★★★ / ★★★★
The remake of Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Papillon,” based on the memoir by Henri Charrière, this time directed by Michael Noer, improves upon the original by streamlining the 1973 version’s distracting tonal issues and uneven pacing. However, it comes with a cost: By comparison, the retelling of what happened within the penal system in 1933 French Guiana is less brutal because the filmmakers choose to embrace a more cinematic approach. This is not a complete disadvantage because these two films actually make an interesting double feature due to their stark differences. A case can be made that although neither picture is an exemplary prison break drama, they complete each other.
Two strong performers lead the story—Charlie Hunnam who plays the safecracker Papillon and Rami Malek as the forger Louis Dega. Their approach to the characters, like the original and the remake, are vastly different. But because the two of them often share the same screen, and both are equally charismatic, one cannot help but consider which of the duo is stronger. In my eyes, it is Hunnam simply because he opts not to mimic Steve McQueen’s interpretation of Papillon. By doing so, and perhaps recognizing that McQueen is inimitable, he makes the character his own. On the other hand, Malek does an impression of Dustin Hoffman’s Dega, from the speech patterns to the way he looks at or through the camera. It is the performance that is more forced.
There is a lived in quality in way the penal colony is photographed. In every place shown, from the open spaces that gives an impression of false freedom down to the suffocating room of solitary confinement, it looks and feels as though somebody has lived and died in there. Like the original, the remake’s strongest moments involve the central protagonist being broken in body, mind, spirit by the warden (Yorick van Wageningen) who is, ironically, often dressed in white. These sequences of near silence demand that the viewer pay attention to the passing of time. For instance, this can be observed through the sheer deterioration of Papillon’s once extremely fit body.
It is curious that neither film manages to capture the essence of Papillon and Dega’s friendship in a way that is completely rewarding or convincing. To me, their bond remains fragile and tenuous throughout. The closing moments, bordering on melodrama at times, suggest otherwise.
Looking at the story and character development more closely, perhaps we are not meant to equate their partnership as friendship—at least not on a traditional sense. This is the more compelling route because life is like that sometimes. There are instances when we are required to work with someone, perhaps even get close to them at the time, to complete a project. But once the assignment is over, life goes on not because it is cruel but simply because it must. It does not make the connection any less special.
It took seeing both versions of the same story for me to appreciate this particular angle. And that is why, in this review, I found it nearly impossible to avoid bringing up the original. Certainly more polished, this modernized “Papillon” is easier on the eyes and there is a more mainstream flow to it. It does not feel as long, and it is able to stand as a complete work. An argument can be made that a prison break movie need not be realistic, even if it is based on a true story, so long as it is entertaining. Well, it certainly fulfills this prerequisite.
★★ / ★★★★
Although not short on ambition, prison-break drama “Papillon,” based on the autobiography of Henri Charrière, suffers from pacing and tonal issues so severe that at times they take the enjoyment out of what should be thrilling and exhilarating moments. It requires patience to endure these miscalculations especially considering the fact that the film clocks in at about a hundred fifty minutes. An argument can be made that it is too long and bloated.
Perhaps most enjoyable is the performances. Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play Henri and Louis, a safecracker framed for a murder of a pimp (or so he claims) and a counterfeiter, respectively, prisoners in the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. The power is not in the words they utter but the moments in between. They can look at one another, at the sky or the ocean, or at someone that they pity or are angry toward—and not much else is needed. This pair could have relied on their charm, physicality, or behavioral quirks. Instead, they choose to create convincing characters that we wish to make a successful escape not because it would be entertaining but rather we become convinced eventually that if they were to get a second chance at a free life, they would use it wisely.
I admired how the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. takes the time to show how it is like to be in this particular prison, especially solitary confinement. This is when the languid pacing is at its most effective because we see and feel the psychological toll the prisoner undergoes over time. We appreciate the size of the cell, the etchings on walls, what the previous man who lived in that cell was possibly thinking, the food served, or lack thereof, the bugs crawling across the floor, the classical conditioning based on the sound made by guards on the hallway. When the material provides a high level of specificity, it is fascinating. However, it reverts to becoming a prison break movie.
