Wednesday 23 July 2014

Movie Review - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Following the iconic 1968 film, the Planet of the Apes franchise quickly tanked in the 1970s with endless hammy sequels, and Tim Burton's remake in 2001 only made audiences detest it even further. Reviving the series with stunning motion capture performances and a fresh take on the origin story, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes spearheaded a new stage of the franchise that was actually on its way to naught but success. And such success continues flawlessly with this 2014 sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Eight years after the simian flu virus spread across the globe, countless humans have been killed off and countless apes have grown as intelligent and capable as their homo sapien relatives. Lead by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape colony thrives in peace on the outskirts of San Fransico; but their tranquility is soon disrupted by a band of human survivors lead by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who are attached to a colony lead by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Both races manage to coexist in peace, but this soon collapses into all out war to eventually decide the dominant species of Earth.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes branches away from the tone of its predecessor in the best possible manner, taking the story in a gripping new direction that nicely develops the basis of the entire franchise. James Franco and the original cast are long gone to make way for an even bigger focus on the apes and for a new band of human characters; while the apes flourish with stunning performances and fantastic motion capture CGI, the humans suffer from bland characterisations that, while likeable, fail to generate much interest when compared to Caesar and his tribe. Jason Clarke gives it his all but doesn't really stand out with the content he is given, and Gary Oldman tragically has nowhere near enough screen time, even though his character is one of the films best.

The story is intelligent and emotional without being pretentious; it remains action packed and thrilling, but audiences can fully invest into the characters with ease thanks to the excellent script and Matt Reeves' stylish direction. To have CGI characters act alongside real people is a hit or miss scenario; audiences can tell when a rendering isn't textured or lit properly, and Apes has its moments of being obviously synthetic. For the most part, it looks incredible, and Serkis continues to show that motion capture performance can be just as credible as traditional acting. The story is nothing like what you see in the trailers: expect something very different, but this is by no means a bad thing.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Movie Review - How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dreamworks Animation have long been a hit or miss studio - for every exceptional film they produce, they can produce a fair few shallow stinkers. In 2010, they were often compared to the standards of acclaimed competitor Pixar with their adaptation of How to Train Your Dragon - emotionally resonant and beautifully animated, it stood tall as one of their most adored films and so a sequel was inevitable; it's been a shocking disappointment at the US box office, but that really doesn't reflect on its quality whatsoever.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up five years after the original; Berk has never been better since dragons became loyal pets, and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless never let their curiosity die; soaring off regularly to discover new places and new cultures. Their path crosses with dragon trainer Valka (Cate Blanchett), whose bond to Hiccup is a lot stronger then he may think, and who must work with him to stop Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) and his plans to conquer the lands with dragons at his command.

It goes without saying that this sequel is even more beautifully animated than its predecessor, and the visuals truly flourish when viewed in IMAX 3D - even the dying depth inducing effect provides some spectacle during the films set pieces. Such stunning animation is what we've come to expect from DreamWorks after so many years in the business, and it's all supported with an equally fantastic score by the ever amazing John Powell. It's not as fine as Powell's work in 2010 but remains epic and grand, and Icelandic singer J√≥nsi returns with Where No One Goes, another hit song that will have everyone rushing to iTunes the minute the film ends.

With dragons and vikings having made peace, a new world opens up for the main characters and the potential is fantastically captured by writer/director Dean DeBlois. What's presented is a unique plot full of its own surprises and twists that takes full advantage of the exciting new premise and focuses on advancing the future of the ongoing story arch. Perhaps what weakens this all for me is that there's too many flashbacks to elaborate lazily on necessary backstory and sometimes shocking moments don't always yield the visceral power they deserve. I also walked away from the film totally forgetting about the villain; generic and flat, he equates to nothing more than a beefy stock foe with little to no interesting characteristics, easily making him the films weakest attribute. With criticisms like that aside, this film still manages to provide a worthy narrative to succeed the original, full of top notch voice acting, great characters and a wonderful sense of humour. 

Saturday 12 July 2014

Movie Review - Begin Again

From writer/director John Carney who wowed audiences in 2007 with his musical hit Once, Begin Again stars Kiera Knightley and Mark Ruffalo as aspiring musician Greta and disgraced ex-record labeller Dan, respectively. When Dan stumbles across Greta performing in a small New York nightclub, he is engrossed in her musical talent and the two form a collaboration to produce an album that will help their careers flourish.

Begin Again is one of those extremely low budget indie films that deeply appreciative film fans will crave; a superb cast and a heartfelt story work beautifully alongside the films quirky sense of humour. It's a musical at its heart but one thats still grounded in reality; characters don't burst out into song and dance along the streets, but instead the music comes from the narratives' core of producing an album outside of the studio system, with Ruffalo trying to bring out the raw talent he sees in Knightley from the very start.

