Sunday, 12 October 2014

What Have We Done To Each Other? What Will We Do?: "Gone Girl"





Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead


Throughout his career David Fincher has been attracted to stories that begin as straightforward thrillers but then become something more existential and haunting. Se7en and Zodiac aren’t just police procedurals about the hunt for serial killers. Se7en explores themes of confronting a force of evil beyond human imagination and whether it’s worth fighting for good in an apathetic world. Zodiac is about the affect the Zodiac killer's crimes had on the American psyche and how the search for his identity became a self-destructive obsession for one man. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo- another film about a serial killer- is a character study of Lisbeth Salander- someone who’s a genius hacker but is socially maladjusted. And Gone Girl, Fincher’s 10th film- based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also penned the screenplay- starts out as a missing person/murder mystery but transforms in to a story about perception and identity- media perception, the way people in a marriage view each other and who they pretend to be. I don’t think Gone Girl reaches the heights of Zodiac but it’s an involving, expertly paced and strongly acted film. The film blends the pulp with the prestige, making it an adult drama that’s also very entertaining.


It’s difficult to explore what Gone Girl is about without divulging its central twist. So, I’ll give you the basic set up and then jump to the spoilery parts of the story. The initial premise is that on the fifth anniversary of their marriage, Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing and Nick soon becomes a suspect. Nick is not arrested and he does have the support of his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens); but he becomes guilty in the court of public opinion. A sensationalistic media personality in the style of Nancy Grace named Ellie Abbot (Missi Pyle), is also out to crucify Nick. Part of the reason why Amy’s disappearance becomes a big news story is because she was the basis for a series of children’s books written by her parents. These books are exaggerations of Amy’s own life and “Amazing Amy” succeeds whenever Amy fails.  


Okay, now I’m going to enter spoiler territory. I’ll give a little space to allow you an opportunity to leave if you haven’t seen the film yet.












Around the midpoint of the film it’s revealed that Amy is still alive. She faked her death to get revenge on Nick for his adultery. Nick was having an affair with Andie Fitzgerald (Emily Ratajkowski).  Andie is  a former student of Nick's (he lost his job after the recession). Throughout the early parts of the film- similar to the novel- we hear Amy’s narration as she writes in her diary, recounting her marriage to Nick and the supposed violence he inflicted on her one night. We then realize that the Amy we thought we knew is as much a construct as Amazing Amy. When it’s revealed that Amy is alive, we hear a monologue about the “Cool Girl” myth. A Cool Girl is someone who likes all the things a man does. But as Amy says, this Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She’s just pretending to be something she's not to win over a man. Through the character of Amy the film explores the allusiveness of identity, how carefully constructed an external identity can be. Even with Amy’s narration, we’re never explicitly told how Amy became the way she is. She’s an enigma, one that can never be solved.


It’s a difficult role to play and Pike plays it remarkably, showing us the ways in which Amy changes her identity and manipulates others, including her former boyfriend Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris). Pike has been on the edge of stardom since her turn as femme fatale Miranda Frost in Pierce Brosnan’s final James Bond film Die Another Day. She’s been a reliable supporting actress for ages but I think her performance as Amy is what will make her a major actress in the coming years. What I admire most about the performance is despite Amy’s cruelty I never disliked her. There’s almost something admirable about how methodical and cunning she is. Flynn was very bold when she constructed the Amy character, particularly when we’re led astray about her in the early parts of the story. As I mentioned earlier, Fincher is interested in digging deeper beyond genre tropes. Amy isn’t just the archetypal femme fatale. She’s a messier, more challenging character.


On the other side of things, I think Affleck is perfectly cast as Nick, in what may be his most autobiographical role to date. Affleck has never been accused of murder or kidnapping. But heknows how harsh media public and perception can be; how difficult it is to win people over once they’ve made up their minds about you. Despite Affleck’s success, including a major comeback after the Gigli debacle; and reinventing himself as an acclaimed filmmaker, you only have to look at the reaction to his casting as Batman in the Batman vs. Superman to see his name still carries negative connotations. The most fascinating sections of the film- to me at least- where the scenes in which Nick attempts to win people over to his side. It all comes down to saying the right words in the right way. When he discovers that Amy is alive he enlists the help of attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).


Gone Girl was shot by Jeff Cronenweth- who also photographed Fincher’s Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In the opening scenes I didn’t think Gone Girl felt like a David Fincher film. But as we see glimpses of the past via Amy’s narration and more scenes set at night- including a gorgeous reminiscence by Amy about seeing Nick with Andie, set during a snowy evening- the film becomes as distinctly Finchery as the other Cronenweth photographed Fincher films. 

Fincher even in his first film, the compromised Alien 3, has always been a strong visual stylist, creating distinct worlds that seem to swallow us- and the characters-whole. There’s a murder scene here that’s- even if you’ve read the novel-more shocking and violent then most modern horror films. Fincher is also arguably the most precise filmmaker, in terms of composition and camera movement, since the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. In my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I mentioned that Fincher was maybe too restrained for such pulpy material. But it's Fincher restraint that works here. Fincher communicates the absurd humour of the book's premise but is also to make the film play like an authentic drama 


The preciseness of Fincher's films doesn’t just come from his camera work. It's also a result of whom he picks as his editor. Kirk Baxter- who won back to back editing Oscars for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall- does a masterful job of making the sections of the film narrated by Amy feel fluid and organic, taking a literary device and making it work cinematically. The montage in which we see Amy devising her plan, with her narration playing over it, is some of the best work Baxter has done for Fincher. Despite being close to 2 ½ hours, I didn’t feel the film dragged or anything was rushed, except for the ending which needed a few more minutes to bring its themes home. But I think that’s more of a writing issue then an editing one.


