Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rohan: Great Apes, Puny Humans

(Our friend Rohan Morbey argues that the apes are the only reason to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, though that might be reason enough. We're always happy to cross-post his reviews, appearing as always over at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK; we strongly recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, like any prequel or movie based on a novel, suffers from inevitability. We know how it will end, but the enjoyment should come from how it gets there and how it takes the audience along on the ride. Despite some great acting and truly awe inspiring advancements in motion capture, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the complete lack of interest the story provided. The film could have shown us so much, but delivered so little.

What do I mean by this? We know how it will all end, not just this film but any film which is made until the studio decides that the 1968 original will be the "next chapter." Dawn’s one and only task is to make the inevitable interesting. CGI and motion capture brilliance aside, Dawn tries to make an ‘epic’ (the most incorrectly used term in movie reviewing today) story out of nothing, and stretches the running time of the previous film out by another 20 minutes, yet has none of the intrigue which Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes so effortlessly combined with excitement, sadness, and a cautionary tale. In other words, Rise was the perfect big budget summer movie for those wanting more than the usual nonsense we’re given every year.

That’s not to say Dawn is complete nonsense but for all its attempts to bring a sense of Shakespearean tragedy to a $170 million movie, the human characters are as bland as any you’re likely to see, and the apes become clich├ęs of countless films we’ve seen before. As for the plot; no one is seeing Dawn for any reason other than the apes, and if you’re going to include humans then they’d better serve some higher purpose than a foe to attack. If this were human versus humans going through the same tired plot points no one would forgive it, so why should it be overlooked because of some great CGI? The scandalous lack of depth given to these humans reinforces the screenwriters’ acceptance that they are just there to act as a catalyst for the eventual battle. In Rise the humans had character, but in Dawn they are screenwriting-for-beginners plot beats, which is even worse when great actors like Gary Oldman are given nothing to do and Jason Clarke and Keri Russell are asked to carry the film. Both are fine actors, but these were thankless roles.

Furthermore, the film spends little time giving us any background on what has happened in the years since Rise, other than a mashup of news reports over the opening credits. If a decade of world shattering events is to be washed over, I’d have hoped for a far greater story than the one we get, which spans a few days and could have happened at any time in the course of those ten years. Why is it only now that humans and apes are meeting? Why are the humans stuck in San Francisco when they clearly have cars and gasoline to drive around? And what about other apes and human populations, why is nothing mentioned about these groups if ten years have passed? If the film makers want to save it for the third film, then Dawn is little more than a footnote in the series. 

What the film does well is make genuine characters of the apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). The first thirty minutes is therefore the strongest section of the film because it’s all about the apes; I really enjoyed seeing a non-human character become a father, worry about the wellbeing of his wife and discuss the challenges of fatherhood with an old friend. I also loved the thought of young apes learning to speak English in a classroom, and the community these animals have made. I could have watched an entire film of just the apes and how they have evolved since Rise, especially with the awesome special effects this film delivers. Not once in the film did I think of these apes as CG creations, and this is the movie’s overriding success, and reason enough to recommend the film.

The initial interaction between ape and human also had its moments, with Caesar trying to be a diplomat facing insubordination in the ranks from either side. But all of the nuances developed there are pushed aside for the usual big budget action ending, where apes attack the humans and it all gets very predictable and rather uninspired. Some may argue that seeing apes act like humans is the obvious evolution towards the eventual scenario this is all leading up to (the '68 original), but my point is this: when we see apes speak and act like human in the first film it’s a shock to audiences and there is a wonder and inquisitive element as to how this could possibly be, but when all those questions are answered and handed to us in a neat package, where is the sense of wonder and awe and imagination on the audience’s part? It’s all replaced by milestone incidents which are added to get from point A to B and with big budget action to hide the fact that nothing is left to the imagination anymore.

