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Column Fri Aug 05 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Change-Up, The Future & The Devil's Double

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

While the month of August has traditionally been a dumping ground as far as summer movies are concerned, a look at the offerings being released in the next four weeks provide some hope the coming weeks will have its fair share of highlights. I'm not allowed to say anything specific just yet, but I will advise you to keep a look out for films like 30 Minutes or Less, Fright Night, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Our Idiot Brother to name a few. I'm just saying.

But I'll be goddamned if I didn't walk out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes absolutely stunned at how exactly right the filmmakers nailed this one. Finding ways to both give nods to and integrate with the mythology of the other Planet of the Apes movies (thanks to a smart script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver), this new tale takes us back to the beginning of the cycle in what I can only describe as one of the best "setting-the-stage" prequels I've ever seen, thanks in large part to director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) and another mind-bending motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

The set up involves scientist Will Rodman, who is developing a drug that repairs brain matter damaged as a result of Alzheimer's, which just happens to be the very disease that is running rampant through his father (John Lithgow). Rodman's motives are a little transparent, so when he discovers what appears to be a drug that works (after being tested on chimps), he immediately wants to race into human testing. But the test chimp goes on a rampage and the research is called off. It turns out the chimp may not have become aggressive because of the drug when it's discovered that it had just given birth and was likely being protective. Rodman sneaks the infant chimp out of the lab along while he continues to come up with a better strain of the drug. Turns out the baby chimp, named Caesar, who is now living with Rodman, inherited the drug in its DNA from its mother and his capacity for intelligence is equal to or greater than a human child.

As the years go by, Caesar's progress is unprecedented, and when Rodman gives his father the new drug, his Alzheimer's goes into regression. And everyone lives happily ever after. The End. OK, not quite. Caesar's abilities go far beyond sign language and solving puzzles. He becomes adept at using tools and deductive reasoning. He also comes to the defense of Rodman's father when a neighbor acts in a threatening manner, and that lands him in a primate sanctuary run by Brian Cox and his nasty assistant (Harry Potter's Tom Felton). In this ape prison of sorts, Caesar comes into contact with others of his kind (but not his smarts) for the first time and he uses his brains to become their leader. If you are lucky enough to have access to the now-in-release Project Nim, there are remarkable parallels with that and the first half of this film, minus the drugs.

What's remarkable about Serkis' work here is the not only that he perfectly mimics a chimps movements and expressive nature, but also there's something remarkably deep and warm-blooded about the performance. This is a thinking character with a childlike outlook on certain things and an adult response to other ones. And the effects courtesy of Weta Digital are beyond noticing. Nothing about these dozens of apes on display looks fake, even though they are all motion capture performances.

My only complaint about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that the human performances don't come anywhere near the depth of the ape work. Franco is fine as Rodman, and he actually does a great job interacting with something he clearly couldn't see. But the scenes with him flirting with (and eventually dating) Caroline, a primate specialist played by Freida Pinto, are largely uninteresting. All of that feels like prologue to Caesar landing up in the sanctuary, which marks the beginning of the revolution as he finds a way to steal Rodman's drug and pass on his smarts to the rest of the ape population.

There are a lot of great little and big surprises in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I don't want to give any of them away. But I was especially impressed with how the filmmakers deal with the question of: How do a few hundred apes take over the entire world, as we know from the original Planet of the Apes movies? The answer is, they don't. The way this is handled makes perfect sense and is kind of outrageous at the same time. And the mean that the filmmakers link this film into the universe of the other movies is kind of genius.

The story of Caesar's origins and the ape revolution were always a point of confusion in the original films — probably because the story changed from movie to movie. I'm glad director Wyatt and his team decided to take the best bits of these turning-point events and turn them into a thrilling bit of entertainment that combines messages about the dangers of animal testing and keeping wild animals as pets with some great world-building science fiction. We begin to see the beginnings of the ape society and where gorillas, chimps and orangutans fit into it. We see an ape on a horse for the first time for the purposes of war (in this film's reality). And keep an eye in the background of a couple of scenes at newscasts giving us the latest on the spacecraft Icarus, a manned mission to Mars that apparently goes missing. OK, I need to shut up.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a franchise film that doesn't act like one. It respects and pays tribute to its legacy and its fans without pandering to them or dumbing down its story. Above all else, the film is magnificently entertaining, with a couple of great action sequences and smart ideas across the board. Now if only there were a way to motion capture James Franco's performance...

The Change-Up

I didn't hate this movie because it wasn't that funny, although it's not. I didn't hate this movie because the actors are people I generally don't like. I happen to be fans of both Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, although Bateman's film track record is kind of dismal (being said, I really liked him Horrible Bosses), and the good will I've felt toward Reynolds since Buried has long since dissipated thanks to Green Lantern and now The Change-Up. The reason I hate this film is because it's lazy filmmaking. I'm perfectly fine with gross-out comedies or movies with total assholes as the leading characters, but The Change-Up uses both of these devices with such a sloppy disregard for any sense of joy or earned laughs that I gave up on it at about the halfway point.

What surprised me most about The Change-Up is that it comes from somewhat reliable stock. In addition to the actors, the film was directed by Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin and written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore of The Hangover fame. I was actually even on board (in theory) with the idea of a man frustrated with his marriage (Bateman married to Leslie Mann) switching bodies with his womanizer slacker buddy (Reynolds) after crossing pee streams in a fountain. Because how else would it happen?

As a result of the switch, Reynolds' Mitch seems more sensitive and kind, while Bateman's Dave becomes a raging douche. And I don't care if you do get to use your friend's body to sleep with a co-worker you think is hot (that person would be played by Olivia Wilde), it's still cheating. And so would the new Dave sleeping with his best friend's wife, an act which is thwarted when he sees her commit the age-old marriage felony of going to the bathroom with the door open. I'm all for raunch at any level, but this film going for (literally) bathroom humor and cheap sex jokes seems easy and flimsy and, above all else, barely funny.

There isn't much more to say about The Change-Up. The guys try to pretend to be each other until they figure out how to break the spell, which means Mitch has to take over his buddy's job as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer during a big deal that he may or may not have wrecked. That particular sequence proves that Mitch is not only a horrible friend, but also a horrible human being in ways I simply didn't find funny even coming from Jason Bateman trying to be Ryan Reynolds.

The women fare the worst in this movie, as Mann is once again cast in the role of the harping wife, while Wilde is essentially a piece of meat to be scrutinized and discussed by the men as if there's no doubt they could bang her if they just asked. It's kind of an ugly film in that respect. Believe me when I say, I don't usually get so sickened by gross-out humor, but something about this movie rubbed me the wrong way from the very beginning. No one in the movie seems happy to be on the screen, and there's really no one to even like here, no entry point into the movie, or even someone to remotely identify with. You know what, I'm probably as sick of talking about The Change-Up as you probably are reading about it and as I was watching it. Let's all stop this nonsense together... now.

The Future

I have never tried to hide the fact that I absolutely adored writer-director-actor Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. July is a multifaceted artist of which filmmaking is only one branch of her talent tree. As a result, it's been far too many years between feature films for this pixified angel. But the wait has resulted in The Future, a more mature, harrowing work of trippy, surreal magnificence that covers everything from the fragile nature of relationships and fate to death and the actual stopping time because what comes in the next minute is too terrible to allow to happen.

July and Hamish Linklater play Sophie and Jason, a 30-something couple who have made the decision to adopt a distressed cat named Paw Paw, who will require constant care and whose lifespan is questionable. But this is a Miranda July film, so we don't really see the cat, only its paws... and we hear the cat's thoughts (voiced by July, naturally), which are strangely similar to what we believe an infant might think in its first years of life. There is something so helpless and lonesome about Paw Paw that, for many, I'm guessing the tears will come early and often. Paw Paw only pops in a couple of times during the course of The Future, but when he does, your mind is kind of blown.

But a month-long delay in acquiring Paw Paw sends the couple into a tailspin when they begin to realize that having this cat effectively means their lives will change forever, and they both react quite differently. Jason decides to let fate dictate his future, and he takes the first job he sees a notice for. Sophie's takes more of a tailspin as she decides to post a new interpretive dance onto YouTube every day, and nearly has a meltdown when she finds it impossible to be creative on a timetable. Eventually she goes through a mini re-imagining of self, meets a much older man, and begins an affair.

Jason doesn't like his door-to-door sales job, but he does enjoy meeting new people on his calls. But much of what we see takes place when Jason has supposedly stopped time just as Sophie is about to leave him. And I'm probably making all of this sound much more quirky and confusing than it actually is. Describing a Miranda July film plot with human words seems pointless to the point of impossible, but as you're sitting there allowing it to gently unfold in front of your eyes, it all kind of makes sense as time and space bend around July's polka-dot planet and touch on the other side. There's a scene that involves July inside an oversized t-shirt, twisting and turning within it to eventually emerge a changed woman. There are no words spoken or explanation given, but you get what's happening in a her great impressionistic performance.

The Future isn't confusing or tough to wrap your brain around, which doesn't mean you'll understand everything you see, but maybe you aren't supposed to. At the very least, you'll allow yourself to get lost in July's big, beautiful eyes, her nervous smile, and her graceful dance moves, and sweat the details and interpretations later. This is a film where getting lost in the ambiguity is half the fun. Please see this film right away. The Future opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Devil's Double

Now here's a fucking movie — a powerful piece of borderline-exploitation work from director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors, Die Another Day, The Edge, Along Came A Spider) based on the real life of Latif Yahia, an member of the Iraqi military and childhood friend of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, who in 1987 is basically kidnapped by Uday to be his body double (or "fiday," which is actually more like a member of the family), complete with a few nips and tucks and a set of false teeth that drive home the maniac look to go along with the Black Prince's reputation for excess and brutality.

The Devil's Double never stops moving forward and faster, and what propels it is the performance of a lifetime by Dominic Cooper, who naturally plays both characters. Nothing I've seen Cooper in before (An Education, Mamma Mia!, Tamara Drewe, or as Howard Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger) could prepare me for what he makes happen here. As Uday, he is the poster child for power gone horrifyingly wrong. I was particularly despondent watching Uday cruise the local girls' schools and swiping 13-, 14-year-olds off the street to sexually brutalize them (thankfully we are spared the most gruesome of details). Meanwhile, the noble Latif never hesitates to show or vocalize his disgust for Uday's behavior, but he can never leave Uday's service for fear of his family getting wiped out.

Still, Latif does get used to the lavish lifestyle in the many palaces of the Hussein family. He has access to all of the clothes, accessories, cars, parties, and women that Uday does, with the exception of his favorite mistress Sarrab (French actress Ludivine Sagnier, almost unrecognizable here), who Latif is told to keep his hands off. So naturally, the two have an affair, putting both of their lives in serious peril. The film is essentially a document of the constant moral struggle between these two men who need each other for different types of protection. But it's also a kind of celebration of power run amok. Some have compared it to Scarface, but I don't think Tony Montana could have lasted more than a week with Uday.

I could talk more about the plot of The Devil's Double, but that isn't nearly as impressive as Cooper's work. His transformation into all three of these characters (I'm counting Latif pretending to be Uday as a third role because it is) is astonishing. He has given Uday a high-pitched voice, buck teeth and a hyena's laugh, while Latif is more handsome and has a deeper voice, but when Latif must play his part, that's when things get truly terrifying. But his work goes far beyond makeup and prosthetics. Cooper uses posture, swagger and a certain look in the eyes to differentiate his characters, and the special effects used to put the two men in close contact are nearly flawless. It takes about five minutes for you to forget it's the same actor. Beyond the acting, the film is also weirdly funny at times, although I'm not 100 percent sure it's meant to be, especially in scenes in which Saddam meets with Latif. Still, humor is humor, and The Devil's Double made me laugh a few times.

Some of you are likely going to find The Devil's Double repulsive from the get-go, and I wouldn't argue with you on that point. But I firmly believe we can't truly understand Uday's despicable nature without going beyond the limits of good taste, because that's exactly what he did. Director Tamahori does a great job both glamorizing this world of deviant behavior and gross indulgence, while painting behaviors that most right-thinking human beings would disgusted by. The Devil's Double is as much a dichotomy as its central characters are. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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