Archive for January, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Starring- Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Zoe Caldwell, Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright

Director- Stephen Daldry

PG-13- emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language


Here is a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be about. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” stands with its feet in two different pools, each a different temperature, testing for the one it likes the best, and unfortunately, it stays there for two hours, indecisive. Actually, that’s inaccurate—it’s closer to, like, seventeen different pools.

Is the movie about a nation dealing with its collective grief after a terrible tragedy? Is it about a family coping with the loss of its foundation? Is it about fatherhood? Is it about repairing broken bonds? Is it about marriage? Is it about learning to truly, genuinely love others? Is it about learning to let go? Is it about religious faith and doubt and all the issues there implied? Well, yes and no. It is about all of these things, and as such, it isn’t really about any of them. It raises concepts scene by scene and subsequently drops them, resolving only a few, and even then in overly simple and sentimental ways. Talk about underutilizing your premise.

A boy, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), and his father (Tom Hanks) play a game called reconnaissance expedition. His father gives him cryptic clues, usually relating to his stories of New York’s lost Sixth Borough, and sends him off to find various objects. Oskar doesn’t know that these tasks are designed to help him overcome his social difficulties. The film suggests that he has Asberger’s Syndrome, though it gives no definitive answer, despite the fact that Oskar is very nearly a textbook case.

It all changes, of course. His father is killed in the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center.

It takes Oskar a year to go back into his father’s room. His mother (Sandra Bullock), increasingly distant from him, has left it unchanged. Inside, Oskar finds a key inside of a package with the name “Black” on it. Believing it to be a clue to a reconnaissance expedition, Oskar sets out to find what it unlocks, desperately hoping to keep his father’s memory alive just a bit longer. He catalogues everyone in New York with the last name Black and begins to visit them one by one. In his adventures, he picks up a helper—a mysterious old man known only as the Renter (Max von Sydow)—and the two work to solve this last problem.

The expectation would be that you would see their visits with the over four hundred Blacks in New York City, and that they would learn a lesson about life and themselves through these interactions. You actually only see one visit substantially—an intriguing moment with a struggling married couple, played in excellent bit parts by Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. Other visits are seen in almost non-existent snippets or montages.

It’s run through with an almost obnoxious narration on the part of Oskar. It has two shades; the first is brutal un-subtlety, furiously sucking all the power out of every moment by dumbly explaining the unfolding events to an audience it clearly believes is stupid. This is the film’s weakest aspect by far. Its second shade is pretentious nonsense that makes “The Tree of Life” look obvious by comparison. I suppose it might make me appear the hypocrite, given that my thoughts on that particular film had a general tone of admiration, but then again, “The Tree of Life” never seemed like it was trying to impress anyone. What dialogue it had, particularly in terms of the narration, was simple and straightforward, if cryptic, and seemed to come from the writer’s heart. With “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” you can hear the filmmakers patting themselves on the back, thanking their great wits for how awesome their metaphors are. The film opens with Oskar waxing poetic about why we don’t build skyscrapers upside-down under the ground and bury dead people in them, so there would be a land of the dead underneath the land of the living. If you can tell me how this related to the overall plot and theme(s) of the film, please let me know.

And obviously, it’s largely unfocused. It never takes the time to explore any of the ideas it raises. On one of his visits, Oskar is prayed over, and a religious woman asks God for a miracle on his behalf. Oskar says he doesn’t believe in miracles. Apart from the fact that he eventually finds his own miracle, this isn’t really explored further, even though a discussion about the nature and existence of God in a world where something like 9/11 can happen would be an extremely interesting and relevant one to have. But, like the film’s litany of other ideas, it is soon forgotten. It is odd that such an unsubtle movie could leave me failing to connect the mental dots between each of its emotionally and thematically heavy moments, but it does.

I have a problem with Oskar as well. I admit at the end that his character was pretty rounded, and impressively well written. However, there is something decidedly “child actor-y” about young Thomas Horn’s performance here. I can’t tell if it’s his acting or his writing, but there’s this irritating sense of awareness about him. If it is the writing, then I would say he’s just a bit too quirky to suit the film’s realism. The same goes for the Renter, a man who doesn’t speak, instead carrying around a notebook in which he writes (Max von Sydow’s performance is impressive, however). Could these two characters exist in someone’s imagination? Certainly, and I found the Renter, at least, to be quite likable. Could they exist in real life? Maybe. But the odds of them meeting and undertaking an adventure in so realistic a setting seem low to me.

Are there some positives? Certainly. When the film finds its footing, it really does work quite well. It has some powerful moments, most of them centered around the Renter and the married couple Oskar first visits. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, in addition to Max von Sydow, give reliably strong performances. And I don’t wish to be too hard on Thomas Horn; he’s rough around the edges, but he shows his strength where it counts, in the film’s emotional climaxes. The film is only occasionally boring, and it remains pretty consistently emotionally engaging, though I can never work up the proper distance to tell if it’s derived from the story or from the fact that the images of 9/11 alone are inherently upsetting to me. On that level, I feel as though the film does show the proper amount of respect towards the tragedy and does attempt to say something about it, instead of putting it in service of cheap emotional manipulation. It simply doesn’t follow through on that very well.

I don’t want to call it a bad movie. It isn’t. It also isn’t a movie I like very much, but I don’t cringe at the idea of seeing it again. However, it is, at its core, basically empty, failing to become the quintessential 9/11 film to which it aspires. There is very little to warrant discussion, and what seeds it plants lack the necessary watering to blossom into full-fledged thoughts.

-Matt T.

The Ides of March (2011)

Starring- Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Jennifer Ehle, Gregory Itzin, Michael Mantell

Director- George Clooney

R- pervasive language



I don’t know why I thought George Clooney was a first-time director. Yes, I’m going to allow this review to have a disclaimer at the beginning and the end, because I condescend to my past self that much. I never saw this movie again. I remember enjoying it but nothing too detailed outside of that.

The American political system is a hotbed of corruption.

Did I just blow your mind? If not, it isn’t likely “The Ides of March” will do so either. If “War Horse” was a film that had some technical problems, ranging from story to score, that succeeded on the strength of execution regarding its themes, then “The Ides of March” is the exact opposite: a film that means very little, but is otherwise quite technically impressive—a well written, well acted, and surprisingly entertaining and effective political thriller. It’s a lot like “The Adjustment Bureau”—fun and engaging. Thought provoking, it’s not.

There is certainly a place for films like this in the cinematic lexicon, ones that examine the inherent corruption and root causes thereof in the American political system, particularly where candidacy is concerned. “The Ides of March” aspires to be that film, but it isn’t quite.

It follows a Democratic presidential campaign through an Ohio primary. Two candidates remain, each within grasp of a party nomination—one Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) and former Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). The latter has become something of a media darling due to his composure, eloquence, and seeming sincerity. He’s certainly won over his junior campaign manager, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who seems to believe in him whole-heartedly.

Nevertheless, the nomination isn’t in the bag. Ohio has an open primary, and it seems Republicans may be preparing to sabotage the vote in favor of Pullman, who they think they can beat. They’ve also hit a snag in the form of South Carolina Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), whose support may be required to secure the nomination.

Stephen finds himself caught in the middle of all this, and he is stretched across both camps when rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) offers him a job working for them.

And then, when things begin to look up, Stephen uncovers a terrible secret, one that threatens to dismantle the entire campaign. With his loyalty, his honor, and his career all in jeopardy, he must make a decision that will permanently alter the nature of the campaign.

The thematic undercurrent, the corruption of politics, weaves throughout the whole thing, and it doesn’t work as well as it could for a combination of two reasons. I will begin with the lesser.

Firstly, though the characters are written with plenty of personality and cast with a mixture of veteran actors and promising new talent, the movie is more plot-driven as a whole. This is to its detriment, as most of the scenes spend their time driving the story forward rather than spending time with the characters, getting to know them. As such, most of the characters are steeped in mystery as to what they truly stand for, are motivated by, and care about. I suppose there’s an ironic point to be made there about the dual nature of politics, the public persona and the private persona. Even given that, the film’s point is entirely about what goes on behind the scenes, and as such, maintaining so much ambiguity about the characters comes off as more accident than design. For example, is Governor Morris a good, idealistic man, albeit flawed, who genuinely does want to do the right thing, in spite of the fact that he screws up sometimes? Or is he just another sleazy, corrupt politician, selfishly safeguarding his own career no matter the expense? I could make a strong argument either way.

Worse still is the fact that I can do this for Stephen, the true protagonist, himself. Most reviews have interpreted the story as being about an idealistic crusader who is worn down by the system until he becomes the very corruption he set out to fight. My own interpretation is this—he was always corrupt. The system didn’t make him that way, it simply exposed him for what he truly was.

We could obviously argue back and forth, but again—that’s the problem. The film wants us to focus on political corruption as its own entity, but it stifles that discussion by forcing us to wonder whether or not it is the characters themselves who are truly corrupt.

The second major problem is related. The film’s desire to be significant is eventually undercut by it’s desire to be entertaining. And let there be no mistake—“The Ides of March” is highly entertaining. A movie about guys talking about politics ought not to be this pulse pounding. For a first-time director, George Clooney has a masterful handle of exploiting silences and long, unbroken shots for everything they’re worth to build up tension.

The problem, though, is that the film is so determined to be fun that it goes for big dramatic events rather than small ones. From my point of view, an effective film about political corruption would follow essentially good men who are bogged down not by internal situations but external threats that force them to compromise and lie or otherwise lose their chance to make society better. The beginning of “The Ides of March,” the strongest part of the film by far, is basically like that. Their opponent’s strategy frequently forces them into corners where they have to adjust stances or bring corrupt outsiders into their midst.

Unfortunately, the film has to go big. It has to have huge dramatic events that rattle the plot and permanently change it. And those events are only brought about by its leads making spectacularly bad decisions. The actual systematic corruption conveyed at the beginning burdens the campaign, but it is not threatened with complete oblivion until members of the team begin making awful, sometimes immoral decisions. At the end of the film, you see a situation that is self-created. The system played its role, sure enough, but it only jumped on opportunities generated by poor decision-making.

A film that truly wanted to explore the negative and overbearing aspects of political corruption in the American democratic system would not be as thrilling. It would be slow, lacking in immense, edge-of-your-seat twists and turns. But it would also be a more frustrating story.

But when “The Ides of March” gets going full throttle, it doesn’t really stop, leaving it entirely unable to truly dig deep into the situation, to ask the truly important questions—why are things this way? Why do we allow them to stay this way? What could we possibly do to fix it?

That’s the first half of “The Ides of March.” The second half, unfortunately, is mostly just an entertainment.

And I say again—it is a very well made one. The cast is comprised mostly of acting juggernauts; they’ve all been better, but they’re mostly pretty good here. Clooney’s direction could stand to be less scientific and mechanical, but the talents he possesses are quite undeniable. It is stunningly entertaining for a film of its type, and is rarely anything less than riveting. The dialogue is sharp, and the script is put together very nicely, structured and well paced. It is largely a good story.

But where its message comes into play… Well, that’s where it collapses.

-Matt T.

EDIT: Okay, it has recently come to my attention that this is NOT George Clooney’s directorial debut. I’m not sure why I believed it was, but I was apparently so certain of it that I didn’t even bother to look it up, which is rare for me. Sorry about that. Please disregard.

War Horse (2011)

Starring- Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Matt Milne, Robert Emms, Eddie Marsan

Director- Steven Spielberg

PG-13- intense sequences of war violence



I got kind of ranty for a moment here. Reading this, I can actually picture myself getting more and more animated. I mean, I still get really agitated over war movies that simplify their subjects — look no further than my “American Sniper” debacle for proof of that. But this comes of…kind of irrational. In 2011, I was at the stage in my life where I had, for the first time, discovered and embraced social and political opinions that were not those of my parents but was still struggling with the foundation of my entire worldview…basically that point we all reach where we’re rebelling against self and upbringing and getting pulled back and forth over it. I think you see that conflict at the heart of the weird attacks and retreats that are all over this review. As to the movie — I don’t think I saw it again, except maybe for a few scenes here and there. It did leave quite a mark on me, despite its flaws, and I have a fairly good memory of it. I would say that, yes, the first act is weak, but the second and third possess some marvelous craftsmanship, more than enough to make up for the shortcomings. Those being that the film is unsubtle and manipulative and also not particularly rich on subtext — the anti-war message is totally surface level, and there’s not much about the movie to “get” after you’ve experienced the most immediate, visceral stuff. It’s not a great movie, but it’s still a pretty great experience, if that makes sense.

“War Horse” is the type of movie that is beloved more by my heart than my brain. I realized even as I outlined this review that I was going to spend an awful lot of time explaining why I shouldn’t like it and far too little explaining why I did anyway. Historically, Steven Spielberg movies have tended to have this general effect on me. They are fairy tales in the most fundamental sense, appealing to the desires of human nature rather than the needs of human logic.

And “War Horse” truly is a fairy tale, when put under a microscope, and not the mere impression of one we’ve come to expect. When we look back on our childhoods, we remember the light-hearted whimsy of fairy tales. We rarely recall the darkness and horror of some of them. They were morality tales as well, and occasionally fairly brutal ones.

“War Horse” is a horse movie, and also a Steven Spielberg movie. You expect a heaping helping of sentimentality, alongside a dose of heartstring tugging and a tidy resolution that ties everything together in a neat bow. You’ll get that. But it is also a war movie. This is what warrants further examination.

That is because the movie, in the end, is not about the horse. Certainly the horse figures prominently, and it is left to the audience to care for it and root for its success, stranded on the battlefield of the first World War, trying to return to the loving owner from whom it was taken. But the horse itself is not the focus of the plot. It is rather the mechanism that drives it forward.

The horse goes from the loving care of its owner to the harsh frontlines of the war. From there, it experiences one separation after another as it goes from camp to camp, soldier to soldier, civilian to civilian. It is the means by which we are introduced to a litany of different people, and they, for the time that they are on-screen, are the true focus of the story. We see how the war affects different people from different walks of life in their own way. And this is where the movie succeeds.

I’ll be honest—I was antsy about “War Horse.” I knew that if I ended up disliking it, there’d be a fairly specific reason why, and it would be one that left me not merely disinterested, but angry. It is a war movie, and war movies walk a very thin tightrope.

I’ll illustrate my reasoning by way of example. Recently, I had someone try to get me to watch the movie “Windtalkers.” Reluctantly, I conceded…and walked after no more than half an hour. The reason for this was that I found myself seized by a desire to pick up the nearest blunt object and shatter the television. “Windtalkers” left me almost physically shaking with rage. And most war movies have that general effect on me.

Why? They freaking simplify it. They take the most tragic events in our world’s history, caused by tragic individuals doing tragic things, and they make big-scale blockbuster entertainment out of it—loud, noisy, and colorful spectacle. I want you to recall for a moment how much I hate the “Transformers” movies. Now, I want you to understand that I may hate “Pearl Harbor” more than any other movie that has ever existed. Think about that.

There is simply nothing that I despise more than a badly done, disrespectful war movie. While I was watching “Windtalkers,” I observed the battle sequences—realistic, until the hero gets going, when it turns into a dumb action movie that might as well be Luke Skywalker taking on a bunch of stormtroopers. That didn’t enrage me nearly as much as the treatment of the Japanese soldiers—no fear, no humanity. They are shrieking devils, out only to kill. We feel sorrow when an American soldier is shot and dies quickly, but when a Japanese soldier slowly burns to death in front of us, we’re supposed to enjoy that, because he deserves it. Even though it all actually happened.

Because America is the ultimate good guy, right? And the only reason anyone would ever oppose us is simply because they’re evil. They wake up in the morning, twirl their little handlebar mustaches, and say to themselves, “How shall I perpetrate evil today?”

War has no heroes; it has no villains. It’s a bunch of flawed human beings killing other flawed human beings. It is a tragic waste of young lives. It is not an entertaining, jingoistic battle of good vs. evil. It is humanity at its absolute worst.

And here’s what I like first and foremost about “War Horse”—it gets that. And despite its PG-13 rating, it is far more emotionally affective than other films of its type could ever possibly hope to be. The horse travels back and forth between different armies, and civilians on either side. It humanizes everyone. The battle scenes in “War Horse” are not entertaining, they are tragic; they wreck you.

I think to the earliest battle scene in the film, the one I was nervously awaiting. I knew it was going to make or break the film for me, and it delivered. It involves a surprise attack by the British on a German camp. A lesser film, one doggedly determined only to entertain, would’ve had a German force that was almost neurotically prepared for such an ambush. The soldiers would’ve run out, screaming battle cries and taking lives as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible.

What actually happens? We see the charge of the horses, cut to the camp, and find… Men shaving. Others sit around a campfire and talk. When they see the horses, they do not turn evil—terror grips them. They cry out, they run, they grasp desperately for the nearest weapon trying to defend themselves—from the characters we’ve spent the beginning of the movie getting to know and identify with.

The end result is not a film that’s fun, but rather a film that does what a war movie ought to do—make us want to avoid war at all costs.

That said, the film is not very subtle about this point. Oh, it for the most part avoids grand speeches, and it never quite looks you in the eye and spells it out for you. But you don’t really have to pick through the subtext either. I’m actually not bothered by any of this, but it exposes a bit of hypocrisy in me—I tend to get annoyed by the lack of subtlety when I disagree with the message or simply don’t have a vested interest in it, but in cases such as “War Horse,” I tend to file subtlety problems under the heading “Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped.” And I suppose, to an extent, that’s true, given that most war movies are blockbusters that serve only as vehicles for excessive patriotic zeal. Not that I am opposed to patriotism in and of itself, but one should never practice it at the expense of others’ humanity.

Granted, “War Horse” is somewhat more complex than your average message film, in that it does possess the proper twists and turns and presents humanity at both its worst and its best, as opposed to the gratuitous pro-environmentalism of “Avatar”* or the “all conservatives are awesome and all liberals suck” of “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.” The world of the film is a moderately more complicated one, if only just.

The real problem is that, for a film that is doing its best to make all of its characters human, regardless of their allegiance… Well, the human characters simply aren’t very interesting. The horse’s original owners are a family: the parents (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson) fill been-there-done-that roles of the firm but loving and supportive mother and the stubbornly drunk but well-meaning father. The son (Jeremy Irvine), the closest the movie has to a human protagonist… Well, he’s not boring, I’ll give you that, but throughout the entire film, he adamantly refuses to behave anything like a human being. At a certain point, I wanted to slap him across the face and shout, “Dude! That horse you are currently talking to like it’s a person just so happens to be a horse. This is an intervention; go hang out with some humans for a few seconds.”

The horse then finds its way into the hands of a British soldier (Tom Hiddleston), who is largely a blank slate. His comrades aren’t much better. And throughout the film, the story’s aversion to subtlety forces other characters to act like freaks. In real life, the soldier who asks, “What kind of an ‘orse?” is an idiot, but the one who answers, “A miraculous kind of an ‘orse, be my guess,” is about to get the ever-loving crap beat out of him.

On top of that… John Williams, I love you, man, you’ve directed some of my favorite scores of all time… But you way over-scored this thing.

Fortunately, the movie self-corrects a lot of these problems about halfway through. By the time the horse finds its way into the hands of a young girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup), I found myself thinking, “Hey—I actually like these characters.” And that held for the rest of the characters who wandered into the story—a compassionate soldier who tries to care for the horses pulling the artillery uphill. Some British soldiers stuck in a trench. A German in similar circumstances. These interactions are all brief, but I found them touching. The ending similarly so, despite its suffocating layer of schmaltz. Even the score gets better as the film goes on, largely because it lacks variety, and simply goes “big” whenever it goes at all. In the beginning, this is too much, but by the end, the movie’s earned the right to a bombastic score.

It’s the beginning of the film, therefore, that drags, to the point that half an hour in, I honestly thought I was going to write a negative review of this film. The last (roughly) two hours are far stronger, and more than save it.

It is a magical film, despite its flaws. And miraculously, it still manages to portray the harsh realities of war in a far more nuanced and fair way than your average Academy Award nominee. It is a Spielberg film at its heart, and it carries the customary set of strengths and weaknesses. It is quite far from perfect, but in a cinematic world that is all “Windtalkers” and “Pearl Harbor,” it remains a breath of fresh, clean air.


-Matt T.

*For what it’s worth, the extended edition of “Avatar” does improve somewhat upon its central theme. It doesn’t add a whole lot of nuance, but it still manages to at least give the humans an argument. I should stress, as per the norm, that my objection to a film is rarely centered on its theme but rather how it goes about expressing it. With art, I am more interested in questions than answers, because only one inspires me to think deeply.

P.S. You guys owe me. Given how verbose I am, you probably suspect that I could’ve gone on for five or six pages with my war movie rant. But I didn’t. And you are welcome.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Starring- James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Andy Serkis

Director- Rupert Wyatt

PG-13- intense and frightening sequences of action and violence



I’ve seen bits and pieces of this in the years since. I can’t remember ever tuning into a scene that I found particularly compelling. It’s all very competent, but nothing leaps out at me. I’m glad I was right about it getting a solid sequel though.

So, um… Hey, guys! I saw a movie. And that movie is called “Rise of the Planet of Apes.” It’s about a planet. And apes. Who rise. I think.

Okay, okay—I haven’t forgotten that much about it. But it would still be a mild understatement to say that this film didn’t leave any real impression on me. I suppose at the end of the day I can say that means it’s better than the trailers led me to suspect.

But then again, at least a review of a bad movie can be three pages of pure comedic catharsis, a la “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” And a great movie will have plenty of themes I can discuss, or moments that captured my imagination about which I can rave.

With “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” I have very little to actually say. It is okay, and only just. Watchable, but largely pointless. It doesn’t much contribute to either the story or the themes of the saga as a whole. I put movies such as this in their own category—Paycheck Films for the Talented. I suspect most of the cast and crew are good at what they do and will go on to bigger and better things (some of them already have). Here, they did their best, but there’s no real sign that anyone was truly invested in it. Everything in the movie works; it just never really goes above and beyond. There’s a sense of detachment to it. And anything truly memorable has been mostly stripped away.

Well, what’s the story? Honestly, it’s not what you’d think, and that’s part of the problem. It’s called “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but a more accurate title might be “Ape Escape: The Movie.” (Ask your older siblings, kids.) By the way, I don’t consider any of what I’m about to tell you to be a spoiler, since the ending is sort of a foregone conclusion. But fair warning—I’m going to discuss the ending, in vague terms.

The plot follows a scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), who works for a major pharmaceutical company. He’s working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in order to save his afflicted father (John Lithgow). And he makes considerable progress with a drug that seems to repair brain connections in the chimps on which they are experimenting. However, things go wrong when said chimp escapes, disrupting an important business meeting before being put down.

In the aftermath, Will realizes that the chimp had given birth in captivity and was only trying to protect its baby. Not wanting it to be killed along with the rest of the test subjects, he takes it home with him.

The ape, which he names Caesar (Andy Serkis, in motion capture), grows older as a valued family pet—and, more importantly, demonstrates signs of incredibly advanced intelligence. When he reaches adulthood, he is easily as smart—and fully sentient—as a human being. Realizing what his drug has done, Will launches into even more intensive study, trying to make it applicable to human beings.

Unfortunately, a misunderstanding and an act of violence get Caesar locked away in a local ape habitat, where he is repeatedly mistreated at the hands of the abusive caretaker (Tom Felton). Realizing the promise of his advanced intelligence, Caesar begins to plan his escape—and the rise of apes as a species.

Then, the apes escape—and that’s the entire movie.

When I go to a “Planet of the Apes” film, I’m pretty much after one of two things—some discussion on what it means to be human or to have a soul, or mere exploration of how it would look were humanity forced to interact with another species as equals (and perhaps inferiors). Going into this movie, I expected that the escape would happen somewhere around the halfway mark, with the really good stuff coming afterward.

What I got feels a lot like the Part 1s of which Hollywood is becoming so fond. The movie is all setup, telling us what we already know without giving us anything new or interesting. It does that well, don’t get me wrong, but there’s only so far you can take an empty script. There just isn’t much to it.

That’s especially problematic with the human characters. Caesar is compelling and likable, but he’s about the only one. To be perfectly honest, I had to go to IMDB to find out the name of James Franco’s character. And he wasn’t the only one—I couldn’t remember anyone else’s names either. In fact, I frequently forgot the female lead (Frieda Pinto) even existed. There’s simply nothing at all going on at the human end of this story. And the apes are so gratuitously CGI that it’s hard to fully enjoy those sequences either.

And it affects both halves the film. The first half is probably the best, as it’s more tightly plotted and interesting, but it loses its characters in its desire to move from one event to the next. We get a couple of scenes between Will and his sick father; I wanted more of those. I wanted that conflict to develop a stronger emotional core, to really give the protagonist something to fight for. But it only goes halfway on that.

But then, halfway through, it’s as if the film suddenly remembers that the only thing it’s allowed to do before the end is have the apes escape from the habitat, so it just kind of sits there, twiddling its thumbs. It could’ve used this time to give its human characters some breathing room—some meaningful interactions, some quiet emotional moments, some basic character development, something. Instead, it throws in more babble about the Alzheimer’s cure, while the ape end of the story does nothing except have Caesar plot his mostly unimpressive escape.

The climax picks up a bit. It’s nice to see a movie that doesn’t celebrate violence and that chooses to take neither side of the central conflict as it unfolds. At the same time, the lack of meaningful development on any characters other than Caesar leaves things nevertheless emotionally muted as the credits roll.

Again, though, nothing in this film is really that bad. It’s just that very little is that good. On direction: it’s stylistic and tight. On acting: it’s sufficient. Serkis makes for a good ape, however much of a compliment that might be—he still should’ve had more Oscar buzz for Gollum, though. On effects: they’re technically impressive, at least, sullied only by the fact that I have a real-life frame of reference for what an ape ought to look like, and I would’ve liked to see a couple of real ones in at least a few shots. On story: well, it ought to make for a solid sequel.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is short, forgettable, and emotionally muted. It is compelling when its story is moving along, and rarely boring, if nothing else. But it’s likely to be forgotten almost entirely the moment it ends.

-Matt T.

Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

Starring- Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Walton Goggins, Abigail Spencer, Noah Ringer

Director- Jon Favreau

PG-13- intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference


Some things go well together. Some things don’t. Slather some chocolate over a nice, ripe strawberry, and the result is just divine. But anyone who’s ever accidentally done so knows that if you drink orange juice immediately after brushing your teeth, your mouth commits suicide and refuses to function for the rest of the day.

“Cowboys and Aliens” is orange juice and toothpaste.

There really isn’t any reason why the science fiction and western genres ought not to function well together; in fact, I was quite excited to see the end result of this particular mash-up. However, when mixing anything, movie genres included, you have to find the elements those genres have in common and blend them there, rather than just wantonly tossing their conventions into a mixer and hoping for the best.

There are lots of places that science fiction and western stories find commonality. “Cowboys and Aliens” pretty much misses all of them. From the westerns, it borrows realism, grittiness, and solemnity. But from sci-fi, it takes the bottom of the barrel—explosions, lasers, plot holes, and…nope, that’s it, really. It’s the kind of sci-fi that includes “Transformers” and “G.I. JOE” rather than the kind encompassing “Blade Runner” or even “Inception.”

The end result: a very, very serious movie that is about very, very stupid things.

As the film opens, a man (Daniel Craig) awakens in the middle of the desert with no memory of his past and a strange bracelet affixed to his arm. He finds his way to a nearby town, where he learns that his name is Jake Lonergan, and that he is wanted for a litany of crimes. He’s also in the sights of one Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who wants revenge for a robbery long since past.

But just when he’s about to be hauled off to prison, something strange happens. Lights appear in the sky over the town. Strange machines follow—and attack.

When the smoke clears, dozens of townspeople have been abducted and carried off, including the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) and Colonel Dolarhyde’s son (Paul Dano). And, with the help of his mysterious bracelet, Jake has brought down one of the machines.

An uncomfortable alliance is formed. With Jake, hoping to recover his memories, leading them, a posse that includes Colonel Dolarhyde and a mysterious local woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde), sets out to find and rescue everyone’s missing family and friends.

It’s not a bad set-up, and that’s chiefly the problem with this movie—that it sets up a whole lot of things that could have been really interesting, and then does absolutely nothing with any of it. This movie has an awesome cast and a solid director. It also has one writer from “Lost” and two from “Children of Men.” I don’t know who put forth deliberate effort to ensure that this movie sucked, but I would certainly like to know why.

The story, from the aforementioned point onward, fails to live up to its potential. It’s Point-A-to-Point-B storytelling, filling the middle with contrived excuses for action sequences and forced drama. The interactions between the characters could have been interesting, but they aren’t, because nothing is properly developed. The dramatic scenes play out like a game of Mad Libs: “Okay, in this scene, [Primary Character] talks to [Secondary Character] about [back story], while [Minor Supporting Character] talks to [Other Secondary Character] about how much he wants to rescue his [important friend/relative].” It sets up Emmett (Noah Ringer) as a potential surrogate son to Colonel Dolarhyde; the two share one scene together and then never interact again. It sets up local preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) as a spiritual mentor to the somewhat atheistic and down-on-his-luck bartender Doc (Sam Rockwell). The two speak to one another in only two scenes, one of which is impossibly brief, and then—guess what? Never interact again. It’s not that these characters and relationships are not interesting; it’s that they go nowhere.

The movie can’t even make proper use of its great cast. Here, Harrison Ford gives one of his most fun performances in years, and the movie squanders it on a character whose mood and personality change with every scene that passes. Sam Rockwell steals the show, as to be expected, but he isn’t given enough to do. Clancy Brown is a near non-presence. Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde are both given ridiculously bland characters, despite their talent. Actually, regarding Olivia Wilde—she has already impressed me, but she is wrong for this movie, because she just can’t pull off rugged. I snort-laughed every time she appeared in a long shot, posing with that stupid gun hanging off her hip. Even Noah Ringer is decent in this movie, proving that all things are M. Night Shyamalan’s fault forever.

So, yeah, it’d be accurate to say this movie is relatively bland and unfocused, having no idea which relationships to develop and which ones to relegate to the background. But I specifically used the word “stupid,” and oh, lord—is it ever. It takes a while, but when it takes its hard right turn into Stupid Town, it never looks back. I don’t know how much I want to spoil here, but… Oh, screw it. Spoilers ahoy.

First off—Magical. Freaking. Native Americans. Ah, yes, the tried and true plot hole fixers of the Old West, as well as the certified best way to make me hate your movie in a millisecond. This is such an awful cliché. Anyone who uses it ought to be forcibly retired from screenwriting forever.

Secondly—Olivia Wilde is an alien, a good one, who’s come to save humanity from its invaders. Because of this, she can raise herself from the dead, except for when she can’t. How the evil aliens went about annihilating her nigh-immortal people is not explained, and probably for the better.

And all of that pales in comparison to the evil aliens themselves. I didn’t think alien motivations got any more stupid than “Skyline” (braaaaaaaaaaains), but then again, I didn’t think action movies got any worse than “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

I’ll just say it—they’re here for gold. Not because they use it for energy or it gives them superpowers or eternal life or something moderately less stupid than this, but because it looks pretty. And it’s worth cash. That is literally it. They’re basically grizzled old space prospectors. Why does this necessitate that they abduct humans? Well, they want to study our weaknesses, of course! And they need hundreds of us to do that, despite the fact that their first victim should’ve been all it took to learn that literally everything can kill a human. In fact, you’d think that on the first assault, the aliens would’ve thought, “Well, gee, our lasers seem to be pretty much vaporizing them on contact. I guess that solves that.” But… Apparently we’re more complicated than that. Or something.

And why do they need to study our weaknesses? Well, after they mine all the gold, they destroy the planet. Why? “Look, explosions!”

Look. I understand that it’s supposed to be a metaphor for what gold-seeking settlers did to Native Americans in the Old West. I get that. What I don’t understand is how that metaphor is still relevant at all. Maybe they should’ve changed the aliens’ motivation to collecting oil; that would’ve been both (mildly) less stupid and actually relevant in modern society. But, look, thought was clearly not put into this movie. I could go on forever about how the climax plays out, and how any thinking creature with brains even a bit larger than a walnut could’ve completely embarrassed the humans in that particular event, but this review has already gone on way too long.

So, closing argument—I don’t hate “Cowboys and Aliens” for what it is so much as for what it could have been. This is a movie that has no excuse for not being one of the best blockbusters of the year, let alone for actually being one of the most asinine. It fails to mesh its genres in any tonally consistent way, and it cannot develop any of its potentially interesting plot points. It’s not the worst movie of the year, but as of right now, I’d say it’s safely the most disappointing.

-Matt T.

*Also, 100 REVIEWS! I would like to thank the Academy, and also my, like, six readers. You guys are awesome.