Monday, January 2, 2012


Growing up in the sixties I was always a fan of the PLANET OF THE APES movies. Not so much the later TV or cartoon series, but the films yes. Not only did it feature some of the best science fiction stories around but also some of the most amazing special effects make up ever seen. The semi-human apes were made plausible by the make up and that gave the movies something to hold on to. So when I heard they were remaking the series I was skeptical to say the least. I shouldn't have been.

Rather than begin this film with the landing of a spacecraft we begin in the near future. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working for a major drug company searching for a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Testing on animals and in particular chimpanzees, he thinks he's found a cure, a drug that has helped the brain recreate cells. This has led to increased mental activity in the apes and shown them to think more. When he goes to demonstrate before the board of directors, his star subject goes mad and attacks everyone from her handlers to the staff at the research center. They are forced to kill her and the project is put on hold.

Unknown to Will and her handlers at the time, the ape was merely protecting the baby she gave birth to beforehand. Ordered to destroy all of the test subjects, will secrets this one away and names him Caesar, raising him at home. Caesar is smarter than most apes having had the formula Will developed in his bloodstream via his mother since birth. Will also illegally uses this formula on his father (John Lithgow) who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, with remarkable success.

Will and Caesar continue to grow together. Will carries on his experiments and research hoping that the drug he's found will be the answer. Caesar continues to expand his mental abilities and ability to converse via sign language with will and later with Will's girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto), a veterinarian. Will takes Caesar on occasional outings to a local national forest but never lets him run free on his own without his being there.

The drug Will developed doesn't have long term success though. As Will's father begins to lose his mental abilities several years down the road (and as Caesar has grown), he accidentally wrecks a neighbor's car and while being shoved by him, Caesar escapes the house and attacks the man to defend Lithgow. Animal control is called in and Caesar is locked up that appears fine. But unknown to Will the center is run by men who just want a paycheck and who taunt and torture the monkeys being held.

While Will tries to go the legal route and get Caesar back at the same time the drug company is expanding his research and hoping to go public, Caesar becomes resentful of being caged and treated as an animal by his jailers. Using his intelligence and escaping, Caesar goes home and steals several canisters of the now aerosol drug, releasing it among his fellow captive apes. Soon they escape and set out to rectify the treatment they have received at the hands of man.

This new take on how the apes evolved replaces the time travel questions raised in the original films but still has several loopholes in logic. But not enough that you can't enjoy the film or marvel at the story being told.

Best of all the film features some of the most amazing special effects ever seen. Using motion capture technology you will actually believe you are seeing an ape perform rather than a man in a suit. But there actually IS no man in a suit at all, just computer generated motion captured images on screen. Caesar shows emotions on his face and body language that make you feel for him, care for him. It's an amazing piece of technology that brings not just the film but the character to life. By the end of the film you find yourself rooting for the apes!

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES doesn't just tell a science fiction story. It tells a human story as well, of mistreatment of animals and how humans are tossed aside as well. It takes on the question of animal testing without being preachy or slamming one side or the other as well. But most of all it tells a solid story from beginning to end and entertains in the process. This is not just a movie that you will want to see but you will want to see more than once. It should definitely be added to any film fans collection.

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I love action films. I've always been a sucker for those movies that featured larger than life heroes taking on all odds to beat the bad guys. When those movies changed to feature heroes that were not always quite pure I still loved seeing them. When THE EXPENDABLES was released featuring not one but a number of action heroes on screen together I thought it was fantastic. This hadn't been done since the sixties when films like THE GREAT ESCAPE or THE DIRTY DOZEN were made.

If you haven't seen the movie it tells the story of Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), the leader of a crew of for hire mercenaries that take on almost any job. The film opens with them rescuing a group of people taken hostage by pirates. Barney and his crew offer them the option to leave peacefully once and when they refuse they are all taken out with "extreme prejudice", graphically so. But when one of his team goes too far, even Barney sets him aside and refuses to use him on their next mission until he cleans himself up mentally.

Getting that next mission is fun in itself. Barney meets with a mysterious stranger played by Bruce Willis in a church. Willis has also called in someone else to offer them the job played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seeing these three icons of action films on the screen at the same time is a rare treat. Arnold turns the job down but Ross decides to recon the situation and see if it's possible to achieve.

