Sunday, July 20, 2014

Nothing Apish About It

Kicking off a new Author’s Files miniseries entitled simply I Watched a Movie In the Summer (da dada dada dada dada dada da da da).  Future entries in the series will include reviews of Dragon 2 (by a very special guest) and Edge of Tomorrow.

I want to go to the movie, but first...

To the casual Hollywood spectator, the biggest surprise of the year thus far may have been that the CGI monkey movie prequel-sequel dawned to a $74.3 million opening weekend, beating out more star-studded and foreseeable hits like How To Train Your Dragon 2, Edge of Tomorrow, and Tammy. The second biggest surprise would be that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a virtual retread of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite their titles portending very much the same foregone conclusion.  Dawn feels thoroughly older and more cynical than Rise in both execution and theme, bringing a bigger cast, a grimmer setting, and darker sociopolitical undertones which make it as a whole somewhat less palatable to general audiences. Whereas the first Apes film was very much centered on a single underdog character and his triumphant ascension to freedom and leadership, this installment sees the since-ascendant liberator of the apes fighting to secure his tribe from malicious challengers within as well as human enemies without.  Shirking Rise’s somewhat one-dimensional division of good and evil along species lines, Dawn shrewdly depicts pride and weakness in both the human and the simian peoples for a story that’s eminently more layered and intriguing if not as emotionally satisfying as its predecessor.  Both films are visually enrapturing works of art and each accomplishes its narrative’s purpose aptly, but the second one’s purpose may be nobler in the long run, beseeching us to inquire not how nations rise from oppression but how they fall into anarchy.

I may be slightly biased on account of sitting four chairs away from a responsible father and his two yammering 8-10 year-olds* for the first twenty minutes of the movie, but Dawn doesn’t get off to a particularly smooth start.  The opening frames (basically recycled from the closing ones of Rise in case you were negligent or stupid enough not to stay for them) literally revolve around the planet Earth in all its magnitude, visualizing the spread of the flu that wiped out 99% of humanity by brilliant red lights and lines that eventually fade in unison to a startling black, but the severity of the images is undercut by a vignette of sound bytes and video clips that are supposed to represent the responses of contemporary figures to the crisis.  So it is that Barack Hussein Obama mm mm mm worms his wholly gratuitous 4-second cameo into an Apes flick after despoiling such American landmarks as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Dictator, but the president’s role is thankfully, erm, short-lived within the fiction of the universe.

Dawn’s events are set in San Francisco some ten years after the extraordinary chimpanzee Caesar led a ridiculously massive ape force across the Golden Gate Bridge in an exodus to the Redwoods, where they’ve since built a staggering settlement out of the landscape and happily coexist with their brother stag and sister bear – or so they would if James Cameron was directing.  In fact, the carnivorous apes have forcefully asserted their position at the top of the local food chain, forming ruthless hunting parties and effectively corralling herds of deer with spears and lassoes.  But human society is boding far less well in the city’s urban center, now home to a small colony of genetically immune survivors led by Gary Oldman, whom you may recognize as Commissioner Gordon from the new Batman trilogy, primarily because he’s playing almost the exact same figure here, that is a grizzled and cynically minded warrior who’s ready and willing to defend his people at any cost.  A scarcity of character progression isn’t the only problem on the slate of Oldman’s Dreyfus, as his wavering community is projected to lose electrical power within a few days unless they can activate a dam buried deep in the apes’ territory.  Given the animals’ wariness of humans and their weapons, Dreyfus views this proposal as largely nonviable but reluctantly grants a widower named Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke) and some other colonists permission to enter the beasts’ den and try arranging a deal with Caesar.  Clarke plays surprisingly well off of the ape actors, more so than James Franco did in Rise, and admirably portrays the heroism of his character, who comes to forge a tight friendship with Caesar in spite of his fear of the apes and the desperate circumstances that drive him to seek out their aid.

Meanwhile, the apes’ peaceful existence hangs in just as tenuous a balance as their neighbor’s survival, though the threats to their stability are of a more insidious and internalized sort.  Caesar’s judicious rule has guided the noble apes for the better part of a decade, but when a chance encounter with an impulsive man in the woods leads to the tribe’s discovery of the human colony and their concerning weapons stockpile, the rebellious right-hand bonobo Koba seizes upon ensuing paranoia to cast doubts upon his superior’s sound judgment and loyalty to his kin.  A horrifically scarred subject of experimentation up until the day of the apes’ revolt, he bears a deep loathing of humanity and subliminally equates true tribal patriotism with his distrust of outsiders.  Andy Serkis has rightly been heaped with praise for his embodiment of Caesar, so much so that Toby Kebbell’s performance as the erratic and unhinged Koba remains largely overlooked amidst the hype.  The former plays a noble if near-sighted leader who convincingly conveys empathy, injury, authority, anger, and remorse through facial muscles and bearing alike, while the latter constantly exudes a mix of envy, menace, and reverence towards his chieftain, keeping audiences perpetually guessing as to his next move.  Many of the movie’s more effective scenes, regrettably spoiled in the marketing campaign, involve Kebbell feigning both beastly stupidity and virulent patriotism to garner the trust of humans and his fellow apes, all before coldly casting them aside to pursue his own vile agenda.

Caesar disavows Koba’s xenophobic zealotry but abides his alarmist incitements nonetheless, steadfastly holding to an ideal of national unity and spiritual brotherhood embodied in the prime commandment Ape Not Kill Ape.  The rising tensions and eventual clash between the incumbent’s cool-headed wisdom and his challenger’s animal savagery easily comprise the formative moments of Dawn’s drama, proving significantly more compelling than the undeniably stunning but widely forecast hellfire that inevitably erupts between wilderness and man.

As pretty much everybody else has duly noted, Dawn is a visually arresting work complemented by wide-angle swathes of destruction, large, open sets, and the most technically demanding motion-capture effects yet realized in film.  With the release of Rise back in 2011, VFX company Weta Digital struck new milestones in the medium by allowing filmmakers to shoot animated actors side-by-side with human ones even outside of a greenscreen studio, and Dawn is no less astounding in its visual achievement.  Director Matt Reeves graciously eschews the shaky camera of Cloverfield for battle scenes that are harrowing in their brutality and mind-boggling in their magnitude, allowing the chaos of his engineered conflicts to speak for themselves without resorting to cheap and gimmicky trappings of the digital age.  Hundreds of individually animated primates charge the humans’ fortress upon horseback, tumbling to the dirt under flurries of gunfire but driving their foes back by superiority of agility and brawn.  The initial onslaught alone is one of the most impressive and riveting war scenes I’ve seen in cinemas since Avatar, which at the very least managed to mimic the scale and senseless fury that engulfed the greater battles of history.  The movie’s envisioning of a dilapidated and lifeless metropolis overrun by natural growth is wonderfully realized if hardly novel, as we’ve seen the same kind of setting in video games like Enslaved and Crysis 3 and, to a lesser extent, in the haphazardly written I Am Legend.  Indeed, Dawn’s distinguishing triumph over the rest of the effects-heavy sci-fi crop isn’t any particular marvel in its technical design but its emphasis on meaningful storytelling and strong characterization.

A lot of “critics” have united in a kind of self-congratulatory chorus to pass off – or credit, rather – the movie as an allegorical anti-gun, anti-war screed, citing as evidence the prudency of the apes in banning firearms upon their premises and Reeve’s exceedingly violent portrayal of such weapons throughout the plot*. Politically charged facades such as these, revealing infinitely more about the author’s own beliefs than the filmmakers’, can only be the products of incredibly deranged or cinematically tone-deaf minds.  The only way you could arrive at such a grossly simplistic interpretation as the gun-control one is by forcefully reading your own ideology into the narrative or just turning your brain off for the whole picture.  Disregarding that the screenwriters vocally deny any preconceived intention to write a gun-control movie and that the apes’ faulty disarmament policy actually fails to circumvent outbreaks of violence in the community, it’s not the irrational existence of “assault weapons in the wrong hands” that propels a costly war between ape and man; on the contrary, it’s only by the apes’ irrational terror of “the gun” that warmongers within their ranks are able to mobilize the tribe to meet humanity in battle, ostensibly to preempt and prevent any future “unnecessary tragedies” that may be inflicted by human technology.  That the movie graphically and unmistakably depicts automatic firearms as violent tools of destruction, which even the firmest gun rights advocates would affirm they’re built to be, is more indicative of the filmmakers’ tact and commitment to realism than it is of any underlying agenda.  Using the same reasoning pleaded by these phony commentators, most every movie directed by Quentin Tarantino or James Cameron or Michael Bay must be construed as having a veiled anti-gun subtext, rather than the more obvious alternative.

The anti-war take isn’t as huge a stretch, though it’s still an absurdly narrow translation of a film so rich in political and philosophical themes.  I myself read it mainly as an indictment of mob mentality, rabble-rousers, and those who wave the bloody flag of their countrymen for personal gain, though it’s also a potent admonishment to those insular patriots who place such an unmovable faith in their countrymen that they assume them capable of doing no wrong.  For Caesar, the pivotal moment in the film comes with the late realization of his petty and costly communal pride, when he can finally articulate the full gravity of his familial complacency towards Koba’s aggression.  “I always think ape better than humans,” he heaves, suffering not so much from a bullet wound he sustained earlier as from a broken and guilt-wracked spirit.  “I see now how like them we are.”  Other ideas explored within the film include the fragility of peace between rival nations, the way that power structures beget ambition, and the nature of power itself – is rule by tyranny easier to maintain than rule by respect, and is all rule basically primal at its core, delegated to whoever has strength and will enough to seize it?

For a big-budget summer movie, Dawn’s screenplay has an unusual deficit of one-liners and verbal banter, focusing instead on intricate character development and politically provocative drama.  It doesn’t try to foist any single message on the viewer, which shows at least an inkling of respect for the viewer on the part of the writers.  It’s not a perfect film by any measure: the score by Michael Giacchino is frankly terrible for the first half, fraught with too many bells and chimes that make serious scenes sound relatively inconsequential, and the final ten minutes dissolve into a fairly standard fight to the death, a bout where neither participant can defeat the other unless he reinforces his physical blows with witty smack talk and verbal jabs.  Still, Dawn is an excellently crafted piece of entertainment which more than vindicates its remake-prequel-sequel status, if not its pointless 3D presentation.  If Rise gave birth to a new science-fiction mythology, then Dawn has molded it into a veritable legend, dark, magnificent, intelligent, and moving.

Grade rating: B+

Trailer reviews
Music app commercial featuring “Iggy Azalea”, “Charli XCX”, “Childish Gambino”, John “Legend”, and Lady Antebellum – Aha.  Ha ha.  That’s a good one, guys.  Fail!
Guardians of the Galaxy – This is shaping up to be either really campy or really amusing – maybe both, though the machine-gun-toting raccoon is doing more to sell me than any of the one-liners at this point. Oh, and the musical selection is genius.

One of my friends is responsible for this, this foul-mouthed, inappropriate piece of trash.

Exodus: Gods and Kings – I can tell you what the angle of this movie is going to be even before some disgruntled Christian spills the beans on its heresy.  Mother Nature has grown weary of the Egyptian Pharaoh over his impious exploitation of the Jewish people, and in retaliation for these wrongs… on second thought, I could make an entire video out of my theories, so I’ll spare you my cynicism for now.  In spite of my reservations, Atheist Ridley Scott appears to be giving this the same visual majesty he brought to the spectacular Gladiator and the otherwise pathetic Prometheus, which is more than I can say of the lackluster Noah trailers.
Gone Girl – Ugh.  Ben Affleck and Tyler Perry in the same movie?  Based on a best-selling novel?  Just say, “No.”
Fury – Ugh.  Logan Lerman, Brad Pitt, and Shia Labeouf all in the same movie?   Just say, “N-no-no-no-no-no-NOO!”  Actually, this one doesn’t look half-bad considering its cast.  The whole WW2 setting is a little tired by this stage, but there looks to be a lot of mud and grime and dirt and grit and explosions and tanks ripping each other to shreds, which is more than enough for me.
Into the Storm – “Hello?  I want to speak to the cinematic genius who wrote Hollywood that we needed a 3D handheld-camera movie about doomsday tornado chasers?  He’s not available, you say?  Well, that’s fine.  Could you just kick his rear for me when you get the chance?”
Unbroken – This looks like one of those inspiring, based-on-a-true-story crowd pleasers, complete with generic rousing, heroic trailer music, that’s typically released around Christmas that’s supposed to make me feel good about myself and the human race… I hate those movies!  On a side-note, why are the Japanese POW guards speaking English?
(Frank Miller’s) Sin City: A Dame To Kill For – I’m assuming Jessica Alba is supposed to be the titular dame.  I know nothing about Miller’s comic series, but hot damn!  If uber-stylized B&W brawls and film-noirish strippers are your thing, go see it by all means… or, you know, find a different thing.
Hercules – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson faces off against CG lions, hydras, and boars ohmi with slow-motion awesomeness, Amazon warriors, and PG-13 nudity in tow.  Count me in, probably on DVD.
Mockingjay Capitol propaganda teaser thingy that cuts out to the black techy guy from Catching Fire Corny.  This is the kind of thing you should be watching on some stupid movie news website instead of in a theater, serving only to confirm the existence of the forthcoming film without divulging any dialogue or scenes that took any time or effort to capture.  Short of using any actual footage, the preliminary Dark Knight teaser managed to showcase core philosophical themes of the story, generate excitement for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, and flaunt Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score in fewer than 50 seconds.  This is just fluff to hold teenagers over until a real trailer is released.

* How daft could you possibly be to take any child, let alone a talkative, overly anxious one, to a film so riddled with shooting, beating, stabbing, burning, and realistically monstrous wild animals which holler, bellow, and shriek as they’re waging their hunting and killing and – did I say shooting?  I don’t think I’ve seen a PG-13 bloodbath, and one that was explicitly advertised so, which featured such an intensity and abundance of violence outside of The Dark Knight.  This is not for kiddies!

1 comment:

  1. Jessica Alba, the titular dame?!?! ROTFLMFAO that was hillarius. Sin City FTW


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