Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reach Of "Guardians Of The Galaxy" Nears Cosmic

A movie like “Guardians Of The Galaxy” makes you think of “The Avengers,” another Marvel product featuring a great set of heroes. Both movies have a lot in common, and the former owes a great deal to the latter. However, in more ways than one, this is the anti-Avengers. Earth's mightiest heroes have plenty of tortured backstories and issues between them, but they are still an elite force who mostly chose to become the heroes they are.

The members of the “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” however, are a motley crew of genuine outcasts, who are assembled by pure chance. They are thieves, bounty hunters, assassins, many of whom have had their powers inflicted on them by the cruelty of others.

They're brought together by the movie's main focus, Peter Quill (the compulsively watchable Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord. He was abducted from Earth by a child and raised by a group of thieves called the Ravagers, who decide to be nice and raise him rather than eating him. When he decides to steal a valuable and mysterious orb by himself, he incurs their wrath and that of quite a few others who want it for themselves and their own destructive purposes.

One of those is the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace), a terrorist who seeks to cleanse the universe of anyone who conflicts with his vision of it. Which happens to be practically everyone. He sends the hot, green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the Orb, just as a few bounty hunters, the tree-like Groot (Vin Diesel) and the talking, tech-savvy raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Just bear with me. Naturally, things quickly go awry and they are put in prison, where the vicious Drax (Dave Bautista) takes an interest in them.

They all become reluctant allies in the name of self-interest, then something deeper, as they realize they must team up to break out of prison, then to save the galaxy from Ronan. The result is a kind of wildly entertaining amusement park with a new attraction around every corner, where the humor not only drips from the screen, it dances with joy, much as Star-Lord does when we first meet him. Who needs comic relief when every character practically has a zinger a minute?

While the movie's reach occasionally exceeds its grasp due to too many characters and their rather abrupt emotional turnarounds, as well an overstuffed plot, nothing that is focused on feels wasted or boring. The pace is brisk, but rarely feels rushed, and every shot, every frame feels like it has its purpose (especially when it tastefully focuses on Zoe Saldana). Hell, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is practically an homage to all the various tropes that make sci-fi so great, since this is the kind of amusement park that allows you to see every one of its building blocks without shame or danger. Plus, it helps that it comes along with a killer retro soundtrack.

Having never read the comic books it's based on, I can't say if it does them justice. Maybe I would be harsher on “Guardians Of The Galaxy” if it didn't have so much work to do. Anyone who thinks this is an underdog movie should be laughed out of the room, but the fact remains that we take these characters seriously, and derive most of our enjoyment just from their interactions. And those characters include a talking tree and raccoon. But then, Marvel always seems to do its best work when their heroes are hard sells (“Thor” and “Captain America”) and their worst when their heroes are practically gift-wrapped to appeal (“Wolverine” and the rather mixed record of the “X-Men” movies). A sequel has not only been approved, it has a release date for July of 2017. It can't come soon enough.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Scarlett Johansson Effortlessly Carries The Weight Of "Lucy"

Once upon a time, two movies opened in the same weekend. In one, you had to accept its clich├ęs in order to enjoy it. In “Lucy,” you have to accept its rather dubious and simplistic science.

Stars tend to eat up quite a bit of a movie's budget, but Scarlett Johansson is worth every penny in “Lucy.” Another actress may have made her blank stare feel truly empty, but Johansson makes you feel as if she is hearing and seeing things that we cannot.

Johannson plays the titular role of a very ordinary young woman studying abroad in Taiwan who happens to make a very common mistake in that the guy she's been dating turns out to be a real jerk. How big of a jerk? Well, for one, he wears a cowboy hat. Even worse, he handcuffs her to a briefcase and makes her deliver it to a crime boss, played by Min-sik Choi of “Oldboy,” who is as vicious as he is wealthy.

Soon, she's forced to become a drug mule for a stimulant that's as new as it is powerful. When that drug gets into her system in an unexpected way, she is soon transformed. How? Well, said drug allows her to access more of her brain, which causes her to mutate into a kind of superhero whose abilities grow as her access increases. Since so much emphasis is placed on the mind, the body becomes less important, and she becomes more and more detached from her humanity.

But this is an action movie, so she does have to condescend to bother with those pesky gangsters who idiotically decide to pursue her. And since Luc Besson wrote and directed, we can expect trademarks like exotic locations and high tech concepts. But since Lucy's journey is the focus here, the movie makes the smart decision to make her not into a Lara Croft, but rather a far less annoying Jean Grey, who can dispose of her adversaries with a wave of her hand. Here such restraint feels like the right tone for a film that is all about the wonders of our cerebral capacity.

Plus, there's just something about Morgan Freeman playing a professor that makes you take all his scientific claims seriously. (Just what is it about the soothing sound of his voice?) Of course, his research may just hold the key to Lucy's survival. Then there's the humorous moments, which come mainly in the form of well-timed nature clips (when Freeman speaks of reproducing and genetics, it shows animals copulating, and when Johansson is taken by the gangster, we see a cheetah stalking and killing its prey) that gives “Lucy” a somewhat Kubrickian feel for the impatient, ADD generation.

At least part of the movie's polarizing effect is its refusal to cater to the usual tropes. There is no talk of destiny, spirituality, or the meaning of any sort of higher power. Lucy is not special or destined, she is merely a woman with a sense of morality who is made greater than herself by circumstance. She has evolved into a higher state merely as a result of an accident. Here, humanity's future remains firmly in its own hands, and its greatest enemy is ignorance.

However, its critics are correct in that it feels more than a tad incomplete. It could probably work more as a miniseries than as a movie, which would've given it more time for its lofty ambitions. It is an enjoyable time at the movies, but when push comes to shove, it's more “The Matrix” of the present moment. But I can't wait to see “Inception.”

Grade: B-

Might Makes Right In “Hercules”

Believe it or not, “Hercules” has something in common with another movie that opened the same weekend, “Lucy.” Anyone would be forgiven for thinking they had nothing in common, but both address the theme of divinity versus humanity from very different, still wholly entertaining angles.

“Hercules,” has seen many adaptations of its mythic title character. Some of who have played him, like Ryan Gosling in the series “Young Hercules,” would rather forget. Not so for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays him this time around.

In an action movie, you can expect a few things. Wisecracking sidekicks? Check. Kinda boring implied love interest? Check. Token action girl to satisfy today's demographic? Check. Pretty much perfect hero who nevertheless has a dark past that haunts him? Check and check.

But as long as you can accept this, you'll have a great time. With a movie like this, we all know our destination, so whether or not we enjoy the ride depends on our star. Luckily, we have our aforementioned lead, who is so charismatic that audiences still cheered for him when he played a bad guy in his wrestling days. This version has Hercules working as a mercenary with a band of merry companions. He's not only well aware of the myths that have sprung up about his background as the son of Zeus and his deeds, he's decided to encourage them, seeing as how they're great for business. Here, Hercules is the sum of the people around him, and the fact that he needs them to accomplish his legendary deeds makes him stronger, not weaker.

When John Hurt (yes, that John Hurt is in this movie) hires him to defend his kingdom from a vicious warlord for more money than usual, he and his gang sign up (after the obligatory I just want to ride off into a peaceful life speech). And it seems this mission will enable them to retire like kings. Oh yeah, John Hurt just happens to have a hot daughter, and she also just happens to have an adorable son. And it turns out this mission may be more complicated than it seems, which could just make the hero's complicated backstory rear its ugly head.

But Hercules has a more tragic one than most: he used to have a wife and kids, but they were murdered, and his memories of that night are fuzzy at best. Did he actually kill his family? Or is something else afoot that may somehow be tied in to their seemingly simple mission?

