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.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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YOUTH (2015)

December 17, 2015

youth Greetings again from the darkness. With a Best Foreign Language Oscar for his previous film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), expectations were sky high for this one from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is also back and the two create yet another artistic entrée that is a visual extravaganza, worthy of the admission price even if no dialogue existed. Combine the visual artistry with a commentary on age and emotions, and the result is a film that will either enchant or stultify … with probably no middle ground.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a renowned Orchestra conductor, who is vacationing at a stunning Swiss Alps spa with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his long-time best friend, screenwriter Mick Boyd (Harvey Keitel). Fred, a self-professed retiree, is being pursued by Queen Elizabeth’s representative to perform one last concert. Fred is adamant in his refusal … for personal reasons we later learn are due to his nostalgic belief that his wife (no longer able to sing) is the only one who will sing his “simple” songs as long as he is alive. In the meantime, Mick is working with a group of ambitious young writers in an attempt to leave a legacy with his most important film ever. So you can already see that both men are working through their golden years in different ways.

Lena is devastated when her husband dumps her for a young pop singer (played by the real pop singer, Paloma Faith). Oh, one other detail … Lena’s husband is also Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard). This makes for some awkward (but entertaining) moments, and also leads to one of the film’s best scenes – Lena spilling her emotional guts to Fred while they are both covered in a mud bath. Director Sorrentino is a master at twisting these poignant moments with dashes of levity or irony. Another example is when Miss Universe (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea) puts a condescending movie actor (Paul Dano) in his place with a devastating shift in tone and a comeback for the ages.

Sorrentino executes a couple of bizarre dream or fantasy sequences – one with Fred conducting a cow pasture (replete with cows and other bits of nature), and another with Mick being haunted in a meadow by all the female stars from his films (each in costume of their character). Suffice to say, this is not a conventional look at aging. What’s also clear is that Sorrentino believes our emotions drive our actions. The most jarring example is the aftermath when Mick’s long-time leading lady Brenda Morel (played by Jane Fonda) declines to appear in his latest film.

Even the most bizarre segments are presented with a visual artistry that forces our brains to process overtime. How about an obese Diego Maradona (played by Roly Serrano) repeatedly kicking tennis balls into the air? Or big time actor Jimmy Tree (Dano) struggling with his decision to sellout by appearing in a popular robot movie instead of pursuing his desire to be taken seriously as an actor? Or Lena bouncing back with a socially awkward mountain man? Or the seemingly minor role of a young masseuse (played by Luna Zimic Mijovic) who has us yearning for more? In addition to how each of these segments is startling to look at, Jane Fonda’s role has so many nuances that an entire movie could be made about her.

As with The Great Beauty, the film will have the most profound impact on those of us old enough to be looking through the binoculars and noticing how far away the past looks … and wondering just how long until “Life’s Last Day”.

watch the trailer:

 


KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)

February 16, 2015

kingsman Greetings again from the darkness. In 2010, writer/director Matthew Vaughn turned the superhero genre on its ear with the hit Kick-Ass. With this most recent film (back with co-writer Jane Goldman), he has done the same thing to spy-thrillers.  We get the well-tailored look made famous by Roger Moore’s James Bond, the fanciful and lethal gadgets from early Bond films, the ever-present umbrella (put to new uses here) of “The Avengers” John Steed, and the ultra-suave and debonair manners of Napoleon Solo from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”  We get all of that in a surprisingly effective and fun action performance from Colin Firth.

Fun is the operative word here. It’s clear all parties involved are having a great time, especially Mr Firth going drastically against type. There are two action-packed and pretty humorous (in a demented way) fight scenes. One is early on inside a London pub, and has Firth flashing his particular set of skills against a group of thugs. The other (and even more raucous) fight occurs inside a church and is set to Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. The body count piled up as fast as the guitar licks.

As spectacular as the fight scenes are, the real fun here is in the characters. The old guard of the Kingsmen includes Firth as Galahad, Mark Strong as Merlin, Jack Davenport as Lancelot, and Michael Caine as Arthur. This long-standing group is one part international spy, one part Knights of the Round Table … and these gentlemen are extremely well trained and impeccably well dressed. When one of their agents dies on the job, the recruitment boot camp kicks into gear. Made up of a group of relative newcomers to the movie world, the two most interesting are Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Adding to the intrigue, Eggsy is the son of a former Kingsman, and has some skills that aren’t initially apparent.

