Blu-ray Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Hi all!

When I was a kid, I loved watching the Planet of the Apes movies during the Saturday afternoon “monster mash” marathons. Did I care the apes were really men in masks? Not really. All I cared about was the fact that Charlton Heston was an astronaut propelled into the distant future to an Earth dominated by intelligent talking apes! Gorilla Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) were as real as they needed to be in my youth. And of course the first movie led to all the others – Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all at one time or another.

Fast forward to the horrible remake of Planet of the Apes starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter. As I watched the film, I felt my inner kid screaming in agony while my adult self cataloged all the bad things in the film and promptly shredded those memories so no trace would remain behind…

So when I heard about Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it was my inner kid who screamed “nooooooo!” and convinced me not to try again. I decided I simply didn’t need modern movie producers treading again on fun memories of my youth. But then I started hearing all the good reviews of the film, including one from my mother who doesn’t usually like science fiction movies. And I vowed to watch the film when it was released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Over the holidays, I had a chance to watch the Blu-ray and found myself enjoying Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco as researcher Will Rodman trying to cure Alzheimer’s so his father, music teacher and pianist Charles Rodman (John Lithgow) could live a full life again. The true star of the film however was Andy Serkis, who pioneered motion capture acting as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies with Peter Jackson, and has turned “mocap” acting into an art form. How can a grown man connect emotionally with a movie audience when it’s not even him we’re seeing on screen? Somehow he manages to pull it off beautifully and tug on our hearts the whole way through as Caesar, the first primate who evolves a higher intelligence in the film.

Cast-wise I have to say I’m not a huge Franco fan. Though I’ve not seen 127 Hours, which I hear is very good, he seemed very wooden through the majority of his performance in Rise as he has in most other films I’ve seen him in. Lithgow was amazing as the Alzheimer’s suffering father who bonds with chimpanzee Caesar after his son the researcher brings him home to keep him from being destroyed after a lab accident. Freida Pinto was fine as Caroline Aranha, zoo veterinarian and Franco love interest. Brian Cox was great as the uncaring owner of an ape sanctuary. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter films) plays a cruel animal keeper at the sanctuary with ease. And it was fun to see Tyler Labine (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) in a more serious role as the ape wrangler at the research facility as well as David Hewlett (Dr. Rodney McKay from Stargate: Atlantis) in a role as Franco’s neighbor trying to protect his family and property from Caesar living next door.

But really it was Serkis who stole the show. I knew he was a great actor after the Lord of the Rings and we saw more of his mocap work in Jackson’s King Kong, but it was really amazing how far the technology has come that can not only capture his facial expressions and body movements, but emotions as well. James Cameron’s Avatar was the most recent exploration of fully embracing mocap, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes shows it can be used to have real actors act as realistic animals as well as humanoid aliens. Not once was I even thinking “man in suit” while watching Caesar go from baby chimp to conquering ape hero. I’ll be really shocked if Serkis doesn’t get an Oscar for his performance this year.

Though the story was a bit like Titanic, where you knew the apes were going to take over the world, I was astonished at how well the film worked from beginning to end. It offers a compelling storyline combined with great acting to transport the viewer to a scary possible future. I’m excited to see where director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver choose to go with the sequel, since they have more than 1000 years of ape-dominated future history to explore!

The Blu-ray box includes the Blu-ray on one disc as well as a DVD plus a digital copy. The film looks gorgeous on the Blu-ray, with a full 1080p/AVC transfer in the widescreen 2:35:1 aspect ratio. While researching this review, I was shocked to find out that the film itself was recorded on 35mm film stock, which makes such a crisp transfer to 1080p HD screens that much more impressive.

The soundtrack is equally crisp, recorded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. With our 5.1 system at home, we enjoyed listening to the birds chirping in the background behind us while Caesar was exploring the Redwood forest in some scenes. We never had to adjust the audio to better hear dialogue or turn down the sound during some of the big action scenes when things exploded or crashed.

As far as the extras go, there are a ton on the Blu-ray – from the two audio commentaries (one by director Wyatt and the other with writers Jaffa and Silver) to the deleted scenes, several great features about background on the film and Serkis’ brilliant performance, and sneak peeks. All of the video features were done in 1080p except for the BD-Live extras which I wasn’t able to see on my at-home Blu-ray player. The “Mythology of the Apes” goes into detail about the filmmakers and actors’ respect for the source material. “A New Generation of Apes” provides a behind-the-scenes view of how they transformed Andy Serkis and the other motion-capture actors into actual characters on screen. It involved a great deal of training for the actors as well as some powerful computer-aided tools on the post-production end which has me excited to see what sorts of films might come out in the next few years.

Honestly I was surprised at how well Rise of the Planet of the Apes worked after the debacle of the 2001 remake. And I’m cautiously optimistic about a sequel in the next few years to continue Caesar’s story of world domination. If nothing else, I think the film suggests that we be kinder to our future ape overlords!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Hi there!

What is it about Jim Carrey and animals that just clicks when they’re combined in a movie? I still remember Carrey as “Fireman Jim” on In Living Color and wondering how in the heck he made his face stay in that awful grimace. When he did both Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask in 1994, he was permanently on my radar. The character of Ace Ventura was at once annoying and endearing, and somehow he pulled off working with an entire zoo of animals on film.

When Mr. Popper’s Penguins came out this past June, everyone in my family wanted to see it. However, as things sometimes work out, we never got a chance so we knew we’d definitely have to check it out on DVD. Thankfully it was released this week and we had a chance to watch.

