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Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Telescoping a major battle in the second world war, writer and director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) touches on major aspects of war in his harrowing epic, Dunkirk. This movie for Warner Bros. is sufficiently horrifying and powerful and it is also daring in certain respects. Dunkirk is also flawed.

Putting the action to three arenas—land, air and sea—permits Nolan, a talented storyteller and filmmaker, to fold his refined tales into each other neatly and with a strong, meaningful sense of purpose. This he accomplishes with economy, too, bringing Dunkirk in under two hours, keeping his top cast in a proper scale and cutting dialogue down to phrases and brief exchanges. Most of Dunkirk is told in pictures, many of which are riveting. The gray, droning disorientation of days at this coastal place called Dunkirk in the north of France as the Germans push the British to the sea, leaving hundreds of thousands—hundreds of thousands—as sitting ducks waiting to be shot, bombed or rescued. The aerial view of the coast, the tilting views of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the rolling waves of the English Channel as it erupts in crashes, sinkings, gunfire, torpedoes and the flames of hell on water.

Much of Dunkirk is also told in audio, too, with a Hans Zimmer score which is both too obvious and too much. The droning begins the movie, pegging the film to a ticking clock, and never lets up. Not that any of that is necessary, however, and it’s often distracting, diminishing and detracting from what little’s being said among characters.

But Mr. Nolan knows the stories he wants to show and, to his eternal credit, he wants to show the audience what happened at Dunkirk. This remains his focus, not importing modern ideas into the past, thank goodness, or pictorial fancies and flourishes that have nothing to do with the battle, the war and the civilization desperately at stake. And this—civilization—is very much the point of Dunkirk, again to Christopher Nolan‘s credit. His characters, composited from those hundreds of thousands and those who came to get them out and the nearly 70,000 killed by National Socialist Germans, fight. They fight to live—not to die and not out of duty to the state, the volk or the tribe.

This is an important distinction and essential part of why Dunkirk is emotionally moving; in its two most powerful scenes, Dunkirk affirms the values and ideals of Western civilization.

Christopher Nolan‘s war history movie does so in other scenes, too, such as his scenes of a sunny countryside to accentuate that which they’ve fought to preserve and protect. One gets the sense that the writer and director knows on some level that this grand story about soldier and civilian alike uniting to save civilization from barbarians applies centrally to today’s jihadist siege against the West. This is unmistakable if you think, reason and judge and it is lurking nevertheless if you don’t. A combat pilot (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) feels for his comrade Collins (Jack Lowden) when he goes after the Germans, for instance, and, because he gets the best view and sense of what this disastrous battle means, he alone knows the widest perspective; he sees the lines of British soldiers on the beaches and he sees the civilian boats racing to the rescue. It’s both wrenching and haunting and he knows what must be done.

“Dead mate”, “home”, “for the French” are a sample of the sparse words used to punctuate the blistering, whistling battle in action, further underscoring that the Brits act to live, not to serve a fuhrer, and Dunkirk evokes Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan for its capture of the combat. One of the flaws, though, in this otherwise tightly drawn and focused war movie, is its failure to depict what the soldiers say. Half the dialogue, especially in battle scenes, is lost. Sensory immersion is a tradeoff. Subtitles might have helped, not that I’m proposing this as a serious solution, or toning down the self-important score, though I suspect there’s a deeper problem with Dunkirk: it’s hard to follow.

This is a common Christopher Nolan problem and it’s not the same as saying it’s too difficult, deep or abstract (Dunkirk is none of those in excess). Titles lack exposition; the audience that knows the history of this major turning point of world history will feel underserved and still want to know more. Those that do not know Dunkirk’s history—almost anyone born after history teachers replaced facts with agendas—will be like, meh, whatevs (confirmed by the chat between smug Millenials overheard after the movie). Dunkirk‘s expository history feels tacked on. Dunkirk’s geography and significance (that Dunkirk led to Churchill’s great line to “Never surrender” is as parenthetical as this is) are too abbreviated.

Those waiting to go home, and those coming for them, keep eyes on the skies in what is primarily a visual motion picture and Dunkirk in this sense is balanced, integrated and framed perfectly for its revolving stories of individual men. Christopher Nolan lets Dunkirk’s men at war go completely to war—there are no opposite sex love stories, for instance—and this is a pointed and proper writing and directing choice because it never lets the audience forget that this is what happened in those days and moments. So, too, is Mr. Nolan’s decision to not show every gash, limb and drop of blood, none of which is needed to dramatize the horror of war. Without leading ladies, gore and, not incidentally, Nazis portrayed as characters—hardly a Nazi appears on screen—Dunkirk leaves its audience as stranded as the soldiers, civilians and pilots fighting to turn an epic loss into a reason to rally for man.

Whatever it’s missing, and it’s missing a lot, this is chiefly what Dunkirk does.

 

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

Tom Cruise stars in Universal’s The Mummy, which looked like it might be a throwback to classic horror movies. In spite of Cruise, whose movies are often almost as formulaic as his acting, I wanted to like The Mummy. With David Koepp, whose cinematic adventure stories (Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, and also the underrated Zathura) can be enjoyably childlike, as a credited screenwriter, I knew it might be fun (and, to some extent, it is).

There’s more to The Mummy than Koepp’s storytelling and Cruise’s appeal, however. The more that’s piled on, the less engaging it gets. Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) as a mysterious Dr. Jekyll and steampunk atmospherics might have infused The Mummy with psychological subtext. But the movie is diminished by bad acting (not Crowe’s), flat directing and poorly written lines.

“You have been selected as the vessel of the ultimate evil.” Audiences might have reason to expect such a line in a comic book-based movie and Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll as the default narrator of this retelling of the mummy as monster delivers it as best as he can. As with so much of The Mummy, it stands out for its silliness, exacerbated by the unevenness of the whole movie. Corpses from the Crusades, a plot point which starts things off, might also have been developed into an interesting subplot. But, they, too, are depleted and reappear predictably and without finesse. This tale from the crypt of a power-lusting, tattooed, erotic zombie (Sofia Boutella) in black-haired bangs borders on camp.

With an Egyptian backstory, the plot about this bloodthirsty monster being “mummified alive” sticks to its pretzel-twisted logic. Wasting Courtney B. Vance as a military leader, Cruise and sidekick roam Iraq with the U.S. military while searching for treasure to loot. Indeed, Cruise for the first half is like a sobered, showered and shaved cousin of Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s a scoundrel, a thief and a looter, as when he forces his partner to join him on a dangerous mission, which turns out badly for the sidekick. Cruise’s character is as lovable a wreck as Sparrow, which is not meant as a compliment.

None of the characters in The Mummy are sympathetic, which derives from the picture’s theme that everyone, including Jenny the archaeologist (milquetoast Annabelle Wallis) is flawed and that life’s a grand trick to redeem oneself. Again, it might have all clicked into place on its own terms—opposing views aside and despite the generics and histrionics—had the parts been affixed rather than discarded amid silly distractions. For example, following a harrowing plane crash, Jenny and Cruise’s character stop for a beer. This after he went down with the plane and miraculously survived; no scars, no serious shock, no blood, bandages or medical treatment, just bar banter.

Add a sandstorm, corpse close-ups, spiders, parasitism and necrophilia and The Mummy tops implausibility with effects over essence. It may look exotic, but it starts to get incomprehensible. An Arab terrorizing London with a looming threat of mass death heightens the ghoulishness (now that’s bad timing). Cruise’s character is drawn to the berserk mummy as to a siren which is more puzzling than involving until you realize that it sets up The Mummy‘s point that one must “sacrifice for the greater good”.

In short, it’s a newly rearranged blend of stuff you’ve seen and heard before. This includes overstylized films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, the atrocious War of the Worlds (complete with Cruise’s character running with the apocalypse) and Cruise’s own immortal ghoul vehicle, Interview with a Vampire, only with milder homoeroticism, and, of course, the superior World War Z. The Mummy is not awful. It’s merely mediocre. It might have been better.

Movie Analysis: Empire of the Sun (1987)

On its own terms, Steven Spielberg’s epic Empire of the Sun doesn’t make an everlasting impact. The 1987 movie is too stylized and self-conscious to successfully execute a coherent theme. It is an engaging movie nonetheless.

Made as a response by the director to critics claiming he makes movies about only innocent childhoods, Empire of the Sun is best understood as a transitional and reactive film in Mr. Spielberg’s career. Every frame of this movie about a British boy’s wartime separation from his parents in Shanghai—resulting in imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp—moves with a sense of purpose, unfolding the story of one child’s trauma, loss of innocence and damaged, stunted growth. From the opening scenes’ floating coffins, children’s choir and comic books to the elegiac final picture of a drifting collection of what’s been lost and dispensed with, Empire of the Sun is somber and severe.