Speaking of the writing, Flynn does an impressive job of adapting her own novel. While there were certain elements- including a subplot involving Nick and Margo’s Alzheimer’s stricken father- that I feel should of been fleshed out more, Flynn is able to get across the major themes of the story and creates a compact retelling of her intricate novel.


Coming back to Fincher, not only is he a meticulous technician, but he also has a keen eye for casting. Aside from Affleck and Pike, the crucial supporting roles are filled by actors who may not have been another directors’ first choice. I haven’t seen any of Perry’s Madea films but I think Perry shows a new side of himself here. He’s convincing as a charismatic lawyer who knows how to sell people an image.  Kim Dickens brings a certain low key Southern charm and intelligence to the role of detective Boney. And Patrick Fugit (from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) conveys lot in an almost wordless performance as officer Jim Gilpin, sceptical of Nick's innocence. Carrie Coon- who is mostly known as a stage actress- makes an impressive film debut. While Coon’s doesn’t look like Affleck’s twin sister, from her first scene she’s totally believable as someone’s sister. Coon makes Margo someone both stern and caring. She loves her brother but isn’t afraid to point out Nick’s screw ups. Neil Patrick Harris, known for his comedic chops, nicely plays Desi’s creepiness just above the surface. I did feel that Ratajkowski as Andie came across as a plot device rather than a fully realized character.


Some will dismiss this film as ridiculous nonsense, and will wonder why Fincher is wasting his time directing an adaptation of an “airport novel.” Gone Girl isn’t a completely realistic story and does have some trashy elements. But if you get beyond the surface level plot mechanics, the film does have something to say about marriage and creates a complex portrayal of a toxic relationship in the form of Nick and Amy. Amy comes back to Nick when she realizes he’s finally become the man she wanted him to be. Amy tells Nick that the only time he really liked himself was when he was attempting to be someone Amy would like. There’s something truthful- regardless of what you think of Amy- in that statement. We constantly try to be someone else to win peoples' affection. Nick can’t win the public over unless he manipulates them. And Nick eventually decides to pretend- for what may be the rest of his life- that he and Amy are happy together. Gone Girl isn’t just about how people perceive each other; it’s also about how we create those very perceptions, in both conscious and unconscious ways. It then leaves us with an important question: Once we create those perceptions, how do we escape them?    

Friday, 26 September 2014

Good Job: "Whiplash"



Mild Spoilers


It’s rare that a film leaves me as emotionally drained and left with a genuine sense of “wow” as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which I saw at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax. I don’t know if Whiplash is a great film but there’s no doubt in my mind it's a visceral experience that stayed with me hours after the film ended. If you still believe that films can shock and hit you right in the stomach, then go see this film when it’s released  this October.


Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan who becomes a player in the studio band run by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). But Fletcher isn’t merely a conductor. He’s a tyrant who pushes his students beyond their limits, verbally abusing them and even threatening physical violence . Andrew is soon caught in a whirlpool of obsession. An obsession with greatness, whatever the cost.


Not since R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has an authority figure been portrayed with such terrifying conviction. And Simmons truly is terrifying in this film. You don’t want to be in a room with this guy when he explodes. And even when he’s not verbally abusing his student, he’s so intimidating that the film becomes more suspenseful than most thrillers. Even if the scenario of a music teacher essentially being a drill sergeant isn’t completely believable, I always believe Simmons.


In movies like this the bigger performance gets most of the attention. And while Simmons deserves his praise, Teller is also worthy of notice. In certain ways Teller has the more difficult role to play, needing to balance being a sympathetic protagonist and displaying Andrew’s crueler side. He breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he believes she’s preventing him from achieving greatness. And when he does call off the relationship he does so with so remorse. He’s also quite arrogant at a dinner get together with his family. Teller plays both sides of the character very well. I never hated Andrew but I didn’t always like him either. What I admire about the film is the dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher isn't black and white. Fletcher is black but Andrew is a shade of grey. 

While these two men feel opposed on the film’s surface I think both Andrew and Fletcher need each other in a twisted kind of way. Andrew wants to be broken down an built back up by Fletcher. And Fletcher wants Andrew to be thick skinned enough to prove Fletcher’s philosophy- which he lays out near the film’s end- that "[t]here are no  two words in the  English language more harmful than 'good job.'" The only way to truly be great is if someone viscously criticizes you. Fletcher recounts how Charlie "Bird" Parker had a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones after messing up while playing with Jones. In Fletcher's view if that  incident never happened Parker never would have become a legendary sax player. Even Andrew believes that Parker dying at 34 doesn't matter since Parker is still remembered for achievements.


