OPERATION MINCEMEAT (2022) – World War II Period Piece Tells Fascinating Story of Deception

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT (2022) may sound like a horror movie about cannibals, but it’s not.

It’s a World War II period piece based on the true story of a top-secret espionage plot by British Intelligence which aimed at duping Hitler and the Nazis into believing the Allies were going to invade Greece rather than their intended target of Sicily.

Now available on Netflix, OPERATION MINCEMEAT tells the story of two intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) who face the arduous task of having to create a false narrative to make the Nazis believe something that they have no business believing, because conventional wisdom has it that the most strategic spot for the Allies to attack next is Sicily. They come up with the idea of having a corpse wash up on the shore of Spain where they believe the contents of the false plan which will be in the corpse’s possession will make its way to the Nazi leaders there who in turn will forward the information to Hitler.

Their superior officer Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) thinks the plan is absolutely ridiculous and obvious, and that the Nazis would never fall for it, but Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) believes it is so obvious that the Nazis wouldn’t think the British would try something so blatantly foolish, and hence would then suspect the information as being real, and so he greenlights the project.

Ewen and Charles face complications from the get-go. For starters, their search for a suitable corpse proves nearly impossible, to which Ewen quips that he can’t believe they are in the middle of a war and they can’t find corpse for their needs anywhere in the country! Their attempts to photograph the corpse prove fruitless, as no matter how hard they try, they can’t make him look alive, and so they decide to then search for a live person who resembles the dead man and take pictures of him instead.

They have to create an entire back story for this man to make everything as realistic as possible, including creating an entire love story complete with love letters, and to this end they receive help from a key member of their team, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). Jean’s involvement eventually complicates matters as she and the married Ewen begin to share a chemistry together, while the single Charles also has eyes for her. Further complicating matters is Admiral Godfrey suspects Ewen’s brother of being a communist spy for the Soviets and orders Charles to spy on Ewen. Through all this, they do eventually create an entire back story for their corpse and do get him to the shores of Spain where the information is then picked up by the local authorities. From there, the plans must get to the Nazis in the hope that Hitler will believe the ruse and send his troops to Greece rather than Sicily.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT tells a fascinating story that if it weren’t true would be difficult to believe. I mean, no spoilers since this is history, but the ploy worked, and as meticulously mapped out in this movie by screenwriter Michelle Ashford, it was an incredibly tall order to pull off. So many things had to go right, and they did. Of course, a lot of it was because of the careful and relentless planning by Ewen and Charles. They prepared for everything, including inserting an eyelash inside the closed letter, so that when eventually the materials were returned and the letter unopened, when they opened it they saw the eyelash was gone, to which Admiral Godfrey laments that he wasn’t going to send British soldiers to their deaths based on one missing eyelash! The detailed screenplay was based on a book by Ben Macintyre.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT reminded me somewhat of another recent World War II espionage movie, MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021). I actually enjoyed MUNICH somewhat more than OPERATION MINCEMEAT. As fascinating a story told in OPERATION MINCEMEAT, it often falls short in the emotion department. The film works more on an intellectual level. Also, while there are moments of dramatic tension, in terms of suspense, it’s a little more subdued than it could have been.

Director John Madden has made a handsome production that firmly fits the period, but in terms of driving the film forward to a riveting climax he tends to coast rather than speed.

Colin Firth is excellent as Ewen, and his personality kind of sets the tone for the entire movie, as he is dealing with all sorts of stress, both professional and personal, and he deals with it all subtly and politely.

Matthew Macfadyen is equally as strong as Charles, who is much more straightforward than Ewen and far less complicated. The two don’t always see eye to eye, but they put aside their differences and work well together.

Kelly Macdonald is very enjoyable as Jean, the widower who grows attached to Ewen even as she knows she shouldn’t.

Jason Isaacs is pompous and cranky as Admiral Godfrey. It’s another topnotch performance by Isaacs. And Simon Russell Beale is fun to watch as an irascible yet imaginative Winston Churchill. Isaacs and Beale also both co-starred in THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017), a film that gave both of them far meatier roles than here in OPERATION MINCEMEAT.

I also really enjoyed Penelope Wilton as Hester, Ewen’s exceedingly loyal secretary and valued member of the Mincemeat team. Johnny Flynn is also really good as a young cool and confident Ian Fleming who is also a member of the team. The film even provides some fun insights into the future James Bond author’s writing.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT is a polished World War II period piece drama that tells the unlikely yet true story of one of the greatest ruses pulled off during the war, a deception that fooled the Nazis into defending the wrong nation and enabled the British to successfully take over the strategic location at Sicily. While the movie sometimes lacks emotion and tension, it does feature topnotch performances and tells a fascinating story of a side of the war not always told, the intelligence side.

And in this case, intelligence means deception.

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MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK (2021) – Moving Drama Adds Fresh Perspective to Anne Frank’s Story

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MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK (2021), a film that hails from the Netherlands and is now available on Netflix, tells the story of the friendship between Anne Frank and her best friend Hannah Goslar and covers events from just before Anne and her family went into hiding inside the secret annex and afterwards, when Hannah and Anne were briefly reunited inside a concentration camp.

As such, the film makes for an enlightening companion piece to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, the world-renowned diary written by the middle school aged Anne Frank while she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis, which the only member of her family to survive the ordeal, her father, Otto Frank, decided to publish after the war.

Hannah Goslar is mentioned by Anne a bunch of times in her diary, but Otto Frank changed some of the names of the people they knew, and in early versions of the diary Hannah’s name was changed to Lies. In the most recent versions of the diary, Hannah’s real name has been restored.

MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK tells its story by switching back and forth between the time just before Anne and her family go into hiding, and later, when both she and Hannah are imprisoned in concentration camps, and it does so seamlessly.

