Tag Archives: comparison

Battle of the Summer Blockbusters: Rise of the Planet of the Apes vs. Super 8


It’s been a while since I went to the cinema. But it feels much longer than it actually is. That’s because it’s summer blockbuster season and every week a new big gun toting production swaggers into town. Stay away from the saloon for too long and you’ll have nothing to talk about with your fellow drinkers because they’re engrossed in conversation about things you haven’t seen or experienced. Sure you can try to chip in with your recycled opinions but you feel like a cheat. And most of all you feel jealous.

Some films I would have liked to have seen had already been EXPELLIARMUSED!  from multiplexes by a certain boy wizard’s refusal to die quietly and works of art like The Smurfs and Mr Popper’s Penguins. I know that later in August I want to see Cowboys and Aliens, One Day and the film of the TV series that defined my generation, The Inbetweeners Movie, so I figured I better catch up before then.

At the time of writing Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Super 8 have exactly the same score on Rotten Tomatoes, with 82% each. They also have identical ratings from numerous respected reviewers, including four stars apiece from Empire Magazine. Because of this it was completely logical of me to decide to watch both films and report back with absolute certainty on which is the best blockbuster of the summer, as clearly the others and those yet to be released, can be discounted.

First up then at 11.30 in Screen 10 was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I couldn’t quite believe I’d paid to see this as I walked in. I’d never really enjoyed the previous films from what I could remember of them. I was also genuinely baffled by the growing chorus of support for the motion capture technology used to create the rebellious cheeky monkeys. The first trailer I saw for the film helped me decide in a nanosecond not to make the effort to see it. It looked like a naff CGI fest with a ridiculous concept and some awful lines of dialogue. And there was the sickening clumsiness of that double “of the” in the title.

I was persuaded to give Rise a watch by the film reviewing community online and I now have a newfound trust in them. There’s no doubt that this will be the runaway surprise success, at least critically, of the summer, if not the whole year. It’s not what you expect it to be and yet it delivers what summer audiences are after. By the end of its 105 minute runtime I was converted from a suspicious sceptic into someone salivating at the thought of the sequels.

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the apes rise up in this film and that events begin to take place that will lead to the “Planet of the Apes”. As other reviewers have pointed out though, what’s really interesting and remarkable about this film is how we get to the final twenty minutes of solidly entertaining, action packed revolt. The climax is explosive and plays out on a hugely impressive scale, with stunning special effects and fresh ideas for set pieces. But the drama of this action comes from the build-up in the rest of the film.

It charts the life of Caesar, an ape played via motion capture by Andy Serkis, a veteran of the technology after his iconic roles as Gollum and King Kong. Serkis is unquestionably the real star of this production, despite other big names like James Franco, Brian Cox, Freida Pinto and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton orbiting Caesar’s central story. The effects are vastly improved from the initial trailer that underwhelmed me. Facial expressions and movements are so lifelike that despite the lack of dialogue, indeed perhaps partly because of its absence, the scenes amongst the apes with no human interference are some of the most intense and engaging in the entire movie, well handled by director Rupert Wyatt.

Caesar is the offspring of an ape called Brighteyes that responded to an experimental cure to Alzheimer’s. However she was killed when she rampaged, in a maternal rage, around the headquarters of the pharmaceutical company James Franco’s character, Will, works for. Will took the baby ape home so it could avoid the cull ordered by his profit minded superior played by David Oyelowo. He cares for Caesar, practically as a son, for a number of years at home, where he notices increasing signs of a heightened intelligence passed
on from the effects of Will’s drug on his mother.

I make it all sound dull. But a bizarrely convincing and charming family dynamic, which just happens to feature an ape, begins to form. Conveniently, for plot purposes at least, Will’s Dad has Alzheimer’s. Encouraged by Caesar’s progress Will treats his father with the drug, which cures him in the blink of an eye; for a while at least.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is carefully constructed. It helps its structure that the conclusion is clearly defined from the off but it could still have been a flop. Instead a movie with some ludicrous components and some walking pace, stereotypical acting from most of the humans, including Franco at times, manages to be clever, funny and incredibly involving. The apes really are the key pieces of the puzzle, with Caesar a complex character in his own right who looks certain to remain compelling as he tackles rival apes (introduced here) in a power struggle in the sequels. There are so many interesting directions this series could follow, after ditching all the bad aspects of the original franchise, in favour of character based thrills with some genuinely insightful social commentary on big themes.

After a pause for a Greggs baguette and sausage roll, I was back at the cinema by 14.45 for Super 8 in Screen 1. I invested in popcorn because I’d been told for months now that Super 8 was getting back to what movies should be about, so I thought I’d better go the whole hog and sit back in anticipation. If I’d enjoyed Planet of the Apes I was going to love this.

In case you’ve been living in a secret underwater kingdom for ages, Super 8 follows a group of friends making a zombie film who witness a train derailing in spectacular fashion. They are then embroiled in weird goings on and Air Force conspiracies in their local sleepy town, as something appears to run wild. Oh and it’s pretty much a Steven Spielberg film, executive produced by the man himself and helmed by JJ Abrams.

The start works well, as most critics have said. Well at least it makes sense. You can’t help but be sucked in by the young cast and fascinated by their relationships. Joe is the focus of the story. His mother has died in an industrial accident and he barely sees his father, the Deputy Sheriff. His fat friend is making a zombie movie for a film festival with the help of a kid who likes fireworks, a shy and lanky lead and Joe’s makeup skills. Joe begins to fall for the beautiful Alice when they manage to recruit her to act in their masterpiece.

Then there’s that gigantic train crash. It was jaw dropping stuff at times but did anyone else think there were a few too many random explosions and balls of flame? I’m not complaining…well I am actually. Aspects of the crash didn’t feel that real. And as for the rest of the film, JJ’s trademark mystery is teased out too long, and when we finally see the monster it is a disappointment. The threat of the alien is never powerful enough to match the fabulous group dynamic between the friends.

Super 8 feels like the film Abrams wanted to make when he was younger. It’s sharply executed but more than a little messy and dare I say a tad immature? For all its influences it feels as though a particularly talented youngster is behind the camera at points, with a huge budget to burn compared to the DIY methods of the kids. Just like the kids making their own project, it’s as if JJ thought of the premise and the lives of the characters in detail but couldn’t decide where to take them.

So let’s compare and contrast. Both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Super 8 have creatures (irrelevant) and post-credit sequences (even more irrelevant). In one film the humans disappoint and in the other the beast. If Rise had the human heart of Super 8 it would be the film of the summer. If Super 8 had the coherent structure of Rise to go with its incredibly moving moments, it too could have been one of the year’s best films. As it is they are both simply very good and worth seeing.

Sorry to end so abruptly, rather like Super 8. But if I had to choose one I’d go Apes.

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Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood proves that the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon won’t save 3D


Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b011vmsd/Paul_Mertons_Birth_of_Hollywood_Episode_3/

I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.

Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.

It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.

This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.

A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.

Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.

Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.

3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/jun/10/transformers-dark-of-the-moon-3d

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.