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Smart monkeys hazardous to your health, the vampire next door

by Mark Burger

At the very least — and it’s much better than that — Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a worthy addition to Twentieth Century-Fox’s science-fiction franchise, which spawned five films between 1968 and 1973, followed by Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake in 2001 that admittedly earned box-office bucks but also the general enmity of series fans.

Unlike the Burton version, which had all the subtlety of an 800-pound gorilla and about which nothing more need be said, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent and sometimes stimulating yarn that combines a bit of science fact with some creative sciencefiction. And although the outcome is not unexpected — and even indicated in the film’s very title — director Rupert Wyatt maintains interest and tension throughout.

An appropriately earnest James Franco heads the human contingent as scientist Will Rodman, hard at work developing a serum that he hopes will reverse Alzheimer’s Disease, in part because his father (John Lithgow, always welcome) is in the throes of it.

Permitted only to test the serum on primates, Will finds his glimmer of hope in a baby chimpanzee that exhibits remarkable signs of intelligence, far beyond normal chimpanzees. Will’s research has literally come to life in the form of this creature, called Caesar.

It’s hardly necessary to explain what happens next, as the creation (Caesar) becomes the creator. The film’s screenplay, by producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, builds steadily and surely toward its inevitable conclusion, in which apes and humans clash. And what more exciting locale to depict this climax than on San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge?

To an extent, the human characters here are incidental, although that’s not to denigrate the performances of Franco, Lithgow, Freida Pinto, Tom Felton and Brian Cox (also always welcome); the audience’s sympathy is meant to be with Caesar (remarkably portrayed by Andy Serkis and then given the CGI treatment) and his fellow simians. As their intelligence and cognitive powers increase, so too does their ability to unify, organize and execute a revolt. The apes are as empathetic, if not more so, than the humans — and it’s clearly intentional.

Once again, of course, mankind proves its own worst enemy. Humankind’s domination of “our” world is a fragile one, and there is always the possibility that something could tip the scales in another, more horrifying, direction. Rise of the Planet of the Apes uses that notion to good effect, with subtle symbolism, ironic allegory and, yes, a couple of in jokes further enhancing that effect. This isn’t monkey business; these monkeys mean business.

The original Fright Night marked screenwriter Tom Holland’s first directorial effort (still his best), and offered a witty, scary homage to Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window, except in this case the hero’s murderous next-door neighbor was, in fact, a vampire.

If they can remake Rear Window, and they have, it’s hardly a surprise that Fright Night, which proved a sleeper hit in the summer of 1985 and even more popular on home video, would eventually be resurrected. Using Holland’s story as a springboard, the new Fright Night has the same basic framework, although some incidents and characters have been reshuffled.

The “fearless vampire killer” Peter Vincent is not the horror-movie has-been so memorably played by Roddy McDowall in the original, but an obnoxious Las Vegas stage illusionist crossed with Russell Brand — and played for cheeky laughs by David Tennant (one of the latest incarnations of the popular British sci-fi icon “Doctor Who”).

These alterations to the story may not improve upon the original, but do they insult it. Director Craig Gillespie evinces a nice contemporary feel that mirrors the original film’s ’80s milieu. As remakes go, Fright Night is not perfect (nor was the original film, for that matter) — but it’s far more enjoyable than might have been feared.

Anton Yelchin plays Charley Brewster, the all-American teenager who comes to realize that new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell, in a bit of inspired casting) — who works nights and sleeps during the day (sure he does) — is a genuine bloodsucker. Not a moony-eyed, wistful romantic of Twilight, but a ruthless killer whose affable facade only barely masks his insatiable bloodlust.

Although humor is present throughout, make no mistake, Fright Night is a horror movie first and foremost — and pretty successful on those terms. The big-bang climax is somewhat protracted, but the same could be said of the original film, although there were fewer bangs in ’85.

A likable cast helps, with Imogen Poots as Charley’s girlfriend, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as high school oddball

Ed, and Toni Collette (always good) as Charley’s mom, who also catches Jerry’s eye. There’s also a fun cameo by the original Fright Night fiend, Chris Sarandon. But the real treat here is Farrell, having a bloody good time — and giving a bloody good performance, to boot — as the ladykiller who really knocks ‘em dead.

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