Musical Review Roundup

My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

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  • 21 (2008)

    2017 #114
    Robert Luketic | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    21

    21 is based on a true story. Actually, it’s based on a book that’s based on a true story. Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich was a non-fiction bestseller, telling the fun and exciting story of the MIT blackjack team, a bunch of college kids who learnt card counting and took Vegas for millions of dollars. It was such a popular book that all the attention made people look into it, and it turned out it was heavily fictionalised — Mezrich not only exaggerated events, he flat out invented whole chunks of the story. (At the same time, he also left out some good stuff.) In turn, the book has itself been heavily melodramatised for this movie adaptation. What we’re left with is probably about as close to the truth as Game of Thrones is a fair depiction of the Wars of the Roses: some of it happened, but not to those people, not in that way, not at that time, and certainly not all of it.

    As a film, it’s been mashed broadly into the heist movie template. Setting aside the veracity and treating it purely as an entertainment, this has pros and cons. Whenever it’s whizzing around in Vegas it’s kinda fun, with flashy camerawork and a slick feel for the excitement of being a successful high-roller. But when it puts that aside to get stuck into the characters’ thinly-drawn personal lives, it gets kinda dull. Part of the point of the book is how boring normal life began to seem to the team when compared to their Vegas lifestyle, but 21 tacks on more interpersonal subplots that just become finger-drumming.

    Counting cards

    Trying to make the chosen genre function isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no complicated heist here. The blackjack team are doing the same thing over and over — that’s basically how their system works as a moneymaker — and once the system’s been explained and we see it in action, the film only has a few ways to jazz that up. Between that and those subplots, at over two hours 21 is much longer than it needs to be, but doesn’t focus that time in the right areas: at least one major character undergoes a huge personality change across a single montage.

    21’s got enough pizzazz to make it enjoyable purely as a lightweight movie experience, but you do have to wonder: would the incredible real story, by dint of being true and not movieised to fit a genre template, actually have been more interesting?

    3 out of 5

    Arrival (2016)

    2016 #179
    Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

    This review sort of contains spoilers.

    Arrival

    An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

    For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

    At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

    We're only human after all

    Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

    Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

    I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

    In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

    While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

    Majestic

    Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

    5 out of 5

    Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

    It placed 6th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

    * Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

    Shin Godzilla (2016)

    aka Shin Gojira / Godzilla Resurgence

    2017 #108
    Hideaki Anno | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese, English & German | 12A

    Shin Godzilla

    To the best of my knowledge, the Godzilla movies have never been particularly well treated in the UK. With the obvious exceptions of the two US studio movies and the revered 1954 original (which, similar to its inclusion in the Criterion Collection in the US, has been released by the BFI over here), I think the only Godzilla movie to make it to UK DVD is King Kong vs. Godzilla, and that’s clearly thanks to the Kong connection. Contrast that with the US, or Australia, or Germany, or I expect others, where numerous individual and box set releases exist, not only on DVD but also Blu-ray. There were some put out on VHS back in the ’90s (I owned one, though I can’t remember which), but other than that… Well, maybe we’ll be lucky and the tide will now change, because the most recent Japanese Godzilla movie — the first produced by the monster’s homeland in over a decade — is getting a one-night release in UK cinemas this evening. It’s well worth checking out.

    Firstly, don’t worry about it being the 29th Japanese Godzilla film, because it’s also the first full reboot in the series’ 62-year history (previous reboots in 1984 and 1999 still took the ’54 original as canon). The movie opens with some kind of natural disaster taking place in Tokyo Bay, to which the Japanese government struggle to formulate a response. But it quickly becomes clear the event is actually caused by a giant creature, which then moves on to land, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Ambitious government secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is put in charge of a special task force to research the creature. Soon, the Americans are muscling in, contributing a dossier they’d previously covered up, which gives the creature its name: Dave.

    Alright Dave?

    No, it’s Godzilla, obv.

    Written and directed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame (and fans of that franchise will recognise many music cues throughout the film), Shin Godzilla is not just a film about a giant beastie stomping on things. Most obviously, it pitches itself as a kind of political thriller, as an intrepid gang of semi-outsiders battle establishment red tape to get anything done. In this respect it’s something of a satire, though not an overtly comedic one. It also seems to be taking on Japanese society, with the in-built deference to age or rank being an obstacle to problem-solving when it’s the young who have the outside-the-box ideas to tackle such an unforeseen occurrence. There’s also the problem of the Americans sticking their oar in, being both a help and a hindrance. Clearly the Japanese feel broadly the same way towards the U.S. of A. as do… well, all the rest of us.

    Anno takes a montage-driven, almost portmanteau approach to the storytelling, flitting about to different locations, organisations, departments, and characters as they come into play. This lends a veracity to the “as if it happened for real” feel of the film: rather than take the usual movie route of having a handful of characters represent would would be the roles of many people in real life, Anno just throws dozens of people at us — the film has 328 credited actors, in fact. It means there’s something of an information overload when watching it as a non-Japanese-speaker: as well as the subtitled dialogue, there are constant surtitles describing locations, names, job titles, types of tech being deployed, etc, etc. In the end I wound up having to ignore them, which is a shame because I think there was some worthwhile stuff slipped in there (possibly including more satire about people’s promotions throughout the film).

    We can defeat Godzilla with maths!

    I’d be amazed if anyone can follow both, to be honest, because the dialogue flies at a rate of knots. Anno reportedly instructed the actors to speak faster than normal, aiming for their performances to resemble how actual politicians and bureaucrats speak. Apparently he cited The Social Network as the kind of vibe he was after, though a more appropriate comparison might be that other famous work from the same screenwriter, The West Wing. Either way, I think he achieved his goal, further contributing to the film’s “real” feel and the (geo)political thriller atmosphere — even if it’s a nightmare to follow in subtitled form.

    Letting the side down, sadly, is actress Satomi Ishihara, who plays an American diplomat of Japanese descent. Apparently she found out she was playing an American after being cast, and was shocked to see how much English dialogue she had to speak. It shows. There’s nothing wrong with her performance on the whole, but casting a Japanese actress as a supposed American is a really obvious mistake to English-speaking ears. All of the English speech in the film is subtitled, which isn’t necessary for American generals and the like, but for her… well, I didn’t always realise she was no longer speaking Japanese. Poor lass, it’s not her fault, but it does take you out of the film occasionally.

    On another level from the politics, Shin Godzilla is also about wider issues of humanity and the planet. The ’54 film was famously an analogy about nuclear weapons, and Anno updates that theme to be about nuclear waste and its effect on the environment, inevitably calling to mind the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima power plant disaster. This is less front-and-centre than the thriller stuff — the actions of the humans are what drives the film’s plot, whereas the nuclear/environmental stuff is more thematic subtext. Put another way, I wouldn’t say the film gets too bogged down by this — it’s still about a giant monster blowing shit up with his laser breath.

    Either that or the purple goo he ate earlier really disagreed with him

    Said giant monster is realised in CGI, some of it derived from motion capture, presumably as a tribute and/or reference to the old man-in-a-suit way of creating him. This is not a Hollywood budgeted movie and consequently anyone after slavishly photo-real CGI will be disappointed, but that’s not really the point. It still creates mightily effective imagery, and for every shot that’s less than ideal there’s another that gives the titular creature impressive heft and scale. He’s also the largest Godzilla there’s ever been, incidentally.

    If you come to Shin Godzilla expecting to see a skyscraper-sized monster destroy stuff and be shot at and whatnot for two hours straight, you’re going to leave dissatisfied. There are scenes of that, to be sure, but it’s not the whole movie. If a thriller about a bunch of tech guys and gals fighting bureaucracy while analysing data that will eventually lead to a way to effectively shoot (and whatnot) the monster, this is the film for you. It was for me. I have to mark it down for some of the niggles I’ve mentioned, but I enjoyed it immensely. (You can make you own size-of-Godzilla pun there.)

    4 out of 5

    Shin Godzilla is in UK cinemas tonight only. For a list of screenings, visit shingodzillamovie.co.uk.

    Nocturnal Animals (2016)

    2017 #55
    Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Nocturnal Animals

    In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

    At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

    Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

    Shocking reading

    To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

    Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

    Who's who?

    Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer can choose how to read as they see fit.

    Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

    5 out of 5

    Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

    2017 #98
    Matt Reeves | 140 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12A / PG-13

    War for the Planet of the Apes

    Previously on Planet of the Apes… the rise of intelligence in apes resulted in them establishing a new ape society in the woods. After humanity was mostly wiped out by disease, the actions of a few apes, still angry about their treatment at the hands of humans, led to the dawn of war began between peaceful apes and vengeful humans.

    Now, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been in hiding for years. After a human sortie into the forest leads to them finally discovering his location, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) executes a stealth assault on the apes’ home. Incensed, Caesar and a small band of his most dedicated followers set out to find the humans’ stronghold and bring the Colonel to justice, hopefully ending the war in the process.

    When it was announced that the follow-up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was going to be titled War for the Planet of the Apes, it only made sense. The previous film ended with that war beginning, for one thing. More than that, the clear point of this prequel trilogy has been to show how the world as we know it ended up on the path to becoming the one Charlton Heston encountered in the original Planet of the Apes — and you just knew mankind wasn’t going to give up without a fight, making some kind of war all but inevitable. However, as it turns out, the title is almost a misnomer.

    Cheeky monkeys

    This is not a war movie in the sense of it being two hours of epic battles. There’s a set-to at the start (one which reminded me of the opening of Saving Private Ryan without in any meaningful way being a rip off of it), and a big battle forms the backdrop to the climax, but in between the film is something else. Or, rather, somethings else: there are multiple genres one could cite as an influence on the film as it transitions betweens phases of its story. There’s a bit of the “men apes on a mission” thing going on, with an edge of the Western in there, before it turns into a POW camp movie of sorts, with a healthy dose of Apocalypse Now for good measure. If that makes it sound restless, it’s not; it’s just not beholden to picking one set of tropes and sticking to them — it goes where its story dictates. That works.

    Similarly, the film is a tonal masterclass: as befits the subject matter of its title, there is grim and serious stuff here, but it’s laced with splashes of comedy, heartfelt emotion, moral debate, and social commentary, the vast majority of which is handled with understatement rather than Hollywood grandstanding. And if there’s one throughline to connect all this, it’s the characters. In a summer blockbuster?! I know, right? But that’s been a marker of quality throughout this new Apes trilogy: a willingness to be thoughtful and considered, not just trade on shoot-outs and explosions.

    Military might

    Andy Serkis is once again phenomenal in the lead role. Caesar’s story this time is almost Shakespearean, the film’s biggest war being his internal battle over the right course to take, and what his desired actions mean for his soul. He was always the sensible, reasonable, merciful ape, but events provoke another side in him — is he just like his old enemy Koba after all? Through him the film considers themes like justice vs revenge, the needs of the few vs the needs of the many, the rights and wrongs of actions in wartime. Caesar may be the hero, but he’s certainly not perfect.

    On the flip side, Woody Harrelson is a clear-cut villain — a heartless bastard; a thoroughly nasty piece of work… or so it seems, because, when he eventually gets a chance to state his case, to explain where he’s coming from, the things he’s seen and decisions he’s had to make, you can see understand his point of view. That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree (it’s pretty clear that, like Kurtz, he’s gone off the reservation), but it does make him a character rather than a cardboard cutout. As the film manoeuvres its way around these two characters, their differences and similarities, It’s abundantly clear that this is a much more complex film than your usual blockbuster fare of “always-right good guys shoot at thoroughly-evil bad guys”.

    Talk with the animals... or not

    Serkis and Harrelson are the stand outs, but there are brilliant performances elsewhere. Steve Zahn plays a character called Bad Ape, who’s both funny and touching, while Amiah Miller is a human girl the apes pick up on their travels, and the way she conveys a genuine emotional connection with the apes helps to sell them as real characters. Not that the CGI work of Weta needs much help there — it’s one again phenomenal, so real you don’t even think about it anymore. They had to break new ground for Dawn, for the first time taking performance capture outside of specially-designed studios (aka The Volume) and onto location filming. Perhaps that innovation explains why some of Matt Reeves’ direction last time was a little stilted and TV-ish. More years of development have removed those constraints, however, and his work on War is marvellously cinematic.

    It’s also a true trilogy capper. They may choose to continue the story after this point (we’re still a couple of thousand years away from Charlton Heston showing up), but if they don’t then this will happily serve as an ending. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, although each film of this prequel trilogy has been quite distinct (pleasingly so, I’d say), there’s still a sense of this one rounding off things that were set in motion back in the first movie. There are also Easter egg-like nods and hints towards the original film; and to some its sequels too, apparently (I’ve not seen those yet so I’ll have to take other people’s word for it).

    They don't wanna be like you-ooh-ooh

    War for the Planet of the Apes is possibly not the movie we were expecting, but that’s no bad thing. I’m not sure how well it’ll go down with the crowd that pushes things like Transformers 5 to over $500m (and counting), but it has to be applauded for sneaking emotionally and thematically considered material into a huge-budget summer blockbuster. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s great drama. It’s also cemented these Apes prequels as arguably the greatest movie trilogy of the decade.

    5 out of 5

    War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas most places now.

    Contact (1997)

    2017 #79
    Robert Zemeckis | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Contact

    Contact is 20 years old today. I don’t remember it going down particularly well on its release (Rotten Tomatoes backs me up on that: it scores just 62%) and I’ve largely paid it no heed, other than it still comes up now and then. I can’t remember what gave me a sudden urge to watch it last month, but doing so was a bit of a “where have you been all my life?!” experience.

    It stars Jodie Foster as scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, who’s obsessed with scanning radio signals from space for signs of alien life, much to the ridicule of her serious colleagues. While working at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie becomes romantically entangled with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, in spite of their differing views. Their affair is cut short when Ellie’s government funding is cancelled and she leaves to seek independent financial backing, eventually finding it from reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Beginning research anew in New Mexico, her persistence eventually pays off when her team detect a repeating signal, and suddenly her kooky little project is of global concern.

    '90s beats

    Adapted from a novel by scientist Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Contact is notable for its very grounded and plausible approach to the science of possible first contact. It’s like the anti Independence Day: rather than giant technologically-advanced spaceships turning up out of nowhere and threatening us, we receive a signal with mathematical properties (maths being a universal language) and consider opening lines of communication. Of course, it gets more speculative from there, but that’s unavoidable if you’re telling a story where we hear from aliens. Regardless, all of the science, as well as the political developments that ensue from it, feels very truthful. I’m sure there must be some of the ol’ corner-cutting Movie Science involved somewhere, but that’s usually necessary for the sake of telling a reasonably paced story. Despite that, some viewers find its methodicalness to be “slow” or “boring”. Conversely, that’s part of why I liked it so much: it doesn’t wave its hands around to obscure the discovery part just so it can get to the Cool Stuff — it is the discovery part.

    Concurrent to the “how this might actually go down” plot, Contact seeks to explore the axis of faith and science, putting them in juxtaposition to show that, for all their obvious differences, there are also psychological similarities. That’s the purpose of McConaughey’s character, really: a very religious, but amenable, figure for Foster’s very scientific outlook to bump up against. Their romantic storyline works in favour of keeping this discussion balanced: you don’t end up projecting one as the hero and the other as the villain when they’re both halves of the central relationship. It results in some thoughtful perspectives on where the line between science and religion blurs.

    “One day, I'm going to win an Oscar...”

    Foster gives an impassioned performance as the dedicated Ellie, who’s so committed to both her cause and the truth that she doesn’t compromise, even when it might get her ahead. Her tunnel-vision focus on science means she can come across as a bit of a cold fish, which makes sense given the character’s backstory, but for some viewers that seems to render her too distant to embrace as the heroine. It goes as far as some saying the film’s ending has no heart because Ellie is so cold. Conversely, I think that’s almost why it works. She’s a person who has shut herself down because of her loss, but she still has some small flame of hope that keeps her searching. What happens at the end fully taps into her emotions, fanning that flame. Surely there’s something powerful in that?

    Among the rest of the cast, McConaughey shows he had skills long before the McConnaissance, William Fichtner does a lot with a small supporting role, and Tom Skerritt plays a total dick in a way that feels like a real-life total dick rather than a movie version. By way of contrast, James Woods’ character is the other way round: he’s a good actor, but was perhaps railroaded into being a little heavy-handed as a somewhat-villainous National Security honcho. That said, with the current US administration’s attitude to science, maybe he’s sickeningly plausible today.