Taking his right hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) with him, they scope out the small South American island that's run by a small time dictator being propped up by an ex-CIA agent (Eric Roberts) whose using the people and the island for his drug operation. The people on the island, led by the dictator's daughter Sandra, are hoping to revolt. Ross figures out that his contractor is probably CIA and wants to control the island for the company. But something about the woman's resolve to stay on the island and try to make it better touches him. He and Christmas escape from the island after nearly being caught and he makes the decision to take on the job.

The team of the Expendables includes Toll Road (Randy Coutre), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Yin Yang (Jet Li) along with Ross and Christmas. Each has their own specialty in fighting technique and all will come in handy as they face off against Roberts men on the island which include WWE star Stone Cold Steve Austin and martial arts star Gary Daniels. These include some of the best fight scenes ever filmed.

The movie is filled with explosions, fight scenes and heroic turns of events that make these mercs more human than most that shows a caring side to them as well as the hire for money side. You also witness a camaraderie and loyalty among the group that is rare in films these days. But most of all you have one of the best most high octane action films made in years.

Having been a while since I saw the film originally I wasn't sure at first what made this extended cut different. In retrospect I realized that there was more background and involvement with the entire crew, including part time member Mickey Rourke, than there was in the original release. This fills out the team better than at first and makes them more interesting as well.

Work on the sequel has already begun and more testosterone has been added by including both Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme as well. The only action hero that seems to be missing is Steven Segal and Danny Trejo but maybe they'll be around for a third film, who knows?

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The fifties was the last great era for movie musicals, movies that featured some of the best music made for movies as well as adapting music to fit the film. Musicals seem to fall out of favor as times changed leaving a few classics in the sixties and the rare occasional film later on, but the fifties featured the best.

One film that fell into this category but not quite was STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER. While featuring some great music, it wasn't the song and dance style seen in most films. Instead this movie was a biographical picture about the life and times of composer John Phillips Sousa, a man whose marches everyone had heard even if they don't recognize the name. Sure you hear it mention every Fourth of July but would you really know the name otherwise?

The film doesn't go back to his birth but to the birth of his music. It opens with Sousa about to retire from the Marines in the hope of beginning his own band in order to make more money. As played by Clifton Webb, Sousa seems pretty stiff but we soon see him open up and become more accessible. Between trying to sing a ballad for his wife he's written hoping to steer clear of marches, she knows he can't sing well and speeds it up showing how this song will be a march as well.

He also opens up when a young protégé named Willie Little (Robert Wagner) invites him to hear his songs played in public. What he doesn't tell Sousa is that it's at a music hall where the crowd is more interested in hearing and seeing the dancing girls. Once he sees the girl Little has brought him to see he stays as well. She later performs a number for Sousa and his wife in their home and while he offers her criticism he takes her on to learn more about performing.

Sousa's career flourishes and his band achieves great success. Throughout the film we are treated to hearing some of his greatest pieces including Semper Fidelis which became the Marine Corps hymn, Washington Post March and of course Stars and Stripes forever. Each song is easily identifiable and you'll love hearing them performed in this film.

The film is much like many bio pics done in that time period, relying less on facts and more on drama and trying to involve viewers in the lives of those on screen. Its not that it twists the facts around or distorts them completely, but to try and compress an entire life into 90 minutes doesn't leave lots of time for details. For instance the invention of the Sousaphone isn't factual here nor is the character of Willie Little. But they do move the story along.

Perhaps I got a bit more enjoyment out of this film having played trombone in band back in high school and having played some of these songs there. Perhaps it's the patriotic feeling that many of Sousa's songs inspire each time they are heard. Or maybe it's just because the film seen here is entertaining without being salacious or sleazy that makes it such a treat.

This new blu-ray edition also includes several items that fans will enjoy. Most are background on the real John Phillips Sousa but also discuss movies in that time period that were made and the music he wrote. These are just extra treats for those who appreciate his contribution to music. All in all this is a great film to add to your collection if you love his music and musical films of the fifties.

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It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since BLUE VELVET set of a national controversy over what should and shouldn't be seen on screen. Couple that with what's been released since and it seems almost appears quaint. And yet it still has the ability to shock and make you feel ill at ease while watching it.

