Posts Tagged ‘andy serkis’

Let’s be honest — as was the case with last year’s Wonder Woman (in fact probably to an even greater degree), Black Panther was a cultural phenomenon before it was even released, and in future it will be examined as such. As something more than a movie. As something that resonated within, and reverberated throughout, the zeitgeist. Its trajectory in that regard is largely unwritten to this point, but can be predicted with a fair amount of certainty : near-universal praise will come first, followed by the inevitable backlash, followed by an almost apologetic, “ya know, maybe we were too hard on this thing that we loved at first” sort of acceptance. If we could just skip all that, and take it as a given, it would save us all a lot of time and effort — but it’s on the way, so tune in or out of all that as you see fit. My concerns here are considerably more prosaic : to talk about the movie as what it began “life” as, to wit — “just” a movie.

For what it’s worth (which may not be much), I’m tempted to agree, to an extent, with those who are pointing out that simply seeing this flick is in no way an act of “resistance” in and of itself : after all, if the fact that the first thing that runs in theaters before the film starts is a commercial for Lexus cars featuring Chadwick Boseman in full Panther gear isn’t enough to clue you in to the reality that, at the end of the day, this is much more about profits than it is about politics, then the product placement within the film itself should do the job — and at the end of the day, one of the largest corporations in the world, founded by noted racist Walt Disney, is still the one making all the money off it. If, then, shelling out ten or fifteen bucks to watch Black Panther is an inherently defiant or dissident act (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s a highly commodified and co-opted one.

All that being said, when a film is released out into the world, particularly a film with as much fanfare attached to it as this one, there are gonna be ripples that emanate out from it — and among the millions of kids, in particular, who watch this flick, the seeds of an interest in African culture are sure to be sown, and the more they follow the metaphorical stalks that grow and flower from those seeds, the more they’ll discover things like historical resistance to colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, and the like. So while Black Panther may not be a radical (or even a particularly political) work in and of itself, it may inspire some radicalism in the future — one can only hope, at any rate.

But that’s pure speculation at this point, so let’s talk about what we know for certain.

One thing anyone who follows this site, or my work anywhere else, absolutely knows is that I’m no fan of Marvel Studios product in general. Unlike, apparently, most people, I find the overwhelming majority of Marvel flicks to be hopelessly redundant, formulaic, lowest-common denominator fare directed in a flat and lifeless “house style” with no particular visual flair, no particularly standout performances, no particular vision to do anything but get audiences keyed up for the next one. They exist as a self-perpetuating celluloid organism, one with no distinct personality but a lot of business sense and promotional muscle. This has been going on for so long, and with so much box office success, that I went into flick essentially expecting more of the same — sure, I knew it had a predominantly-black cast, and was set in Africa (albeit in a fictitious country), but that doesn’t mean that director Ryan Coogler was going to break the mold in any appreciable way. Hell, it doesn’t even mean that he would be allowed to do so. Happily, my pessimism was turned on its ear almost from word the word “go” here.

Black Panther looks different, feels different, because it is different. Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole certainly capture the dynamism, the energy, the Afro-futurism that has been a part of King T’Challa’s backstory since Jack Kirby created the character and his world (nope, we don’t lay any credit at Stan Lee’s feet around these parts, but I’m not getting into the “whys and wherefores” of that right now because, shit, I don’t have all night), but advance it all considerably, absorbing the extra layers added onto the mythos by the likes of Don McGrregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates over the years, and coming out with something uniquely suited to cinema and very much of the “now.” There’s a hard-driving and kinetic sense of energy to this film that the so-called “MCU” has been missing since it inception, and if you’re among the small number of those who agree with my assessment that most of these flicks play out more like two-hour TV episodes than proper movies, you can relax : this is as bold, brash, and big as it gets. This is blockbuster fare not only in name, but in execution, with visual effects that amaze, sets that inspire awe, cinematography that commands attention, action that sizzles, a script that charges forward, and music that slicks that trajectory along. This is arresting cinema that doesn’t even give you the option to leave your seat.

But what of the acting, you ask? It ranges from good to great, and thankfully the great includes the key players : Chadwick Boseman is regal yet human, fallible, relatable in the film’s central role: Forest Whitaker embodies aged wisdom tinged with regret as high priest Zuri; Michael B. Jordan is the first truly formidable villain, crucially one with a compelling backstory and some entirely valid philosophical viewpoints, as Killmonger; Martin Freeman not only reprises, but considerably expands, his already-extant “MCU” role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross with heart, humor, and brains; Sterling K. Brown makes the most of limited but significant screen time as T’Challa’s late uncle, N’Jobu; Andy Serkis — as a human this time! — chews up the screen with dangerous charm as Ulysses Klaue (or “Klaw,” as the comics would have it). These guys are all tops, really. And yet —

It is the women that carry this film. Whether we’re talking about Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, a determined, fiercely independent, and soulful force that isn’t just her partner’s “equal,” but his conscience; Danai Gurira as General Okoye, head warrioress of the Dora Milaje, who embodies martial discipline and loyalty with the controlled fury of a hurricane ready to strike at any moment; Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda, a living embodiment of grace, stature, and tradition; or Letitia Wright as younger sister Shuri, part “Q” to T’Challa’s “Bond,” part grounding and humanizing influence, part Moon Girl-style intellectual prodigy — as in life, it is the women that both make this movie’s men what they are, while also being complete and fully-realized in and of themselves. African history is far less patriarchal than is commonly believed, and in Wakanda that proud matriarchal lineage is exemplified, modernized, magnified — and honored.

Most films reflect the moment. Others define the moment. Black Panther goes one further by creating the moment. It’s as near to flawless as big-budget blockbusters get and eschews the too-common-flaw that movies made on this scale have of dumbing things down to appeal to the masses. Coogler and company instead trust those same masses to be intelligent enough to meet them on their level, and to respond to being talked “up,” rather than “down,” to. By believing that the world was not just ready, but eager, for something that goes far beyond mere spectacle — something that challenges the intellect while speaking to the heart — they have woken what could very well be a sleeping giant.

Now, let’s just keep our fingers crossed they’ve spurred that giant to do something more than simply go out and buy luxury cars.

It’s always a dicey proposition when you’re reviewing a new Star Wars flick. One way or another, you almost can’t win — I recall, for instance, my lukewarm review of Star Wars : The Force Awakens being met with a comment stating, I shit you not, that “I agree with all your criticisms, but you should have given it a positive review anyway.” When I asked, naturally, why the hell my review should have been more sunny even though all my criticisms were legit, said individual responded, I assume with a straight face, something to the effect of “well, it’s more difficult to write a positive review than a negative one, so you should challenge yourself more.”

If I had any sense, I would have just walked away at that point, perhaps with a quip like “it’s only ‘more difficult’ to write a positive review of a film when said film sucks,” but instead I pressed further, insisting that it takes no more effort to write a glowing review than it does to write a pissy one, which is obviously and inarguably true, and was met with a (very) poor man’s bit of philosophy about life in general, my internet sparring partner insisting that “it’s hard work to be positive about anything, and way too easy to be negative.” Uhhhmmm — okay, if you say so.

For the record, I am not “down on” life. Hell, I wasn’t even that “down on” The Force Awakens. I just thought it was a mediocre re-tread of shit we’d seen done earlier, and better. What was painfully obvious, not just in retrospect but at the time, was that this particular commenter knew that’s all the flick amounted to, as well, but he liked it anyway, and was bent out of shape that I was both decidedly more cool on it than he was, and was able to articulate in fairly cogent terms why the overflowing love it was getting at the time really didn’t make much sense.

Well, that was two years ago, and when the hype died down, sure enough, my opinion at the time rather solidified into something like the overall consensus view. The Force Awakens hit a number of nostalgic notes, it made people feel the right way, but it certainly didn’t break any new ground, and basically amounted to a couple hours of fan service. Clearly, then, it would be left to the second chapter of the new trilogy to actually move things forward in any kind of significant way.

As early reviews for writer/director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars : The Last Jedi first trickled, then flowed, in, I was feeling reasonably good about its prospects to do just that : critics seemed to like it, while hard-core fans seemed to hate it. Pretty good sign right there that the amount of “fan-wank” in this was going to be minimal. It even seemed like Johnson was taking some risks here, and let’s face it, when you move forward, you’re going to necessarily leave plenty of overly-protective sorts behind. Maybe now that the Star Wars “greatest hits” reel was out of the way, we could get down to business.

And to an extent, Johnson does exactly that. Picking up essentially right where the last film left off, we see the so-called “Resistance, ” Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron in particular, scoring a pyrrhic victory against the “Empire-Lite” that is the newly-labeled “First Order,” only to find their space armada surrounded and running low on fuel while, concurrently with all this, Daisy Ridley’s Rey attempts to lure the reclusive Luke Skywalker (played by an older, but no less wooden and whiny, Mark Hamill) out of retirement to come save the galaxy from Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis, who joins Frank Oz, Lupita Nyong’o and, after a fashion, Carrie Fisher, as CGI “cast members”) and his now-apprentice — and Luke’s former trainee — Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Those two plotlines take up most of the flick, and certainly Rey’s eventual training (no big surprise, but she’s the titular last Jedi, not Luke) in the ways of The Force is loaded with any number of call-backs to the Luke/Yoda scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, but beyond that, yeah, the “nostalgia factor” here is kept to a welcome minimum. A third major story strand involving John Boyega’s Finn and new sidekick/potential love interest Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempting to locate, and then secure the services of, a supposed “master code breaker” in order to disable an Imperial — sorry, First Order — blockade is a bit hackneyed on the whole and too dependent on a series of lucky coincidences to be overly interesting, but I’m willing, probably just because it’s the holiday season, to give Johnson props for trying with that one, even if it’s one big “twist” moment amounts to audiences saying to themselves “hey, whaddya know, I never thought I’d see Benicio Del Toro in a Star Wars movie.”

Surprise casting moves seem to be a running theme of The Last Jedi in a more general sense, though, too, truth be told, and since we’re on that subject Laura Dern should get some credit for her turn as Vice Admiral Holdo, who takes over the Reb — goddammit, I’m doing it again — Resistance fleet when Fisher’s Princess/General Leia is incapacitated for a good chunk of the runtime. In fact, of all the various competing subplots, the one she features in prominently is probably the most effective, as her motives — and, by extension, those of the Resistance leadership itself — come into question, throwing some shades of grey into what’s usually a fairly black-and-white Star Wars cinematic “universe.” Things work out alright in the end, of course — they always do in these movies — but at least there’s some genuine intrigue and tension along the way.

Speaking of ends, though, that’s where most of the trouble here comes in. Johnson has, by my count, two “red herring” endings that he toys with until we get to the actual big finale, and by then you’re sort of ready for the thing to be over. The conclusion, when it arrives, is every bit as spectacular as it needs/is expected to be, but there’s definitely a sense that it’s past due. So, yeah, if you’re getting the idea that this film’s third act is more than a bit herky-jerky, you’re absolutely right.

Probably the biggest knock against The Last Jedi, though, is one that plagued The Force Awakens, as well : simply put, this First Order outfit just never seems like an “A-list” threat. Kylo Ren is an even more unstable basket case in this flick than he was last time (ditching the mask only accentuates his status as a lame bad guy), “Boy General” Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is about as intimidating as a frat boy incensed at getting to the liquor store ten minutes after closing time and banging on the door to get in, and when Lord Snoke is finally removed from the equation, these guys are even more decisively “Bush League” than they were before. We all know the Resistance is going to win the day in the final act of this trilogy (which will no doubt be J.J. Abrams doing an updated take on Return Of The Jedi), but damn, with this Keystone Kops crew as their adversaries, the outcome is never even momentarily in doubt.

Still, for all that, The Last Jedi has more on the “plus” side side of its ledger than the “minus.” It establishes Rey as the powerful central protagonist she needs to be, it actually gives Poe Dameron plenty to do, and Finn and Rose make a good team. In short, it’s far more concerned with the characters we’re supposed to care about now rather than those we cared about a quarter-century (or more) ago — even if Hamill gets top billing in the credits.  It steps out of the long shadow cast by the franchise’s past (hell, it’s unafraid to poke fun at its own mythology, although some of the humor comes off as a little bit forced on occasion), even if it does so in a wobbly and uneven manner, and makes a statement (albeit, again, a shaky one) about where the series is in the here and now, rather than taking all of its cues from the past.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I hope my quasi-antagonist from a couple years back reads this review, since my final verdict should be right up his alley : Star Wars : The Last Jedi has a lot of problems — some of them pretty large — but you know what? I liked it anyway.

So, this is it — the end of the quietest, most underappreciated trilogy to come out of the Hollywood blockbuster machine in who-knows-how-long has arrived, and to make a long story short : it doesn’t disappoint. Not in the least. In fact, it exceeds even the loftiest of expectations.

So that’s me giving away the plot a bit early, I guess, but hey, if you’re still reading this, chances are you were every bit as fond of this series as I was, and for long-time fans of the franchise, not only did it rinse the taste of Tim Burton’s doomed-from-jump relaunch from our collective palette once and for all, it went considerably further by re-imagining the premise in a bold and entirely believable new way, delivering compelling performances, and making better use of CGI than — shit, anything ever, I don’t hesitate to say. It really has been “all that,” hasn’t it?

What makes the 21-st century iteration of one of sci-fi’s most beloved properties stand out hairy-head-and-shoulders above its competitors in the mega-budget popcorn movie game, though, is its entirely magnificent characters, specifically Andy Serkis’ Caesar. He’s really been the heart and soul of these films all the way through, and in War For The Planet Of The Apes, it’s his show all the way. No offensive intended to the likes of Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, and Toby Kebbell, who all knock it out of the metaphorical park as Bad Ape, Maurice, and Koba, respectively, but as much as this series has been about a world in transition (to say the least), it’s also been about Caesar’s own highly personal journey, and while I’m a little bit choked up at seeing said journey come to an end, director Matt Reeves does his star simian justice and gives him a highly emotional send-off rife with moral, emotional, and physical conflict that caps off by — well, shit, that would be telling, but to say Caesar’s final fate is equal parts heroic, intimate, and entirely in keeping with his arc sums things up pretty nicely, in my view.

New human characters make their mark, as well — Amiah Miller’s Nova transcends the typical “little girl lost” stereotype in her heart-rendingly sympathetic role and Woody Harrelson radiates the menace that can only come from a man already shattered beyond repair and with literally nothing left to lose as The Colonel, but again, for all this greatness — and make no mistake, these actors are indeed great, as are the fully-fleshed-out characters they’re portraying — it still, at the end of the day, all comes back to Caesar.

And maybe Maurice, too. Come on — who doesn’t love Maurice? Who isn’t going to miss Maurice? Who doesn’t wish they could grab Maurice right off the screen and take him home to watch over their kids?

Okay, none of us can have Maurice. But intelligent drama, thick-as-L.A.-smog tension, hair-raising action, amazing scenery and shot composition, and complex philosophical questions are surely not too much to ask for, and War For The Planet Of The Apes offers all that in such generous supply that fans could almost be forgiven for thinking the studio was giving them a gift here — until you remember that you’re the one paying them twelve bucks or whatever to see it.

Not that I’m complaining mind you — this flick, as with its two predecessors, is worth every dime and then some to see on the big screen, as it’s epic stuff all the way. Reeves and his co-screenwriter, Mark Bomback, manage to hit precisely the right notes at precisely the right times with such skill that one could almost be forgiven for thinking they make it look easy, even though the logistics of a production on this scale are anything but. There’s a mind-boggling amount of genuine artistry at work here, and no director since Spielberg’s heyday has managed to make the multi-million-dollar spectacle feel as personal as Reeves does. Everything about this climactic final battle for the future of planet Earth is dripping with the sort of import that screams “this is it!!!!!!!!!,” but it never falls prey to the emotionally distant, bombastic trappings that ensnare most “epic event” cinema. This is everything you wanted — maybe even needed — the final chapter of the Apes saga to be, and I’m honestly hard-pressed to remember the last time a franchise has taken the time to say “thank you” to its audience in so heartfelt and earnest a manner.

So, yeah — see War For The Planet Of The Apes. Or see it again, as the case may be. Then tell me there’s no such thing as “movie magic” anymore.

