Tag Archives: James Franco

“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

The predator and the prey are one and the same.

It all started with the eyes.

Looking deeply into them, we see the angry, vicious, relentless energy behind them, as hungry as an animal and as wild as a beast. A somewhat appropriate description, because these are the eyes of the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), the intelligent primate we’ve come to know from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As we continue looking at his eyes, his steady, violent stare, we see his army of followers climbing on branches behind him.

He drops his hand, motioning them to attack.

After we see this powerful, expressive opening sequence, we are taken through this epic journey that is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human-primate condition from two different perspectives, as if they are two sides to one coin. The leader of the apes is Caesar, who now has his own family in his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The leader of a band of human survivors is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who also has his own family in Ellie (Keri Russel) and his teenage son Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Both of these band’s stories take place years after the virus attack that destroyed the most of humanity years ago, which we got a glimpse at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both sides have lost loved ones in the wake of the disaster. Both sides do not trust the other. Yet, as Caesar and Malcolm share close encounters with each other, they slowly begin to understand and see that their races are not so different from each other. As the human-primate war rages on, Caesar and Malcolm must combine their efforts to protect each of their families, and seek out peace between their established societies.

Remembering fondly of how I enjoyed seeing the ape empire’s beginnings and relishing in the context of human-animal abuse in Rise, I went into this movie knowing it had a strong foundation to build it’s story on, hoping that they wouldn’t fail. Not only did director Matt Reeves not fail in telling his story of Dawn; he expanded further upon the Planet of the Apes story in detail, action and commentary than I estimated him to. His film ended up being better than Rupert Wyatt’s film in spades.

Firstly, let’s talk about the similarities between each film. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the writing/producing team behind Rise, returns yet again to contribute to Dawn’s story and to the production of this film. In many ways, I argue that both are better in this film than they were in the last one.. The plot of the first movie was an involving, interesting and emotionally compelling sci-fi thriller, a story that showed the worst of humanity and their cruel mistreatment of animals. Here, this movie has a more of a political facet in its structure, a drama that shows each race as a mirror of the other. It shows a civil anarchy blooming in the heart of each race.

The characters are compelling and have genuine interactions with each other, from Caesar confronting Malcolm on staying away from their home, to intimate scenes when Alex interacts with Caesar’s new baby boy. What I liked so much, however, is director Matt Reeves details not only to these emotions, but the visual display of the story in itself.

Being no stranger to visual effects or emotions with a filmography including Cloverfield and Let Me In, Reeves is skillful in making an exciting action movie while at the same time making a involving apocalyptic thriller. It surprising with this film that the basis of the film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather, in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. It’s nice to see a big-budget blockbuster movie reaching for more intimate, personal situations, rather than the billion-dollar-sized explosions of garbage you’d see from the Transformers movies.

I do have a criticism in the movie in that the human characters were mostly boring. I have a rule of thumb that if I can’t remember a character’s name by the end of the movie, then that character is mostly forgettable. By the end of the film, I only remembered Malcolm’s name. I called Keri Russel’s character “Keri Russel” in the film while I labeled Smit-McPhee as a Jay Baruchel rip-off. I even looked at Gary Oldman’s character in the film and smirked in my head, “Well, hello there, Commissioner Gordon! Did you end up surviving the nuclear fallout in The Dark Knight Rises?”

What I realize though is that the humans aren’t supposed to be the main anchor of the film. The apes are center focus here, and this is really their story, figuring out their emotions, finding their identities, and realizing their faults as they look at human beings and see themselves deep within.

I think I realized this was a masterful film when it approached its final minutes, when we once again returned to the eyes of Caesar that we saw at the beginning of the movie. Only this time, they weren’t as aggressive as they were before. These were not the eyes of the predator, the hunter eagerly waiting to hunt his prey. No, these eyes were solemn and sad, as if they were looking at a bleak, grim future, one they were powerless to stop.

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“RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” Review (✫✫✫)

Hey, apes are people too. 

Be honest: how many of you were expecting this one to be good? I know I certainly didn’t. After seeing how poorly the earlier Planet of the Apes movies were faring (I’m looking at you, Tim Burton), here I was expecting another downtrodden experience that was trying to milk whatever it could left from the utters of its franchise. Why wouldn’t I expect that? The same thing has been done with the Jaws series alongside every conceivable Friday the 13th movie ever made. Believe me, I wasn’t expecting a good movie when I heard that this movie was called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It honestly felt more like it was falling to me.

Here, however, is the rare occasion where a prequel/reboot actually contributes to the franchise rather than taking away from it. Taking place years before the events of the very first Planet of the Apes film, Rise tells the story of Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who is developing a potential cure for alzheimer’s deep within his lab. After testing it on multiple chimpanzees and noticing an effect in increased intelligence, one of them goes berserk, attacks her caretakers, then is killed in self-defense. The scientists are ordered to terminate the project and kill any ape left within the vicinity.

It is during his routine inspection where he discovers a small baby chimp deep within the cell of the female ape that was killed earlier. Knowing that the baby would die if he remained there, Will took the little baby home and raised him as his own.

As the years progress, we notice that the baby chimp shares the same characteristics as his mother did when she was in the labs. Both of them displayed feats of great intelligence and memorization. Both developed abilities to read, write and comprehend speech. Both learned the skill of being able to do sign language. Most impressive was their ability to convey, understand and express emotions, almost like they’re human themselves. As the small chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis) grows out of his adolescence and into adult apehood, he begins to notice a darker side of humanity and plots a way to set himself and his fellow apes free from mankind’s grasp.

Here is a film that, by every definition, should not have been good. It had everything working against it. It’s the prequel to a film series that hasn’t had a good film since 1968. It’s the seventh film in a franchise that has long since lost its influence. And it’s centered around a main character who isn’t even human, an ape who, for more than half of the film, can’t even talk.

Believe me, I went into this film fully expecting to hate it. Turns out that it’s quite the opposite. Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates exactly what a hollywood blockbuster is supposed to be, a smart, involving and intelligently made film that is equal parts exciting as it is relevant. Director Rupert Wyatt, who made the 2008 film The Escapist prior to Rise, is careful and delicate with the pacing of his film. Starting off on a very dramatic and touching note, we go through what can mostly be seen as a science-fiction drama about the relationship between the guy who plays Harry Osborn and his little ape-friend, until all hell breaks loose and the beginning of the human-ape war spawns itself.

I exaggerate a little bit, but you get my point. There isn’t a lot of action in the movie, or at least, not as much as you’d expect it to be Instead, there are a lot of small, intimate moments where Caesar and Will’s beings clash into each other, either bonding in very genuine, heartfelt moments or rubbing off of each other as starkly as their conflicting races are. This is a dialogue-driven movie, with Will and Caesar each questioning the decisions they make and how they should should both respond as the result of it.

A lot of things don’t really blow up in the movie, to be honest. But when it does, ohhhh boy, is it exciting. My favorite scene in the movie had to be when Caesar and his primate army broke out of a preservation facility in new york and pierced their way right through the heart of the city, almost like it’s the American revolution and it’s George Washington leading the charge.

At the absolute heart of this film, however, is Caesar, portrayed here by actor Andy Serkis. If you don’t recognize the name, you don’t deserve to call yourself a cinephile. Serkis is most known for a slew of CGI performances, ranging from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Great as he was as Gollum, I’m tempted to say that this is his best performance yet. When you watch the film, notice the differences at how he carries himself as an ape and as a slightly-more evolved ape. In early scenes, he’s just walking around like a regular animal, with his elongated arms carrying himself as he “oohs” and “ahhs” while rubbing the back of his head. As the movie continues on, Caesar’s evolvement is apparent, and you notice his regular instinctual appearance has been replaced with a tall, stark, and grim figure, bleakfully looking on at a society that he has lost all faith in. Gollum was a character he concieved entirely from his own inspiration, while King Kong was one he concieved from studying the natural behavior of apes. He does both here with Caesar, and successfully portrays a character who is not just an ape, but a super ape, one who is evolving to something much more dangerous at an alarming and vengeful pace.

The only complaint I will issue with this movie is its ending, which is so melodramatic and sappy that it could have been used for an “Animal Planet” commercial. Why did they have to do this? Who says a movie needs to end on an optimistic note? Why do we need to have a happy ending? Who says we can’t end on a bleak, grim note, foreshadowing on a downtrodden spiral of war, doom and apocalypse? We all know that this can only end one way anyway. The franchise isn’t called “Planet of the Humans”, after all.

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“THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Don’t worry: it’s not “Spider-man 3.”

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the standard of a superhero movie that everyone should aspire to. It’s exciting, action-packed, gut-bustlingly hilarious and emotionally involving to a point where I was surprised at how personal and genuine it really was. “Amazing,” in fact, is not a good enough word to describe this movie — “Superior” is more like it.

Taking place after Curt Connors, aka The Lizard, attacked New York City, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) as he continues to adapt to his new life as the spectacular Spider-Man. He’s just about to graduate, he’s getting a job as a freelance photographer at the Daily Bugle and his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is going strong. Being Spider-Man has its perks and its downfalls, and this is a rare high point in Peter’s life.

Elsewhere, however, dark forces develop under Oscorp. Engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) gets electrocuted by bio-electric eels, transforming him into the chaotic villain known as Electro. Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) gets equipped with a fully armed mechanical suit, becoming the Rhino. And Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), an old friend of Peter’s, returns with a dark secret that he’s hiding from everyone.

That makes three villains in total for this sequel. Concerned? You should be. The last time we had three villains in a Spider-Man movie, that film was Spider-Man 3. I’m never going to get that image of Tobey Maguire doing the Elvis Presley-stride out of my head, ever. Does anyone have any hydrochloric acid I can pour into my eyes?

Well, you can rest easy, fellow web heads. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not Spider-Man 3. Quite the contrary, actually. This is a significantly better Spider-Man than its predecessor, a film that bounces in between multiple tones and genres all at once and does all of them brilliantly.

An early fight scene in the film, for instance, is as wacky and funny as a Looney Tunes cartoon, with Spidey struggling to grab all these plutonium canisters off of a moving truck like he’s in the middle of a pinball table. In another scene, he’s in the middle of an action sequence so exhilarating and mind-blowing that it could have come straight from a video game cut scene. In another moment, him and Gwen are dealing with a real emotional struggle neither quite know how to handle, something that has haunted Peter since the first movie.

That’s what makes this Spider-Man better from the other one: It has many tones, story lines, characters and emotions that it’s juggling all at once. That’s a weighty order, and not one to handle easily. Yet director Marc Webb handles the challenge excellently, delivering just as relevant a character drama as he does an exciting action movie.

The cast members have expert chemistry with each other, but that should be expected because of their exceptional performances in the first film. We already expect Garfield and Stone to be perfect with each other because they were nearly inseparable in the first round of the series. It’s more efficient, then, to focus on the newer cast members: Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan. 

Foxx is electric as the high-voltage villain, pun intended. At first he’s just a socially silly and awkward scientist, similar to Jim Carrey’s version of the Riddler in Batman Forever. When he goes through his transformation into Electro, however, everything changes. He becomes an angry and malicious supervillain, a man who is mad and frustrated at everything and just wants to kill everyone, then jump start their heart just so he can kill them again. DeHaan, especially, was desperate and conniving as Harry Osborn, a menacing and starkly different Harry than the James Franco version we are used to in the original trilogy.

Both of these villains serve a pivotal role to Peter’s development. Electro is the physical conflict Peter has to face in the movie; Harry is the emotional one.

There’s another concern comic book fans will have about this movie, and that is the same concern they have with Captain America: The Winter Soldier: We’ve already read the comics. We already know the twists that are coming up, and as a result, our reaction is dulled when that moment comes in the movie.

Let me make a reassuring statement for my fellow comic book lovers: I could see the twist in this movie come from a mile away. Yet when I saw it, I reacted as if I was witnessing Peter’s tragic story for the first time.

There are apparent concerns to have with this movie. The multiple story strands are worrisome, the overload of villains can be an issue and Max Dillion’s character is far too silly to fully accept as being realistic.

Does that change The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s influence, or for that matter, its effect on the audience? The answer is no, it does not. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is still a great sequel, an excellent expansion to the Spider-Man universe and a more-than-welcome development to Peter’s never-ending growth as Spider-Man. I’m tempted to compare it to the legendary Spider-Man 2, although I’m not sure if it’s quite there yet. One thing is for sure, however: it’s head-over-heels over Spider-Man 3. If Webb keeps this up, he just might surpass Sam Raimi’s original trilogy.

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“OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” Review (✫✫✫)

Follow the yellow brick road down the rabbit hole.  

I was five years old when I saw Victor Fleming’s The Wizard Of Oz for the first time in my life. I remember that exact moment like it was yesterday. My mother held me in her lap, our dog Sandy lay in mine, my father was laying on his couch sipping a cup coffee, and they would both tell me all the wonderful memories they have of watching that movie growing up. Those memories would eventually become mine as I now recount all of the joyous times I was transported to Oz every time I watched that fantasy classic. I would eventually go on to name that film as one of  best movies ever made.

Now here I am, 15 years later, recounting my memories of watching the original and am now watching its prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful”and judging it with the same fairness as I did with the original. My verdict? It’s a good prequel, but Oz fell a little too far down the rabbit hole if you know what I mean.

Preceding the events of the fantasy classic The Wizard Of Oz by whatever-something-amount-of-years, Oz: The Great and Powerful follows the story of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a struggling magician in a traveling circus who dreams of rising above mediocrity and amounting to greatness in the world.

Unfortunately, Diggs is also a crook and a womanizer. When he escapes a few enraged circus freaks by stealing a hot air balloon, he’s gets trapped in a whirling tornado that transports him to a place he’s never seen — Oz, the wonderful land of munchkins, emeralds and yellow brick roads. It is here where Diggs discovers he’s part of an ancient prophecy: that a wizard named after the land of Oz will descend onto the land, and free the people from the tyranny and evil of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Here is a movie that functions as an appropriate prequel, a good movie that actually fits into the magnificent story of The Wizard Of Oz  and makes it work within the established timeline. Co-Written by Tony award-winning writer David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote both his stage and screen adaptations of Rabbit Hole), the plot in Oz: The Great and Powerful can be defined in adjectives to the first movie: traditional. Imaginary. Creative. Dynamic. Classic. Every piece fits into this puzzle, and ultimately adds up to what is a straightforward prequel that provides background for the first movie, even if it wasn’t needed before.

The cast is strong here as well, with James Franco shining the most out of a cast list that consists mostly of women. Here he portrays a spirited man, a man full of charisma and humor that makes the screen vibrate with his very presence. Both his energy, his passion and his kindness is contagious with other characters, and the end result is a near-flawless chemistry with every character on-screen (with the exclusion of the Wicked Witch of the West, who I felt was severely miscast in this film. I dare not spoil it though by telling you who it is).

As a movie and as a prequel, this film succeeds. The plot is enjoyable, the cast is skilled in both vocal and physical performance and the visual effects reach out and dazzle you with its many bright colors and details that instantly transport you to a land of fantasy and wonder (Even though it is a little too resemblant of the art direction in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland).

The biggest problem with the film, however, is its balance. Director Sam Raimi (who is most known for the Evil Dead and Spider-man trilogies) is the visual effects master behind this film, but unfortunately, he depends too much on it. The most enjoyable moments of this film involved Oscar displaying his joy and humor through his energetic and witty dialogue with other characters, which was both affectionate and entertaining at the same time. Everything else was overdone, and at times Raimi depends on the visual aspect of his film as if its the only thing it has going for it.

The last 40 minutes of the film especially becomes so redundant and prolonged, dragging out a scene of conflict between the munchkins and the witches just to provide action and flashy effects. This part of the film doesn’t seem to have purpose or motivation in mind, and the reptition of visual effects and CGI eventually becomes dizzying and nauseating.

My recommendation: Don’t go into this movie expecting it to be the masterpiece that The Wizard Of Oz is. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment and inevitable failure. Instead, see Oz: The Great and Powerful for what it is: a charming, ambient and lively prequel to the original fantasy classic made 74 years after its original release. When looking through that perspective, the return to Oz couldn’t be more glorious, even though the yellow brick road now looks more like a green screen rather than a stage set.

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