Tuesday, August 30, 2011

'The Debt' owes success to actors, tension

A well-acted thriller that raises complex issues of conscience.
Labor Day approaches. Summer wanes. As you no doubt already know, sifting through the late summer releases can feel a bit like trying to drain the dregs from a once-full keg. Much of the fizz is gone, and the fall - generally regarded as the season for first-class movie entertainment - beckons.

In my market, neither Apollo 18 nor Shark Night 3D were screened in advance for critics, usually not a good sign. Given that, it's probably safe to bet that the week's best new movie will be The Debt, a brisk remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller that raised disturbing ethical questions while maintaining high levels of tension.

The story focuses on three Israeli members of the Mossad who long have been lauded for capturing and killing Dieter Vogel, a.k.a. the infamous Surgeon of Birkenau, a Nazi doctor in the ultra-perverse Josef Mengele mode.

The Debt looks at this trio during the 1965 capture of Vogel in East Berlin and in 1997, after the Mossad agents have become national heroes in Israel. Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson -- a powerhouse trio -- play the agents in the 1997 segments.

The 1965 versions of these same characters are portrayed by Jessica Chastain (recently seen in The Help), David Worthington (familiar from Avatar) and Marton Csokas, from a couple of The Lord of the Rings movies.

No fair revealing more about the plot except to say that Madden infuses the 1965 scenes with precisely the right amount of intrigue and tension.

Having the same characters played by different actors can be problematic, raising issues that have more to do with appearances than with performance. As the action shifts between 1965 and 1997, you may find yourself a bit distracted by questions. Could someone who looks like Mirren plausibly have developed from a character who looks like the one Chastain plays? Same goes for the male characters.

None of this is to say that The Debt isn't an involving look at characters who must wrestle with terrible issues of conscience. Conscience. of course, hardly represents a problem for the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen). He's precisely the sadist you'd expect, and all the scarier for it.

The movie 's complicated issues are suggested from the start. We quickly learn that Mirren's Rachel Singer has a grown daughter who has written a book that has brought back a flood of memories and fears about the Vogel affair.

Madden does a good job detailing the evolving personal dynamics among the three youthful Mossad agents. And, yes, a love triangle develops.

The actors in all of the movie's phases hit the right notes, and The Debt emerges as a thriller that remains deftly mounted and smartly written - perhaps until the very end.

Still, in a dry season, The Debt may be as good as it gets.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another helping of late-summer horror

Well-crafted and ambitious, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't quite click.
If anyone has the qualifications to make a creepy, resonant horror film it’s Guillermo del Toro, the director whose Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) took an eerie and compelling look at the way the imaginative world of a child can blend with harsh realities.

So film fans are right to invest their hopes in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a movie produced and co-written by del Toro, but not directed by him. You can see why del Toro entrusted the directing chores to Troy Nixey, an illustrator who previously had directed only one short film. Based on a 1973 teleplay that rattled many a young TV viewer, Don't Be Afraid may have been too thematically close to Pan’s Labyrinth for del Toro to take the helm.

Although Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark puts plenty of skill display, it can’t match Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of psychological resonance and fairy-tale mystery, perhaps because its story breaks little new ground.

Young Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her architect father (Guy Pearce) and his interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Pearce’s Alex Hurst has been renovating an old mansion. He’s sunk most of his money into the project because he hopes it will provide him with a much-needed career boost.

Sally makes no secret of the fact that she would have preferred to remain with her mother, and for much of the movie, she’s at odds with Holmes’ Kim, who makes valiant efforts not to be cast in the role of wicked stepmother.

But what exactly – and here’s where the movie turns creepy -- are those whispering voices that seem to be emanating from the mansion's air vents? ?

I won’t reveal the secret here, but when you finally learn what’s happening, you may be a little underwhelmed, partly because revealed horror seldom has the clout of imagined horror and partly because trace elements of such juvenile efforts as Gremlins creep into the mix.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't exactly provide its actors with a showcase, as it builds toward a crucial point of decision: Someone must believe that Sally is not an hysterical kid, but s child who’s confronting real danger.

Although it's more ambitious than last week’s Fright Night, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t quite get where it needs to go. As a del Toro fan, that made me sad. Del Toro and his cohorts are fine craftsmen and deft practitioners of the art of CGI, but this time, they needed to put a little more substantive flesh on the movie's horror bones.

A B-movie with real sleeper potential

Attack the Block pits street kids against aliens in a fast-paced battle.
The makers of the British film Attack the Block realized something vitally important: If you're going to make an outlandish movie, it's best to move quickly. Clocking in at a fleet 88 minutes, Attack the Block might just be the sleeper hit of summer, an urban sci-fi movie that deftly walks the line between absurdity and realism.

Credit the filmmakers for grounding a bizarre premise in something real. Hairy monsters with teeth that glow like blue neon attack a single South London block, mirroring the turf wars that can develop when people living in poor circumstances have little else over which to fight.

Director Joe Cornish, a British comic making his feature debut, begins with a menacing but all-too-common bit of street violence. A gang of kids mugs a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) who's on her way home from work. With this move, Cornish - working from his own script - sets himself up for what might have been a heavy lift.

As the creature invasion intensifies, Cornish must shift our loyalties so that we wind up seeing the muggers in a more human light. We must begin rooting for them to lay waste to these hideous invaders, whose ire is provoked when the charismatic Moses (John Boyega) kills one of their number, a reptilian looking monster (part of advance guard?) that bears little resemblance to the hairy hordes that follow.

The question: Who's tougher, the relentless aliens or resourceful London teen-agers who live by the code of the streets?

Not everyone appreciates the imminent danger, little things like having one's head torn off. Take High-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). High-Hatz sells marijuana and believes that he controls the block. One of his cohorts (Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) operates out of a small apartment in the British equivalent of the projects, which is where all the movie's characters live. Without giving anything away, let me say that High-Hatz overestimates his powers.

For a first-timer, Cornish does pretty well with the action sequences, some of which take place within the choking confines of the anonymous hallways of apartment buildings, and cinematographer Thomas Townend makes the most of rain-slicked streets, the dark glow of night and the expected urban grit.

Cornish also understands that sometimes the movie's mixture of humor and horror is augmented by what's not shown. When monsters and prey enter an elevator, for example, Cornish's camera remains outside.

Does the movie have a message?

Perhaps Cornish wants to remind us that the kids in these neighborhoods are capable of more than some may think, that the police are disinclined to give such young men a break and that it's possible for warring factions to unite when presented with a common threat.

But don't make too much of the movie's thematic gestures: Attack the Block - well acted by a diverse young cast - isn't out to teach us a lesson, but to play around with an idea that's been hatched with imaginative vigor.

And for once, the aliens don't look like they've been copied form dozens of other sci-fi movies - at least not to my eyes. They have a kind of cheesy quality that's perfect for what I assume was a modest budget and for a movie that's not afraid to poke a little fun at its own genre.

So watch for Attack the Block when it hits your town - as it is just now hitting mine. It arrives with force, energy and the ability to unite an audience in vocal appreciation of its B-movie pleasures.

Friday, August 19, 2011

'Fright Night' mixes blood and humor

Vampires in suburbia? Why not? They seem to be everywhere else these days.
Did we really need a remake of a 1985 vampire movie, even one that has a bit of a cult following? Probably not, but the 2011 edition of Fright Night isn't as awful as you might expect.

But before we get to that, a word on my mood. The 3-D glasses made my heart sink. They were handed to me on arrival at a preview screening of Fright Night. Look, I’m sick of 3-D, and honesty compels me to confess that I was only marginally interested in a Fright Night remake to begin with.

Still, two of the movie's actors gave me hope that this spiffed-up remake might constitute a late summer surprise: Colin Farrell, who’s capable of delivering fine off-kilter performances, and Toni Collette, the gifted Australian actress who we haven't seen in while.

Neither Farrell nor Collette kept my hopes alive for the movie's entire 101-minute run time, but Farrell gives it his best shot as a vicious vampire living in the suburbs of Las Vegas. He creates a villain who's more of an unapologetic killing machine than a sophisticated creature of the night. Think of Farrell's Jerry (yes, there's a joke about a vampire with such a commonplace name) as the Stanley Kowalski of vampires, and you're on the right track.

Collette plays the mother of the movie's teen-age protagonist (Anton Yelchin), but is badly underutilized, one of the movie's major disappointments.

In the era of Twilight and True Blood, it takes a certain amount of nerve -- maybe even gall -- to attempt to draw box-office blood with yet another vampire movie. Perhaps the filmmakers – led by director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) -- thought they could add something worthy to the already bulging vampire vault by setting the story in a time of depleted economic hope and housing catastrophe.

