DIR/WRI: Paul Haggis • PRO: Paul Breuls, Paul Haggis, Michael Nozik • DOP: Gianfilippo Corticelli • ED: Jo Francis • DES: Laurence Bennett • MUS: Dario Marianelli • CAST: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody, Olivia Wilde, James Franco
Cults pray on those of us who suffer from excessive feelings of disconnection and alienation. Paul Haggis, former Scientologist, wrote and directed 2004’s Crash, an Oscar-winning argument in favour of the existence of quasi-mystical ties that both connect and redeem humanity. Crash followed a group of individuals, including Matt Dillon’s glorious forehead, as they tottered across the faultlines of their various prejudices, each eventually arriving at something on the spectrum between an epiphany and just deserts. The film’s plot was contrived, its analysis of prejudice fatally unsophisticated; still, Haggis’ faith in the power of human engagement granted his characters a sort of grace. An inscrutable moral sense animated everyone, almost-but-not-quite saving them from two-dimensionality. It’s tempting to put it all down to a displacement of faith in wacky ‘religion’ to one in a Tao-flavoured personal spirituality.
Third Person is an attempted rejection of that worldview. This is by means of obfuscation, sleight-of-hand, and an oftentimes nearly incomprehensible plot. We only have three storylines to deal with, at least. A writer (Liam Neeson) is working on a book in Paris when his young lover (Olivia Wilde) visits; an ex-soap actress (Mila Kunis) battles her child’s artist father (James Franco) for custody of the boy; a shady American (Adrien Brody) tries to help Monica (Moran Atias) find her daughter in Rome’s underworld.
So far, so Magnolia – so Love Actually. The cast is obviously strong, and bits of the scenery are in Adrien Brody’s mouth at all times. Something like the same graceful inscrutability is there. Mila Kunis’ Julia is a substantial and often unsympathetic creation, and the question marks that hang over her motivations are unusual in mainstream cinema. She’s the only character whose flaws aren’t retrospectively absolved by one or other of Third Person’s plot twists, under the weight of which the film starts to groan about halfway in. The sleight of hand that is the purview of the director of ‘Hyperlink Cinema’ (Roger Ebert’s term) then starts to look like self-abuse. Even the cinematography gets noticeably sloppier as things progress – a major sign of a lack of control or of money, of a piece of cinema ‘saved in the edit.’ And Crash’s misogyny rears its balding head. “Women have the incredible gift of being able to deny any reality,” a fatherly figure tells Liam Neeson. Monica is Roma, a thief and possibly a prostitute, and, ahem, ‘feisty’ – thus an irredeemable stereotype. And the ending – if only it were a statement of disgusted protest to walk out of a film once it’s over.
Third Person isn’t as terrible as the consensus has decided, but that’s the best thing I can say about it.
DIR/WRI: Gia Coppola • PRO: Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Sebastian Pardo, Adriana Rotaru • DOP: Autumn Durald ED: Leo Scott • DES: Sarah Beckum Jamieson • MUS: Robert Schwartzman, Devonté Hynes • CAST: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Chris Messina
Directed by Gia Coppola, the latest scion of the Coppola filmmaking dynasty, Palo Alto adapts a handful of short stories by James Franco (who also appears and co-produces) into a loosely-structured narrative about disaffected teenagers in the eponymous Californian region. Jack Kilmer (son of Val) and Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) play Teddy and April, two teenagers whose nascent attraction is complicated by Teddy’s friendship with the volatile Fred (Nat Wolff) and by April’s affair with her smarmy soccer coach (Franco). While Coppola’s focus on troubled teenagers carries some echoes of her grandfather Francis’s Rumble Fish (1983), the film most openly quotes her aunt Sofia, with one character’s wall emblazoned with a poster for her 1997 film The Virgin Suicides.
