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Dunkirk

The evacuation of some 400,000 Allied soldiers from the French port of Dunkirk on May 26 to June 4, 1940 is one of those things you always hear about.  Even though you may not know many specifics, you are aware that it is held up as a prime example of British pluck and bravery.  The most interesting thing about it was that it was technically a rout, a retreat.  But it is in fact the best example in history of a strategic withdrawal.  Four hundred thousand allied soldiers made it out of France and were available to defend England against Hitler.  If they hadn’t, the war would have gone very differently.  Looking back with the knowledge of hindsight, Germany’s only real chance to win the war was to conquer all of Europe, including Britain in the early days of the conflict.

In the eight months since the Germans invaded Poland and the allies had declared war, hardly a shot had been fired.   That changed in early May 1940 when Germany overran Western Europe using Blitzkrieg warfare.  With their air superiority and greater mobility on the ground they advanced hundreds of miles a day, blowing through, around and over the allies carefully prepared defenses.  Belgium, The Netherlands, and France were outmatched and in full retreat.  Allied forces, which had been stationed in France and Belgium to defend them against the Nazis, pulled back to the French coastal towns where they were quickly surrounded.  They set up defenses to slow down the Germans and give the evacuation time.

The problem was that the ports on that part of the European coast were too shallow and the big troop transports and warships couldn’t safely enter.  There was a mole jutting out into the deeper water but it was exposed to German dive bombers and quickly made unusable.  The allied soldiers could see the British coast from the beach at Dunkirk but there was no way to get there.  So the call went out along the southeastern coast of England.  Every fishing boat and pleasure craft was needed to make the crossing to France and help evacuate the soldiers.

Several movies have been made about Dunkirk over the years, at least three with this same exact title.  And that’s appropriate.  This is a story that bears repeating.  And Christopher Nolan’s treatment may be the best one.

Although if you are looking to learn about the battle, you’ll need to see the 1958 John Mills, Richard Attenborough film, the 2004 Timothy Dalton TV movie or one of numerous documentaries on the subject.  This is more of sensual experience than usual for a war movie.  Clocking in at an hour and forty-seven minutes, Dunkirk is no epic although visually it may resemble one.  It is a beautiful film.  It follows three sets of characters, cutting between their stories, sometimes very quickly.  I’m not sure but I don’t think they are even on the same timeline.  Some scenes are at night, some are in the day.  There isn’t a whole lot of dialog or many familiar faces in the cast.  In short, it’s a pretty good evocation of the fog of war.  No one knows anything beyond what their senses can perceive.

Christopher Nolan is in full command of the language of film here.  I’ve already mentioned the images.  He shot the whole movie on 70mm film and every frame is perfect.  The special effects are seamless, especially the aerial battles.  The way the editing works with Hans Zimmer’s percussive score to create tension is very effective.  The sound effects and the sound editing add to the tension, especially in the interiors of the sinking ships where the camera dips under water and the sound becomes muffled.  Every new Christopher Nolan film is a cinematic event at least in the technical realm.

There are also some great performances.  Mark Rylance turns in his usual exemplary job as a boat owner stoically doing his duty as he crosses the channel with his son, Peter, played by Tim Glynn-Carney, and their 17 year old deck hand George, played by Barry Keoghan.  Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles play three soldiers trying anything to get on a ship to England and safety.  Tom Hardy plays Farrier a fighter pilot out over the channel trying to protect the ragtag flotilla while keeping an eye on his fuel.  Because of the lack of dialog and the non-stop action you know almost nothing about these men and yet you sympathize with them because of the performances.

Dunkirk is not your usual film and it may not be for everybody, but given its short running time, I think everybody should give it a try.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

It’s Spider-Man 3.0!  Or at least 3.0 as far as live action movies go.  I’m not sure about animation and TV, and I couldn’t even begin to guess how many times the character has been rethought in the comic books.  Spider-Man has always been Marvel’s top hero in terms of popularity and sales and was the first character inquired about when Hollywood came calling.  So the rights were sold to Sony over two decades ago.  Sam Raimi made two well-received movies and one that isn’t so well thought of, and then Marc Webb rebooted the character with two movies that no one seems to like, although I didn’t think they were that bad.  At that point Sony decided that they were at a creative dead end and since Marvel, which had since become a movie producing giant in its own right, had been knocking on the door, asking if they could at least borrow the movie rights to their most popular character, Sony decided to cut a deal.

And thus this version of Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, made his debut in the MCU in Captain America Civil War when Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., recruited Peter to The Avengers to fight on the side of the co-signers of the Sokovia Accords.  He fights alongside Iron Man, Black Widow and others and holds his own.

Which makes it difficult to return to his high school in Queens and resume a normal life.  Or what passes for a normal life.  For Peter Parker this means keeping up his grades, taking care of his Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei, trying to work up the courage to talk to girls, and fighting petty crime around his neighborhood.  He wants to move up in the world and become an Avenger, but Tony Stark doesn’t think Peter is ready.

It turns out that Stark is right.  Peter is a good kid who means well.  He has the awesome spider powers, although incomplete control over them, and the native intelligence to one day become a comic book scientist in the tradition of Bruce Banner, Hank Pym or even Tony Stark.  But being only fifteen, he doesn’t know much about people.  His voice is still high and unintimidating and he hasn’t learned to think like a criminal.  In fact, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to join the Avengers.

The movie is brilliant at depicting this.  It is a combination of the script, which was written by a whole committee of people, the direction by Jon Watts, and Tom Holland’s performance.  They show us the character’s arc from brash kid, still reveling in his powers and star struck from his experiences on that tarmac in Berlin, to humbled young man, willing to accept and work on his shortcomings.  It is a very moving experience—you very much identify with him—and entertaining to witness.

I mentioned in a review of an earlier films that Spider-Man is one of Marvel’s sunnier heroes and that is depicted even better in Homecoming.  He helps old ladies with directions; he stops bike thieves and car-jackers in and around his home in Queens.  He really is your friendly neighborhood Spider-man.  Even as Peter longs for another Avengers mission, he is developing an ethic for helping everyday working people.  There are several points where the bad guys endanger innocent civilians and Peter never thinks twice.  He saves the bystanders even at the expense of letting the villains escape.

And you know what?  Tom Holland’s performance isn’t even the best in the film.  That goes to Michael Keaton’s The Vulture aka Adrian Toomes.  Keaton steals every scene he’s in as a working class salvage engineer.  The film starts at a point eight years earlier when Toomes’ company is helping clean up in the aftermath of the Chitauri attack on the city in The Avengers.  He’s signed a lucrative contract with the city and figuring that this is his ticket to success and security for his family, has bought new equipment, trucks and hired new people.  It’s all taken away from him though when the feds and Tony Stark take over the clean-up.  Toomes and his men are kicked off the site and harshly instructed to turn in any alien technology they’ve already salvaged.  Angry, Toomes doesn’t turn in the Chitauri tech.  Instead he designs weapons with it, including a cool set of mechanical wings for himself, which he uses to steal more tech.  And he also sells some the weapons to criminals.  His watchword has been caution.  He wants his new business kept under the radar of the feds and especially the Avengers.  Keaton captures the working class values of this man who sees himself as providing for his family and getting what’s his.  This is a guy who is not going let anything threaten what he’s built or his family.  He is one of the most sympathetic villains I’ve ever come across.

As I’ve said before, the folks at Marvel, and comic book people in general, know their characters.  They know what liberties to take with their mythologies and most especially what the tone of the movie should be.  In most cases when they are the creative impetus, they get a better result than the movie people.  I hope Spider-Man: Homecoming makes a ton of money and Sony is convinced that this arrangement is too lucrative to abandon.  And I hope that someday Marvel is able to get the rights to the Fantastic Four in the same way or maybe even the rights to the X-Men.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

 

The Beguiled

There are certain types of films where the filmmakers do not provide windows into the characters’ souls, or at least not windows with clear glass.  There are no flashbacks or long speeches detailing formative events in childhood.  They don’t explain themselves or their motivations in any way.  The audience is left to speculate on such things or to be content with a main character or two being a cipher.  These films can be difficult because it often takes an effort to emphasize with or even understand such characters.  It’s like listening to atonal music; you have to pay close attention.

Whether or not the film is a success depends on if enough people think the effort is worth it.

It’s 1863 and the Civil War is raging near the Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a genteel girls’ boarding school in rural Virginia.  This institution is run by Miss Martha, played by Nicole Kidman with the help of Miss Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst.  Because of the war there are only six girls residing at the school and they are only there because their families decided it was too dangerous to bring them home.  But battles are being fought scant miles away from the school and Union soldiers have been marauding in the area.  They’ve already stolen the school’s chickens.  Most of the girls regard Union soldiers as monstrous rapists and murderers.

One of the school’s younger students, Amy, played by Oona Laurence, is out looking for mushrooms in the forest and discovers a Union soldier with a bad leg wound.  He is Corporal John McBurney, played by Colin Ferrell.  Amy brings him back to the school.  After much debate Miss Martha and Miss Edwina decide to not inform the Confederate troops who regularly patrol the area about Corporal McBurney.  They tell themselves that he’ll die soon anyway and poses no threat.  But even at this early stage the justification seems thin.

Thanks to the two women’s ministrations McBurney starts to recover.  At first he is thankful and polite.  Once he is able he begins to do chores around the school in order to pull his own weight.  He forms relationships with the girls, especially Amy.  But then he begins to make advances to Miss Edwina, who is guarded and cautious at first even though McBurney appears to be sincere.

Problems begin when Miss Martha falls for him as well and Alicia, played by Elle Fanning, one of the older students in her late teens also enters the competition for his affections.

The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel film of the same name.  I haven’t seen it but according to Wikipedia Siegel said that it, “deals with the themes of sex, violence and vengeance and was based around, ‘the basic desire of women to castrate men.’”  Such misogyny was par for the course in filmmaking at that time.  Sofia Coppola, the director of the 2017 version was drawn to the remake to tell the same story from a female viewpoint.  At some point I would like to read a compare and contrast article.

It is a pretty film, well-acted, especially by the leads.  Although, as I indicated earlier, it is somewhat emotionally opaque. The only things you know about the characters is that McBurney joined the Union army straight off the boat from Ireland because he had no money.  Also he’s not the bravest man around.  And we also know that Miss Edwina is very unhappy at the school.

There’s a flaw in the script, which is by Sofia Coppola, as well.  It takes a while for the central conflict to manifest.  I suppose there are subtle things happening that are building tension during the first forty-five minutes to an hour but they really didn’t work in the intended way and they don’t advance the plot.  Everything at the school is going along as well as can be expected.

One quibble I have is that the presence of Spanish Moss in the trees is a very important visual symbol.  The opening shot is of a dirt road with a canopy of moss covered trees suspended over it, a soft-edged tunnel symbolizing our entry into the female world.  I live in North Carolina and it gets too cold here for Spanish Moss to survive.  You certainly don’t see it in Virginia.  But that’s obviously a minor complaint.

I think that like the characters, my reaction to this movie was muted and mysterious.  The film left me unmoved.  Or, to give it the benefit of the doubt, it’s a good film but simply not for me.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is one of the DC’s three biggest heroes.  The other two have had numerous TV shows and movies made about them and while Princess Diana had a show in the 70’s there has been no major movie until now.  We don’t have to think too hard to figure out the reason for that.  Comics, and movies for that matter, were dominated by men both on the creative side and the consumer side for decades.  Wonder Woman was created in the 40’s by William Moulton Marston in part to provide a role model for young girls.  I’m not sure if that contributed anything to her popularity or not.  But I do believe that Wonder Woman has always been ahead of her time in messages of female empowerment.

