Tag: Terry Notary

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.

The Square (2017)

The Square header
Art goes wrong in Ruben Östlund’s scattergun satire The Square

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Claes Bang (Christian), Elizabeth Moss (Anne), Dominic West (Julian), Terry Notary (Oleg Rogozjin), Christopher Læssø (Michael), Lise Stephenson Engström (Daughter), Lilianne Mardon (Daughter), Marina Schiptjenko (Elna), Annica Liljeblad (Sonja), Elijandro Edouard (Boy with Letter)

Christian (Claes Bang) has it all. The respected director of a celebrated Swedish Modern Art Gallery, he’s rich, handsome and highly thought of by all. That all fractures when his phone and wallet are stolen in a confidence trick. Using the phone’s tracker, Christian identifies the working-class apartment building its in. In a burst of late-night energy, he writes a threatening letter to the thieves and posts a copy through every single apartment door demanding it’s return. It is: but Christian’s letter has a negative impact on an innocent young boy (Elijandro Edouard) whose parents now believe he must be a thief. Christian is so preoccupied with this he fails to pay attention to a YouTube video created to promote his new exhibition: the video of a homeless child being blown up outside the museum leads to national condemnation.

And that exhibit? It’s called The Square (you see!). Its main feature is a literal square on the floor, marking a safe space where everyone is equal. The exhibit is themed around trust, mutual respect and altruism. Traits which Östlund’s film reminds us time-and-time again his central characters are all sadly lacking in. It’s part of a broad-ranging satire on the self-importance of the Art World and the self-obsession of the upper classes that, while beautifully filmed, comes across as rather scattergun. Putting it bluntly, most of its targets are so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels.

A film like this, hinges on Christian’s self-perception being clearly shown to be very different from his reality. In effect, we need to see how Christian believes himself to be a decent, upstanding, noble fellow but also be shown he is in fact prejudiced, self-obsessed and vain. While the film does very well to show how shallow Christian’s “nice-guy” image is – he basks in the adulation of colleagues and museum patrons and carefully prepares his ‘spontaneous’ presentations for maximum effect – we never get quite enough of a sense of how he sees himself. His mystique is punctured so early, that the sense of events forcing an awkward confrontation with his true character is not developed.

This takes nothing away from the exceptional performance of Claes Bang, a charismatic and gifted actor who can pivot on a sixpence from huge charm to bullying menace. He’s completely believable as the red-spectacled, scarf wearing aesthete just as he is the sort of bully who’ll push a troublesome kid over. Matey and jovial with his employees, he’s also hesitant on their names and berates assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) when he gets cold feet about executing his letter drop plan (on top of which, he naturally assumes as Michael is black, he’ll be better at carrying out the plan than Christian). His life is a careful performance, with every moment scripted by him, that fractures into something much messier the instant he loses control.

It’s just a shame that Östlund doesn’t delve into the opportunities this presents. He’s more interested in obvious characters like Elizabeth Moss’ Anne, a preening journalist (she inexplicably lives with a Chimp) with whom Christian enjoys a one-night stand, culminating in the two of them bickering over a used condom. (Christian seems worried she’ll pinch his sperm).

Too often Östlund contents himself with simply stating that the upper clases are vain and pre-occupied with their own needs instead of the lives of others. In case we miss this point, the film is littered with shots of beggars. It even opens with the camera focused on a beggar sleeping on the street in broad daylight while, off camera, a passionate student pushes leaflets urging people to do more to help the homeless while passers-by express irritation or disinterest to them. You see! Even the campaigner is more interested in virtue signalling than actually helping people! Interactions with beggars pepper the film: Christian is annoyed by one beggar not being grateful enough when he condescendingly offers to buy them dinner to get out of an awkward conversation with them and then later pays another to guard his shopping when he takes a phone call.

This social satire runs in parallel with a scathing-but-rather-obvious series of jokes at the expense of the preening self-importance of the Art World. The exhibition, The Square, is treated as if it’s the second coming but, other than parroting the Artist’s written vision, no one (not even Christian) seems interested in engaging in it or really has a clue what it is trying to do. The most important part of Christian’s role is in fact attracting money from rich patrons, who ooh and ahh over the art but have nothing whatsoever to say about it. The art itself is a parade of cliches – although there is a very funny recurring joke of an installation that is a series or piles of ash on the floor which the museum cleaners inadvertently slowly reduce each night.

The unwillingness of people to rock the boat in social situations is also parodied. Dominic West cameos as an American artist whose Q&A is constantly disrupted by a man with Tourettes – the discussion collapses but no one knows how to even to begin to manage the situation. This culminates in the film’s showpiece (and best scene). A Russian artist whose ‘art’ is to impersonate a monkey (played by motion-capture guru Terry Notary), performs an installation at a fund raiser dinner. The guests (and Christian) sit in increasingly awkward silence, no one willing to take the first step to intervene, as the artist progresses from humorous monkey noises to increasing acts of intimidation, violence and finally sexual assault.

It’s all interesting stuff, but it all feels a little too obvious. The advertising reps bought into design the video are such cliched social media obsessives they feel like sitcom characters. The juxtaposition of The Square’s idea that “everyone inside the square is equal” with the reality of no one being equal is made time and time and again with reduced impact.

Östlund finds a host of squares (stairways, windows etc) to frame Christian in visually to hammer this home. He makes frequent use of one-sided two shot set ups (meaning we only focus on one character during a conversation or exchange) which helps further drill down into that character’s psyche and stress their distance from whoever they are talking to. But it’s a lot of flash on an otherwise rather obvious and self-satisfied film, which never makes as many new and original points as it thinks.

If it’s a stunning realisation to you that people have a tendency to be self-obsessed, that the Art world is as much about posing and money as it is art and that social awkwardness will stop people intervening in the most disastrous circumstances, this is the film for you. Otherwise, you might find little real insight here.