“Get on Up” Never Quite Stands Tall

Get on Up

Get on Up (Tate Taylor, 2014)

With a terrific central performance by Chadwick Boseman (42), Get on Up has what it needs to give “Godfather of Soul” James Brown his due respect, but is hampered by a messy script and pedestrian direction from Tate Taylor (who did a little better in The Help). Papa may “got a brand new bag,” but it’s a very mixed one, indeed.

Part of the problem is the film’s approach to chronology. It begins in 1993, although we don’t know that it’s then until the end, when we return to the same scene of James Brown walking backstage to the chant of a crowd calling his name. We then immediately jump back (not that far) to 1988, where we meet a seemingly confused Brown who brandishes (and shoots) a gun in a building he owns, and then we keep moving backwards, now to 1968 and Brown’s musical tour of Vietnam, where he performs for the troops. We make one final quick jump, to 1939, where Brown is a little boy with warring parents, the result of which feud leads his mother (a wasted Viola Davis, who should have won an Oscar for The Help) to abandon young Brown. Soon he is brought to a brothel run by an aunt, played by Octavia Spencer (much better served by this summer’s Snowpiercer), who becomes his de factor mother, and from then on we jump around from time period to time period, often without specific reason. Sometimes there are subtitles to the dates, explaining why they’re important, and sometimes not. Sometimes Bozeman breaks “the fourth wall,” to address the audience directly, and sometimes not. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.

Which is too bad, since Bozeman (who, according to the credits, lip-synched to Brown’s original vocals) brings great energy and charisma to his turn as the singer. After seeing what Bozeman did in 42 and here, it would be great to see him next create a role from the ground up, without benefit of biopic research. It would also be wonderful to see him act in a movie with a better script. Still, he is almost worth the price of admission, as is Nelsan Ellis (“True Blood“) as his long-suffering friend and lieutenant, Bobby Byrd. It’s a very mixed bag, indeed.

Affably Silly “Guardians of the Galaxy” Is a True Summer Pleasure

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

Until I first saw a trailer for this new superhero fantasy from Marvel Comics, I had never heard of the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” though it appears that these characters have existed in some form since 1969 (the year of my birth!). Still, something in the irreverent tone of that trailer caught my fancy, and given the relatively lackluster commercial fare on offer so far this summer, I went into the screening with some hope of having a good time. And I did. I am happy to report that Guardians of the Galaxy could be the big-budget blockbuster film you’ve been waiting for since June: action-packed, funny, slickly produced, with a decent script and (for the most part) interesting characters. With an extremely likable Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation“) leading the way, Guardians may be silly and derivative (shades of Star Wars in the poster, to begin with), but it’s also a terrific piece of escapist sci-fi entertainment. Zoe Saldana (AvatarStar Trek) – she of the ever changing on-screen skin color – and Bradley Cooper (The HangoverAmerican Hustle) – who here lends his voice to that of a surgically altered space raccoon – add their talents to the mix, to great results.

The movie begins on Earth in 1988, when the lead character – then a boy, but soon to grow up to be Chris Pratt – is kidnapped by a group of interstellar mercenaries just at the moment of his mother’s death, never to return. One of the recurring jokes in the film is that Peter Quill (Pratt) has a knowledge of pop culture stuck in our planet’s 1970s and 80s. When next we meet him, he is now an outlaw, himself, who very soon finds himself at the unwelcome center of a plot to destroy the universe. He may be a thief, but he’s not a psychopath. Thrown in jail after a failed heist, he joins forces with a ragtag band of fellow misfits and felons. The usual trial period of arguments and tests of friendship ensue – again, the plot is not going to win any points for originality, though the world and character details make up for that – before our characters become a true team.

Unpretentious, light-hearted and well-acted, Guardians of the Galaxy blends just the right combination of humor and action to be a near-perfect summer movie. It may be silly, but that’s all part of the appeal. I highly recommend.

Learning to Be a Man in Linklater’s Powerful “Boyhood”

Boyhood

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

The story of how Richard Linklater (Dazed and ConfusedBefore Sunrise, etc.) made his new film, Boyhood, is almost more interesting than the film, itself (although the movie is quite fine), and for the full story, I direct you to the movie’s press kit. There, you will discover how Boyhood was shot over the course of 12 years, using the same actors in the same roles, allowing them to age with their characters. Since the protagonist, Mason (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane), begins the film as a 6-year-old boy and ends it as an 18-year-old man, we see him change in ways profound and moving. While at first he is tentative and awkward (though always at ease in front of the camera), by the end of the journey (at 165 minutes, a long – but not arduous – one in cinematic terms) he has grown into a young person of singular individuality and winning charisma. For that, alone, the film is worth watching. That it is so much more than that is a tribute to Linklater’s powers as a writer and director.

Mason comes from a broken home, in which his mother (a strong Patricia Arquette) has separated from his father (Ethan Hawke, charming as always), leaving him and his older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, a perfect match for Coltrane) to deal with a succession of alcoholic step-fathers (Arquette’s mother is a good parent with bad choice in men). The film is the story of how Mason and his sister survive and prosper through a childhood that sees them relocate innumerable times. Their life is not always pretty, but it is full, and full of love and support. I found the scenes between Hawke and Coltrane to be among the most touching in the film: the absent father doing  his best to remain connected to his sensitive offspring.

The film is also an object of raw visual beauty, with stunning shots of Texas’s Big Bend National Park interspersed with more mundane shots of various Texas towns, all of it combined into a lovely tapestry of the everyday details that comprise a life lived by regular folks. As such, it is the perfect antidote to the bloated Bayhem of Transformers: Age of Extinction, and is the must-see film of the final months of summer. It opens at Baltimore’s Charles Theater today.

Why I Don’t Love “Lucy”

Lucy

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

If Stanley Kubrick‘s least original pupil married John Woo‘s most scattered (yet devoted!) disciple, had a child together – perhaps watching Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life at the moment of conception – and named her Lucy, she’d probably look a lot like this new film from French action-thriller writer/director Luc Besson (La Femme NikitaThe Fifth Element). Besson has almost always made films that combined the fantastic with ultra-violence – some of which are quite fine, such as his first (and my favorite) feature, the post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat – and here he is at it again in a story about what happens when one woman’s brain function increases from 10% to 100% power over the course of 24 hours … as she is trailed by Korean gangsters out for her blood. I have often found much to admire in Besson’s visual imagination, and much to lament in the illogic and near-idiocy of his scripts and dialogue, which has gotten worse with each film. Unfortunately for me, the latter overwhelmed the former in Lucy.

Scarlett Johansson – having a banner year with films like Under the Skin and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – plays the titular Lucy, a young American out for a good time in Taipei, Taiwan. Unfortunately for her, she picks the wrong boyfriend, and soon finds herself a captive of Korean mob boss “Oldboy” (sorry, that would be Min-sik Choi, who played him in another, better movie), who surgically sticks a large package of a synthetic blue crystalline drug (shades of “Breaking Bad“) in her abdomen, making her the most unwilling of drug mules. Unfortunately for him, his underlings can’t keep their hands off of her, and when she resists the rape, they kick and punch her until the drug seeps into her system, making her suddenly a superwoman. Why? It’s “CPH4,” ostensibly derived from the regenerative chemical inside a woman’s womb, and large amounts of it ingested all at once will apparently turn one into a deity.

Meanwhile, back at the academic ranch, Morgan Freeman – seen earlier this year in the equally ridiculous science fiction caper Transcendence – somewhere in Paris, is conveniently giving a PowerPoint lecture (reduced to bullet-point level) on what happens to the human brain when it is able to access more than its (he says) normal 10% usage capacity. Freeman imbues his scientist with all of the gravitas for which he has become known, but even he cannot make the reductive pseudo-intellectual discourse make sense. Eventually, we can guess, Lucy will find him, and perhaps he will be able to help her, or she him. But about those Korean gangsters . . .

