The Snowman

You can’t force the pieces to fit.

A dark thriller adapted from a bestselling novel by Norwegian crime write Jo Nesbo. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, who brought up scintillating vampire horror Let the Right One In. Starring the magnificent Michael Fassbender and rising Swedish star Rebecca Ferguson, along with a terrific supporting cast that includes Charlotte Gainsburg, J K Simmons, Chloe Sevigny and Toby Jones.

What could possibly go wrong???

Well…

First a bit of set-up. The mighty Fassbender plays Harry Hole (pronounced Huuule in the original Norwegian apparently, but in the film it’s plain ‘Hole’). He’s an alcoholic police detective shaking off his vodka brain-fuzz to investigate serial murder. The film’s psycho-du-jour waits till the Scandi winter sets in, so he can build a snowman close to each of his victims for some reason rooted deep in his deranged mind. Rebecca Ferguson joins Fassbender as an out-of-town rookie and they set off investigating together (or mostly apart as it turns out). There are secrets and political conspiracies and personal baggage – lots going on in what I’m told worked very well in the original page-turner of a novel.

But it doesn’t work here at all.

It’s clearly not director Alfredson’s fault. His 2011 adaptation of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy makes smart work of a hugely intricate spy thriller and the actual look of The Snowman film is an icy kind of gorgeous. The problem, as the director himself explains (click here for more on this), is a screenplay that went partially unshot. Adapting a complex, multi-layered crime story with all its sub-plots and red herrings, along with central characters the viewer hasn’t met before, requires a sense of coherence that’s disappointingly lacking, due to pieces of plot going clean missing. Two editors are credited, like the whole thing was overhauled several times in the in post-production to try and undo the damage. It proved a task too great.

The result is ramshackle storytelling that doesn’t hold together, or the audience’s interest. Taking the tale of a cheesewire-wielding killer on the rampage and draining it of all dramatic tension requires some doing, but that’s what has miraculously been achieved through these gnarly production issues. I thought while watching that I was one espresso short of a fully functioning brain, but in truth the reasons for my confusion lay elsewhere.

Fassbender’s presence can do nothing to lift proceedings. As Hole he’s brooding and wracked with demons, but there are few hints as to why. Ferguson makes something of her back story through empathetic acting, but it’s simply not enough. And the two of them do so little actual communicating, even when they’re in scenes together, that it’s ultimately hard to care about either. As for the other name actors, they pop briefly in and out of a rambling messy story, like the killer has chopped down their scenes along with his victims. The whole thing is additionally dull and devoid of humour, and even sporadic bursts of crime scene gore can’t enliven it.

There are two additional hints in the film’s trailer as to what went wrong. One shot shows an imminent victim of the killer getting caught in some kind of animal trap, the other has Michael Fassbender raging and weeping in front of a wildly burning building. Neither scene makes it into the final cut. More evidence of a film that was re-edited endlessly to try and make sense of the half-baked screenplay.

Sorry, guys. It didn’t work.

Gut Reaction: Only vaguely interested as to what the hell was going on, with occasional starts at the gory stuff and one belated heart-pounding moment much too late in the day.

Ed’s Verdict: All that talent – from source material to cast and crew. And it still managed to be so damn dull…

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Blade Runner 2049

I want to ask you some questions.

Let’s be clear straight off. Blade Runner 2049 is a film for people who know and love the original. It’s aimed squarely at those who took the 1982 dystopian classic to their hearts and cherish it there. If that’s you, go see the new one. If the experience left you cold, then all the stunning visuals and brooding philosophy of 2049 will bore you silly. And if you haven’t seen the first one at all, then you’ll be baffled into the bargain. Welcome to October’s movie Marmite.

Blade Runner is a cult classic that failed at the box-office, but achieved lasting status due to the acclaim of movie critics and fans of thoughtful science-fiction. Set in a grimly over-populated 2019 Los Angeles, it concerns a group of ‘replicants’ – artificially engineered humans used as slave labour on colonial worlds, who have broken from captivity and returned to Earth seeking the longevity denied them by their biological programming. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a ‘blade runner’, whose job is to hunt down and destroy or ‘retire’ rogue replicants. But his view of his own work starts to change, when he gets emotionally entangled with one of the female replicants he is meant to pursue.

