Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) is approaching rarefied air, that upper echelon of filmmaking where greatness is expected. With no obvious missteps in his impressive repertoire, his subject matter has been varied yet consistent. When extolling the virtues of film, I often cite its ability to educate and inform rather than merely entertain. In Dunkirk, Nolan masterfully brings to screen a significant but relatively unknown (at least to me) World War II battle. The quintessential auteur, Nolan has given us a beautiful film, both in spirit and aesthetic.

It’s the dawn of World War II and German forces have driven the British (and a few French allies) to the outskirts of Dunkirk, France, pressing them towards the beach along the northern coastline. Approximately 300,000 soldiers are stranded, making easy prey for passing bomber planes or foes approaching by sea. Just as 300 introduced me to the Battle of Thermopylae, Dunkirk educated me on the similarly harrowing Battle of France. That battle would eventually become a rescue and evacuation mission code-named Operation Dynamo. It may seem antithetical to describe a war film as beautiful, but the visual elements of the film were stunning. Nolan’s austere backdrop was captured perfectly on 70 mm film, the wider format adding an extra layer of realism while immersing the viewer.

The film is told from three distinct perspectives, beginning with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier who finds himself stranded at Dunkirk after narrowly escaping from behind enemy lines. The second perspective belongs to civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies) and his sons George and Peter, private citizens courageously responding to their country’s call to action. The third viewpoint is shown from the perspective of two fighter pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy, The Revenant) and Collins (Jack Lowden, England is Mine), who don’t hesitate to enter the fray despite being low on fuel, changing course to head into what seems like sure disaster.

War films represent a diverse genre that I’ve come to appreciate over the years. From Saving Private Ryan to Platoon, the genre has consistently raised questions of morality and explored the psychological consequences of warfare, from the grief at losing a comrade to the ethical questions faced when atrocities are committed in the name of patriotism. Some war films focus on battle where others delve into the impact of war on the human psyche. Dunkirk was unique in its brilliant bifurcation of the narrative, fleshing out each character’s emotional motivation as they converged on the beach in successive heart-stopping intervals. War films often show strength in the form of violence or brute force, but there is tremendous quiet strength in just surviving. The ability to simply endure is as human a quality as there is, and Nolan captured this beautifully through Tommy and his dogged will live to live.

Nolan is sort of the anti-Tarantino here, utilizing sparse dialogue and relying more on atmosphere and the attendant action of an epic narrative. He showed two sides of the human spirit: one characterized by hope, resilience and valor, the other fraught with a sense of futility and resignation to an inevitable fate. Each act of survival was a minor miracle, and the emotional resonance of the film cannot be denied. Dunkirk was amazing in its portrayal of the human spirit and in its understated visual simplicity. Buoyed by strong performances (including newcomer Harry Styles), deft direction, and incredibly inspiring source material, Dunkirk lives up to the hype and further solidifies Christopher Nolan as one of best filmmakers to emerge in recent memory. Grade: A

Magic Mike XXL

You know my opinion of sequels. Rarely are they a logical or necessary extension of an original movie. Cinematic purpose aside, they are nevertheless entertaining – especially if the original was satisfying. Magic Mike was wildly successful, aimed at a target demographic that showed up in full force for the provocative Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) film starring Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street) and Matthew McCounaghey (Interstellar). Thus I wasn’t surprised when I heard there would be a sequel, although I was mildly disappointed to see that not all of the original cast would be returning.

The plot details of Magic Mike XXL aren’t terribly important, are they? Anyone going to see this movie isn’t concerned with such matters, I’m almost certain. Suffice it to say that the titular Mike has made a post-stripping living for himself designing furniture, while the remaining “Kings of Tampa” (sans McCounaghey and Alex Pettyfer) are still giving the ladies fits on stage. Mike has been somewhat reclusive, and his old friends have to dupe him into a reunion. When they finally reconnect, the guys convince him to go on a farewell tour of sorts, one last big hurrah before parting ways again.

The guys’ swan song will take place at a huge male stripper expo, and they have a long road trip ahead of themselves to get there. Mike thinks they need to liven up their act with new material and gains inspiration after dropping in on old friend Rome (Jada Pinkett, The Women), a club owner who provides a unique experience for women who patronize her risqué establishment. With McCounaghey’s Dallas no longer in the picture, the guys need an emcee for their show, and Rome eventually obliges.

The bulk of the movie depicts the camaraderie amongst the guys while intermittently treating the audience to eye-popping gyrations from Channing Tatum, who is quite obviously the superior dancer and unquestionable star of the film. Tatum doesn’t really “do it” for me, but I can’t deny the heat his performances generated. The audience at my viewing was packed with giddy, squealing women who had a boozy good time howling at the screen. I wondered how they would behave at an actual strip club, since the movie had them acting like they’d never seen a real live man before. What else can I really say about Magic Mike XXL? If you enjoyed the first one; surely you’ll like the sequel. The dialogue and acting faltered at points, but the fraternal chemistry among the cast and sizzling dance routines made the film largely enjoyable. Straight men, this one isn’t for you (Duh). Grade: B


A Most Violent Year

The 80s were an interesting time. If you ask people what they most remember about the decadent decade, they will probably mention Reagan, inflation, the dawn of MTV, or defining moments in American culture like the Challenger explosion, Reagan’s assassination attempt, or the Iran Contra scandal. The 80s were also a violent time, even before the crack epidemic created a new class of criminal. The early 80s were especially dangerous in major cities like New York, with 1981 being one of the most violent years on record, at the time. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) explores this tumultuous period in his atmospheric film A Most Violent Year, starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Lewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (Interstellar).

Isaac stars as Abel Morales, the bootstrapping, self-made owner of a profitable heating and oil company. He’s looking to expand his business, attempting to broker a real estate deal with some powerful Jewish members of the community that will grant him direct access to the city’s ports. Things get complicated when his oil truck drivers begin getting carjacked and Abel loses one truck after the other. The thieves’ brazen lawlessness leaves Abel’s drivers vulnerable and threatens his real estate venture. Rather than arm his drivers with guns to defend themselves, Abel tries to quietly investigate – much to the chagrin of his fiery wife Anna (Chastain). Chandor hints throughout the movie that Abel is involved in some shady business dealings, and this seed is planted further when a district attorney named Lawrence (David Oyelowo, Selma) threatens indictment for a slew of offenses ranging from fraud to bribery. The course of the film follows Abel as he tries to find the culprit behind the robberies and stave off indictment while preserving his real estate negotiations.

A Most Violent Year seemed promising based on its trailer and cast, namely Oyelowo and Chastain. Featuring the soulful sounds of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Inner City Blues,” the trailer hinted at a gritty, atmospheric tale, and that same earthy melody played over the opening credits. What song better captures the harsh realities of an unforgiving metropolis? However, despite its moody cinematography and intriguing premise, there were parts of the film that just didn’t excite me. The film smoldered throughout, but it never ignited in the way I thought it would. For example, Abel seemed to bury his head in the sand in the wake of the truck robberies. How is it believable that someone so seemingly passive in one facet of his life could be so shrewd and ambitious in other aspects? I understand wanting to leave a certain lifestyle behind, but how did you ascend to current heights if you never stood up for yourself? In a way, the film never lived up to its provocative title.

Another thing I disliked about the film was the disjointed nature of certain scenes within the context of the larger plot. When Abel finally finds out who is behind the truck heists the revelation is very unsatisfying and just doesn’t make sense, in my opinion. It simply doesn’t fit with the picture Chandor painted earlier in the movie. For some reason (and maybe this is my fault), I thought the movie would be in the vein of Carlito’s Way, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting. I’m not saying a movie has to resort to cheap thrills to hold my attention – but I was rather underwhelmed. However, the aforementioned criticism must be balanced by the positive aspects, which should not be understated. First, the cinematography was excellent. The movie looked like 1981 in every way; it looked like it came out of a vault. The sepia undertones were haunting and almost beautiful. The tone of the film was perfect, and it was superbly acted. For those reasons, I can’t say it was a bad film. It just wasn’t what I expected. Grade: B


I can’t begin to know the struggle of a filmmaker. I’m only attempting to be a screenwriter and thus far have found the process very challenging. It must be difficult to craft a film from start to finish, finding a way to hold the viewer’s attention while delivering a compelling a story. Now imagine how much more demanding your task would be if your film centered on a heroic, legendary fixture in American and global history. Such was the task before director Ava DuVernay in her depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Selma isn’t the first film about Martin Luther King, but it does offer a unique perspective behind the man and the movement. Rather than craft a comprehensive biopic spanning his lifetime, DuVernay focused on an all-important slice of his life, the pivotal time in which he spearheaded passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By narrowing the scope, DuVernay provided a fresh insight that hadn’t been previously offered. Moreover, she captured a more personal, intimate side of a larger than life public figure. Given the recent spate of incidents of police brutality against young Black men, the timeliness of the film cannot be overstated, and one couldn’t help notice the parallel between the scenes of civil unrest and protest in the movie and recent images in the news. Moreover, with more and more states enacting local laws restricting the right to vote, Selma rings true today.

The film begins powerfully, first highlighting the absurdly unjust hurdles Black Americans were forced to overcome in order to vote. DuVernay then left the viewer with no doubt about the racial climate by depicting the infamous bombing of four little girls in a Birmingham church. For younger viewers these images may have been jarring, as I can’t assume what people do and don’t know about their history. And when I say “their” history, I mean all young people, regardless of race – because Selma is a portrayal of events in American history, not just Black history.

DuVernay juxtaposed the historical accuracies with a uniquely intimate dramatization of King’s personal life. We’re introduced to him not at the pulpit delivering a fiery speech, but rather in a warm, private moment with his wife Coretta. As he prepares to accept the Nobel Prize for peace, he complains to Coretta about his ostentatious attire. She soothingly reassures him, as only a wife can. Small touches like this may go unnoticed amidst the more powerful, violent images that punctuate the film – but I was struck by the manner in which DuVernay made the legend more accessible.

The film operates within the strategic confines of King’s calculated plan for Selma. His aim was to focus on Selma and protests there so that he could bring national attention to the violent and unconstitutional manner in which Blacks were being denied their right to vote. Then-President Johnson was politically reticent about sweeping change, so King had to apply pressure by keeping the violent images plastered on the front page of the newspapers that littered America’s collective doorstep. His plan was effective, and ultimately Johnson enacted the single most significant piece of legislation of the Civil Rights Movement.

Selma humanized King in a way that brought him down one step from his pedestal without besmirching his legacy. We see that he was a man, with fears and flaws. He and Coretta had problems like any married couple. He had moments of doubt and insecurity, yet he was brilliant in his strategy to the point of shrewdness. I didn’t feel like the movie deified him, though the glorious nature of his character was undeniable. That is due in large part to the gravitas David Oyelowo (Interstellar) brought to the role, though the Academy has overlooked his contribution this year. Both he and Carmen Ejogo (The Purge: Anarchy) were mesmerizing on screen, coloring their scenes with restrained chemistry.

The subject matter alone would make this film a must-see, but it’s technically sound as well. The cinematography and storytelling were nearly perfect, and performances from the likes of Tom Wilkinson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Tim Roth (Arbitrage) and Oprah Winfrey (The Butler) in a brief but powerful cameo only strengthened the final product. If you weren’t well versed on the history of the Voting Rights Act or Civil Rights Movement then obviously this movie is one you should see. If you were, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, although we still have some work ahead of us. Grade: A