Wednesday, November 22, 2017

JFK: A Life in Films

Today is November 22, and if you are a reader of a certain age that's probably a date that resonates with you, as it's the day fifty-four years ago that President John F. Kennedy was shot. Some months ago, I got the idea to set aside this date to look at Kennedy's legacy through films that have been made about him.

1. PT 109

This film, released in 1963 just five months before Kennedy died, tells the story of young Lieutenant Kennedy as a young war hero of the World War II Pacific theater. Cliff Robertson plays JFK as he captains a PT boat and struggles to help his men survive when their ship is attacked. It's a classic of the 1960s war genre, and the first movie about a sitting president released while the president was still in office. But interestingly, it was not the first filmed telling of this story. The story of PT 109 had earlier been done as an episode of a 1950s television series called Navy Log, an anthology series that showed dramatic reenactments of true-life Naval events. "PT 109" was produced as an episode in 1957.

2. Primary

Primary is a 1960 documentary, and one of the early pioneers of the verité style in documentary film. Essentially what that means is the camera is just a fly on the wall, following action as it unfolds but not commenting on it, or crafting interviews. The movie is made in the editing. When I was (briefly) a film student in college, this was one film we studied. Directed by Robert Drew, Primary focuses on candidate John F. Kennedy as he campaigns to be the Democratic candidate for President. The movie is available on a set from the Criterion Collection called The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew and Associates, and it includes three other documentary films that cover other moments in Kennedy's presidency, including Faces of November, which covers his funeral. If you've never seen any of these films, I suggest looking for this set at your local library or going out and buying it. (And if you're looking for something to give me for Christmas...)

3. Thirteen Days

I saw Thirteen Days back in 2000 because the very first trailer for Lord of the Rings was attached to it. Thankfully, the movie turned out pretty good too. It's about the Cuban missile crisis. Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood plays Kennedy here (you might know him as Captain Pike from the recent Star Trek reboots), but even better is Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy. I love Steven Culp and would see him in anything. The only flaw of this movie is Kevin Costner's dodgy Boston accent.

4. Parkland

While the other films I highly recommend, I include Parkland more as a curiosity, as I don't like it as much. It's a movie that takes place immediately after Kennedy's assassination as he is rushed to the hospital. It tries to tell little human stories around the chaotic event of a President's death. It doesn't all work, but some of it is okay.

5. JFK

Of course I had to include Oliver Stone's JFK. But not for its historical accuracy (which is questionable in places), but because it is well-made and an elegy for Kennedy's legacy. Also because it captures the broad-sweeping nature of the ensuing conspiracy theories. Stone to this day truly believes the assassination was a military coup, and talks about it like it is fact. But there's so much going on in JFK beyond the straw-grasping. It's a pop cultural moment, almost as much as the actual assassination. But if JFK is a little extreme for you, you can always pair it with:

6. Quantum Leap - "Lee Harvey Oswald"
Donald Bellisario broke a cardinal rule of his show when he decided to have Sam Beckett leap into a famous historical figure. And the reason this special episode was made was to refute the conspiracy theories surging in America after the release of JFK. And it's one of the better science fiction stories to deal with the Kennedy assassination, something that's kind of a trope in time travel stories. Did you know that Gene Roddenberry kept pitching "Kirk and Spock try to stop the Kennedy assassination" as a plot for a Star Trek movie in the 1980s? More recently, Steven King's 11/22/63 novel dealt with the subject, and it was made as a TV miniseries on Hulu. But I haven't seen it, and didn't think it belonged here.

7. Jackie
Finally, I include a film from the other side, last year's look at Jackie Kennedy as played by Natalie Portman. At first, the movie is a little off-putting because Portman is doing a very affected accent which is hard to get used to. The film is shot very tight in close-ups, but in the end I think that was exactly right, as we see the Kennedy presidency from her perspective. We are in Jackie's head the whole time. It is a fascinating movie that I highly recommend checking out. We've all become so sort of numb to the famous Zapruder film imagery that it's shocking to see a camera just linger on Jackie's face spattered with her husband's blood as she's in shock and anguish. It is a surprisingly effective movie.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Potential For What?

Few things have frustrated me more in my life than the word "potential". It is so awful to hear someone say, "You have so much potential." I heard it a lot from certain people in my youth, and this scene from Blue Valentine sums up my feelings pretty well. Potential for what?

I know I'm not successful. I don't need to be reminded that you think I should be. The word "potential" is vague and not helpful. Even if one were to be full of "potential", it only matters when it is kinetic. The issue is not whether one understands his potential, but whether he understands kinesis. In any case, pursuing some vague ghost ideal of "potential" is a waste. All anyone wants is security, happiness, and love. It is simply that they are as elusive as this idea of "potential".

Friday, September 8, 2017

They Finally Made a Decent Movie!

If anyone's been following previous posts, this is not the next in my Planet of the Apes series. I did watch them all, I just haven't gotten around to posting essays for them yet. I still plan to, but in the meanwhile today's post is going to be a plug for another movie recommendation.

If you've paid attention in recent years there has been a push for more Christian or "faith-based" films to be made and released over the last ten years. Once relegated to the direct-to-video market, massive church marketing pushes made films like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Passion of the Christ box office hits and studios have begun to look to that less-tapped market. Independent producers sprung up to supply films to preach to this choir, and unfortunately many have done exactly that. So we got films like God's Not Dead which Evangelical Christians rushed to see in droves, making it one of the top 10 grossing movies of its day, ensuring the inevitable sequel. But for the most part, though these movies may have an audience, in a number of ways they are not very good. I could take the time to tear apart God's Not Dead here (which I did pay to see in a theater), but I will not. Suffice it to say that despite a good cast and an underlying decent premise, it was written in broad strokes, cliches, and served more to placate the Evangelical persecution complex than as any real evangelistic tool (and I say this as an Evangelical). It was primarily a source of mockery outside of the bubble.

Film studios created their own film divisions for these sorts of things. Fox has Fox Faith, which has released several films theatrically and more to DVD. Sony also now owns a "faith-based" division. This company put out Miracles From Heaven last year. While somewhat saccharine, the film was better than the marketing made it seem. Though the trailer gives away the whole thing, most of the movie is not about the miracle described in the trailer. 3/4 of the movie is about what happens before that. So in that regard, it had merit. But there was still something a bit hokey or typical about it. Other films have come and gone to try and capitalize on the religious market, most of which I skipped. Sony will be releasing their animated Christmas feature The Star later this year, and it doesn't look to be anything special either.

But this week I saw a new movie that finally gave me hope. All Saints was released with little fanfare, and you may not have even heard of it, but I am happy to report that they have finally made a "Christian" movie that succeeds as a movie instead of tripping over itself to be Christian. All Saints stars John Corbett as a replacement pastor of a tiny Episcopalian church who is brought in to transition the church's closure, but instead has a radical idea to save the church. It is based on a true story, and shot on location. The movie reunites Corbett with his Northern Exposure co-star Barry Corbin, and it's a bit of a delight seeing Corbett playing off him yet again as a man of the cloth (though very different from his former character). The basic thrust of the film is the notion to turn the land around the church into a working farm to help the people in the community and earn the money to pay off the church's mortgage. Think of it as Field of Dreams without the baseball ghosts.

What I loved about the movie is that while faith is a constant element, as the movie is set in a church and follows religious people, they don't spout random evangelistic messages at the audience. Maybe this is easier to do with more liturgical characters as subjects, but it is so good to casually talk about "God spoke to me" and have the debate about "are you sure it wasn't just you" instead of becoming preachy. Even relatively decent films like Moms' Night Out had the obligatory Jesus monologues thrown in that make it feel like a movie talking at me. I don't need a spoon-fed Aesop fable if a movie is well-made and most of you don't either. All Saints walks the line perfectly and shows that you can tell a good story and make a good film without being obnoxious (a lesson all Evangelical filmmakers need to learn). Cutting through that kind of surface religion that plagues other films of this type allows the movie to have a reality.

And boy, did it feel real to me. Certainly I have a personal connection to the events here because I know all too well what it is to be in a tiny church that is on the verge of closing. When a movie opens with six people in the pews, that hits home for me. Honestly, it was depressing how accurate some of it felt, even down to the way things end, which I will not spoil. I love though that it never cheapens the actual story with some overly saccharine ending that ties everything up. There is a bittersweetness to it that felt all-too-real. And I have to commend it for that.

It's not the most amazing movie I've ever seen, and it doesn't have broad sweeping cinematography or a hummable score. But for a film of this type, a small movie with a story to tell, it is well worth your time. In the class of "faith" films, I would say it succeeds more than any I have yet seen in recent years. It hasn't gotten a lot of press, so I would encourage you to seek it out before its theatrical run ends. Organize church groups for screenings, or just take the family. There are no naughty words or adult situations, just real life and real human interaction with a dash of the divine. It calls to mind classic Hollywood like Lilies of the Field. It will not win any awards and it won't make many top ten lists, but if you want to see these kinds of movies done the right way, the good ones need your support. So I'm throwing my endorsement out for All Saints, and encourage all saints to do the same. Someone finally made a decent Christian movie, and I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

SYNOPSIS: A second space expedition has been dispatched to discover what happened to Taylor's ship, and also crash lands. The surviving astronaut looks for Taylor, while the Gorillas prepare for a war against the humans that live in the Forbidden Zone. Taylor has discovered there is a society of advanced humans living *ahem* beneath the planet of the apes, a society mutated by radiation who worship an atomic bomb. And that bomb might just be used against the apes, to the ruin of everything.

I'll say it: Beneath the Planet of the Apes is weird. I know the idea of time traveling to an ape-riddled earth already seems a little crazy, but this movie takes it to a whole other level. I didn't know what to think going into it, and was completely dumbfounded by the end. If the ending of the original is shocking, this one is maybe even worse because nobody has parodied and spoiled it for years. But I'm going to spoil it in this review later because there's no way to talk about this movie without it.

There's still some good make-up in this movie, even with the budget cut down. You can tell in the crowd scenes that many of the apes are in just rubber masks, but even so the real make-up work on the principles seems even a little better than the original at times. And the reveal of the humans underground was a shock.

This movie picks up immediately where the last one left off. I was surprised that Charlton Heston was in it at all. The film is mostly not concerned with him, but we get some new stuff with him early on to set things up, and he does come back at the end. His character is an important premise throughout, "what happened to Taylor?" And I also like that some of the themes toyed with in the original are continued here. We see more of the "youth movement" stuff, with a chimp protest against gorilla agression. Interestingly, the protest is broken up and the kids put in jail, the first instance of ape-on-ape agression I've seen in the classic films. The gorilla leader has speeches like "the only good human is a dead human!" which again has political and racial overtones. I like that those things were continued.

But there are other elements that confused me. How is it that the gorillas know there are humans living in the Forbidden Zone? Did they just assume they were Taylor's people? It seems the set-up for this war   came a little out of left field. The set design undergound is cool. They live in the old subway tunnels of New York and you can see old vehicles and stuff partially protruding from the walls.

But let's get to the people underground. This is where the movie gets very strange and while it's got some audacious ideas, I think they are handled a bit clumsily and I have no idea what exactly they were trying to say. The humans underground are remnants of the nuclear wars that damaged the planet, and are horribly scarred. They also generally don't speak, but unlike the other dumb humans they have advanced psychic powers and can communicate telepathically. They also can hack the minds of others and create convincing illusions. It's in the area of religion where this movie gets even wackier. The first movie played with religion some, teasing about holy scriptures and such. But in this film not only do we get a little more about the Lawgiver that the apes worship, but the human society has its own god: a nuclear bomb. Yes, they worship a bomb left down in the caverns. They have built a whole church around it and sing praises to it. Indeed, they have an entire liturgical Christian church service centered around it, just with the bomb substituted for Christ. They have collective prayers like "Glory be to the bomb and to the holy fallout." Is this a commentary on religion? Politics? It's certainly weird. And I had a hard time suspending disbelief that such things could develop in thousands of years that way. I could mostly follow the logic of the superior original film. This one seemed more about the ideas than the logic in-story to justify them.

But it's certainly an audacious movie and for awhile it's a sensible and entertaining sequel. How do you follow up on the ending of the first movie? They did it in one of the only ways you could, I suppose, but not all the pieces fit together. Some will love it because it's so weird. But it was a little too much for me.

Now as for that ending, let's talk about it. (Again, spoilers!) How do you top the bleak twist of the original? You blow up the world. Things build to a head and then Charlton Heston pushes the button that launches the god-bomb and blows up the entire planet. The screen goes white and we hear a voiceover tell us that the planet was destroyed. That's one way to end with some finality! It still, I suppose, hints at the themes at play in the last film, with man destroying himself and his world. Is that the social commentary? That man worships his weapons too much? Charlton Heston apparently didn't want to do a sequel, but agreed to appear in a few scenes to hand the movie over to the rest of the cast. But beyond that, he wanted to make sure there were no more sequels to follow, so his own hand is the one that pushes the button to blow up the planet for good. It reminds me of Michael Landon and how he ended Little House on the Prairie by blowing up the town to ensure there could never be anymore.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a lesser sequel, but that's not to say it is without merit. For me though, the proceedings are so scattered and weird, culminating in a flabbergasting conclusion that I don't quite know what to make of it. When it ended, all I could think was, "well, that was weird." It's not a movie that everyone will appreciate or enjoy. Not the worst sequel to a classic film that's ever been made, though. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that given how the movie ended they ever made another one. But they made three more, and two TV series! We'll get to those later. For now, let's just ruminate on the fact that it all ended in destruction.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

SYNOPSIS: A team of astronauts led by Taylor (Charlton Heston) leave Earth in the 1970s and crash on a planet at a time far in Earth's future due to the relativity of time. Forced to leave their space capsule, they struggle to survive and explore the barren alien terrain until they stumble upon what look like other humans. But those humans are swiftly hunted and captured by apes, clothed and riding horses. Taylor is captured and placed in a sort of human zoo for medical testing. When the apes learn that unlike the other humans on their world Taylor can speak, he threatens their society sparking a trial that explores the nature of ape evolution. Meanwhile, an ape scientist has made some fascinating archaeological discoveries near the Forbidden Zone where Taylor was found. Are all parties involved ready for what truths may be uncovered?

Planet of the Apes is unquestionably a science-fiction classic. It is perhaps overshadowed by that other film of 1968, a little project called 2001: A Space Odyssey, which unfortunately steals a bit of its thunder. But truly, Planet of the Apes is a well-made and important film in the genre that stands up against a lot of the other great science-fiction of its era. If you've never seen it because you don't care about some monkey planet, I recommend giving it a watch. There's more going on in this movie than you've heard about, and I only touched on little bits in the synopsis. Also, this is a movie that is best viewed with no knowledge of the ending. Sadly, it's so famous that it's become a casual part of our popular culture. It's so often parodied that it's difficult to go into this movie unspoiled. However, even if you think you know the end, it's worth seeing for the rest of the story. Based on a French novel, Planet of the Apes was originally adapted for the screen by Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone. His original script would have proved too expensive, as it followed the book with the apes having a very technologically advanced society. The script was rewritten to scale this back and make the movie affordable, but Serling's fingerprints are all over this. There's a very good argument to be made for Planet of the Apes as a kind of big-screen version of The Twilight Zone (before that lousy one in the 1980s).

The first 30 minutes of the movie have nothing to do with the apes at all, focusing on the astronauts struggling on this foreign world. There's solid, classic science fiction here, with hibernation sleep in the ship, emergency evactuation, struggling to find plant life. The cinematography of the movie is striking. I noticed the use of lens flares, which were very new at the time. For decades, cameramen had worked to eliminate the flaring of light in the lens. But in 1967, Cool Hand Luke began a new trend in cinematography and I had forgotten that this film was part of that. Because that sort of thing was so new on film, it lends a kind of alien element to the look of the vistas. Knowing all this was shot on location, the movie is shot in such a way to make familiar American desert look alien. The science is treated seriously enough for its time, with discussion of time dilation due to space travel. Even the fact that they walk around without helmets is something I buy in this instance because they had to evacuate quickly. The story is cleverly crafted to explain how they are mistaken for the other humans on this world. The slow burn of the first third of the movie sets things up without undermining the weirdness of the proceedings.

Watching the movie again after viewing the prequel trilogy, I'm struck by how many elements were played for reverse in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, making me appreciate that film's script even more. Thematically, the movie is based around reversals: animals in charge over human captives. And ultimately this leads to a kind of reverse Scopes Trial that explores the nature of science and religion and man's place in evolution. But if you think that this movie is just a meditation on faith vs. religion and that its message is that science trumps superstition, you would be wrong. Watching it several times, I actually come away thinking that neither party is entirely correct. So it's not a promotion of scientism, or at the very least that is not the only thing at play in this movie. One side argues the scriptures are true and there must be other explanations for the archaeological discoveries. The other side argues that Taylor is proof of humanity's place in ape evolution and is a missing link. But of course, both sides are seeing what they want to see and both are partially wrong. If Taylor has indeed crashed here from another world, it's entirely possible that he is not proof of anything regarding evolution there. So as much as the movie favors scientific discovery and discourages conspiratorial sweep-ups that obscure the truth, I look at it and say a reasonable person can draw new conclusions without throwing everything away. But I may be bringing my own biases to that.

The movie is very much a product of the late 1960s and toys with lesser themes like the youth rebellion and matters of race. The racial element was very apparent to me on this most recent viewing. The one black astronaut is killed in the hunt, and it's hard to not see racial connotations when people are running through fields being caught in nets, dragged away to be slaves, given new names (Taylor is called Bright Eyes), and having fire hoses turned on them. Given that there were and are racists that equate black people with apes, the reversal at play here is striking. The indignity and inhumanity onscreen I think certainly is making statements about civil rights in America. The humans in the film are used for medical experimentation and one of them is lobotomized. Certainly this speaks to the question of ethical treatment of animals, but I was also reminded of the Tuskeegee experiments.

 The musical score is also worth mentioning. It is very percussive, lending a feel that is strange and primitive, but with a kind of sophistication. It definitely lends the movie that otherwordly feel early on, but subtly recalls the jungle and the sort of thing we might associate with apes.

Now, I have to talk about the ending and the can of worms that it opens, but if you have not seen this movie or somehow do not know the ending, I implore you to STOP READING HERE! This movie is best viewed when unspoiled. You have been warned.

In the final scene, we see the remains of the Statue of Liberty and learn that this planet was in fact Earth the whole time, just thousands of years in the future. We are told that humanity destroyed themselves and Taylor is left pounding his fist in the sand shouting, "You maniacs! You blew it up!" As a twist, this is great because the movie has done a good job trying to convince us it's another planet. What I love about the twist though is how it validates some of the sillier sci-fi movie tropes. For example, in lesser films you'd go to another planet and there would be beings who look just like humans and everyone speaks English. Astronauts would walk around without helmets and not comment at all about the atmosphere. Plant life would look the same, etc. It's actually brilliant that the movie's secret conceit makes this all that much more reasonable. The desert vistas of the location shoot end up being fine because it's Earth! The only lingering curiosity is the moon. One of the astronauts says early on there was no moon at night. Knowing the ending, what implications this has! Did the humans blow up the moon? Was it just a new moon that night? Was the atmosphere so altered that the moon was no longer visible?

The time scales involved also interest me. This movie is set roughly 2000 years in the future. This means that mankind went mute and devolved while apes gained intelligence and took over in the span of a few thousand years. I like that because on the one hand it's a long enough span of time that things like human dolls and a lot of things about our society could be lost, but at the same time it calls into question hand-wavy statements like "it takes millions of years!" I can now explore a little more the themes I was hinting at with my Rise review. If we take the prequels as the history here, then I find the whole faith vs. evolution debate even more fascinating since arguably it was intelligent design that made the ape society! It didn't just happen. While there were unintended consequences that led to how things evolved (humans becoming mute through viral mutation, apes becoming smarter and creating society organically themselves), the thing that kicked it off wasn't random chance, it was purposeful experimentation. I just find that kind of hilarious in light of some of the things at play here. I would also note that while there has certainly been evolutionary change on display in these 2000 years in the film, gorillas are still gorillas, orangutans are still orangutans and chimps are still chimps. They have grown intelligent, but haven't changed species. (But of course, that takes "millions of years!") I say this only because to take a simplistic message from this movie regarding the science vs. faith debate is to ignore facts in evidence. I see nothing wrong with both accepting data as data and not immediately questioning an entire belief system. I don't believe science and religion need to be at odds or that one paradigm must be entirely abandoned for another. Fossils and evidence do not scare me. As Scully said, "Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it." I might disagree slightly in that the miraculous would be definition be supernatural, but I think the underlying point is important. This movie tells us that knowledge can be dangerous. That does not mean we bury it, but neither does it mean we must embrace the first new explanation to the abandonment of all else.

The final moments turn the microscope hard on humanity, seeing us as savages who kill each other and ultimately destroyed ourselves. It's yet another big 1960s theme about the dangers of global war. When I look at the movie as a whole, it is so much more than a scientific debate, or a clever reversal of tropes. It would be easy to think it's just a big allegory about evolution but as I indicated earlier I think that reading misses the point. That's part of it, but the themes at play are bigger. Ultimately I think the point of the movie is holding up a mirror to humanity and exposing our barbarism. It asks us to look at ourselves and see if we are behaving like men or like beasts. How have we treated the young people? How have they treated their elders? How are we treating others that we might view as inferior even though they are human too? And ultimately, will this kind of thinking lead us to destroy ourselves? Because there is so much richness underlying this movie, it is elevated to the upper level of science-fiction on film. Planet of the Apes is more than a weird and wacky reverse world, and more than a heavy-handed allegory; it is a smartly-crafted story with many themes at play and remains just as relevant and interesting today as it was fifty years ago.

Monday, July 17, 2017

War For the Planet of the Apes


SYNOPSIS: There have been two years of fighting between the apes and the surviving US military who were called in at the end of the last movie. When the humans finally locate Caesar, the apes are forced to relocate and Caesar is thrust into battle with a personal stake in the fighting against a seemingly unstable military leader known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). But even as things change for the apes, an unforeseen threat has come to the humans as well.

That's all I'm going to say in the synopsis, as this movie has just been released and I would like to avoid spoilers for readers who haven't seen it yet. As you can guess from some of the imagery in the poster and some of the details in the synopsis, this new film has overtones of the Vietnam War. The recent Kong: Skull Island did as well, but War For the Planet of the Apes also draws from broader inspiration, touching on war atrocities of various kinds and being at one moment Apocalypse Now and at the next the story of Moses and the exodus. It's very smartly handled in that it never becomes one single obvious metaphor or allegory. Like its predecessor, it touches on bigger themes, but keeps them to the personal story of the narrative.

One thing I like about these movies is the way they open. Rise opened with apes in the jungle being hunted by man. Then Dawn opened with the apes in the jungle as the hunters (of deer in this case). They had become that which had hunted them in a way. Now War sees the humans and apes on somewhat equal ground as it opens with the army hunting out Caesar's base and meeting an ape ambush. The variations on this theme have been very cleverly handled across the trilogy, and that's a tribute to both the writing and the direction.

Caesar's growth as a character continues here. At the end of the last film, he had to acknowledge that apes like Koba had hatred that couldn't be overcome and they couldn't be prioritized over relations with the humans. But in this movie, Caesar is brought to face his own demons, and is he really so different from Koba after all? He's haunted by the image of Koba, a personal mental threat of what he can become if he succumbs to his own emotion. Meanwhile, the audience comes to hate The Colonel, but when we finally meet him there comes a moment where his instability comes from a seemingly rational place, if extreme. So as bad as it all seems, the actions on both sides are understandable. There is no easy solution to the conflict. War is messy.

We are introduced to new characters in this movie, both ape and human. There's an albino gorilla named Winter, who makes for a striking visual. We meet Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn, a skittish chimpanzee who provides some of the film's lighter moments. He's not a member of Caesar's group, which makes the implication of his presence that much more important to the series at large, a glimpse of what's going on in other parts of the country and the world. There's also a human girl brought into the fold, who Maurice takes under his orangutan arm. This could easily be played for cliche, but she serves to introduce a plot point and play on the emotions of the group. 

As the last film in what has become a trilogy of prequel films, War For the Planet of the Apes is a satisfying conclusion that still hints at things to come. I am on the fence as to exactly where it ranks among the three. It's similar to the second movie, but doesn't drag as that film does a little for me near the end. However, I should say I saw this movie at a trilogy screening and I was tired by the end and started nodding off here and there in the middle. I don't think that's the fault of this movie. It is certainly a strong third chapter. There is possibility of the series continuing as there is more to come until we catch up with the original film, but whether another film comes or not, this one is the closing of a chapter. If you enjoyed the second movie especially, I think you will like this one.

At this point, I'm going to get into a little bit of spoiler territory, so if you wish not to know specific details, read not further!

One element of the original Planet of the Apes that I had completely forgotten about was that the humans were mute, and far more animalistic. And so this movie begins that as part of its story. The Simian Flu virus that killed so many humans has somehow mutated, and the infected humans lose their ability to speak. The girl we meet is one of these, and she is named Nova. This is a nod to the Nova character in the original, but I'm fairly certain we can't take it to be the same character. Then again, Caesar's new son is named Cornelius, so it's possible. I'm amused that the name Nova comes from the Chevy Nova. The Colonel's whole purpose then is to stop the spread of this virus that is making his men animals. He fears for the end of human civilization. So as extreme and heartless as his actions may appear, he is not just a Colonel Kurtz figure; he's obsessed with the survival of his race. This makes him much more interesting that he at first appears, and gives the film added complexity. His compound has a cult-like atmosphere, but the germ of his motivation is understandable, even if it's too much.

Another new wrinkle introduced in the film is that there are ape defectors who now work for the humans. The humans brand them and call them "donkeys" (nods to Donkey Kong?). This makes for fascinating new dynamics of espionage and loyalty. It's no longer apes vs humans. The distinctions are not so clearly defined. 

The movie ends with Caesar as a Moses figure, leading his people out of bondage and into a new home across the desert. The future is still uncertain, but there is hope for the apes that things will be better. It's an interesting way to close out Caesar's story. He began the first movie raised by humans, who ultimately become an enemy. There's even a moment where he kills another ape (something no ape had done until Koba), that reminded me of when Moses kills the Egyptian. 

War For the Planet of the Apes is a smart sequel that knows its source material and what came before it. Matt Reeves has really found his niche with these films (he directed the previous one). While a lot of the movie is dark, taking place at night, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the beautiful cinematography. There's another nod to the original with shots of apes on horseback riding along the beach. These are gorgeously filmed, with the sky reflecting in pools of water, and it looks very good in 3D. You don't have to see the movie in 3D, but it does the 3D pretty well. The new mountain environments give this movie a distinct feel from the other two. Overall, if you liked the other movies, you should take the time to see this one in a theater. It deserves the returns for being a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that no one could have predicted would end up as good as it did.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


SYNOPSIS: The worldwide viral pandemic seen spreading at the end of the last movie has decimated the human population, leading to quarantine zones and outbreaks of violence. Ten years later, power plants have shut down and humanity is struggling, while Caesar and his apes have built a civilization in the California woods. But when humans stumble into their domain in hopes of restarting a hydroelectric power plant, tensions arise between the groups. Koba, ever distrustful of humans, initiates a coup and a battle agains the humans. Though Koba's immediate threat is ultimately neutralized, it's not before the humans call in for reinforcement. Even as a new day dawns, the threat of war is coming.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very good sequel. The story could have just been left there to linger and eventually pick up in the classic continuity. Instead, we jump ahead roughly ten years (likely a little more, but it's been "ten winters" since the apes have seen any humans). The effects work, which was a little bit dodgier in the first film, has improved in only three years' time. The movie essentially opens and closes on close-up of Caesar's face and it's much more believable than even in the first movie. While I'd still like something tangible onscreen again, I didn't feel as strongly the uncanny valley problem.

This is good because this movie is really about the apes and far less about the humans. That is both its strength and its weakness. The first movie rose on the strength of relating to Caesar on an emotional level, but was still grounded in human characters and situations. In this movie, the human characters are somewhat ill-defined; they are simply the outside threat. They are an Other, and while there are good ones and bad ones, they are more memorable as plot functions than as people. I do not remember any of their names. This is a movie from the ape perspective. While that is good thematically, it makes the film a little more inaccessible for a viewer, particularly as we have to fill in the missing history. The human needs are broad (more power for a city), and not nearly as personal. So while this movie does what it does very well, I can understand why some would prefer the prior movie.

It's interesting to see the development of ape civilization now. They have their own little Ewok village and have taken to using tools. It's a bit like the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey in that the apes have begun their shift toward being more humanoid. There are classrooms teaching apes to read, and teaching moral concepts about ape society. Caesar is now a family man with a grown son and a newborn. In another nod to the original film, the apes have now begun riding horses (never mind asking where the horses came from or what effect the Simian Flu has on them, if any). They haven't quite gotten to the level of clothing yet (Caesar's loss of clothing in the first film was a paradigm shift from his life in the human world to embracing his ape-ness), but some are adorned with handmade accessories of wood.

