“This is not going to go the way you think!”
That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.
Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.
The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.
Kumail Nanjiani is a comedian and writer much better known in the United States than in the UK, but he was familiar to me due to his association with my favourite TV series, The X-Files. Nanjiani famously hosted a successful podcast on the subject, The X-Files Files, which partly led him to gaining a guest starring role on a recent episode of the show’s revival. Nanjiani’s love of The X-Files is lightly referenced in The Big Sick, his debut feature as star and co-writer, in which he plays an extension of himself.
To an extent, Nanjiani playing Kumail is akin to Larry David’s extreme persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm or even Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s extensions in The Trip and its sequels, but the difference with The Big Sick is the tone. It’s one of the funniest comedies of the year, without question, but it’s also much sweeter, filled with charm and touching on a multitude of themes about relationships, societal barriers, religion and loss. How it manages to balance these disparate elements is the most impressive factor.
A major reason why perhaps comes down to the naturalism employed by Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter. The production stable of Judd Apatow lies behind the script which Nanjiani wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, and the story is theirs. Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) in the movie are the narrative version of the story of Nanjiani and the real-life Emily, which allows for a deeper sense of autobiographical honesty, fused with the kind of laid-back Americana comedy Apatow (when on form) does so well with his movies. The Big Sick, even before making you laugh, makes you feel.
Audiences are quite understandably going to consider Dunkirk a war film, quite possibly one of the great war films of our age. Christopher Nolan’s tenth picture is possibly an even better survival horror movie, given it takes a well-known piece of 20th century history and pitches the story as a desperate battle for survival against a powerful, largely unseen and intractable foe.
From the very first frame, of isolated and beaten British troops walking down a deserted Dunkirk street as flyers depicting the German advance on their position rain down on them in almost endless supply, a terrifying pallor of dread and ominous doom casts its shadow over Nolan’s picture. This is a war the ‘good guys’ are losing, in terms of France one they have already lost, and all they can do now is run from the darkness that is pursuing and engulfing them. Nolan’s film, on the whole, couldn’t be less jingoistic; the British and their allies are terrified, broken and in a desperate situation.
Though far from being a film which wears any kind of political or social polemic on its sleeve, you’d be hard-pressed to not consider Nolan a pacifist after watching Dunkirk. Not perhaps since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and rarely in all of cinema with its legion and entire sub-genre of war movies, has any director portrayed the senseless horror and brutality of World War Two with such visceral, haunting power. Nolan’s world here isn’t one without hope but it’s absolutely a war where good guys are complicated, and heroes don’t necessarily carry guns.
An open question lies at the heart of The Beguiled and it’s a simple one… who, precisely, *is* the beguiled in Sofia Coppola’s story? Come the conclusion, you may not have reached a simple answer. Beguiled, in its essential form, means ‘charmed’ or ‘to charm’. The answer, considering the plot, may appear obvious but it’s anything but.
The Beguiled started life as a 1966 novel called ‘A Painted Devil’ by late author Thomas P. Cullinan, and was first adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, with Clint Eastwood in the role of wounded Corporal John McBurney in 1864, during the middle of the American Civil War, a Union soldier who is found injured in the woods of Mississippi by the youngest girl in a Christian seminary & finishing school and upon being brought into the household out of Christian charity, begins to inveigle himself into the lives of a group of girls and women starved of testosterone, with disturbing results.
Having not seen the original it’s hard to compare, but Coppola in reimagining the story was aware that Siegel’s previous take—as one can imagine from a director known for his long-standing working relationship with Eastwood—very much pitched the focus from the point of view of McBurney. A male viewpoint of an extremely female world which Coppola wanted to flip and invert, re-tasking McBurney as the enigmatic outside force who begins to psychologically distract and expose the taut, bridled sexuality of these women against the spirit of their God-fearing values.
There’s an almost laugh out loud moment in War For the Planet of the Apes in which several of our simian heroes, traversing a tunnel underneath a massive, fortified Army mountain base, find scrawled graffiti on the wall which reads ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’. The laughter doesn’t just come from the bad pun but how, frankly, that could have been an alternate title in a much sillier world.
War For the Planet of the Apes is about both the death of humanity but also the death of the American Dream. This is exemplified through the character of The Colonel, played with quiet steel masking hardened swagger by Woody Harrelson, who is a not so veiled homage to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; he’s bald, he’s a stone cold military man, he has an almost hypnotic power of his troops and he’s very much gone off the reservation. The Colonel captures the madness of war, and the fear behind knowing you’ve essentially lost it.
After the critical and commercial success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves was swiftly recruited by 20th Century Fox alongside returning writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to continue and in many senses conclude the Apes saga began in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. While the series could continue beyond War, by the end you honestly wonder if it should. Sure, this could very easily lead into the original Planet of the Apes remade, but what would be the point? What story is left to tell? This feels like the definitive exploration of man vs ape as a complete trilogy.
Okja managed to court more controversy than it probably deserves when it premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival on the big screen, thanks to the fact it was bankrolled by Netflix for a streaming release rather than a theatrical one. Cannes-goers, as elitist as usual, wanted their pound of reactionary flesh but the simple truth is that Okja isn’t a film worth anyone getting their knickers in a twist over.
From the mind of Bong Joon-Ho, a South Korean filmmaker known primarily for films that haven’t experienced major UK cinematic releases such as Snowpiercer, The Host and Mother, Okja is a curiosity which attempts to fuse the emotional bond between children and animals normally reserved for Pixar in their animation, with a level of Korean fast-paced farce, jet black humour and more than a little anti-corporate, anti-GM foods sermonising. As you might expect, its an unusual blend which, in the end, struggles to gel together and deliver a cohesive whole.
Okja nonetheless has a great deal to like. Tilda Swinton, a co-producer on the film, kicks things off in barnstorming fashion as Lucy Mirando, the new head of the Mirando Corporation, which a glitzy and shiny corporate presentation which presents the central concept. Attempting to tackle the issue of a world steadily running out of food thanks to global warming and Western consumption largely, Mirando scientists develop a series of ‘super-pigs’ which will be reared by pastoral farmers across the world for 10 years before the best is presented, very publicly, for the slaughter. The rationale is simple: feed millions, give people good tasting pork, and make a ton of money.
Baby Driver is the kind of movie that could only be made by a gigantic fan of movies, and specifically the kind of stylish action pictures that characterised a film education born of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. That man is, and always has been, Edgar Wright.
Wright has taken the traditional path to making a film like Baby Driver, which feels like the pinnacle of everything he’s learned and developed cinematically since he made his first major picture, Shaun of the Dead. That wasn’t his first feature technically (that honour goes to 1995’s little known A Fistful of Fingers) and after several TV directing gigs, largely of comedy, Wright came to prominence with cult TV series Spaced in the late 1990’s, which began his signature partnership with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
Spaced has endured in the public consciousness because it was ahead of its time; a post-modern encapsulation of self-referential ‘meta’ on TV, crammed with cinematic allusions and references (heavily on Star Wars). It was a TV show made by a group of creatives who understood cinema, the touchstones, winks, nods and history. Pegg and Frost took that into their acting careers but Wright retained it for his directorial one. Shaun of the Dead was a comic roast of the George Romero zombie movie, Hot Fuzz did the same for the buddy action flick and The World’s End gamely tried, and failed, to do so for the alien invasion movie.
The so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ with his old mates were safe bets for Wright. It was British comedy territory he knew and, to an extent, helped create. 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World was his first taste of bigger Hollywood, American filmmaking, and quite how his kinetic, punchy, self-effacing style would connect with that level of filmmaking. Boasting a major cast, a beloved comic-book source material and a ton of retro video game in-jokes, Scott Pilgrim has remained divisive; loved by some as a cult curio, hated by others, and many still probably never got around to seeing it.