The film takes on a “art imitates life” quality. Not only is the film is about pushing artists to the edge but Simmons and Teller had to sweat blood to make this film. Simmons has never been as ferocious as he is here and Teller gives a physically draining performance. Teller was already a drummer before shooting this film. There are sequences where Fletcher is driving Andrew to perfect his drumming. In these sequences Teller is committed to making the audience feel Andrew's exhaustion. Credit also goes to Teller’s stunt man and drumming instructor for performing some of the drumming.


While the film is very much about the two central performances, Chazelle’s direction and Tom Cross’ editing are also stellar. The climatic musical performance is cut to perfection and Chazelle makes us feel the sweat and drive of performance. Sharone Meir’s cinematography places the film in between reality and some kind of nightmare. And even though we don’t see much of the city in this film there’s something very “New York” about that brown and shadowy music room. It instantly reminds us of those images and sounds of the jazz greats. And those great artists populate the soundtrack as well.


There are some issues with the film however. Andrew’s relationship with Nicole it didn’t develop enough before Andrew breaks it off. I like Benoist’s natural and sweet performance but I wonder if the film needed the subplot at all. There are also moments when Fletcher comes across as too one-note of a character. Even a scene where Fletcher mourns over a former student- in retrospect after a certain plot point- feels like just another way for Fletcher to manipulate his students. But maybe the film is stronger because Fletcher is such an absolute and unrelenting character. I think that people will feel the film takes Fletcher’s side and believes in his ideology. I can’t speak for Chazelle- who also wrote the screenplay, based on his short film- and what he believes. I do think that Andrew eventually sides with Fletcher’s philosophy, even though he questions it. I like that the film is bold enough not to say “It’s okay. We don’t agree with what this guy believes.” It ends on a darker note, a perverted take on the inspirational final music performance we would see in another film.


Despite certain issues Whiplash is an expertly orchestrated film. Like a great musical performance it knows how to build and slow down. It  completely washed over me. Whatever you think of Fletcher’s ideology- and whether the film agrees with him- the film itself achieves a kind of transcendence that we rarely see in movies these days.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Some Brief Thoughts on the "Shutter Island" and "Minority Report" TV Series.



I remember when a common trope in Hollywood was to adapt classic TV series for the big screen. Now it appears we’re entering a period where more movies will be adapted for TV. Just recently the adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (which they executive produced) was met with critical acclaim. Just this past week two new movies inspired- TV series were announced; and both have the respective directors of those films as part of the series.

Steven Spielberg is developing a series based on his 2002 film Minority Report. The film starred Tom Cruise as a police officer in a distant future where people known as precogs can see murders before they happen.  Martin Scorsese is also set to direct a pilot for HBO based on his 2010 film Shutter Island, entitled Ashecliffe.  In the film Leonardo DiCaprio played a US Marshall in 1954 who is sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at Ashecliffe mental hospital . He then discovers not everything is what it seems and there may be a sinister conspiracy against him. The series will explore the origins of Ashecliffe in the early 20th Century. The pilot will be scripted by Dennis Lehane, who authored the book upon which the film was based.




It’s not surprising we’re getting more films adapted in TV series.  We’re living in a second Golden Age of Television. TV is the now the place where talented artists experiment in dense and nuanced long form storytelling. Instead of a sequel or remake for the big screen, it’s now a option to explore of a film world’s mythology through TV.  

Full disclosure: I love Shutter Island and it’s actually a favourite film of mine. I also like Lehane’s original novel. The fact that both he and Scorsese are involved in this project lends it certain amount of legitimacy. I loved how Scorsese visualized that film so seeing him return to that world is a big deal for me. I’m intrigued by the idea of exploring how mental institutions were run in the early parts of the 20th Century, when mental illness and how to treat it wasn’t completely understood. I think we’re looking at a potentially compelling psychological horror/period piece series.



However, I’m still scratching my head over how they’ll approach making Minority Report in to a series. I don’t think it can be a sequel to the film- since the film ended with the government not using precogs anymore- unless the series wanted to explore how Washington’s police force- the only  city where the “Pre-crime Unit” operated- went about adjusting to investigating murders and other crimes without the use of precogs. Maybe it’ll also go the prequel route- maybe they’ll recast the role of Chief John Anderton. They could also go the Prometheus route, with the series taking place in the same universe but telling a different kind of story. Spielberg’s involvement- similar to Scorsese and Lehane’s with Ashecliffe- does lend the project some legitimacy. And ideally, once we learn more details about the show’s premise, it'll make perfect sense how the film’s mythology will work as a TV series.


Both these projects, based on films I admire, are definitely ones which to look forward. The internal mythologies of both Minority Report and Shutter Island provide potential for intriguing science fiction and horror story telling. Count me in for both series.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

I Thought We Had A Chance: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"








Warning: This article discusses Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in depth, so don't read until you've seen the film.


Pierre Boulle wrote the novel Planet of the Apes in 1963. He created an absurd and ingenious vision of a planet where civilization had been turned upside down. On this alien planet apes- who drove cars and wore suits- ruled over primitive humans. The novel had depth but when it was adapted in to the classic 1968 film with Charlton Heston the story became a much darker allegory. In the novel the ape planet was an alien world light years from Earth. The film’s ending reveals that Heston’s astronaut George Taylor was on Earth along. He discovers the ruins of the statue of liberty on the shore. This image of the statue symbolizes mankind’s ultimate self-destruction. As the series progressed through four sequels the films became even bleaker and we found ourselves becoming emotionally invested in the ape characters. The mythology also deepened and expanded, eventually becoming a circular tale via time travel.


In 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes we're no longer merely in the realm of the absurd. Instead we’re treated with a world that feels remarkably real and emotionally immediate. These films lean toward a more realistic take on the mythology, which isn’t too surprising given Hollywood’s tendency to “ground” certain genre properties nowadays. But thankfully these two films aren’t self-consciously grim and gritty.  Even so, the Planet of the Apes series was never without its dark elements. Moreover- these two films are so distanced in the timeline from the world of the original film- that this tonal grounding doesn’t feel like posturing on behalf of the filmmakers.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does the mythology justice and succeeds as both a standalone film and a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn builds upon the foundation laid in its predecessor, both enriching the first film as well as using that foundation to tell a complex story about the quest for peace and the possibility of co-habitation between apes and humans. Rise was a re-working of the series fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn, in turn, reinterprets the final film in the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. On paper, using the fourth and fifth films in a franchise as the basis for a new starting point for a series seems odd. But in the case of Planet of the Apes, these films make sense in terms of re-starting the franchise. Taking influence from Conquest and Battle allows the new series to work both as a spiritual prequel to the original film as well as doing something different with this franchise rather than just re-visiting the initial concept.


Dawn takes place 10 years after the events of Rise. After the obligatory news broadcast opening, which details the spread of the simian flu- the result of scientific testing on apes in the pursuit of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s- we’re reintroduced to Caesar (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis)-the hyper intelligent ape around which the first film largely centred. Caesar now rules over a clan of apes in post-apocalyptic Earth.  I do love the opening scenes of the apes hunting food- which harkens back to apes hunting humans in the original film- then returning to their home, where we see them living a peaceful existence, no longer in fear of captivity. The apes are unsure that humanity even still exists but are soon made aware of human survivors.






They come in to the apes' forest, hoping to gain access to a dam that could provide power to the city in which many remaining humans live. The apes tell them to go away, which shocks the humans, since they didn't know the apes were capable of speech. Caesar and the apes follow the humans back to the city. Caesar states that apes don’t want war. He wishes for the humans to stay in their territory while the apes will stay in theirs. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) goes back to the forest in an attempt to persuade Caesar to allow them access to the dam. Caesar concedes but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) presents a threat; he still harbours hatred toward humans from his days being a guinea pig.




Caesar isn’t entirely a pacifist but he’s no war-monger either. He doesn’t want to go to war with humans, though Koba does. Caesar feels that by allowing the humans access to the dam he’s working in the best interests of his kind, avoiding any conflict that could get the apes killed. But it’s evident that Caesar has learned kindness and compassion from the noble humans he’s met. He also sees Malcolm is a good man and senses the humans are desperate.  


Caesar and Koba represent “two sides of the same coin.” Both were the result of testing by humans that made being super intelligent- and both were imprisoned by humans and treated with cruelty. But while Caesar knew love from his surrogate father, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) and Will's Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow), Koba never knew love from humans. When Caesar mentions that humans need to work on the dam Koba points to his numerous scars and repeats “Human. Work.” It’s this moment that encapsulates Koba’s back-story and his view on humanity. Caesar doesn’t completely trust humans but he’s left a lot of his bitterness behind, becoming a family man- married to Cornelia (a underused Judy Greer) and the father to both Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a new born ape. Koba is a complete lone wolf (or ape).


There’s almost something Shakespearean about the power play between Caesar and Koba. Like many characters in Shakespeare, including the kings, Caesar is brought down by someone he trusted. Akin to his namesake, Caesar has a Brutus, which is Koba. There’s even a silent “Et tu Brute?” between them. Koba shoots Caesar using a human gun and blames the supposed assassination on the humans, leading the apes in battle against the humans. Caesar “loved wisely but not well," to quote Othello. He tells Blue Eyes- after Koba has taken over the city- that he trusted Koba because he was an ape.

Caesar’s character arc through this film leads to the realization that apes can be as treacherous as humans. When Malcolm finds Caesar alive, Caesar has them stop at his former house. He views the video recording of Will teaching him sign language. Caesar and the audience are reminded in this scene of how far Caesar has come, from a baby to a revolutionary to a leader. I also think this video shows Caesar how the love he received from Will is what made him trust Malcolm. When Malcolm asks who was on the video Caesar simply tells him “A good man. Like you.” Malcolm and Caesar don’t have the same emotional connection as Will and Caesar but a mutual respect grows between them.



One element I found fascinating while thinking back on the film relates to its anti-gun message. While it’s Koba’s actions that lead to the mass violence in the story the film uses the image of a gun to represent the threat between ape and human peace.Caesar doesn’t want the humans to bring in guns. In one scene it’s discovered that Carver (Kirk Acevedo) has brought in a gun. This leads to tension after a charming moment between Ellie (Keri Russell) and Caesar and Cornelia’s baby. Koba uses a gun to frame the humans for Caesar’s death and manipulate the apes in to violence.

The anti-gun message stands out to me because Charlton Heston- the star of the original film- became infamous for being the president of the NRA in his late years. He famously declared “From my cold dead hands” in defense of the second amendment. While I won’t be as presumptuous as to say the film is an attack on Heston’s political views, it’s hard to imagine that the image Heston created for himself wasn’t in the back of the screenwriters’ minds. The issue of gun rights has arguably never been a more pressing issue in the States then it is now. The Apes films always commented on the state of the world during the 60s/70s. It only seems appropriate that the film would confront this particular issue.






While most blockbusters present violence and destruction as the only means to defeat evil, violence doesn’t solve anything in this film. Even when Koba is defeated his actions have led humans and apes to brink of war. Despite having some spectacular images of apes on horsebacks using machine guns (which to be fair is awesome) and a stunning action climax, Dawn is sincerely anti-violence. As in Battle the apes themselves even preach against violence against their own kind. main ape commandment is “ape shall never kill ape.” To be better than humans the apes must not murder each other like humans. Koba breaks this commandment when he kills Rocket’s son Ash, who won’t kill a human. Despite hating humans, Koba is not above killing apes if they stand in the way of destroying humanity. By killing an ape Koba shows that he's no better then the humans he despises. He's capable of the same treachery and murder of his own kind.
And as a leader, Koba is the opposite of Caesar, a tyrant.




Koba hangs on a edge at the film’s climax, after a fight between him and Caesar. He says to Caesar  “Ape shall never kill ape,” to which Caesar grabs his hand and then intones “You are not ape,” letting him fall, echoing Koba’s execution of Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) at the end of Rise.  By betraying the commandment Koba is no longer an ape. He’s a twisted version of an ape that needs to be let go. But while Koba dies he still gets what he wants, a war between apes and humans. The ending of the film is similar to that of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in that the heroes don’t really win. Caesar didn’t want a war but now he has to fight against humans if his kind is to survive. Just as how Batman had to take the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes to save Gotham's soul.

Malcolm tells Caesar he thought humans and apes had a chance to live peacefully together. Caesar replies that he did too, calling Malcolm his friend. This is an incredibly sad ending. Malcolm and Caesar parting ways represents the final breaking of apes and humans, the destroyed hope of peaceful co-habitation 



Similar to Rise, Dawn’s main flaw is the characterization regarding its human characters is a touch too thin. I really wish I got to know these people a little better. I do, however, like that the film allows these people to share very human moments. The characters as a result aren’t completely soulless. I like the parallel between Malcolm and Caesar being fathers who are attempting to get close to their sons. Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is still adjusting to his new step mom, the aforementioned Ellie. The film is very male dominated. The female characters- Ellie and Cornelia- have even less characterization than the males. Clarke makes a solid lead, showing both vulnerability and an inner strength. Russell does well with what little she’s given. Gary Oldman also does fine work as Dreyfus, the human leader. While Dreyfus could’ve been made in to a shallow human villain there’s an devastating moment where we learn what Dreyfus has lost.  

 
Matt Reeves takes over the director’s chair from Rise’s Rupert Wyatt. This is Reeves’ fourth film, following The Pallbearer, (1996) Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010), the remake of the Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008). Reeves is also known as the creator of the TV series Felicity (starring Russell.) Let Me In is the only previous directorial effort from Reeves that I had seen before this film. While that film strewed too close to the original, Reeves’ direction was elegant and his command of tone impressive. Reeves bring that same directorial elegance to this film. While there is plenty of action as the film progresses, Reeves doesn’t stage the action in an empty, bombastic fashion. The ape attack on the city has real dramatic weight and a conscious sense of  horror to it. A 360 degree shot on the top of a tank blends beauty and utter destruction majestically. This shot reminds me of the shot from Let Me In, in which we're in a car as it rolls over. Like Wyatt, Reeves favours build up to outright bombast. This is even more leisurely paced in some ways than Rise was. But I like how the film is more interested in story-telling and atmosphere then it is in set pieces.







The motion capture work in the previous film was impressive but it feels like it’s on another level here. Serkis has revolutionized film acting over the last decade. His work as Gollum changed how we thought about CGI characters on film. His work on Caesar is even more nuanced and emotional. To me Caesar feels as real any modern film character and it’s been amazing witnessing his journey as a character over these two films. Kebbell also deserves props for making Koba a haunted antagonist, a character whose evil masks their own hatred and bitterness. Koba is an incredibly tragic character who’s as important to this film as Caesar.



I don’t want to oversell Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but I think Hollywood would be in better shape if more blockbuster type films were like this. In its strongest moments it comes as close to an artistic vision we’ve seen in a franchise tent pole this summer. Rise and Dawn show that franchise films don’t have to be completely corporate mandated and soulless- that there’s potential to create compelling stories using a familiar brand. Both RIse and Dawn have redefined- for me at least- how I view this franchise and what it’s capable of artistically. And I'm excited to see where the series goes next.   


Sunday, 13 July 2014

"A Planet Where Apes Evolved From Men?:" A Look Back at the Original Planet of the Apes Series






Spoiler Warning: This retrospective will be discussing specific plot points from the five original Planet of the Apes films.


The Planet of the Apes franchise is one of the most audacious, bizarre, bold and bleak film series of the 20th century. Released between 1968 and 1973 the original five films took an allegorical look at the social and political issues that America confronted during this time, such as racism, war, and the fear of nuclear war. As opposed to the James Bond franchise, Planet of the Apes wasn’t merely escapism. They were high entertainment that also presented its audience with cautionary tales about the future of civilization.

 

The idea of a planet on which apes were the dominant species and humans the primitive creatures sprang from the imagination of French novelist Pierre Boulle. Boulle had previously written the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, which became the Oscar winning film from David Lean in 1957. Boulle wrote Planet of the Apes in 1963. The novel-while somewhat overshadowed by the film franchise- is a brilliant piece of science fiction that should be read by all fans of the genre. It's narrated by Ulysse Merou, a journalist who takes part in a space journey with Professor Antelle and a physician named Arthur Levain. They land on a planet much like earth, which they name Soror. They realize the planet is dominated by intelligent apes who enslave humans. Levain is killed and Antelle becomes animal-like while locked in a zoo. Unlike the other humans on the planet Ulysse can speak. He shacks up with a woman named Nova and becomes friends with Zira, an animal psychologist, and her archeologist finance, Cornelius. 



In 1968 a film version of Boulle's novel was released. And after nearly 50 years Planet of the Apes is still the definitive film of this franchise. The film stars Charlton Heston as George Taylor, an astronaut on an unspecified mission with three others: two men- Dodge and Landon (Jeff Burton and Robert Gunner), and a woman named Stewart (Dianne Stanley, un-credited). The film opens with Taylor recording a message in which he says their ship is travelling at the speed of light. Even though they have been away from the Earth for only several months (their time) the Earth has aged hundreds of years.

 

Taylor goes in to hibernation with the rest of the crew and after the title sequence the ship crashes on an unknown planet. The three men discover there was an air leak in Stewart’s tube, which killed her. The three remaining astronauts eventually happen upon primitive humans who cannot speak. Gorillas come along and begin hunting the humans. Dodge is killed but Taylor and Landon are captured. Taylor is shot in the throat so he can’t speak. Thus the apes believe Taylor is just another dumb human. As in the novel Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall) become his allies. When Taylor regains his ability to speak he utters one of the film’s most iconic lines, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”  



 

A tribunal is held to discover why Taylor can talk. It’s in these scenes that the film explores the conflict between faith and science. The orangutans believe that its scientific heresy for Zira and Cornelius to claim that Taylor is a missing link in the evolutionary change. Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans)- an orangutan and the film’s chief antagonist- holds two contradictory positions. He’s both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith. Near the end of the film Taylor says Zaius's position as Defender of the Faith interferes with his obligations towards the progression of science. Zaius responds by saying: “There is no contradiction between faith and science...true science.” Zaius  can’t or won't acknowledge the conflict in his duties. Zaius knows that man used to rule the planet but believes it’s best to keep the true history of the planet a secret from ape society. He even goes as far as destroy Cornelius’ archeological dig, which contained evidence of an earlier non-ape civilization. Zaius is a great antagonist because his motivations and philosophy make complete sense and we can the situation from his point of view. He feels he’s acting in the best interests of his species. He’s not a noble character but he does have- in his mind at least- noble intentions.




 

In the closing moments of the film Taylor-on horseback with Nova (Linda Harrison)- discovers the ruins of the statue of liberty on the shore. It turns out this "alien" planet was Earth all along. The final shot of the film is one cinema’s most indelible images and of the greatest closing shots of all time. It’s an image that represents the downfall of civilization-in particular American civilization- the fear of nuclear destruction and the how remnants of the past are always present. The ending of the film also relates to Taylor's character arc. At the beginning of the film Taylor says he has no regrets upon leaving the 20th century and mocks Landon for having any affinity for humanity. By the end Taylor has regained some appreciation for humanity. He tells Zaius that whoever was here before the apes was “better than you.”  When he sees the statue we see a man who's hatred of humanity is arguably validated. The ending also shows that Taylor cared enough about humanity that it's self destruction deeply anguishes him.





 

What’s also notable about the use of this image is it represents the cultural difference between Boulle’s novel and the film series. While the novel was written through a French perspective the film was directed and written by Americans. The statue of liberty is a thoroughly American image and it’s placement at the end of the film speaks to the fall of America even as it also represents the downfall of civilization at large. Rod Serling was already famous for his TV series The Twilight Zone, which tackled social issues on a weekly basis through the prism of science fiction and fantasy. Serling   co-wrote the screenplay for  Planet of the Apes with Michael Wilson and suggested the now famous ending. In Boulle’s novel the planet is not earth. The novel ends with Ulysse, Nova and their son travelling back to Earth only to discover that it’s also become a planet of the apes. The seed of the film’s ending is there but Serling expanded upon the ending.  The film's twist ending defined the entire mythology on here onwards. It’s strange now to think of the planet being anything else but Earth. It’s a perfect thematic resolution and brings home all the social commentary of the story. The upside down civilization isn’t just a mirror version of our society but the result of man’s self-destruction.

 

While the Planet of the Apes films aren’t usually thought of as directors’ film, Franklin J. Schaffner’s work here can’t be overlooked. Schaffner invokes and sustains a mood of surreal and nightmarish dread. He makes us feel we’re on a completely “alien world.” Schaffner’s direction captures Boulle’s absurd vision. Jerry Goldsmith’s score also adds to the tension and atmosphere of the film. His score matches the primitive nature of the world.



