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.
Directors: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens, Wyatt Russell, Peter Stormare, Jillian Bell, Nick Offerman
At a time when we like our popular comedy dripping with irony, the directing partnership of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is steadily rising to the top of the pack. After solid success with their debut feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and surprising success with the television remake 21 Jump Street, Lord and Miller had a legitimate popular and critical hit earlier in the year with The Lego Movie. With all three of those films, the pair took a project which was far from a sure thing and turned it into a hit with their unique and clever style of humour. But 22 Jump Street marks their biggest challenge yet, a sequel.
Having successfully gone undercover at a local high school to blow open a drug ring, the odd-couple of Schmidt and Jenko are back to do it all again. Now too old to pose as high schoolers, the pair are off to college where a new drug known as WHY-PHY (Work Hard, Yes – Play Hard, Yes) has claimed its first life. However, just like last time, the social politics of student life puts pressure on their investigation and bromance as the two find themselves moving in different circles – Jenko with the football crowd and Schmidt with the art students.
The plot sounds repeated and generic, but the beauty of this movie is in its complete self-awareness. At the beginning of the film, the two cops are called into the office of Deputy Chief Hardy who informs them that his superiors were pleasantly surprised by the success of the rebooted Jump Street program so have decided to do it again. They want it to be exactly the same as last time, although because they know it can be successful, the department has been given a bigger budget. He also informs them that they have had to move out of the abandoned Korean church at 21 Jump St, but were able to find an abandoned Vietnamese church across the road at number 22, which will now be their base. All of this is pointless, he adds, because everyone knows that nothing ever works as well the second time around. By winking at the audience, 22 Jump Street is able to not only parody buddy cop movies and college movies, but also blockbuster sequels.
They weren’t kidding about the upped budget either. 22 Jump Street is a noticeably bigger film than the first one, with a number of large scale action sequences, chases and explosions. These scenes aren’t particularly exhilarating in themselves, but they are there to allow the film to joke about action-comedies like Bad Boys or Lethal Weapon rather than as part of a serious attempt to be one of these films. 22 Jump Street is first and foremost a comedy, and it manages to be quite clever, while still engaging in more than its fair share of pratfalls and crude humour (of the sexual rather than toilet variety).
Much of the success of the film, like the first instalment, is down to Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. This seemingly unlikely pair displays an easy chemistry. They appear really comfortable riffing off one another and the film has a very loose style that allows them to do that. While Hill has always been known as a comic actor, Tatum’s comedic chops were a revelation in 21 Jump Street and he is again really charming here as the muscle bound doofus, Jenko.
While Marvel have, in recent years, made an art form out of the post credits teaser, 22 Jump Street uses its credit sequence to deliver one of its funniest scenes. Parodying the trajectory of blockbuster franchises, the credits deliver a series of teaser trailers for sequels from 23 through to about 40 Jump Street, with the pair going everywhere from dance school to beauty school to culinary school and various gimmicks and cast changes along the way. Amazingly, given that this sequel achieves the rare feat of exceeding the first instalment, you leave the film with the distinct impression that this franchise is not planning to outstay its welcome.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen 22 Jump Street? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Directors: James Bobin
Starring: The Muppets, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell
Muppets Most Wanted, the follow up to the Muppets’ triumphant big screen return in the 2011 film The Muppets, opens with a very self-aware musical number titled, “We’re Doing a Sequel.” “We’re doing a sequel. That’s what we do in Hollywood, and everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.” As well as being the catchiest song in the film, it also, unfortunately, proves slightly prophetic.
The movie picks up where the last one left off. The Muppets return show has been a great success, the Muppet theatre has been saved and now they have to decide what they are going to do next. The forebodingly named Dominic Badguy suggests they make the most of their moment by going on a world tour. So with Dominic as their new manager, the Muppets head out on the road. But, surprisingly, Mr. Badguy isn’t all above board. He is actually the world’s second most wanted thief, and he is in cahoots with the world’s first most wanted thief, Constantine. Constantine is the world’s most dangerous frog and also just happens to be a dead ringer for Kermit. The old switcheroo is pulled and Kermit finds himself incarcerated in a Siberian Gulag while Constantine fronts the Muppets, with the tour around Europe serving as a front for he and Dominic to pull a series of high profile burglaries.
The Muppets was a brilliant film (it made my top ten of 2012). A vibrant, joyful movie, even in returning to these old, much loved characters it seemed to find a sense of freshness. At its heart was an incredible and overwhelming affection for these characters. In contrast, Muppets Most Wanted feels like a sequel, a more cynical exercise designed to exploit previous success.
Jason Segel, as both a co-writer and actor, was the driving force in getting the Muppets back on the big screen, but he was not involved in this sequel and his presence is missed both on and off screen. He and Amy Adams brought a sweetness and innocence to the human characters in the first film. They felt appropriately Muppety. Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell (who spends the whole movie doing a bad Inspector Clouseau impression) are all gifted comic performers, but none of them have that same quality and as such you don’t feel the same investment in the movie’s human characters.
