“DUNKIRK” (2017) Review

“DUNKIRK” (2017) Review

Looking back the World War II drama called “DUNKIRK”, I realized that I had made a few assumptions about it. One of those assumptions was that the movie would be a call back to those old war epics of the 1960s and 1970s that featured a running time between two to three hours long and an all-star cast. I was proved right … on one matter.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “DUNKIRK” is about simply about one thing … the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)’s evacuation from Dunkirk, France. The BEF, along with the French Army had been forced to retreat to the city next to the English Channel in early June 1949, after failing to halt the German Army invasion of France. Although British, French and other European forces found themselves trapped at Dunkirk, Nolan’s movie mainly focused on the British troops awaiting evacuation.

Nolan wanted to convey the evacuation from three perspectives:

*the beach (“The Mole”)
*the English Channel (“The Sea”)
*aerial combat (“The Air”)

“The Mole” focused upon the efforts of a young British soldier named Tommy to survive as long as he could and get himself evacuated from Dunkirk as soon as possible. Tommy is eventually joined by a silent soldier who called himself “Gibson”, another soldier called Alex and a group of Scottish soldiers who make several attempts – using a wounded soldier, a ship that ends up being torpedoed by a German U-boat, and a Dutch trawler – to escape the beach in front of Dunkirk over a period of a week.

“The Sea” featured the experiences of a Mr. Dawson of Weymouth, England; along with his son Peter and the latter’s best friend George Mills as part of an armada of British civilian boats sent across the English Channel to help evacuate the trapped at Dunkirk. The experiences of the Moonstone’s crew, which takes place over a period of a day, included the journey across the Channel; their rescue of a shell-shocked Army officer, who was the sole survivor of a wrecked ship; an unexpected and tragic mishap between the officer and George; and the crew’s rescue of a downed R.A.F. pilot named Collins.

“The Air” followed the experiences of Collins, his fellow pilot Farrier and their leader, “Fortis Leader”. Due to the amount of fuel in their Spitfire fighter planes, the trio only have an hour to protect the evacuating troops from the Luftwaffe. “Fortis Leader” is immediately shot down during a dogfight. During the same fight, Farrier assumes command and his fuel gage is shattered. But when Collins is shot down during another dogfight, Farrier is left alone to protect the evacuating troops from the air … using a reserve tank of gas.

Another assumption I had formed before seeing this film was that the story was told in chronological order. Only I had failed to pay attention to the three different time spans that Nolan had conveyed at the beginning of each segment. So, after watching Mr. Dawson and his small crew rescue the shell-shocked officer, I was taken aback at the sight of the same officer preventing Tommy, Gibson and Alex from boarding his doomed ship from the mole (a long pier) later in the film. It was my sister who reminded me of the time differences of each segment. In other words, from their perspective, Tommy and his fellow evacuees had met the officer (who was far from shell-shocked at the time) later in the week they had spent on the French beach. From Mr. Dawson’s perspective, Peter and George had rescued the officer not long after their departure from England.

A part of me wondered if utilizing this non-linear narrative to tell this story was really necessary. Then it occurred to me … it is only natural that soldiers like Tommy would spend at least a week trapped on the beach. It was natural that the crew of the Moonstone would spend only a day traveling between England and France, across the Channel. And it was especially natural that pilots like Farrier and Collins would only spend at least an hour in the air, considering that they were limited by their fuel supply. And if Nolan had told his story in a rigid linear manner, he would have lacked enough time to focus on “The Sea” and “The Air”segments. Looking back on how Nolan handled the time span of his story, I found it very clever. More importantly, a sense of urgency seemed to increase as the three segments eventually converged near the end of the movie.

I also noticed that “DUNKIRK” had a running time of 106 minutes. This is completely different from other World War II dramas with an all-star cast. And yet, I was not even aware of this shorter running time. I became so engrossed in the film that I barely noticed how long or short it was. And if I must be frank, I am rather glad that the movie only ran less than two hours. I do not think I could have handled more than two hours of that film. It was so damn tense … and nerve wracking. The movie featured so many interesting and tense scenes.

Among those scenes include Flight Officer Collins being shot down over the English Channel and his efforts to free himself from his damaged Spitfire before he can drown. Another scene that nearly had me biting my nails featured Tommy, “Gibson” and Alex trying to escape a damaged ship after it had been torpedoed. A real nail biter proved to be the rescued shell-shocked officer’s encounter with the crew of the Moonstone. I found that sequence both tense and tragic. Ironically, the three most tension-filled scenes occurred in the movie’s last twenty to thirty minutes. One of those scene featured Tommy’s efforts to defend “Gibson”, who had revealed himself as a French soldier, from Alex and a group of Scottish troops inside a damaged Dutch trawler under fire by German troopers. I also found Farrier’s last dogfight against a German fighter rather tense to watch. Ironically, this dogfight led to another tense scene featuring Tommy and the other soldiers, as they try to reach a minesweeper and later, the Moonstone amidst burning fuel from the Messerschmitt shot down by Farrier.