Given the current economic climate, it's hardly shocking that many of the tract homes in the movie's suburban setting have long been vacant. So there's an air of anticipation when someone finally moves next door to Yelchin's Charley Brewster. The new guy (Farrell) even flirts with Charley's single mom (Collette). Of course, there's no mystery about the fact that this new neighbor poses an imminent threat.

After some initial resistance, Charley finally realizes that Jerry is a vampire -- and a particularly ruthless one at that. The catch: No one believes Charley.

As the story develops, we meet additional characters in Charley's life. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (familiar from Superbad and Kick-Ass) shows up as one of Charley's long-time buddies, a friendship the image-conscious Charley tries to jettison because Mintz-Plasse's Ed is a bit of a geek. Imogen Poots portrays Charley's girlfriend. And, yes, typical high school dynamics such as jealousy and the desire to be cool underlie some of the movie's teen antics.

David Tennant plays the role that puts a dose of comic zip into the proceedings. He's Peter Vincent, a Las Vegas performer who pretends to know something about killing vampires, and ultimately is asked to help put one away, a task that would be easier if Vincent weren't also a debauched drunk.

No point belaboring this one, except to say that the filmmakers are moderately successful at rousing these vampires from the Hollywood crypt. A few amusing lines, a few jolts, a sometimes playful approach to the genre, and a deliciously pointed method for vampire killing should be sufficient to keep fans happy, although I wouldn't say that Fright Night constitutes a major addition to a genre that's as difficult to kill off as ... well ... the average vampire.

I'm hoping that the same can't be said of 3-D, which seems equally resistant to all critical efforts to drive a stake through its heart.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Made for each other, but not for us

A pretty standard romance -- but with a British accent.
He's a bit of a jerk. She's not. They meet on the evening of their graduation from college, and stay connected throughout most of their post-collegiate lives. As time passes, he becomes even more of a jerk. She's still reasonably nice. And we know from the outset of One Day that both he and she would be happier if they came to their senses and hooked up.

Based on a novel by David Nicholls, who also wrote the screenplay, One Day stars Anne Hathaway as Emma, an aspiring writer who works as a waitress. Jim Sturgess portrays Dexter, a guy who winds up hosting a TV show before his career (and his life) hit the skids. He's a callow, selfish womanizer who matures into an increasingly dissolute -- if more experienced -- womanizer, the sort of character we once might have expected Hugh Grant to play.

The movie charts the lives of the couple that's not really a couple on one day -- July 15 -- over the course of a couple of decades. Dexter busily indulges his libido, although he does wind up in a serious -- if ill-fated -- relationship. Emma takes up with Ian, played by Rafe Spall, son of the gifted Timothy Spall. It's immediately clear to us that Ian never will make it as the stand-up comic he hopes to be. And we also know that Emma and Ian won't make it as a couple, either. Guys like Ian don't wind up with characters played by Anne Hathaway -- at least not in movies.

Emma and Dexter probably are no less interesting than lots of other big-screen characters, but director Lone Scherfig -- who broke onto the international scene with Italian for Beginners (2000) and who earned acclaim for 2009's An Education -- has made a movie of less-than-fascinating detours en route to what -- even with a surprise twist -- seems inevitable and not especially satisfying.

Do these characters really have a future?

Miranda July's second movie charts a story about lives on the road to nowhere.
While watching Miranda July's latest movie -- The Future -- I reached the perplexing conclusion that it's possible to be interested in a film and a little bored by it at the same time -- and in roughly the same measure.

I was a major fan of July's Me, You and Everybody We Know, a debut movie that brought an original talent to the screen. But July's sophomore effort is by turns too quirky and too deadpan, as idiosyncratic as its predecessor, but less engaging.

Still, July must be treated as a special case. She's either a filmmaker with a performance artist's sensibility or a performance artist with a filmmaker's sensibility. Here, she tells the story of Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), a Los Angeles couple that's stuck in a rut.

Never fear: Sophie and Jason have a plan that requires them to make a major commitment. They commit to adopting a cat. They discuss the pending addition to their household with the same seriousness that another couple might bring to a discussion about adopting a child.

As it turns out, the cat -- Paw Paw by name -- speaks, a device that allows July to lend her voice to a running narrative and also adds strange poignancy to the proceedings. Paw Paw has only six months to live, but must wait a month before being allowed to leave the animal shelter.

