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

Why The Hunger Games are Important

Just try to put out this fire.

Just try to put out this fire.

The young-adult fantasy series translation from page to silver screen movement has become one of the most profitable propositions in pop culture over the past decade.  What started with the kid-friendly Harry Potter (whose films contained an admirable Disney-dark magic to them that began to wear off and bore me by the fourth entry) and crested into communal madness with Stephanie Meyer’s malarial Twilight series has become a go-to cash cow for Hollywood.  When I first heard about The Hunger Games, I thought, “Oh, here we go again.”  But then I read up on what they were about – a kind of Atwood-lite dystopian future, pop-Vonnegut if you will, spiced with The Running Man with a dash of Battle Royale.  Finally, a young adult fantasy series with very little fantasy, a dash of satire, and magic replaced by futurist woe and real violence.  And cast in the lead role was Jennifer Lawrence, the most talented young actress of her generation.  And whaddya know, the first film was typically mega-blockbuster flawed but pretty good.  And it was J-Law as Katniss Everdeen who changed the game.

Boys’ fantasies and hero-worship have been catered to forever.  In this day and age they have Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Ender’s Game, as well as the typical swarm of comic book films and sci-fi flicks featuring superheroes and manly men saving the world and getting the girls.  What have girls and young women had to dream about in similar fashion?  The occasional animated Pixar heroine?  The toxicity of Twilight, which when you strip away the sparkly emo-boyband vampires, teaches teenage girls to stay in abusive relationships?  “Yes, my dear, if you love him hard enough, maybe YOU can change him. You gotta stick by your man no matter how freakish and horrible he is, stick by him even if he kills you.”  Beautiful message, isn’t it?

Well, thank the pop culture gods, because into the modern mythos has stepped Katniss Everdeen.  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

A Review of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

CAPTION:  Cate Blanchett tells Harrison Ford, “YOU MUST RELIVE YOUR CHILDHOOD.”

Where Were the Dinosaurs?, 25 May 2008
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Nineteen years after the alleged Last Crusade, producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg, and over-the-hill star Harrison Ford reunite for a fourth Indiana Jones film with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Only in our overly ironic post-modern world could a film like this exist where Spielberg attempts to recapture those magic movie moments he created back in 1981 with the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was an attempt to re-imagine the classic action-packed serial adventures from the 1930’s and 1940’s. But can those magic moments ever truly be recreated?  Though it stumbles through nostalgia tinted frames, Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull is by no means the disaster that was Lucas’ Star Wars prequels or the mind-numbing exercise that was last year’s Transformers.  Those were four dour commercial films coldly designed to evoke feelings of a lost childhood era that were saved only by amazing visual effects. Surely we hope to say more about this film.

Indy deserves to be cut a certain level of slack. Many of the complaints swirling around this long-awaited flick (i.e. the screwball dialog, the cornball stunts, and the cheesy effects) were present from the very beginning of the franchise. And lest we forget, a large portion of people were initially appalled by the heart-ripping Temple of Doom and mildly disappointed with the creaky Last Crusade.  Even the holy grail that is Raiders of the Lost Ark ended with a lame special effects sequence (and one hell of a face melting). Those who love big set driven stunt action complete with one-liners and death defying tumbles will eat this stuff up just like they did the first three films. My major complaints with this fourth film are the cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, who hyper-lights everything to the point of images being washed out or made smeary, and the lazily lame screenplay from David Koepp, which borrows far too liberally from X-Files era rejected story lines.

The cast is hit or miss with Ford about as effective as you would expect at his age, Cate Blanchett acting the crap out of her villain role (and what great fun she has with that Ukrainian accent), Shia LaBeouf (he’s no River Phoenix) barely tolerable as a motor-head punk kid, and Karen Allen all fun and smiles, most likely from finally securing a big payday after all these years. The update to the 1950’s didn’t quite work for me as no amount of Cold War hullabaloo and Chariots of the Gods style mumbo-jumbo could replace the inherent kick-ass spookiness of Nazis hunting for religious relics. Storywise, Spielberg manages to fit in all of his recurrent child-like obsessions with divorce and aliens, and he playfully recycles his greatest hits not only from the first three films but also from other flicks he’s crafted over the years. When the adventure moved to the Amazon rainforest, I half expected a T-Rex to come traipsing through the jungle for a spell.

The beginning of this installment is a tepid mess, but once Karen Allen shows up about an hour into the film to reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood, the film picks up tremendous steam. For about thirty minutes or so, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a rollicking, old-fashioned white-knuckle adventure complete with car chases through a jungle and along the edges of a cliff, sword fights, waterfall drops, and giant killer ants. The kid in me couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when once character’s face is eaten by the little buggers. It was for these thirty minutes that I completely forgot about Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose scenes replayed in my mind for the remainder of this film’s run-time. Were those magic movie moments recaptured? No, but they were temporarily forgotten and clumsily intertwined with some mildly entertaining new ones. I guess that’s about the best we could’ve hoped for. Just think, this could’ve starred Tom Selleck or been directed by Michael Bay.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0367882/usercomments-815

A Review of Len Wiseman’s “Live Free or Die Hard”

 

Good Old-Fashioned Shattered Glass Action Flick, 6 July 2007
7/10
Author:
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

“Live Free or Die Hard” is quite a refreshing piece of entertainment this summer in the wake of so many effects-driven computer simulated action/fantasy films. With its silly title, smart-alleck lead character (Bruce Willis as Bruce Willis doing John McClane), and loads of old fashioned stunts involving cars, SUV’s, elevator shafts, big rigs, helicopters, fighter jets, and collapsing highway bridges, this flick is a great piece of shattered-glass entertainment–a throwback to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when movies like the original “Die Hard” changed the face of movie action.

There is some frustration to be had when you start to realize how much they toned down to achieve the friendly PG-13 rating. There’s far less profanity flying, and while the body count is astronomically high (the collateral damage in this film in terms of human life and damaged property is tres magnifique), there’s little blood and guts to be found. Still, die hard “Die Hard” action fans should rest assured knowing there will be plenty of funny one-liners, hot chicks (a wonderful Maggie Q as the bad-ass female villain and the scorchingly feisty and cute Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy McClane), super smart bad guys (a very good Timothy Olyphant), and jaw-dropping death-defying stunts.

Director Len Wiseman orchestrates the complicated stunts very well like a masterful puppeteer, which is a shock considering how god-awful his “Underworld” films were. The hand-to-hand human match-ups still bear some of his annoying hallmarks, but he’s learned how to blow things up really well and has learned a thing or two about scope and editing in big action set-pieces. The excellent pacing and preposterousness of the stunts (especially the climax involving the fighter jet and the big rig) certainly put a smile on my face.

There’s a whole lot of computer hacking related mumbo-jumbo involved in the story, and there’s a lot of downtime for male bonding and “explanation” of the finer plot points that slows the film down some but is actually nice to see in a world now ruled by Michael Bay-style non-stop action. Plenty dumb, plenty thrilling, and plenty of fun, “Live Free or Die Hard” is a pleasant surprise considering how unnecessary this sequel seemed from conception.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

http://imdb.com/title/tt0337978/usercomments-284