Nevertheless They Persisted at Dunkirk

The closest we get to an audience proxy in Christopher Nolan’s relentless exercise in tension and survival is the young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. He could be anyone’s son, and he’s a partly shell-shocked but still wily (and very observant) lad in Nolan’s wartime nightmare/day scream. We open with him walking through abandoned French coastal village streets as pamphlets rain down announcing, “We surround you.” That first gunshot, setting him off on a run for his life, is so piercing you feel like you’ve been shot at…and it invites the audience to partake in this immersive first-person narrative. He’s the first and last one we see in the film, and his Murphy’s Law-ridden week-long escape from the besieged French shores anchors the multi-POV time-collapsing narrative. Most notably, his struggle to survive is not alone. He doesn’t get from point A to point Z without interacting with others equally driven to survive, and not without help.

Elsewhere, on one fateful day, we have another brave boy named George (Barry Keoghan) selflessly join his friend (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend’s father (a superb Mark Rylance) as they take their pleasure yacht to join a civilian fleet heading to Dunkirk to pick up some of the 400,000 soldiers stranded there between the English Channel and encroaching enemy tanks on the land. When he hops aboard the vessel after only supposed to have helped father and son set off, the wise elder tells him, “It’s a war, George.” To which George calmly and confidently replies, “I could be of use, sir.”

The film is filled with that kind of stark to-the-point dialogue, interspersed judiciously in a cinematic story otherwise devoid of spoken language but swelling with human emotion transmitted visually across a sprawling canvas of land, sea, and air. Continue reading

Finding Strength to Pass on in The Beguiled and Moka

“I admire your strength,” Corporal John McBurney (a devilishly manipulative Colin Farrell) remarks to the headmistress while under the watchful care of the women and girls of the Farnsworth Seminary for ladies, a bastion of secluded tranquility hiding roiling pent-up emotions during the Civil War. He is an injured Union soldier (or perhaps an AWOL mercenary?) discovered in the woods by the nature-loving Amy (Oona Laurence…a stand-in perhaps for director Sofia Coppola?). They are self-sufficient well-bread Southern Belles shielded from the horrors of war, but full of fanciful imaginings and longing.

“I’m just trying to give them what they need to survive in these times,” Martha Farnsworth (a masterful modicum of repressed anxiety underneath a gauze of stern maternal stoicism as played by Nicole Kidman) replies.

Sofia Coppola’s re-imagining of the Southern gothic potboiler novel by Thomas Cullinan (previously brought to screen in 1971 by Don Siegal and Clint Eastwood) is a lean, mean, beautiful thing streamlined through white lace and steamy moss-strewn environs with seductive Louisiana plantation swamps draped in lush symbolism standing-in for war-torn Virginia. Every single meticulously composed shot…from Amy, both resting and sentinel, on the hulking branch of a giant moss-covered live oak…to ennui-suffering teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) leaning back in her chair in the streaky sunlight while the younger girls play in the tall grass…to a candlelit dinner darkly roasted with insidious intentions…is like a moving painting. There’s not a single shot directed by Coppola and executed by Philippe Le Sourd wasted here, all ripe with symbolism or moving the plot along. Likewise, sparse to-the-point dialogue (the entire language of the film mirroring the bluntness of Martha’s speaking and pitting it against the flowery antagonism of Corporal McBurney’s invitations) moves everything forward. Music, be it wonderful renditions of the olde-timey standard “Lorna” or the suspenseful ambience of Phoenix’s barely-there musical score, is exactly where it should be and precisely where it’s not. Continue reading

France, Je T’aime – Part Five: Versailles

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Our epic French adventure ended with an overnight stay in Versailles before flying back to the States.

Versailles is everything you dream and fear it could be (it’s as crowded with tourists as the Louvre), but the grounds are so expansive, if you take the right turns you’ll find yourself in quiet gardens and pathways.  Even lovelier than the grand chateau was Marie Antoinette’s Petite Trianon and Estate – a country oasis still full of grape vines and livestock living an idyllic existence away from the hustle and bustle of the main palace.  It actually makes you feel a bit sorry for the famously beheaded queen – as its rustic design and graceful grasps at tranquility render it clear that poor Marie was in way over her head and simply wanted to escape the madness of the royal court.  It makes for a beautiful walk (the hidden grotto is especially hidden) that was a perfect way to end our epic tour.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Four: Colmar et Strasbourg

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After five days in Paris, we needed an escape from the big city and wanted to experience more of France.  After a comfy, three-hour train ride from the Paris Gare de L’est we found ourselves in the heart of Alsace at Colmar.  Here we made our home base for three days, the middle day of which included a quick jaunt (just a 30 minute train ride from Colmar) to Strasbourg.  Both “cities” boast amazingly quirky rustic architecture, great country-style food, and fantastic wine influenced as much by France as Germany (the region has been a historically hotly contested border territory between the two nations – and when you indulge in it, it’s easy to see it’s worth fighting for).  There is also a more laid-back vibe in Colmar and Strasbourg while still offering up plenty of art and history.

Without further adieu – here are some photographs from Colmar et Strasbourg.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Three: Le Paris Macabre

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Ou est elle la mort toujours future ou passée Apeine est elle presente que deja elle n’est plus – one of the many thought provoking and haunting quotes found deep in Les Catacombes.

