Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Lots of spoilers ahead, although the movie's title is the biggest spoiler of all.

This newest incarnation of the Planet of the Apes boasts no actors in ape costumes and makeup. The apes are all entirely computer generated. Andy Serkis famously ‘plays’ the main ape, Caesar, by way of motion capture technology. A fancy way of saying that when they shot the movie, Andy wore a body suit and sensors, then the digital likeness of the ape was laid over his form, following his physical lead. Serkis has done this many times before, most notably as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This technique is at once disconcerting (Caesar at times moves and reacts like a human) and entirely fitting for a movie that wants its audience to feel sympathy for the ape leader of an uprising of apes against humans. More than once a girl sitting behind me in the full theater Ah’d and Oh’d, reacting to an anthropomorphizing Caesar acting cute or sad. This humanizing of the ape took me out of the movie in a fit of knowing giggles.

The movie is a prequel of sorts to the first Planet of the Apes, but also an unofficial remake of the third Apes movie, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The ending of Rise is right there in the title of the movie. So, for the entire run-time I knew what to expect. But not how it was going to get there. And when it did end, it wasn’t as I had thought. Again this was good and bad. In terms of what came before it, the ending of the movie was a disappointment. The movie doesn’t cop out so much as set up the next Apes movie. And it does so with the trickery inherent to its story.

The trickery here is that the apes are genetically enhanced. It’s science, not an act of nuclear mutation, god, or evolution. And the ape rising implicit in the title is brought about not because the apes are superior but because (Spoiler Alert: I’m about to give away the ending!!!!) the very serum that makes the apes smarter acts as a deadly virus to humans. I almost would rather not know what makes the apes smart enough to take over the world.

As it is, Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes at you as about four different movies strung together in episodes. It could be a mini series, a short one. Or a TV show canceled after four episodes. The first episode has James Franco (!?!?!) as Will Rodman, a geneticist working on a miracle drug, ALZ 113, which he hopes is a cure for Alzheimer’s. He works so single-mindedly on this project to help his father (John Lithgow playing, for once, over the top for a reason) who suffers from it. They test ALZ 113 on apes. Apes they cart in from jungles around the world, captured by poachers – the opening scenes showing this practice is frightening and all too real.

The serum is supposed to act as a regenerative and patch up damaged brains. After Will’s presentation of findings to the board of directors of the big mean genetic therapy pharmaceutical company goes very wrong, his funding is cut and the test apes are put down. But one was pregnant and they are able to save the preemie. Franco takes the newborn ape home and christens him Caesar. So ends the first episode: science gone haywire.

Episode two: Caesar grows up in suburbia. Will fixes up the attic in home one family house in a suburb of San Francisco like a huge playroom. Here Caesar swings around, bounces, does Flying Wallenda moves, and moons out the window at the kids playing next door. Will discovers that Caesar has inherited the traits of his mother, namely the ALZ 113, passed to him from his mother. It becomes apparent that Caesar is preternaturally smart, and since he wasn’t damaged to begin with, this means that the serum works as an augmentation, giving the normal brain (at least on an ape) enhanced capabilities. Meanwhile, Will tests ALZ 113 on his father—and it works. His father thinks clearly again and he plays the piano as well as he used to.

But apes grow fast. In a scene of violent foreshadowing, Will’s father relapses badly and tries to drive off in a neighbor’s car. When the neighbor gets angry at the old man, Caesar escapes the house and lurches to the father’s rescue attacking the neighbor and drawing blood.

Episode three: Caesar is thrown in ape prison. This episode alone is a reason to see the movie. Here Caesar is separated from Will for the first time. And also mixes with other apes, chimps, and orangutans. Since he’s the super smart one, he quickly assumes dominance over even the biggest and brutish ones. They are all kept in cages and let out in the ‘yard’ for exercise.

The yard is a huge domed playpen. The apes are guarded, I mean cared for, by a young lout who taunts them all, especially Caesar. These scenes carry the fun of a revenge fantasy when their caretaker gets his comeuppance. Caesar also gets his paws on more of the serum and administers it to the rest of the apes. When Will finally gains the means to spring Caesar, he has grown wary of all humans and also realizes his place is not with them but with the apes.

Episode four: Prison break and the rise. The prison break is a sight to behold: legions of apes, all of them now genetically enhanced, leaping and scrambling out the top of the prison yard/play pen and descending onto a sleepy San Francisco dawn. Oh boy, this is going to fantastic, I thought.

I was disappointed.  The tension immediately drained out of the movie. As it happened and I sat disappointed watching the apes trounce through downtown and out onto the Golden Gate Bridge, I wondered what I hoped to see. I realized it wasn’t that the movie didn’t live up to my expectation so much as follow through with what it had set up in the earlier scenes. I expected a slaughter, I expected some real warfare between human and ape. I wanted apes to go ape shit. Maybe take up arms, and become as violent as humans. Or something. Wasn’t that the point of the original? Rod Serling’s yawning in his grave.

There was a bit of that, but this is a PG-13 movie, and there were a surprising number of little kids at this viewing. Even an infant in a pram. So, glad they didn’t have to witness a hard R-rated mayhem. And I’m not saying that would have made me a happy movie-goer, but I truly felt that the movie let its audience down.

I wanted a true Rising, and I got some silly message movie about setting animals free to live in their natural habitat. I can get that on the Nature channel. Plus, the GCI effects were not great at this point. While the scenes on the bridge were ominous, creepy, and partly fun to watch, they were overshadowed by some lousy digital work. Everything looked a little off. Maybe they need to make everything move like a metallic blur, ala Transformers.

After the credits started, I hopped out of my seat and lurched toward the exit. Then another scene came on, and I thought, oh yeah, this’ll be good. But I was just set up for the fall of humankind through the ALZ 113 virus, which, as I’ve said in the earlier Spoiler Alert acts as a lethal virus. Cue the next Apes’ installment. Wake me when it’s over.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday, August 23rd, 7:35 pm. Viewed solo. Snack: Slice, diced, and otherwise individualized.

Coming Attractions:

Contagion. All star, big budget disaster movie. About an international lethal virus. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring little Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Larry Fishburne.

The Debt. Stuff that happened 30 years ago comes back to haunt a group of Mossad secret agents. With Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain. Could be classy, could be dumb.

In Time. Justin Timberlake, Olivia Wilde, and Amanda Seyfried. "In the future people stop aging at 25 and must work to buy themselves more time, but when a young man finds himself with more time than he can imagine he must run from the corrupt police force to save his life."

Paranormal Activity 3. I didn't buy the first one, so there's no reason number 3 will be much of an improvement.

The Sitter. Jonah Hill plays a guy who is talked into babysitting a couple of kids. But he's not much of a sitter, and takes the kids out with him to a drug deal. Or a brothel. Or a bar. Or all of the above. Played for laughs, although humor here is very subjective.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few spoilers ahead. As much as I'd like to give away the ending, I won't.

Love sucks. Love is like oxygen. Love is a drug. Love like wine. Love like blood. Eternal love. Put it all together and what do you get? Love that is both Crazy and Stupid. Crazy, Stupid, Love (CSL), the movie, wants it every way it can get it. It’s selfish and greedy. It’s romantic and realistic. It plays tricks but means well. It takes you to bed but makes you coffee in the morning and calls you later to see how your day’s going. 

Steve Carell plays Cal, a shlubby corporate drone whose wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), sneaks off to the movies by herself when she’s not having an affair with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon). Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling plays chick magnet Jacob who falls for a pretty girl, Hannah (Emma Stone), who is the first to turn him down. At least initially. And so after they do get together he realizes she’s the first girl he wants to commit to.

What do these two disparate couples have in common? After Emily leaves Cal, he ends up at the same singles bar where Jacob plies his trade. Jacob takes pity on Cal and sees a chance to use his talents in a new way. He gives Cal a makeover by taking him clothes shopping and giving him some rules for picking up the ladies.

Carell makes a good schlub, has made a career out of it. Yet he cleans up nice, too. Part of the fun of watching Carell is his reaction to his surprising success with the ladies. CSL is like the 40-Year Old Virgin all grown up. Carell’s Cal is a good guy who married very early. His wife thinks their marriage has run its course, but he still pines for her.

The movie's most touching moments show Cal sneaking over to the house he used to live in to water the grass and trim the hedges, all the while peering longingly through the dining room window at Emily and their two kids. Julianne Moore is stuck in a thankless role of the wife who cheats. But, she’s just confused and feels her marriage has stopped offering her anything. She’s not a villain, nobody is. But she’s no saint, and nobody else is either. That’s the point. Love is all kinds of things, mostly messy, complicated, and with a horrible sense of timing.

Meanwhile, Cal’s son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), is madly in love with his babysitter, Jessica (played with a clumsy, swanlike grace by former America’s Next Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton), who, in turn,  is in love with Cal. This is the touchiest, sloppiest type of love the movie has to offer. But CSL isn’t interested (much) in titillation, and doesn’t stray into this potentially cringy area of love – namely underage lust and inappropriate love.

How this all gets resolved is part of the fun of this movie. So, who am I to spill all the many beans? I’ll just say that there’s a kind of trick ending, a pre-ending ending that plays a card that is the trick of the movie. I don’t like tricks. If this movie were a book, and I read this penultimate scene, I would be mad at the book for withholding information from the reader. But movies, while they often pale next to their literary counterparts, can get away with these sleights of hand. Movies are often told from an omniscient perspective. And here CSL gets away with it.

What I like about the trick is that it plays out over a scene that, in any other romantic comedy, would be the final scene in which everybody makes up and goes off happy. Here, this scene devolves into chaos and happiness seems farther out of each character’s reach. It’s a wink to the audience, letting us know that it’s smart enough not to give in so easily. It then moves on to the real final scenes, where, while the bow is not wrapped so precisely or so prettily, it manages wraps a lot of the movie’s loose ends up satisfyingly.

Still, as I left the theater I was wondering how the story would have played out if this trick wasn’t played. Or had been played earlier in movie. But CSL is still a good night at the movies, and it’s nice to see a rom-com that treats its characters with some respect. The actors help a hell of a lot to make this watchable.

All the couples have chemistry together; absolutely necessary to any movie even scratching the surface of romance. Ryan Gosling plays a good lunkhead with a hot bod and an apparent heart of gold. Emma Stone turns on the charm and it seems that whoever she aims it at reciprocates with the right chemical mixture. Steve Carell and Julianne Moore are a realistic and likeable couple. You want everybody to be happy, but if getting a divorce falls under the happiness moniker, then let’s not get picky about how to define a happy ending.


Theater location: The Island, Oak Bluffs, Thursday, August 11th, 7:00 pm. Viewed with Liz! Snack: Tire Tread Red Licorice.

Coming Attractions:

Change Up.It's already released and tanked. Nothing more to see here. Move along.

The Help. A young white woman interviews a small southern town's worth of black maids to tell their story. Feathers get ruffled. Some people hate it. Some people love it. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Captain America - The First Avenger

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few spoilers ahead.

The latest big budget adaptation of a Marvel Comic superhero, Captain America straddles the line that separates rousing action, sincere patriotism, and total cheese. Actually, it does quite a good balancing act. It mostly works as all of the above, and includes another peachy rewrite of history. In this new Hollywood version of WWII, Hitler is still the bad guy, but asks the question (and perhaps invades hallowed ground): what could be worse than Hitler? HYDRA, a wing of one of Hitler’s armies gone rogue. Okay, it actually doesn’t imply that Red Skull, the mad genius leader of HYDRA is worse than Hitler. But he ain’t no picnic.

What makes this movie interesting is the time period. 1942, just as America enters the big war. Enter 90-pound weakling, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). He wants nothing more than to enlist in the Army to do his part. But because he’s small and asthmatic, among a litany of other conditions, he keeps getting rejected as 4-H. While his best buddy is shipping out, Steve tries again to join the Army using another false name.

But due to his obvious ambition to join, his love of country, and sense of duty, he catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who pulls some strings to get Steve enlisted. Turns out Doc Erskine wants Steve to participate in a secret Army project to generate the perfect good soldier in much the same way Erskine created Red Skull as the perfect bad soldier for the Germans (yes, he used to work for the Germans before escaping to America).

Steve is a good soldier – his heart is in the right place. The experiment is a rousing success with Steve literally growing into a massive, muscle-bound soldier with a heart of gold. Did I mention this guy’s got heart? Tommy Lee Jones (good to see him) is Colonel Chester Phillips who considers Steve nothing more than the morale booster that an ambitious senator has pushed Steve into becoming.

But, as part of a USO show in Europe, Steve (as “Captain America,” complete with goofy costume, shield, and a song and dance routine), hatches a plan to save his best friend who, along with hundreds of other American soldiers, happens to be prisoners of Red Skull. As Captain America. Only in 1942 could a character like this get away with the inherent goofiness of this plot device for a modern audience. Funny thing is, we buy it. It works. Mainly because the modern audience wants it to work. Just like any other modern-day super hero on the big screen.

Steve proves he can use his super powers (he’s strong, can run fast, heal quickly, and his fancy red, white, and blue shield returns to him like a boomerang) to aid in the cause in Germany. The hot British captain Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) falls for him. Tommy Lee Jones gives him the official okay to put together a team of gung ho soldiers to take down Red Skull. Red Skull is played by Australian actor Hugo Weaving, who is probably known to American audiences as Agent Smith from the Matrix flicks, Elrond from Lord of the Rings, and V from V for Vendetta. He is good at playing bad. Tony Stark's father, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is a minor character, the industrialist who puts together Cappy's costume and who also helps Doc Erskine put together the machinery for the initial experiment.

There are no big surprises in Captain America: events move along pretty much as they should. The action scenes are good, if not incredible. Much of the action is computer generated and it often shows. A rousing sequence on a speeding train is almost derailed (pun intended) by some cheesy effects, although I'm guessing there is more money muscle behind this new Captain America than behind the version released in 1990 starring Matt Salinger, Darren McGavin, and Bill Mumy. The best use of special effects comes in the early scenes that show Steve as a small young man, with Chris Evans' head seamlessly and impressively grafted on a shrimpy body. 

It’s not giving too much away to say that the movie opens and ends in modern times. Seeing Cappy run around Times Square in 2011 like he’s landed on another planet just isn’t as much fun as seeing him fight the Nazis. But it's a chance to bring in Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, who seems the glue that fits all these Marvel Comics' super hero pieces together in anticipation of next year's The Avengers.

Evans is no stranger to the Marvel universe playing the Human Torch in two Fantastic Four movies. He has always brought a self conscious youthful cockiness to his roles, including one of seven ex-boyfriends in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, one of the doomed astronauts in Sunshine, and the demolitions expert in The Losers. In the Losers he played a geek, the smart one. But he has the looks of a matinee idol, and so it seems fitting, inexorable, that Evans would step back into the Marvel world as Captain America—part skinny geek who never got the girl, and part matinee super hero god who can do almost everything he ever wanted.

Depending on your view of next year’s The Avengers, beware or embrace the hidden scene that occurs after the closing credits. It's nothing more than a glorified teaser for that movie which collects many of Marvel’s beloved superheroes into one movie. Aside from Captain America (in which Evans reprises his role), you’ll see Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Pepper Pots, and Hawkeye.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Thursday, August 4th, 7:50 pm. Price: 10.50. Viewed with Liz! Snack: apple, chopped and bagged.

Coming Attractions:

Tin Tin. Spielberg directs this motion capture version. Not my cup of tea, but may be great for ten-year olds.

The Amazing Spiderman. Another reboot. Yawn.

John Carter. "Civil War vet John Carter is transplanted to Mars, where he discovers a lush, wildly diverse planet whose main inhabitants are 12-foot tall green barbarians. Finding himself a prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, who is in desperate need of a savior." Huh? Notice the initials: JC.

Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol. Tom Cruise still looks good running fast. This installment actually looks like it could kickstart this franchise, in a good way. This time Cruise has surrounded himself with a good cast, including Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Josh Holloway, and Tom Wilkinson.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Effective and disturbing, this new origins POTA cuts right into our collective primal fears. At least, one of them: apes becoming sentient and taking over. And not in a cuddly way from the look of this mesmerizing trailer. In a way that has them attacking a highway of cars and expertly throwing axes. With James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and Brian Cox.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Guest review by Robin Smith-Johnson.

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Major spoilers ahead so read at your own risk.

With the long-awaited final chapter of Harry Potter in theaters, the big question has to be – was it worth the wait? In a word, yes. The finale provides a nice finish to the huge story arc that J.K. Rowling began in the first book and subsequent movie “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001). Ten years ago, we met an 11-year-old Harry as he embarked on his adventures as a novice wizard. The author opened up a whole magical world of witches and their muggle counterparts (for the uninitiated, a “muggle” is someone from the non-magical, ordinary world).

At the end of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I,” a triumphant Voldemort lifts the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s grave and raises it to the sky. It would seem that evil is about to trounce good. Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort is granted more screen time in part 2 and he puts it to good use. In this last film, we finally see Harry’s nemesis in all his horrible glory. This villain is ruthless and, at times, unpredictable. As Voldemort’s powers wane, Harry declares that this makes him more dangerous. His pursuit of Harry is so single-minded that anyone in his way will be destroyed.

The film is a complex mix of storytelling and adventure. For those moviegoers who haven’t either read the books or seen the movies, the going might be tough. A quick primer of the action should include the special nature of horcruxes. According to the Harry Potter wiki, a horcrux is a very powerful object in which a Dark wizard or witch has hidden a fragment of his or her soul. In Voldemort’s case, he has split his soul into seven parts in hopes of insuring his own immortality. In addition, there are the deathly hallows, three powerful magical objects that used in tandem can overcome death.

Overall, the cinematography is breathtaking. There is a scene where Hogwarts teachers perform enchantment spells to protect the school against the evil invaders. Statues of armored knights come alive and leap into position. A vast ethereal scrim is unleashed to cover the school. It’s a powerful, emotionally charged scene with great special effects. Indeed, the entire movie is a visual feast.

Throughout the eight Harry Potter films, movie goers have grown up with the young characters. Here, Harry and his friends are finally adults. I loved the quick glimpses of Ron and Hermione's long-time friendship turning into romance. The young trio do justice to Rowling’s idea of the brave, intrepid schoolmates in search of justice.

The real hero has to be the unlikely Neville Longbottom who stands up to the onslaught of Voldemort’s legions near the end of the movie. He risks his life to confront what he believes is a dark obstacle to the truth. Stirring stuff!

It’s always fun to see England’s most esteemed actors taking part in the films. Once again, we meet Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, beloved headmaster of Hogwarts (his character is dead but comes back in an other-worldly scene with Harry at the very end of the movie), Helena Bonham Carter is the over-the-top evil Belatrix Lestrange, the wonderful Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and larger-than-life Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid.

The actor who demands the most respect for this film, however, is Alan Rickman as the mysterious Professor Severus Snape. Throughout Harry Potter’s journey, Snape has been both friend and foe to Harry. In the final movie, we finally understand what makes Snape tick. The trip back in time thanks to the pensieve (an object used to retrieve memories) gives Harry a look at the real Snape. This was the most moving part of the film where the film viewer finally understands the depth of Snape’s love for Harry’s mother Lily and the sacrifices Snape has undergone to honor that love and protect Harry.

In the end, this film shows the grand battle between good and evil played out on the school grounds of Hogwarts. Although Voldemort seems all-powerful, his comeuppance is quick and powerfully done. Favorite characters die; others are injured. Somehow, though, the resourcefulness and integrity of Harry and his friends shine through.


Theater location: Heritage Cinemas in Sandwich, Friday, July 29, 6:30 p.m. Price: $9.50.
Movie date with hubby Greg. No snack.