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

October 21, 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach returns from his Sinatraesque retirement with a film that leads you to question not Tory policy but the line between art and propaganda.

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Geordie carpenter Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is unwell. He had a heart attack, nearly fell off a scaffold, and is waiting for doctors to clear him for work. The Kafkaesque welfare system deems him fit for work, however, so his benefits are stopped. Trying to appeal is impossible until a phone call from the ‘Decision Maker’, which should though have preceded the letter cutting off his benefits. Dan is forced onto the dole, where he must prove to a veritable Eichmann of the Welfare Office, Sheila (Sharon Percy), that he is indeed actively looking for work he is physically unable to perform. Humiliated Dan befriends another victim, Londoner Katie (Hayley Squires), who has been moved up North with her children Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan), by Tory plans to gentrify London by cleansing it of such benefits scroungers.

Watching I, Daniel Blake is like being trapped in an empty carriage with Jeremy Corbyn on a slow train from London to Newcastle, it’s like being bludgeoned on the head repeatedly with Michael Foot’s 1983 election manifesto, it’s like having John McDonnell endlessly throw Mao’s little red book in your face from an infinite supply. Screenwriter Paul Laverty artistically stacks the deck, loads the dice, and magnetises the roulette wheel, so comprehensively does he put his agit-prop puppets (poorly disguised as characters) thru the wringer in a plot so unrelentingly grim and ploddingly signposted that its ‘moving’ finale becomes unintentionally funny. My mind wandered so much I wondered whether Laverty and Loach tackling Free-born John Lilburne might have forced them to make actual art, rather than blatant propaganda, by dint of having to use allegory for their contemporary political points.

Daniel is told some employers want video CVs recorded on schmartphones. Loach might have been better served uploading a short screed decrying the Tories, because futility hangs over this. WH Auden said his verse didn’t save a single Jew from the Nazis, but Loach did force change once – with Cathy Come Home, in 1966; before the fragmentation of Britain’s TV audience. But who is he talking to now? I, Daniel Blake is absent from Savoy, Dundrum, IMC Tallaght, and has but 2 shows tomorrow in Cineworld where Jack Reacher has 8, on considerably larger screens. Loach is making clarion calls for the working-class, which will be viewed as art-house fare by some of the middle-class; champagne socialists perhaps. Watching this clumsy tub-thumping film, complete with Hollywood’s clichéd ‘precocious young girl’, is like having a screw slowly hammered into your head…

The only rational response to I, Daniel Blake is to fall asleep in the cinema or undo Loach’s work with the liberal application of screwdrivers at the nearest bar.

0/5

June 2, 2011

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI

The IFI is presenting a season of films this June playfully titled High Anxiety. As ‘filmnoia’ these are meant to encapsulate the post-Vietnam post-Watergate zeitgeist of chastened 1970s America. Invariably there is much idolatry of the faultless New Hollywood that was tragically killed off by Star Wars in this positioning, which regular readers of this blog will know I have little truck with. The truth is there are some great films here, some over-rated but good films, and by far the best film is the most defiantly Old Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate, which is oblique in its violence, sexually charged without being sexual, and whip-smart and heart-breaking in its scripting; the kind of thing that Hitchcock might have directed on one of his darker days at the office. Let’s briefly trot thru the line-up of films in the season.

The Manchurian Candidate June 1st & 2nd @ 6:25pm
The pick of the bunch is the first out of the blocks. Catch this tonight if you can. A superb Laurence Harvey stars as Raymond Shaw, an unpopular soldier who unexpectedly returns as a war hero from the Korean War to the political machinations of his terrifying mother Angela Lansbury, a witch-hunting Senator’s wife. Frank Sinatra is his old army c/o trying to work out the mystery of just what happened in Korea that fills his men’s nightmares, and director John Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension as George Axelrod’s script satirically skewers McCarthyism while breaking your heart along the way.

Klute June 4th & 5th @ 4.50pm
Sex, lies, and audiotape. Widely regarded as the film that legitimised profanity as a hallmark of serious movies Alan J Pakula’s 1971 exercise in paranoia sees Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic small-town PI John Klute travel to the big city to investigate the possible involvement of his friend with Jane Fonda’s nervous call-girl, and her possible involvement in his mysterious disappearance. The sound design is extraordinary as ambient noise swamps the possibilities of recording the truth, and this arguably established the house-rules for all subsequent 1970s filmnoias. Keep an eye out for Roy Scheider’s ridiculous outfit in his cameo as a pimp.

The Parallax View June 6th @ 3.00pm & 7.05pm
Alan J Pakula again, this time Warren Beatty is the lead in a 1974 thriller about a journalist investigating the possibility that the powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation has been behind not only a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, but the clean-up murders of all the witnesses of the assassination. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

Chinatown June 8th @ 2.10pm & 6.30pm
If Roman Polanski’s film was just a little less self-regarding it would be a far better film noir. Jack Nicholson gives a terrific performance as the cock-sure PI suddenly out of his depth against Faye Dunaway’s ambiguous femme fatale and John Huston’s monstrous patriarch, and there are wonderful moments and lines throughout. The enormous self-importance of Robert Towne’s screenplay sinks the film from its potential heights but is unsurprising given that he reputedly told anyone who would listen that the success of the 3 hrs plus The Godfather was entirely attributable to his dialogue polish on one 3 minute scene…

The Conversation June 9th @ 6.45pm
Francis Ford Coppola’s small personal movie between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who finds a simple job developing into something much more disturbing, which eventually pushes him to the very limits of his sanity. Walter Murch’s sound design is extraordinary and best appreciated on a big screen, but I’ve never thought that Coppola’s script was good at making us care about the possible murder plot Hackman stumbles upon; the physical distance his camera maintains from the camera being sadly replicated as an emotional distance maintained by the audience from the characters.

Night Moves June 12th @ 5.00pm
A staple of late-night TV schedules (TV programmers can be very easily amused sometimes) this 1975 movie sees Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman reunite for a more subdued outing than their 1967 collaboration Bonnie & Clyde. Hackman is a defeated PI who discovers his wife in adultery, but is unable to satisfactorily resolve that situation or any other case he is working on. Perhaps a lament for the lost idealism of the New Frontier in the age of Watergate, or perhaps just another deconstruction of American myths by Penn that has aged far less well than his Bonnie & Clyde.

Rollover June 18th @ 3.15pm
Yes, Alan J Pakula for a third time. He never stopped making paranoia movies, and this 1981 effort may have had the amazing good fortune to become relevant thirty years after being dismissed as pessimistic and incomprehensible, because of the second defining event of the last decade, the credit crunch. Jane Fonda stars as a company director’s widow who romances Kris Kristofferson’s financial trouble-shooter, brought in to steady the corporation, who ends up involved in an extremely risky deal with Saudi Arabia that goes belly-up in such spectacular fashion that it leads to the meltdown of the entire Western economy.

Winter Kills June 25th & 26th @2.00p
Adapted from another book by Manchurian Candidate novelist Richard Condon, this thriller stars John Huston as Not Joe Kennedy, who after 19 years is told by his son Jeff Bridges that he finally has a good lead on who really assassinated Huston’s other son, the President Not John F Kennedy. Winter Kills had an extremely troubled production, with director William Richert having one of his producers murdered, so this is a welcome chance to belatedly see Huston chewing scenery in such a ripe scenario of what could be classified alongside Inglourious Basterds as the genre of fantasy historical revenge movies.

Missing June 25th & 26th @2.50pm
Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek star as the father and wife of an American missing in Chile, in acclaimed Greek director Costa-Gavras’ first American film. An attack on Henry Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik, here masked by hypocritical mutterings about truth, justice, and the American Way, this vividly recreates the feel of Pinochet’s Chile; a regime enabled by CIA connivance in the overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. There is a sense of kicking a dead donkey about this as Nixon was already out of power, but Costa-Gavras at least clothes his political points in empathetic flesh and blood characters.

August 29, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Few people have understood cryptic references in interviews by other actors over the decades to Harvey Keitel’s unusual powers. Keitel is in fact a master of the mystic arts, an American Magus, who has used his powers to escape disastrously prolonged shoots twice in his career…

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY, 1976
HARVEY KEITEL, DENNIS HOPPER, SAM BOTTOMS and ROBERT DUVALL are walking thru a jungle with electricity cables and camera tracks running thru it. Disorganised CREW yell at each other about the chaos while various lights fall off of the rigs shambolically connected to the trees.

KEITEL: (looking around him) I have a bad feeling about this…
DUVALL: I passed on that script. I’ll tell you this for free, George is just selling out with that project.
KEITEL: No, I meant I genuinely have a bad feeling about this, right here. I think this film’s going to get badly out of hand. In fact, I’m going to check. (He pulls a pen and paper from his pocket) Sam, can you meet me in my trailer in half an hour with the following items. Don’t stress about the eye of newt if you can’t get it readily…

Keitel hurriedly scribbles a list and hands it to Sam Bottoms who takes off running.

KEITEL: (gravely) Let’s all pray that I’m wrong…. (he holds out his hands)
DUVALL: Pray my ass. I’ve got better things to do, I’m going to go ring George again, make him cry by quoting him at himself again. “Anyone can drown some kittens and make the audience cry”. Oh yeah George, and what do you call the Millenial Falcon swooping in to save the day at the last second then?
KEITEL: Look, just what is this script that you’re so bitter about ‘passing on’?
DUVALL: Doesn’t matter. I passed on it. I did pass on it. It’s rubbish. I’m not bitter. Juvenile trash. Regurgitated Joseph Campbell. Didn’t want to be in it anyway. Only read the script as a favour to him.
HOPPER: Dude, I heard he wanted you to wear a wig for the audition. A wig! Full on Sinatra… (starts to giggle uncontrollably, while Duvall stops and the others do too)
DUVALL: (tense beat) Dennis, remember when you said you were going to strap dynamite to your chest and blow yourself up as part of an art happening, and I said that’s not performance art you moron that’s suicide with the potential to become mass murder. Well, I was wrong Dennis – absolutely do that if it feels right to you.

Exit Duvall, grumbling about space smugglers needing hair to look properly roguish.

KEITEL: (He grabs Hopper before he can follow Duvall) Dennis, I want you to listen to me very carefully. On no account are you to strap dynamite to yourself and attend an art happening.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
One hour later. FREDERIC FORREST walks into Keitel’s trailer to find Bottoms, Hopper, and Keitel, in a hooded cape and muttering readings from a book, gathered around a steaming cauldron, which is placed in the centre of a chalk pentagram.

FORREST: What the hell’s going on here?
HOPPER: He’s using the mystic arts man. Weird sister hoodoo is going on right here.
BOTTOMS: He’s reading the runes, and they are far-out my brother.
HOPPER: Psychedelic indeed, just grasp it – we have an authentic mage in the cast.
FORREST: Huh, trippy man.
KEITEL: Could everyone try very hard to be just a little less of a walking hippie cliché for a moment while I try to concentrate on reciting this Latin right?!

EXT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA is storming thru the jungle with his PA. He is bellowing constantly at various crew members that drop ever more lights off trees in their fright.

COPPOLA: I’m surrounded by incompetent amateurs. Where is my espresso?
PA: We’re in a freaking jungle! Accept that there is no espresso machine here.
COPPOLA: Well, what am I supposed to do to keep alert in this absurd humidity?
PA: Here’s a pill.
COPPOLA: A pill. I ask for espresso and you give me NASA food. What is it?
PA: Do you care?
COPPOLA: (beat) No. (pops the pill) What’s the worst that could happen?

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Frederic Forrest is storming around Keitel’s trailer running his hands thru his hair.

FORREST: HOW LONG ARE WE GOING TO BE HERE?!
KEITEL: A year and a half at least seems to be what the powers are indicating. Divination is not an exact science. It’s not actually a science at all, technically.
BOTTOMS: Oh man, will the drug supply last that long?
KEITEL: Believe me when I tell you Sam that the drug supply will last long after everything else has run out, including sanity.
HOPPER: Oh man, can I righteously wait that long before dynamiting myself?
KEITEL: Not that sanity was in much supply to begin with… Gentlemen, it’s been… peculiar, but, if you’ll excuse me, I have to contrive to get fired as soon as I can.

INT.PHILLIPINES-DAY
Keitel knocks on the door of Coppola’s trailer. He thinks he is interrupting but it turns out that Coppola is merely bellowing orders at a tree thru the window for no reason.

KEITEL: Francis! Glad I caught you. I had some ideas I’d like to run past you.
COPPOLA: Come on in man, come on in! That’s what doors are for!!
KEITEL: (sits nervously) I want to do at least one scene thru interpretive dance.
COPPOLA: Groovy. I love interpretive dance. (He gets up and starts to dance)
KEITEL: I’d also like to juggle chickens during the plantation dinner scene.
COPPOLA: Sure. (He sits down and starts juggling cigarette-lighters, and drops them all quite quickly) Sure, sure, I’m sure you can pull it off with practise. You, man. You. (beat) You.
KEITEL: Yeaah. I, uh, I want to interpret Willard as a tomato filled with self-loathing at his hyphenated status who slowly learns to overcome his liminal status by embracing it. But only in alternating takes. The other takes – I’ll be a French mime.
COPPOLA: Interesting take on the character… Really ties in to the politics of it all.
KEITEL: I also have deep ethical issues with actually killing a cow with a machete.
COPPOLA: You’re fired.
KEITEL: Thank Christ. I was beginning to think I’d never push you over the edge.

Keitel pulls his cloak around him while he stands up and disappears in a puff of smoke. Coppola observes this without emotion, but eventually starts to look askance.

COPPOLA: I’m requesting an espresso machine gets flown in first thing or we’re never going to get any work done around here.

February 1, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt stars Michael Cera, who pushes his luck by once again playing his customary role of awkward diffident teenager, this time named Nick Twisp. Cera’s Sinatra loving aspiring novelist is desperate to lose his virginity and sees the chance when he meets Francophile Portia Doubleday during an enforced trip to a trailer-park upstate.

But to win her he has to ensure that his deadbeat dad (Steve Buscemi) moves upstate and that his alimony-dependent mother (Jean Smart) kicks him out for his awful behaviour. This is where Cera escapes criticism that he can only play one role by also playing Twisp’s very own Tyler Durden – a dastardly French alter-ego (complete with villainous moustache) named Francois Dillinger who has no problem being bad…as the poor citizens of Berkeley quickly find out in a wonderfully choreographed sequence of property destruction.

Things are complicated however by Doubleday being sent to French Academy in Santa Cruz with her irritatingly preppy boyfriend to avoid Twisp’s ‘bad influence’. This causes Francois’ attempts to woo her to spiral out of control amidst nice comedic cameos from Fred Willard, Justin Long and Ray Liotta.

Youth in Revolt is always warm, and does have some hilarious moments, but overall it doesn’t add up to much. The main problem is that even though it is based on a epistolary novel the dialogue throughout seems to be aiming for Juno style hip quirkiness but keeps falling short and ends up just sounding faux-literary and stilted. Wait for the DVD.

2.5/5

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