Category: 2011


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The second season of FX’s Justified orbits around the scene where Mags Bennett discovers that her son Coover has been killed by U.S. Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens.

Mags Bennett is the matriarch of a clan of weed dealers nestled in the hills of Harlan, Kentucky. Mags runs a general store as her legitimate business front. As long as you have the common sense to not interfere in her criminal business interests, you might mistake her for a feisty grandmother. She’ll treat you to moonshine. Her “apple pie” shine is the best in Harlan County although the glass in which she serves it to you might be poisoned. She’ll take in an orphan girl whose father Mags had killed. She’ll baby her grown sons; they still call her Mama… even when she’s smashing one their hands in with a hammer. Coover should have known better

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I’ve reviewed Todd Solondz’s brutal dissection of the possibility of human contentment (and the facades that mark all our lives) in Happiness. I’ve lauded the transformative power of the existentially challenging final sequence of Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York time and time again. I’ve peered into the nihilistic desperation of Christopher McCandless during the haunting final stretches of Into the Wild. So, it should mean something when I say that perhaps no film has ever presented as powerful an argument for the meaninglessness of life as Lars von Trier’s indie sci-fi drama, Melancholia, a highly flawed picture with moments of astonishing clarity and vision.

I should stop tweeting about the movies I review on Netflix before I write these reviews because I’ve already used up some of the jokes/insights I had into this film but beyond describing Melancholia as Life Is Meaningless: The Movie (Now Shut the Fuck Up About It), I also told a friend that I thought it could have been called Depression: The Movie. Melancholia has many things going for it, but highest of all, it is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of severe clinical depression that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. And the raw details of the hell of chemically induced clinical melancholia (one of two sources of the film’s title) is worth the two and half hour time investment alone.

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Broken into two parts (with each part named for one of the film’s two female leads), Melancholia is a peek into the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with a surrealistic montage of slow-motion, seemingly disconnected images of the film’s cast as a large planet collides with Earth and destroys. And from there, we flash back a week prior to Justine’s wedding reception (to True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) at the palatial mansion where Charlotte and her husband John (The Lost Boy‘s Kiefer Sutherland) live.

But, all is not well in the lives of this family. Justine is a self-destructive mess, suffering from severe melancholia and as her wedding reception begins, her brief period of respite is coming to a crashing, cataclysmic close with her mood disorder returning with a vengeance. Her husband is seemingly a good man, but with the presence of her controlling sister, her lecherous father, and her equally depressed mother, Justine has few pillars to rely on, and besides, her illness isn’t simply something that she can just will away.

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Compounding this family’s domestic problems is the present of a massive planet, Melancholia, that has been hiding in the sun’s shadow (Lars von Trier understands depression and family resentments; he doesn’t get astronomy or general physics) will be doing a perilously close fly-over into Earth’s orbit. Scientists and Claire’s husband are convinced the planet will simply fly past Earth and do no harm, but we no from the film’s opening sequence that isn’t the case, and the air of an impending apocalypse hangs over the film’s entire proceedings.

I don’t believe that there is any inherent, a priori meaning to life. I suppose I’m an existentialist of the Sartre bent and I believe that we create the meanings of our lives through the actions we take and the values we adhere to. And that is to say that I don’t believe life is without meaning or value. It just doesn’t exist alone in a state of nature. Lars von Trier clearly believes that life is a futile struggle full of nothing but suffering and pain and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, all we’ve endured will mean nothing as we disappear into the nothingness of the ether.

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And while I may not agree with Mr. von Trier’s philosophical position, he presents it in stark and convincing terms. Von Trier stacks the deck by placing his story at the end of the world, but he isn’t so cheap as to make that the crux of the argument. Instead, he uses the apocalypse as a way to examine how we deal with the inevitable end of our own lives, particularly when we know the exact moment that it shall arrive. It’s easy to internalize our own mortality when it’s going to happen at some unknown juncture in the future in a way that we can not guess or control. It’s entirely different if we know the exact moment and context of our own demise.

And that raises questions in our mind. If I were to die tomorrow (and I have to drive back to Morgantown in terrible road conditions, so, hey, it’s a possibility), will my life have meant anything? I’ll be dead and I don’t believe in an afterlife so I thankfully wouldn’t have to wrestle with that question, but suddenly, everything I’ve ever been will have no meaning to me. There will be no me. And if, when we die, we cease to be what was the point? And if you argue, “the future of our species,” what’s the point if at some moment, humanity manages to wipe itself out (through nuclear war) or is itself wiped out (aliens/supernova/heat death of the universe)? When life itself ceases to be, what was the point of it ever being in the first place?

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And, Mr. von Trier’s aim is to show that life itself is a cruelty that humanity endures because the only other alternative, non-existence, is hard-wired into our genetics as being unpalatable even if its the far more merciful option. The films I mentioned in this review’s first paragraph dealt with nihilism without being nihilistic themselves (except maybe Happiness). Melancholia is the closest I’ve ever come to understand and agreeing with the basic tenets of nihilism as a philosophy. And, even on some level, I suspect I only disagree with Mr. von Trier because the only other option would be too unbearably sad.

Moving past the philosophical implications of the film (which are vast and will likely consume my thoughts for days to come), Melancholia succeeds on other fronts. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film (which is ironic considering Lars von Trier’s status as the founder of the minimalistic Dogme ’95 school of filmmaking), and even though I thought the film’s surrealist opening montage was one of the film’s more glaring flaws, no one can deny how well it’s shot. When Melancholia begins to inch closer and closer to Earth, the film’s otherworldly lighting adds not only to the science fiction feel of the film, but it shines a more than metaphorical light on the truths Claire would like to escape.

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And Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a revelation. She’s become something of a running joke to me. Any time I want to bring up a terrible performance in an otherwise great film, I’ll talk about her in Spider-Man 2. In those films, Tobey Maguire’s mask was more expressive and emotional than her. But as Justine, there’s a fearless vulnerability and edge in Kirsten Dunst that I’ve never seen before in her career, and I doubt I’ll ever see again. Her usual air of “What’s happening right now” works great as Justine loses herself further and further in the pits of her crippling depression and alienates and infuriates everyone around her.

And Lars von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better as the beset Claire. At first, Claire seems to be the only person in her family that has it at all together. She runs Justine’s wedding even as Justine seems to be going to great lengths to ruin it. She puts up with her status-obsessed husband who may or may not have a sexual attraction to her sister. But, when existence itself crumbles around her, we quickly learn that Charlotte is even more lost and confused than her sister. At least Justine can face the reality of their situation. And Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvelous job of portraying Claire as her carefully built world explodes in her face.

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Despite the brutal existential queries of the film’s second half, it was never as good or focused as the first part which takes place during Justine’s doomed wedding reception. The value of the examination of the destructive nature of Justine’s depression far outweighed the fiery call of nihilistic futility. And, it also doesn’t help that the film’s focus was (even in the superior first part) never particularly tight. There were too many excursions into aspects of character that while perhaps interesting, they weren’t interesting enough to justify their place in the story.

Melancholia isn’t for everyone. My dad considers it one of the worst films that he’s ever forced himself to sit through (though, had he read this review before he watched it, he might have known it wasn’t his cup of tea). Melancholia requires not only a dedication from the viewer to be willing to dive deep into the flaws and impulses of its female heroines but also an ability to not flinch away from the true horrors of the nature of life itself. If that sounds like an intellectually invigorating way to pass your time, then few films will challenge you the way that Melancholia intends to.

Final Score: B+

 

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Besides the moments where I watch true cinematic masterpieces for this blog (Annie Hall, Chinatown, The Tree of Life), it may be true that the best moments on this blog where I watch a film that isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. That may seem like a sad statement, but when you’re expecting to loathe a film, and it turns out to be at least a little enjoyable, that’s a victory. It’s the opposite of that terrible feeling when you know a movie is going to be awful (The Help) and it stays awful (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). I’ve got a pretty set view now (after having reviewed 400 odd films for this blog) of what I like and I don’t like, and it’s gotten easier and easier for me to tell when a movie will be something I will like or not. 2011’s Puss in Boots (a spin-off of the Shrek franchise) seemed like it would be torturous, but it was, thankfully, a pleasantly surprisingly enjoyable children’s film.

For those unfamiliar with the Puss in Boots character (Antonio Banderas) from the Shrek films, he is a suave, womanizing feline thief that is the cat embodiment of the smoldering Latin lover archetype (one of many areas in which this film scores some decent jokes for the grown-ups). In his own self-contained story, Puss is his nation’s most-wanted outlaw and its most notorious lover and thief. At a bar (where he orders “leche”), Puss hears about magic beans being held by grotesque spin on Jack & Jill which are the key to a giant’s kingdom in the sky with a goose that lays golden eggs. Puss makes it his mission to steal these beans when he encounters Kitty Soft-Paws (The Faculty‘s Salma Hayek), a female cat who is an even better thief than him. Kitty is working with Humpty-Dumpty (The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis), a friend of Puss’s from his childhood in the orphanage but now there’s bad blood between the two and Humpty may turn out to be (awful pun incoming) a bad egg.

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Antonio Banderas is essentially playing an exaggerated version of his typical film persona (that of the smolderingly sexy Latin lover) so it shouldn’t be surprising that he voices Puss well. Puss’s addition to Shrek 2 was generally considered one of the high points of that particular film, and although I’m not sure if he deserved his own spin-off film, Banderas’s deliciously hyperbolic performance and the writing’s sense of the character give him enough presence to hold the attention for the whole film. Salma Hayek is thoroughly unremarkable as Kitty, but she’s mostly a thoroughly unremarkable actress (her talents as an actress. not her physical looks which are god damned perfect). Zach Galifianakis has the chance to show off a more low-key performance for him as Humpty and he makes the parts work.

What’s most surprising about Puss in Boots is that it is a legitimately, no qualms in saying this very funny film. From the opening sequence where the film doesn’t even attempt to subtly imply that Puss just had a one night stand with a female cat, Puss in Boots blends typical children’s slapstick humor with plenty of tongue-in-cheek pop culture references and almost outright adult humor for the parents. That seems to be Dreamwork’s thing since both Shrek and Rango utilized that same set-up (Puss in Boots falls somewhere between Shrek and Rango in terms of overall quality). And sometimes, it isn’t even the biggest jokes that worked the most for me. Sometimes, it was the tiny little visual gags hidden in a scene. Particularly, Humpty’s map to the giant’s kingdom looks like a children’s map. The gorgeously animated film is full of those little touches.

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I’m going to keep this review short. Puss in Boots lacks the emotional context or thematic richness of Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant, but I had a good time for the 90 minutes I spent in its world. Much like last year’s Oscar-winning Brave, this particular Oscar-nominated children’s film is not going to wind up part of the required canon of modern animated cinema in the way that Up and other children’s classics are. You don’t need to go out of your way to watch this film if you don’t have kids. But if you have children or nieces and nephews or a young sibling and are looking for an entertaining way to pass the time with them, Puss in the Boots will get the job done and you won’t be miserable while it happens.

Final Score: B

 

Drive (2011)

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Where do we draw the lines between films that aestheticize violence for its own sake and those that aestheticize violence in the purpose of a higher calling? No one would deny the aesthetic nature of the violence in Luc Besson films such as The Professional or La Femme Nikita but you could also make the argument that those films subverted the violence whenever possible alongside their emphasis on character development. But,  then there are films like Django Unchained which on one hand use violence for clearly stated thematic goals (any thing doing with slavery) but also for cartoonish revenge fantasy. 2011’s Drive from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn seems, on an honest assessment, to be pretty much all style and aesthetics with little to no substance. But, when the style is this good, I sort of don’t want to complain.

The lack of an actual substantive theme or rich character development in this film is absolutely baffling because Drive is very much a European art-house film at its core. It’s just an arthouse film that doesn’t mean anything beyond its plot. This was the first of Refn’s films that I’ve seen but if his technical talents to visually evoke a mood and sense of time and place (in this film’s case, the 1980s even though it takes place in modern times I assumed) are like this in the rest of his works, Refn is a visualist of the highest order. I mean, he’s not a Mallick or a Fellini, but he can join the ranks of the Gaspar Noé‘s of the world. This movie is very popular among young film types (who tend to prefer style over substance), but I found it almost shocking because it isn’t until nearly halfway through the film that the ultra-violent (and boy is it ultra-violent) action of the film began to take over.

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Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) plays the unnamed Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who also makes a living as a getaway driver in his part time. The Driver is a man of few words and almost immaculate professionalism, and the film opens with him leading the LAPD on a cat-and-mouse chase through the city and then losing them at the Staples centers after a Lakers game. In addition to being a stuntman and a getaway driver, the Driver also works as a mechanic in a classic/retro car garage with his only friend in LA, a crippled wanna be gangster named Shannon (Argo‘s Bryan Cranston). When the Driver moves into a new apartment, he begins making googly-eyes at one of the building’s tenants, kind single-mother Irene (Doctor Who‘s Carey Mulligan), but when her ex-con husband is released from prison, the Driver’s carefully maintained world is thrown into chaos.

I want to say as little about the plot developments of later on in the film as possible to stop from spoiling a relatively new indie film for those who haven’t had the chance to watch it yet. Needless to say though, twists abound (albeit predictable ones) and the body count stacks higher than an early Tarantino picture. Drive was very much a Ryan Gosling vehicle (pun half intended), and though Gosling’s performance in this doesn’t match his lovably eccentric (and simultaneously heartbreaking) turn in Lars and the Real Girl, it continues his transformation, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, into one of Hollywood’s thinking man action stars and leading men (and for women, his transformation into the thinking woman’s [or any woman with a pulse] sex symbol). Gosling speaks very little in the film and he has to do much of his acting just with his facial expressions which he thankfully succeeds in.

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However, the best aspects of the film (aside from Refn’s remarkable skills as a director) are the performances of Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. Bryan Cranston has proven himself week in and week out to be the greatest lead performer in the history of television on Breaking Bad so its no surprise that he is more or less perfect as the half-crippled and scheming Shannon, but Albert Brooks’s terrifying performance as ruthless but affably evil gangster Bernie is the real treat of the film. I mostly know (more accurately, entirely know) Albert Brooks as a comedic actor. Comedy is the bread and butter of his career, but his take on Bernie is just exceptional. There isn’t a second he’s on screen (but his power is even more pronounced once he drops the nice guy schtick) where he isn’t controlling the whole scene. He should have gotten a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 2011.

I just wish that the movie had more to say or that the characters were at least more clearly drawn. There isn’t much in the way of a character arc for the Driver. Yes, he goes from a lonely man to someone who loves another man’s husband, but he himself seems to be more or less the exact same man from the beginning to the end of the film. The extreme acts of violence we see him commit later in the film (i.e. smashing a man’s hands to bit with a hammer and then threatening to drive a bullet with a hammer through said man’s skull) are things he was capable of earlier in the film. He just hadn’t been given an excuse to engage in them yet. And though the film has its share of eccentric characters, they’re mostly defined by one or two eccentricities. They almost uniformly lack depth. Irene herself is nothing more than a cipher for inspiring the Driver to an act of altruism. And Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks has a small part in the film but she’s on screen for like all of five minutes.

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You have to understand that my complaints about the undeniably shallow nature of this film need to be taken with a grain of salt. Because from an aesthetic standpoint, Drive is almost designed to appeal to all of my different weird, niche pleasure principles from its super-80s soundtrack (even though they’re modern bands like Chromatics) to its gorgeous, European style cinematography to its absolutely unflinching display of violence in order to achieve some semblance of cinematic truth. I just wish that the movie could have married all of those aesthetic qualities I love to a Luc Besson level of depth. For fans of stylistic crime thrillers, Drive is about as easy a recommendation as they come. It’s not perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a more fun way to spend an hour and forty minutes.

Final Score: B+

 

Reptar

Long-time readers may remember my fondness for Athens, GA freak-rockers Reptar. Reptar played Baeble Music’s (the company that I interned with in NYC) showcase at the 2012 SXSW in Austin, TX, and I was responsible for writing our introduction for the band. I fell in love with their single “Sebastian” on first listen. They were the first band that I saw on Friday at this year’s Bonnaroo, and though their set was far from perfect, they were an appropriately fun and crazy way to start of the first full day of Bonnaroo (and were one of many very good acts I saw that day). Their psychedelic spin on indie rock and freak folk may not be for everyone (Pitchfork notoriously hated their debut LP), but I enjoy them. I hope you do as well.

 

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I’m not really a fan of dubstep. Occasionally an artist like Big Gigantic or Burial will come along but they are so barely dubstep in reference to how modern American listeners envision the word, that they hardly even cross my mind when I think of the genre. Based on his studio recordings, MPC wunderkind and dubstep/electronica producer araabMUZIK is much different than your average dubstep artist, and although I didn’t plan to stay for his whole set at Bonnaroo, I thought it would be cool to photograph him. Sadly, his set itself was way too wub wub wub for my tastes and I thought I was going to lose my hearing from the bass drops. Still, his studio stuff is great, and the audience at Bonnaroo went fucking nuts for him. Outside of the headliners, I’m not sure if I saw a single set where the audience was more into the performance. Enjoy his song, “Let It Go.” I know I do.

(side note. I really enjoy the color in this photograph I took during his set. I just wish there wasn’t a camera in the corner of it)

 

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I’ve been meaning to bring this part of my blog back for more or less a month and a half now. It had become, consistently, one of my favorite things to do here as I’m nearly as passionate about music as I am about movies. Anyways, long time readers know that I used to have a regular Song of the Day feature on my blog, and they might have also known that I covered Bonnaroo this year both as an editorial journalist and as a photojournalist. So, I’m going to choose a picture and a song by each band that I shot at this year’s Bonnaroo Music & Art’s Festival.

The first band that I shot was Vermont based psychedelic soul band, The Stepkids. Their show was good if nowhere near one of the best I saw that weekend. This particular picture is fairly terrible, but in my defense, it was also the first time I had ever used a digital SLR camera and I had literally no idea what I was doing. They have an awesome song called “Santos and Ken” that I really enjoy. It’s weird to do my Song of the Day post at nearly 4 in the morning, so I’ll actually have two Songs of the Day today because I’m going to put up my next one before I go to work later today. Enjoy.

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Much like Iron Man 2, this is a film that I have avoided watching for two years now because I heard literally no good things about it. 2009’s The Hangover became one of the true sleeper hits of the 2000s, and it’s not a stretch by any mean to say that it’s one of the great broad comedies of the last twenty years. It reached “instant classic” status without seeming like it even had to try. And then two years later, The Hangover: Part II came out and the reviews were so one-sidedly negative that it seemed like the sequel was so bad it was retroactively ruining the memory of the first film. It doesn’t quite accomplish that, but The Hangover: Part II is still one of the most cynically-produced and legacy shattering sequels I’ve ever had the misery to sit through, and I’ve watched the first three Saw sequels.

The Hangover: Part II is what happens when you take the characters from the first film but make them inherently less likeable, take the situations from the first film and rob them of any freshness and wit, and take the jokes from the first film and butcher the writing, and throw all of that in a blender in Bangkok. Hackneyed and half-assed barely begins to cover the writing of this film, and one has to wonder if the lead actors even had a chance to read the script before they had a chance to sign onto this shit show. With the exception of Zach Galifianakis (who always commits to the role) and Ed Helms (who is as underrated a talent as there is), nothing about this film felt remotely enjoyable or clever from beginning to end.

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The Wolfpack, consisting of Stu (Cedar Rapids‘ Ed Helms), Phil (Silver Lining Playbook‘s Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and Doug (Justin Bartha), go to Thailand for Stu’s wedding to the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Thai businessman (with barely any reason given for why he left Heather Graham’s character from the first film). And, of course, one drink at a bonfire on their resort beach turns into Stu, Phil, and Alan waking up in a seedy Bangkok hotel room with no memories of the night before and a coked out Mr. Chow (Community‘s Ken Jeong) waiting for them as they have to unravel the mystery of the night before and what happened to the little brother of Stu’s bride-to-be.

And, from that recooked premise, The Hangover: Part II tries to jam in as many jokes cribbed right from the first film, although it tries to up the ante in ways that generally don’t work. Does Stu sleep with a prostitute again? Check. Does Stu do something permanently damaging to his head/face? Check. In fact, it’s Mike Tyson’s tattoo. Does Alan drug the group? You betcha (You claim spoilers; I claim “who gives a shit, this movie sucked and it was obvious). Does Phil have to call Doug’s wife in a panic? Yep. Does Stu solve the mystery at the last second? Yep. Do they get the wrong version of the person they’re looking for? Uh huh. There isn’t an original bone in The Hangover: Part II‘s body.

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The film’s only redeeming moments come in the performances of Ed Helms and, mostly, Zach Galifianakis. Although, Ed Helms emotes and screams and prances even more than usual, and there are points in this film where his over-reaction (which I suppose works within the context of the film) begins to grate. Things mostly rest on the broad shoulders of Galifianakis whose deadpan and spot on inhabiting of the anomaly known as Alan is as brilliant as ever. Alan’s writing is worse this time around, and he goes from being eccentric to mostly a giant asshole, but Galifianakis works with what he’s given, and the film’s only laughs always seemed to come from him.

I watched The Hangover: Part II because reviews for The Hangover: Part III were moderately better, and I was hoping to see it in theaters. I wish I hadn’t wasted my time, and now I’m unsure if I even want to see the trilogy through to its close. This film is unfunny, shoddily made, and more or less, my new Ur-example of everything that’s wrong with most sequels in Hollywood today. Even if you’re a die hard fan of the original Hangover, don’t waste your time on this turd. Something tells me you can still see and appreciate the third film and not waste your time on this awful, obvious cash-in.

Final Score: C-

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What does it mean to be more than just another summer blockbuster? How do you separate yourself from the crowded marquee of countless other generic big-budget spectacles that invade our cinemas each year? If you’re Christopher Nolan, you turn The Dark Knight Rises into a political allegory that reshapes the possibility of myth-making in the ultimate American mythos, the superhero. If you’re Joss Whedon, you use The Avengers to set a new bar for witty dialogue and compelling group dynamics as well as incorporating arguably the greatest fight scene in all of superhero-dom. I did not think I would ever place Planet of the Apes reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the same league as those two top-tier blockbusters. I was dumb for doubting it because this particular origin story has more heart, brains, and meaning than the rest of the franchise combined, and it holds its own with the very best of the summer blockbusters.

Set in the near future (man is going to Mars so it can’t be the present), Rise of the Planet of the Apes defies franchise expectations by focusing not on men who are tormented by their ape overlords, but on the apes who are punished and tortured until they finally rebel against their human oppressors. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a very special chimpanzee. When his mother, a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s cure, is put down trying to protect her newly born son, geneticist Will Rodman (127 Hours‘ James Franco) takes Caesar home where he quickly learns that Caesar’s intelligence is far superior to that of a normal chimp. I don’t want to ruin the chain of events that lead to ape rebellion, but after raising Caesar as his own family for many years, humanity’s own dark side prods Caesar and the mistreatment of his fellow apes to finally fight back.

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Whereas most of the films in the franchise portrayed the apes as evil conquerors, Rise of the Planet Apes paints Caesar as a burgeoning freedom fighter whose constant exposure to injustice leads him down the path to revolution. I have more to say about Andy Serkis in a second, but it is exceptionally impressive that in this film, they were able to make me care more about Caesar and his comrades-in-arms than any of the flesh-and-blood people that populated the screen. Unable to talk for most of the film (don’t worry franchise purists. They’re voice boxes return), Rise of the Planet of the Apes still managed to turn Caesar into a sympathetic figure of the injustice and cruelty man inflicts on animals just through strong writing and superb animation. And also, the motion-capture work that Andy Serkis did, but, yet again, more on that in a second.

Twice now, I have cared more about an Andy Serkis creation in a movie than the actual actors he was playing across from. A lot of that is the writing, but if there wasn’t a talented actor bringing these intricately animated figures to life, they just wouldn’t click with audiences. Gollum isn’t actually one of the two characters I was referring to, but would his arc through the Lord of the Rings franchise had seemed so tragic and sympathetic if Andy Serkis hadn’t been behind his movements? I think not. But between Caesar and the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Andy Serkis managed to elicit such strong emotional reactions from me just by playing apes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Caesar is the strongest of his performances thus far, and I hope (if the writing is good) that he gets to return to this role at some point in the future.

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It wouldn’t be much of a summer blockbuster if it didn’t have the requisite action sequences and in that regard, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is fairly restrained, although part of me wants to say that it does so in a good way. A good three-quarters of the film is nothing but introducing us to the character of Caesar, the world he finds himself in, and then the path of abuse and punishment that leads to him rising up against his oppressors. I applaud the film’s decision to devote so much time to developing not just Caesar (though he gets the brunt of the development) but also Will, and Will’s Alzheimer-suffering father (John Lithgow). However, the film’s final sequence, where the apes finally rise up, seemed rushed, although that complaint is mitigated by the obvious sequel hooks that it’s ending left in place.

I’m going to keep this short because I want to work on my screenplay tonight (I’m 50 pages into my third screenplay since October. I’ve finished two others) although there’s a good chance that I’m just going to end up playing Tropico 4 or watch The Master which I have at home from Netflix. My roommates appear to be having some type of party down stairs so maybe I’ll join in. Although, they’re being a little raucous so it might be too much party for me and I’ll just stay in my attic. If you like smart, well-crafted science fiction and want a compelling lead, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as good as any American summer blockbuster to come out in years. If you’ve put off watching it because of the travesty of the Tim Burton remake, get over that fear right now, and check this film out.

Final Score: A-

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I work a lot this week. I’m not complaining. I get a paycheck and this is one of my last weeks as a manager before I voluntarily step down to just being a part-timer (cause working nearly 30 hour weeks and being a full-time college student does not really equate to academic success). One of the downsides of working and doing school is that I will occasionally watch a movie and then not have time to actually review the film til several days later. I.e., that’s just what happened after I finished the truly excellent Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. It’s arguably the best documentary that I’ve ever watched, and it deserves a better review than I can give it after not having much time to think about it since viewing it in the wee, wee hours of Wednesday morning.

It’s very easy to make films with schmaltzy heroes that bring deliverance to some underprivileged group. The Blind Side and The Help are both built on fantasy and racial condescension (The Blind Side is a true story but plays hard and loose with the real life facts of Michael Oher). It’s harder to make a gritty, realistic story full of unsympathetic leads and outright bad people (read: Happiness). The hardest type of movie to make though is one with real-life heroes that doesn’t feel manipulative or unnecessary. To make a film with an uplifting message that exists for a reason other than to just make us feel better about ourselves. 2011’s Undefeated clears that bar and sticks the landing.

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Undefeated is the truly inspiring, real-life recording of the trials and tribulations of the Manassass Tigers, a struggling inner-city football team in Memphis, Tennessee. The team hasn’t made it to the play-offs in years, and in their entire 110 year existence as a high-school, they’ve never won a play-off game. Volunteer head coach Bill Courtney intends to turn the team around. It’s his sixth year as the team’s coach, and with his current crop of seniors, his odds of making to the play-offs have never been better. But, football is secondary to helping to shape these young boys into men for Coach Courtney, and the Coach always keeps character at the forefront for his young athletes.

Alongside Coach Courtney, the film also paints a painfully honest and intimate portrait of the lives of several of the players on the team. O.C. Brown is the team’s star athlete and the only one with real college prospects. Although O.C. is very poor and lives with his grandmother, one of the assistant coaches allows him to stay at his house to help tutor him so he can pass the ACTs to get into school. “Money” Brown is the brains on the team but can’t afford college and tears his ACL during an early game in the season. And the team bad boy, Chavis Daniels, has a massive chip on his shoulders, but Coach Courtney refuses to turn his back on him even when he crosses the line one too many times.

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My viewing experience of Undefeated for the first time was one of the most emotional experiences of my entire movie-viewing career. It’s not an especially difficult task to make me cry, but to have me uncontrollably sobbing is a feat only a handful of movies have accomplished. Undefeated took me to that place three times and I legitimately spent the last hour or so of the film going in and out of tears. It was the rare film that was both exceptionally honest and true. It didn’t hold back from how awful these kids lives were and what little hope many of them had once high school ended. But when it delivered its moments of uplift, it struck a more emotional chord than I can almost begin to describe.

I’m not sure if documentary film directors are eligible for the Best Director award at the Oscars, but if they are, it’s a crime that Undefeated‘s
Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin weren’t nominated (and the film definitely deserved some type of editing recognition). Though the film is a documentary, it never stops having a cinematic feel, and if you hadn’t told me before hand that this film was a documentary, I would have honestly believed that it was just a very authentic feeling film. The movie carries such dramatic weight and is a seriously visual undertaking that even people who don’t enjoy documentaries should find plenty to attach themselves to in this film.

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I hope it’s clear that I have a lot to say about this movie. It now joins The Tree of Life as arguably the best film of 2011 (and it’s infinitely more accessible than Terrence Malick’s opus), and it simply eclipses every other documentary that I’ve reviewed thus far. The film gets favorable comparisons to Hoop Dreams (which I’ve never seen) if you want more context for the film’s import. But, as I’ve said, I watched the movie before going to bed at like 4 A.M. Tuesday (so technically Wednesday), and while many of the heart-wrenching details of the film have certainly stuck with me, I no longer feel like I can do them proper justice after this extended absence. All you need to know is that this film gets my rare perfect score (though not so rare this week since the last movie I reviewed, The Godfather: Part II, also got this score) and that I don’t give “A+”s away lightly.

Final Score: A+