DEATH RACE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

DeathRace poster

Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Written by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke & Frederick Koehler

A lot of people despise Paul W.S. Anderson, but for my money, the man has made a few legitimately enjoyable films. His remake of DEATH RACE had been in the works since 2002. The script went through many rewrites and changed leading actors multiple times (Tom Cruise was originally slated to star at one point). After his disappointingly lame crossover ALIEN VS. PREDATOR that still managed to make a lot of box office bank, Anderson decided to helm a remake of the low-budget Roger Corman B-movie DEATH RACE 2000. Taking a more “serious” and “gritty” approach to the material, Anderson made a stupidly enjoyable guilty pleasure. This film is the closest thing we’ll probably ever get to a TWISTED METAL movie. While it definitely has noticeable problems, DEATH RACE is a fun ride nonetheless!

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In the distant future of 2012, the U.S. economy has crashed into the ground. This has resulted in: jobs being lost, desperate people trying to make ends meet, and a prison population soaring beyond a breaking point. Former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) has been laid off from his factory job, but his day is about to go from bad to worse because he’s been framed for his wife’s murder. Wrongfully convicted, Jensen finds himself thrown into the brutal Terminal Island Prison. Things begin to look up when warden Claire Hennessey (Joan Allen) makes Jensen an offer he can’t refuse. Hennessey runs a huge pay-per-view gladiator event within the prison called “Death Race.” This “race” puts vicious killers in heavily armored, weaponized cars and pits them against each other on a trap-laden track. If he wants a ticket out of Terminal Prison, Jensen must survive three rounds of combat-filled racing…but not everything is as it seems.

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No matter what piece of crap he might be starring in, Jason Statham always seems to command instant charisma and attitude. If there was a movie about a guy sitting on a toilet for 90-minutes straight, I’d probably watch it if Jason Statham starred in the leading role. With my admitted fandom for this bald British bloke, I’ll say that he makes a good action hero in this film. Though he’s pretty much playing the same tough guy type that he’s become known for, Statham was clearly having fun with the silly material and bulked up to an insane degree to play this revenge-driven racecar driver. As Ames, Statham growls, scowls, and also cracks the occasional one-liner. Joining Statham are a bevy of other familiar faces, some of whom probably only took these roles for a quick paycheck.

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Mainly known for the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, Tyrese Gibson gets into a totally different type of vehicle as the aptly named Machine Gun Joe. Though his character is a one-note thug, there are a couple of moments that attempt to give him a bit of a personality…including his knack for getting his navigator partners killed and remaining totally unscathed himself. Ian McShane plays the old, wise Coach and isn’t taking this movie seriously at all, which makes for a lot of fun. He whips out wise cracks, pulls funny faces, and tries to have one character driven conversation with Statham that only serves to make his old man character all the more enjoyable. Coach feels like James Whitmore’s librarian from SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION was turned into a cheesy B-flick sidekick and then given to Ian McShane.

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Natalie Martinez plays Statham’s navigator, Case. She only serves as eye candy though, which the film blatantly states in a bit of throwaway dialogue about female prisoners being thrown in to add sex appeal to the already trashy pay-per-view death races. Is it really so hard to believe that TV producers wouldn’t be doing something along the lines of DEATH RACE if society crumbled? We’ve already suffered through Honey Boo Boo for crying out loud. Still, the most surprising faces pop up in the film’s antagonists. Academy Award winner Joan Allen plays conniving warden Hennessey and seems to have taken this role purely for a paycheck, but she also receives one of the most mind-boggling one-liners I’ve heard in any action movie ever. This film is pretty much worth watching for that moment alone. Also, a young Jason Clarke makes an appearance as Hennessey’s smarmily sadistic security guard.

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For all of its fun silliness, DEATH RACE definitely has annoying faults that can’t be ignored. The actual rules of the race itself don’t make much sense in the scheme of the story. Ian McShane’s Coach explains that the first two races really don’t matter because they only serve as a means to slay the competition, which makes you wonder why keep the racing structure to begin with and not have a total free-for-all slaughter. There are also buttons on the track that function as Mario Kart-like activators for defenses and weapons in the cars. This means that DEATH RACE sort of feels like a video game with big actors, fiery explosions, and impressively constructed cars. As silly and stupid as that may sound, there’s dumb sense of entertainment to be found in DEATH RACE’s mindless violence and car-filled chaos. Even though the action scenes aren’t without some distracting shaky-cam and quick editing, they’re mostly well put together and feature plenty of cool demises.

