Tag: John Lithgow

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

You’ll believe an ape can talk in this brilliant relaunch of a franchise that had become a joke

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), James Franco (Dr Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Dr Caroline Aranha), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Brian Cox (John Landon), Tom Felton (Dodge Landon), David Oyelowo (Steven Jacobs), Terry Notary (Rocket/Bright Eyes), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Richard Ridings (Buck)

It was always a concept some found hard to take seriously. Actors, in heavy make-up, pretending to the Ape masters of Planet Earth. It didn’t help that, after the first few films in the Planet of the Apes franchise the quality took a complete nosedive. Quite a lot for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to overcome: could it take this staple of popular culture and make it not only not a joke, but something people actually wanted to see? Well yes it certainly could. Rise is an intelligent, cinematically rich, surprisingly low-key and brilliantly done relaunch.

It has the advantage of course of decades of special-effects development. Gone are the days of Roddy McDowell in a monkey suit. Now motion capture can literally transform an actor into a chimp. In a way that other Planet of the Apes films never could, it can make the Apes the centre of the film. And if you are going to call for an actor who can help you bring life to a motion capture created character, who else are you going to call but Andy Serkis?

Serkis plays Caesar, the ape who (those of us familiar with the franchise know) will become the founder of the Ape civilisation. The first Ape who stood up and said “No”. He’s the son of Bright Eyes, a chimp who receives ALZ-112, an experimental drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s. Its invented by Dr Will Rodman (James Franco), desperate to cure his father Charles (John Lithgow). The experiment goes wrong and Bright Eyes is killed – but not before giving birth to Caesar, who inherits unnatural levels of intelligence from the drug. Will protects and raises Caesar, treating him as a son. But when Caesar is taken from Will and placed in an abusive ape sanctuary, he begins to see it as his mission to help his fellow apes. The revolution starts here.

Rise – for all it has a computer effect in almost every frame – works because it is small-scale intimate story. For a film full of nothing but effects, it feels remarkably like a sort of sci-fi relationship drama. It’s effectively about a child learning to become a man and find his own destiny, leaving behind a loving (but ineffective) father who, unknowingly, is blocking his progress, to stand as his own man (or rather ape). The motion capture is so stunningly well-done you forget that you are looking at a special effect for in almost every frame, and instead accept Caesar as our lead character.

Wyatt’s film eases us into this, centring Will (played with a generosity and warmth by James Franco) as our lead character and filtering our perception of Caesar through his eyes, as he grows up in his suburban house and learns to climb in San Francisco’s Redwood forests. The careful shift to making Caesar our central character – complete by the time we see him imprisoned in the dangerous environment of the ape sanctuary – is so masterfully done, that we hardly notice that large chunks of the second half of the film take place in wordless silence among the apes, Caesar’s thoughts and emotions communicated only by body language, expressive eyes and hand gestures.

To get that to work, you need a stunning actor behind it. Serkis’ performance is extraordinary: he used motion capture to become an ape, exactly capturing the physicality but also marrying it with real human emotions. We can look at Caesar’s face at any point and know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. His joy in his home, his protective fury when a confused Charles is assaulted by a furious neighbour, his distress at being locked away, his fear and confusion at his new surroundings his hardening resolve and his determination to liberate his fellow apes. This is extraordinary stuff.

It’s not just Serkis. Every ape has a talented actor behind it. Notary is a master of ape physicality, Konoval creates a beautifully wise and tender orangutan, Ridings finds loyalty and tenderness in a gorilla, Christopher Gordon a psychotic energy to abused lab-rat ape Koba. The marriage between actor and ape is perfect, and means we are completely on their side against mankind (be it in the lab or the ape sanctuary) they are up against. Wordless sequences of Caesar’s ingenuity: establishing himself as the Alpha with shrewd combat tactics, winning friends with cookies, stealing drugs to gift the other apes his own intelligence (their silent wonder at their interior worlds expanding is brilliantly done) and finally leading a revolt (including that goose-bumps rousing “No!”) is superb.

Wyatt’s skilful, calm and controlled visual storytelling is a triumph in making the determination of a CGI Ape a punch-the-air moment. Wyatt makes each Ape as much – sometimes more – of a character than the humans and weaves an emotionally complex story for Caesar. This isn’t about an angry Ape leading bloody revolution. This is a confused, gentle teenager trying to work out who he is. Is he Will’s son or his pet (do sons normally wear leashes in public)? Is he a dreamer or a leader? And, above all, is a man or an ape? When push comes to shove, where will his loyalties lie?

This makes for emotionally rich stuff – so much so that when the Apes make a final act stand for freedom on the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll shed tears over the self-sacrifice of one of their number. It’s also an intriguing look at humanity, none of whom come out as well as they could. The ‘good’ people – like Will and ape sanctuary worker Rodney – are kind but ineffective (everything Will does goes horrifically wrong, despite his best intentions). The ‘bad’ – Oyelowo’s money-first Drugs Company CEO or Cox and Felton as abusive ape sanctuary owners – are corrupt, selfish and greedy. No wonder the apes, stuck in a hole and only pulled out to be sold for drugs trials, feel so angry.

It’s not perfect. There are some clumsy, awkward homages to the original film (the worst being Felton shrieking “it’s a mad house!”) that don’t pay off. The human characters are at times two dimensional. But that doesn’t matter when the story-telling around the chimps is so superbly done. Wyatt fills the film with effects, but focuses so completely on character and emotion that it never feels like that for a moment. Rise is a small, intimate film about personal growth and a struggle for limited freedom. It helps make it a powerful and highly effective one – and easily superior to every Apes film made since 1968. A superb start to what became a wonderful trilogy.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine are tempestuous but loving mother and daughter in Terms of Endearment

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Debra Winger (Emma Greenway-Horton), Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove), Jeff Daniels (Flap Horton), John Lithgow (Sam Burns), Lisa Hart Carroll (Patsy Clark), Danny De Vito (Vernon Dalhart)

Spoilers: If you can spoil one of the most famous tear-jerkers of all time.

I think its fair to say 1983 was a weak year at the Oscars. The finest film of the year, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, was a four-hour Swedish saga (and arguably a TV series anyway), wasn’t nominated. The most lasting films of the year, Flashdance, ScarfaceWar Games and Return of the Jedi, were never Oscar bait. Terms of Endearment motored through to hoover up five Oscars – beating out The Big Chill (cut from a similar soapy cloth), The Dresser (a British stage adaptation), The Right Stuff (a slightly cold Mercury programme saga box office flop) and Tender Mercies (a low-key character drama about a Country-and-Western singer that won Robert Duvall an Oscar). By any measure that’s not a list for the ages.

And Terms of Endearment had the added bonus of being the second biggest hit of the year, after Jedi (yes, I know!). It’s a surprise, as this sort of female led drama rarely scoops the big prize – so at least it makes a pleasant change. Terms spools out a collage of scenes (there are sometimes time jumps of years between scenes), chronicling the lives of over-protective, domineering mother-and-free-spirit Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, defiant, at times highly-strung, Emma (Debra Winger). The two have a difficult, though loving relationship, often depending on each other for emotional support – especially in their relationships: Emma’s with feckless philandering English Professor ‘Flap’ Horton (Jeff Daniels) and Aurora’s with playboy retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). But both come together when tragedy and illness strike.

Watching Terms of Endearment today, it’s often hard to see what the fuss was about. Although it wasn’t the first film to jerk tears via last-act illness (see Love Story), this started a wave of films where illness to a key member of the family (usually a mother) has a devastating, tear-jerking (but often eventually heart-warming) effect on the rest of the family (especially young children). Terms of Endearmentprobably does this better than those that followed, but watching it today its hard not to see it as something a little more familiar than it might have felt at the time.

Brooks’ background was in TV (he had several successful shows on his resume, from The Mary Taylor Moore Show to Taxi – so he certainly knew what the masses liked) and this, his first film, often feels like a cut-down mini-series. It matches exactly the sort of soapy, family saga of several TV epics of the time, and Brooks shoots the film with an unfussy, visually flat series of TV angles (aside from his skill with actors, his directing Oscar is a travesty). With each scene effectively standing alone – its collage effect means the film covers at least 14 years minimum with often only the age of the children any indication that time has passed – it also has a slightly bitty air of something assembled for cutting into episodes or advert breaks.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with this. But, it does mean the film feels like it meanders along through a series of small crises, designed to be easily digestible. The film has a whimsical lack of directness – not helped by its overbearing (and dated) musical score. It relies strongly on sparky dialogue delivered by a cast who all look like they are having a good time (although, allegedly, they really weren’t with Winger and MacLaine in particular barely on speaking terms when the cameras weren’t rolling).

The main dramas are romantic. Aurora doesn’t quite know how to respond to her feelings for gnarled playboy Garrett. An early date between them hilariously contrasts her ludicrously over-formal clothes and his scruffy indifference. Its a difficult dance between two people who, for various reasons, are scared of commitment. But then Emma has made her own mistakes. She’s married Flip (is there a worse name in cinema?) for independence, but really they have nothing in common – and Flip’s eye quickly goes roving. Emma responds in a way her mother would understand: a potentially ‘first strike’ affair with John Lithgow’s meek bank manager (Lithgow and Winger have a wonderful scene at a diner, where he is almost too scared to touch her hand). You can see both mother and daughter teeing themselves up to make the same mistakes: the generations never learn from each other.

At the heart of the film is the mother-daughter relationship. But for me, this often lacks focus and never really coalesces into something that feels real or emotionally coherent. Now you could say that’s like life – and that’s a fair point – but several of the events feel heightened (particularly those featuring Aurora) and the characters are mutually dependent when the story demands it, and barely in touch when the opposite is needed. It’s easy to feel some connecting thread is being lost in those massive time-jumps. I found it hard to escape the feeling several times that people behave like this in the movies but never in real life.

But then, you get the final thirty minutes which revolves around the cancer diagnosis and eventual death of Debra Winger’s character. Here is where Brook’s flat, unobtrusive style comes into its own, his simple, restrained staging of these scenes making them surprisingly moving and affecting – especially considering the artificiality of some of what we’ve seen so far. For the first time, emotion, truth and earnestness – without too much blatant heart-string tugging – comes into play, and these simple scenes of two mothers saying goodbye to their children and each other end up having real emotional impact – as do the slightly stunned scenes of grief of those left behind.

It’s a shame then that most of the rest of the film before that doesn’t quite connect with me. The film was festooned with Oscars, but naturally the person most responsible for it working – Debra Winger – missed out. Winger is superb here, the only character who feels genuinely true, tender and also flawed in natural ways. She is slightly impulsive but also frightened of change, a character who can shout and rage but also is weak and dependent on emotional bonds. She’s totally believable and I would have loved to see more on her troubled relationships with her kids, and how her eccentric mother has impacted her ability to form bonds with her kids. The film doesn’t go there.

The Oscar went through to Shirley MacLaine who gives a big, showy performance as Aurora – and nabs the “Oscar Clip” moment as she bellows at nurses to give her daughter her medication. MacLaine’s Aurora never for one moment feels like a real person, but instead a novelistic invention of an eccentric mother, thrown on screen. MacLaine plays her to the hilt, but it’s a performance that feels mannered. But she gets the film’s fun moments – and gets to spark off Jack Nicholson who coasted to another Oscar as the sort of horny scoundrel he would play again and again for the much of the next thirty years on screen.

Terms of Endearment has enough in it that, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll love it. Perhaps it does mean more to mothers-and-daughters. I found it at times overly twee and laboured. But I can forgive it a fair bit for how effectively it displays grief – and how brilliant Debra Winger is in it. Over honoured? Sure. But, for its genre, a high point.

All That Jazz (1979)

Roy Scheider plays the director Bob Fosse in a barely-veiled-at-all autobiographical film All That Jazz

Director: Bob Fosse

Cast: Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Jessica Lange (Angelique), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Ann Reinking (Katie Jagger), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle Gideon), David Marguiles (Larry Goldie), Michael Tolan (Dr Ballinger), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Deborah Geffner (Victoria Porter), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant)

It’s revealing when a director makes an autobiographical film. There are insights to be found about the sort of person they are – and the sort of person they want to present themselves as to the world. And All That Jazz is possibly the most striking autobiographical film ever made. You have to have a towering amount of ego to make a film showing yourself as a deliriously talented polymath, generally liked by everyone. And then you have to have a giddy self-awareness to give your semi-fictional doppelganger all your titanic faults, selfishness, cruelty and flaws. Let’s not even get into the psychology of turning your own death into a musical number, eight years before it happened.

Just like Bob Fosse, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a hugely influential choreographer and director who has changed the face of Broadway musicals before going on to become the Oscar-winning director of a string of critically acclaimed films. He is also a workaholic, addicted to a string of prescription drugs, a never-ending smoker, with a strong of failed marriages and affairs behind him. Just like Bob Fosse, in 1975 Gideon is staging his ground-breaking original production of a musical (Fosse was directing Chicago which clearly inspired the unnamed musical here), starring his ex-wife (and mother of his daughter) Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer, a frequent Fosse collaborator), living with his girlfriend Kate Jagger (played by Ann Reinking, who was Fosse’s real life girlfriend at the time). At nights and weekends he is editing The Stand-Up (a version of Fosse’s film about stand-up Lenny Bruce titled Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman). When he has a near fatal heart attack part way through this, Gideon starts to sink. Fosse on the other hand used the experience to write this movie. 

All That Jazz is an electric piece of film-making, full of Fosse’s dynamism. It’s not only crammed with fabulous song and dance numbers (some of the best Fosse work you’ll see) but it’s beautifully edited and paced. Fosse holds it all together so brilliantly you never feel the thing teeter on the tightrope like Gideon does (the first image of the film is appropriately Gideon walking a tightrope). It perfectly captures the high intensity, killer pressure of maintaining this constant state of activity, and suggests how much Fosse (clearly) believed his own life was a performance, every moment constructed and staged for maximum impact. 

And that’s what you wonder about the film. Does Fosse hate himself, love himself or some combination of both? It’s something the film just teases, with Gideon indulged in a series of fantasy-tinged cryptic conversations with Jessica Lange (another Fosse conquest allegedly) as some sort of angel dressed in white. Here Gideon of course flirts and charms as only he can, while answering with ambiguous amounts of truthfulness a series of questions about love, his background, his wishes and dreams. But even when he says these things, there is the half smile that suggests it’s only part of the story. Or maybe Gideon himself doesn’t even know where life ends and the story begins.

Fosse’s film is just about perfectly structured. Repeatedly we see Gideon going through the same daily ritual when he wakes up: Vivaldi, shower, cocktail of prescription drugs, eye drops, slap hands, “It’s a show time!” (with an ever increasing struggle to keep the energy up). As the tempo of this repeated introduction changes through the film, you get a perfect idea of the state of Gideon’s mind and mood – and his relentless attempt to turn his own life into a perfect performance.

In among all this, perhaps no film has ever showed a better understanding of the pressures of creating a Broadway musical. The opening sequence follows a series of exhausting auditions from literally hundreds of dancers desperate for a role in Gideon’s show, slowly being whittled down to the chosen few. The rehearsals are a punishing series of deconstructions as the dancers strive to match Gideon’s perfectionism. Rehearsal rooms are crammed, sweaty and uncomfortable. The money men hover over every scene, with an eye on protecting their investment. And then, we see the results suddenly of Gideon’s work with a Chicago-ish dance routine so sexually charged it is positively indecent. It’s genius on at least three levels.

The film revolves around Gideon, and the amount of time squeezed out of his personal life by his never-ending, passionate work commitments. Leland Palmer is excellent as his loving but deeply frustrated wife, supportive but all too aware of Gideon’s selfishness. The bond between them feels strong, real and above conventional marriage. Ann Reinking is equally marvellous as his lover, protégé, partner and you name it. Between these three characters there is a hugely warm performance from Erzsebet Foldi as Gideon’s shrewd but loving daughter. Fosse isn’t afraid to sprinkle real moments of family warmth in, as if trying to show Gideon all the things he is missing out on – one particularly outstanding moment is a song-and-dance routine Reinking and Foldi perform for Gideon after the premiere of his film The Stand-Up, as entertaining as it is charming.

But the film’s secondary motor, after Fosse’s directing brilliance (seriously, there are few Hollywood directors so undervalued, the man is a genius) is Roy Scheider as Gideon. I can’t really imagine a more bizarre sounding bit of casting: Jaws Chief Brody as a song-and-dance man, the world’s greatest (even slightly camp) choreographer. But Scheider is simply sublime in this role. It’s a towering, landmark performance of total commitment. He’s achingly human, supremely sad but also overflowing with warmth, humanity and humour while also being repeatedly selfish, difficult and demanding. It’s a performance of total absorption.

By time of the finale number (a truly bizarre version of Bye Bye Love, renamed Bye Bye Life, in which Gideon lives his final moments in a fantasy world, singing and dancing his way towards death in front of an audience of faces from past and present) the whole thing is so wonderfully overblown it doesn’t really matter. The film’s passage into the surreal and fantasy as Gideon gets increasingly ill (while showing less and less regard for his own health) will be a bit much for some, but I was honestly so into it that I didn’t care. 

Because the film is about this acute piece of self-analysis from the director, a Fellini-inspired sort of musical , in which the understanding (or lack thereof) we get of Gideon, and which he gains about himself, is most important. His conversations with Lange’s angel of death are intriguing and as informative about the man he really is as the man he wants to be. 

Fosse’s film is simply supremely well directed (Kubrick called it one of the best films he ever saw). Fosse’s editor (playing himself in the film as the editor of The Stand-Up) said if Fosse had actually died during the making of the film, he would have made sure his death was filmed and edited into the movie. I can believe it. The only musical you’ll ever see which doubles as a confession and a condemnation, which turns death and surgical procedures into wham bam musical numbers, and which never becomes maudlin or sentimental about the self-inflicted disaster the director is putting on himself – it’s brilliant.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Some of the costume choices in this image probably help you to see what oddness you have in store…

Director: WD Richter

Cast: Paul Weller (Buckaroo Banzai), John Lithgow (Dr Emilio Lizardo/Lord John Whorfin), Ellen Barkin (Penny Priddy), Christopher Lloyd (John Bigbooté), Clancy Brown(Rawhide), Jeff Goldblum (New Jersey), Vincent Schiavelli (John O’Connor), Robert Ito (Professor Hikita), Carl Lumbly (John Parker)

Okay so watching that was strange. If you looked up “cult movie” in the dictionary you would probably see an embedded video of this film. It’s so cult it has literally no interest at all in appealing what so ever to anyone outside of its established sci-fi crowd. If Star Wars was sci-fi for the masses, this is camp sci-fi for the cultish elite.

The plot is almost impossible to relate but Buckaroo Banzai (Paul Weller) is a polymath genius – surgeon, rocket scientist, rockstar – who perfects a device that can travel through solid matter and dimensions. But creating the device makes him a target for a race of aliens, led by Lord John Whorfin (John Lithgow) who live in the gaps between dimensions and want to use the device to escape.

The film is part straight-laced 1940s sci-fi serial, part tongue-in-cheek romp, part comic book, part satire. In fact it’s nearly impossible to categorise, which is certainly in its favour: you’ve certainly never seen anything like it before. It’s bursting with ideas and straight faced humour and clearly had an influence on sci-fi still today (for starters there are more than a few beats of Moffat-era Doctor Who here, while Banzai himself would fit in as The Doctor). It bursts out of the screen with a frentic energy, not massively concerned with narrative logic or consistency, its solely focused on being entertaining. It throws the kitchen sink at the screen with all the passion of fan fiction.

Despite all this I think you have to have a very certain sense of humour and set of interests to really enjoy it – and I’m not sure that I did. If you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books and sci-fi you’ll probably feel like you are missing something (and you probably are). I’m also not sure there is much there to attract the “muggle” fan – Weller plays the lead with a smoothness and a charming straightness but he’s not the most interesting of characters (to be brutally honest). Lithgow counter balances him by going utterly over the top in a performance of ridiculous Mussolini-like bombast. But it’s not completely engaging. Basically if you don’t love it within the opening 25 minutes, you aren’t going to won over by anything else that happens. Every frame of the film is setting itself up as a chance for cult fans to speak to each other.

It actually rather feels like you are being invited to a party but then are left with your nose pressed up against the window. All the actors are clearly having a whale of a time with the other-the-top setting and bizarre half-gags. But I’m not sure all that enjoyment really travels across the screen to the viewer. While it’s sorta sweet in it’s almost sexless innocence (Birkin plays the lost twin of Banzai’s wife but there’s never a hint of real sexual buzz anywhere). Characters sport guns and hang around in a nightclub, but Banzai’s gang are essentially a group of 11 year olds who have taken adult form. So it’s gentle and has an innocent chumminess, but also a bit hard to engage with it.

I think in the end I just found it a little too eager and straining to be an outlandish, deliberately cultist film – it’s like an inverted elitest piece of modern fiction, that uses narrative tricks, devices and style to make itself harder for the regular viewer (or reader) to be part of its experience. So while this is something very different and almost insanely off the wall, it’s also something that is never going to move you or appeal in the way Empire Strikes Back will do.