(USA / UK / France / Netherlands 2017)

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk, a World War II military drama that has very little to do with battle. Told from three perspectives — land (“the mole”), sea, and air — the story here centers on an evacuation, that of British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a fishing village in northern France at the Belgian border, over a ten-day period in late Spring 1940 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation).

I have to admit ignorance here: I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation going into this film. Nolan doesn’t spend any time on background or what led to this point; instead, he just picks up with British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German fire outside the beach. I wish I had known ahead of time because I would have done some research. I thought a better job could have been done telling the story.

The structure, jumping between the three perspectives, takes a little work to follow. What exactly is going on is unclear and confusing, and it creates a nice sense of claustrophobia and panic in many scenes — especially that boat scene. This is good. However, keeping track of the characters is a tough task not made any easier by giving all the soldiers the exact same black hair dye. I found it hard to relate to or care much about any of them because I was kept at arm’s length. I couldn’t get invested. While definitely not the same story, Dunkirk is a kind of a big budget Son of Saul — just not as good.

As a spectacle, though, Dunkirk is magnificent. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot it on 70 millimeter film, and he packs this picture with gorgeous wide shots of the beach, the sea, and throngs of desperate soldiers. He beautifully captures the hopelessness of the situation with a drab palette of only a few army colors: greens, greys, blues, and cold whites that convey a chill I could see and feel. The sound is over the top loud. If nothing else, Dunkirk is total sensory overload. It’s worth seeing for that alone.

Side note: I’m not sure which is the bigger surprise here — that 1D’s Harry Styles actually isn’t terrible, or that Tom Hardy is hidden under aviator goggles for the entire film. The latter is a bummer. He’s so hot!

With Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine

Production: Syncopy, Warner Brothers, Dombey Street Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Canal+, Ciné+, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+


Marie Antoinette

(USA/France 2006)

“This, Madame, is Versailles.”

—Comtesse de Noailles

If her take on Marie Antoinette is any clue, Sofia Coppola loves postpunk ’80s British bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, New Order, and New Romantic frontrunners Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow. So do I. This in all likelihood is what drew me to Marie Antoinette: with three Bow Wow Wow songs (two remixed by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields), big hair, and a real MTV sensibility, its appeal to me is, well, a piece of cake.

All that is only part of the story. What really makes me love Marie Antionette is the sympathetic angle Coppola takes with this infamous character. Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the first half of the movie is about the difficulties Marie (Kirsten Dunst) faces adapting to her new French surroundings and getting her new husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, Coppola’s cousin), to consummate their marriage. She fails, and of course everyone blames her—even her mother (Marianne Faithfull). When she’s had enough, she says “fuck it” and becomes a full on rock star. This is where things get interesting.

Colorful and elaborate, Marie Antionette is not profound. So what? Lance Acord’s music video cinematography is perfect for what Coppola is going for; bordering on sensory overload, this film is busy, clever, and fun to watch. I know better than to take it as a history lesson.

With Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Mary Nighy, Jamie Dornan, Steve Coogan, Tom Hardy

Production: Pricel, Tohokushinsha Film Corporation (TFC), American Zoetrope, Pathé, Commission du Film France, Commission du Film Île-de-France

Distribution: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures

123 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) B-


London Road

(UK 2015)

“Everyone is very, very nervous. Um. And very unsure of everything, basically.”

—The Cast

“British,” “murder,” “mystery,” “thriller,” “comedy,” and “musical” are words that might sound dubious when used together to describe the same work. These elements, though, gel nicely in the amusingly quirky London Road, Rufus Norris’s adaptation of Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s musical theatre revolving around Steve Wright, the notorious Suffolk Strangler a.k.a. Ipswich Ripper.

The subject matter of London Road certainly isn’t anything to sing about: Wright moved to a modest working class neighborhood in Ipswich for ten weeks and killed five prostitutes during Autumn 2006. The bodies started showing up, casting paranoia over the small town. Wright was arrested just before Christmas, stressing out his neighbors on London Road, where the murders occurred in his house.

London Road could accurately be called an anatomy of a community directly affected by a macabre event, as the story is not really about Wright but rather his spooked neighbors. Based on actual interviews, the story traces their reactions to the murders and the fact that they occurred so close to home. Particularly hitting is the impact of the small street’s invasion by the police and the media on the various residents’ daily lives. Flowers bring them to their ultimate redemption.

London Road features Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Kate Fleetwood, Nick Holder, Paul Thornley, Michael Shaeffer, and Tom Hardy, whom I didn’t even recognize in his small role as a cab driver. Norris respects the characters’ dignity, letting them each have their own voice without putting them in a negative, unsophisticated light. The mood is a bit schizo, going from tense to darkly comic before erupting into song and choreographed numbers. The songs, by the way, are droll and clever, incorporating verbal ticks into the rhythm. They’re catchy, too—I’m still singing one of them two days later. I loved one scene in which a newscaster (Shaeffer) struggles in song to explain how forensics identified Wright through DNA in his semen, a word he can’t use during daytime TV—who knew the Brits have prudish broadcasting rules just like we Americans do?

Overall, London Road is an interesting experience unlike any other film I’ve seen lately. I laughed, I was intrigued, and the music pulled me in.

91 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B-


Mad Max: Fury Road

(Australia/USA 2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is not a movie I would have bothered to see but for the fact that it was nominated for Best Picture. It’s a huge Hollywood blockbuster retooling of an earlier Hollywood blockbuster—totally not my thing.

Tom Hardy is Mad Max, and he’s taken captive by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang of warboys who look like an army of “Zero” era Billy Corgans. Max gets away and finds himself working with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a rig driver liberating a gaggle of Joe’s “breeders”—young women he keeps for reproductive purposes. Loaded with fast cars, a badass woman, fox females, a rock band, and weapons, the first hour is nonstop noise and destruction. There’s some decent acting in the middle, but it doesn’t last. A final plan to take out Joe brings on another barrage of destruction.

Mad Max: Fury Road is exactly what it’s supposed to be: an action picture. The costumes and cars are imaginative even if derivative. John Seale’s cimenatography is snappy: he makes the desert look hot, colorful, and stunning with not all that much to work with. It’s easily the film’s most impressive element. Hardy is nice to look at, all rugged and filthy and with all his teeth (unlike many other characters). This is about all I can say that’s positive. Director George Miller’s cho-mo (my term for choppy motion) technique gives the film a cheesy, horror movie look. There are no big surprises here—we know how it ends.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an indulgent, guilty pleasure for those who dig this stuff. I’m just not one of them. Best Picture, my ass.

(ArcLight) D+


The Revenant

(USA 2015)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines revenant as “one that returns after death or a long absence.” Citing the Random House Dictionary, Dictionary.com goes a step farther and calls it “a ghost.” The Revenant is certainly an appropriate title for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film: its burly-man protagonist, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), literally comes back to life after a bear attack nearly kills him. His resurrection, however, is only the beginning of the story.

While hunting for pelts somewhere in the Northern Plains States, a crew of trappers is attacked by Native Americans. Most of the crew is killed—brutally—but a few survivors, including Glass and his half-native son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), escape on a boat. Glass knows the terrain better than anyone, and assumes the lead as the men abandon the boat and head back to camp on foot—an undertaking no one is thrilled about. Virulent crew member John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who was scalped by Indians in the past, goes along with the plan but proves to be an adversary of Glass and a general pain in the ass. After a grizzly bear mauls Glass and leaves him essentially paralyzed on a makeshift stretcher at the mercy of the crew, Fitzgerald volunteers to stay behind with Hawk and Bridger (Will Poulter)—quite literally a babe in the woods—and either bring Glass to camp or bury him when he dies. See where this is going?

Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, The Revenant is billed as a ‘revenge’ story. While revenge definitely drives the drama, the story is really about survival. The Revenant poses the age-old but ever interesting existential question: how are humans any different from other animals? Civilization and savagery are depicted here, often as the same thing. Glass and his son represent a dichotomy, occupying a middle ground between the two. Glass even looks like an animal as he walks through the snowy wilderness, furs piled high on top of him, and fights his way through various attacks, including his own sickness. A band of French trappers are neither mannerly nor enlightened in their conduct. The camp certainly is no model of humanity.

While God comes up many times, I see God as beside the point here; He (or She) is presented as a by-product of something more basic. The analogies to God—a tree, a squirrel that is shot and eaten, and a bombed out church—do not convey a sense of permanency or power. The answer I got as to what differentiates humans from other animals is our concept of justice, or karma: we all get what’s coming to us in the end.

The Revenant is long, deliberately slow, extremely violent, and very gory. In fact, it plays out like a big budget, artfully done video game: we are right there with Glass as we move through treacherous terrain and sudden attacks from man, beast, and the elements alike. We gather items—a gun, a canteen, a horse—for whatever comes next. The sound of arrows whizzing by and bullets hitting bodies is loud and clear. A large part of understanding The Revenant, though, is in its brutality. DiCaprio is good, but I thought Hardy stole the show.

(ArcLight) B+