Sunday, April 13, 2014

Planet of the Apes


I finally returned home to Chateau Maine, my lovely mansion high in the Hollywood hills, just in time for Halloween. I was much too exhausted to attend Cyd Charisse's annual costume extravaganza and absolutely no time to throw together the four or five quick changes that would have been necessary to keep the attention of the press. I decided instead on a quiet evening at home. Having been out of the country, there wasn't a lot of food in the house so I sent Madame Jerry, my housekeeper, off to the Godiva store at Beverly fashion center for a case of two pound assortment boxes so I'd have something on hand to give out to all those little ghouls and goblins that come to the door.

Madame Jerry returned, and we wrapped the boxes up in some divine little black and orange tinsel fabric left over from one of my costumes from Flying Down to Reno. Jerry was a little concerned about all those little urchins crawling over the portico. She'd just taken a toothbrush and a can of Old Dutch cleanser to the terrazzo and didn't want her handiwork spoiled. I then had a marvelous idea. We rigged up a catapult from an old underwire bra and a couple of bungee cords on my bedroom balcony; we were able to lob the candy boxes into the limos out on the street before they even turned into the drive. I spent a lovely all Hallows eve up there armed with a pitcher of margaritas and my confectionary missiles. I'm glad to report there were only two cracked windshields and one minor injury when I misjudged my aim and a box caught Tori Spelling in the head.

I shut down my handing out of goodies around 9 PM and went into the house to find a suitably frightening film for the season. For some reason, I was drawn to Tim Burton's recent remake of Planet of the Apes, which I had managed to avoid in both its theatrical run and as a rental; trusted sources had informed me that it left much to be desired. I thought 'Why not?' and settled in, thinking there might not be much difference between a horror film and a horrible one. I have always had some fondness for the original, even if they did cut my surprise cameo as a tap dancing orangutan, and was interested to see what Burton, a superb visual stylist, had managed to do with the material.

This new version of Planet of the Apes stars Mark Wahlberg as Leo Davidson, some sort of futuristic Air Force monkey expert. Space travel has become common and the Air Force has taught chimpanzees to become spaceship pilots - why they should want to do this is not explained. Davidson is fond of his little charges, especially a chimp named Pericles. Pericles is sent out in a capsule that looks like it escaped off the Rock-O-Plane at a cheap carnival in order to explore one of those all purpose space electro-magnetic storms. The ones that allow the special effects department to go crazy with the blue and purple electric glows and that allow the writers to get away with completely insane plot developments. When Pericles does not return, Davidson heads out after him, gets caught in a time warp, and crash lands on an unfamiliar planet.

On this planet, the apes are in charge and humans are a slave species. Davidson soon finds himself racing through the woods as gorillas in bad plastic armor chase them down. He falls in with a pretty blond thing (Estella Warren) who was obviously cast for her perky young breasts, rather than for any acting talent, and soon they, along with others of her family (including a very bored looking Kris Kristofferson) are in the possession of an orangutan slave trader (Paul Giamatti). In this version, humans aren't dumb beasts, but intelligent, vocal, integral portions of the ape economy. Davidson, however, is quicker than most, and soon attracts the attention of a female chimp, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter in a make-up that makes her a dead ringer for Michael Jackson on a bad hair day) who is the voice of reason and compassion for ape/human relations. Ari is beloved by Thade (Tim Roth), a chimp who wants to wipe all humans out and who's manipulating ape politics in some rather obscure ways. Through various plot contrivances too boring to go into here, Davidson, Ari, the blond bimbo, her relatives, an old family retainer (Erick Avari), and a couple of others are all heading off through the bush in search of the great secret of ape and human origins. Thade is in hot pursuit, especially after his dying father (Charlton Heston as an ape this time out) fills him in on a few details.

The original film had a strong plot and through-line with the themes being clear regarding man vs. animal. This version has a lot of complicated politicking and far too many characters. Apes come, apes go and it's almost impossible to keep track of them all. As the humans are sentient and verbal, and speak the same language as the apes, the whole thing seems to be some sort of parable of race relations. In fact, the evil ape characters have dialog that seems to have been lifted wholesale from Jim Crow South redneck sheriffs. The film isn't strong enough to support these sort of metaphors and allusions and the whole thing collapses into some sort of creepy pile of clich├ęs. The writers (William Broyles, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal) also seem completely at sea in terms of character development or unity of action. Characters do all sorts of things for cheap effect or requirement of plot. The plot isn't much. The great secrets of ape origin should be pretty obvious to anyone with more than a third grade education half way through the film. The original film has a famous end sequence, involving the Statue of Liberty, which tied plot, theme and character together in one unforgettable image. This film tries to outdo it with a coda, involving another famous landmark; only this one makes absolutely no sense at all, does not grow out of the film as it has developed, and seems like nothing more than the jumping off point for a possible sequel.

Mark Wahlberg is not the first name that comes to mind when the words 'action hero' are mentioned and he shows why repeatedly. If this film were structured with his character as victim, it might be okay as his slim build and slight lisp would work to his advantage. As the man of action leading armies, almost a monkey messiah, he's laughable. The apes fare better. Helena Bonham Carter has little to do but stand around and deliver noble sentiments on the rights of man but she can do that well. Tim Roth makes a fine villain and Paul Giamatti is absolutely brilliant as the unctuous slaver who functions as comic relief for most of the film.

The make-up crew, led by the legendary Rick Baker, outdid themselves in creating the apes. The major characters come across as apes, rather than humans in monkey suits (a fault of the earlier films). Great attention was also paid to movement and body language and the simian lopes with which the performers walk are spot on. Attention was also paid to the size differentials between gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans and a combination of performers of different sizes and trick photography helps keep that illusion in place. Someone, however, was far too fond of fantastic ape leaps and there's all these shots of flying apes that look like the human cannonball act at the circus.

Burton's eye for visual detail hasn't failed him. Sets and costumes are full of ravishing detail and there's lots of fun little details in the corners of the frame. Unfortunately, he seems to have completely forgotten how to pace a film or how to edit it for story sense. I hear he was rushed in the editing room in order to make a release date and it sure shows. Lots of pretty pictures do not a film make and his better ideas, such as showing the toilet habits of the apes as they make ready for bed, end up going to waste.

As a film, this is pretty pathetic. Do yourself a favor and rent the original instead.

Party greeting. Fancy computers. Flare guns. Multiple crash landings. Implied ape sex. Stuffy dinner party. Gratuitous Charlton Heston. Gratuitous Linda Harrison. Improbable working power source. Flaming tents. Ricocheting bullets. Nick of time rescues.

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