Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): Review (Spoiler-free)


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a 2014 post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) and starring Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, King Kong), Toby Kebbel (Dead Man's Shoes), Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Gary Oldman (Dracula). The film is a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) as well as a prequel to the events of the original Planet of the Apes (1968).

Dawn picks up 10 years after Rise in the aftermath of the deadly Simian flu which has wiped out the majority of the humans on Earth. The intelligent Apes, led by Caesar (Serkis), have formed their own community in the woods under the belief that humans have been wiped out until an unfortunate encounter with a scouting group of humans. We then learn that there is still a community of humans living in San Francisco under the leadership of Dreyfus (Oldman) who are desperate to access the hydro powered dam in the heart of the apes territory. It's down to Caesar and human ambassador Malcolm (Clarke) to form a fragile truce as the warmongers Koba (Kebbel) and Dreyfus threaten to plunge the planet into war.

Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is to Star Wars (1977), it's a sequel to an incredibly ground breaking first act that matches it for quality and spectacle but deepens the thematic and emotional elements. The revolutionary performance capture technology is pushed to it's breathtaking limit as the audience is sucked into a universe that is meticulously crafted but most importantly, completely believable. The brave first step of basing a whole movie around a non human character is taken to the next level with a whole ensemble cast of apes that you believe in and care about deeply. That an ape falls in battle is absolutely no less tragic than if a human does and this is the genius of the rebooted apes franchise.

The film also takes a realistically ambiguous approach to war in that there are no heroes, no villains, no clear lines between right and wrong, good and evil. Koba is the most fascinating example of this as the nominal villain of the movie as Toby Kebbel often manages to upstage (and out-chimp) Serkis' Caesar, who still remains the heart and soul of the franchise. Whether it's Koba or Dreyfus (an underused but still terriffic Oldman) playing the villain it's always with pathos and it's always a three dimensional character. This is one of the many things that makes Dawn one of the finest anti-blockbusters of this generation and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver have triumphed again (along with Mark Bomback) with a script that bulges with attention to detail, franchise continuity and sheer emotional depth to the characters.

Make no mistake, Dawn is a war film, and it's one of the most outstanding war films of recent times. You can hold the film up to classics like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Casualties of War (1989) and it will not falter. You can also hold it up to modern classic called Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it will form 2 parts of an epic saga in the making. If the cast and crew can make as good a film for the third in the series then we might just have one of the greatest trilogies of all time on our hands. This has film of the year written all over it and demands your attention.

***** 5 Stars

What did you think of Dawn? How do you think it compares to Rise?


Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Forbidden Zone! A Planet of the Apes retrospective (1968-1973)



The Planet of the Apes is one of the longest running sci fi franchises of all time, with enough action, adventure, satire and an ear bleedingly complicated timeline to boot, it has captivated generations for nearly 50 years . Initially adapted from a controversial 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle (La Planete des Singes) , the original film would go on to spawn 5 sequels in as many years as well as a short lived TV series and cartoon. In the 40 years that followed the end of the original incarnation the franchise was nearly forgotten, dragged through the mud by an ill advised remake (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, 2001) and finally restored to it’s former glory by a dazzling reboot (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). To celebrate the imminent release of the highly anticipated sequel, and middle entry in a planned trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, TMMDI takes a look back at the original series 1968-1973.

Planet of the Apes was released in 1968. Based on the aforementioned French novel the film starred Charlton Heston, the blockbusting action hero of the day, as Taylor and followed the story of 3 astronauts who crash land on a mysterious planet 2000 years in the future where Apes have been able to evolve into the dominant species. After being captured, then helped to escape by 2 sympathetic chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), Taylor ultimately learns that the planet of the apes is planet earth, and apes were allowed to take control after a nuclear war destroyed the human race. What initially strikes you about the first film are the incredible special effects, for the time and still to this day, employed to bring the ape city to life as well as the ambitious premise and legendary shock twist ending. Underpinning all of this spectacle is also a great deal of political satire carried over from the book ie. Chimpanzees are the middle class intellectuals, Orang-utans are the bureaucratic church and state and Gorillas are the military class. All things considered, you have to class The Planet of the Apes as a film that was well ahead of it’s time (no pun intended) and especially ambitious in terms of it’s plot, subtext and production.





Hot on the heels of the first entry came the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in 1970. As Heston would only agree to a small role in the film where his character would ultimately die a replacement was brought in, in the form of James Franciscus, who would portray a very similar character named Brent. The film is very much a retread of the first film with astronauts crash landing on the planet, being apprehended in ape city and Brent heading off into the forbidden zone to find Taylor. However, The difference with Beneath, and the redeeming feature of the film, is Brent’s adventure leading him underground into the remnants of New York City where he discovers that the human race have evolved into a telepathic, atom bomb worshipping clan of mutants. Ultimately it all ends in tears after Taylor is rescued, apes attack and the bomb is detonated (cheers for that Heston). Whilst not given nearly enough time in the film, the segments focusing on the “cult of the bomb” are really fascinating and rescue the film from being an otherwise dull and repetitive sequel.

My personal favourite of the original series followed 1 year later in 1971 with the quirky Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Whilst on the surface appearing as an incredibly dated and goofy “fish out of water” comedy, the film is actually the most witty and satirical of the original series. Finally pulling focus back to the stars of the franchise, Cornelius and Zira, the film follows their implausible journey back to to present day earth from the future as a result of the climactic blast of Beneath. Although the apes are initially treated as celebrities in 70s American society it’s not long before humans start to discover their eventual fate as slaves to the ape race, and try to prevent that future from occurring. What you get along the way is plenty of time travel based “would you go back and kill Hitler as a baby” type ponderings as well as layers of political satire ranging from civil rights, animal testing and feminism and stands as one of the least action based, but most intelligent entries. 



After this the series flashed forward 20 years to 1991 with 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (are you still with me?). The film plays close to George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare as apes have been enslaved in camps and are systematically demoralised and re-educated. Cornelius and Zira’s son Milo (now renamed Caesar and yes, still played by Roddy McDowell) has found himself in one of these camps but the authorities are well aware of the ape prophecy that the offspring of the talking apes will bring about the fall of man and so, understandably, give him a bit of a hard time about it. The film served to be the blueprint for the 2011 reboot and certainly has it’s fair share of apes rising, whilst exaggerating the political satire once again and drawing strong links to black slavery. It’s a fairly downbeat affair compared to the other entries but no less gripping and really pushes the envelope of how political and existential the franchise can be.

The final instalment of the original series would be 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The film is set (presumably) several decades after the events of Conquest and the nuclear war that wrecked the earth. Apes and humans are tentatively co-existing under Caesar's rule but warmongers amongst the Gorillas and the mutant humans threaten to plunge the planet into an all out war. As the end of the original series and the culmination of 4 other films you'd think this would be a pretty explosive climax but, sadly, it isn't. Having exhausted the concept and lacking much of the previous satire the film plods along and ends up being a pretty dull conclusion to the whole saga.


So there you have it! I'm not going to waste my time talking about the 2001 remake or bang on and on about how great Rise was, you can read my original review for that, but safe to say the Planet of the Apes franchise is here to stay. Reinvented by staggering digital technology, incredible mo-cap performances and two of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood, there has never been a more exciting time to be a fan of intelligent, compelling and emotional science fiction...now go ape and see Dawn this weekend!

Which original film is your favourite? How does the original series compare with the rebooted one?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

New Horns poster and official teaser


Upcoming Alexandre Aja project Horns has released a double whammy this week in the form of a revealing teaser trailer and a genius poster. Ever the auteur, Aja appears to have stamped his style and wit on this one with Radcliffe following up his excellent turn in The Woman in Black (2012). Check out the trailer...


What do you think of the trailer? Do you like Radcliffe' s post potter choices?


