Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 1-6, 2018

Favorite Movie of the Week

Dunkirk (2017)

I am a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work (InceptionInterstellar, Insomnia, The Prestige, the Dark Knight trilogy) so I was thrilled when I finally got to watch Dunkirk. I don’t know enough about world history, but I did read about the Dunkirk evacuation in the World War II history I read in 2016, and I was excited to watch a movie about something I already knew about instead of the other way around.

Dunkirk is about a near-miraculous evacuation of around 300,000 British, French, and other allied troops (representing a large portion of the armies of those countries) who had been trapped on the beaches of the city of Dunkirk by German forces. I thought a straight-up historical drama didn’t exactly seem like Christopher Nolan’s style and I was right. Dunkirk is told in three narratives, each with a different timeline: a week, a day, and an hour. This might sound confusing but the film organizes it well so it all makes sense. Other than technical merit, this was a cool way to tell the story because the different perspectives showed both the extensive planning and the urgency of the evacuation in a way that a single timeline would not be able to.

It’s a good war film; it throws you right into the mayhem and terror of battle and shows appropriate tragedy while leaving room for hope. It’s also emotionally gratifying (which I was worried about because Nolan’s movies focus on the intellectual) without being overly sentimental.

Other Movies Watched

The Right Stuff (1983)

I love everything to do with space and I’ve been wanting to watch this movie about the test pilots and astronauts of the earliest years of the American space program for a really long time. It is over 3 hours long, though, so it’s not a movie I’d watch on a weeknight.

The Right Stuff is the story of Project Mercury, the first American human spaceflight program. We start off with test pilot Chuck Yeager as he gets the chance to fly the experimental X-1 aircraft and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier. Fast forward a few years, Sputnik has just been launched and the United States decides to prioritize the space program and selects its first batch of astronauts from elite test pilots across the military.

Even though there is no single main character, all the pilots and astronauts have “the right stuff” – they are courageous risk-takers who can stay calm under pressure and can deal with the possibility of failing in full public view, and that theme of being larger than life almost seems like the protagonist. I’m not saying that all the characters seemed alike, in fact they all have fully fleshed out and distinct personalities (and so do their wives), but they all fit into the larger story that’s being told about the audacity of attempting human spaceflight. It is awe-inspiring (but that might just be the space nut in me). I bought the book this is based on immediately after the movie as well as a handful of other books about space.

Predator (1987)

I didn’t know that Predator was made by celebrated action movie director John McTiernan (The Hunt for Red OctoberDie HardLast Action Hero) or that it’s so critically acclaimed. My introduction to the universe was from watching the terrible Alien vs. Predator when it first came out and the Alien series always seemed so much more interesting because it’s set in space and in the future. I’m glad I finally got around to watching it though, because it is great.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the leader of a special forces team being hunted by a mysterious alien while on a mission to rescue a hostage from insurgents in a South American jungle. Like Alien, this is a monster movie that follows the standard formula of individual members of a group getting slowly picked off. But it is primarily an action movie; the protagonists are members of an elite military unit used to dealing with skilled enemies and the Predator is so terrifying because we see it outwit their defenses and precautions with ease. Ensemble casts in movies of this genre tend to be an unmemorable collection of archetypes but Predator is an exception; I can still remember most team members as I write this review more than four months after watching the movie. As you’d expect from a John McTiernan movie, the pacing is terrific and the tension never lets up. Highly recommended.

Tin Men (1987)

Tin Men is the second of director Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Films” (after Diner) set in mid-century Baltimore.  It’s a comedy about BB and Ernest, two aluminum-siding salesmen (played by Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito) who develop a rivalry and will stop at nothing to get one over the other guy. Meanwhile, their industry is changing rapidly around them as government cracks down on the scams they depend on to get new customers.

I thought this was just a comedy about the crazy lengths people will go to compete with each other (like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or The War of the Roses, reviewed below) and there is quite a bit of that, but at its heart Tin Men is focused on its characters. BB and Ernest are dealing with professional uncertainty and unsatisfactory personal lives and aren’t coping with them very well. Both DeVito and Dreyfuss have excellent comic timing but they also show you that their characters are ordinary people with messy lives that and that makes them relatable despite the extreme things they do sometimes. I didn’t expect the story to go where it did (especially the plot involving Ernest’s wife) but I was content with the results.

The War of the Roses (1989)

Contrary to what I thought at first, this is not a historical drama about the fifteenth century English civil war. It’s about a couple, Oliver and Barbara Rose, whose marriage falls apart and sparks a spectacular divorce battle in which each tries to cause the other as much misery as they possibly can.

The Roses are played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner who were outrageously delightful together in Romancing the Stone. Their chemistry serves them just as well here since they’re still reacting to each other with strong emotions and they completely sell not being able to stand the sight of the other person. Well, actually it’s a little more nuanced; Barbara really hates Oliver, but Oliver just doesn’t want Barbara to get the better of him (and that’s an important nuance because having different motivations adds depth to the characters). Danny DeVito (who was also in Romancing the Stone) both directs and plays a supporting character and he’s great at finding the humor in small details and making preposterous situations feel grounded (just like in Matilda).

Overboard (1987)

When a spoiled heiress suffers an accident that leaves her an amnesiac, a carpenter that she has recently cheated decides to take his revenge by convincing her that she is his wife and handing off responsibility for housekeeping and taking care of his four rambunctious children.

Obviously Overboard‘s premise is not realistic (and if it was, it would be a horror movie) and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Off-screen couple Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn (who play the two main characters) have chemistry and make this movie more than just another ridiculous comedy. There were a lot of funny and over-the-top scenes, but the moments of character growth (for both characters) were genuine and warm. It’s rare that a movie can strike that balance effectively.

I found out while writing this review that there’s a gender-swapped remake of Overboard coming out this year. I’m skeptical of it because I think the main reason the original movie worked is because of the actors, it would have been heartless and empty without them.

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