FlixChatter Review: DUNKIRK (2017)

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After three super hero and two sci-fi films, Christopher Nolan is ready to tackle a war genre. Of the current well-known directors working in Hollywood today, Nolan might be the most popular among movie fans. He’s able to secure $150mil for his latest picture and he didn’t need to cast any big named stars to be appear in it.

In the summer of 1940, German forces successfully marched forward with their plan to take over Europe. Many British and French soldiers were forced to leave Dunkirk but help isn’t coming as fast they should. As the film begins, we see young British soldiers being ambushed by unseen enemies, one of them named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) was able to escape. He ran into some of his fellow soldiers named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles). They want to leave Dunkirk and will do anything to get away and avoid their commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). We then see a civilian named Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son make their way into Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers. While in the air, pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are trying to shoot down the German planes that have been dropping bombs on the soldiers and rescuing boats.

Nolan, who also wrote the film, decided to tell the story in a non-linear way. We saw three perspectives of the event, from land, air and sea. Personally, I thought the way he constructed the story is work of genius. There have been so many WWII films through the years and I’m glad to see Nolan decided to make something that really hasn’t been done before when it comes to this genre. Shooting the film in 65mm, including IMAX cameras, this is a film that needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. Nolan mentioned that he wants the audience to experience what those soldiers experienced and I thought he achieved that task. Since it’s based on a real event, I was worried that Nolan might glamorize the battle scenes, thankfully that didn’t happen. The action scenes were not something I would called “entertaining” but the aerial battle sequences were great to see on the big screen.

Performances were great all around. Whitehead, Barnard and Styles were believable as young soldiers and some would call them cowards. They didn’t have a lot of dialogues so their performances were mostly about body language and facial expressions. I’ve never been a soldier or seen any real battles in my life, so I don’t know how I would react if I was in their situation. Rylance, who’s always been great in the films I’ve seen him in, shines again in this one. There’s a scene where he showed raw emotion that I don’t think many actors can achieve. Hardy spent most of the film in the plane and technically he’s the “hero” of the story. Lastly, Branagh’s great as always. He conveyed a man who’s in total control even though he knew he might lose his men in any moment.

This isn’t the kind film where there are character developments and there’s no plot to speak of. Nolan wants the audience to experience the horror that happened during this event and to me he succeeded. Just like his previous film Interstellar, this one it’s being shown on various formats. Nolan’s preferred formats are 70mm IMAX or regular 70mm. If there’s a 70mm IMAX theater near where you live then I highly recommend you see it there.

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So have you seen DUNKIRK? Well, what did you think?

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Guest Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016)

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Directed By: Niki Caro
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 2 hr 7 minutes

The diversity of Holocaust-themed movies has increased over recent years as filmmakers try different storytelling approaches to keep alive our collective memory of what happened. One film that has divided the critics is The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016). While most of this genre uses graphic realism to confront large-scale human carnage and moral dystopia, this beautifully filmed story tells how 300 Jewish lives were saved by the owners of the Warsaw Zoo.

The film opens in 1939 with stunning photography of an idyllic existence in the charming Warsaw Zoo. Owners Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are devoted zoologists who love their animals and each other. There are many touching scenes of physical affection that portray trust and understanding across the human-animal divide. The peace is soon shattered by Nazi bombing and there are many disturbing scenes of animal destruction. Soon after the Nazis arrive, the Zoo’s best breeding specimens are sent to Berlin under Hitler’s zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). With Nazi soldiers needing housing, the Zoo is under threat but saved when Antonina obtains Heck’s support to convert it into a pig farm to feed Nazi soldiers. He becomes a frequent visitor to the Zoo and his sexual overtures towards Antonina means she must keep him charmed to save the Zoo. As the atrocities against Polish Jews escalate, Antonina and Jan hatch a plan to use garbage trucks to smuggle Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to freedom via Zoo tunnels. The story focuses on the dangers of hiding the Jews and the horror facing those who are loaded into cattle-trucks for transportation to Hitler’s Final Solution.

The critical ambivalence towards this film dwells on its aesthetic treatment of the opening scenes and what some argue is Chastain’s saintly characterisation of Antonina. While the cinematography is superb from beginning to end, it does adopt an excessively sugary style in the pre-Nazi-occupation part of the story. The opening scenes of Antonina cycling through the zoo, personally greeting the caged and free-roaming animals, smiling and waving to all of humanity, are both beautiful but incongruous for the story we know is about to unfold. From the extraordinary scenes of Antonina saving a new-born elephant in front of its distressed parents to the harrowing escape scenes, the film almost deifies the heroine for her goodness towards others. But these are directing issues rather than acting. Chastain’s performance is excellent across the range of emotions she portrays and she is a glowing beacon of light in a film that could easily have been depressingly bleak.

The Zookeepers Wife is a worthy addition to an honourable genre that includes the multi-award winning Schindler’s List (1993). It communicates the larger Holocaust narrative while keeping its carnage and dystopia off-screen. In an age of audience desensitisation, it is ironic that viewers can be emotionally touched more deeply by the death of animals than humans. This is a story of courage and triumph, told from a woman’s viewpoint, with top-tier production values in filming, acting, and narrative. It is also an important part of Polish history. Antonina and Jan were decorated as national heroes and the re-built Warsaw Zoo still stands as a legacy to their achievements.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘The Zookeper’s Wife’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: ALONE IN BERLIN (2016)

guestpost Directed By: Vincent Perez
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 1 hr 43 minutes

War films are stories writ large about aggression between nations. Few of them explore small-scale human undercurrents of suppressed dissent inside the countries at war. Alone in Berlin (2016) does this by looking at an ordinary working-class couple and their compulsion to express feelings about Hitler’s dictatorship at time when dissent meant certain death. It is also an essay on parental grief struggling to voice pain and loss.

Based on real events, the story opens in a small flat in Berlin where Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) learn that their son has died in battle. In a long marriage that is under strain, the news pushes them further apart as they cannot console each other in grief. Otto had encouraged his son to join the Nazi army and now Anna blames him for their loss. Desperate to voice his rage against Hitler’s regime, he painstakingly writes postcards and secretly leaves them on stairwells and doorways where they can be seen by passers-by: he calls them “small grains of sand in Hitler’s machine”. Initially he keeps Anna away from his dangerous mission, but she insists on being involved and they both become clandestine resistance fighters whose weapons are simple messages about the evils of Nazism. They manage to write and distribute over 260 cards despite extensive investigative efforts to stop them. In the process, they resurrect their marital relationship. After almost two years of card-writing they are caught and together face Nazi justice.

This film has two parallel narratives that start in opposition and end in convergence: one is Otto and Anna’s actions, the other is the investigation. The first is focused on the smallness of the couple’s actions in contrast to the enormous risk they are taking, like a pair of mice squeaking at roaring lions. The filming, colour palette and period setting are drab and lifeless; the atmosphere is paranoid with suspicion and mistrust; and the acting is subdued and understated. Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson are actors with broad performance repertoires but here they are minimalist in expression and Spartan in dialogue, with much being conveyed through furtive glances or avoided eye-contact. It is a slow-moving story, observant of small details in an alienated world. This has the effect of amplifying the intensity of Otto and Anna’s actions. Close-ups of a pen leaving a trail of outrage on a small white card become powerful portraits of bravery that are ultimately futile as most of the cards were handed in to authorities. The couple’s nemesis is a young German investigator (Daniel Brühl) who pursues his work with ideological fervour for the Fuhrer but whose success turns into the film’s most devastating moments of despair.

This is a joyless story about humble heroism. Otto and Anna are emblematic of ordinary people dealing with tragedy and anger inside a world of fear and danger. Far from being mere victims, their small protests seriously unsettled the Nazi hierarchy and the closing scenes are a tribute to the power of two human “grains of sand”.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Alone in Berlin’? Well, what did you think?