Sunday, July 27, 2014

Whose Daring Deeds Are Great Theater? HERCULES


If you had to pick one working actor who could play a convincing Hercules, it would have to be Dwayne Johnson. (It certainly wouldn’t be Kellan Lutz. Just ask Renny Harlin.) The man formerly known as The Rock has the right solid body-builder muscle and charismatic broad-shoulder, wide-stance confidence to be believed as the ultimate demigod strongman of Greek myth. That’s the key here: believable myth. Hercules, the latest telling of the legend, imagines Hercules as a troubled mercenary with a tragic past who spreads exaggerated tales of his parentage and deeds to get work and scare enemies. When he stomps in wearing the pelt of a lion for a cape, the mane flowing down his armored back, a massive spiked club held lightly in his huge hands able to smack down five men with a single blow, it’s easy to see how little a leap it takes to believe the legends.

From Italian peplum pictures to a Disney musical, the character of Hercules has a lot of versatility. Screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos (of a bunch of direct-to-video DisneyToon sequels) adapt Steve Moore’s comics into a relatively small-scale adventure. At least it’s not a big brooding bore. The open sequence is a rapid-fire retelling of Hercules myths with the hulking demigod fighting impossible monsters: a hydra, a giant boar, a massive lion. It’s a fun, splashy creature feature and a tease, as it is revealed to be a story told by one of Hercules’ band of mercenaries. The storyteller (Reece Ritchie) is joined by an Amazonian archer (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), a seer (Ian McShane), a swordsman (Rufus Sewell), and a mute feral man (Aksel Hennie). Then in walks the man himself. It takes a lot of people to spread the carnage they pin on their leader. Good thing, with dreams, visions, and optical illusions, ancient Greece is a place used to thinking of itself as supernatural.

But Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules more than merely looks the part. He acts like it, too, even if his immense strength is merely at the extreme upper edge of mortal strength. That’s still not so bad, if you ask me. And in battle he can certainly handle himself well, taking out hundreds of enemy combatants while his colleagues help him pick off the rest and the people who hired them cower from a safe distance. This allows the big guy to fake out the people with talk of his Gods-given power and then walk the walk by, say, hiding an arrowhead between his knuckles so it looks like he kills an enemy warrior with one punch. Smart idea. Above all, I liked his arc from guy who says he’s a legend to a guy who works hard to become his own legend. If anyone could do that and pull it off, it’s The Rock.

After some introductory throat-clearing that introduces us to the world of this Hercules, Herc and friends are hired by a king (John Hurt), his daughter (Rebecca Ferguson), and his general (Peter Mullan), to help stop troublemakers giving his villages a beating and working their way slowly to the castle. Complications and battles ensue, with plenty of swordplay, archery, spear-throwing, chariot-riding and other forms of ancient combat. At one point, Hercules flips a horse over his head. I think that’s when I knew I was fully sold on this movie’s brand of action, which is just over-the-top enough to be pleasantly silly. It helps that there’s some comic relief that really works, keeping the whole thing from getting too self-serious. I especially liked the running joke that develops out of McShane’s insistence that he’s psychically aware of when he’ll die. Before one battle, Hercules asks if it’s his time. “No,” he replies, “but I’m not sure about yours.”

It’s a sturdy, old-fashioned adventure with an eye for bright battle sequences and some moderately engaging ancient intrigue. It’s a movie wherein everyone involved seems to be on the same page about the kind of movie they were making. The cast is all likable wooden archetypes and the look has a glossy but humble B-movie charm. It also looks about as cheap as an expensive movie can look, with few standing sets, a couple dodgy CGI crowd shots, and lots of exterior location work. It’s knowingly small and chopped up. A few short and awkwardly inserted flashbacks involving Hercules’ backstory (including small roles for model Irina Shayk as his wife and Joseph Fiennes as a king) seem like vestigial plot points from a longer cut. But the whole thing is scrappy, and good enough in most respects.