It’s morally complex stuff, with a protagonist whose mission is a dirty one, and antagonists who could easily be viewed as heroic. It’s also seething with questions about life and consciousness and memory, with an added environmental subtext. (2019 LA is a grim environment, garish neon illuminating the darkness.)

With both Harrison Ford and screen writer Hampton Fancher on board,Blade Runner 2049 shares much DNA with the original, while having evolved in every conceivable way. The vistas are bigger, the vision more epic, the exploration into life’s meaning more profound (and more glacially slow). Ryan Gosling leads proceedings, playing a guy in the same profession as Deckard before him. Known only as 7 ‘K’, he is a new-model replicant himself, tasked with hunting down and retiring older types who have gone underground. The LA he patrols is plunged even further into darkness, while rural California is a bleached desert, all due to further environmental catastrophes. Then one assignment leads to the discovery of a dark buried treasure, which links to the past in a way that will transform ‘K”s destiny and possibly that of many others.

This is a film that thinks huge and has visuals to match. Directed byArrival‘s Denis Villeneuve its look is uncluttered but constantly dazzling. Earth is in one sorry state, but it still looks amazing – full of devastated beauty. The advancement of science fiction ideas is a marvel too, one aspect of 2049 artificial intelligence proving unexpectedly moving. And the whole thing throbs with a score co-written by Hans Zimmer, who pays homage to Vangelis, the music scribe first time around.

Gosling is sombre, where Ford was brooding, though his passion when sparked runs deep. He’s in a La La Land with all the joy drained out of it, and the result speaks volumes for his acting range. There’s wonderful support too – Robin Wright as his tough boss, Ana de Armas as a highly unusual lover and Harrison Ford himself, grizzled and defensive, and clearly determined to revisit every role he played in the ’80s. (Witness 2: Once an Amish is surely on the cards).

As for the plot – it’s as profound as the film is sometimes ponderous, providing breathtaking moments for Blade Runner fans, that will leave everyone else scratching their heads. This is cerebral science-fiction simultaneously at its best and its most self-indulgent. It’s a a gourmet delight for those already on board, a feast for the eye and the brain. But like its predecessor, this is not a meal for everyone.

Gut Reaction: Struggling at times, enthralled at others. Enthrallment was the winner.

Ed’s Verdict: Yes it’s arse-numbingly slow, but it plays beautiful homage to the original while kicking out that film’s walls with a slew of amazing new ideas. Watch the original first, and bring a cushion to the cinema.

Blu-Ray Review – Moonlight

At some point you’ve gotta decide who you wanna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Here’s the problem about reviewing an award-winning film months after its release. On one hand there are numerous five-star poster comments telling you how much you should like it. On the other there are responses from some who’ve seen it post-plaudits and been utterly underwhelmed. It’s had the hype and the backlash. I avoided Moonlight reviews until such times as I watched it, but even so I’d heard that it was beautiful and ponderous, artistic and pretentious, essential viewing and a waste of my time. So I did my best to push all that all aside and treat it like it was brand new – pre-reviews, pre-Oscar hoo-hah, pre-everything.

For the next two hours, film I have never seen, I am yours. Do with me as you will.

Well, I liked Moonlight. It was nothing to do with critics or Academy Awards or worthiness. I really deep-down-liked it on its own terms. Here’s why.

If you haven’t seen it, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story set in Miami, Florida. It observes the progress of Chiron, a sensitive and introverted African-American boy growing up in a culture that demands he be tough. His lone-parent mother, we quickly discover, is a crack addict, and while he is too young to understand his own sexuality, taunts of ‘faggot’ are hurled by the bullies who chase him. We watch him grow into adolescence and from there to young adulthood, played in turn by three actors. Throughout he is grappling with his sexual identity – the person heshould be and the person circumstances dictate he must be.

The most involving aspect, in a film that defies expectations, is the boy himself. I cared about Chiron (or ‘Little’ as he is referred to in his earliest youth) from the start, largely because of young Alex Hibbert’s vulnerable, near-silent portrayal. It’s like the mirror opposite of Sunny Pawar’s winning turn in Lion, but an equally authentic child performance. More than that, the actors who carry on his story (Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as the teen and adult versions respectively) do so seamlessly, holding onto the thread of a single troubled life. The mature Chiron may have filled out physically, but the same hurting child lurks at his core.

