Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: That Rare Sequel

     I can't say that I was ever too interested in the older Apes films, though they clearly hold a special place in many moviegoer's hearts. So I was very surprised when back in 2011 I found the reboot of the franchise--Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco no less--a perfectly enjoyable summer diversion with a great motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, the king of creature acting. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place 10 years after the events of the first film, where the Simian Flu has devastated the world and the super-smart apes reign over the woods without a sign of a human for multiple years. It's a rare sequel that surpasses the already-good original, a fitting mid-summer movie with action, intensity, heart and emotion. And yet again, it showcases Andy Serkis and his unbelievable ability to breathe realistic life into a computer-generated creature.
     News reports at the beginning of the film show that the world is now a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Apes that Dawn focuses on live in the steep woods outside the crumbling city of San Francisco, where throughout the years following the human collapse their leader, Caesar (Serkis), has taught the rest of the apes to flourish. They can communicate through hand signals (and in the rare instance, speaking actual English). They haven't seen humans for years, and the majority think that it's for the best: since some of the apes had been experimented on (essentially tortured) in the first film, the distrust they feel is warranted. The new little prospering world that they have created is thrown into disarray when a few gun-equipped humans show up, looking to restore a dam to bring back some of the city's electricity.
     One of the main problems with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also a bigger problem of Godzilla earlier this year) is the human characters. Gary Oldman portrays a sort-of military leader of the humans--it's safe to say that he's not keen on the apes controlling the land that the dam sits on. Keri Russell (damn good in FX's The Americans recently) pops up as the sympathizing significant other of Jason Clarke, who--like James Franco in the first film--realizes the potential and love that the apes can bring to Earth. But nobody impresses. The apes--led by Andy Serkis--portray far more emotion than their human counterparts. And when an ape deception occurs, you feel it as hard as any other human drama.
   Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster where you would just assume not have any fighting or destruction. Can't they all just get along? That's a testament to the awesome computer-generated apes and the stellar direction by Matt Reeves. With Cloverfield and Let Me In, he's been a director to showcase a signature style: but in Dawn he's truly come into his own, creating a sequel that's better in every way than it's predecessor. The mixture of action, emotion, tension and drama is an impressive balancing act, and it catapults the film far higher than most of this year's sad display of cinema.
      Like my the last film I reviewed, Snowpiercer, Dawn delves into social ideas about discrimination, equality, and deception. This time it's just humans vs. apes rather than humans vs. humans. But Dawn is good enough even if you're just there for the action. Sure, the image is (kinda) laughable of an ape duel-wielding machine guns riding a horse into battle. But with the tension-filled buildup, it's hard to not be excited by it. And Reeves stages some great scenes that have you picking sides, rooting for who you think is right. If you've been a bit bummed by this year's film entertainment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good remedy: an ape evolution that's thoughtful and thrilling.     (B+)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Snowpiercer: A Smart and Strange Summer Train Ride

     Snowpiercer is one of those rare summer spectacles: a film that is unique and original, a risky proposition among a sea of stinky sequels and safe bets. Making his English-language debut, director Bong Joon-ho (who has impressed me before with monster-movie mayhem in The Host) skillfully crafts a weird thrill ride about rocket-fast train and class warfare, and it contains some of the better action scenes this side of The Raid 2. It has echoes of some recent Hollywood blockbusters (like The Hunger Games or Elysium), but it's fully its own creature--a strange beast with a mixture of themes and cultures that completely stands out among American cinema's recent cardboard cut-out clones.
     An experiment to end global warming has caused an ice age that almost has wiped out the entirety of Earth's population. The only survivors make it onto a train that flies along a global railway system powered by a mysterious man and his perpetual motion machine. The basics: the rich live in luxury at the front of the train, the poor people in the rear. Guards periodically arrive in the back of the train, giving our dirty downtrodden disgusting protein blocks (they look like old cranberry sauce) and occasionally taking children for unknown reasons. At the tip of the train, a mysterious man named Wilford resides, and his rule is law.
     Everything is not swell, and a rebellion is brewing: led by our humble hero Curtis (Chris Evans, better known as Captain America), the less-fortunate come up with a plan to bust through the guards and gates to overtake the train. To do so, they need the help of an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who spends all of his time sniffing a mind-altering drug called Kronol, and his maybe-psychic daughter Yona. With their help, they attempt to move through the seemingly-mile-long train car by car. This is one of those films that mixes humor and shock and violence with a surreal skill. You just can't wait to see what is behind the next door, and it's always surprising.
     There is some awesome action in Snowpiercer, violent hand-to-hand combat with sharp weapons that is directed with noticeable excitement by Bong Joon-ho. There are plenty of villainous characters, but the most memorable is Tilda Swinton, with her fake teeth and sheer disregard of anyone who is against the man behind the curtain, Wilford. I feel like I now measure all film and television action with The Raid 2, which completely blew me away earlier this year. And Snowpiercer never reaches the tension that The Raid 2 managed. But it didn't need to: the sheer strangeness and fun that Snowpiercer provides more than makes up for it.
     The film doesn't reach for perfection; consequently, it's not perfect: the political messages in Snowpiercer are just a backdrop for the action-adventure story and the excitement to see what weird thing is contained in the next car. And some of the special effects (mostly the outside views of the train barreling through snowdrifts and tunnels) are far from stellar. I also didn't love the ending. But these thing's don't take the enjoyment away from the weird ride. If Snowpiercer teaches us one thing, it's that we need more foreign and unique ideas thrown into American cinema. Ten years from now, I want to be watching more films like this one--not Transformers 8: Transforming Yet Again.     (A-)