Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk_Film_poster.jpgUpon being thrown headlong into Christopher Nolan’s immersive wartime drama Dunkirk, it becomes obvious that it is hardly a narrative film like any of the director’s previous efforts because it has a singular objective set out.

It’s economical (shorter than many of most recent efforts) and the dialogue is sparse, sprinkled sparingly throughout his picture. After all, the main goal of this film is not so much to tell us a story — drawing up the lines as they might have been — but actually immersing us in that moment that was so crucial to British morale and ultimately the outcome of WWII.

As such, this is visual storytelling to the utmost degree and it comes off splendidly for the precise reason that film has always been a visual medium as much as we try and make it about dialogue. Because invariably dialogue is often used as a crutch while Nolan’s film relies almost solely on its images to tell its story and that’s a quality of filmmaking that is often lacking in the contemporary industry.

Backstories are all but left to the imagination and there’s immense power in that. Too often storytellers feel a need to spell everything out, providing all the perfect cookie cutter moments in order to hold the audience member’s hand so they comprehend it all. But has something as volatile as war ever been like that? I’m sure we can all answer with an emphatic “NO,” so why would a film be any different? Make people use their brains. Make them feel something viscerally. Leave them in the dark. Keep the outcomes ambiguous.

Likewise, there are no imagined interactions between the major figures at play whether Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler. In fact, we never see a German’s face. We only see the results of their efforts to deter the British and cut off their escape route. As for Churchill, we never see the great English bulldog but his spirit wafts over the picture — certainly his words too — but it’s that spirit of resilience, that never say die attitude that speaks to his own character. That is enough.

Normally these type of decisions would signal a death wish but Nolan has been rewarded for his brazenness offering up a summer blockbuster that’s all but necessary. Because it tramples over much of the conventional wisdom that the industry has tried to impose on itself to reel in success. If there was any man to do it, Christopher Nolan certainly fits the bill.

There’s still very purposeful action playing out on three fronts. You have the soldiers actually stuck on the beach and in this case, we end up following a group of soldiers. Boys really. First, one who flees back to the beach after his compatriots are gunned down then joins with another boy to try and get aboard a battleship with a man on a stretcher. Finally, they get their chance only to get torpedoed out of the water. Treading in the oil-soaked ocean until someone can save them.

Then, there’s a trifecta of British Spitfires (led by Tom Hardy) traveling across the English Channel to provide coverage to their boys down below. Their exploits are documented with engrossing aerial shots that bring us right into their cockpits as they sit behind the controls looking to evade and vanquish their enemy.

Finally, we have the men of the home guard namely a father (Mark Rylance) and his two sons who answer the call to come to the aid of their young men stranded across the channel. You get the sense that they are riding into the valley of the shadow of death except that the valley of death is the sea and German U-Boats are waiting for them. Still, they push onward to rescue men coming by sea and by air. It too requires costly sacrifice.

Dunkirk’s soundtrack is magnified by ticking clocks and Hans Zimmer’s selection of screeching strings but it’s not necessarily developing the drama for drama’s sake. Again, there’s this underlying striving for authenticity.

One scene stands out in particular when the shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) asks if the boy he accidentally harmed is okay. He’s sorry now but doesn’t know the irreparable damage he has done. Still, the young man’s brother could lash out in anger. Instead, he takes the high road and tells him the boy is fine. His father grimly gives him a nod. He has made the most merciful decision for all parties involved.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and you begin to understand to what extent these British soldiers were sitting ducks on the beaches of Dunkirk.  Because you are right beside them in every waking moment. And if we understand the horrors and the selfishness that begins to breed as survival instincts set in then just as easily we comprehend the pure euphoria that comes over the men when the flotilla from home comes to their rescue.

Even in these moments what is striking is not so much that Dunkirk is a grand epic but it feels surprisingly intimate. Despite the anonymity that runs through a great deal of this film Nolan still gives us characters that we can attach ourselves to and they begin to resonate not because we know their person inside and out necessarily but we start to empathize with their positions first hand.  When you begin to see the world as someone else sees it, it’s difficult not to connect. And that goes for everyone.

Because this was not just a war of soldiers from the army, navy, and air force. This was a war that involved nurses and the home guard and every other man, woman, and child who rationed their supplies and blacked out their windows all because of the collective war effort.

It’s often the most trying circumstances that bring us together so that we are no longer individuals but we become one. Dunkirk seems like precisely one of those galvanizing events that can forever be looked back on with pride. It personifies bravery, resilience, a stiff upper lip if you want to put it that way. And the significance in survival is that they lived to fight another day and ultimately with the other Allied powers they were able to quell the Nazis.

Some might come out of Dunkirk hailing it as one of the great war pictures of our generation, but truthfully it’s more so a survival story and a tribute to the fighting spirit that often dwells in the souls of men. In an age so often lacking in courage, fortitude, and honor those are the very attributes that rise to the surface and become most evident. Dunkirk is a striking reminder, not simply for the British people, but for us all.

4.5/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 16-20

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Okay, here we go with the next installment in the series of my favorite films. But, in case you missed #21-#25 and have a passing fancy to see what I fancy,  check them out Here…

Otherwise, enjoy part II!

16. Back to the Future (1985)
Doc Brown and Marty McFly. A delorean time machine. Awkward mother, son relationships. High School Dances circa 1955. Good ol’ fashioned rock n’ roll. These are only a few of the reasons that Back to the Future is a perennial classic and the best time travel film around. Two more installments followed re-teaming Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, but it’s hard to top the original Sci-Fi classic.

17. Shane (1953)
There are numerous classic westerns from the Golden Age, but Shane is one of the most unassuming. It’s a treasure of a film, revolving around of the great iconic heroes of cinema, the eponymous Shane. He’s a gunslinger, upright and kind, but he’s also deadly. Within the expanse of George Stevens’s tale of the untamed West, is a human heart and also foreboding moments of darkness. It’s the complexities of this film that bring me back to it time and time again. Its main character being a fascinating man indeed.

18. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Walking on that beach in St. Andrews Scotland was one of the most enjoyable things in my life thus far. Partially because it’s so incredibly gorgeous in a raw, untouched sort of way. But the other reason is due to this film, full of heart and some of the most inspiring music ever. By telling the biographical story of the likes of world class sprinters Eric Liddel and Harold Abrahams, it successfully blends so many things that I like. Sports, history, Great Britain, and deep spiritual dilemmas. Let us remember those few men with hope in their hearts and wings on their heels.

19. The Odd Couple (1968)
I’m a fan of comedies that boast good unadulterated fun. The Odd Couple is one such film born of a Neil Simon play and subsequently turned into a successful television show. This is the rendition starring the bickering duo of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, both in fine form. They take this simple tale about two divorced men living together and make it a bellyful of laughs. Their poker playing buddies are a gas as well. It remains a classic with renewed value each and every time.

20. The Dark Knight (2008)
I am a product of the age of superhero films. Some mediocre, some simply run-of-the-mill, but few have left such an indelible mark as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. What sets it apart is a villain, a most worthy adversary for the cape crusader. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the creme de la creme of cinematic bad guys, and he elevates this film to be one of the most intriguing moral tales released in the last decade. This is far more than a superficial action flick.

Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia2002Poster“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill somebody.” – Robin Williams as Walter Finch

As I come to understand it, calling Christopher Nolan’s film a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgaard is not exactly fair. As a director with a singular artistic vision of his own, it’s only fair to say his thriller set in the icy outskirts of an Alaskan fishing village is a re-imagining of the material.

His tale follows a jaded sage of an L.A. cop who comes with his partner on a reassignment, but Dormer (Al Pacino) is also running away from something — something that undoubtedly has major repercussions on not only his life but the case he is about to be met with.

Getting acclimated to Nightmute is no easy task. The town is quiet and the local police are nice enough, including Bill’s old buddy and the overly zealous but industrious rookie Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). To her, the estimable Will Dormer is a legend, the man you only read about in case files, not actually witness in person. She holds that kind of awe for him, but he just takes it in stride as he and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) go about their business

Worst of all is the perpetual daylight. It’s something we take for granted, but in this story, the sun never truly sets. It’s always there. There’s no relief and, in a sense, it haunts Dormer. He struggles to sleep, he struggles when he is awake, because he hasn’t been able to sleep, and then the title Insomnia begins to make so much sense. It’s perpetuated to the extent that we begin to feel its effects on us as an audience. The story wears us down, making us into jaded individuals like Dormer (strikingly close to Dormir) and the fact that Al Pacino half-whispers his dialogue with his methodical delivery only aggravates the situation. Our vision is clouded just as much as his.

Set pieces are relatively few, but they are used to great effect. The ones that come to mind are a chase that ensues in the thick Alaskan fog, where the pursuer all too quickly becomes the helpless victim, the paranoia leading to a lapse of judgment. Another equally gripping chase sequence takes place over floating logs and that’s the first time we actually catch a glimpse of  Walter Finch (Robin Williams).

Otherwise, Insomnia is all about the mind games, as fatigue sets in and Dormer must reconcile all he knows and does. Maybe his lapse of judgment was really his innate desire, but the dividing lines are blurring.

Moral ambiguity becomes of great interest because in some ways our main players really are not all that different. Dormer has sidestepped protocol in order for his brand of justice can be enacted — the justice he thinks the people want. And he may be right, but there are consequences for any act and he quickly learns what that means for him.

By the end, we hardly know who is in the right and I think Dormer is as confused as us — or otherwise, he’s just too exhausted by this point to care either way. Robin Williams gives a surprisingly chilling and generally subdued performance. He is our villain in the general sense, but his villain looks suspiciously like a twisted, sick little man. Perhaps a far scarier reality.

Insomnia is the story of Will Dormer and Walter Finch getting twisted up in knots, and in both cases, each man loses a little more of their sanity. It’s in the film’s climactic moments that Ellie must make a choice, and Will implores her to make the right one. She’s the purest, most innocent character in this narrative, and if she falters then there is little hope. But Will succeeds in protecting the last shred of decency that still exists. A small victory, given his circumstances, but a victory nonetheless.

4/5 Stars

Interstellar (2014)

77062-interstellar_film_posterAs has always been his calling card, Christopher Nolan has an eye for grand, expansive, thought-provoking experiences wrapped up in cinema. Perhaps his aims are too ambitious at times, but you can never accuse him of making an everyday film. He always shoots for the moon (or better yet a wormhole) and so his projects are ultimately better than most, even if they miss the target a bit. The reason being, Interstellar is still full of enough questions and concepts to leave us thinking for a good long time after we leave the theater.

Although approximately 2 hours and 49 minutes, hardly anyone could call Interstellar too long, because it is more often than not engaging, as we try and decipher where Nolan is going to take us next. His story starts on a world that is certainly earth but strangely dystopian compared to the planet that we know and love. Reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally or something, old folks speak of the way the world was when the dust first hit and the corn crops had to be burned. Not much explanation is given but it is what it is.

This is the climate that the engineer-turned-farmer Coop (Matthew McConaughey) has to raise his two kids after his wife passed away. They are good kids for the most part. Murph blames a so-called “ghost” for accidents that happen around the house and her brother teases her some. But they hardly complain about this life they have they; just push forward.

However, their father has always been an explorer at heart, a pilot who never got to truly test the vast seas of space or spread out his wings fully. That changes when he and his daughter come across an old relic from the past. No, it’s not a monolith but something far more human. He somewhat reluctantly teams up with his old professor Brandt (Sir Michael Caine) and the professor’s daughter Amelia(Anne Hathaway) in a major undertaking.

They want Coop to pilot a mission to a wormhole which is just out of humanity’s reach. It was seemingly miraculously gifted to the human race by some unknown third person. This is their chance to A: find a new planet for a mass exodus or B: restart a colony on a far away destination. The first option is far less grim. Coop takes the mission in the hopes of saving his kids, but he knows the ramifications. Since time is all relative he does not know when he is coming back. He does not even know what he will find or if he will be successful. He heads off as an angry Murph tearfully watches him fall out of her life.

In a match cut of his own, Nolan transports Coop from his truck to the outer reaches of the galaxy. The real adventure has begun. The mission is clear. Save humanity from most certain extinction. It does not make it easier however that messages are constantly being relayed from earth. Coop and his three colleagues set up a plan of action. Their first target is a water covered environment that looks promising. Not so. Next, Coop overrules Brandt and they head to a desolate world that a previous explorer had labeled as inhabitable. To put it bluntly, he lied and he was not the only one.

Now Murph is older (Jessica Chastain) and she still has a hard time reconciling the departure of her dad. In an especially impactful scene, a still ageless Coop watches tearfully as his older son’s life literally passes before his eyes through the video communications that have been relayed up.

Coop has no way to reply. He can only watch and push forward to try and find a solution. But the answers are few and far between as time continues to move rapidly faster on earth than with the crew of the Endurance. In one final act of selfless valor Coop heads into a black hole and thus begins his own mind-blowing leg of his space odyssey. Some connections are made and when all the pieces are put together all that really matters is his inextinguishable love and family. In the end, Coop spends a nice moment with his daughter under very different circumstances. Together they saved the human race. Together they survived.

For a film that was made for Physic nerds with talk of black holes, worm holes, relativity, quantum mechanics, Newton’s Third Law, gravity and the like, Nolan’s conclusion has a universal ring. As Amelia Brand claims, “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” There are still scientific questions left to be debated for years to come, but we know that love is one thing that is forever true.

There are obviously numerous comparisons that can be made between Interstellar and 2001. I would rather focus on the differences very briefly. In Nolan’s film, A.I. is actually useful and more reliable and kind than humanity itself. It is Man who lies, cheats and reverts to animalistic behavior all in the name of survival. Interstellar has a lot of scientific theory behind it (which I will acknowledge I do not know the ins and outs of), however, it also has a very human component. It is grounded on earth with Coop’s kids.

The visuals in Interstellar are often breathtaking but we would probably expect that for such an ambitious space saga. What I really took out of this film was the score and juxtaposition of sound. Hans Zimmer’s compositions were full of pounding organs that somehow fit the mood with their majestic and still austere sound. Furthermore, this film had a lot of dialogue and tense moments of noise, however, when we are outside the spacecraft it is almost completely silent reminding us of the reality of space. It is more often than not a vast, silent unknown.

I am reminded of when Coop explains to his daughter why she was named after Murphy’s Law which seems to be bad. He replies that “Murphy’s law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen. It means that whatever can happen, will happen.” And that was good enough for Coop and his late wife. In some ways I think these words can be used to describe Interstellar. With Nolan, there is the potential that whatever can happen, will. There is excitement and magic in that, even if it sometimes overshoots its bounds. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and that’s good enough for me.

4/5 Stars

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~ Dylan Thomas

The Prestige (2006)

87836-prestige_posterStarring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johannson, and Michael Caine with director Christopher Nolan, this film is about two magicians who ultimately become rivals. After the death of Robert Angiers’ wife, he blames Alfred Borden and thus begins their quest to become the greatest magicians the world has ever seen. Along the way Borden finds a wife and has a daughter, while Angiers tries to discover Borden’s secrets various ways. Both men will stop at nothing to succeed even if it means sabotage, wounding, or even traveling to Colorado in Angiers’ case. With Borden in jail for murder of his rival, it appears as if Angiers has won. However, in the end all is not as it seems and it is revealed to the audience. Once again Nolan uses non linear storytelling to develop this intriguing mystery. I was not much of an authority on magic but now I know you have the pledge, the turn, and of course the prestige.
 
4/5 Stars

Memento (2000)

6c3e2-memento_posterDirected by Christopher Nolan and starring Guy Pierce, this thriller has an interesting narrative that stars in descending order, simultaneously goes in ascending order, and then meets in the middle. Leonard is a man whose wife was murdered and he wants to find the culprit. However, he has short term memory loss so he must use Polaroid pictures and tattoos to help himself remember. He talks to a policeman on the phone about a case he recalls. He meets the man Teddy and also gets involved with a woman who wants his help after her boyfriend was killed. However  Leonard makes his own truth and when reality is revealed to him, he will not accept it. The story meets and so the audience must come to realize this is in fact true. I feel the storytelling style alone is intriguing because it is so different and it truly makes us think. Nolan made another such film in Inception 10 years later.

4/5 Stars

Inception (2010)

Starring Leonardo Dicapprio, Joseph Gordon-Levit, Tom Hardy, and Ellen Page with direction by Christopher Nolan, the film follows the elaborate plot to plant an idea in someone’s mind. Dom Cobb is skilled at entering into peoples’ minds in order to steal ideas. However, in order to get back to a normal life now he must plant something instead. He gathers a team to help him enter the dreams successfully. However  they are not just going one level down but in fact several tiers into the mind. This will make  each successive perception more unstable and perilous. The team enters the first dream fine but soon they realize that their influential subject has built up defenses in his dreams. Furthermore, if they die the dream will not simply end but they will all be trapped in limbo. With those problems they enter the second tier and then the third and so on. Ultimately, Cobb must face one of his own realities or else all is lost. This film is so intriguing because it is different and in many ways it blows your mind (including the ambiguous ending).

5/5 Stars

The Dark Knight (2008)

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight Rises next week, the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I would like to review The Dark Knight.

Starring a great cast of characters including Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, this is a great incarnation of Batman. In this film Bruce Wayne, alias Batman (Bale), faces his biggest challenge to protect Gotham City yet in the form of the villainous Joker (Ledger) With the help of Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, Lucius Fox, and of course Alfred, he works to bring peace. However, the Joker is not your everyday criminal. This psychotic villain’s only goal is to create utter chaos and he forces the Batman into difficult choice after difficult choice. By the end, the lines are so blurred it is hard to tell who actually won. Ledger’s performance alone makes this movie a good one. His unpredictable and chilling portrayal has the audience constantly intrigued. Thus your everyday action packed, superhero film becomes an unconventional showdown between good and evil.
5/5 Stars

We will have to wait and see what the third installment starring Bale, Tom Hardy, and Anne Hathaway, has in store for us.