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Entries in planet of the apes (2)

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
Oct052012

Frankenweenie

Tim Burton is one of those love-him-or-hate-him types of directors. Some people argue that he’s doing the same thing over and over again and his frequent collaborations with Johnny Depp are growing stale, while others argue that their dark, Gothic visuals and creepy atmosphere feel just right. I suppose I'm in the latter group. His bizarre, otherworldly imagination has managed to create some unique characters and settings that instantly stand out and I’ve always been fascinated by what he conjures up, to the point where I would live in the world of Corpse Bride or Edward Scissorhands if I could. I’ve been a Burton apologist for years, despite a few stumbles (the less said about his ill-advised 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, the better), but I can’t get behind his latest, Frankenweenie, a stop motion remake of his 1984 live action short of the same name. At first glance, it looks like more of what we love (or hate) about Burton—his dark sensibilities, morbid humor and fascination with death are all prominent—but it lacks creativity and care. After ParaNorman so beautifully nailed similar material earlier this year, Frankenweenie just feels kind of lazy.

In Burton’s homage to classic monster movies, Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) has no friends. His only real companion is his dog, Sparky, whom he loves dearly. He does nearly everything with him, which prompts his father (voiced by Martin Short) to convince him to take part in an extracurricular activity: baseball. While practicing one day, Victor sends a ball flying out of the park and into the road. Sparky, as most dogs would do, breaks free from his leash and goes chasing it. Unfortunately, this leads to his demise. Victor is crushed, but when he learns from his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), how electricity can animate corpses, he digs up Sparky and performs an experiment. Next thing he knows, Sparky is up and about, but his resurrection ends up causing problems for the town, not the least of which come from Victor’s classmates, who see this opportunity as a way to win the upcoming school science fair.

The idea behind Frankenweenie isn’t a particularly interesting one: pay homage to classic monster movies, specifically Frankenstein, except set it in 1940’s suburbia and make it a reassembled dog instead of a person. This thin concept played out surprisingly well in 1984, mainly due to the short’s 30 minute runtime, but expanding on the concept in a meaningful way has proven to be a difficult venture. Although rough around the edges, no doubt due to Burton’s lack of directorial experience at the time, that short managed to work on a more relatable level and focused on the simple story of the love between a boy and his dog—almost like a more twisted version of Marley & Me. This animated remake tries to retain that quality, but squanders it by going over the rails in the back half of the picture. It transitions from that simple, but effective, boy and his dog tale to a monster movie amalgamation, which ups the excitement, but strips away the meaning. Unfortunately for the movie, the latter is far more important than the former.

There are a few interesting nods to past genre movies, including Sparky’s female companion, who is zapped with enough electricity to create a couple of white streaks in her hair, à la the Bride of Frankenstein, and a character named Edgar (voiced by Atticus Shaffer), who is essentially the standard “Igor” character, complete with hissing voice and hunchback, but the majority of the movie plays it too safe. For the first half of the film or so, it follows so closely to Burton’s original short that it fails to find a voice of its own, instead opting to recreate certain scenes and shots down to the letter. The original was limited due to budget and time constraints, so its occasional rough patch was understandable, but here, the sky’s the limit. With animation, what you can do is limited only to your imagination, but Frankenweenie has a surprising lack of it.

Although a pretty lackluster picture on its own, this is, of course, in comparison to August’s brilliant ParaNorman, a movie that managed to include scares, laughs, emotion, beauty and genre references—all of which Frankenweenie strives for as well—and did it in a unique and satisfying way. To top it all off, that movie had a wonderful message about tolerance and being yourself in the face of adversity. Frankenweenie tells that if someone or something they love dies, you can just bring it back to life, an irresponsible message if ever there was one. It may keep the kids in the audience happy as the credits roll, but it will ultimately create an unhealthy confusion by the very notion of death.

Few movies accessible to children have the guts to make death a central theme. This does and then squanders an opportunity to say something about it. Although the animation is solid and the black and white visuals are both striking and contextually fitting, Frankenweenie’s story and themes are a mess. It’s a blunder that worked relatively well in a more focused half hour form, but feels exhausted at 87 minutes. If not for Planet of the Apes, it would be the absolute worst thing Tim Burton has ever done. If doesn’t matter if your view of the man is positive or borderline contemptible. Frankenweenie is a horrible failure either way.

Frankenweenie receives 1/5