Tag Archives: surprise

Battle of the Summer Blockbusters: Rise of the Planet of the Apes vs. Super 8


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.

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Capello continues to cling to the wrong experienced players


It was only last year that I was championing Fabio Capello as an intelligent and adaptable manager capable of improving considerably on England’s tournament record. Then disastrous preparation for the World Cup in South Africa and the handling of the captaincy fiasco transformed him from hero to zero for the whole nation. Yesterday’s draw with Switzerland, in a game England should have won at Wembley, was further evidence that Capello should have gone after the failure of the World Cup.

Capello’s main failing at the moment, above his poor communication skills and shoddy organisation, is his refusal to move on from ageing stars. Frank Lampard started as part of a three man midfield yesterday but England improved dramatically after the break when Capello brought on Young in his place, who should have started the game. Young scored a smart goal.

England have real pace and youthful pentration available on the flanks. The likes of Young, Downing, Johnson, Lennon and Walcott ought to be utilised more often. It’s taken Capello too long to give them international playing experience. The best teams at the big tournaments are units of quality players that have played together for a number of years, since the promise of their youth. Look at the German and Spanish sides.

In the centre of midfield, Jack Wilshere is the future. Capello has finally decided to give him a key role. But he continually plays alongside Parker and Lampard. Lampard is past his best and should be a squad member, not an integral part of the team for the long term. Parker was exposed yesterday; he is not the solution to England’s midfield woes. Capello needs to look to younger options for a holding midfield partner for Wilshere. Tom Huddlestone perhaps?

On the other hand, Capello consistently neglects experienced international players that could still play a vital role in his squad. His new found fetish for Darren Bent as a lone striker has alienated Peter Crouch, with rumours swirling today that he’s ruled himself out of international duty whilst Capello remains in charge. Michael Owen would have scored the chance Bent had to win the game, undeservedly, for England against Switzerland. Michael Carrick has been superb for Manchester United and would compliment Wilshere well. His passing ability is well suited to internationals.

A year ago I thought one of Capello’s key attributes was decisiveness. He dealt excellently with the John Terry crisis at first, only to divide the dressing room with his terribly handled reinstatement. However the defining aspect of his tenure looks set to be indecision. Extraordinarily Capello didn’t know his best eleven before the 2010 World Cup. He still won’t know his best eleven before Euro 2012, if England get there. He appears torn between entrusting the team’s hopes to youth or tried and tested experience. And when he tries to balance the two, he picks the wrong ingredients.

Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.

It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.

Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.

Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity. 

Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.

Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.

And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.

Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.

At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.

But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.

The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.

Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.

A note on the Oscars


I am probably one of only a handful of Brits disappointed that The King’s Speech swept the awards last night. Colin Firth deserved to win, but he was better in A Single Man. I also don’t dislike the film. My review of it (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/the-kings-speech/) is generally positive. And from my point of view the best thing about the film, besides Rush and Firth sparking off each other, is that it’s a historical story for the most part accurately told. The only bad point that springs to mind is Timothy Spall’s caricature of Churchill and his appearance and supposed importance at times when he was not greatly significant. It’s good history as well as good storytelling. It’s a period I find fascinating. But there’s something depressing about the thought of the Americans simply going wild for this film because it’s about Royals, not simply for its superior quality to Hollywood efforts, and the world associating us purely with the Royal family once again because of it. I’m probably just a stick in the mud. But for me there were directors more deserving of Best Director than Tom Hooper, despite his excellent management of a good script and historical setting. David Fincher and even the unjustly overlooked Christopher Nolan had stronger cases. Also, again just in my opinion I suppose, The Social Network was a better piece of filmmaking and ultimately storytelling. It was a tale of our times and deserved to be crowned Best Picture for its drama and relevance. I suppose Academy voters might not all see the all consuming, far reaching effects of Facebook in their own every day lives. I was pleased that Natalie Portman won for Black Swan, despite my general dislike of her work that film deserved recognition on some level.

Actually whatever I just said hooray for the British showing the world how it’s done!