Dawn of the Planet of The Apes

Director: Matt Reeves (2014)

Few creatures are more terrifying than an angry ape with a grudge and a gun – and this spectacular sci-fi epic has a forest full of them.

It pits ape against human and each against their own kind in a series of hugely exciting battles.

The movie is also majestic to look at and the intelligent script touches on issues such as an energy-supply crisis and how the treatment of prisoners can lead to radicalisation.

It is ten years since super-intelligent chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) escaped to the Californian forest.

His species has developed art, architecture and a peaceful society while a virus has devastated human civilisation.

In a sly nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the apes have rules marked on to a wall. No1 is: “Ape does not kill ape.”

Human survivor Malcolm (Jason Clarke) leads a recce into the apes’ domain looking to kickstart a hydro-electric dam.

There’s a bloody stand-off and in a desperate attempt to avoid more violence, Malcolm and Caesar tiptoe to a tentative truce.

In San Francisco, Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman) gives Malcolm three days to succeed or he’ll use his arsenal to annihilate the apes.

Meanwhile, the brutal Koba (Toby Kebbell) plots to overthrow Caesar, isolate his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and make war on humans.

Serkis is brilliant as Caesar. With his heavy brow and slow deliberations he echoes Marlon Brando in The Godfather – but with added teeth and muscle.

Director Reeves cleverly uses long edits to create tension and put the audience at the very centre of the action such as when an ape on horseback attacks a tank.

Marvellous visuals, engaging performances and dramatic plot twists made this one of the action movies of 2014.

Amour Fou

Director: Jessica Hausner (2014)

Slow paced and painterly, this suicide drama is so still and composed it could be lying in state.

Set in Berlin in 1810, bourgeoisie life revolves embroidery, flower arranging, letter writing and music and poetry recitals, but there’s an alarming lack of laughter, fun, anger or any other emotion, though there are some quiet jokes.

Barking mad romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) craves death and proposes a double suicide to married mother Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink).

Being a sensible if unadventurous soul she demurs, remaining loyal to her husband Vogel (Stephan Grossmann) a tax collector.

When she collapses at the dinner table, a tumour is discovered. Her family stoically receive the news and a succession of doctors and quacks recommend a series of cures. The least mad include fresh air, bed-rest, blood-letting and camomile tea.

When the highest medical authority Charite Medical in Berlin say it is terminal and she has a short time to live, Henriette reconsiders Heinrich’s offer. Such is the lack of engagement with any of the characters, we care little if the couple carry out their plan or not.

Taking inspiration from the works of Vermeer, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht use of light is terrific, adhering with patient dedication to the geometry of formal composition.

It consists of a series of tableaux where everyone acts from the neck up and every shot is arranged with immaculate formal precision. This serves to reinforce the rigid social etiquette.

With sound editing and mixing successfully evoking a wider world outside the home, it’s a shame Amour Fou has no compelling drama to support its impressive technical achievements.

★☆☆☆

Unbroken

Director: Angelina Jolie (2014)

Celebrating the human capacity for endurance, this true-life tale of Second World War survival is barely believable – and not for the faint-hearted.

It’s based on the book by Lauren Hillenbrand which covers the life of USA Olympian and airman Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini.

Director Angelina Jolie demonstrates she’s far from the minimally talented spoiled brat that recently leaked Sony emails would insist, crafting a handsome and traditional movie with exciting flying sequences and strong acting from watchable performers.

But it does suffer from repetition and so fails to achieve the emotional pitch it strives for.

Born into a poor family young Louie (Brit star Jack O’Connell) learns resilience when he’s bullied for being an immigrant. His older brother Pete (Alex Russell) encourages him to channel his energy on the athletics track to avoid getting into serious trouble.

After representing the US as a distance runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Louie enlists as an airman. While on a rescue mission his plane crashes in the Pacific.

Adrift in a lifeboat with two Mac and Phil (Finn Wittrock and Domhnall Gleeson), they survive sharks, sunburn, sickness and being shot at.

This is the strongest part of the movie as dialogue is kept to a minimum allowing the orchestra and the scenery do the talking, captured with customary finesse by ace British cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Picked up by the Japanese navy the survivors are subjected to interrogation, beatings and solitary confinement before being transferred to a savage POW camp.

It’s ran by the sadistic warden nicknamed ‘The Bird’, played competently by Japanese musician Miyavi in his first acting role. But the fraught relationship between guard and prisoner is forced and unconvincing.

