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“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” reviewed

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” reviewed (photo)

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Friggin James Franco. First the man breaks the Oscars and now he single-handledly turns the earth into a Planet of the Apes. Talk about a bad year!

He’s having a bad year, but at least he’s in a fun movie. Yes, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is pretty fun, if watching mankind’s rapid descent into chaos can ever be described as “fun.” Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist driven to find a cure for Alzheimer’s in order to save his ill father Charles (John Lithgow). Will’s experimental drug shows great promise in boosting apes’ cognitive functions, but a freak lab accident gets the project cancelled and makes Will the father of an orphaned, genetically mutated baby chimp. Named Caesar by the Shakespeare loving Charles, the chimp grows into an adorable and clever toddler and then a frustrated and brilliant (and potentially dangerous) adult.

Will is forced to surrender Caesar to a primate shelter, where the ape slowly comes to hate humanity and plot a rebellion against his stinking damn dirty masters. That makes “Rise” a nice corrective to the awful Kevin James comedy “Zookeeper” (I was going to call it “laughable” — if only!), where zoo animals have the ability to communicate with one another and all they want to do is try to get Kevin James laid. No, if animals had human intelligence they would surely follow Caesar’s lead and strike back the cruel people who stuck them in cages. Can you imagine what the apes from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” would do to us if they knew about “Zookeeper?” It would be ugly.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is of course a prequel to the classic series of American sci-fi films, loosely based on the 1963 novel by French author Pierre Boulle. Prequels are all the rage in Hollywood these days because they offer an easy way to prolong the lives of popular franchises, but most are plagued by the same problem: they deliver predictable backstory instead of surprising story. An air of inevitability hangs over all of them, and when the plots of movies feel inevitable, they also feel boring.

“Rise of Planet of the Apes” is a little bit different because the “Planet of the Apes” franchise has always been about man’s inexorable march towards its own doom. Every film starts in darkness and ends in tragedy, so the fact that we know the apes will rise in this case doesn’t hurt the experience. It simply makes “Rise” an appropriately tragic entry in an unusually and refreshingly gloomy Hollywood franchise. It also provides something you won’t see in any other big Hollywood blockbuster this summer: an unhappy ending.

Then again, maybe that ending isn’t so unhappy. You’d think a movie about a battle between humans and super-smart apes would favor humanity (after all, the movie was made by humans, at least as far as I know). But “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” comes down squarely on the side of its titular simians. All the humans in this movie are uniformly bland, colorless creations while Caesar, performed by “Lord of the Rings”‘ Andy Serkis with a truly impressive SFX assist from Weta Digital, is a multidimensional and flawed tragic hero. Some will say the filmmakers, like most folks in Hollywood these days, cared more about their special effects than the script and the actors. But a more generous reading of the film would argue that the movie intentionally undercuts its humans to force the audience to side with a protagonist hellbent on their destruction.

There’s nothing appealing about Franco’s dreary scientist, or Freida Pinto as his boring girlfriend, or Tom Felton as the meanest ape wrangler in human history. Serkis’ Caesar, in contrast, displays real human emotions: he loves, he yearns, he regrets, and he rages. In a recent blog post, I joked that “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” looked exactly like James Marsh’s documentary “Project Nim,” about a real life experiment that taught a baby chimp sign language. And, in fact, the most beautiful scenes in “Rise” are the ones that expound upon the saddest moments in “Project Nim,” where a chimp who’s been given the tools to express himself like a person is treated like an animal. The fact that I am talking about beautiful and emotionally moving scenes in a prequel about embittered CGI monkeys, should tell you that this is not your average blockbuster cash-grab.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was directed by Rupert Wyatt, taking a big step up in scale from his previous effort, the jailbreak movie “The Escapist,” (his “Escapist” star, Brian Cox, is on hand as one of the flavorless humans). He does an impressive job integrating the human and ape halves of his cast and he employs a nimble camera in the action scenes that swoops and spins through the environment right beside Caesar, giving us a taste of his freedom of movement so that we’re left all the more claustrophobic and uncomfortable when that freedom is later stripped away. Wyatt really empathizes with Caesar’s plight. And the movie is good enough to convince us that we should too, even though it means the death of us all.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is now playing. If you see we want to hear what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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