This terrain is well trodden, and not only by Coppolas. While Palo Alto’s dreamy suburban ambience is at times distinguished from that of The Virgin Suicides only by the present day setting, its sexual frankness invokes two collaborations between Larry Clarke and Harmony Korine, 1995’s notorious Kids and 2002’s little-seen Ken Park. These are certainly interesting poles between which to be suspended, but Palo Alto struggles to rise above the sum of its influences. Even the easy-on-the-ear score by Robert Schwartzman and Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange) is most notable for the way in which it juggles reference points, almost all of which originate in the ’80s.
Coppola scores highest with her two central performances. As the confused but essentially decent Teddy, Kilmer has a tender, introverted quality reminiscent of a young River Phoenix, most obviously in a hushed fireside confession of love that echoes a similar scene in My Own Private Idaho (1991). The film belongs, though, to Roberts, who is a revelation as April. Coppola’s sympathetic exploration of April’s confusion as she edges toward adult life is reminiscent of her aunt’s work with Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst, but Palo Alto works despite this familiarity because Roberts, like Johansson and Dunst, has the kind of mysterious quality that can make somebody else’s boredom and frustration compelling to watch.
The same can’t be said for Nat Wolff, saddled with the grating part of Fred, an obnoxious budding sociopath who doesn’t develop much shading, beyond an occasional sulk, as the film unfolds. Phoned in from the pages of early Bret Easton Ellis, the juvenile Fred exists solely to provide dramatic counterpoint to April and Teddy’s cautious steps towards adulthood. Nobody even passingly familiar with Franco’s half-baked career as an occasional visual and performance artist will be surprised, either, that Fred’s escalating fury eventually boils over into a stilted monologue about homosexuality. As heat-seeking gay tourism goes, it’s not quite on the level of Franco’s own Interior. Leather Bar (2013), but if we’re supposed to infer that Fred’s borderline psychosis stems from suppressed desires, there might have been a more nuanced way to get this across than through an artificial speech, delivered apropos of nothing in particular, in a parking lot.
Curiously, given its title, Palo Alto does not convey much sense of a particular place or time. This lack of specificity is both weakness and strength. While the familiarity of the film’s style and content edges it perilously close to the generic, Coppola’s affinity for the eternal struggles of teenagers gives it a universal quality. Empathic without being indulgent, and anchored by Roberts’ performance, Palo Alto hints at an intriguing future for Coppola, especially now that her debt of influence is comprehensively paid off.
DIR: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman • WRI: Andy Bellin • PRO: Heidi Jo Markel, Laura Rister, Jason Weinberg, Jim Young • DOP: Eric Alan Edwards • ED: Robert Dalva, Matt Landon • DES: William Arnold • CAST: Amanda Seyfried, James Franco, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple
Lovelace tells the life story of the star of porn’s most successful theatrical release, Deep Throat. That film reportedly earned more than $600 million, while its lead, Linda Lovelace, earned a paltry $1,250. Lovelace focuses on her relationship with tyrannical husband/manager Chuck Traynor, exposing the sinister side of the sex film industry.
Lovelace traces Linda’s development from naive, almost priggish young girl, through her brief stint as the porn industry’s megastar, to her decision to confess what it was really like. “Ordeal” was the name of her book, and her experiences are unpleasant. The film progresses first as a success story, hinting at something sinister, before going back and revealing unhappy going-ons behind the scenes.
The film notes that Lovelace’s appearance contrasts with the image expected in porn. She’s not the big-breasted blonde with a small waist. Her freckles receive much attention. Amanda Seyfried conveys Linda’s naivety and initial discomfort with her body. The film’s highlight perhaps comes in her scenes with Wes Bentley. Bentley plays a photographer, taking snapshots for the movie’s publicity posters. He encourages Linda to talk, and Seyfried shines in an emotional moment when she realises her own beauty. (One notes that Wes Bentley played the character in American Beauty who found so much beauty in the world that he couldn’t take it, an incidental intertextual pleasure.)
Seyfried also excels in her scenes with Peter Sarsgaard, excellent as Chuck Traynor. In the film’s early scenes, he imbues Chuck with an unnerving carnality as he glares and flirts with Linda. His presence is overbearing from that start, so that Chuck’s later anger and violence are not all that surprising.
