Category Archives: Film Reviews

My Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the best movie of the year so far? Yep! Is it the best sci-fi movie to be released since the epic 2009 movie Avatar? Yep! Is it the best sci-fi movie of all time, second only to Avatar? Yep! (ok, that’s enough of that.)

The level of realism of the apes in this movie hits you like a smack in the mouth. I personally suspect Matt Reeves has actually trained monkeys to speak at some point in time and given them acting lessons. I can hardly bring myself to believe these incredibly complex eerily real-looking creatures are mere pixels within a computer. Seriously, these monkeys appear to have actual souls. Their eyes convey a depth of emotion never before seen in CGI characters. I thought the first movie had superb effects, but this amazing sequel ramps up the CGI to a whole different level! This movie does not represent a mere increment in special effects so much as a full-blown quantum leap. One that should hopefully set the precedent for future film makers.

Read pretty much any review of this movie and you quickly realize this is not your typically dumb summer blockbuster movie. This Simian vs. Sapien movie has an intelligent and character driven plot, something that is quite rare with big budget movies since film studios are often prone to believe they need to make a relatively stupid film in order to appeal to a sufficiently wide demographic to get their money back.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy big dumb-ass movies. My most recent excursion to the cinema prior to watching Dawn of the Apes was when I went to see Transformers: Age of Extinction. I have no prejudice about such movies. They are dumb and you know in advance they are going to be dumb. You only go out your way to watch a Michael Bay movie if you want visual spectacle alone. You know he will deliver this one thing by the bucket-full. You simply won’t expect anything else. Or get it either. The only sign of competent acting in any Transformers movie is the actors/actresses abilities to keep a straight face whilst delivering some of their many zany lines. (The actor behind Frasier Crane features in this latest Transformers movie and most impressively keeps a totally straight face whilst delivering lines such as “the original Bumble Bee was inferior in every way, but alas, is now a force to be reckoned with.”)

This is not an inherently bad thing. You don’t see a movie such as Transformers to be intellectually stimulated anymore than you go to see a fireworks display to be mentally stimulated. No. You go for the visual spectacle alone. Michael Bay’s raison d’être for being on the planet is to make Transformers movies. End of. He was created by god for this one reason alone. And his sole purpose for making any Transformer sequel is to make it bigger and louder than its predecessor (so far so good!) You have about two minutes of dialogue at the start of a typical Transformers movie after which a big badass Decepticon robot suddenly soars onto the screen like a f@*k rocket and destroying pretty much the entire planet. (Spoiler!)

Having said all this it is still nice once in a while to have a big-budget effects movie which also possesses intelligence. And this is where Dawn of the Apes comes in. Dawn of the Apes delivers both spectacle and intelligent scripting by the bucket-full, the layered and complex plot subduing even the most egg-headed of critical reviewers (even those egg-heads from the Guardian newspaper!)

Ape films are ripe for metaphor, something that Matt Reeves has exploited to the full in this latest planet of the apes movie. There is certainly no shortage of speculation as to what social/political commentary is going on behind the scenes (gun control being a common claim). One thing is clear however. The nuanced nature of the two opposing camps makes it difficult to identify one or the other side as being good or evil. You don’t find yourself rooting for any side in particular. The only thing you end up rooting for is a chance for peace (quite a rarity with these kinds of movies as most audiences just want to see a good arse kicking). There are rational level-headed individuals on both sides trying to avoid violent conflict. But it is not to be! A series of unfortunate (and somewhat contrived) events coupled with disproportionate responses from some mentally unstable characters from both sides eventually results in all out war. This is not an easy aspect of the film to watch as it is clear from the outset that this unfortunate and tragic situation is entirely preventable.

Mutual fear is depicted as being the primary driving force behind the cascade of events leading to conflict. Both sides contain individuals who stereotype the other species, believing them to be inherently bad and dangerous, and never to be trusted. The reality is that neither side (on the whole) wants anything more than to just survive and co-exist with the other species. But a few bad apples of both sides mucks it all up. Whilst some individuals oppose the warring actions of their respective leaders and stand up to them, many others are only too willing to obey their leaders out of fear of the consequences to themselves, or simply because they buy into the consensus view of their society (remind you of anything!)

This is not an uplifting or feel-good movie in any sense. Whether intentional or not (and it is almost certainly intentional) there is overt social and political commentary going on within this movie (and about on the same level of subtlety as it was in the epic James Cameron movie Avatar). Parallels to real world events are clearly evident. I don’t wish to be specific here as I don’t want this review to turn into a political statement. But you will see for yourself when you watch the movie.

