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Review: “Memphis Belle”

Thursday, February 7th, 2019


by Burl Burlingame

Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Nov. 9, 1990

It was a serious war, World War II — the big time, the major leagues. Americans who fought it were convinced they were all that stood ground before the forces of darkness. They had to win. Otherwise, evil would seize the planet. It was worth any sacrifice.

That’s wildly simplified, but any strategist from von Clauswttz to Giap will tell you that soldierly motivation is indispensable to victory. If a soldier believes in a purpose higher than his paycheck, he’ll fight not only to win, but to crush the enemy absolutely.

It was true in World War II. It was also the last time American citizens were united in what they felt was a noble cause, a great tide that swept the world. There’s a substantial difference between beating back fascism and in pounding on an impoverished nation on the other side of the world, which is essentially what we did in Vietnam.

The path of history was altered because of American dedication in the ’40s. There were countries that suffered higher losses — Russia was nearly wiped out in the process — but the crucial difference was that these nations were fighting for their existence. Americans didn’t have to get involved. They did it because they felt it was right. The attack on Pearl Harbor was just the starter’s pistol.

It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It matters what the soldier believes.

This is a roundabout way of getting into the movie “Memphis Belle,” the World War II bomber saga now playing in local theaters. It’s not a great movie. It’s awkwardly paced, has moments of extremely false notes, and some of the special effects are frankly terrible. It does, however, cross thresholds rarely encountered in movies about the war.

It attempts to show what it was like for a certain type of warrior, the bomber crewman These were guys brought together from all types of backgrounds, forced by circumstance to work in harmony, to endure numbing temperatures and howling death, defending someone else’s country. “Memphis Belle” is a British-made film, and that’s fitting, as the real Memphis Belle and thousands of other American-made weapons and lives pulled England’s bacon out of the fire.

The Belle was a real aircraft, a Boeing-made B17F, essentially a lumbering brute that hauled a load of bombs, gas and weapons, with just enough men aboard to make everything work. Any kid who remembers “12 O’clock High” can name all 10 stations — pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, right- and left waist gunners, ball turret gunner, tail gunner.

The real Belle, named after a girlfriend of the pilot’s, was the first B-17 to officially finish a tour over Europe, which at the time was generally 25 missions. For the final mission, Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler tagged along and filmed a documentary, which won an Academy Award.

Wyler used the mission and the airplane as metaphors. The feature film “Memphis Belle” does the same thing, and uses the same last-mission framework, with Wyler transformed into an oily Army public-relations officer.

The crew in the movie are all fictional creations, and the punishment that Memphis Belle endures on her last mission is exaggerated beyond belief. But once you understand that it is essentially a tribute to these brave crews, and that movies tend to heighten reality — not repeat it — the movie transcends it’s own terms.

Conflicts between crew members are torqued up as well, with any number of cliches thrown in to keep things humming. There’d be no way to tell these 10 guys apart without this overwriting, not in under two hours. The actors are all fine, though they look too young. They were young in real life, sure, but a few missions tended to age a chap quickly, as did Depression dining.

What’s memorable about the film is the high degree of accuracy. There are a number of gaffes, due primarily to filmmaking compromises — the escort fighters, for example, are P-51 Mustangs rather than the more proper P-47D Thunderbolts or Mk.9 Spitfires.

Mustangs are available, the other birds aren’t. The real Memphis Belle had a Vargas pinup painted on both sides of the nose, wearing a red bathing suit on one side and blue on the other. In the movie, both suits are red, probably so audiences wouldn’t assume the propmaker got his signals crossed.

“Memphis Belle” is a reminder of the few years during which the world teetered, and what it took to set it aright. It was pivotal to those involved — never again would Americans agree on anything, but that’s the price you pay for democracy.

Speaking of metaphors, the real Memphis Belle wound up in a Tennessee public park, vandalized, stripped and defaced over the years It wasn’t until two years ago that the B-17 was restored. Things change, attitudes don’t.


Review: “Excalibur”

Friday, February 1st, 2019


by Burl Burlingame

Honolulu Star-Bulletin

April 14, 1981


By all accounts. Sir Thomas was something of a scalawag. After a lifetime of fighting in third-rate Crusades and numerous border skirmishes — often changing sides — he was busted for armed robbery. stealing cattle, taking liberties with the wife of one Henry Smyth, and, worst of all, “insulting an abbot.”

In 1468. King Edward IV tossed Thomas Malory into Newgate prison. It was the eighth and last place the knight would do time; he died there three years later.

In the meantime, Malory’s pal William Caxton had set up his own printing press and was making a recycling the tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. To while away his time in prison. Malory wrote “Le Morte d’Arthur” for Caxton. It was first printed record of the legendary tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

Malory put together all the old stories that he knew, all the tales that had been handed down through the ages as part of European oral tradition. He was the first hack writer. and the first one to get ripped off by his publisher.

“Le Morte d’Arthur” was, for those days, a best-seller, but it didn’t do Malory any good. After the errant knight died in prison. Caxton tried to take credit for the whole thing

Other writers have mined the King Arthur motherlode ever since. Lord Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” T.H. White’s “The Once and future King” and, more recently, Mary Stewart’s “Last Enchantment” trilogy all have had their inspiration from the original Malory work.

Malory got his inspiration from barely remembered exploits of barbarian kings who used England. Ireland and France as stomping grounds after the Romans pulled out and before Charlemagne set up house. It was a period called the Dark Ages.

Chief among the real “Arthurs” was a cavalry general named Arturius who commanded the remnants of the British legions after Romans departed. Arturius was Christian warrior with Roman pretensions; he routed pagan Saxon and Pict invaders and set up London as his capitol.

Arturius died in 538 and his knights secretly buried him at Glastonbury, which became a Christian shine. During the 13th century. Glastonbury monks discovered the gravesite and the spot is now popularly known as King Arthur’s last resting place.

Another inspiration for the Arthurian legends was an ancient British hero called Bran the Blessed, possibly because he bore the Welsh title Arddu (pronounced Art-too), meaning “The Dark One.” (And another deep Star Wars R2-D2 reference.)

So why go into all of this in a movie review?

Because the so called Legends of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table are the foundations of Western story-telling. and as such have colored the arts ever since. Everything from the literature listed above to opera (Wagner’s “Tristan und Isold” and “Parsifal”), to stage musicals (Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot”), to comic strips (Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant”), to pop music (Rick Wakeman’s “Myths and Legends of King Arthur” and movies (Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot of the Lake,” Walt Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” and certainly “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”).

Jung said the great myths of the world represent powerful, early moments in human history that have been sealed into the unconscious. In this way. myth is a hidden truth to be revealed dramatically or poetically—and that’s what basic storytelling is all about.

John Boorman’s “Excalibur” goes back to the basics in his version of the Arthur legends, his main source is Malory’s best-seller of the 1400s. The film divides up rather neatly into four parts, comprising the main sections of “Le Morte d’Arthur.” The first covers Arthur’s magical birth and Merlin’s involvement with Uther Pendragon, who comes across as a rather nasty sort of fellow. The second deals with the sword in the stone, the creation of the Round Table and Arthur’s courtship of Guenevere (as the film spells it). The third part introduces Lancelot and his and Guenevere’s fall from grace.

The fourth and last part of the film deals with Arthur’s kingdom torn asunder by wars, the quest for the Holy Grail to patch things up and Arthur’s death and apotheosis.

It’s a lot of ground to cover.

Any one of the four parts would have made a good dramatic piece, and “Excalibur” is quite amazing in the way it manages to keep all its elements coherent. Boorman uses metamorphosis the way other directors use a simple jump cut: One frame it’s winter, the next it’s spring. Clean-shaven boys suddenly sprout beards, a kiss on a baby’s head dissolves into an adult embrace.

Boorman also uses metamorphosis to indicate the passing of real-time action into history, and thence into legend. Arthur the King makes a judgment between two men. and later in the film the same action is repeated in a puppet show, the medieval world’s version of “60 Minutes.”

Boorman is more interested in themes, anyway, than in specific action, and “Excalibur” bursts at the seams with themes. One to the notion of the passing of the old gods, the deities of pagan Britain (represented by Merlin) and the coming of the Age of Man, of rationality, of laws — of man controlling his universe.

The price Man pays for this is a loss of harmony with nature, including magical forces. Nature is represented in the film as cool and inviting as soft filters and green lights can make it, while the man-made retreats are reddish, harsh and — you get the drift — hellish-looking.

The only way for Man to regain harmony is through some form of transcendence, which the quest for the Grail represents. It’s a quest for a spiritual solution.

This attitude permeates Boorman’s work. In “Deliverance,” “Zardoz,” “Hell in the Pacific” and even “The Exorcist: The Heretic,” the characters face forces with which they have lost touch, primal violence and lust that demand expression, despite the dampening influences of civilization.

Boorman is quite serious about all this, and therefore “Excalibur” doesn’t snigger at itself the way a campy Hollywood feature might be expected to.

It is a story told primarily in visual terms. It opens with snorting, smoking horses carrying knights encased in dull, brutish armor, confused armies crashing into each other in smoke-filled woods, hacking and butchering with clanging broadswords and bloody axes. The titles state this is the dark ages, and it is lower-cased so the point is not lost: It is not the Dark Ages of history, it is a dark age of the soul.

When the sword Excalibur is introduced, leaping like a gleaming salmon from the hand of the Lady of the Lake, the violent forces of nature and man’s conscious desires for civilization are given graceful form.

Excalibur is the symbol of Arthur and all he represents. but it seems at times Arthur is the tool of Excalibur rather than the other way around. This is carried out in simple, but quite effective, visual terms: All that is affected by Excalibur’s aura are given a subtle sheen or halo. Armor gets shinier, walls get cleaner, faces seem more scrubbed. By the time Camelot is established, the knights are positively radiant in their armor, gleaming like great. chrome-plated lobsters.

The armor acts as an extension of the bearer’s personality, another visual dramatic device. The metal skins are only doffed in cases of extreme emergency, like to escape drowning or for sex (and only occasionally in the latter case). The armorless knights seem naked even when fully clothed. And next to the bulky, gleaming armor, the women are made to appear vulnerable in their flimsy silks and scarfs.

For example. Arthur is first introduced as a loutish youth in a quilted jerkin. Given Excalibur. he suddenly has a regal bearing. It is as if the sword has become his backbone. Thrust into the midst of a particularly vicious battle. Arthur — still wearing no armor — manages to turn the tide with Excalibur. The sword, it appears, is all he needs to vanquish his foes, both by brute power and by out-psyching.

It is also the first time Guenevere is introduced: entranced by Arthur, she moves through the battle unscathed, though she is dressed only in some sort of gypsy-minstrel outfit. The power of Excalibur protects them both.

Nigel Terry is an intense Arthur, but manages to leaven the role with humor and a shot of pathos. His transformation from a young bumpkin to an aged king is astounding, easily as good as Robert DeNiro’s aging boxer. Cherie Lunghi is a coquettish Guenevere. perhaps too much like a maid-in-waiting than a queen. Nicholas Gay’s Lancelot is a quarterback forever getting pummelled in the Big Game.

The most brilliant performance is by Paul Geoffrey as Perceval, the saintly knight whose quest for the Holy Grail echoes Arthur’s dreams of peace. Helen Mirran (last seen playing the saxophone in “The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu”) is a ripe Morgana, an understudy in sorcery.

Nicol Williamson plays Merlin with a silver skullcap that seems to brim with emotion and ideas, but like the skullcap, he only reflects what goes on around him. Merlin is the last of the old, magical ways; he is lost and bumbling in the world of humans. Williamson conveys this by accentuating each word as if it comes from a different source; a bundle of contradictions.

Boorman’s only major error is in his choice of music. He uses snatches of Wagner for most of it — “Tristan” and “Parsifal” — which fall flat in the theater. Wagner’s corny pretentiousness actually works against some scenes, making them unintentionally funny. Perhaps Boorman should have used Rick Wakeman, whose records have always been accused of sounding too much like movie soundtracks.

“Excalibur” is the first of a whole cycle of sword and myth epics about to descend on us from Hollywood, with titles like “Dragonslayer,” “Knightriders,” “Clash of the Titans” and “Conan the Barbarian.” Perhaps it’s about time. There has always been a sort of cultural myopia in the West concerning our common mythic heritage (“A movie about King Arthur? C’mon, what is it, some kinda cartoon or what?”), while other countries’ filmmakers, in particular Japan, India and Russia, have been mining this rich vein for some time. There is no real difference between “Kagemusha” and “Excalibur” except for our inability to savor our heritage as much as the Japanese appreciate theirs.

We can only hope the other films measure up to the vision of “Excalibur.”


Review: “Let There Be Rock-AC/DC”

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

by Burl Burlingame
Tuesday, Sept. 16, 1980
Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Rock ’n’ roll movies have always been somewhat of a problem. Do you make the film of a concert performance, or do you make a fiction film that’s rock-like In theme, simply aided by the music?
Both have their conceptual problems. “Animal House,” for example, is a great rock ’n’ roll movie, with its enervating sense of anarchy, its liberating use of (then) forbidden music. Other terrific rock films lately have included “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” “American Hot Wax” “The Buddy Holly Story” and “The Idolmaker.” Their very rambunctiousness has included them. But they are all primarily films with a plot, aided immensely by the beat. The effect of the music, not the music: itself, is the main focus.
Concert films are another story. It’s tough to make a concert interesting without the immediacy of live performers, and there is the problem of getting too close to the musicians. The effect can be like sitting at the edge of the stage during “Swan Lake” and seeing the ballet dancers grunt and sweat. Poof, there goes the magic! Coming away from the Pink Floyd movie of a couple of years ago, one was struck, not by Floyd’s clever music, but by the fact that these guys never seemed to wash their hair.
“Let There Be Rock-AC/DC” has some of that problem, but mercifully the camera lingers at a middle distance, and the effect is concert-like instead of uncomfortably intimate. Australians AC/DC are veteran head-bangers and one of the most popular bands in the world: the movie appears to have been made in Germany by a French crew.
It is also at least a couple of years old, because the lead singer here is the irrepressible Bon Scott, who died some time ago of unspecified causes. Scott wasn’t a real tuneful singer, but he was a great rock ’n’ roller, a swaggering punk with loads of tattoos and ripped jeans.
The centerpiece of the band is guitarist Angus Young, who has a peculiar stage presence, resembling an English schoolboy in the process of being electrocuted. It’s not a pretty sight, but it is a gruesomely fascinating one. It helps that Young is a tremendous instrumentalist for this type of music, with a sense of melody and dramatic timing that helps keep the bombast under rein.
The other three members of the band are absolutely anonymous and difficult to keep track of.
There are two terrific images, though, and they occur near the end; a wide-angle view of the band awash in stroboscope light during the title song, and a sequence of goofy little Angus Young sucking up some oxygen at the edge of the stage and then being borne on the shoulders of a roadie into the audience, playing furiously all the while.
The Cinerama theater has taken care of a major problem with rock movies by installing concert speakers on either side of the screen, so the music is loud and clear. It should be a bit louder and a bit clearer though: the drums are nonexistent on the soundtrack, and a true AC/DC fan knows the volume has to be cranked up enough so that the bass notes can separate your vertebrae. For the proper effect, try butting your head against the wall a few times.
Let there be rock, indeed.

Review: “The Final Countdown”

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

by Burl Burlingame
Tuesday, Aug. 5. 1980
Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Aha! What we have here is probably the best bad movie of the year. Best because it’s carefully crafted, streamlined entertainment, bad because it’s monumentally silly. We know it’s awful, but we have fun anyway.
“Final Countdown” is about a paradox in time: The modern aircraft carrier U.S.S Nimitz cruising near Hawaii is tossed back through a time warp to Dec. 6. 1941. Will they or won’t they use modern technology to cream the Japanese forces attacking Pearl Harbor — and change history?
On board are the captain (Kirk Douglas, with a face as animated as a Road Runner cartoon), a civilian advisor (Martin Sheen, who has no advice about time warps) and a hotshot pilot (James Farentino, sporting the brightest teeth in the Navy). Along the way, in 1941. they pick up a senator and his beautiful assistant (blustering Charles Durning and vacant-eyed Kathenne Ross).
The real star of the film, though, is the Nimitz. Filled with thundering jets, phallic missiles and twinkling electronics, it’s a Navy recruiter’s macho dream. The very real problems the Navy has — not enough personnel, not enough money to pay those they’ve got, ships foundering in the high-tech race—aren’t in existence here. This film appeals to one of the major, though unspoken, reasons people join the military: So grown men can play around with a lot of neat stuff.
There used to be a whole squadron of films like this in the ’50s, service dramas with names like “Bombers B-52” and “Strategic Air Command,” and starring blue-eyed visions of American manhood like Jimmy Stewart (who actually is a reserve general in the Air Force), Rock Hudson and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. They were thinly disguised propaganda that celebrated the illusion of an omnipotent U.S. military, and judging by the cheers in the audience at “Countdown” whenever a sophisticated F-14 Tomcat blasted an antiquated Zero, the need for that illusion is as real as ever.
The fact it was an uneven contest doesn’t matter: the image of a powerful, yet intelligently handled American military is reassuring these days.
As for the science-fiction aspects, well, the plot is right out of a “Time Tunnel” TV episode (a show that never played with a full deck. James Darren and Lee Meriwether were cast as scientists). It’s the old paradox if you could change history, would you? Could you?
The science of time travel is woefully handled, mumbled references to Einstein and that Hollywood favorite, Mysterious Forces in the Universe. Once on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett asked writer Isaac Asimov “if there were forces in the universe that haven’t been discovered yet.”
“I don’t know,” Asimov replied, “they haven’t been discovered yet.”
The basic question in science fiction though, and the reason for this movie, is “what if…?” “Final Countdown” plays this question to the hilt, and does it slickly, never pausing over the holes in the script. If you don’t think about it too much, it’s a quickly spent two hours of thundering good fun.

Review: “Cannonball Run 2″

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

by Burl Burlingame
Tuesday, July 10, 1984
Honolulu Star-Bulletin

     A minimum effort from all concerned, “Cannonball Run II” is this summer’s effort by Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham to get the public to subsidize a month-long party for Burt and his pals. The home movies taken during the party are edited into something resembling a feature film, at least in length.
     They’re asking $4 for admission, and that doesn’t include even one canape.
     Burt’s friends are musty, dusty attractions at the Hollywood Wax Museum. They include Dean Martin, whose skin has the texture and unhealthy pallor of a cantaloupe rind and who says things like “When I make a dry martini, I make a dry martini,”—a sure-fire Rat Pack knee-slapper—and Sammy Davis Jr., who looks like a cockroach. Director Needham also never bothered to make sure Davis’ glass eye was pointing in the proper direction. It rolls wildly, independent of the other orb.
     Other couch potatoes direct from “The Tonight Show” are the insufferable Charles Nelson Reilly; wheeze-monger Foster Brooks; Jim Nabors, who has swell-looking artificial teeth; and Don Knotts, who looks like a chimp recently released from Dachau.
     Dom DeLuise is aboard doing his annoying thweet-but-thilly fat man routine.
     Frank Sinatra, in a pseudo-Mafia don role that must have been a hoot in Warner Bros.’ boardrooms, is on-screen for a flash. In the cutaway shots, the other actors pretend they’re talking to Sinatra’s stand-in, who’s about two feet taller than ol’ Pink Eyes.
     Susan Anton and Catharine Bach try to fill the jumpsuited bimbo role created by Adrienne Barbeau, but Bach and Anton are two women who look best from a distance. When she smiles, Anton’s lips slide up mechanically over teeth that resemble the grill of a ’57 Chevy; her face has the hatchety directness of a Roman bireme at ramming speed. Bach looks hard, hard, hard; she could crack walnuts with her forehead.
     Both women spend much of the film coyly playing with the zippers on their jumpsuits. When they pull them down, the effect is less playfully sexy than revoltingly cheap.
     Burt’s love interest in the last film, the quite-apropos Farrah Fawcett, is replaced by Shirley MacLaine, whose crinkly forearms contrast nicely with Burt’s gassy, recently embalmed appearance. MacLaine does provide the only real laugh in the film, during a credit sequence that features otherwise endless, dull outtakes.
     There are other performers who manage not to humilate themselves. They include Jackie Chan the martial-arts whiz, Joe Theismann the football whiz and an orangutan wearing an unfortunate amount of pancake makeup.
     There’s a plot of sorts; it reprises the last movie note for note.
     The theme song is in Spanish for some reason. “Cannooonbowel!” suggests the singer.
     The stunts are perfunctory.
     The cars are not exciting.
     The stars seem stuffed.
     The movie is a genuine cultural artifact, a relic given to us by a band of entertainers from long ago, who live in self-imposed exile in the dusty, neon hellhole of Las Vegas.
     They seem to have no trouble amusing each other.
     It’s not contagious.

Review: “Dunkirk”

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Four stars

I’ve interviewed dozens of veterans of battle over the years, and when you ask them what it was like, when they can re-imagine the entire spectacle played out before them, most say, “It was like a movie.” And why not? Film is the primary shared visual and communicative experience of the last century. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who can’t reference a movie.
Movies about battles are more difficult than movies about wars. It’s a matter of perspective and storytelling — whether the narrative thrust via the the storyteller is a gold-braided general or a grunt private. Your choices boil down to (A) What happened and why? and (B) What was it like to be there? These are two fundamentally different approaches to storytelling and trying to do both in a battle film can be self-defeating. A battle film generally goes with the (A) approach and the war film with (B). Sort of like menu choices — something to decide on before preparing the meal.
The gold standard for big-time battle films has always been “The Longest Day,” based on (and closely following) Cornelius Ryan’s history book that told the story of the battle through private vignettes. It’s a huge film, both in scope and length, and frankly, it was made by people who were at the actual battle and had an interest in telling things correctly and were willing to spend production money and amped-up running time to do so.
All the little vignettes together, almost like a collection of short stories, added up to a battle movie that told the story of the fight in strategic, big-picture terms. “Longest Day” has an eagle’s-eye reserve on the storytelling process. Compare it to Sam Fuller’s “Big Red One,” however. Fuller served with the First Infantry Division, and that movie’s vision of the Omaha landings seems to occupy about 30 square feet. That was Fuller’s view of Omaha when he landed there. Battle movies need to decide whether they’re about war or about soldiers.
Which almost brings us to “Dunkirk.” But first, some notes that are so obvious that they form a battle movie catechism:
* Movies aren’t about facts. They’re about emotions.
* Movies don’t show reality. They show artistically filtered impressions of reality.
* However finely made, movies are a commercial product. (This imposes limits on everything from pre-production to running time.)
* Movies are made by creative, dedicated artistes who — nonetheless — generally know nothing about the subject.
* Filmmakers are more interested in a story arc that provides an internal emotional “truth,” a payoff bang, than in lecturing and hectoring. They want your heart, not your brain.
It is pretty much impossible to separate writer-director Christopher Nolan from his new film “Dunkirk.” It is Nolanistic in its on-the-beat — albeit intersecting — time signatures and replete with wittily visual Nolanisms throughout. The basic story has been told before, primarily in a large-budget 1958 British production with the same title and made with the stiffest of upper lips.
The tale is heartfelt throughout England and barely known in the United States — we tend to think of it as a charming British fable about plucky lads in cockleshell boats pulling the Tommies out of snapping German jaws. But it is, of course, much more than that. As the British Expeditionary Force tried to reinforce the Belgians on the left flank and the French armies collapsed on the right flank, they were funneled into a narrow sector of shallow beaches. Goering assured Hitler that his Luftwaffe bombers could handle the situation, and so the Wehrmacht tank brigades (running low on fuel anyway) hung back, out of harm’s way.
The situation escalated into something like 400,000 Allied soldiers, mostly British, trapped in the open, under regular aerial attack, in a place where large ships could not pick them up. It was almost the entire British army. Unless there was a way to get them across 26 miles of freezing, choppy English Channel, Britain’s defenses were hollowed out. Luckily, the small geographic scope of the battle allowed for British boats of shallow draft to cross the Channel and pick up soldiers a few at a time. The armada of tiny boats managed to rescue enough of the British Army to fight another day against the Nazis. The annihilation of the entire British army was such a near-run thing that Winston Churchill felt compelled to “fight them on the beaches, fight them on the landing grounds … we will never surrender.”
Nolan’s retelling of this episode is heavy on the desperation and danger, and that is the proper place to be. It’s told as a soldiers’ story, not a general’s story. There are no markers moved around on map boards. There are instead bullets arriving without warning, from any direction, and no way to fight back except to flee in good order.
But because this is a Christopher Nolan movie, told in Nolan Time, it’s a bit more than a horror-movie shootemup. Nolan demands that an audience pay attention, and provides clues through editing and pacing so that the story arc falls into place. (If there’s a fault with Nolan’s storytelling, it’s that it is a bit too detached and clinical. He’s a mathematician for which all things must add up.) His work with “Dunkirk” is so brilliantly realized that it is not only one of the great battle movies of all time, he is showing us a way forward to shoot similar things in the future.
Any critical analysis of “Dunkirk,” (or any battle film) falls into two parts, separate but not necessarily equal. On one hand, how well is it structured to tell the tale it wants to tell? Because this film is created in Nolan Time, it is fragmented in a clinical way. He has decided to tell it in three arenas, divided into Land, Water and Air (the film actually titles these on the screen). Each is given roughly equal weight; the plight of the soldiers on the beach, the efforts of the civilian boatsmen trying to reach them, the work done by Royal Air Force fighter pilots trying to protect both Land and Water.
The great pleasure in the storytelling arc is how these elements move swiftly together. Nolan’s biggest trick is that the film starts out being epic and moves effortlessly to the intimate, while at the same time dialing up the dramatic pressure. What seems to be random events becomes a small microcosm of the entire situation — and he then provides enough of a denouement to catch your breath — forcing the audience to reflect. This is either sure-footed and classy filmmaking, or too clever by half, and probably both, but Nolan manages to succeed mightily. Much will depend on whether you’re fascinated or confused by Nolan’s playful and elastic experiments in the relative passage of time. Nolanistas will swoon. Still, this is his most approachable film.
As for the battle itself, it is largely over when the film opens. For the Germans, it’s a mopping-up operation. For the British, it’s a looming disaster. Still, lives are in the balance. You never really see the enemy — death comes from any angle (land, sea, sky?) and unexpectedly. This situation never lets go, and actually revvs up as “Dunkirk” progresses.
Most of the characters don’t even have names — the first British soldier we meet is actually named “Tommy”! — and the relative anonymity of the cast lends itself to the overall feeling of inclusiveness. The big trick that “The Longest Day” used, and it became the primary casting solution for battle movies ever since, was to cast big-name and familiar actors into small parts that fit their public persona. The notion became a scripting shorthand. The real Maj. Julian Cook in “A Bridge Too Far” was a kind of Robert Redfordish character, so cast Robert Redford in the brief part, and let sheer star-power steam over the five-minute-and-done performance.
There are only a few familiar faces in “Dunkirk” (and Tom Hardy’s is masked) and so the film is cozily communal. And also allows the soldiers to be played by actors who are properly young enough.
And that other hand — is it accurate? Does it get the details right? Largely. I can’t speak for the Royal Navy destroyers, but as an aviation historian, I was delighted with the Mk.1 Spitfires, the screaming sirens on the Stukas, the pilots’ concentration on fuel economy, the measured machine-gun bursts, even the way the Messerschmitts and Heinkels were photographed to minimizes their Buchon engine adaptations. It doesn’t cost any more to get things right in a film, and treats the audience with respect.
“Dunkirk” is filmed largely with practical effects, and very little (if any) blood and gore. It avoids the gun-and-guts porn of other recent war movies, which are made by filmmakers with more experience with “Call Of Duty” than an actual call to duty. This does not lessen the lessons. “Dunkirk” is a big movie about a big subject, and a sobering look at the actual costs of war. Urge your political representative to see it.

Review: “Criminal”

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

2 stars

This movie stays true throughout to its goofy premise, which is something of a miracle, given the many opportunities it has to either go flat-out actioner or philosophical conundrum. No. “Criminal” stays the course, resolutely remaining a character-driven shoot-em-up with a mild sci-fi veneer, and played so straight that it is nearly a parody.
Kevin Costner reprises the sort of character situation he faced in “Three Days to Kill” a couple of years ago, a tough guy with a mortal countdown clock. Here, though, thanks to a childhood brain injury, he’s a completely amoral criminal sociopath who, for the benefit of society, is both locked in a cell and required to wear neck chains.
Seems part of his brain is missing, waiting to be filled. They might as well named his character Tabula Rasa.
Ryan Reynolds is short-lived as a CIA agent working an important case, and when he’s killed, CIA case officer Gary Oldman dragoons brain-surgeon Tommy Lee Jones to electronically drain Reynolds’ brain of memories and dump them into Costner’s empty noggin.
It works, after a fashion, and Costner’s violent lunatic is gradually tempered down into warm and fuzzy. But not so much so that he’s still hacheting people to death in the final reel.
Most of the pleasure in “Criminal” comes from witnessing Costner’s crazy killer’s befuddlement at the occasional human emotion. He’s actually very funny. And often horrifying at the same time. That’s fun to see as he seesaws between nature and nurture.
The other casting that’s fun is Jones and Oldman, because they’re essentially playing each others’ roles, at least the generic ones they’re usually offered. Jones is the cool-cucumber, cerebral scientist, and Oldman is the perpetually angry section chief. Actually, Oldman is so explosive that he needs a brain-personality download himself.
The rest of the movie? Bang, bang, bang, car crash, car crash, car crash, boom-boom, wango-tango. All delivered at top volume and pyrotechnics, and competently executed, but that’s about it.
“Criminal” is a kind of mash-up between “Charly” and every somberly gray-toned, big-city shoot-em-up you’ve ever seen. If you don’t take it seriously, it can be fun.

Review: “The Jungle Book”

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

“The Jungle Book”
3.5 stars

Although anthropomorphism and personification have existed as literary devices for — literally —thousands of years, there was a real explosion towards the end of the Victorian era. In addition to Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” tales, there was “The Wind In the Willows,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Tarzan of the Apes,” right up to more recent bouts with serious literature, like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Watership Down,” and “Animal Farm.”
All this background because the newest incarnation of “The Jungle Book” made me wonder, who the hell is King Louie?
OK, he’s the oversized orangutang who heads a ruined temple full of monkeys, and he sings songs and acts both endearingly and menacingly, but Louie isn’t a character in Kipling’s stories. Orangs don’t live in India, and Kipling made the point several times that monkeys were incapable of being led — they were a pack of anarchists.
It turns out King Louie is wholly a Disney creation for the 1960s animated film, a character created from scratch in order to paper over the darker philosophical themes of the original work. Disney’s lawyers are careful to credit their work as “inspired” by Kipling, instead of an honest or straight-forward adaption. “Jungle Book” has been a cash cow for Disney, one they return to every few years to milk for remakes and spin-offs.
The 1967 animated film, for all that, is well-loved and a high point of hand-drawn animation. It is the last animated film that Uncle Walt personally oversaw and it became a touchstone for a whole generation. The new film is a remake of that film, not of Kipling’s canon. (It might be helpful to recall that Kipling’s books are collections of short stories with reoccurring animal characters, not a single long-arc story.)
This latest edition is also an extraordinary work of animation — apparently, the only real thing in it is little Neel Sethi as Mowgli. It also benefits from being helmed by Jon Favreau, a director who puts special effects at the service of story and character, instead of the other way ‘round. It’s also the first movie in a very, very long time that works well in 3-D. Very well!
It looks startlingly real. Favreau’s jungle is a dirty, messy, dangerous place. Mowgli (played by Sethi with a buoyant, yet cautious, optimism) is covered with bruises, stings, scars and mud, just the way a little boy in the jungle would be.
The animals do talk, in American and British accents. I guess it would be too much to have Mowgli sound like a tech-service telephone solicitor from Bombay. The animals look incredibly real, and Favreau doesn’t make them do facial gymnastics to make it look like they’re talking. Sometimes its as if we’re hearing their thoughts.
The voice casting is first-rate, and neatly encapsulates how we know the characters. Bagheera the panther, voiced by Ben Kingsley, is stern and concerned; Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray, is the vocal equivalent of sly sloth; Shere Khan the burnt tiger, voiced by Idris Elba, is absolutely terrifying. The late Garry Shandling has a swell turn as a porcupine, Scarlett Johansson’s silky seductiveness is scary as the giant snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken’s King Louie is just plain weird (in a way that works), a mix of Brooklyn gangster and Apocalypse Now Brando.
“Jungle Book” draws you right in with the frankly amazing CGI work, Favreau’s skill at visual story-telling and the existing pop-culture familiarity with the characters. The story? Same as previous editions from Disney, but this time served up with realism and verve. Some of it is actually pretty scary.
It all works up to a point, and the exact point where it breaks loose is when suddenly the movie shifts mood and tone in order to reprise the cheesy pop songs from the 1967 animated film. Way to renew copyright, Disney! The musical interludes reinforce nothing except the notion that Disney views “Jungle Book” as product instead of literature.

Review: “13 Hours”

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

“13 Hours”
Three Stars

By Burl Burlingame

When a movie states at the outset “This is a true story,” as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” does, that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate story. It can’t be. The simple physics of time and space mitigate against a true moment-by-moment replay. In this case, 13 hours are shoehorned into a couple of hours, and characters are combined and events blended.

Here’s the kicker — movies aren’t reality. They’re, at best, impressions of reality, strained through a filter. Well, duh.

“13 Hours” actually spans about a week, during a critical, dangerous time in Benghazi. It’s just after the revolution, and just before the 9/11 anniversary in 2012. American ambassador Chris Stevens is trying to woo the disaffected Libyans, but there are dangerous anti-American elements out there, and it’s hard to tell who’s who. He’s holed up, not in well-guarded embassy, but in the seized compound of a former Libyan millionaire.

Only about a mile away, in a similar set-up, the CIA has an office. The difference between them is that the ambassador’s security is thin and new at the job, and the CIA’s security has a half-dozen tough, ex-military contract soldiers.

At the same time riots break out all of the Middle East over an anti-Allah YouTube video, militant forces of indeterminate origin assault Stevens’ compound, overrunning it, and then hit the CIA base. During the attack on Stevens, the CIA security team mounts an ad-hoc rescue mission and manages to retrieve some of the Americans at Stevens’ place, but not Stevens, who has already died in the smoke and fire.

They return to the CIA compound and fight off wave after wave on insurgents. It’s all very Alamo.

Needless to say, this is all soup and nuts for director Michael Bay, who never met a script he couldn’t blow up. Bay has peculiar talent for grand, crashing chaos — the sturmiest of drangs — and it’s all on display here. As a plus, Bay has discovered cameras mounted on drones, and so the eye of the screen flies merrily through the whizzing bullets and smoking rockets and shrieking bad guys and gut-crunching explosions. Yeah, baby.

This is probably Bay’s best film to date. It also has the baggage of political expectations. Hillary-haters will be disappointed, as the movie is focused on the firefight, not on political fireworks. But Hillary-haters already have their minds made up, so it doesn’t matter.

What “13 Hours” does do, and does so brilliantly, is recreate the absolute chaos and stifling options of urban warfare in the third world. It is the best film to do so since “Black Hawk Down.” Warfare in this region of the world is done door-to-door, with individual weapons, and the narrow streets lined with buildings of no more than two stories are shot traps and sniper fields. Add to that the near-impossibility of telling friend from foe, and you have essentially a no-win scenario.

Americans have always been quick to blame ourselves rather than credit the enemy. Chris Stevens was killed by a rabble of thugs, not by protocol glitches. It’s too bad that our tough contract soldiers were not able to rescue the ambassador, but the ambassador, by his own choice, was way out there in the badlands. There was no way to get aerial help to him in time — planes only fly so fast.

But should the air assets have been mobilized anyway? That’s one of the few questions raised by the film. My impression — and I thank “13 Hours” for the impetus to think upon it — is that modern warfare and modern communications work at cross purposes. The ease of communication leads to battles being commanded at long-distance, by multiple levels of command, instead of relying on the initiative of those few on the scene. Tragedies like Benghazi occur when there’s too many people in command and no one in charge.

“In the Heart of the Sea” — That She Blows!

Friday, December 11th, 2015

“In the Heart of the Sea”
1 star

By Burl Burlingame / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Call me unimpressed.

True confession time: As a wee lad, I lived in a remote place where the local library was so small there was no division between children’s and adult books. In fifth grade, I pulled “Moby Dick” from the shelf and read it. It was tough going at first, but you get used to the rhythm of Herman Melville’s rich language. I became fascinated with the man-against-the-sea challenge of harpooning whales.

So, here we are a few years later, and killing whales is just about the uncoolest thing anyone can do. And here we have “In the Heart of the Sea,” Ron Howard’s visually ambitious retelling of the true story of the Moby Dick yarn, studded occasionally with pop-up segues of plot exposition with an actor playing Melville. The bookending — plus, essentially, chapter headings — by the Melville actor (Ben Whishaw) makes the whole thing seem, well, a little book-reportly, rather than seamlessly organic storytelling.

At a time when whale-oil was all the rage for lighting cities, the dauntless whalers of Nantucket roamed the seas looking for whales to kill. Once slaughtered, the creatures were diced up and the chunks fed into pots for rendering. It was a very dangerous, filthy, grotesque way to make a living, and naturally, New Englanders proudly excelled at it.

“Sea” tells the tale of whaler Essex, her snooty, neophyte skipper (Benjamin Walker) and surly first mate (Chris Hemsworth) on the hunt for whales, and how one whale got fed up and bashed the ship to pieces, and how the surviving sailors drifted across the Pacific for 90 days. They even had to feed on each other as they died, but the movie studiously looks away when that happens.

This really happened. The angry whale, which had white patches on its blubber, became the role model for the “great white whale” Moby Dick. “Moby Dick,” however, is a work of fiction, and “In the Heart of the Sea” is a work of fiction memorializing a true story that became a work of fiction.

Movies aren’t reality, they’re impressions. And so “Sea” does its best to drop you into that particular time and space, but because it’s a movie, the whale is given motive and personality, and because the movie is supposedly a true story, the universal themes are sucked out of the main characters and they seem pale and dull next to the whale.

It’s all very sea-going and wet. At least no one says “Yo-ho-ho!” Howard is reliable at building an action scene, gets good work out of his actors, and the art direction is first-class. The editing is a bit turgid, and the movie is longer than it needs to be, but that’s not the primary problem with “Sea.”

The movie is fatally compromised by a marketing decision. Not just hurt by this decision, but killed dead, as if there were a quivering harpoon in its heart.

The problem is that it was made to be projected in 3D, which affects all visual aspects and compositions.

Let’s get real. 3D only works in intimate settings. “Sea” is a story about the grandness of nature, the boundless horizon of the ocean, and the smallness of man. It requires visual storytelling of the highest order. But to make this production work in 3D, everything is shot in extreme closeup. There are virtually no establishing visual compositions, which completely scuttles the storytelling choreography. This, in turn, leads to jittery editing. To hammer home the 3D aspects, the movie regularly resorts to extreme close-ups of inanimate objects, as long as one end of the object is closer to the screen. The water scenes even leave fake drops of water on the “camera lens,” because it looks more 3D that way.

This tale, which should be expansive and grand, is hijacked by the demands of the 3D process, making it small and crowded, myopically claustrophobic and deeply murky. The movie begins and ends with a character who makes crude, tiny ships inside dirty bottles, which is actually the best visual metaphor that “In the Heart of the Sea” can say about itself.