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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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

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mary_shelleys_frankenstein_ posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Kenneth Branagh/Robert De Niro flick, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994), published in the September 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog.  Just leave an inquiry in the comment section.  Thanks!

—Michael

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Few horror films have disappointed me more than MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994).

I remember being so excited when I first heard about it.  It was to star two of my favorite actors, Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein, and Robert De Niro as the Monster.  And it was being produced by Francis Ford Coppola.  What could possibly go wrong?

Evidently quite a lot.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN attempts to be a faithful film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.  For the most part, it is, in that it covers the events in the novel, but where the film falters is in its execution.  The scenes of horror in this movie just don’t have the relevance or the potency they should.

As much as I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, and as much as I find his Shakespeare films absolutely brilliant, he dropped the ball here with FRANKENSTEIN.  The first problem I have with Branagh’s direction in this movie is his use of the camera.  I think Branagh drank an entire pot of coffee before filming the scenes in this one.  There is an incredible amount of camera movement, so much so, it’s exhausting to watch.  And like bad acting, it’s also very noticeable.

Take the creation scene for example.  A shirtless Victor Frankenstein runs through his enormous lab, switching on this and that, and the camera races along with him every step of the way.  It’s such an overblown overdramatic sequence, and it’s all so unnecessary.  How about just flicking a switch?

The opening half hour of the movie is poorly paced, and it’s very choppy rather than smooth and elegant.  The scenes of Victor with his family are incredibly dull and boring, and later when he goes off to medical school and becomes interested in creating life, there’s very little drama or intrigue about it.  That’s the problem with the entire first half of the movie:  there’s no sense of dread, mystery, or horror.  It plays like a straight period piece drama, with little or no horror elements to be found.

Things get a little better once the Monster appears, but even this part of the film doesn’t really work. The film never becomes scary, and as a result, all the overdramatic scenes fall flat because characters are reacting to things which should be awful, but in the film aren’t properly portrayed as such.

For instance, housekeeper Justine Moritz is wrongly blamed for the murder of Victor’s younger brother when the Monster plants false evidence on her, and she is ultimately executed for a crime she did not commit.  This is a horrible tragic point in the story, but in this movie, it all takes place in a matter of minutes.  Justine is accused, and the next thing we know she’s being dragged to her death by an angry mob.  We see Victor and Elizabeth reacting to the horror, but the scene is so rushed and overemotional it lacks effect.

The screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (of WALKING DEAD fame) is okay.  It does tell the Frankenstein story, and it does give the Monster some decent lines, especially when he wonders about his existence, but it never delves as deeply into the tale as it could have done.

We get a fleeting sense of why Victor wants to create life— he’s heartbroken over the death of his mother— but we never see him brood about this or exhibit passion about destroying death once and for all.  The Monster questions his existence, but his inquiries are brief and superficial.

The acting is decent.  Kenneth Branagh really isn’t bad as Victor Frankenstein, and each time I see this film, I enjoy his performance, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t utilize him to his full potential.  I want to see Branagh’s Victor passionate about creating life, and then horrified to have to deal with his monstrous creation.  This doesn’t really happen in this movie.

Robert De Niro remains an odd choice to play the Monster.  It’s like casting James Cagney instead of Karloff as the Monster in the 1931 film.  De Niro is okay, but he’s just too De Niro-ish.  I watch this movie and I see Robert De Niro, not the Monster.  I also don’t like the look of the Monster in this movie.  The make-up job here did not impress me very much.

Helena Bonham Carter is fine as Elizabeth, and that’s one part of this movie that does work:  the love story between Victor and Elizabeth.  Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Ian Holm as Victor’s father, and John Cleese as Professor Waldman are all pretty much wasted in under written roles and they offer little if anything to this movie.  Then there’s Aidan Quinn, as Captain Robert Walton, stuck in a wraparound story which goes nowhere.

