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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 23

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RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES WETA-created and PETA-approved, Rise of the Planet of the Apes stands at the center of a campaign that boasts about how the film employed the Oscar-winning team behind Avatar and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to invent its photorealistic primates. Others have been prone to highlight the "realistic" part; I tend to accentuate the "photo" portion. In this outing, kindly scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) ends up "adopting" a baby chimp that's been made super-smart by a drug initially created by Will to combat Alzheimer's in humans. Named Caesar, the chimp goes from cuddly infant to questioning teen to, finally, betrayed and embittered adult. Along the way, Caesar crosses paths with a vicious zookeeper (Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton, playing the anti-Kevin James), Will finds love with a vet (Freida Pinto) who's his match in dullness, and Caesar engages in risible sign-language conversations with an orangutan (suddenly, I had a real hankering for Every Which Way But Loose). Created by Peter Jackson's WETA Digital outfit and "played" by Andy Serkis, Caesar is a CGI triumph, although there's still an artificiality about the look that keeps the figure at a distance (personally, I found Serkis's "performance" as the title character in Jackson's King Kong remake to be more effective). Still, the film proves to be a reasonably entertaining experience, culminating in an all-out battle between apes and humans on the Golden Gate Bridge. But for all of its technical prowess, the picture never stirs the soul like the classic 1968 original, which dovetailed its allusions to real-life civil unease with its muscular handling of a surefire sci-fi hook. When the original's Charlton Heston bellows, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" it's a clarion call to humanity; when a character in this new picture says it, it feels like an unearned co-option. **1/2

TAKE SHELTER Winner of two awards at this year's Cannes Film Festival and certain to earn Michael Shannon some serious Oscar consideration, Take Shelter takes place in a spacious, wide-open Midwestern region but feels constrictive and claustrophobic at every turn. That's the intent of writer-director Jeff Nichols, who largely leaves it up to viewers to decide whether his film is a metaphor for the feelings of paranoia, persecution and dread that grip this nation in modern times or merely a story about a man who might be mentally unbalanced. Curtis (Shannon), a blue-collar worker blessed with a loving wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart), starts having dreadful dreams in which he's attacked by those closest to him (his spouse, his best friend, his dog) in the middle of a nasty storm. These nocturnal nightmares are soon joined by daytime hallucinations, and Curtis has to decide whether he's turning into a paranoid schizophrenic like his institutionalized mother (Kathy Baker) or whether he's having premonitions involving the end of the world. No one knows for sure — least of all audience members — and while the story is such that Nichols could have ended it in a haze of ambiguity, he wisely elects to commit to a particular outcome. I of course won't reveal any particulars, so let's just say that Rod Serling would have been proud. ***

TOWER HEIST Cineastes won't allow something as trivial as Tower Heist to dislodge Dassin's Rififi or Kubrick's The Killing as their caper film of choice, but as far as seasonal multiplex blockbusters go, this one's not bad at all. The much maligned Brett Ratner, whose last two features were the godawful Rush Hour 3 and the series-sapping X-Men: The Last Stand, basically stays out of the way of his four writers and 10 stars, allowing them to strut their stuff in this comedy about a group of working stiffs who decide to take financial revenge on the crooked Wall Street fat cat (Alan Alda) who swindled them out of their savings. The characters are far more interesting than the actual heist that eats up the final portion of the film, so it's a good thing we're allowed to spend plenty of time getting to know them during the first hour. Ben Stiller is fine as the building manager who plots the robbery; Eddie Murphy displays some of that '80s brashness (long buried under family-film complacency) as a career criminal who lends a hand; and Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe contribute some well-timed laughs. Then there's Tea Leoni as a diligent FBI agent; her drunk scene is one of the highlights of the film and makes me wish that Hollywood would remember to employ her on a more consistent basis. ***


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