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Friday
Jul112014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Say what you want about their production values, particularly the cheesy, rubbery make-up the actors were forced to wear in the older films, but the “Planet of the Apes” series, at least thematically, is one of the best and most intelligent science fiction series ever created. Though not all were created equal, each movie had something fascinating to explore, but the first stands above the rest. With battling themes of science vs. religion and a controversial stance that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought (which remains controversial even to this day), “Planet of the Apes” cemented itself as a riveting, thought provoking science fiction film. The following films dealt with bigotry, slavery, war and more, which kept them interesting even as their overall quality declined.

The 2011 series comeback, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” attempted to explore similar ground, but lacked its predecessors’ profundity. The newest entry, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” similarly fails to make much of a thematic impression, but it’s a damn fine movie nonetheless, a summer spectacle full of mind-blowing action, wonderfully developed characters and a surprisingly emotional story you won’t soon forget. Even with its thematic deficiencies, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” can stand proud as the best film in the franchise since the 1968 original.

Ten years have passed since the last film and two since the last humans have been seen. The leader of the evolving apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), has built a sanctuary for his fellow apes, a place they can all call home in the peaceful mountains outside San Francisco. However, just when they think humans might be gone for good, they stumble upon some on a mountain path. In their panic, the humans shoot one of the apes’ sons, creating tension between the two factions. Back in quarantined San Francisco, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) tells their own leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), what they saw: talking apes in mass numbers. Dreyfus brushes this off as panicked hysteria, but soon finds his words to be true when the apes appear in front of them, demanding segregation. They’ll fight if they have to, but they would prefer peace, achieved by keeping the humans in the city and the apes in the mountains. This arrangement isn’t ideal for the humans, however, because they are running out of power and need to fix the dam in the mountains. Despite some skepticism, Caesar agrees to let them fix it, but each side is uncomfortable with the other and their paranoia leads them down a path neither want to travel.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” does a remarkable thing. Whereas most movies create two clear factions, one good and one bad, this one balances both masterfully, to the point where there is no distinct good or bad side. Each of those sides has good and bad characters, those that try to prevent war and others that try to perpetuate it, but it’s not always a case of this side being right and that side being wrong. All are simply trying to survive in a new and mysterious world, so you come to care about both humans and apes, wishing hard for a peaceful outcome, but knowing the outcome is predetermined.

At its core, this is a film about family, in both the literal sense and in the camaraderie the two species have with their own kind. Each are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their families safe, neither wanting to go to war, but both willing to if they must. What “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” lacks in thematic depth, it more than makes up for with these wonderfully well written characters—the best written in the entire series—which leads way to an incredibly moving story that proceeds the way it does not simply because the screenplay calls for it, but because the characters onscreen have developed realistic motivations based on the experiences they had before.

This gives the action that follows more meaning than your typical summer fare. Only briefly does the story take a backseat to that action before it catches back up and gives it some narrative context. The death and destruction that erupts is heartbreaking due to the film’s delicate handling of its characters, which continues through these breathtaking action sequences, including a steady cam single take on top of a tank that is enough to impress even non-film enthusiasts who don’t usually notice those types of visual touches.

If you’re a fan of the original films and are looking for some meaning in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” you’ll find some, but it’s nothing as interesting as the franchise’s previous thematic endeavors. You’ll get those themes of segregation, submission, control through fear and more, but we’ve seen these ideas before in other, more thematically focused films. Instead, this movie focuses on its finely tuned, character driven story, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you go in looking for something that ultimately isn’t there, you’ll leave happy after seeing what is.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes receives 4.5/5

Wednesday
Aug292012

Lawless

John Hillcoat is one of cinema’s most underappreciated directors and his movies are maddeningly underseen. His last film from 2009, The Road, was one of the best of that year, but was largely ignored by most everyone, including the supposed film experts who snubbed it of all Oscar nominations. That was a film that dared to face death and despair head on. It wasn’t a pleasant movie, but it was thematically deep and emotionally complex. It was everything movies should be, but it’s grim nature assured it would never overcome that bittersweet underrated status. Hillcoat’s latest, Lawless, based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, is once again brimming with greatness. It demands to be seen by a wide audience, but if history really does repeat itself, it’s destined for a quiet greatness, one that is known by those who have seen it and ignored by those who haven’t. Lawless has flaws, more so than The Road, and it’s not as contemplative, but it’s nevertheless one of the best of the year.

