Posted on August 31, 2020 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, chases, explosions, weapons of mass and total destruction, torture
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is like a three-dimensional chess game. The storyline is mind-bendingly intricate, with thought-provoking fantasy and juicy twists. But the characters are never more than one-dimensional, like the pawns, rooks, and bishops on the chess board, their sole defining characteristics are the way they look and move. The brilliantly-staged action sequences punctuate a muddled story-line with under-written characters and — its biggest failing, a boring bad guy.

The story’s leading man does not have a name. In the most eye-rolling cognomen since M. Night Shyamalan dubbed his muse-like character in “Lady in the Water” “Story,” our hero is known only as Protagonist. He even insists, “I am the protagonist!” a couple of times, so it seems to be more than a name. Fortunately for the movie and the audience, Protagonist is played by the infinitely engaging John David Washington (“BlackKklansman”) who brings so much grace and charm to the role we forget how under-written his character is. He conveys with a gleam in his eye and a shift of his shoulders more than any line of dialogue in the script.

The opening scene is a stunner. We are brought into the most civilized of environments, a concert hall, with an audience rustling in anticipation of a symphony orchestra performance. And then suddenly, it turns into the most uncivilized of situations, with terrorists breaking in to, well, we do not know exactly what, except that they are clearly combat-trained and equipped and ruthless. They carry an assortment of international law enforcement patches so they can select whichever one is right for the moment. Nolan expertly conveys the contrast between the control of the terrorists and the chaos they create.

Protagonist is one of the guys in combat gear, and he seems to be, maybe, a good guy? There to extract some dignitary? Anyway, he is soon put in a position where he must decide whether to allow himself to be tortured into giving up information or commit suicide with a cyanide capsule. He chooses the capsule, and wakes up in a hospital room. It was a test of whether he was all in. He passed.

And now he has a new assignment, the darkest of dark ops, and the direst of end-of-times consequences if he does not succeed. Even if I wanted to spoil it, I really couldn’t, as it is pretty murky, but basically someone has figured out how to make time go backward and that is very, very bad, especially if — say it with me — it gets into the wrong hands. He gets some help from Michael Caine, with one brief scene keeping his record of appearing in Christopher Nolan films going. And he gets some more from a charmingly raffish guy named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who always seems to be smiling about some delicious secret. (SPOILER ALERT: He is.) Note: compliments to costume designer Jeffrey Kurland for gorgeous suits, in the words of Dorothy L. Sayers, “tailored to the swooning point.”

Enter the bad guy, who seems to be a character from another movie, like a shlocky Bond rip-off. Kenneth Branagh plays Andrei Sator, an expat Russian oligarch, international arms dealer, and all-around sadist. His estranged wife is the elegant art dealer Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And if that isn’t an overused enough character sketch, there’s this: he enjoys blackmailing and manipulating her by threatening to keep her away from their young son. Protagonist is just the kind of cowboy to want to save the day for her while he’s saving the world.

There’s a highway chase with some vehicles going forward in time and some backward that is a wow and a half. But it is a combination of too much (nearly 2 1/2 hours long, with so many McGuffins to retrieve I thought I was back with Harry Potter and the horcruxes), too little (I’m not sure the backwards time thing all fits together — maybe there will be some charts online from fans who are willing to sit through it four or five times to figure it out), and the complete mess that is the Sator character, who not only is an under-imagined cliche but on top of everything else not only suffers from explaining bad guy syndrome but actually is so committed to going into detail about what he is doing that he actually gets on the phone to make sure he provides even more. Murky as it all is, it gets even murkier because of some muffled sound when people are speaking, especially when part of the whole backwards time thing for some reason have to have oxygen masks over their faces.

“Don’t try to understand it,” one character tells another. The best way to enjoy this movie is to follow that advice.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and occasionally graphic peril and violence with international arms dealers, guns, bombs, explosions, chases, torture, and terrorism. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Why does the main character insist that he is the protagonist? Which twist surprised you most? Were there clues you missed?