The film opens in 1942 in Holland where best friends Anne Frank (Aiko Beemsterboer) and Hannah Goslar (Josephine Arendsen) enjoy their time together with tea parties, games of hide and seek, and talking about boys, while dealing with the Nazi occupation, which at this time in their lives seems to be not much more than an annoying nuisance. It then pivots to 1945 where Hannah is imprisoned with her very young sister inside a Nazi concentration camp. Her ill father is kept in a different part of the camp, and on occasion they are allowed to visit him. The living conditions are deplorable, food scarce, and disease rampant. Hannah discovers than Anne is imprisoned in another section of the camp, and the conditions there are even worse. They communicate on either side of a wall, and as Anne pleads for food, Hannah decides to risk her life to get food to her best friend.

The film pivots back and forth between these two time periods, inviting us to witness the friendship between Anne and Hannah, and later when the situations for the two girls grow dire, to understand how such a deep friendship impacted both their lives.

I enjoyed MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK very much. Director Ben Sombogaart, who spent a lot of time talking to the real life Hannah Goslar, who is still alive and, in her nineties, has made a sensitive and in spite of its subject matter heartwarming movie that celebrates the friendship between two girls which saw them through unspeakable times. And in Anne’s case, since she died in the concentration camp, was something she took with her to her death. The movie is an affirmation of the human spirit, that in spite of the Nazi atrocities, the spirit and friendship of these two girls would not quit, and the love they felt for each other outlasted the Nazi horrors.

The screenplay by Marian Batavier and Paul Ruven, based on the book Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend by Alison Leslie Gold, has been criticized by some for sometimes showing Anne in an unfavorable light, as she is depicted at times being bratty and also being very comfortable and open talking about sexuality, but if you’ve read Anne’s Diary, you know that this is how she was, and so the movie doesn’t really get into anything regarding Anne’s personality that isn’t already known from the diary. It does a fine job capturing the friendship between Anne and Hannah and does so in a tender, affectionate way.

Josephine Arendsen is outstanding as Hannah, in what is pretty much the lead role in the movie, since the film spends most of its time telling its story from Hannah’s perspective. Arendsen plays Hannah as being much less precocious and confident than Anne, but who nonetheless possesses tremendous courage in the face of adversity. Arendsen reminded me a bit of Anya Taylor-Joy at times.

Aiko Beemsterboer was also very good as Anne Frank, and her portrayal was consistent with how Anne talks about herself in her diary.

We live in a time when authoritarianism is creeping back into the world, and so the story of Anne Frank continues to be an important one to tell and remember, to fight back against the powers that be who believe in anything less than human rights for all.

MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK frames Anne’s story around her friendship with Hannah Goslar and tells it through Hannah’s eyes, adding a fresh perspective to the narrative of a young girl who only wanted to see the world, but whose life was cut short by the Nazis.

Her words live on to inspire those to remember her plight and to fight on against the powers of fascism wherever they may be.

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MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021) – World War II Espionage Tale is Superior Piece of Historical Fiction

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Neville Chamberlain is finally being shown some love.

Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister from 1937-1940, is generally viewed in history as the guy who for reasons of keeping the peace sat back and let Adolf Hitler gear up for war without doing anything to stop him, and it wasn’t until Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 that the United Kingdom took back its fighting spirit and met the Nazis head on.

But MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021), a new movie which premiered on Netflix last month, tells a different side of Chamberlain’s story, showing how his unrelenting determination to avoid war actually bought time for the United Kingdom to prepare for war with Hitler.

Now, Chamberlain’s story isn’t the main one told in MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR, but it’s the most fascinating one.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is actually the story of two friends, Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewohner), who met at Oxford and became best friends until they had a falling out over Adolf Hitler and the new Nazi regime. Paul believes Hitler is good for Germany and is making Germans feel great about their country again, but Hugh sees him as a racist monster.

Six years later, in 1938, Hugh finds himself working as a civil servant at the office of the Prime Minister, where he reads, edits speeches, and translates for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons). Tensions are high as Hitler plans to invade Czechoslovakia, and the invasion seems imminent, but Chamberlain refuses to give up on diplomacy, citing his memories of the brutality of the previous war, and predicting that any future war would be far worse. Unable to get a response from Hitler, Chamberlain turns to Hitler’s trusted friend Mussolini, hoping that the Italian leader would get Hitler to the negotiating table. On the eve of the invasion, Hitler backs down and agrees to meet with Chamberlain for peace talks.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Paul has had a change of heart about Hitler, after the Nazis brutalize his Jewish girlfriend. His position keeps him in Hitler’s inner circle, and as such, he is secretly working with a small group that wants to remove the Fuhrer from power. A top-secret document makes its way into his possession, which outlines Hitler’s true plans for Europe in specific detail, proving that Hitler isn’t interested in peace but in expanding the German empire and plans to use force to do it. Paul realizes that this peace meeting with Chamberlain is exactly what Hitler wants, as it will buy him time to build up for future invasions.

MI6 receives word that Paul has this document and that he wants to turn it over to Hugh so that Hugh can get it to Chamberlain, and they pretty much order Hugh to meet with Paul and get the document without telling any of his superiors, which sets up the second half of the movie, as Hugh and Paul navigate in the shadows around the Nazis, while Chamberlain and Hitler meet to sign a peace accord to prevent the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a fascinating movie that I really enjoyed, a piece of historical fiction that makes for compelling viewing and gives a nuanced interpretation of Neville Chamberlain while doing it.

Both Hugh and Paul were not real people, but they are loosely based on British scholar A. L. Rowse, and German diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz, who were friends at Oxford. The screenplay by Ben Power, based on the novel Munich by Robert Harris, is entertaining and intriguing throughout. I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but the story it tells in this movie is a good one.

The best part is its depiction of Neville Chamberlain, a man who is shown here with an unrelenting passion for keeping the peace. It’s a noble attribute and is one that today a person would be hard-pressed to argue against.

It also helps that Jeremy Irons is playing Neville Chamberlain. As one might expect, Irons delivers the best performance in the movie. He captures the elderly Chamberlain’s devotion to peace, and the physical toll it takes on him, as he has to go toe to toe with Hitler, but it’s a task that in spite of his age he is up for, and Irons makes Chamberlain a leader that people can rally around, which is not the way history has so far remembered Chamberlain, who is often viewed as a weak Prime Minister. And it was much more satisfying to watch Irons play Chamberlain here than his recent portrayal of Alfred in the Ben Affleck BATMAN movies.

Both George Mackay as Hugh and Jannis Niewohner as Paul are also excellent. Mackay perfectly captures the tensions that Hugh feels, and he looks like he should be chain smoking throughout the movie. He makes Hugh so stressed out the intensity becomes almost palpable. Previously we saw MacKay playing a character fighting in World War I, as he played a soldier in 1917 (2019).

Niewohner, who hails from Germany, plays Paul as an intense, volatile character whose passion for Germany is so laser-focused that it enables him to see through Hitler and view him as someone whose interests are not aligned with what is best for the country.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR was directed by Christian Schwochow, who does a masterful job. The film is elegant to look at, with its depiction of 1938 Munich, as the sets, costumes, and attention to detail are superb. The story is riveting, and this is an historical drama that is much more of a suspense vehicle than a straight narrative. It’s edge of your seat material.

Not everything works about the film. While there are female characters in the movie, none of them take center stage. I realize the plot is really about Hugh and Paul, and Neville Chamberlain, but the supporting female characters in the movie are not fleshed out at all.

There’s also a key scene that I didn’t buy, and it comes when Paul finds himself alone in a room with Hitler, and he has a gun, and he intends to assassinate the Fuhrer, but he doesn’t. The reason he gives later didn’t fly, not after we perceived him as the explosive, driven young man who not only wanted to save Germany at all costs, but who held Hitler personally responsible for the brutalization of his girlfriend. The scene just didn’t work for me. Everything we learned about Paul told us he would have pulled that trigger.

But overall, I really enjoyed MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR. It’s on par with DARKEST HOUR (2017), the film which won Gary Oldman an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, and in terms of spy intrigue, it’s nearly as tense as Steven Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and the recent THE COURIER (2020) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, even though both these films were spy stories about the Cold War and not World War II.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a superior piece of historical fiction, an edge of your seat espionage tale, that touts the value of diplomacy over war, and poses the intriguing question of who benefitted more from the time bought by the peace agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. The film argues it was Chamberlain, that his intervention helped give nations time to be ready for when Hitler would ultimately mobilize his war machine a year later. And seeing that the Nazis lost the war, that argument seems sound.

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THE DIG (2021) – Exceptional Movie Unearths More Than Just Historic Archeological Find

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I dug THE DIG (2021).

Yes, THE DIG, a new Netflix movie, is a wonderful film. It tells the surprisingly moving story of the excavation in 1939 in Sutton Hoo, England, which unearthed a burial ship from Anglo Saxon times. It features two fabulous performances by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, beautiful direction by Simon Stone, and an above average screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on the novel The Dig by John Preston, both of which are based on a true story.

It’s 1939, and England is on the brink of war with Nazi Germany. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires amateur excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig on her property as rumors have swirled that historic burial grounds lay underneath, and as Edith says, she just has a “feeling” about what is there. Brown is only an “amateur” because he’s not formally educated or trained in the field, but he’s been excavating since he was a child, and so his instincts and true experience are unparalleled, and Edith recognizes this. He has the reputation of being difficult to work with, but this comes more from idiosyncrasies rather than from stubborness.

Edith herself is unwell, as she is slowly dying, and she worries for her young son Robert (Archie Barnes), as the boy’s father has already passed away. Robert is an imaginative young boy who believes the ancient explorers were a lot like the space explorers he reads about in science fiction magazines, and he takes a liking to Basil Brown and is only too happy to be allowed to help the excavator with the dig.

Eventually, Basil unearths an amazing find, the remains of an Anglo Saxon ship, which would have been painstakingly moved from the sea to the land to provide a burial for someone of extreme importance. It’s a magnificent find, one that brings the British Museum to Edith’s doorstep, with orders that from here on out, they are taking charge.

Director Simon Stone has made a thoroughly satisfying period piece. The photography of the English countryside is as elegant as it is pastoral. You can almost smell the greenery. The film also nails the look of the period, 1939 England on the brink of war.

The first half of the movie is almost magical, bordering on fantasy, even as the story is rooted in reality. There’s a mystical quality to the screenplay as Basil Brown expounds on the marvels of the past, which he says speaks to them. There is a reverence here that resonates throughout the movie. Young Robert is an eager listener to Brown’s ideas, and we the audience are right there with the boy. It’s storytelling at its best.

The second half of the movie pivots somewhat, as the British Museum becomes involved, and we are introduced to more characters, including Peggy Piggot (Lily James) who’s there to help her husband with the dig, but it is through this experience that she learns some truths about herself and her marriage. The second half of the movie isn’t quite as effective as the first, but it’s still a first-rate screenplay by Moira Buffini.

The two leads here are outstanding.

Ralph Fiennes, who has delivered many fine perfomances over the years going all the way back to THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996), and who is currently playing M in the new James Bond movies, is outstanding here as Basil Brown. It’s clearly one of his best film performances, and instantly one of my favorites. He makes Brown a three-dimensional character who in spite of his reptutation for being difficult is sincere, empathetic, and a genuinely caring person.

Carey Mulligan is equally as good as Edith Pretty. It’s a challenging role, as Edith grows sicker throughout the story, and Mulligan is up to the challenge of capturing her ever increasing sickness. In spite of her illness, she is a strong-willed woman who does her best to give Basil credit for the dig, even though the museum would prefer the name of an amateur not be mentioned at all.

I have been enjoying Mulligan’s work for some time now, as she has made memorable impressions in such films as DRIVE (2011), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and MUDBOUND (2017). She is also currently starring in the thriller PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020).

The other testament to Mulligan’s and Fiennes’ acting is the two actors share tremendous chemistry… their scenes together resonate and drive this film forward… even though they are not connected romantically, which is usually the way it is onscreen for characters who share this kind of chemistry. They are both fantastic.

Young Archie Barnes is noteworthy as Edith’s son Robert, as his energetic performance really captures the spirit of the movie.

Lily James is also very good as Peggy, although she doesn’t show up in the film until its second half, but she makes Peggy a sympathetic character, even if she’s not integral to the film’s main plot. I like James a lot and have enjoyed her work in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017), DARKEST HOUR (2017), and REBECCA (2020).

One of the themes in THE DIG, in addition to the connection between explorers of the past and explorers of the future, is that life is fleeting, and you have to go for things in the here and now. However, we all fail at times, and we have to live with our failures and move on, and when ultimately our time is done, we do live on as what we do now for others lives on with them, which allows the past to continue to speak to the present and the future.

There’s a lot going on in THE DIG, as it has a very layered screenplay by Moira Buffini.

And one of the film’s best scenes, which speaks to its theme of the meeting of explorers, Robert takes his ailing mother on a “voyage” on a ship through time. They camp out in the remains of the unearthed ship under the starry night sky and Robert speaks of his explorations through time and space and how his mother will be there with him because time is different in space, and from where she is she will know all that he has done.

Deep, almost magical storytelling, and yet there’s not a drop of fantasy to be found. Instead, it’s wrapped in a story that is as deeply rooted in reality as you can get.

THE DIG is an exceptional movie that unearths more than just an amazing archeological find. It digs up some astounding truths about who we are, what we are doing here, and where we are going.

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A CALL TO SPY (2020) – World War II Drama Tells Intriguing True Story of British Women Spies

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A CALL TO SPY (2020) is a polished and sophisticated movie that tells the intriguing true story of British women spies putting their lives on the line in Nazi occupied France during World War II.

It calls to mind other recent gems about Britain’s World War II war effort, films like DARKEST HOUR (2017), DUNKIRK (2017), and THEIR FINEST (2016). While not quite as good as these movies, A CALL TO SPY nonetheless has a lot to offer for fans of World War II period pieces and stories about strong women.

I loved it.

British spies are dying left and right, and it seems their efforts are being thwarted by the Nazis at every turn. Exasperated, agency head Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache) finally listens to his secretary and unofficial right hand person Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) and approaches Churchill seeking permission to train female spies, the thinking being they will be far less likely to be suspected than their male counterparts. To Buckmaster’s surprise, Churchill gives the idea the green light.

And so Vera goes about the business of recruiting, and two of her most notable recruits include Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte). Noor is of Indian descent and is a Muslim pacifist, and she becomes one of the fastest senders of coded messages over the airwaves, an indispensable job known as the wireless operator, or as they are referred to in the movie, “the wireless.”

Virginia Hall is an American who spent time in France and wants nothing more to return there and beat back the Nazis. Her efforts to join the war effort have been thwarted because a hunting accident left her with a wooden leg. While Maurice Buckmaster rolls his eyes in frustration, Vera assures him of her choice, pointing out that her wooden leg will make her a least likely suspect to be a British spy.

The movie then follows these two women’s stories as they infiltrate Nazi occupied France. Virginia Hall emerges as the main character and most of the story revolves around her, as she exceeds expectations and becomes one of the most effective spies Britain has on the ground.

A CALL TO SPY really belongs to Sarah Megan Thomas. Not only does she play Virginia Hall, but she also wrote the screenplay. As Virginia Hall, Thomas delivers a noteworthy performance that carries the movie. She makes Virginia spirited, determined, and fearless, and ultimately the go-to spy on the ground. She becomes indispensable, and the film really hits its stride when the frustrated Nazis learn her identity and pull out all stops to hunt her down, and she has to use her smarts and gumption to get herself out of France.

Thomas’ screenplay is also excellent. Not only does it effortlessly tell these women’s stories and show how invaluable they were to the war effort, it also fleshes out all of the characters, even the supporting ones, and tells for the most part a riveting story. The one area where it’s not as strong is its third act, as after the climax of Virginia’s escape attempts from the Nazis, the film quietly makes its way towards its conclusion.

Radhika Apte is solid as pacifist Noor Inayat Khan, but the character clearly plays second fiddle to Virginia Hall here, mostly because of their ultimate fates while in France.

I enjoyed Stana Katic as Vera Atkins. She too is a determined character, as fearless as Virginia, only working from behind the scenes.Vera also has to operate in the shadows of the men around her, and not only that, but she is Jewish, and even in Britain, that fact poses problems for her. Katic is very good in the role.

Likewise, Linus Roache makes good as the stately and very weary Maurice Buckmaster. Roache captures the weight on Buckmaster’s shoulders and the pain of knowing, as he says it, that they’re trying their best but realize their best isn’t enough, as their spies continue to be discovered and executed.

There are also a couple of notable supporting performances as well. Rossif Sutherland, the son of Donald Sutherland, is quite effective as one of Virginia’s contacts, Dr. Chevain. They share a natural chemistry together, and Sutherland makes Chevain an empathic character.

Andrew Richardson plays another contact, Alfonse, a man who is much more active in the sabotage scene, and the sequence where he, Virginia, and others attempt to blow up a train is one of the more exciting moments in the movie. Richardson is memorable in the role.

A CALL TO SPY was directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, and she gives this one a cinematic feel. She captures the look of the time, and the place, and there are also a lot of cinematic visuals here, from Nazi occupied streets and sad worn faces of dominated locals, to nighttime shots of spying and espionage.

