Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk – A Movie Review


Related Content from And There Came A Day


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The true story behind Dunkirk is stunning: during World War II, 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France awaiting some kind of rescue. The tactical decision to not send significant forces to their aid is surely not easily made, but, to do so could mean the crippling of the English army, navy and air force and could hand Germany the keys to overrunning Europe.

The men on the beaches of Dunkirk are essentially on their own.

Into this scenario, steps writer/director Christopher Nolan. Deservedly regarded as one of the best creators in film today, Nolan may have just directed his best movie to date. Without question, Dunkirk solidifies Nolan’s already sterling reputation. Sparse, spare and deeply affecting, Dunkirk unfolds with minimal dialogue and at a breakneck pace – a pace metered by the ticking of a stopwatch.

Time is an important element of the movie, perhaps the most important: how long will it take to get to a rescue boat, how long can the spitfires remain in the air, how long before the “little navy” is within range of the beach? Time is also an element that Nolan cleverly manipulates and, in that manipulation, lies the riveting excellence of the film.

Dunkirk is a really, really good movie.

And then, suddenly, it is a brilliant one.

It would not be fair to spoil how good Nolan here. Suffice it to say that this movie is as much about a writer/director’s prowess as any recent release of which I can think. A thinking person’s film about war, a summer blockbuster, a harrowing true story, Dunkirk wildly succeeds at being all 3.

The movie is short, which is something of a surprise for a Christopher Nolan film. Typically, Nolan’s movies are broadly scripted and involved and lengthy as well. Coming in at well under two hours, Dunkirk feels over before it starts and leaves one wanting to queue up for a repeat viewing.

From Tom Hardy’s (hey, can we ever see the guy’s entire face?) spitfire pilot, to Kenneth Branaugh’s Commander Bolton, to Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, the actors are as good as their director. Each creates an indelible impression as do the young men (most notably a terrific Harry Styles) whose stories of trying to survive the beach tie the film together. As Dunkirk is very much a textbook on “show, don’t tell,” the cast has to make the most of the moments they are given. All of them do.

Dunkirk may well win Christopher Nolan his first Best Director Oscar and the movie is all-but certain to be nominated for Best Picture. Whatever accolades it receives, Dunkirk deserves.

There is not another movie like it in theaters now. They may not be another war movie like it, either.

Dunkirk showcases a master filmmaker at the top of his game.

 

DUNKIRK receives FIVE TICKING WATCHES out of a possible FIVE.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review

Age of Ultron PosterHow does Joss Whedon, writer and director of 2012’s Avengers top his own creation? How does he capture the imagination of the world-wide movie going public and reel them back in for two and a half more hours of Avengers action? How does he out-do what seemed incredibly difficult to do in the first place? These are questions Whedon must have asked himself when he sat down to break story ideas for the sequel that would eventually become Avengers: Age of Ultron. It takes something of a mad scientist to accept this kind of challenge. I, for one, am very glad he did.

I won’t be alone in that assessment.

First things first: it’s eventually going to be very difficult for Marvel Studios to receive both solid reviews and big money for their movies. I thought that the bubble was going to burst with last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy (boy, was I wrong!). Some think it pops with July’s Ant-Man. But there are indications sneaking in at the corners of the reactions to Age of Ultron that some opinions are about to turn and that being great (like Age of Ultron is) is not going to be enough.

People don’t like the New England Patriots. They win too much.

People are going to begin decrying Marvel movies for the same reason. It starts here.

The Junior Senator, as we left Age of Ultron (my second viewing, his first), suggested that some comments he’d read about the film indicated that some people had their narratives already set in their minds and that those narratives were very similar: the movie has too much going on, there are too many characters, the action is too crowded.

Don’t you believe it. When you see Age of Ultron and, if you’re reading this review, you’re likely going to see it, pause for one second and see if you can keep all the characters straight. Forget the big ones from the last Avengers, I’m talking about the ones who weren’t in the last movie. Can you keep War Machine straight from Ultron? Do you confuse Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch? Are you not able to discern between… wait, I won’t name any other new characters because this is a spoiler free review. Suffice it to say that, while there are many new characters and there is a lot going on in Age of Ultron, movie goers can keep it all straight. To suggest anything else is lazy thinking.

I admit that Age of Ultron is a very different movie than Avengers and, as Whedon is a child of The Godfather and Star Wars, perhaps that is to be expected. Modern audiences have grown up thinking the second chapter of a movie series has to unspool with more gravitas than the first. The Godfather II is far darker than The Godfather. It has a far more complex narrative structure, too. Some might argue it’s a better film. The Empire Strikes Back turns away from the almost sunny tone of Star Wars. It tells a far more “adult” tale and the characters suffer significant loss before it’s over. The end is something of a cliffhanger, indicating all is not right in the universe. Just as his contemporary Christopher Nolan put together a bleaker and far deeper Batman sequel in The Dark Knight, Joss Whedon understands that Age of Ultron has to take the characters and tone of Avengers and do something different and more complex with them in the sequel. He succeeds in this goal so well that one of my first reactions to Age of Ultron was loss. I wanted it to be more fun. Avengers was fun and, while Age of Ultron has fun moments, the stakes to the main characters (if not to the world overall) are so much higher in this film that I left the theater a bit wistful… much like the reaction I had to Lando and Chewbacca flying off from the Rebel Armada at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Don’t get me wrong: that’s a very, very good thing!

There is so much to like in this movie. The action of Avengers, which was both exciting and verging on overpowering, is superseded by what occurs in Age of Ultron and Whedon has a more sure hand with it. Rather than roll the last act (big good vs. big bad’s minions) as one, long fight sequence, Whedon intersperses the explosions and slow motion battle with honest-to–goodness character moments that work. They work because the audience cares about the characters, some of them introduced earlier in the movie. While there are plenty of incredible set pieces on hand, they are balanced throughout the course of the movie by smaller and more intimate moments.

The cast is wonderful – so comfortable in their roles and so believable in them, too. It’s difficult to single any of them out as either the weak link of the ensemble or the stand out. Robert Downey, jr. once told us onscreen that he is Iron Man, and it’s impossible to argue the point; I don’t know where Downey ends and Tony Stark begins. Chris Evans takes Captain America – a character who could be painfully one note – and makes him somehow nobly tragic. Thor, as played by Chris Hemsworth, is quite amusing. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is the everyperson eye into the team. They are all damn good in the roles and very fun to watch.

Scarlet Johanssen as the Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk deserve special mention, not because they are any better than their co-stars, but because the script does call for a little more from them. The scenes they share are almost poignant and they are every bit the match for them. It might be difficult to find deeper, emotional moments in a green-screen spectacle, but these two manage to do it and make it look easy.

A review of Age of Ultron would not be complete without a mention of James Spader as the artificial intelligence called Ultron, bent of revenging himself against the Avengers and, of course, destroying humanity. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen the film twice and, on the second viewing, I really watched Ultron carefully. It’s an incredible movie creation, to be sure, but I had read that Spader did the motion capture work himself and one can really tell it’s Spader bringing the character to life. It’s not just the actor’s voice (which is perfect by-the-way), it’s the physicality of the role. Spader doesn’t voice the character. He plays the character and he stands toe-to-toe with the likes of Downey, jr., Evans and Hemsworth who’ve played their respective characters time-and-again. Spader makes Ultron a special villain. That’s more than half the battle in a movie like this.

Age of Ultron has a lot going for it before it starts. It has a built-in audience. It has a tremendous cast. It has special effects wizards on hand. It also has a very smart and snappy script. More on the smart in a moment. Whedon’s Avengers are so quippy, they sometimes sound as though they’ve been written by Aaron Sorkin and have stepped directly off the set of The West Wing. This is fine by me and it serves the movie well when Ultron trades barbs with the team. At one point, after a particularly amusing comment by Ultron, Iron Man says “he beat me to that one by one second.” Part of the fun here is the verbal jousting among the characters. It amuses throughout the movie and, if some of the references are a bit off the beaten path (“Banksy” anyone?), that’s okay. It’s a Joss Whedon script. We should know what we’re in for.

It must be challenging to surprise us with these movies at this point. It must be difficult to develop a story that keeps our attention. No longer can these movies rely solely on their amazing special effects (which Age of Ultron has in spades). They have to do something more, they have to tell these heroic tales with a different spin, they have to – dare I write it – inspire their audiences to think.

There is a lot to think about in Age of Ultron. There are questions raised of trust and of heroism, of parenting and of friendship, of science and of faith. Blithely dismissing the possibility that such issues could be raised in superhero fare is a mistake. Between the robots and the superheroes and the explosions and the quips, there are some pretty serious questions being posed. Good on Joss Whedon for doing so.

Age of Ultron has an almost two and a half hour running time, but it feels light on its feet and, when it’s over, it promises us that “The Avengers Will Return.” I will be there when they do.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON receives FOUR AND A HALF “I Bet You Didn’t See That Comings” out of a possible FIVE.

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Interstellar – A Movie Review

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Picture from imdb.com

There are big things going on in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Very. Big. Things.

We know they are big things because the director is Christopher Nolan and, even when he’s making movies about Batman, they are really about Big. Things.

We also know that Interstellar is a Big Movie by a Big Director because it’s referred to as “Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.”

One much wonder, then, if the movie deserves the hype and the Time Magazine cover story and the, mainly, positive reviews. Does Interstellar earn all of these things? Simply put. Yes.

Interstellar is an audacious movie. It’s a spectacle in the biggest, brightest and best sense of the word. While I loved last year’s Gravity (you can read my review HERE), Interstellar has something that film, upon reflection, lacked, which is to say it is full of heart. Interstellar has many messages and interlocking themes – remember it’s about Very. Big. Things. but, at the center of those messages and themes is heart. If that concept doesn’t resonate for you, if you don’t enjoy films that suggest that love is a powerful force in the universe – perhaps the most powerful – then Interstellar might not be for you.

As I mentioned after seeing the movie (in a piece you can read HERE), Interstellar is very “science-y.” This is a good thing. I am not going to pretend for a second that I understand the theoretical science at work here (though I have read that what is on the screen – all of it – has basis in science fact), but I will say that it all feels very real, like these things could happen. To me, that’s good science fiction or, at least, good speculative fiction.

I actually understand relativity better now, after watching Interstellar, than I ever have before. The manner in which the movie handles relativity is very cool and very high stakes and made me care about science more than I have since I was being graded in the class in college. This is clearly one of Nolan’s goals with Interstellar. He wants people to care about science and, more specifically, to care, again, about space travel. Interstellar can be read as an ode to space flight. Quite an ode it is.

Matthew McConaughey, continuing his string of really great performances, stars as Cooper, once a pilot who has had to trade his dreams of flight for the dry dust of a barely functioning farm. McConaughey is terrific in the role of a father torn between parental duty and, potentially, saving the world. That his character arc speaks entirely about destiny is a concept we’ll come back to in a minute.

Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain are on hand as well. Hathaway is very good as Brand, a scientist/astronaut who works with Cooper. That she may be influenced by forces other than those strictly scientific plays into the overall theme of the movie and Hathaway makes the audience care about her struggles. Chastain is wonderful in her role as well. I won’t say much more about who she plays (though I believe her role can be divined by even a cursory viewing of the trailers for the film), but I will say that her performance is key to the movie and her character’s story is most affecting. I do like, very much, that two of the leads in the movie are strong, smart women whose intelligence outstrips the men with whom they interact. That’s nice to see.

What’s most remarkable to me about Interstellar (and there are a great many things in the movie on which to remark) is that, at a very definite point in the film, the story moves from the science to the spirit. If that point works for you, you’ll love the movie. You may not cry as much as I did, but you’ll love it, nonetheless. If that turn doesn’t work for you, you may feel you’ve spent 3 hours of your life on a film that looks really cool but leaves you unfulfilled.

I am not sure there is a middle ground.

it is possible that Interstellar may not always hold together plot-wise. I think it probably does, but there are simply pieces of the story that are beyond my ken. However, it’s no Inception following which I was – weeks later – thinking “what the hell was that?” No, as I said initially, Interstellar is unapologetically about Big. Things.

I wish more movies were.

INTERSTELLAR receives FIVE DOTS AND DASHES out of a possible FIVE.

P.S. After watching Interstellar, I am CERTAIN about one thing in Inception: Cobb is awake at the end of the movie. The top stops spinning…

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Interstellar – Initial Thoughts

I will write a full review of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar later this week (The Junior Senator beat me to it; you can read his review HERE), but are three initial reactions:

1. When we left the movie and ran to the bathroom (which was most necessary after the 2 hour and 48 minute running time), The Cinnamon Girl heard this conversation in the Women’s Room

Woman One:  “Did you like it?”

Woman Two:  “I guess. But it was too science-y.”

Yes, “science-y.” So, if you don’t like “science-y,” don’t see Interstellar.  “Science-y” indeed. What did this person think she was seeing?

2. This movie has already and will continue to divide audiences. There is a moment… a clear message is delivered. If you don’t like that message – if that message doesn’t resonate with you, you won’t like the movie.

3. I loved the movie. A lot.

image from hollywoodreporter.com.

image from hollywoodreporter.com.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A Movie Review

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-IMAX-PosterIf you’re the type of person who follows hype about movies – reviews, word-of-mouth, bloggers, etc – you’ve heard amazingly good press for Marvel Studio’s newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s time to start believing it.

The movie is a certified financial smash (it has already posted the largest April opening of any film in history and strong reviews suggest that it will continue to do big business) to be sure, but that might simply imply that hundreds of thousands of fan-boys lined up to see it opening weekend and some of them (like me!) lined up to see it twice.

The public is still wanting to ride the wave of Marvel movies. That’s clear. It will pay to see any movie with any of the Avengers in it. It wants more of what it’s seen. It wants more of the same.

More of the same is far from what it got in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. No, this movie is far more than Cap 2 or Avengers 1.5. What is does is fulfill the potential suggested by a recent superhero movie – and I’m not talking about a Marvel film – The Dark Knight Rises. In his last Batman movie (and throughout the trilogy, actually) director Christopher Nolan played with the concept of the superhero in a way that illustrated why comic characters such as Batman (75 years old this year) and Captain America (73 years old this year) have been around as long as they have. Writers can do anything with them. They can put them in a gangster movie (The Dark Knight) a disaster movie (The Dark Knight Rises), a cold war movie (X-Men First Class) or anything of which they can think. The form is malleable.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is only nominally a superhero movie. It’s primarily a political potboiler touching upon the timely topics of government power run amok, overreaching surveillance and loss of freedom. It deals with truth and lies in the information age and whether or not it matters if the forces of good or evil actually have their fingers on the switch. It has something to say about these topics, something far more important than one would expect from a film whose protagonist dresses in a costume emblazoned with a star.

As Captain America, Chris Evans is highly compelling. Trading in the man-out-of-time shtick that worked so well in Avengers, Evans’ Steve Rogers is – this time – aware of the potential of his surroundings and this brave new world to work for the betterment of all or against it. Rather than trying to figure out how to use a cell phone, he’s trying to figure out who to trust and the movie takes the audience along for that ride. Evans is Captain America just as much as Robert Downey, jr. is Iron Man and Evans’ role is far harder to play. Captain America can be portrayed as an impossible do-gooder (the movie knows this and gets a great laugh when Cap is interrogating a criminal and the thug suggests that Cap is too moral to do what needs to be done to get  any information out of him – the fact that the creep is right is part of the joke) and boring as drywall. Evans never lets his Steve Rogers become that. He embodies him with strength and dignity. He’s the type of guy others follow into battle which is a concept central to the character.

Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson are back as The Black Widow and Nick Fury respectively and they are in top form. Both find notes to play in their characters that we’ve not seen before and that’s as much a credit to them as it is to the script. Where these characters go from here (we assume both go, at least in part, directly to Avengers: Age of Ultron) is anyone’s guess, but the movie leaves them open to many story possibilities and that’s a good thing.

Another good thing is the introduction of Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson – The Falcon. Though I really wanted to see red-and-white spandex for his costume, Marvel does what Marvel does and updates the character in a “realistic” manner. As a pilot fresh out of combat, Mackie’s Wilson is not exactly itching to go back into the service but, when Captain America calls, he answers. Mackie and Evans have great chemistry and I couldn’t help but fondly think of the partnership of these two characters, a partnership so strong that they co-starred for years in a comic book called Captain America and the Falcon. The movie wisely makes very little of Mackie being an African-American – we like to think we’re in a post-racial America – but it’s worth noting that The Falcon was the very first African-American superhero. It’s about time he made it to the screen.

I simply loved Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D honcho Alexander Pierce. Redford would have been the first choice to play Cap if this movie had gotten off the ground in the 1970s, he’s an iconic figure whose gravitas gives them film some of its potency and he really seems to be having a great time in a Marvel movie. He really gives himself over to this world and, if Redford can, can’t everyone?

It’s telling that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the titled antagonist of the movie, The Winter Soldier. He’s a bit one-note in the movie, but meant to be and, visually, he’s stunning. He looks like he leaped off the comic book page and onto the screen. More than a match for Captain America, when he and Rogers mix it up, the movie delivers some of its best action. The Winter Soldier is a very cool concept and it might have a little mileage left in it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies of them all. Really. Is it perfect? No. Almost, but no. It would be, save for one very odd detour featuring a character from the first movie that is at once creepy and sad and really derails the movie for a few moments. Mercifully, only for a few. Beyond that, it’s just a really good movie, like everyone should see it good. It’s smart. It has a message. It’s got amazing action, wonderful performances, twists and turns and reveals. It’s got Stan Lee! And it has not one but two (stay through the credits) post ending sequences. This is one I’ll see many times.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier receives four-and-a-half Smithsonian Exhibits out of a possible five.

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Rights, Right?

Marvel is doing better than DC in terms of making movies and making money with movies. There is no doubt about that. Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America… these are huge hits for Marvel and movies featuring Marvel characters have become part of the summer landscape. We expect more than one Marvel movie to open annually and we expect them to be big. DC Movies are not yet on par. Though the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy is widely – and appropriately – respected and last summer’s Man of Steel made a ton of money, DC still lags behind Marvel in cinematic terms. Avengers is one of the biggest money makers of all time. Spider-Man and The X-Men are big draws, too, but don’t expect to see these characters interacting much on screen…

However, DC has one advantage Marvel does not have. It (or corporate den mother Warner Bros) owns all the rights to its characters. Marvel does not. There is a convoluted history as to the whys of why Marvel doesn’t own all its own characters, but given the energy around combining characters into superheroic jam sessions, its causing the movie branch of the publisher some significant issues around getting the band together.

Here’s a terrific infographic on the topic from thegeektwins.com on the topic. Be sure to click on it to make it large enough to read and pay special attention to The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver whose rights somehow overlap two studios!

infographic-visual-guide-to-marvel-character-movie-rights

 

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They Call Them Stingers… Post Credit Sequences Countdown

One of the fun parts of seeing superhero movies these days is waiting for the post credit sequence (or two or, in some cases three) that serve as a lead in to another film (films that aren’t always made) or comment wryly on the proceedings just completed. Marvel has done an increasingly good job with these, DC not as much. Man of Steel didn’t feature a post credit sequence of any kind… nor did Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies.

With Thor: The Dark World opening this weekend – and the movie features TWO sequences, so stick around – Entertainment Weekly counted down the post credit sequences we’ve seen in superhero movies thus far.

I think they got the list pretty correct!

You can view it HERE.

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