Month: July 2017

Dunkirk

(BBFC 12A, 1hr 46mins)


Nothing can prepare you for the experience of watching director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk on the big screen (and, let me make this point crystal clear, you absolutely have to see it on the big screen, the bigger the better). It is not thrilling. It is not enjoyable. It is, most definitely, not fun. It is, however, one of the best movies of the year: a visceral, terrifying vision of Hell; it’s harrowing and draining, emotional and triumphant; it shakes the viewer to the core; immerses you in fear and horror; physically shakes you and breaks your heart before tossing you out of the theatre where you stagger, zombie-like, in stunned awe and silence.

At the outbreak of World War 2, the UK government declared war on Germany and sent the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to support the French and impose an economic blockade on the aggressors. The unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, the Wehrmacht, swept down through Holland and Belgium, however, quickly defeating our allies and pushing the BEF back toward the French coast. In May 1940, four-hundred thousand allied troops were forced onto the beaches to await evacuation. British High Command put into action the hastily formulated Project Dynamo, requisitioning as many sea-worthy craft and crews as they could get their hands on to help the evacuation, from a 15-foot fishing boat to a River Mersey Ferry and a paddle steamer normally used for pleasure cruises, the 700-strong flotilla of “Little Ships” managed to rescue some three-hundred and thirty-eight thousand troops from the blood-soaked beaches.


Over eight long and, one can only imagine, utterly terrifying days and nights the men at Dunkirk waited their turn for rescue, all the while strafed by the Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka bombers of the Luftwaffe (Hitler, crucially, making the mistake of not sending his armoured divisions into battle, thereby saving countless thousands). Great acrobatic dogfights soared and exploded above the men as the Royal Air Force bravely battled to keep the evacuees and ships safe and allow them the time to escape unharmed.

Dunkirk tells its story from four perspectives: a trio of young soldiers awaiting evacuation (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles); naval commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh); RAF fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy); and, finally, civilian boat-owner/skipper Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with his teenage son and his son’s schoolfriend (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan). These are not separate sub-plots but all part of the whole sum, just each from the view (and timeline) of the different protagonists. It’s a conceit that allows the story to flow, yet keeps the movie to a tight and manageable running time, there’s absolutely no fat allowed onto the script’s slight, yet muscular, frame. Nolan lets the action do most of the talking, there is little rhetoric or exposition and while the characters are given little in the way of backstory, you feel for every one of them and rejoice in their triumphs, swell at their courage, cry for their losses.


Time is one of Christopher Nolan’s signature themes (look to Memento, Inception, Interstellar and even his Batman trilogy, when taken as a whole, for further proof), and with Dunkirk he has once again created a complex yet intuitive structure that, with most directors may seem like a gimmick, moves the story forward without ever seeming complicated or disjointed. The soldiers’ story covers the full week; Farrier’s a single hour and Mr. Dawson’s a single day. It’s a triumph of story-telling which I would struggle to explain, just rest assured that it works. It works really well.

From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is nothing short of miraculous. Filmed on 70mm Imax film cameras and using minimal CGI some of the shots on display should be genuinely impossible. Here’s the science bit: a 70mm Imax camera weighs roughly 240lbs as opposed to a 35mm camera which weighs about 40lbs or a digital camera even less (Tangerine, the 2015 indie movie was shot on iPhones, but that’s another story); the size of the film (70mm obvs.) means the camera can only hold about three minutes of film and takes about 20 minutes to reload; it requires special supports and rigging to move it around; on the plus side, and the reason Nolan prefers to use it, you get 12,000 lines of horizontal definition as opposed to the 4,000 of a regular high definition camera. So, because most of the effects are practical, strapping one of these cameras to the side of a Spitfire, filming the inside of a sinking ship and, let’s not forget, filming on a beach mean that this movie really shouldn’t exist and yet it does and we should all be thankful to the geniuses who got it made.


There’s great performances all round and, although I was dreading the slings and arrows from 1 Directioners, I breathe easy saying that, although not a revelation, Harry Styles is pretty good (I stress though, this is not a film I would recommend the youngest of 1D-ers go see, it may prove far too intense for the under-twelves). Mark Rylance shines (again), Tom Hardy is a stoically British hero and Fionn Whitehead has firmly placed his foot on the first step to stardom.

Minor niggles? As good as Hans Zimmer’s score is there’s maybe a little too much of it. The sound mixing (very loud, very intense, the scream of the Stuka’s left me overwhelmed and shaking, the deep growl of the Spitfire’s Merlin engines reverberated through my entire body though, strangely, proud) works so well that, at many times, the musical soundtrack is redundant.


In Nolan’s hands, “The Miracle of Dunkirk” has become the miracle of Dunkirk. This is movie making taken to the next level: the craftsmanship, expertise, genius on display is nothing short of breath taking. While Dunkirk is most definitely not a rollicking good night out it is something that you have to experience.

In a cinema.

Not on a phone.

As a personal postscript I’d just like to mention that my grandfather, Charles King, was one of those young guys waiting patiently on that beach back in 1940, but he never spoke of it. Watching Dunkirk, I can totally understand why, and why, twenty-something years since he passed away, I love him even more and I’m so grateful for the time we got to spend together.

 

Andy Oliver

War for the Planet of the Apes

(BBFC 12A, 2hrs 22mins)


War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’ (?).

Or, at least that was the stance taken by Andy Serkis’ remarkable creation, Caesar the chimpanzee, at the end of the last instalment of the Planet of the Apes saga, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar had killed the warmongering simian Koba and looked to live in (an uneasy) peace with mankind, both sides wanting to build or rebuild their societies and start afresh.

War for The Planet of the Apes opens with an establishing battle that destroys that accord, a massacre perpetrated by the now-militarised humans that hints that something has shifted within the status quo. That balance is subsequently blown out of the water when a sneak attack by the humans led by a figure known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads to the deaths of Caesar’s wife and eldest child. Consumed by anger, Caesar vows revenge on the Colonel and sets off to exact his vengeance along with his closest allies, Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval), Rocket the Chimp (Terry Notary) and Luca the Gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite). His quest leads him directly into the heart of darkness and a final battle that will change the fate of the world forever.


There is plenty in War for The Planet of the Apes that connects it to “Heart of Darkness”, or, more accurately, the most successful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s best-known work, Apocalypse Now: from Woody Harrelson’s bullet-headed, unhinged Colonel, held in reverence by his troops/followers to an explosive attack by a formation of helicopters; the forest settings a constant reminder of how far from civilisation we’ve come; crucifixions, compound building, the soldiers referring to their ape enemies as “the Kong” (as in “Viet-Cong”, geddit?) and, most obviously, graffiti scrawled on a wall that reads, “Ape-pocalypse Now”.  It’s a lofty bar to aspire to and whilst War is hugely entertaining and affecting, it never quite hits those heights.

For the most part War moves successfully between revenge Western and escape movie, it’s a humane story written across an epic landscape and when it focusses on these aspects it is at its most effective often recalling the films of John Ford or David Lean, it’s director Matt Reeves’ pretensions to Coppola that prove less than satisfying. But that’s a film-nerd niggle, when judged against other Summer blockbusters, War is a hugely thoughtful and satisfying movie, a thinking person’s epic that proves good, old-fashioned storytelling is just as exciting as bloomin’ great big explosions.


The performances and performance captures are, across the board, of the highest quality. Andy Serkis lays down his heaviest gauntlet yet to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be recognised for its highest awards, an Oscar nomination being the very least he deserves. It’s mostly a two-hander with the Caesar/Colonel relationship at its centre, Serkis’ motion capture performance is remarkable in its subtlety and nuance, conveying emotion through his body language, expression and small gestures, you are never unsure as to his essential ‘goodness’ even as his soul is consumed by his roiling need for justice and Harrelson has never been better as his driven and unceasingly chilling nemesis. There’s light relief and heart-breaking tragedy offered by the monkeyshines of Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape and if you thought it unfeasible to love Maurice the Orangutan more, his relationship with a young mute girl (played by Amiah Miller) manages to prove that nothing’s impossible.

I cannot even imagine how much work has gone into rendering the CGI of the apes, there’s a scene early on where Caesar walks amongst his tribe of primates, seemingly hundreds of them, and every single one has its own personality, a light behind the eyes that suggests each and one of them has a story to tell that’s worth listening to. The effects are absolutely flawless and, after an initial few minutes of stunned wonder, you no longer question that what you’re watching is the result of clever programming and immaculate artistry, there are no jarring moments that shatter the imitation of life, there’s never a second that you don’t believe they are living, breathing creatures deserving of your full attention and every ounce of your empathy.


It’s a formidable, thematically dense, soul-stirring and thought-provoking conclusion to the one of the more well-considered trilogies and, whilst there is no cosmic-bending “Statue of Liberty” or (Heaven forbid) “Lincoln Memorial” twist, Keyser Soze-like War for The Planet of the Apes pulls its greatest trick after you have left the building and you’ll find yourself wondering, “Wait, was I just rooting for the end of mankind?”

War is the apocalypse mankind knows full well it is rushing into but even with both eyes fully open seems unable to prevent. Yet, as dark as it gets, like the ending of a classic Western there is always a bright horizon and a better tomorrow.

That’s always worth seeing, isn’t it?

Andy Oliver

Spider-Man: Homecoming

 

(BBFC 12A, 2hrs 13mins)


Imagine that The Breakfast Club’s Brian (the dorky, nerdy one) was a superhero, itching to break free of his enforced detention and save the world, and you’ll have pretty much nailed the tone Spider-Man: Homecoming is aiming at. And, for the most part, it manages to sustain that tone and deliver a breezy blast of high-summer fun in a movie that’s very difficult to dislike.

Following directly on from his turn in Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) finds himself back in the New York borough of Queens, living with his aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and dealing with the problems of being a fifteen-year old student, science nerd and superhero. Desperate to be accepted by not only his high school classmates but also his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter struggles to balance his homework with his moonlight crime-fighting duties. As if being a teenager weren’t enough, Peter craves greater responsibility than catching bicycle thieves, a bigger challenge than chastising the local hoodlums and, despite Stark’s warnings, he goes all out to prove himself when Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton) enters the frame. When Spidey and The Vulture’s battle of attrition culminates in a spectacular sequence aboard the Staten Island ferry, an exasperated Tony Stark is forced to repossess the super-suit he had gifted to Peter.


Toomes has taken to hawking alien technology and weapons on the black market after Stark puts his construction company out of business and, unlike so many other of Marvel’s villains, he doesn’t want to rule the Universe, he just wants to make a profit.  In many ways Toomes is the anti-Stark, he shirks the responsibility that comes with his high-tech weaponry and is a dark mirror of Stark’s paternal disappointment in his young protégé. It’s all set up for a final confrontation where Peter, now stripped back to his rawest form must use his wits, intelligence and bravery to defeat a foe armed with futuristic firepower, guile, viciousness and little to no conscience.

This being the third restart for Spider-Man in fifteen years (after the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield iterations), fifty-ish years of comic books and countless animated series, Marvel have, wisely, taken the view that there’s no need for this to be yet another origin story. If you’re not on board with all the radioactive spider and Uncle Ben, “With great power…” stuff by now you probably never will be. It’s a bold decision, especially in an age where blockbusters rely so heavily on clunky exposition, to demote the origin story to one line and Uncle Ben’s dying lines to a thematic arc/lesson, to credit the audience with some intelligence, to acknowledge the cultural impact of arguably their most famous property, but one that totally pays off.


Tom Holland shines as Peter/Spider-Man, he’s affable, funny, dorky, clumsy and adorable both in his costume and out. There’s never any disconnect between the two personas, so the kid who trips over his own laces is also the hero who never quite manages to stick his landings, whose teenage bedroom is as messy as the calamity he creates swinging about Queens and bringing down treehouses. He’s a smart kid who’s naïve about the world and battling with not one but two learning curves about growing up and being a hero.

Sadly, Homecoming is not without its problems though. The supporting cast is never quite given enough time to flesh out and you’ll find yourself wishing a little more time had been spent in the trenches of adolescence and a little less spent with Robert Downey Jr popping in and out of the movie. It’s also a shame that Michael Keaton gets little to sink his beak into apart from one chillingly civil conversation with Peter. That said, the support isn’t particularly under written, in fact some are so good you want to see more of them especially Zendaya as Peter’s classmate Michelle, Ned played by Jacob Batalon and Tomei’s aunt May. Oh well, maybe in the inevitable next instalment.


Spider-Man: Homecoming is often more of a teen comedy in the vein of those John Hughes movies like the afore-mentioned Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (which makes a brief appearance) than an all-out superhero slug-fest but manages to carry out both its component parts and create a cohesive and enjoyable whole. Whilst not quite up to the high-water mark of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, by bringing your friendly neighbourhood web-slinger back home (in all senses) Marvel have upped the fun and rediscovered what it is that makes Spider-Man so amazing.

Andy Oliver