Monday, September 12, 2011

It’s Official: I’ve Cancelled My STAR WARS Blu-Ray Pre-Order


It gives me absolutely no pleasure to write this blog post. I am really, legitimately sad about this, and I agonized over the decision for some time before finally pulling the trigger a few days ago. And then I agonized even more before I could bring myself to write this essay. But it’s true: I have indeed cancelled my STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA Blu-Ray pre-order on Amazon in light of the news that the following alteration as been made to my favorite scene from my favorite movie of all time, RETURN OF THE JEDI:

Those of you who know me know that I have long been a huge Star Wars apologist, often to a fault. While I fully acknowledge that most of Lucas’ changes to the special editions have ranged from “unnecessary” to “completely and utterly senseless,” I have always been able to to focus on the positive. In my opinion, the things that I LOVE about the Star Wars saga have always vastly outweighed these few bad things. Yes, it’s stupid that Greedo shoots first in A NEW HOPE. Yes, the added dialogue between Vader and the Emperor in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK dumbs down the scene. Yes, the musical sequence in Jabba’s Palace in RETURN OF THE JEDI is a joke. But it’s okay -- I can close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and go “LALALALA” during those scenes and still enjoy the remaining 99% of the films. (The prequels, of course, have far worse problems, but even they have their moments and while I have gone through various stages of prequel obsession and backlash over the years, I am now at a point where I can make fun of them AND enjoy them at the same time.)

star_wars_blu2I have also always considered the release of a new Star Wars trilogy box set to be a momentous occasion, especially in a new media format. I currently own five versions of the original trilogy: The pre-special edition VHS set from 1990; both the widescreen AND full-screen THX-enhanced VHS sets from 1995; the special edition VHS set from 1997; and the special edition DVD release from 2004. (I’ve never owned a laserdisc player or I’d probably own that legendary set, too.) I remember when the THX trilogy was released, my friend Nisha and I embarked on a quest all around NYC to track one down. It took all day, but we finally found it at some random store in the Village. It was a joyous moment (which we later celebrated by playing the Star Wars Drinking Game until we literally passed out, but that's a whole other story). So, needless to say, when it was announced that Star Wars was coming to glorious Blu-Ray in a nine-disc set with a wealth of bonus features including never-before-seen deleted scenes... well, I placed my pre-order immediately.

Of course, I figured that the original theatrical versions would NOT be included, which annoys me to no end and seems to go against everything George Lucas once stood for. Remember, this is a man who stood before Congress in 1988 (less than ten years before the special editions were released) and said this:

"People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as 'when life begins' or 'when it should be appropriately terminated,' but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race."

You can read the full text of his testimony here -- it gets even better and more mind-boggling, considering what he has become. He has been blatantly defying his own mandate for the past 20 years -- an unbelievable display of hypocrisy that would almost be comical if it wasn't so serious. I georgelucasyoungmean, it’s fine if he wants to consider the special editions as the “definitive” versions of the movies -- that's his prerogative. But dammit, you HAVE to include the original theatrical versions as a point of comparison and for the sake of preservation! All of his fellow contemporary filmmakers realize this: Spielberg included both versions of E.T. on the DVD release (and has since apologized for changing it at all and vowed never to mess with his movies again). Ridley Scott included FIVE versions of BLADE RUNNER on an incredible Blu-Ray release. The amazing ALIEN ANTHOLOGY contains multiple versions of all four films. James Cameron even included three versions of AVATAR on the deluxe Blu-Ray. There is simply NO reason for Lucas to not include the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy -- three of the most important and influential and beloved films of all time -- other than pure stubbornness and a complete lack of respect for the fans and film history.

There’s also a certain level of crazy vindictiveness on Lucas’ part. You may recall that when the trilogy was re-released on DVD in 2006, it was touted that they WOULD include the original theatrical editions. This is only half true. Yes, the pre-special edition versions of the movies were included as special features on those discs. But they were the shoddiest transfers possible, basically ripped from the laserdiscs that were released in the ‘90s (therefore using outdated transfer technology), and not even given the minimum anamorphic treatment that even the shittiest movies are given when released on DVD, let alone three of the most beloved movies of all time. Note that this had nothing to do with the fact that they were old films with matte lines, grain, etc. -- we’re talking about the most basic work that goes into putting a movie on DVD. This link goes into much greater detail about exactly what went wrong with this release -- a must-read. But the point is, it was almost as if Lucas intentionally released them in the worst possible quality so as to render them unwatchable, so that the general public would be like, “Wow, the special editions really ARE better!” The die-hards, of course, were not fooled, and a great furor arose.

But you know what? Whatever. Someday, you gotta figure there will be a super-duper ultimate edition in which the original versions will be given the proper treatment and all will be right with the world. For now, I still would have focused on the positive (as usual), bought the Blu-Rays and done the aforementioned “eyes closed, fingers in the ears” trick during the dumb parts just to be able to see my favorite films in high-definition. Not to mention all those bonus features, especially the deleted scenes -- some of which (like the Wampa attack on Echo Base in EMPIRE and the sandstorm scene in JEDI) we have heard about, but never seen, for decades. That alone is enough to get my geek heart aflutter.

But then came the announcement that Lucas had made more changes to the films. "I have a bad feeling about this," I thought. The first one we heard about was that the digital Yoda from Episodes II and III would be inserted yoda_TPMinto Episode I, replacing the puppet that was used in the original release. Now, granted, replacing the puppet in EMPIRE and JEDI would be grounds for assassination... but that PHANTOM MENACE puppet WAS pretty terrible. So far, so good.

I also saw that they have actually improved the infamous Han/Greedo scene in A NEW HOPE. Now, Greedo still gets a shot off, but it's cleaner and more simultaneous, like an old-west shootout. Still dumb as hell... but slightly more palatable. Fair enough.

But wait, there’s more. Seems Lucas has also decided to alter Ben Kenobi’s Krayt dragon impression in A NEW HOPE for no good reason, and now it sounds like something Yoko Ono would have recorded in the ‘70s. And he added extra rocks to the scene where Artoo is hiding after the Sandpeople attack, which makes no sense (how did he get back there? how does he get out?). And he digitally altered the Ewoks eyes so they now blink, because clearly, the non-blinking eyes is the reason why people don’t like Ewoks. Dumb, unnecessary changes, all... really just tinkering for the sake of tinkering... but still, harmless enough in the scheme of things. Wouldn’t have stopped me from purchasing the Blu-Rays if the changes ended here.

Sadly, they did not.

Darth Vader bellowing a cheesy-sounding “NOOOOO” as he hurls the Emperor to his death in what is arguably the seminal moment of the entire Star Wars saga??

That, I cannot forgive.

We can all see why Lucas did this, cinematically speaking. Vader bellows “NOOOOO!” as he comes to life at the end of REVENGE OF THE SITH. So, in George’s clueless mind, it makes sense to parallel that with Vader bellowing “NOOOOO” as he finds redemption at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. It makes sense, from a certain, twisted point of view. Except for two things:

vadernoooooFirst, the “NOOOOO” in Episode III was one of the most reviled moments of the entire prequel trilogy (which is really saying something). It turned what should have been Anakin's lowest moment of despair into... well, a joke. Actually, it wasn't even the "NOOOOO" itself that was so bad (hell, Luke screams "NOOOOO" when he learns Vader's identity in EMPIRE and it works), but the execution of the scene and the delivery of the line is just... so... bad. Fans made no secret of their feelings, and we know that Lucas is a stubborn, touchy bastard, so it's almost as if he is now saying, "You hated the 'NOOOOO' in SITH, did ya? Well, you're really gonna hate this." It's like he is sending a blatant, rousing "FUCK YOU" to all of Star Wars fandom.

Second, and most important: Sure, JEDI is a flawed film at times, and one that first raised the red flag that maybe Lucas was beginning to lose touch with reality as a result of his massive success. But whatever -- from the Rancor to Luke’s green lightsaber to the speeder bike chase, the movie rules. But the REAL reason it stands as my all-time favorite movie is because the last forty-five minutes. The Battle of Endor, the assault on the Death Star, and Luke’s duel with Vader as the Emperor looks on... quite simply, that is lukevaderpalpycinematic perfection. Especially the duel. I love everything about those scenes. Luke’s turmoil. “Your overconfidence is your weakness / Your faith in your friends is yours!” Luke finally giving in to the Dark Side as John Williams’ score swells. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” “So be it... Jedi.” The Emperor unleashing Dark Side energy (remember, at the time, we had never seen Force Lightning until that moment, so it was like HOLY SHIT). “Young fool, only now at the end do you understand.” And then Vader’s silent turmoil as he looks back and forth between his dying son and his vengeful master... and his ultimate, wordless decision to come back to the good side. A lump is forming in my throat as I write this, and it is two-fold: The scene is so powerful and I love it so much AND I hate that Lucas has turned it into a joke by adding that “NOOOOO.” This is NOT a change for which I can close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and go “LALALALA”... because goddammit, I don’t WANT to have to do that during my favorite fucking movie moment of all time!

And so, here we are. After all these years of defending the Star Wars films and loving them unconditionally, George Lucas has finally pushed me too far. He finally messed with something he really shouldn't have messed with, to the point where it renders my favorite movie unwatchable. It's clear that he is more machine now than man; twisted and evil. And unfortunately, the only thing that we, the fans, can do in protest is simply not buy it.

That I will not be receiving the Star Wars Saga on glorious Blu-Ray this week makes me very sad. I’ve never been more depressed about not spending $80. I had planned to spend the coming weekend watching all six films in one sitting for the first time ever, digging through the bonus features, basking in the high-def experience... that's out the window now. And the worst part is, it will probably make no difference. The geeks have come out en masse to protest on, where the set currently has a dismal two-star rating (with 753 out of 1,035 giving it a one-star thrashing), but it will probably still sell like hotcakes to the general public who either don't know or don't care as much as the die-hards. Meanwhile, Lucas will sit up in his tower, oblivious to the fact that, while the dollars are still rolling in, he has alienated his most loyal and important fan base.

Regardless, I strongly urge my fellow Star Wars fans to follow suit and cancel your pre-orders if you haven't already done so. Might as well do what little we can. And maybe someday Lucas will come to his senses and have Han shoot Greedo in cold blood, remove those ludicrous "Vader shuttle" scenes from EMPIRE, and above all, get that God-forsaken "NOOOOO" out of JEDI... or at the very least, give us every version of the films (theatrical, special edition, super-special edition, etc.) to both preserve their evolution for history's sake AND allow us to choose which ones we want to watch. But until that happens, George Lucas... you have failed me for the last time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

August Movie Amusement, Part 2

Finally, the rest of the stuff I saw in August. GO!

one-dayONE DAY -- A lot of people may consider this movie a sad but touching story of love and the trials and tribulations people must go through in order to discover who they truly are. But I’m not so sure. To me, it’s more like a devastating tale of squandered lives and missed opportunities. Emma (Anne Hathaway, sporting a questionable British accent) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meet cute following their college graduation on July 15th, 1988. After a near-hookup that night, they keep in touch, and the film touches upon the state of their relationship on every July 15th for the next 20 years. At times they are friends... not friends... more than friends... but regardless of what else is going on, they are the one constant in each other’s lives. Gimmicky, sure... but Anne and Jim are both incredibly charming and make the material work. I can appreciate the commentary on the power of friendship -- but a surprising plot twist changes the entire tone of the movie. When all is said and done, there is not really anything happy or hopeful unless you are an unconditionally, perhaps foolishly, optimistic person. But either way, it’s a solid romance. (Though it DOES overlook another important event that occurred on July 15th in the year 1995: The serendipitous formation of my old band, The Gravity! Come on, that was huge!)

the-helpTHE HELP -- Seems this movie has become a bit of a phenomenon, having topped the box office for three consecutive weeks as of this writing, and the popularity it has achieved has been matched only by the controversy it has stirred. It is the story of several women in 1960s Mississippi who undertake a secret project that allows African-American housemaids to tell their personal stories; tell the truth about their employers, their treatment and their living conditions; and basically blow the roof off of one of America’s most despicable racist societies. Say what you want about how the film handles its racial themes: Yes, it glosses over such issues as the physical abuse and extreme degradation that these women probably experienced on a daily basis. And perhaps the characters are mostly archetypes and everything is sugarcoated with candy-colored images and humor. But just because a rape, for example, isn’t shown on screen doesn’t mean that the message isn’t getting across to the viewer. (That’s like saying that a World War II movie can’t be effective unless it has an obligatory shot of concentration camp victims.) Certainly, a more visceral and perhaps more important movie could be made -- but this is not that movie and I don’t think that necessarily detracts from its effectiveness. Above all, there can be no denying the courage that these women had to display in order to tell their stories -- just as there can be no denying the power of the lead performances, starting with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both of whom are just astonishingly good. Emma Stone, meanwhile, continues her run of extreme likeability, while Bruce Dallas Howard makes Hilly Holbrook one of the year’s most despicable villains, and Jessica Chastain continues her breakout year (also see: THE TREE OF LIFE and THE DEBT) with a great turn as an outcast socialite. These performances carry the film to great emotional heights and help it to overcome its occasional lack of focus and socio-political shortcomings. I’ve little doubt that we will we will see several Oscar nods come out of this group in a few months.

final_destination_5FINAL DESTINATION 5 -- At this point, there can be no denying this series’ place in the pantheon of modern horror. If SAW is this generation’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, then FINAL DESTINATION is definitely FRIDAY THE 13th. Granted, neither is as good as its ‘80s counterpart, but the cultural impact, and certainly the longevity, is most certainly there. In my opinion, the first FINAL DESTINATION can safely be considered a classic, and although the films have declined in quality with each passing installment, at least they’ve always provided an original gimmick and gruesome, creative kills. (I’ll take that over wretched, unnecessary remakes any day.) Everyone groaned when #5 was announced, since the fourth one was supposed to be the end... but really, we shouldn’t have been surprised about that. The surprising thing is that it’s actually pretty good! Easily the best since the original, as it tweaks the gimmick a bit to keep things fresh (turns out that you can transfer your place on Death’s list by taking another person’s life). Characters remain dumb archetypes, but kills are strong, and there is a jaw-dropping twist at the end that pretty much redeems the entire series. If they’re smart, they’ll REALLY end it here and go out on a high note.... hey, why is everybody laughing?

dont_be_afraid_of_the_darkDON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK -- Guillermo del Toro has already asserted himself as the king of the “adult fairy tale,” as proven by his masterpiece, PAN’S LABYRINTH (my #1 movie of 2006 and one of my top 25 films of the ‘00s). He is also a master of setting the horror-fantasy mood -- which he does with great success in this haunted house story that he co-wrote (and probably unofficially did more than that). The story is simple: A family moves into a big, creaky mansion, where a little girl, out of loneliness and curiosity, uncovers an ancient evil. She is then terrorized by hungry, mischievous, deadly little beasties... but of course, no one believes her when she tries to explain. Visually, aurally and psychologically, the film is very strong and pretty damn creepy at times. Bailee Madison gives a believable performance, though Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes seem a bit out of their element. The fatal flaw is that the plot gets silly and the beasties even sillier, which detracts from the creepiness. Wouldn’t be a stretch to call it a mix of PAN’S LABYRINTH and GREMLINS... albeit nowhere near as good as those films, but an interesting mix nonetheless, and worth checking out if you’re a fan of del Toro’s work. (Note that I have not seen the original ‘70s TV movie, so I cannot comment on how this works as a remake.)

ColombianaCOLOMBIANA -- The prevailing theory is that Luc Besson wrote this movie about a sexy ass-kicking female assassin with the intention that it would be the sequel to THE PROFESSIONAL, with grown-up Natalie Portman reprising her (best) role... but when that plan fell through, they tinkered with it and came up with this. If that is true, it is a great misfortune for Besson, Portman, and especially for us, because as it stands, this result is not very good. Which is a shame, because I am a fan of Zoe Saldana -- in fact, before Ron Howard’s DARK TOWER project fell through, I was championing for her to be cast as Susannah Dean. She definitely has great screen presence (and I’m not just saying that because she is ridiculously hot), but she is completely undermined by a dopey plot. It’s just a big, loud mess. If you’re in it for Zoe’s pulchritude and a couple of decent action sequences and explosions, then it is probably worth a rental -- otherwise, re-watch THE PROFESSIONAL instead, and ponder over the sequel that might have been.

our_idiot_brotherOUR IDIOT BROTHER -- I’ve had a man-crush on Paul Rudd for a long, long time, and this loveable movie about a loveable guy has done nothing to abate that. Rudd plays Ned, a stoner with a heart of gold. It’s not that he’s an idiot, so much as he has a lack of common sense and is so innately good-hearted that he always expects kindness from everyone else, whether it’s a stranger on the subway or his own flesh and blood. After being released from jail for selling weed to a uniformed police officer (an infuriating case of entrapment, by the way), Ned finds himself homeless and alone when his girlfriend kicks him off their farm and keeps his dog. He goes back to live with his mother for a bit, but ends up crashing with each of his three sisters, all of whom have issues of their own. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is an overly-ambitious career woman; Liz (Emily Mortimer) is unhappily married to a philandering jackass (Steve Coogan); Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is a crappy stand-up comic and kind of a slut. Unfortunately for the sisters, Ned’s easy-breezy attitude ends up causing more than a few headaches for them, despite his best efforts to make everybody happy. Is the family headed for disaster? Or will Ned prove to everyone that believing in and trusting humanity isn’t such a bad thing? The movie is funny, heartfelt and surprisingly poignant. The story and characters are built so nicely that by the time (highlight invisible text for mild spoiler) Ned has an uncharacteristic outburst late in the film, it hits a much bigger emotional chord than expected. The cast is fantastic (clearly there are some damn good genes in this good-looking family), but obviously this movie belongs to Rudd, who carries the proceedings with irresistible, loveable charm. It’s not a flawless movie, but it will definitely put a smile on your face. It also features a good old fashioned “outtakes” sequence during the closing credits, which has one particularly awesome moment -- you’ll know it when you see it!

Straw-DogsSTRAW DOGS -- This remake of the ‘70s classic (which, to my discredit, I have not seen... but is at the very top of my Netflix queue) stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth as David and Amy, an L.A. film writer and his actress wife who move back to her hometown in the deep South following her father’s death. There they encounter Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), a local construction worker who also happens to be an ex-flame of Amy’s, and who still carries a torch for her. David, of course, is a fish out of water in this backwater town, and Charlie and his buddies don’t make it easy, antagonizing him and Amy at every turn. This puts a strain on their marriage: she wants him to stand up for himself and be a man, while he prefers a non-confrontational approach. Writer/director Rod Lurie gives us an intense, slow burn of a plot, constantly peeling back layers of character development that make things more and more complicated (this is particularly true during and after the film’s most disturbing and controversial scene). All of this tension culminates in an explosive final act in which David is finally pushed to his breaking point. It’s unsettling, well-acted (particularly Marsden and Skarsgård, though Bosworth holds her own), perhaps a bit over-plotted at times, and though I hear it doesn’t carry the same heft as Sam Peckinpah’s original, it is nonetheless thought-provoking. In fact, it sparked one of the more in-depth conversations I’ve had about any movie so far this year, in which my girlfriend and I discussed the nature of cowardice vs. civility -- specifically, is Amy right to call David a coward for not standing up to Charlie and his goons from the start? Or can we cut him some slack for being a regular guy from a civilized society who isn’t used to dealing with these redneck assholes? It’s a tough call. (STRAW DOGS opens nationwide 9/16.)

And with that, we can close the book on the summer movie season. Bring on Oscar season!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

FORUM: My Most Random 9/11 Memory

When the subways started running again at around 1 p.m. on September 11, 2001, and I was able to make my way back up to my apartment in Washington Heights, I immediately turned on NY1 and, along with my roomies Jess and Katrin, was glued to the TV for the rest of the day, night and the next few days. NY1’s coverage of the terrorist attacks and the aftermath was relentless and vital and nothing short of amazing. It was a harrowing day, but would have been much more difficult to endure without NY1’s efforts to keep us constantly informed. To this day, I am a loyal NY1 viewer and (I admit) fanboy, and though I watched the channel regularly before 9/11, it was that day that really sealed the deal.

But there was an odd moment, sometime during the evening broadcast, that Jess, Katrin and I have puzzled over for nearly ten years. By then, Lewis Dodley had taken over behind the anchor desk, his commanding presence and distinctive voice easing us into the unsettling night. At one point, they cut away to what I believe was a Rudy Giuliani press conference, as they had done many times throughout the day. But this time, as the press conference began, we were jolted by a single word that rang out, suddenly and inexplicably, in Lewis Dodley’s booming voice:


Wait... what? Forum? What forum? Who forum? Why forum? What the heck just happened? Was that an audio malfunction... or something more?

We didn’t know... but for pretty much the first time that day, we burst out laughing at the sheer absurdity of the moment. It provided some much-needed levity on a day when I had seen a plane crash into a skyscraper with my own eyes, and we reveled in it, pondered over it and tried to find hidden meaning in it for... well, pretty much the next ten years.
Which brings us to today. Jess and I, along with Rachel (my lady friend) and Joe (Jess’ husband), attended a 9/11 retrospective featuring members of the NY1 news team who covered the tragedy, including Pat Kiernan (who served as moderator), Kristen Shaughnessy, Annika Pergament, John Schiumo, Cheryl Wills, Steve Paulus, Bobby Cuza, Andrew Kirtzman... and of course, Lewis Dodley. The event, entitled “Bearing Witness: 9/11 Through the Eyes of NY1,” offered a panel discussion about the role of the media, and NY1 in particular, on 9/11, as well as an opportunity for them to share their own experiences, mindsets and insights. It was excellent, fascinating and emotional -- but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t geeking out pretty hard at seeing so many of my favorite NY1 personalities sitting there together. Hey, if I hadn’t, then the terrorists would’ve won, right?

Now, before the show (and indeed, over the past 10 years), we mused about how funny it would be to meet Lewis and tell him the “FORUM” story. Not that he would be able to shed any light on what the heck he was talking about at that moment... but at the very least, we figured he’d like to know that his audio slip single-handedly brought some laughter into our evening. But when the panel ended and the moment of truth was presented to us... well, we very nearly punked out! We were nervous! And maybe a little star-struck!

But guess what? In the end, we did it. We made our way to the front and Jess struck up the conversation with Lewis Dodley (who, I might add, is quite a jovial fellow in real life -- a vast difference from his no-nonsense TV persona, though his distinctive voice is still there). We introduced ourselves and basically told him the story as I have recounted it here. And... he got a huge kick out of it! The man laughed his ass off. Turns out he was expecting us to tell him some generic “your broadcast helped get us through the night” story... but our version was completely out of left field! We all had a good laugh and pondered over what it could have meant. Even a couple of NY1 producers overheard us and wondered whether they could dig into the archives to find the mystery clip -- a joke, of course, but how awesome would that be? Oh, and we also took a photo together:


For the record, Lewis said “FORUM” instead of “cheese,” which is why Jess is in hysterics. Somehow I held it together. It ruled.

And that, my friends, is the story of FORUM -- my most hilariously random, bizarre, and indeed, oddly important 9/11 memory. Maybe you had to be there. But regardless... thank you, Lewis, for providing that moment and this awesome epilogue. And thanks to the entire NY1 crew for everything you did that day and for being my #1 source of news (and a particularly integral part of my morning routine) every day since.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

August Movie Amusement, Part 1

The month of August featured my triumphant return to movie-going form: I saw twice as many movies as I saw in the lost month of July, and despite the fact that the end of the summer is generally a cinematic dumping ground, the overall quality was not half bad... though, not exactly great, either, as there is nary a top-ten worthy film in the bunch. Still some stuff worth your time, though, so let’s take a look at the August crop....

rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apesRISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES -- While I am not exactly what you’d call an APES geek, I do like the original films and I can honestly say that I can’t imagine a better APES prequel than what we got this summer. The solid plot involves a group of scientists who may or may not have uncovered the cure for Alzheimer’s. But after James Franco tests the vaccine on baby ape Caesar, he finds that the effect is far more significant. Performances are fine as far as the humans are concerned, but the real star of this film is Caesar, portrayed by the undisputed king of motion-capture technology, Andy Serkis (aka Gollum and King Kong). I’m sure the world isn’t ready to honor such work with, say, an Oscar nod... but honestly, Serkis’ performance is more than deserving of such accolades. In fact, it’s probably one of the finest performances of any kind I’ve seen all year, single-handedly carrying the film to unthinkable emotional heights. A fun film that (unlike the horrific Tim Burton remake) also manages to recapture the socio-political commentary of the original. Some winks and homages to the original film, too, with mixed results: Caesar playing with a toy Statue of Liberty is funny, though I suppose I could’ve done without some of the more blatant and cringe-worthy dialogue references (did we really need BOTH the “damn dirty ape” and “maaaaadhouse” lines?). One last observation: After portraying the greasy Draco Malfoy in the POTTER series, and now the sniveling villain in APES, is Tom Felton setting himself up to be this generation’s Billy Zabka? I think so!

the_change_upTHE CHANGE-UP -- In my July movie recap, I reviewed HORRIBLE BOSSES and warned Jason Bateman that the expiration date on his signature role as the “straight-laced family man” was rapidly approaching... but after seeing this movie, I now see that his judgment day is even closer than expected. Now, we all know that the personality-switch formula has been done time and time again, ranging from FREAKY FRIDAY to LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON to FREAKY FRIDAY again. The results have been mixed, at best, as it is a slippery slope of a plot device -- and this new installment to the sub-genre, with straight-laced family man Bateman switching roles with horn-dog bachelor Ryan Reynolds, may be the worst of the lot. It’s just not very funny, and I’m pretty sure Bateman and Reynolds never actually studied each other’s mannerisms and vocal inflections because most of the time, you can barely tell that they’re supposed to be portraying the other’s character. This is a step backward for Reynolds, who has proven with such films as BURIED that he is capable of far better things. On a slightly more positive note, it IS pretty raunchy and features some gratuitous nudity from both Leslie Mann and Olivia Wilde. Granted, there is some question as to whether or not the nudity is 100% legit... but either way, it’s nice.

the-devils-doubleTHE DEVIL’S DOUBLE -- This is one of those movies that lives and dies by the power of its lead performance -- or in this case, two lead performances by the same actor. Dominic Cooper is outstanding as both Saddam Hussein’s crazy son and his unwillingly-appointed security double, deftly handling both very different personalities. Latif is mild-mannered, loves his family, doesn’t want any trouble and is at first overwhelmed by the world he has been dragged into; Uday Hussein, of course, is a lunatic, rapist, murderer, drunk on power and wealth and opulence. Naturally, f’d up hijinks ensue. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the lead performance(s). While I’m sure Uday’s crazy antics may not be too far removed from reality, he is portrayed in such an over-the-top and cartoonish way that he reminded me more of Saddam’s character on SOUTH PARK -- I half-expected him to be like, “Heyyy, relax guy!” In the end, this sort of detracts from the underlying seriousness of the story (since, y’know, Uday really DID kill people on whims and snatch young girls off the street to rape them and etc.) and essentially turns it into IRAQI SCARFACE, as written by ADAPTATION’s Donald Kaufman. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Also always nice to see the luminous Ludivine Sagnier on the big screen, this time as Uday’s favorite sex toy who ends up falling for Latif. Awkward!)

crazy-stupid-loveCRAZY, STUPID, LOVE -- This movie isn’t really that crazy, certainly isn’t stupid, and while I wouldn’t say that I loved it, I also can’t remember the last time I saw a more flat-out likeable romantic comedy. Everything about it, and everyone in it, is so damn likeable. Steve Carell is likeable as Cal, a sad sack family man who finds himself alone and back on the market after his marriage falls apart. Julianne Moore is likeable as Emily, Cal’s estranged wife (who, I might add, cheated on him with David, played by Kevin Bacon, who is also likeable even though he’s a homewrecker). Ryan Gosling is likeable as a young lothario who takes Cal under his wing to to build his confidence and teach him to get chicks. Emma Stone is likeable as a frazzled young career woman, and her love story with Gosling, in which they both thaw each other’s stony hearts, is particularly likeable (and makes for one of the most likeable “falling in love” montages in recent memory). Marisa Tomei is odd but likeable as Cal’s first pickup attempt, and their shenanigans are equally likeable. Jessica Riley is likeable as the babysitter of Cal & Emily’s kids, who also happens to have a schoolgirl crush on Cal. The kid who plays Cal & Emily’s son, Robbie, is likeable -- he has a huge crush on the babysitter and continually makes grand public gestures to express this love. There’s even a big, likeable plot twist towards the end that actually had me fooled. It’s no LOVE ACTUALLY as far as these kinds of romantic comedies with multiple interweaving storylines are concerned, but simply put, there is nothing in this movie not to like.

the-futureTHE FUTURE -- Miranda July already proved that she is weird with ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, a film that gave us the greatest emoticon in the history of the Internet -- ))< >(( -- which of course stands for “back and forth forever.” Her long-awaited follow-up pretty much confirms that she is, in fact, weird. It’s about a couple, Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater), who are stuck in a rut. They sit on the couch with their Macbooks and have all sorts of preciously quirky mannerisms and habits and they’re horrible hipsters and I kind of hate them (but I digress). They’re not yet too old but no longer young, and as a means of feeling responsible for something, they decide to adopt a stray cat who, they think, only has a short time to live. But when they are informed that the cat could potentially hold on for much longer, thus turning this lark into more of a commitment than they imagined, it causes them to reassess their stations in life. Sophie has an affair. Jason befriends an old man. Time & space are manipulated. The moon speaks words of wisdom. And the proceedings are narrated by the adopted cat, Paw-Paw, who can’t wait to be taken home by her new people. The whole thing actually manages to be thought-provoking and even fascinating once you get past the obscene quirkiness... which, I guess, sums up Miranda July in a nutshell.

30_minutes_or_less30 MINUTES OR LESS -- I’m one of the few people who didn’t love director Ruben Fleischer’s last effort, ZOMBIELAND, but I rather enjoyed this dark stoner heist comedy about two slackers who kidnap a pizza delivery boy, strap a bomb to his chest and force him to rob a bank for them as part of a master plan to achieve their dream of opening a tanning salon/prostitution ring. It’s incredibly lewd and refreshingly un-PC, with fast-paced action, snappy dialogue and a cast that is perfectly suited to those criteria. Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari both have a great frenetic energy to them, and as an on-screen duo, their combined talents are pretty much irresistible. Likewise, Danny McBride, with his hilarious misguided bravado, and dim-witted Nick Swardson make excellent wannabe criminal masterminds. Not a classic comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but fun in the moment and worth checking out if you like any or all of the actors involved. (Also, be sure to stick around for one of the better post-credits scenes I’ve seen in a while.)

fright-nightFRIGHT NIGHT -- I have to admit that I barely remember the original ‘80s classic (I was more of a slasher film fan back in those days), so I can’t really compare the two -- but I very much enjoyed this remake on its own accord. The story involves a guy (Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK) who comes to suspect that his next-door neighbor (Colin Farrell) is a vampire who has been feasting on local townsfolk, and takes it upon himself to uncover the truth. The film is smart, suspenseful, funny and contains some great stylized horror (the 3D is unnecessary, but also not terribly distracting if it’s your only option). Performances are fine across the board, particularly David Tennant as a flamboyant Vegas performer who may or may not hold the key to survival. I’m also quickly becoming a fan of the lovely Imogen Poots following her work in last year’s SOLITARY MAN and now this. But it’s Farrell, as Jerry the vampire, who really knocks it out of the park and makes this thing work, clearly relishing the role and playing it with a sort of creepy machismo and sexual hunger that has been sorely missing from recent vampire films (you know the ones I’m talking about). He makes an awesomely convincing old-school vampire and if he causes at least a few Twi-hards to come to their senses and switch their allegiances away from their sparkly heartthrob, then this fun flick will have REALLY been worthwhile.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my August recap, coming up whenever I get around to finishing it....