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.
Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.