Planes to bombs: 'Dunkirk,' 'American Made,' 'Shock Wave'

By Tom Von Malder | Jan 09, 2018
Photo by: Warner Bros Home Entertainment Jack Lowden plays British Spitfire fighter pilot in "Dunkirk" (above), but also plays Steven Patrick Morrissey in "England Is Mine."

Owls Head — Dunkirk (Warner Bros, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 106 min.). Dunkirk was a disaster in the making. In May 1940, the German army had forced 300,000 British and 100,000 French troops to the seaside town of Dunkirk, France. The Germans could have attacked any time on the ground and wiped out the Allied forces, but instead used periodic bombing to kill the backed-up troops, who really only had one way to evacuate, along the Mole (aka breakwater) that allowed access to deep water ships. One of the most striking images of writer-director Christopher Nolan's film is soldiers lined up in long queues, facing the water and waiting for their turn to board a boat.

The viewer first comes across those images while following the desperate attempts of a very young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead as Tommy) to flee to the beach through the streets of Dunkirk without getting shot. The brilliantly lensed film -- more than 70 percent of it with bulky IMAX cameras and nearly all done in camera rather than digitally -- then divides into three concurrent stories. One takes place on the beach as Tommy and another soldier (Aneurin Barnard as Gibson) try desperately to board a boat, even racing with an injured soldier on a stretcher, while two officers (Kenneth Branagh as Cmdr. Bolton and James D'Arcy as Col. Winnant) try to get the men evacuated. However, the Germans make the efforts nearly impossible by first bombing and sinking a Red Cross ship full of wounded soldiers and then a destroyer. Tommy also encounters other young soldiers, one of whom, Alex, is played by former One Direction singer Harry Styles. Nolan wanted to use young, relatively unknown actors as many of the real soldiers were very young, ages 17-19.

The British soldiers could just about see home across the water and Winston Churchill has hoping some 50,000 could be rescued so as to defend England from the expected German invasion. However, as the film's tagline says, home came for the soldiers, as a ragtag assemblage of small, private boats were sent over to Dunkirk to pick up the men. The second part of the story deals with this effort through a sailor (Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson), who, with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and young neighbor George (Barry Keoghan), takes his Moonstone boat to pick up stranded soldiers. Along the way, they rescue a downed pilot (Cillian Murphy), who keeps trying to make them turn back.

The third story of the film is that of three British Spitfire pilots, who fly out to stop German planes from bombing the trapped soldiers. The pilots include Tom Hardy as Farrier and Jack Lowden (see "England Is Mine" below) as Collins.

The film, with cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, places the viewer within the action, with dialogue mostly minimal. The film is expected to garner several Oscar nominations. It was nominated for three Golden Globes (Best Picture, Director and Music by Hans Zimmer) and seven BAFTA Awards (the British version of the Oscars), including Best Film and Cinematography. This edition comes with a second disc with a 16-part, feature-length, making-of (109 min.) that covers the creation of the film, the young casting, the music and how many of the scenes were created and photographed. One interesting fact is that rows of painted soldiers were used to build up the population of the beach queue scenes. Three elderly veterans who were at Dunkirk are interviewed. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

England Is Mine (MVD, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 94 min.). In "Dunkirk," Jack Lowden plays a British Spitfire pilot. Here, Lowden is much more down-to-earth as the conflicted, self-doubting young Steven Patrick Morrissey, before he joins The Smiths and became a famous singer-songwriter. While Morrissey dreams of being in a band, he lacks the follow-through to make it happen due to his insecurities, although he eventually joins a band along with guitarist Billy Duffy and has one very successful gig, before Duffy (Adam Lawrence) is lured away by another band. (Duffy both introduced Johnny Marr to the guitar and to Morrissey, leading to the eventual creation of The Smiths, and Duffy went on to fame as guitarist for Theatre of Hate and The Cult.)

The film starts in 1976 Manchester, England, a working class city that has spawned many a great band, including 10cc, The Fall, Happy Mondays, The Hollies, Joy Division, New Order, Oasis and The Stone Roses, among dozens of others. Morrissey would have been 17 at the time and best friends with Anji (Katherine Pearce). Morrissey's thing at the time was to write critiques of band performances in letters sent to the New Musical Express. One time, one of his letters is answered by Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay), a like spirit who becomes his new best friend. Morrissey's father moves out, after one of numerous fights with his wife (Simone Kirby), forcing his son to get a job, which is a kind of soul-killing one as a clerk in The Inland Revenue office. He proves not the ideal worker, often being late and sneaking off to the roof, where he writes lyrics in a notebook.

The only bit of Morrissey music comes 48 minutes in, when he performs one song with the Nosebleeds. Towards the end, the film becomes something of a downer, as Morrissey appears to sink into depression, but then Marr knocks on his door and, well, the viewer knows the rest of the story is going to be more uplifting, even if it is not portrayed in this film, which was co-written and directed by Mark Gill, who provides audio commentary along with actor Lowden. Some behind-the-scenes footage and unused material make up the "Sad Facts, Widely Known" montage (8:28); cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland talks about making the film in "Smoke and Mirrors" (21:54); and there is an image gallery. On occasion, there are references to things that pop up latter in Morrissey lyrics. In particular, I thought about his "Cemetery Gates" from "The Queen Is Dead" album, as Morrissey and Sterling sit on a bench outside a cemetery as they say goodbye, with Sterling off for London and her art show. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2 stars

American Made (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 114 min.). The film, based on the true story of pilot Barry Seal, who  flew weapons for the CIA to the Contras in Nicaragua and cocaine for what became the Medellin Cartel, is a wild, often fun ride that features Tom Cruise at his most charismatic as Seal. The film, which expands greatly on the truth to serve up an entertaining story, reunited Cruise with director Doug Liman, who helmed his fascinating "Edge of Tomorrow" science fiction film. Setting the fun tone of the film is when the usual Universal opening fanfare abruptly switches over to "Classical Gas" and images of the early 1980s.

