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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Burton’

Sometimes you come across or rediscover a film which time or a sense of familiarity have led you to forget the sheer weirdness of. I’m not necessarily talking about very obscure, fringe films dealing with odd subject matter, but those very occasional examples of someone high-up at a big Hollywood studio having a bit of a brainstorm and greenlighting a project that, by rights, had no business even going to script stage. When one of these films is a monumental success, the suit responsible is hailed as a visionary film-maker and usually goes on to a lucrative career making the same kind of movie over and over and over again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the initial film was still a bit weird at the time it was made. Most often, though, the film either flops or does okay, inspires no great raft of imitators, and we are just left with an eye-catching freak of a film.

So, then: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, released in the UK at least in 1997, which one reviewer even at the time instantly pegged as an extraordinary piece of folie de grandeur which could only have been made by mistake. It is a very odd film even in its conception: Hollywood is increasingly looking to peculiar places to avoid the strain of having to think up original ideas for films, but rather than a book, comic, theme-park ride or game, Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Films based on knitting patterns or the assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture are only a matter of time, surely.

The tone is set by a garishly grotesque sequence depicting a stampeding herd of blazing cows (inspired by original card #22, Burning Cattle), which we are invited to assume is the work of a passing flying saucer before it zips off back to Mars. The credits roll as a veritable armada of Martian ships, lovingly styled in the retro 50s manner, launch and head for Earth, causing no small degree of alarm on our planet.

In charge of overseeing the response is US president James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who seems to have a sort of vague hope the arrival of the Martians will result in him looking good. Others are less optimistic. (To be honest, this film has about eighteen main characters, so attempting to describe and keep track of them all would be a bit futile; we’ll see how it goes.) Anyway, the Martian Ambassador ends up landing in the Nevada desert and the translation machine built by one scientist (Jerzy Skolimowski, whose career seems to get more bizarrely eclectic every time I come across him) assures everyone that they have indeed come in peace. Yeah, right. Then of course there is a mix-up with a dove, causing the Martians to furiously reach for their ray guns, and…

To be honest, the film kind of falls into a sort of cycle from this point on: the Martians gleefully inflict garish death and horror on the humans for a bit, shouting ‘Ack! Ack! Ack!’ to each other all the while, after which the humans desperately wonder what went wrong and make a plaintive attempt to contact the Martians and put things back on a friendly basis. The Martians clearly can’t believe how dumb the humans are, and propose another meeting, which will clearly just be another pretext for more neon-hued slaughter, at which point it all repeats. Along the way there are various charming tableaux clearly inspired by some of the original cards (e.g., #19, Burning Flesh, #24, The Shrinking Ray, and #36, Destroying a Dog), although – if you’re wondering – the plot of the movie only very loosely follows that of the original card series.

So you look at all this and think, well, it has a very distinctive visual sense – Tim Burton initially wanted the Martians created using stop-frame animation, but budgetary considerations meant CGI was used instead (some of it not fantastic to the modern eye) – and obviously the weird black comedy aspects of the story must have appealed to him, but still – how the hell did this thing get made? Quite apart from the grisly black comedy alien invasion storyline, the film is subversive and tongue in cheek and often just plain weird, never things the financiers of your typical Hollywood blockbuster will knowingly try to do. The closing moments of the film see the world recovering from the Martian onslaught, which has been repelled using one of the silliest plot devices imaginable – and the return to normalcy is symbolised by deer, birds, and other animals flocking around Tom Jones, who launches into a celebratory rendition of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. I have a lot of time for Sir Tom Jones, but on this occasion he is wrong: it’s not ‘not unusual’. Often it is simply peculiar.

At the time the film came out, it was less than a year after Independence Day, and the assumption was that this was intended as some kind of spoof or parody of it. My first thought would be that it’s extremely difficult to parody something not intended to be taken entirely seriously anyway, but there are a few shots which do seem to suggest this may have been the case. The two films likewise share a sprawling structure largely derived from disaster movies, with a commensurately large cast (apart from Nicholson, Mars Attacks features – deep breath – Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan (doing a very Hugh Grant-like turn – apparently Grant was first choice for the role), Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Pam Grier and Jack Black.

However, it also seems to me that Burton is also doing a send-up of sci-fi movies from an earlier generation. This was only a year or two after Ed Wood, which recreated the ne plus ultra of bad fifties UFO films, so you can see why he might have this kind of idea. Certainly there are shots and sight-gags which are spot-on parodies or recreations of films like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and This Island Earth. But, once again, how many decent, ordinary film-goers are going to get a joke like that?

And there’s one more set of influences to be stirred into what’s already a very eggy pudding (not to mention an over-cooked metaphor): as well as playing the president, Nicholson also turns up in another role, as a Nevada property developer (who mainly seems to be in the movie to give Nicholson a chance to ham it up just the way he likes to). Coupled to some visual cues in the design of the president’s war room, and Rod Steiger’s performance as the rather hawkish general, it’s hard not to conclude that, on top of everything else, Burton was either attempting to replicate the tone of – or just homage – Dr Strangelove. This only succeeds as homage, if that: Burton has many fine qualities as a film-maker but the same kind of fierce, forensic intelligence Kubrick possessed is not amongst them and the film doesn’t have the edge or satirical power of Strangelove. (Though… I watch it now, seeing the ineffectual leader, insisting he will take control of the situation and demanding that schools and shops stay open… and I can’t help but be struck.)

Virtually no element of Mars Attacks! is consistently successful. Some parts of it just don’t work at all: there are a few dead wood characters and jokes that just fall flat, some of them a bit suspect. However, there are enough jokes that work, and the film has enough of a sense of mischief about it, for it to be quite watchable: there are some very game performances, obviously I like all the call-backs to B-movie sci-fi, and I think one of the film’s real flaws is that Tom Jones only turns up in the third act. Every time I return to it, I just find myself marvelling that someone read this script and said ‘Yes, this seems like a perfectly normal piece of commercial film-making: have $70 million!’ In a sane world it should not have been made. However, it is unusual to find evidence of an insane world which actually makes one feel slightly optimistic, for once, and I am quite glad it was.

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When I was a lad, especially prior to the home entertainment revolution, your actual classic Disney cartoons never turned up on TV: the corporation had hit upon a cunning wheeze to maximise its cashflow as far as these films were concerned. The trick was a simple one: rather than selling the films to TV networks, Disney just kept re-releasing them into cinemas on a seven-year cycle, meaning that every new generation got the chance to see them on the big screen. This continued until the dawn of the new modern age of Disney animation in the early 90s – I remember seeing The Jungle Book on its 1993 release. Things are different now, of course, with all of the corporation’s back-catalogue available on DVD. They have to find a new way of maintaining interest in these movies.

And the solution they appear to have landed upon is to remake all those lovely old cartoons as modern CGI blockbusters: a trend which started with Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book three years ago [It has been pointed out to me that Ken Branagh’s 2015 version of Cinderella predates this – A], and which is reaching full fruition this year – apart from the Mary Poppins sequel, which is not exactly the same kind of thing, we will see live action and CGI versions of Aladdin and The Lion King. First off the blocks, however, is Tim Burton’s new version of Dumbo.

The original Dumbo, released in 1941, was made in something of a hurry for Walt Disney, made economically after Fantasia proved to a glorious folly for the film-maker. The new film is twice as long as the original and basks in a budget of over $170 million dollars. The story remains very roughly similar, and concerns a rather down-at-heel circus, in the new film run by Danny DeVito. The year is 1919 and animal trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the First World War, in the course of which his arm has been CGI’d off, to be reunited with his (rather charmless) children. Their mother, along with many of the other circus folk, has died from the Spanish Flu, leaving everyone dispirited and emotionally scarred. (Good stuff for the tinies in the audience, this.)