The film opens with an idyllic scene in a small town: kids playing outside, the fire truck driving by with waving firemen on it and a man out watering his lawn. But this same man has a heart attack, falls and the camera then slowly moves into the grass to see a swarm of ants moving around frantically. This was a world director David Lynch was trying to let us understand, a world where things always seem normal on the surface but lying just beneath was a topsy turvy world where something just odd enough to seem evil was going on.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlen) returns home from college to help out after his father's heart attack. While walking home from the hospital after visiting his father, he comes across a severed ear in a vacant lot, He takes the ear to the local police and detective Williams assures him that he'll look into it. Stopping at Williams home later, he meets his daughter Sandy (Laura Dern). Sandy tells Jeffrey that she overheard her father talking about a woman who was under investigation that the ear might be tied to, a woman named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).

Their curiosity raised, the young couple decide to look into the matter on their own. They visit a local club where Vallens sings and decide to go further with it. Jeffrey poses as an exterminator and goes into Vallens apartment to set it up so he can get in later. He does so leaving Sandy downstairs to watch for Vallens. Unable to hear Sandy's car horn he hides when he hears Vallens enter her apartment. Watching voyeuristically from the closet, he watches her undress and listens to her phone conversation. Bumping into a coat hanger he is caught and forced from the closet at knife point.

Vallens questions him, knowing for sure that there must be some reason he is here, something to do with other things happening in her life. A knock at the door and she pushes him back into the closet then lets in the man from the phone, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Jeffrey watches as Frank degrades Vallens, inhales gas from a tank and then rapes her. He then leaves and Jeffrey comforts Vallens.

This leads to a story that goes down separate yet intertwining paths. The one has Jeffrey talking about the things he learns with Sandy while trying to find out what is going on, the second is his involvement with Vallens. Vallens and Jeffrey's relationship is sexual but she has a knack for sado-masochism that both frightens and yet excites Jeffrey.

Jeffrey begins to follow Booth and to see what he's up to. With information from Sandy he knows that this man is both dangerous and somehow involved in most of the crime that takes place in town yet for some reason he's never been caught. As he leaves Vallens one night, he runs into Booth and his crew just outside the apartment. They take Jeffrey on a nightmare ride through the strange world that Booth inhabits and leave him beaten and worse for wear at the end of the night.

Jeffrey is left to decide what to do. Does he get out while he can or try to save a woman he has concerns for but doesn't love? Does he love Sandy or was he merely using her? And what about the strange way he's been behaving lately?

Lynch has always looked at the world differently than most people. All of his movies reflect this but perhaps none quite as much as BLUE VELVET. As with the ants at the beginning of the film, he wants us to take note that the world may appear one way on the surface but lying just beneath that is a world that is filled with brutality and things we'd rather not know about or witness. And yet a certain amount of curiosity exists in us all where we want to at least take a peek at that world.

When the film was initially released it caused quite a stir. First and foremost because of the in your face brutality of the Frank Booth character whose vicious expletive infected rants seemed cartoonish and frightening at the same time. This was someone you never wanted to meet. But the most controversial aspect was the performance of Rossellini who was subjected to the brutality of Booth. While a great performance, many critics were shocked that Lynch would subject an actress to this sort of thing. It went so far as to have nationally syndicated critics Ebert and Siskel debate the validity of the movie and the roles with Siskel defending it as art and Ebert decrying it as inhuman (which if you've ever seen BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS which Ebert co-wrote makes you wonder why he didn't feel that way earlier).

The film continues to hold its status as shocking to this day. Perhaps not quite as much after having been exposed to films like HOSTEL since then, but it still can take you back. The performances of both Rossellini and Hopper are amazing. Hopper's Frank Booth has become a film icon, a bad guy that movie fans know by name and deservedly so.

Lynch hasn't done much lately and that's sad. His movies were thought provoking if nothing else. At least we still have what he's done in the past to watch. The blu-ray release here also contains a number of items including making of documentaries and a clip from AT THE MOVIES which featured the discussion between Ebert and Siskel. Fans of Lynch will want to add this to their collection. All others may want to watch it but be aware of the violent world in which you are about to enter.

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There was a time when revenge films played in drive ins across the country. Low budget efforts that made stars of actors like Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent were hits and led them to bigger and better things. These films were so successful that major studios began making them as well. COLUMBIANA shows that they continue to do so.

