Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
seen @ Movieworld, Douglaston, NY

So you wanna be a leader, do you?

Understandable. When you're a leader, you're the star of the show. You're the one who gets to sit in the captain's chair. Everything that happens revolves around you. What you say goes and everyone has to listen to you because they all know you're the smartest, the bravest, the strongest. And they'll follow you into hell if you say so because they believe in you.

You better make sure you read the fine print, though, because being a leader also means making the kind of decisions no one wants to make. Maybe you have to work with someone untrustworthy. Maybe you have to put your people through a stressful situation. Maybe you even have to make a choice that'll mean someone's death.

That center seat doesn't feel quite so cozy anymore, does it?

Most of us will never have to make those kinds of decisions. When I once worked an office job in a warehouse, there was a woman named Miriam who had been there for several years and knew pretty much everything there was to know about the day-to-day functions. She wasn't what I would call popular, but she was liked and respected by everyone in the office, and was a steadying influence. When the manager retired, I remember thinking Miriam would've been a good choice to take his place, but she made it clear that she did not want the job. As competent as she was in her position and as comfortable as everyone was with her, she knew that she did not want that added responsibility.

Being a leader means having your own people second guess you. It means staying the course even when the way is dark and narrow, but having the wisdom to know when to stray from it if that path leads to nowhere. It means turning your back on people you love if they're impeding your progress. Most of all, it means finding a way... out of no way. With all that pressure, is it any wonder that good leaders are hard to find?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about the evolution of a leader, one who must find a way for his people to peacefully co-exist with their bitterest enemies. This movie comes out at a time when the long-running conflict between Israel and Palestine may be reaching a breaking point. Even after taking a closer look at that situation with the movie Omar, I still don't pretend to understand it well, but I do know that territory plays a major role, as it often does, and that mistrust on both sides have led to violent outbursts, and we see examples of both in Dawn

The difference lies in the emphasis on a central figure who bridges the gap between the two sides: Caesar, the ape revolutionary introduced in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and re-imagined in the new series of movies as a simian of advanced intellect. He liberated his fellow apes from medical experimentation in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and claimed a sanctuary from the human world. Now it's over a decade later, and the virus that took hold at the end of Rise has claimed most of humanity. As apes and humans are forced by circumstance to meet once again, it's up to Caesar to protect his people from them, even though memories of his old life with humans make him want a reconciliation.

The trouble with most movies that fill in the backstory from previous films is that no matter what happens, you know how it'll end. Rise and Dawn have some of that sense of inevitability, but there's enough wiggle room that one doesn't feel it as deeply in these movies as in, for example, Star Wars Episodes 1-3. In those films, the ultimate fate of Anakin Skywalker not only colored every scene he was in, it was a marketing tactic. The new Apes movies, on the other hand, seem more willing to take their time towards the inevitable march to the original 1968 movie, and allow for greater depth as well.

That greater depth has allowed us to watch Caesar grow as a character, and in Dawn he bears the heavy weight of leadership, torn between the needs of his ape tribe and his sympathies, if you can call it that, towards the humans. Yeah, there are divisions and conflicts that follow familiar tropes, but that makes them no less compelling here and I loved watching them unfold.

In late 2011, I gave some thought to the performance-capture process and wondered whether Andy Serkis (top-billed in Dawn) had a shot at a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his mind-blowing work as Caesar. Looking back, it may be that I didn't understand the p-cap process as well as I thought, and it didn't help that in recent months leading up to Dawn, Serkis had received criticism from animators who thought he was giving himself too much credit for the p-cap process. He appears to have changed his tune since then, and now, I believe the process is better understood by the average movie fan, if not the average person.

Watching Dawn, one completely believes in the reality of the apes in general (and there are lots of them here) and Caesar in particular. The level of sophistication WETA Digital brings to the game is unprecedented, taking all the human actors in p-cap suits and giving them solidity and emotion and life! At the same time, the actors mimic ape behavior well - the way they stand, walk, emote, run and jump. It's a collaboration, in which both actors and animators combine to create something greater than the sum of their parts. The result is pure movie magic.

I saw Dawn in an unfamiliar part of Queens - a neighborhood called Douglaston, in a theater called Movieworld. Douglaston is waaaaaay out on the fringes; past Flushing, past Bayside, almost at the Nassau County border. Movieworld is part of a mall adjacent to a highway, so I didn't get to see much of the neighborhood. Why did I go to this place? One simple reason: a $6.50 matinee till five PM, every day. ($5.50 all day on Wednesdays!) 

This, as you might imagine, is a locally-owned neighborhood theater. According to their website, they went all-digital in 2012. Their auditoriums are not stadium-seated (at least the one I was in wasn't), but the seats themselves, newly installed last year, were comfortable, and the sound and picture were good. In the auditorium I was in, there were a couple of support beams to the left that looked like they might cause sight obstructions, but there were enough seats for them to be easily avoided - unless you arrive late to a weekend show, I imagine. Also, Movieworld seems to really favor the military; there were a couple of recruitment ads prior to the trailers.

The late-afternoon crowd, unfortunately, was no different than many when it comes to cellphone addiction (the guy down the aisle from me at least had the decency to keep his glowing screen out of sight), but it's gonna take time until every theater follows the Alamo Drafthouse's example, like they should.

The lobby is decorated with posters from classic films as well as more contemporary ones, which is always a nice sign. The concession stand is a circular hub in the middle, with all the usual amenities. Video games are off to the right, and on the left is a nice surprise - a cafe! After I bought my ticket, I was gonna go find the food court in the mall until I saw the cafe and chose to eat there until showtime instead. 

Their selection isn't on the level of the Alamo, but they offer burgers & fries, pizza and ice cream, among other things. I had some chicken fingers, without a drink (fountain drink machine was down and bottled drinks were four bucks!), but I did come back for an ice cream cone. They offer small cones for a dollar-fifty on Tuesdays. The bathroom was nice and clean.

Would I come back here? Yeah, although it is far out of the way (two buses, and the second is a loooooooong ride). Plus, it would be nice if there were someplace to hang out after the movie. The mall didn't seem to have many options besides Burger King, and anyway, I was thinking more along the lines of a coffee shop or a bookstore or record shop or something like that, and I don't know where such things are in that part of town. Next time, I'll have to do some poking around. But I would recommend this place.

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