Movie Review ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.

Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo, Judy Greer, Karin Konoval

Director: Matt Reeves

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Okay, so we’re halfway through the summer movie season and, like every May-early August that has come before it, I think we’ve had our shares of high highs (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, The Fault in Our Stars) and lowly lows (Jersey Boys, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended).  Some have incorrectly scoffed that Transformers: Age of Extinction will bring about the end of humanity but I say those critics just forgot to change out of their fuddy duddy pants.  Then there’s Tammy, the worst of the worst…the bubonic plague of the summer.

Don’t retreat to your lake cabins yet or focus solely on training for a fall marathon because July is just getting started and if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is any indication, summer is about to heat up.  The sequel to 20th Century Fox’s 2011 surprise hit franchise reboot manages to be a hell of a good ride, emerging as a film that knows what it wants to achieve and uses it’s talent, budget, and running length wisely.

Three years ago I didn’t get much of a rise out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Though the motion capture technology produced some impressively lifelike rendering of apes, it was bogged down by saggy leads (James Franco and Freida Pinto) and focused too much time on the human side of things.  It’s when the apes took center stage that the movie found its shape…but by that time the movie was nearly over.  Luckily, director Matt Reeves (Let the Right One In, Cloverfield) came onto the project wanting to make it an apes-first film so the sequel jettisons what didn’t work previously and gives us more time with the simian nation.

I’ll admit that the first 20 nearly wordless minutes of the picture had me squirming in my seat.  See, I’ve been trained so far in 2014 for my summer action flicks to come out swinging so it was jarring (but welcome) for a film of this magnitude to make the bold choice of starting off quiet, letting the audience get used to a world ravaged by disease where apes are the dominant species.  The beginning of the sequel re-introduces us to several hairy friends we got to know back in 2011, finding them communicating mostly in sign language (over half the film is subtitled) until they learn to literally raise their voices.

Caesar (performed by a flawless Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) is king of the colony of apes that escaped to the California forests 10 years ago.  In their getaway a deadly virus was unwittingly released, ravaging the majority of humanity that wasn’t genetically immune.  After a decade of toil, human and ape meet up once again when a small band of survivors led by Jason Clarke (Lawless, The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman (RoboCopThe Dark Knight Rises) & Keri Russell (Austenland) venture into the forest in hopes of using technology inside an abandoned dam to help power their dying city.

Meanwhile, Caesar battles rebellion within his own tribe as those less trusting plot to launch a deadly strike at the humans before they can destroy the apes.  With his scarred body and milky eye, vengeful rebellion leader Koba looks straight out of a nature run amok horror movie, which makes sense because he’s the scariest villain I’ve seen in quite some time.  Like Caesar, Koba is no ordinary ape and his subversive rampage is more Shakespearean in nature than paint-by-numbers evil-doer.

What I enjoyed most about the film wasn’t the nearly seamless blending of visual effects and live action but in the way it found room for good storytelling as well.  If we’re being honest, the plot isn’t much more than the oft-told mutinous parable of dissention within but it’s in the way that screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) weave parallel themes of family, trust, and honor throughout the film that makes it more than your standard action sequel.

The motion capture technology has come a long way in the past three years, allowing Serkis and a full range of gifted performers free range to flesh out their primate characters.  While Serkis’ Caesar and Toby Kebbell’s Koba sometimes look a tad too animated, there are moments when the visuals are truly astounding and you start to wonder how Reeves directed two wild animals to perform with such vigor.  Best of show goes (once again) to orangutan Maurice who is not only amazingly played by Karin Konoval but rendered with 100% believability by the gigantic visual effects team.

If I’ve left out talking about the humans, it’s only because reviews sometimes have to leave out secondary characters which Clarke, Oldman, Russell, et. al certainly are.  Not knocking their talent or value to the overall effect of the picture but Reeves and his screenwriters have purposefully kept all humans on the sidelines and I’m positive that’s why the film works as well as it does.

Packed with action sequences that will keep you on the edge of your seat (check out the bravura and dizzying 360 degree shot on top of an armored tank and a high wire battle late in the film) and with an assured eye on the prize attitude from all involved, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another step in the right direction for this happily burgeoning franchise.  I’m interested to see what’s next…as long as the future chapters keep those damn dirty humans at bay.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

Release Date:  July 11, 2014

Thoughts: I find that my fear of primates grows with each new “crazy ape” film I subject myself to.  Officially gone are the days when I cried at the end of King Kong Lives and wished that Project X had turned out differently.  Though I think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was notable mostly for the amazing motion-capture work from Andy Serkis as smart ape Caesar, there was enough decent material remaining to warrant a sequel now three years later.  James Franco and the awful Frida Pinto are thankfully gone, replaced by new leads Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Lawless) and Keri Russell (Austenland) with some added support from Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises).  This first teaser may not make you pound your chest in ecstasy but it’s a nice whetting of your whistle for more ape antics coming in July.

Movie Review ~ Austenland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.