    Pod person

    Although not an ID4-style extravaganza, Contact features a great use of special effects — or, rather, that’s why they’re so great: they don’t exist just so they exist; they exist because the story needs them, and they’re more powerful and beautiful for it. This is true not only of some final-act trippiness, but also scenery shots of the giant Machine that gets built, which are made more real by their understatedness. Can you imagine this film now, as it would be made by most directors? There’d be constant helicopter-style shots of the thing. (The exception, of course, would be someone like Denis Villeneuve, as conclusively proven in Arrival.)

    I can understand why Contact didn’t catch on with audiences back in ’97. This was the year after Independence Day became the second highest grossing movie of all time, which shows what interested the minds (or, at least, adrenal glands) of the wider viewership. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why it didn’t find stronger recognition among those who appreciate thoughtful, realistic science fiction. It hasn’t really dated in the past two decades (aside from the chunky desktop computers everyone’s using, anyway), and its debates and messages continue to resonate as a reflection of the society we live in, so maybe there’s time yet for its reappraisal.

    5 out of 5

    Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

    aka Sully

    2017 #58
    Clint Eastwood | 96 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sully: Miracle on the Hudson

    You remember that time someone landed a passenger plane on New York City’s Hudson River, right? This is about that. At the time the pilot was widely hailed as a hero… or so we thought! Turns out that, behind closed doors, some investigators seemed keen to put the blame on his poor decision-making (or they did in movieland, anyway — the real world may’ve been a bit different). So rather than just an exciting drama about a guy landing a plane (which does sound like a thin story for an entire movie), Sully is almost a legal drama: was the heroic captain actually heroic, or did he make a stupid decision that lucked out? (I’m sure you can guess which wins.)

    Tom Hanks is perfect for the lead role: he’s the exact right mix of everyman and hero; the unassuming guy who knows the right thing to do, and does it. He even doubts himself after the fact, just so we can be even more sure that he’s a genuinely good guy. The rest of the supporting cast fade into the background a little, with Aaron Eckhart solid as his supportive co-pilot (I assumed he’d turn on Sully, for some reason, so that was nice) and Laura Linney as his wife on the other end of the phone, in a subplot that I suppose is meant to help humanise the hero pilot but really goes nowhere. The same is true for a scattering of flashbacks to Sully’s previous adventures in flight. Even having expanded the film out to the post-landing investigation, it still struggles to find enough material to fill its short 96 minutes.

    Landin', landin', landin' on the river

    I liked Sully a lot while it was on. It’s well made (though sadly not available in its IMAX format for home viewing), Hanks is always watchable, the supporting cast are good too, and the headline incident is effectively staged, including the post-landing rescues. It’s a heartwarming story of real-life drama and heroism, with a punch-the-air-type moment when Sully is vindicated. But as that outcome never seems in doubt, and the film sometimes twiddles its thumbs in getting there, it’s not all it could be. Or, actually, maybe it is all it could be — and that’s fine.

    3 out of 5

    I could tenuously link this review to American Independence Day by talking about Sully being an American hero or somesuch, but… oh wait, I just did.

    Dragon (2011)

    aka Wu xia

    2016 #190
    Peter Ho-sun Chan | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin | 15 / R

    Dragon (Wu Xia)

    Donnie Yen is small town paper-maker Jinxi, who incidentally encounters and accidentally defeats two most-wanted criminals. While his village thanks him, detective Baijiu is suspicious — does Jinxi’s story add up? Is he hiding some dark past?

    Takeshi Kaneshiro is expert detective Xu Baijiu, who adheres slavishly to the law after a past mistake cost him dearly. But is he delusional, inventing connections and powers for Jinxi that just aren’t there? Or are his delusions allowing him to see the truth?

    As a Hong Kong production starring Donnie Yen, of course Dragon is an action movie, but there’s more to it than fisticuffs. It engages with themes of justice and redemption, and what it means not only to take the right action, but to have to find the right action to take. Apparently it began life as a remake of One-Armed Swordsman, and while obvious superficial resemblances remain (the Big Bad Boss Man is played by Jimmy Wang Yu, and Yen has to (spoilers!) lop off his own arm), you can definitely see familiar plot points in both films too. But it’s also certainly not a remake anymore. Funny how these things go.

    Can I Baijiu a Jinxi?

