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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Anyone familiar with the work of writer/director Martin McDonagh – in particular, his movies In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) – will be aware of his signature style of dark humour, bleak storylines and use of profane language paired with ultra-violence.

The British/Irish screenwriter and film director is also renowned as a playwright, especially for The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001). His plays have been produced all over the world, including Australia.

His newest Hollywood film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, offers everything you might expect and more. It delves deeper into the darkest recesses of the human psyche than most storytellers dare to go, and the result is uproariously funny as well as disturbing and utterly harrowing.

Frances McDormand is superb as the central protagonist within an equally all-star ensemble that includes Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage. Also, McDonagh has cast three of the fine actors he used for Seven Psychopaths – Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish. Caleb Landry Jones is remarkable as a key supporting character Red, the savvy salesman who arranges the rental of the titular billboards.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes. We learn that several months earlier her daughter was raped and murdered in an especially gruesome way. McDonagh does not spare us any of the details. Frustrated by the lack of police action, she sets out to provoke a response from the town officials and from the townspeople themselves. She wants justice at any cost. But her incensed activism does have a cost – on everyone, including herself and her high schooler son Robbie played by Lucas Hedges (known for Moonrise Kingdom and Manchester by the Sea). Despite her escalating extreme behaviour, McDonagh ensures we are in step with Mildred’s fury throughout.

Exquisitely crafted, McDonagh’s story is set in a US Midwest town small enough that everyone knows each other’s business, yet large enough that not everyone knows each other by sight – a device that allows for McDonagh to maximise his drama at every opportunity.

The film is populated by authentic and well-rounded characters, from the sympathetic police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – the main subject of her ire – to his dunderheaded colleague, the clearly incompetent and openly racist police officer Jason Dixon, played perfectly with on-point character detail by Sam Rockwell.

Around the one-hour mark – the midpoint – the movie plummets off a cliff into far darker territory than anticipated. Everything that follows is far from predictable, and therefore has you squirming uncomfortably in your seat with each new outrage.

This is a movie that illuminates the multifarious despicable ways that humans treat each other, and yet there are occasional flashes of decency offered by way of contrast or respite. The accusatory speech Mildred fires at the local priest forms a gratifying and triumphant moment – her “Crips and the Bloods” speech. The “orange juice” scene in the hospital may render you gutted thanks to its unexpected grace within a series of horrendous episodes. There’s a lot to admire about this film; not just its unflinching stance, but also its crumbs of redemption.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 
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Murder on the Orient Express

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It’s 1934 and a disparate cast of characters are traveling by train from Istanbul to Paris, among them famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). After the train is stopped by a rockslide on the tracks during a snowstorm, a fellow passenger, the shady Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is found stabbed to death in his locked compartment, and Poirot is presented with the challenge of divining who the killer is. The truth is, of course, much stranger than he could anticipate.

Agatha Christie’s classic novel was famously filmed by Sidney Lumet back in ’74, and it’s kind of incredible that it has taken this long for another big screen version to be mounted. It’s a nigh-perfect basis for a film, offering a clear narrative goal, an interesting location, and – most importantly – a panoply of intriguing and eccentric roles just begging to be brought to life by a talented company of character actors.

Which is exactly what we get here, although the line between “character actor”, “rising star” and “dear God, it’s Johnny Depp” is blurry. What we do get is (deep breath) Michell Pfeiffer as a husband-hunting American widow, Judi Dench as an imperious Russian princess, Olivia Colman as her long-suffering maid, Josh Gad as the alcoholic secretary to the murdered man, Derek Jacobi as the victim’s valet, Penelope Cruz as a devout missionary, Daisy Ridley as a governess, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Leslie Odom Jr. as a doctor, and  more. They’re all uniformly great (yes, even Depp), and are clearly having a ball, embracing director Branagh’s heightened, theatrical take on the material.

Branagh is, of course, Poirot, and why not? He is, after all, the director’s favourite actor. If everyone present is having fun, Branagh is having the most fun as Christie’s famous and fastidious flatfoot, sporting one of the greatest mustaches in cinematic history giving full play to Poirot’s suite of tics and quirks. It’s such a great role, and Branagh manages the rather neat balancing act of making Poirot brilliant and heroic but at the same time fussy and funny, a strange little man driven to try and correct a world made imperfect by crime and carelessness.

As a director, Branagh revels in the sumptuous details and textures of his setting – the polished brass and rich, dark wood of the train carriages, gleaming in the lamplight; the clean, blinding white drifts of snow outside; the luxurious fabrics of the costumes; the hair, the make up and accessories of his characters. It’s the James Bond model in microcosm, cinema as luxury tourism, showing us an aspirational world we can’t really afford to visit except for a couple of hours at a time. Branagh also doesn’t let the location limit him too much in terms of his camerawork – our point of view is always on the move, tracking down carriages, swooping overhead, pushing in to highlight tangible details. Orient Express is absolutely worth catching on theatrical release; while it may not fit the current tentpole model, it is a timely reminder that it’s not just explosions and spectacle that benefit from the cinema.

Plus, it’s a really good time. For all that it deals with murder and (slight spoiler from an 80 year old book) conspiracy, there’s something quite cosy and comforting in Christie’s story, and that translates perfectly here. The solution to the mystery is pretty well known by this stage of the game, but we don’t necessarily go to these things to be surprised, any more than we go to see Hamlet expecting to be scared by the ghost of the King. Rather, the joy is in seeing how these familiar narrative forms are being re-interpreted by a new set of creatives. Branagh never colours outside of the lines on this one, and that’s fine – this is a respectful romp through one of literature’s most famous mysteries, and well worth your time.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Murder on the Orient Express

 

 
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Jungle

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After years of terrifying international audiences via the Wolf Creek films and TV series (along with similarly horrific detours like Rogue, The Darkness, and The Belko Experiment), Australian director, Greg McLean, takes a hard-left out of genre filmmaking with Jungle, but crafts something just as unsettling as his previous cinematic bloodbaths. While there are no serial killers or supernatural entities, this internationally-flavoured local production boasts a truly dangerous “villain” in the form of the eponymous wilds of Bolivia, a place of unrivaled savagery that McLean can’t help but apply his horror filmmaker’s instincts to. The results are chilling, harrowing, and occasionally near puke-inducing.

Based on the true life book by Yossi Ghinsberg, this gut-churning tale of survival is worthy of placement next to the highly impressive likes of Into The Wild, Deliverance, Wild, 127 Hours, and Alive. In a richly physical and immensely sympathetic performance, Daniel Radcliffe (whose continuing quest for challenging roles doesn’t receive nearly as much praise as it should) is superb as Ghinsberg, a young man travelling the world in the early 1980s, against the better wishes of his strict parents.

In the insular backpacking community of Bolivia, he meets two new friends in robust American, Kevin Gale (an excellent Alex Russell) and sensitive Swiss teacher, Marcus Stamm (a fine turn from rising Aussie star, Joel Jackson). Thirsty for adventure and new experiences, they take up the unlikely offer of enigmatic adventurer, Karl Ruprechter (played with an imaginative streak of the unpredictable by Thomas Kretschmann), to head into the jungle in search of a lost tribe of Indians, and perhaps a little gold along the way. But once in the wild, the three travelers soon start to question the credentials of their guide, and then realise how enormous and truly horrifying the jungle that surrounds them truly is.

Just as nervous urban-bound horror filmmakers have found treachery and evil in the backwater towns of America and the dark unknown of Europe (and, of course, the Australian outback), Greg McLean locates terror in the jungles of the Amazon. Yes, we’ve seen this winding, tangled river used as the backdrop for the gruesome likes of Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno, but the nightmare of Jungle is much more real and far less sensationalist. Never have bug infestations, starvation, dehydration, pounding rain, wild river rapids, fire ants, and blistered feet registered with such force and fury – McLean grinds the gore here with admirable aplomb, giving Jungle the kind of kick that a non-genre filmmaker wouldn’t even have considered. But he’s in touch with his characters too, and as we endure the horrors of the jungle with them, the film soars in strange and unexpected ways. A survival film that marches to the delirious beat of its own hallucinogenic drum, Jungle bows inventively before the bad guy to end all bad guys: Mother Nature.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jungle.

