Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

Dawn Of The Planet Of The ApesTen winters have passed since Simian flu devastated the human race and left a new generation of uber-apes to inherit the Earth. They are ruled by Caeser (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee indirectly responsible for both man’s demise and the ape uprising, who leads alongside Koba (Toby Kebbell), his trusted second in command. When a small number of humans are found to have survived, however, the relationship between Caeser and Koba begins to fray; mindful of the friendship he once shared with a human Caeser pushes for peace, while Koba insists that they eradicate their one-time abusers once and for all. There is disharmony in the human camp too, with Malcolm (Jason Clarke) wanting to work alongside the apes in order the restore power to San Francisco and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) determined to declare all-out war on Muir Woods.

It speaks volumes about the legacy of Tim Burton’s ill-fated reboot that even after the unexpected success of Richard Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes audiences are still skeptical of the franchise’s modern-day reimagining. This year’s sequel, despite all evidence to the contrary, was widely expected to undo Wyatt’s good work and reinstate the series’ standing as a laughing stock. In reality, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps even better than its predecessor; the title may be just as cumbersome, but everything else is sleeker and even more satisfying than before.

Following a brief newsreel hinting at the scale and severity of the initial ALZ-113 outbreak, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes eschews humanity in favour of ape-kind, checking in with Caeser and the family he has raised over the last decade. The original film was remarkable for a number of reasons, the most obvious being its portrayal of Caeser himself. Serkis is once again exceptional, combining well-observed behavioural ticks and intuitive sign language to give Caeser unmistakable personality. He is this time joined by a number of other talented motion-capture artists too; Kebbell and Greer are terrific as Caeser’s advisor and mate, but it’s newcomer Nick Thurston who ultimately impresses most as his wary son, Blue Eyes.

Despite bravely shifting the focus to Caeser, the emotional centre of the previous film was arguably John Lithgow’s Charles, the Alzheimer’s-stricken father of Caeser’s human guardian. Here, however, the human characters barely feature (though Keri Russell still manages to distinguish herself as a grieving mother), and on this occasion it’s the relationship between Caeser and his son that grounds the film emotionally. The corrupted youth trope is hardly a new one, but the unique setting and singular characters nevertheless lend it an element of novelty, if not originality. Their relationship is as nuanced, touching and sympathetic as any you are likely to see this year.

This is far from a subdued melodrama, however, and Matt Reeves — who directed Cloverfield prior to the rather less successful Let Me In— certainly knows how to stage an effective set piece. This being a prequel we already know roughly what is going to happen, but Reeves still manages to invoke a sense of suspense by keeping the stakes personal and the characters interesting. After a moment of light relief in which Malcolm et al manage to generate enough electricity to power a gas station radio, war returns to San Francisco as the horse-riding, gun-totting apes lead a charge on the virus-resistant human resistance. Chaos erupts as battles break out — human vs. human, human vs. ape, ape vs. ape — and each conflict is as compelling as the one before.

Given the law of diminishing returns, whereupon sequels — let alone sequels of prequels of reboots — regularly fail to live up to their predecessors, it’s all the more remarkable that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is as good as it is. With its state-of-the-art special effects, quasi-satirical subtext and measured character study, this is undoubtedly one of the strongest competitors for best blockbuster of the year.

4-Stars

Arthur Christmas (2011)

With Christmas having been progressively militarised by Steven Claus (Hugh Laurie) in his figurehead father’s (Jim Broadbent) growing laziness, the magic of Christmas is under threat as presents are dispassionately delivered by diligent, absailing elves aboard a giant aircraft instead of by Santa in his trusty sleigh. When a child is missed and left presentless, lost in the operation’s margin of error, the forever festive Arthur Claus (James McAvoy) takes matters into his own hands, recruiting the elderly Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and endeavouring to deliver the child’s present using the old man’s archaic sled, Evie, along with one of his sole remaining reindeer and gift-wrapper extraordinaire Bryony (Ashley Jensen). Unfortunately, their crude equipment and the lateness of the hour leads to a number of sightings and their mission is mistaken by for an alien invasion. With the world’s armed forces in hot pursuit, Steven and Clause Senior must put aside their dispute about the future of the Santa brand and help Arthur before it is too late.

Following last year’s Finnish tale of feral Santamen who slay reindeer and punish naughty children, it is a bit of a relief to return to more traditional fare with an animated comedy about a good-natured misfit who just wants a perfect Christmas for all. The first CGI film from Aardman, Arthur Christmas treats the Santa myth with mock seriousness as it tries to put a decidedly British spin on a character who has to date largely been played by Americans. A note perfect voice over from Outnumbered‘s Ramona Marquez sets the scene beautifully as her character enquires as to Santa’s means of accomodating population growth and why his headquarters do not appear on Google Earth, hinting at the Aardman’s own quality that we are about to enjoy.

