Video Verdict: ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’ ‘Fright Night,’ ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’

John Lithgow, left, embraces Caesar the chimp in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Caesar is computer animated, but Andy Serkis – working with motion capture technology – provided the basis for the performance.

There’s not much originality on the home video front this week, as the most noteworthy releases are a sequel, a remake and a reboot.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

The “Planet of the Apes” franchise has a rich history that began with a 1963 novel and kicked into high gear with a series of films released between 1968 and 1973. Later media adaptations included two short-lived TV series and a 2001 film by director Tim Burton. Burton’s movie was essentially a remake of the 1968 original starring Charlton Heston, and it was largely considered a failure.

For “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver decided to approach the franchise with fresh eyes, paying homage to earlier stories but taking a new direction. The result is an entertaining and visually impressive film with the potential to spawn a new series.

The action centers on Will Rodman (James Franco), a pharmaceutical company scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. One of his drugs proves especially promising, and when given to an average chimpanzee, the animal develops remarkable cognitive abilities. Before Will can move to human testing, the chimp goes on a rampage, prompting the CEO of the company (David Oyelowo) to shut Will’s program down and order the destruction of his test animals.

When the company’s animal handler (Tyler Labine) discovers that Will’s prize chimp secretly delivered a baby, he refuses to kill it, instead convincing Will to raise the infant. As the baby chimp ages, Will discovers that its mental prowess is extraordinary. This, of course, leads to problems because most of the world views the intelligent chimp as nothing more than a beast.

Wyatt’s remake is thought provoking and entertaining, a potent combination for a film that was released as a summer blockbuster. In fact, the movie isn’t the action-oriented piece viewers might expect … at least for its first two-thirds. Rather, it is a well-conceived drama that examines issues ranging from bigotry to animal cruelty.

Franco is typically strong in his lead role, and he gets apt support from Freida Pinto (who plays Will’s girlfriend) and John Lithgow (who portrays Will’s father). The real star of the show, however, is a man who is never seen.  The lead chimp, Caesar, is mostly computer animated, but his movements and facial expressions were modeled on the work of Andy Serkis, who played the role using motion capture technology. Serkis is no stranger to the work, as he also used motion capture to play Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films and “King Kong” in Jackson’s 2005 remake. It’s difficult to determine how much of the creature’s screen appearance should be credited to Serkis, but the on-screen performance is remarkably emotional and believable.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” does have flaws, the most glaring of which is the way Will interacts with Caesar, even after realizing that his intellect is superior to that of most humans. One would think a scientist of Will’s sophistication would be better prepared to deal with the problems he and Caesar encounter. Of course, a correction of this magnitude would result in a different movie, and the one Wyatt delivers is perfectly good.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of feature, a short on Serkis’ performance and a collection of deleted scenes.

Fright Night

3 stars
Rated R for bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

With “Fright Night,” director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “Mr. Woodcock”) has delivered a satisfying vampire drama that should please fans of the 1985 original while welcoming viewers who don’t realize they’re watching a remake. Like the first film, Gillespie’s incarnation tells the story of Charley Brewster, a teen boy who discovers he’s living next door to a bloodsucker.

This time, it’s Anton Yelchin who plays Charley, and he handles the role with aplomb. At first, Charley laughs off the possibility that his neighbor – a handsome charmer named Jerry (Colin Farrell) – could be a vampire. But when the evidence becomes overwhelming, he goes on the offensive, turning to Las Vegas magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help. Vincent hosts a supernatural-themed show on the Vegas strip, and he’s the closest thing Charley can find to a vampire expert, even though the showman makes it clear that he doesn’t want any part of Charley’s quest.

For a horror movie, “Fright Night” has a particularly good cast. Yelchin and Tennant are solid throughout, and Farrell is extremely good as the lead baddie. His version of Jerry alternates between vicious and charismatic, a choice that keeps Charley – and viewers – off balance. Also solid are Toni Collette, who has a small-but-important part as Charley’s single mom, and Imogen Poots, who plays Charley’s girlfriend.

“Fright Night” is an unabashedly straightforward horror film that takes the point of view that vampires are monsters … plain and simple. Jerry may have a charming side, but it’s just a tool to help with his blood quests. Gone is the romantic side of vampires depicted in the “Twilight” series and TV shows like “The Vampire Diaries” and “True Blood.” This dark depiction is welcome, and the Marti Noxon screenplay does a nice job balancing scary moments against bits of melodrama and humor.

We’ve seen a lot of bad vampire flicks over the years. “Fright Night” isn’t one of them.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a music video featuring Kid Cudi and a gag reel.

Kung Fu Panda 2

2½  stars
Rated PG for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

In recent years, animated films have outshone many of their live-action brethren thanks to better-developed screenplays and superior attention to detail. Sadly, that trend seems to be ending at the very time animation technology is peaking.

There’s no question that animated movies look better than ever. Unfortunately, the storytelling isn’t keeping pace with the visuals, and “Kung Fu Panda 2” is a perfect example of the phenomenon. Not only is the movie a sequel, ensuring a lack of creativity from the outset, but director Jennifer Yuh placed much of her storytelling emphasis on action sequences. There’s nothing wrong with action, but it grows tiresome when directors invest more time in flashy, fast-moving scenes than in plot and character development.

“Panda 2” picks up where the original movie left off, with Po the Panda enjoying life as a kung fu master. It’s not long, however, until he and his pals are sent on a dangerous mission to confront an evil peacock. Unbeknownst to Po, the assignment will also bring him face to face with his past, forcing him to confront long-repressed memories and jump the one hurdle that’s preventing him from becoming a truly great martial artist.

The plot will feel tired to anyone who has watched more than a handful of heroic sagas, and that’s too bad because the voice cast is great. Comedian Jack Black again gives voice to Po, and his line readings are always entertaining. Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan and Seth Rogen also lend their voices to the film, and each does an admirable job.

For young viewers, the colorful characters, beautiful animation and fast pace will likely outweigh the clichéd plotting. For older animation buffs, the story is sadly lacking.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of feature, a filmmakers’ commentary, deleted scenes and an episode of the Nickelodeon TV series “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness.”



“Circumstance”: Drama about an Iranian teenager who, along with her best friend, begins to experiment with sex and drugs. Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz. Presented in Persian with English subtitles.

Seijun Suzuki yakuza films: The Criterion Collection is rolling out digitally restored versions of two yakuza movies from Japanese director Seijun Suzuki: “Tokyo Drifter” (1966) and “Branded to Kill” (1967). “Drifter” tells the story of a reformed hitman who finds himself under attack by two mobs.  Similarly, “Branded” tells the story of an assassin who botches a job and becomes a target himself. Both movies are presented in Japanese with English subtitles.

“The Life & Times of Tim” – The Complete Second Season: The third season of HBO’s animated comedy about the trials and tribulations of an average guy kicks off Dec. 16. This two-disc set contains all 10 episodes from season two.

“Switched at Birth” – Volume One: First 10 episodes of the ABC Family series about teen girls who learn they were accidentally switched at the hospital and raised by the wrong parents.

“Family Guy” – Volume 9: Fourteen episodes of Seth MacFarlane’s animated series about a dysfunctional Rhode Island family.

Miramax Blu-ray debuts: Three well-liked Miramax films – “Heavenly Creatures,” “Velvet Goldmine” and “City of God” – are receiving their high-definition debuts. The films are distinctly different, but each was nominated for at least one Oscar.

“Vietnam in HD”: History Channel documentary series focused on the wartime experiences of a handful of Americans. The six-hour presentation includes a good deal of historic footage gathered from a variety of sources.

“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975”: Documentary film focused on the U.S. civil rights movement. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson, the movie features vintage footage shot by Swedish journalists during the rise of the Black Power Movement.


— Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit E-mail him at


Leave a comment

Filed under Video Verdict

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s