Director Brett Ratner has little in the way of personal style, always slickly and competently executing the screenplay before him with his collaborators. (That’s how he’s managed a career split about evenly between entertaining schlock and schlock schlock.) His Hercules is an empty calorie dumb fun machine that keeps the pace up and spirits high. By the final plot complications and climactic confrontations, I was even invested in how it would resolve. I liked the studio programmer throwback appeal to a time when a big studio would make small and simple lazy-day matinee fare. Maybe it just succeeds in lowering expectations, the better to mildly exceed them, but, hey, when it works it works. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

LUCY in the Sky with Superpowers


I’m tempted to say Luc Besson’s Lucy goes enjoyably off the rails, but it’d be more accurate to say it operates blissfully without knowledge of any tracks whatsoever. It’s a sci-fi thriller that evolves as it goes along, sliding exuberantly into a metaphysical tangle. By the end it is tugging apart the very fabric of existence. So many movies go down familiar tracks it’s a delight to see one that heads off in its own direction. Soon we’re following wild unexpectedness with a protagonist who finds herself increasingly unable to connect with the world in the way the rest of us perceive it. She goes above and beyond quite literally and suddenly, throwing standard thriller plotting into grand, silly loops. It’s a trip.

It all starts familiarly enough. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American in Taipei who gets kidnapped by a drug lord (Choi Min-Sik). His organization knocks her out, cuts her open, and sticks a bag of experimental synthetic drugs just underneath her stomach. She’s told to smuggle the substance into Europe or else. What no one expected was to have the bag burst, flooding her system with a massive overdose. One of those swoopy CGI fantastic voyage sequences reveals little blue jolts pinballing around her cells, crackling her neurons, and jumpstarting rapid changes. Here’s where the sturdy, if standard, thriller premise bursts open as well, flooding the film with a sci-fi conceit that explodes in unexpected and continually evolving ways.

Because this early overdose sequence is intercut with a professor (Morgan Freeman) lecturing on the untapped capacity of the human brain, a lecture intercut with wildlife stock footage, it’s clear where this is going. Lucy twitches, levitates, and yelps as her eyes turn neon blue, before an eerie calm washes over her. “10%,” says an alert that fills the screen. That number will grow throughout the film as Lucy sets out to stop the drug ring, save herself, and discover what happens when she reaches 100%. The old we-only-use-10%-of-our-brains is a fake fact that circulates now and then, but this movie isn’t interested in the falseness. It takes the idea and runs with it, taking it to a gleeful extreme, exploiting its stoned dorm-room concept for all it’s worth.

The drugs coursing through Lucy’s system give her extraordinary cognitive abilities. She panics until her brain speeds up to accommodate all the new processes it’s running. She’s high, spitting out deep thoughts and staring into space as the substance works through her, preoccupied by her new ability to see matter and energy, visualized as streams of Matrix data and writhing info blasts. She can see to the very foundations of the universe as her brain expands. She’d be a superhero if her power didn’t put her so far above petty human concerns. We can’t see what she sees, though Besson throws her subjective experience on the screen when he’s not holding back to surprise us with a power later. It’s appealingly off-kilter. Still, enough of her humanity fights through to allow her to multitask, trying to unravel the mysteries she’s unlocking and fight her way to the drug lord and bring him to justice.

This being an action film, and a refreshingly fast and economical 90-minute one at that, there are shootouts and car chases. They’re bright and clear, presented with a dash of humor and playfulness. Lucy’s powers allow her to manipulate the world around her. She can stop an assailant in his tracks or anticipate the movements of the cars around her so that she can weave in and out, leaving pursuers crashing and grinding gears blocks away. Besson – a Frenchman who loves American genre filmmaking – has always been interested in films about forceful women who go through changes. There’s little Natalie Portman’s bloodily orphaned girl in The Professional and Milla Jovovich’s reconstructed person in The Fifth Element. But with Lucy, Besson has written and directed a film that becomes engrossingly, excitingly one with its lead.

This is the third film in the last year that plays on Scarlett Johansson’s bombshell qualities and manipulates them to eerie and provocative effect. She’s doing great work maneuvering her screen image, turning it around and inside out for memorable roles. Her Lucy starts as a woman with personality, but her overactive brain threatens to pull her into a mix between Johansson’s disembodied operating system from Her and her icy, inquisitive alien in Under the Skin. She grows more confident, colder and more cerebral as her brain enhances unceasingly. She has to fight for every bit of humanity she manages to express. There’s a scene in which she gets impromptu surgery without anesthesia and makes a phone call at the same time. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. But she plays it so naturally, a conversation so delicately played, a balance of half-baked philosophizing and heart-rending nostalgia as waves of long forgotten memories are reactivated in her. A single tear rolls down her cheek. It’s pulpy, but moving, too.

This is Besson’s best, most imaginative and entertaining film in quite some time. It’s silly, but everyone commits intensely and the movie willingly builds and shifts into surprising deep visual and cheap philosophical territory, it’s thrilling. The film views Lucy not as threat or even hero, despite retaining rooting interest throughout. She’s a source of curiosity and awe. The movie matches her pace, blasting her percentage points on screen to let us track her evolution. The story frays and shifts as it keeps up with her, as conventional cops and smugglers plotting resolves itself parallel to the thought experiment that’s followed to dazzling heights of strangeness and surprise.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Blood on the Brain: BLUE RUIN


If you want another movie that says revenge is a messy, unsatisfying prospect for the one taking revenge, but a thrill for the audience watching, here’s Blue Ruin. It tells one of those stories that gives a protagonist a good reason to get all wound up with thoughts of enacting bloody vengeance upon the people who done him wrong and then sees where he takes that impulse. Usually, this means getting at least an instant of a kick out of the gory settling of scores. Writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s movie is too spare and clammy for that. Here revenge is actually messy, is hard to pull off, and resolutely not glamorized. It’s just not worth it for the characters and almost not worth it to watch.

Our protagonist is Dwight (Macon Blair), sweaty and nervous, bumbling his way towards killing the man responsible for the deaths of his parents. We watch Dwight for a long time before we realize what’s happening, and even when we do Saulnier takes great pains to show us the residual anxiety that spreads out amongst his family, as his sister (Amy Hargreaves) worries and would really rather he not go through with it. His target has just gotten out of prison, news grave enough to snap him out of his homeless-beach-bum lifestyle. He heads off in pursuit, eventually cornering the man and causing great harm, an action that brings his target’s family into the equation as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right, even and especially when it all seems to lead towards a gunfight.

Saulnier unspools his plot through long stretches of patient (sometimes aimless) silence and fumbling dialogue. The silences are cold and observant, regarding the proceedings from a polished remove with cinematography that gives grasping desperation and cheap settings an oddly formal handsome quality. The dialogue is sometimes darkly funny, like when our uneasy protagonist ends up getting into an argument with a man who he has locked in the trunk of a car, the queasy laughs coming into the picture sideways as he slowly loses the upper hand before a sudden bloody punctuation stops the exchange dead. By the time the deliberate plot finds reason for some key plot twists to be revealed, we’ve thoroughly exhausted any reason to want to see further violence, but Dwight grimly soldiers on.

