Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DeBlois, 2014)

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Follow the link for my How to Train Your Dragon 2 review for St Andrews student newspaper The Saint:

http://www.thesaint-online.com/2014/07/how-to-train-your-dragon-review/

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)

The awkwardly titled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes suffers from the strange phenomenon of the eponymous Simians being more interesting than their human counterparts. Realised in intricate physical detail and state-of-the-art motion capture, the rebellious apes are far more fascinating than the more familiar human resistance.  Perhaps this is intentional. Their inner struggle for power and dominance holds something human within it; perhaps in the bloody histories of ancient Roman and Greek societies, consciously alluded to in the ape camp by the name of their leader and moral stalwart – Caesar (Andy Serkis, digital chameleon extraordinaire).

This latest Apes instalment chronicles the developing life of Caesar, whose infant years we saw fostered by James Franco in the previous film in 2011. Franco has disappeared from the picture much like the majority the humankind after the Simian Flu, signposted at the end of Rise, wheedles the human population down to endangered levels. The human contingent in Dawn are spearheaded, in their intermittent moments of unity, by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and his band of eco-scientists. The human race here, backing into a corner like a helpless rat, have a ubiquitous propensity for violence. They are pitted ill-fatedly against a budding Simian society, still trying to iron out moral maxims and an ordered state while attempting to outgrow animalistic tendencies – at least in the case of progressive leader Caesar.

The following negotiations illustrate how both camps are fractured, showcasing how one society may hold entirely contradictory views, and also the trembling house of cards that is peaceful negotiations between opposing ideologies. Dreyfus’ closest comparison in the mirrored ape camp is Koba (Toby Kebbell), a terrifying, scarred individual, whose solution is always violence not peace. Oldman’s character shares only the facial features of that quiet pinnacle of morality Commissioner Jim Gordon – his sentiments here are pure self-preservation.  Dawn is therefore a surprisingly anthropological, philosophical film which raises issues of state vs. individual free will and the need for compromise in international (or inter-species) politics.

It would have been easy for Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) to forget about these sophisticated issues and loose the film in multi-million dollar visuals and set-pieces. And make no mistake they are there – gun-toting apes ride on horseback into battle, the streets ablaze; two alpha-males fight it out atop a teetering skyscraper in the urban jungle – but are less memorable than the story. The trick is in making the characters the centre of the action, not the artifice of digital animation. Reeves does not focus on inanimate hunks of churning metal, or alienating structures too huge to contemplate. Dawn is as far away from Transformers as a modern blockbuster can be.

While all this is commendable, there are some issues in the film’s consistency. The apes speak in sign language for most of the first half, (which is a brave step, one that assumes a level of healthy engagement from the audience), but then abruptly switch to mainly spoken word. This transition seemed ham-fisted, and fails to allow for the surrounding apes’ lower intelligence levels compared to that of genetically enhanced and human-schooled Caesar. The film’s marketing also seems intentionally misdirecting – the posters and promotional material feature images of a burning Golden Gate bridge, suggesting a battle for territory from either side. No such set piece exists, indeed the bridge only features in several sequences in establishing shots to show the apes moving towards the human camp. While the film itself isn’t at fault, viewers may be expecting a finale which takes a very different shape from the actual one.

Rise of the Dawn of the Surface Beneath the Planet of the Apes provides intelligent, technically staggering visual fare for midsummer audiences. The pioneering step in motion capture of being able to shoot on location really provides a character focus for the film’s action sequences, which at no point feel elongated or bloated with meaningless, inhumane destruction. It’s a little odd to root for the apes, but they seem to embody ‘personhood’ if not biological humanity as the narrative develops, and the film remains an entertaining, semi-philosophical experience.

Film Review: Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)

Boyhood is an entirely new genre of film. It is a different beast from normal biopics, which in light of director Richard Linklater’s latest are clearly constrained: by the quality of the star, the time the film is allowed to shoot, the authenticity of the script, and the importance of the individual story in wider context. All of these elements strive for an impression of permanence and longevity through cinematic tricks and emulations, but the combination of these factors is always a compromise for the real deal: a genuine portrait of an ordinary person dealing with universal issues. Boyhood succeeds where countless biopics have failed (indeed their failure was not even evident until this release). It captures the cumulative minutiae of childhood in a manner never before seen. For late members of Generation Y (born through 90s/early 00s), Boyhood is sure to uncannily reflect, at least in part, moments and emotions shared in our own childhood. It is a poignant and profound experience watching this film being approximately the age that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) ends up at the end – 18, embarking on a new life at University.  Coltrane’s depiction fosters a particularly cinematic detachment, where the audience can assimilate his slightly aloof persona and observe the relationships that flourish around him.

But let’s backtrack. The concept for Boyhood is a simple one. It follows core members in a family (fictional, although as we will see there is a fine line) over the course of 12 years. Linklater’s primary focus is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who is an ordinary child (eventually man) with a youth punctuated by dysfunctional stepfathers and snapshots of his biological parents’ broken marriage. Linklater’s camera also follows Mason’s sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, his own daughter), their mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke).  Each of these four key actors excels throughout the film’s mammoth duration – both in production and nearly 3 hour running time – incredibly returning to roles each year with seamless professionalism. That the narrative runs so smoothly is an enduring achievement. These actors clearly care deeply about their roles, and as a result it’s impossible for the audience not to invest in their creations.

Over the course of 12 years, we see gradual transformations in both parents. Arquette’s role as mother is a tough one as she struggles to cope with alcoholism in two separate partners, while simultaneously training for a demanding teaching job she idolises. Hawke on the other hand chronicles his father-figures path from muscle car enthusiast to mini-van owner; mellowing gradually as he settles down to a different path, still centred around his children. These stories are not normally notable; there is no claim to fame or revelatory experience. It’s all gradual and organic. Life has a way of evolving by itself, changing subtly, undetected until suddenly everything is different. To capture this notion is essentially cinematic, and marks a landmark for the modern medium.

Music is ever-present throughout this mundane epic (in the unremarkable, earthly, sprawling sense), and its use is a reminder of how useful tracks are in providing milestones for our lives and memories. A certain melody can be entirely evocative of a specific time and place, a notion fully employed in Linklater’s soundtrack, which also helps place us in time in a film without explicit chronological grounding. The soundtrack will provide many uncanny alignments for people of Mason’s generation, myself included, the discovery of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Black Keys, Arcade Fire (whose album The Suburbs seems to compliment this film perfectly) and many others are made fresh and invigorating.

Boyhood is a new form of portrait; the image left to expose for 12 years, the colours growing richer, the details infinitesimally defined. The Italian Neo-realists strived for naturalistic depictions of real people in the 40s/50s, highlighting the importance of not letting directorial manipulation obscure the true nature of real characters. I can think of no other film where I was more invested in the characters as I was in Boyhood; where worrying for their safety was genuine, edge-of-your-seat attachment. For me, this attachment was not fully evident until the film finished, and my body felt physically released. Without being fully conscious of it, I was rooting for this family in the tension of my muscles, the sweatiness of my palms, and the unwavering engagement of my gaze. This is the type of film I will show my children, to evoke a sense of time and place, the showcasing of a universal mood, a bottled zeitgeist. Throughout all this, Boyhood’s uniquely fictional ensemble seems essentially real in a way few creations dream of.

 

Thoughts on… Shutter Island (Scorcese, 2010)

Psychological twist-thriller Shutter Island was pushed back 4 months for its eventual release in 2010 because of Paramount’s busy (read: costly) awards schedule the previous year. One would have thought that this would have given time for director Martin Scorcese to tighten up the film’s screws, as it were, make sure everything was ship-shape in this narrative voyage to a creepy island asylum. Instead the film exhibits a looseness not typically associated with the American auteur, and is one of the signs that perhaps he enjoyed himself rather too much in the making of it.

An aesthetic vein of schlock horror runs through Shutter Island (Scorcese, 2010)

An aesthetic vein of schlock horror runs through Shutter Island (Scorcese, 2010)

That is not to say the film fails to entertain. The problem of indulgence seems to germinate from the source material, where author Denis Lehane throws a lot of things at the wall – mental patients, grisly murders, crazy Nazis, crazy doctors, crazy Nazi doctors – not all of which stick. It’s as if Lehane wanted a release from his previous novel Mystic River (later adapted into an Oscar-winning film by Clint Eastwood); the story feels a little wild or untamed, a little garish. And that’s fine if you buy into it. In the film most people probably do, which is littered with famous faces channelling ‘deadly serious’ with the schlocky script.

I mean schlocky in both a good and bad way here. Good in the sense of old 50s monster movies or the inaugural generation of US comic books, where the outlandish becomes the norm and the narrative intrigue is drawn in the broadest of strokes. You can imagine the marketing for this feature being plastered in cantered scarlet lettering, perpetually resolved by exclamation marks: EXPERIENCE THE TERROR! WITNESS THE SHOCKS! INVESTIGATE THE INSANITY! Scorcese fully embodies Lehane’s intentions here. The latter describes the book as a mix of ‘the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley’ (this is accurate to a point, though it is a crude mix of these writers’ crudest elements), and there are some genuinely troubling images – my first viewing of the film was incomplete as my 15-year-old self couldn’t bear the tension in the prison sequence; the frames were obscured by my latticed fingers and were only filled in last night.  At times it feels like Scorcese is making a film from another era: the colour palette is reminiscent of 50s Technicolour, the music is overbearing and garish in its heavy shearing strings (a la Hitchcock), and the characters are talking stereotypes (how many times must DiCaprio assert he is a ‘federal mah-shal’?). And all this is good!

…to a point. The looseness I referred to before degrades the finished product of Shutter Island. It comes somewhere between the editing and the narrative’s shifts in tone. A certain amount of sloppiness is incurred by the narrative territory; we are in a disturbed man’s mind and therefore not everything should be functional. Indeed Scorcese has fun with this in some obvious continuity errors, e.g. a woman drinking from a glass in her hand which isn’t there, but this intentional disruption has a limit, and Shutter Island crosses it. The disjointed editing at times is very surprising, as Scorcese once again teams with his lifetime editor confidante Thelma Schoonmaker, whose economical cinematic scissors oversaw such tightly-wound classics as Raging Bull and GoodFellas.  All this combines to an overwhelming conclusion – that Shutter Island is Scorcese cutting loose, letting off steam. There aren’t many directors who I would pay to watch indulge themselves, but Scorcese is one of them (you can guess I walked out happy from Wolf of Wall Street aswell).

NB. The Hitchcockian comparison runs deep – Scorcese screened Vertigo for the cast to set the mood for the picture; the film’s climax even features a chase up a vertiginous spiral staircase.