I do wish I’d seen Rise before word leaked out that the movie was surprisingly good, because — going in with higher expectations — I mostly felt like I was just sitting through an extended version of the movie’s trailer. Still, allowing for some iffy science throughout, this sixth Apes film turned out to be a decently smart and engaging evening of late-summer cinema. And as a genre B-movie with a patina of political subtext, I’d say it hits at about the level of the Spierig’s pharmaceutical vampire thriller Daybreakers.
As you probably know by now, Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee made extra-smart in the womb by an experimental Alzheimer’s drug concocted by a Dr…oh let’s just call him James Franco. When this project gets shut down — the maternal protectiveness of Caesar’s mom Bright Eyes (wink, wink) is misinterpreted as a hyper-aggressive side effect of the drug — Dr. Franco brings Caesar home to live with him and his ailing father (John Lithgow) instead. There, he is raised, Project Nim-style, by the good doctor and his dad, and cute, ethically-minded zoo veterinarian Caroline (Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire) eventually makes four.
But, as Doctor Caroline perennially intones, one should not tamper with the forces of nature. (Ok, sure. But let’s not overstate the case — or should we have something against pasteurized milk?) And, as Caesar grows older and more leery of playing the pet, his chimp tendencies begins to manifest themselves more and more often. Meanwhile, after showing signs of promise under the original medication, Papa Lithgow’s Alzheimers begins to take hold again. This forces Dr. Franco to experiment with more virulent and aggressive forms of his wonder drug, and makes Lithgow even more feeble and disoriented on a daily basis — and we already know what happens when chimps on this particular drug feel overprotective. One way or another, it’s clearly about to get all Frankenstein up in here.
That gets us to about the end of the first act, which is easily the most conventional and weakest portion of the film — not the least because none of the humans make much of an impression. I’m not a James Franco hater — he was in Freaks & Geeks, after all — and I think he gets way too much grief for slumbering through the Oscars last spring. (What can you do? It’s a thankless gig anyway.) That being said, he does seem sorta disengaged, and even bored, throughout this picture. For her part, Pinto makes even less of an impression — She’s a complete non-entity. And the rest of the humans basically only have one note to play, be it John Lithgow and his dementia or Franco’s boss at the pharmaceutical company (David Oyelowo) twirling his moustache.
All that being said, Rise takes it up a notch in Act II, when Caesar finds himself consigned to San Francisco’s primate prison(?), run by the father-and-son team of Brian Cox and Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton. (Surprisingly, given his scenery-chewing turns in movies like Troy, Cox underplays it, while Felton is suitably Malfoyish — albeit with a quality American accent.) In this ape Alcatraz, Caesar is thrown head-first into the deep end of chimpanzee society — No more sweaters, college boy! Instead, he must survive the prison yard, learn the power dynamics, and figure out how to befriend the key allies, such as a former circus orangutan and a belligerent ape, he will need to make good his escape.
This isn’t A Prophet, exactly, and to be honest — even with all the impressive WETA work on display here — I could never really suspend my disbelief enough to accept Caesar as a real, honest-to-goodness chimp. (The apes and orangutans work better.) Still, the monkey Shawshank stuff in this middle third of the movie is surprisingly compelling, and it put me in a good mood for the final act, when Rise finally lets its funky-monkey freak flag fly. (I won’t give away what happens here, but like the rest of the narrative, it’s pretty well telegraphed by the trailer.)
My only real complaint, is that I might’ve done more with the Soderberghian ALZ-113 angle here, but I guess one can figure out for themselves what happens next, and/or they were saving that for the sequels. Return of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, anyone?
In short, Attack the Block is a hoot from start to finish, and it puts those well-heeled Hollywood competitors to shame. At turns funny and frightening, it has the freewheeling, energetic pulse of a Kick-Ass, the unintrusive but real layer of smart sci-fi social commentary that marked District 9, and, in no small part to the sleek Basement Jaxx score, a trip-hop and dub-step cool rivaling that of Hanna or Run Lola Run. Midnight in Paris is probably still my favorite film of 2011 so far, but if there’s any justice, this will be the sleeper hit of the late summer and early fall.
Attack the Block takes place in South London on the evening of Guy Fawkes Day, when fireworks are lighting up the sky and troublemakers are out on the prowl. Trying to get home on this dark night without being harrassed is Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse new to the high-rise project she now calls home. She doesn’t make it. But before the hooded collection of street toughs who rob her can get away clear, a meteor of some kind suddenly totals a nearby vehicle. (Cue Sio Bibble: This can mean only one thing: Invasion.) While Sam makes a run for it, the gang — really, just a bunch of kids — move to check out what’s left of the car. The obvious ringleader sticks his head deep into the wreckage…
And, a la Harold and Kumar, we now meet our “real” protagonists. Moses (a charismatic John Boyega), the fellow who just entered the car, is not actually Evil Victim #1. Instead, he gets slashed across the face by some kind of space varmint, and so he and the rest of the crew — Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Davis), Biggz (Simon Howard), and Dennis (Franz Drameh) — hunt down and kill the offending alien. Since nobody knows what it is, they decide to take the corpse to the pad of the local weed dealer (Nick Frost), who’s been known to enjoy stoning out over the National Geographic channel. Problem is, the rest of the very new arrivals to the block don’t take kindly to one of their number being murdered…and they all come a little bit bigger.
That’s basically the set-up, although there are few other characters running around to make things fun: Say, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), the Avon Barksdale of this hi-rise, who has atrocious taste in hip-hop. Or Brewis (Luke Treadaway), the loserish grad student who’s just on the block for a resupply. (His funny intro is borrowed from Michael Bolton, except this time it’s to KRS-1’s “Sound of da Police“) Or Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao), two gangsta-wannabe nine-year-olds who look up to the older crew. (Memo to Cowboys and Aliens: This is how you do little kids in an alien invasion story. See also: Newt.)
Attack the Block has some very funny moments — “Right now, I feel like going home, locking my door, and playing FIFA!” — and a good bit of stoner humor. But don’t get the wrong impression: This film as a whole is rather dark, and even ruthless at times. (At one point, on his dad’s orders, Dennis takes his cute little dog outdoors to join the team. Spoiler: It lasts about five minutes.) Not knowing much about Attack the Block other than that Nick Frost and the producers of Shaun of the Dead were involved, I expected the film to be jauntier. But it has an edge, alright, and a body count. The monsters here — basically furry gorillas with glow-in-the-dark fangs (or, for those of you in the know, grues) — may be low-fi compared to what we’re used to in these sorts of movies, but they can do some damage, and some rather grisly damage at that.
Which, of course, is part of the fun. As a horror movie, a comedy, and a smart, tightly-plotted thrill ride, Attack the Block succeeds on all fronts. If space aliens and dubstep aren’t your bag, then I guess there’s a chance you might find it all lo-rent and bewildering. Otherwise, this is the purest and most visceral roller-coaster ride of the summer so far, and, barring an absurdly good fall, one of the best films of 2011. Respect.
So, I’m sorry to report, even at this late date, that Cowboys and Aliens is more deadwood than Deadwood. It’s not Wild Wild West bad, I guess, but there’s no narrative urgency to be had here at all. It’s almost sad, really. Some estimable production values are put into service of a total snoozer of a script. And even with all the star power involved — the movie just never finds a spark to get things moving. By 20 minutes in, I had gotten bored with it, and after an hour I was just dutifully waiting for the credits.
So what in blue tarnations happened? Well, laziness abounds here — to take just example, the aliens here are close kin to what we just saw skulking about Super 8. But I expect much of this film’s inertia lies with the fact that, like Green Lantern, Cowboys and Aliens could field an entire pick-up basketball team with its bevy of screenwriters, and the resulting mess shows. Apparently these five (six if you count story credits) souls presumed that, if they just threw enough stock characters at the story, the so-low-its-high concept of cowboys vs. aliens would simply carry the movie. Suffice to say, it doesn’t work out that way.
As the film begins, a man with piercing blue eyes and no memory to speak of (Craig) wakes up in the desert, a photograph of a woman in his hand and a strange metal shackle on his arm. After handily dispatching some would-be bandits, he rides to the nearby watering hole of Absolution, where he soon makes nice with the local preacher (Brown), meets a mysterious and alluring beauty (Olivia Wilde), gets into fisticuffs with the spoiled son (Paul Dano) of local tough guy Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), and discovers from the sheriff (Carradine) that he’s really a ne’er-do-well named Jake Lonergan, and wanted for a stagecoach robbery. Just as this newly-rechristened Lonergan is about to be brought back East in chains to serve hard time, the real trouble begins.
That would be the eponymous aliens, who, out of nowhere, strafe this sleepy Western town and abduct many of its fine, upstanding citizens, including the sheriff, Dolarhyde’s bratty son, and the wife (Ana de la Reguera) of the local saloon proprietor (Rockwell). And so the survivors of this dastardly attack band together to reacquire their kinfolk. Their ace-in-the hole on this mission is Lonergan, whose shackle has a very useful laser cannon within, and who now can kinda sorta remember a previous encounter he and his ladyfriend (Abigail Spencer, a.k.a. Don Draper’s kindergarten squeeze on Mad Men) had with the invaders. But Winning the West back from aliens who enjoy an overwhelming technological superiority is a horse of a different color from fighting indians or poachers. In fact, come to think of it, indians and poachers might come in real handy right about now…
If this synopsis makes it sound like Cowboys and Aliens is a ripping western adventure yarn, well, don’t be fooled, stranger: The result is more than a little dull. It doesn’t help that the movie continually makes lazy Screenwriting 101 (or worse) choices as it goes along. Yes, we do have both a little kid and a dog on this mission, and, yes, the two do form a bond. Yes, Old Man Dolorhyde has some growin’ to do, particularly with regards to his “adopted” Native American son (Adam Beach of Flags of our Fathers), whom he mistreats for no particular reason. So why are the aliens here on Earth in the first place? Er…I dunno…shall we say gold? What’s that you say, Rockwell’s character can’t shoot straight? Hmm, well I sure hope he gets that squared away by the third act!
As I said in the favorite movies post yesterday, Rockwell is probably the best thing about Cowboys and Aliens, and the only person who occasionally spins the proceedings here into gold. (His character actor compadres, Carradine and Brown, aren’t given enough to do) For his part, Craig is…well, ok — He does the steely badass thing well enough. But before I saw this, I was thinking of him as Bond and Layer Cake, i.e. a mark of quality. Only as the film rolled did I remember: Oh, yeah, he’s actually in a lot of crap too, like Road to Perdition and The Jacket.
As for Ford, well he’s not bad either, to be honest, and he does seem engaged in the material. But, there’s something off as well — Like Pacino-as-Pacino, DeNiro-being-DeNiro, and Nicholson-doing-Nicholson, he seems to have reached that age where he can only play himself playing a role. Old actors never sour, I guess. They just go meta. (It reminds me of a recent interview with Andy Serkis on playing Gollum again after ten years, and he said it felt like he was doing an impression of himself the whole time. Ford seems trapped in the same feedback loop.)
And Olivia Wilde — well, I want to like her. She seems smart and funny, she’s easy on the eyes, and she’s the niece of lefty writer Alexander Cockburn. But, lordy, when she first wanders into this movie in her calico print settler’s dress, she’s like an Angel of Boring. I can’t tell if it’s completely her fault, but she and her character, both before after her Big Reveal, definitely contribute to the stultifying air permeating this film. Better luck in the next Tron.
If anything, The First Avenger is more faithful to its titular character, since Johnston, unlike Branagh in Thor, plays this period piece straight, without the likes of Kat Dennings and Clark Gregg providing a security blanket of 21st century irony. Speaking of which, Chris Evans has already shown he exudes star presence in movies like Sunshine and Scott Pilgrim, and he was easily the best thing about otherwise bland comic-book flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers. But, in the past, he’s always skated by on his snark, and I was worried Steve Rogers might be turned into a self-aware, wisecracking Spiderman sort to accommodate that. But, no, Captain America here is noble, earnest, and maybe a tiny bit dull — exactly as he should be.
In this incarnation as in the original comic, Steve Rogers is a puny kid from Brooklyn whose spirit is willing and flesh is weak: Even as his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stans), and seemingly every other able-bodied American male in the borough, head off to fight Hitler and Japan in the Big W-W-I-I, Rogers is rejected from one recruiting office after another for being a tiny, wimpy asthmatic. That is, until a German emigre named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers again trying to serve his country for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, Erskine decides, this brave little man might be the perfect candidate for America’s top-secret Super Soldier program, conveniently headquartered in New York City. (Not to be confused with the Manhattan Project.)
It had better work, since Nazi Germany already has a Super Soldier of its own. That would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. The Red Skull, head of Hitler’s deep-science division HYDRA. And, while Hitler wastes time “digging around in the desert” (heh), Schmidt has located the all-powerful Cosmic Cube in Eastern Europe, where it had been under guard by Mr Filch/Walder Frey. Now, with his right-hand man Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Schmidt threatens to use this powerful device to (wait for it, wait for it) take over the entire world. Can anyone stop his dastardly plan? Anyone, anyone? Rogers?
So, ya, pretty standard set-up, of course. Along the hero’s journey, Captain America suffers through boot camp (led by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s phoning it in but who at least isn’t doing his Two-Face schtick.) He gains a costume, a shield, a squad (the Howling Commandoes), and the attentions of a plucky and beautiful British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra’s Dream.) And he learns, more than once, that war isn’t a USO show, and that with great power comes great sacrifice…but let’s save those spoilers for The Avengers.
Speaking of that forthcoming super-team, there’s plenty of chum in the water in The First Avenger for Marvel fans, from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper here, not Roger Sterling) to the aforementioned Cosmic Cube to a great first shot of Jones’ Zola, which pays homage to his four-color incarnation. When it comes to real, not comic-book, history, however, The First Avenger is obviously a bit fast and loose with the era. Several years before Truman desegregates, the Howling Commandoes are a multiracial brigade, and in fact the entire US Army seems integrated. And while Peggy has to put up with some macho bravado, she still seems unencumbered by the sexism of the period.
Still, given that this is a movie about a guy wrapped in Old Glory who continually punches Hitler in the face, the rose-tinted ahistoricism didn’t bother me all that much. Captain America is a propaganda vehicle by design — arguably the best section in the movie has him being taken on a Flags of our Fathers-style USO tour. And like Superman’s commitment to truth, justice, and the American Way, Cappy has always been more about who we as a nation should be than who we actually are, so I found myself more willing than usual to forgive the film some well-intentioned anachronisms. If anything, I’m glad The First Avenger didn’t choose to make Cap an overly militaristic hero. Instead, he’s a unassuming kid from Brooklyn, given great power, whose patriotism mainly consists of just trying to do the right thing.
Not to overstate the case: This eighth and final film in the Potter series is a quality production, well-made and well-acted throughout, and it’s still a good deal better than Chris Columbus’ flat first two movies. But it just didn’t resonate with me. Even more than the last film, Hallows Part 2 is stuck with dramatizing some of the clunkiest plot elements in the entire series. (Jesus Harry, anyone? And how ’bout that goofy coda?) And by separating out the story into two movies, Hallows Pt. 2 is bereft of much of the connective tissue that makes the Potterverse so engaging. Honestly, if you told me when the book came out that I’d end up preferring the film about the camping half of Hallows, I never would have believed you.
What do I mean by connective tissue? Well, firstly, the killer app of the Harry Potter series, as Laura Miller argued back in the day, was always Hogwarts, and Book 7 sorely missed the rhythms of boarding school life that infused the first six tomes. That was always an obstacle these last two films would have to overcome, and I thought Part One actually did a good job of it. But, as it turns out, the emotional failsafe — especially for the films, where we’ve really seen these kids grow up — was the interactions among the Big Three. And, now that Hallows has been sliced in half, Harry, Ron, and Hermione really don’t have all that much to do with each other here in the back end.
Instead, we have — after a brief adventure in the vaults of Gringotts — the Siege of Hogwarts, which takes up most of the picture. And it’s all very impressive, with its psychic shields, stone soldiers, rampaging ogres and whatnot. But this is all action-fantasy spectacle, and — after Helms Deep, Minas Tirith, and various other besieged redoubts in recent cinema, not particularly engaging spectacle at that. (Also, I guess the idea here is the good guys are buying time for Harry to find the Ravenclaw diadem, but the way the story comes across, all this carnage seems beside the point anyway. Couldn’t all the loss of life have been averted if Snape just took Harry by the pensieve before the Big Battle?)
Speaking of ole Severus, the back half of the film is also burdened by its source material. To be honest, I’d forgotten about many of the things that aggravated me about Deathly Hallows the book, until the story unfolded here once again. I already mentioned the Aslanification of Harry, where he has to now sacrifice himself for Voldemort’s sins to be truly expunged from this world. (See also: Matrix: Revolutions.) Then there’s the conversations with ghosts and the heavenly train depot rendez-vous with Dumbledore (weirdly, also in the third Matrix.)
And then there’s the Snape story, which plays out mostly as expected, but still has the effect of totally cheapening the character of Harry’s real dad. (As it is here, Snape is the unrequited hero, and James Potter is just a bullying prat who happened to marry Lily.) Like I said, a lot of these plot developments seemed to be coming by the end of the series — Severus always seemed like he was deep undercover, and Harry’s lightning scar made sense as the seventh horcrux. But the execution in the book, and subsequently here in the movie, is clumsy.
One more small issue here: Along with Hogwarts itself and the Big Three, the third leg of the stool for the films has been its British Thespian Full Employment program. But, with the exception of Ralph Fiennes’ Serpenthead Voldemort and arguably Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, the amazing collection of talent in the bullpens here doesn’t get all that much to do either. Estimable actors like John Hurt and Jim Broadbent have only reaction shots, and even big moments like the death of David Thewlis’ Lupin and Natalia Tena’s Tonks are given short shrift. (FWIW, the only big new actorly add in this last installment is Ciaran Hinds as Alberforth Dumbedore, but he’s virtually unrecognizable underneath his Michael Gambon makeup.)
Again, not to be a total hater — This is a competently-made and even sleek production, and it’s hard to see how David Yates could’ve improved the situation given the constraints of the source material. But, there’s no riff as inspired here as Yates’ Brazilian reconception of the Ministry of Magic in the last film, nor any sequence as transporting as the animated origins of the Hallows we saw last November. Like the book series from whence it came, the last chapter of the Harry Potter films ends with a bit of a plunk.