Supporting cast includes enjoyable, if slight, turns by Hank Azaria as Gerry Damiano, Deep Throat‘s director, and Chris Noth (Mr Big in Sex and the City), as Anthony Romano, the film’s financier. Sharon Stone is effective as Linda’s mother. Chloë Sevigny (The Brown Bunny, more intertextuality) appears as feminist journalist, questioning Lovelace about how it feels to be “the poster girl for the sexual revolution”
Lovelace’s story has become a touchstone in debates concerning pornography. The narrative in Deep Throat addresses the problem that critics identify pornography as attempting to resolve: how to render visually female sexual pleasure. Linda’s character in that massively successful film, nowadays little seen, presents an independent woman seeking to satisfy her own sexual needs. Her search takes her outside the confines of patriarchal marriage. It locates female sexual pleasure in the clitoris, which, for Linda in Deep Throat, is at the base of her throat. So, Deep Throat became celebrated because it was a “porno with a story”, and the story presented the sexual freedom of a woman in the era of sexual revolution.
The behind-the-scenes story reveals the coercion involved in the industry. It exposes whatever pleasure is to be derived from pornography as purely male. In one scene, Harry Reems (Adam Brody) climaxes too quickly when filming Linda’s first sex scene. The crew watching the scene being performed are entirely male and clearly enjoy watching Linda fellate Harry. The same scene later becomes more chilling with the tyrannical presence of Chuck, watching and making sure that Linda takes part and does what she’s told.
Andy Bellin’s script also characterises the traditional family as coercive and problematic for women. When Linda turns to her mother for respite from Chuck’s beatings, her mother insists that she should “be a good wife, listen to him and obey him”. Linda endures further threats, violence and misery as a result of doing what’s expected of her. It’s ironic then that Linda finds happiness as a mother and a wife, ultimately presenting a conservative message: women should stick to their traditional roles. Of course, Chuck is not a role model husband, pimping his wife and expecting her to perform in porn films.
James Franco appears on the film’s fringes, playing Hugh Hefner. He recently worked with Travis Mathews on Interior. Leather Bar, a film that challenges the workings and apparent realism of pornography in a more cinematically sophisticated manner. Lovelace is itself in some ways pornographic. In a home movie clip, Seyfried’s Lovelace drops her denim shorts, to reveal her bottom in a teasing, sexual manner, whereas, in a similar clip, Sarsgaard’s Chuck “moons” playfully. Male nudity is a joke; female nudity is charged with desire. In another scene, feeling uncomfortable with her appearance, Linda’s hair hides her breasts and she covers her midriff with her arms, while the men in her life, workers in the sex industry, encourage her to reveal. The film then exposes Seyfried’s breasts in a pornographic fashion, indulging in some of the pleasures that pornography promises.
Critics believe pornography is not art because it intends to arouse; it’s affective pleasures are sensations. An appeal to rational or critical thinking makes something artistic. The appeal of Lovelace to the emotions, in its simplistic characterisation of Chuck Traynor as Svengali, becomes pornographic, in this sense, when Anthony Romano oversees Chuck’s beating, at which stage viewers will probably take delight in seeing this exploitative man getting what he deserves.
The production design, given its modest $10 million budget, is excellent, with groovy ’70s costumes. Gladys Knight sings “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” over the opening sequence, in which we cut from the light in a theatrical projection room to a shot of the sun shining through Linda’s car window. The use of classics ’70s tracks, such as Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby”, give the film an uplifting feel that begins to seem out of place, as the horror of Linda’s story becomes apparent.
Epstein and Friedman, the film’s directors, have made excellent documentaries, including The Celluloid Closet, about homosexuality in the movies, and the Oscar-winning Common Threads Stories from the Quilt, the subject of which is the AIDS memorial quilt. Epstein also won an Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk. Paragraph 175 told the story of persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany. Epstein and Friedman recently moved into fictional treatments of real people. Howl (2010) starred James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
Inside Deep Throat was a well-received documentary that features interviews with the real Linda Lovelace, who died from injuries sustained in a car crash in 2002. It perhaps explains why Epstein and Friedman resort to a fictional telling of an important story, but the complexity of the debates that Deep Throat and Lovelace’s story provoke is lost in their simplistic film that’s made enjoyable by good performances and incidental pleasures.
DIR: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg • WRI: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg • DOP: Brandon Trost • ED: Zene Baker •DES: Chris L Spellman • Cast: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Rihanna
Expanded from the 2007 short film Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse, This Is The End is the feature film directorial debut of long-time writing and producing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Having first worked together on the US version of Da Ali G Show, the childhood friends have subsequently collaborated on a total of nine films, and while Rogen has also become a major Hollywood player in front of the cameras, Goldberg has continued to be an unassuming (but pivotal) presence behind the scenes.
They have enjoyed plenty of creative control on their films to date, but This Is The End finds them being given free rein in a way that must have seemed like a pipe dream just ten years ago. Thanks to their connection with the prolific Judd Apatow, they have come into contact with a number of rising and established comedic actors, and it is therefore no surprise to see the vast majority of them make some form of appearance in this $32 million budgeted comedy romp.
The trump card of this film is that every actor in the film is actually playing themselves, or at least a version of themselves. At the centre of the piece is Canadian actor Jay Baruchel – who featured heavily in Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder but had earlier come to prominence in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. He arrives in Los Angeles to spend some time with Seth Rogen, his fellow compatriot and best friend.
Not being a fan of the L.A. party scene, he hopes to confine himself to Rogen’s abode, but the Funny People actor has other ideas, and they instead end up at the home of James Franco, who is hosting a housewarming party. There they are accompanied by a plethora of Apatow alumni including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Michael Cera, as you have never seen him before.
However, what starts as a typically rambunctious Tinseltown shindig quickly descends into something completely different. Initially oblivious to what is happening in the outside world (with the exception of Rogen and Baruchel who briefly exit the party), it some becomes clear to everyone that an apocalyptic disaster is happening before their very eyes.
Numerous guests are violently dispatched as the ground begins to crumble beneath their feet, and we are left with just six survivors – Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Robinson and Danny McBride – who barricade themselves inside the luxurious house in an appearance attempt to fend off the horrors that await them should be embark into dangerous terrain.
When you are dealing with a concept like this, it can be all too easy for the film to lose sight of what it is trying to achieve, and it certainly is true that This Is The End has moments of indulgence and is often too self-aware for its own good. As the film moves into the final half-hour, there is a lot of discussion about how they need to be to stop being so selfish and need to treat one another with good will and charity, which could be potentially off putting for some audiences.
In an overall context, though, these are only minor concerns, as given the lack of memorable comedies that have been released during 2013, the main question surrounding This Is The End is whether or not it is able to reach sufficient levels of hilarity. It is a relief therefore to say that the film does have plenty of funny moments, and is particularly at its best when the participating stars display a willingness to send themselves up.
This is especially noticeable in the case of Franco, who has really enhanced his current standing as a truly unpredictable oddball screen presence with recent roles in Oz the Great and Powerful, Spring Breakers and The Iceman. The eccentricities that have often characterised his public persona are on full display in this film, whether it be his unique art collection or peculiar choice of food and household beverages.
Credit must also go to Hill, who does a fine job of pitching his performance somewhere between suspiciously amiable and outright sarcastic. Rogen, Baruchel and Robinson all bring their customary level of comic timing to the fray, but McBride proves to be the ace in the hole as he starts off as the most troublesome and self-centred of the group and actually becomes progressively worse despite the obvious benefits of him being the polar opposite.
With improvisation high on the agenda, the stars riff off each other to telling effect, and as they try to keep themselves occupied while the world as they know it changes irreparably, they try their hand at making an amateur sequel to the popular Pineapple Express, which featured Franco, Rogen, McBride and Robinson in lead roles.