The film takes place in Franklin, Virginia in 1931 and stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant, the younger brother to Forrest and Howard, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, respectively. It’s the Prohibition era and alcohol has been illegalized. As anyone who has ever cracked open a history book knows, this led to lots of unlawful practices surrounding the distribution (and ingestion) of alcohol. The Bondurant brothers are just one group of many who decided to profit off of  the law, but it has become a problem in their little town and a hot shot deputy from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce, is brought in to fix it. In the midst of all this, Jack begins to fall in love with a pretty young girl named Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska. She comes from a more traditional, conservative family and is expected to act and dress a certain way, but she begins to reciprocate Jack’s feeling, which leads her astray and puts her in danger. By the end, tragedies will befall the characters and blood will be spilled.

This story, based on a true one about the author’s own family, is as gripping as any to come out this year. Movies about Prohibition are no rarity, the most popular being 1987’s horribly overrated Brian De Palma film, The Untouchables, but whereas that movie featured a wooden central performance from Kevin Costner and inconsequential shootouts with unnamed baddies, Lawless is rich in characterization and every event matters, causing a ripple effect to its amazing and inevitable conclusion. The brotherly bond is there and the romances are never played as hokey. These feel like real people living through a tough time in history, when the simple sale of alcohol threatened violence. The three brothers are far from upstanding citizens, but there’s a humanity to them and you understand their actions, even when you disagree with them. You may not approve of what they’re doing at a certain point in time, but you’ll never condemn them. Everything they do has a reason and the way they’re portrayed in the film—as flawed, but ultimately good people—is excellent.

These characters are three dimensional, there’s no doubt about that, and the dialogue they recite leads to some of the best and most intense dialogue driven scenes since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but Lawless isn’t all talk. In fact, it’s quite violent, brutally and uncomfortably so at times, but that makes the movie all the better. It doesn’t glorify it in any way and it exists for a purpose, to both give the characters some motivational weight and to give the film a gritty, raw and realistic feel. Lawless never feels exploitative in these scenes and knows when to leave things up to the imagination, like an early rape that is only implied, effectively eliminating that feeling of hopelessness many rape scenes elicit while still providing the anger and understanding such a scene hopes to instill in its audience.

If there’s anything wrong with Lawless, it comes from a lack of screen time for two of cinema’s most underrated actors, Guy Pearce and the as yet unmentioned Gary Oldman. Oldman features prominently in the beginning of the film and his utter disregard for the sanctity of human life makes him a captivating villain, but he’s quickly forgotten in favor of other narrative exploits, serving only as a catalyst for Jack’s eventual bootlegging ways. Pearce on the other hand is there from beginning to end, but his performance is so breathtaking and wholeheartedly deserving of an Oscar nomination that you just want him to be there more. All of the performances are great, in fact, but it’s the writing that allows them to be. Everything comes together beautifully in Lawless. It’s the perfect way to end the summer movie season.

Lawless receives 4.5/5

Tuesday
Jul172012

The Dark Knight Rises

There are few people that would argue The Dark Knight is anything less than a fantastic film. Most tend to agree it’s one of, if not the best superhero movie ever made. There are even those who think it’s one of the best movies ever made, superhero or otherwise. That film raised the bar for superheroes so high that it’s likely to be a very long time before one reaches or surpasses it. That philosophy holds true for director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, but luckily, the film is only a disappointment in comparison. It may not reach the brilliance of The Dark Knight, but it’s still the best and most exciting movie of the summer. Dark, violent, terrifying and exciting, The Dark Knight Rises fires on all cylinders.

When we last saw Batman (aka Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale), he was running from the cops. He was taking the fall for the murder of Gotham’s district attorney, Harvey Dent, who the people of the city had put their faith in to clean up their streets. In Bruce’s mind, it was his duty to prove that true good couldn’t be corrupted, which meant making a martyr out of a madman. Now, Bruce has hung up his cape and mask because the city has turned against him, thinking him to be a violent sociopath who deceived their trust. However, a new villain is emerging. His name is Bane (Tom Hardy) and he’s out to destroy the city. He’s a bullish brute and it soon becomes clear that the police force won’t be able to stop him, which forces Batman out of retirement.

The Dark Knight Rises may be a misleading title for the film, seeing as how Batman does more falling (both literally and figuratively) than he does rising, but that’s why these films work. Nolan doesn’t treat his hero as a god. He treats him as he is: a human being. Bruce has demons to wrestle with, first isolated to the anger felt from losing his parents all those years ago, but now combined with the heartbreak of losing his only love, Rachel (played by both Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively), at the end of The Dark Knight. He’s not cracking jokes like Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (despite the occasional witty moment). There’s too much at stake for such trivialities. His desire to fight stems not just from doing what’s right, but from the pain he’s feeling, his need to restore balance to a city gone mad, a city that took the life of everyone he ever loved. The Dark Knight Rises is a dark adult tale told by a masterful filmmaker who knows how to balance the necessary action with character development and relationships.

If anything, it’s the action that dragged down Nolan’s first film, Batman Begins, which was heavy-laden with too much shaky cam and too many cuts. Whether a product of the time, when the Bourne movies were finding so much popularity with the technique, or simply due to Nolan’s own inexperience with staging and filming fast paced action scenes, they were easily the film’s weakest aspect. But with The Dark Knight, Nolan refined his craft. The camera was smooth for much of the action, moving only to give us a better view of it, not to blur it. Nolan carries that maturity over into The Dark Knight Rises. While large in scope, including an absolutely incredible opening and appropriately epic finale, the action is never too much, never overloading your senses like many action movies these days. It’s presented in a way that feels organic, not forced for the sake of keeping action hungry audiences at bay, and Nolan’s steady hand approach ensures we get to savor every second of it.

But regardless of the film’s strengths, it’s impossible to watch The Dark Knight Rises and not compare Tom Hardy’s Bane to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. When doing so, there is a clear winner. The Joker was a larger than life personality, one that gave the film a quirky feeling, kind of in the vein of a dark comedy, and the man behind the make-up gave one of the best performances ever put to film. Awarded posthumously at the Oscars that year, Heath Ledger created a terrifying monster, one that frightened, yet delighted at the same time. Bane, on the other hand, is too prophetic to be frightening. The majority of the fear instilled by him comes mainly from his size and brute strength rather than from anything psychological. He intimidates visually, but lacks the personality and off-the-wall insanity that made Heath Ledger’s cackling Joker so terrific.

Of course, Bane isn’t a bad character and Tom Hardy’s representation of him is just fine; they look worse only because Heath Ledger’s Joker was so amazing. The only true problem with the character comes from his voice, which is so modulated (thanks to the ever present mask covering his mouth) it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. Why such a problem was left unhandled—despite Nolan’s partial admittance to making select modifications after fan complaints from an early trailer—baffles the mind. A few other problems bring about the same reaction, like Bane’s nonsensical villainous plot that, for some reason, takes at least five months to unravel or why Batman would waste time lighting his logo on fire on a Gotham City bridge when he has mere hours before the city is destroyed. These moments don’t necessarily make sense, but they make the proceedings flashy and tense (and it’s impossible not to smile when that logo lights up).

The Dark Knight Rises is bogged down by a bit too much expository dialogue as well, but it more than makes up for it with a plethora of other brilliant little touches, like a sly reference to Killer Croc, another villain in the Batman universe. In an act of extreme skill, Nolan brings this story full circle, wrapping up his take on the character in as satisfying a way as one can imagine (though that very last shot, which I dare not spoil, should have been taken out). It works narratively, emotionally and on a visceral level—if the final 30 minutes don’t get your blood pumping, nothing will. It’s certainly not perfect and if comparing it to The Dark Knight, then it’s a disappointment, but if that’s the case, this is one of the best disappointments I’ve ever experienced.

The Dark Knight Rises receives 4.5/5

Friday
Dec162011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

One of the things we critics like to do—nay, must do—is watch movies from a different perspective. Sure, in the end, it really boils down to whether or not we were entertained by a movie, but it’s not as simple as saying one is good or bad. We have to explain why it’s good or bad. We have to look at things a normal moviegoer wouldn’t, like shot composition, art direction and cinematography. When we watch a performance, we have to explain what makes it so great or why that actor should be in some other line of work. We have to give points to a movie that is well made, even if it bores us to tears. That’s why, in the end, I’ll be recommending Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but I never, until the day I die, want to see it again.

When the film begins, British Intelligence agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is on his way to Hungary to gather vital information from a Hungarian general, but things go wrong and he is shot and captured by the Soviets. Back home, after the attention from the incident escalates, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced into retirement. However, there is suspicion of a mole in British Intelligence who is leaking secret documents to the reds, so the head of intelligence, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), decides to pull Smiley out of retirement and tasks him with finding the traitor.

Credit much (no, all) of that plot synopsis to Wikipedia because Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one confusing movie. Little is outright explained in it and unless you’re familiar with certain British secret service terminology (it took me close to an hour to realize that when they talked about “The Circus” they were referring to themselves), you’re likely to get lost. From its opening frame to its closing moments, the film boggles the mind, which is both good and bad. In a way, it’s great to see a movie that refuses to dumb down its material, but at the same time, it’s far too convoluted for its own good. It’s one of those movies that probably makes perfect sense if you’re paying close attention, but it’s so slow and drags for so many long stretches that such attentiveness is impossible. Those who have never had a problem focusing on something may begin to come down with a temporary ailment of ADD.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a tale of espionage and government control that is inherently interesting, but it’s handled in a slow, uninteresting manner, similar to something like The Lives of Others, another movie that was artistically well made, but needed to pick up the pace a bit (but at least it wasn’t confusing). Still, one can’t deny the skill that went into this film’s production. It’s shot and directed extremely well and the acting is affecting, though I’m not quite sure it’s awards worthy as many are suggesting. If walking around silently and never smiling makes an Oscar worthy performance (which is precisely what Gary Oldman does for two hours straight), then grumpy uncles and grandparents the world over should take up acting.

The best performance in the film comes from Tom Hardy, who dazzled in last year’s Inception and one of this year’s best, Warrior. Once again, he is proving himself to be more than worthy of attention. With that said, despite a plethora of performances that range from good to great, there’s a disconnect between the characters and audience. No reason to care about what is happening is ever given. The connate mystery of such a story is certainly intriguing, but it’s not enough to make the audience feel anything. I may not have always understood what the characters were saying, but more importantly, I didn’t care. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just isn’t appealing in any way other than the appreciation it will surely garner from film buffs. I’m one of those film buffs so I recognize its strengths, but even the thought of watching it again makes my eyelids heavy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy receives 2.5/5

Thursday
May262011

Kung Fu Panda 2

It has been an underwhelming year so far at the movies. By this time last year, I had given out a good number of perfect or near perfect scores, but 2011 has disappointed me. Films like Rango and Source Code have stood proud as the best this year has offered, yet neither of them were truly great. I’ve been waiting many months for a movie to come along and really impress me, something that can make me laugh, cry and excite me all at the same time. That movie has finally come in the form of Kung Fu Panda 2. It’s a tour de force, a real achievement in not just animation, but filmmaking in general and it proves once and for all that animation can be just as funny, unique and emotionally gripping as live action cinema. Let’s just put it this way. If this were released last year, Toy Story 3 would have had a run for its money.

When we last saw Po (Jack Black), he was learning to be a kung fu master. He was inexplicably deemed the Dragon Warrior and was tasked with the responsibility of defeating an impending evil heading his way. Because of his large stature and clumsy mannerisms, he was ridiculed by the Furious Five, who refused to believe he held the power to protect their people. They were wrong, of course, and now Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu) have accepted them into their clan. But a kung fu warrior’s work is never done and a new evil has emerged in the form of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock determined to take over China.

It must be said that Kung Fu Panda 2 is a sequel of the “if it ain’t broke…” variety. The original film was a solid piece of work in itself and it would be foolish to mess with the formula too much. However, just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked and made better and that’s precisely what was done here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is funnier and more exciting than the original and its heart seems to have grown tenfold.

Throughout this film’s brief hour and a half runtime, Po goes on a journey of self discovery that is more profound than anything presented in the first movie. As he ventures into battle, he begins to have visions of his family, giving him a desire to learn who he is and where he came from. His discoveries aren’t always pleasant, however, which gives the film an unexpected darker tone than its predecessor. It deals with the idea of making the right choice, even if it’s not the easy one. To elaborate would constitute spoilers, but you will undoubtedly feel sadness for Po as he learns the inescapable truth of his past.

That’s not to say Kung Fu Panda 2 is all dark. It still retains the playful exuberance that made the first movie so darn enjoyable. Also returning is the vibrant and distinctive animation (even when obfuscated by the 3D glasses) that seamlessly transitions from lush computer animation to hand drawn sequences that appropriately elicit the feeling of Chinese shadow puppetry. Perhaps best of all is that the characters are just as charming as you remember. Po is still the awkward, hunger fueled jokester you remember him as. He’s just a little more agile and skilled than before. He also shows more confidence, having been accepted as a legitimate kung fu master, and isn’t afraid to spout off one-liners that are hilariously used to parody various action movie clichés.

The Furious Five that accompany Po are better handled as well. Rather than endlessly make fun of him as they did in the first film, they now see him as a part of their family. It creates a sense of camaraderie among the crew and gives them more sympathetic personalities. The most surprising character, however, comes in the form of Lord Shen, who at first glance is too graceful to be threatening—after all, a peacock isn’t the most ferocious animal on the planet—but looks can be deceiving. He may not have the physical presence of the last film’s antagonist, but he is nevertheless ruthless and destructive. He delights in chaos and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. It’s a cold, calculated approach to villainy, just one of many aspects the filmmakers have carefully thought through.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a wonderful movie. It works on so many different levels, from the pleasing aesthetics to the unbelievable action, that it’s practically guaranteed to please everybody who watches it. While the children they bring will surely enjoy it, adults in the audience may find something deeper hidden in what looks like an otherwise simple tale. To summarize this review, Kung Fu Panda 2 is flat out amazing.

Kung Fu Panda 2 receives 5/5