Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schümann, Fionn O’Shea, Alexander Scheer
In the winter of 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) comes to Hamburg to be with her husband, Lewis (Clarke), who is a colonel in the British Forces. They are to live in a requisitioned house on the outskirts of the city, the home of an architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Thiemann). Though Lewis has a great deal of respect for Lubert – and for the ordinary German people – Rachael is less than friendly. She has a reason: their son, Michael, was killed in a bombing raid when he was eleven. But as Lewis spends more and more time trying to track down the members of a group of fanatical Nazis called the 88’s, Rachael becomes more and more reliant on Lubert’s company, and while Lewis is away for a few days, she and Lubert become much closer. The pair make plans to leave Hamburg together, and when Lewis returns Rachael determines to tell him their marriage is over. But danger lurks in the wings: Freda has unwittingly aided a member of the 88’s, Albert (Schümann), in targeting Lewis for assassination…
Put Keira Knightley in a period costume, and she shines. It’s as much a cinematic given as Tom Cruise doing a dangerous stunt (though without the broken ankle). With a gift for interpreting closeted emotions and their eventual impassioned expression, Knightley is always the best thing about the movies she makes, and The Aftermath is no exception. Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie takes full advantage of Knightley’s skills as an actress, and provides viewers with a central character whose sense of morality, and her sense of loyalty, is challenged by the (somewhat staid) attentions of a man she sets out to hate, but who, in time honoured romantic fashion, she later falls in love with. That this happens at all is predictable enough, and there are many clues to tick off along the way, from the less than convincing reunion between Rachael and Lewis at the train station, to Lewis’s inability to talk about the death of their son, to the meaningful stares Rachael and Lubert exchange whenever anyone isn’t looking. With Lewis playing the absent, work-focused husband, it’s left to Rachael to occupy her time by having an affair and hoping for a better life. It’s the crux of a movie that feels as familiar, and therefore as empty, as many before it.
And so, it’s left to Knightley to rescue the movie from its self-imposed doldrums and minor soap opera theatrics. In many ways the movie doesn’t deserve her, because she seems to be the only one who’s trying. There’s a scene where Rachael breaks down and talks about her son that is truly heartbreaking for the depth of the despair and the grief that Knightley expresses. And that scene sticks out like a sore thumb because there’s no other scene to match it for its emotion, and its power, and its impact. Likewise, Skarsgård and Clarke are left in her wake, playing monotone versions of characters we’ve seen a hundred times over, and unable to make them look or sound like anything other than broad stereotypes. With the narrative offering nothing new, and Kent maintaining a steady but too respectful pace, the movie fails to excite, and remains a placid affair about a – well, placid affair. The wintry locations at least add some visual flair to proceedings, and the recreation of bomb-ravaged Hamburg is effectively realised, but these aspects aren’t enough when the main storyline should be passionate and convincing, instead of moderate and benign. Thank heaven then for Knightley, and a performance that elevates the material whenever she’s on screen.
Rating: 6/10 – a movie that means well, but which starts off slowly and stays that way (and despite an attempt at adding thriller elements towards the end), The Aftermath is rescued from terminal dullness by the force and intensity of Keira Knightley’s performance; a period romantic drama that at least gets the “period” right, this is a cautious, overly restrained tale that allows the odd flourish to shine through from time to time, but which in the end, doesn’t offer enough in the way of rewards to make it more than occasionally memorable.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Bruce Dern, Olivia Thirlby, Lexie Roth, John Fiore
It’s July 18 1969, and while Apollo 11 speeds its way to the Moon, Massachusetts’ senator Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy (Clarke) has travelled to Chappaquiddick Island to take part in a sail race with his cousin, Joe Gargan (Helms), and US Attorney for Massachusetts, Paul Markham (Gaffigan). That evening, Kennedy, Gargan, and Markham attend a party at a beach house for the Boiler Room Girls, women who were campaign workers for his brother Robert. One of them is Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara). Late on, she and Kennedy go for a drive. Kennedy loses control of the car, and it crashes off a bridge and into a pond. With the car upside down in the water, Kennedy manages to get clear but Mary Jo isn’t so lucky; she drowns. Kennedy returns to the beach house where he tells Joe and Paul what’s happened, but even though they return to the pond, they’re unable to do anything. One thing that both Joe and Paul are certain of is that Kennedy should report the accident as soon as possible. He agrees with them, but his subsequent actions show that doing the right thing is at odds with political expediency…
If you take anything away from Chappaquiddick, it’s that Ted Kennedy was very much in thrall to his family’s political ambitions, and this caused him to behave very erratically in the days following the accident that derailed his chances of ever becoming president. Somewhere behind the experienced political manipulator was a man with a conscience who knew what he had to do – the right thing – but who also didn’t want his political life to be ruined in the process. The tug-of-war between these two ideas is the focus of a movie that tries to be fair to Kennedy and the situation he found himself in, but when you have a character (from real life or not) who tries to manipulate the details of someone’s death for their own personal advantage, and who does so almost as soon as possible, then it’s hard to look at them so objectively. Two moments stand out: Kennedy deciding to say Mary Jo was driving, and later, at her funeral, deciding to wear a neck brace to back up the fabrication that he was suffering from concussion. The movie tries, but it’s hard to sympathise with someone who defaults to manipulation so easily.
As Kennedy, Clarke gives a terrific performance, presenting Kennedy as a weak man clutching at any and all options to keep his political career alive, but with little understanding of how this makes him seem, both to his advisors and the public – and ultimately, without the necessary self-respect that would allow him to see the difference. Mara has what amounts to a supporting role as Mary Jo, while Helms has a rare dramatic role as the increasingly disillusioned Gargan, a man adopted into the Kennedy family but having to come to terms with the fact that Ted isn’t in the same league as his older brothers. The movie keeps an even, methodical pace, but given the subject matter, lacks the energy and passion needed to reinforce just how much of an impact these events had on Kennedy and his future career. Curran directs with a firm eye on the performances, while visually the movie has a dour, melancholy feel to it that matches the subject matter. As an exercise in shining a light on a story that hasn’t been dramatised before, it’s a welcome look at a turbulent moment in late Sixties US history, and as a cautionary tale it’s more than effective.
Rating: 7/10 – with a potent central performance from Clarke, Chappaquiddick is a tale of political hubris that doesn’t pull its punches when exposing just how far someone will go to protect their public position; with a matter-of-fact approach to the material, and a straightforward narrative, it’s certainly a no frills movie, but in many ways it’s all the better for being so.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack O’Connell, Jack Reynor, Mia Wasikowska, Stephen Graham, Thomas M. Wright, Noah Jupe, Geoff Bell, Enzo Cilenti, Volker Bruch, David Rintoul, David Horovitch, Abigail Lawrie, Adam Nagaitis
Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: HHhH is an odd movie. In fact, it’s very odd. Not because of the title, which is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich, a quip you wouldn’t dare repeat back then), and not because you have to wade through a long list of actors before you find someone whose first language is actually German or Czechoslovakian. No, what makes the movie so odd is that, for a drama based around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (Clarke), keen violinist and one of the main architects of the Final Solution, it lacks ambition and drive, and often moves from scene to scene as if seeking the right direction in which to move forward. It also lacks focus, telling us much about Heydrich’s early life in its first twenty minutes (including his love of fencing, and his dishonourable discharge from the German Navy), but then failing to link it all to anything that happens once he’s fully committed to being a Nazi.
Like a lot of members of the Nazi Party, Heydrich went from being something of a nobody to somebody wielding quite a lot of power in a very short space of time, and the movie recognises this. However, thanks to the vagaries of the script, and Clarke’s gloomy demeanour throughout, Heydrich remains a sadistic bully boy in adult’s clothing – and just that. No one is looking for the movie to redeem Heydrich in some way (though that would make it more interesting), but for all its attempts at trying to shine a spotlight on his pre-Nazi activities, they’re all left abandoned as the movie progresses. Instead we see Heydrich’s rise to prominence through the patronage of, first, his wife, Lina von Osten (Pike playing Lady Macbeth as if her career depends upon it), and then, second, Heinrich Himmler (Graham playing Hitler’s right hand man as the uncle you do visit). He does some expectedly nasty things, behaves unconscionably whenever possible, and then his story, with over an hour of the movie to go, takes a back seat to Operation Anthropoid.
By changing its focus nearly halfway through, Jimenez’s movie only narrowly avoids feeling schizophrenic. As we’re introduced to Jan Kubiš (O’Connell) and Jozef Gabčík (Reynor), the two men chosen to head up the assassination attempt, we also get to meet a whole roster of new characters that we don’t have time to get to know or care about. And once Heydrich is out of the way, the terrible reprisals carried out by the Nazis are represented by the razing of Lidice (which actually happened), but in such a brusque way that it makes it obvious that HHhH wants to move on quickly to address the fate of Kubiš and Gabčík and their compatriots – which goes on for far too long and features the kind of gung-ho heroics that only a movie would feel was appropriate. Add the fact that the script – by Jiminez, Audrey Diwan and David Farr from Laurent Binet’s novel – is represented by some of the blandest, most depressing cinematography seen in recent years, and you have a movie that is tonally awkward, flatly directed, and which flirts in earnest with having nothing meaningful to say.
Rating: 5/10 – clunky and dour, and only sporadically engaging, HHhH tells its story as if it was being forced to – and the whole process is painful; a missed opportunity would be putting it mildly, but the movie’s very oddness allows for a certain fascination to develop as the movie unfolds, making it watchable if you don’t expect too much from it.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly, Martin Henderson, Thomas M. Wright, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Naoko Mori, Elizabeth Debicki
The brainchild of New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall (Clarke), Adventure Consultants is a company that takes people to the summit of Mount Everest. In April 1996, Rob and his team, led by base camp manager Helen Wilton (Watson), plan to take eight clients to the summit. Among them are Texan climber Beck Weathers (Brolin) and Doug Hansen (Hawkes), a postman seeking to inspire the pupils at an elementary school where he lives, and Jon Krakauer (Kelly), a journalist from Outside magazine that Hall has persuaded to write an article about them in return for a gratis trip. When they arrive at base camp, Hall regales them with the necessary rules and warns them all of the dangers of ascending to a height where their bodies will literally begin to die.
The group make three acclimatisation climbs before starting off for the summit on the morning of May 10. They are joined by a group led by Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) of the rival company Mountain Madness. Together they aid each other in climbing the mountain, making it to each Camp in good time. The camaraderie between the climbers helps them to keep going the further up they climb, but after they leave Camp IV, they begin to encounter problems. Fischer becomes unwell and starts to struggle, while Weathers develops an eyesight problem that causes him to remain on the side of the mountain until the other climbers come back down. As they near the summit, they reach the Balcony and find there are no fixed ropes; and again when they reach the Hillary Step. With time being eaten away by these delays the strain of the climb begins to tell on more and more of the climbers, including Hansen who lags behind everyone else.
The two groups persevere though and the first person to reach the summit – from Fischer’s group – gets there around 1pm. With everyone needing to start back down by 2pm in order to make it back to Camp IV, Hall finds himself ignoring his own rules and helping Hansen reach the summit. Now over an hour late in leaving, and with Hansen getting weaker and weaker due to a lack of oxygen, Hall is faced with an even worse problem: a terrible storm rushing in from the southwest. With the blizzard making the effort to descend even harder, Hall and Hansen make it back to the Hillary Step, while Fischer’s group and the rest of Hall’s group find themselves battling the blizzard and struggling to stay alive. With no help available from the base camp, all anyone can do is hope that the storm abates soon, and gives them all a chance to get back down.
Based on a true story, and with a script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy that’s been collated from various sources, Everest is a disaster movie that highlights the natural beauty of the Himalayas, and the ever-present danger that lies hidden and waiting for the unwary (or even the experienced). It’s an intelligent, cleverly constructed and judiciously maintained tale of unexpected tragedy that is also unexpectedly moving. And thanks to the decision to film as much of the movie on location as possible, it allows the viewer to become embroiled in the effort to reach the summit and then to stay alive against the odds.
Much will be made of Everest‘s stunning vistas and gasp-inducing scenery, and while this is entirely appropriate, they’re still the backdrop for a tragic endeavour that was doomed from the moment that the groups found that there were no fixed ropes in two sections where they were needed. With the climb having gone so well up til then, this presentiment of doom adds a chill to events that augments the sub-zero temperatures, and makes the rest of the movie dreadful and fascinating to watch at the same time.
As the resulting tragedy unfolds, it becomes an agonising experience as the various climbers we’ve come to know and empathise with, face terrible hardships brought on by the brutal weather, and find the limits of their endurance pushed beyond measure. The inclusion of Hall’s partner, Jan (Knightley), and Beck’s wife, Peach (Wright), both removed from the action but still linked to their men by tremendous love and commitment, allows the movie to show how the events on Everest had a wider consequence. Jan is pregnant with hers and Rob’s first child, while Peach moves heaven and earth to ensure her husband has a chance of returning home. Their fears and concerns add an extra layer of tragic drama to proceedings, and in the capable hands of Knightley and Wright, both women show fear, strength, determination and sadness with admirable clarity. And they’re matched by Watson, who puts in yet another faultless performance.
Amongst the men, Clarke plays Hall as an altruistic, methodical leader whose love of climbing defines him the most. When Hall decides to help Hansen reach the summit, his thoughts are writ clearly on his face: it’s the wrong decision, and Clarke shows Hall’s understanding of this with such resignation that it heightens the impending tragedy, and makes their twin fates all the more affecting. Hawkes gives another low-key yet determined performance as the most unlikely climber in the group, while Brolin’s cocky, bullish attitude soon reveals a deeper layer of insecurity that Weathers would rather keep hidden. Gyllenhaal and Worthington have minor roles in comparison and we don’t get to know their characters as well, but with so many to keep track of, it would be unfair for the script to try and focus on too many at one time.
