Dunkirk (2017)

2017 #102
Christopher Nolan | 106 mins | cinema | 2.20:1 | UK, USA, France & Netherlands / English | 12A / PG-13

Dunkirk

Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises. Memento. The Prestige. Interstellar. Inception. The Dark Knight. Of his previous nine feature films, Christopher Nolan has seven on the IMDb Top 250 (in descending order as listed). I’m sure Following and Insomnia have their advocates as well. Nonetheless, many reviews are hailing Dunkirk as his best film yet. Some are even say it’s his first genuine masterpiece. Some that this is the film where he finally lives up to those endless Kubrick comparisons.

And some just harp on about how we have to see it in bloody IMAX, even though most of us can’t.

Personally, coming out of it I felt pretty much the same way I have about every Christopher Nolan film bar The Dark Knight: it was very good, but was it great?

We shall wait for them on the landing grounds

I don’t know how well the Battle of Dunkirk is known outside British shores (a lot better after this film, I’d wager), but I think it has a kind of ‘national myth’ status here; the sort of thing the phrase “our finest hour” was invented for. In 1940, British and allied troops retreated from the Nazi advance across Europe, ending up with their backs to the sea on the beach at Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue from the British Navy. As their ships were plagued by German bombers and U-boats, eventually civilians were mobilised, with hundreds of fisherman and hobbyists sailing their tiny craft across the Channel to save as many as they could — in the end, over 330,000 troops. That’s ‘The Story’, anyway — I’m sure the truth is more nuanced. It’s also what provoked Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is probably even more famous.

So why hasn’t Dunkirk been more widely depicted on screen before now? Well, it didn’t involve the Americans, so I imagine that’s a big part of it. Also, it was technically a defeat — not exactly uplifting fodder. And where do you lay your focus? To take D-Day as a counterpoint: sure, it was a massive operation involving multiple beaches and thousands of troops, but you pick a handful of men to follow and you’re depicting the general experience. With Dunkirk, you’ve got the men who made it on to boats, those left on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue, the sailors, the airforce… Or maybe I’m trying to make it sound more difficult to film than it actually is, and it all just comes back down to “the yanks weren’t there”.

Wherever did they find sand for all those bags?

But Christopher Nolan is allowed to basically do what he wants nowadays, and so Christopher Nolan is the one who’s finally made a film of Dunkirk. (I say “finally” — there have been others, a long time ago.) Despite it being the shortest film of his Hollywood career, Nolan gets round the perspective problem by making it an epic, driven by spectacular visuals and universal themes rather than a focused tale of just a character or two. In aid of this, it’s a three-pronged affair: in separate storylines we follow the soldiers on the beach and in the boats; a civilian craft on its way to rescue them; and a pilot providing air cover.

To complicate matters, Nolan stages each of these stories at a different time period — respectively, one week, one day, and one hour before the film’s climax — but intercuts them all as if they were happening at once. At times, literally: rather than limit each storyline to whole scenes one by one, events in each (like, say, a boat sinking with the soldiers on it and the pilot in a dogfight) are intercut as if they’re occurring simultaneously. It’s… an unusual choice. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m not sure what its goal is, exactly. For the film as a whole, it works effectively, especially spotting background details in each story that then crop up again later when other storylines catch up to them.

Background details

I think the main effect Nolan was aiming for is intensity. Not of war, so much, but of survival. That this is a PG-13 war movie caused some to balk — how can you depict war nowadays without blood and gore? But this isn’t a war movie per se, it’s an escape movie. It’s not about the reality of someone getting their arm or head blown off, it’s about escaping a sinking ship, or running out of fuel, or keeping going when the odds are against you. Couple this with the aforementioned visual spectacle, and a thunderous sound mix, and Dunkirk is definitely an Experience.

Indeed, for those without access to an IMAX — and, let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of viewers — the film’s sound is the main reason to see it in the cinema. It’s loud. I saw other people in my screening actually covering their ears at some points. That’s not just because my cinema had the volume too high (well, I don’t think it is), but I think it’s purposefully part of the effect. Of course, if you’ve got a decent sound system at home and are prepared to crank it up, maybe the Blu-ray will yet offer a similar experience. Certainly, in terms of the visuals, the disc release is likely to use the film’s IMAX Digital version, which features 80 minutes of 1.90:1 footage (vs. the constant 2.20:1 framing that you’ll see in most cinemas); and, if we’re lucky, they’ll include the IMAX footage in its full 1.43:1 ratio too (they did for Nolan’s Batmans, but not for Interstellar). It’s kind of ironic that this is a new-release film from a director hell bent on the sanctity of the theatrical experience (you probably saw his comments about Netflix earlier this week), where most of us will better see his intended visuals on a home video format than we will at the cinema.

We shall wait for them on the beaches

In trying to think how to sum up, I’ve come to the conclusion that early reviews have put too much weight on Dunkirk. I’m sat here pondering “is it Nolan’s best film?” or “is it the greatest war film ever made?”, rather than just “how was it as a film in itself?” On first blush, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by The Dark Knight, or even Inception, but in some respects it’s a more mature, maybe even more cinematic, movie than either of those. As for being the greatest war film, I can’t help but instantly think of Saving Private Ryan, whose opening scene remains the one to beat, but also follows through with the rest of its story; and if we expand our scope to allow cinematic TV series, can anything top Band of Brothers? But, as I said earlier, Dunkirk isn’t trying to out-war those war movies.

So, setting aside questions of its place in film history, Dunkirk aims to be an intense experience about trying to survive events bigger than yourself. In that regard, it’s as successful as the evacuation itself.

5 out of 5

Dunkirk is in cinemas everywhere now. It’s also been released in IMAX, donchaknow.

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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.

Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (2015)
  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)


    Snoopy and Charlie Brown:
    The Peanuts Movie

    (2015)

    aka The Peanuts Movie

    2017 #25
    Steve Martino | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

    Charles M. Schulz’s popular comic strip hits the big screen in this likeable but hardly Pixar-level movie. Much of it plays like a series of shorts or sketches with a connected theme rather than a feature-length narrative — kind of like binge-watching a cartoon series — but they’re pleasant enough. There are some good gags (“Leo’s Toy Store by Warren Piece”), though the saccharine ending is a bit much and the pop songs are terrible. One review described Snoopy as “Peanuts’ Tyler Durden”, which is a thought that entertained me even more than the film.

    The most notable aspect is the animation style. Schulz’s strips have a distinct 2D style, but the movie is animated in 3D, presumably because you’re not allowed to make a Western kids’ movie with 2D animation anymore. Nonetheless, most of The Peanuts Movie is composed to emulate Schulz’s original strips, i.e. quite flatly — like, you know, 2D. And yet, somehow… Well, The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin summarised it well in his review: “Written down, [the animation style] just sounds chaotic, like a four-way mash-up of South Park, The Clangers, Wallace & Gromit and a flip book. But in motion, it’s a thing of serious, faux-artisanal beauty”. That might be going a bit far, but I did end up kinda liking the visuals. It’s quite a clever style for 3D, mixing in many 2D-ish touches. It should probably be a mess, but it weirdly works.

    3 out of 5

    13 Hours:
    The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    (2016)

    2017 #40
    Michael Bay | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    The not-at-all-controversial events in the Libyan town of Benghazi on 11th September 2012 are here dramatised by that master of subtlety and understated reality, director Michael Bay, so you know you’re going to get a considered and truthful account of events.

    Yeah, most of that opening paragraph is completely facetious. Bay takes a real-life gunfight, in which a secret mercenary security team went against orders (possibly) to defend an American diplomatic compound that was under assault, and turns it into a blazing action movie that may as well be scored with the theme from Team America: World Police. If it was Bay’s goal to convey the sheer confusion on the ground in the midst of the situation, I guess he’s done a bang-up job. The problem is, that confusion extends to bits where the characters seem to have some idea what’s going on, but we’re left half in the dark.

    Having Bay be reined in after the excess of his Transformers movies is no bad thing, but being completely constrained by reality is not his strong suit either — the heightened reality of something like The Rock is where he excels.

    If you’re interested in a longer read on the film’s adherence (or otherwise) to reality, this article at Vox is interesting.

    3 out of 5

    Young Frankenstein
    (1974)

    2017 #46
    Mel Brooks | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Young Frankenstein

    I have mixed feelings about the work of Mel Brooks. I reviewed his Hitchcock spoof, High Anxiety, back in 2009 and found it wanting. I reviewed his Robin Hood spoof, Men in Tights, earlier this year and found it uncomplicated but enjoyable. When I was a kid I liked his Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, but on a slightly-more-adult rewatch I enjoyed it less. And as for Blazing Saddles, regarded by some as one of the pinnacles of screen comedy… no, I didn’t like it. At all. I so didn’t like it that I really must rewatch it to see if I can see what I didn’t see.

    Young Frankenstein was released the same year as Blazing Saddles, and is placed on a similar pedestal by many — slightly higher, on the whole (Frankenstein edges it by a few points on IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic). It’s quite remarkable that Brooks managed to produce two such esteemed movies within the same year. At least I liked one of them.

    Young Frankenstein has many funny lines and moments, including a lot of familiar Brooksisms (“walk this way”) and, in the Puttin’ on the Ritz number, perhaps one of the funniest sequences ever committed to film. The films being spoofed (Universal’s classic monster movies) are evoked well, in particular with the potent black and white cinematography, but Brooks also lets things spiral off in their own direction when warranted. On the downside, I’d say it’s a little too long.

    Don’t take that criticism too seriously, though. I enjoyed it very much.

    4 out of 5

    * Hilariously, in 1987 the BBFC thought it should be rated 15. It wasn’t downgraded to the much more sensible PG until 2000. ^

  • The Deer Hunter (1978)

    2016 #181
    Michael Cimino | 176 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English, Russian, Vietnamese & French | 18 / R

    The Deer Hunter

    One of the first movies about the Vietnam war made after it ended, The Deer Hunter was controversial before it was made (no American company wanted to touch it, leaving British group EMI to put up the initial funding), controversial when it was released (Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war, called the use of Russian roulette “simply a bloody lie”), and remains controversial today (Mark Kermode called it “one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self-indulgent, self-aggrandising barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion”), but is cited by some as one of the best movies ever made.

    The plot concerns three Pennsylvanian steel workers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who have been conscripted. It follows their final days before joining up, then some of their time in the conflict, then how they react once home — this is a Vietnam movie where under a third of its running time actually takes place in ‘Nam. But, as per producer Michael Deeley, the film “wasn’t really ‘about’ Vietnam. It was something very different. […] It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently.” It takes its time getting there (this is a long movie that feels long), but that’s what the famed Russian roulette stuff is all about, really — a way of coping with some kind of mental collapse; of leaving suicide up to chance.

    Walken a fine line

    It’s certainly a problematic film, with its depiction of the Vietcong particularly tin-eared — they’re an old-fashioned baddie, cruel and evil without any apparent provocation. Coupled with a final scene that sees the cast singing God Bless America, it comes across a bit too right-wing to be wholly palatable. It’s also a slog, particularly the first third and its never-ending wedding sequence.

    These things can’t completely negate the qualities Deeley highlighted in the above quote, or that many viewers clearly see in it. That said, if I’m completely honest, I think Kermode may be closest to the truth.

    4 out of 5

    The Deer Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    The Pianist (2002)

    2016 #175
    Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

    The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

    If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

    5 out of 5

    The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

    Rogue One (2016)

    aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

    2016 #187
    Gareth Edwards | 134 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    This review contains major spoilers.

    Rogue OneThe first live-action non-saga movie to take us to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this initial entry in what is sure to be a never-ending series of so-called “Anthology” movies really puts the “War” into Star Wars.

    It begins without the traditional opening crawl, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that, of all the Star Wars movies, this is the one that would most benefit from some scene-setting — fans are on a fairly sure footing, but casual viewers who still expect to see the further adventures of Rey, Finn, and BB-8 may be a little baffled. (And if you think the saturation media coverage will have prepared everyone, you’re underestimating Normal Folks’ capacity to be completely oblivious to movie news.) Anyway, where we actually are is 30-something years before The Force Awakens… but as this is a spoilery review you don’t need me to recap the plot, because you’ve not read this far if you haven’t seen the movie. Right? Good.