If you like this, try: “Edge of Tomorrow”

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Drama Movies -- format


Posted on July 20, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence, guns, bombs, some disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” inspires the most unexpected adjectives for the true story of one of the defining moments of World War II, the rescue operation that saved more than 300,000 men and that defined the resolve of the Allied forces and, even more, of the civilians they were fighting for. You do not expect a war movie to be elegant, intimate, spare in story and dialogue, but this one is. There is almost no exposition or technical talk. It is also spectacularly, heartbreakingly beautiful, with breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography by “Intersteller’s” Hoyte Van Hoytema. And Hans Zimmer’s score is stunning, with a ticking clock (Nolan’s own pocketwatch), propulsive, elegiac, magisterial. You expect a big movie to be packed with stars. But Nolan cast unknown young actors in central roles and major stars in smaller parts.

This is not the usual historical epic.  It is more poem than prose, more experience than narrative.

As the movie briefly reminds us, the German army had pushed the French and British Allies to the coast. It looked like defeat. Through the eyes of one very young soldier who looks almost indistinguishable from the 400,000 others, we see the chaos and terror, shots coming from nowhere (the sound department deserves an award for the visceral noise of the guns), no one in charge. Nolan makes it clear without overdoing it that war is not just hell; it is the chum of sending millions of boys into a meat grinder.

He makes it to the beach where we see the scope and scale, thousands of soldiers standing in line for ships that are not coming.

Nolan has a masterful control of the story in three different strands, operating over different time periods. The great miracle of Dunkirk was the more than 800 small private boats that crossed the English Channel to bring the soldiers home. They are represented here by the invaluable Mark Rylance, representing the essence of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” He sets off with his teenage son and a young friend. That happens over a day. Taking place in just hours, pilots take off to provide support, warned to be mindful of their fuel and make sure they leave enough to get home. And then there are those on the beach, the Army and Navy officers (James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh), who know too well the endless triage of war strategy, and the soldiers trying to stay alive. The details are beautifully precise, a nurse handing exhausted soldiers tea, the look in the eye of a soldier trying to decide whether to doom one man to save the lives of dozens, or in the eye of another watching helplessly as a fellow soldier, in despair, walks into the water.

History is written by the victors, according to Winston Churchill, the then brand-new British Prime Minister whose famously inspiring words of determination are read aloud by a soldier at the end of the film. An historian himself, he was of course right. From some perspectives, this story was a loss, not a victory. But ultimately, history is written by the survivors, decades, even centuries later. Nolan’s film could only have been made by a cinema master with the perspective of time and all the history since, and we are fortunate to be here when he did.

NOTE: Nolan, director of the “Dark Knight” films, cast two of his Batman villains in this film, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. Those who appreciate what he did with time here will also enjoy his films “Inception” and “Memento.”

Parents should know that this is a wartime story based on historic events with guns and bombs. Characters are injured and killed. A soldier commits suicide and another sacrifices himself to save others. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Why were the soldiers surprised by the way their evacuation was seen by the British people? Who should decide who has to leave the ship?

If you like this, try: the 1958 film, also called “Dunkirk,” starring John Mills, Richard Attenborough, and Bernard Lee, 2017’s WWII drama “Their Finest,” which includes a depiction of a propaganda film about the Dunkirk rescue, and the upcoming “Churchill”

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Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review War

Dunkirk: The Real Story

Posted on July 18, 2017 at 10:02 pm

Dunkirk was in most ways a loss, the Allies driven by the enemy to the shore and trapped there to be picked off. But it became a moral and morale victory that has resonated for nearly seventy years. It is featured in two films this year. “Their Finest” depicts a fictionalized version of the WWII propaganda operation that selected the rescue at Dunkirk as ideal for reassuring the British civilians. And Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a gorgeously filmed re-telling that is grand in scope but intimate in focus. While some of the details and characters are imagined, the overall story is true.

To learn more about the real story of the heroic evacuation of more than 300,000 men, watch some of the documentaries about the rescue operation.

And read The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord.

Here is then-new Prime Minister Winston Churchill giving one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century after Dunkirk.

Never surrender!

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The Real Story


Posted on November 5, 2014 at 8:55 am

Copyright Relativity Media 2014
Copyright Relativity Media 2014

Writer/director Christopher Nolan takes on literally cosmic issues with “Interstellar.” It is an ambitious, provocative, thoughtful, and highly entertaining film that deals with, well, pretty much everything, and, all things considered (believe me, ALL things are considered), it holds together very well.

It’s the near future and some blight has turned humans from progressive, curious, and optimistic to beaten down, hopeless, close to desperate. “We once looked up to the stars and dreamed,” says Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). “Now we look down to the dirt and worry.” Cooper was once an engineer at NASA. Now, like most people left, he is a farmer, struggling to grow crops in a world that has turned into a dustbowl, with plant species dying off until all that is left is corn. Cooper is a widower with two children, teenaged Tom and 10-year-old Murphy, and they live with his father-in-law (John Lithgow). The earth is not all that has been blighted. It is a post-enlightenment society scrambling for “caretaking,” with no intellectual aspirations or opportunities. Cooper’s wife died because medical technology and expertise that was once available no longer exists. And he is called into school because Murphy is in trouble for insisting that Americans once landed on the moon. That never happened, Murphy’s teacher explains a little impatiently. That was just a clever ruse to bankrupt the Soviet Union. The clear implication is that this revisionist history is itself a clever ruse to prevent young people from developing an interest in science that human society no longer believes has any value when the only possibility of survival is to return to the cultural norms of a thousand years ago, when most of human endeavor was devoted to making food. We do not know why the idea that science might be of aid in solving the food production crisis is no longer of interest. A comment by one person that greed created problems may be a clue.

Murphy insists that she is getting messages from a ghost who throws books off the shelf in her bedroom. When Cooper investigates, it appears to be an anomaly of some kind, a gravitational singularity, a message. The “ghost’s” message points to a location. When Cooper goes there, Murphy stows away in the car. It turns out to be a secret NASA facility led by Dr. Brand (Michael Caine). They have concluded that Earth can no longer sustain human life. They have sent out rocket probes to find an alternate planet that can sustain human life. Plan A is to be able to transport Earth’s inhabitants to a new location. The project is called Lazarus. Plan B, if no one alive can be saved, is to transport fertilized eggs to the new location and begin again, a new Genesis. They want Cooper to pilot the ship.

And this sets up the central conflict of the story. It is only secondarily about whether humans can, will, or should continue as a species and culture. The primary concern is the relationship between Cooper and Murphy. He wants more than anything in the world to stay with her and watch her grow up. But he knows his participation is critical to the mission — no one else going has ever actually flown before — and if the mission fails, Murphy’s generation will be the last. In a wrenching scene, Cooper has to leave while Murphy is furious and hurt. He promises he will come back. Parent-child relationships and especially promises broken and kept, echo throughout the storyline.

Dr. Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway) is on the crew and the trip into space leads to some mind-bending conversations about cosmology, including wormholes, black holes, and why an hour on one planet can translate into seven years for the occupants of the spaceship circulating above. The visual effects (all built or “practical” effects, no digital/green screen) are stunning.

The storyline also provides an opportunity for extremely complex and difficult moral choices, as the crew has to make decisions based on very limited information and even more limited time.  The broad sweep of themes means that some choices work better than others.  The ending seems rushed and not entirely thought through. Cutting back and forth between scenes in outer space and back on earth during one passage goes on too long, and one mention of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem would be plenty.  A detour involving an unbilled actor with an almost-unforgivably on-the-nose character name is particularly poorly conceived.  But even that scene is so visually striking that it barely registers as a diversion.  And overall, the film’s willingness to place the biggest questions in the grand sweep of the universe is absorbing and it is impossible not to be moved by it.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of environmental devastation and potential human extinction, sci-fi-style peril and violence, sad deaths of parents and children, attempted murder, characters injured and killed, and a few bad words.

Family discussion: Why did the school insist that the moon landing was faked and what does that tell us about this society? What should the crew have considered in deciding which planet to try?

If you like this, try: “2001,” “Silent Running,” and “Inception”

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Action/Adventure Science-Fiction
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