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Dunkirk
Dunkirk (2017)
1 day ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

KEEP FRAZZLED AND CARRY ON - My Review of DUNKIRK (4 1/2 Stars)

Gripping from its first incredible shot to its last, Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK proves itself to be an astoundingly visceral, endlessly suspenseful, cinematic experience, a much-needed, but not widely known historical event that literally, much like D-Day, changed the shape of the world. This, despite its shortcomings.

Early in World War II, the Nazis had pushed approximately 400,000 English and French troops to the shallow beaches of Dunkirk, France, where they became sitting ducks awaiting an improbable rescue. With the White Cliffs of Dover within their sights, the men had no safe way home as rescue ships could not come too close. Many waited either on the shore or on a long pier, easy pickings for the Luftwaffe. Churchill's plan involved a small contingent of his Air Corps to fight the German bombers while citizens with private boats were ordered to sweep in and save as many soldiers as possible. With so much of the Allied Forces gathered in one spot, it could easily have spelled doom for them and the entire world.

We experience this story in three fractured segments, each with their own distinctive span of time. The beach segment takes place over a week's time, while the boat rescue is one day, and the air segment is one hour. Nolan is no stranger to fracturing time, and here by cross-cutting between the three storylines and sometimes playing scenes out of order, we're almost just as addled and confused as the protagonists. I suppose that's the point of the exercise, that and ratcheting up the suspense to an agonizing degree, but it leads to some confusion.

Not helping matters much is the sound mix. I saw DUNKIRK in 70MM IMAX, which proves to be an intensely immersive experience and a great way to experience cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's (INTERSTELLAR, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, HER) incredible images, literally one after the other a masterstroke. Hans Zimmer's score, a mix of orchestral and ticking clock effects, helps keep you on the edge of your seat, but it often drowns out the mostly unintelligible dialogue. Luckily, Nolan's visual storytelling talents mostly negate the need to comprehend it, but I would have preferred to hear Kenneth Branagh's expository lines, for example, with a little more clarity.

Additionally, Nolan doesn't go to any great lengths to create any layered characterizations. We get a string of strong archetypes - the scrappy soldier, the traumatized sailor, the stalwart Commander, the stoic civilian. It all adds up to show the no b.s. resilience of the English people in the face of certain annihilation, and as such, it's collectively very moving.

Our main protagonist of sorts, Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, forms an alliance with a other young men trying everything they can to get off that beach. It's harrowing stuff with hardly any letup. Every moment of quiet faces imminent chaos. When first seen, Tommy and a group of soldiers march down a Dunkirk street as Nazi propaganda fliers rain down on them telling them they're surrounded and will not survive. In an instant, their ability to do just that gets put to the test, and we're off and running. Tommy is eventually joined by an even more stoic soldier (Damien Bonnard) who finds every nook and cranny to squeeze into as bombs fall all around them. They meet up with another group, including Alex (ONE DIRECTION singer Harry Styles), who fits right into this sprawling canvas quite well. I thought Ed Sheehan worked just fine in GAME OF THRONES, so I guess I think English pop stars make for good actors and I'm not backing down from my stance! This weeklong escape is one action set piece after another and works so well. The image of Tommy bracing for impact as one bomb after another explodes towards him will certainly enter the pantheon of greatest film shots of all time. The perfect sound design here only enhances the perfection. Same can be said for the thousands of men on the pier ducking for cover every time an enemy plane approaches. Scenes in a rescue ship and a beached sailboat come loaded with tension similar to that in THE HURT LOCKER.

Mark Rylance takes the lead in the civilian boat rescue section, helped by his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young lad names George (impressive newcomer Barry Keoghan). During their rescue attempts, they encounter Cillian Murphy, a shellshocked sailor, who urges them to take him home instead of right back into the fray. It's relatively calmer than the main storyline, but illustrates the unbending resolve which allowed the English to persevere. Not without its own suspense and stakes, this segment broadens the canvas to allow anyone to relate to the struggle to survive.

In the aerial sequences, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden fly side-by-side, constantly aware of their fuel levels and believably confused by what's happening outside their narrow scope of vision. Nolan's longtime editor, Lee Smith, shines throughout, but in this particular segment, he outdoes himself. Alfred Hitchcock famously taught us that by letting the audience in on the placement of a ticking bomb, the suspense is sustained, whereas a sudden boom shocks for a second. The "bomb" here is Hardy's ever dwindling gas tank. With exciting dogfights and one surprise after another, it would be enough for any other film. With the added knowledge that his plane could fall from the sky at any moment, it's truly unnerving. It's also a very unpredictable storyline, leading to an unexpected, complicated conclusion. Side note: Why does Tom Hardy take so many roles where his face is covered up?!!!

DUNKIRK feels like the culmination of every movie Nolan has made before. You can see with THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION how he played with structure, narrative and montage. MEMENTO trafficked in a non-linear timeline. By applying his style to an actual event, Nolan's aesthetic achieves much more power. Amidst a cacophony of gunfire, bombs, sound effects, and score, he achieves a type of intimacy. We project ourselves onto these opaque characters. It's almost an experimental film, yet becomes a little gooey and expository at the end. I think he wanted some form of release and clarity after such a rattling, almost abstract 100 minutes. I can't fault him for it, as the ending feels beautifully complete. Imagine if Terence Davies, who so wonderfully captured England during the WWII era with DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES, were to make an action film. His impressionistic style just might look like the singular but flawed DUNKIRK.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
4 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

PRETTY IN RED (TIGHTS) - My Review of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (3 Stars)


I'm not gonna use up too much real estate railing against my distaste for all things Super-Heroes: Halloween costumes. Good vs. Evil. CGI pile-ups culminating in a third act destruction of an entire city. With a new one every week and studios not really interested in anything that doesn't appeal to their four quadrant, franchise, tentpole mentality, I'm just numb. Movies have always meant memories to me, and if you asked me to recall a single memorable moment from any Marvel or DC Comics bloatfest, I might say, "I liked when Chris Pratt danced around the set while playing his mix tape at the beginning of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and...well, I barely even remember that!

I went into SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING with low expectations and just a hint of an eye-roll because this series has been rebooted so frequently in such a short span of time that it's simply a matter of time before they commence wardrobe fittings on some new tween Disney channel star. So I'm as surprised as anyone to report that I didn't hate it! I actually had fun for the most part, but let's not get carried away. I already don't remember having seen it.

Tom Holland (THE IMPOSSIBLE, THE LOST CITY OF Z) makes a great Peter Parker/Spider-Man. With his compact little body and a helium squeak of a voice pitched somewhere between Tom Cruise Jumping On The Couch and Butters from SOUTH PARK, he truly comes across as a teen. In fact, the film often feels like a cross between a John Hughes movie and the young man vs. the rest of the world excitement of WAR GAMES.

The plot, and folks, this is a screenplay with at least 8 credited writers, drops us right into Spider-Man's antics. Without relying on an origin story, we watch as Peter navigates the social maze of high school and its imminent homecoming dance while fighting a dastardly villain (Michael Keaton), who has a terrible plan to take over the world, or destroy things, or....I don't care. He's bad, ok? And he flies around in this cool hovering winglike concoction in full meta-splendor considering he played BIRDMAN. Regardless, this film has a zing to it. Peter's fellow students include his hilarious, open-jawed BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon) who serves as the "gee whiz" audience surrogate every time he realizes the powers his friend has. Even though J.J. Totah, that scene stealer from OTHER PEOPLE, appears here, he's criminally underused. Also with somewhat limited screen time, Zendaya shines however as a makeup-free, nihilistic student. She's a winning natural and has much more to offer than her Disney resume and DANCING WITH THE STARS appearances.

The film, in fact, liberally sprinkles many familiar faces across its landscape. Look! It's Nacho (Michael Mando) from BETTER CALL SAUL! Donald Glover! FARGO's own Bokeem Woodbine! It's NOT TOM HARDY (aka Logan Marshall-Green)! Gwyneth Paltrow gets top billing for reciting three lines of dialogue! So many names and all given very little to do. At least Robert Downey Jr. , Jon Favreau, and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May get a little something to chew on, and Tomei gets one of the biggest laughs with the film's final line.

Until it descends into that aforementioned CGI pile of doo-doo (it's a technical term, folks!), we're treated to some high energy set pieces, including a thrilling escape from an elevator and a crazily split ferry boat. More importantly, in this film I felt Peter's teen angst, his awkwardness, his cracking voice and need to just be a young kid. There's also a pretty great twist that I didn't see coming. There's quite a bit of craft that went into this film. I felt the suspense and the rushes of excitement. Is there anything quite as memorable as, say, Ally Sheedy eating potato chip and mustard sandwiches in BREAKFAST CLUB detention? Is there a SIXTEEN CANDLES panties moment? Nope. This is pure, popcorn cinema. Holland is a true gem, though. No more. No less. Well done when I would prefer that it be rare. See what I did there?

The Beguiled
The Beguiled (2017)
13 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

NOTHING TO DECLARE - My Review of THE BEGUILED (2 1/2 Stars)

I remember Don Siegel's original 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's novel, THE BEGUILED, for one very specific reason. Elizabeth Hartman, who co-starred with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, hailed from my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio and received an Academy Award nomination in 1965 for her role as a blind woman opposite Sydney Poitier in A PATCH OF BLUE. She had very few film credits and, apparently in despair over her lack of film roles, took her own life in 1987. I've been haunted by her ever since. We've all been proud of our hometown success stories, but when things go terribly wrong, it stings. She exuded a fragile type of strength in her performances, similar to those of Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore, and it has always felt like a sad loss that the world never got to experience more of her talent.

The original film, a Civil War era gothic psycho-sexual thriller, told the story of Corporal McBurney, an injured Union soldier who gets rescued by a young southern girl and taken to her Southern all-female boarding school. The teachers and students engage in a rivalry for McBurney's affections and his intentions may or may not be pure. Everything about the film felt like Southern Gothic, over-the-top, "I do declare!" claptrap, yet it worked so well on that level. Employing multiple voiceovers and quick flashbacks, it felt like a juicy page-turner with Eastwood employing a feral sexuality rarely seen since. Many actors in the 70s, freed from the more staid, arch trappings of earlier decades, would instead go overboard when asked to push their emotions. THE BEGUILED either benefited or suffered from this, depending on how Southern you liked things cooked.

All of this is to say, when you have a story like this, a little hamminess doesn't hurt. Writer/director Sofia Coppola, a filmmaker whose work has left an indelible impression on me, goes in the complete opposite direction with her adaptation, creating a perfect little bauble of a film which unfortunately doesn't seem to exist for any reason but to make a subtler, quieter version of the same story. She takes the material very seriously, and while this works on a performance level, and every single shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd is a true work of art, it doesn't add up to anything particularly memorable or impactful.

Yes, now I know how isolated and helpless women felt during the Civil War, and I loved that collectively they found their power. It feels like a realistic depiction of what would actually occur, but it lacks a little movie magic. I can't fault the actors. Nicole Kidman in particular, as headmistress Martha, gives a husky, focused performance. She does so much with a head turn, a glance, or a shockingly direct statement, and I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Kirsten Dunst, in the role originally played by Elizabeth Hartman, brings a deep well of passion and disappointment to her buttoned-up role as a woman who shows true feelings for McBurney. Elle Fanning also fares well here, perfectly embodying the confusion a person must have felt when an enemy soldier turned out to be so seductive. Colin Farrell, as McBurney, finds a touching vulnerability to his character but doesn't play up the sexuality as well as Eastwood. All told, it feels like a deliberate attempt to downplay the melodrama in favor of...well...what exactly is Coppola trying to say?

In her prior films, Coppola presented a woozy, soft focus, dreamlike view of the young female experience. It's such a signature of hers that she's reached that enviable pantheon of directors whose work you can discern from simply watching a few frames. With THE BEGUILED, Coppola plays it relatively straight. She even mirrors some of the shots and dialogue from the original (the opening crane shot descending down the Spanish Moss to a young girl searching for mushrooms feels the same in both films). Despite the gorgeous imagery and the sometimes visceral intensity of McBurney's injuries, this new version just doesn't add up to much. I never felt inside the heads of her characters, which has been Coppola's signature. Everyone is good. The story builds to a certain level of horror. There's a resolution and then it ends. I wanted to know how the characters have been changed or affected by their experiences, but we get "just the facts ma'am". I suppose it makes for a more credible film, but sometimes you just want your movie stories to flail and moan.

The Little Hours
14 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

A BAD HABIT - My Review of THE LITTLE HOURS (2 1/2 Stars)

An anachronistic story about medieval nuns starring Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Kate Micucci? Yes, please! Sprinkle in performances by Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke, Adam Pally, and the sublime Lauren Weedman from LOOKING? Sign me up! And then the movie plays out and.....PFFFFFFTTTTTT! What happened to this movie?

Writer/director Jeff Baena (LIFE AFTER BETH), in an honorable attempt to give us a mashup of John Waters' shaggy, subversive DESPERATE LIVING and any number of Mel Brooks' comedies, delivers a fun concept and an expert cast, but falls terribly flat when it comes to jokes and forward momentum. Our starring triad play nuns in the Middle Ages who suffer no fools. They hurl expletives at the help with a surprising, and surprisingly hilarious, viciousness.

Aubrey Plaza in particular has no right to ever be in a period piece, and most of the film's humor capitalizes on this fact. I'm a sucker for her deadpan style, so I found myself laughing often enough even when not much seemed to be happening. Franco plays the newly hired hand, Massetto, after the nuns scare the prior one away. Massetto has escaped certain death by the hands of the King (Offerman) when caught sleeping with his wife (Weedman). I could have used a good 10 more scenes with Offerman and Weedman, as they completely and wonderfully understood what movie they're in, delivering slightly off-putting, delectable performances. When he arrives at the convent, he must pretend to be deaf and mute to put a lid on temptation lest he blow his cover.

