Dawn of the Plant of The Apes – Film Review

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to 2011’s successful reboot, Rise, that surprised everyone by breathing new life into a long-dormant franchise, is also a sort-of prequel to the 1968 film that left Charlton Heston bawling at a statue, so the ending will not come as a surprise – we know this does not become Peaceful Planet of the Humans and Apes. Instead, the intrigue here is in exploring the moment when coexistence appeared a possibility only to be squandered by a cruel misunderstanding.

Ten winters after Rise saw a deadly simian flu unleashed across the world, in which time the planet has turned to post-apocalyptic ruin, Caesar (Serkis) has become leader of a 2,000-strong clan of apes ensconced in San Francisco’s Muir Woods while the remaining band of human survivors struggle to survive down in the city.

Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has taken over seamlessly from Rise-director Rupert Wyatt, taking advantage of the advances in motion-capture to add an extra layer of realism to the film by taking the technology out of the studio and into dirty, real-world locations. The dank, overcast woodland setting is palpably earthy, creating a claustrophobic intensity that helps to maintain throughout the festering tension between two tribes on the brink of war.

The plot’s fulcrum revolves around the relative peace of the ape community being disrupted by human invaders, led by an understated Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, seeking to reactivate the hydroelectric dam upon which the apes have built their home. While dangerous factions on both sides advocate a pre-emptive attack, Caesar takes pity on the weakened humans, forging a fragile trust with Malcolm based on their shared desire to save their sons from the savagery of war.

The story has a great deal to say about our own war torn world. In fact, the conflict that arises between the apes and humans is caused by the lies and miscommunication that are dangerously fertile in an environment of mutual distrust – something that is poignantly allegorical of the on-going conflict in Gaza.

What allows you to so fully immerse yourself in Reeves’ simian world and empathise with the apes is the extraordinary detail in the motion capture work that takes the technology up a notch from its already impressive predecessor. The rendering of the rain-matted fur, gnarled facial features and close-ups of sorrowful simian eyes is so imperceptibly real that the actors’ performances can’t help but shine through the digital prosthetics.

This allows Caesar and his arboreal family to become the heart and soul of the film. It’s possible to recognize Andy Serkis’ features in Caesar’s expressions and the motion-capture pioneer imbues his seasoned ape with the inner-turmoil of a leader torn between helping the humans he knows are capable of kindness and showing solidarity to his comrades who have known nothing but cruelty.

Much of Dawn focuses on the dynamics of Caesar’s relationship with his volatile second-in-command Koba. Brought to life with surprising pathos by an excellent Toby Kebbell, it’s hard to harbour any hatred towards Koba, who still bares the scares of the torture he suffered at the hands of humans, even as he makes the transition from loyal follower to power-hungry challenger by betraying the ape who set him free.

Dawn is not, however, a complete upgrade on Rise, lacking the economical storytelling of its predecessor which creates an over-wrought plot weighed down by too many bloated scenes. This may be because, while Rise dealt with the challenges of politics, diplomacy, animal testing and medical research, Dawn is only concerned with themes of family and belonging. Though this singular focus leads to emotionally stirring moments, such as when Caesar comforts his mate during child birth, it is also more suited to a contemplative style that strips the film of the necessary celerity.

With an action-packed climax that somehow maintains the unsettling tension whilst delivering its fair share of emotionally wrenching moments, this tight, gritty sequel is superbly shot and affectingly performed, if slightly over-stretched. The knowledge that Reeves is set to direct the next instalment all but ensures the third part of this rebooted Planet of the Apes will truly be a sight to behold.

Runtime: 130 minutes   Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama   Released: 17 July 2014

Director: Matt Reeves   Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Mark Bomback

Cast: Any Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Gary Oldman

Click here to watch the trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Have you been watching… The 100?

From The Hunger Games to Divergent, recent cinematic releases have taught us that dystopian teen fiction is worth big money right now. Naturally, TV has looked to jump aboard the gravy train with The 100 (Mondays, E4, 9pm), based on the book series by Kass Morgan. Though it often feels like a jumbled jigsaw of sci-fi influences and tepid teenage angst, there’s a building atmosphere of suspense that could make this post-apocalyptic drama the ideal guilty pleasure for those not in the American teen demographic.

The premise is high concept stuff. 97 years after a devastating nuclear war wiped out almost all life on Earth, what remains of humanity occupy The Ark – an orbiting habitat cobbled together from the world’s space stations (though apparently only good-looking Americans are allowed on board). Three generations have past and an authoritarian government reigns over The Ark with every crime now punishable by floating (i.e. death) unless the perpetrator is a juvenile. After a fatal flaw is found in station’s life support systems, 100 unfortunate teen ‘criminals’ are spat back down to Earth to determine if the planet is once again habitable.

If that all sounds like something you’ve seen before, it’s because you probably have. Like the adults’ patchwork space home, the series itself is a mismatch pastiche of sci-fi influences. A spaceship full of backstabbing survivors is reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica. The band of marooned outcasts in a hostile land will evoke vague recollections of Lost. And the savagery of abandoned youths screams, “Do you remember Lord of The Flies?”. Even the setting of an Earth obliterated by nuclear fallout has featured in every sci-fi blockbuster of the past few years from Oblivion to After Earth to Elysium.

The 100 has lots of challenging ideas to play with in its narrative, such as class struggles and social injustice, the morality of sacrificing the few to save the many and asking if the steps taken to save humanity make it worth saving, but the show chooses to gloss over them with an insipid love triangle between Katniss Everdeen-wannabe Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and her Peeta/Gale surrogates, Finn (Thomas McDonell) and Wells (Eli Goree), as well as other teen angst issues. Because what’s more important when the fate of humanity is at stake than kissing boys? It all feels more than a little patronizing towards its young target audience.

It is back up in the sky where the most interesting ideas are being discussed as the dying adults quibble over silly things like politics, population control, the possible extinction of the human race and whether they have just sent their children to die from radiation poisoning. We’ve already seen one failed coup attempt and the growing social unrest on The Ark as oxygen levels dwindle places a nice ticking clock on an already explosive situation.

By far The 100’s best feature, though, is the expanding atmosphere of danger that hangs over the show like the poisonous fog that descends on the camp in last week’s episode. While the first episode seemed to pull its punches, repeatedly passing up the chance to ‘off’ one of its characters for fear of upsetting its young audience, recent events have seen one teen impaled for straying onto the wrong territory and another left alone to die in the dark as Bellamy (Bobby Motley)’s attempts to assert his authority become increasingly disturbing.

Factor in the discovery that the survivors may not be alone on Earth (there seems to exist a subterranean tribe of deformed humans lurking in the shadows) and the sense that one of the teens could be ripped to shreds by a rabid five-tailed squirrel at any moment and the idea of being left on a deserted planet with no adult supervision suddenly doesn’t sound so inviting.

If The 100 can continue in this vain for the remaining episodes of season one it may just prove that, far from being nothing but a muddled mix of sci-fi muses, it is a show that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Josh (Pilot) – TV Review

One from the fresh batch of comedy pilots BBC3 made available to watch online this week, Josh is a gentle slacker sitcom from idiosyncratic stand-up and Last Leg co-host Josh Widdicombe.

After being dumped by his fiancée, Josh is forced to return to his flat share with dim Welshman Owen (Elis James), who spends most of the episode libidinously pursuing the local greengrocer, and Kate (Beattie Edmondson), who frantically tries to revamp her Spotify profile while anxiously awaiting a text from a new love interest.

Unsurprisingly, the humour is based on Widdicombe’s stand up persona, picking at the mundane absurdities of his slacker life with a sarcastic squeak of dismay that quickly escalates into a unexpectedly amusing farce as Josh unsuccessfully tries to convince a local barmaid (Rose Robinson) that he is not a weirdo serial killer.

It’s not particularly new or inventive and Widdicombe’s performance is stiff and uncomfortably awkward, but he is ably supported by an excellent cast – especially Jack Dee’s fabulously tedious landlord – and the story of how this flummoxed nerd copes with a hard break-up could be a fruitful thread if Josh is picked up for a full series.

Click here to watch the pilot for Josh on BBC iPlayer

People Just Do Nothing – TV Review

Pirate radio, it seems, is the online blog of broadcast media: Kurupt FM, the illegal station that forms the basis of tonight’s People Just Do Nothing (BBC3, 10:45pm), receives eight texts per show (eight!) and is broadcast to over 100 people; it’s no wonder it is – apparently – the second most popular pirate radio station in West London (well, Brentford to Isleworth anyway).

Using the spoof documentary format that has been flogged to death in recent years is perhaps not the most auspicious omen, but PJDN is actually well-suited to the lo-fi style of the mockumentary, going behind the microphone to explore Brentford’s ‘grime culture’ by following the creative minds behind a pirate radio station.