The act of making an escape should be suspenseful and thrilling. While I enjoyed there is no gadgetry, complex planning, and special effects are kept at a bare minimum, observe these scenes closely and recognize they come across somewhat slapstick at times. I considered the editing. Maybe it lingers a second or two too long after a guard is hit over the head that it leaves enough room for the overacting to come across as fake. I considered the rather uninteresting perspective of the camera, how it tends to observe from one angle and dares not budge even when the subjects are running for their lives. I even considered the lack of an exciting score that is designed to snap the viewers out of ennui. Maybe if the silly sound effects were masked a bit, it would have been more exciting and less amusing.
Perhaps all of these elements combined created the unintended byproduct.
“Papillon” is surprising in that it is not character-driven. Take a look at the relationship between Henri and Louis. While it is interesting that they are not quite friends, more like two people who need each other since what one lacks the other can offer, they are not that interesting when together or apart—especially when the script requires that they speak with one another about, for example, planning an escape or why one ought to partake in escaping. The lives of these two men divorced from the prison are described briefly, but these come across as decorations rather than convincing realities.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four astronauts were sent to outer space to explore what was out there in the universe. They left their family and their very lives behind in hopes of furthering humans’ knowledge about the unknown. But when their ship crash landed on an unknown planet, only three made it out alive. One of them was Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) who held a pessimistic, or realistic, depending on how one saw humanity, view on other people. Perhaps he would begin to appreciate humans more because it turned out that the planet was ruled by apes. Humans were treated like animals, hunted, and exterminated. When caught, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an ape but an animal psychologist, found Taylor fascinating because he was able to write and talk, qualities no human on their planet possessed. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, when the apes started to speak in English, I admit that I laughed. The possibility that the English language transgressed lightyears worth of distance was amusing and downright silly. But it was supposed to be campy yet it had its own rules with much bigger roles later on. What made my eyes transfixed on the screen were its big ideas. Watching it was like looking at a mirror on how humans treated animals for the sake of scientific experiments. The subject of science, led by Dr. Zira and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), her husband-to-be, versus religion, led by Dr. Zaius, who’s position in the hierarchical ape society, ironically enough, was the Minister of Science, was explored and developed in a mature and often insightful way. Initially, I believed Dr. Zaius was just a villain, a big, hairy block that hindered in the way of progress for the sake of protecting what was written on the sacred texts he so deeply coveted. But when his motivations we fleshed out, I began to sympathize with him. The picture showed that he was not incapable of showing humanity. When the big revelation at the very end arrived, I didn’t feel cheated. In fact, I felt as though it answered many of my questions in one giant sweep. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, “Planet of the Apes” was surprisingly effective. The cinematography always changed. We started in the ship where it looked futuristic. It felt cold and safe. Fifteen minutes in, we were left to marvel at the barren desert where the astronauts saw that the only sign of life was a dried up plant. The characters looked so small and exposed to attack. When Taylor was captured, the look and feeling was a combination of both. I was convinced that the filmmakers had control over their project. Most importantly, they had a specific vision they wanted to convey and the motifs they implemented were multidimensional. A film that forces us to think outside of ourselves yet allows us to go back in our minds and reevaluate is, in my opinion, a quintessential science fiction story.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Will (James Franco) was a brilliant scientist on the brink of discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The ALZ-112 drug, which boosted brain function, worked on apes, but it needed to be tested on humans before commercialization. When one of the apes broke out of its cage and destroyed everything in its path, the investors expressed disapproval in using humans as test subjects. As a result, Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) ordered all of the experimental apes’ extermination and single-handedly shut down Will’s research. However, Will, despite his initial reluctance, took home a baby ape from the lab and raised it like a child. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was an exciting cautionary tale about ethics, or lack thereof, in terms of scientific advancements and humans’ relationship with our direct descendants. The first half was strong and unexpected. For a movie about an uprising of apes, I didn’t think it would focus on personal issues. It worked because it defined Will as more than a scientist. He was a father to Caesar (Andy Serkis), the young ape he hook home, and a son to his father (John Lithgow) who was inflicted with dementia. Later, when Caesar led his army of apes, strangely, I saw Will in his eyes, the strength, courage and determination within, a look similar in the way Will expressed concern toward his father when a specific symptom surfaced, a suggestion that his condition had turned for the worse. Unfortunately, the latter half wasn’t as strong. While it was necessary that Caesar eventually got to be with his own kind and began to care more about them than people, it got redundant. The workers in the wildlife rescue center, like John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton), were cruel and abusive. They pushed, kicked, and tasered the animals while deriving pleasure from it. Showing us the same act over and over again was counterproductive. I would rather have watched more scenes of the way Caesar dealt with abandonment. When the material turned inwards, whether it be Will or Caesar, what was at stake came into focus. The action scenes, like the chaos in the Golden Gate Bridge, was nicely handled by the director. There wasn’t much gore and no limb was torn apart, but the fear was palpable. The way the San Franciscans ran from one end of the bridge toward the other looked like they were running from Godzilla instead of a bunch of apes. However, there was one strand that felt out of place, almost underwritten. One of the scientists (Tyler Labine) was exposed to a chemical agent, a gaseous form of ALZ-112, which led to his death. That part of the story needed about two more scenes to explain its significance. Those who watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” could probably grasp at its implications but those who had not could end up confused. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used special and visual effects to enhance the story and deliver good-looking action sequences, evidence that the two needn’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to pull off a solid popcorn entertainment.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The film started off with General George Patton Jr. (George C. Scott) delivering a speech about war and the importance of winning being embedded in the American culture with the gigantic United States flag on the background. It was probably one of the most patriotic scenes I’ve seen portrayed on screen, but at the same time I felt that the picture was making fun of itself. The scene aimed to establish our main character: He was intimidating because he was obsessed with discipline and excellence. His reputation as being one of the feared generals, especially by the Nazis, was well-earned because he was an uncompromising man. Fear sometimes generates respect. The film was beautifully shot. In war pictures, I find it uncommon that I notice the environment because, to me, at least with the more recent war movies I’ve seen, the environ is simply a template where we get to see bombs exploding like there’s no tomorrow. But in “Patton,” I found the second scene outstanding because it featured a peaceful landscape in the Arabian desert where American soldiers’ bodies laid lifeless as Arabian people stole the soldiers’ clothes and other belongings. Again, there was the theme of duality. On one hand, it was sad to see those dead and rotting soliders. On the other hand, we could look at the Arabian people and see that looting was their chance for survival because they obviously didn’t have much. The film is different than other war movies. With “Patton,” we don’t follow any soldier in the battlefield or realize any of his personal struggles. It simply followed the general during his glory days as he tried to compete against British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates), attempted to outsmart German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), his probation because he slapped a soldier around for complaining about being afraid of the sounds of war, up until he regained his footing in the military. Throughout his journey, we learned so much about him such as his passion for poetry and penchant for history. The latter was his strength but at the same time it was his weakness. His enemies who didn’t know much about history often lost but those who were knowledgeable thought Patton was predictable and almost pretentious. Naturally, his strongest enemies were the ones who were just as smart as him. No one can argue against Patton’s biggest weakness being his mouth. He had no filter; he didn’t think he needed one so he was prone to saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune time. “Patton,” directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and partly written by Francis Ford Coppola, won seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor) not only because of its epic scale but also because of its small details that made this biopic all the more personal.
Boys from Brazil, The (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
I heard about this film in several of my Biology classes so I thought I’d check it out. Gregory Peck as Dr. Josef Mengel stars as a Nazi scientist with an evil plan: assassinate ninety-four sixty-five-year-old men in a span of two-and-a-half years. Believe it or not, that is only the first step of his much more menacing endgame. Sir Laurence Olivier is the Nazi hunter who tries to stop Dr. Mengel after hearing about it from a young Nazi seeker played by Steve Guttenberg. Watching Peck and Olivier interact, especially during the final scenes, was a pleasure to watch. They both have such power in the way they deliver their lines yet still have that subtetly that makes the audiences question whether what they see is really the entire picture. The way Franklin J. Schaffner, the director, told the story reminded me of the best spy films I’ve seen. He managed to build the suspense after each scene but at the same time still have minor payoffs to keep the viewer engaged. I thought this film had three standout scenes: when Guttenberg learns the information that the Nazis are planning (it reminded me of “Alias” when Jennifer Garner would drop in a conversation she wasn’t meant to hear), when Olivier learns about the science that goes behind the Nazis endgame (the science is completely believable which made it all the more impressive), and one of the last scene involving the dogs (which I thought was deeply symbolic). Those three scenes alone convinced me that this film should be seen by many. Although there wasn’t as much gun-wielding action scenes as I would’ve liked, the characters are shrewd and the plot was intelligently written with genuine moments of comedy dispersed along the way.