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'Dunkirk,' 'Girls Trip' are bright spots in a bummer summer

By GARY THOMPSON | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: August 30, 2017

Analysis of this summer’s box office can properly be dubbed a postmortem, so gruesome were the overall numbers.

Ticket revenue was down at least 12 percent, and ticket sales were at their lowest point for the season in 10 years. Audiences did not want to see remakes of old TV shows (bad news for “Baywatch” and “CHIPs”). They did not want to see badly reviewed franchise entries (the take for the latest “Transformers” installment was way down). It was a great, $400 million summer for “Wonder Woman,” but not for all women - “Snatched” and “Rough Night” fared poorly. Late summer has been a particular drag on revenue. Somehow, Hollywood ran out of franchise/sequel blockbusters and had to make do with - gasp! - original content. Sometimes that didn’t work out too well - “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” cost more than $100 million to make, and made only $40 million.

But well-made, well-reviewed original material usually did quite well. Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” topped $100 million. “Girls Trip” moved past $100 million last weekend - a notable feat for a movie starring four African American women. “Girls Trip” has become the first studio movie produced, written, and directed by African Americans and featuring all top-billed black talent to hit that mark. The movie is at $114 million and climbing, and cost just $19 million to make.

Analysts think some of this has to do with SMU, an acronym that once meant Southern Methodist University but that now refers to Social Media Universe, and the way stars and celebrities who are active on social media can collectively market a movie and pull followers into theaters. According to Deadline.com, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith marketed aggressively to their 30 million followers and along with other cast members pushed the movie to a surprise $30 million opening.

That brings us to another sleeper summer hit that’s worth talking about in depth, as well as a Mel Gibson epic that’s worth revisiting.

“Dunkirk” reportedly drew on an SMU of more than 200 million people to help tally nearly $170 million at the North American box office. It was also the summer’s most chewed-over movie. Some saw it as pro-Brexit. Some saw it as anti-Brexit. Some saw it as Tory porn. Or ahistorical. Or excessively male. Or insufficiently French.

Looking back at Christopher Nolan’s movie now, I’m struck by how it’s of a piece with “Saving Private Ryan” and “Hacksaw Ridge” - how Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and Mel Gibson framed their WWII stories as epic rescue narratives, stories of men saving other men. Taken together, the movies suggest there is something in the spirit of those endeavors that is itself worth rescuing, or reclaiming from history.

In “Saving Private Ryan,” for instance, when Tom Hanks looks at Matt Damon and says, “Earn this,” he’s not talking to Damon. He’s talking to us. Are we still mindful of the fact that we were saved from, as Spielberg put it, “totalitarian slavery,” and have we done enough to honor the sacrifices that made that possible? (The answer is: Not recently).

Rescues form the heart of Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who served as a medic because he refused to hold a weapon or to kill, yet exhibited extraordinary bravery on the battlefield under the most horrific conditions.

The movie - you can catch it on HBO GO or rent it on various streaming services - is not about pacifism as a philosophy. It’s a spiritual and overtly religious film presented as a test of one man’s religious faith and Christian values. Given some of Gibson’s past outbursts, that might understandably make folks nervous. But the movie’s final third is phenomenally good, and watching it ought to be (but probably won’t be) an embarrassment to anyone who shows up in a public space with an AR-15 claiming to be the vanguard of a new Christian nation.

Yes, the movie is itself violent, but the violence exists to provide a context for the bravery of the weaponless Doss in the face of unspeakable carnage - to gauge the dimension and depth of his commitment. He rescues one man, prays for the strength to rescue “just one more,” then returns to the fray and does just that, time and again.

I normally object when a real-life subject of a movie turns up (as Doss does here) at the end of a biopic, because it can undercut the power of what we’ve just seen. In “Hacksaw Ridge,” Doss’ cameo is essential, and helpful - we see that “just one more” is not some corny screenwriting device; it’s what the guy actually said, and what he actually did. (Ditto the incredible-but-true invocation of the “Once was blind, but now I see” parable.)

“Dunkirk” also speaks to a contemporary audience with voices from the past. It concludes with a reading of Churchill’s speech on the Dunkirk rescue, when civilians crossed the channel to help evacuate 400,000 stranded soldiers.

When I spoke to Nolan, he was keen to kick the Brexit discussion to the curb, and to say that his movie is about the importance of collective action in an age given over to individualism.

Beyond that, it’s an argument for action of any kind. Governments and armies couldn’t help Allied troops stranded on French beaches. But people could, and did.

“Dunkirk” is a big word-of-mouth hit (it had strong audience holds week to week), perhaps because the initiative and resolve it celebrates are inspiring, especially against our current backdrop of institutional failure and dysfunctional leadership.

You can complain about that.

Or, like Mark Rylance’s character, you can gas up your boat and go.

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© 2017 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish in "Girls Trip."
UNIVERSAL PICTURES/TNS

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