Yeah, we all know how this ends. But the fact that we still manage to enjoy ourselves along the way is is due to a few factors. One of which is the talent. Dwayne Johnson is the movie's center, and he brings everything he has, mentally and physically, to the role, which means the moments that could rightfully be considered over-the-top are genuinely awe-inspiring. He is determined to drag you from your own apathy, kicking and screaming if need be. It may not be high art, but it is what's brought him a lasting career from the ring to the movies, and made him a bonafide star in both.

Such commitment tends to bring out the best in the people around you. John Hurt has already been mentioned, but there's also names like Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, and Joseph Fiennes, who all get at least a few moments to show off (and in the case of all of Johnson's companions, say what brought them there).

The writing, which can save or sink any movie, here adds to the charm. In this genre, the characters can easily exist only to move from one fight scene to the next. (Looking at you, “Pirates Of The Caribbean” sequels!) But even when the action is at its height, the focus never leaves the characters. Little is taken too seriously, and there are plenty of zingers to go around. And amidst the stylized combat and ancient battle scenes, we actually get a glimpse at the brutality of warfare, but luckily “Hercules” knows it limits and it doesn't look too closely.

“Hercules” may not say anything new, but there's something so charming about a film that proudly embraces what it is. Accepting that won't result in a hug but rather a very satisfying form of action movie whiplash.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Obvious Child Focuses On The Choice, Not The Child. Obviously.

Abortion. Did you read that word and suddenly go stiff? Did you start sweating? Momentarily stop breathing? Feel at least a small shock? Wouldn't blame you. The word gets all sorts of reactions, but the thing is, it gets a reaction. So if you're going to even address it in a movie, you better make sure you know what you're doing. Luckily, “Obvious Child” not only knows what it's doing, it puts it in a romantic comedy. It may be a movie about a woman, but you can't deny it's got some serious balls.

Like most comedies, “Obvious Child” is about a protagonist who's at a low point. Twenty-something Donna Stern's (Jenny Slate) boyfriend has just dumped her for another woman, the bookstore she works in is shutting down, and she finds herself unable to do the one thing she's best at: her stand-up comedy.

But it's about to get worse. After she crashes and burns onstage, she has a drunken one-night stand that leaves her pregnant. Knowing she's not even close to ready for parenthood, she decides to get an abortion. But there could be a silver lining, because the guy that knocked her up (Jake Lacy, who is unaware of her pregnancy and her decision) actually seems really nice.

But Donna's situation never threatens to overwhelm the character. She firmly remains a person, and her choice remains that, a choice. It helps that she makes it after we've gotten to know her a bit. Even more interestingly, she never questions or wavers in her decision, and her friends and family don't judge or even try to dissuade her. There's not even a reference to any sort of punishment, a regular staple of a female character who even shows a single sign of being anything other than an approved set of relatable characteristics. The other women in her life even share their stories very frankly. But “Obvious Child” really isn't interested in arguing about abortion, it's simply stating in a very matter-of-fact way what one woman's choice is. It turns out, many of the women around her have made that same choice too. But it's par for the course in her world.

That said, it does have a few retreads. Is Donna going to be hesitant and almost screw things up with the nice guy? And does he border on too good to be true? (Do I even have to answer?) Then there's the gay best friend (Gabe Liedman), the more logical, rational roomie (Gabby Hoffman) who is the compassionate voice of reason, and the close relationship with her supportive parents. And Donna may have the usual self-deprecation and deeply flawed human being credentials, but she practically wears her privilege like a second skin, what with her casual references to her agent, her parents' connections, work, and just her opportunities in general. Sure, she loses her job and does need some kind income, but money worries don't really seem to be much of an issue with her, since she doesn't seem to need to work all that much.

But luckily, “Obvious Child” has Jenny Slate when it starts to sag. She has the comedic chops to pull it off and make it work. She reveals way too much about her life (and personal hygiene) and the lives of those around her onstage, her quirks border on being off-putting, but throughout it all she remains deeply sympathetic, funny, and compulsively watchable. But if you don't like her brand of comedy, there's not much to be done, and no efforts made on your behalf.

Grade: B+

Maleficent: Bad Girls Gone Good Do Not Better Movies Make

Rehabilitating villains is all the rage, and no one does villains like Disney. So it's inevitable that they would try to make one of them a little misunderstood at least. After all, they profited quite a bit after they joined in on poking fun at their own conventions. Unfortunately, the fact that their bad guys tend to be so good at what they do works against them, since it's impossible to make the one they chose sympathetic while still following their own story. After all, it's hard to get audiences to sympathize with someone who curses a baby.

Because while Disney's antagonists may have gotten more complicated over the years, they still firmly remain villains. Movies like “Frozen” thrive on flawed, complex characters. But there's still actually two evildoers in the movie, one of them a very cunning one who spends it hiding in plain sight. But Angelina Jolie, who plays the title character, almost pulls it off.

This Maleficent is the fairy guardian of the magnificent realm of he Moors, a land of magic with inhabitants to match. Humans are forbidden from entering, but they inevitably demand to intrude and exploit the magical paradise. When Maleficent ensures that they fail, thekir dying king promises that the man who kills her will have his crown.

Unfortunately, one of the people who hears this is Maleficent's childhood love Stefan (Sharlto Copley). Corrupted by his own ambition, he manages to drug her, but cannot bear to take her life. Instead, he does something almost as horrific. When Maleficent wakes, she finds that Stefan and her magnificent, feathered wings are gone. Her screams of disbelief, rage, and pain are truly heartbreaking.

Cue the infamous act of revenge.

Usually when a good character goes bad, the story gets interesting. But here that signals the beginning of a downward spiral. Hell, Maleficent actually ends up practically raising Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) herself, since in this version of the Sleeping Beauty, the Three Good Fairies are such incompetent parents that she has to do things like feed her actual food and stop her from falling off a cliff. Of course, she reluctantly bonds with the kid, who actually ends up believing that Maleficent is her fairy godmother.
It's one of the sadder changes from the original story, since Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather were interesting, colorful, active, one might say surprisingly feminist characters. Sure, Aurora was boring and bland. But so was the prince. In the original story, the fairies soften the curse. The fairies hide the princess and raise her. The fairies rescue the prince, save him multiple times, give him very effective weapons, and even guide his sword in the final blow. Is it too much to ask that they be just a little interesting? Or at least competent?

Then there's Princess Aurora herself. Or rather, when she grows up and starts talking. Innocence can be charming, but it very easily becomes cloying. Here it's never anything but that. The sad thing is, you know that Elle Fanning is better than this, especially after her work in “Super 8.” But no talent shines through here.

Furthermore, Disney just has to diverge too much from its own story. Even the way it focuses on the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent rather than Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) is unsatisfying because while it is relatively new, it's still been done before, and done better by Disney itself in movies like “Brave” and yes, “Frozen.”

The effects are astonishing. Jolie reliably makes Maleficent both larger than life and a character worth caring about with some genuinely affecting moments. This Maleficent would be better served by her own independent story. Same character, different name, similar circumstances, and she could soar, not just literally but figuratively too.

If only it followed through on its own talking points. “Maleficent” is really about power, and what it does to those who have it. Stefan's love of it causes him to betray his childhood love, and the brutal act resembles a rape scene where her body is violated for his own gain. It is her resulting loss of power that pushes her into darkness, not the loss of her heart. Their relationship's tragic ending would be all the more poignant if Stefan's journey were shown rather than only his destination. It is ironic, really, that he is transformed into the kind of one-dimensional villain that she once was.

Classic, dastardly villains can be redeemed. Take the play “Wicked” for example. But there's a reason most of it takes place before Dorothy arrives. Similarly, “Maleficent” is best before the princess is born. The end result is passable, but only just, and it detracts instead of adding to one of Disney's best villains. Maybe there'll be better luck next time, but I genuinely hope there won't be a next time. Their villains are enjoyable when they stay that way. I have no great desire to see them softened and rewritten. Save the misunderstood material for the new, and allow the old to plot and cackle away.

Grade: C-

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Movie Review: The Lego Movie

When I first heard about The Lego movie I thought really when will this trend of turning games into movies end.  And unlike Transformers or G.I. Joe there is no story to Legos just little blocks so how were they going to make a movie about Legos?  The answer was a surprising entertaining movie that doesn't take itself too seriously but somehow at the end brings home a great message.

The movie is about an Emmet (Chris Pratt) an ordinary Lego who lives in Bricksburgh.  One day while at the construction site he falls down a hole and finds the Piece of Resistance and fulfills a prophecy that says he is the special. Although he has not had an original thought in his life and follows every rule he must join the Master Builders including Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) to fight Lord Business' (Will Ferrell)  attempt to destroy the world. To do this he must journey out of his comfort zone into the many worlds of the Lego universe where he will encounter a lot of strange people. The whole time he is being chased by Lord Business' henchman Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson).  

One of the great things about this movie is the voice cast. Will Arnett as Batman was probably my favorite character.  That was like perfect casting.  And even though Morgan Freeman has done narration in films this is his first time doing a voice for an animated movie and of course he was great.  And Liam Neeson as Bad Cop/Good Cop brought the perfect gravitas to that character. There are tons of other actors that make cameos and it is just fun to see who will pop up next. 

There are many reasons this movie shouldn't have worked. But Somehow the writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller managed to make a completely silly movie but because they played it over the top and really didn't take it real serious.  They made this Lego Universe and hooked you into it.  Everything is a Lego even explosions or water.    When they start moving the action into different worlds it is fun to see other Lego characters pop up.  Like Harry Potter, Superman, and even some Star Wars characters make an appearance.  It just fun to see all these characters from completely different worlds interact.  The other thing that helped was Lord and Miller are apparently comedic geniuses.  There are so many great one liners and sight gags in the movie that it just keeps you laughing the whole way through.  For example the line at the end of the prophecy “all this is true because it rhymes” cracks me up every time.  The last thing Lord and Miller were able to do was get all sentimental with the ending.  I don’t want to get into any spoilers but I do have to say that the end ending was what made the whole movie worth it and raised it above just a funny silly movie. At the end everything makes sense and even has a nice message to it.   

Overall: 5/5 stars.

I am not one that usually likes animated movies but this one cracked me up and pulled at the heart strings a little at the end.  So it is a must see.  

“Begin Again” Proves Do-Overs Have More Fun

“Begin Again” is a study of two characters at a low point in their lives. Keira Knightley is Greta, a songwriter and longtime girlfriend of Dave (Maroon 5's Adam Levine), a singer who's recently come to New York after scoring a deal with a major record label. Stardom soon arrives, and the trappings of it soon change him and ends their relationship. Devastated, Greta is about to leave the city when she gives a spontaneous performance of one of her songs.

That song enchants Dan (Mark Ruffalo), an indie record label executive who's lost his job, his wife, and is estranged from his teenage daughter. He's deeply unimpressed with the acts steered his way, and Greta's music excites him in a way he hasn't been for a long time.

After he persuades Knightley, these two down on their luck souls decide to make beautiful music together. What comes next should be trite or just downright hokey. Of course, Knightley is as disdainful of money and selling out in general the way only someone with a safety net would be.

But the mood, the feel, the music, the people of this story are just too damn charming. Said music for Greta's album is recorded outside, on the streets, and the sounds of them are incorporated into her album as well. At a time when the New York brand of detachment is more fashionable than ever, seeing characters that are openly passionate about their art is as refreshing as a cool drink of water after a long, exhausting run. It's also impossible to resist.

And I suppose its themes about how much control you have over your art and what happens when you find the success you dream of is a subject of much meditation for director and writer John Carney, who seems to have only recently achieved a great degree of success himself. And it's hard to truly despise a movie that is so passionately in love with good music; it refuses to completely vilify anyone involved in it, not even Greta's cheating ex, or Ruffalo's fellow executive Mos Def, who seems to have truly lost touch with what drove him to where he is in the first place.

While “Begin Again” may somewhat ignore certain revolutions that the music industry has seen as of late, it's surprisingly deft about the way it views the industry. “Begin Again” is a deeply hopeful movie, but there's no talk about Greta being an exception or changing the system from inside. The movie seems to accept that compromise is inevitable from the moment you buy in, and the only way to truly control your art is to opt out entirely.

Grade: B-

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Recently I have been thinking about how I am tired of sequels, prequels,  reboots, sequels to prequels, and sequels to reboots.  Every summer we seem to get more of the same old things.  There seems to be no new ideas out there.  I have managed to avoid most of them this year but then came Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes and thought it a worthy prequel (or is it a reboot I am not sure) of the original 60’s movie.  The trailers for the Dawn made it seem good but I have been fooled before. So with a little trepidation I went to see it.  I can say that I am glad I did.  It does a great job at continuing the story and keeping the characters compelling. 

The movie takes place 10 years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the simian flu has spread throughout the world and kill most of the human population.  Meanwhile the genetically enhanced apes that escaped in the first movie have made their own civilization in the woods outside of San Francisco.  After year of no interaction with humans a few humans stumble into their territory.  These humans are trying to start rebuilding their civilization and want to use a dam near the ape colony to return power to San Francisco.   Caesar (Andy Serkis) the leader of the apes wants to try to keep peace but other apes who were used for testing don’t trust the humans and set out to start a war.  On the human side Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who leads the small group to fix the dam also wants to live in peace but not all humans trust the apes since the apes outnumber them greatly.  The fear of the apes causes their leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to go and compile quite an arsenal.  Can Caesar and Malcom keep the peace before fear and mistrust causes an all-out war?  Well if you have seen the original movie you pretty much know the answer but who is going to make the first move?

Despite my reluctance to seeing another sequel this movie equaled the quality of the first one and possibly exceeded it.  One thing people keep talking about is the opening sequences which lets us know how the apes have been living for the past 10 years.  After a brief explanation about what happened after the virus spread we get 15 minutes of subtitled action of apes conversing in sign language.  When was the last time you saw a summer blockbuster have 15 minutes of subtitles?  This sequences really gets you into their society.  We see that Caesar has risen to the top and is the alpha male and now has a family.  Also, we see them hunt, and even get a glimpse at an ape school.  It is the beginning of a complex society.  This is where the quality of the writing and direction of Matt Reeves is apparent.  It doesn’t rely on us knowing the characters from the first movie but in that brief time you know everything you need to know about their personalities.  Once the humans make their first appearance the tension is elevated and sustained.

The movie is fairly predictable and that might be because it is a prequel and you know from the start that the two societies will clash.  The way they are able to keep the tension is by keeping you guessing who is going to make the first move.    The other way they keep the viewer invested in the story is through the emotional connection to Caesar.  Andy Serkis and the magicians in the FX department do a great job at conveying the inner turmoil of Caesar.  The whole movie revolves around him. We are scared for him when we think the apes are going mutiny, we worry about his sick wife, we are excited when he gets to hold his baby, and sad when he watches an old video of himself.  Through Caesars eyes we witness what we already know but Caesar is learning, that there is no such thing as utopia and when Caesar has to make some tough decisions it is heartbreaking. 

Since this is mostly an ape story the humans are kind of a side character, but Jason Clarke as Malcolm does a good job of being the voice of reason and gives us a reason to route for the humans.  Like Caesar he wants peace but also sees that the breaking point is coming and he must make a decision which side he will be on.  Gary Oldman’s character on the surface feels like he is supposed to be a villain but never really does much. His character was one of the weaker points in the story and I don’t think it was Gary Oldman’s fault. Not sure if it was miscasting or just a poorly written character.   

One of the things I love about good science fiction movies is that they can make you think about our world at large.  Starting with the classics like the 1927 movie Metropolis which dealt with class differences and into the 50’s with movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still that deals with nuclear war.  These movies made a commentary on society.  The Planet of the Apes series has done the same thing and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is no exception.  It makes you think about how wars are started and what people will do when they are scared.  You feel sympathy for both sides and can understand why each side feels the way they do. Neither side is right and neither is wrong.  They’re just two societies that are scared of each other and unwilling to sit down and talk because of mistrust.   

There were a couple of minor things I had issues with during the movie. First as mentioned before Gary Oldman’s character just didn't work for me not sure why. Also I did see the movie in 3D and it was absolutely useless.  It wasn't bad like in other post converted movies but served no purpose.  The last thing that didn't completely work for me was Michael Giacchino’s score.  There were parts where the music didn't seem to fit what was happening on the screen.  None of these issues took away from my overall enjoyment of the movie. 

Overall 5 out of 5 stars
It has some great special effects and action on one hand and on the other it is a movie that you can think about for days as you realize some of the subtle messages. It is the best kind of sci-fi.  Perfectly directed by Matt Reeves and great writing by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver.  

And one last time enough can’t be said about the amazing motion capture work that is in this movie.  All the apes feel real and Andy Serkis keeps out doing himself with his motion capture performance.  While there might be talk about him getting an Oscar nom I don’t think he will especially as a lead. He had a better possibility in the supporting category for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  But for sure the movie will get an Oscar nom for special effects. 

Two Thumbs Up For “Life Itself”

There are a few professions you get into without expecting much love. One is a journalist. Another is the critic. So how exactly was Roger Ebert, who was both, so universally beloved?

The documentary “Life Itself” will explain why. It tells the story of Ebert's remarkable life, and really how he became who he was. Even his early years in college astound, during the turbulent events of the sixties where he eloquently wrote about the 16th Street Baptist church bombing that killed four little girls and literally stopped the presses after the Kennedy assassination to his days as a film critic with the Chicago Sun-Times. And finally, to his career in television and his complex relationship with Gene Siskel, his friend and rival.

Indeed, “Life Itself” is in a sense, a movie about the great loves of Ebert's life: writing, movies, Siskel, and his wife Chaz Ebert. Only one of these relationships, to alcohol at least, was toxic, but which ultimately led him to his great affair with Chaz.

This great emphasis on the heart means the film more skims Roger Ebert's life. If you want an in-depth look, it seems as if “Life Itself” decided to leave it to his memoir of the same name. While its heart is firmly on its sleeve, the film refuses to talk down or idealize, as it has a number of his friends and colleagues to chime in at the appropriate times and give us a more intimate look at Ebert's true, and thus very flawed, personality.

It's no mean feat since the documentary begins when Ebert is already very ill and shows him more at the hospital than at home. Indeed, the filmmakers bring up the possibility that he will die before their project is ready, a rather ghostly and unsettling moment. But the movie never stops poking at the void that his absence has left in so many.

After all, Ebert didn't just review the movies, he formed friendships with many filmmakers and made a special effort to highlight some features that were often overlooked. “Life Itself” shows some of these filmmakers both great and small, and among them are Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog reminiscing how the critic helped further their careers. Herzog actually dedicated one of his films to the critic.

While his cancer robbed him of his voice and thus his ability to converse with them, there's a reason despair never became his natural state. And here there's no sugarcoating the many reasons Ebert had to be melancholy in his final months.

“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to,” Ebert stated in “Life Itself.”

Many writers may rage at the Internet that cost so many their jobs, and perhaps other less tangible things, but to Ebert it gave him a voice when he could no longer speak. His blog allowed the public to have access to his long history of reviews and work in the way they never have before, and the text to speech software on his laptop allowed him to tell his story even in what would be his final days.

And if you can watch those days and experience no symptoms, you have a heart of stone. From his heartbreaking emails to Chaz's devastating discovery that her husband had signed a DNR, death itself is gazed at unflinchingly, without being exploitative. Rather, it is a deeply compassionate look at the best death possible in such circumstances.

And I can honestly say I have never felt so unworthy of writing a review, or so terrified about what the final product would look like.

Goodbye, Roger Ebert. We'll never have another like you.

Grade: Two Thumbs Up. Also A-.