Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

2014 #121
Matt Reeves | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes surprised a lot of people by being an intelligent, understated blockbuster — that’s not something Hollywood makes any more, and certainly not when they’re rebooting a recognisable IP. It was born of some writers having a good idea, which just so happened to work when told within the Apes universe. The danger with a sequel, of course, is that it’s designed from the off to be a big tentpole franchise movie. Fear not, dear reader, because Dawn has taken its predecessor’s values to heart, offering another slice of character-driven science-fiction drama with lashings of big-budget action as a side dish.

The film begins ten years on from the end of Rise, with the apes having established a life in the forests near San Francisco — they hunt deer in packs with spears; they have a kind of ‘ape city’; there’s a sort of school of youngsters; leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a wife and a couple of kids; etc. Humanity, meanwhile, has fared less well: the virus from the end of the last film has all but wiped them out, and the apes haven’t seen or heard from Man in years. That is until a party of survivors arrive, searching for a hydroelectric dam they intend to fire up. When one of them shoots an ape in fear, the stage is set for all kinds of conflict…

From here, Dawn continues on in various interesting directions. This isn’t the kind of blockbuster that sets out a simple premise then follows it up with half a dozen action sequences, possibly with a twist at the end. No, this is the story of Ape and Man learning to interact and coexist — or, rather, failing to. Political machinations abound — and that’s just in the Ape camp. Indeed, we spend most of our time with the apes, CGI having now evolved to such a point where it can truly create Characters, not just, y’know, Jar Jar Binks.

The Big (Ape) SocietyA heady mix of solid writing from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, peerless motion-captured performances from the likes of Serkis and Toby Kebbell, and first-rate CG magic from Weta, brings us a set of characters who are compelling and believable. Here is a society trying to define what it wants to be, battling old prejudices in the hope of a peaceful, secure, happy future. If you want to draw analogies to almost any real-world political situation, I’m sure you could.

What’s perhaps most fascinating is that it’s the apes’ future we’re most invested in. It’s not that they’re the Good Guys and humans are the Bad Guys — there are heroes and villains on both sides, just another aspect of the film’s relative maturity — but that we care more about what happens to ape society than human.

In fairness, that’s in part because the human side of the equation is a bit of a damp squib. Jason Clarke is an adequate but blank lead; as his new love and son-from-before, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee have an aimless subplot; Gary Oldman is an excellent ‘villain’, in restrained “trying to do the best for his people” mode rather than the all-out-loon he’s best known for, but is sadly underused. Some people have found this to be a major problem with the film; honestly, I don’t. The apes are the focus and that’s fine. It would work better with even less of humanity, in fact — as I said, the wife-and-son subplot adds nothing, and the screentime could be better spent elsewhere.

Ape assaultLest you get the wrong impression, the film isn’t all talk. For various spoiler-y reasons, the fragile relationship between Man and Ape breaks down, and the apes stage an attack on humanity. Here we get perhaps one of the best siege action sequences I can think of, with mankind holed up in a half-constructed skyscraper that sits conveniently at the end of a long street for the apes to charge down. Reeves’ direction is virtuosic here, crafting an epic and exciting sequence even when most of the film’s major players are busy elsewhere. And it’s not even the climax.

In some respects that’s a bold move — the action is story-led rather than scale-led, meaning the big memorable action sequence is at the end of act two instead of the climax. The downside is that someone seems to have realised this, forcing the film to climax with a punch-out atop a crumbling skyscraper — so far, so superhero blockbuster. I can understand the impulse to make the finale a big action-based number, and at least they didn’t go for some kind of rehash-with-bells-on from what worked earlier in the film, but — unlike that earlier sequence — it doesn’t offer anything terribly fresh. Still, in a film that’s more about its story than the originality of its action beats, perhaps we can let that slide.

Said story has been labelled predictable by some, which is a tad harsh. Of course the apes and humans are going to come into conflict — that’s kind of the point. We all know where this ends up, after all. It’s the journey that’s interesting, and Reeves and co make it so. This is a major turning point in ape-human relations, and therefore in the Apes saga. That makes it a story worth telling, even if the import is undersold occasionally Caesarthanks to some surprisingly small-scale narrative choices (the whole thing with the dam doesn’t feel nearly as vital as it should) and Reeves’ direction sometimes being a little straightforward and almost TV-ish. I know I’ve said I hate when people use that as a derogatory comment nowadays, but some repeated locations and shot choices make the film feel cheaper than it was.

