Posts Tagged epic

Dunkirk

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Christopher Nolan.                      Starring Fionn Whithead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh.

Dunkirk is relentless. I say that as neither praise nor criticism, but as mere statement of fact, much in the same way one would say Les Miserables is a musical or Gone with the Wind is the longest Best Picture winner or Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic car chase. Dunkirk is relentless, and that is clearly something of which Christopher Nolan is proud.

Nolan has so clearly accomplished exactly what he wanted with Dunkirk that the film is in many ways critic-proof. Sure, it’s possible to say one dislikes it, and it’s also possible to rave about it as the best film of the year. In both cases, the writer will be revealing more about themselves and their personal tastes than the film, and they will not be acknowledging that the film strikingly and stunningly achieves everything it wanted to, so if there are aspects one dislikes, those are not filmmaking weaknesses.

The same goes for Hans Zimmer’s score; one can love or hate his incessantly pulsating soundtrack telling the audience exactly what emotions to feel in each scene, but it’s impossible to deny that the score massively aids in the creation of the tense, heart-pounding atmosphere that Zimmer and Nolan worked so hard to achieve.

Watching this epic historical rescue mission condensed down to a taut, nerve-racking hour and forty-six minutes is a cinematic experience like no other. Seeing Dunkirk on anything other than the largest screen possible will be watching a mere shadow of Nolan’s vision, much like listening to an mp3 of a Beethoven symphony through a mediocre ear bud will only convey a fragment of Beethoven’s genius.

Before I continue, let me state clearly that I think Dunkirk is an astonishing achievement. Early buzz hinted at its staggering realism in making the viewer experience the reality of war first hand. While it undeniably makes the viewer experience the events of the story first hand, it is not a war film, and it doesn’t convey the cost of war or the notion that war is hell, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead it places the viewer directly in the midst of a dangerous and desperate rescue mission, showing the cost of victory, bravery, and heroism, clearly demonstrating that there is nobility in capture or retreat. It is that rescue mission the viewer survives along with the characters.

And it is a rescue mission to behold! There were several times I gasped believing I was really present. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures the beauty and the menace of the sea and shore, the simultaneous threat and salvation they provide to the soldiers, which is important considering the Nazis are never once seen in the film, but their absence coupled with the danger of the Dunkirk beach makes their looming proximity felt all the more.

The rescue mission takes place on land, sea, and in air, with each portion of the rescue occurring in its own timeline – a week for the almost 400,000 soldiers stranded at the Dunkirk beach, a day for the British sailors coming to their rescue across the Channel, and one hour for the pilots attempting to shoot down Nazi planes. Nolan cuts between the three storylines and timelines effortlessly, much the same way he did with Memento, and when he brings all three together at the film’s climax, he finds the best of all his cinematic interests. His puzzle crafting skills and humanist interests serve one another in an inspiring way I would not have believed possible.

The film’s climax was truly the make or break moment for me, and in my opinion Nolan pulled it off in spades. I had spent the eighty minutes prior to that unsure whether I loved or hated the film. It was easy to admire the intensity and purity of Nolan’s vision, so stunningly captured, yet the shock and awe of the proceedings, while admirable at first, were stretching me to my breaking point, which I think was Nolan’s intention to reflect the ordeal of the soldiers. Then the climax arrived, and with it, not only the dispersion of the tension, but a beautiful moment of hope celebrating the sacrificial virtue of the rescuers, acknowledging the heroism of retreat, the triumph of capture, and the victory in loss of a battle. The simple line uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s navy captain with joy and gravitas underscored all those sentiments perfectly.

At that moment there was also a stark change in the score, as Zimmer’s driving pulsation gave way to a soaring string melody using Elgar’s theme from the Enigma Variations. Hearing that theme was a welcome reprieve from the intensity of the prior cues, but more importantly, the grandeur of one of the most famous British musical themes captured the importance of taking the soldiers home away from the war while mirroring their own relief, which again, I believe was the point.

Watching this film projected on 70mm IMAX, I had to remind myself to breathe on several occasions. Not only was the tension so great that it seemed as if the viewer were surviving the rescue mission alongside the soldiers, but there were many breathtaking instances of beauty to behold as well. Regardless of how one feels about Nolan forcing his audience to experience a soldier’s point of view in way no other film has done, Dunkirk is undisputedly bold and daring cinema. It’s a film I can honestly say I loved, even while acknowledging it is not one I’ll revisit too frequently.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content advisory: Extremely intense, but non-graphic war time violence; a few crass words                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

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Once Upon a Time in America

Year of release: 1984              Directed by Sergio Leone.                  Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci.

“I believe in America.” “America was born in the streets.” Wrong movies, admittedly, but that grand and tragic mythos is the focus of Sergio Leone’s beautifully sprawling epic Once Upon a Time in America. The title itself suggests that grandiose myth-making, which the characters write both for themselves and for their country.

The film opens with the shattering of that myth. David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has witnessed the murder of the three surviving members of his gang, and he is on the run from several hitmen. The world of gangs, deals with cops, and profits from the speakeasies of the Great Depression which he worked so hard to build for himself has turned on him. Not only that, but the funds which the gang had put aside for all of their use were stolen as well. Resigned to his fate, Noodles leaves Manhattan, intending to end the myth which he lived for so long.

Then, with a jump cut, we are no longer in the era of prohibition, opium dens, jazz, and ragtime, but that of Lennon and McCartney, television, and respectable businesses. However, this age is just as quintessential a slice of the American myth as the ’30’s, and Noodles’ memories of “Yesterday” continue to haunt him as he adjusts to the next chapter of America. The nonlinear editing between 1968, 1932, and 1920 connects past, present, and future as inseparable parts of the country America has become – born in the streets when the teenage Noodles and his gang stood up to rivals and blackmailed corrupt cops; growing up to side with unions, threaten corrupt businessmen, rob them, and rape their secretaries if need be; and reaching a maturity where anyone can achieve prosperity with enough hard work and determination, as long as they have some corrupt politicians in the palm of their hand.

It’s an unflattering picture, and it sounds crazy to think it will last (and in the 21st century, coupled with recent events, it seems more inevitable than ever that it will fail), but Noodles and especially his friend and partner Max (James Woods) are determined to get all they can from it as long as they believe in it. The crumbling of that belief occurs at ostensibly different points for both of them, and the subsequent rift between them that results is reflected not only in Max’s desire to pursue more dangerous work with ruthless gangsters like Frankie (Joe Pesci), but in Noodles’ waking up from the American Dream to replace it with an opium dream of a forgetful haze. As Max becomes intoxicated with his American dream, Noodles’ dream turns into a nightmare, at which point he wakes up to find a new dream.

However, is it possible to wake up? In the final confrontation, Noodles and Max recount strikingly different memories of the same incident that brought their belief in the America to a crashing end. Nonetheless, the dream and the myth they had elaborately written for themselves had become so widespread, so entrenched in the American mind that both characters were forced to become new characters in their own myth, which had grown well beyond their control and left them victims of fate, not dissimilar to the random fates they left for a next generation when they needed to scare a police chief.

As Noodles, De Niro is far less sympathetic than the young Sicilian gangster he played ten years prior to this, but his mission to control the streets of his New York neighborhood while turning against anything that offered him a more innocent life is not much different. As Noodles’ first 11 year old love says, she could love him, if he wouldn’t always be a two-bit punk. The culmination of their relationship may be the most tragic, and is certainly most horrifying scene in the movie for the microcosmic way that it shows how Noodles’ belief in his own desires above all else runs roughshod over not only institutions but other people as well.

Whereas The Godfather is primarily interested in the ramifications of corruption on its once moral protagonist, Once Upon a Time in America lacks that upright protagonist and is interested in how his participation in the American mythos makes him more corrupt. Instead of focusing on the moral fall of an individual and the dissolution of a family as Coppola did, Leone focuses on the dissolution of the American dream itself and the consequences for those who imbibe it. It’s debatable which tragedy is greater, but the far reaching consequences of greed, working to get ahead at any cost, and loyalty to ideas over human beings receives a more damning indictment here. And that is no more apparent than in the ironic use of “God Bless America” which frames the film.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Hail, Caesar!

Year of release: 2016          Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.       Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, and Michael Gambon.

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If there is one thing that the Coen brothers have proven throughout their entire career it is that they are masters of assembling oddball ensembles and intertwining their lives in ways that are both funny and/or tragic. Hail, Caesar! lands firmly on the funny side, and it is an intelligent and enjoyable tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, impressively balancing one of the largest ensembles the Coen brothers have created.

At the center of Hail, Caesar’s! eccentric ensemble is Josh Brolin’s everyman producer Eddie Mannix whose job is to clean up messes which the stars get themselves into and make sure all productions for Capitol Pictures roll along smoothly. After seeing Brolin as the idiotic Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men and the dimwitted but menacing Tom Chaney in True Grit, he turns in an equally impressive performance as the quick-thinking straight man who must balance all the flailing comic acts which surround him.

Those acts include: George Clooney’s bender-prone megastar Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped; Alden Ehrenreich’s stuntman cowboy Hobie Doyle whom the studio is determined to turn into a serious actor; Ralph Fiennes’ self-serious drama director Laurence Laurentz who can’t abide the lousy acting of Doyle; Tilda Swinton’s bMV5BMjM4Njg1Nzg4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDI3MTA2NzE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_usybody reporter; Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing and singing Burt Gurney, the studio’s other megastar; Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran, the scandal-prone megastar who must maintain a pure, innocent public persona; and Frances McDormand’s hilariously crusty film editor.

That’s not even all the characters, and as much fun as it is to watch the Coens juggle all the acts successfully, some of the stretches in between are not nearly as inspired. However, the series of extended cameos are delightful, and they alone make the film worth watching at least twice. Ralph Fiennes proves once again that he is brilliant comedic actor, continuing the success he had in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton both steal every scene they are in. Aldren Ehrenreich’s southern drawl fits the Coen’s dialogue perfectly, and Michael Gambon’s narration sets the mood for a tribute to an era of storytelling now past.

At the center of all the shenanigans is the filming of Capitol Pictures’ prestige Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! – a tale of the Christ (a tagline originally from Ben-Hur). And Christ features into this movie in several ways. From the opening shot of a crucifix looking down on the audience, to Mannix’s frequenting the sacrament of Confession, to a dispute about the nature of God among a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi, and to the filming of the titular tale of the Christ, the Son of God and faith are what tie the film together.

Even more remarkably, this is one of the most straightforward, sympathetic, non-cynical portrayals of faith that the Coens have ever done. There are some lighthearted jabs at the difference of opinions among various denominations, but those are in a spirit of laughing with the characters not at them. The overall attitude is one of respect for faith, which is integral to Mannix’s work in maintaining the movie business which the Coens so obviously love. A scene toward the end drives home the idea of vocation in a way that is both dramatically satisfying and spiritually rewarding.

In addition to the good natured jokes about religious differences, Hail, Caesar! also intelligently plays upon and subverts classic film stereotypes from the ’50’s. The foolishness of egotistical actors is the main concern of Mannix’s job and a frequent source of humor. A subplot involving a MacGuffin is handled with a brilliant dose of the Coens’ trademark dark humor, showing the characters involved that they are not in control like they think.

Mannix also believes he is in control of his life and all the studio’s productions. However, the film is framed by shots which remind the audience that no one is in complete control of his or her own life, a theme which has shown up in nearly every Coen film from Blood Simple to Inside Llewyn Davis. However, unlike the unrepentant, self-centered league of morons from Burn After Reading, some of these characters take notice of the grace which surrounds them, and the religious imagery that overshadows the film can affect anyone who chooses to allow it to. With a large cast of eccentric characters, skillful tributes to the filmmaking industry, and the idea that grace is available for any fool who seeks it, one thing that is quite simple is that Hail, Caesar! is a Coen brothers’ movie through and through.

 

Content Advisory: A fleeting, mildly suggestive dance move; mild comic violence.   MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up

Personal Recommendation: B+

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The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Year of Release: 1988     Directed by Terry Gilliam.  Starring John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Uma Thurman, Bill Paterson, Jonathan Pryce, and Oliver Reed.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film so visually spectacular that to fully appreciate the zany genius of Terry Gilliam it portrays, one has to see it. Words will not do its imagery justice. Gilliam’s film is a story about sea monsters, Roman gods and goddesses, giants, detachable heads, reverse aging, escaping the grim reaper, flying to the moon in a ship, a man who can outrun a speeding bullet, another who can see halfway around the world, one who can blow down an entire army, and one who is the strongest man alive. The film depicts a series of adventures that defy all conventional standards of reality, depicting the banality of a world deprived of fantasy and laughing at the joy which fantasy inspires.

At the center of all these adventures is the eccentric Baron Munchausen (John Neville). Living in the midst of the Age of Reason, the Baron’s tales defy every reasonable standard and rule of logic, infuriating the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), who insists that the Baron “won’t get far on hot air and fantasy,” but that is exactly what the Baron does, literally.

I am aware that my love for this film may make me seem crazy, but I don’t care. Gilliam is one of the only directors who could film such a story with complete seriousness, while finding joy and humor in the fantastic proceedings. (Remember: serious is not the opposite of funny. The opposite of funny is unfunny.) The Baron’s adventures are a testament both to Gilliam’s unique vision and to the importance of fantasy in transforming the inconveniences of life into amazing adventures.

One adventure of the Baron leads him and the young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) to the moon in search of Berthold (Eric Idle), the fastest man in the world, because that was where the Baron last saw Berthold twenty or so years ago. While sailing there in a ship suspended by a hot air balloon made of petticoats, the Baron promises his child companion a warm welcome from his good friend the King of the Moon. When they end up locked in a sort of birdcage, because that piccolo Casanova (the Baron) tried to make love to the king’s wife, Sally is understandably disgusted, but the Baron views it as another twist in their adventure.

Prior to being locked up, when Sally and the Baron first meet the King of the Moon, his appearance is incredible. The King has a detachable floating head that separates itself from his body and goes off in pursuit of knowledge, while his body pursues…bodily things. As that head floats into the screen for the first time, Robin Williams appears in what is a strong contender for his funniest cameo ever. His head and body are at war with one another, the latter being obsessed with physical appetites, and the former suffering delusions of grandeur from the information it has attained. Uttering lines like, “You must refer to me by my complete title: King of Everything, Rei di Tutto. But you may call me Ray,” followed by “I think; therefore, you is.” Williams delivers the humor perfectly, and he embodies the magic and danger of this world with its unpredictable curveballs. Watching him now makes his recent passing all the more tragic.

Sally and the Baron’s other adventures are as unpredictable as their run-in with the King of the Moon. They are searching for the Baron’s four former companions, so the five of them can stop the invading Turks from destroying the European city where Sally lives. Their extraordinary encounters turn from delight to danger in an instant as they climb down from the moon on a rope, fall through a volcano, meet Venus (Uma Thurman) and Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and combat a sea monster.

Taking a page from The Wizard of Oz, the dangers that the Baron and Sally face reflect the dangers facing Sally’s world back home. Several of the characters they meet are portrayed by actors who double as members of a theatre company run by Sally’s father (Bill Paterson). However, the similarity between fantasy and reality functions both ways. The theatre company performs productions of the adventures of the legendary Baron Munchausen, and everyone is shocked and incredulous when a man shows up claiming to be the actual Baron. Everyone except Sally, who innocently accepts his word as if there is nothing unusual about the tales she has grown up hearing.

It is not surprising that Sally easily accepts the Baron’s word. The opening scene makes clear that she neither understands nor cares about the proper rules and conventions that reason and practice dictate. Her father’s posters read “Salt and Son,” because that’s the way it is done. She adamantly insists that her father either reveal her non-existent brother or fix his posters.

Sally’s sense of wonder and her appreciation of fantasy is something that is sadly missing in the enlightened, logic obsessed Age of Reason. That obsession with logic and reason and disdain for fantasy is personified by the town’s mayor, the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson, who smugly tells the Baron he has no grasp of reality, to which the Baron happily replies, “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.” The Baron’s reality may appear to be nonsense, but to quote Theodor Seuss Geisel: “[Nonsense] wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

 

Content Advisory: Sexual innuendo throughout, partial nudity, and mild peril.                    MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Noah

Year of Release: 2014.  Directed by Darren Aronofsky.   Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, and Ray Winstone.

There is not much I can add to the excellent pieces that Steven D. Greydanus and Peter T. Chattaway have written about this film. But since there seems to be much misinformation circulating about Noah, I figured I would put my review out there.  You never know where a Google search might land someone.

As a warning: I tried my best to avoid spoilers, but I do vaguely hint at a couple important plot points.

Darren Aronofsky makes dark brooding films about morally compromised characters that are not everyone’s cup of tea. Noah is most emphatically a Darren Aronofsky movie, and I would not hold disliking it against anyone.

However, I thought it was grand and poetic, visually stunning, and it preserved the essence of the Bible story while introducing new twists, a couple which stretch its fidelity as a Biblical adaptation and a couple which strengthen that fidelity. Regardless of how one feels about the changes, it is clear that Aronofsky has a deep affinity for the story of Noah and wishes to tell it in a serious and thoughtful manner, and his film deserves an equally thoughtful response.

Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have said that they wanted to portray Noah (Russell Crowe) as a character initially obsessed with detached, cold-hearted justice who gradually comes to understand the will of the Creator involves justice with mercy and love. While Noah’s transformation is believable, especially the plot elements that serve as catalysts for his transformation, Noah’s change of heart does occur a little too quickly.

What might concern more pious Christians is Noah’s severe misunderstanding of the Creator’s will, which preoccupies his notion of justice. That misunderstanding relates to another Bible story, albeit one that would not occur until hundreds of years later. That second Bible story also reveals more knowledge about God, knowledge that Noah in no way could have had privilege to. Along with his misunderstanding of his calling, Noah also omits a crucial detail of the creation narrative, which makes dramatic sense given his limited understanding of the Creator as well as his state of mind at the time; however, Noah’s transformation would have been even stronger had that omission been corrected. Noah’s dark preoccupation works for me, mostly because it plays very well into the film’s main theme of justice and mercy, epitomizing the dangers of cold-hearted, emotionless justice and showing why mercy must be mingled with justice for true righteousness.

To those saying the film defends Noah’s horrific idea: the end of the film clearly shows that God never desired such an act; He withholds His blessing until Noah understands the first mandate that God gave to Adam and Eve: be fruitful and multiply. That mandate is strongly affirmed by both the film’s ending and the miracle pregnancy of Shem’s (Douglas Booth) sterile wife Ila (Emma Watson).

Another change that could upset more pious viewers is an additional presence on board the ark, which is not outside the realm of possibilities given the little information that scripture provides, but it is a significant re-imagining of the traditional Noah story. Although the change should have made for good drama – the conflict between Noah and the additional character would have been cut short had that character died in the deluge – the film does not use the character other than to aggravate Ham’s (Logan Lerman) inner conflict, which is a good idea, but the execution could have been slightly less predictable. However, I don’t think the change is extra-Biblical enough to be of that much concern, and it provides a reasonable setup for an event often glossed over in other retellings of the Genesis narrative.

Much has been made of the angels who came to earth after the Fall to help mankind learn how to live. The Watchers (or Rock People, as some of the more disappointed critics have referred to them) are definitely reminiscent of the Ents from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and the scene of them defending the ark from the wicked descendents of Cain reminded me of the storming of Isengard. Aronofsky’s sweeping camera movements during that battle, notably the 360 degree pans, allow the stunning visual effects to be fully appreciated, and the action is thrillingly choreographed, especially the incorporation of the rain and geysers into the fight. To be honest, the last time I saw a fantasy action sequence that thrillingly staged was when I first saw Return of the King in theatres as a teenager, or possibly when I watched a CGI Andy Serkis battle three T-Rexes.

There are multiple interpretations of the Nephilim (Watchers) in Genesis 6; in Noah they fall from Heaven and become one with the earth, which the film very literally depicts. The story arc for the Watchers also concerns justice and mercy, and like Noah, the Watchers struggle to follow the Creator’s will. Unlike Noah, who is confused about what he is supposed to do, the Watchers disobeyed a clear command. However, through that disobedience the Creator brought good: the Watchers were able to help Noah build the ark and fulfill their initial purpose. And after their lengthy penance, the film reveals a merciful God who still offers them a chance for redemption, which also involves a display of colored lights.

I loved the quick cuts to the garden of Eden; they created a dreamlike recollection of a lost world that functions as it was intended. Traces of that world saturate the first half of the film before the flood.  Clint Mansell’s score is, although it is a bit heavy-handed in places, is appropriately solemn, and it has some very nice flourishes; I really liked the opening sections which had some similarities with The Rite of Spring.

Finally, I loved the chronological shifting of the rainbow. I don’t care that it changes the time of the rainbow’s appearance from the Biblical narrative. The new location that Aronofsky gave it perfectly underscores the themes the film explores, and it brilliantly reinforces the Creator’s love for mankind.

 

Content Advisory: Some mildly questionable theology which might offend some, intense disaster and battle violence, implied depiction of atrocities, fleeting suggestive content, and brief rear nudity.         MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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