Given the current political climate, there might not be a better filmmaker to seize the moment than Spike Lee. The controversial director has been making controversial, thought-provoking, inflammatory movies for over 30 years, and after the Oscar-winning success of 2018’s excellent BlackkKlansman, he’s on an artistic resurgence not seen since the early 2000s (please watch 2000’s Bamboozled, an underrated media satire that’s only gotten more relevant). In comes Netflix and their deep pockets and wide creative latitude for filmmakers and the result is Da 5 Bloods, a stirring movie that seems like a modern Kelly’s Heroes but becomes so much more.
“Da 5 Bloods” is the nickname for a group of Vietnam War vets, all African-American. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) venture back to Vietnam to discover a cache of gold bars they had hidden in 1971 as G.I.s. They’re also going to bring back the remains of their fallen leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who died after they struck literal gold. The land has changed in the ensuing decades, with American culture finding its complacent commercial footing (a dance hall has an “Apocalypse Now” party presented by Budweiser), but then the men have also changed. Paul has brought along his adult son, David (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco), in an attempt to better understand one another and bridge their divide. When the multi-generational Bloods go for their buried treasure, it becomes a question over how far they will all go to get out of Vietnam rich.
Lee’s commentary on art, war, and the commoditization of history happens early and with great deliberation. The most notable choice is how the flashbacks back to the group’s Vietnam experiences are portrayed. The aspect ratio squeezes to 4:3, akin to news footage or home movies over these memories, but Lee’s stylistic vision goes further. You’ll notice very early into the flashbacks that they take on a sort of heightened quality, coming across more like a movie version of the Vietnam War than the real experiences. The guys complain about the Rambo movies and then these flashbacks feel like their own Rambo rendition. The editing is quick, the shots are tight, and the boys are bursting with bravado, none more so than Stormin’ Norman, their celebrated friend who they believed was the best of them, and he’s played by a big-time movie star and a real black superhero of popular culture. The flashbacks take on an unreliable quality, exaggerated and fed by the bombastic war depictions of popular culture. This is later proven correct with a late personal reveal. The sequences feel more like preferential memories, and this is exemplified by the choice to have all the older actors play themselves in the flashbacks. It takes a little mental adjustment but I enjoyed the choice. It added to that surreal quality that made the scenes more worthy of analytical unpacking. It also gave our established characters more to do as they are slipping into their literal flashbacks coming back to Vietnam. Gratefully, Lee has also forgone any de-aging CGI spackle over his actors’ faces. Consider this the anti-Irishman, and it didn’t take me out of the movie at any point. I appreciated the choices.
The movie is about war and its representations in movies, as evidenced from those flashbacks, and then Da 5 Bloods becomes its own war movie. When the violence happens for real, it’s played differently than how it appears through the gung-hp flashbacks. It’s grislier, uglier, and hits you in the stomach. It’s not the rah-rah moments to celebrate in jingoistic fashion. As the Bloods get closer to their gold, the movie transforms into its own hybrid of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and pushes the characters to reconcile how far they will go to keep their secret. This pushes some characters to challenge others on a shifting plane of morality, and you never really get a sense of what might just happen next. When a French woman was talking about visiting Vietnam with the purpose of finding and detonating leftover landmines from the war, I knew it was only a matter of time before this scenario resurfaced with a vengeance. When the Bloods are exploring a hillside with a metal detector, I kept wincing, waiting for an eventual click and an explosion. There is a taut rescue sequence that also taps into a relationship showcase for two characters. That’s the greatness of what Lee has done here, because on top of mixing genres and tones and political commentary, he also makes sure that the action, the real action, actually means something.
The last act of the movie is a big standoff with genuine stakes, and while it serves as a fun example of our older underdogs more than holding their own, it gets into the major theme of legacy. What will be these men’s legacy? What will the legacy be for a son who has never felt close to his father? What about a daughter who never knew her father? What will last beyond these men? The legacy of Stormin’ Norman informs and haunts the other Bloods; Paul practically breaks into tears confessing that he sees Norman’s ghost on a near daily basis. They all feel guilt over being unable to save Norman but also being unable to bring his remains home until now. Going back is not just about financial windfalls, it’s also about making good on a delayed promise. Talking about what the men will do with their shares of the loot allows each to fantasize about a more perfect life ahead, while at the same time coming to terms with their life’s regrets. This is where Eddie gets his most potent opportunity to stand out. The character too often just feels present rather than integrated in the narrative, but here he opens up about how his life might not be as perfect as his friends tease him about. Inherent in this ongoing discussion is the notion of what does sacrifice mean and for whom. Lee repeatedly threads historical footnotes of African-Americans being shortchanged after serving their country in wartime. Even though only making up ten percent of the U.S. population during Vietnam, black soldiers made up over 30% of the grunts on the ground. Paul says, “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours for rights we didn’t have.” The Bloods view this gold as their long overdue reparations for being black in a racist country. However, it’s Eddie who won’t allow the Bloods to merely deal in grievance. He cites Stormin’ Norman and how they can improve the lives of the next generation even at their own expense. Even as the gunfire picks up and we have a misplaced mustache-twirling villain (Jean Reno), Da 5 Bloods is an action flick that has much more on its mind, looking to the past, present, and a better future.
