Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

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

February 7, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey’s acting renaissance continues as Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee returns to Anglophone cinema with a far surer script than Julian Fellowes’ dire Young Victoria.

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Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is introduced in Hemingwayesque style as he gets busy with two prostitutes in a spare pen at the dangerous rodeo. An archetypal good ole boy he is soon punching his favourite cop (Steve Zahn) to ensure arrest before irate gamblers demand their money after his friend TJ (Kevin Rankin) ruins the book. Running some gambling, and spending the proceeds on drink and hookers is Woodroof’s contented life, with electrical maintenance at oil-fields providing a steady income, until he collapses and awakes in hospital to find himself being diagnosed with HIV by Drs Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve (Jennifer Garner). Given 30 days to live, Woodroof goes into furious denial, before stealing AZT supplies, and eventually ending up in a squalid clinic in Mexico, where Dr Vass (Griffin Dunne) re-educates him about the FDA and supposed wonder-drug AZT…

McConaughey is initially rake-thin, as the HIV victim the doctors are amazed hasn’t died before this point, and he wastes away before your eyes over the course of 2 hours to harrowing effect. McConaughey also has no problem in being unsympathetic. He’s a perfect cliché of redneck hostility when he meets HIV+ gay transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto) in hospital. But soon Woodroof himself is on the receiving end as TJ mocks his sexuality and Woodroof finds an invisible force-field around him at his favourite bar as everyone fears catching his disease. Soon Woodroof’s quest ceases to be to save his own life, but to outwit FDA regulations for the good of all his fellow AIDS sufferers, thru the Dallas Buyers Club; run in an unlikely partnership with Rayon, whose honour he chivalrously defends in a supermarket against TJ’s homophobic slurs.

Dallas Buyers Club has one major problem, given its ‘based on a true story’ status. Barkley of the FDA (the reliably oily Michael O’Neill) makes for a strong villain, but was AZT really as poisonous a treatment as Woodroof believed or is this film cleverly playing on our fears of Big Pharma’s ability to corrupt regulation for its own profits? But against that factual concern is the superb acting and affecting arc; even as Woodroof hustles Dr Eve she warms to his hidden softer side – on being evicted he breaks into his trailer to save a painting. Woodroof’s friendship with Rayon, which sees them bickering in a supermarket about processed food like a married couple, is beautifully developed, and Rayon’s drug spiral is extremely moving. Leto didn’t play a character called Angel Face in Fight Club for nothing, he looks prettier in a dress than many actresses, but his fierce commitment to the role includes deliberately ravaging his appearance as Rayon nears the inevitable end.

McConaughey’s renaissance continues to be as spectacular it was unexpected, while Jean-Marc Vallee finally achieves an Anglophone success to rank alongside his Quebecois triumphs C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe de Flore.

5/5

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