If all you want is a good time, with reductive repeats of action scenes and car chases you’ve seen before, with actors who’ve done better work elsewhere, with all of it dressed up in the trappings of high-concept sci-fi, then Lucy just might work for you. But unlike, say, the last Captain America or this summer’s Snowpiercer – both of which gave us plenty of gun fights and choreographed violence, but also smart scripts – Lucy performs the opposite trick on its audience than it does on its heroine: we feel increasingly dumber as the film progresses. By the time the movie was over, my brain was truly mush.

There is one thing Besson tries for which I’ll give him credit, and it’s in the editing. Right from the start, he creates a series of Eisensteinian montage sequences where he jumps away from the main action for a second to show us a narratively unrelated image that then informs the next shot to which he cuts. True, this is as derivative as the rest of his film, but at least it’s interesting.

*Spoiler alert* Given what happens to Johannson’s character at the end of the film, perhaps the best and only way to view the inanity of Lucy is to read it as a weird hallucinatory prequel to last year’s Her. Ever wonder where that movie’s OS, Samantha, came from? Well, now you know.

If You Let It, “Venus in Fur” Will Dominate Your Senses

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)

Whether or not one finds Roman Polanski a great artist, a problematic human being, or both (there’s a terrific 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that explores his sexual crime of the 1970s), he proves in his new French-language film, Venus in Fur, that he can still direct a powerfully affecting story. Given that this movie takes place in a single location with only two actors, who spend all of their time talking to each other without the benefit of visual effects (unless one considers lead actress Emmanuelle Seigner’s leather corset one such effect), Polanksi’s feat in creating such a cinematically gripping tale out of such spare tools is especially remarkable. True, it all breaks down and descends into a bit of forced hokum at the end, but until it does, Venus in Fur is a movie that dominates your head, your heart and possible other parts unmentioned.

The film is based on a play by David Ives (who collaborated with Polanksi on the screenplay adaptation), which was, itself, inspired by the 1870 Austrian novel of almost the same title, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name, because of this book, formed the basis of the word “Masochism”). The story is that of one Thomas Novachek, a playwright (and first-time director) who has just adapted von Sacher-Masoch’s book for the stage. At the end of a hard day of terrible auditions, as Thomas is preparing to leave the deserted theater for a relaxing dinner with his fiancée, in walks a bedraggled woman of uncertain age and provenance, who introduces herself as Vanda (the same first name as the main woman in the book and play), and declares that she is there (albeit late) for an audition. She has even come with costumes, including a modern leather dominatrix outfit (which Thomas sneeringly derides as anachronistic) and a 19th-century dress. She is working-class and vulgar, and not at all in the mold of the character that Thomas has written, yet after some back and forth, she manages to convince him to let her read. And then, suddenly, she metamorphoses into an almost perfect incarnation of the woman of Thomas’s words (and, possibly, dreams).

What follows is a delightful series of short vignettes of the play within the movie – a play which appears to be about one man’s obsession with seeking pleasure from pain and punishment at the hands of a dominant woman – interrupted by frequent breaks when Vanda insists on questioning the themes of the play, and Thomas’s motives in writing it. Slowly, this woman whom Thomas initially treats as his own private Pygmalion begins to take over the action, turning Thomas from creator/dominator to creation/submissive. It’s a fascinating progression, and the two leads incarnate their characters with wit, wisdom . . . and no small amount of sexiness. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, among many terrific roles), one of France’s finest actors – and here coiffed à la Polanski, becoming the film director’s doppelgänger on screen – gives a performance imbued with the usual thoughtfulness we have come to expect from him, along with a touching nervousness I had not seen before. It is Seigner (also in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which she played Amalric’s long-suffering wife), however, who is the revelation here. Earlier in her career, in movies from her husband Polanski’s fallow period, such as FranticBitter Moon and The Ninth Gate, she demonstrated an almost embarrassingly shallow range of emotions. But in the last 10 years she has grown as an actress, and now in her late 40s is a magnificent and nuanced screen presence. The way she makes her Vanda instantly jump from 19th-century diction to 21st-century patois is a marvel to behold. See the movie for her (and her boots!). True, for this viewer, the ending became too obvious and clumsy for me to call the entire film great, but until those final 15 minutes I was hooked.

Midday on Film, 7/25 @ 1pm: Hits, Misses, Sleepers & Indies – The Narrative of Summer 2014

[NOTE: If you missed the show, check out the podcast]

Rodricks Summer 2014 Movies Blog Image

It’s that time of year again, when we review the films of the summer blockbuster season – those in theaters, those that have come and maybe gone, and those soon to be released – and make our recommendations of what to see and what to avoid. From Transformers: Age of Extinction to Snowpiercer to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to Think Like a Man Too to Obvious Child to Life Itself and beyond, we’ve got your summer movie needs covered.

Join us on Friday, July 25, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss the hits, the misses, the sleepers and the independent releases (now often called “specialty market” or “limited debut” films).

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

Roger Ebert Embodies “Life Itself” in All Its Glory

Life Itself

Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)

Documentary director Steve James (Hoop DreamsThe Interrupters) began filming Roger Ebert five months before he died. Just as they began making the movie, Ebert was admitted to the hospital with a pain in his hip, which turned out to be a cancerous tumor. This followed a series of health issues that began in 2002, when the then 60-year-old film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times (made famous through his long-standing collaboration with Gene Siskel) was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which ultimately led to the amputation of his lower jaw in 2006. In spite of that history, neither James nor Ebert, nor Ebert’s wife, Chaz, could have foreseen that Ebert would die (in April, 2013) before the project upon which they had just embarked would be completed. They had intended the film to be a celebration of Ebert’s life as a man, critic and thinker. It would have been nice for Ebert to see this moving tribute to him, but his death in no way inhibits the power of the encomium: indeed, taking its title from Ebert’s 2011 autobiography, the film is a most fitting eulogy, revealing Ebert in all his great humanity and intellect.

At times the film is hard to watch, since Ebert allowed himself to be filmed during his final days, and seeing the once vital television presence reduced (physically, not mentally) to a shell of his former self is painful. Still, though the lower part of his face may loosely flap where the jaw used to be, Ebert’s eyes remain bright throughout. Narrated by James, the film also includes interviews with Chaz, Ebert’s friends, his colleagues, filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, one of the film’s producers, who wasn’t always well-reviewed by Ebert), as well as fellow critics (who didn’t always agree with him). We see archival footage from some of the many tapings of his show with Siskel (including behind-the-scenes sniping between the two, which is funny), as well as from some of his innumerable appearances at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s annual Conference on World Affairs, plus home videos of his life with Chaz and her children and grandchildren. We learn a lot more about the man (who won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 1975), but for me to reveal all it in this review would spoil your pleasure in discovering the information, yourself. Suffice it to say that the film is about a powerful populist thinker who never doubted the ability of anybody, anywhere, to appreciate art as entertainment, entertainment as art, and to see thoughtful ruminations on both as one of the reasons we were put on this earth. As much as he loved movies, however, he also loved Chaz and his family, and life, itself.

This is the movie to see this weekend in Baltimore (it’s playing at the Charles Theater). Go.

In “Sex Tape,” Diaz and Segel Avoid Complete Disaster, So There’s That . . .

Sex Tape

Sex Tape (Jake Kasdan, 2014)

Wow! There is not a single “top critic” on the film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes that liked this film. The two reviews I read before seeing the movie were in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and both made it seem as if the film would be a yawn from start to finish (and a messy yawn, at that). So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing in many parts, enjoying some clever comic mise-en-scène (when it happened), and even admiring the way the film put a loving married couple at the center of a raunchy sex comedy. True, the film is crass and stupid in many ways, and completely falls apart in the last third, but before it comes unraveled it provides some decent laughs. While not as good as the previous outing from the team of director Jake Kasdan and stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, Bad Teacher, it still manages to entertain (for a while, at least). if that’s damning with faint praise, so be it, but the film is far from the unmitigated disaster that reviews would lead one to believe it is.

