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Here is a list of my 20 favourite documentaries of 2017, which is the second post of my three-part round-up of last year (click here for the first bit). The simple criteria is that the films were officially released in the UK during 2017 in cinemas, shown on streaming services or screened on TV.

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Rahul Jain’s Machines

20. Machines (Jain): Rahul Jain’s artful piece shows – in some depth – the workers and workings of a textile factory in Gujarat, India.

19. Lost In France (McCann): In the late 1990s several bands on Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground label played a festival in a small French town together, and they return for this doc, older and possibly slightly wiser; it’s a charming and nostalgic trip down memory lane with the key figures offering plenty of anecdotes and reminiscences.

18. Heroin(e) (Sheldon): A very good short-ish film about the effects of heroin on Huntington, West Virginia, where use of the drug (and related criminal activity) is widespread.

17. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (Cohen, Shenk): A documentary that describes Al Gore’s apparently tireless efforts with regard to tackling climate change during the past decade, following the success of earlier film An Inconvenient Truth. It looks closely at natural disasters befalling the world, particularly catastrophic flooding, provides a snapshot of Gore’s work relating to the Paris Accord – the film was updated in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull the US’s support earlier this year – and spends time with the former VP as he passionately promotes solar powered energy.

16. I Called Him Morgan (Collin): Engaging release about the brilliant but under-appreciated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot and killed by his wife Helen in a club in 1972 at the young age of 33. It feels standard to begin with, as talking heads lament the loss of a prodigious talent and share stories about live performances and other events. However, as it approaches the subject of Morgan’s death, director Kasper Collin’s film becomes more and more interested in the life of Helen, and it kind of turns into a documentary about her life, which is every bit as fascinating as Lee’s. It’s complemented by wintry images of New York and, unsurprisingly, an excellent soundtrack.

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Katharine Round’s The Divide

15. The Divide (Round): A fascinating film by Katherine Round that explores the vast (and increasing) gaps between the rich and poor in the United States and the UK, using seven subjects as case studies.

14. Trophy (Schwarz, Clusiau): There is a very even-handed approach to the emotive subject matter (big game trophy hunting): for all the sickening images of rich American holidaymakers standing over the magnificent lions, tigers and other animals they have paid considerable amounts of money to slaughter in the name of sport, there are also compellingly-put arguments that highlight the amount of money that such tourism brings into South Africa (the country that features the most here), and how in turn that money is subsequently spent on certain conservation projects or how it is used to combat the illegal, unchecked poaching of, say, rhinos and elephants. That said, although Trophy shows us how arguments for or against hunting are not quite as black and white as many of us might think they are, ultimately the witless, arrogant utterances of several hunters here – including one religious nutjob – ensured that my pre-existing views on the matter were well and truly cemented by the end.

13. Risk (Poitras): Laura Poitras’ latest documentary is a study of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, the Australian programmer who has been holed up in the Ecuador Embassy in London for the past five years. She ended up re-cutting the work, though, into Risk’s more critical presentation of Assange as a flawed character; a move that was triggered in part by some of his own on-screen comments about women and partly, as Poitras acknowledges via her candid voiceover, in the wake of her own brief affair with activist and Assange supporter Jacob Applebaum, who was publicly accused of abusing women in 2016. Some reviewers have criticised Poitras for entering into an affair with one of the subjects of the film, though the version released in 2017 seems balanced and honest to me, mostly as a result of her own commentary.

12. Five Came Back (Bouzerau): Netflix’s short, illuminating series explores the careers of five important Hollywood filmmakers – Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston – during the Second World War, as they helped with the US war effort. It’s fascinating to explore the stories behind films as diverse as William Wyler’s propaganda drama Mrs Miniver and Ford’s documentary The Battle Of Midway, and there’s lots of insightful commentary from the select band of interviewees (Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Francis Ford Coppola). Meryl Streep narrates. A follow-up focusing on the army careers of the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable would be great.

11. Kedi (Torun): A pleasant and often jauntily-scored ramble through the streets of Istanbul with a number of the city’s cats as the focus (though the film becomes just as much about the ordinary people who look out for the cats and care for them). Occasionally insightful, very restful and a good lesson for the majority of the rest of the world on how cities and residents of cities can be tolerant of and kind towards stray animals.

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Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet

10. Casting JonBenet (Green): Kitty Green’s Netflix documentary about the 1996 death of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey in her Boulder, Colorado family home is an unusual affair: it seeks the opinion on events from a number of actors, who are all auditioning to play (or who are eventually cast as) JonBenét, or members of her family and other people who were involved in the subsequent unsolved investigation.

9. LoveTrue (Har’el): Director Alma Har’el ruminates on modern love in this superbly edited documentary, which follows the lives of three American families (in Hawaii, Alaska and New York) as they go through some form of relationship upheavel. In Hawaii we follow William, a surfer who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is not the biological father of his son; in New York Har’el explores the reactions of seven siblings after their parents separate in the wake of an extra-marital affair; and, in Alaska, Blake works as a stripper while seemingly in a stable relationship with partner Joel, though financial strains and the nature of her job eventually cause problems for the couple. It’s interesting to see how people cope differently with loss and disappointment, and although on occasion the trio of stories become sad to watch, there are more than a few notes of optimism by the end… and there’s a commendably non-judgemental stance towards the people who welcomed the director and her cameras into their lives.

8. Zero Days (Gibney): A film that sheds light on the process of cyberwarfare and, in doing so, confirms that we’re all absolutely fucked.

7. I Am Not Your Negro (Peck): Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary concerns the life and times of writer, critic and activist James Baldwin, and is based partly on his unfinished manuscript Remember This House. The film gets to grips with Baldwin’s life (at least the mainly public-facing side of it), and his observations on and role within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, occasionally underscoring his words with modern footage of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s a powerful piece that is put together very well by Peck and his editor Alexandra Strauss, who weave in archive news depicting racism towards black people, racist TV and film footage and Baldwin’s 1960s TV interviews, conducted with largely clueless white hosts who are sadly struggling to understand what all the noise is about. A restrained and low key Samuel L Jackson narrates.

6. Tower (Maitland): Keith Maitland’s gripping account of the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas, in which 15 people died (including the shooter, Charles Whitman, who had earlier murdered his wife and his mother). It blends rotoscoped dramatisations of events with numerous eyewitness accounts and newsreel footage that was shot on the day, and the looseness of the animation technique and the vibrant colours used seem apt when applied to a mid-1960s American campus – a politically-explosive place within a conservative state, for sure, but also somewhere right on the cusp of the hippie, psychedelic era. Maitland’s documentary captures the chaos of the morning as well as a film could possibly hope to, and the rotoscoping never once comes across as being a gimmick, which I had feared when I first heard about its use. If anything, when we eventually see the real footage of the survivors as they are today, near the end of the film, the fact that images of their faces have been withheld for so long seems to make their appearances doubly powerful and moving. This is inventive, effective storytelling.

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Yance Ford’s Strong Island

5. Strong Island (Ford): A moving, powerful documentary by Yance Ford about the murder of his brother William Jr – who was shot dead during an argument at a gas station in Long Island in the 1990s – as well as the subsequent investigation, which Ford argues was not as thorough as it should have been and has as a result caused the family much anguish during the interim years. Ford often appears, speaking directly to the camera about how he feels and spelling out exactly why he feels the way he does, his face filling the majority of the screen; it’s a powerful technique that adds to the overall righteousness and anger of the piece, while appearances by other members of the Ford family are equally saddening, and maddening.

4. City Of Ghosts (Heineman): A harrowing film by Matthew Heineman, who has followed up the acclaimed drug trade reportage of Cartel Land with a piece that relies more heavily on footage captured by other people. City Of Ghosts details the dangerous work being carried out by the Syrian citizen journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, who have been reporting on the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their homeland for the past few years. Many of these journalists and their family members have been threatened, arrested or executed by ISIS, and the film mostly follows a half dozen who have made it out of the country (to Turkey, though they all eventually end up in Germany) and tries to understand the stressful circumstances in which they must carry out their normal lives. It’s a fascinating watch that lurches from the relative calm of the journalists’ new lives (which do involve protests with the far right but also marriage, and childbirth) with the sickening footage that captures public executions, warnings and the indoctrination of children in Raqqa.

3. The Work (McLeary, Aldous): This fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary is made up almost entirely of footage shot during a four-day group therapy session within Folsom State Prison. The programme involves incarcerated inmates – including several current and former gang members serving multiple life sentences – and members of the general public, who are apparently admitted after a strict vetting process that involves the input of prisoners (though there is not much information given on the procedural aspects of the whole affair, despite brief use of title cards). What happens is surprising – a very confrontational, testosterone-fuelled series of sessions that include plenty of primal screams and physical contact as the participants work through a variety of issues (though, it must be said, several seem to revolve around long-standing problems with their fathers). It’s utterly compelling to watch, and clearly of considerable benefit to those who take part.

2. Cameraperson (Johnson): A moving memoir of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s career behind the lens to date, reflecting on the places she has been, the people she has met, her relationships with collaborators and the way in which her life has changed as a result of her work.

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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

1. The Vietnam War (Burns, Novick): A thorough, informative TV series by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick, who combine archive footage and interviews with an excellent soundtrack – which balances Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score with obvious but expensively-licensed late 60s/early 70s hits – and some stunning still photography. I appreciated the attempts to depict a balanced view of events, with talking-head screen time divided equally between American and Vietnamese survivors of the war. Frequently moving, with facts presented clearly and simply. (I should note that I watched the 10-hour BBC edit, rather than the 18-hour PBS original.)

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First of all, thanks to anyone who read The Last Picture Blog during 2017. I appreciate that this round-up of the year is a bit late, and that most bloggers published their ‘end-of-year’ lists and whatnot a while ago, but I’ve only just caught up in terms of posting about the films I watched in December, and it seemed like I should wait until doing that before trying to write a summary post of the year.

Prior to 2017 I used this blog to write a little more in-depth about each film that I watched, but I don’t have as much spare time on my hands these days, and at the start of the year I decided to make some changes. The main decision, and the first thing that I did, was to delete the existing archive so that the only content you could see related to films that I watched during the current year. That means that after I’ve posted a few round-ups this week (my favourite documentaries of 2017 and my favourite features of 2017 will follow in separate posts) I’ll delete everything on the blog again and move on to 2018. Hopefully that’s clear, but don’t worry if it doesn’t make any sense… the world will keep on turning, after all.

Oh, and one further thing: I’m using Letterboxd’s excellent stats service for this update. You can find me here, if you happen to be on Letterboxd yourself, and if you’re not, I can highly recommend it.

General viewing habits

Apparently I watched a total of 426 films in 2017, though that does include shorts and a fair number of silent pictures, which of course tend to be much shorter than the feature lengths we are used to today. Total time spent watching films was 769.2 hours, or roughly 32 days, or just over a month, depending on the period of time you like the best (though it’s not wholly accurate, as I don’t sit through credits in their entirety). As you’ve probably guessed from that number, I tend to watch a film most evenings, either at home or in one of our two local cinemas (there’s a multiplex about five minutes’ drive from where I live, as well as a smaller arthouse cinema that tends to get new releases a couple of months later than everywhere else). On top of that I might watch a film during the day before/during/after work, if time allows. Unfortunately that means I split these viewings into half-an-hour before work, 50 minutes to an hour during my lunch break, and half-an-hour after work, which is sacrilege in the mind of some people but I don’t mind breaking movies up and I tend to watch the things that I’m not so bothered about that way anyway; anything I really care about I’ll see at home, uninterrupted, or in a cinema. Occasionally I’ll have a blow-out weekend and watch between 9 and 12 films over the course of three days, too. My wife, thankfully, is very understanding.

Of those 426 films I watched just one of them three times (Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, which I saw twice in the cinema and once at home), and two of them twice (Manchester By The Sea and Dunkirk, both seen at the cinema once and at home once). I mostly watched American films, and dramas, although apparently I sat through 92 comedies in total. That’s absolutely news to me.

The most-watched actors were Ewan McGregor and Samuel L Jackson (8 times each), which I’m sad to say is partly because I decided to re-watch the Star Wars prequels last autumn to see if they were as bad as I remember them being (they were worse, as it happens). After that comes Georges Méliès (7 times, mostly during an exhibition about his life and work in Cadiz) and a variety of other male stars with 6 viewings (Joel Edgerton, Tom Cruise, Adam Driver, Anthony Daniels and Michael Fassbender. I watched Marion Cotillard act in five different films, and even though they were a mixed bag, she was good in all of them apart from Assassin’s Creed. There’s absolutely nothing good about Assassin’s Creed. #

In terms of directors, I watched 12 films by Méliès, 5 by Agnès Varda (all excellent), 5 by silent film pioneer Alice Guy and 4 apiece by the Lumières, Charlie Chaplin and George Lucas (American Graffiti, as well as those dastardly prequels).

Notable viewings

I’m going to publish separate ‘favourites’ lists for 2017 UK releases, but I thought I’d finish off this post with a list of older (i.e. pre-2017) films that made a strong impression on me in one way or another when I saw them for the first time. (They’re ordered simply by date watched.) I rated all of these films as 4, 4.5 or 5 out of 5 on Letterboxd, which basically means I’d recommend all of them. Those that were part of my ‘Blind Spots’ list for 2017 (i.e. recognised classics I needed to get round to watching for the first time) are marked with an asterisk, while several were watched as part of a film studies distance learning course that I enrolled in with the University of Exeter.