It all leads up to a final confrontation sick with dread and broken with violence. It’s inevitable and predictable. But it is also some mild sort of satisfying to see a revenge-is-messy movie actually commit to the mess. Usually in stories of this type we’re supposed to get a sick kick out of the bloodshed while the storyteller summons up just enough energy for a wagging finger of shame over the sad and sorry state of human affairs. There’s some of that here – you don’t cast Eve Plumb, Jan Brady herself, in a key climactic role and expect to walk away without some extratextual pulpy fun – but it’s as horrible, scary, and sad as it is a much needed jolt of energy to a movie that’s threatening to dwindle away into nothing for most of its runtime.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Flight Improvement: PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE


A professional racer is told by his doctor to take it easy. Looking to put his new free time to good use, he agrees to help his tiny hometown by leaving home and getting his fire rescue certification. He ends up spending the summer at a mountaintop resort, finding new firefighter friends and getting his training in while helping them prep for forest fire season. It’s a sweet, simple, predictable little story with safe, easy lessons about being selfless, helping others while being true to yourself and other gently affirming stuff. I sort of enjoyed it, at least whenever I could half-forget that all of the characters were planes.

This is Planes: Fire & Rescue, a sequel to last year’s Planes, a spin-off of Pixar’s Cars movies. That pretty dumb and awfully flimsy movie was produced by DisneyToon, Disney’s direct-to-video arm, but got promoted to a theatrical release, presumably because someone at the studio thought it was good enough to do so. Or maybe there was a blank spot on the schedule that had to be filled quickly and cheaply. Either way, there it was, a bland regurgitation of Cars plot points and cheaply animated pap. Families bought tickets. Now it’s eleven months later and we have a sequel.

Maybe because director Roberts Gannaway and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard knew they were aiming for the big screen from the beginning, the movie has a wider scope, rather lovely and detailed backgrounds, and that aforementioned predictable-but-likable story. The forest is lush and leafy, fires ripping through with convincingly rendered snap and flicker bleeding ominous reds and oranges through the picturesque greens and browns of the secluded resort area. The story about a group of professionals taking a newbie under their wing and teaching him the ropes is made up of stock parts, but plays reasonably well. The problem, and it’s kind of a big one, is the planes.

I liked the Cars movies. They had a certain charm and moved fast enough to outrace logical questions about how a world in which all living things are vehicles operates in any way. Sure, I idly wondered about questions like, “where do baby cars come from?” But the movies moved quickly, had Pixar’s trademark visual wit and emotional intelligence, and just plain knew not to steer the plot directly into areas that would immediately confront the core nonsense of the fantasy world’s workings. Not so Planes, which operated at a cheaper, thinner level, but worst of all foregrounded the nonsense. That’s a pattern that continues with Fire & Rescue.

It’s a movie that spends more time than necessary (that is to say, any at all) focusing on the planes’ bodies. A major plot point is a plane who is told he has a failing gearbox that can’t be replaced because “the factory discontinued the parts.” What!? You mean to tell me in this world of anthropomorphized vehicles there is a factory that can declare a death sentence for a whole type of being (species? product line?) by declaring them obsolete?  How horrible! At one point the camera zooms into the plane’s inner workings and watches as gears turn and spark. I don’t want to think about this! Throughout we get cutaways to dashboard gauges and knobs. Why are they there? Who is looking at them?

The movie’s obsession with the planes’ mechanical processes reveals only the failure to imagine the fictional world in any detail beyond the surface jokiness. It’s simply unworkable. What does work on some modestly engaging level is the story, which would be a humble charmer if someone were to rewrite it to star human beings. Whenever I could forget that Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) and his new firefighting pals (voices of Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Curtis Armstrong, Wes Studi, Regina King, and more) were planes, it has a mildly diverting kid-friendly flow. The fire and rescue of the title is treated seriously enough to come with a dedication to real firefighters. That’s nice. So is the crackling danger that the planes fly through in visually appealing ways.

What’s not so nice are the nagging implausibilities and backfiring wit. I don’t want to think about a small-town bar named “Honkers” where a hybrid rebuffs a pickup truck’s pick-up line. Or an elderly fire truck voiced by Hal Holbrook complaining about his “rusty, blistered bumper.” Or a pair of elderly RVs who over-share that they “wore down their [tire] treads on their honeymoon…with all that driving.” Or a helicopter who is a broad offensive Native American stereotype who speaks in a pantomime of Native sayings.

Why this simple little kids’ movie insists on playing around in its most distracting, baffling corners while poking along at a pace that makes sure we have plenty of time to ponder its nonsense is beyond me. It’s not even close to even the worst of either Cars, but at least it’s an improvement over its immediate predecessor. Fire & Rescue is totally watchable, with better animation, design, characters, and story, and with fewer lame jokes. It’s not so bad, pleasant enough, but fundamentally preposterous.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Devils' Night: THE PURGE: ANARCHY


The Purge was a dumb movie, mostly for the way it took an ingeniously preposterous premise and made it a total bore. It imagined a near-future America where crime rates are low because of an annual “Purge Night” in which all crime is legal. (“Including murder,” the warnings hilariously remind.) With such a provocative smartly stupid premise, it was a shame that the movie became a dim home invasion thriller that thoroughly squandered an idea so gloriously pulpy. At least the new sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, has the wherewithal to explore its concept in some livewire ways, breaking out of its predecessor’s single-location stinginess to watch a Purge Night unfold across an entire city. This movie colors in details of The Purge, sketching a picture of a self-righteously judgmental society glorifying the rich, ignoring the poor, and worshiping at the twin altars of greed and guns. (Sound familiar?) The first Purge was a bungled sociological thought experiment, but the second doubles down on its social commentary, bluntly hammering out bloody metaphors. The execution is still fairly junky, but it steps past the inherent silliness of its premise and finds some timely resonances.

Returning writer-director James DeMonaco’s script finds a handful of disparate characters caught outside when Purge Night begins. There’s a struggling waitress (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zoë Soul) who are forced out of their apartment in the projects. There’s a young married couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) whose car breaks down, leaving them stranded. Those four are sympathetic audience surrogates who were planning on hunkering down and waiting out the night peacefully. But then there’s a man (Frank Grillo, with perfect hoarse voice and steely determination) who strapped on his bulletproof vest, loaded his guns, and drove out into the night with the specific purpose of murdering one individual. Hey, why not get a revenge killing out of the way while it’s legal, right? His conscience gets the better of him and he ends up helping our stuck characters. They’re not the most complex of characters, but the simplicity of their goals – to stay alive – carries them through.

We cross the city with a feeling of danger and distress, the cheap dark digital cinematography blearily suggesting an ominous sense of citywide unrest. We see how robbery and rape is just as likely as murder, with packs of men (no women) swaggering around with bats, machetes, machine guns, flamethrowers, and dogs, eager to partake in their right to a night of mayhem. Some ride motorcycles, others drive big white murder vans, while still others roll up firing automatic weapons out of the backs of modified semis. Those Purging wear spooky masks, move menacingly, and perpetuate a feeling of frayed societal bonds at every step. We hear gunfire in the distance. It feels like an unusually intimidating Halloween party crossed with a riot. The chaos implied around every corner as our protagonists try to avoid running afoul of these nasty gangs is claustrophobic, but the variety of dangers and locations serves the concept far better than hunkering down in one place.

What works best about the film is the way it tightens the tension around its characters, even as it works to expand upon the world of The Purge. It uses the opportunity to make a biting critique of our own society’s bloodlust and staggering inequality by taking it to extreme and absurd ends. We get glimpses of a justifiably angry viral video star (Michael K. Williams) agitating for an end to The Purge, arguing that it disproportionately impacts the poorest in society. Late in the film we see a gaggle of rich white folks having themselves a black-tie dinner party, the entertainment being the poor people they drag in off the street and murder.

