Film Review: Dunkirk

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Dunkirk is a disaster movie disguised as a war movie. The goal of the characters we follow is only to survive and help others survive the terror that lurks just out of sight but that is slowly closing in. The Germans are only referred to by name once or twice, and are only seen once at the end of the film. They are a force of nature, more like the weather in The Day After Tomorrow rather than the Wehrmacht of Saving Private Ryan. Christopher Nolan’s newest film cares more about looking at fear and survival than it does heroism and battle. In doing so Nolan has created something truly special, and perhaps the best film of his career.

Dunkirk is a story told from three different perspectives covering three different periods of time, each following a different group of characters as they participate in the evacuation of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk. The first part, The Mole, lasts a week and follows a group of soldiers looking to get off the beach. The second, The Sea, lasts a day and follows a small civilian boat and its crew as they assist in the evacuation, and the third part entitled The Air follows a British spitfire squadron as they patrol over Dunkirk and lasts an hour. Dunkirk takes a non-linear approach, cutting between these perspectives until they come together at the climax.

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Nolan’s characters are archetypes, most don’t have names and those that do are never given full names. They are almost mythological figures, representing a very British view of national identity, stoic and ready to do their duty. There are long stretches where no one speaks, instead Nolan allows the sound to do a lot of the heavy lifting, with the sound design pushed to the front. Gunshots are loud, the rush of the sea and the howl of the wind feel oppressive and threatening, and the sirens on the German dive-bombers add an extra element of fear to every bombing. The score by Hans Zimmer, is ethereal and by incorporating a ticking watch serves to highlight the race against time inherent to the film.

The film also looks amazing, with the claustrophobic tightness of a packed ship hull or an aircraft’s cockpit contrasted with the vastness of the English Channel or the wide open beach. Nolan reverses our expectations with these tight closed spaces becoming a symbol of safety and home while the wide open spaces of the sea and land are threatening, home to the danger that they seek to escape. Each actor conveys their fear and determination in different ways, with particular praise for Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy who portray a boat captain and a shell-shocked soldier respectively. Unfortunately these are the only two actors who are given anything of substance to do, with some characters, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton especially feeling superfluous at times. If there are failures in the film it is that by making these characters so broad it is hard to care about them, although this is often countered by the strong acting.

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My only other small bone to pick is with the ending, which may seem a bit clichéd, and yet still worked for me. This is because unlike with many of Nolan’s other films, this film is deeply moving and emotional without ever seeming manipulative. Every moment of emotion, all the fear, and triumph feel truly earned in this movie, something that is hard to say about his other films. Dunkirk pulls together all of Nolan’s talents to create a film that, like the best in its genre, reveals human nature in the face of disaster. Dunkirk is something truly special, and deserves to be seen.

Rating: 9/10

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed 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 and Tom Hardy.

Rated: PG-13

Film Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Spider-Man: Homecoming shouldn’t have worked. It has six(!) credited screenwriters, it has to tie into a greater established universe, it’s the child of two different major studios, and it’s the third time we’ve had a new Spider-Man franchise in fifteen years. This movie could have been a complete disaster but it’s not. In fact it’s the best Spider-Man movie since Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2 and it’s one of the most fun you’ll have at the theater this summer.

Anchored by a star making performance by Tom Holland as Spider-Man/Peter Parker, probably the best performance in the lead role of any of the Spider-Man movies, Homecoming bursts on to the screen by eschewing the bombast of other Marvel films and choosing to tell a smaller more grounded story. The villain in the film, a pitch perfect Michael Keaton as the Vulture, isn’t trying to destroy the world or conquer the universe, he’s basically just an arms dealer. However, this smaller story enables us to spend more time with Peter and learn more about him. Fresh off of his stint fighting with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War Peter is feeling neglected by Stark as he continues to attempt to juggle being a small-time neighborhood crime stopper and a high school student in Queens.

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While this idea has been previously explored in Spider-Man movies, it’s never received as in-depth a look as it does here. Director Jon Watts pulls of the difficult feat of making Peter feel like a real teenager, in a real high school, with real teenager classmates. For long stretches the film feels more like a John Hughes movie, a coming of age tale, with Peter and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) navigating crushes, detention, cliques, and teachers. This is perhaps one of the funniest Marvel movies but it rarely feels forced, the humor from each character comes differently and each quip feels organic. It helps that the film brings in ringers for some comedy including Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress as teachers, and a woefully underutilized Donald Glover as a street level criminal.

At the end of the day this is a coming of age story in the vein of many an 80’s teen film with Peter as the teen protagonist who needs to learn a life lesson and Stark as the father figure mentor, a role usually reserved for Peter’s comic book father figure Uncle Ben. In a world where it seems like every superhero movie is an origin story for someone, it’s refreshing to have Spider-Man movie where Uncle Ben is mentioned once, to have movie trust it’s audience to understand why Peter acts the way he does due to what occurs on-screen and not because we are told that “with great power comes great responsibility”. It helps that the script coupled with Holland’s expert portrayal manage to create a compelling and complex character that develops and grows through out the film.

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The few problems I have with the film come down to two things, story and direction. First off the direction by Jon Watts struggles to showcases the film’s action scenes, often making them less visually interesting than they should be.  Secondly as with most Marvel movies this film feels a bit too filled with ideas, and it’s need to touch on a variety of different point hurts it overall. It also leads to some characters getting used less than they deserve, the aforementioned Donald Glover as Aaron Davis and especially Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. Aging her down, the film imagines Aunt May as more of a single mother, an idea that sadly goes mostly unused. The romance between Peter and cool girl Liz (Laura Harrier) also could have used more time together, especially with the pivotal role it plays in the back half of the film.

What the story lacks at times in character ideas it more than makes up for with world building. We get small glimpses at the much larger Marvel world that make it seem so much richer. Vulture gets started on his life of crime due to a new government department that collects and disposes of waste and debris caused by superhero activity, we see small PSAs in Peter’s school starring Captain America, and in universe events are mentioned with one teacher referring to Cap as a “war criminal”. This real world feel also extends to Peter’s Queens, a place the film treats like a real place complete with bodegas, grumpy neighbors, trains, and people who argue about where to get the best sandwich. While the characters in the Marvel universe are great, the same can’t be said for the worlds the create, often feeling just like backdrops instead of real places. In contrast this Queens feels lived in, feels real, and unlike many a Marvel movie doesn’t feel like the background setting to an inevitable big fight.

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In the end that’s what sets this movie apart from the rest of the Marvel canon. It feels smaller, more lived in, and in doing so provides a breath of fresh air. It’s funny without feeling forced. Holland in the main role creates a someone who feels equally believable as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and refreshingly just loves being a hero. The villain is compelling while also being genuinely threatening. The film manages its light-hearted tone while being able to deal with serious moments and never becoming a pure comedy. There are some problems but in the end the film gives you so much to enjoy that it becomes hard to care about the problems it has. In Spider-Man: Homecoming something truly unique in the Marvel universe has been created, characters and a world worth following and exploring.

Rating: 8.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Directed by Jon Watts

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, and Robert Downey Jr.

Rated PG-13