It’s time to get excited about post-apocalyptic primates and musical dramas. July will be sparse in terms of quality entertainment at the theater. These two movies give you a reason to get out and do something other than hate-watch Transformers 4. Yes, I’m still angry about that one.
Begin Again was originally titled “Can a Song Save Your Life?” when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. Since then, it has undergone the bland title change ala Edge of Tomorrow/About Time and is now Begin Again. This movie is director/writer John Carney’s follow-up to surprise 2006 critical darling “Once.” A large portion of the readers may have immediately glazed over, based on their feelings on that weighty musical drama.
This movie follows the same formula as Once, but utilizes fleshed-out characters this time around. Keira Knightley plays Greta. Her story shows her journey as she follows musician boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) to New York as he is on the cusp of manufactured stardom. Like any tragic lover-left-behind for stardom, she detests the music industry and barely makes an effort to sing her indie ballads in a bar full of apathetic people.
Meanwhile, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who is a washed-up former music exec turned professional alcoholic hears her song in the bar. He vows not to quit pestering her until she works with him and shares her music with a bigger audience.
The first section of the movie plays out of sequence. We see the characters in the seemingly inconsequential bar and then reverse to how exactly they got there, which they both believe is at the lowest point in their lives. I think the original title, while heavy-handed, really nailed the whole point of the movie. Without this chance encounter, each character would have continued their decline of misery and heartbreak.
Knightley doesn’t get far enough credit for her dramatic work. This role, as well as her role in Seeking a Friend at the End of the World, boost her credibility as one of Hollywood’s most consistent female leads. I questioned whether she was actually singing her parts as Greta because they sounded so good. I fact-checked and yes, she sings every song. She’s terrific. She’s the emo-folk star you never knew you needed.
This is an ugly role for Ruffalo. He lets it all hang out. He makes it incredibly difficult to empathize for his character when the movie starts. He is a failed father, he’s terrible at his job and is surely headed for rock-bottom. It’s only when he meets Greta and attempts to navigate through studio hurdles that he finds his passion again. Ruffalo plays this character turn convincingly, going from a guy you don’t care for to a someone who can find happiness in simple things.
This is a heavy movie. It’s full of heartbreak, lost chances and depression, but you constantly root for the characters. And when it gets too heavy, the songs will keep your interest. While there may not be a “Falling Slowly” standout track, the soundtrack is very consistently great.
Now onto Adam Levine. I have an issue with singers trying to expand their star power by acting in movies where they play singers (see also: Beyonce). You’ll never once believe that Adam Levine is any other character than Adam Levine. However, it’s an interesting role for him, because you see the progression from wide-eyed singer/songwriter to haughty superstar. You are meant to dislike his character and it becomes easy because he is Adam Levine.
Begin Again is a worth spiritual successor to Once. The soundtrack only complements the realism of the plot and the great character development. This isn’t a big-screen movie, but I will own it on Blu-Ray. If you’re sick of the hum-drum blockbusters, go check this out.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Planet of the Apes has a varied history that makes less sense than the timeline of the X-Men franchise. While it’s seen as little more of a camp classic than anything now, the Charlton Heston original is a great movie. It was followed by sequels that only got worse as they went. And the less said about the Tim Burton/Mark Wahlberg remake, the better.
When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out three years ago, I expected very little from it. It managed to be one of the biggest surprises of 2011. Now, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) takes over the franchise. Instead of being a possible surprise hit, there is a lot of hype going into this one.
Dawn picks up 10 years after Rise ended. The group of apes, baboons and gorillas led by Caesar have since built a society in the forests surrounding San Fransisco. The worldwide epidemic from the previous movie has spread across the globe. Those few people who were immune to the Simian Flu, ended up killing each other. While looking for a way to restore power to San Fransisco, a small search party has a run-in with Caesar’s group. Their interaction test the bonds of peace between man and ape.
Dawn starts off with immediate exposition that describes the calamity of the past ten years. If you still haven’t seen Rise, this will catch you up. But really, you should go watch Rise now. The first movie gives you the background of how Caesar was brought up. He wasn’t always the alpha ape. The first movie also shows why exactly Caesar is different from the rest of his shrewdness of apes (Yes, I looked that up). Caesar has an affinity for humans and it constantly brings up contention from other blood-thirsty apes. I’m not a fan of James Franco, but his relationship with Caesar was convincing and emotional.
That’s the thing with these movies. They rely on performance capture, led by Andy Serkis. The effects combined with Serkis’s natural talent bring Caesar to life. This movie focuses on the apes over the humans. It’s a risky move to showcase effects-driven characters as much as Dawn does. To date, this stands next to Smaug as the most convincing performance capture visuals in film.
Jason Clarke and Keri Russell lead the charge for the human group that spends time in the forest compound. They are serviceable, but are really just side characters of little importance because the apes are so prominent. Gary Oldman does little scene-chewing in his “villainous” role. His character actually matters because he doesn’t play him as a villain. Like the best villains, he is pursuing warfare for what he thinks are all the right reasons.
Everyone else pales in comparison to Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell. Kebbell steals the entire movie as Koba, the power-hungry ape still haunted by the tests that were once done to him. Every great shot and scene in Dawn belongs to Koba. Most of them are absolutely chilling. There is a scene in particular, where Koba takes over a tank and the camera tracks its unwieldy path in one long astounding shot. Summer blockbusters stand out when they make you gasp and actually take notice of the uniqueness happening on screen. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivers that feeling several times.
Once again, I recommend that you watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes to truly appreciate how these ape characters have progressed. Your enjoyment of this movie may rely on it. Unlike most summer movies, this one feels like there is something at stake. You almost don’t want the humans and apes to go to war, because someone you care about will die (and usually does). Only, Dawn puts you on the apes side of the battle.
Can the academy give Andy Serkis an Oscar already? Go see this movie!