There are other aspects of “DUNKIRK” that I admire. One of them turned out to be Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography, as shown in the images below:

I thought his cinematography was absolutely spectacular. And I hope that van Hoytema will receive an Oscar nomination for his work. I was also impressed by Lee Smith’s editing. Between Nolan’s direction and Smith’s editing, the movie marched at a pace that really impressed me … especially the scenes mentioned in the previous paragraph. Nathan Crowley is another I believe should be considered for an Oscar nomination. As the film’s production designer, I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating wartime Northern France and Southwestern England, circa 1940. Jeffrey Kurland did a solid job in creating costumes that reflected both the film’s characters and settings. But they did not particularly blow my mind. As for Hans Zimmer’s score, I found it … okay, I simply do not recall it. What can I say?

I found the performances featured in “DUNKIRK” very admirable. The movie featured solid performances from Kenneth Branaugh and James D’Arcy, who seemed to have formed a pretty good screen team as a pair of British senior officers awaiting evacuation. Mark Rylance gave an admirable performance as the patient, yet commanding Mr. Dawson, owner of the Moonstone. Aneurin Barnard managed to effectively convey the emotions of the French soldier “Gibson” with barely a line or two. Jack Lowden was very effective as the strong-willed Flight Officer Collins. I could also say the same about Barry Keoghan’s performance as Peter Dawson’s eager friend George Mills, who volunteered to accompany the Dawsons to Dunkirk.

But one of the performances that truly impressed me came from Harry Styles as the belligerent soldier Alex, who did a great job of expressing his character’s willingness to cross the moral line for the sake of survival. I also enjoyed Tom Glynn-Carney’s portrayal of the growing maturity of Mr. Dawson’s son, Peter. Cillian Murphy gave a superb performance as the shell-shocked Army officer whom the Moonstone crew rescues from a sinking ship. Tom Hardy seemed to have even less lines than Aneurin Barnard. But with very little lines and a great deal of facial expressions, he was marvelous as the R.A.F. pilot Farrier, whose seemed determined to protect the evacuating troops as long as possible within a space of an hour. The role of the everyman soldier, Tommy, proved to be Fionn Whitehead’s third or fourth role in his career. Yet, this barely 20-something kid did a superb job in carrying most of “The Mole” segment on his shoulders. With a few lines and some great silent acting, Whitehead managed to convey Tommy’s growing desperation to escape the Dunkirk beach … but with his moral compass intact.

I do have one complaint about “DUNKIRK”. Although I realized that “DUNKIRK” was basically about the evacuation of the BEF, a part of me wish that Nolan had did more to set it up. Nolan flashed a brief paragraph about Allies’ retreat to Dunkirk before starting the film. I did not expect the director to go into details about the events that led to the retreat. But damn! He could have spared more than one measly paragraph.

Otherwise, I was very impressed with “DUNKIRK”. Very impressed. Despite my fears that it would prove to be another one of those two-to-three hour World War II epics with a cast of thousands, the movie proved to be something different. Nolan took the World War II epic trope and nearly turned it on its ears with a smaller running time and a non-linear narrative that emphasized the importance of time. It also featured a superb cast led by the likes of Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance. Is it the best World War II movie I have seen? I cannot answer that question for it would be subjective. But it may prove to be one of my favorites.


Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 


1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book, “Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spyRudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or “LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice. Rylance’s performance paid off with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.


“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review



“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review

I never thought I would come around to writing this review. I have seen the 1995 movie, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” a good number of times during the past five years. Yet, I never got around to posting a review of this movie, until recently. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. Nor do I have any idea why I had finally decided to write that review.

Based upon A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella called “Morpho Eugenia”, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” tells the story of a poor naturalist named William Adamson, who returns home to Victorian England after having spent years studying the natural wildlife – especially insects – in the Amazon Basin. Despite losing all of his possession during a shipwreck, he manages to befriend a baronet named Sir Harald Alabaster, who is also an amateur insect collector and botanist. The latter hires William to catalog his specimen collection and assist his younger children’s governess the natural sciences.

William eventually falls for Sir Harald’s oldest daughter, Eugenia, who is mourning the suicide of her fiance. Both of them eventually become emotionally involved and decide to marry. Much to William’s surprise, both Sir Harald and Lady Alabaster seems encouraging of the match. The only member of the Alabaster family who is against their upcoming wedding is Sir Harald’s eldest child, the arrogant Edgar. Not only is the latter close to Eugenia, he believes that William is unworthy of his sister’s hand, due to having a working-class background. The marriage between William and Eugenia seemed to be a happily lustful one that produces five children (among them two sets of twins). But Eugenia’s hot and cold control over their sex life, a constantly hostile Edgar, William’s growing friendship to Lady Alabaster’s companion Matilda “Matty” Crompton, and William’s own disenchantment over his role as Sir Harald’s official assistant brings their marriage to a head after several years of marriage.

The film adaptation of Byatt’s novella seemed to be the brainchild of Philip and Belinda Haas. Both worked on the film’s screenplay, while Philip also served as the film’s director and Belinda served as both co-producer (there are three others) and film editor. From my perusal of many period drama blogs, I get the feeling that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is not very popular with many of the genre’s fans. On the other hand, many literary and film critics seemed to have a very high regard for it. Despite my love for the usual romantic costume drama, I must admit that my opinions of the 1995 film falls with the latter group. It is simply too well made and too fascinating for me to overlook.

There were times I could not tell whether “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is some look at the age of Victorian science exploration, the close study of an upper-class 19th century family, or a lurid tale morality. Now that I realize it, the movie is probably an amalgamation of them all, wrapped around this view on Darwinism and breeding – in regard to both the insect world and humans. The topic of breeding seemed to seep into the screenplay in many scenes. Some of them come to mind – Sir Harald and Edgar’s debate on the breeding of horses and other animals, William and Eugenia’s second encounter with moths in the manor’s conservatory, Sir Harald’s despairing rant on his declining usefulness within his own household, the reason behind Edgar’s hostility toward William, and the visual comparisons between the bees and the inhabitants of the Alabaster estate, with Lady Alabaster serving as some metaphor for an aging Queen bee on her last legs. The metaphor of the Queen bee is extended further into Eugenia. Not only does she assume her mother’s role as mistress of the house following the latter’s death; but like Lady Alabaster before her, gives birth to a growing number of blond-haired children. If a person has never seen “ANGELS AND INSECTS” before, he or she could follow both the script and cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman’s shots carefully to detect the clues that hint the cloistered degeneracy that seemed to unconsciously permeate the Alabaster household.

I cannot deny that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is a gorgeous film to behold. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the film’s other producers did an excellent job in creating a visually stunning film with a bold and colorful look. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann, along with production designer Jennifer Kernke and Alison Riva’s art direction provided great contributions to the film’s visual style. But in my opinion, Paul Brown’s Academy Award nominated costume designs not only conveyed the film’s colorful visual style more than anything else, but also properly reflected the fashion styles of the early 1860s for women – including the growing penchant for deep, solid colors – as shown below:

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Adding to the movie’s rich atmosphere was Alexander Balanescu’s memorable score. I thought the composer did an excellent job of reflecting both the movie’s elegant setting and its passionate, yet lurid story.

As much as I enjoyed and admired “ANGELS AND INSECTS”, I believe it had its flaws. I understand why Philip Haas had opened the movie with shots of William Adamson socializing with inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle, juxtaposing with the Alabaster ball given in his honor. Is it just me or did Haas use white – probably British – actors to portray Amazonian natives? I hope I am wrong, but I fear otherwise. I also feel that the movie was marred by a slow pacing that nearly crawled to a halt. I cannot help but wonder if Haas felt insecure by the project he and his wife had embarked upon, considering that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” was his second motion picture after many years as a documentarian. Or perhaps he got caught up in his own roots as a documentarian, due to his heavy emphasis on the natural world being studied by William, Matty and the younger Alabaster children. In a way, I have to thank Balanescu’s score for keeping me awake during those scenes that seemed to drag.

I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and subtle performances. Mark Rylance, who has a sterling reputation as a stage actor, gave such a quiet and superb performance that I hope his reputation has extended to film. Kristin Scott-Thomas was equally superb as the Matty Crompton, Lady Alabaster’s very observant companion, who shared William’s interests in natural sciences. I have no idea what reputation Patsy Kensit has as an actress, but I certainly believe she gave an excellent performance as William’s beautiful and aristocratic wife, Eugenia Alabaster, whose hot and cold attitude toward her husband kept him puzzled. Jeremy Kemp gave one of his more complex andentertaining performances as William’s father-in-law, the amateur scientist Sir Harald Alabaster. Douglas Henshall had a difficult job in portraying the bullying Edgar Alabaster, who seemed to view William as both beneath contempt and something of a threat to his views of the world. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Saskia Wickham, Chris Larkin, Clare Redman and Annette Badlands.

Some fans of period drama might be taken aback by the graphic sexuality featured in the film, along with the story’s lurid topic. And director Philip Haas’ pacing might be a bit hard to accept. But I feel that enduring all of this might be worth the trouble. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the crew and a cast led by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit did an excellent in re-creating A.S. Byatt’s tale on the screen, and creating a first-rate movie in the end.