Though much of the action remains confined to the inner sanctum of Franco’s home, the biblical implications of the film dictate that they must eventually be taken out of their comfort zone, and thanks to their reasonably sized budget, they have enough to clout to develop some eye-popping special effects, and although it intends to satirise the current trend for apoca-blockbusters, it does its level best to match them in terms of scale. Whether or not this film will go down as the cult classic that Rogen and Goldberg are clearly hoping for remains to be seen, but come the end of 2013, it will certainly register in the memory banks of cinema-goers to a much larger degree than all the comedy films that have preceded it this year.
106 mins 16 (see IFCO website for details) This Is The End is released on 28th June 2013
DIR: Ariel Vromen • WRI: Morgan Land, Ariel Vromen • PRO: Ehud Bleiberg, Ariel Vromen • DOP: Bobby Bukowski • ED: Danny Rafic • DES: Nathan Amondson • Cast: James Franco, Robert Dazvi, Michael Shannon
It’s late at night. A man, dressed in a shabby robe and sporting a cheesy moustache blankly stares at a television screen. His gaze, however, is the gaze of a man on the verge of a breakdown. That man is Richard Kuklinski, one of the most notorious contract killers in American modern history, who from 1948 to his arrest in 1986 killed over one hundred men. Yet, it’s not guilt or remorse that is keeping him awake, but rather anger and frustration at an emasculating lack of work, a state of mind that has been the cause of many outbursts of tension in his household as of late. However, even as this scene develops into a fight with his wife and Kuklinski trashing the house by knocking anything that gets in his path, it concludes with the cold-blooded killer grabbing his wife, looking into her eyes and telling her passionately how much their daughters and her really mean to him.
His wife doesn’t suspect a thing about his second life. He is such a devoted family man, loving father and caring husband, that it would be impossible for her to even think of him having an affair with another woman, let alone the fact that he may be a sadistic assassin. She believes him to be working in finance and blames the frustrations of his work for the way he has been acting lately. In a way, of course, she is right, and employment is one of the themes with which Vromen plays the most – and the way in which he plays with it in turn is one of the most interesting aspects of The Iceman which, in a bizarre sense, may be an unlikely cinematic product of the recent recessionary times.
Kuklinski is morally deranged and psychotic, yet he is also a man who loves his job, whatever it may be. He also happens to be good at what he does. He loves his job as much as he loves his family, in fact he needs them both. When Roy DeMeo, leader of a gang of the Gambino crime family played here by Ray Liotta, deems him unemployable, Kuklinski replies that he needs to work and, in that sense, he is not unlike a lot of the average men who find themselves in the same position from one day to the next. Of course, the gimmick here is that his job is contract killing, and the feeling is that by doing this he gets to fill a big void in his life. A short scene where he visits his brother in prison briefly hints at the background story of a troubled upbringing, an evil father who beat him regularly and the sadistic games involving the torturing of his neighbourhood’s pets and various animals, of which the act of tying stray dogs at the back of trains is directly mentioned. Yet he chooses to abandon his brother, regardless of the fact that he is just as bad. That is because he is unable to forgive him for murdering a twelve year old girl, something he could never and would never do himself.
The Iceman is neither a sympathetic portrait nor a redemption film. Vromen chooses to remain distant and relatively neutral towards his subject, letting the audience pick sides. Yet for a character-driven storyline, Kuklinski still feels a little shallow and two dimensional; sometimes he even feels like a weaker version of Travis Bickle from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. His intensity relies almost entirely on an enchanting performance by a perfectly cast Michael Shannon, whose ice cold facial expressions and stiff but controlled movements dominate the film and almost make you forget the lack of emotional depth in the screenplay. In one of their first encounter, DeMeo points a gun at his face, and Kuklinski doesn’t flinch. Impressed, DeMeo tells him to kill a homeless man, a test which he passes with flying colours. Murder is something he has been acquainted with, and on his face he reacts to it in the same way as when he receives a kiss from his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder).
The “parallel lives” structure of the film doesn’t work to full effect, perhaps because it’s too frank. Yet, sometimes the juxtapositions are intriguing. One instance is particularly worth mentioning as a stand out moment in the film. After a conversation with his daughter, who questions the existence of God, in the following scene Kuklinski meets his next victim (played by James Franco in a cameo role, though he still gets top billing in some of the posters) and offers him to pray for his salvation. For the most part, however, this structure weakens the emotional depth of the movie. This two dimensional approach is something that is becoming somewhat of a trend in “gun crazy” dramas nowadays. That is why it’s easier to see them as satirical, much like another gangster film which was out earlier this year, Spring Breakers. The two films have a lot in common in the sense that there is almost a feeling of them walking a thin line between comedy and tragedy; in Korine’s film the comedy was more slapstick, and in Vromen’s the comedy is closer to deadpan. Nevertheless, both films are more open to graphic violence than melodrama and while both films hope to thrive on originality, they still make use of many character stereotypes.
For instance, even the humanisation of the villain is less compelling than Fritz Lang’s portrayal of Peter Lorre’s character in M, though an attempt to make him seem ordinary is more evident here than in other serial killer movies like Dahmer (2002). Yet this film is more impressive on a visual level than a narrative or thematic one. The story mostly takes place in the seventies and early eighties and seems influenced by the gritty and streetwise style of the thrillers by William Friedkin, most notably The French Connection (1971). From costumes to sets, the art direction is equally up to the task of making it look like a genuine period piece.
While in The Iceman a somewhat unique element of domestic drama is included, it seems that the screenplay is more interested in keeping the central character’s two lives separate and it’s hard to understand why, seeing as it could have been the film’s most interesting aspect. Eventually, the weakness in the screenplay start to show prominently and even the initial intensity soon starts to wane right up to the ending, which seem rushed and weak. Vromen’s film is carried by a powerhouse performance by Shannon, and while its visual style is full of nice touches, it can’t help but feel like a conventional testosterone and violence fuelled crime drama dressed in art house fashion.
DIR: Sam Raimi • WRI: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abair • PRO: Joe Roth • ED: Bob Murawski • DOP: Peter Deming • DES: Robert Stromberg • CAST: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weiz, Michelle Williams
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the merry ol’ land of Oz, so off I went in my sparkly red shoes (egg on my face though, cos there wan’t a ruby slipper to be seen in Raimi’s version) to a Sunday morning family screening of Oz The Great and Powerful.
Raimi’s film is essentially the origin story for the wonderful wizard. Oz (Franco) is a selfish circus con-man whose tendency towards smoke and mirrors has left him devoid of any real sense of self. Like Dorothy, he is swept away in a cyclone and transported to a strange and magical world where he is soon recognised as the man who is destined to rule all of Oz. In order to gain the throne and a room full of gold, he must convince them, and himself, that he’s the man they need him to be
Knowing Sam Raimi and his tendency towards playfulness I was unsurprised but no less delighted to see him open his film with 4:3 monochrome, where it stayed until we enter Oz, where he then revealed in all its 3D glory, all the beauty and spectacle we would hope to see in Oz.
The plot sees three witches struggling for power over Oz (the place AND the man), one is beautiful, naïve Theodora (Kunis) who falls in love with Oz as she leads him to meet her sister Evanora so they can plot to kill the wicked witch who has been banished to the woods but they suspect to be planning an uprising. But things get complicated when he finds the “wicked witch” and she turns out to be the beautiful, wise and good Glinda The Good.
The production design, CGI effects and cinematography are absolutely beautiful throughout the film, which instantly removed the slight alarm bell of cynicism that might have existed in me around this project. But it’s clear from the outset that love and passion went into the aesthetic of this film. Special mention must go to Gary Jones for the unbelievably beautiful costume design. All the actors seem to be having a blast camping it up in their roles (does Franco ever really do anything else?) and it’s especially nice to see Michelle Williams in a happy film for once.
