Tag Archives: World War II

“DUNKIRK” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros.

One week, one day, one hour.

It seems sacrilegious to criticize the masterful Christopher Nolan on film. Still, nearly no one else is going to say this, so I will: Dunkirk sucks. In an age where there is no shortage of compelling war dramas, Dunkirk is confusing, lapsed, and misplaced in its direction. If that was painful for you to read, imagine how painful it was for me to type.

Retelling the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II in 1940, Dunkirk follows British soldiers from three different battlegrounds: the land, the sea, and the sky. Exhausted after weeks of fighting in Dunkirk, British and French troops are cut off and surrounded by the German army, shooting down their ships and any support that can come through to rescue them. By every account, the Allies are in a dire situation. It’s not until British citizens, not soldiers, board their own sea boats and venture out themselves to rescue their soldiers. In a hastily collaborated effort to save their families and friends at war, about 80 sailor boats saved the lives of over 300,000 soldiers during the battle of Dunkirk. That is an incredible story, one that I’m sure the British retell with pride and patriotism.

The film stars Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. I identify the cast by their real names instead of their characters because that’s all you’re going to recognize them by. While strong characters are present in most of Nolan’s wider filmography, Dunkirk’s heroes are mostly forgettable on and off the battlefield. That’s because they meander from crisis to crisis, reacting as they go, only rarely having time to slow down for us to care about them or invest in their plights. If you’re going into Dunkirk expecting a lot of buildup to the character’s backstory, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. They’re not as fleshed out as Nolan’s other cinematic heroes are.

That being said, I understand why this is the case in the context of this film. It’s because Nolan wasn’t trying to write compelling characters for Dunkirk. He was trying to write compelling scenarios, and the character’s purposes were more or less meant as surrogates for us to project ourselves onto in order to be more immersed in the chaos on-screen. It’s been done before in film, and it’s been done well. Eraserhead had a mostly silent protagonist so we could more easily digest the confusion and horror the character was experiencing, while Boyhood had a mostly flat lead just so we could more accessibly relive our own childhood memories and nostalgia.

Nolan attempted to use surrogate characters for the same purposes in Dunkirk, and for the most part, he succeeded. That’s because the details he takes away from the people, he invests into the battlefield, and man are the battle scenes visceral. I’ve heard millions of gunshots from hundreds of other films during my career, yet the first time I heard that loud, ear-piercing BANG in the theater from this movie, I immediately forgot everything else I experienced and was immersed in the moment of tension and paranoia during wartime. There’s a lot of scenes like that in Dunkirk, where the action and sound mixing is so sudden and unexpected that it immediately places you in the moment. My favorite scenes probably happened closer to the beginning, where soldiers were in rows quietly waiting to board a life vessel, only to hear a high-pitched hum slowly crescendo into an ear-piercing screech. The soldiers lifted their heads, their eyes widened in panic, and then they ducked down, bracing for impact. I don’t have to tell you what happens next.

The action, the sound, and the production value are all truly the most immersive elements in Dunkirk, and they all need to be praised for their usage in this film. If Nolan had stuck strictly to those elements and put the soldiers through disaster after disaster in a linear path, then he would have a solid, powerful film on his hands.

The problems come in with Nolan’s writing, more specifically with how he chooses to sequence the film’s events. In the film, the three perspectives Dunkirk focuses on all take place in different scopes of time, with the land being one week, the sea being one day, and the air being one hour. If the film followed their stories chronologically, then you would follow these perspectives in descending order from land to sea to sky.

The issue is Nolan starts and ends these narratives at the same time, with each of their stories being intertwined against each other just so they get equal screen time. This makes the film so convoluted, because even though each of the stories takes place at different times, they’re edited to look like they’re all happening at once. Because of this, similar events will repeat twice, the passage of time will go from night to day and then back to night, and then other times essential transitions are cut out altogether. The editing is so jarring and disjointed that it immediately removes us from the picture, forcing us to put our thinking caps on and piece events together like a puzzle instead of simply letting the experience wash over us.

I know, I know, confusing narratives are Nolan’s staple. Except that with his other films, the complexity leads to a point and purpose for their larger narrative. The dreams layered on top of each other in Inception illustrated the scope and stakes of what the characters were really dealing with. The dueling narratives in The Prestige put us in the middle of this warring rivalry between two conniving magicians. And the reverse narrative in Memento put us in Leonard’s shoes to show us the mental instability he dealt with everyday.

Complex narratives led to a larger payoff with Nolan’s other films. With Dunkirk, however, there is no payoff to the nonlinear storytelling. It’s just there to unnecessarily frustrate us and distract us from the larger spectacle going on.

The critics have more or less made up their minds on this one, however, with many calling Dunkirk one of the greatest war films ever made, with some even saying it’s Christopher Nolan’s best film. I expect moviegoing audiences to be more divided on the topic. Dunkirk sports amazing set pieces and action sequences, and it sure knows how to blow stuff up in spectacular PG-13 fashion. But the investment is gone. The care isn’t present. And no matter how much I want to like this movie, I can’t help but get pulled out of the experience every time another jarring cut removes me from the scene. Better war films, such as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, understand investment and how to involve its audiences in the tragedies of war. Those films are victories for WWII cinema. Dunkirk is a suicide bomber.

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“HACKSAW RIDGE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Convicted by belief.

I don’t believe in God anymore.

The first time I heard those words uttered from one of my closest friends’ lips, I was shaken. Growing up in a deeply spiritual household, I’ve always held the notion that God was quietly watching over everything. The thought that he didn’t even exist truly frightened me. To me, it was as if hearing love doesn’t exist.

But as my friend continued his testimony, my shock turned into sadness as I slowly realized where he was coming from. Fighting in the Iraq war, he saw things nobody should ever see, not even soldiers. He saw his friends blow up right in front of his face. People he called his brothers, suddenly turned into small, bloody piles of meat laying on top of the dirt. He saw women and children killed daily, and in turn, he also saw women and children kill others. He does not exaggerate when he says he saw a very real picture of hell, and at the end of it all he looked at me and asked “How can a God see that and let it exist?”

I’ve never agreed with him, but I’ve always understood where he came from and why he held the position that he did. I’m sure he looks at other war films, such as Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, and is tragically reminded of the horrifying images he saw half a world away. I can watch a movie. He only needs to watch his nightmares.

I would like this same friend of mine to watch Hacksaw Ridge. It is a powerful, emboldening film, one that does not shortchange the horror of war, but equally does not shortchange the power of belief either. This is a movie that does more than strengthen the soldier’s spirit. It strengthens the human spirit.

Based on an incredible true story, Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss (Portrayed by Andrew Garfield), a combat medic during WWII that saved the lives of over 75 American soldiers during the battle of Okinawa. That much I already knew. What I didn’t know was that he exhausted and nearly killed himself saving most of those men in one single night. The number of lives that he saved is impressive enough on its own. The fact that he did it within a 12-hour period makes his story seem impossible.

And yet, Desmond Doss did exist, he did save 75 soldiers, and he did do all of it in one night. Even more impressive is the fact that he did so without arming himself with a single weapon. Yes, dear reader: he was a conscientious objector, and he is the only war hero in history to have earned that title alongside a Medal of Honor.

To try and verbalize the feelings that the film emotes is impossible. Like other great historical epics, such as Schindler’s List or 12 Years A Slave, it pulls emotion out of you to the point where you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie anymore, and are instead completely immersed in its harsh, uncompromised reality. It’s easy to relate to Desmond Doss because you’re not experiencing the film through the third-person perspective as the viewer: you’re experiencing it firsthand as Doss, seeing the same things that he does while reacting to them in real time.

Mel Gibson is no stranger to this sort of storytelling. His previous films, including Apocalypto, Passion of the Christ, and the Oscar-winning Braveheart, each threw our heroes through impossible, monumental, life-changing events that personally challenged each of them as those movies went on. Hacksaw Ridge is a welcome addition to his incredibly impactful filmography. Like each of those films, Hacksaw Ridge finds tragedy in a real-life subject, hammers it mercilessly at our hero, only to see him overcome it with every grit of his teeth, every sweat pouring down his brow, and every grip of his nails digging into the dirt.

The fact that this film exists, and that it is done as well as it is, is a testament to Gibson’s skill as a filmmaker. What is most impressive is the fact that this person existed in real life, and that he really did the things we saw him do on screen. How could this have possibly happened? I’m a believer, and I don’t believe the things I saw on the screen. It’s so far-fetching to think about, but the film is done so vividly well that you can’t see it as anything but real. The film exists in this weird space where you want to question everything you’re told, but then as you watch it, you suddenly silence your questions and your disbelief.

You stop doubting. You start believing.

Garfield deserves equal credit in bringing this man’s story to life. Yes, Gibson is the director in the chair, and his master strokes as an artist is what allows this film to live and breathe. Yet, a movie is nothing without its character, and Garfield performs his role brilliantly. Imagine a character pulled right out of the frames of any other Christian film, professing his status as a believer, hit with some monumental tragedy, then questioning himself and the things that he was raised to believe.

Now throw that character through the gritty, violent, gory battlefields akin to any horror movie, and watch as he reacts to everything he’s witnessing in the moment. That is the role Garfield has to play, and he does it convincingly as his character is scared, fearful, chaotic-minded, and alone. Yet, there is also an earnest courage and bravery to him that feels equally real, and when it overcomes his fear and his sadness, that is when the film is at its most powerful. Garfield is simply stunning in this role. If he does not at least get an Oscar nomination for this performance, the Academy will have truly lost all authenticity as an awards ceremony

To elaborate on this film any further would invite the threat of spoiling it. Go and see this movie. I repeat: GO AND SEE THIS MOVIE. There are films out there that excite us, thrill us, depress us, madden us, scare us, and empower us. Hacksaw Ridge changes us. Even if you do not share the same religious views as Doss, you share the same spiritual views, which is the spiritual power of overcoming.