The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)
On The Waterfront (Kazan, 1954)
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012)
Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)
Scenes From A Marriage (Bergman, 1973)
The Four Troublesome Heads (Méliès, 1898)
Seven Samurai* (Kurosawa, 1954)
The Man With The Golden Arm (Preminger, 1955)
On The Town (Donen, Kelly, 1949)
Volver (Almodóvar, 2006)
Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)
Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)
L’Avventura* (Antonioni, 1960)
Great Expectations (Lean, 1946)
A Wedding (Altman, 1978)
Suspiria* (Argento, 1977)
Songs From The Second Floor (Andersson, 2000)
Beau Travail (Denis, 1999)
Cléo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)
The Human Beast (Renoir, 1938)
Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)
To Kill A Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962)
In A Lonely Place* (Ray, 1950)
Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel, 1929)
The House Is Black (Farrokhzad, 1963)
Harold And Maude (Ashby, 1971)
The Bridges Of Madison County (Eastwood, 1995)
Limelight (Chaplin, 1952)
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg* (Demy, 1964)
Let The Right One In (Alfredson, 2008)
The Man With The Rubber Head (Méliès, 1901)
The Melomaniac (Méliès, 1903)
Atonement (Wright, 2007)
M*A*S*H (Altman, 1970)
The Third Man (Reed, 1949)
Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans* (Murnau, 1927)
Le Bonheur (Varda, 1965)
The Selfish Giant (Barnard, 2013)
Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Kechiche, 2013)
La Strada (Fellini, 1954)
The Sting* (Hill, 1973)
One More Time With Feeling (Dominik, 2016)
Lourdes (Hausner, 2009)
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (Gervasi, 2008)
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind* (Spielberg, 1977)
The Gleaners & I (Varda, 2000)
You, The Living (Andersson, 2007)
Meek’s Cutoff* (Reichardt, 2010)
Philomena (Frears, 2013)
Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977)
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)
Plein Soleil (Clément, 1960)
PlayTime (Tati, 1967)
The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Cousins, 2011)
Barry Lyndon* (Kubrick, 1975)
Woman On The Run (Foster, 1950)
The Square (Noujaim, 2013)
Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki, 1966)
8 1/2* (Fellini, 1963)
Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993)
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (Yates, 1973)
Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)

As I look back on this I realise there are a hell of a lot that I’d like to watch again, and if I was to pick five absolute favourites from the list I’d probably say The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, PlayTime, Barry Lyndon, On The Waterfront and Schindler’s List were the ones that made the biggest impression. Anyway, that’s all from me for now, I’ll be back in a couple of days with my Top 20 documentaries of 2017.

 

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Watched: 31 December

This awards season contender is a story of stuttering love involving a half-Italian, half-American teenager (Elio, 17, played by Timothée Chalamet) and an older American student (Oliver, 24, played by the very-much-not-24 Armie Hammer), set in Italy in the early 1980s – though unfortunately I didn’t quite connect with it as passionately as many of its fans have; by which I mean that I liked, rather than fell head-over-heels for, this film.

It’s based on André Aciman’s novel, which has been elegantly adapted for the screen by James Ivory, and director Luca Guadagnino has form with regard to tales of complicated romances in sun-kissed, idyllic southern European settings – to the point you can almost smell the olive groves and lemon trees that are dotted around the landscape in his films; his previous feature A Bigger Splash was set on the island of Lampedusa, while characters in 2009’s I Am Love sporadically left the city of Milan for passionate affairs in the surrounding countryside.

Most of the action takes place at the house owned by Elio’s parents, or the surrounding village, but there’s a brief excursion to Rome that jars a little, perhaps deliberately so – it certainly comes at a key point in the timeline of the romance. At the house, Elio’s mother (competently played by Amira Casar) does not get to affect the story too much, though his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) has more of an influence over the prevailing mood of the film, particularly during its standout latter stages. Their residence is large, and given that it’s summer the characters spend their evenings outside, enjoying convivial feasts that also feature friends and neighbours before Elio, Oliver and Elio’s girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) move on to local discos. It’s here – inhibitions and self-control removed by alcohol – that we begin to see the strength of Elio’s feelings for Oliver, whose stay with the family is only temporary; and perhaps there are early hints that the feeling is mutual. We also hear for the first time (though not the last) The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way – an uplifting 80s hit that Oliver seems to enjoy more than just about everyone else, and it courses through the film alongside a few notable Eurodisco hits and Sufjan Stevens’ brittle original score. Stevens has been Oscar nominated for his song Mystery Of Love, but Love My Way is absolutely the defining tune of this film, becoming a kind of rallying call for one young gay man, at least.

A love story stands or falls on the performances of its leads, and although I’m yet to make up my mind on Hammer (I suspect he is an actor with limitations, but good directors keep casting him and, in fairness, he is good here), the ace up the film’s sleeve is the performance by Chalamet, who is superb from his first scene until the very last one – an emotional gut punch which plays out rather well during the end credits. His Elio is a confident but bookish teenager, privately anxious (or perhaps simply hesitant) about revealing his own sexual identity, and experiencing certain feelings (I assume) for the first time as he negotiates that tricky first love. Elio is the beating heart of the film and a completely believable character, and I think Chalamet deserves all of the praise and awards season-related bunkum that he has come his way.

For some reason I feel the need to state my slight preference for A Bigger Splash; I just think there’s a little more to that piece than meets the eye, though undoubtedly it’s brasher and more attention-seeking than Call Me By Your Name. This more-celebrated effort is obviously very good, though, and is a very classy piece of work, for sure. (****)

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Watched: 29 December

I watched a couple of long Ken Burns / Lynne Novack documentaries over the Christmas and New Year period and needed some light relief. Bright is not the worst film of 2017, as some critics suggested upon its Netflix debut, but this is not a particularly impressive effort by David Ayer either. There is – like Alien Nation before it – an attempt to blend the buddy cop action thriller with a completely different genre (in this case fantasy), and the premise is intriguing enough, but despite the gimmicky use of orc characters and the like it’s still just a collection of cop movie cliches and nondescript action sequences. And every time that I watch Will Smith in less-serious roles these days he seems to struggle; he certainly labours through long periods of this uninspired movie. (**)

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Rewatched: 26 December

Here’s what I thought when I first watched Dunkirk in the cinema last summer…

In a way Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed and much-loved Dunkirk is the logical conclusion of ‘set piece’-oriented blockbuster filmmaking, because even though he has three stories of varying length playing out concurrently (and edited together superbly) in this WWII-set drama, his 100-minute-long film is effectively one very long, very tense sequence that builds and builds towards a particularly thrilling finale. That’s an awful prospect for us to consider with the future in mind, because lesser directors will try to pull off something similar and will fail, but in this case I was gripped throughout and felt for the first time in a long time that I was watching a blockbuster worthy of the name. Anyway, just to be clear, Dunkirk is also much more than just an extended, bravura action sequence; it has Mark Rylance’s kind-faced performance and Tom Hardy’s narrowing eyebrows; the otherness of the icy Channel and the miserable rain-swept beach; Harry Styles’ unexpectedly effective panic and Hans Zimmer’s apt metronomic score. There’s a lot here to enjoy.

With regard to the soundtrack, during the upbeat nature of the finale (some of which doesn’t quite sit right, such as Kenneth Branagh’s clunky delivery of the line “Hope”), I did really love how the composer incorporated Elgar’s Nimrod. That was beautiful and I was surprised to find myself fighting back tears and feeling a degree of pride; it is quite something to imagine at this point a granddad or other loved one making their way back from France – sans musical accompaniment – and it’s something that is bound to affect many people. I certainly don’t understand why anyone would sneer at or look down on such a reaction in other cinemagoers, should they experience the film differently. Anyway, I think Dunkirk is a superb technical achievement and an extremely effective way of playing around with narrative threads; and it’s also one of the finest war films since Saving Private Ryan, if not the finest. (*****)

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Watched: 26 December

There’s nothing particularly original about this thriller, in which an Australian backpacker is held captive by a sadistic teacher in Berlin, but it did hold my attention throughout and I think the performances are sound. Once Clare (Teresa Palmer) is trapped inside the ultra-secure apartment owned by Andi (Max Riemelt) it’s just a matter of sitting through the hour or so in which he has complete control over her until she begins to get the upper hand; you know it’s coming, but at least when it happens it feels satisfying, a bit like the escape in Room. (***)

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Watched: 23 December

Matt Reeves’ gloomy, CGI-laden Apes trilogy rumbles to a close with this misfiring finale, which suffers partly from Woody Harrelson’s hammy turn as a Colonel Kurtz-like rogue military leader (a nod that’s reinforced through the cringe-inducing underground graffiti reading ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’ that appears in the corridors below his stronghold), and also partly through the addition of comparatively thinly-drawn new simian characters, including Steve Zahn’s comic relief mo-cap performance as chimpanzee ‘Bad Ape’. The series has always been heavily reliant on Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, the leader of the evolved apes, but the casting aside of multiple human characters played by the likes of James Franco, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, John Lithgow, Brian Cox and David Oyelowo has eventually taken its toll, and the franchise has lost some of its earlier focus. Reeves goes for a big, emotional ending, but I’m afraid I’d stopped caring long before the two hours was up. (**½)