Dunkirk (Nolan; 2017)

In May of 1940 German forces had driven the French, Belgian, and British Armies onto a small beach beside the town of Dunkirk.  The German forces stopped their advance on Dunkirk and instead fortified themselves around and in the town to prevent Allied soldiers from escaping by land as German planes picked the soldiers off on the beach and German U-boats with help from German bombers kept the British Navy at bay.   This film is about the action which evacuated 330,000 Allied troops from that beach, essentially saving the bulk of the British Army and preventing Germany from forcing a conditional surrender of the United Kingdom the consequences of which would almost certainly mean an entirely different Europe and world today.

Christopher Nolan is a very intellectual film maker.  It’s that very intellect that often creates the largest plot holes in his films, but his focus on thought over emotion, realism over spectacle, and precision over artistry is his trademark and the thing which makes his films stand out as singularly his.  Dunkirk is a bit different from standard Nolan fare in that there are no gimmicks on display here, no watching a story backwards, no dream levels, no men in costumes, there is just a beach, men, and weapons of war.  This is most definitely a Nolan film, though, as this is a film which very much intellectualizes the evacuation of Dunkirk practically documentarian in its style.  Quite a few of the major characters aren’t given names, Cillian Murphy plays “Shivering Soldier” for example, and Will Attenborough is simply “Second Lieutenant”, and not a single German character is shown for Dunkirk’s entirety.  This isn’t a John Wayne film which glorifies battle and makes heroes of soldiers, it’s not Apocalypse Now showing us war’s horror and madness, nor is it an Oliver Stone war film making a political statement, Dunkirk is simply a very thoughtful, almost clinical, look at one of the most important events of World War II.

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That is not to say there is no emotion in Dunkirk, just that emotion is not its focus.  Dunkirk very ably gets across to the viewers the feelings of dread, hopelessness, and inevitability those men on the beach must have been feeling, along with the feelings of determination in those attempting to rescue them, but the goal is to show what the men were going through, not to make us feel one way or another about it.   That is what is going to make or break Dunkirk for most people.  It’s style is one we rarely see in anything outside of a documentary, let alone a war film, and that makes for a truly original experience – something much needed in a genre as worn out as World War II films – however, that very same style is going to leave a great many people feeling like something was missing if they are seeking something inspirational or horrifying.

One thing that will not be debated about Dunkirk, however, is the quality of its cinematography.  The look of this movie is one that is normally saved for year’s end so that it will be fresh in the mind of the Oscar voters.  Despite the barren landscapes of beach and sea (English Channel, anyway) we are treated from beginning to end with visual spectacle in the form of wide sweeping shots, points of view that put us in the mindset of the soldiers as they sit in silent panic and confusion, and aerial views and battles that will have you gasping on several occasions – I got a look when I let out an audible “Wow” at one point.

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The score by Hans Zimmer is also worthy of mention.  The music starts before the visuals do, and it never stops at all during the film’s running time.  It rarely crescendos and is more of an omnipresent undertone of strings and horns undercutting everything happening on screen, but while it never stands out to the point it is distracting, it adds so much to the film’s tone and I can’t see Dunkirk working as well as it does without it.

The ensemble cast is excellent, though Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance are two of the only actors given very much to say.  The film has many branching story lines and many puzzle pieces to cover and much of this is done in silence, with one major character in particular having only one word to say in the entire film, but for the most part they manage to show us very different yet realistic people going through a hopeless situation.  I do admit, that due to the lack of dialogue and names, I had a hard time keeping some of the young dark haired actors and characters apart, keeping this element of the film from becoming fantastic, but that is a fault more due to casting than on the part of any particular performance.  Tom Hardy, by the way, wears a face mask the entire film not removing it until the very end.  What is it with him and face coverings?

Photographer: Anders Rosqvist, www.rosqvist.photo

Final verdict:  If you didn’t tell me that Dunkirk was a Christopher Nolan film before I’d seen it, I’m not sure I would have immediately recognized it as one of his, however, after seeing it if you were to tell me Christopher Nolan had directed it you would get the knowing nod and smile which says “Of course.”  Dunkirk is a fantastic movie, one that will almost surely get Oscar buzz, but it is not a movie for everyone.   It is not a war movie so much as a very astute look at people staring death right in the face and knowing that either their fate is out of their hands, or that the fate of thousands are placed directly in their hands.  If you need glory or horror in your war films, you may find yourself disappointed in Dunkirk.  If realism (though, realism without a ton of blood and gore which is oddly lacking in this movie) and introspection are terms that appeal to you, however, Dunkirk will most likely be right up your alley.  No matter which camp you fall into, you are almost sure to love the music and visuals, though.

War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves; 2017)

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted yet another beloved franchise in the attempt to show us the story of what happened to Earth while the astronauts who feature in the now classic 1968 movie were away on their ill-fated mission.  Most were surprised at just how gripping and intelligent this new take was with a story with themes warning us of the dark road hubris could one day lead the human race down, completely sympathetic and gripping characters despite their hubris, and just the right amount of action to make the film more a blockbuster and less a think piece so it can appeal to a broader audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the new intelligent species of apes, and once again ended up being an intelligent action film giving us both spectacle and commentary on xenophobia and its insidious and far reaching consequences.  Now we have the trilogy’s conclusion, and with Rise, Dawn, and now War for the Planet of the Apes we get to see the truly rare trilogy in which every part  is masterfully crafted both as an individual work and as one third of a larger epic story.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the conclusion of Dawn with Caesar and his clan still hiding in the forests outside San Francisco, but now they are being actively hunted by the remnants of the United States Army who were called in to exterminate the apes by the human colony in San Francisco in Dawn‘s finale.  Caesar has had a new child in the intervening years and his older son has been acting as a scout trying to find a place the apes can relocate to so they can get away from the army without violence.   The news of a new living space reaches Caesar too late, however, as just as the apes are preparing to leave San Francisco they are discovered by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the army stationed in the area who is bent on wiping out the apes.  A skirmish between apes and man ends with the humans being chased off, but the apes’ losses prompt Caesar to decide the Colonel must be killed at all cost and so he leaves his tribe on a suicide mission to confront the Colonel and end his life.

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War for the Planet of the Apes has all the intelligence and empathy of the two films which preceded it.   This time, the major themes on display are ones of survival, revenge, and fear, though not the xenophobia which was the focus of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  This time the fears are very well known, not unfounded, and inescapable.  It’s less about fear of the unknown, and more about how we act when our fears are justified and right in our face.  Caesar and the Colonel are both charismatic leaders and idolized by those who follow them, and Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson bring both of these magnetic personalities to life brilliantly.  As is the case in the best fiction, but particularly in the best action adventure fiction, we are given two characters working against each other who are nearly mirror images and the only reason one is considered a hero and the other villain is due to the lengths the Colonel is willing to go to ensure the survival of the human race and the men in his unit.

As has been the case in the first two films in the trilogy, the special effects on display in War for the Planet of the Apes are remarkable.  There are more animated via motion capture actors than live action in the film, but this does not create any lack of empathy in he audience.  The apes are still quite silent, preferring to rely more on sign language than actual speech, so their communication is done with facial expressions and body language and nothing is lost in translation despite the fact that what we are seeing isn’t real.   The environments also change this time, as we leave San Francisco and its forests behind for more northern climes, and again the shots involving the snow covered mountains are gorgeous.  Also deserving special mention is the lighting in the film.  Much of the action takes place at night, but Reeves and his crew never allow that to interfere with our vision either as mistake nor crutch.  We see everything we need to see while still understanding when the action is taking place, and in a Hollywood in which action scenes are literally getting darker and darker this was a pleasant choice.

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This trilogy does have its problems, and one that seems to be consistent across all three films, and that is that since the characterizations and plotting are so intelligent that when a specific bit of action has to be rushed through due to pacing issues that bit really stands out.  For instance, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes what takes years and years to change Caesar’s brain so he has human level intelligence happens overnight with a little gas for the rest of the apes.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar is brutally fighting for his life with great strength and agility mere days after being shot with a high powered automatic weapon.  Without spoiling anything, War for the Planet of the Apes also has to fall into similar traps to keep the story moving, and that little bit of dumb shoved inside what is otherwise genius really sticks out.

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Final verdict:  War for the Planet of the Apes ends its trilogy wonderfully, putting this apes trilogy up there with The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Nolan Batman films as one of the truly great action trilogies in all of filmdom.  Each part can be enjoyed on its own as a complete work and will still be satisfying, but the experience is amplified by enjoying all three as a continuous work.  Caesar will go down as a legendary Hollywood character, and his story as one of the greats.  I hope Hollywood ends it here and does not give in to the temptation to create more films as a cash grab as this really was the finale the story of Caesar deserves.  None of the films are perfect, War for the Planet of the Apes being no exception, but they are gripping and intelligent action films which deserve your attention.  If you’ve seen the first two, War is a must, but you probably already knew that.  If you haven’t seen the first two, you can still enjoy War for the Planet of the Apes, and I recommend you do, but I recommend even more seeing Rise and Dawn before moving onto this one for a far richer experience.

Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay; 2017)

I spoil the end of the movie in this review, if a movie this horrible to begin with can truly be said to be spoiled, so proceed at your own risk.  But, trust me, it’s a lousy movie which you shouldn’t see so the risk is pretty minimal.

Transformers: The Last Knight opens during the Dark Ages during a war between King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and an unknown force.  The men in King Arthur’s cadre of warriors ask him about Merlin (Stanley Tucci) and where he is, while others write Merlin off as a worthless drunk.  We then cut to Merlin and find that he is, indeed, a drunk, but that he knows the location of a Transformer.  The Transformer has a staff that Merlin needs to control a dragon Transformer, and when drunk Merlin swears off drink and money for the rest of his life if he can have the staff, the Transformer for some unknown reason decides that Merlin can now have the staff and Merlin saves the day for Arthur with his mechanical dragon.  Why the staff is needed to bring the dragon into the fight is never made clear.  Why the dragon is needed to win in the first place is also never made even remotely clear since Arthur had 5 normal Transformers fighting for him where their unnamed enemy just had normal Dark Ages people with normal Dark Ages technology.  And, in the main story which takes place 1600 years later it is also never made clear why this staff can only be wielded by a descendant of Merlin nor why the staff is needed at Stonehenge when the planet of Cybertron and the creator of the Transformers,  Quintessa (Gemma Chan), are attacking Earth.  It’s even unclear in the film’s climax because when Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) the said last descendant of Merlin gets her hands on the staff, the dragon shows up and the heroes just win.  Because. Cybertron is still there and it isn’t clear what happened to Quintessa, but the script and director apparently decided the plot did what it needed to do, so the heroes win.  Yay!

At one point mid-movie when Cogman (Jim Carter), a rather annoying butler Transformer (that’s a thing) is speaking to is speaking to Cade (Mark Wahlberg) one of the other Transformers, I can’t tell which one since all the Transformers show up at random with no purpose and have a line or two each at most, approaches them and asks “Who is this?”  Cogman immediately spins around and breaks all of the fingers on the larger Transformer’s right hand.  Why?  I guess random acts of extreme violence performed on a large thing by a small thing are hilarious in the minds of Michael Bay and his fans.

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Slightly before this, our female lead Vivian gets into an argument with her elder female family members about why she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she gets into a car and reads a note, but the car is a Transformer which immediately kidnaps her!  Why did she just climb into a random car?  Beats the crap out of me.  How did she know there was a note inside that was for her?  Who knows?  But she needed to get kidnapped and whisked away to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) otherwise how could we have a good looking woman in the movie to gawk at?

This is the intelligence on display throughout the entirety of Transformers: The Last Knight‘s running time.  It’s not too uncommon for the cast and crew of a film to miss an important detail or two and leave behind plot holes to annoy their audience, but Transformers: The Last Knight never bothers to make any sense of anything from the get-go.  A character motivation is whatever Michael Bay incorrectly believes will get the biggest laugh and nothing more.  Occasionally it’s whatever will let him blow things up, but not a single action taken on the part of a single character is tied to any exposition, world laws, motivation, nor anything else other than the law of what would titillate a teenage male of very low intelligence.

Transformers: The Last Knight is the cinematic equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer where the audience is the cat.  It’s staring at a screen, drooling, and exclaiming “Oooh colors!”, and if that were all there was to this movie I would simply chalk it up as a bad movie, tell you I don’t recommend it as anything more than the possible subject of a do it yourself MST3K party, and leave it at that.  But, Transformers: The Last Knight takes it one step farther and actually crosses the line from horrible into downright offensive.

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Yes, it does have the racist undertones of previous movies, but those jokes are at least a little toned down here, not that that’s an excuse just an explanation that this isn’t the film’s biggest problem.  Transformers: The Last Knight includes two characters amongst its cast that are touted as smart people.  One is the female lead Vivian mentioned a few times earlier.  She has a PhD in history and archaeology and is a professor at a prestigious English university, I can’t recall exactly which one.  The other smart character is a scientist of an unknown discipline who people in the Earth military call on when it’s found that Cybertron is making its way directly toward Earth.

Throughout the course of the movie, Vivian makes snarky comments to Cade, falls in love with Cade because he has abs, screams, wears skintight clothing and glasses (because she’s smart), finds out she is the last descendant of Merlin, gets kidnapped, and ends the movie when she touches the staff she’s supposed to touch.  It’s bad enough that so much of this is incredibly sexist, but it’s made worse by the fact that her multiple advanced degrees and prestigious employment are in the movie purely so Michael Bay can say he has a smart woman in the movie and so she has an excuse to look down on people arrogantly until she sees their abs.  The unnamed military scientist’s role is even worse, put into the film only to play an obnoxious, arrogant nerd stereotype and to scream about how physics are more dependable than magic only to then be wrong and screw up every single thing he does.  Transformers: The Last Knight does not settle for merely being stupid, it goes all the way to straight out anti-intellectual.

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Final verdict:  If Tom & Jerry cartoons confuse you due to the high amount of intellect required to understand them, then perhaps this is a movie for you. Otherwise, Transformers: The Last Knight is a movie that is not content to be simply terrible and a jumbled mess of confused actions and images, it is also racist, sexist, and paranoid of anything with an IQ greater than the mid double digits and any degree of any kind.  Transformers: The Last Knight should not just be avoided, it should be shunned, as it is the embodiment of exactly the attitude which is running through American culture right now that makes us so susceptible to charlatans and those who seek to exploit anyone they can for their own greed and narcissism.   This film is worse than bad, it’s downright irresponsible and evil.

 

 

War Machine (Michod; 2017)

While they have been making original films and television shows for some time now, Netflix seems to have decided that with budgets of up to $100 million dollars and stars like Will Smith and Brad Pitt that 2017 is the year they are officially throwing down the gauntlet in Hollywood’s direction and declaring themselves a real player in the business of blockbuster movies.  War Machine, starring the aforementioned Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, is arguably the highest profile film to come from the DVD rental and video streaming service to date due to the star power on display.  Brad Pitt is most certainly the most recognizable name and only A-lister among the cast, but you will also see Meg Tilly, Griffin Dunne, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Alan Ruck gracing War Machine with their presence in more than just cameos throughout the film’s story.

It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes, for War Machine to remind me of two other films: The Big Short and Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb due to the tone it uses to handle the very important issue of the War in Afghanistan.  Its similarity to The Big  Short is no coincidence as these two films have the same producers and its similarities to Dr. Strangelove, unfortunately, do not continue throughout the entire film and disappointingly really only rear their heads when Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley (he’s in the movie, too, as Afghani President Karzai) are on screen together.

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When I say it reminds me of them, though, it is only because of tone and what it is attempting to do, not due to quality.  I felt The Big Short was a flawed and overrated film largely due to its tonal inconsistencies and the way it tackled big ideas without making sure we understood the foundation of those ideas first.  It was like it tried to teach calculus without first giving us basic addition.  I applaud it for what it accomplished and even more for what it was attempting to do, but I just felt it was a little off the mark in succeeding in its mission.  War Machine doesn’t have the second problem The Big Short did, but the tonal inconsistencies which reared their head due to tackling deadly serious subject matter with humor are even more exaggerated here.  War Machine has no idea if it wants to be a satire or honest look at The War on Terror and that unfortunately makes for a film which can easily lose your attention.

The film starts with voice over for almost the entirety of its first eight and a half minutes, and it will continue to return to this voice over again and again throughout its running time.  We learn the reason for this is that we are hearing the voice of a Rolling Stone reporter quoting the text of an article he has written about General Glen McMahon and the information being given in the voice is pretty dense, but no matter how good and relevant the reason, a voice over is a crutch which makes for an experience far more dull than if we could learn the same information by watching the characters act and react to the situation around them.  We are also given some scenes with greatly exaggerated acting, situations, and dialogue early on in the film before ultimately settling on a more standard narrative which certainly contains humor, but if not for the opening would most likely not be labelled a comedy.  Finally, add the fact that the first battle scene doesn’t take place until an hour and a half into the film, and the average movie goer is going to have to battle a bit to keep their attention glued to War Machine since there are usually plenty of distractions going on at home where the movie is most likely to be seen.

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Which is sort of a tragedy, because while the movie isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to be and relies too much on talk over action, the rest of this script is incredibly insightful, important, and fascinating.   I have never seen a film so well describe the difficulties and absurdities of fighting a war against an enemy which doesn’t have a standard military nor even a country or distinct ideology as this one does.  The civilian governments have their goals, the military has theirs, and the Aghan citizenry has theirs, and none are spared from either mockery nor sympathy.  When all is said and done, War Machine does an amazing job at showing the nuance and complication of what’s going on in Afghanistan and why even those most intimately involved with it are confused.  How can you fight a standard war when killing your enemy just makes more enemies?  How can you convince people to trust you when you have to do it at gunpoint?  How do you even know who the enemy is when people in the same household can be working for and against you at the same time?

One of my favorite scenes in the film shows a low ranking soldier addressing the general during a speech he is giving the troops.  The soldier asks McMahon if it’s true that they are giving out a medal for restraint.  The general confirms this and explains that since the enemy don’t wear uniforms, can be anywhere, and don’t stand out among the general citizenry that its important not to use violence until its proven to be warranted.  The soldier then declares, “So, we are getting awards for not being marines?  I’m confused.”

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This difference in viewpoint between the military and civilians shows up all over the film, and is quite interesting in the relationship between McMahon and his wife (Meg Tilly).  When we first see them, they are also seeing each other for the first time in a very long time.  Their encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, they are acting like they think a married couple should act but seem to have forgotten how or even whether the other person truly is their spouse.  While this relationship does change throughout the course of the film and they do become comfortable with each other again over time, this opening scene between the two just adds emphasis to what we have been seeing the whole film whenever McMahon and his men interact with government attaches, reporters, and the like which is that military men and civilians have very different mindsets and don’t seem to be able to fathom what the other side’s motivations are.

War Machine also remains very up to date and topical with the way it handles the topics of the media and military relationship to the President of the United States.  Obama is constantly mentioned throughout the film as a seemingly uncaring shadowy figure who would rather not get his hands dirty with Afghanistan and leaves that up to his generals while the media and leaks to said media make for some of the more entertaining bits in the movie, but also in the end make up the bulk of the film’s message.  And, before I move on to my final verdict, I have to mention that if you don’t understand the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan after the scene in which McMahon is speaking to an Afghan father and his young son in their home after a skirmish took place there, then I would suggest psychiatric diagnosis to make sure you are not a complete sociopath.