Hopes are high that a new elephant recently purchased for the circus will turn the fortunes of the business around, as the animal is about to give birth. However, the mini-elephant, when it emerges, is an unprepossessing specimen, mainly on account of its freakishly large ears, and it is unkindly christened Dumbo. However, and you are almost certainly ahead of me on this one, Dumbo turns out to have an unusual talent – when properly motivated, those ears begin to flap and the pachyderm takes to the air!

So far, so very much like the 1941 version, you may be thinking. Well, yes and (very emphatically) no, for as you may have gathered, the more charmingly whimsical elements of the story have been almost wholly excised in favour of a bunch of largely one-dimensional new human characters. Think of an element of the original Dumbo that you remember with particular vividness and fondness, and I can almost guarantee that it is essentially absent from the new one. Oh, yes, there are plenty of call-backs and allusions, but only in the most superficial way – Timothy the mouse is gone, the extraordinary alcohol-induced hallucination sequence is gone, and the musical sequence with the singing crows has also gone (presumably it has been decreed that the crows could be construed as racially provocative). In their place are clangingly delivered messages about the treatment of circus animals and (for some reason) the evil of gender roles: in almost every scene, Farrell’s daughter gets to deliver solemn dialogue about how she is going to be A Scientist and Discover Things and Do Research And Experiments Using The Scientific Method. Nothing wrong with the sentiment, naturally, but why the hell are they crowbarring it into Dumbo?

I should point out that the new film blows through virtually the entire plot of the 1941 version well within the first hour, leaving a lot of time to fill before the obligatory happy ending. It is at this point that the new Dumbo stops being just dismaying and becomes actively baffling: arriving on the scene is wealthy entertainment tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who is opening a new theme park and needs a big attraction to lure in the punters. He initially comes across as a warm, avuncular figure, but (no real spoilers here, I think) eventually proves to be a ruthless, grasping, exploitative villain.

At which point one can only pause to wonder what on Earth the people at Disney think they are doing? Has no-one noticed the subtext of the new movie? This is a Disney film in which the bad guy is effectively a thinly-disguised version of Walt Disney, with ‘Dreamland’ presented as a thoroughly phoney and unpleasant place. It’s the worst possible advertisement for the world’s biggest entertainment brand. I can just about imagine someone like Tim Burton being amused by the idea of smuggling this kind of subversive idea into a film from the Mouse House, but this is barely subtle enough to qualify as smuggling – it’s hardly some buried subtext, more the essential message of the film. I say it again: has everyone at Disney gone mad?

Normally I would be quite amused by the extravagant way that the world’s biggest entertainment company is cheerfully shooting itself in the foot, but the execution of this part of the film isn’t really any better than that of the opening act. The characterisation is still thin (the best part probably goes to Burton’s girlfriend Eva Green, as a trapeze artist), the general tone of the film gloomy and grotesque. No-one seems to have figured out that a concept which is effortlessly charming when realised with cel animation and anthropomorphic talking animals just seems weird and slightly disturbing with photo-realistic CGI and human performers: we are clearly intended to find Dumbo irresistibly cute, but the glassy-eyed creature front and centre for much of the film comes direct from the Uncanny Valley.

I suppose one should even be slightly grateful for how comprehensively misconceived the new version of Dumbo is, for few films in recent memory are quite as worthy of this kind of self-sabotage. It’s a film which trades heavily on the audience’s fondness for the original film – fondness which is entirely warranted, I feel obliged to mention, for the 1941 film is packed with charm, imagination and pathos – but then attempts to lure them in to see something which barely qualifies as a remake, having a substantially different tone and story, and including none of the moments you remember. One can only assume the other films on the way will be better – it’s hard to imagine how they could be much worse – but Dumbo is, well, mostly just dumb.

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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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It must have been nearly four years ago, and as usual I was boring regaling a colleague with news about upcoming film releases. He turned out to be completely ignorant of the then-around-a-year-off release of The Dark Knight, and utterly aghast when I revealed that Heath Ledger was playing the Joker.

‘You can’t have Heath Ledger as the Joker!’ he cried. ‘Jack Nicholson’s the Joker! Nobody else can play that part!’

Less than four years ago, like I say: how things can change, huh? (And to be fair I was very dubious about the wisdom of casting Ledger myself for quite a while.) But it does show what a massive pop-cultural presence the 1989 Batman movie remained for quite a long time. Certainly it was inescapable that summer, almost omnipresent on TV, radio, and in terms of merchandise. (A friend of mine constructed his own batarang in metalwork class, with which he then proceeded to give himself a spectacular black eye – and unless he gets in touch with my people regarding a financial settlement, I will find it hard to find a reason not to reveal his identity. Hello, Steve. Hope you’re well.)

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have reaped such deserved popular and critical success that the four movies that came out between 1989 and 1997 seem to have been largely forgotten about. And a good thing too, you might say, given the embarrassing excesses and general incoherence the series was prone to for much of that time. Well, maybe – but watching the original Tim Burton film again for the first time in ages, I can’t help feel this is a film that doesn’t really deserve it.

You could make a good case for arguing that Batman is the first modern superhero movie, in that it genuinely attempts to bring the essence of the comic-book to the screen. (The Christopher Reeve Superman movies are terrific – the first couple, anyway – but don’t bear much resemblence to the book in terms of their tone and plots.) The plot is certainly archetypal stuff – masked hero makes his debut, shortly followed by a grotesque villain of some kind, and the two of them battle it out in a succession of big set-pieces. And indeed much of the script just seems like the result of an exercise in ticking boxes and hitting marks.

However, the memorable stuff in this movie isn’t in the script, anyway – not that the screenplay is entirely mechanical, neatly undercutting the audience’s expectations from the very beginning (what looks like it’s going to be Batman’s origin turns out to be something slightly different). As a director of motion pictures, Tim Burton’s always seemed more interested in pictures than movement, and the visual style of this movie is rather more impressive than its action choreography. The look of the film – Gotham City seems to exist in some odd time-warp, stranded between the 40s and the 80s – may not be especially coherent, but at the time it was groundbreaking: such overt art-direction of a film with an ostensibly present-day setting had never really happened in a blockbuster before.

And so where Nolan created a realistic Batman who could plausibly exist in the real world, Burton creates an unrealistic world in which a fantasy figure like Batman seems entirely at home. I think this is a considerable achievement, and not something to be dismissed out of hand. You can see the excesses that would come to define the series lying in wait, of course, as first Burton and then Joel Schumacher chose to frame the later films solely in terms of their visuals, but the plot and script here are strong enough to support the visuals.

Acting-wise – oh, well, let’s face it, we’re talking about Nicholson. All the work, excellent, good, indifferent and poor, turned in by Michael Keaton (second-billed, tellingly), Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough and every other performer – all of it is utterly obliterated by a giant, ravenous performance by an off-the-leash Jack Nicholson. Nuanced and understated it isn’t – neither, to be perfectly honest, is it especially sinister – but on this occasion it really sort of works, simply because it means your eyes are magnetically drawn to something other than the art direction.

On another level, it’s interesting to compare Burton’s Batman with Nolan’s The Dark Knight, simply because they both owe an obvious debt to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which came out in 1986. Miller’s book brought an iconic grandeur to Batman and Gotham City, as well as unprecedented moral and psychological complexity – and while Burton chose to concentrate on the former elements, Nolan has opted for the latter.

At the moment, of course, it’s Christopher Nolan’s approach which is in fashion, with Burton’s style somewhat out of favour. However, it seems highly unlikely that people are going to stop making or going to see Batman movies after Nolan moves on, and it’s quite possible things may swing back the other way, or achieve some sort of fusion between realism and fantasy. If that leads, in passing, to a reappraisal of the 1989 Batman, then all the better.

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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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