At almost two and a half hours, I couldn’t help but feel that the thin plot didn’t really warrant the lengthy running time, but having said that I absolutely adored so many aspects of the film that I never really wanted it to end. Raimi’s stamp is all over the film in the most wonderful ways! His flying cameras, his sharp visual wit and not to mention his horrifying witch and flying baboons, there’s plenty on display here to keep his fans happy. But what about the most important audience of all? The children. What’s in it for them? Magic, a cute monkey, a lovely little china doll, action, scary villains and most of all a wonderful sense of what epic 3D cinema should be. Big! From where I was sitting (which was surrounded by hundreds of children) they seemed very, very pleased with themselves. One thing it is missing though – singin’ and dancin’; but I guess I can’t have it all.
DIR: Rupert Wyatt • WRI: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver • PRO: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Conrad Buff IV, Mark Goldblatt • DES: Claude Paré • CAST: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow
Sequels to the original Planet of the Apes tried and failed to explain how it came to be that Charlton Heston’s own planet was overrun by intelligent chimps – time-travelling escapees, intelligent offspring hidden in the circus, humans training apes in slave labour, etc. That these movies existed more as social commentary than story exposition meant believable causality fell to the wayside, and Tim Burton’s ‘reimagining’ did little more than remake an untouchable original with substantially less insight. After six movies if would seem that the Apes franchise might finally have worn itself out – until Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and even the new proliferation of zombie movies, has shown that returning to the beginning of a story, or showing a disaster from its inception, is a markedly more bankable option.
We unsurprisingly find ourselves in a lab, with experiments in progress that will ostensibly improve the life of humans, but which clearly must go awry in some fashion. Though this might seem hackneyed – zombie outbreaks result from labs, Spiderman was bitten in a lab, and so on – that it retains its heart and strength is down to some fantastic filmmaking, and excellent support acting. James Franco leads the human actors, and it is through his work on a cure for Alzheimer’s – which his father (Jon Lithgow) suffers from – that the baby chimpanzee, Caesar, comes into being. Franco is as solid as ever, anchoring a strong support cast, including Freida Pinto and Brian Cox, and maintaining a visual link to the motion-capture CGI apes that inhabit the film. Most noteworthy of all these, of course, is the master of motion capture – Andy Serkis… for who else could have taken on the role of a CGI ape and turned him into the sympathetic character of Caesar. Unlike the previous Apes movies, these monkeys do not talk, so we are treated to many scenes of animal communication and behaviour which, though mostly managed through CGI, never once lose the flavour of reality.
The basic story needs no more explanation than that the retrovirus created to regenerate dead cells has caused a chimp like Caesar, with no diseases, to instead create new cells – leading to heightened intelligence and a human capacity for emotion. This is an origins story that adds weight to the original, instead of taking away from it, and there is solid basis for believability. Despite Franco’s loving father routine, there is enough cause for apes to be unhappy with lab experiments, circuses and zoos, and when they finally stand up against their human oppressors the flawless CGI does not for one second let down the awesomeness of their rise.
This move marks the beginning of a new franchise – succeeding in its depth as The Dark Knight succeeded, and avoiding the pitfalls of Spiderman’s inability to follow through on disaster. While entertaining enough to find a new audience in those who have never seen the originals, it contains enough knowing nods to keep enthusiasts happy – balancing the old with the new as only a franchise usurper can.
As this is the story of origins, there is, by necessity, more narrative and background – though the action, when it does come, is well worth the wait. With solid acting, great script, fantastic CGI and firm direction, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has injected new hope into a fading idea. If this movie was good, then it appears that the ones to come will be even better!
Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details) Rise of the Planet of the Apes is released on 12th August 2011
Gemma Creagh (and some lovely, but competing website writers) got to sit down and have a chat with the writer, producer and star of Your Highness, Danny McBride.
Did you ever think you’d get to this point in your career?
