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Big Screen Edition
Plus: RIO on Blu-Ray
It seems like Hollywood’s major offerings this summer have basically fallen into three camps: sequels, super-hero films and raunchy R-rated comedies stockpiled with bodily fluid jokes. That roster hasn’t made for one of the more diverse summers in recent memory, though there have been some entertaining films at least along the way.

At the very top of the list, unquestionably, is RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (****, 105 mins., PG-13), a movie which months ago sounded like a bad joke – perhaps understandably given its premise of “James Franco starring with CGI monkeys” and a series still trying to shake off the general disappointment that greeted Tim Burton’s quirky but uneven version a decade ago.

This genuine reworking of the franchise does what Burton’s remake failed to accomplish: take the series’ original concept, alter it for modern sensibilities, update it with cutting-edge special effects and infuse it with an emotional range no prior “Apes” film offered beyond the ‘68 original. Briskly paced at barely 90-minutes plus (minus its lengthy end credits), exciting and decidedly different than its predecessors, “Rise” isn’t just the surprise film of the season but one of the best films of 2011 altogether.

Franco plays a genetic scientist trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's (he’s personally invested because his father, played by John Lithgow, suffers from it), and thinks he’s found it after testing on a primate named Bright Eyes who shows enhanced intelligence. Unfortunately the ape goes berserk in front of the corporate board members funding the research, leaving Franco to reluctantly take home her infant after his boss tells him to euthanize all the remaining chimps.

The baby simian, who Lithgow names Caesar, displays the same level of intelligence as his late parent, but as he grows, Caesar becomes aware that he’s not like the humans who raised him. After Lithgow ends up in a confrontation with a hothead neighbor, Caesar rushes to his defense and is subsequently forced to live in a primate facility overseen by Brian Cox and his unsympathetic, cruel assistant (Tom Felton from the “Harry Potter” films). Caesar also doesn’t get along with his fellow apes at first, but soon learns to turn the tables on his captors...

Rupert Wyatt, a British director with only a couple of credits behind him, helmed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa penned the movie’s screenplay. All of them, along with WETA Digital which produced the special effects and Andy Serkis who performed Caesar in motion-capture form, deserve an enormous amount of credit for making one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory. Serkis’ articulation as Caesar is moving and sympathetic, enhanced by a photo-realistic design of the primates that could’ve never been duplicated by having men in monkey suits act out these particular roles.

The film taps into modern science and establishes a Frankenstein-like premise, yet never becomes preachy; it chronicles Caesar’s rebellion and cruel treatment at the hands of Cox and Felton, but refrains from becoming overly violent or depressing; it culminates in a big action climax (one of the finest set-pieces I’ve seen on-screen in years), but accentuates character development – especially Caesar’s relationship with his fellow apes – instead of just a litany of haphazardly edited action scenes like most modern blockbusters. This refreshing tone carries the picture through its lean running time splendidly, and the ending is a big surprise as well – instead of being foreboding and downbeat, it’s inspiring and downright poignant, two feelings none of its series predecessors instilled in viewers.

Fans of the old films will enjoy the mostly subtle references to the originals (from character names to quick on-screen allusions), but the filmmakers wisely follow the reprise of one of Charlton Heston’s legendary lines with a big dramatic moment that’s tremendously well executed. Patrick Doyle’s score lacks the primal, percussive drive of Danny Elfman’s 2001 soundtrack, yet still works well, particularly in its concluding moments.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is by far the best of all of the recent remakes/reboots/reimaginings Hollywood has thrown our way, and sets the stage for a series of movies free to tell its own story instead of merely recycling what’s come before it. Regardless of what’s to come, this is likely to be the one film from the summer of ‘11 fans will still be talking about years from now.

No less than four super-hero films have also been released since the beginning of May – two meeting with solid box-office approval, one fairing moderately in lieu of expectations, and another biting the dust as one of the major disappointments of its kind. The most satisfying have been Marvel’s in-house adaptations of heroes known to comic book fans but not particularly household names by any other definition.

THOR (***, 115 mins., PG-13) is what my idea of what a comic book movie should be – big, colorful, loud, a little bit corny at times, but hugely entertaining throughout.

Kenneth Branagh’s unabashedly colorful and fun take on the material offers memorable production design from Bo Welch, with sets and costumes that look like they just flew off the Marvel pages (I don't think I've seen anything like the Asgard scenes since "Flash Gordon").

Chris Hemsworth is undeniably charismatic as Odin’s son, who is banished to Earth by his father (Anthony Hopkins) after putting the kingdom of Asgard in trouble with his callous actions. Unlike some other, pre-fab Aussie leading men we’ve seen of late (Sam Worthington, anyone?), Hemsworth is the real deal, effortlessly navigating his way through the material with the right dash of arrogance and empathy (like many of the Marvel films, there’s ultimately a moral to this story). Action, humor, and fantasy all come together as Thor falls for a mere mortal grad student (Natalie Portman, so much more appealing than she was in the Star Wars prequels) who becomes infatuated with our muscle-bound hero, while Hopkins doesn't just cash the check as Odin and other roles are satisfyingly filled by the likes of Stellan Skaarsgard (Portman’s professor boss), Kat Dennings (her friend), Idris Elba (Asgard’s gatekeeper) and Tom Hiddelston as Loki, Thor’s troubled brother who we’re about to see a good deal more of in next summer’s “The Avengers.”

Speaking of that much-anticipated super-hero team mash-up, the lead-in material to that picture is incorporated into the story here far more organically than “Iron Man 2" – Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye makes a very brief appearance but people who don't know who he is won't be sitting there, thinking that the movie has stopped dead to incorporate references to next year's big film.

The pacing is a little bit odd at times as the movie flips between the Asgard and Earth sequences, and if anything, could have used more character development (it's cut lean under 2 hours), but overall I was very much entertained. This is colorful, romantic genre entertainment with a dynamic Patrick Doyle score that’s the most satisfying work I’ve heard from the composer since his Halcyon days of the mid ‘90s.

“Thor” did well at the box-office, grossing nearly a half-billion worldwide, but between that film, “X-Men: First Class” (reviewed below) and the spectacularly unimpressive returns for Warner’s expensive “Green Lantern” (likely to become one of the genre’s biggest underperformers when all is said and done), there was a feeling that super-heroes might’ve played themselves out by the time “Captain America” was released on July 22nd.

Thankfully, audiences didn’t seem to have been exhausted by the genre, which was good news since they’d have otherwise bypassed CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (***, 124 mins., PG-13), which in many ways ranks with the most satisfying adaptations of a comic book on the big-screen yet.

Joe Johnston, who did such a fine job helming Disney’s underrated WWII-period genre film “The Rocketeer” some 20 years ago, was the right choice to bring Marvel’s patriotic hero to the screen in a confident, satisfying film that hits every note from its first frame to nearly its last.

Chris Evans makes for a perfect Steve Rogers, the tough kid from Brooklyn whose motivation and courage are unfortunately not matched by his scrawny, weak body – one that prevents him from serving Uncle Sam in WWII. Rogers is continually rejected for service until his determination is noted by scientist Stanley Tucci, working for the U.S. military and who sees in Rogers the perfect candidate for their new Super Soldier program, spearheaded in part by brilliant Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, playing none other than Tony “Iron Man” Stark’s father).

Rogers’ transformation, though, at first applies mostly off the field of battle, with Captain America serving as a USO salesman for war bonds (there’s a wonderful musical montage set to an original Alan Menken-David Zippel song). Much to the consternation of gruff colonel Tommy Lee Jones, Rogers eventually presses his way into service, saving an Allied troop from certain death at the hands of HYDRA, a Nazi off-shoot presided over by the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Schmidt has not only been previously transformed by Tucci’s doctor into the vile Red Skull, but has also corralled one of Odin’s energy cubes and created a new destructive weapon that threatens the future of the entire world.

“Captain America” does dial down the particulars of its war-time setting so as to not feel like too much of an “all-American” story, replacing any overt feelings of rah-rah patriotism with an overriding message that Rogers is a hero not because of his nationality so much as his courage and heart instead (as he tells Tucci’s scientist at the beginning, Cap “doesn’t want to kill anyone” but can’t stand “bullies”). It’s a decision that ultimately works, managing to make the picture more appealing to foreign markets while not turning the material into a completely toothless, “Politically Corrected” portrayal of the character either.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script confidently profiles Cap’s dogged pursuit of the Skull with just a hint of romance (British newcomer Hayley Atwell is fetching as Peggy Carter), though supporting roles for the likes of Sebastian Stan (as Cap’s sidekick Bucky) and Neal McDonough (one of the “Howling Commandos”) come off as if they’ve been reduced in the editing room. Johnston’s fondness for the material, though, is always evident, marked by crisply-edited action scenes that bring the vintage Marvel comics to life. Technically the movie is graced by an occasionally rousing Alan Silvestri score (his end credits “March” is just great) and cinematography by Shelly Johnson that was done no favors by the movie’s 3-D exhibitions, which darkened an already limited visual pallet that overly accentuated green-screen.

If there’s one disappointment with “Captain America,” it’s that the film works so well, it’s a letdown when the material moves into the present day for its inevitable “Avengers” set-up in its concluding moments – making one surmise that if there is a sequel, it’s not going to involve the period setting and supporting characters from this exciting “Cap” to the year’s super-hero efforts.

Sandwiched between Marvel’s own productions was Fox’s relaunch of the “X-Men” franchise, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (**½, 132 mins., PG-13), a perfectly serviceable, occasionally inspired prequel from director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman, who previously collaborated on “Stardust” and last year’s wild “Kick-Ass.”

“First Class” establishes the first meeting of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), back when they were just Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr – mutants who find one another working on the same side of a top-secret U.S. government project. There, Xavier recruits a number of young people with special abilities – including the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) – as the early, not-quite “X-Men” go up against Kevin Bacon’s villainous Sebastian Shaw, a mutant trying to steer the Cuban missile crisis through to its intended end.

With its ‘60s setting and Maurice Binder-like end titles, “X-Men: First Class” does come off like a breath of fresh air after the stale “Wolverine” spin-off with Hugh Jackman and friends. Vaughn’s visual flair and a good array of performances keep the film entertaining and compelling throughout, though truth be told I ended up feeling like something was missing from the film in the days after I saw it. The film moves so quickly at times that there’s never proper time to digest what’s happening, not enough character beats to satisfy the film’s large ensemble roster of heroes. This especially costs the film at its climax when the “lines have been drawn” between Xavier and Magneto, and characters like Mystique make their ultimate decision as to where their allegiances lie – there’s been so little development on this end of things that the resolution comes off as weakly developed at best.

The movie also misses having an “everyman” like Wolverine – much like the Star Wars prequels where Han Solo’s levity was sorely missed, “First Class” has no central hero for the audience to identify with, and the absence of someone like Jackman is especially evident once the sideburn-adorned, grumpy protagonist chips in a brief but funny cameo.

I have yet to see “Green Lantern,” but from all accounts I missed precious little; after watching its awful trailers for several months, it seemed like the one super-hero film to miss this summer. So far, judging from its scant box-office returns (it’s likely to lose a good chunk of money, and it was the most expensive film of all four comic-book efforts), it seems like audiences were likewise disinterested.

The spectacularly-budgeted “Lantern” was even bested at the summer box-office by the more economical JJ Abrams “Spielberg homage” SUPER 8 (**½, 112 mins., PG-13), a “nice” movie that’s easier to admire for its intent than its execution.

Abrams’ original script – while offering a few obvious references to early Spielberg classics like “Close Encounters” in particular – actually plays out like more of a 1950s monster movie than it does one of his producing mentor’s genre works, with a group of young teens in late ‘70s Ohio becoming involved in a government train accident that houses something not-of-this-world that escapes and begins causing all kinds of mysterious happenings around town.

One of the film’s shortcomings is that, while the movie begins like an overt Spielberg tribute, when it veers into “Cloverfield” in its second half the effect is a jarring one, especially because you go in expecting the emotion of a Spielberg fantasy and end up with something more detached and perfunctory. There's not much of a connection between the film’s young protagonist (Joel Courtney) and his single-parent, police deputy dad (Kyle Chandler), so there's no emotional investment that’s really built up between them. More over, the government guys are so purely “bad” here that I snickered a few times when they'd show up on screen and Michael Giacchino's CE3K copycat motif would accompany them each and every time. There’s no Peter Coyote type to off-set the lack of depth in the movie’s characterizations, and why there needed to be a bit of an "edge" with an older pot-smoking teen and an f-bomb was also kind of odd (if anything, the latter felt like it came out of Judd Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks” series as opposed to a Spielberg project).

There are, however, some great moments, and a few affecting ones as well. As much as I didn't care for Giacchino's score at times, the movie’s beautifully done final shot is matched with an emotive (if thematically unmemorable) concluding cue from the composer, and Abrams’ overriding style at least makes for a movie that, well, feels like a movie the way they used to be made. “Super 8" may not have delivered what it promised, but it’s not just a two-hour movie trailer with ADD editing either. The early Spielberg salutes are obvious (the kid at the dining room table beating the doll just like in CE3K; the overhead shot of the town from E.T. and CE3K; the juxtaposition of a character in the background with a foreground object on the other end of the widescreen frame, seen in many of his earlier films; overpouring the dog food into the dish from “Jaws,” etc.) but still fun.

If you like that type of film or grew up on them, “Super 8" is a pleasant throwback – of sorts – to those genre films, and after a whole summer of super-heroes, sequels and 3-D releases, this one was at least worthy of support.

On the comedy front, CRAZY STUPID LOVE (**) was a bit of a mess for directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the “Bad Santa” guys who previously helmed the ill-fated Jim Carrey comedy “I Love You Phillip Morris.”

This ensemble rom-com examines the crumbling relationship between married couple Steve Carell and Julianne Moore, leading to Carell moving out and finding friendship with a young, upstart ladies man (Ryan Gosling) – who proceeds to give him a makeover in order to make him attractive to the field. That includes oversexed teacher Marisa Tomei (regrettably forced into another worthless supporting role as a “crazy cougar”), while Gosling himself falls for a perky law student (Emma Stone) who wants more than just sex.

It’s funny how Ficarra and Requa are often billed in publicity materials as this “cutting edge comedy” tandem, when in fact their past credits (the ones that nobody talks about) include the feeble “Cats and Dogs” as well as “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” This time the duo worked from a screenplay by Dan Fogelman, whose past credits include a group of animated Disney films (“Cars,” “Bolt” and “Tangled”) as well as the Christmas movie flop “Fred Claus.”

It wouldn’t seem like any of these folks were necessarily cut out for the kind of poignant romantic-comedy-drama that “Crazy, Stupid Love” aspires to, and the film ultimately feels like it was several rewrites shy of coming together. The picture is almost fatally overlong, stuffed to the gills with unappealing subplots (I could’ve lived without Carell and Moore’s son’s infatuation with the family babysitter) and characters with no pay off (I’m looking at you, Kevin Bacon!). The actors try their best and there are some sporadically effective moments, but they ultimately don’t add up to very much: there was a good movie in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” somewhere, but the directors were ultimately unable to find it.

Meanwhile, several R-rated comedies also vied for the attention of audiences this summer.

BRIDESMAIDS (**½, 125 mins., R) has been one of the summer’s biggest surprises – a low-budget Universal comedy that has generated nearly $160 million in domestic returns so far.

A movie at war with itself, this agreeable comedy from SNL's Kristen Wiig and company has some mild laughs and a few nice scenes. They also, unfortunately, alternate with brief bursts of producer Judd Apatow's R-rated "raunch" -- like a ridiculous, unfunny gross-out scene where the ladies get food poisoning and end up relieving themselves in a dress shop. It made me wonder -- when did comedy take the sudden right turn to bodily fluid jokes of embarrassment? I'm guessing “There’s Something About Mary” and “American Pie” are the films to blame for the "modern trend" in R rated comedy, and with this film it's unfortunate since the tone of the film is a bit more mature than the norm and Wiig is quite sympathetic here. Also funny is the terrific Melissa McCarthy from "Mike & Molly" who steals most of her scenes.

Overall, the movie isn’t great – just decent – in spite of its inexplicably "90% fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

HORRIBLE BOSSES (**½, 98 mins., R), meanwhile, is another not-bad comedy from director Seth Gordon, who previously helmed the wonderful documentary “The King of Quarters.”

Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis play three buddies sick of their current, thankless working situations, leading to the trio hatching a plan to eliminate their respective bosses – Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and a barely-recognizable Colin Farrell.

“Horrible Bosses” takes a long time to get going but, once it does, provides some occasionally inspired laughs. Bateman, Day and Sudeikis have good chemistry with one another, Spacey is quite amusing and even Aniston generates a few laughs (Farrell’s role seems to have hit the cutting room floor by comparison). Jamie Foxx also manages a couple of yucks as a tough guy the boys recruit to make a hit on their bosses – and any film that includes a “Snow Falling On Cedars” joke is worth a special commendation.

Both “Bridesmaids” and “Horrible Bosses” were infinitely more entertaining than the pre-fab sequel THE HANGOVER PART II (*½, 102 mins., R), one of those follow-ups that takes you back to the ‘80s when studios would simply photocopy an original script, change the setting and make a sequel expending the least amount of effort possible.

Utterly by-the-numbers in every single aspect, “Hangover” Deux is nothing but a virtual re-run of its predecessor, except instead of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifinakis’ buddy Justin Bartha going missing, it’s Helms’ fiancee’s brother who disappears after a wild night in...no, not Vegas...but Bangkok.

Director Todd Phillips seems more interested in establishing a gritty, stylized look to the picture than cultivating a feeble screenplay that simply adheres to the same narrative twists and turns as its predecessor. There are a couple of funny lines and Ken Jeong is again amusing as “Mr. Chow,” but everything else smacks of desperation.

New on Blu-Ray

RIO Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (***, 96 mins., 2011, G; Fox): Blue Sky Studios, who produced the "Ice Age" films, generated another big box-office hit (nearly a half-billion worldwide) earlier this year with “Rio," a quite-entertaining CGI animated film that ought to enchant kids and keep adult viewers engaged with its vivid color pallet.

A cute little macaw named Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is caged in his warm South American homeland and sent to the cold confines of Minnesota where he's raised, and loved, by a socially awkward girl (voiced by Lesie Mann). A Brazilian scientist comes calling with the news that Blu isn't the last of his kind and that there's a female south of the border named Jewel (voice of Anne Hathaway) who can mate with our hero and break him out of his funk.

As with many of Blue Sky's prior films, it's the character design that's so appealing here, with likeable, distinctively animated figures matched with absolutely gorgeous, warm primary colors. The musical soundtrack is also a joy, John Powell's fine score being intertwined with Latin-flavored tracks reflecting Brazil's musical heritage.

Even though I wished more of "Rio" hadn't taken place in a dark warehouse where the villain captures our heroes, this is one of the better CGI films I've seen recently, and comes absolutely recommended on Blu-Ray where the movie's high-def transfer really sings. Both the AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are marvelous, with ample extras including deleted scenes and numerous featurettes, plus a DVD and digital copy for portable media players.

STARGATE ATLANTIS: The Complete Series Blu-Ray (2004-09; MGM/Fox): Critics may not have paid much attention to this 2004 spin-off from the popular “Stargate” TV franchise (itself derived from the Roland Emmerich box-office hit of 1994), but fans lapped up this Syfy Channel series, which ran from 2004-09 and offered a similar premise involving a military/scientific expedition team exploring a lost world under attack from the evil Wraith.

That MGM and Fox have collected all five seasons in a deluxe Blu-Ray box-set also says something about the series’ popularity, and this 20-disc set is no slouch when it comes to its presentation. The AVC encoded 1080p (1.78) transfers and 5.1 DTS MA soundtracks are all first-rate, while extras have been brought over from the prior DVD releases and include over 70 commentaries, 40 featurettes, deleted scenes and other bonuses.

The slim packaging is also most welcome, making this a pricey though not ridiculously expensive release (about $100) for “Atlantis” fans who will find it to be well worth the upgrade from DVD.

OUTCASTS Blu-Ray (470 mins., 2011, BBC): A group of survivors on a post-apocalyptic Earth get the chance to build a new life on a planet named Carpathia in this BBC series with Liam Cunningham and Eric Maibus. “Outcasts” debuted to only mediocre interest earlier this year and mostly tepid reviews – it was quickly canceled after only eight episodes were produced, all of which are collected in this BBC Blu-Ray set sporting 1080i transfers, stereo soundtracks and a pair of featurettes.

TOP GEAR 16 Blu-Ray (417 mins., 2011; BBC): Jeremy, Richard and James embark on a three-part USA road trip at the start of the 16th season of “Top Gear,” which also finds the boys heading to Albania, meeting up with Boris Becker, fellow mates Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and other celebs (including Amber Heard). BBC’s Blu-Ray edition of “Top Gear” season 16 includes 16:9 transfers and stereo soundtracks and a number of extras including outtakes, featurettes, a behind-the-scenes doc and other goodies for series fans.

NEXT TIME: A review of Matt Taylor's tremendous new book JAWS: MEMORIES FROM MARTHA'S VINEYARD. Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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