Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” – A rare species of intelligent blockbuster

Spoiler warning: This review will reveal plot details that appear in the film’s trailer.

It’s easy to overlook just how smart and well-executed this film is, given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes nearly drowns in its rush to saturate itself with big-budget blockbuster stupidity. Ostensibly, this film is a prequel/reboot of the original Planet of the Apes, but it feels – with the exception of some slightly obnoxious callbacks – like a standalone film. The premise is rather similar to the film adaptation of I Am Legend. In his arrogant rush to cure a debilitating disease (in this case Alzheimers), [Dr?] Will Rodman (James Franco) develops a drug that triggers neurogenesis – the repair and creation of brand new neurons in the brain. When this drug is tested on our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, a slew of Unforeseen Consequences™ ensue.

The majority of the film is told from the perspective of Caesar, another brilliant simian team-up from motion-capture dynamo Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson’s team at Weta Digital. This is the same actor and effects team behind King Kong in 2005, and Gollum in Lord of the Rings before him. If there is a measuring stick that indicates where the performance ends and the effects begin, it is certainly inconclusive here. While Zoe Saldana’s Avatar alter ego at least had some emoted lines of dialogue to work with, Serkis must work almost entirely through facial expressions and miscellaneous noises. So much of Caesar’s apparent intelligence is due to his ability to simply sit and react quietly to what goes on around him. The slightest glance – the recognition that occurs when the audience gazes into the character’s green-flecked eyes – this is how Caesar conveys his inner consciousness and unmistakeable intelligence – and it is a work of absolute visual brilliance.

In addition to the facial capture, Caesar’s motion and physicality are nothing short of fantastic. The opening shot of the second act fast-forwards a few years to an extended tracking shot of Caesar swinging through Will’s house in order to follow some children playing out in the street. The shot lasts maybe 30 seconds, but it manages to convey both Caesar’s acrobatic capabilities as well as his burgeoning intellect with absolutely no dialogue or explanation. The film definitely strains its economy of dialogue at times – some brief moments of subtitled ape sign language were perhaps a bit of a stretch. But as a means of telling a coherent story in which significant portions of the screen-time are occupied by nothing but a smattering of apes – both alone and interacting with one other, it is an effective storytelling device.

In fact, I would take it a step further – the almost silent-movie story of the apes is easily the most compelling part of this film. The more talented members of the human cast are barely utilized. Brian Cox and Tom Felton appear as John and Dodge Landon, a father-son team running a primate sanctuary. Cox barely has five minutes of screentime in which to twirl his evil mustache before Felton usurps his position as ape-hater-in-chief. While it’s believable that a sociopath like Dodge might have trouble finding outside employment, it’s never entirely clear why he agrees to work at his father’s sanctuary when he clearly detests apes and everything about their care. But…sure, why not. Every good prison flick needs a sadistic screw on the cell block, and Felton proves that he can chew the scenery just as effectively without a British accent or magic wand.

Outside of Caesar’s storyline, Franco and his supporting cast are downright tedious. John Lithgow plays Will’s senile father, Charles, and gives a frankly cartoonish depiction of advanced Alzheimer’s. Equally cartoonish was Will’s next door neighbor (David Hewlett), whom we’re meant to despise because he has a problem with vicious, man-sized apes threatening his children, or senile old men trying to steal his car. Does he have some rage issues? Sure. But is he wrong?

Speaking of generic ethical subtext, Freida Pinto is a complete non-entity as Will’s love interest, seemingly present only to pose some of the more obvious bits of rhetorical dialogue about the situation: “What about Caesar?” “How does he fit into this?” “Some things are just wrong, Will!” But in spite of its boring cadre of homo sapiens, this film manages to tackle the ethics of raising a creature with near-human intelligence about as effectively (and with less lurid sensationalism) as last year’s Splice.

The film’s last act is pretty much non-stop action as the apes rampage through San Francisco. This entire sequence is brilliantly executed, both in terms of visual effects and action staging, and its more implausible elements are balanced out by a mix of effective character moments and a taut, exhilarating pace. Sure, the apes probably shouldn’t understand the importance of smashing security cameras. Sure, the military and police could probably take down an unarmed ape rebellion with relative ease. And sure, we’d probably see a lot more blood if this weren’t rated PG-13. But between the element of surprise (no one really expects a simian army wielding fence-posts) and the apes’ relatively benign intentions, they come off as surprisingly sympathetic even as they’re smashing cars and tossing cops. The whole sequence is purposeful and utterly thrilling, and left me eager to see the next chapter in this story.

Unfortunately, the next chapter is spelled out in a brief scene and infographic after the credits have rolled for a minute or so. I’ll chalk that up to the same marketing wisdom that led to the film’s nonsensical title change from the much more fitting Rise of the Apes. This additional bit of superfluous, Avengers-esque storytelling doesn’t ruin the film, but you’re probably better off leaving your seat as soon as the names start to roll.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

2010 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor

#5: Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Get Him to the Greek

I was worried when I heard that 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be getting a spinoff featuring supporting rockstar Aldous Snow. Brand’s performance was certainly a highlight of one of my favorite films of that year, but it was a very broad, drugged-out lothario of a character. Could the rockstar (and Brand) carry his own film?

Somehow, the answer was yes. Nicholas Stoller’s comedy is a significant departure in both tone and content from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Brand’s performance gives some surprising depth to the rockstar Aldous Snow. The film is a broad and scatological comedy with the dark undertone of Snow’s various addictions. It’s also a wild sex romp that relies heavily on Snow’s on-again, off-again one-true-love. The film’s appeal is in its sincerity, and Brand completely commits to this character, warts and all.

#4: Jeff Bridges – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit, except that it’s a brilliantly written genre exercise. It is a legitimate western as surely as the works of Ford or Leone, and Jeff Bridges’ take on the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn feels right at home. His dialogue is slurred to the point of incomprehensibility, and his appearance is utterly unglamorous. This character is a slobbering, drunken mess, and I mean that as a compliment. I can safely say I’ll never forget this performance, and Bridges deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting for it.

#3: Ryan Reynolds – Paul Conroy, Buried

From my review: “This may be the most electrifying performance yet from Ryan Reynolds. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, Reynolds has crafted a masterful one-man show, and he never lets up on the stakes. Paul is dying alone, and Reynolds deftly conveys his ratcheting hopelessness and frustration.”

It’s Ryan Reynolds kidnapped and buried in a coffin for 90 minutes. That’s the entire film. But the above description may make Buried sound a good deal more serious than it actually plays for much of its runtime. This film is lurid and hopeless, to be sure, but it is also a pulp masterpiece. Its tone and editing style is reminiscent of Hitchcock, and Reynolds plays just the right blend of realistic terror and anger while preventing the character from becoming overly bleak. One scene, in which Paul solicits help (via cell phone) from one of his wife’s loathsome friends, ends with such a pitch-perfect delivery of its final line that my entire theater erupted in laughter. This is a film whose tone lives and dies by the performance of its lead actor, and Reynolds completely pulls it off.

On a related note…

#2: James Franco – Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

Aron Ralston leads a charmed life. He’s a brilliant stuntman – completely in control, but clearly a little unbalanced. Franco had to take this reckless and cocksure character on a physically and emotionally heart-wrenching journey, without any other actors to share the burden for most of the film’s runtime. 127 Hours has a similar premise to Buried – a man gets trapped under a rock for 90 minutes – but it is a very different film in both tone and characterization. Unlike Reynolds’ character above, Ralston doesn’t have access to a cell phone, so he spends the majority of the film talking aloud to himself, or saying nothing at all. The film utilizes various storytelling devices (including one involving a handheld camera that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), and Franco’s performance played into all of them nicely.

I’m not sure if it’s even possible to spoil this film, since its title, premise, and the fact that it’s based on a true story should be enough to tell you how it ends. But suffice to say, this film takes a brutal and unflinching look at one of the most difficult physical tests ever imposed on a human being, and somehow comes out of it with a heartwarming message about how much life is worth living. It does all of this while wrapped in an unconventional character study, and never once lets Ralston off the hook for getting himself into the situation in the first place. Insofar as this is an exercise in filming the unfilmable, Franco’s performance seems equally improbable. It carries this film, and I know of no other actor who could have pulled this off.

#1: Jesse Eisenberg – Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network

I know Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t know the man, but I recognize the character. Each viewer will likely take away a different interpretation of this performance, depending on their feelings on the real-life Zuckerberg, but this performance stands alone in a film that’s virtually impossible to separate from its real-life context. As a reflection of my time and generation, I found Eisenberg’s captivating and enigmatic portrayal to be utterly unmatched this year. For a character who seems almost defined by a lack of chemistry with the people in his life (reminiscent of Dr. House, perhaps), he also plays brilliantly alongside Andrew Garfield in the film’s most crucial relationship.

This Zuckerberg is hard to read, but conveys a great deal through his glowering stare, or the slightest twitch of a smile. This Zuckerberg is insightful, determined, perhaps even ingenious. And on some level, he knows the effect his actions have had. This Zuckerberg may or may not bear any resemblance to the real one, but Eisenberg’s performance and Sorkin’s script make him the most fascinating and well-realized characters of this year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Greenberg
  • Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter
  • Michael Cera as Nick Twisp/François Dillinger in Youth in Revolt (Honorable, honorable mention: as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island
  • Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomqvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

2008 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actor

After realizing just how many new movies I saw this year (despite being out of the country for 3 months), I decided to do my own movie awards, in the form of Top lists, starting with the Top 5 supporting performances, male and female.
And as for the “Glennies”… Yes, I know it’s horrific. You’ve got Becca to thank for that :)

Top 5 Supporting Actors:

#5: Robert Downey, Jr. – Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder

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If there is one actor who has proven his versatility and talent this year, it is Robert Downey, Jr. It is a testament to both Downey’s performance and the writing of the character that he managed to dodge all controversy regarding his blackface-sporting method actor persona (in favor of Ben Stiller’s use of the word “retarded”). Despite being perhaps the most absurdly over-the-top character in the film, his performance actually grounds the film from some of the absurdities of the other actors. In a film that I entered with high expectations (a rarity for me when I’m walking into a comedy), Downey’s performance was easily the most memorable.

#4: James Franco – Scott Smith, Milk

franco
His Spiderman years notwithstanding, James Franco has consistently turned in good work, and his performance in Gus Van Sant’s biopic is one of the best in a film filled with strong performances. While the film only does a minimal job establishing his relationship with Harvey Milk (they meet completely randomly on a staircase), it is Franco’s performance that makes you believe it. As the film goes on, Franco provides a subdued counterpoint to Diego Luna’s performance as the unstable rebound love interest, and proves himself an essential figure in both Milk’s life and the events depicted.

#3: Aaron Eckhart – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

eckhart
Somehow, Eckhart’s performance was lost in the torrent of praise for the acting in this film, and yet his scenes were among the most affecting for me. At the risk of sounding redundant… I believe in Harvey Dent. Because that is what is required of the audience for this character. You first have to believe in his goodness and incorruptibility. Then you have to see that goodness shatter, and realize the sheer tragedy of this character as he screams at Batman and Jim Gordon about how cruel the world is, and why he must do something terrible. I believe in Harvey Dent, and the final scene of Eckhart’s portrayal is heartwrenching for me every time.

#2: Heath Ledger – The Joker, The Dark Knight

joker
What can I say about this performance that hasn’t already been said? There is just something incredible about a well-written and well-acted psychopath. It’s why we loved Javier Bardem in 2007, and it’s why we loved Heath Ledger in 2008. It is his performance that makes the Joker seem real – plausible and terrifying.

#1: Philip Seymour Hoffman – Father Brendan Flynn, Doubt

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For a film that I shrugged off as “the sodomy movie” when I first saw the trailer, it ended up being so much more, owing entirely to the strong performances of its four central characters. Whether giving a rousing sermon, arguing vehemently with the headmistress, or sharing minor interactions with his students, it is Hoffman that makes this character both suspicious and sympathetic. The film thrives in the ambiguity surrounding this character, and Hoffman completely pulls it off.

Honorable Mentions:

Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Anil Kapoor – Prem Kumar, Slumdog Millionaire
Christopher Mintz-Plasse – Augie Farks, Role Models
John Malkovich – Osborne Cox, Burn After Reading
Shaun Toub – Dr. Yinsen, Iron Man Continue reading