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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 shots 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—are likely to be like, meh, whatevs (confirmed by the chat between smug Millennials 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 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: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953) taps America’s pre-World War 2 anxiety and mixes it with fatalism to produce a seminal movie about war, death and dying. The film, based on James Jones’ 1951 novel, depicts a nation mired in self-doubt.

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Embedding anti-heroism underneath anti-social and anti-war themes begins with a character named after a Confederate war general. Director Fred Zinnemann (Oklahoma!, High Noon) introduces Prewitt, indelibly played by Montgomery Clift (Red River), as he plays pool. Prewitt plays alone, however, and, lest the audience mistake his insolent individualism for a heroic trait, as it was in The Fountainhead, it becomes clear that here, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1941, being a man of principles out for himself leads to nothing but trouble and worse.

“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing,” Prew, as he’s called by friends, says early in the black and white movie. Unlike Roark in The Fountainhead, Prew’s path to his own way seems doomed from the start. This is Pearl Harbor in 1941, after all. Army soldier Prew is the movie’s moral center.

On orders of his new captain (Philip Ober), who’s caught wind of Prew’s renowned boxing ability and wants him back in the boxing ring, Prew’s singled out for hazing. He still refuses to box, and with good reason. It’s Prew’s principled stand which contrasts civilized individualist with barbaric conformist and From Here to Eternity—which I recently saw through Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ Big Screen Classics series—makes this point over and over.

Watch what happens to Prew and his scrawny Army buddy, Maggio (Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate), who spend most of their time getting drunk and getting punished or cavorting with Honolulu’s quasi-prostitutes (Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life). In an unforgettable role as a thug nicknamed Fatso, Ernest Borgnine makes a strong screen presence two years before he played a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock and the rest of the cast, from supporting soldier types played by Jack Warden and Claude Akins to leading cast members such as Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, Separate Tables, Seven Days in May) as illicit lovers, also shine. All of them, except for Sinatra’s character, the weakest link, form a cohesive company.

In fast cuts, sharp lines and subtle hints, twists and clues, From Here to Eternity lazily leads up to the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and, briefly, its bleak and harrowing aftermath. As it does, with Lancaster and Kerr famously falling on the sands of Kuhio Beach, director Zinnemann plants the dark, cynical marks of postwar American insecurity in Donna Reed’s line about putting herself up for grabs: “I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it.” With drunken, violent outbursts and messy displays of repressed desire, From Here to Eternity manages to dramatize its theme that the good is not possible.

America is not exceptional; it’s as panicked, fake and afraid as everywhere else in the world, From Here to Eternity insists. The sound of bugles is always on guard in this compelling and watchable classic movie with its cast of movie stars—including Clift as the Fifties’ brooding, sensitive and tortured male, which made way for other mumbling, unsettled anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford—but, seriously, what good does being American do? Even Burt Lancaster’s imposing physical superiority is useless to protect anyone from Fatso, though his scene confronting Borgnine’s meaty beast in the bar is among the most intense showdowns in cinema.

“I play the bugle well,” mutters the principled individualist whose rogue, solo pool game—Prew takes one more shot after being told to stop—begins From Here to Eternity. That he adds that he’d played taps at Arlington Cemetery for the president on Armistice Day only underscores the fact that, now, he’s powerless. By the end of this bleak exercise in striking down the strong and defiant, he, too, will be reduced to playing another round of soulful taps. As Kerr’s bitter wife tussles with Lancaster’s diminished if determined sergeant, Army, company and paradise get lost.

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This is the real, moral theme of From Here to Eternity; that, no matter what you do—especially if you stand alone, in particular if you do so on principle—there exists something more powerful than yourself, to invoke a common bromide, and it controls you and could easily shoot you down. In 1953, From Here to Eternity, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, might have seemed new, bold and different with its realism and frank sexuality. But it plays like a prelude to America’s predominant self-doubt and its byproduct: hard and begrudging pragmatism pushing everyone to go AWOL, get drunk or get in line to get snuffed out.