There are still plenty of laughs. Muppets Most Wanted has the typical Muppets combination of high brow and quite simple humour. One minute there will be an allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal in which we see a black and white scene of the Swedish Chef playing a game of chess with the grim reaper, the next you’ll be giggling at the fact none of the Muppets recognise Constantine has replaced Kermit, despite his thick Russian accent and his continually getting all their names wrong. There are also cameos a plenty. Lady Gaga, Danny Trejo, Puff Daddy, Salma Hayak, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hiddleston, James McAvoy, to name but a few. Some of them are so brief that you almost miss them. The pick of them though is Josh Grobin, who is merely a disembodied singing voice coming from an isolation cell at the Gulag
Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Concords is back as the songwriter. A few of the songs are quite good – notably the aforementioned “We’re Doing a Sequel,” Tina Fey’s big number introducing Kermit to prison “The Big House,” and the finale “Together Again” – but none quite reach the heights of his effort the first time around for which he won an Oscar.
While the Muppets themselves remain such loveable and fun characters that they are always worth seeing, the joyous vitality and exuberance of the previous film is just not there this time around and as a result Muppets Most Wanted falls a bit flat.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Muppets Most Wanted? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segal, Chris O’Dowd
In the last ten years, Judd Apatow has really established himself as the comedy auteur of the moment, through both as a director and as a producer (his most recent success being backing Lena Dunham in the production of the HBO series Girls which just cleaned up at the Golden Globes). One of the defining features of Apatow’s work as a director, and what differentiates him from, say, Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover, Due Date), is that Apatow’s films combine big laughs derived from sexual and sometimes stoner humour, with a real human sincerity. Apatow’s best films, namely The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are surprisingly heartfelt and honest and you really care about the characters. Interestingly, when Apatow is slightly below his best, as he is in This is 40, it is the laughs which tend to be missing rather than the sincerity.
The film was marketed as the “sort of sequel” to Knocked Up. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their supporting characters from Knocked Up. It’s a few years down the track, Pete and Debbie’s little children are a bit older, their marriage is a bit more dysfunctional and they are both on the cusp of turning forty. That’s the scenario and it is all you really need to know because this is not a film about narrative and plot, it is a film about characters. Rather than a structured storyline we just get a series of vignettes, some funnier than others, taking place over a period of a couple of weeks.
In Knocked Up Rudd and Mann were fantastic. While they were only supporting characters, the little glimpses we got into their lives were fantastic and funny because they seemed so real. For Allison (Katherine Heigl) and Ben (Seth Rogen) they represented everything that was terrible, but at the same time everything that was appealing about the prospect of having children. The problem that This is 40 has is that while Debbie and Pete become the focus of the film, we don’t really gain any further insight into their characters. Instead, the shtick which was funny for the 30-40 minutes of screen time they got in Knocked Up is just dragged on and repeated, stretched over 135 minutes which is half an hour too long.
This is 40 is a bit one-note. Because there isn’t a storyline as such, we don’t get real character progression and development. The fights and arguments you see at the 90 minute mark of the film are very similar to the fights and arguments you saw 15 minutes in. This lack of progression, lack of sense that either character is learning from their experiences means they actually start to become very frustrating in certain situations. This is quite an achievement given Paul Rudd has to be the most likeable man on the planet.
The “sort of sequel” thing is problematic too, because it raises certain questions. Primary among them is where are Ben and Allison, our protagonists from Knocked Up? In reality we know that there was a massive falling out between Apatow and Katherine Heigl which meant that there was not chance she was ever going to appear in the film, but still, at a narrative level it is an awkward absence. Particularly as Alison is supposed to be Debbie’s younger sister, which makes her unreferenced absence from the birthday party at the end of the film notable. Jason Segal is back, again playing a character called Jason who I think we are supposed to assume is the same character as he played Knocked Up, though he has progressed from being Ben’s stoner housemate to being a personal trainer.
This has all sounded a bit negative so far, but This is 40 isn’t that bad. As has been the case in much of his previous work, it is the supporting characters which really bring this film to life. You have great supporting performances from Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as Pete and Debbie’s respective fathers. Brooks in particular is a treat as a mooching father. I love when Judd Apatow uses his daughters, Maude and Iris, in his films. He writes really funny dialogue for them. While Maude’s character Sadie suffers a bit from being a one-dimensional angry teenager, Iris’s Charlotte is lovely and the one character that you consistently side with and feel for. There are also great cameos from Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segal and Lena Dunham.
This is 40 feels much closer to Funny People than it does to 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, which is a shame. It probably suffers a bit from audience expectations that it is going to be a riotous comedy, which it isn’t trying to be. The humour in this film doesn’t come from gags or crazy situations. It comes from recognising some element of our own lives on the screen. There are a number of laugh out loud moments in This is 40, but most of the time they are jokes that make you smile or jokes that make you nod rather than jokes that make you laugh.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean