PICKS OF THE WEEK
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (B)
U.S.: Rupert Wyatt, 2011, 20th Century Fox
I liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes very much -- even though it's obviously better directed (and acted) than it is written. The best of Rise is so damned wonderful, and the worst of it so damned silly, that it's sometimes hard to believe, as you watch it, that you're in the same movie you were in 10 minutes or so ago.
Still, the very best scenes -- usually ones involving Caesar the lead ape (as acted by Andy Serkis), with his piercing dark eyes and sometimes poignant, sometimes chilling quietude, a leader of the revolt that we know will eventually take over the planet -- are among the best scenes in any blockbuster of summer, 2011, or for several summers.
I liked so much that I'm willing to forgive or ignore that rushed ending, the underdone script, the sometimes silly plot twists. Movies after all, are a visual art as much as a dramatic one, and this movie has some visual miracles for us: The CGI that allows the moviemakers to create that army of apes, and most of all to the effects that let Serkis, in performance capture, help create that wonderful illusion of a chimp, Caesar. They're truly astonishing, immersing, often beautiful, and worth any ticket.
The film's scenes are sometimes moving too, especially the two- or three-cornered scenes with James Franco as pharmaceutical scientist Will Rodman, who's trying to develop an Alzheimer's vaccine or drug, and John Lithgow as Will's Alzheimer's-stricken father, pianist-teacher Charles, who can't play Bach any more (and then suddenly can), and with Caesar the chimpanzee, their secret house guest (rescued from an experiment gone wrong).
The Golden Gate Bridge standoff comes without enough buildup, but it's a stunning action scene, and the big stunt with the gorilla and the helicopter is a real rouser. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie, a very good movie at times. It's just not a great movie. (Extras: commentary by director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver; deleted scenes; featurettes; art gallery.)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (A)
Germany/France: Werner Herzog, 2011, MPI Home Video, Blu-ray/3D Blu-ray combo
The great German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), along with cinematographer Peter Zettlinger, was granted rare access to capture the cave paintings of Chauvet, France, with a 3D camera. His marvelous documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, will probably be seen by only a handful of the current audience for, say the Harry Potter movies or War Horse or Puss in Boots or the new 3D Star Wars. Yet it may prove the most valuable, and, one hopes, most lasting, of all the 3D films we've seen so far.
Friends with Benefits (C)
U.S.: Will Gluck, 2011, Screen Gems
Falling in love is such great movie material that it's a pity Hollywood screws it up so often, especially these days. Friends with Benefits is supposed to be smarter and funnier than the usual pseudo-romantic comedy of today, but it's really ust another rommie-commie with more (and faster) dialogue than usual, trying to be a romantic in new hip ways and stumbling -- although you can give it some credit for trying to go classic and stylish in the manner of the best Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn, or Cary Grant & Hepburn, or Jimmy Stewart & Jean Arthur shows, and still be sexy and candid and as packed with nudity and off-color jokes as the contemporary public supposedly expects. And you can even, if you're kind, recognize the box office insurance of employing a hookup pair like Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.
Timberlake (the famed rocker and boyish-looking orgiast of The Social Network) and Kunis (the wet dream of Black Swan) supposedly bring instant sex appeal with them, and they're type-cast as a couple, young, well-salaried, dazzlingly photogenic, full of cash and sex and witty one-liners -- and all the things moviemakers think audiences yearn to have and be. He's Dylan, an art director for a Los Angeles website. She's Jamie, a Manhattan-based headhunter who recruits Dylan to become the designer for GQ. Both of them are hell on wheels on wisecracks. They start trading quips before they even meet each other; the film opens with a smarty-pants little scene that juxtaposes two break-up dates, between Dylan and his son-to-be-ex, and between Jamie and hers, inter-cutting them so that, for a while, we think it's just one date between Dylan and Jamie. It's kind of a neat idea, but like most of the movie, too full of itself to go anywhere interesting -- except maybe to establish that Pretty Woman is regarded somewhere as a stylish classic.
Director Will Gluck and his writers, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, then send Dylan bustling off to New York City, to rendezvous with Jamie and get interviewed by GQ.
Soon our boy Dylan, who's already rejected one advance from Tommy, the gay GQ sports editor (Woody Harrelson, elocuting like a gay tobacco auctioneer), is settled down. He's in a way-over-swanky Manhattan movie apartment, and Jamie and Dylan are plopped in front of a TV screen watching a typical old romantic comedy. (It's a fake by director Gluck, starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, and they all seem to have forgotten that there's a com in rom-com.)
Dylan and Jamie crack wise about how silly the movie is, how silly all such movies are -- Scream-style -- and eventually they start up a liaison where they vow never to make all the mistakes movie couples make, but instead to have an affair strictly physical (not "strictly dickly" as Tommy cracks after giving up on hetero Dylan ) and not interrupted by the kind of messy conflicts that lead to messy breakups and messy romance bestsellers and messy movies.
If they'd watched a few more movies, messy or otherwise, they'd have found that this strategy has been tried before, in, for example, the recent Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher dud No Strings Attached -- and that it never, never works.
One of my biggest problems with Friends with Benefits, is that, for me, Timberlake and Kunis lacked -- and I hate to use the word -- chemistry. There's no or little underlying emotion in the Jamie-Dylan scenes, and that's exactly what they're ridiculing in the phony Jason-Rashida movie.