Generally the most visually stunning aspect of the movie is when we get the close up scenes of the apes faces. Their intricate CGI mugs manage to convey a range of emotions normally associated with human people. It is an extraordinary feat! The motion capture technology is utilized like never before in this astounding film. I never believed someone ought to get an Oscar for their ability to pull faces, but my view has changed on this. Andy Serkis, the real life actor behind the motion capture of Caesar, delivers his most powerful performance yet as the pixel pusher behind the facial expressions of Caesar. For me, one of the most memorable scenes in Rise of the Apes was when Caesar was abandoned in the monkey sanctuary by his disempowered owner Will Rodman (James Franco). There is a roughly five to ten second scene where the young Caesar presses his tormented face against the glass partition in a desperate attempt to appeal to his owner to release him, not understanding that his former owner has no control over the situation. It is at this point you begin to realize the true potential of the underlying motion capture technology. And seeing this second movie confirms the fact that this harrowing and emotive scene was a sign of things to come for films utilizing motion capture.

In an effort to promote a visceral feel to the film the director chose to shoot in real locations rather than in front of a blue screen. This has not previously been done using motion capture technology. Matt Reeves dragged the entire cast of the movie out to the Vancouver Island rain-forest, along with all the technological paraphernalia, and made them act in a real life location (how quaint!), undeterred by the adverse weather conditions and all the soggy cameras. He then shot off to Weta Digital (the New Zealand based effects company responsible for most of the CGI in Avatar) and commissioned them to produce effects the likes of which has never been seen before on the big screen. And boy did they deliver!

This film has deservedly received widespread critical acclaim from all quarters of the film-critic world for its amazing visual effects and existence of an actual plot. The end result is so impressive in fact that Matt Reeve’s film company signed him up to direct the sequel before he could say “cheque please”.

If you leave the cinema and find yourself not to have been emotionally impacted by this movie then you will probably need to check your pulse to see that you are still alive.

Don’t be like some people who prefer to watch this movie in 2D just to save a couple of pounds! There is no justification for such thriftiness! Pay the full whack and deservedly enjoy the visceral, absorbing and immersive experience that is Dawn of the planet of the Apes in full 3D!

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My Review of Man of Steel

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The first trailer of this new Superman movie did not cause me to get too excited. After watching the next two trailers however I set about building a time machine in order to save me having to wait the next six months for the release date, the tantalizing snippets of awesome CGI creating within me a burning desire to see the film asap. But alas, my project failed. So I was forced to wait six tortuous months until this movie was finally released.

Just prior to watching the movie I had been somewhat alarmed by the mixed reviews. Having the very competent Christopher Nolan at the helm there seemed no way this film was destined for anything less than greatness (this is they guy who achieved the seemingly impossible task of making something as inherently absurd as a man flying around in a bat costume calling himself Batman seem quite sensible). So why all the negative reviews? Are they just nit picking or have they got a point?

The movie is basically given the same Nolan treatment as Batman –  dark, reflective, brooding, introspective – basically a sombre interpretation of the DC comic superhero. Does it work?  Well yes, sort of. At least for the first half of the movie. And this is in no short measure due to the mighty fine performance from Henry Cavill, the new kid on the superhero block. This chap was undoubtedly the right choice for the part, a thespian through and through, and more than capable of rising to the challenge of playing this Snyder/Nolan reinvention of Superman.

Things go slightly awry during the second half of the film however, when it starts to look more like a Transformers movie scaled up to crazy crazy levels. This is not a direct criticism of the epic spectacle that unfolds before your eyes. It’s just that it doesn’t quite square with the serious vibe created in the first half of the movie. It almost seems to flip genres halfway through the film, going from the characteristic brooding and dark Nolan style of directing to a Michael Bay all out maximum possible carnage and mayhem mode of directing, as Zac unleashes all the CGI driven urban destruction sequences he can possibly conjure up within the space of a single movie. And as visually impressive as all this is, it is frankly hard to take seriously.

Christopher Nolan’s directing style could not be more different from Zac Snyder’s. Nolan seems to loath CGI (or the very least excessive CGI). But he has learned to compensate for this aversion by becoming a master of practical effects. Dark Knight Rises is a good case in point. The impressive sequences involving the flying ‘Bat’ vehicle were achieved merely by dangling a physically built ‘Bat’ model from a helicopter via industrial strength cable, and then photoshopping the cable out of the picture. But the end result is surely more impressive than any CGI rendered ‘Bat’ vehicle Zac Snyder would have envisioned for the movie had he been the one directing it. Nolan seems able to create a sense of realism in his films using practical effects (enhanced slightly by a few bits of CGI here or there) that are virtually impossible to rival with even the most photorealistic CGI. The other difference is one of scale. Mr. Snyder’s huge and apocalyptic set pieces make Mr. Nolan’s action set pieces seem like minor localized disturbances in comparison. But this somewhat restrained style of action works well with the serious and grounded nature of Nolan’s approach to film making. But Snyder’s ‘Transformers style’ approach to film making does not work so well with it.

