Sunday, July 20, 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES


DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a handsome, earnest if somewhat hamfisted sci-fi action movie that dazzles visually but grates emotionally.  

Five years after the events of the reboot, Caesar (Andy Serkis), the genetically modified intelligent ape has founded a colony and a family in the forests outside of San Francisco.  His original owner (James Franco) is presumed dead from the deadly Simian Virus that has reduced mankind to small isolated survivor groups of the genetically immune.  The structure of the story is symmetrical - the apes and humans have to fashion a new society and decide how to engage with their enemy. In both camps we have the peaceful diplomats - wise Caesar and scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke).  And in both camps we have the battle-scarred and distrustful war-mongerers - Koba (Toby Kebbell) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).  

And yet, the script, from Mark Bomback (THE WOLVERINE), isn't as simple as that.  Koba can also be seen as a victim rather than an aggressor - brutally wounded by animal testing in a pivotal and emotionally charged scene where he shows Caesar the results of trusting humans.  And Dreyfus is doing what he believes is right to protect what is rest of humanity, having lost the family he evidently cares for deeply. They are both good people - ape and man - forced to terror by circumstance. And what of our heroes? The rather boring Malcolm is essentially good, if shown to be naive and mistaken.  And Caesar - ah this is where the movie gets truly subversive although I have seen precious little discussion of the ethics of his final act in the reviews and commentary I have read to date.

Indeed, it's at the textual level that the movie is most satisfying and provocative. I don't mean the dialogue - which is hackneyed - but in the ideas. One wonders if Mark Bomback was aware that Koba the Dread was Stalin's revolutionary nickname.  You can see Koba corrupting the utopian ape society founded by Caesar/Lenin as a metaphor.  And a powerful theme of the original book as well as this film is that of detente - can Caesar and Malcolm broker peace?

Alternatively you can draw an analogy to Lord of the Flies: another post WW2 dystopia. The schoolboys marooned on the island create a utopia that's ultimately corrupted by a coup d'├ętat with Piggy as Blue Eyes. Indeed both have an Aslan style perfect leader who's killed and then resurrected, triumphing over evil: just as Caesar is killed and then brought back. The Christian imagery looms large until, as I said before, that final choice.

The other key reason to love this movie is the visual design - the eery menacing dark blues and greens of the oppressive forest and the decaying I AM LEGEND remains of San Francisco. Kudos especially to DP Michael Seresin (GRAVITY) and relief that Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) kept his camera steady for that.

All of which is why I love this movie despite its hammy dialogue, heavy-handed politics, and actually offensive attitude toward women: healers, mothers and perpetually worried after their menfolk. Note how the Malcolm's son can only relate to/accept the doctor-girlfriend once he conceptualises her as a mother. Truly retrograde.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the USA and 12A in the UK for moderate violence, threat, infrequent strong language.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is on release in the USA, UK, Indonesia, Jamaica, the Philippines, Australia, the Dominican Republic, Israel, South Korea, Lebanon, Malaysia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Thailand, Bulgaria, Canada, India, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hong Kong, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Russia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, Sweden and Taiwan. It opens on July 24th in Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Peru and Uruguay; on July 25th in Colombia, Ecuador, Mongolia and Mexico; on July 29th in Pakistan; on July 30th in Belgium, France and Italy; on August 6th in Egypt; on August 7th in Germany; on August 8th in Paraguay, on August 14th in Austria; on August 28th in the UAE, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar; on September 5th in Venezuela; and on September 19th in Japan. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

GOLTZIUS AND THE PELICAN COMPANY


GOLTZIUS AND THE PELICAN COMPANY is a work of genius - a movie that is beautiful, inventive, provocative and mischievous - a work that could only have come from Peter Greenaway. It's a movie that begs to be seen on a big screen and yet has received a micro release in London: a movie made by a man who declares that cinema is dead, whose declining audiences seem to echo that fact - and yet who persists in creating these amazing virtuoso pieces of art.  It's just one of the many paradoxes encapsulated in the film.

The Goltzius of the title was a real life Dutch engraver, publisher and artist who lived at roughly the same time as Shakespeare.  At a time of intellectual ferment, the Baroque - when sensuous art came up against deeply-entrenched religious dogma which was already set against a rediscovery of the pre-Christian morality of the classics.  It was also a time of revolutionary technological change - when small scale canvas portraits and printed books brought art into the house for private contemplation. And, posits Peter Greenaway, all technological change is first used for smut!

So here we see the fictionalised Goltzius (Dutch artist Kees Kasander) travelling through Alsace and flattering the Margrave (F Murray Abraham in superb comic form) into commissioning the publication of an epic tome of explicit Biblical stories. And just to entice him further, he promises that his Pelican Company of publishers will put on theatrical version of each of the scenes at the Margrave's court. Thus we, as the Margrave, are treated to sexually explicit scenes of seduction and violence from the Old and New Testament.  

The resulting film is lavish and inventive - a box of trickery set upon a revolving stage for our delight.  Greenaway plays with language and the human form with such dexterity as to demand repeat viewings.  But whether or not you enjoy the film may well depend on your willingness to tolerate his mischievous use of sex and nudity - his provocation that we too are pretend-prudish avid consumers of titillating material.  The Margrave proves censorious and the rather obvious point that  Greenaway makes is that society always will be. Still, no-one frames action and blends high art, theatrics, the written word and classical music quite like this. 

The middle film of Greenaway's Dutch Masters, GOLTZIUS AND THE PELICAN COMPANY played the festival circuit in 2012 and was released in Russia last year. It was released earlier this year in France and Poland and is currently on super limited release in London.

The movie is rated 18 in the UK for strong sexualised nudity, sexual violence, very strong language and has a running time of 128 minutes.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

QISSA: THE TALE OF A LONELY GHOST


Anup Singh's fantastic historical fable (qissa means fable in English) is a tale of loss and madness that echoes in it's personal tragedies the wider political madness of Partition.  The separation of India and Pakistan in 1947 led to a traumatic upheaval as Sikhs and Hindus left the newly Pakistani northern Punjab and journeyed to the still India southern Punjab, while Muslims made the journey in reverse.  Torn from their homes, the refugees were victims of violence on both sides. Thus, early in the story we meet the Sikh patriarch Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan - LIFE OF PI) - so embittered that he literally poisons the well of his former home - an act which in the quiet unspoken fantastical film signals ill-omens. Four years later, when his wife gives birth to yet another daughter, he commits a momentary act of madness, welcoming the birth of his son and heir. Thus his daughter is brought up a a boy - a deceit that is tacitly condoned by father, mother and even family friend - and it's part of the subtle ambiguity of the film that even on her wedding day, we're not entirely sure how far the daughter realises she is in fact a girl.  

For the first hour of the film it plays like a realistic and fearless portrayal of a deeply traumatised and misogynistic society where a father would commit a kind of double-think of desperation, and be so feared as to demand compliance from the mother (Tisca Chopra).  And when the son/daughter marries Neeli (Rasika Dugal) - a profoundly sympathetic character - we have the prospect of seeing a psychological exploration of how they cope with their love.  I was really looking forward to seeing actress Tillotama Shome depict the emotional breakdown of dealing with the realisation of what had happened to her/him.

But writer-director Anup Singh takes the film in a different direction - fantastical - and clearly signaled by the title of the film.  One can't really criticise the execution - after all this is exactly what he wanted to do - to create a world in which the profoundly real is matched up against gothic horror. The problem is that, for me, the plot twist denied us the most fascinating working out of the situation between the two married women, and almost felt like a jarring "jump the shark" moment, when I was jolted out of the film, and out of caring.

Still, there's much to enjoy here - great performances, the beautifully photography of Punjab by DP Sebastian Edschmid (THE LAST STATION), not to mention the successful and haunting evocation of abandoned homes and broken minds.

QISSA has a running time of 109 minutes.  It played Toronto 2013 and will open in Germany on July 10th, in France on September 3rd, and in the Netherlands on October 30th.

Friday, July 11, 2014

ALICE (1965) and DREAMCHILD (1985)


The BFI is putting on a fantastic Dennis Potter retrospective this month, showing all of his TV plays and more besides.  One of the more intriguing offerings was the double screening of ALICE and DREAMCHILD - two versions of the same play, one produced for television in 1965 and the second a feature length film in 1985.  In both, the subject matter is the relationship between Lewis Carroll aka Mr Dodgson, and Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland.  Whole scenes are carried over from one version to another, although differing performances, editing and context lend them a different angle on the controversial, ambiguous nature of Dodgson's fascination with the little girl.

