“Dunkirk”

I’m in the minority with my reaction to Christopher Nolan’s ambitious WWII film, “Dunkirk.” I find myself asking constantly, “Is it Nolan’s masterpiece?”

“Dunkirk” takes place over a week-long period and focuses on the evacuation of the titular beach. In one segment, we have infantry soldiers stranded on the beach (Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles). On the sea, we have a noble civilian sailor Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) leading his son and another boy to rescue soldiers. Finally, from the air, we have an Allied pilot Ferrier (Tom Hardy) attempting to take out Nazi bombers while low on fuel.

Nolan’s no stranger to ambition and is highly ambitious in “Dunkirk.” With a Pg-13-rated, 106-minute-long war film that contains no gore and little dialogue, “Dunkirk” is mildly admirable. However, Nolan’s direction leads the film to some rather underwhelming moments.

The strongest segment of “Dunkirk” is Mr. Dawson’s story. Rylance delivers a terrific performance as a headstrong sailor that isn’t afraid of battle. He wants to save as many soldiers possible since men his age are starting war. Cillian Murphy is also great in this segment as an unnamed soldier who shows signs of PTSD. This sequence hauntingly demonstrates the psychological horrors and nobility in war.

The land sequences with Whitehead and Styles’s characters feature some stunning imagery and harrowing sequences. In one sequence where they nearly drown on a sinking ship, I white-knuckled the arm rests of my chair. The two characters find themselves in several brutal scenarios and have to make tough decisions. Unfortunately, I got bored after a while due to lack of character development. Neither character has any background or arc, so it’s hard to remain invested.

Finally, the air sequences were some of the most amazing air sequences put on film. Nolan uses actual planes instead of CG and each aerial shot is mesmerizing. This segment’s narrative is repetitive since Hardy spends most of it silently noting his fuel capacity. He also spends most of his time behind a mask. Why is he always playing masked characters?

I can see “Dunkirk” being nominated for Best Picture and Best Director among other Oscars. It’s an Oscar-bait movie and I know critics will endorse “Dunkirk” for the awards. I get it, but unlike the critics, I don’t consider “Dunkirk” to be Nolan’s masterpiece.

Grade: B

Advertisements

“The Big Sick”

I’ve been saying since I started watching HBO’s great “Silicon Valley” that Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh) is the funniest person on television. In “The Big Sick,” he further demonstrates his comedic talent as both co-writer and leading man.

Based on true events in Nanjiani and his wife (and co-writer) Emily V. Gordon’s relationship, Nanjiani is a semi-fictional version of himself. Kumail works as a full-time Uber driver and standup comedian in Chicago where he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows. What starts as a fling blossoms into something serious for Kumail and Emily, but two things stand between them: his culture and her mysterious illness.

Most rom-coms have a couple meet in the first act, get together and break up in the second act, then reconcile in the final act via a ridiculous scenario. “The Big Sick” defies genre conventions, thanks to Nanjiani and Gordon’s experiences. This is a funny, sweet, and personal film.

Nanjiani shows gifted talent as his fictionalized self, going through a number of emotions. Kumail lies to his loved ones as a defense mechanism and learns that telling the truth helps insecurities. Kazan’s Emily is a great foil to Kumail since she hides certain things from him, which lead to both sad and awkwardly funny scenarios.

Ray Romano and Holly Hunter excel as Kazan’s parents, Beth and Terry. Hunter should be considered for award recognition. She’s high-strung, judgmental, but also an understanding mentor figure to Kumail. The second act primarily focuses on Kumail bonding with them and helping them overcome their differences. It’s nice to see a romantic comedy without the cliched antagonistic parents.

There are scenes with Kumail’s family that risk going this route, but Kumail’s parents’ (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) logic is understandable. They want Kumail to find happiness, but also consider their way in doing so.

“The Big Sick” is 124 minutes long, but it wastes no time with feelings. The montages are heartwarming, the arguments between Kumail and Emily are heartbreaking, and the standup sequences are insightful. For couples who need a date movie, “The Big Sick” is a perfect choice.

Grade: A

 

 

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Spider-Man…. Spider-Man…. Does what “The Amazing Spider-Man” can’t! That’s right, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a return to form for the iconic Marvel character.

The self-aware titled “Spider-Man: Homecoming” takes place eight months after Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was introduced in “Civil War.” Since then, he’s hungry for more action. He’s flaking on his friends and beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he’s dropped out of various clubs, and he’s beyond high school.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) takes on a father-figure role to Peter and wants him to be patient and focus on being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Peter ignores his advice when he crosses paths with a heavily armed thief called The Vulture (Michael Keaton); their battles cause Peter to learn some valuable lessons the hard way.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a lighthearted and fun MCU movie that’s more a coming-of-age tale than standard origin story. Director Jon Watts (the solid B-movie “Cop Car”) gives Spidey the John Hughes treatment. Peter loves being Spider-Man, but often has to choose between his superhero addiction and being a kid. This sets up some comedic and dramatic moments for Peter.

The 21-year-old Holland does an amazing job playing Peter. He isn’t brooding like Maguire or arrogant like Garfield; he perfectly captures the angst, excitement, ambition, and recklessness of being a teen. Keaton and Downey both are great in their respective supporting roles. Keaton makes a menacing-albeit-sympathetic villain while Downey portrays Stark in a more humanized fashion.

The Vulture and Stark play important roles in teaching the naïve Parker the harsh ways of the world and are perfect foils to each other, despite no screen time together. “Homecoming” excels in fleshing out each character and making them grounded and empathetic. Though I was rooting for Spider-Man, I also wanted The Vulture to win occasionally.

“Homecoming” isn’t perfect due to a redundant narrative. Throughout the whole movie, Peter tends an event, conveniently notices The Vulture in action nearby, apologizes to his friends, ditches them, fights the baddy, then apologizes again. I would have preferred each action sequence setting up confrontation differently.

The redundant narrative is forgivable due to the performances and a couple of harrowing action sequences that capture both Spider-Man’s noble and destructive nature. He isn’t destructive like Zack Snyder’s Superman  and not take responsibility; he’s a powerful kid who doesn’t realize that his actions have consequences. “Homecoming” is a fun time and I’m looking forward to Spider-Man’s return in 2019.

Grade: B+

Ranking of all “Spider-Man” movies favorite-to-least:

  1. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
  2. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)
  3. “Spider-Man” (2002)
  4. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012)
  5. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
  6. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014)

“Alien: Covenant”

There is some optimism in the gory nightmarish prequel “Alien: Covenant.” Since this takes place before “Alien” and has dumber characters, at least I know humanity gets smarter in the future.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON!

The Covenant is a ship searching for new life. Its crew includes the tough-minded Daniels (Katherine Waterson), wisecracking cowboy Tennesse (Danny McBride), an insecure man of faith Oram (Billy Crudup), and the android synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender). Along their way to inhabit a new planet, they discover a distress beacon at a closer planet.

Upon arrival, the place appears to be a heaven, but the crew learns it’s more of a hell when they encounter xenomorphs and the “Prometheus” synthetic David (Michael Fassbender).

The great Ridley Scott maintains the philosophical tone of “Prometheus” while paying homage to the original “Alien.” It’s a dark, gory space odyssey with intelligent androids and dimwitted humans. Scott directs each blood splatter and surreal image with beauty.

“Covenant” spends the first two acts exploring darker themes and building each character. We get a platonic friendship between the widowed Daniels and Tennessee, Daniels and Oram clashing over the mission, and Walter learning from everyone.

Fassbender delivers a brilliant dual-performance as Walter and David. Scott directs each of their interactions with long takes and tight frames to depict the androids’ homoerotic bond. David is more villainous than ever and acts as a demonic egomaniac.

The writers brilliantly address a thought on the “Alien” franchise I’ve had: why don’t the xenomorphs and androids interact with each other? We get scenes with the two together and the xenomorphs are indifferent. In one fascinating scene, David communicates with a new alien like its his own child. “You have to show respect,” he says.

Sadly, the horror sequences and characters are underwhelming, save for one terrifying lab scene halfway through. The aliens decapitate, chest burst, spine burst, impale, and rip apart the crew, but since each character thinks splitting up is smart, these sequences are predictable and boring.

The climax could have used a little more work because it feels too easy and convenient; its obvious twist briefly saves the ending due to atmosphere and the casts’ performance. And what’s with James Franco’s obscure cameo? Can we have smarter characters and more James Franco next time?

Grade: B+

 

“The Void”

Props to indie filmmakers Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie for designing some horrifying and innovative creatures via Kickstarter in “The Void.” They have a bright future as genre filmmakers, even if this body horror flick doesn’t meet its potential.

Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) takes a drug addict to the closest hospital. His estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) nurses the patient and there’s tension between the couple. They have bigger problems when a knife-wielding cult surrounds them and patients mutate into carnivorous creatures.

I’m a big fan of horror films and the body horror subgenre. Body horror utilizes visuals and psychological dread while showing some wicked gore effects. “The Void” excels in the gore and visuals, but unfortunately, not the dread. I found myself checking how much time was left at least twice.

Kotanski and Gillespie show off their love for John Carpenter and Clive Barker through their use of siren lighting, its siege formula, evil cults, and parasites emerging from peoples’ bodies. They seem too caught up in paying homage to “The Thing” and we never learn about the cult or the monsters.

The second act is riddled with cliches. I’ve seen the cult using a woman to give birth to their demonic god, people brainwashed into killing each other, and half-dead guys dragging axes across the floor. Give me something I haven’t seen already!

The characters aren’t particularly likable, given Daniel is a self-loathing moron, Allison is a thinly written damsel-in-distress, and Nurse Kim (Ellen Wong from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) is an incompetent crybaby. It’s 2017, aren’t we done with the poorly written female characters yet?

The silver lining to “The Void” is its ending. Of course, it’s left open for a sequel, which can expand its world and mythology. And hopefully, give us some better-written characters?

Grade: C-

“T2: Trainspotting”

It’s about time Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor made amends and followed up “Trainspotting” (one of my favorite films) with a sequel. It’s better than half of the long-waited sequels.

Nearly 20 years after Mark (McGregor) stole money from his friends, Mark now lives in Amsterdam with a wife and career. He unexpectedly returns to Scotland and reconciles with estranged friends Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremmer). They aren’t as fortunate since Simon now makes a living blackmailing people and Spud has relapsed into his heroin addiction. Then the psycho Begbie (Robert Carlyle) escapes prison, raising hell for the trio.

The brilliant and kinetic Boyle once again shows flare and energy in this long-waited followup. “T2” might seem unnecessary, but there’s a sequel book (“Trainspotting” is based on a novel), so it’s somewhat necessary. When it slows down in storytelling, Boyle makes up for it with his visuals and music.

There are quite a few transgressive moments in “T2” that have the same level of energy as “Trainspotting.” Most of these moments are electrified by the cast. Whether it’s Mark singing a song about King William killing Catholics in front of an ecstatic audience, or Mark and Begbie realizing they’ve ran into each other in a sleazy men’s bathroom, the laughs are consistent.

“T2” slows down halfway through and shifts to a nostalgic tone, which is both admirable and frustrating. We see the characters in a new light with Mark realizing he’s not as innocent as he lets on, he and Simon are criticized by Simon’s girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), and Begbie sees the error in his ways.

Simultaneously, Spud spends most of his time writing a novel and these scenes result in pacing issues. Veronika’s subplot with her, Mark, and Simon nearly turn the film into a formulaic romantic comedy, but thankfully Begbie (an always great Robert Carlyle) saves the film from going that direction. Another plus about the nostalgic tone is viewers don’t need to see “Trainspotting” to follow along. “T2” stands on its own.

The ending scene is dark if you analyze it closely. Characters seem okay either staying in the same place or simply going backwards. “Trainspotting” was about rebelling against society, so it’s obvious these characters won’t snap out of their rebellion. And I’m okay with that!

Grade: B

“Manchester by the Sea”

About 90 minutes into the emotionally draining “Manchester by the Sea,” I was pleased when Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller) showed up on screen. This gave me a much needed chuckle.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a broken man. He lives in solitude, he’s rude to tenants (he’s a janitor), and he’s inept to women’s pickup attempts. Why? We learn the answer as Lee travels to Manchester, MA for his brother’s funeral, and it’s devastating.

Lee then must confront his own demons and come to terms with his brother’s death. However, he also needs to decide whether or not to take guardianship of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his nephew.

“Manchester by the Sea” is a powerful, quiet film with great performances and authenticity. The first 45 minutes are realistic, as we watch Lee go through the legal process of declaring his brother dead. He has to fill out paperwork, sell his brother’s possessions, make funeral arrangements, and finally tell Patrick what happened.

Patrick’s reaction hit close to home for me, as he’s sad one moment, but then asks for pizza and to hang out with his friends. It’s his own way of mourning, while Lee’s is eating pizza alone in his bedroom. Their relationship is the strongest part of “Manchester by the Sea.”

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges both deliver career-defining performances as Lee and Patrick. Their banter and arguments feel genuine, combining drama with a small dose of much-needed humor. Michelle Williams has a brief role as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. She’s only on screen for 10 minutes, but it’s enough to remind us she’s one of the best working actresses today.

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heavy film about grief. It’s also a sensitive and sincere film about the subject, given recent films about grief haven’t been (thinking of “Collateral Beauty”).

Grade: A