Monday, July 21, 2014

New movie review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, commands his fellow apes in the opening scene of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The most impressive aspect of Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the summer’s best popcorn flick by a wide margin, is its courage to stand on the strength of its convictions. Building on the foundation set by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves and writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver construct a world of political intrigue, harrowing violence, and difficult choices – effectively mirroring our reality in more ways than they could have known at the time.

After the title sequence explains what transpired between the end of the first film and the beginning of this one – the flu-like virus that sparked the apes’ intelligence has wiped out most of humanity – the audience is dropped square in the middle of a new and unfamiliar world. The apes Caesar led into Muir Woods at the end of Rise have built a utopian enclave in which they are free to live as they see fit, blissfully unaware of whether any humans survived the simian flu or not. Some did.

The filmmakers then make the daring choice to focus their story on the apes. This $170 million tent pole takes as its subject a band of rebel apes rather than the inhabitants of one of the last outposts of human civilization. It is a brave, bold decision, and it is also the correct decision. The broad strokes are there in the title. This is the story of how the Planet of the Apes came to be, not of how the humans put up one hell of a fight.

But one could easily envision that version of the movie, a version in which the humans fight to preserve or rather to reclaim their dominance – their dominion over the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea, as it were. In this hypothetical iteration of the film, the heroes would be Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russell. They play the human protagonists whose attempts to restore power via a hydroelectric dam in the apes’ territory kick off the events of the plot.

There would be action galore and thrills aplenty. The movie would entertain. It would appeal to our desire to escape for a while into a dark, cool theater and watch actors play out an enjoyable fantasy. It would be a fun and diverting experience, as pleasant as reading a paperback at the beach. But it would not be a great film. This is a great film, opting to concern itself with ideas, politics, war, and our very humanity. It does not sidestep these concepts but confronts them head on and is better for it.

The star is Andy Serkis as Caesar, who has fought and won everything he ever wanted and now must struggle to hold onto it against threats from within and without. Midway through the first film, Caesar poses the question: “What is Caesar?” Ten years on, it is clear he still grapples with this, and the events of Dawn force him to face who he is and what that means. He is a super-intelligent ape raised by humans and possessing what we might consider an essential humanness. But what the world sees, both the humans and his kin, is an ape.

In this way, film’s technological prowess and Serkis’ brilliant performance coalesce into a beautifully resonant expression of theme. The visual effects bring the apes to life in ways never before possible, and the actors, Serkis in particular, imbue them with something at once raw and refined, human and transcendent.

It is a metaphor proposed by the film itself: Technology made these apes what they are, but it cannot change the core of who they are. