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‘Hercules’ never claims to be better than it is

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Hercules (2014)

Directed by Brett Ratner

6/10  PG-13

The Greco-Roman demi-god Hercules has screen credits in nearly 100 films and TV shows since 1915. “Hercules,” the newest vision of the beefcake warrior from director Brett Ratner (the “Rush Hour” trilogy), isn’t even the first one released this year. His story didn’t need to be told again. But, like it or not, it was.

Hercules-2014-Dwayne-Johnson-Desktop-Images“Before he was a legend, he was a man.” That’s the trashy tagline they wanted to go with. Hercules (played by a bulked up Dwayne Johnson) and his band of mercenaries (including the delightful Ian McShane) are called upon by a king (John Hurt) to save a city from a group of rebels who had begun a civil war. He soon learns that he’ll have to train a group of farmers to become warriors, but his makeshift army is also going to be highly outnumbered. Can Hercules live up to the legend surrounding him, plus the high expectations of the king?

This predictably tacky plotline is brought to you by Evan Spiliotopoulos, writer of “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie” and other infamous Disney sequels (including…and I hope this is just a coincidence and not the reason this guy was brought in to help…”Hercules 2″); and Ryan Condal, who had never written a feature-length movie before this. But “Hercules” treads the line between atrocity and intentional schlock. An argument could be made that, considering their use of modern English vulgarity and consistent light-hearted humor, “Hercules” knew it was subpar entertainment.

Dwayne Johnson made “Hercules” his passion project, and that becomes apparent as he flexes his muscle (his literal muscles…not hercules-2014-irina-shayk-wallpaper_1472812444necessarily his acting muscle) and gives the appearance as though he loves what he is doing. It’s contagious. “Hercules” shows off Johnson’s natural abilities with an abundance of exciting fight scenes using fists, swords, clubs, bows, arrows, and an assortment of other diverse fighting mechanisms. It’s visually appealing, tastefully done, and makes hating this movie extremely difficult. As lousy as it is, it’s a good terrible, not a bad terrible. It’s exactly what you’d expect after you’ve look at people involved. You can’t help but get caught up in the fun of it all, even if it’s just another predictable, recycled story about a millennium-old has-been. To clarify, I’m referring to Hercules…not The Rock.

“Hercules” is now in theaters.

‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith': C’mon, you’ve made it this far

Star Wars - Revenge Of The Sith (2005) by Drew Struzan

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Directed by George Lucas

7/10  PG

Everyone loves an underdog story. That’s one of the reasons why “Revenge of the Sith”—which sees Jedis mercilessly (but also bloodlessly…thanks, lightsabers!) being killed left and right as the Sith takes control—is superior in almost every way to Episode II, “Attack of the Clones.” Episode III starts and ends with engrossing action and excitement—not only lightsaber battles but interesting plot that you care about. Sure, some of the scenes are little more than set-up for the original trilogy that absolutely Star-Wars-Revenge-of-the-Sithneeds to be there. If it wasn’t, the two trilogies couldn’t be considered at all congruent. But for the most part, you get giddy excitement meeting Chewbacca, watching Darth Vader come to life, and seeing where the original “Star Wars” characters come from.

The galaxy is in shambles. Senator Palpatine (“I am the Senate!”) is one of the only proponents of an intergalactic war (did someone say 2005 Iraq?). But Anakin (Hayden Christianson, better this time), his newly appointed special counsel, is beginning to see Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) point. But that’s also a shift to the dark side. The Sith makes a comeback as all of our favorites (Obi-Wan, Yoda, Padme, Mace Windu) are scattered about the galaxy trying to keep the peace. It’s not happening.

Now more than ever, each actor and actress has skin in the game. They are their character. Natalie Portman and Christianson make huge strides, both looking much more comfortable (even, maybe, impressive) in their roles. Ewan McGregor is more fun than ever, the Obi-Wan that I loved, grew up with, and once dressed as for Halloween (blue lightsaber, ponytail, and all). As Mace Windu, the money-grubbing Samuel L. Jackson seems out of place. He’s too American, or something. His voice isn’t distinguished enough to still-of-hayden-christensen-in-star-wars--episode-iii-revenge-of-the-sith-(2005)-large-picturegalactic dialogue. Plus, he demanded he have a uniquely colored lightsaber (purple) so he’d be cool and stand out. Dumb!

Hey look! They finally got the CGI right! Not perfect, mind you, but much better and less obvious than before (okay, so the volcano scene must have been tough to make realistic). And the dialogue has that distinct “Star Wars” feel that only Liam Neeson could pull off since the original three. The lines of dialogue are more respectable, believable, even memorable at times. And many of the lines are pulsing with intense emotion (or loud shouting…Hayden).

You have fun watching the story of the original “Star Wars” trilogy come together in this exciting third prequel. While I have a nostalgic love of Episode I, it may be “Revenge of the Sith” that comes away as the best of the second trilogy. I guess you’ll have to find out for yourself!

“Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” is now on Blu-ray and DVD.

‘Star Wars: Attack of the Clones': Every rose has its thorn…

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Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Directed by George Lucas

5.5/10  PG

WTF Hayden Christianson?? The heartthrob’s take on Anakin Skywalker remains one of the worst cinematic performances ever. EVER. He’s full of angsty, irritating complaints. His soap opera-worthy romantic subplot with Senator Padme (Natalie Portman) is filled with rigid acting and uncomfortable hesitation. The film gets exciting when Anakin reaches the breaking point, but the minor photos-star-wars-attack-of-the-clones-23124368-1600-1200excitement of the second half is muted by the horrible immaturity of Anakin. Christianson hasn’t been around much since his “Star Wars” prequel days, with “Jumper” being his only other appearance in a movie with any popularity.

Anyway, the story is simply an exhausting set-up for Episode III. There’s a separatist movement across the galaxy, with hundreds of planets trying to leave the Republic. The Jedis can’t keep the peace, so a clone army is created. But the motive behind the creation of this Republic army is in question. Yoda senses Sith in his presence. Who could it be? Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) separates from Anakin to check out this clone army, modeled after a bounty hunter called Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), while Anakin protects Padme in her homeland. But when the pair realizes that Obi-Wan is in trouble, they attempt a nearly impossible rescue.

Where “The Phantom Menace” used CGI mostly to its advantage, “Attack of the Clones” inundated us with useless effects. Many scenes are almost entirely CGI, and much of it looks close to cartoonish. Yoda, as well as many of the clones and troopers, look animated. It takes you out of the story and doesn’t let you buy into the realism of what is happening. There’s no escape. And “Attack of the Clones” also lacks the action-packed excitement that “The Phantom Menace” had. Only the gladiator scene comes photos-star-wars-attack-of-the-clones-23124373-1600-1200close to genuine excitement. There’s no lightsaber fight as epic as Qui-Gon vs. Darth Maul. And there’s no clear singular villain. No one to constantly fear. No one as memorable as the phantom menace.

The bright side? John Williams’s score beams brighter than ever, a crutch to the drama the story tries unsuccessfully to build. And Portman and McGregor both seem more comfortable in their roles. As franchises progress, actors and actresses become their characters more and more.

“Attack of the Clones” is a sad follow-up to “The Phantom Menace,” which was far from perfect but closer to real entertainment than this CGI-filled blunder.

“Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace': It’s gotta start somewhere

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Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Directed by George Lucas

7/10  PG

I’ve finally gotten around to that “Star Wars” Blu-ray marathon I’ve been meaning to have for a while. In a galaxy far, far away…

Some would say it’s unfortunate that any review of the “Star Wars” franchise must start with Episode I, “The Phantom Menace.” But as a child of the ‘90s, this galactic flop still holds a special place in my heart. It’s the first film I ever remember seeing in theaters as a child. I was blown away by the out-of-this-world CGI effects…even if they haven’t quite stood the test of time 15 years later. Without nearing the pop culture appeal of the originals, “The Phantom Menace” served as a worthy homage, with the classic editingstar-wars-episode-i-the-phantom-menace-original techniques, dramatic dialogue, and “in medias res” approach to storytelling.

When two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to a faraway planet to negotiate a trade agreement, stubborn leaders lead to disintegrated peace talks. Queen Amidala and her trusted handmaiden Padme (Keira Knightly and Natalie Portman) are sent to aid in negotiations, but a turn of events leads them away from the hostile planet and onto Tatooine, where Qui-Gon and Padme find Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young enslaved boy who shows great Jedi potential. Qui-Gon will take Anakin under his wing and back home, but an evil Sith villain, Darth Maul (Ray Park) will do his best to stop Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan from any further peace talks.

Maybe that isn’t the clearest plot synopsis I’ve ever written. That’s because, like the original “Star Wars” trilogy, “The Phantom Menace” doesn’t care too much about being easily understood. Even as sci-fi movies go, this story is tough . It tosses you right into star-wars-phantom-menacea complicated universe without explaining why you see what you see. Not that you need to have a firm grasp on the story to enjoy the action unfolding before you. Since “The Phantom Menace” has such a nostalgic hold on my movie preferences, I immediately think of its exhaustive lightsaber battles when the word “epic” is uttered. The final 20 minutes of “The Phantom Menace” compete for the most action-packed minutes of the franchise.

As two incredible Jedis, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are perfect casting choices. They both possess the gravitas of the original Jedis, with the same charismatic personalities. Ten years before her first Oscar, Natalie Portman seems stiff and restricted, though. Thankfully, the adorable Jake Lloyd, as Anakin, balances the already tense drama unfolding across the galaxy with a childish appeal. The silent, brooding Darth Maul remains one of the most intense villains I’ve seen, even without a cheesy catch phrase or terrible last line. And, surprisingly, “The Phantom Menace” relies on make-up—not CGI—to craft its terrifying villain.

But it uses CGI everywhere else. Not that it’s a bad thing all the time. CGI helped make the pod racing scene so thrilling and memorable. Unfortunately, it also makes the elfish Yoda memorable…for the wrong reasons. Maybe Episode VII (with a releasestar-wars-episode-i-the-phantom-menace-w1280 date of December 18, 2015) will finally get Yoda right. At least “The Phantom Menace” still had Frank Oz to give Yoda that unforgettable voice. That, along with a George Lucas script and John Williams score, gave “The Phantom Menace” the feel of the original “Star Wars” trilogy…if only a little worse than before. It’s infamous, but I can’t help but thank it for getting a new generation interested in a galaxy far, far away.

P.S. Meesa thinks you should thank me for not once mentioning Jar Jar Binks.

“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

‘Deliver Us from Evil’ is an unexpected curveball

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Deliver Us from Evil (2014)

Directed by Scott Derrickson

6.5/10  R

In 2001, NYPD detective Ralph Sarchie wrote “Beware the Night,” a book of true stories about his work as a demonologist and part-time exorcist in New York City. In it, he only briefly mentions cases that he investigated as a cop, and talks about his family in very little detail. Throughout the book, he remains devoutly Catholic, not showing a shred of skepticism that the cases he took on were Deliver-Us-From-Evil-Movie-Review-Image-3anything but pure, demonic evil. At times, he’s even downright preachy. He writes like a typical righteous hothead cop, but his stories are insanely interesting.

In 2014, Eric Bana starred as Sarchie in “Deliver Us from Evil,” a film adaptation of the book. It serves almost as a highly fictionalized prequel, showing a skeptical Sarchie unfamiliar with the demonic realm until a series of related cases turn out to be heavily influenced by evil spirits. In the film, his police work is the only work featured—only at the end do we see him involved directly in any spiritual activity. And his family plays a much larger role in the story. In fact, the piss-poor writing is one of the only thing that carries over.

What’s interesting, though, is that the botched adaptation (if it can even be called that) doesn’t bother me that much. On some level, I’m actually glad that they decided to use the interesting angle that Sarchie’s life presented—a true story about a cop who works with adeliver_us_from_evil priest (played by Edgar Ramirez) to deal with cases where secondary evil (the bad things that humans do to humans) collides with primary evil (pure, demonic evil that can’t be explained by human nature). Had the movie followed the book and sidestepped Sarchie’s police work, we likely would have been met with just another lousy exorcism movie. But they smartly combined the two aspects of Sarchie’s life with more balance than the book did, and came away with something a little more original.

But once we stop comparing it to the heap of trash horror movies that hit theaters every month, “Deliver Us from Evil” doesn’t get very far. Sarchie’s cliché cop comments carry over into the script, and the most horrifying scenes tend to simply reproduce the scare tactics of horror films we’ve seen before. Not that I didn’t cover my eyes a few times. This suspense-03driven horror is in what you don’t see.

Playing Sarchie’s partner Butler, comedian Joel McHale is certainly an unusual choice. But he adds a light side to the sinister story, and his banter with Eric Bana occasionally deserves a laugh. Bana is a spot-on Sarchie, not only in looks but in demeanor. But at the end of the day, these guys aren’t busting out award-worthy performances. You wouldn’t expect them to in a movie like this.

Even if you can tell that Hollywood has its dirty hands all over this fictionalized “true” story, “Deliver Us from Evil” comes at you with something a little different than the typical horror fodder. Can I get an Amen!?

“Deliver Us from Evil” is still in theaters, but not for long!

‘The Purge: Anarchy': So exciting, it’s criminal

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The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Directed by James DeMonaco

7/10  R

Whoever wrote that “The Purge: Anarchy” finally capitalizes on the promise of the original definitely had it right. As far as thrillers go, not many can match the uniquely original and exciting potential of 2013’s “The Purge.” But it failed to deliver. Now, we get all that excitement in the sequel with thrills to spare.

An unhappy couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) on the way home has car trouble just minutes before the commencement of the annual purge. A mother struggling to make ends meet (Carmen Ejogo), and her stubborn teen daughter (Zoe Soul) are kidnapped by purgers. A man (Frank Grillo) is just trying to safely make it across town to avenge the death of his son. All five stories intersect in the dangerous world of the purge, while purgers roam the streets looking for fearful victims to kill.The-Purge-Anarchy-Image

From beginning to end, “Anarchy” is filled to the brim with explosive excitement. As these five innocent members of a flawed society try to survive the night, a whole mess of killers will stand in their way. “Anarchy” takes the purge outside, in stark contrast to the interior thrills of the original. This means you get to imagine what you would do to survive the night when your home isn’t a safe option. You can’t just pull down your metal barriers and take a sleeping pill. But even better, “Anarchy” makes a social statement. Maybe it’s a little predictable, but it adds a twist to the idea of good vs. evil that the purge naturally makes you think of. Maybe the murderous thugs on the streets aren’t the only villains.

Without the star power of a lead like Ethan Hawke, “Anarchy” relies on the solid acting of a few lesser-known actors. Grillo is pigeonholed as a character known only as “Sergeant,” but you don’t care. He fits the role perfectly. Gilford (“Friday Night Lights,” “Post Grad”) is also great. But it’s Zoe Soul that keeps us on our toes. She seems like the feisty type that either makes it through the night after shooting herself out of some situations or dies early on after irritating the wrong people. You’ll have to find out.

Finally, something billed as “horror” that’s actually exciting and unpredictable. “Anarchy” is pure adrenaline.

“The Purge: Anarchy” is in theaters.

‘RED 2′ starts and ends with a fizzle

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RED 2 (2013)

Directed by Dean Parisot

6/10  PG-13

Unlike most action sequels (think “A Good Day to Die Hard” or “The Expendables 2”) that start with a bang and only get louder from there, “RED 2” takes a while to start up. But it’s not that it wants to draw you into the story…it just lacks firepower.

The gang of dangerous ex-CIA rogues is back together (except there’s no Morgan Freeman and very little Helen Mirren…just a lot of Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and Mary-Louise Parker), this time in a race to find a revolutionary nuclear weapon that has been Bruce-Willis-Red-2hidden for decades. When the gang finds the man who invented the game-changing explosive (Anthony Hopkins), they think they get the leg up on the competition (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Byung-hun Lee, mostly). No surprise…they’re wrong.

Where “RED” gave audiences a lot of action with some well-timed comedy, “RED 2” tries too hard to provide more comedy than action…but their comedy usually isn’t very funny. Sure, Malkovich provides a few witty lines that’ll give you a good laugh—but he’s mostly just silly, nothing to crack up over. Willis is disappointing…worse than he is in even the newest “Die Hard” movies. Anthony Hopkins is surprisingly hysterical as the eccentric, psychotic inmate of a high-security prison. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, his character’s development gives him some more sanity but takes the humor out of it; good for him, but bad for us.

Okay, so bad acting in an action movie isn’t breaking news. Neither is lousy dialogue, which “RED 2” also has. The script, from Jon and Erich Hoeber, is not the worst I’ve heard…but it’s not good. For the amount of times we hear talking instead of gunshots, I would expect something better than what we get. The story is typical, too. Enemies become allies when they join for a common RED-2-actors-2cause—saving the world. Really? How original, guys. A Wikileaks-driven plot was relevant…3 years ago. And when it begins to get sort of exciting, you realize you only have thirty minutes left. And it sets itself up for a trilogy, which was just recently confirmed. How exciting…

Action movies are called that for a reason. “RED 2” fails to provide a lot of action (and a lot of what we do see is CGI-driven and/or not all that exciting) and fails to provide a lot of laughs. But a couple of Oscar winners and nominees save this from failing completely. It’s always interesting to see what these geriatrics are up to.

“RED 2” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

J.J. Abrams book ‘S.’ is entrenched in mystery

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S. (2013 book)

Written by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

8/10

When is a book not a book? When it’s a full-fledged reading experience. That’s “S.,” a handwritten love letter to literature conceived by director J.J. Abrams (you knew there was a film connection somewhere!) and written by Doug Dorst. You can’t find this one on your Kindle or Nook, and that’s precisely why it’s so incredible.

“S.” is, put as simply as possible, a story within a story. Eric, a recent grad school lit major, leaves his copy of “The Ship of Theseus,” a novel written by (fictional) author V.M. Straka, on a table in the library. A current grad student named Jen finds it, sreads it in one sitting, and leaves it where she found it…with a marginal note to the owner explaining who she was and how fascinated she was by the book. Eric responds to Jen, and so begins an exciting marginal journey of discovery and intrigue. The authorship of “The Ship of Theseus” has been debated for decades by scholars and interested readers, and Eric and Jen want to get to the bottom of it. So as they read the book (and as you, the reader, do as well), they write handwritten comments in the margins about their research. Soon, it begins to turn into a story of a guy and a girl slowly falling for one another. But when a group of radical Straka scholars begin threatening not only the pair’s work but also their lives, “The Ship of Theseus” might contain the answers that will save their lives. As you follow Eric and Jen’s comments, you read the fascinating story of “The Ship of Theseus,” which revolves around a man who wakes up in a strange town to realize that he has absolutely no recollection of who he is. It’s “The Bourne Identity,” set in pre-WWI Europe. Just because he doesn’t know who he is (he goes by S…hence the book title) doesn’t mean nobody else does. Soon, he finds old “friends,” friends that he can only hope he knew and trusted in his old life. They’ll tell him about his purpose, to overthrow a dangerous businessman, Vevoda. But something tells him he used to work for BOOK_ABRAMS_3this man. Does S fall back into the life he thinks he’s supposed to live, or the new life he’s being told to live? Will the presence of a potential love interest (one he thinks he remembers from his old life) play a role in which path he chooses? The quickly-imploding political landscape around him gives him little time to think. So he acts.

It’s certainly a lot to process. “S.” is essentially two books for the price of one. Members of academia will love “The Ship of Theseus” for its complex literary themes and lofty vocabulary. It’s enough to make anyone a fan of the fictional Straka (in reality, Dorst), whose prose reads like any number of oft-taught literary classics. Fans of YA lit will love Eric and Jen’s colloquial (sometimes off-color) marginal annotations. As curious young adults themselves, Eric and Jen are also extensions of the reader. And everyone will love the page-turning excitement and mystery of both plots. “S.” has all the thrills of an Abrams masterpiece like “Super 8” without a need for the explosive special effects of film. And the stories complement each other perfectly. The sometimes fantastical nature of “Theseus” is balanced by the down-to-earth, entirely believable dialogue between Eric and Jen. If you find “Theseus” to be dragging, the marginal side-plot will keep you invested in the mystery. And if Jen and Eric are spouting angsty clichés (it happens once or twice), you can count on S and “Theseus” to be in the middle of an especially exhilarating scene.photo

Like anybody that has ever written on the pages of a book, Jen and Eric don’t have it entirely perfect. Words are scratched out and squeezed into tight spaces as the writers run out of room on a page. Sometimes, you have to turn the book sideways to read what is written. It makes for a very unique reading experience. And the book comes with additional materials, too—notes written on legal pads, ripped out, and stuffed into the pages; a napkin with a map drawn on it; a postcard from Brazil. Whatever the pair had to write on at the time whenever the margins just weren’t big enough. “S.” is 480 pages, but you get about 500 when all is said and done. It’s literally stuffed with material. This isn’t a Nicholas Sparks romance waiting on your nightstand to be read passively before bed. Reading “S.” can be downright exhausting. Sometimes it takes a learned scholar to follow the ever-thickening plots. And sometimes the marginal technique to Eric and Jen’s dialogue can be restricting, leaving the reader wondering what their short, vague, cryptic comments might mean. Your brain gets a workout whenever you read “S.” But it’s definitely worth the effort you’ll put into it.

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is not your average blockbuster

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Directed by Matt Reeves

8/10  PG-13

Hail Caesar! The king of this summer’s blockbuster season is “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which combines low-brow action with high-brow Greek tragic themes. The screenwriting duo that brought us “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the predecessor that’s truly terrible in comparison, resurrected the “Apes” franchise into something worth cheering.

Caesar (created using a motion-capture Andy Serkis) now leads an ever-growing army of genetically modified apes (including his adult son), who are able to stand, talk, and fight like well-trained soldiers. Just miles away in what used to be San Francisco, one of DAWN PLANET APES MOVthe last remaining human refuges (led by human bullhorn Gary Oldman) is in desperate need of electricity, which ran out years ago. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell), and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) will try to reason with the apes to let them use a nearby damn for power, but trust is hard to come by and hotheads on both sides will ruin negotiations and lead to all-out war. Can trust and cooperation prevail, or will one side have to die for peace to exist on a planet at the dawn of total annihilation?

What’s the recipe for a delicious summer blockbuster? Well, I’d start with a big budget. Check. Add some incredible special effects. Check. A few recognizable names. Check. A booming musical accompaniment. Check. Action. Check. Emotion. Check. And…reflections of a classic Shakespearean tragedy? Well, check. You can’t watch “Dawn” without seeing the story of the original Caesar, Roman dictator Julius Caesar, paralleling with our own ape protagonist. Like every great tragedy, “Dawn” has themes of betrayal, duty to family and country, desperation…even regicide. It reflects the stories of so many oft-taught tragedies. The English major in me applauds “Dawn” for reaching even the most educated in the audience by mirroring a DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APESclassic morality play while never losing the big-budget excitement of any great blockbuster. This script is good enough for me to forgive that dreadful James Franco “Apes” flop that came out three years ago, and enough to get me excited for the next sequels this duo’s gearing up for: aside from another, yet-untitled, “Apes” sequel, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are already writing “Jurassic World” and the second and third “Avatar” sequels. Let’s hope they can incorporate intelligent story and head-spinning action into those anticipated scripts, too.

I’ve never liked motion-capture animation. I still don’t. As much as I’d like to see past it, I still just see a very humanlike Andy Serkis behind the thick fur and computer animation of Caesar. I respect Serkis for doing his research and mimicking the actual movements of an ape to the best of his abilities, but at the end of the day he’s still a human with human movements. But in “Dawn,” I get over it fast. Despite coming in with a distaste for the style, I couldn’t help but get drawn into the story and buy into the real emotions being conveyed by Caesar. In every way, he’s a real character with near-human emotions. You don’t watch a bunch of XXX DAWN-PLANET-APES-MOV-JY-3806-.JPG A ENTapes when you watch “Dawn”—you watch the closest things to human beings.

And the humans are just as good. Gary Oldman’s sole purpose is to rally the troops, but his charismatic dialogue and emotional displays are worthy of commendation. Clarke and Russell are cast perfectly—neither are huge names, so they have all the acting talent of an A-lister without the distracting face that takes us out of the story.

For its perfect balance of engrossing action and sophisticated story, “Dawn” is by far the best blockbuster of this young summer. And the big screen is the only place to capture the intensity of something this epic.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is in theaters.

Two more quick DVD reviews of 2013 movies!

The Way, Way Back

With the same dramedy appeal of films like “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine” (and with a few shared faces), 2013’s “The Way, Way Back” struck me as one of the most emotionally real comedies I’ve seen in a while. The script, written by co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also star as two of the film’s funniest characters), smartly balances witty lines with a visceral emotional THE WAY, WAY BACKpunch. At the heart of the story is Duncan, a socially awkward teenager (Liam James) who is dragged by his mom’s (Toni Collette) new boyfriend (Steve Carell) to a beach house for summer vacation. He’s told to have fun, but it’s not that easy. Not with his fascist potential new stepdad telling him to be more social. That is, until he finds Water Whizz, a shabby waterpark run by a crew of hilarious characters (Faxon and Rash, plus Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph). But he can’t avoid his home life forever.  James is so awkward it hurts. But you buy it the whole time. Carell and Collette give incredible performances, and Sam Rockwell is as hysterical as ever (see “Seven Psychopaths“). Allison Janney is at the top of her game, Rob Cordry is just as funny, plus Amanda Peet and AnnaSophia Robb give worthy performances. This is the type of movie you want to add to your collection to watch again and again. Mostly because it knows that life never goes exactly as you’d like it to, but it’s always up to you to make it the best it can be. 8/10.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Somewhere in the middle of the 140-minute saga “The Place Beyond the Pines,” you realize that the time you’ve spent getting invested hasn’t been a waste. A meandering plot intermingles the stories of a bank thief (Ryan Gosling) and an ambitious young the-place-beyond-the-pinescop (Bradley Cooper), the mothers of their kids (Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne), and their young sons (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) in a way that would seem impossible if I tried to explain it. Somehow, director/screenwriter Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”) makes it all work. That’s despite the fact that the acting never gets where it needs to be. Oscar nominees Cooper and Gosling have both been much better in dramatic roles, despite the obvious emotions they could have inserted into their characters here. Still, though, they were able to push viewers into believing the personal trials their characters are put through. I love full and exhaustive stories, ones that cover a lot of ground really well. Usually it takes a narrator or a few montages to cover so much ground, but “The Place Beyond the Pines” never takes you out of the thick of the story to tell you what you need to know. 7.5/10.