Dunkirk (2017)

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Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cllian Murphy, Tom Hardy

How many times can Chris outdo himself?

Life can deal you such cruel hands. I am the biggest Christopher Nolan fan so I’ve been excitedly awaiting Dunkirk ever since it was announced three years ago. I’ve been avoiding every trailer and every clip in fear of needless spoilers and have been savouring every review since its release. Now, almost one month after its release I have finally been able to see it! If it was any old film then I would’ve seen it on the day of its release, however this is a Christopher Nolan movie which means that it has to be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the full effect.

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So I took a trip up to London to catch Dunkirk on the BFI Imax, the biggest screen in England and I can safely say that it was worth the wait. Dunkirk is quite possibly the greatest cinema experience I have ever had, or at least the best since Interstellar which created similar immersive intensity in IMAX. But even without the gargantuan screen and crystal clear sound, Christopher Nolan has created not just the greatest war film ever but one of the greatest films of any genre. It is truly a one of a kind film, breaking all kinds of war movie conventions and doing things that have never been attempted in any film before it. Extraordinarily, Nolan has outdone himself once again.

Dunkirk is the equivalent of a cinematic pressure-cooker. From the moment the film begins, it’s put on high heat and it barely lets up for its entire 100 minute running time. The opening scene is sensational. We watch as a tragically young soldier picks up a leaflet depicting how British troops are surrounded by Germans. There’s an instant atmosphere of dread and panic which only intensifies when the first bullet explodes out of nowhere. We’re used to guns firing all the time in films. This is the first time the sound of a bullet has sent shivers up my spine. The noise is so loud and so sharp that I found myself jolting in my seat and for the first time in a war film, feeling the same sense of fear the soldiers on screen are feeling.

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The weight of the situation really hits hard. The idea that these people could die at any moment feels Earth-shatteringly real. This is largely down to Christopher Nolan’s directing which tries to squeeze as much realness and tension as possible out of everything. Long takes are used as well as very few CGI effects. The images feel so real that you almost forget that you’re watching something that was staged. There’s a moment near the beginning when a German plane flies over the troops and the roar of the engine matched with the fear in the soldier’s faces and the over-powering dreadful score make it one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever seen on film. When the bombs hit, it’s utterly devastating.

Unlike most war films, there isn’t a conventional or linear plot. There is no main character or much dialogue at all, instead the film is more interested in capturing the entire event of the Dunkirk evacuation. The main focus is on a story which presents a week of soldiers trying to survive on Dunkirk but there is also a more talky story which sees Mark Rylance taking his little boat out to Dunkirk to pick up some stranded troops as well as an almost dialogue-free story where Tom Hardy (face-covered again) has a go at shooting down enemy planes. It could have been messy but in the hands of Nolan these stories are expertly weaved and executed to perfection.

Unsurprisingly many audiences haven’t quite taken to the film. Average moviegoers expecting an ordinary film with characters you can root for are going to be disappointed. Dunkirk is pure cinema and is something that cannot be described or put into words, it’s something you simply have to experience and feel. It’s the reason why I love films and why I go to the cinema, to be taken on a journey. This is why I’m a fan of directors like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick whose works consistently provide an immersive escapism into another world. Dunkirk is exactly this. It’s a film which sweeps you along with it and completely immerses you in the world of the film.

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Whatever you look for in a film though, you can’t deny the technical mastery of Dunkirk. I mean no hyperbole when I say that Dunkirk features some of the most spectacular images I have ever seen in a film. Planes sweeping over oceans, thousands upon thousands of soldiers lining up on a dark beach, ships sinking and engulfing people in water. These are some of the most breath-taking and indelible visuals I have ever come across. However, there are also quieter moments which haunt my mind. An older soldier throwing himself into the ocean and a heart-breaking final montage which ends each story on a spine-tingling powerful note are just as spectacular as the monumental set-pieces.

Hans Zimmer also deserves a mention for providing yet again another remarkable score. Music always plays a big part in Nolan films, but in Dunkirk the music almost becomes another character. It’s often dark and brooding but also serves to ratchet up the tension with a constant ticking which adds to the nail-biting intensity. At times of relief though, it’s uplifting and gave me perhaps the biggest chills I’ve ever had whilst watching a movie.

Dunkirk is more than just a film; it’s a work of art. I can’t think of a more intense movie experience than this. By the time the film ended I felt shaken and adjusting to reality outside of the cinema was difficult. This is the first war film to actually drop you in the middle of the war. It’s definitely worth going to see on IMAX for the full experience, but it’s just as unmissable on your teeny weenie TV at home. Hopefully the Academy will now finally recognise Nolan for the incredible talent that he is after Interstellar was cruelly snubbed. Dunkirk is truly extraordinary.

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Full Metal Jacket (1987) [The Yellow Kubrick Road]

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Director: Stanley Kubrick

Stars: Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio

This ain’t no Mickey Mouse s@#!

I remember when I saw Full Metal Jacket for the first time. I must’ve been about fourteen or fifteen years old and decided to watch it when it was on late at night of a weekend. I remember being compelled by the first 40 minutes (although finding it slightly repetitive) and finding the rest of it completely boring and aimless. Fast forward five years later to present day and you’ll find me currently going through the whole of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography and sticking on Full Metal Jacket for a second time. Have my opinions changed? Yes they have.

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I no longer find the first 40 minutes repetitive. In fact, I think the first 40 minutes of Full Metal Jacket is one of the best things Stanley has ever created. The first 40 minutes are so strong that the rest of the film is unfortunately left in its shadow, but more on that in a bit. This half perfectly illustrates the conversion of human beings into cold, emotionless killers. Right from the off the recruits are stripped of their names and instead given labels. They’re all made to have the same hairstyle (or lack of), same clothes and shout only when shouted to. All of them even act like robots when training in unison. All except Private Pyle.

The story of Private Pyle’s descent into madness is one of the most memorable put on film. At first we find his physical and mental inabilities amusing with the electrifying Lee Ermey shouting hilarious insults at him and Pyle failing miserably at obstacle courses. However, as it progresses the constant bullying becomes incredibly disturbing. There’s a fantastically dark moment where all the private’s team together to beat Pyle late at night with some soap. In the end you can’t help but feel sympathy for him.

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It all accumulates to the most powerful moment in the film where Pyle goes totally insane in the toilet. Everything in this scene is flawless. The brooding music, Vincent D’Onofrio’s haunting performance, the lighting, and the directing. All of this makes for an incredibly atmospheric and frightening scene with a chilling pay-off which is both surprising and unforgettable. The trouble is, how can you follow this scene? The answer is, you can’t. So far the centre of the film has been the relationship between Vincent D’Onofrio and R Lee Ermey, thus with these characters gone a new film begins.

We’re plunged without warning into Vietnam, however unlike my fifteen year-old self, I actually didn’t find these parts boring. I just get frustrated because I’m not entirely sure what Stanley is trying to say. We sort of get little snapshots of life in Vietnam with Private Joker bobbing about and meeting folk. The film doesn’t really go anywhere, yet it still remains largely interesting, just nowhere near as interesting as the mesmerising first half. I did like the prostitute encounters though and thought they had a lot of interesting things to say about humanity.

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The film suddenly gets really good again when the team encounter a sniper. For Stanley Kubrick, it’s actually a fairly conventional war scene, albeit brilliantly done. It’s full of tension, remains gripping and feels very real. It’s incredible to think that the whole Vietnam sequences were filmed in London! Stanley then turns to his unusual self when the group encounter who the sniper is. It’s a very uncomfortable and haunting moment which results in the famous Mickey Mouse chant at the very end.

I’m not entirely sure what Full Metal Jacket is trying to say, but I’m sure that Stanley has popped in a load of horrendously clever hidden metaphors which still haven’t fully been worked out yet. The whole film is of course a visual feast with superb directing from Stanley. However, content-wise I don’t think it’s as strong as his previous Paths of Glory. Full Metal Jacket may be much better in the technical department, but it feels uneven. Joker is nowhere near as interesting as Pyle and so the film begins to sag in comparison. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film far more than when I first layed eyes upon it and will certainly be giving it some more watches!

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Brotherhood (2004)

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brotherhood poster Director: Je-kyu Kang Stars: Dong-gun Jang, Bin Won, Eun-ju Lee

Kicks Private Ryan’s arse!

