Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelson, Ronald Pickup
Sometimes the movies offer up strange coincidences where multiple people have the same idea at the same time. There were two blockbusters about meteorites headed to earth in 1998 (Armageddon and Deep Impact) and two animated movies about insects (A Bug’s Life and Antz). 2013 gave us two action thrillers about attacks on the White House (White House Down and Olympus has Fallen). What is true of blockbusters can also be true of dramas, and we currently find ourselves in the midst of a moment of fascination with the figure of Winston Churchill. In the last twelve months the legendary British Prime Minister has been portrayed by Brian Cox in Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, by John Lithgow in the Netflix series The Crown, and now by Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Focusing on the difficult first weeks of Churchill’s prime ministership, Darkest Hour also serves as a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, presenting a different angle on the Miracle at Dunkirk. Continue reading
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Nick Thurston
The decision to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise in 2011 raised a few eyebrows. It felt like a slightly dated concept, and the previous attempt, Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, had been a terrible flop. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved to be one of the pleasant surprises of 2011, well received both critically and at the box office. But while a successful reboot is one thing, a successful sequel is an entirely different beast. However, expectations have been surpassed again, as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent, thrilling blockbuster which succeeds in taking this franchise to the next level.
Ten years after Caesar led his clan of genetically modified apes out of captivity and into the woods outside San Francisco the world looks very different. The ALZ113 virus which was being tested on the apes has become an epidemic, known as simian flu, and has wiped out most of the earth’s human population. Only those lucky enough to have a genetic immunity to the virus survive. A few hundred of these survivors have settled in San Francisco under the leadership of ex-military man Dreyfus and former architect Malcolm. With their fuel running low, their only hope is to get the hydro-electric system at O’Shaughnessy Dam up and running. Doing this means heading into the woods which the apes have made their home. While diplomacy between Malcolm and Caesar allows for initial cooperation, the hot-heads of Dreyfuss and Caesar’s second in command, Koba, mean that tension is never far from boiling over.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes succeeds in going beyond what Rise of the Planet of the Apes gave us. The ambitious film gives us an expansion of scale. Where the first film was mainly shot in interiors, this sequel is shot entirely on location and primarily outside. This gives the picture a grander scope and a more epic quality. It also marks the first time that motion capture technology has been extensively used on location rather than in the controlled environment of a studio, and the results are stunning.
While upping the scale, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes returns to the heart of what science fiction is supposed to be. Rather than the simplistic spectacle it so often becomes these days, when done well science fiction uses its fantastical narratives to offer social commentary or insight into the human condition. The screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, wears its political heart on its sleeve, exploring themes of empathy and fundamentalism, tolerance and prejudice.
In this war between humans and apes, we are not encouraged to take sides. This is a great strength of the movie. Instead it wants us to see the similarities between the two species. There are good humans and good apes, and there are bad humans and bad apes. Neither species can claim moral superiority. As tensions rise we see that peace requires us to see those things which we have in common, while conflict comes from an inability to see past those things that make us different.
Visually, this film is very impressive. The visual effects, supervised by Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon, are tremendous in both the large scale action sequences, and the minute detail of the motion capture which brings the apes to life. But motion capture, or performance capture, is not just a technical achievement. The film’s strongest characters are simian, not human. The ape characters are both well-conceived and well written. The majority of the communication between them is in the form of a simple sign language, yet the actors use this primitive communication to effectively display complex emotions. Similarly, the film’s strongest performances come from the motion capture actors. Andy Serkis, with his iconic work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, has established himself as the world’s premier motion capture actor. But his performance as Caesar is something to behold. Serkis gives the weary leader of the apes a real gravitas. Caesar shows arguably the most complex, subtle emotional depth the cinema has ever seen in a non-human character. While I’m not sure that the Hollywood establishment is yet ready to recognise a motion capture performance with an award nomination, Serkis would not be out of place in that discussion.
In an era where the science fiction genre is often merely an excuse for special effects and spectacle, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes aspires for something more. Refreshingly intelligent for a big budget sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the best blockbuster of the year so far.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
With the exception of perhaps Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, no film released this year has had to contend with the immense weight of expectation that met The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, when it hit theatres in July. Nolan’s films had re-written the rules of comic-book movie-making, combining box office success with critical reverence.
The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce Wayne living in self-imposed exile after the events of The Dark Knight. When the terrorist Bane releases thousands of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals from Blackgate Prison, and succeeds in prompting a class war which brings the city to its knees – all the while obscuring his even more devastating plan – it becomes apparent that Gotham has no other hope, and Wayne is forced to once again don the Bat-suit.
When the first film in the trilogy, Batman Begins, was released, much was said about this being a ‘darker’ approach to Batman. But the darkness wasn’t really anything new. Tim Burton’s films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) had been dark. Frank Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One had been dark. Batman had always been a character who suited a dark, gothic interpretation. Rather, what made Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology different was his intent to ground it in the real world, asking the question “How would this work in real life?” This emphasis on grounding the action in the real world then allowed for the film to engage with real world issues.
While other comic book adaptations like The Avengers and Iron Man have been incredibly successful, their pure escapism lacks the real-world relevance of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were both very much products of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight Rises draws on the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement to deal with themes of revolution, capitalism and economic imbalance (as Nolan said in an interview, “You can’t really deal with Bruce Wayne without eventually acknowledging the massive wealth he’s a part of”).
Likewise, this grounding of the Batman story in a real world means that in Nolan’s films we see explorations of the consequences of Bruce Wayne’s decisions and actions. The Dark Knight Rises is a film about consequences – physical, emotional, psychological.
Each of Nolan’s three Batman films have been generically quite different. Batman Begins had a very mythological feel to it, with Bruce Wayne travelling to the farthest ends of the earth to learn his craft from a mysterious cult. The Dark Knight largely abandoned that mythological sensibility, and instead became an urban crime thriller (Nolan often compared the picture to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995)). The Dark Knight Rises again changes direction. This time Nolan is taking us into the world of the historical epic.
Whether or not you think that The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in what it is attempting, you can’t help but admire the ambition of the film. Nolan is attempting to tell a historical epic (not the persistant allusions to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution) on an epic scale, resulting in filmmaking on a scale that has not been seen in Hollywood for a long, long time. The scale of the picture is immense, with this size emphasised by the fact that so much of it was shot in IMAX format. The magnitude of some of the set pieces, literally employing a cast of thousands, harks back to the epics of classical Hollywood and a style of filmmaking we just don’t see in the CGI era.
The Dark Knight Rises does not quite reach the lofty heights of its prequel, but then very few films have. It is, none the less, a very good film and a satisfying end to a very impressive trilogy. It is pleasing to see a filmmaker with the conviction to take a very popular film franchise and bring it to a close rather than giving in to the temptation to drag it out. In closing the story of Bruce Wayne with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has retained the integrity of what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the key film franchises of the early 21st century.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean