Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark(8/27/2011)

The two genres that Hollywood loves to put out between their blockbuster tentpoles are comedies and horror films.  These are the films that can get very favorable profits after being produced on relatively low budgets.  In 2011 we’ve seen an absolute glut of comedies, especially R-rated comedies like Bridesmaids, The Hangover: Part 2, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, and 30 Minutes or Less.  Perhaps this accounts for the fact that we’ve had an absolute drought of decent horror movies in the first half of the year.  The only horror films to get a wide release in 2011 have been the vanilla-looking Insidious, the unnecessarily remade Fright Night, yet another Final Destination film, and yet another Scream movie.  It’s this environment that had fans of the genre placing a lot of hope on a relatively small horror film called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a movie which wasn’t a needless sequel, didn’t look like a ripoff on its surface, and wasn’t a remake (at least not a remake of something that the average horror fan had heard of or cared about).  More importantly, the film had Guillermo del Toro’s name on it, albeit as a producer rather than as a director.  Given that del Toro is a guy who knows his horror and that his previous producer credits were attached to such solid genre fare as The Orphanage and Splice hopes were pretty high for this one.

The film revolves around an old mansion in rural Rhode Island that was once inhabited by a famous landscape painter who disappeared along with his son in the late 19th Century.  A hundred odd years later the house has been bought by an architect named Alex Hirst (Guy Pearce), who is refurbishing it along with his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) who acts as the interior decorator.  The film opens with the arrival of Sally (Bailee Madison), Alex’s ten year old daughter from a previous marriage who will be staying with Alex and Kim while they try to get the house sold.  This arrival is bumpy for Sally, who feels she is unwanted by both of her parents, and it’s in this state that she begins to hear strange voices coming through the vents in the house, especially out of a strange ash vent in the previously hidden basement of the house.

At this point I feel like I need to give away what’s making the voices that Sally is hearing, which could be considered a minor spoiler but I feel it’s fair given that this is pretty much revealed in the film’s first third.  What differentiates this film from most haunted house movies is that the supernatural force in the house is not a ghost; it’s a race of small subterranean rodent-looking things that eat teeth and bones.  Doesn’t quite sound frightening yet?  Well how about if I tell you that these things are allergic to light, can be killed easily, and aren’t very effective at killing people even when they attack in swarms and have small bladed instruments at their disposal.  Yeah… I feel like the root problem with this movie is that it vastly overestimates how scary these things are.  They can also be rather bumbling at times, maybe not to the extent of the monsters from Gremlins, but they’re certainly in the same ballpark.  What’s more they should be pretty familiar to any Guillermo del Toro, as he more or less used a variation on the things for a lighthearted action scene early in the film Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

This could have worked as a sort of horror-comedy for kids like the aforementioned Gremlins, or maybe Poltergeist, but instead director Troy Nixey has given us a dead serious, R-rated, horror movie that only works sporadically.  To the film’s credit, they were able to find an interesting house to haunt.  The mansion certainly has that New England gothic look to it that one would want out in a movie like this.  I also liked the way they discuss the house’s history and the fate of its previous owner and his art (even if the way they eventually learn it is completely contrived).  I’d also give some degree of praise to Bailee Madison’s performance as the frightened girl at the film’s center, who pretty effectively conveys the characters frustration and make the kid pretty sympathetic.

The same cannot be said for the film’s adult leads, Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, who both exacerbate the shortcoming that this film (and most haunted house movies) suffers from: that the characters are oblivious to the fact they are living in a haunted house.  Like most of these movies the monsters take forever to finally strike and before they do they needlessly make a bunch of false starts that should tip any reasonable person off to the fact that they should probably find a new place to live.  This often involves clueless adults failing to hear things at the right time, refusing to look at evidence that is being offered, and failing to connect obvious dots.  This particular film even has a side character that knows exactly what is going on, and instead of warning the participants in clear terms he decides to give them oblique clues that will pad out the running time a little bit more and give the filmmakers more opportunities to stage attack sequences that go nowhere.

What makes supernatural horror movies so different from slasher movies and torture porn and the like is that supernatural horror movies don’t just scare you with the individual kill scenes, they care you with the thought of some ancient evil that could be unleashed upon the world.  For instance, it isn’t really Jack Nicholson with an axe that makes The Shining so frightening (though admittedly that’s pretty frightening), it’s the idea that there is some mysterious malevolent force that has controlled the Overlook Hotel for generations.  In Don’t be Afraid of the Dark we that force isn’t all that mysterious, in fact we know for a fact that it’s a bunch of little trolls that can be killed with a flashlight, and on top of that the individual horror set pieces aren’t all that great either (again, because the villain is a swarm of little trolls).  So all we’re really left with is a rather formulaic movie with a stock family of characters and a jump scare or two.  I’m not sure why Guillermo del Toro would put his stamp of approval on such a thing, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone see that name and think this would be something on the level of The Devil’s Backbone or The Orphanage.  Granted, the film doesn’t exude awfulness as some films in this genre do and we are in a horror movie drought, but that doesn’t mean that this deserves any sort of pass.

** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Limitless (8/22/2011)

The first thing that came to mind whenever I thought of the movie Limitless was that Kanye West song “Power,” which played through the film’s trailer.  That’s a good freaking song and it works good in trailers (it’s been in many), and it makes sense that they’d choose it to represent a movie about the dangerous side of a man getting incredible thought capacity (“no one man should have all that power,” after all).  In fact I might go so far as to give Mr. West a substantial amount of the credit for the film’s 155 million dollar worldwide gross, because there’s nothing about “low budget, high concept sci-fi thriller starring ‘that dude from the Hangover’” which screams blockbuster.  But put a good beat (possibly one with tribal chants and a King Crimson sample) and you’ve got yourself something that actually looks pretty substantial and exciting.  Of course there’s not a lot of truth in advertising but the movie still looked kind of cool, and at the very least it was a commercial film from Hollywood that wasn’t a remake and didn’t feature a super hero, so I thought I’d give it a spin.

The film is about Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper), a struggling novelist living in squalor who’s about to be dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish).  At his lowest point he bumps into an acquaintance named Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth) who offers him a sample of an “FDA approved” drug that will increase his brainpower tenfold and allow him to accomplish things with amazing speed.  Mora tries the pill and is able to finish a novel in a matter of hours.  Amazed at what the pill can do for him he returns for more only to find Gant dead in his apartment, murdered by some unknown assailant.  Before allowing the police into the crime scene Mora finds Gants sizable stash of the wonder pill and pockets it.  Cleared of all charges, Mora is free to use the drug in order to amass a fortune working for a powerful entrepreneur named Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), but soon he finds himself plagued by both the side effects of the drug and sought after by the people who eliminated Gant.

Where do I start with this script?  Well, let’s start with its horrible, pointless, lazy use of voiceover.  This is not a story that couldn’t be conveyed without Cooper walking the audience through the plot, nor does the voice over add any extra color or insights to the proceedings.  I’m not even sure why they thought this voice over was necessary because it really serves no purpose.  That’s just water under the bridge though, because this script also has holes and contrivances that make no sense when the slightest scrutiny is applied to the proceedings.  For instance, early in the film Mora borrows $100,000 dollars from a loan shark named Gennady (Andrew Howard) in order to kick start his investment scheme.  Not two scenes later it’s established that Mora’s character has already become a millionaire through this scheme, and you’d think the first thing he’d do is pay back the debt he owes to this violent sociopath, but no, that would have ruined the “surprise” return of the loan shark into the story late in the second act.  The script also has a lot of other half baked “surprises” in store that you’d think someone with super-powered intelligence would see coming like when Robert De Niro’s character points out that one of his business rivals is a prodigy who came out of nowhere two years ago.  Uh huh, that couldn’t possibly have something to do with the wonder drug that Mora’s been taking, could it?

All of this might have been a little easier to overlook if the execution were better, but director Neil Burger mostly just confirms his reputation as a mediocrity here, and his lack of innate talent is only more pronounced here given that he’s trying some visual tricks that don’t work out.  For one, Burger makes the decision to brightly illuminate all the scenes where Mora is under the influence of the wonder drug and then give all the scenes where he’s not under the influence a dark and gloomy look.  It’s a rather tacky and distracting palette and it isn’t helped by the fact that both lighting schemes are rather ugly.  Elsewhere Burger tries to illustrate the effects and side effects of the drug through a variety of flashy music video tricks (including a sex scene shot in what appears to be a 300-style speed ramp) which he simply does not pull off with any kind of real panache.  A good actor in the central role would have also helped the film, but alas, Bradley Cooper does not bring any kind of likability or even some relatable humanity to the main character.  As such Eddie Mora comes off as something of a selfish and irresponsible douchebag throughout the film, which only make the film’s anticlimactic ending all the more frustrating, because [spoilers ahead] the character basically gets away without any consequences and is actually rewarded for his behavior.  I’m just going to assume that the studio was to blame for this lame ending, firstly because you can really see the moment where things start to feel tacked on and secondly because this is just generally the kind of idea that only marketing committees can collectively be stupid enough to come up with.

Are there any redeeming qualities on display in Limitless?  Well, there are a few.  I suppose the basic premise does bring up some fairly interesting questions like “what’s the point of gaining intelligence if you can’t retain it,” even if the script doesn’t adequately explore the implications.  I guess there are also a couple of scenes in which the character’s increased intelligence is at least used somewhat creatively… I’m reaching here.  Really though, aside from the theory about the trailer that I outlined at the beginning I have no idea why this thing resonated at all with audiences.  This is exactly the kind of dumb Hollywood movie whose shortcomings can only be masked by distracting the audience with special effects and explosions, and this doesn’t even have that.  It’s a poorly executed update on the Faust legend that doesn’t even have the balls to punish it’s lead character for selling his soul to the devil.

*1/2 out of Four

Finding Pixar: The Incredibles (2004)

This is the sixth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

When we last left Pixar, they’d scored a major coup with Finding Nemo, a film which pretty much proved their absolute dominance over the family-film world.   Most animation studios would have been happy with that and would have rested on their laurels, but Pixar is a studio with bigger ambitions and starting in 2004 they seemed to go on a warpath, trying to get new and different demographics under their wing.  The first of these demographics that they went after was the one that would prove to be a block of important tastemakers over the course of the decade: the geeks.  Of course I was unquestionably among the ranks of that demographic back in ’04, and I did come a lot closer to thinking about considering seeing The Incredibles than I did to seeing Finding Nemo or any of the other Pixar movies before it.

I also came closer to seeing The Incredibles as it continued to have a lot of cultural impact over the years, and oh did it have impact.  Hell, the band at my high school graduation even played a piece from the film’s score as their selection, eliciting a bad joke from our commencement speaker (then U.S. Senator, now Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton) about how the young people in the band were “the real incredibles!” Since then it’s been one of the most prominent Pixar movies on top five/ten lists, especially ones dealing with superhero movies.  It’s arguably the most critically acclaimed of Pixars non-Toy Story movies up until their recent post-Cars winning streak, and of all the movies they had made it might have been the one I was most looking forward to while doing this series.

The subject of geek pandering by a Disney release also brings up another question that’s been gnawing at me.  For all the years I was completely hostile towards animated childrens’ movies, I was lapping up all sorts of comic book superhero films as well as other fare like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series which are themselves sort of childish.  I mean, there were no adults taking Superman and Batman seriously when they debuted in the late 30s, comic books back then were considered to be things that wasted children’s time.  Also, if you go to see the average superhero film like Spider-Man you’re liable to see just as many children in the crowd as adults.  So what made me see these movies differently?  Well, firstly super hero movies are fairly well entrenched in the realm of the action scene, and for years I pretty readily equated violence with “adult.”  But that explanation doesn’t quite jive either, after all there were plenty of scenes in movies like The Lion King and Aladdin that could be described as “action,” and super hero-esque action had been firmly entrenched in the Saturday morning cartoon shows that were clearly labeled as children’s entertainment.

I suppose the real reason that I treated comic book superheros with more respect than I treated Pixar’s movies is that I was introduced to them only after they had been re-envisioned in the late 80s by writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman.  These writers used comic books and the previously cartoony characters that inhabited them in order to achieve unquestionably adult (or at least late-teenage) story-telling ends.  That’s not to say that I knew the ins and outs of “The Killing Joke” or “The Dark Knight Returns” when I was fell in love with the batman character when I was nine or ten and watching “Batman: The Animated Series,” but there was enough of a tradition of adults respecting comic book stories in the air at the time that I could mistake my enjoyment of the stories as a sign of my own maturity rather than as a stepping stone towards the truly adult fare that I’d experience later in my life.

So why can’t American animated films get the same aura of respectability that comic books earned in the 80s?  Well, some would argue that they already have and that Pixar has been the Vertigo Comics type entity that made it happen.  After all, there’s probably been as much written analyzing the works of Pixar as there have been about the likes of “Watchmen,” and adults are seeing these movies and probably in larger numbers than they ever read the likes of “The Sandman.”  Of course they’ve done this in a much more covert way.  Comic Books like “Spawn” had not in any way been made for or marketed to small children, and as such they conformed to my traditional vision of a separation between adult and childrens’ entertainment.  I also don’t know that this aura of respectability has managed to transform the larger medium all that much.  After all, the Dreamworkses and Fox Animations of the world have not really followed Pixar’s example and there hasn’t really been too much of an effort to push the medium beyond what Pixar has achieved, but there’s still something to be said for the theory and it makes me wonder if I would have had the vision to go along with the Millers and the Moores of the world if I had been on the scene when they were breaking down barriers, or if I would have needed to settle for catching up with them a decade later.

Starting The Incredibles I was immediately struck by the film’s look, which can only be described as a dramatic improvement over what came before.  I don’t know what technological breakthrough happened between 2003’s Finding Nemo and this 2004 film, but the results speak for themselves.  Firstly, the film’s environments look a lot bigger and more detailed than the first five films; Syndrome’s Island looks fantastic and the city that the titular characters live in is a vast improvement over the primitive cityscapes seen in Toy Story 2.  The animators have also mustered the courage to make a film revolving entirely around humans for first time, and while the character models are deliberately stylized in order to stray from the uncanny valley, that still fits fine within the aesthetic of comic book illustrations.

