update 3/30/2012: neither of those Oscar things happened, though Weta was nominated.
But what about James Franco? Critics are knocking the human element of this film. I'm in agreement. Watching Franco, I couldn't help thinking: "How is this the same guy from Milk and 127 Hours?" The answer is simple: Franco was not in character.
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Writers: Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa
Well-meaning Scientist: James Franco
Alzheimered: Jonathan Lithgow
Voice of Moral Reason and "holy moses" hot: Freida Pinto
Primate House Manager: Brian Cox
Primate House Dick: Tom Felton (Malfoy)
Money-Grubbing Executive: Steven Jacobs
Assistant: Tyler Labine
Let me preface this by saying: I like James Franco.
But there's a caveat: I hate James Franco.
Sometimes I think he's really cool. But there are movies where I'm watching him and I feel there's this aura of...self-consciousness, as if he were reading the lines instead of acting.
Today, using James Franco as an example, I will make the case that every actor and actress has no less than four personalities. The formula for "personality" being: X + Y = Personality. X is percent-Character. Y is percent-Actor's personality.
As a rule of thumb: the higher the %-Character, the better the "acting".
Personality 1: The Actor (at least 70% character)
This is JF's finest form. This is who we see in City by the Sea (clip below, jump to 2:20 mark), Milk, 127 Hours, Howl.
Personality 2: Franc-OOOOOOOOOOO (50-69% character)
Comedic in nature, think: Pineapple Express and Your Highness. This is the guy making appearances in The Green Hornet and Date Night.
Personality 3: James X (25-49% character)
Flyboys, Eat Pray Love, Sonny, Nights in Rodanthe, In the Valley of Elah. These are serious parts but he has not internalized the character as completely as The Actor. I find all of these personas gradations of what I've seen of Franco as himself. Like if someone were to say to you, "Pretend you are a doctor," and you do a generic impression of a doctor. That's how I view Franco in these roles. He's "impersonating". Whereas The Actor and Franc-OOOOOOOOO have "become" specific people.
(He's not awful in these roles. He's just not up to his own caliber.)
Personality 4: James Franco (0-24% character)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man 1, 2, 3, The 83rd Annual Academy Awards.
In any of these movies, I never felt like Franco cared. As a character or as a performer. In Rise, there were times when he spoke dramatic lines with such a monotone I laughed aloud. To be fair: all the human roles were one-dimensional (not necessarily unenjoyable though), and a majority of the screen-time is given to Caesar. Maybe this is done to accentuate the personalities of the primates? As an ironic statement, a societal message that people aren't as deep or nuanced as they once were?
Maybe Franco's performance was exactly what Wyatt had asked from him?
Or maybe Franco just doesn't take blockbusters seriously.
You might be thinking: "no actor is 100% every time." Yeah, you're right. But it's not about that. In fact, if you're 100%, you might be over-performing (or if you're at 0% you're probably just reading your lines). Kate Hudson is capable of more serious roles but she sticks with stuff where she's 50% or less. This is fine for her because her personality is endearing enough that a lot of people watch movies she's in because she's in them and they like her for her.
Brad Pitt and George Clooney actively pursue high C% roles.
With Gerard Butler we see high C% choices with The Phantom of the Opera and 300. Then we get The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter which are more P%.
We praise Robin Williams when he's in a P1 role like Good Will Hunting or One Hour Photo, laugh when he's P2 in Mrs. Doubtfire and Hook, and the reactions to his P3 and P4 stuff (like Night at the Museum or License to Wed) depend on how much you like Robin Williams.
I gave Franco the titles "The Actor", "Franc-OOOOOO", "James X" and "James Franco". The titles depend on the person. I think "The Actor/Actress" is the upper-level for everyone. But P2-4 are unique.
Personality 1 is when an actor or actress has fully immersed themselves in a role. Most of the time you get nominated for awards, at least recognized for a job well done. My approximation is that this personality is at least 70% character and no more than 30% the individual. I think Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden is 85% Tyler and 15% Pitt. De Niro as LaMotta. Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Sean Penn in Milk.
Personality 2 is a strong blend of character and personality. Character still wins, but personality isn't totally consumed. If an actor is comical by nature, the comedic side is visible, but not overwhelming. Likewise, if the person is serious at heart, they bring more of this gravitas to the table.
Personality 3 allows the personality to take over a character. We'll go back to Robin Williams: In Night at the Museum Williams is playing Teddy Roosevelt, but the character is more Williams than 26th President of the United States.
Personality 4 pretty much discards with character. This isn't always a bad thing, especially when the person is interesting to watch. Example: Jerry Seinfeld was pretty much playing himself on Seinfeld. Some people may enjoy Nic Cage being cat shit crazy, I don't. I like when he's more Personality 1 (see Kick-Ass).
One personality isn't inherently better than the other (despite my having painted P1 as best and P4 as worst). We're satisfied when the personality resonates with the rest of the performances in the film, which includes that of the script, the director, and the other performers. We're disappointed when these elements reject one another.
For example: Sean Penn is like 100% Character in Milk. And it works because the film matches his dedication. In Zombieland, Jesse Eisenberg is very much Jesse Eisenberg (like 20% Character, 80% P). And that too works. He can be himself because the script suits him, the direction is good, and the rest of the cast turn in fine performances.
Then you have Shaq in Steel. That doesn't work. Evan Almighty (awful script, awful director, awful John Goodman, poor Steve Carell) doesn't work.
Personally: I enjoy Franco when in Personality 1 and 2. I don't care when he's in 3 or 4.
Did I like it?
I loved it. I was enthralled the entire time. The action is in the last half hour. So the majority of the film is character and plot development. I found Caesar one of the most fascinating on-screen presences I've ever had the pleasure to watch. Critics keep talking about pacing issues. I thought the plot moved at a fine rate, each scene developing or concluding an arc, a solid 40mph, with the simian revolt eventually breaking the speed limit.
Rise has a scene I believe will become famous/iconic. When it happened, I got goosebumps and audibly gasped, as did at least 20 other people in the theater. I thought: wow, I just saw something special.
I get the complaints about one-dimensional human characters. I noticed it, but I didn't think it detracted at all from the main story.
I would recommend it to pretty much everyone. Unless you hate chimpanzees? Or don't like movies. Or something about the notion of apes as humans bothers you due to religious beliefs.
I wish Freida Pinto would have had more to do. And I've dogged on JF in this inquiry. Would I replace him? I don't know. I don't know who with. No one comes to mind.
What It's Good For:
-fascinating character development
-excellent build-up of plot
-some great shots
-for guys and girls
-raising awareness about Project Nim
-one-dimensional human characters
-Franco mails it in
-if you don't think evolution is a thing and the idea of apes acting like humans bothers you, well...
% Character / % Actor's personality
Corliss's review: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2086913,00.htmlweeblylink_new_window
Weta digital: http://www.wetafx.co.nz/features/weeblylink_new_window
Wyatt: The Escapist
Pinto: Slumdog Millionaire
Serkin: Lord of the Rings, King Kon
Planet of the Apes: the 1968 original (that this is sort of a prequel to)(not the reboot), Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escapre from the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Primates: Gorillas in the Mist, and Mighty Joe Young (1958)
LaMotta: Raging Bull