The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Night Train (Pociag, Poland, 1959)

Posted by nicklacey on 2 August 2014

Humanity in microcosm

Humanity in microcosm

Like Knife in the Water Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s (he directed and co-wrote) Night Train emphasises the claustrophobic setting by utilising the space close to the camera through deep focus cinematography and, much in the same way 3D works, having characters appear in the frame, from the side, closer than you’d expect given the scene’s composition. That, and great black and white cinematography by Jan Laskowski, means I’m already likely to enjoy the film. However, Night Train also has a tense Hitchcockian narrative and an unhinged climactic chase through a graveyard (yes, most of the film is set on a train), making it an essential one to watch.

The promise ‘Polish Spring’ of 1956, when Gomulka’s government looked like it might break free of (the recently diseased) Stalin, had evaporated by 1959 and the petty voyeurism, and mob mentality of many passengers, who consist of what I take to be a cross section of Polish society, give the film a cynical edge that might reflect political disappointment.

Night Train is a film that grips immediately with the distinctive angle (see below), used for the credit sequence, which reminds me of Harry Lime’s speech, in The Third Man (UK, 1949), of how people look like ants from high above.

People swarm into the station

People swarm into the station

The protagonist, Jerzy, is played Leon Niemczyk who also appeared in Knife in the Water; Niemczyk is a powerful lead whose morally ambiguous character is in keeping with the cynicism of the film. Zbigniew Cybulski, who starred in the Polish classic Ashes and Diamonds (1958), plays, typically, a rebellious young man, Staszek, infatuated with Lucyna Winnicka’s Marta (see below); but she’s more interested in Jerzy.

Youth's desperate infatuation

Youth’s desperate infatuation

A couple of times in the film Staszek is warned about jumping onto a moving train; tragically Cybulski was to fall under a train when jumping off eight years later.

Posted in East European Cinema, Polish Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Norman McLaren Centenary Film Tour

Posted by keith1942 on 1 August 2014

Pas de Deux

Pas de Deux

This programme, organised by McLaren 2014 in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is a celebration of one hundred years on from the birth of Scottish animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren. In Yorkshire both the Hyde Park Picture House (Friday August 8th) and the National Media Museum (Sunday August 3rd and Saturday 9th) are offering screenings. And both venues are also offering Digital Animation Workshops (with different age ranges – for HPPH) in which participants can use the McLaren iPad App (National Film Board of Canada) to create short animations. These will later to uploaded to the McLaren 2014 Website.

Norman McLaren was born in Stirling on April 11th 1914. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art. His notable films include Hell Unlimited (1936) an impressive and innovatory anti-war short film with touches of the surreal. This film led to him being invited to join the GPO Film Unit by John Grierson in 1936. He also worked as a cameraman in Spain during the war to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascist rebellion. He emigrated to the USA in 1939 and in 1941 was invited by Grierson (again) to join the newly formed National Film Board of Canada. He also worked in Asia for a time helping to develop visual methods in overcoming illiteracy. He died in 1987.

McLaren frequently worked on live-action documentaries and animated films where he drew directly onto the celluloid. He was an important innovator in the techniques of drawing on film and also experimented with 3D animation and animation translated into synthetic sound waves.

He won an Academy Award for his 1952 live action film Neighbours, which made use of pixilation techniques.

The screenings will feature 13 of his short animations, mainly from his work at the National Film Board of Canada. His best works are beautifully drawn, technically assured and both stimulating and sometimes very humorous. His technical ability encompassed a range of styles, including abstract works. The prime focus tends to be movement and colour is often added for emotional resonance. Included in the screenings will be his first professional film, Love on the Wing (1938), an advertisement for the Empire Mail Service, but also an exercise in technique and surreal combinations: a war-time contribution V is for Victory (1941): A Chairy Tale (1957) which ‘brings to life inanimate objects’: Blinkity Blank (1959) which explores motion by painting directly onto raw film stock: and Pas de Deux (1968), a live-action film of ballet dancers, which uses step-printing on an optical printer.

The workshops promise to be instructive but also fun. And the screenings offer a rare opportunity to see masterworks from the field of animation on the big screen.

http://www.mclaren2014.com/

http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/Films/N/NormanMcLarenCentenaryFilms.aspx

Hyde Park Picture House – email: admin@hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk

Posted in Animation, British Cinema, Canadian Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Grand Central (France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 31 July 2014

The lovers: Gary (Tahir Rahim) and Karole (Léa Seydoux)

The lovers: Gary (Tahir Rahim) and Karole (Léa Seydoux)

First a confession. I found this a puzzling film. It was difficult to watch for various reasons but it made me think and there are many good things about it. I first wrote a blog post asking questions and making guesses about what it all might mean. Then I discovered the Press Notes and most of the answers. I turned out to be more or less correct on several points but there were some things I didn’t know and I certainly hadn’t picked out all the ideas behind the film. I think you need the notes to ‘read’ the film successfully and I’m not sure that is a good thing. Here are my revised notes informed by the Press Pack.

During the screening I thought of an important but little-known film by Jean Renoir, Toni (France 1934). Often quoted as the film that provided the spark for neo-realism, Toni tells the story of Italian migrant workers in South-Eastern France filmed mostly on location. Grand Central is set in the lower Rhone Valley where there are three nuclear plants. The central characters are two experienced workers at one of these plants (one of whom is called Toni) and they accept the responsibility to take into their team three young workers who are marginal characters with backgrounds in petty crime. The older and younger workers live together in a caravan park by the river. One of the trio of young men, ‘Garry Manda’ (Tahar Rahim) then becomes involved with Toni’s young fiancée Karole (Léa Seydoux) who also works in the plant.

The Renoir connection is strengthened by a sequence in which Gary and Karole have a midnight tryst which takes them in a boat down the river and Toni is cuckolded just like the innkeeper in Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (France 1936). I’m not suggesting that the film’s aesthetic approach matches Renoir, but there is certainly a shared sense of seeing the narrative from the point of view of the working-class characters. A second connection to Francophone cinema’s realist wing is the casting of Olivier Gourmet (from the Dardenne Brothers’ films) as Gilles, the senior figure on the works team. Toni is played by Denis Ménochet, best known from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. (These observations are matched by comments from the film’s director in the Press Pack when she says that she consciously drew on the 1930s films with working-class characters. As well as the naming of Toni, ‘Manda’ is a reference to the lead male character in Jacques Becker’s 1952 film Casque d’or. Denis Ménochet reminds the director of Robert Mitchum.)

The visual and aural style of the film does not necessarily relate to realism. Co-writer and director Rebecca Zlotowski employs shallow focus shots with ‘pulled’ focus transitions and a distinctive mix of interiors, seemingly shot inside a real nuclear power station, contrasted with pastoral scenes by the river. The interiors were shot on digital cameras to capture the detail of the harshly illuminated scenes but the ‘warm’ exteriors were shot on 35mm film. The music is often menacing from an electronic score involving various collaborations – most of the music was composed specifically for the film. The menace in the plant comes from the threat of contamination while outside it hangs heavily in the mainly outdoor scenes of a kind of communal life around the caravans and on the river bank creating a nervous tension between the men and relatively few women. I’m kicking myself now for not making the connections with stories about other kinds of industrial life with ‘workers camps’ – fruit-pickers, road-builders, railway-builders etc. The director refers to the bar and the camp found in certain kinds of Hollywood Western. These kinds of narratives all work with the combination of dangerous occupations and strong emotions amongst the camps’ inhabitants.

An emphasis on bodies – the young men during the recruitment process for new workers in the plant. Gary (Tahar Rahim) is in the centre of the group.

An emphasis on bodies – the young men during the recruitment process for new workers in the plant. Gary (Tahar Rahim) is in the centre of the group.

We learn about the procedures required inside the nuclear plant but very little about the backgrounds to any of the characters themselves. What is clear is that Gilles and Toni see themselves as skilled workers with an informed perspective on the inequalities of the working conditions in the plant whereas the the younger men (and possibly younger women) have no political awareness and are reckless in terms of the dangers posed by contamination. In this divide is the basis of an interesting film about collective v. individualistic behaviour and a critique of labour relations in the nuclear industry. (The scenes inside the plant – and some outside – were shot in a mothballed plant in Austria.) However, Ms Zlotowski presents the ‘worker’s story’ through the prism of the sexual relationship between Gary and Karole, her two attractive leads. There is an emphasis across the film on the bodies of the workers. We see them dressing and undressing and being examined for evidence of possible contamination from radioactive materials. After possible contamination they are hosed down and scrubbed. Outside the plant it is Karole who is clearly ‘exposed’. She wears an extraordinary outfit – a tight, close fitting ‘body’ garment of soft white cotton emphasising her breasts with similarly tight and short cut-off denims. This provocative outfit is both revealing and constraining – and clearly far too much for Gary. Léa Seydoux appeared in Zlotowski’s previous film Belle Épine and she was one of the twin stars of the controversial film Blue is the Warmest Colour. Her ‘exposure’ raises some questions about the intentions of her female director.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of CLASH  BY NIGHT (photo from http://www.thisismarilyn.com)

Marilyn Monroe on the set of CLASH BY NIGHT (photo from http://www.thisismarilyn.com)

In the Press Pack Zlotowski suggests that she deliberately presented Seydoux as an erotic figure and that she had in mind something like the appearance of Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (US 1952) in which Robert Ryan pursues Barbara Stanwyck in a small fishing community. Tahar Rahim is a star actor who can suggest both vulnerability and fortitude but here it is quite difficult to understand what might be going on in his head. We do learn something about his difficult family background and there is the suggestion that he might have found a new family with Gilles and Toni like surrogate father/uncle/mentor. But he appears determined to ‘prove himself’ – partly by taking great risks with his own health. This threatens to break up his working group and the relationships in the caravan park. The two young lovers are not a conventional heroic couple.

The mixture of ‘romance’ and the Western helps to explain the focus on the saloon bar (with its mechanical bull, reminiscent of John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy of 1980) as the focal point for the ‘showing off’ of the ‘strangers’ who come into town. Rebecca Zlotowski tells us that she also admires the Hollywood films featuring strong and tough working men and she quotes Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (yet another 1952 film) with Robert Mitchum as one of the rodeo riders.

I can now see how the film narrative is supposed to work. I’m not sure it quite does for me and the politics of labour conditions isn’t explored enough for my taste, but this is a much more interesting film than most out there, so please give it a go. The original story comes from a novel titled La Centrale by Elisabeth Filhol and was then developed by Gaëlle Macé, Zlotowski’s screenwriter. So, three women as creative forces behind a film about men at work and the possibly disruptive eroticism of a woman in their midst.

The helpful UK trailer:

Posted in Films by women, French Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Bright Days Ahead (Les beaux jours, France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 July 2014

The lovers seen through the blinds

The lovers seen through the blinds

The ironic English title of this film refers to the name of a social club with a range of classes and workshops for retirees. Caroline (Fanny Ardant) is given a trial membership by her daughters when she is more or less forced to retire from dentistry aged 60. (Her husband carries on working, even though he is a few years older.) The French title translates as ‘The Beautiful Days’ – perhaps ‘Golden Days’ in English? The novel by Fanny Chesnel has a title which translates as ‘The young woman with white/grey hair’. I mention these different titles since the nuanced differences between how we might interpret them gives a clue to the difficulty of pinning down the tone of the film. As baby-boomers age they inevitably create new categories/genres – as a ‘cohort’ with more expectations than previous generations and often more resources to deploy. There have been several films in the last few years that reflect this social change. UK cinema has produced The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet both played mostly as comedies with underlying dramas. A Song for Marion then developed a twist on the May-December romance. All three UK films have a kind of populist ‘feelgood’ factor about them. Do we expect a French take on the issue to be less sentimental and more aspirational?

In the UK/US film culture older actresses have sometimes (quite reasonably) complained about the limited roles available to them. French female stars of a certain age have had other opportunities similar to that opened up for Fanny Ardant here. Charlotte Rampling springs to mind in more than one film. Our expectation is that these glamorous stars will remain so after 60 and Fanny Ardant certainly fits the bill. Her Caroline quickly falls for the attractive IT teacher running the ‘silver surfers’ workshop. Not quite 40, Julien offers what the BBFC warning (for a 15 film) describes as ‘strong sex’ and Caroline responds. What will happen when her husband finds out – which he surely will since Caroline is anything but discreet? How will the 30 plus daughters react?

The story is set in Dunkerque and the sometimes rainy and chilly Nord-Pas-de-Calais coastline offers an interesting backdrop to what in some ways is quite a conventional romance. The windy beaches, the rain, fairground rides and big skies all seem to offer some kind of referent to the state of the romance. They also help to provide scenarios for how the story might end. The director and co-writer (with the novelist) is Marion Vernoux, who has made similar films that I don’t think I’ve seen. She has an excellent cast with Patrick Chesnais as the husband and Laurent Lafitte as the lover. I’m not sure that the story alone would have held me without a central performance as strong as that from Ms Ardant who is completely convincing. A key moment for me was when Caroline referred to the expectation that the ‘right thing’ to do for a relatively affluent retired dentist was to offer her services to  voluntary groups helping those less fortunate. “But, I want to live” she tells Julien. I’m not sure why that line made such an impression, but possibly it just made her less ‘admirable’ and perhaps more human so that I felt for her as she drank too much and became vulnerable. That dilemma about wanting to ‘give back’ something to society but also wanting to enjoy freedom and independence is something many people over 60 experience (assuming that they have enough income to make the choice realistic).

Bright Days Ahead is only showing twice at Hebden Bridge Picture House and it got a smaller audience for the first screening than is usual for Hebden. That’s a shame. This is the kind of adult romance that UK filmmakers find difficult to make (though there are as good and arguably better narratives of a similar kind on UK television).

Export trailer (with English subs) from Unifrance:

Posted in Films by women, French Cinema, Romance | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Ieri, oggi, domani, Italy-France 1963)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 July 2014

A pregnant Adelina in 'Yesterday' (still from DVD Beaver)

A pregnant Adelina in ‘Yesterday’ (still from DVD Beaver)

There is a story behind my interest in this film. I went to see it in my local ABC cinema almost exactly 50 years ago on its initial UK release in 1964. I remember queuing up as a 15 year-old with my 13 year-old girlfriend. We just managed to get two seats on the front row of a cinema with over 1700 seats. The film had an ‘X’ Certificate (which at that time supposedly barred under 16s). It was dubbed into English, but even so, the possibility of such an enormous audience (it was probably a Saturday night) is an indication of the potential for dubbed European films in the period. (The film was distributed in the UK via Paramount.) The big attraction (certainly for me) was Sophia Loren. I probably then knew the director Vittoria De Sica as an actor in The Four Just Men TV series. I remembered two of the three episodes in this portmanteau film – but only as outline ideas and one or two images of the sublime Ms Loren.

The film’s title refers to the three stories associated with the South (Naples), the North (Milan) and the capital, Rome. Each story features La Loren with Marcello Mastroianni as different characters. In the first Loren is Adelina, a Neapolitan cigarette-seller in 1954 relying on contraband supplies and facing a prison sentence – unless she is pregnant or nursing an infant. Mastroianni is eventually exhausted by the effort to look after the children and impregnating his wife pregnant. She seems to thrive. In Milan Loren is Anna the bored wife of an industrialist who plays with Mastroianni as a trophy ‘artistic’ lover and in Rome she is Mara, a high-class call girl teasing both a weak Mastroianni and the young seminarian next door.

Anna, the unfaithful wife . . . (from dvdbeaver.com)

Anna, the unfaithful wife . . . (from dvdbeaver.com)

In truth this is a strange trio of stories. The first and the last are broad comedies in which Loren is the strong woman for whom sexual attractiveness is an asset that helps her achieve what she wants and Mastroianni is a weak man and the butt of many of the jokes. The Milan story, from a novella by the well-known Italian writer Alberto Moravia, is much more like a modernist tale with no real narrative. It is by far the shortest of the three and the least entertaining. Having said that, the image of an elegant and coiffured Sophia Loren in a Rolls-Royce, stayed with me from the first viewing. The concept of a portmanteau film in which each episode is directed by the same filmmaker is relatively unusual. Such films with a different director for perhaps four or more separate stories were quite common in this period and usually focused on a single location or theme. The only other ‘single-authored’ compendium which springs to mind is The Yellow Rolls-Royce (dir. Anthony Asquith, UK 1965) with three stories using the same vehicle at different times and with different (star) actors. So, how does De Sica’s selection come together? In some ways the three films are representative of De Sica’s career in films. He began as an actor in the popular melodramas of the 1930s, gained international recognition in the late 1940s with his neo-realist melodramas as a director and went on in the 1950s to move back towards the popular mainstream. ‘Adelina’ could certainly be a neo-realist film given it’s setting and single plot issue (based on a genuine Neapolitan regulation). Ironically, Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s writing collaborator in the neo-realist period had a hand in the scripts for the second and third stories, but not the first.

Marcello Mastroianni as Mara's hapless 'customer' (from dvdbeaver.com)

Marcello Mastroianni as Mara’s hapless ‘customer’ (from dvdbeaver.com)

There seems to be a problem with the title and the ordering of the three stories. ‘Adelina’ in Naples represents the past. So much is clear. But ‘Anna’ in Milan is surely the future or at least the ‘modern’? Mara in Rome seems very stuck in traditional Roman society. Whereas the first two stories also have some kind of social satire/commentary (on birth control and contemporary marriage and morality) the third story seems very light. Perhaps, after all, the film was just intended to serve the twin purposes of producer Carlo Ponti – to offer a high profile role to his partner Ms Loren (there were problems with the legality of their marriage) and to create an international hit. Loren had already starred in the Two Women (1961) and the ‘epic’ El Cid (1962) and when her three performances in Ieri, oggi, domani helped the film to (rather surprisingly) win the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, Ponti’s plans seemed to have come to fruition. The following year of course saw the Italian release of A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) and the beginning of a new form of Italian film export. Carlo Ponti would, however, continue to find success with major productions.

The Eureka R2 DVD that I watched does not offer the dubbed version (which I would like to have watched for comparison). It offers a perfectly good Italian print with English subtitles. I read one American review which suggested that the sex appeal of Sophia Loren is used as a ‘tease’ (literally a striptease in the third story) and that the film resembles the Doris Day comedies popular in the US at the time. I can see that’s an interesting comment but I’m not sure I agree. It would take some time to watch a couple of examples and work through a comparison. I like Doris Day as a performer but not necessarily in those comedies. Sophia Loren is really in a category of her own.

Posted in Comedies, Italian cinema | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Omar (Palestinian territories 2013)

Posted by keith1942 on 26 July 2014

Omar still

The current intensification of the war by Israel against Palestinians makes this film timely viewing. The basic story concerns a young Palestinian militant who is forced to become an informant for the Israeli security in the occupied West Bank. The film also follows a triangular relationship amongst the Palestinians. What makes it so effective is the representation of the life of Palestinians under occupation. In particular the film makes good use of the ‘separation walls’ constructed by the Israelis to control the Palestinians. The film was shot predominately in Nablus and Nazareth and locations are often recognisable from newsreel and documentary films.

Omar has been written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad. His earlier Paradise Now (2005) was a critical and festival success. This film is more conventional, especially in the personal drama. But like the earlier film it has a sense of raw reality and an often-powerful mise en scène.

Predictably the film has only a limited distribution in the UK and some institutions have had problems with attribution. However it is screening at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on the 29th and 30th of August. Definitely a film to be seen.

Posted in Palestinian Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Some Like It Hot (US 1959)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 July 2014

Curtis, Monroe and Lemmon in a promo still (from: http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-lists/10-things-about-some-like-it-hot)

Curtis, Monroe and Lemmon in a promo still (from: http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-lists/10-things-about-some-like-it-hot)

This Park Circus re-release is currently showing at BFI Southbank. My younger viewing companion said she enjoyed the film and was glad to have been able to see Monroe on the big screen. At the end of the film a sizeable chunk of the audience applauded.

I have seen the film at least twice before but I followed it quite happily. I came to a number of conclusions. Monroe is remarkable. How much the camera loves her – and she responds (even though it is now suggested that she was a nightmare to work with). It occurs to me that Monroe, possibly alongside Paul Newman, was the last of the Golden Age mega stars to emerge and make a significant group of films in the dying studio system. On the other hand, good though her performances on screen turned out to be (whatever pain and blood she generated for directors), Monroe’s star persona also depended on her early pin-up work and later celebrity ‘appearances’. She put as much into the ‘secondary circulation’ of her star image as some of the later ‘celebrity stars’. Those Eve Arnold photos are also important.

But actually, the real stars of the film are Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. I can’t split them, though I think that Curtis has sometimes been under-rated as an actor. His early career included a lot of studio fluff alongside the real deal in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958). By contrast Jack Lemmon had a critical success in 1955 with Mr Roberts and sustained a remarkable career for the next forty years. Lemmon appeared many times for Billy Wilder and developed a reputation for working well with his leading ladies, starting with Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You in 1954. Lemmon was a consummate comic actor and he and Curtis perform as if they had always been a double act.

The script by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder is the other star ingredient. I was intrigued to discover that Wilder was ‘inspired’ (and presumably borrowed quite a lot from a German cross-dressing comedy – see the plot summary for Fanfaren der Liebe (West Germany 1951). This reminds me of the later Hollywood remake of a German film from the 1920s that was also made in French and remade in the UK in 1935 and then became Victor Victoria as directed by Blake Edwards in 1982. Clearly cross-dressing has universal appeal. Wilder’s treatment of sex and violence was radical for Hollywood at the time. The sex tends to mirror Monroe’s approach, earthy and sensual, but somehow childlike and innocent at the same time. The violence is more interesting in the sense that Wilder doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed in the St Valentine’s Day massacre scene. Wilder was also ahead of the game in his approach to the intertextual. He deliberately re-created the Warner Bros look from The Roaring Twenties (Warners 1939) and cast the iconic figures of George Raft and Pat O’Brien who played the gangster and cop in various Warners films. James Cagney versus O’Brien would have been even more ‘authentic’ but Cagney would have changed the tone of the film I think. Mike Mazurki is a reference to the slightly later era of the film noir/’hardboiled’ stories of the 1940s such as Farewell My Lovely. I don’t think the script is perfect. For instance, much of the potential for comic business around the workings of the all-female band led by ‘Sweet Sue’ is simply thrown away in the last third as the narrative focuses resolutely on the two ‘romances’. Still the dialogue is so witty and the pace unrelenting so that there is no time to think about the plot and its potential holes.

I hope the film does well on this re-release and encourages more comedies from this era. Some of Jack Lemmon’s other work needs to be seen again and some more Monroes are always welcome.

Posted in Comedies, Hollywood | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (US 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 July 2014

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

My second Summer blockbuster found me in a large London multiplex screen, virtually full with a second evening house audience – the early evening show was full as well. I usually sit on the front row of the main part of the stadium seating with the four rows of non-raked seats empty. With every seat taken it was a very different experience. The audience was young (15-45?) and I see now why it isn’t surprising that London takes a disproportionately large slice of the English film audience.

I mention the audience because my attention wandered in this 130 minutes slog and I noticed people coming and going in the screening and the annoying use of a phone part way through. Apart from Omar, everyone in the critical fraternity seems to have liked this film but while it had some good points I wasn’t totally convinced. I should point out that I don’t remember seeing any of the previous ‘Apes’ films and I definitely didn’t see the immediate predecessor – so I’m not going to comment on the various prequels and sequels and re-boots. I’ll only note that the films all derive in some way from the French science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle. The ‘global’ flavour of this current film is down to the cast with nearly all of the leads from the UK and Australia. Why? I don’t know.

As I watched the film four debates/issues became apparent. The first was about technologies. The apes, here represented via ‘motion capture technologies’ and CGI, are convincing. These apes are recognisable as the other hominoid species (along with humans): chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and a single orangutan. This aspect of the film contributed to the plausibility of the general scenario – although I have no idea how apes would sound producing human-type ‘speech’. When one of the apes deliberately behaves in a way to make the humans think that he is still ‘primitive’ (rather than ‘developed’ by genetic experiment) this seemed a nice comment on the transformation. The aspect of the cinema technology which annoyed me was the lack of masking on the screen. The film was presented in 1.85: 1 but the screen itself was 2.35:1 and the blank strips at either side showed grey in the cinema. (Someone once corrected me saying that nobody noticed these things: well I do and it distracted me in several scenes.)

The trio in the centre are the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The trio in the centre is the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The second issue is about casting in blockbusters. It’s usually the case now that an effects-heavy film is able to dispense with A List stars. Alternatively, if the character is very well-known (i.e. Superman or other comic-book heroes) a young ‘up and coming’ star might be most suitable. Thus in this franchise film we have one genuine star in Gary Oldman as a secondary (but important) character while the key human characters are rather amorphous. By this I mean that the actors (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) while perfectly competent are not distinctive. I didn’t recognise them but thought they looked familiar in a generic way. Certainly they are not distinctive in the manner of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, two British actors, each with a strong presence but not visible behind the CGI as the two leading ape characters. Does any of this matter? I think it does in that the narrative matches the ape family of ‘Caesar’ (Serkis) with the putative family group of Clarke, Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (she has lost her partner and daughter but teams up with the father-son duo). Kebbell’s ape character Koba is matched (less clearly) with Oldman’s. I know Hollywood is obsessed with father-son relationships, but even putting aside the marginal female role issue, the narrative would have been more interesting with Oldman as the single man trying to get close to the apes.

Issue 3 is about the overall approach to a generic ‘post-apocalypse’ narrative. I was reminded of the Spanish film I saw earlier this year, Los últimos días (2013),  with a similar premise in the aftermath of an epidemic wiping out the bulk of the human population. So we get the city festooned with creepers, trees growing in the roadways etc. and the seemingly inevitable chase down the tracks of the underground railway. In an American film there are always going to be not just weapons for survivalists but entire arsenals of weapons. My feeling was that, consciously or not, the film felt like one of those early 1970s SF films such as Soylent Green (1973) or indeed the original Apes franchise which started in 1968 and ran through into the 1970s. Like those films, this one had its serious underpinning with subtitles for much of the ape sign language. However, that seriousness began to disappear before we got to the predictable (and for me tedious) final action sequences.

And so to the film’s ideology. This isn’t clear to me. At first I thought that the film was going to be clearly pro-apist and sceptical about the humans. I was just naïve. I was disappointed with the sentimental stuff about fathers and sons and the music throughout was dreadful, signalling everything quite crudely. The film lost it for me in a short sequence where Koba seems to have taken over from Caesar and suddenly he was presented as a terrorist/dictator figure. At this point, one shot seemed to sum up the message by showing apes swarming across the ruined city with a tattered stars and stripes pointing down on a broken flagpole. Koba suddenly became the kind of leader that the US likes to defeat in the name of ‘freedom’. Note that his actions have been motivated by hate that the humans forced onto him. I won’t spoil what finally happens for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but overall I thought the ideology of this science fiction film was regressive. I thought it might have conjured up some of the adult satire of the best SF in the struggle between species but I think in the end it is just another Summer kids’ film about good guys and bad guys.

This YouTube video shows some of the remarkable motion capture transformations:

Posted in Hollywood | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

 
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