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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Though technically astonishing, the second picture in the reboot of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise suffers from the same difficulty that plagued its predecessor, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”—namely, that the original series of movies, released back in the late sixties and seventies, predetermine the outcome. The 1968 “Planet” portrayed an earth taken over by intelligent simians, with humans a downtrodden, servile class, and its successors, on both the big and small screens, were based on that idea (as was Tim Burton’s misbegotten remake). “Rise” and now “Dawn” amount to prequels that essentially spell out how earth got to that condition. So the ending is, as it were, as unchangeable as was the case with the second “Star Wars” trilogy, and the only question is how cleverly the filmmakers can get there. It’s not an easy nut to crack—the Lucas crew certainly botched it. Happily, things go better in this case. “Rise” was good, and “Dawn” is a worthy continuation of it.

That’s not to say that in narrative terms “Dawn” isn’t pretty thin. “Rise” covered the experiments that resulted in Caesar (acted by the incomparable Andy Serkis through motion-capture wizardry) undergoing abrupt intellectual evolution that allowed him to lead a successful rebellion against the monkeys’ human captors. “Dawn” starts ten years later. Under Caesar’s benevolent rule, the simians have established a community in the forests outside San Francisco, building harmony among themselves and raising happy families.

Humankind hasn’t fared nearly as well. As a result of an epidemic initiated by the very serum that brought about Caesar’s development, most of mankind has died off. One of the batches of survivors lives in the ruins of the City by the Bay, led by an owlish fellow named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). But since their nuclear power source is drying up, the hope of keeping the lights on depends on whether one of Dreyfus’s colleagues, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), can get a defunct hydroelectric dam outside the city up and running again. He, his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), their son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a few others have traipsed off to the dam—only to find themselves in Caesar’s domain. When hothead human Carver (Kirk Acevedo) shoots one of the young apes, Caesar orders the humans to depart—much to the distress of his bellicose second-in-command Koba (Toby Kebbell), who would prefer to slaughter the interlopers on the spot.

The desperate Malcolm comes back with hat in hand, and the peace-loving Caesar allows the humans to proceed in their work, with the proviso that they bring no guns with them. Unfortunately Carver breaks that agreement, and though Malcolm gets the dam working again, the breach sets Koba off on a mission to unseat Caesar and undertake an assault on the humans. Much mayhem ensues, and though Caesar and Malcolm work furiously to defuse the situation (reaching a human-simian understanding between them in the process), they part in the realization than a human-ape war has in effect begun whether they like it or not. Cue work on the sequel.

In fact, “Dawn” gives one the feeling that the makers are effectively biding time until that third installment; it’s like an appetizer to a meal that’s still being prepared. In effect the picture is little more than a typical “clash of civilizations” tale that once might have involved cavalry and Native Americans confronting one another, with leaders on both sides unable to prevent violence even though they’ve come to understand that they have much in common and amity would benefit everyone. It even provides a character that can learn the lesson the conflict brings: Caesar’s young son River (Nick Thurston), torn between his father’s rationality and Koba’s mindless hatred, who must eventually choose between them.

If the premise is familiar, however, it’s nevertheless well realized by director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) and his behind-the-camera team of production designer James Chinlund, art director Aaron Naaman Marshall, set decorator Amanda Moss Serino, cinematographer Michael Seresin and the Weta Digital effects army headed by Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon. The meshing of live-action and motion-capture imagery is practically seamless—it will take repeated viewings with the pause button to detect the flaws—and the result, especially in the massed battle sequences, is eye-popping, especially with the added effect of subtly-used 3D. Michael Giacchino’s score, which occasionally employs choral elements, is vigorously supportive without overshadowing the visuals—which would be difficult to do under any circumstances.

As for the characters, the humans are a bland bunch, led by the nondescript Clarke, the equally unmemorable Russell and a wasted Oldman (certainly a good deal of his work must have been left on the cutting-room floor by editors William Hoy and Stan Salfas); only Acevedo stands out among them, and not for a good reason—he really chews the scenery. But it’s the monkeys that matter, and here the film delivers. Serkis once again proves a marvelous mime of simian movement, bringing genuine depth to Caesar, and Kebbell is nearly as impressive as the ferocious Koba. Also notable are Thurston and Karin Konoval as the wise old orangutan Maurice, whose sad-eyed observation of the collapse of the ape community is penetratingly caught.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is no feel-good bit of summer fluff—it’s another vision of a dystopian future (the flavor of the cinematic week) and one that’s headed, as we all know, for an outcome in which mankind will not be victorious—and it casts an unremittingly bleak, somber atmosphere, marked by visuals that, while impressively, are dark and forbidding. And it inevitably has a predictable feel, dictated by its adherence to a plot playbook established long ago. But just as Rupert Wyatt did with its immediate predecessor, Reeves and his colleagues—especially Serkis—have managed to give the material as much freshness as one could reasonably hope for. The result is a canny continuation of the saga that delivers mood and action in approximately equal measure to compensate for a threadbare plot.

BEGIN AGAIN

If something works “Once,” do it again, only bigger. That seems to be the idea John Carney’s embraced with “Begin Again” (formerly titled “Can A Song Save Your Life?”), which—like his surprise-smash micro-budget 2007 charmer that also spawned a hit Broadway show—emphasizes the power of music to repair real-life personal damage. Lightning may not strike the second time to quite the same degree, but thanks to the performances and the tunes, you’re likely to find yourself willing to go along with the message again, as the title suggests.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) and Greta (Keira Knightley) meet when both are at a low point. He’s an old-line, down-on-his-luck music producer divorced from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) sand estranged from his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld); rumpled and boozy, he’s also just been fired by his businesslike partner (Yasiin Bey, otherwise known as Mos Def), and is contemplating suicide. Stumbling into a bar, he encounters Greta, who’s just been coaxed by old her pal from England, street busker Steve (James Corden), to get up on stage during open mic night to sing one of her songs. She’s gloomy too, having just broken up with her long-time boyfriend (and collaborator) Dave (Adam Levine), who’s hit it big as a singer and linked up with one of his label’s pretty execs.

Though presented in pretty linear form here, Dan and Greta’s back stories are shown in more imaginative juxtaposition by Carney, who shifts back and forth between them, repeating moments as needed, to draw us in. Equally clever is the way in which he depicts the special fashion in which Dan hears Greta’s song. While the rest of the audience is dismissive or bored, he’s enraptured by what he discerns as an extraordinary talent, and though Greta is singing while strumming a guitar, he visualizes how she would sound with instrumental backup. It’s the moment in so many musicals when suddenly an unseen orchestra intrudes during a number that begins as a solo, here transformed by Carney into something visually magical by introducing each instrument playing on its own.

From this point the film’s trajectory is predictable, with Dan offering to oversee the making of a demo album for Greta and her encouraging him to reconnect with his wife and daughter in the course of the project, which he conceives as being recorded on site in various NYC locations. It’s frankly an unbelievable premise, since ambient noise in the city would make that sort of operation pretty much impossible. But it nonetheless makes for some amusing scenes of the group performing without benefit of official sanction, as well as a couple featuring Cee Lo Green as a rapper who owes his success to Dan and is happy to help out his old producer now.

Still, the major focus is on the development of the relationship between Dan and Greta, which isn’t exactly businesslike—the two share long walks and conversations about their favorite music—but at the same time avoids slipping into romance. For each of them, fulfillment lies not in falling in love with one another, but in achieving their musical dreams, his involving producing an album that he can actually believe in again, and hers making the music she creates available to other ears. The give-and-take is expertly played by the stars, with the shaggy Ruffalo bringing a Tracy-like gruffness to the driven Dan and Knightly some of Hepburn’s prickliness to Greta. Corden registers strongly as the ebullient busker, and both Bey and Green slyly spoof their characters, while indie stalwart Keener and young Steinfeld are fine as Dan’s family. And Levine is surprisingly effective as the sudden star who seems at a loss about how to handle new newfound fame.

Cinematographer Yaron Orbach takes the myriad opportunities afforded by Carney’s script to revel in the byways of the Big Apple, but the most important non-acting aspect of “Begin Again” is certainly the music, and the new songs—mostly by Gregg Alexander—are likable, even if they don’t match those that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova penned for “Once.” Curiously, for a story that emphasizes unconventionality (including, as a topper, a decision about how to sell Greta’s album), a scene in which she and Dan trade their playlists offers tunes that come across like remarkably safe—even humdrum—choices.

On balance, however, “Begin Again” provides another nice musical spin by Carney on the conventions of quasi-romantic dramedy.