By Eric Henderson

Pauline Kael, arguably the most influential (or at least well-known) movie critic in the 1970s, once wrote a phrase that has stuck with me through the years.

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She wrote, “The picture is swill, but it isn’t a cheat.”

The movie she was talking about was indeed swill — the corntastic 1974 disaster epic Earthquake — and it was also no cheat. It delivered exactly what it promised: a shallow, sensationalistic, totally entertaining evening of trash.

I kept flashing back to Kael’s decree throughout the new reboot/prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The movie is relentlessly ridiculous to the point where you wonder if apes were behind the camera in addition to being in front of it, but the movie is never less than totally entertaining summer escapism, more satisfying in that regard than all of the two dozen superhero movies from the last few months put together.

Perhaps in an attempt to forget that disastrous 2001 Tim Burton remake ever happened (which, to be honest, most of the rest of us actually have done), 20th Century Fox decided to take the monkey franchise back to its genesis.

And, like all things in the universe, the path to the beginning leads to James Franco. The septuple-threat plays a medical researcher (and why not?) working on a vaccine to cure Alzheimer’s, a quest driven by the suffering of his shut-in father (John Lithgow).

Testing his formula on chimps, he discovers that not only does it reverse the ravages of the disease, but actually tricks their brains into becoming their own growth stimulant through, I guess, neurological inertia. You know, like a Shake Weight for your brain.

Clearly what’s good for your brain was never much on the filmmakers’ minds … all the better by which to access the primal pleasure principle. As Franco’s pet chimp-slash-son-surrogate Caesar’s IQ skyrockets and he starts to amass his simian army (and ditches the Magilla Gorilla ensemble Franco saddled him with), the movie achieves the sort of dumb but powerful iconography that was missing from Thor, Captain America, and all but the best moments of the thematically similar X-Men prequel.

It all leads up to a fantastic rampage through downtown San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge that, again, reminded me of the base thrill of seeing Los Angeles get flattened in Earthquake (which, by the way and like the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, starred none other than that “damned dirty ape” nemesis Charlton Heston). If the standoff seems to have a little too much in common with the chest-thumping likes of, say, Braveheart, well, apes are simply more formidable hand-to-hand combatants. Their fury is soul cleansing.

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Yes, the filmmakers stack the decks against humanity a little too neatly (e.g. Franco’s jerky neighbor who picks on a foggy-brained Lithgow; Draco Malfoy himself as the warden of an ape prison), but why not? With the stock market plunging, natural resources disappearing and humanity sitting idly by as it all goes to seed, who wouldn’t want to root for the apes to hit the reset button on a global level?

This is how you (re)start a lasting mass market franchise.


(credit: Universal Studios)

If each ape has a unique, individual personality in Rise, the unspoken message of the new pervert body-switch movie The Change-Up is that all men are interchangeable, or at least only get to live one half of the life they wish they could live.

Jason Bateman is the no nonsense Felix Ungar to Ryan Reynolds’ wildly inappropriate Oscar Madison, and the only reason the two seem friends at all is that they are both living out some form of the life the other covets.

Bateman has spent his entire life buckling down, hitting the books, marrying and procreating, carving out a niche for himself as future partner at a high-stakes law firm. Reynolds wakes, bakes and makes vague overtures at starting a career as an actor.

The flick gets off to a hastily raunchy start, with Bateman changing his toddler twins’ diapers in the middle of the night, an act that puts a novel spin on the old pee-in-the face gag. Oh wait, it’s not a novel twist at all. It just swaps the one for the other.

Before you can say “Ew,” the movie stands Bateman and Reynolds up against a public fountain, where they drunkenly cross their streams and — déjà ew — switch bodies.

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I won’t belabor the mess that’s on screen (which even Bateman himself “jokingly” called “crap” in an interview with Jon Stewart) other than to say it’s a big missed opportunity. Someday someone’s going to make a body switch movie wherein two self-absorbed characters find themselves suffering the truly narcissistic possibilities of being able to see themselves from the outside in.

Eric Henderson