for Dahl’s affinity for the weird very much intact come the tear-jerking conclusion.

One of the challenges Spielberg is up against with his take on a Dahlian classic is finding an audience outside of those loyal readers and those who keep the 1989 made-for-British-television special close to their heart. The BFG is certifiably obscure material but perhaps with names attached like Spielberg and Rylance it can reach for broader audiences. This uplifting, sweet tale of bravery and dream-making certainly deserves them.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 7.45.12 PM

Recommendation: The BFG, as I have suspected since the announcement was first made, represents an ideal union of director and material. The world created by Roald Dahl is practically tailor-made for one of the world’s best when it comes to imaginative, inspiring filmmaking and the end product, while not perfect, is about as good as could be expected. The performances are wonderful and if you’re tired of the summer blockbuster trend, I have to recommend The BFG. Like, immediatarily. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Why did you take me?” / “Because I hears your lonely heart, ‘n all the secret whisperings of the world.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com

Because Oscar Said So: Best Supporting Actor Nominees

BOSS - best actor nominees feature image

Because Oscar Said So (B.O.S.S. for short) is yet another first for this blog. In years past I haven’t spent much time going into detail about the major categories recognized at the Oscars ceremony, particularly the official selections as quite often I find myself at odds with the Academy’s choices. Longtime readers of the site know that I like to take matters into my own hands by putting together a mock awards ceremony, a post in which I overwhelm my poor readers with my ramblings on break down several different aspects of the year in film. If you’ve yet to come across The Digibread Awards, you can click here to find out what’s up with all of that.

When it comes to my reaction to the official recognition of achievement in the acting categories, this year has been a little different as I’ve found myself agreeing with an unusually high percentage of the names that have made the Oscar’s shortlist, and now I would like to offer some thoughts on the subject; hence, B.O.S.S. This two-part post shall manifest as Thomas J’s coverage of outstanding achievements in a supporting role for the year 2015. Why the supporting roles, you ask? Great question.

While I made a concerted effort to see as many films as I could where the odds of making an appearance at the Oscars in February were very much in their favor, I wasn’t entirely successful and therefore I can’t comment on every lead performance that’s been nominated. (Missing from my list is Charlotte Rampling’s Kate Mercer in 45 Years, and Brie Larson’s “Ma” in Room.) That’s a major motivation to look to other categories.Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in 'Creed'

Secondly, I find the supporting role category needs a stronger cheering section. There’s almost no comparison between the amount of recognition headlining names get versus those of supporting players. And yet, when it comes right down to it, preparation for each type of role is far more comparable — particularly when supporting parts become so substantial that the line between ‘lead’ and ‘support’ begins to truly blur. However, with prestigious lists like the ones we have this year, perhaps the tide is slowly changing. Names like Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Sylvester Stallone are so large you’d be forgiven for assuming these are the film’s major stars . . but in these cases, they are indeed taking a backseat to other talent, or at the very least they’re willing to share the spotlight. The relative humility is refreshing.

Basic (read: compulsory or less memorable) supporting roles offer, if nothing else, structure to a given story. Strong support affords emotional balance (or occasionally the lack thereof) and perspective; superior actors know how to interact with more prominent characters, while lending both depth to the environment (be it fictitious or real) and credibility to the story being told. Fulfilling a supporting role doesn’t necessarily mean one has an easier task ahead of them than a lead, though. Often it can be a thankless proposition, with a variety of factors playing host to challenges both large and small, including, but certainly not limited to significant physical, emotional and psychological transformations. Actors take on these assignments and the research necessary to bring the characters to life, all while knowing they’re not going to be receiving the level of attention some of their colleagues undoubtedly will.

Rare are the productions that don’t require supporting parts to occupy screen space in some way, shape or form; only two films come to mind in the past several years (that I’ve reviewed, anyway) in which a single actor was called upon to carry the entire film. Those films, Locke and All is Lost, are rare exceptions — low budget but ultimately high risk productions. But if done well, these can be incredibly effective.

When it comes to this crop of nominees, there seems to be a movement towards bigger, stronger, more popular casting and films like Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant — the former a dramatic comedy centered around the collapse of the housing and credit bubble of 2008, the latter a brooding take on life on the frontier in 19th century America — epitomize star-studded casts.

Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in 'Spotlight'

Christian Bale has been selected for his contributions to the energetic but awkward financial flick, playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who is one of the first to point out the instability of subprime mortgage loans circa 2005. The role is a completely different beast for Bale who has spent a lifetime putting on dramatic disguises and turning in powerful performance after powerful performance. He’s nearly unrecognizable in  a role this casual; the portrayal of a man who prefers to listen to death metal while at work, and parading around the office without shoes on.

Tom Hardy (who happens to be the star of that one-man road show Locke), on the other hand, cranks up the intensity with his portrayal of 19th Century fur trapper John Fitzgerald. He manifests as The Revenant‘s primary antagonist and conveys open hostility from the word ‘go.’ The man is ferocious in a film that demands a lot from its actors. In fact he’s so good the Academy likely is going to find a way to deny Leo once more, stripping him of the Best Leading Actor trophy and bestowing it upon the native Londoner. It would be a move that would surprise very few.

Sylvester Stallone makes a triumphant return to glory, reinvesting in his iconic Rocky Balboa but this time with an entirely different energy and sense of purpose. Here’s a supporting role that has already garnered a Golden Globe and a global standing ovation for the Rocky we have come to know and love has matured into his latter years with uncommon grace, providing a mentor figure that most sports films require, only this one is far more believable than any other that have come before. I suppose it helps that Stallone has lost none of his imposing physique. Sure, he’s older but the guy is still a massive screen presence and the material surrounding him elevates a performance with gravitas already built in.

There are quieter, more humbled performances lying in wait this year as well. Mark Ruffalo and Mark Rylance turn in tremendous work with their respective contributions to fact-based stories Spotlight and Bridge of Spies. Whereas the former focused on the troubling investigation into the molestation of children at the hands of Boston-area priests, the latter finds Steven Spielberg once more tapping into the history books as a source of inspiration. Spies revolves around the tensions between American and Russian diplomacy, when a suspected Communist spy is arrested in New York only to be represented by insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); meanwhile, an American pilot is downed over Russian soil, leading to a protracted set of negations and creating a drama that resembles a high-stakes chess match.

Of all the nominees this year it’s Ruffalo who is most likely to go home empty-handed this year as in my opinion his work isn’t all that distinguishable from his co-stars — and that’s a very, very good thing. His Michael Rezendes, a contributing reporter to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, epitomizes actors sharing in the burden of absorbing an information-dense and conceptually rich script. The work from the others (Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James) is just as outstanding, and it seems odd to single out any of the actors if the entire cast can’t take the stage in February. (Of course, I realize the fantasy of that argument. The Academy isn’t exactly fair.)

Rylance is subtle and graceful as the suspected Communist, casting a shadow that’s nearly as long as that of the legendary Tom Hanks. He’s not too shabby for an actor who has worked most of his life in theater, and this relative break-out performance is one not to be missed by anyone who has typically got along well with the Spielbergian brand. Never mind the fact political movies always seem to curry favor with critics, it’s quite possible we have a  dark horse in our midst with his restrained, brilliantly nuanced performance. Sweating over whether he’s a lock seems to be both a waste of time and energy, though. Would it help?

Ultimately the call isn’t mine to make. It isn’t up to any of us to decide; it’s up to whoever happens to be announcing the winner on stage in the Dolby Theater. And for anyone watching on, we just have to trust that the name that echoes throughout that auditorium, is the same name that’s written on the index card. Sure, the popular vote counts for a lot, but if it has taken Leo this long to get to a place where he seems like a shoe-in for Best Actor in a Leading Role, I’m prepared for all kinds of surprises. The argument that the Oscars are rigged is a bit overblown but there’s no doubt the politicization of the whole thing is very much a reality we have to deal with. Who really ought to go home with the trophy? That’s another great question, to which I can only respond: it’s whoever’s name gets called on that fateful night.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in 'Bridge of Spies'

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Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com