FILM REVIEW: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a spectacular fireworks show filled with exciting action but as a record of an iconic World War II event it falls short and as human drama it’s a damp squid.

When fighter planes are screaming, bombs are exploding and bullets are flying, it’s pulsating stuff with a gut-punching battle between sound effects and Hans Zimmer’s score, which the composer wins through sheer verve and ingenuity.

Operation Dynamo is celebrated as an example of British pluck as hundreds of small civilian boats crossed the English Channel in the face of a ferocious enemy to evacuate 400,000 soldiers trapped by surrounding troops on the beach at Dunkerque on the French coast six miles from Belgium border.

Seven hundred little ships and 220 warships made the perilous journey to enter mine-strewn waters guarded by fighter planes and bombers including several from the Isle of Man, the Netherlands and Belgium. They rescued more than 330,000 soldiers in all – around 192,000 British and 139,000 French.

The evacuation lasted for 10 days from May 26, 1940 following the disastrous collapse of the British Expeditionary Army against the onslaught of the Nazi invasion of France. The film tightens the time-frame as Nolan eschews a broad canopy to focus tightly on a handful of characters.

Sadly, he has chosen clichéd characters rendered in cardboard fashion so that we have no idea who anyone is. Research surely would have revealed more captivating stories and Nolan would have been wise to bring in a good co-writer to raise his dialogue from the banal. What we get are the Dorset Boatman, a stalwart fellow with a handsome son and stowaway kid; the Bounder, an officer who becomes cowardly under shell-shock; the Chancer, a resourceful soldier determined to look out for himself; the Silent Menace, an evacuee who says nothing so might be a foreign spy; the Splendid Chaps, two RAF fighter pilots who risk superior opposition and draining fuel to save lives; the Stiff Upper Lips, the navy and army commanders in charge of the exercise; and the Lads, indistinguishable young men who are alternately cocky, scrappy and scared to death.

Newcomer Fionn Whitehead acquits himself well as the opportunist and Cillian Murphy adds depth to his sketch of a frightened man who loses control when tested but the rest of the cast get lost under blood, oil and grime. Kenneth Branagh gets to grimace and smile wisely as the Navy Commander and Mark Rylance is sturdy enough as the Dorset boatman who already knows what sacrifice means but Tom Hardy is entirely wasted as one of the pilots. Jack Lowdon plays the other pilot but in their masks it’s hard to know which is which and while Hardy is used to having his face covered in films (“The Dark Knight Rises”; “Mad Max: Fury Road|), their dialogue is difficult to hear and it’s not as if either one has Steve McQueen’s eyes.

Still, the film’s aerial unit under director of photography Hans Nejrno sets the bar extraordinarily high for Ridley Scott’s forthcoming “Battle of Britain” even though Nolan gives the wrong impression of the role played in Operation Dynamo by the air force. He shows just two planes protecting the troops whereas in fact 32 squadrons were rotated with the single mission to destroy German aircraft that tried to prevent the evacuation effort. As the film says, British authorities were not prepared to risk too many aircraft that would be required for the looming invasion of Britain but 250 Hurricanes were lost in the fight.

According to the authoritative website Weapons and Warfare, over the nine days, the RAF carried out 171 reconnaissances, 651 bombing sorties and 2,739 fighter sorties.  As Commander-in-Chief of 11 Group RAF, a man named Sir Keith Park flew a Hurricane fighter on reconnaissance missions within range of German guns throughout the period. On his final survey, he saw the last two British ships depart and he was the last airman to leave.

The huge number of vehicles, vessels, planes and people involved would appear to make the vast iMax frame essential but here it is a mixed blessing. It’s wasted on the many close-ups of masked pilots and screaming wounded and its immense size serves to make the beach covered with 400,000 men appear sparsely populated.

There is a scene when a single soldier emerges above the beach to see the crowd but it lacks the power of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s money-shot in Joe Wright’s “Atonement”.  There’s nothing that comes close to the power of the brief depiction in that film of the “Apocalypse Now” level of horror, desperation and absurdity of the chaos at Dunkirk.

The film also lacks anything with the power of the shot in the 1962 film “The Longest Day” when a German defender looks out of a bunker to see the approaching armada, granting that 4,000 ships were involved in 1944. Nolan includes a scene in which returning soldiers are bewildered to be greeted as heroes but he soon moves on to jingoism with the famous Churchill quote about fighting on the beaches.

Thankfully, while there is lots of mayhem, Nolan spurns a Mel Gibson level of gore but when all the bullets have been fired and the excitement is over, “Dunkirk” slips from the memory not helped by a terribly lame citation in the end titles in which the film is said to be a tribute to all those whose lives “were impacted” by the events at Dunkirk.

Viewed at Science Museum IMax London; Released: July 21 (Warner Bros.); Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy; Director, writer: Christopher Nolan; Director of photography: Hoyte van Hoytema; Production designer: Nathan Crowley; Music: Hans Zimmer; Costumes: Jeffrey Kurland; Editor: Lee Smith; Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan; Executive producer: Jake Myers; A Warner Bros. Pictures release and presentation of a Syncopy production; Rating: UK: 12A, US: PG15; running time: 107 minutes.

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Do film critics matter any more?

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – When everyone is a critic, who needs critics?

It’s a question asked more and more in the movie industry as the ranks of mainstream critics dwindle and the tide of those with something to say online surges ever stronger.

The consensus is that some critics do still matter but their employers, the film industry and the general public hold them in less esteem than they used to. Meanwhile, everyone’s on Facebook. And Twitter. And YouTube. And Instagram.

Industry folk on both sides of the question tend to be reluctant to talk about it because of two key words: access and applause. Critics want the access to films that distributors control and distributors want the applause that only critics can bring before release.

Glowing reviews from major newspaper and magazine critics and glittering quotes have traditionally been gold dust to boost exhibition. Screenings for top critics are still held in the week of release but other screenings have a very different makeup. Many of them now include those who are deemed to be “influencers” of fan opinion.

Sean Evans, who runs a marketing and blogging website called Back to the Movies, says, “An influencer is anyone with a microphone and an audience; anyone with a keyboard and some waiting eyes. Anyone with passion and a projection can be ‘influential’ in some shape or form. Most advanced screenings are open to the public so it’s mainly full of eager fans. If it’s a press-only advanced screening then it tends to be more bloggers and independent sites than the UK and global media outlets. Just from my experience.”

Jason Solomons, who appears in print and broadcast and has his own film website, says, “Increasingly, publicity people seek ‘influencers’, which means fashion bloggers, food bloggers and those people who put pictures of their avocado breakfasts on Instagram. I’ve been at screenings where these folks are invited just so they can mention the film in a hashtag.”

Anna Smith (twitter), president of the Film Critics’ Circle and a busy freelancer across print, online and broadcast, says she has no real problem with that: “Criticism evolves according to the times and the current means of communication. Social media and blogging mean that the landscape has changed. It’s up to distributors to decide who they want to invite. At what are called ‘multi-media’ screens, the press allocation is getting smaller, however. The marketing department invites its target audience and good on them, I guess, as they have to be increasingly inventive.”

David Gritten, former critic for the Telegraph who writes now for Saga Magazine, says, “I do think the importance of critics has diminished over the years. It used to be that a bad review might hurt a film but not now. Social media, online, Twitter, Instagram – the mere flood of voices means they are less important. It’s not about the quality of a review, it’s simply: It’s opening near you on Friday.”

Henry Fitzherbert, of the Sunday Express, who is now the U.K.’s longest-serving film critic on a national paper, says, “I do feel critics are under siege. Everyone is diversifying as fast as they can. If they’re on staff they don’t just write reviews, they do interviews, profiles, commentary, tweeting, podcasts. They have to write across the paper.”

Zak Brilliant, head of distribution at Icon Films, says the situation has changed over the last decade: “The value of a review depends on the content of the picture. Film critics are key to smaller, festival films. The best critics have loyal readerships and it’s important to their readers when they like a film. If it’s a tentpole movie – Marvel is a beast that nothing stops – then it could be Jack from Rotherham on Twitter.”

Dean of UK film publicists Charles McDonald says, “There’s no doubt that the world has changed but it depends on the movie, More films tend to be review-proof when you have a big budget as  movie critics don’t have the clout to negate them.”

Soft television and radio exposure is insignificant, McDonald says, but social media is important: “Awareness is essential. A blockbuster can cope generally with bad mainstream reviews and simply benefit from enormous coverage although publicists must be careful not to over-hype.”

YouTube video bloggers – vloggers – play a major role and often they are paid, McDonald says: “Putting trailers online at the right time is essential and the online outlets need content just as much to drive people to their sites.”

One distribution publicity chief, who requested anonymity, agreed that marketing now includes payments to bloggers and video-bloggers: “Distributors look at outlets to decide on exclusivity. The marketing department advertises and then the outlet shouts about the movie. YouTube stars are used more and more and they are paid to watch a film. It has to be made clear that it is sponsored. An influencer can be someone who has influence in a smaller world. If it’s an historical drama, you go to that world. ‘Influencer’ is a broad term but it can be a great way to reach young people.”

The impact of critics on box office success remains an open question. Heat Magazine film critic Charles Gant notes, “The impact of reviews – positive and negative – can only be guessed at, although box office figures do provide some clues.”

He cites the “Wolverine” movies. He points out that the first film in the franchise has the lowest score on aggregator Metacritic but it had a “pretty decent” box office: “Critics gave warmer scores to the second ‘Wolverine’ but audiences burnt by the ‘X-Men Origins’ film did not return, and box office slumped in both the U.K. and the U.S. Critics and audiences both gave ‘Logan ‘the thumbs up and box office bounced back.”

Gant says that distributors evidently still believe critics do have an impact: “Why else would they lay on press screenings as early and often as possible for films that are creatively strong, and screen as late as possible with embargo restrictions films likely to suffer at the hands of the critics?”

David Gritten suggests: “A few names are influential: Mark Kermode in the Observer and on BBC, Peter Bradshaw in the Gaurdian, Robbie Collin in The Telegraph and Kate Muir in the Times. I admire them very much. To look beyond them, I’m not sure a critic can influence the fortunes of a film in the U.K.”

Jason Solomons admits: “Critics are infinitely egotistical and all get a thrill from seeing their names correctly spelled in big letters on a tube station poster. Particularly they then feel they’ve ‘championed’ a film and helped usher it to success.”

Sometimes, they serve just to reposition the narrative of a movie, he says: “With something like ‘Beauty and the Beast’, many critics seemed to buy the whole ‘Emma Watson as feminist Belle’ shtick which really opened up the movie to its young audience of Hermione fans and pretended that it’s a modern take on the old tale. It’s not. Likewise the gay character in that film, which is actually hideously retrograde, if you ask me.”

Mainstream critics also are susceptible to the seductive offers of the film industry. Solomons says, “Increasingly, studios are pumping critics up with exclusive, quasi-premiere screenings and embargoing up to the last minute so as to ensure some excitement in the reviews, some response to the movie as an event, rather as part of a series of dull drudges on a Monday afternoon. That happened with ‘Spectre’, ‘Rogue One’, ‘Ab Fab’, ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby’ and ‘Trainspotting T2’. They all received better reviews than they had any right to get through the creation of that ‘event’ hype ‘Ab Fab’ plied everyone with free and decent champagne, which really helped. Gushing reviews helped these sustain their runs at the box office, I think.”

If there is a sunset on mainstream criticism, it’s not only distributors who are to blame, Gritten says: “It’s not a Machiavellian idea by publicists. Critics are less important to newspapers now; they don’t add to the money-making side of publishing. Most arts editors on newspapers would be much happier with an interview with a glamorous movie star than a stinky review. You cannot monetise that. The heyday of what we used to call film criticism has gone.”

Adds Solomons: “It shows how desperate critics have become that they are dependent on hyping up their reviews to ‘get them in the paper’, or justify selling the review, the reaction, as some kind of story on the radio, or to click through to their blog. Unless it’s a screaming endorsement or a holler of failure, the review has little effect these days, to the point of not actually existing – editors are as bad as readers in this instance.”

Henry Fitzherbert (a burgeoning screenwriter: “Slaughterhouse Rulez”, “Born a King”) is no longer on staff at the Sunday Express but writes a column as a freelancer. He says: “Slashing of support for critics in journalism does impact on the films, too, especially for smaller distributors. There are more releases than ever but I don’t review as much as I used to. I’m paid for my column whether I review five films or two, it doesn’t make any difference.”

Saga’s Gritten says: “There’s been a shift in people’s attitudes: they don’t want to be talked down to by experts or specialists but they respond to Facebook and Twitter because they think, this person is more like me. You’ve got to be very keen on film to see how good the good critics are.”

It’s not all bad news, even though Film Critics’ Circle President Anna Smith says there are fewer full-time jobs for film critics and several have been laid-off at national outlets or taken pay cuts.

Heat’s Gant says, “For arthouse, indie and awards season releases, of course critics definitely play an important role. Those audiences do read and do pay attention to reviews. Critical acclaim can be vital in getting awards buzz building on a film. Marketing communications in this sector typically feature critical endorsements quite prominently.”

The nameless distribution publicist insists: “I’m glad we have strong critics who write beautifully. They enhance the filmgoing experience. The tide has changed but we use our quotes very carefully.”

Anna Smith says that when she speaks at universities, she hears more people than ever say they want to be a movie critic. She says, “I wish them luck.”

This story appeared in Cue Entertainment

My photo: Gala screening at the Krakow Film Music Festival

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FILM REVIEW: Vincent Perez’s ‘Alone in Berlin’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – For those who have not read Hans Fallada’s terrifying novel “Alone in Berlin”, Vincent Perez’s film version is probably a mildly absorbing drama about two people bucking the odds. For those who have read it, the film is hugely disappointing. Continue reading

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Lalo Schifrin on his love of the music for ‘Tango’

By Ray Bennett

Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin, who turns 85 today, is known for his concerts, recordings, film scores such as “Bullitt”, “Cool Hand Luke” and “Dirty Harry” and TV shows such as “Mission: Impossible” and “Mannix” but one of his most treasured works was for Carlos Saura’s Oscar-nominated musical “Tango”.

“I feel very proud of being involved in that movie,” Schifrin told me in 1998 just before the film had its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Continue reading

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Twenty of the best films of the century so far


By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The New York Times critics have named their choices of the best movies of the 21st century so far. They include titles such as “I’m Not There”, “L’Enfant” and “The 40-Year Old Virgin” but ignore fine films such as “Arrival”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Inception”.

Any such list is, of course, subjective. We all can think of great films overlooked but here, in alphabetical order, are 20 more films that for me have been highlights of the century so far. All are available on Blu-ray and/or DVD except “The Sun Also Rises”. Continue reading

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A subjective list of movie scores that I like very much

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – “A good music score,” two-time Academy Award winner Randy Newman told me, “cannot turn a bad movie into a good movie but it can raise its IQ by a couple of notches.”

My friends at the World Soundtrack Awards in Ghent recently drew attention to a ranking of the best film soundtracks published sometime ago in The Guardian newspaper and when I said it was a terrible list, they asked me to make my own suggestions, so here goes. Continue reading

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Memories of KFMF’s brilliant 2017 birthday party

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Most big film shindigs including Festival de Cannes and events from Berlin to Venice are like being in a bubble. When you’re there, nothing else matters. As soon as it’s over, you forget about it. The Krakow Film Music Festival (KFMF) is the exception.

Every year, those lucky enough to be there continue to share memories long after it ends. KFMF’s principal organisers, Robert Piaskowski and Agata Grabowiecka oversee a dedicated team and a flock of volunteers each year to produce a festival that celebrates film and television music in the best possible way: they invite the best. Continue reading

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On the James Bond set with Roger Moore

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Roger Moore, who died on May 23 aged 89, told me that really he was a frustrated bank robber. “It’s only fear that’s stopped me from robbing banks, and that’s why I’m a movie actor. I’d get caught. I’ve never been caught acting.”

I spoke to him at Pinewood Studios on Dec. 10, 1984, on the set of his last James Bond picture, “A View to a Kill”. He had just been shooting an action scene with co-star Tanya Roberts. Unruffled, he sat on a director’s chair in the middle of a very cold soundstage smoking the first of several Davidoff cigars he would enjoy through the day. Continue reading

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‘Being a nice guy is acting’ and more great Roger Moore quotes

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Roger Moore, who died Tuesday aged 89, spoke to me at Pinewood Studios on Dec. 10 1984 on the set of his last James Bond picture, “A View to a Kill”. Here are some highlights from my interview (see full story above): Continue reading

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KFMF: Adventure and tears as orchestra plays ‘Titanic Live’

By Ray Bennett

KRAKOW – The Krakow Film Music Festival raised James Cameron’s “Titanic” to new heights as it screened to a live performance of James Horner’s Oscar-winning score to mark the film’s 20th anniversary.

The festival had planned to invite the American composer to celebrate the occasion before he died aged 61 on June 22, 2015. He was piloting a single-engine plane when it crashed into a remote area about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara in California. Continue reading

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