Dunkirk (2017)

big_startfilmru1365635Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Christopher Nolan may be one of the most prominent of modern filmmakers, but he is surprisingly old-fashioned.

Consider his newest film, the highly-anticipated WWII drama, “Dunkirk.”  In tackling a war movie (one of the oldest cinematic genres imaginable), he relies mostly on tricks of the trade established since the silent era, eschewing dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and favoring practical effects over computerized ones.

Not only that, he continues to champion the use of film over digital cinematography.  “Dunkirk” is one of the rare contemporary films to be shot on widescreen film stock and presented in 70 MM format, delivering an experience that feels like one of those classic big screen extravaganzas of old.

Despite his tried-and-true approach, though, Nolan also brings his own contemporary perspective to the mix; this combination results in not only the most immersive, visually impressive war film in recent memory, but also the most thoughtful and challenging.

For those who need a brief history lesson, Dunkirk is a town on the French coast of the English Channel where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped in the summer of 1940.  Surrounded by Nazi forces, these combined English, French, and Belgian troops awaited evacuation on the beach while being pummeled from air and sea.  Nolan’s film tells the story of their miraculous rescue from this dire situation.

Challenged with the task of capturing such an epic event in a way that brings it to his audience as concisely as possible, Nolan has chosen to split his movie into three interwoven stories.  In one, we follow a young English soldier on the beach as he struggles to survive; in another, a civilian boat captain answers the call for private vessels to assist in the evacuation and sets sail across the Channel with his son and a young deck hand; and in the third, British fighter pilots attempt to fend off attacks against the rescue ships and stranded troops by engaging Nazi planes in dogfights above the beach.

Through these separate plotlines, Nolan raises the individual stakes within each story while building the tension that drives the larger narrative, providing a cumulative payoff when they finally come together for the climactic sequence they all share.

It’s this structure where Nolan most notably breaks from traditional style.  Although the interwoven narrative is not, in itself, an unusual device, the director adds an extra layer by playing tricks with the passage of time.  Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that there are frequent moments when it’s difficult to tell where each storyline is in relation to the others – or to the over-arching action.  The result is a disorientation which contributes to the overall sense of being in the midst of battle.  It’s a challenging conceit, and although Nolan plainly sets up the rules early in the film, some viewers are bound to find it confusing.

Like any “auteur” filmmaker, Nolan’s entire of body of work explores recurring themes and repeated elements which make them distinctly and unmistakably his own.  He has always been preoccupied with time in his movies, so it’s no surprise that he brings this obsession into “Dunkirk.”

The trouble with auteurs, however, is that appreciation of their work becomes a matter of taste which affects their entire canon.  If one doesn’t like Nolan’s trademark blend of mind-bending narrative style and coldly philosophical thematic underpinnings, one is likely to find all of his movies unsatisfying.  For that reason, “Dunkirk” will almost certainly frustrate those who are unimpressed with its director’s creative quirks.

That said, for those who are attuned to Nolan’s vision, “Dunkirk” is a truly magnificent film – possibly his best work to date – which embraces the form of the traditional war picture while simultaneously re-inventing it.  It’s full of tropes, but the complexity with which Nolan infuses them makes them feel fresh, allowing him to use them as comfortable touchstones as he takes us on an intense journey through the harrowing and hellish landscape of war.

That journey would certainly not be possible without the sheer scope and size of his imagery (captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema); but equally important is Hans Zimmer’s remarkable electronic score, which blends the thundering, sternum-shaking noises of combat so seamlessly into the ever-ascending music that it creates a kind of aural cocoon in which inner and outer realities merge.  This, combined with the expert editing by Lee Smith, allows Nolan to deliver a movie which avoids overt manipulation and sentimentality yet offers sublime moments of accumulated empathy that may require a tissue or two from some viewers.

As for the cast, it’s a true ensemble, in which established stars (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy) serve side by side with lesser-known faces.  The entire company deserves equal praise, but for reasons of space I will limit myself to singling out One Direction’s Harry Styles, in his first screen role as one of the soldiers awaiting rescue, who belies any notion of stunt-casting with an ego-free performance that stands on its own merit alongside those of his on-screen cohorts.

It must be mentioned that “Dunkirk” has received some criticism for its lack of diversity.  While the majority of personnel involved in the real-life evacuation were undoubtedly white men, there were also men of color on that beach, none of whom appear onscreen.  In addition, though the film does feature a few fleeting glimpses of women, they are more or less relegated to the background.  It’s necessary to take note of such oversights as part of the important ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in the film industry,

Still, in terms of judging the film for what it shows us (and not what it doesn’t), “Dunkirk” is powerful cinematic art.  Though not overtly an “anti-war” film, it shows us the chaos of war alongside both the best and worst of what it brings out in humanity, without sentimentality or judgment.  It focuses on survival over heroism, yet reveals that compassion leads to heroic acts.   Perhaps most impressively, it avoids political commentary while inspiring us to find hope in the face of overwhelming oppression and defeat.

That alone makes “Dunkirk” a profoundly suitable war movie for these troubled times.

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My Week With Marilyn (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: My Week With Marilyn, the wistful 2011 biopic based on Colin Clark’s memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, which detailed the author’s brief relationship with iconic starlet Marilyn Monroe during the turbulent filming of The Prince and the Showgirl with actor/director Sir Laurence Olivier.  Whereas many film biographies attempt to shed light on their subjects by presenting their life in its entirety, this charming true-life romance focuses instead on a short episode, using it as prism to cast insight into the legendary actress and her contemporaries.  As a result, the film has an intimacy and an authenticity lacking in most Hollywood bios, and the narrowing of focus allows the performers to explore the nuances of their real-life characters with much greater depth and detail, heightening the illusion that we are watching real people instead of the larger-than-life caricatures to which we are so often subjected.  Those performers, without exception, rise to the occasion: the entire ensemble clearly relishes its chance to embody this slice of mid-century mythology.  The much-lauded Michelle Williams is largely successful in capturing the enigmatic persona that made Marilyn the biggest star in the world; she gives us the contrasting blend of sensuality and insecurity we expect but infuses it with a humanity that allows us to perceive the underlying causes of her fragility and need for validation, as well as the irresistible charm that won the hearts of so many.  To be sure, her transformation is less than total- her physical attributes are not quite right, and her bearing sometimes seems mote timid than self-assured- but, of course, she is ultimately an actress interpreting a role, not a reincarnation, and as such she deserves much praise for conveying the essence of an oft-imitated woman who was, in fact, inimitable.   Less glamorous, but perhaps even more impressive, is Kenneth Branagh’s work as Olivier which likewise captures the great actor’s outward persona with remarkable accuracy while showing the inner landscape of a man struggling to keep his place at the top in the face of changing standards in the art he has mastered for so long; Olivier was not only an early mentor for Branagh but an actor with whom his own career has often been compared, so he seems well-suited to the daunting task of personifying the legendary thespian- a task which he clearly relishes, recreating Olivier’s physicality and vocal patterns with intimate familiarity with0ut resorting to out-and-out mimicry, and treating his subject with obvious respect even when portraying some of his less attractive facets.   As these two enact their clash of titans, they are surrounded by a host of worthy supporting performances, including Julia Ormond’s brief but canny portrayal of Vivien Leigh, Emma Watson’s decidedly non-Hermoine-esque turn as a wardrobe girl, and the always magisterial Dame Judi Dench as the always magisterial Dame Sybil Thorndike; but special praise should be reserved for Eddie Redmayne, who, stuck with the potentially thankless role of providing a foil for his co-stars, manages also to provide a solid ground for the proceedings by giving a quietly convincing performance as the young film crewman coming of age in the shadow of giants, and never lets us quite forget that this is, after all, his story.  With all this great acting going on, it’s easy to overlook the film’s other pleasures- the meticulous costume and scene design; the rich, golden-hued cinematography by Ben Smithard; the understated archness of the screenplay by Adrian Hodges- all overseen by the steady hand of first-time director Simon Curtis, whose wise approach here is to step back and let all these elements leave their marks without the unnecessary assistance of showy cinematic trickery.  The end result is a movie which, like the famous figure at its center, is lovely, effervescent, and hauntingly sad.  It does not promise nor does it try to present the final word on Marilyn- or Olivier, for that matter- and for that very reason, probably comes closer to giving us a truthful, fair vision of these two legends than any scandal-raking exposé could hope to deliver.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1655420/

