FIRST MAN (2018) – Serious, Somber Look at Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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FIRST MAN (2018) tells the story of astronaut Neil  Armstrong, following his personal journey as he becomes the first human to step on the moon. It’s a journey that is as focused as it is somber, and the film does an outstanding job capturing this mood.

The film also presents a raw and honest look at NASA. Don’t expect the crowd-pleasing heroics of Ed Harris and company in Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 (1995). NASA here is more often portrayed as a group of scientists so caught up in the speed of the space race that they often pushed ahead without fully knowing what they were doing, at a great cost, as human lives were lost.

Regardless, Neil Armstrong is shown here, in spite of his own personal demons, believing the space mission was indeed worth the cost. FIRST MAN is not a knock on NASA. It’s simply an honest look at the space program in the 1960s.

When FIRST MAN opens, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the failing health of their very young daughter, who has developed a tumor. She dies shortly thereafter, and it’s a loss that stays with Armstrong throughout the course of this story. His somber mood sets the tone for the entire film. He cannot get over the loss of his daughter, and he struggles to deal with it. He sees her in his mind’s eye constantly. Yet, we learn as the story moves forward, that Armstrong keeps his daughter’s memory close to his heart and uses it as a focal point to drive him forward on his quest to reach the moon. It makes for some very effective storytelling.

Which is pretty much the plot of the entire movie, the quest for NASA to reach the moon before the Soviet Union does, as experienced by both Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, who throughout the whole process is the rock which keeps her family together.

As such, FIRST MAN works on a much more personal level than a broad history lesson on the moon mission.

FIRST MAN was directed by Damien Chazelle, his first film since he won the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND (2016), a film I liked a lot, so much so that it was my favorite movie from 2016.

With FIRST MAN., Chazelle is as focused on Neil Armstrong as Armstrong is on the mission. At times, this focus proves to be almost claustrophobic, as sometimes I wished Chazelle would just pull back a bit and look at the space mission through a broader lens, but that clearly wasn’t his purpose here.

This is Armstrong’s story from beginning to end, one he shares with his wife Janet, who is every bit as important to the story as her husband. Indeed, the strongest scene in the movie doesn’t take place in space at all but inside the Armstrong home. It’s the night before Neil is leaving for the moon mission, and Janet confronts him about wanting to leave without saying goodbye to his sons. The scene at the table where he has to admit to his young sons that he may not be coming back is by far the most powerful scene in the movie.

The film also does well with its moon mission scenes. The most cinematic scene in the film is the lunar module’s approach to the moon’s surface. It’s a magnificent scene and an example of movie-making at its finest. It truly captures the moment of what it must have been like for human beings to actually see the moon up close and then actually set foot upon it.

It’s no surprise that the somber screenplay of FIRST MAN, based on the book by James R. Hansen, was written by Josh Singer, the man who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015). That screenplay won Singer an Oscar.

Singer’s screenplay here for FIRST MAN reminded me a lot of his screenplay for SPOTLIGHT. Whereas it was the subject matter in SPOTLIGHT that was bleak, here in FIRST MAN it’s Neil Armstrong’s broken heart. He is devastated over the loss of his daughter, and he refuses to forget her. He uses her memory to drive himself forward towards the moon. It is not a happy journey. Of course, we know from history that the end of this journey is a happy one, as Armstrong made it to the moon and did indeed become the first man to step onto the moon’s surface. And in this movie, the moment also allows him to find closure with his daughter.

The screenplay also does an excellent job showing NASA as a human organization rather than one occupied by superhuman scientists and engineers. There are nonstop flaws and setbacks, and astronauts lose their lives in the process. In another of the film’s best scenes, NASA scientist Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure Janet that Neil is going to be fine, that they have things under control. She quickly lashes out at him, saying, You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  It’s a painfully poignant moment.

And yet as I said, this is not a movie that bashes the space program. The tone is prevalent throughout that the entire mission to the moon was worth the cost. FIRST MAN is simply an honest look at these costs.

Ryan Gosling is one of my favorite actors working today, and as expected, he does a fine job here as Neil Armstrong. He nails Armstrong’s focus throughout, and plays him like a grieving introvert who oftentimes shuns away both his family and friends. He needs to deal with his grief alone. Yet, Gosling is careful never to paint Armstrong as a jerk. For instance, he does not come off like a jackass when he ignores his family but rather like one who is truly struggling with a personal lost, and when he is pressed by his wife to step up for his family, he doesn’t lash out at her. He quietly acquiesces.

Some may think this is a one note performance by Gosling, as he seems to be stuck in this sad mood throughout, and while this may be true, he does effectively capture Armstrong’s pain and resolve.

That being said, Claire Foye I think gives the best performance in the film as Janet Armstrong. She certainly displays the most range, from loving caring wife, to frustrated mother, to the incredibly strong woman who has to go above and beyond to not only keep her husband focused but NASA honest about what they are doing with her husband. Foye is more than up to the task. Better yet, she shares almost the same amount of screen time as Gosling. She’s no supporting love interest. Janet is a prominent character here.

I haven’t seen much of Foye. She’s done a lot of TV work, and she was the best part of the weak thriller UNSANE (2018) earlier this year. She played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s silly thriller, notable because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.

The supporting cast is excellent.  Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds all make solid contributions, as do a bunch of others. It’s well-acted throughout.

There’s also a powerful music score by Justin Hurwitz, which is no surprise, since he also composed the music for LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH (2014).

I didn’t absolutely love FIRST MAN. First of all, by design, it’s not a happy movie. In fact, it’s so downright mournful that I almost had a headache by the time it was over.

There are also times when the pace slows a bit. I wouldn’t call the film uneven because these moments are few and far between, but they are they nonetheless.

The film does end on a strong note, with the successful moon landing. In fact, the phrase “The Eagle has landed” has never sounded better, not since Armstrong said it for real.

History remembers that Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, and it’s easy to accept that moment as it was captured in the grainy TV footage from 1969.

FIRST MAN fleshes out Armstrong’s story, presents it not as a black and white image but in high-definition clarity, and by doing so reveals that the human side to Armstrong’s story is every bit as important and relevant as the scientific side.

In short, Neil Armstrong was a real person with real fears, problems, and pains, and in spite of these things which we humans all face, he didn’t let them get the best of him but instead in his own quiet way used them to propel him to the moon.

—END—

 

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OPERATION FINALE (2018) – Tale of Nazi Capture Relevant Today

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Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in OPERATION FINALE (2018)

There are moments in OPERATION FINALE (2018), the new historical drama about the capture and extraction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by a group of Israeli agents, that resonate more powerfully today because they call to mind current events.

Watching a raucous Nazis meeting you can’t help but recall images of the hate-filled march in Charlottesville or the frenzied crowds at a Trump rally.  The images are eerily similar.

But the action in OPERATION FINALE is all historical.

When we first meet Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) he’s leading a failed attempt at capturing a Nazi target.  Shortly after they remove the man from his home, ripping him away from his wife and kids, Malkin realizes they have the wrong man, but before he can do anything about it, his associates shoot the man dead. When Malkin tells them they grabbed the wrong Nazi, his partners shrug and ask, does it matter? He was still a Nazi.

The action jumps ahead a few years to 1960, where in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a young German girl Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) brings home her new boyfriend Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) to meet her blind father Lothar (Peter Strauss). When Lothar hears the boy’s name, he sends word to the Israeli government that he believes he has met the son of Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi known as the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan which led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Israeli agent Isser Harel (Lior Raz) sends a team which includes Malkin to Buenos Aires, and shortly thereafter they confirm the identity of Eichmann (Ben Kingsley).  They then plan to capture him and extract him from the country so he can stand trial in Israel for his crimes, which will be no easy task, since Eichmann is surrounded by a vigilant group of Nazis looking to rise to power once more.

OPERATION FINALE really isn’t receiving strong reviews, as I keep hearing it described as slow and unimaginative, but it really deserves stronger praise than that.  I will agree that it is subtle in its storytelling, and it’s rated PG-13 so the horrific violence from the Holocaust will not be on full display here, but there are enough potent images to make it work just fine.

The film is anchored by two very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Both actors drive the story forward with their convincing interpretations of the two leads.

I like Isaac a lot, and he seems to get better in every movie I see him in. While he’s probably most known today for his recurring role as pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies, it’s not in that role that he’s really been allowed to strut his stuff.  He’s been excellent in films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and EX MACHINA (2014), and way back when he made an impression in the stylish action fantasy SUCKER PUNCH (2011).

He’s excellent here as Israeli agent Peter Malkin.  He plays Malkin as a man not quite sure of himself at first, and his confidence grows as he’s allowed to establish a relationship with Eichmann while they’re held up in a safe house awaiting the opportunity to fly out of Buenos Aires. The Israelis need Eichmann to sign a document expressing his willingness to leave the country, and when their hardball tactics continually fail, Malkin believes he can get him to sign by appealing to his ego.

The two men partake in a psychological cat and mouse game which heats up in one of the movie’s best scenes when Eichmann attempts to get under Malkin’s skin by telling him the story of how he shot a woman and her baby, knowing that Malkin’s sister and baby were lost in the Holocaust. He asks Malkin if he thinks it was his sister and her baby he shot , and if so, wouldn’t that have been a good thing, for them to have been killed so quickly as opposed to the horrifying ways Eichmann saw others killed?

Ben Kingsley is very, very good as Adolph Eichmann, a man who refuses to stand trial in Israel because he knows there will only be one result, his death, and he believes that in order to receive a fair trial he should be tried in Germany. He also refuses to be the scapegoat for the sins of his former government, and he makes the argument that he was only following orders, just as Malkin is doing now.

At one point Eichmann tells Malkin that he actually tried to help many Jews escape, as he didn’t agree with his fellow Nazis’ solution for getting rid of the Jews. He believed they should have been relocated, and he in fact did relocate many of them, to which Malkin scoffs that he sent them to malaria-filled Madagascar. Eichmann replies that no other country would take the Jews.

It’s a subtle performance by Kingsley, yet it’s no less successful. He makes Eichmann a formidable  force to be reckoned with, and there is something icy cold and sinister underneath nearly every civil line he utters.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid. Lior Raz as Israeli agent Isser Harel, and Nick Kroll as fellow agent Rafi Eitan, and Michael Aronov as agent Zvi Aharoni are all convincing, as are the rest of the actors who round out the team, including Melanie Laurent as the sole woman of the group, Hanna Elian, tasked with drugging Eichmann during their escape.

I also enjoyed Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Hermann, the young Jewish woman whose relationship with Klaus Eichmann led to the capture of his father. Richardson is a promising young actress who has yet to land her break-out role. She’s been memorable in supporting performances in films like SPLIT (2016) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016). Her role here in OPERATION FINALE is again small, and she again makes an impression.

It was also fun to see Peter Strauss back on the big screen as Sylvia’s blind father Lothar. I think the last time I saw Strauss in a movie was the Johnny Depp thriller, NICK OF TIME (1995). Of course, Strauss mostly did TV work, bursting onto the scene eons ago in the highly popular mini series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976).

Director Chris Weitz’s straightforward unassuming style allows the story to unfold gradually and build towards a rather riveting conclusion.

The film does a good job of getting under your skin without blood and gore. For instance, the scene where the young mother raises her child to Eichmann is unnerving to watch even without the actual shootings occurring on-camera.

Weitz also directed THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON (2009), the second TWILIGHT movie. Needless to say, OPERATION FINALE is a much better movie than NEW MOON and should go a long way towards helping moviegoers forget that Weitz made that vampire clinker.

The scenes between Malkin and Eichmann are the best scenes in the movie, and they’re also the best written, thanks to a credible screenplay by Matthew Orton.

And while the screenplay doesn’t make Eichmann a sympathetic character, it does make him a three-dimensional one. We see him caring for his family, we catch glimpses of the cold psychological power he possesses, we experience his raw fear when first captured, and we are allowed to enter his calculating mind while he’s a prisoner.

Critics are not being overly kind to OPERATION FINALE, and that’s too bad, because it’s a solid well-made movie.

It works as both a historical piece, in that it’s a compelling tale of the capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, and as a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us of the importance of striking down fascism.

—END—

 

 

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

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There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

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BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) BRINGS HISTORICAL MOMENT TO LIFE

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Movie Review:  BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

By bridge_of_spies

Michael Arruda

 

Tom Hanks is sensational in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), Steven Spielberg’s compelling Cold War thriller based on the true story of an American lawyer who defends an accused Soviet spy.

Sure, Hanks is almost always good, but even so, this is probably my favorite Hanks’ performances in quite some time.  While he was very good in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) I enjoyed him more here in BRIDGE OF SPIES.  It might be my favorite Hanks’ performance since way back when in APOLLO 13 (1995).

BRIDGE OF SPIES opens in 1957 with the arrest of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).  The U.S. government asks insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him, and Donovan reluctantly agrees.  It quickly becomes clear to Donovan that the U.S. justice system has already made up its mind about Abel’s guilt, and he is heavily criticized for putting up a valid defense for the man. This does not sit well with Donovan, and the more pressure he receives to just show up and let Abel be found guilty, the harder he works at defending Abel.

During this process, Donovan gets to know Abel quite well and a friendship of mutual respect develops.  Later, when Air Force Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured for the Soviets, a trade is suggested, Powers for Abel.  The CIA asks Donovan to broker the trade, and to travel to East Berlin to do it.  It’s a sensitive operation, as neither government will publicly acknowledge what’s going on, and so Donovan will be working in East Berlin on his own.  Because of his feelings for Abel, Donovan agrees, and he finds himself embroiled in Cold War espionage as he has to deal with the Soviets, the East Germans, the lack of public support from the U.S., and his growing fear that by arranging this deal he might be sending Abel to his death at the hand of the Soviets.

The main reason to see BRIDGE OF SPIES is Tom Hanks because he delivers his best acting performance in years, but there are also plenty of other reasons to see it as well.

For starters, the director is Steven Spielberg.  It’s hard to say if BRIDGE OF SPIES is better than Spielberg’s previous effort, LINCOLN (2012), a movie I liked a lot.  It’s certainly equally as good.  In some ways, it is better, as it definitely generates more suspense and drama than LINCOLN did.  In terms of historical dramas, they’re on equal footing, but BRIDGE OF SPIES is paced slightly better and is definitely more intriguing.  Both films feature phenomenal acting performances by their two lead actors, Tom Hanks here, and Daniel Day Lewis in LINCOLN.

In BRIDGE OF SPIES, Spielberg painstakingly recreates the Cold War period and thoroughly captures the feel of the time.  Sets, costumes, and make-up are all topnotch, and the images memorable, some of them haunting, like the scene where Hanks witnesses the barbaric activity at the Berlin Wall from a passenger train.

The acting is superb throughout, with the other stand-out besides Hanks being Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel.  The scene where he recounts the story from his childhood about his father’s friend, who he relates to Hanks’ James Donovan, is another of the film’s highlights.

The screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen pretty much tells a straightforward story with the emphasis placed on James Donovan and how this ordeal both changed and shaped his life.  It also details Donovan’s relationship with Rudolf Abel, and how the two men developed a mutual respect for one another.  It’s a gripping historical drama, and it’s honest and direct.  Don’t expect the quirkiness of some of Ethan and Joel Coen’s other movies, like FARGO (1996) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

BRIDGE OF SPIES is the whole package.  It’s got one of the all-time best directors in Steven Spielberg at the helm, phenomenal acting led by Tom Hanks, a superb script, and cinematography worthy of an artistic painting.  It’s a satisfying cinematic event that is both entertaining and rewarding.  Moreover, it succeeds in bringing a moment in our history to life.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is one bridge you’ll definitely want to cross.

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