Dunkirk; The Big Sick
Christopher Nolan’s exciting and suspenseful Dunkirk weaves together three separate story lines as it explores the evacuation of British forces from the seaside village of Dunkirk, occurring after the Germans had invaded France, with the subsequent Allied retreat.
That a stirring film has been made out of the somewhat improvised operation to get the British soldiers back to England (which, as several characters note, is tantalizingly near) is a credit to Nolan, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, composer Hans Zimmer (providing an insistent, rousing score), and a fine ensemble of British actors, led by Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Gillian Murphy and Tom Hardy.
If you’re expecting a conventional war film from Mr. Nolan, that is not entirely the case. As others have noted, Nolan has looked at this historic retreat and instead focused on three threads that represent various aspects of the evacuation—all of which encompass the will to survive in the face of enormous. Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, a British private, tries any way he can to get off the island, all of which are fraught with peril (thanks in large part to a very present and accurate German military force); Mark Rylance’s Dawson volunteers to be among the civilians lending their boats to the evacuation, but he and his son (along with their teenage helper) head out themselves, encountering a shell-shocked British soldier (Murphy) along the way; finally Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot wages war with several German attack planes—all the while faced with the dilemma of diminishing petrol.
It’s an intimate approach to a large topic, but Nolan’s film is anything but small-scale.
Scene after scene, Nolan brings the viewer face to face with the harrowing aspects of war in unexpected ways: a beached ship used as target practice by the Nazis as British soldiers huddle inside, leading to frantic attempts to plug up the holes after the tide comes in; a rescue ship attacked just as it’s about to embark for home; a downed plane with its pilot fighting for his life; a locked-in soldier desperately calling to be released. The non-linear narrative (you didn’t expect Nolan to be entirely conventional, did you) allows certain character and plot revelations to carry an element of surprise and some added emotional heft—although one wonders if the film might have been just as effective if told in a more linear manner. Regardless, Dunkirk is an exciting and involving war drama that admits it can’t begin to cover the vast scope of the enterprise but nevertheless succeeds illuminating individual acts of heroism and courage under fire. (As some historians—and non-historians know, the French were also on Dunkirk—I fact one major character stays on for the French evacuation, but that story is not told here. If you do want it, there’s the undeservedly obscure 1964 Weekend at Dunkirk directed by Henri Verneuil and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. It’s worth seeking out).
I saw this too late to include in my last batch of reviews, but The Big Sick is still my favorite movie of the summer.
It’s an intelligent, observant and ultimately buoyant romantic comedy based on the real-life romance of screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Here, Nanjiani (who may be known to HBO viewers from Silicon Valley) plays himself as a working (barely) comedian /Uber driver, while Zoe Kazan is Emily, a bright, assertive young woman who first heckles Kumail, then finds herself in a relationship with him. While Kumail is falling for Emily, he has to contend with attempts by his family to hook him up with a Pakistani woman for the purpose of an arranged marriage. After Kumail and Emily break up, she falls ill and has to be placed in a medically induced coma (hence the title) which he signs off on–which brings Kumail into close personal contact with Emily’s initially—and understandably–frosty parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). How Kumail manages to ingratiate himself into the family circle (Julie’s as well as ultimately, his own), which is not as serene as it could be, and how all parties come to a greater understanding of each other over time, makes for a frequently funny, occasionally moving, and eventually uplifting film. Romano and Hunter are exquisite together and apart, as each individually grows to appreciate Kumail’s worth, although not without reservations (as Romano notes when he observes Kumail’s rather collegiate lifestyle), while Kumail and Zoe Kazan are such a winning pair that you unabashedly root for true love to prevail. The Big Sick is an intelligent, heartfelt and thoroughly delightful movie—and if you haven’t seen it, you should.
On a personal note, I wanted to thank the good people at the American Cinematheque for allowing to me to wax rhapsodically over Dan Duryea in front of an appreciative crowd of noir fans at a double bill of Criss Cross and Black Angel at the Aero Theater, and for the University Press of Mississippi and the Larry Edmunds Book Shop in facilitating the sale of some copies of my book Dan Duryea – Heel With a Heart to some old friends and new friends. Thanks also to Alan K. Rode, the engaging film historian who moderated the evening and helpfully filled in some tidbits about Dan that I had neglected to mention. I also had the good fortune of attending a 35th anniversary screening of My Favorite Year at the Laemmle Royal with director Richard Benjamin, and actors Joseph Bologna and Lainie Kazan in attendance, among others. It’s one of my favorite films, and one senses, based on their reminiscences, that it was a special experience for all those involved, including the absent Jessica Harper and the late, and sorely missed Peter O’Toole. It was a wonderful evening indeed.