“Dunkirk” film review

Journalism meets cinematic visual storytelling. Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk provides audiences with a different kind of war movie experience. Different in that the narrative is nonlinear and highly experimental. From a technical perspective, the film is flawless. The cinematography, sound design, and score all work together to create an immersive experience in which that fourth wall is nearly removed. One of my friends that I saw the film with last night described it as being a fly on the wall within each timeline. With little dialog, the focus is on the various groups of the army, air force, and civilians. The stylistic film reminds me of photo/video journalism. Dunkirk demonstrates that an emotionally satisfying experience can be delivered without conventional storytelling. In many ways Norma Desmond would be proud of Nolan’s film because “[he] didn’t need dialog, [he] had faces.” Dunkirk invites audiences in for a rare glimpse into the reality of war, and the reality of not only the armed forces but the civilian assistance that truly made the difference and just why this particular war story is so remarkable. Be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the events of Dunkirk before watching the film. You’re definitely going to need to have a base of knowledge of the theatre before becoming the proverbial fly on the wall.

Instead of a plot synopsis, here is what Wikipedia has as a summary of the history of Dunkirk Evacuation. This is definitely going to be helpful prior to watching the film.

During the Second World War (1939–1945), in the May 1940 Battle of France, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France aiding the French, was cut off from the rest of the French Army by the German advance. Encircled by the Germans they retreated to the area around the port of Dunkirk. For years, it was assumed that Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to stop the attack, favouring bombardment by the Luftwaffe. However, according to the Official War Diary of Army Group A, its commander, Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt, ordered the halt. Hitler merely validated the order several hours after the fact. This lull in the action gave the British a few days to evacuate by sea and fortify defences. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, ordered any ship or boat available, large or small, to collect the stranded soldiers. 338,226 men (including 123,000 French soldiers) were evacuated – the miracle of Dunkirk, as Churchill called it. It took over 900 vessels to evacuate the Allied forces and although over two-thirds of those rescued embarked via the harbour, almost 100,000 were taken off the beaches. More than 40,000 vehicles as well as massive amounts of other military equipment and supplies were left behind, their value being less than that of trained fighting men. The British evacuation of Dunkirk through the English Channel was codenamed Operation Dynamo. Forty thousand Allied soldiers (some who carried on fighting after the official evacuation) were captured or forced to make their own way home through a variety of routes including via neutral Spain.

If you are approaching Dunkirk from a desire to see a Saving Private Ryan, then you may want to rethink going to see this film. With little convention in the storytelling, this film puts you on the beach, in the air, or on the sea alongside the civilians, pilots, soldiers, and officers. The focus is not on the characters, special effects, or the bloody atrocities of war, but focussed on highlighting a significant event in WWII history that has largely gone unknown except for those in France and the UK. You are very much like a journalist who is capturing the imagery with your camera. It’s a snapshot of war, not necessarily the story of war. War history buffs, this IS a film for you!

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) movie review

Prepare yourself for “a tale as old as time” that is ultimately better told through its animated counterpart. Director Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the (1992) Academy Awards, is an extravagant display of visual effects and digital imagery necessary to animate a live-action motion picture. Essentially, he took an animated movie, made it live-action, just to make it animated again. Sure, this new version of the “song as old as rhyme” can certainly stand on its own and is demonstrably well-directed, but 2017’s Beauty and the Beast largely comes across as unnecessary. In terms of the storytelling (or diegesis), the film’s effort to nearly shot-for-shot translate the most memorable parts of the film from animation to live-action pays off nicely! It’s when the film tries to be different that it falls short in its delivery. There are sufficient moments that beautifully recreate that which caused you to fall in love with this movie more than two decades ago; although, with this version, you may find yourself exhausted and over-stimulated by the constant waves of computer-animated figures in a live-action world. Oh yeah, you’ll likely miss hearing the legendary Angela Lansbury as the iconic Mrs. Potts. The film does its very best to justify its existence, but begs the question whether or not this was the movie for which you were waiting.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a young lady with a longing for adventure and a great big imagination, but she lives in a rather provincial French town. But, Belle is about to get more adventure than even she, in her wildest imagination could have dreamt. For through a series of strange circumstances, she finds herself trapped inside a dark foreboding castle, surrounded by a very odd collection of characters. It’s in this castle that she finds her father who she feared injured or dead imprisoned by a Beast (Dan Stevens). Against her father’s wishes, she reluctantly exchanges herself for her father’s release. After the Beast sets him free, Belle is to remain a permanent resident of the castle. Fearing the worst, Belle’s father seeks the help of the misogynistic village heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans) and his band of goofs and thugs to rescue her. During this time, however, Belle begins to feel “something there that wasn’t there before” as she learns more about the Beast of the castle.

Can this film stand on its own? Sure. There is no question in that. Moreover, is it enjoyable and magical? That, it is. But when most of the campaign, leading up to the highly anticipated release, was primarily built upon how similar the live-action film would be to its animated counterpart, therein a problem arises. Because most people going into the movie will have seen the animated version, Broadway show, or even the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which, in full disclosure, is a show that I worked when I was a Cast Member at Walt Disney World), you are predisposed to looking for and eagerly awaiting the nostalgic references and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was looking forward to reliving the experience of when I first saw the animated movie. For the most part, if you are like me, then you will be pleased with the live-action translation–truly. However, it’s when the live-action version departs from or adds in material not found or referenced in the animated classic that you may be disappointed or simply ask “why?” You may find yourself wondering why was a live-action remake even necessary?

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the music! Still to this day, millions of people love hearing the classic music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Both the Beauty and the Beast and Be Our Guest can be heard as part of other shows at Walt Disney World and of course are included in the stage show at Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, the most iconic songs from the animated version are largely untouched; however, with a couple of the songs, there are breaks for diegetic dancing, fighting, or other material that essentially interrupts the organic flow of the music from the buildup to the climax and denouement. Again, the question “why” will likely pop into your head. We are introduced to a few new songs, and in and of themselves, are beautiful! Every note and lyric has that Disney magic that many of us have come to expect and appreciate. Unfortunately, the songs just don’t fit in with the original numbers in terms of pacing, lyrics, and score. Furthermore, here’s something quite interesting and odd: the song [To Be] Human Again was written for but deleted when it originally hit theatres in 1991. It was, however, added back in for the Broadway show and in the 2010 (and Diamond Edition) re-release of the movie. Although it was seen as important enough to include in the Broadway show and add back into the animated version, it is conspicuously missing from the live-action remake.

With the exception of Emma Thompson replacing the legendary Angela Lansbury, the cast was well-selected and demonstrated excellent chemistry between one another. Although Emma Watson is not a singer by trade, she was able to capture a Belle-like essence in her delivery of the various songs throughout the film. There was something uniquely organic in her voice that is seldom captured by other Disney “princesses” (note: Belle is not a princess). I greatly appreciate the dynamic range of characters that Watson has demonstrated that she can play over the years. Dan Stevens wows audiences with his vocal prowess especially in his solo number as we transition from the second to third acts. I appreciate how he stuck a fantastic balance between his human and beast sides respectively. Luke Evans was a perfect choice for Gaston, and his vocal talent matches his muscles–big, bold, and flawless. The rest of the cast, which includes some A-list talent itself, was ideally suited for the enchanted objects in the castle and the village.

Okay, now for the white elephant in the room: Josh Gad’s Lefou. Unless you have been completely disconnected from social media and the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about the first ever Disney “gay moment” in this film. Suffice it to say, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. In fact, more attention is likely being paid to Lefou now than had the story never grown to the size of Gaston’s ego. For the most part, the subtext and subtitles of Lefou’s are largely just that–subtle–unless you are looking for them. But, in doing that, you may miss some of the more important and impressive parts of the movie. Moreover, there is nothing in Lefou’s actions that come across as offensive or obnoxious. Before audiences begin accusing Disney of pushing their ideals on those eager to attend this film, it is likely that the entertainment and media giant is simply delivering what audiences already expect or want. As a film and media professor, I can tell you that by in large, media simply delivers what audiences and investors are telling them to produce–not the other way around. Looking back at the animated film, it is pretty obvious that Lefou has a thing for Gaston anyway. Although most of the hints at his sexual orientation are more-or-less winks or nods at the audience (winks or nods that you have to be looking for), there is a moment that is a trifle more obvious at the end of the film. Diegetically, there is nothing bizarre about Lefou’s behavior and it suits his character well.

Prepare to be whisked away to an enchanted castle in a remote part of France. So remote is this province in France, that most everyone speaks with a British accent. Bill Condon’s film will take you back to when you first saw this magical tale of falling in love with someone based upon what’s on the inside and not allowing a beastly outward appearance to detract from the gentle soul. Relive the music that you may still listen to in the car or eagerly look forward to when visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts. Ultimately, this film may not capture the magic of the original for you, but there is a lot to enjoy! Looking for a great date movie this weekend, then this is definitely it! Hopefully a side effect of this film may remind producers and audiences that some stories are better suited for an animated motion picture.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“Allied” movie review

alliedQuite the duplicitous plot! Robert Zemeckis’ Allied released by Paramount Pictures is a thrilling tale of espionage and love. We have certainly seen a few different “spy” movies over the last couple of years; some more about espionage and others more about the drama that ensues afterwards. Fortunately, Allied feels like a genuine spy movie that actually contains espionage. The production design and costumes are a beautiful throwback to the fabulous 40s. You’ll find yourself reaching for a glass of champagne and swing dancing to Benny Goodman’s timeless big band jazz hit Sing, Sing, Sing. There is one city synonymous with WWII, espionage, and romance and you will appropriately return to that iconic city of Casablanca in Allied. This is definitely not a reimagined Casablanca but there are indirect references to that movie sprinkled throughout this new story. Films like this one require top notch talent, and both Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard deliver outstanding performances to accompany this staple in film genres. Not limited to the love story between Pitt’s and Cotillard’s respective characters, the movie also includes some deadly shootout scenes and dangerously close encounters with the Nazis behind enemy lines.

Commander and intelligence officer Max Vatan (Pitt) is stationed in the famous city of Casablanca in French Morocco where he teams up with French resistance movement leader Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). Impressed by her ability to so effectively blend in and create her authentic cover, Vatan soon finds himself falling in love with his partner. Following the assassination of a Nazi ambassador, Beausejour and Vatan flee to London to start their life together. Everything is going beautifully for the happy couple in their second year of marriage with a child when Vatan’s superiors confront him with the suspicion that Marianne is in fact a Nazi spy. Refusing to believe it to be true, Max must now conduct his own investigation into his wife’s history to protect the ones he loves so dearly.

I absolutely adored the look and feel of the film as it echoes the era of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although this movie plays off a tad listless as a result of failing to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience, it is not without it outstanding elements. It benefits from solid acting and beautiful cinematography as well as some fantastic symbolism. Robert Zemeckis’ talent for visual storytelling is clearly visible in this period film. The weakness in the ability to successfully leave a lasting emotional impact on the audience is in the writing and executive producership of Steven Knight (Eastern Promises). For films that are not as much about the spectacle as they are the drama between characters and the challenges faced therein, it is vitally important that the personal/interpersonal relationships transcend the screen and directly impact the audience. All the makings were there for a deeply moving cinematic story, but it just doesn’t quite make that transition from the mostly superficial and distant.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall…(interesting fun fact: this misquoted line from Snow White is actually “magic mirror on the wall”). But, I digress. The strategic use of mirrors is an  incredible use of visual storytelling and symbolism. For those who have studied film or literary rhetoric, the mirror is a classic means of conveying duplicity (two sides, faces, etc of a character). Even without knowing that this was a spy movie, I would have been able to infer that from how the mirrors are shot and placed within the composition of the 24 frames a second. When using powerful symbolism as part of the visual story, it conveys so much more meaning in a scene than words could actually describe. Mirrors have long sense been a powerful metaphor even before moving pictures. But motion pictures allow for a greater use of the importance it plays in a cinematic story. Not limited to duplicity, mirrors can also be used as a metaphor for self-reflection. Whether talking duplicity or reflection, the mirror aids in conveying so much to the audience in this movie.

Ordinarily, I am not a fan of classic films getting remakes; however, there are always exceptions when the core or essence of the film is held in tact but the production design, direction, and cinematography are brought up to speed with contemporary cinema. If you’re a fan of WWII era films or the timelsss spy movie, then you will definitely enjoy Allied. After witnessing the significance of Casablanca in this movie, I am actually looking forward to a remake if there ever is one. Provided. That the overall look and feel of the movie is in line with classical motion picture storytelling. I could definitely see Robert Zemeckis directing a remake of Casablanca. Occasionally there are directors who can strike the balance between a classic tale told through contemporary technology, and Zemeckis definitely struck that balance in Allied.

Don’t allow the weak writing to dissuade you from watching it; there is actually a lot to enjoy in this film. After the slow burn during the first act, acts II and III are full of intrigue and suspense.

“Leonardo da Vinci: the Genius in Milan” documentary review

DaVinciGrab your passport and prepare to be whisked away to Leonardo’s Milan. Arts & Architecture in Cinema (AAIC) and Fathom events present a remarkable look into the  genius of Milan. Experience the works and legacy of Leonardo da Vinci like never before–that is, unless you have had the privilege of traveling to Leonardo’s Milan, Florence, Rome, and France. Go beyond the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and witness a rare 4K glimpse into the life and times of the world’s most famous Renaissance man. Combining interviews with Da Vinci scholars along with actors portraying Leonardo’s subjects, pupils, and contemporaries, this film will open your eyes to the Leonardo that you never knew. Although there clearly lacks a story in the traditional or cinematic narrative sense, there IS definitely a story here. Like with art itself, the story is left up to interpretation by the viewer. Perhaps your story interpretation will be one of inspiration or maybe a new clairvoyance into yours or someone else’s life. Either way, there is something for any art or architecture lover.

The first element of the documentary film that I noticed was simply the fact that the entire film is in Italian; albeit apropos, it definitely served as a minor distraction from my ability to concentrate on the stunning visuals in the documentary. Never having traveled abroad before, I was very excited to feel this close to such renown works as The Mona LisaThe Last Supper, and more. The beautiful imagery outshines the highest resolution coffee table art books. That is largely in part due to the giant screen and 4K cameras that were used in this production. Now, I am not accustomed to watching foreign films, so it is entirely possible that what I found to be a distraction is not as distracting for those who watch foreign films. However, it would have been greatly beneficial for the distribution company to have dubbed the the film in English. Granted, it would have lost a degree of authenticity in the true Milan experience, but I would have probably learned a little more than I did. That being said, I still found the documentary film to be full of fascinating information and insight into Leonardo.

One of the predominant themes in the film was the reoccurring message (sometimes direct and other times indirect) that Leonardo did not consider himself a painter; paining is what he did to “pay the bills,” so to speak. Not unlike aspiring visual and performing artists of today, it appears that Leonardo had a day job in order to support his love of dreaming, designing, science, research, and architecture. Yes, even Leonardo was at times sloppy, lazy, and lacked interest in painting. Some of his most famous sketches and paintings are unfinished because he decided to move on. He loved science and engineering more than anything else; and although his flying machine and other inventions have been found to be impossible or impractical, it doesn’t take away from his genius. While we may have referred to Leonardo (as well as many of his contemporaries in the arts and sciences) as a man of the future, the scholars in the film point out that he was a man of the now. However, due to his nearly unparalleled level of curiosity, he indirectly inspired countless artists and scientists to pursue what they love and find interesting.

A man of the present, future, and a man of mystery. Leonardo loved mysteries, enigmas, and puzzles. And no, I am not referring to his code. Just like he was intrigued and mesmerized by natural mysteries or breaking barriers of gravity or even the celestial realm, he left mysteries behind. True, it is due to his reputation as a man of mystery that author Dan Brown developed his Angels and Demons and Da Vinci Code. But it goes way beyond the creative fictitious codes Brown attributed to the Renaissance man. Leonardo wanted to make sure that no one could copy his work. In fact, he kept a very small staff of pupils around him in order to have control over his visions of paintings, frescos, architecture, and engineering. According to the scholars and his contemporaries in the documentary, Leonardo found the inspiration for his enigmas and mirror writing from nature itself. The inclusion of actors portraying historic individuals from Leonardo’s day was an brilliant element in the film. Speaking from a historic point of view but including information from today, the characters were able to help bridge the gap between the world of Leonardo and ours. It added a fantastic dimension to the documentary that greatly enhanced the experiential factor.

Ordinarily, this is where I point out what may prompt you to see the film, but this documentary was a one-night event. That being the case, it is likely that you may have to wait for it to be released on Netflix, RedBox, or on BluRay. But, if you enjoy history, art, and architecture, I encourage you to remain on the lookout for this title to appear in your queue.