Archive for July 27, 2001

Planet of the Apes (2001)

July 27, 2001

“Some of it is very much me. Some of it…isn’t.” That’s Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, referring to his armor collection. Burton could point to his own collection, his filmography, and say the same thing. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, was very much Burton. Some parts of his bigger films — Batman, Mars Attacks! — are very much Burton, and some parts…aren’t. Planet of the Apes would seem at first glance to be very much not Burton — a suit of armor that doesn’t fit him. But he wears it well anyway, and it’s fascinating to see him work on material that doesn’t click perfectly with his gothic/carnival obsessions.

I took the movie as a fine, chest-pounding jungle adventure — the sort of square sci-fi epic Burton tries and, amusingly, fails to do straight. The soul of this Planet of the Apes is illogic — bursts of simian passion, rage, fear, even lust: I will not soon forget the moment when a seductive female ape gazes through a veil at her husband, then leaps onto the bed with a thrashing mating call. Aided by Rick Baker’s astonishing make-up, Burton makes the apes more distinct and, well, human than the humans ever are, and I’m sure this is by design. As in the 1968 original and its four sequels, we’re meant to look upon the apes and see ourselves. The actual humans in chains onscreen have little to do with us.

The new movie, which begins 28 years from now, follows pilot Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) as he pursues an off-course space pod containing his favorite test-pilot monkey. Leo’s pod crashes on a futuristic planet where apes reign (in a heavily militaristic society, as in the earlier films) and humans are slaves. The saturnine General Thade (Tim Roth, swinging his shoulders and glowering) runs the army, meaning he runs the show and would like to run humans into a mass grave; his ideological opposite is Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), basically Kim Hunter’s Zira version 2.0, who detests the subjugation of humans. She detests it even more when Leo is captured; she develops eyelash-flutter whenever he’s around.

This Planet of the Apes is all about noise and chaos — the unstable mix of intellect and brutal will that’s intended to mirror our own evolution. The script, by William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal, is short on intellect and long on brutal will; whatever ideas you take away from the theater are the ones you brought with you. Nobody in the movie stands around debating the ethics of, say, experimenting on human slaves or breeding them genetically. Burton understands that the five earlier Apes movies already did the furrowed-brow thing long past the point of relevance (the series really should’ve stopped at the third one).

This director isn’t a thinker; he brings more of a painterly mindset to the franchise, letting artists like Rick Baker, set designer Rick Heinrichs, costumer Colleen Atwood, and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot work their primal, primate magic (Danny Elfman’s flamboyant Wagnerian outbursts complete the movie’s epic flavor). So what if Burton loses interest in the human characters? I for one don’t blame him; the movie isn’t called Planet of the Humans, and they’re not who we came to see. Mark Wahlberg, that sincere, amiable, total blank of an actor, is consistently knocked off the screen by great actors in ape latex. Tim Roth, though mesmerizing in his relentless combative spewing, is a little too conscious of playing a mean motorscooter; I was more taken with Carter’s avid, idealistic Ari, or Paul Giamatti’s cringing sleazebag slave trader Limbo — Giamatti could act with a bucket over his head and still rock the house — or even Charlton Heston in his belabored yet still gotta-see-it-for-yourself in-joke cameo as Thade’s dying great-ape father, who gives humanity props for inventing guns (and the NRA, one assumes).

Planet of the Apes is far from Tim Burton’s best film, but I don’t think it’s a sell-out or an anomaly in his portfolio, as some have charged. Here you have a lavishly designed atmosphere, in which the “freaks” — the Other, the characters we don’t see when we look around us every day — are the clear focus, while humans take a back seat. This pretty well describes all of Burton’s films (think of how lifeless Mars Attacks was before the Martians landed), and here, at last, Burton puts his bias up front. He’d much rather play with sets and latex than with bland, interchangeable people (a contemptuous ape hilariously confirms this when he snorts that humans all look alike) — he’s comfortable on this planet where apes enjoy sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or their version of it, anyway) while humans rot in cages. It’s as if the misfits of our world — the apes in zoos, the monkeys experimented on and shot up into space — finally triumphed. The more you think about it, the more Planet of the Apes seems very much Tim Burton.

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Wet Hot American Summer

July 27, 2001

Wet Hot American Summer seems at first glance like one of those Super Sounds of the ’80s nostalgia movies that seem to be made for the express purpose of having a kitschy soundtrack. But really it isn’t. There are actually relatively few oldies to be heard — Theodore Shapiro and Craig Wedren have composed a scarily exact original score that sounds just like a crappy ’80s score, and just crappy enough to let you know they’re in on the joke — though the ’80s tunes in evidence, including not one but two Loverboy songs, are well-judged and well-used. The movie doesn’t use its sound to poke you into false nostalgia. Wet Hot American Summer is pretty much an ’80s camp comedy, only more so. It tips its hat to Meatballs and its multitude of imitators without really borrowing wholesale from them; this, as far as I can see (unless I’ve missed some impossibly obscure 1981 Z-budget Canadian-tax-shelter comedies it specifically references), is an original.

It’s the last day of camp, 1981 (for some reason, much is made of the fact that this is a predominantly Jewish camp). Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) flirts dorkily with nearby astrophysics professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce). Helmet-haired counselor Coop (co-writer Michael Showalter) nurtures affection for hotsy colleague Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who’s involved with sullen womanizer Andy (Paul Rudd). Arts-and-crafts counselor Gail (Molly Shannon) weeps over her failed marriage and is consoled by preternaturally mature camper Aaron (Gideon Jacobs). Entertainment counselors Susie (Amy Poehler, a massively quirky talent in full eruption here) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) try to whip the campers into shape for the talent show. Victor (Ken Marino) is obsessed with returning from a rafting trip in time to get it on with Abby (Marisa Ryan). Camp cook and ‘Nam vet Gene (Christopher Meloni) has an intense relationship with a can of mixed vegetables. Oh, and a piece of Skylab is threatening to fall right on top of the camp’s rec room.

Sounds…weird. Brilliantly so. It’s got its share of toilet/sex humor, but it also has some wonderfully left-field stuff. I laughed heartily throughout. Examples: Andy’s yeah-whatever approach to lifeguarding. The way David Hyde Pierce — a true hero of subtle dry comedy — delivers a single word, “dinner.” (It’s hilarious in context. I about peed laughing.) Everything Chris Meloni (better known to some as the duplicitous, love-struck con Keller on HBO’s Oz) does, especially the New Way montage. The Crate and Barrel gag. Janeane Garofalo with moussed hair. The “White people be funny” kid in the talent show. Lines — the script is full of them — like “You taste like a burger. I don’t like you any more.” The debauched montage in town. The big, trite softball championship scene. Truth is, the movie is on wheels right from the uncannily accurate opening credits.

If it’s so sharp and funny, why didn’t it get a wider release? Good question. It wasn’t given nearly enough of a push by its distributor, USA Films, and the mostly uncomprehending reviews (especially Roger Ebert’s annoying non-review) didn’t help. It wasn’t as straightforward as, say, American Pie 2. The ’80s nostalgia thing had been tapped out not long after The Wedding Singer, and the poster art made it look too much like Detroit Rock City (another worthwhile retro comedy audiences stayed away from in droves). This was always more or less destined to be a cult comedy, passed along enthusiastically on video/DVD. (And the DVD has some cool extras — the “Behind the Scenes” featurette is worth a spin just for the actors’ off-the-cuff in-character synopses of their lives ten years later. Paul Rudd’s is especially funny.)

WHAS was pretty much too smart for the mainstream room. It’s subversive; it doesn’t take the expected beats (either that or it satirically turns them on their heads — see the final conversation between Coop and Katie, a most unconventional note for a comedy to end on), it cheerfully approves of same-sex love (it deftly feints towards homophobia only to turn that on its head), and it teases the boys in the audience with cheesecake but never stoops to full nudity. This is a wildly funny essay on the comedies I, and maybe you, grew up with on cable in the early ’80s. It also works admirably as a comedy in its own right — it’s not a “you had to be there” scrapbook, though the appearance of only-in-the-’80s toys like Merlin will keep Gen-Xers happily chortling. It doesn’t overdose on pop-culture references, either — none of the young campers talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was pretty much the movie to see that summer among kids of that age (including me, back there in ’81).

The movie’s weirdest touch by far: The talent show’s MC, Alan Shemper, who’s brought on as if he were some half-forgotten real-life TV personality (like, say, Charles Nelson Reilly) we should recognize. And if you ransack your memory looking for childhood afternoons spent in front of the tube watching Alan Shemper, you’ll go nuts. In fact, he’s Michael Showalter in a disguise good enough to make you pause for a second — “Is that a real comedian from the ’70s and ’80s? Should I know him?” But since that is exactly the spot where a lesser movie would insert a surprise “Oh yeah, I remember that guy!” cameo, it just makes the comedy that much stranger…