If you want to see a more faithful adaptation of the Frankenstein tale, check out the 2004 version of FRANKENSTEIN starring Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein and Luke Goss as the Creature.  This TV miniseries is actually quite well-done

And while it’s not really a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley’s tale, the 1970s TV movie FRANKENSTEIN:  THE TRUE STORY (1973) starring Leonard Whiting as Victor Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature does a better job than Branagh’s film of framing a horror story within a classy production.  Branagh scores high on the classy but stumbles with the horror.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN also has an ineffective music score by Patrick Doyle.  It’s overdramatic and used in all the wrong places.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN has handsome production values and A-list actors, but it fails to generate suspense, fails to tell its remarkable story, and most importantly, fails to capture the horror of what it must have been like for all of these characters, the Monster included, to live through this tale of a man who created a being and then abandoned him, and how this creation used his phenomenal strength to seek bloodthirsty vengeance against his creator and his family.  This brutal and fascinating story is pretty much glossed over superficially and melodramatically, which is sad because MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN should have been the remake Frankenstein fans had been waiting for.

Instead, it only made us appreciate the Universal and Hammer versions all the more.

 

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JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) Reboot Borders on the Ridiculous

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Here’s my review of JACK RYAN:  SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) which went up earlier this week at cinemaknifefight.com.  Remember, if you like to read about movies, check out cinemaknifefight.com where you’ll find new movie content posted every day.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

MOVIE REVIEW:  JACK RYAN:  SHADOW RECRUIT (2014)

By Michael Arruda

 

Let’s get all the baggage out of the way first. 

 

With the exception of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990), a film that starred Alec Baldwin as Tom Clancy’s CIA operative Jack Ryan, I haven’t really liked any of the other “Jack Ryan” movies.  I’m not a big fan of PATRIOT GAMES (1992) or CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (1994), the two films in which Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan, nor was I all that thrilled by THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (2002) which starred Ben Affleck as Ryan.

 

That being said, I do like Chris Pine, as well as Kenneth Branagh who both directed and played the Russian villain in this one, and so I was actually looking forward to seeing this movie, even if I didn’t have the highest hopes for it.

 

JACK RYAN:  SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) is a “re-imagining” of Clancy’s character as this Jack Ryan comes of age during the events of September 11, 2001.  The film opens with Ryan (Chris Pine) at college seeing the events of September 11 unfold on the television screen, and it’s shortly after this that he enlists in the military to serve his country. 

 

He soon finds himself in Afghanistan where his helicopter is shot down and he suffers a devastating back injury.  Lucky for him, he’s nursed back to health by a beautiful young intern named Cathy (Keira Knightley), who he eventually becomes engaged to.  He’s also noticed by a CIA operative Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who was so impressed by Ryan’s brilliant dissertation on U.S./Russian relations that he practically recruits Ryan on the spot. 

 

The action jumps to present day with Ryan now working for the CIA.  Of course, no one knows this other than Harper, and Ryan’s cover is that he works on Wall Street keeping an eye out for international financial abnormalities that might lead to the next big terrorist attack.  He finally finds one, as he spots suspicious financial behavior by a powerful Russian businessman named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).

 

Since Jack Ryan is the hero of this movie, he’s the one sent to Russia to investigate Cherevin, since supposedly there’s no one else in the CIA better suited for this mission than Ryan.  Really?

 

Once in Moscow, Ryan finds out firsthand that Cherevin is indeed a dangerous man, as an attempt is made on his life almost immediately.  Undeterred, Ryan uncovers evidence of a major terrorist plot against the United States, and of course, it’s up to him to stop it.

 

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT features some decent acting performances by its main players, but its storyline of a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack borders on the ridiculous.  It’s also not the easiest story to get excited about, as the bulk of Ryan’s investigation revolves around numbers and financial information that simply isn’t all that compelling.  It’s hard to get all that riled up about money being manipulated online.

 

I did enjoy Chris Pine as Jack Ryan, as he effortlessly falls into the role and makes Ryan an easy guy to like.  Pine’s energetic performance is the best part of the movie.  He makes Ryan a believable hero.

