Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I may have a more highly developed sense of empathy for primates than most, having directed a short film called Going Ape, but it would be dishonest to say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is anything short of the blockbuster of the summer.  I'm as surprised to be writing this as you must be to read it, but you'll have to see it yourself to judge if I've completely taken leave of my senses.  The pseudo-science-fiction set-up involves a new alzheimer's medication called ALZ 112, which endows the apes of the title with accelerated brain function.  The drug is being tested by James Franco, who is mild but believable as a biochemist with a personal agenda (his father, played by John Lithgow suffers from alzheimer's).  When his boss threatens to put down the apes due to complications during testing, Franco rescues a newborn orangutan and raises him privately in his home, as the Marcel to his Ross -- it's like Friends gone awry.

There is something altogether kooky about the Addams family bonds that are formed between Franco, his girlfriend (played by Frieda Pinto) and the aptly named 'Caesar,' who ultimately leads the ape uprising, in order to escape a nasty situation at an animal detention centre.  The concept will be familiar for anyone who saw Renny Harlin's b-movie classic Deep Blue Sea, in which an alzheimer's drug inadvertently increases the brain-power of the killer sharks at a waterbound medical facility.  The ending is also rather blatantly forecasted by the title, so the big surprise is how many unpredictable little turns the story takes.  In a movie with such a grand scale, the screenplay offers an extraordinary number of small details that render the characters and themes most immediate.

Don't get me wrong, nobody's going to reinvent the cinematic wheel with a planet of the apes film but this one gets the formula right and even gives us pause occasionally to think about hubris and the ill effects of good intentions when they aren't fully thought through.  The writers have clearly digested their material and mined it for the uncanny.  They have also successfully translated many of their more theoretical ideas into images that are both exciting and frightening.  Many of these moments occur during the inevitable ape revolution which culminates in a battle atop the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the capable hands of director Rupert Wyatt, we see more of the bridge than we will ever likely experience (short of the apocalypse) and in spite of all the CGI, he makes sense of the chaos through his expert staging and editing.

When the battle is momentarily interrupted by the fog, I couldn't help but smile at such ingenious storytelling.  Yep, that's the Golden Gate Bridge alright.  This little dose of reality helps to balance all the unreality of the unfolding situation and this is just one of many examples in the film.  I surrendered to the filmmakers because I knew I was in good hands.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is what summer blockbuster movies are supposed to be: a great ride.  Even the ending strikes a tone I didn't quite see coming.  And, the performance of the computer-generated Caesar (created through motion-capture technology) by actor Andy Serkis may very well be the best performance by an actor (human or otherwise) that I have seen all year.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hitchcock Close-Ups

Hitchcock worked with Hollywood's most glamorous stars and created many of their most iconic moments, often casting A-list players such as Cary Grant and James Stewart against type to reveal the darker underside of their star personas.  His mastery of the subjective camera crystallized in the 1950's and seduced us into absolute kinship with his leads, alternating between an objective and subjective camera in movies like Rear Window, Strangers on a Train and Vertigo among many others.

In Rear Window, we see Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, looking out the window onto his apartment complex.  These objective camera angles are then matched to Stewart's subjective point-of-view, looking through the window at his neighbors.  This subjective angle puts us in his shoes and also implicates us in his act of voyeurism; a technique that is repeated throughout Hitchcock's work.  We see an actor and then we see what he sees.  This becomes a structure by which we are trained to identify with the Hitchcock protagonist.  Apart from creating this identification, the Hitchcock style also makes it possible for us to comfortably observe people trapped in particularly queasy situations, guilt-free.

Occasionally however, Hitchcock also uses the objective-subjective camera to disrupt our voyeuristic comfort by cutting away from the protagonist to train our eyes on a new character, usually a stranger, observing a central character from outside his or her current situation.  We see this in To Catch A Thief when Cary Grant is lounging on the beach and suddenly we are made aware that a bodybuilder whom we've never met is watching him from a chin-up bar.  We also see it in The Man Who Knew Too Much, when Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day de-board after their flight and a woman in the crowd (with an alarming pair of wire-rimmed glasses) observes them from afar.  Perhaps the most audacious example is Psycho, which sets up Janet Leigh as the protagonist with whom we identify for the first 45 minutes of the film until she is stabbed to death in the shower.  This shocking break in continuity then forces us into identification with Norman Bates, as he proceeds to clean up his "mother's" mess.

Abrupt perspective changes are a classic Hitchcockian device that implicate us as voyeurs by introducing sinister characters who are watching the hero, just as we have been.  They also give us outside information which may be critical to the hero's survival and this knowledge generates suspense, as we wonder if the hero will clue into this hidden information and be able to make use of it before it's too late.  In memory of Hitchcock's birthday on August 13, 1899 it is fun to reflect on his sly entertainments.  He made it possible to walk a mile in Cary Grant's shoes and then he pulled out the red carpet from under them.

Some lesser-known Hitchcock films that are worth a look: Sabotage, Shadow of a Doubt, I Confess, The Trouble With Harry, The Wrong Man, Marnie, Topaz, Torn Curtain, Frenzy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens * 1/2

Although I haven't seen The Smurfs, first let me start by commending all those who chose little blue creatures over big slimy monsters on the weekend of July 29th.  I don't know you personally, but I would hazard a guess that if you spent ten-plus dollars on such nostalgic alternative programming you probably got your money's worth.  If however, like me, you were chomping at the bit over the prospect of gunsmoke and laser beams, send me a message and together we'll initiate an effort to reclaim our hard-earned money.

Cowboys & Aliens may satisfy you if you: (a) have never seen a movie before, (b) don't speak English and plan to watch the film without subtitles, or (c) enjoy going to the movies so that you can invent a better version of the story you are currently watching.  That being said, I'm afraid fans of Westerns and Alien invasion films would be well advised to stay away.  Although I tend to agree that there is 'strength in numbers' the rule typically does not apply to screenwriters of which Cowboys & Aliens has seven, not including the uncredited ones.

The story we're served is a gourmet platter analagous to the "snake surprise" in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but without the surprise.  It all begins when Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert with a mysterious electronic cuff on his wrist, not knowing who he is or how he got there.  By the end of the movie, I'm not sure he finds the answer.  What he does find are lots of explosions, several alien attacks, a rivalry with the curmudgeonly Harrison Ford and romantic tension in the form of a woman who isn't really a woman and comes from a planet we never learn about.  Along the way there are triumphs, tribulations and unfortunate Native-American stereotypes, which compliment all of the cliches smashingly.    The aliens grow increasingly unfriendly but we never learn what it is they want and after a while it becomes unimportant.

 The most unpredictable aspect of the story is Craig's wrist-cuff which seems to have a mind of it's own (shades of my old Waring 7.5 amp blender) and knows exactly when to kill people without even being programmed.  We never learn how this is possible or why the cuff repeatedly rescues Craig from the very beings who designed it.  Add to this the fact that in spite of some dandy special effects and a stellar cast of actors, the movie completely loses its hold in the second half.   The end result feels more like a visit to a wax museum than the cinematic joy ride that could have been.  You can make out the familiar faces but there's something unsubstantial about it all.  Something that no measure of special effects can make up for.

I know it sounds jaded but believe me, I'm really not knocking the filmmakers here.  I'm actually reveling in the realization that I was naive enough to have expected more.  With each passing summer movie season it's becoming increasingly important to let go of one's lofty expectations; they interfere with the fun.  Yes, a concept can be more than the sum of its special effects but who am I to purport that one man alone could effect this change?  We're all in this together.  This is the kind of entertainment we'll all be paying for well into the 22nd century, unless of course we can learn as a civilization to appreciate the Smurfs.  At least then we might actually get our money's worth.