Thursday, 27 July 2017


20th Century Fox Films

What is it about ape films and Vietnam? Earlier this year we had Kong: Skull Island, where the titular giant gorilla combatively stomped his way through a south-east Asian jungle pursued by US military helicopters to a pop-rock soundtrack from the '60s and '70s. And now we have War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves' closing of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, which borrows heavily from Vietnam war film iconography to depict man's last stand against those damn dirty apes.

In this analogy mankind is obviously the US, suffering an embarrassing loss at the paws of their underdog foes. Yet in this trilogy the apes have always been in the ascendancy, ever since a vaccine designed to help reverse the effects of Alzheimer's (and tested on primate subjects) escaped the lab; simultaneously increasing ape intellect whilst wiping out human kind.

Caesar was the first ape to benefit from the vaccine's IQ-boosting properties, and over the course of these three films (Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014) he has been the protag leading the primate charge, both in battle and for a home of their own.

Andy Serkis's portrayal of Caesar has been one of the great performances of the 21st century, and not just because of the state-of-the-art motion capture technology that allows him (and his fellow cast mates; Karin Konoval as the series' MVP, orangutan Maurice, and Steve Zahn who joins the trilogy in War, as the sad clown Bad Ape) to convincingly transform into an ape. Like he did with Gollum in the Lord of The Rings films, Serkis breathes life, but most importantly heart, into Caesar. He is a fully-rounded, emotionally complex creation.

The same, however, can't be said for the humans who have suffered from thin characterization throughout this series. And so it is again in War, where Woody Harrelson plays The Colonel, the leader of a surviving band of humans, who are armed to the teeth and intent on taking out the ape threat before they -- or, more correctly, a mutation of that original virus which is now rendering humans 'primitive' -- destroy them.

No doubt inspired by Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Harrelson doesn't go completely 'troppo' but he fails to make The Colonel sympathetic; identifiable only in as much as most humans in this trilogy have proven unworthy of saving.

War For The Planet of the Apes may drag a little when Caesar and his tribe are held prisoner by The Colonel as he awaits an assault from a rival human faction, but there's still much to admire in Reeves' film which, if not the best of the trilogy, is equal to both its predecessors. Ending on a hopeful note, well, for the apes at least, War manages to successfully and satisfyingly close the trilogy.

Of course, the circle of life (and film history) dictates that several decades from this ending, the events of the very first Planet of the Apes film (1968) take place. The battle begins anew, proving much like Vietnam, man -- and ape -- have learnt nothing from war.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017


Madman Films

In his fourth feature, writer-director David Lowery tells a story of grief; one uniquely told (as the title suggests) from the point of view of the deceased. 'Not so unique,' you say. 'Jerry Zucker's 1990 film Ghost did just that.' Well, yes. Kind of.

But Lowery's film is no supernatural drama where a dead man is helped pass over to the 'other side' by a streetwise, sassy-mouthed psychic. For one, it's near dialogue-free.

When Casey Affleck's character dies in an automobile accident, he returns to the weatherboard house he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara), watching over her as she mourns his death, eats pie, and goes about her life. Did I mention that he does so not as the visage of Affleck but as a man draped in a heavy white sheet, with black spots where his eyes should be?

Depending on your disposition, A Ghost Story will appear as either a silly and tedious exercise, or a profound and moving experience (or perhaps somewhere in between); Lowery's languid though only 90-minute film told from the perspective of the ghost, whose experience of time is both fleeting and eternal. The cinematography (by Andrew Droz Palermo) and score (Daniel Hart) add to the elegiac nature of Lowery's film, which is somewhat Terrence Malick-esque though without possessing the whispering voice-overs or (thankfully) twirling femmes (and Hart's score is more synthesizers than swelling symphonies).

As the days and the seasons pass, his wife eventually moves on and out; selling their home and leaving him behind. Another family moves in, then others. Years pass. The house is demolished and futuristic skyscrapers are built, but the ghost persists. Or he does until his loneliness becomes unbearable and he takes a flying leap off the building.

Can ghosts commit suicide? Perhaps not, since he materializes in pioneer days as a settler family pegs out where their homestead will stand. Time passes and before long we're right back where we started, witnessing events we've already seen through Casey and Rooney's eyes, but this time from the p.o.v of the ghost (as they say on Doctor Who, time is a great big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey).

A meditation on time, A Ghost Story asks whether, like great art, does love – or grief – endure? Is that our legacy as humans? Or, ultimately, does nothing matter? Again, your world outlook may determine your answer but there's no denying the uniquely beautiful way in which the questions have been framed.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Roadshow Films

Not nearly as harrowing as the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Christopher Nolan's lean but unrelenting Dunkirk manages to remind us that war is indeed – as it always has been – hell.

With limited dialogue, immersive sound design, an at-times too insistent score (Hans Zimmer), and yes, impressive IMAX cinematography shot on 70mm (courtesy of Hoyte Van Hoytema), Nolan recreates the evacuation of British soldiers from the northern French seaport of Dunkirk as viscerally as possible (though blood and actual viscera are nowhere to be seen).

Unfolding in three overlapping time lines (which you will find either bold or gimmicky), Dunkirk is told from three points of view: a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) trying to escape the precarious beach, with all manner of bad luck and German artillery befalling him; two Brit fighter pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), charged with keeping their German counterparts at bay; and the crew of an English fishing trawler (captained by Mark Rylance), who answer the call to sail to France to rescue their boys.

It is the former timeline which is the most gripping, as young men (yes, including Harry Styles) struggle to stay alive until rescue arrives. Like Zimmer's score – and the Channel tide – the tension builds then subsides, only to be ratcheted up once more.

Indeed, Nolan's entire film is constructed as one big ticking clock, counting down not only until the rescue but that point where all three storylines converge. It's a device that keeps you close to the edge of your seat for the film's 106-minute running time (surprisingly short for Nolan), rendering the action effective if not necessarily affecting. Perhaps that is the point. Like Australia's own Gallipoli, which has generated an ugly nationalistic mythos, the story of the events Dunkirk is essentially one of failure and retreat: a turning point in the war, yes, but far from anything resembling victory.

Dunkirk is a Dutch word which translates as 'church in the dunes', but if there is a god, he had abandoned the British on that beach. The devil, however, is in the detail, and Nolan brings all of his cinematic prowess to bear on this tale which, while not celebrating war, honours British pluck and heroism. It's an impressive tribute.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017


Sony Pictures

In his fifth feature, and only his second for Hollywood, writer-director Edgar Wright attempts to re-imagine the 'car heist' genre by melding it with that of the musical (sort of).

And while by no means a car crash, the emphasis on automotive gymnastics and a pumping soundtrack in Baby Driver comes at the expense of human emotion. You might be awed by the technical display but you won't necessarily care for any of those people behind the wheel.

Principally that person is Baby (Ansel Elgort): a sunglasses-wearing, iPod-listening young man with very little to say but who sees and hears everything. He's the go-to getaway driver for crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), who likes to mix up his crews for each heist but keeps Baby as a constant. Baby's a good luck charm, he's also in debt to Doc.

But when we meet him he's almost paid up - the old 'one last job' chestnut; Baby can see his way out of the life he has fallen into, and with romance blossoming between he and sweet diner waitress, Debora (Lily Rose), the future's looking bright. Of course life has a way of rear-ending you, and just when Baby thinks he's out -- and he and Debora might take to the open road with their super cool mixes blasting on the stereo -- he's pulled back in: forced to drive one more job for Doc.

Riding shotgun are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), a sexed-up Bonnie and Clyde, and Bats (Jamie Foxx), a menacing, paranoid thug whose name is obviously a contraction of Bat Shit (as in crazy). And like the best laid plans in any heist movie, it all falls apart in spectacular fashion.

Rev heads will find much to delight in here, with Wright and his stunt car team producing impressive feats of precision driving which, unlike those in the Fast and Furious franchise, obey the laws of physics and logic (for the most part). There's also an insistent jukebox soundtrack to get your foot tapping and head nodding, but whether that qualifies Baby Driver as a musical remains debatable (I say no.).

What there isn't in Baby Driver is a care factor. Not on the director's part -- Wright deftly deploys his usual flare for quick cuts and quick wits -- but on the part of the audience. As sweet as Baby and Debora's romance is, and as noble as Baby's intentions are (ensuring the safety of his deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones); trying to cause as little harm to bystanders as possible), it's hard to feel any sense of urgency for their safety. Will they make it out alive? Who cares? I didn't.

Baby Driver will thrill in the moment but it's the soundtrack, and not the characters, that will linger.