Although Anarchy is better at activating the promise of its premise, the execution is still wildly inconsistent. The dialogue is flat and clunky, as if it has been awkwardly translated, and conversations have a tendency to go sideways and circular, returning to the same ground over and over. It’s not fun to look at most of the time. It’s dimly shot and indifferently framed. The staging is choppy, edited around jolts without much sense of rhythm or style. Gunfire grows repetitive as stalking and hiding sequences grow rote. You flee from one band of attackers, you’ve fled from them all. A tighter script and direction that can more adeptly get off on the insanity while still condemning it (think prime Verhoeven) would be all this series needs to really satisfy. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

And yet, despite all of my reservations, The Purge: Anarchy works on a fundamental sloppy downbeat B-movie level. The film engages with its concept far more successfully than it engaged me. But the plot is simplicity itself – the characters just want to survive the night – moving quickly and confidently. It has a couple of big ideas, lots of bloodshed, and a concept that’s some kind of dumb genius. The Purge itself makes little sense in theory or in practice, but as a brutal reflection of our modern ills, it resonates.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

One Hit Wonder: BEGIN AGAIN


Late in Begin Again, a songwriter talks to her rock star ex-boyfriend and boils down the trouble with their failed relationship to a matter of production on a track off of his debut album. She disappointedly tells him that he’s turned what she wrote as a simple ballad into an overproduced piece of arena rock. Her song, she says, has been “buried in the mix.” She may as well be talking about the movie, which has at its core a small, sweet nugget of an idea and proceeds to thoroughly bury it under treacly artifice. It’s a movie about creative inspiration, about how the act of creating music helps its creators work through issues in their personal lives and find friendships and purpose through producing something beautiful to share with the world. Too bad, then, that a movie about the magic of creativity shows so little imagination.

To make matters worse, writer-director John Carney made a movie that did all of the above, that cut straight to the heart of the matter and moved people with its beautiful simplicity and great music. It was 2007’s Once, a Dublin street singer Brief Encounter, a lovely little bittersweet romantic musical. Its leads, musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, poured their hearts out into open performances that ache with pain and transcendence as their musically inclined characters form meaningful connections through song. They won a well-deserved Best Original Song Oscar for their efforts. It’s a movie that made a virtue out of its limited resources by creating deeply felt characters living simple lives made better by letting them become the fuel for their artistic endeavors.

Now here’s Carney’s Begin Again, which plays similar notes, but ends up with little worth listening to. There’s a shyly talented young singer/songwriter (Keira Knightley) who reluctantly performs a song in a New York dive bar at which her friend (James Corden) is playing a gig. An alcoholic record producer (Mark Ruffalo) freshly fired from his indie label hears her. He approaches her and demands to help her record an album. She eventually gives in. Since his former colleague (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) won’t bankroll the project, the two of them set out to recruit some session musicians willing to work for nothing and then find authenticity by recording her songs on the street – and in an alley, on top of a skyscraper, in the subway, and all manner of “real” New York locales. It’s a straightforward idea. The montages of the band coming together have a pleasant charge and the leads are charming. But the movie lets them down.

This simple concept is loaded up with emotional baggage straight out of the Hollywood melodrama bargain bin. Ruffalo has an ex-wife (Catherine Keener) who he still loves, and a distant teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who wears clingy shirts and tight short shorts because (as actually stated out loud in a movie in 2014) she needs a father figure more present and encouraging in her life. Knightley has that rocker ex (Adam Levine of Maroon 5) and a flashback charting their relationship. We also meet several flat, largely superfluous, side characters including a successful musician of some sort who is played by Cee Lo Green. You’d think he’d have a song or two, but no. He’s here for a scene and a half of exposition and that’s it. (I guess the movie can claim it has half of the judges from NBC’s singing competition The Voice.) There’s no sense that any of these characters have weight. They talk about their backstories and their feelings, but they don’t wear them. The cast is made up of fine actors (and Adam Levine). To the extent that it works at all – and it does, for a minute or two here and there – it’s because of them, but they can’t sell such thin material all on their own.

It’s shot with an earnest, up-tempo glossiness, and it’s watchably amiable. But the movie is simply unconvincing. There’s a scene in which two people listen to a song on headphones in the middle of a crowded nightclub. How could they possibly hear it? Later, a woman reads the back of a CD’s case while listening to the music on an iPod. Two industry professionals call Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra “guilty pleasures.” The dramatic resolution of the making-an-album plotline plays out as a credit cookie and is a self-flattering ode to the magical hit-making power of the Internet. These small, bungled details pile up and distract. But at least being so phony helps throw its sappy triteness into stark relief. The more it insists on the creative powers of its characters, the less awareness it shows. It’s a reductive sort of movie that claims to be about inspiration while having none of it.

At one point, a character tells Ruffalo, “this isn’t Jerry Maguire,” which only goes to remind the audience how skilled Cameron Crowe is at blending music and drama into something transcendent, a skill Carney had with Once but is lacking here. Still, the songs, written by Carney and collaborators, are mostly nice and inoffensive to the ear. The ensemble has chops (or fakes them well enough) and the songs are at worst the kind of pleasant guitar-and-piano fare you’d hear as background noise in a Starbucks. The least of the lyrics are overly stretching in a moody middle-schooler sort of way. A low-light: “Yesterday I saw a lion kiss a deer / Turn the page and maybe we’ll find a brand new ending / When we’re dancing in our tears.” Yeezus, that’s bad. At least the melodies and arrangements go down easy, and Knightley’s enough of a charmer to disguise those words on first listen. In such a flimsy dramedy, the songs are never more than welcome distraction to the grinding gears of plot mechanics. They’re just more missed opportunities in a film that proves lightning rarely strikes twice.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Apes Together Strong: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hits all the required big notes of a Hollywood spectacle. It also delivers what one would reasonably expect from a Planet of the Apes movie, up to and including a chimpanzee firing two guns while riding on a horse. And yet it’s not a mindless action spectacle because the filmmakers are interested in letting us understand its characters not only as pawns of plot or objects of allegory – though they are that – but as living, breathing beings. Like its predecessor, 2011’s surprisingly effective Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn finds rich avenues of exploration, turning imagery and metaphor from the 60’s and 70’s Apes into bigger, slicker, modern efforts that lose none of the soul. This is a franchise that has always been at its best when it uses its monkeys to reflect humanity back at itself. With its latest iteration, advanced digital wizardry lets us stare deeply into the eyes of an intelligent ape, see ourselves there, and confront what we find. It’s a film with action that’s thrilling and exciting, but mournful as well.

The smartly constructed screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver finds the good and bad in both man and ape. We see the groups as mirror images, tribes living in tenuous post-apocalyptic peace. In the ten years since research lab apes staged a revolt and fled into the forest outside San Francisco at the end of Rise, scientists inadvertently brought about a plague. Called the simian flu, the virus was an artificial concoction that decimated humans, leaving apes unharmed. Without knowledge of the other’s existence, man and ape live their lives on either side of the crumbling Golden Gate Bridge. In an early scene, apes gather around their leader. Later, humans do the same. Both sets of crowd noises a represented through similar walls of sound, murmuring exclamations that are more alike than not. When man and ape discover the other, there is fear, then suspicion tempered with curiosity. But each tribe has warmongerers who cannot see peaceful coexistence. We come to understand that violence will arrive through misunderstandings, egos, and fear.

First we spend time with the apes. The opening shot – after a hokey pre-title expositional montage – stares deep into the eyes of Caesar, the ape who led the rebellion and now leads his clan of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. The camera pulls back until we see a forest filled with apes. With a hand signal, they leap down on the attack. They’re hunting deer. In smooth, swooping shots we follow their deadly strategy. We see what they’re capable of. They take the kills back to their village, a visual marvel of rudimentary houses, public spaces (simian versions of a schoolroom, a town hall, a cafeteria), and carved logs set in a ring around the perimeter. As they interact we learn about their society. They communicate with each other through sign language, grunts, whoops, guttural broken English, and meaningful glances. We watch, subtitles our only guide. The workings of their society are intriguingly revealed through action and image. It’s fascinating, preserving their status as animals and shading in subtleties of characterization through magisterial silences.

