Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Hollywood have churned out a lot of disappointing reboots in recent years, and 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes could easily have been one of them - after all, no-one had high hopes for anything ape-related after what Tim Burton did to the series. But no – it was a surprisingly deep, thoughtful take on the simian saga, jumping in at the point of the outbreak, with lab chimp Caesar on the brink of leading his species to freedom.

Jump ten years on (in narrative time, three in real time) and we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, by which point Caesar’s gang have established an Ewok-style city in the Californian forests, while humanity has been all but wiped out, the local survivors having established a small community in the centre of ruined San Francisco. Whereas Rise was all about animal rights, with the humans clearly oppressing the apes, here both species are on a level footing, and what we have are two tribes equally fighting for their own survival.

But can ape and human co-exist peacefully? This is the hope of Caesar, who wants to see Apetown grow safely from strength to strength, and of human Malcolm, who needs to venture through Caesar’s woods to get a power plant working. Yet the scars of historical oppression live on, and there are those on both sides who distrust the other. Second-ape-in-command Koba has retained only hatred from his time as a lab chimp, while Malcolm’s engineer Carver, afraid of the species that almost wiped out his race, is a little too trigger-happy. Reminiscent of The Walking Dead season 3, friction between these two gangs of survivors is reaching its tipping point – sometimes, progress is made in furthering peace, but the actions of others spark conflict. War is inevitable.

It’s a testament both to the visual effects work and to the script that the ape characters are just as compelling as the humans. Caesar’s relationship with his son Blue Eyes is one of the main character arcs; young Bluey doubts his father’s wisdom and leans towards Koba’s more aggressive policies, but comes to question these beliefs when he sees how damaging and useless a violent approach really is. In fact, the human characters are comparatively weak – there’s a debate between Malcolm and settlement leader Gary Oldman about whether to build up arms, but Oldman’s ex-soldier is given disappointingly little depth besides a scene where he looks at his iPad’s Photos folder and cries. Meanwhile, Keri Russell’s token female human gets to give out some antibiotics to the token female chimp and another wounded character, but doesn’t really do or say much at all.

Nevertheless, one of the strengths of the film is that the main players all have clear motivations, largely based on primal instincts of survival and fear. Koba is the clear ‘villain’ of the film, and does become quite the psychopath by the end, yet his actions stem not from moustache-twirling evil but from the lingering distrust left by a history of oppression. Yet, while his fears are well founded, it’s difficult to root for anyone except those trying to prevent violence. As spectacular as the action is, I found myself hoping  that, somehow, peace and harmony would win out.

Of course it doesn’t. And when war does come, it’s nasty. People are killed and chimps are killed. The ape attack on the human settlement looks like D-Day. And remember the scene in Return of the Jedi when Ewoks take over an AT-ST? There’s a bit like that, but not at all cute.

And that’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes summed up. Not at all cute. It’s brutal and nasty, but it’s thoughtful and spectacular, offering a powerful exploration of how fear and misunderstanding leads to war. Some characters are weaker than others, but it has just the right mix of moral complexity and pulpy entertainment to make it one of the best blockbusters of the year.

Not to mention, it leaves the gates wide open for another sequel. While the first film was about oppressed lab chimps, and both species were on equal footing by the second, we may finally be progressing to the full-on Planet of the Apes. The big question is, will this series end with a spaceship crashing and Charlton Heston clambering out?

Monday, 28 July 2014

On 28.7.14 by KieronMoore in , , , , ,    1 comment

Anyone who knows their sci-fi history will know Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s genre-defining dystopian epic. They may be less familiar with Frau im Mond, or Woman in the Moon, released just two years later in 1929, though it too deserves consideration by the genre’s historians – it was the first movie to take space travel seriously.

After the scientific community ridicules Professor Manfeldt’s theories of gold on the moon, his friend Helius determines to prove him right and puts together an expedition. In a time when Germany was keen on the idea of one day going to the moon, Lang put a lot of effort into getting the details right, employing real rocket scientist Hermann Oberth as a scientific advisor and even funding Oberth’s experiments alongside the film. Sure, not everything’s perfect – they crack open a brandy to celebrate having survived blast-off and wear chunky cardigans instead of spacesuits, but, with the dangers of G-force and the first on-screen countdown to lift-off, it’s an amazingly accurate depiction of space travel compared to what you might expect from the silent era.

