Building on the prequel franchise, Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a tender, tense and complex blockbuster that very nearly strikes the perfect balance between entertainment and intelligence.
Ten years on from Rise, we re-join Caesar after an outbreak of Simian Flu has wiped out almost the entire human population. Those who remain are living in a post-apocalyptic state of disorder. Having rebuilt some semblance of their former lives, the humans feel their progression slipping through their fingers as they begin to run out of fuel. Caesar’s tribe of apes happen to live atop a damn that would be the humans’ salvation if they can manage to work together without war breaking out.
The visual effects are stunning. Andy [Gollum] Serkis delivers a fantastic performance as Caesar and the visual team bring him to life with incomparable realism. The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, with intricate settings – from the lush, vivid forest home of the apes to the dilapidated city where the humans live – all washed with an evocatively dark colour palette and lighting that maintains a perpetual twilight. But at times the aesthetics outdo the quality of the actual narrative.
The film offers up some interesting comments about the innate nature of humanity. The comparisons between the apes and the humans are inescapable. What makes us human – the ability to speak? The ability to reason? Reeves makes it clear that when you strip away the façade of civilisation, the electricity and the hierarchies – we’re no better than apes ourselves. But it’s laid on a little thick in places. As the line between human behaviour and animalistic behaviour becomes increasingly blurred, Reeves makes the comparison just a little too obvious and expositional. I would have preferred to reach these conclusions organically through the events of the narrative rather than have the key themes served up on a plate.
Despite a stellar human cast (Gary Oldman shone in his role as Dreyfus, the appointed leader of the remaining humans) they were still outperformed by the apes. I could have happily watched 90 minutes about the complex relationships, rivalries and deceptions in the ape hierarchies without the need for human involvement. The slow degeneration of Caesar’s tribe, as they become more humanised, provides a clearer allegory of human behaviour and the destructive nature of humanity than the comparison between apes and humans that Reeves uses.
Aside from the clichéd Lion King moment where Caesar dangles his nemesis from a death plunge, debating whether to let him fall or not, Dawn is quite a refreshing blockbuster with some clever moments of originality and plenty to keep you entertained for two hours. The flawless design steals the show and will keep you entranced, even if you’re not fully convinced by Reeves’ sweeping take on the intrinsic flaws of human nature.
OUT OF TEN: SEVEN
Richard Linklater’s ground-breaking Boyhood is the most touching, original and true-to-life coming-of-age film you’re ever likely to see. Linklater takes the rites-of-passage genre and strips it of all cliché, strips away any self-conscious sense of narrative, and what you’re left with is a raw account of childhood, laid bare and unflinching, that will send you reeling into your own teen years and blinking back tears for a reason you can’t quite pinpoint.
Filmed intermittently with the same actors over a period of 12 years, the affiliation you develop with these characters is unlike anything you could create with any other story that spans over a decade. Watching the characters age before your eyes is truly astounding and gives the film a home-movie-like quality that attaches you to these characters with an almost familial bond.
Patricia Arquette I have adored since True Romance and her portrayal of young mother Olivia strikes the perfect balance between tender and realistic. She does a fantastic job of illustrating the moment we experience in the transition between childhood and adulthood where our parents suddenly, jarringly become real people. Absentee dad Mason is played by an erratic Ethan Hawke who spends the film building up his relationship with his children, dealing with the feelings he still harbours for his ex-wife and trying to develop a life of his own. It isn’t just the kids who grow up in this film – every character experiences their own growth, maturation and notable change, while maintaining the thread of who they are.
The temporal markers are subtle and flawlessly placed. From political references (9/11, the Iraq war, Obama’s election campaign) to technological advances (Mason Jr’s Game Boy develops into an Xbox then a Nintendo Wii) to the songs played on the radio and the film’s soundtrack (a Britney Spears rendition is replaced with High School Musical) – the passage of time is perfectly documented with references that will immediately pull you to that time in your own life. But it is the inconspicuousness of these markers that is Linklater’s real triumph. He stamps each section firmly with images and sounds from that particular year, but it all feels impossibly natural.
The fluidity of the narrative makes this film irresistibly watchable. Nothing feels contrived, rehearsed or even really scripted. You flow through events with the drifting, directionless quality that exists in real life, and the passing of time is the only driving force behind the plot. Linklater isn’t trying to make you happy or sad, he isn’t trying to teach you anything about life – he is merely showing you a slice of childhood with all the right proportions of joy, sorrow and awkwardness. The emotions come inevitably, but that is all through your own interpretation and the constant and inevitable relating of this film to your own life.
At 2 hours 45 minutes, this is a long film. But I honestly felt I could’ve watched Mason Jr and his family for the rest of their lives.
OUT OF TEN: NINE
Jim Mickle’s dark Texan crime thriller delivers a plot that is full of interesting twists, sharp dialogue and deftly intriguing characters. The award-worthy performances carry you through a labyrinth of unexpected narrative shifts and draw you into the underworld of corruption and death in the deep south of America.
Michael C Hall, of Dexter and Six Feet Under, plays the lead Richard Dane, a nondescript family man, picture-framer by trade, who accidentally shoots and kills an unarmed burglar in the middle of the night. The local Sheriff sweeps the case under the carpet, but it isn’t as simple as cleaning the blood of his living room walls and moving on with his life. When the burglar’s father turns up, fresh out of prison, and threatens Dane’s family, he is drawn into a dangerous underworld of corruption.
The tension remains high throughout. The curt style of dialogue never lingers too long on any scene, keeping the pace dynamic and rattling you through events on the edge of your seat. From the very opening scene we’re thrown into the midst of it as Dane awakes with a start in the middle of the night and loads his gun with trembling fingers. A brooding synth score and edgy use of washed out colour alongside heavy use of pathetic fallacy harks back to the 80s, where the film was set, when indie films had this distinct look and feel.
The plot has all the elements of the predictable – corrupt cops, murder, a pornography ring, estranged fathers – but the dramatic twists leave you believing anything is possible and having no idea where the narrative is heading. It almost feels as though Mickle had no clue where this film would end up when he began writing it – but this complete spontaneity of events helps to add a realism that reflects the sequence of real life events in an eerily astute manner. There is no way you can piece together the ending until it’s happening – this is a fantastic way of holding the audience’s attention in a vice-like grip.
The lead characters are excellent. Hall, Sam Shepherd and Don Johnson create a strangely loveable threesome as they work together, their humour cutting through the dense darkness at the heart of the narrative. But the supporting cast are neglected. Dane’s wife, played by Vinessa Shaw is nothing but a victim throughout. The whole film hinges on Dane’s undying love for his family, and how far he will go to protect them. I believed that he would do anything for his wife and child – but I didn’t see enough reason why. Shaw’s only lines presented her as whiny, annoying, hysterical – as the only female voice in this entire film it’s a shame that she wasn’t given any real characterisation. She was merely a devise to propel and justify the actions of the men. I know the film is set in the 80s, but that doesn’t mean that Mickle has to resurrect the misogyny of that era.
That being said, Cold in July is thoroughly enjoyable due to its original approach to storytelling and utterly believable performances by all three male leads. A healthy smattering of gore appeases my need for on-screen violence, but it is the pacing and clever structure of the plot that really held my attention.
OUT OF TEN: SEVEN POINT FIVE
Mike Flanagan’s clever, dark thriller Oculus is the best horror film I’ve seen in a very long time. I’m talking sprinting past dark alleyways on the way home and reading rubbish chick-lit for an hour before bed to ward off nightmares. This is genuinely scary stuff, which, in an age of mass desensitization, is an admirable achievement.
On the surface, nothing new is being done here. Flanagan employs a series of traditional horror tropes, the most prominent being the malevolent mirror. Mirrors have been fascinating storytellers for centuries as we seem to find an almost carnivalesque dread in the distorted ‘other’ we see reflected. From Lewis Carrol’s Through The Looking Glass, to Candyman, Donnie Darko and countless bathroom cabinet scenes in horror films through the ages, it’s clear there is a draw to the terrifying possibilities of a skewed alternate reality lurking in the reflective surface. But despite the frequency of this theme, Oculus manages to keep it fresh and unremittingly scary.
The real genius is in the script. The writing is sharp, fast-paced and hooks you in without the need for too much back-story or exposition. Flanagan (writer, director and editor of the film) also uses a clever parallel that seamlessly interlaces the past with the present. The story is a simple one. As children, Kaylie and Tim Russell were left traumatised after their father tortured and killed their mother before attempting to kill them. When the siblings reunite as young adults Kaylie is bent on proving that her father is not a murderer and that it was the evil spirit of the mirror that caused her mother’s death. You watch what happens to Kaylie and Tim as children at the same time as watching the action unfold in the present, the parallel becoming stronger and stronger until the shots start to encroach on each other and young and old pass on the stairs, or peer at each other in an increasingly unsettling manner.
