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 The Danish Girl (2015)

It’s official: Eddie Redmayne was put on this earth to get people who don’t normally cry during movies to cry.
Excuse me, I’ve got something in my eye…

This is my review of The Danish Girl!

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The Danish Girl tells the true story of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery.  Lili was born as painter Einar Wegener who confronts repressed feelings and seeks to become a woman.  Along for the tumultuous journey is Gerda Wegener, the progressive, strong-willed wife who must come to terms with her spouse’s transition from male to female.
Guys and gals, this review was a labor of love.  Transgenderism is a sensitive topic that strikes a nerve in people.  I knew that in writing this review, I had to be charitable to LGBT people while remaining loyal to the Church’s stance on sexuality.
For the record, I will never go against the Church’s teaching that God creates us as male and female; Genesis 1:27 states, “God created man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them.”
I will also never cast aside the human dignity of our transgender brothers and sisters. Whether they be gay or straight, every single person is a child of God.
With all that said, let’s take a look at The Danish Girl!

The Hits
Eddie Redmayne broke my heart in The Theory of Everything and in this movie, his performance had me crying like a baby once again.  Empathetic, vulnerable and even childlike at times, Redmayne brilliantly captures the torment of having to wrestle with gender identity.  Any time he has to look at his body in the mirror and mentally envision Lili, his conflict and inner pain are well conveyed.  There is a scene where Lili is beaten up by two homophobic men and, as gut-wrenching as it is, I admire how this one scene unflinchingly depicts the grim reality of anti-gay prejudice.  Like Alan Turing in Imitation Game, Lili is a fleshed-out character, never treated as an agenda pawn.  Much care was taken to be compassionate to Lili’s plight.
Alicia Vikander’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar win was well deserved.  Through her portrayal, we come to know Gerda Wegener as Lili’s advocate, guardian angel and kindred spirit.  Her heartbreaking evolution from playing along with her spouse’s “game” to fully realizing that the person she married is becoming someone else is sold by Vikander’s grounded and spirited performance.
Similarly to The Theory of Everything, the Wegeners’ marriage is engaging to watch. I like how before becoming Lili, Einar starts out as timid and reserved, while Gerda is the adventurous free spirit.  Redmayne and Vikander have a natural chemistry and the love between their characters is convincing.
The set design and the costumes are immaculate.  The color palate resembles that of a painting, which wonderfully reflects the main characters’ shared passion for art.  The film successfully captures the look and feel of 1920’s Denmark.
Where this movie really shines is helping us understand the depth of Lili’s suffering and desire to be a woman while at the same time being considerate of Gerda’s own turmoil with losing her husband.  Neither character is vilified and both have moments of selfishness, hence treating the complexity of the subject matter with tact.

The Misses
Focus is a major issue in this movie.  The film attempts to make both Lili and Gerda the main characters, but more attention is given to Gerda than to Lili.  By the second act of the film, Lili feels like a glorified supporting character.  The movie has a generally steady pace up until the third act, where it starts to meander and toy around with filler and the ending feels a tad rushed.
The musical score is composed by Alexandre Desplat, the same man behind the remarkable Imitation Game soundtrack.  Unfortunately the musical score here is not as inspired.  It sounds nice and it is as smooth as a brush on a canvas, but it pales in comparison to the Imitation Game music.  Sorry, Mr. Desplat, but it looks like you can’t always catch lighting in a bottle twice.
So before the gender reassignment surgery, the movie treats Lili as an apparition, as a separate character whom Einar seeks to become.  I am sad to say that this strategy backfires.  Lines of dialogue such as, “I think Lili’s thoughts.  I dream her dreams,” and “There was a moment where I wasn’t me.  There was a moment that I was just Lili…” made me cringe.  Because Lili and Einar are handled as two characters embodied by one person, there are quite a few times where the movie comes dangerously close to confusing transgenderism with split personality disorder.
It is clear that director Tom Hooper could have used the help of a transgender specialist.  Throughout the film, it appears that Mr. Hooper realized how complicated transgenderism is and became intimidated by his own project.  As a result, the focus on Gerda feels like a security blanket to cover up the film’s inability to delve into the psychology of Lili and it keeps the film from being the character study it could have been.

I have come to the conclusion that The Danish Girl is an admirable misfire.  On one hand, the hearts of everyone involved are in the right place, the technical work is praiseworthy and the committed performances of both Redmayne and Vikander express the triumph and tragedy of their love story.  On the other hand, the restraint and timidity of the filmmakers hold back the story from being able to get inside Lili Elbe’s head, leaving more to be desired.  It is certainly not a bad film, but rather a misstep with good intentions.

Saint Raphael the Archangel, pray for us.