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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Dunkirk is the telling of one of the most historic battles of World War II on land, sea and air.

Admit it. This summer was one of the most lackluster summers in a long time. Very few reasons to get people to come to the cinemas. Dunkirk, however, was one of the films that gave people one of the best reasons to go to the cinemas. One can see why.

The film does share some minor similarities with Titanic. Firstly, it’s a film that features a lot of action as part of the story. This being about the Battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation would be a film that would feature a lot of action and a lot of intense drama. Also like Titanic, it features some fictional stories or story lines inside a moment of history. Like Titanic, they also include historical figures who were part of the Battle, however even there the depictions of incidents do stray away from what really happened and go for the story.

Basically film is so loose, I’m okay with seeing a fictional depiction of moments in history as long as I’m made aware of its fiction. This film is a very good, very complex story of the Evacuation of Dunkirk. We should remember that the Battle Of Dunkirk was very important in the history of World War II. It was the first sign to the Allied forces that Hitler and the Nazi army had a vulnerable side and that the Nazis could be the losing side of World War II, despite how menacing Hitler and the German forces appeared. The rescue mission that accompanied it is a sign of the heroism as 300,000 Allied soldiers survived. The story focuses on three different aspects of the Battle– land, sea and air– and captures in the time frame of a week about what the heat of the moment must have been like for soldiers, civilians, casualties and leaders. The stories of what happened during the Battle of Dunkirk can be told through many different aspects and from many different viewpoints. This film succeeds in capturing the moments as the tension begins, the battles ensue, the devastation is done, the rescue has its own friction and the eventual triumph happens. It allows the viewer to relive the moment of all that happened. I even remember for a brief period of time that I thought the Allied soldiers would lose. Of course I learned in history that they did not lose, but the film succeeded in making me forget it sense that they might lose. That’s the magic of film.

The film is not just about giving a moment in history three different sub-plots. The film also captures the human element of the battle for those part of it. Although the characters are fictitious, they are based on real people from the Battle Of Dunkirk. First there’s young Tommy who goes from being the sole survivor of a battle to joining two other Allied survivors in a new fight for survival and shelter. There are the Dawsons who find themselves rescuing a shell-shocked soldier and seeing their friend George die because of his violent reactions. There’s the RAF pilot who goes from one one of the following pilot to leader of the battle as his leader is shot down. All three stories may not be exact true stories, but they capture the human side of the battle. In all three scenarios, it’s the story about surviving right as they’re witnessing death and destruction around them. It’s likely that what we see in the stories of Dunkirk are similar stories that thousands faced during the very battle. It’s even a reminder of why we should look at those who were part of the Battle, both soldiers and civilian participants, as heroes.

This film is arguably writer/director Christopher Nolan’s best film to date. He came across the idea of doing this film in the 1990’s as he and his wife sailed across the English Channel along the same path of the Dunkirk evacuation. This was no easy film to make. He had his concept of three different scenarios of the Battle Of Dunkirk. He not only had to give the human element to his stories, but also include the action of the battles and the intensity of the various moments. He did an excellent job of constructing such a story that was not only well-done and well-pieced, but was also able to engage the audience as well.

As for the acting, there was not a single stand-out role. Nolan even admitted he didn’t want to put emphasis on the characters for who they are, but instead on will they survive this. Even the role of Tommy was kept very minimal, but Fionn Whitehead did a very good job in his performance as the young soldier struggling to survive. I believe the best acting performance came from Mark Rylance as Peter the mariner who’s caught in the intense situation, but tries to remain cool and calm. Another standout is Tom Hardy as the Spitfire pilot who’s thrown into the leadership role. I know some that are loyal to One Direction may take interest in this because of the appearance of Harry Styles. His performance is good, but his role is limited.

The film needed to have top technical efforts in order to be successful and it had some of the best of the year. There was cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who delivered excellent camera angles,editor Lee Smith who was able to piece the three stories together very well, production designers Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis who did an excellent job of constructing seaside Europe in 1940, composer Hans Zimmer who delivered yet another score that fits the movie to a tee, and the visual effects team for recreating the battles and attacks that occurred.

On an Oscars note, the craziest thing about the months before December is that one does not know which films will have enough juice to qualify for a Best Picture nomination. It’s become very obvious in the last few decades that the big studios save the release for their ‘Oscar bait’ movies for December because they know how things work. Most of the time, a lot of excellent movies that get released in the summer or earlier often miss getting nominated for Best Picture. The year when it was best made obvious was 2002 when all five Best Picture nominees were films either released in December or given wide release in the New Year. Winning an Oscar or even getting nominated is as much about studios doing a strategy or ‘playing the game’ as it is about doing an excellent effort. Don’t forget this is showbiz. Even awards of merit like the Oscars, guild awards or even critics circle awards need to be campaigned and marketed for the win.

The expansion from five Best Picture nominees to a maximum of ten back in 2010 opened doors to a lot of films that were released in much earlier months to have better chances of earning a Best Picture nomination. Dunkirk is one of two films released before the month of November that received a Best Picture nomination. Even before the Oscar season began, Dunkirk was seen as a favorite to be nominated for Best Picture. I myself am relieve to see it as a ‘summer survivor.’

Dunkirk is not just a simple re-enactment of one of the first major battles of World War II. It delivers in the human side of the story as it delivers in the action of the battles. This explains why while the summer movie season of 2017 was known for being lackluster, this movie was a top highlight. And a top-quality highlight too.

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Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 1

I know I’ve done individual reviews of Best Picture nominees in the past. This year I thought I’d try something new. I thought I’d do summaries of the nominees. Three blogs analyzing three of the nominees. It’s something new this year and I hope you like it. For my first summary, I’ll be reviewing the first three Best Picture nominees I saw: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight.

ARRIVAL

arrival

Amy Adams knows how to communicate with aliens in Arrival.

When you learn Arrival is about aliens, I’m sure you have an idea of what you’d anticipate what a movie about aliens would be about. However, you’re in for a big surprise.

This is probably the first movie about aliens to earn a Best Picture nomination. The film appears to set up for a story that would most likely lead to big-time action sequences. Instead we get a film that’s very intellectual in dealing with aliens. Don’t forget Louise is a linguistics professor who was hired for this duty because of her language expertise. In this film, the focus is on communication. Louise has a way to communicate with the aliens and earn their trust even while those around her grow more hostile to the beings. Louise’s gift for communication goes beyond the aliens and she’s able to say to General Shang the words his late wife said to her. It’s like she has a sense for this.

Even with all this, the film is not just about aliens and preventing a human-alien war. The film is about Louise trying to heal after her daughter’s death. Her marriage is no more as well and she’s looking for her purpose. It’s even about Louise and her ability to foresee the future and the possibilities they can unfold. Louise is the central protagonist whom the whole story revolves around. She finds her true gifts at a time she least expects it and she’s able to find her life again. It’s almost like this alien invasion is like a godsend to her life. Right after her daughter dies, she learns of her purpose to the world and to others.

Denis Villeneuve did a top job of directing this film. He already has a reputation for films like Maelstrom, Incendies and Sicario. He’s also been hired to do the Blade Runner sequel. This film he directs is very tricky but he does all the right work for it. The script by Eric Heisserer is very smart and very deep. It does a very good job of getting the right moments of action and the right moments of drama pieced out.

The story also rested on the performance of Amy Adams. She knew the story was primarily about Louise and she had to make it work. Although the role didn’t have too much in terms of character development, her performance was solid and it held the story together. The supporting performers may not have had as big of roles but they still did well with their performances. Jeremy Renner definitely could have had more depth in his role. The music from Johann Johannson and Max Richter fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also excellent and just what the movie needed.

Arrival is a very intelligent movie. It’s an alien movie not like one you’d anticipate at first but you will leave the theatre pleased.

HACKSAW RIDGE

hacksaw-ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield) in both his convictions and his sacrifice.

Mel Gibson is back. This time he has Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a war drama that’s about more than just the war.

This film makes for an interesting topic: conscientious objection. I know all about it. For years I went to a Protestant church where the people were known for their anti-war beliefs. Conscientious objection is something that’s bound to make one question their morals and even act out of hostility. I know that we have conservative pundits who insist that fighting in a war is the definition of patriotism and will even use scriptures to justify why was is the right thing. Upon release of this film, I was anticipating a conservative backlash against it. So far no ‘Diss The Doss’ movement has happened. No movement to have his Medal Of Honor posthumously revoked. Nothing. It’s a good thing because the film does make one reconsider what defines a ‘patriot.’ I’m glad this story was told.

One of the biggest complaints from conservatives in the last 40 years has been either the negative depictions of religion or lack of positive depictions of religion in movies. True, this is not the Hollywood where the Hays Code calls the shots. For those that read my review of Of Gods And Men, I have a quote from Barbara Nicolosi about why that’s the problem. That explains why it’s hard to get a pro-religion movie to compete for Best Picture nowadays. There’s a fine line of showing a film with a positive depiction of Christianity without it being schmaltzy, hokey or overly sentimental. Plus with all the ‘game changers’ in the last few decades, writing a winning script or creating a winning film is just that much of a challenge.

I feel they did a very good job in Hacksaw Ridge. It was a very good story of the persecution Desmond Doss had to face for his beliefs. It was a very gritty story of the war and all the damage it caused. Some say the graphicness was comparable to Saving Private Ryan. It was an honest portrayal about someone’s faith. However there was one point when I felt it was borderlining on hokey during the scenes of: “Please, Lord. Help me find one more.” I know that was something Doss said in real life but I’m just wondering if it could have been done better.

This film is the first film directed by Mel Gibson in a decade. I know he had to take a break as he had a very public meltdown with the things he said about others and problems with alcohol. You could rightfully call this film the redemption of Mel Gibson. He directs an excellent film that took a lot of effort to make. 14 years to be exact even while Doss himself was still alive going from one writer to the next until finally they had the right script and right story thanks to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Gibson and the writers did an excellent job with the film with the story and the depiction of war.

In addition, the story was made thanks to the performance of Andrew Garfield. This was more than just a war story. This was a story of a person’s heart and soul. Garfield knew he had to personify Doss in his convictions in order to make this story work. He did it excellently. It’s hard to pick out any supporting players who stood out. None of the roles of the supporting actors were as developed. However Teresa Palmer did a very good job as Dorothy Doss and portraying the concerned fiancee, as is Hugo Weaving as the father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn as the hard Sargent Howell. The visual effects and the sound mixing were top notch, as it should be in a film like this. The score from Rupert Gregson-Williams fit the film excellently.

Hacksaw Ridge is a surprising film. Who would’ve thought that the best war movie in years would be about a man that didn’t fire a single bullet? Definitely a story worth telling.

MOONLIGHT

 

moonlight

Mahershala Ali (right) portrays a mentor to a boy named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert at left) in Moonight.

At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

This year’s surprise critical success is Moonlight. It’s a very unique film like no other seen this year.

The film is unique as it sets itself around three key periods in the life of Chiron. There’s his childhood where he’s known as Little, there’s his teenagehood where he’s simply known as Chiron and there’s his adulthood where he’s known as Black. The film does tell a story of a man who you think would die young. He has all the ingredients: gay, living in inner city Miami, a verbally-abusive mother addicted to crack, arrested at a young age and a future of being a pusher himself. Somehow he finds the will to survive. He’s able to withstand the bullying he faces for being gay, he’s able to decide his life to the best of his abilities without his mother. Often it’s not the best choices he makes in his life but he finds the ability to survive. You wonder how does he do that? Was it from that brief time with Juan and his mentoring? Was it the love from Kevin he always knew was there? I remember that scene of Little in the school dancing classes dancing like he was in 7th heaven: his escape from the bullying. Was it a spark within Chiron himself? Whatever the situation, it results in beauty at the end.

The film is not just about Chiron. As one can see, it showcases the lives of many different African-American people living in the inner city. It may show some of the more negative depictions like drug dealers, poverty and drug addicts but it also shows positive images too like in the case of Juan and his girlfriend or even in music being played. It showcases some surprising things as well as how Juan the pusher can be a very smart man. It even dispels some myths we have of inner city people. Like how Juan was good at handling Chiron’s homosexuality and gave him words of comfort while Paula acted out in hostility. Usually you’d expect ‘gangstas’ to have a homophobic attitude. It showcases what it’s like to be black and gay in the inner city. It also showcases people’s insecurities. It is overall one man’s attempt to find himself in the harsh world that he lives in. Yet despite all its harshness, it becomes something beautiful in the end.

The film is a triumph for Barry Jenkins. This is actually his second feature as a director. His first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, won a lot of attention and even earned him many directorial debut awards. Moonlight is only his second feature. This film which he adapts a script from a drama school project from Tarell McCraney is a masterpiece in both the story and its direction. The script is also excellent that there is not too much dialogue but is able to say lots even in the silent parts. Another quality of the film; it says a lot while saying very little. Overall the film is a real delight to watch and leaves one wondering what Jenkins will have next.

The three actors who portrayed Chiron– Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes- all did a very good job with the role and portraying him at the right ages. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan: the pusher who becomes a mentor to little Chiron for that brief period of time. Ali had to bring the right charisma and character for a role like Juan to work not just in his scenes but to have an influence throughout the whole film. He did a stellar job. Also excellent was Naomie Harris. Possibly the one actor or actress to be a part of all three scenes, Harris was excellent as the drug-addicted mother Paula. She had to go through three stages with her role from a simple crack user to a crack addict to recovering in rehab. Each time she had to give her role dimension and inner depth to keep it from being cardboard. She did excellent too. There were additional supporting roles that were also good like Janelle Monae as Teresa and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin.

The technical bits were also excellent. The film was edited very well, the cinematography from James Laxton was possibly the best of the year. The score from Nicholas Britell was excellent but the inclusion of track music from classical to Latin to funk to hip-hop to Aretha Franklin to Motown really added to the feel of the movie. Almost feels like an anthology. In fact that scene when Kevin sees Chiron (as Black) after so many years and plays the classic Hello Stranger is one of the best scenes of the film.

Moonlight is a story of a young black man coming of age in the big city but it’s a lot more too. Those who’ve seen it will know why this film is a masterpiece.

And there’s the first of my Best Picture summaries for this year. Next one coming up in a few days.

VIFF 2015 Review: Nina Forever

Nina ForeverMy first taste of the more edgy film making shown at the VIFF was the British movie Nina Forever. You don’t know whether it’s a horror movie or a romance!

The story begins with what we think is a dead body on the road after an accident. Instead it appears to come alive again and get up. We meet Holly, a young paramedic student who breaks up with her boyfriend because he thinks she’s too nice. While working at her part-time job at a pharmacy, she meets Rob as she comes to help him after an on-the-job accident.

Holly and Rob start a relationship and have sex together but are interrupted all of a sudden by Rob’s deceased girlfriend Nina now undead and bloody. Holly is shocked and Rob is trying to make like nothing happened. They try and go about it and move on but Nina returns again while the two have sex. Holly tries playing seductively with Nina in order to win the battle but it doesn’t work. Holly tries to learn more about Nina and even meets her parents. Holly even tries to get a ‘Nina Forever’ tattoo like Rob’s but Nina keeps on returning. Even the two having sex on Nina’s grave fails to end her recurrences. Moving in with Rob and changing everything about the house every time she returns fails to fix the problem.

It’s then Holly decides she’s had enough and wants out. Holly goes for on-the-job training as a paramedic and a car crash victim she helps save changes her. She even catches the interest of one of her students. She takes him to her place to have sex with him, thinking Nina’s as far gone as Rob only for her and the audience to get a big surprise. The film ends on a confusing note.

I’ve seen films done before of one person in a relationship trying to rid themselves of a past beau before. However this film is something different. This is a case of one person in a relationship trying to move on past his deceased beau. This is no easy task as Nina would even make clear: “We never really ended it.” That adds to the situation and adds to the story. However the story is something funny that it becomes a case of the undead girlfriend unearthing itself. I know the movie is trying to show a bizarre and humorous story on the theme of the difficulties of moving past a deceased beau but this story takes a bizarre and humorous twist.

Overall the film comes across as bizarrely funny and often unpredictable. Even at the beginning, you don’t expect an undead ex-girlfriend to come up from under the bed. You expect the new girlfriend to play along with the undead girlfriend even less. It’s humorous because it’s trying to mesh a romance with a horror movie with a message about human nature. A very unique combination by the Blaine brothers. However there were many areas in the film that didn’t appear to make sense, especially the ending. There were times I had my head scratching. There were even a few times I may have mistaken Rob’s parents as Nina’s parents or if it was a trick from the film makers the whole time.

This is Ben and Chris Blaine’s first attempt at a feature-length film. Both are better known for their television work. Their first effort is good but imperfect and its flaws show. The acting from Abigail Hardingham, Cian Barry and Fiona O’Shaughnessy are very good. They pull all the right moves in making this bizarre film work. Especially the character work of Fiona portraying an undead woman with sexual desires unfaded. The parents were a good addition, especially with them being the ones away from all the supernatural weirdness. The music added to the film also blended in well with the film.

Nina Forever is an original comedy horror film that will get you laughing and even freak you out. However it does have some noticeable imperfections like moments that don’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless a good first feature film from the Blaine brothers.