War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

What's it about? Caesar the smart chimp (Andy Serkis) only want to live in peace with his fellow apes, but a bunch of pesky humans, who have survived the Simian Flu which virtually wiped out humankind, forces him to fight back. If you need a refresher, check out my reviews of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.


Is it any good? A satisfying conclusion to the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, which again succeeds by placing characters we can root for in crowd-pleasing scenarios to rousing effect. This time round, we get the furry Spartacus theme of the first two films mashed into a Vietnam war movie (primarily Apocalypse Now), with a little bit of The Great Escape mixed in for good luck. Once again, the motion capture special effects is just astoundingly good - watching an orang-utan and a chimp discuss the morals of war has never seemed so convincing - and this helps invest us in the fates of the various apes. On villain duties, Woody Harrelson has great fun impersonating Colonel Kurtz as he barrels from shouty scenery-chewing to quieter moment of angst, which includes a nice father-son theme running through proceedings which demonstrates a bit of thought has gone into how it plays out. I could have done without the comic relief of Bad Ape, which jarred somewhat with the rest of the film, and there's the usual implausible developments which go with blockbuster territory. But for the most part, this is engaging, enjoyable stuff.

Anything else I should know? People smarter and more dedicated than me have of course written elsewhere about all the nods and easter eggs to the original Planet of the Apes franchise. If you have nothing else to do, you can read about them here. I'm off to watch the football.

What does the Fonz think? Ape-pocalypse Now. Bet no-one else has thought of that.


Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

What's it about? It's about the evacuation of Allied troops from the beaches at Dunkirk in Spring 1940. From three perspectives, we experience the action from land (Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles amongst those stranded), sea (Mark Rylance on board one of the 'Little Ships' who answer the call to save the men) and air (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as RAF pilots engaging the Luftwaffe) in the race against time to save the men.


Is it any good? Not unlike the famous speech that is referenced near the end. It contains some dodgy moments of patriotic artifice, but it's nicely constructed and stirring stuff nonetheless. There's certainly no doubt about Nolan's commitment, that's for sure. Shooting with a minimum of CGI in pursuit of realism, he shall film on the seas and oceans, shall film in the air, shall film on the beaches, with blood, toil, tears and sweat, whatever the cost may be. As a result, it looks and sounds absolutely great, recreating the events in immaculate fashion. Plus, as we have seen in Inception, Memento and Interstellar, Nolan likes to play around with time in his movies, so the action on land, sea and air take place in three timelines (one week, one day, one hour respectively). It means the audience needs to pay attention, as the film re-visits some events from one perspective, which play out differently when viewed from another. Such an approach runs the risk of being a bit gimmicky, but does make for tense viewing, helped in no small part by Hans Zimmer's ticking, insistent score which mimics the sound of engines and gunfire throughout.


For all that, though, it falls short of being a great war film. In terms of characters, there's clearly been a deliberate decision to avoid any backstory or character development to concentrate on the 'everyman' experience, in and of the moment. But this does minimise the emotional impact of the film and it doesn't help that when it does pause the action for a quiet moment, it's a little treacly. The dying wishes of a young lad, a manly tear on the cheek of a commanding officer and a few other moments of character drama never ring true - best if we just stick to the action. But even the action feels somewhat sanitised - although it's realistically chaotic, there's no genuine sense of the sheer terror,and carnage that these soldiers would have experienced. In fact, they all seem remarkably stoic and stiff upper-lipped in the face of impending death. All told, it's a terrifically staged, exciting film, but rarely a moving or horrifying one, as the best war films are.

Anything else I should know? Naturally, you'll be keen to know how much dramatic license has been taking with the story. So you can give yourself a little history lesson in this useful article from the excellent History vs Hollywood website. Elsewhere, it is important to know that Harry Styles drops an F-bomb  in the film, which apparently has done more damage than all the bombs dropped in Dunkirk in reality. Sign of the Times, I suppose. Award yourself a high-five if you get that joke.

What does the Fonz think? Jolly good show.

Okja (Bong Joon-ho, 2017)

What's it about? Okja is a giant, GM super-pig, raised in the mountains of South Korea by an old farmer and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), who is devoted to the animal. However, Okja is actually a marketing tool by the multinational Mirando Corporation and their wish to bring Okja to America for the Superpig competition sparks a series of chaotic events.


Is it any good? An undeniably entertaining film, but one that is a curious mix of genres. There's a sweet, family-orientated element in the nicely-drawn central relationship between Mija and the lovable Okja, which provides the heart of the film. Running alongside this, however, we also have a sort of corporate business drama about GM foods and marketing, with Tilda Swinton having great fun as the glacial CEO responsible for Okja's creation. As Okja gets moved to America, it then becomes a kind of pignapping action chase movie, with some nice moments of comedy courtesy of Paul Dano, playing the leader of a well-meaning but somewhat inept animal liberation group, who are attempting to expose the shady operations of the Mirando Corporation. Finally, in the climactic scenes, it becomes a sort of eco-horror film as Okja's fate becomes clear. The intention is presumably to not shy away from the realities of meat production, but parents should note that this, along with swearing throughout, means that this is not the child-friendly cute animal adventure that the initial premise might suggest. Plus, it flicks between English and Korean languages throughout and along the way a scenery-chewing Jake Gyllenhaal turns up periodically as a manic animal-loving TV presenter who has sold his soul to be the face of the Mirando Corporation. So just like Joon-ho's previous Snowpiercer, it's a heady cocktail and its a bit uneven as a result. But it's pleasing to see such a unique film and by the end Joon-ho just about manages to pull it all together with wit and charm. Probably the best giant pig movie since Razorback and may make you think twice about that bacon sandwich.

I don't trust you. What do others think? This represents the latest effort by Netflix to break into the movie industry, an effort which hasn't pleased everyone in the business. At its premiere in Cannes, for example, loud boos greeted the appearance of the Netflix logo onscreen and Netflix were disqualified from competing in the competition proper, all of which just increased the film's profile. But Netflix's decision to allow Bong Joon-ho to make the strange film he wanted, without interference, will no doubt be attractive to other film-makers. It's likely that Netflix could well carve out a niche for itself as a funder of unique, creative visions from both new and established film-makers who wish to avoid the limiting factors of the studio system. In any event most agree this is Netflix's best original film to date so expect more where this came from.

Anything else I should know? Joon-ho invited journalist Jon Ronson to co-write the script, which helps explain the cynical, satirical edge to the film. Ronson explains here how he worked some of his ideas into Joon-ho's original script. And, finally, you wait years for John Denver's Annie's Song to be featured in a film and then along come two films in quick succession which use it to tremendous effect. As in Free Fire earlier this year, here it is also used to accompany a funny, frenetic action scene - I defy you to watch it without a smile on your face. Also, as Bong Joon-ho explains here, Okja as a concept is not as far-fetched as you might think. Be afraid!

What does the Fonz think? A silk purse from a pig's ear.
 

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017)

What's it about? Set 20 years after the events of Trainspotting, we find out what has happened to Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle).


Is it any good? Well, sort of. Trainspotting was such a film of its time, an essential ingredient of 90s pop culture, that any sort of retread was always going to feel a bit like living on past glories. That idea of time moving on is at the heart of the sequel's narrative, as all the characters struggle to come to terms with the fact they are now middle-aged, with regrets about the lives they have lived and mistakes they have made. But although it sets out as an older, wiser type of film, it also can't resist re-living the greatest hits of the original. But what was energetic, funny and cool first time round comes across as rather forced now. Whereas the 'Choose Life' speech in the original spoke for a generation, here a similar speech is unconvincing and stilted. Similarly, scenes of drug-taking, clubbing, fighting and stealing fail to make the same impact as they did 20 years ago. Perhaps that is the point - you can try and recapture your lost youth, but it'll never quite be the same again. However,  in between the rehashes of those scenes from the original, and admittedly because of some of them, it does occasionally capture the sadness at the inevitability of growing older. In these quieter moments, it's at its most effective, and it would have been nice to see this aspect focused on a bit more. Because as the final scene plays, it is the them of times passed that will undoubtedly resonate with anyone for who had Trainspotting posters on their wall and the soundtrack on hard rotation at their house parties.

Anything else I should know? A bit of friendly advice if you are thinking about watching this.


What does the Fonz think? Lust for mid-life crisis

Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2017)

What's it about? You know those scenes in films where a shady arms deal in a warehouse goes wrong? Ever wonder what a film would be like if the entire thing was about the ensuing shoot-out? Wonder no more.


Is it any good? It's a high concept film, set entirely in one location, but Wheatley and his excellent cast pull it off, delivering tense and often funny action as the two sets of protagonists let loose on each other. At the outset, we have the buyers on one side (cool Cillian Murphy, cynical Michael Smiley, shifty Sam Riley et al) and the sellers on the other (egotistical Sharlto Copley, smooth Armie Hammer, volatile Jack Reynor et al). In the middle is calculating Brie Larson, who has set up the deal. Naturally, things go tits up almost immediately and the rest of the film is an extended gunfight in which the shooters are realistically terrible at hitting their opponents, since they are variously wounded, cowering behind things, shouting at each other and shooting without looking. It's refreshing to see a film treat a gunfight as a chaotic mess, although the geography of the setting does get somewhat confusing toward the end. The black comedy is mined from the squabbling insults, although the dialogue is not quite a sharp as it could have been, meaning its gets a little too shouty-sweary by the end. Nonetheless, it's all good fun, the cast are clearly having a whale of a time in their natty 70s outfits and it gets extra marks for the use of John Denver's Annie's Song on the soundtrack in one memorable scene.

Anything else I should know? Most have assumed that Tarantino was the main influence here, but Wheatley instead points towards video-games such as Counter-Strike, and even mapped out a scaled set of the location in Minecraft prior to filming. Another inspiration was an detailed FBI report on a real-life shoot-out which featured similarly chaotic ballistics to that featured in the film. You can read an interview with him here about his reasons for making the film. And here's a video of Annie's Song, just because.


What does the Fonz think? You shoot up my senses