DUNKIRK – Racing Against the Clock

 

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Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

From the opening shot of a group of young British soldiers walking through the streets of a battleground French town during World War II, Dunkirk ignites its time bomb narrative and makes you hold your breath for the duration of the film.

Nolan’s penchant for cutting between different points of action simultaneously and muddling our perception of time between events was first showcased in the tunnel sequence in The Dark Knight, repeated again in Inception’s final dream collapse, and now here in Dunkirk, it has finally been used to its fullest effect. The film structures itself in three intertwining parts: The Mole* (where the majority of stranded British soldiers remain), The Sea (where ships hope to carry them back home), and The Air (where British jets fight with the Luftwaffe).

Nolan even quickly spells out the background of the Dunkirk situation with title cards, where German forces had cornered British and French soldiers at The Mole and the British were waiting for ships to take them home and escape death at the hands of the Germans. Of course, the Luftwaffe was flying around trying to sink any naval rescue the British had in mind. Thus, the situation was dire and the clock was ticking as the Germans were closing in.

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

Adding to the technical innovations, the politics of the film, a topic which is almost impossible to not touch on in today’s climate, are in themselves unique in comparison to how Hollywood deals with war. Modeled more closely after Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line rather than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Nolan concentrates on time, survival and the impending fear of death rather than the blood-and-guts patriotism (there is no blood in this movie) most war films aim their eye on. Sure, the pride of Britain is on display especially in Mark Rylance’s character, who is fundamental about his duty to his countrymen, but even that is more often discussed in the film as a general act of “doing good” rather than a soapbox stance for national pride. He continually says he needs to save people, not necessarily Brits. The idea of the “nation” or “citizens” is actually missing from a lot of the movie. In fact, the Germans are identified only once or twice as the enemy. In this approach, the film posits that the bravery and will to fight on for these soldiers stems from the fear and desperation that compound with each minute. They are strictly fighting to live.

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Within the film’s race-against-time narrative, there are several microcosms of the same theme peppered throughout, where two young soldiers try to carry an injured man to the boat before it sails off, a pilot crash lands in the ocean trying to get out of his cockpit before it fills up with water, soldiers try to escape from the ship’s kitchen before being trapped and drowned. All of these moments are handled with efficiency by Nolan, who lays all of his cards on the table and replaces his often critiqued overwritten dialogue with well directed and nerve-wracking action sequences beautifully captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Part of me thinks Nolan used this as an opportunity to shut all the critics up about his inability to direct action as well as Michael Bay or Michael Mann.

Dunkirk is exhausting, and it hits you like a machine gun. Every moment runs at fast-forward and every cut jumps from one tense moment to the next gripping us in with an ambiguous sense of time that leaves us hanging in the balance at each second. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s deafening score which features a relentless ticking of a clock in your ear, Christopher Nolan embarks on a 106-minute sprint of directorial showmanship in what may not be his best, but at least at first watch, I can say is easily his most technically accomplished film.

 

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2015 Capsule Reviews: The Last One

Here’s to 2015, one of the best years ever, at least for me. Just in time, here are 4 movies before the buzzer sounds that I’d personally like to sound off on.

My Top 10 Best Films of 2015 is COMING SOON (possibly next week). Hang on tight.

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The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015)

The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015)

You can slice this movie anyway your like to target a particular audience. For the action crowd it’s a tale of revenge, for the biopic crowd it’s a true story, for the political crowd it’s a redemption from betrayal, for the science crowd it’s a story of survival and instinct, for the history crowd it’s a story of ethnic tensions, for the religious crowd it’s a testament of God’s will. In any sense, Innaritu’s The Revenant is an avalanche. It sweeps you in its dark, hellish yet, at times fantasy portrayal of the South Dakota wilderness. It is bloody, beaten, rotting, and yet, it claws and scratches its way to satisfying means. Leonardo DiCaprio is of course incredible, but Tom Hardy is heavily underrated… his role as Fitzgerald is so committed psychologically, it works to perfect ends with DiCaprio’s tortured and intense portrayal of Hugh Glass. Innaritu’s direction with his favorite cinematographer Emannuel Lubeszki combines with harsh white winter with the earthen soil and dripping blood that creates a portrait which would have done 70mm and lengthy hype much more justice and purpose than Tarantino’s lukewarm vision did.

 

Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Safdie, 2015)

Heaven Knows What is not for the faint of heart. Filmed on a micro-budget but packing a wrenching emotional whallop, the Safdie Brothers have created a film, based on personal writings from star Arielle Holmes, about the pain of love, and the horrifying clutch of addiction. The movie is not an “addiction movie”, nor is it an expose on homelessness. The film is a story, but it reverbrates in the screeching cries and wails of its protagonists and the claws which their lifestyle has dug into their eye-sockets so deep, they can never be pulled out. There is no glorification or exploitation eminent within the film, instead, we root for these characters to survive and cry with them as they fail and fall back time and time again. Set to a backdrop score which haunts and creeps and street landscapes which are so distrubingly familiar to all of us, Heaven Knows What takes little money and a lot of pain and heart to create one of the best “small films” of the year.

 

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino might be his worst, possibly tied with Death Proof. Despite the advertised use of 70mm and the grandiose stage-setting of the film, there is nothing memorable about The Hateful Eight… not the dialogues, the actors, the characters, or the place where they all collide. Built upon the same basic idea of his debut masterwork Reservoir Dogs, this movie nullifies any sort of imagination required from that movie to a shitshow of blood, guts, and wise-cracks that sound smart, but don’t resonate with anyone but the guy who’s writing and saying them. It’s Tarantino laughing at his own joke in a dead-silent room.

 

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

The eye-stares that ensue every time that Carol and Therese see each other throughout the film, coupled with the cold stares between Carol and her ex-husband, all call to show how great the acting is in this movie. The characters here have histories and futures with each other, and it shows simply through looks. Hayne’s direction is crafted such that we can justify calling Carol a love story, without having to put the qualifier “lesbian” in front of it. It is about Carol torn in two ways, glancing at her future of love, brightness, comfort, and passion with wet-eyed glances and hand-touches with Therese and letting go of the disasterous collapse of a marriage with her husband Harge. Blanchett is brilliant in this, and her entire aura keeps Carol at the brink of being both a strong-willed real woman and a majestic unatainable beauty queen. In today’s society there is much ado about not judging women on their looks but rather on what’s on the inside… Hayne’s Carol straddles both the visual allure and personality traits of his female stars. It draws you in with looks, and knocks you out with heart, emotion, and undeniable confidence.