Capsule Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk 2017

As period war films go, this film hits all the right notes. The three stories that are juggled throughout meld together well. It seems most of the action-and we know how this story ends-is played to be heard solely through the mood-inducing soundtrack accompanying the action. The mood of the period piece, the drama inherent in the telling of a compelling story, and all the combined components therein conspire to be in sync with the masterly musical overtures heard throughout the film.

The stories include one depicting a couple of young men struggling to stay alive when faced with the enormity of the situation on the beach at Dunkirk. The second storyline is the Mark Rylance plot, the most compelling of the three. He is a local boatman with a son and his helper who brave the channel when the call comes out for rescue. The third story, which is probably the most disappointing and plebian of all, involves Tom Hardy’s flying spitfire squadron group who are tasked with protecting the evacuation from the sky. The dogfights and the tight shots of Hardy’s face are really the only dramatic plot points carried forward in these unremarkable segments.

The story of ordinary men braving the war is held together by Rylance’s performance, subtle, nuanced and most effective-as was the case in Bridge of Spies which earned him an Oscar nomination. The pop star status of Harry Styles is almost taken to parody, as you see Styles as just one of a vast sea of young men with similar faces all waiting for their fates to be decided in the theater of war. The struggle and the miracle of Dunkirk is only as compelling as the belief that ordinary men can do extraordinary things.

Tom Hardy, so movingly effective in the subtle nuance department ranging from The Drop to his role in Lawless, is here almost obliterated literally with a mask and what amounts to a cameo walk-on as a flyer who is seen in a series of cliched Top Gun-nish style shots from the cockpit. There is one reviewer pointing out that the director deliberately challenged Hardy by covering his features and giving him little to work with, but somehow that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you are watching the film.

The plots for all three stories do sync at some point, with the level of action ebbing and flowing accordingly. Kenneth Branagh is decently served as one of the English commanders who oversees the operation and tries to narrate the action in the finally satisfying denouement that is the culmination of the stories blended together. The point, as mentioned, of the miracle of Dunkirk is only realized if you can convey the scope and breadth of the undertaking that led these small boat owners and ordinary citizens to deliver a victory of sorts to the allies. Although very little time is spent on the actual logistics involved in this operation, the visuals are brought home in stark relief with gloriously monochromatic landscapes that fit the theme.

This film would probably not have worked as well with a lesser director, editor, cinematographer and musical score. That means in the final analysis- the film works well for what it is- a period drama that tells a compelling story with gifted actors, a masterful director, and all the other big-budget elements needed to advance the movie.

It is a moving story in many ways, and has much to lend to the short-range projects we often see projected in lights with CGI, with special effects and with space-age fantasy and plot elements. This is one for the ages-meaning the ages past and those with an appreciation of history. As movie making goes in the modern era, in Christopher Nolan’s case, one might say this was his Finest Hour.

The Revenant: A Capsule Review

The Revenant

Forget about the bear…This film is Jack London on steroids. There are several heart-stopping moments in this tale of survival in its most basic form. Two of our greatest actors are working to make this a believable plot, and that is a stretch at times. The bear attack comes early in the film, and unlike “Saving Private Ryan” where the landing at Normandy is balanced with periods of relative calm, there’s little peace to be found in this unrelenting tale of survival.

The harsh elements and the question of what makes a man have the will to survive when Mother Nature’s harshest elements are working against you is one of the many points that pin this plot together. It is at heart a very simplistic tale of Man vs the Elements and Man vs Man.

But Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio deserve shared praise for their physical performances and nuanced shadings to at times one-dimensional characters. DiCaprio by far has the most physically difficult role playing Glass, the man who is left for dead in the wilderness after being mauled by a Mother bear protecting her cubs.

Hardy has, in a way, a more difficult acting task in his portrayal of a man who, although innately evil, has some elements of humanity that mark him as more than just a cardboard caricature of the “bad guy.” In these roles, there are shadings of Stephen Crane’s questions of survival voiced in “The Open Boat”. What gives our life and our very will to survive meaning? And in some subtler way, there are underpinnings of Conrad’s anti-hero found in “Lord Jim”. What makes a man a hero? And what makes him a coward? And do we have elements of both within each of us, where time and place may combine to make either heroes or cowards of us all?

But in this film, as with Jack London’s portrayals of Man vs. Nature in “The Call of the Wild”, we see some kinship with the elemental nature of what it takes for a human to survive when others would give up hope. There has to be something within a man that furthers the struggle, an inward spark that is seen faintly.

One of the unquestionable stars of the show is the cinematography, where Nature’s unyielding essence is on display throughout most of the movie. This is a long, and slightly drawn-out story of survival and revenge. But although we’ve seen it done before, in Jeremiah Johnson and in some respects, in Apocalypse Now, this is DiCaprio’s signature role and perhaps, the one that brings him a well-deserved Oscar for an impressive career full of stellar performances.

6 Degrees Fall Newsletter: Notes from the Global Village

6 Degrees of Film
6 Degrees of Film

 

Let’s start with The 400 Pound Gorilla:

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens premieres December 18th. This one is sucking all the oxygen out of the room! I have to confess that I was never a Star Wars fanatic. I saw the original film when it came out in 1976 and wasn’t impressed. I thought that the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back  was superior in every way, but I never became a true devotee of Star Wars.

Since I’ve written a book on film, it’s obvious that the cultural phenomenon and overwhelming impact that Star Wars has had on film-making in general, and also on our culture, is too great to be denied. In 6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village,  the book delves into the history of how George Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic Company  dominated the industry for years and put CGI-Computer Graphics Imaging, and special-effects in the forefront of the movie industry.

When Lucas sold his rights to Disney, many loyal fans were stunned and felt a sense of betrayal. But after reading some interviews Lucas gave, it really did make sense for him to move his ideas and creative themes to Disney. He said in an interview featured in 6 Degrees that “ …I’m not interested in virtual reality at its current level, because it’s just too crude. But if you can program virtual reality or simulator rides with biotech, you will have a very interesting non-world.”

After reading this, it makes sense that Lucas would sell his theme and his mythology to a group that specializes in transferring dreams to paper and making those dreams come true. That’s the Disney mantra and the new theme park being developed by Disney seems to be the natural extension of the Cinematic Universe Lucas created over a quarter of a century ago.

This Fall, Biopic’s abound: One recurring theme seen over and over are the number of films based on true stories. From Everest to The 33, from Black Mass to  Bridge of Spies, it seems that the source material is telling us that truth is hopefully, much more interesting to audiences than fiction!

Fem FlicksThe Suffragette & The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2

The Hunger Games returns Jennifer Lawrence to her breakthrough role as Katniss Everdeen in this last installment. The Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan and one of the legends of the screen in a role of Emmaline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Movement in turn of the century England. The role seems tailor made for a strong female such as Meryl Streep.

Famous Directors: Oscar winners Ron Howard & Stephen Spielberg present their films, In the Heart of the Sea and Bridge of Spies, respectively.

Best Actors: DiCaprio & Tom Hardy, De Niro & Tom Hanks, some of Hollywood’s finest actors are starring in films this fall. De Niro and Tom Hanks are both featured in upcoming films, De Niro stars with Anne Hathaway in The Intern, and Hanks stars in Bridge of Spies. Michael Fassbender is taking on the role of Steve Jobs in a biopic. Bill Murray returns to Leading Man Status with Rock the Kasbah

And James Bond is back in a much-anticipated film Spectre with Daniel Craig returning to play the iconic role of Bond.

The Tarantino: Genre’s are turned on their heads with Quentin Tarantino at the helm. This much-anticipated Western, The Hateful Eight, stars Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell.

The Holiday season will usher in some of the most-anticipated children’s movies of the year. The Peanuts Movie and The Good Dinosaur will arrive just in time for Christmas.