This is a compelling ensemble tale but Da 5 Bloods is clearly Lindo’s movie. Lindo has been a hard-working actor for decades, with roles in Get Shorty, The Core, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Good Fight, and a bevy of Lee’s films (er, “joints”) like Crooklyn, Clockers, and Malcolm X. But it’s the role of Paul that will serve as the actor’s finest career performance. There is so much pain and anger coursing under the surface with this character. Paul wears a red MAGA hat in proud defiance and to the jeers of his pals. Paul is a Trump voter who wanted to shake up the system, the same system that had let him down for his life. He’s haunted by his past, and even decades later, he can admit returning to the jungles is still affecting him. The gold represents something elemental, mythical to him, a lifetime-defining event that he needs to accomplish. As this zeal overtakes him, Lindo unleashes spellbinding monologues looking directly into Lee’s camera as he marches along, narrating his stormy inner thoughts, and trying to assess the contradictions of his life. Lindo doesn’t just play Paul as a hardass grumpy old man. He’s still reeling, from service, from fatherhood, from the decades having vanished, and from the setbacks to retrieve the gold. Paul’s odyssey takes on a religious passion play that builds him into a symbol of America’s unmet promises and fallibility. Even in uncertain COVID-19 times, I’d be shocked if Lindo isn’t nominated for an Oscar.
Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods is a great movie and invigorating reaffirmation that when Spike Lee really gives a damn he is one of our most essential filmmakers, even after 30-plus years in the director’s chair. The movie is packed with rich detail and character moments, little things to keep you thinking, and a blending of tones and texts that invites further analytical examination. At its core, it’s a story of friendship and legacy, and the actors are a great pleasure to watch grouse and weep and laugh together. Even at a taxing 154 minutes, I was happy to spend the extra minutes with these men and better understand them and their pain and their relationships. Even though the movie delves in loss and grievance, I found it to be ultimately hopeful and galvanizing. Something as simple as a hand-written letter can turn out to be more restorative than millions in gold bars.
Nate’s Grade: A-
We all know what the immediate appeal for 1917 is and that is its bravura gimmick of making the entire two hours appear as if it is one long, unbroken film take. Long tracking shots have famously been used in films before, like Goodfellas and Atonement, and entire movies have been filmed through the illusion of a single take, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Russian Ark to Best Picture-winner Birdman. The difference between those one-take movies and 1917 is that none of them were a war movie that takes place primarily outdoors in very real elements. The sheer technical audacity of the feat demands that it be see on the big screen when able. It’s like a cinematic magic trick, allowing you to sit in awe at the sheer ambition and technical wizardry of the filmmakers and continue muttering, “How did they do that?” When done right, it can reawaken that magical feel of watching something impressively new, but is there any more than a gimmick?
It’s 1917 and two ordinary British soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a.k.a. “Tommen” from Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with a life-saving mission. A military unit is walking into a trap, and if they do not deliver this dire message in mere hours, hundreds of men will die, including Blake’s older brother. They have only hours before the fateful attack is launched and must traverse into enemy territory that may not be as deserted as they have been lead to believe.
Whatever else you think about 1917, it is worth watching simply to witness the awe-inspiring technical vision from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty). The sheer scope of this movie is overwhelming when it comes to the logistics of being able to keep the camera roaming, which will go from handheld to crane to swooping lines above. It feels alive with that vitality of theater, knowing that if something were to go wrong that everyone would just adjust and move onward. When you see someone tip-toeing along the edge of a bridge, that’s them doing so. When you watch someone diving for cover, it’s really happening, and Mendes wants you to know. It brings an interesting verité feel to something that must have been planned within an inch of its existence. But was it? Did the actors meet the exact same blocking marks every take? Were the clouds aligned just so each time? I’m willing to credit legendary cinematographer Roger Deakens (Blade Runner 2047) with extra plaudits not just for arranging all the logistics of the busy camerawork but for finding pleasing visual compositions on the spot, using what was available. He deserves all the awards because this movie is nothing but brilliant photography and production design. A segment where we run through the ruins of a French village at night, with German flares providing momentary bursts of visible light above, is astounding. I think about the meticulous precision of the camerawork, the timing of the lighting cues, the practice of the actors and story decision to run in darkness and hide for cover in light, the pursuers giving chase, and it just makes my head hurt from all the daunting coordination. It might be dismissively viewed as a WWII video game and the characters as the avatars we urge onward, and I don’t disagree. I found the entire enterprise to be deeply immersive, visceral, and thrilling in its stunning sense of verisimilitude.
However, I’ll admit, dear reader, that I was growing bored by the first ten minutes or so, and I even admit that this was in some part by design. Given its proximity to being in real time (the trek we are told should take 6 hours) it means early on there is a lot of walking. Before we venture out into No Man’s Land, it feels like we’re just watching people walk and walk and walk through the lengthy English trenches. It can become a bit repetitive and your mind may wander, but there is a rationale for this from Mendes and company. It communicates what the geography of battle and day-to-day life was like for the soldiers, to go from one supposedly safe section, snaking round and round to the front lines, noting the distance but also, in practical terms, how close life and death were from one another. It’s also a recognition of the reality of trench warfare and you can stop and think, “Wow, the production actually built this entire miles-long trench,” but then you can just as easily transition to, “Wow, people really dug in and built these structures back in 1912.” The long walk serves as the confirmation not just of a top-notch film production but also of the hardened reality of a soldier bogged down in a trench for months. The First Act is essentially them walking to the front line, crossing over into No Man’s Land, and approaching the German trench on the other side. On paper, that doesn’t sound like too much in the way of story events, but it’s our introduction as an audience into the life that these soldiers experienced. Each crater, each corpse strewn on the battlefield, it helps paint a larger picture of the unseen stories leading to this moment. It’s a very real equivalent of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, and the long walk better cements in our minds just how daunting this trial will be, especially since every step after the trench is fraught with danger.
I figured that 1917 was going to be more about its gimmick and that the characters would suffer under the weight of this setup, and it’s true that they could be sharper, but 1917 succeeds in ways that I found Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk lacking. By focusing primarily on two characters and hinging success or failure on them alone, the film does a better job of providing me a personal entry point into the larger conflict. I have someone I can follow from the start, and that’s not just because the camera is confined to their immediate orbit. About halfway through, the movie makes a turn that really ups the stakes as well as my emotional involvement in a way that I never felt during 2017’s Dunkirk, which felt too removed with its interchangeable, faceless characters. With Dunkirk, it was a race against time but this was muddled by its non-linear, time-hopping structure. It’s a race against time but you were given three different sets of time that would crash into one another. It was too clever to feel the urgency. With 1917, it’s streamlined to the essential (get to point A before X time) and the urgency is alive in every moment. Not only do our characters not know what they’ll discover past the German lines, if they deviate too long, they may well arrive too late to stop a doomed attack. I assumed our characters would persevere, but as the film carried on, and the setbacks mounted, I began to doubt. Would this be another Gallipoli scenario of pointless death at the behest of arrogance, stubbornness, and bad information? By the end I didn’t know and that gnawing uncertainty provided a tremendous spark of tension.
It can be episodic, it can feel more like a gimmick than a movie, but 1917 is a prime example of why we go to the movies. We go to be dazzled and transported through the magic and marvels of expert craftsmen and to throw ourselves into the complicated, messy, intriguing world of strangers that we get to cheer for, laugh with, and possibly cry over. The technical accomplishments will be heralded for years and studied long after. It’s a technical feat but, thankfully, the movie is more than merely its magic act. The human drama becomes personalized, universal, and engaging. There are several moments meant to breathe, including one gorgeous moment in hiding with a Frenchwoman and a baby that is beautiful in its cross-language connection on a human level. The suspense can be overwhelming and I was rocking back and forth whether or not characters would be caught, seen, or make it out alive, always remembering the stakes of failure. Watching 1917 is like holding your breath for two hours and then exhaling at long last upon the end credits. I feel that there are enough resonating elements that provide substance for the movie to stand on its own merits but it will forever be known for its long, coordinated feature-length tracking shot. Even if that is its lasting legacy, 1917 is still a thrilling and immersive achievement in filmmaking ambition.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I am struggling to come up with something of substance to say about The Aftermath, an adequate drama with decent performances, handsome production design, and a boring love triangle. It’s set in the aftermath of World War Two Germany in the Allied-occupied stretch. Jason Clarke plays a British officer stationed in another man’s home, a wealthy German local (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost his wife in the war. Clarke’s wife (Keira Knightley) is anxious to go home, still processing her grief from losing her child during the war and her relationship with her distant husband seems irreparable. It’s only a matter of time before Knightley and Skarsgard find comfort in one another, and they do, almost absurdly quickly. The more interesting story is Clarke trying to keep a fragile peace in the ruins of bombed-out Germany while Nazi sympathetic elements conspire to form an insurgency against the remaining officers. Now that’s a movie I would watch. That’s a way more intriguing storyline, and one I’m sure chapter after chapter was filled with sprawling, conspiratorial detail in the novel by Rhidian Brook. Alas, we’re stuck with a pretty drab love affair between two pretty people. I didn’t feel any passion between them; it felt like they were acting by-the-numbers, and ultimately maybe that was what the director had in mind all along. I found my mind drifting away for long interludes, thinking about other movies, thinking about watching other historical dramas. The acting is pretty good all around. Knightley has a standout scene where she breaks down and reveals the full extent of her maternal grief and what it has done to her marriage. The Aftermath will be readily forgotten in its own aftermath, and I don’t think too many viewers will mourn.
Nate’s Grade: C
This is only the second film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck since his 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, The Lives of Others. Seeing his name attached to any movie was enough to secure my ticket. Going back to his native language, the director traces the life of a young, daring Dresden artist, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, trying to find his sense of self and truth from the reign of the Nazis to the GDR under Soviet influence. It’s a sprawling yet intimate human drama that has a full range of emotions, from the swooping romance to the heartbreak. It balances many emotions and tones as it presents a rich portrait of a young man’s life set across a fascinating backdrop. His free-spirited aunt, an inspirational figure, is abducted due to her schizophrenia and ultimately sentenced to death by an SS-enabling doctor (Sebastian Koch). This gets even more complicated when he goes to college and starts secretly dating the daughter… of that very same doctor, now being protected by a high-ranking Soviet official he aided. The simple strokes of a love story, or the disapproving father trying to destroy their love story, or the efforts of the family post-war to find some foothold in a new East Germany, it all adds up to a deeply felt and deeply alluring human drama with plenty of breathing room. The length (3 hours 8 minutes) gets to be unwieldy, especially during the third hour when we visit our second art school education. It’s just less generally captivating to watch a guy try and find his artistic voice when his life has all this other potent drama afoot, and that’s even after the lingering fallout from a forced abortion and hidden Nazi searches. Never Look Away is compelling, compassionate, thoughtful, and a tad too long for its own good. Hopefully the director doesn’t take another long eight years for a follow-up (please!).
Nate’s Grade: B+
Filmmaker Peter Jackson has performed a miracle and given voice and life back to the dead. His special effects technicians have taken World War One footage and cleaned it up, slowed the frame rate down, and made it a truly immersive experience that brings out the humanity of those who fought and fell. You see their faces, their movements, and their existence in a way like never before. It’s remarkable to watch the difference in the century-old footage, allowing history to come alive. Jackson also has a running soundtrack of BBC interviews from the 1960s and 70s, where a collage of veterans recounts their experiences from many aspects of the war. It’s wonderful to listen to their personal stories and insights from the men themselves rather than through some recreation or actor’s reading. I could have listened to much more anecdotes from the men who lived them (the last WWI vet died only a few years ago; they’re all wiped away now). There is nothing else to this 99-minute documentary other than the archival footage spiffed up and the synched interviews. Jackson’s documentary focuses on the British experience from jubilant, nationalistic start to weary, haunted conclusion. There is scant new insight into the Great War that a thousand other television specials and documentaries haven’t covered, but it’s the immediacy of the sights and sounds that makes They Shall Not Grow Old compelling. My screening was in 3D and I can’t quite say it was worth it (the projector may have been improperly attuned, or it could just be the limitations of 100-year-old footage). Anyway, this is a must-watch for history buffs but there might not be much for your casual viewer to chew over.