There are other beautifully judged characterisations too. Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s mother over the three time periods, convincing utterly as a damaged woman whose love for her son is compromised by addiction. Mahershala Ali (you may know him as the smooth Remy Denton inHouse of Cards) is similarly believable as a drug-dealing father figure.Hidden Figures‘ Janelle Monae provides much-needed maternal warmth. And Andre Holland, the adult incarnation of Chiron’s friend Kevin, is understated but superb in the scenes he shares with Rhodes.

This is a film of silences – understandably, since the protagonist is so muted. But it’s also one of profound emotional moments. A beautifully shot swimming lesson, an awkward teen encounter on a beach, the attempt by a mother who knows she’s failed to reach her child. The camera lingers a lot, searching for what the characters (chiefly Chiron) are trying and often failing to say. If the melancholy classical score seems at odds with the environment, it ultimately fits a story of a boy dislocated from the world around him by nature and sexuality.

Moonlight is a story of painful self-discovery, with a problem-fraught love-story at its bruised, beating heart. It’s the hood shot unashamedly through an artist’s lens, so that beauty is found among the ugliness. Should it have beaten La La Land (or Lion for that matter) to the Best Picture award? I have no idea how to choose between different types of excellence. All I know is that Moonlight got to me, and that I’ll watch it again.

Gut Reaction: It drew me in slowly and then hooked me with moments of intense poignancy. The closing scenes were a subtle kind of stunning.

Ed’s Verdict: A director’s passion project and three great performances combining into an authentic one. It’s got a really good claim on my vote.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

We’re from the Kingsman tailor’s shop in London. Maybe you’ve heard of us?

2014 brought us Kingsman: The Secret Service, a comedy spy thriller based on the British Kingsman comic books. It introduced us to Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), a track-suited petty criminal, who was effectively adopted by Colin Firth’s dapper secret agent Harry Hart (code name ‘Galahad’). He was then trained as one of the ‘Kingsmen’, an ancient and clandestine spy organisation operating from a Savile Row tailor’s. It was daft, cartoony fun, like Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond on steroids and even more tongue-in-cheek. It also had the enjoyable conceit of a chavvy hero made over into a pinstripe-wearing gentleman. ‘Manners maketh man,’ Eggsy was advised by his classy mentor, who saw past the baseball cap and bling to the potential ‘Kingsman’ beneath.

In Kingsman: The Golden Circle the franchise is firmly established, Eggsy having completed his training and more than proven his worth in the field. The result is an opening that plunges us straight into wild, splendidly choreographed action that takes in most of Central London. Egerton is tailored to the nines and fighting for his life against an unexpected opponent in seconds. Soon after, a certain seismic event has Eggsy and the Kingsmen’s gadget guru Merlin (the always welcome Mark Strong) flying out to the USA to team up with their American counterparts the Statesmen, so they can pit themselves against a threat of global proportions. Julianne Moore is the demented master-villain of the piece, and her insane plan is already in motion.

It’s all preposterous fun, and any doubts I had about the wisdom of revisiting the world were rapidly dispelled. This is largely to do with the script, that like the first film invest proceedings with a huge amount of (sometimes dubious) wit and charm. Director Matthew Vaughn co-wrote once more with Jane Goldman (who also did great things with The Limehouse Golem) and they’re an impressive proven team. Their greatest call is to hook up our London heroes with their American cousins, broadening the storytelling canvas and revisiting the UK/US culture clash in a fresh and entertaining way. Everything down to the code-names of their Kentucky-based comrades-in-arms is a delight.

Eggsy is even more likeable second time around, Egerton’s performance served by a script that makes him all-round loyal – to colleagues, old friends, girlfriend – rather than a casual Bond-style player. He has strong back-up from the suave Brits, while Pedro Pascal is the standout of the US crowd (Game of Thrones devotees will know him as the vengeful Oberyn Martell), wielding an electronically enhanced lasso as his weapon of choice.

All these novelties are welcome, as the tropes of the Kingsman franchise are already firmly established. The tech is total science fiction, the action both balletic and lethal and the villains gleefully flamboyant. The movie risks sameness with its original, but is kept fresh at every point by attention to detail and by pushing each ludicrous premise to busting point. Take Julianne Moore’s villain’s lair – a garish theme-park tribute to classic Americana. More silly than sinister, even when the most vicious acts are being carried out there.

Ultimately this Kingsman sequel was much more enjoyable than it had any right to be. It certainly pressed all the buttons of a first-night audience, who judging by their laughs and gasps of recognition were largely well-acquainted with the original. Cram it and then go see the new one. As wastes of time go, it’s a really good one.

Gut Reaction: A lot of smiles and quite a few lols, including some guilty ones. And surprisingly one or two moments that moved. Oh, and I want Eggsy’s tangerine DJ.

Ed’s Verdict: An evening of good, daft, throwaway fun – no more, no less. And while I’m not proud of it, a certain extended celebrity cameo made me laugh.

Detroit

Film Review – Detroit (15)

What happened at the motel?

Detroit would have been a timely film even before recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now that race hate in the US has been making so many international news headlines, it feels positively essential. Focusing on the harrowing ‘Algiers Motel’ incident that occurred during Detroit’s ’12th Street Riot’ of July 1967, the film provides a unique and deeply disturbing insight into the depth of racial division that exists in America, then and now. Events of fifty years ago feel horribly contemporary when depicted on screen in fashion like this.

The film provides a crystal sense of context for the incident in question, sketching the origins of Detroit’s racial issues in a neat prologue before depicting the outbreak of the riots themselves. The violence is realised in an impressively authentic way – a crucial spark igniting this tinderbox of race-based tension, in scenes reminiscent of actual news footage. Those of us who watched the 2011 London riots play out might well be struck by the similarity.

The key players in the drama are introduced deftly too – a knot of young cops with an agenda, an aspiring Motown singer and his buddy, a clutch of motel party-goers and a security guard who happens on the scene… These lives converge on the evening of July 25th 1967, in events that turn heart-pounding in their sense of real life horror. The depiction of the evening is pieced together from real accounts of those involved, dramatic imagination filling in the gaps. However close the screenplay gets to the truth of what really happened, Detroit serves as an ugly reflection on modern US history.

The movie is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who provides the same muscularity she demonstrated in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a story requiring grit and utter fearlessness and she brings both, neither she nor the camera flinching in what they are asked to portray. Mark Boal’s taut screenplay is shot with clarity – grim without being exploitative, horrific due to the realness of the emotion captured. While there is some use of shaky-camera to convey panic and disorientation, it’s not enough to cause motion sickness. Any nausea stems rather from the idea that these events, or anything close to them, occurred in the first place.

The cast is peppered with familiar faces. Star Wars‘ John Boyega is nuanced as the wrong-place/wrong-time security guy and Anthony Mackie, heroic in the Captain America movies, is subdued and fearful here as a motel party-goer. In truth, however, this is not a film for stars or heroes. It’s about a whole group’s response to unfolding trauma and on that level the entire cast delivers with performances both raw and real. Stand-outs are arguably Will Poulter as a fresh-faced cop and Algee Smith as golden-voiced singer Larry, but most of all this is one hell of an ensemble effort.

Detroit is not an easy watch, nor should it be. The dramatic twists are messy and unpredictable, the outcomes frayed and frustrating. This is a serious take on real events of the darkest kind and anything less would short-change those involved. Fifty years have passed since the riots and the fateful night at the Algiers Motel. That this film doesn’t even feel like a period piece is the most frightening thing of all.

Gut Reaction: Gut-punched repeatedly. And moved.

Ed’s Verdict: You might endure rather than enjoy, but this is a fine film – jarring and confrontational, but also full of humanity.

Life

We’re looking at the first proof of life beyond Earth.

First there are science fiction films of striking and groundbreaking originality, say 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then there are those that use their influences to springboard into something else, the way Interstellardoes with the aforementioned 2001. Finally there are some that take an idea and – well – do it all over again beat for beat. Life is firmly in the final category. Thankfully for its audience it copies with style.

To be totally fair, the movie takes the plot of Alien and places it for variety’s sake within a contemporary Gravity-style setting. The hapless astronauts are based on the International Space Station and can recollect the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster from their youth, so that the threat they encounter seems rather more immediate than one set over a century in our future.

The plot is simple. Our heroes take on board a delivery of earth from the Mars Rover, which contains a molecular critter that squarely answers David Bowie’s famous Mars-related question. Subjected to laboratory tests, the entity (cutely named ‘Calvin’) starts to grow exponentially, before exhibiting a scary survival reflex. Basically Calvin has no intention of hanging around in its petri dish. All else will be very recognisable to anyone who’s seen the classic Ridley Scott horror movie. Space is lonely and the station is claustrophobic, more so once a deadly alien is evading capture and targeting the crew one by one.

While Life wins no prizes for originality, it does have a few aspects that raise it above the level of slavish duplicate. Its central cast of six (including notables like Jake Gyllenhall and Ryan Reynolds) is tight and strong throughout, selling the gravity of the developing situation with their urgently rattled dialogue. The protagonists’ lives and personalities are sketched distinctly enough for us to care about them before the plot starts to turn its screws. And when those screws turn, they do so very tightly indeed, particularly in the film’s first half; more than one suspense sequence had me curling up in my seat like a wound spring.

Yes the set-up has been done before, but its execution finds some very original methods, rooted in recognisably contemporary science, to scare the bejeepers out of the paying customers. And the alien’s transformation from something apparently benign to a terrifying threat is pretty satisfying too.

The film does pose a few interesting questions about how humans might or should behave on discovering a new life form and about the fine line between scientific inquiry and folly. Really though it’s an excuse for some well-crafted Alien-esque thrills, complete with cold sweat and body horror. Get popcorn in – just be careful not to choke on it when things turn nasty.

Spiderman: Homecoming

Film Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A)

Can’t you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

Spidey’s back! I know – he’s never really been away, but this time around there’s a youthful twist to the character. Yes, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were young, but they weren’t such a believably gawky high-school kind of young. Here it’s the UK’s Tom Holland who wriggles into the iconic costume, combining noble intentions with teenage folly. The results are crowd-pleasing from first to last.

Holland’s Spider-Man made his inaugural appearance in last year’s splendid Captain America: Civil War, the events of which act as something of a prologue to this film. Enlisted by billionaire entrepreneur Tony Stark (aka Ironman) to take sides in said civil war, Peter Parker now views himself as an apprentice Avenger – a Stark ‘intern’ who now has to prove himself so he can become a fully fledged member of the team. This he must do while keeping his grades up along with his place on the school quiz team, and trying to impress the girl he likes (naturally well out of his league). Oh, and he must keep his super-alias a secret of course, from all but his best buddy Ned.

Stark exhorts him to limit his crime-fighting activities rather than punching above his limited weight. But sinister events are afoot in Peter’s native New York borough of Queens, and he can’t resist taking on some heavyweight bad-guys, whatever his mentor’s advice.

The joy of this new incarnation is that Spider-Man is a superhero in the making – more boy than man, with a sometimes flailing lack of control over his recently acquired powers. Holland is hugely winning as the student, despite an over-enthusiasm that can create more trouble than it prevents. There’s an endearing clumsiness to even his best efforts. This is a school movie too, and anyone who enjoyed the John Hughes films of the ’80s will feel more than a little nostalgic here. (Think Duckie in Pretty in Pink if he could shoot webbing and climb walls.)

Spider-Man: Homecoming contains multiple other pleasures. The rapport between Peter and his awestruck pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) produces some entertaining exchanges, while his relationship with mentor Stark – Robert Downey Jnr coasting in the role he’s made his own – is possibly funnier. Michael Keaton brings conviction and menace to a much more grounded supervillain than we’re used to (ironic, since he can fly). The action sequences play out on a well-utilised backdrop of iconic New York (and in one case Washington) landmarks, and the whole thing has a comic-book vitality to it. It’s fast-paced and full of primary colours to match Spidey’s suit.

If there’s one flaw it’s that the whole enterprise is just too fast and crammed with incident; sometimes it would do well to catch its breath. Also the cross-over elements from the Marvel shared universe will bewilder casual viewers, although Tony Stark’s innovations to Spidey’s costume provide a fun new aspect to proceedings.

Overall it’s great family-friendly summer fun – shrugging itself free of all darker elements in a fit of youthful zest. This Spider-Man does whatever a spider can, albeit with hilarious ineptitude.

Gut Reaction: Considerable laughter, mildly accelerated vital signs and one satisfying moment of ‘Did not see that coming.’

Ed’s Verdict: A welcome light-spirited and joke-filled addition to the Marvel Universe canon. Tom Holland is the likeable fresh face of Spider-Man.

The Big Sick

Review – The Big Sick (15)

Your driver will be ready as soon as he puts on his pants.

The Big Sick is based on a true story from the life of stand-up comedian and comedy actor Kumail Nanjiani. That Nanjiani co-wrote and stars as himself in the film, only adds to the poignancy of that story’s telling. Romantic comedy drama is a difficult combination to pull off. Here all the elements are present in great spadefuls, and they combine to wonderful effect.

Kumail, from a Pakistani immigrant family, is plying his trade at a Chicago comedy club when he meets psychology student Emily. The romantic sparks are instant and hot, and while both of them have reasons to tread carefully – she’s been burned from past experience, he’s burdened by familial pressure to marry a Pakistani girl – they go where passion leads. The immediate results are funny and affecting, but inevitably their burgeoning relationship runs into crisis. Not any old crisis – a bizarre double-whammy of a crisis that might be too much for an audience to swallow, if it hadn’t actually happened. Kumail finds himself tangling with Emily’s parents in unique circumstances, while trying to deal with the expectations of his own family.

The Big Sick is produced by Judd Apatow and achieves the same believable quality that he brought to films like Knocked Up and This is Forty. The chemistry between Kumail and Emily is off the chart from the moment they meet – awkward, witty and charming, the pair of them stumbling and bantering their way into love. The script is beautifully judged and the two leads play it perfectly – Nanjiani likeably vulnerable and Zoe Kazan playing Emily with just the right degree of clued-in eccentricity. For romantic comedy to work you have to tumble into love with the couple, and here they make it happen effortlessly. (Which makes what follows all the more of a roller coaster.)

Hats off too to the support cast. The members of Kumail’s family manage to be endearing and infuriating in equal measure, while his fellow stand-ups are given enough space to act as a dysfunctional comedy family in their own right. Special praise has to go, however, to Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents. If she’s more renowned for her dramatic roles and he for his comic ones (Everybody Loves Raymond/the voice of Manny the Mammoth in endless Ice Age films), here they combine to nail both aspects, never less than when they tangle with a racist heckler at Kumail’s comedy gig. The bond they forge with Kumail is one of the film’s several moving story threads and the source of its biggest laughs.

How much of The Big Sick is straight from Kumail and Emily’s real life experience and how much is artistic embellishment I couldn’t rightly say. The heart of the film, though, is all real – the romance beautiful, the drama painful and the comedy often hilarious. It’s a sublime melding of the three and simply demands to be seen. In a summer of noise and spectacle, how refreshing to get back to something intimate, funny and touching.

Gut Reaction: Regular chuckling with several laugh-out-louds and one disabling comedy gut-punch. Welled up at least three times, once to spillage. Not ashamed to say so.

Ed’s Verdict: Romance/comedy/drama – triple knock-out. No schmaltz, nothing phony – just real, deep-seated emotion fused with the laughter. Book your ticket now.

Dunkirk

You can practically see it from here… Home.

Dunkirk – the name is synonymous here in the UK with communal spirit in the face of terrible adversity. A whole generation still vividly recalls the events of May-June 1940, when over 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from the beach of the French coastal resort, largely by civilian vessels enlisted in Operation Dynamo. It was a watershed historical event, dealt with in film before (see my April review of Their Finest for a recent example), but never so viscerally as in Christopher Nolan’s new feature.

Nolan has described his own movie as ‘not a war film’, but rather ‘a survival story’ and ‘suspense film’. It’s fair comment. Hemmed in by approaching German tanks and threatened by a skyfull of Messerschmitt bombers, the young soldiers are done with warring for now. Their offensive into mainland Europe has failed and all they can do is await rescue, with no assurance that it will ever come. The enemy is faceless throughout, coming only in the form of a torpedo, sniper bullet or aerial bombardment.

Dunkirk charts three lads’ week-long struggle to survive on the beaches. Their travails are inter-cut with the day-long voyage across the English Channel by one of the many tiny rescue boats, and with an hour-long dogfight between British and German pilots – an intricate triple time-structure in a film all about time running out. It’s a sustained exercise in tension, building steadily to the point at which events on land, sea and air converge. By the time they do, you’ll have been both terrified and enthralled.

Nolan is one of the most distinctive voices in modern cinema and all his trademark film-making preferences are brought to bear here. Dunkirk is shot with IMAX cameras, producing panoramic vistas of sky, sea and beaches. Computer-generated images are rejected at every turn in favour of real warships and the genuine piloting of real period fighter planes. The soundscape is breathtaking in its own right, from the thrum of ships’ engines to the dreadful overhead whine of approaching enemy aircraft, all of it backed up by the Hans Zimmer’s relentless ticking-clock score.

