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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Kool-Aid Double Bill: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tinker Soldier Spy

9. Kool-Aid Double Bill: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Days behind review schedule: nearly three whole weeks. Argh, the guilt!!
Alternate Title: “What? It’s September Already? Quick! Inject The Genius Serum!”
The Gist: Andy Serkis continues to reinvent the acting wheel and Gary Oldman continues to grow into an elder statesman of cinema.
Currently listening to: "You Don’t Know My Mind" by Hugh Laurie/"Head Like a Hole" by Nine Inch Nails.

The Experience: Well, fuck-a-doodle-doo! Two visits to the cinema in less than a week! Clearly this is the dawning of the Golden Age of Aquarius. Call me out on my sarcasm if you must, but the fact that I recently spent most of August moving into a new house and the looming spectre of my second year of Performing Arts has precluded almost all my reviewing activities. Not that I wasn’t without a plethora of films to write about before that; quite apart from the usual summer blockbusters like Harry Potter, Thor and Captain America, (all of which I saw quite happily in two-dimensions,) I’d also finally gotten round to watching both The Damned United and 127 Hours. However, since all those films had either been widely seen in the cinema or were otherwise available on DVD by that time, and my attempts to generate a retrospective feature on here continuously fails to materialise, I decided to hold out until late August/September when things quieten down in Movieland and we get such strange ducks as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot/prequel/relaunch of the franchise that seems to have frustrated most people by actually being a pretty good movie.

The placement of Rise in the late August bracket is particularly telling in that Fox, formerly known for its big, blustering summer tentpoles has been playing it rather more coyly of late, ducking and weaving the big hitters and putting some uncharacteristically good films out in this late summer slot where the competition is a lot flimsier. Last year it was the Predator franchise that got the revamp; this year, ten years on from Tim Burton’s damp squib, it is Planet of the Apes that’s getting a fresh crack of the cinematic whip. Starting out as a spec script called Caesar, the latest (Heston-less) instalment of the series, as directed by British newcomer Rupert Wyatt, is essentially a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes whilst also retconning the events of Escape from and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, if you care about that sort of thing.

The set-up is relatively simple (given the convoluted back-story of the original Apes movies and the weird remake) and begins with a group of only very slightly computer-generated looking apes being rounded up in Africa to become test subjects for a pharmaceutical company were scientist James Franco is trying to create a virus that causes primate brain tissue to repair itself (because viruses in films have never ever gone awry). His motivation is that his father John Lithgow is in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease and said virus will hopefully cure him, but soon finds himself becoming the unprepared foster parent of one of his test subject’s offspring, a baby chimp dubbed Caesar, after his mother’s attempts to protect him are interpreted as her having gone bugnuts from the drug-testing and getting sent to monkey heaven.

As Caesar (Andy Serkis in all but flesh and facial hair) develops into a cheeky little primate teenager, it becomes apparent to Franco that his foster chimp-child is not only vastly more intelligent than any ape has any business being, but that he is dealing with a whole set of existential problems that cannot be reconciled by simply having a father and son chat, and pretty soon Caesar’s negative interactions with unsympathetic humans result in him being confined to a hellishly bleak animal shelter run by the effortlessly skeezy Brian Cox and his dick-spurt son Tom Felton. From this point on, the movie shifts tone rather abruptly from a light science-fiction coming of age tale to a bizarre primate reinterpretation of The Shawshank Redemption, with Caesar as Tim Robbins and a circus orang-utan who can perform sign language filling in for Morgan Freeman.

Whilst the rest of the film plays out pretty much as expected, I was surprised by just how much time was devoted to the “prison” section in the second act. Whilst it never outstayed its welcome, and the interaction between Serkis’ intelligent but socially awkward Caesar and the other apes was riveting, it struck me that there was more than enough opportunity for him to escape earlier than was depicted. However, what that results in, as Watchmen’s Rorschach would say, is that whilst Felton’s cruel overseer thinks Caesar is locked inside with him, the reality is quite to the contrary, with Caesar slowly but surely building a reputation as the alpha-chimp before leading his motley crew of apes in revolt against mankind.

If the film seems a little thin on the ground as far story goes, that’s only because everything you would otherwise need to know about the film is right there in the title: there are apes, on a planet, and they rise. There’s not really much margin to cock things up. What the film therefore lacks in complex twisty-turny plot points (cocktease references to the original movie series and blatant attempts to string together a vague timeline of possible sequel notions appear thick and fast virtually from the first act) it more than makes up for in being breathtakingly shot and paced, with a wonderful mix of character moments and set pieces all building towards a remarkable final confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge. Not enough can be said about all the apes in this movie, quite apart from Caesar as an individual standout performance. The fact that the only thing distinguishing the apes in this film from the genuine article is the irrevocable artifice of CGI is proof that, as a medium, motion capture is just as much a discipline as voice acting. Overall it feels like a handpicked group of people got together to make the cleverest, most technically impressive, cinematically well-rendered Planet of the Apes movie that money can buy, and for the most part they succeed.

Andy Serkis by now should have been Oscar nominated twice over for his continuing work in the performance-capture industry, and if there is any justice in the world the Academy will take note of his achievements and give him a bona fide Oscar category of his very own to compete in – something like Best Performance Through Use of Technological Wizardry or some such; they could put him in with Chris Evan’s anorexoscopically shot Steve Rogers from Captain America, Ralph Fiennes’ vanishing nose as Voldemort and the guy who keeps putting Patrick Dempsey in things. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the other half dozen hero apes were not only characterised equally as well as Caesar was, (particularly the aforementioned orang-utan,) but that some of them were (crucially, in my opinion) being performed by actual character actors of relative note, rather than anonymous techie guys as in video games and previous mo-cap heavy films; I was baffled to discover that the scarred and aggressive gorilla Buck was played by British actor Richard Ridings. You know, the guy from Fat Friends who wasn’t James Corden? And the ugly bar patron from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He was in the film version of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon as well? No-one? Fine, fuck off, then! I happen to like him. The point being, at a time when all-mo-cap productions are increasingly seen as risky ventures (Mars Needs Moms, anyone?), this film lends credence to the notion that the medium need not be restricted to lavish blockbusters like King Kong or Lord of the Rings in order to turn a profit or connect with audiences.

The weak link to the film, then, seems to be the human characters, in as much as so much development is spent on the apes that the audience never quite gets round to caring about anyone else in the cast. Many have criticised Franco’s lead as sleepwalking through the role, something I feel is only partly true; his will always be superior to his Spider-Man castmate and original choice for this film Tobey Maguire, by virtue of the fact that his was the only character the films who had a genuinely discernable character arc beneath all the sturm und drang. And yes, whilst there are elements to the film, such as the tacked on romantic subplot involving him and Freida Pinto’s sympathetic primatologist, that never quite ring true, the interactions between him and his father feel genuine and heart-warming as well as heart-breaking, particularly as it becomes clear that his quest to save him may be in vain. At the other end of the spectrum, Cox and Felton do what they have been doing most of their respective careers and will probably continue to do, filling out the easy villain slots in a film that doesn’t need nor ask much more of them than that.

Beyond that, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is exactly the kind of movie that fans of the series have been waiting for: something that reinvigorates the franchise for a new generation without forgetting the lessons of its predecssors. And while many will still carp about the human element of the story being an afterthought, we should all know going in that the real showcase here is the apes.
As I said earlier, my cinema-going tends to peak and trough depending on the time of year, as well as month to month. To a degree, it depends on what is out at any given time, but as a student it usually comes down to income. Tickets aren’t cheap these days, and chances to see multiple films in a day or even a week are thin on the ground at best. So imagine my surprise when, not two days after I treated my fiancee Jojo to seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and whilst out eating, drinking and carousing with my best friend Tarnveer, he asks if I’d be interested in going to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Of course I would be, I said, but I couldn’t afford to go until the following week.

“What about tonight?” Tarnveer said.
“Tonight?” I replied, already quite tipsy and aware that it was already getting late.
“Yeah, man,” he enthused, “we can catch a late one.”
He began flicking through listings on his phone, to reveal that AMC at Five Ways did indeed have an 11.00 pm showing of the film.

Experience, dear readers, has taught me many things over the years. For instance, if one of your best friends really wants to pay for you to go see a two hour long spy thriller at a ridiculous time of the night, after already splitting the bill on a meal and several drinks, he’s clearly on to something.

Neither I nor Tarnveer (as far as I knew) were especially familiar with the John le CarrĂ© novel on which the film was based nor the Alec Guinness-starring miniseries that preceded it, but within minutes we found ourselves quickly up-to-speed on the particulars of this grimy, anti-Bond film: it’s the early 1970s and Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, a retired spy for MI6 stand-in The Circus, has been called upon by the government to root out a Soviet mole in his former workplace, thanks to a tip-off from Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy).
To do this he enlists the aid of seemingly half the character actors in Britain to keep tabs on the other half. The prime suspects consist of new Circus top banana Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, working yet another funny accent into his oeuvre), second banana Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds channeling Gordon Brown) and snivelling Hungarian emigre Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Flashbacks and interrogatory glances ensue, and it is revealed that Smiley’s late former-boss "Control" (played by John Hurt’s fag-encrusted lungs), also suspecting a rat in the house, had been ousted following a botched mission in Hungary involving Circus man Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong in a wig) getting a bullet in the back and tortured at the hands of the KGB and their spymaster Karla, Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and unseen nemesis.

It’s a mark of a well put-together film that I have not spoiled any of the myriad plot twists and reveals in the film whilst still only just touching on the dozens of brilliant turns by quite possibly the best British film of the year (despite it being co-financed by a French studio and directed by a Swede). Hurt’s Control, Kathy Burke, Roger Lloyd Pack and Stephen Graham all shine in too-brief cameo roles, whilst Benedict Cumberbatch, as Smiley’s loyal protege Peter Guillam is fast shooting up my list of favourite British actors of the moment.
All this would mean nothing, however, if it weren’t for the remarkable script and the directing powers of Tomas Alfredson, making his English language debut following his acclaimed vampire film Let the Right One In. The colour palette throughout is consistently dreary and nicotine-stained, the sky a constant ugly bruise, each room a brown, tarry prison for the men and women within them. And whilst the film is no doubt a slog for those expecting a pacy romp in the vein of Casino Royale may find themselves disappointed, the film none-the-less manages to make the notoriously dense novel translate well to the screen.

Look, you don’t need me to tell you Tinker is a masterpiece; there are already dozens of critics doing exactly that. What you need me to tell you is if you, uninitiated reader, will be able to go in and enjoy it without reading the book first or having taken a correspondence course in Russian. Well, put it this way, both me and Tarnveer came out of that screening still slightly tipsy but none-the-less alert to the fact that we had just witnessed something uniquely well put-together. Tarnveer said he might have to rewatch it in order to make sure he’d understood what had gone on, and that in my book is a recommendation. Any film that engages people’s brains whilst still being a great piece of entertainment is exactly what people should not only want but expect from their visit to the cinema.

Both of the films get a healthy swig of the old Kool-Aid, though perhaps with a little rum to taste.