TOM HARDY as Farrier in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller “DUNKIRK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR where a distant wave on an exoplanet crests hundreds of feet above sea level.  The tension of this moment builds and builds until the crewed shuttle makes their narrow escape.   DUNKIRK begins at that crest, followed by another, and another, and another, each more terrifying than the last.  It plays like a visual translation of Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War”.

Brusque in my dismissals of Nolan’s past work, I see a director evolving.  With MEMENTO (2000) I had yet to be convinced that the backward chronology was more than a gimmick to conceal an otherwise mundane narrative.  In THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and INCEPTION (2010), Nolan’s successes gave way to excesses of action and incoherent editing to further conceal an apparent distaste for cogent narratives.  Credit where credit is due, the man knew how to shoot a scene.  He just didn’t know how to connect them together properly.

Two films, THE PRESTIGE (2006) and INTERSTELLAR (2014), are exceptions in his oeuvre.  In the former, Nolan created a compelling, Dickensian noir about two rival illusionists, each grasping at immortality–metaphorical and literal.  In the latter, Nolan scored a massive international success with a drama of familial bonds disguised as science fiction paradox.

The same man who spun his grandiose ideas out of control just four years earlier told a relatable yet philosophical father-daughter story about the cosmic permanence of love.  I could even forgive the soppy dialogues, irrational female scientist, and Matt Damon, as my own beloved Ophelia¹ sat, rapt, for the last twenty-five minutes as Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) conquered space and time to return to his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).

Enter Nolan’s tenth feature.  In 1940 at the Battle of Dunkirk, 68,000 British and 48,000 French lives were lost.  Another 330,000 survived because of a plan enabled by the Wehrmacht’s so-called Halt Order, giving Allied forces three days to stage Operation Dynamo—a massive evacuation.

Reportedly, Nolan and his wife, producer Emma Thomas, started writing the story after traversing the English channel by boat, learning about the historic defeat on the shores of France.  He spent the last twenty-five years polishing and paring down that script to just seventy-five pages of slug lines and sparse, almost nonexistent dialogue.

DUNKIRK, shot in a combination of IMAX and Panavision 65mm, dramatizes the battle in a triptych on land, sea, and in the air.  The film opens on five soldiers, including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), barely surviving a shelling in the city.  Their commanding officer dead, they scramble aimlessly across the Maginot line until one reaches the shore where thousands of troops are being evacuated on destroyers and medical frigates, many carried out on stretchers.

From here, the three perspectives are intercut:  1. Tommy attempts to board a doomed frigate.  2. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son join other affluent civilians on yachts, enroute to aid in the massive evacuation.  3. RAF Pilot Farrier³ (Tom Hardy) and his wingmen give air cover to the evacuees.

If Hoyte van Hoytema’s visual story interprets Holst, apropos that Hans Zimmer’s score steers clear of the kind of cacophonous bombast that Spielberg might commission from John Williams.  Instead, his amorphous swell rises sparingly, precisely when it must.  The effect is like the atonal, orchestral crescendos in The Beatles “A Day in the Life”.  Then, he rests us gently back down, like Farrier’s plane coming ashore, in the arms of a new derivative of Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations.

And it’s just like that.  Amidst the crests and troughs of the battle sequences, the images tell us of the Dawson’s war-hardened shrewdness and personal tragedies; of Farrier’s unflinching trust in his wingmen as he takes down five², perhaps six, Messerschmitt Me-109’s in his Supermarine Spitfire with its roaring, Rolls Royce Merlin engine; and Tommy’s epiphany as an elderly man hands him a blanket.  His shipmate, Alex (Harry Styles) remarks snidely, “All we did was survive.”

The man, a veteran likely blinded during the Great War, replies, “That’s enough.”

There’ll be endless editorials about the 70mm film shoots, in-camera/practical fx, the live extras, the real planes and ships, but DUNKIRK’s triumph owes to the simplicity of the finished product, not the complexity of the technical inputs.  That masterful distillation is the piece that Nolan has finally brought under his command.

Footnote: The AMC IMAX where they screened the film made an absolute mess of the sound, which I expected.  I suspect that the 70mm presentation I’m seeing this weekend at LOOK Cinemas Prestonwood will be much more tightly managed.

  1. Ophelia is a dog.  She loves watching science fiction with daddy.
  2. This is perhaps based on the feat of 605th RAF Squadron Leader Archibald “Archie” McKellar, who shot down five Bf-109’s in a day during the Battle of Britain.
  3. The British surname Farrier is of French origin vis-à-vis the Norman conquest of 1066.  While it means “blacksmith”, its root is the French word for iron.  Either an “iron-haired” (silver-haired) ancestor or, more likely in this case, iron will.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

There’s always a lot happening in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, even if little of it seems to make sense.

Indeed, this visually ambitious science-fiction epic from French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) values spectacle over substance, with the dazzling technical proficiency unable to compensate for a pretentious storyline that becomes lost in space.

Following a stunning opening sequence, the bulk of the film takes place in the 28th century and follows the adventures of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are cops charged with maintaining peaceful coexistence among humans and creatures in a distant galaxy.

Zipping between solar systems and other dimensions, their primary threat comes when they travel to Alpha, a bustling city of diversity that’s being threatened by a mysterious force. Their perilous investigation leads to encounters with a military commander (Clive Owen) whose motives are cloudy and a shapeshifting extraterrestrial (Rihanna) who masquerades as a dancer. Soon, the fate of the universe is at stake.

Besson’s vision and audacity are commendable. His big-budget array of computer-generated effects are impressive, as is his committed depiction of an imaginative futuristic world filled with elaborate cityscapes, high-tech weapons and gadgetry, travel between dimensions, and alien species both friendly and hostile.

However, his screenplay, based on an acclaimed French comic-book series, finds character development in much shorter supply amid all the surreal visual chaos. Some playful banter between the two leads is hardly sufficient to generate emotional investment.

Although Besson doesn’t cut corners, the dense narrative requires more attention than most viewers are likely to supply. “It’s our mission that doesn’t make any sense,” laments a defiant Laureline who, along with the rest of us, needs only to wait for the gap to be filled, until a couple of final-act monologues.

The result is intermittently exciting and amusing, with offbeat touches (and an eclectic supporting cast) surrounding an uneven mix of chases, shootouts, and muddled social commentary.

The film obviously is intended to launch a franchise (the realization of which will be determined by box-office performance, of course), and perhaps this installment is intended primarily to lay the groundwork for what’s to come. Whether moviegoers will agree to another intergalactic voyage with this crew is the bigger question.


Rated PG-13, 137 minutes.

Capsule reviews for July 21

The Fencer

Featuring lessons about both the basics of fencing and Estonia’s position in World War II, this sincere if heavy-handed Finnish drama tells the true-life story of Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi), a new physical education teacher at a small school in rural Estonia. But his upstart fencing club is jeopardized by a principal (Hendrik Toompere) with ulterior motives, various sociopolitical obstacles, and with a secret from Endel’s past that has him constantly looking over his shoulder. The film is an awkward mix of sports underdog saga and political thriller, yet even when its edges are soft instead of sharp, the crowd-pleasing result provides depth and historical insight. (Not rated, 99 minutes).


Girls Trip

If success is more about the journey than the destination, then this raunchy yet sentimental comedy about the bonds of sisterhood is modestly successful. Because there certainly isn’t much subtlety or surprise in this adventure of four ex-college friends who reunite for a weekend at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, where chaos and debauchery ensue while the ladies deal with past wounds and rekindled friendships. It’s familiar territory for director Malcolm Lee (The Best Man), yet amuses primarily because of its scattered big laughs, unique cultural perspective, and the breezy chemistry between its stars including Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, and Tiffany Haddish. (Rated R, 122 minutes).


Killing Ground

The setup outweighs the payoff in this low-budget Australian thriller that might make you reconsider your next camping trip. The nonlinear concept follows two young families who become entangled with the sadistic perpetrators of a violent crime in the woods, with one couple becoming the victims, and the other essentially the witnesses. The screenplay by rookie director Damien Power jumbles the chronology to mostly clever effect, essentially starting with near the beginning and the end, and culminating in the middle. Yet that narrative strategy starts to feel like a gimmick to disguise the formulaic nature of a story that culminates in some obligatory blood and gore. (Not rated, 88 minutes).



The amusement is more scattered than sustained in this heartfelt comedy about a mildly dysfunctional family dealing with a philandering patriarch. It takes place in 1990s New York, where Dana (Jenny Slate) is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass) but dealing with commitment issues, while her younger sister (Abby Quinn) discovers that their father (John Turturro) is having an affair. The lighthearted period touches of director Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) give the material a well-defined sense of time and place. Yet in this case, the blend of raunchy comedy and darker domestic drama is awkward, becoming caught up in final-act contrivances that essentially lead to ambiguous shoulder-shrugging. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

War For The Planet Of The Apes

© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.  Twentieth Century Fox-TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”

In Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn, a dialogue takes place between an ape and human who hash out the self-destructive history of intensive agriculture.  The gorilla, named Ishmael, questions the uniquely human, mythological conceit that we are the apex of evolutionary biology.

This is the bookend that seems to drive Matt Reeves’ final chapter in the current PLANET OF THE APES trilogy.  In the rebooted 2011 and 2014 installments of the franchise,  humans are infected by a virus engineered originally as a drug treatment to combat Alzheimer’s.  The primate test subjects of the program, however, flourished physically and mentally.  With most of humanity eradicated by the Simian Flu, the third film opens in the heat of a territorial battle between Caesar (Andy Serkis), the de facto leader of the apes, and troops under the command of his unhinged opposite, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

Caesar and his closest advisers conclude that they must relocate to the desert on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Harrelson’s Kurtz/Ahab archetype is obsessed with avenging the inevitable extinction of his species.  In parallel, Caesar harbors anger at humans though not to the degree his rival, Koba, did in the two films prior.  A large orangutan, Maurice (named likely for Maurice Evans, a.k.a. Dr. Zaius, in the 1968 original) reflects that they failed to understand just how much darkness Koba still carried within him.  The third chapter reminds me of the triumph of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING, of which Roger Ebert observed, “a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.”  Replace “race” with “species” and there you have it.

Occasionally the imagery and the score rise above the limits of cinematographer Michael Seresin’s and composer Michael Giacchino’s repertoire, e.g. when Caesar leads a small group across a beach to a military fortification as the sun glistens off the water–the music, the imagery and the story forming a contrapuntal scene composition.  However, the real feat of Reeves’ APES is in its character arcs.  We’ve been trained to think Caesar is noble, Koba is flawed, and the Colonel is evil.  The truth is that Caesar is flawed, Koba is a victim, and the Colonel is weak.

Reeves’ film muses over a self-evident truth about protagonists and antagonists: we all begin with intentions we believe to be right.  If you know where PLANET OF THE APES (1968) begins, then you know where the Simian Flu takes the story.  If you don’t: A mute child, whom the apes later name Nova (Amiah Miller), bridges the gap of understanding between the Colonel and Caesar.  How she does so, I will not reveal.

In the middle chapter, Caesar’s prejudices blinded him to the betrayals by his own kind.  We see both men haunted by their mistakes:  Caesar has nightmares of Koba, darker than I would have imagined.  We probably overlook the Colonel’s anguish, both because of the way he caricaturizes himself to create a fearsome image, and because of how recreational and self-medicating use of alcohol permeates our own culture.  There all the time, we may not immediately recognize that the Colonel is, in fact, an alcoholic drowning in the sorrow of his own personal tragedy.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES closes metaphorically where Quinn’s Ishmael begins, “With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?”

Capsule reviews for July 14


A noteworthy cast is squandered in this woefully absurd redemption story from rookie director Michael Mailer (son of Norman) that indulges heavy-handed melodrama at the expense of any realistic exploration of contemporary relationships. It centers on a blind writer (Alec Baldwin) still bitter after losing his sight in a car crash that killed his wife. Then he finds an unlikely connection with the wife (Demi Moore) of a corrupt executive (Dylan McDermott) serving jail time for a deal gone bad. Their subsequent affair proves therapeutic for both, although not for moviegoers, who must endure an aggressive parade of pretentious clichés while wondering who to root for. (Rated R, 105 minutes).


Lady Macbeth

It’s not Shakespeare, but rather a 19th century Russian novel that provides the inspiration for this chilling low-budget period drama of female empowerment run amok. In a rural British estate, teenager Katherine (Florence Pugh) is trapped in a subservient marriage to an impotent older husband. When he’s away on business, she starts a passionate affair with a servant (Cosmo Jarvis) that prompts vengeance against the men who have suppressed her. And indeed, hell hath no fury like this scorned woman during a riveting final act of psychopathic rage. The gritty result is an uneven exploration of gender politics and socioeconomic class, but Pugh is a powerhouse. (Rated R, 89 minutes).


Lost in Paris

There are perhaps worse problems to have than the titular quandary, which in the case of this breezy French romance — marking the latest collaboration of married filmmakers Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, who also star — finds a happy ending for all of those astray. Gordon plays a Canadian librarian summoned to Paris by her aging aunt (Emmanuelle Riva). Among her ensuing quirky encounters, Fiona meets an outspoken homeless man (Abel) who changes her life in unexpected ways. Slight but amusing, the innocuous film takes advantage of its surroundings, highlighted by a throwback style of slapstick and vaudeville-style comedy accompanied by a charming dose of romantic whimsy. (Not rated, 83 minutes).


Swallows and Amazons

Celebrating childhood innocence and the power of imagination, this old-fashioned charmer might ultimately appeal more to nostalgic adults than kids in the social-media age. It takes place in 1935 at a remote British lake, where five siblings, while their mariner father is at sea, convince their mother (Kelly Macdonald) to let them sail to a nearby island, which leads to an adventure involving fake pirates, possible real-life spies, and strange new lands. The film, adapted from a series of children’s books, overdoses on cuteness and might peeve cynics with its anachronisms and twee tendencies. Yet it captures the mischievous sense of discovery for its wide-eyed youngsters. (Not rated, 97 minutes).


The Wrong Light

If only some manipulative filmmaking hadn’t gotten in the way, this documentary exposing the unethical tactics of a Thailand charity could have been more impactful. Nevertheless, it offers a compelling glimpse into Mickey Choothesa, who founded an organization as part of a crusade ostensibly to stop sex trafficking of underage girls. However, what starts as a celebration of those efforts veers in a different direction once his stories don’t check out. Some eye-opening revelations spark the appropriate outrage. Yet eventually, the film isn’t about Choothesa or the innocent children as much as it is about the directors, whose journalistic motives likewise invite scrutiny for their authenticity. (Not rated, 78 minutes).

A Ghost Story

Given its generic title, fans of mainstream horror might be shocked by A Ghost Story, and not in the ways they suspect.

This elliptical tale of apparitions from the afterlife by versatile director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) isn’t scary in the conventional sense, although it’s certainly haunting in ways that resonate beyond the usual jump scares and cheap thrills.

The filmmaker carefully crafts a character-driven examination of the grieving process that’s both poignant and provocative, for those with the patience to withstand its downbeat and deliberately paced approach.

The story begins with an unnamed couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, bickering over whether to move out of their modest rural Texas house. The husband subsequently dies in a car accident, prompting his widow to grieve and eventually move out. But he remains behind, in the stereotypical form of a ghost represented by a corpse in a white sheet, struggling to come to terms with his own death and the presence those who later live there.

The first half of the film essentially follows the married couple through the bereavement period that follows his death. Then the screenplay detours into a Malick-style meditation on memories and the passage of time, through the eyes of the ghost and its beloved house, which spans generations.

Lowery not only subverts genre conventions — with some playful touches that break up the mostly solemn proceedings — but his ambitious vision makes a powerful impression with its meticulous attention to imagery and atmosphere.

Hypnotic yet ambiguous, the result isn’t for all tastes. The film is excessively slow-paced, with Lowery favoring long takes (often static and silent, in a narrow aspect ratio) with little verbal communication. During one early stretch, we watch Mara, without saying a word, devour a sympathy pie straight from the tin for several unbroken and intentionally painful minutes.

In fact, Will Oldham is the actor with the most dialogue, and he appears in only a single scene while delivering a rambling existential monologue at a house party — under the watchful eye of the titular specter, of course.

Even when it’s difficult to grasp exactly what A Ghost Story is trying to say in some of its more head-scratching segments, the film commands appreciation for its vision and audacity. You might not see ghosts the same way again.


Rated R, 87 minutes.

Capsule reviews for July 7

Austin Found

The premise might feel ripped from the headlines, but this lackluster comedy too often seems to come straight off the assembly line instead. It follows an overbearing pageant mom (Linda Cardellini) who desperately schemes for fame and fortune by arranging for her ex-boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich) and his simple-minded friend (Craig Robinson) to kidnap her precocious daughter (Ursula Parker), and then benefiting from the resulting publicity. As things come unraveled, the uneven screenplay struggles to generate much emotional investment in its off-putting characters or their plight—awkwardly shifting between broad comedy, misguided poignancy, and sensationalistic media cynicism. Either an edgier or softer approach would have been preferable. (Not rated, 104 minutes).


City of Ghosts

Perhaps the biggest compliment for this provocative and timely documentary from director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) is that it might change your perspective about the Syrian refugee crisis. That’s the intent in chronicling the harrowing efforts of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a collective of courageous grassroots journalists who risk their lives to share the truth about living conditions in their ISIS-controlled hometown. The powerful film is a tribute to their work, but also provides new insight into the Syrian conflict and explores the evolution of activism and journalism in the social-media age. It skillfully handles difficult subject matter in ways both suspenseful and sorrowful. (Not rated, 93 minutes).



This compendium of Western clichés isn’t a comprehensive biopic about the notorious Old West gunslinger, but rather focuses on the brief period during which he served as marshal of Abilene, Kansas, in 1871. That’s when “Wild Bill” Hickok (Liam Hemsworth) tries to sort out the riffraff in a small town beset by violence while reconnecting with an old flame (Cameron Richardson). He has the support of the mayor (Kris Kristofferson), yet runs into trouble with a bar owner (Trace Adkins) and his bandits seeking revenge. Despite some stylish shootouts, the mildly compelling if haphazardly assembled oater lacks historical context and fires too many narrative blanks. (Not rated, 88 minutes).


The Little Hours

The filmmakers behind this raunchy comedy about promiscuous nuns need to confess — not for their blasphemous subject matter, but for not carrying their mischievous one-note premise successfully to feature length. However, there are some scattered moments of deadpan hilarity within this story of a 14th century servant (Dave Franco) forced to flee to a convent, where he poses as a deaf-mute while trying to resist the flirtatious advances of the resident sisters (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci). The subversive script by director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) deserves credit for audacity, yet the outrageous laughs start to wear thin well before the finish. (Rated R, 90 minutes).


Swim Team

The title might be ordinary, but the same can’t be said of the Jersey Hammerheads, a competitive Special Olympics swimming program in New Jersey that consists entirely of young athletes on the autism spectrum. The heartwarming film follows their inaugural season as the team brings out the best in its swimmers both inside and outside the pool. Specifically, it focuses on three athletes whose participation leads to improved social skills and self-esteem, in addition to gold medals. The glossy treatment leaves some unanswered questions, yet it’s easy to root for the inspirational youngsters, whose moving stories just might change your perspective regarding inclusion and disabilities. (Not rated, 100 minutes).

Despicable Me 3

The strategy for Despicable Me 3 is familiar among erstwhile successful franchises desperate to keep the wheels turning — fill every frame with nonstop chaos, toss in some new characters regardless of relevance, and don’t stray too far from the original formula.

Indeed, the financial prosperity of the animated series is on solid ground even as it offers diminishing creative returns. And this third installment — or fourth, if you count the unfortunate Minions spinoff — continues to feel more familiar than fresh.

As this film opens, reformed supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is unable to capture his new nemesis, bitter former child star Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). So he’s fired from the Anti-Villain League by his ruthless new boss (Jenny Slate).

Returning home to his wife (Kristen Wiig) and three adorable daughters, Gru contemplates his future when he’s visited by a stranger named Dru (also voiced by Carell) claiming to be his long-lost twin brother. Dru wants Gru to return to his evil ways and form a partnership of sorts. But when Bratt’s nefarious plan is unleashed, Gru’s loyalties are torn.

The first Despicable Me, released in 2010, was imaginative in both conception and execution, with Gru as a delightfully subversive antihero. Yet none of the subsequent films has provided the same level of energy or laughter.

Under the guidance of returning directors Pierre Coffin (who also voices the ubiquitous diminutive minion sidekicks) and Kyle Balda, the latest film is at least as visually impressive as its predecessors, with crisp and colorful backgrounds to go with sharply detailed characters that include exaggerated physical features.

The villains have always been the stars of this franchise, and the new installment is no exception. Bratt’s obsession with the worst of 1980s fashion and music trends provides some intermittent hilarity, not to mention a rooting interest for moviegoers of a certain generation who might be chaperoning those in the target demographic.

However, despite some amusing sight gags and one-liners, the screenplay is uninspired and mostly reliant on old tricks. We’ve already seen Gru’s transformation from criminal mastermind to cuddly father to reluctant hero, and with nothing substantively new to offer, the periphery characters steal the spotlight. There’s not much despicable about Despicable Me 3, and that’s part of the problem.


Rated PG, 89 minutes.

The House

Maybe it’s appropriate that The House feels like an overextended comedy sketch, given the late-night television roots of stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.

Yet the desperation in the plight of their characters seems to extend to the film as a whole, a thin and uninspired suburban satire that’s more obnoxious than amusing.

Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) are ready to send their precocious daughter (Alex Simpkins) off to the expensive private school of her choice on a full scholarship, only to see the approved public funds pulled at the last minute by a slimy city councilman (Nick Kroll).

Left without a backup plan, but determined to fulfill their daughter’s wishes, the pair hatches a plan with Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), Scott’s equally distressed friend who’s facing foreclosure after a nasty breakup. After a failed weekend in Vegas, they opt to open a full-fledged casino in Frank’s basement to raise the money from their high-rolling neighbors. Naturally, with such high stakes involved, it’s not as easy as these mild-mannered cohorts envisioned.

The characters conveniently lack common sense as their scheme unravels in predictably outrageous fashion in a town that apparently has only one dimwitted cop.

We’ve seen this shtick from Ferrell before, as the bumbling, uptight and overprotective father. Poehler is squandered in what amounts to a hapless sidekick role, and Jeremy Renner pops in briefly, for some reason, as a deranged mobster.

The film offers a half-hearted examination at the effects of rising tuition costs on middle-aged families and impending empty-nesters. Yet that credit seems generous for a project that consistently relies on low-brow vulgarity in lieu of clever gags.

The incoherent result seems to have suffered from some egregious post-production tinkering, which undercuts even further the few scattered genuine laughs in the directorial debut of screenwriter Andrew Jay Cohen (Neighbors). In particular, the final half-hour seems to have been pieced together on the fly.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the film requires an outrageous suspension of disbelief when it needs some level of realistic grounding in order to generate sufficient emotional investment. Indeed, moviegoers will be the losers if they gamble on The House, a strained comedy that quickly cashes in its chips.


Rated R, 88 minutes.