But of course, on Christmas Day, as keeping with tradition, some of the darkest plots are featured. The Revenant, with DiCaprio and Tom Hardy is the heartwarming story of a man attacked by a bear and left for dead by his friends in the middle of the wilderness. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight promises to be just as warm and fuzzy, giving us a Western with lots of blood and gore and vengeance.

The Armchair Film Fest: For warm and fuzzy, two Holiday classics will be guaranteed. At some point, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the best films Capra and Jimmy Stewart made, and Christmas Vacation, which is definitely Chevy Chase’s best work, will be shown on television.

You may see A Christmas Story looped endlessly on cable networks, so it’s easy to just turn it on at any point to lighten the mood. Of course, Miracle on 34th Street with Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood is another standard that will lighten your spirits-if you are over the age of 40.

I find that Milennials and Gen X’ers don’t bother to watch too many films that were made in black and white. Too bad, as they are missing out on some of the greatest films ever made.

Here’s the Fall Movie List starting in September with:

September

Sicario 2015
9/18
Sicario: A female FBI agent (Emily Blunt) delves into a shady drug-cartel task force run by agents from both U.S. and Mexico.

 

black mass 2 depp 2015

Black Mass– The buzz for this biopic is around Johnny Depp’s much anticipated portrayal of the infamous Boston Gangster Whitey Bulger.

Everest 2015

Everest: This Bio Pic is based on the real-life 1996 tragedy that took the lives of eight climbers on Mt. Everest.

October

10/2

Legend 2015

Legend: Tom Hardy plays a dual-role of the Kray Brothers, real-life British gangsters of the 1960’s. Hardy plays both Ronald & Reginald Kray.

 

The Martian

The Martian: This Sci-Fi Adventure tale stars Matt Damon as an astronaut left for dead by his fellow crew members and forced to survive alone on Mars.

10/9:

Steve Jobs film

Steve Jobs: Michael Fassbender plays Jobs in this bio-pic which has already garnered Oscar buzz for his portrayal.

Pan 2015

Pan: Hugh Jackman stars in this new take explaining the origins of the famed Leader of the Lost Boys, Peter Pan.

10/16

Bridge of spies speilberg hanks

Bridge of Spies: Speilberg & Hanks collaborated on this bio-pic based on the real-life Cold War exchange of a Russian spy for an American U-2 Pilot.

Truth: Robert Redford plays Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett is producer Mary Mapes in this film based on a true story. The story that ruined Dan Rather’s career is based on the real-life controversial news story involving George W. Bush and his Texas National Guard records.

10/23

Suffragette 2015

Suffragette: The film depicts the suffragette’s fight for women’s rights in England. Meryl Streep stars in the film for only four minutes, but her role as a pivotal women’s rights leader Emmeline Pankhurst is a vital one.

Rock the Kasbah Murray

Rock the Kasbah: Bill Murray stars as a burned-out agent stuck in Kabul, Afghanistan who discovers a young talented girl and decides to promote her.

November

11/6

Spectre bond

Spectre: James Bond returns to the screen with Daniel Craig back as Bond.

trumbo 2015

Trumbo: Bio-pic of acclaimed writer Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950’s after the McCarthy hearings.

11/13

The 33

The 33: Antonio Banderas stars in this bio-pic based on the 2010 true story about 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days after an explosion.

11/20

Hunger games final movie 2015

Hunger Games: Mockinjay:  Final Installment: The much anticipated final installment of Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) fight against the ruling Panem government.

Children’s Animated Films

the good dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur: From Pixar, the film imagines a world where the dinosaurs didn’t become extinct, and the plot is a unique twist on boy-meets-dog tales; a friendship arises between the dinosaur boy and his pet -a feral human child.

Peanuts 2015

 

The Peanuts Movie: The film touts the fact they used many of Charles Schulz’s original drawings, such as digital versions of Shulz’s depictions of rain and even Pigpen’s cloud of dirt!

