Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

DAWN PLANET APES MOV

Following a quick recap of where the last film left off,  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with the camera locked on simian-leader Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) intense eyes as he leads a hunt in a rain-soaked forest. This is appropriate as the film spends most of it’s running time unfolding from the perspective of the apes. The first half of the film is mostly dedicated to showing us the inner workings of the ape community and the strong, emotional connections they have with one another. Scenes often unfold with no dialogue as the apes sign to one another; their facial expressions and body language conveying everything beautifully. It’s some kind of miraculous alchemy of performance and visual magic. Amazing stuff.

The film has humans too of course but they are not nearly as interesting. Following the flu epidemic that wipes out most of the earth’s population, we are introduced to a small band of people who have traveled into the Muir Woods to access a hydroelectric generator at a damn.  They are hoping to restore electricity back to an outpost of humans in the remains of San Francisco. It is here that the two worlds collide.

Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver parallel the mounting fears/distrust in each of these societies as well as their longing to protect and maintain their sense of family. The benevolent Caesar tries to reign in his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) who is eager to head to war. Similarly, human-survivor Malcom (Jason Clarke) is eager to make peace with the apes even as his outpost leader (Gary Oldman) wants to wipe them out for good. Everyone’s intentions are in the right place but fear has a way of snowballing into violence.

Serious minded, somber, yet engaging all the way, Dawn may not be the more crowd-pleasing outing that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was but it takes the ape community dynamic to another level and in turn resonates more deeply. With its mind a little more on war, race and politics than Rise, it feels more akin to the original Fox series of films. Director Matt Reeves may be a bit transparent/pedestrian in his style but the pacing here is near perfect and the more emotional moments between the apes are thoughtfully handled. In fact, those quieter scenes that make up a large part of the first half of the film are so good that they make the inevitable second half feel like a bit of letdown.

I really enjoyed the score by Michael Giacchino which, early on in the film, had some call back moments to Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score to the original POTA.  I should also mention the marvelous production design by James Chinlund; the ape village and post-epidemic Frisco were both effectively realized. If nothing else, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raises the legitimate question: Can a performance-capture role be nominated for an acting award?  Recommended.

 

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Finally Done Right: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla-2014-Roar

Serious-minded, restrained and often breathtaking, director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is deliberately and firmly planted in the less-is-more camp and I relished not only this approach but the film as well. In an era of movies that race to the finish line, fearing the viewer won’t sit still for scenes to play out in a more satisfying way, this new take on the now 60 year old Japanese cinematic /cultural icon will surprise ardent kaijū eiga fans in how similar in concept/tone/pacing to the Toho films it actually is. Mainstream American audiences, used to overdoses of cgi spectacle may find this Godzilla’s methodical pacing a tad frustrating at times.

Without going into all of the plot specifics let me just say that the film begins with some wonderfully acted and effective scenes between Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche (husband/wife who work at a nuclear plant) that provide an emotional foundation which creates a tone that lingers over the rest of the film. It’s as if the filmmakers, knowing that the film will eventually succumb to giant beasts battling, front-loaded it with the strongest character scenes. As the film goes on, the character scenes are divided up mostly between Aaron Taylor-Johnson /Elizabeth Olsen who play a soldier/wife and David Strathairn/Sally Hawkins/Ken Watanabe who play General/Scientists. These characters and scenes are decidedly less dramatic but are still engaging enough.

But enough about the humans.

The rest of the film belongs to the monsters and, in effort to mirror Toho’s usual story structure, it becomes Godzilla protecting the world from other monsters (here it doesn’t really have a name but is referred to as a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Edwards creates a genuine sense of majesty and scary-beauty to all of the scenes with the M.U.T.O. and (especially) Godzilla. Something as simple as Godzilla swimming under a bridge becomes a jaw dropping visual flourish. Instead of fast cutting and lots of explosions, Edwards goes the other way and sells so many scenes with nuance and surprising amounts of quiet. Also, unlike the disappointing Pacific Rim, Edwards gives us the proper amount of glorious long shots allowing us see these giant creatures in full scale with plenty of landscape around them. The last battle is a knockout that will especially appeal to and elicit adrenaline-charged grins from hardcore Godzilla fans.

I wish I could have seen Godzilla just a little more than the film allows and I think one or two more scenes in the daytime would have been great but, overall, this is a monster movie done right. Highly recommended. 

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Too Much and Not Enough: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

XXX AMAZING-SPIDER-MAN-2-JY-2203.JPG A ENT

Marc Webb’s frenetic The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens with a forced hysteria; following a short prologue involving Peter Parker’s father, Spider-man (Andrew Garfield looking more and more like 60’s era Anthony Perkins) chases down a truck full of plutonium through the streets of New York. It has an abundance of close calls, web-slinging, one-liners and destruction but fails to project a genuine sense of urgency or even feel like things are actually happening. It all feels like a Universal Studios theme park ride. Gears shift quickly and Peter catches up with girlfriend and recently graduated Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). They have one of many,many (see:many) relationship conversations that feel at once cute, awkward, silly, contrived and occasionally sweet. These scenes give us something to cling to as well as some thoughtful moments between Peter and his aunt May (a wonderfully emotional Sally Field).

We also get Spidy foe Electro (Jamie Foxx) who starts out in full nerd cliché mode (pocket protector, comb over and obligatory chip on his shoulder ) and ends up with a massive, synthesized voice and impressive CGI make-over.  I really loved how he looked. And yet the long build up to his villainous transformation gives way to some shrill battling that ends rather abruptly and then he’s gone.

That’s ok because while this is all going on there is yet another storyline involving Peter Parker’s old friend Harry Osborne (Dane Dehaan) who has recently inherited his father’s company OsCorp but then is fired by said company via some confusing narrative that just further adds to the film’s long ( and I do mean loooong) and tiresome running time. He eventually begins his journey towards becoming the Green Goblin thanks to some leftover venom from the radioactive spiders that Peter was bit by. New York city is rife with costumed, science-orientated villains.

I am not sure what possessed the filmmakers to feel obligated to stuff so many elements into this entry. Oh, I should mention that there’s yet another villain (Paul Giamatti doing everything but acting) revealed near the end in a scene that is beyond ridiculous. I wasn’t able to fully embrace the quieter, well acted character scenes because they were broken up by frantic, borderline-silly action scenes and bloated exposition that proved more distracting than anything else. Unlike the recent and excellently realized Captain America sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks and feels like a very expensive piece of machinery with plenty of bells and whistles but little else.  Not recommended.

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46 years old and still scaring: Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassevetes)

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassevetes)

(FYI,this is full of spoilers)

I started watching Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel the other night on a whim. I have seen the film many times and my intent was to just watch the first 20 minutes or so because it was very close to my bedtime.

Well, that didn’t work out.

Rosemary’s Baby is such a strange but highly successful mix of dread and humor. Early on Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) meet their eccentric neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) and their loopy presence (especially Hollywood treasure Gordon) runs counter to their diabolical plans. Minnie’s constant nosiness is hysterical; the way she manhandles Rosemary’s mail or slips a pointed question in between her constant jabbering. My favorite Gordon moment this viewing was the way she eats her dessert; it feels like a natural, from-the-hip bit of business that is positively droll.

Ruth gordon

Ruth Gordon

I love how once his deal with the devil is put into motion Guy’s smooth demeanor takes on a repulsive layer (Cassevetes always seemed to naturally walk the line between charming/dangerous so that was a great bit of casting) while, simultaneously, Rosemary’s physical appearance takes an ugly turn for the worse (“It’s Vidal Sassoon”). The young, hip Woodhouses are both hoodwinked and abused by this wicked band of seniors and it is exactly this older generation vs. younger that provides Polanski opportunities to pepper scenes with jet-black comedy. The finale is a great example of this. As Rosemary enters the room where her baby is (surrounded by the old Satanists dressed like they just got home from Sunday service), the big reveal is not really played big/deadly serious but rather works almost like a punchline; the oldies declaring “Hail Satan!”, one woman scolds Rosemary for being out of bed, the young Asian man with the camera snaps pictures, Krysztof Komeda’s music score cackles in evil delight, Minnie is concerned with the mark in the floor from the knife falling out of Rosemary’s hand. The scene constantly shifts between horror and humor.

The genuinely scary stuff comes earlier. Rosemary’s rape, framed as a fever dream, is still terrifying and visceral. It is a scene that could easily cause the film to falter but, miraculously,  even with hairy claws and make up it all works. Rosemary’s phone call to Dr. Hill from a city payphone is pure Polanski as his camera snakes around the booth, milking our mounting fear for her. Dr. Hill handing Rosemary over to Dr. Sapirstein and Guy, her brief escape at their apartment only to be recaptured and then going into labor is chilling stuff indeed. Polanski’s hand held, close-quarter, camera along with masterful editing by Sam O’Steen & Bob Wyman (notice how many times a scene ends one or two beats before you expect; creating visual tension), all gorgeously lensed by D.P. William Fraker create a kind of stylized/cinéma vérité blend.

It can’t be overstated how much the performances make this film work. I have already mentioned Gordon and her wonderful, Academy Award winning performance but the movie hinges on Rosemary. Mia farrow is never anything but fully committed to Rosemary. Her first trimester suffering is not all short hair and chalky make-up; it’s fused with gut wrenching performance. You can see her naivety slipping away from her as the film progresses. And there is a kind of boldness she takes on as the film heads to the finish which contrasts Guy’s progressive slinking into the background under the weight of his shame.

Polanski with camera

Polanski with camera

Polanski has made a career out of making the mundane sinister, poking at our psychological fears. Rosemary’s Baby takes the mundane, human situation of having to be polite to your old, pushy neighbors and throws the curve that you have actually opened the door to monsters.

Oh, yeah I wanted to mention that I love all of the rich character names: Rosemary Woodhouse, Minnie and Roman Castevet, Hutch, Dr. Sapirstein, Elise Dunstan, Mr. Nicklas, etc.

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12 Years a Slave (2013)

12-years-a-slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

Any time a film tackles history, especially history’s darkest corners, there is a temptation to paint in big strokes, to overstate and to preach. The most miraculous thing about “12 Years a Slave” is that it derives most of it’s power from an uncanny quietness; so many scenes are allowed to breath; to play out and then move to a place of reflection. Director Steve McQueen understands the importance and effectiveness of watching something happen and then lingering. It cannot be overstated how this approach leads to the film’s emotional resonance sneaking up on you. It slowly builds and expands until it washes over you. It’s powerful stuff and it never feels forced or obvious. At the center of the film’s emotional core is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Solomon is a free man living in Saratoga, New York with his family (the film begins in 1841). He is a skilled carpenter and violin player. He is offered a two week job playing violin in a traveling show by two charming men. But after a night on the town Solomon awakens to find himself in chains and on his way down south to be sold as a slave. He is renamed “Platt”. The next 12 years of Solomon’s life are spent enduring daily slave life, desperately seeking a way out of his situation. He struggles to hold on to the dignity and mindset of the man he was in New York, fearing that at any moment it will slip away from him. He stands next to men every day that carry that expression of empty surrender. He fears that fate worse than death itself. Throughout the film’s running time McQueen keeps his camera tight on Ejiofor’s face; his expressive eyes absorb the horrors around him and attempt to mask the turmoil. The longer the camera holds on him, the deeper the moment resonates.

McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a Southern plantation world that is anything but morally clear cut or simple in characterization. The social dynamics of both the plantation owners and the slaves are written/performed with an unusual amount of complexity. The performances are uniformly strong. Only a late in the film (and brief) appearance by Brad Pitt feels like a small misstep -his immediate, movie star presence was a distraction for me. Otherwise, this is certainly one of the best films of the year. Brutal, lyrical, meditative and emotionally honest, “12 Years a Slave” is the best kind of film because it excels on all fronts. It doesn’t wring it’s hands or wallow in the carnage. It doesn’t amplify or simplify the events or the emotions. It takes this truly amazing story set in the most painful period of our country’s history and manages to find moments/beats you don’t expect which in turn provide fresh perspective. Highly recommended.

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Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix connects with Samanth

Joaquin Phoenix connects with Samantha

When Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) tells his coworker that he is dating his operating system, no look of shock or judgement is given. Theodore doesn’t really seem all that embarrassed in his proclamation either. Similarly, Theodore tells one of his few friends (Amy Adams) the news and her response is  imbued with curiosity and  intrigue rather than disbelief or disappointment. And that is one of the many moments where writer/director Spike Jonze speculates the trajectory of our technology/human infusion in his new film “Her”. The blending of our living, breathing world with the immediate and intimate technological world of the near future is portrayed as something seductive and inevitable. Moreover, the futuristic details of the film never seem that far removed from where we are now.  Visually and technologically speaking, the filmmakers have purposely created a world that seems less than (maybe)10 years away which diffuses the film’s sci-fi sheen. And it is in this muted futuristic  framing that Jonze poses one of the film’s key questions: what defines a relationship?

Theodore works for a company that writes personal letters for people, a kind of Hallmark of the future. He has been in a rut for some time following a separation from his wife (Rooney Mara). He is withdrawn and depressed. Enter OS1, a new operating system which Theodore brings home one evening and installs on his computer. Earlier in the film we learn that this operating system is the first of it’s kind; it has artificial intelligence and can adapt, assimilate and personally engage with it’s owner. Theodore’s OS1 names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Understandably intrigued, he engages in conversation with Samantha and is quickly taken back by the ease and fluidity of their interaction. He carries her with him everywhere via his phone and an ear piece. It soon becomes clear that they are both falling for each other. And it’s here that the film rolls the dice and counts on us to accept the premise and take the journey with Theodore as he navigates uncharted territory. Or is the territory not that uncharted after all? One of the film’s strengths is the following through of ideas and concepts. If an operating system learns as it goes and enters a relationship with someone, what will it learn? If a relationship is based on mutual trust, understanding and the ability to connect, is it so strange to be in a relationship with an operating system if it can, in fact, do those things?

Jonze is working with questions and ideas that are not that far removed from Asimov but he is not that interested in predicting the future as he is in showing how we are susceptible to self-induced isolation; something we wrestle with as humans now. There is a scene where Theodore is sitting on some steps contemplating his life and Jonze keeps cutting from him sitting to what he sees which is people walking up and down the stairs talking to their operating systems and not each other. It’s an image we already see now (people talking on phones) and the idea of it progressing one step further (people talking on phones to their OS) feels almost natural.

“Her” is a quiet film, small in scale and emotionally muted but I was very engaged by Pheonix’s performance and the film’s ability to build upon questions of what happens when a OS/man relationship begins to evolve. Rather than inject high emotion or glaring satire, Jonze goes for a more poetic, lyrical tone which suits the story; especially when Theodore and Samantha’s relationship reaches it’s fate. I also enjoyed the look of the film with it’s endless light-through-glass buildings, pastel colors and slightly frumpy, eclectic costume design. Spike Jonze continues to make films that defy categorization and with “Her” he has also made one of the best films of 2013.  Highly recommended.

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American Hustle (2013)

Amy Adams playing someone she's not playing someone she's not.

Amy Adams playing someone she’s not playing someone she’s not.

There is a scene in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” where Jennifer Lawrence’s character is making small talk with her husband’s friends about her top coat nail polish. She explains her obsession; it is both super-sweet smelling but that just underneath that layer of sweetness is something distinctly sour. She then proceeds to have everyone at the table take a whiff. Similarly, the people at that table and, indeed, everyone else that pops up throughout the brisk 2 hour running time of “American Hustle” has those traits. We love these people. We are rooting for them despite the fact they spend most of their time conning, swindling, lying and selling out. Russell’s robust comedy about good old fashioned American reinvention and the art of the con does not really focus too much on where it’s going but, rather, revels in the ride. There is a prevailing sense of desperation that drives most of these characters. They are always, on some level, not being genuine or real. They live fake lives and our three main characters (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and an especially excellent Amy Adams) find themselves at a crossroads of wanting to shed their gift to dissimulate and perhaps do what normal people do.

Like the characters, the film itself plays us. Early on, Bale’s character warns “People believe what they want to believe” and that truism reveals itself to the character and us the audience. David O. Russell is not exactly himself either as he  intentionally or unintentionally apes Scorsese’s visceral camera playbook and slow motion/70’s soundtrack flourishes but I found it all irresistible.  Thankfully, Russell’s uncanny ability to always find a natural form of chaos with an ensemble cast is present; so many scenes crackle with the kind of energy that is sadly lacking from American cinema today. Highly Recommended.

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