Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted on July 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm

dawnoftheplanetoftheapesceasarAll hail Caesar!

The intelligence-enhanced ape from Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes center stage in this sequel, which begins ten years after the last film. The virus we saw infecting the human population has now wiped out almost all human life. The assorted apes, led by Caesar, have asserted their primacy over other animals. In the opening scene, we see them hunting with spears they have crafted, killing a bear, and riding on horses. They live in homes they have constructed from logs, communicate — mostly via sign language — teach their children the alphabet in school, and have an organized society, with Caesar as their leader. They demonstrate loyalty and tenderness.  They adorn themselves; Caesar’s mate wears a small crown.

Ceasar is played by the brilliant motion-capture actor/artist Andy Serkis and the CGI work of the geniuses at Weta Digital.  The seamless integration of the CGI characters and the human characters and the subtlety of the apes’ eyes and facial expressions brings us straight into the story, underscored by the immersive 3D.  It is dramatic, not stuntish, with the possible exception of some spear-throwing toward the screen.

The film recalls old-school cowboys-and-Indians westerns, with the apes riding into battle on horses and the humans and their armory holed up in the ruins of San Francisco like it is Fort Apache.  Then the apes get the guns, and everything escalates fast.  The film wisely gives both groups of primates a range of characters, some wise and trustworthy, some bigoted and angry.  Both species have to learn that respect has to be based on character and actions, not on genetics.  The division is not between man and ape but between those who can envision a future with cooperation and trust and those who cannot.

There are some thoughtful details.  The destroyed city tells the story of a decade of unthinkable loss and also of great courage.  A dropped sketchbook conveys information that in a world without mass communications is revelatory.  A long-unheard CD plays The Band and we see the humans react, thinking of where they were the last time they heard it and what access to electricity could mean for them now.  The humans have the advantage of knowing how to create and use power; they also have the disadvantage of needing it.

In the midst of the battle, there is a quiet moment when a small mixed group hides out together in a location with a lot of resonance from the previous film.  It lends a solemnity to the story, even a majesty, that gives it weight.  Even those who seem from our perspective to be making decisions that are disastrously wrong do so for reasons we can understand.  The action is compelling but it is the ideas behind them that hold us.

Parents should know that this film includes constant peril and violence, post-apocalyptic themes and images, many characters injured and killed, guns, fire, drinking, smoking, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why were there so many different opinions within both the ape and the human communities? How did they choose their governing structure? Why didn’t Carver want to listen to Ellie’s explanation of the source of the virus?

If you like this, try: the original “Apes” movies to compare not just the stories but the technology used by the filmmakers

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book Drama Fantasy Romance Science-Fiction Series/Sequel Talking animals

Trailer: Spooky “The Congress” With Robin Wright

Posted on June 7, 2014 at 8:00 am

Robin Wright stars as..Robin Wright, well, a version of herself anyway, in this futuristic thriller about an actress who agrees to turn over her cyber-persona to a movie studio so she can get the money she needs to care for her son.  It looks like a sci-fi “Alice in Wonderland” after that.  I’m very intrigued.

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Trailers, Previews, and Clips

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

Posted on March 20, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 on appeal for language, sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death (offscreen)
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 21, 2014
Poster courtesy of Dreamfly Productions, Lavender Pictures, and There We Go Films
Poster courtesy of Dreamfly Productions, Lavender Pictures, and There We Go Films

First rule: do NOT call them bird watchers. These are seriously ornithophilic teenagers and the correct term is “birder.”

Maybe one reason they like birds so much is that the three members of the high school birder society — all male — are odd birds themselves. When one of them catches a glimpse of what just might be a duck previously thought to be extinct, that is exactly the adventure they had been hoping for, something big and meaningful and important, something to prove to everyone around them and maybe to themselves, too, that what they care about really matters. And an adventure would also be a good excuse to get away from some uncomfortable situations at home and school and be in a place that feels like a truer home.

David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is more than uncomfortable. His mother has died. She had been a birder, and being passionate about birds makes him feel close to her. Now his father (James LeGros), who “literally kills birds for a living” (he owns chicken restaurants) is about to marry the nurse who took care of his mother.  She is a warm-hearted and sympathetic person, but to David she is an intruder, especially when she accidentally lets her robe slip and he gets a look at her breasts.  He is the one who gets a quick, blurry picture of the possibly-rare duck and he takes it to an expert (Ben Kingsley), who confirms that it could be a Labrador duck, and who shares some memories of David’s mother.

If it can be confirmed that the Labrador duck is not extinct, this would be very big news.

The other two members of the Young Birders Society (high-spirited and highly hormonal Alex Wolff and nerdy control freak Michael Chen) “borrow” a relative’s car and go off in search of the possible Labrador duck.  They try to “borrow” camera equipment, too, but are discovered by a girl from the photography club, (Katie Chang) who insists on going along so she can be the one to take the pictures.

It’s an often-told coming-of-age journey tale, but nicely understated and there are some unexpected twists and sensitive performances.  The people who made this film brought the same loving attention to the characters that the characters do to the small feathered creatures they care for so deeply.

Parents should know that there is some teenage strong and crude language, brief nudity and sexual references.

Family discussion: Why was the duck so important to David?  To the others?

If you like this, try: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and watch some birds


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Coming of age High School Movies -- format

Clips: A Birder’s Guide to Everything

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Lesson Number One: Don’t call them birdwatchers.  They are birders.  And in this movie three very dedicated high school birders want to find and document what may be a duck previously thought to be extinct.  Sir Ben Kingsley co-stars with Kodi Smit-McPhee, James LeGros, and Alex Wolff in this charming story about a journey that takes just about everyone to an unexpected destination.  Here are two clips from the film, which will be in theaters on March 21.


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Trailers, Previews, and Clips


Posted on August 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language ("boobs"), reference to "the f-word"
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief joke about steroid use
Violence/ Scariness: Cheerfully gruesome storyline about zombies and ghosts with some comic but disturbing images, characters in peril, character dies of natural causes, discussion of the historic abuse and killing of people thought to be witches, bullies
Diversity Issues: Tolerance a theme of the movie, diverse characters include a gay character, some making fun of people who are not intelligent
Date Released to Theaters: August 20, 2012
Date Released to DVD: November 26, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B005LAII62

Copyright LAIKA 2012
While digital animators create algorithms that replicate real life textures and weights and movements so perfectly they can seem real-er than reality, the small but preposterously dedicated stop-motion animators create their own three-dimensional world and invite us inside.  Like its predecessor at LAIKA, “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” is a spookily gothic-tinged tale, and, like “Coraline,” everything you see on screen was really built and really moved, a fraction of a fraction of a millimeter at a time.  The touch, and touchability of everything we see adds to the magic, and each setting, prop, and character is so lovingly detailed that it rewards repeated viewings.

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) loves to watch old zombie movies with his grandmother as she knits on the living room sofa.  Until his parents remind him that his grandmother is dead.

Yes. Norman sees dead people.   Perhaps that is why his hair is constantly standing on end.  He is fine with it, but it bothers everyone around him.  His parents (Jeff Garlin and  Leslie Mann) worry about him, his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is annoyed by him, and at school everyone either ignores or bullies him.

When a creepy ghost (John Goodman) appears in the boys’ bathroom at school to warn him that the town will be attacked by zombies, he explains that only Norman can stop them.  Before sunset, he must read aloud from an ancient tome at the grave of the witch whose curse turned seven local citizens into zombies centuries before.  The lore of the witch’s curse is so central to the town’s identity that there is a statue of a witch in the town square, several local businesses have witchy names, and Norman’s school pageant is a re-telling of the story.  Three hundred years ago, when the local citizens condemned a witch to death, she used her powers to condemn them to spending eternity as zombies.  But the secret of the book helps Norman discover that the zombies and the witch are not what he thought.

With references to “Scooby-Doo” and “The Goonies,” “ParaNorman” expertly balances scary and funny elements of the story, with a surprisingly heartwarming conclusion.  “It’s all right to be scared,” Norman’s grandmother explains, “as long as it doesn’t change who you are.”  Norman, Courtney, his friend Neil, Neil’s dim brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have to work together to try to save the town.

The voice performances are excellent and the visuals are dazzling.  Every item from the houses to the cars to the lockers in the schools is just a little off-kilter and every detail from Norman’s alarm clock to the zombie’s sagging skin is designed with endless wit and skill.  The score by Jon Brion keeps things nicely spooky and the resolution is satisfying.  It is too bad that the thoughtful points it makes about bullying are undercut by making fun of not one but two characters who are not bright.  The message of reconciliation, kindness, and appreciating differences is a good one, and it should extend to all of the movie’s characters.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes concern zombies and ghosts, and each child will react differently.  Some will be enjoyably scared and some will find it funny but even with a reassuring conclusion to the story, some may find the images or storyline upsetting.  The film has comic but gruesome images, characters in peril, reference to historic abuse and execution of those claimed to be witches — reassuringly and often humorously presented but some elements of the story and images may be disturbing to children.  There is also brief potty humor, a joke about steroids, and a refreshingly positive portrayal of a gay character (a teenage boy briefly mentions his boyfriend).

Family discussion: Who was right about Norman, his mother or his father, and why?  Why did Neil want to be friends with Norman?  How did Norman help the witch?

If you like this, try: “Monster House,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “The Corpse Bride,” and “Coraline”

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3D Action/Adventure Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Horror Stories About Kids Thriller
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