REVIEW: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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While it may have one of the clunkiest movie titles of 2014, that hasn’t stopped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from raking in loads of praise from critics and even more cash at the box office. I have to admit I’m surprised at how this franchise has found life again. I love the original 1968 classic, but frankly this doesn’t seem like the type of series that would appeal to the modern movie sensibilities of many of today’s moviegoers. The 2011 franchise reboot along with its $480 million box office grab proved me wrong. And of course when you make that kind of money you know there is going to be sequel.

I liked the first installment of this reboot but I didn’t see it as the gem that many did. This time around we have a new director and an overhauled cast but the writing team stays intact which you can sense from the first act. In what has become a very familiar way to setup these types of films, the movie opens with snippets from newscasts explaining the state of the world since the events of the first film. Human civilization has collapsed, ravaged by the effects of a deadly simian flu which decimated the population and triggered near apocalyptic after-effects. In other words things on earth are pretty bad, that is unless you are an ape.

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large colony of apes who live in the forests outside of what was San Francisco. These apes share the intelligence of Caesar which we see exhibited in a variety of ways. Many of the apes believe that humans are now extinct, that is until they encounter a small group of them in the forest. The group turns out to be part of a pocket of survivors living in the city. Their energy supply is almost gone and a hydroelectric dam in the forest could supply them for years. But as they learn, the dam is smack dab in the middle of ape territory which presents a very big problem.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film are the political wranglings that take place both between humans and between the apes. Internal debates, distrust, and dissensions plague both camps as each try to figure out how to handle the other. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the small group, recognizes something special about Caesar and tries to form a bond with him. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more skeptical and he prepares the humans for war in case Malcolm fails. Similarly Cesar believes peace is the best option but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has personal animosity towards all humans and he wants to be proactive.

All of that is constructed in a way that shows the similarities between the humans and apes. In fact, that’s a central theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it be tender family relationships or fear-driven warmongering, we see it all in both the humans and the apes. But what may be the most amazing feat accomplished by this film is its incredible way of translating emotion from the apes. Every display of love, hate, disappointment, frustration, anger, or sympathy that we get from them is incredibly…well…human. Much of it is due to the brilliant makeup and special-effects. But the true credit goes to the stunning motion caption mastery. I love hearing from people who are finally recognizing the genius of Andy Serkis. But folks let me just go ahead and say it – this is Oscar-worthy work. And Kebbell isn’t too far behind him.

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Now while the story is entertaining and never boring, it still has a few things that keep it from being truly phenomenal. There are so many familiar plot angles that we get throughout the entire movie. Honestly, I was amazed at how many things I saw that I had seen in other films. I don’t want to spoil anything , but it really stood out and it made many plot lines predictable. I also thought several of the emotional tugs were a bit obvious and gimmicky. What’s amazing about it is that they still worked for me. I knew I was having my heart-strings yanked during these instances yet I still went with them. Effective but still obvious.

Despite those gripes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a highly entertaining picture. Regardless of its familiar directions the story still kept me engaged. It easily kept me attached to these characters and the film moved at an almost perfect pace. There is some great action, awesome effects, and the performances are strong (none better than the stunning work of Andy Serkis). This is yet another big budget 2014 blockbuster that delivers. I just wish the story itself went out a little more on its own.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Night Train to Lisbon”

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It was considered a talky and drawn out bore by a handful of critics, but I found Bille August’s 2013 drama “Night Train to Lisbon” to be a soothing and almost cathartic film despite its occasional lapses. It’s a swirl of mystery, romance, self-examination, and character study that does at times trip over itself and its subtle but clumsy preachiness. But ultimately the film dives into themes and reflections that I found fulfilling.

The film is based on Pascal Mercier’s 2004 novel about a man lost in his loneliness and plagued by feelings of unfulfillment and unimportance. The great Jeremy Irons plays Raimund Gregorius, a language professor at a college in Bern, Switzerland. The film’s opening scene tells us scores about its main character. We see Raimund in a meager, dimly lit apartment. The walls are covered with books portraying what almost seems like an obsession. Raimund stirs around but there’s no one else there. No voices. No vibrancy. Nothing lively or colorful. It’s a portrayal of his loneliness.

Later that rainy morning, while walking to school, he comes across a young woman standing on a bridge about to commit suicide. He’s able to grab her before she jumps and then takes her to his classroom to gather her thoughts. As he begins teaching his class she wanders off leaving behind her raincoat with a book in the pocket. Raimund immediately sets off to find the mysterious young woman using the book as a guide which leads him to Lisbon, Portugal.

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The story quickly moves away from Raimund’s search for the young woman and to his fascination with the book. It was written by a man named Amadeu do Prado. Raimund is mesmerized by the life depicted in the memoirs and he ventures across Lisbon putting the story together through the people who knew Amadeu. Along this personal journey, Raimund finds some people who are eager to help him. He also finds some who are reluctant to revisit the painful and tumultuous past they shared with Amadeu.

Through Raimund’s conversations with people we get flashbacks to Amadeu (portrayed by Jack Huston) and his life. We see his difficult childhood and his complicated relationship with his family. We witness his venture into a left-wing resistance movement that went against the Salazar administration. We see scarred friendships and fragile romances. It’s a truly compelling life story even though it sputters at times and its historical account is clearly told from a strict and persuaded point of view. This occasionally strips the film of its genuineness and makes it the film a bit like a lecture.

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While I found Amadeu’s unfolding story interesting, it was Raimund who kept me enthralled in the movie. With every peeled back layer of Amadeu’s past Raimund realizes how unfulfilling his own life is. Through the book he tries to experience the life that he has never had. Jeremy Irons navigates this journey with such temperate and emotional precision. It’s not a loud or showy performance. Instead he uses a more reserved approach which serves the character and his state brilliantly. I truly felt for Raimund and completely bought into his plight.

These dual stories are also helped by a fascinating assortment of wonderful actors and actresses. There are so many rich supporting performances from Huston, French actress Mélanie Laurent (a favorite of mine), Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Lee, Martina Gedeck, Auguest Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Tom Courtenay, and several others. Each have their specific role in Raimund’s journey and Amadeu’s story and the strength of the acting brings both vividly to life.

There is also plenty of beautiful scenery, wonderful locations, and interesting camera work to talk about, but this really comes down to the story and your ability to latch onto it. I had no problem with this mainly because of the film’s centerpiece Jeremy Irons and the story he tells. There is the occasional rough patch and a few hints of odd one-sided lecturing. There is also an intriguing human drama that sucked me in and had me genuinely caring about the characters. That’s an essential piece of any good drama and “Night Train to Lisbon” has it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

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My initial reaction after first viewing Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was incredibly mixed. So many critics and movie viewers loved the film while I struggled to get a true sense of my feelings towards it. In fact, my confliction was such that I never wrote a review for it. Now I have wrestled with this critical darling and I ask myself if my reservations still feel justified and is the film worthy of the massive amounts of accolades and praise heaped upon it?

One thing you have to give Tarantino is that he is a filmmaker with a definite style. But personally speaking it’s often his style that is both a strength and weakness of his films. I think that’s the case here as well. “Django Unchained” has a smart and instantly engaging blueprint. But there are stylistic choices, all signatures of Tarantino’s filmmaking, that are distracting and do more to promote his brand than actually strengthen the narrative. Many people love that about his pictures. I think it sometimes works against him and takes away his focus.

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The story begins two years prior to the Civil War. A man named Django (Jamie Foxx) along with four male slaves is being driven like cattle by two slave handlers. They run into a German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who ‘acquires’ Django and hires him to help find a group of outlaws known as the Brittle brothers. Django reveals to Schultz that he was married but was separated from his wife by a wicked slave owner. Schultz offers to help him find his wife in exchange for Django working for him through the winter. While together they run into a wild assortment of people, none more heterogeneous that a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“Django Unchained” has been called Tarantino’s spaghetti western but we only occasionally see the similarities between his film and those Italian westerns that became popular in the late 1960s. This is really just a revenge tale with plenty of fancy dressing. The story starts up nicely and the opening 30 minutes or so sets a very interesting table. But then the film slows down a bit which begins drawing attention to its 165 minute running time. It picks back up once Candie appears and then falls into a stew of truly great scenes, uncomfortable but hilarious humor, goofy and outlandish graphic violence, and jarring injections of that Tarantino “style”. It makes the last third of the film range from fascinating and intense to messy and indulgent.

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When Tarantino’s focus is on the right thing he can create some of the most mesmerizing scenes ever put to film. The opening sequence in “Inglourious Basterds” is a prime example. We get several instances of that in “Django Unchained”. There are moments when the dialogue is sharp and flowing which in turn creates scenes that turn out amazing. A long dinner table sequence at Candie’s plantation is one of my favorites. It’s crisp and fluid while also soaked in perfectly developed tension. There are a few other scenes where the humor hits with perfect timing and I found myself laughing out loud. QT is also always impressive with his camera. He can get a tad carried away at times but this film, like many of his others, looks great and there are several unforgettable shots.

But there are flipsides to almost all of these positives. While some scenes are brilliant and the dialogue strong, others drag out too long and feel false.  Then there are the aforementioned style choices. Take the music. QT has always liked to incorporate unique music into his films which I appreciate. But here he goes from a musical homage to the theme from “Two Mules for Sister Sara” to bass-pounding hip-hop. Stylish? Sure. Jarring? Absolutely. And then there is the much talked about graphic violence. Tarantino definitely soaks the audience in copious amounts of blood, but it’s hard to take it serious. In one sense it strips away any emotional power. In another sense (which is what QT is after), it’s a really fun exercise in genre indulgence.

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I do have to give props to the cast. I’ve never been a big fan of Jaime Foxx but he does a nice job here. He does stumble over the occasional bits of poorly written dialogue but as a whole this was an impressive performance. Christoph Waltz is just a tremendous actor and he always seems to fit nicely into Tarantino’s weird worlds. Leo DiCaprio has an absolute blast playing this twisted francophile wannabe slaver with bad teeth and a deceptive charm. He steals several scenes by going all in and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot playing possibly the most despicable character in the movie. He’s also undeniable funny at times and more than once I caught myself in uncomfortable laughter. And Kerry Washington is very convincing in one of the film’s few emotionally steady roles.

So what to make of “Django Unchained”? I understand that many absolutely adore the movie. The good moments are really good but each of them are bookended by one questionable narrative choice or a blast of QT style that doesn’t always help the film as a whole. To call “Django Unchained” uneven would be an understatement. It has its share of problems. But it also features fabulous performances, a wonderful visual flare, and a handful of purely brilliant sequences. Those things save it from completely drowning in Tarantino’s indulgence.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Sarah’s Key”

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Movies depicting the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish people during the Nazi reign can be some of the most potent and emotional movies to watch. There have been several films that have taken a broader look at the subject while others choose to tell more personal stories. Either way, I remain fascinated at how skilled filmmakers can still remind us of this deep and devastating scar on our world’s history through truly powerful cinema. “Sarah’s Key” is another example of that. This film may not carry the weight of bigger Holocaust pictures, but it tells a stirring and sobering story that I really responded to.

The movie jumps back and forth in time and tells two interconnected stories. The first takes place during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in Paris on July 16th 1942. It was the early morning mass arrest of over 13,000 Jews by French Police in a broader effort to placate the Nazis. The arrested Jews, of which nearly 10,000 were women and children, were taken to internment camps and eventually to Auschwitz for “extermination”. What made this even more despicable was the complicity of the French government and police, something France had failed to publicly own up to until 1995. It’s in this environment that we’re introduced to young Sarah Starzynski.

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I found Sarah’s story to be the most interesting and certainly the most powerful. While playing under the covers of her bed, Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) and her little brother Michel are startled by a loud knocking on the front door. It’s a French policeman there to take them into custody as the roundup begins. Before Michel can be noticed Sarah hides him in a closet and makes him promise not to leave. She locks the door, hides the key in her pocket, and is soon taken away with her parents.

The other story starts in Paris in 2009 when an American journalist named Julia (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and her French husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) inherit an apartment from his grandparents. It turns out the apartment came into the family over 65 years earlier, around the same time as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Julia had recently wrote a piece on this sad part of French history so naturally she wants to know more about the house’s history.

We are told both of these stories in chunks. Co-writer and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner does a pretty good job of moving back and forth between stories although there are some fairly awkward transitions. And I mentioned that Sarah’s story is easily the more riveting and interesting of the two but that’s not to say Julia’s story is bad. In fact I liked it. But her story is hampered by a few plot points that just don’t work within the context of this film. These are mainly found in the relationship between her and her husband. Julia finds out that she’s pregnant and we learn that she’s had some difficult and failed pregnancies in the past. Bertrand doesn’t want the baby and is perfectly content with their life the way it is. This entire dynamic ends up playing a significant role in Julia’s life and it leads to a nice moment later in the film, but overall it feels underdeveloped and quite honestly insignificant compared to the horror that Sarah and her family are facing.

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But when it comes down to it, I like the way both stories come together. It’s not as surprising or profound as it could have been but I found it to be satisfying. Julia has several good moments as she digs deeper to connect her husband’s family to the Starzynskis. But it’s the strength of Sarah’s story that makes the joining of these two narratives work. I was consumed with watching Sarah’s difficult and heartbreaking life unfold. It’s brilliantly told both visually and through the script and it never shoves too much in your face. It’s respectful and reserved yet it maintains an authentic emotional punch.

A big hunk of the movie’s success is due to some standout performances. Kristen Scott-Thomas is a fine actress and her flawless American accent and fluent French gives Julia a natural believability. She also never overplays her scenes. But even better was Mélusine Mayance as young Sarah. I know we could get into the whole ‘How much of a child performance is acting or directing’ debate, but I thought she was magnificent. Niels Arestrup is another familiar face in the film who’s always good. There’s also two relatively unknowns who are wonderful here. Natasha Mashkevich really caught my attention as Sarah’s mother and Charlotte Poutrel is great in a much smaller role as an older Sarah. In her few scenes we see a beautiful but scarred young woman and it’s clear the events of her past have left a terrible mark.

“Sarah’s Key” is a movie that completely slipped under my radar. During my recent examination of French cinema I stumbled across this picture and I am glad I did. It’s a smart and respectful story whose only fault is that it tries to do too much. With a little more culling this could have been a tighter and more concise picture. But even considering that, this is a very good movie that’s both responsible and deeply moving. It may not be listed among the best overall movies about the Holocaust, but there are parts of this film that I would put up against any other.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Elysium”

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Neill Blomkamp surprised a lot of people with his 2009 science fiction thriller “District 9”. While I wasn’t drawn to it, the majority of critics gave it high marks. It would go on to earn four Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture. His eagerly anticipated follow up comes in the form of “Elysium”, another sci-fi foray soaked in social commentary. It’s a bleak, gritty, and violent film with high ambition and a much bigger budget.

Blomkamp once again writes and directs the movie which starts with a pretty heavy-handed setup. Blatantly obvious political statements on immigration, healthcare, and class warfare are thrown at the audience without an ounce of tact or subtlety. In fact it’s so painfully obvious that I started rolling my eyes and began to dread what was ahead. But to my surprise the film steers away from that and instead of shoving its positions in our face it allows them to simmer underneath the surface which definitely better serves the movie.

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The story basically goes like this – in the distant future Earth is an impoverished and overpopulated planet. People struggle against starvation, disease, and a brutish robot police force. But while the poor make up the Earth’s population, the rich upper-class live on a luxurious space station community known as Elysium. This orbital paradise features mansions, lush gardens, and machines able to cure any health problem instantly. But here’s the catch – only the wealthy and powerful are allowed on Elysium and there are strict government and military bodies that enforce that rule. As I said, not an ounce of subtlety.

Enter Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a struggling assembly line worker on Earth who has an accident which exposes him to lethal amounts of radiation. He learns he has only five days to live, but he’s not ready to kick the bucket just yet. He has to get to Elysium for treatment so he makes a deal with an underground smuggler. In exchange for a trip he must steal some important information from a corrupt military contractor. Seeing Max’s failing health, the smuggler has his doctors implant him with a super-strength robotic exoskeleton and cerebral implant to help with the mission. But Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) also wants that information for her own nefarious reasons and she will do anything to get it.

Oddly enough “Elysium” drastically changes course as the film goes along. It moves from an obvious heavy-handed social critique to a fairly conventional sci-fi action flick. It uses several all too familiar approaches and it’s fairly easy to gain a sense of how things are going to end. That said, Blomkamp’s pacing is spot on. He keeps things moving which keeps the audience attached. He also has wonderful visual senses. The movie looks great whether it’s the big sweeping location shots or the intense and sometimes brutal action (and there is quite a bit of it). I loved the contrasting aesthetics between the dirty, rundown vision of Los Angeles (which was actually filmed in the Mexico City area) and the spotless Eden-like Elysium. Blomkamp has an unquestionable knack for visual filmmaking.

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Matt Damon is a solid choice to portray a ‘regular guy’. There’s not a lot of flash or bravado to his performance. He’s not a bold or larger-than-life character. In fact I would call him a very atypical hero and that works well within the story. But then there is Jodie Foster. I have no idea what she’s doing in this movie. Her erratic performance is all over the map and her accent morphs from French to British to something I’ve never heard before. I also thought Sharlto Copley was pretty bad as a ruthless sleeper agent who works for Delacourt. He certainly looks the part but that’s it. I don’t know if it’s his voice or his line delivery but nearly all of his dialogue feels terribly off. But thankfully this is Damon’s movie and he carries most of the load.

There’s no doubt that Neill Blomkamp is a gifted visual storyteller. I loved the overall look of “Elysium” from the futuristic technologies to the locations. I also thought the action scenes popped with intensity and grit. Unfortunately his writing prompts the question mark. Early on he uses a mighty broad brush to paint his social/political landscape and later the movie turns into a fairly conventional action film – two issues that I think keeps “Elysium” from being the really good movie that we get glimpses of. Still it has its moments. and as conventional as it may be, the action and pure visual spectacle keep it from being a total loss.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

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After its release in 1969 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” made a lot of money and garnered a lot of critical praise. It’s been called the ultimate buddy movie and some give it credit for reinventing the Western genre for a new generation. It received a total of seven Academy Award nominations, winning four of the golden statues and it has been lauded by many as a bonafide classic. But over the years there have been a few critics who have looked at the film through a more critical lens. Could it be that “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” hasn’t aged well or are there some legitimate issues that have always been there?

For me “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a terribly uneven film in several ways. It features several great and truly memorable moments but it also has stretches of redundancy which grinds things to a halt. Then there are lines of dialogue that are crisp and snappy but others that are glaringly lame or simply don’t feel like they belong in a western of its time. This movie rides a tonal roller coaster which made it feel a bit scattered and difficult to take seriously.

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Paul Newman was a megastar at the time and he was intended to be the centerpiece playing Butch Cassidy. This annoyed Steve McQueen who was set to play Sundance. After a disagreement over who got top billing, McQueen said adios which opened the door for a young Robert Redford. This turned out to be Redford’s star-making role and his performance was the standout. Newman is obviously a fine actor but surprisingly I didn’t see the usual charisma he brings to a role. Newman certainly has his moments but I feel he could have offered more especially considering the substantial investment in him.

Things certainly start off on a high note. We get a great scene showing Sundance being accused of cheating at a card game (a scene which features Sam Elliot’s big screen debut). There’s also a fun bit where Butch and Sundance return to their gang’s hideout and face a small mutiny (In the movie they were called The Hole in the Wall Gang because Cassidy’s real gang name The Wild Bunch was the title of the Sam Peckinpah film also due out that year). After squelching the uprising, the gang takes to holding up trains. The first robbery goes well but after botching their second attempt in a hysterical sequence, Butch and Sundance find themselves being pursued by an über-posse put together by a wealthy railroad tycoon.

Up to this point everything is popping. The movie sets itself up well and with the exception of the well-known bicycle scene filmed to B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (which I feel is overly long and oddly out of place), it’s impossible not to be taken in by the story. But then the movie hits a wall. We get a long, drawn out series of shots features the pair on the run from the posse of all posses. We see them riding across the Badlands, running up rocky cliffs, and then stopping to see if they have lost their pursuers. With a near mystical-like presence, the posse is always in the distance. We go through this cycle several times before finally moving in a new direction.

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Realizing the severity of their wanted status, Butch and Sundance round-up Etta (played by Katharine Ross), a young lady with an unusual relationship with the boys, and the three head to Bolivia. Once there the story follows almost the same blueprint as the first half – some really funny moments, some memorable scenes, and a dull stretch. And that is what makes “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” such a hard film to score. It has those times where it’s an absolute blast. It has its funny moments and the chemistry between Newman and Redford shines at certain points. Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography is outstanding and it’s hard not to be smitten by the look of the film as a whole.

Unfortunately it’s hard for me to overlook the inconsistencies found in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. There are some obvious missteps which make me question how this film can be considered an all-time classic. But it certainly isn’t a terrible movie and I definitely recommend seeing it. Redford’s star launched from this flick and it still made a significant mark on movie history. It’s just not a movie that will find its way into my pantheon of all-time favorites.

VERDICT – 3 STARS