PLANET OF THE APES
My guess is that Tim Burton's "re-imagining" of Planet of the Apes will meet the same fate as 1999's The Blair Witch Project and last year's X-Men: It'll stand as the most misunderstood, and least appreciated, blockbuster of the summer.
Many film critics have already lambasted it, saying that the movie doesn't hold a candle to the 1968 version, that the plotting is thin, that the humans are dull, that the visuals are middling, that it's been over-hyped, et cetera, et cetera. Is it just because of the timing of their releases that these films are marginalized? (Blair Witch and X-Men also had mid-to-late-July openings, which means that critics had already sat through eight weeks of formulaic summertime crap and perhaps expected nothing better.) For Planet of the Apes is tremendously enjoyable, is deeply imagined with Burton's sustained, controlling vision, and features not only those astonishing make-up effects by Rick Baker, but - no joke - a couple of the finest performances you're likely to see this year.
Unlike the original, which took place on a terrifying version of Earth, this new Apes finds our futuristic hero, Leo (Mark Wahlberg), crash-landing his spacecraft on a distant world where apes rule, with humans hunted and captured as slave labor. Leo attempts to lead a rogue group of humans to freedom with the aid of the ape Ari (Helena Bonham-Carter), who believes that apes and humans can live in harmony, while avoiding the wrath of General Thade (Tim Roth), a sadistic ape who wants the human populace destroyed. Sure, this is thin plotting, but it leads to an extended series of magnificent battle sequences - Burton finally shows a gift for thrilling-yet-coherent action scenes that eluded him in his Batman films - and it makes jaw-droppingly fine use of Baker's designs; he's one of only a handful of Hollywood artists whose gifts actually do grow more impressive as the decades pass.
The movie is also smart enough to display a beautiful sense of humor about the Apes legacy. Those who remember the original fondly - and we have to be in the majority - will adore the movie's tongue-in-cheek references to Charlton Heston's camp-classic dialogue, not to mention the sight of Mr. Heston himself, in full ape regalia, signing off with "Damn them all to hell!" This new version is filled with crackerjack laugh lines - mostly supplied by Paul Giamatti as a weasel in ape's clothing - but it's at its absolute best when the laughs are mixed with awe - in other words, whenever Bonham-Carter or Roth is onscreen.
It's one thing for an actor to give terrific line readings when covered in latex; it's quite another when those actors create a perfect physicality to match the makeup. To watch Bonham-Carter and Roth play this close to human while maintaining distinctly simian movements is astounding; it's practically a master class in giving sci-fi goofiness a believable edge. (It's the same quality of realism that Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, and several others brought to X-Men, which upped the ante on the action that followed.) Against these two thespians - and performers including Michael Clarke Duncan, David Warner, and Lisa Marie also playing ape marvelously - of course the humans will seem a bit dreary, but Wahlberg is actually quite terrific, bringing the film a necessary touch of sweetness and uncertainty. Apes isn't seamless - it takes a few twists toward the end that border on the banal - but it remains a first-rate entertainment, Burton's best in years. Ignore the critics (myself excluded, of course) and enjoy the ride.
Excepting a good, nasty joke about the number of heart attacks Larry King has had, America's Sweethearts is a Hollywood satire without a trace of meanness; that's a true shame, because the subject matter, especially in this post-David Manning movie climate, is ripe for merciless attack. The film is set during a weekend press junket for an upcoming blockbuster-in-waiting, and you can get a thrill from the number of stereotypes available for skewering - egomaniacal stars, desperate agents, eccentric "genius" directors, and, most enticing of all, fawning movie critics, the ones you've never heard of who command you to see this week's "thrill-ride of the summer!" before next week's "thrill-ride of the summer!" opens. The film promises to be a cheeky lampoon of all that has gone wrong with American filmmaking and its publicity; I can't wait to see that movie. America's Sweethearts, though, turns out to be a bland romance that just coincidentally takes place in Hollywood; it would be just as (un)successful set in a dentist's office or a mall or a farm.
Screenwriters Billy Crystal (who also co-stars) and Peter Tolan present us with that romantic-comedy chestnut: Eddie (John Cusack), forever crazy about gorgeous Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), finds that he might really be in love with her plainer sister, Kiki (Julia Roberts). This hoary plot is gussied up by having Eddie and Gwen be married stars on the verge of divorce, with Kiki as Gwen's personal assistant, but unfortunately, it forces Julia Roberts to tone down her natural radiance. (It also forces her into one of those ugly-duckling-turns-princess roles that Sandra Bullock is inordinately fond of.) She gives it a fine attempt, but it's easy to forget that she's even in the movie, and it seems the last thing audiences would want is for Roberts to be invisible in her own screen romance. Cusack's natural dryness gives his line readings an edge - he proves to be the funniest performer in the film - but he has no true character to play, and while Zeta-Jones would appear perfectly cast as a stunningly beautiful bitch-on-wheels, Gwen remains a vague, moderately snippy cipher; there's little point in satirizing peevishness.
Alan Arkin has a few enticingly silly moments as Eddie's Zen master, and Christopher Walken's cameo personifies the director-as-whackjob, but director Joe Roth doesn't appear to know what to do with Hank Azaria and Stanley Tucci (both of whom are usually wonderful, but come off rather embarrassingly here), and he's made the mistake of not cutting more scenes that involve Billy Crystal, who plays Eddie 'n' Gwen's PR man. Despite the occasionally clever one-liner, his and Tolan's script is serviceable at best; as an actor, Crystal is all but unbearable. His stand-up comic rhythms don't match the realistic line readings of his co-stars, and his insistence on making this hack a nice guy makes his shifts in allegiance senseless; he's our new Don Rickles, throwing out moderately bitchy jabs while maintaining an "I'm just kidding" air, and his presence grows increasingly tiresome. By this point, Billy Crystal has himself become a figure worthy of satire; how about a farce about a once-brilliant comic so desperate to be "lovable" that he makes you wince?