Into the Grizzly Maze (Red Machine)


There's nothing worse than bear breath.

There’s nothing worse than bear breath.

(2014) Action (Vertical) James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Billy Bob Thornton, Scott Glenn, Michaela McManus, Adam Beach, Sarah Desjardins, Luisa D’Oliveira, Bart the Bear, Patrick Sabongui, Kelly Curran, Seth Isaac Johnson, Sean O. Roberts, Reese Alexander, Carson Reaume, Michael Jonsson, Mariel Belanger. Directed by David Hackl

Recently, I did a review of a 1981 movie called Roar in which live actors and crew mingled with untamed wild lions and tigers which led to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 injuries to cast and crew. This movie would be the anti-Roar.

After seven years in prison, Rowan (Marsden) returns home to a small Alaskan town (actually British Columbia) on a mysterious mission which involves a map. Treasure, maybe? When he gets into an altercation with a pimp (Jonsson) who was in the process of beating up a hooker (Curran), he is arrested – by none other than his own brother Beckett (Jane) who turned his back on him after Rowan was convicted of shooting a guy. The two brothers obviously have little love for each other and so when Rowan heads off into the wilderness, Beckett isn’t particularly sorry to see him go.

But what Rowan is really up to is a rescue mission; a friend with the unlikely name of Johnny Cadillac (Beach) is missing after having guided a pair of poachers into the woods (no singing though) and his wife (Belanger) is concerned enough to ask Rowan to go find him. The three of them, however, have met up with a rogue rampaging grizzly (Bart) who with his food supplies dwindling is turning to a human protein supplement to his diet.

Once Beckett and his boss, Sheriff Sullivan (Glenn) realize what’s happening Beckett decides to head into the woods to find the bear and tranquilize it. Sullivan would rather hire bear whisperer Douglass (Thornton) to track down the mutha and kill it, but Beckett puts up a stink so Sullivan caves. Or at least appears to; once Beckett is gone, he sends Douglass out anyway.

Beckett has another reason to head out into the woods – his deaf conservationist wife Michelle (Perabo) is out there and with a crazed killer bear stalking anything on two legs, the town medical examiner Kaley (McManus) tags along just in case someone needs medical attention or an autopsy. And of course all of them meet up and the Grizzly comes after them. Getting back to civilization is going to be no easy task, even with a pair of experienced woodsmen and crack shots in the group.

This is a throwback to deranged animal movies from the ’70s like Jaws and Day of the Animals which generally took an all-star cast of the level that you’d find on a typical episode of The Love Boat and put them squarely in the path of an animal (or animals) that had gone loco and were hungry for the taste of human flesh. This one relies on CGI a great deal as we rarely see humans in the same frame as the evil bear here and quite frankly, the CGI work is sloppy and weak. There is a sequence where the grizzly is surrounded by CGI flames that are so fake as to be almost laughable and then breaks through the ring of fire with a mighty roar and scarcely a single hair singed. There is another scene where the grizzly looks up from his lunch of a hapless human with blood on his mouth and snout that is so patently CGI (the color is bright cherry lipstick red rather than the typical crimson of actual blood) as to look more like the bear had gotten into a strumpet’s lipstick. Godawful.

The cast here is pretty decent and to their credit none of them phone it in although Perabo, who really has nothing much to do, might as well have. Jane is actually a pretty decent action hero who did some good work in Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher but is generally relegated to supporting roles these days and leads in Direct-to-VOD films like this one. Marsden is versatile, doing comedy and action equally well but he’s all business here. Thornton, who always seems to enjoy himself no matter what level of film he’s doing, from excellent (the Fargo series) to sheer paycheck (this).

The British Columbia forests, substituting for Alaska, are unutterably beautiful and while I wouldn’t say they’re a piece of cake to photograph, it’s hard to go wrong with that kind of backdrop  One of the big problems with the film is that it’s completely non-credible. Bears don’t act like this, not even rogues and for the most part people don’t either. While Hackl does a good job building suspense, there are too many instances of a gigantic bear sneaking up on hapless humans which is damn near impossible; bears are not stealth creatures. They’re far too massive. At the end of the day this is a subpar potboiler with a good cast and bad CGI that might be worth a rainy day or evening’s rental on VOD if your standards aren’t particularly high.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful setting. Good cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrealistic. Terrible CGI. Throwback to films that weren’t very good in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: There are animal attack images as well as disturbing gore images, violence, some brief sexuality and a little bit of foul language
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the film was Red Machine which is the name given the bear in the credits. This is in reference to the late Timothy Treadwell of the film Grizzly Man who said that one bear, which he had named The Big Red Machine, was the only one that actually terrified him. It is reputed that this was the bear that actually killed him and his girlfriend, although that is unconfirmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Magic Mike XXL

300: Rise of an Empire


Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn't like her latest movie.

Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn’t like her latest movie.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin, Ben Turner, Ashraf Barhom, Christopher Sciueref, Steven Cree, Caitlin Carmichael, Jade Cynoweth, Kevin Fry, Nancy McCrumb. Directed by Noam Munro

The original 300 depicted the historic Battle of Thermopylae (albeit taking some fairly liberal factual liberties) and in doing so, made a huge star out of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder, helped resurrect the Swords and Sandals genre (along with the Oscar-winning Gladiator) and showed how a movie made nearly entirely of CGI could be not only technologically possible but economically viable as well.

While Snyder is around for this sequel as a producer and writer only, this tells more or less a parallel story of the Athenian general Themistocles who was victorious at the Battle of Marathon at which the Persian emperor Darius (Naor) was killed by an arrow fired by Themistocles himself. His son and heir, Xerxes (Santoro) was manipulated by his most talented and vicious general Artemesia (Green) – who is of herself Greek descent – into ascending into a role as God-Emperor, which apparently makes you ten feet tall in the process.

While Xerxes is attacking King Leonidas (Butler, in flashback) at Thermopylae, Artemesia has engaged a small and ragtag Greek fleet made up mainly of fast, maneuverable Athenian ships along with a few motley vessels supplied by the other city-states of Greece who despite the peril represented by the vast army of the Persian empire are suspicious and quarrelsome among themselves. While Themistocles has some success at sea, the wily Artemesia lures his fleet into a trap and decimates it, leaving it with a handful of ships. As Xerxes gloats over his defeat of Leonidas and his burning of Athens, Artemesia brings her fleet in to finish off the Greeks once and for all – and after failing to move the grieving Queen Gorgo (Headey) of Sparta to help her fellow Greeks, Themistocles knows that Artemesia might well do just that.

This is made in the same style as the original 300 with lots of green screen, lots of digital effects, plenty of CGI blood splatters, bare-chested Spartans with six-pack abs and enough testosterone flowing to drown Australia. It’s the kind of movie that is meant to make it’s young male gamer/fanboy target audience beat their chests and grunt, a knuckle-dragging epic in which the only major female character has a bare-breasted wild sex scene with her supposed enemy that was more violent than sexy but less violent than it was improbable (yes Lena Headey is also in the movie but only for a few scenes).

What differentiates this from 300 is that for all its macho posturing, the original film had at least some semblance of humanity, actual characters who the audience could latch onto and even care about. Here, mostly the players are cannon fodder, hurled into a meat grinder of sharp blades, battle axes, spears, flaming arrows and sinking ships, gobbets of flesh dripping gore arcing in a graceful parabola through the air after being carved from shrieking soldiers. I can’t deny that there is a certain gratification in it, a primitive caveman reaction that is both visceral and appalling, but it must be dutifully cataloged if one is to be honest.

While the dialogue tends more towards jingoism, I also will be the first to admit that the visuals are impressive. You’d swear that you were watching titanic battles being fought in rolling storm-driven seas but the reality was that the actors had not a drop of real water on them – the ocean and the ships are all CGI. About the only thing that wasn’t CGI in the movie was Eva Green’s breasts and I have my doubts about those too.

Green does acquit herself the best and that is the only kindness I can spare the acting which is for the most part over-the-top and melodramatic. Green seems to be having a good time as a badass and it shows. She utters the most cringe-worthy dialogue with a straight face and her smiles drip venom as you would expect from an excellent villain. Stapleton doesn’t have the charisma that Butler has, at least not yet. His Themistocles did a lot of shouting but didn’t really inspire me to want to follow him into battle so his abilities as a leader of men were sharply called into question at least from my vantage point.

I have to mark this down as one of the year’s first disappointments – every year provides several such in the movie calendar. Unfortunately, Snyder was a bit too busy resurrecting the Superman franchise to put in the time and effort to direct this and while his hand is evident in the production end, certainly this didn’t have the wow factor that would make me want to see the third movie in the franchise (one is reportedly in the pipeline should the box office warrant it). In the end, this is a feast for the eyes but does little for the soul beyond providing some instantly forgettable entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive CGI.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks a Gerard Butler to keep the audience’s attention. A little too mannered and over-the-top. Hardly any human element to the story.

FAMILY VALUES:  If the fake blood hadn’t been CGI there would have been enough to fill one of the Great Lakes with it. There’s also a ton of hack/slash violence, a good bit of nudity and sexuality, and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the titles say that the film is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel series Xerxes, the screenplay was written concurrently with the graphic novel which has yet to be published and has said to have changed massively since the film was made.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pompeii

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Bridge to Terabithia

The Mummy (1999)


Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

(1999) Adventure (Universal) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, John Hannah, Kevin J. O’Connor, Oded Fehr, Jonathan Hyde, Erick Avari, Bernard Fox, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Ipale, Patricia Velasquez. Directed by Stephen Sommers

 

Note to Hollywood filmmakers: now this is how to do monster movies in the 21st century. Something old (the setting), something new (the effects), something borrowed (the premise), something blue (a couple of racy outfits). Even 13 years later this still remains a standard.

Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is an adventurer in the tradition of Indiana Jones. He’s smart, strong, a crack shot and as it happens, one of two survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Hamunaptra, the legendary (some would say mythical) Egyptian city of the dead. It’s reputed to be the resting place of the treasure of the Egyptian pharaohs.

It’s also the resting place of Im-Ho-Tep, the high priest of the dead and murderer of Pharaoh Seti II. Even back then they frowned on regicide a little; ol’ Im-Ho-Tep got the nastiest Egyptian punishment there is which is to be slowly devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles after being entombed while still alive. That definitely leaves a mark (those Egyptians could be pretty nasty when they wanted to be).

Cut to the 1920’s. After Evy Carnahan (Weisz), a sweet-natured librarian discovers a map to the legendary lost city, she enlists O’Connell, Jonathan (Hannah) her ne’er-do-well brother and a corrupt Warden (Djalili) – read designated victim – to help find the site, where the Book of Amon Ra, which contains the secrets of Egyptian magic, is also said to reside.

What they do find when they finally get there is the Book of the Dead. This awakens Im-Ho-Tep, who is mighty steamed – as you would be if you had been buried alive with flesh-eating beetles. He brings with him the ten plagues of Egypt (the ones in Exodus – check out The Ten Commandments if you aren’t up on them) and the ability to control the elements.

He wants to re-animate his dead lover (after 2,000 years, a fella’s got needs) and kidnaps the librarian to do so. From here on in, it’s a roller-coaster ride of dazzling special effects, spine-tingling thrills and daring escapes.

This is one of the best movies — in terms of sheer entertainment — that’s come down the pike since, say, Aliens or at maybe even the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark. It moves at breakneck speed and visually is superb eye candy. Director Stephen Sommers took a fairly hackneyed monster movie and turned it into a franchise for Universal, which sorely needed one.

And Brendan Fraser as an action hero? Who’da thunk it, but it works. Fraser is very likable, in the tradition of Jimmy Stewart. Weisz, then at the beginning of a career that has brought her an Oscar to this point, did a good job as the plucky heroine and Hannah set the bar for the comic relief. Fehr, playing a kind of Guardian of Hamunaptra, shows some Arabic hotness for the ladies and makes a credible action hero in his own right but you’re not watching the movie for the acting. It’s all about More and Bigger and Louder, and The Mummy delivers.

While some of the scenes are a bit too intense for younger children in general, this is one fine family entertainment that you’ll want to add to your video library. particularly if you have teenagers in the house.

WHY RENT THIS: Fun and entertaining. Re-invents the classic movie monster film. Great CGI effects for their time. Weisz and Fraser make an attractive heroic couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes are a bit grisly and may be too scary for smaller kids.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and a bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Ardith Bay, the character Fehr plays, is an anagram of Death By Ra. It is also the name of the character played by Boris Karloff in the original 1932 version.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: In the original DVD release there was a  text Egyptology feature that is actually quite informative. The 2001 Ultimate Edition includes a timeline of the reiging Pharaohs of Egypt. The 2008 Deluxe Edition included a storyboard to film feature. All of these are available on the DVD version as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $415.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster, spawning two sequels and a spin-off franchise.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Outsourced

 

Mirror Mirror


Mirror Mirror

Armie Hammer expresses what we already know while Julia Roberts looks on in amusement - Worst. Costume. Ever.

(2012) Fantasy (Relativity) Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, Sean Bean, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Michael Lerner, Robert Emms. Directed by Tarsem Singh

 

Fairy tales are all about happily ever afters. That’s why we read them even as adults – we want to believe that no matter how bad things get, things will end up the way they’re supposed to be.

I wonder if Snow White (Collins) believes in them. She’s been locked up in her father’s castles for most of her life. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father, the King (Bean) married a woman noted for her beauty and made her Queen (Roberts). Shortly after that, the King ventured into the dark forest and was never heard from again.

The Queen took over and immediately turned the kingdom into her own personal playground. She raised taxes to unbearable levels and used the proceeds to buy herself a lavish wardrobe and throw extravagant parties. However, she has depleted the treasury to the point where her administrator Brighton (Lane) warns her that there is no money left – for anything.

Quite by chance young Prince Andrew Alcott (Hammer) is traveling through the kingdom with his faithful aide-de-camp, Charles Renbock (Emms) when he is set upon by seven bandits with unusually long legs. They rob him of everything including his clothes, leaving him to be discovered by the Queen who realizes that the Prince, who hails from a wealthy Kingdom, could be the answer to her financial problems.

The trouble is that Snow has discovered how destitute the people of her kingdom are and how despotic her stepmother is. The Queen realizes that Snow is not only inconvenient to her plans, she is a downright obstacle – she and Prince Andrew are very attracted to each other. The Queen orders Brighton to take Snow out into the dark woods and murder her, but Brighton can’t do it and when the roar of the Beast that haunts the wood is heard, both go running in opposite directions. Brighton stops by the butcher shop to pick up some animal entrails (and a roll of sausages) to prove that Snow is dead and gone.

In the meantime she has discovered the lair of the bandits who turn out to be seven dwarves, cast out of the town because the Queen found them ugly. Each of them – Napoleon (Prentice), Half Pint (Povinelli), Grub (Gnoffo), Woodburn (Grimm), Saraceno (Wolf), Klebba (Butcher) and Chuckles (Clark) each have something distinctive about them.  Grub loves to eat, Half Pint is something of a ladies’ man, Wolf is half-wild and Chuckles – well, you can guess.

At first they don’t want the girl among them – too much trouble but when Snow proves to be useful and resourceful, they grow genuinely fond of her. Snow is ready to take back her kingdom from the wicked Queen, but the Queen has enchanted the Prince to fall in puppy love with her and he is willing to do anything for her – including kill Snow White.

Singh is the director of such visual spectacles as The Cell and Immortals. He has a very strong imagination and I give him props for it. This is his first attempt at a family film and at comedy in the same shot and it does show a side of him we haven’t seen up to now.

Roberts is the biggest reason to go see this movie. She captures the character of the Queen perfectly; vain, arch and a little bit naughty but with a whole lot of nasty. She doesn’t always have the best dialogue but Roberts makes up for it with sheer caustic attitude. Because she’s so dang beautiful, some people tend to underestimate her star quality. Trust me, she’s a star for a reason and this film might end up being the quintessential example of her work.

Armie Hammer first wowed viewers in a dual role in The Social Network. I think he has great things in store for him. Prince Andrew is a little bit dense and possessed with an overabundance of a sense of honor. Hammer gives him a bit of a goofy edge but with a sweetheart core. He seems to be a pretty easygoing fella, one you’d want to hang out and share a tankard of ale with at the local pub while watching the jousting. He is also quite easy on the eyes I understand. Not that I’m a judge of that sort of thing.

Tarsem was working on this almost right about the same time he finished up Immortals and one wonders if he was stretched too thin – the CGI effects on both were a little bit rocky. I don’t mind CGI but I get a little put out when it looks like CGI. You’re taken out of the movie when that happens.

There are wonderful sets and amazing costumes here – the last from Oscar winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer in January. Other than the unconvincing CGI, this looks sumptuous. Unfortunately, the dialogue is mediocre and the movie tries way too hard to be fun instead of just being fun. Roberts understands how to make a movie feel fun and inventive, and the dwarves are pretty good at it too. Lily Collins, the daughter of Phil Collins, didn’t blow me out of the water as much as she did with other critics but there are plenty who think she has a bright future and I agree with them.

Overall, I was quite disappointed. I was hoping for something light and fun and it was the former but missed a bit in the latter. Give or take a few details, this could have been a marvelous film. It nevertheless is okay entertainment that fans of Julia Roberts will adore and those who don’t care for her might not like. Personally I think she does a good enough job that she makes the movie worth seeing all by herself.

REASONS TO GO: Roberts chews the scenery wonderfully. Hammer’s star continues to rise. Inventive in more than a few places, particularly on costumes and set design.

REASONS TO STAY: Weak CGI. Weak dialogue. Never really rises to the level of the visuals.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit rude, there are a few disturbing images of fairy tale monsters and there is a bit of fantasy action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming, Julia Roberts’ young children would often hide in the skirts of her elaborate gowns without anyone being the wiser.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are extremely mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Jam

COSTUME LOVERS: The costumes, particularly the dresses Julia Roberts wears, are extremely elaborate and over-the-top. Those who love fashion – particularly the more esoteric sort – will enjoy the outfits here.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Love, Wedding, Marriage

Wanted


Wanted

Angelina Jolie always gets her shot.

(2008) Fantasy Action (Universal) James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terrence Stamp, Common, Thomas Kretschmann, Kristen Hager, Marc Warren, David O’Hara, Konstantin Khabensky, Chris Pratt, Lorna Scott.  Directed by Timur Bekmambitov

Some of us fall into a vocation due to circumstances. Others pursue a career with a vengeance. However, there are those who are almost pre-determined into a role because of genetics.

Wesley (McAvoy) is a cube drone whose life is a series of unending humiliations; his boss bullies him, his girlfriend openly cheats on him. His life is going nowhere and what’s worse, he knows it and doesn’t think it’s ever going to change.

But change it does (trust me, nobody wants to see a movie about a doormat for two hours). A beautiful woman who identifies herself as Fox (Jolie) saves him from a gunman and the two indulge in a wild car chase in the city of Chicago. Wesley is brought into the world of the Fraternity, a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of assassins who have been trained to perform impossible kills, curving bullets to defy gravity and engaging in single hand-to-hand combat that would make Jackie Chan jealous. The Fraternity is led by Sloan (Freeman), a taciturn killer himself. He gets his marching orders from the Loom of Fate whose fabric contains skewed threads that act as a kind of binary code. It’s very complicated and weird.

Wesley finds out that his father was once one of their members but was murdered recently and the man who murdered him is after Wesley but before he can go up against someone like that, Wesley is going to have to train and I mean big time. When he gets hurt, he’s put in a special wax bath that heals his wounds.

Soon he’s ready for his first kill and it turns out Wesley has quite a knack. Genetics, you see. Soon Wesley is embroiled in the mystery of his father’s assassination and discovers revenge can lead to all manner of questions, some of which have some dangerous answers.

This is Bekmambitov’s first English language film after the excellent Russian CGI-fests Night Watch and Day Watch. He has a definite visual style and an affinity for action. These are some of the most innovative action sequences since The Matrix which is high praise indeed.

McAvoy was apparently a hard sell to the studio because of his somewhat understated quality but here he proves himself capable of leading an action movie (which he has done since in X-Men: First Class this past summer). He plays both the nebbish and the stone cold killer with equal believability which is vital for the success of the movie.

Jolie is as good a female action star as there’s ever been and you can tell she was born for roles like this. A femme fatale with a cold exterior and colder interior, she’s sexy and deadly. Although she’s too big a star to do it now, she’d make the ultimate Bond girl. She does her stunts with the grace and elegance of a dancer.

Bekmambitov has a wonderful visual style that draws a distinct line between the dreary cubicle-dweller’s life and the life of a career assassin. The colors are muted and drab in the former; vivid and electric in the latter. The pace is mile-a-minute and although there’s kind of a lull when the big twist is revealed, it picks up towards the end.

This is mindless summer fun that defies logic but so what? Those who studied even the most remedial physics will know that this stuff doesn’t ever happen but this isn’t the real world, it’s movies so you physics majors can take your objections and stick them where it’s anatomically impossible to put them.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing stunts and a wonderful visual sense. Jolie seems to hit her stride in these sorts of action roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stretches believability to the breaking point.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence – some of it gruesome. There’s also a bit of bad language and a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shooting in Chicago at the same time The Dark Knight was. Wanted creator Mark Millar was caught sneaking onto TDK set to check out the Batpod by producer Lauren Shuler Donner and was escorted off the set.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a motion comic and on the Blu-Ray edition, the Universal U-Control feature puts assassin profiles on the screen whenever new assassins pop up.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $341.4M on a $75M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

British rioters make it to San Francisco.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson, Madison Bell, Karin Konoval. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Most of us have seen Planet of the Apes in one form or another, from the classic 1968 original to the less classic 2001 remake. But how did it get from humans ruling the planet with apes and chimps mute and unreasoning to them becoming the dominant species on the planet?

Dr. Will Rodman (Franco) works for one of the main players in Big Pharma. He’s working on a viral component to gene therapy that if successful will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. He has a stake in this because his own father (Lithgow) suffers from that dreadful disease.

Steven Jacobs (Oyelowo), the CEO of the firm is more interested in the bucks than the cure. He wants something that will improve the corporate bottom line which a cure for Alzheimer’s will certainly do. Rodman has brought his most promising formula, ALZ-112, to testing on chimps – PETA protesters take note. Everything looks pretty copacetic until the chimp goes on the rampage at the worst possible moment – during a board meeting to decide whether or not to fund further tests on human subjects. The project is then shelved and the chimps are put to sleep.

However, one of the chimps left a little present – a baby. The corporate chimp handler (Labine) can’t bring himself to put another animal down and so Will is left with the prospect of putting up the baby chimp for a few days until another home can be found for him. That’s not the only thing Will takes home with him from work – a few vials of the ALZ-112 also make their way into his pocket and then into Will’s dad.

The serum works on Will’s dad and before long it becomes evident that Caesar (the baby chimp that Will “adopted”) is much smarter than the average chimps. Apparently the ALZ-112 was passed on from mama chimp to baby. Caesar’s accelerated learning curve allows him to become fairly fluent in sign language. All in all it’s a pretty idyllic home life for Will; dad is doing fine, Caesar is a loving addition to the family and Will has found a girlfriend in Caroline (Pinto), a primatologist who helped treat some injuries that Caesar incurred as a young ‘un.

As Caesar (Serkis) grows into young adulthood, he becomes more and more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. An incident with an overbearing neighbor leads to Caesar being taken from his happy home and left in a primate care center run by the diffident John Landon (Cox) and tended to by his sadistic son Dodge (Felton). There the apes – and Caesar – are brutalized by Dodge despite the objections of Rodney (Harris), the other caretaker in the primate center.

To make matters worse Dad is turning for the worse; his own antibodies are wiping out the ALZ-112 in his system which is allowing the disease to return with a vengeance. Will is running out of time; he needs a new delivery system that will overcome our own immune system. In the meantime, Caesar is turning out to be much smarter than anyone – even Will – ever suspected and the brutality and betrayal are going to bring things to a head and the fate of humans as the dominant species on this planet hangs in the balance.

This is a nicely done story that explains how the apes came to be intelligent and able to speak; in that sense the movie is realistic. Where it falls flat, surprisingly, is in the CGI. Not the motion capture performances so much (we’ll get to that in a minute) but some of the movements of the apes looks like they were captured on an old silent-era movie camera; they’re downright choppy.

That’s basically the reason that the movie didn’t get one of the higher scores of the summer from me because everything else about it from the acting to the script is outstanding. Serkis in particular does a magnificent job of capturing Caesar as a character and giving him personality and allowing the audience to sympathize, leaving us in the odd position of rooting for our own extinction.

Franco, recently Oscar nominated, remains one of those actors who doesn’t do things the way other actors do and that makes him memorable in most of his roles. Here he has a character that is essentially second banana (pun intended) to Caesar and is terribly underwritten as an impulsive mad scientist type (see Bruce Banner and Victor von Frankenstein) but has a good heart. I would have wished to see his relationship with Caroline fleshed out a bit more but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie is particularly well-written in the sense that it is logically drawn and while there isn’t much in the way of surprises, it is at least tautly written. It is certainly well-acted with Serkis getting kudos for one of the best motion capture performances ever. Franco and Pinto do fine jobs and Lithgow does his best not to make a caricature of a role that could easily become one. Was this great summer entertainment? You bet. Was it better than I thought it might be? Yes, I’d say that was true. Was it all it could have been?  No, it definitely could have been better but for my money, it’s more than good enough to head on down to the multiplex for.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar. Nice backstory to explain how the Apes took a giant leap forward on the evolutionary ladder.

REASONS TO STAY: The CG movements of the apes didn’t seem natural in a lot of places. The story was rather predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, with some scenes that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dodge Landon is named for the two fellow astronauts of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes while Maurice is named for Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original. Dodge also snarls “Take your stinking paws off of me you damned dirty ape!!” arguably the most iconic line from the original.

HOME OR THEATER: Hmmm. Tough call on this one. I think that the final battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge might be better on the big screen but much of the rest of it would probably be just as effective at home. You make the choice.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Jack Goes Boating

Clash of the Titans (2010)


Clash of the Titans

Liam Neeson is all aglow as he releases the Kraken.

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Mads Mikkelsen, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas Hoult, Polly Walker, Elizabeth McGovern, Alexander Siddig, Danny Huston, Vincent Regan. Directed by Louis Leterrier

One should be grateful to those who gave us life, but if those who gave us life are then cruel and capricious towards us, should we not then rise against them?

Spyros (Postlethwaite) is a simple fisherman, his ship drifting in a storm when he comes across a coffin-like box. When he opens it, he finds a beautiful woman, dead and an infant, alive. He decides to raise the boy as his own with his wife Marmara (McGovern). The boy grows up to be a handsome, strong man named Perseus (Worthington). Perseus loves his parents, but still understandably has questions about who he is and who he is meant to be.

However, all is not perfect. The Gods of Ancient Greece, led by brothers Zeus (Neeson), the King of the Gods, Poseidon (Huston) the God of the Sea and Hades (Fiennes), the Lord of the Underworld, had overthrown their parents the Titans mostly due to Hades creating the Kraken, a fearsome beast, from his own flesh. Zeus created men to worship and love the Gods who are in turn made powerful and immortal by the prayers of men. Hades, tricked by Zeus, lives on the fear of men.

However, men are chafing at the often capricious and cruel behavior of the Gods. Kepheus (Regan), the King of Argos, has declared war on the Gods at the urging of his wife, Queen Cassiopeia (Walker). His troops pull down a gigantic statue of Zeus, which earns the notice and wrath of Hades, who wipes out most of the troops at the statue. Unfortunately, Hades notices Spyros’ ship floating by and in a moment of pique sinks it with all aboard drowning. All aboard, that is, save Perseus.

The survivors of Kepheus’ army pull Perseus from the water and take him back to Argos, where Kepheus is declaring victory. Draco (Mikkelsen), Kepheus’ general, is less sanguine about the loss of most of his men but in the midst of Cassiopeia’s boasting that they, the royalty of Argos, are the new gods and their daughter Andromeda (Davalos) is more beautiful than Aphrodite herself, Hades appears. He ages Cassiopeia to death and warns the assemblage that Argos will be destroyed ten days hence during an eclipse unless they sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken.

He also identifies Perseus as the son of Zeus. Perseus doesn’t believe it at first but Io (Arterton), a demigod herself, confirms it, telling him that he is the son of Zeus and the wife of King Acrisius (Flemyng), who also rebelled against the Gods. Driven mad by the despoiling of his wife, Acrisius orders the newborn and his mother thrown into the sea but Zeus disfigured Acrisius and sent Spyros’ ship to rescue Perseus.

Only the Stygian Witches have the knowledge to destroy the Kraken but only a demigod would have the strength and endurance to make the journey there and back in time to save Argos and Andromeda in particular. Draco and a few good men, including Eusebios (Hoult) and Io – okay, a few good men and a woman – accompany Perseus. Hades, aware of Perseus, enlists Acrisius (who now goes by the name of Calibos) to stop him, infusing the mad disfigured King with his essence.

Perseus is given a gift of a sword by the Gods, but he refuses, saying he wants to accomplish these feats as a man, not a God. Draco puts the sword in his pack, hoping Perseus will come to his senses. They then encounter Calibos, wounding him in the process but giant scorpions spring from his blood.

They make it to the Witches’ lair, but they inform Perseus that in order to destroy the Kraken they must get the head of Medusa (Natalia Vodianova) whose gaze turns any living flesh to stone, including that of a God. However to get to Medusa they must first cross into the Underworld and nobody has ever emerged from Medusa’s lair alive.

This is a remake of the 1981 film reviewed in this blog yesterday, and it is faithful only in that there is a Perseus and a Kraken in it (there is also a mechanical owl, Bubo, from the first film, a cameo only but done in a clever way as a nod to fans from the original). Director Louis Leterrier has amped up the special effects and made it far less comedic. This is strictly action and eye candy and both are of the highest order.

Sam Worthington is turning into a fine leading man. He carries the movie effectively, continuing his run of successful roles in Terminator Salvation and Avatar. He makes a more muscular and military Perseus than Harry Hamlin did in the original, Hamlin being a bit of a pretty boy. Worthington’s Perseus is less starry-eyed and more stubborn than the 1981 incarnation.

The special effects are what are worth the price of admission. The monsters are nightmare-inducing and all look realistic. Particularly in the case of the Medusa and the scorpions it was hard to tell that it was all CGI. Considering this is an action movie, there are some pretty fine performances, particularly from Mikkelsen and Postlethwaite.

This is solid, fun popcorn entertainment. It isn’t brain surgery and it isn’t rocket science but it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination to make a movie with the kind of intricate effects this one has. Director Leterrier, fresh off The Incredible Hulk, is proving to be a serious talent in that department. While there’s a little more cheese in the dish than I usually like, it is nonetheless all a lot of fun for the entire family except for those who are easily given to nightmares by the very realistic-looking monsters.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects and Worthington proves himself a solid leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Although in many ways a more serious film than the original, it still has a certain amount of cheese in the recipe.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of fantasy violence and some horrifically gory scenes but it is the monsters that make this not for small children or those given to nightmares. Fine for teens, though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Harryhausen, co-producer and special effects designer of the original film, was invited to participate in this one but declined, citing that he had retired in 1981 and intended to stay that way.

HOME OR THEATER: Theater definitely, preferably with a big tub of popcorn in your lap.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: How to Train Your Dragon