It's been a banner year for simian cinema, what with the documentaries Nénette and Project Nim and now this, a prequel to one of the more enduring and odd franchises in American cinema. What's refreshing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn't just that it's the summer's most exciting action film, but also that it's the most subversive: Our perspectives are linked with the apes from the very beginning, and when humans become part of the action, it is as adjuncts to the real protagonists.
The chimpanzee Caesar, performed with invisible expressive prowess by Andy "My Other Body is a Bitmap" Serkis, is born and raised under abnormal, chemically and scientifically altered circumstances. He has to learn a whole new life behind bars — in a facility run by the actors who played Hannibal Lecktor and Draco Malfoy, which is a hint and a half — and he eventually becomes the leader of a sweeping military movement. So right there you have a superhero origin story, a prison-break adventure and a sociopolitical action thriller in one movie. And director Rupert Wyatt handles all three genres with grace and finesse.
In addition to its many admirable goals — such as supporting animal companions for the elderly, a therapy with proven benefits — this movie wants you to think like an ape. Its humans are bound by money and bureaucracy (the very phrase "board of directors" just angries up the blood) and they hurt and kill others, so our loyalties can't help but get a little fuzzy. The main bad guy, a pharmaceutical company's callous CEO, isn't a Bond villain or some schemer with a nebulous world-domination plot; he's just a guy who doesn't care about anything but profit — a heel for our times. Fortunately, the film holds him accountable in a satisfying manner.
The movie is kinetic, tense and sometimes magical, setting the stage for what happens in the classic 1968 film while paving the way for a sequel of its own that could be even weirder and wilder (if keyed in to where we are now as a species). And its shifting of our sympathies is never less than fascinating. When the apes take it to the streets, turning the Golden Gate Bridge into a fogbound battleground and defeating law and order in an instant-classic setpiece, I wasn't sure what I was feeling — but it was something no other big-ticket summer movie was offering. With great supporting work from Tyler Labine (soon to be seen in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil) and John Lithgow (representing humanity at its most noble and fragile). (Now playing) JASON SHAWHAN
A film-critic pal recently posted on Facebook that people who complain movies should "get to the point" might as well just yell out, "I'm a lousy lay." Nevertheless, Hollywood seems to be releasing more and more movies that cater to folk who just want a film that swiftly lays everything out and sends you home in time for Matlock. On that score, 30 Minutes or Less is pretty much the defining film of to-the-point cinema — even the title practically shoves you out the exit.
Geek extraordinaire Jesse Eisenberg stars as an aimless pizza jockey who lives to deliver his pies on time. Too bad his latest customers are masked nitwits (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who strap a bomb on him and tell him to steal $100,000 from a bank or else they'll blow him up. Our hero soon turns to his on-again, off-again best friend (Aziz Ansari) for help, and they end up committing a litany of felonies to keep from being blown to smithereens.
Writer-director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) appears to be doing his own version of Pineapple Express, mashing up crude comedy with action-movie tropes. He even casts Express co-star McBride, who once again plays a vulgar, obnoxious jackass so easily, you wonder if he did his dramatic turn in Up in the Air on mood stabilizers. But it's appropriate the movie's called 30 Minutes or Less, since there's only a half-hour's worth of genuinely funny stuff in here. (That includes the manic bank robbery, a dynamically executed screwball setpiece.) Like nearly all of this summer's comedies, 30 Minutes follows the misguided rule that if you cast a bunch of inherently funny people and just have them say outrageous shit scene after scene, the uneven narrative and stunted characters won't matter. Maybe it should have been called Don't Let the Door Hit You in the Ass. (Opens Friday) CRAIG D. LINDSEY
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