DUNKIRK [a Film Review]

Christopher Nolan returns to the big screen after three years to redefine the Hollywood approach towards a war film, by stripping away the convoluted plot to retake a land and focusing on the experience of a single battle. Presented in Nolan’s unique method of storytelling, the simple story of civilians lending a hand in the evacuations of Dunkirk is given new light and perspectives to give an all-rounded cinematic experience.

Nolan has, in the past, shown his interest in the lesser-thought. He tackled the phenomenon of dreams in Inception, dived into the superhero psyche in the Dark Knight trilogy, and explored time and space travel in Interstellar. This time, the fame director looks at how a defeat of a battle can still be heroic at the end. To that end, Nolan focuses on the on-the-ground experiences of the events at Dunkirk through three perspectives; the civilian participants starring Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), the pilots in the sky starring Nolan-alumni Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), and the soldiers stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk starring newcomer Fionn Whitehead. While the ensemble cast – even the sceptical Harry Styles – assures audiences of a great performance, at the end it is not the actors that brought the film to life, but the cinematic experience that does. The resulting film is not just a retelling of a relatively popular story among history buffs, but an immersive experience of its own kind.

A great obstacle in cinematic storytelling is that the events of Dunkirk are not exactly as cinematically action-packed like the famous D-Day Landings, as portrayed in films and TV shows like Saving Private Ryan or The Pacific. In fact, this film focuses less on explosive action – albeit still the occasional presence of bombing runs – and instead, draws the audience into the story through sound effects, panoramic views and appropriately timed music by Hans Zimmer. The reduced use of dialogue sets Nolan’s rendition of a war film vastly different from those that had come before his. Utilising the old trick of “Show, not Tell”, Nolan intensifies on suspense and experiential action towards the surrounding elements rather than interpersonal relations.

Some believe that Nolan’s films are less about storytelling and more on the cinematic experience. But one would not be wrong to say that he could pull off both too. Dunkirk’s fractured non-linear method of storytelling is – in typical Nolan fashion – not exactly understandable without repeated viewing. In the first viewing, one might think that this film lacks a proper story or has too many timelines to be coherent. However, on a deeper level, and perhaps with a repeated viewing, one might discover that Nolan’s intention was never to bloat a simple narrative like Dunkirk’s, but to present an experiential film exploring what dictates heroism. Is heroism about winning a battle, or is it making sure someone else survives one for another day? Nolan may not be the first to present a compelling war film, but his ability to make one question what is his purpose of making one is pure Nolan magic.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been helmed by many critics as his best to date, but every Nolan film has its own unique vision and cinematic experience that is unlike any other. While the film does possess of the signature Nolan tropes like a fractured timeline, unconventional subjects of interest and music by Hans Zimmer, its unique blend of simplicity in delivery, 70mm panoramic cinematography and experiential suspense does make Dunkirk one of the most unique cinematic experience to date, even by Nolan standards.

CHURCHILL [a Film Review]

We are officially knee-deep into the annual summer blockbuster season, where movie plots do not matter and action is all in the rage. Occasionally, we do get small films that provide a little break from wars between alien robots, friendly neighbourhood superheroes and yellow pill-shaped creatures with speech impediment. These dramas bolster little to no action sequences compared to their flashier blockbuster counterparts, and yet, pack enough display of storytelling for a coherent film. One such example, would be Churchill.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, a relatively-unknown Australian director known more in the Australian film industry, Churchill stars Shakespearean actor Brian Cox (Braveheart, Troy) as the titular British Prime Minister during a time of war and great despair. Days before the infamous D-Day Landings, the politician and “Minister of Defence” – as he would often add to his title – charges headstrong between British and American leadership to prevent the largest coastal assault in Allied history from becoming the biggest manslaughter of all time. A well-conceived performance we have come to expect from veteran Shakespearean actors, Cox details of a man of internal conflict; a fighter facing inaction, a man battling against his greatest failure, and a Briton deciding what is his purpose in this war.

From a personal standpoint, this inside look at “the greatest Briton of all time” is even more impactful to anyone who has been given a position of leadership before. The film explores the theme of one’s duty as a leader, that sometimes the great fight one thirsts for in the battlefield is fought away from it. A leader’s duty is not to be a martyr; his duty is not to die with his men, but to inspire them and ensure their deaths are not in honour or pride, but in valour. As Churchill would come to understand, his fight is not at the frontlines – that belongs to the soldiers – but back home as the voice of bravery for the country.

This is very much a war film, albeit without the violent action sequences. To most audiences whom have seen Steven Spielberg’s famous depiction of the D-Day Landings in Saving Private Ryan or any other Hollywood renditions of that faithful event of World War II, the event would still be perfectly etched in their minds, and Churchill need not recreate that effect, but merely tap onto that experience to create a wholly dramatic film about that said war. In fact, the absence of any action sequences creates a more authentic narration of Churchill’s biography, painting him as the voice of the United Kingdom, than a British war hero.

Ultimately, Churchill stands as a stylised BBC special about “the greatest Briton of all time”, carrying the emotions of a biographical drama with the heavy themes of a war film to provide a timely break from the often-times hard-hitting genre of war films. Placing Churchill, a slow film with a focus on dialogue over action, in the middle of the blockbuster season is an odd move, but perhaps that is the intention of the film; it may be no Dunkirk, but it serves as history homework for the coming film.

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD [a Film Review]

The “Once and Future King” is here, well, the “Once” part at least. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a fantasy-action film starring Charlie Dunham (Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim) in the titular role and Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes film series, The Young Pope) as King Vortigern, Arthur’s uncle and murderer of his own brother to claim the throne for himself. Undoubtedly, this film is meant to be a popcorn movie leading up to a season of summer blockbusters, but the latest rendition of the tales of Camelot seem to feel more like a high-production-valued video game than an actual film.

Directed by Guy Ritchie, of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. Madonna’s ex-husband fame, this film details Arthur’s rise to kingship from the assassination of his father, King Uther (Eric Bana; Hulk, Star Trek) to the discovery of his enchanted lineage when he pulls the legendary sword, Excalibur, from the stone. While one should note that Arthurian stories have always contained magical elements and demonic adversities, the excessively-fantastical vibe coupled with overused CGI elements in Ritchie’s reimagined Camelot pushes the limit for it to even be considered hyper-realistic.

Using fast cuts and a “big battle” opening to skim through the character development for Arthur, the first quarter of the film feels like a typical video game cutscene you would watch before playing. While the director does try to set the film in a darker tone than recent fantasy films, one cannot help but notice a pastiche blend of video game tropes and elements within Ritchie’s cinematic vision. An Assassin’s Creed-like falcon as the eyes in the sky, a snake charmer with a Prince of Persia vibe, a Dark Souls-like demon with a burning skull for a face and time-manipulating action sequences of Shadow of Mordor proportions, King Arthur feels more like a mood board full of medieval-themed video games than an actual film about the rise of Arthur.

Charlie Dunham leads the relatively-minor cast, other than Jude Law and Eric Bana in King Arthur. Even though Dunham plays the titular character to mediocre success, his TV-based fame ultimately falls short against the scene-stealing Law of A-list Hollywood fame, whose villainous portrayal of a jealous king remains as the saviour for the overall-lacklustre attempt at revitalising the Arthurian legend. While the most prominent female cast in the film, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s portrayal of The Mage – a nameless replacement for Merlin – is hindered by poor character development and her poor diction of English, a language she only learnt for her role in 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

To enjoy King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, one must accept the fact that this is not going to be the best medieval film out there, or even the best rendition of Arthurian tales. Ultimately, this film is just going to be a mindless popcorn film full of overwhelming CGI and over-the-top mysticism (even by fantasy film standards) to kick off a summer of likeminded films. Transformers: The Last Knight, anyone?

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 [a Film Review]

Marvel Studios’ quirkiest space family is back for another adventure in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Once again directed by James Gunn, the film boasts of the same formula that made the first film so successful: Nostalgic music, silly humour and colours. Like a epilepsy seizure-inducing Unicorn Frappacino.

After the first film’s success in capturing a fanbase of of both adults and children alike, Gunn cashes in with a family-orientated space adventure about family, easter eggs and Baby Groot. Honestly (maybe I am seeing this as an adult), I felt that the film has been made child-proof, with a huge emphasis on Baby Groot and his undeniably cute factor and the issue with family. Rocket and Star-Lord, Star-Lord and Gamora, Gamora and Nebula, Drax and Mantis, Star-Lord and his father, Ego, it is as if the whole film has moved from a space adventure movie that people called the “Star Wars of Marvel” to being a colourful, more fleshed-out version of a soap opera.

There is enough easter eggs and action to make it entertaining to adults too, but I feel that the adult-orientated content has been underwhelming. Overall, the film is still really entertaining with the humour and the action, but it feels like a kids movie. Yes, Marvel movies are a little tamer than their comic book counterparts like Fox (Deadpool, Logan) or DCEU (BvS, Suicide Squad), but it is a wining formula nonetheless.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND [a Film Review]

One of the most well-known monster in film history is back, and it is a roaring success. While “King Kong” had become somewhat of a camp to itself in the early film history due to the ridiculous spinoffs and adaptations, its return in the 21st century with Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), with its beautifully done CGI landscape of  Skull Island and motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, made the monster a box office cash cow again. Kong: Skull Island does not disappoint as an action “kaiju” film, and yet, it shows that it is possible to remake film classics into modern wonders, with the right script and CGI technology. The classic conflict between man and nature, and its emphasis of Man’s place on this elusive Skull Island, is yet again explored in this film; all with a touch of Lilliputian grandiose. As the first film to really tease out Legendary Pictures’ Monsters Universe, Kong: Skull Island‘s success will undoubtedly leave the audience craving for the ultimate showdown between Kong and Godzilla. As Ken Watanabe’s character in Godzilla (2014) once said: “Let them fight.”

2017’s Oscar Buzz

The Oscar Season has started and it is time to binge these nominated (or potentially) films to see what makes them so Oscar-worthy.

Arrival
Arrival could be the first science-fiction film about aliens visiting Earth that is non-violent in a long time. Instead, the film chooses to focus on the linguistic aspect of communicating with aliens and how humans race against time and rising tensions of potential retaliation. The film features a particularly great performance by Amy Adams, although the premise of her character being able to sense the future is pretty Deux Ex Machina.

La La Land
There has been a while since I was so thoroughly entertained by a film, until La La Land. While the storyline of a struggling actress and her love interest, a jazz musician, is pretty cliche, Damien Chazelle’s direction and choreography of the entire musical film is extraordinary. It does not just pay homage to jazz, but the Golden Age of Hollywood too, putting his own spin into the whole genre.

Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge features a number of battle scenes that are pretty intense. They are bound to shock you into the cruel reality of war from the first bullet to the head to the last living breath. The biopic about Desmond Doss’ heroics is bound to be an Oscar-bait. The film features some pretty funny scenes involving Vince Vaughn’s character too.

ASSASSIN’S CREED [a Film Review]

Assassin’s Creed is the latest video game-turned-film adaptation to hit the theatres. Given that it’s a video game adaptation, people have come to deem them as really bad ideas because their track record of successful adaptions is not really extensive, or even existent. That said, I feel that Assassin’s Creed is a pretty decent attempt at tackling one of the most popular games out there.

Assassin’s Creed stars Macbeth actors, Michael Fassbender (X-Men franchise) and Marion Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises), and is helmed by director Justin Kurzel, who also directed that Macbeth film. In a sense, I guess you can see this film as a reunion of all Kurzel’s Macbeth cast. With a huge A-list cast, the film looks promising in their star power and acting chops, but unfortunately falls to a lack a expansive space for the actors to play out their role to the fullest.

While I will not disagree that Assassin’s Creed did not live to its hype due to the mundane “rebellion” storyline and series setup, I think that the film is a relatively well done one, and certainly don’t deserve the overly critical expectations of other reviewers. Video game adaptation has always been a dangerous minefield to explore. While you have to honour the source material to appeal to the already massive gaming fan base, you have to think about offering a degree of authenticity and originality for film goers so that the film does not appear as just a higher-budgeted cinematic trailer for the game.

As such, I would say that the film is a relatively good attempt at breaking the curse of film failures. While it may not be cinematically the best, it’s definitely commendable.