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Entries in Kodi Smit-McPhee (3)

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

Friday
Aug172012

ParaNorman

Animation is too often thought of as a children’s medium, which is an unfair classification. While it does tend to skew towards them, adults can be just as thrilled, delighted, scared and amused as any young kid. This week’s ParaNorman is evidence of that and it hits all of those emotions many times. This is the first film since 2009’s underrated gem 9 that feels more mature and more alive than most other conventional animated films. Despite its PG rating, it takes many risks in its sometimes unnerving tone, frightening visuals and boundary pushing jokes (let’s just say some parents won’t be pleased by a late movie character reveal) and it’s absolutely wonderful. This is not animation for kids. This is animation for everyone.

The film follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who has a special gift: he can see and talk to the dead. The people of Blithe Hollow think he’s a freak, as they watch him walk down the street seemingly talking to the air. What they don’t realize is that the afterlife is indeed a real thing and Norman gets to watch as people journey through it. Perhaps appropriately, he’s a horror fan and stays up most nights watching scary movies on television. The walls of his rooms are lined with zombie posters, his slippers are zombie heads and his alarm clock is a tombstone with an arm sticking out of it and a big “RIP” on the front. Naturally, his odd behavior hasn’t landed him many friends, but he soon learns he’s more important than even he realized. His crazy uncle, whom he was told not to talk to and who happens to share Norman’s powers, suddenly dies. His spirit tells Norman that he must now keep an evil witch at bay. It’s approaching the 300 year anniversary since her death and he must read a book at her resting place before sundown or the dead will spring to life. Unfortunately, Norman is unsuccessful, so he’s forced to set out and correct his blunder.

ParaNorman feels like something “The Simpsons” writers would make if they went a bit darker and tried to tackle horror. It’s fearless, imaginative and incredibly clever. It has plenty of throwaway gags that are surprisingly effective if you catch them, including one billboard gag exclaiming that the local school would be hosting the “Spelling Bee next Wensday.” It’s moments like these that highlight how the filmmakers left no stone unturned. They packed as much as they could into a short 93 minute runtime and somehow pulled it off seamlessly. Gags like that are usually followed by a dramatic or scary scene, but the tone never falters. It never feels inconsistent, like they needed to pick one and stick to it. They take everything that’s great about laughing and crying and being scared and throw it together to form a magical piece of entertainment.

The fact that the animation is smooth and pretty should go without saying; it’s the film’s smarts that surprise the most. It references and spoofs a number of other horror movies, including Halloween, Friday the 13th and those classic Hammer horror films. The opening, in particular, is wonderfully reminiscent of a horror film double feature many would find playing at their local theaters back in the 70’s. It’s a love letter to the genre itself and the unique experience that genre delivers, and it continues this admiration throughout. It creates a voice of its own with a downright wonderful story that concludes in an incredible fashion that manages to be terrifying, sad and beautiful all in one sweep, but it never loses its respect for the genre it obviously endears.

In a strange way, ParaNorman is even a bit profound, finding an odd peace in death, though it’s not quite as involving as this year’s wonderful Studio Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arrietty, where the possibility of life after death was treated less factually, but it nevertheless remains interesting. In the movie, the characters must face their fears, so it’s only appropriate it doesn’t shy away from the reality of death, everyone’s biggest fear. By the time the end rolls around and Norman faces an enemy that is far different than what many will expect, the film has taken on a whole new meaning. ParaNorman wears many faces, both thematically and narratively, but they all combine to create something truly special.

ParaNorman receives 4.5/5

Friday
Oct012010

Let Me In

Two years ago, two movies were released that treaded on similar ground. Twilight was one of them. That movie, as dopey as it was, explored a relationship between a human and a vampire and it was a smash hit. It became a cultural phenomenon and, unfortunately, will soon be heading into the fourth movie in the franchise. The other film, also about a human/vampire relationship, was a small Swedish picture called Let the Right One In. It flew under the radar and was criminally overlooked in the wake of all the Twilight hysteria. Now that fantastic little picture has been remade into a fantastic big one. Now getting the recognition it deserves in American form (due to the public’s idiotic lack of interest in reading subtitles), the newly titled Let Me In never fails to amaze.

The story is set in the cold months of 1983 in New Mexico. The terrific Kodi Smit-McPhee, who dazzled in one of last year’s best pictures, The Road, plays Owen, a kid who spends most of his days by himself. He has no friends and is bullied in school by Kenny, played by Dylan Minnette, who taunts him daily, calling him a “little girl” and asking if he’s scared. The truth is Owen is scared, though he fantasizes about taking his revenge on Kenny, stabbing at the air and pretending his body is taking the sharp end of his knife. It isn’t until his new neighbor arrives and she insists he stand up for himself that he starts to take control. The problem, however, is that the new girl, Abby, played by the wonderful Chloe Moretz, is a vampire and needs blood to survive. Although she tells him they can’t be friends, a friendship blossoms anyway as he learns about her secret.

In another example of misleading advertising (which seems to be happening a lot these days), Let Me In is not the experience most moviegoers will be expecting. This is not a horror movie, despite the horror elements. It’s a slow building, tender love story about two people, one a lonely child who takes comfort in finally having a friend and the other an ageless vampire who, similarly, has remained friendless throughout her existence. They need each other and, like any relationship, they love each other unconditionally, despite their differences.

While Let Me In can’t really be described as anything that works on a realistic, human level, it deftly explores its characters and that is what makes it so special. It doesn’t relate to its audience, but it makes us care about the characters that exist within the story. Moretz in particular does a wonderful job of keeping us ingrained with what we’re seeing. At one point in the movie, Owen asks Abby to be his girlfriend, but, as bad as she’d like to, she knows she can’t. She tells him she’s not a girl. “I’m nothing,” she says. She wants to be normal, but that isn’t possible and it will keep her from ever forging a lasting bond with anybody.

In its own dark, macabre way, Let Me In is quite beautiful. Director Matt Reeves, the man behind Cloverfield, does a masterful job creating this movie. The grim cinematography and the eerily effective lighting help establish a moody, atmospheric and stylish tale. His attention to detail and unique camera trickery, as evidenced by an astonishing one take, in-the-car crash, is a sight to behold.

If there is one criticism I can levy towards Let Me In, it’s that it doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from Let the Right One In. It starts the same, it ends the same and the middle only has minor differences. If you aren’t going to put your own unique stamp on the story, why bother? Luckily, the redundancy to its source material is at least somewhat offset by Michael Giacchino’s brilliant score that pounds loudly to build fear and tension, but also slows down when necessary to help portray the moving, passionate friendship blossoming onscreen.

Let Me In will undoubtedly gain more exposure simply due to the fact that the characters speak English, but it’s hard to say if it is better than Let the Right One In. Picking the superior one is like picking an orange. One may be a bit juicier than the other, but they’re both quite tasty.

Let Me In receives 4.5/5