Review: Thor Ragnarok

A hilarious comedy that’s incidentally a superhero movie, Thor Ragnarok offers lots of laughs and a sense of something different, which both the character and the cinematic universe probably needed.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has travelled the universe since Avengers: Age of Ultron, and on returning to Asgard finds all is not well. Coupled with the appearance of the malevolent Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor finds himself stranded on trash planet Sakaar, under the control of the bizarre Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), and inexplicably alongside the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). With the help of washed up Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and shifty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor aims to get back and prevent the destruction of his planet.

I feel like Marvel probably looked back at the first two Thors, all ham-fisted Shakespearean drama and sporadically interesting characters, and realised something really special was needed to get audiences interested again. Thankfully, probably due to his standout role in Ghostbusters, Chris Hemsworth offered them a new way forward, and the studio made a brave directorial choice in choosing Kiwi director Taika Waititi.

Two of his previous films, What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, were for me absolutely hilarious, featuring a keen balance between humour and drama (the former puncturing the latter regularly for an upbeat feel). What he brings to Thor and Marvel is not only an actual directorial vision, but some proper laugh out loud comedy (I love these films, but many are very similar and of the same style).

While the screenplay is ostensibly by three writers – Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – it feels like Waititi wrote it, with his expertise in staging comic scenes with perfect timing stamped all over it. The more contained plot is a breath of fresh air for the series, removing us from the wider story at play and dropping us down with Thor as he blunders his way through a Flash Gordon style scenario (in terms of plot, look and zaniness).

On the look, special effects bring the junky, colourful world of Sakaar to vibrant life, while Javier Aguirresarobe’s kaleidoscopic lighting only adds to the alien nature of the rubbish dump planet. Asgard and Earth are rather bland as a consequence, but even then the final act takes place on the former’s rainbow bridge! A funky, 80s inspired soundtrack from Mark Mothersbaugh also helps plant a very specific style, setting it aside from the operatic strains of Asgard and again reinforcing that Flash Gordon feel.

The action is OK, if a little middling, but it’s sufficient and short enough in its appearances that it neither distracts nor detracts from the comedy, while still giving us the superhero fights we expect. Thankfully, the finale once again sidesteps the “alien ships fighting above a city” conclusion that Marvel is guilty of reprising a little too often.

I think once most people saw Chris Hemsworth was capable of being absolutely hilarious, it gave his depiction of Thor so much more. The regal, stuffy egotist of the other movies returns, but with a sense of his own idiocy and a more playful, dim look at the world. The Aussie actor is the best he’s been, and it’s a shame the concluding films of the saga will likely revert Thor to serious mode.

Perhaps the surprising weak link, Cate Blanchett does do her best to make Hela a little more interesting. However, as a villain she has to be “bad”, meaning in Marvel that she doesn’t get as much of a chance to join in with the hilarity. That’s a shame, as funny villains can absolutely make a film (see Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). I did however like her shifting British accents (betraying the real Hela behind her character’s reveal), and her bad buddy cop partnership with Karl Urban’s shifty Skurge, whose story is sadly predictable and who again had more potential if he’d been included in the humour.

Mark Ruffalo does more work as Hulk than Bruce Banner, but is hilarious as both even despite the character’s more serious dilemmas (with an eye to future films). Hulk is more chatty in addition to being dangerously unpredictable, but Banner’s small appearance is almost constantly funny. Ruffalo and Hemsworth make a great double act, and it’s clear why the film partnered their characters.

Anthony Hopkins wields his actorly powers as Odin in an extended cameo, with Idris Elba slightly sidelined unfortunately. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is still one of the series’ more interesting characters, and that carries on here as his actions in the last Thor are brought to light. The actor’s able to be much more loose as a result, his partnership with Hemsworth another great double act with some surprising emotional impact come the conclusion.

On Sakaar, Tessa Thompson’s boozy Valkyrie is interesting and really different for a Marvel superheroine, but again feels underdeveloped, though the actress does make an impression as the Asgardian gone to seed harbouring emotional damage. Jeff Goldblum predictably nearly steals the whole film as the Grandmaster, perfect casting and as a perfect choice for a Waititi movie. He operates at peak, weapons grade Goldblum here, which will likely be music to many ears.

There are also some brilliant cameos, one an A-list star I only recognised halfway through their scene, while another Avenger (well, I’m not sure if they are one yet) appears and provides a little more comedy and cross pollination to the mix. However, Waititi’s CGI appearance as Korg – a softly spoken, Kiwi sounding rock alien Thor befriends – is the standout, source of some of the best jokes and a hilarious meeting of special effects and absurd New Zealand humour.

Even those of you who don’t consider themselves fans of the Marvel juggernaut should see this, one of the funnier films this year. There are some spectacular jokes, and a real sense of fun and insanity that partners both Guardians of the Galaxy and Vol 2 – Thor added to that bunch would be a perfect next step! Waititi’s work here will hopefully get his other films more attention, and I hope Marvel learns from this excellent choice for the films ahead.

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Review: Blade Runner 2049

A remarkably unique sequel, Blade Runner 2049 combines stunning visuals and a weighty plot with a markedly considered pace, creating a great sci-fi thriller.

Decades after “blade runner” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) disappeared, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is now tasked with relentlessly hunting down older, non-compliant versions of replicants, androids nearly indistinguishable from humans. He makes a discovery that could change the world, for better or worse, and starts to dig deeper.

Even from five minutes in, the film is filled with twists, turns and revelations. Suffice to say, you probably won’t expect this to go where it does given the first movie. This is part of the reason why I liked it, though I can see (particularly with one of the bigger central plot points) why many might not! Perhaps the best aspect of the story and themes are that they look intelligently at man versus machine, and the variations within the latter in this world, raising questions of feeling and purpose, and at times (much like the original) making you come down firmly on the side of the latter.

Director Denis Villeneuve follows Arrival with another intelligent, tense and detailed thriller, helped ably by the expansive screenplay from the original’s writer Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. He helps you slip back into the world despite its changes in the interim, like Ridley Scott before him adapting Philip K Dick’s source into something more evocative, yet still full of questions as to our relationship with technology.

The French-Canadian’s intrinsic ability to stage and maintain creeping, slow-paced scenes filled with tension is everpresent in 2049, and he presents events in a series of slow, stunning reveals while tightening the proverbial screws. There is little action needed, and there are certainly (until the conclusion) no huge set pieces. That which does take place revolves tightly around the story, and the contrasts between man and machine, as well as where those lines blur. Those with a short attention span or waiting for punches, gunshots and set-tos should probably be aware of this before they watch.

This was music to my ears, and though the film is pretty long (two and three quarter hours!), this gives the story a luxurious amount of time to spread out and develop. Characters are introduced and given time to actually talk about their motivations, with even smaller appearances given a chance to make a mark. The weighty questions at play are also granted extra screentime to lodge in your mind, leaving you more engaged in characters and motivations than perhaps the first allowed us to be.

Ryan Gosling is very well suited for the enigmatic role of K, and his performance subtly changes over the course of events to leave a quite strong (if understated) impression, while Ford reprises yet another famous role with something approaching actual enthusiasm. You can clearly tell the famous actor was drawn back by the story and the character’s mixed motivations, and he plumbs surprising range in a series of combative and emotional scenes.

Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks impact as, respectively, K’s companion Joi and mercenary replicant Luv. Again, to say too much about the characters would spoil the plot, but de Armas gives a notable, emotional performance, her role provoking some of the most interesting questions that the film raises on the connection between its different types of character.

Hoeks unnerves as the new, compliant type of replicant, tautly controlled, slightly unhinged yet determined to serve her master’s best interests. She strains for primacy over her fellow machines, reflected in unemotional, random crying (deepening that uncomfortable feeling you get about the replicants imitating human behaviour).

Jared Leto is remarkably restrained and surprisingly creepy in just a few scenes as Neander Wallace (the new replicant manufacturer), while Dave Bautista makes an impact in a near-cameo, highlighting his range and presence and presenting ability beyond his lunkhead comedy in the Guardians of the Galaxy series. There are also notable but small appearances from Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James, as well as some surprise cameos…

Blade Runner tied in noir tropes with dystopian future visuals and sounds, the latter two elements taken to satisfying extremes here by cinematographer Roger Deakins and composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer. It was always going to be hard to top the influential, distinctive future LA of the original, but Deakins accentuates stunning sets and vistas with pale, ghostly whites, muted neons and hazy oranges to build on and push forward (in film time) the evolution of the alternate society’s look and feel.

