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

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March 6, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Wes Anderson’s second period film in a row is a considerable contrast to the charmingly nostalgic Moonrise Kingdom, and that’s not necessarily a good thing…

To begin at the beginning, a young woman visits the grave of a writer. Wait, no, that writer (Tom Wilkinson) before he died recorded a talk about the background of his most famous novel. Hang on, when he was a young writer (Jude Law), [now we’re getting somewhere] he stayed in the Grand Budapest Hotel. There he met ineffectual concierge M. Jean (Jason Schwartzman). Wait, no, M. Jean didn’t matter, what mattered was that the young writer met Mr Moustafa (F Murray Abraham), who told him about the glory days of the hotel in the 1930s. Back then, [finally, real progress!] Moustafa was known as Zero (Tony Revolori), and he was the lobby-boy to legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave was completely devoted to rich, widowed, amorous guests such as Mademe D (Tilda Swinton, after she wrecked the picture in her attic.) So much so that when she unexpectedly died after leaving the hotel he was summoned by her staff Serge X (Mathieu Amalric) and Clotilde (Lea Seydoux), to hear her lawyer Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) read the will – which left a priceless painting to Gustave, much to the fury of Mademe D’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and as he had the scary thug Jopling (Willem Dafoe) on retainer that meant Gustave was well-advised to run for his life, despite the protestations of policeman Henckels (Edward Norton); who remembered Gustave’s abundant kindness to him as a boy. And after that, reader, things really got complicated.

Anderson’s film is bursting at the seams from sheer busyness, and the film thus lacks emotional depth even as it boasts under-used actors (Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan), a deliberately unnecessary Chinese box of narratives, and a sequence in which Anderson tests how many times the same gag can be made in succession; even by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban; before an audience grows restive. His regular production designer Adam Stockhausen’s archly mannered sets are the most artificially coloured he has rendered for Anderson to date. Think about that.

Anderson showcases an unexpected flair for blackly comic suspense but there’s an odd and draining mean-spiritedness to this film’s gruesomeness. Fiennes’ dialogue makes no sense for the setting, lurching as it does from a gentlemen quoting poetry to an R-rated Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes, but it does make for some spectacular laughs. Anderson is apparently honouring the terrifyingly obscure author Stefan Zweig, and the worst thing I can say about this film is that after seeing such loving homage I have no desire to read Zweig’s work.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an impeccably mounted film, but it unavoidably disappoints because it doesn’t come close to The Darjeeling Limited for depth or Moonrise Kingdom for whimsy.

3/5

February 12, 2014

The Monuments Men

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George Clooney’s last directorial outing, The Ides of March, was compelling if histrionic, but his return to the director’s chair is a sadly muddled affair.

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) approaches President Roosevelt in 1944 to plead with him not to destroy Europe’s priceless heritage in the act of liberating it. Roosevelt agrees, and so Stokes is tasked with finding some other art historians, sculptors and curators to enlist in a highly specialised unit – The Monuments Men. Stokes rounds up Chicago architect Campbell (Bill Murray), Campbell’s friend Preston (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), drunken Brit Donald (Hugh Bonneville), and Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon). A French mechanic and curator Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a New Jersey private from Germany, are added to the roster in Europe. But not only must they work with icy Parisian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to find priceless works of art, they must outwit determined Russian and German counterparts tasked with, respectively, stealing and burning it…

I wrote that last sentence to imply tension, because there ought to be a lot of it, given both Hitler’s Nero decree, ordering the destruction of everything in the event of his death, and the startling opening credits image of Italians desperately shoring up a bomb-damaged wall which is revealed to have Da Vinci’s Last Supper on it. Instead Clooney and his eternal co-writer Grant Heslov only inject urgency for the finale as frantic deductions lead Stokes’ men to a cache of stolen art just as Zahary Baharov’s Russian art-thief Commander Elya is closing in on it. Frankenheimer’s The Train is the touchstone for this movie, but Clooney introduces two successive Nazi villains Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi) and Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke), neither of whom equal Paul Scofield’s avaricious Von Waldheim; even though Wegner is given a juicily suspenseful sequence.

There were 400 Monuments Men, not 7, so inventing a strong villain wouldn’t be outré. It’s a symptom of a wider lack of purpose. Blanchett and Damon’s characters are largely redundant, and Andre Desplat, in their clumsy seduction scene and his constant insertion of jaunty comic cues, scores an entirely different film. Clooney’s vignettes range from the amusing (Damon’s appalling ‘fluent’ French) to the shocking (a startling sequence in a wood clearing) and the hackneyed (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ being sung over the Battle of the Bulge), but they never cohere into a story, owing to bewildering tonal inconsistency, and he fails to flesh out just 7 characters compared to the Ocean’s characterised ensemble. The importance of saving art is reduced to an argument winnable by a single word from a cameoing Nick Clooney, but there’s no compensatory joyous ‘greatest art heist’ ever…

This approaches The Internship for uncomfortable parallels. Stokes is too old to fight, so he assembles aged men to embark on a loftier mission than the young grunts, just as Clooney retreats from blockbusters to prestige films. Monuments Men is always watchable but falls badly between crowd-pleasing and cerebral-pleasing.

2.75/5

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