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Despite running a bit too long, having many glaring plot holes, and featuring a closing credits warning that treats its viewers like morons (advising you not to create backyard Death Races of your own), DEATH RACE manages to retain a stupidly simple charm that makes it into a big dumb guilty pleasure for me. If you can turn off your brain for two hours, then you’ll probably enjoy this dose of dumb-as-a-rock action carnage. Not every movie has to strive to be high art. Different genres aim to accomplish different goals. Sometimes. all you want to do is cut loose and watch a stupid action movie with cheesy dialogue, over-the-top characters, dumb writing, and things going boom. DEATH RACE is the equivalent of cinematic junk food. You’re not likely to retain much from it, but it’s fun and satisfying while it lasts.

Grade: B-

EVEREST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

Everest poster

Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur

Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Thomas Wright

Having not read the book INTO THIN AIR (which many of my friends have endlessly recommended to me), I walked into EVEREST knowing next to nothing about the true events that inspired this film. I was sold strictly on the premise, cast, and marketing. This looked like an intense, beautifully shot, and emotional disaster flick. For the most part, it is. Though the sizeable cast and lengthy running time become detrimental to the storytelling, EVEREST serves as a thrilling “based on a true story” film in which a group of adventurers hike up the world’s tallest mountain and find themselves woefully unprepared for the danger that awaits them.

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The time is 1996 and various hiking organizations have set up camps at the base of Mount Everest. These groups (springing from New Zealand, America, South Africa, etc.) have taken it upon themselves to line the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain with various ropes and ladders. The purpose of this being that even mere novices could reach the summit of Mount Everest with a professional guide’s help. This year, New Zealander Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants has a rather large group of hikers and so does American Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Due to the sheer size of their teams and a potentially hazardous waiting time, the two men decide to combine their groups for an expedition to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately, nobody expects two vicious storms that arrive just as the group is turning around from the summit. This force of nature will cost some hikers their lives and inspire others to rise above overwhelming odds of certain death…

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Though pieces of the film were shot on location at the actual Everest base camp, most of the Mount Everest imagery is actually made up of the Otztal Alps in Italy. I’ll be damned if they’re not a convincing substitute. To be completely honest, the main reason you should see EVEREST is for the visuals alone. This film feels and looks huge. You get the sense that these characters are venturing into a place where Mother Nature has the ultimate upper hand. The cinematography, locations and sets all had me convinced that what I was seeing was real, if only for the two hours I sat in the theater. Speaking of which, the main way to experience this movie is on the big screen. For the sheer scope of the film, you will want to see it in a huge theater. I imagine that it won’t play nearly as well on home video or cable.

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As impressive as the visuals are and as harrowing as the film feels, EVEREST does encounter problems in both pacing and characters. We don’t simply start the film with the hikers venturing up Mount Everest, but get a long introduction of them trying to climatize to the environment because one does not simply climb Everest. This build-up portion of the film runs arguably a bit too long. That can be said for various other parts of the movie as well, even once the disaster is in full force. Rest assured, there are intense moments and I’m sure that the movie might hit the emotions harder of someone who has read INTO THIN AIR, but I felt the film noticeably dragged in spots.

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As far as characters go, there are a lot of them and EVEREST tries to juggle all of them equally. More time is definitely spent on Rob Hall (a well-cast Jason Clarke), Scott Fischer (the always solid Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin delivering the best performance of the film) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes in a memorable part). Little pieces are shined on other characters such as two guides who don’t get along, Hall’s pregnant wife, the frantic crew at base camp watching helplessly as the storm gets worse and a Japanese woman who has scaled seven summits. The film simply tries to cram too many people into one movie. As a result, aside from the four main guys we follow, it feels like other characters exist simply to die or to help the main characters survive as best they can.

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EVEREST is based on a real life expedition and that story is fascinating for those who take the time to read it (whether it be in a book or simply on a Wikipedia page). As a film, there are problems in both the pacing and characters. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram too much within the space of two hours, but also didn’t know how to keep the pace from dragging at points (this feels like two-and-a-half hours as opposed to two). There are emotional moments and I don’t regret watching this movie in the slightest, but the film can’t fully overcome its pacing and so-so characters. EVEREST is a good movie, but I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen or not seeing it at all.

Grade: B

TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Gunplay throughout, partial Nudity and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Lee Byung-Hun & J.K. Simmons

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I didn’t have high expectations for TERMINATOR: GENISYS. It would be an exaggeration to say that I’m a fan of the series. I appreciate the first TERMINATOR as a fun, cheesy piece of 80’s science fiction. I adore JUDGEMENT DAY and believe that it’s one of those rare perfect sequels that improves on its predecessor tenfold. In a perfect world, we would only have two TERMINATOR movies. Instead, the studio decided to cash in with RISE OF THE MACHINES, which is easily the worst movie in the franchise. In 2009, a throwaway effort was made in SALVATION which came off as a very flawed, slightly entertaining piece of fan fiction that somehow made it to the screen. It’s now July 2015 and the summer movie season keeps chugging along with a fifth TERMINATOR film. Where does GENISYS lie? It’s somewhere between the so-so SALVATION and the godawful RISE OF THE MACHINES.

TERMINATOR GENISYS

The year is 2029 and John Connor has led the resistance in the war against the machines to this final night. The war is coming to an end and Skynet has failed, but not before sending a Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (John Connor’s mother) in order to prevent John’s birth. When devoted soldier Kyle Reese volunteers to travel back to the 80’s to save Sarah, it seems like GENISYS might become an out-and-out remake of the first film, but things get a little wonky. Instead of finding the fragile waitress he expected, Reese discovers that he’s somehow wound up on an alternate timeline and Sarah is now a gun-totting bad-ass aided by a Terminator (whom she annoyingly named Pops) that saved her as a child. With various machines hunting them and new memories from this alternate timeline planted in his mind, Kyle discovers that there might be a way to stop Judgement Day from happening with the help of Sarah…and Pops (it pains me to type that name).

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There’s no beating around the bush on this one, GENISYS has a really stupid plot. However, I could sense that there were kernels of good ideas at its center. I dug the whole alternate timeline explanation and even a couple of areas that the film strays to during the second half. However, they’re not executed well. The movie throws the explanation of this being an alternate outcome thanks to events in the original TERMINATOR timeline and then doesn’t go on to explain certain other plot developments. I’m not a guy who needs every single detail spoon-fed to me, but there were a lot of plot holes in this script. In a groan-inducing moment, it becomes apparent that Skynet has changed from a 2003 computer virus (from the poorly aged third installment) to an app (which I’m sure will age just as horribly in a few years). I’ll refrain from spoilers (even though the marketing hasn’t) and just say that most of my major complaints with this screenplay come in the latter half of the film.

TERMINATOR GENISYS

Besides having a ridiculously convoluted story, GENISYS plays out somewhat like a TERMINATOR Greatest Hits album. There’s the T-800 from the original movie and call-backs to that first film. However, there’s also a T-1000 for some reason that’s never explained other than this movie needed a liquid-metal T-1000. Mercifully, the T-X (from the terrible third film) is nowhere to be seen. The special effects range depending on the scene. The liquid metal on the new T-1000 looks good and there are a couple of really enjoyable action sequences (a helicopter chase and a fight in a school bus stand out as my two favorite moments). This being said, the main villain (won’t reveal the spoiler in this review) looks very cheesy, especially in a final confrontation with Robo-Arnie. There’s also a battle sequence near the beginning that looks like PlayStation 2 graphics were distractingly inserted into the film too.

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The performances are hit-or-miss. Arnold Schwarzenegger nails his role as the Terminator (his aged appearance is explained in one of the more original twists in the script). He’s not to the degree that he was in JUDGEMENT DAY, but he’s far better than he was in RISE OF THE MACHINES. Arnie also delivers the only comic relief in the film that works aside from J.K. Simmons in the fun role of a baffled cop. Jason Clarke goes into over-the-top territory as John Connor. To me, Kyle Reese has always been a bland character, but it’s safe to say that Jai Courtney’s Reese is easily the blandest take we’ve seen on this already bland hero. In a surprising turn of events, Emilia Clarke is well cast as Sarah Connor. Though she can come off as too forced in moments, Clarke mostly owns the role of bad-ass heroine in a far more competent way that I was expecting.

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TERMINATOR: GENISYS is not the worst TERMINATOR movie. That disgraceful title still belongs to TERMINATOR 3, but GENISYS is the second-worst installment in the series. Everything in this movie is a mixed bag that has slightly more negative than positive. Some performances are enjoyable (Schwarzenegger, J.K. Simmons, Emilia Clarke), while others aren’t so good (Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke). A few of the effects look solid (those two aforementioned action scenes), while others look like cheap video game graphics. Finally, the script has interesting ideas and fails to execute them in a satisfying way that makes sense. TERMINATOR: GENISYS is a watchable, but useless fifth installment in a franchise that should have quit after the second film.

Grade: C-

CHILD 44 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, some Disturbing Images, Language and a scene of Sexuality

Child44 poster

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Written by: Richard Price

(based on the novel CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith)

Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine, Jason Clarke, Josef Altin & Sam Spruell

CHILD 44 sounded promising from the very beginning. The case of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo is disturbing beyond words and a lot of praise was being thrown on Tom Rob Smith’s best-selling novel. The big name cast made the film look even better and the trailer gave a promise of this being a potentially awesome thriller. However, the film’s wide release was abruptly cut to a mere 500 screens at the last possible second. This didn’t bode well and neither did some of the early reviews. Taking both of these signs with a grain of salt, I walked into CHILD 44 hoping for something that was reasonably well-executed. Over two hours later, I walked out frustrated beyond belief. CHILD 44 isn’t terrible, but it’s definitely the biggest disappointment of the year so far.

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Leo Demidov is an MGB agent in Stalin’s Soviet Union. His daily routine consists of taking his job very seriously, chasing down accused enemies of the state, and returning home to Raisa, his loving wife. When his best friend’s son is murdered and the MGB claims that the boy was hit by a train, Leo isn’t convinced and finds himself going down a rabbit hole of a vicious serial killer preying on children all across Russia. Things get more complicated when he finds himself disgraced by his superiors and his wife accused of treason. Leo races against time to stop the child killer from striking again…in spite of the overwhelming opposition surrounding him.

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I have not read CHILD 44, so I cannot fairly compare this film adaptation to the acclaimed novel. What I can say is that this script tried to pack too much into one movie. There are way too many plot threads and characters populating the film. As a result, the story feels muddled and unfocused. An argument could be made that CHILD 44 might have fared better as a miniseries (airing on HBO or Showtime) as opposed to the big budget flick that’s being set up to flop hard at the box office. Despite everything going on in this film and the high stakes of the mystery, I never felt fully drawn into any of it. The screenplay focuses too much on conspiracy angles and blunt political commentary as opposed to the main hunt for the serial killer who, you know, is slaughtering children across the country. The killer takes backseat to Soviet politics and that’s probably not the best way to sell you on this film.

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Aside from a couple of good performances, most of the A-list cast is totally wasted in throwaway parts. Over the years Tom Hardy has proven himself to be a dependable actor. That doesn’t change in his role of Leo, but the character is a cut-and-dry protagonist. There was a potentially difficult arc that could have been fleshed out in Leo turning from government enforcer to disgraced hero, but this is briefly glanced over. Noomi Rapace plays one of the most annoying and unlikable female characters that I’ve seen in quite some time as Raisa. Meanwhile, solid performers like Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassell, Jason Clarke, and Charles Dance are unceremoniously forgotten in small parts. Paddy Considine starts off as legitimately subdued and creepy in the role of the killer, but quickly devolves into a clichéd one-note villain delivering a groan-worthy monologue full of tired clichés. The best performance actually comes from Joel Kinnaman as a corrupt MGB officer who serves as the main antagonist…instead of, you know, the serial killer who’s murdering children.

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There are some nice things to say about CHILD 44. The film looks great and has a good atmosphere to it. A few scenes are well-executed, in spite of unnecessary shaky-cam moments. A confrontation on a train served as my favorite bit of the entire film and moments of Considine picking his victims are chilling. I was never totally bored during CHILD 44, mainly due to the political corruption angle lending a slightly interesting alternative to the tried-and-true procedural approach. However, the unfocused script and dreary pacing certainly didn’t do the film any favors.

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CHILD 44 is a shrug-worthy effort that could have possibly been a great thriller. Aside from a handful of brief spots, the film never builds up any real suspense. The frightening serial killer (inspired by the real case of Andrei Chikatilo) takes a back seat to political corruption. This angle is interesting enough, but made the film feel messy. Tom Hardy and Joel Kinnaman deliver good performances, but the rest of the A-list cast members are totally wasted. To me, CHILD 44 is the biggest cinematic disappointment of 2015 thus far.

Grade: C

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Starring: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Andy Serkis, Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell

I never loved the original PLANET OF THE APES series. Originally based on the French novel by Pierre Boulle and scripted by TWILIGHT ZONE creator Rod Serling, the 1968 film may be a noted classic in the science fiction genre, but plays out like a feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Plenty of sequels followed and a slightly underrated remake by Tim Burton attempted to jump-start the franchise again. When Fox announced a reboot/prequel in 2011, it seemed like this project was doomed from the start. After all, how can you make a solid story out of a scenario that we all know ends in such a nihilistic fashion? RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES surprised everyone and was one of the best films that the 2011 summer season had to offer. DAWN has the same end result. Not only is this one of the year’s best summer blockbusters (so far, it’s on the same level of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST for me), but one of the best films of 2014 so far. Who knew it could happen?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth

A decade after the Simian flu (released in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) has wiped out most of humanity, Caesar and his fellow apes have formed a civilization of their own. Contact with humans has been nonexistent, but that’s about to change. A group of survivors in the crumbled remains of San Francisco are desperate for a power source to communicate with the outside world and their only hope lies in a dam near the ape village. A man named Malcolm and a small group try to form a peaceful co-existence with the apes to get the power supply running in a few days’ time. Forces on both sides push things in negative directions. Tensions rise between and within both simians and humans. Needless to say that you already know where things wind up in PLANET OF THE APES and this is one step closer to that horrible fate.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, from left: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Kodi

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a story that doesn’t follow any specific formula that could be considered predictable from frame one, but has just enough familiarity to make everything being viewed play out in an enjoyable “I think I know where this might be going” way. The entire experience is a blast a kin to something like (it’s already been mentioned in plenty of other reviews and there’s definitely a strong case to made for it) the original STAR WARS trilogy. Running at just over two hours, not one solitary moment drags or is included for merely being filler. DAWN is exciting and (for me, at least) the best APES film so far in the franchise. Effort, care and heart was thrown into every frame on the screen. That’s what brings out true cinematic gems (not cashing in on the brand name of some nostalgic toy/cartoon from the past, trying to launch a new series to sell toys, or treating your audience like idiots). DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has the stuff to go down in film history as a phenomenal summer blockbuster that will delight future generations to come.

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Obvious parallels and power struggles are viewed in both the ape and human societies. I liked the inclusion of this and that it wasn’t too understated either. It showed that both sides in this ongoing battle have their faults. In the human society, the struggle is between Malcolm (played very well by Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (the ever-talented Gary Oldman). Though this battle of wills isn’t necessarily given a huge amount of screen-time, the main focus is where it should be: the apes themselves. That’s part of what made RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES so unexpectedly amazing. Returning to the front lines is Andy Serkis (reprising his Caesar role) and it’s been said everywhere else, but I’d just like to echo the sentiments that this man deserves an Oscar nomination. It’s a motion capture suit performance, but you can see his work in the body language and facial expressions of Caesar. A welcome addition is Toby Kebbell (who I mainly know as Johnny Quid in ROCKNROLLA) as the menacing Koba. Koba appeared in the first film as a memorable part of Caesar’s revolution and has a huge part to play here.

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The effects of the apes themselves (which was quite good in the first one) is even more stunning this time around. These CGI-animated animals look very real and in some cases, frightening. The action scenes don’t fill every minute of running time. In fact, there are a handful of them (a few of them lengthy), but every second has meaning behind them. The terrifically exciting finale has upped stakes to huge degrees as everything plays out in an exhilarating way. DAWN is made of compelling storytelling with spectacular effects, solid acting, and I felt like watching it all over again the minute it ended.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth

The closing minutes of DAWN aren’t necessarily filled with hope, as we all know where things eventually wind up, but turn out infinitely satisfying nonetheless. I can’t find a single complaint that I can level at DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. It’s one of the best movies of the year. I’m also glad that this is going to bank and that another film is due in 2016. It fills me with joy when films like DAWN and X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST do well at the box office. It’s a sign that intelligent, carefully constructed summer blockbusters still have a place in the movie scene. They always will. Fox packed a surprising one-two punch with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES in 2011. They did with the same this year and hopefully, will deliver with another knockout in 2016. Films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES will last in the same way that the original STAR WARS trilogy, BACK TO THE FUTURE, E.T., and other celebrated summer blockbusters have stuck around. This is a perfect movie all around!

Grade: A+

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