Archive for Brian Cox

The Ape of Things to Come

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2011 by dcairns

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. In which, as we always knew he would, James Franco destroys human civilization.

SUDDEN CHIMP ACT

Seriously, think about it: all the decisions leading, in practical terms, to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’ apocalyptic climax becoming possible are due to unprofessional actions by the film’s hero. To be fair, though, all the emotional drive which makes that climax desirable to the characters engaged in it (ie the apes) are due to the actions of more unsympathetic humans.

Who are all played by British actors (would you entrust your ape to a sanctuary run by Hannibal Lektor and Draco Malfoy?). If it weren’t for the fact that the director and lead ape are British, one would suspect some kind of restaging of the American Revolution in simian drag. Just give Caesar (Andy Serkis) a set of wooden teeth and the illusion would be complete.

Actually, referring to Serkis as Caesar is an oversimplification, in a way that referring to John Hurt as the Elephant Man isn’t. Hurt certainly had the assistance of Chris Tucker’s prosthetic makeup effects (no, not that Chris Tucker), but when he whooped and grunted and shrieked, it was his voice, and when he swung from the bars of his cage and leaped through the treetops, that was really him. That’s not quite accurate, but you get what I mean. And asides from his stuntwork and voicework, considerable portions of his performance, Serkis has had his facial performance “reproduced” by motion capture. Every animator I’ve spoken to is of the opinion that, when this happens, the animators involved (and you had better get animators involved) have to interpret what the mo-cap supplies, and sometimes depart from it, to create an effective performance. Andy Serkis obviously just thinks he’s wearing a pixel suit,  which is fine for him but not TRUE.

I’m not saying he shouldn’t be eligible for an Oscar. I don’t take awards THAT seriously, and in any case, countless actors have been rescued or enhanced by good editing, which is maybe a better reference point than good costumes or makeup. Somebody interfered with those performances, tweaked the timing, censored the misjudged moments, manufactured reactions that never really happened. Mo-cap performances are several stages on from this, but as long as we acknowledge that WHENEVER a movie actor wins an award, it’s for part of a group effort, and that this is true to the power of a hundred with mo-cap, there’s no reason why an effective performance shouldn’t be celebrated. If this thing continues to catch on, though, maybe a special category would be the way to go.

Obviously, ROPOTA *is* a film about revolution, and in some respects a starry-eyed one. As Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman once remarked, “the right people never get hurt,” but in Rupert Wyatt’s film of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s hyper-condensed screenplay, swift simian justice is distributed to most of the bad humans, and the movie is squeamish about depicting injury or fatality to the numerous blameless cops who get in the way.

THE APE OF RAGE

OK, I’m just going to wade in here: due to the coincidence of the film’s UK opening being a little behind the US one, it’s impossible not to think, occasionally, of the London riots. One doesn’t have to be the racist joke guy on Facebook who’s suddenly reinvented himself as a patriotic voice of reason and won the endorsement of our mean, vapid PM (himself a vandal and lout in his college days) to compare the insurrections in film and life.

Neither the riots nor the film are fundamentally about race, but it’s at the very least a  complicating factor in both. The APES series always touched on race a little, and in not quite comfortable ways, although the first film has barely a trace of this. By the time you get to CONQUEST it’s all about “ape power” and it’s a bit dubious. Including black humans as peaceful good guys in the last two films helped complicate and blur the metaphor a bit, which was useful, and casting David Oyelowo as a big pharma bad guy in the new one is even better. Really, the movie is about any oppressed group, and how violence erupts when injustice has built to such a point that the only conceivable response is a cry of “No!” and the taking up of arms. Whether the violence will actually produce any positive result has come to seem irrelevant to the perpetrator, so intolerable is the status quo.

The apes in ROTPOTA actually act with a much more effective, coherent and sensible common purpose than the rioters in London… actually, that’s unfair. The various goals of the rioters, insofar as they can be gleaned, were achieved, and delivered the short-term results they aimed at. Those were, in no particular order, (1) attaining a feeling of power by intimidating others, preferably those of a different social class, and by violating normal social rules (2) acquisition of free consumer goods (3) expression of revolt against the police. Some took part in all three activities, some in only one or two.

In fairness to the rioters (!), their festive rampage was basically spontaneous, whereas the apes had been planning theirs, at least a bit. So one uprising had only short-term goals, and probably looks a bit stupid now they’ve had a chance to think about it and now that many of them are under arrest, whereas the other had a long-term, desirable result in mind, although one that probably wouldn’t have worked if not for the movie’s other apocalyptic gambit.

What ROTPOTA does, quite usefully, I think, is show the pleasures and satisfactions of violent overthrow of the social order. In the understandable rush to condemn, there’s a tendency to view the disruptive element as alien, other, mindless and unmotivated. David Cameron has wholeheartedly embraced his predecessor John Major’s moronic sound-bite  “We need to condemn more and understand less!” A line which suits him, since he really understands absolutely fuck all. (Hearing that line first spoken, to resounding cheers, at a Tory Party Conference on the TV news was a truly chilling moment for me.) When Julien Temple was asked whether turning a race riot into a dance number in ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS risked making it seem entertaining, he protested that a riot IS entertaining and extremely exciting when you’re in one. This movie dramatizes that in a way that speaks to a contemporary audience more effectively than Temple could manage.

ANTHRO-PO-MO

While Time Burton’s inane and abortive series reboot seemed to regard its predecessors as silly, excusing its own dull humour and anything-goes sensibility (gorillas suddenly evice the ability to leap twenty feet straight up — and all because Ang Lee had just boosted wirework), ROTPOTA respects its primate ancestors and builds a credible pseudo-prequel that doesn’t slot into the series (here, Caesar is the child of a lab animal, not time-traveling chimp scientists from the year 3978) but draws upon story elements of the first, third and fourth films, producing a narrative outcome that could lead almost directly to the first movie but without necessarily requiring two thousand years of atomically accelerated evolution to do so.

Accordingly, the movie is stuffed with nods to Schaffner, Wilson and Serling’s Boulle original adaptation, some of which are glaring (can a nod glare?) and some so subtle you’ll only figure them out with a crib sheet or IMDb cross-referencing. The examples below are me taking things too far, as usual.

1) The film is set in San Francisco, which is a homage to actor James Franciscus who starred in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

2) The casting of David Hewlett as an unlucky neighbour is not only part of the actor’s ongoing project to appear only in movies about geneticists who take their work home with them (see also SPLICE), but also a reference to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: Hewlett plays a character called Hunsiker, and in SSOS there’s a character called Susie Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison. And Nova in PLANET OF THE APES is played by Linda Harrison. No relation.

3) In ROTPOTA, John Lithgow plays a man with Alzheimer’s. This is a reference to the original films’ decline into senility with the 1974 TV show.

4) In ROTPOTA, the leading man/doomsday catalyst is played by James Franco. This is a reference to James Whitmore, who plays Dr Zaius some random orang in the original film.

5) The milky eye of Koba, the scary chimp, in ROTPOTA, is a reference to Kirk Douglas in THE VIKINGS, which also features James Donald. Donald also appears in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, in which ancient visitors in a spacecraft reawaken submerged warlike tendencies in the populace of London, which is exactly what Dr Zaius fears Charlton Heston will do in the original film, as well as being exactly what David Cameron has done in modern London, only without a spacecraft.

He started well but now he’s just got silly.

TARZAN AND HIS (PRI)MATE

Since Fiona’s quite well read on the subject of interspecies communication, she was able to supply me with additional insight into the film’s exploration of the subject. “They’ve really done their homework,” she says, pointing to the moment where Caesar is punished for biting a man’s finger, an incident drawn from the life of Washoe, a signing chimp. Some very experienced people like primatologists  Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Bob Ingersoll (hero of PROJECT NIM) have praised the film for its expressive evocation of the physicality of our ape relations and sympathy with animal characters over human. There have always, or nearly always, been films that took the side of the outsider — in a way its easier, or more flattering, to take the viewpoint of a rebellious chimp than it is to relate to the fleeing citizenry who are closer to our own type — but this movie takes it further than most. The humans are all either ineffectual or wicked.

The film’s air of somewhat-authenticity even manages it to steamroller over moments of outrageous artifice, such as the presence of another signing ape in the hellish “sanctuary” where Caesar is imprisoned. “Circus ape,” is his explanation for his communicativeness, as if any circus taught signing to its orangs. But the emotional impact of Caesar finally having another of his own kind to talk to is such that the contrivance is swept aside.

Really, quite an interesting film, probably the first blockbuster to even try to do anything interesting with real-world engagement since, I don’t know, V FOR VENDETTA. And it probably incorporates its ideas more neatly than that one. This can be seen, on one level, as the first APES film in the series to be actually about our relationship with the animal kingdom.

To take us out, here’s Johnny the chimp reenacting the end of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is entirely real.

Frankenstein Must Be Unemployed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2008 by dcairns

The end of an era: 

Terence Fisher’s last film, and Peter Cushing’s last turn as Victor Frankenstein, now calling himself Dr. Carl Victor, having used up every last syllable of his name in his previous pseudonyms. Remember how there’s always a character called Karl? Now Frankenstein himself has fulfilled his destiny by becoming that Karl.

After the splashy big-budget (by Hammer standards) production of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, with it’s actual night-for-night photography and fiery denouement, F.A.T.M.F.H. is something of a chamber piece, confined after its first scenes (featuring the beloved Patrick Troughton as a grave-robber) to a lunatic asylum (The Ingolstadt Booby Hatch for Stereotypical Nutters), where the Baron has been confined, before basically taking over the place by means of blackmail.

Fiona was surprised and pleased by the film, having previously judged it by the standard of Dave Prowse’s rather O.T.T. makeup. Why hire a muscleman and then coat him in a fake muscle suit? It is a rather overdone neanderthal effect, although I’d argue only slightly more extreme than that guy in THE KILLING.

A weirdness: Madeline Smith plays a hysterical mute (screenwriter John Elder shamelessly plagiarising his own work on EVIL OF F), cured by a second trauma. Director Fisher made some of his best work after being hit by car during an inebriated stroll — his work on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED was some of the best of his career. But between those films and this one, he got drunk again, and got hit by a car again — a second trauma! – and relapsed into the more sedentary style of his early ’60s work.

Fisher wasn’t the only team member to have suffered. This is the only time Cushing played the Baron after the death of his beloved wife, Helen. Much has been written about his devotion to her, and he spent the remainder of his life in a state of mourning, requiring persuasion to emerge from seclusion to make films. To the end of his days, he would sign letters “Peter and Helen”.

Big Victor.

There’s more to this, and the first hint came from actor Brian Cox, who starred with Cushing in an episode of Hammer House of Horror. “I think there was a bit of guilt involved in all that, because he had an eye for the ladies.”

The full story, apparently: Helen Cushing was unable to enjoy sex, and told her husband that it would be alright if he wanted to seek satisfaction elsewhere. This understanding was gradually stretched until Cushing was rogering girls in the bedroom upstairs while his wife did the housework downstairs. Then, on her death bed, she told him he’d broken her heart and she could never forgive him.

Ulp.

Leaves From Satan’s Book.

The film begins: clumsy slapstick grave-robbing, grubby hamming from Troughton (he kept two families, you know), dim lighting and cramped sets and framing. Then, hope: prettyboy Shane Briant, who Hammer were grooming for stardom, plays Dr. Simon Helder, an aspiring Frankenstein who’s read all the Great Man’s works, is arrested for sorcery, although as described by the judge it sounds like something even more unspeakable: “You have been found guilty of one of the vilest of crimes. How a man of your breeding and education could fall so low as to contaminate himself with this disgusting performance…”

Actually a pretty GOOD performance!

Thrown into the nuthouse, Briant becomes Bosie to Frankenstein’s Wilde, helping the Baron with his latest bodybuilding project. Screenwriter Elder, having played fast and loose with series continuity in the past, now makes amends by giving the Baron those injured hands last seen in CREATED WOMAN, and having him attribute the injuries to “a fire… in the name of science.” Of course, regular viewers will recognise this as a little white lie, or at least a grotesque distortion. But it allows us to conclusively place MUST BE DESTROYED earlier than CREATED WOMAN, although a case could then be made for CREATED WOMAN coming after this one, but let’s not go there.

Why doesn’t the Baron have Bryant replace his hands? A mystery.

(I’m reminded why I must NEVER FORGIVE John Elder: that subplot of EVIL OF F about the Baron trying to win back his stolen furniture.)

Since he can’t operate with his scorched mitts, Doc Vic has been assisted by mute Madeline. This is a departure for Smith, since she was basically cast as an ambulatory bosom in most films of the era. Here, both her mammoth bust and tiny voice remain unexploited for most of the film (she gets a few lines at the end). It’s a touchingly inept performance, seemingly modelled on the facial expression you get on a young Springer Spaniel, all big wet eyes, but it’s powerless to mar the film. It’s kind of RIGHT. Smith seems a lovely lady in interviews, although she has a strange tendency to denigrate feminism (I guess a lot of feminists denigrated her and her work), suggesting that the entire women’s movement was the work of flat-chested viragoes jealous of her gigantic attributes (Am I distorting her argument here? Well, a bit).

The Baron is initially quite kindly here, protecting inmates from the cruelty of the warders (Ernst and the inevitable Hans) and the sexual depredations of the Director (fun actor John Stratton, not Terence Fisher). But he’s been using the inmates as a sort of talent pool, harvesting their body parts to create his latest monsterpiece, an eyeless cro-magnon lump of latex in a cage. Body of a genetic throw-back, hands of a master-craftsman, and brain of a musical and mathematical genius, as soon as Cushing can drive the brain’s owner to suicide (hanging by violin string — nasty!).

With Briant now performing the scalpelwork, we get the series’ most graphic and unpleasant operation scene yet, as the chalk-white corpse has his scalp lifted off, a literal skull-cap, and his brain (bigger than we’ve been used to seeing) deposited in the Incredible Bulk. Alone, unshaven and exhausted after the lengthy procedure, Cushing muses to himself, “If I have succeeded this time, then every sacrificewill have been worthwhile.” Add up the body count from the previous films, and those sacrifices could form quite a heap. This is the Baron’s most introspective moment in any of the films, and spoken by the haggard, aged Cushing (always gaunt, but now prematurely shrivelled at 60) it has chilling resonance.

The asylum setting, with its array of novelty inmates (the geezer who thinks he’s God, the cackling lady who spits her medicine out in a scene borrowed, astonishingly, from Kurosawa’s REDBEARD) allows both for echoes of the Val Lewton classic BEDLAM (since we spend all our time inside after the opening sequence, the madhouse becomes the world of the film and vice versa) and the life and work of Sade (and Peter Brook’s film of Peter Weiss’s MARAT/SADE, which featured future patient of Frankenstein Freddie Jones). It seems apt that a critic suggested a new certificate for REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “The S Certificate — for Sadists Only”.  Although arguably the willing suffering of a horror movie audience is more akin to masochism.

Pathos alert! The monster weeps, as the kindly-yet-demented violinist trapped within the hulking frame is horrified at his new pecs and hirsute appearance. Soon, a Cartesian dilemma presents itself: the body is overpowering the brain, asserting its dominance. Elder could have perhaps explained this with hormones and such, but prefers to mangle his science, as has been traditional throughout the series. But Cushing is undaunted: a more perfect specimen can be created by cross-breeding the artificial man with mute Maddy: “Her true function as a woman can be fulfilled.” This marks a new low for the Baron, who has just been sympathetically recounting the cause of Smith’s traumatic aphasia: attempted rape at the hands of her father. Now he’s proposing to make her brood mare to his orang-utan-man.

Briant, like previous assistants, rebels against this new abomination, resolving to mercy-kill the monster, now descended to subhuman brutishness. But the beast escapes, low-budget mayhem ensues, a past evil is avenged, and then poor Prowse is dismembered by excited inmates, harking back to Cushing’s fate at the hands of the poor in REVENGE. Cushing is injured but undaunted — the monster was a failure, but lessons have been learned. Credits role as he cheerfully sweeps up the debris, planning his next atrocity, with every suggestion that Shane and Maddy will remain by his side, assisting him.

Playful self-reference: Cushing recreates a famous moment from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

It’s a little pedestrian in pacing, but after the uncertain beginning, this film is more than worthy of the series. I actually prefer it to REVENGE and CREATED WOMAN. The Monster is preposterous (and not from Hell) but then, Christopher Lee’s makeup was just a lot of silly putty. The Baron’s theory that a beautiful mind would render those features agreeable was never really put to the test, was it?

What emerges most clearly of all in this film is that the Baron’s plans never work because he is incapable, being inhuman himself, of taking into account human behaviour. He never foresees his creations turning upon him, though they generally have sound reasons to do so, and he is likewise blind to his various assistants’ moral qualms. The series charts the decline of a scientific mind into a quagmire of brutishness, due to its inherent blindness to human nature, the very thing it is seeking to master.

Here endeth the Frankenthon.

Festival Round-Up, June 18th

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2008 by dcairns

Escaping the round of conferences at work I took in a round of movies at Edinburgh Film Festival, but since I was celebrating with graduating students last night I awoke with the proverbial “sore heid and a pocket full of sticky pennies”, too late to attend the press screening of Lucky McKee’s RED, starring Greatest Living Scotsman Brian Perfect Cox.

(The name Brian Perfect Cox derives from a graffiti on a big wooden gate at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Ferry Road. Reading simply “BRIAN’S PERFECT COCK”, it managed to be both obscene and yet oddly moving. The anonymous author simply wanted to exult in one of life’s rare perfections, and since actor Brian Cox often seems like another of those splendid anomalies, the two have become linked in  my mind.)

There was more red on display in Martin Radich’s visceral art film CRACK WILLOW. I have no idea what the title means, and little idea about the film, but it’s a searing, often lurid piece of work. Martin’s photography is even more stunning than I expected, with sodium-lit night scenes looking like scratched copper, and nightmare interiors tinged iridescent red and green. The Bennett’s, father and son, stars of Martin’s first film short, IN MEMORY OF DOROTHY BENNETT, are back, but the years have done their destructive work. One is overweight, the other aged and disabled. The scenes of son caring for father will strike a chord with anyone who has cared for an older person. But a shift has occurred — by moving the Bennetts into a fictional storyline where the father dies and the son undergoes a crisis, Martin has changed the relationship between subjects, artwork and audience. We are no longer getting a window into the private world of the Bennetts, but are seeing them perform for us, and there’s an uncomfortable element of exhibitionism to it. It’s doubtful if the younger man would be lying in his bath and urinating into the air if the camera wasn’t there to capture it. Intimate scenes of human behaviour are interspersed with show-off stunts. While the use of improvisation maintains an air of absolute emotional authenticity to the interplay between the “actors”, some scenes seem added for sensation’s sake. Long and rather nauseating scenes of the pair noisily eating seem to gloat over bodily revulsion, sabotaging the human sympathy which was the hallmark of the earlier short. Some of the nudity and swearing seem forced, straining for shock effect that refuses to come. There is a whiff of the freakshow.

(Publicity gurus please note: when promoting a low-budget film that’s a hard sell, you could at least provide more than one still. Also, “synopis” is not a word.)

More problematic still are the interpolated scenes of stylised photography and theatrical performance, in which an apparently psychotic man capers and cavorts in a tinted apartment space, sometimes thrashing in accelerated motion like that fellow in JACOB’S LADDER. If it weren’t for the more compelling spectre of the Bennetts, this might be disturbing, but it seems both tame and melodramatically contrived by comparison, even though imagery and sound design are impressive in themselves. The guy (credits are unavailable) is a brilliant physical performer though.

Nothing directly relates this action to the main thread of narrative, save a brief scene in which Bennett fils glimpses the twitchy man on a beach. A similar encounter loosely connects Bennett to a woman seen confined in what seems to be a psychiatric hospital (although it doesn’t feel like anybody connected to the production has any experience or understanding of mental illness or psychiatric care in this country), so there are three basically free-floating units of action drifting around in the film, unattached by any detectable structure.

Martin is a graduate of the Cinema Extreme shorts programme, and this is exactly the kind of thing they love — “strong” subject matter, “radical” treatment, uncertain meaning or purpose. It’s nevertheless pretty compelling, due to the skill with which it’s made. Chris Morris’ TV show Jam is cited as an influence in the Film Festival programme, but the mission of that series, to push comedy deep into the disturbing until 99% of humour is suffocated, is not shared here. Perhaps this film is heading in the other direction, driving drama into the realms of the grotesque until empathy snaps and we are left with absurdity and horror. There ARE a few laughs along the way though. The younger Bennett’s brilliant malapropism “I quite like that Allied Llama,” is my first favourite line of the Fest.

Grabbing a muffin for sustenance, I plunged into OBSCENE, a documentary on the life of Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and The Naked Lunch in America for the first time, battling through the courts to do so. It’s a fascinating story, but such an iconoclastic subject perhaps deserves a less conventional approach. Talking heads were of a high calibre though — I particularly enjoyed John Waters’ dismissal of the once-shocking I AM CURIOUS YELLOW: “It’s a limp dick and an ugly girl and talking about communism.”

A third bout of disturbed cinema followed — FEAR(S) OF THE DARK is a French animated feature anthology, interweaving several short stories written and designed by top cartoonists like Charles Burns and Lorenzo Mattoti. I liked most of the sequences, and was blown away by Richard McGuire’s wordless ghost story in which a traveller sheltering from a snowstorm is persecuted by an avenging female figure in an old dark house. Pellucid darkness (pure b&w without use of gray), tense, gasping sound, elegant movement and design clearly influenced by Edward Gorey but stopping short of the usual wholesale plunder.

Why is b&w animation suddenly so big? First PERSEPOLIS, now this — I wonder if the repulsive SIN CITY isn’t in some strange way partially responsible, in which case, it deserves some credit.

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