It’s been a while since I went to the cinema. But it feels much longer than it actually is. That’s because it’s summer blockbuster season and every week a new big gun toting production swaggers into town. Stay away from the saloon for too long and you’ll have nothing to talk about with your fellow drinkers because they’re engrossed in conversation about things you haven’t seen or experienced. Sure you can try to chip in with your recycled opinions but you feel like a cheat. And most of all you feel jealous.
Some films I would have liked to have seen had already been EXPELLIARMUSED! from multiplexes by a certain boy wizard’s refusal to die quietly and works of art like The Smurfs and Mr Popper’s Penguins. I know that later in August I want to see Cowboys and Aliens, One Day and the film of the TV series that defined my generation, The Inbetweeners Movie, so I figured I better catch up before then.
At the time of writing Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Super 8 have exactly the same score on Rotten Tomatoes, with 82% each. They also have identical ratings from numerous respected reviewers, including four stars apiece from Empire Magazine. Because of this it was completely logical of me to decide to watch both films and report back with absolute certainty on which is the best blockbuster of the summer, as clearly the others and those yet to be released, can be discounted.
First up then at 11.30 in Screen 10 was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I couldn’t quite believe I’d paid to see this as I walked in. I’d never really enjoyed the previous films from what I could remember of them. I was also genuinely baffled by the growing chorus of support for the motion capture technology used to create the rebellious cheeky monkeys. The first trailer I saw for the film helped me decide in a nanosecond not to make the effort to see it. It looked like a naff CGI fest with a ridiculous concept and some awful lines of dialogue. And there was the sickening clumsiness of that double “of the” in the title.
I was persuaded to give Rise a watch by the film reviewing community online and I now have a newfound trust in them. There’s no doubt that this will be the runaway surprise success, at least critically, of the summer, if not the whole year. It’s not what you expect it to be and yet it delivers what summer audiences are after. By the end of its 105 minute runtime I was converted from a suspicious sceptic into someone salivating at the thought of the sequels.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the apes rise up in this film and that events begin to take place that will lead to the “Planet of the Apes”. As other reviewers have pointed out though, what’s really interesting and remarkable about this film is how we get to the final twenty minutes of solidly entertaining, action packed revolt. The climax is explosive and plays out on a hugely impressive scale, with stunning special effects and fresh ideas for set pieces. But the drama of this action comes from the build-up in the rest of the film.
It charts the life of Caesar, an ape played via motion capture by Andy Serkis, a veteran of the technology after his iconic roles as Gollum and King Kong. Serkis is unquestionably the real star of this production, despite other big names like James Franco, Brian Cox, Freida Pinto and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton orbiting Caesar’s central story. The effects are vastly improved from the initial trailer that underwhelmed me. Facial expressions and movements are so lifelike that despite the lack of dialogue, indeed perhaps partly because of its absence, the scenes amongst the apes with no human interference are some of the most intense and engaging in the entire movie, well handled by director Rupert Wyatt.
Caesar is the offspring of an ape called Brighteyes that responded to an experimental cure to Alzheimer’s. However she was killed when she rampaged, in a maternal rage, around the headquarters of the pharmaceutical company James Franco’s character, Will, works for. Will took the baby ape home so it could avoid the cull ordered by his profit minded superior played by David Oyelowo. He cares for Caesar, practically as a son, for a number of years at home, where he notices increasing signs of a heightened intelligence passed
on from the effects of Will’s drug on his mother.
I make it all sound dull. But a bizarrely convincing and charming family dynamic, which just happens to feature an ape, begins to form. Conveniently, for plot purposes at least, Will’s Dad has Alzheimer’s. Encouraged by Caesar’s progress Will treats his father with the drug, which cures him in the blink of an eye; for a while at least.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is carefully constructed. It helps its structure that the conclusion is clearly defined from the off but it could still have been a flop. Instead a movie with some ludicrous components and some walking pace, stereotypical acting from most of the humans, including Franco at times, manages to be clever, funny and incredibly involving. The apes really are the key pieces of the puzzle, with Caesar a complex character in his own right who looks certain to remain compelling as he tackles rival apes (introduced here) in a power struggle in the sequels. There are so many interesting directions this series could follow, after ditching all the bad aspects of the original franchise, in favour of character based thrills with some genuinely insightful social commentary on big themes.
After a pause for a Greggs baguette and sausage roll, I was back at the cinema by 14.45 for Super 8 in Screen 1. I invested in popcorn because I’d been told for months now that Super 8 was getting back to what movies should be about, so I thought I’d better go the whole hog and sit back in anticipation. If I’d enjoyed Planet of the Apes I was going to love this.
In case you’ve been living in a secret underwater kingdom for ages, Super 8 follows a group of friends making a zombie film who witness a train derailing in spectacular fashion. They are then embroiled in weird goings on and Air Force conspiracies in their local sleepy town, as something appears to run wild. Oh and it’s pretty much a Steven Spielberg film, executive produced by the man himself and helmed by JJ Abrams.
The start works well, as most critics have said. Well at least it makes sense. You can’t help but be sucked in by the young cast and fascinated by their relationships. Joe is the focus of the story. His mother has died in an industrial accident and he barely sees his father, the Deputy Sheriff. His fat friend is making a zombie movie for a film festival with the help of a kid who likes fireworks, a shy and lanky lead and Joe’s makeup skills. Joe begins to fall for the beautiful Alice when they manage to recruit her to act in their masterpiece.
Then there’s that gigantic train crash. It was jaw dropping stuff at times but did anyone else think there were a few too many random explosions and balls of flame? I’m not complaining…well I am actually. Aspects of the crash didn’t feel that real. And as for the rest of the film, JJ’s trademark mystery is teased out too long, and when we finally see the monster it is a disappointment. The threat of the alien is never powerful enough to match the fabulous group dynamic between the friends.
Super 8 feels like the film Abrams wanted to make when he was younger. It’s sharply executed but more than a little messy and dare I say a tad immature? For all its influences it feels as though a particularly talented youngster is behind the camera at points, with a huge budget to burn compared to the DIY methods of the kids. Just like the kids making their own project, it’s as if JJ thought of the premise and the lives of the characters in detail but couldn’t decide where to take them.
So let’s compare and contrast. Both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Super 8 have creatures (irrelevant) and post-credit sequences (even more irrelevant). In one film the humans disappoint and in the other the beast. If Rise had the human heart of Super 8 it would be the film of the summer. If Super 8 had the coherent structure of Rise to go with its incredibly moving moments, it too could have been one of the year’s best films. As it is they are both simply very good and worth seeing.
Sorry to end so abruptly, rather like Super 8. But if I had to choose one I’d go Apes.
DVD Review: As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me
Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement. However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.
Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.
This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.
Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.
Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.
Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.
I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.
As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.
The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.
All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.
It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.
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