And now she is not only being called upon to save the world but also to save the reputations of DC and Warner Brothers.  It’s a tall order because her brethren Batman and Superman have been on a losing streak lately, their movies getting panned for being too dark and grim.  They’re making money, I’m sure.  But nothing like the mint that Marvel is running.  I imagine that this doesn’t go down well in the halls of the DC offices.  Not to mention Warner Brothers.

So they start Diana’s story with her origin, which is basically the same as in the comic books except they shifted the time period to World War I instead of World War II.  Diana, played by Gal Godot, is an Amazon on the island of Themyscira.  She was molded out of clay by her mother and then Zeus breathed life into her.  He did this to protect mankind from Ares, the God of War and therefore she has much more power and ability than your average Amazon warrior, which is saying something.  Themyscira has been hidden from the outside world since ancient times and only women live there.  Diana’s mother Hippolyta, played by Connie Nielsen wishes to hide Diana’s abilities from her.  But of course in time Diana realizes she is different.

An American spy working for the British named Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine, penetrates the dome of fog and bad weather that hides the island.  He’s flying a stolen German plane and crashes it in the crystal blue waters off the island.  Diana saves him and becomes alarmed when he tells her about the war raging in the outside world and that Themyscira may not be safe.  The Amazons are skilled warriors but they know nothing of guns, bombs or gas, or anything about modern mechanized warfare.  Once the island is successfully defended from the Germans who were pursuing Trevor, Diana decides she must venture into the outside world to clean up the mess that we dopey men have made of it.

But Diana has grown up in a nurturing utopia where everyone is fulfilled and happy.  She is shocked when she catches Trevor in a lie.  It never occurred to her that someone might not tell the truth.  In short she has no conception of the darker side of human nature.  This leads to several miscalculations on her part.  I won’t spoil the plot by going into them.

I like Diana’s arc as a character.  She goes from powerful but naïve to disillusioned and finally to determined.  Godot handles this well.  You believe she is a person who can understand any language but is completely ignorant of human motivations.  You can also credit Allan Heinberg’s screenplay and Patty Jenkins direction for that.

Chris Pine basically plays Steve Trevor as a slight variation on his Captain Kirk but that’s really all that the part calls for.  Besides his chemistry with Godot is spectacular.  Their interaction provides the best bits of humor and romance.

The supporting cast is good especially Trevor’s “crew” of reprobates that help him and Diana get deep into German territory.  Said Tahgmaoui plays Sameer, a cynical con man with a heart of gold.  Ewen Bremmer plays Charlie a shell-shocked Scottish sniper.  And Eugene Brave Rock plays Chief an American Indian smuggler.  These guys play well off each other and you can believe they’ve been a team for a long time.

For the most part it’s a pretty film.  On Themyscira the weather is always fine with bright sunlight bathing the spectacular coastline.  But in the outside world it is always dark and overcast with muted colors and a lot of close-ups.  The effects are pretty good for the most part although there were a few that looked fake.  Costumes and sets were all really good.

There isn’t much that’s original in the plot.  I suspect that they moved the time period to World War I to distract from the fact that they were stealing so much from Captain America: The First Avenger.  But the film is so well paced and the characters are so compelling that I didn’t mind it being derivative.

So did Wonder Woman save the day and rehabilitate DC’s cinematic reputation?  I would say it’s a good start.  It certainly points to the lighter, more comic book like tone that many in the fan boy press have been calling for.  Hopefully future projects will follow suit.

In any case Wonder Woman is a must see summer movie.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

When it comes to sequels we have been spoiled in recent years by Marvel and the latest Star Wars episodes.  But with last week’s entry into the Alien universe we were reminded that most of the time it doesn’t work out.  The usual model for a sequel is to try and repeat earlier success which involves repetition of the more popular elements.  Once that decision is made creative compromises are engaged and the resulting project is likely to be unoriginal and more conservative in scope, probably losing the edge that made the first film so successful.

Obviously there are exceptions.  But never has this principle been more clearly evident than in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The Curse of the Black Pearl is a great summer popcorn movie with a truly eye-opening performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.  Depp has stumbled and slurred his way through four sequels now and has yet to recreate that initial magic.  Probably because the good Captain is too eccentric to be anything other than a supporting player as I pointed out in my review of On Stranger Tides.  Movie star Johnny Depp, however, has to be the lead.

In this one he does step back a little to share the stage with a couple of younger leads.  Henry Turner, played by Brenden Thwaites, is the son of Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom and Elizabeth Swann, played in a cameo by Kiera Knightley.  Henry’s driving ambition is to free his father from the curse that puts him on the crew of the Flying Dutchman, destined to sail the ghostly seas forever.  He meets Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, an astronomer who keeps being mistaken for a witch.  She is looking to unlock the secret of a diary that her unknown father gave to her when he left her as a baby on the steps of an orphanage.  The two mysteries are related of course and both hinge on finding the Trident of Poseidon, which can break all sea curses.

Jack Sparrow stumbles in the story because Henry believes that the captain can find the Trident.  But Jack’s a little down on his luck and once again his past is catching up to him in the form of Captain Salazar, played by Javier Bardem.  Salazar was captain of a Spanish pirate hunting ship who Jack stranded in the Bermuda Triangle back many years ago.  Now Salazar has escaped and he and his crew have supernatural powers and are looking to rid the seas of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Well it may have something to do with my exceedingly low expectations, but God help me, I kind of liked it.  To be sure it is a pale imitation of The Curse of the Black Pearl but it has many of the elements that made that film work.  The look of the film, sort of macabre without being gross or scary, has been consistent throughout the series.  The images here don’t seem quite as inventive.  But is that because they are no longer new as they were in back in 2003?  Who knows?

It has much the same kind of off-hand humor.  At one point an exasperated Carina asks, “Are all pirates this stupid?”  They think about it for a little bit and then nod their heads and say, “Pretty much.”   There are many more examples of that.

I do have to say that I really didn’t get much involved emotionally with either Henry or Carina.  It wasn’t that the two actors did a bad job but I just didn’t find their stories that compelling.  This isn’t a film that’s going to appeal to deep emotions.

In the end it is an enjoyable summer movie.  You probably won’t remember much of the plot by the time you get home but you’ll have been entertained for a couple of hours.  What more can you ask of a sequel?

Alien: Covenant

Okay Alien: Covenant is a sequel to Prometheus which was a prequel to the Alien films.  Except at the time they denied that it was a direct prequel.  Or something.  If their intention was to create confusion: mission accomplished.  The thing is that Prometheus really stunk.  So much so that they waited five years to give us another entry into that universe.  If you read my review of it, you’ll see I declared the Alien universe dead. At least creatively.

Well the misses in the franchise are certainly piling up.  Ridley Scott is a great filmmaker but he can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.  Is he given better material to work with this time?  This script is written by first time screenwriter Dante Harper and John Logan who is the creator and chief writer for one of my current obsessions, the series Penny Dreadful.  So I went in hopeful.

People are pushing out into the universe, looking to colonize new worlds.  The Covenant is a colony ship manned with a crew of fifteen people, many of them couples who are heading to a known habitable world.  They are in hibernation for most of the trip but can be awoken in emergencies.  Two thousand colonists are in suspended animation for the entire trip and there are 1600 frozen embryos.  An android, Walter, played by Michael Fassbender, remains active for the entire multi-year journey just to make sure everything runs smoothly.

After the ship is damaged in a freak solar storm, Walter takes the crew out of hibernation to make repairs.  Unfortunately, their captain, played (briefly) by James Franco in an uncredited role, is killed when his hibernation unit malfunctions.  This leaves his wife, Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, bereft and Oram, played by Billy Crudup, in command.

While repairing the ship they get a transmission from a nearby world that upon investigation looks even more promising than the one they are headed toward.  Oram decides to go for the two birds in the bush and they divert course.

I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say this turns out to be a bad choice.

The planet turns out to be the destination of the Prometheus.  That ship’s android, David, also played by Michael Fassbender is still around, although Elizabeth Shaw, played in Prometheus by Noomi Rapace (You only get to see still pictures of her here) is long dead.  David saves the Covenant’s survey team from the initial attack of the Aliens.  But it turns out that he may not be entirely trustworthy.

Well this film is better than Prometheus but that’s hardly surprising.  It doesn’t depend on people making stupid choices to advance the plot.  Unless you count diverting the mission in the first place and they explain why that mistake was made pretty well.

Michael Fassbender gives excellent performances as the two androids, portraying the subtle differences between them expertly.  Katherine Waterston has a way of doing all these heroic things while looking like she’s on the verge of panic.  She has the talent to portray strength and vulnerability in the same action.

It is a visually stunning film which is what you would expect from Ridley Scott.  The dark claustrophobic interiors and the overcast exteriors give the film an exotic and menacing air.  It is a technically accomplished movie.

There are a few things that bother me, however.  For one thing, the first film and its direct sequels made the company the almost omnipotent villain.  Their greed in wanting to get an Alien to Earth in order to weaponize it is what motivates them.  Here the filmmakers have changed that.  I won’t detail how because that would spoil the ending but it’s an attempt to lay some pretentious philosophy on a plot that can’t sustain it.

Another problem is Scott’s approach to the franchise.  Alien is a great horror film and Scott seeks to repeat that accomplishment.  But when James Cameron made Aliens, he sought to turn it into an action franchise.  Cameron knew that as a horror vehicle Alien is something of a one trick pony.  Once you see those pods, you know what’s going to happen.  And the sight of Aliens bursting out of bodies loses its impact over time.

When I reviewed Prometheus, I said that any further films in the Alien franchise would be pointless.  I’m going to have to stand by that assessment.  This does nothing to advance the mythology of series and as a prequel it doesn’t convincingly fill in any gaps either.

That doesn’t mean Alien: Covenant is bad.  It’s just that I can’t see any reason for it to have been made.

The Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

At last we have crossed the vast desert of the post Oscar/pre Blockbuster season to come to Marvel’s first offering of the summer.  We can thank DVD’s, Netflix and other streaming services for our survival of this terrible trial.  It was a harrowing journey.

When the first Guardians came out three years ago, I wondered how people would respond to the strangeness of this premise.  The property was one of Marvel’s more far out ideas.  I needn’t have worried.  It was exciting and funny and it all worked brilliantly, becoming one of Marvel’s most popular and most acclaimed films.

Now the same crew is back again but the questions are different: Will they feel the need to top the spectacle of the first one?  Will they begin to take themselves too seriously?  Will they ever take another chance?

The answer to that last one is sadly “no.”  And that’s a shame because the first film was all about taking chances, introducing a new tone and setting to the Marvel universe.  Now their main concern is not messing things up.  Normally I would chalk that up to the natural course of things but when you consider the whole catalog of Marvel films, it’s a troubling development.  They’ve never been adverse to risk-taking before.

All that being said, go see this movie.  It’s a used formula sure, but it works.

The Guardians have grown into a tight knit team under the leadership of Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt.  Acting as mercenaries they travel the galaxy, taking jobs and getting by.  Like any tight-knit group they have their conflicts.  Quill has growing affection for Zamora, played by Zoe Saldana, which sometimes she seems to return and sometimes not.  Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, is uncomfortable with how close everyone is getting and is intent on stirring up trouble.   Drax, played by Dave Bautista, remains a loose cannon who when he takes initiative can make things either better or worse.  And Baby Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, is just adorable, stealing every scene he’s in.

Having double-crossed their latest clients, a race called the Sovereigns, the group goes on the run and encounters Peter’s long lost father, a being named Ego, played by Kurt Russell.  The Sovereigns leader, Ayesha, played by Elizabeth Debicki, hires Yondu, played by Michael Rooker to capture the Guardians and bring them to the Sovereigns.

This is a tremendous cast.  When it comes to casting Chris Pratt father, Kurt Russell is really the only way to go and their scenes together are great.  Pratt, himself, has Quill down cold and the rest of the regular crew picks up where they left off.

So while it isn’t quite the bold stroke that the first one was, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is well worth your time.

And a great start to the summer.


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