Having said all this there is more good to Zac Snyder’s reinvention of Superman than there is bad (as in my opinion is the case with Watchmen) and I feel the negative reviews are not doing justice to all that is good about this film. Very few, if any films are perfect, and the fact that this movie does not work perfectly should not prevent cinema audiences from acknowledging the tremendous merits of Zac Snyder’s work. Although the photorealism of Mr. Snyder’s effects are variable pretty much all of the CGI is visually impressive. And there is so much energy to the action scenes it is hard not to feel a sense of exhilaration at watching them. Mr. Snyder has all the fellows from planet Krypton whipping around at totally berserk speeds whilst they are on Earth battling one other, and if this hadn’t been so masterfully executed it would have looked just plain silly. But as it is Snyder is on top form with this aspect of the action sequences, the fast motion technique greatly enhancing the effectiveness of the action scenes.

            This movie is worth watching for sheer spectacle alone. There is one epic set piece after another, some of these scenes featuring some staggering visual effects. I would really love to see this movie in IMAX Digital 3D but since the nearest IMAX movie theatre to me is several hundred miles away it would not make a very cost effective trip. However I might walk there to save money.

My Review of the New Sci-fi Movie: Oblivion

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I rushed out to see the premier showing of this movie as a result of being impressed with the promising looking trailers for the film. My initial fears of a somewhat hollow movie (remember Tron Legacy from the same director a few years ago) fortunately turned out to be completely unfounded.

Kosinski’s directorial debut – Tron Legacy – was somewhat of a disappointment, particularly considering the acting behemoth at his disposal by the name of Jeff Bridges, the ample budget to thrift away on visual wizardry, and the most exhilarating of musical scores by Daft Punk. But alas, it turned out to be a classic case of style and aesthetics over substance. In Kosiniski’s defence however he did not write the script for Tron Legacy, one of the key elements which let the movie down so much (along with the piss poor dialogue). He did however co-write the screenplay for this movie. And it was not found wanting by any stretch of the imagination.

Before watching this movie I checked out a few online reviews as I normally do before watching these kinds of films. The first one I stumbled across was a review written by a journalist from the Guardian broadsheet. It reads: “A bafflingly solemn, lugubrious and fantastically derivative sci-fi…..with little snippets of Top Gun.” What!!! What is this guy on? Did he actually watch the right movie? Perhaps he accidentally saw GI Joe or something by mistake. I would have expected such a comment from someone who writes for a right wing newspaper, but the Guardian is actually a left wing paper (I know – I double checked just to be sure.)

It is near impossible nowadays to make any sci-fi movie that bears absolutely zero resemblance, visually or with respect to plot references, to any sci-fi movie that went before it. However a good sci-fi movie will have enough of its own ideas and original plot line to bring genuine surprise and suspense to an audience. And this movie meets this criteria with flying colours. In addition to the suspenseful plot line, solid lead role by Tom Cruise, and incredible visuals, there is plenty of atmosphere too. And not only are the visuals very impressive but they are also very innovative, as one might expect from a former visionary architect.

And the fact that Joseph Kosinski is a former architect really shines through in the gorgeous aesthetic design of this film (as it did in some respects with Tron Legacy too). Aside from the amazing computer generated effects there is lots of stunning cinematography (I’m pretty sure of Iceland) that has clearly been computer enhanced (courtesy of Photoshop I think).

From the trailers I was already expecting the film to be quite spectacular on a visual level, and in that respect it certainly didn’t disappoint. But in terms of quality of plot this film far exceeded my expectations. In no way does this film resemble a typical summer blockbuster pop corn movie. Whilst the film admittedly does not demand huge amounts of grey matter to comprehend what is going on, it does nonetheless have a lot of soul to it. And there are some great plot twists to boot. I certainly don’t see how anyone could legitimately complain this film is too predictable.

Without question the best movie of the year so far (for what that is worth). I would have loved to see this in IMAX (or even 3-D wouldn’t have been bad). But even on a plain old fashioned 2-D screen this movie impacts hugely on a visual level.

This is my favourite genre of film – a sci-fi with soul!

Review of Dark Knight Rises

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The Dark Knight Rises

One of the truly remarkable aspects of Christopher Nolan’s batman trilogy is how sensible he makes it all seem given the absurd premise of the film, that of being a grown man dressed up as a giant bat flying around Gotham City at night with a huge pair of wings attached to his back. It is a bit like when you are having one of those weird dreams where everyone is behaving completely bonkers and you find nothing odd about it while you are asleep. It is only upon awakening that you realize just how crazy it all was. Similarly with Christopher Nolan’s films, it is only when reflecting on the movie afterwards that it fully dawns on you that in concept at least, his movies are just plain potty. In a sense however Batman has always been the more grounded of superheroes, who rather than possessing genuine superpowers is basically a trained Ninja who happens to be loaded, and is consequently able to acquire loads of cool gadgets and weaponry via his vast wealth and resources. But Christopher Nolan takes the realism aspect to a whole different level.

Prior to seeing this movie I fervently went through all the critic reviews I could find with the intent of discovering just how well this latest movie matches up to Mr. Nolan’s previous forays into the batman universe, given that he has raised the bar so very high with both Batman Begins and particularly Dark Knight, the prequel to this latest film. The opinions on this issue seemed somewhat mixed, which in retrospect after having watched the movie myself I find a bit baffling. I would have to go along with the general consensus however that the villain in the Dark Knight Rises could not be equated with the astonishing and mesmerizing performance of the late Heath Ledger, who portrayed the Joker character with such incredible panache and disturbing skin crawling menace. However Bane is still a very effective villain, and is so different in nature to the Joker villain it is hard to meaningfully make direct comparisons. But certainly Tom Hardy’s performance could not be criticized in any way, nor could the rendition of the underlying villainous character he was playing. It was superbly devised and superbly executed. This one observation notwithstanding, I would categorically rate Dark Knight Rises as being the most absorbing, visually stunning, suspenseful and epic of the Batman franchise to date. In fact I cannot think of another movie that I have seen recently that had such a profound effect on me.

There are a number of different elements working together which make the film what it is, but it is clear that Christopher Nolan’s zealously grounded approach to film-making has really paid off in this latest movie. It is no secret that Mr. Nolan is not a particularly huge fan of CGI, and will only use computer generated imagery when forced to do so in order to visually portray an element of the film that would be impossible to do otherwise. This movie is without doubt visually groundbreaking in its realism, which given the remarkably photo-realistic computer effects of contemporary big budget CGI driven movies is a very strong statement to make, but one that is completely justified however. Your eyes will be popping out of your head through much of the movie and at some points in the film your jaw will drop so low it might actually come off.

One aspect of the visuals is the stunning cinematography, including sweeping panoramic aerial shots of Gotham City at night. The other is Christopher Nolan’s incredible utilization of physically custom built apparatus and machines, combined no doubt at times with some computer wizardry, but in a fully seamless way. Nothing, and I mean nothing in this film looks like anything slightly resembling computer generated graphics, and it is only your common sense that tells you that CGI must have been incorporated in certain parts of the film in order for you to be seeing what you are seeing.

Compared to its predecessor the narrative is more tightly focused on the central storyline without multiple themes and subplots to distract the viewer’s attention away from the main plot of the film, which is unfortunately something which made the previous Dark Knight movie feel slightly fragmented and disjointed at times. And this film is better for it, promoting a more gripping, suspenseful and absorbing narrative. Gone too (almost) are the pretentious overly melodramatic lines of dialogue which were present in the previous film, which unfortunately didn’t always work too well. There are as usual certain political and economic undertones incorporated within the movie, providing the striking dichotomy between serious contemporary issues and a universe where a man flies around the city at night calling himself Batman. Nonetheless it still works. And works extremely well.

Although the movie’s running time comes in at a whopping 165 minutes, the nearly three hours spent sitting in a cinema seat just whipped by, the profound and mysterious time dilation effect no doubt resulting from the total immersion in the film’s gripping narrative and stunning action sequences. The movie certainly has an emotional wallop to it and it is hard for the film not to impact on this level due to the convincing realism of the movie and the fact you are gradually getting drawn further and further into the Batman universe and correspondingly developing an increasing emotional investment in the fates and misfortunes of the main characters of the film. And there is the mother of all twists at the end to boot. All this combines to produce what is undoubtedly one of the most stunning films to come out of Hollywood in recent years. Rest assured I will be seeing this movie on the big screen as many times as my wallet will allow me to.

I never dreamt in a million years that at 41 years of age I would be proclaiming a Batman movie to be one of the greatest films ever made. But today I make such a proclamation.