While Planet of the Apes was never designed to be an ongoing series the success and popularity of the film led to a sequel two years later. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1971) is one of the most gonzo and audacious sequels I’ve ever seen. Its ending alone may be the greatest example of franchise self-sabotage in film history. However, the film suffers early on from feeling like the original film in miniature. Heston only agreed to appear at the beginning of the film (in which he disappears) and then reappear at the end only to be killed off. Thus the filmmakers had to introduce another leading character and actor.

TV actor James Franciscus was cast as Brent, another astronaut who was sent to find Taylor’s ship. Like Taylor Brent lands on future earth. He meets up with Nova, Cornelius and Zira. Then along with Nova searches for Taylor. The early parts of the film do feel like we’re going over familiar ground, with the added wrinkle of looming war as General Ursus (James Gregory) rallies gorillas behind his mission to enter the Forbidden Zone. Franciscus is solid in his role but he can't help but feel like George Lazenby to Heston's Sean Connery. It's too apparent the filmmakers were attempting to "replace" Heston but I feel a different kind of human lead than just another all American astronaut would've made things fresher. Ted Post took over directing duties from Schaffner and does a serviceable job. His direction doesn't feel too inconsistent with Schaffner's and he keeps the pace rolling along smoothly.





 The film becomes more its own animal when Brent and Nova’s search leads them underground. There they discover mutated humans with telekinetic powers worship a nuclear bomb capable of destroying the entire planet. Brent and Nova become the mutants’ captives and we learn Taylor is also imprisoned. The mutants don’t exist in Boulle’s novel but are a creation of the script by Paul Dehn. Their society is a startling new piece of the planet’s mythology. This aspect of the world that was suggested in the first film. Its theorized that Taylor is a mutant. This idea comes to full terrifying light in this film. These mutants are a twisted and perverse representation of how the world’s destruction has changed humanity. Moreover, the worshipping of a bomb as some kind of God is a satirical jab at religion. It's also a play on idea that humanity invented God and not the other way around. If this bomb is the mutant’s God it’s not a benevolent God but a violent and angry one.




The film also comments on the Vietnam War. There are chimpanzee protestors who are against the war, representing the negativity towards the conflict in Vietnam and the generation gap between the powers that be and the younger generation who wanted love, not war. Ultimately, It’s war that brings about the world’s complete destruction. After escaping, Taylor attempts to stop the bomb from going off but is shot by Ursus. Taylor confronts Zaius for the last time and asks for help. Zaius blames humanity for all the destruction in the world. Taylor witnessed Nova being shot by a gorilla. Nova was all Taylor had left and his final act is to activate the bomb, obliterating the earth.  I think the film is saying that history not only repeats itself but repeats itself to an even greater degree. Human civilization as we know it has already been destroyed due to human war but now the entire world, including apes, will cease to exist due to the gorilla war. But it’s a human that sets off the bomb, which may validate Zaius’ fear of humankind.



Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ ending is incredibly bleak and it’s remarkable that the filmmakers got away with it. It’s hard to imagine a major studio today would allow a major franchise film to  eliminate the possibility for more sequels. But while this ending appeared to end the franchise for good, the studio demanded another sequel. In a strange twist of fate destroying the world forced the filmmakers to be creative in how they would continue on the franchise and expand upon the mythology.





In Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) we learn a chimpanzee scientist named Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) was able to repair Taylor’s sunken ship. He, Cornelius and Zira escaped from the planet before it exploded and travelled back in time to 1970s San Francisco. This was an ingenious way for the series to continue and find a fresh context in which to tell another story, despite it being a stretch that Milo could fix Taylor’s ship. By bringing apes to present day Earth the film reverses the dynamic of the previous films. The apes are now the outsiders.

 

While Cornelius and Zira (Milo is killed by a gorilla when the three of them are first put in a zoo) are first treated as celebrities and the film functions as a light comedy, the film takes a darker turn when it becomes more apparent that the apes will eventually cause the world to be destroyed. Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) wants the apes- including Zira’s unborn baby- to be killed. (Hasslein is the scientist whose theory on light speed travel Taylor mentions in the first film.) The apes have allies in Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trudy), along with Armando (Ricardo Montalban), a circus owner. But tragically Hasslein kills both Zira and Cornelius- after Cornelius fatally wounds Hasslein- at the film’s conclusion. Hasslein also kills what he believes to be Zira’s child, which is actually another baby ape. Zira’s real child is with Armando.




 

Director Don Taylor does an admirable job at balancing the light and dark elements of the film’s script (written by  Dehn once again). The emotional journey on which the audience goes along with the characters feels tonally cohesive and not too jarring. McDowall wasn’t able to come back for Beneath so the role was recast with David Watson but thankfully he was able to reprise his role as Cornelius here. He and Kim Hunter are really the heart of this franchise and it’s devastating to watch them die- especially since we’ve grown close to the characters for two prior films.



Escape is a very philosophical film, particularly when it comes to the ethics of murder. Hasslein asks if we'd kill Hitler when he was a baby or his mother when he was pregnant. Is murder justifiable if it can stop horrible things from happening. The harsh irony in this film is that Hasslein believes murdering Cornelius and Zira will save the future. The truth is the opposite. Cornelius recounts how poorly apes were treated by humans and this cruelty led to the ape uprising. It’s only through love and respect that the future can be saved. I presume the film is attempting to say that even a man of science can be driven to violence but I feel Hasslein too easily slips in to the role of murderer. There needed to be more development for that particular shift.



