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Posts Tagged ‘Helena Bonham Carter’

And now, a franchise movie with a difference. I have an unfortunate tendency to be cynical and were I to give this part of myself free rein, I would probably end up saying things like ‘the first whiff of awards season is in the air, for they have started to release classy and serious films about how horrible everything was in the past’. There’s nothing like misery in painstakingly researched frocks to grab the attention of the average gong panel.

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Occasioning this sort of disreputable thinking is Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, which concerns itself with the various travails of the members of the women’s suffrage movement in the Edwardian era. While various historical figures make an appearance in the course of the film, the audience’s point of identification is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wife, mother, and factory worker who finds herself drawn into the orbit of the suffragettes almost by accident. When the government is perceived to have reneged on a promise to extend voting rights to women, the struggle turns both vicious and violent, and – inevitably – Maud has to decide whether she’s serious about her commitment to the cause. Needless to say, this comes at no small cost to her, but it seems that sacrifice is part of the process…

Now, as a regular UK cinemagoer it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when people start applauding at the end of a film – it’s usually a sign that we’ve just watched something fairly exceptional. Suffragette got a round of applause at the (very busy) screening I attended, and I have to say I was slightly surprised. It may just be that this particular cinema is very popular with politically-engaged types and they were just showing support for the film’s theme and message, which is unexceptionable, rather than its execution, which is not, if we’re honest, particularly distinctive.

Make no mistake, this is a movie which has all the usual British costume drama virtues in spades – Edwardian London is beautifully staged, and there is a fine cast, mostly made up of the usual suspects for this kind of film – Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Romola Garai, and so on. It kind of goes against the grain of the film to say this, but I thought the most impressive performance was from Brendan Gleeson, playing the tough cop assigned to shutting down the suffragettes. Gleeson manages to take this character and make him, if not actually sympathetic, then at least a recognisable human being, unlike every other male character (even Ben Whishaw – at the start of a busy month for him – comes across as rather contemptible by the time the film ends). But then I am always partial to a bit of Brendan Gleeson.

Prominent though she is in the publicity material (presumably to assist with marketing this movie in the States), Meryl Streep is not actually in the movie that much, contributing little more than a cameo as Mrs Pankhurst herself. It’s by no means a bad performance, but Streep doesn’t get a lot to work with, and it is a little disconcerting that the magic of cinema means that Emmeline Pankhurst looks uncannily like Margaret Thatcher.

So, fans of a certain flavour of British cinema will find themselves more or less in their comfort zone, although personally I found Gavron’s fondness for shaky-cam distracting rather than involving (the nausea-inducing effect of this may have been exacerbated by the fact I was watching the film on a huge screen from practically the front row of the cinema, of course). There are signs of the film-makers attempting to make something a bit more edgy and committed, however, of which the wobbly camerawork is just one sign. Certainly the BBFC advisory warning ‘contains scenes of force feeding’ is not one usually found on your typical Jane Austen adaptation.

This is just one example of the unremittingly horrible time that Mulligan’s character has in the course of the movie – she is patronised, belittled, clobbered, arrested, imprisoned, forcibly stripped (calm down gents, there’s nothing to see), thrown out by her husband, blackmailed, has her son taken from her, arrested again, force fed… the list goes ever on and on. I suppose it is just about possible that all this stuff happened to one person, but in the context of the film it all seems a bit manipulative and contrived, as though the struggle for the vote wasn’t a worthy enough cause in and of itself, and this has to be the story of someone who really and properly goes through the mill.

It’s not even as if the film concludes with everyone happily trooping off to the ballot box – the film climaxes shortly after Derby Day 1913 (you will either know the historical significance of this or you won’t), with the actual vote not going to women until 1918 (but hey, it was still over half a century before Switzerland). What’s missing is recognition of the important impact that the First World War had on British society and culture, part of which was the empowerment of women. But that would perhaps have made for too big and complex a story. (I suppose the same reasoning explains why the film is arguably conflating the suffragette cause with the socialist movement, as someone I saw the film with suggested was the case: the core of the suffragette movement was made up of women much more middle-class than Mulligan’s character.)

This is by no means a bad film and it does shed light on an important moment in our modern history, doing so with sincerity and no small degree of skill. But it’s almost as though the film-makers don’t trust the audience to be interested in the story on its own merits, which is why this film is arguably more simplistic and manipulative than it really needed to be. Still very watchable if you like this sort of thing, though.

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We have reached that moment in the cinema year where all the big studios have flopped out their first big blockbusters of the summer and an uneasy truce reigns: no-one wants to risk over-saturating the market by releasing another big film just yet, so while these tentpole releases dominate the cinemas, hoovering up the audience’s disposable income, the only real activity concerns limited-appeal genre movies, low-expectation filler material, and counter-programming. It is this third category into which we should probably put Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.

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Jeunet has been making intricate and visually-meticulous borderline-fantasy films for over twenty years now – the incongruous movie on his CV is 1997’s Alien Resurrection, which is virtually the textbook example of a talented European arthouse director being crushed to the bosom of Hollywood, with results that neither party was ultimately very happy with. This film finds him in his usual sort of territory, for the most part.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a very American film in some ways, but still not really a conventional one. Kyle Catlett plays the title role of a ten-year-old genius living on a remote ranch in Montana with his somewhat unorthodox family. His father (Callum Keith Rennie) is an unreconstructed cowboy who only says about three words a year. His mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is an entomologist, obsessed with finding new kinds of beetle. His sister (Niamh Wilson), apart from an obsession with beauty contests, is relatively normal. The family as a whole is struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of T.S.’s twin brother the previous year, but their various coping strategies seem to be forcing them apart rather than bringing them closer together.

Then, however – and this is the point at which you really have to decide whether you’re going to go with this movie or not – T.S.’s groundbreaking design for a perpetual motion machine draws the attention of the big brains at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, and – the big brains not realising T.S. Spivet is only ten – invite him to the capital to receive an award and make a speech. Not wishing to inconvenience his family unnecessarily, the youthful boffin sets out on an epic journey across the continent alone and unassisted…

Well, look, here’s the thing – this is never quite the film you think it’s going to be. It has a slightly fantastical, magic-realist quality, with its spurious physics and a cameo from a talking dog, but at its heart it’s slightly more down to earth than that. It looks like it’s going to be a sort of road movie, about all the wacky adventures and strange personalities T.S. encounters on his journey from Montana to Washington, but again it isn’t that – the film is divided into three clearly-designated chapters of roughly equivalent length, only the second of which is actually about the journey: the first sets the scene, and the third turns the proceedings into a somewhat predictable, sentimental fable about the shallowness of big city folk and the importance of family.

As you might expect, Jeunet mashes his foot hard down on the pedal marked ‘quirkiness’ and doesn’t spare the whimsy, either. I suppose your mileage concerning this kind of thing may be different to mine, but I find a little goes a long way, and I found much of the early part of the film really irksome. Kyle Catlett’s performance as young Spivet is remarkably assured, but he’s not exactly an engaging screen presence and – how can I put this? – I found him sort of eminently-punchable rather than charming or cute. There’s a bit where a hobo (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) tells him a fairy tale about why only fir trees keep their leaves in winter, to which the lad’s reaction is to start pointing out scientific inaccuracies in the story. Rather than someone I instantly warmed to, I found myself wondering instead whether he really was supposed to come across as someone with some kind of condition.

It doesn’t help much that the director appears to be hurling a sizeable dollop of sentimentality into the mixture – one is clearly supposed to be overwhelmed with pathos and let out a big ‘ahhhhhh’ when the little fellow sets off for Washington lugging a suitcase which is nearly bigger than him. My instinctive response to this sort of thing is bared teeth, if we’re honest, and as usual I found all the mannered visual sophistication got in the way of my emotional engagement with the actual story.

And yet, and yet: I would be lying if I said I thought this was a bad film, or that I hadn’t enjoyed it at all. The landscapes in this movie are sumptuous, and the cinematography superb – it’s a great looking film. And as the story picks up pace it does become rather less mannered and self-conscious in its storytelling, and a lot easier to like. There are some genuinely funny moments on the way, and the film has a sort of innocent optimism about it which is ultimately quite charming.

I’m still not sure who it’s actually made for – the clash of a European sensibility with the classic Americana of much of the imagery remains noticeable, while what looks on one level like a family film nevertheless contains some slightly dodgy jokes and some unexpected F-bombs. The message that the film ultimately seems to be trying to deliver is not exactly innovative, either. This fable may not be genuinely fabulous, but there’s enough going on here to make it watchable, if not exactly essential viewing.

 

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You often hear people talking about proverbially unfilmable books – Ulysses, or A Suitable Boy, or whatever – although, of course, there is a long history of ‘unfilmable’ stories actually making quite decent and occasionally exceptional films, given the right treatment. What seems to me to be less commented-upon is the phenomenon of certain novels being endlessly adapted for film and TV, but never both well and faithfully.

We’re usually talking about ‘classic’ literature here – though it’s getting to the point where certain superhero comics also qualify – and I’m thinking particularly of 19th century Gothic Horror. There have been umpty-tump versions of Dracula, to say nothing of sequels and spin-off movies, and generally the ones that have really succeeded have been the ones with a less reverential approach to the source. The same goes for Frankenstein: this is one of those novels which, in many ways, defines the modern age, and yet I’ve never seen a film adaptation of the book which has really impressed me. (The best version I’ve seen was a TV mini-series from 1973, with Leonard Whiting and Michael Sarrazin in the two lead roles, and even this diverged a lot from the novel in many respects.)

Still, until recently I hadn’t seen the 1994 version of the story, helpfully titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to distinguish it from all those other stories with the same name by other people. Or, perhaps more fully, Francis Ford Coppola’s Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as this was the key talent involved as producer and director.

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Ken Branagh being Ken Branagh, he naturally casts himself as Victor Frankenstein, here a precocious young scientist (there’s no mention of him being nobility this time around, but he is still clearly rich and posh). And Branagh being Branagh, the cast list is also stuffed with British thespians: this does actually resemble a dress-rehearsal for a Harry Potter movie, so many of the performers here moved on to that series.

This movie sticks to the original structure, which opens at the North Pole with some explorers happening upon a desperate Frankenstein being pursued across the ice by… what? Scenes of sled dogs meeting a sticky end suggest we may have wandered into Mary Shelley’s The Thing by mistake, but no. Frankenstein tells his story, with accompanying flashback: traumatised by the premature death of his mum (Cherie Lunghi) – a motivation-bolstering amendation of Shelley – a youthful Frankenstein puts aside his romantic feelings for his adopted sister (Helena Bonham-Carter) and heads off to university, where he finds himself drawn to forbidden areas of research. Despite the misgivings of his mentor (John Cleese, playing it straight behind some rather peculiar dentures), he sets about manufacturing a perfected form of human life – and when that mentor is pointlessly murdered, Frankenstein instantly sees a way for his patron to live on. Well, bits of him, anyway…

The artificial man created by Frankenstein’s experiments is not quite what our hero was expecting, and in the context of the movie he cuts a striking, unusual figure, mainly because he is played by Robert de Niro rather than another of Ken’s luvvie mates. Frankenstein tries to get rid of his creature almost at once, and believes it has perished in a cholera outbreak. Henceforth swearing off unholy experiments and demarcation disputes over the provision of the vital spark, our man heads home to marry his sister. Sorry, adopted sister.

However, the Creature has survived, and wandered into an 18th century episode of The Good Life. Hiding out in the pig sty of elderly smallholder Richard Briers, the Creature learns to read, speak, and generally make sense of the world around him. Yes, this bit does stretch credulity a bit, but the film tries hard to make it work, and I think there’s an even dodgier subplot in the book about a fleeing Arabian princess which has actually been cut. Eventually the Creature decides he has not been treated properly by his creator and sets off to demand reparations…

This is a good-looking, pacy movie, and for the most part reasonably faithful to the book – much moreso, it has to be said, than either of the most famous versions from Hammer or Universal. The cast is good and there is nothing particularly bad about the script or direction either.

And yet I couldn’t really say this was a great Frankenstein. I know this film has drawn a good deal of sniggery criticism for the sheer number of scenes in which Ken Branagh runs around in leather trews with his shirt off, the suggestion being that this is evidence of a certain self-regard on the the director’s part. I’m inclined to cut Ken some slack on this front, not necessarily because there is something thematic about overweening vanity going on – though I’ve heard this argued – but because it does tie into a sort of Romantic hyperactivity which is central to this film.

Ken’s a bright bloke and he has clearly settled on the famous connection between Frankenstein and the Romantic poets as being a worthwhile line of attack. And so it is that the emotional pitch of this movie is never knowing understated. People are never happy in this film, they are convulsed with ecstatic joy; they never just dance, they hurl themselves across the screen while the camera swoops around them; they never just grieve, they are consumed with devastating, paralysing despair. The film is always turned up to 11, and considering how fast the story rattles along the results are desensitising, not to mention exhausting – you never have a moment to catch your breath and really think about what’s happening in the story.

This is a shame, as Frankenstein is obviously a story loaded with ideas, and this version of it doesn’t really get a chance to explore them. The handling of the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature is, surely, central to whether or not a version of this story works – and this one is just about there, but no more, simply because they don’t really share enough screen time.

And this doesn’t really work as a horror movie for most of its length, either. The film tries hard to be credible and avoid the cliches of other versions – but substituting the iconic bolt of lightning with a shoal of trained electric eels is not a decision I would personally have gone for. The moment in which the eels are let loose is central to all of the creation sequences in this film and I suppose it’s a minor miracle they do not become unintentionally funny as a result. Needless to say, the eels are not in the book; nor is a sequence in which Frankenstein and the Creature find themselves in a very strange love triangle with a ‘bride’ character. This is the bit of the film which actually does work as a piece of horror, all about twisted passions and dangerous obsessions – but it comes very late and it’s over too soon.  (In contrast, the major plot point that Frankenstein is in a quasi-incestuous relationship with his adopted sister is barely explored.)

So I would say this movie is okay, both as a movie and as a version of Frankenstein. I suppose this is a bit of a disappointment given the magnitude of the talents involved in making it, but there you go. Full marks for trying to be faithful to the novel (eels excepted), and also to Ken for finding an interesting new take on the original material. But it doesn’t quite (ha, ha) bring Frankenstein or his creation fully to life.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 5th 2004: 

If you were just starting out as a film director, I suppose one of the things you might do in order to quickly establish yourself would be to develop a signature style – a collection of trademark shots, images and themes running as a sort of common thread through all your work. Your resume would have a sort of consistency, your fan base would probably grow faster, and people who worry about that sort of thing would be reassured that they always knew where they stood when it came to your films.

Of course, as time went by and you wanted to stretch your wings and maybe do something just a little bit different, this very consistency might well start to work against you. People would come to your films looking out for your trademark stuff and end up completely overlooking the rest of it, no matter how impressively executed. ‘Stop ruminating unimpressively and get to the goddam review!‘ I hear you cry. Well, okay, punters, this week we’re looking at Tim Burton’s Big Fish, the film which led me aboard that particular train of thought.

This is a story about that old favourite of a theme, the troubled father-son relationship. No, wait, come back – because although that particular chestnut has been flogged to death (nice metaphor – what sparkling form I’m on just now), this is a film with much to commend it.

Billy Crudup plays Will Bloom, an American in Paris (no, this isn’t a musical) who finds himself summoned home to Alabama when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Edward Bloom (played with sparklingly roguish charm by Albert Finney) has been a salesman by trade but a teller of tall tales by vocation for all of his life. Basically he tells a pleasing, fantastical, and utterly fraudulent version of his life to everyone he meets (the young Edward is played – with, it must be said, a rather erratic accent – by Ewan McGregor). He tells tales of befriending giants, playing fetch-the-stick with a werewolf, and sailing from Vietnam to America with some conjoined twins. Edward’s refusal to reveal any of his true self to his son has been the cause of some friction between them, and it’s up to Will to find some resolution before it’s too late.

Yeah, well, it doesn’t sound like much, I’ll admit, but the meat of the film consists of the extraordinary tales Edward tells of his youth. Going into too much detail about these would only spoil them, but suffice it to say that they are as inventive and scary and drily funny as one could hope for. There seemed to me to be a distinct whiff of the works of Roald Dahl throughout the film – there’s a big friendly giant and a witch, but also hints of the darkness and pain that characterised much of Dahl’s writing. McGregor is an ebullient lead, and he’s well supported by the likes of Danny de Vito and an increasingly consumptive-looking Steve Buscemi. Helena Bonham-Carter pops up too, oddly less-recognisable under her witch’s make-up than she was as a chimpanzee in Burton’s Planet Of The Apes (now there’s a movie with a lot to answer for!).

In the past I’ve always been a bit of an agnostic regarding Tim Burton. Some of his films I’ll happily admit are terrific – the two Batmans, Ed Wood – and they all look extraordinary, but the worlds he puts up on the screen are often so skewed and divorced from reality that I find it hard to connect with them emotionally. But this isn’t the case with Big Fish – the ‘real world’ sequences with Finney and Crudup (also Jessica Lange and Marion Cotillard as their wives) buttress the fantasy, provide a bridge into it, and lend the film a certain emotional gravitas. Burton directs these scenes with an utter naturalism one wouldn’t believe him capable of – it’s the equivalent of Damien Hurst painting a lovely landscape, and it’s surely to Burton’s credit. The actors help: Finney is an appropriately larger than life figure and Crudup’s performance is very nicely judged so as to be memorable without crowding the film.

There’s a slight incoherency to some parts of the film – ideally the progression of Edward’s fantastical life story should match Will’s increasing insight into him as a person, and it doesn’t – and it would have been more satisfying if the script had come up with a psychological explanation for Edward’s story-telling with a bit more depth to it than ‘stories are more interesting than real life’. The film also can’t resist a slightly predictable climax which blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, unnecessarily I thought. But Big Fish remains a film which manages to be very funny without ever being crass, imaginative without ever losing its grip on reality, and moving without being sentimental. Tim Burton’s best film in nearly a decade – recommended.

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There are a number of reasons why people might instinctively react against Tom Hooper’s film The King’s Speech. Firstly, it’s a costume drama, which the British film industry churns out in great numbers and which sometimes all seem to blur into one as a result. Secondly, it takes as its subject matter the British Royal Family (the title may give this away), a divisive topic in some quarters. And thirdly, it’s a product of the now-abolished UK Film Council, a body whose past productions I have described using such words as ‘bloody depressing’, ‘makes you want to gouge your own eyes out’ and ‘evidence of the UKFC’s unerring instinct for investing millions of pounds in complete crap’. So, not unqualified praise, there.

However, let all memories of Sex Lives of the Potato Men be banished (if only it were so easy…). You would be unwise to let such prejudices turn you against what will probably turn out to be one of the films of the year. This film transports us back to a pivotal moment in time, when the destiny of the world hinged on a clash between two countries, one ruled by a man famed for his ferocious oratorical magnetism, the other by a man barely capable of speaking a word in public. There have been many films made about the former, Adolf Hitler, but to my knowledge this is the first to focus on the latter, King George VI of Britain.

George VI never wanted to be king and it’s perhaps the misfortune of his posterity that he was surrounded by so many legendary and larger-than-life people, reducing him to a somewhat vague and colourless figure in the popular imagination. This film should go some way to rectify that situation.

Colin Firth plays the future King, who is a martyr to his stammer – a serious problem for a man required to make so many public speeches. As his father ails and his duties increase, his wife (Helena Bonham-Carter) arranges for him to be treated by the somewhat informal speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). But the greatest crisis in the history of the British crown is approaching, with the dissolute heir apparent more interested in his own happiness than his duty, and war with Germany rapidly becoming inevitable. Does the stammering younger brother have the makings of a King inside him?

Not many car chases in this one, then, and I needn’t have bothered taking my 3D glasses with me, either. Nevertheless this is an excellent movie, managing to find a genuinely new angle on the abdication crisis. It’s more than simply a slab of dramatised history, however, informative though it is, and while it’s sympathetic to the King as a man it’s not some Royalist tract either. It stands up perfectly well as a story on its own terms – a very human portrait of a man desperately trying to do his duty, struggling towards a very unlikely friendship with someone who’s his complete opposite.

Firth gives a technically brilliant performance as the afflicted King, but goes beyond this to make him a believeable person as well – unintentionally or not, he gives George some of the mannerisms of his eldest grandson, which helps to sell the character. Geoffrey Rush is just as good as the therapist, giving one of the most restrained performances I’ve seen from him (then again I’ve not seen him do much outside of Pirates of the Caribbean). Bonham-Carter, stuck with the task of embodying someone extraordinarily well-known but whose personality remained unknown throughout her lifetime, is also very strong, hitting a very plausible note of brisk cheeriness masking a core of pure steel.

The King shows his mettle. Sorry, that should read ‘medals’.

Oh, let’s not muck about. Everyone in this movie is good: Timothy Spall plays Churchill in the accepted style (gruff old warrior awaiting his country’s call), Guy Pearce plays Edward VIII in accordance with the modern view of him as a selfish hedonist and possible Nazi-sympathiser, Michael Gambon has a cameo as George V, and the little girl from Outnumbered pops up, rather startlingly, as Princess Margaret. Derek Jacobi, purveyor himself of surely the greatest speech-impedimented performance in modern history, plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, while Her Royal Maj herself is portrayed by Freya Wilson (who isn’t given very many lines).

I was interested to see Jennifer Ehle some way down the cast list as Logue’s wife – given she and Firth hit the big time off the back of the same TV show, it’s interesting that he’s become a bona fide movie star while she appears to have done most of her work on stage over the last ten years. Hmm.

Some commentators have been a little surprised that this film has received only a 12A certificate, given there’s an extended sequence where Firth doesn’t do much more than repeatedly shout ****, ****, ****, and ***** (not to mention ******* and ******). (He doesn’t use s*mpr*n*, you’ll be relieved to hear.) Well, in context it comes across as sweet rather than offensive and drew gentle laughter at the viewing I attended. I must confess to being astonished that this whole area is still so contentious – this is possibly a discussion for another venue, of course.

Well, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool republican this film isn’t going to change your mind about that – though it may increase your sympathy for the inmates of royalty somewhat. But this is a film without a real political message, at least not one that I could discern. It’s a story about people, not royals and commoners, and a very well made one. Funnily enough, the Queen’s Speech every Christmas lasts ten minutes and is usually utterly tedious – while The King’s Speech lasts for two hours and is completely enthralling throughout. Highly recommended.

 

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Should anyone be wondering, this is the very first of my online film reviews from August 2001, without which this blog probably wouldn’t exist. I have resisted the temptation to rewrite it:

The Statue of Liberty casts a long shadow. If this year’s blockbuster remake of Planet of the Apes was the first film to bear that title, it’s likely it would’ve received much better reviews than it actually has. That’s simply because, as modern day summer blockbusters go, for the most part this is rather good.

Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark for those of us of a certain age) plays Leo Davidson, a sort of zookeeper for the USAF (Johnny Morris obviously not being available for the role). His job is to train chimps to pilot space probes. By far the greatest suspension of disbelief this movie will require of you is the concept of the USAF either wanting or being permitted to make use of our simian cousins in this manner. Anyway, Marky Mark’s favourite chimp gets shot off into a blue swirly thing in space and our hero disobeys orders to go and rescue him.