Seal was an often bored TWA pilot when he is approached by the CIA's Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to provide reconnaissance on the burgeoning Communist threat in Central America by flying a plane with cameras underneath. Schafer has learned that Seal already was smuggling cigars into Canada. With Schafer as his handler, the CIA sets up a company, Independent Aviation Consultants, as Seal's front. (The company goes by the acronym IAC, which is not too different from CIA.) Seal leaves TWA in 1978, without telling his wife (Sarah Wright Olsen as Lucy Seal), and soon becomes a bagman between the CIA and dictator Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino). In 1980, Seal begins bringing cocaine into the United States for the founders of the Medellin Cartel, including Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), at a pay of $2,000 per kilo. When the Sandinistas hold a revolution in Nicaragua, President Ronald Reagan sides with the Contras. Soon, Seal is flying guns to Columbia, then drugs to the Contras, who boat the drugs to Florida.

Meanwhile, when the border patrol starts zeroing in on Seal, the CIA gives him 2,000 acres, including a small airport and a house, in Mena, Arkansas. Some amusing bits show Seal with so much cash that he has problems storing it. Another funny bit involves pay phone tag with government agencies trying to record his calls. The film goes slightly off kilter with the introduction of JB (Caleb Landry Jones), Lucy's troublesome brother, but it also moves the film into more "Scarface" territory. Eventually, Seal has to hire four more pilots to keep up with his gun running and drug trafficking, and the CIA builds training facilities for the Contras on Seal's property. The huge clandestine operation would eventually be exposed as part of the Iran-Contra Affair.

Extras include six deleted scenes (9:56) with optional Liman commentary (the bit on the telephone arms race is funny); "American Storytellers" (6:39), with the filmmakers talking about the film's appeal; a conversation between Liman and Cruise (5:25), in which they talk about sharing a house together and with screenwriter Gary Spinelli during the filming (lots of talk about different sides of the refrigerator and cleaning duties; the house also served as Seal's house in the film); a discussion of their characters by actors Wright Olsen, Jones and Gleeson (6:01); Cruise and Liman discusses the aerial stunts (4:50; both are pilots);  a look at making the movie in Colombia and a small town in Georgia (4:16); and Aaron Seal reflects on his father's life with still photos and home movies (5:51). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Shock Wave (Hong Kong, Cinedigm, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 118 min.). This is the third collaboration between star Andy Lau and writer-director Herman Yau, after 1991's "Don't Fool Me" and 1999's "Fascination Amour." The busy Lau, who was in nine films released in 2016-17, plays Cheung Choi-san, a bomb disposal expert working for the Hong Kong Police. We first see him undercover as part of Hung Kai-pang's gang, putting together bombs that are then placed in three taxis. The gang then robs a bank, using the exploding taxis as part of its getaway plan. This leads to an exciting police chase before the opening credits.

The story then jumps forward six months. We see Cheung disarm a World War II bomb that had been uncovered at a construction site, and then deal with a dual bomb threat, one of which involves using a robot to open the suspicious package. It turns out the latter bombs were the work of Hung Kai-pang (Jiang Wu), who now goes by the name Blast. He had escaped with some of the bank heist money, but his brother Hong Biao (Leo Zi-yi Wang) had been incarcerated. Meanwhile, Cheung has developed a relationship with a school teacher (Song Jia as Li Carmen).

The bulk of the action film deals with Blast's takeover of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which links Kowloon to the island of Hong Kong. The tunnel is one of three. Truck accidents at each end block off the tunnel and Blast's armed army of nearly 50 take control of the more than 500 hostages trapped in their vehicles. Highlighted are a tour bus driver and his charges and a group of four policemen, three of whom are retired. The current policeman is played by Babyjohn Choi, while his father is played by Ying Kwan Lok. Blast will only deal with Cheung and one of his demands is his brother's freedom, with the threat of killing a hostage every 10 minutes until his brother is produced. There is a very emotional scene between Cheung and a hostage who is sent out with a bomb strapped to his body, part of the tenseness of the film's second half, which ends in action-packed fashion.

The only extra is a very brief bit with two actors and the director discussing what a bomb disposal expert does (2:21). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extra 1/2 star

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In: The Complete Second Season (1968-69, Time Life, 7 DVDs, NR, 1,425 min.). Having already released a box set of the complete series -- highly recommended -- Time Life is now releasing individual seasons of the weekly comedy smorgasbord, hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, that gave us "Here comes the judge," "Sock it to me," "Cocktail Party," "Fickle Finger of Fate" and "Gladys and Tyrone" on the park bench. Guest stars for the 26-episode season include Mel Brooks, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Kirk Douglas, Hugh Hefner, Jack Lemmon, Liberace, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles and future President Richard Nixon. Tiny Tim sings and explores Downtown Burbank. Bonus features are interviews with Martin, show announcer Gary Owens and cast member Ruth Buzzi.

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