Monday, July 14, 2014

Moonlight Movie Reviews - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Transformers: Age of Extinction

Treated myself to a sci-fi twofer this weekend. First up...

I'm a little upset about this, but check this out. There is a specific Alamo Drafthouse Theater here in Austin that has Planet of the Apes themed decor. We're talking not only a variety of classic Planet of the Apes movie posters all through the lobby, but an actual replica of the Law Giver statue from the original film that was cast from the original statue. It's pretty fantastic for long-time Apes fans like me. This also happens to be the Drafthouse I visit the most lately (Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline), as it's one of the two closest to my apartment. The other I visit most often is Alamo Drafthouse Village, which is even closer to me, but that's neither here not there (it IS where I saw Transformers 4 though, but we'll get to that in a minute). Anyway, the reason I'm upset is that I found out a week or so ago that the very Planet of the Apes themed Drafthouse I visit so often actually had a special pre-screening of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" recently, and in attendance were the film's director, Matt Reeves, and stars Andy Serkis (Caesar the Ape leader) and Gary Oldman (one of my all-time favorite actors!). They were all there signing autographs and taking pictures and stuff. I am sooo upset that I did not even know this was happening! Maybe this was only for people who received special invitations or something, but, hey, that still doesn't make me feel better! I am very annoyed about this!

Well, setting that aside, I DID go see this brand new Apes film, a sequel to the 2011 reboot "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", at that very same Drafthouse, because it is basically the coolest place ever you could watch one of these films. I mean, take a look at this sampling of the decor...

That statue is huge, and there's a ton more Ape movie posters throughout the place. I saw this one on Friday night, which was opening night if you don't count the late, late showings they do on the Thursday nights beforehand now, and as usual, I settled in with my order of Carnivore pizza and Coke to enjoy the show. Starting with the highlight of any Drafthouse screening, the preshow...



That was just a sampling of the many fun clips we saw before the show.

Now, on to the film. As "Rise" was essentially a reimagining (a very different concept indeed) of the classic film "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" the fourth of the 5 classic Planet of the Apes features of the 60's and 70's,  this year's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is appropriately a reimagining of the 5th film of the original franchise, "Battle for the Planet of the Apes". It's a fascinating reboot of the origin stories centering around Caesar, the first talking Ape who starts the revolution against mankind in both sagas. However, it also begs the question, "Where will the next film take us?" As it suddenly becomes more complicated to use the classic films as source material (though not impossible). But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. All that matters here is Dawn, which you may have heard already is one heck of a fantastic film!

When we last saw Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, he had freed an army of apes from human captivity in the city of San Francisco and led them to live in a forest just outside the city (after quite a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge). Before doing so, he treated them with the same lab grown virus that caused his own leap forward in evolution. This virus, however, proved to be fatal to most human beings, aside from a small percentage that proved to be immune. This vastly reduced the numbers of human beings on the planet and led to a basic collapse of human society.

In "Dawn", we catch up with Caesar and his people living in those same woods they had escaped to. They have built a very primitive village there. The hunt deer, ride around on horseback, and the old orangutan, Maurice, teaches reading and writing and the laws of Ape-kind. The primary law, of course, is, "Ape shall not kill ape." This is, actually, all pretty similar to the classic film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, aside from the separation of the human survivors.

In the ruins of the city, a group of humans still exist, and they aren't doing well. They are desperate for an energy source, and a small band is sent into the woods to get a dam working again to restore power to San Francisco. Things go awry when the human band unwittingly discovers the apes and shoots one.

This starts things off on the wrong foot, of course, but the group's leader is a good soul who returns to the forest later (against Caesar's orders) to start up dialogue with the apes, and especially to beg permission to access the dam and get it working again.

Okay, I'm not going to deny that the story makeup of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" uses a lot of stuff we've seen before. It's very much one of those Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves/Avatar kind of stories where "White Man from Town" comes into the society of a more primitive looking society and shakes things up. Well, heck, it's a thing that happens. We're never going to stop seeing this in movies because it's an actual thing. Anyway, as usual, there are those who want to make a connection between two peoples, and there are those who are afraid and racist or whatever, and they just keep undoing any progress, eventually to the point of war. This film adds another familiar element though. We have another ape remembered from the previous film, Koba, who has a hatred for mankind due to being a lab animal his whole life. He is determined to see humans wiped out, and when he loses all hope that Caesar will lead the apes against the humans, he takes matters into his own hands, even when it comes to turning on his own kind and his own king. Is this stuff familiar? Yes, but it is brilliantly done here. The fact that we've seen these plot elements before does not affect the film at all. It's beautiful and fascinating to watch and the story is engrossing.

My favorite scene, hands down, is one you may remember from the trailers in which Koba is spotted by two armed humans when he has snuck into the city to spy on them. Koba decides to play the stupid, humorous, performing ape role to get their guard down and viciously eliminate them with their own guns. The full version of this scene on the big screen is incredible. What we saw in the trailer was only a taste. 

The CGI in this film is the best I've ever seen. I don't mean all of it. Some apes, to me, still look like they did in the previous film, in that uncanny valley territory. However, some, like Koba especially, are just amazing. No lie, Koba looks and acts 100 percent real!

If there is any weak spot to this film, it is the human characters. Though I enjoyed this film tons more, it seems, than The Cinema Snob did, I do have to agree with his assessment of the human characters in his own site's review. It didn't bother ME as much, I came for the apes, but yes, the human characters were pretty flat. Cinema Snob's complaint though, was more about them being two-dimensional. Yes, they could all easily be labeled as character stereotypes, but I don't have a major issue with that. Frankly, sometimes, people are actually like that, especially when you don't see enough of them. I just felt (and I think Snob mentioned this as well) they were a bit bland, specifically the two good-guy leads, played by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell. They served their purposes, but perhaps not in the most compelling way possible. Luckily, the apes carried this film fine on their own. And, we also had this guy...

Gary Oldman felt a bit underused in this film. But, it's hard to tell if I just feel that way because I love his acting. He was excellent, but his character is back at in town with the other humans, and we only see him now and then. Still, he plays an important role and he also has one of the most emotional scenes in the film. Certainly the best human scene in the film. But, this was still completely the apes' picture.

Human issues aside, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a fantastic flick. It's a dark film and at times very tense, but in the best way. This one could make you cry if you are the type. It's a beautifully made film, from the visuals to the music to the story. Not perfect, but really excellent nonetheless, and definitely among the best films I've seen in a long time, especially in the genre of sci-fi remakes. You will care about these apes, and you will want things to work out between us and them. Perhaps that's why I required less from the human characters as a viewer. We're already on that side, so yeah, as long as we know some of the humans are still good, that's enough for us to hope things work out for them as much as for the apes. I cannot wait to see what the next Apes film has in store for us! And I can't wait to rewatch this one on Blu-ray in the near future. If I could spare the funds, I'd actually catch it again in theaters. I did, however, go out and get a Caesar action figure the very next day. Really hope I can get Maurice and Koba before they're gone!

Okay, now, guys, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this next one. It's already been out for a while, and really, it's a pretty simple film to assess...

Yes, I'm talking about "Transformers - Age of Extinction". I guess that is not a U.S. poster above, because I'm sure it's already on its 3rd or 4th week by now, and today is just the 14th. Anyway, so, I finally made it out to see this one, and, well, let me get this out of the way first. The Michael Bay Transformers movies are popcorn flicks. They are just that and nothing more, aside from nostalgia trips for those of us who grew up with the cartoons and toys. Myself, I grew up with the original show and animated feature, and a few of the toys. Very few, because they were very pricey. Back then, the bigger ones were made out of metal! Man, I need to get some of those again someday. But, my point is, people go to the live-action Transformers movies for the following: Major action and special effects, hot teen girls in short shorts, and giant robots transforming back and forth into vehicles and other stuff, beating each other up and destroying everything in their wake. That's why people go to these movies, and as bad as the last couple were, all these films have delivered in those areas. So, what's the assessment for this 4th installment?

It delivers in all those areas, as expected. In fact, I personally liked it loads better than the last two. Maybe even better than the first, but probably not, since origin stories always have a lot more style and charm, and just plain better writing. I'll have to pop that one into the player sometime soon and remind myself though. 

Oh, hang on, here is a quick look at some of the fun stuff Alamo showed before the film began...


Notice the Dinobots in that last shot...

Now, the thing about this fourth Transformers movie that is worth noting, is that it lacks a lot of the annoying stuff of the previous films. Or, I should say, there's less of it. Now, I'm not coming down on Shia LaBeouf. I actually think the guy is a great actor. I never understood all the hate for him (before he flipped out). I thought he did fine in Indiana Jones 4, but then I actually liked that movie a lot and think everyone was butt-hurt just because of the aliens (which I thought were handled fine, and I'm one of the biggest Indy fans ever, so...). His character in Transformers though, had worn out his welcome by the third one. Giving the character a new girlfriend didn't help either. I'm not huge on Megan Fox, but they made such a big deal out of that romance that they should have changed the human characters all together rather than break them up. Thankfully, we get a whole new group of humans in Transformers 4, even if I could have done without the douchebag boyfriend character.

Basically, Trannies 4 (that's what I'm dubbing it for short,... or maybe not) picks up a while after the last one, when people are sick of the Transformers destroying their cities, and Optimus Prime is sick of being unappreciated. We basically are breaking up with him. But, there's this company that is creating new Transformers from the bodies of deceased ones, and they are on a mission to collect all the Transformers they can find, by any means necessary, to continue their work. They are working with a government agency out to destroy all alien robots that is in turn working with a Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown. There's some stuff about creators and a seed that turns huge areas of the Earth into transformium metal, oh, and there's Galvatron, who is basically the recreated Megatron. Like the other Transformers movies, there's a lot going on, including a human family: Inventor father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and Tessa's boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor). They get caught up in everything due to helping Optimus Prime at the beginning of the film.

None of that really matters though. This is what matters...

That's right, Dinobots!!!

Unfortunately, though they're as cool as anticipated, they are not around for long. They are only tamed and enlisted by Optimus Prime in the final battle, which takes place in China. Which is nice, because, you know,... Chinese girls.

Yeah, Dinobots are awesome, Wahlberg is in his element in action films (more than LaBeouf), and Peltz, who looks much better and more convincing as a short-shorts wearing Texas teen than the annoyingly troubled character she played on Bates Motel, is the easiest-on-the-eyes Michael Bay Transformers girl I've seen yet. I mean, I'm not a huge Peltz fan, but I dug her here. Oh, and Dr. Frasier Crane is a villain in this movie too! Kelsey Grammer is always good! 

Don't get me wrong, this movie has a lot of crap in it. There are moments of bad dialogue and hammy romance scenes, douchebaggery galore, characters that are supposed to be intimidating or funny not fully pulling it off for me, and all kinds of stuff like that. It's a true Michael Bay "Transformers" film. But, I think it's got more win than fail, unlike the last two, and it's worth checking out if you're just watching for the robot fights, girls in short shorts, and loads of action and adrenaline in general. Not a masterpiece, but good fun. Could have used more time with the dinobots though. Still, they did make the finale great, so perhaps saving them for the end was the right idea.  Man, I wanna get a high-end Dinobot figure for my Caesar to ride on now. That would blow my mind!

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