Dunkirk

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

-Winston Churchill, 4 June, 1940

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Dunkirk
Director and Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, etc.
Soundtrack Composer: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Release: June 21, 2017
Rated PG-13

On 26 May, 1940, 400,000 mostly British and French troops are stuck on a beach near the port town of Dunkirk, France. Their efforts to stop the German army from invading France have utterly failed, and now they’re being picked off by German bombers while they wait for an inadequate number of British navy ships, and a whole lot of tiny civilian boats, to carry them over the narrow channel between Dunkirk and southern England. In this movie, we follow three groups of people: a few of the soldiers on the beach, the crew of a little boat that aids in the evacuation, and an RAF pilot in the air. Each one follows a different timeline, with the movie’s events taking place over about a week for the soldiers, a day for the boat, and just over an hour for the pilot.

Ever since I first learned about it (which wasn’t until college, sadly), the story of “the little ships of Dunkirk” has been one of my favourite chapters of World War II history. It’s a story of courage and determination in the face of defeat, and it shows that it’s possible to bring something good out of failure. Many historians believe the Dunkirk evacuation was one of the major turning points of the war, because it allowed the United Kingdom to keep a good chunk of its army (338,000 soldiers were successfully evacuated) and it gave the British people enough of a morale boost to keep fighting when the Nazis attacked their homeland.

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“We may not have won, but at least we…successfully ran away!”

So even if this movie wasn’t made by my favourite director of all time, I still would have had high expectations. And all of them were entirely met. This is exactly what I wanted out of a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation, and it’s the best war movie I’ve seen so far (though since I only watch one a year, that may not be saying much).

Although the timeline of events can get complicated–which should be no surprise to any Nolan fan–in most ways, this is a very simple movie. It recounts a single historical event with no larger context, no philosophising about causes and effects, and no sources of drama outside said event. Many of the central characters don’t get names, or are named in such quick bits of dialogue that they’re easy to miss. Dialogue in general is minimal, and there are no big monologues or expositional speeches. With the exception of the boat crew, who get one or two tidbits of backstory by the end, we never find out anything about the lives of the main characters–whether they have families, what they did before the war, what hopes and dreams they have, nothing. All we see is who they are in one particular moment of time, and we’re asked to root for them (or not) based on that. And honestly, I think it works. The actors, who include some Nolan regulars but also several newbies, all do a fine job. Their performances made it easy for me to sympathise with each character, despite not knowing much about them. Of course, the desire to survive is pretty universal, so that also makes it easy to sympathise with the characters’ goals.

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Tom Hardy, reprising his role as “Awesome Dude in a Mask.”

If I were to describe Dunkirk in one word, that word would be “intense.” From the beginning to just before the end, the tension never lets up. There’s never a moment when someone isn’t in immediate danger, and thanks to Nolan’s trademark practical effects and realistic filming, that danger always feels incredibly real. The soundtrack often consists of nothing but percussive sounds meant to simulate a heartbeat, the ticking of a watch, or the tide coming in. And just because the movie’s not rated R doesn’t mean its visceral portrayal of combat can’t be disturbing sometimes.

The story doesn’t shy away from showing the gruesome and, even worse, monstrously unfair side of war. It also shows some of the shadier aspects of what really happened, such as the Navy’s preference for evacuating British soldiers at the expense of the French, and no one ever really gets a big heroic moment to contrast all that. But there are lots of little heroic moments. Like the pilot’s decision to keep fighting the bombers instead of flying back home when he gets low on fuel, or the civilian boat captain’s many detours to rescue survivors of wrecked boats and planes before he even gets to Dunkirk. At its heart, this is a story about ordinary men doing all they can to help others in the worst of circumstances. And even though the events it covers were a real-life military disaster, the movie ends on a hopeful, even triumphant note. It shows the value of continuing to fight and give one’s all to a cause, even when there seems to be no hope of success. By the time the Churchill speech I quoted above is recited in the movie, I was able to hear it with a whole new perspective.

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“All we did is survive.” “Sometimes that’s enough.”

This is a beautiful film, both visually and thematically. It doesn’t quite reach the mind-bending heights of some of Nolan’s other masterpieces, but it does an excellent job of reproducing an amazing true story that needed to be told. Dunkirk is an experience no one should miss.

Grade: A

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Movie Quote Monday!

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“You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple, and miserable. Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you could make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was the look on their faces…”

-Robert Angier on performance, The Prestige

My Faves: The Prestige

Most of the time, my M.O. on this blog is to review movies that are new to me. Not necessarily to anyone else, but new to me. Sometimes, though, I feel the need to rave about a movie that I’ve seen many times, or even grown up with, because it’s one of my faves. And since I currently find myself between televisions, and there’s not much playing at the theatres near me, I figure this is the perfect time to start.

Christopher Nolan is my favourite director. I love every movie I’ve seen by him, which is all of them except for Memento and Following. But if I had to pick my favourite Nolan movie of all time, I’d probably have to go with The Prestige.

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For those who haven’t seen it, this is a movie about two magicians in Victorian-era London who start out as friends, but become enemies when one of them sees his wife die and blames the other. They start a rivalry that becomes increasingly deadly as each magician goes to more and more desperate lengths to destroy the other’s career.

There are so many reasons why this movie is amazing. One is the acting. The main characters are played by Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine, and they’re all amazing as usual. Christian Bale, in particular, gives the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from him. Granted, I haven’t seen all of his more acclaimed performances, but the role he has in this movie is so incredibly challenging, and he pulls it off so well, that it’s hard to imagine anything topping it. Also, this is one of the few movies where you get to hear his real accent, so that’s fun. Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine are also amazing, but then, when are they ever not?

This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Batman fight Wolverine. I’ll take it.

I really like movies that make me think, which is a big reason why I love Nolan so much. Like many of his other films, this one left me scratching my head, trying to piece together the clues the director left throughout the story, and really wanting to watch it again immediately. But whereas movies like Inception and Interstellar felt like puzzles to be solved, this movie feels more like a mystery. Everything hinges on the characters’ motivations, and how far they’re willing to go to get what they want, and it all builds up to a truly chilling reveal. The movie’s more than 10 years old, but I still won’t spoil it, because if there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie, I would hate to be the person who ruined their experience. It’s one of the best-executed twist endings I’ve ever seen.

I think one reason the ending works so well is the same reason the magicians’ tricks work. At the beginning, Michael Caine explains the three parts of a magic trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (terms which I’m pretty sure were made up for this movie, by the way). They correspond perfectly to the three-act structure of the film. We’re shown an “ordinary” situation–two rivals who want revenge–and then the story does something to it, twisting it in an unexpected way. And then at the end, we get the prestige, in which everything is explained and resolved. Throughout the movie, the screenplay and cinematography use sleight of hand and misdirection just like the two magicians do, to make you think you’re seeing one thing when you’re actually seeing something else. And the resolution, just like in every magic trick, is a lot simpler than you might expect.

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

I tend to judge screenplays by how well I remember them after seeing a movie. And there are so many lines in this movie that stuck with me long after I watched it. It only took one viewing for me to be able to quote Michael Caine’s opening monologue almost verbatim. There are so many other memorable lines, too: “Exact science is not an exact science.” “No one cares about the man in the box.” “Are you watching closely?” Etc., etc. And hidden within that great dialogue is a ton of subtle foreshadowing and symbolism that you don’t always pick up until the third or fourth viewing.

I also like this movie because I’m a big fan of steampunk–the idea of incorporating sci-fi elements into a Victorian setting. There aren’t enough good movies set in a steampunk world, but The Prestige is one of them. While it doesn’t go too crazy with the gears and gyros, it definitely has some strong steampunk elements to it. Because, oh yeah, did I mention Nikola Tesla is in this movie? Played by David Bowie, of all people? Yep. Anytime you see Tesla in a story that is not based on historical fact, you know some weird, brilliant steampunk stuff is coming. If ever there was a mad scientist in real life, it was Tesla. I love that guy.

“Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

But anyway, the heart of this movie is not in its magic tricks and decorations. Once you make it through all the various layers of mystery, it becomes a story about some guys who let an obsession get the better of them. There’s the obvious commentary on the dangers of seeking revenge, but personally, I think this is much more than a revenge movie. It really seems more like an exploration of the dark side of art, especially the performing arts–how the desire to make something beautiful can sometimes drive creators to do very ugly things.

This is a dark movie–probably Nolan’s darkest, that I’ve seen, aside from Insomnia. There’s not really a “hero” to root for, since all the main characters do a lot of awful things, and the ending isn’t exactly the “happily ever after” type. But for me at least, it touches emotional chords that very few other movies do. Usually, when you see movies about making art (which is essentially what this movie is), they portray it as this magical, transformative thing that brings all kinds of beauty to the world. Not that many movies have the guts to point out that art (not to mention the artists who make it) has an ugly side. It can be manipulative and deceptive and even deadly. And is it worth it, in the end? Do we love art and entertainment because it makes us better people and shows us more about the world, or do we just “want to be fooled?”

“The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”

I don’t know, but every time I watch this movie, I find another piece of it to analyse. It’s a multi-layered story in which every layer is packed with great acting, great writing, great cinematography, and Nikola Tesla as portrayed by David Bowie. I can’t stress that last part enough, because honestly, where else are you ever going to see something as crazy awesome as that?

I’m not going to give grades in my Faves reviews, because it should just be assumed that they’re all A+ unless stated otherwise. This one is truly a masterpiece, and it deserves just as much love as any other Nolan movie, if not more so. If you haven’t seen The Prestige, I’d highly recommend doing so. If you have seen it, I’d highly recommend watching it again.

And again, and again, and again, and again…

Monthly Movie Rant: What other heroes can learn from Batman

Welcome to my first Monthly Movie Rant! (I’ll try to make this a monthly thing, anyway–we’ll see how it goes.)

I’ve been thinking about superhero movies lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Batman movies. Mainly because I watched five of them last week. (Yes, I am aware that I have a problem.)

But he’s just…so…cool…

Batman is arguably the most enduringly popular superhero of all time, at least when it comes to us film fans. Sure, he hasn’t been around quite as long as Superman (though it’s very close), but he has, like, three times the number of good movies. And now that Marvel and DC have enough superhero films planned out to last my entire lifetime, I think it’s time the other heroes started learning from the master. So, heroes, here’s how you can be more like Batman:

1. Don’t be so high and mighty and powerful.

In a metaphorical sense.

Batman’s only superpower is the ability to have a plan for all possible situations, and several impossible ones, at all times, which is really just a basic survival skill if you live in the DC universe. And I think that’s a big part of his appeal. I believe a superhero’s main job is wish fulfillment, and a hero without powers is perfect for that. Batman is rich, powerful, handsome, and has ninja skills. But there’s nothing supernatural about him, which means, if you dream really big and come from a wealthy family, even YOU could be Batman! But seriously, who hasn’t calculated the exact amount of money and training they would need in order to be Batman? That’s part of his whole shtick even in-universe: “The Batman could be anyone.” It also makes him more relatable. Here’s a superhero who can’t just fly away from his problems, even if he wanted to. He’s more down-to-earth (both literally and figuratively) than your average man in tights. I believe it’s possible for powered heroes to achieve this kind of dynamic–after all, even they have weaknesses–but the only other one I can think of who really comes close is Iron Man, and, well, he can still fly. Plus, Iron Man is a jerk.

2. Have a heart.

Pictured: heroism.

And Batman is not a jerk! This is, hands down, my favourite thing about him: in most portrayals (certainly all the best ones), Batman is a big softie underneath all that scary bat imagery. In Batman Begins, he takes time out of an important mission to cheer up a poor kid. In the Year One comic, which helped inspire that movie, he punches a corrupt cop through a wall, not because he had just tried to kill him, but because he shot at a cat. And he constantly hangs on to the belief that all the people in his wretched hive of a city can be redeemed, no matter how hopeless it gets. It’s those little things that make a hero, in my mind. Lately a lot of heroes are always fighting such big battles, or are so busy battling each other, that we lose touch with what made them heroic in the first place. We’ve got enough movies about superheroes stopping alien invasions and what-not. I want more heroes who cheer up little kids.

(No, I didn’t like Batman vs. Superman – why do you ask?)

3. Find better villains.

“I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.”

As awesome as Batman is, he would never have come this far without his rogues gallery, particularly the Joker. But even ignoring those guys, consider who Batman fights in between encounters with mutated freaks: regular, run-of-the-mill gangsters and crooked police. In other words, exactly the kind of villains we have in the real world. This ties back to the wish-fulfillment thing. For me, the most effective heroes are the ones who deal with semi-realistic problems. It can be very nice to imagine a powerful guy in a cape swooping in to bring child abusers and bribe-takers to justice, because justice sure ain’t happening in real life. And the Joker, in his own way, feels even more real. He’s not just some random evil guy. He’s the embodiment of evil, especially the kind of mindless, chaotic evil that’s becoming terrifyingly common in the age of terrorism and school shootings. And in a Batman movie, you can watch somebody beat him. I would argue that the reason Marvel has yet to produce a compelling villain in their movies (the Netflix shows are, admittedly, a different story) is because they insist on having the heroes fight gods and mad scientists who bear no resemblance to regular, everyday evil. I mean, would it kill the Avengers to take a day off from the space battles and beat up some drug dealers? Daredevil could sure use the help!

4. Find better directors.

He’s not the kind of hero Hollywood deserves, but the kind it needs.

Batman has appeared in countless excellent stories, across all forms of media, but I’d be lying if I said my obsession with him isn’t Christopher Nolan’s fault. And is that so surprising? Nolan is easily the most respected director who has made a superhero film, at least in my lifetime. Okay, Joss Whedon was already famous–for cult TV shows. Zack Snyder was kinda famous–for a long string of comic book movies that all looked exactly the same and featured naked people as their primary selling point. But Nolan has yet to make a movie that isn’t highly artistic, philosophical, and critically acclaimed. That’s the kind of director you want for a superhero movie, because when you come right down to it, a good superhero movie is good for the same reasons as any other movie: well-rounded and likable characters, tight editing, a coherent story, and cool visuals. Hollywood clearly has the money to spend on A-list actors for their comic book movies; why not hire A-list directors as well?

5. Do your own thing.

Hey, everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

Part of the reason Batman became so popular in the first place was because he was so unique. Superheroes in general were pretty new back then, and the Bat’s darker world and more pragmatic crime-fighting style provided a nice contrast to Superman and his ilk. In these post-Nolan days, a lot of superheroes have tried to copy Batman, but they do it in the wrong ways. Marvel looked at the Dark Knight saga and thought, “Hey, evil laughs and motiveless villains really DO work!” DC looked at them and thought, “These movies are really dark. Audiences must like dark superheroes.” And then they hired Zack Snyder and put a ban on jokes and bright colours for all future movies. People didn’t like Nolan’s Batman trilogy (or any other Batman fare) because it was dark. They liked those movies because they were good movies. Other heroes, you can find your own ways to be great! Just follow the general advice above and put your own spin on it. Some of you are already trying. Keep it up, and one day you may step out from Batman’s shadow, just like Nightwing did.

Speaking of which, can anyone give me a good reason why there isn’t a live-action Nightwing movie in the works? I would watch that until my eyes bled.