 
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Detroit

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There’s no getting around it: Detroit, the latest offering from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)  is a tough watch. The entire middle third of the film, some 40 minutes, is an extended sequence of interrogation and torture, book-ended by murder. Under the leadership of a cold-eyed uniformed cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a group of Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, and National Guardsmen try to get a group of civilians – black men and two young, white women – to hand over a gun and the man that was using it.

There is no gun. The authorities don’t believe them. Or they don’t care. Or they need there to be a gun, to shield themselves from recriminations. It doesn’t matter. Caught in the frame of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s jittery, roving cameras, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s an incredibly tense scene, more horrible than horror, and it really happened.

Detroit is based on the Algiers Motel Incident that took place in 1967 during Detroit’s 12th Street Riot, when angry African Americans took to the streets in response to a police raid on an illegal after hours club. The street violence and paramilitary response will be familiar to anyone who saw footage of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict – indeed, seeing handwritten signs in the windows of businesses proclaiming them to be black-owned is a jarring sight – and the causes and tensions are remarkably similar: economic disenfranchisement, ghettoisation, a smouldering sense of injustice, white cops, black civilians.

Bigelow and Boal force us to look at these parallels, refusing to consign Detroit to the rather safe and separate category of historical fiction, even though it is set almost precisely 50 years ago. The militarised police presence, the fires in the streets, the barred windows and fearful faces we’re confronted with again and again – swap out the fashions and the music and very little has changed. Intriguingly and perhaps depressingly, a look at Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days, which boasts similar imagery, gives you the sense that she doesn’t think it’s going to change any time soon, either.

Perhaps that’s why Detroit sketches its scenario and characters so quickly and economically – we don’t need a lot of breadcrumbs to get us where we need to be, in the annex of the Algiers Motel, because what we’re going to see there has already happened, will happen again, is happening now. A brightly animated prologue, done in the style of late 20th century African American street art, sketches the economic and social situation for us, then we’re briskly and efficiently introduced to our key players: security guard Melvin Desmukes (John Boyega), tasked with guarding a nearby store from looters and a man used to defusing both black and white aggression; Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and The Dramatics, a black singing group who take shelter at the Algiers after their gig is shut down in the face of the riots; Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), white party girls staying at the motel; and Greene (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Vietnam and staying at the Algiers while looking for work.

Things kick off when Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) another man staying at the Algiers, decides, playfully, provocatively, stupidly, to fire a starter pistol out the window to scare some nearby cops and guardsmen. What follows has the tragic inevitability of an incoming tsunami. Not that the film lets anyone off the hook – individual choices and morals still matter, but the events are positioned in such a way that we understand that each person here is on the leading edge of titanic social forces, being either ground to a mean point or irreparably broken.

But all that is abstract – what matters in the moment is the cruelty, the callousness, the violence and the fear, which is wrought in an absolutely scarring way. It’s worth reflecting on one of the key early scenes in Bigelow and Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, where Jason Clarke’s interrogator puts the hard word on a terrorist suspect while Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst looks on. That film was accused of endorsing torture; Detroit puts you in the shoes of the tortured, and it doesn’t let you out.

Worse, it offers little in the way of catharsis, which will frustrate some viewers. Justice is not done, and the film offers no pat moments of false triumph to salve us as we exit the theatre. We’re left in a state of anger, confusion, and moral outrage – and that’s as it should be, because this stuff is still happening, and we know it. Detroit is a simply extraordinary and uncompromising film, and if it’s almost unbearably punishing as a result, that’s because it needs to be to drive its point home. Absolutely unmissable.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Detroit  

 
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It

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It

It is an enormous 1,138 page novel from Maine’s maestro of the macabre, Stephen King. It was released in 1986 and remains one of the most iconic horror novels of all time. It spans eras, time, dimensions and, frankly, is close to unadaptable. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, mind you.

In 1990 the US ABC network had a crack with a 3+ hour miniseries that was released in other territories as a really long “movie”. It featured a bloodless, bare bones retelling of the book’s biggest beats – but was too truncated and toothless to capture the menace and suspense of the novel. Although Tim Curry was fun as the villain.

In 2009 director of the “good season” of True Detective, Cary Fukunaga, attempted an ambitious take on the book that ultimately fell through due to that most nefarious Hollywood monster, “creative differences”.

That brings us to 2017. It, directed by Andrés Muschietti (Mama) is finally here, and the result is likely to have Stephen King fans and general audiences alike riveted. After 31 long, grumpy years they finally made an It adaptation worthy of the source material.

For those who haven’t made the literary journey into King’s masterpiece, It tells the tale of a group of kids – a self described “Loser’s Club” – who live in the strange and eerie town of Derry, Maine. Children have been disappearing in Derry and when Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by something lurking in the sewers, it begins an adventure that is part coming of age story/part unrelenting horror rollercoaster.

From the arm-ripping opening sequence It lets you know it’s not fucking around. This is a horror movie with a capital “H” and isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. Bill Skarsgård delivers an eerie performance as the main form of the titular menace, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. His drooling, wall-eyed Pennywise manages to straddle the line between absurdity and fear; making him a fascinating monster to watch.

The Losers are also fantastic for the most part, with superb takes on the characters of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer). Of course with a cast this large some characters get short shrift, and sadly Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) feels relegated to a near cameo, with most of his character work given to Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), which will have ardent fans of the book baffled.

While we’re talking negatives it has to be said that not all of the horror beats land. There’s a sense that director Andrés Muschietti really wants to make sure everyone in the damn audience is scared, so he’ll often machine gun the horror right into your face, noisily and prolifically. That said, when it does land it does so beautifully, often cleverly juxtaposed with a moment of laugh out loud humour or genuine pathos.

It is not a perfect adaptation. At 135 minutes It is long for a movie and yet doesn’t even cover 50% of the book. While the book becomes a strange, surreal tale of interdimensional chaos, the movie veers more towards a pulpy popcorn horror experience. The good news is: it’s a really bloody good pulpy, popcorn experience.

Ultimately It is a big, ballsy, crowd-pleasing monster movie with wonderful characters, creative scares and a sense of style and place that anchors the tall tale. It’s dense with wonderful little touches, stylish flourishes and pathos that actually works. Put simply, It is very likely to be the best wide release horror movie of 2017 and the best executed Stephen King adaptation in a long damn time.

 
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The Go-Betweens: Right Here

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“There were no hits,” singer/songwriter, Robert Forster, says emphatically of his group, The Go-Betweens. “We didn’t have any hit songs.” No case of false modesty, The Go-Betweens indeed failed to crack the Top 40, despite making appearances on Countdown and inspiring collective swoons from the local music press. But proving (again) that commercial success and true artistry rarely go hand in hand, many of their songs – most notably “Cattle And Cane” and “Streets Of Your Town” – are now justifiably part of the Australian lexicon.

While the band’s (formed by Forster and fellow songwriter, Grant McLennan, in Brisbane in the late ’70s) music is deceptively simple, their tortured, angst-ridden history is deeply, heatedly complex. Refusing to play to its more sensationalist qualities, busy director, Kriv Stenders (Boxing Day, Red Dog, Lucky Country, Australia Day), crafts this melancholy story into wonderfully cohesive and richly intimate documentary form with The Go-Betweens: Right Here.

Mixing starkly shot talking head interviews (irreverent music journo and friend of the band, Clinton Walker, steals the show) with artful recreations and stylish bridging visuals, along with vintage interviews and music clips, the story of The Go-Betweens: Right Here – in which two friends innocently form a band while at university, and eventually fall prey to ego, booze, drugs, and complicated relationships – is a familiar one, it’s also entertainingly perverse. Like a far less successful ABBA or Fleetwood Mac, the internal romantic machinations of The Go-Betweens are the stuff of legend, with the relationship of Forster and the band’s drummer, Lindy Morrison (a truly unusual and endearing figure), crumbling, only to be replaced by the equally intense coupling of McLennan and the group’s gifted violinist, Amanda Brown.

