We’re getting a new APES movie in a few days, so while we’re waiting, here are my thoughts on its predecessor from a few years ago.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a surprising addition to the typical summer blockbuster canon – for one thing, it manages to entertain and challenge, without resorting to gratuitous violence to make its point. But there’s a deeper subtext that is even more unexpected – for this is a story in which we start to lose. It was fashionable in the late 1960s and early 70s for science fiction films to attempt to out-dystopia each other – see for example the notion in ‘Soylent Green’ that post-industrial humanity snacks on itself to survive, the suggestion that only robots can be trusted to look after creation in ‘Silent Running’, and the climactic revelation in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ that a few generations from now, the nuclear arms race will end in mutually assured destruction. All these point to a simple philosophical idea: that humans cannot be trusted to care for ourselves or the planet we steward.

So you don’t go to a ‘Planet of the Apes’ film for a lark – although the new prequel is tremendous cinematic entertainment (a phenomenal motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis as the ape Caesar, a magnificent action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge). The film is interested in asking questions about our place in the universe – ‘playing God’; investigating the implied conflict between wanting freedom and wanting peace; the pure motivation to alleviate pain colliding with the break down of community relations. It’s fascinating that the key plot axis in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is possible only because two characters who live next door to each other haven’t spoken for five years and therefore are less likely to show empathy when something goes horribly wrong.

We the audience are turned on by scenes of compassion and destruction alike – we are moved by John Lithgow’s portrayal of an Alzheimer’s sufferer who may be helped by the ape-experimented treatment, just as we are enthralled by the fight on the bridge, and a particular coup de cinema when Caesar takes an evolutionary leap. And yet, we’re being entertained by the story of our own destruction. We know that after this prequel ends, Charlton Heston will travel forward in time, and discover that the Statue of Liberty is made of a very hard-wearing metal. And things won’t look too good for human beings then. But we still laugh and cheer with the apes. Maybe it’s because we want to take the side of the underdog, maybe it’s because we need to laugh at things that frighten us, maybe most of all it’s a knowing response to a necessary path: the one of working very hard to tell the difference between God and us.


Unless we reach the unlikely crossroads wherein TRANSFORMERS embodies its title, here are my favorite films of the first half of 2014 (with some chronological license for very tail end of 2013 movies that didn’t make it outside LA or NYC til the world rotated once more): 

10: IDA 
7: 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH


Pretty good except for that one thing … : COLD IN JULY, MALEFICENT, CAPTAIN IN AMERICA, CHEF

Most fun I had without really expecting it: MUPPETS MOST WANTED


Best rediscovery: THE SWIMMER on Bluray

Best nights at the cinema thus far this year: LOCKE and THE GREAT BEAUTY were startling and moving experiences, but most memorable was seeing SORCERER accompanied by Jett Loe at the Cinefamily with a sound system so loud I wondered if Tangerine Dream were hiding under the seats. And William Friedkin was kind enough to reply to a question I asked on Twitter about the ambiguous ending. It’s a magnificent, stirring, haunting, angry, sad, passionate, crazy film about (possibly failed) initiation into emotional adulthood.

Soul Telegram

I’m involved in a rather lovely project called Soul Telegram. You can find out more about it here. Please do take a look.

Ireland Trip July 10th-20th

The trip to Ireland that David WilcoxKaren Moore and I are leading this July 10th-20th is starting to fill up, and I want to remind folks that now is the time to apply if you’re interested in joining us.  I’ve wanted to bring people to my homeland for a long time, and have done smaller trips before, but this is a major step up.  One of the constant refrains I hear from folk in the US who have visited Ireland before is that they ‘didn’t go to the North’.  We’re going to change that.


Staying first in 400 year old thatched cottages in Mourne country (that’s Mourne country above – really) and then a lovely old country house by the sea outside Belfast (that’s Belfast below), with a group of friends old and new, enjoying the landscape on amazing walks, hearing music and story, meeting locals, experiencing the peace process in meeting people directly involved in activism and change, and getting to know the culture of northern Ireland, immersed in Celtic culture ancient and new.  Great food, inspiring art, and beautiful journeys on foot will form the heart of this soulfully unique and transforming experience. This will be a ten day experience – for twenty guests only – that might just last for the rest of your life.


Many of you know that I was privileged to become friends with John O’Donohue in the few years before his death in 2008. John used to host what he called ‘tours’, based in County Clare, for pilgrims who wanted to experience Ireland in authenticity rather than the more antiseptic/corporate tourist trip where feet don’t touch the ground and souls might as well have stayed on the plane. I was lucky enough to be involved in facilitating what turned out to be the last tour John led in Ireland. This upcoming trip is very much inspired by the kinds of things John led people into on his trips: mornings will be gathered conversations, afternoons we will walk the landscape, and in the evenings there will be music, storytelling, and certainly firewater magic. You’ll meet friends and colleagues with whom I have been honored to walk some of the journey, peacemakers and poets and politicians, you’ll walk by the sea and on mountains, and there’ll be plenty of time to take by yourself for whatever you need.

The trip takes place in July 2014 – just over four months from now. If you’re interested, and want more details, please send an email at this link, and we’ll send you the information and application form.  Places really are strictly limited – we can accommodate 20 guests, and expect the trip to be over-subscribed.  So if you know this is for you, or if you’re asking maybe, let me know. David, Karen and I can’t wait to welcome you to Belfast in July. And now, here’s a picture of a fish.



On Sunday night, the Oscars will once again prove that the evaluation of art is not best subject to democracy. But there may be flukes, as there often are, and the best of all might be if THE ACT OF KILLING would win Best Documentary, and if its director Joshua Oppenheimer gets the opportunity to say something meaningful about dealing with the past, genocide, and our interdependence as a species. The film is controversial, and Oppenheimer has been more than up to the task of responding to criticisms, including here.

If you haven’t seen it, let me recommend it thus: I think THE ACT OF KILLING proves the continued potential of cinema to do what it needs to do: to advance our humanity.


Until the internet took over, prospective immigrant’s expectations of the USA were shaped, of course, by the movies.  Growing up in northern Ireland I found my perceptions of America nurtured by ‘Superman’ and ‘Back to the Future’ and Woody Allen before I heard about Mark Twain and Martin Luther King (though Ronald Reagan was conspicuous, and confusing to me as a child – I wasn’t sure if he was an actor, a comedian, or a leader.  I’m still not.)  I’ve recently spent time writing about the vision of the US through the lens of one film for every state – if cinema is the closest art form to dreaming, and if dreams tell us something about who we really are, then any attempt at understanding the nation that first fully embraced the movies has got to look to them for an explanation.

We have to examine ‘Fight Club’ and ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Nashville’, no less than ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ to begin to capture the American dreamlife – most movies are set in Southern California or New York, and there’s a lot more America where those didn’t come from.  Montana and Michigan and New Hampshire and Arizona, and Delaware too – that’s just five states and there’s already  enough diversity of thought and experience and identity to make you wonder if the Empire State Building and the Santa Monica Pier are even in the same country.  Outsiders to the US, and transplants like myself, aren’t much aware that America is really at least 50 nations – contrasts between the states are mighty and rich: a Wyoming plain and a Sonoma vineyard, Hoboken and Hot Springs, the Florida Keys and the Swannanoa Valley are magnificent intersections of dreams and mistakes, with a confidence about the future that still sometimes allows for a past to face.  The cinematic-industrial-complex is making it easier to see films that didn’t start in Hollywood or New York City – through the same internet that sometimes mis-shapes global perceptions of the US, we have access to independent cinema like never before.  If we want to understand America through the movies, the best time yet is now.

And on that note, and with the Oscars this weekend, here’s my list of the best US American films released in 2013 (including those re-released for home viewing).

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Criterion box set) – John Cassavetes was the godfather of US independent cinema, and this is the best entry to his work: a grimy thriller about one man trying to make art against the odds.

12 Years a Slave – the superlatives are deserved, but this is more than a work of art.  It’s the beginning of a new way of thinking about the past.

Fearless (Warner Blu-ray) – A film about a man who needs to die before he can live (and love), in which Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez show us something more of how to be human.

Captain Phillips – Because it tries to take seriously both the reasons why poor Somali men might hijack a container ship, and the trauma that resulted

Gravity – an invitation to wonder, and re-imagine how we got started

Fruitvale Station – a film which shouldn’t be necessary, but asks us to consider the humanity behind headlines

The Lone Ranger – the most underrated film of the year, and a more important piece of historical revisionism than ‘Dances with Wolves’

Before Midnight – the continued unfolding of a relationship between our vicarious selves.

Leviathan – a dizzying dive into the weather and the water and the life of fish and the folk who catch them

Mud – the spirit of Mark Twain (and ‘Stand By Me’) resurrected in a slightly gothic, slightly magical, all-story about love and growing up

Inside Llewyn Davis – a plunging into the tortured soul of an artist, perhaps the most depressing life-affirming film the Coen Brothers have yet made

The Place Beyond the Pines – the best epic crime saga since Robert de Niro took Al Pacino for a cup of coffee



Before he balanced a career between epic biopics of revolutionary political figures and wealthy stylish casino thieves, Steven Soderbergh made a handful of films that hardly anyone has seen. The guy behind the huge scale globalism of TRAFFIC and CONTAGION (both about a kind of virus) also explored the terrain of KAFKA’s soul and made a pseudo-autobiographical satire on industry and art in SCHIZOPOLIS (which includes the wonderful line “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.”) It’s fairly typical for commentators to perceive this as a ‘one for the studio/audience, one for me’ pattern, but that’s only if you think audiences are stupid,  directors can’t be interested in two kinds of things at once, and that art ceases to have substance once it becomes popular or entertaining.  CHE and MAGIC MIKE are both entertaining and have something to say. And so does the just re-released KING OF THE HILL, a warm but honest coming of age story by AE Hotchner, the man who taught Paul Newman how to make salad dressing (and with whom he wrote the magnificently titled memoir ‘Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good’), is finally getting a DVD/BluRay release, and is an elegant surprise.

A St Louis Depression context, a boy protagonist who really is growing up, colorful characters on the sidelines (including a performance of delicacy and, since his death, great pathos from the great Spalding Gray), fusion of comedy and brokenness – it could be written by Mark Twain and shot by Matisse, so welcoming is the light (perhaps too much – Soderbergh himself says that he feels it should have looked bleaker). Beyond that, KING OF THE HILL is a lovely, truthful treatment of the making and breaking and remaking of faith in life. It’s better than pretty much anything available at the multiplex this week.

KING OF THE HILL is released today by Criterion, with the usual full-to-the-brim features, alongside a brilliant addition – an entire bonus feature film, Soderbergh’s follow up THE UNDERNEATH, which he includes here because he doesn’t like it enough to warrant a full release on its own terms. Such humility – at least in public – makes it easier to like KING OF THE HILL even more.