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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Mrs. Hawkins was my fifth grade teacher. She wore long skirts and horn-rimmed glasses. In every way, the elementary schoolmarm. I was 10-years old. At this age we form our perceptions of the world and values. When the normally deadpan Mrs. Hawkins spoke of the Battle of Dunkirk she became animated. She orated about the desperation, the fear, the heroism.

I don’t remember anything else from 5th grade or Mrs. Hawkins. I only remember her animated recounting of the Battle of Dunkirk. I was captivated.

For those thin on history, The Battle of Dunkirk was a terrifying turning point when the world began to believe Nazi Germany could not be stopped. Hitler’s army drove the free French and British to the coastal northern border of France. They had no more land to retreat to. They were trapped and likely to be rounded up in a humiliating rout, or annihilated as the Blitzkrieg, Hitler’s “lightning war”, rolled north. The implication was clear: Britain was next.

Boyhood recollections are frail and nuanced things. Would this movie honor my recollections of Mrs. Hawkins’ theatrical oration from way back in 1972 about the horrors and heroism of Dunkirk?

I remember my teacher’s recounting of The Battle of Dunkirk as a grainy black and white photo from a history filmstrip.

The Battle of Dunkirk is a uniquely British drama. Men were reserved and dignified in stoic heroism. They wore wool uniforms and held tightly to military conventions. Leaders were leaders and foot soldiers were resigned to their often-drudgerious life as ground-pounding order-takers. There were heroes in every rank, every role, but the most gallant flew the Spitfires and Hurricanes above the bloody sacrifice of land battle.

That was how I pictured Dunkirk: a tragic epic on the scale of Greek mythology. I did not want that boyhood impression sullied by some poorly executed, fast-cut, CGI remake of “Saving Private Ryan” that relied on shock and gore to impress.

Director Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” honored my boyhood impression as though it were a beautiful, lyrical poem recited by a Shakespearean actor in a quiet theater setting.

In every way, “Dunkirk” is perfect.

Tense and deeply stylized, Writer and Director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” adds a new level of sophistication to the war movie genre and a creative new way to depict the enormity and horror of war.

Beyond its theatrical depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk in grey, somber visual and musical tones, “Dunkirk” also pays homage to the British resolve that saved the nation. Every person in England during WWII could be regarded as a guardian of freedom, unlikely heroes rising to confront the terror of war.

In “Dunkirk”, actor Mark Rylance who plays “Mr. Dawson”, is all of Great Britain. His character, and those of his sons, defines “Keep Calm and Carry On”. He also exemplifies adherence to tradition and dignity that makes Britain great. Rylance’s performance carries a significant amount of the weight in “Dunkirk”.

“Dunkirk” is completely unlike any war film, and perhaps epitomizes an elegant transition in film making to a new visual and audio feel. The film strikes an optimal balance between flow, image, sound and dialogue. The haunting soundtrack of Hans Zimmer, whom you know from the masterful score of “Blackhawk Down” and “Gladiator”, adds additionally sensory experience to the story. Its effect is trance-like and poetic, as I remember my teacher’s glassy-eyed account of the battle. With the measured use of editing the film flows beautifully, no small accomplishment in this era of movie making.

More importantly than just seeing “Dunkirk”, it is worth studying not only as a historically inspired based-on-fact accounting, but also a masterful new direction and flavor of filmmaking.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

You won’t find a bad review about the beautiful film-meditation “Kedi” and rightfully so. Director Ceyda Torun built a dream-like soft documentary stitched together from several storylines, and it fits and flows with elegance and mirth.

This is a kind, gentle and soothing meditation about our relationship with cats and, by proxy, with each other as humans. It identifies something good and meaningful in every person, and every animal, and celebrates it through the reverent monologues of the human supporting cast of the film as they pay homage to the roaming cat population of Istanbul, Turkey.

Kedi is a long time coming, a movie that will likely enjoy decent commercial success with the rise of cat prominence via social media. In an era of increasing social divisiveness posting a photo of a cat to your social media is the modern equivalent of talking about the weather. Everyone can relate, no one is alienated. And that is where Kedi begins, with the universal and oftentimes unspoken confession that we are more connected to our animals than we will sometimes openly admit.

Whether you are a “cat person” or not, Kedi is visually luxurious, a transparent travelogue through Istanbul and an examination of the reality that good is to be found in nearly everyone. Kedi reveals an intimacy in our relationship with animals I’ve never seen in film before, and that is uniting. It is something we need to hear.

A worrisome plot boils under the glowing surface of Kedi, the brief mention of expansion and modernization that threatens both the indigenous stray cat population supported by the citizenry, and also threatens this entire gentle culture, both human and animal. It’s ominous but not obnoxious, and mostly this film is charming, but this inference is unsettling. But that is a story for another documentary. As for this one, you may relax and enjoy this beautiful meditation.

Cat lover or not, Kedi is intrinsic and well made. It is worth seeking out. If you are a cat lover, then this film is an anthem and an ode to why we worship and cherish these perfect, gentle, beautiful animal-lords of our world who are so generous to include us in their lives.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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Concussion is a knockout that will leave you dizzy from the impact of a movie done so well it is destined for Academy Award greatness.

Director Peter Landesman may have been the only person capable of bringing this incredible drama and great American story to the screen then making it leap into your lap with such rapt pacing and skillful storytelling that you can never look away. In every way Concussion is masterpiece storytelling.

Will Smith and Alec Baldwin may have achieved their greatest roles ever in this important film that showcases the frightening risk of head injuries in professional American football.

The true story traces main character Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian born academic and forensic pathologist with a north-pointing arrow for doing the right thing. His intellect and crusade for the truth are pitted against big American football’s establishment. The result is just like the skull-scrambling impact of players colliding after the ball is snapped.

Concussion masters the difficult art of pacing and dialogue. Simply filmed but opulently cast the movie hits the screen running and never backs off. I am not a football fan nor do I know much about the game, but the insights bring you into a drama turned sports story interwoven with detective thriller and sprinkled in romance that you won’t find in any galaxy far away.

This is the opening that should have set records over the holiday movie season.

There are so many significant and relevant dimensions to the film it is almost too much for one sitting but because of its subtle and precise delivery combined with perfect pacing it is deep, rich but digestible.

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The real Dr. Bennet Omalu.

One of the most significant features of the story is the starring role that education plays in the true story and the way it is featured in the movie. While sports drama create synthetic heroes dramatized in the guttural ethos of sucking-it-up Concussion celebrates education, determination and a dedication to virtue and truth.

We need a hundred more movies that celebrate virtue and education emanating from real life.

Don’t miss Concussion. It is a brain-swelling impact on the traditionally fluffy holiday film season that hits hard out of left field and will leave your ears ringing.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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The 24th film in Ian Fleming’s landmark James Bond series, SPECTRE, is a different Bond movie influenced heavily by recent success in comic book story lines. The theme turns internal, a struggle between characters from previous Bond films. In doing so, it is interesting for lifelong Bond fans, but a let-down overall.

SPECTRE is not a typical Bond film; James Bond does not save the world from anything. He merely saves his job from a bad boss, and in deviating from the sweeping, template-style plot of James Bond saving the world from some type of annihilation the enormity of the Bond franchise is lost. Everyone has had to save a job from the influence of a rotten boss. Few of us have saved the world from annihilation. SPECTRE could have been a remake of Office Space, but with guns and sports cars.

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Director Sam Mendes is only the second director to oversee two Bond films, but his understanding and reverence for the franchise are clear in the visuals, authentic feeling stunts and pacing. Mendes understands the true Bond character as Ian Fleming envisioned him; dark at times, understated, capable but vulnerable. It is a decent characterization of the fabled super-spy personality ever man aspires to. But SPECTRE breaks down because of this. Bond is just a guy with job problems in SPECTRE.

SPECTRE is a visually flawless film with masterfully executed scenes; beautiful cuts and soundtrack integration that make it flow at a pace that seems impossible. The lighting, coloration and mise en scene, that ephemeral and difficult to achieve visual quality that makes a movie seem like a dream, are all utter perfection. You can enjoy it as a travelogue. And hold your breath- you’ll need it- for the train scene when Dr. Madeleine Swan emerges for dinner in a long, ivory gown that defies the laws of physics. It’s the best part of the movie.

