Film Review – Dunkirk (2017): Powerful & emotional filmmaking at its best

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On exiting the cinema tonight after seeing Dunkirk, one thought struck me in particular. After all the big, loud, brash Hollywood fodder in the trailers before it, here was a film that proves that a big budget does not have to mean over the top, overly long, Hollywood rubbish! Thank you Christopher Nolan!

Dunkirk is quite simply breathtaking in its raw, powerful, emotional depth, across a mere [96] minutes. I had expected quality from Mr Nolan and he delivered in spades, with a film that everyone should take time out of their lives to see. Those of us in the UK are perhaps more likely to be aware of the story of Dunkirk and it is fantastic that this incredible tale from WWII is being presented to a wider audience.

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For those less familiar, in 1940, after Nazi Germany had invaded France, the Allied forces were pushed back to the city of Dunkirk, resulting in almost 400,000 stranded soldiers in need of rescue on the beach. Attacked on land and by air, they were trapped and the fact so many survived is thanks to not only the bravery of the Royal Air Force, but also the civilian boats that answered the call to cross the English Channel to provide rescue, putting themselves in great danger in doing so, due to U-Boat attack and enemy fire.

I've been a fan of Nolan as a film-maker for years and he truly shows his skill as both a writer and director with this film. Structure-wise, Dunkirk is written in a very clever way, in that it is not a simple linear story. It takes a bit of time, but you start to pick up that the boat you saw capsized a few minutes ago is still afloat, or the people in the water earlier are suddenly characters you realise you know well from a different story strand. The script's movement from storylines on land, sea and air, over varying lengths of time (one week, one day and one hour respectively) means that you see moments more than once, from different perspectives, which only enhances their emotional power. It also means you have to pay attention as an audience member and I certainly found it a brilliant way of packing so much story in to a relatively short running time.

I know some have complained about the lack of introduction of the characters, but for me, simply throwing us in to the film's events and us having to learn who everyone is, gave the film another layer of realism; as if we were stepping in to a moment in time and witnessing it first hand.

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The acting is also excellent. There isn't loads of dialogue, requiring the cast to capture and convey the events and experiences we see through more than simple dialogue. It takes confidence for a film maker to not try and saturate a story with needless words and Nolan's use of this style also makes the film seem so much more real and true to life. We are watching people simply trying to survive.

The cast contains some of the most respected actors around. Tom Hardy moved me to tears by the end as the RAF pilot determined to stay in the air as long as he could to provide air support for those trying to rescue those stranded below. Cillian Murphy is wonderful as the shell-shocked survivor of a U-Boat bombing, Kenneth Branagh brings weight and authority as the Navy Commander, determined to try and get his men home and Mark Rylance gives yet another quiet, nuanced performance as the civilian determined to play his part in helping save his fellow countrymen. Much has also been said about the inclusion of Harry Styles in the cast, but he gives a solid performance as a simple soldier, who desperately just wants to make it home, despite feeling shame that their attack has resulted in retreat. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead is also excellent as Tommy, also struggling to be rescued.

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Each aspect of the story is handled beautifully and as the strands begin to crash together, as the intensity of the events increases, I found myself gripped by just how real it all felt. Visually, it is excellent too. Nothing is done to extreme, so that the film always feels authentic and the opposite of Hollywood. The visuals of the battles in the air over the vast water of the English Channel are incredible, as are the shots when the full scale of the civilian rescue operation become apparent (I had a lump in my throat).

On top of that is Hans Zimmer's intense score. There is an undercurrent of music constantly and the strong use of strings and a ticking clock effect (produced using Nolan's own pocket watch) add an urgency and tension to every scene. It keeps you on edge. Therefore, the brief moments when the music disappears carry even more weight. Add in the inclusion of a slowed down version Edward Elgar's beautiful classical music "Nimrod" and the final scenes in particular had me shedding some tears (the track is Variation 15 on the soundtrack for those who want to hear it again).