It’s real crazy. I moved to LA in 1999 when I finished film school, with a bunch of my buddies like Jody Hill – who I wrote The Foot Fist Way with. We were waiting tables, trying to get by, trying to pay rent and to find our place in Los Angeles. We weren’t really too successful, so we eventually we decided to just make something ourselves and see what happens. That was the idea for with The Foot Fist Way. We tried to make something we thought would be funny and that we liked, but didn’t have a lot of money. We funded it on our credit cards for $40,000. We didn’t try to imitate a Hollywood movie or try and make it look like we had more money than we did. Instead we just embraced the lo-fi nature, making it look like it was made for 10 dollars. I don’t know what ended up happening; the next few months became a whirlwind. The film just ended up getting out there; people ended up seeing it and responding to it. Suddenly we went from having nothing going on to Jony and I getting phone calls from people like Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell – and all these guys who we really admired – and they had seen our film and were saying that they would like to work with us. It was a really surreal time! It was crazy to make something like that, and we were just worried about how many jobs we would have to take on in order to pay off the debt – for that not to have happened is awesome. We were very grateful.
Where did the idea come form?
David Green and myself went to film school. When you leave film school you tend to lead off with all these arty pretentions films so you can show people how smart you are but David was one of the guys who was like not ashamed to show that movies like The Beastmaster were part of his video collection. We had that in common. I loved those movies, they were one of the first films that captured my imagination when I was a kid. So Your Highness was a strange love-letter to the weird, perverted 13-year-old versions of us. We really approached it this way, even when it came to the comedy. The thought of this movie was about getting these huge actors – like Natalie Portman; Franco; Toby Jones; Damian Lewis and Charles Dance, and our camera department were people who had worked on Lord of the Rings with Peter Jackson, all who really approached this thing really seriously – but then undercut the whole thing with this really juvenile comedic approach. All of it was to make the younger versions of ourselves laugh.
What was the writing process for the script like?
The script was formed over the course of two years. Right before I did the Pineapple Express I sold the script, during Pineapple, Tropic Thunder, I made a loss and a lot of the time I was on the sets, in my trailer, writing the script. Working with David I know that the script is just the blueprints, the springboard, but we worked hard to make sure the story and the structure and the characters were there. However we really started to explore a lot of the comedy and the chemistry though the improv on the set.
What are the influences of Your Highness?
It really came to the forefront when we started getting the first Office series in America. We had never seen anything like that before, where the main character’s such a buffoon but then when he doesn’t get the promotion you really feel sad for him. I love comedy that teeters on the edge of tragedy the whole time. I think that’s what we try to do with Eastbound & Down, really ride the line, making it really dark. It has moments of it being really dirty and foul but at the same time there’s a tragedy that undercuts it. I don’t think with this movie we try to go so much into that dark territory, but it still plays with that concept of ‘what does it take for the audience to root for someone’. I think with a story like this, if we were just to do he straight up version where we’ve followed Franco’s character, who’s just the ‘Good Knight’, where would we really find the comedy if were weren’t going to do a straight up spoof? In ours we found it a little better by shifting who the audience was supposed to be followed. The protagonist is not the same one you’ve seen in this type of film before. You can run them though the same clichés that they hit in these movies, but there’s always a different angle to it comedically as you haven’t seen a character like this go through those steps.
How did you get James and Natalie attached to it?
We’d worked with James on Pineapple Express, and David and I had a really good time with him. We had written the character of Fabious for James. And Natalie? David was in talks with Natalie on another film and she had heard about this film that we were trying to do and wanted to get involved. She actually was really open to the idea, which was surprising to us! But I knew she had this great sense of humour since I had seen her Saturday Night Live Gangster rap music video. I thought that was amazing, she had this image of being a serious accomplished actress and to see her just undercut that in this video was just hilarious. We were just stoked to have her in this movie to do a little bit more of that.
What can we expect from Eastbound & Down?
We’re still writing the third season now and with the last season you find out that Kenny is going to be a dad… the next season is going to explore that even more. Kenny is going to try and be a dad while making one last run for glory. We aim to finish the series with this next season. We always saw it as something we wanted to keep small and compact. With a lot of shows in the states, the seasons are so long, 24 episodes, that you kind of tune in and tune out during episodes and we wanted to do something different.