Making his most complete and effective movie to date, Kormákur ratchets up the tension as the storm hits and survival becomes everything. But he never loses sight of the human will to overcome and conquer adversity, and as the treacherous descent is begun, most viewers are likely to have at least one character they’ll want to see reach Camp IV. Whether they do or not is another matter, and it would be fair to say that billing is no guarantee of survival, but again Kormákur keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat as to just who will make it and who won’t, and each death carries with it its own devastating emotional “punch”.
The production is handsomely mounted and is supported by Salvatore Totino’s superb photography, Dario Marianelli’s subtle, non-intrusive score, and Mick Audsley’s fine-tuned editing. With only a few dodgy green screen shots to break the illusion, and some confusion as to what’s happening to whom once the blizzard hits, Everest remains a compelling, gripping account of an unfortunate, avoidable tragedy.
Rating: 8/10 – whatever your views on the mistakes made on May 10 1996, there’s no doubting the courage shown by all those on the mountain that day, and Everest is a tribute to all those who perished, and the survivors as well; with an emotional core that steals up on the viewer, it’s a movie that reaffirms the risks of climbing “the most dangerous place on Earth”, and the sense of profound achievement that it provides.
The third and fourth sequels in their respective franchises, Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys are that rare combination: reboots that feed off the original movies. And you could argue that they’re also remakes, in that they take the basic plots of those original movies and put their own – hopefully – nifty spins on them. But while there’s a definite fan base for both series, which means both movies should do well at the box office (enough to generate further sequels), is there enough “new stuff” in these movies to actually warrant seeing them in the first place, or getting excited about any future releases that are in the pipeline? (And let me say just now, that both movies have ensured that the possibility of further entries in both franchises will be an absolute certainty.)
Jurassic World (2015) / D: Colin Trevorrow / 124m
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus
Twenty-two years on from the disastrous attempt by John Hammond to open the world’s first dinosaur theme park, his dream has become a paying reality, but one that needs ever more impressive dinosaurs to keep visitors coming. Thanks to the backing of the park’s owner, Masrani (Khan), and the scientists responsible for cloning the park’s main attractions – led by Dr Henry Wu (Wong) – each new attraction strays further and further from the original concept of replicating the dinosaurs everyone is aware of. Now, Wu and his team have designed a new dinosaur, the so-called Indominus Rex, an intelligent, über-predator that is taller than a T. Rex and even more deadly.
When animal behavioural specialist Owen Grady (Pratt) is called in to assess the new dinosaur’s readiness for being shown to the public, he and park manager Claire (Howard) are unprepared for just how intelligent the Indominus Rex is; soon it escapes and begins to wreak havoc across the island. With an evacuation of over twenty thousand tourists going ahead, including Claire’s nephews Gray (Simpkins) and Zach (Robinson) who have strayed off the normal tourist track, Grady and Claire must try to keep everyone safe, as well as dealing with parent company InGen’s local representative, Hoskins (D’Onofrio), who sees Indominus Rex’s escape as a chance to prove that raptors – who have been trained by Grady – can be used as militarised weapons. But his strategy backfires, leaving everyone at risk from Indominus Rex and the raptors.
Given that Jurassic Park III (2001) was pretty much dismissed as so much dino guano on its release, the idea of making a fourth movie always seemed like a triumph of optimism over experience. And yet, Jurassic World is a triumph – albeit a small scale one – and while it doesn’t offer us anything really new (aside from Grady’s instinctive, respect-driven relationship with the raptors), it does make a lot of things feel fresher than they have any right to be. This is essentially a retread of the first movie, with Gray and Zach as our guides to the park’s wonders (and perils), the fiercest dinosaur in the park getting loose, and the humans relying on other dinosaurs to take down the big bad and save the day. It’s not a bad concept – after all, it worked the first time around – but despite how well the movie has been put together, it’s still a fun ride that just misses out on providing that much needed wow factor.
Part of the problem is that the movie makers have taken the bits of Jurassic Park (1993) that worked and added some stuff that doesn’t. Do we really need to see yet another misogynistic portrayal of a relationship, where the woman changes for the man and not the other way round? Do we really need to hear a scientist blame the moneyman for not paying attention when the scientist created something unethical? And do we really need to hear deathless lines such as “We have an asset out of containment” or “It can camouflage!” (a trick the Indominus Rex pulls off just the once, by the way, when it’s convenient to the narrative). Of course we don’t, but because this isn’t a straight remake, but a reboot/update/witting homage, that’s what we get. For all that the movie is technically well made, and looks fantastic in IMAX 3D, it’s still a retread, and lacks the thrills we need to invest in it properly (and that’s without the paper-thin characters, from the stereotypically neanderthal Hoskins, to the annoying dweeb in the park’s Control Centre (Johnson). In short, the movie lacks the depth necessary to make us care about it, and without that depth, it just becomes another superficial ride the viewer will forget without realising it.