TCM Big Screen Classics: From Here to Eternity showed on Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14 with pre-recorded commentary from Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

I saw the screening at Hollywood & Highland’s Chinese Theater complex. Sound, projection, theater and audience were perfect. The winner of eight Academy Awards® in 1953, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Reed), was written by Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, Golden Boy, Picnic). The movie’s title, From Here to Eternity, is taken from a line from an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem in which soldiers are damned “from here to eternity”.

TCM just announced its 2017 schedule to screen a slew of classic movies, so the wonderful and encouraging series, which is a unique opportunity to see the best movies as they were intended to be seen in movie theaters, will happily continue.

Movie Review: Allied

There’s a gigantic moral lapse in Allied, written by the talented Steven Knight (Amazing Grace, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Locke) and directed by the masterful Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy, The Walk). Explaining what it is gives away the whole plot, which I don’t want to do because this lush, glamorous romantic movie is too gorgeous and marvelous to dismiss. Mr. Zemeckis is an ambitious filmmaker with a keen sense of story and picture, though he does not always match philosophy to the scale, scope and sensibility of his grandest visions. His Cast Away, which I think is excellent, Contact, Forrest Gump and other movies come to mind.

cvmhk-exeaevanpAdd Allied to the list of his movies that are impaired from the start and don’t achieve the greatness of the ingenious Back to the Future pictures and last year’s magnificent cinematic elegy to the World Trade Center (1973-2001), The Walk. Allied comes very close and should be seen. Know in advance that a major problem cuts its power. See if you can figure it out as you watch.

I was held throughout the two-hour movie—which is an old-fashioned movie movie—until the end credits. Allied, which is about the shared values that bind, begins with a long, slow and neatly choreographed glide into enemy territory as the north African desert sun hovers on the horizon. Brad Pitt’s Max drops on the dunes of French Morocco. He’s in Casablanca by nightfall, meeting the hummingbird-coded Frenchwoman, Marianne (Marion Cotillard, Macbeth, Midnight in Paris). Both Cotillard and Pitt (Moneyball, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 12 Years a Slave, World War Z) shine in demanding roles, the type of parts that aren’t written anymore because they’re layered and glamorous and intended for movie stars that don’t totally exist.

The leading man and woman rise to the challenge. Stunning costumes, lacquered hair and lustrous photography by Don Burgess (Eight Below) serve to enhance the sensual air and infuse this Forties war drama with suspicion, romance and prolonged tension and suspense. Max and Marianne meet in an Allied undercover operation against the National Socialist Germans. They ride, dance, cavort, smoke cigarettes—in the best use of cigarettes since Now Voyager—kiss on moonlit African rooftops and take target practice together, too, all toward the goal of eradicating Nazis. Marianne and Max have moments alone, too, in long takes with deadly and intriguing implications. Both are trained professionals. As such, they remain mysterious, her in smooth talk and him in cold glances. To the distant sound of Moslem prayers and ghostly presence of a Nazi wife behind a curtain, watching them is irresistible.

Allied is a movie star movie, to be sure, and it exists to keep the audience watching this deadly male-female dance as both are imperiled. And, with 60-40 odds against pulling off the Casablanca mission, it’s natural that they fall in love. Or do they? Allied doesn’t let on and instead lets the viewer make the connection (if it’s there to be made) after an insatiable sex scene in a swirling sandstorm.

Do they or don’t they and will they or won’t they take secondary status to Allied‘s basic theme, beginning with that incredible sandstorm, that the world at war rages, explodes and crashes around Max and Marianne. As the action shifts to London and, periodically, France, this theme plays out in childbirth and at a party, with certain angles, shadows and light casting the two at the center of a world spiraling out of control. To entice and add to the puzzle in rising tension, Knight and Zemeckis include friendly and unfriendly witnesses and observers to their ongoing ordeal, from officers, a secretary and lesbians to the beautiful baby who changes everything if babies change anything.

The sensuous and tense affair draws to a memorable conclusion as raindrops, tracer fire and bombs fall and there’s a picnic at what feels like the end of the world.

Allied grants the grand, romantic wish fulfillment of us against the world as it bumps, tests and teases with its lacquered, polished glamour in the face of war, which it does not gloss over. But this involving war mystery does skimp the moral estimate, or activates moral evasion, oversimplifying itself. A narrative device and epilogue help but do not escape the need for moral accounting in an otherwise elegantly, beautifully rendered love story.

