Thursday, July 17, 2014

Summer Movie Diary: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2D)

Date: July 12, 2014
Time: 4:15 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick, Gray, Penelope
Food:  Red & Blue Icee, Nestle Bunch-a-Crunch
Runtime: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Matt Reeves

Quick Impressions:
This has been a crazy week for us.  My father’s in the hospital awaiting a liver transplant and has been at the brink of death several times since last Thursday, and my husband just had his wisdom teeth extracted Tuesday (highly necessary since he had both an infection and an exposed nerve).  That’s not all that’s been going on, but that’s enough, don’t you think?

Anyway, in the midst of all these stressful happenings, we took a break to spend the afternoon with my stepson since he’s about to go on several trips and we won’t see him for a few weeks.  So while my dad was in ICU hovering between life and death, my husband, stepson, daughter, and I were watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Of course, a major theme in this movie is the tormented relationship between a dying father and his emotional son.  That seems right.  I remember how touching, how moving, I found the scenes between Caesar and John Lithgow’s character in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Several times while watching that film, I thought of my daughter’s long stint in the NICU, and my terror that I would lose her, and then when I brought her home, my terror that somebody would decide I wasn’t a good enough mother, and then someone would take her from me.

These new Planet of the Apes films seem uncannily adept at stoking my primal terrors.

Though I personally preferred Rise of the Planet of the Apes (because I particularly connected with Lithgow’s character, I found the story more compelling, and I liked the supporting cast a bit better), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is great for what it is, a tense, action-packed, thoughtful examination of how and why conflicts start.

The Good:
I finished reading War and Peace this week, finally (I’ll bet Tolstoy wrote it faster!), and I can highly recommend watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when you’re already thinking about stuff like the nature of conflict, how wars start, who makes them happen.

For a PG-13 summer action movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly thoughtful.  In this way, it lives up to the legacy of both its emotionally resonant predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the 1968 original film (which, despite an equal parts riveting and mockable central performance by Charlton Heston is still a very thoughtful, well written work of science fiction with a genuinely powerful twist ending).

For an action movie aimed at a broad audience, this movie is surprisingly character driven.  In fact, the plot is incredibly simple (maybe a bit too simple for my tastes).  The movie’s main concern is the slow, steadily building conflict between (and among) the apes and the humans. 

In terms of plot, the basic scenario is simple.  This ragtag band of humans wants to access a generator on ape land to see if they can get it running and restore power to San Francisco.  The apes are suspicious.  The humans are also suspicious.  One guy is given a limited amount of time to negotiate with the apes and get the generator running before the rest of the humans decide to make war on the apes.

This situation ought to be straightforward, but of course it is hopelessly complicated by prejudices, fears, insecurities, worries, and power struggles on both sides.  In this way, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes closely examines the situation under which wars start, power struggles begin, and fledgling societies develop.  This tension is what keeps the story moving forward.

It’s actually very well done.  You feel like you’re watching a movie about the history of Rome or something—only with apes.  By the way, the CGI is absolutely fantastic (in terms of ape rendering at any rate). 

Last time in Rise, the best performance in the film (the one that made the whole thing work) was Andy Serkis’s brilliant motion capture turn as Caesar.  This time, the simian characters get even more focus and prominence.  Serkis is still fantastic as Caesar, but equally compelling are his ape co-stars, particularly Nick Thurston as Blue Eyes (aptly named), Karin Konoval as Maurice (who was practically my favorite character in the movie), and Toby Kebbell as Koba. 

I found all the apes extremely compelling and sympathetic (even the violent or misguided ones with which I did not agree). Koba, for example, can be a huge jerk who makes some questionable decisions, but he seems so much like a victim of PTSD that it’s hard not to feel some compassion for him.  Plus his fears (though paranoid and taken to the extreme) are not completely unfounded.  I found his demonstration of what humans had done to him extremely powerful.  Even though he does some awful things, I was way more invested in him than in any of the human characters. 

Best Scene:
I love the moment when the neon 76 light at the gas station flashes on and the whole convenience store comes to life.  A highly surreal quality makes this scene so compelling.  The lights are on, the music is playing, and the hum of the world we know would seem so familiar under other circumstances.  But since we’ve spent most of the movie in overgrown wilderness with the apes, signs of our normal, everyday reality now seem so strange and foreign.  Watching the apes ride on horseback through the newly illuminated ruins of the gas station sent a thrill through me.  The visual incongruity is so powerful, and this scene also marks a turning point in the narrative.  Events have reached a crisis.  The humans have accomplished their stated goal.  The power is on.  If everything else were okay (as it ought to be), the story would end here.  But the story does not end here.

Best Action Sequence:
Two great moments stand out.  One is definitely Ash’s last stand.  The other is the moment when Caesar makes a final assessment of Koba. 

Best Scene Visually:
I almost laughed watching the scene of Koba galloping in on horseback firing his machine gun nonstop and making his terrifying war-face as explosions blasted out dramatically all around him.  Somehow I couldn’t fight down the thought that this is no doubt the way some citizens of other countries around the globe imagine the United States.  We see ourselves as a hero riding in on horseback to save the day.  Everyone else sees us as some kind of crazy power-drunk ape charging in recklessly in a blaze of delusional, pyrotechnic glory, shooting first (and broadly) and asking questions later (or never).

I’m not sure if this is what the audience is supposed to take from the scene, but considering how much time and energy Koba expends searching for weapons of mass destruction, I find it hard to believe that I’m reaching too much.

The Negatives:
The humans are pretty thinly drawn in this story.  I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing, but I think I preferred Rise of the Planet of the Apes largely because the humans were more compelling.  (And I say that as someone who doesn’t particularly like James Franco and thought Freida Pinto’s part could have been a bit more substantial.)  These humans all seem so expendable, disposable, even interchangeable.  That does make sense because this film is documenting the transition between a human-centric civilization and an ape-centric civilization. 

Keri Russel’s Ellie is a character whose backstory is far more interesting than anything she says or does in this film.  Basically in the past she lost her daughter (and presumably the rest of the family) to the Simian flu.  She worked for the CDC, and she endured violent uprisings and an unstable life of privation and tumult.  In the present, she has access to antibiotics.  So before appearing in this movie, Ellie underwent suffering and conflict and lost all the people she loved the most.  Now she has antibiotics.

Kodi Smit-McPhee definitely does what he can to make Alexander sympathetic and interesting, but he’s never given anything very significant to do.  It’s almost like he’s there just for the parallel.  The main sympathetic ape has a son, so the main sympathetic human needs a son, too.

Honestly, watching this, you get the idea that humanity has already lost its chance, and these pitiable stragglers just haven’t gotten the memo yet. 

Gary Oldman’s character is the worst (in terms of development).  From the previews, I assumed that Dreyfus would be a really sinister, villainous threat, but actually he’s just a normal, well-meaning guy doing his best to give the languishing human remnant some hope and to protect them from total annihilation.  The character is criminally underwritten, underdeveloped, and far too seldom seen on screen (especially considering that he’s played by Gary Oldman).  The recent brouhaha over Oldman’s comments in Playboy is far more interesting than anything he does in this movie.

The only two humans who get decent treatment are Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, and Kirk Acevedo’s Carver.  (Maybe I’m biased because I really like both of those actors, but I doubt that’s it because I like all of these actors.) 

Carver is transparent and one-note, but he’s useful for generating discussion.  His whole, “I just fired my gun by accident in the heat of the moment…although I hate his kind so much that just the sight of them makes me want to puke my guts up,” attitude makes his character worthwhile.  It’s a shame that there’s not more complexity there.  Carver is like a human parallel to Koba, except we’re never given any particular opportunity to sympathize with him at all.

Jason Clarke is a very talented actor, and I’m glad to see him playing the leading human in a solid summer release.  (I wonder if his fantastic scenes with those monkeys in Zero Dark Thirty had anything to do with him getting cast in this movie.)  Malcolm is a decent, fair-minded, and courageous man, but even he is most interesting because his name is Malcolm, so you figure if the human race is going to have a hope left, it’s probably him.  I mean, if Caesar dies, everybody’s hopes have to rest on somebody who seems promising.  They should have given all the characters Shakespearean names.  That would have been fun. 

I think, honestly, that part of the problem with the movie is that the humans already seem like a lost cause.  I mean, I’m a human, and I found all of the Simians more sympathetic and more interesting than the people.  Even Koba (who has his faults, to put it mildly), seemed more worthwhile to me than any of the human characters in this story.  It’s like the story is already entirely about the apes and the humans are only incidental.  We no longer care enough to feel invested in them.  They’re not very remarkable in themselves.  They’re only there because of how they assist and (more importantly) shape Caesar and Blue Eyes.

Maybe I’m just an unfeeling jerk, though.  Who can say for sure?  The movie is quite well done, but I think it could have been better if it made the human characters at least as interesting as the apes. 

And why were they stockpiling all those weapons by the way?  I think while my daughter was squirming around and complaining (because this movie was really not “her kind of thing” and she found it very stressful), I missed some of the dialogue explaining those weapons.  My husband says that they’d discovered a cache of weapons left behind by others, and now they were testing them to make sure they still worked.  Frankly I would not blame any ape for being suspicious about this.  One implication is, should it matter if someone secretly has some really deadly weapons?  Is merely the act of possessing weapons tantamount to a confession that one plans to use them for evil?  But you know, I find it hard to blame Koba for being suspicious.  Human beings have a really long history of using their weapons to kill everyone else indiscriminately.  I would be suspicious, too.  (In fact, I was suspicious, mainly because Gary Oldman’s character was so vague and vacant.  Isn’t this a movie?  Shouldn’t he have been up to something?)  What’s worse is that these particular people are Americans, and we are as a society rather notorious for never keeping our peace treaties.

I was also underwhelmed by the explosive finale.  I like what’s said about Koba (because this kind of qualification seems inevitable as a fledgling society emerges).  But what I didn’t understand was why Koba so quickly goes completely mad with power.  What doesn’t make sense about this is that they tell us pointedly at the beginning that ten winters have passed since the events in the last film.  Has Koba just been biding his time because he enjoys unexpected dramatic flourishes?  (Did he somehow have access to a DVD player during those ten winters, and has he been secretly watching The Lion King the entire time and planning his strategy, or what?)  I guess his behavior isn’t unrealistic since wars have to start somehow, but that he totally loses control so quickly seems really…odd.  Maybe he’s just too damaged to wield power effectively.  Who knows.

Overall:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a worthy successor to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  (My stepson and I don’t see how it makes sense for Dawn to come after Rise, but my husband assures us that it does make sense when you think about it in the right way.)  It’s one of the better films I’ve seen so far this summer, somewhat sophisticated in its exploration of how conflicts develop and what motivates people to take certain actions without skimping on the action and excitement.  I think the movie could be better if the human characters were even 1/3 as well-developed as their Simian counterparts, but it’s a pretty good movie as is, certainly worth the price of admission.  (Also there’s a very cute baby ape involved, the only reason my five-year-old daughter did not completely hate the movie.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Summer Movie Diary: Earth to Echo

Date: July 6, 2014
Time: 4:40 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Gray, Penelope
Food:  Red Icee (no more blue?  No more Whoppers?)
Runtime:  1 hour, 29 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: Dave Green

Quick Impressions:
Originally, we’d planned to skip Earth to Echo because we were supposed to be driving to California this weekend.  My husband and I celebrate our seventh anniversary Monday, the day we were supposed to arrive in Disneyland.  But then his wisdom teeth got painfully infected, so we decided to postpone the vacation until after he’s had them out.

So we were able to see Earth to Echo, after all.  Secretly I was pleased since it looked like something my daughter would definitely enjoy.  (She wasn’t crazy about Transformers.  In fact, I’m expecting my husband to enjoy his dental extraction more.)

Ordinarily both my husband and I enjoy kids’ adventure movies (stuff like GooniesE.T., even Super 8).  And my stepson is about to start middle school, so he’s the perfect age to relate to the protagonists in Earth to Echo.

As it turns out, all four of us liked the movie.  I know found-footage-style presentation is wildly divisive, but in this case, I think it serves the story well by giving kids a sense of immediacy, like they’re along on the adventure themselves.

Does this look like something kids made themselves with a camcorder?  No.  Does it look like something kids imagine they could make themselves with a camcorder?  Yes.

Basically Earth to Echo is a movie in the spirit of 80s classics (of my own childhood) like E.T. and The Goonies, sort of like Super 8 was a couple of years ago.  The big difference is, Earth to Echo is actually for children, unlike Super 8 which was clearly aimed at adults nostalgic about the children’s adventure movies of their childhood.

Adults without children might be intellectually bored or underwhelmed, but children of all ages should like this movie. Our eleven-year-old could definitely relate to the humor, and our five-year-old was engaged (on the edge of her seat, in fact) for its entire runtime. 

The Good:
The cinematography in Earth to Echo is actually quite inventive.  Unlike a lot of (very vocal) people, I usually enjoy found-footage movies, but I think this film uses that visual style better than most.  We constantly get novel camera angles, and even though we’re given the idea that the footage being recorded is haphazard (because the viewing angle is askew) actually we get a really good, clear look at everything important on the screen.  In real life, kids making a video would not do such a phenomenal job of keeping all relevant elements in the frame.  So we get the illusion that everything’s happening so fast to real kids and we’re right in the moment with them, but then we also get camera work that is deceptively controlled and meticulous—the best of both worlds!  The shaky cam becomes a storytelling device (something that seems to increase the immediacy and enhance the realism), but at the same time, no actual visuals are sacrificed.  We may be looking at important stuff diagonally from below, but we’re still seeing it (and more often than not, our eye is actually directed toward it because of the way the shot is set).

Most kids today are incredibly comfortable with technology.  Even if they don’t use it expertly, they think they do because they’re comfortable with it.  So from a narrative point of view, it’s just logical to feature kids using smart phones and camcorders and other high-tech toys.  Without the presence of such gadgets, the movie wouldn’t be realistic.  Kids have access to this stuff.  And any kid with access to such technology would definitely use it on such an adventure.  So if they’re going to be recording everything they do, we might as well be watching the footage.

In fact the premise of this movie is so tantalizing to children because it gives them stuff they’re familiar with and makes it ten thousand times more exciting.  A lot of kids probably watch and think, I have a phone with a camera.  I could use it to record my own adventures.  And I just know something awesome will happen to me just like this.

Even Echo himself seems custom fitted to this generation of children.  He’s broken, but he knows how to fix himself and has the power to do so.  All they have to do is follow his instructions carefully and follow him around having adventures.  It’s like the video games kids play now.  They’re all very directed and bossy, micromanaging every step of game-play by giving you a new goal every ten seconds and showing you which buttons to press on the controller as you play.

So I have to think this movie will really resonate with children.  It may actually be the only movie I’ve seen this summer which is directed entirely at a young audience.  (Even animated stuff like How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a lot of adult fans and a number of sophisticated plot elements.)  But this really is a sweet little movie for children.  Now thematically it borrows heavily from every other kids-on-a-quest movie ever made.  In fact, the token female adventurer is so similar to the girl played by Elle Fanning in Super 8 that my stepson insisted it was the same person.  (I don’t think it’s that Elle Fanning and Ella Wahlestedt are so similar.  I think it’s actually their characters who are in some ways indistinguishable, particularly when it comes to interaction style.)

But although the movie doesn’t deliver anything earth-shakingly new, it does dip into themes that will seem profound to the kids watching.  Originality is not its strong point, but it excels in execution.  It’s particularly engaging because the found-footage style gives the action a sense of pressing (and inclusive) immediacy.  Why the kids are doing any of this stuff hardly matters because we feel like we’re doing it along with them.  The best childhood adventures are a bit confusing and ill-conceived while they’re happening.  The nostalgic philosophizing about “that magical summer” or whatever always comes later.  Earth to Echo throws us right into the thick of things and makes us perfectly happy to be there.

Best Scene:
My husband and my daughter say that they loved the part “when the kids first ride away on their bikes.”  And my stepson just told me that he loved “the part with the bomb,” my favorite moment as well.

Really both of these moments belong to the same sequence, the time when the boys put their plan into action, ride away from home, and first discover their mysterious new “treasure” in the desert.

The young actors are all talented and charismatic, and their interactions feel very real (and often endearing).  Astro (who must be more famous than I know with a name like Astro) does a great job providing authentic narration.  Because he’s the narrator, his reactions and emotions are more immediately accessible to us, and we empathize with him pretty easily.  The conspicuously handsome Alex (Teo Halm) gradually takes over the role of protagonist as the story goes on, but in this early sequence, Astro, Halm, and Reese Hartwig as Munch all get an equal share of the spotlight.

Their banter and arguments as they inexpertly begin their quest, and then their hilarious reactions to “the bomb” are probably the best part of the whole movie.

Best Action Sequence:
Maybe it’s just because I’m a girl, but I think the movie gets more exciting when the girl shows up.  The bit in the bar and the close-call in the arcade are both very exciting, largely because she’s there.

Probably the best action sequence comes when Alex and Tuck fight about Tuck’s “betrayal,” though, because that’s action that the kids do control.  The conflict arises because of their actions and reactions and issues, and they have total agency in this scenario.  I also like Munch’s spectacular and surprising burst of ill-advised bravery.  (The bit with the truck.)

Best Scene Visually:
The final scene featuring the culmination of Echo’s efforts is spectacularly well done.  It made me think immediately of the ending of Super 8 when something similar happens.  But that ending felt tacked on and schmaltzy, whereas this one made sense and looked really cool. 

We’re given a pretty effective visual metaphor, too.  Sometimes things seem impossible, but with a little faith (or trust, if you prefer) everything can come together in a way we never expected to create a better result than we (with our limited vision) could foresee.

The Negatives:
There’s something a little bit paint-by-numbers about this movie.  There’s the cool, misunderstood, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, unwittingly handsome Alex, and his friends the wise narrator and the dorky, weird kid.  Then the girl shows up.  She’s mysterious, and everything she does is whimsical and crafty because deceit is effortless for her (as it is for all females), and she’s also much better at communicating with everyone.

That kind of formula may annoy you, but if it does, you’re probably not a kid, and children are definitely this movie’s target audience.  My husband and I enjoyed it.  We even found parts of it extremely emotionally resonant.  As a kid who moved basically every year whether I liked it or not, I can definitely relate to the frustration and sense of powerlessness the kids feel when they contemplate being forced to move.  And though not everybody can identify with being a foster kid, surely Alex is not the only one out there with a fear of being rejected, abandoned, or outgrown .

What bothered my daughter about the movie was the protagonists’ failure to take along snacks, “at least one toy,” and an air mattress on such a long journey.  She was particularly hung up on the omission of the air mattress.  She chattered about it on-and-off during the entire film. 

“Look how tired they are!  If only they had listened to me and brought along that air mattress!  They could be resting right now!” 

She loved the movie, though.  Near the end, she said to me, “Mom, can I do this when I’m bigger?  Maybe when I’m eight, I could go just with my friends and have a nice investigate.  Of course, when I’m in charge of planning it, I’m going to take an air mattress.”  No kidding?

Overall:

Earth to Echo is definitely a movie for children.  The plot is very simple.  The action is easy to follow.  The characters do have complexity, but the narrator is still young at the end of the story, so we don’t get any adult reflection on the meaning of the events.  This is a movie about kids, and kids are the ones who will enjoy it most.  Unlike a lot of movies aimed specifically at children, however, Earth to Echo is well made and enjoyable.  It’s maybe not the most original movie out there, but it’s a reasonably well made, well-acted, high quality film that your children will enjoy.  There are definitely worse choices out there right now for families.