Rating: 6/10 – another summer blockbuster that doesn’t do enough to justify its budget or hype, Jurassic World is like an old friend regaling you with a story you’ve heard a thousand times before; maybe this will work better as the intro to a bigger story and plot, but if not, then this is just another disappointing entry in that ever growing cache of movies known as the Unnecessary Sequel.
Terminator Genisys (2015) / D: Alan Taylor / 126m
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matt Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Byung-hun Lee, Michael Gladis, Sandrine Holt
In 2029, the human resistance, led by John Connor (Clarke), is on the verge of defeating Skynet and its machines. But it also needs to destroy Skynet’s last chance of avoiding defeat: a time displacement machine. When John reaches the site, though, he learns that Skynet has sent a terminator back to 1984 in order to kill his mother, Sarah Connor (Clarke); with her dead, John won’t be born and won’t be able to lead the resistance to victory. Knowing his past and what needs to be done, he agrees to let Kyle Reese (Courtney) travel back as well and keep Sarah safe. As the machine begins to work, though, Kyle sees John being attacked by a terminator.
When Kyle arrives in 1984 he finds himself being hunted by a T-1000 (Lee) before being rescued by Sarah – and a T-800 (Schwarzenegger). Sarah tells Kyle that the T-800 was sent to protect her when she was nine years old, but that she doesn’t know who sent it. With the T-1000 in constant pursuit, the trio do their best to work out why this timeline is now so different from the one that John has always known. Kyle is sure that it has something to with visions he’s been having of a future that hasn’t been destroyed by Skynet, a future that will still exist in 2017, the year that Skynet – in this timeline – launches the nuclear missiles that will seal Man’s fate. He persuades Sarah to travel with him to 2017 using a time displacement machine that she has built with the T-800’s aid.
However, their arrival in 2017 leads to their being arrested. But at the police station, an even greater surprise awaits them: the arrival of John…
As Arnold Schwarzenegger has said all along, “I’ll be back”, and here he is, older, greyer, slower, with a few motor skills issues, but as he also says, “not obsolete”. It’s a clever distinction that says as much about the actor as it does the character of the T-800, giving us an aging Terminator and providing a perfectly acceptable reason for the Austrian Oak to be involved. But while he’s the star of the show, it’s also noticeable that he’s sidelined a lot of the time, giving both Clarkes, and Courtney, the chance to carry the movie in their iconic star’s absence. That they don’t is down to a script that, as with Jurassic World, wants to be as much as a retread of its progenitor as it does an entirely new instalment. As a result, the need to include what might be generously termed “fan moments” – “Come with me if you want to live” – often means a narrative that struggles to find its own identity.
There’s the germ of a great idea here, predicated on the series’ idea that “the future isn’t set”, but its revisionist version of 1984, complete with Schwarzenegger taking on his younger self (one of the movie’s better ideas), devolves into an extended chase sequence that rehashes elements from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and acts as a kind of Terminator Greatest Hits. It’s all effectively staged by director Alan Taylor, but the sense of déjà vu persists throughout, making the screenwriters’ efforts to give us something new all the more disappointing. Even moving the action to 2017 is less than inspiring, not even allowing for a change of scenery or approach, but canny enough to include J.K. Simmons’ light relief, and change the thrilling truck chase from T2 to an unexciting helicopter pursuit. As with the trip to Isla Nubar, it’s all very professionally done, but with that one all-important ingredient still missing: something to make the viewer go “wow”.
Rating: 6/10 – as fourth sequels go, Terminator Genisys is a vast improvement on the last two instalments but remains very much a missed opportunity; with the way open for another sequel it’s to be hoped that it’ll be more original than this, and will take the kind of risks that the first movie made in order to be successful.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Braydon Denney, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Cameron Mitchell Williams, McKenzie Blankenship
Indiana, 1817. Eight year old Abe Lincoln (Denney) lives with his father Tom (Clarke), mother Nancy (Marling), and younger sister Sarah (Blankenship) in an area of “unbroken forest”. They are joined by Nancy’s orphaned cousin, Dennis Hanks (Williams) who becomes an older brother to Abe. Abe’s father works as a farmer and a carpenter; he’s a taciturn man who doesn’t drink alcohol, gamble or curse, but he is a harsh disciplinarian, and Abe often finds himself being punished for some misbehaviour or minor infraction.
Abe has a better relationship with his mother, who is kind-hearted and supportive of his attempts to educate himself. She is a nurturing influence, one he thrives under, and the time he spends with her helps offset the onerous chores he has to do on the farm. But Abe is left adrift when Nancy contracts milk sickness and dies. His father tries to carry on but it doesn’t last long. He leaves Abe, Sarah and Dennis to manage the farm while he goes off to find another wife. When his father returns, it is with a new bride, Sarah “Sally” Bush Johnston (Kruger), a widow from Kentucky who has three children of her own. In her own way she proves as supportive and nurturing of Abe as Nancy was, and despite some initial reservations, Abe warms to her.
As their relationship deepens and strengthens, Abe’s relationship with his father remains the same, with an added emphasis on Abe’s “toughening up”. It’s around this time that Abe’s honesty becomes more noticeable (even if it leads to his being caned by his father), and his education receives a boost from the attention of local schoolteacher Mr Crawford (Bentley). Crawford seeks Tom’s permission to provide Abe with extra tutoring; as he tells Sally, Abe won’t be a backwoodsman for very much longer. Tom agrees, and Abe is set on the path to securing his future.
An idyllic looking reminiscence on the early life of Abraham Lincoln, The Better Angels is a deliberately slow-paced meditation on the influences that helped the young Lincoln grow up to be the man he became. Taking as its focus the period of his life when he lost and gained a mother, the movie is a studied, thoughtful examination of the trials and joys of growing up in a wooded wilderness.
Shot in glorious, lustrous black and white, the movie paints a compelling portrait of a time and a place where life was certainly difficult, and sometimes harsh: the family’s cows get sick and die from eating poisonous weeds, and Nancy dies as a result of drinking their infected milk. When Tom Lincoln goes off to find a wife, it seems uncaring and thoughtless to leave his children and Dennis to cope until he returns, but this was part and parcel of life in America during that period, where a normal childhood had to be grabbed whenever possible. It’s to Edwards’ credit that he’s able to show that the young Lincoln was able to be a child as well as a farm labourer, and that he was able to find beauty in his surroundings, both in his two mothers and via the ever-changing natural habitat he was a part of.
Abe’s relationships with Nancy and Sarah are the heart and soul of the movie, delicate and affectionate and heartfelt, with both Marling and Kruger providing very different, yet very intuitive performances. Marling behaves almost like a wood nymph, her love of nature and the way in which she embraces it allowing Abe’s mind to embrace it too. Kruger is equally effective, imbuing Sarah with a quiet determination that Abe will realise his full potential, and unsupportive of her new husband’s strict approach to parenting. (It could be argued that without these two women in his life at such a formative time, then Abraham Lincoln’s future would have been entirely different.) As his stern, reticent father, Clarke is a stoic figure seemingly bereft of feeling and only able to connect with his son when correcting him. Indeed, the nearest he gets to showing any tenderness is when he’s teaching Abe how to wrestle, but it’s an awkward tenderness and borders on uncomfortable – for both of them.
The young Abe is played with quiet composure and assurance by Denney (making his movie debut), and he’s a great find, matching his adult co-stars for sincerity and skill. He has a natural ability that allows the viewer to engage and understand Abe instantly. Nancy mentions at one point that Abe is asking her questions she can’t answer; looking at Denney you can believe it. He’s also effective in scenes where he and his mothers bond through learning and their mutual appreciation of nature, his expressions of curiosity and understanding perfectly shaped and naturalistic. It’s a tremendous performance, and anchors the movie superbly.
With a quartet of understated yet superb performances at its centre, The Better Angels‘ glowing black and white cinematography emphasises the poetry and the beauty of the seasons, and is exhilarating to experience. Edwards’ use of shade and light, executed with tremendous precision by DoP Matthew J. Lloyd, is hugely impressive, immersing the viewer in shots of extraordinary seductiveness. Rarely has unspoilt countryside looked so alluring or captivating, and rarely has it looked so beautiful as it does here, in black and white. With every scene captured with breathtaking attention to period detail and highlighted by some of the most exquisite framing and composition seen in recent years, the movie is a visual treat par excellence.
Rating: 9/10 – some viewers may bemoan the slow pace and emphasis on recurring shots of natural beauty, but The Better Angels presents a fully realised world that is immersive and often deeply profound; with Edwards in full control of both the script and the world he’s recreating, this is a movie that resonates long after it’s been seen.
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer
Set ten years on from the outbreak of the ALZ-113 virus, and which has decimated the human population, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with Caesar (Serkis) and his fellow simians having made a home in the woods north of San Francisco. They have an education system, and a code of behaviour that allows each sub-species of ape to live in harmony; their most important rule is that “ape shall not kill ape”. Caesar has a wife, Cornelia (Greer), and son Blue Eyes (Thurston); Cornelia is pregnant with their second child. On a deer hunt, Blue Eyes is attacked and wounded by a bear. Caesar comes to his aid but the bear is too formidable an opponent. It’s only when Caesar’s friend Koba (Kebbell) joins the fray that the bear is killed. With Caesar admonishing his son for getting into such a predicament, Blue Eyes is hurt and upset and begins to resent his father’s attitude.
