Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) review

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The original Planet of the Apes (1968) prided itself on false depth.These days, its conveniently overlooked (largely because it failed) attempt at social allegory on race relations in America–with particular attention to the Vietnam War and the Black Power Movement–makes it one of Hollywood’s more obvious controversial products. Based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des Singesthe franchise essentially poses the laziest of questions: What if the roles were reversed? What if blacks were the ruling class and whites subject to their tyranny? The African-American community naturally resented this problematic narrative, especially its reinforcement of that age-old racist comparison to apes. Commercially and critically however, the film succeeded. Much like the similarly successful, yet hollow The Help (2011), Apes masqueraded as a sincere condemnation of that evil boogeyman Racism without managing to be very complex or at all precise about the matter. It’s no wonder then, whatever “good” intentions on part of the filmmakers, that rather than force its audience to think, the film only fueled fear of “the Negro” and their inevitable “domination.” No need to discuss the 2001 remake, for Tim Burton (and I can never look at him or a film of his in the same way again) essentially underlined in bright, aggressive red everything that was reprehensible about the original.

L - R: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Scott-McPhee in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

L – R: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Scott-McPhee in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The prequels have removed race–thematically anyway–from the conversation altogether, clearly in the hopes of subverting controversy for the sake of good summer entertainment. Mission accomplished. If nothing else, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivers all that is expected of a good blockbuster: remarkably rendered action sequences, commendable digital work, and passable performances from recognizable actors (Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, James Franco, etc.).

Ten years after the events of the first installment, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the ALZ-113 virus that was originally engineered to treat Alzheimer’s, has plunged the human race into civil unrest. In the forest, Caesar (Andy Serkis) governs the apes with the help of Koba (a brilliant Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval), his second and third-in-command respectively. At a nearby camp, a group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) hope to restore electricity to their base using a dam in ape territory. Caesar sees in Malcolm the same kindness he saw in his old friend Will Rodman (James Franco, who appears in a brief video cameo) and reluctantly decides to trust them, much to the displeasure of Koba, who only sees the dark side of humanity. Malcolm and Caesar try to forge a peaceful alliance, but the resistance around them–which includes Caesar’s son Blue Eyes and Malcolm’s human allies Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo)–proves devastating.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is followed by Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) as he tries to make peace with them in a scene from the motion picture "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is followed by Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (Karin Konoval) as he tries to make peace with them in a scene from the motion picture “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Dawn succeeds, but perhaps a bit too well in its intention. It’s engaging and fun, and although the human characters pale in comparison to their far more dynamic ape counterparts, the relationships between the characters–especially Caesar, Blue Eyes, Koba and Maurice–are brilliantly drawn. But what of its subtext? Is all social commentary lost simply by neglecting to reference race? Well, for one thing, the reboot is framed in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to draw those parallels anymore. Rather than encountering a time warp in space, here the era of the apes begins thanks to one man’s fear of death and another one’s greed. The danger of experimenting on animals, the human race incurring rightful retribution for such a cruel, longtime practice, seems the more obvious takeaway. But there is a brief moment in Rise where Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton for the purists)’s character sprays Caesar with a fire hose, recalling those horrifying images from the sixties, and in Dawn, Caesar tells his son the mistake he made was forgetting “just how alike we [apes and humans–or oppressed and oppressor] are.” So race still lingers faintly around the film, especially given the segregation of the apes and the humans. If that’s the case, then Apes–perhaps unknowingly–brings to light the mistake of a “post-racial/colorblind” society, where we still practice oppression without naming it. But this is a hard one, because as much as I love subtext, I don’t know if I want Apes to have any, especially if that depth inherently relies on a human-animal analogy. This film is one better enjoyed on the surface.

4 out of 5*

 

 

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‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014) review

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The latest effort from The Aviator (2004) writer John Logan, Penny Dreadful, made a solid arrival last month, unsurprisingly, with the likes of J. A. Bayona directing and Sam Mendes producing. Showtime’s deliciously creepy new series (already picked up  for a ten-episode second season) takes its name from cheap 19th century British serials,  a tad ironic, given that it boasts appearances from the stars of Victorian classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. 

Timothy-still-could-get-it-Dalton stars as the formidable Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray (whom you may recognize from Brahm Stoker’s Dracula) searching for his daughter in London, circa 1891. He is led by Mina’s former best friend Vanessa Ives (a simmering Eva Green) whose talents as a medium (and perhaps a little something more) help them navigate that treacherous demimonde, where “science and superstition walk hand-in-hand,” and where Malcolm believes his daughter has been lost. Ives enlists the help of mysterious American showman Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) as the muscle of their operation, while  ambitious young Dr. Victor Frankenstein (a massively entertaining Harry Treadaway) brings his scientific merits to the table to examine the blood-drinking creatures they discover. On the periphery we have the restless Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), Chandler’s dying lover Brona Croft (Billie Piper), Frankenstein’s menacing creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), and  Sembene (a sadly underused Danny Sapani), Murray’s manservant.

The cast is largely solid, with only a few missteps. Billie Piper’s attempt at an Irish accent is distracting at best and downright grating at worst. Reeve Carney pales alongside his co-stars but gives a generally passable performance, hindered only by an anachronistic look and a less grating, but still questionable accent, placing him at stark odds among a convincingly Victorian set. Dalton, who strikes one as a man who could and would take on an adversary such as Dracula, vacillates believably between  dangerous and desperate, guilt-ridden father. He and Eva Green have an amazing chemistry, all at once uncomfortably filial and palpably sexual; and Green, for her part, remains intensely magnetic every time she’s on the screen.

L - R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

L – R: Sembeni (Danny Sapani), Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett), Vanessa Ives (Eva Greene), Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) question a creature (Olly Alexander)

In just eight episodes, each installment of Penny Dreadful delivered. There’s a lot to cover, but aside from a rushed and arguably unnecessary romance between Ethan and Brona, the shakes, the chills, and the plot have all been paced rather nicely. The episode “Closer Than Sisters” is pure background, yet doesn’t halt the drama at all. In fact, it is in this episode, the gem of an already impressive season, that the emotional stakes in all their complexity are revealed. Thematically the series explores the boundaries of forgiveness, guilt, salvation, all with a decidedly cynical look at redemption, which Vanessa seems to crave. It’s no accident then that Miss Ives–at odds with her country and most importantly Sir Malcolm–is Catholic, for whom redemption and death are perfectly compatible. “Your father loves you very much, and would do anything to save you,” Vanessa writes to Mina, “But I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you.” In the next episode, “What Death Can Join Together” Sir Malcolm is forced to face the very real possibility that he might not be able to save his daughter in the way that he hopes. Sembene, veering dangerously toward Ominous Magical Negro territory, tells him as much, and Van Helsing’s personal connection to vampires, which mirrors Sir Malcolm’s, contains tragic implications. Without giving too much away, the season finale sets up an interesting question for next year: With all this talk of salvation, do we even really want to be saved?

In short, Penny Dreadful the series can be summed up in much the same way as Abel Korzeniowski’s delightfully haunting score (and if he is not recognized come award season next year, it’ll be an injustice): Nothing short of pitch perfect.