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Movie: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Having never been interested, much less a fan, of the early Apes films, it's a significant difference to be truly impressed with the recent new breed. While I wouldn't claim to be a fan, the storytelling and technological wizardry at play is truly superlative. In this followup to "Rise of...", humanity has mostly been wiped out by a primate virus, but the struggling remnants of civilization re-encounter the rapidly evolving ape society living in the woods, with explosive results. The mo-cap animation of the apes is phenomenal - I can't say it enough. It's nearly impossible to distinguish the CG characters from actors in completely convincing prosthetic costumes, and the screen is filled with them. Except to an expert eye, the visual fiction is wholly believable. The story to match is operatic and Shakespearean in scope, with powerful performances primarily from the ape actors led by Andy Serkis, giving one of the best performances of his career. The inherent gravitas dealt by the tone of the piece lends a molasses like slowness to some scenes that can get overdone - great but ponderous cinema at times - and some scenes and concepts, while well done, are familiar. It's still a meaty story that's equally a showcase piece as it is entertainment.

Movie: Dinosaur 13 (2014)
Rating: ** out of *****
Notes: Billed as the story of the Black Hills Institute's fight against the US Government after their discovery of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil in 1990, hidden amongst the suffering retold are nuggets of honesty that put a sour spin on the govt-vs-the little guy tale. True, the paleontologists ran into poor luck by dealing with a greedy rancher willing to screw them, a journalist whose eagerness to spill a story poisoned their case, and by winding up on the bad side of an unethical judge. But offhand comments reveal that the victims actually did things they weren't supposed to do, were found guilty of doing so in court, and were punished - albeit harshly - for those crimes. The documentary exhibits its bias by tilting mainly to the bemoaning and emotional torment of the scientists whose careless work put them in that position. It seems to be more a tale of a sketchy, rural fossil-hunting outfit that got caught and made lots of noise leveraging the local communities in their favor. The complaint at the end that the fossil should've been homed in difficult-to-reach South Dakota instead of a more easily-accessible big-city museum is particularly a call from the heart instead of the head. Political theater that unsuccessfully tries to convince by appealing to emotion instead of pragmatism.

Movie: The Guest (2014)
Rating: *** out of *****
Notes: From Adam Wingard, the director of "You're Next", comes a nearly satirical light horror/thriller in the vein of cheap 80s tinglers. When a soldier visits the family of a deceased vet, it's unclear whether his intentions are benevolent or otherwise. Dan Stevens, as the lead, does a slick job as the character of questionable means, playing along with the tongue-in-cheek directing that includes ham-handed easter eggs, jokey cinematography and sets, and a retro synthy score. The story takes place around Halloween, so Wingard wastes absolutely no opportunity to load up to the gills on theming, and nearly every shot features a pumpkin or other spooky scenery in the background, implying supernatural involvement and culminating in a "Scream"-like high school finale. Clearly filmed on the cheap with minimal FX, its fuel is almost entirely ambiguity and red herrings - is he an axe murderer? A vampire? Dead? A bait-and-switch hero? The script clearly eats this stuff up and just gets more cheesy by the end. We spent far more time laughing than being anxious. I normally don't like bad movies, but this is a winking type of "bad" I could get used to.

Next: Love Is Strange, Honeymoon, The Maze Runner/Scorch Trials

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