Wasn't there a Planet of the Apes film--there were five--that explained the events that led up to Charlton Heston's crash landing on a "planet" where talking apes ruled and men were mutely subjugated under the iron yoke of their domination? (Consults Wikipedia) Why yes, there was! Conquest of the Planet of the Apes; which sounds almost nothing like the brand new and very slick-looking Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Not being a remake of Conquest or another stab at the original--though had it been it would still pummel Tim Burton's technically sharp but otherwise insipid exercise in stylistic masturbation--it's probably safe to say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a re-boot; with a couple of caveats, a damn good one.
One of those caveats would be James Franco. Franco portrays Will Rodman, a scientist developing a new serum that promises to eradicate Alzheimer's disease. While testing the serum on a group of chimpanzees he discovers that the drug seems to have imbued one of the chimps with human-like intelligence. Will reports to his boss, Steve Jacobs (David Oyelowo) who warns Will to keep his hopes in line with the results but nonetheless okays the pitch to convince investors that human trials are warranted. All that goes to hell when the test chimp, seemingly enraged, crashes the meeting and is summarily shot dead along with Will's hopes. Jacobs orders Will's assistant, Franklin (Tyler Labine) to put the other chimps down.
But, upon learning that the reason the chimp freaked out was due to her pregnancy, Franklin finds himself unwilling to kill the baby and gives that responsibility to Will who can't bring himself to do it either. Instead he takes the little one home, names him Cesar (Andy Serkis) and raises him while he cares for his Alzheimer's afflicted father (John Lithgow). In a last ditch effort to save his dad, Will gives him a dose of the drug. The former piano player quickly regains his ability to play, seemingly cured.
Fast forward a few years and Cesar is grown and quite happy to live with Will and his father, but his cloistered existence has kept him from learning the social niceties of humans. After beating the shit out of a neighbor who was threatening Will's dad, Will decides to put Cesar in a primate shelter so that he might learn to live amongst his own kind as well as to protect him from those who might not understand his unnatural intelligence. Suffering from the abandonment and some cruel treatment by the owner's son (Tom Felton), Cesar quickly comes to the conclusion that humans are assholes and begins to formulate a plan for escape--bringing his newfound brethren with him.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a deliberate immediacy that doesn't really rely on a ton of action, using most of the first two acts to develop the story and the main characters, and methodically bring you into their world. There's a Frankenstein layer to the whole thing, be it the genetically altered friendship with Cesar or in Will essentially bringing his father back from death that gives the film a mournful undertone when it becomes clear neither can last.
The screenplay (by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) has a couple of nonsensical bits (Jacobs getting all gung-ho about Will's serum the second time around was one of the fastest character turnarounds since Anakin became Darth Vader) and some stilted dialogue but manages an engaging story; or more to the point a third of one. While caveat one is Franco (I'll get to him in a minute) caveat two is that while Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a satisfying ending, it doesn't really end in a satisfying place--just a stopping point after an entertaining, well-crafted set-up.
But most of what comes before that works well, often spectacularly, as with the FX that brings the primates to life. Assuredly, WETA Digital has already locked up an Oscar for this. While not entirely bridging the uncanny divide, the motion capture FX and the digital artistry of the character designers bring an impressive amount of life to the creature FX. The mo-cap work of Robert Zemekis in films like The Polar Express and Beowulf suffered from the "dead eye" problem, where the otherwise photorealistic characters possessed the lifeless eyes of dolls. Here, it's almost unnerving how real Cesar's eyes look in addition to what is captured from Andy Serkis's physical performance (if you listen closely there's a little Gollum in Cesar's roars). WETA sets yet another bar here, rendering convincing performances in ones and zeros and the results are as groundbreaking as anything they've done--no small feat.
Real world performances are more of a mixed bag, bringing me to caveat one: James Franco. He's not terrible here by any means but he's just too subdued which is a problem when he's given some admittedly clunky dialogue to deliver. By the same token his ability to breathe life into his relationship with Cesar is the heart of the flick, and ultimately what sustains the film through the first two acts.
But the real performance to savor here is Andy Serkis as Cesar. The computers may be doing the rendering but it's Serkis's viscerally meticulous facial work that inhabits the pixels. With very little in the way of traditional dialogue, Serkis imparts Cesar's thoughts and emotions with amazing skill. The results are often stunning.
Supporting roles from John Lithgow and Brian Cox--as the primate shelter owner--are fine and utilitarian, respectively. Freida Pinto is lovely but fails to really make an impression as Franco's thinly written love interest.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes might have benefitted from lowered expectations but as surprises go it's the kind you want to have.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Adapted from Lisa See's 2005 novel of the same name, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has morphed in its adaptation by writers Angela Workman, Ronald Bass and Michael Ray. Primarily set in 19th Century China, it's the tale of two women joined as laotong (literally "sworn sisters") who are pulled apart after a lifetime of friendship by the tides of life and war in 1800's China.
The adaptation places a contemporary foreground on that story with a parallel tale set in 21st Century Shanghai that finds two modern laotong, Nina (Li Bingbing) and Sophia (Gianna Jun) reuniting after being long sundered when Nina learns that Sophia has fallen into a coma after a bicycling accident.
At her bedside Nina uncovers Sophia's novel, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan", which she had been working to complete before the accident. Nina begins to read what her erstwhile sister has written, discovering an allegory for the dissolution of their friendship.
It's not the kind of film that's easily synopsized. The story, under the erratic direction of Wayne Wang, is told in a majorly non-linear way that only begins to coalesce into a smooth rhythm mid-way through, hopping from the 1800s to the 2000s to the 1990s to fill in the puzzle pieces of what amounts to a Chinese chick-flick (cemented by a cameo by Hugh Jackman). While it shoots for admirable narrative complexity, and delves adeptly into its themes of love, fidelity, loss and forgiveness, it feels like a cold piece of beautiful chamber music. Lovely but possessed of a ghostly distance.
The writers might have been better off just adapting the story more literally, foregoing the urge to put a contemporary layer on top of the historical drama where Lily and Snow Flower (portrayed, as well, by Bingbing and Jun) find their fortunes moving in reverse. Lily, born into a poor family has perfectly tiny feet (a result of torturous binding) that allow her to marry upwards while Snow Flower, born to a wealthy family is married off to a lowly butcher. The state of women's rights; the changing of their roles and the dissolution of their once perfect friendship set against the backdrop of the Taiping Revolution would have been more than enough to sustain the story and hold one immersed in its period charms. Returning to the modern world makes for a nice contrast but mainly serves to disrupt the momentum.
Lovely period set design and the wonderful cinematography by Richard Wong bolster the subtle performances by Bingbing and Jun. Hugh Jackman sings and does as much as any element of the films construction to yank the audience out of the narrative.
As a slowly unfolding time piece Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has its charms. It would have been nice if its makers trusted them.
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