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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ••••

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_ApesStarring:  Gary OldmanKeri RussellAndy Serkis
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Action/Drama/Science-Fiction, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: July 11, 2014

Caesar & Malcolm: Duo, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Divergent Heroes)

Koba, Dreyfus: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villains)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Well Scott, here comes another performance capture movie starring Andy Serkis. It truly looks like he’s playing another Sirkis animal!


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Sirkis is chimply marvelous in this role. Let’s recap.


It’s been ten years since Caesar (Andy Serkis), the genetically modified chimp from Rise of the Planet of the Apes escaped into the forests of San Francisco. A lot has happened. There was an outbreak of simian flu that decimated humanity leaving only a handful of humans who were genetically immune to the disease. Meanwhile, Caesar has freed hundreds of apes from human captivity and taught them to communicate by sign language. They’ve created an entire culture separate from the humans. Then, one day, a human named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) in search of a hydroelectric dam happens upon a couple of apes and he shoots one of them.


Caesar warns the humans never to venture into ape territory again. But the humans need to get the dam operational to regain electrical power. They send Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and a few others, including Carver, to negotiate access to the dam. Caesar agrees, but only if the group gives up their guns. Carver hides a gun and threatens Caesar’s infant son with it, causing an uproar that is only quelled by Ellie’s willingness to provide medical treatment to Caesar’s wife. Meanwhile, an ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell), who will not accept any peace with the humans, sabotages relations between the two groups by secretly setting fire to the ape settlement and attempting to assassinate Caesar.


Scott, this was a much better film than 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There were some real personalities here and some real conflict. We see two sets of characters at play – the humans and the apes. On the side of the humans we have Malcolm who wants peace with the apes. On the other side is Caesar who looks at the dam agreement as their one chance for peace with the humans.

But both sides have their hawks as well. The humans have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who is so mistrustful of the apes that he starts hoarding weapons. This, of course, inflames the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) who has reason to distrust humans as he was the victim of experiments at the hands of human scientists. This creates a great conflict both between human and ape as well as between hawks and doves.

Sadly, Keri Russell isn’t given much to do here except “stand by her man.” And the female chimp (Caesar’s wife) does little more than give birth and get sick. Apparently, the future is still male-dominated.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a complex film. Admittedly, it does have some of the telltale signs of a summer blockbuster – flying bullets, daredevil stunts, and plenty of explosions. But these superficial trappings of summer popcorn bely the true meaty core of this very measured and thoughtful movie. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes made me think, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had to really turn my brain on at the movies.

First and foremost, this is a movie about the very real and very demanding challenges of resolving intergroup conflict. We learn that sometimes good leadership isn’t enough. There must also be good followership in that a critical mass of people being led need to be on board with the vision of an effective leader. As you point out, Greg, we have peace-loving leadership on both sides but only a few bad apples can undermine all the good intentions.

 


The hero structure looks like (what we describe in our book Reel Heroes: Volume 1) a divergent duo. They start out as separate characters, opposed to working together. But with time, they form a bond. They work together toward a common goal. During this period they are buddy heroes. But in the end, they go their separate ways. Destiny has played its hand and humans and apes cannot be friends – war is their ultimate demise.


Good call on the heroes in this movie being divergent heroes, Greg. I’m beginning to believe that divergent hero stories are my favorite kind of stories because they provide two separate hero tales for the price of one. Often, the two separate hero journeys become intertwined in surprising ways. Last year’s Philomena comes to mind, for example. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and Malcolm are wise and well-intentioned, yet they are brought down by forces beyond their control that rage all around them. The joy of the movie is watching how our two heroes act on their virtuous characteristics, and how they respond to the treachery of their sidekicks.

One of my beefs with this movie centers on the character of Carver. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with Carver needlessly shooting one of the apes. He’s a racist hothead who should never have been chosen to go on the expedition in the first place, and yet, inexplicably, he’s chosen again to accompany Malcolm on the trip to repair the dam. Surely there are more even-keeled and reasonable alternatives to Carver. Yes, we need Carver’s misbehavior to help add dramatic tension, but it stretched the bounds of believability for me.

 


I have to agree with you on that. I was really impressed with the quality of the CGI in this film. There’s a point where Caesar and Malcolm touch foreheads and you cannot see any dividing line between them. Caesar’s hair becomes matted down by Malcolm’s head. It’s simple amazing. And the full articulation of the facial features is wonderful. This is an order of magnitude better than the original Gollum character that Sirkis created for Lord of the Rings.

The villains in this story are driven by their fear – the heroes are driven by their vision. It’s a compelling difference to watch. As you point out, Carver is the bigot who cannot see past the limitations of stereotypes he’s been taught. Koba, the hawkish ape, has been harmed so badly by humans that he cannot see past his pain. And Dreyfus is intent on saving what’s left of humanity. He doesn’t have the space to work toward a peaceable trust. This was an interesting collection of villains, with just enough depth to make them interesting.


What I appreciate most about the heroes and villains in this movie is the fact that they exist on both sides of the dispute. There are ape heroes and ape villains. And there are human heroes and human villains. This film could have taken the easy route and made one side all good and the other side all bad, but it decided that nuance and realism were more important than the usual oversimplification we see at the movies.

I also appreciate the complex motives that drive the villainous behavior. Besides the usual racist ethnocentrism, there is fear that drives both sides to aggress against the other. There is also the bitter memory of past oppression, which fuels Koba’s hatred of humanity. And finally there is pure ignorance. The humans underestimate ape intelligence, and the apes underestimate human goodness. Again, this film really nails the genesis of intergroup conflict.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent and intelligently crafted science fiction thriller that examines the heart of war. At 130 minutes long, it tested my attention in places. However, it is the best of the Apes franchise and I give it a hearty 4 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in this story are interesting and deeply drawn. The emotive power of Sirkis’ Caesar was simply amazing and helped to tell the full story. The duo/divergent heroes is a pattern we’ve seen before, but played especially well here. I give Malcolm and Caesar 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the villains were not as strong as the heroes. Carver plays the typical purely bad guy. Koba is at least given a decent backstory to motivate his hatred. Dreyfus as the leader of the humans will do whatever he can to ensure the survival of his people, but is too blind to see the larger picture. I wish the villains were as detailed as the heroes, so I give them only 3 out of 5 Villains.

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Greg, we’re on the same page on two of the three ratings. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a refreshing reprieve from the usual summer mindless popcorn fare that infects movie theaters. This film is a thought-provoking look at human conflict, how it begins, how hard it is to avoid, and how difficult it is to stop once it has started. Yes, this movie reeks of patriarchy, and once again the limited role of women in a Hollywood film is disappointing. Still, I enjoyed this movie very much and give it 4 out of 5 Reels.

Our two divergent heroes are a joy to watch, not just because they time and again show wisdom and compassion, but because their journeys are arduous and realistic. Are they transformed by their journeys? Yes, and in profound ways. Caesar has certainly learned the true value of family and friends, and he pays a dear price for holding naive views of ape goodness and human trustworthiness. Like you, I’ll give our pair of heroes 4 out of 5 Heroes.

We disagree about the villains, Greg. Most movies devote little time to fleshing out the details of villains’ motives and backstory. With Koba, we see the origins of evil; the past torturing of Koba may not justify his actions but it makes them understandable. The human leader, Dreyfus, also has a history and set of motivations that leave us understanding his aggressive behavior but not condoning it. The villains here are complex and fascinating. I’m happy to give them a full 5 out of 5 Villains.

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Earth to Echo ••

Earth_to_EchoStarring: Teo Halm, Astro, Reese Hartwig
Director: Dave Green
Screenplay: Henry Gayden
Adventure/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Date: July 2, 2014

Kids: Ensemble, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Fraternity Heroes)

Government: System, N-N, Ant (Untransformed Government Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s hard to believe that it’s taken 35 years for Hollywood to attempt to re-capture the magic of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.


Earth to Scott: They still haven’t! Let’s recap.


We meet three 13-year-old kids from in Nevada who live on a street that’s about to be demolished to make room for a new superhighway. The kids are Tuck (Astro), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig). They have a crush on a girl in school, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who seems out of their league. One day their cell phones begin displaying a strange, amoeba-like image. They somehow discover that the image is actually a map of a remote part of the Nevada landscape 20 miles away.


When they arrive (by bicycle) they find an object that contains a living (?) mechanical alien they dub “Echo.” Echo is trying to collect all the pieces to his spacecraft and sends a sequence of maps to the boys’ cell phones. Each map leads to another missing piece. Meanwhile, it turns out that there are some evil government types who are chasing after Echo too. Will the boys find all the pieces in time to save Echo and send him home? Or will the evil adults find him first and do mean nasty experiments on him?


Greg, as your opening line in this review suggests, Earth to Echo in no way approaches the quality or playful spirit of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I don’t mean to imply that Earth to Echo is a failure. If the goal was to create a pleasant diversion for kids that isn’t terribly offensive for adults to sit through, then this movie is a success. Personally, I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t dazzled or entertained to any great degree, either.

The quality of a predictable movie like this one truly depends on the casting of the main actors. Unfortunately, the ensemble of child actors is a rather forgettable lot, despite an obvious attempt to manufacture a Breakfast Club-like grouping. There’s a nerd, a misfit, a bad-boy, and a cute girl, and together they exude little chemistry or flair. A few months from now I’m far more likely to remember their smartphones than their personalities.


