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Why won’t audiences embrace new space operas? John Carter of Mars, Jupiter Ascending and now Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets all met tepid to disastrous box office responses in most national markets, all but assuring an unlikely franchise future. Meanwhile, any old Star Trek or Star Wars film will make at least $500m and the “good” ones will crack  $1billion. Franchise Fever is self-perpetuating.

In the case of Valerian, it’s a great shame, because it’s a really fun movie with a couple of very appealing characters we could gladly follow through multiple adventures. Based on director Luc Besson’s childhood favourite comic strip Valerian and Laureline, this infamously expensive (c. $190,000,000) extravaganza is colourful, eccentric and cool, full of sublime design, eccentric set-pieces and easy-going humour. It’s also – contrary to many US reviews – completely “comprehensible”. If you can’t follow the plot of this, stay away from Personal Shopper.

That plot concerns space-soldiers Valerian and Laureline investigating a genocide, a cancerous energy force at the centre of a gigantic space station, and the protection of the last surviving remnant of a powerful species. Both lead actors are new to me. Dane DeHaan, as Valerian, has an enjoyably mischievous twinkle and a cool deep voice that may actually be an homage to Keanu Reeves vocals in The Matrix. Cara Delevingne, as Laureline, is much more impressive. There’s no available evidence here as to whether she’s ready to play Broadway, but she’s absolutely across the performance style required for this surprisingly specific genre. This isn’t “hard” science- fiction, it’s popcorn Sci-Fi, light and sweet and fun, and Delevingne hits her beats with aplomb. In some ways, Laureline is the Han Solo to Valerian’s Luke Skywalker – more gutsy, faster with a quip, more charismatic generally – and Delevigne gives a Harrison Ford performance, whereby a scowl, an eyebrow or a shifty look to the left can raise a gentle laugh.

Besson – who has supposedly wanted to make this film for decades – directs with utmost professionalism. The film looks great – sleek, polished and seamless – while also distinctive, favouring intriguingly bold close-ups, vibrant angles, and a humongous assortment of creatures who all feel more like good-ol’ animatronics than CGI (whatever the actual case may be). This is a  “blue-sky” film, suitable and probably best appreciated by kids (“of all ages”), and the tone is merry.

My biggest quibble is with the story’s framing device of Valerian asking for – and desperately wanting – Laureline’s hand in marriage. Laureline and Valerian are so child-like (or at least, teen-like), and their relationship is so chummy, that they feel far more like sister and brother than potential lovers. Their chemistry isn’t sexual, it’s familial. One doesn’t want them to kiss, one wants to see ‘em give each other noogies.

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**** (out of five)

Taylor Sheridan is a damn good screenwriter. He wrote Sicario, Hell or High Water, and now Wind River, which he also directs. He wraps rich character studies in genre. All three feature guns, but they also feature human beings.

Here, a policeman in Wyoming who specialises in shooting wild animals to protect the herds on a Native American reservation teams up with a pretty young FBI case-worker to solve the mysterious, cold and lonely death of a young Native woman. Much of their work takes place on the reservation, in the snow (and often in a snow-storm).

What a milieu! We get snowmobiles as primary transport, the harsh weather as perhaps the most striking antagonist, a look inside life on a reservation, and, as a terrific by-product, a suite of some of the best Native American actors in the business, including Gil Birmingham (who was also in Hell or High Water, as Jeff Bridges’ partner), Apesanahkwat, Tantoo Cadinal and, of course, the great Graham Greene (who  is up to 146 credits on IMDB with five films in post-production). It’s an embarrassment of casting riches.

As the leads, both Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner are very good – Olsen, perhaps great. Renner gets the harsh backstory but Olsen, as the FBI agent – a pretty young woman in a very, very male domain – gets the moments. Her scene at the first location of interest to the pair – you’ll know it when you see it – is Jodie-Foster-in-Silence of the Lambs-good.

As with Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan gives us the action set-pieces the genre demands – a couple of very, very good ones indeed – but his character work here feels just a touch more strained. Gil Birmingham’s character is superb and fully realised, but Renner is burdened with backstory that’s just a little too rich, convenient or both. Also – almost certainly due in no small part to the harsh conditions of the locations – the dialogue can often be extremely hard to decipher. This was the wrong movie, shot in the wrong conditions, to let your actors mumble, and Sheridan lets Renner mumble a lot. It’s a shame; these elements hold Wind River back from being right up there with the very best films of 2017.

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**** (out of five)

There are some movies you just can’t imagine with a different actor in the leading part. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, On The Waterfront, Raging Bull. The central performance carries these films, bears all their weight. So it is with Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, and she is magnificent. She lifts a very good action spy thriller into another echelon entirely by her total commitment, professionalism, ability and class.

You’ve never been this up close and personal with Theron. From her introduction, bathing her bruised – seriously bruised, like seventy percent of her body bruised – naked body in an ice-bath, to lingering, ravishing close-ups – one of them dwells for what might be ten seconds on just one of her eyes – to an emotional complexity completely unexpected for a noirish, often brutal, hyper-stylised graphic novel adaptation – she is present in a fundamentally and startlingly raw, exposed, intimate way. I’m quite taken aback by how strongly her performance moved me.

Of course, I shouldn’t be. Theron is brilliant. She has an Oscar for Monster, and her performance in Mad Max Fury Road last year likewise fused serious emotional heft and dramatic depth to the iron lung of that impeccable machine. But Atomic Blonde is being billed as a “fight” picture – which it is, and a superlative one – and the striking performance fuelling and stoking it, in every moment of every scene (including the fight scenes, which depict pain and weariness with great respect) is not what’s being touted on the posters.

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Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British spy on a mission in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the wall. The plot is convoluted – unnecessarily so – but it’s got a clear and satisfying payoff, so don’t worry if you get lost along the way (I did). The various spies, scoundrels and schemers she encounters are played – amongst others – by James McEvoy, Eddie Marian, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones and John Goodman – but none commit, or land, with Theron’s intensity. It’s her movie and she makes the movie.

Of course, David Leitch actually directed the movie, working from a script by Kurt Johnstad and Antony Johnston (who wrote the source graphic novel, The Coldest City), but the intimacy and depth of his collaboration with Theron is ever-present. She obviously trusted him every step of the way, and in doing so, allowed herself to be complicit in his fetishisation of her. She is photographed through the prism of, if not the male gaze, then the sexual gaze, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Lorraine offers something for almost everyone, whatever your angle, whatever the kink. If you’re into S&M, that’s right there on the surface for you, including all those romantic, lingering shots of Lorraine’s bruised, naked body. But if you’ve got a thing for boots, a lust for leather, a penchant for wigs, feet, trampling (yep), stiletto heels (this is a movie that understands every layer of meaning involved in using a red high heeled shoe as a weapon)… even if you’ve got a smoking fetish, it’s all here. Lorraine smokes a lot in this film, and, like everything else, it’s shot to make you hot.

Elsewhere – once the camera reluctantly slips from Theron’s cheekbones – there is plenty of terrific design. This is a Berlin 1989 via every music clip you’ve ever seen from the period, with a dash of Blade Runner, a smattering of The Matrix, and a hefty dose of Nicolas Winding Refn. Light may come from unexplained sources, but it’s there for a purpose – it’s there to sculpt Theron. This is stylisation and as far removed from reality as science fiction. That said, it’s got its thigh-high booted feet far more planted in reality than John Wick, Leitch’s other major work (in which Keanu Reeves also made himself very, very ready for his close-up). When McEvoy’s character makes a speech that clearly pays homage to Richard Burton’s classic monologue toward the end of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, it feels honourable rather than insulting. There is respect for the period here, even if a history lesson this is not.

Finally, the soundtrack is insane. Practically wall-to-wall, it’s got every Cold War 80s song and then some. As with Baby Driver, the action scenes were clearly conceived with their accompanying songs in mind; unlike that film, you’ll know all the songs here, and some will be your all-time faves. (For the record, I preferred this film to Baby Driver, with which it shares many qualities.)

I was mesmerised by Atomic Blonde; I hope it spawns sequels (there is a prequel graphic novel, The Coldest Winter). I will follow Lorraine on any misadventure she cares to indulge in, and hope to get bruised along the way.

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**** (out of five)

The simple fact of the matter is that if you enjoyed The Trip and The Trip To Italy, you’re going to enjoy The Trip to Spain – it’s more of the same, but in Spain. Likewise, there is a relative correlation – if you loved the first two movies, as I did, you’ll love this one. I did.

Once again our intrepid food reviewers Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around a gorgeous country eating amazing food and keeping each other amused, often with impersonations of British movie stars (yes, for the uninitiated, that is the actual conceit of the franchise). This time Roger Moore comes in as the most imitated, followed closely by Mick Jagger. Sir Ian McKellan gets a good look in too along with sundry others. Coogan, this time, is contemplating writing a travel book inspired by an earlier sexual conquest in Spain; to give the film even the tiniest pretence of drama, both actors are having slight issues with agents in the United States.

Once again Michael Winterbottom shoots the country and its food spectacularly while getting out of the way of his two brilliant clowns. I laughed like a drain. There is one extended sequence during which the entire critic’s screening room I was in sounded like it was about to combust from laughing so hard. Although these films were originally intended for television (in half-hour form), they are best enjoyed in as full a cinema as possible to partake of the laugh orgy inevitably inspired.

