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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Blu-ray Review: The Warrior’s Way

Hi there…

Genre mash-ups. They seem to be very popular these days. In the next couple of weeks, we get to see if Cowboys & Aliens works for moviegoers, putting together a western with a science-fiction story. Earlier in the year we saw Sucker Punch from director Zach Snyder, and I have to say it didn’t fully work for me, throwing together samurai, steampunk, mobsters, and dragons. On the surface, it was a beautiful film, but it fell apart for me once I started thinking it over.

So what do these movies have to do with The Warrior’s Way? Well, it’s another mash-up that doesn’t quite work, merging a western with a kung-fu movie. It almost works in spots, where it takes a breath and isn’t working so hard to sell itself to the audience… but not enough to keep people in the seats. According to Box Office Mojo, the film cost $42 million to make, but it only made $11 million on screens worldwide. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to work all that well on DVD or Blu-ray to recoup costs either.

Let’s start with the story. If you’re trying to avoid spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.

**BEGIN SPOILERS**

Yang (Dong-gun Yang) has been working on behalf of his clan to destroy all members of a rival clan of warriors. He kills all but one – a baby girl – and can’t bring himself to kill her. This puts him at odds with his own clan, so he flees to the United States to find a friend of his living in the frontier town of Lode. When he gets there, he finds his friend is dead and the town is paralyzed after a brutal attack by the Colonel (Danny Huston) and his men. In Lode, he meets Eight-Ball (Tony Cox), a small person performer in the carnival that is trying to revive the town; Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a fiery knife-thrower with little skill; and Ron (Geoffrey Rush), a drunk handy-man working to build the ferris wheel.

Lynne has sworn vengeance against the Colonel, who killed her family and assaulted her. She left her mark on him however, splashing his face with a frying pan full of hot oil. Huston isn’t the most attractive actor to start with, but when you partially melt his face he’s downright disturbing. Yang teaches her how to throw knives and fight with swords, but refuses to draw his own special sword that killed all those people when the film started.

You can see where this is going, right? The Colonel comes back to take his revenge, the people rise up, Yang eventually draws his weapon to save the day, and everybody lives happily ever after. Well, not exactly. As soon as Yang draws his sword, his own clan, seeking the baby he didn’t kill, comes to find him. When he won’t kill the baby, they begin attacking the town and Yang and the rest have to fight for their lives.

**END SPOILERS**

So though the story itself is a bit predictable, it might have worked for me except for a couple of things. First, Bosworth’s performance as Lynne for the first half of the film is so over the top that it’s impossible to identify with her character in any way. You want to, of course. But her loud, boisterous, brash caricature of a Western woman just knocks over any kind of connection you might get with her character. About halfway through the film she settles down, but though I like Bosworth, this was not her finest moment.

Yang on the other hand was perfect in his role. He reminded me of Kung Fu, the television series from the 1970s starring David Carradine as a Shaolin priest wandering the west. There is a similar peace to Yang’s actions and his facial expressions and calm manner helped show the character’s development as he grew attached to the baby, Lynne, and the rest of the townspeople.

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It’s the quiet moments that stick with me after watching, with Yang tending to a small flower garden in town and working in the laundry. But when it tries to get larger than life, it can’t get it together.

Though the film tries very hard to take itself seriously, the merger of wire work and Spaghetti Western just never clicks, so it becomes more humorous than anything else. Director Sngmoo Lee tried to wrangle this mess into something entertaining and almost succeeded in spite of himself. But the whimsy overwhelms the seriousness of some of the Colonel’s (and Yang’s) actions, making it very difficult to stay in the moment for long.

The Blu-ray offers a brilliant 1080p picture, with vibrant colors throughout, and DTS-HD 5.1 audio that captures everything from battle sounds to the whisper of sand in the Western desert beautifully. The use of color in the film is definitely on the garish side at times, emphasizing sunsets and sunrises, as well as the black of night with sparkling stars above.

Beyond the film itself, the first disc also includes a few deleted scenes and a short Behind-the-Scenes featurette that shows the cast having a good time doing stunts on set. None of the deleted scenes really would have added anything to the picture, and I really would have liked to have seen more about how the film was put together. Perhaps a short feature deconstructing one of the battle scenes at the beginning, or more lengthy interviews with the cast and crew would have helped. The second disc offers a digital copy of the film for use on laptops and other portable media players.

I really wanted to like The Warrior’s Way after seeing the trailers last year, but ultimately it doesn’t include enough to warrant a recommendation. If you really want to see it, I recommend you rent it at Red Box for $1 and save your money for better films.

This review first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Blu-ray Review: Unstoppable

Hi all!

Tony Scott. The name itself evokes images of speed, danger, and action. From Top Gun and Days of Thunder to TV’s Numb3rs and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, his knack for taking explosive action and merging it with compelling drama has only improved over the years. Now merge the name Tony Scott with Denzel Washington and you have an even more powerful pair. Films like Man on Fire only reinforce the fact that when you have the trifecta of a great director, a great script, and a great actor, you end up with a great movie. And now, with 2010’s Unstoppable finally making its way to DVD and Blu-ray, Scott and Washington are continuing the trend.

The story is simple for this one. Man vs. Machine. You have an out-of-control train running through populated areas and you have to stop it before it causes too much irreparable harm. How does it get out of control? Somebody forgets to set the brake and leaves the train unattended. Ok. That’s bad. And to add insult to injury, the train has cars containing caustic, explosive materials that could destroy entire towns along the way. That’s worse. Oh yeah, and certain folks are trying to do damage control in such a way that a disaster wouldn’t affect the train company’s bottom line. Now you’ve got me pissed off…

And honestly I think that’s the point. If you take the movie industry as a whole, it may seem like a giant machine trying to pump out money-making properties. But if you take each movie project separately, it’s a series of statements from the scriptwriter, the directors, and the producers about events they feel strongly about. Sure, Unstoppable on the surface is about a dumb mistake by someone who just wants to get to a stopping point for lunch, but it’s more than that.

I saw a brief review on G4’s Attack of the Show recently from Chris Gore (@ThatChrisGore on Twitter) who said this movie was a pass because it was based on a stupid mistake and stereotypes of the working class. I get that to a point. This movie touches on the clashes between unions and corporate types, old hands vs. new punks trying take their jobs, and may appear to trivialize it a bit because it doesn’t go into depth on any of it. Beneath all the action is a statement on taking a stand for what you believe to be right even if it kills you, regardless of all the political or ageist BS that might pop up.

That said, the core of the story is with three heroes trying to stop a stupid mistake from becoming much much worse. The rest of it is simply backstory and can’t be focused on in great detail because it’s the train itself (which Tony Scott calls “The Beast” in the special features) that should really get central billing. Frank (Denzel Washington, The Book of Eli), Will (Chris Pine, Star Trek), and Connie (Rosario Dawson, Seven Pounds, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief) work against the clock, conditions, and corporations to stop this train from harming innocents in Pennsylvania. And like most exciting action films, the heroes have to save the day, right?

Though the runaway train runs away in the first 15 minutes of the film, it took a while to get going for me. It wasn’t until Frank and Will picked up their train and discovered they were playing chicken with the runaway train that things really got going. That said, when things got going, they went a million miles an hour towards the conclusion. It was an entertaining movie with solid characters that you came to care about as things progressed. I can see why it may not have done as well as they would have liked at the box office (only $81 million domestically and another almost $86 million in foreign box office in 14 weeks according to Box Office Mojo with a reported $100 million budget)… But I suspect it will catch up with DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals.

In addition to the film itself, the Blu-ray includes several great features. But by far my favorite was “The Fastest Track: Unleashing Unstoppable.” Clocking in at nearly 30 minutes, the feature covers everything from producer and scriptwriter input to interviews with the actors, bits on the stunt and practical effects work, and a ton on Tony Scott’s directing process. It was fascinating to watch him work, stogie and all, with the insane number of cameras he had going at all times to allow his actors more freedom on a particular shot. Add to that the incredible photography done by a herd of helicopters and racing cars with cameras strapped onto huge scaffolds and you have one heck of a production.

Also included were “Derailed: The Anatomy of a Scene” where they show all the work that went into derailing and blowing up a train for one pivotal scene. For a scene where only one take was possible, since they were destroying the faux train they had built for it, they used a ton of cameras and safety measures to make sure that the stunt drivers and crew were all as safe as possible. The explosion was just the tip of the iceberg!

Other features were “Hanging Off the Train: Stunt Work,” “On the Rails with the Director and Cast,” and “Tracking the Story: Unstoppable Script Development” – each focusing on different aspects of the film. In “On the Rails,” it was fun to see relative newcomer Chris Pine a bit star struck by working with Denzel Washington and Tony Scott on the same film.

The Blu-ray picture itself was excellent, with 1080p resolution and full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. The differences between the speed of the trains and the landscape rushing by were incredible with colors that really popped the green of the trees and the red of the runaway train out at you without needing 3D to do it. The sound was rich and vibrant as well from the bass of the thumping helicopter blades to the voices of the actors and the screaming wheels of the train.

If you’re a fan of Tony Scott’s work, want to see more of Denzel’s or Rosario’s work, or want to see Chris Pine somewhere other than on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, I’d definitely encourage you to give Unstoppable a chance. It was fun, frantic, and entertaining!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up Unstoppable on Blu-ray or DVD from Barnes & Noble below!

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