Monday, 25 August 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Year: 2014
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Synopsis is here

For me, the biggest issue with the ever expanding summer film season, has a lot to do with the frequently changing narrative that occurs very Friday. As each tent pole gets released, last week’s film, and the column inches that come with it. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released a week before Guardians of the Galaxy exploded onto the scene, yet it feels like the good word that came with the film had been lost by how to make dancing Groot pages. This is something of a shame. I for one believe that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the more effective film.

The nostalgia loving fans of Guardian of the galaxy were quick to label their film fun. In fact, to hold any argument to some people, that was the only statement given. “Shut up. It’s fun!” That’s all you need. The near obsessive call to have blockbusters that only seem to call back to the considered glory years of the 1980’s is more than a little strange. Mainly to the superficiality of it all. The likes of Chris Pratt’s slightly slobby space rouge gives a warm fuzzy feeling to those still whipped up in the eighties revival party, in that it’s different (new source) but not (comfortably familiar). James Gunn’s jovial yet frivolous feature utilises the slightly tiring template to a tee. Yet that doesn’t matter too much because fun is Chris Pratt. Whom I’ve already witnessed on meme replacing his face over Harrison Ford’s in Indiana Jones. New face, same feel. 
It is here I find Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a much more forward thinking creature. It finds enjoyment in the grooves of the uncomfortable. It is also fun, but it’s prepared to suggest more than quick flashes of amusement. Its opening credits are an impressive world map of lights as the deadly simian flu slowly begins to take hold of the globe. From the start it primes us for risk, in a blockbuster world where we’re doing our best to ensure our heroes, like the goddamn Goonies, never die.

Drawing heavily from the themes, ideas and motifs that appeared across the whole of the original franchise; Dawn, like its processor Rise, is a taut and economic blockbuster. While the film still comes in at over two hours, Dawn observes the franchise’s important areas of focus and compiles in one film, what the four original sequels needlessly stretched out excessively. Much of this stems from a keener eye on the narrative from both the screenwriters and director. But Dawn’s highly praised technological elements, heavily improve upon the issues being placed across. The CGI allows apes with more distinction. The money spent allows world building of a grander scale and more plausible action. All this combined together gives us an action feature that is often, more the sum of its parts.

Bookended by a pair of watchful, unwavering primate eyes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is quick to throw us into the world of the apes before we ever see a human. The film forces us to absorb their world; a mixture of overgrown jungle and lost suburbia. We observe the apes; their ways of communication (mostly sign language) and their laws and social structure. What fascinated me about the film’s opening, is just how much the film is pushing us to relate to the apes way of being over the humans. Peter Jackson’s King Kong has elements of this, but nothing to this extent. By the end of the first act, I felt totally accustomed to their ways and habitat. Matt Brown expressed difficulty in relating to Ceasar and the apes in his always intelligent MAMO podcast, however when placing in consideration the socio-political aspirations and ideals that lie within franchise, (both old and new) as well as the unnervingly timely events that have occurred in St Louis, These new chapters in the apes saga seem quick to express that we as an audience need to address who or what we relate to within a movie screen. In a world where no one had a problem with a science teacher, becoming a drug overlord, we should be ok with intelligent apes. I certainly was.

Once the film's human characters enter the frame, Reeves’ carefully ratchets the tension from scene to scene. Tentative alliances are balanced in such a way that even smaller scenes lay delicately on tender hooks. We’re never too sure about whether the mood will change due to a gesture, tone of voice, or a stray bullet. Reeves’ film shows the assertiveness that came with the likes of Let Me In and Cloverfield, but Dawn has allowed his confidence to really flourish in his storytelling. The film’s screenplay is smart enough, but there are decisions in the visuals, characters and storytelling that are clearly showing a steady growth of a mainstream filmmaker. It’s certainly becoming extremely clear of the faith, directors have with Andy Serkis, whose positioning within the motion capture world is one of extreme importance, particularly within this world.

Dawn does struggle with a few issues. The films pacing in the latter stages is not ideal, with elements of the climax feeling a little tacked on. Granted the film underground section wishes to nod to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but the film's pace slows right down and the film loses some of the tension that was built. The film also follows the blockbuster trend of not really knowing what to do with its female characters. Keri Russell has more agency as a nurse than Sally Field in The Amazing Spiderman 2 or Elizabeth Olson in Godzilla, but she seems hardly essential to the plot. The films action is well structured and delivers us a wonderfully iconic image of rampant monkey carnage on horseback, yet no set piece feels as strong as the Golden Gate Bridge sequence from Rise.

This maybe because I was more caught up in the film's storytelling than anything else. A small but smart touch is having one of the film's characters, teach Cornelius English with a certain graphic novel, which like the Trouble man album found in Captain America: The Winter Solider says more about the film's themes than is the first lead on. When a supporting character, Carver begins to sound off about apes and their aggressiveness, I’m suddenly reminded of real life behaviors sounding eerily similar. Such moments evoke a gut impact that’s hard to shake off.

Meanwhile, the behavior of the film’s two antagonists isn’t just “bad guy” plot mechanics, they stem organically character's history and past interactions. What’s significant about both “villains” is they’re not necessarily wrong in their actions. Both appear to want the best for each side.  Both antagonists are more engaging than anything Ronan the Destroyer can muster.

On its surface, Dawn of the Planets of the apes is a solid blockbuster. A thrilling popcorn cruncher when it needs to be. It’s a “fun” movie, which is what everyone wants it seems. Under the hood, however, is an emotional and intelligent piece, which provokes the kind of responses that have slowly been disappearing from the mainstream blockbuster. Dawn casts its eye over themes such as civil rights, humanity and survival with a keenness in its eye that a viewer like myself will lap up with a hungry enthusiasm. The Planet of the Apes are now eight films deep and span over four decades. Now, with this recent interruption of the material, we are once again reminded that if we take off the rose tinted glasses of “fun” we can still enjoy escapist thrills while taking on board thoughtful and on point commentary. Same face. Fresh feelings.   

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Year: 2014
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

Synopsis is here

You have to give it to Marvel. They really know to market something. It’s been hard not to turn my head without a webspot, social network status or puff piece about the film flying towards my face. A film in which for many of its audience ($300 Million International box office in counting at the time of writing), had probably never heard of the source material it’s based on before its announcement. The word of mouth from said audience has been solid also. While things are looking good for the Guardians, I’m not sure the crew will be taking me to the Awesome Mix party they're clearly having for their efforts. As while I enjoyed isolated moments of James Gunn’s energetic blockbuster, the film as a whole never quite truly bowled me over.

In the binary, all or nothing age of the internet, this isn’t allowed and of course, the moment those words were read, the geeks have already decided against hearing me out/insulting me. For this viewer, however, Gunn’s film is so tailor made for a group of fans, they would never want to know, nor care, that the seams can be seen.

Many of my reservations stem from the film's narrative, which cleverly avoids milling around with origin stories, but quickly slips into being here before territory. We’re once again witnessing an all-powerful glowing McGuffin which an underwhelming megalomaniac seeks. Our gang of heroes will have to do battle with said megalomaniac and his bunch of near infinite cannon fodder. Preferably climaxing in a third act where most of the action will take place in the skies. Yes, that sounds cynical and yes, I’ve enjoyed this Marvel set up previously, but Gunn’s moments of irrelevance are such a breath of fresh air, I found myself acutely aware of the more familiar and laboured.

Guardians work best when Gunn and the screenwriters meld the silly and the sweet. Gunn, who was probably best known for the twisted cult hit; Super, before this, is particularly adept at taking the slightly outrageous and fusing it with a certain amount of warmth that others wouldn’t be able to coax. This is an ex Troma director with a web series named PG Porn, so it’s no surprise that the film's main strengths stem when the films at its most preposterous.  Did I just see a walking, talking tree grows a flower out his hand for a little girl? My heart melted slightly.

As mentioned before, the film’s quirky subversions illuminate the film well. Take a WWE wrestler who started out as a silent enforcer and give him the grandest vocabulary of the bunch. Have Vin Diesel, who is known for his gravelly voice and get him to produce some of his best work with only three words. Lets have a star as handsome as Bradley Cooper steal scenes, not with his smile, but with a vocal performance as a racoon. These characters shine brighter than our Star Lord (Pratt) whose performance is full of fun, but not the second coming of Solo. This said I still rather Nathan Fillion’s Mal as my go to space rouge.  Once again Zoe Salanda shows her worth in her role as the most serious of the outcasts; Gamora. Despite looking like she should have a similar trajectory to Scarlett Johansson, we still don’t seem to hear enough about her.

Despite this there’s an irritable feeling that Guardians is gaining a high amount of praise despite holding similar issues that other modern blockbusters are reprimanded for. Reason being; look at Chris Pratt rapping to Eminem verses. It seems like the same go here to do this plotting that the Micheal Bays and Brett Ratners will be attacked for is fine in other movies due to brand charisma and PR charm and little else. The memes of Chris Pratt as Indy have already been doing the rounds, yet any of that first trilogy appeared to be more expressive (and economic) with their plots than what we see here.

The more interesting and seemingly less observed aspect of this space opera, however, is that it pushes to the forefront the fine margins that occur with Marvel and it’s more auteur orientated directors. I did wonder how much did Edger Wright and the studio couldn’t meet in the middle with it their Ant Man vision. Whereas James Gunn’s amusing asides and reaction shots fitted in to the brand. It reminded me of just how difficult the balance is between filmmakers and the project. How everything is a fine tapestry. Guardians of the Galaxy has frayed edges, but they are more interesting than the body itself.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Review: Boyhood

Year: 2014
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

Synopsis is here

Describing Boyhood feels like it should be a gimmick. A fictional chronicle of a boy’s life from age 5 to 18, filmed with the same cast over a period of 12 years. Collaborated in a way in which we are literally watching the boy (Ellar Coltrane) grow up in front of our eyes, as his parents grow older. The parents are actors we know and have seen in films from before, so to see them slowly alter and change, plays havoc with our knowledge of them as performers. If we place the film's plot down in words, its uniqueness seems to fade. The narrative strands are not particularly out of the ordinary. Though to watch the film play out is to watch a cultural marvel due to its conceit. The ambition is not in the words, but on the screen itself. Linklater’s Before trilogy only hinted at the ambition. Boyhood helps cement his place as one of the most valuable documentarians of modern relationships.

Boyhood does what Linklater's films love to do: have people talking. The film lets things play out in the simple, natural way we often expect from the filmmaker. We watch the kids natter about childish things, and their (unmarried) parents argue. We note the hint of determination in the Mother (A never better Patricia Arquette), and the brashness of the Father (Ethan Hawke). The conversations they have may not be exactly like the one your family have had, but they certainly feel like ones a family would have. There’s a beauty in how Linklater gets such engagement in the seemingly mundane. It also makes the small rises in conflict (involving divorce, alcoholism and sibling rivalry) feel so profound.

It’s after we get comfortable with the quirks of these people does the subtle power of Linklater’s direction occur. The use of form found in Boyhood is beyond grand in scale and thought. Music choices and product placement are suddenly valuable time signatures. They not only tell us the year we’re situated in, but help signify the cultural changes and growth of this boy’s life. Is Coldplay’s Yellow an obvious choice of song? Easy to sneer at now. Yet that single feels synonymous with the year it was released, as does Mason’s sister murdering Oops I did it again. By the time we reach Lady Gaga on an iPhone, Linklater has subtly shown us the gradual shift of what media has changed (or stayed the same) and how it’s consumed.

Elsewhere; we watch young friends fleeting away in wide shots, only to be sharply cut from the view. When the family move away, the Mother swears they’ll be back to visit, yet we never see them again. Does Mason? Ask yourself about some of the people you knew at similar ages and how your relationships ended. But its accuracy of how Mason’s viewpoint is portrayed that’s so impressive.

The characters seem unaffected by the slow evaporation of time and yet they slowly succumb to realisation. We watch Hawke’s immature, forthright young man morph into a figure of some maturity (sweetly symbolised by what he drives). Mason’s Mother takes a hint of determination and utilises it to help shatter a typical outlook of the single mother. All the while, the human landscape changes. We see the beginnings of Bush’s war before we witness Obama placards on lawns.

How Linklater keeps hold of these strands and textures is remarkable, but his ability to keep the drama as honest as he does is astonishing. As facial features and certain elements of personality grow and form, we’re still aware of their flaws. It’s amusing to see Mason issues finishing homework follow him throughout his life, but it’s notably perceptive to view his Mother’s trails in relationships. Repeat patterns of ill behavior follow and flow through the family in the same way that it flows through our own. The conflicts never feel bogged down or over dramatized, while every performance is instinctive no matter which part of the time they occur. As stated in other reviews, could Linklater have any clue at just how well Ellar Coltrane would carry a film that would span his adolescence?

That said, this is the kind of film Linklater has been working up to. From the Errol Morris vibe given off in Bernie (2011) to the feeling of nostalgia that comes with Dazed and Confused (1993). By the time we see Mason in his teenage years, he’s well on his way to being the type of gentle philosophizing Linklater protagonist we’ve seen in Waking Life (2001) or the Before series. Yet in all of the films I’ve seen of the director, I’ve never experienced something that plays with such conviction of its scope and understanding of its textures. Cinephiles will be well aware of the similar features (Up series, The Apu Trilogy, Truffaut’s films of Antoine Doinel), yet the intertwining of the cultural observations that Linklater uses, make this a landmark that deserves a place to stand with them. At a time in which Hollywood is wrestling with its love/hate relationship with arrested development, Boyhood stands out as one of the most mature and moving films about adolescence and family I’ve seen in a long time. Can the U.S keep Richard Linklater safe, please? He’s a cultural asset.

Review: The Zero Theorem

Year: 2013 (UK Theatrical 2014)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges

Synopsis is here:

The Zero Theorem frustrates in the same way that Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) does. The film feels it has something to say about the state of our world, but yells too much information way too loud to gain any real sense of clarity. I love Terry Gilliam for the simple fact that his protagonists are all dreamers. They throw caution to the wind as they become obsessed with their flights of fancy. The problem arises when the dream isn’t particularly interesting or involving. What we have here is a film that’s extremely loud about what it wants to say, but for some, they won’t really care about what is said.

I found myself reminded of The Ninth Configuration (1980) which treads similar territory of men who are looking for hope within the hopeless. Themes like this, I do tend to enjoy, as faith is that wonderfully human thing that brings up exciting conflicts within narratives. At the start of The Zero Theorem, I felt we were on to another winner. It’s clear that the budget was low but the imagination high, as we’re landed into an obscenely coloured and cluttered landscape which melds the grubby London setting of Children of Men (2006) with Gilliam’s own, satirical Brazil (1985). Orwell himself would be proud of the surreal production and art design on display.

It’s clear that Gilliam hasn't lost his sense of fun, filling the film with dry jabs of modern life. Advertisements of a church of Batman are slapped on walls, while the idea of party revelers dancing to their own iPods despite the room playing loud music is something that already feels closer than we think. There's even a certain dryness to Christoph Waltz’s character of Qohen working a pathetic number cruncher for an all-consuming company named Mancorp. Particularly when we find out Managements reason for being.

When summing the film up to more than its smaller parts, The Zero Theorem suffers from being a bit of a beautiful nothing. Waltz’ is having fun with a character far removed from what we know him for, but the character himself is far from engaging. The film's romantic relationship between Waltz’s Qohen and Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley never really sizzles, while the feeling of wanting to replicate Brazil in more than just set design never really leaves us. The film blows a lot of smoke over the cruel search for purpose, unfortunately Gilliam’s worse indulgences take over and the film never really stakes a strong claim.

I say this as a bit of a Gilliam apologist at the best of times. I found Tideland (2005) nightmarish and evocative. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) pushes Gilliam’s love of the messiness of imagination and storytelling while The Brothers Grimm (2005) brushes past its flaws with an interesting look on fairy tales that one could say, may have helped usher in this new breed of “gritty” fairy tales. The Zero Theorem has many of the pacing and organised problems of the director’s weakest pieces. The problem is this time round, I found myself unable to find the golden nugget of significance that usually resides in Gilliam’s mind’s eye. As gorgeous as The Zero Theorem is in parts, this tragic tale of The Big Crunch felt more than a little soggy.  

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review: Under The Skin

Year: 2013 (U.K Theatrical Release 2014)
Director: Johnathan Glazer
Screenplay: Johnathan Glazer, Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson 

Synopsis is here

Under The Skin's IMDB score currently stands at a middling 6.5 on its user ratings. This is understandable. For detractors, the film's lyrical pace will merely frustrate. The nuanced transformation of one of the most famous and attractive woman in the world into a blank alien vessel will be ignored and criticised for its alleged flatness. The films lack of exposition will be viewed has plotless, considering how most screenplays labour themselves with tell-all dialogue.

I understand those criticisms, but I do not agree with them in the slightest. When a film has elusive as this appears on screens, people will always confront those who enjoy it and ask: Why do you like this? Truth is, like a good joke, to deconstruct this film, as I am about to do (poorly), will not give the questioner the satisfying answer they require. After watching Under the Skin, I could only exclaim that it was an "experience". A few days on as I write this, I now consider Under the Skin possibly one of the most incisive science fiction films of the year, if not the last ten. I say this with love and apologies to Gravity (2013), Moon (2008), Children of Men (2005) et all.

Beginning with a grand and opulent 2001 style space sequence and finishing with delicate snowfall, Johnathan Glazer's third feature (9 years after the hauntingly tragic Birth), continues his particular detached observations of human life with Kubrickian precision. The protagonist 'Laura' (Johansson) stalks single men with the removed glare of a terminator. She roams the Scottish Highlands in the kind of white van we tell children to stay away from. Her beauty, however, makes it difficult who the horny males she picks up, who see nothing strange with this particular picture.

Despite the pleasantries that are exchanged, there's no free candy. As the men are seduced, they're are submerged into a thick abyss of liquid. What happens to them is best left to the film to explain, although the Michel Faber novel that the film is loosely based on, explains in clearer detail what happens to these poor souls.

Much has been said about Glazer's use of hidden cameras to film the interactions of Scarlet Johansson with the unwitting Scottish locals. The placement of the cameras often feels similar to the disjointed feel of CCTV cameras not only capturing the action and realistic, awkward conversations, but also slim and strange pockets of uneasy negative space. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin capture seemingly banal moments of humanity with the aloofness of a playful street photographer. The most typical aspects of human life appear distinct and unnatural, with Glazer's visuals become a primer of sorts. It's the only way I can describe how he makes some of the films most unnerving sequences seem understandable.

This doesn't not mean justified. We may perceive much of Laura's behaviour as ugly, but when the "person" you're watching doesn't run on the same notions and emotions as ourselves, we're suddenly propelled into a new dynamic. A new plateau in which vacant gaze of Laura, unlocks parts of us we keep hidden. Johansson's placid performance provides an abyss for which we can throw our own feelings of humanity into. A cold, gray beach has Laura impassively watch a tragedy play out in front of us while playing her own part towards affecting the situation. Later we hear the development of what happened and we comprehend the situation. Laura's lack of reaction disconcerts, reminding us of our basic empathy.

Glazer melds base, predatory elements with this dispassionate, alien tone to overwhelming results. The film lacks the wry humour that litters Faber's book, but extracts the elements in-between the lines to create something bleaker in its explorations. Glazer adds sequences you couldn't imagine in the novel. Alison Wilmore neatly capsules how the male gaze is subverted within the film. What makes the film so provocative is, the more time Laura spends on our planet, she doesn't just become more "human" but she also encounters the predatory instinct that lies within men when they are not controlled. A small yet pivotal scene has Laura hounded by drunk revelers attacking her van in a way that reminds us of why the feminist movement should not be silenced. The film's final third lands us in survival mode with Laura facing what so many fear before blasting off into the metaphysical.

Under the Skin has faint shades of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) along with tones of Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) for good measure. Despite this, Glazer maintains his own touch throughout. Laura may be extra-terrestrial, yet she holds the same narrow view of Sexy Beast's (2000) Don Logan or Birth's Anna. Characters that are so unbelievably sure of their aims and goals that anything that displays a different orientation, shatters their comprehension. Here lies the smartness in Glazer's feature, in which, despite how densely alien this being is, she still remains bound by the trappings of the creatures she preys on. Something I'm sure many of us have felt from time to time. The abyss stares back at us.