REVIEW: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

11 07 2014

Dawn of ApesThe dominant attitude that seems to prevail when making sequels is to give people more of the same.  If it functioned well enough the first time to justify a second helping, something had to be working, right?

Matt Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” on the other hand, completely defies the logic.  While Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 series reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” focused on scientific ethics and human progress, its follow-up goes in a completely different direction.  If it weren’t for the astonishing motion-capture apes, the casual onlooker might not even be able to pair the films in the same series.

I must applaud Fox, the studio willing to front the $170 million budget, for allowing a new director to take one of their most vital franchises into uncharted territory.  Reeves uses no marquee names (unless you count Gary Oldman), focuses mainly on the apes, and never caves to a large-scale battle that could level an entire urban area.  That was likely not an immediately confidence-inspiring vision, especially given the tepid commercial reception to Reeves’ 2010 arty horror film “Let Me In.”

But “Dawn” works so well because it does not feel tethered to anyone’s agenda other than that of its creative team.  The film has the ability to explore what the series can be as opposed to how much it can stretch what it already is.  Reeves makes some exciting discoveries with this freedom that further energize what was already a fascinating franchise.  He leaves us excited for whatever sequel may follow, despite leaving no obvious indications of what the next film might entail.

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REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

29 07 2012

I don’t force every domestic drama I see to stand up to “American Beauty.”  Nor do I weigh every romantic comedy against “Annie Hall.”  So in a sense, why should I make a superhero movie stand up to “The Dark Knight?”  I consider it every bit as paradigmatic as the two previously mentioned Best Picture winners, so an apples-to-apples comparison is hardly even possible.  It’s more like apples-to-Garden of Eden fruit.

Indeed, a number of directors have tried to make their genre films a little more in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s iconic tale of the Caped Crusader, such as Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” to little success.  Yet even “The Dark Knight Rises,” the sequel to the revolutionary film itself, can’t recreate its magic nor cast a comparable spell.  Perhaps its time to declare those heights unattainable to avoid further disappointments.  If Christopher Nolan himself can’t reach them, surely it is time for Hollywood to find its next golden goose.

“The Dark Knight Rises” also has the added disadvantage of being scrutinized as a Nolan film, not merely a post-“Dark Knight” facsimile.  Coming off an incredible decade of filmmaking (five supremely acclaimed films: “Memento,”  “Batman Begins,”  “The Prestige,”  “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception“), it is hardly premature to call him the Millenial equivalent of Steven Spielberg.  His movies are so good that they have merited many a repeat viewing, allowing dedicated fans to really analyze what makes his work so exceptional.  Now, it’s immediately recognizable when his films are not up to the sky-high standard he has set for himself.  For instance, in the opening scene of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

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REVIEW: Lawless

21 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

Every year, the studios with any self-respect release a film or so between August or October meant to fill a very small hole in the market: respectable films that aren’t quite Oscar contenders but have more brains than your average popcorn flick. Occasionally, one of these will break away and compete in awards season (“Moneyball,” to name one from last year), but more often than not, they just gain respect and claims at the bottom of a few year-end underrated lists (“Contagion,” to take another 2011 example). There’s nothing wrong with this middle except for just like in politics, where it is more popular to go to extremes than be a moderate, such products are hard to bundle and sell if an audience does not know exactly what it will be getting.

Lawless,” John Hillcoat’s drama set in Prohibition-era Virginia countryside, fills such a groove. It does not quite have the overall package to compete for Oscar gold, but it’s hardly a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It has flaws, particularly in the insipid first act weighted down by exposition; however, when the film kicks into high gear, it provides a riveting ride.

While I haven’t been a big fan of Shia LaBeouf since “Even Stevens,” which I can now continue to argue is his most accomplished work to date, “Lawless” gets bolstered by a number of supporting performances that should garner the actors some much overdue recognition. Surprisingly, one of these tour de forces is not given by Jessica Chastain, cinema’s new “it girl.”  She’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but Chastain and Mia Wasikowska seem only relevant to the film for marketing purposes, token females to help reach another quadrant.

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REVIEW: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

19 03 2012

The impressive accomplishments in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” are manifold.  The first, and perhaps what will stick with me the most, is how immaculately crafted the movie is.  Every aspect below the line is crisp and precise, be it Alberto Iglesias’ subtle score, Hoyte van Hoytema’s swift camerawork, Maria Djurkovic’s richly detailed sets, or the unbelievably meticulous control over sound and silence.  “Hugo” may have been the Academy’s technical darling of 2011, but this movie can rival its excellence in all those categories (except maybe visual effects).

The second is Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley, one of his finest on-screen roles yet.  Much was made of how criminal it was that the lauded character actor had not received an Oscar nomination before “Tinker Tailor,” and thankfully now that has been corrected.  But there is much more to this work than merely endowing Oldman with the epithet “Academy Award nominee.”

Oldman shows his mastery of understatement playing Smiley, a man of few words.  When he’s not speaking, we never have a doubt that Oldman is totally within his character’s mind, never moving a pore without purpose.  When he is speaking, Oldman is forceful and commanding, owning the screen that includes one of the largest casts of acclaimed British actors outside the “Harry Potter” series.  It’s an acting master class from one of the industry’s best and brightest, definitely one Hollywood could learn a lesson or two from as well.

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REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda 2

5 06 2011

Is it so wrong that I love “Kung Fu Panda 2” in spite of all of its unoriginality and lack of creativity?  Is it so terrible that I’m totally won over by an overweight panda who can do kung fu as well as he can eat?  Is it so strange that a village of adorable pigs and bunnies makes me feel like I’m five years old again?

While the sequel is hardly as entertaining and funny as the original “Kung Fu Panda,” Po and the rest of the Furious Five are still a joy to watch.  The movie still possesses that charm that made me watch the first installment countless times on HBO while eating dinner, and it proves once again to be infectious as it melts down whatever barriers are hardening your heart.  It’s also a movie that’s easy on the eyes with appealing action and fun graphics, evincing the slow closing of the gap between Pixar and everyone else with a computer.

This “Kung Fu Panda” is all about daddy issues as the movie’s two storylines both deal with characters coming to grips with decisions made by their parents.  The evil peacock Shen (voiced by the always creepy Gary Oldman) orders a genocide of pandas to prevent the fulfilling of a prophecy that one would defeat him, thus leaving his parents with no choice but to exile him.  When Shen returns to power, the Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) starts to question where he really came from.  His goose father, Mr. Ping, has few answers, so Po is largely on his own.  However, his kung fu companions, known as the Furious Five (and featuring the voices of Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and David Cross) have big issues that they have to deal with, namely Shen’s reappearance which threatens to dismantle the art of kung fu.  But as their journey progresses, Po finds that the questions about his parents may relate to Shen’s avarice and malice in shocking ways.

That summary probably makes the plot sound more glorious and intricate than it actually unfolds in the movie.  On the other hand, sometimes glory isn’t found in the story (despite the majority of my reviews saying just the opposite).  Sometimes it’s just the rush of joy that can be found in juvenility that makes something fun.  Sometimes we can have a perfectly gratifying experience just looking at a cute and cuddly panda cub playing in a bucket of radishes.  Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of what it’s like to be a kid watching a movie again.  B+ / 

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 7, 2011)

7 01 2011

It’s a new year for the “F.I.L.M.” column, but more importantly, it’s the home stretch of the Oscar season!  Soon enough, the intense politics will start to die down and we will just be left to reflect on the performances and the movies.  To celebrate the season, the next seven weeks of the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” series will be devoted to covering little-seen and underrated gems from the 2010 nominees.

This week, I’m unequivocally recommending “The Professional,” Natalie Portman’s first movie, made when she was just 12 years old.  It’s an especially fun watch for any of Portman’s fans who have followed her work for many years as most of the mannerisms and techniques she still uses are on full display here.  It’s a little rougher, sure, but “Black Swan” was hardly the first time she commanded the screen.  16 years ago, she delivered a stunning performance of incredible mastery for someone so young.

As Matilda, Portman plays a tough young girl out to get revenge on the ruthless and merciless hitman, Stan (Gary Oldman), after he massacres her family including her four-year-old little brother.  While she hated her abusive and neglectful parents, the thought of someone slaying her younger brother makes her run to the assassin across the hall, Leon (Jean Reno).

The “cleaner” on the floor is a bit of a loner, executing his jobs with professionalism and precision.  Leon takes Matilda in at first for her own protection but reluctantly keeps her after she wins a sliver of his affection.  But she wants something more than shelter; Matilda wants training so she can take out Stan.  Again with reluctance, he agrees, and their time together brings Leon a sort of paternal pleasure.

This intense action movie directed by Luc Besson stands out among stacks of other movies in the same vain because it’s not a movie about the action; it’s about the performances, characters, and the story.  Aside from Portman’s incredible debut, there’s also solid work for Jean Reno, who truly deserves better and prominent roles than he usually takes nowadays.  And Gary Oldman also shines as the borderline demented killer Stan, so frightening and so brash that he makes for one heck of a villain.  Oldman really is one of the most utilitarian actors working today, and “The Professional” really does show that off.

Yet somehow, even at 12, Portman steals the movie in a manner indicative of how she would rule the screen for the next 17 years.  Sure, it’s child’s play compared to “Closer” or “Black Swan,” but anyone who made a bet back in 1994 on her becoming an Academy Award-winning actress could be cashing in big time pretty soon.

REVIEW: The Book of Eli

10 08 2010

If you stick with “The Book of Eli” all the way to the end, you’ll notice that the movie had two directors, The Hughes Brothers. My theory now is that the two brothers decided to split up the movie, one taking the first hour and the other taking the second. It’s the only way I can explain its complete bipolarity. Whichever brother directed the second half should disown his brother and then make movies on his own because he is capable of making an exciting, captivating ride.

On the other hand, his brother undermines its effectiveness makes a laughably dreary bomb.  It’s almost made with the cocky assumption that we’ve never seen any sort of apocalypse or post-apocalyptic world.  Apparently he was under a rock for all of 2009 when moviegoers saw “Knowing,” “Zombieland,” “2012,” and “The Road.”  That makes five in the span of just one year.  He leads us almost silently through this land of ruin for the movie’s first twelve minutes, a cheap rip-off of Paul Thomas Anderson’s technique from “There Will Be Blood.”  This world just looks like a desert in Arizona with a gray tint.  Aside from being incredibly tedious and boring, it’s entirely unnecessary.  Feel free to fast-forward right on through when you watch.

And then he finally gives Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington the opportunity to do something other than wander silently through the destruction.  Unfortunately, it’s just to chop off people’s hands and do some ridiculous martial-arts inspired fight sequences.  Washington’s Eli looks like a middle-aged version of Will Smith’s Hancock from two summers ago, a mess who looks like he’s fighting off the hangover of a lifetime.  So to see Eli pulling out all these moves only serves to make us laugh.  He then proceeds to find his way into a po-dunk town, mumble to everyone, anger the authority (Gary Oldman) to the point where he flees, and picks up the very attractive Solara (Mila Kunis) to accompany him on the road.

The second half almost redeems the first, seemingly a gift to all those who can bear the dismal farce.  It takes a page out of “Fahrenheit 451” – the last pages, in fact – and makes an exciting race to the West Coast for control of a powerful book that Eli is in possession of.  If you don’t already know, I’ll give you three guesses as to what book could be so valuable or powerful.  Denzel Washington begins to act, although only at a fraction of his full capabilities.  Then again, that’s still enough to draw us back in after the first half leaves us high and dry.

In the end, I was glad I didn’t allow myself to become totally disengaged.  There are some nice surprises and shocking twists at the end, two things I totally wasn’t expecting.  And in addition to the turnaround the movie made, I was left pretty satisfied.  The movie also has some interesting things to say about faith, a thematic connection that really worked.  It would have worked more, though, had it been present in the first half.  B /

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 26, 2010)

26 02 2010

I set a lofty goal to see every Academy Award-nominated performance of the ’00s by the final ceremony of the decade. I’m not going to reach this goal, but along the way, I have seen some great movies and great acting. This week’s “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie – refresher on the acronym), “The Contender,” is one of those movies.

“The Contender” received two acting nominations in 2000.  The first was for Joan Allen, who plays Senator Laine Hanson, a nominee for the vacant vice-presidential position.  She is a Republican-turned-Democrat and a safe pick for a second-term president looking for his “swan song.”

However, she has strong opponents in her former party, led by the aggressive Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman).  He and a select group begin to execute an elaborate smear campaign, designed to block her confirmation.  After a comprehensive investigation, they dig up dirty details from her past, designed merely to distract from the real issue and engrain the image of a harlot in the American minds.  One can’t help but see the movie a little differently after Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy in the 2008 election and her subsequent defamation by the media.

The other nominated performance came from Jeff Bridges as the president looking to polish his profile for the history books.  It’s brimming with typical Bridges precision and poise, but it’s a fairly reserved role up until the rousing climax (more on that in a second).

“The Contender” stood out among similar political dramas for me because of its emphasis on ethics.  Christian Slater’s character, a young and honest politician who joins with Runyon’s crew to take down Hansen, represents the morals that so many of the old Washington cronies seem to have lost.  The movie ends with a killer monologue by Jeff Bridges’ president, and it is an inspiring piece of patriotism that makes us proud in the democratic process that we have.  Maybe the president should start hiring screenwriters to write his speeches…