Saturday, July 30, 2011

rise of the planet of the apes

While I was stoked to get invited to an advance screening of the new Apes movie, and was jumping around like a kid at the zoo waiting to see it this afternoon, we really have to get past the most pointed flaw in this movie, don’t we? I mean, seriously, repetition doesn’t have a place in the titles of well-crafted big-budget movies. Using “of the” twice in one title is overkill. I understand it gets to the point—everyone knows exactly where this movie is going—but really, they couldn’t spare a few thousand dollars of the budget to get a bunch of eight-year-olds to think up a cooler simian title? It could have been called something like MONKEYS ARE EXCELLENT or AN ACTION MOVIE WITH AN AWESOME LACK OF KISSING SCENES or APES R BETTER THAN BEN 10 ARE NOT ARE TOO or something equally lengthy that doesn’t become boring halfway through saying it.

Beyond the title, which I should probably shut up about, is a well-crafted movie that—like all prequels—has an ending you know is coming as long as you know there’s a movie out there called Planet of the Apes. Still despite you knowing the Titanic is going to sink it remains a relentlessly tense and thrilling action movie. Young neurologist Will (James Franco) is desperate to find a cure for the Alzheimer’s that his father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from, and has a breakthrough with the drugs he is working on at the lab. One mistake leads to all the chimps that have been experimented on to be put down, bar one tiny baby chimp Will takes home and names Caesar (Andy Serkis with some help from the SFX team). Caesar, after inheriting his mother’s altered genes from the powerful drug, grows big and smart, until he becomes too damn big and smart for his own good and is banished to an animal sanctuary, where he finally has a meet and greet with some other simians.

This movie is a four-star ape movie and a two-and-a-half-star human movie, making it meet somewhere in the middle and be average-to-good. The ape scenes, especially when Caesar winds up in the animal sanctuary to be tormented by Dodge (an aptly-named and stereotyped Tom Felton, aka Harry Potter’s Malfoy), are fantastic in scope: with the limits of no dialogue, director Rupert Wyatt still makes you understand the dynamics of the relationships. While the humans also have their emotions—Will’s care and distress for his father is honest but necessarily short—his blossoming relationship with zoo doctor Caroline (Freida Pinto) has very little drama and his arguments with boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) over the development of the drug are fairly superficial.

Apes is Serkis’s—or Caesar’s—movie, and he glows every time he is on-screen. I did feel that he was often accompanied by dramatic music that wasn’t always necessary but left me in a state of heightened anxiety. Not knowing his own strength, or that he is different from the humans he is desperate to play with, he is frequently in danger or putting others in danger and I was so tense that I often let out little shrieks and spend half the movie with my hand over my mouth like a perfect little emotive audience member. This strain did mean that the payoff—namely a certain scene with a recognisable phrase and the perfect response—was downright exhilarating, to the point where the audience let out cheers and applause and even I joined in, though I usually think that’s a bit corny. It was sweet release, and changed the tone of the movie to the point of no return.

From an animal rights perspective, it’s a painful and depressing movie to watch. The reactions of virtually all the humans to the conditions of the apes is disappointing and there is never a moment where they fall to their knees moaning “Why did we treat such beautiful animals like this?” While Will is painted as the humanoid hero, he still keeps Caesar in his own home for his own selfish reasons, and never bats an eye at the other apes who are locked in sterile glass cages at his workplace. It makes for a strange juxtaposition when the animal sanctuary, where Dodge actively harms the animals, still seem much more fun, because at least Caesar is able to make some new pals and jump around on a tree, and none are experimented on.

Altogether, it makes for a frustrating though understandable viewpoint where you’re not sure who to root for. The humans mostly seem like a pack of selfish brats, except for the sadly declining Charles, and Caroline, who does not have much to say until she says of Charles’s illness, “Some things aren’t meant to be changed”, though I doubt many people in the audience feel that the cure for Alzheimer’s is worthless. But it’s also tricky to be on the side of the apes and their monkey associates, who are strong, kind of scary and a touch violent even despite Caesar’s best efforts to reign them in, and, well, become fascist slave-drivers. By the end, all you can definitively hope for is that the car park won’t be too full on the way out.

The effects are fantastic but not perfect—a few scenes are flawed, but I could count them on one hand, and that’s not bad for a movie where humans and special effects are interacting so frequently. It of course helped that the apes were played by people (it also made me feel better as a super-vegetarian to know no animals were harmed in the making of this movie), which meant they were physically present—the flaws were mostly in fully-digitised scenes, but aren’t noticeable unless you’re horribly critical like I am and trying to disassociate from such an ultimately depressing movie.

It is hard to remove my own strong emotions about animal care from the movie itself, and the fact that no human wanted to campaign for general increased ape care left me feeling a bit cold towards them. It means that my opinion of the film is clouded by this, and if I was a better reviewer I would cast them aside and be a erased blackboard of emotions. But it’s a grim movie. Apes’ very infrequent moments of humour are so vastly spaced that it almost seemed redundant to have them; more generally humorous but actually quite devastating is the idea of Will’s poor neighbour being the unluckiest man in the world.

I do sound critical of what is really a very good blockbuster movie with all the right elements—cracking pace, heart-attack-worthy action, some mindless city destruction, a hilarious orang-utan. The material ultimately made it hard for me to enjoy because I spent so much time being sad. There are some cheesy plot-points, like death scenes at the most coincidentally poignant of times (and one character surviving a fiery blast long enough to sigh, unsinged, and die in someone’s arms); there are red herring moments never explored; the above mindless destruction is a tad unwarranted and the human damage goes unmentioned. But with the scenes at the animal sanctuary so amazing, it almost doesn’t matter.

Go see The Rise of The Etc and let me know what you think. I am especially interested to hear if anyone else agrees it’s the prequel not only to Planet of the Apes but also to 12 Monkeys, depending on what mood you’re in for a movie marathon that day. Also, while there’s no curse words and limited blood, I spent so much of the movie clutching at Chris’s hand that I still wouldn’t recommend it for kids, unless you want them to have monkey-based nightmares for eternity. And hey, if you’re that type of parent, more power to you.

’s arbitrary score: two out of three bananas.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Thanks to the lovely folk at MIFF, I scored a few free tickets to the films of my choice, the first of which was always going to be Submarine. (I’m also seeing Norwegian film Troll Hunter, and forked out myself to go see Miranda July’s The Future, and am still tempted by others—Hobo with a Shotgun, who could resist?) Submarine was high on my list for many reasons: it’s directed by Richard Ayoade, otherwise known as Moss from the almost-perfect television show The IT Crowd; it’s getting great reviews; and, most importantly, I’d read the book as a brightly-illustrated reading copy when it first came out and just about fell to pieces reading it. It was ridiculously, unfairly funny and brilliant, and—better yet—when I wrote some fanmail to author Joe Dunthorne about it via facebook (thanks, social media), he even replied. I won’t tell you what I wrote to him, because looking back three years later it is actually incredibly cringeworthy, but just know it involved the story that I read the book with my hand over my mouth on the tram so no one could see my permanent smirky grin. His reply was short, sweet, and very kind, and thus I am a diehard Submarine fan 4eva, and you should all go read it immediately.

Onto the movie itself: relentlessly funny from the first scene, Submarine is pitch-perfect from cast to script, a joyous few hours punctuated by serious moments but always teetering on the edge of comedy. Fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts, also in the current Fassbender-filled Jane Eyre) is a high-school kid smarter than your average adolescent, who searches the dictionary for new words to learn, tries not to get involved in his gangly friend Chips’ (Darren Evans) schoolboy shenanigans, but who is willing to do anything to impress the girl of his dreams, the realistically crushable Jordana (Yasmin Paige). Back at home, the relationship between his parents (Happy-Go-Lucky’s Sally Hawkins and our very own Noah Taylor) is stagnating, as they mope around the house in neutral colours having awkward conversations. Oliver’s perfect world would be made up of Jordana as his girlfriend and lover—so he can lose his virginity before he turns sixteen—and his parents also back to the saucy days of yore when the dimmer switch in their bedroom would be set to half instead of full. Damaging his chances are his own personality—the scene where he tries to seduce a cynical Jordana is fall-on-the-floor hilarious—and the arrival of an old love interest of his mother’s, the mulleted and spiritually alight Graham (Paddy Considine).

Every scene is injected with humour, even the most serious. Somehow this doesn’t make the movie’s darker moments superficial, but just realistic: the ridiculousness of life doesn’t stop just because things are going horribly wrong. Oliver’s narration of the story makes the whole film very self-aware but his naivety is more endearing than painful. When, at the beginning, he imagines his death and the mourning of everyone he knows—up to and including the entire country of Wales—a television announcer declares “We are witnessing unprecedented scenes of quiet devastation”, and we know we are in the mind of a typically atypical teenager, worried about his place in the world and the lack of control he has within it.

