DUNKIRK

by Alan Yudman

When Winston Churchill spoke of a “miracle of deliverance” in June 1940, he was talking about DUNKIRK. The evacuation of allied forces from the beach in northern France was certainly a miracle, as it seemed hopeless. Soldiers surrounded on all sides with their only escape route the English Channel, constantly being bombed from the air and torpedoed from the water. It seemed hopeless, yet the evacuation was an inspiration for the British war effort.
Christopher Nolan captures the desperation, the hope and the valor in his epic retelling of the evacuation of Dunkirk. This could have been a bloated story. Another director might have chosen to show the British high command’s deliberation and planning. Or the ruthless precision of the German Luftwaffe and Navy. But Nolan decided to focus simply on the evacuation from three different perspectives. Soldiers desperate to get off the beach, pilots hopelessly outnumbered engaging an overwhelming enemy as they flew toward France to provide air cover, and the civilian Navy that sailed across the Channel to ferry nearly 200,000 allied soldiers to safety.
While the overall story is huge, Nolan personalizes it. He follows a three soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard) in their desperate attempt to flee. They keep getting on ships. The ships keep blowing up thanks to the Germans. They’re back in the water. He follows a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) as he takes his boat out with his son and his son’s friend in what seems like the impossible task of rescuing soldiers from the beach. Finally he follows a pilot (Tom Hardy) who heroically battles German fighters and bombers in a David vs. Goliath struggle. Those individuals draw the audience into the story.
That doesn’t mean this is a small or quiet movie. This is big ticket filmmaking. The special effects are some of the best you will ever see in a movie depicting battle. Of special note are the dogfight sequences.The cameras are positioned in such a way that it puts you right in the dogfight. It’s probably nothing new to the video game generation, but in a big Hollywood movie it is something I have seen rarely, if ever. The bombs, the blood, the sinking ships. Nolan pays homage to Steven Spielberg’s opening sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
What also makes this work is the lack of dialogue. DUNKIRK is a master class in using pictures to tell the story. Don’t tell us, show us! And Nolan certainly shows us. Who needs words when you have powerful visuals? No one, that’s who.
The acting is first rate. I don’t think Hardy has more than a page of dialogue and like in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, his face is obscured for almost the entire movie. But, wow. He conveys emotion and confidence with his eyes and the movement of his head. It’s fabulous. The rest of the cast is very good also. Whitehead and Styles spend most of the movie jumping in and out of the Channel but you get their sense of desperation. Rylance is well, Rylance. A fantastic actor. Kenneth Brannagh plays a British naval commander who is overseeing the evacuation. I think he has the most dialogue in the entire film, but he also does a lot of standing and staring glumly at the desperate scene around him.
Nolan can be a great director, but sometimes he gets in his own way (INTERSTELLAR and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES come to mind). But here he strips it down to the essentials, and less is definitely more. DUNKIRK is a powerful movie that will have you thinking about the meaning of heroism. What makes a hero? Sometimes it’s just a boat. No cape. No superhuman power. It’s what’s inside. Nolan dives deep into the question and comes out with an answer we are familiar with. Regular folks can elevate themselves if the stakes are high enough. The stakes in DUNKIRK were life and death for an entire country, maybe the entire world. Nolan gets the point across in spades. DUNKIRK is an epic story told in supremely compelling fashion. Nolan deserves whatever accolades he will get because this is a fantastic film.

OKJA

by Alan Yudman

As NETFLIX becomes more of an entertainment behemoth, the streaming service is branching out from prestige television to films. The conceit from culture dinosaurs (your reviewer is now raising his hand and waving it madly), is that anything that skips theaters and goes straight to video must be somehow “less”.
We need to get over ourselves. Bong Joon Ho is the South Korean director responsible for the underrated 2013 Sci-Fi adventure SNOWPIERCER. So he’s back with another story that paints a demented version of the future. This time his target is corporate greed and his device is an adorable little girl who is just trying to save her genetically enhanced pig. That pig is OKJA. She is one of 26 pigs distributed to farms around the world by the Mirando Corporation. The one raised most successfully will be brought to New York where the pig will be shown off before slaughter. That last part isn’t revealed outside the company. Once the little girl Mija realizes what’s going on she tries to stop it, but she’s a little girl. What can she do? That’s where a group from the Animal Liberation Front led by Paul Dano steps in to help and expose Mirando’s lies. Several rescue attempts and twists later they wind up in New York and then a slaughterhouse in New Jersey.
Bong (and co-writer Jon Ronson) makes his point with a sledgehammer, but it’s never annoying. We know where he comes down. That’s clear by the characters associated with Mirando. Tilda Swinton in a dual role as the overly earnest, out of her depth CEO and her evil sister. Giancarlo Esposito as the brains behind the evil plans. And Jake Gyllenhaal as a Steve Irwin type reality show host who is incredibly insecure and slightly drunk. Those four characters are drawn as completely nuts. So, yeah we know where this is going.
OKJA is kind of a shaggy pig story. The genetically enhanced pig is hippo-sized with a beautiful personality. It is also seemingly more intelligent than most of the humans in the movie, save Mija. This is altered reality sci-fi. It’s not true, but you cannot totally dismiss the possibility that it could be. In the end OKJA is less about its message than the sweet relationship between a girl and her pig. And that may make you love the movie as much as I did.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

by Alan Yudman

Every Spider-Man fan must have thought the same thing when SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was announced. Oh, not again. But if you have to please do it right.
Mission accomplished. Here’s what people are tired of seeing when a superhero story is rebooted. They don’t want to see the origin story again. I swear if I have to watch Bruce Wayne’s mom’s pearls bounce on the ground in slo-mo one more time…well, you wouldn’t like me when I’m upset. Similar argument from fans of Spider-Man. We’ve seen Uncle Bens Cliff Robertson and Martin Sheen murdered. We’ve seen Peter Parker bitten by the spider. We all know the origin story. There is nothing any filmmaker can bring to that part of the story that we haven’t already seen. So why waste time on it? The answer is we shouldn’t.
And full credit to director Jon Watts and the dozen people who got some kind of screenwriting credit. They avoided the cliches and it was perfect. The other smart move was having Marvel Studios more involved. That made it a part of The Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So we pick up the film after CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. A few flashbacks to help illustrate Peter’s journey to that story and we’re good.
The filmmakers also let Peter be a high school student. So he’s awkward and insecure and nerdy. That means when he’s out being Spider-Man he is living a fantasy life that most teenagers would experience through video games. I mean Peter and his best friend Ned make a LEGO version of the Star Wars Death Star. Can get much more nerd-cred than that.
The origin story of Vulture (Michael Keaton) is also told quickly and perfectly. Keaton is a great villain. He’s just menacing enough without being too cartoony (yeah, odd for a movie based on a comic). And when the twist occurs that puts Peter at odds with Vulture before their final battle it elevates the normal teenage boy versus girlfriend’s dad dynamic (oops, did I spoil something?).
Quick plot summary: Keaton is stealing alien tech left over after The Battle of New York and repurposing it, selling it to criminals. Spider-Man figures out what’s going on and tries to stop him. But is thwarted by his own inexperience and Tony Stark’s (yup, Robert Downey, Jr. is back) unwillingness to trust him.
Tom Holland is a great choice for Spidey. He looks like a kid. He’s likable, but slightly annoying. You know, a teenager. I like him better than Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. He seems to fit as both Peter and Spider-Man. That casting and the overall stakes of the movie make this work than any of the other 5 movies. Let’s face it. No one was clamoring for “The Amazing Spider-Man”. It was a cash grab and and ill-fated one. Two terrible movies. The first trilogy helmed by Sam Raimy went from good, to very good to bloated and out of control.
This feels like an authentic journey. A kid growing up and maturing, with the added complication of having superpowers. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a perfect way to restart the franchise.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

​by Alan Yudman

The reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise has gone from SciFi action thriller to the current iteration.. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is a deeply thoughtful and thought provoking movie. When Matt Reeves took the director’s chair from Rupert Wyatt he steered the franchise in a slightly different direction. Rather than focus on how humanity tries to save itself, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES turned the lens on the apes, how Caesar would lead them as they searched for a safe place in their world. WAR tacks in the same direction, but ramps up the consequences.
Humans, led by Woody Harrelson’s “Colonel” are still trying to wipe out the colony of apes lead by Caesar. After a nighttime raid by the soldiers, it gets personal for Caesar after he experiences a horrific loss. His mission changes from one of survival to one of revenge. Maurice even points out that he has become “Koba”, the ape from DAWN whose attack motivated the Colonel’s own revenge fantasy. Caesar is struggling with his humanity. Is vengeance more important than survival? These are the big ticket questions the movie deals with.
While following the soldiers to a northern border outpost Caesar, Maurice, Rocket and Luca come across a young girl who is unable to speak. Maurice cannot leave her behind, so she joins the mission.
Then when they get to the outpost Caesar is captured after and ill-advised attack in a fit of rage. What follows is the Ape version of “Bridge on the River Kwai”. The apes are forced to build a wall for The Colonel. Caesar is kept in solitary confinement. It’s a battle for escape and the moral high ground. The Colonel has logical, but completely insane reasons for wanting his wall. In the end Caesar finds truth and salvation. He also discovers mercy is better than revenge.
Take the apes out of the equation and this would be a movie for everyone. Heck, it should be a movie for everyone. Some may dismiss it as just another SciFi summer tentpole because it includes motion captured, sentient apes. But this is a fine example of how SciFi can be used to tell human stories and deliver a poignant message. I loved WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. It is one of the best films I have seen this year.