When I slipped in the disc for Brotherhood I expected a really good war film. I didn’t expect to be sitting on the sofa with my eyes filled with tears by the end of it, and convinced that I’d just seen one of the very best war films ever. My love for Korean films is unabashed. Whilst Korean horror is what I go for most, I have also tried and loved some of their explosive thrillers like, The Man from Nowhere and A Bittersweet Life. War films aren’t really my thing though. My favourite war film is probably Inglorious Basterds, but even that isn’t really interested in showing us battle sequences. brotherhoods What’s fantastic about Brotherhood is that it puts its characters first. In fact, this is what the majority of Korean films tend to do and I think that’s the secret to their brilliance. With Brotherhood, I was gripped by every battle sequence because I cared about the people who were in them. It’s a real epic which spans across the entire length of the Korean War, as well as briefly showing us before and after events take place. If someone said to me ‘oh, this is a movie about the Korean War…’ I’d immediately switch off because war movies just don’t interest me. Brotherhood makes you interested right from the very start. The first half an hour is dedicated to events before the war. We see two fantastically likeable brothers who are devoted to their family. Some may find it overly sentimental, however for me it worked. I immediately cared about these characters and was totally gripped from when they’re whisked away to fight in the war. brotherhood The battle sequences are brilliantly intense to watch. The camera does shake a little too much for my liking, but it’s really not that much of a distraction. They’re intense because you care about what’s going to happen to the characters. When a comrade dies you almost feels as much pain as the other characters do. The special effects are also very convincing (apart from the shoddy CGI planes towards the end) and manage to put you right there in the firing line. What’s most interesting though is watching the two brothers slowly grow apart from each other. At its heart, Brotherhood is a tragedy. One brother turns into a cold-hearted and ruthless leader, whilst the other remains compassionate. This arc is done gradually and realistically throughout the film and it’s what keeps the film so emotional and absorbing. The ruthless brother could’ve easily come across as a caricature, but thanks to the fantastic writing and acting we’re left with convincing character development and remain involved with the character. Various shocking events unfold which have the power to move, however it’s the relentlessly melodramatic final twenty minutes which really hit hard. Again, many will find this finale too melodramatic and sentimental, but for me it totally worked.

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I’m not one to cry in films (the only ones I’ve shed tears for are Dancer in the Dark and Amour) however, there are several moments towards the end where I had tears REALLY filling up in my eyes. It’s incredibly emotional and ultimately powerful. Brotherhood isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a damn near one. I was never bored for a minute of its hefty 140 minute runtime. I cannot urge people enough to check this out, even if (like me) you aren’t into war films. At its core it’s a character-driven tragedy with the Korean War used as a mere backdrop. It’s ten times better than Saving Private Ryan and if you aren’t moved by the time it’s over then you truly do have a heart of stone. Brotherhood is a spectacular triumph which needs to be watched for its sheer emotional power. nine-out-of-ten

Paths of Glory (1957) [The Yellow Kubrick Road]

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Director: Stanley Kubrick

Stars: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou

Stanley’s first moment of glory

Paths of Glory is a World War 1 film with a difference. It’s less concerned with the actual trench warfare and more concerned with the sadism found in higher ranking officers. It’s clear that Stanley isn’t a fan of war, so it may be a little biased, but it is based on a true story and Stanley handles it absolutely beautifully!

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After the limp Killer’s Kiss and entertaining, The Killing, Paths of Glory is Stanley’s first truly great film. You can see his directing style really shine here with the fantastic tracking shots and wide angles. If you look at most films from the 50’s you’ll find that the camera barely moves. Here, the camera is always on the move which is partly why the film still holds up so well today.

It’s the type of film which makes your blood boil. There is no conventional happy ending, the entire film is on the road to tragedy. There are several brilliant scenes which stand the test of time including the storming of the Ant Hill, which adds a kind of surreal grace to a scene full of ugliness and intensity. Another great scene is the infuriating kangaroo court where Kirk Douglas hopelessly tries to defend the ‘cowardly’ soldiers.

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The most memorable moments are probably the final two scenes though. The first one features a long and melodramatic walk to the firing line. There’s obvious religious imagery here and it’s handled magnificently. The last scene is the famous moment in the bar where Stanley’s beautiful wife takes the stage and gets a bunch of rowdy soldiers to hum in unison. It’s a weirdly moving moment to end on.

I’m not a particular fan of war films, but Paths of Glory has to be one of the best out there. It has a terrific story to tell and it’s one which will anger and sadden you. It’s superbly acted and directed too. Some say that it’s Stanley Kubrick’s best film. I’d disagree with that statement, but I can see where these people are coming from. It definitely has to be his most emotional and moving film.

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