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 9, 2015

The Cherry Orchard

Belgian company tg STAN bring a revelatory, fourth-wall crumbling production of The Cherry Orchard to the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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Widower Lyuba (Jolente De Keersmaeker) is returning home to her Russian estate after five years in Paris. She and daughter Anya (Evelien Bosmans) find that Lyuba’s brother Leonid (Robby Cleiren) and her adopted daughter Varya (Evgenia Brendes) have been unable to keep up interest payments on the estate’s mortgage. The spendthrift family is in danger of being evicted, despite the sensible, if heartless, advice offered by millionaire entrepreneur Lopakhin (Frank Vercruyssen) to cut down the trees and lease the land for summerhouses. But there is little hope of anything sensible being done in this house. If Leonid isn’t playing imaginary games of billiards or eulogising bookcases, then Lyuba is tearing up letters from her lover and, inspired by the return of Petya (Lukas De Wolf); her drowned son’s tutor; lamenting that it’s all a punishment from God for her misdeeds.

If you wish Chekhov to be presented in splendid costumes with elaborate sets and subtle naturalistic lighting, then this is not Chekhov. The ball in the background of the action in Act Three is a party scored by Belgian house music that frequently becomes a mesmerising foreground. The dawn breaking in Act One is achieved by Stijn Van Opstal removing filters from lights visible behind some moveable scenery, and informing the audience ‘It’s the sun rising’. Van Opstal also offers members of the front row a bottle of water at the start of Act Three as he puts out water for the house party in his capacity as aged servant Firs. He also plays Master Mishap, Semyon, a dual role he informs us of with ‘A change of shoes, a change of shirt, oh, and yes, a change of character’.

The Cherry Orchard as presented by tg STAN may be construed as Chekhov via Bertolt Brecht via Groucho Marx. The fourth wall is a moveable feast. Van Opstal literally winks at the audience. When one person laughed at a tender line between Petya and Lyuba both actors turned to look for that person in the audience to raise their eyebrows at them. This is tremendous fun, and a not unreasonable response to Chekhov’s anarchic script. It also makes supporting players like drunken neighbour Boris (Bert Haelvoet) and governess/magician Sharlotta (Minke Kruyver) incredibly memorable. Indeed it will be almost impossible not to hold Kruyver’s still, wry performance as the resigned, witty drifter dressed in New Romantic garb as the benchmark when next encountering the character. Emphasising the ensemble in this way also amplifies Chekhov’s pathos by highlighting the characters’ shared haplessness.

This stands beside 2009’s Three Sisters and 2012’s The Select: The Sun Also Rises as a production which will forever affect the way you think about a classic work.

5/5

The Cherry Orchard continues its run at Belvedere College until the 10th of October.

January 24, 2013

Lincoln

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Spielberg’s long-gestating biopic depicts Daniel Day-Lewis’ Honest Abe trying  to force thru the lame-duck House of Representatives a constitutional amendment  outlawing slavery.

Lincoln insists the outgoing House pass it by the month’s end as these  unseated Democrats have nothing to lose, and because, thanks to facilitation by  Lincoln’s Republican Party elder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the Confederacy  (represented by Jackie Earle Haley’s VP) are ready to negotiate an end to the  Civil War. Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) values such a peace  above Lincoln’s amendment but agrees to fund three political fixers (James  Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) in their attempt to secure the necessary  Democrat votes, even as Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) bludgeons the  South with a vicious naval assault on Wilmington to hasten the end of the war.  Meanwhile Lincoln has to contend with his estranged son Robert (Joseph  Gordon-Levitt) and long-suffering wife Mary (Sally Field) as much as radical  abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).

Spielberg’s Lincoln is an incessant raconteur so it’s fitting that Lincoln made me think of Groucho Marx’s  anecdote of the lousy film producer nobody could bring themselves to fire  because he so reminded them of Lincoln. Lincoln is awash with familiar faces; Abe  can’t send a telegram without falling over a Girls star, Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan pop up  just to recite his Gettysburg Address to him. And a great dignity falls over  all, from those who signed up for trivial parts because it was a film about the  Great Liberator, to Steven Spielberg directing with reverent anonymity, to DP  Janusz Kaminski reining himself in to the occasional lens flare and a muted  lighting scheme. Day-Lewis’ affected gait and high-pitched voice attempts to  humanise the legend but inevitably and unfortunately recalls Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place.

Tony Kushner’s desperately unfocused script clamours for a Sorkin rewrite.  Despite establishing a ticking clock there is no sense of urgency until, with 4 days left to  the vote, Lincoln descends from Olympus to cajole Democrats. There are great  scenes: Lincoln explaining to his Cabinet with characteristic intricacy the  legal dubiousness of his Emancipation Proclamation, arguing with Stevens over  the necessity for compromise, and discoursing on Euclid and thus changing his  own mind about negotiating a peace. But, while the under-used fixers amuse, we  flail in uninteresting Congressional debates or Lincoln’s wonted quoting of  Shakespeare. JGL is wasted in a storyline which stunningly never addresses how  much affection Lincoln showers on his private secretary, Johnny. Johnny being  John Hay, who was Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Such  was the valuable mentoring that Lincoln denied his own son…

And there’s Sally Field’s Mary  Todd Lincoln by way of Brothers &  Sisters… She nicely upbraids Stevens, but, her hysterical grief is so  histrionic in a scene with Abe, Day-Lewis’ gestures so theatrical, and  Spielberg’s shot-selection so disconcertingly low-angle, that you half-expect  the camera to edge back an inch and reveal a proscenium arch. Such theatricality  gives us Lincoln’s ridiculous final line, leaving Seward to stomp off for his  fatal engagement at Ford’s Theatre – “I suppose I should be going, but I would  rather stay”. Like every Spielberg flick this century this film misses a good  ending and needlessly keeps going and going, and even bafflingly resurrects  Lincoln to deliver the Second Inaugural. John  Adams is the gold standard that Lincoln had to equal to prove cinema could best TV for intelligent historical  drama of ideas. Lincoln falls  short…

This is a handsomely mounted tilt  at a worthy, important subject; assuming, as the Oscars do, that important  subjects rather than great scripts generate epochal films. To give Lincoln the  verdict, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing  they like.”

2.5/5

July 18, 2011

The Movies aren’t Dead, they just smell funny – Pt I

Mark Harris’ GQ article The Day the Movies Died has caused quite the stir this year.

Harris makes a number of interesting points in his article, which I’ll get to in Part II, but he also adopts a number of poses which I’ve criticised in the past. I was infuriated by the speciousness of his opening salvo which characterises the present as the nadir of cinema. His characterisation of the studio response to Inception is entertaining but his clinching quote “Huh. Well, you never know” isn’t real; it’s a characterisation by him of the studio response. I could rewrite that entire paragraph to end with my Groucho & Me in-joke producer character Delaney wailing “I don’t get it. I saw that movie twice and I still don’t understand it. I couldn’t even get a single trailer to properly explain it, according to people who understood it, so why did people go see it?”, and it might be just as accurate albeit more generous. If I added “And why did they see Inception and then boycott Scott Pilgrim?” it would be even more accurate. What’s frustrating is that Harris is better than this. He quotes uber-producer Scott Rudin, whose warning of the danger of betting on execution rather than a brand name is exactly what led to the studio shrug at Inception that Harris misinterprets. Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point. Would you like to have to explain to your shareholders how you bet $300 million on it not being at this particular point? There is no point in making a movie no one will want to see. Even when execution is perfect, as in the case of another whack-job concept from last summer, Scott Pilgrim, people may just not go.

Harris almost destroys his argument by the way he makes it. It’s an extremely cheap shot to list movies coming out in summer 2011 and summer 2012, not by their titles but by de-contextualised sneers based on their sources, before footnoting what the films are so that you can’t easily check which sneer corresponds to which film. This is the snobbery I questioned in my Defence of Comic-Book Movies run riot, and is incredibly inane bearing in mind that The Godfather would be ‘pulp fiction crime novel’, Gone with the Wind – ‘airport novel historical romance’, Casablanca – ‘failed stage play that couldn’t even get staged’ and The Empire Strikes Back – ‘sequel to a kids sci-fi movie’. Harris’ tactic can devastate 2011’s attractions when they’re listed as adaptations of comic-books, a sequel to a sequel to a film devised from a theme-park ride, two sequels to cartoons, adaptations of children’s books, and a 5th franchise instalment. But shall we parse that approach to listing Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, The Smurfs, and Fast & Furious 5?

The underlying assumption is that comic-book movies are rubbish because comic-books are rubbish. Never mind that Green Lantern was an enormously risky undertaking when he’s just complained Hollywood doesn’t take risks – I’ve read Green Lantern comics, no one else I know has, and many consider him to be the most ridiculous character in the DC Universe – a position tantamount to saying that execution doesn’t matter, only the source material, which is patent nonsense. Sneering at POTC’s origins is embarrassingly 2002; POTC 4 should have been sneered at because POTC 3 was an endless joyless bore that forgot everything that made POTC1 such fun. Sequels to cartoons are not intrinsically bad, something Harris unwittingly demonstrates by yoking together sequels to a charming animation and an unbearable animation. If Winnie the Pooh has no right to exist because it’s an adaptation of a children’s book we must also blacklist Babe and Watership Down, while The Smurfs is almost entirely dependent on execution. Any source can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Stephen Sommers could direct War and Peace and it would be awful, and titled War. PG Wodehouse didn’t apologise for knocking out another Jeeves & Wooster novel when he thought of an amusing storyline for them, and Fast & Furious 5 isn’t bad because it has 5 in the title – what is this, numerology?

Harris criticises summer 2011 for not having an Inception type wildcard. But does he really think people have concepts like Inception every day? What was the blockbuster people grasped for as a reference point for Inception? The Matrix. So, it only took 11 years thru the alimentary canal, as Harris puts it, for the success of the Wachowksis’ whack-job high-concept blockbuster to produce another successful whack-job high-concept blockbuster. But the lack of Inception in Space in the summer 2012 slate informs his dismissive roster-call whose lowlights are The Dark Knight Rises being a sequel to a sequel to a reboot of a comic-book movie, and Breaking Dawn: Part II being a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a YA novel. Harris’ logic appears to be (a) directors have no right to film all of a multi-novel cycle or (b) artistic integrity demands the cinematic Twilight story be left hanging. Neither of which persuades, while dismissing Nolan’s Bat-finale in such ludicrous fashion purely because of a dislike of comic-books undermines all his judgement calls.

Harris semi-apologises that some of these movies will be great, but surely he knows this apology is defeated by his prior cleverly contrived presentation of an avalanche of stupidity heading towards the multiplexes? He quotes a studio executive lamenting: “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is the screenwriting is apparently done by jaded supercomputers… The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this could go anywhere. I praised Win Win for the same quality. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The question is whether studio tactics, counter-productive market research, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself are all working against cinema by lowering the standard journeymen film-makers operate at…

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