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For lifelong Bond fans there is plenty to dig your teeth into though. The opening scene is an ode to several Bond films, the Junkanoo scene from the 1965 Bond high-mark, Thunderball. The helicopter fight is a tribute to Bond fighting outside a helicopter in the 1981 For Your Eyes Only. The beautiful cross-country train trip and incendiary make-out scene with Dr. Madeleine Swann takes us straight back to From Russia With Love.

So, SPECTRE is a reunion of sorts, a James Bond old-home week. It doesn’t stand alone well on its own, and the plot is underwhelming. I left the theatre hoping that the current production staff might have the courage to remake Thunderball rather than try to involve us in office politics with guns.

By Tom Demerly.

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Matt Damon as Mark Watney comes to grips with a bleak landscape, literal and figurative, in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”.

Know two things about The Martian: 1. I normally don’t like outer space movies and, 2. Director Ridley Scott is the single greatest film director of our time.

The Martian is a triumph of film we haven’t seen in over a decade- or more. It lingers like the one book you read as a youth that changed the trajectory of your life. As with the space mission it depicts, it uses existing technology masterfully to meld plot, theatre and visual effect into one of the finest movies in the history of film. It is without flaw.

The Martian chronicles stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s survival ordeal after being trapped on Mars alone. It documents themes of survival, valor, and unity.

But there is one shining idol in The Martian, one hero, one savior- and it is the savior we increasingly must look to in our modern world: Knowledge.

The film is supported by an equally outstanding sidekick: Unity.

While the cast of The Martian is incredible, it is the theme that wins this remarkable journey. That we must think, learn and reason to survive; that we must do these things in unity and cooperation.

The Martian isn’t about space exploration; it is about our collective future and mutual society on earth. The story is told against the dusty, hostile canvas of the Martian landscape, a metaphor for our terrestrial world that has become increasingly bleak- nearly identical to the dry surface of a hostile planet. While told as a story about survival on Mars, this is a story about our lives on earth, increasingly separated- and oddly united- by technology against a backdrop of survival in a modern age. In the end the film’s hero character relies on knowledge, learning, thinking and the international cooperation of a unified mankind for survival. It isn’t about reaching for the stars, it’s about getting back to earth.

I don’t like “FX” movies, and that (by necessity) defines the space film genre’. But Scott creates visual magic in The Martian with effects that are stunning and vast. He creates a sense of distance and time in the open space visuals, and a sense of remote desolation in the Mars scenes.The film is also visually luxurious and adventurous. I grew up in the Apollo age, and this is the first thing that has ever made me want to actually go into outer space.

Many of the Mars scenes in Martian were filmed in Wadi Rum Jordan, a desolate canyon system in the western Sahara that is home to extreme endurance events like the 150-mile Marathon des Sables ultra-running race and the Paris-Dakar rally. Wadi Rum was also the haven of the real-life Sir Lawrence of Arabia. This accounts for much of its authentic visual feel.

The visual treat extends from judicious and masterful effects to stunning and desolate real life sets and finishes with remarkable treatment of the technology props from space suits to communications equipment to Watney’s Martian rover vehicle.

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That this movie is a Ridley Scott product is no surprise. But there are two surprises; Ridley Scott keeps churning out perfectly timed masterworks. Recall his landmark Gladiator, a film so perfectly done, so utterly out of left field, and so universally received across cultures that it became one of a small handful of modern classics alongside Forest Gump, Titanic, and a select collection of other blockbusters. Gladiator was released in 2000. It became a metaphor for many as the world squared off in a global war beginning the next year. And it expressed the fatality of conflict, even set against heroism. Scott also produced the landmark war film Blackhawk Down. Scott was even executive producer of the joyous Life in a Day documentary celebration of mankind around the world.

As for the cast of The Martian, they are secondary but integral, and stand in the foundational role of theme and plot like concrete thespian pillars. Each characters performs, no character overwhelms. Their performances are subtle mastery.

And then there is Matt Damon. Damon trumps the best of movie and theater by presenting characters on his personal canvas that is dashing and endearing. You love the guy. He is real, accessible and grows to hero status before your eyes. No author could hope for a better interpreter of their main character than Matt Damon, whether it is Robert Ludlum’s character Jason Bourne or as Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting.

Finally, I acknowledged a hefty paradigm shift with two other similarly themed movies when leaving the theater after The Martian. Both Castaway and Life of Pi discussed themes of isolation and survival. These stories guide us through an ordeal against which our values are recalibrated. We learn what is important. But The Martian makes Life of Pi feel oddly clinical and cryptic and makes Castaway feel desolate and sad in theme. The Martian renews our faith.

The great gift you leave the theater with after The Martian is hope, and that is perhaps our most valuable gift right now.

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By Tom Demerly.

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If you made it to this review, you’re somehow curious. And that is the premise that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey works on: curiosity.

If you want me to tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey was a bad movie, then leave now.

Fifty Shades of Grey is every guilty dessert you’ve ever had, and crave again. A sticky, corny, breathless mix of horny inference and naughty voyeurism combined with a visual and aural experience that is incredibly satisfying for those open to admit it. For everyone else, Disney is releasing a new version of Cinderella on March 13.

But Fifty Shades hits all the grown-up hot buttons of Cinderella, Titanic, The Beach, Dracula and every other cliché’ romantic theme, and it spins these clichés freshly enough for two very rapt hours. On a cold winter’s night, that is pretty damn hot.

Firstly, Fifty Shades of Gray is a visual treat. With beautiful, escapist sets, wardrobes and music this is the 120+ minute escape from reality we buy a movie a ticket for. Every detail is at least well done, some so well done they are breathless. And while the bondage and dominance themes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, everyone but the most severely repressed will find naughty, voyeuristic fun in this corny fantasy. Even Anastasia’s Steele’s lilting and gentle voice is a method of seduction that punctuates the movie. The scene where Christian straps Anastasia into the helicopter is absolutely incendiary.

Casting is also superb, with Dakota Johnson interpreting Anastasia with incredible accuracy and function and Jamie Dornan as a perfect mix of hot, demented, tormented and tender as Christian Grey. 

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This is a movie of gems, from a beautiful scene where Christian Grey takes Anastasia for a ride in a glider to a lilting dance scene where wardrobe, music (Frank Sinatra, of course), set and characters make movie history. All of these scenes are stolen clichés, and all of them are done brilliantly. Interestingly enough, the bondage sex scenes really don’t push limits or get very racy, they just have a breathy inference that does the trick.

The mastery in this film includes a use of silence that is captivating, using it as an awkward negative space that anyone who has ever suffered obsession has felt.

A packed theater for a 10 PM showing contained only about 10 men- in the entire movie theater. The assembled hen party alternately giggled during the sex scenes and was in rapt silence during the heavy parts when the audience hung on the dialogue in virtual bondage- with no safe word. It’s pretty safe to assume that PTA meetings and knitting circles were poorly attended the night Fifty Shades opened

There is one disturbing sequence in the movie, when boundaries are bent just a little too far, and the movie isn’t fun there. But even this heavy moment can be forgiven- only in artistic context- as an appliance of punctuation in the story line.

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For those who are wary of the movie and fear it crosses lines that advocate abuse, I can respect and identify with that perspective. The movie is about power trips and control, and those are things easily demented. But this movie is also about tender themes of communication and honesty, and to lose those against the sultry and pornographic backdrop is to not get everything you paid for in the story. That said, for victims of abuse, this is not the right movie and should be avoided. The story itself does not endorse non-consensual abuse, and makes repeated and clear statements to that effect. And recall that there are more than a few epic and noteworthy romances that challenge boundaries and cross lines, from Gone With The Wind to Casablanca.

The movie does exploit gender role stereotypes, and there are victims on both sides; the innocent simple girl and the tormented powerful man. If you are offended by stereotypes then take equal offense at each. Both are exploited here. That is a function of great fiction. Remember- this is fiction. The fact is people control or attempt to control each other in many ways in relationships; this story expands on those themes. Its over-emphasized delivery of these themes is what gives it such unusual candor, and make it such a spectacle.

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The inspiration of this story includes themes from the life of Howard Hughes and borrows snippets from little known cult classics like the much more disturbing Boxing Helena from 1993. This is simply an updated compendium of all these themes. It’s been a while since we had something like this, so audiences are ripe for Fifty Shades.

What is so well done about Fifty Shades of Grey is its wide band of erotic frequencies. The hottest scenes have neither nudity or sex, although there is plenty of that too, and it is pretty darn good. Perhaps some of the most powerful scenes include a brand of honesty and openness almost never seen in real life relationships, and seeing that is incredibly hot. The “contract negotiation” scene is a fantasy I wager everyone has wished for. There is also the dramatic back-and-forth of control, and the concession that having it is usually an illusion, and always ephemeral. In that regard, Fifty Shades of Grey is a documentary.

Ultimately you are either a fan of this romantic theme or you aren’t. For fence sitters I wager Fifty Shades of Grey will win some people over to the dark side and sell a lot of bondage gear. If it’s not your thing, avoid it. But if you are curious, then submit to the cliché and caricature of Fifty Shades of Grey and get ready to be strapped down for two hours with a racing heart on a wild, romantic and naughty ride.

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

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If you were waiting for the release of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper you have probably seen it by now. If you haven’t, and have no interest in movies of this genre, then you need to see it.

American Sniper is three distinct things: Firstly and most profoundly, it is an unflinching commentary on the American experience in the Global War On Terror. Secondly, it is a brilliantly crafted film in every way that uses contrast and plot to slam home a message of ongoing relevance. And lastly, it is a call to action to adapt our doctrine in the never-ending conflict with barbarism and cruelty.

Modern American Heroes are Tragic Figures.

American culture has a habit of moderating the horrors of war by deifying the sacrifice of those lost to it. We build heroes. And then we aspire to be heroes. This has a dreadful self-perpetuating tendency to use war as our primary tool in the darkest corners of international conflict. American Sniper challenges that national notion.

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Our heroes are often tragic figures, wracked with conflict and fear, who meet sad and untimely endings. The main figure in American Sniper, Naval Special Warfare Operator Chris Kyle, is just such a character. His valor, patriotism and loyalty were unswerving. This film celebrates that. But he mounted a quest to slay an un-slayable dragon, and was tragically consumed by it. This film mourns that.

This is a notice to American culture in a new age: maintain our current doctrine and continue to produce tragic heroes like Chris Kyle, or advance our thinking in conflict resolution and find a less costly method that produces more tangible results.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the tragic theme of American Sniper is that U.S. troops still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan will see this movie there instead of being at home. And the region is still locked in conflict.

Flawless and Authentic Filmmaking.

American Sniper is marble-hard filmmaking perfection. Director Clint Eastwood employs every trick of drama, suspense, tragedy and action with expertise. Casting is also superb down to the minor characters. There is not a single weak spot or feature to American Sniper. The film is so effective and hard-hitting that when it ends the theatre is left in stunned and exhausted silence. If you calibrate this film against the standards of Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down or any other conflict film it exceeds them all. This is the new standard in conflict commentary film.

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A National Call to Action in an Unresolved War.

Finally, American Sniper holds a vivid mirror up to our military doctrine in the ongoing Global War on Terror. The inescapable verdict is that, while we have succeeded in thwarting any major terrorist actions on U.S. soil, we have fallen short of providing functional reform and security to much of the region where the GWOT is waged. The significance of both of these points is more relevant now than ever, after two weeks of new terror attacks in France and months of escalated terrorist activity by ISIL in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve kept the (Middle Eastern) terrorists off U.S. soil since 9/11, but we are far from anything resembling a “victory”.

American Sniper is made with sensitivity and care, expertise and authenticity. It is also a relevant movie for the times. Eastwood’s film rises to the very top of the GWOT film genre’ and challenges all of our thinking about the past and the direction of our future role in this seemingly never-ending conflict.