by Ben Kenigsberg
Tim Burton has always been more of an expressionist than a conventional filmmaker. The images he's conjured -- a hermit with an unkempt beehive 'do and scissors for hands; an angular, foreboding Gotham City; a misty, gnarly-wooded Tarrytown; and a suburb as sterile as a neighborhood of model houses -- have always been striking enough to distract from his pictures' lack of humor (when he's trying to be funny) or thrills (when he's trying to be scary). But I'd pay to get inside his nightmares. He should make them into a ride at Disney.
"Planet of the Apes,"
Burton's much-touted not-a-remake of the 1968 Charlton Heston classic, is business as usual for the director: the film is as hollow as it is sleep-inducing, but then again, the apes are as ugly -- and thus, as surreally beautiful -- as anything Burton has created.
Rick Baker will surely win another Oscar for his makeup. Aside from creating mouths that actually move in sync with the dialogue, Baker's major accomplishment is creating distinction in the apes' faces. It's not blatant, but you can clearly discern the snarl of Tim Roth beneath the latex.
Burton has his simians move with inhuman gaits; the movie doesn't believe that apes, given human intelligence, would behave like humans. They swing from vines. They charge on all fours. And the ape-like behavior isn't limited to ambulation: in lieu of screaming, the apes do a kind of primate yelp ("oogh! oogh! oogh!").
For a while, the inventiveness of Burton's world distracts from his movie's basic lack of ideas. It relies mainly on references to the first film -- including an amusing Heston cameo -- for interest. When the picture, predictably, turns into an interspecies "Braveheart," it crosses the line from uninspired to boring.
It's easy to forget that, despite the original's cheesy dialogue and overacting (Heston growled way more than Roth does, and Heston played a human), the original "Planet of the Apes" was intelligent sci-fi. Its messages about creationism versus science, racism, slavery, war and destruction were easy to swallow. With Rod Serling's and Michael Wilson's screenplay, the morals managed not to get in the way of what was, essentially, a great two-hour "Twilight Zone" episode.
But because its anti-slavery theme isn't explored at more than a third-grade reading level, the remake's attempt at parable doesn't play smoothly. Humans are the apes' slaves, but we're only given an inkling of an understanding of the caste structure on the primate planet. We meet one human who brown-noses the apes and enjoys comforts for it; other humans hate him, but the movie makes nothing of it.
Despite this hint of disarray in the ranks, when it comes time to go to war, the humans put up a unified front. What army would unite behind a leader as expressionless and uncharismatic as Mark Wahlberg anyway? And whatever equal-tolerance messages lurk in the depths of this "Planet" are undermined by the presence of token ethnic characters. In the whole human population, as far as I could tell, there's one black and one Asian.
And the ballyhooed surprise ending, completely different from the original's, is actually two endings, both completely random. It's as if monkeys wrote the movie.
The Flesh Fair patrons in "A.I." wanted to purge the world of artificiality. Enid (Thora Birch), the hero of Terry Zwigoff's bittersweet comedy
wants to do exactly the same thing.
Nothing is safe from her satirical put-downs -- modern art, chain video stores, movie-theater popcorn, pseudo-'50s burger joints (where the jukeboxes ooze rap), the congratulations and the platitudes thrown her way at graduation, and teens pretending to be confident. Enid and her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) dismiss peers who are quick to go off to business school and into acting workshops. They may be a little jealous of their classmates' enterprising behavior, but they also know that few 18-year-olds are as sure of themselves as they seem.
The two wander around L.A. at the start of what should be their last summer in town -- except that they have no plans to go to college ("just because," says Enid) -- making fun of everything they see. Rebecca gets a job at a faux-Starbucks and vacillates in deciding whether to follow the flow. Enid can't keep a job, and is occupied with an art class that requires her to create something with social meaning. (Her instructor, played by Illeana Douglas, criticizes her comic book-style sketchings and praises a classmate's found art -- a tampon in a teacup.)
Enid finds a project in Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely corporate worker who collects blues records and other relics. Why is she so interested? "He's the exact opposite of everything I hate," Enid tells Rebecca. "He's such a dork, he's almost cool." Later, she tells Seymour that the idea of a world where a guy like him can't get a date is too much for her. You can't help but think that Seymour is a grown-up version of Enid -- the result of wandering on the unbeaten path for years.
In "Ghost World," Zwigoff, who made remarkable documentary "Crumb," again explores characters who can't bring themselves to lead normal lifestyles, and suggests that nonconformity leads to creativity. "Ghost World" is adapted from Daniel Clowes's underground comic book (the script is by Clowes and Zwigoff), but despite Enid and Seymour's caricature looks, nothing in the film feels false, down to Birch's perfectly sarcastic and appropriately variable performance.
I'm in that curious limbo between high school and college right now, and the movie captures the angst and the absurdity of teenagehood -- being alone on Saturday night, yet sort of wanting to do your own thing. "Ghost World" is a complex, insightful film about the intertwining of human foibles and originality -- in the guise of a terrific deadpan comedy.