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

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

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

November 4, 2010

Let the Right Script In

If you haven’t seen Let the Right One In now would be a good time to stop reading as I’m about to do a spoiler-tastic comparison between it and the American version Let Me In.

I was whelmed last year by Let the Right One In, not least because I went to it many weeks after its release having read nothing but ridiculous praise for it. Most of those reviews were littered with condemnations of Twilight mixed in with praises of how this movie was Art, unlike, say, Twilight. The trouble was that many of these hyperbolic notices had confused glacial pacing with artistic substance, and vacuous ambiguity with intellectual integrity. I was thus intrigued when I heard Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was to write/direct an American version. Could he fix the problems? The answer is yes, apart from the pacing. It turns out that glacial pacing is structurally embedded because of the way Lindqvist unfurls his story. It’s at this point I should state that I still haven’t read the book so I’m basing my assumption that this is Lindqvist’s modus operandi on his screenplay adaptation for the Swedish version. Reeves’ version is thus slow-paced but considerably better at generating suspense, with one scene where the detective hunts Abby becoming unbearably tense, courtesy of a violin crescendo by LOST composer Michael Giacchino.

Reeves’ opening disrupts clichés about Hollywood simplification by upending the straightforward chronology of the Swedish version in favour of a film-noir style opening which renders the first half of the film an extended flashback. His sustained long-shot of an ambulance and cop-cars roaring down a snowy road in New Mexico leads to interior shots of an unseen criminal with acid burns being taken to hospital where Elias Koteas’ detective tries to interrogate him. The manhunt by this cop is one of the huge changes of this version and it injects considerable momentum. Also interesting is how the Familiar’s melted face is never seen during this lengthy pre-credits opening sequence. Reeves replaces utter ambiguity with clarity for his own purposes, but substitutes an off-focus camera style when it’s needed; for instance Owen’s isolation is rendered by having his mother’s face never being glimpsed while his father is a mere voice on the phone. I criticised the Swedish film for having utterly pointless scenes. One of the most epically purposeless was the scene where the boy visits his father and his father’s friend/boyfriend, here replaced by a short to the point phone-call. Reeves also dispatches with an entire sub-plot with the female neighbour who accidentally gets turned by Abby. That awful padding led to unintentionally hilarious scenes as she burst into flames in the hospital when a nurse opened the curtain, after being attacked by preposterously bad CGI cats. Reeves simply has her attacked by Abby and then kills her in the hospital scene after a gory moment that stifles any laughter at her subsequent conflagration.

Reeves instead uses CGI in long-shots to make Abby super-agile in her vampiric attacks, which, alongside close-ups of her demonic veined face, renders her far scarier in this version. He also inserts a new highly realistic scene where Owen takes Abby out to play Pac-Man at the local arcade and Abby takes some of his favourite sweets, which she knows will make her sick, rather than hurt his feelings. This appears cute on the surface but because Reeves has made Abby more sinister we’re suspicious and so pick up on the ambiguity of her actions, which is hammered home in the scene where she starts bleeding after Owen forces her to enter his flat uninvited. In the Swedish version it seems like this is a surprise to her but here Abby states that she knew it would happen, but also knew that Owen would belatedly invite her in. Once again Abby is being sweet but there’s a certain level of a vampire manipulating a potential Familiar underneath the surface interpretation.

Reeves has Abby’s Familiar kill by breaking into cars and hiding in the back-seat before garrotting the driver and harvesting his blood. This is a more realistic and sustainable m.o. than the varied methods employed in the Swedish version and leads to the Familiar bungling a harvest, not because of random passers-by intruding on an absurd crime scene, but because he’s getting sloppy. He muses to Abby, as only the inimitably subdued Richard Jenkins can do to such involving effect, that he’s tired of this life so maybe subconsciously he wants to get caught. This realism extends to his self-inflicted injuries. The Swedish version presented a prosthetics Two-Face where Reeves opts for a simple melted off nose, lips and tongue, so that “I’m sorry Abby” are his last scrawled words. This is less of a horror moment, but it’s far sadder. It also of course means Abby has known she might need a new Familiar…

Abby explicitly tells Owen that the Familiar was not her father, removing the ambiguity of the Swedish version which traded on the fake pathos of a father killing for his cursed daughter. Reeves then places Owen in Abby’s room when the detective bursts into it, and has Owen save Abby from the cop, before closing the door as she feeds on him. The iconic image of the original was the splash of blood on that white door, but here the huge splash of blood on the door isn’t just Hollywood excess it’s a signal that the iconic image of this version is about to come; the blood-soaked Abby emerging from the room to hug Owen from behind for saving her; and in its own way it’s an even more stark image. Koteas’ detective is almost a variant on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in No Country for Old Men, emotionally troubled by vicious murders, and, here, ultimately fatally betrayed by a new amorality. The fact that an early nod to Rear Window makes all Abby’s victims known to Owen personally only increases his complicity. He embraces the role of the Familiar, even after seeing a photograph which confirms that Richard Jenkins’ character has wasted 50 years of his life on Abby after meeting her at the same age as Owen. The Swedish version achieved a ridiculously happy ending by glossing over the doomed fate he embraces in becoming her Familiar. Reeves by contrast makes that same ending bleaker by having emphasised throughout that Owen is in effect selling his soul. Re-instating moral horror into this sinister coming-of-age story reverses the clichés of Hollywood’s addiction to upbeat conclusions.

Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more emotionally affecting. A true re-imagining.

November 3, 2010

Let Me In

Hammer has risen from the grave! Let Me In, a decidedly classy affair, is somehow produced by the revenant English studio once responsible for launching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee before trading in drenching quality thespians in scarlet blood for just depicting topless, lesbian, and sometimes topless lesbian vampires.

Cloverfield director Matt Reeves follows his bleak monster-movie with an intimate horror that eschews shaky-cam. Indeed Reeves inserts a number of fixed-position shots from the back of a car, a technique notably used in 1949’s Gun Crazy to achieve high style on low budget, culminating in a superb show-off sequence as he disconcertingly depicts a car-crash with an unmoving eye from the back-seat. Reeves also adapts John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish novel about a 12-year old vampire Abby, here played by Chloe Grace Moretz, relocating the action to a snowy New Mexico in 1983. Abby and her familiar (Richard Jenkins) move in next door to lonely 12-year old Owen (The Road’s Kodi Smith-McPhee). Despite Abby’s initial aloofness a bond quickly develops with Owen.

Reeves structures his story like a film-noir; opening with an ambulance complete with police escort bringing an unseen criminal to a hospital for emergency treatment before rewinding three weeks to the beginning of a killing spree being investigated by Elias Koteas’ horrified detective. Smith-McPhee’s blank Owen is traumatised from persecution by the scariest school-bully since Donnie Darko who hates to see Owen being happy. Such maliciousness for its own sake makes you want to see him suffer, an emotional response Reeves plays with repeatedly as Abby encourages Owen to fight back with results so disproportionate that, after a violent incident, all concerned remain silent for a stunned moment. Chloe Grace Moretz is superb as Abby, especially in scenes where her vampiric nature is overcome by her growing friendship with Owen, but she is surely settling into some weird type-casting as she follows up being Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass with another role showcasing age-inappropriate ultra-violence.

Such violence is unnervingly shot from a distance with CGI giving Abby super-agility. This distancing is typical of a subdued film where two tired characters carry much of the story’s emotional weight as Koteas’ detective pursues a suspected Satanist, who is really Jenkins’ familiar – a man starting to get sloppy as he wearies of cleaning up Abby’s unending trail of destruction. Reeves uses this measured pace to wring wonderful suspense out of a number of sequences involving Koteas’s manhunt and Jenkins’ cleaning and killing, including one where the crescendo of composer Michael Giacchino’s violins makes the tension almost unbearable. Ultimately Reeves improves on the Swedish original by making a bleaker film that emphasises the moral horror in coming-of-age with the help of a growling demonic-faced vampire.

Reeves proves Cloverfield was no fluke with a classy deliberately paced horror film that trashes human-vampire romance by making vampires bloodthirsty killers again.

3/5

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