DUNKIRK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense War Experience and some Language

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance & Tom Hardy

Christopher Nolan is easily one of the best filmmakers working today and he seems to be constantly moving through different genres. Besides knocking viewers’ socks off with non-linear thrillers (MEMENTO, THE PRESTIGE), Nolan also crafted arguably the best superhero trilogy ever (THE DARK KNIGHT) and made an effort to play with heady science fiction (INCEPTION, INTERSTELLAR). Nolan’s latest film is a World War II drama that’s crafted in an experimental way, but throws the viewer on an intense ride. DUNKIRK hardly wastes a moment of its fast-paced running time or its three interwoven narratives (land, sea, and air). In my usual format of anthology reviews, I’ll be covering each of these three narratives on their own merits and then grading the film as a whole…

THE MOLE (One Week): The first narrative takes place over the course of a week and follows young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk. As the situation grows grimmer with each passing second, Tommy finds himself trying to escape through desperate measures that threaten to strip him and his fellow soldiers of their humanity. This narrative is easily DUNKIRK’s most powerful storyline. The dialogue is kept to a surprising minimum as Nolan lets the sheer intensity of hopeless situations combined with believable visuals, powerful non-spoken acting, and Hans Zimmer’s score speak for itself. This storyline also has something to say about the disconnect that comes from two differing perspectives (e.g. one soldier’s reaction to a blind guy handing out blankets at a pier). A+

THE SEA (One Day): The second narrative follows elderly citizen Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young hand George (Barry Keoghan) as they take their recreational sail boat to the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue stranded soldiers. This storyline really showcased how everyday heroism and good deeds can make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. Rylance’s performance is especially powerful as he faces severe emotional stress from escalating situations and difficulties onboard his boat, while Cillian Murphy shows up as a shell-shocked soldier. This narrative also intersects with the Land and Air plotlines in cool ways, ala a more serious WWII version of PULP FICTION. A

THE AIR (One Hour): While I truly admire what Nolan did with his land and sea storylines, DUNKIRK seems somewhat lacking in its third plotline. Taking place over the course of a single hour, we follow three Spitfire pilots (mainly Tom Hardy) as they attempt to thwart enemy planes from bombarding rescue boats and ships. This plotline starts off intense as we get high-altitude combat and (literal) high stakes. Tom Hardy does a phenomenal job in his role, especially because he’s acting purely through his eyes when he wears the flight mask and goggles. However, this storyline seems a bit too simple and nothing too remarkable occurs by its climax. Especially when compared to the DUNKIRK’s other two narratives, this third storyline is a slight step down in quality. B

DUNKIRK weaves its three narratives across each other in a similar fashion to the Wachowski siblings’ CLOUD ATLAS. This makes for a piece of interesting experimental filmmaking combined with a very intense WWII drama. Don’t expect deep character development or set-up as Nolan immediately thrusts you into the action of the three plotlines, but somehow makes it gripping from the first frame of each narrative. Though one of the narratives is considerably weaker and less impactful than its two counterparts, DUNKIRK is a war epic that’s well worth watching and serves as a nice return to stellar quality for Nolan after his good-but-not-great INTERSTELLAR.

Grade: A-

THE BFG (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action/Peril, some Scary Moments and brief Rude Humor

BFG poster

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

(based on the novel THE BFG by Roald Dahl)

Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall & Bill Hader

Though his novels are magnificently imaginative, author Roald Dahl’s film adaptations seem cursed at the box office. This has occurred numerous times over the decades. Even though it found later success through TV airings and is now considered a timeless classic by many, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY originally flopped in the theaters (though its lesser Burtonized remake was a success). The same fate befell the creepy THE WITCHES in 1990 and cult favorite JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in 1996. Not even Steven Spielberg seems immune from the Dahl curse, because his adaptation of THE BFG has recently made headlines for bombing. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of this film itself, because BFG (which stands for Big Friendly Giant, get your mind out of the gutter) is a heartwarming fantasy that’s fun for all ages.

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Set in 1980’s London, THE BFG opens with young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) awake at the witching hour (3 am). Though she’s suspected his presence many times, Sophie has never actually met the “boogeyman” until tonight. This boogeyman turns out to be a big eared, speech impaired giant (Mark Rylance in a motion capture performance) who takes Sophie back to his cave-like home. Unlike other giants in Giant Country, Sophie’s gigantic captor doesn’t eat children. Instead this Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, as Sophie calls him) opts to eat foul-tasting cucumber-like vegetables and catches dreams for sleeping children. Sophie and the BFG become fast friends, but the fearsome brutish giants begin to suspect that BFG is harboring a new pet…and a potential snack for them.

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BFG’s biggest (pardon the pun) highlights come from the many scenes between Sophie and the main giant. Mark Rylance (who won Best Supporting Actor for his other recent Spielberg outing) is oddly adorable as the naïve, well-intentioned Big Friendly Giant. Having known in advance that Rylance delivered his performance through motion capture, I distinctly recognized his face on this giant character for the entire running time…even if huge ears, frail hair, and a thin chin were morphed into his CGI looks. You have to wonder how much time Rylance spent on the set though, because a majority of the film seems to have young Ruby Barnhill acting against creatures and environments that aren’t really there. Huge props to this child actress, because she puts in a far better performance than one might expect from a kid acting by themselves. This story almost entirely focuses on the friendship of Sophie and Big Friendly Giant, while supporting characters seem to exist merely for jokes and plot devices.

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Weak supporting characters don’t lessen the colorful environments and weird-looking giants that Spielberg brings from the page to the screen. This big-screen BFG is very faithful to the source material, which means that there are magical moments, darker aspects (lines of dialogue referring to the other giants feasting on children), and a timelessly upbeat atmosphere to this fairy tale. That being said, it seems like Spielberg was dialing himself back a bit in THE BFG. With E.T. and his other family films as well as Roald Dahl’s books themselves, there was a sense to treat kids with a level of maturity that was rather unheard of at the time. There were dark, scary threats in these stories (on the page and screen) that made the happy, lighter moments shine even brighter. THE BFG tiptoes around a couple of these more intense areas, with the other giants set up as (literal) big antagonists, but Spielberg seems disinterested in these villains and they seem underused as a result.

THE BFG

Executed with visual flair, charm, and whimsy, THE BFG is a simple and sweet fantasy-adventure that’s bound to entertain kids, captivate grown-ups through impressive imagery, and feels like a throwback to a better time for live-action kid’s entertainment. Although it doesn’t go as far as it could have in certain areas and resorts to fart humor on a couple of occasions (one joke is actually well set up and executed), THE BFG is an all-around good movie. It’s not one of Spielberg’s best films, but it remains an entertaining fantasy that’s likely to please both adults and children.

Grade: B

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson & Peter McRobbie

BRIDGE OF SPIES sounded like a stellar project right from the beginning. You have Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a script written by the Coen brothers. It sounds like this film couldn’t possibly go wrong even if it tried. Based on a fascinating true story and set during the height of the Cold War, BRIDGE OF SPIES is an enthralling piece of cinema. That’s made even more impressive seeing that the film is made up of a bunch of conversations and people walking to conversations. If this doesn’t sound the least bit intense, then don’t worry, because you’ll be surprised at how suspenseful conversations can be when they involve warring nations and negotiations that might save lives.

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James Donovan is a gifted insurance lawyer living in Brooklyn. He’s very good at his job, so good that his superiors want him to defend a man who they believe no one else could possibly craft a defense for. Donovan’s latest client is Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy. Unsurprisingly, the evidence is overwhelmingly against Abel and mob mentality is calling for the man to be hanged. Donovan tries his very best to keep Abel from getting the death penalty. That turns out to be both a wise and humane move as Russia has captured an American spy of their own. Pilot Gary Powers was shot down in a specialized plane traveling through Soviet territory. So, taking his safety and life into his own hands, Donovan travels across the dangerous borders of East Germany and West Berlin to negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers.

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Unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance. The man knows how to emote on a convincing level and he does the same thing here as James Donovan. You can feel that Donovan is a man who just wants to do what’s right and the compassionate side to his character makes him charming to watch. This character can also lay down an articulate verbal beatdown on certain people in this movie who need a good tongue-lashing. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Mark Rylance in anything that stood out to me, but he’s great as Rudolf Abel. Even though he’s a Soviet spy, I couldn’t bring myself to hate this character. He seems quietly dignified and resigned to his fate, whatever that eventual fate might be. Next to Hanks, I’d argue that Rylance steals the show, even though his scenes are far more plentiful in the first half of the film. The rest of the performances are stellar, but I feel the only other major players come in Austin Stowell as Gary Powers and Scott Shepherd as a CIA agent who is aiding Donovan in his negotiations.

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As far as setting goes, Steven Spielberg captures an era where it seems like it was impossible to feel safe. As idealistically peaceful as certain movies and TV shows paint the 1950’s, it’s more realistic to believe that people were frequently worried that Russia was going to bomb the country or invade small towns. Spielberg successfully gets across the sense of unease that seems to have been a constant during the Cold War. I believed that I was watching an authentic recreation of a certain period in recent history and that becomes even more apparent when the movie goes to Germany for a majority of its second half. It’s all beautifully shot and pain-staking attention to detail seems to have been put into every frame.

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This constant tension also lives within the Coens’ dialogue. Though there are a handful of funny moments and good quotes, I found myself fully engaged in watching a number of different people simply have conversations for two hours about the Cold War and swapping spies. Every time I heard that the plan had hit a “snag” or had a “wrinkle,” I found myself thinking “How are they going to solve this mess now?” It became an automatic response for the plight of these characters and that alone shows that the story was insanely compelling.

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Spielberg arguably doesn’t go as far as he could have in depicting the harsh conditions of Berlin (this is PG-13 after all), but there’s a sense of constant danger here. A couple of speeches made by Hanks in the opening act border on becoming melodramatic, usually revolving around the repeated question of “What makes us American?” However, these are two minor complaints in an otherwise excellent film. BRIDGE OF SPIES is another winner for Spielberg, Hanks, and the Coen brothers. I would love to see these four talented names unite once again for something special in the future. BRIDGE OF SPIES is mature filmmaking that should deeply move those who are up for a movie that’s on the more serious side of things.

Grade: A

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