Talking Movies

July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis (in motion capture) returns as evolved primate Caesar, but Cloverfield director Matt Reeves cannot rescue this iteration of the franchise from itself.

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A chilling prologue shows the lights going out globally as the GenSys-created simian flu decimates humanity. A decade later Caesar (Andy Serkis) is in command of the apes in the Bay Area forest, flanked by scarred warrior Koba (Toby Kebbel), wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and loyal Rocket (Terry Notary). There is tension between Caesar and his petulant son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), and everything falls apart when Rocket’s son Ash (Doc Shaw) is shot by Carver (The Black Donnellys’ Kirk Acevedo). Carver is part of a team led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), which includes Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smith-McPhee). They are trying to restart a dam to provide power to San Francisco’s human colony led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The dam is Caesar’s, and Dreyfus gives Malcolm three days to negotiate a peaceful solution…

Matt Reeves inserts some visual trademarks; a lengthy tracking shot in which chaos explodes into frame, a fixed-position sequence from a tank turret’s POV, and a nicely vertiginous use of the Golden Gate bridge; but whereas Let Me In’s slow-burning approach achieved agonising levels of suspense, this is just agonising – Reeves takes forever to unfurl a very simple and remarkably boring plot. Technically everything’s competent: Michael Giacchino’s music is effective if uncharacteristic (no sad tinkly piano!), and Michael Seresin’s cinematography approaches that of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and would be commendable if it likewise served a mood – but you can’t help feel it’s hiding creaking CGI. Ah, CGI… This is our defining modern paradox; an air of distancing unreality hangs over everything, but the great technology and preparation that created it is extolled as cutting-edge and therefore preferable to engaging verisimilitude achieved practically. The non-ending is as insulting as that of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and a trend that needs to be denounced: it’s like ending The Two Towers halfway through the battle of Helm’s Deep.

Writing takes effort. 2011’s reboot had a shocking poverty of characterisation but was a roaring success. Writing becomes much easier for Jaffa, Silver, and Bomback if they know the audience doesn’t want characterisation… Blue Eyes is petulant. That’s his one note. Then later he’s cowardly. He’s easily duped, because… and sides with Koba, because… then finds his steel, because… the script said so. Koba recalls Firefly’s “Curse your sudden, but inevitable, betrayal!” He discovers Dreyfus’ preparation for war and returns to warn Caesar, but loses his rag because he sees Caesar helping humans; except Caesar’s not actually helping them when Koba arrives… But hey, in event of plot emergency break glass for jerk, right? Carver’s rejoinder to Ellie’s fact – “The virus was created by scientists I don’t think the apes they were testing it on had much say in it” “Don’t give me that hippie-dippy bullshit” – is comically awful, but it’s easier to have jerks spark plot points rather than have Dreyfus and Malcolm’s reasonable disagreement over how to achieve their aim be teased out; perhaps that’s why Oldman is barely in this movie. By the climactic “What are you doing?” “Saving the human race!” gambit we’ve reached a truly low point where self-sacrifice that doesn’t work (like Alona Tal in Supernatural) isn’t tragic, but a running gag from 21 Jump Street.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so poor it makes you nostalgic for the awful Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Whither Rod Serling’s scripting intelligence?

1/5

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July 31, 2013

The Heat

Director Paul Feig reunites with his Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy for a female buddy-cop movie that’s short on laughs but still better than The Internship.

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Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a prim and proper FBI Agent who specialises in humiliating her co-workers with displays of her deductive genius. Her despairing boss Hale (Demian Bichir) sends her to a knotty case in Boston as a test. If she can manage to not alienate her co-workers while cracking the case he’ll consider her for a plum promotion, otherwise… Unfortunately for Ashburn the first Boston suspect she wants to interrogate, drug-lord Julian (Michael McDonald), brings with him an obnoxious arresting officer Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). The foul-mouthed Mullins volubly prefers brute force and ignorance to Ashburn’s Quantico-honed subtlety and reconnaissance. She also brings to the case a possible inside man, her deadbeat brother Jason (Michael Rapaport), recently released from prison and being recruited by Julian’s associate Adam (Taran Killam). Can Ashburn and Mullins work together and overcome their personal issues?

Bridesmaids was a curiously depressing film that relentlessly showed Kristen Wiig’s character defeated by life and yet expected audience cheers for the Little Miss Sunshine-aping end which solved only one of her many problems. Thankfully The Heat isn’t that infuriating, as, despite being written by Parks & Rec’s Katie Dippold, it feels like a thriller retouched as a comedy. Tony Hale and Kaitlin Olson pop up for lengthy and meandering scenes that completely waste their comedic talents. It’s hard not to notice that the comedy steps up a notch when Bill Burr and Nate Corddry appear as yet more Mullins siblings; and you suspect they improvised some of their cross-talking madness. Indeed the very deliberate delivery of the initially incomprehensible line “Ah you or ah you not a nahc?” to Ashburn is hands-down the funniest moment in the entire film.