By the time the climactic set piece arrives (taking place on a skyscraper for no apparent reason), nothing looks real any longer nor was anything in the balance or remotely interesting. It was no better than any other comic book film or superhero movie and therein lies the fatal error with Dawn; it may evolve what can be done with CGI and the series’ storyline (slightly) but it devolves as storytelling. With so many options available to tell the post-Rise story, to think this was the chosen one is quite a disappointment.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Magic in the Moonlight

What many don't acknowledge about Woody Allen is that he's just not stopping. Yes, his American funding has stopped, forcing him to head outside his beloved Manhattan to make his movies. And yes, his output is crazily uneven, from the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris and surprisingly biting thriller Match Point to completely forgettable exercises like Scoop and Cassandra's Dream. But his take on other cities besides New York has been surprisingly vivid, and the unevenness of his output only speaks to its diversity. This has been a constant through his career - he could always deliver a stark drama inspired by Bergman one year then follow it up with wacky urbanity the next. The Allen movie is still a wild card, and cause for excitement.

Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, is different to these eyes form his other movies, though no one else could have made it. The stage magic that has been a lifelong passion that Allen has alluded to in other movies, and it takes center stage here. Colin Firth (who is absolutely stellar at delivering Allen's most wicked insults) is stage magician Stanley, who sets aside his Orientalist schtick to visit France's Cote d'Azue, where a young clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone) is impressing many with her gift (and turning quite a profit from it). Though initially skeptical, Stanley finds himself more and more convinced that Sophie's no fake, though he may be too blinded by his growing attraction to her to really see the truth.

It is a sunny period piece, to be sure, but everyone involved takes it seriously. The milieu of the stage magicians, from their onstage tricks to their offstage rivalries, is rendered convincingly, as is the world of 1920s seaside France. Allen staffs the movie with uniformly solid collaborators (and it's worth noting that no one in the principal cast has worked with Allen before), and even when Allen's grip on his material falters everyone involved works overtime to make the story work. Keep an eye on Stanley and Sophie - she's lit luminously throughout, while Stanley always seems to be partly in shadow while investigating her, his light and his costumes favoring lighter colors as love dawns on him. Darius Khondji, shooting his third movie for Allen, deserves an Oscar for his work on it - his lighting practically serves as a chorus throughout, commenting on the growing relationship and the imaginary (?) world of magic and spirit the characters all, to one degree or another, inhabit.

It sounds delightful, and it is, but Allen is unusually concerned with questions of illusion, reality, our capacity (and need) for belief in something intangible, what lies beyond our existence. One wonders if the sincerity of these questions hints that Allen is himself preoccupied with some great End ahead of him. But even at 78 he's challenging himself as an artist, and in the end Magic in the Moonlight considers mortality, but cheerfully abandons finality. Life continues beyond. So will Allen.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

NO MORE: Rohan Thwarted by Transformers 4

(Our friend Rohan Morbey sat through Transformers: Age of Extinction, and all he got for his pains was a cross-post of his intensely disappointed write-up. Rohan continues to write prolifically at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK; we strongly recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)

During my screening of Transformers: Age Of Extinction I could hear a man a few rows away from me talking out loud. I looked over and saw he was telling the kid behind him to stop kicking his chair; the kid didn’t hear him at first so he spoke a bit louder and the message was understood. It dawned on me at this point that this brief dialogue between two strangers had captivated my attention in a way the action on screen had failed to for the past two hours. I welcomed the distraction. Finally something was happening in the room which wasn’t a total bore. I kind of hoped the person behind me might start kicking my chair too, but they were selfishly well behaved and that brief respite away from the film was denied.

Never has a film shown us so much yet given us so little as Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Director Michael Bay throws everything at the screen during a running time longer than any of his three previous entries in the series, using up every last cent of the reported $200+ million budget to deliver state-of-the-art special effects which must have taken each of the creative artist all of the talent and skill to design and create, but fails to meet even the most basic, entry-level results you would expect. Bay’s attitude towards this fourth film is strikingly lackadaisical for a man who has become the king of pushing the limits of on-screen chaos (or ‘Bayhem’ as it has become known); whereas before directors like Peter Berg or Zack Snyder have clearly been influenced by (or plainly copied) his style, Bay has now made a film which looks like an imitation of his own style.

There is not one scene of the innovative action or style for which Bay has become famous. I have often said ‘love him or hate him, no one does carnage like Bay’ but with his latest film he’s simply phoned it in which is something he couldn’t be accused of before. Each set piece is the same as the last in terms of look, setting, execution, lack of tension, lack of excitement, and lack of awe. As much as I disliked the last Transformers film, it did have a five minute sequence of sheer brilliance as a skyscraper collapses and the humans within must hang on for dear life; in this scene Bay showed his best action direction since The Rock 15 years before. Bad Boys II was a nasty, gross film but damn it if that highway chase with the car transporter isn’t still one of the most pulse-pounding and innovative car chases I ever seen. Even the first Transformers film had some decent sequences before it went out of control, showing the audience CGI magic the likes of which we’d not seen before.

Yet Bay offers us precisely nothing here except a complete lack of understanding as to what makes an action sequence work. There is no tension, no build-up or gradual escalation, and no stakes. Sadly he seems to think shooting at the magic hour automatically makes a scene resonate with emotion but it’s all for effect and never for story with Bay. Moreover, with everything looking so false and fake for the majority of the film, the sunsets and red skies have no appeal and look as flat as the rest of the film.

Moreover, the film not only causes chaos in Chicago again but moves the action to Hong Kong for no other reason than to sell tickets in Asia; a wise move from a financial perspective on Paramount’s part, but Bay takes absolutely zero advantage of the change of location. In a James Bond or Mission: Impossible film the film makers would make the sequences unique to the locations, but in Transformers it’s just another load of tall buildings to destroy. And the product placement is obscene throughout the film without the slightest attempt to make it part of the film. I won’t lay all the blame on Bay here but someone needs a slap across the face for forcing this level of blatant and constant brand exposure into any movie.

At 166 minutes, the film is agonisingly too long for the story it is trying to tell, but what makes it even worse is the screenplay by Ehren Kruger, the man who penned the previous two films in the series. In the hands of Kruger and Bay the film easily has at least one awful moment during every minute of screen time; whether it is a camera angle or movement which makes no sense in context with the scene, an atrocious line of dialogue, awful acting, an attempt at humour which falls flat, a music cue which makes you cringe, character motivations which are idiotic even for this franchise, or making the plot (such as it is) become ever more unfathomable. That’s a minimum of 150 uniquely awful moments, minus the final credits.

I couldn’t list all the issues I had with the film because my memory is actively pushing them out as I write this review, but some are proving hard to forget:

• The language is revolting for a film aimed at kids and the ‘family ticket’ with Transformers saying ‘bitch’, ‘ass’, ‘I really want to kill someone’, ‘I want some scalps’, and a human dropping the F-bomb and wanting to run over innocent people whilst they make an escape.

• The inclusion and discussion of statutory rape in a film about aliens which transform into cars.

• The objectification of yet another female lead.

• Why do we need to see a man’s burnt corpse in this film?

• Why do any of the humans, and in particular the daughter and boyfriend, go to Hong Kong? What purpose can they possibly serve?

• Eye gouging and violent fist fights in a film based on toys and cartoons.

• A Transformer smoking a metal cigar – How and Why?

• Optimus Prime can fly – Why was this not used before?

• Who are the massive robots and why do they transform into dinosaurs and how can they breathe fire?

• The entire plot. Nothing makes sense.

If watching this film has taught me anything it is that I will never watch another Transformers film with Bay as director and Kruger as screenwriter again. My friends and readers can use this review as a reminder in two years time when the next one is released. Enough was enough back in 2009 but I stuck around for two more films. I won’t take anymore.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

CAPSULE!: Boyhood

In a way it's the ultimate gimmick movie. Richard Linklater shot this coming-of-age story about ten days a year over a period of twelve years. And we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the hero of this movie, age before our very eyes, navigating the travails of youth - divorced parents, abusive step-parents, relocation, crushes, new love, breakups, and the nagging, unanswerable questions about what life really means.

In retrospect you wonder how much of Boyhood's praise stems from this accomplishment - are we simply giving Linklater credit for pulling it off? But most "gimmicks" in movies are the sole reason for the movie existing. Here, the timepsan of the shoot is the seed from which the movie grows. We watch Mason get incrementally older and wiser, yes. But so do we see his split parents (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke) grow over the twelve years covered by the movie; we see Mom's growing success in academia rub against her steadily wrong judgment in choosing romantic partners, and we see Dad's still-youthful free-spiritedness seemingly disappear as he just suddenly turns adult. We catch more than glimpses of the country changing around them - Linklater had a script laid out at the movie's inception, but huge cultural turning points like the 2008 election are integrated into the movie's story. Relationships that feel eternal end within a cut from one year to the next. Life lessons that usually seed an entire movie here become just one tile in the mosaic of a movie. Or a life.

Linklater and team balance both the individual moments and hours with the overall tapestry within which they occur. Great Moments hit with incredible impact, but you're just as likely to tear up just watching Mason run behind a house. Boyhood harnesses the simple but elemental passage of time, and turns it into the summer's best special effect. You don't just see a movie twelve years in the making, you feel witness to the birth of the human soul. Boyhood is probably the greatest American movie we're going to get for a while. It's more than enough. It's life.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Recommended!: Battle Royale (2000)

Some of the excitement on American shores for the World Cup always makes me wonder. It's a common complaint that suddenly people who exhibited no enthusiasm whatsoever for soccer suddenly (and I mean suddenly) cancel all appointments to dive in for a month. The idea currently being seriously floated by right-wingers that it's an Obama plot to distract from...(I just started laughing, so can't/won't finish that sentence). I sometimes believe that it's the inherent drama of an elimination tournament that is so absorbing. Every sport has its playoffs, and every playoffs has a huge viewership. So it's not a stretch to suggest that the World Cup has all of the drama of any sport's playoffs, without the drag of a season leading up, with added global involvement and stakes. Interest accumulates as you see 16 parties compete for 8 spots, then 8 for 4, then 4 for 2, then the final battle, and even if the party you root for is eliminated early, part of you lingers just to see how the whole contest turns out.

There are a number of great movies that explore and mine the inherent drama of the elimination tournament. The first that comes to this reviewer's mind is Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, in which a class of students, selected randomly in a government program, are stranded on an island, armed, and forced to hunt and kill one another. Fukasaku tells us much about each character in a very short time and balances our stakes in their fates with the inherent thrills of an elimination tournament: some of the students become rootable heroes, others embrace the kill-or-be-killed format and become despicable villains, and still others are wild cards that keep us guessing. Their teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) presides over the action, but even his joking, cynical commentary can't disguise his growing ambivalence and shame. And as the body count rises and the action hurtles toward its bloody conclusion, Kitano is forced to come to grips with even more than his own personal failures.

For all of the movie's violent, visceral thrills (and make no mistake, Battle Royale has them in abundance - Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite film ever), it's no less politically charged than Kinji Fukasaku's Yakuza movies. Though the movie's based on a novel set in a dystopian future, Fukasaku moved the action to the present, seeing its story as a comment on a Japanese government that regularly lies to, disenfranchises, and otherwise screws over its youth. Members of the Japanese parliament played right into Fukasaku's hands when they condemned the movie as the product of a media whose irresponsibility was a direct cause of a rising tide in youth violence. Other adults, however, saw past these pronouncements, with some educators praising the movie for the directness with which it addressed problems facing their students.

Battle Royale moves like a blockbuster, but it balances its intelligence and politics deftly with its thrills. It's keenly aware of the mechanics of the elimination tournament being played out within it, and uses our own awareness of those mechanics to engage us with its action and its politics. (Every so often the movie pauses to list the names and grade status of the dead so far, a gesture that both engrosses and implicates us in the game being played.) For all of its superviolent gestures and exploitation cinema tropes, Battle Royale keeps us engaged with the humanity of all of its characters, and ultimately enlists us in its revolutionary crusade. And for all that, it's utterly thrilling.

(Incidentally, when someone insists to you that The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale, you may safely ignore anything else they say. This knee-jerk comparison speaks more to the observer's innate need to bash something popular to praise their own cultish appreciation than either of the items under scrutiny. Both movies riff on the same very general premise, but neither is the first to take the elimination tournament to lethal extremes. And to its credit The Hunger Games is as squarely focused on exploring American dysfunction and inequality as Battle Royale is on its culturally specific. What the movies truly have in common is that neither one bullshits the young people they're aimed at about the problems they're facing. And that's a similarity to be celebrated.)

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