Thursday, August 11, 2011

[Short] Review(s): "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "The Help," "The Devil's Double," & "30 Minutes or Less"

Rise of the Planet of the Apes dir. Rupert Wyatt: You'd think that a franchise like Planet of the Apes was long past its expiration date. Despite the original's status as something of a science fiction classic, the subsequent films seemed all-too-eager to jump down the rabbit hole into absurdity. If ever there was a series that needed to be retired from the silver screen (aside from Transformers), it was this one, right? Well, not exactly. The latest entry, a prequel/origin story, takes audiences back to where it all began, with surprisingly successful results.

Opening with a PETA approved scene that demonstrates the EVIL nature of man, we follow a captured primate who is taken to GenSys, an American drug company currently on the threshold of a cure for Alzheimer's. Here we get a rather cliched set up, involving two different men in the company. Will (James Franco) wants the cure to go through for science/humanity, while Steven (David Oyelowo), wants it to succeed for the money (guess which one gets his comeuppance by the time the film's 105 minute run time is up).

But even though there are plenty of obvious elements in the latest Apes flick, Rise does manage to create a mildly compelling story, never letting itself be overburdened by its we-know-where-this-is-going plot. The human characters may be plain, but thankfully, the film has a secret weapon: the ape Caesar, motion-captured/played by Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings fame. The more that Rupert Wyatt's film focuses on Caesar, the stronger the story becomes. The ape's interactions may be near-wordless, but they resonate on deeper level, thanks to Serkis' excellent work and the outstanding visual effects work. In an age where so many movies are sunk by their over-reliance on VFX, Rise may be that rare film that benefits (and is saved by) the strength of its computer-captured/generated imagery.

Grade: B-

The Help
dir. Tate Taylor:
While this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-seller may lack in terms of subtlety, it is, at its core, an effective piece of social-change cinema. Led by Emma Stone, the ensemble is filled with any number of strong performances from Viola Davis (the film's MVP), Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Sissy Spacek.

So even though it runs quite long, and resorts to quite a bit of 'telling,' the film does hit home in the right places, even though it takes longer than expected for the main plot to kick into gear. The Help may indeed be schmaltz at its core, but it never feels like it. There's no overbearing, sappy score or soundtrack, nor are there an overabundance of melodramatic scenes (it's actually laugh-out-loud funny in many places). And with such a talented ensemble to lead you through the story, smaller elements of the plot (like Stone's budding relationship with an oil rig worker played by Chris Lowell) don't seem like too much of a nuisance, even when they appear and then vanish from the rest of the film.

But perhaps its greatest strength may be that, while it's full of hopeful and uplifting moments of personal triumph, The Help never tries to overextend itself. The film's final scene, which took me by surprised when the credits started to roll, certainly holds the promise of tomorrow, but only after one character is confronted with a bitter dose of revenge courtesy of the story's antagonist. By keeping this balance in place, and by not pretending that its characters accomplished more than they did for the Civil Rights movement (it is a work of fiction, after all), The Help is able to simultaneously inform and entertain without shooting itself in the foot.

Grade: B

The Devil's Double
dir. Lee Tamahori:
It's not every day that an actor is given a chance to play dual roles on screen, so the opportunity has to be taken seriously (see: Nicholas Cage in Adaptation, Sam Rockwell in Moon, etc...). Now it's Dominic Cooper's (Mamma Mia!, An Education) turn to play the double game, in the form of Uday Hussein, and Latif Yahia, the man forced to become his double. But even though his efforts in the two roles (he's on screen as one or the other for almost the entire run time) are admirable, he's undermined by a script that isn't quite on the same level.

Latif's (admittedly incredible) story may be true, but director Lee Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas seem more concerned with turning it into a modern day, Arabic Scarface (albeit with significantly less crazed shouting). In doing so, they've made the film consistently entertaining. The unfortunate by-product is that it renders the story a surface-only historical thriller. Cooper is certainly giving it his all as the increasingly frightening Uday, the trapped Latif, and as Latif pretending to be Uday. In many scenes the characters share the screen, and Cooper plays off of himself quite well. But despite his efforts, he can't quite overcome the shallow writing. Cooper is rarely given much to work with other than "be wary and uncertain," and "be a murdering/raping pyscho"; the roles are played well, yes, but there's absolutely no depth for Cooper to work with as an actor.

This is not to say that the film doesn't tell a compelling story. That much it accomplishes. The problem is, especially considering the story's real-life origins, that The Devil's Double never makes any attempt to go deeper with the material at hand. Thomas' script plays it safe, and keeps the story simple, never raising any larger questions outside of "what comes next for Latif?" So even though Cooper may be working his hardest, The Devil's Double winds up being something of a missed opportunity, as enjoyable as it is.

Grade: B-

30 Minutes or Less dir. Ruben Fleischer: The idea of Jesse Eisenberg reteaming with Ruben Fleischer was definitely appealing on paper. The pair first worked together on Zombieland, one of the great hidden gems of 2009. Sadly, lightning hasn't struck twice for these two. 30 Minutes or Less isn't a terrible movie, but it is vastly inferior to the duo's last collaboration, and barely even memorable.

Based loosely on real events, the film centers around Nick (Eisenberg) a slacker pizza delivery boy who gets roped into a scheme by two idiot criminals (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson). With a bomb strapped to his chest, Nick is given nine hours to rob a bank, lest he be blown to smithereens by his captors. What follows is an appropriately crazy story, filled with car chases, stand-offs, and yes, a bank robbery. Some of the banter (between McBride and Swardson or Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari) is entertaining, and occaisionally worth a good laugh. The problem, though, is that the characters are underwritten from the start, and given the plot, never have time to develop. That Nick is something of a jackass during the first act doesn't help matters.

Fleischer certainly hasn't lost his flair for fun, at the very least. The car chase is well staged and shot, and a scene involving McBride's father creeping through his own home to find and intruder is surprisingly effective in creating some low-key tension. Michael Pena also gets a few laughs as a crazy hit man with a bizarre accent. Other characters, however, aren't so effective. A prostitute who leads McBride to Pena is a complete throwaway, while Dilshad Vansaria (as Ansari's sister) is there strictly to function as a plot device. They feel like flab, which is distracting considering the film's short run time (83 mins). So even though Fleischer's latest is pleasant enough to sit through, it's also proof that less doesn't always mean more.

Grade: C+/C


Tom Clift said...

I was a big fan of APES. Serkis is great, plus there's one moment about two thirds of the way through that is just pure dramatic cinema. Rendered the entire audience speechless (you can probably guess which one I mean). Worth the price of entry for that moment alone.

Intrigued to check out THE HELP and THE DEVILS DOUBLE, although I'm not sure when/if either hit theatres in Australia.

Disappointied by all the negative reviews of 30 MINUTES OR LESS - I was really looking forward to it.

jbaker475 said...

I know exactly which moment you're talking about; far and away the film's best moment. Perfectly timed/staged/etc...