It would be easy to poke fun at the ‘wannabe gangsters’ here for their lack of brain power, and while at times this does stoop to that level, such as when resident fool Steves talks about “endolphins”, the show really draws its humour from the undermining of its characters grand delusions.

Ostensible star, MC Grindah (Allan Mustafa), fancies himself as the ambitious, hardened leader of the Kurupt FM crew, boasting about having recently done a two-stretch in prison (that’s two weeks, what did you think?) before cowering behind the door when confronted by a disgruntled neighbour. Beats (Hugo Chegwin) is Grindah’s dense sidekick, responsible for the brilliant idea of removing the flat number off the door to their secret location “so even they don’t know what number it is”. But it is Asim Chaudhry’s Chabuddy who is by far the most entertaining. A weird amalgamation of David Brent, Del Boy and Alan Partridge, Chabuddy is a classic tenacious entrepreneur who optimistically sticks his fingers in countless fruitless endeavours (“Peanut Dust: may contain nuts and glass.”).

This episode also takes a few brief moments to flesh out the characters’ backgrounds, introducing Grindah’s “biological” daughter (her skin is darker because her mum used loads of fake tan while pregnant, obvs) and showing Beats’ attempt to connect with his sloppy step-son, which could prove to be interesting threads throughout a full series.

All that is missing is a bit more heart. Mocking people’s delusions about themselves can become heart breaking or touching when they are inevitably brought crashing down, a moment that makes it easier to empathise with what are otherwise irritating characters, but here the farce of using egg boxes to soundproof the studio ends with Grindah and his crew crouched in the dark hoping their neighbour doesn’t call the council.

People Just Do Nothing is the first of the comedies piloted online by BBC3 last month to make it to broadcast and proves to be another fine example of the channel’s ability to spot unseen talent – the team behind the show catching the eye with a string of five-minute webisodes on YouTube. While it may not have the impact of Gavin and Stacey or Russell Howard’s Good News (which recently made the jump to BBC Two), the show is incredibly funny and surprisingly original, suggesting that BBC3’s impending move online may not quite be the death knell to new comedy as people initially feared.

TV Review: Silicon Valley

“Do people really want to watch a comedy about people loving being rich?” The Thick of It’s Armando Iannucci once asked in The New Yorker when recalling the reasons for shelving his pitch to HBO about an internet start-up. “And then The Social Network came out and we thought, ‘Oh. They do.’”

If David Fincher’s 2010 release was the beta test for the tech revolution on screen then 2014 could be the year it is ready for mass market with Silicon Valley (Wednesday, 9pm, Sky Atlantic), a beautifully observed, tech-savvy sitcom from Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge that is ironically broadcast in a double bill with Iannucci’s Veep.

Capitalizing on the enduring popularity of The Big Bang Theory, Judge presents a more mature take on the geek-chic comedy genre (meaning less gags, more scathing observations), examining with humour the absurd, cut-and-thrust hub of venture capitalism in which the show is set instead of simply laughing at how socially maladroit nerds can be.

Already recommissioned for a second season, Silicon Valley follows twenty-something Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), a nebbish programmer who develops a music app called “Pied Piper” that is treated with derision by everyone until it is discovered that it contains a “game changing” data compression algorithm potentially worth billions. The discovery immediately sparks a bidding war between eccentric venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) and the polo-necked CEO of ginormous internet corporation, Hooli (basically Google but with an even more irritating name).

Along with a clutch of great throwaway lines (“Steve Jobs was just a poser. He didn’t even write code.”), Judge uses his own experiences of working for a Silicon Valley start-up shortly after college to deliver a feast of insider observations on the tech-genius culture, such as the mutual disdain between software writers and programmers, the hostility among tech folk towards Steve Jobs and the proliferation of terrible style fads (FiveFinger shoes, anyone?) that only middle-aged dads should think are cool.

Within this is a strangely-resonant satire on how these social misfits deal with unimaginable wealth at such a young age. Last night’s episode opened with an incredibly awkward house party where Kid Rock is hired to perform to a dwindling crowd of dweeby techies and the boisterous host obnoxiously exclaims, “Kid Rock is the poorest person here, except you guys”. They are, basically, trying to live the lives of rock stars – or at least how they envisage rock stars live – because it’s the only example they have of how to use wealth. Yet they also feel the need to justify such lavish expenditures by spouting philosophical platitudes about how their technology is saving the world, when in fact their product is available for “maximum code reuse and extensibility” to the highest bidder.