What comedic success there is is due in no small part to the efforts of Diaz and Segel and a new partner in crime, Rob Lowe (who has long been proving his comic timing on the TV show “Parks and Recreation“). Diaz and Segel play Annie and Jay (loving parents of two tweener kids), whose once-active sex life we see in flashback as Annie narrates a blog post she writes as the film opens. Like so many other married on-screen couples before them, Annie and Jay now have to find time to schedule sex, and it’s getting them down. One night, after Annie has successfully closed a deal to sell her blog to a company owned by Hank (Lowe), they pack the kids off to grandma’s, drink tequila, and after failing to have sex numerous times (they’re just too out of practice), drunkenly hit on the idea of filming themselves (on a new iPad) re-enacting all of the positions in Alex Comfort’s 1970s sex manual The Joy of Sex. Bingo! Flash forward to the next morning, when Annie tells the groggy Jay to make sure to delete the file. He says he’ll do it.

Except he doesn’t, and because of a strange habit (which strains credulity) he has of giving away his older iPads every time he buys a new one, and keeping those older iPads synchronized with his current music (and, accidentally, movie) playlists, through an app he thinks he understands (but doesn’t), suddenly the “sex tape” is in the possession of more than just Annie and Jay. Whoops. The rest of the film sees the panicked couple running around trying to collect the donated iPads (because Jay only later learns that he can “remote wipe” the playlists from his home computer), resulting in ever-more-desperate adventures. One such adventure lands them at Hank’s house, since Annie (in another move that strains credulity) has just that day given Hank (who hardly needs it) one of Jay’s used devices. But stupidly plotted though Hank’s involvement may be, the resultant mayhem is well worth watching, and the funniest part of the movie.

And then, yes, the story veers wildly out of control, though we do get one more funny cameo, this time from Jack Black (Bernie) as the head of their friendly local internet porn site, YouPorn (to which I will not link here). But the messes do pile up, and it becomes harder and harder to root for team Annie-and-Jay. Still, if you’re not too picky, the film provides decent slapstick before the energy disappears. It’s not great, but it’s not a total cock-up, either.

“Begin Again,” oh “Chef” – Two Films About Keeping It Simple, Stupid (Sort of)

Better late than never, right? I finally got around to seeing two films that have been in theaters for a bit (especially Chef, which opened in May), and found that they shared similar themes. Turned off by the usual bloated blockbuster fare (which has led to lower-than-hoped-for box office returns)? Perhaps these two simpler stories can entice you back to the cinema again. Neither are great masterpieces, but they entertain with charming stories and likable characters, and without massive explosions (imagine that).

Begin Again

Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

Written and directed by John Carney, who also wrote and directed the surprise 2006 hit (in indie terms) Once (since turned into a Broadway musical), Begin Again sells the virtues of not selling out and staying true to one’s artistic vision. Perhaps Mr. Carney has some concerns about his own career trajectory, but if that is what has motivated him, at least he has put those concerns into a sweet story of fall and redemption, with another almost-romance at its center, where two people in need of a fresh start meet not-so-cute, find mutual attraction, and make each other’s lives better without falling into the sack. Put like that, it sounds just like the plot of Once, in fact, except that this time, we’re in New York, rather than Dublin.

Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a songwriter (and sometimes singer) – whose rising-rock-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5, perfect for the part) has just ditched her on his way up – who meets Dan (Mark Ruffalo, charismatically rumpled, as always), an alcoholic former hot-shot music producer whose luck has completely run out. In spite of his lack of assets, Dan convinces Gretta to let him produce an album of her songs, to be recorded live on the streets of New York, rather than in a studio (since he doesn’t have access to one, anyway). He manages to put together a band of decent backup players, and off they go. Along the way, we meet Dan’s estranged wife and daughter, who look initially askance at his redemptive effort, but eventually buy into it. We also glimpse Gretta’s ex, Dave, as he releases his own – overly produced and mastered – album, by way of contrast. Of course, Gretta’s music is purer, as is her surprise decision, at the end, of what to do with it.

Except that, as lovely as the movie and central characters are, the problem with the film is that Gretta’s music is not that pure. We spend a lot of time with Ruffalo in the beginning as he listens to demo CDs sent his way, ranting about how bad they are, and so are primed to expect better from the songs he creates with Gretta. So it’s a bit of a disappointment when we hear how ultimately ordinary (and overly produced-sounding) they turn out to be. Still, there are a few moments in the film where Knightley – an actress I generally do not enjoy, yet very much do here – surprises us with the sweetness of her voice as she sings acoustic versions of her character’s compositions. Would that Carney had stuck with those recordings. Nevertheless, Begin Again turns out to be a genuinely pleasurable experience, and a welcome reprieve from the Bayhem madness of 2014.

Chef

Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014)

Chef is another film about someone deciding to simplify his life in the aftermath of a major crisis. Written and directed by writer/actor-turned-director Jon Favreau, who started with the cult hit Swingers, in 1996, and then rose to the top of the Hollywood pyramid with Iron Man and Iron Man 2, before making the box-office and critical flop Cowboys & Aliens in 2011. Chef is the first feature he has directed since that particular fiasco, and in it he seems to be trying to return to the days when he wrote character-based stories that were not heavily dependent on special effects. The result is a likable, if slight, dramedy (heavier on the comedy than drama) that, like Begin Again, may not stay with you for long after you see it, but which offers a pleasant enough diversion while you’re watching it. Be forewarned however: do not go into the movie hungry, or you might not make it to the end of the screening, as food and cooking is in abundance, and very tempting, indeed.

Favreau (always an enjoyable screen presence) plays Carl Casper, a divorced father of one and celebrity chef in Los Angeles, who one day loses his cool over a negative review from top food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt, doing his thing). He confronts said food critic at his table, and the filmed confrontation (smartphones and social media play a big role in the story) goes viral. Suddenly, Chef Carl is out of a job. So his loving ex-wife, Inez (Sofia Vergara, playing a variation on her “Modern Family” role), invites him to tag along on a trip to see her father in Miami, ostensibly so he can finally have some time with the son, Percy (Emjay Anthony, cute), he rarely sees. Carl soon figures out that she is also scheming to set him up in a food truck owned by ex-husband #1 (Robert Downey, Jr: Iron Man, himself), an idea the two of them had once discussed when still together. Soon, sous chef pal Martin (John Leguizamo, also doing his thing) flies out to join them, and before you know it, the two men and Percy (with mom’s permission) are off on a road trip across America to recapture the essence of what makes food important. As a metaphor for retooling the mechanics of storytelling in the face of big-budget disaster, it’s perfect.

It’s also a little pat, and once the road trip starts, a little simple. How do they get permits to sell everywhere? How can they constantly find such great ingredients everywhere? Isn’t riding as a passenger in a food truck, without seats or safety blest, dangerous, especially for a little kid? Well, sure, these are important questions, but it’s also possible to just forget about verisimilitude for a bit and enjoy the ride. Favreau, Leguizamo, Anthony and Vergara (when she’s around) are such fun performers, with great chemistry, and the food looks so scrumptious, that it seems almost a shame to quibble over details. And it’s hard to argue with a film that promotes family unity and love as a central message. So, if possible, leave the cynicism at home, sit back and enjoy the tasty repast. You may be hungry for something more substantial, later, but in the meantime, it’s a hell of a snack.

Chimps Rule in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

Summer is always a tough time to be human at the movies, and now we have a new threat from neither zombies nor aliens but – gasp – animals: in fact, from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. For those of you who saw the first film in this rebooted series, the terrific Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you know that this is a very serious threat, indeed. Whereas in the original 1968 film, Planet of the Apes (based on the 1963 novel of the same name by French author Pierre Boulle) – and the four sequels it spawned – the reason behind apes becoming the dominant species on our planet had to do with a time loop (as in, a talking chimp came back from the future to create the new race of talking chimps), in this new series the root cause of our own destruction is – as in all good disaster films – hubris. James Franco, in Rise, playing a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s, creates a virus to increase brain power, which is first tested on chimpanzees. When one such chimp goes on a rampage, forcing the owner of the lab to order all of the animals to be put down, Franco is unable to destroy the baby of that rampaging mother, and takes him home to raise as, more or less, his own child, naming him Caesar. By the end of the film, young Caesar leads a large group of liberated primates – all with enhanced intelligence, like himself – into Muir Woods, outside San Francisco. The movie ends ominously: though the apes are free, the very same virus that makes them super-smart is also deadly to humans, and we see an infected airline pilot walking through a crowded airport, coughing blood, as the credits roll.

One of the most interesting aspects of that first film is the fact that our sympathies lie so strongly with Caesar, rather than with the humans. True, we like James Franco, but we love Caesar. A CGI creation, Caesar is nevertheless acted by a real person, Andy Serkis (Golem in The Lord of the Rings films), a “performance capture” guru, whose movements and vocalizations form the basis for the animations laid down later. As Caesar grows from a baby into a mature adult, we feel he pain as his realizes how the world sees him and his ilk. Since we know he is smarter than many humans, we react viscerally to the mistreatment he suffers when Franco is forced to give him up to a shelter. I found it fascinating to be identifying with a character whose actions will eventually lead to the destruction of my own species. I enjoyed the way the film makes us question our allegiances, and makes us see the world through the eyes of our ostensible enemy.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which takes place 10 years after Rise, the virus – now called the “Simian Flu” – has wiped out most of the world’s human population. Our friends, the liberated chimpanzees (and gorillas and orangutans), have spent the time building a lovely community in the redwood forest. They follow Caesar without question, and he now has one adolescent son and another baby on the way. It’s been a few years since the last sighting of any humans when, one day, a small search party of men – and one woman (Keri Russell, fine but under-written) – led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke, very good), wanders into the woods, looking for a hydro-electric dam to restore power to the nearby city. Things do not go well – a young chimp is shot, and the humans chased away – which leads to a series of escalating confrontations and, eventually, full-out war. Caesar tries to keep the peace, but a rival of his, Koba, works behind the scenes to strike at the humans “while they’re weak” (it seems that Koba has very nasty memories of his time in captivity). Since chimpanzees are significantly stronger than humans, once an army of them gets a hold of guns, the few remaining humans who have not succumbed to the virus don’t stand a chance.

Much more than in the first film, this movie is all about the apes and their internal relationships and politics. Jason Clarke and Keri Russell try hard to make us care about their own situation, but the script keeps returning us to the problems of Caesar vs. Koba. The movie even opens and closes on a close-up of Caesar’s eyes (as if to make the point that, the closer you get, the less they look “other”). Indeed, Dawn is at its best – better than its predecessor – when it focuses on the primates. It is at its worst – worse than its predecessor – when it brings us back to our own kind (when a young soldier dies, and Gary Oldman, as the leader of the human resistance, looks at him, stricken, we struggle to feel involved). That said, one of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Caesar returns to the home he grew up in and watches a video of himself as a baby, with Franco teaching him. We may not feel the pain of the loss of humans, but Caesar clearly does.

Helmer Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) does an excellent job taking over from Rupert Wyatt, who directed the last one, but he can’t quite surmount the primate/human empathy gap embedded in the script. At 130 minutes (25 minutes longer than Rise), the movie also feels a little long in parts (mainly the battle scenes). Still, in the dismal movie season that is summer 2014, so far, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stands out as a work of serious science fiction that both entertains you and makes you entertain serious thoughts about the nature of life and humanity. It’s well worth watching.

One last thing: though the 3D is actually quite beautiful, it doesn’t necessarily add to the experience, so consider sparing yourself the money and the headache and seeing it in 2D.