Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


10 years after the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, the evolved apes now live in a village in the woods outside of San Francisco, having built a little society for themselves. Meanwhile, most of mankind has been wiped out by the simian flu, but a number of survivors still live in a colony in the city.

Both sides haven’t crossed paths in years, but they do again early in “Dawn” and spend the rest of the film in a state of increasing tension. While some believe they can trust each other and live in peace, notably ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), there are warmongering elements in the two camps and conflict seems inevitable…

Without spoiling anything you don’t know already from looking at the marketing materials, this eventually leads to intense and violent action scenes involving the unlikely sight of apes shooting machine guns while riding horses, explosions and whatnot, but for the most part, “Dawn” is more of a character drama, a subtitled one at that, since at least half of the film has the apes talking to each other via sign language.

It’s all very gripping, especially when the focus is on the apes, who are always fascinating to watch, much more so than the humans. Thanks to amazing special effects, the apes are not only incredibly lifelike, they also convey complex emotions.

Like I said, the human stuff (the film also stars Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee, among others) is not as involving as the ape drama, but all the same, this remains one of the best movies of the summer.

The Fault in Our Stars


I honestly can’t remember the last movie that made me cry. It’s been years, really. Well, I’m sure I won’t forget this one!

I mean, how much sadder can you get than a film about young people dying of cancer? Now, here’s the thing: that isn’t the thing that got me. What’s most moving about this adaptation of the 2012 John Green novel is that these young people are so full of life and love. That’s what you come out of the theatre with, not death.

And for that, in addition to the wonderfully sensitive and thoughtful screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who previously wrote “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now” – man, I love those guys!) and the solid direction by Josh Boone, it’s the incredibly heartfelt and charismatic lead performances by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort that you have to be thankful for.

The chemistry between them is to die for (no pun intended) and you really fall in love along with them. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking to know that they only have a limited amount of time they can enjoy… But enjoy it, they do, and so do we.

This is easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

Edge of Tomorrow


“Groundhog Day” and “Starship Troopers” are two of my favorite movies, so a mash-up of them would be right up my alley, right? Well, yeah! Based on the 2004 Hiroshi Sakurazaka novel, it stars Tom Cruise as Major William Cage, a US media relations officer who’s never seen any real combat and who’s even a bit of a coward.

 The film deftly establishes via a rapid montage of news footage that aliens landed on Earth five years ago and have since invaded most of Europe. Following a victory in Verdun (the French city, not the Montreal hood!), mankind is preparing for a decisive battle on a beach in France – a post-apocalyptic D-Day, basically. In movie terms, this makes for a sci-fi variation on the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan”, with soldiers dying left and right as they storm the front, with bullets buzzing all around and things blowing up everywhere.

Somehow, Cage finds himself in the midst of battle, wearing a super cool exoskeleton / mech suit,  and unsurprisingly, he quickly dies. What is surprising is that he then wakes up, realizing that he’s gone back to the previous day. He goes through it again, he’s dropped into battle on the beach once more the next morning, he still dies… And then everything repeats itself. It takes a little while for the film to get going with this, but once it’s on, it’s ON. It starts rebooting over and over, with Cage slowly but surely learning from his mistakes until he masters each level, like in a video game. Practice makes perfect, so he goes from wimp to total badass!

It’s a hit-and-miss process, though, which makes for a lot of hilarious beats. I’m a Cruise fan, but if you’re a hater, you should enjoy watching him die hundreds, if not thousands of times! Behind the camera, Doug Liman directs the hell out of this, nearly reaching James Cameron levels of awesome sci-fi action. There’s even a Cameron-style tough female hero involved, a certain Rita “Full Metal Bitch” Vrataski played by Emily Blunt, who out-machoes Cruise.

The result is a kick ass summer blockbuster which, even though it calls to mind the aforementioned “Groundhog Day”, “Starship Troopers” and “Saving Private Ryan”, among other things, ultimately feels fresh and exciting. I was a bit underwhelmed during the third act, where the filmmakers make a questionable decision regarding the central gimmick, but still, there is plenty of thrills and fun to be had with “Edge of Tomorrow”.

X-Men: Days of Future Past


Some of the very first comic books I read as a kid were from the “Uncanny X-Men” run by Chris Claremont, including such influential story arcs as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and yes, “Days of Future Past”. So I was pretty excited to see it come alive on the big screen, in a movie that also happens to mark the return to the series of director Bryan Singer, 11 years after “X2: X-Men United”. Plus it was shot in Montreal, which is pretty cool!

“The future. A dark, desolate world…” In the comic book, that dark, desolate future took place in 2013, while in the film, they’ve pushed it back to 2023. They also changed it somewhat from a sci-fi version of Nazi concentration camps to something closer to the post-apocalyptic worlds of “The Terminator” or “The Matrix”. They also switched around the characters quite a bit and while Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is involved, she’s not the one who’s sent back in time to stop the assassination by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) that caused the Sentinels (they’re powerful mutant-hunting giant robots, in case you’re not familiar with the comics) to be put into action and eventually nearly wipe out mutantkind.

Indeed, the time-traveler this time around is, in an unsurprising move, the key character of the “X-Men” franchise so far, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). He remains a fun and badass antihero, but it might actually have been refreshing for Kitty Pryde to be the star this time around. Oh, well… So Logan has his conscience zapped into his 1973 body and he first has to go and try to convince Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart in the future, James McAvoy in the past), who’s then a drunken recluse whose only remaining student is Beast (Nicholas Hoult), of what’s going on and of what needs to be done, namely to stop Mystique from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the inventor of the Sentinels (there’s another change: in the comics, it was a presidential candidate).

But first, they have to break Magneto (Ian McKellen in the future, Michael Fassbender in the past) out of jail – I’ll let you discover the crazy reason why he’s imprisoned! This leads to what might be the best sequence of the movie, thanks to quite a bit of humor and awesome special FX, most of which revolve around the character of Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who’s able to move faster than lightning. The way Singer brings to life this power can best be described as next-gen bullet-time. Did I mention it’s awesome?

The action scenes in general are thrilling throughout “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and while most mutants don’t get a lot of character development, seeing them use their various powers is a treat. The following is just a partial list of the previously unmentionned in this review X-Men who come into play: Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Storm (Halle Berry)…

I also enjoyed the 1970s recreation and the way that, like in “X-Men: First Class”, real historical events are involved, notable the Vietnam War and the Paris Peace Accords. There’s even an extended cameo by President Nixon!

One thing that’s a little bothersome is that the continuity is all kinds of screwed up. Often times, it feels like the filmmakers haven’t even seen “X-Men: The Last Stand”!

And even though I mentionned that it was a treat seeing all these mutants in action, I must admit that after half a dozen movies (including the two solo “Wolverine” pictures), the wow factor has somewhat lessened. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is still well worth seeing, but at this point, I can’t say I’m all that eager to see the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse”…

Noah


“In the beginning, there was nothing.”

Here it is on screen, straight out of the Bible, the tale of the early days of the world and mankind. At first and on a few occasions afterwards, we only get flashes of Genesis: a snake, an apple, a rock. But fear not: later on, Noah himself tells us the story of Creation as it unfolds on screen in one of the film’s most brilliant sequences.

I went to Catholic school and I’m rather familiar with the Bible, but there are still elements that surprised, maybe even shocked me in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, not least of all being the Watchers, fallen angels who have taken the form of some kind of fantastical rock monsters, who are portrayed visually as a cross between The NeverEnding Story’s Rockbiters and The Lord of the Rings’ Ents. They’re always fascinating to watch and they even get to kick ass during an epic battle scene.

Epic battle scene? Yes, we get that in Aronofsky’s version of the Bible, in which Noah himself, as played by the always intense Russell Crowe, is a bit of an action hero… Or at least a survivor who’d rather kill than be killed. After we see him witness the murder of his father in a scene that reminds a bit of Conan the Barbarian, we catch up with Noah as an adult with a wife (Jennifer Connelly) and three sons. Like I said, they’re survivors in a desolate world that seems to be post-apocalyptic (or should it be “pre-apocalyptic”?), filled with savage men out to get them.

Then Noah starts having visions of the end of the world… “Death by water.” The Creator has apparently grown tired of Man’s wickedness and he’s ready to destroy everything on Earth… Yet he’s willing to spare Noah, who’s given the mission to build an Ark that can shelter every species of bird and beast.

Noah overflows with stunning, iconic imagery and much of it depicts the building of the Ark and the arrival of countless animals. And then comes the Flood, perhaps the most astonishing sight of all. As endless water falls from the skies and bursts out of the ground, we’re filled with awe, but also with uneasiness, because even though we’re told -and shown- that mankind has become hopelessly corrupted, it’s still painful to hear people scream in fear and pain as they drown everywhere around the Ark…

The movie continues to go to some emotionally disturbing places as Noah starts acting less like a prophet and more like a madman, who decides that humanity must not survive at all, meaning that his sons are to be the last ones of their species, never to have a lineage of their own. I don’t want to go into details, but this leads to some truly gut-wrenching scenes between Crowe and Connelly as well as between Crowe and Emma Watson, who plays a girl he rescued years ago and who’s now in a relationship with one of his sons.

After scaling back and doing a couple of more intimate character studies (The Wrestler, Black Swan), Darren Aronofsky returns to grandiose filmmaking with Noah, which shares more than a few traits with what I consider to be his best film, The Fountain, including an incredibly moving score by Clint Mansell. Like everything Aronofsky has ever directed it is, simply put, a must-see.

Her


Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a “sad, mopey” letter writer who’s going through a divorce. While he’s feeling lonely and vulnerable, he buys a new operating system for his computer and smartphone that uses artificial intelligence and that basically takes the form of a virtual person: Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). He instantly feels like he can truly relate to her and they become friends, and then more than that…

Which brings up all these existential questions about the nature of being and about our relationship with technology. We already have such a close bond with our computers, smartphones and whatnot that, if they were to take on this more personal and intimate form like in the film, it does feel like you could ultimately connect with them on a deeper level. We all feel a little lonely sometimes and we use our devices to reach out into the world via social networks, but what if the device itself became the thing we reached out to?

Set in the near future, “her” is technically a science-fiction film, what with all the technology that’s not quite there yet, but it seems all too possible that it’ll be here soon enough. As written and directed by Spike Jonze, it’s an insightful and sensitive picture not unlike “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” that uses a technological metaphor to explore the way relationships work.

Featuring a moody, minimalistic but effective score by Arcade Fire, “her” is a somewhat melancholy piece that makes us ask ourselves if our own feelings are real or programmed and whether our past is “just a story we tell ourselves”…

In the lead, Joaquin Phoenix is endlessly endearing and relatable, and he develops genuine chemistry with Scarlett Johannson,  who seems so lively and funny and complex even though we’re only hearing her voice. As Theodore’s ex-wife, Rooney Mara also conveys a lot even though, in her case, she almost only appears in dialogue-free flashbacks. And Amy Adams makes a strong impression as well as a friend of Theodore’s character who also is in a relationship of sorts with an operating system.

Speaking of which, it’s interesting the way the premise – man falls in love with an OS – tends to be routinely accepted by people in the film, even though at the same time, it’s obviously a bit crazy. Yet they accept it and so do we. If only for that, “her” is clearly something special.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues


It’s not easy to make a great sequel and I think it’s even harder to make a great comedy sequel. So much of comedy has to do with the element of surprise, with characters and situations being fresh, that it’s all that much harder to go back to the well for a second round. Then again, running gags and familiarity can have their own rewards, so it’s not impossible to make it work.

So what’s the verdict on this here “Anchorman” sequel? Well, it’s good, if not great. It made me laugh quite a bit, though not as much as the first movie. But since that Will Ferrell vehicle happens to be a personal favorite, I didn’t really expect the sequel to be as good, let alone better. In any case, what I can say is that it’s fun to catch up with the arrogantly incompetent Ron Burgundy who, as the film begins, has relocated to New York with wife and co-anchor Veronica (Christina Applegate).

But when she gets promoted and he gets fired, our news-reading hero leaves her and returns to San Diego, where he once again hits rock bottom… Until he’s recruited by what’s destined to be the first 24-hour news channel to go back to doing what he does best: “have salon-quality hair and read the news.” So after getting the old gang back together – Brian (Paul Rudd), Champ (David Koechner) and Brick (Steve Carell), Ron hits the Big Apple once again with only one thing on his mind: becoming #1 again and, most importantly, beating his ex in the ratings!

If you’re at all familiar with “Anchorman” and with the other movies co-written by Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (“Talladega Nights”, “Step Brothers”, “The Other Guys”), you know that the plot is generally just an excuse to put together a series of increasingly absurd situations.

There’s a satire of what the media has become in there, exemplified by a line like “Why do we have to tell the people what they need to hear? Why don’t we tell them what they want to hear?” and the subsequent way Burgundy and his team deliver ever more sensationalist news, which unsurprisingly makes them super successful. There’s also a rather trite subplot about Ron needing to spend more time with his young son, as well as a love affair between him and his new boss Linda (Meagan Good), who happens to be black.

But again, those are just excuses to sort of move the story along while all kind of crazy shit happens. I could go ahead and spoil a bunch of it for you, but what would be the point? All I’ll say is that some of it is hilarious, while some of it falls flat. “Anchorman 2” is definitely a hit and miss affair, but with ultimately more hits than misses.

The Wolf of Wall Street



As the movie begins, Jordan Belfort is 26 and has earned 49 M$ in a year as as the head of his own brokerage firm. He owns a huge house, drives a Ferrari and is married to a smoking hot blonde. He also has all the best toys money can buy, from a private jet to a 170 foot yacht. “Oh yeah, and I love drugs.”We learn all this in an exhilarating early montage narrated by Belfort who, in addition to talking to us via voice-over, also addresses the audience directly while staring into the camera on a few occasions. So yeah, he loves drugs, all kinds of drugs, but his absolute favourite drug is the one most of America is addicted to: cold hard cash. Our protagonist wasn’t born rich, though. He started from the bottom (like Drake) and made his fortune through sheer willpower, which is rather impressive… Until you realize that some of his methods were illegal. Furthermore, it’s openly stated in the film that pretty much everything that happens on Wall Street is bullshit. It’s all about convincing people that they can get rich quick by buying this or that stock. But ultimately, it’s nothing more than salesmanship and gambling. That’s capitalism for you, sir.

I certainly know that I could never be involved in that kind of business, but to some, like Belfort, working on Wall Street is “like mainlining adrenaline.” And I could go on quoting lines from Terence Winter’s killer screenplay, which is filled with eminently quotable, often hilariously vulgar dialogue. It also features razor-sharp storytelling, instantly hooking you in and keeping you deeply involved for some three hours. Smart, fast-paced and full of energy as it is, it reminded me of “The Social Network”.

With the great Martin Scorsese at the helm, it also can’t help but make you think of his previous rags-to-riches epics, “GoodFellas” and “Casino”, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” fully deserves to be mentioned alongside those classic flicks. The only major difference between “Wolf” and the previous two is that it deals with white-collar crime instead of gangsterism and it’s not as graphically violent, though ruining people is its own form of violence. And what Scorsese’s latest lacks in violence, it more than makes up for in sex!

This is a relentlessly dirty movie, populated by a harem and a half of hookers! For that, among other things, it must have been one of the rowdiest film shoots of all time. And thankfully, it’s equally fun to watch for us. Even as the FBI comes a-knocking, Belfort’s (second) marriage is crumbling and the party seems about to end, it remains exciting. It’s maybe a bit self-indulgent at times, but that’s sort of the point. Messy or not, it’s brilliant filmmaking all the way.

It can also count on a wonderful cast, starting with Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s totally on fire in the lead role. Around him, we get tremendous performances from Jonah Hill as his sidekick, Margot Robbie as his (second) wife, Kyle Chandler as a FBI agent and many others, including Matthew McConaughey, who practically steals the film in only one scene.

Simply put, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the best thing I’ve seen all year.

American Hustle



It opens with a title card saying not the usual “Based on a true story”, “Inspired by real events” or whatnot, but “Some of this actually happened.” Gotta love that! It tells you that real life played a part in the writing of the screenplay, but ultimately, like all non-documentary movies, this is fiction. It takes certain liberties, it makes some shit up, it goes over the top and it’s all good!

Set in the late 1970s, “American Hustle” is about a couple of con artists (played by a fat and bald Christian Bale and a mucho sexy Amy Adams) who wind up being forced by a FBI agent (a curly-haired Bradley Cooper) to take part in a sting operation targeting various individuals, including a New Jersey mayor (a pompadoured Jeremy Renner).

It sounds simple enough, but the plot builds and builds and builds until you just don’t know how things will turn out. The way everything unfolds is clever and gripping enough, but the best thing about the film is how it has all these fascinating, colorful characters playing off each other. These are people who do what they can to survive and there is no really good guy in the bunch. It’s just a question of who has the upper hand and who will come out of this whole mess on top.

David O. Russell’s direction is very stylish and dynamic, it made me think of bit of the way Scorsese handled “GoodFellas”, down to the way voice-over narration from the various characters is used. The four aforementioned actors are awesome and the film also features winning performances from the likes of Louis CK, Robert De Niro (his cameo is simply riveting) as well as the hilarious Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s white trash wife. It adds up to what is certainly one of the best movies of the year.

12 Years a Slave


Here’s a truly great film… That is not quite the greatest, in my opinion. As is often the case, I find myself thinking that what is supposed to be the year’s Best Picture isn’t. Again, in my opinion.

A lot of people I respect are praising it to high heavens and I can understand why: it tells a powerful story, the direction is impeccable and the cast led by the amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a series of particularly strong performances.

And yet I can’t say I was all that moved by “12 Years a Slave”. Sure, slavery is one of the most horrible things ever imagined by mankind. The film makes this plainly obvious, but we already knew that, right? Still, this should affect me more, but for some reason, the tears didn’t come.

Intellectually, I was horrified by all the pain and humiliation the African-American characters suffer through, I was impressed by how Ejiofor’s character manages to survive with his dignity intact somehow and I thoroughly despised the slavers played by Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and others.

But it remained an intellectual experience for me, never quite reaching me emotionally. So while I admire it, I’m not sure I’ll include it in my year-end top ten.