Dunkirk Review

Christopher Nolan is a master filmmaker.  That much can’t really be disputed any more.  Since coming into the public eye with the groundbreaking Memento in 2000 the British writer, director, and producer has proven himself a creator of innovative films that are consistently both highly entertaining and intellectually stimulating.  But it is with Dunkirk that Nolan has unveiled his most unconventional, if not necessarily his best, film.

Depicting the evacuation of British forces from the titular French location as the latter country fell to Nazi control, Dunkirk differentiates itself from other war movies, particularly its many siblings in the World War II subgenre, by focusing solely on survival, relatively uninterested in the moral difficulties of war time.  To Nolan anyone around Dunkirk those fateful few days, both the soldiers and the civilian sailors who aided in the evacuation, were heroes, despite any faults they may have, which to be fair, Nolan doesn’t entirely ignore (English bias against the French is acknowledged a decent amount).  Therefore, Nolan sets out to depict just how extreme the conditions these men and boys endured were, calling on all his considerable filmmaking skill to do so.  Dunkirk is a rollercoaster of a film, with constantly climactic tension that does not let up for the entirety of its (admittedly short) runtime.  Nolan abandons traditional ideas of narrative to build a film that is completely experiential.  The characters’ personalities and backstories play second fiddle to the depiction of the physical challenges and fear they experience.  Nolan’s biggest concern, many might say his only concern, here is to immerse the viewer in the combative chaos he depicts.  Nolan has acquired a reputation for being a bit of a cold filmmaker and while the extent to which this is true is often exaggerated emotional impact certainly isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of his filmography.  With the exception of his Batman trilogy the main draw to a Nolan movie is usually something other than memorable character work, examples being enthralling mysteries (such as in The Prestige) or technical filmmaking innovation (found in Inception and Memento).  It would be understandable to expect Nolan to focus more on character in a film about the tragedy of war but as he often does Nolan subverts expectations, playing fast and loose with emotional arcs in order to devote himself to making the viewer feel as if they really are on that beach, on those boats, or in those planes.  Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance are the only actors given really emotionally challenging material though all do their jobs at the least adequately, with Tom Hardy bringing a welcome dose of action movie cool to his role as a fighter pilot.

In addition to the focus on intensity over traditional narrative arcs, the other factor making Dunkirk feel fresh among its many war movie peers is its unique narrative structure.  Often known to employ multiple intersecting time frames, Nolan divides Dunkirk into three distinct, though still related, chapters.  One, referred to as “The Mole” depicts the week long struggle of the soldiers slowly being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.  Another, “The Sea”, focuses on Rylance’s character and two others, the owner and two hands of one of the civilian boats called in to aid in the evacuation, on their day long journey to those same beaches.  Finally “The Air” follows Hardy’s character and his partners as they provide air support for the final hour of the sea mission.  Thanks to masterful editing and some carefully constructed surprises the intersections between the three timelines provide a genuine cinematic thrill.

While it certainly has its flaws (chief among them an occasional lack of clarity about where different groups are in relation to each other), Dunkirk is still something of a marvel.  An artistic, experimental film with blockbuster aesthetics that deserves more than a few Academy Award nominations, especially for cinematography and editing, it is more than anything a tribute to the real heroes of the battle it depicts that proves both the skill and integrity of its director.  Nolan’s efforts are selfless here both in terms of how he takes risks and knows when not to, in order to make the most effective, respectful film possible.  A Best Director nomination is more than deserved.

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War for the Planet of the Apes Review

My first thought coming out of Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes was “Thank goodness the next Batman movie is in good hands” and while this may seem like a distracted thought it’s actually one of the highest compliments I can pay Mister Reeves.  I confess that the cinematic exploits of the Caped Crusader are far more important to me personally than those of the sometimes friendly, sometimes not-so-friendly simians that populate the Apes films and this isn’t likely to change.  But it is the confidence Reeves inspires that is relevant here, born out of his creating a film in War that is hugely satisfying both emotionally and intellectually.

Commencing two years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also done by Reeves), War finds the current protagonist of the franchise, Andy Serkis’ Caesar, and the rest of the intelligent, genetically modified apes whom viewers have come to know over the course of the rebooted trilogy which started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes engaged in increasingly brutal conflict with a militant regiment of humans who survived the apocalyptic virus that killed off most of the planet’s population.  After the regiment’s leader, the extremist Colonel (Woody Harrelson), inflicts unspeakable horror upon Caesar, the once noble chimp sets out for revenge accompanied by three close companions with the journey testing his morality and psyche in highly intriguing ways and Serkis turns in another mesmerizing performance (while I understand some Academy members’ reluctance to nominate a performance at least partially constructed by visual effects artists for a standard leading actor award, Serkis definitely at least deserves some kind of special recognition for his pioneering work in this still-new style of acting).

Like Dawn and, to a lesser extent, Rise, War is more than anything a cautionary tale.  In addition to the social commentary against xenophobia and intolerance carried over from its predecessors War is also a powerful examination of violence and well, war.  Caesar’s always been a unique blockbuster antagonist (he is after all a chimpanzee and one that’s made enemies of humankind more than once) but War is a moral quagmire that one really doesn’t expect from a movie featuring talking animals.  While the film starts out focused on typical issues of ends justifying means the second and third acts are what push the film into the territory of great war or anti-war film, depending on how one sees it.  Reeves’ direction truly shines in the moments when he lingers intimately on the effects that Caesar’s morally questionable acts have on his soul.  This is a highly intelligent, educated simian who sees no other way to protect his family and friends than to resort to methods he knows are reprehensible.  This is Apocalypse Now, just with fur and some religious imagery.

While Caesar and the thematic ideas are the main attractions, War has plenty other things to offer.  The motion capture effects continue to stun, with a close-up, emotional dialogue between Caesar and Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape being a particular showcase for the artists’ spectacular skill at maintaining the complexities of the actors’ expressions despite heavy CGI alteration to their appearances.  While all the actors playing apes do fine work (if not as brilliant as Serkis) the real scene stealer amongst the supporting cast is Harrelson.  The Colonel is one of the best screen villains in recent years and this is thanks in no small part to Harrelson’s rage-filled, intimidating performance.  It does help that the writing for the character is very timely, with xenophobia and disregard for the rules of combat and leadership feeling like a particularly relevant blend of evil with said relevance being made abundantly clear when it is revealed the Colonel is using slave labor from prisoners to build a wall.  The film’s action is probably its biggest weakness.  First of all it bares mentioning that this isn’t at all a traditional summer blockbuster and there really isn’t that much action to discuss.  That being said, what few skirmishes there are really aren’t that impressive.  In yet another unconventional move for a sci-fi epic combat isn’t at all glorified, which fits well with the serious examination of violence Reeves is conducting.  However, not all of the violence put on screen is shocking or inventive enough to effectively display the brutality and devastation Reeves wants to convey (the score also occasionally feels a bit out of place tonally).  Scenes of torture serve their thematic purpose much better than the gun fights or human hand to ape hand combat do.  While the fight scenes in War are rightfully about as far as you can get from something like The Avengers they also not close enough to say Looper or Saving Private Ryan.

In summary, Reeves and company have created a unique and highly impressive piece of work.  War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful examination of the self-inflicted dangers facing humanity, disguised as a sci-fi action thriller and its strengths far outweigh its few minor weaknesses.

 

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

The Spider-Man franchise is perhaps the perfect example of the lack of originality that many believe is plaguing the film industry.  The first appearance of Tom Holland’s take on Peter Parker in last year’s Captain America: Civil War marked the second cinematic reboot of the wall-crawler in less than five years and many moviegoers were rightfully skeptical of another solo series for a character who it seemed may have ran his course on the big screen.  While Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first of said solo series, isn’t original enough to completely alleviate those concerns, it’s at least a solid film when taken on its own merits.  Strong humor, a lively performance from Holland, and connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe denied to previous versions of the character make Homecoming a highly enjoyable, if hardly moving, experience.

After a prologue introducing the film’s villain (Michael Keaton’s take on Adrian Toomes a.k.a. the Vulture) Homecoming picks up in the midst of Captain America: Civil War with a very funny look into Peter’s perspective on the events of that film, courtesy of a video diary he keeps throughout a mission.  Upon his return from helping Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) combat former friends, Peter is gifted by the older hero with an A.I. powered super suit as part of a trial period, which he is told, could result in his full induction into the Avengers someday.  Tony tells him to lay low while he learns the finer points of super-heroics, suggesting that he focus more on neighborhood crime-fighting rather than the international incidents the Avengers routinely involve themselves in, and while Peter claims to take this advice to heart, within two months he is bored of patrolling Queens and constantly pesters his handler, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, reprising his delightful role from the Iron Man trilogy), for another “real” mission.  Holland does a good job portraying Peter’s frustration and desire to prove himself and the film moves along at such a quick and easy pace that it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun, but I occasionally found myself less than satisfied with the issues Peter is facing given that they are essentially all first-world, fairly unsympathetic, problems.  While past takes on Peter had him struggling financially and socially, as he always does in the comic-book source material, this version is essentially waiting with baited breath for the next alien invasion or super-villain attack and this occasionally creates a bit of a disconnect with the character.  Fortunately this downtime only really lasts throughout some of the first act and once Peter’s wish for a legitimate threat is granted by Toomes’ schemes, in which he sells alien and hi-tech weaponry recovered from the wrecks of Avengers battles, the film really finds its groove as a funny superhero caper that is also interested (though not heavily invested) in the high school escapades of its adolescent hero.

Homecoming‘s desire to be both a high school comedy and an introduction to a new version of a beloved comic-book and cinematic hero is both a blessing and a curse.  Holland’s Peter is by far the youngest and most believably naïve big screen Spider-Man (he’s leagues ahead of Tobey McGuire but still behind Andrew Garfield) and Watts is able to craft a very charming character but the balance and grace with which Peter is (for the most part) approached isn’t always reflected in the rest of the cast.  Out of the various classmates depicted in the film the only one with consistently strong material is Peter’s best friend, Jacob Batalon’s Ned, even if his characterization, along with that of Donald Glover’s character, could be upsetting to fans of the second Spider-Man from the comics.  Laura Harrier is perfectly fine as love interest Liz Allan but is let down by the writing which never provides a good reason for Liz to reciprocate Peter’s romantic feelings making their connection far from tangible.  The script also fails to really sell the tug of war between Peter’s personal and heroic lives that is so vital to the character, possibly due to its infuriating tendency to ignore the tragedies that define him as a person.  While the decision to refrain from showing a third version of Uncle Ben Parker getting shot to death because of Peter’s mistakes is a necessary move to avoid being labeled repetitive, the lack of emotional weight given to Peter’s background costs the film in terms of impact.

While Homecoming certainly has a fair amount of weak spots they are evened out by the general sense of fun and the non-student supporting characters.  Homecoming is genuinely, effortlessly funny in a way most movies simply aren’t any more and the constant stream of laughs contributes to the film’s brisk and easy pace.  The more experienced actors in the cast are also on top of their game.  Robert Downey Jr. is as great as ever, but the restraint both he and the writers show in regards to the use of Tony Stark in the film is the most admirable thing about his inclusion.  Tony is very much a supporting character here, as he should be, but every scene he’s in is better for it.  Although under-used, Marisa Tomei makes for a highly entertaining Aunt May and she shares possibly the film’s best scene with Holland.  That all being said it is Keaton who really steals the show.  The former Batman makes the most out of a simple yet effective villainous part that is simultaneously clever and thuggish turning in an endlessly entertaining performance.  The subtle portrayals of similarities between Peter and Toomes are also some of the script’s highlights.

Future installments will need to improve action sequences and emotional complexity in order to ensure the rebooted series’ longevity but Spider-Man: Homecoming is good enough for now.  The film does a fine job of reintroducing moviegoers to Peter Parker, who is now firmly entrenched in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s nice to have you back Webs.  Don’t screw it up this time.