“Dunkirk,” “Valerian” and “City of Ghosts”

This week sees the wide opening of two films in particular that will undoubtedly become a part of cinema lore: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (d. Luc Besson) and Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan). And they’re not the only fantastic films opening right now either.

City of Ghosts, a particularly prescient newly released film that should be on everyone’s radar, documents citizen journalists from the city of Raqqa, Syria.

When an American takes cell phone footage of something wrong with society, the images go viral and everybody talks about it for a day. When the young men in this film do the same, ISIS tracks them down, shoots them in the head on a public street, and then removes their head from their body and mounts it on a nearby fence pole.

There are several executions shown in the first reel of City of Ghosts. When the same images are seen on CNN, the heads are blurred so the impact is lessened. There is no blurring here though.

Another filmmaker might have taken a more exploitative approach to this subject, but director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) uses the violent imagery to show that ISIS understands the use of film technique, demonstrating how they use editing and camera work as a tool for recruitment.

In Raqqa, ISIS bans television and satellite dishes, and the activists have limited windows of opportunity to download their images onto the internet because of roving electronic-transmitting-tracking vans. Some of the group, who call themselves RBSS (Raqqa Being Silently Slaughtered), move to Turkey and Germany only to still get death threats through social media.

There’s a constant sense of danger on display in City of Ghosts. Even sitting in their safe houses in a neutral country, chain smoking while posting smuggled images, you can feel their desperation.

City of Ghosts opens exclusively at the River Oaks Theatre this weekend.

 

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Dunkirk thrusts the viewer directly into the fray of the largest evacuation in modern warfare. And while there isn’t one central character,  some of the familiar faces in the film include Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy and Harry Styles. Additionally, Michael Caine, voice only, pops up on an airplane radio.

Fionn Whitehead, in his feature film debut, opens the film running to the beach under heavy fire. We follow him throughout the film as his character repeatedly escapes bombs, near drowning and other mayhem.

Director Nolan establishes the timeline of the pier on Dunkirk beach (or the mole) over the period of a week; the sea over the period of one day; and the air for the duration of one hour. He then constantly intercuts between the three.

Previous Nolan collaborators like editor Lee Smith, composer Hans Zimmer and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema help shape the film into an amazing cogent work of cinematic art.

Zimmer’s score sounds like the last act of Dark Knight Rises mixed with a constantly ticking clock. The aerial sequences of the film are as expertly accomplished as anything you’ve ever seen. In the end, out of 400,000 soldiers, approximately 330,000 were saved at Dunkirk through a combination of armed forces and civilian rescue efforts. Winston Churchill, who had earlier in the same month (May 1940) become Prime Minister, uses the opportunity to deliver one of his most quoted speeches, which also closes the film.

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

 

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feels like you took a couple of Star Wars films and rolled them into a giant bouncing ball.

Luc Besson wanted to make this film, based on a popular French comic book series that was first published in 1967, for years. While The Fifth Element used the best available technology of its time, that film only had around 250 special effects shots. Valerian, by contrast, utilizes 2355 effects shots. For a film with a hefty tentpole budget, you can see exactly where the money went.

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevinge headline in the film as Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline. Set in the 28th century, the plot revolves around an alien species, “the Pearls,” that send a psychic rescue message through space and time to Valerian. It’s impossible to be bored, as Besson keeps the action moving from one cliffhanger to another.

The flick starts in 1975 with the Apollo Soyuz mission, and proceeds to a montage (cut over Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) to show how a space station above Earth evolves over several centuries into the titular city of a thousand planets.

And while DeHaan and Delevinge are impossibly good looking, they make a believable action duo together in this fantastic film.

 

“Dunkirk,” “Valerian” and “City of Ghosts” This was reposted for my personal reading use

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