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.

Allied (Zemeckis; 2016)

Allied is a film that seems so hard to be trying for Oscar nominations.  From its well regarded stars to its subject matter to the period in which its set to its high profile director it’s a film that is just begging to be important.  What we get, unfortunately, is a somewhat well made slog.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, an officer in the Canadian Air Force working for the British government during World War II and Marion Cotillard is Marianne Bausejour a spy in the French Resistance.  These two meet up during an operation in Casablanca, fall in love, and go to London together to get married.  Shortly afterward the RAF discovers that Bausejour may not be who she claims.

Allied is a movie that defies criticism, not really because it is so good or so bad, but because there is so little here.  It’s a fairly dull film with poor chemistry between its actors, a plot so thin and with so little in the way of subplots to speak of that it seems like at least two thirds of what we see is filler to give the movie an ample running time, and dialogue that never stands out in any way.  Allied does a decent job of keeping us guessing about its main premise, dropping what seems like obvious clues as to what is really going on with Cotillard’s character then giving us reason to doubt what we’ve seen over and over again, but that really is all the script and the performances have going for them.

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I even look bored during the action scenes.

The production values of the film are better than the story, but even they can be a little inconsistent.  The sets and locations are downright spectacular, looking so real and so much like a war torn era London that you have to wonder how they were able to get the local residents allow the film crew to totally transform their neighborhood for the film’s purposes.  The costumes and interiors had more character than the actors did, and you can truly allow yourself to get lost in the period of the movie, if not so much in the story.

The camera work and special effects, however, are a little more inconsistent.  They are excellent for most of the time, but occasionally give way to an awkward shot or an obvious green screen effect or the like blemishing an otherwise great effort, and in an odd way these stand out mistakes can be more annoying than work in poorly made films as the mistakes really stand out and make for added distraction.

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Don’t look over there, look over here.

Allied seems like a film that was made in a hurry.  Everyone involved is quite skilled, and it really does show much of the time, but it’s also obvious that so much of that skill was put into half-assed, “I just want to get this over with” effort.  There’s a lot of good here, a lot of bad, but mostly it’s a lot of filler and lack of passion.  It’s lackluster artisans at work.

Rating:  4.4 out of 10

Hacksaw Ridge (Gibson; 2016)

Conscientious objector, it’s a term that most people don’t entirely understand, myself included before I’d seen Hacksaw Ridge.  I thought a conscientious objector was a person who refused to perform military service due to moral or religious reasons, but Hacksaw Ridge is a film about Deacon Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who signed up for World War II military service and was on the front lines of the titular battle which took place on the island of Okinawa.  What made him a conscientious objector was not his refusal to go to war, it was his refusal to pick up and use a weapon.

To say that Hacksaw Ridge‘s director, Mel Gibson, has become something of a controversial figure is an understatement.  It’s not the place nor the style of this page to go into details, but suffice it to say that there are many out there who thought that his days working in Hollywood were close to done as we’ve seen little from him outside of smaller scale acting jobs for the past decade.   Perhaps Mr. Gibson had just realized that discretion on his part was necessary for a while, and now he’s decided it’s time he can come back, because Hacksaw Ridge is quite the announcement that Mel Gibson is not done in Hollywood, yet.

This is definitely a Gibson style movie.  It’s a little hackneyed much of the time.  The dialogue is cliched and trite, the music swells and ebbs at exactly the appropriate times, and the plot predictable and overly familiar.  But, when it comes to telling a story and gripping you emotionally through visuals, there is never any holding back, and this is where Gibson and his crew show themselves to be true artisans.  I can’t speak to the authenticity of the battle scenes, as I’ve never fought in one, and certainly not in World War II, but I can say that the experience this film gives us is one that is brutal, visceral, and terrifying.  The battle scenes here are quite comparable to the storming of the beach in Saving Private Ryan, except that here the scenes happen toward the last half of the film after we’ve already met the platoon and are invested in the characters, making the experience all the more gut wrenching.

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Michael Bay needs to watch Hacksaw Ridge and take copious notes.

Unfortunately, also like typical Gibson, everything about the storytelling which isn’t visually driven runs to the predictable and overdone.  The dialogue is so typical Hollywood as to be laughable and distracting, the beats of the story are cliched war movie tropes from the chance love at first sight meeting just before going off to war, to the introduction to all the kooky characters in the barracks scene, to the inspirational speeches before a battle everything here is more than just familiar, it’s trite.

The acting in Hacksaw Ridge is also nothing particularly stand out in either a good nor a bad way.  The actors do serviceable work, never calling attention to the fact that they’re playing a character, but also never going beyond stereotypes we’ve seen time and again either.  The acting on display is familiar enough to never be distracting, but also so familiar that it’s rarely, if ever, inspiring, either.

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If this looks familiar it’s because you’ve seen A Few Good Men, or Paths of Glory, or Top Gun, or Rules of Engagement, or…

The story of Hacksaw Ridge, aside from it’s focal character, is nothing we haven’t seen many, many times before.  The visuals of Hacksaw Ridge, however, and it’s point of view do set it apart from the many which have come before it, and do make it a film very much worth watching.  It may not stimulate much on an intellectual level, though the central idea of a man’s duty to country versus a country’s duty to a man does have some real heft to it philosophically, but emotionally it has one hell of an impact.

Rating:  7.0 out of 10