Of course, what would a spy-tribute movie be without a colorful villain? Samuel L Jackson plays lispy megalomaniac Valentine, who has a quick gag reflex when it comes to violence. Fortunately his henchman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is equipped with razor sharp leg prosthetics and some ultra-crazy fighting skills.  We even see Mark Hamill as Professor Arnold … fans of the Mark Miller/Dave Gibbons graphic novel will appreciate the irony.

Firth and Egerton play off each other quite well in the mentor-pupil relationship, and Egerton is clearly set up for the franchise sequels … as is his friend and fellow Kingsman, Ms. Cookson. For those who think the Daniel Craig Bond films are too dark and serious, this provides a flashback to lighter Bond fare (minus the misogyny). Many hot topics are touched on: class warfare, domestic abuse, racism, etc, but mostly this can be taken as a rollicking good time because “it’s not that kind of movie”. It does, however, remind us that “manners make the man”.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


STONEHEARST ASYLUM (2014)

October 23, 2014

stonehearst Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire indication that a movie is a must-see for me are the words “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe” … no matter how loosely. Then, set the film in a creepy turn of the 20th century insane asylum, and cast Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson, and consider me exceptionally excited.

From the opening moments, there is a certain nostalgic or throwback feel.It recalls the “B” movie feel of so many from the 40’s and 50’s that I grew up watching on late night TV. Imagining the production in Black & White rather than color, and picturing Vincent Price as one of the leads, probably give this one more credit than it earns. Despite the stellar cast – also featuring Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, and Sinead Cusack – it doesn’t manage to generate any real suspense or feeling of danger.

Director Brad Anderson works mostly in television, but has kicked out some films of interest along the way. These include Session 9, Transsiberian, The Call, and especially The Machinist. Here, he has an exceptionally deep and talented cast, yet manages to waste Mr. Caine and Mr. Gleeson with minor roles. Even Ms. Beckinsale is treated as simple eye candy with a stunning wardrobe that defies logic, given the circumstances.

Three characters that deliver some fun are Sophie Kennedy Clark as Millie (the nurse), David Thewlis as the comically named Mickey Finn, and of course Sir Ben Kingsley as Silas Lamb. Kingsley is one of the few actors who can walk the fine line between elegance and madness, and leave us wondering (even if we really know). He thrives on scenery-chewing roles and this one definitely qualifies.

The script avoids any real insight or statement on the cruel treatment of the mentally afflicted from the pre-psychoanalysis days brought on shortly thereafter by Freud. Allowing the inmates to run the asylum does make it clear that insanity comes in many forms with differing degrees. In fact, I would challenge viewers to name one truly sane person in this film. Loosely based on Poe’s short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, what the film lacks in tension and terror (it’s not Shutter Island), it mostly makes up for in production design and nostalgia.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a throwback to the asylum movies of the 40’s and 50’s brings you a warm nostalgic feeling

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer not to see electro-shock therapy administered to Michael Caine

watch the trailer:

 


NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

June 4, 2013

now you see1 Greetings again from the darkness. Come on … who wouldn’t get excited about a movie that mixes magic with the heist genre, and fills the cast with stars old and new? Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) is clearly engaged with the material, and maybe his vision of “just one more twist” is what keeps it from reaching the next level.

Magic is inherently a very difficult subject for movies. Why? Because with magic, human nature is such that we are always trying to “catch” the sleight of hand. With movies, we have come to accept the fact that any special effect is possible. We rarely ask “how”. That kind of takes away the mystique, eh? Maybe the best magic movie to date is The Prestige, but even that movie was made stronger by the story of its characters … something this latest lacks.

now you see2 Heist movies, on the other hand, have historically produced some of the most fun and thrilling times on screen. Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job are just two examples of clever, almost light-hearted heist films that are also thrillers.  Everyone loves a clever caper … so long as we aren’t on the wrong end. What doesn’t work in either genre, and especially when they are blended, is a story that defies logic. We don’t mind being tricked. In fact, it’s kind of fun getting to the end and realizing you are part of the “gotcha”. What we don’t like is being cheated.

This premise is terrific. An unknown benefactor secretly assembles The Four Horsemen – a hand-picked (by a hoodie dude) group consisting of Jessie Eisenberg, the smug super-illusionist; Woody Harrelson, the wise-cracking mentalist; tart escape artist now you see4(think Houdini with piranha) Isla Fisher; and street-hustler pickpocket (Artful Dodger type) Dave Franco. The group is bank rolled by industrial tycoon Michael Caine, and is soon enough headlining a giant Las Vegas extravaganza. Their first trick is to rob a French bank vault by transporting an audience member, video streaming the job, and showering the audience with the stolen cash. They do this under the watchful eye of magic naysayer Morgan Freeman, a huckster who earns a buck exposing the tricks of magicians.

Soon enough, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent, so stunning as the theatre owner in Inglourious Basterds) are working together trying to stop the next job, which Morgan Freeman has warned them is really a set-now you see3up for a huge finale. The movie has some really fun moments, but with all of Morgan Freeman’s warnings that we (and Ruffalo) are always a step behind, we can’t help but think ahead … and there is only one super twist that makes all of this click.

In fact, I would argue that there are too many twists here. The basic story was enough and the movie would have benefited from us getting to better know the main characters. Instead, they are merely chess pieces who spout one-liners in order. In particular, the characters of Woody Harrelson and Melanie Laurent could have gone much deeper. But that clashes with what the filmmakers were after … big, fast, wild, glitzy, cute, clever, and twisty. Just don’t be tricked into thinking. Turn off your brain and take in the wild, twisty ride … even if it does defy logic, and remember … “it’s all part of the show”.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can sit back and enjoy a wild cinematic ride without thinking too much OR you’ve always wanted to see Common play air-violin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy solving the movie mysteries before the solutions are revealed OR in these tough economic times, you are looking for real bank heist tips (sorry to disappoint)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzJNYYkkhzc


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

July 23, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the series, this is a sensational ending to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Though replicating Heath Ledger’s Joker is not possible, every other piece of this finale worked for me … and worked exceptionally well. There are critics who are nit-picking, saying that the story is muddled, the villain a letdown, run time too long, the first half is slow or the second half is too traditional in action. My challenge to these critics … name a better comic book hero film. For me, this is an incredibly entertaining and ambitious film that sets the standard for the genre.

 In addition to director Nolan, many of the familiar characters are back. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. New to the series are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer Blake, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, and best of all, Tom Hardy as Bane – the hulking masked monster wreaking havoc on Batman and Gotham.

 I will not go into any of the plot points other than to say this is the first time we have seen a villain who is at least Batman’s match physically and mentally. Bane is a wrecking ball with a general’s strategic skills and voice that is begging to impersonated by intoxicated males of all ages for years to come. There are a couple of twists that add much fun for the fans of the first two films, including a return appearance by a key member of Batman Begins. Also, Michael Caine is given a couple of wonderful scenes to prove he is more than a driver and butler.

Since this is Batman, the action scenes have to be analyzed. It should be noted that Batman is not on screen very often, but when he is, it is quite thrilling. We have new toys and weapons, and quite a bit of fisticuffs with Bane and Catwoman that compete with any of the giant firepower scenes.  One of the more fascinating sets is the prison based in a pit of despair that harkens back to Poe. This pit plays an important role in the past and present.  For those who were worried that Catwoman’s presence might take away from the aura of the movie, fear not. Ms. Hathaway creates an interesting duality that proves very interesting.

 Neither Mr. Nolan nor his DOP Wally Pfister are proponents of 3D (Thank Goodness!!), so instead we get treated to 50 minutes of actual 70mm IMAX footage. This means, if possible, you should catch this on an IMAX screen. I have seen it IMAX and XD, and while both are visually stunning, the IMAX is an overwhelming site at times.

The movie picks up 8 years after the ending of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is worshiped as a hero, and Bruce Wayne is a Howard Hughes type recluse – broken body and all. The initial aerial sequence is a fun start to a film that runs just under 3 hours. Of course, there is so much offered here that deserves comment, however, I believe the film is best watched with only the upfront primer of the first two films in the series. I will give nothing away here that might impact the joy of discovery during this gem. Contrary to some critics, I believe the story is fairly easy to follow and quite intense, thrilling and pure cinematic joy … including the thumping score from Hans Zimmer.

For those who claim there is a lack of humor … Exhibit #1: Hines Ward returning a kickoff for a TD. Come on, how long since he was fast enough for that??

Note: Though I haven’t addressed the Aurora shooting here, I did post a statement on the blog on July 20.

watch the trailer: