Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis has become the go-to actor for motion capture performances in cinema. After playing Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong and consulting on dozens of other movies, Serkis may have outdone himself in his second portrayal of Caesar, the lead ape in Matt Reeves' outstanding Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn is a follow-up to 2011's reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes and manages to outshine its excellent predecessor thanks to a quality no-frills cast and visual effects that pack an emotional punch.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first film in this reboot ape world, helmed by Rupert Wyatt and starring James Franco and Freida Pinto. Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) takes the reigns of this 8th installment of the Apes franchise and easily makes the best film of the series in a rare Summer blockbuster film with an emotional core that makes the audience think about race/species relations. In a plot that picks up a few decades after the events of the Rise film, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke and Kerri Russell lead a cast of humans that survived a pandemic and try to rebuild a civilization in San Francisco. On and expedition, they end up encountering an ape village in the woods led by Caesar himself, the ape that James Franco raised and experimented on in the earlier film. 

Caesar and his followers attempt to try to work peacefully with the humans to resolve their differences. A rogue ape named Koba, however, cannot forgive the humans for the way they experimented on apes in the past (in Rise in particular) and he eventually rivals Caesar for the leadership title of his species. Tensions build and the final third of the film is a brilliant full-scale war between man and ape.

While Clarke, Oldman, Russell and company give adequate performances, the REAL stars of this film are the computer-generated simians. The shear amazing geniuses that work at Weta Digital have done it again. They have finally perfected the motion capture process and their technical prowess is readily evident in scene after emotional scene featuring apes who are emoting and questioning their place in the world in relation to humans. We see family bonding and a sense of community that mirrors the way humans relate to one another. When Koba struggles with his decision to go against his leader, we can feel the internal challenges he is facing.  Never before have I seen such emotional weight given to digital characters in a film. Another kudo should be given to Serkis for bringing a primitive, yet purposeful voice to Caesar. I really believe Serkis should get an Academy nomination for his performance here, but I fear the Academy is still not ready to recognize this style of acting.

This movie is a near-perfect Summer action film with way more depth than one can expect from a movie released in July. Top-notch visual effects, full-scale epic battle sequences and an excellent musical score by budding composer Michael Giacchino make for a tense gripping tone throughout the film. This is one of the best effects-driven movies i've seen and a real testament to Reeves and Weta Digital for building intricate empathetic CGI beings that more than hold their own compared to their human adversaries. The film ends off with a cliffhanger of sorts and I for one can't wait until the follow-up film, which reportedly will be directed by Reeves again with a release date in 2016. 4.5 solid JRs for the best film I've seen in 2014 thus-far.

NOTE: I plan on seeing Richard Linklater's much-lauded Boyhood this evening. This film was shot over 12 years and is getting incredible buzz. Expect a full review over the weekend.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reviews: Earth to Echo & 22 Jump Street

Here are a couple quick-hit reviews from over the past week or so.

A few weeks ago I took my wife and all the kids to see Earth to Echo, a low-budget found-footage film directed by Dave Green that focuses on the discovery of an alien life form.  It's sort of a hybrid Goonies/E.T. mashup re-invented in the modern era of mobile devices and social networking. Three friends in the Nevada suburbs get together for one last adventure as they sneak out of their homes to travel by bike in search of a mysterious signal beacon they stumbled across on their phones. They eventually uncover a lost alien robot who is desperately trying to get back home to his planet. The effects are well done for a movie filmed on such a small budget and the acting for the most part is decent enough (for a kid-powered film). I was especially pleased to see Brian Bradley (aka Astro from The X Factor) play one of the lead roles.

I sort of enjoyed this film and was glad to see the kids get into it. They all seemed to have a good time and I'm hoping this kind of.  I do think this movie takes some huge plot ideas from Spielberg's 1982 classic and therefore I have to bump my rating down a few notches due to an overall lack of originality. This is worth a watch on video especially if you have some young kids. A mellow 3 out of 5 JRs for Earth to Echo.

The other week I finally had a chance to go and see the latest chapter in the bromance of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, otherwise known as 22 Jump Street. I saw the original film in the theater and despite not being a fan of the original Johnny Depp, I really liked it. I was looking forward to the re-teaming of Hill and Tatum and thankfully they pick up right where they left off. They really do have great chemistry on-screen and Tatum in particular is comedy gold. He has that rare ability to combine solid action skills with a clever wit (similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). Ice Cube returns as the leader of the undercover police division and delivers some of the best laughs of the entire film when he gets into a bit of a pickle with Hill's character. I won't give it away, but let's just say the family lunch sequence at the fictional university in which Tatum and Hill are undercover students is worth the price of admission alone.

This film is right on par with its predecessor and exceeds the laughs in certain scenes. It's just a lot of fun to watch Hill and Tatum do their thing together and Ice Cube delivers more laughs than he did in the original.  Despite a few slow moments, the story is well paced and delivers on many levels with solid direction by the "it-duo" of 2014 Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who have already delivered the funniest movie of the year in Lego Movie). 22 Jump Street is certainly one of the funniest films I've seen all year and I give it a strong 4 of 5 JRs. You can probably wait for video on this one though as there is no real draw to seeing in the theater. (in fact, in one sequence, the audience we saw it with laughed so hard that we missed a few lines of dialogue completely) Stick around for the credits sequence which imagines just how far this series can go with some hilarious theming ideas.

NOTE: I plan on trying to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tomorrow and hope to have a full review later this week.