Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

dawn

Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

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To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

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Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

Contemplating the end of the world

December 17, 2012 in Best Of, Misc

You know you want this to happen

You know you want this to happen

So the world is apparently going to end on December 21.

We’ve had plenty of scares before, be it Y2K or Nostradamus or some loony evangelical pastor in Texas, but this time a lot of people genuinely believe it because it’s supposedly from the Mayans. Chances are most of them have seen Apocalypto and know just how awesome the Mayans are and can never be wrong.

But as always, there are also people telling us everything will be OK. December 21 will just be like any other day, they say. The Mayan calendar actually goes on and on, but they just ran out of walls in that particular cave. D’oh.

NASA has reportedly also confirmed that there are no meteors or asteroids coming our way, so that rules out a Deep Impact (or is that Deep Rising?) or Armageddon scenario.

Not many people have mentioned the possibility of something like The Core happening (you know, that Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank movie about how the Earth’s core stops rotating) — apparently the science is a little off in that one.

Unexpected and rapid global warming causing a 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow scenario is still possible, right? Apparently not, or else world leaders would be in hiding already.

So that leaves us with some kind of unforeseen natural disaster (probably an earthquake) — though I understand earthquakes can be predicted to some degree these days and in any case it’s unlikely to affect the entire planet — or an Independence Day, Cloverfield, The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds-like alien invasion. I personally believe that if it’s going to be anything it’ll be Godzilla, or better still, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

All joking aside, all this talk about the end of the world coming has gotten my thinking. If it was really going to be the end, would I have done everything I wanted to do by this point in my life? The answer is of course no.

I have done some (admittedly rough) calculations and I believe I need (without concern for finances and a day-to-day job) a full year to catch up on all the movies I had planned to see, a year to read all the books I planned to read, half a year to watch all the TV series I want to see, half a year to play all the video games I’ve wanted to play, a year each for the two books I want to write, another six months for a screenplay, six months for travel and six more months to get into shape. That’s seven and a half years.

That’s not the time I need to do those things for the rest of my natural life, just the time I need to catch up to where I want to be right now.

Which brings me to the conclusion that if I survive December 21 I’m going to need to get a move on. With everything.

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

August 4, 2011 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

This review was supposed to be further back in my backlog of to-do posts, but I’m moving it right to the top because I can’t stop thinking about it.

The reboot origins film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, had been my ‘most anticipated movie of the year’ for months ever since I caught a glimpse of the awesome trailer.  I had always been somewhat interested in the Apes franchise, even though I had only seen the 1968 original and the entertaining but slightly misguided Tim Burton 2001 remake.  But this one was a must-see: an ingenious present-day setting, seamless digital effects, what appeared to be all-out action, and Andy Serkis (Gollum, Kong) doing motion capture for the lead ape, Caesar.

With such high expectations, it would have easy to have been disappointed.  But no, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was everything I could have hoped for and more.

Those who have seen the trailers and/or are familiar with the franchise will have a fairly good idea of what happens in this film.  James Franco plays Will Rodman, a young scientist working on a cure for a debilitating human illness.  The clinical trials are conducted on apes, and unexpected side-effects arm the mistreated subjects with human-like intelligence.  And you don’t need much intelligence (human or otherwise) to guess what happens next.

Ordinarily, knowing how a story unfolds dampens the excitement of a film, but surprisingly not in this case.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes the audience straight into the action and doesn’t let up.  The storytelling is so efficient that I found myself utterly engrossed throughout the 110-minute running time, never getting the feeling that I knew exactly what was going to happen next or pausing to contemplate potential gaps in logic.

Of course, a main reason to go see this film is the special effects, which are amongst the best I have ever seen.  No more humans in clunky ape make-up — these apes look creepily, frighteningly real, and the range of facial expressions they exhibit make them easy to connect with emotionally whilst keeping us wary of what they are capable of.  Andy Serkis as Caesar, in particular, is absolutely mesmerising as the true ‘star’ of the film.  You know the effects team have done a good job when you don’t even think about the quality of the effects until the credits start rolling — you just take it for granted that what you’re seeing on the screen is real.

Having saturated the film in praise, I have to admit that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does have flaws.  I’m not sure if it was miscasting or just a poorly written character, but James Franco’s human scientist came across as a fairly weak protagonist.  I never really felt that the bond between him and Caesar was as strong as it ought to have been.

Perhaps it was intentional to allow the apes to be propelled into the forefront, as the rest of the human characters were all rather weak — either cardboard cut-outs or over-the-top stereotypes (I’m looking at you, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo!).  Freida Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) as Franco’s love interest was almost invisible — you could have written her out of the script entirely and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  The only human character that made a connection with me was the great John Lithgow as Franco’s father.

However, my issues with the human characters aren’t as crucial as they may seem, for Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really Caesar’s story, told from his point of view.  I just find it bizarre for me to wonder whether it’s a good thing that the apes were more human than the humans…

Finally, the all-important rating.  Usually it would be inconceivable for me to contemplate giving a film like this anything more than 4 stars.  Sure it’s clever, entertaining, exciting and visually spectacular, but it’s still a flawed movie about apes taking over the planet.  But you know what?  I’ve looked through all my reviews this year and I can honestly say there is no other film that I’ve liked more and enjoyed more in 2011 than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  So what the heck.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Note that this film is considered a ‘new origins’ prequel to the 1968 original (and has numerous delicious allusions to it) because it does not match up with the storyline in any of the subsequent films.  In many ways, this is a much better origins story that reflects the rate of our current (frighteningly rapid) advances in technology and sets the stage for at least a couple of mind-blowing sequels (can’t wait already!).

Book Review: ‘Naked’ by David Sedaris

June 29, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

For me, David Sedaris is the master.  When it comes to the type of comedic writing I want to be able to emulate, there’s nobody better than him.  Having attempted (well, attempting) comedic writing myself over the last few months, I am discovering first hand just how difficult it is to make writing amusing.  And Sedaris’s writing is not just amusing — it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but at the same time it is incredibly clever and somehow manages to maintain an air of sophistication.

In my efforts to be more Sedaris-like in my own writings, I sought out one of his earlier books, Naked, published in 1997.  Like the other Sedaris book I read, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (review here), Naked can be classified as a collection of ‘personal essays’ of varying lengths.  Each essay covers an aspect or person of Sedaris’s life, from early childhood to adulthood, and are filled with outrageous characters (many of which are in Sedaris’s family) and anecdotes.

Titles of some of the my favourite essays include ‘A Plague of Tics’ (about Sedaris’s obsessive compulsive tendencies as a child), ‘Dix Hill’ (when Sedaris worked in a mental hospital as a teenager), ‘I Like Guys’ (where Sedaris discovers his homosexuality), ‘The Drama Bug’ (when Sedaris became a theatre fanatic and spoke in Shakespearean for months), ‘Planet of the Apes’ (about Sedaris’s hitchhiking stories), ‘The Incomplete Quad’ (where Sedaris shared dorms with quadriplegic students for free housing), and ‘Naked’ (about Sedaris’s experiences in a nudist colony).

Yes, as the above suggests, Sedaris is a weird, neurotic, somewhat disturbed guy, but he embraces it with a bizarre sense of self-righteousness and humility.  His stories are hilarious because they are so brutally honest, and each joke almost always provides some kind of insight into human nature.  And every now and then he would surprise you with a dash of poignancy, like the piece on his mother’s passing from cancer (‘Ashes’).

Sedaris weaves his internal thoughts, the anecdotes, the stories and the characters together effortlessly with elegant, clean prose, marvellous dialogue (some of which are really mini-soliloquies), astute observations and crafty storytelling.  The thing that amazes me most about Sedaris’s writing is that he knows exactly what words to use to convey the image he wants you to form in your mind.  His descriptions are brief but on the money just about every time, and he can give you a pretty good idea of what a person is like in a just a couple of slabs of dialogue.  He brings his characters to life in a way that few writers can.

I didn’t necessarily like every piece in the book, though that being said, each piece had its moments and I absolutely loved around half a dozen of the 17 essays.  I am certain that I will read his work again (and hopefully sooner rather than later).

4.5 out of 5

 
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