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.