Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Wow, this movie's been getting a lot of good reviews.

Here's why: critics absolutely hate action movies. Hate them. And if there's anything they hate more than action movies, it's science fiction movies.

They hate these movies because such movies are popular entertainment, and there's absolutely no reason to be a fifty year-old movie critic if you like what everyone else likes. Your defining purpose is to shine a light on what people should like, not what they already like.

Thus, critics generally like foreign art dramas nobody has seen, nor will see.

None of this is groundbreaking analysis.

Here's where it applies to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Every movie critic in the country had this movie's release date circled as their own personal "worst day of the year." After a loud, stupid summer dominated by Michael Bay and Harry Potter, critics were going to have to watch a prequel of a movie about supersmart, diabolical apes.

You could hear the collective groan.

Then they saw the movie, and got the surprise of the year. Rise wasn't an action movie at all. It wasn't even a science fiction movie in any meaningful or embarrassing way.

It was a straight-up character drama.

Hardly anything happens in Rise. Every scene consists of people talking. Er, well, except the scenes that consist of an ape talking. That ape is Cesar, and he doesn't even talk, he just signs.

Almost everything in Rise -- excluding the last twenty minutes -- could actually happen.

Well heck, it's no wonder the movie nailed an 83% composite score on Rotten Tomatoes. Expectations are everything, and for most movie critics, their worst day of the year didn't happen. Instead of being subjected to a brilliant, exciting, dynamic sci-fi action pic, like the 1968 original, they got to watch a character drama.

A character drama! On their worst day of the year!

So they were thrilled. But is Rise of the Planet of the Apes a good character drama?

Of course not. It's dreadful.

But boy is there a lot of it. James Franco plays the least convincing hyper-intelligent scientist since Denise Richards' turn as Doctor Christmas Jones. He's a biotech researcher intent on curing Alzheimer's because, you see, his father John Lithgow has Alzheimer's, which we get to see Lithgow act out in ridiculous caricature.

There's virtue in simple, primal character motivations. But a line exists between that territory and this-is-the-first-and-most-obvious-thing-the-screenwriter-could-come-up-with-and-he-was-on-deadline-so-what-do-you-want-from-the-guy.

Franco's motivation falls on the wrong side of that line.

Franco also has a relationship with a zoo employee played by Frieda Pinto, and over the course of the movie's five year span (which often feels like it unspools in real time -- I've been telling people I'm 43 ever since the movie came out) they even get married.

But the real relationship that gets the hell dramatized out of it is that between Franco and Cesar, the baby chimp Franco raises to help him with his Alzheimer's cure. Cesar is the offspring of an experimental test subject, and as a consequence, has an almost-human level of intelligence.

Alas, Cesar can't really talk, so his interactions with Franco are usually limited to Cesar whimpering, followed by Franco saying, "Everything's going to be okay, Cesar."

A few random thoughts:

-The apes in this movie aren't diabolical at all, despite what the trailer suggests. They just want to escape to the Redwood Forest. This is a problem because it means the movie has no antagonist. Therefore minor characters like Brian Cox's primate house administrator have to be buttheads in order to inject some conflict into the story. Otherwise, there would be practically none.

-Absent an antagonist, the movie better have a hell of a protagonist. But he's missing in action too. The movie doesn't know if James Franco or Cesar is its main character. Franco dominates the action for the first forty minutes, but it's Cesar who drives the story in the last forty, when Franco practically disappears. Bad, bad structure.

-The last act of the movie is a prolonged action sequence wherein the ape troop, led by Cesar, escapes from the city into the Redwood Forest. Thus, one belated section of the movie actually is a pure action movie. Switching genres midstream like this usually means the writers don't know what they're doing.

-There's a side effect of the chemical that enhances ape intelligence. It's also a highly transmissable plague virus that will wipe out humanity, it is suggested, shortly after the movie ends. This is a lame cop-out making the putative ape transition to rulership of the planet ludicrously easy and fast. It's a convenient way to "make something happen" in the story without laying that burden on the actual characters. One of many examples of how superficial and shoddy the screenplay is.

-I know I mentioned this before, but Franco really shouldn't play a scientist. He doesn't have the "smart" look at all. This part needed Guy Pearce.

Of course, this is all merely my take on the movie, and I'm a populist reveler in sci-fi action movies, so I was just as disturbed by the genre bait-and-switch as most critics were delighted by it.

Which means you might need to disregard this review and simply ask yourself, what are you expecting from Rise of the Planet of the Apes?

Quite possibly, that'll determine what you think of the movie.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 37/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 33/100

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Ideas are slippery little things.

Sometimes the tighter you grip one, the more likely you are to lose it.

Which is why there's been lots of skepticism over the new film Cowboys & Aliens. Its central idea, embodied in the title, comes across more like a brute-force mashing together of genres than an elegant pairing. It's the sort of creativity that comes from someone trying really hard to be creative.

And that's usually a bad sign.

But then again, the concept is indisputably different from its stay-in-your-lane peers. And different is good. Right?

Well, that sort of depends on the secondary and tertiary ideas that spring from the original concept. After all, a good movie contains about eleven hundred really cool ideas, all of which must trace their origin to the central cool idea that launches the story.

Thus, we might distinguish between ideas that are terrific and also fertile, and those that are merely terrific, while spending their lives in melancholy isolation.

At first glance -- and that's all we have of Cowboys & Aliens from the title -- it can be extremely hard to know which is which.

This is one of the many terrifying aspects of moviemaking. Studios can't really be sure how dynamic their idea is until they are many millions of dollars into its development.

So which is Cowboys & Aliens? A bountiful wellspring or a shooting star?

Things start out well, with James Bond -- I mean Daniel Craig -- waking up in the scrublands of the Old West with a curious device attached to his wrist. Craig has no memory of how he got the device, how he got where he is, or even who he is.

What ensues is thirty minutes of an old-fashioned western that brings Craig into conflict with the lawful authorities of a nearby town, as well as the rich cattle baron, played by Harrison Ford, who practically owns the town.

It's such a straight-up western that you don't even notice the mechanical device still attached to Craig's wrist.

Until it starts beeping.

This beeping foretells the arrival of a squadron of alien fighter craft, which strafe the dusty streets and rickety buildings of the set -- oops, I mean the town -- with rapid-fire laser cannons.

The alien fighters also make off with a good number of townfolk, including Harrison Ford's rotten apple of a son.

United by a common foe and a diversity of motivations -- Craig seeks to find out who he is, while sexy triggerwoman Olivia Wilde pursues an even more mysterious agenda -- a posse is formed. This posse tracks its alien quarry across the blindingly hot landscape of the Old West, where broad daylight conceals many perils, among them bandits, Indians and, oh yeah, evil alien monsters.

There's a lot of good storytelling employed in Cowboys & Aliens. There's character arcs, there's setups and payoffs, there's tension and suspense, there's action and backstory. A lot of effort from a great number of talented people went into the story.

And it shows, for the most part. The flick is an entertaining romp, but in the end, of course, you can never hide who you truly are, and a movie will always reveal itself in the third act.

Here, Cowboys & Aliens devolves into a mindless, frenetic mess as the cowboys, with some help from their friends the Indians and a newly-revealed alien ally in Olivia Wilde, attack the aliens' desert fortress.

It's all highly implausible, even within the context of lowered expectations, and sadly, the aliens are never given personality, nor a genuine feeling of menace. They're mostly lifted from the Whitley Strieber school of cold-bastards-who-experiment-on-humans, with some Predator-like mandibles and cougar-like growls thrown in for good measure.

During the attack on their fortress, the aliens mostly run around like idiots and get shot with arrows and flintlocks.

Once again, I'd like to issue a proclamation to all fictional aliens considering an invasion of the Earth: please do your homework before leaving home. If you can't see well in the bright light of our desert plains, as the Cowboys & Aliens aliens cannot, then invent yourselves a pair of sunglasses and keep them on at all times. Don't, repeat do not, accept this as an insuperable obstacle and content yourselves with taking us on half-blind.

You're just going to get your interstellar starship blown into a million pieces, as happens at the climax of C & A.

Someday I'm going to write a screenplay about a race of aliens who invade our planet, completely roll over us, and become masters of the Earth for the rest of time.

And it's going to be really, really good.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 67

How Much I Enjoyed: 69

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Crazy Stupid Love

Dan Fogelman is a very hot screenwriter.

You wouldn't know it to look at his produced credits. By those he appears to be mostly a writer of kid flicks, with credits on Pixar's Cars and Cars 2, and also the Disney pics Fred Clause, Bolt and Tangled.

In screenwriting terms, this is only okay. It means he's made a lot of money, but it doesn't make him a force to be reckoned with.

What makes him a force to be reckoned with is the fact that Steve Carrell has apparently decided to be in all of Fogelman's projects, and at the moment, Carrell is the hottest comedy star in Hollywood.

The relationship began in 2009, when Carrell attached himself to Fogelman's script for Crazy, Stupid Love, a move which sparked a bidding war and netted Fogelman a charming two and a half million dollars for the script.

The next year, Fogelman secured a three million dollar deal for writing and directing his upcoming John Lennon-inspired comedy Imagine. Steve Carrell is starring. (But not as John Lennon. Whew!)

He also sold his road trip comedy, My Mother's Curse, which has Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen attached, though not Steve Carrell. Yet.

So within Hollywood circles, Fogelman is suddenly considered very, very A-listy.

And it's the script for Crazy, Stupid Love that got Carrell interested and kicked off this whole run in the first place.

So.

Does the movie justify the millions of dollars now in Fogelman's bank account?

Um, sort of.

It's a well-executed comedy with plenty of laughs constructed along very familiar plot lines.

And since Hollywood's never trying to break new ground -- in fact they'd much rather not, thank you very much -- then yeah, Crazy Stupid Love is a pleasing confection bound to entertain a wide audience and rake in more than enough money to cover Fogelman's scriptwriting fee.

So go for it, Hollywood. Oops, they already did.

The movie stars not just Steve Carrell, who plays a middle-aged husband and father recently separated from wife Julianne Moore, but Ryan Gosling, a much-younger-than-middle-aged super-handsome ladykiller who gets drawn into Carrell's life when he has to listen to him repeatedly drone on about how much he misses his estranged wife at the trendy bar where Gosling likes to pick up chicks.

Partly because he's a decent guy, and partly because he wants Carrell to stop harshing his buzz, Gosling offers to tutor Carrell in the art of modern dating, to transform him from sad sack to lothario.

This story has been done about a hundred thousand times, as recently as 2005's Hitch and as distantly as 1912's Pygmalion. (At least.)

But, of course, I liked Pygmalion. I liked Hitch. And now I like Crazy, Stupid Love too.

Obviously originality isn't everything.

It helps that Carrell and Gosling are both embraceable actors playing lovable characters. It helps that Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, and Marisa Tomei also have good characters to play. Yeah, CSL is almost an ensemble piece. Sideplots go not just to our dual protagonists, but to Julianne's fling with Kevin Bacon, and newcomer Jonah Bobo's teenage crush on babysitter Analeigh Tipton, who in turn has a crush on Carrell.

Fogelman says his inspiration was the movie Love Actually, another relationship ensemble, but really it's the young-man-tutors-older-man dynamic that makes CSL tick.

That dynamic follows all the usual twists and turns, though there is one big reveal that makes for a delightful surprise at the end of act two. I like it enough not to reveal it here.

The movie is conceived and executed in a spirit of good fun, and I enjoyed the two hours I spent with it.

It would be nice, of course, if I could give higher praise to a script from one of the hottest writers of 2011, but instead Fogelman proves you don't have to be great to have great success.

You just have to be better than your competition.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 71/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100