REVIEW: “Dunkirk”


For film lovers a new Christopher Nolan movie should be considered an event. Even for those not completely smitten with his body of work, there is no denying Nolan is an auteur with a bold, modern cinematic voice. He could accurately be called both a traditionalist and an innovator and this fascinating mixture finds its way into each of his productions.

A filmmaker guided by intuition and passion, Nolan has frequently revisited familiar themes all while extending himself across several genres – psychological crime thriller, neo-noir, superhero, brainy science fiction. There is a steady, reliable value to every movie he makes and while this statement can be debated, I’ve yet to see a ‘bad’ Nolan picture. That’s the track record he brings into a new genre with the historical war film “Dunkirk”.


A military disaster trumped by an incredible display of human will and triumph, the story of Dunkirk is a World War 2 story unlike any other. Nolan himself has called it “the greatest story in human history”. In May of 1940 Germany invaded France. British troops were sent to aid the French but were pushed back to the English Channel by the heavily armored German forces. Nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers found themselves surrounded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. England enacted Operation Dynamo as a means to rescue the boxed in troops. With time running out a call went out to civilian vessels (fishing boats, ferries, yachts, etc) to assist the Navy in the improbable evacuation amid waves of German air and sea attacks.

Nolan’s film immediately drops us into the fire. Aside from some early text, there is no setup or prologue of any sort. We are instantly among gunfire, nosediving fighter planes, and the screams of those men caught between their enemy and the equally threatening waters. And the film keeps us there through its remarkably lean 107 minutes. This is no exhaustive examination and you’ll get no war room banter or ‘meanwhile back at home’ segments. Nolan’s focus is on subjective storytelling therefore he has no interest in pulling us out of the intensity.


To tell his story Nolan breaks the film into three story threads – one event, three intersecting timelines. The first takes place on land and a spans one week (it’s titled “The Mole” which references a long breakwater pier). Here we meet and follow a young soldier from the British Expeditionary Force (a fine debut performance from Fionn Whitehead). We get Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander and the highest ranking officer on the beach, James D’Arcy’s antsy but steadfast army colonel, and a handful of other characters crumbling under the weight of desperation.

The second story thread is titled “The Sea” and takes place within a single day. It places its main focus on an English civilian (superbly played by Mark Rylance) who answers the call to head to Dunkirk. He takes along his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local eager to help (Barry Keoghan). Without knowing the dangers ahead, the three sail straight into the mouth of war.


The third story is called “The Air” and features some of the most stunning aerial photography ever put to film. It’s breathtaking cinema. Tom Hardy leads a group of three Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots tasked with protecting the soldiers below from German fighters and bombers. Their story spans only one hour yet it offers up some of the film’s most visceral edge-of-your-seat action.

The movie’s unconventional narrative structure weaves us back and forth between these three stories, connecting them at the most unexpected junctures. Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, among others have roles in the chaos as well. Nolan (who also wrote the script) places the entire emphasis on his characters’ experience. No backstories or in-depth relationship building. What he gives us is a harrowing survival story set within a framework of sustained suspense and intensity that rarely allows you time to catch your breath.


“Dunkirk” remains grounded in reality throughout. You’ll find no war movie cliches or manufactured sentimentality. Nor does it seek to make judgements concerning the actions of its characters. Nolan composes a careful tension between cowardice and sense of duty but never lays blame or casts guilt. Instead he creates pressure cooker circumstances that pull out a range of genuine human responses. Then he allows his audience the room to make their own conclusions.

A bit more about the presentation. “Dunkirk” is a masterclass on the melding of old school visual techniques, modern film technology and an unmatched creative eye. A notorious proponent of film over digital, Nolan has honed his skills through several movies in preparation for this one.  It was shot on location with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, it contains a massive cast of extras and it was made with predominately all practical effects over CGI. And with 75% of the film shot in IMAX and the rest in 65mm large format stock, “Dunkirk” is a jaw-dropping spectacle that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Nolan once said “The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business.” “Dunkirk” shows that to be true.