What we essentially have then is the clash of civilizations, which gets to the heart of the film's themes. Rise was a sci-fi meditation on animal rights and treatment of those weaker than us. Dawn is essentially a dystopian Western in which the apes play the role of the American Indians. It's a lot like a Dances With Wolves sort of story, in which the outside oppressors come for help and eventually earn trust but there is still war brewing. But it is handled in a way that never feels derivative or redundant. It's not like Avatar just rehashing whole plot points. Rather, it has application to other situations, but its actual story beats are grounded in the universe of the film. Like Pocahontas, it's a movie about prejudice on both sides. And when we think the antagonist is the humans, the ultimate villain comes from within the ape camp. Koba has been so harmed by the humans that he has nothing but hatred, and he is blinded by that (both literally and figuratively, as one eye was damaged in human testing). Caesar must come to the realization that just as he can eventually trust some humans again, he must learn to distrust some apes that are threats. A message of the film is that one cannot base allegiances solely on one's race or culture.  Koba undermined Caesar, and ultimately attempted to assassinate him and blame it on the humans. When Caesar tells him finally "you are no ape", we understand the difficulty for Caesar to come to that conclusion. It's easy to hate broadly; but it's better to trust cautiously.

Once again the cast does a good job. As the apes become more vocal the ape cast gets more opportunity to perform. The new additions serve the film well and it's always good to see people like Keri Russell (who I have loved since she was on the Mickey Mouse Club back in the '90s). The animation of the apes has improved, and there are great moments of simian behavior that still come through. There's a wonderful sequence where Koba feigns ignorance to scout among the humans about their weapons. He goes full circus monkey mode, and it totally disarms the humans before he shifts and actually disarms them. The animation work here is splendid; you can tell they really studied actual chimp behavior. The marriage of human motion capture and animation makes for some wonderful character moments.

What of the title? Part of me thinks it's sort of a nothing title, more reminscent of Dawn of the Dead than an ape film. But it works on several levels. First is the literal dawn at the end of the movie, for those wondering where the title came in. But I think it is also meant to call back to that "Dawn of Man" idea. The apes are no longer mere animals, even if hyperintelligent. They have dawned into a people, a civilization.

The nature of the movie, and its length, make me appreciate it but I don't quite enjoy it in the same way I did the first one. It's certainly an improvement on a technical level. But I do feel there's a kind of distance there because I'm meant to identify more with the apes than with the humans. There's something a little bit flat about the movie because once the conflicts are laid out, nothing really changes.  They just play out along those lines until the main storylines are wrapped up. So in that regard, it's maybe lacking a little, and knowing that it's leading into another film it may be suffering from "middle chapter syndrome". And yet what it does, and where it's going thematically, works well on its own terms. So while I don't think I'd be quick to revisit this one as often, I consider it a good movie and am interested in where the next film will go.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

With the release of the newest Planet of the Apes movie, I thought I would take the time to review each film in the series. Of course, if you've scrolled through any previous posts on this blog, I've said that before and never kept up with it. So we'll see. I have trouble finishing things. We'll begin with the prequel trilogy, so today's post is on Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

SYNOPSIS: James Franco plays a scientist hard at work on engineering a treatment for Alzheimer's in hopes of curing his ailing father. The project proceeds to trials on chimpanzees, but is shut down when one of the promising subjects, uh, goes ape. When it is discovered she had recently given birth and was only protecting her child, Franco adopts the ape and takes him home secretly. This young chimp shows the same mental improvement that its mother did, suggesting the drug works. Franco continues the work at home, names the ape Cesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), and tests the drug on his father. It works initially, but eventually the man's body fights it off as the compound is in fact a neurogenic virus designed to rebuild brain pathways. Franco discovers that his father's antibodies are fighting off the infection, but he believes a stronger version of the treatment will work. Unfortunately, a horrible incident in the neighborhood leads to Cesar being sent to a zoo where he is mistreated while Franco begins new clinical trials and tries to get his ape son back. But Cesar is emotionally wounded, and decides to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, the new viral strain turns out to be very effective on apes, but deadly to humans. Cesar leads an ape uprising releasing all of his compatriots from the zoo, after making them super-intelligent as well, and they flee into the California woods. But as the film ends, the virus has accidentally begun to spread globally. Oh, and we learn in passing of the launch of the first manned mission to Mars, which seems to be lost in space...

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a movie that shouldn't work in a franchise that was dead, and yet it mostly does. It came at an opportune time, a conflux of cultural elements. The fight against Alzheimer's had been growing steadily. There were recent news stories about ape attacks, particularly of someone who had a pet chimpanzee that bit her face off. And Andy Serkis, after making a splash in Lord of the Rings had become the go-to name in motion-capture work, just recently portraying the titular gorilla in Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. So it was no surprise that he was cast to play yet another ape, in a role designed to bridge the gap between animal and man. All of these elements lead up to an interesting way to get an audience invested in a film series that had long since been dead, particularly after Tim Burton's failed reboot. A prequel seemed a bit audacious, at a time when films like Terminator Salvation weren't doing well going that route.

I confess, I didn't see the film upon its initial release because I wanted to watch the original 1968 film first, and never got around to it back then. I soon saw the Tim Burton remake (which I have since forgotten almost everything about), but as that movie is not in this continuity, it was irrelevant. I finally bit the bullet and watched the classic film when it was screened theatrically last year. I was now ready to go back to the prequels, and so I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes just a few hours ago. On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. While it's totally possible to view the film on its own as an introduction to this series, I would not suggest it. I think it's better to take the original film on its own terms first, especially if you are young and haven't had any of its plot points spoiled for you. Sadly, the film is so old, that the ending reveal is referenced incessantly by other works, so it's harder to go into it cold. If you already know the major reveals, you can start with Rise.

It is impossible to review this movie without a discussion of the effects work. On the whole, it holds up, even today, though not as well as it could. The apes are all entirely computer-generated. This certainly makes sense from a production standpoint, for safety and ethics reasons, and for the story points of making Cesar the link to the more humanoid sapients of the later films. The visuals are better than something like Jumanji, but there is still that uncanny valley territory where you know you are looking at something artificial. Part of this comes in the mannerisms of the apes, who appear to stand upright a little too much. With Cesar I suspect it was intentional; he walks nearly upright and holds himself like a human. But other apes are just apes, and sometimes it seems to me they aren't quite animal enough. I'm no expert, and haven't seen real chimpanzee footage in a while, but something about it seemed a little off to me, and I think that comes from it being humans performing the actions. I also note that these cartoon apes lack visible genitals (and while I know that some apes have tiny genitals, it feels like real animals have been neutered for film decency) and that takes just a tiny bit of reality away from the proceedings.

If you liked hating Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, you'll enjoy watching Tom Felton playing basically the same character; an abusive keeper at the ape enclosure. The cast is very good, including David Oyelowo before he became a name, and Frieda Pinto fresh off Slumdog Millionaire. John Lithgow is effecting in his limited screen time as Franco's father. But of course what everyone talks about is Andy Serkis. There are moments you can tell it's Serkis; here and there a facial feature crept in, and ultimately he gets some vocalization in. But there's enough ape in there that Cesar becomes a distinct character design, a half-way point between Gollum and Kong. How much of what appears onscreen is Serkis and how much is the animators I don't know, but I wouldn't want to slight either of them. There's been a lot of talk in recent years of nominating Serkis for acting awards, with the argument made he's giving the full performance, no different from an actor in makeup. But there is a difference, and some of the WETA animators have spoken up on feeling slighted (especially regarding Lord of the Rings, when this technology was less advanced). I prefer to see it as more analogous to sophisticated puppetry.

And speaking of puppetry, that is something I couldn't help feeling was missing. While I fully appreciate the visual effects we got and the performances that accompanied them, there's still something about having a tangible object on set that feels different. I would have liked a little bit of classic puppet work mixed in, just to lend something tactile to the apes. The Stan Winston or Jim Henson creature shops could have worked up something. A film like Jurassic Park still holds up because it used both techniques (and some of its fully CG work has aged badly). Actually The Lost World has even better blended practical and digital effects. Certainly if you want to feel the expression on Cesar's face, go with the mo-cap. But a shot here or there of Franco touching a tangible chimpanzee hand instead of a digital one would have sold the illusion better, I think. The nature of visual effects is they tend to look dated fairly quickly as time passes and techniques improve.

I liked the little nods to the original film, particularly in the way they casually tease the Mars mission in background elements like TV broadcasts and newspapers. However, it went just a little too far for me in quoting the now infamous line, "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" It makes total sense in the moment, and it leads to a huge turning point in the film, but something about directly quoting like that made me bristle. It took me out of the film for a minute.

What's most unique about this movie is its pacing. It's got elements of the more deliberate pace of the original, but moves at just the right speed for the plot. So much of the film is done without dialogue; which makes sense when one of your lead characters can only communicate in sign. It was refreshing for a big studio franchise movie to tell its story visually. This is not the kind of movie you can just put on and not pay attention to. It demands to be watched. There are a number of wordless moments that communicate a great deal. And that's where it is most effective, communicating through action and situation the drama, using words when necessary. It's nice that people still know how to make movies like that.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an unexpectedly smart jumpstart to an ailing franchise. If I have complaints beyond aging effects work, they are concerned more with themes as they relate to the original film. I'll delve into those more when (if?) I cover that movie. Rise is concerned with themes of animal rights, and it's generally effective, while still working as a prequel that's not too prequel-y. I'm curious why the film was set in the San Francisco area, rather than the East Coast. But it's a script that makes sense, and a film that's directed well by Rupert Wyatt. Part of me wishes it had a different title though. While it signals the franchise, the title rather spoils things for the future, and part of me wishes it had just been called Rise of the Apes instead. But this is a minor complaint. I'm sure Fox wanted to let people know what the film was so that it would make money. I applaud them for succeeding in also making a pretty good movie.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

Hello readers. I am here again after a long absence. I just have very little to say, so it amazes me if anyone is even reading this. But it's that time of year again when I look at the best movies I saw in 2016. Now, I was not able to see several films I wanted to, so some of the more acclaimed films of the year I did not see and thus could not make this list. That Scorsese's Silence was only out here for like a week and a half was so unfair.

10. The Witch: A New-England Folktale
I wrestled with whether or not to include this movie in my top ten, because I am very split on it. It is a horror film set in 17th Century New England. I was intrigued enough by the trailer to see the film early this year. It's about a family banished from their town (we know not why), who settle on the edge of the woods. But there's a witch in the woods, and when bad things start happening to the family, it may be that one of them has invoked the devil and brought it upon them. This is absolutely not a movie for everyone. Even horror fans have sometimes found it too slow or hard to understand because all the dialogue is spoken in period-accurate dialect. And I loved that aspect of it. The sense of the world was really strongly realized, and the lead actress is lovely. Unfortunately, I despise the ending. I won't spoil it, but for me it completely ruined the movie. I grow very tired of horror movies that are just bad stuff happens to everyone until they all die, essentially. But mainly, I disliked what it did to the lead character. For its sense of setting and atmosphere I have to applaud it, though, and that's why ultimately it made the list. It was one of the most unique things I saw all year.

9. Rules Don't Apply
Warren Beatty's latest project is kind of a mess and it shouldn't work. And some of it doesn't. But I found walking out of it that I more enjoyed it than not. This is a story about old Hollywood, Howard Hughes, and a young naive actress who comes to LA to chase a dream. It's a bloated sort of movie, with meandering plots, trying to be a character study and a weird love triangle of sorts.  But the charm for me rests primarily on Lily Collins who I find absolutely adorable and would watch in anything. Once again, there's a turn at a certain point in the film that I dislike for the character. But that's a whole subject in itself that would digress into a discussion of the treatment of sexuality in film. This movie has a wry sense of humor that helps it avoid too much melodrama and makes it more enjoyable, including one of my favorite lines of dialogue this year. Matthew Broderick's character says: "You know why Baptists are against sex, don't you? Because it might lead to dancing!"

8. Fences
Denzel Washington directs himself and a great cast in this film adaptation of August Wilson's stage play. It's an intimate movie mostly set in small locations and is very dialogue-driven so it could easily be stagey. It's a problem with many stage-to-film adaptations. And yet I found the camerawork very smartly handled, and Denzel was able to make the film intimate without ever being claustrophobic. That is a remarkable feat these days, where filmmakers raised on television rely too heavily on tight close-ups that don't feel right on the big screen. All the performances are good (the cast came right from  the stage), but I want to single out Stephen Henderson. Denzel's doing his Denzel thing and Viola Davis has her excellent emotional moments as always, but Henderson was so very real to me in a solid supporting role. I was really hoping it would earn him a nomination.

7. Queen of Katwe
This is a Disney release that you probably never heard of. Of all the Disney movies this year (Jungle Book, Zootopia, Moana, etc.), this was the one I wanted to praise here. It's a solid sort-of sports movie. Based on a true story, it follows a poor girl in Africa as she becomes a chess champion. It would probably pair nicely with Searching For Bobby Fischer. If you like those old inspirational Disney sports movies or you like chess, this is a well-made movie that you should seek out.

6. Swiss Army Man
I mentioned earlier that The Witch was among the most unique films I saw all year. I think I spoke too soon, because nothing can prepare you for Swiss Army Man. A quirky film reminiscent of Spike Jonze or Wes Anderson, it follows the unlikely friendship of a suicidal man stranded on an island and a magical corpse. If bodily functions offend you, avoid it. But among the weirdness is an examination of the human condition with some great music and design work. Unfortunately the ending doesn't work enough for me, as if the film doesn't know how to bring this thing to a satisfactory close. But it tries, and almost gets there. The clash of the whismy and the real world don't quite sort themselves out enough for me.

5. Arrival
I'm gonna be saying this a lot, but the ending just about ruined this movie for me. I was really enjoying this movie until a certain point came and I had to just roll my eyes and deduct points. But Amy Adams is still very good and there are enough smart thoughts and moments to this movie to recommend it. When alien ships arrive all over the world, a linguist is recruited to try to communicate with them. All these early parts of the film about language are the best for me. I loved them, and wanted more of that. Instead, the film takes a hard turn into science fantasy from the more grounded science fiction it had been, and this resolution is so absurd to me and introduces new themes to me that I wanted to shake the movie and scream, "No! Give me the movie you started as!" There are some great concepts at play here, and moments like the gravity shift inside the ship that play with our perception. Unfortunately, the big twist soured me on the movie overall, and it just couldn't live up to the hype. I don't regret seeing it, and there are scenes in that first half I love, but as a whole, it's not one I would tell people to rush out and see.

4. The Meddler
A sleeper movie that nobody saw, this was one of my favorites from the first half of the year. Susan Sarandon plays an overbearing mother who follows her daughter to Los Angeles after the death of her husband. It's a funny and emotional character study, based on the writer's actual mother, and Sarandon is great in it. The supporting is solid too. If you like a kind of gentle comedy with very little to offend, I recommend it.

3. Manchester By the Sea
I want to be so careful here because the worst thing for this movie is hype. You should see it just as I did, not knowing much about it and with lowish expectations. Just know that it's good. Normally, I dislike stories that just meander about characters but nothing happens. It's why I hate Virginia Woolf. So on that level, I should dislike this movie, in which very little actually happens. But it got to me. It's a very real character study about grief. There are moments that are very moving, and a truly heartbreaking reveal midway through. For me, it meanders a little too much toward the end and starts to feel its length. It could have been tightened a little more. But I want to applaud it for its sense of place and depth of feeling. The thing I loved best about it is the locations feel like real locations (I suspect they probably were). I can admire a great set, but ultimately it feels like a set, lived in in a sort of movie way. But Manchester By the Sea is real. I have never seen guys hanging out in a basement that looks like real guys really hanging out in a real basement. The houses feel like real houses. The conversations feel like real conversations. There's a phone call where characters talk over each other and don't know when to hang up. These little elements give it a unique reality that you don't often see outside indie cinema. Be warned, this isn't a fun movie. It's an emotional roller coaster ride. But I admired it so much.

2. Loving
Jeff Nichols released two films this year. The first, Midnight Special, I highly anticipated and while I liked it, I was a tad let down. But the other was a film that didn't get the release or the buzz that it should have, and that's Loving, the true story of the interracial marriage that ultimately broke down miscegenation laws in the U.S. Going into it, I was afraid it was going to be a soapbox movie. I worried that it was no coincidence the film came out so soon after the Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage. But had I known Jeff Nichols was behind it, I wouldn't have worried. His film Take Shelter made my list several years ago. In his capable hands, Loving stays a simple and intimate story about simple people who just want to live a normal life. Nichols keeps it personal, and Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga bring life to their roles with a sincerity and simplicity.

1. Hacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson has finally returned, and it's with another religious-themed violent movie. And yet, it's more restrained than some of his prior works. The movie follows the true story of a Seventh-Day Adventist who enlists during World War II as a medic but will not carry a weapon, and ends up saving many lives in the pacific theater. Some might consider the movie jingoistic or cheesy, but I think it dodges most of the cliches that could so easily derail it. Andrew Garfield, who I don't generally like as an actor, is very good here. The climb up Hacksaw Ridge and the ensuing battle is like a horror movie; a descent into a haunted castle or something. It's expertly done (it even "rains blood"at one point), bringing home the horrors of war, but only because Garfield's character has been warned the whole time of its horror and that he will be defenseless without a gun. It's a very human story, an inspirational story; a film with religious themes that is never hokey, and themes of personal liberty that are never too flag-wavey. I saw so many movies this year that disappointed me or left me underwhelmed, and films that were done in by their endings. But I had nothing but good feelings about Hacksaw Ridge.