DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES REVIEW

Sitting down with the original Planet of the Apes is a requirement for sci-fi exposure and a profound one at that. It’s hard to imagine how audiences in 1968 reacted to the striking imagery of apes enslaving man, the shocking conclusion, and the social relevancy that went with it. Mind-blowing might be a good guess.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows in its ancestor’s footsteps, in that sense, as a more mind-blowing film likely won’t be found this summer (maybe even this year). Not just because it has the requisite summer action and showy special effects we expect — because it has so very much more than that.

Nearly a decade after the events of the previous movie, the simian virus that gave chimp Caesar and his ape brethren heightened intelligence has killed off nearly all of the human race. An older, wiser Caesar is now a father and leads a fully functioning community of apes in the Redwoods. But things quickly get out of control as a band of human survivors make their presence known, bringing out the best and worst in both groups.

Dawn takes all the good things we saw in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, of which there were many, and carries them forward to become amazing. Like our future simian overlords, things have evolved. Stakes are higher, digital effects showier, performances harder-hitting, and emotional impact more resonant — simply put, Dawn excels in every way it can and beyond.

The latest Apes entry manages to feel both like its own film endeavor and a distinctly Planet of the Apes experience. Rise had faint echoes of the ’68 classic; Dawn has harsh whispers and growing murmurs of it. Maybe its because we’re witnessing a mid-ground between James Franco curing Alzheimer’s and Charlton Heston lamenting the state of mental illness treatment.  Director Matt Reeves picks things up at a major turning point it the Apes universe and the film plays off of every ounce of tension from it.

Emotions run high here, especially the feeling of dread. More so than action, nearly every exchange is on the razor’s edge — the situation is constantly this close to boiling over and becoming chaotic. Of course it must happen and when it does, you can’t help but get the feeling that they’re taking cues straight from the original film, while rightly adapting them for this film. The film has already been referred to as the best sequel since The Dark Knight and it’s not a coincidental comparison. Like the Batman sequel, Dawn takes things in a considerably darker direction and has that same familiar “edge of your seat” feeling throughout.

But when things are not about to explode, the emotional core of the film, exploring family, community, war and prejudice, proves just how mature and thoughtful this new series really is. The film actually has something to say on these matters and isn’t afraid of letting the character relationships and themes come first. You may have to wait sometimes for action pieces to break out but it feels all the more rewarding when they do.

The first 20 minutes of the film alone feature very little dialogue, yet may as well be the basis for a masterclass in visual storytelling where less is more. It’s the little things that make the difference, like the apes mostly using sign language and sharp, focused storytelling revolving around character that make the biggest difference. And then there are simply amazing moments that pop up throughout, highlighted by what will ultimately come to be known as “the Rotating Turret Shot”.

Of course, it’s all beautifully brought to life by the cast, human and ape alike.  Andy Serkis, the absolute ace in the hole of the series, once again makes mince meat out of all acting barriers and brings a new, refined Caesar to life. Jason Clarke does a serviceable job as Malcolm, leader of the human community and Caesar’s doppelganger. Meanwhile both leaders’ second in commands threaten to steal the show. Bad seed Koba, played by future Dr. Doom Toby Kebbel, gives Serkis a run for his money while Gary Oldman, on the surface our go-to bad guy, ends up being more of a wholly sympathetic dissenting opinion than anything.

There are a lot of good movies out there and many great ones too. Then there are films like this — outstanding achievements that strap you in for every second and leave you breathless at the end. Yes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just that good. What Reeves and company have done with Dawn is not only make a sequel that is better than the original; they’ve made a film that is as complex and moving as any there ever was.

10/10 

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SNOWPIERCER REVIEW

If there’s anything this Fourth of July weekend has to say concerning film (and this whole month to some extent), it’s that there’s usually a better alternative out there. As the arguably worst franchise in the last decade pukes about in theaters everywhere, taking up precious screens, a hidden gem lies buried in just over 150 screens nationwide.

With the proper digging, Snowpiercer will reveal itself to the tenacious few who search for it as cinema gold, rich in genre thrills and highly satisfying as a thoughtful alternative to robot product placement.

After an experiment in global warming prevention freezes the entire planet, the few remaining human survivors take refuge on the Snowpiercer, a colossal, perpetually moving locomotion meant to weather the storm. Life on the Snowpiercer is good if you happen to be in the front cars, indulging on the spoils of life. For the rear car inhabitants, it’s a cramped nightmare of misery and oppression, as every effort is made to keep the established hierarchy going. After 17 years of rear-car life, reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans) has had enough, and with help from his right-hand man, Edgar (Jamie Bell), and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) plans to take control of the train. By forging ahead, every dirty secret of this “perfectly balanced eco-system” comes to light.

Think of Bioshock set on a train, with the dark edge of movies like Looper and the smart social commentary akin to Planet of the Apes and you start to approach the concoction known as Snowpiercer. It’s a pure sci-fi yarn through and through, yet still balances its contemplative material with fun, visceral action.

