Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Film Review - War for the Planet of the Apes (12A)

Apes together strong!
The new Planet of the Apes trilogy has been one of the most welcome blockbuster surprises of recent years. When Rise of came out, I was asking 'Why?', but the film stomped on my question with its intelligent storytelling and sheer craft. Then Dawn of broadened the canvas and upped the stakes to magnificent effect. As often with film trilogies the question then became 'Will the final part (War for) let the whole thing down?' 
The answer, happily, is no. In fact it cements the trilogy's stature. Breathe out and relax.

War for the Planet of the Apes completes the story of noble ape Caesar and his efforts to establish a safe haven for his band of newly evolved primates. The remnants of humanity are now reeling from their self-inflicted wounds and lashing out militarily at ape-kind. Woody Harrelson plays an army Colonel on a very personal mission to deal with what he perceives as the ape threat. The consequences of his actions set Caesar on an uncharacteristically vengeful quest, one which threatens to put everything for which the apes have struggled at risk. The tale that unfolds is powerful and dark, full of resonances with the modern era and recent history, and with a strong nod to Apocalypse Now.
War is not the full-on ape-versus-human combat story you might expect. While there are superbly realised action sequences, they by no means dominate what is ultimately a moving (if not always very subtle) character piece. The genius of this trilogy is to make the ape leader our protagonist, so that our sympathies rest squarely with Caesar and his extended primate family. Yes the movies have a scattering of likeable human characters and not all the apes are paragons of nobility, but as a trio these films serve to critique the darker aspects of human behaviour. To act with cruelty as an ape, as Caesar's orangutan mentor Maurice might point out, is to mirror humanity at its worst.
As ever it's the story's stunning visuals that really sell it. Each of these films tops the previous in spectacle, but it's the sheer photo-realism of the ape community that impresses most. Actor is rendered into ape via the ever more precise art of motion capture, the bodily and facial performances reproduced in formidable detail. Just look at Andy Serkis (very possibly my all-time acting hero) as Caesar. He's played this character from baby to mature ape over three films and in War every flicker of conflicting emotion plays out in his eyes as surely as if it were a non-animated human on camera. 
There's excellent work too from Karin Konoval as the empathetic Maurice and Steve Zahn as a wide-eyed and lovably funny chimp called Bad Ape. (And well done also to little Amiah Miller, the human child in one very touching subplot.) This is Serkis' show, however, and it's a testament to both him and the animators that Caesar is the most 'human' character in the series.
Congratulations are due then to director Matt Reeves and a superb production team for a gloriously realised final chapter in the modern Apes saga. It has the scope of a David Lean epic and in its central performance the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy. They brought it home - not necessarily as I'd expected, but in a way that's almost perfect.
Ed's Verdict: They could have dropped the ball on this one, but instead - touchdown! War is full of terrible beauty and stands as a fitting end to a magnificent trilogy.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Film Review - Dunkirk (12A)

You can practically see it from here... Home.
Dunkirk - the name is synonymous here in the UK with communal spirit in the face of terrible adversity. A whole generation still vividly recalls the events of May-June 1940, when over 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from the beach of the French coastal resort, largely by civilian vessels enlisted in Operation Dynamo. It was a watershed historical event, dealt with in film before (see my April review of Their Finest for a recent example), but never so viscerally as in Christopher Nolan's new feature. 
Nolan has described his own movie as 'not a war film', but rather 'a survival story' and 'suspense film'. It's fair comment. Hemmed in by approaching German tanks and threatened by a skyfull of Messerschmitt bombers, the young soldiers are done with warring for now. Their offensive into mainland Europe has failed and all they can do is await rescue, with no assurance that it will ever come. The enemy is faceless throughout, coming only in the form of a torpedo, sniper bullet or aerial bombardment.
Dunkirk charts three lads' week-long struggle to survive on the beaches. Their travails are inter-cut with the day-long voyage across the English Channel by one of the many tiny rescue boats, and with an hour-long dogfight between British and German pilots - an intricate triple time-structure in a film all about time running out. It's a sustained exercise in tension, building steadily to the point at which events on land, sea and air converge. By the time they do, you'll have been both terrified and enthralled.
Nolan is one of the most distinctive voices in modern cinema and all his trademark film-making preferences are brought to bear here. Dunkirk is shot with IMAX cameras, producing panoramic vistas of sky, sea and beaches. Computer-generated images are rejected at every turn in favour of real warships and the genuine piloting of real period fighter planes. The soundscape is breathtaking in its own right, from the thrum of ships' engines to the dreadful overhead whine of approaching enemy aircraft, all of it backed up by Hans Zimmer's relentless ticking-clock score. 
The result is a deep sense of authenticity, as immersive a piece of cinema as your could hope to experience. You spend time - proper nail-chewing time - among these scared and desperate young men, along with those rushing to their aid. Dialogue is sparse. There's no time spent spent swapping stories about family and girlfriends and whether the boys will get to see City play again - just solidarity born of fear and ebbing hope. Or the fighter-pilots' steely-eyed concentration. Or the rescuers' determination to do a little bit of good in a continent gone stark mad. 
There are fine performances too, however shorn of speech. Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy get to say the most as terse, preoccupied military officers. Mark Rylance has understated dignity as the pleasure-boat captain progressing doggedly across the Channel. Previously unknown Fionn Whitehead and pop superstar Harry Styles are level on the Dunkirk sand-flats, both quietly impressive as British army Privates trying to stay alive. 
You don't get to know any of these men well and frankly there's no need. Writer/director Nolan understands that from the beginning. These characters could be any out of thousands caught up in an extraordinary event of history. It's enough that they're human - painfully so - and that the events depicted in Dunkirk really did happen.
Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. Technically masterful, gripping throughout and profoundly affecting, Dunkirk is Nolan at the height of his powers. Film of the summer and a contender for film of the year. See it - on the biggest screen possible.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Film Review - Baby Driver (15)

One more job and I'm done.
Here's a handgun-blast of originality in the middle of the Blockbuster Summer 2017. Edgar Wright, best known for his 'Cornetto Trilogy' (including the now classic Shaun of the Dead), brings us Baby Driver. It's a labour of love, five years in gestation and now birthed onto the screen in vibrant colour with a roaring soundtrack to match. Yes it's got cars and guns and sweet rocking tunes, but it's also got a big beating heart and a central character you'll root for to the end. His name's Baby - and yes, he's the driver in question.
That's a getaway driver to be specific (played by rising star Ansel Elgort), one reluctantly in the employ of Kevin Spacey's criminal mastermind Doc. He's young and introverted, and superb at what he does, insistent that each retreat from a heist be backed by the right 'killer track' on his earphones. The reasons for this, and for how such a clean-cut youngster became embroiled in crime, are all neatly sketched by the screenplay. Baby's music is more necessity than choice. What this gives us is a film where the protagonist's personal soundtrack serves as a tight rhythmic accompaniment to most of the action, whether fast-paced or quiet. It's music as fuel, more intimately connected to that drama than anything you've experienced outside of an actual musical.
There's a girl too (well of course there is) - the UK's Lily James as a waitress called Debora, who shares Baby's passion for music, but knows nothing of his dubious profession. Baby is counting down the jobs till he has paid off his obligations to Doc, and can drive instead into a sunset with his new love - but getting out is never that easy, least of all in the movies.
If this all sounds familiar, it's good to remember that Wright, like his pal Quentin Tarantino, has built a career on retooling genre films with fresh ideas and whip-smart direction. As well as the central conceit of Baby's reliance on music, Baby Driver brings all of Wright's directorial finesse to bear on the story. Car chases and shoot-outs, as well as more intimate scenes between Baby and his girl or his foster-dad, are crafted with painstaking shot-by-shot attention that we saw in Hot Fuzz and The World's End. The action provides an adrenalising rush, while the quieter moments sustain their hold on the audience at every moment. And if the opening sequence doesn't make you smile - then I imagine you're having a pretty bad day.
A shout-out is deserved too for a clutch of excellent performances. Elgort and James provide a satisfying emotional centre for the film, and they're backed up with sheer class by the rest of the criminal gang. Spacey brings gravity and understated menace to the role of Doc, while Jamie Foxx is both funny and unnerving as aptly-named psychopath Bats. Mad Men's Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzales round out the group as Buddy and Darling, a couple reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde in their reckless passion. A team to die for, or possibly amongst.
With its lollipop-red sports-cars, visual panache and flashes of violence, Baby Driver is reminiscent of Tarantino, yet ultimately it has more sweetness and a stronger moral compass. It's also a standalone big-budget film in a franchise-heavy summer and deserving of its success. Let its hot soundtrack and carburettor roar thrill you to the bone. 
Ed's Verdict: While it takes its inspiration from car chase movies of old, Baby Driver is so much more. Beneath its chrome exterior is a lot of heart and soul.