A spectacular sound design and one of the best Hans Zimmer scores to date makes “Dunkirk” a penetrating composition of image, sound, and music. It’s light but calculated use of dialogue demands that the focus remains on the terrifying events. But don’t miss the subtle emotional punches along the way. And in the end there is far more intimacy and feeling than you might expect.

The story of Dunkirk was a pivotal early moment in World War 2 and the Dunkirk spirit is something that has lived on through those most closely effected by it. Christopher Nolan brings it to the screen through an incredibly immersive and propulsive experience. This is an extraordinary cinematic journey made by a craftsman at the top of his game. I don’t use the word lightly, but “Dunkirk” is a modern masterpiece that evokes a range of feelings that personify why going to the movies is so special. Simply put, don’t miss your chance.




REVIEW: “The Lego Batman Movie”

LEGO poster

I think it’s safe to say that 2014’s “The Lego Movie” was a ground-breaking achievement for the plastic toy building block film genre. It was a hysterical and all-around unique animated feature that captured audiences with its gorgeous animation, sharp humor, and surprisingly big heart. It also incorporated a host of fun characters none more heralded than the Dark Knight himself.

Captivating cinema history aside “The Lego Batman Movie” is a spinoff that cashes in on the wildly positive reaction to the previous film’s Batman character. It features the same sense of humor but with (obviously) a more Batman-centric flavor. It steadily riffs on the dark, brooding tone of the many Batman films. It has a ton of fun playing with Batman’s extensive rogue gallery, even goofy obscure villains that comic fans are sure to find hilarious. It also spoofs the superhero genre in general. And with so many comical targets it’s amazing how many of them they hit dead-center.


After a stellar supporting spot in “The Lego Movie” Will Arnett returns as the titular title character. His story is pretty familiar. Burdened by the pain of his parents’ murder, Batman finds sanctuary in crime-fighting, cool gadgetry, and alone-time in his dark, moody estate. Along the way we meet his colorful array of ‘acquaintances’ – Commisioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), and of course Batman’s faithful butler Alfred (voiced by the soothingly empathetic Ralph Fiennes).

When Batman unknowingly hurts the feelings of the fragile Joker (Zach Galifianakis) by denying him the title of arch-villain, the Clown Prince of Crime (I’ve always loved that nickname) sets out for the ultimate revenge. Bats has to decide whether he can stop him alone or go against his style and actually seek the help of others. Along the way he gets another lesson in togetherness in the form of an energetic young orphan named Robin (Michael Cera).


Five writers combined to put together this story that is often too hyperactive for its own good. It’s not that they offer a barrage of jokes. It’s that the writing team, along with director Chris McKay, give them no breathing room whatsoever. The onslaught of gags can be relentless sometimes to the point of making them impossible to follow. It’s a shame because the movie has some big laughs (and I do mean BIG). I can’t help but wonder how many I missed simply because the filmmakers kept things constantly moving at 100 mph.

The same can be said for the action. Once again the animation is gorgeous and the Lego aesthetic still feels fresh and unique. But for every great action sequence (and there are a ton) you get one that is far too wild and frantic. Ultimately the film’s rambunctious pacing wore me down, not enough to ruin the movie but definitely enough to temper my enjoyment. I found myself checking out in the final act. But I still think the film has enough going for it to recommend and if you’re able to stay focused you will undoubtedly have fun with it. Just prepare yourselves with a few cups of coffee before heading in. That should help.



REVIEW: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”


For decades filmmakers have plowed the dark and savage subject of the Holocaust. Countless movies have been made documenting the heartbreaking atrocities as well as self-sacrificing acts of valor. There are some who feel we are given too many of these films (a form of Holocaust movie fatigue perhaps). It’s a sentiment I can’t say I share especially when filmmakers continue to find deeply human stories and experiences to share.

Such is the case for Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book, this story of Polish couple Jan and Antonina Żabiński is mostly a fact-based account set during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Ackerman’s book leaned heavily on the diaries of Antonina Żabiński. Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman are careful to keep the same authenticity in their telling.


The film begins just before the September 1, 1939 Nazi invasion. In its idyllic opening scene Antonina (Jessica Chastain) glowingly rides her bicycle through the Warsaw Zoo which she operates with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). She makes her way to the front gate where people have gathered. She opens the zoo and greets the visitors as they enter.

This opening scene sets up the inevitable clash that comes when the Nazis invade Poland. The zoo is ravaged by aerial bombers and like Warsaw is soon under Nazi occupation. Seeking a way to keep their zoo and with practically no animals left, Jan turns to pig farming as a way to support the German war effort. But in truth it’s a guise to hide the Żabiński’s true conviction – to save as many Jews as they can and right under the Nazi’s noses, particularly that of German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl).


On the surface Workman’s script doesn’t place a heavy focus on the horrors that took place. We do get glimpses and often quite potent ones. Yet some feel the film doesn’t go far enough in its depictions of the atrocities. In reality there were quieter stories that required just as much heroism despite garnering little attention. Workman is rightly content to stay within her narrative bounds.

Caro’s direction works much the same. She doesn’t anchor her film in a tortuous visual representation. To the film’s benefit she’s clearly not interested in meeting common war movie expectations. Instead there is a soulful grace to her presentation that oozes empathy yet still manages to be tense and harrowing.


Most importantly both Caro and Workman wisely lean on their biggest strength – Jessica Chastain. She gives us an earnest and unassuming Antonina with a strong moral conviction that drives her heroism. Chastain masterfully juggles her character’s fortitude and stoicism with human elements of fear and uncertainty. It’s a delicate balance that makes this portrait of courage all the more inspiring. Chastain’s work is deserving of some genuine Oscar consideration.

Despite its many positives the film’s final act is a bit bumpy. The story darts forward in time more than once and some fairly big developments happen with little attention given to them. It’s easy to follow but it did seem as though the back end was rushed even though it still packed some strong emotional punches. But that doesn’t undermine some wonderful work from a talented group of women. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” may not satisfy those looking for a more visceral experience, but not every Holocaust story requires that approach. Many of these stories weren’t as pronounced, yet they were just as powerful and inspirational. This is such a story.



REVIEW: “The Beguiled”

beguiled poster

There are so many benefits to going into a movie blind. Such was the case for me and Sofia Coppola’s latest film “The Beguiled”, a movie that made her the second (ever) female to win the Best Director award at Cannes. I had no real reference point. I haven’t read Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. I’ve never seen the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie. I didn’t read a plot synopsis or a single review prior to seeing it. I’m glad for it and I’m sure it fed into the film’s hypnotic effect.

Set in 1864 Alabama and three years into the Civil War, Coppola’s vision for the aptly titled “The Beguiled” is far more focused and contained than expected. The war and its side-effects linger in the background mostly reminding us of its presence through the booming cannon fire in the distance. Instead the entirety of Coppola’s film is restricted to a remote girls school and the drama that unfolds there.


The film’s Southern Gothic vibe is almost immediately noticeable. Both look and tone convey a subtle sense of isolation and unease. From the very start everything feels a bit off-kilter and Coppola’s management of her tight, tense little world keeps it that way.

The characters drive this deftly conceived drama. Nicole Kidman is the right actress to play the school’s wary and stoic matriarch. Kidman’s portrayal reveals someone firmly dedicated yet clearly drained by her responsibilities. Kirsten Dunst is equally good as the school’s doleful teacher who struggles to maintain a sense of belonging. Elle Fanning plays a young free-spirited Southern belle who is as cunning as she is charming. Each, along with four young girls under their care, go about their melancholy day following their same melancholy routine.

But oh how things change when one of the young girls (wonderfully played by Oona Laurence) stumbles across a wounded Union soldier and helps him back to the school. He’s played by Colin Farrell and his presence in the house immediately causes a stir as each woman is forced to deal with their own pent-up frustrations. As he is slowly nursed back to health the character dynamics between him and each individual woman takes their own sensuously wicked turns.


Farrell fits his part well – a good-looking charmer aimed at survival. But despite being a key plot piece, he quickly becomes secondary to Coppola’s greater interest – the female perspective. It’s the women who are the most fascinating as they maneuver between empowerment and outright self-destruction. Coppola’s approach, both as writer and director, handles their emotions more through suggestion than laying things bare. And the slow-burning dramatic fuse makes it all the more compelling.

There are several other pivotal ingredients that Coppola utilizes to great effect. There is the haunting minimalist score from the French band Phoenix. Exquisite costume design from Coppola favorite Stacey Battet. And perhaps the biggest find, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. Every frame he shoots features some interesting angle or technique. All of these talents join a stellar cast in realizing Coppola’s tense, simmering vision.


I suppose I should mention the backlash from some who have problems with the film’s avoidance of the slavery issue and subsequent absence of any African-American cast members. There are certainly films where this is a valid gripe. This isn’t one of them. Not every Civil War era movie needs to address the slavery issue especially when the scope of the story being told is so precise. And if Coppola did try and wedge in the slavery issue would it be given the attention it deserves?  Truth is the subtly brewing war inside the walls of the school is far more in focus than the war outside. In fact the isolation of these women is a key point.

Serving as a refuge from the blockbuster-thick summer movie schedule, “The Beguiled” is a refreshing change of pace. Isolation, sexual repression, jealousy, and several other themes are handled with smarts, and Coppola’s understated approach makes it hard to take your eyes off of the film’s steady boil. The slow pace may not work for everyone (there was a moment when I wondered myself), but it never spins its wheels. It keeps moving forward to its fabulous finale which was just icing on the proverbial cake.



REVIEW: “The Salesman”


Asghar Farhadi deserves to be a household name for anyone who claims to love movies. Despite a relatively small filmography, Farhadi has created some of the most magnificently plotted stories consistently grounded in truthful human experience. Add to it a keen technical eye for visual composition that quite frankly is unmatched by most.

Sadly Farhadi still remains an unknown name to too many. His latest picture “The Salesman” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film yet his accomplishment was somewhat drowned out by political posturing and wrangling. I actually heard him casually referred to as “that Iranian director who skipped the Oscars”. That’s a shame.


In reality Farhadi is a modern day cinematic master of his craft. “The Salesman” is yet another superbly made film that may not be considered his best, but must every work be compared to another?

“The Salesman” is laced with Farhadi signatures – thorough yet carefully developed characters, strong human and cultural sensibilities, a deeply buried truth boiling under the surface. It’s a template that fits flawlessly with Farhadi’s writing and directing. Here again we see him methodically peeling back layers that reveals faults and arouses suspicions and not only from the characters. We the audience find ourselves being influenced by our impulses to judge.

The film focuses on a married couple, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini). After an earth-shaking mishap threatens the stability of their apartment building, Rana and Emad are forced to find a new place to stay. The two are helped by a friend and fellow stage performer who shows them a place recently vacated. Problem is the previous tenant has left behind a room full of personal belongings.

As with most films the less you know the better, but suffice it to say the story is jolted by a particular event than splinters the narrative in several different directions. Some are diversions, some are unexpected revelations. Regardless Farhadi never loses his focus of navigating through the dense human elements revealed through the testy circumstances.


Farhadi doesn’t work in caricatures or stereotypes. He creates living, breathing people which make his stories all the more compelling. He allows his characters the space to think, mull, and wrestle internally. Hossein Jafarian’s stellar cinematography is equally vital in relaying the subtle ferocity of emotions that intensify as the story plays out. It also helps to have Alidoosti and Hosseini, two Farhadi regulars in sync with the director’s vision.

