Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Ten years after an ape named Caesar (Andy Serkis) led a revolt on the Golden Gate Bridge, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up the story in the prequel franchise of “Planet of the Apes.”

Apes and humans find themselves simply trying to survive in a world where a plague has wiped out the vast majority of mankind. Riding horseback, speaking broken English and learning to read/write, the apes have begun to grow into their reputation in the original franchise. Meanwhile the humans are living in the ruins of San Francisco and losing more resources by the day. The leaders of this colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), discover they might be able to save the colony by restoring power to a nearby dam. Unfortunately for them, the dam happens to be located in the ape territory run by Caesar.

While the plot is very simple, what makes the story interesting is the development of these two colonies and their interactions with one another. The apes are mesmerizing, of course, due to the motion capture technology utilized in the film. Andy Serkis does amazing work as Caesar, but the whole cast of stunt actors playing the apes bring a new level of life to the process. Given that the apes are not speaking full English all of the time, the personality quirks of their movement does a lot more for the audience than rubber suits or basic CGI.

As for the human characters, they’re really not all that interesting by comparison. The 3 most interesting people are Malcolm, Dreyfus and Ellie (Keri Russell). Clarke, in the lead role of Malcolm, plays the curious observer trying to bring about peace between the species. I’m not sure if it was the best casting decision, but he’s serviceable in the role. Gary Oldman lives up to his reputation as the more militant leader of the human colony. While I would have loved to have seen more screen time for his character, he delivers a couple of very powerful scenes. Russell has a lot less to work with as the lead female, but she does what she can with the role. Probably the biggest surprise from the cast is how stinkin’ tall Kodi Smit-McPhee has become at the ripe age of 18. It was only 4 years ago he played a much smaller child in “Let Me In.”

With Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) taking over for Rupert Wyatt in the director’s chair, it seemed like there were a lot of new possibilities for the camerawork in this film. Though he mostly plays it safe, there were a handful of really cool shots. The most popular of these is a sequence where the camera is attached to the top of a rotating tank, allowing for the viewer to get the full view of an ongoing battle. Another nice shot involves a long take where the camera is following Clarke around during the aftermath of the film’s big human/ape battle.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has some remarkable visual effects between the apes and the night battle scene, but something that really helped the film were the characterizations of its villains. With these species colliding in a post-apocalyptic setting, black and white bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as bad guys who you can identify with. Of course, people in the film make wrong or right decisions that push them closer to hero or villain, but we can at least understand their reasoning and perhaps even sympathize with them.

A mild improvement on its predecessor, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a quality summer blockbuster that provides more than just pretty lights and booming explosions.

Grade:A-

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Robocop”

RoboCop

Remember that time Hollywood re-made that iconic film and no one was upset by it. Me neither.

It feels a little silly to still be complaining about remakes, but it’s almost like the studio wanted to make “Robocop” fans instantly hate this film. Eventually I will move on to reviewing the 2014 film, but first I have to (briefly) explain what made the 1987 film memorable. If you don’t care, just move down two paragraphs. First, it presented a prophetic view of where technology and the infrastructure of cities like Detroit were headed. Second, it was one of the most violent films in mainstream American history, needing 12 different attempts to get the MPAA to grant it an R instead of an X-rating. Third, its satire of corporate life and America in general gave it a dark, humorous edge.

So how does this re-imagining compare? Like a film from a completely different franchise. The action is entirely impersonal and bloodless. There is no sense of the city of Detroit as the film bounces from the Middle East to Detroit to Washington, D.C. to China and then back to Detroit. Part of what made Robocop necessary in the original was that Detroit was in ashes, but in this film it’s just another American city. The satire has been completely removed minus Samuel L. Jackson doing his best Bill O’Reilly impression throughout the film. What are we left with? A generic action flick with a cyborg.

For those unfamiliar with the storyline, “Robocop” is the story of police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). Taken out by some criminals he’s pursuing, he’s left with roughly two appendages and little-to-no chance at surviving. In steps Omnicorp, seemingly the world leader in robotics, drone warfare, etc. who are having trouble assuring the American people that their machines can be trusted to keep the streets safe. Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), the CEO, decides that in order to give his machines a friendlier face they need to put a man into one of their drone bodies. The doctor (Gary Oldman) in charge of the project believes that in order for Robocop to be as productive as his inorganic counterparts, though, they would have to remove what’s left of his humanity. Thus begins the biggest quandary of the film.

While it’s easy to compare certain things from this film to its 1987 inspiration, director Jose Padilha and first-time writer Joshua Zetumer at least tried to make this film its own entity by wiping out most of the characters from the original. Roughly the only characters to make the switch are Murphy, Lewis (now a male character played by Michael K. Williams) and Clara Murphy (Abbie Cornish), though in the original the latter didn’t have a name because she was only in one scene.

Padilha is a Brazilian director known for his action film series “Elite Squad” and, though I wish he had a better American debut, does pretty well transferring his talents over to this film. The main two problems of the film are a weak script and the weight of the film’s predecessor dragging around. Despite these shortcomings and pressure from the studio for the film to secure a PG-13 rating, Padilha does what he can to string along a decent action flick.

Although Joel Kinnaman is great on “The Killing”, it doesn’t feel like he did much to change his character from that to this cop role. Even though the filmmakers decided to give Robocop a visor that shows off more of the star’s face, they didn’t bother to make him particularly interesting. Instead they surrounded the star with a high-caliber supporting cast to make up the difference. Jackson and Jackie Earle Haley as the Omnicorp security expert Rick Mattox are easily the best thing about the film acting-wise, though it is nice to see Keaton and a not-so-annoying Jay Baruchel.

What most people unfamiliar with the series will probably care about is the action sequences. After all, if enough things go boom maybe we can get over some of the other problems. There is enough action in the film to where it doesn’t lull, but there’s nothing new or all that interesting about the sequences. One shootout sticks out because it takes place in the dark with only muzzle fire lighting the scene. It’s kind of cool but I think “Smokin’ Aces” had a better idea keeping the effect shorter.

“Robocop” isn’t a bad film, but much like the fourth installment of “Die Hard”, it feels like someone forgot what the film was supposed to be about. When a film loses its purpose like that, it feels like selling out whether or not that’s the case. With as bad as 2014 has been so far, though, you could do a lot worse than this remake.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

The 84th Academy Awards Nominations – My Take

Here we are at last. The mother of all award shows released its list of 2011’s best this morning in what many will consider to be the highest honor in film.

So let’s look at some of the major categories and see what were some highlights and other areas where the Academy dropped the ball.

Best Foreign Language Film:

“A Separation” (Iran), “In Darkness” (Poland), “Bullhead” (Belgium), “Footnote” (Israel), “Monsieur Lazhar” (Canada)

There are so many foreign films to look at this year so it isn’t that crazy, but if one were to pay attention to which imports had been nominated at the Golden Globes 9 days ago, they’d notice that only the winner (“A Separation”) from that ballot is seen here.

It is also interesting to note that “A Separation” received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which is pretty rare for a foreign film.

Best Original Song:

“Real in Rio” from “Rio,” “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets”

Most likely due to the Academy’s ever-tightening qualifications for what can be nominated, this year’s category only has two nominees. While fans of Jim Henson’s creations will be happy for its nomination, I hate to see “Rio” of all movies on this list. “Real in Rio” is probably tenth in line in my eyes for deserving songs this year.

Best Original Score:

“The Adventures of Tintin” John Williams, “Hugo” Howard Shore, “War Horse” John Williams, “The Artist” Ludovic Bource, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Alberto Iglesias

John Williams and Howard Shore are two great composers and Bource won the Golden Globe for Original Score, so their nominations were on lock. However, between Williams second nomination and the appearance of Alberto Iglesias’ work in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (an original score that wasn’t bad, but hasn’t been recognized by other award shows aside from the BAFTA’s), Trent Reznor’s score for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” fell by the wayside.

Best Cinematography:

“War Horse,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Artist,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Hugo”

This is one of those categories where everything makes sense. “War Horse” won this nomination based on the trailer alone. “The Tree of Life” rests solely on its directing and cinematography and does both very well, so no surprise there. “Hugo,” “The Artist” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” all deserve to be on this list as well.

Best Supporting Actress:

Berenice Bejo “The Artist,” Janet McTeer “Albert Nobbs,” Jessica Chastain “The Help,” Melissa McCarthy “Bridesmaids” and Octavia Spencer “The Help”

While I picked Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) to win this category at the Golden Globes, it makes sense that Melissa McCarthy would steal her spot for this show. McCarthy made “Bridesmaids” the movie it was. “The Help” hangs onto its acting trifecta with Spencer and Chastain getting bids here as well as Viola Davis getting a Best Actress nomination.

Best Actress:

Glenn Close “Albert Nobbs,” Meryl Streep “The Iron Lady,” Rooney Mara “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Michelle Williams “My Week with Marilyn” and Viola Davis “The Help”

There were other great performances this year from actresses like Tilda Swinton (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) and Charlize Theron (“Young Adult”), but honestly, who can you take off of this final ballot? It’s just one of those years where there are more than 5 worthy ladies.

Best Supporting Actor:

Kenneth Branagh “My Week with Marilyn,” Jonah Hill “Moneyball,” Nick Nolte “Warrior,” Christopher Plummer “Beginners” and Max von Sydow “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Jonah Hill. Really? I will never shy away from my dislike for the actor but I’m especially upset that he gets a nomination and Albert Brooks (“Drive”) is left out in the cold. If that switch were made, I’d think this was a fantastic category. Still, between Plummer, Nolte and Branagh, this is a strong ballot.

Best Actor:

Brad Pitt “Moneyball,” George Clooney “The Descendants,” Demian Bichir “A Better Life,” Jean Dujardin “The Artist” and Gary Oldman “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

A lot of people will be upset that Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) didn’t make the cut (and they have a right to be), but the inclusion of Bichir and Oldman amongst this year’s big names is a good thing. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” really didn’t get enough credit for its fine acting outside of the BAFTA Film Awards and Bichir is this year’s Javier Bardem, pointing audiences toward a smaller film that should be seen.

Best Picture:

“Hugo,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Descendants,” “The Artist,” “Moneyball,” “War Horse,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “Midnight in Paris”

Since the Oscars starting nominating more than the usual 5 films for Best Picture, I have been pretty hesitant to like the idea. This year there is a lot of diversity, which is good for the show I guess, but I still feel like a film or two got the shaft. Without exceeding the nomination ceiling of 10, I would’ve liked to have seen “Extremely Loud” taken off the ballot and 2 of 3 films added: “The Ides of March,” “50/50” and/or “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Looking at this year’s nominees, I am shocked to see that “Hugo” has more nominations than “The Artist” (11 to 10, respectively). Aside from that and the few complaints expressed above, I think the Academy did a rather good job of picking nominees this year. This time next month, however, I may have something new to whine about when the winners are revealed.

Between now and then, visit Velvet Curtain Reviews for my takes on “The Artist,” “War Horse” and other films as well as my picks once we get closer to February 26.

Happy viewing.

Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

It’s been a while since my last review. I was out of town last week and sick for part of the weekend, thus my absence.

For those not following the Twitter account @VC_Reviews, I wrote a guest post (“The 10 Best Movies You Didn’t See in 2011”) for a friend’s blog about a week ago. That link is http://tellurianthings.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/new-post-2/ and if you’re into TV recaps, comics or films, it’s a blog for you.

Anyway, back to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (bit of a tongue twister, right?).

This spy thriller, orginally penned by British author John le Carre in 1974, features a fantastic cast (found above on the poster) with old school class like John Hurt and Colin Firth as well as up-and-coming stars Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The story follows retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) who is called back in to investigate a possible mole inside British intelligence. With the help of an aide still on the inside (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley must narrow down four agents (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik) to one spy.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, behind one of the best recent Swedish films, “Let the Right One In,” takes the helm and delivers a meticulously-paced gem. This is a very British film: not a lot of color, relatively low budget and really bad teeth.

While it is marketed as a thriller (judging from the trailer), this is nothing like what spy films have become today. There are no Jason Bourne fighting techniques or James Bond gadgets. It’s more of a low-key mystery. Sound boring? It might be if not for a great cast and a good story.

There really isn’t a bad performance in the film. If I had to declare a winner, I’d probably say the best performances are by Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, John Hurt and Mark Strong. That’s how well each actor does. I was forced to pick four perfromances for the gold medal. There has also been talk of Benedict Cumberbatch (who recently got a big break being cast in the new “Star Trek” film) and  Colin Firth.

Although it’s great for the film to have so many good performers, the range of actors has really hurt the film’s chances at award ceremonies. How do you choose one (or at most, two) great performances to nominate? The actors end up ruling each other out for contention. I believe this is what also happened to “The Ides of March” although the latter is getting a little more attention.

The best and worst thing about “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is that it doesn’t treat its audience like 5-year-olds. After seeing more recent spy films, the pace does feel a bit slow, even if it isn’t THAT slow. The film jumps around in timeline and doesn’t feel the need to explain who so-and-so is or why Smiley feels the need to buy new glasses. It just shows stuff happening. How refreshing.

(Side note: If you are that person who doesn’t catch onto things quickly and you are sitting in a crowded theater, don’t act like the woman who was behind me while watching this film. She asked what was happening every five minutes at a volume that was audible for the next five to ten rows and made little comments to herself that were equally as loud. It ruins the experience and makes people want to slash your tires after the credits. Just watch the film. If you have questions afterward, discuss it then.)

Aside from this, I think my only real complaint is that I never really felt a level of tension with the film. There didn’t seem to be a race against the clock or a moment where the bad guys looked like they would prevail or anything like that. Smiley and his assistant conduct a thorough investigation and the film ends. That’s all. Not having read the source material, I can’t comment on whether the book does a better job of this. While I loved the performances and thought it was a very intelligent film, it lacked that special something to make it the great film it could have been.

Grade: B

For those interested, I plan to write a Golden Globes preview in the coming week and will be live-tweeting the award show at @VC_Reviews.

Good afternoon and happy viewing.