Monday, July 31, 2017

Book: Churchill & Orwell by Thomas E. Ricks

Churchill & Orwell, The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks:  a book I read one week prior to seeing Dunkirk.  If you’re a fan of either Winston Churchill or George Orwell, I think you will  enjoy this book.  It is a very readable 270 page account of these two men.  Although both made their historic marks during the 1940’s, Churchill and Orwell never met.  The book devotes a short chapter to each man’s life prior to the 1930’s.  We then pick up with Churchill being politically ignored prior to 1939 and Orwell’s education by way of his brief participation in the Spanish Civil War.  Each man is given separate chapters as world events leading up to WW II unfold and the subsequent fight for freedom.  The author points out the commonalities that existed in Churchill and Orwell’s lives, notwithstanding the fact that they had completely different upbringings.  Both men were capable of looking directly at reality; both were seekers of the facts.  The chapter relating to Orwell’s experience during the Spanish Civil War and his reaction to what actually occurred versus Hemingway’s version, is reason enough to read this book.   The chapter about the German air blitz and the reaction of the British people, including Orwell’s personal observations, is excellent.  There are 50 pages of notes and citations at the end of the book.  A recurring theme throughout the book is the importance of language and the fact that words truly mattered to both men.  Ricks was a journalist for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal; Ricks is not an academic.  His account of two of the most famous British men of the 20th century is presented in a very engaging manner.  I highly recommend this book.

Movie: Dunkirk

Dunkirk:  the film expertly depicts what occurred at Dunkirk in late May 1940.  The city of Dunkirk is located on the coast of Northwestern France approximately 10 kilometers from the Belgium border.  A significant portion of the film takes place on the beach where as many as 400,000 British and French troops were stranded as a consequence of Germany’s successful blitzkrieg through France.  Rather than having his tank force continue their push to the sea, Hitler chose to have his air force finish the campaign.  This allowed Britain time to evacuate approximately 300,000 men.  Had Hilter chosen to continue the push westward using his ground troops, the allied forces at Dunkirk would have been decimated.  This film by Christopher Nolan tells of the British evacuation.  At the beginning of the film, we are told that “The Mole” (the jetty protruding into the Atlantic Ocean from the  beach) lasted for one week, “The Sea” (the military ships and civilian boats involved in the evacuation) lasted for one day, and “The Air” (the aerial battle between British and German planes) lasted for one hour.  During the course of its 106 minutes, the film weaves these three campaign narratives into a single cohesive tale about the evacuation of Dunkirk.  Most of the characters remain nameless, and you never see a German soldier until the closing scene.  The aerial sequences are outstanding, starting with the three British spitfires and their subsequent confrontations with German fighters.  Tom Hardy does a magnificent job as the lead pilot.  The British soldier who has the most on-screen time is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) but you learn his name only by looking at the credits at the end of film.  The major character who is clearly identified is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the officer in charge of the embarkation.  The evacuation was successful due to participation by British civilian boaters who answered the call for assistance in rescuing the Dunkirk soldiers.  Of the civilian boaters, the film highlights a father (Mark Rylance ), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the son’s schoolmate (Barry Keoghan) who happened to be at the dock when the call for help came.  Of the film’s large cast, these three characters are among the most developed.  Because the film stays tightly focused on the goal of getting the men off the beach and back home, there is no back story for any of the individual characters.  From the opening scene, it is clear that you are at war and war’s consequences are constantly present.  The typical scene of war room strategizing is omitted.  Instead you are shown men waiting on the beach, men struggling to across the channel, and the superb aerial scenes.  My father refused to attend war movies because he said they never showed the horror of what was truly occurring.  This film, with its three pronged narrative, is one of the rare exceptions.  Dunkirk concludes with a reading of a portion of Churchill’s famous speech that rallied the British people once the majority of the soldiers were safely back home.  Most films would have included a shot of Churchill speaking but, to the end, Nolan remains true to his storyline.  Dunkirk is a film about how one saves lives in war.  With its expert cinematography, this is a film that should be seen on the big screen with full capacity audio.  The film’s musical score by Hans Zimmer also deserves praise.  The major Oscar winners are usually films released towards the end of the year.  Dunkirk should prove to be the exception.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Movie: Beatriz at Dinner

Beatriz at Dinner:  an entertaining movie that speaks to the present social, economic and lifestyle divisions within American society.  Beatriz (Salma Hayek), who was born in Mexico, is a massage therapist.  In the opening scene, she is dreaming about rowing a boat through a mangrove swamp where she encounters a white goat on the shore.  In the next scene, Beatriz is caring for her animals, including a goat, before going to work.  Although she treats most of her clients at a medical center, Beatriz also does house visits.  One of her house clients is Kathy (Connie Britton), a very wealthy woman with an elaborate home in Orange County, California.  During the massage session, we learn that Beatriz and Kathy became close while Beatriz was providing massage therapy to Kathy’s daughter to help the daughter regain her strength following cancer treatments.  We also learn that Beatriz’s neighbor killed one of her goats simply because it was making too much noise.  Upon leaving, Beatriz learns that her car won’t start and she needs to wait for a friend to pick her up.  Kathy invites Beatriz to join her for a dinner party at the residence.  The guests are Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), Grant’s boss Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), Doug’s third wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny).  Alex scored a major political lobbying victory, which will produce a substantial income for Doug’s company.  The dinner is in celebration of Alex’s success.  This 83 minute film becomes truly interesting when Doug, a Trump-like entrepreneur, and Beatriz start interacting.  Doug is a multi-millionaire with a history of legal entanglements and is often in the news.  Lithgow’s performance is excellent, and part of the reason this film works is because Lithgow’s character is presented as a complex person with a humorous side.  The first hour has some very funny scenes, especially when Doug and Beatriz are involved.  Miguel Arteta is the film’s director and Mike White wrote the screenplay.  None of the main characters are stereotypes and the dialogue has a very entertaining edge to it.  The downside of the film is that once the issues of class, wealth and life style are laid out via the dinner dialogue, it seems that Arteta and White are at a loss as to what to do with the characters and how to finish the story.  As is my policy, I will not reveal the ending.  I would categorize the ending as “artsy” but it left me feeling very unsatisfied.  There are no special effects in this film, just excellent acting.  This is a film to see at home to take advantage of the ability to rewind and re-watch the interactions between Doug and Beatriz, two people with very different backgrounds.  Except for the inadequate and unsatisfying conclusion, Beatriz at Dinner has a significant level of positive energy and is worthwhile seeing.