Dunkirk (Nolan; 2017)

In May of 1940 German forces had driven the French, Belgian, and British Armies onto a small beach beside the town of Dunkirk.  The German forces stopped their advance on Dunkirk and instead fortified themselves around and in the town to prevent Allied soldiers from escaping by land as German planes picked the soldiers off on the beach and German U-boats with help from German bombers kept the British Navy at bay.   This film is about the action which evacuated 330,000 Allied troops from that beach, essentially saving the bulk of the British Army and preventing Germany from forcing a conditional surrender of the United Kingdom the consequences of which would almost certainly mean an entirely different Europe and world today.

Christopher Nolan is a very intellectual film maker.  It’s that very intellect that often creates the largest plot holes in his films, but his focus on thought over emotion, realism over spectacle, and precision over artistry is his trademark and the thing which makes his films stand out as singularly his.  Dunkirk is a bit different from standard Nolan fare in that there are no gimmicks on display here, no watching a story backwards, no dream levels, no men in costumes, there is just a beach, men, and weapons of war.  This is most definitely a Nolan film, though, as this is a film which very much intellectualizes the evacuation of Dunkirk practically documentarian in its style.  Quite a few of the major characters aren’t given names, Cillian Murphy plays “Shivering Soldier” for example, and Will Attenborough is simply “Second Lieutenant”, and not a single German character is shown for Dunkirk’s entirety.  This isn’t a John Wayne film which glorifies battle and makes heroes of soldiers, it’s not Apocalypse Now showing us war’s horror and madness, nor is it an Oliver Stone war film making a political statement, Dunkirk is simply a very thoughtful, almost clinical, look at one of the most important events of World War II.

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That is not to say there is no emotion in Dunkirk, just that emotion is not its focus.  Dunkirk very ably gets across to the viewers the feelings of dread, hopelessness, and inevitability those men on the beach must have been feeling, along with the feelings of determination in those attempting to rescue them, but the goal is to show what the men were going through, not to make us feel one way or another about it.   That is what is going to make or break Dunkirk for most people.  It’s style is one we rarely see in anything outside of a documentary, let alone a war film, and that makes for a truly original experience – something much needed in a genre as worn out as World War II films – however, that very same style is going to leave a great many people feeling like something was missing if they are seeking something inspirational or horrifying.

One thing that will not be debated about Dunkirk, however, is the quality of its cinematography.  The look of this movie is one that is normally saved for year’s end so that it will be fresh in the mind of the Oscar voters.  Despite the barren landscapes of beach and sea (English Channel, anyway) we are treated from beginning to end with visual spectacle in the form of wide sweeping shots, points of view that put us in the mindset of the soldiers as they sit in silent panic and confusion, and aerial views and battles that will have you gasping on several occasions – I got a look when I let out an audible “Wow” at one point.

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The score by Hans Zimmer is also worthy of mention.  The music starts before the visuals do, and it never stops at all during the film’s running time.  It rarely crescendos and is more of an omnipresent undertone of strings and horns undercutting everything happening on screen, but while it never stands out to the point it is distracting, it adds so much to the film’s tone and I can’t see Dunkirk working as well as it does without it.

The ensemble cast is excellent, though Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance are two of the only actors given very much to say.  The film has many branching story lines and many puzzle pieces to cover and much of this is done in silence, with one major character in particular having only one word to say in the entire film, but for the most part they manage to show us very different yet realistic people going through a hopeless situation.  I do admit, that due to the lack of dialogue and names, I had a hard time keeping some of the young dark haired actors and characters apart, keeping this element of the film from becoming fantastic, but that is a fault more due to casting than on the part of any particular performance.  Tom Hardy, by the way, wears a face mask the entire film not removing it until the very end.  What is it with him and face coverings?

Photographer: Anders Rosqvist, www.rosqvist.photo

Final verdict:  If you didn’t tell me that Dunkirk was a Christopher Nolan film before I’d seen it, I’m not sure I would have immediately recognized it as one of his, however, after seeing it if you were to tell me Christopher Nolan had directed it you would get the knowing nod and smile which says “Of course.”  Dunkirk is a fantastic movie, one that will almost surely get Oscar buzz, but it is not a movie for everyone.   It is not a war movie so much as a very astute look at people staring death right in the face and knowing that either their fate is out of their hands, or that the fate of thousands are placed directly in their hands.  If you need glory or horror in your war films, you may find yourself disappointed in Dunkirk.  If realism (though, realism without a ton of blood and gore which is oddly lacking in this movie) and introspection are terms that appeal to you, however, Dunkirk will most likely be right up your alley.  No matter which camp you fall into, you are almost sure to love the music and visuals, though.

Free Fire (Wheatley; 2016)

The first thing you notice about Free Fire, the British film from studio A24 which is now getting a wide release after making its away around the world via the film festival circuit, is that it has one hell of a great cast.  Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson are all three darlings of the independent film crowd and Brie Larson is right on the cusp of becoming an A-Lister with both action and serious drama credentials, plus Sharito Copley had his day when he showed he had some serious talent in District 9.  The second thing you notice is that after a short opening, the film is essentially one long gunfight, and the third thing is that there is only one setting in Free Fire‘s entire running length.

The premise of Free Fire is a simple one.  Justine (Brie Larson) has set up a meeting between some IRA members led by Chris (Cilliam Murphy) and a group of gun runners led by Vernon (Sharito Copley).  Despite a few hiccups, the meeting is going fine until one of the grunts on the gun runners’ team recognizes one of the grunts on the IRA’s team as someone he had a serious run in at a bar the night before.  Things degenerate quickly and we spend the rest of the movie watching them make quips and shoot at each other. That’s really about the entirety of the movie.

The great actors do are definitely on their game here, all giving charismatic, energetic performances to the level we’ve come to expect from this crew.  Unfortunately, that is all the good that can really be said about the film.  While the performances are excellent, the characters themselves have next to nothing to differentiate them, the dialogue they are given to work with is repetitive and generic and the situation they are placed in is ultimately fairly mundane.   This was actually a hard film to review since all there really is to say is that great actors give great performances, but there is absolutely nothing else of any worth on display here.

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That is, until I realized this is a perfect opportunity to talk  about how to recognize the director’s influence in a film by demonstrating an absolute failure on Ben Wheatley’s part in Free Fire (he is also co-writer on the film with Amy Jump, which may also explain a few of the failures).  The director is essentially the foreman or the manager on a film crew, overseeing every aspect of a film’s production even if he doesn’t directly handle any of those functions (though, he often can).  Therefore, the ultimate vision of what a film becomes lies squarely in the director’s hands, the tone, the themes, the style all come directly from the director’s vision of what he wants the film to be, and it is his responsibility to make sure everyone in the cast and crew understands and follows that vision.

Free Fire‘s first problem is that it has no idea what tone it wants to follow.  The lack of stunts, the single setting, and circumstances surrounding the action of the film suggest a gritty crime drama.  The quippy dialogue, the fact that people are shot over and over but never receive more than flesh wounds, and choices of music and a few exaggerated stereotypes suggest a comic tone.  If I had to guess, Wheatley was trying for a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie style film with witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and gritty action mixing to make a mixed tense and hilarious experience, but he never marries the styles together and ends up with a mess.  Even the actors themselves never quite get in sync with all their admittedly excellent performances seeming to come from different movies, Larson acts for an over the top action thriller, Copley is in a wry comedy, and Murphy gives a performance that belongs in a historical drama.

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The different acting styles are practically the only thing differentiating the character’s, though, that and their accents, so maybe it’s a good thing the different styles were so discordant.  Larson stands out as the only female character, but everyone else is dressed in a garish 70’s style outfit, most of them suits, most of them blue or grey, all the men have very similar facial hair, again garish 70’s style, and even the people he chose to cast look as if they could be related.  The only real stand out among the men is Armie Hammer due to his height, deeper voice, and slightly different hairstyle, all the others blend together to the point where you really have to concentrate to differentiate who is who, especially once the action starts.  This very well could be because of Wheatley’s vision, but if it was it was a poor idea, and if it wasn’t it was something he should have caught and put a stop to.

Those action sequences do seriously add to the problem of differentiating the characters as most of the film is done with hand held cameras (not shaky cam, though, fortunately) so the shots are close up too much of the time.  This means that we’ll see a character screaming and firing a gun with no idea where he’s aiming, or we’ll see an area around someone being riddled with bullets, but with no idea even which direction they are coming from let alone who is doing the shooting.  It’s rare that we are given any sense of perspective in Free Fire, and this makes for a situation where the tension is taken out of much of the movie as we have no idea what exactly is going on, so we can’t get excited about the events.

Finally, the script is the final nail in Free Fire‘s coffin.  Wheatly gave us witty dialogue, sort of, sometimes, but since any line could come out of any character’s mouth interchangeably the wit is lost since it has no real context, it’s just random funny things random characters say.  I’ve already mentioned the tone, but those tonal issues stem directly from a script which had an idea, but nothing else, and even that idea is fairly rote and mundane, so the complete lack of a solid tone just adds confusion to the drabness.

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Final Verdict:  I can only guess Free Fire came about because some high talent actors had a weekend free and someone wanted to take advantage of that, because aside from the performances everything this movie has to show seems like it could have been put together over a long weekend.  Cardboard thin characters, a mundane plot, no tone to latch onto, and hard to follow cinematography, art direction, and editing make for a film impossible to recommend.  There are critics out there who like it, so apparently there are those out there who see something in Free Fire I’m missing, and it probably is worth a rental or a view on streaming service some day because there are a few real gut level chuckles to be had here, but overall the only thing Free Fire has going for it is charisma, and that isn’t enough in my humble opinion.