 

The final shot of the film, with little baby Milo saying his first word over and over- “Mama” is haunting and a perfect finish to this film. Beneath’s ending was very close ended- Escape’s clearly sets the stage for another sequel.



That sequel would be Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). I feel this may be the best of the four sequels. Emotionally it’s the most powerful of the five films- as well as least “fun” of the series. While Escape had its share of lighthearted moments Conquest is consistently unpleasant. This is an angry film and continues the perspective shift found in Escape. It’s no longer the humans are the victimized. We finally see the cruelty and injustice that led to the apes taking over. The film picks up in 1991, 8 years after a plague wiped out all cats and dogs. Humans have taken on highly evolved apes as pets- and essentially slaves. America has also become a police state. Milo (now going by Caesar) is now a teenager and is still in the care of Armando. Caesar has to pretend he can't speak so he won't be discovered as Cornelius and Zira's child.  Montalban does subtly look older and a little more world-weary, which I like. While in the city Caesar curses a police officer who is abusing an ape. Armando attempts to take the blame so Caesar is not discovered. Armando is taken in to custody and Caesar becomes a slave. Armando dies after attempting to escape an interrogation, spurring Caesar to lead a rebellion against humanity. 






 J. Lee Thompson, the director of the original Cape Fear (1962), was brought in for this installment. Thompson creates a harsh atmosphere and a gritty aesthetic to the film, and stages the rebellion scenes with a brutal bluntness and lack of glamour.

 

Cornelius died in the previous film but Roddy McDowall returned to play his former character’s son. What’s remarkable about McDowall’s performance is Caesar feels like a totally different character than Cornelius. Caesar is a much angrier, rawer and impetuous character than Cornelius. Through makeup McDowall crafts a performance that makes us feel both empathy and terror. It’s a tremendous performance that solidifies McDowall as the signature actor of this series. We understand Caesar’s motives and the film makes us angry along with him. The humans in this film aren’t the primitive savages of the first film but they’re savages nonetheless. They've learned nothing from Cornelius and Zira's arrival- that the mistreatment of apes will be humanity's downfall.




 

There’s another sympathetic character named MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the aid to the cruel Governor Breck (Don Murray), who briefly becomes Caesar’s owner. MacDonald is black and he mentions he is the descendant of slaves, which ties him and Caesar together thematically. Caesar tells MacDonald that he is shedding blood by the right of slaves to punish his oppressors, to which MacDonald says that “I, a descendant a slaves am asking you to show humanity.” MacDonald knows that an eye for an eye will just bring on violence, not peace.





Caesar doesn't heed MacDonald's plea and has Breck killed. This is after he gives a speech that foreshadows the world we’ve seen in the original film. This ending had to be changed due to poor test screenings.  The changed ending has an ape named Lisa (Natalie Trudy) say “No” to Caesar, imploring him to show mercy. McDowall recorded another speech which follows the originally shot one, in which Caesar says humans will be ruled with compassion. This speech plays over close up of Caesar’s eyes and reversed footage of gorillas bringing their guns down on Breck. It’s an awkwardly edited ending and the original is much truer to the film’s dark vision. It does, however, match up better with the subsequent film.


Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is the final film of the original series. I think this film is the least of the sequels. The film is let down by having the lowest budget of the five films. Battle needed to be a grand and spectacular finish to the saga but ends up feeling anti-climatic and small in execution. It takes place over a decade after the events of Conquest. The world has been ravaged by nuclear war. Caesar, his apes and a small band of humans are attempting a peaceful cohabitation in ape city. It’s an uneasy truce, particularly with the gorilla Aldo (Claude Akins) not wanting anything to do with humans. Caesar is a softer ape now, comfortable in his role as leader. But Aldo proves a threat to Caesar since Aldo wants to be leader. There’s also the looming danger of humans who are radiated and are the ancestors of the mutant humans from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.




 

Thompson returns to direct and he brings a somewhat softer touch to this film then with Conquest. I feel Thompson does the best with a limited budget. He can’t quite make a full on epic but he does give the film some stakes as Caesar has to decide whether to fully accept humans as equals or to continue looking down on them . The ape commandment “Ape shall never kill ape” is also broken when Aldo accidently murders Caesar’s son Cornelius.


McDowall's performance is strong once again. And I do like the idea behind this film- the whole question of whether ape and man can live together peacefully and whether history repeat itself. Battle has the most optimistic ending of the series, giving us hope that peace is possible but both humans and apes will need to work hard to gain it- even centuries after Caesar’s death. However, the film's optimism doesn't contradict the previous films. Instead, the film moves on from the bleakness of the previous films and brings the saga full circle. Thematically it feels like a logical ending to the series. The film isn’t as fully realized in terms of its scale but it’s earnest and direct in terms of what it wants to say. There's a melancholy quality to this film's ending. In part because we're sad to leave the series behind and that the bookend to the film- with John Huston as the Lawgiver- takes place many years after Caesar's death. We feel we've lost a great ape who did much for his kind- as well as human kind.

So,  that's the original Planet of the Apes series. In the years before Star Wars and the resurgence of Star Trek, these films shaped the science fiction genre. The first is the strongest but the entire saga is a wonderfully told science fiction myth. And it all came from a little novel over fifty years ago.