It almost never looks silly. The effects work is remarkable, not just for bringing the fantasy to life in convincing ways but for the performances it helps shape. The monkeys are digital creations around performance capture data. Like last time, Caesar is created by Andy Serkis, who performed the grunting dialogue as well as movements down to smallest the twitch, and a team of talented technicians at WETA Digital. It’s a moving, complicated performance as nuanced as any fully human work, extraordinarily detailed even and especially in extreme close-up. All the apes are created this way, enlivened by a fine ensemble (Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer) who are transformed into believably soulful monkeys imbued with personality and emotion beyond what makeup or trained animals could supply. They are, in writing and acting, among the most memorable screen characters in recent memory, sympathetic and humane with multifaceted motivations and expressive faces. What stand out most vividly are their eyes, so alive and compelling you can see the gears of thought and feeling turning, giving them heavy emotional lifting in unforgiving close-ups. We know them as fully as any person on screen.

Caesar, a compassionate leader and caring father, meets his human counterpart in the man (Jason Clarke) who arrives in the forest looking to restart an old dam in order to restore power to the fledgling human camp living in a small section the crumbling, weedy, fortified ruins of San Francisco. He has his wife (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow. Once they discover the animals, they want to learn more about the apes and their culture, convinced these intelligent creatures will help if they hear them out. Caesar wants to keep the peace, but other apes agitate for war. The humans are weak. Why not kill now and never worry again? Other humans aren’t so kind, either. Back at their base, a leader (Gary Oldman) is stockpiling heavy weaponry. He wants to reclaim the dam by wiping the apes out. As characters, the people aren’t as deeply felt as their animal counterparts, but the strong ensemble brings complexity to what’s on the page. The strength of the writing is in its activating of the dread and desperation of its scenario as pieces slowly fall into place, as weapons and suspicions reach the inevitable.

In its broad strokes, the conflict is expected and the plot moves towards the typical summer blockbuster conflagration that grows tiresome. But director Matt Reeves (of other excellent efforts Cloverfield and Let Me In) has given us down time, quiet reflection, moral complications slowly developing. We’re not tired of action before we even get there. He thinks in shots and sequences, deploying his camera with patience where many of his contemporaries slap together chaos. Here he builds tension and empathy out of crisp staging and long master shots. How better to be overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds of apes emerging in the trees behind humans in the foreground? By the time the action sequences roar, he cuts for the impact of clarity, not the impact of shocks and sensations. He pans 360 degrees with a tank’s turret as its driver changes from human to ape, foreground struggle reflected in the background that sweeps across the entire conflict. He watches as groups of combatants swarm over rooftops. He finds memorable moments: gunfire lighting flashes in the darkness; a kind character dropped to his death out of frame; a tight close-up of a whispered warning.

Reeves can’t get around the ultimate wearying effect of the typical blockbuster climax, but action is all the more impactful for being rooted in flesh and blood.  Digital beings and stock characters alike are invested with humanity. Every violent action has weight, consequences that matter. It’s a film that doesn’t want to see anyone hurt, certainly not the main sympathetic characters, but even villains of both human and animal variety who remain stubbornly humanized individuals. They do bad things for what they think are good reasons, reasons we can understand. Humans should be scared of apes. The animals are strong, resourceful, adaptable. The apes should be scared of humans. They have guns. This is a gripping sci-fi adventure that expresses not shoot-‘em-up militarism, but regret that the worst of man and ape brings conflict to the fore. It slowly brings two worlds to crisis and grows sad as the prospect of peace dwindles. It makes for a multipurpose allegory, applicable to any conflict with two intractable, yet similar, sides. Peace is close, yet, with great sadness, war is closer.
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