Thursday, 4 August 2011

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

(M) ★★★★

Director: Rupert Wyatt.

Cast: Andy Serkis, James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton.


"James, we need to talk about your unhealthy passion for Seth Rogen."


AFTER Tim Burton's mis-fired "re-imagining" of the classic Planet Of The Apes in 2001, no one was really clamouring for someone to try again at restarting the saga of a world where primates are superior to humans.

But here we are with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, an unwanted but surprisingly awesome film that either serves as a new origin story or a prequel to the Charlton Heston-starring original, depending how you look at it (or how they screw it all up with a sequel).

Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist working on an Alzheimer's cure by testing it on chimps in the hopes to save his dad's deteriorating mind.

When one of the test subjects goes, ahem, ape droppings, the experiment is closed down and Will makes some rash decisions - he takes home a baby chimp rather than put it down, and begins testing the cure on his father.


If you're wondering how a set-up like this could lead to a chimp-fuelled overthrow of humanity, that's part of the beauty of Rise....

The slow downward spiral of the film from this intriguing starting point is engrossing, especially the way it suddenly flips on you and you realise you're barracking for the apes, not the humans.

For a blockbuster spectacle, it's surprisingly sharp and subtle in places, even if some plot points unravel the more you think about it, particularly the idea that a chimp in a scientific test could be pregnant and give birth without any of the scientists/handlers knowing about it.

But Rise...'s flaws can be largely forgiven because it's hugely entertaining, reasonably intelligent in its story-telling and offers some magical, beautiful and horrifying moments along the way.

The lead ape, Caesar, is a great character, brought to life wonderfully by Serkis and a team of motion-capture boffins, who imbue him with a level of humanity and nobility. The effects, for the most part, are pretty good - as is to be expected in this day and age - and the final rampage of primates versus the police has some undoubtedly cool moments.

Rise... doesn't slavishly reference the previously made Apes movies, getting by with a handful of references, but it does offer one zinger; a "holy crap!" moment revolving around the original film's "get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape" line.

This won't be a classic like the 1968 one but the "wow" feeling that it leaves you with as you exit the cinema makes it well worth the price of admission.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

(M) ★★★★

Director: Joe Johnston.

Cast: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci.

Military uniforms haven't been this lax since M*A*S*H*.
SUBTITLED as The First Avenger, this is in fact the last film before Marvel unleashes The Avengers, the much-anticipated superhero supergroup movie that will feature Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America (among others).

In order to do this, they needed to introduce Captain America - a prospect nearly as risky as hammer-weilding Norse god Thor. The reason for this is Cap has been seen as a jingoistic flag-waver at times in his lengthy comic book history, a problem compounded by the fact the US isn't everyone's favourite world superpower at the moment.

But at it's heart, Captain America has always been about truth and justice (to paraphrase half a line from rival comic company DC), as well as standing up to the bully and protecting freedom.

Thankfully, that's what this iteration of the shield-throwing superhero focuses on. The man who would be Cap, Steve Rogers (Evans) is a frail young man whose lack of physical prowess has seen him rejected five times by the American Army, which is fighting the Nazis in World War II.

Rogers is given a sixth-time-lucky opportunity by German-born scientist Abraham Erskine (Tucci), who fled Hitler and his henchman Johann Schmidt (Weaving) and came to America with a prototype of the Super Soldier Serum - a substance that will turn the ordinary troop into a superhuman fighting machine.

Erskine sees something unique in the spirited but scrawny Rogers and offers him the chance to take the serum and fulfill his dream of fighting for freedom... as Captain America.


In terms of big-budget spectacle, The First Avenger delivers, taking an old-school approach to create a rollicking adventure with a similar vibe to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, or one of Johnston's previous films, The Rocketeer.

Most of the effects work well, especially the much criticised "shrinking" of Evans to play the pre-serum Rogers, but don't watch this film in the poor-quality 3D that some cinemas have as it detracts from the polish of some of the action sequences.

Evans is great in what is effectively a dual-role and gets good support from Atwell, a well-accented Weaving (who is suitably menacing as Schmidt's alter-ego Red Skull), Tucci and Jones, with the latter two providing some handy comic relief.

The humourous touches are very welcome, helping to take some of the silliness out of the concept. His slightly ridiculous costume is introduced cleverly as Cap fulfills his duty selling war bonds, and the film trades well on the character's rich comic book past, including his original shield, his famous Hitler punch from issue #1, and a rag-tag team of sidekicks that is a composite of comic book units the Howling Commandos and the Invaders. (Sidenote: these sidekicks, which include a Brit, a Frenchmen, an Asian-American and an African-American, may seem like a stretch for political correctness or a way to temper the All-American nature of the hero but rest assured, they're all drawn from the original comics.)

The bonus with many of Marvel's key characters and backstories is the intriguing personality flaws and themes that come with them, and Captain America is no different. While his greater internal conflicts won't appear until The Avengers, he represents the importance of determination and integrity, as well as the ideal that power doesn't have to change a person - or a nation - for the worse.

It's not perfect - there are some unavoidably silly lines and moments - and how much you like the film will depend on how accepting you are of the character and his world, but Captain America's existing fanbase won't be disappointed.

Five movies into their new "cinematic universe" and Marvel have got a Pixar-like strike rate of four out of five (with Iron Man 2 the only disappointment). If this is only The First Avenger, then bring on the rest of them.

And don't forget to stick around after the end - the post-credits sequence will whet the appetite and make anyone looking forward to The Avengers hate even more the fact they'll have to wait 10 months to see it.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Cars 2

(PG) ★★

Director: John Lasseter & Brad Lewis.

Cast: (voices) Owen Wilson, Larry The Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro.

Cool cars never look back at the explosion.

IT'S finally happened. Pixar's mythical run of great films is over.

Adding insult to injury is that it's come with a sequel that no one really wanted except the merchandise money counters - Cars is generally regarded as a good film, but certainly the runt of the Pixar litter.

It's hard to know where to start with this movie. It's a sequel to Cars in as much as it's set in the same alternate reality (ie. a world of inhabited entirely by vehicles) and the main characters return in varying amounts.

That's where the similarity ends. Cars 2 is a James Bond homage that focuses on first film sidekick Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) as the accidental secret agent in an environmentally fuelled tale of espionage, set against the backdrop of a tri-series car race that promotes a type of bio-diesel.


Meanwhile, some of the emotional themes fly in the face of the first film, in which NASCAR upstart Lightning McQueen is forced to slow his life down and adapt to the pace of rural life so as not to upset anyone (and learn some lessons about humility). Here the message is be yourself no matter what and don't change for anybody, even if you're being an ignorant laughing stock who's upsetting people (although there are some other lessons along the way but this is the main one).

Like an automobile, Cars 2 is cold and emotionless. It's also sadly humourless, unless your idea of a hilarious joke is "Japanese toilets are different to Western toilets" or wanting to see how far the film-makers can push the "cars do wacky human things" envelope.

With no heart to it, we're left with a so-so spy movie that bizarrely stars cars, in particular Mater. A decent sidekick and comic relief character in the first film, he becomes almost painful to endure as a lead, although the film does improve as he eventually comes into his own.

As you would expect with Pixar, Cars 2 looks spectacular, and there are some interesting ideas, such as the environmental theme and elements of the espionage parody, plus the ending is strong.

But overall it feels like three different movies welded together or - worst of all - that Pixar is running out of ideas. Even the pre-film short is a return visit from the Toy Story team (albeit a welcome comeback).

However, the presence of Woody and Buzz just serves to remind you of how good Pixar sequels can be, and how disappointing this one is.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Thor

(M) ★★★★

Director: Kenneth Branagh.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Anthony Hopkins.

Thor's mashed potato sculpture left a lot to be desired.

A SIGH of relief. That's what you'll hear from many Marvel movie fans after they see Thor.

Expectations were high, yet there was this niggling fear among some - how will the film-makers reconcile a Norse god/superhero from another planet/plane with the more realistic approach of the Iron Man movies and The Incredible Hulk?

So that sigh is because they found a way. And not just any way. Thor is exciting, entertaining and enjoyable, plus it puts the Marvel movie series back on track after the miss-step of Iron Man 2, and edges us ever closer to the Biggest Comic Book Movie Event ever, The Avengers (due next year).

For those not brushed-up on their Norse mythology or their Marvel comics, Thor (Hemsworth) is the son of Odin (Hopkins) and the brother of Loki (Hiddleston). He wields a big hammer called Mjolnir, loves smashing Frost Giants, and he can fly.

But unfortunately, he's also brash and cocky (you would be too), and after re-sparking a war with the Frost Giants through his own arrogance, Thor is banished from his home in Asgard, stripped of his powers and dumped on Earth.

There he meets a team of scientists (Portman, Skarsgard and Dennings) and takes a lesson in being human as he battles a force that is trying to keep him from returning home.


Thor's secret weapon is its sense of humour, plus the surprise pick of Branagh as director. Best known for his love of Shakespeare and fopping about hilariously in one of the Harry Potter movies, Branagh proves an ideal choice to helm this. There is something definitely Bard-like in Thor's plot machinations, with its familial and regal twists and its themes of humility, jealousy, and proving one's worth.

It's not without its flaws, of course. There are probably too many characters - aside from Thor's immediate family, there are also his warrior off-siders and a gatekeeper, plus the Earth-bound trio of scientists and SHIELD's Agent Coulson (Marvel series regular Clark Gregg) - and few get developed as much as you'd like, particularly Portman's Jane, but the cast does a great job with what they've got, which is doing a lot with a little.

Strangely, some of the special effects are rubbish. In this day and age, with this kind of budget, that shouldn't happen. Also, Branagh goes crazy with the lens flares - an ever-increasing bad habit, seen most prominently in Michael Bay movies and the recent Star Trek. Sure, a couple are okay, but when directors go over the top with them they just become distracting.

But there is a lot to like here, especially Hemsworth. He is excellent as the hammer-wielding god of thunder, making one of Marvel's more far-fetched characters eminently believable, and is ably met by Hiddleston as his brother Loki.

And lens flares aside, you can't help but feel Branagh has done a superb job at grounding its more fantastical moments, and ensuring nothing feels too silly or over-the-top.

Fans rejoice. Not only do you get a great movie here, but there is also a neat cameo and a very revealing post-credits scene that points towards The Avengers. Bring on Captain America in July.