Later, Blue Eyes and his friend, Ash (Doc Shaw) encounter a human, Carver (Acevedo). He panics and shoots Ash. Alerted by the gunshot, Caesar and several other apes rush to the scene. They find that Carver is part of a small party of humans led by Malcolm (Clarke). Caesar tells the humans to leave but sends Koba and two other chimps to follow them. Malcolm and his party return to their base in San Francisco where it becomes clear their fuel reserves are close to running out and their purpose in being in the woods was to find the nearby hydroelectric dam that could be restarted and restore power to the city. The humans’ leader, Dreyfus (Oldman) is suspicious of the apes and frightened by how advanced they have become. When Caesar rides in to their sanctuary and tells them he doesn’t want any conflict but will fight the humans if necessary, Dreyfus in turn escalates the tensions the humans already feel, and prepares them for “a war”.
Malcolm convinces Dreyfus to let him and a team – including his wife, Ellie (Russell) and son Alex (Smit-McPhee) – have three days to get the dam running again. Caesar agrees to help them but Koba mistrusts the humans and fears Caesar is too soft on them. Again, an incident involving Carver and a gun has Caesar telling the humans to leave but this time Caesar allows them to stay in order to help Cornelia who has fallen sick since giving birth. Koba, who has been scouting the humans’ compound and is aware of their arsenal, accuses Caesar of loving humans more than apes. Caesar attacks him but stops short of killing him. Koba returns to the compound and seizes some weapons, killing two men in the process. He then returns to the forest where he uses a rifle to shoot Caesar who falls through the tree canopy. Malcolm’s group run for their lives and in the process find Caesar’s body. He guides them to his old home with Will Rodman (James Franco), where he begins to recuperate. Meanwhile, Koba, having made it look like the humans have killed Caesar, attacks the human compound. Dreyfus and the humans mount a defence but are soon overrun. Now it is the humans’ turn to feel what it’s like to be caged…
The unexpected success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was due largely to that movie’s intelligent handling of its plot and various storylines, allied to some of the most impressive motion capture performances seen since the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. With Rise proving such a formidable reimagining of the Planet of the Apes franchise, it seemed unlikely that a sequel would be as good, but thanks to an equally impressive script – by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver – and virtually a quantum leap forward in mo-cap rendering, Dawn more than holds its own against its predecessor, and does so with a darker visual style and more interplay between the apes. It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears, the heart and the soul, gripping throughout, with trenchant observations about the (not-so-many) differences between humans and apes, and how mistrust can so easily spawn unwanted bloodshed.
The focus is firmly on Caesar in this outing, his leadership abilities and how they shape his approach to the humans, brought to the fore from the beginning, his memories of his previous life still haunting him. The movie shows his strength and compassion, matching his awareness of the humans capability for duplicity with his knowledge that, like himself and his extended family, they’re just trying to survive. Caesar’s matched by the character of Malcolm, two “people” who are able to acknowledge the benefits that can be found in the two groups’ working together; it’s not unfair to say that during the course of the movie the two become friends, and this adds an extra layer of meaning to the cooperation between the two species. As Caesar says at one point, in respect of Will Rodman, “[He was] a good man… like you.”
The movie pits Caesar and Malcolm against more fundamentalist characters in each faction, with Koba’s animosity towards the humans borne out of the pain and terror he experienced as a lab animal, while Dreyfus sees the apes as the cause of humanity’s destruction. Neither character has much time for unity or the notion of making peace between the two groups, but they are both passionate in their own ways, even if their actions are potentially disastrous to both groups; that their personal feelings are allowed to sway their actions – in the same way that Caesar and Malcolm are able to generate mutual self-respect and understanding – show clearly, and quite cleverly, that whichever side of the argument characters are on, the similarities between the groups are many.
With this dramatic groundwork in place the movie is free to embellish upon those themes with an emotional layer that acts as an evincive counterpart to the action, and underpins those sequences with simplicity and conviction. It’s an often delicate balancing act, but again, the script is well-constructed and while the course of events is in many ways as predictable as the flow of a river, it’s the many unexpected undercurrents that are continually surprising and moving. Reeves, who is already attached as writer/director of the next Apes movie, due in 2016, allows the action to flow organically from the drama of each development in the plot, and extracts excellent performances all round. He maintains the visual style of Rise while augmenting it with a more subdued approach to the lighting (but then this is meant to be a “darker” movie), and keeps the camera moving in ever more inventive, and unexpected, ways.
On the performance side, Serkis and Kebbell offer truly astonishing performances, making it even more difficult to say that motion capture isn’t a valid form of acting, the two actors’ expressions clearly conveying their characters’ emotions through the digital assembly. There’s not a single misstep in either of their portrayals, and while Serkis’ innate understanding of mo-cap is as commanding as ever, it’s Kebbell’s performance that is the more compelling, making the traumatised Koba one of the most remarkable, and memorable, characters seen in recent years. By comparison, the (recognisably) human cast offer sterling performances but have to make more of an effort to make an impact. Clarke, one of Australia’s best exports, overcomes some perfunctory characterisation to breathe life into Malcolm and make him more accessible than he at first appears, and Oldman does the same with Dreyfus, heightening the character’s paranoid leadership through the sadness he still carries with him over the loss of his family. In support, Russell is solid despite having little to do, Smit-McPhee is in the same boat, while Acevedo makes Carver’s xenophobia vivid and deplorable at the same time.
If the movie stumbles once or twice – and it does – it quickly picks itself up again and marches on boldly, its intelligence and surprisingly complex take on what it means to be “human” carrying it forward with an almost Shakespearean air of confidence. The CGI apes fit seamlessly into the forest surroundings, and if sometimes their facial expressions aren’t quite as sharply detailed in medium shot as they are in close-up, it’s a minor distraction (and is no doubt already being addressed for the next movie). With an even greater threat facing Caesar and the ape community in the future, Dawn serves as notice that science fiction, when it’s as well thought out and assembled as this movie is, can be as compelling and significant as any modern day drama, and just as impressive.
Rating: 9/10 – thought-provoking and convincing in equal measure, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that rare sequel: one that complements and expands on its predecessor with accomplished ease; with some knowing references to the original series of films, and a firm grip on what it wants to say, this instalment rewards the viewer on so many levels it’s as brilliant an accomplishment as you’re likely to see all year.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Emma Booth, David Lyons, Travis McMahon, Vince Colosimo, Roy Billing, Chris Haywood
While travelling across the Australian desert region near Broken Hill, Colin (Lyons) happens upon a road accident. He finds a dead man, a briefcase full of money, and, as this is a modern day noir thriller, a femme fatale in the form of Jina (Booth), who’s also the cause of the accident. Colin takes her home and then heads into Broken Hill to hand in the money to the local sheriff (Clarke). Everything is going okay, and Colin is preparing to continue on his way, when the sheriff, Frank, insists he come home with him to meet his wife as a gesture for being so public spirited. (There’s no prizes for guessing just who Frank’s wife turns out to be.) When the money goes missing, and a “representative” of the people the money was intended for shows up – with murderous intent – the fragile relationship between Frank, Jina and Colin begins to unravel.
What follows is a well-crafted thriller where, Colin aside, you’re never entirely sure who’s conning who, or if Jina can be entirely trusted, despite her obvious desire to get away from Frank (who is abusive and jealous). Colin is the only “straight” character in the whole movie and although he does learn to become a bit more devious by the movie’s end, it’s still intriguing to see just how much has to happen to him before his natural attitude changes. Lyons plays the part to perfection, and while he is adequately matched by Clarke as the increasingly dysfunctional Frank, it’s his integrity that actually holds the attention.
Clarke has since gone on to bigger things: Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty, Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuous The Great Gatsby, and White House Down. Clarke is an intense actor, and he imbues Frank with a charming edginess that makes watching him an uneasy experience; you’re never too sure just how he’s going to react at any given moment, or in any given situation. When a subplot involving the death of one of Frank’s deputies comes to the fore, Clarke ups the ante and makes Frank an even darker character than before but without sacrificing any credibility.
As Jina, a lot is required of Emma Booth as the character is the linchpin of the whole movie. From the moment we see her racing down the highway, to the movie’s denouement, Booth displays just the right amounts of complexity and vulnerability to give her character a bruised steeliness that makes the viewer, like Colin, want to protect and mistrust her at the same time.
Lahiff, returning to feature film-making after a nine year hiatus, carries the audience through each twist and turn of the plot with skilled assurance, and makes great use of the desert locations; on occasion, David Foreman’s cinematography is stunning. The script, also by Lahiff, is pared down to the bone and there’s not one superfluous moment or scene in the entire movie, an aspect helped immeasurably by Lahiff’s brother Sean being the movie’s editor.
Rating: 7/10 – an unpretentious and accomplished thriller from Down Under and the kind of movie the Aussies do so well; good performances and beautiful location work help Swerve stand out from the crowd.
Originally posted on thedullwoodexperiment website.