Meanwhile, attempts at transformation ensue. Sophie, who teaches dance to children, makes a strange dance video. Jason, who earns his keep by answering calls on a computer help line, quits his job and begins working as a door-to-door solicitor for environmental causes.

Obviously, plot is not July's strong point. To the extent that there is a story, it involves an affair Sophie eventually begins with Marshall (David Warshofsky), a sign painter. Is she desperately looking for signs of life in her tapped out existence?

You may not care because July seems more interested in illustrating a condition than in explaining it. The Future isn't a drama; it isn't a comedy; it's a description -- albeit one that can be quietly clever.

Too creative to make a totally boring movie, July includes interesting touches throughout, but The Future can feel like moviemaking under glass; its whimsy, undermined by July's arty, often self-conscious remoteness. I admire July's talent, but this time I found myself wishing she could learn to wink.

An expose about sex-trafficking hits hard

An unflinching look at what happens when the cops become criminals -- and, yes, it's disturbing..
If films about grave injustices are supposed to leave us feeling appalled and disturbed, The Whistleblower qualifies as a whopping success. The film -- from first-time director Larysa Kondracki -- works as an expose about the elaborate web of corruption that developed in the wake of the war in Bosnia.

Here's the deal: Law enforcement agencies condoned (and in some cases profited) from sex trafficking that virtually enslaved hundreds of young women in the late 1990s. The closer the story stays to these women, the more terrifying it becomes. The Whistleblower doesn't spare us when it comes to showing what happened to young women who were tricked into lives of degradation and abuse.

Whistleblower finds its center in a real-life character, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a U.S. cop who takes a high-paying job as a gender affairs officer for a private security company working in Bosnia. Bolkovac tries to stop the sex trafficking, but runs into an extensive cover-up.

When all else fails, conscientious members of corrupt organizations may have no recourse but to go public. In the end, Bolkovac took her story to the BBC, a decision that accounts for the movie's title.

Weisz infuses Bolkovac with single-minded tenacity. Vanessa Redgrave turns up as a saddened official who's sympathetic to Bolkovac's efforts; David Straithairn plays a similar role; and the actors who portray corrupt peacekeepers can feel frighteningly real.

I'm not sure that Whistleblower digs deeply enough into any of its characters, but the movie still hits hard. It has something important to say about the moral cesspools that develop when authorities indulge in criminality and when there are no lines someone isn't willing to cross. As shocking as it is persuasive, The Whistleblower ultimately functions as kind of infuriated exclamation about a situation bred in an environment of total moral collapse.

Gleeson makes 'The Guard' a rude delight

An irrepressible Irish cop with a highly variable approach to morality.
Brendan Gleeson plays a shiftless but astute Irish cop in The Guard, an enjoyable crime yarn set in a part of Ireland where the brogues are as thick as mud. I’m not saying The Guard tells a great story or anything like it. I am saying that Gleeson’s Gerry Boyle is one of those characters that can make an entire movie – and in this case, pretty much does.

Boyle, a cop whose moral compass spins in many directions, becomes involved in an attempt to thwart a drug-smuggling ring that's being pursued by a visiting FBI agent (Don Cheadle). Cheadle’s Wendell Everett takes a fair amount of abuse from Boyle, who even goes so far as to suggest that he might be a raving racist. Actually, he’s not a racist nor is he raving; he’s just the kind of guy who likes to push people’s buttons, maybe to determine what they’re made of or maybe to demonstrate that he couldn't give a hoot about anything that smacks of political correctness.

Boyle and Everett become unlikely partners in an investigation into a gang (Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong) that's about to make a big drug delivery. The two cops bicker like the odd couple they are, and it falls to Everett to utter the movie’s signature line. Riding in a car with Boyle, he admits that he can’t determine whether Boyle’s really smart or really dumb. We know instantly that Boyle wants to keep it that way.

Whatever the case, Boyle is not your standard-issue lawman. He's profane; he cavorts with hookers -- two at a time; he consoles the Croatian widow of a fallen colleague; and pays regular visits to his aging and ailing mother (Fionnula Flanagan).

Gleeson seems to be having a jolly old time, and The Guard winds up providing a fair measure of enjoyment. Credit director John Michael McDonagh – the brother of Martin McDonagh, who directed Gleeson in 2008’s In Bruges – for knowing how to get the most out of his cast. That said, The Guard never ceases to be Gleeson’s movie. McDonagh and the other actors are smart enough not to try to take it away from him.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

'30 Minutes or Less' has its moments

What happens when slackers meet thugs? Not enough that's funny.
You'll find a few funny moments in 30 Minutes or Less, director Rubin Fleischer's indigestible follow-up to the more inventive and funnier Zombieland. Fleischer's latest R-rated comedy pits slackers against thugs in an effort to create an explosive comic environment, but not all the humor ignites. **** Jesse Eisenberg, who played brilliant Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, dumbs down to portray a pizza delivery boy who's coerced into robbing a bank with a pal (Aziz Ansari). **** How does that happen? Two dopey thugs (Danny McBride's Dwayne and Nick Swardson's Travis) order a pizza and then strap a bomb to Eisenberg's Nick. If he doesn't come up with $100,000, they'll blow him up. **** Dwayne, a foul-mouthed miscreant, needs $100,000 to hire a hit man (Michael Pena) to bump off his father (Fred Ward), a mean-ass former Marine who happened to win at Lotto and figures to leave Dwayne a hefty sum of money. **** Eisenberg, who starred in Zombieland, spends the movie's fleet 83-minutes being flustered, and McBride too often comes off as more offensive than funny. **** Fleischer may have been trying for a fresh and funny take on gritty crime movies. Although he manages to come up with a surprisingly punchy final joke, Fleischer's approach works only fitfully, and 30 Minutes or Less fails to rise to the top of a long list of equally foul-mouthed predecessors.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Well-acted 'Help' could have hit harder

Viola Davis gives an outstanding performance, but the big-screen adaptation of a wildly popular novel lacks bite.
The Help. the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling 2009 novel, attempts to explore the complex relationships between black maids and the white women who employed them at a time when the civil rights struggle was just beginning to change the South.

Set in Jackson, Miss., The Help boasts some impressive acting, as well as some understanding of the indigestible mixture of gentility, brutality, tension and moral rot that defined the Jim Crow era.

Deluded whites may have thought of their maids as part of the family, but they objected if the maids wanted to use the same bathrooms as the rest of the "family," and they certainly weren't above patronizing and exploiting women who labored for as little as $182 per month.

Despite all this, The Help shows that black maids often loved their white charges. Struggling to make ends meet, black women raised white kids with wisdom and affection -- even while being subjected to unconscionable doses of daily humiliation.

On screen, The Help displays great sympathy for the maids on which the story focuses, but the movie's also saddled with a tired ploy, building its story around a recent white college graduate (Emma Stone) who aspires to be a writer. Hoping to provide a platform for voices that hitherto had not been heard in the white community, Stone's Skeeter decides to tell the stories of Jackson's black maids.

Skeeter approaches Aibileen (Viola Davis) about helping to tell these stories from a black point of view. Aibileen, we learn, raised 17 white kids, and when we meet her she's tending to the daughter of an incompetent and indifferent white mother.

A word about Davis, who was nominated for a best-supporting actress Oscar for her work opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt. Davis seems incapable of hitting a wrong note. She carries the weight of Aibileen's past with bitterness, rue and grace. You get the sense that Davis knows the truth of every scene in which she finds herself, and isn't afraid to speak it.

The outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) emerges as the movie's other principal maid, a sout powerhouse of a woman who winds up working for Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a befuddled bleach-blonde who's inept at being a wife and whose lower-class origins revolt Jackson's bridge-playing set.

Spencer can be a funny and quick, but I had a slight qualm about the way she turned Minny's indignation into entertainment.

Sporting a mass of tangled curls, Stone creates an intelligent small portrait of rebellion as Skeeter deals with her mother (Allison Janney), a cancer-stricken woman who wants nothing more than to see her daughter marry.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Hilly Holbrook, the movie's resident ogre, a white woman of bitchy, racist sensibilities. The Help has been criticized for turning Howard's character into a caricature. I get that, but it's worth remembering that subtlety wasn't a hallmark of Southern racism in 1963.

As non-threatening as a racial drama can be, The Help unfolds episodically with occasional references to brewing turmoil in the South, notably the murder of Medgar Evers. Evers' murder galvanizes the maids, encouraging them to tell their stories to Skeeter, who needs at least a dozen such tales to get her book published.

Carefully appointed and prone to nostalgia, The Help hits its share of wrong notes: A joke about "the terrible awful" -- perhaps the movie's biggest crowd-pleaser -- is as overworked as the movie's maids; and first time director Tate Taylor, an actor and friend of the novel's author, can't resist drawing out the movie's ending lest he leave risk leaving us even a little uninspired.

Worse than any of that, The Help -- which is a bit of a curio -- may encourage misguided feelings that racism somehow has been safely locked in the closet of the past where it no longer can do any harm. For all its virtues, The Help doesn't go far enough, hit hard enough or dig deep enough. It could have benefited from less burnish and more bite.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How our beleaguered planet went ape

Rise of the Planet of the Apes has plenty of B-movie kick. That's a good thing.
I don't know many pop-culture lovers who aren't fans of the original Planet of the Apes.

The success of the much-revered 1968 original prompted four sequels, none of which had the entertaining kick of the first installment. And as much as I admire director Tim Burton, I have to admit that his 2001 trip to the Planet of the Apes was a bit of a disappointment.

Now comes Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an origins movie that reflects a deep understanding of B-movie pleasures. This installment functions as a worthy prequel to the 1968 edition, which starred Charlton Heston and some very fine actors in ape makeup.

This time, a mixture of CGI and motion-capture photography allows the filmmakers to go ape, filling the screen with primates that are misused and abused by humans who don't respect their integrity as living creatures.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes connects to the original in ways that can be both smart and amusing, and Andy Serkis, who did such brilliant motion-capture work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, gives Caesar -- the movie's principal ape -- a sense of gravitas and well-earned indignation.

No question about it: This time, our sympathies lie with the apes.

As the story unfolds, Caesar -- who's raised in the home of research scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) -- makes the transition from rambunctious chimp to the leader of every primate in the San Francisco area: those used in cruel lab experiments and those housed in zoos.

Thematically, Rise of the Planet of the Apes can't be viewed as a groundbreaker. It cautions against the ways in which hubris undermines science, and peddles the familiar notion that some things are beyond our control -- and should remain that way.

I say forget the themes: The movie doesn't fuss over them anyway. Enjoy this skillful mixture of story and action for what it is, recognizing that everything that happens in the realm of the apes will be more compelling than whatever transpires in the human world.

When we meet Franco's Will, he's working on a serum called ALZ-112. The drug has great commercial potential because it's supposed to reverse the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's, a disease that has stricken Will's father (John Lithgow).

It doesn't take long for Will to go a little rogue: After a violent outbreak by Caesar's mother, Will's company orders the destruction of all of Will's research chimps. That's how baby Caesar winds up at Will's house: Will smuggles the tiny chimp out the lab.

The rest of the movie involves the ways in which Will continues his research, and Caesar continues to develop. The chimp learns to communicate using sign language and observes the world around him with more than animal-like curiosity. of course, Caesar has a leg up on every other chimp in the world: He was born with developmental potential his genetically altered mother passed on to him.

But like his mother, Caesar still has plenty of animal impulses. A violent episode triggered by a challenge to Caesar's protective instincts results in Caesar's confinement in an animal shelter. In this dank animal prison, Caesar emerges as the freedom-loving leader of the ape world.

All of this builds toward an action-packed finale on the Golden Gate Bridge during which director Rupert Wyatt finds the right mix of violence, dread and primate-administered retribution. Let's just say that prospects for humanity become bleak.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes can't be called an actors' movie, but Franco does a decent job as a scientist whose work forces him to confront serious moral questions. Frieda Pinto offers support in the mostly thankless role of a veterinarian who becomes Will's love interest. David Oyelowo appears as the drug company's profit-crazy boss.

Sometimes, the human action lags, but Wyatt delivers when it counts, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes turns out to be entertaining, ominous and amusingly over-amped. Credit Wyatt with playing the movie's signature moments for all they're worth.

Honesty compels me to tell you that the chimps sometimes look like they belong in a computer-generated zoo; i.e., they don't always look real. But I admired the fact that Wyatt has made one of the best kinds of genre movies, one that knows its place.

And just in case you have difficulty rooting for the apes, a word of advice: Think back to the recent Congressional debate about raising the debt ceiling. Keep Congress in mind, and the apes will start looking a whole lot better.

'The Change-Up' confuses gross and funny

Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds wallow in another raunchy Hollywood comedy.
There's a difference between raunchy and funny, but the new comedy The Change-Up hasn't figured out what it is. That's why The Change-Up opens with a baby spraying a stream of excrement into a frustrated father's face. Yuck and double yuck! **** I suppose there'll be some who happily go along with the movie's shopworn conceit: a married lawyer (Jason Bateman) switches bodies with his reprobate pal (Ryan Reynolds). .... Each man gets a taste of the other's life, and -- here's a surprise -- each becomes a better person because of the swap. The sober married guy discovers that his humdrum life isn't so bad after all, and the single slothful guy learns something about the satisfaction of living up to one's responsibilities. .... Essentially, The Change-Up is one more buddy movie, which means the women serve as props. Looking more fetching than she did in last week's Cowboys & Aliens) Olivia Wilde portrays a hot-looking lawyer with a wild streak. Leslie Mann appears as the wife of Bateman's character. **** Bateman's a capable comic actor, and Reynolds -- last seen in the abysmal Green Lantern -- seems a fine fit for an odd-couple pairing built around the idea that, one way or another, American manhood is a story of failed dreams. But, for what little there is of my money, Bridesmaids was a smarter, raunchy comedy than this silly and extremely distasteful, R-rated mess.

'Another Earth' is another kind of movie

Director Mike Cahill and actress Brit Marling takes a sobering journey into guilt, remorse and redemption.
Imagine waking up one day to discover another Earth hovering in the sky above the Earth you already inhabit. You'd check the papers and the TV, and you'd begin to learn something about this strange occurrence, but its mystery never entirely could be solved until someone sent a spaceship to inspect what appears to be a bizarre new addition to the solar system.

If all this sounds like the introduction to the review of a reasonably standard helping of science fiction, think again. Another Earth may have a sci-fi backdrop, but the movie is also a moving exploration of guilt, responsibility and redemption.

Another Earth begins with 17-year-old Rhoda (Brit Marling) celebrating her admittance to MIT. On the way home from a party, Rhoda -- a little tipsy from alcohol -- becomes involved in a fatal accident that kills a mother and her child, leaving her husband alive.

Four years pass, and Rhoda is released from prison, where she served time for her alcohol-influenced accident. Having apparently abandoned all ambition, Rhoda lands a job as a janitor at a school. She lives at home with her parents.

Without quite understanding why, Rhoda shows up to offer cleaning services to the husband (William Mapother) who survived the accident, a man who now lives a life of slovenly reclusion. Of course, he doesn't know who Rhoda is, and she doesn't tell him. Will she ever come clean?

As we wait for an answer, Rhoda and Mapother's John slowly develop a relationship. He starts to break down self-imposed walls of isolation and grief; she begins to allow herself to feel again -- and, oh yes, that other Earth still hangs in the sky, suggesting all sorts of metaphorical possibilities.

Eventually, we learn, this other Earth represents an alternate reality of some kind, which is about all I'll say about it here.

Director Mike Cahill, who wrote the screenplay with Marling, effectively unites two genres -- speculative sci-fi and sorrowful drama -- in ways that move the movie beyond gimmickry. Another Earth emerges as one of the year's more provocative achievements, a movie that realizes that the most difficult thing most of us ever will have to confront is ourselves.

A tale of two women and two Chinas

Director Wayne Wang tackles a novel by Lisa See, but Snowflower and the Secret Fan seldom springs to life.
Novelist Lisa See has built an audience for books about the contradictions and conflicts that beset Chinese and Chinese-American women. See's 2005 novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, takes place in 19th century China, where foot-binding and subservience were part of many women's lives. The novel focuses on Snow Flower and Lily, two women who are a laotong pair, women united by an irrevocable bond of sisterhood. In director Wayne Wang's big-screen adaptation, the story of the two 19th Century women who retain such an enduring bond is set against a contemporary tale about two women who share a similar connection. Wang alternates between contemporary Shanghai and 19th century China in ways that don't really work, despite some adventurous choices. An example: Snow Flower and her modern counterpart both are played by Gianna Jun. Lily and her modern equivalent are also played by one actress, Bingbing Li. Wang may be trying to show us how tradition resonates in a present that would be unrecognizable to the movie's 19th Century characters, but Snow Flower represents a somewhat leaden misfire from a director who has made both energetic indies (Life Is Cheap ... but Toilet Paper Is Expensive) and melodramatic mainstream movies (The Joy Luck Club). In what seems like a desperate attempt to add box-office appeal, Hugh Jackman turns up as the lover of one of the contemporary women. He doesn't fit in. The past and present scenes don't mesh well, either. By dividing his movie in two, Wang seems to have weakened both halves of what could have been a much richer experience.