Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Released in 2011

A little over a month ago I visited the Bronx Zoo with my family for the first time in almost eight years. It was a tradition to see the toucans, sea lions and exotic mice as a child, so the visit was a little childhood send-off. As exciting it was to see the Egyptian Spiny Mouse once more, I was taken back during the visit to the outdoor primate exhibit. One gorilla sat upright, against a stump, seemingly indifferent to the visitors and conditioned to their presence. He gazed not at children beating on the glass, nor even his own kind, but upwards. He could have been daydreaming in the clouds above. I do not think a fish knows it is a fish, cognizant of its own existence. But I am confident (as are scientists as a quick Google search will show) that a gorilla, and all great apes for that matter, are capable of existential reflection, aware of their own existence. They boast qualities of humanity, a trait, surprisingly enough, almost exclusively reserved for humans. They are also capable of extreme brutality, as that horrifying story of the woman whose face was literally ripped off from a supposedly tame chimpanzee will attest. With strength that overshadows our own and a sense of purpose, monkeys kept in captivity makes for a risky game. With modifications to intelligence that allow comprehension of the injustice they have been served, we face a significant threat. Such thought provides conflict for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Why studio executives decided to reboot a franchise that had no winners since its inception in 1968 - and the abysmal Tim Burton/Mark Wahlberg remake still leaving a bad aftertaste - is beyond me. But that they did so with unsuspecting feeling and humanity leaves me surprised. That the filmmakers utilized computer effects as the primary vehicle to engage the audience emotionally shocks me even more. There are pleasant surprises to behold as Rise enfolds; they taper off by the end but this blockbuster still boasts a higher IQ than the norm, like our protagonist Caesar. James Franco's name has been attached to this title but even the release poster only displays Caesar, the chimp created by computers and a very dedicated Andy Serkis. Make no mistake:  this primate of pixels is the star of the show, and an incredibly convincing one at that. 

An alternate version of a prequel to the Planet of the Apes saga, the story explains, well, the rise of the apes over the humans who have controlled them for so long. A chimp with superior intellect - inherited from his mother who was applied an allegedly Alzheimer's-curing drug before turning rabid - becomes the harbinger of this revolution. But under the care of soft scientist Will Rodman (Franco), Caesar is as sensitive as a child and similarly seeking answers. He defies the classification of "pet" but still cannot meet the next true level. Frustration boils underneath his tender exterior, a genius wanting bigger and bolder things. But he genuinely cares for his family, and devotes much time to comfort Will's ailing father (John Lithgow), whose severe onset of Alzheimer's may be a more powerful motive for Will's tireless research. Caesar is one with the family until an extreme circumstance forces him out of the house (the brunt of which the incredibly unlucky neighbor receives). As he lives in a zoo he begins to communicate with other apes, notably a very wise orangutan, and exercises his intellect over the rest. The "prison" scenes, if you will, are akin to Shawshank Redemption in a sense:  abused at first, a man uses wit to win over the heavies and wields intimidation and persuasion to unite those who wish to rever him. We have seen it before, but not like this. 

Unfortunately, the story loses steam as the fight turns physical, escalating to a brawl on the Golden Gate Bridge. What once was a fresh meditation on the nature of humanity turns to Roland Emmerich fodder. It stops asking those moral, existential questions, and the script seems to side with the apes when there is still so much grey area. When human law prevents a father and son (Will and Caesar, respectively) from being together, is it right for the son to take out so much anger on the father? Is this catalyst a fitting reason to believe your cause for species dominance is just? It is a small, personal reason, and these struggles appear so miniscule in the larger picture, yet so overwhelming to the individual. As an audience, we both sympathize and empathize, as we know how that feels, so it may be a wise choice.  But, in the larger picture, the apes' cause is portrayed as the absolute right one - for dramatic effect - when the sensible approach would be more objective. 

This is a story of man - or in this case a monkey - and his loss of innocence. In this case, his genius intelligence amplifies this already significant revelation, for while he mopes after realizing his species' true stratum against humans, he takes action.  It is sad to see Caesar make such a choice, for most of the film Will nurtures Caesar out of selflessness, though Franco's occasionally stiff acting not always communicates this. Nonetheless, we care about their bond, and it is this relationship that occupies the majority of the film's runtime. This is great, because the mandatory though unoriginal action scenes are as short as they can be. And this is not say those scenes are bad, for chimps and orangutans playing a life-or-death game of monkey bar under the Golden Gate Bridge makes for great entertainment. But it does not tread the abstract pavement much of the film so boldly dares to walk. 

The equally risky decision to make the protagonist a digitally rendered monkey that is not an anthropomorphic cartoon reaps unforeseen rewards. Here is a full-bodied, expressive, fluidly-drawn character that we believe. Avatar laid admirable groundwork in the field of advanced computer, erm, avatars. However, Caesar carries more emotional nuances and without saying a word (!!). Bliss, melancholy, mirth, anger, love, and envy all pour from this marvel of computer and acting wizardry. Andy Serkis is the greatest proponent of this technique, and while fellow chimp Kong and cinema icon Gollum, especially, were fascinating works of his, Caesar represents even more advanced leaps in technology and a deeper, dominating role.  If no other aspect of this film appeals to you (which I can understand given this series' track record), see it for Serkis' performance alone.

Other actors fascinated, in varying ways. John Lithgow steps into the shoes of an Alzheimer's victim, one slowly fading away and aware of his tragic descent. The eyes, he nails the eyes, for they wander and wander until they affix on your own, and there is the sinking feeling that they do not recall the history both pairs have shared. My grandfather spent the last years of his life afflicted with the terrible disease, the leech that sucked away even the most powerful memories of love. For the record, five added years of not just life, but full neurological function and ability to recall all moments with loved ones and still be able to create more is not a failure, as Will states of the drug trial of his father. It is an incredibly immature conclusion to make, and another example of the film's frequent moments of jumping to resolutions far too eagerly and decisively. There is much grey area in the real world that this screenplay does not seem to acknowledge.

On a lighter note, the other casting choice worthy of note is Tom Felton, playing Draco Mal-uh Dodge Landon, the abusive monkey handler. There is little difference from this role to Draco Malfoy, which suits a Potter fan like myself just fine, and I swear he delivers that trademark Draco sneer at least once. After all, "monkey" and "Mudblood" sound awfully similar. This Dodge Landon kid seems to have every job at this facility:  he feeds, locks up, tases, and shoots darts at the apes, and even guards at the outdoor post. He is the son of the owner (spoiled, privileged son? Tom Felton??? No!) but you'd think he would not handle every aspect there. But I digress. It is great to see Felton, even if his role is not original in really any way. One of the cheapest shots in the screenplay but also most downright fun is the regurgitation of Charlton Heston's immortal line from the original film. It is there, all glorious nine words. And Felton delivers it well, as badass as he could, I think. Where this man's career will go I do not know, but if he is destined to play pseudo-Draco roles for the rest of his young adult life, I will be there to observe. Until the novelty wears off at least. 

Anyway, back on track, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster film really unlike that I have seen before. The special effects are as crucial to the storyline and theme as they could be, and even when director Rupert Wyatt and the FX team wants to have fun, as in that mesmerizing tracking shot of young Caesar navigating through the house, it does not feel thrown in, but purposeful. Serkis' portrayal of the chimp fuses primality and vulnerability in a character more alive than any other actor on the screen. The distinct flaws fidgeting under the surface are there, though do not detract as much as annoy. I did not even touch upon the vestigial Freida Pinto character who serves little purpose. But the film seems to get away with these defects for, with all the grade-A computer alchemy, it is a B movie, albeit one of the few in existence with such philosophical ideas as the cognizance of animals and the just treatment of sentient beings. The sometimes brilliant, sometimes banal direction, irregular pacing, and predictable but alluring screenplay all point to mindless fare. But that it is so much more than that is where this film's pleasures unfold. It asks us to consider our place in the world among those we coexist with, sometimes too briskly, but that it treads this ground at all far surpasses the expectations it set for itself. A viewing of Rise will garner entertainment, thought, and maybe even some apprehension at the ape exhibit next time at the zoo. 

Final Verdict: 
3.5 Stars Out of 5

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens Review

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau
Released in 2011

A movie's title should communicate not only the concept of the film but some of the tone as well. We should determine whether or not it is a comedy, drama, action film, etc just from the name. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a crazy title; fitting then, huh? Snakes on a Plane, on the other hand, sounds so self aware that it must be drenched in irony and camp. Cowboys & Aliens carries so little conviction that it should follow the same path. However, the filmmakers attempt to fuse two genres, western and alien invasion, and fail to fulfill either's potential or even basic principles. 

The first shot consists of a sprawling desert landscape, panning right until our hero Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) bolts upright into the shot, gasping and searching around for his bearings. He has no memory of who he is or why he is so vulnerable. A promising start. From there the driving Morricone-esque score by Harry Gregson-Williams kicks off as Jake strolls into the local town. The town looks like that Western town we have all seen before; it is believable but without distinction. Same can be said for the costumes:  good work, yes, but nothing we have not seen countless times before. It all works, but lacks consequence. 

Jake arrives just in time, for as the local gang leader's mess of a son (Paul Dano, further establishing himself as the subservient coward character actor of his generation) accidentally shoots the deputy sheriff out of carelessness and pulls Jake into the whole mess too. Just as they board the carriage to take them to the federal marshal, Jake's mysterious wristband begins to buzz and flash as lights in the sky do the same. In the dead of the night a flight of extraterrestrial spacecraft launch a guerrilla attack on the town, plucking several men and women from the ground, conveniently providing reasons for a crew to then set off to find those aliens and, of course, their loved ones. Paul Dano, unsurprisingly, is abducted, so Harrison Ford, his grizzled father Dolarhyde, sets forth beside his former rival,  who now sports that curiously powerful wristband. There is no explanation, ever, as to why the aliens abduct those hapless humans. It is just an evil thing for them to do, providing conflict and fulfilling the stock alien invasion type. Equally unfulfilling is their reason for invading Earth; it is painfully unoriginal. 

Such issues can be whittled down to one reason: there are too many writers. The credits place nine different screenwriters/story developers/comic book writers as the creative force behind the script.  No natural character development or restrained story arc will survive after encountering so many hands. The first half follows the Western progression of new tough man in town,  unwillingly messing the place up, and then vowing to fix it and embarking across the desert with those he affected. In fact, such a worn plot was breathed new life in the excellent Rango earlier this year. 

Not only does this film lack such inspiration, it does not complete the journey our protagonist should complete. The aliens reveal their true form far too early  (Spielberg is attached to this, you'd think he would oversee the cinematic lesson that is literally taught in film school today), and the film begins to switch its gears to alien takedown flick in the vain of Independence Day. A multi-cultural band of enemies unite in order to take down the greater threat; this group includes Jake and Co., Jake's former deadly gang he now disowns, and a surprisingly inoffensive troop of Native Americans. The latter thankfully have some depth in their image, not overly barbaric or unremittingly tied to the spirits around them but somewhere comfortably in between. With the help of those who traveled with him, Jake unites these factions and they all collectively overthrow the intruders. Not enough attention is placed upon Jake, however, as we feel that he only solves the issues from a "shoot the baddies" perspective while the moral choices and reconciliations are left to the love interest, Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde). By the end, Jake has changed, but it is not his choices that got him there.

The casting contains curiosities, both good and bad. As great as it is to see Harrison Ford in 2011, the man immortalized through the space gunslinger Han Solo has since lost that drive. His performance has some highlights, particularly as he confesses to his right-hand man (Adam Beach) how he wished his son had half his goodwill and courage, and as he finally reunites with his son in the end we feel for him. But we never care for him before these moments, and while that may be by conscious choice, it is not a smart decision for us to barely think of the character when he is off-screen. It takes far too long for us to feel effect, and far too late. After playing the futuristic model of a woman in Tron: Legacy, it feels grossly anachronistic for Olivia Wilde to strap on cowboy boots in the 19th century. She lacks abilities as an actress, specializing in that glazed, seductive stare she exercises so often. Hollywood has been forcing Wilde onto screens lately and I am not sure why, besides the obvious (and I believe overstated) reason. 

The actors who stand out hint at what could have been if the acting ensemble was tighter and script much more focused. Sam Rockwell, unsurprisingly, excels even with his limited material and admittedly bland character. But he has mastered quirky comic delivery as well as an effective state of emotional distress when his character calls for it. His physical struggle to shoot a gun pays off when he finally saves his comrades and takes control of his manhood.  And the best character is the short-lived preacher played by Clancy Brown, the prison guard from The Shawshank Redemption. His down-to-earth spirituality lends weight to the film's thematic potential, suggesting that faith will heal the wounds left by those who harm. But his death (yes I spoil, it is not a big deal) arrives so soon, and this theme, fleetingly touched upon again in the Native American camp, never truly finds its footing. 

I respect that Jon Favreau and the whole outfit of screenwriters approached this film as more than a campy panache. But they take themselves too seriously, and are reluctant to inject any comedy into a product that demands it. The plot wanders, rife with holes and stumbling aimlessly for theme. Much like Jake in the beginning frames. With added levity and, let's say, a Western story arc with alien elements added more naturally and less intrusively, this action film from the director of Iron Man could have been a witty, engaging summer flick. And for godsakes the title is not helping. 

Final Verdict:
2 Stars out of 5