Louie is offered by an easy life in exchange for allowing his celebrity runner status as Japanese propaganda in radio broadcasts but instead is returned and sent to a dockside coal-yard – where The Bird is once again in charge.

An early Oscar front runner Unbroken only picked up nominations for cinematography, sound mixing and sound editing and it will be interesting to see if Jolie can build a second career from her solid efforts here.

★★☆☆

How To Train Your Dragon 2

Director: Dean DeBlois (2014)

This animated family-friendly sequel soars and roars in a fabulous flight of fantasy.

It’s a handsomely designed adventure with extraordinary animation that conjures up magical images – especially of dragons flying en masse.

The coming-of-age story of Hiccup and his fight to save his village is well-crafted and exciting but a lack of laughs is a major flaw.

Brave and resourceful viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is 20 and his home of Berk is living in harmony with the dragons. His dad, chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) expects him to take the throne but Hiccup is unsure about ruling or his own future.

So, armed with a fiery sword, he flies off on his dragon Toothless to discover himself and explore the northern lands.

There he meets mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett) who warns him of warlord Drago’s plan to enslave all dragons. Meanwhile Hiccup’s adventurous girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and her friends are captured by Drago and his pirate fleet.

The ensuing battle between dragons, vikings, pirates and bewilderbeasts – giant alpha dragons with mind-control powers – is spectacular but ends in the death of a loved one.

Hiccup must try to defeat Drago’s army, rescue the dragons, free his village and generally live up to his father’s expectations.

Dragon 2 is good natured and tender at times but the few jokes are mostly gentle slapstick, such as people falling into snow drifts or getting their faces licked by dragons.

While weak sidekick characters fail to provide enough fun and their amorous behaviour is ill-judged in a film aimed at younger kids.

The viking village has lots of nicely designed mechanical gizmos but no-one seems to realise the bat-suit wings that Hiccup sports to glide around may one day make the dragons redundant.

But Dragon 2’s lesson – that it’s never too late to start listening to your dad – is an important one that my son may learn… one day.

★★☆☆

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo (2014)

Loyalty, friendship and the freedom of world are tested to destruction as Captain America returns in this action packed and hugely exciting Marvel comic-book sequel.

Dynamic duo Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson power this breakneck thrill ride which will be followed in 2016 by Captain America: Civil War.

Blue-eyed, lantern-jawed Steve Rogers (Evans), aka Captain America, punches his way through a series of brilliant action sequences, including a rescue of hostages on the high seas and a marvellous mayhem-filled fight on a freeway.

Samuel L. Jackson returns as S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury and introduces superhero The Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Robert Redford is his smooth-talking superior Alexander Pierce, bringing a knowing cinematic echo of his earlier roles in 1970’s conspiracy thrillers Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976).

Rogers, who struggles to cope in the modern world, is framed for the shooting of Fury and goes on the run with Natasha Romanoff, aka super-assassin Black Widow (Johansson).

Facing terrible adversity, he’s armed only with his indestructible shield and she a pair of perfectly calibrated pistols – yet still they find time to flirt while evading squadrons of fighter jets, convoys of trucks and legions of Swat teams packing the latest in futuristic military weapons.

People are brutally stabbed, shot, punched, kicked and thrown off buildings as they’re also pursued by the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a relentless super-villain with a robotic arm and secret past.

Helped by Falcon, the duo must stop the sinister Hydra group, which infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ long ago, from imposing a new and deadly world order.

Considering the patriotic conservatism of the central character, Captain America is a far richer experience than could have been hoped for and excluding the Avengers, my favourite franchise in the canon.

Now all the Marvel Cinematic Universe is missing is a Black Widow standalone movie.

The Lego Movie

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller (2014)

Despite the astonishing Oscar snub, this is a brilliant, witty, inventive animation which kids will enjoy almost as much as their parents will.

As the opening song says, ‘Everything is Awesome!!!’. And it is. It’s stupid in a clever way, clever in a funny way and is continually exciting, hilarious and even subversive.

Assembled with huge energy and a wicked sense of fun, every brick of the plot is correctly placed to support the dizzying flights of imagination and yet more jokes.

During the ferocious chase scenes random street parts are rapidly fashioned into vehicles, destroyed and rebuilt into  succession of err, other vehicles.

Among the mayhem it even manages to visually referencing sci-fi classics such as Tron and The Matrix.

Brickburg is a modern plastic city with busy roads, extortionately priced of coffee and constant CCTC surveillance. Everyone and everything fits together and works correctly.

When construction worker Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) has an accident, he loses his vital rule book but discovers the Piece of Resistance.

Arrested by Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) he is freed by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who believes him to be the prophesied ‘special’.

Only the Piece of Resistance can prevent the tyrannical President Business (Will Ferrell) from using his super-weapon called the Kragle to destroy the Lego universe.

Emmet and Wyldstyle set out to to prevent the President’s evil plan and are helped by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and other Master Builders.

They include famous lego–made characters who help make this the second best Batman movie and the fourth best Star Wars film.

Naturally enough the film emphasises the importance of invention and bonding but to say more will spoil the fantastic and emotional twist towards the end.

In a word, awesome.

 ★★

Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn (2014)

The strangest group of heroes Marvel comics ever created blast off into space in this visually sensational sci-fi action adventure.

They’re a mismatched motley alien crew consisting of an Earthling called Peter (Chris Pratt), a beautiful green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically-engineered raccoon called Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel).

It is a fun-filled knockabout romp with stellar design, tremendous special effects and CGI characters blending seamlessly with the real actors.

But it’s gratingly pleased with itself but nowhere near as funny or as smart as it believes itself to be.

It takes far too much juvenile pleasure in rude words and drowning scenes with 1970’s pop tunes quickly wears thin – an unusually needy and heavy-handed attempt at cross-audience, all quadrant appeal by the mighty Marvel studio.

The self styled Star-lord and deluded scoundrel Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth as a kid and raised by intergalactic thieves known as the Ravagers.

He hasn’t a lot of experience fighting or leading or coming up with plans. Or having ideas in general. In fact, he’s not all that smart. Plus, generally unskilled.

Nevertheless he manages to steal an orb of mysterious power which is also wanted by the psychotic Ronan (Lee Pace) who secretly works for the powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin). who wants the orb to wage war on his enemies.

Quill is thrown into a space-prison called The Kyln where he meets a warrior called Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has sworn vengeance on Ronan.

In a fantastic action sequence they break out alongside Gamora, Rocket, Groot and a spare leg but the script shoots itself in the foot in a space-walk sequence which drains the rest of the film of tension.

When Quill discovers the true danger of the orb he discovers the hero inside himself and cajoles the squabbling misfits to fight a desperate and spectacular battle to guard the galaxy against destruction.

Much like the Hulk in Avengers Assemble, Groot steals every scene he’s in, despite only being able to say the words ‘I am Groot’ – which to be fair, is as much as the Hulk ever managed.

British actress and former Dr Who star Karen Gillan is impressively agile and deliciously villainous and shares a history and a terrific fight scene with Gamora.

Pratt is less endearing than the film supposes and his reprising of a peril-inspired song and dance routine similar to which he performed in The Lego Movie wears thin here.

Guardians of the Galaxy is entertaining enough though not Marvel’s finest hour; after The Winter Soldier it’s not even Marvel’s best film of 2014.

And the joke at the end of the film’s credits isn’t worth hanging around for.

☆☆

Interstellar

Director: Christopher Nolan (2014)

This plodding, muddled and bombastic sci-fi flick doesn’t fly – despite having talented Matthew McConaughey at the controls.

Even the star’s rocket-fuelled charisma can’t stop the space-travel, dimension-hopping, time-twisting tale from drifting aimlessly.

Cooper is working as a farmer, the sort who is cheerily content to cruise a truck through his own crops.

His daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is left coded messages by a ghost.

Solving this riddle leads them to a super secret Nasa base run by Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

He’s fond of quoting Dylan Thomas while scribbling equations on a blackboard in a sciency manner. Normally in Nolan films it’s Morgan Freeman‘s job to do that.

Despite having hugely limited resources – what with the break down of civilisation due to the crops not growing – Brand decides Cooper is the man they’ve been waiting for to pilot a spacecraft into a plothole, sorry, wormhole, near Saturn.

It’s tunnel to another galaxy where three astronauts are lost. Cooper is to rescue them if possible while scouting for worlds that could support human life.

He returns home to say a guilt-ridden goodbye to Murph but she’s not best pleased.

In Cooper’s crew are Brand’s scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and a robot called TARS; a cross between a giant iPod and a Swiss army knife.

It’s unusual and impractical design seems only for the purpose of demonstrating director Nolan is familiar with the work of Stanley Kubrick. TARS jokes are misplaced among the grim solemnity.

Hibernating en route they awake to hear a signal from one of the lost men and investigating they encounter the effect gravity has on time.

There is courage, sacrifice and stupidity. When the crew land on a watery world they are surprised by an enormous laws of physics-defying wave. Twice.

A betrayal results in a shortage of fuel means Cooper has to choose between returning home to his daughter or saving the world.

In space no-one can hear you scream because of the ear-piercing soundtrack. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema conjures up spectacular images but Nolan offers but no depth or mystery to accompany them.

While the dialogue is functional at best and occasionally laughable in it’s portentousness, the weak script signposts the twist which is possible to see from light-years away.

Later the galaxy’s most intelligent man repeatedly yells “override” to a password-protected computer. Which is showy but not very clever – like this film.

★★☆☆☆

Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher (2014)

She’s sexy, savage and inscrutable – British actress Rosamund Pike finally gets a role worthy of her talent in the most entertaining thriller of 2014.

Filled with murder, kidnap, rape and revenge, the movie is glossy on the surface and trashy at heart.

But it’s also superbly sharp and twisted, with a fine-tuned sense of humour to balance the darkness.

On his fifth wedding anniversary Nick (Ben Affleck) finds his home spattered with blood and his perfect wife Amy (Pike) missing.

Nick refuses to believe Amy is dead and starts a high-profile campaign to trace her.

Through flashbacks from Amy’s diary, we see the couple fall passionately in love, marry and pursue successful careers.

But the police investigation into her disappearance uncovers Nick’s large credit card debt, incriminating evidence and a mistress.

They also discover her diary, which details Nick’s history of violence and her fears for her safety.

Now the prime murder suspect and facing the death penalty, Nick employs charismatic celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Then the story is turned on its head.

As well as exploring how we create our own identities, the story takes a swipe at trial by TV and has a few choice words to say about marriage as well.

Pike goes full throttle into the curves of her performance and Affleck’s measured performance allows the supporting cast to stand out.

Carrie Coon brings warmth and concern as his twin sister Margo and Kim Dickens as cop Rhonda Boney, steals every scene she’s in.

Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (son of cinematographer Jordan) should pick up his third Oscar nomination for his stunning work.

First time scriptwriter Gillian Flynn adapted her own bestseller and the direction by David Fincher is gleefully malicious.

★★★★

Trash

Director: Stephen Daldry (2014)

Fresh fish are good and plastic is bad in this environmental sermon that masquerades as a thriller.

It opens with a teenage boy holding someone at gunpoint, by the time we eventually discover why it’s all turned terribly silly.

Favela-living boys from Brazil Raphael (Rickson Teves)and Gardo (Eduardo Luis) are paid a pittance to scavenge all day on the municipal rubbish dump.

No wonder the US and Europe have sent Father Juilliard (Martin Sheen) and Sister Olivia (Rooney Mara) to bring religion and education.

It’s good they’re doing something as they don’t interfere with the plot in any meaningful way.

Otherwise it’s non-stop street parties and skinny-dipping amid the picturesque poverty of the colourful favela. It even burns down in a  pretty manner.

When Raphael discovers a money-filled wallet, he and Gardo enlist sewer-dwelling Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) to help fence it.

But Rato recognises the key it contains as coming from a train station locker, so off they go to investigate.

However on the payroll of a corrupt  congressman, bad cop Frederico (Selton Mello) is searching for the wallet as it contains something incriminating.

Frederico drinks water from a plastic bottle making him not only brutally corrupt but gasp, a walking environmental disaster as well.

When he indulges in a bit of ultra-violence to classical music he does so on a creative whim – not because it tells us anything anything about his character.

There’s bags of cash, a ledger of crooked accounts, rooftop running, motorbike chases, gunplay and beatings.

There’s aggression but a lack of anger. Sister Olivia who simply shrugs her shoulders at events, even when lured to a prison under false pretences and later arrested.

It’s a shame as Mara is very good acting angry, maybe she’s despondent because the script give her so little to do.

Wretched script-writer Richard Curtis adapted this boy’s own Brazil-based adventure from Andy Mulligan’s book.

There are echoes of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Millions but it’s nowhere near as coherent, compelling or dynamic.

Editor Elliot Graham tries manfully to inject pace and energy using the cinematic steroids of freeze-frames and flashbacks – but real muscle is lacking.

Failing in its attempt at a feel-good finale, the ending lasts more than long enough to spell out its sanctimonious message.

★★☆☆☆