Stars: Keri Russell, J.J. Feild, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Seymour, Rupert Vansittart, Georgia King

Director: Jerusha Hess

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy…rough waters ahead my dear readers.  Look, I’m no Jane Austen purist so I’m totally in favor for all these new slants on the world that Austen has created.  You want some Zombies with your Pride and Prejudice?  Great!  How about putting a few Sea Monsters in Sense and Sensibility?  Go for it!  Have an idea to take Emma and morph it into a high school comedy with valley girls Beverly Hills?  Go write Clueless!  Just for the love of Mr. Darcy, make it interesting…and good.

Sadly, the makers of Austenland didn’t heed my advice and instead have brought Shannon Hale’s novel (which I haven’t read) to gloomy life in a film that with this cast and this story would have been better suited to play on the Lifetime channel.  Everything about the film is mediocre, from the milquetoast lead performance of Keri Russell to the bland direction from Jerusha Hess (making her directing debut after co-writing Napoleon Dynamite and the epically awful Nacho Libre).

The exceedingly thin set-up has our Austen-obsessed leading lady (named Jane, natch) who blows her entire life-savings on an immersive experience at Austenland, a retreat in England that caters to every custom of the time period in which Austen’s characters lived.  It’s a very novel (pun!) concept, actually, that’s sadly not taken as seriously as is necessary if the writers had really wanted to go the distance.  I would have preferred the film be truly immersive and have these modern characters go without any modern trappings and show what comedy comes from the complete absence of the 21st century influences.  Instead we have a film with its high button shoes planted ungainly in both time periods.

For a film that’s idolizing one of the most popular female writers in history, the women are probably the least interesting people on screen.  In addition to Russell’s non-mesmerizing turn we have Jennifer Coolidge recycling her dim-bulb shtick that gets old before the actress has time to squeeze herself into a corset. Every facial expression, every line reading is given a hypodermic shot of Looney Tunes (the animated kind, not the state of mind) and it rubs you the wrong way like parmesan cheese on a rusty cheese grater.  One notch down from Coolidge is Georgia King (from the dreadful and thankfully cancelled TV comedy The New Normal) who plays her character as if Marilyn Monroe had waltzed into Mansfield Park.  Literally hopping from one scene to the next, King’s comedy is more puzzling than hilarious.  Jane Seymour’s (Live and Let Die) role is so uninteresting that the movie itself forgets about her two thirds of the way through.

If the movie has any success, it’s thanks to the men.  As the man standing in for the Mr. Darcy type, JJ Feild gets nearly everything right…from his initial exasperation at another troupe of ladies arriving in the fantastically designed countryside estate to his gradual realization that he’s kinda falling for Jane (though she’s so wishy-washy you have to wonder why).  Flitting through his dandy role, James Callis is tasked with fending off Coolidge’s cougar-like advances and seems to have a great time with the cat and mouse game.  Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) helps loosen Russell up and their scenes have a nice pop to them.  Who will wind up with whom turned out to be different than I thought, the only real surprise the movie has to offer.

I have to laugh at some of the critics that have called out the fact that there aren’t a lot of guests at Austenland.  With servants outnumbering the paying customers about 70 to 1, I found that element of the movie totally believable.  Promising an experience tailored to each visitor in which they are the only focus, why wouldn’t the powers that be want to keep the guest list small to achieve the kind of escapade that they are going for?  It’s a non-issue when there are so many other things wrong with the movie.

Perhaps this one would be good for people to discover at home on cable…which is where the movie should have premiered.  Its ambitions are so small and its potential so low that it’s hard to fathom why the movie was released in theaters at all by Sony Pictures Classics.  It’s a bargain basement affair…even with the handsome production design and strong supporting turns by a stable of game male actors.  If only the women weren’t so terribly tedious…Jane Austen wouldn’t approve.

The Silver Bullet ~ Austenland

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Synopsis: Obsessed with the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice”, a woman travels to a Jane Austen theme park in search for her perfect gentleman.

Release Date:  August 16, 2013

Thoughts: Jane Austen has it all.  Endless TV and movie adaptations from and inspired by her handful of popular novels and now her very own theme park.  Well, at least the theme park created for Austenland, a frothy looking comedy that feels like it should have played on the Hallmark Channel over the Labor Day weekend.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the film looks nice and breezy thanks to some comedic input from Jennifer Coolidge but there’s something a little lacking in star Keri Russell.  It almost feels like this was intended to be a star-vehicle for someone else and Russell was a fourth or fifth choice.  Still, never underestimate the power of Austen and her ticket selling abilities.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dark Skies

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Synopsis: As the Barret family’s peaceful suburban life is rocked by an escalating series of disturbing events, they come to learn that a terrifying and deadly force is after them.

Release Date:  February 22, 2013

Thoughts: Poor Keri Russell, she just can’t catch a break.  Despite a winning performance in 2007’s Waitress, it seems that the former Felicity star keeps getting involved with projects that can’t get off the ground.  Dark Skies is yet another of the countless horror films that are made fast and cheap…if they drum up the normal healthy business in its first week of release the film could potentially be profitable even if it’s a stinker.  Audiences are catching wise to this formula, though, so Dark Skies will have to be especially strong to compete with a swath of similar titles arriving in late January/early February.