As its title suggests Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended to lay the foundation for a new franchise of sci-fi flicks in which humans and super-intelligent apes battle for earthly supremacy. Its duty then is to explain within the span of two hours and with a modicum of credulity how exactly our simian friends might come to supplant us atop the animal kingdom. The scenario was at least partially addressed in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes the fourth entry in the original series’ convoluted and time-warped canon and while Wyatt's film draws inspiration from Conquest it is by no means a remake. Nor for that matter is related in any way to Tim Burton’s underwhelming 2001 entry. (And thank goodness for that.)
The titular rise begins as with many of the world’s great catastrophes with the actions of one highly irresponsible man. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist of prodigious talent and questionable ethics who works at a fancy San Francisco biotech firm called Gen-Sys (subtle!). His effort at producing a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease carries an ulterior motive: His father (John Lithgow) suffers from it and is close to entering its final stages. Will is close to a breakthrough when one of his chimpanzee test subjects goes well apesh*t causing his company’s suitably callous CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo gamely spewing lines like “I run a business not a petting zoo!") to order the research facility’s entire chimp population liquidated.
Will is busy carrying out the grim mandate when he discovers that one of the test chimps has borne an offspring one he can’t bring himself to euthanize. Instead he and his primatologist girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto gorgeous and superfluous) partners in appallingly bad decision-making decide to raise the infant chimp as their own naming it Caesar. Having inherited his mother’s gene modifications he shows signs of advanced intelligence and quickly develops a close bond with his adoptive human parents. But Caesar soon outgrows his domestic habitat and eventually must be shipped off to a simian “sanctuary” that is in reality anything but.
At this point we’re halfway through the film – and miles away from erudite apes and enslaved humans. To get us on track director Wyatt executes a rather audacious tonal shift transitioning abruptly from what was heretofore a fairly sober Project Nim dramatization into the balls-out apes-gone-wild summer action flick promised by the film’s trailers. His efforts are aided tremendously by his screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa whose clever absorbing script offers just enough plausibility in the first half to make its increasingly loony second half not just palatable but downright enjoyable. Wyatt strikes a delicate thematic balance respecting the subject matter while acknowledging its inherent silliness. (Scattered throughout the film are sly nods to previous Planet of the Apes films as well as a glimpse of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.)
The silliness accelerates seemingly by the frame in Rise’s latter half as Caesar mounts a conspiracy to escape his Dickensian squalor exact revenge upon his cartoonishly malevolent captors and take his simian revolution to the streets. And it only gets crazier from there – the third act is basically a PETA wet dream. As far as cautionary tales go Rise is about as cautionary as they come.
Andy Serkis who performed all of the performance-capture work for Caesar is a marvel in the role though the question remains as to how the credit should be divvied up between him and the technicians at WETA digital who “painted” the character’s CG features. And make no mistake Caesar is very much a character – as well-rounded and fully-formed and convincing as they come and easily more compelling than any of his non-digital counterparts. Franco for his part is credible enough as a scientist who in spite of his academic credentials is a bit of a dolt (and perhaps a tad disturbed) and Lithgow tackles a relatively thankless role with grace. But the real stars are all those damn dirty apes.
In the final days of the Iraq War members of an elite commando unit were sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from four maximum security prisons to take revenge on the man who framed them. If you are having a boring summer at the movies if Sex and the City 2 left a bad taste in your mouth and if you can find a theater playing it you need to see The A-Team.
It’s no overstatement to declare that The A-Team is the first great action film of the summer. Say what you will about Iron Man 2 but the degree and multitude of insane sequences in The A-Team trump the more narcissistic Marvel sequel -- at least in that particular category. It is no innovation that a summer blockbuster would employ action as its primary tool for separating you from your cash but The A-Team does so with an entirely different mindset than most brain-dead popcorn fare.
Instead of assaulting us with nonstop action and then having the audacity to mask itself as being high art The A-Team embraces just how ludicrous the action sequences are and makes absolutely no apologies for it. That’s not to say though the movie has nothing to offer beyond the explosions and midair collisions. In fact what makes The A-Team such a damn good film is the clever underscore that complements every moment of mesmerizing destruction. Joe Carnahan along with the other writers gives us moments that subtly poke fun at the outlandishness of what we’re seeing that not only makes the absurd action forgivable but immediately elevates the material above the typical summer fodder.
Carnahan recognized that given the tone of both the series and his last film (Smokin' Aces) the action scenes needed to flow uninterrupted and here it's very streamlined only pausing briefly to give us hilarious interactions between the larger-than-life characters before diving head-first back into the explosive fray. Until the very end of the film each plan is carried out before our eyes as it is being hashed out to neutralize any lacking in the pace. It would be easy to then accuse The A-Team of being front-loaded given the slow build to the final sequence but I would argue that is merely a nod to the evolution of Face’s character as a leader and that it never really loses steam.
What really sells this film however is its cast. Like the original quartet of chaos each actor brings something fantastic to the table. Bradley Cooper as Face has that inescapably charming swagger and confidence we’ve come to expect from him; Liam Neeson unsurprisingly is the perfect blend of in-the-trenches badass and cool-as-ice leader. Even Rampage Jackson in the role made famous by a guy donning the entire payload of Ft. Knox around his neck (that'd be Mr. T) turns in a respectably tough performance with a few moments of decent hubris. But it’s Sharlto Copley who really steals the show as Howlin’ Mad Murdock. True to his character's moniker Copley cranks up the lunacy and plays Murdock with a hilariously reckless abandon that mirrors the tone of the entire film.
Though not without fault (the less-than-thrilling CG near the end of the film is amateurish at best and many will find the over-the-top action too silly to appreciate) all in all this movie rocks hard. The interplay between our heroes is at the heart of the film's entertainment value and is what you will probably like the most about it. Personally I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun at the movies. The A-Team is far better than it has any right to be mainly because it is as much a four-sided character piece as it is a balls-out actioner.
Completely stripping Catwoman of her "Batman" connections the geniuses behind this comic-book movie--at least as bad as Spider-Man 2 is good--also stripped it of any pleasure. Neither campy a la Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt of the old TV series nor sexy vamp like Michelle Pfeiffer of Batman Returns Halle Berry's Catwoman is well one lost little kitty in the big city. Actually she's Patience Philips--an annoyingly mousy graphics designer for a top cosmetics firm who despite her job has no fashion sensibility no self-confidence and no boyfriend. (Yeah riiiight!) She is befriended by a mystical Egyptian Mau cat which--courtesy of lousy digital effects--often looks disturbingly like Toonces and sounds like Linda Blair in The Exorcist when it meows; moreover its way of befriending Patience is to lure her into a suicide attempt--one of many plot points lacking a rationale. When Patience discovers that the cosmetics firm's villainous owner (Lambert Wilson) and aging supermodel wife (Sharon Stone) are marketing a toxic disfiguring facial cream she is killed--flushed through a drainage system into the ocean. But here comes that darn cat again to revive her as she's lying in sludge and mud. Next thing she knows she's sleeping on her apartment's bookshelf eating tuna by the caseload looking longingly at Jaguar hood ornaments as if they're long-lost relatives and jumping about walls basketball courts and whatnot faster than a speeding bullet. She also takes to wearing a pointy-eared black-leather dominatrix outfit along with too much makeup but at least no whiskers. She also starts sniffing around that foul cosmetics firm which leads to a martial-arts showdown with Stone. What the Oscar-winning Berry doesn't do regrettably is get a CAT scan to see what kind of ailment convinced her to make this lamebrain movie.
I've seen better acting on 7-Eleven surveillance videos than in Catwoman. Berry is cloying in the film's early stages when she's playing insecure lonely Patience and she's more pathetically childlike than anything else. Once she's Catwoman though she's really terrible tilting her head for endless close-ups and giving lots of wide-eyed stares meant to conjure feline curiosity but that more recall George W. Bush's "deer-in-the-headlights" gaze. The screenplay makes a few lame attempts to observe the duality of women in the way Patience changes to Catwoman but it's not there in the performance. Yet Berry's turn is a career-peak gem compared to Stone who can't decide whether to play the power-mad Laurel Hedare as a broad cartoonish send-up or as someone connected to reality. Looking like a vampiric Susan Powter and barking sarcastic lines without a hint of emotional connection to her character Stone is just awful. On the plot's fringes Benjamin Bratt does his best as a police officer (gee what else) who is both infatuated with Berry and suspects her of murder.
The one-named French director Pitof (short for "pitoful"?) supposedly is a digital-imaging expert who has worked with City of Lost Children's Jean-Pierre Jeunet but you'd never know it here. Either he doesn't know much about directing actors or maybe he only gives directions in French. The effects--especially action scenes involving a digitalized version of Berry--move at such a chaotic breakneck pace that she looks completely phony. Plus there's absolutely no sequential logic whatsoever to where Catwoman moves and when--apparently invisibility is one of her superpowers. These awkward clumsy scenes are usually accompanied by distractingly loud music. Pitof's only other directing credit is some obscure French flick starring Gerard Depardieu…one hopes Catwoman will be his last.
In those rare incidences a sequel can actually be better than the original. Such is the case with X2: X-Men United where this time around the X-Men--including mind-benders Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); optically enhanced Scott/Cyclops (James Marsden); weather controller Storm (Halle Berry); Rogue (Anna Paquin) aptly named newcomers Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and John/Pyro (Aaron Stanford); and last but not least the hunky yet steely Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)--have their work cut out for them trying to keep the peace between the human and mutant races. After a teleporting mutant assailant known as Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) attacks the White House relations between mutants and humans take a turn for the worse starting an anti-mutant movement. The movement is fueled by baddie scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) who bears a grudge against mutants and his henchwoman Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) both of whom have a mysterious connection to Wolverine's past. They seek to wipe out all the mutants on Earth by manipulating Xavier and his all-powerful machine Cerebro--a machine that can locate and even destroy every mutant and/or human on the planet in mere moments using mind power. Stryker is in for a fight though. Militant mutants the iron-clad Magneto (Ian McKellen) and morph-happy Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) join forces with the X-Men to stop this madman--but of course they have their own agendas. Can the X-Men repair the rift in mutant/human co-existence? Or is war imminent? Guess we'll have to wait until X3.
X2 does a nice job giving its comic book heroes and villains more of an emotional core than in the first X-Men. The relationships have deepened and are further explored with Jackman's haunted Logan/Wolverine looking for clues to his past still a standout. Janssen another standout gets more to chew on as Jean whose triangle with Logan and Scott grows more complicated and her character arc takes a surprising turn. But will somebody please write Halle Berry out of this franchise? They say her blonde wig was improved for the sequel but it's as unbelievable as her acting. As for the kids Paquin and Ashmore sweetly play out Rogue and Bobby's budding love story but its Stanford's sullen John who holds the most interest as you see his resentment toward humans growing and luring him to the dark side. In the villains' corner Cox plays Stryker as stonily evil as he can while Romijn-Stamos seems to have a lot more fun as the ultra-cool Mystique even getting to shed the blue paint in one scene and simply use her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Cumming too seems to enjoy being blue as the bible quoting German-accented Nightcrawler who really isn't so bad after all (and has one of the snazzier entrances in the movie). But the most compelling relationship by far has to be between Xavier and Magneto. British thesps Stewart and McKellen portray the two as the old friends they are but whose disparaging views on how mutants and humans should interact has torn them apart giving the film some dramatic weight.
With the original X-Men director Bryan Singer had the dubious task of introducing all of the Marvel comic book's attributes and characters in a way that would appease rabid fans and newbies while also creating a compelling movie with a beginning middle and end. The result was adequate but a tad muddled and cartoonish. With X2 however Singer is able to fine-tune those characters and delve further into the story's universal theme: ridding the world of xenophobia and creating a peaceful co-existence. The three-tiered points of view--from Magneto's defiantly anti-human stance to Stryker's anti-mutant attempts at genocide and Xavier's hopes to find a happy middle ground--parallels today's political climate and actually makes you ponder the world's affairs even while you are watching the very cool very mutant-esque action. X2 leaves you wanting more to find out what is going to happen next to these people. Honestly if there is a war between mutants and humans who do you think is going to win? If only I could use powers of telepathy…
Johnny Doyle (the enviably named Mars Callahan who also wrote and directed) is a pool-playing wunderkind who as his shady mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri) puts it makes an art out of the hustle not just by conning his victims but making them like it. Johnny's getting tired of the sharking game and his law-student girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) is putting the press on him to get legit--or get out. When he finds out double-crossing Joe screwed him out of a chance to join the professionals 15 years ago so they could remain hustling partners Johnny dumps Joe in a violent confrontation and tries (unsuccessfully as it turns out) to go straight despite his love of the game the respect he gets from his younger brother and his friends and of course the astounding amount of money he can win. Plus Tara's millionaire uncle Mike (Christopher Walken) can run the table pretty well himself and he's taken a liking to rebel Johnny. Meanwhile Joe vowing to settle the score has taken on top-ranked pro Brad (Rick Schroder) as his new protégé to help him do just that.
Callahan looks a lot like Walken by default or by design--his hair expressions mannerisms could make him Walken's son--but the similarity ends there. Callahan's no weighty actor but his easy delivery and quippy one-liners balance the heft brought in by Walken (who steals the entire shebang with a few choice scenes) and Palminteri (who with his malevolent scowl and loathsome behavior chews up and spits out the scenery as if tasting a spoiled bar burger). Wan and vapid token chick Eastwood has zero presence on-screen and even less chemistry with Callahan. The scenes involving Johnny's young wannabe-grifter brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) and his pals are a hoot but many are unnecessary. Schroder has maybe two lines and gives a good butt-whuppin' but he mostly just does a lot of lip mashing to show his frustration satisfaction confusion…
How newbie director Callahan convinced this exceptional group (in addition to Palminteri and Walken Rod Steiger appears in his final role as an aged streetwise poolhall owner with an old saw for every unfortunate situation) to sign on is anyone's guess--this ain't no Paul Newman pool movie and everyone knows it. Thankfully Callahan's cast is skilled enough to rise above its corny diatribes and some stiff dialogue and the script does have some very funny lines and scenes that give the cast something to work with. However at a breezy 90-some minutes the movie could done away with a few of the scenes in favor of more character development and back story. Way too much time is wasted on a long party scene in which one of Johnny's young buddies tries to get laid more still on his brother's band's performance at some club and even more on the parts with Tara's bitchy friend--yet we never really find out what drives Joe to be such a jerk or why Johnny is such a loser other than a few lines about his neglectful parents.