Frau im Mond, though not a patch on the revolutionary Metropolis, is a fascinating piece of cinema history. Its slow opening act aside, this classic demonstrates Lang’s artistry as a master of visual cinema with a stunning depiction of space travel, impressive set design, and a strong character story. Combined with the superb crispness of this Blu-ray release and the intriguing fifteen-minute documentary that comes packaged with it (analysing the film’s place within real-life rocket science), it’s a purchase necessary for any classic sci-fi aficionado.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

“What if once upon a time there were no stars in the sky at all… what if they aren’t what we think at all? What if they come from our wings as we turn into angels?” is the first line of A New York Winter’s Tale. Fuck me, that’s terrible, isn’t it? But it’s OK, lots of films stumble on the opening voiceover, I’m sure it’ll get better… oh, the monologue’s continuing with some tedious bullshit about the miracle in all of us. It’s fine, we’ll have some actual dialogue soon and surely it’ll improve. I mean, imagine if every second line in the whole damn film exhibited the same awfully po-faced seriousness. But that wouldn’t happen, right? Oh.

There really isn’t a lot to recommend in Akiva Goldsman’s ridiculously failed attempt at mimicking Neil Gaiman. Colin Farrell, a thief with a fabulous 1910s-style emo fringe, is on the run alongside his inexplicably flying horse (who also has a fabulous fringe) when he falls in love at first sight with some girl from Downton Abbey and packs in thievery to mope over her. The problem is, she’s dying of tuberculosis and needs to be kept in chilly environments, Victor Freeze-style. Cue love story with worse romantic dialogue than Attack of the Clones, the lowlight being “Give me a chance and you'll melt all the snow in the world”, somehow simultaneously turning both her terminal illness and a potential climate change catastrophe into a chat-up line.

Yep, A New York Winter’s Tale is a big steaming pile of magic flying horse shit. With an utterly muddled plot and dialogue that would make Tommy Wiseau cringe, the only real miracle in this film is when it ends.

Monday, 21 July 2014

New York City. A small, intimate bar. A musician invites an old friend to perform one of her songs. She’s reluctant, but he insists. The audience, soon bored, return to their drinks, except for one haggard, drunken man, who pushes to the front of the crowd. Her song, about loneliness in the city, is emotionally raw, heartfelt, beautifully imperfect. Which is an apt description of Begin Again.

We return to this first scene a couple of times in writer-director John Carney’s musical drama. Keira Knightley is Gretta, an English singer who moved to New York with her incredibly successful boyfriend, only to go through a traumatic break up, about to buy a ticket back to Heathrow. Mark Ruffalo is Dan, an A & R man who’s failed to move on with the modern music biz, has been kicked out by his wife and his job, and is about to throw himself in front of a subway train. 

And then he hears Gretta sing, and everything changes.

Returning to the opening scene from Dan’s point of view, her lone, sad voice is suddenly joined by strings. The violin is playing itself, followed by the drums, and another instrument I’d probably misremember the name of. Dan is composing in his head, back in the zone, making art. The two are soon working together, but success doesn’t come easily.

And so begins a heartwarming story, and one constantly brimming with emotional energy, great sadness and great joy. Shunned by Dan's old label, he and Gretta record an album on the streets of New York; the film itself has a similar rebellious, indie feel, to the point that a lot of the dialogue, even large sections of scenes, are improvised. Luckily, Carney’s a real actors’ director and has a cast able to pull this off. 

Ruffalo, a master of charming naturalism, never fails to make Dan lovable, even with all his faults. Knightley’s less comfortable with the improvisation, as she's talked about in interviews, but in a weird way, this works for the character – a slightly uptight Brit out of her depth in a foreign world. And, while her singing voice is exquisite, she also excels in the non-verbal scenes; Gretta realises her boyfriend is cheating on her when she hears his new song, a  generic poppy effort, and somehow twigs that it’s about another girl. Without saying anything, we know her life has just collapsed, and it’s an exquisitely painful moment.

Meanwhile, as Gretta’s old university buddy, James Corden fits in perfectly, a natural comedian whose seemingly unrehearsed quips never fail to raise a smile. If you were horrified by Lesbian Vampire Killers, don’t be put off by the fact he’s in this. The supporting cast also features Hailee Steinfeld as Dan’s daughter – nice to see this very talented rising star again after True Grit – alongside Catherine Keener, Mos Def, and even a cameo from Cee Lo Green.

Begin Again has humour, heartbreak, and, above all, music. It’s one of the best films about the creative process I’ve seen. Cynics might say the film’s message about the power of independent music is too idealistic, but I say let yourself be taken in by the idealism, and let yourself fall in love with these characters. I did.

If I have one criticism to make, it’s this – for a film about how independent production will win out against big corporations, there’s an awful lot of product placement for Apple. Now, I know filmmaking is a business and it has to be done, so I don’t mind product placement, but, really, it’s so ridiculously noticeable – every single character has an iPhone and a MacBook, and Ruffalo can’t stumble drunkenly through the record label’s offices without bumping into at least five iMacs. 

Nevertheless, it’s the loveliest Apple advert I’ve ever seen. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Now that I’m back to living in a house with a TV licence, I return to my series of articles entitled “What I watched on Channel 4 the other night”.

Have you ever watched The Hunger Games and thought “this needs to be a lot more ‘80s?” If so, The Running Man might be the film for you. 

Set in the dystopian future world of 2019, this sci-fi actioner follows Ben Richards, a former cop convicted of a massacre he actually refused to participate in. Richards escapes from prison, kidnaps a woman (I’m not sure why), soon gets arrested again, and is forced to participate in the eponymous TV show, in which he and his buddies must put on tight yellow lycra and battle a series of themed gladiators.

Based on a Stephen King novel, it’s a cracking central concept, and one that’s become more and more socially relevant since the film was released. Hey, by 2019, we could all be watching The Running Man every Saturday, albeit with better title graphics and presented by Ant and Dec. It’s also got a good protagonist in the ex-con out to vindicate himself of the crimes he never committed, and potential for a load of brilliantly ridiculous action. What could go wrong?

Well, they could write a bunch of reasonably terrible quips, and then get Arnold Schwarzenegger to make them absolutely terrible. Arnie’s career is one of those weird quirks of cinema history for people to look back on and think "how the hell did that happen?". He was hired for The Terminator to play an emotionless, indestructible killing machine, emphasis on the emotionless, simply because he was enormous and macho. And when people loved him in that, he was given a bigger role in T2. All of a sudden, he’s a massive action star. The thing is, he played all his characters as the same emotionless, indestructible killing machine, and any character who isn’t meant to be a robot does need some range of emotion, even in the silliest of action movies.

It doesn’t help that the script is a mess. The cringe-inducing "Plain Zero" line isn't the worst of the quips by far, and another is directly stolen from The Terminator. Plus, the plot has so many nonsense contrivances. The woman he pointlessly takes hostage just happens to work for the network that broadcast The Running Man, and yes, of course she falls in love with him. The uplink the contestants need to hack into in order to take over the network’s broadcasting just happens to be in the middle of the set, unguarded. Hmm.

Nevertheless, there are a few great moments of satirical comedy, including a look at other programmes on the same network. I laughed more than I probably should have at Climbing for Dollars, in which a man must climb a rope to escape ravenous angry dogs. That should have been the sequel.

And, of course, the action scenes are pretty awesome, in that camp ‘80s way. There’s a guy dressed as a Roman soldier who sings opera and fires electricity from his hands. Going up against guys like that is what Arnie is good at.

Returning to that opening comparison, I can’t honestly recommend this over The Hunger Games, which takes a similar concept and populates it with interesting, complex characters. When the crowds do end up supporting Richards, it’s not because he represents hope or the chance of uprising, but because, as one elderly lady puts it, he’s “one mean motherfucker”. But isn’t that what you want from an Arnie film?

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, apparently, and, while I wouldn’t rank it up there with his best, it’s a complex, thought-provoking, and stunningly rendered piece of art. 

The story is very different to what I think of when I hear the name Miyazaki; it’s not a surreal fantasy but a real-life biopic, following the career of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi – a career full of many successes and failures, culminating in the creation of the iconic Zero fighter, Spitfire of the East. 

Jiro's tale is plagued by a strong sense of melancholy – like Caproni before him and, famously, Robert Oppenheimer, he is plagued by the use of his inventions for warfaring purposes. Outside of his career, his marriage is equally unlucky – though he and his wife deeply love each other, she is taken ill and he must compromise his work commitments in caring for her. The film tells these two stories hand-in-hand – at one point literally, as in one particularly sweet sequence, he holds her weak hand and draws up blueprints one-handedly as she sleeps. 

The highlights, due to Miyazaki’s visual flair for the unusual, are the dream sequences, in which Jiro is guided by his idol, Count Caproni, great designer of aircraft. It’s these sequences where the central issue of beautiful inventions used for horrible acts is best explored. In the downbeat final dream, Jiro walks through a graveyard of shot-down Zeroes, reflecting on the remarkable fact that not a single one made it back. But Caproni, who describes the life of an aeronautical engineer as both a “beautiful dream” and a “cursed dream”, gives a more optimistic view, asking if Jiro would prefer to live in a world with no pyramids. Thought-provoking stuff.

