Friday, July 21, 2017

Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ succeeds as vivid telling of WWII Allied defeat

By Steve Crum
Dunkirk is a nail-biting, spectacular recreation of WWII’s desperate evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British, French, Belgium and Canadian soldiers fleeing the Nazis at a decisive battle in 1940. The action takes place in the concluding 10 days of the tragic event, May 26-June 4, 1940. 
The brilliant Christopher Nolan, who directed, produced and co-wrote Dunkirk, has made the unreal and surreal seem real in such films as Memento, Inception, Interstellar and The Dark Knight. Now he succeeds at the daunting task of making a historic event seem vividly real through large scale WWII battle sequences. In Dunkirk, Nolan’s genius is equally adept at focusing on one-to-one human relationships. His films are heralded as Christopher Nolan films, box office magnets. While Dunkirk is not destined as a traditional summer blockbuster, it is nonetheless a must-see for its historical and artistic worth. 
Be aware that Dunkirk proceeds with sparse dialogue and no narration.
Taking place a little more than a year before The United States entered the war, the fact-based story opens in Dunkirk, France. Allied forces had been battling the Germans since the first of May, 1940. But the tide had turned in favor of the Nazis with the Allies suffering numerous casualties. Overwhelmed, a massive number of troops were driven to the beach awaiting ships to transport them a mere 26 miles over the English Channel to safety on Great Britain’s mainland. 
As Nolan’s film shows, the evacuation was fraught with problems compounded by frequent airplane attacks along the shoreline and on evacuation ships themselves. No sooner did a packed rescue ship set sail that German bombs fell and airplane machine guns blazed. Adding to the challenge was that few ships were available for the rescue, and few could not make it due to the Channel’s shallow waterline.
The military needed immediate help, so hundreds of civilian fishing and pleasure boats were sequestered to bring supplies from England to Dunkirk, and to transport as many soldiers as possible to safety. The smaller boats were unaffected by the Channel’s depth. So much for your mini-history lesson. Nolan’s film will clarify everything. However, because of the united military and civilian effort, 360,000 troops were eventually rescued. 
There is no main star in Dunkirk, but there are a couple of well known actors. Kenneth Branagh portrays the stoic Commander Bolton, the highest ranking Allied officer at Dunkirk. Mark Rylance is terrific as Mr. Dawson, a patriotic civilian mariner who captains one of the rescue boats. Noteworthy are young actors Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy. 
Nolan has chosen to tell Dunkirk’s story from three aspects—land, sea and air—and he keeps the tension going with separate story lines from one location to another, paced by Lee Smith’s Oscar caliber editing. 
Important to the film’s success is Hans Zimmer’s unique score, which becomes a living entity unto itself due to pulsating sounds. For example, during the aerial combat sequences, Zimmer’s music echoes the pilot’s heartbeat as well as his rapid breathing. Music = a sound effect. Oftentimes, the music has a metronome, countdown effect. The clock ticks as rescue time runs out. 
A real treat is to see gorgeous recreations of original WWII airplanes in dogfights. Christopher Nolan says he tried to keep the CGI to a minimum and use actual airplanes and ships.
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One might expect the running time for a picture of this magnitude to be around three hours. Dunkirk is only 106 minutes long. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: A-

Friday, July 7, 2017

Your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man is back, looking terrific, in ‘Homecoming’

By Steve Crum
Spidey sense is truly working this time around for the creative producers at Columbia and Marvel. Spider-Man: Homecoming slings and swings in big time. This one is the best Spider-Man movie ever, and among the best of any in the history of superhero films. Am I exaggerating? Nope. 
There are three primary reasons this new Spider-Man flick works so well. First, the writers get it right by centering the story on Peter Parker the teenager, and his camaraderie at high school. Creating and expanding upon a likable, pretty nerdy buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) is a plus. (I understand Ned is a fusing of two of Parker’s pals from the comic books.) For comic-based characters, their interactions are fun and credible. Previous Spider-Man movies have certainly included Peter Parker’s home and school life, but never so fleshed out. Jon Watts’ deft direction as well as the six (!) screenwriters should be credited for this accomplishment. 
Secondly, the inclusion of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) helps launch this new and improved Spidey reboot. Remember that since 2002, there have been six major Spider-Man movies with three actors (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland) portraying the web slinger. I am not counting Holland’s first appearance as Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. That all said, Iron Man/Tony Stark serves well as Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s mentor. 

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Director Jon Watts (right) chats with leads Tom Holland and Michael Keaton during a break in filming. 
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The third ingredient is Tom Holland. For the first time, an actor cast as Peter Parker physically looks like a 15 year-old. Holland, who is actually 21, must be blessed with Dick Clark genes. He is a clone of the comic book’s Peter Parker. Just to make things even better, Holland is a damn fine actor. 
Spider-Man: Homecoming opens soon after the Avengers defeated aliens in The Battle of New York. Alien robotic remnants are being salvaged by a clean-up crew headed by Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (later The Vulture). Toomes and his crew have just begun to load various alien debris. We soon discover that much of that scrap has extraordinary properties, including levitation. Before the crew’s job is completed, however, government feds intervene. Toomes and his group are supposed to surrender everything they have collected, but they don’t quite do so. Instead, they end up with some prime outer space junk which they soon rework into powerful weaponry sold on the black market. Then they start stealing what the federal government took, and that gives per se birth to The Vulture, a flying wing-like robot encasing desperate-to-keep-the-money-flowing Toomes.
As this is happening, cut to a depressed Peter Parker, emotionally down after being ousted from an Avengers training program by Tony Stark. Parker even loses his official Spider-Man costume. He just wants to prove himself worthy to be a real Avenger, but settles on solving thefts and assaults around NYC. 
Of course, he eventually crosses paths with The Vulture. 
Many of the expected favorites are back, including Marisa Tomei’s sexy Aunt May. She is a far cry from the comic book origin, and certainly not a little ol’ lady. Jon Favreau returns as Tony Stark’s security head, Happy Hogan. Look for Tyne Daly and Donald Glover in small roles. 
And be prepared for several spectacular set pieces. My favorite is the Staten Island Ferry sequence. But you might find the Washington Monument caper equally exciting. 
Spider-Man: Homecoming provides 133 minutes of dazzling escape. That includes two extra clips featuring an Avenger during and after the credit roll. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: A

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Revisited: "Born on a mountaintop in Southern Cal...."

By Steve Crum

On my first trip to Disneyland in 1956 or '57, I could not wait to go inside this Davy Crockett Frontier Museum, located in--surprise--Frontierland. All I remember is the Davy Crockett shooting gallery...and hundreds of Davy Crockett toy flintlock pistols for sale. Sadly, my parents would not buy one for me. Hey, we were in no way wealthy. Just paying for Disneyland strapped us. No surprise that coonskin caps and miniature toy flintlock rifles were also being sold.

The Crockett Museum is now long gone. Today's kids (or adults under 50 or so) just don't know him. However, for us Baby Boomers, the 1950's Davy Crockett phenomenon is remembered in Frontierland. On the window above Bonanza Outfitters' store, there is this inscription: "Davy Crockett, Coonskin Cap Co., Fess Parker—Proprietor."
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And that’s yours truly in my Davy Crockett outfit, a beloved birthday gift in 1957.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Gee, but I'd give the world to see that old 'Gong' of Chuck's

By Steve Crum

The new and unimproved The Gong Show premiered last week, starring British comic Tommy Maitland. The joke is he is really Mike Myers in disguise. Now that's funny. He's nowhere near a Chuck Barris, but that's OK. (It has to be since Chuck is no longer with us.) The original Gong Show featured outrageous but entertaining acts like The Unknown Comic and Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine. And last week's episode had some eccentric acts of the same caliber.

HOWEVER, the winning act was a married couple who repeatedly spit bananas from mouth to mouth. Their finale was literally spitting (appearing to be puking) mushed up bananas into each other's mouths. Gross is not quite the word. Disgusting is closer. So naturally these two took First Place. 

If this is a hint of things to come, please rename this program The Gag/Vomit Show.
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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Name That Great Tommy Tune

By Steve Crum

It was great seeing (and hearing) Tommy Tune on stage during Sunday's Tony Awards show. I was reminded of a story a late friend, Janet Laird, told me about her experience with the tall, talented dancer years ago when he was performing in Kansas City. Janet and her family ventured backstage after Tune's show to congratulate him.

But they were stopped outside his dressing room by a security guard who went way past his duty, proceeding to berate Janet about daring to bother a star like Tommy Tune. The guard screamed loud enough that Tommy Tune himself opened his dressing room door, and ran out to confront the scene. Tommy then yelled at the security guy for being rude to his fans, and asked Janet and her family to return with him to his dressing room. They did, and stayed about 30 minutes, visiting and laughing with Mr. Tune. 


That speaks volumes for this Broadway icon.

Friday, June 2, 2017

By Zeus! ‘Wonder Woman’ succeeds as very good, but not quite super

By Steve Crum
Believe me, I really wanted Wonder Woman to be better than it is…and a great deal of it is very good. But the pluses are offset by stretches of mundane dialogue and overused slow motion effects. Overwrought is the key word. When Wonder Woman is good, it is compellingly fun. But when the Amazonian warrior is shown for the 37th time in mid-air, slo-mo battle pose, it is a yawner. 
Thank goodness most of the DC Comic-based film is laced with a savvy script full of witticisms that make light of “civilized” world mores. Gal Gadot is well cast as Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman, and Star Trek’s Chris Pine is fine as her would be sidekick and (ultimately) boyfriend, Steve Trevor. As directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster), Allan Heinberg’s screenplay encompasses a backstory set during WWI. In fact, Diana Prince opens the film narrating a flashback of her growing up on the hidden island of Themyscira. Inhabitants are female descendants of Greek gods with Diana herself the daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus, and fashioned of clay. 
Diana’s island background forms the first third of the film, and it is a first rate telling. We see her as a child yearning to be like the Amazonian warriors she admires. When Diana eventually grows to adulthood, she begs her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), to train as a warrior—from sword fighting to hand to hand combat. Despite her mother’s refusal, Diana is encouraged by her aunt and mother’s sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright), to learn military techniques. 
Her training pays off when US Army Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) crash lands off shore, pursued by German troops. Then we get the Amazonian army on horseback defending their homeland against foreign invaders. In the process, Diana saves Steve’s life. He’s the first man she has ever seen, which leads to some awkward, funny moments…which leads to a friendship…which leads to boat travel to Great Britain (Steve’s a double agent) together. Wonder Woman’s incentive is to end WWI by defeating the entity she believes to be causing the war, the evil god Ares.  
After this point, the Wonder Woman saga bogs down a bit with pacing at fault. In England she experiences women’s rights as well as clothing issues. When she is in the trenches at "No Man’s Land," she disrobes to her colorful (and brief) Wonder Woman costume to heroically lead the charge versus the Huns. These are choice cinematic moments indeed. 
However, by the time Wonder Woman confronts Ares, and an epic battle ensues, the film loses its pace. Slow motion and explosions dominate. It is the same criticism I had with last year’s Superman v Batman battle finale. It is overkill, literally and figuratively. 
I do have to recognize some effective villainous work by David Thewlis as Sir Patrick Morgan. Evilness is also personified by both Danny Huston's German General Ludendorff as well as Elena Anaya’s Doctor Maru aka Doctor Poison. [Pictured here.] On the flip side, welcome comic relief is supplied by Lucy Davis as Steve Trevor's affable, loyal secretary.
With all the hype about Wonder Woman heralding the age—finally—of a female superhero headlining a major Hollywood production, expectations of A+ quality were abundant. Despite its shortcomings, Wonder Woman will undoubtedly make the box office gods ecstatic. 
Trimming 10 minutes from its 141 minutes running time might have helped. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B

Friday, May 5, 2017

Second ‘Guardians’ is not quite great, but very Groot

By Steve Crum
It’s James Gunn’s fault—that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is such a fun, far-out space trip. As both screenwriter and director, Gunn has fashioned a highly successful franchise from a Marvel comic book series that began in 1969.  His 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy was a mega box office hit, and Vol 2 will likely top it. (Vol. 3 is already planned.)
This second volume is pretty terrific, a must-see. It suffers a bit from being a sequel in that characters are already firmly defined. (The revelation of their personas was a plus in the previous film.) In this second movie, the surprise factor of the first is mostly missing, save for Groot’s younger incarnation. That said, there are plenty of new characters and adventures that satisfy. 
For those who might be new to this block of the Marvel universe, Guardians’ central character is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka The Star-Lord, a half-human, half-Celestial. He leads a crew of mixed aliens that include a talking raccoon (Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper); the 20-something, human looking, green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax the Destroyer, a muscle bound brute with insulting humor (Dave Bautista); and Baby Groot (called merely Groot in the first flick), a tree-like humanoid (voiced by Vin Diesel).  Baby Groot measures about a foot high. Ah yes, the cycle of plants. 
Just accept that these five beings are on a continual, united quest to protect the universe…er,  the galaxy from harm. In the process, expect Looney Tunes zaniness. Go from there. 
The story opens in flashback to a Missouri town in 1980, and we are introduced to a young (digitalized) Kurt Russell as he courts the Star-Lord’s future mother. So Russell, called Ego, is also Peter’s dad. Flash forward to an unknown planet with an ensuing battle between the Guardians and a humongous, tentacled killer creature. From this point, the primary comedy relief is the adorable Baby Groot who, like a true toddler, tends to aimlessly wander during the mayhem. Throughout the film, Rocket tries to teach him basic survival, which leads to even more cute, funny sequences. Groot’s only comment, ever, is “I am Groot.” That phrase, having multiple interpretations, is a running gag lasting through the end credits. Speaking of such, be sure to stay until they shut off the theatre lights. Multiple scenes have been added. 
Our Guardian heroes encounter dozens of wild, colorful, wicked, and vengeful types. Expect Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), a blue-skinned pirate featured in the first Guardians installment. He’s the one with the deadly arrow. His part has been extended and expanded. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is High Priestess of the Sovereigns, a race of gold-covered beings. Karen Gillan’s Nebula is the robotic looking, adopted sister of Gamora. 
However, most of the plot centers on Ego and Peter, a cataclysmic father and son relationship. 
Incidentally, casting Chris Pratt as the lead is genius. His brilliant, arrested development, man-child Andy Dwyer in TV’s Parks and Recreation seems to be a close cousin of the more savvy and responsible Peter Quill. Both are free spirited and unconventional. 
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PS: Look for a fast cameo by David Hasselhoff, and an extended cameo by Sylvester Stallone. Leave us not forget Stan Lee. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+