The movie is based on Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a Newbery-award-winning novel published in 1938 by the husband and wife team of Richard and Florence Atwater. Jim Carrey plays Tom Popper, a man dedicated to his work in buying and selling New York City real estate to the detriment of all other relationships in his life. While Popper was growing up, his father was off exploring the world and rarely home to share his experiences. To make up for it, his father always sent fun gifts to his son from wherever he was. When the elder Popper dies, he sends his son one last gift – a set of penguins from Antarctica. From the moment Popper meets the first penguin, his life starts spiraling out of control and putting his priorities back in order.

Anyone who’s had a pet can probably attest to how crazy life can get when you have an animal in your life. There’s something about sharing your life with a pet that gets them under your skin. Sure, there’s the day-to-day chores of feeding and cleaning up after critters big and small. But little by little they become bonded to you and you become bonded to them despite how much they may completely drive you bonkers.

As Popper gets used to having six penguins in his NYC apartment, he finds himself caring for these frozen characters from the South Pole. And along the way, he finds ways to reconnect with his kids Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) and Janie (Madeline Carroll), and his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino). Of course, there are a few hiccups along the way like a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) obsessed with taking the penguins away, the woman who owns the Tavern on the Green in Central Park, Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), and Popper’s bosses at the real estate firm.

Honestly I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Mr. Popper’s Penguins based on the trailers. It’s Jim Carrey playing a similar character to other roles like he has in Bruce Almighty and Liar Liar. That however turned out to be a boon – there’s something about this human cartoon interacting with animals and kids that makes him quite endearing.

Beyond Carrey, the penguins themselves have quite a bit of character. Each penguin has its own personality from the first time they appear in the film to the end. And the combination of live action and CGI penguins was seamless throughout the movie. The scene with the birds sliding down from floor to floor in the Guggenheim was quite funny as you saw people go flying left and right as the birds whizzed past.

Included in the DVD extras are the animated short “Nimrod and Stinky’s Antarctic Adventure,” a collection of deleted scenes, a gag reel, “Ready for Their Closeup,” “Ladies and Gentoomen,” an audio commentary featuring director Mark Waters, editor Bruce Green, and visual effects supervisor Richard Hollander, a sneak peek at Tooth Fairy 2, and the original theatrical trailer.

The animated short was disappointing, done in a “moving comics” style that was a bit jarring to me. However I was impressed that Clegg would lend his voice to the zookeeper in the short. The gag reel proves just how little Jim Carrey has changed since Ace Ventura. And “Ladies and Gentoomen” is a great educational piece about the penguins featuring Jessica Perry, a Senior Level Aviculturist at Sea World.

We really enjoyed “Ready for their Closeup,” which showed the great lengths the actors and production crew went to for the Gentoo penguins. Everyone involved in the movie really seemed quite taken with them. The work that went into training the birds as well as training the actors to work with them. And like any time you work with animals, the feature really shows how they can take over the set. If there weren’t enough outtakes in the gag reel for you, there are some amazing clips with Carrey and the penguins here.

Overall Mr. Popper’s Penguins was a fun movie with some great extras to learn more about the penguins themselves as well as making movies with these fun birds.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas

Ever since Scrat the sabertooth squirrel started his quest for the acorn in the early 2000s, I’ve been a fan of the Ice Age universe. Sure, maybe Manny, Sid, and Diego are slowly inching towards extinction, but more often than not they show that animated films can be both commercial, kid-friendly, and still appeal to parents who are still young-at-heart.

That said, I was disappointed this year when we somehow managed to miss recording Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas which aired around Thanksgiving. I wanted to see if the momentum of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs with its whole Land of the Lost/Journey to the Center of the Earth vibe would spill over into a Christmas special. Now that I’ve seen the special on DVD, I’m happy to say that it was actually quite original and fun!

It starts out with mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) literally rolling out the decorations for Christmas (somewhat ironically considering how odd it would be to have Christmas before the birth of Christ, but let’s let that go) – including a large boulder that’s been handed down generation to generation in Manny’s family. When Sid (John Leguizamo) the sloth and Diego (Denis Leary) the sabertooth tiger get involved in a discussion about the stone’s merits, Sid manages to destroy it while testing its durability. This didn’t make Manny happy at all and in his frustration he convinces Sid that he’s on Santa’s “Naughty List.”

Well, this upsets Manny and Ellie’s daughter Peaches (Ciara Bravo) so much, she sets off to head to the North Pole to convince Santa to remove Sid from the Naughty List. Of course, Peaches and Sid aren’t alone in this quest and are joined by the possum brothers Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck). Along the way, they get a bit lost and stumble across a new friend named Prancer (T.J. Miller) who just happens to be a flying reindeer. This odd group makes their way to Santa’s workshop, guarded by an army of tiny sloths.

Do they find Santa? Do Manny, Ellie, and Diego join the party? Yes to both questions. Of course, they manage to destroy and rebuild Santa’s Workshop and find a way to save Christmas for kids all around the world thanks to Prancer and his flying family. Ultimately I think the message is that no matter what happens, anything is possible if you work together towards a common goal and don’t give up.

Plus, having an Ice Age holiday special serves as a reminder of the new movie due out next summer – Ice Age: Continental Drift arrives in theaters in July 2012!

In an age where the stop-motion puppetry of the Rankin-Bass holiday specials are looking a little long in the tooth, I’m glad to see new specials appearing on the docket like the Prep and Landing, Shrek the Halls, and now Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas. I think this one will fit nicely into our holiday TV traditions from now on!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

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