There is an fabulous running parallel between the main story and Rana and Emad’s work at a small theater production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. Farhadi’s skillful treatment is anything but pointless and helps to prod our minds to think more about the film’s meaning. The same could be said for the bulk of his films. They don’t follow any conventional norm or standard. Instead they dwell in realities we all can recognize and demand their audiences to engage them on those levels. “The Salesman” is another example of how engrossing that can be.



REVIEW: “Fitzcarraldo”

fitzposterI’m not sure you can look at “Fitzcarraldo” without comparing the film’s obsessively tenacious lead character with its equally mulish and unyielding director. In fact the entire production testifies to a specific type of incomprehendible creative madness. Yet without that very madness “Fitzcarraldo”  would have been a lesser movie.

“Fitzcarraldo” was written and directed by Werner Herzog and the making of his film is a legendary story in itself. Herzog was determined to bring as much realism as possible to his picture by steering free of any special effects. This meant shooting in the jungle next to an ongoing border war between Peru and Ecuador. It meant facing natural hardships brought on by shooting on location.But those obstacles would shy in comparison to the human hurdles. Jason Robards was originally cast as the lead character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald but almost halfway through shooting he contracted dysentery and was flown back to the States. Doctors refused to let him return meaning Herzog had to recast the role and restart shooting from the beginning. Herzog regular Klaus Kinski was given the role which brought a slew of new problems.

Kinski was known for his volatile run-ins with his directors and crew. It was no different here. He repeatedly fought with Herzog and even angered the natives serving as extras (It’s said one of the local chiefs offered to kill Kinski for Herzog). This obviously complicated production in a number of ways, but Kinski’s flirtation with madness is also what made him perfect for the role. His wild, eccentric nature was an ideal fit for a character possessed with realizing his dream of bringing opera to the Amazon.

Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo by locales who can’t pronounce his name) comes across as delusional but he is driven by the best intentions. He’s not a bad guy. He believes in a transcendent quality to opera which could have magnificent effects in the heart of the Amazon. But time and again his optimism and determination crashes into walls of ridicule and disparagement.His one light comes from Claudia Cardinale. She plays Molly, his girlfriend who upholds Fitz with her faith and her money. Kinski and Cardinale couldn’t be more different either in character or real-life personalities yet the two work well together. Molly is a constant encouragement even when Fitz’s dream seems all but squashed.

Herzog’s film makes a dramatic change of direction at the midway mark. Fitz realizes his ice-making contraption won’t fund his opera house so he dives into the region’s one lucrative business – rubber. He purchases a steamboat with a loan from Molly, puts together a ragtag crew, and heads down the Amazon River towards his isolated patch of land rich with rubber trees. There’s a reason the land was previously unclaimed. It’s inhabited by a threatening indigenous people and the path to it is blocked by the dangerous Pongo das Mortes (which tellingly means Rapids of Death). But Fitz has a plan as improbable as his opera dream itself – take his 350 ton steamboat down a branch of the river, literally pull the ship over a hillside and into another river branch that bypasses the deadly rapids.The attempt to haul the massive steamboat over a steep, muddy hill became the film’s signature sequence. Herzog’s insistence on actually doing it instead of relying on special effects became a legendary tale that mirrored the fanaticism of the movie’s lead character. Herzog was convinced his audience would never buy it unless they saw it with their own eyes. The difficulty and frustration it brought often threatened to kill the production, but the end product is a shining example of true movie magic.

“Fitzcarraldo” and the story of its filming (much of it chronicled in the documentary “Burden of Dreams”) are like inseparable companion pieces. Each reveals unique sides to this fascinating picture yet together they feel undeniably one. And we are the true beneficiaries. Much like the frazzled Fitz himself playing Caruso on his beaten up Victrola record player, we sense there is something special in the art we are consuming. And for that reason Herzog’s intense creative labor and all of the accompanying hardships were worth it.