I do think, however, that this issue could have been written into the rest of the film a little more, perhaps through conflicts with co-workers – Jiro never seems to challenge anyone or be challenged on the morality of his work, and so large portions of the narrative can feel a bit too easy-going, giving the designer too easy a ride for his sins. 

My other narrative criticism is that he meets his wife when she’s a child and he’s coming out of his teens, and later says he fell in love with her at first sight, which is weird and creepy and put me off the romantic story, as well told as the rest of it is. 

Visually, however, the film is a beaut. As would be expected. The watercolour-esque landscapes, the startlingly colourful skies. Great sound design, too, with aeroplane sound effects generated by the human voice (no, really). 

All in all, a great celebration of a great designer’s work, and a beautifully crafted film. I just wish it could be a little more critical.

Friday, 11 July 2014

On 11.7.14 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

I've been involved in many great projects over my three years at university, but one of the ones I'm most proud of is UNION.

Over a year ago now, my friend Tom Woffenden asked me to co-write a sitcom with him. We wrote a couple of scripts over summer and got some people together to make the first episode in the autumn. The cast and crew we assembled did such an amazing job and were such a joy to work with that we somehow managed to create a whole series of five episodes.

It's sad to bring the project to an end, but what an ending! Please do take a break from whatever you do with your life to watch the final two episodes of UNION.

The rest of the series can be found right here.

And if you really enjoyed them, well, order the DVD.
On 11.7.14 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who constantly divides opinions, but one area where it’s certainly not lacking is scale. The Time of the Doctor, Matt Smith’s swansong, saw the Time Lord defending the town of Christmas in a nine-hundred-year siege. Of course, the episode itself only lasted an hour, and so much of this conflict occurred off-screen. It’s these narrative gaps that Tales of Trenzalore, an anthology of four stories, aims to fill. Released as an eBook earlier this year, Tales is now available in paperback.

Overall, it's a mixed bag. While the first three stories aren’t without charm, they all feel Who-by-numbers, and more bolder stories like Mark Morris' creepy The Dreaming would be appreciated. If you were a fan of The Time of the Doctor, this light reading will flesh out its world for you, but, like giving a Krynoid a sausage roll, it’s insubstantial, forgettable flesh.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

On 8.7.14 by KieronMoore   No comments

"Change, my dear, and not a moment too soon!"

Here it is, my newly redesigned blog, hosted at the ego-boosting domain www.kieronmoore.com

Take a look around, see the sights, let me know what's broken.

Now to find another way to put off job hunting...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

On 1.7.14 by KieronMoore in , ,    1 comment
Well, that’s that done. Three years of university. York, you’ve been fantastic, and you know what?

I don’t want to go.

I’m not the first person to make that reference, and I won’t be the last, but it perfectly sums up how I feel. I’ve made so many amazing friends, been part of some amazing projects, and learned a lot about life, the universe, and Jungle Run.

This has been the best three years of my life, and I’m a different person because of it. I’ve grown in confidence as well as competence, I’ve decided what I want to do with my life (as ridiculous and sketchy as my plan is), and I’ve even grown a beard.

And now, at the end of it, I can, for the first time in my life, fully appreciate that succinct and heart-breaking piece of dialogue penned by the great Russell T Davies.

I don’t want to go.

Yeah, Matt Smith had a lovely final speech, and truthful too. Damn right I won’t forget the person I’ve been for the past few years, not one moment (well, maybe a few of the more inebriated ones, and pretty much the whole of the lecture about OFCOM regulation), but, right at the heart, what am I thinking?

I don’t want to go.

For the first time in my life, I’m leaving somewhere I really feel a part of and I genuinely don’t know what’s coming next. I’ve always thought that was a beautiful final scene for the Tenth Doctor, but I’ve never truly been in that position until now.

And yet… maybe part of me does want to go.

Because maybe there’ll be more great things ahead.

Who knows?

York, this is not a goodbye. This is a “see you later”. At graduation, and at whenever I have funds to visit. For now, unemployment awaits. Sorry, being a “freelance writer” awaits.

But I can’t escape the feeling that… well, Mr. Tennant says it best.

Post-credits teaser: On a side note, it’s almost time for this blog to also receive a regeneration, as it will soon be incorporated into a new site I’m planning to showcase a portfolio of my work. Once I work out how to do that. Watch this space.