In 1992, nine year old Catalyea witnesses the murder of her mother and father in Bogotá, Columbia. Her father did the killing for a cartel leader and although they swear allegiance, neither actually trust one another. Questioned by the leader of the killers, Cataleya she sticks a knife through his hand and then runs off using a plan her father gave her. Once in the states she finds her way to her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) and tells him she wants to be trained as a killer.

Fast forward 12 years and we now see Cataleya all grown up in the form of actress Zoe Saldana. Pretending to be a drunk driver she gets herself arrested and locked up for the night. In reality she's stone cold sober and using the arrest as a ruse to get close to a special prisoner. Using methods taught to her over the years, she escapes her cell, kills the prisoner and returns to her cell before anyone is suspicious. The next morning she leaves before the jail is locked down.

Cataleya has fulfilled her destiny and desire to become a leading contract killer. Her one flaw is that she leaves a drawing of a cataleya, an orchid, on each of her victims. She's done so in hopes that it will draw out Don Luis, the man who had her father killed. The killings so far have paid her well and provided her with experience. Now she wants to use it for the promise she made at age nine.

Small subplots are found as well. Cataleya has a lover, an artist named Danny (Michael Vartan) she shares a bed with but no information. To be close to someone would present the possibility of dividing her attention or possibly losing them. We also have a determined FBI agent named Ross (Lennie James) who is closing in on this mystery killer they call the Tag killer due to her artwork on the victims.

Cataleya takes on one more job before the police finally discuss her tags with the press and force Don Luis out of hiding. Taken in as an informant by the CIA, he's in New Orleans under their care, still running his drug business on the side. When he discovers who this killer is he sends his men to wipe her and any family members out. But to do so will do nothing more than make her motivation stronger than ever.

COLOMBIANA was hyped as being from the same people who made TAKEN. While there are connections the film isn't nearly as good. Yes, it provides plenty of action, violence and explosions but the story isn't quite as interesting.

Zoe Saldana in the lead shows that she can act and do so well enough to take the lead in a major motion picture. Each role she's taken in the past has led her this direction and now one could say she's achieved the status of star enough that she can carry a film on her own.

All that said I find this movie more in the so-so category, a movie that provides the basics of what is expected in an action film these days but never quite makes it one that you'll want to watch over and over again. It includes all of the traits of the genre but never quite pulls you in in the same way TAKEN did. If you're going to tout the connection between one movie and another you'd better make sure it's as good if not better.

But it does offer a nice evening's entertainment when the comparison is tossed aside. Perhaps those in charge of advertising would do better next time not to compare one movie to another. In doing so a decent movie would seem better on its own. COLUMBIANA is a decent action flick, but when compared to others it loses a few points.

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I've never been a big fan of Jim Carey. It didn't start out that way. When he was on IN LIVING COLOR and in THE MASK, I thought he was hilarious. But then something happened that always seems to be the way of stand up comedians. Folks tell them they're funny all the time that even them taking a breath is funny. And that's when they stop actually being funny. They continue to do their shtick non-stop but the originality that was there is no longer funny. Carey fell into that category by always seeming to be on, even when doing talk shows and hosting shows.

This brings us to his most recent film MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS. Based on the acclaimed children's book, it tells the story of a man who values his job more than anything. Thomas Popper grew up listening to his father on a ham radio, telling him tales of his adventures around the world. But he was rarely there in person. Popper has grown into a man with this same trait.

Popper is a closer for a real estate company, the best there is and about to be made a partner. All he needs to do is close on the Tavern on the Green property in Central Park. As this is about to go down he received a call from his father's lawyer. His father has passed away and left him something, an item to be delivered. When the item arrives Popper opens it to find a frozen penguin. Not until he takes it from the box and it thaws does he realize it's still alive. A bucket of ice in the tub and a locked door and he's off to work never realizing the fatal flaw there until he comes home to find his bathroom flooded. Looking for where the penguin came from he calls and asks them to take it back, failing to communicate over a static filled phone and a language barrier that results in more penguins arriving.

As if that wasn't enough story we have Popper's family, displaced since his divorce. His son Billy is still young enough to not see problems with his father but Janie is at that tough teen time when everything is a crisis. Even with a touch of advice from his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) he seems to fail with his daughter. When the kids show for their weekend with him, they're delighted to find the penguins with Billy thinking it's his birthday present.

The scenes shift back and forth between Popper trying to acquire the property he's after and adjusting to life with the penguins. While he first sought to send them to the zoo, he slowly grows attached to them. When they have eggs, he's hooked. Unfortunately it doesn't set well with his employers. Viewing the eggs Popper remembers what is important to him, his children and family. So what's the solution?

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS is a feel good movie. It tosses aside all sense of logic and reality in the hopes of offering laughs and touching moments. Forget the fact that Popper opens the doors to his exclusive penthouse and fills it with snow. Or that he might toss aside the major career that enables him to do the things he does here. I'm all for suspending reality but some times it goes a bit far.

That being said the penguins are hilarious and adorable. Who wouldn't want to have them in their home? The kids love them and it is through them that Popper finds himself. A misplaced letter from his father that was attached to the first box helps him to find his way.

So back to Jim Carey. He does a great job here. He plays for a few laughs along the way and keeps things somewhat subtle. Until the last 10-15 minutes when it seems he goes completely out of control and does the shtick all over again. Here we are 17 years since ACE VENTURA and THE MASK and he still mugs for the camera. The result is another movie to add to the list of films Carrey could have made better.

But kids will enjoy the movie. They'll love the penguins and beg to have one of their own. Carrey fans will think he's still a comedic genius. Gugino fans will still think she's beautiful. And life will go on. This is a movie that you'll add to your collection for your kids more than yourself. And if they enjoy it, then its worth having.

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Ever since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT "lost footage" movies have become a genre unto themselves. Some have done well at the box office, some have received no notice and others just exist. Then there are films like APOLLO 18 that use the device well but just sit there.

APOLLO 18 is supposed to be comprised of footage that was secreted away after the failed expedition to the moon. So secret was the mission that the blast off was hidden as a mission to launch a satellite rather than a trip to the moon. Even the astronaut's families weren't told they were going to the moon.

All goes well at first. The team gets into space without a problem. The two man team landing on the moon's surface have a bit of difficulty but manage to land without a hitch. The moon rover works fine and they collect samples without error. But something goes wrong eventually.

The two men on the surface come across another space ship on the moon. This one is Russian and something happened. To begin with, no one knew that this ship was here or even that the Russian's launched a moon expedition. Secondly, the interior of the ship has been trashed. After a bit of searching, the pair follows footsteps that lead them to the dead cosmonaut, his suit ripped and his helmet smashed.

Other odd things happen as well. A moon rock supposedly locked away in storage is found in the landing module. The flag they planted disappears. And eventually one of the astronauts comes down with some space disease where he sees things and is wounded.

What could have been a film that makes you wonder are they really seeing things or are they hallucinating becomes instead a movie that lets you have glimpses that yes indeed, there are creatures on the moon. These start with things we viewers see in the periphery of the cameras lens, items that are just at the rims of our visibility. Something moves or something falls and while the main characters aren't aware we most certainly are.

Eventually the question is posed will NASA try to bring these men back or leave them stranded in space? Will they allow them to die fearing what they might bring back to Earth or will they rescue them?

As with another lost footage film, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, this one plays off the spooks of being stranded in a world where you have no control over what's happening around you. Unlike that film it doesn't really scare you or make you jump with the exception of one loud noise that surprises you. Whoopee.

Confined to a small cabin and a few feet of the moon's surface, the movie feels cramped and stagnant like the air in the capsule. It doesn't offer enough scares to frighten and doesn't develop the characters enough to make you feel concern for their plight. Sure we see scenes of them with their families at the beginning but since it was more like home movies we don't get enough chance to form a bond with them. In so doing we end up just not caring.

At the end of the day APOLLO 18 just doesn't hold up. It never holds your interest enough. The scares just aren't scary. The "real life footage" feels repetitive and the items at the edges make you feel more like you're playing Where's Waldo rather than seeing some creature in a space capsule.

If you feel the need to see all movies that qualify as horror or all movies that are the "lost footage" genre, then you'll want to rent this one. If not there are plenty of other good movies worth renting. Long before the end of this one I could tell that it was one I'd never watch again.

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