2017 Summer Movie Review: Dunkirk

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Three British soldiers waiting to be rescued in Christoper Nolan’s Dunkirk. (Source: IMDb)

Who doesn’t love Christopher Nolan? He’s one of the most ambitious yet brilliant filmmakers working today, who has a very unique style relying on the practicality. He is widely known for rebooting the Batman franchise after the dismal Batman and Robin. He often transports the audience to another world in movies such as the mind-bending Inception and the disappointing and overrated Interstellar. His latest film, Dunkirk, is a different approach for Nolan. A film taking place in a historical setting; let alone, World War II. Is there anything he can’t do?

Dunkirk features three storylines set on land, at sea, and in the air, told in non-linear fashion (make sure you pay attention to what’s going on). During the evacuation on the beaches of France, Nazi Germany has surrounded 400,000 men from Britain, Belgium, Canada, and France. Among those who are waiting to be rescued are Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (One Direction’s Harry Styles), both of whom are in the British Army. While on the pier, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy, Agent Carter) are making sure the soldiers are settling on the ships safely.

Meanwhile, out at sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is driving in his yacht with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). They rescue a wounded soldier (Cillian Murphy), whose U-boat got hit by a torpedo, while three Spitfire planes—one of them piloted by Farrier (Tom Hardy, who is in a mask again)—fly overhead to keep the Germans out.

It has been said a thousand times, but it’s a fact that every war is hell. Even every war movie depicts them as hell. This is no surprise for Dunkirk. Unlike the graphic nature of Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, this movie is more of a survival story than anything (hence the PG-13 rating). Nolan takes this incredible story to full advantage with minimal dialogue and tension that never lets up until the end. Hans Zimmer’s outstanding score, like the rest of the movie, resembles a ticking time bomb.

What I appreciated about Dunkirk is the authenticity and realism of its depiction. As stated above, Nolan is known for using more practical effects than CGI, which is rare for a summer blockbuster. Not only is the movie filmed at the actual location of the evacuation, it also features real WWII-era carriers, planes and guns. The action sequences—set in all three locations—are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It makes the audience feel like they are actually there witnessing these events.

Being their acting debuts, Whitehead and Styles both bring forth such nuanced bravery into their performances as the two British soldiers risking their lives. Featuring such a tremendous cast, the audience sympathizes with the characters while it shifts between these three storylines. It’s an experience that I’ll definitely revisit time and again.

There has never been a movie that hit me harder all year than Dunkirk. This is a suspenseful, emotional roller-coaster ride. Even Peter Travers went as far as calling it “the greatest war film ever”, which is saying a lot. Dunkirk is definitely up there with some of the greats. I would be surprised if it receives little recognition at this year’s Oscars. It’s easily a front-runner for Best Picture. The question is: Will Christopher Nolan receive his first nomination as director? We’ll just have to wait and see.

4/4

Movie Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

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Antonia Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) cares for her animals in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source: Lebanon Express)

Based on Diane Ackerman’s novel, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the amazing true story of a Polish family fighting for their lives after their home country has been invaded by Nazi Germany. They saved a lot of people and their animals from the Warsaw Ghetto. New Zealand director Niki Caro, who created two of the most uplifting films of the 21st century—Whale Rider, McFarland, U.S.A.—creates a well-acted, beautifully shot, and occasionally haunting depiction of the beginnings of World War II. However, it feels rather familiar.

Antonia (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johann Heldenbergh) are the owners of the Warsaw Zoo. They treat their animals like family. Antonia does her morning routine of riding her bike through the zoo with some of her family friends including a dromedary camel during the film’s opening scene (accompanied by Harry Gregson-Williams’ beautiful score). September 1, 1939, seems like another ordinary day until Germany invades Poland, which results in the start of World War II. With many of the animals killed from the attack, the Zabinskis hide in the zoo while saving hundreds of Jews from the Ghetto. Meanwhile, zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who happens to be a friend of Hitler’s, snoops around the zoo and offers to take some surviving animals to his zoos in Berlin and Munich.

Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman depict the horrors of the Polish invasion with some effort. The sets and the visuals make it look like a wonderful work of art. Nothing is just as spine-tingling as seeing two lionesses and a tiger roaming around the abandoned streets after the attack or when the German troops put the ghetto in flames. But—one of the problems with The Zookeeper’s Wife is that the tension is hardly there.

With a Polish accent, Chastain’s portrayal the titular role is convincing. With the right amount of optimism and subtlety, it shows how much she cares for those around her after Poland is overrun by the Nazis. In one scene, Antonia is in the basement with a mute Jewish girl Urszula (Shira Haaz), who has been raped. She talks to her about how much she trusts her animals. “You look into their eyes, and you know exactly what is in their hearts,” she says while holding a rabbit. Chastain is a delight!

From playing Austrian F1 racer Niki Lauda in Rush to Zemo in Captain America: Civil War, Brühl gives complexity and fierceness as Lutz Heck. He and Chastain stand out from the rest of the forgettable cast. While it drags and the script can be manipulative at times, and if the characters had more depth, The Zookeeper’s Wife had a lot of potential of being a great movie. One thing for sure, this is nothing compared to Schindler’s List.

2.5/4

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

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Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) springs into the battle to save his troops in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. (Source: The A.V.Club)

What a better way to celebrate Veteran’s Day than review a new World War II movie?

Mel Gibson, who is never shy of controversy, returns to the director’s chair ten years after Apocalypto. Braveheart is easily one of the best epics ever made. While The Passion of the Christ split audiences and critics, he still created the most graphic depiction of Jesus’ final hours. It’s no surprise that his latest film Hacksaw Ridge will come across as graphic and powerful as his first two directorial feats. Gibson has made another miraculous achievement. It features themes familiar from his previous films—faith and courage.

Based on a true story, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, in the performance of his career) is a pacifist living in the hills of Virginia. He promises to never pick up a gun in his life. Traumatized from serving in World War I, his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving) forbids him to join the army. Desmond and his brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) soon go behind his back to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

While drafted, his religious beliefs test his soldiers including Captain Jack Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn). Since he is a Seventh-Day Adventist, he refuses to train on Saturdays because it’s his Sabbath. The only position he can be in the army is a medic. When his soldiers go into combat, he goes out in the middle of the battlefield to save them while thinking of his hometown sweetheart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).

Gibson and writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan (The Pacific) mix the realism of the war with old-fashioned drama. Every shot breathes the 1940s; from the old cars to the fashion. Especially with scenes with Desmond and Dorothy, it becomes witty without being too sappy. Once we learn about Doss’ refusal to carry a gun, we know why.

There are plenty of laughs given at the army camp, notably from Vaughn when he is showing his inner R. Lee Ermey. Once the Battle of Okinawa starts, the audience is in for the most graphic war sequence since the opening scene on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. I had never felt anything to what’s being shown on screen. Bullets, bodies flying everywhere, grenades and bombs going off, and smoke rising.

Garfield’s Doss is so committed to do anything without having to carry a gun in the middle of a battlefield (“Lord, please help me get one more,” he prays aloud as he’s saving his troops). He—no spoilers—ended up saving 75 lives, which earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. With his death in 2006, he left behind a great legacy behind. I would be surprised if Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t get any Oscar recognition. Seeing this movie with my father will be something I will never forget.

4/4

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is about to break the Enigma code in "The Imitation Game"

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is about to break the Enigma code in “The Imitation Game”

Before seeing The Imitation Game, I barely had any idea who Alan Turing was. I knew I wanted to see this again the moment the credits started rolling. I found myself involved with his life. From being least popular in his English boarding school to becoming the leader of a team of code-breakers to making his own code-breaking machine named “Christopher” (his first lover in school) that is used to help his team break the Enigma code as a possibility to end World War II to becoming convicted of indecency (homosexuality). His machine became an inspiration to the computer that I’m writing this review on right now. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is a wonderful tribute to Turing, capturing his mannerisms and subtlety. I loved every bit of this funny, heartbreaking, and moving historical piece.

4/4

Movie Review: Unbroken

Angelina Jolie and the late Louis Zamperini.

Angelina Jolie and the late Louis Zamperini.

Angelina Jolie adapts this Laura Hillenbrand nonfiction novel about the early life of Louis Zamperini (well-played by Jack O’Connell). As a child, he got into plenty of trouble by sneaking out of his parents’ house and drinking liquor. He trained to become a runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a way to get rid of his past troubles. Zamperini set a record for the fastest run by a U.S. athlete. When the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo got cancelled due to World War II, he became an airline pilot for the Air Force. Zamperini, along with a few of his fellow pilots, became the sole survivors of a plane crash that leaves them stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a raft for 47 days. He gets captured by a Japanese Navy Ship, and is treated very poorly while becoming their POW. While God is watching over him, he begins to have hope to go back home alive. On July 2nd of last year, Louis Zamperini passed away at age 97 from pneumonia.

There are moments of greatness in Unbroken. In one particular scene, Zamperini is forced to work at a coal mine. Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) hands him a wooden plank so he could lift it over his head. If not, Zamperini will get shot. With all of his strength, despite getting brutally tortured, he successfully lifts it. This admittedly well-made movie has a powerful message of fighting for one’s life.

Unfortunately, it tries too hard to be inspirational. The movie doesn’t have enough to make us care for Zamperini. Not to mention having too many scenes of him getting tortured. It felt like I was watching The Passion of the Christ all over again. With a running time of 137 minutes, it feels rushed, repetitive, and unfinished.

2/4

Movie Review: Fury

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Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) and his crew are on a mission behind enemy lines in David Ayer’s WWII film “Fury”

World War II was one of, if not, the most brutal of all wars. There have been many depictions of the many horrifying and point-turning events on film. Steven Spielberg succeeded in making devastatingly powerful depictions of the Holocaust (Schindler’s List) and the Invasion of Normandy (Saving Private Ryan). Clint Eastwood made two films depicting the war on Iwo Jima from the perspectives from U.S. and Japanese troops (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). The new WWII film, Fury, David Ayer (writer of Training Day; director of End of Watch) and his team make a heart-wrenching film that not only depicts the horrors of war but showing the good and bad between the Allies and the Axis Powers.

Fury opens up with a prologue stating that it’s April 1945. The Allies have entered the European theatre in Nazi-Germany. Hitler becomes desperate and forces every man, woman, and child to join the military, while others suffer. Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is in command of a Sherman tank nicknamed “Fury” with his crew consisting of three other men after their assistant driver has been killed. Their names are: Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf; the only role along with Holes where he doesn’t suck), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal; The Walking Dead). They have been together since the North African Campaign (“I started the war killing Germans in Africa, and in France, and in Belgium. Now I’m killing Germans in Germany,” says “Wardaddy” at one point).

Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) comes in to replace their assistant tank driver. The only problem is that he has no battle experience. He becomes scared, and wants to go home. “Wardaddy” teaches him how to fight as they are on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.

Every single war is hell. Ayer does a brilliant job capturing the bleak reality of World War II with graphic scenes of carnage reminiscent to Saving Private Ryan, music by Steven Price (Gravity), and the sensational battle sequences with the sweeping cinematography surrounding them. A big plus for those scenes is that the camera moves very smoothly while we see the tanks getting damaged. On the other hand, when the soldiers shoot their weapons, the shots look like they are coming out of a Blaster from Star Wars. Ayer uses that odd technique to color code the bullets’ paths.

There are many religious imagery and themes scattered frequently throughout Fury. Boyd Swan is nicknamed “Bible” because he quotes the bible and says grace before a meal. There is also a scene where Wardaddy and Norman meet a German woman named Emma and her cousin. Norman takes Emma to bedroom to read her hand palms, and talks to her about the lines on her hand resembling the Ring of Solomon. He reads that she helps and understands people, and she will have someone true in her heart one day. This depicts the trustworthiness between the Allies and Axis Powers.

Pitt’s Wardaddy is far from Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds. He does happen to have a little bit of that essence in this movie, but he’s more emotionally evolved. He puts his past behind to fully embrace his role in the war. His tank is his home, and his crew are like family to him. He trusts them, and couldn’t do anything without them. He becomes a father figure to Norman to fully understand the means of being in the war. One of the ways to stay alive in the war is to keep fighting. This is one of the best performances of the year. I would be surprised if Brad Pitt didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. Leading the great cast, we have a harrowing yet powerful WWII film.

3.5/4

2014 Summer Movie Review: Godzilla

The famous Japanese kaiju threatens San Francisco in Gareth Edwards' reboot of "Godzilla"

The famous Japanese kaiju threatens San Francisco in Gareth Edwards’ reboot of “Godzilla”

In 1954, there was a film about Japan facing with a disaster unlike anything they have experienced before. Was it a massive earthquake? Was it a flood? Or was it Godzilla, a giant radioactive lizard?

After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended World War II, Japan became genuinely invested in making nuclear power plants and bombs. Not only were they using the bombs as tests, but they use them for a much more serious purpose. That is to kill Godzilla. The movie became a huge worldwide success. It set a new ground of out-of-this-world special effects, and made Godzilla become one of the best giant movie monsters, along with King Kong.

60 years later, Gareth Edwards, the director of the 2010 indie film Monsters (made for a budget of a mere $500,000), attached his name to direct the reboot of Godzilla. He used new film techniques (i.e. CGI) to capture the iconic kaiju providing an old-fashioned concept that would make Steven Spielberg proud. For someone who has yet to see the original Japanese version, I acknowledge the historical value that went into the making of Godzilla.

After a brief montage of nuclear physicists setting up nuclear bombs to test them, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai and Inception) calls to the Philippines to examine skeletons in a mine. He recognizes an egg had hatched, and something has escaped into the Pacific Ocean. That “something” is the giant lizard himself, Godzilla.

Meanwhile, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad), a nuclear specialist is concerned about the disastrous events that happened over the years. When he tries to find the answers he’s looking for, he finds out that not only Godzilla is threatening humanity, but two parasites, known as the MUTO, are also coming to destroy the world. As the monsters target San Francisco, Joe lets his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass), an officer in the NAVY, to get rid of the monsters.

I guess you can call Godzilla, “this year’s Pacific Rim without giant robots (jaegers)”. If any of you are expecting Godzilla to have a lot of screen time, then you would be no less than disappointed. In terms of the story, it’s reminiscent to Jaws. Where he have to wait an hour to see the monster in its entirety. It’s not to say the human drama is totally redundant. Of course, it drag at times but it has enough to build up to the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Unlike the earlier versions of Godzilla, this reboot has a much serious and devastating feel. Edwards doesn’t need to use humor to make the story compelling.

With the exception of Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, some characters have limited development. Aaron Taylor-Johnson portrays a decent protagonist and gets the job done, but he barely gave any emotion at all. Making it look like he’s the new Hayden Christensen. Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife, again, she delivers a decent performance but her character development is very limited. She doesn’t bring that much depth into her role rather than being a nurse.

Once Godzilla first appears on the screen an hour into the movie, we forget that he’s just a CGI creation. The “God of Monsters” looks so real that it makes our jaws drop in awe. As he rises a massive height of about 400 feet from the ground, he lets out a roar so loud that it literally shook the entire theater, and sending chills down everyone’s spines. When Godzilla fights the MUTO in the year’s best climax thus far, we root for him until the end. I’m glad I went to see Godzilla.

3.5/4