That being said, A CALL TO SPY is a quiet piece with the emphasis more on drama than action, the type of movie which would play at your local arthouse theater rather than the multiplex.

…..A quick aside. Movie theaters. Hmm. Remember them? How fast things change!…..

It still works though, and works well. It tells a powerful story and is full of fleshed out three dimensional characters.

And since Sarah Megan Thomas wrote the screenplay and stars as Virginia Hall, and excels at both, A CALL TO SPY really belongs to her. She’s a talent to keep an eye on.

I for one am really looking forward to her next project.

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THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020) – Strong Cast Lifts Bleak Drama

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the devil all the time

If you like your movies dark and dreary, then THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (202), a new flick on Netflix about some very unsavory people, is the film for you!

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME tells the sprawling tale of various characters and how their lives connect between two states, Ohio and West Virginia, over the course of three decades, from the 1940s through the 1960s. With its near perfect narrative style, the film jumps back and forth through time as it tells its story of mostly awful people whose acts directly impact those who aren’t so awful. It provides a bleak portrait of humanity, especially in the context of the dangers of extreme religious beliefs, and with a running time of two hours and eighteen minutes, it can be difficult to sit through.

But it does have a first-rate cast which certainly helps.

Willard (Bill Skarsgard) returns home from World War II a scarred man. On his way to his West Virginia home, he stops at a diner in Ohio where he meets a waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett). The two fall in love and eventually get married and have a son, Arvin. When Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) is nine years-old, tragedy strikes as his mom Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer. Willard takes his religious beliefs to the extreme in an effort to save his wife, and when she still dies, he’s makes yet another tragic decision, scarring his son Arvin’s life in the process.

The bulk of the story takes place several years later, with Arvin (Tom Holland) now a young adult looking after his step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) who has a tragic back story of her own. And the tragedies don’t stop there, as a sinister preacher Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) arrives in town and sets his unsavory sights on the young and impressionable Lenora.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough) are a pair of serial killers who have been at it and getting away with their crimes for twenty years, crimes that have directly impacted the lives of Arvin and Lenora, even though they don’t know it. Sandy’s brother Deputy Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) while he tries to look after his sister, more often than not, simply looks the other way.

So, you have serial killers, murder, sexual abuse, rape— you get the idea. It all makes for a long two and a half hours. That being said, for the most part, I liked THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. I can’t say I enjoyed a story like this, but it still works. Its title says it all. Most of these folks are trying to be religious, but looking at things from their perspective, God is nowhere. Instead, the devil is everywhere, all the time. Looking at it from a nonreligious persepective, it’s simply this: bad things happen to everyone, and if you’re going to rely solely on faith in God you’re barking up the wrong tree. More often than not, you need to take action on your own.

It’s a compelling if not overly bleak screenplay by director Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also provides the effective voice-over narration. The characters are all fleshed out nicely, the story laid out in an understandable fashion even as it jumps around in time, and the conflicts are all rather horrifying and tragic. The dialogue is first-rate as well. The only problem is it is dark, and as such, difficult to get through.

Antonio Campos does well with the directing duties. He captures the look and feel of all three decades successfully. The photography is on par with a major theatrical release. The one issue is pacing, as it is slow and deliberate throughout, and even though some truly horrible things happen throughout the story, it doesn’t necessarily translate into rising suspense or a major climax. The plot does come to a head by film’s end, but even as it does so, the emotion remains the same: bleak, bleak, and more bleak.

The cast is this film’s main asset.

Tom Holland, although he doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into the movie, is superb as Arvin, and easily becomes the main protagonist in the movie. It’s good to see Holland play a more nuanced role instead of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

Bill Skarsgard is also exceptional as Willard, and even though his screen time is limited, appearing mostly in the film’s first forty five minutes, he delivers one of the film’s best performances. Skarsgard, of course, just finished playing Pennywise in the recent IT movies.

Eliza Scanlen, who played Beth March in LITTLE WOMEN (2019), makes for a tragic Lenora, and Robert Pattinson is one creepy preacher. Likewise, Haley Bennett is excellent as Charlotte in limited screen time. Bennet played Emma Cullen in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), and she also starred in the disturbing thriller SWALLOW (2020).

Jason Clarke and Riley Keough make for an unsavory pair of serial killers, even though Keough’s character tries her best to break from this partnership. Keough, who also was memorable in the horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter.

And Sebastian Stan is also very good as the conflicted Deputy Bodecker.

In smaller roles, Harry Melling stands out as another demented preacher, Roy, and young Michael Banks Repeta makes his mark as Arvin at nine years-old.

This is an outstanding cast, and they are a major reason why I was able to make it all the way through this gloomy period piece and depressing commentary on human nature.

At the end of the day, in spite of its bleak outlook, I liked THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. You’d be hard-pressed to find another cast as competent as the one here, and its story as dark as it is, is based on truth. People are this misguided, are this dangerous, and in the case of someone like Arvin, are this relentless in their pursuit of justice.

While the devil may be present all the time, so are the Arvins of the world.

—END—

OVERLORD (2018) – World War II Actioner/Horror Movie Generally Entertaining

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Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell in OVERLORD (2018).

A horror movie set during World War II, hours before the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sound like a pretty good combination to me!

And OVERLORD (2018) is just that: an action/horror hybrid that isn’t half bad.

In the battle of Normandy, code name Overlord, it’s the mission of a select group of allied soldiers to land behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi radio tower to give the allied planes protection as they provide cover for the invading ground forces. The battle zone is insanely chaotic, and the plane carrying these soldiers is shot out of the sky, with only a few soldiers successfully making it out of the plane via parachute. Fewer still survive once they hit the ground in Nazi territory.

Only a handful of soldiers remain. OVERLORD is their story. Ranking officer Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) leads this group to the radio tower which is located on top of a church. Among these soldiers is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a black soldier who’s been called out for not being much of a soldier, mostly likely because of the color of his skin.

On the ground, they meet a young French woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and since Boyce is the only soldier there who speaks French, suddenly he’s a bit more valuable. Chloe provides shelter for the soldiers at her aunt’s farmhouse, which she shares with her sick aunt and kid brother. While Ford and company prepare for their mission, they have to lay low from the marauding Nazis, led by a particularly nasty officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).

While at the farmhouse, the soldiers hear rumors of strange scientific experiments being conducted by the Nazis underneath the church, experiments that are killing many of the townspeople.  While fleeing Nazi soldiers, Boyce accidentally finds his way inside the bizarre underground lab, and what he sees there horrifies him.

He reports back to Ford, who tells Boyce and his fellow soldiers that the stuff happening inside the lab is not part of their mission, but when events bring the horrors from the lab onto their doorstep, they suddenly find themselves with no choice but to confront the monstrosities head on.

The best part of OVERLORD is its combination of World War II adventure and horror tale is a good one and for the most part works. The World War II story is exciting on its own, which is a good thing because the horror elements don’t really come into play until the movie’s third act.

And that’s one thing I didn’t like about OVERLORD. It takes too long to get to its best part, the stuff with the Nazi experiments. As such, it really isn’t much of a horror movie. In fact, even when it’s revealed just what those experiments are, and things get a bit gruesome, the subject matter really isn’t all that horrific. OVERLORD plays more like a violent action science fiction adventure than a horror movie.

That being said, I had a lot of fun watching OVERLORD. I just wished its genre elements had been darker.

I fully enjoyed the cast.  Jovan Adepo is excellent as Boyce, the character audiences will relate to the most.  He’s both the voice of reason and caution, and his decisions throughout the film are spot on and in tune with what audiences expect from a movie hero. One problem here, however, is with historical accuracy.  While the notion of having a black character here as the lead is a good one and one I really enjoyed, the U.S. military was still racially segregated during World War II. Oops!

Wyatt Russell is also very good as Ford. Now, Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there are times when his mannerisms and dialogue delivery really resemble his father, which is a good thing. Russell makes for a likeable action hero.

Likewise, Mathilde Ollivier is also thoroughly enjoyable as Chloe, the fiery French woman who assists the allied soldiers. She’s smart, tough, and terribly sexy.

And Pilou Asbaek makes for a sufficiently nasty villain as Nazi officer Wafner. Asbaek has starred on GAME OF THRONES (2016-17) and in the movies GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) and THE GREAT WALL (2016), among others, but this is my favorite role I’ve seen him play so far. He was fun to hate.

OVERLORD was produced by J.J. Abrams, and early rumors were that this film was going to be part of the CLOVERFIELD universe. It’s not, although at times it certainly felt like it. The only thing missing was any reference to the word “cloverfield.”

OVERLORD was directed by Julius Avery with mixed results.  The World War II stuff is exciting and nicely paced, though nothing audiences haven’t seen before. The horror elements which finally show up in the film’s third act, are violent and energetic, but hardly scary.  This one is rated R for language and bloody violence and science fiction style mutilations, and it plays like OPERATION: FINALE (2018) meets A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016).

The best scenes are the World War II fight scenes. While the blood and gore increase towards the film’s finale, the suspense doesn’t.  I will say the special make-up effects were very good.

Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith wrote the adequate screenplay.  It’s filled with serviceable dialogue and situations, but nothing that pushes the envelope all that much. In all honesty, I expected to be more horrified by the film’s revelations, but that wasn’t the case. The horrors revealed here do not rise above the comic book level.

At least the tone remains serious, and  never deviates into campiness, and I liked this. No surprise here, really, since Ray wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), while Smith wrote the screenplay to THE REVENANT (2015) the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor, two very serious movies.

OVERLORD, incidentally, refers to the Normandy invasion code name, and not the popular Japanese novel series and anime.

I liked OVERLORD well enough, even though it didn’t fully deliver with its horror elements. The World War II scenes provide plenty of adventure and excitement, while the whispers of bizarre Nazi experiments generate interest throughout. It all leads to a bloody conclusion that is more action-oriented than frightening.

The end result is a movie that generally entertains even as it falls short in the horror department.

—END—

 

OPERATION FINALE (2018) – Tale of Nazi Capture Relevant Today

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Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in OPERATION FINALE (2018)

There are moments in OPERATION FINALE (2018), the new historical drama about the capture and extraction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by a group of Israeli agents, that resonate more powerfully today because they call to mind current events.

Watching a raucous Nazis meeting you can’t help but recall images of the hate-filled march in Charlottesville or the frenzied crowds at a Trump rally.  The images are eerily similar.

But the action in OPERATION FINALE is all historical.

When we first meet Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) he’s leading a failed attempt at capturing a Nazi target.  Shortly after they remove the man from his home, ripping him away from his wife and kids, Malkin realizes they have the wrong man, but before he can do anything about it, his associates shoot the man dead. When Malkin tells them they grabbed the wrong Nazi, his partners shrug and ask, does it matter? He was still a Nazi.

The action jumps ahead a few years to 1960, where in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a young German girl Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) brings home her new boyfriend Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) to meet her blind father Lothar (Peter Strauss). When Lothar hears the boy’s name, he sends word to the Israeli government that he believes he has met the son of Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi known as the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan which led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Israeli agent Isser Harel (Lior Raz) sends a team which includes Malkin to Buenos Aires, and shortly thereafter they confirm the identity of Eichmann (Ben Kingsley).  They then plan to capture him and extract him from the country so he can stand trial in Israel for his crimes, which will be no easy task, since Eichmann is surrounded by a vigilant group of Nazis looking to rise to power once more.