I don’t know if Hacksaw Ridge will change my friend’s view on God. It probably won’t. But it might change his view on life, on the resilience of the human spirit and the things that it can accomplish. If Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t bring my friend to God, then I pray that it at least brings him to hope.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” Review (✫✫✫)

I pledge allegiance to the first Avenger. 

If Iron Man is the best film out of this expanding Marvel universe, let Captain America: The First Avenger be the second best. It is exciting, stylish, suspenseful, dramatic, and has a patriotic energy to boot. If Captain America were any more American, he would stop being a captain and would become a bald eagle.

Based on the Marvel comic of the same name, Captain America: The First Avenger flashes back to the 1940’s to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a frail young man who wants to enlist in the military, despite his bone-thin figure. Everyone around Steve tells him he should give up on enlisting, including his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who himself is a U.S. Sergeant. But Steve doesn’t see himself doing anything else. He loves his country and what it stands for, and is willing to throw himself onto a live grenade for it if he has to. Despite his patriotic passion, every military inspection officer denies his eligibility to enlist due to his health.

Enter Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine has created a chemical called the super soldier serum, which amplifies a person’s physical stature as well as their personality. Seeing Steve for his heart and not for his size, Erskine enlists him in the super soldier program and sees him grow: literally and figuratively. No longer the weak and passive man known as Steve Rogers, he has now become the powerful, noble super soldier known as Captain America.

Does the premise sound a little silly? Well, that’s because it is, and it’s supposed to be. Captain America: The First Avengers feels and breathes like a comic book, a fast-paced and energetic thrill ride that pops off the screen like the panels in those old pulp fiction comic books. It feels reasonably old-fashioned. It doesn’t project itself as a superhero movie as much as it does a swashbuckling action-adventure, and our main hero Captain America is its grandiose hero, not unlike Zorro or James Bond.

This tone is fitting for Captain America, and especially for director Joe Johnston, who previous directing experience included Jumanji and The Rocketeer. The fact that he was able to tap into those movies instead of Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman is a very good thing for Johnston, as it has allowed him to make a meaningful, action-packed blockbuster that has just as much fun with its characters as it does with its action. Just look at the cast’s diversity. Besides its leads, you have a supporting cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Toby Jones, and of course, Stanley Tucci. All of these characters are entertaining not because of the action sequences they go through, but because of their unique personalities, with Jones’ snark being the most entertaining out of the bunch.  One of my favorite scenes of him in the film involved a cliche shot where our hero passionately kissed his love interest before sweeping into battle. Jones takes advantage of the cliche as best he can: “I’m not kissing you,” he bluntly tells the Cap.

But the shining performances surprisingly comes from Evans and his antagonist, a Nazi general named Johann Schmidt, brilliantly played up by Hugo Weaving. Evans, whose most notable role before this was as the Human Torch in the incredibly campy 2005 film Fantastic Four, demonstrates a surprising level of versatility here. He exemplifies the ultimate underdog, displaying earnest and nobility whether he’s small and skinny or strong and stoic. He never displays an obvious external sense of emotion, but consistently expresses an internal one. You get a sense of purpose and motivation with this character, a man who desperately wants to be a part of something that everyone tells him he can’t be a part of. Evans personifies the character both physically and emotionally, and Weaving is effective in the villain’s role with appropriate grandiose and theatrics, serving as an appropriate foil for the Captain America character.

All the same, I’m most disappointed with the fact that we’re once again playing up this whole Avengers cinematic universe thing. The Avengers is right around the corner, and with studio heads knowing that, I think they tried too hard to tie in both movies at the climax, which features a twist so absurd and ridiculous that I want to compare it to the Ape Lincoln twist at the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake. Can’t Captain America just be allowed to breathe and live in his own story, much like Iron Man did in his own movie? Apparently that’s too much to ask for. We’re at the event now that everything has to build up to The Avengers. Even if the events in this movie had to happen, did they have to happen like this? Couldn’t it have been a post-credits scene, or maybe saved for The Avengers movie altogether? The way it is now, the resolution feels too forced and hammy. It takes away from the meaning of the rest of the story, and the sacrifice that Cap gives at the end of the film.

I know that Captain America sounds like a silly and ridiculous superhero. Before I went into this movie, that’s what I thought myself. Then again though, wasn’t Iron Man working against those same perceptions when his movie was released? Here is another superhero epic that is, at it’s heart, a fun, capable, and entertaining story that makes us believe in the skinny kid from Brooklyn. Red, white, and blue never looked so good on another superhero.

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