Talking Movies

July 11, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis, via motion capture, returns one last time for more monkey business as Caesar, the Moses of intelligent apes.

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Caesar is in the woods, with his apes, and just wants to be left alone; to brood over his murder of rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), and raise his new young son. But not only have Koba’s followers started to collaborate with the humans against Caesar in order to avenge his death, the humans have also become menacingly organised under a new leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). An early bloody skirmish is followed by a night raid with the Colonel himself attempting to terminate Caesar’s command, with extreme prejudice. Caesar abdicates his duties as leader, vowing revenge. While the apes set out for the promised land beyond the desert, Caesar, with trusted lieutenant Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval), and two gorilla bodyguards, sets out to assassinate the Colonel. But matters are complicated by a new mutation of the virus assailing humanity.

War for the Planet of the Apes would be more accurately titled Commando Raids for the Planet of the Apes. Indeed a large portion of the movie is Prison Break for the Planet of the Apes, cycling back to the pivotal sequence of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes where super-intelligent Caesar was incarcerated with regular chimpanzees – because he chewed off a man’s fingers for being rude. Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ does not advocate having your hero chew off a man’s fingers for being rude to elicit audience sympathy, quite the opposite really. Yet we are expected to automatically root for Caesar through three films progressively less interested in human characters. If one could call the ciphers in this franchise human. This is surely the worst written trilogy this decade, and logically so; if an audience accepts ciphers, why bother sweating writing characters? If an audience accepts Gary Oldman’s noble sacrifice to save humanity resulting in nothing, why bother even setting up protagonist and antagonist humans? Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough is the only articulate human, and even Harrelson can’t excel with this straw man antagonist. Hard to credit this franchise was spawned by Rod Serling’s mischievous screenplay.

Rupert Wyatt in Rise, and Matt Reeves in Dawn, both threw in striking sequences of directorial bravura to try and paper over the poor scripting. But here, there is nothing going on in that department, which is a tremendous surprise given that Reeves returns as director. Where are his visual trademarks – the lengthy tracking shots following chaos exploding into frame, the fixed-position sequences, the Hitchcockian visual suspense? This is all the more surprising given the unsubtle references to the visually extravagant Apocalypse Now: slogans daubed everywhere, a shaven-headed Colonel expounding on history, culture and morality, a mission to exterminate (‘The only good Kong is a dead Kong’), Jimi Hendrix, and, just in case you didn’t get it, ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ graffiti. It’s as if Reeves has just given up, going through the motions in a permanently 3-D darkened landscape of snow and concrete that renders things verily sepia-vision. Steve Zahn as a nebbish ape is a highlight, mostly because, when dressed akin to Bob Balaban’s Moonrise Kingdom narrator, he appears to have wandered in from Wes Anderson’s Planet of the Apes; the idea of which is more entertaining than this tedious movie, dragged out by its insistence on ape sign language.

The powerful and emotive finale is unintentionally hilarious when you realise just how literal the Caesar as Moses motif is being taken, but it’s just one final plodding mis-step. Caesar blows up the Colonel’s base and yet escapes the fiery blastwave because it is all-encompassing but apparently all to one side just to avoid enveloping him, Caesar’s final confrontation with the Colonel sees him extend a character redeeming mercy that looks uncannily like the height of cruelty, and the new mutation of the virus, which reduces humans to mute amiable simpletons, leads us seamlessly into the world of the Charlton Heston classic. So, we are required to cheer for the devolution of the human race into mute amiable simpletons, and yet that isn’t presented as a somewhat challenging proposition when even 2008’s disastrous The Invasion noted the paradox of rooting for free will at the cost of world peace. To reference another 1979 film that’s been in the air this summer Caesar’s story involves us losing the ability to produce another Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Ingmar Bergman, Gustave Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Paul Cezanne or even understand who they were or appreciate what they did. Hail, Caesar?

0.5/5

December 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part III

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for some of next year’s most anticipated films.

Jurassic World

Jurassic Park is now a heritage title. This is like launching Jaws: Feeding Frenzy in 1997, with Jaws III in 1983 having been the last instalment. A whole generation has gone without a Jurassic Park release. They have no loving nostalgia for the original (especially its extensive model-work), or partial fondness for its sequel (“Oh yeah. Ooh, aah, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming” and Spielberg’s delirious appropriation of Hitchcock’s 39 Steps scream), or bad memories of the final barely-scripted disaster. Chris Pratt’s hero seems to be combining the personae of Goldblum and Neill, which is an interesting move, and velociraptors running disinterestedly past him in their desire to escape the new hybrid dinosaur recalls a Whedon line about when scary things get scared… But, Bryce Dallas Howard’s career hasn’t lived up to her assured lead debut in The Village, and there’s a tough act to follow in Richard Attenborough’s Richard Hammond as orchestrator of the madness; not least as the swooping shots of the park (which I swear are the same as in The Hunger Games and The Phantom Menace) make plain that the original’s grounding CGI in tactile reality is passé.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Well this trailer carries bizarre echoes of The Dark Knight’s teaser at this time of year in 2007… Talk of how a superhero how has changed things, even if he doesn’t want to admit it, and how the supervillain will show him something – even James Spader’s voice slurs into Heath Ledger’s Joker delivery. Just like the original’s trailer, a city-wide apocalypse is some broken windows, flipped cars, and screaming people. A major let-down in The Avengers was its inability to depict an all-out onslaught, but nobody else cared – so here we go again. I found The Avengers pretty damn dull. It wasn’t the laugh-fest it was vaunted as; Guardians of the Galaxy is far funnier; it delivered only moments of memorable action, and balancing all the characters’ screen-time was tragic given that (prior to the Hulk-out) it only took flight when Robert Downey Jr was onscreen. The Person of Interest season 2 finale just aired on RTE 2, and Jonathan Nolan’s parade of awesome comic-book moments there shames not only the pedestrian Agents of Shield but also Marvel’s films which are becoming increasingly joyless as they become ever more obviously formulaic franchise-connecting CGI-laden corporate exercises.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Andy Serkis narrates some vague mumblings; because this is a teaser trailer; and the internet explodes with the idea that Benedict Cumberbatch has stowed away in the Millenium Falcon. He’s not. The internet is torn into two between the usual illiberal liberal lynch-mobs on Twitter and Star Wars fanatics trying (quite logically) to comprehend how John Boyega can be a Stormtrooper if Temuera Morrison was cloned to be the genetic exemplar for all the Stormtroopers. The prequels are no longer canon (thank God!) perhaps? All that needs to be said about the 60-second trailer is that it looks like more like a Star Wars film than the last three Star Wars films. If Abrams is throwing the prequels into the dustbin alongside every novel since 1983 it’s all to the good – the prequels showed what happens when everyone knows what happens. Indeed his own Star Trek sequel showed how paralysing the fear of total originality can be in this corporate climate. I’m still terrified that one of the big three returning characters is going to be offed as a plot point (par Blake Snyder), but I can live with threat for the pause after “and the light…” and the subsequent John Williams orchestral blast for the Millenium Falcon roaring over Tatooine. Fun has returned.

July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D

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

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

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

April 16, 2012

Lockout

Writer/producer Luc Besson’s one-man studio continues with an entertaining sci-fi actioner starring Guy Pearce attempting to rescue Maggie Grace from 500 scumbags.
 
Pearce is Snow, an ex-CIA agent in 2079. Snow is arrested by Secret Service supremo Langral (a wonderfully ambiguous Peter Stormare) when Snow’s mentor is killed after requesting him as back-up on an undercover operation. Snow is unable to retrieve vital exculpating evidence in a briefcase he passed to his partner Mace (Tim Plester) just before his arrest. Meanwhile First Daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is visiting new maximum security prison space station MS1 to ensure humane treatment of the sedated convicts. Some joyfully dumb coincidences see her taken hostage along with the crew by the newly awakened prisoners, headed by Scottish brothers Alex (Vincent Regan) and Hydell (Joseph Gilgun); who have different ideas about how to bargain their way home. Snow’s CIA friend Shaw (Lennie James) persuades Langral to send Snow to MS1 as an implausible one-man army to rescue Emilie, and only Emilie…
 
Lockout wastes absolutely no time in setting up its plot. Indeed it features one of the most arresting openings this year as a handcuffed to a chair Pearce is repeatedly punched out of frame to allow the credits to pop up, before he sits back up to deliver another witticism and get punched out of frame again. He even delivers a wonderful gag about why punch-lines are so titled. It’s odd to see Pearce rather than Statham in a role like this, but, following sparkling supporting turns in Animal Kingdom, The King’s Speech and Justice, it’s great to see him headlining. Pearce swaggers his way thru this film with sardonic wisecracking gusto. Grace improves once she starts to act opposite him, especially with short, dark hair; which she gets courtesy of the application by Snow of scissors and a mix of engine grease and coffee.
 
This is a knowing genre piece. The basic concept is a riff on Escape from New York, the friction between Snow and Emilie the girl he wished he hadn’t rescued pure Han Solo and Leia, and the sympathetic Shaw talking Snow thru the operation on MS1 obviously Die Hard. This is silly action with a wink. The ‘spectacular’ CGI motorbike chase at the start is hilariously poor, as Pearce runs from the Secret Service on what is the Bat-pod, even down to lifting the crashing thru a shopping mall shot from The Dark Knight. Such entertaining hokum is derailed by Mancunian Gilgun’s quickly irritating turn as Hydell. A cross between twitchy-twitchy Jeremy Davies as Trainspotting’s Begbie and Andy Serkis as Gollum at his most self-pitying it’s just too much for a cipher; the violent loose cannon ruining Alex’s negotiating plans.
 
Irish directors and co-writers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather got Besson’s attention with their short film Prey Alone. Lockout should get Hollywood’s.
 
2.5/5

August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

James Franco, as smugly self-satisfied as ever, develops a cure for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately he also manages to bring about the apocalypse. Dude… Not cool.

This movie has been almost destroyed by its unusually long TV spots, which added to the cinema trailers that consisted solely of plot points and thematic statements masquerading as dialogue, leaves precious few surprises for cinema viewing. Franco’s scientist makes a breakthrough on a drug which repairs cognitive functioning in one chimpanzee, however, when she runs amok the entire research programme is canned. Everyone’s favourite slacker Tyler Labine doesn’t have the heart to put down the baby that chimpanzee had been protecting and so gives it to a reluctant Franco. Franco raises it at home where he discovers that it has inherited the effects of the drug, resulting in super-intelligence. Eventually he decides to test the drug on his own Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow). Frieda Pinto’s vet warns him about messing with nature, but he convinces his boss Jacobs (a nicely cavalier David Oyelowo) to allow him develop an even more potent strain…

There are similarities with this week’s other chimpanzee release Project Nim, as Caesar is raised in a human setting, and shown using sign language and displaying very human traits, before his increasing viciousness sees him abruptly removed to live with chimpanzees who ostracise him. But this is a wild animal, a point made needlessly nastily when Caesar very deliberately bites off and eats a man’s fingers when attacking the angry next-door neighbour to protect a confused Charles. Caesar’s incarceration is interesting as Caesar is subjected to humiliation as the new inmate before using his superior intelligence to rise up the food-chain. It’s like watching Audiard’s A Prophet in a zoo. I’ve said it before but Andy Serkis is an unappreciated marvel as he does so much acting work in motion-capture. His performance as Caesar is wonderfully nuanced; you can see in his eyes the dawning of responsibility for his fellow less smart primates. John Lithgow does wonders with the material he’s given, though his transformation from mangling ‘Clair de Lune’ to concert pianist as the Alzheimer’s drug works is tasteless in its emotional manipulation. Characterisation isn’t this film’s strong point though. Frieda Pinto in particular has a barely written character.

There are a number of deliriously showy moments by director Rupert Wyatt, such as the montage of Caesar climbing a giant redwood that takes us thru 5 years in about a minute (please copy Terrence Malick), a panning shot thru a building as the apes rampage thru office space before tumbling onto the street, Jacobs entering a deserted building and not noticing what’s above him (a homage to The Birds), and a delightfully Spielbergian touch in the first arrival of the evolved primates in San Francisco being conveyed by a sudden gentle rain of loose leaves onto the joggers on a suburban road. Other highlights are an iconic line from the 1968 original, a hilarious moment when the signing circus orangutan gives the raspberry to Caesar’s grandiose plans, and a startlingly well-staged action finale on the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is a vast improvement on Tim Burton’s 2001 disaster but while it features a number of showy moments, and a nicely choreographed finale, the shallowness of characterisation holds it back.

2.5/5

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