It looks fantastic, and the use of largely practical effects (alongside CGI artfully supporting, rather than supplanting them) only builds on the tangible, lived-in feeling. Musically, the film was originally set to be scored by regular Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson, who departed at a late stage to be replaced by Wallfisch and the ever-present Zimmer.

Ironically, the score sounds far more like the Icelandic composer’s work, with brutal, atonal bursts of electronic booms punctuating scenes and accentuating a feeling of discomfort, as well as futurism. There is subtly clever reuse of some of Vangelis’ iconic score – a lot less than I would have expected – but when used it supports emotional feeling for those familiar with the original. Depending on how much involvement Zimmer had, this is perhaps one of the more interesting scores (read divisive) that he’s ever made, with this combination porting over Jóhannsson’s disquieting blasts and adding their own stamp.

I want to see this film again just to drink in the detail – and I think in time it will be considered one of the better sequels in its genre. For me, Denis Villeneuve can do no wrong so far, and as a sci-fi fan, I still can’t believe how many fantastic movies like this we are lucky enough to be getting in recent times. It’s a must for science fiction aficionados and a thought-provoking, visual stunner that deserves the recognition it’s getting.

Review: It

It is instantly one of the greatest Stephen King adaptations, filled with terrifying tension and sheer malevolence that make it a worthwhile watch.

In 1980s Maine, kids and teenagers keep going missing in the sleepy town of Derry, with a bunch of young teens are haunted by visions of their worst fears and a disturbing clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). The group of outcasts (calling themselves the Losers) band together to combat the terror and figure out what the clown really is.

Anyone’s who read a Stephen King horror or thriller knows he has an incredible ability to scare, disgust and horrify, and It was no exception. Adapted in the 1990s for TV (famously starring Tim Curry), a film adaption has been in the works for years, experiencing development issues but eventually ending up with director Andy Muschietti. And it’s a good thing for viewers and King fans, as the Argentinian director expertly retells (half) the novel, effortlessly carrying across elemental fears at its centre.

By necessity, this is the first of two parts or “chapters” (the book is 1,100 pages long), and working on a screenplay from Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (former director) and Gary Dauberman, the strong imagery and terrifying twists are modernised and adapted thrillingly. Certain unadaptable areas are swerved, the core coming-of-age relationship between the kids focused on in the shadow of the death and terror swirling around.

It may all seem very Stranger Things to those unaware of King, but he essentially cornered the market in coming-of-age fiction in the 1980s with this and Stand By Me. This film highlights his incredible ability to convincingly convey the human experience, distorted through a prism of unimaginable horror. To be quite frank, the film didn’t terrify me (I knew what was coming), but unsettling tension and jump scares are almost volcanic in the way they erupt at the audience.

You probably know already if this is the film for you, and while Pennywise is at the forefront of the marketing, ‘It’ is much more than just the clown. Other manifestations are no less disturbing in the moment, some are excellently showcased with grisly practical effects, though a couple require slightly naff CGI. Regardless, this is not for the faint of heart or easily distressed (one early scene might make your decision for you!), and this doesn’t reflect entirely on violence.

There are a couple of scenes effortlessly lifted, repurposed and filmed that, while not conventionally scary, gave me chills in the cinema, simply as Muschietti stages them so well and because the cast is up to the task – an encounter at a library and a slideshow gone wrong in particular.

The script also absolutely nails the unsightly, disturbing way in which the whole town is corrupted by It’s presence, as incidental characters behave in creepy or downright evil ways but on a distressingly human level (Bev’s experiences in particular). It’s a testament then that laughs are peppered throughout, while the kids’ cooperation and bond feels real, boosted by the young cast’s performances.

Bill Skarsgard’s utter transformation into Pennywise sees the Swedish actor unrecognisable in decaying make-up, and incredibly unsettling in his performance. He seems to use every trick possible (a disturbingly huge grin, his own ability to look in different directions with each eye) alongside eerie characterisations (drool and a bizarre accent) to leave a remarkable impact. The film suffers for his absence, but as mentioned above its eruptions of terror see Skarsgard steal every scene – his performance will haunt the careers of clowns for years.