Things perk up considerably after the blue swirly thing deposits Marky Mark and his pod over a mysterious unknown planet. The pod crashes and in the jungle he comes face to face with a savage, hairy, beastlike figure… yes, it’s Kris Kristofferson playing a semi-feral human. Marky Mark, Kris, and some other actors who haven’t been singers get captured by – intelligent apes! Because this is, like, their Planet, right? – and dragged off to the Apes’ city to be sold to a comic-relief slave trader orang-utan who sounds as if he’s played by the late Jimmy Stewart. Marky Mark gets on the wrong side of nasty chimpanzee Thade (played by an unrecognisable Tim Roth) and makes friends with liberal human-loving chimpanzee Ari (an alarmingly recognisable Helena Bonham-Carter, who gives an extremely eccentric performance). Helena helps Marky Mark and his not-very-funky bunch of fellow humans escape and they all head off into the wilderness so our hero can rendezvous with his mother ship. Tim and his ape army pursue and the scene is set for a big battle and plot-twists by the dozen.

Like I say, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The ape makeup is, for the most part, stunning, though not as much of an improvement over John Chambers’ original work as you might think (Michael Clark Duncan on horseback cuts a particularly fine figure). The plot is also pretty good, but I don’t really want to give away any of the really nice bits so you’ll have to take my word on that. Marky Mark’s performance is a bit subdued, but he’ll doubtless improve in the sequel. There is much visual splendour and the sight of the ape army on the march is enough to warm the heart of any Apes fan.

So why is this movie ultimately disappointing? Well, because it’s called itself Planet of the Apes. That’s a title with a lot of baggage attached to it, it’s the title of a 1968 movie that’s a tough act to follow. Not much of POTA 1968 survives through into the new version. It keeps the basic concept and some of the iconography but that’s about it. POTA 2001 seems to be inviting comparisons, though, by sampling the most memorable dialogue from its’ forebear and reinterpreting it. This backfires badly as it reminds you of all that was great about the ’68 version and all that’s missing from this one. Oh, and Charlton Heston pops up in a brief uncredited cameo – the actor taking time out from his campaign to make home ownership of cobalt-cased nuclear missiles legal under the Second Amendment, no doubt.

Where POTA 2001 falls down in comparison to the first one is in its’ moral complexity, and this arises from the changes inflicted upon it. The human characters are more human – they can speak (though not many of them do) and have a rough sort of society. The apes, on the other hand, are more bestial and, well, apelike, which inevitably makes them seem less intelligent. Whereas the first film was partly about animal rights (the apes treat the dumb humans no worse than we treat dumb apes), and presented complex moral issues without comment, here we just have clearly-in-the-wrong apes enslaving poor (but noble) humans. If anything the subtext is racial in nature – apes sneer at the possibility of humans having their own culture, one (coloured) character describes another who serves the apes as a ‘house human’. It’s not a subtext that appeared in the original series until the third sequel and there it was the downtrodden apes who rose up against the oppressive humans in a very morally ambiguous tale.

The other big problem with POTA 2001 is the ending. Anyone who knows about movies surely knows about the magnificently powerful twist ending to POTA 1968. All the original movies have startling or powerful conclusions and the new version is placed over a barrel by this. It can either neglect to do some kind of twist ending completely and be criticised by comparison as a result, or it can try to do a twist ending in a film where a) everyone’s expecting it and b) knows what it’ll be anyway. Apparently five endings were shot, and if the one they used is the best then I weep for Hollywood. It’s hugely unoriginal, adds nothing to the storyline, is (slight pun coming up) monumentally silly and doesn’t make sense in the context of the movie. Ironically, it’s also almost the only bit of the movie that remotely resembles Pierre Boulle’s original novel.

The original Planet of the Apes was an intelligent movie that held up a mirror to the concerns and moral issues of its’ time. Its’ ultimate message was that man is a violent, ultimately self-destructive savage beast. This time the mirror is cracked. The big messages are that slavery is wrong (well, thanks for the scoop, guys) and that you should never go chasing after a chimp no matter how fond you are of it. It’s full of sound and fury but signifies very little indeed, and anything calling itself Planet of the Apes should be so much more than that.

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