Wednesday, 23 July 2014

[MINI MOVIE REVIEWS] - JULY 2014

Grave Encounters 2 ghost on camera
The first film works due to its charismatic protagonists and the reality TV aspect, which makes for an interesting spin on the found footage concept. All of that is lost in Grave Encounters 2. This time, the main character is an arrogant jerk a student film director who, after watching Grave Encounters, is adamant that the film is real. By thoroughly interviewing the crew, their family and finally the film's producers, he learns that the deaths in Grave Encounters were, in fact, real. Grave Encounters 2 stretches suspension of disbelief to near impossible lengths as, although the protagonists know of the horrors that await them, they still enter the asylum, video cameras at the ready. Dumb plot aside, the film is a constant barrage of predictable jump scares and recycled scenes from the first film, which is further compounded by the most unsympathetic, horribly-acted characters in the history of horror.


Sharni Vinson covered in blood in You're Next

You're Next, from Adam Wingard, the director of the V/H/S series, is a home invasion thriller with a slight twist; one of the potential victims is a complete badass and isn't going down without a bloody fight. Earlier movies in the subgenre (The Strangers, Them, The Purge) have made this set-up almost cliche; affluent family, expansive house, faceless killers and a singular night of bloodshed. You're Next subscribes to these plot conventions but does so in almost self-mocking, comical fashion. As a 'final girl', Sharli Vinson is incredibly entertaining and refreshingly adept with a weapon, be that claw hammer, gun or a blender (yes, a blender!) A disappointing plot twist (that any horror veteran could see coming from the opening ten minutes) attempts to add logic and reason to the bloodshed but it feels tonally out of place. If watched as a meta, tongue-in-cheek slasher though, You're Next should push the right buttons.


How To Train Your Dragon 2 Toothless and Hiccup still
After the events of the first film, Hiccup and his family of heavily-bearded warriors have embraced dragons. Every man, woman and child has a dragon counterpart, using them for sport, work and as companions. Whilst flying around with Toothless, Hiccup discovers a cave full of previously undiscovered dragons, all led by a mysterious dragon trainer who has many things to teach Hiccup. As sequels go, How To Train Your Dragon 2 definitely delivers in scale and as a visual spectacle. Physically, the characters travel a great distance and the discovery of new dragons, not least the gargantuan-sized 'Alphas', is a compelling aspect of the plot. However, thematically and emotionally, the characters travel at a snail's pace and it feels like the exact same story is being told as Hiccup continues to struggle with his identity. A third film is already in the works but I'm not sure how much more the writer's can mine out of these characters before everybody gets tired of them. *cough* Ice Age *cough*


Nicolas Cage at a desk in The Frozen Ground

The Frozen Ground is based on a set of real life abductions and murders and the torturous, frustratingly-long investigation that resulted them. Set in the gorgeous, snow-blanketed tranquility of Anchorage, USA, it's hard to believe that a sadist serial killer would be at large in such a gorgeous part of the world. Scott Walker's direction expertly portrays this dissonance between humanity and mother nature, by juxtaposing the killers horrific actions with the beautiful, forested backdrop. The Frozen Ground is also filled with brilliant performances from surprising sources; Nicolas Cage is a restrained, sympathetically driven investigator, John Cusack is the effectively creepy serial killer who has the whole community wrapped around his finger and Vanessa Hudgens turns in a revelatory performance as one of his victims. The Frozen Ground is a must see for fans of procedural thrillers like last year's Prisoners or Fincher's Zodiac.


Brie Larson as a care worker in Short Term 12
Short Term 12 follows the difficult, emotionally-involving work of Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher); two staff members at a residential facility for under-privileged youths. The film explores an important time-frame as Grace and Mason try to balance their romantic relationship with the demands of the kids, some of whom are at important junctions in their lives. Short Term 12 is a masterpiece of contemporary independent film-making. Uncomplicated and simple in its presentation, director Destin Cretton lets the phenomenal cast and realistically-written script work their magic. Brie Larson and John Gallagher deliver impossibly endearing performances that will break your heart. The child actors are just as enchanting, with emotionally strong performances that belie their age.  Short Term 12 tackles its difficult subject matter with compassion and sincerity but never becomes bogged down by sentimentality or melancholy. Considering its budget and the story it set out to tell, Short Term 12 is perfect.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

[REVIEW] - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Director: Matt Reeves (Cloverfield)
Starring: Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Tony Kebbell, Keri Russell
Certificate: 12A
Run-time: 130 minutes


IN SHORT: Thoughtful, allegorical writing and a visceral exploration of conflict, elevates Dawn of the Planet of the Apes far beyond the average popcorn blockbuster.

Ten years after the events of Rise, humanity is facing near extinction as a Simian virus reduces cities to rubble. Caesar and his family of escaped apes are thriving though; untarnished by humans, they've forged a home in the dense forest. However, Caesar's peaceful community is threatened when a troop of human explorers, on their way to repair a disused dam, stumble upon their sanctuary. The very existence of these unwanted visitors doesn't sit well with many of the apes, apes who had been tortured and abused by humans in a previous life. On the other hand, the reopening of the dam offers the humans a chance of salvation and they're willing to risk everything for a chance to start again.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a natural but far grimmer continuation of the first movie. Humanity's desperation is visually explored through the brilliantly bleak set design as mother nature threatens to swallow the city below and finally reclaim her land. Burned out cars, anarchic graffiti and masses of overgrown ivy tell the tale of a hopeless, post-apocalyptic milieu. The lush forest-set community of the apes is a direct juxtaposition but the constant heavy rainfall compounds the feeling of dread and unease. The war between the species is inevitable but 'how' and 'why' the frayed relationship between humans and apes is broken, is the real tragic story.

Malcolm exploring the ape sanctuary in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 2014

The movie has two, clearly defined, binary opposites; humans and apes, yet the script-writers intelligently blur the line between the species. Every character, whether human or ape, has sound, sympathetic reasoning for their actions. Even the archetypal 'bad guy', Caesar's ferocious right-hand Koba; a mesmeric, ticking time-bomb menacingly portrayed by Toby Kebbell, has an understandable motivation. Stunning motion capture work imbues these non-human characters with an impressive physicality. The emotion-filled eyes, their human-esque body language and the sign language they use to communicate with - it's all masterfully captured and suggests hours of painstaking work. The compelling performances from Serkis, Kebbell and co are the cherry on top.

Jason Clarke is the audience's human connection and his performance is a strong, endearing one. His character, Malcolm, has endured numerous emotional hardships in the aftermath of the virus and is desperate to build a future for his family. He also recognises the similarities between the apes and himself though. Unfortunately, the other human characters aren't blessed with roles as rich as Clarke's and thus, they feel a little under-explored. Gary Oldman is his usual charismatic, completely dedicated self but his role as Dreyfus is a bit part, serving only as an antithesis to Malcolm. And Keri Russell plays Jason Clarke's serviceable onscreen beau but nothing more than that. The neglect of the human characters can be forgiven though as the events of the film are mostly from the apes POV.

Jason Clarke captured in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Behind the camera, director Matt Reeves has succeeded in combining the intelligent, dramatic themes of the movie with an unrelenting, action-packed intensity. With a use of creative framing and shot selection, the action setpieces are thrilling and suspenseful in their delivery but also emotionally harrowing in the context of the story. Michael Giacchino's brilliantly realised score adds another layer to the movie too, changing from emphatic and cacophonous to delicate and subtle when needed. And discerning viewers out there might notice Giacchino borrow the occasional audio cue from some of the older Apes movies. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rare breed of summer blockbuster. It's an important movie, not least because of its groundbreaking use of motion capture but also due to the unbelievably convincing performances that accompany the staggering effects. Dawn is not just visual gimmickry though and however much Reeves' WETA wizards excel with their digital dabbling, the gravitas of the movie would be lost upon a thoughtless script. Through thoughtful, allegorical writing and a visceral exploration of conflict, Dawn elevates itself far beyond the average popcorn blockbuster and joins the paragons of modern sci-fi.

Apes invading San Francisco in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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