Introducing Christian Bale (American Psycho, Terminator Salvation, Batman Begins, Swing Kids, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) in his movie debut as a diplomat’s only child on the eve of Japan’s invasion of China, the film’s main character goes from being called James to Jamie to Jim. For two and a half hours, Bale’s boy makes a full circle with his angelic choirboy’s voice. Interestingly, this film is extremely focused on the choirboy’s view of the world and it’s interesting because the exposition leaves out what informs and contextualizes that viewpoint.

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For instance, his worship of the Japanese kamikaze, which entails a fascination with militarism which could be born of his lack of power over his own life in a foreign land where his parents are detached, is inexplicably persistent. Certainly, children become obsessed with certain things. But this kid goes out of his way at an elaborate costume party to go off on his own and play with his model airplane. The model is a Japanese zero—the kamikaze’s fighter plane used in the sneak attack that destroyed Pearl Harbor—but why this child is drawn (and encouraged) to worship it remains elusive.

In any case, the zero is what fuels Jim’s imagination, allowing Mr. Spielberg to juxtapose the horror of war with the beauty of life and love. He did this, too, in 2005’s atrocious Munich. There are echoes of several future Steven Spielberg motifs, notions and themes here: the scrap and random subsequence in war of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, the smoke, ash and nonstop death of 1994’s Schindler’s List, the pacifism and equivocation of 2011’s War Horse and Munich.

Other scenes are as warm, potent and majestic as only Steven Spielberg (Jaws, The BFG, The Sugarland Express, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Always, Bridge of Spies, Hook, Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark) can produce. A thief’s slap of contemptuous envy, a promotional mural for David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind as Shanghai falls to the Japanese, learning the word ‘pragmatist’ while learning the cost of living by doing only what’s convenient in the moment, the imagined fancies of a traumatized child in captivity—all and more make Empire of the Sun immensely watchable.

But the film impresses for what’s left off the screen, too. How Jim survives imprisonment in terms of food, clothing and shelter are clear, as Jim trades on material possessions and cigarettes, however, how he relieves himself (apparently, he doesn’t) is left untold. There’s also—in retrospect, not surprisingly—very little of the Japanese in Empire of the Sun, which is based on the war memoir by J.G. Ballard, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard and produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. In fact, the imperial Japanese were voraciously mystical and religious—like today’s Communist North Koreans, they worshipped a state dictator as a deity—brutal and barbaric. But Mr. Spielberg omits any serious and lasting references to such key facts, which are crucial to grasping Japan’s empire, invasion of China and lust for war with the West.

Yet his Empire of the Sun, unlike the tribalist Schindler’s List, focuses on the individual. “You’re an American now,” a gruff but decent scoundrel (John Malkovich) tells Jim during internment, and, for all the dodging and hustling Jim does, he means it as a compliment, signalling a turning of the tide in war. This is another Steven Spielberg imprint; jaunty Americanism matched by what’s regarded as a fundamental emptiness in what makes an American—specifically, that he’s self-made, especially through trade. Empire ties this theme into its final frames.

Seeing himself in a Japanese boy he tries to save, catching a Hershey’s bar and manmade goods that fall from the sky as hallelujahs play in song (on a score by John Williams), Jim the boy finally faces reconciling what he’s been through even as he’s forced to march or die. That Jim goes from worshipping self-sacrificing Japanese to cheering self-reliant Americans doesn’t mute that he also makes himself something of an easterner who discards his possessions and begins a postwar childhood devoid of idealism. The boy’s romanticized empire marches in, gets real, and dissolves. Jim’s cherished Empire of the Sun comes to an end.

Leaving gaps while immersing the audience in the color of bomb blasts and the rising sun, Steven Spielberg counters his early movies’ benevolent intimacies with a hollow if stunning epic about the wreckage of a boy’s sense of life.

Movie Review: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Dark, moody and subversively modern in the worst ways, yet undeniably alluring thanks to the magnetism of movie stars Jean Harlow and Charles Boyer and Adrian’s stunning gowns, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 79-minute Red-Headed Woman offers nonstop sexual suspense.

Played as comedy to smuggle its explicit sexual themes into the vibrant picture, which I saw in 35mm at the Egyptian during TCM’s Classic Film Festival, Red-Headed Woman is really more of a tragic, cautionary tale with touches of melodrama. Based upon Katharine Brush’s scandalous novel, adapted by one of H.L. Mencken’s favorite female writers (another was Ayn Rand, whose We the Living he hailed), Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman was a hit.

Like Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck—who wanted the lead in Red-Headed Woman (so did Greta Garbo, according to film scholar Cari Beauchamp, who introduced the picture), this story of a secretary using sex to gain power, money and status is astounding for its plain depiction of a woman whose self-esteem is based on objectifying herself, which is to say denying herself any authentic, reality-based estimate of her own value.

“If the barn door’s open,” Harlow’s harlot deadpans to Una Merkel’s best friend and roommate (one wonders if she’s also Harlow’s lesbian lover on the side), “what’s to keep a girl from goin’ in?” Slither on into the home of her boss businessman’s home she does, knowing that his wife (Leila Hyams) is out of town, seducing him with a conniving sense of delirious mission. As Lillian (“Lil” aka “Red”), Jean Harlow (Wife Vs. Secretary, Red Dust, Design for Living, Libeled Lady) is simply perfect. It’s not her look, as such, or beauty, that taunts boss man Bill (handsome Chester Morris) and drives him wild for sex. As with most sex-starved golddiggers, it’s her constant availability, daring desire and her radically open want for sex. He’s putty in her presence and, it’s hinted, they usually end up going at it on the floor, but every seduction is fully earned. Harlow, who purrs “Beeeeww” when she wants him to want her, pins the part in every scene.

Directed by Jack Conway with panache, Red-Headed Woman has powerful, propellant energy, and part of that emanates from the great performances but part of it also comes from the drama. A marriage is at stake and this sexual power-luster is hellbent to ruin it. Whether she succeeds, and what constitutes success, is the movie’s core. Setting every man from a “coal king” to a French chauffeur (Charles Boyer in an impressive turn) who may be her lowdown counterpart, in her crosshairs, the red-haired woman willing to prostitute herself that Bill’s father (Lewis Stone as the movie’s moral center) calls a “snake in the grass” gets exactly what she wants, it’s suggested, and probably, ultimately what she deserves.

“Do it again,” she tells a man after he slaps her to make her stop making him want to grab her and kiss her, adding with a well-timed punch of her own: “I like it.” Red-Headed Woman is an interesting portrayal of a woman of the flesh—neither endorsement nor repudiation, but stark and honest—who lets men have her so she can really let them have it. In this sense, it’s dark and cynical, an attitude that became prevalent in American culture. The hard and complex Red-Headed Woman, driven by coarse and severe delusions, breaches and titillation, at once dramatizes the slut with sex appeal and forecasts its own function as a culturally self-fulfilling prophecy.

Movie Review: One Hour With You (1932)

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Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star with Genevieve Tobin as a temptress-best friend who’s double-crossing her gal pal to seduce the husband in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty One Hour With You. This is not as frivolous as it might appear.

With a deft, pre-Code sexual simplicity, terrific cast, rhyming dialogue, fourth wall breakdown and light, charming songs, it’s easy to see why One Hour With You demonstrates the Lubitsch touch. As with everything he did, Lubitsch adds a layer here and there to provide depth to the gay look, feel and music with real, complex attitudes about women, men, sex, friendship and marriage. Though George Cukor had already been asked by Paramount to direct, this movie became a pet project for Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, So This is Paris, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait (1943) To Be or Not to Be), who apparently bonded with Chevalier in his endeavor to re-cast the film for his own creative purposes.

The result, with Chevalier’s smiling, debonair doctor husband speaking and singing directly to the audience, is 80 minutes of one man’s account, perspective and philosophy of romantic love, which I saw at The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard in 35mm during the TCM Classic Film Festival. How One Hour With You begins—in France’s City of Lights, Paris, at a public park being policed for public displays of affection—is crucial as pretext for the surprisingly fabulous plot resolution. Doctor Andre (Chevalier) and his wife Colette (MacDonald) set the terms that wanting sex and being greedy to make love are utterly human and crucial for a healthy marriage. “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” is a standout tune for its easygoing wit and intelligence but all the songs are bright, cheerful and entertaining, even if at the root Mitzi’s (Tobin) seduction is both humorous (because it’s played as irony) and arresting (because it’s realistic).

So, it is not exactly that One Hour With You equivocates about infidelity (someone today is sure to call Chevalier’s smiling and singing “mansplaining”) or rationalizes its potential wreckage. This is a man of medicine who resists temptation, says “phooey” to the anti-sex police and knows a hussy when he sees one (and Tobin’s performance as the tramp is delivered with conviction). Andre loves Colette and all the songs, silk pajamas and Parisian airs, charms and sets only reinforce that he loves his work, life and sex, which only makes what happens perfectly understandable and, in a certain context, enjoyable. An hour can feel like a moment, One Hour With You demonstrates in melody, rhyme and lightness, and a moment’s yield to whim can lead to an hour’s agony. What to make of any given moment, and hour, is ultimately up to you.