Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) – The movie’s weaknesses are obvious: Martin Sheen’s narration frequently belabours points already made by the images; the black soldiers are, predictably, the first to die; and Coppola never tops the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence an hour in (a problem when there are two hours to go). The Vietnamese are almost invisible in a war fought in their country, and Coppola’s use of Khmer-style ruins as set dressing for his vision of ‘primitive evil’ demonstrates his cluelessness about that great civilisation. It’s a classic anyway, mainly on the strength of its imagery: Laurence (“Larry”) Fishburne dancing on deck with his portable cassette player; the bright rounds of ammunition sailing suddenly out of the jungle; the layered action of the battle sequences. Much of the film’s ambivalent power comes from the way it seems to share the assumptions of the American soldiers: glorying in their seeming invulnerability when attacking from the air; ogling, with them, the visiting Playmates; emptying a machine gun into a boatload of innocent merchants. It plays as a series of set pieces, which draws our attention to their staging: war, it suggests, is another kind of American production, like the USO show, like the film we’re watching. The climactic encounter with Brando is a letdown, his Method monologuing a less persuasive expression of evil than what we’ve already witnessed along the river. The Americans didn’t find evil in the jungle; they brought it with them. ***

Jackie (2016) – Pablo Larraín’s film employs the same strategy as the video for Lana Del Rey’s “National Anthem”: wealth glimpsed in home movie snatches, deliberately scrambled, to evoke a fairytale lost (perhaps imaginary) and remembered in flashes. This turns out to be entirely apt: Larraín presents Jackie Kennedy as an auteur, the conscious creator of that Camelot imagery, at a time when the value of image in politics was not fully appreciated. Natalie Portman plays a woman not entirely comfortable with the technology that disseminates that imagery, setting the terms on which she ventures out of her privacy, stiff with the effort of self-presentation. The movie’s weakness is that it mostly stays on this surface level – Jackie performing her appreciation of a classical recital, Jackie alone in her beautifully appointed White House, Jackie regarding herself in mirrors. It’s structured around an interview she gives after her husband’s assassination: like Jackie with the journalist, the film teases access to her inner life, but gives very little away. ***

Kong: Skull Island (2017) – This isn’t a meaningful engagement with the war genre or even, like Super 8, fun rummaging through movie clichés. The 70s stuff is product differentiation, one of those small points of difference meant to convince audiences that this blockbuster is not identical to all the others preceding it. It’s closer to The Lost World than Apocalypse Now, and it lacks even the memorable set pieces of Spielberg’s lacklustre sequel. The gathering of an A-team is one of the more tedious conventions in this kind of movie, and Kong takes far too long getting to the monsters – particularly when most of the people it introduces are dull (Brie Larson’s war photographer) or actively annoying (Tom Hiddleston’s chest-out posing; Samuel L. Jackson’s crazed militarist). We actually don’t get much of Kong, and the film never involves us with him emotionally – the motor of other, better versions of this story. It’s a just-okay monster movie. **

Moonlight (2016) – This breaks new ground, not only in the specificity of its black, gay perspective, but in dispensing with the coming out narrative altogether. Both Chiron’s peers and the adults in his life take his sexuality for granted; the film is more interested in the larger question of masculinity – of how to be a man in a culture where any softness is a dangerous weakness. Chiron finds his flawed answer in Juan (Mahershala Ali), whose generosity and gentle self-possession are compromised by his participation in the drug trade; he undermines Chiron’s safety even as he provides him with his only haven. The three-act structure is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs – the same characters confronting the hero across time – but this has the sense of development that film lacked. Partly it’s the skill with which Barry Jenkins inflects settings and gestures – like the way two different characters cradle Chiron’s head on the beach; partly it’s the amazing continuity of spirit of the three Chirons, from skinny kid (Alex R. Hibbert) to stiff teen (Ashton Sanders) to jacked young man (Trevante Rhodes), so that he seems to grow up before your eyes. Then there’s the beauty Jenkins finds in faces, in the urban environments, in the orange, pink and blue light. It’s a wonderful movie. ****

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – This has its own stubborn rhythm – we watch the passing scenery on a road trip, hobble with an old woman through a tamarind plantation. The rhythm is expressive two ways: it’s how the country feels to the farmer Boonmee’s relatives, newly arrived from Bangkok, and it’s the pace forced on Boonmee and his sister-in-law by their physical ailments. When the supernatural begins to intrude, it’s unlike other ghost stories because it seems part of this rhythm: the living characters accept the appearance of their dead relatives with matter-of-fact courtesy. Apichatpong Weerasethakul presents a world where people can walk calmly out of life when their time has come, into the jungle. The city characters turn their back on this world, but it leaves their spirits restless (and when their spirits go wandering, they end up sitting in a karaoke bar). It’s a strange, mesmerising film – interrupting the action at one point to give us a fairy tale about a princess – a beautiful meditation on tradition and modernity, life and death. ***½