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Monthly Archives: August 2011

William Friedkin, Brian De Palma and John Carpenter share a similar cinematic origin story.  All three began making a name for themself throughout the 70’s, each breaking through to the big time by directing an iconic horror film of the decade.  Friedkin did bad things with a crucifix in The Exorcist.  DePalma threw pigs blood all over Sissy Spacek in Carrie.  Carpenter turned a William Shatner mask inside out and the world got Halloween.  All three clearly had a love of the darker genres, frequently delving into the stories of monsters, murderers and those they stalked or were stalked by.  They are divisive directors, with movie lovers becoming rabid fans of their work or harsh detractors.  DePalma espesially seems to make people swell with love or fume with hate.  All three went on to create an extensive filmography but as time marched on the output became very erratic.  These three high profile helmers are still kicking but stranded on the sidelines, often called on to do little more than reminese about past achievements.  With the chance to direct features making itself less and less available I decided to take in one work from their heyday that I had never seen and give it a whirl.  Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, De Palma’s Blow Out and Friedkin’s Cruising.

Prince of Darkness – Carpenter’s better judgement was starting to become questionable with this one.  After the non-success of Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter was seen as a guy who could get unique films made but not necessarily deliver financial success.  Prince of Darkness is Carpenter clearly starting to slip becasue it feels like a story he dreamt up after smoking a bad doobie.  His trademarks are present: minimal, ominous, self composed film score, people being trapped in building surrounded by people/something that will kill them, a patient style of story that builds into a slow vibe of dread and a sturdy sense of unflashy direction in service of a supernatural slanted plot.  But John Boy screwed up two crucial pieces of his well worn puzzle.  He didn’t write a part for Kurt Russell, or any actor involved, and his McGuffin is so silly it would one day give birth to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  That’s right, it’s a tall cylander containing the glowing green ooze of Satan.

Some of Carpenter’s favorite actors are here, Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, but there’s no anchor or supporting character worth noticing.  As an ensemble piece it is a dull failure, total in its ability to not generate any interest in what little is happening.  Carpenter’s limitations with less than talented actors is crushingly obvious.  Most of the actors just walk around each other waiting for their death scene.  The lead is some nobody who looks like he was recruited from the ranks of Hollywood’s $5 discount bin.  Because of all this Darkness walks and talks like a Carpenter movie that’s been hit in the head with a shovel.  You could argue that he never really rebounded from this as one film after another become more and more erratic and unfulfilled.  He followed this up with They Live which was another step down.


Cruising – William Friedkin began the 70’s by making two back to back masterpieces, The Exorcist and The French Connection, and if you remove them from his resume he’s got little left worth discussing.  His entire career is littered with the forgettable (Deal of the Century), the forgotten (Rampage), the just fucking rotten (Jade), and even a Shaquille O’Neal movie (Blue Chips).  In the middle of this long and misshapen career lies Cruising, a notorious bit of 80’s explotation that drew a lot of poison pens to its attention at the time.  Friedkin takes Al Pacino into the leather clad chambers of New York’s gay S&M scene where a serial killer is stabbing and then dismembering homosexuals.  While focusing an eye towards this subculture of the gay community isn’t inherently wrong, Friedkin’s gazing is ill timed, in poor taste and shockingly dull.

Finding admirable representations of gay people and gay culture in mass media was rare in the early 80’s.  For a major motion picture to fixate on any part of gay culture was a wildly daring move.  Though Friedkin had focused on the less lurid parts of homosexual culture in an earlier film, here he gives us nothing but a freak show that could’ve accomplished little but generating disgust towards the gay community.  His insistence on shooting endless scenes of gay men in Rob Halford inspired costumes, blowing and fist fucking each other in view of anyone probably mortified scores of people with no exposure to the expanding homosexual world.  Cruising has minimal interest in showing a gay character as anything other than someone who indulges in deviant sexual behavior with strangers.  Way to open the mind of middle America Billy.  It helps nothing that Friedkin actually makes Pacino turn in boring, stoic work as the personality impared undercover cop.  His character is a chalk board with nothing drawn on it and his reactions to the sweaty world he’s getting thrown into are ambiguous and unformed.  The story concludes on a note which feels poorly thought out and purposefully vague.

Blow Out – I’m a life long hater of many Brian De Palma movies but Blow Out is a fantastic work which sits high above his other efforts from the same time.  While his imitation Hitchcock tendencies are still shamelessly full blown, De Palma works from a story which isn’t aggressively stupid or trashy as he has long been prone to gravitating towards.  See The Fury or Body Double for De Palma at his mind boggling worst.  Getting what is easily one of John Travolta’s finest performances, De Palma tells the story of a b-movie sound guy who inadvertently records the audio of a car accident that results in the death of a prominent politician.  After going over his recording, he determines the blown tire was caused by a gun shot.  Cue conspiracy shenanigans.

Blow Out’s plot is pretty standard fodder, even by 1981 standards, but De Palma keeps himself in check and allows Travolta to carry the movie.  It’s a great turn for Travolta, proof he had gravity and could do more than sing and dance.  It remains a startling shame that this film kicked off a career downward spiral from which it would take over a decade to escape.  De Palma favorite Nancy Allen gets a tricky part as the naive girl caught up in a scheme she doesn’t grasp.  Her character isn’t very bright and easily could have become grating, but she keeps it sweet and likable which gives the ending a lot of resonance it would not have otherwise had.  John Lithgow, another De Palma favorite, shows up as an aggressive assassin who seems adamant about killing off everyone even when ordered not to.  Folks looking for a first rate thriller would do themselves right by picking up Criterion’s spiffy new Blu Ray edition.



Ten Word or Less Review: Not a documentary about Hugh Beaumont.

I hope anyone reading this is going to already be up to snuff on the career of John Carpenter.  Just in case you’re not I will quickly summarize.  From 1978 to 1986 he was the man: Halloween, Escape From NY, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Starman, Christine.  Some people like The Fog, not me.  Things started to slide for him after Big Trouble.  The 80’s tappered off for him.  They Live seems to live on in fandom beause of one good line of dialogue.  He kept working steadily through the 90’s but for the most part he was increasingly off his game.  Things bottomed out in 2001 when Ghosts of Mars plopped onto the screen releasing a putrid stench so bad it can still be smelt a decade later.  Now after a 10 year break away from feature film making Carpenter has taken himself out of mothballs to direct The Ward, a paint by numbers psychological horror flick.  Not surprisingly, there is very little positive to say about it.

The Ward is the second film this year plotted around a group of girls trapped in an ominous mental institution during the 1950’s.  Don’t see the first.  Kristin (Amber Heard) is the new resident who thinks shes wrongly trapped within its walls.  Has any character in movie history actually thought they belonged inside a padded room?  For reasons she can’t remember she set a house on fire and watched it burn to the ground.  The other girls locked up with her are your standard lot of booby hatch inmates, the twist being that a nasty spook is knocking about the asylum walls, intent to kill off these female inmates in nasty fashion.

The Ward is capably shot and put together by Carpenter but there’s nothing original or attention getting about it.  Its story and characters are all routine and while it is mostly painless to watch, it is also pointless.  Some twists eventually come about nothing should surprise you.  If you’ve seen films like Identity or Shutter Island, you should experience a gasp free viewing.  The movie looks a better photographed than I expected and the performances are all passable but there’s just nothing that really stands out to demand attention.  When it’s over you’re left with another in the endless line of movies which pass into and out of your short term memory.  You could almost argue that had it been worse, it would have at least been something to remember.

One is left to wonder what about the story was enough to get Carpenter off his ass after an extended hiatus.  Several people have figured that the old guy simply likes to chain smoke and play video games with his days, so what made him put down the Playstation controller and do this is anyones guess.  I hope the old master has something great left in him, but if so The Ward is not it, not even close.  If a positive spin can but put on things it’s this: at least we no longer have to look at the possibility of Ghosts of Mars being John Carpenter’s swan song.

Ten Word or Less Review: An 80’s horror remake that doesn’t stink.

I think nostalgia is getting the best of some people.  Having just recently just watched the original Fright Night from 1985 I wasn’t greatly impressed with it.  It was cheesy.  It was painfully idiotic in parts.  Its central character Charlie (William Ragsdale) was gratingly dumb.  Charlie’s obnoxious pal Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) just annoyed to no end with his high pitched shriek of a voice.  I really hate characters who yell their dialogue, passing it off as acting.  It salvaged itself as it moved along with some eye popping physical effects, Roddy McDowell hamming it up as a cowardly midnight movie host and a good dose of charming smarm from Chris Sarandon as Jerry the Vampire.  It was kind of neat to see a piece of 80’s horror I had completely missed, and I could maybe stand to watch it again with libation in hand, I thought its drawbacks were pretty glaring and obvious.  The new Fright Night has taken the old film, followed its premise, but mercifully ejected the thoughtless execution which plagued too much of the previous effort.  This apparently annoys some people.

Inhabiting the part of Charlie and ably anchoring the whole film is talented up and comer Anton Yelchin (Star Trek).  The lame spirit of William Ragsdale doesn’t hang around to be felt at all.  Not stuck playing a ridiculous caricature of a teenager, as is often the case of the horror genre, Yelchin gets to play Charlie as a believable and fleshed out  young adult.  An ex-nerd hiding his past from his newer hip friends, Charlie in this version feels like a semi-believable teen whose actions make sense and motivations are understandable.  At first the movie dares us to dislike him a bit, but Yelchin is turning into an instantly watchable screen presence in everything he does.  Ragsdale’s Charlie was just a blundering moron but when Yelchin’s Charlie begins to grasp the situation he’s up against, something he’s understandably skeptical of, he responds like a fairly intelligent person, not a gung ho idiot.  Also getting a remake make over is Charlie’s girlfriend Amy.  Original girlfriend Amanda Bearse seemed like a Scooby Doo mystery reject that projected all the sexuality of a spare tire.  The barely explained spiritual connection between her character and the vampire added zilch and has been exorcized in this version.  Young and gorgeous Imogen Poots, love that name, also gets to play against standard issue teenage type by being more than a sexually infused object of desire for Yelchin.  Her character gets some brains and doesn’t feel like a needless appendage for ogling.

The three semi iconic parts form the original, Evil Ed, Peter Vincent and Jerry the Vampire, are capably recreated here, but the original probably holds a minor edge.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick-Ass) gets to bring his special brand of pathetic and sad nerd to the part of Evil Ed.  Fans of the Ed part may be saddened to see the role drastically cut back for this remake but I’m a firm believer that Mintz-Plasse works better in contained doses.  I don’t miss that shrieking voice of the original Ed either but the part had a Hell of a payoff that the new version doesn’t achieve.  Dr. Who’s David Tennent steps into Roddy McDowell’s role of Peter Vincent.  If the original does surpass this remake in some clear cut ways this is one.  McDowell’s lowly horror show host was endearing and pathetic and he’s the kind of old school presence it is hard to dismiss out of hand.  Tennent is fine and the film works well with what they’ve come up with, a silly Vegas magician of sorts, but Tennent doesn’t charm the way McDowell did.  And then there’s Jerry.

Chris Sarandon was pretty much the acting backbone of the original.  He wonderfully inhabited the part of this brazenly sadistic and amused vampire.  Keeping the spirit of the part, but really making it his own is Colin Farrell.  Farrell is all sly grins, devious looks and devilish attitude.  He’s clearly having a hoot doing this.  Farrell is often cast as a humorless heavy but he does wink-wink smarm remarkably well.  The remake eventually starts to embrace the ridiculous regarding Jerry’s actions, no one seems to live in this Vegas suburb, but there are many small details to savor.   To compare the two is to compare apples to apples.  Both are great in the part and picking the better feels a little arbitrary.

When we get over all these particulars there are ultimately two definitive reasons why this new Fright Night stands taller than its source material.  First, it’s much more thought out and beholden to a sharper screenplay.  Second, director Craig Gillespie handles actors and action better than original helmer Tom Holland, a forgettable and witless director.  The original Fright Night was sabotaged in too many places by dim characters and clunky story, some of which seemed to be made up on the spot.  2011 version screenwriter Marti Nixon has laid out all the lumpy deficiencies of the original and ironed them out, making these characters live and breathe a bit and giving the scenario just a hint of credibility.  Director Gillespie knows he has a talented cast on hand, who clearly like the material, so he lets them do their thing.  A less patient director may have ruined things by cutting away crucial smaller moments.  The movie is patiently paced, avoids going drastically over the top too often and even embraces a small vibe of tragedy regarding Jerry’s victims.  Gillespie knows to hone in and focus on these details, the kinds of small things which make a scene, and by extension the movie, more memorable.

If the original holds one technical edge it’s in the effects realm.  The original’s physical effects were eye opening and creative.  1985 director Tom Holland knew his effects sequences would make or break his feature and for the most part he nailed them all.  The new version contains sparsely used but run of the mill CGI.  Nothing here tops Evil Ed’s demise from the original for sheer audacity.  A gore for broke sequence like that would have firmly locked in the newer Fright Night as the film to beat, no questions asked at all.

For some, acknowledging a remake is better than an original, especially one tied to engrained childhood fondness, is impossible.  “Nothing is better than this thing I saw when I was 10!  No matter how much you say so dammit!”  Nostalgia can be harder to kick than crack.  I’m not a person who clings to old memories with an iron fist.  If I did I’d still like Krull sans irony.  Old films can be creaky, silly and hopelessly dated products.  Sure, plenty of remakes stink, but they don’t stink strictly because they’re remakes.  Films can retain the magic which defines them and their timelessness, but only the shortsighted should reject out of hand the advantage of hindsight and new perspective.  Fright Night is a perfect example of how a half likeable but haphazardly executed film from one decade can be turned into a better, more enjoyable horror vehicle today.  If I never watch the old Fright Night again I will never feel the slightest twinge of regret.  I would feel a small amount of let down at not seeing this remake at least one more time.

13 Assassins, a remake of Japanese film from the 60’s, will probably strike samurai movie fans as a slimmed down, action oriented homage to Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai.  Like that film, we follow a noble batch of trusty warriors as they prepare for an epic battle against a massive force that will seemingly crush them.  Their ingenuity and determination are their only hope.  And if you’ve never been wise enough to take in Seven Samurai (for shame!) 13 Assassins may remind you of another, more recent action epic, Transformers 3.  I shall explain.

Set during the earlier half of the 19th century, the way of the samurai has not yet, but almost, passed into history.  Most samurais feel doomed to a life of honorless non-combat.  A fate seemingly worse than death to some.  When a sadistic and untouchable Japanese Lord begins his rise to power, the hierarchy, which may soon be under his insane thumb, decides assassination is the way to go to save their country from his warped malevolence.  A trustworthy samurai is hired to quietly assemble a group of men which will then be responsible for terminating the rising lord as he travels back to his homelands.  The problem at hand though is that the Lord travels with a small army and to dispose of the Lord will require a plan steeped in cunning, ambition and a massive dose of luck.

13 Assassins provides the decades old, well worn samurai genre a thrilling shot in the arm.  Directed by Takashi Miike, a well known and respected commodity in his native Japan, he crafts a thrilling action vehicle that a western audience should be able to grab with just a little effort.  The first act is mostly dedicated to plot and character building and a small amount of confusion isn’t out of the question for the casual viewer.  A few subtitles whip by too quickly, some characters look much too alike one another at first glance, and understanding the hows and whys of the Japanese political machine can be flummoxing.  Though it often involves committing hara kiri, I.E. to disembowel oneself.  But throw all these worries aside.  Before things become any kind of a too tangled topknot 13 Assassins has made its intentions very clear.  These 13 noble warriors have to plow through an army to kill the psychopath in charge.  This brings us to the Transformers comparison.

Assassins spends it’s first hour plus building into a compelling narrative and when all the pieces have been properly alligned, strikes you with a 45 minute epic of action carnage.  The samurais assault on the lord’s army is a thrilling undertaking of action and mayhem.  This kind of ambitious finale struck me as remarkably similar in development to Michael Bay’s most recent bout of robot mayhem.  That film also built into a prolonged action climax that aimed to dazzle the audience with an unparalled stab at sustained insanity.  But to compare the two, Bay’s robot hi jinx feel shallow next to this amazingly constructed samurai battle.  Bay’s much admired destruction of Chicago was neat to look at to be sure but it never actually thrilled.  It was just a lot of loud and shiny nonsense riddled with a stop and start pacing scheme.  The fact that you wanted all the characters to die didn’t help things.  13 Assassins finale is gripping and gruesome and it never lets up.  And it’s not gruesome in an overblown, blood spurting, limbs hacked off, Kill Bill kind of way, but a gritty, grizzly, grimy, put a boot to your gut while wearing cleats kind of way.  Samurais hack and slash their way through scores of willing battle fodder.  Heroes die in agony and pain and their loss is felt.  As scores of men fall for the sake of their viscious lord’s well being, he does little more but stare in bemused fashion.  The movie has guts.  Something most American action films, Bay’s included, seem sorely lacking in.

13 Assassins isn’t groundbreaking or even all that original in the grand scheme of things.  But what it is is exceptionally executed and engrossing to watch.  It uses those classic movie elements, story and character, to its full advantage and the end result is a gripping samurai movie that any action fan should have a great time watching.

The Mechanic (2011) – I like the idea of an actor out there like Jason Statham.  In an age of digital madness and fierce editing techniques, where even Michael Cera can convincingly kick the ass of a guy twice his size, Statham looks to be the last non-Asian actor who’s paid to show up on screen and deliver a traditional butt kicking the audience can believe in.  He looks like a soccer hooligan who took up acting in between fights outside his favorite pub.  Admiration aside though the simple fact remains he’s made precious few movies worth viewing.  Crank was fun.  The Bank Job was quality.  Some people like his Transporter flicks but I’ve never taken in one in its entirety.  The rest of his resume is scattered bits of trash, some make their dime back, some don’t. Some don’t even see the dark of a multiplex.  This brings us to The Mechanic.

A remake of a Charles Bronson b-movie, Mechanic is a down the line action vehicle with hints of aspiration to be more, but not enough follow through to deliver anything besides your typical weekend programmer.  Director Simon West is no Walter Hill.  He keeps things simple and to the point, not really pushing for anything other than the bare minimum from his cast and story.  It makes for an adequate distraction but not much more.  One day Stratham might work with a director with higher demands.  I think he would be interesting fodder for a Michael Mann film.  But until that day comes the bald headed ass kicker will simply have to role with things and hope a movie worth our effort comes around.

Bolt (2010) – A co-worker was unusually adamant that I watch this standard issue looking Disney CGI film.  She seemed to be running under the assumption that becasue I put one of the hamsters we have at work in a plastic ball so that it could roll around the branch I would want to watch a movie that features a hamster in a ball as one of its main characters.  She don’t know me that well it seems.  Bolt is nothing awful or impossible to watch but it’s simply another in the endless line of interchangeable CGI kids flicks.  Here the Disney animators try to follow in the footsteps of bigger, brighter and more talented in house brother Pixar by judiciously borrowing certain story beats and character arcs for this story of dog who thinks he’s a superhero.  To make the point, Bolt is basically Buzz Lightyear as a dog.  But though animated to be as cute and cuddley as possible, giving him the voice of John Travolta was a mistake.  Bolt looks like a boundlessly energetic and plucky creature, but having the worn pipes of a middle aged actor come out of his yap ruins the effect.  Again, not horrible and not likely to make one weary or impatient, but pretty much geared to the 10 and under crowd only.

The Last Airbender (2010) – To watch the continued decline of director M. Night Shyamalan has become akin to watching a someone asphyxiate themself with a belt, except they never actually die, they just keep choking.  Their tongue sticks out a little more, the eyes keep bulging wider and wider, they keep violently twitching again and again, their skin turns shades of purple you didn’t think existed and just when you think it’s over, a full body spasm strikes and the whole horror show starts again from the top.  This is what the one time wonder kid of cinema has become.  If he drifted into ham-fisted self parody with Lady in the Water and The Happening, Last Airbender is Shyamalan with all outward signs of personality and skill completely amputated.  It feels like a movie made by an 8 year old who has been force fed prozac for months on end until lethargic apathy is the only state of mind he can project.

To cover the story and characters would be a waste I can’t bring myself to tackle.  Every single thing about Airbender is so completely wooden, so painfully dull, so utterly directionless and random, so totally lacking in the slightest bit of energy or character or plain freaking sense that its existence as a tentpole, super-budget franchise starter defies all logic.  How anyone green lit Shyamalan’s coma inducing pseudo script is mind boggling and how he was allowed to continue to shoot after day one demonstrates complete recklessness and/or stupidity on the producers behalf.  No half intelligent person would’ve let this go forward unless they had an economic, or perhaps literal, gun to their head.  Character dialogue and action feels so stilted that it’s as if a script was never remotely completed and that everyone is reading this trite for the first time from illegible notes scribbled on a notepad hanging to the side of the camera.  Not one line of dialogue ever need be uttered again.  Even ironically.  The only thing anyone could possibly give a passing approval to are it’s special effects, and in this day and age how is that any kind of accomplishment?  This catastrophic load of movie crap doesn’t even have a decent scene by accident.  It’s as if the movie has been made with the explicit purpose of making people suffer misery and woe for 100 minutes.  The fact that it was seen as the first in a series of movies is even more mortifying.  To make someone watch anymore of this would amount to a crime against humanity.  We’d have to send Shyamalan to the Hague.

The only person I can fathom liking this movie is George Lucas.  Simply because it makes his legendarily lame Star Wars prequels look uniformly excellent by comparison.  If you saw it and gave a nod of approval do yourself a favor and tell no one.  This is an astoundingly terrible motion picture made by a man who’s gotten caught up in a tragic game of one upmanship with himself.  Each time he makes a film he sets the bar as low as reason would dictate it could go, then he finds a way to lower it more.  In this case, a lot more.



Ten Word or Less Review: The Snore That Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Steig Larson and his world phenomenon Millennium Trilogy must feel like the literature equal of smoking crack, because as a series of movies this trilogy is a  serving of bad Leverpostej.  Things got off on a good note back in ’09.  First novel, Dragon Tattoo, was a well executed mystery thriller with just enough style and intrigue to garner some heat on the art house circuit as well as drum up critical support from the likes of people like me.  You figure all the rape would turn people off but that was not the case.  One rape scene?  Hell, make it two!  The audience loves it!  Putting that curious element aside it was a solid and uncompromising starting point to what would hopefully leap into something grand and ominous as further chapters unwound.  The quickly produced sequels though have been nothing but a dull throb of tension free drudgery.  Played with Fire and now Hornet’s Nest have provided little more than a total of 4 hours of rote storytelling punctuated with a mud in your eye conclusion.
To quickly prove this point lead heroine Lisbeth spends the first hour of this movie sitting in a hospital bed texting.  Cue adrenaline rush.  And when Lisbeth isn’t texting with her free time old Norwegian guys are shuffling around conspiring with one another.  Now I know what a rush meth must provide.  Look at that old guy plot against the goth chick who can’t walk.  Wowzers.  I sat with Jess and waddled through the dull muck of this first hour and then accidentally stopped the movie, remote slip up, at which point I asked if she even cared that I had stonewalled it.  She did not.  For the sake of knowing the outcome I skipped ahead to the finale 20 minutes or so and to no surprise I discovered we had missed absolutely nothing by leaping to the end.  We casually watched the story wrap up and though a guy got a lot of nails put in his feet we were unmoved.  The final scene drives home an apt answer to my long gestating question about this whole story.  Why are people so wrapped up in this sour mush of a narrative?  The answer?  I haven’t the faintest idea.  Maybe it’s the mohawk and leather collars.  And the rape.  I got nothing else.



Ten Word or Less Review: Go Ape!

With little fanfare and amazingly low expectations, Fox has dusted off its dormant Planet of the Apes franchise.  Off the radar since the 70’s, Fox tried to bring its simian populated movie series back to audiences in 2001.  The result was a ridiculous Tim Burton exercise which featured amazing makeup but a senseless and idiotic story.  Though it ensnared a wide audience it was considered fairly awful my most and Fox pursued no follow up.  Cut to a decade later and the apes are back.  Fox has quietly, too quietly perhaps, let newish director Rupert Wyatt craft a new Apes origin story which contains no direct connection to the existing Ape mythology.  In short, it’s a reboot a la Batman Begins or 2009’s Star Trek.  As this feature subtly made its way through production and to the screen, little was said in its favor and most assumed it was a tossed together experience simply meant to keep an old franchise from fading away forever.  Previews sold it like an ape infested retread of Will Smith’s silly I Robot.  Toss assumptions aside.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the finest event film of the summer and contains one of the best digital performances crafted for film to date.  In a summer which has seen scores of disappoints and one charmless reel of digital mayhem after another, Apes delivers a movie experience only Harry Potter and X-Men: First Class have come close to equaling in big budget quality.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes begins in a world very much populated by humans.  Will (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, hisown father a victim of the mind destroying illness.  Testing his serums on apes, Will thinks he’s cracked the code for curing the destructive disease.  Everything goes wrong when his prized chimp turns hostile and is killed protecting its infant.  Will begrudgingly takes the baby ape home to live with his Alzheimer’s stricken father.  He raises the ape and quickly discerns that the brain power accelerating formula given to his mother has been passed on to son.  Named Cesar, this miraculous chimp displays amazing intelligence and ability that matches, and then surpasses, humans of an equivalent age.  But before any miracles are announced to the world the situation goes bad and Cesar finds himself confined to an ape house.  It’s here his quest for freedom begins and his role as leader of an ape uprising is born.

The blending of technology and human performances is allowing fantasy and science fiction to push and expand into more and more interesting places and situations.  With attempts to place CGI creations over human performers now out of its first decade, culminating with the successful emoting of Avatar’s characters, the ability to capture genuine human emotion is no longer out of reach.  While the make-up effects of Burton’s film were a high water mark for the art form, here they aren’t missed.  Cesar is a marvel of expression, emotion and pathos.  Performed by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame, Serkis has given Cesar a soul full of conflict and wonder behind a pair of deep green eyes.  This CGI creation is the central character and convincingly anchors the story with what is basically a riveting silent performance.  Cesar’s human counterparts, James Franco, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, are all fine supporting players but their parts are various levels of filler.  Franco wrings what he can out of a basic, damned through good intentions scientist role but it’s not his movie.  Franco and company do their part to move the story along and they do it well, but this is Cesar’s story and the technology elevates the character, and thus the movie, to surprising levels.

Director Rupert Wyatt proves infinitely more adept at pacing, directing actors and crafting action than his small resume implies.  Wyatt and his writers don’t build Rise as any kind of standard action vehicle.  Instead they’ve taken the high road and constructed a sturdy science fiction genre movie around a story of personal discovery.  It’s a journey from infancy through adolescence, culminating in rebellion and the demand for freedom from oppression.  Wyatt and company pull off this ambitious story arc without many hiccups or ill fitting story beats.  The movie does have a strangely barren San Francisco during its climax.  And as this is a Planet of the Apes movie fans of the series will find nods to past adventures scattered throughout.  Heston’s classic demand to be unhanded by his ape oppressors is turned on its head here, resulting in the fiercest, most punctuated line of dialogue of any movie in recent memory.  And it’s only one word long.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes begins the gradual wind down of our annual summer slog of CGI overkill in a grand way.  After enduring computer created robots, pandas, even Smurfs, Hollywood saved it’s most engrossing creation for last.  After Burton’s bloated misfire Ape fans finally have something to cheer about.  This is a great beginning to a rediscovered property that will hopefully yield exciting results in the future.