    As I was saying, Rogue One is really a war movie, and is at its best when it’s consciously riffing off other (i.e. non-sci-fi) genres, like gritty World War 2 epics or daring heist thrillers. These are some new flavours for a franchise which has produced seven films in the action-adventure mould. Rogue One doesn’t deviate so far from that path — it’s a bit like Disney stablemate Marvel in that it mixes other-genre spice into the familiar recipe rather than striking out in a wholly different direction — but it’s enough to taste different.

    HeistUnfortunately, the plot starts off almost as jumbled as my mixed metaphors there. “Jumbled” may be unfair, but it’s a little scrappy, initially jumping around all over the place in a way that’s tricky to follow even if you’ve read up on the film and have an idea who you’re being introduced to and why. It must be a right pain for neophyte viewers. There can be a fine line between praising a film for requiring its viewers to pay attention and do some work, and criticising it for being disarrayed and not making things clear. Personally, I thought Rogue One was sat right on that line for much of its first act, until a few big expositional infodumps come along to explain the storyline.

    A primary cause of this is the number of characters we need to be introduced to. Presumably aiming for a Dirty Dozen / Magnificent Seven / men-on-a-mission people-on-a-mission beings-on-a-mission vibe, it leaves things occasionally a little scattered until the team comes together. The resultant volume of heroes means the movie is arguably a little short on the kind of memorable characters Star Wars is loved for, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t good work here. Felicity Jones makes Jyn a likeable, moderately complex heroine, at least when she’s not delivering cheesy speeches. Ben Mendelsohn produces a reliably snake-like villain as Imperial Director Krennic, while Riz Ahmed once again injects a lot of personality into a somewhat underwritten supporting role. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen make a solid double act who it would’ve been lovely to see more of in a sequel, and Alan Tudyk gets all the best lines as snarky droid K-2SO. Most ill-served are Diego Luna as a conflicted Rebel captain whose internal struggles aren’t fully brought out, Forest Whitaker as an ageing extremist, and Mads Mikkelsen, who is lumped mainly with exposition. The latter two at least bring extra-textual gravitas to their smaller roles.

    KrennicThen we come to perhaps the film’s most discussed character: Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing’s computer-generated face overlaid on the motion capture and voice of Holby City’s Guy Henry. Leaving aside the ethics of the enterprise, I found the character’s presence to be pretty distracting: you know it’s CGI and you can’t stop focusing on just Tarkin’s face, trying to judge how effective or not it is. For me, it proves that CGI isn’t yet quite up to creating a fully plausible human being. Your mileage will vary on whether it’s suitably competent nonetheless or an ill-conceived failure.

    Elsewhere, there are tons of little nods to the wider Star Wars canon, including the animated series: Whitaker’s character actually comes from The Clone Wars, where he appeared in four episodes; and there are half-a-dozen background references to ongoing series Rebels, most prominently the ‘Hammerhead’ ship, which was introduced there. Lucasfilm do seem very keen to emphasise that all these different media really are one interconnected universe, unlike so many other cross-format franchises, which accept everything as canon until the main series decides they want to contradict it. For example, while I was on holiday recently I visited the Star Wars exhibition they currently have at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which features various displays of, say, villain’s lightsabers or pilot’s helmets that put real-life recreations of ones from The Clone Wars and Rebels right alongside those from the original trilogy and the prequels as if that’s exactly where they belong. I must commend Lucasfilm for such an unusual commitment to institutionally tying these things together, rewarding the investment fans will inevitably make in doing the same. It does mean I feel I need to get on with watching the six seasons of Clone Wars and three (or more) seasons of Rebels, though.

    Donnie Yen: badassContinuing such comparison to the wider Star Wars galaxy, some have said Rogue One is the Empire Strikes Back of Disney-era Star Wars, because it’s the darker second (on the release schedule) film. Of course, the main reason it’s dark is that every major (new) character dies. You know what’s unique about Empire in the context of the entirety of live-action Star Wars movies? It’s the only one where no major character dies. Death isn’t the only signifier of darkness, of course, but my point is rather that I think people are grasping at straws if they think anyone inside Lucasfilm has consciously positioned Rogue One to serve an Empire-like role in their revived franchise. That doesn’t mean they’re not treating it seriously, mind: director Gareth Edwards has already revealed that the first draft had Jyn and Cassian survive the battle of Scarif, purely because the writers thought the execs would never agree to all the heroes being killed off, but those execs immediately suggested that everyone should die and that element was never questioned again. Yes, sometimes studio suits are actually on the side of narrative truthfulness.

    Even if that got locked early on, other things certainly didn’t. The film’s reshoots made big news for no particularly good reason (it’s par for the course on blockbusters these days), but their results are easy to see thanks to the film’s trailers: there are a number of significant shots present there that didn’t make the final cut, suggesting some radically different events in the third act. You can watch a short compilation of those here. As far as I’m aware neither Edwards nor anyone else has said what was actually changed by the reshoots, but it would be interesting to find out. Considering the Scarif-set portion of the film is probably its most successful part, and that’s where the reshoots seem to have been focused, it might make a good defence of a process that is often seen as a sign of disaster (sometimes for good reason).

    Star of deathMuch discussion of Rogue One seems to have revolved around whether it’s better than The Force Awakens. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both sides. On the one hand, Edwards is a much more interesting filmmaker than J.J. Abrams. The latter is adept at aping the work of others, having now been in charge of multiple movies that are mostly derivative but nonetheless entertaining. Edwards’ career is still a little fresh and blockbuster-centric to risk describing him as an auteur, but his debut film was more indie than anything Abrams has even thought of creating, and his take on Godzilla attempted to be more interesting than the rote monster blockbuster it could’ve easily been. He brings similar qualities to Rogue One. On the other hand, that riskier take has resulted in a few fumbles, whereas The Force Awakens was a polished, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I’d hesitate to say I prefer one to the other because they provide slightly different thrills, but on a first viewing I did find Force Awakens more satisfying. Given time and distance, however, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Rogue One leapfrogging it in my estimations.

    4 out of 5

    Three Kings (1999)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #90

    They’re deserters, rebels and thieves.
    But in the nicest possible way.

    Country: USA
    Language: English & Arabic
    Runtime: 115 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 1st October 1999 (USA)
    UK Release: 3rd March 2000
    First Seen: DVD, c.2001

    Stars
    George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Ocean’s Eleven)
    Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Fighter)
    Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood, Ride Along)
    Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

    Director
    David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook)

    Screenwriter
    David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, American Hustle)

    Story by
    John Ridley (U Turn, 12 Years a Slave)

    The Story
    After ceasefire is called in the Gulf War, a group of American soldiers discover a map to a stash of gold stolen by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Setting out to steal it for themselves, the soldiers encounter a group of rebels who need their help and find their priorities changing.

    Our Heroes
    Army reservist Sergeant Troy Barlow and his friend, the comically naïve Private Conrad Vig, are the first to discover the map, which they take to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin to translate. Then self-serving, disillusioned Special Forces Major Archie Gates turns up and convinces them to follow it to the gold. (Yes, despite the title, there are four of them.)

    Our Villains
    The war may officially be over, but the Iraqi Republican Guard are still the enemy.

    Best Supporting Character
    I know I mentioned him in the heroes bit, but Conrad is the de facto “fourth king”, so… He gets the lion’s share of either the best lines or the lines that set up the best lines.

    Memorable Quote
    Chief: “I don’t want to hear ‘dune coon’ or ‘sand nigger’ from him or anybody else.”
    Conrad: “Captain uses those terms.”
    Troy: “That’s not the point, Conrad. The point is that ‘towelhead’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.”

    Memorable Scene
    Archie explains what actually happens when you get shot in the gut, complete with an explanatory cross-section of the human body, and bile.

    Making of
    The stories of behind-the-scenes conflict between director David O. Russell — still a relative newcomer, making his biggest movie so far — and George Clooney — dividing his time between E.R. three days a week and the film on the other four — are legendary. If you want a lengthy-ish full account, check out this trivia entry on IMDb.

    Awards
    1 Blockbuster Entertainment Award (Favourite Action Team — it beat Will Smith and Kevin Kline from Wild Wild West, and those were all the nominees)
    1 Political Film Society Award (Peace)
    2 Political Film Society Award nominations (Democracy, Exposé)

    What the Critics Said
    “[an] emotionally and politically responsible movie set in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the gulf war — a damning yet idealistic satire about the motives behind U.S. foreign policy. The visuals are wild, the sound track has the audacity to underscore the subtext instead of just echoing the obvious, the comedy is irreverent and occasionally slapstick, and the metaphorical details are consistently strong. The movie even examines the conventions of star-studded actioners without stripping the leads of the charisma and apparent immortality of full-blown action heroes.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

    Score: 94%

    What the Public Say
    Three Kings, at its core, deals with serious themes and serious subject matter surrounding the end of the first Gulf War, and is therefore a war narrative before anything else. That being said, it’s refreshing how Three Kings doesn’t drown in its cynicism, isn’t exploitative in terms of gore or shocking violence, and isn’t hitting its audience over the head with either jingoistic propaganda or hamfisted pacifist social commentary. Moreover, Three Kings is funny enough often enough to be qualified as a comedy in its own right. It’s the humanist, dare I say, heartfelt combination of the two, that makes it a bonafide winner.” — The Celtic Predator, Express Elevator to Hell

    Verdict

    Writer-director David O. Russell may have become increasingly acclaimed this decade with Oscar-nominated movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, but for me this is still his best work. It mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with serious points about war and an ultimately emotional storyline, created with a filmmaking verve that is frequently exciting and inventive — something I’d argue is less present in Russell’s more widely-acknowledged work.

    #91 never… lies dies.

    Saving Private Ryan (1998)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #79

    The mission is a man.

    Country: USA
    Language: English, French, German & Czech
    Runtime: 170 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 24th July 1998 (USA)
    UK Release: 11th September 1998
    First Seen: TV, c.2001

    Stars
    Tom Hanks (Big, Cast Away)
    Edward Burns (She’s the One, 15 Minutes)
    Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jason Bourne)
    Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down)
    (The lead cast includes since-famous people like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi, and the supporting cast even more recognisable faces, but, still, Edward Burns is second billed.)

    Director
    Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, War Horse)

    Screenwriter
    Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, The Patriot)

    The Story
    In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, a group of soldiers are tasked to locate and rescue just one man: Private Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, earning him a free pass home. As the squad trek across France, mindful of the waste of resources, they encounter first-hand the early days of the Allied invasion of Europe.

    Our Heroes
    Just a regular bunch of soldiers, co-opted into a PR mission that isn’t that easy. They’re commanded by Captain Miller, their respected leader with a secretive past… a past which is actually thoroughly mundane, and just highlights the bizarre, heightened world of the war.

    Our Villains
    Nazis!

    Best Supporting Character
    Matt Damon was cast as the eponymous soldier because Spielberg wanted an unknown with an all-American look. Unfortunately for that plan, before Private Ryan came out Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became famous overnight. It certainly changes the effect to have the team rescuing Movie Star Matt Damon rather than Some Unknown Actor, but, on the bright side, he’s good.

    Memorable Quote
    Reiben: “Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?”
    Miller: “I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”
    Reiben: “I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?”
    Miller: “Well, in that case, I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you, Reiben — to ease her suffering.’”

    Memorable Scene
    The opening half-hour, which recreates the Normandy landings in shocking, brutal detail, and is supposedly very true to the actual experience. Surely the definitive modern combat sequence from any war movie.

    Technical Wizardry
    The heavily desaturated cinematography by Janusz Kaminski instantly lends the film a grim veracity, very appropriate to its tone. Such extreme colour palettes are commonplace nowadays, mainly thanks to digital grading, but when Private Ryan came to US TV providers had to deal with numerous complaints from viewers who thought there was a problem with their signal — which the broadcasters fixed by just upping the saturation of the film, of course.

    Truly Special Effect
    The involvement of ILM was downplayed so that the film didn’t come across as “an effects movie”, but they still had a key role — for instance, providing most of the bullet hits throughout the D-Day sequence. Not remarkable effects work in itself, maybe, but it’s appropriately invisible.

    Making of
    The D-Day sequence alone cost $11 million. It was filmed over four weeks (almost half the entire shoot), gradually moving up the beach to film the whole thing in chronological order. Spielberg personally operated the camera for many shots, none of which were storyboarded. The shoot involved up to 1,000 extras, 20 to 30 of whom were amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs to simulate them being blown off. Reportedly, many veterans have congratulated Spielberg on the sequence’s accuracy, including actor James Doohan, aka Star Trek’s Scotty, who participated in the Normandy landings.

    Next time…
    HBO’s Band of Brothers is basically Saving Private Ryan: The Series, taking the film’s visual style to tell the true story of a company of soldiers from their training, through the invasions of France and Germany, and right up to the end of the war. Often topping lists as the greatest TV series ever made, it certainly belongs in consideration.

    Awards
    5 Oscars (Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
    6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Makeup)
    2 BAFTAs (Sound, Special Effects)
    8 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up/Hair)
    1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
    1 Saturn nomination (Special Effects)
    3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Action Sequence for the Normandy landings. It lost to Armageddon.)

    What the Critics Said
    “hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he’s also done something morally heroic in the process. Private Ryan clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war — the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies — is hell on earth. Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. […] He’s a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.” — Paul Tatara, CNN

    Score: 92%

    What the Public Say
    “the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – where [Spielberg] thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in its construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic auteur is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but its only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal.” — Mark Walker, Marked Movies

    Verdict

    Is Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? Maybe. The relatively simple story allows it to explore the mindset of the soldiers making the first forays into Europe after D-Day, both their camaraderie as a group of men and the actions they took to function through the experience. It’s certainly the most influential World War 2 movie of modern times — nearly 20 years later, its desaturated colour palette remains de rigueur for films set in the war. So too its realistic depiction of combat, which is more plausible than some of the Boy’s Own adventures that came before, though not so ridiculously gruelling as some that have come in its wake. Personally, the only superior WW2 ‘film’ I can think of is Band of Brothers, and considering that has ten hours to explore its characters and situations, it’s not really a fair comparison.

    #80 will be… a very different Spielberg/WW2 story.

    The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

    2016 #59
    Francis Lawrence | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2The artificially-extended Hunger Games trilogy-turned-tetralogy climaxes here. Presumably you’ve seen the first three and so know what you’re into by this point — either you’re invested or you’ve given up. Unless you want to know “does it end well?” before embarking on the whole thing, of course. While Mockingjay Part 2 is not the series’ finest instalment, it brings things to a decent head… eventually.

    In my review of Mockingjay Part 1, a film much criticised for feeling like half of a whole — or, rather, half of a part of a whole — I argued it does actually function as a film in its own right. I mean, all of these films are part of one long narrative, so that’s par for the course, and I didn’t feel like Mockingjay Part 1 was any less a ‘standalone’ chunk of that narrative than the two films that preceded it. Specifically, I asserted that “the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead… has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow”.

    With that in mind, Part 2 begins with a degree of disappointment, as it tackles some propaganda-related holdovers from the last movie. Maybe I was putting too much stock in the idea of them moving on from that theme and establishing something new, though — especially as it does soon do that anyway. What develops is a “men on a mission” war movie, as Katniss and a small band of soldiers make their way through the deserted-but-boobytrapped Capitol on a mission to assassinate President Snow.

    K and P, nutsWhat follows isn’t perfect — in particular, the storyline could’ve done with tightening up — but it does have a lot going for it. There’s strong characterisation: Katniss is as confused, conflicted, and incapable of engaging with her emotions as ever, while Peeta’s PTSD is well-handled, with an effective device where he repeatedly makes a statement before asking, “real or not real?” There are other nicely developed thematic points too, like expanding further on the rebels not being perfect good guys (as initiated in Part 1), which plays a central role in the denouement. The action sequences are well staged and occasionally inventive, but best of all is that the climax doesn’t lean on being the biggest fight scene yet — it’s driven by the story, and the characters and their decisions, rather than being a ginormous shoot-out.

    Speaking of the film’s finale, complaints that the endings go on too long bug me, just as they bug me when people bring it up about Lord of the Rings. In both cases, you’re getting a capstone to a 9+ hour saga, not the 2- to 3-hour section of it you just watched. Rings’ endings feel completely suitable if you watch all 12 hours of the extended editions in one sitting, and I’d wager Hunger Games’ do too. Rush it and you end up with something like Harry Potter’s finale, which comes to a crushing thud of an ending as soon as the battle is won. What both Rings and Hunger Games are doing, actually, is showing that these characters are people who exist outside of the context of their war. They’re not just combatants, who evaporate into thin air once the battle’s lost or won; they’re people who have to either return to their old lives or establish new ones.* It’s a richer, more realistic, more human way to end a story than “plot’s over, action sequences are finished — we’re done here!”

    Ready for the endMockingjay Part 2 is not the best instalment of the Hunger Games, a series whose second half didn’t quite live up to the developed potential of the excellent Catching Fire. That said, I think it largely works as a whole, with conflicted and complicated characters living in a world that initially seems straightforwardly dystopic but develops many moral greys. That’s particularly welcome from a Young Adult series, a sort-of-genre where some of the most famous examples are lacking in intellectual — or (considering the target audience) educational — heft. In fact, based on the scores and comments I’ve seen on some websites, Mockingjay Part 2 may yet turn out to be the most underrated of the Hunger Games films.

    4 out of 5

    The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is available on Netflix UK as of this week. Mockingjay Part 1 is also on there; the first two films are not.

    * Potter does do the “back to a life” thing, but the details of it are found in ancillary texts. ^

    Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

    aka Hotaru no haka

    2016 #67
    Isao Takahata | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    Grave of the FirefliesOne of the most praised animated films of all time, this Studio Ghibli feature tackles grim subject matter: it’s the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, a pair of Japanese children who are orphaned and eventually left to fend for themselves in the closing months of World War 2. It begins with Seita dying of starvation and joining the spirit of his dead sister, so you know it’s not going to end well. A Disney movie this is not.

    It’s kind of hard to avoid the praise Grave of the Fireflies has attracted, which is why it ended up on my Blindspot list this year. It’s the third highest-rated animation on IMDb (behind Spirited Away and The Lion King), which also places it in the top 25% of the Top 250, not to mention various other “best animated” and “great movie” lists. I mention all this because I fear the weight of expectation somewhat hampered the film for me. It’s by no means a bad film, but, despite the subject matter, it didn’t touch me to the same degree as, say, My Neighbour Totoro (which, coincidentally, it was initially released with).

    So where did it go wrong for me? Perhaps my biggest issue was with Seita and the choices he made. I guess part of the point is that he is still a child and so unable to adequately care for himself and Setsuko, but I don’t get why he resorts to stealing, looting, and allowing them to starve when, as it eventually turns out, they still have 3,000 yen in the bank — enough to buy plenty of hearty food when it comes down to it. Why didn’t he turn to that money much sooner? Why did it take a doctor telling him his sister was malnourished and refusing to help before he thought, “you know what, I could always use that money we have saved up in the bank to feed us so I don’t have to steal and nonetheless be short of food”? When he does eventually withdraw that cash and buy some decent supplies, it’s a very literal case of doing too little too late.

    Another thing is that the film is often cited as a powerful anti-war movie, because it depicts the ravaging effects on innocents. However, director Isao Takahata insists it isn’t, saying it’s about “the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society”. I’m inclined to believe him, because, from what we actually see on screen, these two kids are the only ones to be so badly affected! Okay, we do see people have died, and we’re told that food is running out… but there’s a gaggle of kids who seem to be having a fun day out when they stumble across the siblings’ makeshift shelter; or, right at the end, people who merrily arrive home and pop their music on. The film doesn’t try to claim that only these two kids suffered, but — aside from a few other destitutes at the start, and the bodies we see after the first bombing (later bombings don’t make any casualties explicit) — we don’t really see anyone else suffering. I’m not arguing that Takahata is saying no one else suffered, nor that these observations make it pro-war (I mean, any children dying, even if others are surviving, is not a good thing), but I didn’t get an anti-war message that was as powerful or as overwhelming as other viewers seem to have.

    I’m an advocate of animation as a form (which must sound like a ridiculous position to have to take in some countries, but in the West “quality animation” begins and ends with Disney musicals and Pixar’s kid-friendly comedy adventures), but I think the fact this particular story is being told with moving drawings is detrimental. I’ve seen online reviews that say it makes the film more bearable because it creates a kind of disconnect from the real world — and, really, this story shouldn’t be “bearable”. That’s not to say you can’t feel an emotional connection to animated characters, but, as a medium, animation regularly deals in fantastical subjects, so with material this gruelling it does make it seem less real.

    Despite these issues, Grave of the Fireflies does still pack a punch, but I wasn’t as bowled over as I’d expected to be.

    4 out of 5

    Grave of the Fireflies was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.