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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film about the 1940 evacuation of allied troops from Dunkirk is one of the great visual cinematic spectacles of the 21st century—and for that, he should be applauded.

Unfortunately, some of his scripting and editing decisions take away from the effectiveness of his movie. In a strange way, this is one of his least-successful films. We are talking about the guy who made Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Inception, Insomnia and Memento. All of those are great films—and better films than Dunkirk.

Still, Dunkirk is a good movie, and an occasionally astounding one if you manage to see it on an IMAX screen, either at the Regal Rancho Mirage or elsewhere. Nolan shot on film, with all scenes intended for IMAX; add in some incredible soundtrack work by Hans Zimmer, and the movie begs to be seen in theaters—even if the experience is a bit empty in some ways.

Nolan, who also wrote the sparsely worded screenplay, makes the film in three parts. One part is the events on the beach, which take place over a week. The second part is the evacuation at sea, which unfolds in a day. The third is the battle in the air, which covers an hour’s worth of events. The film jumps from one timeline to the next, often abruptly, with the stories ultimately interconnecting. Any Nolan fan knows that he loves to make his movies in complicated ways involving time (Memento being a prime example), and the director himself has called Dunkirk his most experimental yet. Nolan is out to prove that you can cut away from a harrowing ship-sinking sequence to an also-harrowing battle sequence in the air—and maintain the tension all along. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pull off the stunt every time. There are moments when he cuts away to another timeline that I found frustrating and unnecessary. It feels like a director being a little too cute.

I know, I know: Nolan is trying to show how hectic, crazy and unilaterally nuts the whole situation was, with each battle and predicament being equally terrible. That sort of thing goes without saying: Soldiers and civilians were put through all kinds of hell, with one terrible occurrence after another. But Nolan’s experimentation comes at the expense of good, clean, straightforward filmmaking. So far, his movie-puzzle games work better with fiction than they do with real life events.

Mark Rylance plays the captain of a private boat on his way to rescue men from Dunkirk, while Cillian Murphy is a shell-shocked ship-sinking survivor; they provide the main performances in the “sea” portion of the movie, and they offer up the film’s best acting. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles play soldiers on the beach—and let it be said that One Direction’s Styles is a natural onscreen. Tom Hardy, his face once again covered by a mask in a Nolan film, plays one of the fighter pilots, while Kenneth Branagh is on hand as Commander Bolton, overseeing the evacuation on land.

Zimmer’s soundtrack, which utilizes a ticking stopwatch, manages to ratchet up the tension and deliver some glorious notes. In many ways, it’s the glue that holds the whole enterprise together.

Nolan decided to use real ships, planes and sets rather than relying on CGI. In many ways, this gives Dunkirk the epic visual scope that is missing in many high definition, CGI-heavy efforts. This looks and feels like a real movie.

By all means, go see Dunkirk while it is in theaters. It’s certainly a good workout for the eyes and ears, and enough of the moments resonate to make the movie worthwhile. Just be prepared to feel slightly let down if you are thinking this is going to be Nolan’s best, or one of the year’s best films.

Dunkirk is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Director Kenneth Branagh knows what Disney junkies, young and old, crave in their fairytale movies—and he unabashedly delivers the goods with Cinderella, the latest live-action (non-animated) retelling of a Disney animated classic.

Pixie dust, ornate castles, fireworks, princesses, evil stepmoms and quirky CGI mice abound in this lush and striking new take on the girl with the glass slippers. Of course, any Cinderella movie would be a slog without a good actress playing the title character. Luckily, Branagh has scored a great one with Lily James (TV’s Downton Abbey); she’s one of the most charming actresses to ever occupy a Disney iconic role.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz gives Cinderella a sweet and sad backstory, showing us a young girl (Eloise Webb) living a happy and secure life with her doting parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). As the fairytale dictates, Cinderella loses her mom, paving the way for the queen of all stepmothers—played here by a spot-on, devilish Cate Blanchett.

Branagh takes a traditionalist approach to the material—but that doesn’t mean his take isn’t original. He brings a lot of class to the Disney universe, and he also respects how beloved the Cinderella storyline has become.

There’s nothing in his and Weitz’s telling that betrays the original material. Cinderella doesn’t bust out an electric guitar or ride a motorcycle while chewing tobacco: This is a relatively straightforward treatment. As with his Shakespearean adaptations, Branagh has a way of making traditionalist approaches original and fresh.

Blanchett and James are so good in their roles, in part because they aren’t trying to break the mold. They embrace their parts as if they know what we have come to expect, and the result is a sort of adorable nostalgia, in the case of Cinderella. She’s a genuinely nice person for whom you can root, as portrayed by James.

As for Blanchett, she’s completely cruel—a conniving, reptilian, selfish person. However, this stepmother also has her charms. She’s a two-sided beast able to convince Cinderella’s affable dad that her moving in is a good idea.

Adding to the charm is Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. As to be expected, Carter plays the character as joyfully weird and quirky. The “transformation” scene in which the Fairy Godmother gets Cinderella ready for the ball is the best scene in the film. When the pink gown transforms into that glorious blue dress adorning the spinning James, it’s pure movie magic.

It’s all very Disney, with Branagh relishing the chance to show Cinderella immersed in pixie dust, and geese transforming into stagecoach drivers. It’s fun to see Branagh embracing the Disney canon and making it his own.

The film isn’t a musical, although it does contain a wondrous score by Patrick Doyle, and Cinderella does sing one tune deep in the movie. It’s a marked improvement over the animated Disney original, which was never one of my favorites.

Live-action renditions of Disney animated classics seem to be a new trend, and Cinderella is much, much better than the muddled Maleficent. Tim Burton is supposedly in talks to do a live action Dumbo (Huh?), while Jon Favreau is doing the same with The Jungle Book.

Most promisingly, Emma Watson is pegged to play Belle in live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so I have high hopes for that one. Branagh has proven here that remaking Disney cartoons as live action films isn’t such a bad idea after all.

A side note: Frozen lovers will have the pleasure of a cute, brand-new Frozen short before the main feature kicks in.

Cinderella is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews