Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Will (James Franco) was a brilliant scientist on the brink of discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The ALZ-112 drug, which boosted brain function, worked on apes, but it needed to be tested on humans before commercialization. When one of the apes broke out of its cage and destroyed everything in its path, the investors expressed disapproval in using humans as test subjects. As a result, Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) ordered all of the experimental apes’ extermination and single-handedly shut down Will’s research. However, Will, despite his initial reluctance, took home a baby ape from the lab and raised it like a child. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was an exciting cautionary tale about ethics, or lack thereof, in terms of scientific advancements and humans’ relationship with our direct descendants. The first half was strong and unexpected. For a movie about an uprising of apes, I didn’t think it would focus on personal issues. It worked because it defined Will as more than a scientist. He was a father to Caesar (Andy Serkis), the young ape he hook home, and a son to his father (John Lithgow) who was inflicted with dementia. Later, when Caesar led his army of apes, strangely, I saw Will in his eyes, the strength, courage and determination within, a look similar in the way Will expressed concern toward his father when a specific symptom surfaced, a suggestion that his condition had turned for the worse. Unfortunately, the latter half wasn’t as strong. While it was necessary that Caesar eventually got to be with his own kind and began to care more about them than people, it got redundant. The workers in the wildlife rescue center, like John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton), were cruel and abusive. They pushed, kicked, and tasered the animals while deriving pleasure from it. Showing us the same act over and over again was counterproductive. I would rather have watched more scenes of the way Caesar dealt with abandonment. When the material turned inwards, whether it be Will or Caesar, what was at stake came into focus. The action scenes, like the chaos in the Golden Gate Bridge, was nicely handled by the director. There wasn’t much gore and no limb was torn apart, but the fear was palpable. The way the San Franciscans ran from one end of the bridge toward the other looked like they were running from Godzilla instead of a bunch of apes. However, there was one strand that felt out of place, almost underwritten. One of the scientists (Tyler Labine) was exposed to a chemical agent, a gaseous form of ALZ-112, which led to his death. That part of the story needed about two more scenes to explain its significance. Those who watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” could probably grasp at its implications but those who had not could end up confused. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used special and visual effects to enhance the story and deliver good-looking action sequences, evidence that the two needn’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to pull off a solid popcorn entertainment.
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), Professor of Literature, was invited by the Nazis to write a paper for them about the ethics and humanity of euthanasia not because he had the proper medical background but because they were impressed with his novel which was based on fiction. Because he wanted to advance his career, he accepted an invitation to become an honorary member of the Nazi party despite the fact that he didn’t believe in their ideals. This caused great tension between the professor and his Jewish friend (Jason Isaacs) who became increasingly desperate to leave the country. Mortensen did a wonderful job portraying a complete coward of a man. He was a classic case of a weak boy so seduced by power, he was willing to change everything he stood for just so he could have a taste of it. I detested his choices. He abandoned his wife (Anastasia Hille) and children for one of his students (Jodie Whittaker), irresponsibly left his mother–who everyone thought was suffering from tuberculosis at the time because Alzheimer’s disease wasn’t yet understood–to live by herself, and lacked a sense of loyalty toward his closest friend. I didn’t necessarily detest the man but I wanted to shake some sense into him. However, I wish C.P. Taylor and John Wrathall, the writers, made a clearer case as to why this man’s story had to be told. Vicente Amorim, the director, wasn’t given much to work with; he certainly tried to paint a portrait of a very confused and misguided man, but his attempt didn’t quite capture the reason what made this man’s story so special. Yes, in crucial times of war, people were often driven to do things they wouldn’t normally do, but I couldn’t help but feel like that should only be the surface. There was a redemption arc toward the end but it felt forced and borderline preachy. As Halder became a bigger part of the Nazi party, he began to have auditory and visual hallucinations about people singing to him. It was a symbol of his guilt, maybe byproducts of the warring levels of his psyche. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if the hallucinations didn’t arrive at the most inopportune times. They broke the tension instead of helping to increase its momentum. “Good” did not need to have a character we could necessarily root for because I knew the filmmakers wanted to create a cautionary tale. A character could be morally compromised yet we could still learn from his or her mistakes. But it needed to have a defined core as to what made Halder’s story unique. Good acting and direction is for naught if basic building blocks are missing. Taylor and Wrathall’s work may have worked as a play but its full power failed to translate on screen.
★★ / ★★★★
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) was a struggling writer in New York. He claimed he had ideas for his book but he was at a loss on how to put them together. He spent most of his days staring at the computer and accomplishing nothing. But his luck turned for the better when he ran into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon, a former drug dealer, handed Eddie a pill called an NZT48 which allowed the person to use his brain in full capacity. Eddie finished his book in no time but that wasn’t enough. He realized he needed more of the magic pills so he could earn enough money and be set for life. “Limitless,” based on Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields,” was an entertaining fantasy for about half of its running time. It posed interesting questions about what one man would do if he was given the chance to become the smartest man on the planet. Naturally, finding a cure for diseases like AIDS or finding a solution for world hunger was not one of his priorities. Instead, he decided to borrow money from a thug (Andrew Howard) and forgot to pay him back, got involved with a cunning businessman (Robert De Niro) who was willing to go great lengths to remain at the top of the food chain, and win back the girl who dumped him when he was at his worst. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as the drug led him to believe. While the picture remained energetic throughout, I noticed that half-way through, I began to think about the technicalities involving the drug in question. For instance, what chemical compounds was it made of? Eddie recruited a scientist to make more of the pills and I got the impression that it was relatively simple to make. And given that the drug was able to bind to more receptors in the brain, how was the body able to compensate for the overdrive given that Eddie was consuming the pills like Nerds candy? In the least, I expected him to eat more because the brain needs glucose to function. I understood that it was supposed to be science fiction. However, I wouldn’t have focused on the technicalities if the filmmakers had chosen to stray from the formula they’ve grown accustomed to. Every time Eddie took the drug, the scenery looked happier and brighter. The soundtrack was more upbeat. The temporary happiness was countered by a mysterious man (Tomas Arana) who stalked Eddie. The same set-up was used about five or six times. It was tiresome, lazy, and, most importantly, it didn’t always move the story forward. Characters like the mysterious man and the murdered woman in the hotel were left on the sideline. A handful of questions were left unanswered. The film lightly tackled some of the repercussions of addiction but it ultimately glorified it. On one hand, I thought it was refreshing. Admittedly, when our protagonist was on a high, I laughed at the ridiculous things that happened to him. On the other hand, it felt like a slap in the face of real people struggling with drug addiction. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale but it lacked the gray areas of ethics and morality.
★★★ / ★★★★
Two biochemists, Clive and Elsa, (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who worked for a pharmaceutical company (led by Simona Maicanescu) decided to make an animal/human hybrid because they felt that they should push the boundaries of science in order to ultimately free humanity from unsolved genetic diseases. As well-meaning as they were on the outside, I loved the fact that as the film went on, I began to feel detached from the characters instead of feeling attached to them like in most other movies. As astute and gifted as they were, I felt that they were selfish, arrogant, rash and they deserved what was about to happen to them. The special and visual effects kept me glued to the screen. I wasn’t sure how much of the creature (played by Delphine Chanéac) was computer-engineered but I couldn’t take my eyes off her due to fascination and complete horror. From the trailers, I thought “Splice” was going to be a standard sci-fi/horror picture but I was glad it turned out differently. Instead of going for the easy scares (although there were three or four), it took its time to establish the characters and place them (and us) in moral conundrums to see how they would respond to the challenges that faced them. Since the two biochemists were in a romantic relationship prior to the genetically engineered creature, there was something amusing about the way they eventually took on the role of being a parent for the creature including the usual tensions that arise during motherhood and fatherhood. There were even some Freudian implications that became very obvious as the movie unfolded. Having said all that, I felt that the film stalled somewhere in the middle. The movie hinted Elsa’s dark past which should have explained why she treated Dren (the creature) the way she did. But the whole thing was so vague, I felt like I was constantly reaching for something in the dark that may not even be there. As the picture reached its somewhat typical and predictable climax of characters running in the woods and fighting for survival, I waited for some answers about Elsa’s past but I didn’t get any. Instead, there was a completely gratuitous scene that just made me feel uncomfortable and rotten. The last time I felt that badly in a movie theater was when I saw 2009’s “The Last House on the Left.” I know about Vincenzo Natali’s reputation as a director who likes to inject something different in his projects but I strongly believe that the scene in question could have been altered in such a way that it didn’t degrade women. Nevertheless, I’m recommending “Splice” because it exhibited intelligence, its ability to surprise and it worked as a cautionary tale.
An Education (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An Oxford-bound teenager (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s fell for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) because he was exciting, had money, and he was into romantic lifestyles such as appreciating art and traveling–the same things she wished she had herself. At first everything seemed to be going right but the deeper they got into their relationship, she discovered that having a priviledged life was nothing like she imagined it would be. Connecting with this picture was very easy for me because I could relate with the lead character. In fact, it somewhat scared me how alike we were and instead of watching it as a coming-of-age film, I saw it as a cautionary tale. We both love school and we do our best in pretty much everything we do but we can’t help craving the glamorous life. Questions like does staying in school and sacrificing the best years of our lives lead to a successful (and fun) future are in our minds so I was absolutely fascinated with her. Better yet, I was interested in the decisions she made when she essentially became addicted to the life of glamour. I think the film had surprising depth because the movie did not start off strong. I thought it was just going to be about an innocent girl’s affair with a man and she learning a hard lesson at end of the day. But it wasn’t. Though it was the backbone of the film, much of it was Mulligan’s relationship with her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), a teacher she looked up to but was often at odds with (Olivia Williams), and the headmistress who wanted the lead character to stay on her path (Emma Thompson). Though all of them were tough (and not always fair), they were adults who wanted what was best for the main character. It was also about the push and pull forces between living an exciting life and a boring life with books and friends who were not quite as precocious as her. I must say that Mulligan deserved her Best Actress nomination because I was impressed with how elegantly she portrayed her character as she navigated her way in and out of excitements and disappointments. She just had this effortless subtlety going on and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Though I have seen her in other movies, I’m curious with what she has to offer in the future now that I know what she’s really capable of. “An Education,” directed by Lone Scherfig and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, was a film that gathered momentum as it went on yet it didn’t get tangled up in its own complexities. It had a certain confidence, a certain swagger that was very ’60s and I felt like I was in that era.
Long Weekend (1978)
★ / ★★★★
“Nature Strikes Back” movies are interesting to me because it offers a different kind of horror. There’s no serial killer running around trying to kill half-naked teenagers and there’s no religious people trying to call an exorcist because of a demonic possession. Unfortunately, “Long Weekend” doesn’t impress on any level for several reasons. Most importantly, the couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) who go on a camping trip near the beach are very unlikeable. The first scene they shared, they couldn’t help but bicker. They bickered on the way to the beach. And they bickered at the beach when weird things started happening. Instead of teaming up and putting their differences aside, they actively chose to blame one another for the things that were going wrong. I got so tired of it to the point where I wanted to shake them and tell them to shut up because they were damaging my ear drums. I actually wanted nature to kill them off so that I could get some peace and quiet. I would have cared so much more about the characters (and rooted for them) if they took care of nature and appreciated its beauty, yet for some reason nature was out to get them. I’m not sure if Everett De Roche, the writer, and Colin Eggleston, the director, were trying to be serious or campy. Either way, they succeeded in neither because the acting, tone and storytelling were subpar. Now, movies about nature suddenly going crazy and going on crazy rampages could work. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is one of my favorites. But this one felt like there was no brain behind it all and the scares involving the animals attacking were downright laughable. (Advice: If the animal looks really fake, don’t go for close-ups.) Just when I thought it was about to be successful at building suspense (the creature hiding in the water as Hargreaves goes swimming was pretty effective), a character does something so stupid so I’m taken out of that precious moment of feeling concerned about what would happen next. As cautionary tales go, the lesson is very obvious: treat nature with respect. But as far as horror movies go, Australia’s “Long Weekend” was more like a very long movie I wished would end after the first thirty minutes.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rudo y Cursi” stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as brothers who started off as workers in a banana plantation and, with the help of a soccer scout (Guillermo Francella), eventually became Mexico’s soccer stars. One of the things I liked most about this movie was it allowed two very different characters to start off in the same level of happiness (or unhappiness). But when they finally achieved stardom, they were rarely on that same level and that caused tension, resentment, and bitterness which ate them inside out. But what’s even more impressive is that writer and director Carlos Cuarón painted the picture in a light-hearted manner with a real sadness in its core. It was easy for me to buy the fact that Bernal and Luna were very competitive brothers because of their lingering chemistry from “Y tu mamá también.” Although their characters genuinely loved one another, they forget that one time or another because they constantly got caught up in their own problems and inner demons. Such issues were commented on by the narrator who discussed things like the similarities and differences between a mother and a uniform, passion and talent, and the labyrinthine world of fame. The way their luck and fortunes fluctuated from golden fevers to pitiful desperation engaged me throughout. This is far from a typical sports film where a lead character goes through all kinds fo hardship in life and finally gets that big break. It’s really more about the dynamics between brothers who constantly had to build themselves up and could not help but compare themselves to each other in order to determine if they were good enough. (Which kind of works as a cautionary tale.) Carlos Cuarón’s debut film impresses on many levels which, admittedly, could have been a lot stronger if it had a better sense of pacing. I was just glad that it actually had a brain despite the sport.