The Losers are worth talking about as a group as well as individuals, as the talented bunch don’t cross over into annoying kid territory. Jaeden Lieberher convincingly presents the stuttering Bill with a growing inner strength, conveying emotional damage and a steeliness. Sophia Lillis’ Bev displays a strong air of maturity in a tough role, clearly standing out among the boys and central to many of the more harrowing scenes – she’s one to watch for the future.

Finn Wolfhard’s filthy and gobby Richie is the cheeky comic relief, while Jack Dylan Grazer’s hypochondriac Eddie and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s thoughtful Ben are other standouts, often the source of other laughs, though all three get the chance to show their dramatic ability. The other two characters, Stan and Mike, are interesting but not given as much prominence, though Wyatt Oleff and Chosen Jacobs respectively offer rounded if underserved portrayals of the neurotic voice of reason, and the outsider forced to grow up early but enriched by becoming part of the group.

Nicholas Hamilton’s sadistic bully Henry Bowers is full of twisted zeal but again given short shrift, while young Jackson Robert Scott, as Bill’s younger brother Georgie, is excellent, doing incredibly well in distinctly harrowing scenes and putting older colleagues to shame.

Other elements deepen the tension and unrelenting unease. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score vacillates between Spielbergian tones and chilling thriller tones, while Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography displays Derry’s dichotomy between the sun-drenched summer holiday and normal lives of the kids, and the colourless, drained and gloomy pervasiveness of It’s presence. Both types of lighting, and the shifts in musical tone, combine excellently at times as a visual for horror intruding on normality, as an otherwise normal scene is punctured by a blast of terror.

As mentioned earlier, the effects are (unsurprisingly) better when practical (Eddie’s fear in particular is disgustingly depicted), and the CGI is rather poor, perhaps best left for the events of Chapter Two. However, this is probably the main negative I can identify, and beyond giving some kids more character development, I can’t complain about much here.

Sure, it could have been scarier (for me), but an accurate depiction of all the horrors King dreamt up would probably make for an 18, and It’s spectacular success justifies its lesser focus on more adult scares and more on mainstream horror. Besides, with a more challenging but potentially mind-bending and disturbing sequel to come, there’s still time for me to be properly scared.

It, for me, is an absolute must for Stephen King fans, and a highly recommended watch for horror fiends. I hope it yields more King adaptations of this quality and more big budget horror too!

Review: Atomic Blonde

From one of the co-directors of John WickAtomic Blonde is unsurprisingly filled with bruising action, its lesser points glossed over by a funky 80s look and sound and a strong action performance from Charlize Theron.

Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is one of MI6’s top agents, and in 1989 is tasked with travelling to Berlin and retrieving a wristwatch with identities of all active field agents. Arriving and working alongside the erratic David Percival (James McAvoy), she fights and sleuths her way around the fractious city, dealing with goons and subterfuge on the trail of the watch.

David Leitch broke away from directing John Wick: Chapter Two to make this movie, and you can clearly see why. This movie has certain strong links to John Wick, namely in its bruising yet clearly shot action and stunts, as well as a sardonic, laconic lead character. Adapted from a graphic novel, the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad tries quite hard to echo spy movie tropes as well as carve out something new and different, in the febrile period before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He also develops Broughton in a subtle way throughout, taking that (sadly) unique central point of a female action protagonist and building it out into something memorable yet equal to her (many) male counterparts.

This works for and against it, the period setting and music (more on this later) combining with set design and evocative, atmospheric lighting to throw you back into that time in history. And for the most part, the plot is tight and fun, dragging you screaming through backstabbing and mystery, until it loses it all towards the end. These last act shenanigans take away from earlier, more interesting twists and turns indicative of an area of history/spy films that only really Bridge of Spies previously occupied.

However, beyond all that, the film’s saving graces are its action and 80s setting. The fight scenes and stunts, unsurprisingly, are bruising and brutal, and nobody walks away from them scot free or without injury, especially Broughton. Much like the John Wick movies, action has consequence here, making some standout fights (one in an apartment, another in a stairwell) hit the viewer hard. A select number of car chases are impressively done (besides some shonky greenscreen, perhaps the film’s only obvious or required uses of CGI), but it’s the smaller more spy-film scenes of tense confrontation that zing, especially when the tension detonates. There’s also a couple of scenes of raunch, as per the usual spy movie requirements!

The distinctive look (dripping with neon in the west, drained of colour in the east) partners perfectly with period costuming (a great phrase when discussing the 80s) and an excellent soundtrack and original score by Brian Tyler. Some 80s songs aren’t surprising to hear (one particular, very famous German pop track especially) but others work perfectly alongside the action, particularly a hilarious use of George Michael. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, this retro music accentuates both the comedy and action, while the score augments and modernises some famous songs for a halfway house of cool.

Theron’s lead role builds on her entrance into the action A-leagues with Mad Max: Fury Road, partnering an excellent aptitude for stuntwork and fighting with an ice cool, severe performance as Lorraine, who slowly but surely defrosts in surprising ways (most definitely not what you might expect considering other similar female characters). There’s a lot of work to be done in glances and facial expressions, and the actress is deft at showing both a steely resolve and a slow but steady fracturing, as Broughton’s skills and self regard begin to crack while the plot closes in. Find a way to put her in a movie with John Wick and we’re talking…

James McAvoy seems to delight in skeezy lead or supporting roles when he’s not X-menning it up, and Percival is absolutely no exception. A character capitalising on the crumbling of a war-torn city, and the combination of two very different cultures, McAvoy’s pervy English bastard meets his match in Broughton early on, and you expect a double act, but as the plot develops a different dynamic emerges, led by the actor’s slithery, shifting abilities. While the story perhaps doesn’t serve the character as well (it’s not his story), McAvoy’s performance is memorably bastardly and an English cousin to his depraved Scottish cop in Filth.

John Goodman and Toby Jones offer their usual characterful performances as CIA and MI6 bosses interrogating Broughton in scenes bookending the main events, with the US and UK actors respectively providing gruff menace and officious annoyance. In Berlin, Sofia Boutella’s French agent brings a refreshing twist to the standard spy’s “bit on the side”, and conveys an innocence and sternness in pivotal scenes. Russian villains and henchmen don’t make too much of an impact, but then again the majority are there to be dispatched, though a little more development wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Finally, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger and Bill Skarsgard make impacts as a turncoat spy running for safety, a mysterious middleman for getting into the east, and a “fixer” on the eastern side. Marsan’s hangdog features, Schweiger’s stoic, stony features and Skarsgard’s youthful energy make their characters more notable than they might otherwise have been.

A distinctive, excellent and retroactively 80s action thriller, Atomic Blonde is excellent, with a strong performance from Theron leading the way. It’s definitely worth a watch for action fans, and does a great job of bringing that 80s retro cool back in a genuinely fun and dynamic way.

Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Unsurprisingly crazy and weird, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is pure Luc Besson crazy sci-fi – it’s got many faults, but at least tries to make a unique and distinctive world for its characters, even if they aren’t quite capable of matching its zaniness.

Hundreds of years into the future, what used to be the International Space Station is now ‘Alpha’ – a huge, teeming world made up of millions of alien craft, as the universe’s many species come together. Adept but cocky Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his exasperated partner/unrequited love interest Laureline (Cara Delevigne) operate as space police, and are pulled into a plot to destroy the station, which ties in their commander (Clive Owen), a mysterious race of humanoid aliens and more…

Straight out of the gate, this is clearly a Luc Besson movie. The French director’s films are nothing if not distinctive – see The Fifth Element or Lucy, for example. Here he writes and directs, and appears to have been given free reign to go mad with special effects. The plot is based on a French graphic novel series – but if you didn’t know that you’d accept it was just his creation, so Besson-like are the characters and environments.

And this works in the film’s favour for large parts, because it’s all so weird – you feel like you’re finally seeing something more original when it comes to aliens and space, the Frenchman largely to thank alongside his designers and effects workers. However, as fun and strange as it is, the character work (and character writing) are not great. Neither main character is particularly nuanced, some weirdly sleazy nonsense from Valerian coming off as almost Bond-lite flirting.