All in all, this was every bit as brilliant a film as I had hoped for. Cleverly structured, fantastically and confidently directed and terrifically acted; the result being a truly powerful, realistic insight in to one of the most memorable stories of WWII. I urge everyone to go and see it as fast as you can (preferably on an IMAX screen if you can get to one).

 

 

 

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Film review – The Revenant

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Continuing with my aim to have at least seen all of the Best Picture nominees before this year’s Oscars, on Wednesday I went to see the film with the most nominations, The Revenant. I admit that I wasn’t hugely optimistic about the prospect of sitting through this film after the trailer had set the scene of this being a pretty dismal slog. That said, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.

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Leonardo DiCaprio & director Alejandro G.Iñárritu

Alejandro G.Iñárritu’s epic is inspired by the experiences of real life 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who at the film’s start is a fur trapper amongst a party of American settlers. The danger they face couldn’t be made clearer than by the almost immediate, brutal attack by Arikara Native Americans, which brings to the screen some truly incredible, if not graphic scenes. The small group who survive look to their guide, Glass, to find them a safer route back to camp. However, not everyone likes Glass or his son Hawk (whose mother was Native American) as is made clear by John Fitzgerald (an almost unrecognisable Tom Hardy).

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The infamous bear attack is incredibly realistic

The grizzly bear attack is now widely known about and it is this horrific incident (which goes on for quite a long time and is frighteningly realistic) that results in Glass being mauled so badly it seems impossible he’ll survive. Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) cannot bring himself to kill Glass and instead offers money to those willing to stay behind until he dies so that he can be given a proper burial. When one of those volunteers is Fitzgerald you know things will not end well. Events take a tragic turn when he (unbeknownst to the young Bridger (Will Poulter) who has also remained) murders Hawk, with Glass powerless to intervene, before leaving him for dead. Bridger, fearing for his life if he stays reluctantly follows Fitzgerald.

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A fight for survival for Hugh Glass

For the next two hours we are observers to Glass’s incredible journey to avenge his son’s murder. Never have I seen a film that captures better the almost inhuman ability of man to face the impossible and find the will to survive. We watch as Glass literally drags himself along, using all his survival skills to keep himself from death (whether from his wounds, the Natives, the Frenchmen in the area, wildlife or the elements). The further he gets on his path, the stronger he becomes and the more his resolve hardens. There seems no question that a showdown between him and Fitzgerald will happen. After all, it’s what Glass is living for.

The story of this film may seem dull to some, but I found this to be an incredibly cinematic experience. This feels as if it’s more than a film (perhaps aided by watching it on a huge IMAX screen). Due to the stunning, wild landscapes (the film mainly being filmed in Canada, including Alberta around Banff National Park) and the directing style of the film there were moments when I could almost believe I was actually there. I understand the director insisted on using natural light rather than electrical light and that choice certainly adds a weight of realism to the film.

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The film beautifully captures the rich, vast, natural landscapes of its setting

This immersive, sensory feeling is thanks to the brilliant work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (surely looking at his third Oscar in a row), who together with director Alejandro G. Iñárritu brings a brutal, visceral, but also visually rich and beautiful film to the screen. In between the violent scenes there are moments in which we watch the sky change colour, the rain start to fall from the clouds and the snow melt off the leaves. It could almost be a nature documentary in these quiet moments. It was this blend of tense action sequences, with calm, tranquil ones that took me the most by surprise and it works brilliantly in breaking up what is quite a bleak story. I would however say the film is too long, but then again by the end you really do feel the length of Glass’s arduous journey, which is perhaps the point.

