DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The previous installment in this set of prequels, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), somehow escaped my attention until this past weekend. I wish somebody had told me what I was missing. I was taken aback by the quality of the effects and the excitement of the action sequences, sure. But I was particularly surprised and impressed by the gravity and melancholy with which the movie is suffused. As the growing flame of Caesar (Andy Serkis) the ape's intelligence burned his hope into the ash of cynicism, I was brought to the verge of tears and kept there. This follow-up retains some of that profound sadness, but ups the ante on the action and interpersonal conflict, with strikingly pleasing results.
Set 10 years after the events of Rise, Dawn shows us an Earth decimated by the "simian flu." The same experimental drug that created intelligence in apes proved deadly to humans and created a global pandemic. Only the tiny percentage of the human population genetically immune to the ravages of the disease have survived. Cities are vacant, with nature well on its way to reclaiming them. A small group of survivors has banded together in the ruins of San Francisco. As their fuel supply dwindles, they send a reconnaissance team into the wilds north of the city to attempt to restore the operation of a hydroelectric power plant. Trouble is, the dam in question lies deep inside the territory where the apes have established their home. Potential disaster looms as Malcolm (Jason Clarke) negotiates an uneasy peace with Caesar, the apes' heretofore undisputed leader. They are inclined to trust each other, but Caesar's lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) sees only evil in the humans. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) prepares for a preemptive strike on the apes. The two groups are cast into conflict from within and without.
Dawn manages to combine art and entertainment with such grace that it looks simple. The visual effects are stunning, the battle sequences gorgeously chaotic and innovatively photographed. At the same time, the story is shot through with an emotional authenticity generally unseen in summer blockbusters. All of the principal characters, ape and human alike, live on screen with an air of having survived something catastrophic, at great cost. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) focuses a bit more on the action than did Rupert Wyatt in Rise, but he never loses his grip on the themes of trust, loss and betrayal that drive the narrative. PG13. 130m.
AMERICA. The trailer for director Dinesh D'Souza's slow-mo history class project asks what the world would be like without America. If he's referring to this film, probably fine. PG13. 103m.
BEGIN AGAIN. In the follow-up to Once, a former music exec (Mark Ruffalo) discovers a singer (Keira Knightly) busking after a breakup with her musical and romantic partner. PG13. 130m.
PLANES: FIRE AND RESCUE. Sequel to the animated Cars spin-off, with voice work by Dane Cook and Julie Bowen. PG. 84m.
THE PURGE: ANARCHY. Horror sequel about citizens gone wild in a violent American dystopia. PG13. 130m.
SEX TAPE. Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel play a married couple who accidentally leak their home movie and spend a panicked night trying to get it back. R. 95m.
22 JUMP STREET. It ain't broke, and they ain't fixing it. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum return as undercover cops busting a college drug ring in this funny and self-aware comedy. R. 112m.
CHEF. Jon Favreau stars in this well done food-truck road movie that cuts through professional kitchen bravado to real humanity and warmth. With Robert Downey Jr. and John Leguizamo. Bring napkins. R. 115m.
EARTH TO ECHO. A group of youngsters find a friendly alien and help him phone, ahem, sorry, get home. PG. 89m.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Beat the rush and start crying now. Adapted from John Green's novel with excellent performances from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as the young, star-crossed lovers. PG13. 126m.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. Transportive animation and talented voice acting create a world worth revisiting and a story with humor and real drama. PG. 102m.
MALEFICENT. An atmospheric, good-looking fantasy with a sharpened Angelina Jolie as the fairytale party crasher from Sleeping Beauty. Heavy on CGI, light on character and not quite scary enough. PG. 98m.
TAMMY. Melissa McCarthy plays a woman on a wild and wooly rock-bottom road trip with her hard-drinking grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon. R. 102m.
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. Even game actors and fun cameos can't save the planet from the thin plot and epic running time of the latest Michael Bay disaster. He might have tried more dinosaurs. PG13. 165m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill