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Column Fri Jul 11 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Galopagos Affair & 70mm Film Festival

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In order for me to take a good hard look at the best and worst in human behavior, I had to see a "lesser" species turn our guns on us in a movie. And no, that's not any kind of crack about gun control; it's just what happens in the movie, and the impact is gut wrenching. Imagine if the man-apes from the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey went from pounding each other on the heads with bones to picking up machine guns and mowing each other down to establish dominance, and you may have some idea of the impact of seeing the spiritually compromised ape Koba (motion-capture acted by the brilliant Toby Kebbell) riding horseback through a run-down, overgrown San Francisco with machine guns blazing in each hand. You'll probably laugh a little before you shudder.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set 10 years after two simultaneous events occurred (as shown in Rise of the Planet of the Apes): some kind of man-made simian flu was released, killing off nearly all human life on Earth (through the bug and the resulting societal violence); and a drug designed to repair brain cells and increase intelligence was set loose into the ape population, resulting in the world's first talking ape, named Caesar (once again played with a combination of deep thought and unfiltered rage by Andy Serkis), who has since become the ape world's natural leader. It's a little unclear how far-reaching this smart-ape phenomenon has spread, but when the few remaining humans in San Francisco first come in contact with Caesar's tribe, they are shocked to hear them speak, let alone reason and organize. For all we know, Caesar's group is the only of its kind; I suspect in the sequel to this film, we'll find out for sure. But I digress...

The humans living in the city cross the crumbling bridges that lead into the woods where the apes live in order to find a now shutdown dam that they believe they can turn back on and restore power to San Francisco. But they are met with an army of apes that force them to leave the woods, but not before a trigger-happy human shoots an ape, getting the unofficial Human-Ape Peace Accord off to a shaky start. Still, Caesar lets the humans go, but before long he and his ranks show up at the front gates of the humans' paltry dwelling, drawing a clear line in the sand: "Human home; ape home," he says pointing to the broken down city and the woods across the bridge, respectively.

But the humans still need that power supply at the dam, so Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (a doctor, played by Keri Russell), Malcolm's son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a few others, including Kirk Acevedo's Carver — the dude who shot the ape in the first place — all return to the woods to beg Caesar for help, which he grants reluctantly, thus driving a wedge between his closest followers and those who hate all humans, led by Koba. And that's all you need to know because the entire film is a massive spiraling-out-of-control series of actions and reactions that all stem from that divide and seem inevitable in a terrible way.

The magnificence of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in the details. The first large chunk of time after a brief prologue letting us know what has transpired since the last film is nothing but a sequence showing us the lives of the apes in the woods, from hunting to child care (it was a bit disappointing to see that, even in ape society, the female of the species is marginalized). In this entire segment, the apes only use sign language, but it's clear that their powers of thought, reasoning and logic are unbelievably advanced. Much like in the first film, the first use of ape voices is saved for a very special moment in the story, and it is once again a voice raised in anger.

It's easy to get lost in the technical side of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and spend most of the film wondering how the special effects teams managed so much detail and subtlety. But the truth is spending all of your time wondering about movie magic takes away from it. The film is so much more impressive and powerful if you just see the apes as apes. Serkis' performance this time around is so much different that what he did in the last film. In this movie, he is called upon to be understated much of the time, contemplative, curious, suspicious, vulnerable, and a confident, strong leader who is willing to sacrifice his life to save his fellow ape.

And it's not just Serkis who gets to have all the fun this time around. In addition to Kebbell's downright terrifying turn as Koba, we also get returning favorites Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as the wise orangutan Maurice, as well as newcomers Judy Greer (!) as Caesar's mate Cornelia and his oldest son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). If those two character names ring any bells for you, enjoy that, because the film doesn't do nearly the amount of winking toward the original series as the last film did — something else I consider a positive.

One of the most interesting of the human characters is the man who has apparently be chosen to lead the survivors, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who seems both willing to maintain the shaky peace with the apes but also insists on stockpiling and testing weapons from a FEMA arsenal in the city in case war breaks out.

In an odd irony, the primary reason the film works so well is the emphasis on the adjusting and adapting ape society in the face of this new human threat (apparently apes haven't seen any signs of human in more than two years at this point, leading them to contemplate whether they were extinct); the only issue I had with this pushing the ape storyline to the front and center is that the human characters feel slightly underwritten by screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback. It takes strong, always capable actors like Oldman and Clarke to fill in the gaps in character development, and give us something identifiable to grasp onto.

Director Matt Reeves has grown into one of the great chameleons of the genre world, adapting his style to fit the material rather than forcing a particular visual style on it. With Cloverfield, he gave us one of the greats of the found-footage genre. He traded in shaky cameras for eerie, haunting atmosphere for the remade vampire tale Let Me In; and now he's taking on the moment in history where the planet has to figure out who the dominant species is. And it may take a bloody, terrible war to make that determination. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an epic story told on an intimate scale, and yes, there may even be a small message tucked away in there about how introducing an insane number of guns into a society makes it all the more likely that they will get used. Deal with it.

In one of the finest and quietest moments in the film, we are reminded (even if his fellow apes are never made aware) that Caesar was raised by a loving, caring human, and this simple fact makes him a creature torn between two worlds — an inner battle that Serkis is more than up to capturing in his extraordinary performance. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes appears to set up an even more devastating battle yet to come between apes and man, and the winner may not come down to firepower; it may be a matter of who has earned the right to survive. You can't help but be impressed by both the scale Reeves and company are taking on (he is returning to direct the next film as well) and the depths of social commentary being plumbed. No matter what you go summer movies for, I'm fairly certain this chapter in the Planet of the Apes saga will more than satisfy you.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Structured like an old-time mystery novel (the name Sherlock Holmes is dropped more than a few times by those interviewed), with the requisite sleaze, eccentric behavior, sex scandal, suspicious characters and dead bodies, the documentary The Galapagos Affair, from co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, gives as detailed an account as possible of a series of strange events taking place in the isolated Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador.

It began in 1929 with an unmarried German couple, Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch, who wished for a live of complete isolation, so they selected an uninhabited island Floreana in the Galapagos cluster of islands, far from the more populated island of Santa Cruz. But almost as soon as they arrive and establish themselves as the modern equivalent to Adam and Eve, the dour Ritter, a would-be philosopher and disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche, starts seeing his wife as a weak person (she had multiple sclerosis), incapable of fully appreciating the experience of living off the land. But within a few months, word of their social experiment began to spread, and a few other folks, including another couple and a self-proclaimed baroness and her two male "assistants," set up dwellings and tensions soon began to boil.

With access to some of the most unbelievable archival photos, movie footage (taken by a ship's captain who frequently visited the island to deliver supplies), and journal entries, letters and books written years later by some of those on the island, the filmmakers have pieced together an incredible account of people gone missing, dead bodies and a poisoning that may or may not have been accidental. But to break up that story, Goldfine and Geller (Frost, Ballet Russes, Something Ventured) conduct interviews with current residents to get a sense of the mindset and memories of folks who choose this largely cut-off existence. These segments probably go on for far too long, and by the time we figure out who among these interviews is actual a part of the main story, the film is already 30 to 40 minutes too long.

Acting as a counter to these extended moments of being taken out of the intriguing main story, the filmmakers use a host of well-known (at least to me) actors to add voice to the letters and journal entries that came out of those troubled times. Cate Blanchett (using the exact German accent she did in The Monuments Men), Thomas Kretschmann, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Sebastian Koch and even Josh Radnor bring some much-needed energy to this story that is told in so much detail that it can become frustrating at times, but never uninteresting.

I don't say this often, but I can easily see some motivated writer turning The Galapagos Affair into a feature film that would have a great array of costumes and enough mild sexual deviancy to keep the old folks hot under the collar. In almost every case, the voice actors selected for the film could make excellent on-screen counterparts for the characters for which they read. Without the intruding modern-day characters, the film might have a shot at generating a bit of heat. As it stands, there's certainly a little smoke — and where there's smoke, there's usually fire. It's a well-researched diversion and above-average curiosity. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Son of 70mm Film Festival

Quickly becoming one of my favorite film festivals in Chicago, the Music Box Theatre's second 70mm Film Festival (appropriately dubbed "Son of 70mm Film Festival") is a two-week, 10-film series that makes it possible for you to see some of the greatest, most epic films ever made (and a a few above-average, but no less visually spectacular titles) the way you will never get to see them at home or in a multiplex. Thanks to festival programmer and head projectionist Doug McLaren, the Music Box held onto its 70mm projector technology, making it the only theater in Chicago capable of showing films that were shot in 70mm the way they were meant to be seen.

Titles this year include a few returning films from last year's festival and quite a few new ones. If you haven't seen Lawrence of Arabia (opening the festival on July 11) in 70mm, you've never really seen it. Also included are the original Doctor Dolittle, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus, Brainstorm, Vertigo, Tron, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Patton and the return of Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent bit of brilliance, The Master.

Go to the Music Box Theatre's website for showtimes and to buy tickets in advance. A few of these shows sold out at last year's event, so don't get caught without a seat. Hope to see you there.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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