CGB Review of Dunkirk (2017)

You’re gonna need a nap after this movie because MY GOODNESS, this is quite an intense experience!

This is my review of Dunkirk!

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The year is 1940.  Nazi Germany has invaded France and, as a result, thousands of Allied soldiers are now held hostage on the seaside town of Dunkirk.  On the surface, the situation might not seem so urgent (just stay put in that town and wait for help to come along)…until we realize that the Allied perimeter is shrinking and–ergo–German forces are closing in on the vulnerable men.   In addition, these are 400,000 men who are needed back in England to protect the homefront.  Told from three perspective angles–land, air, and sea–we the audience watch with bated breath the horrors these men endure as they desperately await deliverance from the evil closing in on them.

The Hits
In reviewing movies, something I have learned is that with certain film pieces–primarily ones with unconventional narrative styles–is to look at what the filmmaker’s intention was in the creation of the project.  When I kept hearing from friends who had seen the film that there was little dialogue and essentially no main protagonist, I knew that finding out Christopher Nolan’s intent would be key in giving the movie a fair review.  Sure enough, I came across a quote from Nolan himself where he explains the main goal of Dunkirk:

“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story.  I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from.  The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?  Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole?  Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”
–Christopher Nolan on “Dunkirk”

With that in mind, did Christopher Nolan achieve his goal in employing visual storytelling to chronicle the battle on Dunkirk?
Ladies and gentlemen…YES!  He did and he did it masterfully.   This isn’t like with Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” where the historical narrative gets bogged down by a clichéd romance between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale.  No, this is a straightforward visual saga of 400,000 men trying to keep their heads above water (quite literally at some points in the film) as they fight to stay alive each day and night.  To quote YouTube movie reviewer Ralph Sepe Jr., “A really great film is one you can watch with the sound off and still know what’s going on.”  Dunkirk is most certainly an experience and one that should be viewed in IMAX.  Granted, it would still be effective without IMAX, but for an even more dramatic effect, I would recommend seeing it in IMAX.  The bang and clamor is palpable as the men go from one brush with death to another.  The visual experience of Dunkirk is so visceral that you WILL hear the bullets whizzing by your ear.  Your heart WILL pound rapidly at each and every bomb that falls from the sky and blasts the sand beneath their boots.  This movie provides very little breathing room, i.e. no scenes of the men joking with bottles of beer in hand, so expect to be holding your breath many times throughout the film.
Yes, there is very little dialogue in this film, and in a strange way it actually works to the film’s advantage.  Let’s be honest: In a high-stress situation, would there really be any small chit-chat going on?  No, I don’t think so.  Okay, maybe there’d be that one guy who tries to lighten the mood, but even he would have one thing on his mind in the midst of danger: “Survive.”  Because there’s no cheesy sentences about a girlfriend back home or clichéd speeches about freedom and the American way, the story is what take center-stage–as it should be.  While there is no main protagonist to relate to, this enables the audience to care for all the men, which from a Catholic perspective brings to mind the Church’s stance on the dignity of every person; how whether you know somebody’s name or not, they have an inherent dignity simply because they are.
A friend of mine pointed out, “Notice how there is very little blood.  Nobody gets decapitated or anything.  Saving Private Ryan focused on the physical aspects of war; Dunkirk is more interested in the psychological.”  You are definitely right, M.P.!  This movie will definitely leave you in a state of dread and anticipation.  The first five minutes puts us through sudden gunfire that will leave you shaken, and you’ll be even more anxious when the men narrowly survive the first round of bombs dropped.  The film is unrelenting in not letting a single moment pass without the men coming face-to-face with some form of catastrophe.   The end result is that we, the audience, are right there with them.  Our hearts are pounding as loudly as theirs, we tremble every time the characters look up at aircrafts hovering over them in the ashen skies, we do not feel safe on land or sea.  Even the skies bring the promise of hellfire upon these stranded soldiers.  Yes, there are physical deaths and wounded fighters, but the psychological hell of waiting for a bullet to come for you burns itself into your brain all the way to the end credits.

The Misses
This movie does not transition between Acts very well.  The majority of mainstream films follow a three-act structure.   I’ll give just one example:
The First Act of Pan’s Labyrinth begins with the faun’s narration of the fairytale and ends when–in present day–the faun tells Ofelia that she has to find three items before the full moon.  The Second Act starts when Ofelia crawls into the large tree to confront the Toad and ends when [SPOILER] her mother dying in childbirth.  The Third Act begins at Carmen’s funeral and leads us to the climax and resolution.
Case in point: With Pan’s Labyrinth, you knew exactly when and how the story was progressing.  Meanwhile with Dunkirk, it was a bit hard to tell where we were in terms of story progression.  I actually had to look at my phone at one point, and I saw that it was only 9:00 and I was at the 8:00 screening.  I wouldn’t have pointed this out if it weren’t for the fact that SO MUCH happens in the first act that I thought we were somewhere in the second act.  You know those movies that have a scene or two that is all shot in one take?  This whole movie felt like it was done in one take, which would be revolutionary if there were indicators in the plot that, “The first act is drawing to a close, now we’re heading into Act Two.”  The weaving and connecting of the storylines on air, land and sea was a tad clumsy.
I kind of wish it had an ending that was a little more hopeful.  Basically if you’ve watched The Theory of Everything all way through (which you absolutely should do because it is amazing), the vibe you got with the way that movie ended is the same one you’ll feel at the end of Dunkirk.  I’ll just put it this way: For a movie that markets the triumphant rescue of 400,000 men, the actual triumph is really downplayed.  Going back to Christopher Nolan’s intent, maybe that was the point, but still a small spark of hope after being rescued would have been welcomed.

Dunkirk is, above all things, an experience.  A bone-chilling, white-knuckled, gut-wrenching depiction of war.  Crisp camerawork, subtle acting and to-the-point storytelling elevates Dunkirk so that it stands firmly among the great war movies all while standing alone as a unique art piece in modern cinema.

Blessed Fr. Jacques Hamel, pray for us.

CGB Review of Live By Night (2017)

I remember one time when my brother commented how he didn’t really care for Ben Affleck.  “He always plays a stoic Boston street-tough in every movie he’s in.”
This whole movie is my brother’s argument personified.

This is my review of Live By Night!

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Okay, so like Nocturnal Animals, this movie is a tad hard to summarize.  Here goes nothing!
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a World War I veteran who has vowed to never live by anyone else’s rules other than his own–he’s basically Tommy Pickles if he grew up and became a gangster.  We first meet Joe when he’s in a–how to put this delicately?–romantic entanglement with Emma Gould (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of Irish mafia gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister).  When things go horribly wrong for Joe and Emma, i.e. Albert finds out they’re lovers by night because the plot demands it, Joe turns to Italian mafia gangster leader Maso Pescatore (okay, this character [Joe] is a crime boss magnet, isn’t he?) and ends up running a rum empire in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where he meets Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana), the sister of a Cuban businessman and falls for her.

Yeah…if this all sounds like an Edgar Award-winning novel from 2012 that is a 401 pages long, that’s because it is!  Live by Night is based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane, who was also the screenwriter for this flick.

The Hits
This is certainly a well-made movie.  There are some gorgeous shots and the cinematography is as outstanding here as it was in Arrival.  The second and third act of this film is really where it shines.  The story gains a much better pace and we do get to connect with Joe Coughlin.  The climactic Michael Mann-style shootout is thrilling and engaging to watch.  No doubt that actor/director Ben Affleck knows how to make one heck of a heart-pounding action sequence.
Live by Night has a lot of very intriguing ideas and subplots.  For one, Joe is the gangster son of Officer Thomas Coughlin and THAT relationship between a law-abiding father and law-breaking son (a reverse Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, if you will) would’ve been fascinating to explore!   Also, halfway through the second act, we meet Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), who goes from drug-addicted aspiring actress to a devout Christian preacher and her sermons turn the public against the construction of a new casino run by Joe.  Honestly, I wish that was the main plot; a character study of the rivalry between a rum empire-running gangster and a young female preacher as the fate of the casino lies in the hands of both forces, one opposing and the one trying to keep it alive.  I’d pay money to see that movie!  Speaking of which, Elle Fanning’s performance as Loretta is haunting; soft-spoken and cloaked in white dresses with hollow eyes, I really wish she had a bigger role than what she got here.  Nevertheless, she’s as mesmerizing here as she was as Aurora in 2014’s “Maleficent.”  I’ll be sure to post a review of Maleficent here on CGB at some point.
And yet, those enthralling subplots I mentioned are both a strength AND a weakness.  Just head for the Misses segment and I’ll explain.

The Misses
These intriguing subplots are given almost no time to develop.  The relationship between Joe and Graciella comes and goes, and we’re just supposed to assume that they’re in love because they hug and talk romantically every once in a while.  Meanwhile, Elle Fanning’s ex-druggie turned 1930’s version of Paula White–minus White’s prosperity gospel angle–shows up, preaches with vigor and then we’re just told via Ben Affleck’s narration that her sermons turned the public against his casino.  As for the relationship between Joe and his cop dad, well, we get a taste of the intrigue of their conflicted relationship, but then cop dad dies off-screen.
Halfway through this movie, I found myself asking a question that, once I thought it, made the whole movie fall apart for me: “What is this movie about?” Allow me to explain.
Okay, on its surface, Live by Night is about a gangster who does crummy things to build a rum empire during Prohibition.  That’s all fine and dandy, but at its core, what is Live by Night about?  What’s the interior goal within the story?
I’ve picked some examples to bring perspective into my argument:

What is Zootopia about?  It is a commentary on how our perception of those who are different from us can color the way we treat them.

What is Arrival about?   It is about how language is a bridge between peoples and raises the question of how you would act if you knew your own future.

What is Pan’s Labyrinth about?  It is about how we as human beings are capable of being the most frightening monsters, and how fantasy can be both a coping mechanism and a Hell of our making if we allow the line between what is real and what is make-believe to become a blurry fog.

So, with all of this in mind, I have no idea what Live by Night is about at its core because the movie itself has nothing to say.  Believe me, I tried very hard to find its narrative center, and to be fair it does have hints of the impact of toxic masculinity here and there.  There is also some speck of prosperity gospel commentary lying around, but the script is so restrained in its approach to the ambitious source material that it ends up not really having anything on its mind.

Overall, Live by Night is one of those movies that gets made to win awards.  I would not be surprised if this gets some awards recognition.  The set design and costumes are top-notch, the cast is stellar and the cinematography is nothing short of remarkable.
That all being said, I’ve always believed that the best compliment you can give to a film is to have it analyzed and remembered by popular culture.  I’ve watched countless YouTube videos that examine the complex narrative choices of Arrival, Pan’s Labyrinth and other films.  Though it really does try to have meaning, Live by Night never really finds its voice and, in turn, probably won’t be getting that analytical treatment any time soon.

Saint Isaac of Nineveh, pray for us.

CGB Review of To The Wonder (Guest Starring Leia the Dog!)

Hey indie filmmakers, why are you so afraid of dialogue?  What did dialogue ever do to you?

This is my review of To The Wonder!

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Also, I’d like to welcome a very special guest: My “niece” Leia the dog!
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To The Wonder chronicles the whirlwind romance of an American man and a French woman played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko.  At first everything is awesome and they’re all in love and shiz, but when Kurylenko moves to Oklahoma with Affleck, shiz hits the fan and their love is tested.  Things get even more complicated when Affleck reconnects with Rachel McAdams.
So before I start, I’m going to do something a little different with this review. Along with my “hits and misses” system, I’m also going to use reaction pictures of Leia to explain what the movie does right and what it does wrong.

The Hits
This movie is surprisingly Catholic without even trying to be!
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For one, this movie has the most compassionate, humanistic portrayal of a priest character in a secular film that I’ve ever seen.  Javier Bardem plays a priest who is experiencing a dark night of the soul.  He feels disconnected and uncared for by God, yet finds peace and healing through ministering to others.
So I’m guessing the screenwriter found inspiration from Mother Teresa’s spiritual darkness.  😉
Like Melancholia, this film is a cinematography student’s dream come true.   There are a lot of beautiful nature shots.  This would be the greatest nature documentary ever made if director Terrance Malick had just said, “Frick it, let’s just throw the script away and make an Earth Day movie for Disney!”
To The Wonder is the best representation of the “love just happens” philosophy in action.  It makes a good cautionary tale about what happens when people dismiss the fact that love is a choice and not just an emotional high.  Affleck and Kurylenko are committed to each other…when everything is fine and dandy. When life kicks in and the real challenges arise, what they think is love is suddenly gone. When we abandon the personal responsibility aspect of love, we end up with fleeting relationships that are great for the moment, but can be easily replaced when things get dull or tough.  In a way, the film argues that looking for love using self-serving actions leave us empty-handed, and that true love exists once we look outside ourselves and serve those who are less fortunate than us.

The Misses
A friend of mine once said, “I could watch a movie on mute as long as Rachel McAdams is in it.”
Hey, M.P., guess what?  You’re in luck because this movie is SEVERELY ALLERGIC TO DIALOGUE!
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Yeah, I was also tilting my head at the startling lack of dialogue.  Tell me, when you’re walking around at the mall or the beach or somewhere with your friend, do you just awkwardly stare at each other and then gaze at the pretty flowers as if posing for a photoshoot?   I sure don’t!  The characters in this film will literally walk to each other and just exchange glances without even saying “hello.”  In the rare times that they do talk, they whisper to each other because–Terrence Malick!
You may have noticed in my summary that I used the actors’ names and not the names of their characters.  That’s because nobody in this film calls each other by their names.
Sixteen minutes into the film, I said aloud, “Hey, what are your guys’ names?”
Thirty minutes into the film, as Ben Affleck silently walks across a construction site, I ask, “Dude, what’s your character name?”
An hour later…”I’d love to connect with ya’ll, but I have no idea what your names are!”  Watching an entire movie and never knowing who is who is kind of a problem.
Why is pacing such a common problem in cinema?  To The Wonder and Melancholia are two movies that really like to drag out their running time.   Scenes will go on for longer than they’re supposed to and there are so many silent periods throughout the movie that I actually started doing my math homework without ever feeling like I was missing something important.
By the end, Leia and I just dozed off…
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All of that being said, To The Wonder is a conflicting movie.  There is a lot of good stuff here and as an arthouse indie flick, it succeeds in having its own unique style.  However, the unrealistic silence between the characters and the “drag-your-feet” pacing will test your patience as it did mine.
On the bright side, I got to spend some quality time with my fur-niece.

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Saint Valentine, pray for us.

CGB Review of Gone Girl (2014)

There is a major spoiler about one of the characters in this review, so SPOILER AHEAD.

This is my review of Gone Girl!

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I love Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl,” which this movie was based on.  I’ve read that book so many times and I’m sure I’ll be reading it again real soon.  Before I ramble on and on about how awesome the book is, let’s talk about the movie.
On the morning of Nick and Amy Dunne’s 5th wedding anniversary, Nick discovers that Amy has disappeared.  From there, a nationwide search for her is launched and Nick must deal with Detective Rhonda Boney and Detective Jim Gilpin, who begin to suspect that he [Nick] murdered his wife [Amy].  While that’s going on, we get to look into Amy’s diary, where the Dunnes’ troubled marriage is chronicled.

As a fan of the book, I am happy to say that this is one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations that I have seen in a while.

The Hits
David Fincher’s use of a cool color palate, an eerie musical score that sounds like someone is just around the corner, waiting to get you (we have Atticus Ross to thank for that), and smooth camera pans fit this movie like a glove.  In the writing category, I have great respect for Gillian Flynn, who wrote the screenplay for the film.  I’m sure it wasn’t easy deciding which things to cut and which story elements to keep, but I can tell that she put the time and effort to making sure that the film matches her vision as accurately as possible.  There’s an old adage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
Rosamund Pike was born to play Amy Elliott Dunne, the most disturbing femme fatale in recent memory.   This icy Hitchcockian blond with a haunting voice that would make anybody look over their shoulder if they heard her speak is calculating, methodical and armed with 20/20 foresight.  She thinks of everything and spares no one in her path; Satan asks her for advice.  She will ruin you and then reassemble you to fit her vision.  She doesn’t need to point a gun to hurt you; all she has to do is know you.   That is how she begins to destroy you.
Ben Affleck not only understands Nick Dunne, but he even does a better job at representing Nick than the book.  He exceeded all expectation with his portrayal of a lazy, pathetic, country-boy adulterer who avoids any and all conflict, even if it’s staring him right in the face.
Tyler Perry gives a surprisingly stellar performance as the cocky slimeball Tanner Bolt, Carrie Coon is grounded and down-to-earth as Margo “Go” Dunne, and although he seems a bit miscast, Neil Patrick Harris does a good job as the creepy Desi Collings.

A Word of Caution
Are you discerning married life?  Is your own marriage in a rough patch?   Are you unsure or even suspicious of the institution of marriage?  If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then this movie might get under your skin.  Both the movie and especially the book lean towards an anti-marriage point of view.  In both versions, married characters are either miserable or idiotic, Amy Dunne makes plenty of “don’t-get-married” statements, and the Dunnes’ marriage freefalls from passionate to insufferable.
That all being said, do keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, and Gillian Flynn herself is a married woman.  She even gives her husband a glowing acknowledgment at the end of the book.

Overall Gone Girl is one of the best thrillers in recent years that will quite literally keep you guessing until its gut-wrenching conclusion.