Monthly Archives: July 2001

Planet of the Apes (2001)

Taking a storied, and for the most part successful, franchise like Planet of the Apes and trying to rework it is frightfully difficult. You don’t want it to turn off the original’s fans but not be different enough to have its own voice. When I heard that Tim Burton was going to helm this reworking I became optimistic about the prospects of a Burton Planet of the Apes and began to eagerly anticipate its release. What I got, despite some stellar visuals, is a disappointing low point for many people involved, and that does include the man that gave us “Good Vibrations.”

Capt. Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is a trained pilot inhabiting a space station orbiting the rings of Saturn. The members inside are performing tests on the intelligence of apes (foreshadowing poking you in the eye) and seem to be coming back with optimistic results. A cosmic energy storm erupts near the station and Leo’s chimp is sent out into a pod to investigate. When the ape disappears (oh the foreshadowing is starting to hurt) Leo decides to venture out himself to save his monkey despite the instructions of his superiors. He gets pulled into the energy field and crashes on a distant planet where he discovers that apes are on top of the food chain and humans are the sport. Captured by the ape commander Attar (Michael Clark Duncan), he is taken to Ape City. He is sold into slavery but wins the attention of a human rights activist Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) who agrees to help him escape and get to his crashed vessel. General Thade (Tim Roth) still carries a torch for Ari but has an entirely different viewpoint when it comes to humans. At one moment he grabs Wahlberg and pulls apart his mouth to murkily inquire “Is there a soul in there?” When Thade begins to learn about Ari’s assistance to the human escape he mounts a full army to travel to the Forbidden Zone and annihilate the humans once and for all.

Burton’s Apes remake, excuse me… “re-imagining,” lacks the social commentary, originality, and heck, even entertainment level that its predecessor possessed. Burton adds his usual great touches of style and the sets are vast and a wonder to see, but what movie is all set watching? This isn’t the simian Home and Garden channel. Burton dresses his players up nice thanks in part to Rick Baker’s fantastic makeup but the components in Apes redux are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The script is credited to four writers but I wonder why anyone would want to take any credit for it. The story is not only half-baked it seems to never have come out of the oven. The tale is full of numerous incongruities that make this new Apes feel stagnant, especially during its middle portion. The story never gives us any real characters or an exciting line to follow. It’s more like a story pitch than a full story. There are many moments where dialogue is paraphrased from the original in an attempt at a humorous wink, but it’s worthy of more groans than applause.

Unlike the first Apes series, the humans of Burton’s ape world can speak… they just don’t have anything interesting to say. Estella Warren fills in as the good looking and useless heroine that spends her days frolicking about in ripped rags. She’s supposed to be the love interest for Mark but she fails at that (even though she’s the planet’s only attractive female) with Carter getting more googly eyes cast her way. There’s something weirdly natural seeing Kris Kristofferson as a scrubby post-apocalyptic dweller. It seems like he was made to lurk through caves and grunt. Wahlberg himself seems to sleepwalk through the entire film and speaks in only one monotonous tone.

Roth gets to huff and puff a lot and does quite a good menacing job. Every expression of his has a dominating glare of power and every piece of dialogue spoken in a gruff snarl. He has total capture of a great villain and serves his end well enough as the story provides. Carter gives a light touch as the sympathetic human defender but the long awkward moments where her and Mark gaze at each other gave way to great howls from my audience. Giamatti hams up his role with verve and provides some of the best moments of levity for this overwrought film.[

The original Planet of the Apes ending was one of the greatest twists of cinema. It was entirely logistical and packed a great punch. The ending of Burton’s “re-imagining” packs as much punch as a wet noodle. The ending is TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE given the set-up of the events in the film. Not only is it a disappointing head-scratcher but ]it also manages to rip off the first film’s ending with no shame. It truly may be the worst ending possibly ever. I bet a room full of monkeys could have written a better ending, and I’m willing to put money on it.

Let me explain why it’s impossible through the use of spoilers. So Mark is in the future. He follows his little monkey friend and crash lands on a separate planet IN THE FUTURE. On this planet, Mark’s space station has been looking for him and crash landed. Their monkey experiments get loose and bing, bang, zoom, we got fully evolved monkeys ruling the place (don’t even bother asking where the horses came from). Now, after learning all this, Mark takes a space pod and zooms his way back to present day Earth. He crash lands against the Lincoln Memorial steps only to discover that Lincoln has been replaced with General Thade and Earth is populated with highly evolved apes that still speak English. What? How? What? This cannot be because the film establishes a frame where Earth already has a long history of non-evolved monkey rule. Wahlberg crash landed on a DIFFERENT planet in THE FUTURE that should, therefore, have no bearing whatsoever on what happens to Earth or its past. The Apes remake rips off the most famous twist ending ever by serving up an incongruous version that makes no sense and cannot happen.

Planet of the Apes had all the right components for an exciting and sleek sci-fi ride but falls far short. Burton adds enough of his Gothic vision but this will likely go down as the weakest film on his resume. The usually reliable Danny Elfman’s score is nothing more than hyped up symphonic white noise. Burton may go home with a large check but I pray they don’t do a “re-imagining” of the next Apes picture. Marky Mark and the Furry Bunch are stuck in a hollow, head-scratching bore. Fans of the original series may find interest in comparing and contrasting, but if that’s cause enough to make a film then give me 100 bucks and I’ll make my own versions in my backyard. And they’ll at least make more sense than this monkey mess.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Jurassic Park III (2001)

Jurassic Park 3 – or – How I Stopped Worrying About Plot and Started Loving Dinosaur Mayhem

As we last left Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) he is still making the rounds to financially support his ailing archeological digs in Montana. A couple (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) ask the good doctor to be their guide as they have chartered a plane to fly over the island of Isla Sorna (or Nublar, I forget which, they’re both really Hawaii anyway). Grant hesitates at first but when their checkbook comes out he begrudgingly accepts – proving again like the first two, that no matter what the danger, archeologists will do whatever for grants. The truth is that the couple is searching for their lost boy (Trevor Morgon) who was stranded on the island when he partook in an idiotic para-sailing sight seeing adventure by the island. Of course the plane gets destroyed and they must all fend for themselves.

Jurassic Park 3 makes no bones about what it really is – a dino thrill ride. There’s no opportunities to flesh out characters, there’s no time for set-up, it’s just straight to the island and constant running from peril from there. The pacing of the film and structure is like an amusement park; the people are on one ride that thrills, then they quickly move to another within minutes, and repeat for an afternoon of fun. To boil it down it’s dinos chase humans, stir, and bake for 90 minutes.

It seems that in every Jurassic movie we have some kind of new scientific theory being explored and eventually vilified. In the first it was dinosaurs behaved more like birds and perhaps evolved into them, the second had something to do with maternal behavior and parenting. And now in Jurassic Park 3 the new scientific dig is that raptors could communicate verbally to one another – in essence talk. There’s even a sequence late into the flick where they basically “talk” straight for something like a minute. I was hoping Dr. Doolittle would waltz in at any moment and start singing, but, despite my best hopes and wishes, it was not to be.

The effects and animatronics have gotten better than ever, and they were stellar to begin with. There are moments of great thrills and fun, but too often then not, it all feels routine. What should be an awesome sight of dinosaurs roaming is now blasé. What should be fearsome coming face to face with the familiar predators like T. Rex and the raptors now seems, well… too familiar. The only true moment of great awe and freshness is when the group is walking along a rickety walkway only to discover they’re inside a giant aviary complete with hungry pterodactyls.

Acting in a Jurassic Park film usually consists of a healthy scream and some fast legs. Everyone is okay by those standards, but Leoni’s character is just far too annoying. I would’ve enjoyed the flick more if she had been eaten. In another stroke of sure luck, all of the major Hollywood cast members survive yet all the extras or unknowns perish. Call it the Poseidon Adventure syndrome (Thank you Ebert for writing this first so that I might rip you off in the future).

Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) inherited the dino franchise from master guru Spielberg and has done a fairly capable job with his efforts. The action is fast and there are a couple of particularly nice visual set-ups sprinkled through out the film. The marvel that was in Spielberg’s touch is the most missing however. The “script” (and I use this in a very loose sense) is actually co-credited to Alexander Payne, which is a rather interesting morsel. The most interesting one though has to be that the young Morgon has actually starred in another dinosaur picture before in his short career – Barney’s Great Adventure.

For action fans in this bleak summer release period Jurassic Park 3 will serve a fine dish at 90 minutes of fast dinosaur attacks and squeals. Hopefully though the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise will be stopped before the wonder it used to have turns passé. Because right now it’s teetering on the brink.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Score (2001)

Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, three of the greatest actors of three generations. This draw alone warrants a stroll to view The Score one would assume. But not so fast my friend. If you venture out to witness this movie chances are you will fall asleep within the first hour.

The plot runs through the all too familiar terrain of so many crime capers and heist flick predecessors. There’s the old pro who wants to retire (Robert De Niro) who gets pulled into a risky heist planned out by a young pup with some bite (Edward Norton). Will the old pro forgo his plans of retiring on a beach side with little umbrella drinks for one last shot at the big score? If you have to think about this question then you need to get out more. The scheme is to break into the Montreal Customs building and steal a scepter that could be worth as much as 30 million dollars. Stealing a scepter from French Canadians? Was this idea written on the back of a napkin at a bar?

This is in essence the plot of The Score. The characters are mere shells and never fleshed out. With any heist picture there should be the scenes where the characters engross themselves with the ins and outs of their scenario, the rehearsing and practicing, and finally the big move. The Score decides to lightly touch the first, skip the second, and barely give the audience much of the third. The film just isn’t playing by the rules it gives.

The Score is muddily directed by famed puppeteer Frank Oz. He has directed comedies over the past few years but his first foray into drama, or action, or whatever you want to call it, is downright embarrassing. The entire film waddles in muggy darkness, as if they didn’t have enough money to light the damn picture. After so many scenes of watching the outlines of actors or making out just their faces it just becomes fruitless to even watch. Maybe some of the money should have been poached from the stars’ hefty salaries to make sure that they were adequately lighted.

The beginning hour of The Score may very well be the worst time I’ve had in a theater all year. It’s drawn out beyond its own bounds to establish a set-up that could have been done properly with only a few minutes. This half of the film is leaden and wallowing in boredom, and it feels like it’s never going to end. I think I was actually contemplating suicide at one point.

The structure of The Score is easy to diagram. The first half has to do with the superfluous set-up, then we have ten minutes of the actual heist sequence, and then… it’s done. The film actually ends about three minuets after the heist complete with the now requisite twist ending that anyone with a functional brain will see coming a mile away. What needed to be done is to consolidate that slow-as-a-glacier beginning into something like twenty minutes, then double the length of the heist sequence and actually give it tension. Finally then have the rest of the movie play as a cat-and-mouse game of who has the upper hand with their burgled prize. This would have played with the actors more and at least keep the audience guessing and awake. As it stands, The Score is an incredibly unsuccessful effort when it comes to story structuring. This could be a future classic example of how not to tell a story.

Norton is the only real punch of intensity in the movie. When Norton reappears onscreen it’s as if The Score regains a sense of renewed life. He’s great to watch, either as the young ambitious hotheaded criminal or as his mentally retarded janitor cover. De Niro must be getting a good long distance plan because he phones in yet another performance. He plays his character too smooth that the audience can never fear that he is actually in any danger. Brando is basically for comic relief, that is, if you can understand him through his garbled mumbles. Did this man have a stroke or something? Angela Bassett is useless in this film and wasted. Her role is the frequently off camera girlfriend who urges her man to settle down and let this last one go.

The Score is a lousy heist picture and a lousier attempt at entertainment. It lacks tension, proper story structuring, and even basic movie fundamentals like proper lighting. The Score is a wasted ensemble of a great cast that could only echo the silly cartoon that was Con Air. See The Score if you dare, but make sure to take some NoDoz for the first half.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Kiss of the Dragon (2001)

Jet Li is a man with fantastic martial arts skills and splendor. I have no doubt in my mind that if this man were given a proper American vehicle he could knock ’em dead. Romeo Must Die was too tired and the fight scenes were too cramped (not to mention the hilarious spine flashing kick at the end). Li takes off this time as a Chinese intelligent officer who travels to France to unwittingly become the center of corrupt cops’ ire. Li dispatches people in some unintentionally uproarious manners like the use of chopsticks or acupuncture. The story is meaningless and just a door to the action sequences to show off the muscle of Li.

The biggest detriment of Kiss of the Dragon happens to be in the area of why the audience is forking over their green – action. The action scenes in Dragon are horribly choreographed and edited together. Nothing astounds the eye or makes the pulse race; it only annoys and agitates. The audience is coming to see some awesome kung fu delivered by its maestro Li, but what they end up getting is dull fight sequences horrendously spliced together. No sense of time or geography comes from these edits, which means there might be stuff happening but you don’t know what and to whom. If you’re going to showcase Li at least give the man a workable stage for his talents.

The story of Dragon is laughably bad with some perfect forehead slapping moments, like when Li is running from the bad guys and ducks into a martial arts class where everyone then takes him on. Bridget Fonda hits a career low as a woman forced into prostitution so she can retrieve her little girl again. The entire supporting cast is about as animated and well put together at the atrocious fight sequences. Only true die-hard fans of Li or kung fu should go see Kiss of the Dragon. The rest of the public should just hide their chopsticks when Li comes for dinner.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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