Posts Tagged ‘Tim Burton’


* We* are the music makers… and *we* are the dreamers of dreams.

  

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others.  100 minutes.  ***

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. * 1/2

Let’s get this out of the way, right at the beginning.

Despite a lifetime of voluminous reading that began in childhood, I have never actually picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I have read some of that master’s short stories, notably the grisly and often-filmed modern “Lamb To The Slaughter” and “The Man From The South,” but I have never actually read Charlie.  I therefore come to Willy Wonka’s factory with no preconceptions, no fidelity to a version that exists between pages. Anything I might say about one version’s faithfulness to its story is knowledge I might have picked up by osmosis. Unlike  our previous two part essay on films starring the Three Musketeers, this one will not and cannot refer to a ‘definitive’ take, based on the characters originally portrayed in a beloved book; it can only talk about what works best on screen.

There is, as we’ll see, enough to note on that basis alone.
  
Both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory deal with the adventure of an impoverished young boy named Charlie Bucket, who lives in a hovel with an extended family that includes two sets of bedridden grandparents, perpetually sharing the same king-sized mattress in an arrangement that must lead to any number of broken noses whenever one of them kicks suddenly in the middle of the night. Charlie is a paragon of virtue, given his circumstances; he works to support his family, endures a ridiculous host of deprivations, and never complains, mever even seems to think of complaining.

Then one day, the reclusive but world-famous candy maker Willy Wonka, master of a factory that continues to churn out delicious confections decades after firing all its workers and shuttering its doors, announces that he will open his doors to five children lucky enough to find the golden tickets that have been inserted into five Wonka bars, worldwide. Each child will be able to take one adult family member and each one will win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. The first four tickets go to kids who are all truly rotten, for one reason or another; the fifth lands in Charlie’s hands, and he takes the tour along with the other winners, their equally terrible parents, and his own suddenly – one would almost say ‘suspiciously’ — ambulatory grandfather.

(Watching the film as an adult, reality intrudes and it’s hard not to feel suddenly angry at Charlie’s grandpa, who has been lying in bed for years, while his family rotted in poverty and his grandson grew up eating weak cabbage soup for every meal. Talk about lazy bums who needed to go out and get a job. This is not a profitable train of thought, though, any more than it’s profitable to despise Willy for firing all the local workers and bringing in a tribe of little people willing to live in the factory and be paid in cocoa beans. Right there, you have both the rationale behind Occupy Wall Street and the response of the opponents who tell the demonstrators to stop whining. In either case it’s not something you want to think about very much. As we’ll see in our discussion of the first film, this is a fable, that exists in an isolated moral universe.)

In any event, all of Charlie’s fellow winners, and their parents  and the other winners, are driven by their own individually awful brands of awfulness to meet whimsically horrific fates in a factory that has certainly never been inspected by OSHA. And in the end, it turns out to all come down to Willy’s desire for a deserving heir, to carry on his confectionary work.

Both films stick to this skeletal plot very closely, but in practice they couldn’t possibly be more different.
 

 

Two Willy Wonkas

The key difference is in the character of Willy Wonka himself.

He makes no sense viewed in grown-up terms. A genius businessman who lives by himself in a factory that seems to run on whimsy, its only current employees a diminutive race of men who sing germane songs while they work, he is clearly a fantasy figure, a magician, a wizard whose magic manifests as chocolate instead of bright bolts of light. Any real attempt to deconstruct him makes about as much sense as trying to reverse-engineer the Easter Bunny.

The key to recognizing why one Willy works and why the other does not is examining the context.
 
In both films, Willy Wonka exists in a universe where access to his factory is the most important thing in the entire world. It’s just about the only thing that anybody talks about, the only issue that matters. The first film has some fun establishing that this extends, to a ridiculous degree, to adult society, where one newscaster confesses that there must be stories more important than Willy’s contest but that he honestly cannot think of any; where an auction house sells off the last box of Wonka chocolate in England at a highly inflated price; and where a woman whose beloved husband has been kidnapped needs to think before giving up his box of Wonka chocolate bars as ransom. This is absurdity, but it’s absurdity that sets up the laws of its fantastical universe, that establishes Willy Wonka as, really, the most important man who ever lived. In this context, he’s not just some rich guy, exploiting the workers and running a scam contest. In a child’s terms, he’s not Donald Trump. He’s Santa Claus: the god, or perhaps Mephistopheles, of chocolate.

On the story’s chosen level, it therefore makes more moral sense that he should damn well act that way,

And while both Willy Wonkas are colorfully-clad eccentrics with childlike priorities, strange hair and an impatient streak that sometimes bubbles over into cruelty, they otherwise couldn’t be farther apart.

