This is a clever, touching story of harried Ministry of Information filmmakers working on a “Dunkirk” morale booster propaganda picture during the Blitz. An ode to the magic of movies and Brit pluck, the script is sly and witty, and the love interests (Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin) have actual chemistry. But if none of that were true, I’d still recommend the picture unreservedly for Bill Nighy’s hilarious turn as a fussy, conceited, insecure actor who cannot accept that his age has negated his role as the hero. As usual, he’s marvelous. One reviewer aptly called Night “a colossally proportioned scene-stealer”, which is spot on.
There are things to like about this film, but most of them occur in the first half. The script is smart and economical, delivered by a cast with an exceedingly high percentage of “where have I seen him/her before?” types. And Meryl Streep again absolutely captivates as the insecure publisher of The Washington Post, negotiating her new role as a corporate leader in a male-dominated world, where her father and husband (prior publishers) are not there to protect or assist her.
The look is also spot on. Primarily set in 1971 Washington DC, it felt like a a tour of every Northwest Washington den and kitchen I inhabited and, necessarily, every living room and dining room I avoided.
But I should have been warned as to the coming danger when the first scene, which occurs in Vietnam, featured the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, such a trope that whenever I hear John Fogerty, I assume the sound of helicopter blades will follow.
As minor as that hackneyed facet appears, it is a fissure that later becomes a chasm. After all of the fantastic work Streep does to subtly and movingly depict the stakes from a personal and political vantage point, and they are large (her family newspaper is betting its future in publishing top secret documents that indict four administrations), Spielberg just doesn’t trust you to get it. “This is big,”you can hear him thinking. “I’m afraid that the audience won’t understand that it was hard to be a woman in 1971, that Nixon was bad, and that a free press is really, really important.”
So, out comes the Louisville slugger, and the director proceeds to bashing all of the important points into the heads of the audience, rendering it senseless.
Two scenes with Streep and her fiery editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) are illustrative. In the first, when Hanks condescends to Streep by suggesting she is covering up for her good society friend Robert McNamara, she deftly parries his thrust with the observation that when he was close friends with President Kennedy, surely he must have “pulled some punches.” Later, however, when Hanks comes to Streep again to acknowledge his prior failures, we get a moist, awkward and unconvincing speech about how reporters can no longer be clubby with politicians going forward because, you know, Vietnam.
We had it, dummy.
Speaking of Vietnam, Spielberg’s rendition of it is so simplistic as to be offensive. In his mind, The Pentagon Papers catalogued a multi-administration conspiracy almost wholly bent on killing innocents and saving face. One can fault U.S. engagement in Vietnam until the cows come home, but when Spielberg distills it to such a childishly elemental basis, you can almost hear Ken Burns sighing, “I guess I didn’t need nine of those ten episodes.”
Spielberg‘s handling of the feminist theme is even more egregious. Everything Meryl Streep does in her performance makes superfluous the film’s later choices when dealing with the issue. Nonetheless, again, because Spielberg trusts no one, we are forced to endure a speech from Hanks‘s wife (Sarah Paulsen) that it sure has to be tough for Streep, because she is a woman; another woman approaches Streep at the Supreme Court, solely to thank her for her selfless sacrifice on behalf of her brother who is in, wait for it . . . Vietnam; and then, as Streep leaves the Supreme Court, in a scene that would have returned my breakfast had I had one, we see her walking down the steps of the building, cutting a line through throng of women, all of whom beam at their idol. DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments was more understated. This is not to mention the penultimate and final scenes, where a Post editor reads out the first line of the Supreme Court decision exonerating the paper in a manner that would only be appropriate for “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and then, a security guard calling in a break-in at a little place called the Watergate. Because, can you believe it? This Nixon went on to be even more troublesome. Nuts, right?
You may feel good after you leave this movie, but take heed. The feeling is akin to the immediate euphoria one receives from eating a whole carton of ice cream. Soon, you will feel sick and/or shame. It is a testament to all of the other good things about the movie that the final excesses did not render a zero star rating. But really, if you want to see a great movie about a newspaper, re-watch Spotlight or All the President’s Men.
During WWII, the Germans occupying Denmark laid 2.2 million mines on its coast in anticipation of an Allied invasion. The Danes employed their former occupiers to clean up those mines, the subject matter of this harrowing and haunting film. We follow a group of very young, very scared German soldiers who are given mine-clearing training and then a quadrant containing 45,000 mines. If they clear them at a certain rate, they will be allowed to go home in three months.
The process is nerve wracking. Mind you, these boys have instruction and some support, unlike the Iranian children during the Iran-Iraq war who were simply sent into the mine fields to clear by suicide in some glorious sacrifice. But the toll, both physical and psychological, is brutal, especially when inflicted on ones so young. They are homesick, hungry (their care was not paramount) and under the leadership of an embittered Danish sergeant who is fighting his own demons but is also humanized by their plight.
This is a beautiful picture, enhanced by touching, sensitive performances. There is talk every year of creating an Oscar for an ensemble, and this cast would be a deserving nominee. The film, however, is not for the faint of heart.
Joe Wright’s (Atonement) film is repetitive, didactic, simplistic, and eventually, in one of the most cringe-inducing scenes you’ll ever see, when Winston Churchill finds himself on the Underground getting his back stiffened by “the people”, patently ridiculous. The only thing missing on that subway car is Tiny Tim exclaiming “God Bless Us, everyone” and thereby spurring Churchill to reject appeasement and declare that England would “never surrender.”
It is also unnecessarily arty (a bombing scene is a particular sin, evoking Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, a film you really don’t want to ape in any manner) and annoyingly expositive – we learn about Churchill’s background via random members of the House of Commons speaking to each other as if they – or we – are dunces (“and his father died of syphillis!” Harumph!)
Churchill was a lion, But he was also a snake. Now, one could argue that his lies were of necessity. But here, they are simply ignored or recast as tactical blunders. Don’t lie to the people, King George VI counsels. Be straightforward, and they shall corner you in a subway car and show their true mettle.
And, apparently, it was Churchill and Churchill alone who deduced that you could send civilian boats to pick up stranded men at Dunkirk. He is the oracle. Everyone else on his war council is a dimwit, a ninny or a quitter.
Ostensibly, the real reason to see this movie is Gary Oldman‘s performance, and it is not bad. But it is not great. Oldman gets the fussiness, the hidden mirth, and the anger, but his stabs at insecurity come off as petulance, and on balance, the performance feels more like a mimicry. In fact, recently, John Lithgow (The Crown) turned in much more nuanced and effective turn as Churchill. Indeed, the best performance in this film does not belong to Oldman, but to Ben Mendelsohn as King George, who is subtly moved.
Watch The Crown. Hell, watch King Ralph.
There’s nothing particularly bad about this biopic of Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, the fighter who went the distance with Ali (mainly as a human punching bag) and was the inspiration for Rocky. Liev Schreiber gets to trot out his semi-lovable, Joisy-accented galoot, and at times, you actually feel bad for the guy, a palooka with a heart of tin who is given a taste of the big time and handles it poorly (drugs, booze, women, and perhaps most distressingly, disco). But you don’t ever really develop an interest in him.
You’ve seen it all before, and even with the exertions of Schreiber, a pasty and portly Jim Gaffigan (as Chuck’s loyal and unctuous sidekick) and Elizabeth Moss (his suffering wife), you end up asking “to what end?” Or, in Joisy parlance, “What the fuck?”
The film also makes a huge mistake by trying to recapture the Ali-Wepner fight, which feels as if it was held in a community rec center.
A beautifully rendered film that both personalizes the cruelty and haphazard nature of war and presents it in the broader context of national sacrifice and pride. Christopher Nolan depicts the evacuation of Dunkirk from the vantage point of the officers responsible for the endeavor, the foot soldiers desperate to get away, and the military and civilian rescuers who, with the Nazis having inexplicably failed to press their advantage after Blitzkrieg and the collapse of France, race to Dunkirk to save upwards of 400,00 stranded troops. Nolan’s approach is tonally somber, underscored by composer Hans Zimmer’s minimalist, ticking clock soundtrack. Nolan also alters sequence, which has the effect of giving the audience a feeling in line with that of the troops: a constant need to get its bearings.
This one won’t win any acting awards, simply because it is so sparse, but almost everyone is very good (in particular, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance), and former teen heartthrob One Directioner Harry Styles is perfectly fine.
The lack of dialogue does not denote an action film. It is visually arresting but never comes close to being exploitative or flashy. Thankfully, Dunkirk is not in the style of war film that has become the standard of late – brutal, unremitting and loaded with gore, always looking to surpass the hellish set pieces of Saving Private Ryan (Hacksaw Ridge, The Pacific, Fury). Rather, it is meditative and as such, a great deal more effective.
There are very few films that deal with the concepts of faith and even fewer that tackle religious faith. Modern audiences probably could care less about religious faith, and Hollywood cares even less than the audiences, given the short shrift the town affords religion. Though after Mel Gibson’s masochistic and extremely profitable The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood saw money in them thar’ hills and started to make treacly “miracles on earth” fare, serious engagement is rare.
The Apostle is one of the few films that actually explored the limits of faith and the working of religion in a modern context. It is a masterpiece. The Exorcist, another classic, is generally known as The Daddy of Shock Gore, but in fact, it is a deep and complicated story of hell on earth, and the perils of believing that such a hell doesn’t exist among us. Most recently, Calvary fit the bill. That’s about it.
Martin Scorsese has co-written and directed a fourth masterpiece, which has much in common with the prior three films. The Apostle gave us Robert Duvall as a fallen minister who has to rebuild from the ground up after having turned his back on his belief and his community. The Exorcist, while ostensibly about the demonic possession of a little girl, is really about a fallen and broken priest (Jason Miller) and his own test of faith. Similarly, Calvary offered Brendan Gleeson as a modern Irish priest living in his own Gethsemane, attempting to withstand the assault on faith by near every denizen of the town he serves.
Silence, which was almost entirely ignored by the the film community, centers on two 17th century Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who secret themselves to Japan in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson), rumored to have apostatized. As is their calling, when they arrive, they immediately begin to minister to and convert Japanese peasants, for which the punishment is severe and faith-shaking. Garfield wrestles with the consequences of his actions, and his discussions with the Japanese Inquisitor and his translator (Issei Ogata and Tadabanou Asano, respectively) are enlightening yet fraught with danger. They are trying to break Garfield, who convincingly plays as a man of his time, showing all of the anguish and compassion attendant to his situation. He is bedeviled even more by the appearance of his guide (Yosuke Kubozuka) who consistently betrays him and other Japanese Christians, only to ask for confession, an absolution Garfield finds increasingly difficult to give.
This a gorgeous, meditative film, and Scorsese eschews his hallmark of dizzying and inventive camera movement for a simpler, more staid approach. The effect is classic and contemplative. Garfield, who was nominated for the overpraised Hacksaw Ridge, is mesmerizing. One of the best from last year, and woefully overlooked (it received a nomination for best cinematography).