Just see this. It’s the funniest film of 2017; it’s that simple.

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Nanjiani and Kazan.

**** (out of five)

I’d given up on RomComs because it felt like RomComs had given up. Formulaic, uninspired, derivative, implausible and lacking in able and likeable talent (with the possible exception of Mila Kunis), RomComs for at least a decade (since Knocked Up) have been almost entirely crappy. But The Big Sick wins on every level. It has an extremely smart, continually funny screenplay that constantly diverges from the established and utterly boring formula; it has superb and truely likeable performances from every single performer involved; and it is not only plausible, it feels realistic – because it’s based on the romantic “origin story” of its screenwriters, and they’ve worked hard to keep things real.

They are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who have now been married for ten years. They might have “met cute”, but their courtship endured what will go down as a high-water mark for RomCom complications, along with Knocked Up’s pregnancy, Harry and Sally’s “sex in friendship” conundrum and Alvy Singer’s distrust of any woman that would actually want to be with someone like him. I’m not going to spoil the plot, and I highly recommend avoiding all trailers and promotional material for the film, such as you can, before seeing it. Suffice to say, it’s the kind of original plot twist that would be pretty hard to swallow if it wasn’t true – but it’s true.

That’s the secret sauce flavouring this wonderful movie. It’s sincere. Although the couple have acknowledged quite a few deviations from their actual story in their script, there was only one moment in the whole film that I figured had to represent dramatic license, and it was hardly a deal-breaker. For the most part I swallowed it all, and it tasted authentic and fantastically, deliriously fresh. Knocked Up was “semi”-autobiographical (written and directed by Judd Apatow, who produces here) as was Annie Hall, and maybe that’s what RomComs need: truth.

The two main characters even keep their names, although only Kumail plays himself. Emily is played by Zoe Kazan, who has not had a good big-screen vehicle since Ruby Sparks in 2012. She is wonderful here; her Emily has all the attractive qualities necessary to the genre, but also depth, complexity and nuance. She is not wildly dissimilar, physically, to the real Emily, and I imagine Miss V. Gordon must find the experience of watching “herself” eerie; she should also find it deeply satisfying.

As himself, Nanjiani has to carry the movie, appearing in almost every scene, and he makes the leap from established television presence (Silicon Valley and a million appearances in shows from Veep to Archer) and scene-stealing day player (a million comedies including Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Central Intelligence, Sex Tape, Bad Milo, Hell Baby, The Five Year Engagement etc) to big-screen leading man admirably. He definitely has a rhythm, cadence and comedic style which, like that of Woody Allen, follows him from role to role – an inoffensive low-key sarcasm – but it fits him like a glove here, because he’s really, truly, playing himself.

Director Michael Showalter not only gets superb performances and honours the integrity of the script; he also proves a master of tone. For a film dealing with much higher stakes than your average RomCom, The Big Sick never once drops into maudlin sentimentality – the jokes never stop coming even when things get real, but things are allowed to get real. The use of music is restrained, the camera is unobtrusive yet precise, and pratfalls, excessive profanity, garish sight gags and silly set-pieces have no place. This beautiful film will appeal to all, but it is built by grown-ups, and not afraid to wear its intelligence proudly.

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Gordon and Nanjiani.

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Harrelson.

***1/2

Woody Harrelson – a great American screen actor – obviously has a bee in his bonnet about wishing he’d played Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. In The Duel (2016) he applied smatterings of cool water to his bald pate a la Brando as he portrayed The Preacher, a philosophical sociopath and the cult leader of a small town in the American West. Now, in the third of this round of movies in the official Planet of the Apes universe (which includes the original series that began in 1968 but which excludes Tim Burton’s 2001 misfire), Harrelson again pays homage to Brando’s Kurtz many times as the cult leader of a squad of American soldiers out to rid our planet… of the apes.

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Brando.

Indeed, there are so many references to Kurtz and Apocalypse Now (including graffiti at the soldier’s camp that says “Ape-Pocalypse Now”!) that you have to wonder where homage ends and rip-off begins. This is an excellent movie, but the script has cribbed Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece so blatantly that you wonder whether the filmmakers are simply assuming most of their audience are too young to have seen it.

Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis, excellent) takes on the Willard role, travelling “upriver” – or in this case, northerly from California towards Oregon – to assassinate the Colonel Kurtz-like “Colonel” (Harrelson). Along the way, he and his small band of comrades encounter ambushes, evidence of barbarity, and solidarity. When they finally arrive at The Colonel’s compound, they find apes lashed vertically to wooden crucifix-like structures, as Willard and his merry crew did, with humans, as they arrived at Kurtz’s. So, while the screenplay doesn’t credit Coppola – it should. (The story beats continue to ape Apocalypse Now but I won’t spoil).

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It’s kind of fascinating that this year’s Kong: Skull Island, which also featured apes (and also featured Terry Notary as an ape) was also directly and heavily influenced by Apocalypse Now. What is it with that film and apes? But whereas Kong: Skull Island was funny and fluffy (and brief), War For The Planet of the Apes is deadly earnest with an epic running time. It’s serious stuff, and works as such – indeed, one of its mis-steps is a comedic character, played by Steve Zahn, whose every moment derails the sombre tone jarringly.

It is this tone that is so refreshing. This is a big Hollywood studio product designed to make enormous pots of cash, but it is mournful, elegiac and takes its time. There are magnificent action set-pieces but the vast bulk of the running time is spent on character moments, many ape-to-ape.  The technology has become so freaking incredible that director Matt Reeves is able to shoot long dialogue scenes between Serkis and, for example, Maurice (Karin Konoval) in extreme close-up. And when there are big groups of apes (actually, the actual term is a shrewdness of apes – look it up) the effect is breath-taking.

At times, the film sags with its propensity towards ponderousness. Perhaps it takes itself a little too seriously. But, as a (possible) conclusion to this round of the storytelling, it can be forgiven for its epic aspirations. As a trilogy, this simian saga earns righteous holding next to the Lord of the Rings movies and the original three Star Wars films. And like with those trilogies, the second is the best, the first is the most fun, and the last is a long, noble conclusion.

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****

Back in April, Their Finest depicted the British Ministry of Information backing a feature film about the civilian nautical craft evacuation of Dunkirk during World War Two. Now, Warner Brothers has spent a hundred and fifty million bucks on the same subject, and Britain gets a very expensive bonus slice of inspirational propaganda. Reserved, dignified, proud and brave, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is nothing if not very, very British.

I have to admit, I didn’t know about the civilian-aided evacuation effort, and the fact that it features in two prominent films this year might say something about our need for everyday heroes. It was an extraordinary event and it is given extraordinary technical respect here; this is a film where superlatives concerning the technique can’t help but get a bit heady. Utilising practical effects – real planes and boats from the era, including some boats that actually took part in the actual evacuation – Nolan has made a heartfelt connection with the past. It must have been something to launch those nearly hundred-year old vessels on a recreation of their proudest day. It must have given Nolan goosebumps…

…which is more than I can say Dunkirk did for me. I was blown away by its technical audacity, and I’m also in thrall to its intricate screenplay, which not only tells the film’s central story from three perspectives, in three different time-frames, but also allows for multiple interpretations of the same events, allowing for the subjectivity of memory. I learned a lot and was maybe a little inspired. But I cannot say I was moved. The human beings in the film function much as the boats and planes do; they are pieces to be shifted around on Nolan’s magnificent (IMAX!) canvas rather than memorable individuals. There are two exceptions: Mark Rylance’s stoic pleasure-boat captain makes a dignified impression, and Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot is fully realised, despite the actor’s face being covered in a massive pilot’s mask.

For the rest, though, the grunt soldiers who actually bear the story’s spine – I found them interchangeable to the point that I didn’t actually realise that there are three young leads. They’re all “fresh faces” – their names are Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles (he of One Direction) – and they didn’t land an impression on me. For all I could really tell, what happened to each of them happened to a bunch of them – they were simply more and more of the 400,000 soldiers on the beach, rather than three we were meant to care about. Their anonymity gave them universality while undercutting their emotional weight.

The film is full peril, danger and death, but I can’t recall a single drop of blood. Unlike every big-budget war film since Saving Private Ryan, it doesn’t stylistically crib Saving Private Ryan. The carnage is portrayed less graphically and eschews the “bullet zip” and sped-up camera effect that  made Ryan’s scenes so devastating. It’s a little more old-school, a little more… British.

I appreciated the supreme virtuosity of the film, but I wasn’t really needing it in my life (except as an incredibly staged history lesson). While bravery is always a noble theme, nothing about Dunkirk speaks to the here and now. It’s timeless, classical filmmaking on a massive, modern scale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, daresay I, ‘tis nothing to be sneezed at.

A fun observation: Kenneth Branagh, as the highest-ranked officer on the beach, must have the tightest performance area of any actor in a big epic since the naval commanders on the bridge of Tora Tora Tora! Stationed at the end of the “mole”, Dunkirk’s long pier, Branagh occasionally takes a step over here, and, later… perhaps a step back. Cuppa tea, anyone?

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