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is, among other things, an adult. He is charismatic, and he is charming. He is enough of a showman to enter with a painful limp and then reveal with a flourish and somersault that he’s just kidding.. When the contest winners enter his gates he is friendly enough to share introductions with both the children and their guardians, and to give them all the benefit of the doubt until they rapidly prove themselves to be a bunch of intolerable creeps. Even though disaster repeatedly strikes along the way, there is never any doubt, at any point, that he’s ever in less than full control. When he assures Charlie, at the end, that the kid who drowned in chocolate and the kid who went down the chute to the incinerator and the kid who was turned into a giant blueberry and the kid who was shrunken to infinitesimal size will all be restored to full health, there’s no doubt that he’s telling the truth, and that there was never any real danger, to any of them, at any point. The sense is that he was always testing Charlie, and – though this is not stated aloud, it is my personal interpretation – that he somehow arranged for Charlie to get that last golden ticket in the first place. We trust and like that Willy Wonka. It’s a happy ending, for Charlie to end up with him.

Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is not only manifestly not an adult,  but he’s a pale, nervous, infantile, disturbed, broken caricature of a man, twisted by childhood trauma, and so asocial that he nervously resists being introduced to the various kids  who have come to tour his factory. There are times when he seems downright evil. Some of this is actually fun – it’s amusing, for instance, that he always accuses Mike Teavee of “mumbling” whenever that boy points out something that doesn’t make logical sense. But the movie doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether this Willy Wonka is taken aback when disaster befalls the various nasty children, takes pleasure in it, or has maliciously planned it. There’s a genuine qualitative difference between Wilder’s Wonka, a man who doesn’t dwell in the real world but who seems to exist on some plane superior to it, and Depp’s Wonka, a man who has retreated from that real world in fright. Wilder’s Wonka is the ultimate prize Charlie wins: a magical friend, an understanding father. Depp’s Wonka is a good reason for a restraining order.

Nor is this a subtle thing. Tim Burton’s Chocolate Factory  builds up a substantial amount of good will with its visual wit and flawless pacing, up to the moment that the contest winners enter the factory. It is, to this essayist’s eyes, actually a substantially better film than the original for as long as the opening act lasts, in that it’s better at establishing the mystery of the factory, smarter when it comes to dramatizing and visualizing the squalor of Charlie’s everyday life, more impressively photographed, and – though this may get some hate mail – more merciful in sparing us a couple of songs that are difficult to sit through today. It seems poised to enter classic territory. Then Willy Wonka enters and opens his mouth. And he’s so bloody wrong, less P.T. Barnum than Boo Radley…if Boo Radley were not, at heart, a good neighbor, but a predatory one…that in less than a minute, the quality trajectory is recognizably steered toward the abyss. It’s hard to remember the last time a great actor sabotaged a film so quickly. Unless you remember, let’s say…Jack Nicholson and that previous Burton film, Batman.

The history of movies is a history of great directors who have forged lasting partnerships with great actors, and who did their best work with those actors; partnerships where both were better together, than they usually were apart.  John Ford made classics with John Wayne. Akira Kurosawa made more than a dozen all-time classics with Toshiro Mifune. Martin Scorcese had such a partnership with Robert De Niro and has started another one, almost as fruitful, with Leonardo DeCaprio. Tim Burton’s actor of choice is Johnny Depp. And though it has been profitable for both, the sad fact is that it has also been intensely limiting for Depp, in that Burton seems determined to always cast him as twitchy, pale-faced, freakish child-men…and that, between his collaborations with Burton and his success in the Pirates Of the Caribbean series, Depp has made a disproportionately large number of films where he played cartoons and disproportionately few where he played recognizable, nuanced human beings. It’s repetitive, and disappointing…and in this version of the Wonka story, downright unpleasant.

But that’s not even the main problem.
  

The Quality Differential In Oompa-Loompas
 

Roald Dahl’s original book was subjected to charges of racism because of its Oompa-Loompas, who were specifically African pygmies, and therefore by implication slaves being exploited in Wonka’s factory. (Dahl therefore changed a few things, in subsequent editions.)

The Oompa-Loompas of the 1971 film are little orange men with green hair, a visual design that happens to have two benefits. First, it frees them of any accidental insulting similarity to an existing race. Second, it eliminates their humanity. Some lip-service is given to them being an isolated tribe from Oompa-Land, but that might as well be Oz; what they are, really, is a magical race  like elves or dwarves; why not put them to work in a factory? They’re not serving mammon, they’re serving Willy’s perverse take on virtue.

The 2005 film makes the mistake of showing the Oompa-Loompa tribe in their homeland and dramatizing the contract negotiations where Wonka arranged to have them stay in his factory and be paid in cocoa beans. They all have a recognizable human skin tone and they are, in close-up at least, recognizably people. The racism is subtly restored.

(And while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear on this. In 1971, it was just barely acceptable that all the children who found golden tickets were white. In 2005, that story element is significantly more uncomfortable. If it can be forgiven at all, that’s because it’s hard to imagine any race feeling slighted in not having one of their own cast as one of the other, awful alternatives to Charlie. How racist would it be to have a fat black kid as Augustus Gloop, or a Japanese kid obsessed with video games as the Teavee brat? Let us shudder, and move on.)

The means the two films use to bring their Oompa-Loompas to the screen are also completely different.

The 1971 film made do with a bunch of authentically little men in costumes. The 2005 film used CGI to multiply actor/musician Deep Roy into dozens of simulacra of himself, performing in synchronized dances. It’s an impressive trick, but a grotesque one, in that the 2005 Oompa-Loompas are not little people but shrunken ones, who look disconcertingly unreal whenever they are made to appear beside actors of normal dimensions.  There are also, as a result, any number of scenes where the film seems more interested in showing off the cleverness of the technique than in serving the needs of the story. This is nowhere more true than in the scene where obese kid Augustus Gloop is sucked into the transparent tube; dozens of little Deep Roys perform an Esther Williams water ballet in the chocolate river around him, which is a) deeply unfunny, b) intrusive on the actual meaning of the moment, and c) a pop-culture reference so dated that it’s designed to sail over the heads of not only the kids watching the film, but also their parents and in some cases their grandparents. (It’s, as we shall soon see, a pervasive problem.) Six orange Oompa-Loompas popping up and down on their knees has infinitely more charm than dozens of CGI Oompa-Loompas performing overelaborate production numbers that only serve to make an already noisy film even noisier. It’s one of the many places where the advances in technology and the deeper pockets of the production actually betray the 2005 film. (The extended sequence aboard the glass elevator would be another.)

But that, also, is not even the main problem.
   

Another Problem: Overindulgence in In-Jokes and Self-Referential Humor 

The 1971 Chocolate Factory was the product of a less cynical, less media-savvy age, and exists entirely within its own universe. No other pop culture intrudes. No winking intrudes.

Since then we have have had pop-culture spoofs and Shrek movies and any number of other films that congratulate the audience on its familiarity with pop-culture precedents (though, of course, that knowledge is ankle-deep, as the references only rarely flag stuff more than a decade old). And it is now common, indeed almost expected, for a movie to step away from itself and comment on the action, in effect reminding us that it’s a movie, which in effect diminishes it.
 
This is why the 2005 Chocolate Factory has dialogue pointing out that the Oompa-Loompas seem to have a song pre-written for every occasion, and how forced this is. That is also why the Teevee brat gets to snarl, “Why is everything (in this factory) completely pointless?”, a line of dialogue of the sort that resonates deeply in any movie that has long since outstayed its welcome.

That’s why Tim Burton includes that parody of an Esther Williams water ballet, which is a fine thing if you think the kids in the audience will point and hoot, “Look! A parody of an Esther Williams water ballet!”

This is why there’s dialogue talking about how unlikely it is that the Oompa-Loompas have songs pre-written for every occasion. (Ha ha. A musical, pointing out how ridiculous musicals are. Ha, ha, ha. That is hilarious. Actually, it can be. See Urinetown. But it’s just forced, here…and it comes off as the movie, trying to be superior to itself.)
 
That’s why there’s a painful joke involving the supposedly world-traveling young Willy Wonka parading proudly past a montage of flags of the world, that suddenly becomes literalized when we are told that it’s not filmic shorthand but actually the young Willy, marching through a museum exhibit of flahs of the world. (Ha-ha.)

Winks like this have a way of destroying a story. They don’t always. After all, Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impression doesn’t ruin Some Like It Hot. But they work best when they’re organic, when they can be glossed over, when they’re functioning parts of a tale that doesn’t stumble over them as if they were speed bumps. The knowing humor in Tim Burton’s film constantly deflates the story being told.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene in the 2005 film, in many ways a remake of a scene from the 1971 film, where Wonka demonstrates the invention that transports chocolate via television. As apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey cavort around a monolith on the TV image, the soundtrack plays “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a huge candy bar becomes a monolith, itself. Ha, ha, ha. As if parodies of the 2001 monolith and evocations of Also Sprach Zarathustra hadn’t become clichés by 1969; as if 2005 kids were going to say, “Ha-Ha, 2001!”; as if many of their parents  were going to get the reference and that most of them weren’t also going to be bored by it; as if this is particular joke (or a subsequent joke about the Psycho shower scene), weren’t less about telling the story than about Tim Burton the film buff evoking movies that were much better than this one – or for that matter any he has made.
  

(Rule of thumb: don’t quote a great movie in your less-than-great film. Especially don’t show us a scene from that movie. The audience will resent it when that much better movie goes away…that is, if they recognize it all.)

The impression this device leaves is that film buff Tim Burton is bored by the movie he’s actually making and had to find some other way to amuse himself. This is never a good impression for any moviemaker to make.

But that is also not the main problem.

Nor is the main problem something the Oompa-Loompas allude to, in the song they sing after Mike Teavee is shrunken to miniscule size; they moralize about how TV brutalizes the imagination, immediately after a film that literalized so much at such high volume that it brutalized the imagination pretty horrifically itself. Though it’s never good for any movie to accidentally critique itself, the problem lies elsewhere.

Other Issues

There is much in the 2005 version worth admiring. The design of the Bucket house, for instance. The performances of such worthies as Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Fox. The performance of its Charlie, who unlike the original actually can act.  (Actually, all the kids were better.) Some of the lines of dialogue. Some of Willy Wonka’s bits of business. The staging of the sad fate of Violet.  2005’s “Bad Nut” joke is no substitute for 1971’s “Bad Egg” joke, but hey, kids in 2005 may not have heard the phrase “bad egg” and something had to be done.  The grandfather does not have the charm of Jack Albertson, but brings his own. And unlike the first movie, which is as flatly and unimaginatively staged as any beloved film can be, it shows a genuine sense of visual flair, though that seems to be Burton’s great skill and is no real substitute for skill at storytelling.)
 
Some of the 2005 version doesn’t work nearly as well as the original. Willy’s chocolate wonderland from the 1971 film is a practical set and not the vast CGI-enhanced locale of the 2005 version, but works about twenty times better. (It, too, represents the difference between teasing the imagination and clubbing it.)

The real problem comes at the point of the story where, in 1971, Charlie has every reason in the world to betray Willy Wonka and decides instead to be true to himself and not go for the quick payday. That’s the key moment of the 1971 story; everything else leads up to it. It is a moment of karmic justice that kids and adults can appreciate. In 2005, Charlie has a much easier decision: not abandoning his family by agreeing to live with this rich but profoundly dysfunctional man instead. It’s a much easier decision, poor as his family is; we can see that they have always loved him, and only a terrible kid who valued money or everything else would turn his back on them.
  
Missing this, the entire point of the 1971 version, the 2005 version decides to hinge on how exposure to this profoundly decent kid improves the broken Willy Wonka for the better; and thus goes on to explain how Willy reconciles with his son-of-a-bitch father (Christopher Lee). But there’s a major problem with that. Lee projects so much stern evil in the prior flashbacks that, frankly, it’s hard not to conclude that this was one of those families that was better off estranged. Christopher Lee may improve any movie he’s in just by standing there, and it may be a real hoot to posit him as Willy Wonka’s Dad, but he’s better, in this film, projecting villainy than he is when reconciling with his wayward, peculiar son.
  
The whole movie leads up to an emotional catharsis it honestly has not earned.

And that’s the fatal problem, the one that ultimately turns it into a colossal bummer.
 

The River Of Chocolate

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a minor classic that soars in the performance of its star, Gene Wilder. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, a movie that for a long time also seems poised for greatness until the moment its star walks on screen. I’ll see Willy again, gladly; I don’t think I’ll ever want to take another run at Charlie, which earns most of its star grade for its excellent staging of everything that happens before Willy Wonka shows up. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

And now, eight miniature orange versions of the wife march in singing, “Oompa-Loompa, Oompaty-Ooh, I’ll Critique This Movie For You….”

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others. 100 minutes. ***1/2

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. *

Yippee!!!   This set of reviews gave me the grand opportunity to be as annoying to my hubby as he has been to me while rewatching films for these columns.  How so you may ask?  Well, Adam is a lot like those wonderful folks in the theater who already know the story, they don’t exactly give it away, they just throw enormous hint boulders at you. “OOh watch what happens here, you’ll never believe it”.  This time I got to sing along and speak the lines all through the viewing of the 1971 film.  I was sooo darn happy.  Now, he too got into the Oompah Loompah songs, but not nearly as effusively as me. For you see, I have always loved this film!

Now, when the 2005 Tim Burton film was announced, I was a bit worried , but very hopeful.  In the years between, I had read the Charlie books and knew that some differences were to be had from the sweet/slightly frightening Gene Wilder portrayal to the Wonka of the books. I wondered how the overwrought genius of Edward Scissorhands would rework the seminal figure.  YOWCH!!

What Burton and Depp wrought was a savage, over psychological mess.  This man/child twitches and tics his way through his half of the film and leaves the audience wondering why he was so beloved by past employees.  Sure the man makes great candy (not the stuff at out stores, the imaginary stuff of the film), but I can’t see how he could run an internationally recognized snack food corporation with his mind ripped to shreds by parental abuse issues.

What Burton did right was the visualization of Charlie’s impoverished family. The look and feel of the Bucket homestead are nearly perfect. The familial warmth as good as the 1971 film and the feelings evoked from the books.

He ruins the factory by overdoing it.  The initial welcome scene tells the audience that the tour is a nightmare come true, not the dream they are hoping will be.

And, must I mention the horrid Oompah Loompah.  Singular, not plural.   Does Tim Burton dislike little people,  that he could only abide one on set? Or, was this a cost cutting measure gone horribly wrong?  Having one man play an entire tribe of overeager, happy slaves just blew the magic apart of the happy little lessons “they” sing.  I can recite the lyrics of the 1971 Oompah lessons, but I can’t even remember the tune to hum it for the 2005.  Not the best move for posterity there.

Okay, so I’m obviously prejudiced  in this matter.  But I need to assure you, I don’t hate the Burton/Depp mess, I just don’t like it all that much.  And, if you ask me to show a child the movie made from the Dahl books, Well…figure out which I’ll grab every time.


Are we not all apes, in the bigger scheme of things?

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, others. 88 minutes. * 1/2

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa and Pamela Silver, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis. 105 minutes. ***

Related Films: A host of Planet Of The Apes movies, from both incarnations. Plus a TV-show, and, ummm, Spartacus, I guess.

*

Of all the films that play the remake game, Conquest and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes probably have the most reflexive, Moebius-Strip geneology. Consider:

1) Because time travel (in both directions) informs the backstory of the first set of movies, the first version of this particular story is simultaneously both sequel (as it details the adventures of a chimp whose genes originated in a post-apocalyptic future) and prequel (as it details how he makes a version of that future come to pass).

2)  Because the first Planet Of The Apes was remade, badly by Tim Burton, in a version that failed to make a lick of sense, this latest incarnation is not really billed as either sequel or prequel to that film but shows signs of being aware of the first Planet’s backstory.

3) It can also be seen as a stand-alone film, and probably should be.

So what you have here is ipso facto, a stand-alone film that is also a remake of a film that is both prequel and sequel. (And then, the makers deny that it is a remake, which only complicates this; but then some of us have memories that extend back as far as earlier in the year, when the makers were less shy about trumpeting its connections to the earlier Conquest).

This is almost as impressive as though not nearly as elegant a feedback loop as  a sequel to a remake which is itself a remake of a sequel.

Either way, both stories detail the lonely struggle of a super-intelligent chimp named Caesar, freeing his less evolved brethren from bondage to human beings, in the first of a series of events that will, we’re meant to understand, culminate with those apes in charge of the Planet Earth. But both deal with that story germ in significantly different ways; the first is shackled to a torturous backstory and a minimal budget and really doesn’t work all that well, and the second has the benefit of advanced technology as well as the performance of a guy who, by now, really does deserve to be a household name. Let us now take a look at both.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972)

The lower budgets and more limited technical capabilities of some past films sometimes required its viewers to fill in some blanks, a responsibility that was sometimes good for our collective imaginations but which also sometimes smacked us in our faces when we were faced with circumstances where those imaginations had to fail.

For instance, take the various species of ape in the original Charlton Heston Planet Of The. The makeup that permitted McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and divers others to hobble about as hyper-evolved chimps, orangs and gorillas was a marvel, in that it both evoked the desired level of otherness while still permitting the thespians to act. It also left the actors recognizable to some small degree, even if, in one famous incident, Heston later encountered Hunter at a party and had absolutely no idea who she was even though the movie they’d just made together had included a scene where they’d kissed goodbye. Hunter was reportedly very amused. She must have enjoyed watching Ben-Hur wrack his brains as he wondered how the hell he knew her.

In the context of a science-fictional universe, subject to lord alone knew how many millennia of evolution, it was acceptable that the creatures evoked but didn’t actually look all that much like the species of ape we know from the real world. They were apelike but humanoid; animalistic, but civilized. It wasn’t anything anybody saw reason to remark upon, except insofar as the story remarked upon it already.
 
But this became somewhat more problematic as the arc of what had become an extended movie series sent two apes back in time and obliged them to set a hyper-evolved chimp, the future Caesar, loose in that famous science-fictional realm, “the near-future.” By Conquest, a plague established in Escape From has killed all cats and dogs and set humans to seek animal companionship somewhat further up the evolutionary scale, a development that has eventually led to chimps, orangs and gorillas doing menial work in our cities as a kind of downtrodden slave race.

Here, the same makeup that worked in Planet Of The  now fails miserably. Even if the viewer refrains from analyzing the images on screen to the degree a science fiction writer would, he can see that the apes shuffling about on the city streets are not the apes we know from our world, but a kind of strange hybrid, half-man, half-ape, that is for some reason being treated by fascistic human beings as all ape. The proximity to our time wrecks the illusion and adds a layer of cheese thick enough to make a dietician blanch. Especially to our modern eyes, accepting it requires active forgiveness on the part of the audience – which may have been possible in 1972 when this was the fourth film in a blockbuster franchise, but is pretty damn difficult when the movie is watched as a stand-alone artifact.

Second problem, which may be almost impossible for people of our era to comprehend: in 1972, sequels to hit movies were not given larger budgets than the originals. They were asked to get by on less. This was in part because sequels were  not widely respected (Heston, for one, played his role in the first Ape sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, reluctantly and with a clear sense of sheepish embarrassment), but also because it was felt that the name was enough to get asses into theatre seats and that larger budgets were therefore unnecessary. Conquest did not have the money to build a futuristic city, so it staged all the action around a number of ugly concrete-and-steel municipal plazas, often in closeups designed to hide any revealing contemporary details that might have been invisible around corners or over the tops of buildings. It is difficult to escape the impression that the action involves no more than about six city blocks. The scale seems tiny, cramped, and ugly.

The third problem is that this future society sure likes public address systems. Cops don’t have dispatchers; they have loudspeakers telling them exactly where they need to go to break up riots. Guys at control panels don’t tell their co-workers to do something; they broadcast it to the entire building so everybody within ten blocks knows what orders are being given. This is the opposite of fascism, which usually tends to be a little more secretive. This is just being pushy.

Fourth, the story has many moments that are just plain stupid. Take the fate of Armando (Ricardo Montalban), the kindly circus owner who was entrusted with the infant Caesar at the end of the prior film. Now Caesar’s surrogate Dad, he takes the evolved chimpanzee, the only one in the world who can reason and speak, for a visit to the big city where the future liberator ape will receive his first glimpse of the slavery to which others of his kind are subjected. Caesar is warned at length that the authorities have never given up on finding the offspring of his deceased parents, who is regarded as a clear threat to humanity’s survival. The chimp nods and says that he understands and naturally reveals himself by shouting an angry epithet at some fascistic cops in the first few minutes of the film (an act that proves he may be sentient, but is not necessarily intelligent, if you can get the difference). Write that off as a moment of youthful passion on Caesar’s part and you still arrive at the next logical development, Caesar on the run pretending to be another uncomprehending ape, while Armando falls into the hands of the police and is interrogated at length over his charge’s whereabouts.

Interrogated at length, Armando tells the cops at length, I don’t know about any talking ape.  This, if you believe the film, goes on for days. The cops say that they’ve decided to believe him, then bring out a magic futuristic device which forces people to tell the truth. This, in turn, obliges Armando to leap out a nearby, conveniently breakable window to avoid narking. Which is great when it comes to providing this film with a taste of tragedy, but really: if the fascist cops of this posited era have such a device on hand, and believed all along that Armando was lying and that finding Caesar was high priority, why keep that device locked up and only haul it out when their prisoner believes that he’s pulled a fast one? How much time have they wasted, by their lights, just to keep the past and future Khan Noonian Singh in suspense all those hours while they sweated him? That’s dumb. Or mean: the kind of thing Dick Cheney would do, just to prove he can be sufficiently cruel to suspected terrorists.

More clumsy plotting manifests when Caesar is placed on the auction block. The villain of the piece, Governor Breck (Don Murray), who seems to have few government duties other than snarling, spots him from a distance and says, there, that ape, THAT’S the one I want as slave. Since Breck has been ranting about the missing Caesar at length, it is easy to believe at this moment that Caesar has in some way betrayed himself, or that Breck has in some way spotted him as the super-ape he’s hunting. But, no: the purchase is totally random, Breck just happening to have the impulse to buy the one ape he’s looking for. This would be forgivable were there an important narrative reason for it, but no; in fact, it serves the story only so Caesar can find himself in the same room with Breck and hear some of Breck’s vicious ranting about the threat posed by the apes. After which, Breck just as quickly decides, no, I don’t want this ape as my bartender after all.

Deep Racial Sensitivity

The other major purpose in inviting the chimp up to job interview as bartender is introducing him to MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), who, as a black guy, is sympathetic to the plight of lower-evolved simians being used in slaves. (This is not my characterization, but, inherently, and wincingly, the film’s; a side-effect of the recent developments of the Civil Rights Movement being that some cinematic allusions to it were not only strident and obvious but, as in this case, tone-deaf.) MacDonald must endure a number of moralistic sentences about the indignities suffered by the apes that begin with phrases like, “You, of all people…”  He takes this with the expected level of stoic nobility. Today we wish we could peel away that actor’s skull and see what was going on inside his brain: perhaps a number of sentences that began with, “Fine, so I’m the human face of the chimps, now. Thanks a fuckload, whitey.”

Anyway, Caesar rallies his fellow apes via a series of secret meetings (arranged via methods that are swiftly glossed over in this society where two or more apes congregating in a public place can be met, on sheer principle, by riot police). He is captured but freed in part because MacDonald intervenes. Violence ensues, and after the titular “conquest” (actually, a street riot, which the movie acknowledges will soon be put down), Caesar rants some inspirational words about how word of his act of defiance will soon spread throughout the world, and reach every place where apes are held in bondage.

“Where there is fire,” he says, “ there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!”

McDowall, bless him, actually manages to sell this. As he also manages to sell an immediate pull-back, when the apes seem about to beat the captive Brock to death.

“But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the night of the fires, and those who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God, and if it is Man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion, and understanding.”

Way to be mushy, Caesar.

As it happens, this was not even close to a sufficient bridge to the final film in the series, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, so the makers of that one had to provide a flashback which establish that a convenient nuclear war erupted almost immediately after the events of this film. It was a nuclear war that had nothing to do with any of Caesar’s actions; it just happened, and left the apes on top. So what we have here, really, is a movie about an incident that doesn’t amount to much, that doesn’t have any resounding effects, and is rendered wholly irrelevant by events that took place off-screen not long afterward. Nice going.
  
Incidentally, the less than impressive direction was, believe it or not, by a pro responsible for at least one genuine, pulse-pounding classic: J. Lee Thompson, who had about a decade earlier made The Guns Of Navarone. See what difference a budget, a script and enthusiasm for the source material makes?

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

In between the 1972 and 2011 versions we had a much-derided Planet remake by Tim Burton that didn’t do much to advance the fortunes of the franchise, and which may have come to naught had not somebody skipped forward several sequels and alighted on Conquest as the one with the germ of a story that might be revisiting all by itself.

Early publicity actually had it called Rise Of The Apes, which might have been preferable, as it’s not only a decent film with some actual resonance to the way we treat our fellow creatures, but one good enough to deserve to stand apart from a now-hackneyed franchise.

Which is, really, not saying that it fires on all cylinders. Its main problem, really, is that it comes alive only when the apes, led by this film’s Caesar (a wondrous motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis,  the unheralded human face behind Lord Of The Rings’s Smeagol and Peter Jackson’s King Kong), are on-screen. The film makes Caesar a sympathetic, flawed three-dimensional being, and accomplishes much the same for many of his  fellow apes, but neglects to do the same for any, repeat any, of the human characters. They all speak in declarative sentences that propel the plot, and sometimes in villainous utterances that propel our hatred for them, but none of them have fully-rounded personalities, not even Will Rodman (James Franco), the dedicated Alzheimer’s researcher whose formula makes the infant Caesar smarter than the average ape. Sure, we know that he’s driven by love for his ailing, demented father Charles (John Lithgow, best of all the hairless apes on display), and he’s far as we can see a nice guy who means well, but it would be nice if he was actually memorable in some way, if he was a person whose fate we cared about and whose presence on screen was more than an interruption in the fateful saga of Caesar. As it is, his romance with pretty young veterinarian Caroline Arinha (Frieda Pinto) is about as bloodless a pairing as anything we’ve seen in movies for years.

Most human beings in the film don’t make out even that well. Tom Felton, who played a snotty, cruel twerp in the Harry Potter series, plays a snotty and cruel twerp here; way to enlarge your range, Tommy. (And, yes, I know that he’s a working actor, at the mercy of whatever role comes next; I’m just saying.) There’s a next-door neighbor named Hunsinger (David Hewlett), who out of some misplaced understanding of the rule of conservation of characters must be the story’s designated abrasive asshole and the guy who makes things worse every single time he appears; thus, he not only wields  excessive force against Caesar when the baby ape gets loose, but also assaults the clearly confused Charles for getting behind the wheel and damaging his car and is cast as the human face of the deadly plague that, we’re meant to understand, goes worldwide and wipes out human civilization within days of the final fade to black. To call treatment of his character, and of Felton’s, and of a number of others, unforgivably primitive on the face of it is to understate the case. It’s rubber-stamp writing, which is dumbfounding in a film that has such a fully-realized, fully-imagined character at its center.

Because Caesar himself is a wonderment, maybe the most fully realized movie ape since any version of King Kong. A character who, unlike the predecessor played by Roddy McDowall, pretty much doesn’t speak except via the sign language he’s been taught (and eventually via the few words he eventually manages to vocalize), he inhabits the center of a movie that is, pretty much, the arc of his life: from the brutal trapping of his pregnant mother in Africa, to his adoption as pet by the ill-advised Rodman, to his carefree and adorable childhood to his gradual realization as he reaches adulthood that he’s not like the humans who have raised him and not at all like his fellow apes either.  It is as expressive and as silently articulate an animated character as any that have ever been put on film, and much of the credit accrues to Serkis, who was actually on a set wearing a motion-capture suit and providing the film with the body language that went into making this put-upon chimp such an engaging and sympathetic presence.

The film is superb in those scenes where he is banished to an ape sanctuary that is not nearly as benevolent as it seems when Rodman first brings him there, and must find out a way to survive among his fellow apes (and eventually, lead them to freedom). Caesar is a sentient creature among largely non-sentient ones, and though initially overpowered, is constantly watching and learning. He woos allies, makes plans, becomes radicalized. It is hard not to root for him over the stupid, arrogant, lord-of-creation people who keep him down. The audience cheers his every incremental victory and is driven to cheer him and his fellow apes in what amounts to a huge, brutal prison breakout, even when human beings are hurt. Why not? In the universe of this film, and generally, human beings suck.

It helps, too, that the movie exercises what is sometimes a remarkable visual imagination. There’s a splendid scene set on a quiet tree-lined suburban street where humans are minding their own business, which suddenly becomes a green blizzard as thousands of leaves plummet from their branches and fall all around them, courtesy of the mob of apes passing by in the upper branches. It is gorgeous, in its way; a last moment of beauty before an epic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, which the apes must traverse if they’re to get to their sanctuary among the Redwoods. (This would of course no permanent solution, if humanity remains intact, but some people are already spitting up blood, so that’ll be a moot issue within days.) The final battle is thrilling. Audiences are moved to passionately root against their own species. I don’t recommend putting the DVD on the players at any sanctuaries where apes interact with modern technology.

In the end, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes misses greatness because the human elements are so undercooked, but the simian elements are divine. Another pass at the screenplay and it might have been truly something else.

The Plaque On The Wall Of The Monkey House

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, a now largely embarrassing entry in a series struggling to keep the wheels spinning for one more installment. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,  a film where the apes get all the best moments and where humans should have been a little better developed.

And now, the wife falls to her knees in front of the shattered Statue Of Liberty and cries, “You maniacs!”

 

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972). Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, others. 88 minutes. *** (9 year old self);  * (adult me)

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa and Pamela Silver, from characters created by Pierre Boulle. Starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, and Andy Serkis. 105 minutes. ***

Related Films: A host of Planet Of The Apes movies, from both incarnations. Plus a TV-show, and, ummm, Spartacus, I guess.

I was such a happy me when I heard about the remake of one of the apes films.  Then I watched the remade Planet of the Apes and all my hopes were dashed. 

Zip ahead a few more years.  Here I sit , supposedly older and wiser, but again I let my hopes rise.  Another Apes film is being redone.  Will they get it right this time?  After all, my nine year old self LOVED the first version. It had a talking circus chimp that looked like a guy in a suit, but who cared.  There was action and apes beating up humans.  Who needed more at nine?

Well at this age, I need more.  What a painful hour and a half that recent rewatch was.  I squirmed and found reasons to run to the kitchen, bathroom, computer etc.  What had my nine year old self been watching?  This 1972 film was as preachy as they could make it without losing commerciality.  The speeches were overblown and the sets minimal.  They obviously had major budget cuts from the earlier films, but some contractual need to make this one. 

Do I need to even mention the uneven acting?  I felt I was watching soap opera at its worst. 

So, I was ready for anything when we went to see Rise .

Oh happy day!  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well thought out (for the most part), well acted and most importantly perfectly paced.

I’m sure Adam has done his usual stellar breakdown of both films, but I have to say Wow!  Andy Serkis more than deserves a lifetime achievement Oscar by now.  He brings life to a character that could have been nothing more than another CGI Yoda.  Caesar lives and breathes.  This is a chimp whose thoughts are there for humanity to see and misinterpret.  All of that is Serkis, the CGI interpreters did a bang up job of covering the human with chimp, but its still the human actor who makes the ape.

Now the storyline is plausible, though if I wanted to a could drive a few cars through the holes in logic.  And, the use of the timeworn science gone horribly wrong actually works here.  However I noticed too many audience members leaving the theater before the apparent effects are shown.  They won’t realize why this is called Rise instead of Creation or some such.  Foolish mortals!

Also, I was taken aback by the cheering audience.  Didn’t these folks know that these apes were about to become humanity’s oppressors?  I guess I needed less perspective to get past all of that nonsense.

All in all, a hell of a good ride for this remake.  Another one to prove that sometimes they can get it right the second time around.

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Plan 9 From Outer Space is now billed as “The Worst Movie Ever Made…” and unfortunately for us all, is far from it.

It occupies a special case in my heart because I’m actually damn proud of something I did, in relation to it.

I saw it for the zillionth time at the Film Forum in New York, as part of an Ed Wood festival (which I was attending, on this particular day, because of a couple of Wood features I had NOT seen, being shown afterward).

I noticed a happy old guy being photographed next to the marquee, and then entering the theatre after the movie started, sitting directly in front of me and laughing as hard as anybody else.

When the lights came up between movies, I was told that this old dude was Conrad Brooks, a recurring player in Ed Wood’s movies, who would be autographing and talking to fans, afterward.

So I thought that this was deeply cool, and after the film went out to talk to Conrad Brooks for a while.

He did not strike me as particularly bright, but he DID strike me as a nice guy, with a sense of humor about himself, a deep affection for his old friend Ed, and a hearty grace about the odd fame the movies had achieved. He was looking forward to the new movie coming out in a few months, Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, where he was proud to say that he played a scene with Johnny Depp. (In the film, he’s a silent bartender who serves the disconsolate Wood a drink.)

Anyway, I liked him. I enjoyed talking to him.

Then some guy with a big broad grin in his face came walking out of the auditorium, and crossed the line. Grinning, he demanded of Brooks, “How can you even LIVE WITH YOURSELF after being in such an awful movie?”

Now, I don’t think this other audience member really meant to be abusive; it was simply a very poorly-phrased expression of enthusiasm, nothing more. But it was obnoxious, the worst possible way to say it. And I happened to see Conrad’s face fall. It was downright heartbreaking, the way his deep enjoyment of the day had just been assaulted.

The part I’m proud of is that I immediately said to the interloper, “Didn’t you just buy a ticket to see it? Weren’t you just sitting in there, enjoying it?”

“Yeah,” the idiot said, still 100% unaware of how hurtful he had been, “but only because it’s SO AWFUL.”

“It’s not a good movie,” I agreed, “but it’s better than many I have seen, and it shows enthusiasm in every frame, and THIS MAN and his friends had fun making it. Look around you. People LOVE it.”

The rude guy walked away, and Conrad Brooks startled me by seizing both my hands. “THANK YOU,” he said. “THANK YOU.”

We talked for a little longer, and then I said I’d let some other fans have a crack at him; he seized my hands again and thanked me again for coming.

It was a brief encounter, but I have always remembered it, and from that moment on have always been warmed by the knowledge that, at least once in my life, I said precisely the right thing.