However much the Pixar’s technology had improved over the years, there are elements to the film’s superior look that ultimately come down to superior visual ambition and skill.  First of all, this is the first Pixar movie since A Bug’s Life to be “shot” on a 2.35:1 canvas, and that gives it a more epic feel from the very get go.  The film also seems a lot more adventurous with the “camera” than some of the previous films had.  The movies just intrinsically felt like it was cinematically closer to what a good live action film was supposed to look like.  That might be partly because the film  operates on a conventional human scale rather than depicting small toys, bugs, and fish (the similarly scaled Monsters, Inc. was not coincidentally the closest that the studio had come to a similar level of visual fidelity before this).  However, I’m willing to bet that the real reason for the film’s evolved visual technique was probably the presence of Brad Bird in the director’s chair. Bird would replace John Lasseter to some extent as the critical posterboy for the company, and I can see why, his presence seems to have elevated the proceedings greatly.

The influences involved in this film are pretty obvious: the basic concept of a family of superheroes is clearly taken from “The Fantastic Four” with the twist of making this a nuclear family of superheroes rather than a cadre of related adults.  The individual powers of the family members also borrow from “The Fantastic Four” with the mother clearly taking her abilities from Mr. Fantastic and the daughter taking hers from Sue Storm (AKA The Invisible Girl).  You could even argue that the father’s super strength is a clone of Ben Grimm’s strength powers (minus the whole being made of rock thing) and the baby even reveals Human Torch like abilities toward the end.  That just leaves the younger brother as the only family member unlike the Fantastic Four, with his power-set clearly being inspired by the DC’s hero The Flash.  I’m not entirely sure how Disney managed to avoid a lawsuit from Marvel and I am a little disappointed that Pixar couldn’t find some more creative powers to give to these characters, but given that the straightforward adaptations of Fantastic Four were terrible I’m not going to complain too much about this.

The film wisely doesn’t waste time going into any kind of detail about the origins of these heroes, and seems to imply that they are basically mutants (in the X-Men sense of the term) born into superhuman powers.  The movie mostly avoids the basic superhero film structure that would become really tired over the course of a decade.  Instead they use a device which was arguably borrowed from the “Watchmen” graphic novel in which the bulk of the story takes place after masked vigilantism has been outlawed and the main characters have been in hiding for a decade or so.  The excuse for this, that superheroes had fallen victim to frivolous lawsuits, seemed a bit clunky to me.  Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing that secret identities were meant to prevent?  How do you go about subpoenaing someone with a secret identity?  Personally I think they would have been better off making Mr. Incredible’s retirement more of a personal choice based on his desire to raise a family, an explanation that would have made better sense of the tensions between him and his wife, but this is a minor quibble.

Frankly the idea of a nuclear family of superheroes is not one that appeals to me to any great extent.  The family itself often skewed a bit to close to suburban sitcom clichés for my taste.  The family consists of an emasculated father, a worrying mother, a moody older sister, and a rambunctious younger brother.   The rambunctious young brother in particular got a little annoying at times, not to the same degree that Flic from A Bug’s Life or Dory from Finding Nemo, but irritating just the same.  I praised Finding Nemo for its use of a real kid to voice the title character, but the work of the eleven year old voice actor Spencer Fox makes me think that the practice wasn’t such a universally brilliant idea after all.  The film’s villain, Syndrome, was a pretty good nemesis for this family.  I didn’t completely buy his motivations and I thought his visual design was kind of lame, but I still like the way he operated.  I liked Syndrome’s basic scheme of testing out robots on heroes in order to make the perfect global threat.  I also thought that Syndrome’s Island, which felt like the ultimate James Bond villain hideout filled with death traps and storm trooper like mercenaries, was especially cool.

While the idea of making a movie about a nuclear family of superheroes might not wildly appeal to me personally, this is certainly the way to make such a movie if you’re going to do it.  The execution in The Incredibles is simply stellar, especially in its action set pieces.  There are probably 10-15 very good set pieces in this, many of them eclipsing the airport scene from Toy Story 2 and the chase at the end of Monsters, Inc.  But these set pieces aren’t just good when compared to other Pixar films, they might even rival the sequences from some of the better live action superhero films, particularly in the way the characters fantastical powers are depicted.  The fact that this is animated probably helps on the action front, allowing an almost unlimited scope that likely would have been even more impressive back in 2004, before we were getting superhero movies with astronomical budgets at the same pace we are today.  It also probably helped that Pixar was working with a PG rather than G rating; there is death in this movie and a much more palpable sense of danger than we saw in Pixar’s previous films.  I would have liked it if the film’s finale hadn’t been a slapstick sequence about finding the right button to press on a remote, but otherwise this delivered extremely well as a comic book action film.

The film is also nicely devoid of the plot holes that plagued some of Pixar’s earlier films, a trend started with Finding Nemo and which will hopefully remain throughout the rest of the studio’s run.   The closest I can come to finding a really glaring hole was that Mr. Incredible seemed to not suffer any real consequences for revealing his powers to his co-workers when he tossed his boss through a wall, but that’s really nothing worth dwelling on.  I guess I could also harp upon the lameness of the eye covering masks that the family wears which wouldn’t really hide anyone’s identity.  That could be dismissed as a mere genre convention, but given the way that the film skewers the cape as an impractical costume accessory that doesn’t seem like a great excuse.  But that’s hardly a deal breaker either, especially when it’s surrounded by so much cool stuff.

When all is said and done, The Incredibles is pretty awesome.  Of course when I say that I’m comparing it to other summer action movies, specifically other superhero movies.  It is not a particularly deep movie and I don’t think it ever elevates itself to the level of great art, but it is a lot of fun and on an execution level it blows away everything that Pixar had done before.  The only movie in Pixar’s earlier oeuvre that even comes close is Toy Story 2, which is probably a deeper movie than The Incredibles, but as an overall package The Incredibles is clearly the studio’s best work to date.  At this point it’s clear that the Pixar people have achieved a certain mastery of their craft, at least when under the leadership of someone like Brad Bird, and if they set their sights on something a little more ambitious than a superhero movie I can see how at this point they really might be able to make a genuine classic.

The Short Program: Boundin’

After about seven shorts I was finally beginning to get a little sick of the silent short routine, and low and behold the Pixar guys switch up the formula right on cue.  In keeping with the wider theme of Pixar directors coming out from John Lasseter’s shadow and making a name for themselves, this short is almost entirely the vision of a Pixar animator named Bud Luckey, who wrote, directed, narrated, and composed/performed the music for Boundin’.  Luckey was born in Montana in 1936 and had been doing animation since the early sixties, he’s in many way the antithesis of Pixar’s normal image of “young idealistic San Francisco computer nerds,” and his vocal performance brings a lot to the short.

Set in the prairie, this acts as a tall tail in the vein of Paul Bunyon and Pecos Bill.  The short is built almost entirely around the folk song at its center, which is in the tradition of children’s story records from the 50s (the kind of thing Andy Kaufman would have sung along to in the 70s).  The story itself is pretty simple: a sheep dances on a rock, gets sheered, and then comes to live with the act of being a shaved sheep after getting advice from a hopping Jack-a-lope.  That all sounds pretty strange but once you get into this mindset of watching a prairie-set fairytale narrated by what is presumably a singing cowboy, it makes a strange sort of sense.

The short is also visually one of the studio’s most adventurous shorts.  They are no longer obscuring or hiding their environments in order to save computer space, this looks like a fully rendered (if perhaps contained) prairie set.  In addition they add in a lot of scene changing weather and season effects, and throw in some camera angles that are far more adventurous than had been seen on earlier shorts.  I was especially fond on a shot towards the end where the camera follows the sheep in a 360 degree trajectory as the season (and his coat) changes.  That kind of visual ambition had been absent from even the best shorts that had come before, possibly for technical or budgetary reasons, but this one seems just as ambitious as the work they do on their features.  It’s certainly their best short since Geri’s Game, and I might even say it’s their best one yet.  If nothing else, it puts the lame For the Birds short from Monster’s Inc. to shame.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (8/5/2011)

While it doesn’t often get credit for it by the public, the Planet of the Apes franchise had had a massive influence on the way Hollywood works.  Years before Star Wars was a gleam in George Lucas’ eye, the Planet of the Apes series managed to juggle four sequels and a merchandising empire that would be replicated time and again in the future.  Even Tim Burton’s 2001 remake would influence Hollywood in that it was basically a reboot made before the term “reboot” had become a massive buzzword in the film industry.  While the original Planet of the Apes is an undisputed classic, the best of the sequels was clearly 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a surprisingly dark installment that shows the original rise of Apes and their conquest of their human oppressors.   Released in the wake of the turbulent sixties and just one year after the Attica Prison Riot, that film was able to use the unrest of its time in order to paint a grim apocalyptic portrait that was perhaps a bit too much for the family audiences that had embraced the previous entries of the series.  It’s that excellent but under-appreciated Apes movie that seems to have been the primary influence on the newest film to bear the “Planet of the Apes” brand, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Set in a near future in which Earth has launched their first manned mission to Mars, the film focuses on a chemist named Will Rodman (James Franco) who’s been developing a drug called ALZ 112.  This drug seems to be restoring cognitive abilities to the chimpanzes they’ve been testing it on and these results give Rodman hope that he’s found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, an ailment that his father, Charles Rodman (John Lithgow), suffers from.  Promising as the results are, the project is shut down when one of the most advanced test chimps seems to go mad and rampage through the lab during a tour by prominent investors.  That chimp would be killed along with the rest of the test subjects but she left behind a newborn son that Rodman secretly adopted and named Caesar.  Caesar seems to have inherited his mother’s advanced intelligence and gets smarter and smarter over the course of three years.  He learns sign language, solves relatively complex problems, and seems fully able to comprehend the world around him.  Aside from the occasional trip into the outside world that he makes with Rodman and his girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto), Caesar is confined into a small house despite his advanced intelligence and emerging ambition.  Though Rodman doesn’t realize it, Caesar is into going to be able to live like this for long and the obstacles in his way may well be torn down rather than allowed to remain in place.

So does Rise of the Planet of the Apes live up to the “Planet of the Apes” name?  First and foremost, this blows the 2001 Tim Burton remake out of the water and after this you can easily forget that movie ever happened.  As for the original series, well, that’s kind of hard to answer.  The film does not really fit in with the continuity of the original series at all (which explained the ape’s rise as part of an elaborate time paradox) but it does still borrow element s from those movies just the same.  As was the case in the original series, an advanced ape named Caesar was responsible for the ape revolution and certain elements of those films like the name “Cornelius” and the line “get your stinkin’ paws off of me you damn dirty ape” are also used.  There is not, however, any real way that one could see this as a straightforward prequel to the events of the 1968 film.  In fact I think this might have been better served if it had dropped the “Planet of the Apes” branding altogether and called itself something like “Simian Revolution” or something.  Linking itself to that seminal series only draws some not overly flattering comparisons, and I don’t really know how valuable the name recognition ever was to begin with anyway.

The film generally lacks the political parallels that made the original Planet of the Apes such a classic.  I suppose there are some very basic “don’t mess with mother nature” undertones, but they’re not overly sophisticated and rarely rise above the level of 50’s B-movies.  The film could also perhaps be viewed as a PETA message about the internal “humanity” of animals.  However, that message doesn’t exactly hold a lot of water given that the apes only become sympathetic once they are given a level of human-like intelligence that actual animals do not possess.  Instead this works more as a character-based drama and focuses specifically on the relationship between Caesar and Rodman.  This part holds up pretty well largely because James Franco does a pretty good job creating a likable character and because WETA does a simply amazing job bringing the Caesar character to life.  The film’s effects are simply incredible, the chimps really look real and their motions are detailed and fluid.  It’s unusual seeing effects work this good on a medium sized studio film like this rather than an uber-epic like Lord of the Rings or Avatar, but low and behold the work here is indeed Oscar worthy.  The effects are also assisted by mocap actor Andy Serkis, who brings Caesar to life just as effectively as he brought King Kong to life in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of that film.

There is an epic action sequence at the end of the film, and that’s effective, but the film is mostly action-free in its first half.  This might disappoint some summer movie audiences but I think it’s one of the film’s strong points.  Lesser movies would have found a way to shoehorn in action sequences into every act out of a belief that audiences can’t stand to sit down for two hours without seeing an explosion every ten minutes.  Instead the focus is clearly on story, which is not to say that the story itself is flawless by any means.  In fact, the film has a problem at its core: it needs to transition the Caesar character and his ape comrades from zoo animals to revolutionaries in a very short period of time and in order to do this it needs to make certain logical leaps that leave plot holes in their wake.  For one thing, the way that the ALZ 112 drug works is not consistent throughout the film and seems to change whenever it suits the plot.  The film also employs some kind of ridiculous side characters in order to up the oppression level that the apes experience including a zoo keeper who seems to go out of his way to be unlikable and a neighbor with some serious anger management problems.  The film also has Caesar taking on a sign of intelligence that no drug could ever provide him, which is a little jarring.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a summer blockbuster that overachieves to the level of Inception or The Matrix, but I do think that it’s up there with the District 9s and Iron Mans of the world.  I also feel like it could be the set up for a sequel that could be really awesome (and it leaves this possibility open to almost anti-climactic effect).  I don’t want to over-sell the movie or over-state its significance, but it is a lot stronger than the mediocre superhero movies we’ve been sitting through recently and if nothing else it’s worth seeing for just how real special effects can get and how well they can be integrated into films set in the real world.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Green Hornet (8/11/2011)

The Green Hornet is, in its own less public way, the film equivalent to the long awaited Guns N’ Roses album “Chinese Democracy” in that it took forever to finally get made before being released to a less than interested public.  For years I heard story after story about a proposed Green Hornet adaptation move from writer to writer, studio to studio, and actor to actor only to get cancelled and then green lit once again.  All this time I kept thinking “is this franchise really worth all this trouble?”  I suppose there are some people who fondly remember the short lived ABC television series from back in the day, and some people who fondly remember the radio series from way back in the day, but is it really a franchise that can guarantee box office receipts?  But that logic did not seem to hit the studio heads and they were able to finally move forward with a production team that was kind of interesting.  In particular, I was interested in the choice of Michel Gondry to direct the film and I was also interested to see what comic actor Seth Rogen would bring to the table.

The film is set in modern day Los Angeles and follows Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), the slacker son of the famed newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson).  Early in the movie James Reid dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting and Britt is left with a substantial fortune and a newspaper that he isn’t particularly qualified to run.  In addition he gets to better know one of his father’s servants named Kato (Jay Chou) who has amazing technical skills, is a proficient martial artists, and can make a killer cup of coffee.  Britt convinces Kato to help him pull a public prank while masked which goes wrong and leads the police to think there’s a master criminal involved.  Britt decides to run with this and turn himself and Kato into a pair of masked vigilantes that the police will believe are criminals.  Kato builds a car called the Black Beauty with on board machine guns, missiles, and all the other car accessories made famous by the James Bond franchise.  Of course the problem with this haphazard little plan is that it would lead them to be pursued by both the police and by gangsters who believe that their territory is being encroached on.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I watched this movie under less than ideal circumstances.  I received a Blu-Ray of the film from Netflix only to have it wig out at the 58 minute mark.  Upon examining the disc I saw some prominent scratches on the play surface.  I reported the problem, received a new disc, started it where I left off and… it started wigging out at the 68 minute mark, scratches again.  I might be a physical media purist, but I guess every format has its problems.  I did finally get a functioning disc with my third try and watched the rest of the film without any major concerns.  I don’t think this viewing experience wildly harmed my viewing but I must say that if I hadn’t been planning to write a review I strongly suspect I wouldn’t have bothered ordering a replacement disc.

The problem with The Green Hornet probably is rooted in its troubled production history.  There seem to be way too many different and contradictory ideas floating around in the film and the result is a movie that is sort of a mess.  You can see the three different movies that seem to have been shoved into the one film in an early scene where the villain, Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), confronts a rival gangster being played by James Franco in a cameo appearance.  The scene itself fits well into the standard formulas for Hollywood superhero movies, that’s the first kind of movie crammed into this script.  The presence of Jame Franco and the comedic nature of his dialogue suggests the second movie on display, that of a Seth Rogen slacker comedy.  Then as the scene ends, Chudnofsky pulls out a strange double barreled handgun, a tick straight from the third kind of movie we’ve been exposed to: a Michel Gondry mind-trip.

The funny thing is, I feel like a couple of these movies could have been pretty good had it not been for the presence of the other two.  For one thing, I think the film could have been a pretty good comedy if left to its own devices.  There are moments in the movie that really are funny, and there are also some well staged physical gags in it like a climactic car chase that recalls the chase at the end of The Blues Brothers.  This comedy is undercut though because of the acting of Jay Chou, an Asian pop star with a limited grasp on the English language who seems to have been cast more because of his ability within action scenes than because of his ability as a comedic scene partner with Seth Rogen.  Those action scenes by the way don’t have a whole lot of dramatic weight to them, largely because Gondry keeps filling them with weird stuff that work better as absurdist imagery than Hollywood escapism.

Occasionally the good ideas that would have been in place in one of these three films do shine through, and these moments do frequently make the film a watchable mess rather than an insufferable mess.  There are individual lines, action scenes, images, and ideas that do seem rather inspired.  In particular I liked an odd social critique in the film revolving around class differences that divide Rogen’s character and Chou’s character.  That’s an idea that could make for a good movie, but the idea gets lost in the jumble that is the rest of the film.  In short this movie is a flop, a somewhat interesting flop that could develop a cult following because of its odd idiosyncrasies, but a flop nonetheless.

** out of Four

Captain America: The First Avenger 7/23/2011

When Marvel studios announced that they’d follow up the successful Iron Man with an Incredible Hulk reboot, an adaptation of Thor, and an adaptation of Captain America, I knew it was that last one that would be the biggest challenge.  While characters like Thor make you think of cool things like Norse mythology and Viking warfare, Captain America is a character that conjures the kind of the mindless flag waving personified by the Trey Parker and Matt Stone song “America, Fuck Yeah” from the movie Team America: World Peace.  I wasn’t sure how they’d go about marketing a superhero with a red white and blue shield to a world audience, and I also wasn’t whether they’d go with the World War II setting or if they’d keep his kitschy costume.  That they brought in the less than awesome Joe Johnston in to direct the film brought my faith down significantly. The casting of Chris Evans, whose performance was easily the worst thing about the Fantastic Four movies, made me even less excited for the movie.  The only thing that got me to even go near the movie was sheer Marvel geekery and completeism.  I went to the movie with very low expectations, which may have just set me up for a rather pleasant surprise.

The majority of Captain America is set during World War II, and focuses on Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny short weakling who in spite of his medical problems is desperate to enlist in the army in order to fight Nazi Germany.  When asked if his desire is to “kill nazis” he responds: “I don’t want to kill anyone… I just don’t like bullies.”  Seeing potential in Rogers’ attitude, a scientist working for the Army named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) decided to recruit him for a program intended to create a super soldier over the objections of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), who doesn’t see the same potential in the asthmatic recruit.  The experiment is a success, giving Rogers increased strength, agility, and endurance, but because of an attack by a German spy the program is sabotaged and Rogers is left as the only remaining super soldier.  Unsure what to do with their new creation the army sends him on a stage tour in order to encourage people to buy war bonds, but Rogers wants to do more than punch an actor playing Hitler on stage.

What’s probably Captain America: The First Avenger’s biggest failing is that Captain America himself is not a very interesting character.  Rogers begins the movie pretty much the same as he ends it, he’s a white bread All-American kid from Brooklyn with very little moral ambiguity.  He isn’t a dark avenger like Batman, he doesn’t have a colorful personality or redemption arc like Iron Man, he isn’t mired in royal intrigue like Thor.  You could maybe compare him to Spider-Man, but Peter Parker at least has a personal life and secret identity to juggle and has more time to grow over the course of his films.  Chris Evans does the best he can with the material and does at least make Rogers a pretty likable person, but there’s not a ton to latch onto.

On the other hand, I thought that Rogers’ nemesis Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) was actually pretty awesome.  This villain is the leader of a Nazi splinter group called Hydra, which has discovered an ancient artifact left by Odin (yes, that Odin, from the movie Thor) that they have harnessed to give themselves cool and anachronistic weapons like ray guns.  This fusion of Nazi occultism and science fiction technology give the film a cool Wolfenstien-esque aesthetic.  Hugo Weaving (who seems to have no fear of being typecast as a villain at this point), brings a lot of the same menace to the role that he brought to The Matrix, and I also thought that the makeup effects used to literally give him a red and skull like face were very cool.  As a character he’s not much deeper than Captain America is, but as an evil force with a lot less screen time that isn’t such a problem.  I might go so far as to say he’s the best villain we’ve seen in a film based on a Marvel property with the possible exception of X-Men’s Magneto and Spider-Man 2’s Doctor Octopus.

On a story level, Captain America: The First Avenger gets bogged down in an origin story as most first installments of superhero franchises do.  However, the movie is largely saved by its quality action scenes.  What’s interesting about Captain America as a superhero is that he really isn’t very powerful at all.  He’s strong and fast, but not all that strong and fast, he’s only moderately more “super” than your average fitness nut.  This means that the set pieces in the movie tend more toward traditional shootouts, chases, and war scenes rather than huge effects sequences.  As someone who wants to see more traditional action in the age of the superhero movie, this was welcomed.  There’s a pretty exciting chase through the streets of New York early in the film, and later we see a fairly epic attack on a Hydra base, and the film also ends with a well staged fight on a futuristic Nazi airplane.  For the most part the period setting and absence of outlandish powers keeps the film from being a CGI fest and that made it a lot more fun than I expected.

As for the flag waving… it wasn’t too bad.  The movie plays it pretty safe on this front and goes to great lengths to avoid offending both the people who don’t want to sit through a two hour celebration of “American exceptionsim” and the right-wing commentators that would have loved to call the movie an attack on American values (the same people who think there’s a “war on Christmas”) if it didn’t have the requisite amount of jingoism.  The film certainly seems to celebrate the U.S. army without question and certainly has a number of American flags all over it.  However, Rogers does seem less than thrilled by the empty flag waving that surround him while he’s on a war bond selling tour, and he also works with a commando unit late in the film with international members including a Brit and a Frenchman (though you wouldn’t know from watching the film that the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally during the war).  They don’t even go so far as to be virulently anti-Nazi, in fact I don’t think that they even showed a swastika once in the entire film.  Instead they focus entirely on the fight against Red Skull’s fictional splinter group Hydra, which apparently the Nazi’s don’t even like.  The film’s title and costume will probably still put off international audiences, but the film itself doesn’t have too much more patriotism than your average Michael Bay movie.

I said at the beginning of the review that I went into the movie with very low expectations and that’s because I thought it would be relentlessly mediocre.  On a story level I got exactly the kind of mediocrity I expected, but the action scenes, period setting, and excellent villain did elevate the film into something that is slightly better than mediocre.  Is “slightly better than mediocre” something to aspire to?  Not exactly, but the resultant film is indeed an entertaining work that will satisfy most people looking for a decent action film.

*** out of Four