It’s difficult to say whether Dawn is a better movie than Rise (and I’ve seen people argue both sides unequivocally) because they’re actually quite different styles of film. That, surely, is a good thing — as I said before, this is now a franchise driven by the story it wants to tell, rather than a need to repeat old glories or offer a certain quota of adrenaline. Sit me down in front of Rise again and I might change my mind, but, with its intelligent depiction of an ape society, constant tension, and one absolutely first-class battle sequence, I’m tempted to declare Dawn the victor.

5 out of 5

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Waitress (2007)

2010 #31
Adrienne Shelly | 103 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Whenever a star, director, writer, or other key creative dies during or around the production of a film, it’s apparently tempting to draw some kind of correlation between their death and the themes or content of their work. To force such a link between the murder of writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelly and Waitress seems inappropriate, however, when the film is so much about life.

The basic plot could be made to sound identical to Juno’s, if one really wanted (I don’t though, so this won’t): Keri Russell (TV’s Felicity) plays titular waitress Jenna, a genius creator of delicious pies, who finds herself unwelcomely pregnant after a drunken night with her controlling, abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto, TV’s Kidnapped). When Jenna visits her (female) doctor, she’s been replaced by (male) Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, TV’s Firefly), an awkward, slightly bumbling man who, to cut the story slightly short, she falls for and they begin to have an affair — despite his being married (to fellow doctor Francine (Darby Stanchfield, TV’s Mad Men)).

Jenna tries to keep her pregnancy secret from Earl, with the support of her friends Becky (Cheryl Hines, TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm), who has a secret of her own, and Dawn (Shelly), who’s being stalked by her one-time five-minute-date Ogie (Eddie Jemison, TV’s Hung). And she tries to keep her affair with Dr Pomatter secret from everyone, though it seems she can’t hide anything from perceptive elderly diner-owner Joe (Andy Griffith, TV’s Matlock).

Bun in the ovenI know I recently said I don’t give plot descriptions, but it’s these threads that illuminate Waitress’ life-affirming themes. Becky and Dawn show there’s hope for happiness with whatever hand you’ve been dealt, even where you least expect it; Ogie, Joe (and diner chef Cal (TV’s occasional guest star Lew Temple)) show you can’t judge a book by its cover; Joe also offers Jenna the gift of premature hindsight thanks to his reminisces and regrets; and then there’s the baby, who, aside from the obvious, represents fresh starts. None of these are hammered home quite as bluntly as I have here — not even the baby one — but my observations show, I suppose, what I took from them.

Though every performance excels, Shelly’s screenplay is the real star. To bring up the Juno similarity again, it features a quite idiosyncratic style of dialogue, particularly when delivered through the cast’s Southern accents. It’s also very funny, but never allows this to interfere with the more serious elements. Some have criticised it for putting so much levity near such tragic topics; I can only assume they live in a different world to our’s, presumably one where either everything is punctuated by a laughter track or one where everything is underscored by Coldplay.

From its promotional material and vaguest of outlines (Keri Russell leaves unhappy marriage for lovely Nathan Fillion!), Waitress looks like another breezy rom-com, the kind of thing that stars Jennifer Aniston — a chick flick, or to sound inappropriately less derogatory, “woman’s film”.Waitresses Waitress is a “woman’s film”, but in a good way: written and directed from a female perspective, with its central roles being female, it doesn’t pander to a perceived female demographic and nor does it bellow “this is what we women think, and it’s so different to you damn men” — it’s more subtle than that.

Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar by beating men at their own game — and that was probably for the best as a first-timer, dodging accusations of “well, she just made a woman’s film, didn’t she?” from the off — but hopefully it’s nudged the door open for female voices on a wider range of subjects. To slightly go against what I said in that opening paragraph, it’s a loss that Adrienne Shelly won’t get a chance to be among them.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Waitress is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.
Waitress is on Film4 +1 today, Monday 28th July 2014, at 7:50pm.