Sunday, July 23, 2017

Allied Evasion: The Impressive “Dunkirk” is an Immersive, Fragmented Wartime Thriller

“Dunkirk” is an anomaly. Nothing like it truly exists and the war film has been a genre that's existed since the beginning of cinema. “Dunkirk” is a big-budget Hollywood experimental war film, released in the summer of all times, that doesn't rely on the American point-of-view (since the US hadn't entered the war yet), has little to no backstory or exposition, and it's all under two hours. It's one of the most thrilling, intense movie-going experiences I've had in my entire life. Christopher Nolan, once again making perfect use of IMAX cameras (much more so than "The Dark Knight Rises" or "Interstellar"), has crafted an immersive theater going experience (without distracting 3D) that puts you in the action of World War II that is a complete assault on your senses in the best way possible. He takes you to the air, the sea, and beach in a way never really seen before; it demands to be witnessed on the largest screen you can find.

Somehow “Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan's simplest film and yet his most complex. It's simple in that it's short on runtime and doesn't take it's time give you any context or backstory. He drops you right into the action. Told from three points of view- the air, the sea, and the land- from various characters, the film plays its narrative by taking place over different periods of time. All the stuff on the land and beach follows a young, inexperienced soldier named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) as he's chased by enemy fire to the beach in Dunkirk where thousands of other cornered soldiers are awaiting evacuation. Tommy's repeated attempts to get to a ship to get out of France keep failing as enemy fire makes evacuation more difficult. We then head to the sea where an elder civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and boathand George (Barry Keoghan) head out by naval order to help rescue stranded soldiers. They pickup a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy and his small group of spitfire pilots are in the sky fighting off the enemy in the air. Because nothing is quite so simple in a Christopher Nolan film, the film's narrative is purposefully non-linear, with each segment taking place at different times. It creates confusion to be sure, and requires the viewer to make sense of what they're seeing and how things fit together.

Anyone not seeing the film on the big screen is doing themselves a grave injustice. This is a film that was made to be seen on large format (preferably IMAX) movie screens. “Dunkirk” is not a film focused on dialogue or character development, those things are mostly irrelevant here on purpose. The film drops you into the chaos of World War II in a way most movies have before. Imagine the intense opening battle of “Saving Private Ryan” stretched to feature length on giant IMAX screens. Nolan's film doesn't focus so much on actual combat – and there is little to no actual onscreen violence – but the film is one of the most intense and visceral war films you're likely to ever see. The direction relies on sound and visuals (and little to no CGI) to tell its story and is very Hitchcockian in that regard. The film functions as a suspense thriller without ever being exploitative or misrepresenting the actual real life story. Most of the few characters we get to know have no real life counterparts so that the film doesn't get bogged down in historical accuracy though it's one of the most realistic war films of recent memory. Almost everything is practical from the thousands of extras to the planes, warships, and explosions. Nothing looks digital or fake because nothing really is. DP Hoyte Van Hoytema attached IMAX cameras were attached to real WWII airplanes giving the film an authenticity that has been unmatched. The cinematography is jaw-dropping. Functioning like a silent film, the sound design and music score are an integral part. Hans Zimmer's loud, mechanical equally-experimental driving score is bombastic and employs ticking sounds that help set the theme of time and place. The suspense is almost unbearable.

“Dunkirk” is unlike anything you'll see and may ever see in a movie theater. It's like the simple yet intense theatrical experience of “Gravity” with the unconventional, playful narrative of “Memento” or “Inception.” I can't stress enough how important it is to see on a huge screen. Christopher Nolan is the rare Hollywood filmmaker who truly believes in the theatrical experience. He remembers why we go to the movies in the first place. You have to admire a guy who makes a big budget experimental summer blockbuster. This isn't a regular war movie. There are no cliches. He takes you on a unique ride and it's 106 minutes of non-stop bombardment, chaos, and suspense. It's amazing that this film even exists in this digital world but I'm so glad it does; it's breathtaking.  GRADE: A

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hail, Caesar! “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a Thrilling Sci-Fi Spectacle

If your friends are constantly bitching about how movies use too much CGI then point them to “War for the Planet of the Apes.” It has some of the most impressive CGI work in a film to date. I still can’t believe I sat there for over two hours watching computer generated apes and laughed, cried, and had an unbelievably thrilling time. One part revenge thriller, one part POW drama, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a thrilling spectacle for the eyes and ears. The final (?) entry in this “Planet of the Apes” prequel series ends on a total high note and, like the apes onscreen, has evolved into an intelligent and fascinating allegory about the dangers of technology all wrapped in summer blockbuster fun.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a terrific jumping off point for this trilogy and set the pace for what has become such a fascinating series to see evolve. In that film we see how Caesar, a chimp that has gained massive intelligence to the point where he can actually speak, lead various apes on a quest to take over the world (or at least initially San Francisco). The series took a darker, more depressing turn with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” a perfectly fine film that to me felt less engaging than the first entry. It was with this hesitancy that I entered this third film but was completely blown away.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” finds Caesar in hiding as a group of human soldiers are hot on his trail. While Caesar is ready to end the fighting he’s drawn back into the conflict after a special team infiltrates the apes’ home killing several members of Caesar’s family. Hell-bent on revenge Caesar sends the surviving clan of apes ahead to a safe location while he tries to locate the head of the human army. That would be “the Colonel” played by Woody Harrelson. Along the way Caesar and his close group find an orphan human girl who can’t speak, who they take along. Eventually when they find the Colonel’s base they find a prison filled with apes being put to manual labor. It soon becomes one of the most thrilling prison escape movies since “The Great Escape” or at least “Chicken Run.”

First things first, the special effects here are mind-blowingly amazing. As has always been the case in this series. All the apes are CGI and they looks completely realistic. Especially the orangutan Maurice who I refuse to believe was created on a computer. The actors who brought the apes to life are fantastic as well and really add to the realism. Andy Serkis is great as Caesar or course and the other standout was Steve Zahn as “Bad Ape” who completely stole the film. Second, the script from Mark Bomback and co-writer Matt Reeves (who also directed) is sensational. The story was completely fascinating this time around and Reeves’ direction is impeccable. Third, I finally found a Michael Giacchino score to be engaging and memorable. A lot of the percussion recalled the original Jerry Goldsmith score to the original “Planet of the Apes.”

Enough good things cannot be said about “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Even with a run-time well over two hours I was completely hooked to the screen. I couldn’t believe the emotional connection I felt to these pixelated characters. I’ve really enjoyed watching this franchise develop and it’s been a completely rewarding experience every with every new film.  GRADE: A-

Friday, July 14, 2017

While You Were Sleeping: “The Big Sick” is a Modern Romantic Comedy Classic

The romantic comedy has been a Hollywood staple since the invention of film. The genre has changed forms as much as it has just played by the rules. For every five or ten that are cliched-ridden messes, there's one that really tries to change the game. “The Big Sick,” which is semi-autobiographical, tells a fantastic American story and fundamentally human: it's about a Pakistani standup comedian who defies his traditional family (who are into the whole arranged marriage thing) by falling for a white woman. But certain events threaten to tear them apparent in ways they're completely unprepared for. Written by “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani and his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon and directed by “Wet Hot American Summer” alum Michael Showalter, “The Big Sick” is a constantly engaging romantic comedy that takes its viewers through all the appropriate emotions; you'll laugh, you'll cry. I haven't been this emotionally invested in movie characters and their story in quite some time.

Kumail Nanjiani plays a version of him in “The Big Sick.” He's a somewhat struggling standup comedian who also works as an Uber driver in Chicago. Him and his fellow standup friends are ready to breakout and make a real living in the comedy world. Enter audience member Emily (Zoe Kazan) who catches Kumail's eye one night and they start a little fling even though Emily is busy with grad school and says she's not interesting in a relationship. Sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants. And they want each other. The problem is Kumail comes from a very traditional Muslim Pakistani family who is constantly setting him up with single, eligible Pakistani women. Think of it like “My Big Fat Pakistani Wedding.” Did I mention that Emily is a white girl and Kumail doesn't mention to his family that he's dating her. Meanwhile, Emily is psyched to have her parents meet Kumail. This is a complicated relationship and a sudden medical episode threatens to tear these lovebirds apart.

It's no spoiler that Emily ends up in a serious coma. The name of the movie is “The Big Sick.” So what could possibly happen in a romantic comedy when the leading lady ends up comatose for a majority of the run-time? Enter Emily's parents played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Hunter is particularly outstanding- giving an Oscar worthy performance as more than just a grieving mother. The film takes a sudden turn when Kumail begins bonding with Emily's parents. Somehow you end up feeling like you're right there with Kumail, a part of Emily's family. The film functions by telling to amazing stories: one involves the stresses of dealing with a suddenly sick loved one, and the other is a story about a man at odds with the traditions of his well-meaning family. It's almost heartbreaking to see what Kumail is going through and it's extremely relatable no matter your race or religion.

But the film isn't quite the emotional drag I make it out to be. It's also brutally funny. Finding humor in the darkest of moments. Isn't that just how life is sometimes? The movie isn't afraid to push the envelope. Of course there are references to terrorism, ISIS, and 9/11. These are the times we're living in and filmmakers would be foolish to pretend this stuff doesn't exist. Showalter directs with assured precision and helps you feel connected to the characters. The script is witty and delightful and reflects the best of the genre, and has a lot to say about the current world we're living in. This Judd Apatow-produced dramedy is of Woody Allen level quality and, like the recent Amy Schumer hit “Trainwreck,” is another shining example of a big new star on the rise.  GRADE: A 

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Web Sight: The Fun “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a Different Take on the Familiar Wall Crawler

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” has what is probably my favorite ending moment of any movie in quite some time. If you're laughing with delight as the ending credit sequence rolls then you need to check your pulse. The funny final moment represents the picture as a whole, because “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is pure fun and humor throughout it's entire runtime. While surprise and awe here isn't quite as powerful considering this is the sixth Spider-Man feature film (though watching Spider-Man soar through the air is an image I'll never tire of, but I can say it's not quite as breathtaking as it first was fifteen years ago), the film features everything you could really want in a Spider-Man film: witty dialogue, fun action scenes, and super powers as a metaphor for adolescence and teen angst. Even if this is already the third cinematic iteration of the character, the filmmakers are obviously striving to give us something we haven't quite seen before.

Gone are images of the Daily Bugle, the love interest Mary Jane Watson, and best friend Harry Osbourne. We don't get even get to see how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man because there's only so much you can do with that iconic origin. Working a sort of sequel/spin-off of “Captain America: Civil War” we get Peter Parker (Tom Holland) as a kid just learning the ropes of being the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. He's good at busting simple thieves but strives to be something more, like most teenagers do. Peter Parker wants to be everything all at once, he wants to be Spider-Man and an Avenger. Tony Stark has made Peter a fancy Spider suit with fancy technology and so many different types of web shooters it borders on excessive.

Director John Watts and the gaggle of writers have brought a more teen-film focus to the story of Peter Parker. Peter attends a science-focuses high school with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), his mortal enemy Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and his love interest Liz (Laura Harrier). A majority of the film feels like a John Hughes teen comedy and rightfully so. The original Toby Maguire series didn't quite feel that way, though the unresolved “Amazing Spider-Man” series was more on that track seeing as though director Mark Webb had previous helmed romantic comedy fave “(500) Days of Summer.” Meanwhile, Michael Keaton returning to the world of superheroes even after a mild detour into the somewhat meta “Birdman” portrays working class Adrian Toomes who becomes an arms dealer with an interest in the alien technology left over from the Battle of New York from the first “Avengers” film. He will become the villain Vulture and the humanity in the character is a rare return to form in the Marvel universe where most villains are God-like or crazy mutants. It's a perfect balance to the humanity and realism the film tries to focus on. Only the film's score fails to deliver a memorable theme though it's no real fault of composer Miachael Giacchino; most of the Marvel scores aren't very memorable (however, a killer soundtrack more than makes up for it).

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the rare summer blockbuster that focuses on characters and writing rather than special effects. Sure there's plenty of eye candy here and some standout action set pieces (a fun detour in Washington D.C. and a thrilling ferry ride) but you can really get the sense that the writers are focusing on really creating memorable characters. The chemistry between Holland and his co-stars (especially Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Jon Favreau as “Happy”) is really on point and the dialogue is extremely funny. The performances from the rather diverse cast are solid throughout. Marisa Tomei is fine in the somewhat thankless role of Aunt May but she delivers one of the best moments of the film. Remember when I said the ending moment is great? You nailed it Marisa, you nailed it.  GRADE: A-

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Heist Anxiety: “Baby Driver” is a High-Octane, Genre-Bending Thriller

You know a movie isn't remotely realistic when the postal worker is portrayed as extremely friendly and helpful. It also doesn't matter that everything that happens in “Baby Driver” is preposterous and over-the-top; it's a sheer delight from beginning to end. A fast-paced heist thriller with cool car chases set to a whirlwind music score, “Baby Driver” takes a familiar premise and makes it wholly unique. The film almost functions as a musical version of a “Fast & Furious” film. It's a feast for the eyes and ears – everything a movie should be – and cranks it up past eleven.

When we're first introduced to the film's hero, who goes by 'Baby' (Ansel Elgort), he seems almost too perfect and annoyingly cool to be real or even likable. This young guy, with his hip shades covering his prepubescent face, walks around with earbuds in his ears, the other end attached to a practically defunct iPod. There has to be a reason right? Of course there is because Edgar Write has a crafted a fully formed character here and it becomes quickly clear how the troubled Baby functions when he's not being an outstanding getaway driver. It turns out he owes a debt to heist mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) and the kid is the perfect driver for his rotating batch of thugs, robbers, and murderers. Baby cranks up the tunes as he's driving the criminals to safety and is pretty anal about the timing. At one point he has to rewind when the group is forced to steal a different getaway vehicle.

Baby only has “one more job” and then he's out. It's never that easy right? Things get complicated when he meets a pretty diner waitress named Deborah played by Lily James. Like most characters in these situations he wants to run away with her and flee his criminal life. Nothing in these plot descriptions can be read as all that original and yet the film is one of the most fascinatingly unique movies you're bound to see this summer. And that's due to the brilliance of the directing, editing, and sound. Each heist scene has a rhythm and is directed like a musical number complete with well-choreographed sound effects like some kind of weird action scene ballet.

“Baby Driver” is an almost perfectly executed piece of genre filmmaking. It's almost utterly suspenseful and pulls at the heartstrings at all the right times. You really get inside Baby's head and understand him in and out. The fact that he's so young and has to look after his own deaf foster father is a testament to the old soul living behind that baby face. Not caring about Baby is impossible, even if he seems too cool to even be a real person. Wright has crafted a realistic fantasy world, one in which car chases are set to music but there are no magical creatures. The film, even with it's initial lighthearted tone, reaches darkness by the end but it never feels pessimistic, depressing, or cynical.

Car chase movies aren't anything new in these summer months. But “Baby Driver” brings something completely unique to the table. It's precision is almost unparalleled. The action is sure to make your jaw drop. The music is catchy. I don't recall the last time I was tapping my foot to a car chase. And it's sometimes pitch perfectly funny. The performances fit perfectly into the heightened world Wright has created. In another summer full of sequels, retreats, and reboots, it's nice we have something that feels familiar and yet something you've never quite seen before.  GRADE: A