Harsher words were never more true, Scott. Echo is a painfully slow quest for missing pieces. The characters just go from place to place and don’t have much of an adventure. There is a nice little lesson – you can be friends despite the distance – but it is mostly just tossed in at the end. It tries a bit too little to be a Stand by Me for millennials with its coming of age theme. I think 2011’s Super 8 is a better film with the same themes. Surely, the shaky-cam first-person effect are reminiscent of such films as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.

As a hero story, it looks like we have a nice ensemble / fraternity cast with the addition of a tomboy thrown in for diversity. The foursome are on a quest and each has their own quirks but nobody seems to overcome any missing inner qualities. As such, the heroes fall flat and leave us wanting more substance.


And speaking of flat substances, our group of heroes encounter an odd, dirty-looking piece of equipment in the desert, and it turns out to be an alien creature in disguise. The kids name him Echo and I suppose we’re supposed to think he’s cute in the same way we fall for E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. But I felt no such emotional connection to Echo. He’s sort of a mechanical Tweety Bird who lacks any of Tweety Bird’s adorable qualities. Echo possesses the power to move inanimate objects when doing so advances the storyline but not when it doesn’t.

The villains in the story are the humans who want to capture Echo, and they are disappointingly unidimensional and uninteresting. The one human who interacts with the kids is a government official posing as a construction worker. The man has all the charm of Atilla the Hun and exists solely as a hateful figure who wants to do harm to Echo. I guess it’s decided that that’s all we need to know about him. Very disappointing.


It’s true. The villain in this story was none other than Jason Gray-Stanford who played Detective Randy Disher on the TV show Monk. He’s a pretty non-threatening-looking guy. His only purpose is to represent all adult people in the universe as being both unfeeling and, well, stupid.

This is pretty much a movie for the younger crowd, Scott and so there aren’t many tense moments. It’s pretty safe for your 5-10 year olds who look up to 13-year olds. However older kids will see through the saccharine and find it silly. I can only give Earth to Echo 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes in the story don’t offer us much, but I did like the way they reminded me of the Goonies. They get just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And the villains were nearly non-existent. Just one adult chasing after Echo and the kids and he was pretty mild fare. I give him just 1 Villain out of 5.

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Greg, you’ve aptly summed it up. I considered giving this film a single insulting Reel out of 5 but as we’ve already mentioned, Earth to Echo caters to a young crowd and probably delivers to them exactly what they’re looking for. The movie is flimsy in just about every way that’s important to us, but we’re adults and certainly not the target audience. Two out of 5 Reels is about right.

The heroes are a forgettable collection of kids who are predictable and uninspiring. Even Echo himself does his home planet a disservice by lacking sophistication and charm. These heroes do go on a journey and are not totally lacking in redeeming qualities, and so they manage to eek out a rating of 2 Heroes out of 5.

The villains are about as awful as villains can get in a movie, and by “awful” I don’t mean that they are evil or dastardly or the kind of villain that we love to hate. I mean that they are just poorly constructed and an insult even to the intelligence of a 5-year-old kid. I was so thoroughly disgusted by the villains here that I give them a big fat zero rating. That’s right, zero out of five for me, Greg.

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Deliver Us From Evil •••

Deliver_Us_from_Evil_(2014_film)_posterStarring:  Eric BanaÉdgar RamírezOlivia Munn
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Scott DerricksonPaul Harris Boardman
Crime/Horror/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: July 2, 2014

Sarchie & Mendoza: Duo, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Buddy Heroes)

Satan: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Pure Evil Mastermind Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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Scott, I was afraid I’d want to be delivered from this film. But it wasn’t bad.


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

There were some bad odors, Greg. Straight from the bowels of hell. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to Bronx Police Officer Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his partner Butler (Joel McHale). The duo are investigating a strange event at the zoo. A woman has thrown her child into the moat surrounding the lion’s pit. A strange hooded man (Sean Harris) is painting the walls of the pit when Sarchie gives chase. The man escapes but not before he sicks the lions on Sarchie.


Sarchie escapes harm and discovers that the hooded man, named Santini, was painting over the same kind of cryptic Latin writing that was found at another crime scene. Sarchie meets an unconventional Catholic priest named Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) who has spent years hunting down violent demonic spirits at work in the city. Skeptical at first, Sarchie ultimately becomes convinced, and he teams with Mendoza in hunting down and expelling the malevolent spirit that has taken over Santini’s body.


Scott, I’m not a fan of horror movies. I find they use cheap tricks to pull you in and then throw things into your face (in 3D, quite literally). They are all about shock value and appeal to the basic fears we all tuck away inside our reptilian brain. I just don’t find that entertaining.

But Deliver Us From Evil really had me in its grip right from the beginning. It is based on Sarchie’s actual experiences on the streets of New York City which makes it all the more compelling. Unlike last year’s The Conjuring, Deliver Us is a smart and compelling story that makes the unbeliever think twice about dismissing the demonic world.


I agree, Greg, that Deliver Us From Evil is a more effective horror movie than last year’s The Conjuring. There are several things working in its favor, and chief among them are stellar performances by Bana and Ramirez, an unlikely pairing with great chemistry. Their terrific acting delivers us from boredom, which is the worst kind of evil for us movie critics.

This film also scores high on the creep-o-meter scale. Yes, there are the usual assortment of cheap frights and false scares, but there are enough meaty, gruesome chills and thrills to keep us in terrific suspense. Deliver Us From Evil knows how to yank our chain in all the right ways.


Oh yeah, like the corpse that was found behind a wall that had been sitting there for two weeks. It was all full of gruesome flies and maggots – perfectly hideous.

I compare all horror movies to the classic The Exorcist and the two films shared many features in common. There was the little girl that was stalked by evil demons. There was the unlikely priest who specialized in demonic possession. An evil demon that just couldn’t leave people alone. And a great exorcism in the end.

Eric Bana performed well as the NYC cop with a Jersey accent. He starts out as a skeptic and is slowly turned into believer. He’s a tortured soul with a deep secret that will be his undoing as the demon can use it against him. He’s a good hero character as he lives to protect and serve not just the people of New York, but also his little family. While he has a partner in the form of police officer Butler, this is more of a Hero and Sidekick affair rather than a buddy cop film. In fact, Mendoza (the priest) works out as the Mentor, leading Sarchie around the special world of demons and possession. Ultimately, though, it looks like Mendoza graduates from his Mentor role into one of the buddy.


You’ve put your finger on a very complex social relationship between Sarchie and Mendoza, one that almost defies categorization. There are elements of mentorship, buddy heroism, and side-kickery here. In the end, they are two men with equal status who have complementary strengths — Sarchie is the law enforcement expert while Mendoza has the PhD in demonology. In this movie, Sarchie assumes more of the primary hero role, and he in fact is the one who undergoes the greatest transformation on his journey here.

The villains in Deliver Us From Evil are an interesting assortment of hellish henchmen of Satan, or of one of Satan’s main operatives. In other reviews of movies released in 2014, we’ve discussed a common pattern of villainy that features a central mastermind villain who outsources his evil tasks to underlings who do all the dirty work. This film appears to follow that same pattern, as poor Santino and two other characters are compelled by devilish forces to perform horrific acts. There isn’t a lot of depth to the villains in this movie, nor is there much backstory. Still, they are effective in their own bloodthirsty way.


I liked that the demon in this film is not always an unseen evil. Santino’s possession gives us something to focus on as the villain in the story. But as you point out, there isn’t much depth here. I don’t think they ever even named the demon – only that it came from Iraq.

As I said, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. It had more characterization than other films of the genre and the acting was pretty good. I can happily give it 3 out of 5 Reels for keeping me interested and a little grossed out without stepping over the line that makes most horror films look ridiculous.

The hero is nicely molded here. He’s a good cop and a good father who is stretched to his limits. He has a dark backstory and a strong desire to do right. He overcomes his past transgressions and is redeemed in the end. A very nice hero’s journey that I can give 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villain is pretty nasty and performs as the typical mastermind/puppeteer that we see in most films these days. We don’t get much detail about why the demons exist or what their goals are – they’re just evil. This is a pretty unidimensional evil and I award just 2 Villains out of 5 for the possessed Santini.

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Deliver Us From Evil delivers exactly what you’d expect — a scary, creepy story of demonic possession that derives much of its appeal from the claim that it is based on a true story. There’s not a lot of new ground broken here, but I was captivated by the outstanding performances of our two unlikely buddy heroes and by the strong “ick” factor in several scenes involving various gooey bodily fluids. Like you, Greg, I believe that this film deserves 3 solid Reels out of 5.

The complex relationship between our two heroes is fun to watch, as each brings different strengths to the game and grow in their interdependence. With help from Mendoza, Sarchie’s heroic transformation unfolds before our eyes and is absolutely necessary for him to crack the case. The heroes are a commendable pairing, thus producing a rating of 3 Heroes out of 5.

As you point out, Greg, the villain here isn’t developed terribly well or with much depth, but then again we neither expect nor want a movie that delves into Satan’s childhood woes that led to his evil lifestyle. All we really crave is for Satan to behaviorally manifest his bad-ass ways, which this movie allows him to do with gory flair. A rating of 2 Villains out of 5 seems about right here.

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