Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dunkirk IMAX review

There's an expression, "live to fight another day." Throughout history, armies have retreated or "strategically redeployed" and survived to fight another day. It is a viable tactic. Look at our American history. George Washington at New York. Now comes a British tale of retreat. It is director and writer Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

It's 1940, World War II. Nazi Germany has routed the British and French. What's left of their troops are now surrounded in a French seaside town called Dunkirk. If the British army is destroyed, it's over for the allies and Nazi Germany dominates Europe and perhaps wins the war. The United States at that time has not entered the war. The allies must escape across the English Channel or be destroyed.

Nolan's film follows three arenas of the battle of Dunkirk. First, we meet an English private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is seen literally running for his life through streets to the beach. Then there is Dawson. (Mark Rylance) He's an English civilian with a motorized yacht. With his son and a teenage friend, they take off for Dunkirk to help rescue soldiers trapped on the beach. The third part of the battle followed is in the air. A squadron of RAF Spitfires is deployed to protect the evacuation of troops. One of the pilots is Farrier. (Tom Hardy) Other actors Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy play British officers and provide exposition.

The movie tells the tale of the three in a non-linear fashion, i.e. the story threads intertwine. It also makes the conscious decision to keep its characters somewhat nameless. You won't hear a lot of other soldiers calling each other by their names. Perhaps, that's to demonstrate that the battle was a group effort of the British to prevail.

Performances are all excellent. Fionn Whitehead's Tommy is a scared soldier trying to survive as he's constantly bombed or fired upon. Mark Rylance shows us what the "stiff upper lip" of the English is all about. He's all about his mission to rescue soldiers in the face of trauma of war. I'm a fan of Tom Hardy. (Star Trek: Nemesis). His performance is handicapped by the fact that he must wear a flight mask during most of the movie. Hardy's brilliance is to show his emotions of desperation and determination without seeing three quarters of his face. You get it from his eyes, forehead, and body movement. And listen carefully. There's Michael Caine as one of the pilots. It's honoring Caine's appearance in The Battle of Britain. (1969)

Christopher Nolan has made a taut and riveting film about survival. Dunkirk is more about the individual stories than about big armies facing off with each other. You won't get huge shots of CGI ships and troops. What Nolan does show is that death comes from a faceless Nazi army. He accurately depicts German Stuka dive bombers with their shrill air sirens. When you see and hear them coming at the English soldiers, even being a filmgoer in the theater one is terrified. And that's the point of a Stuka's siren. Not only does it announce the coming of death, it also terrorizes and demoralizes surviving troops. While watching this movie, I never assumed that a character in the movie will live.

Dunkirk is a movie that looks gorgeous and epic on the screen. Fist, Nolan loves shooting on film versus digital video. I am not a disciple of either but film does have more warmth perhaps due to the imperfections whereas video tends to capture more detail. Anyway, Dunkirk radiates that warmth. And by not cramming the screen with thousands of CGI troops and ships, Nolan gives the picture wide open spaces.

There are minor flaws in Dunkirk. For the most part, Nolan stays away from sappy sentimentality, he does engage in a moment of Hollywood hype. I'm talking about a scene where a RAF pilot attacks a Stuka while gliding. Another thing is the overlapping story threads tend to interrupt each other.

Nolan tasks Hans Zimmer to compose the score. Zimmer who has worked on Nolan films (Inception, Interstellar etc.) before. He has a style that emphasizes atmosphere over melody. For the most part, Zimmer's dissonant score for Dunkirk works. This is a reflection of twentieth century conflict versus nineteenth century romanticism. But then he overdoes it with strange instrument combinations such as using electric stings, pulsating rhythms, dissonance and turning up the volume to disturbing levels. It can be overkill.

As far as seeing this movie in regular IMAX, let me point out that Nolan shot Dunkirk with 65 mm IMAX film. (Video belwo.) It was released in regular IMAX or what I call for my viewing digital IMAX. Nolan's preferred viewing is 70 mm film and IMAX film. (Variety)

Good luck finding a theater with a 70 mm projector. According to the article only about 125 exist nationwide. You see movie theaters have moved away from using projectors that use film to ones that use digital hard drives. So you are more than likely going to see Dunkirk on a digital print or regular IMAX, i.e. not IMAX Film. I do recommend IMAX regardless of version. IMAX always gives you better resolution. Add to that the gigantic screen. What you get with Dunkirk is a feeling as if you are there. You are present in a living painting. This is especially prevalent with the first person flying scenes.

Dunkirk is a stunning epic. Scary and thrilling. I can only hope that Christopher Nolan follows it up with a Battle of Britain movie. The grade is A.

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