The performances are also surprisingly engaging. Notably Karen Gillan, in the lead role as Kaylie, manages to strike a great balance between deadpan believability and fleeting moments of heightened comedy that give you a hint that the film has just the slightest tongue-in-cheek element, which is entirely necessary for this kind of horror. Annalise Basso plays young Kaylie and is equally talented – the casting here is spot on, and you see clear similarities between the two.
There are a few holes in the narrative – why is this mirror evil, what does it want? We are never offered an explanation – but this didn’t bother me while I was watching. The lack of explanation actually gives the film the human element that many horror films lack – you’re able to focus on the real and brutal effects that the tragedy has had on the characters rather than getting lost in vague, supernatural mythology. Flanagan takes pains to make sure that we see how the events of childhood has shaped and damaged Kaylie and Tim, their relationship with each other and their ability to form relationships in other areas of life. It is thoughtful touches like this that keep you helplessly invested in the narrative with your heart in your mouth until the final credits.
It doesn’t let up. From the opening scene we’re thrown right into it with minimal build-up, and from then on there is a relentless barrage of original and deeply unsettling scares. The mirror has a deceptive, hallucinatory power to trick your mind and make you second-guess your own actions and your own intentions. Watching Kaylie and Tim look through the window as ‘other’ versions of themselves stand on the brink of death, unable to decide which pair are real, is truly terrifying – an unequivocal knowledge of the ‘self’ is crucial to knowing your place in the world. Flanagan flips this assumption on its head and manages to ask deep questions about reality and tangible existence with his well-written, low-budget horror film.
OUT OF TEN: EIGHT
Seth MacFarlane is undisputedly a very funny man. Family Guy is genius, Ted was very good but his latest spoof western, A Million Ways to Die in The West, proves that MacFarlane’s comedic talent does not in any way translate in person. Seth MacFarlane, for the sake of cinema-goers everywhere, please never step in front of a camera again. This is the only film I’ve seen where I’ve left before the end. There may be a million ways to die in the west, but MacFarlane appears to have almost as many ways to kill laughter.
Twenty minutes in I thought there must be something wrong with me – I knew I was supposed to be laughing… but I felt dead inside. The deafening silence from the rest of the audience reassured me that that the problem lay with the film and not my defunct sense of humour. People actually left after about 30 minutes, I considered joining them but thought I’d persevere – I’m no quitter.
MacFarlane is beyond awful on screen. He’s wooden, loves the sound of his own voice and comes across as more of a TV presenter than an actor. After so long masterminding his comedy from behind the scenes, it’s understandable that MacFarlane wants to take centre stage, but some people just aren’t made for the lead role. From the very beginning, the enormous rolling credits citing MacFarlane as writer, producer and director in quick succession, I knew this was going to be a rather self-indulgent affair.
The thin plot and hackneyed jokes undermine any attempt at intelligent genre parody or homage. MacFarlane appears to think that simply hearing modern-day references in the western context is somehow funny. The plot plods along without any real direction, and there are long stretches without even an attempt at a joke – worlds away from MacFarlane’s usually blisteringly paced dialogue.
Even the attempts to be inflammatory fall flat and veer dangerously close to being purely offensive. Family Guy is famous for its use of controversial comedy and completely ignoring what’s deemed to be socially acceptable – and it works brilliantly. Maybe it’s because this is live action rather than a cartoon, or maybe it’s because there isn’t one non-white face in the entire film – but the gag about a shooting game at a carnival called ‘The Runaway Slave’, and the lazy comments about black men loving big bums, made me feel pissed off rather than entertained.
Ultimately this is an incredibly boring film with childish humour that is lost within a weak, meandering plot. MacFarlane appears to be relying on his previous success to draw in crowds using his name, but his lazy comedy and stale clichés shows that he’s hugely underestimated his audience. Fifteen minutes before the end I realised that I was, in fact, a quitter. I never got to see if McFarlane managed to gun down Liam Neeson in the final shoot out. I hope they both got shot.
OUT OF TEN: TWO