Though this world is smartly-observed and cuttingly satirised, the characterisation is reliant on common stereotypes and empty pastiches of notable tech figures. Gregory is nothing more than a Bill Gates look-a-like with a germ phobia, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) not only dresses like Steve Jobs but also shares his characteristic of being an irascible businessman hiding behind a hipster persona, and Thomas Middleditch, who plays hoodied, introverted genius Richard, even looks like Mark Zuckerberg.

Armando Iannucci was right; we will watch people loving being rich, but we also have to care about who these characters are, or at least have an interest in how they develop. Right now, these characters are so lacking in depth that it’s hard to care about anything they do.

Hopefully, the roles will become better defined as the season progresses because Silicon Valley is otherwise a clever, funny examination of an underexplored-yet-vitally-important culture that is not just for the already initiated but also for the hopeless newbs as well.

Click here to watch a trailer for Silicon Valley

Dayglo conspiracy thriller Utopia is back and out to prove a point

Dayglo conspiracy thriller Utopia (C4) shocked everyone last year by being one the most unusual, funny, unpredictable and thoroughly exhilarating programmes on telly. It wasn’t exactly to everyone’s tastes, however; it’s sour colouring and brutal violence proving too tart for many. Thankfully, it garnered enough viewers to warrant a second series, starting tonight at 10pm, that belligerently promises to be more of the same.

The show was always going to be a hard sell. With its splashes of acidic yellow and a disconcerting way of framing shots that was evocative of comic book panels, Utopia is one of the most idiosyncratic shows you’re likely to come across. An arcane blend of off-kilter villains, sickening violence and a surprising sense of humour only exacerbated the series’ struggle to find a large audience, with many simply dismissing it as the stuff of teenage boys’ fantasies – the sort you would find in comic books – and therefore not suitable for the more urbane viewer.

But beneath all the stark stylistic choices, Utopia can be as clever, complex and morally challenging as anything you’re likely to find in subtitles on BBC Four. The first series introduces a group of implausible nerds who find themselves in possession of an unpublished graphic novel that will explain the origin of a mysterious vaccine, or so conspiracy theorists believe. They soon find themselves targeted by a wheezy hitman, a devious pharmaceutical company and an enigmatic young woman who embodies the series’ biggest question: Where is Jessica Hyde?

Unafraid of exploring challenging questions, series two continues Utopia’s interest in how genetic science may save or damn the human race. Last series’ arc uncovered The Network’s plot to sterilise 90 percent on the world’s population by unleashing an unnecessary vaccine, ostensibly to prevent further war and genocide. It’s the genius of Dennis Kelly’s writing (the polymath behind the stage musical Matilda and the BBC3 comedy Pulling) that you can kind of see The Network’s point and almost understand that they are performing such a dreadful act of cruelty because they genuinely believe it will save humanity.

Kelly’s writing is so sharp, funny and brutal here that he is able to skip between countless plot threads (blackmail, global politics, drug testing, genetics) without letting the uneasy tension wane. The show is so gripping and edgy because Kelly’s writing is constantly surprising; you’re never certain exactly how a scene will pan out and Kelly loads the dialogue with so much menace (“Do you understand your mission?”) that you are practically conditioned to expect the worst at all times.

Those who were put off by the show’s violence would say it’s an unsettling watch. And it is. The highly criticised scene from series one where pleather-clad assassin Arby strolls into a school and calmly executes six children and two teachers will leave you wide eyed and in need of years of therapy it’s so disturbing. And let’s not even get into Lee’s eclectic torture tools (Sand. Chillies. A spoon. Yikes.). However, the violence is never gratuitous. Every death and scene of torture is depicted as a disturbing, inhuman action with horrible consequences as the camera lingers behind to witness the despairing aftermath. That’s why the violence sticks with you; it’s so callous and cold.

The biggest question surround the second series is how it will respond to the controversy of the first. Will it try to tone down its erratic idiosyncrasies and turn The Network into a bunch of free loving hippies determined to solve the world’s problems by dancing in the rain surrounded by unicorns? Nope. The trailer alone promises fiery explosions, car chases, buckets of blood and a girly assassin dressed as a rag doll. Meanwhile the series opener will take the bold step of setting the entire episode in the 1970s to deepen the mythology around the Utopia Experiments – a move that has already sparked outrage) – just to keep the audience waiting a little longer.

If only one thing can be certain about series two of Utopia – and there really is only one – it’s that this weird, original, wonderful thriller will never change. Here’s hoping series two proves it doesn’t really need to.

Five True Blood Characters That Would Make Great Spinoffs

It seems the spinoff is making something of a comeback on television right now. And it’s not just the kind of ill-conceived rehashes of successful comedies that spawned the likes of Joey and After MASH; critically lauded shows are also taking the plunge into the turbulent waters of TV spinoffs.

Vince Gilligan is currently filming Breaking Bad-offshoot Better Call Saul, which focuses on Bob Odenkirk’s seedy small-time lawyer and has already been renewed for a second season; The Walking Dead has a long-gestating series following a brand new set of characters currently set for 2015; and The CW network will air The Flash, a spinoff of their hugely successful Arrow series, in the autumn.

Now True Blood might even be getting in on the action with actor Joe Manganiello recently claiming he is writing a spinoff project for his character, Alcide. I think HBO’s vampire-drama is ripe with spinoff potential considering the myriad colourful characters that have swept through the swampy reaches of Bon Temps over the years.

With that in mind, here are five True Blood characters that would make for excellent spinoffs.

1)    Pam – BanSHEe.

Honestly, does it even matter what show she appears in? Kristin Van Straten’s sharp-tongued badass is such a joy I’d happily watch her in anything just to hear more lines like “I’m so over Sookie and her precious fairy vagina”.

Pam’s morbid sense of humour and sweet-but-lethal nature make her perfect for a modern twist on the western genre. In BanSHEe, Eric’s loyal second-in-command blows in to a quiet, dusty town looking to avenge a past wrong but soon decides to stick around to clean up the town’s seedy underbelly – and anyone who even mentions the word fairy – with her two-fisted approach to justice.

2)    Lafayette – Lafayette: Ghost Whisperer.

I’ve often thought that Lafayette’s skills as a medium have been somewhat under used since the end of season four, and granting Bon Temps’ sassy drug dealer his own show would be a great way to atone for such an error.

In Lafayette: Ghost Whisperer, Merlotte’s long-suffering fry cook takes a break from flipping burgers and drinking his dead boyfriend’s blood to open a quaint antiques shop. His attempts to live a normal life are almost immediately interrupted when ghosts start seeking Lafayette’s help in putting their spirits to rest.

3)    Andy Bellefleur – True Sheriff

At first glance Bon Temps’ hapless sheriff may not look like the obvious choice to lead a gritty crime drama, but take a quick trawl though his backstory and you’ll find a recovering addict whose brother and teenage daughters were recently murdered.

This makes him the perfect fit for HBO’s new slow-burning thriller True Sheriff, in which Andy, with his horny sidekick Jason Stackhouse in tow, is assigned to investigate a series of murders that expose a satanic cult hiding in plain sight in Louisiana. Andy must keep his own demons in check and somehow raise his rebellious daughter, Adilyn, single-handed as he tries to solve the case.

4)    Eric – Viking Warrior

Given that most vampires live for hundreds, if not thousands of years and the show only covers their pasts in brief flashbacks, that leaves a lot of unexplored material to be mined for potential spinoffs.

Going back to Eric’s days as a Viking prince – long before he essentially became a nude model for the Swedish tourist board – Viking Warrior finds a young Eric poised to take his father’s place as king. This happy occasion turns to tragedy when Eric’s family is murdered by a rival tribe leader and he is left to die in the woods only to be saved by the mercy of a passing vampire. Now imbued with supernatural powers, can the rightful king regain his crown and avenge his family? And if so, at what cost to his immortal soul?

5)    Russell Edgington – Vampire Utopia.

The vampire king of Mississippi once alluded to allying with Hitler during WWII (“Adolf was right; there is a Master Race… it’s just not the human race.”). Well known for being a wrathful, vainglorious and mentally unstable man, it’s easy to imagine how Mr Edgington would fit in the upper echelons of the Third Reich.

Vampire Utopia would follow his attempts to claw his way up the Nazi ranks to win a commanding role in Hitler’s eugenics experiments. The twist? The king of all evil is in fact planning to use the research to create a Master Race of vampires. It may well be the only TV show in history where your sympathies will be with the Nazis.