    Naturally, when the action does kick in, it’s fantastic. With the combat directed by Yen, these sequences are expertly and inventively choreographed dust-ups. It’s stylishly directed by Peter Chan — classy, but also thrilling, exciting, and sometimes innovative; and the whole is majestically shot by DP Lai Yiu-Fai (who also shot Infernal Affairs, which I still haven’t seen).

    On the downside, at a couple of points I thought the story leapt a little bit or fudged a detail, which is a shame because I don’t think it needed to. This is possibly the effect of watching the international version, which is cut by around 17 minutes (full details here). While it’s a shame, it’s certainly not enough to ruin an excellent martial arts drama.

    4 out of 5

    Moonlight (2016)

    2017 #83
    Barry Jenkins | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Moonlight

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 3 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.
    Nominated: Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score.

    Last year’s (eventual) Best Picture winner could pithily be described as “Boyhood with a black kid”, and I’m sure it has been plenty of times, but that does a disservice to Moonlight’s own unique qualities.

    That said, it’s not difficult to draw obvious comparisons between the two. Both follow the lives of an American boy as he grows up across a decade-and-a-bit. Whereas Boyhood was shot in real-time with the same actor, Moonlight drops in on its central character, Chiron, at ages 11 (played by Alex Hibbert), 17 (Ashton Sanders), and 25 (Trevante Rhodes). Both films see the lead trying to figure out his place in the world, while also dealing with an absent father, surrogate father figures, and a mother often preoccupied with her own problems. But whereas Boyhood frequently felt like a ramshackle collection of vignettes that together created a loose portrait of a childhood, Moonlight is a bit more focused: Chiron is both bullied and gay, and how he deals with these things gives a shape to the narrative that Boyhood seemed to lack.

    Much of the credit for creating that smooth storyline belongs… well, with writer-director Barry Jenkins, of course (and at this juncture I must shoehorn in a mention of his charming Criterion closet video — if you didn’t love the guy before, I’m sure you will after watching that). But it also belongs with the three actors playing Chiron, who not only chart his development over time, but also make him a highly relatable protagonist in a very subtle way. The connection the viewer builds with him comes from the understated power of their acting — at all ages, Chiron expresses a lot without saying much, which only serves to draw us closer to him as we feel like we understand him nonetheless.

    Boyhood

    The quality of the performances from Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes is only emphasised when you learn that the three actors never met, never rehearsed together, never even watched each other’s work. That makes it all the more remarkable that they share something — in their eyes, or the way they hold themselves, or the hesitancy with which they connect to other people. It’s especially apparent in Rhodes: at first his version of Chiron seems completely different to the earlier two, but then we realise that’s just a front, and the real Chiron he’s buried comes to the fore when he reconnects with an old friend. From that point, he’s so like Hibbert and Sanders that it’s almost uncanny.

    Another thing the film handles with admirable subtly is the time jumps. Numerous subplots continue across all three sections, but rather than bluntly spell out what’s changed between each, Jenkins lets us infer it; and because we’re only getting a snapshot each time, some of these arcs (in particular that of Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris) are contained as much in the gaps of what we’re shown as they are in what’s actually presented on screen. That we can pick up on what’s happened off screen is as much a tribute to Jenkins and his cast as is the quality of what we do see. And although the characters may change and develop off screen, what we witness each time is almost like the inciting incident that leads (in)directly to the next part of the story — the effects of actions are magnified over time, and the jumps mean you go directly from where something begins to where it ends up.

    Boys to men

    In telling the story of a young gay black man, Moonlight is exposing a world and lifestyle that’s not seen much, or at all, in (mainstream) cinema — that is, being black and gay. Or just being gay, really. Or black, to an extent. There’s an inherent positivity in getting such untold stories out into the open. Nonetheless, there’s a certain universality to Chiron’s experience. Lest one thinks that’s just a straight white guy trying to make everything relate to him (and I’ve seen others be accused of such appropriation), Jenkins observes it too in the film’s Blu-ray extras. A film doesn’t need that element of recognisability — there’s nothing wrong with illuminating a lesser-seen facet of the world; depicting a unique life experience — but Moonlight’s shy love story speaks across boundaries of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

    5 out of 5

    Moonlight is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.