Movie reviews: 'Dunkirk' could be rare summer-release Oscar contender
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from 'Dunkirk.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Published Friday, July 21, 2017 5:45AM EDT
DUNKIRK: 4 ½ STARS
"Dunkirk," the new war epic from director Christopher Nolan, could be one of those rare movies—rare like a unicorn or a modest Kardashian—that comes out in the summer and earns a Best Picture nomination. It is a complete cinematic experience, immersive, intense showing us things rather than telling us things.
From its haunting opening shot of five British soldiers on parole, propaganda leaflets fluttering in the air around them, "Dunkirk" establishes itself as a high gloss look at one of the seminal events in military history. A minute later when gunfire erupts it becomes an intimate, you-are-there experience, placing the viewer in the middle of the action.
Opening credits set the stage. In the early stages of the Second World War the German Army drove the British, Belgium, Canada armies to the sea. "Dunkirk is where they will meet their fate. They are hoping for deliverance, hoping to find a miracle." Between May 26 and June 4, 1940 allied soldiers were evacuated from the beset beach in Operation Dynamo.
Using a fractured timeline director Christopher Nolan brings three different facets of the story together. First is The Mole, the long stone and wooden jetty at the mouth of the port where Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) stow away on an evacuation ship.
Second is The Sea, and the story of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a British mariner, who like many others piloted his pleasure craft through dangerous waters to help transport stranded soldiers from the beach in France.
Third is the battle in the air, lead by Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy).
With a minimum of dialogue, electrifying visuals and ear-splitting sound design—the rumble of the spit fire engines will make your chest shake—Nolan has made a movie best seen large and loud. He uses the power of the image to create an immersive cinematic experience that offers up not only vicarious thrills but also ethical dilemmas, honour and personal drama. It is not a typical war movie. You never see the Germans and there is no victory march at the end. Instead it is a large-scale examination of the workings of war and warriors that blends epic filmmaking with intimate character work.
Best of the bunch are Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier rescued from the sea, haunted by what he has seen and Rylance who redefines stiff upper lip. The all-British cast of relative unknowns who make up the bulk of the evacuees shine a light on how young and inexperienced were the soldiers on that beach.
"Dunkirk" is an intense movie but it is not an overly emotional one. The cumulative effect of the vivid images and sounds will stir the soul but despite great performances the movie doesn't necessarily make you feel for one character or another. Instead its strength is in how it displays the overwhelming sense of scope of the Dunkirk mission. With 400,000 men on the ground with more in the air and at sea, the sheer scope of the operation overpowers individuality, turning the focus on the collective. Nolan's sweeping camera takes it all in, epic and intimate moments alike.
Dunkirk inspired Winston Churchill's famous, "We shall fight on the beaches," speech, words brought to poignant life in the film's closing moments by Whitehead in one of the movie's smaller moments. That speech describes reaching for victory, "however long and hard the road may be," a journey brilliantly and memorably chronicled in the film.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS: 1 ½ STARS
Movies like the high gloss crime thriller "La Femme Nikita," the assassin mentor flick "Léon: The Professional" and outré sci fi opera "The Fifth Element" have come to define director Luc Besson's outrageous style. Kinetic blasts of energy, his films are turbo charged fantasies that make eyeballs dance even if they don't always engage the brain. His latest, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," not only has one of the longest titles of the year but is also one of the most over-the-top, retina-frying movies of the year. Your eyes will beg for mercy.
Based on the French comic book "Valérian and Laureline," a series that ignited the young Besson's imagination, it stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as 28th century dimension-jumping space police and lovers Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline. When they aren't cooing over one another the duo preserve law and order in the universe's human territories.
Their biggest mission ever comes when the Minister of Defense (jazz star Herbie Hancock) dispatches them to save Alpha, an ever-growing space station nicknamed, "the City of a Thousand Planets." Led by Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) it is one of the most diverse places in the universe, a peaceful melting pot, home to 30 million inhabitants and thousands of species, who live in harmony, content to share culture and knowledge. Trouble is, sinister forces are afoot.
There's more, like the Besson-ian touch of a wild red light district called Paradise Alley, an exploding planet, a shape-shifting burlesque performer played by Rihanna and a creature that that poops pearls, but the draw here are the eyeball-spinning visuals, not the story.
"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is undeniably great looking, but Besson is a stylist above all, but it feels as though it is composed of influences from dozens of other better movies. It's less than the sum of its parts. "Avatar" + "Tron" + "Dune" + "Star Wars" = "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets."
There are characters who look so much like the Na'vi you'll think James Cameron delivered his long promised "Avatar" sequel years early, plus ectoplasm shooting guns, Lucas look-a-like creatures and Jessica Rabbit even makes an appearance. Laureline also drops one of the most famous space opera lines ever, "I've got a bad feeling about this," without a trace of irony. Cowabunga! The movie brings with it a disconcerting feeling of déjà vu, made doubly strange because you've never seen anything quite like it before.
It's all spectacle and the leads get lost somewhere between the art direction and the artless storytelling. DeHaan plays Valerian as a Han Solo type, cocky and quick with a line but his laid-back, off kilter demeanour—so appealing in films like "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Life"—gets lost amid the noise.
Delevingne, the Meryl Streep of eye roll acting, delivers a speech about love being more powerful than any army that is destined to become a YouTube camp classic. A psychic jellyfish sequence, that recalls one of Delevingne's high fashion modelling jobs come to life, is beautiful but deeply odd.
Both leads look like they reek of Redbull and herbal cigarettes and provide the film's most interesting juxtaposition between the flamboyant art design and their blasé performances.
"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" has some trippy space-time continuum stuff but otherwise it's jammed with the hoariest of clichés, like a ticking clock counting down to doom and an ending right out of "Colombo" complete with flashbacks. There is a sense of fun about some of the creatures—and a wild allusion to eating live monkey brains—but oddly the movie isn't much fun.
A GHOST STORY: 3 STARS
Less a story than a conceptual art piece, "A Ghost Story" delivers on its promise of a ghost but, by design, does not deliver any thrills or chills. Instead it's a ponderous look at love, loss and legacy.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as characters simply identified as C and M. Married, they are planning to move from their country bungalow when tragedy strikes. C is killed in a car accident on the road next to their home. In the morgue M identifies the body, seen in a sterile white tile room, covered in a starched white sheet. When she leaves the room he rises from the slab, covered head-to-toe à la a children's Halloween ghost costume, complete with two holes cut for eyes.
The ghost returns home and, unbeknownst to M, watches her as she grief eats an entire pie, drunkenly kisses a man on the stoop and packs up the house for her eventual relocation. M leaves and he turns increasingly violent when a new family moves in becoming Casper-The-Not-So-Friendly-Ghost, breaking plates and scaring the kids. Tenants come and go. He communicates with another sheet-wearing spirit a few houses down. Time passes; days, weeks, months, years even centuries. When the house is torn down, replaced with a skyscraper, he pads around the offices, haunting meetings until entering a meta time cycle that sees him thrust into the distant past.
Shot in a boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, director David Lowery presents "A Ghost Story" with rounded corners like an old photograph. It's just one of the many sentimental touches in this strange story. At its heart it's a rumination on the melancholy of feeling helpless as the spirit of C is actually the one being haunted by the living. The inversion of the usual ghost tale deepens the film's surreal mood, which is both romantic and discomforting.
It won't be for everyone. The aforementioned five-minute pie-eating scene and a shot where we literally watch paint dry may test the patience of the restless viewer but if you can get on board with the conceit of a ghost dressed in a child's costume there is much to mull on. What is legacy? How do you move on in the face of great loss? What is the true meaning of love? These are big questions and the movie occasionally gets lost in its philosophical enormity but as audacious, experimental looks at love and life go, it's unafraid and unapologetic.