We all remember the beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan (released nearly 20 years ago now, just saying); how kinetic and traumatic they were.  An explosion of violence which rattled the bones and scarred the mind.  That depicted the Allies re-entering Europe.  Spielberg chose to ignore the involvement of virtually everyone and gave the cinema-going world the enduring impression that American soldiers were the only ones storming those beaches, the only ones facing those guns, the only ones dying face down in the surf.
                Well, Dunkirk, shows us those same beaches (in essence) three years earlier - when the Allies were leaving Europe.  Again, the focus is very much on the suffering of one country’s soldiers; in this case: the Brits.  But the frantic, panicked pace of those first twenty minutes of Ryan, is replaced with a more morose, contemplative take on the folly of war.
                Unlike Ryan, this film’s tone doesn’t vacillate between celebratory and maudlin - it starts off morose, and pretty much stays that way.  Dunkirk has a very Northern European feel about it.  It’s like one of those Scandinavian films filled with miserable, wintery people standing in grey windswept landscapes, shivering.  Tarkovsky films are equally light-hearted.  So, you wouldn’t know that these events were being played out in early summer, as the grey and blue filters on the lenses and the relentless knifing wind give the film a bleak, almost apocalyptically wintery feel.
                But then, it isn’t a film about a roadside picnic, it’s about the rout of civilisation, about the thin brown and blue line that stood between Britain and the extinction of our culture ... And how that line was broken.  There are no glorious battles in this film, just a few ugly skirmishes and a couple of aerial dog-fights - which keep us close and in the cockpit, so we can feel the claustrophobic vulnerability of the flyers in their crates.  Nolan wants this to feel like a documentary or - better still - like a lived experience.

Tommy, spending a week along among 400,000 fellow soldiers.  There's no camaraderie, no esprit de corps ... There's just fear and the ferocious desire to survive.
                Fionn Whitehead initially takes the lead.  His character isn’t named in the film, but is generally referred to as ‘Tommy’; although this, I suspect, is meant to make him appear as an Everyman rather than a specific real person.  From his first moments, Nolan isn’t interested in making the boy charismatic, nor even sympathetic.  He spends the first five minutes of the film running away, and his major preoccupation seems to be in finding a quiet corner for a shit.  Not really the intro to a superhero type!  After this, the boy’s one and only consideration is getting out of there.  He has no discipline, no chain of command, no plan, just a relentless drive to escape.
                But nothing Nolan does is accidental.  He wants us, from these opening scenes, to see the soldiers as boys, too young to be burdened with the responsibilities which have been foisted upon them, too confused to understand the significance of what is happening, too scared to think straight.

Our Boys ... Not wreathed in glory ... Not giving Gerry what for ... They simply want to go home.
                This isn’t a war film, in the traditional sense, nor is it an anti-war film ... It’s a dispassionate depiction of a complicated and clumsy evacuation.  Coming in at a brisk 106 minutes, the film is terse, one could even say sparse, in its depiction of character and incident.  Like the soldiers trying to shelter from the knifing wind on that featureless beach, we viewers are told only what we need to know - and sometimes not even that.  Tommy overhears the brass helpfully discussing the way Churchill expects only one in ten of the troops to be rescued.  That’s the reality of the situation ... The Battle of Europe was lost and the plan was nothing more sophisticated than to rescue enough soldiers to wage the Battle of Britain.
                We are repeatedly told by Lord Sir Kenny Branagh - as Commander Exposition - that there are 400,000 men on the beach - are there are certainly a lot ... But that many?  The scenes of long snaking lines of men, patiently waiting rescue, are iconic (in the real sense of the word) and epic (especially when you understand that Nolan refused to use CGI to fill-out his crowd scenes) ... But those big, bleak, empty spaces don’t feel like they’re hosting almost half a million troops.  I found that strangely distracting ... Possibly because Nolan had gone to such lengths to give his film the ring of truth, and this just struck me as a false note.
Doing things old school.  Shooting on film.  On location.  Letting your extras give wooden performances ...
                Nolan is the heir to the Kubrick “Blank Cheque”.  This was the unique position that Stanley Kubrick enjoyed at Warner Brothers in the 70s and 80s, whereby he could spend as much money as he liked, take as long as he liked, produce whatever he liked; and Warners would patiently wait until he was good and ready to hand the film over ... No American film studio that I can think of, at least since the days of Charlie Chaplin, has invested so heavily in the vision of a single artist, with so little control over that investment.  Given the billions that Warners earned from Nolan’s Batman films (2005, 2008 and 2012 respectively), they have decided to extend him a similar consideration.
                Nolan is aware of this, so reflects the debt he owes to Kubrick in the odd symmetrical tracking shot, as well as in the cold efficiency of the story telling.  The characters are given no back-story, sometimes no name, no context and, often, no significant dialogue.  The film is really a montage of moments rather than a coherent narrative. 
                As a sensory experience, it is immersive and visceral, the sound effects surround you - and, unlike Ryan, it’s not just the rattle of the guns and the percussive thump of the explosions - it’s also the haunting wail of the Stuka sirens, the drumming of a damaged Spitfire motor, the echoing screams of men trapped in a sinking ship.  The lack of dialogue for extended tracts mean that your attention jumps around, taking in everything, filtering nothing.  It genuinely is a sensory overload - particularly when seen on the overwhelming size of an IMAX screen.
                Dunkirk is a masterclass in visual story-telling - Through careful positioning of the camera, and editing, he gives us just enough of what we need to follow the various story threads.  Without really being given a lot of clues, we can follow the stories as they overlap at different paces and at different times.
                This is experimental film-making - subjective film-making - Nolan constantly gets his unwieldy IMAX cameras up close and personal.  Tom Hardy - as the fighter pilot Farrier - gives his entire performance in close-up, with only his eyes visible.  When Collins, his wingman, ditches, and the cab begins to fill with water, we experience this in the most intimate, physical way. 

Nolan keeps asking Tom Hardy to show less and less of himself in each film ... Next time, expect to see just his little finger.  Or, maybe, like Michael Caine in this film, he'll be reduced to an uncredited voice-over cameo.
                This being a Christopher Nolan film, he couldn’t resist the temptation to tamper with the timelines.  The three stories take place over a week, a day and an hour respectively and they intercut and overlap, but not in chronological order.  We see Collins’ crash from two different perspectives, but at two different points of the narrative and it’s a classy job of writing and editing that the viewer can still follow this on a single viewing.  The editing also extends and amplifies the drama by cutting away from each story at a tense moment - to extend the tension.
                This disjointed structure works with the subjective point of view to make the film immersive and dizzying and, at points, unbearably tense.  Hans Zimmer’s music is a relentless ticking clock - which quickens the pulse and draws the viewer inexorably into the film’s grip.
                Mark Rylance is the plucky sailor who answers his country’s call, to sail his little ship over the Channel.  “We aren’t the only ones to answer”  he tells his son.  Really?  Cos we don’t see any evidence of this.  He is literally the only civilian ship making the crossing - In hindsight, I realised that, as Tommy is Everysoldier, Mr. Dawson is Everysailor - standing in for the dozens, hundreds, who answered the call.
Mark Rylance bravely leading the flotilla of ... Hang on ... Where are they?
                Despite Rylance’s typically poignant performance, I felt that this story was the weakest of the film.  There is an unnecessary addition of a melodramatic sub-plot, featuring Cillian Murphy’s unnamed soldier - this really isn’t needed, it makes the extraordinary more mundane.
                When Farrier overflies the beach - the lines are short and few and far between.  It really doesn’t look like 400, 000 men ... It really doesn’t.  Anyway, his plane flies overhead, silent, engine stilled; this moment is genuinely eerie.  Then, somehow, Farrier manages the physically impossible - to turn his powerless plane round - without it dropping out of the air - Just in time to do a Han Solo and kill the Hun.  At this moment, the film abandons its documentary tone and ascends to the mythic.
                As the film reaches its conclusion, back on English soil, the beaten troops shuffle like zombies down the sidings to the waiting trains.  As articulated by the lad I’m forced to conclude is (in real life) some kind of pop star, there is a sense of regret, even of survivor guilt ... He looks at the people outside the train and bemoans: “We let you down.”  There’s no cheering, no celebrating, not even much relief.
Christopher Nolan giving Harry Styles ... one direction.  Thank-you.
                Meanwhile, still over in France, Farrier, the noble fighter pilot, stands alone on the windswept beach, warming himself on the burning carcass of his Spitfire.  This image serves several purposes.  To see the symbol of British victory, the Spitfire, burning on a foreign shore, this is not an accidental image on which to close.  Nolan has not bought into the simplistic, patriotic narrative of the war, he’s shown it as a tragedy inflicted on young, confused, terrified men, whose greatest achievement was simply staying alive.  And Hardy being surrounded by the Germans and taken prisoner ... Well, that just offers up the possibility of Nolan’s next film.
                Tom Hardy starring in the remake of The Great Escape, anyone?
If just one image could sum up Nolan's complex, nuanced, highly critical view of the war ... It could be this one: A British Spitfire, burning on a French beach.  Apparently, when this happened for real, the pilot just left the plane there and it became a tourist attraction and playground for the local kids.  A fate somewhat lacking in the symbolism of simply torching it!
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Script: Christopher Nolan
Dur: 106 mins
Cert: 12A


This is the end, beautiful friend.

The end of the re-imagined Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised me back in 2011.  I feared that a re-hash of 1968’s Planet of the Apes might be terrible (what gave me that idea, eh, Tim Burton?)  But they surmounted all my prejudices by bringing a fresh eye to time-worn plot points (scientist tampers with nature ... gets his comeuppance) and made the story delightfully emotional, leading to a well-deserved epic finale.

They followed this with Dawn, which advanced the story, made the characters more complex and compelling, and, again, told an old fashioned story (an underling’s cowardice threatens to scupper their ruler’s good work) in a fresh and diverting way.

Anticipation, then, for the inevitable final part of the triptych, War, was very high.  History is, after all, lousy with examples of trilogies that fell apart with the third film.  Aliens, Superman, Godfather, Spider-Man, X-Men, Jurassic Park, Fast and Furious ... The Evil Dead (joking).

Monkeys mounted.  A scene deliberately visually echoing the original Apes films.  It's also the only scene where California looks anything like we expect it to look. 

This film is set two years on from Dawn, but the events happen as a direct result of that film.  But, for me, this film doesn’t push forward beyond Dawn.  That film was shockingly different from the one which preceded; the world had changed, the characters had evolved (literally and emotionally), it even looked different.  This film looks very similar to Dawn, damp and dour, cold and getting colder.

Thematically it is similar too, with Caesar (played, once again, by Mr. Mo-Cap, Andy Serkis) trying to maintain the peace and the harmony of his tribe by reiterating his belief that apes together are strong.

But the world beyond the forest has turned against them.  A mysterious ‘Colonel’ has declared war on the apes and, as the film’s opening sequence shows, that is a full-on hot war, with massive casualties on both sides.

It is to the film’s credit that it show’s this introductory battle as being terrifying and brutal on both sides.  This isn’t good-guys versus bad-guys deal.  It’s a confused and convoluted war.

Indeed, the soldiers use simian scouts to help them track the wild apes, these are apes who have been tamed and branded and are dubbed ‘donkey’.  This immediately put me in mind of pre-Revolutionary Indian wars.

Caesar himself has grown in stature.  Whereas he was seen as leader, he has now been elevated to legendary status.  It is befitting, then, that the shadow of Charlton Heston is cast across this film, but not Heston the last human in a mad world, this is Heston the living legend.  Caesar is whipped and enslaved by someone he swears vengeance on.  All very Ben-Hur-like.  But Caesar is trying to lead his people to the Promised Land, so he is also Moses to them.

However, this is all played out against a background which is deliberately reminiscent of The Indian wars, as well as the American slave trade, with elements of Nazi concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps.  It’s a confusing mish-mash of allusions.

One of the most interesting plotlines involves Kurtz McCullough's reliance on 'Donkeys', collaborator apes.  Here, the gorilla known as Red is a sort of Fletcher Christian to Woody's Bligh.

And this where I started having real difficulty with the film,  It lacks clear focus.  When we finally meet the enigmatic Colonel, (played well by a very calm, restrained Woody Harrelson), he reels off the names of wartime leaders he admires - Wellington gets a mention, as do both Custer and Sitting Bull.  (He doesn’t mention Walter Kurtz, though, just saying).  When he gets his big exposition scene, to explain to Caesar when his epiphany happened and why he believes what he believes, it simply doesn’t make sense.  His grudge is against the virus that was released in the first film, not with the apes.  So, he lacks clear motivation.

Caesar’s motivations are much clearer and simpler, he wants revenge.  But that’s never a positive driving force for a protagonist.  It never ends well.  He has lost the vision of a leader and has allowed the battle to become personal.  As Colonel Kurtz McCullough mentions, Caesar is very emotional.

The film also has a confused sense of geography.  I don’t know the Americas well but, when someone says they’re heading for the Californian border, I don’t expect to see ski-lodges and snow.  I’m not saying that’s not right, but I do feel that the audience needs a bit of help understanding the journey(s) the apes make. 

I also think the film was trying to make a comment about the madness of building walls to keep out foreigners and, I suspect, that the wall in question was between America and Canada (again, I don’t associate Mexico with snow), but the point of this was lost in the plethora of other indiscriminate allusions and symbols on offer.

Added to which, director Matt Reeves clearly thinks he’s making a Viet-Nam film.  The grunts have messages written on their helmets (like the famous poster for 1987’s Full Metal Jacket).  They refer to the apes by the pun ‘Kong’ (as in, Viet-Kong) and Colonel Kurtz McCullough enjoys several similarities with Brando’s similarly spaced-out soldier.  There is even a gag, a visual reference to Apocalypse Now (1979), which made me groan out loud.  

Anyone who thinks they've spotted any stray similarities between The Colonels is clearly mad.  As mad as they are.
One expects to see fan service and popular culture references in a Marvel movie; because they are not typically dealing with issues of slavery and man’s endless history of violence and discrimination.  I did not expect, nor welcome, such gags in this film.  It should be more seriously-minded than that.

It’s worth mentioning that Serkis’ performance as Caesar continues to be miraculous, shining through the digital mask they have added.  I genuinely felt he was robbed when he didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Dawn.  But, of course, the power of his performance was plain to see in both previous films.  Part of my disappointment with this chapter is, I think, simply that the miraculous doesn’t feel quite so miraculous third time round.

Where Weta Workshop’s CGI works brilliantly is in the new character, who calls himself ‘Bad Ape’ (because that’s the phrase he heard most from the humans).  This is a fantastic performance from Steve Zahn; but something troubled ne about him.  He’s there to mostly be the comic relief and, as I’ve indicated, that feels out-of-step in a grim film concerning mankind’s inhumanity and vanity.  But that wasn’t what niggled me about him.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, until the friend I saw the film with hit the nail on the head: “He’s Dobby the House Ape”.

That said, the special effects are flawless (one or two of the riding shots look a bit dodgy ... But riding shots often do), and there is a real scope to the visuals.  It’s certainly played out on a much larger canvas than the previous two films.  It just doesn’t feel like the story-telling has evolved as much as the apes or the technology used to create them.

Obviously they have Andy Serkis back as Caesar; cos no one can make a monkey of himself in a mo-cap suit quite like him; apart from stuntman and movement choreographer, Terry Notary; who is playing Rocket, so that's alright.

They’ve also introduced a silent child with a doll, not simply, one assumes, because she looks like Newt in Aliens (1986) but, presumably, because they wanted someone to exemplify the possible future of human/ape relations.  Her silence, which is apparently an inability to talk brought about by the mutating virus, is evidence of the human race devolving, while the ape race is growing ever more sophisticated and complex.  That’s a great idea, and one which the original Apes films - particularly Conquest Of (1972) and Battle For (1973) - addressed in various ways.  But it isn’t developed here.  So, there’s no real purpose in the child being there.  Oh, apart from the time she walks through the middle of the heavily-defended military camp and none of the soldiers notice her.  Presumably losing the ability to speak also makes one invisible.

Maurice, the Orang-Utan, once again serves as Caesar's moral compass.  And Nova's baby-sitter.
That said, these particular soldiers are significantly dumber than the apes they are guarding.

The greatest issue I had with War for the Planet of the Apes came with the actual war itself - which suddenly and conveniently kicks off in the film’s final act, just as all the other business reaches its climax.  This war, it turns out, is not really between ape and man, but between two factions of men. 

So the characters we care about are not invested in the titular war, they don’t care who wins and, therefore, neither did I.  This is not good for my emotional involvement in the culmination of a three-movie-long story arc.

As the first film did, War manages to slide in subtle references to the original Apes films, which most of the audience won’t notice.  For example, Colonel Kurtz McCullough’s logo is the Δ and Ω  used in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), while the horse-riding apes enjoy a canter along the beach, much as Charlton Heston and his Nova did back in the original Planet of the Apes.

We went in to War for the Planet of the Apes filled with childish hope.  We came out deflated.  We’d had such high expectations for this film.  I’d heard rumours that it was scoring massively on Rotten Tomatoes and that maybe, finally, we had a trilogy where the films kept getting better, rather than peaking at number two.

But no.  You had your chance, guys, and you blew it.  God damn you all to Hell.

Dir:  Matt Reeves
Scriptwriters:  Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves
Cert: 12A
Dur: 140 mins