Mini Reviews (August 2011)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, West Side Story, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (August 4/11)
A loose prequel to the five-film Planet of the Apes series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows genetic scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) as he inadvertently creates a smart, cunning ape (Andy Serkis' Caesar) while attempting to cure Alzheimer's disease - with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently revolving around Caesar's ongoing efforts at finding his place in contemporary society. Filmmaker Rupert Wyatt has infused Rise of the Planet of the Apes with an almost astonishingly slick and fast-paced sensibility that proves impossible to resist, with the movie's pervasively watchable atmosphere heightened by its top-notch cast and inherently compelling premise. It is, as a result, fairly easy to overlook the less-than-convincing nature of the movie's computer-generated special effects, as Serkis and the various animators do a fantastic job of transforming Caesar into a compelling and unexpectedly sympathetic figure. The mindlessly entertaining vibe persists right up until the film enters its comparatively underwhelming midsection, with Wyatt's decision to stress Caesar's unpleasant exploits within a rundown ape sanctuary - complete with needlessly callous minders - only exacerbating the narrative's decidedly uneven feel. (There reaches a point, after all, at which one can't help but wish that the filmmakers would just get on with it already, as we all know exactly where this story is going.) Things pick up substantially as Caesar and his ape followers finally begin to fight back, with the ridiculous yet thoroughly entertaining third act effectively justifying the film's entire existence - although it's worth noting that the movie doesn't, in the final analysis, depict the ape uprising that one might've expected (ie the animals are simply attempting to get from one location to the next, as it turns out). Rise of the Planet of the Apes ultimately stands as a fine start to a promising new series, which is no small feat, certainly, given the less-than-stellar nature of most contemporary reboots and remakes.
West Side Story (August 7/11)
Overlong yet entertaining, West Side Story details the turmoil that ensues after two New York City-based gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, decide to escalate their ongoing rivalry - with complications ensuing as one of the Jets, Richard Beymer's Tony, falls in love with the sister (Natalie Wood's Maria) of a high-ranking Sharks member. West Side Story has been infused with an impressively theatrical (yet cinematic) feel by filmmakers Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, with the unapologetically over-the-top atmosphere reflected most prominently in the larger-than-life performances and arrestingly conceived and executed set pieces. There's little doubt, then, that the decidedly thin nature of the movie's plot is, at the outset, not as problematic as one might've suspected, as Robbins and Wise essentially use the storyline as a jumping-off point for a series of energetic, visually sumptuous musical numbers. (It's clear, too, that certain sequences fare better than others, with the electrifying first encounter between Tony and Maria standing as an obvious highlight.) The palpably excessive running time becomes more and more noticeable as time progresses, however, as scripter Ernest Lehman offers up a middling midsection that's dominated by passable yet forgettable interludes. (And it doesn't help, either, that the emphasis is, during this stretch, removed from the film's most entertaining aspect, Maria and Tony's burgeoning romance.) Still, West Side Story is, by and large, a striking musical that lives up to its reputation as a singular piece of work - with the film's minor deficiencies generally canceled out by its pervasive atmosphere of good-natured exuberance.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (August 8/11)
Based on a '70s TV movie, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark follows Guy Pearce's Alex Hirst as he and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes' Kim) and daughter (Bailee Madison's Sally) move into a dilapidated old house with the intention of fixing it up and selling it later - though it's not long before Sally becomes convinced that there's something sinister living within the mansion's boarded-up basement. Director Troy Nixey, working from a script by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robins, has infused Don't Be Afraid of the Dark with the feel of a fairly typical haunted-house movie, as the first-time filmmaker places a consistent emphasis on the various elements that one has come to associate with the genre - including the inquisitive kid, the creepy handyman, etc, etc. It is, as such, not surprising to note that the movie's opening hour unfolds exactly as one might've anticipated, with Sally's initial exploration of the house's expansive grounds segueing into her slow realization that there's someone (or something) else residing within the estate's walls. The almost excessively familiar atmosphere, coupled with a pace best described as deliberate, proves effective at preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the spare narrative, with the solid performances and smattering of horror-centric sequences ensuring that the movie remains, at the very least, watchable from start to finish. The passable yet far-from-engrossing vibe persists right up until around the one-hour mark, after which point, with the nature of the threat firmly revealed, the film finally morphs into the engaging, progressively ominous chiller that one might've hoped for based on the premise - with the entertainingly ridiculous finale ensuring that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark concludes on an unexpectedly positive note.