Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Movie Review


When I first saw the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was not expecting great things. I have only seen parts of the version with Mark Whalberg, which, despite having a great cast (other than Marky Mark), is utter rubbish. The whole idea struck me as rather silly, but with good graphics. The second trailer cast a new element onto the idea, suggesting that there might be an actual story in the thing. Since it was either that or Final Destination 5 as the second movie at Becky's, it wasn't a difficult choice. I was pleasantly surprised with the result.

The film opens with a scene reminiscent of Mighty Joe Young, a movie that apparently scarred me far more than I realized as a child. Chimpanzees are hunted through the jungle by men with trucks and guns, to be captured and caged in boxes barely large enough to fit their body. This strikes a cord with me for a number of reasons, the largest being my disgust at the use of apes in testing. These are creatures so like us they can learn to communicate with us. When I was young I had a book about Koko the Gorilla, and one part talks about Michael, the male gorilla she lived with. He was mean to her and she signed "Toilet Head" in response. I don't think I have thought of apes as animals since then. How can we do medical testing on creatures only one tiny genetic code away from us?

Unlike what I have seen or heard about all the other movies (seven in all, as well as two TV shows), not only is this movie the only one that documents the start of the rebellion (hence Rise of), this is the only movie that casts all of the apes, not just a handful, in a good light. The apes are lab animals, used to test a new, radical medication that has the potential to reverse Alzheimer's and various other neurological diseases. It creates new pathways in the brain in order to repair damage - in an undamaged brain, it enhances natural intelligence. The result is a group of apes with the intelligence and reasoning power of a brilliant human, but still with the body and instincts of a chimp (or gorilla or orangutan). Rather than simply registering fear and hate at their captivity, the apes see injustice and a desire to escape, and have the mental capacity to do so.

This post has gone in quite a different direction than what I was intending. I was planning on a simple movie review, but in a way, the movie itself is to blame for that. There are human characters in the movie, but the acting is so stiff and uninteresting that you can pretty easily forget that they are there. James Franco, a star for reasons I fail to understand, is the extremely awkward narrator - providing entirely unnecessary voice over and at one point ending a thought so strangely that it made an otherwise serious moment hilarious. His character, Will, is the head scientist behind the drug, and naturally has a father (John Lithgow) slowly dying of Alzheimer's. Freida Pinto, so fantastic in Slumdog Millionaire, was just sort of boring as the zoo vet (who questions not at all the fact that Will has a pet chimp) turned girlfriend who is bothered-ish by the treatment of the apes, but not enough to actually do anything. Brian Cox is typically evil as the head of an 'ape santuary' and Tom Felton is god awful as his psychotic son. I'd need to watch it again to tell if I hated him because of the character (who is positively vile) or because of the acting, but every time he came on screen, I cringed.

That's all OK though, since the real star of the movie - who bizarrely has almost last billing on IMDb (after "guy with newspaper", for crying out loud) - is Andy Serkis, as the chimp Caesar. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he did the motion capture and voice work for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings. He has made a name for himself doing incredibly difficult motion capture work - as well as Gollum he was King Kong in the most recent movie, and he is to be Captain Haddock in the new Tin Tin movies. As Caesar, the leader of the revolution, he is astounding - not only does he make a chimp a totally sympathetic character, he does so while being absolutely convincing as a chimp. The effects and his skill are such that for the most part, you forget that they are effects. There are some moments that look odd, but they are easy to overlook. The scene where Caesar stands up to Tom Felton's character (I don't want to give any more away) is chilling. I'm honestly getting goosebumps now, it's that powerful.

So, yea. The acting from the humans is pretty crap, but it's a great movie anyway. Go see it.

Conan the Barbarian - Movie Review


Saturday morning was my first class of the school year. Yea, Saturday morning. At 8am. That means getting up at 6:30. On Saturday. Kill me. Also, the class is Anatomy and Physiology lab. We will be dissecting a cat. On Saturday mornings. Is this real life? Anyway, since the morning sucked so hard, a friend and I went to Becky's Drive In. They had an epic double feature option of Conan the Barbarian and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and that was way too good to pass up. I saw the original Conan the Barbarian my freshman year of high school. It supposedly fit into the course curriculum but all I remember is my English teacher attempting to censor the sex scenes by putting a piece of paper in front of the projector. This might have worked if she had turned the sound down as well, and held the paper against the projector lens. As it was, we were able to hear perfectly well the horrid Schwarzenegger sex noises, and the paper thing only created a smaller screen. For a 14 year old, it was hilarious.

For a 24 year old with a love of insane bloodbaths, Conan the Barbarian (the new one) was just OK. Unlike other movies of it's ilk - The Scorpion King comes to mind - none of the characters were particularly memorable. I take that back, almost none. Ron Perlman, as Conan's father, was rather delightful. This is a man who got his start playing a caveman without makeup. I still can't decide if he is fiercely unattractive or very sexy. And he's downright awesome in Sons of Anarchy. But yea, other than him, nothing really spectacular from any of the actors. Jason Momoa, as Conan, was big and growly with an admirable rear but the actor who played the younger version, Leo Howard, had more guts. Rose McGowan, some witch chick, was her normal, disturbing self with along with a decidedly not normal forehead. I'm amazed, every time I see her in a movie, that people keep paying her to 'act'. She's truly awful.

Speaking of terrible actresses, Rachel Nichols (as TaMARa, not TAmara, just so she is a bit more exotic) is utterly devoid of emotion other than 'vaguely irritated but still trying to look sexy'. In one scene she - along with a group of large men who really do the work - defeat an enemy and she looks about her with such an idiotic expression that I wanted to stab her with the sword she could barely lift. The bad guy, Khalar Zym, portrayed by Stephen Lang (also known as 'Ohhh, THAT guy!) was utterly forgettable other than that horrible spider-mask thing. He kind of fights, but his daughter (Rose McGowan) does most of the work and he mostly just glares and makes snarky comments.

Alright, so the acting was shit, but who expected more? The movie wasn't even as epic as it could have been. There were a number of times I thought "I would have done this" or "This would have been better", which makes me wonder why no one in Hollywood has hired me yet! So many opportunities were lost - no close ups of angry elephants, no hilarious side kick, no Dwayne Johnson... What we did get was an overabundance of implied incest (never a good thing), a really obnoxious sidekick that was obviously a failed take-off of Arpid in The Scorpion King and a really lame sea monster. On the other hand, we did get tomahawk wielding crazies who scream like velociraptors from Jurassic Park, but we didn't get to see a whole lot of them. The first 40 minutes was entertaining, then it just got old.

All in all, mildly entertaining, but only because I was able to laugh and comment loudly (in the car), only paid $4 for it (or rather, nothing, since my friend paid for me), and was going to see a better movie right after. Save your money on this one.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A New Ending to a Problematic Story

Last year when Dave and I lived in Maine I worked in the home care field. While there were horrible days (the day I cleaned blood off a bathroom floor will go down in history as Yucky Day #1), there were some great moments. I worked for a 99 year old guy who would tell me stories about life in Maine almost a century ago - he will get his own post someday. There was a 27 year old with a spinal cord injury who became more of a friend than a patient. And there was another older man, 95, who was an absolute sweetheart and a total physical mess. Mostly blind, no sense of balance, no muscle tone, lots of memory loss - much of him had deteriorated except his love of books and music. I went to see him three to five times a week and every day I would put on a record, make him some food, and read.

He didn't have any books in his apartment that really lent themselves to being read aloud - non-fiction on herbal remedies and trolley cars. I had to think for a while about what book to read to him - nothing with too much violent or sex or swearing obviously, but I wanted something that might interest an older man. Anything by Neil Gaiman was out - too much of all of those no-nos - none of my many heroine fueled fantasy novels, and no murder mysteries. It gave me some consternation to discover that I don't own many books suitable for all audiences when I found my savior. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, has been one of my favorite book for over a decade, and my paperback copy is worn to fuzzyness. I have read it more times than I can count but it was only with this reading, done aloud with many repetitions of chapters (that's what happens when you read to someone with memory loss), when I noticed a problem with the story. Maybe it isn't a problem with the story itself, but it certainly created a problem for me, so much so that I will never read it the same way again. I could explain it to you, but I think what I would rather do is address it in the form of a short epilogue to the story. That said, I give you Buttercup's Epiphany.

Buttercup's Epiphany

Ten years after Westley relapsed again and Buttercup's horse threw a shoe, they lived in a small house on the Florinese coast. Buttercup was no longer the most beautiful woman in the world, not even in the top fifty, but she still turned heads at market. Westley was no longer as strong as he had been - the death had taken a lot out of him - and he had developed a gut that no amount of wood chopping could banish. They had two golden haired children, a boy and a girl, who were both beautiful, though not particularly intelligent.

Buttercup was washing up after dinner when she paused, suds making her hands prune in a way that dropped her another few levels.



"You were the Dread Pirate Roberts."

Westley looked up from his paper. He stared at his wife for a long moment. "Darling, now I know that you have never been the brightest, but..."

"Don't make fun of me, Westley. I'm having a revelation. It only just occurred to me. You were the Dread Pirate Roberts. For years, you told me."

"Yes." He returned to his paper.


He carefully folded his hands and looked up. "Yes?"

"The Dread Pirate Roberts never leaves survivors."

Westley stared. "Well, yes."

"So you never left survivors. In all those years."

Westley said nothing.

"Westley. You killed people for money. For years."

Still he said nothing.

Buttercup turned back to the sink and looked out the window. The boy and girl played outside.

"Get out. You are not my farm boy. He died on that ship."

Westley got up from the table and went into the bedroom. Buttercup was finishing scrubbing the stew pot when he came back out, a bag over his shoulder.

"Out. Don't ever come back."

"As you wish."

All characters belong to William Goldman. There is no copyright infringement intended.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Pirate King, and Some Tootage of My Own Horn

Ever since I read The Beekeeper's Apprentice a number of years ago, Laurie R King has been one of my favorite authors. I have read almost everything she has ever written (I was happy to discover just now that there are two books I have yet to read, more for me!) and she has an incredible talent for being poignant, funny and perfectly descriptive of human emotions. Her novel Folly is the best assessment of deep depression I have ever encountered, and anyone going into the psychological or medical field should read it. A bit sidetracked, sorry.

Her series of novels about Sherlock Holmes and his apprentice Mary Russell, beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, is soon to have an eleventh installment. The last two books were quite dark and this one, The Pirate King, is to be more humorous - combining the world of Sherlock Holmes with another of my favorite things, The Pirates of Penzance. The book even takes its name from the opera, as shown below.

P.S. Don't be scared off by the word "opera"; Kevin Klein is in it.

As part of the promotion for the new book, hitting stores September 6th, Ms. King is conducting a number of contests, on of which I entered. One of the characters in The Pirate King is a scarlet macaw, and she wrote a flash fiction about him, fittingly titled Parrot King. The story is free to download from her website, with the request that you return it with a picture. I was at work when Ms. King put this up online, so I promptly printed it and used what office supplies I could find (pen and highlighters) to illustrate the thing.

The link to the Parrot King page is here. Submissions are being taken through September 5th, after which you can vote for your favorite. There are a number of really good drawings, and they are worth checking out. As mine was the first submission Ms. King was nice enough to send me a movie style poster for the book, absolutely fitting for me. I'm really looking forward to the next book in a series I love so much I got a tattoo of it. Yea, beat that.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

State College, PA

On Friday when I was done with work Dave and I drove to State College for the night. My mother's parents live there and my grandfather had had emergency surgery that day. I knew he was alright, and has a much more major surgery already scheduled in another month, but I wanted to see them. Yet another of the many benefits of living in Allentown is the proximity to our families. We have the ability to simply hop in the car and go see our grandparents when we want.

State College has been my grandparents' home for almost 50 years, and many of my childhood memories are of their house. They will be moving out of that house in the spring, the house my mother and aunt grew up in, and I know it breaks all of our hearts to see the place go. We will be spending Thanksgiving there this year, and it will be nice to have one last big family holiday there.

Enough of the sad stuff. What I really want to talk about (as always) is food. Pictured above is one of my favorite restaurants in the world, the Corner Room, or the Allen Street Grill. We did not get to eat there this trip, but we will definitely go the next time. They have grilled sticky buns that are truly to die for. Some Wegmans in Pennsylvania are now selling them, and this is dangerous.

