Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – A Review

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I have never really been a big fan of apes; when I was little, anything simian-related would terrify me. My mom’s friend had a basket of toys in her living room that belonged to her sons and they would have to remove the King Kong figurine before I would go anywhere near the vicinity of the basket. Even if I wasn’t playing with the toys, unless I was assured that the scary figurine had been neutralized I was seriously stressed out. This was also an issue at the fair, where they had a giant animatronic gorilla in a cage as part of an exhibit on the circus; you could get me in the same room as it, but I kept my eye on that thing the entire time, convinced that it would come to life and break free. Between that and the clowns, that display was pretty much my worst nightmare come to life. I have no idea where this fear originated – I don’t recall having any sort of traumatic run-in with any monkeys – and while it dissipated as I grew older, I generally don’t seek out anything that has to do with apes or monkeys. Though I do like sock monkeys, so go figure.

Needless to say, given my childhood phobia I was not a connoisseur of the original Planet of the Apes movies; they had their heyday slightly before my time and I certainly wasn’t seeking them out on my own. My knowledge of the original film is mostly gleamed from other references in pop culture, most notably The Simpsons:

 

I didn’t see Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the theaters because I simply didn’t think that it was for me; given my checkered history with those of the chimp persuasion, I thought it was best that I sit this one out. Apes that eventually talk and take over the world are a hard sell for me. It didn’t help that I’d been dragged to see the disaster that was Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes reboot with Mark Wahlberg. Yowza – that would be enough to turn anyone off of ape movies. I only relented and watched the James Franco helmed sequel after repeatedly hearing that it was pretty decent. Turn out the buzz was pretty accurate – I quite enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes despite myself. I really got sucked into the story and was surprised by how invested that I became in a prequel to a franchise that I had little to no interest in. It wasn’t a perfect film, but it was far more entertaining than I anticipated; it was enough to not only win me over, but make me actually look forward to its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Yet when the new Planet of the Apes film was released, that old ambivalence resurfaced. Usually when any big summer movie is released that I have any remote interest in, I see it opening weekend. I had multiple opportunities to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I just was pretty “meh” about the whole thing. Whatever enthusiasm that the 2011film had generated had slowly eroded over time; I was once again skeptical that I would find the next installment of inevitable ape domination all that compelling. But once again, critical buzz got the best of me – the general consensus was that the film was one of the better blockbusters of the summer. Admittedly, that is a pretty low bar given this summer movie season, but the promise of a film that wouldn’t suck was appealing enough to get me to finally commit to going to see it in the theater. James Franco wasn’t going to be in this installment, but Jason Clarke was his replacement which in my world is an even trade.

The first act of the film, I wondered if everyone else had watched a different movie than I was watching; I found the initial thirty minutes or so to be painfully slow. Since ten years had elapsed since the events of the last film, they had to spend some time orienting us on what has happened to the world. They also had to introduce the new human characters and explain the dynamics of the ape hierarchy. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it wasn’t always that compelling, especially when the apes are using sign language to communicate. I have no problem with subtitles, but they weren’t what I was expecting for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It was world building and it was necessary set-up, but I wish that they hadn’t spent as much time on it or had done it in a timelier manner. It wasn’t completely uninteresting, but I found my mind wandering a bit and was fighting the urge to check my cell phone to see how much time had elapsed (never a good sign).

I can’t put my finger on the exact moment, but somewhere in the second act I slowly was drawn into the film; perhaps it was because the action picked up a bit or perhaps it was the apes started talking more. Whatever it was, the film began to patiently reel me. The human characters were never all that interesting and mostly served as plot devices. That’s a waste of the talents of the actors that they assembled (the aforementioned Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell), but the film isn’t called Dawn of the Planet of the Humans. The humans are a necessary evil; there would be conflict eventually without them, but they certainly provide the spark to move things along. The franchise lives and dies on the apes and the philosophical differences between Caesar and some of his followers may not necessarily be completely new terrain but it was well done and fairly compelling. Actually, it must have been more than fairly compelling, because by the final act of the film I was fully in on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; it totally snuck up on me, but I was emotionally invested in what was unfolding. Of course, we know that the apes are eventually triumphant – it’s right there in the title – but I was curious to see if this film would deal them a setback on their way to world domination or who would be leading the charge. I was really curious how this all would unfold.

Andy Serkis continues to do revolutionary work as a motion capture actor and is primarily responsible for giving this movie its spark. If Caesar fails to be a compelling character, this movie simply wouldn’t work and Serkis more than delivers. In fact, all the motion capture actors deserve a tip of the cap; it is ironic that the CGI-created characters are more nuanced and three-dimensional than the actual three-dimensional people on the screen. Caesar, Koba, Ash, Blue Eyes and Maurice (my personal favorite) are fully realized characters that have distinctive personalities and points of view. Most of the older apes all experienced abuse at the hands of humans, but it has impacted them differently – some strive for peace while others are hell-bent on war. The dynamics of the ape community are complex and realistic – the struggle for power is clearly a universal trait. Watching a coup unfold is exciting, even in the animal kingdom.

Some other thoughts:

  • Perhaps the most one dimensional of the humans was played by Kirk Acevedo. It took me until halfway through the film to place where I knew him from, but then it dawned on me that he was Alvarez on HBO’s Oz. Wish he’d been given more to do, but still good to see him.
  • Thought I could keep all the different apes straight based on their personality, I could not for the life of me remember all their names. So I dubbed the member of the clan that challenges Caesar “Ape Hitler.”
  • A co-worker asked me to explain the status of the humans and apes at the beginning of the movie. My explanation “The humans have practically been wiped out by a virus and small bands of survivors are running low on limited resources. The apes are just chillin’, hanging out in trees, wife-ing up, having babies and learning to read.”
  • One point of contention – the apes now ride horses. Isn’t that a little disingenuous for a group that was all riled up about how they were treated by humans to use another animal as their source of transportation? #apephilosophicalquandary
  • I believe this film marks the first time that Andy Serkis has received top billing in a film. Good for him and well deserved!
  • For the record, it didn’t necessarily look like the humans were making the best use of their limited resources. I’m no conversationalist, but they could have made some smarter choices.
  • It is a little unsettling how quickly the apes pick up the handling of automatic weapons. This does not bode well for humans down the road.

Once Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets going, it is a quite fun film. I could have done with some slightly different pacing and some better development of the human characters, but I walked out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with my interest in the future of the franchise rekindled. I’d be perfectly OK with the next installment focusing solely on the apes – they are really the only interesting part – but I’m guessing that is unlikely. This has definitely been a slow summer movie season, but this film was not enjoyable simply because it compared favorably with the other dreck that has been released. This was a fun movie on its own merits and while I have no doubt that my enthusiasm for the next film will wane a bit in the time it takes to produce the newest installment, I’m still looking forward to what the apes are up to next.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Almost the Oscars edition

We’re in the home stretch – the Academy Awards are this Sunday. All I have left in my quest to see all of the Oscar nominated films are some foreign films and some documentaries. If everything goes according to plan, I think I am going to come up two movies short of my goal. It’s proven to be impossible to find the foreign film No and the documentary The Guardians. The closest that either film is playing is NYC and unless I want to take the day off to make the trip downstate (which I did actually consider), I think the dream may be dead. But still – I’ll come pretty darn close!

As I frantically try to find some Oscar screeners, enjoy your biweekly roundup of pop culture stories you may have missed:

  • A happy belated 75th birthday to author Judy Blume!
  • In honor of the season three finale (what did everyone think??), here’s the cast of Downton Abbey performing One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”

 

  • Maybe they were jealous of the attention that Jeopardy! has been receiving lately, but Wheel of Fortune decided to up their game with a dog on a scooter.

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  • The 2013 Bonnaroo line-up was announced yesterday. I want to go!
  • I hate Monopoly – it takes way too long and just isn’t much fun – but I might change my mind if I played this Breaking Bad version.
  • Check out Leonardo DiCaprio’s foreign ad for Jim Beam:

 

  • This is hilarious – Guy Fieri didn’t secure the full URL for his restaurant’s website, so someone else bought it and posted a parody menu. Well played.
  • Josh Duhamel and Fergie are expecting their first child; the singer announced the news on Twitter, using the hashtag #mylovelybabybump (which I have to admit is pretty cute).
  • The movie Lincoln inspired the state of Mississippi to finally ratify the 13th Amendment. They somehow hadn’t managed to get around to that yet. Who says pop culture can’t make a difference?
  • Listen to Mariah Carey’s new song from the upcoming film Oz the Great and Powerful (I’m not a fan – she sounds weird)

 

  • I don’t know that it was in doubt, but It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will be back for a ninth season.

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  • So, is everyone else watching The Following and kind of getting obsessed with it? Intellectually I have a ton of problems with the show, but damn it if it doesn’t manage to drag me in every Monday night.
  • SNL continues to be dreadful; I only made it about halfway through last week’s episode with Christoph Waltz. I did, however, really enjoy this digital short:
  • Whoo-boy. Things are not going well for Renee Zellweger. Lifetime just passed on her pilot Cinnamon Girl. Let that sink in for a moment. The network that gave us Liz & Dick passed on a pilot featuring an Oscar winner. I think we may have just found rock bottom.
  • The great Andre Braugher has joined Andy Samberg’s new police comedy pilot on Fox. The likelihood that I will tune in to this show if it goes to series just jumped to 100%.
  • It’s been a good couple of weeks for me – another one of my favorites joined a pilot. Josh Holloway (aka Sawyer on Lost) will star in the CBS drama Intelligence.
  • The New York Times Magazine has a long profile of blog favorite Connie Britton.
  • Sarah Michelle Geller will be starring opposite Robin Williams in a new sitcom.
  • Don’t cry for the B in Apt. 23 – Krysten Ritter landed a role in a pilot for NBC. Let’s hope James Van Der Beek has as smooth a transition.
  • PBS is trying to become the first nonprofit organization to reach one billion views on YouTube.

 

  • HBO may have pulled the plug on Luck, but it lives on in blog form. Added bonus – no horses can die online.
  • I guess they had a lot of fun filming Silver Linings Playbook; Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are reuniting with director David O. Russell on his next film (and holy hell – this film has an amazing cast!).
  • TV Land had become the go-to network for 90s sitcom stars. They have ordered a new comedy starring Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman and Michael Richards.
  • NBC’s new drama Hannibal will debut on Thursday April 4th.

 

  • Jerry Seinfeld stopped by The Late Show with David Letterman to do some stand-up:

 

  • Dean Norris (Hank to Breaking Bad fans) has been cast in the upcoming Stephen King miniseries, Under the Dome.
  • As an unabashed fan of The Golden Girls, I couldn’t pass up this collection of the 10 best musical numbers from the series.
  • The Strokes are back with a new song:

 

  • TV Duck has an infograph of 15 things you didn’t know about The Walking Dead.
  • My baseball husband Mark Teixiera made his Broadway debut in Rock of Ages. Check out video here.
  • The Discovery Channel is launching two new documentary series that focus on marijuana. The are calling the block of programming “Weed Wednesdays.”
  • And finally, a 60 second, live action version of the wonderful Wreck it Ralph: