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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “A Most Wanted Man”

I greatly enjoyed the ape revolution of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which made an ape takeover of the world look like a welcome and justified event. The film benefited from the character of Caesar, the brilliant ape who liberates his primate friends and leads the uprising. As the movie progressed, the human characters became less and less interesting, and you realized that you were rooting for the apes. As summer blockbusters go, it was unexpectedly subversive.

Caesar returns in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and is once again the best thing about this “Planet of the Apes” reboot. As played by Andy Serkis, the king of performance capture, the technology that allows actors to control CGI-characters using their movements and facial expressions, Caesar is wise, smart and caring — a highly capable leader of apes. As long as we’re watching him, the film is interesting. When the focus shifts to the other characters — the humans, the other primates — “Dawn” becomes less involving.

When the film opens, Caesar is living in the woods outside of San Francisco in a bucolic primate village. It has been years since anyone has seen a human, due to war and a deadly, ape-borne virus. But humans soon make their presence felt. A group of survivors, headed by a man named Malcolm (Jason Clarke), hike into the woods in search of a power source for the small city they’ve established (or re-established, as they case may be) in the Bay Area.

Caesar orders them to leave, but Malcolm returns, hoping to convince Caesar to let the humans fix a nearby hydroelectric dam. Caesar agrees, despite disagreement from fellow ape Koba, who was once experimented upon by humans. When Caesar says, “Let them do their human work. Then they will leave,” Koba points to his scars, noting that they are the result of “human work.”

Caesar’s decision to give humans access to ape territory results in SPOILER ALERT! mutiny. Koba attempts to assassinate Caesar, who is presumed dead by his fellow apes, blames it on the humans and leads his vengeance-minded fellow apes into San Francisco to cage and terrorize the human survivors. Most of this is pretty gripping, but the film’s final 20 minutes — the attempt tp clear up the misunderstanding between humans and apes and avert war — feel strangely muted. It’s a worthy goal, but perhaps not as exciting as the ape-human war that will likely be depicted in the next installment of this franchise.

Overall, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” feels a bit like “The Empire Strikes Back” — a downbeat middle chapter that sets the stage for a stirring climax. “Dawn” isn’t as good as “The Empire Strikes Back.” But it does hit similar chords.

I also caught “A Most Wanted Man,” a moody spy thriller that features Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final leading role. Much of the commentary on the film has focused on Hoffman’s performance, and how his death has robbed cinema of one of its greatest actors.

Hoffman is very good as German spy Gunther Bachmann — weary, jaded, tough and extremely smart. But this should come as no surprise, since Hoffman is always very good. What was more surprising to me was how much I enjoyed “A Most Wanted Man.” Maybe I just like spy movies, but this is an elegant and gripping film that ratchets up the suspense as it progresses, building to a shattering and heartbreaking conclusion.

Directed by Anton Corbijn, the Dutch filmmaker whose previous film was the George Clooney vehicle “The American,” a moody assassin thriller, “A Most Wanted Man” adapts the 2008 John le Carre novel of the same name. Like the 2011 le Carre adaptation “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “A Most Wanted Man” is interested in the practice of espionage — the film manages to wring a surprising amount of suspense out of the signing of a crucial document — but also its psychic toll.

Unlike a Bond film, “A Most Wanted Man” isn’t about the excitement and glamour of being a spy, but about the mundane, detailed work that goes into the profession, and the devastating impact of wrong decisions and intelligence failures. Not only do Bachmann and his team have to figure out whether a Hamburg-based imam has terrorist connections, but they also have to battle rival agencies and countries who are convinced the imam is up to no good and want immediate results. The moral of this film might be something along the lines of “Don’t trust the Americans. Or the Germans. Or anyone.”

What makes “A Most Wanted Man” unusually powerful is its clear-eyed murky take on espionage: Yes, spying might be necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks, but it has a moral cost. Innocent people are used as pawns, and when people in power break their promises, those innocent lives are ruined. Bachmann knows this, and because he still has a conscience, he tries to protect his informants, collect evidence and carefully build a case.

But it isn’t enough. He, too, is a pawn, betrayed, ultimately, but more sinister and powerful forces.

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