Instead of the Corner Room we went to the Philly Soft Pretzel Factory on Allen Street. We went there originally because they had Creamery ice cream advertised and we weren't sure that we wanted to go through the trouble of finding the actual creamery. Instead we ended up getting a couple pretzel dogs - hot dogs in pretzel dough rather than a bun, amazing - and some rivets, like pretzel doughnut holes. All together it was about $8 and totally filling for both of us.

After that we did end up going to the Berkey Creamery. Run by the Penn State's agricultural school, it has some of the best ice cream I have ever had. It is also, according to the website, the country's largest university creamery. I can believe it, the line we were in had easily 35 people ahead of us, and it was pouring rain outside.

There is only one size (diabetes, as Dave called it) and it is about $3 for a cup or cone. I hadn't had ice cream from there in ages, so I didn't really know what to get. I opted for the Peacy Paterno, partly because I love everything peach, but mostly for the name. It turned out to be amazing peach ice cream with slices of actual peaces in it.

See? He approves.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. - Movie Review


The summer movie season this year has been truly astounding. As a former film student I do see more than my share of movies in theaters - I don't drink alcohol, so this is where much of my spending money goes - and usually there are a number that I had high hopes for that were truly dreadful. The biggest disappointment I have had so far this summer was Captain America, and even that wasn't terrible. Part of it may be that I try to keep my expectations low so I can't be let down. That certainly went for Crazy, Stupid, Love. The trailer made me laugh quite a bit, especially Emma Stone's reaction to Ryan Gosling's amazing body, "Ugh, it's like you're photoshopped!" I was expecting a decent romantic comedy. I was not prepared for the sincerity and depth I got.

The movie opens with Cal, Steve Carell, and Emily, Julianne Moore out to dinner. They are middle aged and together long enough that the passion left their marriage a few decades earlier. Cal asks what she wants for dessert, Emily says she wants a divorce. It is far more painful to watch than the similar scene in Mrs. Doubtfire - Cal so utterly shell-shocked all he asks is that Emily stop talking about it, and she is so guilty and unhappy that the only thing she can't do is stop talking. There is no discussion of who moves out, Cal simply does it. He drowns his sorrows in a bar for a few days until he is approached by Jacob, Ryan Gosling's immensely attractive and horridly chauvinistic character.

Jacob takes Cal under his wing after debating whether to 'help him or euthanize him'. Their entire relationship is like this first meeting - Jacob insulting Cal and teaching him how to dress, and Cal going along with it because he has nothing else to do. Jacob successfully makes Cal in his image, making him quite a ladies man, and Steve Carell cleans up well enough that this is believable. At the same time that Cal is sowing his oats Jacob falls suddenly and unexpectedly in love with Hannah, Emma Stone's lovely and hilarious law student.

The acting is what makes this movie so fantastic. The writing alone is great, but left in the hands of less sympathetic actors it would have fallen apart. Ryan Gosling maintains his charisma while being a huge perv, Steve Carell able to be injured even when he is in the wrong. Julianne Moore is so unsure of her own feelings that you just want to hug her and tell her it will be OK. Emma Stone is perpetually bubbly, whether actually happy or angry and drunk.

Jonah Bobo, as Cal and Emily's son Robbie may be the greatest actor in the entire film. He is madly in love with his babysitter Jessica - played by America's Next Top Model alum Analeigh Tipton - and is so sure of himself that we know he must get the girl in the end. At the same time he doing his best to get his parents back together, not because he wants a whole family again, but because he knows that they still love each other and belong together. Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon are excellent supporting characters, and I don't think I have liked either of them more in any other film.

The film as a whole was completely satisfying, and I can't really think of anything I didn't like. Well, maybe the scene at the end with the photograph, that was a little creepy. You'll know what I mean when you see it. However, the ending is very good - not 'pat', it isn't 'happily ever after' for everyone, though you do get the sense that it will be happy at some point for most people. Nothing happens quickly in the movie - the pace is not slow, it just happens in a believable way. It certainly had it's heart-wrenching moments, but it also has some stunningly funny ones. Steve Carell gets in a line about Marisa Tomei's character that made the theater practically explode, and there were at least two times that a plot twist - completely unexpected but not ridiculous - shocked me speechless.

This is a movie I would recommend to anyone, male or female, over the age of 13 or so who has ever been, will ever be, or is in a relationship. Or even if you don't like relationships - you can watch this and crow that you don't have these problems. Just go see it.