Great 'Apes' and Guestploitation at Liberty Hall

When a new technological breakthrough happens in the realm of motion-picture visual effects, it’s often the best thing about the movie. Sometimes it’s the only thing worth remembering. How many times have you walked away from a mediocre film and said, “Well, the special effects were good”?

So it is with much admiration that I can say that Matt Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” makes a huge technological leap, and it’s all in service of the story.

Three years ago, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” rebooted the late '60s/early '70s B-movie franchise with a combination of motion-capture technology and actor performance that created completely CGI apes with facial expressions that read like human beings. But human beings still anchored most of the story.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” one-ups the need for believable CGI apes because most of its 130-minute running time is spent with apes, and they are the far more interesting characters.

Andy Serkis and a skilled team of motion-capture artists give life to Caesar, the hyper-intelligent ape that was dosed with an experimental drug and raised by biotech scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Ten years after leading an ape revolution in San Francisco, the “simian flu” has taken over the globe, and only small populations of human survivors that are immune to the virus remain.

When a group of humans (led by Jason Clarke as Malcolm) stumble upon Caesar and his clan in the woods, the idea of a peaceful coexistence seems like a possibility — at least for some.

News flash for newcomers to the series: the “Planet of the Apes” movies are not about apes fighting humans. They’re about humans fighting humans.

The enduring appeal of these movies (excluding Tim Burton’s atrocious 2001 remake) is that they can be metaphors for any simmering powder-keg conflict across the history of the world. In 1968, for example, the original “Planet of the Apes” tackled issues of racism (which one powerful scene in “Dawn” makes unflinching reference to.) If anything, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a sly comment on gun control, because one gun in the hands of an idiot — be it human or ape — is the source of all misunderstandings between the races in this movie.

The screenplay (from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) has a traditional western setup, featuring two diametrically opposed leaders on each side: one who favors peace and another who favors war.

One weakness of the film is that there isn’t a lot of color outside of this simple characterization. None of the human characters are drawn in three dimensions*, not even Gary Oldman as the trigger-happy leader of the human survivors. Great pains, however, have been taken to draw parallels between Caesar and Malcolm, two fathers who just want a brighter future for their kids.

Beyond the amazing CGI rendering and depth of human-like emotion in the Caesar character, Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”) himself isn’t much of a visual stylist. He’s a meat-and-potatoes story-oriented kind of director, which is why “Dawn” works so well. The action scenes are serviceable, and after a while, you don’t notice the special effects because they have become the reality of the movie — and isn’t that the greatest compliment of all?

  • Speaking of three dimensions, the 3-D version of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is utterly useless and does nothing to bring depth — visually or thematically — to the film.

Waiting for the Guestploitation finale

Christopher Guest has always at the forefront of improvisational comedy, and as co-writer and star of Rob Reiner's "This is Spinal Tap," he helped define an entire genre of mockumentary-style comedy.

In 1997, he branched out on his own in this genre with "Waiting for Guffman," another film that combines hilarious song parodies and utilizes his talented group of improv geniuses to great effect. On Thursday, Liberty Hall closes out its three-film Guestplotation series with a showing of "Guffman," the most riotous of the bunch.

What all of Guest's films have in common is that they focus on a hyper-niche group of people who consider their one true passion to be the most important thing in the world. In "A Mighty Wind," it's folk music. In "Best in Show" it's the dog-show circuit. In "Waiting for Guffman," it's theater.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of theater people will find hundreds of inside jokes and references in the movie, which hilariously skewers the big-time attitude and aspirations of wannabe director Corky St. Clair (Guest) as he puts on an anniversary pageant in small-town Missouri, but acts like he's on Broadway.

"Guffman" is one of those films that can only be enhanced by seeing it with a big crowd of like-minded people laughing their collective asses off, so if you missed "A Mighty Wind" and "Best in Show" this month, you won't want to miss this one!


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