This is where the fun begins
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is directed by George Lucas and stars Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, and Christopher Lee, all who reprise their respective roles from the previous two prequels.
Third time was the charm for George Lucas in delivering a satisfying Star Wars prequel, and it was the one that provided the parts of the over-arching Star Wars story that fans had wanted to see the most since The Phantom Menace saw the light of day. After the misfire that was Attack of the Clones, Lucas could only go upwards with what little was left of the prequels, and he knew that Revenge of the Sith was his last chance to try and salvage every cinematic crime that was committed in Episodes I and II. I think Lucas would need to be diagnosed with traumatic brain injury if he thought up a worse Star Wars film than Attack of the Clones, and, believe me, no way in hell will The Last Jedi or Episode IX be anywhere near as bad as The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones. Revenge of the Sith is loads better than the other two prequels combined, but earning the title, "Best Star Wars prequel" is about the equivalent of a fourth grade soccer league Participation Award. It still suffers from many of the same lingering problems that have plagued the prequels: wooden acting, bad dialogue, and clumsy action sequences. Oh yeah, and the romance between Anakin and Padme is still pathetic.
The opening title crawl tells us, "War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere." The whole "evil is everywhere" part makes sense, but who exactly are the heroes on the side of the Separatists? It's also funny how the opening crawl makes out Dooku to be a menacing villain like he was in Episode II, even though Dooku doesn't last 25 minutes into the film. The rest of the crawl sets up the opening scene of the film. A massive space battle is taking place over Coruscant after the droid leader General Grievous kidnaps Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi make their way onto Grievous' ship, killing Dooku and rescuing the Chancellor in the process. Admittedly, I just spoiled the first half-hour of the film for you, which sucks because there's no real proper way to discuss what happens the rest of the way without knowing that, yes, the Chancellor gets rescued. After the Chancellor's rescue, the Republic formulate a plan to find and defeat General Grievous who escaped during the space battle. Along the way, Anakin grows ever closer to the Chancellor who is secretly trying to convert Anakin to the Dark Side as The Emperor's new Sith apprentice.
Pretty much every major scene of Revenge of the Sith is a popular figment of pop culture, and unless you, for some reason, had no idea that there was a Star Wars trilogy created before Episodes I-III were released, you would have absolutely zero trouble in figuring out every major step that makes Revenge of the Sith the film that it is and how it connects the bridge between the prequels and the original trilogy. Anakin and Obi-Wan have a heated duel that leads to Anakin becoming the Darth Vader the world knows and loves. Padme dies after giving birth to Luke and Leia, to which Darth Vader shouts his infamous "No!" I know I am completely going against my own set of rules for this blog, which is to not provide any major spoilers during a review. But Star Wars is a victim of its own success. It's so universally praised and discussed by people all over the world that even those who would not consider themselves Star Wars followers are likely to have had run-ins with some form of the series' many famous lines, battles, and characters. George Lucas didn't really have a choice with Revenge of the Sith. It had to be 2005's most predictable movie, since the only twists and turns that the movie could afford to take were those that would properly set the stage for A New Hope (or Rogue One, at least). But let's not completely bury the film for being highly predictable. There are still plenty of redeeming qualities.
- Revenge of the Sith is best viewed as popcorn entertainment, as it is easily the most action-packed Star Wars episode until The Force Awakens came around. It has the most lightsaber fights out of any episode (I counted five), although two of the fights aren't exactly dazzling. General Grievous is overkill using four lightsabers to Obi-Wan's one, and Palpatine relies on various flips and awkward facial expressions in his duel against Mace Windu. My favorite is this face when Palpatine uses a stab attack against Windu.
- The scene in the Opera House when Palpatine tells Anakin about the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise is the best scene in the entire film. This beautifully lit scene is the best exchange of dialogue between any two characters throughout the entirety of the prequels as Ian McDiarmid and Hayden Christensen doing a terrific job of going back and forth with each other. Palpatine explains to Anakin that Plagueis was so powerful and so wise that he could use the Force to create life and, because Plagueis had such a vast knowledge of the Dark Side, he could prevent the ones he loved most from dying. On the surface, this is clearly Palpatine manipulating Anakin and doing what he can to convince Anakin to turn to the Dark Side. Anakin sees into the future and comes to realize that Padme will die in childbirth, and he wants to do whatever he can to prevent this from happening. What's really fascinating about this scene is how Lucas gives us the chance to see The Dark Side as more than just the Star Wars Villain Club. We are given some neat Star Wars folklore that helps us better psychoanalyze the Dark Side, and that, just maybe, Star Wars is about something more than simply being a battle of good vs. evil.
- For of all its popcorn entertainment, Revenge of the Sith is hampered by more bad dialogue and more awkward acting. Obi-Wan keeps insisting on being the prequels annoying provider of eye-rolling one liners ("Flying is for droids", "Another happy landing"), and Ewan McGregor has a surprisingly bad moment when he finds a hologram of Anakin being told what to do by The Emperor. He watches the hologram for a few seconds until he says, "I can't watch anymore" in a rather lackadaisical fashion. Christensen is back at it with more bizarre exchanges with Natalie Portman, who sits around and does basically nothing until the movie's third act. Here's one such exchange between the two:
Anakin: You are so.....beautiful.
Padme: It's only because I'm so in love.
Anakin: No (*laughs*), no, it's because I'm so in love with you.
Padme: So love has blinded you?
Anakin: (*laughs*) Well, that's not exactly what I meant.
Me: *Bangs head violently on chair*
Lucas has tried three times to make Portman and Christensen into a darling on-screen couple, and three times he has failed hard. The two are forced to go off of a script that involves Lucas making the characters say exactly what they are feeling instead of having such feelings implied. Padme verbally tells Anakin that he's breaking her heart, even though any functional person with at least three brain cells could tell that a crying Padme who's husband turned evil has had her heart broken. Lucas' writing has a bad habit of having its character straight-up tell you how they feel and explaining ideas instead of dropping us hints and leaving the audience to fill in the holes. It might have been a good idea for Lucas to consult fellow screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan for assistance, especially with the romantic scenes.
One last thought on Christensen: He improves quite a bit from the bratty teenager that we saw in Attack of the Clones.
The funny thing is, Revenge of the Sith is the first from start-to-finish good Star Wars episode, that is, if you're looking at things purely from the chronological order of events in the series. I couldn't imagine how heartbreaking that the movie would've been had Episodes I-III been the first Star Wars movies ever created. How well would people react to Order 66 if no one had any idea that Anakin would become Darth Vader? One can only imagine.
The film as a whole is pretty action-packed, although some of the action like the Grievous vs. Obi-Wan lightsaber fight is pretty lousy. Ian McDiarmid gives the best performance out of anyone, outside of his wacky antics during his fight with Mace Windu. There's still plenty of bad dialogue and bad acting, but it's way way way more forgivable compared to the unholy terrors that are the acting and dialogue in Attack of the Clones. Honestly, the only way to go was up.
The dark night of World War II
Dunkirk is directed, co-produced, and written by Christopher Nolan and stars Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.
Just when you think Mel Gibson and Andrew Garfield had delivered the best World War II film since Saving Private Ryan with last year's Hacksaw Ridge, here comes mighty challenger Dunkirk from Christopher Nolan, one of only a handful of directors alive today whose very name is accompanied by Hallelujah chants and the happy tears of movie fans everywhere. This occasion is extra special because Dunkirk is Nolan's first wide release film with a historical, fact-based story. The general consensus is that not only is Dunkirk one of the best war films ever; it is Nolan's best film to date. I am not one to give in to this contagious chatter, however, largely because I sat there watching the film and kept telling myself, "I should be amazed by this. But I'm not." How could I not love this? It's freaking Christopher Nolan! And it's freaking Dunkirk; a "colossal military disaster" as Winston Churchill once put it. Now by no means is the film a disaster. I think Christopher Nolan on his absolute worst day of directing could still dish out a decent film. Dunkirk is a finely tuned war film that gets it exactly right when it comes to conveying to us the magnitude of what went down on the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June of 1940. That doesn't mean it's a perfect film, though I sure wish I could say it's damn near perfect.
The story is told in a non-linear narrative which is nothing new for Nolan who has a lengthy track record of not telling us a story in a typical, linear format. We have three story lines given to us. The first, entitled The Mole, follows young British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who escapes fire from German troops and ends up on the beaches of Dunkirk, hoping to board an evacuation ship to get home. The second story line, called The Sea, focuses on mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) who take their boat out towards France to assist the Royal Navy in the evacuation effort. They encounter a shell-shocked soldier who begs Mr. Dawson not to take him back towards France. The third and final story line, entitled The Air, concerns three pilots providing air support to the soldiers waiting on the beaches at Dunkirk. The pilots come across several Luftwaffe planes during their efforts to protect the trapped soldiers.
- Right from the get-go, Nolan places us squarely in the middle of the mayhem, and it doesn't let up for a single second from first frame to last frame. Constantly, there are moments in which the Allied soldiers come under German fire, whether it's on the beaches or on one of the evacuation boats. Nolan makes a deliberate effort to minimize the dialogue as much as possible, wanting us to fully endure the intensity and chaos that unfolds without getting bogged down in distracting conversations. To achieve this goal, Dunkirk makes itself as visually arresting as can be, with Nolan temporarily bringing 70mm back from the dead, which I've heard is the best way to view the film. However you decide to view the film, the cinematography is gorgeous and well-worth whatever extra few dollars you might have to pay to see the film in IMAX or XD.
- Dunkirk is one of those "experience" films which tries to win you over by emphasizing the intense nature of its subject material and displaying that intensity in as visually striking and traumatizing of a fashion as possible. As ambitious as the film is, it is lacking a solid human core. There isn't much of anything when it comes to character exploration and development, which is the main downside of the lack of dialogue. The most I could say about a large portion of the characters is they are soldiers who are trying to survive in any way they can. I also found it strange how many of the characters are nearly indistinguishable. Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Cillian Murphy are all sporting the same messy, black hairdo and basic, frightened facial expressions that you might begin to forget who is where. It's also disappointing that the film features a worthy name like Tom Hardy who plays one of the pilots named Farrier. He speaks about 10 lines during the entire film and isn't given much else to do other than fly around and shoot German planes.
At just 107 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Nolan's surprisingly shorter films. Almost every one of those 107 minutes focuses on the brutal experience that was the Dunkirk evacuation. The intensity and visual spectacle is definitely there, though it's hard to find emotional stimulation from the intensity when there's barely anything to say about the soldiers who are in the heat of the action. In the end, I did like Dunkirk, but I was unhappy that I couldn't come away feeling that it was the masterful war epic that it was built up to be. By average film standards, Dunkirk is easily one of 2017's better films. By Nolan standards, however, it is largely underwhelming.
Godzilla puts on the kid gloves
Son of Godzilla is directed by Jun Fukuda and is the 8th installment in the Godzilla series.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. There may not be any other character in the history of film or any other artistic medium who underwent such radical changes in such a short time period than Godzilla. In less than fifteen years, the big G has transitioned from hell-born destructor of Tokyo, Japan to monster brawler extraordinaire against the likes of King Kong, Mothra, and Rodan to savior of planet Earth and now to parent. Godzilla has developed such a volatile resume over the years, so it's no wonder that he's one of the world's most popular non-superhero icons. Sorry, I take that back; Godzilla is like a superhero in some of his films, but I'll get to that when the time comes.
One thing that none of the previous seven Godzilla movies address is how Godzilla breeds and the details of how his breeding works. That is a question that would be left on the shelf and continue to go largely unaddressed until Roland Emmerich decided in 1998 that he had the audacity to describe the inner mechanisms of Godzilla's anatomy. The only thing we need to know for Son of Godzilla, at least, is that Godzilla can lay eggs, and you'd be fooling yourself if you think the movie is going to take the time to let you know how that's possible.
By the late 1960's, Godzilla was losing steam among mainstream audiences, but he was still relatively popular with young children. So in an attempt to wring out even more of the original Godzilla as possible, Toho changed things up and decided to create a Godzilla film for the "date crowd", a genre that was quite popular with young couples at the time. The idea was that girls would love a cuddly, baby monster, but director Fukuda decided that Godzilla should have a son as opposed to a daughter because having the latter would be a little too weird. This all seems to make sense, right? You want a film aimed at children, so, naturally, the film should center on a child.
Like Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, the plot takes place on an island. A scientific research team led by Dr. Kusumi (Tadao Takashima) are trying to conduct a weather experiment. Their efforts are hampered by the arrival of a nosy reporter named Maki Goro (Akira Kubo) and the presence of giant praying mantises named Kamacuras (Gimantis in the English version). One test of the experiment results in a massive radioactive storm which causes the praying mantises to grow even larger. The scientists watch the Kamacuras dig up a buried monster egg which hatches to reveal a baby Godzilla. The adult Godzilla comes to the rescue, battling with the Kamacuras and taking the baby Godzilla (who is referred to as Minilla by audiences) to learn various monster skills such as breathing atomic breath and roaring. The two Godzillas eventually come to do battle with a giant spider named Kumonga (given the stupid name Spiga in the English version).
That's really about it in terms of story. Godzilla and his son attempt to develop a father-son relationship while fending off giant bug monsters. The humans try to complete their weather experiment. That's it. And like most, if not all, Godzilla movies, the characters are as uninteresting as ever with zero development to speak of. But what's really messed up about these characters is how there's no sense of tension or fear in them whatsoever, as if the giant monsters are now more of a nuisance than a signal to run for your life. Let us not forget though; this is for the kids, and we just can't have people running and screaming from a creature that will trample entire cities to the ground and squash people into roadkill. That will keep the kids up at night. The other main thing about the story that I didn't want to forget is how it creates long stretches in which nothing happens. There's little to nothing to tell, so the film has to find ways to keep itself going until the 86 minutes is up. This means we get characters having boring, pointless conversations and the two Godzillas just doing random stuff together that the film tries to pass off as father-son bonding.
- Director Jun Fukuda attempted to make this film as light-hearted as possible, and although this killed any hopes that Son of Godzilla had of being dramatically engaging or remotely exciting, it did result in the film being completely harmless. That doesn't mean it's a good movie. It means that it is, at least, watchable. And because of how harmless that the movie is, I just did not have it in me to cast a venomous hatred down upon it. Son of Godzilla is far from the absolute worst Godzilla film, and it thankfully doesn't rely on the utter cheapness that some other Godzilla films have. I can see any young kid finding even the tiniest iota of enjoyment from this film, since Fukuda made sure all of the monsters were as adorable-looking as could be. But those "adorable-looking" monsters leads me to my low points...
- It is not a good sign when Godzilla is disappointing in one of his own movies. Let's start with the Godzilla suit that the film uses. Remember when the King of the Monsters looked like this?
Flash forward thirteen years, and now he looks like this:
What the hell happened? The King of the Monsters now looks like a Sesame Street character! Which one though? I'd say Cookie Monster. Godzilla looks all softened up with big cutesy eyes and a face that reads, "Don't worry kids! Godzilla is here to save the day!" He's as child-friendly as Fukuda could hope to make him, but Oh God have mercy, it doesn't stop there...
Godzilla should have gotten a nomination in 1967 for Worst Parent of the Year. The film tries to enlighten us on how Godzilla gets along with his baby son, which involves Godzilla hitting Minilla in the head with his tail, threatening to hit him if he doesn't breathe his atomic breath correctly, and then dragging him by the tail when he falls over and starts squawking like a drunk seagull. The few tender, heartfelt moments that we do get between the two are largely offset by all of the cruel things that Godzilla does to Minilla. Even worse, Minilla loves to get himself into trouble, and Godzilla has to keep coming to the rescue. This is lazy parenting more than Minilla being a troublesome child who doesn't know any better.
- Speaking of Minilla, I've barely said much of anything about the little guy. What do I think of the titular Son of Godzilla? He can't look as bad as his dad does. I'm sure Jun Fukuda was able to get the cutest looking mini Godzilla that any kids has ever
SWEET MOTHER OF ALL THAT IS HOLY! WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!
(*hyperventilates*) Excuse me, I am so sorry. Okay, well, that my friends is Minilla, immediately after being hatched. He (thankfully) grows later on in the film which then he looks like this:
My goodness, that is one ugly monster. Is that really the best that Jun Fukuda could come up with? Cookie Monster Godzilla's son looks like the second cousin twice removed of The Pillsbury Doughboy. Minilla might keep children up at night cowering under the covers instead of inducing endless awws. He might act playful and carefree, but that doesn't excuse how straight-up ugly that Minilla looks.
- The other bad low point of Son of Godzilla is the monster fights. They are as slow and lazily staged as can be. Godzilla and Minilla fight Kumonga by doing nothing but blasting him with their atomic breath. The only bit of amusement comes from Godzilla slamming the Kamacuras on the ground several times and then frying them to a crisp. Is monster wrestling/karate too much for kids?
I'm aware that most of this review has been biting into the truly terrible turd mounds that are the flaws of Son of Godzilla. You are highly encouraged to think of this movie as a horrible monster flick, if you want to go out of your way to watch it. I want to say that Son of Godzilla is God-awful. The problem is that I can't shake myself away from how harmless that the film is as a whole. I'd even say it's a step-up from Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. But despite the harmlessness, the human characters are useless. Godzilla is a sad, devolved shell of his former self, and Minilla is too hideous-looking, even for small children. I should hate this movie. But I don't, because it's not offensive or unbearably long. Being at least watchable counts for something. Even for a kids movie.
Recommend? Only if you are a die hard Godzilla fan, but even then, I'd still have a tough time convincing you why it's worth watching
Apes Together Strong
War for the Planet of the Apes is directed by Matt Reeves and stars Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson.
Trilogies are all over the place in the film industry nowadays because, for whatever reason, everyone believes that things are best in threes. But what almost never happens is the trilogy has each of its installments of beginning, middle, and end be not only good films on an individual level, but also be better than its predecessors. Rise was a fun and enjoyable film on its own and breathed new life into the Apes franchise. Dawn made the reboot even better by adding much needed emotional substance and enhancing its layered characters. Now comes War, the inevitable final battle between the genetically enhanced apes who look to establish themselves as Earth's new dominant species and the human survivors that are threatened with extinction.
Like Dawn, War for the Planet of the Apes has the look of being an action-heavy, blow-em-up demolition derby. But also like Dawn, the film does not encompass what you think it might. There isn't a moment to describe as full-scale warfare between humans and apes. Instead, the story focuses on the darker instincts of Caesar and what he does when a tragedy strikes him close.
Two years after the events of Dawn, the apes are in the midst of an ongoing war with the human survivors. Caesar's clan is particularly opposed to the military faction known as Alpha Omega (indicated by the Alpha and Omega letters on the soldiers' skin). The conflict is further complicated by how various apes have decided to fight alongside the humans. This is because these apes were former followers of Koba, and they feared retaliation from Caesar after the end of Dawn. Caesar offers peace with the humans if they decide to leave the apes alone. The apes are about to begin a mass exodus to a far-away desert location, as they have suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Alpha Omega. The humans don't leave the apes alone, of course, and attack the apes' home one night. During the attack, Caesar comes face-to-face with the leader of Alpha Omega: a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). The next day, Caesar decides to forego joining his fellow apes on the journey to their new home and go on a personal mission to track down the Colonel and kill him. Fellow apes Maurice, Rocket, and Luca join Caesar on his mission in which they meet an ape hermit named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and a mute little girl (Amiah Miller) who is later given the name Nova.
War for the Planet of the Apes sends this reboot trilogy off onto a truly high note, and I will say that this reboot trilogy is, without question, one of the best trilogies of the 2000's. Yes, right there alongside Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. With that said, it pains me to admit that I did not find War to be the best film of the trilogy. Now add on the fact that this was my most anticipated film of the year. Hurts even more, doesn't it? As excited as I was for this film and as much as I loved it in the end, I still found Dawn to be better. Not by much, though. I thought Dawn had a more interesting and vicious villain, and after thinking it over enough, that is the difference maker in why I find Dawn to be the best film of the reboot.
But enough about Dawn. War has the world of the Apes reboot in a position where it now must ask the real challenging questions of the apes vs. human conflict and point the ship in a direction from which it cannot return. Its main ape character is now in a spot where he must wrestle with his darker side and make decisions that could have fatal consequences for himself and the other apes. He is haunted by hallucinations that he has of the human-hating Koba, whose anger and hatred towards humans was the catalyst to starting the war.
- The film's thematic depth is a true rarity for a summer tentpole which usually relies on big spectacle CGI effects and a heavy dosage of entertainment value to score a profit. War is especially abundant with its exploration of the very idea of war and peels off the layers to fully examine what it is that brings two opposing sides together in such a conflict. You can find realistic, biographical war films all over the place, and they'll tell you similar themes as those in War. But what is special about War is how it really hits home at the overarching human intentions of war, and the outlook is fresh since we view humans battling not other humans, but a species much like humans: apes. Some might think that the film isn't very subtle with its war-based themes, particularly in how the humans use captured POW apes for slave labor and impose super-harsh conditions on them such as giving them no food or water until Caesar pressures the Colonel and his men into doing so. There are also a lot of disturbing war-based images, such as Caesar witnessing various apes being tortured to death by being tied onto wooden posts with their arms and legs in a position as if they are about to be drawn and quartered. There's another name or phrase for this, but I can't think of it. Anyway, the film finds a lot of moral complexity when tackling its uneasy themes. Action sequences come when necessary, but never to excess.
- The one and only low point of War that kept me from liking it more than Dawn is the villain. The Colonel is made out to heavily resemble Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He's bald, he's meant to come off as insane, and he has a lengthy speech scene with the main character in which he discusses issues of war and human nature. Now unlike Kurtz, we don't need to wait until the last half hour of the film to physically see the Colonel. We actually get our first glimpse of him not even 20 minutes in. The soldiers and apes talk a big game of how ruthless and unforgiving that the Colonel is, but outside of something he does in the first 20 minutes, there was barely anything for me to point to and use as evidence to claim that the Colonel is an embodiment of pure evil. The Colonel, at the end of the day, is just a bad human who had to make a couple tough choices to get to where he is now. He lacks the motivations and persona to provide for a proper villain analysis, and I was left wishing to know more about him. Caesar sees Koba in several hallucinations during the film, so tell me how the Colonel is a better villain than Koba when the characters are still discussing Koba one movie later, and Caesar is haunted by the fact that his motivations might now start to align with those of Koba?
So the quality of the villain is what kept me from liking War more than Dawn. Still, War is a mightily strong conclusion to this tremendous trilogy, finding its soul with thematic depth and a memorable moral commentary to go along with its breath-taking effects and adrenaline-filled action. There is no debate that it is not only one of the best films of the summer, but also one of the best films of the year. It is a must-see for any and all fans of the Apes franchise. Where the franchise goes from here is up in the air. I wouldn't have any problems if they decide to stop or decide to keep going. These Apes films always give me something to look forward to in the cinematic year.
Recommend? Absolutely. But make sure you've seen Rise and Dawn first.
Apes gear up for War
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the 2014 sequel to 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes with Andy Serkis returning to reprise his role as Caesar. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman star, and Toby Kebbell also stars in a motion capture role. Matt Reeves serves as director. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects.
Having a movie sequel improve upon its predecessor is a special non-award accomplishment that is usually hard to do. Now add on the challenge of releasing said sequel in the midst of the fiery summer, the time of year in which it's open season for studios to release their big blockbuster tentpole films. Unless that sequel also happens to be one of those tentpoles, it's probably next to near impossible for that film to be successful, right?
Well, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proves this wrong. Dead wrong. If anything else that Dawn proves, it's that you can very much release a film dead center in the summer that which not only delivers thrilling action, but also memorable characters and emotional heft. And yet, on the surface, Dawn very much looks as if it's a straight-on popcorn action flick. It's not. Not at all. Hell, I wouldn't hesitate to categorize it as a sci-fi drama, one which just happens to have some neat action sequences in it.
Ten years after the events of Rise, the human population has been ravaged by the ALZ-113 virus or better known as the Simian flu. Apes, who have enhanced intelligence because of the same virus, have begun to develop their own society. Caesar, the central ape from Rise, now leads an ape colony in the Muir Woods just outside of San Francisco. The colony is primitive, but highly functional. Caesar has a son named Blue Eyes who is friends with another ape named Ash. Blue Eyes and Ash encounter humans in the woods one day which sends the ape colony into a frenzy since the apes have had no contact with humans for years. It turns out that the group of humans, led by the friendly Malcolm (Jason Clarke), are looking to access a dam that lies within the apes territory in hopes of using it to power the nearby human territory. Caesar is conflicted about trusting Malcolm and his group, and he also begins to develop tension with his second-in-command, the human-loathing bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell). Koba despises humans for the way they treated him while he was still a test subject at Gen-Sys, and he attempts to pressure Caesar into launching an all-out attack on the human survivors.
So as the story suggests, the state of affairs between the humans and the apes is one in which one false move will result in all-out war. It's just a matter of who's going to lose their cool first. Caesar makes an effort to prevent war from breaking out, fearing for the safety of the apes and that, deep down, he knows that not all humans are bad. Caesar's mind frame collides with the aggressive and hateful desires of Koba, which mirrors that of the relationship between Malcolm and the human group leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Dreyfus refuses to think that the apes are more than just savage animals, but Malcolm comes to understand that the apes have much of the same desires and wants that the humans do since he sees and speaks with them first-hand.
- The lack of action sequences. No, really, this is a high point. It would be way too easy for this movie to collapse into a humans vs. apes shoot-em-up. It does eventually reach a point where some fighting is inevitable, and it is very exciting when it actually happens. That's mainly because we care about the characters (well, ape characters I mean) that are involved. Dawn spends its first half delving into Caesar's struggles of keeping the apes in line when they discover that humans are close by is where the film finds a lot of its emotional and dramatic appeal, and this is what Matt Reeves wants to focus on and maximize. More exposure into Caesar's psychology and how he handles being the ape leader is stuff that is much more interesting to watch than endlessly watching apes shoot guns and kill humans.
- Andy Serkis shines once again as Caesar, but I don't feel the need to repeat a lot of what I said in my Rise review. What else can I say? Serkis is simply fantastic in motion capture roles.
- The apes and their troubles are easily the best part of the film. But at the cost of having full-bodied ape characters, the human characters are plucked straight out of the vanilla human stockpile. Malcolm is the typical good guy who cares to do what is right. His wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), is good with medicine. Malcolm's son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), likes to draw. That's about all we get for each of those characters. But you must ask yourself, "Did I come to see the apes or am I here for just the humans?"
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a straight-up action film, because it dedicates much of its 130 minutes into further exploring the emotional resonance and motivations of its ape, and sometimes human, characters. It transcends beyond what it appears to be about on the surface: a consistently violent precursor to a penultimate war between man and ape. Dawn does have action, but the action and violence stem from its character drama, and that's why the action is all the better. Believe me when I say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best summer films of the 2010s, and a film that I would easily consider to be an all-time favorite of mine. I have no doubts that War for the Planet of the Apes will be just as good, if not better.
Recommend? Absolutely, but be sure to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes first.
An old franchise rises from the ashes
As we gear up for War for the Planet of the Apes, I will be taking a look back at the two previous installments in the Planet of the Apes reboot.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is directed by Rupert Wyatt and stars James Franco, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis.
For ten long years, it seemed as if Tim Burton would go to his grave strapped with the burden of sending the Apes franchise to its permanent grave. Never again would the franchise know the glory that it once knew back in 1968 with the release of the classic film adaptation of Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes. Then in 2006 came along screenwriter Rick Jaffa, who found a story in a newspaper articles clipping about pet chimpanzees struggling to adapt within a human environment. The story intrigued Jaffa enough as an idea for a script, and he eventually realized that it very much suited the then dormant Planet of the Apes franchise. Jaffa then called up his wife and fellow screenwriter, Amanda Silver, about his idea of an ape uprising against humans. The two put together a script and sold it to 20th Century Fox. Five years later, and we get Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it breathed new life into a franchise that had been gasping for air ever since its last good installment in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Jaffa and Silver didn't stop the story at just "apes rebel against humans." They included other research elements such as genetic engineering. They also make several tributes to scenes and characters from back in the day. And instead of intensive prosthetic makeup, Rupert Wyatt and crew rely on advanced motion capture for the visual effects, and the motion capture is led by none other than Mr. Motion Capture himself, Andy Serkis. This isn't the first time that Serkis has done the motion capture for an ape. He also did the motion capture for King Kong in his 2005 remake. Heed my advice: if you're making a movie centering on a motion capture monkey, Andy Serkis is your man.
The story of Rise is similar to that of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, although it is not a direct remake. James Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist who works at the San Francisco biotech corporation Gen-Sys. Rodman is testing a viral drug called ALZ-112 on chimpanzees in hopes of finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease. The ALZ-112 is tested on a chimp named Bright Eyes who is forced out of her cage and goes on a rampage. Bright Eyes is killed, and Rodman's boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) has the project shut down. It is soon discovered that Bright Eyes went berserk because she was protecting a baby chimp that she recently gave birth to. Rodman decides to take the chimp home and raise him. The chimp is given the name Caesar, and Rodman learns that the chimp inherited the heightened intelligence of his mother. While Caesar grows, Rodman also tends to his father, Charles (John Lithgow) who is suffering from dimentia.
If there's anything that Rise really conveys to us, it's how complex that its central ape character is. Caesar is an antihero who consistently struggles with his own identity, and it's never clear as to if he truly despises humans or simply finds them to be a puzzling species. Caesar continually stops his fellow apes from killing humans, although he will not hesitate to frighten any human that stands in his way. Despite all of the violence and chaos throughout the film, Caesar is always mindful of not letting Rodman or Rodman's father get hurt. The complexity of Caesar is where Rise finds its best character development, and the film sets him up wonderfully for the upcoming sequels.
- The battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is a neat action set piece that is popcorn entertainment at its finest. The apes take advantage of fog to attack a police blockade from above, below, and straight on. It's meant to be an indication of how smart that Caesar and the apes are after being infected with the 113 virus, which is funny considering how one of the apes named Maurice tells Caesar earlier that "apes stupid". Police charge at the apes while riding on horses which is referencing how the apes charged the humans on horses in the original 1968 Apes film.
- Andy Serkis is simply marvelous as Caesar. The film eventually becomes squarely on his shoulders when Caesar is organizing the ape revolt, and Serkis handles the weight with no setbacks or shortcomings. The motion capture is fluent and expertly captures the basic physical movements of an ape. Even if the story and action don't sit well with you, Rise is definitely worth seeing because of Caesar and the way that Serkis conveys him to us.
- Hat tips to the 1968 classic can be found all over Rise. Some of them, however, are poorly presented. Caesar gets into a skirmish with Tom Felton's character, Dodge, who tries to electrocute him. Caesar grabs Dodge's arm and Dodge says, "Take your stinkin paw off me you damn dirty ape!" This is the worst of the repeated lines from the 1968 film because Felton speaks the line so quickly that there's no time for the line to sink in and let the audience have a dramatic pause. Even worse, the line is followed by a much more intense moment when Caesar shouts a defiant "No!", his first spoken word of the film. Felton also gets to shout the famous, "It's a madhouse! A madhouse!" line when he sends the caged apes into a frenzy during one scene. AND, Felton uses a giant hose to spray any apes that get out of line. I'm not sure why Felton got to be the beneficiary of so many repeated components of the 1968 film. Thankfully, he never gets down on his knees and shouts, "Damn you all to hell!" So, yeah, most of these references play a role reversal in which things that the apes did to the humans back in 1968 has now turned into the humans doing to the apes. Interesting how Caesar is meant to parallel Charlton Heston's Taylor, especially in how Caesar's mother is given the name Bright Eyes.
On top of a terrific performance by Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is also tons of popcorn fun. It's admittedly difficult to give much of a damn about the human characters, but the complex nature of Caesar is more than enough to make up for that. It's an all around good time and can very much bring in new convert fans to the Apes franchise.
The Best Picture Oscar: In which multi-hour epics take no prisoners
Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 epic historical drama film directed by David Lean and stars Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Quinn. The film was nominated for ten Oscars and won seven.
With its name permanently etched into the cinema history books, there is absolutely nothing that one measly review in 2017 can do to alter the way that the world views and interprets David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. With that said, I feel no guilt whatsoever in sharing this thought: I do not think very highly of Lawrence of Arabia. How can this be? It does everything right when it comes to all of the necessary qualifications for a film to, at least, get nominated for Best Picture. It's the same director who spearheaded a fairly recent (recent to 1962, I mean) Best Picture winner in Bridge on the River Kwai, a film that I think very highly of and gave a very rare A+ grade to. Lawrence of Arabia has the epic scope, the strong acting, and the beautiful cinematography to stand out as a film that the Academy will suck up without batting an eye and a film that any dedicated cinephile would consider a must see.
Here's the thing, all of the film's terrific production accomplishments serve as smoke and mirrors for problems that every multi-hour epic film is vulnerable to suffering from: a lingering sense of sheer boredom drawn out by the film's bloated running time and an inability to keep the viewer engaged with the subject material. Lawrence of Arabia, which is a multi-hour epic, suffers from these problems.
The plot revolves around the life of British military officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole). He is sent by the British military to serve as a liaison between the British and the Arabs during World War I, due to his knowledge of the Bedoui Arab tribes and the mutual interest of the British and Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. From there, the film depicts various experiences that Lawrence has during his time in the Arabian Peninsula and explores the inner turmoil that Lawrence suffers from as he struggles with his divided allegiance between his native British army and those he aligns himself with in the Arabian desert.
Lawrence of Arabia is a film that shares similarities to the likes of Fantasia and 2001: A Space Odyssey; it's a film that you must "experience" and cannot watch like you would any other film that would start at Point A and end at Point Z and how much you like said film depends on how well you thought the film got from A to Z. Now unlike Fantasia and 2001, Lawrence of Arabia isn't completely fictional, and its story has already been told once before. The Academy has always been in love with biopics, especially those that center on a historically male figure and spend multiple hours telling you how great/important that male character is (George S. Patton, Gandhi, and T.E. Lawrence to name a few). How much you'll like said films or not depends on how willing you are to soak in their artistic style since that's what they're all about. To be clear, epic films that are meant to be "experienced" aren't my cup of tea, so let's just say that I don't particularly enjoy sitting through them, especially because they love to be at least 3 hours and quickly turn into a snooze-fest. Lawrence of Arabia comes in at a monstrous 227 minutes, and it feels every bit as long as those 227 minutes.
There's one question that you're probably wondering that I haven't addressed yet, "Why is Lawrence of Arabia boring?" Well, the movie largely takes place in the freaking desert, one of the worst settings for a movie that doesn't focus solely on the survival of a select group of people who are somehow stranded in the desert (Flight of the Phoenix, anyone?). Freddie Young's Super Panavision 70 mm cinematography can't hide the fact that the characters are still surrounded by waves of sand hills, no matter how shiny or glorious that they might look. The film is also relatively light on plot, so there's long stretches where it seems as if nothing important is happening.
- Epic films that center on a historical male figure usually have said male figure portrayed rather excellently by a credited actor. Peter O'Toole is front and center here, and I will give him the credit that he absolutely deserves. O'Toole was a lanky figure known for his dashing good looks in his youth (I must acknowledge, his hair always looks perfect throughout the film), and he made a reputation for portraying real life characters. O'Toole had no barriers to breathing as much life as he could into Lawrence. There is no love story or mawkishness for Lawrence to be hamstrung by. Hell, there isn't even a significant female character during the full 227 minutes. It's a male dominated picture, but the male figure at the heart of it all is human and down to earth. As the film begins, Lawrence is timid and and out of place. Midway through, he returns home from his early adventures in the desert and, with a stern look across his face, Lawrence, along with one of his Arab servants, walk through a crowd of British officers and go to a counter where Lawrence asks for a glass of lemonade. By this point, Lawrence has evolved into being more fierce and assertive which carries over into the film's third act. O'Toole is able to do this all brilliantly.
- To reiterate a little, F.A. Young's cinematography is nothing short of spectacular. Many shots of Lawrence and the Arabs riding through the desert, along with the various desert battles that take place, are all beautifully shot. One scene I especially loved was the Arabs launching their attack on Aqaba, which features many long and tracking shots of the Arabs riding their horses into an invasion against Turkish soldiers. It's amazing what a non-CGI battle sequence can look like.
- David Lean didn't really have a choice when he decided to tackle Lawrence of Arabia. He knew that he was going to be making a near four hour film that is mostly set in the desert. The fact of the matter is that if your premise involves a lot of travelling through the desert, your film is just not going to be overly interesting. There is only so many times that one person like myself can bare to watch walking camel after walking camel. And just to be clear, Flight of the Phoenix, another "desert" film, is stationed on one goal (fixing a crashed plane) and has a "race against time" component to it, and a race against time is much more interesting than watching camels walk through sand. Lawrence of Arabia maximizes its desert setting to the extreme, and the only thing that might keep you upright in your seat is the main theme by Maurice Jare that consistently plays. It is a lovely theme, but I will admit that I find it too repetitive.
It isn't a cozy feeling at all when you can only so much as shoulder shrug when asked what you think of a highly regarded film, and your answer is, "I didn't like it that much." In terms of cinematic artfulness, Lawrence of Arabia is in a class of its own with its masterful cinematography. But no matter how nice that your film may look, you can only get so far if your story only sounds intriguing to major World War I scholars and cinephiles who consider this film a must-see. The first two hours are a lousy bore, though things do pick up a bit after the intermission. It's a tough thing to try and hold someone's attention and interest for four straight hours.
Recommend? I'd say it's worth seeing, but if you're not a fan of super long epic films, I would pass
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: