Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

***1/2 out of ****

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a very good sequel and one of the best action movies of the summer. It is also a big step for director Matt Reeves, whose film Cloverfield was undervalued as was his beautifully-made, yet needless remake of Let the Right One In.

It is arguable that this reboot of the Apes franchise is also needless, and part of a new movement in mainstream cinema to only make sequels, remakes or anything with a trusted brand-name on it. An over-reliance on CGI spectacle is also an ongoing issue in the movies today. One may criticize all of these things, but I absolutely refuse to do so where they are done so well.

2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, won me over before it was even released. As soon as I found out that the reboot was completely avoiding the lost astronaut story of the original film and was to take place in a modern-day setting with an ape named Caesar as its lead, I had total admiration for where the film's makers were getting their inspiration. In the original five-part movie series, Caesar was not introduced until the very end of the third film and became the main character of the last two films. All the sequels in the original run of films were interesting, yet cheap. I strongly believe that remakes are most valuable when they are of films that had great ideas but could have been better.

The opening pre-title sequence is a haunting montage while calling back to the last film’s end credits -which showed the virus spreading all over the earth. This is a good way of providing exposition to those who are new to the franchise while informing everyone that after ten years of the virus, the planet is a dead-silent blackout.

Following the film’s title is a beautiful close-up shot of Caesar’s eyes. As the camera slowly pulls back, we see he is wearing war paint and is surrounded by dozens of other apes in Redwood trees. What follows is a great elk hunt, which disappointingly, contains the film’s least-convincing CGI. This possible homage to the Last of the Mohicans opening has the right energy but critics of CGI indulgence will have to wait for the next scene when hunting party returns to the ape village where their new culture is thriving as they communicate via sign language. The animation and hard work that went into this aspect of the film is testament to movies as magic shows where meticulous coordination of technological artistry can create the most astounding illusions.

Dawn is loosely based on Battle for the Planet of the Apes in the same way Rise was loosely based on Conquest. A virus has killed most humans and dramatically enhanced ape intelligence. A group of human survivors looking to reactivate San Francisco's power from a dam in the woods, encounter the Apes and both groups are disturbed by the other's existence.

Some people ignorantly blame the apes for the spread of the virus, which killed their loved ones. All apes, with exception of their leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), have no fond memories of humans. However, the fear of war drives Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to begin a diplomatic strategy with the apes to gain their trust and be allowed access to the dam. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the human colony, lacks faith that this will work but gives Malcolm a few days while readying his large artillery supply.

Meanwhile, the hopeful Caesar and the former lab ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose hatred of humanity knows no bounds, butt heads. The story slowly develops into a bittersweet tale of trust and friendship built between two separate leaders, whose good intentions cannot control the inevitability of dreadful ugly conflict between their peoples.

Like the last one, the plot holds a lot of the film’s strength but every other aspect to the screenplay by Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and Mark Bomback is simply acceptable. Director Matt Reeves, like his former collaborator, J.J. Abrams knows how to elevate simple material to grand heights through rich atmosphere and excellent pacing. The gloomy overcast look of the movie is matched by the dread you feel for its characters, who have too much tragedy in their past to afford any more. The score by Michael Giacchino is also a lively contribution and very in touch with the emotional direction the series is taking.

It may be a drawback for some that this is another dark and serious summer movie, following the long string of Dark Knight –inspired, movies of humorless realism applied to fantasy concepts. As an Apes movie, I would not ask it to be anything else. Cynicism is welcome here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

IN RETROSPECT: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

*** out of ****

When I went to the video store as a kid, I wondered why my dad discouraged me from renting the first Star Trek movie (subtitled The Motion Picture). We'd covered II, III and IV as well as episodes of the original series. What could be so wrong with the first feature film? 

Finally, I rented it ...and gave up on the movie less than an hour in. To an eight-year-old, whose indoctrination to movies was through the Spielberg/Lucas era, this 1979 sci-fi felt like an eternity of sterile imagery with every character leaving their familiar energy at the door. Even the worst Trek movie of all, V: The Final Frontier, just out in theaters at that time, wasn't guilty of being so dull. 

Other than seeing parts of the first film playing on the video wall at the rental store or on the Channel 41 Sunday afternoon movie, I really didn't give this film a fair full viewing until 2001, when the now hard-to-find "Director's Edition" was released on DVD. Like any movie being given a special treatment on the new medium, I viewed it again.

The low-energy hadn't changed, but I had a new appreciation for the film. Seeing it in widescreen for the first time certainly helped. The general production of the movie has a bland look but seasoned director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music) had an ambitious amount of split-diopter shots. Seeing John Dykstra and Douglas Trumbull's effects shots in their intended ratio also allowed me to perceive a grandness to the model photography, which few of the following Trek films ever managed to capture again. Most importantly, I came to realize it was the only Star Trek movie to have a strong science fiction plot. Many other movies that followed were better, but they were closer to sociopolitical allegories with space jargon. 

The first movie is about the original crew of The Starship Enterprise, together again after years apart, facing an unstoppably destructive object, of unbelievable mass, headed towards earth. Any offensive action would be pointless. Spock senses that it has a consciousness and when communication is established (in the strangest way) it is discovered that the entity has some sort of relationship with Earth and seeks its creator but can't comprehend that earth's people could be relevant to what it needs. 

The movie becomes what most great Star Trek is often about: Understanding your obstacles rather than destroying them. This is the shame of the J.J. Abrams films, which may be brilliantly entertaining but have too much of a "war-on-terror" attitude, which betrays the original vision.

The movie was drawn from the preproduction of a television pilot intended to launch an all new series. The success of Star Wars in '77 inspired Paramount to exploit their Star Trek property in the cinematic arena. Sci-fi enthusiasm was making a huge comeback and Trek fans hadn't seen it in any new form since its TV show was cancelled in 1969.

The movie impressed fans temporarily but its sequel would summon a bigger audience for its stronger drama and liveliness. In recent years, The Motion Picture has grown on me. I always knew that Jerry Goldsmith's beautiful score to the film elevates the material a great deal, but I've also come to like it as a sick-day movie; The kind you can enjoy if you're on the couch and want something slow-paced and hypnotic.

It's still one of the last movies I would recommend to someone green to this franchise.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


***1/2 out of ****

Korean director, Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murder and The Host) first English language film is a dark surreal nightmare brought to the big screen with a morbid imaginary vision similar to the works of Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (especially for Delicatessen).

It takes place in a near-future world where the backfiring of a scientific solution for global warming has left the planet in a new ice age. The only living survivors have been aboard a long fast-moving train for seventeen years. Chris Evans takes a break from being Captain America to play a disgruntled revolutionary leader among the train’s rear-car impoverished passengers. As he succeeds in raiding one car after another, the movie becomes delightfully more bizarre.

A decade ago, when theatrical releases found a bigger college-age audience, a film like Snowpiercer would have found wider distribution. Now that the movies are domestically dependent on adolescent boys, a savagely “R”-rated thinking-man’s dystopian film is as endangered as the film’s characters.

The international cast also includes John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, as well as two actors from previous Bong films, Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung. This director continues to be good with ensembles and what better a project than one this claustrophobic. Every car for which the heroes advance seems like a different world preserving ways of life that make no sense in post-apocalyptic conditions.

This movie may not sound realistic and it isn’t. The only aspect I didn't care for, was gunplay in situations where the only protection between the deadly outside of the train were the surrounding windows. This reminded me of some of the pointless gunfights in the original Total Recall where one gunshot in the wrong place could end in catastrophe. No character -not even a bad guy should be this dumb. Still, this is an abstract vision where disbelief is to be suspended if you want to get onboard with the insanity of this train. 

This movie bothered me in a good way. In spite of its graphic violence, its ideas are the source of its unsettling power. Based on a French graphic novel, Bong adapts the material in a balancing act between the terrifying with the whimsically absurd. He’s made a bold piece of unforgettable science fiction cinema.


*1/2 out of ****

Conservative documentarian Dinesh D’Souza follows his very successful anti-Obama doc, 2016: Obama’s America with the pretentious title, America. In this film, the proud immigrant shames Americans who feel ashamed of their country.

Early marketing for this film was a misleading gimmick, urging the question “What would the world be like if America never existed?” Shots from the beginning of the film, which included an alternate outcome of the revolutionary war followed by the disintegration of numerous present-day national monuments, were used in the trailer. Subtle, huh? However, the movie doesn’t follow through with this question, since it would probably have a thousand answers. George Bailey-ing America in the actual movie would have been a task of such imaginative conjecture far beyond the already simplistic views of D’Souza and his collaborator, John Sullivan.

The documentary focuses on communicating current conservative anxieties and I have to hand it to D’Souza for being a very persuasive voice. He’s a calm, well-mannered and seemingly rational commentator who appears to be listening to people like Noam Chomsky and several other rivals who hold understandable criticisms of our country’s legacy. D’Souza, with intelligent pacing and professionally shot (yet still generic looking) historical reenactments, responds to these criticisms by exonerating a history of slavery, land stealing, colonialism and inequality through arguments, which attempt to correct the claims of historian Howard Zinn. To say that during some parts, I felt persuaded to entertain some of D’Souza’s ideas should be a compliment to him.

Eventually, with immaturity, he continues his attack on the Obama administration while demonizing famed community organizer Saul Alinsky and his evil influence over Hillary Clinton. Like in his last film, D’Souza has a McCarthyism-level preoccupation with uncovering past notorious affiliates of those he wishes to smear.

He concludes that cynical perspectives of the USA are part of a strategy, influenced by the liberal radicals in charge, to undermine our country’s strength and destroy the American Dream. Not only does he stand by these bold statements, he uses transparently manipulative cinematic tactics that are in such shallow taste. Why do the current run of eccentrically patriotic artists have terrible taste in music? They'd prefer an electric guitar playing the Star Spangled Banner instead of the delightful works of John Philip Sousa or Aaron Copland.

The ultimate insult I took from this film was not in its stance that America’s faults have been corrected throughout the centuries, but that it doesn’t want to give credit to the leftist radicalism, which made these changes possible. As a citizen of this strong nation, I want to do what I can to preserve its ideals, but the notion that my reservations regarding American supremacy should be viewed as part of our national decline, is absurd. It is possible to be a good student who doesn’t enjoy a pep rally.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

1/2* out of ****

Age of Extinction? Though it is rumored that this is the first entry in a new trio of Transformers films, let us hope that this title means something about this unending franchise of seemingly unending movies inspired by toys.

What is wrong with Michael Bay and his Transformers movies? Better yet, what is wrong with me? I just voluntarily subjected myself to his latest entry in this abominable series and I’m struggling to find a way of conveying the level of self-loathing I feel now. I don’t like this series or its director, so it’s fair to say that I already knew it was terrible before viewing it.

The new movie does one thing right by abandoning the needlessly reoccurring -and quite boring human characters from the previous trilogy. Now we’re stuck with new boring human characters while continuing the story of our planet, caught in the middle of intergalactic robot conflicts. Mark Wahlberg plays a down-on-his-luck inventor living on a farm with his hot teenage daughter played by Nicola Peltz. He attempts, without success, to shelter her. Their supposedly funny banter continues throughout the film -even when they get caught in the middle of a war involving evil corrupt black op assassins sent to destroy the good-guy Autobot leader Optimus Prime, who has been hiding in their barn. Yes I also thought of The Iron Giant and wished I’d been watching it instead.

Meanwhile Kelsey Grammer plays the director of a national security program in cahoots with an evil group of alien robots with the mission to purge the Autobots, while a big-tech industry billionaire, played by Stanley Tucci, profits from their destruction by collecting their “transformium” (yes, “transformium”) for new weapons technology.

Follow? Maybe you need to watch all 165 minutes of the movie to get what I’m talking about. Like the latest piece of Spider-Man cinematic garbage, this is a PG-13 movie primarily aimed at kids under the age of thirteen, who will drag their parents to the theater only to lose their attention halfway through its unnecessarily long running time.

Hasbro toy collectors shouldn’t be hopeful for this film’s inclusion of the Dinobots. They barely play a role in the movie. The overall experience is more of the same: Constant low-angle shots of the film’s characters, conflicts that don’t add up logically or emotionally, no sense of pacing, people surviving impossible odds, BLATANT product placement, the depiction of all young women as potential strippers, BAD comic relief and action scenes that are unlikely to thrill and more likely to cause headaches -or indigestion.

One major setpiece involves a high-rise walk on a cable between an alien spacecraft, hovering over Chicago, down to the top floors of the Willis (Sears) Tower.  I saw a lot of potential in this segment. If five of the film’s action scenes had been scrapped in favor of making this particular scene’s effects look more convincing, the movie would have been better for it.

What I think really brings the Transformers movies down, is that in spite of the filmmakers and CG animators’ efforts to loosely aim for realism, the actual Transformer characters destroy the illusion by delivering dialogue and voice acting, which is more true to the silly Transformers cartoon series from my childhood than anything else. No matter how real Optimus Prime looks, veteran cartoon voice star, Peter Cullen sounds like a guy sitting in front of a microphone impersonally reading from a piece of paper (The trailer for the new Bay-produced Ninja Turtles movie suggests a similar vibe for its animated characters as well).

This is also the fourth live-action Transformers movie and if the very presence of Dirk Diggler, in this one, doesn’t inspire Bay to make one subtle humorous reference to the fan-favorite Stan Bush song, The Touch, nothing ever will!

Bay’s successful career distresses me to the point of obsession. Through the careless stupidity of his films and their soulless mayhem, a personality shines through, which I find deeply off-putting. I can name so many reasons for not liking what he does, but I still feel as if there’s an even deeper reason I have yet to discover.

He’s clearly a hard-working director with a lot of technical know-how but he’s as daft as Tommy Wiseau when it comes to making characters relatable. Is Bay as shallow as his movies, or is he the most cynically condescending director in Hollywood history?