From there, things devolve, unleashing a pansexual frenzy and then...well, the movie kinda just ends. Fred Armisen shows up late in the game to deliver a master class in annoying comedy (I mean that as a high compliment), but by then, I was so tired from not laughing nearly as much as I had hoped.

I've struggled trying to put my finger on what went wrong. This isn't a case where there was no script and the filmmaker hoped his wildly talented actors would just make things work. Baena clearly has a vision, a slightly flat, unpretentious look at the dark underbelly of religion. While Plaza shines, Alison Brie has very little to play and Micucci's wide eyes make just the sight of her in a tight habit a visual joke. Obviously low budget, the whole production seems to relish in its "let's put on a show" qualities. It's going for the droll tone of WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER and perhaps SNL's Kyle Mooney's truly funny, anti-humor videos. Adding Borscht-Belt rat-a-tat jokes would have upset the balance, but we're left with something strange, something occasionally funny, but in the end, truly forgettable.

Baby Driver
Baby Driver (2017)
18 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

THE CARS GREATEST HITS - My Review of BABY DRIVER (4 Stars)

There's a moment early on in Edgar Wright's thrilling, exuberant BABY DRIVER that totally won me over and sustained my love for the film until the very end. Ansel Elgort, earbuds in place as he saunters down a city street, shimmies his shoulders in time to the music, as we, the audience, get caught up in the sheer delight of the sequence. He interacts with wall murals and passing construction workers as lyrics from the song appear on poles and sidewalks at the exact moment they're sung. It's that perfect blend of action and music, with great work by cinematographer Bill Pope, and it reminded me of the little seen 1986 musical, ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS. Where that film used dance and music to achieve its bizarre appeal, BABY DRIVER combines car chases with a killer soundtrack to reach what I like to call "movie-movie bliss".

Wright's chops as a writer/director have already been proven time and time again with such films as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, and THE WORLD'S END, and this time out he succeeds wildly with this hybrid, despite sacrificing any depth with his characters. It almost (almost) doesn't matter when you're having this much fun, but, of course, I have notes.

Elgort plays Baby, a getaway driver for a team of bank robbers led by the stern, commanding Doc (Kevin Spacey). Assigned to different teams, Baby listens to music constantly to drown out the tinnitus he suffers from after surviving a horrific crash in his childhood. After a stupendous opening chase as he escapes with Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), and Griff (Jon Bernthal), Baby learns from Doc that he only has one more job to do for him to free him from his debt. Yep, it's a cheesy trope in a film filled with cheesy tropes, but I realized it's all part of the film's charms.

Because, man, those chase sequences! All of them filled with one unexpected song after another, surprising us and giving us a reason to dance in our seats while the world on screen goes mad. The jaded Writers Guild audience I saw this film with applauded after the first one, and, trust me, they hate everything!

This isn't an actor's movie, although Spacey and Jamie Foxx as a skeptical thief get you to sit up and take notice, and González truly shines with unexpected line readings and attitude to burn. Elgort, who mostly annoyed me in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, does little more than look petulant and drone on during the rare moments he has dialogue, yet he's still very compelling as a presence here. Hamm, while looking great and ultra-modern with his snazzy hairdo, unfortunately lives up to his name, overdoing the histrionics when a subtler approach would have been more entertaining. In fact, I would have preferred Bernthal take his place, especially considering his extremely limited screen as is. Bernthal knows how to deliver the menace with true economy and is missed when he's not on screen. But what are you gonna do? Hamm gets to play a wildly different type than Don Draper, so in the long term, it's a feather in his cap. I can't say the same for Lily James as Baby's love interest, the insipid cafe worker, Deborah. She's simply "The Girl" and Wright should know better. There are many opportunities where her character could have been more forceful, yet she's so bland that it stands out in a film like this, which pops.

Having said that, this is a movie for those who love the effect of kinetics in film. Much like those hooligans running down the street at the beginning of TRAINSPOTTING, BABY DRIVER comes on strong and stays that way. The way he introduces three red cars, or how every minor character is important to the outcome shows his great skills as a storyteller. There's a cue for The Steve Miller Band's JET AIRLINER that starts a sequence but cuts off right when it gets good. I would have loved to see what Wright could do with that song. It's a minor quibble, because this marriage of musical and chase film explodes in a way that either genre doesn't often get to do separately. Whether he's cutting to the beat or having his characters respond to the music (great editing by Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss), BABY DRIVER is alive.

Wright doesn't like to belabor things, favoring trimmed down storytelling. Its this lack of breathing room that makes this film exciting and a little thin simultaneously. But what great thinness it is!