Stenders is obviously fascinated by these wonderfully eccentric characters and their fractious entanglements, but he’s also compelled by the complex nature of creativity and collaboration, and he incisively works these two central strands together seamlessly. Refreshingly, Stenders is far less interested in McLennan’s dalliances with drugs and alcohol, and his sad, curious death at the age of just 48 from a heart attack. Though less astute directors would opportunistically hone in on these more sordid story points, Stenders knows that there’s even more interesting stuff going on elsewhere, and cannily avoids merely making another doco about a muso who falls to the sway of narcotics and drops way before his time. With wit, warmth, and a lovingly bent sense of pathos, The Go-Betweens: Right Here digs through the surface details, and gets right to the battered heart of one of Australia’s most important and under-valued bands.

 
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Terminator 2: Judgement Day 3D

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In 1991 director James Cameron unleashed Terminator 2: Judgement Day on an unsuspecting world. If you weren’t alive – or just too young to be aware of films at the time – you should know the effect on cinema was seismic and indelible. T2 redefined what action movies were capable of, set a new standard for storytelling in genre cinema and showcased a director (Cameron) and actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton) at the height of their powers.

Cut to 2017 and cue the limited release of Terminator 2 in 3D. While you may question the need for the re-release there’s no doubt time has been extraordinarily kind to the movie. Time and James Cameron remastering the film for a crisp 4K print, that is.

The plot may not have the dark poetry of the original The Terminator (1984), but the story of young John Connor (Edward Furlong), his damaged but fearless mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and reprogrammed, protector T-800 aka “Uncle Bob” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) remains engaging and surprisingly layered. The screenplay contains not one single wasted beat – which is impressive for a movie that clocks in at a hefty 137 minutes – and the action is of a quality that’s damn near timeless. In fact the only jarring moments that occur are with the use of then-groundbreaking CGI, which looks like a low res screensaver now, and “cool” 90s slang, which was always a bit rubbish to be honest.

The one dud note in the whole enterprise is the 3D, which isn’t bad per se, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings – except in the future war opening and Sarah Connor’s still-harrowing nuclear strike dream. Still, if 3D is the price that needs to be paid to get a stone cold classic like T2 back in the cinema, it seems a small one.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a great film when it was released 26 years ago and remains a great film today. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or want to experience it properly again, head to the cinema in the week starting August 24. Before Skynet becomes sentient.

 
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Atomic Blonde

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By this stage of the game describing Charlize Theron’s turn in Atomic Blonde as a female James Bond is a bit of a cliche, but it’s just going to have to do. It’s not all the killing and seducing, mind you – well not only that – but the sheer ruthlessness that she approaches the task of tracking down a stolen list of undercover agents* and avenging a deceased former lover along the way. There’s more than a touch of Connery- or even Dalton-era 007 on display here, and while the hyper-kinetic, high impact action sequences assembled by director David Leitch might bring to mind Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is never so sympathetic. She’s a stone killer, an unapologetic cold-hearted bitch with only the faintest sliver of humanity shining through to differentiate her from the other spies, assassins and bagmen swarming the sharply-delineated shadows of Berlin circa 1989.

It’s a bold and brilliant decision – a quick run through the mental Rolodex only brings up Linda Fiorentino’s turn in The Last Seduction as a comparable female protagonist, and even then Fiorentino’s sociopathic seductress wasn’t capable of kicking seven shades out of whatever goons might be unfortunate enough to cross her eyeline. Theron’s ice-eyed secret agent is more than up to the job, and does so at pretty much any given opportunity. Director Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski, pulls out all the stops here, staging a number of utterly brutal, utterly beautiful action setpieces, including one eight minute sequence captured in a single handheld shot that is going to be the key after-viewing talking point for most audiences.

Another hand to hand scrap takes place inside a cinema screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is a nice tip of the hat and an indicator of Atomic Blonde‘s other key trait – for all its brutality and amorality, it’s a rather playful bit of business. It’s a riff, a pose, an echo, filled with alt-pop ’80s hits (New Order, David Bowie, Nene, even Ministry and Siouxsie and the Banshees). The film’s universe of spies and tough guys isn’t meant to reflect our own in any way beyond what’s necessary to anchor suspension of disbelief. Indeed, perhaps it’s not Bond we should looking to as a touchstone, but Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, which exists in a similar hyper-violent, fantastical modern urban milieu.

Yes, there’s a bit of lip service paid to the cost of life in the secret services and the blurred lines and loyalties thereof – mostly personified by James McAvoy’s perverse and duplicitous rogue agent – but that’s all just part of the affectation. At the end of the day, Atomic Blonde is all about doing cool things and looking cool while doing them, whether it’s decimating a squad of unfortunate German cops, bedding Sofia Boutella’s sexy French agent, or running a gauntlet of hired killers in a desperate final dash for the border. Yes, it’s all surface and no substance, but when the surface is this darn pretty, what does it matter?

*yes, that old chestnut.

 
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Dunkirk

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You don’t actually hear too many character names in Dunkirk. The men remain formally anonymous, defined by their actions rather than their names. There’s Kenneth Branagh’s British naval commander, trying to get his head around the logistical nightmare of getting some 400,000 Allied troops off of a French beach near the eponymous town, while German artillery and bombers wreak terrible havoc on both the ships sent to evacuate them and the actual men desperate to get home. There’s Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s RAF pilots, flying sorties over the land and sea battle, trying to ping Luftwaffe planes before they drop their payloads. There’s Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead’s British Army privates, part of that milling 400,000, all thoughts of heroism and adventure forgotten as they try to find some way, any way, to get the hell off the killing floor that the coastline has become.

The exception, notably, is Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, a civilian boatsman and one of countless who were hastily assembled to help evacuate the troops once it became clear that a more conventional approach was going to leave corpses piled head high. It’s he in his little boat, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend (Barry Keoghan), who acts as Dunkirk‘s soft spoken, implacable moral compass. “We’ve a job to do,” he gently tells Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier as he steers them into the hell of battle. “There’s no hiding from this.”

That’s the attitude that permeates the entire exercise. Dunkirk is a film about quiet, pragmatic heroism in the face of certain doom, of small choices and moments of courage contrasted against horror and conflict of almost debilitating scale. It’s an attitude that suits director Christopher Nolan – doing the best work of his career here, make no mistake. Nolan has often been criticised for being a cold and distant director, but in truth he’s not an unemotional filmmaker, simply one who disdains unearned sentimentality. That’s a stereotypically British trait, in a way – think the Old Blitz Spirit, or the Keep Calm & Carry On variation of your choice. His remit here is to lionise the British experience of World War II – something we’re seeing a fair bit of lately, between Churchill and Darkest Hour – but to do it in an appropriately stiff upper lip manner. He does so dexterously, balancing horror and, yes, heroism, with self-effacement and humility.

Crucially, Nolan does not mistake gore for suspense, and while the body count here is massive, the film deals out its deaths in a surprisingly discrete way; it’s interesting to ponder what Spielberg, who littered the screen with limbs and intestines in Saving Private Ryan, or, God help us, Michael Bay, might have done with the material. Nolan even keeps his antagonists at a distance, the Germans making their presence known with bombing and strafing runs, or bullet holes suddenly appearing in the hull of a foundering ship. The enemy is treated like an oncoming storm, a thing not to be fought but to be avoided. In a way, Dunkirk has more in common with a natural disaster movie than a war film, and it’s far more interested in celebrating the valour of simple survival than any kind of martial prowess.

