Tag Archives: war movie

Dunkirk (2017) (IMAX)

In anticipation of the release of Christopher Nolan’s new WWII epic Dunkirk, I was chatting with a friend last night about Nolan’s impressive back catalogue: Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar — arguably four of my top 100 movies of all time, or at least in the top 200 (or maybe 300? I’ve never tried to do a list). Nolan is that great of a filmmaker, and that’s why I’m always excited whenever he announces a new project.

Accordingly, I went to watch the very first session of Dunkirk today, and in recommended IMAX too. And I’m glad I did, because the 70mm film is a beautiful, visceral spectacle where the sense of immersion is amplified by the IMAX screen and incredible sound and soundtrack. It’s about as close as you can get to being in the action while sitting comfortably in your cinema chair.

Perhaps in response to the backlash of the complexity and melodrama of Interstellar, Nolan went for a much simpler film this time in Dunkirk, based on the true story of the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII as Allied soldiers found themselves under siege from the Germans in the Battle of France. It’s a lesson in “showing” rather than “telling”, as Dunkirk is all about a visual narration of what the soldiers experienced on the land, on the sea, and in the air. It features an ensemble cast with some notable names (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy,  Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, and so forth) but not a whole lot of dialogue. It is sometimes chaotic and there’s a sense of not knowing exactly what is going on at times, which I felt was aimed at reflecting the sentiments of the soldiers living through the ordeal.

Unlike some war films you may have seen recently, such as Hacksaw Ridge or 13 HoursDunkirk is less about exalting heroism and patriotism and more about the realities of survival. It’s about ordinary people trying to get back to their families no matter what and civilians putting their lives on the line to serve their country. As noted above, the narrative is split into three strands — a group of soldiers trying to get home on the land, a civilian mobilised by the military to rescue the stranded soldiers on the sea, and two fighter jet pilots taking on enemy fire in the air. The three strands intersect, though the film does not follow a linear timeline, primarily for narrative and tension creation purposes. Despite this and the lack of one central protagonist, the film does feel cohesive and compelling thanks to the cast of great actors who can get the most out of just a few lines and facial expressions.

Nolan has come out and criticised streaming platform Netflix for its awkward foray into feature film productions. With Dunkirk, you can see why he feels that way because it’s a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen, preferably an IMAX one. It puts you right between the gunfire and the torpedoes and the corpses, with a booming soundtrack that keeps ratcheting up the tension and crisp sound effects that make you jump with every bullet that shoots by your ear.

The sheer scale is amazing, with breathtaking sweeping shots of the beach and the sea and the horizon, while the fighter jet sequences made it felt like you were sitting inside one as it turned and dipped and shot at enemy aircraft with machine guns. It felt like a movie without CGI because everything just seemed so seamlessly grounded in reality. And interestingly, there’s very little blood and gore in the movie for the sake of a more viewer-friending rating from the censors, but it somehow gets away with it. I do wonder, however, if the impact would have been even greater if Nolan ignored the classification and just went down the flying limbs route, or whether that would have instead taken away from the aspect of the war he was trying to depict.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is short for both a Nolan film and a war film, but I think that was all it needed given the intensity audiences have to sit through. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, though it’s also a film that speaks more to the senses than your mind and heart. While there are indeed some subtle moving moments throughout the film, it is not as emotionally resonating as I hoped it would be, probably because of the way the narrative and characters are structured. I admire the film from a technical perspective and for the epic sensory experience it delivers, but years from now I may not look back upon it as fondly as some of Nolan’s other classics.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: Unfortunately for my wife, the immersive experience got too much for her (probably a combination of the size of the screen, the blaring sounds and the camera movements) and she had to leave the cinema to throw up. She hadn’t done that since we watched Cloverfield back in 2008.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

I worship at the altar of Ang Lee, and so I was itching to watch his latest project, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a curious title taken directly from the novel upon which the film is based. This was so even though the movie received mixed reviews and could only be watched in dreaded 3D. Lee apparently made it to be seen in not just 3D but also in 4K resolution and at a frame rate of 120 frames per second (smashing the previous record of 48 frames held by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). Where I am, they call it “Futuristic 3D”. Sadly, only a couple of cinemas were even equipped to screen it in that format, and of course those tickets were almost impossible to get.

Anyway, Billy Lynn is Ang Lee’s attempt at a contemplative war movie set largely in the mind of the film’s titular young man (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn, who reminds me of a bigger version of Logan Lerman) as he and his unit embark on the last leg of a “hero tour” across the country that ends in a halftime show at a Thanksgiving football game in Dallas. The film does not cover a long period of real time — essentially just the day of the football game — but reveals bits and pieces about the characters and what happened in Iraq through a series of flashbacks that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s quite a fast-paced film by Ang Lee’s standards, with plenty of subplots to keep the ball rolling — from the unit’s efforts to make some money by leveraging their fame for a film deal being brokered by a quick-talking agent (Chris Tucker), to Billy’s dalliance with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), to him fending off attempts by his big sister (played by Kristen Stewart) to get him to get discharged from the military.

Ang Lee has always had a knack for unearthing the depth of human emotions, capturing insights and ironies into human nature, and building authentic time periods really well — and Billy Lynn is no different. On this occasion, he focuses on the absurdity of the war, and moreover the hero worship used to propagandize US war efforts. Accordingly, the film is filled with many outrageous and humorous moments that come across as intentionally surrealistic. It’s almost a shock to see right from the beginning that the soldiers, led by Garrett Hedland, are really just a bunch of immature kids who act like a bunch of immature kids. They are sent off into the horrors of war to kill enemies, scarring them forever, and are then paraded around as national heroes packaged for the government’s agenda.

The cynicism is rife and it can be felt all throughout the movie, though credit to Lee for never fully stuffing it down our throats. Instead, we get a lot of long takes and extreme close-ups that create the sense that Billy is trapped in his own world and in his own mind as the dog and pony show rages on around him. He doesn’t want to go back to Iraq to keep fighting or be seem as a hero, and yet he feels he doesn’t have a choice but to play along. It’s the mix of these internal contradictions that fuel the film’s emotional core. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it sure feel like Lee is purposely juxtaposing the surrealism of the situation with the ultra-realism of the images on the screen.

Joe Alwyn is quite the revelation as Billy Lyn in his film debut, holding his own against veteran actors and never over-acting. He looks young and has this naiveté about him, but also a hidden strength amid the flood of emotions running through his mind. Not many actors would have been able to pull off so many close ups of their face. I was surprised to discover that he’s actually British and already 25 years old.

Kristen Stewart has continued her impressive run of performances after the end of that vampire franchise, reminding people again that she actually is a very good actress. Seriously: On the Road, Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice — it’s time we remove the stigma. Garrett Hedlund is also impressive as the articulate dynamic leader of Bravo Squad, as is Steve Martin as the owner of the Dallas football team and Vin Diesel as a former member of Billy’s unit. Chris Tucker isn’t someone I would have cast for his role but he fits it well. There’s really no complaints about the cast.

My problem with Billy Lynn is that it never ends up being as deep and emotionally involving as I wanted it to be. The film skirts around the themes and issues but is unable to fully grasp them and sink its teeth into them, making the experience a strangely hollow one. I was interested and intrigued, and certainly never bored, though I must admit I yearned to be more engrossed. Some parts of the screenplay also came across as too polished for the characters, and for me it felt a little jarring. And I have no idea why “Futuristic 3D”, or any 3D for that matter, was applied to this film. It’s a war drama with a bunch of close ups. Why? For me, there was no need and it didn’t add anything. To the contrary, forcing the unnecessary technological advancements on audiences probably achieved the opposite effect and took them out of the film instead of pulling them in.

On the whole, Billy Lynn will likely be remembered as a middling entry in Ang Lee’s legendary filmography. While far from a failure, it is by Lee’s high standards not exactly a huge success either. It is still definitely worthy of your time, though its emotional punch and resonance fall short of the lofty bar set by his best films, and the technological innovations of the visuals tend to detract from rather than add to the viewing experience.

3.5 stars out of 5