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Valerian and Dunkirk are (Very Different) Winners

Reviews of "Dunkirk" and "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," plus local movie news and notes.

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; All Rights Reserved.

Director Christopher Nolan’s rise from gimmicky-yet-promising young filmmaker to blockbuster auteur has encompassed 10 films over the course of 20 years. And while his latest, the historical action/drama “Dunkirk,” is probably not his absolute best work, it does confirm a versatility heretofore somewhat lacking; in stretching beyond the fantastic, Nolan asserts himself as a true master.

Those 10 films include a trio of “Batman” pictures, a pair of soaring science-fiction epics — “Inception” and his best film, 2014’s “Interstellar” — and, of course, the mind-bending thriller which established the director (and his brother Jonathan, a frequent collaborator), “Memento.” While not all of Nolan’s films are fantastic — “Insomnia” was fully earthbound — “Dunkirk” represents the most constrained, realistic story he has yet tackled.

It’s a story well-known to Brits but only truly familiar to history buffs on this side of the pond. In 1940, with Germany on the march through France, nearly half a million French and British soldiers were pinned on a remote beach. Resources were scant as Britain began amassing troops to defend the homeland, and rescue was difficult; larger ships couldn’t approach the beach’s shallow waters. While the R.A.F. attempted to hold off German bombers, civilian boats crossed the English channel to launch a boat-by-boat evacuation.

Here, Nolan tells the story in three arcs: one, a portrayal of paranoia and desperate patience on the beaches; another, the journey of one British yacht en route to Dunkirk; the last, a thrilling ride-along with an air force pilot. In a remarkable feat of screenwriting, these storylines occur simultaneously but do not take place simultaneously; we see a week on the beach, a day on the boat and an hour in the air.

If that’s unclear now, it won’t be at the film’s conclusion — and is barely noticeable during its running time, a testament to a rather impressive script and careful editing. The ensemble cast — including Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and many less familiar faces — is spot-on, but the most laudable names (besides Nolan) may be cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Hans Zimmer, whose score works in lockstep with Nolan’s vision.

At worst, “Dunkirk” is not Nolan’s best film; it is a bit distant, more of a technical masterpiece than an emotional one. But that is faint criticism; this is an excellent movie, a treasure for history buffs and a marvel for all audiences. With Nolan’s first try at a war feature, I’m convinced: He can do anything.

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The science-fiction epic “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” may be as awkward as ... well, as its own title, but an uneven experience somehow adds up to one of the summer’s most enjoyable blockbusters.

Writer/director Luc Besson brings the visual flair he exhibited in the 1995 cult classic “The Fifth Element” to bear on an adaptation of the French comic-book series “Valérian and Laureline.” The two characters in that title (the latter having been inexplicably excised from the adaptation’s clunky moniker) are special agents representing Earth in the interstellar future; when a mission proves more complicated than they thought, they’ll have to navigate a cartoon-hued and endlessly inventive universe to unravel a conspiracy and explain Valerian’s unsettling visions.

“Valerian” has a lot to overcome; its lead, Dane DeHaan, is dreadful, its script is inelegant and its gaze is decidedly male, so to speak. Fortunately, it has a terrific co-lead in Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne; she’s the real star here, and if this film becomes a franchise (which I’m pulling for), it should be her name at the top of the poster. What’s more, while Besson stumbles here and there with dialogue, his world-building is immaculate, rivaling that of George Lucas or Frank Miller.

It’s a fun, busy, fast-paced film, the kind of stuff summer popcorn flicks should be — a fine counterpoint to the weighty epics we’ve seen throughout much of this decade. I’m not sure I loved the film, but I certainly had a fantastic time watching it.

*    *    *

The Montage: The Hollywood Theater will this week present its first Giallo Fest, with rare public exhibitions of an exemplary trio of the influential Italian genre. Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace,” Massimo Dallamano’s “What Have You Done to Solange?” and Lucio Fulci’s “Don’t Torture a Duckling” will be shown alongside the recent Italian hit “Like Crazy.” Details here ... Speaking of hard-boiled cinema, it’s Film Noir Week at Row House Cinema, featuring “Double Indemnity,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” “The Big Sleep” and “Panique” ... One of the most underrated comedies of the ’80s gets a screening this Wednesday as part of the AMC Loews Waterfront 22 classic series. See Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd and more in “Clue.” Details here.


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