Friday, August 5, 2011

Capsule reviews: Rise of the Apes, Cowboys and Aliens, Capt. America

While Fantasia 2011 has taken up much of the movie watching free time I’ve had over the past 3 weeks, Between the Seats succeeded, against what we like to consider impossible odds, to squeeze some summer movie blockbusters. Here are some brief thoughts on said films.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt)

The odd thing heading into this movie was how light the marketing campaign felt in comparison to several other blockbusters from the class of summer ’11. Ever since the production of the film was announced, tidbits about this movie were released at a snail’s pace. The first trailer only came out in, what, March?

Well, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is finally upon us, with the reboot focussing on the relationship between a impassioned scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco), who is hard at work to develop a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s disease, of which his father (John Lithgow) suffers from. Testing occurs on apes in a high-tech laboratory in San Francisco, with the most recent examinations bearing remarkable if unexpected fruit: the animals earn increasing cognitive skills the more advanced the testing! After the untimely demise of one of Rodman’s most brilliant beasts, he is stuck to nurse her son, whom he baptises Caesar. We follow Caesar as he develops into a full adult ape, living in contact almost exclusively with humans, namely Rodman and his wife, a veterinarian named Caroline (Freida Pinto). But when Caesar is sent to a special facility where his kind lives and falls victim to the cruelty of less-friendly humans, this ape concocts a plan to renounce his friendship with the humans in a horrific way...

The singular most important thing that should be stated clearly in regards to Rupert Wyatt attempt at an Apes film is that Rise is, truthfully, an entertaining blockbuster.  I think most people have long forgotten the much maligned Tim Burton effort from a decade ago, so perhaps this endeavour is being released at the right time. There are many things to enjoy about this film, the most notable being the incredible computer generated imagery utilized to create the life-like semblance and movements of the apes in the movie. Nay, there are no practical costumes to be found in Rise, which will inevitably prompt some to scoff at this movie regardless of whatever qualities it may possess, but those among you with a slightly open mind, and especially for those who were impressed with the digital effects of Avatar two years ago, Rise is practically a must-see. The divide between reality and digital effects grows smaller with each passing years it seems, and those effects which shine most brightly in Rise are another testament to what filmmakers, when they use their budgets well, can pull off. Simply put, the apes are amazing. Attention was to put into making them look real, move real, and how they interact with one another. A fantastic accomplishment.

Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Wyatt’s film is not one of those mundane blockbusters for which the effects are great and everything else falters. Honestly, it has a more than serviceable story. The James Franco character is something of an idealist, but which scientist isn’t in these kinds of movies where the experiments produce more than what the hero bargained for? He’s done more complex work before as an actor (see 127 Hours), but he knows how to dial the right beats and tones for this sort of sci-fi romp. There is a genuine emotional core to his relationship with eventual antagonist Caesar (or is it man who is the antagonist? Muwa ha ha ha!). Yes, subversive and perhaps as blasphemous as it may sound, here is a movie in which the interaction between a live actor and a cgi creation is not just consistently believable visually, but emotionally rich. Go Figure. Some things don’t really work. The film jumps ahead twice, once by 3 years a second time by 5 years, and yet every single character looks exactly alike, haircuts included (I think there are even some clear shots where characters are using the same I Books at the beginning and 8 years later...). A couple human characters, bad guys of course, are more caricatures than anything else.  Still, with the summer season coming to an end in a few weeks, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a welcome addition to what looks like a sluggish August lineup.

Cowboys and Aliens (2011, John Favreau)

John Favreau, of Iron Man fame (I don’t know if its sequel should be included even though I personally like it), returns this summer with yet another comic book inspired blockbusters, although there is nary a superhero to be found this time. Rather, we travel back to the old west (like I did with Bill’s Movie Emporium for the better part of the past 3 months), a simpler time when ranchers (Harrison Ford) were ranchers, saloon owners (Sam Rockwell) were saloon owners, amnesiac thieves with wrist laser guns (Daniel Craig) were amnesiac thieves with wrist laser guns, and the aliens (CGI effects) were aliens.

A little Between the Seats trivia: Some brief behind the scenes discussions with Bill’s Movie Emporium were had not long ago to include this film in the Shootout at High Noon Marathon, to use as a sort of 'grand finale'. Well, it would have made a finale, but not a grand one. This movie has been thrashed ever since premiering at Comic-Con a couple weeks back. Is it the 2/10 star film people are deriding as? No, that is the score one awards dreck like an Uwe Boll film, or last year’s The Last Airbender, or First Blood: Part II. Still, this thing is a letdown. A rather significant one at that. Failing to be original, I’ll point out, just like most critics and bloggers have already, that Cowboys and Aliens has about a bagillion screenwriters. Funny thing, the movie doesn’t even hide in the opening credits. I think I counted five names, although I might have missed a few. But a good director, which is what I think Favreau can be considered as, should be able to make a decent movie with his creativity and energy. This is where the film truly falls apart: the imagination department. Each and every one of these characters is dull and the actors provide dull performances to go with them. Oddly enough, it is Craig who seems the most believable, but that must have something to do with the fact that he is a one-note bad ass. He does it well, but it’s one note all the same. The character arcs have absolutely no gravitas to them, they all occur because the script dictated that they should and nothing more.  Where is the wonder of cowboys encountering aliens? Where are the scenes where a connection is made between the two, or at least a connection between Earth and our evil visitors? Why is the gist of almost every action scene Daniel Craig ducking/hiding behind wall, then firing his wrist laser gun, then ducking/hiding, then firing the laser, then- ugh. It’s cool the first time, but the fifth time? Boring!

Look at me go, being as harsh as everybody else has been. To be fair, the movie looks very nice and, as I said, Daniel Craig is cool. The aliens...they look okay. The first action scene, when the aliens make their presence known, is pretty sweet as well. I will also admit that I was honestly interested in the first 15-20 minutes, I wanted to see where all this was headed. It just ended up going pretty much nowhere.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston)

And so the final setup piece to next year’s Avengers picture is complete. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and now Captain America, the super hero with the dumbest name of all, tied only with Captain Canuck. Here, Steve Rodgers (Chirs Evans) is a tiny, skinny man whose desire to enlist in the army during WWII comes to the attention of a German ex-pat scientist (Stanley Tucci) and a U.S. general (Tommy Lee Jones). The scientist, believing in Rodgers’s good nature and heart, chooses the young hopeful as the subject in a revolutionary test that transforms him into, well, a super human. Faster than ever before, stronger too, superior immune system, etc. Captain America is born, and after becoming a road show joke, is eventually sent into combat to stop the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a renegade Nazi who plans to use some sort of powerful cube (I think the same energy mentioned in the Thor film, but my Avengers knowledge is limited, so feel free to enlighten me) to take over the world.

Oddly enough, I find myself diverging very much with my blogger brethren and a few movie podcast hosts I trust the most. While most declare The First Avenger on par if maybe only slightly below the first Iron Man film, I think it’s the most boring film of the entire Avenger-bound bunch. Two reasons explain this feeling. The first is Joe Johnston as a director. Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, The Wolf Man, there’s just something about his story telling style that is unexciting, and that returns yet again to haunt Captain America. The setups are fine, but when the story should get into the thick of things, there is not much of interest transpiring on screen. It all feels, I don’t know, rather dull, as though the beats happen because they must. There is very little inventiveness throughout the film and what little inventiveness exists is used improperly. I am referring to the sequence which has received the greatest buzz, when Rodgers, instead of being sent out immediately as a soldier, is used as a propaganda tool in a road show. It’s funny, I’ll give the filmmakers that, but why? A couple of reasons are given as to why the Tommy Lee Jones character would rather not use Rodgers as a soldier, but they’re flaky at best. He’s a super soldier! He’s hard to kill! He’s stronger than any of you and already demonstrated more bravery than most of the other soldiers when he was a skinny twig! Why? The Red Skull’s plot is terribly mundane and feels so odd next to the actual, historic villainy of the Third Reich. Am I supposed to be believe that there is a worse bad guy than Hitler at this point in WWII? Seriously?

The second reason why the film did not appeal to me was in an area where not much could have been done to change my mind: the nature of Steven Rodgers. He’s an all round good, wholesome, honest guy. Okay, that’s nice, I can get behind that to a certain degree, not to mention that Chris Evans plays the part well enough, but there is nothing about the character beyond that. Nothing. He’s just a nice guy. Here again, many critics and bloggers are awarding the movie praise for that reason, for the fact that his wholesome goodness is a breath of fresh air. This is understandable, I won’t discourage those people from liking the movie for that reason, but in my book it made Steve Rodgers quite bland in the end.

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