Nate’s Grade: B
The young author sub-genre has become an awards season cottage industry. We’ve seen recent stories about J.M. Barrie, Jane Austin, P.L. Travers, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Hemingway, and a whole assortment of the Beats. Even in 2017 there have been stories about a young J.D. Salinger (Rebel in the Rye), the creator of Wonder Woman (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and soon Charles Dickens (The Man Who Invented Christmas). We seem to relish watching the formation of brilliance, or at least watching a recognizable creative voice find their flights of inspiration. Goodbye Christopher Robin is meant to be another in the tradition of young author movies served up on a platter for season-ending awards and recognition. Goodbye Christopher Robin is so serious, clumsy, and tacky in final execution that it enters awards bait self-parody.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is coming to terms with his PTSD after his experience sin WWI and trying to re-enter the literary and theatrical world of London. He finds inspiration through the imaginative play dates with his young son, Christopher Robin a.k.a. “Billy Moon,” and in time the formation of Winnie the Pooh’s world. The book is met with immediate success and Alan and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), are all too ready to ride the wave of fame. Christopher is raised by his kindly nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Eventually, Christopher grows to resent his parents, the public’s assumption about himself, and the very name of Pooh itself, so much so that he volunteers to go to war as a means of just escaping the overbearing attention of the spotlight.
The opening act of this movie is the best part, and it’s all pre-Pooh. It also helps that it focuses more on Alan Milne rather than his son, who will take a far larger role later. Milne is already a slightly prickly character who doesn’t exactly fit in with the British upper class. He’s also trying to process his PTSD and return to some semblance of a normal life. He’s also struggling artistically, and this is where the film is at its most interesting because it has the most focus. We get to really delve into the triggers and emotional state of a character in a way that feels engaging. We spend time establishing a person, a trauma, and how it impacts his relationships. It’s not the most singularly compelling drama but it’s still more effective than what regrettably follows.
Where things start to go irreversibly downhill is the exact emergence of Pooh. While Milne is spending more time with the son he doesn’t fully know how to relate to, he’s also pumping his boy for ideas during their play for a children’s story. We get the expected but still lazy moments of all the little signifiers in their lives that connect with future characters. Then one Pooh gets published it becomes an international best seller and the movie just zooms through plot. It goes from releasing the book to everyone in the world loving it literally in a minute of screen time. The Milne family, and especially Christopher Robin, can’t go anywhere without being recognized and hounded by fans. This is also where the film makes a sharp turn and reveals Alan and Daphne Milne to be really terrible parents. As soon as success appears, they’re actively exploiting their child at every opportunity, including such stunts as a radio station also listening in to father wishing his son a happy birthday over the telephone. If there’s a chance they can sell more books, get extra publicity, or simply parlay their fame into something, they take it, and often Christopher Robin is left home alone with his nanny while mom and dad lap it up. Rarely have you seen childhood neglect made to appear so strangely whimsical.
Even this abrupt plot turn could have worked as an interesting and unexpected portrayal of a literary family that lost the “family” sensibility once fame and fortune arrived. Unfortunately, this is not really a movie about consequences being felt because we’ve got to speedily move onto the next plot point in order to fulfill the formula. After Olive has her big speech about how the Milnes have been mistreating Christopher Robin, it’s literally two scenes later where Alan comes to agree. Lot of internal turmoil there, huh. Christopher Robin’s life gets so bad he’s practically begging to go to war. Even his fate during the war is something the film doesn’t leave unanswered for long. Why dwell on the consequences of decades of bad parenting when we can still careen into a feel-good ending that will attempt to poorly wipe clean the slate? Everything is resolved so rapidly and without larger incident that rarely does the story have time to register. We’re never going to feel great insights into these characters if the film doesn’t give us time. Who cares about hardships and betrayals if they’re just going to be erased in the next scene or if some life lesson will be ham-fistedly learned, but not earned, in short succession?
This is not a subtle movie by any means. The second half of Goodbye Christopher Robin is all about how the boy’s life is awful and how much he dislikes the spotlight. The father comes up with the solution of sending Christopher Robin to a boys’ home way out in the country. As soon as dad leaves, the boys instantly start bullying and harassing Christopher Robin, literally throwing him down flights of stairs while chanting insults. Dear reader, the next part astounded me. It is during the shot of him being pushed down the stairs that the movie uses this sequence as a transition device. By the time Christopher Robin stumbles to the bottom of the stairs he is now a teenager. It’s as if he has been falling down the stairs for a hellish decade. Then there’s the moment where dad sees his son off to war at the train station. As he looks back, for a brief moment it’s not teenage Christopher Robin boarding that train but young child Christopher Robin. I laughed out loud at this moment. It’s too earnest and too clumsy not to.
The acting cannot save this movie. Gleeson (The Revenant) gets to be that kind of aloof where the actor pronounces words with great care. His acting style is a bit too removed and opaque to really feel much for his character, especially when he cedes the spotlight to his neglected and exploited son. Robbie (Suicide Squad) is just completely wasted. She might be the film’s biggest villain and her disapproving stares look like they should be accompanied by cartoon steam coming out of her ears. Macdonald (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fares the best mostly due to her genuinely appealing nature. It also doesn’t help matters when it appears that our young Christopher Robin, newcomer Will Tilston, was hired for his toothy grin and dimples. This is not an especially good child performance. It’s powerfully winsome but in an overly cloying manner. It was hard for me to work up much empathy for Christopher Robin because the performance kept left me cold.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a feel-good movie that made me feel like checking my watch. It’s tonally off with its mixture of sentiment and indifference, zooms through important plot points rather than dwell on the impact of decisions, and looks for any opportunity to bludgeon an audience rather than deliver something genuine and subtle. If you’re a major fan of Winnie the Pooh perhaps you’ll get something out of it knowing its author was a terrible parent. This wasn’t a movie that made me feel authentic emotions. It felt too clumsy, too mechanical, and ultimately too miscalculated. The only awards this might be contending for at the end of the year are not the kind it’s going to want.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Christopher Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers in the world that can do anything he wants. He’s reached a level of critical and commercial success that he has earned the leeway to tell the stories he wants with a blank check. Apparently he’s been eager to tell the big screen story of Dunkirk, the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach in World War II, and it would be the first film of his career to not have a crime or science fiction slant. If this is what he has to turn into in order for mainstream Oscar attention then please go back to making your sci-fi puzzle boxes, Mr. Nolan, and let someone else make the underwhelming WWII epics. Don’t believe the effusive praise from critics saying this is Nolan’s masterpiece or the finest of his career. Dunkirk is Nolan’s least engaging film and maybe even the least ambitious of his otherwise storied Hollywood career.
Dunkirk is less of a cohesive movie and more a series of moments, never eclipsing the next or coalescing into a larger, more meaningful, more satisfying whole. We keep cutting from primarily three perspectives (air, sea, land) but it fails to feel more than a check-in before moving onto the next vantage point. It’s a shame because the opening ten minutes launch you immediately into this world of danger and Nolan sets up the different perspectives with effective visual clarity. I thought it was a great moment having the soldiers collect the fluttering propaganda fliers meant to remind them about how the enemy surround them. The initial burst of violence is visceral and unnerving. The burial of a soldier in the sand is a somber moment. Things were getting good, and then I kept waiting for the movie to escalate, to hit a new gear, and it never came. Instead it repeated the same plotting that just forced the bland characters from one curtailed escape to another. Screenwriting is about setups and payoffs, and that is strangely absent throughout Dunkirk. Bad things just kind of happen, and then they happen again, and then you tune out. That’s even before Nolan throws in needless non-linear elements that I was ignorant about. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and yet it could still stand to lose even more. After a while, your mind drifts when all you’re watching is poorly written characters, many of whom you can’t identify, jump from one crummy situation to another without a stronger storytelling drive. If you want a more personally involving retelling of the heroes of Dunkirk, just watch the film-within-a-film of the underrated 2017 gem, Their Finest.
The miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation is really lost in this film. Without a more involving story, it’s hard to get a sense about the personal sacrifices and risks of the evacuation. The scope feels mishandled. We’re told that 400,000 men were rescued but I did not get any sense of that scale. We’re stuck to a small corner of a beach, or a small section of the sky and sea, for the far majority of the film, which again traps the film at a lower register. We don’t adequately sense the monumental scale of what is at stake. The embodiment of the threat is condensed down to a single German fighter plane that Tom Hardy has to chase for half the movie. It’s like this guy is the freaking Red Baron. Another aspect that exacerbates this issue is Nolan’s haphazard command of screen geography. When the camera is inside the various ships, your sense of space is uncertain. When things go bad, it just all feels like a mess, with no clear indication of where the characters are, their proximity to others, or even the interior design of the ships. Without a coherent sense of geography, the action and suspense is going to be inherently limited. Nolan locks into a claustrophobic sensation at the expense of audience clarity, and without better-developed action and interesting characters, it’s a decision of diminishing returns.
The characters are so indistinct that most of them in the end credits didn’t even merit names (Irate Soldier, Shivering Soldier, and Furious Soldier are among the lot). This is one of the biggest mistakes of Nolan’s movie. By not providing characters that an audience can engage with he’s handicapped how much an audience can care. We don’t learn about any of the main characters we follow, with the slight exception of Mark Rylance’s even-keeled seafaring father. I challenge audience members to even remember a who’s who of the young men because I don’t think I’d be able to identify them in a lineup. I was still trying to recall which of them may have died. I haven’t had this much trouble keeping people straight in a war film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With Dunkirk, there are faces we follow really more than characters. The most recognizable is Tom Hardy and that’s because he’s Tom Hardy and not because of anything related to his character. Kenneth Branagh’s character just seems to be here to stare off into the distance with awe and say something about “seeing home.” It’s as if Nolan had no interest in telling a war story from a human perspective, which is a vastly strange approach considering the large-scale human cost.
Nolan is a smart filmmaker. He has to know these characters are thinly sketched ciphers at best, so the question becomes why is Nolan choosing to make Dunkirk this way. If I had to hazard a guess I think Nolan was trying to accomplish a visceral, immersive war experience to echo the hopelessness and confusion of those men in jeopardy. They’re meant to be faceless everymen. This would explain why it feels more like a series of moments, of jumping from one failed escape to another and one fraught encounter to another. Nolan does a fine job of introducing conflict (in a wartime setting this also shouldn’t be too hard) but without more distinction he runs the serious risk of everything feeling like more of the same. At the end, thousands of soldiers are ferried back to England and congratulated. One of them is incredulous, not feeling like retreating is worth the fuss. “We just survived,” he says. “Well that’s good enough,” the other says. It’s like Nolan intended to place the audience into a crucible where just getting out was enough to satisfy demands. I don’t think it is.
From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is often breathtaking, no more so than in its mesmerizing sound design. Nolan uses brilliant sound tacticians to heighten your senses and build a sense of dread. An oncoming fighter plane tearing through the sky can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The sound does the heavy lifting when it comes to creating tension. The score by Hans Zimmer is very effective in that regard as well. Its central musical element sounds literally like a ticking clock, which instantly heightens any scene. Granted adding a ticking clock sound against anything would make it more fraught (you’ll never fill out boring paperwork the same way again). Visually, the aerial photography is gorgeous with the IMAX cameras able to take in such startling depths. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) has some beautiful visual compositions, especially as different boats capsize and the water rushes in at odd angles. This is a film that has commendable technical achievements. It’s Nolan who lets down his team.
War movies often run the risk of being overly reliant upon broad themes of heroism, nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, and such, which can be in replacement of a strong narrative and well developed, interesting characters. War is a film genre like any other, and there are inherent genre shortcuts that can be abused. However, it’s like any other genre in that, regardless of the setting or situation, you are expected to tell an interesting story with characters the audience cares about. Nolan sacrifices all for the immersion in his war experience machine, providing listless, interchangeable characters and a story that amounts to a collection of harrowing moments but not a movie. My pal Joe Marino chided the movie as akin to visiting a planetarium, sitting back, and taking in the wonderful visual spectacle but walking away unmoved. It’s like Nolan has created the Dunkirk Experience: The Ride instead of an actual worthwhile story.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I owe Gal Gadot an overdue apology. When the news first broke that the Israeli model-turned-actor had won the role of Wonder Woman, I was quite dismissive. My heart had been set on Gadot’s Fast and Furious 6 costar, Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter who displayed a natural screen presence. I apologize for not thinking the relatively slim Gadot had what it takes to fill out Diana Prince’s wonder boots. I just couldn’t see it, and that’s an error of imagination on my part. When Gadot made her debut in 2016’s otherwise abominable Batman vs. Superman, she was one of the few high points, granted she was only there for like fifteen minutes. My concerns were abated but could she hold her own film? After 140 minutes of consideration, I can declare that Gadot is a star and a terrific Wonder Woman. The rest of the film is pretty good though not up to her wonder level.
Diana (Gadot) is an Amazonian princess living on a mysterious hidden island ruled by ageless female warriors like Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Antiope (Robin Wright). One fateful day a downed airplane crashes close to their shore. Diana rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and is fascinated to learn he is a man. The Amazonians are distrustful of a man in their land. He warns them about the “war to end all wars” going on that threatens the greater world. The Germans are developing a powerful chemical weapon thanks to the treacherous Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and Luddendorff (Danny Huston). Diana decides she cannot stay idle. She leaves her home and travels with Steve to London and eventually the the European Front. Diana is certain the one responsible for the global conflict is none other than the god of war Ares, who will stop at nothing to annihilate mankind.
Wonder Woman is an entertaining, empowering, and engaging Golden Age superhero throwback that manages to be the best the DCU has had to offer. This is the movie many fans have been waiting for. Wonder Woman’s structure and tone feels like what would happen if you crammed together Marvel’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s got the ancient mythological society that is separate from mankind. It’s got the fish-out-of-water comedy of a god traveling to the world of man and trying to make sense of our clothing, customs, and backwards gender norms. It’s also set during a world war far in the past and resonates with handsome period-appropriate production values. The comedy aspects are surprisingly restrained; the fish-out-of-water jokes are mostly deployed during Diana’s first encounter with Steve’s secretary, Etta (Lucy Davis). The humor goes a long way to help coalesce the varied tones, tying the campier elements with the more serious war backdrop. It’s a movie that recognizes, at long last, that the DCU can actually be fun. The lighter tone works as well to establish the charming dynamic between Diana and Steve. There’s a screwball comedy feel that gracefully comes in and out, allowing Pine (Star Trek Beyond) to be simultaneously amazed and flat-footed at his ever-increasing crush’s agency. They make a winning pair and there are several moments that are funny, touching, and lovely between them that made me smile.
Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) is a wonderful lead and delivers a star-making turn. She draws you in immediately. Gadot succeeds as a cultural icon come to colorful life. She succeeds as a comic actress bemused and wary at the era’s gender politics. She succeeds as a dramatic actress able to convey the emotions of doubt and torment. But most significantly she succeeds as a person overcome with the sheer thrill of self-discovery. There’s a moment where Diana takes a flying leap to grab a stone tower’s ledge. She grabs it but the ledge breaks and she starts sliding down the face of the tower. She stops her downward plummet by punching her own handhold. She then punches another. Gadot’s face lights up, taking in the sheer scope of her personal possibility. She launches herself up the face of the tower, more determined and blissful than before. Gadot’s greatest strength is her capacity of expressing Diana’s growing sense of self. Her ongoing declaration of agency is given a welcomed and fitting action-movie cool treatment.
Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) acquits herself impressively in the world of big-budget action. The first action sequence involves ancient Greek femme warriors against German soldiers, and it’s awesome. Watching the galloping horses and gilded warriors confidently mow down the enemy soldiers is a primal joy. Jenkins pleasingly frames her action sequences and uses judicial cuts, keeping an audience oriented through the duration. It’s action you can comprehend and relish. Jenkins has a great command of her visual space and how to sell the bigger moments. We don’t see Diana in her full Wonder Woman regalia until an hour in but when it comes it feels like a big screen moment decades in the making. Diana gets her deserved heroic entrance. Jenkins color palate follows the gun mettle grays of Zach Snyder’s pre-established diluted color scheme, but the less oppressive tone makes it feel less dreary. Something of interest is also how little her camera sexualizes Gadot, who is by all accounts a stunning human being. Given Wonder Woman’s costume, her creator’s kinky origins, and the generally prevalent practice of the male gaze, I would have assumed there would be certain moments to highlight Gadot’s physical assets. The movie does so but it highlights her strength and fortitude rather than her curves. Her femininity isn’t tied into how her body looks to appeal to men. It’s about what her body can do and often to the immediate threat of men. She does get a couple killer evening gowns to wear but her sword is tucked away behind her shoulder blades, a powerful reminder that she’s no man’s sexual object.
With all that said, the praise is a bit over pronounced for Wonder Woman, because while it is clearly head and shoulders above the other DCU films, it’s still only an overall good film and not a great one. I understand that many will celebrate a big-budget action showcase for an idol of female empowerment, but I don’t want to ignore problems either. The biggest issue for Wonder Woman is just how simplistic its characters and themes are. Diana is an interesting character but she’s not that deep. She’s following a common hero’s journey and learning about the possibilities of man, good and bad. She’s trying to understand the inherent contradictions of life, civilization, and war. There isn’t any major test she has to overcome besides a broad accepting of one’s destiny. Steve falls into the love interest/damsel role primarily reserved for women in these sorts of things. His scenes with Diana are some of the best in the movie but he’s still underwritten too. The themes of responsibility and inaction are fairly broad and kept that way. There isn’t much room for nuance. Example: Steve brings Diana into the trenches on the Front and says their destination is on the other side of No Man’s Land, the stalemate between enemy trenches. He then says “no man” two more times, as if the audience doesn’t quite get it and needs it underlined (get it: Diana is “no man”). There’s also the idea that Ares is responsible for men warring with one another to make a point about man’s nature. Minor spoilers here but, shocker, Aries is eventually vanquished and the German soldiers all act like a magic spell has been broken. They’re much more chummy and not as interested in fighting. Doesn’t this then assume that the next war, the one with the Holocaust, was all mankind’s responsibility? Aren’t we proving Ares’ point about our very volatile nature?
The supporting characters are pretty stock even by stock standards. There’s the charming Arabic soldier (Said Taghnaoui) who dreamed of being an actor, the Scottish sharpshooter (Ewen Bremner) who is unable to shoot any more, and the expat Native American (Eugene Brave Rock) looking to make a profit from war. None of these characters are given a moment to shine nor do they impact the plot in any way. Each one is given a minor characterization note but they don’t come back to them. They are robbed of payoffs. Why give the sharpshooter a PTSD-like trauma if he doesn’t rise to the occasion or explore that trauma? You literally don’t see him shoot anyone from a distance, meaning that his specialty he brings to the group is null and void. The Arab wannabe actor doesn’t get a chance to use his skill set either. Why introduce these characters and provide an angle for them if they’re ultimately just going to be an interchangeable support squad? I know they’re meant to be supporting characters but it goes to the lack of development, and less developed characters that are kept more as background figures offer a less realized world with less payoffs and a somewhat lowered ceiling of potential entertainment.
The third act is also where Wonder Woman becomes another in the tiresome line of CGI overkill. Beforehand Jenkins had done well enough to play into the already established visual stylings of the Snyderverse but the movie is eventually swallowed whole, becoming indistinguishable from the noisy, calamitous, and altogether boring climax of Batman vs. Superman. It’s another CGI monster fight with lots of explosions, flying debris, and the Snyder staple of slow-motion-to-fast speed ramps. The final battle between Diana and Ares doesn’t really alter its dynamics. They take turns punching, throwing things, and taunting one another. There’s no real variation to the fighting. This is supposed to be the ultimate showdown, a battle of the gods, and it feels so detached. Part of this is also because the film keeps the identity of Ares cloaked, which keeps the ultimate bad guy as more a philosophical presence for too long. I think the film also errs by having the actual actor onscreen for the fighting. It would have been best for Ares to have just been a CGI monster rather than what we ultimately get. I’m also unclear exactly what Wonder Woman’s powers are because all of a sudden she just seems to do stuff. This all leads to a final standoff that goes on far too long and feels anticlimactic.
There is also a moment with a mustache that needs highlighting for its sheer hilarity (oblique spoilers). There is a flashback to a thousands-year-old story, and a certain character retains a large, bushy mustache, and it took all my power not to bust out laughing at the absurdity of the image. This could have been preventable. They could have hired any younger actor. The audience would still have known who the onscreen figure was since they were narrating their own tale. They could have also just shaved the stach. Is it possible that the villain’s powers are completely linked to this item of facial hair? Is this a modern-day Samson, a cruel joke practiced by Zeus, who never could have foreseen an age where anachronistic facial hair would be celebrated with undue irony (hipsters will be the death of us all)?
Wonder Woman is going to make a lot of people happy, especially those who have been yearning for a worthy showcase not just for the character but for a strong heroine who doesn’t need romantic entanglements or a man’s approval. Celebrate the big screen outing befitting the biggest female superhero in comics’ canon. Gadot is a genuine star and has a charming and capable sidekick with Pine. The action is enjoyable, the humor keeps things light enough to blend the different tones, and the stylistic choices from Jenkins keep the movie fun for all ages and genders. It’s a celebration of a woman’s might and not necessarily how she looks in her star-spangled mini-skirt. It’s a relative bright spot for the otherwise dreadful, dark, and dreadfully serious DCU, though I still cannot muster any hope for Wonder Woman’s next appearance, Snyder’s Justice League. With all of its virtues and entertainment, Wonder Woman still suffers from some poor development decisions and a lousy final act that hold it back from true greatness. It’s a good movie, but walking away, I couldn’t help feeling that even the best DCU movie (thus far) was about lower middle-of-the-pack compared to the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wonder Woman is a considerable step forward in the right direction but there’s still many more left to go.
Nate’s Grade: B
Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Germany invades and occupies Poland. Their animals are slaughtered or moved to the Berlin Zoo, under the care of Nazi party member and amateur geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Feeling impotent to the horrors around them, Antonina and Jan risk everything to hide Jews in their zoo and eventually smuggle them out to safe houses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those slice-of-life stories about good people risking much to save lives during the Holocaust that come from obscurity to remind you that there are still fresh, invigorating stories from a topic that can feel tapped out after 70 years. However, it’s also an indication that you need the right handling to do it justice. The Holocaust is by nature such a horrific subject matter that it’s hard to do it justice with a PG-13 or below rating, but it can be done with the right amount of artistic restraint as long as the overall story doesn’t feel hobbled with limitations. Reluctantly, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too sanitized for the story it’s telling. When it comes to cruelty and human atrocity, you don’t need to shove the audience’s face in the mess to fully comprehend its distaste, but overly avoiding the reality can also be a detriment. The Zookeeper’s Wife, as a PG-13 movie, does not feel like the ideal way to tell this real-life story. It feels too restrained and some of those artistic compromises make for a movie that feels lacking and distracting at points. Fair warning: there are plenty of animal deaths in this movie, though they are all dealt with off-screen with implied violence. The edits to work around this can be jarring and would take me out of the picture. This is only one example of an element that, in order to maintain its dignified PG-13 rating, unfortunately undercuts the realism and power of its story.
For a Holocaust story set in Poland, the stakes feel abnormally low. The zoo is a sanctuary compared to the Jewish ghettos. The danger of hiding over 300 Jewish people over the course of the entire war feels absent, which is strange considering it should be felt in just about every moment. There are a handful of scenes where we worry whether they will be caught but they’re defused so quickly and easily. After Antonina is caught talking to a very Jewish-looking “doctor” in her bedroom by the housekeeper, they just fire the housekeeper who leaves quietly and never comes back again. It’s a moment of tension that can be felt and it all goes away in a rush. This scene also stands out because the narrow escapes and close calls are surprisingly few and far between. Even when Antonina’s son commits stupid mistake after stupid mistake, including impulsively insulting a Nazi officer to his back, there’s little fear of some sort of retribution. The movie can also lack subtlety, like watching Heck say three times he’s a man of his word and will be trustworthy. We all know he’s going to fall short. There’s also a moment where Jan is literally loading children, who each raise their arms in anticipation, onto a train car. It’s like getting punched in the stomach with every child. Much of the time spent on the zoo is with the quiet moments trying to make the Jewish survivors feel like human beings again (the animals-in-cages metaphor is there). The details of the smuggling and hiding are interesting but cannot carry a movie without more.
The biggest reason to see this movie is the promise of another leading Chastain (Miss Sloane) performance. Ever since rocketing to prominence in 2011, Chastain has proven to be one of the most reliably excellent actors in the industry regardless of the quality of the film. She’s been dubbed a Streep in the making and Zookeeper’s Wife allows her to level up to her “Sophie’s Choice acting challenge stage” and try on that famous Slavic accent that turns all “ing” endings into “ink.” Chastain is terrific as a person trying to navigate their way through the unimaginable, calling upon reserves of courage when needed, and she’s at her best during the moments with Herr Heck. She has to play the dishonorable part of the possible lover, and Heck definitely has his heart set on Antonina. The scenes with the two of them draw out the most tension and afford Chastain a variety of emotions to play as she cycles through her masks. In some ways I wish the more of the movie was focused on this personal conflict and developed it even further.
There was a small practically incidental moment that got me thinking. As stated above, the film has a PG-13 rating and one of the reasons is for brief nudity from Chastain. Now the actress has gone nude before in other movies so that’s not much of a shocker, but it’s the context and execution that got me thinking. Antonina and Jan are lying together in bed after sex and Chastain does the usually Hollywood habit of the bed sheet being at her shoulders while it resides at the man’s waist (those typical L-shaped bed sheets). No big deal. Then, during their discussion over what to do, Antonina rolls over and exposes her breast for a second before she covers herself up again. The reason this stood out to me, beyond the prurient, is because it felt like a mistake. It seems obvious that Chastain was not intended to be seen naked in this intimate post-coital conversation but it was used in the final cut anyway, which made me wonder. Was the take so good, or so much better than the others, that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) and Chastain said “the hell with it” and kept the briefly exposed breast? Did they enjoy the happily accidental casual nature to the nudity, creating a stronger sense of realism between the married couple? Or in the end was it just another selling point to help put butts in seats? I’m thinking best take is the answer. You decide.
I am convinced one of the main reasons that Chastain wanted to do this movie, and I can’t really blame her, is because she would get to hold a bunch of adorable animals. Given the subject matter, I was prepared for a menagerie of cute little creatures, but I started noticing just how many of them Chastain is seen holding. She holds a rabbit for a monologue. She holds a lion cub. She holds a baby pig. She holds a monkey. She even kind of holds a rubbery baby elephant doll (talk about Save the Cat moment, this movie takes it even more literally). There may very well be animals I simply have forgotten she held. I would not be surprised if in her contract there was a rider that insisted that Ms. Chastain hold at least one small, adorable animal every third day of filming on set.
Stately and sincere, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an inherently interesting true story that should have more than enough elements to bring to life a compelling film experience. It’s an acceptable movie that’s well made but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better version of this story out there. It feels a tad too safe, a tad too sanitized, a tad too absent a sense of stakes, like it’s on awards-caliber autopilot. Chastain is good but her Polish accent becomes a near metaphor for the larger film: it’s polished and proper but you can’t help but feel like something is lacking and going through the motions of what is expected. This is a worthy story and I’m sure there are great moments of drama, but The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too clipped and misshapen to do its story real justice.
Nate’s Grade: B-