Monday, 14 July 2014

New Suburban Gothic trailer


A new red band trailer has been released for the upcoming Suburban Gothic. Directed by Richard Bates Jr, it looks like the film has retained the unique aesthetic of Bates' previous film Excision (2012), as well as a John Waters cameo, whilst adding a little more comedy. Suburban Gothic will be released later in the year, check out the trailer...



What do you think of the trailer? Have you seen excision?

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Sacrament (2014): Review


The Sacrament is a 2014 mockumentary cult film. Directed by Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) and starring Aj Bowen (You’re Next), Joe Swanberg (You’re Next, V/H/S) and Gene Jones. The film is loosely based on the real life events of the Jonestown Massacre.

The movie is framed as an edgy documentary for popular website Vice. After filmmaker Sam (Bowen) is approached by a brother concerned that his sister may have joined a cult, he grabs cameraman Jake (Swanberg) and the three of them set off for the ambiguous location of Eden Parish. When they arrive they find the sister in question more than happy in the jungle utopia along with many other American emigrants, including many children and elderly people. However, after interviewing Father (Jones), the enigmatic leader of the cult, they realise that not everyone is as happy as they seem and that outsiders are not particularly welcome. This culminates with the majority of the cult committing suicide, either voluntarily or by force, and the documentary crew fighting for their lives to escape the isolated community.

I’ve made no secret in the past of my dislike of Ti West and his hugely overrated films but I have to say, this is his finest work to date. I really liked the format of the Vice documentary and the setting of the cult seemed somewhat fresher than your average American based horror. AJ Bowen gives a solid performance as the emotional core of the film and Gene Jones gives a mesmerising turn as the charming but sinister leader of the cult. One of the strongest elements of the film is the overwhelmingly dark and oppressive atmosphere in the final act. Although anyone familiar with the events of the Jonestown massacre will expect a pretty unhappy ending, West skilfully tips the tone from cannibal style exploitation into full on sickening horror, made all the more disturbing by the factual events that inspired the scenes.



However, there are still flaws from West’s previous works that creep into this piece, namely script and pacing. Whereas previous efforts like House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011) can be characterised as a lot of slow build suspense with no real payoff, The Sacrament seems to rush itss first act to get to the sinister stuff, feature a shocking climax and then end fairly abruptly. I , for one, wouldn’t have minded at all if the film had run 20-30 minutes longer to maybe accommodate a little more characterisation and backstory of the Eden Parish community. In addition to this, aside from its strong central performances I feel the film really suffers from the “actors trying really hard not to look like they’re in a found footage movie” syndrome which was seen to great effect in the infamous Devil Inside (2012). Although in fairness, the actors obviously haven’t been given a great script to work with and much of the dialogue is laughable, including Swanberg being allocated all of the “Basil exposition”.

I’m not sure if Ti West will ever make a great film but this is certainly a good film and, whilst not touching on the greatness of the suspiciously similar Sound of my voice (2011), it stands as a fairly fresh entry into the cult film canon. I’m a great defender of the found footage genre and I feel that modelling the format on a real life style of journalism also keeps things interesting enough to cover for any lack of plausibility. The Sacrament is West’s strongest overall work and fans, and non fans alike, will revel in his leap forward in directorial ability whilst retaining his signature retro-exploitation style.

*** 3 Stars

What did you think of The Sacrament? Are you a Ti West fan?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Under the Skin (2014): Review



Under the Skin is a 2014 science fiction film. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) the film stars Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, The Avengers). The film is a loose adaptation of Michael Faber's 2000 novel.

The film revolves entirely around Johansson's nameless, alien seductress. Appearing as if from nowhere, the character drives aimlessly around Scotland in a transit van looking for young, impressionable men to abduct and send back to her home planet. However, after an encounter with a facially disfigured character the alien begins to feel pity and chooses to spare the man, developing a conscience within the character. This alerts her unnamed, motorcyclist overseer as she is pursued for her digression whilst also trying to comprehend the complexity of the human race.

It's fair to say this is Glazer's most experimental and arthouse film yet and plays somewhat like Species (1995) crossed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). However the fascinating thing is how Glazer manages to strike an odd balance between those films, being less concerned with sexiness than Species but also more coherent than Kubrick's rambling odyssey. Like most arthouse cinema the film is visually fascinating, incorporating all the weather and elements one would associate with Scotland as well as some extremely unsettling abduction sequences. Whilst there is very little plot to be getting to grips with, it doesn't seem to matter as the atmosphere and disturbing tone seem to have a hypnotic effect.

There's been a great deal of publicity surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johannson and the amount of nudity that features in the film and before seeing the film, Johannson and Glazer did seem like an odd collaboration. However, Johannsen's performance is tremendous as she perfectly conveys an emotionless and disconnected "stranger in a strange land". There was also the danger of the nudity undermining the film and perhaps being seen as exploitative of such an incredibly famous, and beautiful, actress. However, the nudity is perfectly used and often only features during the more disturbing and disorienting abduction sequences, managing to disarm Johannsen's obvious sex appeal.

The only criticism I would make is that the film does appear repetitive and extremely thin on plot at certain times, however, the startling imagery, existential concepts and Johannsen's fascinating performance did more than enough to keep me gripped. If you lean a little more towards the conceptual, metaphysical sci-fi and can see through the arthouse cliches, Under the Skin will haunt you for days.

**** 4 Stars

What did you think of Under the Skin? Do you agree with Johannson's casting?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Snowpiercer (2014): Review


Snowpiercer is a 2014 post apocalyptic film. directed by Joon Ho-Bong (The Host) and featuring an ensemble cast including Chris Evans (Sunshine), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Kang Ho-Song (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), John Hurt (Alien) and Jamie Bell (King Kong). The film is adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige.

Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which an attempt to counter global warming has backfired and the earth has been plunged into an ice age. The only refuge from the elements is an enormous train which perpetually circles the globe and is divided into the rich and opulant classes in the front of the train and the poor and oppressed classes in the tail end. The tail end occupants are led in an uprising by Curtis (Evans), mentored by Gilliam (Hurt), in an attempt to overthrow their oppressive masters in the front carriages, under the leadership of Mr Wilfred (Ed Harris). Along the way they enlist the lockbusting skills of Minsu (Song) but are in for more than a few surprises along the way as hench-woman Mason (Swinton) is determined to stop them reaching the sacred engine room.

Although the post apocalyptic struggle between the classes and the masses isn't a new idea, Snowpiercer feels like a breath of fresh air for both the post-apocalyptic genre and the sci-fi genre. Ho-Bong makes a huge impression with his English language debut and the film is directed with all the visual style you'd expect from one of South Korea's many auteurs. There's definitely a world cinema, slow burn pace being utilised and it can take a while for things to get moving but the film is at its most fascinating when we move into the luxury front carriages. This includes an aquarium, greenhouse, swimming pool, night club and even a sushi bar hammering home the the injustice of the rich and greedy enjoying luxury at the expense of the exploited tail end occupants.

Although there are many fine performances in the film, I have to say the one that blows them all away is Tilda Swinton. Almost unrecognisable as Wilfred's spin doctor Mason, she manages to evoke cruelty, pathos, comedy and a weird sort of pathos often in the space of one line or glance. More a bureaucratic buffoon than a super villain she serves as the perfect foil to Curtis' revolution. The action sequences are spectacularly artistic and one sequence in particular seems to pay homage to the Oldboy corridor scene, with the camera always focusing on the physical elements rather than lingering on gore.

Whilst a little slow to get going and slightly too much lingering around the climax (with Harris proving a bit of a wet blanket), Snowpiercer is a triumph and is yet more proof that the great South Korean directors can make the transition to English language (if proof were needed after Chan-Wook's Stoker). An anti-Hollywood action film with all the satirical and philosophical notes of post-apocalyptic films gone by, Go out of your way to see Snowpiercer!

**** 4 Stars

What did you think of the film? How does it compare to other South Korean works?