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Tom Hardy gives an impressive performance as the cruel and cold Fitzgerald

There are some strong performances as well. Much has been said about whether this will finally earn DiCaprio his Oscar (this is his 5th acting nomination). As someone who thinks he should have won already (The Aviator in 2005 was his year in my opinion), he certainly deserves the award and his performance in The Revenant is worthy of the honour (impressing me in a very different way to Eddie Redmayne’s superb turn in The Danish Girl, a review of which will follow). He carries most of the film on his own, with many scenes having him completely alone, but he needs few words to bring the audience in to Glass’s world (just as well given the raspy voice he has after the bear attack leaves his throat slashed). The level of fitness DiCaprio must have needed is unimaginable, as Glass is both a hugely exhausting role, both physically and emotionally. He brilliantly handles scenes where everything is conveyed in his eyes – pain, despair, anger, loneliness, fear and determination as we watch him suffer horrible injuries, drag himself through the dirt, almost drown, be shot at with arrows by Natives and resort to unimaginable lengths to survive. Bear Grylls seems like an amateur after watching Glass! As an audience you are rooting for him every step of the way, which is all due to DiCaprio’s portrayal.

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There’s strong support from Will Poulter

Tom Hardy is also deservedly nominated for a supporting role and through The Revenant he continues to impress due to his versatility as an actor (right from his early days in Stuart: A Life Backwards for the BBC). His performance as the grizzled, half scalped, cold and self-serving Fitzgerald is impressive and believable. This is a man who puts himself before all others no matter the cost (which is almost understandable in this dangerous, unforgiving land) and you certainly see why characters such as Bridger are scared of him and what he is capable of. It’s such a complete performance; not just in terms of appearance, but the lilt of his gruff, often almost unintelligible voice, his posture and his ability to speak volumes with few words. I loved the moment you know he has realised Glass is alive and no doubt coming after him. It may be one of this man’s first real moments of fear in his life and it shows.

Praise also needs to go to Will Poulter as Bridger, whose character is caught between doing the honourable thing and his fear of death. He may go along with leaving Glass, but you never really blame him. He faces an impossible choice for someone so young and clearly intimidated by Fitzgerald.

The mood of the film is also greatly enhanced by a fine score by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner). It is a powerful, haunting and rich soundscape that captures the essence of the period in which the story is set and well as the rugged beauty of the wilderness.

Overall I really did enjoy The Revenant. It is truly a cinematic experience and although used too often in my view, a film which truly deserves to be called an epic. It is hugely ambitious in scope, but its director, cast and crew deliver with its action, emotion and its superb way of capturing the natural beauty of the setting. There certainly aren’t many films made like The Revenant these days. You may not think it is your kind of film, but I definite urge you to see it, especially on the big screen.

The Revenant is on general release across the UK. View the trailer here.  

 

The Name’s Bond…..My Top Choices for the next 007

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With the release of Daniel Craig’s fourth Bond film Spectre inching ever nearer, along with the hype and expectation, speculation is also growing as to the future of this very British screen icon. It’s currently not certain whether Daniel Craig will remain with the franchise and reported interviews with him this week suggest that perhaps he’s ready to move on from James Bond.

With that in mind, I’ve been considering who I would most like replace Daniel in the role. It’s certainly not going to be an easy task for whoever it is, with Daniel revamping the world of Bond over the last decade for a new generation, which was certainly needed. As much as I enjoyed the Pierce Brosnan films, they had become rather silly and in a world of Jason Bourne and more serious spy thrillers, Daniel’s rougher, harder, more damaged Bond was very welcome. I’m hoping he’ll stay for one last film, but perhaps, if as successful as Skyfall, he’ll see this as a good time to pass the baton on to someone new.

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Spectre is coming soon, but who will be next?

So, below are the candidates from within which I hope the next man to step in to that dinner jacket comes from. Yes, I did say man. I’ll start by saying, personally, I think James Bond must be two things – Male and British. The character created by Ian Fleming was a man and it’s a very masculine role. I don’t believe I’m doing a disservice to my gender to say I think the character should remain a man. I also firmly believe the role should be played by a British actor. Yes, we Brits are taking more and more American roles in Hollywood, but Bond is very much linked to the culture of the country (he took part in the Olympic opening ceremony alongside the Queen for goodness sake!) and with such a strong pool of homegrown talent available, I’d be frustrated if the role was played by anyone else.

With those disclaimers out of the way, here are my top choices. Time will tell if any of them go on to put on a tux and enjoy their martini, shaken not stirred.

Idris Elba

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Not very original I know, but Idris Elba has been on my list for years. He has all the attributes for Bond. He’s a brilliant actor, who has a big enough profile thanks to The Wire, Luther and his film work (following his role of Mandela, he is receiving strong praise for the forthcoming Netflix feature Beasts of No Nation). He is full of charisma, and has the physicality to convincingly portray the action man side of the character. We’ve also already seen he can play a slightly troubled, tormented soul in Luther and he’d certainly charm the ladies. After all the hoo-ha around him, perhaps this ship has now sailed, but he’s certainly still high up on my list.

Damian Lewis

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The latest rumour mill suggests Damian Lewis is now the frontrunner to take over from Daniel Craig and that wouldn’t be a bad choice at all. He clearly has the British suave looks and he’s proven himself capable of leading a franchise (let’s face it Homeland isn’t the same without him is it?). His recent television roles also highlighted his versatility as an actor, not just capable of British period dramas. Homeland means seeing him with a licence to kill would not seem farfetched and the wonderful series Life (still my favourite of his) demonstrated his ability for humour, which every Bond also needs to have.

Tom Hardy

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A little younger than Damian Lewis and so possibly a stronger contender when considering longevity in the role is Mr Hardy, whose star is certainly well on the rise. After recent successes in the Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max and Legend, he has shown he has the talent needed to inhabit the role of 007 and is quite an exciting choice, which would be a bit less predictable than Damian Lewis.

Tom Hiddleston

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I admit I had been sceptical about the idea of Tom Hiddleston stepping in to 007’s shoes. He’s a great actor, but could I really see him as Bond? While sitting in the UK premiere of High-Rise tonight (review here), I suddenly could – seeing him in a sharp suit, sipping champagne from a martini glass, it was a perfect Bond image! He’d need to work on the physicality of the role, but he’s young (an advantage over Damian Lewis), he’s popular internationally thanks to his role as Loki and he’d bring something different to follow after Daniel Craig. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea!

Rupert Penry-Jones

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I admit this pick may be fuelled a little by the fact Rupert Penry-Jones was my favourite of the Spooks team, but that’s certainly no bad reason. Across four years of the BBC’s spy drama, he displayed all the personality traits for a great Bond – charm, intelligence, vulnerability and a damaged past (and yes he’s rather attractive too). I can however see that he may be getting a bit too old now, especially if Daniel sticks around for a fifth film and looks-wise may be too similar to Daniel Craig to follow in his footsteps, but it would be an interesting choice to consider.

Tom Hughes

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If the producers were willing to look at taking the character of Bond slightly younger, then I’d hope Tom Hughes would be on the list of possibilities. Admittedly still rather unknown, he’d bring a fresh new Bond for a new generation. Plus not everyone (especially those who hadn’t seen films such as Layer Cake) knew Daniel Craig when he took over. Still best known for his roles in the BBC’s Silk and the recent Cold War espionage drama The Game, he would be a refreshing Bond.

Aidan Turner

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From Poldark to Bond? Why not? Aidan Turner is growing in popularity since leaving Being Human. He’s been in The Hobbit and of course is now generating excitement across the country in the BBC’s revival of Poldark (series 2 is currently filming). I have yet to watch Poldark and catch Aidan Turner fever, but I can already imagine him in MI-6. He’s young, charming, would clearly have no problem with the pace and fitness levels needed for the role and would look great in a dinner jacket.

Oliver Rix

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As this is my wish list to choose from I can’t leave off one of my favourite actors at the moment. Oliver Rix is still better known for his theatre work, most notably playing Aumerle alongside David Tennant in the RSC’s Richard II. Currently involved in the new American television series Of Kings and Prophets, perhaps his profile is about to grow if it’s successful. He’s certainly got the looks for Bond as well as the charisma, but as with Tom Hughes, he may be a little too young, but you never know!

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So those are my top choices. If one of these goes on to be the next 007, I’ll be more than happy. Time will tell!

Spectre opens in the UK on 26th October 2015 (6th Novmeber in the USA).