The voice cast is quite simply sublime, with the dulcet tones of Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Palin, Eva Longoria,  Andy Serkis, Dominic West and Joan Cusack filling out an ensemble that prove just as effective as the Claus’ they support. It is the unbeatable combination of Bill Nighy’s senile curmudgeon, Jim Broadbent’s out-of-touch has-been, Hugh Laurie’s ambitious commander and Ashley Jensen’s rookie elf that ultimately steals the show, however, with only McAvoy struggling to keep the eponymous Arthur on just the right side of annoying.

Like any Aardman production, however, it is the attention to detail and keen wit that sets the movie a Wallace and Gromit apart from the competition. With the exception of a clunky extra-terrestrial subplot, the film rattles along at an astounding pace as the visuals delight and the wordplay engages, both parents and children able to enjoy the jokes as equals. Gently mocking everything from Toronto, to alien-fearing Americans, to Christmas itself, the gags come thick and fast as the studio’s genius is put to reliably good use. The film’s message about the sterility of technology, however, might have been more effective had this not marked Aardman’s controversial embrace of computer generated 3D.

Although some may miss the nostalgic thumb-prints, there is no denying that this isn’t classic Aardman at its best.  Though the narrative may lose its way towards the film’s bloated mid-section, all involved regroup with such gusto for the inspired resolution that any earlier fumblings couldn’t be further from your mind. Witty, clever, and yet wonderfully absurd, Arthur Christmas is a very welcome addition to the Christmas film cannon.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Spying a bargain and acquiring a model boat, roving reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) immediately finds himself protecting his purchase from two other would-be customers. Warned by one that his life is now in danger, Tintin is left bewildered as his benefactor is shot and his model stolen. When the man responsible is unable to find what he is looking for, a small parchment that fell from the replica when Tintin’s dog Snowy broke it, he kidnaps the reporter and smuggles him aboard the Karaboudjan under the nose of the ship’s alcoholic captain. Escaping from his confines, Tintin befriends Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who is himself being held in a sort of prison, and depart the ship on a life-boat. Setting sale for Morocco, the Karaboudjan‘s original destination, the two slowly unravel the mystery of the model ship’s worth, entering into a race to discover the whereabouts of Red Rackham’s (Daniel Craig) treasure.

I think my favourite thing about The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is how much fun it is; a pre-requisite for an action-adventure blockbuster, you’d have thought, but remarkable nonetheless. Gone are the staid childhood traumas, the trite sexual politics and the misplaced existential angst that needlessly riddle other such movies, replaced instead with an extra scattering of set pieces and a potent thirst for adventure. While there will be those who lament the lack of character development and bemoan the apparent absence of psychological complexity, there’s always We Need To Talk About Kevin, for everyone else Tintin has everything you could ever want from a Spielbergian popcorn movie.

For the very existence of Tintinology as a field of study indicates that there is more to our boy hero than might initially meet the eye. You don’t need a poorly written female foil or a soliloquy denoting inner turmoil to read complexity into a character, people can – and have been – drawing conclusions about Tintin for years. For everyone willing to take Hergé’s cypher at face value, however, little is lost; the character’s friendships, gusto and improbable luck proving suitably engaging without a Mrs. Tintin standing in the kitchen to be kidnapped for dramatic effect, undressed on cue or used to convince America’s Deep South that our hero, like, isn’t gay or anything.

While Spielberg has thankfully remained true to the characters (poor, poor Sherlock Holmes, what has Guy Richie done to you!?), he has inevitably been forced to cash in his creative licence on occasion, particularly when it comes to the film’s plot. Taking the book of the same name, shoehorning in large swathes of previous story The Crab With The Golden Claws, and largely ignoring the concluding instalment, Red Rackham’s Treasure, Spielberg’s adaptation is a veritable melting-pot of ideas taken from throughout the entire series. While this might disenfranchise less forgiving fans, and leave everyone with even a passing familiarity with the source material scratching their heads (I for one found the pacing off until I realised what was being left out and what was being kept in), it ultimately works beautifully. Taken on its own merits, as any successful adaptation should be, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn is an absolute delight.

Opening with an absolutely inspired montage which highlights classic moments from both Tintin’s past and future, the sequence beautifully demonstrates not only the director’s embrace of his newfangled, motion-capture enabled freedom, but also gives John Williams the opportunity to showcase his truly accomplished score. Much like Edgar Wright’s work on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Spielberg’s Tintin dances between scenes with utmost fluidity and imagination: whether cutting through a reflective bubble or alternating between delirium and reality – sand giving way to ocean – this really is the director’s most visually captivating film to date. Not only does he bring Hergé’s art to life with the utmost zeal, he uses his new medium to create the ultimate motion comic. Film.

It is clear that the director is having almost as much fun as his audience, with the film building up a truly astonishing momentum, particularly during one memorable set piece involving a motorbike, a bazooka and a beautifully realised city-slide. Referencing the comic’s mythology (take a bow, Bianca Castafiore) as often as he does his own body of work (one sequence harks back to the boulder-chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, while another references Jaws), Tintin is a feast for the senses that will more than likely still have much to give through repeated viewings.