11/25

Victor Frankenstien 2015

Victor Frankenstein: James McaVoy and Daniel Radcliffe star in this unusual twist to the famous story as the film switches the focus to Igor, Frankenstein’s servant.

11/27

I saw the light

I Saw the Light: Yet another bio-pic tells the Hank Williams story featuring his rise to fame, his volatile relationships, his addictions and his spiral downward before his death at age 29.

December

12/11

Heart of the sea

In the Heart of the Sea: Ron Howard directs this film based on the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. It centers around the 19th century crew of the whaling ship, the Essex, which battles the elements after a whale destroys their boat in the treacherous deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.

12/18

Star wars logo

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The Big Kahuna finally arrives after fanfare including detailed coverage of the Milennium Falcon and even the movie trailer. Star Wars returns to the big screen just in time for Christmas. Buy your tickets early.

The Hateful Eight

12/25: Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight: A Western in the Tarantino Genre with Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russell.

The Revenant

12/25: The Revenant: DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, who are perhaps two of the greatest actors working in films today, star in this movie, also based on a true story, of 19th Century trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio).  The plot revolves around Glass seeking revenge after being attacked by a bear and left for dead by his companions.

Mad Max….again?

Mad Max Fury Road

Mad Max…again? No soup for you! That means no back story or character development is allowed. It’s just too bad if you don’t already know the story behind Max’s descent into madness as there’s just no time to waste for such silly details. There’s no time to stop and take a breather at all. This frenetically paced action yarn spins a fantastic tale with non-stop car chase sequence and some beautiful cinematography thrown in along the way.

The post- apocalyptic landscape is re-imagined yet again in this re-boot of Mad Max. The question comes to mind: why would you need actors the caliber of Tom Hardy & Charlize Theron in this fast-paced action series that comprises Mad Max? It may have something to do with the small sections of dialogue squeezed in to almost never-ending car chase sequences.

The spare and unyielding character rarely seen in the character of Max has to take shape literally in the blink of an eye. That is the time we are given for character development in this film. Tom Hardy does his best to provide some window into the soul of the haunted man that is Max. But given the few opportunities we have, there is little in the way of humor and too much time spent simply surviving.

The best of the series, The Road Warrior, did include some comic relief. The character of the pilot of the whirly bird, the dog and the small child all gave Max some reason to react. That extra layer is sorely missing in this outing. There isn’t enough down time to really assess the whys and wherefores amounting to a reason that most of the action occurs. What little we are given is completely overshadowed in the face of the admittedly spectacular car chase scenes. And that includes one of the most beautiful feats of cinematography I’ve ever seen with the desert landscape and an enormous cloud of dust covering the heavens.

I’ll have to admit that the fight between Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa, and Max is one of the best I’ve ever seen staged between a man and a woman. There’s no girly punches and no quarter given because she’s a woman. It’s a fight to the death and it’s done extremely well. But it doesn’t really substitute for understanding the characters or what makes them tick.

There is a plot of sorts amounting to an absurd and completely illogical motif of survival given all the ridiculous actions thrown at the small band of escaping women and Max. The women are escaping servitude and bondage from a place called the Citadel. (The girls actually look as if they escaped from a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot.)

The plot seems merely incidental, and as with most apocalyptic settings, we must suspend disbelief and simply watch the events unfold. There is no down time really, and that’s one of the problems that I take away from this film. Even Max needs to take a break once in a while

Child 44: Looking for a murderer in Paradise

Child 44

Reminiscent at times of the 1983 Film Gorky Park , Child 44 is another thriller set in Russia. This one is set in the oppressive Stalinist era that existed after World War II. Tom Hardy stars as a man who was raised to be loyal to the militaristic and oppressive regime of Joseph Stalin. From the beginning, his loyalty is tested. First, with the notion that “there is no such thing as murder in Paradise.” This is the ironic motto under which the police and military must operate. Later, when Hardy’s character, Leo, is asked to betray his wife, he must choose where his loyalty truly lies.

Like The Handmaids Tale, the characters operate in a dystopian atmosphere, therefore everyone behaves within the framework of an Orwellian state of being. Murder and torture are committed routinely by the ruling authorities in order to keep the citizens in line. In this environment, Leo is determined to unravel the identity of a man who is killing children. The total number of deaths is 44, hence the title: Child 44. But keeping with the mindset that there are no murders allowed to exist in Stalin’s Russia, the notion of finding a child murderer is a heavy lift. Based on the novel of the same name, the overall pace of the film feels dark, and the tone is suitably oppressive

There are some plot points to quibble over. The James Bond method of doing away with the protagonist makes one ask, “Why not simply shoot him?” But the plot does manage to wrap the ends up at a slow but steady pace. Perhaps a slightly shorter running time (it runs 2 hours 17 minutes) might have increased the pace.

Noomi Rapace, seen with Hardy in last year’s excellent film, , pairs again with him as his wife, Raisa. She is an effective foil for Leo’s determined and steadfast character who is fixated on learning the truth. Gary Oldman seems slightly under-utilized as General Nesterov, Leo’s skeptical and eventually supportive superior officer. All in all, the film features a good cast and an uneven screenplay, which makes for an interesting, but not overly exciting thriller.

Tom Hardy stars in The Drop

The Drop 2014 FallThe twists and turns in this movie also appear in so many current films that come to the same concluding theme: nothing is as it seems….The Drop was adapted from a short story by Dennis Lehane, the writer of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. Lehane’s short story was entitled, Animal Rescue, which allows for one of the more refreshing twists I’ve seen in a movie lately.

The story involves the use of a dog in the framework of the film. One of my pet peeves is the awful cliché in films where the dog dies off-screen and we hear the obligatory aarf or find the animal lying dead as a portent of doom. This one works against the awful type. Although it’s not a huge spoiler for the plot, this one is simply refreshing in that the puppy that is used as a plot device, and is the basis for the short story upon which the film is derived, is not seen or used in the same, tired mold as so many canines that have gone before.

The twists and turns in this one are something we see as a slow moving train wreck. We know that violence is bubbling up as it simmers beneath the surface throughout. Although there is some violence displayed, it is understated for the most part and not used to propel the plot into oblivion. That is another pet peeve of mine in modern films. There is so much gunfire, and so many bodies flying in martial arts mode in films, we don’t ever soak up dialogue or develop character. The plot just moves (or plods) along.

James Gandolfini fills in the gaps in this other-wise quiet film. He supplies humor where it is needed, and is the lynchpin for the premise of this gangster-themed film. The action occurs when a robbery takes place at the bar where Bob ( Tom Hardy) and his Cousin Marv (Gandolfini) work. The robbers make off with money belonging to the Chechnyan mob guys. They, naturally, want their money back.

The story revolves around the mob and the threat of violence against Bob & Marv, but also includes Bob’s new-found friendship with Nadia. The two meet when he rescues a puppy from her trash-can late one night. They form a friendship around the care of the animal, while Bob continues to plod through his workdays at the bar. The Drop is the bar itself, used as a money-laundering station for the mob. The Drop is also a metaphor for the slowly simmering undercurrents surrounding the two men from the bar and the underclass of bad guys closing in on them. When the other shoe drops, we are not completely surprised. It’s a relief when the circle begins to close.

James Gandolfini creates a fitting end to his celebrated career that soared with his spot-on portrayal of the mob boss in The Sopranos. Tom Hardy is one of the most interesting actors working today. His British accent is lost in the Bronx twang he adopts for this part. Bob is a slow-moving, slow-talking and methodical thinker. The pace of the movie deliberately follows him along the trail of a methodology which arrives at the correct conclusion within the necessary time and space. Although this one is too violent for the whole family, it’s a good start to a fall line-up after a summer of terrifically mediocre films.