REVIEW: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver & Mark Bomback (screenplay), Pierre Boulle (novel)
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell

(Spoilers throughout) 

Aside from a prologue where the spread of a humanity-eradicating virus plays out in mock news footage projected on a map of the globe, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins and ends with the same pair of enraged eyes.  Those eyes will be familiar to anyone who saw the spectacular first installment of this rebooted series, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  They are Caesar’s, the ape brought to inquisitive, now-domineering life in yet another astonishing motion capture performance by Andy Serkis.

Part of what made Rise such a thrill was they way it surrounded its outbursts of action-movie violence with an emotionally resonant, elegiac beauty.  CGI apes were utilized not just as disposable bodies for battle scenes, but as characters even more important than the humans.  Images of young Caesar sitting at a piano with an old man with Alzheimer’s, or a horde of freed apes swinging through rustling trees as pedestrians stop on the street to look up are just as memorable as the incredible action set piece on The Golden Gate Bridge.  It was a summer blockbuster that insisted on taking its time, making its big finale (and the shouting of the word “No!”) all the more rousing.

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REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis

Peter Jackson established himself so well with his take on The Lord of the Rings books that he became indistinguishable from them.  After the ill-received mix bag that was 2009’s The Lovely Bones, he has retreated back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s first Middle Earth novel, The Hobbit.  Jackson’s storytelling confidence has returned to him in spades here, though drawing out one book into three separate movies that clock in at close to three hours seems like a money grab, especially after viewing this somewhat bloated first installment.

Much like the last film in Lord of the Rings, this first Hobbit segment, called An Unexpected Journey, doesn’t quite know when to end, so it just keeps going.  It is full of the scenic New Zealand grandeur and sweeping camera motions that made the earlier movies so visually thrilling, but the tone is much more slapstick.  This is because the dwarves, which were largely comic relief in Lord of the Rings, are front and center here, along with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).  Freeman and McKellen are both excellent, but there are few stoic, serious elves or gritty rangers to balance out the obnoxious dwarves.  When contrasted with the brutal fantasy series of HBO’s Game of Thrones, it’s almost child’s play at times.

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Our Favorite Performances of 2011

1. Kirsten DunstMelancholia– In Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic new film, Dunst creates one of cinema’s most fully realized portraits of numbing depression.  In all of her performances, Dunst has shown a skill sometimes greater than the films she is in.  Here, she takes the role of Justine, a woman who self-destructs on her wedding night and takes shelter with her sister as the planet Melancholia goes on a collision course with Earth.  Key Scene: In the deepest part of her depression, Justine even needs help getting down to the dinner table.  Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) made meatloaf, her favorite dish.  When Justine tastes it, her face crumbles, and she says it tastes like ash.  That’s all that will be left of the planet in a couple days, and she can’t wait.

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REVIEW: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (screenplay), Hergé (comic)
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig and Nick Frost

Steven Spielberg is back in rollicking good form after his three-year break following the unfortunate fourth Indiana Jones escapade with the jaw-dropping animated epic The Adventures of Tintin.  It comes as somewhat of a surprise that Spielberg aims a directorial rebound with motion-capture animation, and yet while you look at the gorgeously rendered surfaces and the extraordinarily lifelike human characters, it appears he has achieved his goal.

Like Martin Scorsese did with Hugo, Spielberg utilizes the latest 3D technology to adapt a family-friendly story of a young boy solving mysteries while at the same time paying homage to the art he loves so much.  Tintin is less a tribute to filmmakers past than it is to this directors’ past adventures, though, which is egotistical but nontheless pays off.

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Summer Movie Awards 2011

The Most Ambitious: The Tree of Life The goal of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is no less than to funnel the creation of the universe through a child.  That that child and his family closely resembles the director’s own makes this his most personal film to date as well.  With some of the most stunning cinematography you’ll ever see in a movie, Malick captures something elemental in this movie.  You may not have liked it, but you’ll never forget it.

The Most Laughs: Bridesmaids With one of the best comedic ensembles in recent memory, writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo paired up with director Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow to create this hilarious, raunchy comedy about the bond among women.  Bridesmaids proves that an ensemble of females can spit vomit and shit just as well as men, which is something Hollywood needed to be force-fed.

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REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Written by: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (screenplay), Pierre Boulle (book)
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, and John Lithgow

Rarely does anything even hinting at the label “philosophical” come close to being produced by a Hollywood studio, especially in the summer.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is such a movie, though.  More than half of it is spent meditating on the birth of free will and the nature of violence.

This reboot is actually smart, and it’s propelled by a volcanic lead performance.  I’m not talking about James Franco.  He plays a fairly typical scientist motivated to cure a disease for personal reasons (his dad has Alzheimer’s).  I’m referring to Andy Serkis, who breathes so much life into the role of the ape Caesar that it comes close to touching what he did in the Lord of the Rings films.  He shows the true artistry of motion-capture acting.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens (screenplay), J.R.R Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, and Andy Serkis

An epic by any standard and a finale to this behemoth of an undertaking, LOTR: Return of the King continues the evolution of Peter Jackson’s vision.  Bigger battles, higher stakes, and a conclusion drenched in emotion wrought the team behind this movie 11 Oscars, including Best Picture.   Does this make it the best one of the trilogy?  Not by a long shot.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call Return of the King a disappointment, it is the weakest film of the three.  Though it is still excellent in many ways, most notably the battle sequences, it is held back by Jackson’s refusal to end it.  It essentially has an ending for each Oscar it won, also putting it in contention for the longest denouement in film history.  One of the biggest strengths of the Lord of the Rings movies was Jackson’s willingness to skim it down and make it fit a movie.  The last 45 minutes of this one are almost painful even if it is shorter than in the book.

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