Which certainly doesn’t mean the film is bereft of tension – indeed, this is one of of the most gut-tightening, engrossing, downright suspenseful films of the year. Nolan brings all his considerable technical acumen to mounting the film’s stunningly impressive action sequences, intercutting with incredible precision between different elements, driven along by Hans Zimmer’s nerve-jangling, propulsive, clipped score. Giant ships sink while men scramble for the surface, bombs slam into dunes as men cower beneath ludicrously flimsy pie-plate helmets, fighters jockey for position in blue skies in some of the best dogfighting seen on film. It’s simply masterful stuff, all captured by the nigh-brutal clarity of Hoyte von Hoytema’s cinematography. Nolan and his editor, Lee Smith, zip between incidents with mathematical exactness, building the tempo to an almost unbearable pitch before allowing even a hint of catharsis, then barely pausing for breath before beginning the build up again. Anyone studying parallel action in a film school classroom in the next 20 years is going to be watching Dunkirk – it’s masterful stuff.

Masterful? It just might be a masterpiece. It’s leagues ahead of Nolan’s last effort, the ungainly Interstellar, and in his previous oeuvre only The Prestige is comparable in terms of sheer, breathtaking, cinematic skill. What really strikes home is what a work of artistic discipline Dunkirk is, eschewing almost all unnecessary exposition, dialogue and backstory, delivering up a stirring, satisfying epic war story in only 106 minutes (!). It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and might even be the best – at the very least, it’s hard to imagine another 2017 release more certain of a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

 
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Transformers: The Last Knight

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And suddenly it all became clear: this was camp.

Transformers: The Last Knight is either one of the worst films ever produced by a major studio, or a future schlock classic that will stand alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster, and The Room – the difference being that while those examples were made by lunatics who thought they were making great art, Michael Bay has here tipped his hand, and we can now be in on the joke. Our mistake all along was in taking these goddamn things seriously, it seems; measured against the standards of classical Hollywood filmmaking, the Transformers series – Revenge of the Fallen onwards, at least – are abominable wastes of time, money, and effort. Viewed as a knowing parody (not satire, mind you – if there’s any Starship Troopers-style political allegory here, it is remarkably elusive) of action movie excess, this latest addition to the franchise is kind of amazing.

It’s the only sane and charitable reason such a terrible piece of cinema got this far. The Last Knight leaves behind recent large-scale failures like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and The Mummy, like they were standing still, gasping in its dust, while it pops a wheelie and its horn plays a dubstep remix of “La Cucuracha”. It’s bad, not just in a pedantic or nitpicky way – although if you have any knowledge of history, art history, geography, nuclear physics, astrophysics, plain old everyday physics, archaeology, architecture, small unit tactics, hydrodynamics, and the basic nature of the human soul, you better strap the hell in – but as a narrative, leaping all over the place, compressing time and shaking up spatial relationships like it was filmed at the Event Horizon of a black hole. At one point Marky Mark makes a big deal out of leaving all his friends behind to jump on a plane to England by himself. When he gets there, Bumblebee is suddenly with him. Presumably he swam. Or teleported. It still doesn’t explain why the film’s version of Britain, where much of the action takes place, appears to be maybe five miles across, judging by travel time.

Teleportation is possible – characters exhibit new traits as the plot demands all the time. Hot Rod (a new Autobot voiced by Omar Sy) whips out a gun that can slow down time. Bumblee’s voicebox is still broken – right up until it suddenly isn’t. Marky has a magic disappearing sword. It’s incredible – there are times when you’ll swear you blacked out, because some new element will crop up and surely, surely, they’ve taken a second or so to explain it. God knows the film stops for long stretches of just risible dialogue at enough points.

Much of that dialogue is delivered by Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins and Academy Award watcher Mark Wahlberg, and they do okay. Hopkins is clearly having an absolute ball, having no illusions about the type of film he’s in and barking his lines with glee. Wahlberg is Wahlberg, the hero of the story – it’s now a longstanding tradition that Transformers movies aren’t about Transformers. Bay clearly has no affinity for the robots- but he also doesn’t care for people much, either. His ideal film would involve nothing but spinning tracking shots of non-talking vehicles filmed against a sunset, with a lot of particulate matter in the air. For three hours.

Here, though, he’s lumbered with a plot that he must at least pay lip service to, much to his clear disgruntlement. The story, credited to Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan, pushes in two directions. There’s the problem at hand, which sees Autobot leader Optimus Prime pull a Dominic Toretto and turn against his comrades – which would be quite a twist if that particular hero of a million childhoods hadn’t been portrayed as violent, arrogant, unpredictable and downright murderous for the last three movies. Prime returns to Earth (just go with it if you’ve blocked out the last movie) as the herald of robot goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who wants to destroy the Earth for reasons that would be spoilers if such things mattered here, but we’ll defer to the delicate sensibilities poor, deluded Transformers fans, may Quintessa have mercy on their soul.

This leads into the other narrative thread, designed to expand the Transformers Cinematic Universe in a number of franchise-friendly ways. Essentially, the goofy change-o-bots have been here all along, participating in human history since the time of King Arthur (don’t even start) right through to at least World War II, and somehow the wider world never noticed, despite Tony Hopkins owning a room of artworks that basically look like this. He owns them because he’s a member of a secret society called the – wait for it – Witwiccans, who have worked alongside the Transformers for over a millennium, hiding their existence from the waking world. And let’s face it, that basic conceit – the Illuminati, but with giant robots – is kind of beautiful in its audacious stupidity, even if its only narrative payoff is a search for a MacGuffin that feels like what you’d get if you asked Koko the Gorilla to rewrite The Da Vinci Code. At least we get a sassy robot butler out of the deal in the form of Cogman, Tony’s mouthy manservant.

Previous elements are re-introduced without much rhyme or reason, including Josh Duhamel’s army dude, now working for an anti-robot task force called TRF. He’s just kind of there, flipping from protagonist to antagonist depending on how long it’s been since something blew up, but it’s interesting to note that, following Sector 7, N.E.S.T., and Cemetery Wind, that’s four different shadowy Transformer-hunting teams this series has seen over five movies. Also just kind of there is John Turturro’s Simmons, for no good reason except that Bay seems to be collecting cast members from The Big Lebowski; John Goodman reprises his voice role as Autobot soldier Hound, and Steve Buscemi crops up as a weird robot scavenger. Do not be surprised if Jeff Bridges turns up as a toaster or a waffle iron next movie.

We also get the Decepticons back, with Megatron (Frank Welker, not Hugo Weaving this time) and co. introduced into the plot because apparently it’s easier for the military to cut a deal with a team of towering metal sociopaths than engage in a dialogue with the Autobots. The plot moves as though the basic question the screenwriters kept asking themselves was “What actions, however implausible and unmotivated, will lead to the worst possible outcome for all concerned,” and this particular wrinkle is just one of many instances.

The whole thing winds up in a massive, FX-heavy, literally earth-shaking climax that would be impressive if it weren’t so patently ludicrous, and leaves the next film with almost nowhere to go in terms of scale except, say, blowing up the sun (don’t put it past ‘em). If you’re turned on by the best work the rendering farms of South Korea can provide, you’re in for a good time here, and a three headed robot dragon is always a good time, generally speaking.

But here’s the thing – The Last Knight is ridiculous, so obviously, unmistakably aware of its own crass and bombastic nature, that it’s rarely unenjoyable. It’s fascinating: the way almost every character is inhumanly mean to every other character until the time comes for them to pull at some heartstrings. The way Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager’s essential function is as a salve to the shattered machismo of American men – at one point Hopkins actually lays out that it doesn’t matter if he’s an unemployed, perpetually broke loser with a dead wife and an absent daughter, he can still be a hero – a bit of business so on the nose it simply cannot be anything but deliberate. The unmotivated camera moves, the golden hour light, the way explosions only hurt exactly one character out of the dozens who get blown up (Shockwave exists in this universe, but shockwaves don’t). The stentorian tones of Prime voice Peter Cullen mouthing the most awful, hackneyed lines about heroism and brotherhood, even though seconds earlier he’d been doing his level best to remove his best mate’s head. The sheer, money-sucking, egregious excess of the whole enterprise – in its own weird way, it’s admirable. And hilarious.

Unless you take it seriously for a second, which Bay and the boys clearly don’t. Transformers: The Last Knight is clearly Michael Bay seeing how far he can push his long-running, multi-billion dollar savage indictment of blockbuster cinema. Let’s hope it makes a trillion dollars, just to see what he does next.