Marlon Wayans is decent as Ashburn’s subordinate Levy, but the great Bichir is shockingly underused. Dan Bakkedahl’s albino DEA Agent Craig is the butt of an uncomfortable vein of crude humour, and that’s before the finale employs the wrong note of 21 Jump Street’s finale without its saving absurdity. Russell T Davies gave Billie Piper the line ‘Ooh, can you smell the testosterone in here?’ in Doctor Who, and that sexism has popped up endlessly and tiresomely in discussions of banking culture. I’ve longed for a character to rant about oestrogen in the same manner to expose the sexism of the trope, so it’s infuriating that Dippold has Agent Craig do just that; but by making him a deeply unsympathetic character subtly justify the corresponding sexist trope. It’s hard to know what to say about a central pairing whose bond is based on Ashburn learning to curse. I watched McCarthy play Sookie for 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls; she’s better than this, but this apparently is where the career is.

The Heat suggests that there’s a true gulf opening up in American comedy between the school of Rogen & Hill and unfunny people.

January 17, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

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(10) Sinister

Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson displays great flair with this tense horror in which Ethan Hawke’s true crime writer moves into a crime scene and stumbles over old home movies of a serial killer. Derrickson builds dread with a number of wonderful scares as evidence of a serial killer who’s been slaughtering families and abducting one child since the late 1960s unravels Hawke’s sanity. But then ghoulishness inexorably leads to a suspenseful, traumatic finale…

(9) 21 Jump Street

I hate ironic remakes of good television, and crude Apatow-riffing R comedies, so this hysterically funny combination of both surprised me. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum hated each other at high school, bonded at police academy, but then go back to daggers drawn as they’re sent undercover to a high school. Tatum becomes a science nerd, Hill pursues Brie Larson, and their narcotics investigation goes nowhere as Hill’s eye for the absurd inserts nonsense aplenty.

(8) Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor’s warm and very funny comedy sees his disappointed thirtysomething rejuvenated by effervescent correspondence with the witty 19 year old Elizabeth Olsen, a student at his alma mater. But this version of Manhattan boasts a wiser Mariel Hemingway and an ethical Woody Allen, and, amidst hilarious sequences of fighting over trashy vampire novels and the effects of listening to opera, a fantastically cold turn by Allison Janney; teaching Jesse some hard lessons.

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(7) The Hunter

This immensely assured Australian art-house thriller follows Willem Dafoe’s loner as he silently stalks the breathtakingly photographed Tasmanian wilds in search of the possibly not extinct native tiger with orders to kill it after capturing its unique DNA for a sinister corporation. But at his lodgings, as he starts to stand in for Frances O’Connor’s missing husband, he slowly begins to doubt his mission and to suspect Sam Neill’s family ‘friend’, leading to a very moving ending.

(6) Monsieur Lazhar

Mohamed Said Fellag’s Algerian immigrant offers his services to a well-to-do and very PC Montreal school when a teacher commits suicide in the classroom. This strict but loving teacher instinctively knows how to help, and, driven by his own loss, he does so despite orders not to encroach on the ineffectual female counsellor’s turf. This film achieves two minor miracles: it avoids crassness and sentimentality, and its child actors are superb, especially Sophie Nelisse.

(5) Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998 was a deliriously enjoyable slice of New England liberal arts college-skewering nonsense where ingénue Analeigh Tipton is adopted by Greta Gerwig and Megalyn Echikunwoke. Gerwig’s desire to improve the global psyche with her international dance craze the Sambola seems slightly less daft after Gangam Style. But this is a ramshackle film of impeccably urbane daftness, from illiterate Zorros to a frat boy trying to learn the primary colours. No one talks like Stillman characters, but you feel F Scott’s old sports would like them.

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(4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Director Stephen Chbosky invites comparisons with Adventureland as socially isolated Logan Lerman starts high school and is adopted by flamboyant seniors Ezra Miller (an exuberant joy) and Emma Watson (luminous). Lerman blooms under their tutelage in scenes of great wit and charm, but “We accept the love we think we deserve” is a piercing insight into the damaged relationships pursued by the central trio, and it’s the emotional depth with which Lerman’s trauma is revealed that allows this film to stand comparison with Michael Chabon’s Pittsburgh novels.

(3) The Woman in Black

A classical 1920s haunted house story sees Daniel Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer sent to the incredibly eerie Eel Marsh House to sort out its paperwork. Ciaran Hinds’ local toff is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but they’re right to fear the Woman being sighted… Classy horror concentrates on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror; this is a dazzling technical achievement because a maestro is conducting. When Radcliffe informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night to finish his work the terror becomes nigh unbearable…

(2) Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen gives a star-making performance in this intriguingly elliptical tale of a young woman emerging from a dangerous cult. She is both naive victim and malicious rebel as she spars with her guilt-ridden older sister Sarah Paulson; who tries to deal with Olsen’s sexually aberrant behaviour without knowing what happened in the Catskills with charismatic cult leader John Hawkes. This shares Take Shelter’s measured pacing, intensity, and even a tautly ambiguous ending leaving the viewer sick with dread – unsure if we’re sharing Olsen’s paranoia.

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(1) Shame

Imagine Bret Easton Ellis and Pinter co-wrote a movie about a businessman in NYC who’s constructed his entire life around his secret addiction. This would be it. Director Steve McQueen avoids salaciousness in tackling sex addiction by making the sex scenes as wincing to observe as an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. This is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering, derailing compulsion – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy; exemplified by a vicious argument between siblings Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan being shot in one fixed-position long take, and Fassbender’s frustrated midnight jog becoming a transcendent sequence as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks. McQueen never explains but he forces us into serious empathy with a condition usually mocked.

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