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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film about the 1940 evacuation of allied troops from Dunkirk is one of the great visual cinematic spectacles of the 21st century—and for that, he should be applauded.

Unfortunately, some of his scripting and editing decisions take away from the effectiveness of his movie. In a strange way, this is one of his least-successful films. We are talking about the guy who made Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Inception, Insomnia and Memento. All of those are great films—and better films than Dunkirk.

Still, Dunkirk is a good movie, and an occasionally astounding one if you manage to see it on an IMAX screen, either at the Regal Rancho Mirage or elsewhere. Nolan shot on film, with all scenes intended for IMAX; add in some incredible soundtrack work by Hans Zimmer, and the movie begs to be seen in theaters—even if the experience is a bit empty in some ways.

Nolan, who also wrote the sparsely worded screenplay, makes the film in three parts. One part is the events on the beach, which take place over a week. The second part is the evacuation at sea, which unfolds in a day. The third is the battle in the air, which covers an hour’s worth of events. The film jumps from one timeline to the next, often abruptly, with the stories ultimately interconnecting. Any Nolan fan knows that he loves to make his movies in complicated ways involving time (Memento being a prime example), and the director himself has called Dunkirk his most experimental yet. Nolan is out to prove that you can cut away from a harrowing ship-sinking sequence to an also-harrowing battle sequence in the air—and maintain the tension all along. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pull off the stunt every time. There are moments when he cuts away to another timeline that I found frustrating and unnecessary. It feels like a director being a little too cute.

I know, I know: Nolan is trying to show how hectic, crazy and unilaterally nuts the whole situation was, with each battle and predicament being equally terrible. That sort of thing goes without saying: Soldiers and civilians were put through all kinds of hell, with one terrible occurrence after another. But Nolan’s experimentation comes at the expense of good, clean, straightforward filmmaking. So far, his movie-puzzle games work better with fiction than they do with real life events.

Mark Rylance plays the captain of a private boat on his way to rescue men from Dunkirk, while Cillian Murphy is a shell-shocked ship-sinking survivor; they provide the main performances in the “sea” portion of the movie, and they offer up the film’s best acting. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles play soldiers on the beach—and let it be said that One Direction’s Styles is a natural onscreen. Tom Hardy, his face once again covered by a mask in a Nolan film, plays one of the fighter pilots, while Kenneth Branagh is on hand as Commander Bolton, overseeing the evacuation on land.

Zimmer’s soundtrack, which utilizes a ticking stopwatch, manages to ratchet up the tension and deliver some glorious notes. In many ways, it’s the glue that holds the whole enterprise together.

Nolan decided to use real ships, planes and sets rather than relying on CGI. In many ways, this gives Dunkirk the epic visual scope that is missing in many high definition, CGI-heavy efforts. This looks and feels like a real movie.

By all means, go see Dunkirk while it is in theaters. It’s certainly a good workout for the eyes and ears, and enough of the moments resonate to make the movie worthwhile. Just be prepared to feel slightly let down if you are thinking this is going to be Nolan’s best, or one of the year’s best films.

Dunkirk is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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Bullets whiz, whistle and rip with a darkly comic ferocity in Free Fire, the latest from super-talented English director Ben Wheatley.

Wheatley has quietly been establishing himself as a solid indie director of action and horror, with obscure gems like Sightseers, High-Rise and A Field in England, along with one of the better installments in the horror anthology The ABCs of Death. With Free Fire, Wheatley gets to employ his action-directing prowess—while showing he can handle sharp dialogue and great acting.

He’s working with his biggest cast yet, which includes an Oscar winner in Brie Larson, as well as Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Sharlto Copley. The film is co-produced by Martin Scorsese; the setup sounds like the sort of movie he should be making.

That setup: Two groups come together in a deserted Boston warehouse sometime in 1978. Things go awry, and the whole movie becomes one elongated shootout in which everybody is taking bullets; the losers will easily outnumber the winners.

The movie is a blast, thanks in large part to Wheatley’s staging of the event, and the actors (especially Hammer) taking it to great heights. There’s some mystery involved in the payoff, but it’s secondary to the action, which is appropriately disorienting at times. I couldn’t always tell who was shooting whom, but this works for the movie.

Throw in an extremely well-placed John Denver song, and you have what amounts to a solid, eccentric step in the evolution of Wheatley—a white-hot director who is just getting started.

Free Fire is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 and (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

There have been a lot of Moby-Dick adaptations over the years, the best one being the bizarre John Huston version with Gregory Peck going bonkers as Ahab.

There is just no need for another take on the Herman Melville classic right now. Strange, then, that somebody with a lot of money thought there was the need for a movie about the actual events upon which the classic novel was based.

In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the Essex, an actual whale ship out of Nantucket, Mass., that was sunk by a whale in 1820. The alleged culprit of the sinking was a sperm whale (like Moby), and the sinking resulted in many days on lifeboats for the surviving crew—as well as some cannibalism.

Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex. The crew includes Tom Holland as Thomas Nickerson (Hey, it’s Thor and Spider-Man together!), Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow!) as the resident recovering alcoholic, and Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln!) as Captain Pollard—all people who actually existed. However, the story in the film goes way off the real-life script.

In Ron Howard’s film, the whale that did the sinking pulls a sort of Jaws: The Revenge thing and follows the survivors as they float aimlessly in the sea. Chase, who published a true account of the tragedy back in 1821, goes a little crazy here, believing a sperm whale, spotted with white blotches, is out to get him.

That never happened, of course. Yes, a whale sank the ship, and yes, some crewmembers became lunch. No, the whale didn’t follow the survivors and taunt them. It busted up the Essex and then disappeared into the sea for some plankton and leisurely swimming. That’s too boring, so the second half of the movie involves starving men trying to evade a vengeful whale. A whale movie hasn’t been this stupid since Richard Harris pissed off a killer whale in Orca.

This film has the odd framing device of Moby-Dick novelist Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing an older Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who is telling the story of the Essex as if it had never been told previously. In reality, the story had gotten out long before—such as in Chase’s aforementioned published account. The whole revelatory framing device rings false.

“Stupid” and “nonsensical” (read: whales with vendettas) can be forgiven in an action movie as long as the effects are up to snuff. Such is not the case with Sea. The whale that eventually attacks the Essex is not a convincing entity. It looks like Hemsworth is battling the product of many artists who just couldn’t get things quite right. The blend of live and animated performers is just awful, as are the 3-D effects, if you should be so unfortunate as to have laid out the extra dollars for 3-D.

Hemsworth fares better than he did in the awful Blackhat, but I have no idea what accent he’s trying to use. Is it a Massachusetts accent? Or Hungarian? Klingon?

Holland, a fine actor who was excellent in The Impossible, is tasked with looking scared and hungry, which he does admirably. He essentially has the Jamie Bell role from King Kong, that of the young “golly gosh” novice who has gotten himself into a harrowing nautical situation. They look very much alike.

Howard has made a lot of movies, and this is one of his worst, on the bottom of the pile along with The Dilemma and The Da Vinci Code. Regrettably, his next effort will be a second sequel to Code—dimming his chances of rebounding from this waterlogged dreck.

In the Heart of the Sea is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Those hoping that Johnny Depp’s latest film would make up for that dick move he made by playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger are watching their hopes get dashed upon the rocks and swept out to sea: Transcendence is terrible.

This is another one of those “technology is evil” movies that suggest humans are slaves to computers. That may very well be true (I, for one, have been sitting at my damn computer all day), but movies haven’t really gotten evil computers right since 2001: A Space Odyssey and WarGames.

Depp plays Will Caster, a seemingly mild-mannered scientist who is mapping out brains in hopes of creating a self-learning, artificial-intelligence program capable of emotional growth. However, a terrorist organization grazes him with a radiation-laced bullet, and he finds out he only has a few weeks to live. Therefore, it’s time to speed up his work and get his brain into a computer so he can keep hanging out with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), after his body is dead.

Will dies, and he does, in fact, get himself uploaded into a computer. He immediately starts asking for more power, along with access to the stock market and banks—actions that seem to clash with the nice guy he was when alive. Evelyn, acting upon instructions from Computer Will, buys up a small town and starts rebuilding it with money made through shrewd, fast investing in the stock markets.

Caster then builds an army of humans that act like robots, because he’s healed them with computers and made them super strong … or some crap like that. It all makes little sense. Even worse: While Caster is portrayed as an out-of-control egomaniac during most of the film, the screenplay pusses out in the end and tries to partially redeem him. It fails miserably.

Morgan Freeman is here, because the script called for a sympathetic type to rise up against Will Caster and hopefully save humanity. Cillian Murphy shows up as a crime investigator type who gets to run around with Morgan Freeman and look concerned. Murphy actually looks as if he’s angry to be in this movie, knowing that his part is worthless.

I paid the big bucks to watch this goofy crap on IMAX, and there is really no reason to see the film in this way. Not only does the film suck as far as content is concerned; the visuals and audio don’t benefit from being turned up to extremes. Only the preview for Godzilla was pleasing on this particular IMAX visit.

Starting with The Tourist and Alice in Wonderland, Depp’s garbage-movie ratio has been on the rise. He made stinkers before (The Brave, The Astronaut’s Wife), but it seemed like he was at least trying to do something different when he screwed up. Depp is now a big commercial commodity with the Pirates movies and his dopey Mad Hatter character; sequels for both of those franchises are in production, so we know Depp will have plenty of money in the bank. It would be nice to see some more experimental, low-budget stuff to go with those excremental behemoths. Actually, a big-budget offering with a decent script and some edge would be nice, too.

Depp will always be a great actor. Heck, he even has moments in Transcendence in which he transcends the trite material and shines for a bit. I’m hoping these last four years are just a hiccup for him, and he gets back on track. Johnny Depp: Please call Scorsese, Wes Anderson or Tarantino and remind the world that you are not all about the big paycheck.

Transcendence is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews