Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

These damn apes outsmarted me again!  When Rise of the Planet of the Apes burst onto the scene three summers ago, I had grave misgivings. The concept was always inherently silly, and it was hard to imagine any kind of re-imagining of the cult/camp classics from the 1960′s and 1970′s making any kind of sense.  But, lo and behold, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a finely crafted piece of entertainment with amazing effects, an emotionally involving story, a stupendous lead performance from Andy Serkis as super ape Caesar, and confident direction from maestro Rupert Wyatt.  When the film’s surprise success guaranteed sequels, I was crushed to learn Wyatt would not be returning in the director’s chair.  In whose hands could a sequel make any kind of sense?  This thing would be a debacle or at the very least have a bad case of sequel-itis, right?

Well, here I am, dear readers, admitting I was wrong…again.  Apparently Matt Reeves (who for far too long, lived under the thumb of the overrated Hollywood demigod J.J. Abrams) can direct the heck out of an Apes flick.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes capitalizes with expert precision on the goodwill from the first film, once again putting Serkis as Caesar and the other apes front and center, ups the emotional ante, ups the action, and mines the very best elements from uber-popular TV shows to be massively appealing to a broad audience without ever seeming to kowtow to the masses.

Ten years following the events of the first film, the human race has been nearly wiped out by the simian flu, and Caesar and pals have set up a peaceful little society in the redwood forests outside of San Francisco.  But behold, there are some humans still struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic community downtown, and they come up into Caesar’s territory to get a dam running again that will bring power back to the city.  The film opens from the apes’ point of view, and for nearly twenty minutes they are the only characters on-screen.  It’s a big gamble to start the film this way, but the amazing effects make the apes seem more human and relatable than ever, with Serkis and Toby Kebbell as Koba giving Oscar-worthy performances.  The humans contain a sympathetic makeshift family (made up of Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Reeves’ very own Felicity alum and muse Keri Russell) and a questionable leader played by Gary Oldman.  Quickly we learn the apes, like the humans, are divided into two factions: those hoping for peaceful coexistence, and those who are far too trigger-happy and untrustworthy. Continue reading

Bootlegging, Brothers and Chastain in Lawless

The ubiquitous Tom Hardy teams up with the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain for Lawless.

In Prohibition Era Virginia, in those verdant smoky hills of Franklin County, the bootlegging Bondurant Brothers are the kings of a moonshine ring operating peacefully with the local law enforcement and treated as legends by the townsfolk.  Oldest brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is known for his stoic invincibility (he survived WWI and Spanish influenza), middle brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is a barely functioning drunk who wields quick fists of justice, and youngest sibling Jack (Shia LaBeouf) has been living in their shadows as the kid brother too afraid to take a stand or shoot a gun.  When a big-time gangster from Chicago named Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) comes down into the area for business, Jack is in awe and sees it as an opportunity to recast himself as a savvy hot-shot.  But with Banner’s big business comes a new ruthless big city lawman, Special Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) looking to break-up the Bondurants and their cohorts through any means necessary.

Lawless director John Hillcoat is no stranger to this brand of lawlessness.  His blisteringly violent and philosophical Aussie Western The Proposition was one of my favorite films of 2006.  He then went on to paint a lawless post-apocalyptic vision in his dour adaptation of the dour novel, The Road.  As with The Proposition, Hillcoat re-teams with screenwriter and musician Nick Cave, who adapted the story from Matt Bondurant’s own family history, The Wettest County in the World, while working again on the score with Warren Ellis.  Continue reading

Orphans, Terrorism and Dickensian Economics in The Dark Knight Rises

Orphans of the world – Rise up!

They’re all orphans. We’re all orphans. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is the orphan of murdered parents. So is the child of R’as Al Ghul. Idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) – yup, his parents are dead too. Even Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been orphaned in a way by his family who moved to the safety of another city.  In the later half of the film, Gotham – itself a character in Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy – whose bridges have been destroyed and tunnels blocked, becomes orphaned by the rest of the nation.  Then, of course, there is Gotham’s downtrodden citizenry, orphaned by the elite.  And what, pray tell, do these orphans do?  They get angry.  They rise up.

It’s fitting to have this Dickensian theme of orphans running through Nolan’s tale, as he closes out the film with a quote from Dickens’ classic opus on the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities.  But unlike Dickens, Nolan lives in a world of Al Qaeda, and it’s terrorism and fear that act as the impetus to revolution in Gotham.

Eight years following the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is hobbled, disheartened and reclusive in his opulent manor.  The streets of Gotham are clean thanks to Commissioner Gordon and the Dent Act (itself a piece of corrupt subterfuge) but there’s an economic crisis brewing.  A cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, who brings a welcome slinky theatricality to her pivotal role) absconds with Bruce’s mother’s pearls.  But he’s got even more lady problems with Miranda Tate (Nolan muse Marion Cotillard) who looks to take a controlling interest in the crumbling Wayne Enterprises.  Meanwhile, a master terrorist named Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy) orchestrates a daring mid-flight kidnapping of a nuclear physicist.  These events set the wheels in motion, and from there it’s full tilt towards an explosive climax where all parties mentioned play an integral part that isn’t always made clear until that key turn of the screw. Continue reading

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Is this the conference room at the heart of British Intelligence or a middle rung in Dante's hell?

During the height of the Cold War, a botched extraction in Budapest forces the head of British Intelligence (John Hurt as Code Name: Control) to resign, and “The Circus” goes through a house cleaning.  Not content with a forced retirement, veteran spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in a devilishly subtle performance) becomes determined to weed out the alleged mole at the top of The Circus.  It slowly becomes clear that Smiley is involved in a master chess game against a Soviet counterpart named Karla (who remains mysteriously just off-screen) – a man he failed to turn years earlier and who knows Smiley’s one weakness.  The biggest mystery isn’t the identity of the mole but which of these master craftsmen in the world of espionage is going to pull a check mate on the other.

Ah, John le Carre - no one does wearisome white-knuckle ennui quite like the anti-Ian Fleming and successor of Graham Greene in the foggy world of thinking men’s spy novels.  Think of this new film adaptation of his 1970′s classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (representing the code names given to those under watch) as The Usual Suspects for senior citizens.  Continue reading

A Review of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”

Terror in the Knight, 22 July 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Director Christopher Nolan has tapped into a cultural zeitgeist with his soaring Dark Knight.  No other director has shown so much ambition while working within the context of such an iconic name brand belonging to popular culture. By building upon the excellent framework he set with Batman Begins and adding in the chaos of the Joker (Heath Ledger, legendary) and the tragedy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, admirable), Nolan, like Hitchcock before him, utilizes a B-level genre flick to tap into our shared cultural fears. Along with his co-writer brother, Jonathan Nolan, the director crafts a tightly wound tapestry that explores our archetypal fears of losing our identity and becoming that which we hate, while tuning into post 9/11 fears of terrorism, cowboy diplomacy, wire-tapping, and vigilante justice run amok.

The cast assembled falls right into place with Nolan’s epic and relentlessly dark vision of our current superhero mythology. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are again perfect in their supporting roles of wisdom and gadget providers, while Gary Oldman receives a surprising amount of screen time and delivers a sterling Oscar-worthy performance as the tormented Commissioner James Gordon. Replacing the dreadful Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is spry and feisty as assistant DA Rachel Dawes, but still seems out of place in her role. Bale is again brooding and effective as Bruce Wayne, though he gets overshadowed by the sly trickster that is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger is everything he’s been hyped up to be. He’s scary good and his insanely nuanced and subversively humorous performance haunts the film while his character terrorizes Gotham with a feverish intensity that is divinely married to Nolan’s amped up tempo of thrills.

The opening moments of the film fall victim to the typical trappings of a sequel as it tries to reintroduce us to the cast regulars while setting the stage for new conflicts. However, once the Joker starts playing his games, Nolan ratchets up the tension to a nightmarish effect that will leave your pulse pounding for two hours. With each terrorist act of the Joker and ensuing catastrophe, Nolan ups the ante, resulting in a film that is enormously entertaining while also making the obvious bloated runtime seem oppressive and nerve-wracking…almost as if the film is a terrorist attack against the audience…

…and maybe that’s the point. With the opening camera swoop between skyscrapers zeroing in on a single window taken straight from Hitchcock’s opening shot from Psycho, Nolan tells the audience what they are in store for. Two more images, along with Ledger’s ghastly scarred and make-up covered visage, seep into the viewer’s subconscious. The first is after a building is exploded we see an image of firefighters spraying water over the scalding steel left behind that is eerily reminiscent of scenes from Ground Zero. The second is after a hospital is demolished, an image of the building’s carcass on the television seems taken straight from the Oklahoma City Bombing. As we watch the harrowing Joker-less climax involving Batman, Dent, and Gordon, and knowing in the back of our minds what became of Ledger in real life, we realize that terrorism can not only come from without, but from within. Sometimes we are our own worst victims.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/usercomments-1186

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Check out my review of the original Batman Begins:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/usercomments-501