DUNKIRK***** Tour de Force


THIS IS A fabulous, tour de force piece of film making: Director Christopher Nolan’s decision to fragment the time frame into three interweaving narrative segments spread over an hour, a day and a few days allows him to offer us the full, agonizing human intensity of the battle from both an intimate, micro scale and also from the broader, sweeping panorama of the action. He -mercifully- spares us the, usual, porn of bloody intestines, without for a moment compromising on the visceral horror (sometimes you just have to duck as the German bombers swoop down) of what was happening.

The movie’s focus is of course centered on the Allies’ inglorious retreat from the German onslaught, when over four hundred thousand soldiers were trapped on a beach, hemmed in on all sides, battered on the land, in the air and at sea…and with no means of escape. The movie drops the viewer immediately into a world of anonymous soldiers, running, scampering here and there, dying like ants; a dark choreography of death quickened by Hans Zimmer’s strong, atonal score.

Nolan builds his picture…of desperation, fear, resilience, failure and, ultimately, and barely there, of heroism…by focusing in on the small details; those easy to miss nuggets of observation. One minute we’re there with the retreating soldiers, deafened by the noise of the screams, the bombardment, then, in silence, we’re underwater, struggling for air; and the next, we’re the detached observers with a disinterested view of all that’s happening. We see a man trying to squeeze water out of a dry hose, a defeated officer calmly walking out into the dark embrace of the cold sea, a soldier under fire, desperate to take a shit, a Spitfire crash-landed on a beach and then set alight (hope vanishing in a cloud of thick smoke).

It’s an impressionist canvas where meaning emerges through a layering of images.

The story, in as much as there is one, pulls you into the hand-trembling terror of the escape – the need to save yourself at any cost – from these series of small moments. Initially we’re with two desperate young soldiers, (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard), who pretend to be part of an emergency evacuation crew ‘armed’ with an dead soldier on a stretcher. They muscle their way on board a hospital boat. In another time frame, a rescued half-drowned soldier (Cillian Murphy) panics at the thought of being dragged back toward the shore. He lashes out and inadvertently kills one of his rescuers. Cowed men hide in a beached vessel which soon becomes a death trap from unrelenting hull-piercing German target practice.

And balanced against this debacle of flight is the refusal to give in, by those brave souls who go the other way: into the line of fire. Nolan focuses on three people (icons really, as he – deliberately – shies away from character development): Mark Rylance is an aging sea captain (part of the civilian flotilla dragooned into an ad hoc rescue operation) who heads out to sea himself with his young sons, rather than give up his boat to the navy. A squadron of Spitfires, all three of them, (led by Tom Hardy) take the battle to the Germans even as their limited gas tanks run dry. An officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) stays with his men and refuses to make an escape.

Most of the time there’s no dialogue. Nolan lets his images do the talking… from which two powerful themes emerge: one examines the idea of (real, not super-hero) heroism. Even if the story’s only acknowledged hero (in as much as there’s a short note in a local newspaper) is ironically the young man killed by accident, the civilian sailors in their fishing boats and pleasure craft who braved the German torpedoes, the outgunned Spitfire pilots, the lone officer, steadfast in his refusal to be cowed, all emerge as quiet, modest and ultimately unheralded icons of true heroism.

What emerges as well is an old fashioned, uncynical sense of British ‘character’. For though there’s no proselytizing or jingoism, the stoic sense of duty, of “…fighting on the beaches etc” (Churchill’s presence hovers somewhere in the background, but it’s a subtle, minimal presence and seems to be more a description of intent than an exhortation) of defending the motherland at all cost is strongly there. Perhaps Nolan is suggesting that these twin virtues: down to earth, contained heroism and a resilience of character are what persevered in the face of the Nazi onslaught.

And as Britain prepares for another inglorious retreat from Europe, the country will certainly need these virtues, long vanished from the political class, once more.

 

DUNKIRK. Dir: Christopher Nolan (also written by). With: Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh. Music: Hans Zimmer. . Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Spectre”. “Interstellar”)

 

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THE BFG****A Giant of a Movie


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NOBODY CHANNELS THE inner child as brilliantly as Steven Spielberg, in this slow moving but stunningly well-realized piece of magic. His adaptation of Roald Dahl’s touching tale of Sophie, a little lonely orphan girl who one night is kidnapped/rescued by a gentle giant, is a treat.

The giant (the eponymous BFG or big friendly giant), who can very cleverly ‘disappear’ in plain sight to avoid being seen by humans, has the magical ability to hear all the whispers in the world. Perhaps, her whispers of loneliness were ones he’d heard. It’s his job to bottle up dreams – both the pleasant kinds and the not so pleasant kinds. In a sense therefore, to this lonely little girl, lost in her world of books, the BFG is the man/brother/ father/protector of her dreams.

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He takes her, in a moment of Spielbergian terror, his large hand like a tentacled monster reaching into her room. Then, leaping over highways, mountains and oceans, like a sprite, he gently sets her down in the cave where he lives – nestled in a valley of giants. But unlike the BFG, there’s no F to these giants (with wonderful names such as Gizzardgulper, Childchewer, Bonecruncher and Butcher Boy). They delight in eating little children…or, for fun, bullying the BFG – a tiny runt compared with them.  Clearly he himself is as much in need of protection as she is.

The BFG and Sophie: they’re an odd pair, whose pairing must defeat the ogres and protect the defenceless children.

Game on!

The timing of this movie seems particularly astute: as the world continues to spin out of control, here’s a story told without a shred of irony, cynicism or moral ambiguity. It’s a little oasis of purity and light in a dark, dark world. Spielberg’s movies have never stooped to the kind of defensive self-referential glibness… the longing to be hip, the worldly ennui… that plagues so many movies (like the barely watchable Deadpool). In The BFG, the world he creates (with his long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski) is absorbingly charming…from the cluttered, childish, cave-like dwelling of the giant, aglow with his jars of dreams, to the fantasy, story-book rooms of an imagined Buckingham Palace (where an activist HRH (Penelope Wilson), with her retinue of corgis, commands an army of nineteenth century looking generals to take on the giants).

This is a Spielberg opening up his imagination (via some extraordinary special-effects wizardry) , and ours, to his own magic kingdom.

And if he delivers, with style, his storytelling genius, it’s the brilliance of Mark Rylance as the BFG that’s the icing on the cake. In a recent interview on BBC, Spielberg told the interviewer that he considered Rylance to be by far the greatest actor he’s worked with (first on Bridge of Spies and slated for the next two Spielberg movies). And you can see why: in what could easily have been either an over the top fe-fi-fo-fum giant or pure schmaltz, Rylance’s sly, understated performance, even in the face of occasional slapstick, is as genuine and affectlessly honest as the movie itself. Speaking in an invented Cornish sounding accent (which I guess is how giants speak) Rylance delivers Melissa Mathison’s elaborately inventive Dhal-ian malapropisms with musical beauty. And there’s a real chemistry with his tiny co-star, Ruby Barnhill, whose confident first-time outing delivers a sense of open eyed wonder that mirrors ours.

If there was one disappointment: John Williams’ score did its job, but without the punchy memorableness we’ve come to expect from him.

A small matter. One word of warning. If you go to this, leave your adult reserve at the door; and better yet, go with a child or two

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The BFG. Dir: Steven Spielberg. With Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilson (Downtown Abbey), Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3). Screenplay: Melissa Mathison. Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Production Designers: Rick Carter (most of Spielberg + Avatar) & Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland). Composer: John Williams

BRIDGE OF SPIES**** Spielberg’s best since “Munich”


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THIS IS A masterful piece of filmmaking: measured, confident, compelling. It tells the story of James B Donovan (the ever engaging Tom, Jimmy Stewart, Hanks) a successful insurance lawyer (and one of the prosecutors on the Nuremberg trials). Donovan has been persuaded by the government to represent Rudolf Abel (the brilliant English stage actor, Mark Rylance), a Russian spy.

The government’s appointment of Donovan is a piece of PR window dressing: their desire is not really about justice; it’s merely to give the world the impression of great, blind, American justice at work. Donovan – decent, earnest and honorable – however is the fly in the ointment. He takes his job seriously. For him, the demands of the constitution mandate that even this most hated man in America deserves a fair trial. But the government (as governments go) and the public, baying for blood, are unconcerned about the niceties of justice and the constitution (think Guantanamo). They all just want this ‘traitor’ (He’s not a traitor, Donovan argues: he’s a Russian. He’s a spy. He was doing his job) dead.

And therein lies the idea that drives this profoundly relevant film: America was built on and stands for certain deeply moral ideals… but these ideals the film suggests are forever threatened by expediency and a kind of squalid populism. Spielberg offers up a number of -slyly critical – contrasts: when Abel is convicted and given thirty years (spared the death sentence just in case he’s of greater value alive), the American audience at the trial boos and demands the death penalty. But when an American spy is similarly sentenced in Russia, for ten years, the Russian trial audience there cheers. To them, justice has been done. We see multiple scenes of people desperate to flee the walled in, increasingly lawless East Berlin for…a ‘free’ West. But really this ‘free West’, as embodied by America, is a place where the rule of law is dangerously fragile… where Donovan, as the archetype of fearless justice, becomes a hated person simply for upholding the law.

The story turns when an American spy aircraft is shot down over Russia and, fearful of their secrets falling into enemy hands, the two governments, using proxies, back channels and East Berlin, arrange a prisoner swap: Abel for the shot down pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Once again, Donovan is dragooned into service as the one who must negotiate the swap, in secret, as a private citizen, with an ever-shifting nest of bureaucrats, spies and secret police.

It’s a compelling story, brilliantly told. Written mainly by the Coen brothers, the story is teased out without ever lapsing into polemic. Hanks himself dominates and carries the movie; he’s in almost every scene. And he manages to inject a rich sense of nuance and humanity in what is (as a symbol of decency and moral certitude) essentially a pretty flat character. (Though I wish I’d seen more fear, doubt even loneliness to break across the calm stoicism of his Donovan)

As for Spielberg’s directing: his careful observing eye (little touches, like the click of what would then have been new fangled ball-point pens) his textured moodiness (Donovan/Hanks running through the streets of a dark, rainy East Berlin) and his restless camera (with long time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) that drifts through crowds, creeps into half-lit rooms and allows us to discover this world of shadows and danger as if we were there.

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With “Bridge of Spies”, Spielberg has given us a terrifically tense action movie… where there really isn’t very much action. People meet in bars, in jail cells, in board-rooms; they drink Scotch, they stare down each other. And it’s all as electrifying as “Spectre”.

And more: it’s surprisingly tender; and, lifting it well above its genre, believably heartwarming.

 

Bridge of Spies. Dir: Stephen Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan. Screenplay: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski. Composer: Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”)

 

“Much Ado About Nothing”. More nothing than ado


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ZOUNDS.

THERE IS nothing worth noting in this witless production of “Much Ado About Nothing” from erstwhile notable actor Mark Rylance. Here ye’ll find nought more than a fustilarian troop of robustious, periwig-pated fellows, capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. Shakespeare’s glorious language falls not trippingly on their tongues, but so garble they his prose that we poor groundlings as as lief as hear the noise of town criers speaking his lines.

Herewith a play that sucketh mightily.

“Much Ado…” is but a minor play, little more than a walking shadow, a midsummer madness in his glorious ouvre. And yet, I have indeed in the past found great revelry in its wanton idiocies, when performed with the wit in which it was writ. Forsooth, the goodly Mr Rylance has sought to reimagine this tale of young, feisty sparring lovers as a mirthless septuagenarian romance with Vanessa Redgrave (Beatrice) and James Earle Jones (Benedick) as perchance not the virgin’s sweet blush, but love’s rekindled flame. T’is passing strange. And these two, in the sear and yellow leaves of their lives, enfeeble any honesty of dalliance. As they say, when the age is in, the wit is out.

Jones in particular, clad in an ill-fitting army green one-sie, appears but a swollen parcel of dropsies, a huge bombard of sack as fat as butter. Army indeed! For Mr. Rylance’s BIG idea is to set the action sometime at the end of the (second world) war. A troop of racially mixed Americans led on by Don Pedro, are returning, demobbing as it were, from glorious victories to frolic in the cavernous halls of Leonato, governor of Messina. Unlike the National’s brilliant recent “Othello” which was set in Afghanistan, which setting helped powerfully to intensify the drama, Rylance’s awkward, unlikely, fantastical interracial WW2 period drama feels, i’faith, forced and artificial. Here truth, reason and love keep not good company.

And as if the producers were bereft of purses well endowed with gold, their parsimoniously spare stage setting, that compriseth but a single vast wooden arch standing in for both bower and church, is all there is to prompt our dull’d imaginations and divert our drooping eyes. Tho’ in the paucity and tiredness of this design, there lies, perhaps more truth than was intended. For in this out of joint production, it joined together the efforts of the cast in like dullness.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. I bid thee, dear reader, stay away from this farraginious production, this evening calumny, this scullion of performers that hath so bereft me of words.