And no, just because its sci-fi roots are strong doesn’t mean the movie isn’t accessible. Director Bong Joon Ho’s first American-made film should prove to be as enjoyable for aficionados as it is for the general audience. Snowpiercer removes itself from the mindless “action only” area of the genre we so often see these days by providing some classic quandaries on the human condition and the grey areas of classist systems.

But yeah, there’s also a lot of blood and barbarism.

The detail and situations in this post-apocalyptic world may be covered in grime and hardship but the film maintains a sense of heightened realism and dark comedy throughout. Things consistently teeter between serious and satirical (in a good way). A scene in the middle of the train with a peppy Allison Pill teaching school children some gruesome lessons perfectly highlights good satire and tickles the funny bone of farce in a most excellent way.

Themes and characterizations are deliberately exaggerated (cartoonish for some, possibly) but it’s all in the name of being more approachable. Tilda Swinton’s baffoonish Minister Mason is completely over the top, cockney accent and buck teeth in tow, but succeeds because she stands so far outside expectations, stealing every scene. Evans, the most grounded character of the lot, shines in a role that could be thankless in the wrong hands.

But even at its most outlandish or intense, Ho manages to keep all parts in line and moving on this strange beast with surprising grace. A lot happens in just over two hours, powering through cruel punishment, righteous rebellion, gross revelations, badass axe fights, comeuppance and a mournful confession or two, but you never once question it all. From the start, you’re along for the ride.

Did I mention this film is pretty great? Well there, I said it. It may be tough to track down (for now) but the reward far outweighs the risk. There will always be films based off toys and ones that star mugging comediennes that bubble to the surface on any given summer holiday. But if you look close enough, you might just find an outlier that beats all the rest.

Heck, maybe it’ll end up being one of the year’s best.

9/10

*Snowpiercer isn’t playing in many places ’round here yet but it will be soon. After initially opening in Minneapolis and Inver Grove Heights, the film has expanded to Eden Prairie and Rochester, with even more theaters to be announced starting this Friday, July 11. Better yet, Snowpiercer will be available on all major VOD services starting Friday as well. You now have no excuse.

THE LEFTOVERS – FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Sunday nights on HBO just got a whole lot less pleasant.

Granted, the entire concept of The Leftovers — that of a broken family trying to cope after 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanished and threw society into chaos — is no dramatic walk in the park. In fact, it’s a perfect opportunity to tap into more melancholy depths of entertainment that films like Prisoners recently have.

The Leftovers has a lot of potential to reap similar benefits but, judging by its premier episode, might fare better with a lighter touch.

It was a plain old day three years ago on October 14 when millions of people around the globe simply vanished. Since then, things have been a bit stressful in the town of Mapleton, New York. Police Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is fraying under the stress of his job, around town and at home. In addition to trying to raise his emotionally wilting daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), alone, the presence of a local cult has pushed tensions to the breaking point in Mapleton. Named the Guilty Remnants, these religious fanatics have taken a vow of silence, dress all in white and chain smoke while they stalk seemingly random members of the community. Worse still, Kevin’s wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) is a member. Meanwhile, Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) has dropped out of college and allied himself with a different sort of cult, one that could be even more dangerous.

Upon initial viewing, The Leftovers proves it has a concept worth tuning into and more than a few good story seeds to build off. The general mystery surrounding what happened to all those people, what the deal is with these cults and whether people will crack a smile ever again are all left up in the air. Theroux casts little doubt on his ability to carry the show, as his character will certainly be put through the grinder again and again. Christopher Eccleston and Liv Tyler are also introduced in a way that practically announces that they’ll have bigger, meatier roles coming up.

But of course this is a show from Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, so don’t expect answers to plentiful or satisfying. And you know what? That’s ok. Obviously there will need to be some character-related questions that need answering but the show, theoretically, could get away with not exploring the cause of the “Sudden Departure” at all (except there are already a few hints that alien shenanigans might be happening).

That’s because The Leftovers is a show all about tone. Plot based technicalities come second to creating a feeling that one character sums up well as “intense and melancholic”. There’s a profound sadness that drenches every scene. If that’s not your thing, there doesn’t seem to be much counterpoint to it. For those like me who find some enjoyment in the melancholy, there will likely be at least one thing to appreciate throughout.

They’ve got the melancholic down; now if only they’d back off the intense. Even with the overwhelming sense of grief, there are still moments that feel the need to push it to a seemingly desperate degree. A screaming baby opens the show while a dog gets murdered not three minutes later. Pilot director Peter Berg several times goes for the ever-cheap, ever-annoying tactic of taking things from whisper-level quiet to gunshot-level loud within seconds. The concept of the show and the psychological implications of it are enough to create tension and drama, so when The Leftovers devolves into, essentially, jump scares, it feels like everything has been brought down a peg.

Again, this is just the pilot episode with a lot of room to grow. On the whole, the promise of more mouth-watering anguish is still enough to keep interested, as are characters that, thus far, are largely more likeable than ones in, say, Game of Thrones. At very least, we can probably expect less incest.