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The late 1960s/early 1970s were a tumultuous time for the “Big Two” comics publishers — with Jack Kirby having taken his creative genius back over to DC, then-Marvel head honcho Stan Lee quickly decided that putting his name on other peoples’ work was too much hassle for him to bother with, and so turned the reigns of the future billion-dollar business over to the youthful Roy Thomas, who had first come to the Smilin’ One’s attention for running the ahead-of-its-time Alter Ego fanzine. Thomas was eager to do any number of things at the self-described “House Of Ideas,” but rocking the boat wasn’t one of them. Having grown up on the Kirby/Ditko/Everett/Wood/Burgos/Heck/Trimpe/Lee brand of super-heroics, his primary concern, creatively speaking, was to keep on serving up more of the same to an eager public, and to that end, his first wave of hires came largely from the same fandom ranks that he had once lorded over himself — names like Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and others that would come to dominate Marvel credit boxes in the ’70s were all examples of “fan creators” whose literary and artistic tastes — and ambitions — were shaped by the groundbreaking innovators who had preceded them.

Meanwhile, over at DC, Kirby may have been busy churning out an impressive, even mind-boggling, array of iconic characters and worlds (many of which would be “borrowed” by one George Lucas as the building blocks of the franchise we’re here to talk about today), but the rest of the company’s let’s-not-call-it-a-bullpen was populated with the likes of Len Wein, Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman,  even a 13-year-old named Jim Shooter who would later succeed Thomas as top dog at DC’s cross-town rival — and like Marvel’s “young turks,” these fresh-at-the-time faces were all “graduates” of comic book fandom, brought in when the seasoned pulp pros who made up the company’s earlier freelancer ranks, men like Gardner Fox and John Broome, were summarily fired by management for having the audacity to try to form a union and push for radical things like health insurance and retirement benefits.

It’s a situation that persists, as you’ve no doubt guessed, to this day, with skilled, “overpaid” veteran hands being replaced on books whenever they ask for a raise by 19-year-olds fresh out of mom and dad’s house who only a few weeks earlier passed their art portfolios or spec scripts across convention tables from their clammy, sweaty, trembling hands into the ever-eager paws of DC and Marvel editors always on the lookout for cheap, easily-exploited talent. The end result? A half-century of hopelessly derivative storytelling punctuated only occasionally by the arrival, and usually-quick departure, of visionary talents who really do want to expand the medium’s boundaries, only to find their work drowned under and endless sea of “updated” Spider-Man vs. Doctor Doom battles.

Comics, though, are only the most glaring and obvious example of what happens to entertainment media when former fans are put in charge : it’s happening in movies and TV, too, and there is perhaps no better witness for this particular prosecution than J.J. Abrams, who, having cut his teeth on prime-time fare such as Alias and Lost, was soon handed the keys to one of Hollywood’s most dependable cash cows, Star Trek, and, having proven his bank-ability there, found himself approached by Marvel’s semi-new corporate parent, Disney, to revive George Lucas’ Star Wars juggernaut when Lucas sold out for a reported $4 billion and headed off into the sunset.

A perhaps-intimidated Abrams said no at first, but when no other names leaped to the forefront, The Mouse came calling again — apparently with even more money in its bag — and the rest, of course, is history. Which brings us, finally, to episode VII of the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens.

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Certainly there’s nothing on offer here that would offend long-time fans in the way that Lucas’ reviled prequel trilogy did, and while I found myself smiling more often than not as I watched the film, it only took all of about five minutes’ reflection afterwards for me to wonder if Abrams’ note-for-note fealty might not be its own kind of insidious trap — and one that bears a strong correlation to the situation at Marvel and DC I discussed just moments ago. There’s no doubt that studio edicts determined a lot of the content for Star Wars : The Force Awakens (I don’t think, for example, that it’s any coincidence that the first image we saw in the first trailer for the film was a highly-marketable robot that looks like a fucking soccer ball), but I don’t sense any real director-vs.-his bosses tension here, either. I’m sure that the film Abrams wanted to make is the one that got made (having veteran hand Lawrence Kasdan on board to co-write the script virtually guarantees smooth continuity anyway), it’s just that his vision for Star Wars is no different than what the bean counters want : a two-hour toy commercial peppered with just the right character arcs and plot beats to satisfy life-long fans and to silence (most, anyway) critics. By and large it works — but even under the full-throttle onslaught of  fan-wank, some glaring weaknesses are obvious, so I might as well delve into those right now, with a commensurate “mild spoilers ahead” warning attached.

For one thing, the intergalactic politics of The Force Awakens make no sens whatsoever. The one-time Rebels appear to have won the day, with the former Empire in retreat, but even so, a rump that apparently can’t get fighting out of its system known as the Resistance endures — presumably to “resist” both the very same government they’ve created, as well as the remnants of the fascist/Dark Side apparatus that have re-grouped as the First Order. Except then we find out that the new Republic in in league with the Resistance, and so appears to be supporting, if not even funding, its own opposition under the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” since neither group is particularly fond of the First Order. There’s reason for both to fear the FO, of course, given that they’ve perfected some new super-weapon that’s much larger and more powerful than the dreaded Death Star — but the movie is almost 3/4 over when we find that out, given that Abrams and company have taken some mighty side-steps from their supposedly “main” narrative that introduces new characters like Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in order to re-introduce familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Pricess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and, eventually, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Don’t get me wrong — I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy and want to know what happened to all these folks as much as anyone, but to sacrifice valuable screen-time that could be utilized to establish a new mythology just to put some purportedly- finishing touches on the old strikes me as a colossal missed opportunity.

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Speaking of which — giving the great Max von Sydow a grand total of five minutes (more than enough time for an actor of his stature to create a memorable character) to make one appearance before getting killed definitely qualifies as just that, as does relegating the immensely talented Lupita Nyong’o to voice-over work for a CGI stand-in. We expect that sort of treatment for Andy Serkis (and he gets it as the First Order’s new Emperor Palpatine stand-in), but one of the most promising new talents of her generation surely deserves better.

As does Oscar Isaac, frankly, who admittedly struggles mightily as “the new Han Solo,” but should have been given a chance to actually develop his character a bit more before disappearing altogether until the film’s final act. And while Ridley and Boyega — especially Ridley — come up big in their roles and show themselves as being more than capable of carrying a film, Abrams’ hard lean on the nostalgia button insures that they’re given no opportunity to do so.

On the bad guy front, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a character hemmed in by his director’s overly-reverent take on the original trilogy, as well. Appearing at first to be a somewhat lackluster Darth Vader redux, his backstory is fleshed out all too quickly (and all too awkwardly, as the “infodump” conversation between his parents veers into “painfully stilted” territory), and his big confrontation with his father? Well, it plays out more or less exactly as you’d guess it would. It also doesn’t help that Driver himself lacks the acting chops to convincingly sell you on his character’s supposed “emotional conflict.”

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And yet, for all that — not to mention the crass, overblown commercialization attendant with any Star Wars film that’s blown entirely out of all sense of proportion thanks to the franchise’s new corporate overlords — I still can’t bring myself to actively dislike The Force Awakens. The movie wrapped me with a warm, nostalgic glow for about two hours and, pathetic as it sounds (and no doubt is), I felt like a kid again for a little while — and living as we do in a time when there’s very real talk of us walling off  our borders, deporting Mexicans en masse, forcing Muslims to carry special passes and forbidding them to enter the country, and invading one Middle Eastern nation after another for with the explicit aim of stealing their oil, anything that harkens back to a simpler, kinder, saner time is worth something.

But I could have gotten the exact same feeling watching any of the three original Star Wars films, and therein lies The Force Awakens‘ greatest failing : by being so deferential to the Lucas/Kirshner/Marquand trilogy, J.J. Abrams hasn’t given us much by way of a compelling reason to care about his new one.

 

As far as summer blockbusters go, this film probably represents the tail end of Hollywood’s output for 2011 (late August tends to be post-blockbuster season and sees the beginning of the fall horror-movie-release craze), and what do you know, they really did save the best for last.

I suppose more superlatives are hardly in order at this point for Rupert Wyatt’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a film that breathes a limitless amount of new life into a franchise that audiences and critics alike had given up fro dead after Tim Burton’s crack at it in 2001. But here’s where irony comes into play — while Burton’s film is remembered at this point as more or less and absolute bust, it was actually pretty decently-received by folks at the time, and made an absolute boatload of money. Creatively, though, it felt like something of a dead-end — more a tribute to a once-great series than a springboard for its future. And so, while this latest revamp/rethink probably won’t make anywhere near the money of the 2001 flick (and its budget was somewhat smaller as well), it does in fact provide plenty in terms of a “where do we go from here?” factor, and its more-than-respectable performance at the box office pretty much ensure that there will, in fact, be a “fom here” for us to “go” to, if you catch my drift.

As far as prequels/re-imaginings go, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have hit on something of a genius idea to form the core of this one — rather than set things in the far-flung, postapocalyptic future, we’re looking at the present day here, and it’s man’s hubris, desperation, and greed that provide the springboard for the rise of intelligent apes rather than nuclear annihilation. Biochemist Will Rodman (James Franco) just wants to create a drug that will cure Alzheimer’s so he can help his father who is struggling with the disease (John Lithgow) get his life back. Ruthless big pharma tycoon Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) just wants to make a boatload of money. Will’s lady-love, Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto) just ants to see that the ape, Caesar, that they’ve injected with Will’s new brain-boosting serum is cared for. And once Caesar gets an understanding of what he’s capable of, and how rotten us human are, he just wants some other apes to get smart like him so he can have some company and they can find some sort of way to fit into the world.

It’ll all end in a massive ape attack on San Francisco, of course, but really revenge isn’t even on Caesar’s radar screen until he and his fellow apes are tortured and abused at the hands of John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sons at the sadistic “animal shelter” they run. And even as he readies his newly-intelligent ape army for conquest, Caesar maintains an amazing degree of love for Will, whose relationship with his super-ape is at the core of this film.

And speaking of Caesar — well, the combination of actor Andy Serkis (of Lord Of The Rings fame) and the WETA digital effects team are the real star of the show here, aren’t they? Once again, as he did when bringing Smeagol to life in Peter Jackson’s epic, it’s Serkis’ expressive face that’s called upon to do all the heavy lifting here, while the WETA folks extrapolate his cranial emoting onto the digital template that becomes the most “realistic” digital ape in movie history. I’m not sure what category you’d put his performance here into, but if Hollywood can figure out a way to nominate Zoe Saldana for her work as a digital stand-in on Avatar for an Oscar, they should do the same for Serkis here. Caesar will by turns capture and break the heart of even the most confirmed cynic (like yours truly). Granted, all the actors here turn in solid performances (Lithgow in particular deserves special recognition for his work), this movie really is Caesar’s story all the way, and its success completely hinges on Serkis and WTA. to say they deliver in spades is an understatement of the highest order of magnitude.

My last piece of admittedly-effusive praise goes once again to the screenwriters — it’s not until the very end that they deliver their most solid punch as far as genius-premise-work goes, when they reveal that the very same drug that gives the apes intelligence spreads a plague that wipes out most of humanity. So while the lingering question for folks familiar with the original film series throughout is one of “okay, it”s obvious enough how the apes are gonna get smart here, but how do we get pushed out of the way?,” the answer turns out to be right there in front of us all along. Clever as shit stuff that is, my friends.

People are calling Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes  “the thinking person’s blockbuster” for good reason. This is intelligent, morally challenging, highly imaginative, wonderfully-executed storytelling. It’s affecting, involving, entertaining, and thought-provoking stuff that engages the mind and the heart, and it’s the best thing to come out of the Hollywood blockbuster machine in at least a decade. If you’ve seen it already, go see it again, and if you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for?

Just when you — and, yes, I — think movie magic is probably well and truly dead and buried, along comes a flick like this to prove it’s still there, just forced into unwanted hibernation by Hollywood’s insistence on gutless lowest-common-denominator-appealing crap at all costs. If anything, let’s hope the lesson the studios learn from the success of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is that they can stop selling the intelligence of their collective audience short and deliver us some truly remarkable product and still make a ton of money in the process. We’re talking with our dollars, and the message that this movie’s success is delivering is loud and clear — now we’ll just have to sit back and wait to see if Hollywood is listening.