The result is a deep sense of authenticity, as immersive a piece of cinema as your could hope to experience. You spend time – proper nail-chewing time – among these scared and desperate young men, along with those rushing to their aid. Dialogue is sparse. There’s no time spent spent swapping stories about family and girlfriends and whether the boys will get to see City play again – just solidarity born of fear and ebbing hope. Or the fighter-pilots’ steely-eyed concentration. Or the rescuers’ determination to do a little bit of good in a continent gone stark mad.

There are fine performances too, however shorn of speech. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy get to say the most as terse, preoccupied military officers. Mark Rylance has understated dignity as the pleasure-boat captain progressing doggedly across the Channel. Previously unknown Fionn Whitehead and pop superstar Harry Styles are level on the Dunkirk sand-flats, both quietly impressive as British army Privates trying to stay alive.

You don’t get to know any of these men well and frankly there’s no need. Writer/director Nolan understands that from the beginning. These characters could be any out of thousands caught up in an extraordinary event of history. It’s enough that they’re human – painfully so – and that the events depicted in Dunkirk really did happen.

Ed’s Verdict: Technically masterful, gripping throughout and profoundly affecting, Dunkirk is Nolan at the height of his powers. Film of the summer and a contender for film of the year. See it – on the biggest screen possible.

War for the Planet of the Apes

Apes together strong!

The new Planet of the Apes trilogy has been one of the most welcome blockbuster surprises of recent years. When Rise of came out, I was asking ‘Why?’, but the film stomped on my question with its intelligent storytelling and sheer craft. Then Dawn of broadened the canvas and upped the stakes to magnificent effect. As often with film trilogies the question then became ‘Will the final part (War for) let the whole thing down?’

The answer, happily, is no. In fact it cements the trilogy’s stature. Breathe out and relax.

War for the Planet of the Apes completes the story of noble ape Caesar and his efforts to establish a safe haven for his band of newly evolved primates. The remnants of humanity are now reeling from their self-inflicted wounds and lashing out militarily at ape-kind. Woody Harrelson plays an army Colonel on a very personal mission to deal with what he perceives as the ape threat. The consequences of his actions set Caesar on an uncharacteristically vengeful quest, one which threatens to put everything for which the apes have struggled at risk. The tale that unfolds is powerful and dark, full of resonances with the modern era and recent history, and with a strong nod to Apocalypse Now.

War is not the full-on ape-versus-human combat story you might expect. While there are superbly realised action sequences, they by no means dominate what is ultimately a moving (if not always very subtle) character piece. The genius of this trilogy is to make the ape leader our protagonist, so that our sympathies rest squarely with Caesar and his extended primate family. Yes the movies have a scattering of likeable human characters and not all the apes are paragons of nobility, but as a trio these films serve to critique the darker aspects of human behaviour. To act with cruelty as an ape, as Caesar’s orangutan mentor Maurice might point out, is to mirror humanity at its worst.

As ever it’s the story’s stunning visuals that really sell it. Each of these films tops the previous in spectacle, but it’s the sheer photo-realism of the ape community that impresses most. Actor is rendered into ape via the ever more precise art of motion capture, the bodily and facial performances reproduced in formidable detail. Just look at Andy Serkis (very possibly my all-time acting hero) as Caesar. He’s played this character from baby to mature ape over three films and in War every flicker of conflicting emotion plays out in his eyes as surely as if it were a non-animated human on camera.

There’s excellent work too from Karin Konoval as the empathetic Maurice and Steve Zahn as a wide-eyed and lovably funny chimp called Bad Ape. (And well done also to little Amiah Miller, the human child in one very touching subplot.) This is Serkis’ show, however, and it’s a testament to both him and the animators that Caesar is the most ‘human’ character in the series.

Congratulations are due then to director Matt Reeves and a superb production team for a gloriously realised final chapter in the modern Apessaga. It has the scope of a David Lean epic and in its central performance the weight of a Shakespearean tragedy. They brought it home – not necessarily as I’d expected, but in a way that’s almost perfect.

Ed’s Verdict: They could have dropped the ball on this one, but instead – touchdown! War is full of terrible beauty and stands as a fitting end to a magnificent trilogy.