In the 1965 television play, Carroll is a socially awkward Oxford don, played in almost perpetual angst by the wonderful George Baker (perhaps best known to contemporary viewers as Inspector Wexford from the Ruth Rendell Mysteries.)  Conservative, curmudgeonly, and deeply tragic, Dodgson falls in love with a pubescent Alice, played in almost Lolita like flirtatious fashion by Deborah Watling.  Alice knows her hold over Dodgson and finds him amusing until he's tiring and then patronises with her pretended affect for his stories.  She might almost be too knowing for the story, and certainly by ageing her up, the relationship between the two, while still inappropriate, is somewhat less sinister than in DREAMCHILD.  

What we also get in this version of the play is the context of  Oxford politics and Dennis Potter's social criticism of the self-satisfaction of Alice's father, the Dean of the college. Even while her mother (Rosalie Crutchley) becomes alarmed at the love letters Alice is receiving, the father is almost too pitying of Dodgson's awkwardness to put credence in any threat. And so, in a pivotal scene, Mrs Liddell burns the letters while her unthinking husband barely registers the relationship until the book is published. It helps that he's played by David Langton, famous for many as the patriarch in UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS with all those associations of self-satisfied Edwardian propriety.

The overall sentiment in the play is one of tragicomedy - the poor repressed guilt-riddend don and the sympathetic but flighty girl. There is no real sympathy between the two at the end, and as she dances off into marriage he remains with his puzzles and his stutter and his surreal fantastical tales, so clearly based in academia.  Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this low budget piece that it is forced to ask the viewers to use their imaginations to realise the Wonderland characters. The barest hint of make-up and a backdrop to some elaborate costumes effectively essay the March Hare and the Mad Hatter.

By contrast, the 1985 movie DREAMCHILD has a lavish budget, although lower than the clever production design lets us believe.  The creatures are provided by Jim Henson's creature workshop and have elaborate workings, sinister but somehow less credible than the simple BBC versions.  But then, this is an altogether more opened out piece of work. 


Potter takes the key scenes in Alice's young life but sets them within the context of the real Alice's trip to New York in the midst of the Great Depression to pick up an honorary degree from Columbia on the anniversary of Dodgson's birth. She is a old woman struggling to come to terms with the rapacious commercialism of New York, but also with her relationship to Dodgson, vague memories of which trouble her.  

In the movie, Amelia Shankley plays Alice as a pre-pubescent little girl, selfish but lovely, perhaps ignorant of how much Dodgson loves her until a pivotal scene in a dark room. And as she asks herself in old age, if there was nothing wrong with the letters, why did her mother burn them?  The final scene between the two on the riverbank is also different.  Alice's mockery is that thoughtless mockery of a child and the reconciliation less certain. It is only in a coda to the piece, when the old woman has learned to overlook Dodgson's repressed desires and accept his love and his gift of the book, that we can see a true reconciliation.

The other great contrast to ALICE is that DREAMCHILD doesn't show the father - Nigel Hawthorne's performance evidently fell victim to producer Verity Lambert's theatrical cut.  This is a shame because it means that while we have the mother's concerns and a small flashback to her burning the letters, Alice and Dodgson are never in context.  Rather, Potter chooses to give us a rather soupy love story between the elderly Alice's naive companion Lucy (Nicola Cowper) and the suave newspaperman Jack Dolan (Peter Gallagher of THE OC fame).  I'm sure Potter is trying to give us a social critique of the plight of the poor during the Depression or some such, but really it's all very trite.  The only thing it serves it to give elderly Alice a trigger to consider the nature of love.  

As for the main performances, Ian Holm's Dodgson is altogether less awkward and guilt-ridden than George Baker's, and therefore more sinister as a result. His final embarrassment on the riverbank isn't as excruciating as Baker's and with Alice so much younger in the movie, his motive's less sympathetic. That darker tone is reflected in production design that is grim and threatening - whether in the driving rain of New York or the sinister seascape inhabited by the mock turtle.  Amelia Shankley is perfectly cast as young Alice, with all the showmanship and self-confidence that one would expect from the rather bossy Alice of the books. Her slow coming to understand Dodgson's love for her is delicately essayed and brilliantly played. I couldn't help wonder how wonderful those scenes might have been if Shankley had played opposite Baker.  And as the elderly Alice, Coral Browne is marvellous - doing a much better job at portraying the stuffy Brit abroad than Emma Thompson in a thematically similar role in SAVING MR BANKS.

Overall, there's something to love in each of these versions and they certainly benefit from being viewed as a pair.  I preferred the more concentrated ALICE to the opened up, creature-effects heavy DREAMCHILD but both gave a sympathetic and therefore provocative spin to the tale of a university don's love for a small girl.

ALICE has a running time of 72 minutes and DREAMCHILD has a running time of 94 minutes.