RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence

Has anyone else noticed that around the time we elected Ronald Reagan president, American cinema began a steady decline? The same mentality that led us to George Bush, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and the Tea Party, has led us to deliver films like RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to a public no longer interested in using their brains. In fact, “intelligent” and “educated” have become dirty words, perhaps even anti-American. So for a country that helped shepherd in cinema as an art and a craft –as we did Democracy and Capitalism as schools of thought– we have shamed ourselves by veering so far off course as to appear like adults who have grown into infancy.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the perfect example of how bad a film can be in this current age of Hollywood. And how brain-washed or starved film critics are that they would actually apply words like “smart,” “intelligent,” and “complex” to a film like APES.

“An emotionally complex story, evocative and engaging.” —Bruce Diones, The New Yorker 

“The cautionary tale feels surprisingly fresh and entertaining… Franco is charismatic as a dedicated scientist… With top-notch computer-generated images, this sci-fi action thriller revives the series and creates a palpable sense of tension.” —Claudia Puig, USA Today  

“The film, which Rupert Wyatt directed from an audacious screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, rises above its dramatic deficits, boosts the collective IQ of this summer’s movies and swings into flights of kinetic fantasy that blow the collective mind…” —Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal  

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” does it right. Smart, fun and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s a model summer diversion that entertains without insulting your intelligence… “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is as good as it is partly because it’s strong in the areas all films, not just summer blockbusters, should be. It’s effectively written by the team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and well acted both by stars like James Franco and John Lithgow and supporting players like the protean Brian Cox… British director Rupert Wyatt’s previous feature was the excellent prison-break drama “The Escapist,” but he proved to be a shrewd choice to make a film about an entire species breaking free of eons of restraint, one that includes some of the most potent species versus species conflict since Alfred Hitchcock‘s “The Birds.” …A director who knows how to bring drive and momentum to material he connects with, Wyatt works with editors Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt (both veterans of several James Cameron projects) to create a crackerjack sense of pace. And cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who shot the “Lord of the Rings” films, gives “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” an exciting wide-screen feeling while providing numerous bravura visual moments.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times 

“Precisely the kind of summer diversion that the studios have such a hard time making now.” —Manohla Dargis, New York Times 

Excuse me for a moment while I attempt to lift my jaw off the ground.

These comments are straight out of the Twilight Zone for me. They are truly from a different planet than the one I inhabit. Now granted, most of our film critics today are either fancy bloggers (far fancier than myself) or journalists hired as a paper’s film critic for reasons other than having any knowledge of film, its history or its craft. But there are a number of critics who have been around a while who have given this film glowing reviews. I say this with all seriousness: I will never read them again. I cannot trust them.

For the record, I take no issue with anyone who simply found the experience of watching APES enjoyable. It’s one thing to enjoy a film even though you know it’s highly flawed. It’s another to call it smart, well-written, complex. Those are two very, very different things. There are many films I recognize as not being particularly impressive works of cinema, some I even recognize as downright awful, but for one reason or many, I still find them enjoyable. Guilty-pleasures, as it were.

Thankfully, I am not completely alone in being appalled by this film’s brain-dead incompetence. There are some critics out there who recognized this tepid mess for what it was and were not afraid to say so in their reviews. They have my respect and I will be looking forward to more of their opinions and observations regarding film. Hopefully, with one or two of them, their ability to recognize weak, lazy screenwriting and uninspired directing and acting will be reflected in future reviews. Here are a handful of them who have, at least this time around, garnered my respect:

 “A creature feature of disappointing stupidity… Those early [APE] movies may look cheesy now, but the guys in the monkey suits at least gave Charlton Heston something solid to respond to. The stars of this incarnation, like the sick chimps of 28 Days Later, are just barreling balls of unspecified quadruped fury, swarming over the Golden Gate Bridge and tossing manhole covers like discuses. For all we know they could be protesting the lack of primate roles on network television.” –Jeannette Catsoulis, NPR  

“The production notes for Rise of the Planet of the Apes” calls it “the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal – a character with human-like qualities, who can strategize, organize, and ultimately lead a revolution, and with whom audiences will experience a real emotional bond.” Didn’t “Zookeeper” already do that? What about “Rocky”?… This is the kind of movie where the characters are always saying things like, “What are you saying?” Plot points are continually reiterated. Obviously director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t think we in the audience are as smart as Caesar.” —Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor  

“They probably should have called it “Beneath the Dignity of the Planet of the Apes… Freida Pinto gets to spend the movie doing nothing except standing next to Franco looking like Freida Pinto, which ought to be enough but somehow isn’t. Three years from Best Picture to Best Human Scenery? Depressing… A nasty guard (Tom Felton, a k a Draco Malfoy) has “first victim” written all over him. Yet it takes the movie a good 45 minutes to catch up to the audience. Why the guard — a twerp who looks like your average Kinko’s employee, not a sadist whose brutality is responsible for changing the fate of the Earth — gets so much screen time is a mystery. Especially when the movie’s got the ably villainous Brian Cox, who once played Hannibal Lecter, sitting around nearby… The monkeys don’t seem to want anything except to live in the redwood forest and maybe an apology for the 1976 version of “King Kong.” But as they settle down and establish themselves as the alpha species, I couldn’t quite summon much terror. Could they really be any worse than the real-life government of the state of California?” —Kyle Smith, New York Post

“Less wonderful [than the ape effects] are his fully human co-stars. James Franco, no matter how many degrees he amasses in real life, will never convince as a brilliant research scientist. The script, at its worst, stoops to having [Freida Pinto] pause before a cataclysmic battle, give Franco a kiss and whisper “Be careful.” If you have popcorn, you may want to throw it.” —Stephen Whitty, The Star Ledger 

“The filmmakers seem to have spent so much attention and, presumably, money on getting the primates right that they completely forgot about the people. Led by a mumble-mouthed James Franco in the role of Will Rodman, the cast of human actors is uniformly weak. John Lithgow is especially embarrassing as Will’s dodderingly senile father, but the list of offenders – and their acting offenses – is long. At one end of the dramatic spectrum is Freida Pinto, who’s almost invisible as Will’s veterinarian girlfriend. At the other end there’s David Oyelowo, who chews the scenery and spits it out as Will’s money-grubbing pharmaceutical-company boss. Brian Cox is somewhere in between. As the director of the animal shelter where the apes foment their revolution after Caesar is sent there for attacking a human, Cox exudes smarmily sinister incompetence but little else. As for Felton, his character’s malevolence is even more over the top than the actor’s work in the “Harry Potter” movies, where he played the maleficent Draco Malfoy. Here’s a movie mixing live action and CGI in which the humans are the least interesting thing about it. Not to mention the least plausible.” —Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post

“[A] lineup of dull characters and a limp story that functions like a conveyor belt. Viewers get on, know where it’s heading, and that’s where it goes.” —Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

To suffer through the writing that accompanies RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is something only Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld could condone. Now I personally know all too well that the script as it appears on screen and the script as it may have been originally written or envisioned may not be one and the same. Oftentimes writers-for-hire are simply reflecting the desires of those who sign their checks. For good or ill. But it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a film with characters so paper-thin and generic. Poor James Franco, such a good actor when he cares about the material, but so awkward and bland when he doesn’t. Now I can’t speak for what was actually going through Franco’s mind while the cameras were rolling on this puppy, but let’s just say the end result was reminiscent of his performance as host of the Academy Awards. It seems when Franco knows the material’s bad, he gives it the least amount of effort possible; as if silently saying “Don’t believe for a second that I think this is good.” There’s an air of embarrassment to his performance. A dull “I wish I were anywhere but here” quality that no paycheck can erase. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I have a great respect for James Franco and his talent. I think he’s one of our more fascinating and talented young actors. But when you give him little-to-nothing to work with, he accurately reflects that back.

The only character in this film with anything to do is the ape Caesar. And he is played (via digital recreation) by the now quite famous Andy Serkis. And his performance has been singled out by both lovers and haters of the film. And rightfully so. Serkis commits. But that doesn’t make the script any better. But it does give us something to hold on to, however tenuous that may be. Perhaps this is what has captured audiences’s attention: that they could care for a digital character in a minefield of dull, dimwitted humans. But at the end of the day, this technological achievement still has backward momentum insofar as storytelling goes. THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS director Gillo Pontecorvo’s now famous statement, “Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing,” seems to have been quite a prescient commentary on this very film; APES is the epitome of the decline Pontecorvo was witnessing in American cinema.

So how do films like this get made? Well, let’s look at some of the comments and advice that have been tossed my way by other filmmakers and producers: Clive Barker’s insistence that a horror film should have a scare planted every seven minutes (as if it were a recipe for the perfect blintz) is one that boggles my mind. Talk about formulas! I’m glad most of the great horror filmmakers didn’t have the opportunity to confer with Barker before moving into production. Then there was producer Chris Sievernich, who insisted a filmmaker should never do more than one take on any individual shot or performance. Unless of course the gate was dirty and we HAD to do another. Chris’s concern wasn’t with the quality of the filmmaking or the acting, but with the delivery of exposed celluloid. And as little of it as humanly possible, regardless of the caliber of its contents. Or how about the conversation I recently had with a producer (who shall remain nameless) whose latest big Hollywood remake was filled with so many gaps of inner logic as to drive an armada of luxury motor yachts through. When asked about the making of the film, he informed me that they knew the film had no inner logic, that it broke every rule it set up. But they didn’t care. He claimed that none of the test audiences noticed it so they figured it didn’t matter.

It. Didn’t. Matter.

What ever happened to pride in filmmaking? What ever happened to a desire to not only make money, but to make the best film possible? Is it that hard, once you’ve gathered all the elements together and have the money in place, to actually strive for quality beyond visual effects?

And speaking of visual effects, I have to say that at least half the time in APES, I found the digital chimps to be more distracting than engaging. No matter how far along we are, we still haven’t managed to give these things weight. There’s an insubstantial smoothness to the characters that make them feel shallow to me. Like wax museum figures come to life. There’s something to be said for trying too hard to make something look “real.” Cinema is not reality. I will take the artistry of a Stan Winston, Rob Bottin or John Chambers over the greatest digital artists working today. Not to diminish those talents, mind you. Digital has a place, it’s a wonderful tool and a very valid art, but it has not reached a point where I, personally, prefer it over actual three-dimensional objects or, by the same token, a beautiful matte painting. I go more on how it “feels” rather than how “realistic” it appears.

So director Rupert Wyatt’s direction of following a very digital baby chimp around as it swings and careens over lamps and through tree branches feels nothing more than a gimmick weighed down by an unwelcome, over-used familiarity. It lacks inspiration or originality. I would go so far as to say that I found the film’s visual style –Wyatt’s storytelling choices– to be, aside from its widescreen aspect ratio, more in sync with a made-for-televsion-movie than with something one expects to find showing at the local cinema. There was not a single image or movement in this film that carried an ounce of weight for me. Wyatt’s direction felt as unsubstantial as most of the digital characters bounding tirelessly across the screen. I could find no distinct vision there. Not even Andrew Lesnie’s lighting could save this film from the lifeless compositions and predictable camera-moves.

As for the other actors, I’ve always loved John Lithgow, and I would like to think he did as much as could be done with what he was given, but what he was given never attempted to move beyond the generic and obvious depictions of someone with Alzheimer’s. For me, the end result –within the context of this film– bordered on camp. Mr. Lithgow was, quite simply put, not in good hands. And while Freida Pinto may well be the single most beautiful woman ever created, she has little-to-nothing to do here. Or, as critic Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger observed: “Freida Pinto plays one of those movie girlfriends who seems to be there simply to prove that the hero isn’t gay.”

Brian Cox is completely wasted as a character with no arc, no purpose and no resolution. And Tom Felton as his son is such a one-note villain, such a first-draft concept of a character, that throwing the classic line “Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” into his mouth makes us even more aware of how little originality or care was taken in creating these characters, this world. The film would not have played any worse if the human actors had been nothing more than cardboard cutouts on sticks. They were certainly written as such.

For the record, I would much rather be writing a glowing piece on APES congratulating it on breaking free of the doldrums of contemporary Hollywood to offer us something of value, something inspired. But I cannot. At the end of the day, I would rather see a film that tries for greatness and fails, than see a film like APES which appears to strive for very little and –box office numbers notwithstanding– succeeds.

Luckily, there is always a silver lining. If nothing else, this APES reminds us just how great the original film was. And how, even at their worst, the four original sequels that followed never stooped this low. Not even the wretched BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES which at least shows effort in the face of an almost non-existent budget.

Beyond that, I think this film should be a fantastic motivator for American writers and filmmakers to do everything they can to return us to an age where we strive for more from our art, from our entertainment, as I hope we will one day strive for more from our politicians, our government. In a town like Hollywood, overrun with writers, to allow a script of this low-quality, something this lazy, this poorly written and executed to make its way into a multi-million dollar production, should shame us into action. I see it as a call to arms. A “RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE WRITERS,” as it were.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence

Favorite Quotes: David Gordon Green on Kevin Smith

Back in 2001, then first-time feature film director David Gordon Green made a comment about fellow filmmaker Kevin Smith:

“He kind of created a Special Olympics for film. They just kind of lowered the standard. I’m sure their parents are proud; it’s just nothing I care to buy a ticket for.”

I have to admit, the quote made me laugh. Now don’t misunderstand me, I love the fact that Kevin Smith opened the door for young filmmakers to pick up a camera and tell a story they felt represented them with virtually no money with which to do it. And clearly Smith has proven that his films have an audience. A pretty rabid one at that! I, myself, have never been a fan. The films don’t speak to me. And what’s more, I don’t think Smith has much of an understanding of the language of film. And he’s been quoted as saying that he doesn’t need to study film or watch the old “masters” to know how to make a movie. Well, let’s just say I think perhaps Smith’s films may have benefited in some artistic way from a basic sensibility of filmmaking that goes beyond point and shoot. If anything, I’ve always felt Smith’s scripts were undermined by his own direction (or lack thereof).

But either way, his films say something to a group of people and I wouldn’t dare attempt to deny its value to those who get something out of it. But while I love that he has found a form of expression in cinema, he has also created a monster of sorts in that there is a whole slew of young filmmakers who have absolutely no skills in (or sensibility for) visual storytelling whatsoever. They appear, at times, like people who may have something to say, but don’t know how to use their tongues yet, haven’t bothered to learn sign language, and so thus attempt to communicate through a series of grunts and groans that only occasionally resemble language.

Then, of course, there are those artists who appear to have a built-in sense of cinema; not something learned in a classroom nor via the viewing of other films, but something innate. And though Kevin Smith himself has referenced some of these filmmakers –like Jim Jarmusch– as excuses why he need not bother to actually study the craft in which he makes his living, he, himself, has not yet displayed any such natural disposition toward visual storytelling. Perhaps this is why I found David Gordon Green’s comment to be rather amusing and not without merit. At least for me.

Perhaps Smith will grow into being a filmmaker with a basic grasp of the medium. I look forward to that happening. In the meantime, he shows a bit more talent as a writer than as a director (though I must confess only a vague, passing amusement with certain passages in his scripts. I cannot claim fandom). But I would never deny Smith his right to make films. Or his fans their right to adore them. And while David Gordon Green has not proven himself to be a “master” director himself (particularly with his current foray into stoner-comedies which, ironically, compete for attention with Kevin Smith’s films), you have to admit, the Special Olympics for Film? That’s funny…

Favorite Quotes: David Gordon Green on Kevin Smith

Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Days 8 & 9: A Body Of Work

As this year’s Garcia week comes to a close, I want to direct everyone’s attention to the incredible body of work, musical and otherwise, that Jerry Garcia was a part of. Here are just a few of the places one can find Garcia’s vast legacy online:

Here’s a web site many of you are already familiar with, but one some of you may not have ventured a visit to: The Grateful Dead Listening Guide over at deadlistening.com. This site offers what might just be the most creatively written and all-consuming collection of live Dead show-suggestions on the web. Or anywhere else, for that matter. The site is self-descibed as “Helping new and old-comers navigate through listening choices in the sea of Grateful Dead shows available on and off line.” 

Shows are chosen by quality of playing as well as quality of recording. All years are represented. If you’re looking for the best audience recording from a particular year, you will probably find it here. Best soundboard? Also here. Want to know what the Dead’s famed Wall Of Sound sounded like in an outdoor stadium? Look no further.

This site has turned me on to many shows I had never heard before or had never heard so well. It is a great way to discover the music of the Grateful Dead as well as Jerry Garcia’s unique playing style. The site is updated regularly and each addition is a gem.

Here’s a sample: 1974 July 31 – Dillon Stadium.

As for the Grateful Dead on video, The Grateful Dead movie is always a terrific place to start. Here’s my review of the film and DVD release.

You can also visit the largest resource of live Grateful Dead recordings on the internet over at the Internet Archives. Here you can download audience recordings and listen to streaming soundboards of just about every Dead show ever played! Now THAT’S a pretty amazing feat!

Want to check out a set list from a specific place and year? Look no further than Deadlists.com. You’ll find each and every one ready and awaiting your perusal.

Want to take a stroll through the many paintings and drawings Jerry Garcia produced in his lifetime? You can pick up the book Jerry Garcia: The Collected Artwork, or visit my post, The Paintings & Sketches Of Jerry Garcia.

And for you torrent-users out there who like to download the latest and best-sounding Grateful Dead shows that find their way into circulation, you have to spend some serious time over at bt.etree.org. Check back every couple of days as old recordings are being remastered constantly by the best and brightest in the online trading community.

And while you’re doing all of that, keep in mind how lucky we all are to have lived in a world and at a time when Jerry Garcia was alive and making music, regardless of whether or not you had a chance to see the man perform in person. Thanks to the age in which Mr. Garcia was born, there is a solid record of his contributions here. And I, for one, will continue working my way through as much as I can possibly consume. With much gratitude.

We miss you, Jerry. With all our hearts.

Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Days 8 & 9: A Body Of Work

Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Day 7: Soundcheckin’

In 1976, the Grateful Dead returned from a year and a half hiatus during which time they recorded the amazing studio album BLUES FOR ALLAH. ’76 has a reputation for being a somewhat lackluster year. I, personally, find that to be a gross misconception. The Dead were well rehearsed and feeling precise. The music was often on the mellow side, particularly in the first months back but, for me, there was an extreme beauty that flowed from the band during this period.

Below are two soundchecks from the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco in July. I think it shows a band in top form. From their funky rendition of DANCIN’ IN THE STREETS to Jerry’s ode to love, THEY LOVE EACH OTHER, it’s a perfect way to welcome in a mellow Sunday morning.


Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Day 7: Soundcheckin’

Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Day 6: Oliver Sacks On Seeing The Grateful Dead

World-reknowned physician and professor of neurology, Oliver Sacks, is the author of the book THE LAST HIPPIE, which the recent film THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED is based on. The book chronicles Mr. Sacks’ real-life experiences with a patient who, as a result of a brain tumor, loses a large chunk of his memory and is rehabilitated through music, particularly the music of the Grateful Dead. The film itself is very loosely based on this true story and is, in and of itself, a work of fiction. However, one important element that remains is the healing power of the Grateful Dead’s music. The film is a sweet, straight-forward tale that sports some genuinely touching moments. For any true Dead Head, however, the film’s recreation of a Grateful Dead concert is somewhat lacking in authenticity and gets many details wrong, but its heart is in the right place and that goes a long, long way.

The following is an interview with Oliver Sacks discussing how he met Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and found himself invited to a Grateful Dead concert. Mr. Sacks’ response to the music and the scene surrounding it is testament to the sheer power of the Grateful Dead and displays the authenticity the movie’s concert scene lacks. It is as strange a blending of types as could be thrown together and the fact that they found such meaningful common ground is both startling and gratifying.

So while today’s post isn’t directly about Jerry Garcia, it is about the power of the music he was a part of. It’s nice to know the music that changed my life has also changed the lives of others. Even the most unsuspecting.

Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Day 6: Oliver Sacks On Seeing The Grateful Dead

Jerry Garcia Week Day 5: Why Now? Why Then?

I’m already at my day job (bright and early), so instead of skipping today’s post, I’m going to refer back to a favorite post I wrote a few years back that helped sum up my thoughts on why I love the Dead so much and what they mean to me. It’s part of a series of posts I wrote detailing my continued journey through Grateful Dead-dom. It’s titled DISCOVERING THE GRATEFUL DEAD: WHY NOW? WHY THEN?

And to add to that, here’s a vid someone put together of the ways in which the Grateful Dead’s sound grew and changed over the years as experienced through the song BERTHA.

I hope you enjoy.



Jerry Garcia Week Day 5: Why Now? Why Then?

Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Day 4: Part Of Something Bigger

I have to keep this short as this week is, for me, one of the busier work weeks and that, sadly, limits the time I can commit to waxing endlessly about my love of the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. So, as I’ve been doing all week, I’ll let Garcia speak for himself. Along with another. Grateful Dead biographer and all around terrific Dead-Head, Blair Jackson, who just wrote a piece over at Dead.net about the fact that Jerry was, most certainly, the driving creative force behind the Grateful Dead, but he wasn’t, in and of himself, the Grateful Dead. Grateful Dead was a collection of supremely talented musicians who had a very special and rare connection. And while Garcia’s mood could dictate a good night from a not-so-good night, he was still part of a whole. And that’s just the way he wanted it.

Here is a link to Blair Jackson’s recent post IWAAJ, OR WAS IT? Followed by two clips of Garcia discussing the notion of musicians versus “names” “celebrities” “stars.” I think, between the two of them, Jerry and Blair say it all.

Jerry Garcia Week 2011 Day 4: Part Of Something Bigger