Movie Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billy-lynn-movie-1Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) makes interesting movies and this one is no exception. I found it oddly moving, if hollow and flat. This is not Lee’s best picture.

Aside from the striking, new visual technology, he shows and tells the audience something important about today’s American soldier.

Opening with the sound of rapid fire, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk builds a tale within a tale around an appearance on Thanksgiving 2004 at a pro football game. Those appearing include the title character and his fellow Iraq War soldiers.

The Dallas, Texas-set film, made in cooperation with Communist China, follows the wandering unit in two places: Texas and Iraq. So it predictably includes digs at oil, money and hydraulic fracturing and a biting line at the expense of the facts and history of the Alamo. However, the sense of alienation that pervades all of Ang Lee’s films works with these unfortunate bits, adding to the emptiness and aimlessness of being a soldier in the non-war which Americans fight in Iraq, where they’re basically like targets that have been deployed to no end.

As one soldier in the movie puts it, they build schools for students without textbooks.

Flashbacks frame the plot and knowing in advance what will happen, in particular how it impacts blue-eyed Texan William “Billy” Lynn (Joe Alwyn), smuggles an emotional punch into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A flat script and agnostic theme trap the movie, which dramatizes in its mid-section the contrast between America’s lifelessness—through its vapid obsession with pro football, pseudo-patriotism and traditionalism—and the soldiers’ passion in battle.

For long stretches, nothing much happens onscreen, until you realize that this may be the movie’s point. The band of young men, perfectly cast ordinary youths who look, sound and talk like typical Americans enlisted in the Army, are forsaken by their countrymen. They are alternately emasculated and overromanticized. The band of men are left, as in Clint Eastwood’s Sully and American Sniper, to drop dead by a nation too busy obsessing about football, Beyonce and other mediocrities and spectacles (Trump drifts into one’s mind). It’s a fact that, for 15 years, the bravest men have been systematically slaughtered, maimed and deeply, horribly damaged by the aimless deployment by the U.S. government with not much success in terms of America’s defense. The vivid picture’s middle alone is worth seeing for the sake of thousands of U.S. veterans of an asinine, badly conceived and waged war in Iraq.

Like today’s vets, who are left to die, mistreated, neglected and forgotten in the horror chambers of government-run health care known as the VA, the men who Billy Lynn helps to lead are both admired under false pretenses and abandoned on passing whims. Billy Lynn doesn’t even get an Advil he’s asked for until near the end of the movie. But, boy, do they ride like show ponies in gussied up Hummers with an agent (Chris Tucker) trying to cash in on their bloody battle in Iraq.

With Vin Diesel (the Fast and Furious movies) as an Army leader, Kristen Stewart (Twilight, The Runaways) as Billy’s soulmate who happens to also be his sister, Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Unbroken) as his superior and Steve Martin (The Jerk, Housesitter) as a conservative businessman, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s book, falls short of the high expectations of its 3D/high resolution pedigree. At its best, however, and with great clarity in the middle of the picture, it depicts how vacuous America’s let itself become and the long-lasting harm such nothingness does to men that might have become its greatest defenders.

As an aside, I think I may have sat next to a war veteran during the screening of this film in Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome. During the usher’s movie introduction, the stranger made a sharp, bitter remark to me about starting the movie on time. When I turned, I noticed that he was heavily bearded and much younger than his comment made him seem. I also noticed during the movie that he was quieted as the picture wore on, less anxious, and he slowly slipped lower and lower and lower into his seat, like an abused child feeling smaller and more vulnerable by what’s happening around him. He was rapt. He was all alone and in that short time and exchange it seemed to me that he was alone in more ways than one. This is why I have a hunch, and it is only a hunch, that at some point he may have enlisted in the Armed Forces to fight for America. Whatever its flaws, and apart from my mixed estimate of its value, I think Billy Lynn, which debuted on Veterans Day, is made to depict and drive home the willfully unknown American soldier. If we are ever to get through this civil division and bring an end to the war engulfing us, he ought to be known, recognized and properly honored. And I think he ought to feel like he’s ten feet tall.