With the larger story, I imagine the idea was to show his progression from smarmy star agent to more rounded human being, but it comes off quite odd and you don’t really care. The jumps in tone between doom-laden opening scenes and comedy are poorly managed, particularly later when Rihanna’s character appears (the movie at that point takes an abrupt shift from ‘fun for the whole family’ to slightly naughty, for a few minutes anyway).

Overall, you can see Besson’s frantic and mad fingerprints all over this movie, for better and for worse, but I would have liked the slightly schizophrenic tone to be a little better judged in terms of the overall story. The (mostly) impressive effects transport you to the futuristic worlds, melding together many visual sci-fi tropes, from Alien-style industrial ships through to polished plastics of Star Wars. Additionally, the very interesting and distinctive alien species on display are a brave attempt to make aliens, well, alien – though this errs more on the side of childish and amusing sometimes, an odd mix with some of the more serious elements. 

The movie is musically forgettable beyond the scenes with Rihanna (who doesn’t sing), unfortunately for famous composer Alexandre Desplat, while Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography is hit and miss – working really well with the diverse spaceship environments, but looking a bit plastic on some of the planets (this is also where green screen CGI – the less impressive effects – are more clearly visible). The editing is better however, with a quite convoluted story given clear throughlines by the work of Julien Rey.

Dane DeHaan, it must be said, is not most people’s idea of an action hero. He’s definitely more suited to dramatic, character roles, so casting him as the heroic superagent seems very odd. His performance in comedic scenes comes off a bit odd because of his intensity, and while his chemistry with Delevigne is (sometimes) tangible, often it seems incredibly forced. It’s a shame, because he’s a good actor and this could have been a good crossover opportunity, but he should probably stay away from this sort of role in future.

Delevigne surprised me, especially as models becoming actresses tend not to do so well. Her performance in Suicide Squad made me think she might be heading down that road, but here she effortlessly mixes a sardonic, resigned and driven Laureline and handles most of the changes in tone well (she’s quite adept in the comedic scenes). Her “expressive” face (read: eyebrows) distinguishes her immediately from DeHaan’s perma-smirk, and it did make me think she might have been a stronger foil for a better lead male actor.

Clive Owen (where did he go until now?!) phones it in as the gruff commander of the space police, little distinguishing between what could have been interesting character elements. Sam Spruell’s lower-level commander is another character with potential not really met, while Rihanna’s bizarre cameo (very like the operatic blue alien in The Fifth Element) starts off provocatively before concluding on a serious note, though the singer is unfortunately better when she doesn’t speak for the most part. Finally, a series of odd cameos (John Goodman, an utterly crazy Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer) don’t really register, probably because of their sheer number.

Really, this film is to be lauded for being odd and at least for trying. That doesn’t really make up for its naff character work and frenetic plot, but I enjoyed it nonetheless – it’s probably another of those that’s worth a watch if you’re bored or a sci-fi fan, but don’t rush to the cinema to see it by any means.

Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is the best film so far this year – a gripping, intense experience expertly crafted by Christopher Nolan, perfectly utilising music, sound and editing for a fever pitch of terror and tension.

In 1940, Allied soldiers retreat to the French coastal town of Dunkirk for evacuation ahead of overwhelming Nazi forces. On the beach, on the sea and in the air, British forces desperately weather this storm to get as many out as they can. Soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles – yes, REALLY) struggle to get off the beach and to safety; in the air, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) tries to give the escaping forces a chance; and civilian sailors including Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) race across the Channel in a last-ditch attempt to help.

Chances are you’ve heard of the evacuation, or are aware of it – suffice to say, Churchill himself noted of the event that war is not won with evacuations! There’s no question however that the incredible number saved (and the way disparate Brits came together) helped reinforce national unity and consciousness of the conflict. The movie goes a long, long way to helping the audience feel the hopelessness and sheer horror of the situation, and the screw-tightening pressure of escape as others meet a brutal end.

Nolan’s script strips the movie of any hero, villain or stereotypes, to paint as naturalistic a picture as he can. It’s not a question of one man or one group, but the collective effort in this monumental undertaking, and the director’s decision pays huge dividends. What we have is a war film like no other, with little shared conflict. Instead, Allied forces are pummelled, blown up, chased and are completely at the mercy of the encroaching Germans, who we never see.

It only deepens the isolation, panic and terror of the soldiers, and as the movie proceeds this only becomes more so. Nolan’s movies often play with time (see MementoInception and most recently Interstellar), and this is no different – three separate timelines, all converging on the same moment but measured in a week, a day and an hour, snowball together into a fantastic conclusion.

This precision and intricacy is peak Nolan, and it’s one of those rare films where everything comes together in service of the experience. There’s very little dialogue, but the stark and unforgettable imagery, and the facial expressions of the talented cast, do more than enough to fill the gaps.

The editing by Lee Smith expertly threads together the disparate narratives, and much like Inception, helps to build the film’s events into a crescendo that unfurls into that excellent, cathartic ending section. Hoyte van Hoytema’s lighting meanwhile utilises cold blues, greys and pale whites (matching typical channel weather) for a grim, colour-starved, drab and desolate look.

The excellent, bone-shaking action dovetails with the editing, hitting home because it’s all as real as Nolan and his budget can make it: boats sinking, planes dogfighting and immense explosions accentuating the realism. Strapping cameras to surviving Spitfires presents perhaps the best aerial dogfights seen onscreen, and I didn’t notice any CGI, which for a huge modern movie is both remarkable and exciting – improving that feeling of verisimilitude.

The incredible tension begins with a ticking clock that remains on the soundtrack throughout, and this is coupled with unbelievable levels of sound that assault you as they would have the soldiers. Whether the unearthly pitching whine of a descending fighter, pounding gunfire or concussive explosions, Nolan’s soundscape is a huge part of this creeping and uncomfortable pressure.

Hans Zimmer’s remarkable soundtrack utilises the Shepard tone, whereby the illusion of an ever-increasing pitch is produced to truly turn the screw, and this score is unrelentingly bombastic when it needs to be, or lurking in the background ready to strike. The latter stages see it all reach a huge peak before a welcome release into a very clever re-working of Elgar’s Nimrod, and many parts of the score reinforce memorable scenes that linger afterwards.

As there’s so little dialogue, it’s left to the actors to utilise expressions amid the panic and conflict. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead’s distinctive features are one of our main windows into the situation and its effect on the young men, and he does an excellent job of embodying the beaten, desperate and cowed ‘tommy’ (even sharing their name). Much to my surprise, Harry Styles is very, very good as the more talkative and conflicted Alex, another type of soldier perhaps more strongly motivated to do whatever it takes to get home.

Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy bring acting class as the sailor and the pilot, managing to present depths of emotion, fear and drive in mere expressions (Rylance with his creased features, and Hardy with only his eyes!). They play different and driven men at separate angles of the situation, making sacrifices for those they don’t and will never know, ably accompanied by Kenneth Branagh’s duty-bound, anguished commander and James D’Arcy’s fraught army man.

Cillian Murphy has a striking role as a shellshocked soldier, who creates problems immediately for Dawson and his son (stoically played by Tom Glynn-Carney), while Barry Keoghan’s sailing apprentice George embodies that desire for men too young to fight to get involved, whatever the risks. Finally, Aneurin Barnard makes an impression as a quieter soldier desperate to escape, as does Jack Lowden as Farrier’s more talkative Scottish wingman.

I could go on forever about this film – it’s an unforgettable experience that somehow pays respect to the events, and yet hits home the utter pointlessness of war. People will try to twist it into a message one way or another, but all it does is effortlessly transport you into a remarkable event, and show the better and worse sides of humanity under pressure. See it in the cinema – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

A great cap to an understated modern trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly amusing despite largely being drama, and is led by another unsurprisingly great performance from Andy Serkis.

A few years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the first smart ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) has withdrawn his community of primates further away from civilisation, but developments affecting humans left alive prompt an attack and the involvement of the Alpha Omega special forces, led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). Caesar’s attempt to get beyond reprisal and balance revenge with the apes’ struggle and the no-holds-barred reactions of the desperate humans, as they come to blows.

Despite what the title may say, there’s not a lot of war here. But then again, Rise and Dawn highlight the fact these movies are more cerebral blockbusters, more thoughtful and insightful. Without wanting to sound too psychological, it’s the conflict within Caesar (and to an extent the Colonel) that gives the film its war, though there is a step up in action towards the end in ways you might not expect. The movie also begins with a tense and ominous action scene full of surprises, just in case you wondered how much there actually is.

Story is king here, and I felt the script from director Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback was great, taking on the overarching plots and themes of the other films and bringing them to a fitting conclusion. The apes’ lack of knowledge of the outside world is slowly but surely addressed, and the changes humans are facing up to go a long way towards humanising them and their motives, no matter how drastic.

Caesar’s journey didn’t conclude as I expected (in some ways), but did in others, and the pressure of leading, setting an example and taking the apes towards a better future were and are surprisingly dramatic as well as thoughtfully explored. A masterstroke here was to inject humour (mostly through the Bad Ape character), and while this can at times feel a little oddly placed, by and large it helps balance out the bleaker elements and makes for a more rounded feel.

Reeves (who directed Dawn and is set to direct the new Batman) once again takes cutting edge special effects, a strong story and amazing natural landscapes to create a visually stunning, emotionally strong movie. I can’t credit him enough with the success that this series has seen, as his decision to take the effects out of the studio gifts the films with a spectacular sense of place and mood – this episode incorporating snow, lush forests and post-apocalyptic ruins.

Much credit must also go to Michael Seresin’s lighting work, which has the multiple challenges of illuminating multiple and complex outdoor, natural landscapes as well as ensuring the special effects fit into each scenario. His work in the early scenes (filled with gloom, lush forest greens and eerie smoke) is impressive enough, but the apes’ journeys onto the coast and into the snow are jaw-dropping visually.

On the effects, I have to say that while Serkis’ Caesar is as always the main attraction, the level of detail on kindly orangutan Maurice is nothing short of stunning, while the film’s gorillas are certainly a cut above the remainder of the chimps, who effects-wise are surprisingly short-changed. I guess this was an attempt to distinguish Caesar from them, but it detracts from the great work done on other “featured” monkeys and creates a disparity. This is probably my main complaint!

A special mention should go to the intriguing and surprising soundtrack from Michael Giacchino, whose score starts off ominous and very tense, but develops quite soon after into a facsimile or knowing imitation of (having seen it a few times) the original Apes film soundtrack. It jars a little to start but somehow works, and helps leaven the tense and often grim sides of the movie, perhaps preparing the viewer for a future that will no doubt start to fill in more gaps between War and Charlton Heston’s astronaut.

Serkis is unsurprisingly excellent, continually redefining what it means to give a acting performance, his mannerisms captured and seamlessly imprinted onto the CGI Caesar. His voice and way of speaking are carefully developed further (as ‘patient zero’ essentially, he has developed faster than the rest of the primates), and the actor remains unbeaten in utilising this technology and giving its creations heart and soul.

Of the other apes, Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is a new character responsible for much of the humour, and Zahn’s innocent, wide-eyed performance is another masterful combination of actor and effects. He gets pretty much all the laughs and injects a vein of humour that helps to puncture tension, giving the quirky ape an inquisitive and naive air as he slowly develops into a social animal. Karin Konoval once again brings a softness and a stillness to Maurice, her considered performance showing through and building on the spectacular CGI.

Harrelson’s colonel is an excellent villain for this storyline and series, appearing first to be another gruff military psycho but slowly (and expertly in a standout head-to-head with Caesar) opening up, showing his complexities and surprising motivations. In this and later scenes the actor is brilliant, bringing a mix of unhinged righteousness and a stab of humanity to what could have been a stereotypical role.

Finally, young Amiah Miller caps off the featured cast as the young girl ‘Nova’, whom the apes save and integrate into their party as they venture north. The actress has to do twice as much work having no dialogue, and is brilliant particularly in some of the more emotional scenes, getting across Nova’s youth and her simple, loving childish nature – regardless of being a different species to her new friends.

War… tops off this Apes trilogy but by no means concludes the saga should there be more films. I think it’s an excellent blockbuster, and that we will miss the thoughtful, insightful nature of the trilogy – yet another example, from effects to acting and plot, of brave and considered film-making.