Shadow in the Cloud feels like a lot of movies smashed together with the slapdash glue of a SyFy Channel Original movie, combining crazy and crazier elements like a Jenga tower teetering on the brink of total disaster. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Maude, a female pilot during World War II and hitching a ride on a B-17 bomber plane leaving New Zealand. She says she has a secret mission to see through and a valuable package that cannot he opened. The men on the plane are skeptical and banish her to the lower turret on the plane. It’s there that she discovers they have another unwanted passenger, a furry, winged, blood-thirsty gremlin tearing apart the plane’s engines. Maude pleads for the men to listen to her warnings and ultimately takes matters into her own hands to ensure their safety and survival.
The first thing needed to be discussed is the wiry elephant in the room, namely the involvement of writer Max Landis. For those unaware, the successful Hollywood screenwriter of edgy, often glib genre fare (American Ultra, Bright, Chronicle) has faced a reckoning for his many years of abusive behavior with a litany of ex-girlfriends that accused him of gleefully manipulating them and bragging about giving them eating disorders. Landis’ script has since been rewritten by the director, Roseanne Liang, but it’s impossible to say what was on the page before and what was a new addition without reviewing multiple drafts. Suffice to say, Landis’ involvement may very well be a non-starter for many viewers, but it’s the first half that really makes things even more uncomfortable with his name attached. For about half of the movie, Maude is trapped and harassed by a bevy of off-screen men who joke about having their way with her and belittle her existence as a woman. I don’t believe that the movie is ever endorsing this misogynist and borderline rapey perspective of the men, but it is dwelling in this muck for quite some time, and to think that the famous screenwriter, who was credibly accused by multiple women of predatory and awful behavior, is writing these words, well it sure makes the entire protracted discomfort seem gratuitous and even risible. I’m sure women dealt with this sort of dismissive and harassing behavior while serving during wartime, obviously, but there’s a difference between reflecting realism and exploiting it for titillation. Was this aspect even worse before the director’s rewrites? Did she put her stamp on this harassment? It’s hard to say, but the lingering discomfort is a distraction to the overall entertainment value. It’s so heavy-handed that it becomes counterproductive to whatever message is attempted and becomes the lasting takeaway.
With that being said, Shadow in the Cloud is a mess of a movie that feels rattled and tonally confused. I thought given the premise that this was going to be a mostly silly movie. We’re talking about a gremlin attacking an aircraft, which is pretty much a remake of that famous Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner. There’s only so much you can do with, “There’s something on the wing” declarations and people not believing the crazy accusations. I wasn’t expecting fighting a literal furry, bat-like monster with the tension of whether or not the main character might be assaulted by a gang of men in the sky. If the filmmakers wanted to go with the grueling and uneasy tension of Maude being at the mercy of potentially lethal men, that would be fine, but don’t include a silly monster too. The moments simply don’t jibe. There’s a moment where Maude falls from the plane and a Japanese Zero plane above her explodes and the resulting explosion propels her back into her own plane. It’s like a cartoon. You could very easily eliminate any and all of the supernatural elements from this story and I think it would have been better served at that. There’s enough tension to be had with the Zero planes being out there and the crew not believing that Maude saw the enemy, let alone a monster. The musical score is all retro 80s synths and it feels jarringly discordant. I did not like it immediately. The tone veers so rapidly, at times from scene-to-scene, and while this can offer a sense of unpredictability, it can also hamper whatever had been working. The suspenseful time in the ball turret is mitigated with a finale that is so goofy that it exists in another universe. The movie ends on real-life footage of women serving in WWII and any sort of feminist inspiration is completely unearned from the crazy little contained thriller about mid-air monster battles and scrappy dames.
When the movie is locked in that ball turret, that’s when Shadow in the Cloud is at its best and presents an intriguing degree of potential before flaming out into self-parody. There are some genuinely well-wrought moments in that small space, and the natural tension of a woman on an all-male crew is enough to establish a dividing line of suspicion for the dismissive men. The director is also at her best during these sequences and finding resourceful use of her small space to still tell her story and reflect the dilemma of our protagonist. There’s a satisfying problem-solution plot formula to employ. There are a few mysteries to ponder, like why does Maude have a gun, what’s put her arm in a sling, what is her mission, and what is in that package she swears is more important than anything else? It’s enough to hold your intrigue while the men coalesce into a chorus of harassing voices interrogating her as their captive. She’s in such a vulnerable position and the movie can play up paranoia, vertigo, and claustrophobia all together to really ratchet up our fraying nerves. As the movie settled into this tight setting, I accepted that it might just be nothing more than a cost-effective contained thriller, and that excited me because it felt like the filmmakers were finding ways to make that idea work. I started getting visions of the last contained thriller that really knocked my proverbial socks off, 2010’s Buried. Alas, I was never taken with the silly gremlin aspect of the screenplay and how easily forgotten it becomes. This killer gremlin just sort of comes and goes whenever the story needs a convenient extra dash of blood. It’s likely what got the movie sold as a pitch but the first thing I wish had been removed.
I have enjoyed Chloe Grace Moretz for years, all the way back in 2010’s Kick-Ass. While she’s now in her early twenties, she still comes across as so young, and the reveals relating to Maude and her motivation make it harder to accept Moretz in the role. I recognize that she is no longer a young girl and can elect to play adult women onscreen, but she never felt fully believable for me. She can do action and has proven herself to be tough and courageous, but something was lacking with the depiction of Maude. It felt too much like a kid playing war. Every other actor might as well be a vocal actor because the movie is pretty much a radio play with the exception of the first five minutes and the final ten minutes. The male voices tend to blend together and lack distinct personalities. When they’re all harassing and condescending then it makes it quite difficult to distinguish characters (“Oh, this is the OTHER gross guy with the higher pitch”). It’s excessive and another element exaggerated to the point that its aims become another self-sabotaging fault.
I’m sure there are more than a few that will have a blast with Shadow in the Cloud. They’ll celebrate the harshness of Maude’s harassment as a needed historical reality check. They’ll laugh up the goofiness of the gremlin attacks. They’ll shift nervously during the contained thriller centerpiece in the ball turret. They may even cheer during the big cheesy climactic brawl in the mud. However, I found the sum of its many parts to be too lacking. Shadow in the Cloud would have been better with a little more pruning, a little less Max Landis, and some tonal consistency. It might be crazy enough to entertain for its 80 minutes but it feels like its gasping for air by the ridiculous finish.
Nate’s Grade: C
I’m fairly certain I now know what my father’s favorite movie of 2020 will be. Greyhound is a World War II movie set in the cold, grey waters of the mid Atlantic and follows a cat-and-mouse game between an Allied convoy and a German submarine pack in 1942. Tom Hanks plays the beleaguered U.S. Navy captain of the Greyhound making his first voyage and the long, hard-fought campaign over five days without air cover. I wish I could have seen this in theaters with the added benefit of the immersive screen, the rumbling sound system, and my father as company. While often exciting and well rendered with visual effects, the movie isn’t so much a movie as it is a DLC video game campaign. Ostensibly this is a movie about heroic qualities like leadership and sacrifice and bravery, but it’s really all about tactics and historical realism. It reminds me of those Civil War movies in the 1990s that appealed to battle re-enactors. This feels like it’s made for the same crowd; not moviegoers looking for engaging characters and compelling drama but moviegoers looking for period jargon and historical accuracy, things incidental to storytelling. The climax comes at 75 minutes and the end credits at 81. The battle sequences can be thrilling and feel reverent to a fault, but what emotional engagement is this movie supposed to offer to someone who doesn’t fill their weekends watching streams of WWII documentaries? What characters am I to connect with? It’s not bad by any means but it also feels like it never even tries to be more than a visual manual for naval warfare. I kept thinking my own father would enjoy this movie. He happily watched the many, many hours of those Ted Turner-produced Civil War movies that paid fawning homage to the military tactics and realism (within reason, they were PG-13 after all) at the expense of character and story. The story is the battle, the characters are stuck as interchangeable faces, and the real star is the depth of historical fidelity. It almost feels like it should simply be the epic visual accompaniment to a series of talking heads for a WWII television documentary. Greyhound is an exciting experience, not much of an actual story, but it might be the most “dad movie” of 2020 if your father is anything like mind.
Nate’s Grade: B
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+