Thor (2011) & Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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Today’s cinema adventure is a double feature: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, the two 2011 entries from Marvel that introduced audiences to seminal figures in the then-upcoming Avengers blockbuster, further establishing the groundwork begun in the successful Iron Man franchise and setting up key elements of the story arc which unites all the films.   In the first of the pair, Thor, heir to the throne of Asgard, is exiled by his angry father to the distant planet earth, precipitating a rebellion in his home world which threatens to wreak destructive havoc in both places; in the second, set during the second world war, scrawny weakling Steve Rogers is transformed by a secret government experiment into a super soldier who leads the battle against an insidious threat rising from within the ranks of the Nazi Reich.  The two films bookend each other nicely, thematically speaking: both feature heroes who rise to greatness, one by breaking through his own arrogance to find humility; and the other by holding on to his pure-hearted nature after being bestowed with super-human powers.  Both scenarios are familiar variations of the “Hero’s Journey” myth, and as such fit snugly into the comic book milieu from which the characters and their stories are drawn; and though the production teams for each film are, for the most part, comprised of different artists, under the guidance of Marvel and its mastermind, Stan Lee, both maintain a strong visual and thematic connection to the printed form of the source material.  Indeed, thanks to the heavy use of CG effects in creating the worlds of these films- which at times almost erases the line between animated and live action filmmaking- they seem like gigantic, moving comic books; the only thing missing is the presence of bubbles for the dialogue and thoughts of the characters.  This, of course, is precisely what the creators of these spectacles have intended; and on that level, they have succeeded in spades.  However, it is that candy-coated quality that handicaps both of these films, as well: in making the impossible come to life in such a clearly artificial setting, they distance us from the characters and the story, keeping us constantly reminded that what we are seeing has no real weight or consequence in our lives and preventing an emotional connection much in the way that Brechtian theatre-of-alienation tactics were designed to do; unfortunately, the purpose of that presentational technique was to provide a detachment that would allow an intellectual connection instead, and here, there is so little food for thought that the effect (for those not dazzled into submission by the visual trickery) is closer to boredom.  Between the two films, Thor fares somewhat better: though marginally more far-fetched in its content, the mythological connection provided by its use of Norse gods and goddesses as an integral part of the plot allows us, somehow, to more comfortably suspend our disbelief and buy into its premise of our world being caught up in a conflict of all-powerful titans.  Indeed, the storytelling aspect is strong enough- almost- to avoid being overwhelmed by the computer-rendered spectacle surrounding it, largely thanks to the direction of one-time Shakespearean golden-boy Kenneth Branagh, whose extensive experience with classical narratives makes him well-suited to the mythic themes in play.  Not so sure-handed at the helm is Joe Johnston, whose Captain America starts out well enough as it chronicles the eager young hero’s transformation, but then seems to move aimlessly through its progression of set pieces, content to rely on action and mood to keep us interested until it reaches the last one; rather than the unfolding of an archetypal tale, this second film feels instead like a piece of nostalgic fluff, a cliché-ridden WWII adventure souped-up with wish-fulfillment fantasy, trying painfully hard to avoid irony in its handling of the gee-whiz jingoism of its subject matter by masking it in nostalgia (mainly provided by the bathing of every scene in a golden-hued light in order to remind us that we are watching a story set in the 1940s).  This lack of real direction is exacerbated by the hollowness of the characters: whereas in Thor, the screenwriters (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne) invest time and attention to the development the characters and their relationships, in Captain America the scribes (Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely) have relied on the familiarity of the stock types that populate their film, establishing identity with glib one-liners and giving mere lip service to the bonds and rivalries that determine their loyalties; in both, the players are little more to us than obligatory ciphers required to fulfill a formula, but at least in Thor, they have real personality.  The cast lists of both movies are dotted with ringers: such heavy hitters as Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgârd and Natalie Portman (Thor) and Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Hugo Weaving (Captain America) all add prestige and interest to the proceedings, and manage- with varying degrees of success- to elevate the material to a level that at least gives the illusion of substance.  As for the titular heroes, Chris Hemsworth as Thor does an adequate job of enacting his transformation from entitled blowhard to compassionate champion, and Chris Evans as the Captain manages to capture the right blend of sincerity and aloofness; but, perhaps partly due to the inherent limitations of the characters, both actors ultimately comes off as little more than eye candy (not that this is a bad thing- part of the traditional appeal of this kind of escapist entertainment is the beefcake factor).  The production of both movies, as mentioned before, is breathtaking, presenting us with glossy, hyper-real visions of the Marvel Universe; united by cohesive production design (Bo Welch for Thor, Rick Heinrichs for Captain America), they continually wow us with movie magic that reminds us of how far we’ve come from the days of actors hanging on wires in front of projected skyscapes.  The musical scores, provided by Patrick Doyle (director Branagh’s long-time collaborator) on Thor and Alan Silvestri on Captain America, are appropriately stirring.  In fact, every technical aspect of both films is top-notch, Grade-A, best-of-Hollywood stuff; but ultimately, though Thor has its strengths, they both come up short in the long run, big on style and spectacle, but lacking in the kind of genuine depth that can make movies of this genre into a more meaningful experience.  There is certainly entertainment value here, but even that seems strangely lacking; both pieces feel more like prologues (which they are) than stand-on-their-own experiences, setting the stage for things to come and somehow failing to provide the satisfaction of real closure.  Of course, this is the nature of comic books- each segment ends in a cliff-hanger, ensuring that the reader will rush out to buy the next edition as soon as it is available.  Thankfully, in this case the next edition is The Avengers, which succeeds where these two predecessors have not- but that’s another review.

Thor http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/

Captain America: The First Avenger http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458339/

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