OPERATION FINALE really isn’t receiving strong reviews, as I keep hearing it described as slow and unimaginative, but it really deserves stronger praise than that.  I will agree that it is subtle in its storytelling, and it’s rated PG-13 so the horrific violence from the Holocaust will not be on full display here, but there are enough potent images to make it work just fine.

The film is anchored by two very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Both actors drive the story forward with their convincing interpretations of the two leads.

I like Isaac a lot, and he seems to get better in every movie I see him in. While he’s probably most known today for his recurring role as pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies, it’s not in that role that he’s really been allowed to strut his stuff.  He’s been excellent in films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and EX MACHINA (2014), and way back when he made an impression in the stylish action fantasy SUCKER PUNCH (2011).

He’s excellent here as Israeli agent Peter Malkin.  He plays Malkin as a man not quite sure of himself at first, and his confidence grows as he’s allowed to establish a relationship with Eichmann while they’re held up in a safe house awaiting the opportunity to fly out of Buenos Aires. The Israelis need Eichmann to sign a document expressing his willingness to leave the country, and when their hardball tactics continually fail, Malkin believes he can get him to sign by appealing to his ego.

The two men partake in a psychological cat and mouse game which heats up in one of the movie’s best scenes when Eichmann attempts to get under Malkin’s skin by telling him the story of how he shot a woman and her baby, knowing that Malkin’s sister and baby were lost in the Holocaust. He asks Malkin if he thinks it was his sister and her baby he shot , and if so, wouldn’t that have been a good thing, for them to have been killed so quickly as opposed to the horrifying ways Eichmann saw others killed?

Ben Kingsley is very, very good as Adolph Eichmann, a man who refuses to stand trial in Israel because he knows there will only be one result, his death, and he believes that in order to receive a fair trial he should be tried in Germany. He also refuses to be the scapegoat for the sins of his former government, and he makes the argument that he was only following orders, just as Malkin is doing now.

At one point Eichmann tells Malkin that he actually tried to help many Jews escape, as he didn’t agree with his fellow Nazis’ solution for getting rid of the Jews. He believed they should have been relocated, and he in fact did relocate many of them, to which Malkin scoffs that he sent them to malaria-filled Madagascar. Eichmann replies that no other country would take the Jews.

It’s a subtle performance by Kingsley, yet it’s no less successful. He makes Eichmann a formidable  force to be reckoned with, and there is something icy cold and sinister underneath nearly every civil line he utters.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid. Lior Raz as Israeli agent Isser Harel, and Nick Kroll as fellow agent Rafi Eitan, and Michael Aronov as agent Zvi Aharoni are all convincing, as are the rest of the actors who round out the team, including Melanie Laurent as the sole woman of the group, Hanna Elian, tasked with drugging Eichmann during their escape.

I also enjoyed Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Hermann, the young Jewish woman whose relationship with Klaus Eichmann led to the capture of his father. Richardson is a promising young actress who has yet to land her break-out role. She’s been memorable in supporting performances in films like SPLIT (2016) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016). Her role here in OPERATION FINALE is again small, and she again makes an impression.

It was also fun to see Peter Strauss back on the big screen as Sylvia’s blind father Lothar. I think the last time I saw Strauss in a movie was the Johnny Depp thriller, NICK OF TIME (1995). Of course, Strauss mostly did TV work, bursting onto the scene eons ago in the highly popular mini series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976).

Director Chris Weitz’s straightforward unassuming style allows the story to unfold gradually and build towards a rather riveting conclusion.

The film does a good job of getting under your skin without blood and gore. For instance, the scene where the young mother raises her child to Eichmann is unnerving to watch even without the actual shootings occurring on-camera.

Weitz also directed THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON (2009), the second TWILIGHT movie. Needless to say, OPERATION FINALE is a much better movie than NEW MOON and should go a long way towards helping moviegoers forget that Weitz made that vampire clinker.

The scenes between Malkin and Eichmann are the best scenes in the movie, and they’re also the best written, thanks to a credible screenplay by Matthew Orton.

And while the screenplay doesn’t make Eichmann a sympathetic character, it does make him a three-dimensional one. We see him caring for his family, we catch glimpses of the cold psychological power he possesses, we experience his raw fear when first captured, and we are allowed to enter his calculating mind while he’s a prisoner.

Critics are not being overly kind to OPERATION FINALE, and that’s too bad, because it’s a solid well-made movie.

It works as both a historical piece, in that it’s a compelling tale of the capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, and as a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us of the importance of striking down fascism.

—END—

 

 

DARKEST HOUR (2017) – Gary Oldman Brings Winston Churchill to Life

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Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017)

It’s always darkest before the dawn.

And in England in May 1940, it sure was dark. The Nazis were poised to invade, and there seemed to be no viable solution other than surrender.

DARKEST HOUR (2017) chronicles Winston Churchill’s first few tumultuous days as England’s Prime Minister during this frightening time.

It’s the early days of World War II, and Hitler’s Nazi machine is stomping through Europe, and nations are falling like dominoes. The British leadership expresses zero confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) whose peace policies allowed Hitler to get this far undeterred. When Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is selected as his successor.

It’s a controversial choice as Churchill is not well-liked and is viewed with skepticism. He’s known to speak his mind, drinks daily, smokes a cigar, and is marred by his own controversial decision during World War I at Gallipoli which led to the deaths of thousands of troops. But he’s chosen for political purposes, as he’s the only candidate the opposition party would accept, or as he himself surmises, perhaps it’s his enemies’ way of getting back at him, putting him in power just as the nation is about to fall.

Churchill is under tremendous pressure. He views fighting back against Hitler as the only solution, and refuses to negotiate, but this position leaves him alone politically. Both Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the man who many believe should be prime minister, view surrender and a negotiated peace as the only hope for their nation, and they have the support of not only their party but of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who admits that he finds Churchill rather “scary.”

And with the entire British army trapped at Dunkirk, with no reasonable way to escape, it appears they are correct, and that Churchill has no other option than to surrender to Hitler.  But as we know, this is not what happened.  Churchill ordered a civilian fleet of small ships to mobilize and rescue the soldiers, something that was so outlandish it almost wasn’t done, but it was done, and nearly every British soldier was saved that day.

How Churchill withstood the massive political pressure to give in and how he somehow managed to get England to fight back is the incredible story told in DARKEST HOUR. And it’s one of those stories where if it wasn’t true, you probably wouldn’t believe it.

The main reason to see DARKEST HOUR is Gary Oldman’s phenomenal performance as Winston Churchill.  It’s as good as advertised.

Sure, the make-up department outdoes itself by transforming Oldman into the portly aged Churchill, but Oldman’s performance goes way beyond make-up. He captures not only Churchill’s eccentric personality and signature gait, but the unbelievable stress and pressure on the man, Oldman makes palpable.  He’s so effective that I found myself getting stressed out, just thinking about what Churchill was going through.

He so much wanted to fight, knowing that surrender would mean the nation would be at the mercy of a monster, Hitler, and yet, his position was seen by those in power as irresponsible. He was seen as a warmonger, someone who would get lots of people killed, when surrender would be a better option that would save lives.  And militarily his hands were tied.  When he tries to rally the French, he learns that they’ve already been beaten.  His own army, the entire army, is trapped without hope of escape at Dunkirk.

Oldman captures all of this emotion and completely brings Winston Churchill to life.

And of course, working behind make-up is nothing new for Oldman, who has made a living looking different in most of the movies he has appeared in over the years.

The rest of the film is a bit uneven. While it’s certainly interesting, it doesn’t reach out and grab you until its final emotional reel. Unlike Oldman, who’s locked in from the get-go, the rest of the film takes a while to get going.

For three-fourths of this movie, things are dark, dreary, and depressing, and it’s not until late in the film when the clouds of doom begin to lift.  There are several key scenes which effectively highlight the changing tide.  When King George realizes that he actually admires Churchill’s tenacity, and in a private meeting, when he whispers to Churchill that he has had a change of heart, that now “you have my support,” it’s one of the most satisfying rousing emotional moments in the movie.

The private conversation between Churchill and his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), where she tells him that it’s because of his flaws and his experience dealing with them that’s he ready and able to deal with this impossible situation now is equally as powerful, as is the moment when Churchill learns that his young secretary Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) brother has died at Dunkirk, and he marvels at the bravery in her face when she tells him.

And my favorite scene in the film is where Churchill decides to ride the subway and talk to the people, gauging their thoughts and feelings about what to do about the inevitable Nazi invasion. And of course they tell him in no uncertain terms that they want to fight.

It’s moments like these where the script by Anthony McCarten comes alive. Earlier though, the story is much more low-key as it details the politics of Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister.  And that’s what DARKEST HOUR is mostly about, the politics of the time. The story of how Churchill would go on to lead England to victory is not told here.  This is the story of the days leading up to the time when Churchill would become that leader.   These political scenes never resonated as well with me as the more emotional moments later in the film.

This is the third film to come out in 2017 to deal with the battle of Dunkirk.  There was Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which happened to be my favorite film of 2017, and the comedy drama THEIR FINEST, which told the lighthearted story of the making of a propaganda film about Dunkirk to help encourage the United States to join the war effort.  Of these three films, DARKEST HOUR is probably the least emotionally satisfying.

Director Joe Wright captures the look of World War II England brilliantly. The cars, the costumes, the sets, all bring this moment of history to life.  In terms of an entire captivating package, however, as I’ve said, it takes a while to get going.

Oldman is helped by a solid cast.  I particularly enjoyed the two female performances here.  Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Churchill’s wife Clemmie.  It’s Clemmie who’s constantly pushing her husband along, encouraging him when he’s consumed with self-doubt, and while at times it’s difficult to imagine her in love with such a cantankerous character like Churchill, the love they have for each other comes through loud and clear.

I liked Lily James just as much as Churchill’s very young secretary, Elizabeth Layton.  She seems to latch onto Churchill as a father or even grandfather figure, and she too constantly encourages him to continue to lead.

Stephen Dillane is particularly convincing as Viscount Halifax, seen here as the biggest thorn in Churchill’s side.  He’s the man who most in England wanted to be the new prime minister, and he knows it and wields his power accordingly.  He’s also the biggest proponent of peace talks, and it’s interesting because his take here is one that I think most rational people would agree with, while most would indeed view Churchill as a loose cannon.  It’s easy for us today to sympathize with Churchill because we know how cruel and crazy Hitler was, but back in 1940 the world didn’t know this. Halifax is also on the receiving end of Churchill’s memorable line in the movie, “Would you stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you!!!”

Likewise, Ronald Pickup makes for a weary and worn Neville Chamberlain.  And Ben Mendelsohn, who STAR WARS fans saw last year as the villainous Orson Krennic in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016), is superb as King George VI.  He’s one of the few characters to change during the movie, at first seeing Churchill as a poor excuse for a leader, but later viewing the Prime Minister in a new light, when his own feelings of anger towards Hitler surface, and he suddenly wants a leader who’s willing to fight for his nation.

DARKEST HOUR is exactly what its title says it is: the darkest hour for all of Europe. It was a moment in history when the face of Europe was about to change, when a dictator was on the verge of conquering it all, and when the odds against this happening seemed so slim that the entire United Kingdom stood ready to surrender it all.  And yet, that’s not what happened, due in large part to the leadership and decisions of one man, Winston Churchill.

DARKEST HOUR tells the story of how that man survived his darkest hour to emerge as that rallying leader.

And Gary Oldman, through a remarkable performance, brings this unlikely savior to life.

—END—

 

 

 

 

DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

—END—