To everyone’s surprise, what they cooked up was the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Supported by a great performance by Andy Serkis and some wonderfully realistic CGI, Rise cleverly explained the sudden leap in ape intelligence and the rapid decline in human population which would eventually create the future Earth on which Charlton Heston would eventually bellow, “Damn you all to hell!”
Like Batman Begins, this smart origin tale spawned a fantastic trilogy and thankfully the often difficult third act is every bit as good as the previous two instalments. With Dawn director Matt Reeves returning to the director’s chair, War for the Planet of the Apes continues the story of Caesar’s attempts to live in peace, free of human interaction and conflict. But we know that isn’t going to last long, and a new villain enters to eradicate Caesar and his kind for good. Contrary to the film’s title, what ensues is actually more of a revenge/prison drama than a war film. But nonetheless there is action a-plenty, it packs a good emotional punch and neatly wraps up the series whilst setting up the promise of another to come. Those who loved Rise and Dawn will most certainly enjoy War, and to his credit Reeves has kept the tone consistent and satisfying, delivering what could actually be the crown jewel of the series and a career-best film.
War is definitely the darkest outing of the three, with some of the cruelty on display echoing a Holocaust movie – which is clearly the point. This is a bleak and cruel world and one cannot help but draw comparisons to Schindler’s List. However, in a film where talking Gorillas and Orang-utans wield assault rifles and ride horses, the impact of those comparisons is somewhat lessened. There were also moments the filmmakers could’ve pushed the boundaries a little further for greater impact, but instead they played it safe, especially with the morality of our central hero.
War continues its cautionary tale of not meddling with nature and the importance of extending mercy toward your enemies. One cannot help but feel for the sorrowful plight of Caesar, a laboratory animal cursed with great power which leads to a life of immense personal suffering. Woody Harrelson’s villainous Colonel is a standard bad guy, though he is given one poignant moment to explain what motivates his ruthlessness. It also provides another plot point that edges us closer to the Apes world that Charlton Heston will one day arrive upon; it’s a simple yet effective piece of reverse-engineer screenwriting that is quite commendable. In addition, Steve Zahn’s ‘Bad Ape’ character is a breath of levity in this sombre tale, injecting some much needed vocal personality into an ensemble of primates that mostly communicate with hand signals and hoots.
Like the previous films, the computer-generated apes in War are a wonder to behold. Most impressive are the extreme close-ups, which are so photo-realistic you simply cannot see the digital seams no matter how hard to try. Reeves wisely treats the apes as characters instead of visual effects, and Serkis again proves himself the master of motion capture performance. The only negative aspects of the film could have been addressed easily; an overuse of lingering reaction shots clutter the second-half and cheapen the emotional impact of otherwise powerful moments, and witnessing a horse effortlessly support the crushing weight of a Silverback did push the limits of my disbelief.
Perhaps my biggest surprise with War is the overblown critical response to it, throwing out phrases such as “an important film”, a “must see” and “a masterpiece”. While there is much to commend about War, it ultimately plays out like the formulaic Hollywood blockbuster it is, albeit one made with creative integrity and technical brilliance. But by no means does it give us anything we haven’t seen before nor are its revelations unexpected, so it couldn’t quite live up to the hype.
But regardless of expectations, this is a rare studio franchise with smarts and big-budget filmmaking at its best. It’s simply a damn good time at the movies, ticking all the right boxes for a satisfying big-screen adventure with an even bigger heart. What more could you ask for in a post-apocalyptic fantasy about talking monkeys?
But the promise of a gun-blazing Western was too hard to resist, even with Costner calling the shots. After all, I still respected that this was the guy who made the magnificent Dances With Wolves. So when it hit the DVD shelves I bravely took a $6.00 punt, but with one finger firmly on the eject button, ready to fling the disc out the window. Over two hours later I found myself lamenting that the film was over and asking myself “Had I had just seen one of the best Westerns ever made?”
Although Open Range is one of the best modern Western’s ever made, it is for the patient and mature viewer: those who prescribe to Michael Bay’s sensibilities of cinema need not bother. From the Western perspective, Open Range does not reinvent the wheel: instead it dives right in and bravely embraces the genre in all its glory. This is a film that - on paper - should’ve failed dismally. But instead, it works like magic.
It follows a conventional ‘good guys versus bad guys’ plot, with Costner and Duvall playing two cowboys pitted against a greedy and violent rancher and his posse of thugs. But there’s no winking at the audience here. Open Range takes its premise seriously, despite the characters all being familiar archetypes. We have the salty old cattleman, the grisly gunslinger, a crooked sheriff, a dastardly rancher and a weathered, apron-wearing frontier woman. The film’s towering achievement is that it makes these archetypes so wonderfully three-dimensional and human. Robert Duvall is a joy to watch, and his character provides the moral anchor for Costner’s brooding anti-hero. Every performance is engaging and real, never tipping over into Little House on the Prairie territory despite skating dangerously close to the edge.
But the most impressive aspect of Open Range is how truly bold it is from a storytelling perspective. It does the one thing that most films would not dare in this day and age: it is virtually void of action for the first two hours, opting instead for character driven drama. It saves its hard-boiled, gun-blazing antics for the climactic showdown - and boy, does it work a treat. After two hours of flirting and foreplay, when the moment finally comes it is all the more satisfying and well-earned earned. Costner rewards us with one of the most wonderfully staged and intense gunfights in Western cinema history. Forget gun-twirling acrobatics and over-the-top stunts; this is a gritty, realistic man-to-man fight where bullets do not kill straight away and the good guys also get hit. For once, I was on the edge of my seat during a movie gunfight asking “how is this possible”?
Instead of a slew of skirmishes and violence throughout, Open Range opts to withhold and build character and tension instead. When the inevitable gunfight arrives, we are as invested in its outcome as those involved. As the hour draws closer, you’re not even sure you want to go through with it for fear that our heroes may not make it out alive. Over the last two hours we have fallen in love with them and we understand what they’re up against. The anticipation has been wracked up to breaking point, and when the guns start blazing their impact is truly felt. By God, we want our heroes to succeed, but we know it won’t be easy for them to get that result.
It’s not without some niggling faults; some of Costner’s direction is a little heavy-handed at times and the score by the late Michael Kamen is often ‘on the nose’. But these momentary bits of cheese are easily forgiven in light of its overwhelming strengths. Instead of racing through the drama, Costner bravely holds us captive in character moments and remains there, allowing us to intimately learn what makes our heroes tick and most importantly, why we should care about them. When a movie can move you emotionally by a cowboy buying a china tea-set for a woman he fancies, you know the drama is working. Open Range almost throws the movie-making rulebook out the window, and against all the odds it’s better for it.
Open Range feels a filmmaker crafting a story he loves without impatient studio heads asking him to hack it to pieces. It is a true shame that Costner’s reputation hampered its release, despite it being well received critically. The film is well respected by fans of the genre but unfortunately it remains widely unknown by the general public, and deserves far more recognition than it ever got. For me, the cinema sins of Costner’s past were swept away by Open Range. If he ever returns to the genre again, next time I will be there on opening weekend with my popcorn and high expectations.
The film begins with the iconic 1960's Spider-man theme song, which is enough to send tingles up the spine's of long-serving fans. There’s plenty of fun to be had watching this wet-behind-the-ears Spider-Man bumble around the city trying to prove to himself - and Tony Stark - that he is worthy of being an Avenger. Although one does wonder how Tom Holland’s interpretation of Spidey ever held his own against Captain America, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier in ‘Civil War’ when he clearly has trouble fending off four regular thugs holding up an ATM.
Holland is hands-down the most appealing Spider-Man/Peter Parker to date, avoiding the stuttering of Andrew Garfield and the sulking of Tobey McGuire. As per Marvel Studios standard, the visual effects are world-class, the performances strong across the board and the direction is very assured, which is what we expect from a studio working at the top of their game. Critics and audiences alike have given the film a big thumbs up, but one can’t help but feel it’s because this is simply the best Spider-Man film to date, and not because it’s a truly fantastic film in and of itself.
The largest flaw with Spider-Man: Homecoming is its lacking in the emotional stakes. The movie is always reminding us that Peter Parker is ‘just a kid’, and for better or worse it often plays out like a sweet, self-aware, coming-of-age comedy. It certainly delivers in spades for its target demographic (and no doubt Spidey fans), but mature viewers may find it too immature to satisfy. I compare the film to the giant Lego Death Star owned by Peter Parker’s best friend: it’s an impressive toy to the child or Lego enthusiast, but adults whose Lego days are far behind them might find it hard to get excited. Centred around high-school teens “struggling” with their middling first-world problems, it’s as dramatically juvenile and shallow as its onscreen characters and it can be hard to get emotionally invested for its lengthy run time.
Adding to the problem is Spidey and co. constantly throwing out quirky quips during death-defying situations; the tension is immediately dissolved and you never feel that anyone is in mortal danger. For example, Spidey rescuing a group of people from a falling elevator doesn’t generate an ounce of the tension created by a similar scene from 1994’s ‘Speed’. But to its eternal credit, Spider-Man: Homecoming does keep the action snappy and the inevitable B.D.E (Big Dumb Ending) is quite contained by the usual Marvel standards.
The original Spider-Man trilogy significantly triumphed in the music department, and Danny Elfman’s original theme was always going to be hard to top. Sadly Michael Giacchino’s efforts do not compare. Like the characters, the new signature theme is rather shallow and becomes downright grating towards the end, which is surprising considering how dependable Giacchino has proved himself to be in the past.
But these are minor quibbles and as a whole, Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers what it promises. It is a great start to a new incarnation that was sorely needed after Sony’s last three strikes, and hopefully one that will stick around for many years to come. It will be satisfying to see this character mature and the emotional stakes rise. Whilst we don’t want the brooding angst of the DC Universe, a healthy dose of true human conflict would be the shot in the arm that will take Marvel’s Spider-Man from good to great.
The problematic aspect to this review is that a plot description is inevitable, and so for those choosing to go in blind – this is where I leave you. Of course, nothing I write will ruin the film, but its impact is all the more powerful with little knowledge of the story.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW.
Nolan has reached a point where he is afforded autonomy with is work, and his name has become reliable and, more importantly, bankable by whichever studio backs him. Had any other filmmaker taken the concept of this film to the studio big-wigs there's almost no chance they would have received the green light to go ahead.
As the title states the film chronicles the evacuation of Dunkirk, a despairing chapter in England's WWII campaign which saw the rescue of over 300,000 stranded Allied troops on the shores of Dunkirk. With the German army surrounding the city there is no chance of a military rescue and so the British Navy enlist the service of regular countrymen and commandeer civilian boats to sail across the channel and into the heart of war. What unfolded was an astonishing story of survival that defied all odds and cemented a place in the history books.
The Dunkirk story has been adapted to the screen several times before (most recently in 2007's ATONEMENT) but it has never been told like this. Nolan rejects all romanticism in favour of realism and tells his story by way of observation. He chooses three perspectives and alternates between them in a non-lineal fashion. We see the evacuation from the points of view of fighter pilots, ground troops and civilians... whose actions occasionally intertwine, but are mostly centred as focal points for their respective time on screen.
Nolan shot the film on IMAX 65mm and 65mm large film format and he devotes over 60% of the film's running time to the full IMAX format. That's an amazing undertaking that will excite all film enthusiasts, and for the laymen who aren't familiar with cinematic presentation it means that Dunkirk is about as BIG as movies get! While the film will look incredible on regular cinema screens it looks absolutely phenomenal on the IMAX screen, and I would urge everyone to catch it at IMAX for the full emersion.
I am hard pressed to find fault with DUNKIRK, and much like MAD MAX FURY ROAD the film predominantly employs practical craftsmanship, with most of the action being shot with real actors, real stunts and real explosions. And, again, like FURY ROAD the storytelling is unconventional and all-consuming. The film hits the ground running and doesn't relent until the end credits roll. Fighter planes criss-cross the skyline while troops on the ground flee for their lives, dodging enemy fire. Light sea vessels punt across the English channel beneath a sky-borne war, while men fight for survival in oil-spilled seas. It is a non-stop spectacle that barely gives the audience time to breathe, and despite its intensity there's barely a drop of blood spilled on screen. The pure ferocity of the film is driven by an equally relentless score from the legendary Hans Zimmer, whose music not only drives the film but also remains suspended in an unsettling sense of escalation. Zimmer's presence dominates every single frame of the film and, in my opinion, he deserves the lead billing... “DUNKIRK starring Hans Zimmer”.
The cast is exceptional and all players give strong and invested performances, and despite Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance taking the top billing, the story prevents them from stealing a central role. All of the characters are pivotal to the narrative and Nolan refuses to hone his focus on just one. And it is with this concentration on the story at hand that he has successfully crafted one of the greatest war films of all time.
DUNKIRK is magnificent. It is an assault on the senses and possesses a flagrant disregard for convention. It is a stunning marriage of action and music, and most importantly it is a refreshing, compelling and all-consuming movie going experience.... the likes of which we are rarely afforded anymore.
ROUGH STUFF is a treasure hunt movie that infuses its adventure with a heavy amount of grunt and a revved up dose of braun. With its contemporary setting the film puts its characters inside a convoy of heavy duty four-wheel-drive vehicles and has them tackling some of the roughest terrain in the country. It tells the story of Buzz and Abe, two Rovers roaming the land far from the traps of city life, who agree to escort a group of foreign environmental activists through the treacherous Mamuya Valley. The leader of the activists has a map which, he claims, leads to the legendary “Strays Gold” - a lost treasure believed to be myth. The activists seek passage to the far side of a big mining operation, which is scheduled to begin a blasting operation within days, and with both party's having different vested interests in the trip the scene is set for an adventure full of conflict and mayhem.
The whole 'treasure hunt' genre is an under-explored brand of filmmaking in Australia, and very few titles have temped it with the sort of frivolity and heightened adventure that we've come to expect from Hollywood. And so when a movie like ROUGH STUFF gives it a red hot go there is an immediate sense of excitement that comes with it.
The movie opens with a rugged 4X4 race sequence as two all-terrain vehicles tear through the bush at breakneck speeds, bouncing over boulders and scaling ridiculous ravines. It is a thrilling set-up that reassures the viewer that ROUGH STUFF is not some cheap-ass local DIY movie, but rather a well crafted spectacle with a skilled creative team behind the scenes. The camera flirts with the action and we are treated to a showcase of impressive off-road driving that has vehicles doing what most average drivers would consider to be impossible. Of course the film's major financiers were 4X4 companies, and so the attention to skilful driving also serves as a glowing endorsement for their brands, and the industry they promote. At times the branding is blatant and, perhaps, overdone... but it is thrilling nevertheless and offers an alternative spectacle to the saturation of street-racing we're inundated with from Hollywood.
Unfortunately the film suffers from a contrived and bloated script, which lacks substance and is impeded by a series of hidden agendas and twisted subplots. Had the story kept its focus on the basic premise of the treasure hunt then we might have been contending with one of the best Australian movies of the year. At 120-minutes the running time is also a major hindrance. 2-hours is just too long for this type of movie and it would have benefited from a tighter cut. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that trimming at least 40-minutes would have served it well. Sadly long running times is a common thing amongst independent Australian films and it's a gripe that I find myself repeating time and again. Filmmakers are (understandably) precious about their films and being ruthless in the edit is heartbreaking. When a filmmaker has nurtured their vision and come so far, it's difficult for them to seperate their creative mind from their consumer's mind. And so an unnecessarily long running time is a concession I will – again – afford.
Negative bullshit aside, ROUGH STUFF is a little belter, and a movie that deserves to be seen. Director Jonathan Adams has plunged head first into an untapped genre and is an audacious filmmaker for doing so. His film is a visual feast for the eyes that infuses testosterone-driven action, balls-to-the-wall mayhem and a glorious cinematography. From sweeping arial shots to extreme muddy close ups, the camera interacts with the action and delivers the audience a thrilling escapade. The positives of the movie outweigh the negatives, and it is important for viewers to understand (and appreciate) the restrictions, which independent filmmakers face. Try making a movie... it's bloody hard. Try making one that looks this good... it's tough. And try making one that would make the most avid off-road drivers hold their breath.... bet ya can't!
Yet for all of his old-fashioned ways, David Stratton has been a vocal opponent to censorship and has famously launched scathing attacks against the Australian classification board, most notably in relation to Larry Clark’s film Ken Park, which was denied classification and subsequently banned in Australia.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE REEL WORD.