Final verdict:  War Machine is a slow paced, tonally inconsistent story, but it’s one that you should make an effort to watch – and it will take a bit of an effort for most – due to its much stronger than usual understanding of all the major parties involved in our military actions in Afghanistan.  It’s all talk, very little action, but that talk is some fantastic, important talk.   After all is said and done, you will never be able to look at that Rolling Stone magazine cover with Lady Gaga wearing nothing but assault rifles as a bra as anything other than the perfect metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan again.

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Hacksaw Ridge (Gibson; 2016)

Conscientious objector, it’s a term that most people don’t entirely understand, myself included before I’d seen Hacksaw Ridge.  I thought a conscientious objector was a person who refused to perform military service due to moral or religious reasons, but Hacksaw Ridge is a film about Deacon Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who signed up for World War II military service and was on the front lines of the titular battle which took place on the island of Okinawa.  What made him a conscientious objector was not his refusal to go to war, it was his refusal to pick up and use a weapon.

To say that Hacksaw Ridge‘s director, Mel Gibson, has become something of a controversial figure is an understatement.  It’s not the place nor the style of this page to go into details, but suffice it to say that there are many out there who thought that his days working in Hollywood were close to done as we’ve seen little from him outside of smaller scale acting jobs for the past decade.   Perhaps Mr. Gibson had just realized that discretion on his part was necessary for a while, and now he’s decided it’s time he can come back, because Hacksaw Ridge is quite the announcement that Mel Gibson is not done in Hollywood, yet.

This is definitely a Gibson style movie.  It’s a little hackneyed much of the time.  The dialogue is cliched and trite, the music swells and ebbs at exactly the appropriate times, and the plot predictable and overly familiar.  But, when it comes to telling a story and gripping you emotionally through visuals, there is never any holding back, and this is where Gibson and his crew show themselves to be true artisans.  I can’t speak to the authenticity of the battle scenes, as I’ve never fought in one, and certainly not in World War II, but I can say that the experience this film gives us is one that is brutal, visceral, and terrifying.  The battle scenes here are quite comparable to the storming of the beach in Saving Private Ryan, except that here the scenes happen toward the last half of the film after we’ve already met the platoon and are invested in the characters, making the experience all the more gut wrenching.

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Michael Bay needs to watch Hacksaw Ridge and take copious notes.

Unfortunately, also like typical Gibson, everything about the storytelling which isn’t visually driven runs to the predictable and overdone.  The dialogue is so typical Hollywood as to be laughable and distracting, the beats of the story are cliched war movie tropes from the chance love at first sight meeting just before going off to war, to the introduction to all the kooky characters in the barracks scene, to the inspirational speeches before a battle everything here is more than just familiar, it’s trite.

The acting in Hacksaw Ridge is also nothing particularly stand out in either a good nor a bad way.  The actors do serviceable work, never calling attention to the fact that they’re playing a character, but also never going beyond stereotypes we’ve seen time and again either.  The acting on display is familiar enough to never be distracting, but also so familiar that it’s rarely, if ever, inspiring, either.

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If this looks familiar it’s because you’ve seen A Few Good Men, or Paths of Glory, or Top Gun, or Rules of Engagement, or…

The story of Hacksaw Ridge, aside from it’s focal character, is nothing we haven’t seen many, many times before.  The visuals of Hacksaw Ridge, however, and it’s point of view do set it apart from the many which have come before it, and do make it a film very much worth watching.  It may not stimulate much on an intellectual level, though the central idea of a man’s duty to country versus a country’s duty to a man does have some real heft to it philosophically, but emotionally it has one hell of an impact.

Rating:  7.0 out of 10