With Spielberg’s take on the narrative, however, there are inevitably scenes and characters missing in action: Thomson (Simon Pegg) and Thompson (Nick Frost – with a ‘p’, like in psychology) barely feature, Professor Calculus is absent altogether and the entire treasure hunt is scrapped in favour of a duel between warring cranes. That said, it is difficult to criticise a film for what it leaves out, and with Spielberg and second-unit director Peter Jackson drawing influences from the series as a whole it is likely that there sequences won’t be lost forever. A definite saving grace considering the comedy that could be mined from the scene in which the police officers attempt to chew tobacco or the professor’s hearing impairment.

While Hergé’s whimsical and ludicrous plotting may prove too contrived for some viewers (Tintin does spend an awful lot of time in exposition mode), the character’s transition to screen is otherwise a huge success. Exquisitely rendered and perfectly voiced (Andy Serkis, you ARE Captain Haddock), The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a breathtaking, pulse-pounding and laugh-out-loud funny piece of cinema; an absolute blast from beginning to end. Gobs will be smacked.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Having watched his father succumb to the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Will Rodman (James Franco) has spent the last five years of his life working on a cure. Observing the increased cognitive functions of a chimpanzee subjected to ALZ112, the next stage in testing – the all important human trials – are undermined by a display of violence. Ordered to put down the animal test subjects, Rodman’s assistant stops short when an infant is discovered. Taking it home, Rodman grows attached to the chimp, who quickly displays heightened intelligence suggesting the serum’s effects have been passed down by the mother. Convinced of the drugs effectiveness, Rodman ignores protocol and tests it on his ailing father.

Charles Rodman’s (John Lithgow) speedy recovery is maintained over the next five years as Caeser (Andy Serkis), the adopted chimpanzee, grows up, quickly outperforming many of his human peers at a series of cognitive tasks. When Charles’ immune system begins to fight back against AL112, however, Will returns to the lab in pursuit of a more aggressive strain of the drug. When Caeser displays aggression in protecting a confused Charles, he is deemed dangerous and forced into captivity. Brutalised by his captors, Caeser plans an escape that will not only liberate his fellow apes, but subject them to the same drug that gave his mother such increased intelligence in the first place.

Arrogant scientist, check; cure for Alzheimer’s disease, check; super-intelligent animals, check; so far so Deep Blue Sea. What separates Rise of the Planet of the Apes from its shark-toothed predecessor is its superior balance between set-up and set-piece. For the majority of the movie evolution takes precedence over revolution, Caeser’s growth and development providing an in for audiences that somehow manages to nurture genuine affection for a CGI chimpanzee. Before Caeser is even born, however, we see how the whole programme came into fruition, thanks to the desperate and overraught motivations of one man; a scientist tirelessly trying to help his sick father.

Franco gives an incredibly nuanced performance as Will, one that swings organically from autocratic to sympathetic with very few beats in between. Will’s relief when his father shows signs of recovery is understated but incredibly moving; the relationship he fosters with Freida Pinto’s concerned veterinary surgeon is unnecessary but touching; his parenting of a infant chimpanzee is far-fetched but resoundingly real. Whatever is to be said of the effects and peripheral filmmaking, and there is much to be said, it is Will’s relationship with his father (John Lithgow is quite simply sublime) as much as anything else that makes this film such an unexpected success.

Unexpected? Yes, I believe it is. Prequels don’t have the most assuring track record, and following Tim Burton’s revision of the original movie, neither does the franchise itself. This only serves to make director Rupert Wyatt’s success all the more triumphant. Having previously directed Brian Cox in 2008’s The Escapist, Wyatt reunites with the one time Hannibal for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, adding to an already impressive ensemble which helps to flesh out even the most stock of characters. Tom Felton’s Dodge is pure pantomime villain, but the actor brings the most fleeting trace of humanity to the character, rendering him all the more real.

Let there be no mistake, however, this is Serkis’ movie. Like Lord of the Rings and King Kong before it – heck even without the aid of special effects he managed to steal The Cottage right from under a beautifully profane Jennifer Ellison – Serkis breathes such life into his character that it is utterly impossible to look away. Not least does this allow audiences to emote to what is ultimately a ludicrous combination of a man covered in plastic balls and a few million dollars worth of pixels, but it enables viewers to suspend disbelief even further than they might have been able otherwise. The scene in which Caeser vocalises for the first time, for example, is exceedingly well done. It is nevertheless the scene which, in less able hands, might have easily derailed the entire movie. Deep Blue Sea wouldn’t even have dared.

A combination of outstanding performances, superlative effects work and unparalleled direction ensure that Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t disappoint. Better than it should have been, better than it’s paragraph of a name suggests, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a moving, heartfelt tribute to a cult classic. Telling a small story which is given the freedom to escalate, Wyatt has followed up J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 with a movie of equal power and affection. It looks like summer was a little late this year. Thank goodness it was worth the wait.