The music and sound is wonderful, indie-quirky while still convincing you that you’re in the eighties setting of the film. Music is cut off abruptly for dramatic effect and the crescendo of sound at important moments, like Oliver and Jordana’s first blackmail-induced smooch underneath a railway bridge, packs just as much punch as your first kiss probably did. I am going to investigate the soundtrack further. The muted colours of Oliver’s home life contrast perfectly with the splash of red that is Jordana and her favourite coat, and the mystical colour explosion that is Graham. It is a well put-together film, nothing detracting from what is essentially a character piece where all the characters are agreeably quirky and slightly horrible.

The high level of quirkiness, the independent vibe, and the lovestruck teen are things you may have encountered before in film; Chris compared it to Rushmore, but I couldn’t help but compare it to the book. Anything it does differently from the book makes perfect sense cinematically, but still, changes in the original intellectual property can’t help but grate when you loved the original as much as I did. It is probably better to see this without having read the book, so everyone’s zany little moments are shining new. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t love it—Submarine is one of the best comedies of the year, and when it (hopefully) makes general release, please go see it. And tell Joe Dunthorne I sent you. (No, don’t.)

Really, how I have written such a serious review for such a funny movie is beyond me. Maybe I have given up in the face of clearly superior talent. Ayoade and Dunthorne, I salute and love you and if need be am available for marriage and/or a short affair in the back of your van.

Monday, July 18, 2011

mr popper's penguins

Just as I was old enough to go to the movies without my folks, Jim Carrey and his rubbery face were in the most quotable movies around: Mask, Ace Ventura. “Smokin’.” “Somebody stop me.” “All righty then”. (And don’t pretend you haven’t said those out loud, readership.) Shortly after those films came Liar Liar, starring Carrey as Fletcher Reede, a man who, as a lawyer, lies for a living, and as a man, has disappointed his estranged wife and fluffy-haired by numerous lies. The disappointed son, angry at his father, one day wishes that his dad could never tell a lie. And it comes true, Fletcher can’t lie, an hour and a half later we’ve all learned a lesson about being a good person and father and how even in the workplace honesty is the best policy and so on.

In Mr Popper’s Penguins, Carrey plays Tom Popper, a man who manipulates people into selling real estate, and who has disappointed his estranged wife and two children by being a PG-level schmuck. After the death of his father, he finds himself in ownership of six penguins, and lies to his son about being able to keep them. Thus, he has to deal with six wacky penguins, and an hour and a half later we’ve all learned a lesson about being a good person and father and how even in the workplace honesty is the best policy and so on.

But hey, I liked Liar Liar, and I enjoyed Mr Popper’s Penguins. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the poster. Popper’s life is turned upside-down by taking care of these penguins, little special-effects stars he starts off hating but inevitably becomes attached to. His precise and perfect home becomes an icy palace. His kids, who previously found him boring, want to hang out. His wife sees a new side to him. But his work life suffers, especially when he’s inches from a promotion and all he needs to do is get a certain piece of property owned by the shrewd Mrs Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury). Helping his career is his assistant, Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who speaks alliteratively in Ps throughout the entire movie, which is somehow positively precious instead of painful.

It’s a pretty ridiculous movie, not helped by the fact that the villain is a man who works at the zoo and has the entirely reasonable view that penguins would be safer and better cared for by professionals in a penguin enclosure than a businessman in a high-rise apartment. While it makes sense in a kids movie—someone wants to take away the hero
s illegal pets that he loves!—as an adult it’s ridiculous that he even gets himself in this situation in the first place by keeping them more than one day, and that his spouse Amanda (Carla Gugino) encourages it, unless she does it to be vindictive.

Despite all that, and all the poop/fart jokes, it was an entertaining hour and a half and I didn’t regret my time in the cinema at all. The stacks of kids in the theatre were very well behaved and took their cues well (“uh oh” said the girl behind me at one pertinent moment) and, you know what, Carrey is still very funny, even when he is being more Carrey than the character (doing a slow-motion run into the final scene, for example.) There were some good lines, I laughed, I had fun, I would take kids there—especially when there is never any violent danger, just the wholesome kidnapping kind. There’s lots of slipping and falling and Carrey gets hit in the nuts with a soccer ball. It’s not mature. But it’s not supposed to be. And it’s perfectly serviceable fare for all involved.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

the tree of life

I’m going to do my best not to spoil any part of this movie for you but I feel that more people should be prepared for what happens in Tree of Life. Because I wasn’t prepared, and I spent far too much of this movie sputtering in confusion when I probably should have been sighing melodramatically, or continuously weeping like the lady in the row front of us.

So. First of all you get some kind of very beautiful wafting thing, which I thought might be a womb, but was probably God, or something. Whatever it is, it puts you in the state you should adhere to for the rest of the film, i.e. meaningful silence and awkwardness when it comes to crunching on food/sucking on your Coke straw. Then you get a sad scene where a mother (the very beautiful Jessica Chastain) finds out some bad news and tells her spouse (a terrifying bespectacled and Brylcreemed Brad Pitt), and then suddenly you are in the middle of a thirty-minute documentary about the Big Bang and Earth’s most amazing visual moments. I mean, I started laughing a bit because it came out of left field, but without the element of surprise, it really is just worth sitting back and appreciating the hands-down beautiful scenes in front of you, occasionally accompanied by some overly emotive opera. Then, eventually, just as you get to the part in Earth’s formation where the dinosaurs are wiped out (yes, you will see dinosaurs, may as well brace yourself for that too), you are catapulted back into the present, where a man named Jack (Sean Penn, basically pointless) sulks around the place thinking about a family tragedy and is accompanied by a slew of visually dramatic moments that are like being hit in the face with a poignancy bat (like a cricket bat, but harder). Finally, you are taken back through Jack’s memories and hang out with him in the 50s (though with Sean Penn only 40something himself it really should have been set in the 70s to make any chronological sense) as adolescent Jack deals with the loss of childhood innocence with his family, including his folks, the aforementioned Chastain/Pitt pairing. Then you end on what is either the crew wrap party or some emotional and spiritual finale. It was boring, anyway.

The trouble is, Tree of Life isn’t an altogether terrible movie. It’s just that it’s too many types of movies. I will say in all honesty it’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time: the cinematography is magical, the scenes all heavy with pathos, and atmosphere—both in emotion and temperature—is almost perfectly conveyed. The problem is that director Terrence Malick is so proud of his undeniable talent that I imagine he must have wandered around the set in a suit made of solid gold yelling, “More! MORE METAPHORS! THE AUDIENCE IS NOT SAD ENOUGH!” because god damn if I wasn’t just sick of being emotionally manipulated by the end of it. The camera lingers on pools of water. It lingers on dinosaurs showing empathy. It lingers on everyone’s faces and clothes and grass. This is why the movie goes for two and a half hours. It malingers.

Not to mention the movie takes forever to even become a movie: the first half-hour or so is spent in jerking, poignant moments in time, edited like a trailer and never quite focussing on anyone in particular: just their shadow, or the backs of their heads, or an inch of their skin. It’s an interesting cinematic technique, no doubt, but it goes on longer than such an approach should and becomes tedious.

What is even more frustrating—and probably doesn’t come through at all in this sulky review—is that it could have been edited and adjusted into a four-star movie. The scenes in Jack’s memory as he interacts with his family are wonderful. Anyone who has had a parent, spouse, sibling or child would be able to relate to some of the moments, cliché though they are: running under a sprinkler, chasing your mother around the house with a lizard, doing shadow puppets with your hands using a torch and a sheet. Even if those moments were never yours, they still shimmer with childhood beauty and ruin, and feel universal.

In case Tree of Life is not layered enough already, it’s also lesson in Freudian psychology. The boys’ mother, Mrs O’Brien, is a perfect angel, there for her children in touch and care, but subservient to her husband. Mr O’Brien is an aggressor who teaches the boys that fighting is A-OK but smiling at the dinner table is certainly not. He is rough with them every time he touches them, while she is gentle. There’s even a disturbing Oedipal moment or two and a part where Jack yells at his father “You want to kill me!” To be honest, the family moments are not particularly original—you’ll have seen kids shoot cap guns and a loved-up couple smile at each other on a picnic blanket in about ten thousand other movies—but despite that, I really enjoyed the scenes, even though there is a certain amount of tension lost in the fact you know in advance how their story ends.

Really, there is a lot to ridicule in Tree of Life. Sean Penn, as the grown Jack, is completely redundant—if someone can tell me the point of him then I’d love to hear it. The religious aspect is tiring by the end. But there’s a lot to love, too: the 50s are rendered perfectly and Jessica Chastain’s wardrobe would cause me to roll her if I ran into her down at Ringwood Station. It is measured and understated at times. And then at others it’s so exhaustingly overbearing I just wanted to groan, if I was game to make a sound.

I don’t know if this review makes any sense. It’s hard when the movie itself is so confused about what it’s trying to say. I’ll probably read this tomorrow and wish I had just shut up, or done something Twitter-length like: “#treeoflife is a slice of life of human existence that is devoid entirely of humour, an almost impressive feat. Buy the dvd and FF through the crap bits to make a great short film.” But oh well. I’m not known for my ability to shut up.