Mike at the Movies

Dunkirk (PG-13) *****

Perhaps the strongest battle film since “Saving Private Ryan,” this one is drawn from stories of Dunkirk, the famous small-ship rescue of 330,000 British, Belgian and French forces from the small French seaside town of Dunkirk in May and June of 1940. Writer-Director Christopher Nolan had never before directed a film based on historical events, but he picked a doozy for his first venture.

The structure is subtle and vital: The evacuation was by sea but a lot was happening on the land in Dunkirk and in the air as well. It was all made possible by a strange decision by Field Marshals von Rundstedt and von Kluge (not Hitler) to stop the final elimination of Dunkirk because they feared an Allied breakout. The three-day delay, in which only the Luftwaffe and assorted naval vessels attacked, allowed the British to mount an unbelievable rescue effort by small boats. This was necessary because the larger vessels could not get close enough to reach the troops because of shallow waters. The small boats would carry stranded troops to destroyers offshore and some went all the way back to England.

The movie tells the story in alternating views from the RAF pilots of mostly Spitfires, a small group of Brits on the ground and a single fishing boat piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his two underaged sons. The music by Hans Zimmer is particularly effective in each setting, with a metronomic regularity in each section that emphasizes the time that is running out for the stranded soldiers. The sound of the air attacks and the defense by the Spitfires is astounding and awe-inspiring as well as visceral.

There are mini-stories within each land, sea and air group, all linked smoothly. There is little dialogue; the story writes itself. Everything I know about Dunkirk convinces me that the film is historically accurate. The portrayal of men in strife, facing death or, at best, an unknown future, is harrowing and the consistency of the vision of Nolan and the pressure applied by the events themselves make this a classic.

“Dunkirk” is superb film-making, perfect for high school age students and above. This film will remain as a fitting history of that battle and of the courage it took for the British citizen-sailors to journey into Hell in order to save their countrymen.

War for the Planet of the Apes (PG-13) *****

Andy Serkis is a genius at what he does. What he does is appear as aliens or animals in big movies and make you believe that his characters are real. He tops himself in this one, starring for the last time as Caesar, the leader of the Good Apes.

One of the confusing things about this franchise for newbies is that fact that there are two groups of apes: good ones and bad ones. In this one, the good ones, led by Caesar, are set upon by the US Army, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and the bad apes, led by Ty Olsson as Red Donkey. The Colonel takes out Caesar’s wife and son, leaving him with a baby ape, Cornelius (Devyn Dalton), to take care of while he also “takes care” of the Colonel.

The problem is that Caesar and his small band of apes have to fight through a lot of apes to get to the Colonel—and Caesar has one hard and fast rule: Apes don’t kill apes. The pursuit of the Colonel takes the band through the snow-covered forest to end up at a mountain fortress facing overwhelming odds. Caesar is a classic thinker in war and makes his way into the stronghold, aided by the humorous Bad Donkey (Steve Zahn).

As Caesar fights the Army and the bad apes, he also wages a war within himself. He must fight the killer instinct within that is, he acknowledges, within all apes. This struggle against his nature makes him a quixotic leader, but Sarkis is such a genius that he brings it off with body language and facial expressions that tear at your heart.

The entire cast of actors and CGI technicians use every tool in the box to make the apes understandable to us humans. There are scary moments and some extreme pyrotechnics, as well as fights that may frighten the youngest, but from 10 on up, things should go well. This is just a wonderful, strange, miraculous film for summer and destined for well-deserved blockbuster status. Go see it!

Atomic Blonde (R) ****

A complex 1989 Berlin spy plot can’t hide the glory of Charlize Theron as agent Lorraine Broughton, allegedly MI-6 but perhaps more CIA. The twists and turns of the plot and the characters are less intriguing than the fights that accompany and precede every twist and every turn. Theron is, in a word, devastating, both as a woman and as a fighter. She takes on so many you can’t count them all looks great while doing so in stylish outfits from the period, all seemingly designed to allow her utmost fighting room. Of course the fights are unreal; this is a movie after all about spies and hidden identities and motivations.

James McAvoy as Percival is quixotic and dissolute as an MI-6 agent supposed to help Broughton find a crucial list that will, of course, determine the course of post-Cold War Europe and the US. Controversy for some may be caused by Broughton’s very sexual affair with French agent Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella). Toby Jones as an MI-6 interrogator and John Goodman, representing the CIA, are the representatives of governments.

The ultimate question appears at the end as the Berlin Wall falls and affairs of state are settled and unsettled. “What was the game and who won?” Indeed. Bloody, sexy and brilliantly scored by literally scores of big names from rock of the time. If you missed my saying so, Theron is gorgeous, physically dominating and totally in control of things. This is a great action performance but I pity her stunt double!