Dunkirk is An Intense War Experience

Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is rated PG-13 for “intense war experience and some language.” “Intense war experience?” I puzzled over the meaning of this. Usually the rating would say “intense war violence” or something like that, but “intense war experience” is a phrase I don’t remember seeing in a movie rating before.

But it turns out that it’s a perfect description of the movie. Dunkirk is an extremely intense war experience, and is one of the most harrowing and riveting films I’ve ever seen.

Image: Warner Bros.

The film tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which took place in Dunkirk, France in 1940, early in World War II. 400,000 Allied troops were cut off by the Germans, and were becoming surrounded. The movie wastes little time in establishing this, and we learn early in the movie from a British Naval Commander played by Kenneth Branagh that the large British ships were too big to come in to the beach where the troops were because the water was too shallow, and they didn’t have enough smaller boats to ferry troops to the bigger ships. The soldiers were stuck on the beach, while being strafed and bombed by German fighter planes as the German army drew ever closer. A dire situation, to say the least, until a flotilla of hundreds of civilian boats came to the rescue. They ended up successfully evacuating more than 300,000 of the 400,000 troops.

Nolan’s film of this event is an unconventional war movie. There are no discussions between the troops about their lives away from the war, no scenes of generals in war rooms discussing strategy, most of the characters aren’t named, and there are long stretches with little to no dialogue. And yet, Nolan has made an honest-to-God masterpiece and released it right smack in the middle of summer movie season. You’ve got to admire his chutzpah.

Nolan has a reputation for doing things for real in his movies (like the famous semi-truck flip in The Dark Knight), and this is on full display with Dunkirk. He used real boats, real planes, and thousands of extras. He filmed the movie in Dunkirk, where the actual events took place, and even used some of the actual boats that were used during the evacuation. The sense of realism pervades the film. There is nothing to distract the viewer from the desperate situation these men were in, and everything in the film feels completely genuine.

The film is composed of three interlocking segments, all of which take place over different periods of time. Nolan loves to play with the concept of time in his movies (Memento, Inception, Interstellar etc.) and he does so again here. The first segment is The Mole, which takes place over the course of one week. The word “mole” refers to the long pier stretching into Dunkirk harbor, not to a small creature that burrows around in your yard. The second segment is The Sea, which occurs over the course of one day, and the third is The Air, which transpires over one hour. These three segments intersect at various points during the movie, and Nolan doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, meaning that it is necessary to pay close attention, since the intersections between the three segments aren’t always spelled out clearly.

I don’t want that to sound like a complaint. I felt like I had a good grasp of what was going on, but there are details that can be missed if you’re not paying enough attention. Nolan respects his audience enough to let them figure things out on their own, and doesn’t bother to spell everything out for them. The three segments take place on land, sea, and air, and together they give the viewer a complete picture of the event from all angles.

Nolan said that he studied silent films to learn how they used details to convey suspense and emotion without relying on dialogue, and there is little dialogue for much of the film. And yet, it’s the most harrowingly intense film I’ve seen all year. It has a brisk running time of 106 minutes, which makes it a solid hour shorter than Nolan’s previous films Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the perfect length. Everything in the movie feels important and has a reason for being there. There’s no fat, the movie never drags, it’s straight-up suspense for the entire running time.

In many ways Dunkirk is more of a survival story than a war film, closer to The Grey than Saving Private Ryan. Nolan keeps the Germans off-screen, we never see the enemy directly for the entire movie. It’s also akin to a disaster movie, in which people are menaced by unstoppable forces of nature they are helpless to stop. The Germans may not be seen directly, but their presence is constantly felt. No sound I’ve heard in a movie theater this year has terrified me more than the sound of incoming German fighter planes. I wasn’t breathing for most of the movie, and one scene late in the film was so unbelievably intense that I was close to hyperventilating. If you have a phobia of drowning or are claustrophobic (or both), you seriously might not want to see this movie to avoid having a panic attack. That’s how intense it is.

In addition to Sir Kenneth Branagh, the movie’s cast includes Nolan mainstays Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, as well as Oscar-winner Mark Rylance. It also features a large cast of mostly unknown actors, several of which are making their big screen debuts. One of these is Harry Styles, member of the boy-band One Direction. This isn’t stunt-casting, though. Nolan was unaware that Styles that was already famous when he cast in the film. Nolan cast Styles because he felt Styles was right for the role he cast him in. And while I’m not a One Direction fan, Styles is good in the film, as are all the other actors. There’s nothing flashy about any of the people in this movie, they’re all normal people thrust into an impossible, desperate situation. It’s a very human story, and the film never loses track of the humanity of those involved. They’re scared and vulnerable, and we care about them despite knowing little about them.

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The movie looks amazing. The real planes and ships Nolan used make the film feel incredibly authentic, so much so that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie most of the time. The aerial photography during the dogfight scenes is stunning to watch. Much of the movie was filmed using IMAX cameras, and the results are breathtaking. Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today, and his talents are on full display with Dunkirk. If this movie doesn’t finally earn Nolan his long-deserved first Oscar for Best Director, as well as a whole host of other awards, I’ll eat my hat. The score from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer is also excellent, and helps ratchet up the already considerable tension to nearly unbearable levels.

Dunkirk is not a mindless summer movie. Christopher Nolan doesn’t make those. It’s a challenging film that requires a certain degree of patience, and it’s not a movie that I would call “fun,” but it is a damn good movie nonetheless, easily one of the best of the year, and it is a movie that holds many rewards for the attentive viewer. It is indeed an intense war experience, and will stay with you long after you see it. It’s a visceral, terrifying film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a professional badass, and directed by John Wick co-director and veteran stuntman David Leitch. Will she be Jane Wick, or perhaps Jane Bond? Tune in next week to find out!

One Who Has Returned, as if from the Dead

CGI has become so advanced these days that it is now possible to make entire movies without ever leaving the studio. Movies like 300 and Sin City are shot entirely in front of green screens with 100% digital backgrounds. When CGI is done well it blends seamlessly into the film and you don’t even notice it. But every once in a while it’s refreshing to see a film that goes completely in the opposite direction.

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s 2015 hit The Revenant is such a film.

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The Revenant was an extremely difficult film to make. It was filmed outdoors using only natural lighting, and tensions among cast and crew ran high. It went hugely over budget and filming ran behind schedule, since Inarritu’s decision to only use natural lighting meant that there were only a few hours per day that were suitable for filming.

The Revenant had all the ingredients of a disaster in the making. Troubled production, going over budget and behind schedule, tensions between volatile artists off-camera, these are the things legendary cinematic flops are made of.

And yet, The Revenant was a hit, earning rave reviews, winning three Academy Awards, and making its bloated budget back several times over.

The film follows the exploits of Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Glass is a member of a fur-trapping expedition who has the misfortune to be mauled by a bear. His comrades patch him up as best they can and take him with them for a while, but eventually come to the realization that they will not be able to get very far if they have to drag him along. So they leave a few people behind to stay with Glass, with instructions to bury him after he dies. But when a hostile Indian tribe approaches, the men left with Glass abandon him, thinking that he’ll be dead from his grievous injuries soon anyway.

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But Glass stubbornly refuses to die, and swears vengeance on the men who abandoned him.

The film is loosely inspired by real events, but takes significant liberties with them. The movie is also based partly on the novel of the same name by a writer named Michael Punke. So if Punke’s novel fictionalized historical events to a certain degree, then the movie fictionalizes them even further.

There are two main differences between the book and the movie, and there will be spoilers for both ahead, so consider yourself warned.

The first main difference is that in the movie Glass has a son from a relationship with a Native American woman, and in the book Glass does not have a son. This is a good addition to the movie, since it gives Glass a clear motivation for revenge. Glass’s nemesis is a man named John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, who not only leaves Glass to die, but also kills his son right in front of him, while Glass is too weakened by his bear-inflicted wounds to strike back.

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The second major difference concerns the film’s ending. In the movie, Glass hunts down and kills Fitzgerald, but in the book he does not. The book’s ending is a bit anticlimactic but more in keeping with the historical facts, since the real Glass did not kill Fitzgerald. This is because by the time Glass caught up to him, Fitzgerald had joined the US Army, and if Glass had then killed Fitzgerald, he himself would have been executed. Glass’s decision to spare Fitzgerald was less an act of mercy than of self-preservation.

Even though the book’s ending may be closer to the real events, it would not have worked very well as an ending for the movie. Audiences would have found it to be a huge letdown, and understandably so. It’s an example of something that works in literary form that doesn’t quite translate to the big screen. It’s easy to forget that in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers, the heroic D’Artagnan does not kill his nemesis Roquefort. They bury the hatchet and end up becoming friends, but in most film adaptations of The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnan kills Roquefort. It is sometimes easier to accept things on the page than it is on the screen.

The film’s final battle between Glass and Fitzgerald is bloody and brutal, but there is a lot of lead-up to it. The Revenant has a hefty 156-minute running time, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers were showing off a bit. The movie could have lost 15-20 minutes and not have suffered for it. After a while it starts to feel overlong.

This is partly because there is not much of a story. Glass wants revenge, and he spends most of the movie trying to obtain it. Leo DiCaprio is magnetic as Glass, and much of the raw power of his performance rests in its physicality. Glass doesn’t have much dialogue because it’s hard to talk after a bear has torn your throat open. DiCaprio conveys Glass’s struggles through body language and facial expressions.

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He is helped by the stunning landscapes, which are captured beautifully. The camerawork is nothing short of amazing, and the gorgeous cinematography combined with the natural beauty of the locations creates a movie that looks completely authentic.

That being said, The Revenant pulls no punches depicting the violence inherent in its story. It’s a gruesome film, and several scenes are hard to watch. When Glass uses gunpowder to cauterize his throat wound, or crawls inside the hollowed-out corpse of a horse to survive a snowstorm, it’s impossible not to cringe. One of the most disgusting moments is when he attempts to drink water and it gushes out the hole in his throat.

And then there’s the bear mauling. It’s probably one of the most vicious and realistic animal attacks ever put on film. It’s so well done that it’s easy to forget the bear is entirely CGI (the rest of the movie uses CGI sparingly but it’s not like the filmmakers could have gotten a bear to maul an actor in real life and then just sat there and filmed it).

Tom Hardy gives a compelling performance as the antagonist John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is an ornery son of a bitch and many of his actions are despicable, but to my surprise I found myself not hating him. The film makes the viewer understand him on some level, and even sympathize with him. He’s not a likable character, but his actions are at least understandable.

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DiCaprio’s performance in the title role is admirable but also problematic. Glass is a one-dimensional character. He has little personality and there’s not much reason to care about him beyond his single-minded quest for revenge. DiCaprio’s performance is more compelling than the character he plays, if that makes sense. The movie earned DiCaprio his first Academy Award, but did he really earn it? He certainly suffered quite a bit making the movie, but does he automatically deserve an Oscar because of that? As unpleasant and unlikable as he is, Fitzgerald resonates more strongly as an actual human being.

The Revenant is long on style but short on story. It’s an old-fashioned survival tale of man vs. nature (and man vs. man) that is gorgeous to look at but might leave some viewers feeling cold. Once Glass gets his revenge on Fitzgerald, the film leaves Glass’s fate ambiguous. It’s a tense and harrowing cinematic experience, one that is worth having, but it’s an experience many viewers will not be too keen on revisiting.

 

MAX TO THE MAX

Mad Max: Fury Road had a long road to cinemas, but holy crap was it ever worth it. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, director George Miller (who I’m pretty sure is a mad genius) had the idea for the film as far back as 1998. Quoting Wikipedia, “Miller conceived of a story where ‘violent marauders were fighting, not for oil or material goods, but for human beings’.”

Miller was almost set to start filming in the early 2000’s with Mel Gibson reprising the title role, but the project was shelved after terrorist attacks made safety an issue in the locations they were going to film in, and then of course there was Mel Gibson’s much-publicized breakdown that made him a toxic commodity in Hollywood.

Now, seventeen years after Miller had that idea, it’s finally here, and it’s awesome. I saw the film twice over the weekend, and it only took two viewings for the movie to skyrocket on to my all-time favorite movies list. Both times I saw it, I wanted it to start again as soon as it was over, and as I write this now, all I want to do is see it again.

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The movie is more of a reboot than a sequel, since it doesn’t directly follow the previous films. It follows the same basic continuity, but it stands on its own as an individual movie and it is not necessary to have seen the previous films in order to enjoy it (although that certainly helps).

The movie does take a page out of The Road Warrior’s book, however, in that it starts with badass opening narration, delivered this time by Max himself.

“My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood. I am the road warrior. I am the one haunted by the living and the dead. My world is reduced to a single instinct: survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me….or everyone else.”

Awesome. In addition to being spine-tinglingly badass, this narration serves a dual purpose: it sets up the world of the film for new viewers, and it’s a callback to the previous films that fans will pick up on.

From there, the movie goes full throttle as Max is promptly captured by fanatical followers of the cult leader/warlord Immortan Joe. Immortan Joe is a terrifying and imposing figure who wears a skull-like mask that also serves as a breathing apparatus. Joe’s hold over his tribe is secured by the fact that he controls the water supply.

Pretty much everything Joe says is shouted rather than spoken and he’s the classic sort of dictator/despot who lords his power over his underlings and tries to convince them that he’s looking out for them. “DO NOT BECOME ADDICTED TO WATER,” he says to his downtrodden people, “IT WILL TAKE HOLD OF YOU AND YOU WILL RESENT ITS ABSENCE.” He uses this as an excuse to avoid giving people very much of his precious water supply and makes it sound like he’s doing them a favor by relieving them of a potential addiction rather than what he’s actually doing, which is depriving them of a basic human need.

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One of his most trusted lieutenants, a woman known as Imperator Furiosa, is sent by Joe on a mission to a nearby place called Gas Town in order to bring back, you guessed it, gasoline. But on the way, she unexpectedly veers off course. Joe sees this from his citadel, and becomes suspicious. He goes to a vault he keeps tightly secured, and does not find what he is looking for. On the walls are painted the words “OUR CHILDREN WILL NOT BE WARLORDS” and “WE ARE NOT THINGS.”

It turns out that the vault was where Joe kept his “breeders,” five white-clad beauties he keeps as, you know, breeders, which is really creepy and disgusting. Joe has been betrayed by Imperator Furiosa, who has kidnapped the breeders and taken them with her. Actually, “kidnapped” isn’t really the right word, since it implies that they didn’t want to go with her. A more accurate way of putting it would be that she escaped with them. This enrages Joe, and he sends his entire army of chalk-white, fanatically loyal Warboys after her.

One of the Warboys is a young man named Nux. Nux is sick, and needs blood transfusions to survive. Chosen as his “blood bag” is none other than Max himself. So when Nux hops in his car to join the chase after Furiosa, Max unwillingly goes along with him, chained to the front of his vehicle as his mobile blood bag.

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I won’t give away anything else about the plot. As with the previous Mad Max movies, the plot is pretty barebones, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the movie. These movies aren’t really about the plot, they’re about the experience, and this movie is an experience like no other.

And they’re also about the action. Oh, so much action. Mad Max: Fury Road is quite possibly the best car chase movie ever made. The action is nonstop and intense. Picture the climactic chase from The Road Warrior. Now triple the number of vehicles and combatants. Add the enhancements that modern special effects and a nine-figure budget can provide. Now picture that for pretty much the entirety of a two-hour movie.

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Fury Road is the ultimate adrenaline rush. In terms of sheer nonstop visceral ferocity, the only movies I can think of that even come close are The Raid and the Raid 2, and maybe John Wick. Mad Max makes the Avengers look like a bunch of amateurs.

Part of what makes the movie such a treat to watch is that the majority of it was done practically. Look, generally I don’t have that much of a problem with CGI. I’m okay with using CGI to do things in movies that are impossible in real life. I’m fine with that, but movies these days can sometimes seem like CGI overload (as anyone who suffered through the most recent Transformers movie, for example, can attest to).

But everything in this movie was done for real, which means real people, real vehicles, real stunts, and real pyrotechnics. The fact that a bunch of fearless people actually went out into the middle of the desert and filmed all of this insane vehicular mayhem gives me hope for the future of mankind, not to mention the future of cinema.

Another great thing about the film’s many action sequences is that they’re easy to follow. One of the complaints that pop up a lot about modern action movies is that they’re shot and edited in such a way that it makes the action hard to follow, since things are happening so quickly and the camera moves around a lot it can be hard for the viewer to orient him- or herself in the scene.

But George Miller, on the other hand, is careful to avoid these potential issues. For one thing, the spatial relationships in the action sequences are very clearly defined, so the viewer always has a good sense of where things are in relation to each other. This is important during fast-paced, intense scenes with a lot of things happening at once, and a lot of characters in different places.

It makes the movie feel like a very connected, unified whole, and it makes the viewer feel like you’re getting the whole picture of what’s happening and that you’re not missing anything. The editing isn’t too fast and the camera doesn’t shake around constantly, so the action always flows smoothly.

And on top of all that, the film is visually stunning. The bleak desert vistas have a sort of stark beauty to them, enhanced by the fact that they’re real (the movie was filmed in Namibia). And I just love the movie’s production design. One of the things I love most about these movies is how good they are at suggesting things. Every element of this film tells its own story. Every piece of clothing that every character wears, every weapon they use, and every piece of every vehicle has its own story behind it.

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I also love how you can tell that some items the characters use are things that had their uses in the old world, but those uses have since become irrelevant and so people have found new uses for them. You know that metal thing people use to measure your foot whenever you go to get new shoes? I feel dumb that I don’t know what that’s called. Is it just called a scale? Man, now I feel stupid. Anyway, I noticed that one of those is used as a pedal in Furiosa’s cobbled-together semi truck. Since the concept of “going to the store to get new shoes” no longer exists in the Mad Max world, things have been repurposed.

Tom Hardy gives a solid performance as Max, and is a worthy successor to Mel Gibson. He growls all of his lines and there were a couple of times where I noticed a bit of his Bane voice slip through, but he’s a great actor and an appealing lead.

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But really, the movie belongs to Charlize Theron. She completely steals the movie as Imperator Furiosa, and is one of the best action heroines since Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. She’s just badass, and she gives the movie a lot of emotional weight. It’s really her story as much as, if not more than, Max’s. All of the film’s protagonists, except for Max (and Nux the Warboy, who eventually joins them), are women, which is pretty awesome.

If you are a fan of action movies, you need to see this movie ASAP. It’s a beautiful, brutal movie. It’s not for the faint-hearted, since it is VERY intense and there is some pretty disturbing imagery, but it’s not particularly bloody and never feels gratuitous or overwhelming. It is an absolute adrenaline rush and one of the most pulse-pounding exercises in expertly-crafted cinematic mayhem that you will ever see. It is unlike any other movie and is thrilling from start to finish.

Go see it. Now.

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