 

Kevin Costner runs hot and cold as CIA operative Thomas Harper.  There are times when he comes off as smooth and covert, and other times when he’s trite and sappy.  Keira Knightly is okay as Ryan’s fianceé Cathy, and while she gets to be more than just a token female victim for Ryan to save, her cool levelheadedness in the face of mortal danger comes off as unrealistic and phony.

 

Kenneth Branagh sports a fake Russian accent as the main baddie Viktor Cherevin and in spite of looking menacing and angry throughout proves to be a rather ineffective villain.  Jack Ryan outwits him and outplays him with ease, and for a seasoned mogul like Cherevin to be undone by a young whippersnapper like Jack Ryan on his first job in the field was somewhat of a disappointment.

 

Alec Utgoff is effective as a young Russian agent who is the most formidable opponent Ryan faces in the movie, but he’s not in the film enough to make that much of an impact.  There’s also a brief appearance by Nonso Anozie who plays Renfield on TV’s DRACULA, and he gets to enjoy a memorable fight scene.

 

The film gets off to a slow start, especially the pre-credits sequence which seems to go on forever.  The credits don’t start until well after the ten minute mark.  Things pick up once Ryan gets to Moscow.  There are a few neat fight sequences and chase scenes, but none that I would consider intense.  Director Kenneth Branagh has made a very polished looking film, but it could certainly have benefitted from more intensity.

 

The script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy, did not wow me.  For starters, the actual story— a Russian plot to use a terrorist attack to destroy the U.S. economy— did nothing for me.  It seemed farfetched, a roundabout way to go about bringing down the U.S. economy.  It’s also not an easy story to like.  When Jack Ryan starts talking numbers to his boss Thomas Harper, giving him the details of what Viktor Cherevin is up to, I wanted to fall asleep.

 

There were also some forced plot points that I simply didn’t buy.  For example, young Jack Ryan is the best guy the CIA has to send to Russia?  Really?  He has no experience in the field!  You’re telling me there’s no one else better suited for the job?  I found that hard to believe, and it seemed very forced, just an excuse to build a story around Jack Ryan.  There’s a running gag in the movie where Ryan will say something like “have your guy go here,” or have him do that, and then he reads his boss’ face and says, “I’m the guy, right?”  After seeing this movie, you’d think the CIA has nobody worth their salt working for them.

 

There’s also a ridiculous scene over dinner with Ryan, his fiancée Cathy, and Viktor Cherevin.  First off, the set-up is incredulous.  Cherevin invites Ryan to dinner and tells him to bring Cathy, and Ryan wants no part of this because it’s too dangerous, but his boss Harper insists Cathy go with him so that Cherevin’s not suspicious, even making her a part of the ruse their pulling with Cherevin, going so far as giving her a role at the dinner table, even though she has no experience and is a civilian.  And of course, she pulls it off brilliantly.  Really?  She’s a doctor not a secret agent!  I just found this difficult to swallow.

 

Early on, a big deal is made of Ryan’s back injury.  Will he ever walk again, Harper asks?  Yet later, Ryan’s running around fighting off assassins like he’s Jason Bourne.  So much for consistency.

 

The ending is also rushed, as Ryan and the CIA’s efforts to thwart a terrorist attack in New York City happen so quickly it is simply not as suspenseful as it could have been.  After watching an entire film about an unnamed threat, once it’s exposed, the race to stop it is anticlimactic because it’s a sprint not a marathon.

 

These faults come as a big surprise because screenwriter David Koepp has some pretty impressive credits, including having written the screenplays to JURASSIC PARK (1993), Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002), and Steven Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005), three films I liked a lot.  But he also penned SECRET WINDOW (2004) and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008), two films I did not like very much.

 

Well, my favorite Jack Ryan movie remains THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, and I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I liked that one so much not because of Jack Ryan, but because of the presence of Sean Connery as the renegade Soviet submarine commander Marko Ramius.

 

That being said, I was certainly impressed by Chris Pine as Jack Ryan in JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, and should they make any more of these movies, I could easily see him returning to the role.  Let’s just hope it has a better story.

 

I give JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT two and a half knives.

 

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