One of the most romantic things about Paris is that it will make of anything art – even death.  The underground Catacombs (possibly the most creative urban space repurposing in history – former quarry caves turned into a massive human remains dump/art installation project) are unlike anything you’ve ever seen and boast millions of lost stories and souls (over six million to be kinda exact – in skeleton form and stacked and designed like hell’s Legos!) while the cemeteries still above ground revel in their gorgeous, macabre monumental splendor.

What else is there to say?  Let the ghosts behind the photos whisper their secrets and history to you.

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France, Je T’aime – Part Two: Paris – Musees et Monuments

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Paris was a museum displaying exactly itself. – Jeffrey Eugenidies

Is there a city with more museums and monuments per square-foot than Paris?

I don’t know, but if you find yourself in Paris, you can’t help but stumble into a museum or monument (both historical and religious) while walking her beautiful streets, and the super-savvy Museum Pass will help you stumble into as many as possible in as little time for as few Euros as possible (just be sure to make time for a leisurely lunch with some wine at a street café/brasserie in between).

As Eugenidies states, the entire city is a museum.  And as lovers of art, my fiancée and I couldn’t help but devour as much of Paris as we could.

I won’t ramble about the obvious (the Louvre, the D’orsay, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, etc…) where pictures have always spoken for themselves but I will gush about a fabulous “off the beaten track” museum dedicated to a single artist who I will now claim as one of my favorites.  The intimate and astounding Gustave Moreau Museum at 14 Rue de la Rochefoucauld in a quiet residential neighborhood, housed in the beautiful townhouse he and his mother once called home, is possibly the best example of an artist’s home/studio turned into a museum.  As you ponder his personal artifacts and fascinating works, its impossible not to be swept up into his vision.  But I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking here as well.

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France, Je T’aime – Part One: Paris – Rues et Jardins

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A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. – Thomas Jefferson

Paris is a moveable feast – Ernest Hemingway

I don’t believe I could’ve picked a more perfect period in my life to experience Paris for the first time after having experienced other European capitals (the infinitely more laid-back Amsterdam and Dublin) to ease me into the overwhelming moveable feast that is Paris.  It helped that my fiancée had been to Paris twice before, as while together we came to it with the wide-eyes of outsiders (it’s easy to see why so many ex-pats holed up in Paris for a spell have written some of the kindest words about the city of lights), her tourist knowledge kept us from going mad while wandering the streets and the metro.  Paris is best experienced by walking, and this first post in an epic five piece series capturing our French adventure through pictures will focus on the maddeningly beautiful, confusing streets and the resplendent parks and gardens of Paris the burst with life, secrets and the profound.

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Life in the Key of Malick in To the Wonder

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I could’ve done without the “the” in Terrence Malick’s latest cinematic symphony To the Wonder.

To wonder…

…that is what Malick’s life as an artist has been all about. To wonder…what it’s like to kill for the heck of it (Badlands)…to love when life is like a shaft of wheat blowing in the wind (Days of Heaven)….to wonder what it’s like to kill someone and mean it, to live
and love in war (The Thin Red Line)…to wonder what it was like to discover a new land, a new love, a new way of life (The New World)…to wonder about the beginning and end of time and the loss of a loved one (The Tree of Life).

To the Wonder is a meditation on loneliness.

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Raising Cane and Making it Rain in Looper

Hello, me, it’s me again!

I’m 60 years-old.  I’m retired and living in Sri Lanka on a tea farm I purchased for my long-lost love with whom I recently reunited.  Don’t ask…just go with this fantasy, okay?  She’s lying in bed next to me with her back against mine.  A balmy midnight breeze blows in through the window and the white curtains scale up the walls and then billow down.  My mind is similarly rising and falling in humidified thought.  I can’t sleep.  I saw something today that reminded me of a film I once saw a long time ago but I can’t quite place the moment or the film.  She’s half-awake, too.  She turns over to face me and runs her hand through my hair.  I whisper to her, “Were you there with me?  Do you remember that movie?  It was soooo good.  You know, the one about time travel where the guy was on the run from his future self and he hid out on that farm in Kansas with that beautiful woman and her little kid who could…” 

…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Behold the litany of reasons Rian Johnson’s Looper is an instant genre classic I will fondly recall when I’m 60 years-old: Continue reading

Sarah’s Key and the Privilege of Choice

What choice did little Sarah have in a world gone mad?

 
It’s tempting to look at old pictures and imagine the history and stories of the people in them.  It’s a way to reach into the past.  It’s a way to invoke nostalgia.  It’s a way to uncover secrets.  It’s become a growing trend amongst Holocaust scholars to move away from the almost unfathomable statistics and instead focus on the faces…the pictures…the singular stories…the individuals.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manhattan’s equally magnificent and somber Museum of Jewish Heritage, where an entire wing is dedicated to the display of thousands of family photographs that give the horrors of war a back story and a face. 
 
At a crucial moment in the new French film, Sarah’s Key, our privileged protagonist comes across the photographs of two small children during the course of an investigation.  Up until that point, she was merely crafting a story – but now there were faces to that story.  It was real.  One can’t help but think this notion weighed heavily on the mind of novelist Tatiana De Rosnay as she penned her shrewd Holocaust tale.  Sarah’s Key is part of the complimentary literary/film movement to this Holocaust scholarship where faces replace stats.  Like Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is an adaptation of a novel thick with moral complexities where the audience is asked not “Why did this happen?” but instead “What would you have done?”  In these elaborate historical fictions inspired by decades of staring at old photographs, we are asked to step into the shoes of those who did anything to survive and those whose lives were threatened leading to complicit acts that made them explicit accomplices or blindly apathetic to the crimes against humanity. Continue reading