Ruffalo easily steals the show with his deep and equally funny performance, and the chemistry he shares with Knightley is absolutely flawess; she too moulds her role into a memorable and complex one with a great sense of humour. The supporting cast is just as charming; James Corden proves every now and again he can be a lot more than a poor mans Nick Frost, and co-stars Hailee Steinfeld, CeeLo Green and Adam Levine also bring their quirky charms into the narrative. It's definitely a feel good movie at its core, with complex themes and adult jokes, but an elated vibe is always present throughout. Comedic timing in the script is absolutely superb and thanks to Carney's direction and the performances themselves, moments that erupt the audience into hysterics are delightfully common.

Begin Again runs for 104 minutes. I don't know whether it was due to a late night showing or whatever, but to me the movie felt like it was over 150. Sluggish pacing is sometimes a concern, and this could've been tweaked in the cutting room for sure - there are a few pointless scenes where the story comes to a halt just to add in some more jokes. The jokes work as I've said, but not when they feel inherently unnecessary. But with negativity aside, Begin Again is a charming indie flick with a warm heart and vibrant tone. While it may not be as easy to find as Michael Bay's newest $200 million turd, it's definitely worth the effort if you respect your taste in movies.

Friday 4 July 2014

Worst to Best - Harry Potter

The Harry Potter film franchise remains the highest grossing in the history of cinema, though eventually it will be passed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2015. The franchise consists of eight films with an average gross of $965 million each. Blimey. It's evident that this fanbase is gigantic to say the least, and the legacy left by Rowling's novels and Warner Bros. film series will never be vanquished.

The reception for each film differs but generally they're all of good quality. However, to really see which are the best of the bunch, let's take a look at them in worst to best order...

#8 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

It's not easy to adapt the longest and arguably most boring Potter novel into a two hour film, and David Yates evidently did his best in attempting to generate some excitement from the mediocre source; but none of it really flourishes the way you'd hope. It boasts stunning visuals and a strong climax, but the fifth film in the series is simply too depressing and dull. It beautifully sets up the final stages of the series' narrative, but this isn't enough to really save it.

#7 - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

None of the Potter films were ever able to top the first installment at the domestic box office ($317 million) until the eighth and final one - which sure says a lot about the immense hype surrounding the beginning of the franchise. This light hearted film is a lot more fun than its sequels, but suffers from a bloated run time and is hamstrung with mediocre child acting. Add in some cheesy visual effects, and you have an entertaining yet sadly flawed beginning of the series.

#6 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Despite earning an incredible $878 million worldwide, Chamber of Secrets' earnings were down almost $100 million when compared to its predecessor. Perhaps this can be attributed to the usual fatigue franchises endure where future instalments hit the market, but still, the second entry to the Potter series was a lot better than the first due to a suitably dark tone and a much more compelling story. The actors are definitely improving here despite some hammy moments, and it makes for an all round entertaining watch.

#5 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (2010)

The decision to split the final Harry Potter book into two films has spearheaded an ungodly annoying trend in Hollywood of doing the same to every single concluding book adaptation, no matter its size or content. Before this ridiculous moneymaking scheme propped up, Potter actually did it to pretty surprising success; both movies feel relevant enough to coexist and tell the final story of the franchise. The first part suffers from sluggish pacing, but it remains an aesthetically stunning penultimate entry, and is further credited with some excellent performances from the entire cast.

#4 - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

The sixth Potter book has a plot too thin to justify 600+ pages, but it surprisingly translated into a thoroughly a gripping film. With earnings of $934 million, $301 million of which came from the US alone, audiences seemed to agree; the story takes its darkest turn with the tragic death of Albus Dumbledore and the revelation of more sinister truths about Voldemort. Jarring tonal shifts are sometimes a concern, but Half-Blood Prince is still one of the stronger entries of the Potter canon.

#3 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Though the third Potter film became the lowest grossing of the franchise both domestically and worldwide, it still impressed at the box office with a global haul of $796 million and arguably garnered some of the best reviews of the entire franchise. Under the direction of Alfonso Cuaron, Prisoner of Azkaban found a perfect balance between the complex nature of its story but also the fun and magical tone of the franchises younger years. The end result is an emotional, funny and highly enjoyable third film to the series.

#2 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Goblet of Fire is where the franchise took a major dramatic turn, with the return of Voldemort and his loyal armies. The plot brings together a number of magical schools to compete in a wizarding tournament which Harry finds himself forced into - this allows the story to be a lot more dynamic and action packed than other entries, and the climax is without a doubt one of the most thrilling moments. The haircuts are kinda dumb, but hey, who cares. Good stuff.

#1 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (2011)

The culmination of this decade long film franchise earned $381 million in the US and a record breaking $1.3 billion worldwide, easily becoming the highest grossing film of the series and attracting a fanbase so large that $169 million of its US earnings came from its opening weekend alone. Jeez.

It's definitely worthy of such success, as it moves at a brisk pace in comparison to Part 1 and the Battle of Hogwarts is superbly portrayed. Around the destruction, the tension rises as our protagonists desperately try to vanquish the remaining Horcruxes of Lord Voldemort, who leads his armies on a huge final assault. The emotional stakes have never been higher, and thanks to excellent performances from the entire cast and some powerful emotional sequences, Part 2 easily becomes the best film of the franchise.

Don't you dare reboot this, Warner Bros. Seriously.

Thanks for reading!