REVIEW: Dunkirk

23 07 2017

In a typical war movie, the 400,000 men stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk would command the lion’s share of attention. Their rescuers who arrived by sea in small personal and commercial boats requisitioned for the war effort might get an extended arc in the final act. Their protectors in the air might get a few shots during a climactic battle scene as they fended off the German Luftwaffe.

Director Christopher Nolan, however, is anything but typical. (You probably already knew that.) In his take on “Dunkirk,” each of these three threads takes on an equal narrative standing. Though they span a week, a day and an hour, respectively, their experiences unfold in a simultaneous, but not parallel, manner. The lengths of their contribution might be different, yet their weights are equalized – and their fates are intertwined.

This isn’t immediately obvious from the start of the film. Title cards spell out the duration of each section, but it takes their individual narratives overlapping or colliding for that time to really resonate. Remarkably, the gambit never feels like a gimmick. Nolan pays tribute to each prong of the Dunkirk evacuation by sustaining their story for as long as their lives were on high alert … and then gently ratcheting things down a notch once the end is in sight.

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REVIEW: The BFG

28 06 2016

The BFG PosterThink back to your favorite Spielberg movie. How did it open?

Jaws” began with the shark taking its first victim. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had our hero creeping through the forest towards an unknown bounty. “E.T” started with the titular creature evading the authorities for the first time. “Saving Private Ryan” plunges us into war with the immersive, innovative D-Day sequence. Many chide the director for choosing stories that wrap up neatly and morally, but he certainly knows how to kick things off with a bang.

So given this penchant for great beginnings, it feels more than a little disorienting when Spielberg’s latest directorial outing, “The BFG,” opens on a relative whimper. The first fifteen minutes operate as an introduction to our two main characters, young London orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the towering “Big Friendly Giant” colloquially known as the BFG (the personage of Mark Rylance). Yet in that period, scarcely nothing comes to light about them.

We see that Sophie lurks around her orphanage unhappily in the wee hours of the morning. We can discern that the BFG quietly lurks around the streets of London, performing some unspecified action. It’s likely Sophie has sensed his presence before, and “The BFG” merely begins on the night in which they first make contact. But in order to sell her wonder and fear – or his menace – something else is needed. The first 10 pages of Melissa Matheson’s script might well have slipped out upon delivery to Spielberg. It just does not feel complete.

Without this base-level emotional entry point, “The BFG” must be experienced through the events rather than the characters. In this case, that might not be such a good thing. The film is probably Spielberg’s most sparsely plotted work since his first feature gig, 1971’s “Duel” (or, if you really want to dig deep in his archives, the most thinly plotted since the short film that provided the name for his production company, “Amblin'”). Most, if not all, of his movies thrive on a constant forward momentum that propels characters through physical, emotional and supernatural perils. “The BFG” mostly boils down to a spunky young girl exploring a new world with a timid, lovable giant who speaks as if his lines were spat out like a bad Google Translate result.

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REVIEW: Bridge of Spies

18 10 2015

Bridge of SpiesI’m young enough that I cannot remember a time when director Steven Spielberg’s name was not synonymous with cinematic excellence at the highest echelon. I am also of the age that I have never been able to experience the kind of film that earned him such a reputation in any manner other than through the lens of retrospection.

That is, until “Bridge of Spies” came along, the first Spielberg effort since 2005’s “Munich” that serves as an adequate calling card for a generation-defining artist.  Making the sort of mid-range budget ($40 million) adult drama that have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, he issues a strong reminder that his formidable skills should not be undervalued or underestimated.

It’s fitting, then, that this film should star Tom Hanks, another already minted national treasure whose cultural footprint often dwarfs the power of his work. While both director and actor could easily coast on their merits, neither does in “Bridge of Spies.” The film operates at an impeccably high level of craft and precision because Hanks and Spielberg flex their muscles so potently.  Calling it a return to form feels wrong since neither has precipitously declined, but this is clearly them at peak performance.

Hanks plays William Donovan, an idealistic Brooklyn lawyer given the thankless task of providing legal counsel in a sham trial meant as a PR play.  His client is Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy captured at the peak of Cold War mania.  Donovan’s task recalls the central case in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s a good thing that Hanks can channel Atticus Finch (pre-racism) so deftly.

Only a few actors could pull off this unironic, unashamed portrait of the nobility all Americans like to believe is woven into our national fabric.  Hanks, with his steady hand and calm resolve, makes a better case for the Constitution’s guiding light than anyone currently in public office.  In fact, many of them could learn a thing or two from Donovan regarding Edward Snowden, the Middle East, and immigration.

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