Friday, August 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes ****

Some of you know, that if there's one thing I'm more obsessively into than movies, it's monkeys/apes. It started with a childhood collection of suffed monkeys that has never gone away. So, on that level I was predisosped to like this movie. Plus, I'm a fan of the campy 1968 original. On the other hand, despite the amazing ape make-up and effects, I really didn't like Tim Burton's 2001 remake. And the odds seemed really high that this was just a B sci-fi movie dumped at the end of the summer. I wanted to like it, but my expectation was that at best I would get a guilty pleasue.

Therefore, it was a shock to find that Rise of the Planet of the Apes ranks among the very best films of summer 2011. And that's not just me talking. The vast majority of critics walking out of that screening came out saying "I'm going to take crap for this, but I loved it." Then, when the reviews started pouring out nationally, we discovered this was the prevailing attitude. We don't have to be embarrased: Rise of the Planet Apes really is a great summer movie. In fact, it's smarter, and more emotionally involving than anything else I've seen this summer, with the possible exceptions of Super 8 and Harry Potter.

The story begins with a young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), doing research on chimpanzees, with a drug to replace brian cells, hoping he can cure Alzheimer's disease. When something goes wrong and the original 12 specimens are put down, Will discovers a baby chimp left behind by Bright-Eyes, the most advanced specimen. Knowing the baby would also be put down, he takes it home, to temporarily care for it until he can find a safe haven. But the chimp bonds with Will and his father (John Lithgow), who, it turns out, suffer's from advanced Alzheimer's, giving a personal motivation to Will's work. What's more, Ceaser (this is what they name the chimp) shows remarkable signs of intelligence, giving hope to further study, and potentially curing Will's father.

Yes, of course it eventually leads to action, but it's surprising how character driven this film is, especially considering that the lead character is Caeser, played by the great Andy Serkis (who previously wowd as Golllum and King Kong) in performance capture animation. Caeser is one of the most compelling characters we've seen all year, and Serkis brings us into every emotion and though. It's an astounding combination of acting and effects, both of which should be considered for Academy Awards (I suspect the effects are almost a soe-in, but I question whether the Academy will deign to honor a mocap performance, as they already should have done for Serkis with Gollum and Kong) making for an exceptional movie experience. Franco is also quite good, and Lithgow shocks by choosing a Planet of the Apes movie as one of the time he DOESN'T overact, making for a touching performance. The one thing that feels like a misstep is the casting of Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton as  an abusive animal handler in a chimp sanctuary. 8 films as Malfoy, and he follows it up playing another unlikable jerk? I felt awful for him, even though he was playing it well (complete with nearly flawless American accent). But, then, Felton is called on to deliver a line that could utterly ruin the film if delivered poorly, and he nails it, helping make the sequence a highlight of the film, and one of the most memorable of the entire year.

When the action suspense scenes kick in, they're first-rate. Think of a combination of Jurassic Park and Braveheart with apes. The climactic final battle (I'm not spoiling, even the poster gives away that much) rivals the climax of Avatar for spectacular thrills. But the film never loses sight of its humanity . . . er, apesosity. Rather than descending into just an apes vs. humans horror thriller, it becomes a fight for freedom and survivial that engages our emotions and allows to relate to and connect emotionally with the apes, without making us forget that we kind of like some humans, too.

Rupert Wyatt demonstrates that he is a huge talent to watch for. He and his screenwriters very wisely choose to aoid the self-parody that made Burton's film such a groaner, instead creating a gripping drama and thriller. While the pseudo-science of the film isn't exactly true to real-life science, it does what a movie like this has to do, making the science feel real in a way that enables the more discerning viewer to say "I buy that." It's certainly more believable than the explanation given in  Escape of the Planet of the Apes, wherein we're asked to accept that a plague wiped out all of the dogs and cats and humans chose apes as pets (as a columnist for put it "People had pet gorillas farting around in their apartments?"), and then the apes saw their evolution accelrate through their proximity to humans.

I still feel kind of weird actually saying it, but, darn it, I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it wasn't just the monkey enthusiast in me, it was my analytical film critic side. This is one of the great creature features, and it's full of heart, as well.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens ***

There were, inherently, two possible way to go with a movie called Cowboys and Aliens: The first, and most obvious, is a very spoofy, F/X comedy direction, something akin to Men In Black. The second, which director Jon Favreau and producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard have chosen, is to play it straight, to do a traditional western wherein suddenly aliens invade. It certainly offers the first alien invasion movie to come along in quite some time that feels like it has something new to offer.

        Daniel Craig stars as a mysterious man with no name and no memory, who wakes up with strange device strapped to his wrist. He rides to a town called Absolution where everyone, even the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) seems to fear the imposing Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a civil war veteran who now runs the local cattle busines, and, by extension, the town. Craig is soon didentified as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal, and jailed after an altercation with Dolarhyde's sniveling brat of a son (Paul Dano). Meanwhile, a mysterious local woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) shows an inordinate interest in Lonergan.

      Then, of course, the aliens show up, kidnapping half of the town, including Percy, the Sherrif, and the wife of the local Doc (Sam Rockwell), forcing Lonergan and Dolarhyde to team up track them down, turning the movie into a hybrid of Predator and The Searchers. The first act of the film left me wondeing if perhaps the filmmakers had chosen to play it TOO straight: the almost complete lack of humor does darken things considerably, and it's easy to recognize Lost writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof in a story that seems to actually want to confuse you. But when the film takes off, it really takes off, thanks to Favreau's wise decision to direct the film in the style of an old fashioned western (saving any modern camera tricks for the aliens, which accentuates the difference between the two worlds), and, of course, to Craig and Ford.

        The teaming of James Bond and Indiana Jones is an event in and of itself, and both contribute greatly to the proceedings here. Craig has mysetrious, brood toughness that recalls Clint Eastwood, while his American accent makes him sound like Steve McQueen. Since Craig already looks like Steve McQueen I found myself fairly disoriented at times, thinking the deceased star had somehow wandered back onto the big screen. Craig easily shows that he can carry a blockbuster outside of the James Bond franchise, and that he is the successor to Harrison Ford as Hollywood's top action star. Ford himself gives one of the more interesting performances we've seen from him in a while, giving it his all in a role that isn't quite what it first appears to be. Two of Hollywood's greatest tough guys leave you feeling like the vicious, brutal aliens don't stand a chance. The supporting cast is generally strong, particularly the always dependable Sam Rockwell (nicely playing a character without any weaselly qualities, for a change). Adam Beach also stands out as an Indian ranch hand in Dolarhyde's employ, as does Clancy Brown as the local preacher. And Hollywood's Babe-of-the-Moment, Olivia Wilde, makes a more interesting prescence here than she did in Tron: Legacy, showing there's hope she might turn out to be more than a pretty face/body. At very least, she's light years ahead of Megan Fox as an actress.

      Cowboys and Aliens may be too dark and serious for some, and it once again proves the fact that a PG-13 rated movie can get away with almost any ammount of violence as long as what they're killing doesn't look human (think Lord of the Rings). But, for those who enjoy westerns or pulp sci-fi, there's a lot to enjoy here, especially with Craig and Ford on board. I found it to be one of the most enjoyable rides of the summer.

The Smurfs ** 1/2

Like everything movie based on a 1980s glorified toy commercial, The Smurfs has had an immediate, pre-release "They're ruining my childhood!" backlash. People have been gearing themselves up for The Smurfs being the absolute nadir of cinema. Yes, there are truly terrible moments in this film. But nothing worse than Transformer: Dark of the Moon. In fact, I only felt one moment got as bad, and it's, mercifully, shorter than Michael Bay's drawn out attempts at comedy, which are far more painful than abdominal surgery. And, unlike that one, this film does have moments of considerable charm. If you're going to a 1980s childhood movie this summer, I'd recommend Smurfs over Transformers to literally anyone, without a moment of hesitation.

       The story features the title creatures being pursued by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) through a magic portal and ending up in our world. Certainly an overused premise, but at least in this case it's in keeping with the fanstasy nature of the story, instead of being a "stepping out of the cartoon into real life" contrivance. In modern day New York, the Smurfs meet a young couple, played by Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays.

        The Smurfs themselves are the most successful aspect of the film. The animators and writers have captured the addmittedly one-dimensional characters rather well, and the voice actors are, generally, very good. Jonathan Winters actually adds a touch of depth to Papa Smurf, and Anoton Yelchin is thoroughly lovable as Clumsy. Much more surprising is that Katy Perry actuall does quite well as Smurfette (though her "I kissed a smurf and I liked it" joke is a bad choice and a complete misfire. One of the worst aspects of films like this one is the tendency to over rely on pop culture references that don't even relate to the material). George Lopez as Grouch is the most questionable choice, both in being a little overly recognizable, and in being a mediocre comic and non-actor. But after some time to settle in, he works well enough.  Of course the tendency to use the word "smurf" in every possible context is overmilked as a joke, but that's a pitfall that would be wfully difficult to avoid. Overall, I felt the smurfs themselves were likable characters that appealed to those who loved them as kids (me), or kids just being introduced to them (my nephew and neice).

          The humans are more mixed. Azaria ranges from hilarious to awful, sometimes even in the same scenes. The awful is more related to his jokes than his performance, but his perfomance plays as if it's largely improvised, so he recieves both credit and blame there. He look and sounds just liek the character, and his comic delivery is great as always. But he's doing far too many bathroom jokes (why do people have such a hard time grasping that, yes, kids laugh at bathroom jokes, but the vast majority of parents are trying to hasten them out of that stage, and therefore such jokes are spectacularly out of place in a children's film?). Harris and Mays are saddled with a plot that seems singularly ill-advised. What kid cares about whether Harris lands the big ad account at work? However, the more they are called upon to interact with the sSmurfs, the more likab;e they bcome. Thankful, Harris is playing the sort of nice guy role at which he excels (as supposed to on his sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where I find him utterly forced and completely unconvincing as a smarmy jerk character). Anyone who has seen Mays before knows she's as cutesy as Smurf herself, and therefore she seems utterly at home taking care of Clumsy and bonding with Smurfette.

         So, for all its faults, I enjoyed The Smurfs on its own level, It's not one of the best films of the summer, by any means, but it's not the worst movie of the summer, either. It's a cute, lightweight movie that gets some things wrong, and some right. As one who used to get up at 7:30am on Saturdays to watch the cartoon, I had fun revisiting the characters, and my neice and nephew instantly loved them. It's not a Pixar movie, but it's a lot more enjoyable than the Transformers sequels.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger ***

Captain America is the first one of Marvel's Avengers intros to come along after I fully embraced the concept of the upcoming film. It may be recalled that with Thor, I found myself quite pleasantly surprised that I felt Marvel had finally succeeded at mixing Avengers setup with making a film that felt whole in its own right. The failure of Captain America is that it really stumbles on that level, sacrificing a satsifying ending or sense of completeness to segue into an setup for the team-up movie. Fortunately, the success of Captain America is almost everything else.

     Chris Evans makes a departure from his normal cocky persona to play Steve Rogers, a scrawny, sickly, 90 pount man who desperately wants to enlist to fight the Nazis in WWII, but is rejected at every turn. Steve is no macho blowhard: when asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he says "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies." Steve continually proves himself to be brave, steadfast, and all around good guy. This attracts the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist working on a government program to create an experimentaly supersoldier. Steve is chosen because he's a little guy, and because of his sense of decency. It's believed he won't take his powers for granted and be corrupted by them. Erskine hopes Steve will remain what he is: "Not a super-soldier. A good man."

    Of course, the serum turns Steve into Captain America. There's a delightful irony to the satire on propaganda as Captain America becomes a figurehead to sell war bonds, appearing in musical numbers and promotional films. This element really helps to balance out how hollow this sort of jingoistic flag-waving propaganda can feel today with the fact that this is, in its heart, an old-fashioned celebration of patriotism and "the American spirit". I suspect that will make it mostly acceptable to most audiences, whether they love or hate God Bless The USA.

     Eventually of course, Captain America becomes a top American agent, and this leads to series of action/adventure sequences that are as much fun as any we've seen this summer. Director Joe Johnston is very much recalling his work on The Rocketeer, with the old fashioned Americana feel mixed with a very Spielbergian flair (Johnston is Lucas/Spielberg protege who did most of the storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark). Johnston really excels at that sort of film, and I think he's at his best through most of this film. Captain America is exciting, funny, and visually terrific, and Johnston deserved most of the credit. This character needed an unapologetically old fashioned director who wasn't afraid to be a little square. But Johnston is sincerely square, so the film is never left with that forced, faking it feeling Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor had.

     I've typically enjoyed Evans in his previous films, but questioned whether he could play anything but the lovably arrogant bad boy. Thankfully, he pulls off the humble neice-guy surprisingly well.  While I was at times a little put off by how much weakling Steve is made the butt of jokes (no doubt being a sckly "little guy" made me more sensitive to this than most audiences), he's an admirable character who is a hero because of the good person he is inside. The serum merely allows him to get past his physical limitations The supporting cast is mostly strong, including  Tucci, Hailey Atwell as the obligatory love interest, and Tommy Lee Jones as the tough-as-nails Colonel running the outfit (Jones seemed a little bored to me at first, but his natural prescence and charisma really kick in the second act, the strongest portion of the film). Hugo Weaving is a memorable villain: to me, he's an actor who regularly finds just the right balance to entertainingly chew the scenery without slipping into complete hammy overacting. Dominic Cooper is also a highlight as Howard Stark, a brilliant inventor who, fans will recognize, is the father of Iron Man. Cooper is utterly believable as being the progenitor of Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, and the character feels like he belongs in the film regardless of the Avengers connection.

     It' a shame the the ending is so ham-fisted. Captain America will be a welcome addition to The Avengers, and overall this only makes me more enthusiastic for that film. And I must admit that the ending is not unfaithful to the source material. It's not so much the concept as the execution. It feels so out of step with the rest of Johnston's film that I lamost wonder if he even directed the sequence (the stinger at the end of Thor was directed by Joss Whedon, not Kenneth Branagh).  It just feels rushed and tacked on, and lacking in the sense of culmination that a piece of such old fashioned storytelling needs and deserves.

      However, there's so much here that works, that I forgive the misstep of the ending. Captain America:The First Avenger is great summer fun, and engaged me enough to make me eager to see it a second time. As long as audiences can accept that they don't get a genuine wrap-up, most will find this to be a satisfying blockbuster experience.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lesser Known Films From Celebrated Directors, Part 2

I realized I had written a "Part 1" of this in May, and never gotten around to the follow-up. So, to continue:

This film from Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) one is not exactly obscure. It was fairly popular during its original 1908s release. But it seems to be largely forgotten now, and I only recently saw it, and found it to be so charming that's hard to get it out of my mind. Kathleen Turner plays a woman who is seperating from her husband, and ends up traveling back in time to her 1950s teenage years, wondering if she can do things differently this time. On the surface, it may seem similar to Back To The Future, and I would expect anything to suffer by compariosn to that classic, but Peggy Sue is really a completely unique film in its own right. Sweet, funny, heartbreaking, and with a sense of truth and resonance about the ups and downs of life, love and growing up. The supporting cast is excellent, including not yet famous versions of Jim Carrey and Helen Hunt, and Peggy Sue's husband is a kockout performance from Coppola's nephew Nicholas (who chose to go by the stage name "Cage" so it wouldn't look like he only got roles because of who his uncle was). But it's Turner's film all the way, and she more than earned the Oscar nomination she recieved. It's an appaling cliche to say this, but I laughed and cried at Peggy Sue Got Married.

Director Ron Howard's western is dark, violent and disturbing, to an extent that will be so offputting to many that this film won't be for them. But his skills as a storyteller and a visual artist have rarely been better. Cate Blanchett plays an widowed frontier doctor who must rescue her kidnapped daughter from an Indian witch doctor/priest. Tommy Lee Jones plays her father, who left Blanchett and her mother years before to "go native" with the Indians. Both actors are at the absolute top of their respective games, giving what should have been Oscar-nominated performances, and that's really what makes the film.

Once you get past the weird factor of one of Hollywood's all time most iconic actor/directors (Clint Eastwood) blatantly impersonating another (John Huston), this thinly veiled portrait of Huston using the making of The African Queen becomes one of the most entertaining movies about movies ever made. Eastwood's monologue to a racist actress still stands as one of my favorite moments in his career.

Woody Allen's silly comedy about a film director who develops a case of hysterical blindness isn't exactly his masterpiece, but it's quite funny and enjoyable, with a very amusing resolution.

Potter Points

In my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, I said I would come back after the film opened and discuss how differences from the book were handled. Since the film is off and running to a spectular start, it seems okay to discuss "spoilers". Those who haven't seen the film yet, stop here. Then go see the film.

The only change with which I had much difficulty was utterly dropping the Dumbledore/Grindelwald backstory. My biggest complaint is that this was set up with some effort in Part I, then completely ignored in Part II. Was this about keeping things moving? Or avoiding the "Dumbledore was gay" controversy? Departing from the principle narrative for two flashback/explanation sequences would have been problematic for the film, and Snape's was more important. But leaving such a large plot thread dangling isn't very good storytelling.

I missed the ouse-elf revolt, but it clearly wan't going to happen in this movie, what with the way S.P.E.W. had been utterly left out of earlier films. I found the action sequence in the Chamber of Secrets to be thrilling, and, after dealing with Ron being a prat through so much of the previous film )I know, it was the influence of the ring . . . Um, Horcrux), I liked seeing him act decisively and with confidence in snogging Hermione. All things considered, I'm good with this one.

I have to admit, Fred Weasley's death didn't have quite the same impact in the film that it did in the book, mostly because it took place offscreen. However, the scene with Fred and George atop the Hogwarts castle, simple as it was, moved me quite a bit, and was, for me, a more satisfying farewell to the Weasley twins (probably my favorite characters) than the book gave us. Not seeing Percy's return to full Weasleyhood portrayed in its full glory was sad, but again, that was an opportunity they gave up three or four movies ago, and fat has to be trimmed in a movie. My feelings are certainly mixed on this one, but I accept the way it turned out without much consternation.

Overall, what matters most to me is that the filmmakers so utterly captured the spirit of the book, and made an excellent film. I admit I wish that Peter Jackson style extended editions of the films were on their way, restoring most of the missing elements from the books. But, even those extended editions of LOTR changed and cut quite a bit from the books (as much as I revere that series as one of the greatest in film history, I think there were more cuts and changes there that disappointed me than in the Potter films), and that's just unavoidable. I'm quite happy that, to get the full experience, one still needs to read the books.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Year So Far

2011 has been something of a mixed bag so far. We've seen some truly awful films. I've only walked out on about 5 films in my life, and 2 of them (Battle: Los Angeles and Transformers: Dark of the Moon) were this year. We've seen a lot of mediocre films (Limitless, I Am Number Four, etc).  But, we've seen some very good ones as well. Here are my choices for the best films of the year up to this point, in alphabetical order:

Born To Be Wild
This Imax 3D story of orphan elephants and orangutans is a sheer delight. The only Imax documentary I've ever seen that's that's good enough to be worth owning on DVD and watching even on a small screen.

The Conspirator
Director Robert Redford bounces back from the disappointment of his Lions For Lambs with a much more subtle and dramatically satisfying political piece, in the historical context of the trial of Lincoln's alleged assassins. James McAvoy and Robin Wright are exceptional. Though the film was dismissed by many critics as slow and stagy, and ignored entirely by audiences, I found it to be great drama and superb filmmaking.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II
A thrilling, emotional climax to the epic series. Full of action, humor, drama and excellent perfomances, this is one of the best films of the series, and one of the best fantasy films ever made.

Kung Fu Panda 2
Dazzling action scenes, hilarious comedy, top-notch animation and some surprisingly touching moments make this a winner.

Super 8
J.J. Abrams' tribute to Steven Spielberg's late 70s and early 80s classics captures the joy, excitement and thrills of those films, reminding me why I loved movies in the first place.

Kenneth Branagh actually manages to make a superhero film that feels unique and fresh.

Source Code
Duncan Jones sci-fi thriller is smart, original, and thoroughly entertaining. This one hits DVD next week and is very much worth a look.