DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

July 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Counting the original in 1968, this is the ninth Planet of the Apes film (sourced from the Pierre Boulle novel), and the third in the most recent reimagining – including Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). That’s almost 50 years of talking apes questioning the role, purpose and intent of humans. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) is back after ‘Dawn’ and clearly has an affinity for the characters and the continuing saga. This one is by far the most personal … if that’s the right term when applied to a species other than persons!

Opening with the film’s best battle scene (and perhaps the most superb and vivid of the franchise); the film stuns us with the realism of apes on horseback and searing violence that rivals any war film. We are immediately drawn in by the thrilling and intimate battle scenes, and the accompanying adrenaline rush. It’s a beautiful and heart-pounding opening that will surely satisfy even the most demanding action-oriented fans. This is also when we notice that Michael Giacchino’s score as a complementary thing of beauty and not just more over-the-top action film music bravado.

The great Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, and dare I say, one of the most exciting and dynamic recurring characters in the movie universe. This third film belongs to Caesar and we see his intelligence, personality and skills have evolved in each. His human nemesis this time is Woody Harrelson in Colonel Kurtz psycho-war lord mode. In the years since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a simian virus has wiped out much of the human race and now the last two human factions (one led by Harrelson) are preparing for a final epic war, while at the same time, all remaining humans are united against apes.

Apes simply want to be left alone in the forest, but humans focused on their destruction are forcing the apes to fight. One particular attack causes Caesar to erupt in anger and strive for revenge, providing the foundation for a movie with less action than the previous two, and a more concerted focus on story and character. Some may be disappointed in this. Others (like me) will find it fascinating.

Joining Serkis/Caesar for a third round are Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as Maurice (orangutan). Also returning is Toby Kebbel as Koba – this time in a manner that really messes with Caesar’s mind. Steve Zahn steals his scenes as the comedy relief chimp known only as “bad ape”, with Judy Greer as Cornelia, and young Amiah Miller as Nova (same name as Linda Harrison in the original). Nova is a human girl who seems to fit much more with the apes than the warmongering humans. Fans of the original will also note Caesar’s son is named Cornelius (the same as Roddy McDowell’s ape in the original). Director Reeves delivers what would be a fitting end to a trilogy, but there is likely to be yet another if fans can appreciate that the series has evolved every bit as much as the apes.

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47 METERS DOWN (2017)

June 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Beach movies have long been a ‘Rite of Summer’. Going back to the 1960’s there was light-hearted frolicking in Where the Boys Are, Beach Blanket Bingo, and some Elvis flicks from the era. Of course everything changed in 1975 when Steven Spielberg scared us out of the water with his instant classic Jaws. Since then, beach movies tend to be about horrific creatures or sandy adventures gone wrong: Open Water, Deep Blue Sea, and last year’s summer hit The Shallows. The soon to number five Sharknado movies are in a separate class – more parody than horror.

The year’s salt water adventure follows two sisters who regrettably agree to a shark cage adventure while vacationing in Mexico. The sisters are played by two actresses whose most recent work has been on TV: Mandy Moore (“This is Us”) and Claire Holt (“The Vampire Diaries”, “The Originals”). Lisa (Ms. Moore) has been recently dumped by her boyfriend for being downright boring, while Kate (Ms. Holt) is her daredevil fear-nothing younger sister who persuades her to take a chance.

For reasons that only make sense in a cinematic world, the two sisters not only board Captain Taylor’s (Matthew Modine) rickety boat, but they also plop right into the rusty shark cage lowered by scrap metal that Taylor calls the winch. By nature of the film’s title, we know what happens next. The ladies’ 5 meter drop turns into a harrowing 47 meter plummet to the ocean floor. Their choice comes down to – run out of air trapped at the bottom of the sea, or risk the bends and sharks while swimming to the surface. Since the bends doesn’t make for exciting filmmaking, the sisters opt to stay put just out of radio range in hopes for a miraculous rescue.

Realizing they have limited air to breathe, the sisters start chatting about their sibling rivalry and petty jealousies. It’s at about this time (or maybe even sooner) that we begin rooting for the sharks. Director Johannes Roberts’ filmography features such titles as Hellbreeder, Roadkill and Turn Your Bloody Phone Off, so our expectations never rise about B-movie level. He does manage to tap into our primal fears with some terrific shark effects, and a panicky feeling associated with murky water and a lost sense of direction in the deep dark depths of the ocean. However, since the twist ending is so drilled into our consciousness throughout the film, the biggest mystery here is how big was the airline fee paid by the sisters for a last minute flight change when Lisa got dumped?

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THE WALL (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a director’s filmography includes “big” action movies like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity (the original), the last thing we expect is a stripped-down war movie whose camera focuses on a single character for most of the run time. Director Doug Liman certainly understands how to use the camera in creating tension and stress, yet while he and writer Dwain Worrell seem so intent on proving the confusion and futility of war, they seem to forget that a thriller needs either a hero to cheer or a villain to jeer.

It’s late 2007, and the war is winding down as rebuilding efforts are underway. Hulking Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his fellow soldier Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have been perched and camouflaged on the side a hill for more than 20 hours as they carry out reconnaissance on the site of an under-construction oil pipeline. All they have seen is the remains of a massacre – 8 bodies with no signs of life. Peering through his malfunctioning scope that once belonged to a now-dead friend, Isaac (known as “Ize” – get it?) and his training thinks something doesn’t seem right. When Matthews deems the site safe, he heads down to check it out. Of course, all heck breaks out and soon enough, an injured Isaac takes shelter behind a teetering stone wall. It turns out a sniper, more patient than the American soldiers, had been biding time for the moment.

The first eight bodies are construction contractors and a security detail … none of which matters to the sniper. The hook here is that the sniper hacks into Isaac’s radio and seemingly wants to chat it up, rather than finish him off. We never see the sniper, and neither do Matthews or Isaac … but we do hear him plenty. Laith Nakli voices Juba – known to American soldiers as the Angel of Death, responsible for dozens of US casualties. The film spirals into a psychological game of chess – or, more fittingly, the torture of Isaac. This isn’t the war we’ve come to expect in movies. Isaac’s situation seems hopeless, and banter with the man responsible never strikes him as a worthwhile pursuit.

The biggest issue here is that Juba seems the most interesting character, and not only are we never provided a way to connect with/hate him, we don’t even get enough backstory to bond with Isaac. Plenty of obstacles are thrown at Isaac: blowing sand, lack of drinking water, skittles for sustenance, blazing sun/heat, radio issues, and a brutally painful knee wound courtesy of Juba. The success of the movie depends on two things: Aaron Taylor-Johnson selling us on Isaac’s predicament, and the radio dialogue between he and Juba. The former is fine, but the latter falls short.

Better sniper movies include American Sniper and Enemy at the Gates, while more effective (mostly) one-character thrillers include Locke, Buried, and 127 Hours. The film makes excellent use of sound, but the little jabs at American ideals grows old quickly (such as asking who is the real terrorist). A different approach to a familiar topic deserves a chance, but while Juba only misses on purpose, the efforts of Mr. Liman and Mr. Worrell miss the mark by not engaging the viewer with the character(s).

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WITCH-HUNT (2017)

May 9, 2017

USA Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There may not be a mass-market audience for ultra low-budget supernatural horror-thriller-comedies, but that doesn’t stop writer/director Philip Schaeffer and his cast of seven actresses from delivering a rollicking good time.

Best viewed late at night and preferably with a group of friends smart enough to enjoy a bit of satire, and not so pseudo-intellectual as to be unable to cut loose and possibly even create a new drinking game (not that such uncultured and unruly behavior would be encouraged). In fact, just keeping up with one of the character’s propensity to shift from red to white wine and back again requires somewhat of a clear head and attention span.

Five ladies gather in clock-filled home to play a board game that could be named “Who is the Witch?” The clocks don’t really matter, but do make for interesting set pieces and might also play into someone’s unconventional drinking game. The birthday girl (Robyn Purcay) who receives the game as a gift is very excited to play, while the emotions of the others range from ‘OK, I’ll play along’ to utter disdain (from the striking Abby Eiland).

The movie is divided into the different rounds played during the game … with each of the five participants getting special attention during a particular round. Additionally, the story has an external structure thanks to a late night strategy session at a book publishing firm. Of course, the story doesn’t really matter. What matters is the periodic creepiness and abundance of humor stemming from the conversations of wine-guzzling, long-time friends who share a clouded and traumatic childhood memory.

Other than the aforementioned Ms. Eiland and Ms. Purcay, the other actresses involved here are Melina Chadbourne, Erin Curtis, Lillian Olive, Suzanne Blunk and Trisha Miller. Each brings their own style to the fun, and special mention goes to cinematographer Olivia Kuan, whose camera work provides the necessary claustrophobia and unease necessary to keep viewers guessing.

 


VOICE FROM THE STONE (2017)

April 29, 2017

USA FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A painful death bed scene and a teary-eyed child saying goodbye to their beloved caregiver kick off this film that immediately downshifts to a deliberate pace after those two emotional peaks. The first feature from director Eric Howell is adapted by Andrew Shaw from Silvio Raffo’s novel, and it excels in delivering atmosphere and visual unease created by the stunning setting of a fogged-cloaked Tuscan castle that is itself a key character in the film.

Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”), and those expressive eyebrows of hers, stars as Verena, a rehabilitation nurse who specializes in helping traumatized children. Verena is spunky and confident as she arrives at the Gothic-esque home of artist/sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas) and his son Jakob (Edward Dring). It’s been more than 7 months since the death of his mother (Caterina Murino, Solange in Casino Royale), and also since young Jakob last spoke even a single word. Verena expects to succeed where other nurses have failed.

1950’s Tuscany is beautiful despite, or maybe because of, the dreary and minimal natural lighting and the mysterious elements of the ancient castle and surrounding forest and stone quarry. It’s also a bit creepy and that allows the measured pace of the story to work – it comes across as we are going through the slow process with Jakob and Verena. Well, it works until it doesn’t. The character shifts for Verena and Klaus occur too abruptly – almost as if pages in the script were skipped. Both transformations seem out of place with the film and are jarring to watch … and not jarring in the way that we expect from a suspense thriller.

Most won’t be surprised at where the story goes, but just in case, no spoilers will be discussed here. It should be enough to state that the look and feel of this one should appeal to those who enjoyed such films as The Others, Rebecca, The Sixth Sense, Crimson Peak, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The execution of the story might not be at that level, but the atmosphere and mood certainly are. Oversized sculptures, life-sized portraits, an untouched death bed, and even a grand piano allow for more texture than any cheap jump-scares.

Gothic, romantic, supernatural suspense thrillers are pretty tough to pull off, but even getting close allows for some cinematic viewing pleasure. As an added bonus, the lovely score from Michael Wandmacher never screams at us, and Amy Lee (Evanescence) delivers a beautiful and fitting song “Speak to Me” as the film ends.

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THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

April 20, 2017

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s (The Immigrant, We Own the Night) project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues (similar to Out of Africa) that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The minor quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our true to life hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us pining for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Although the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

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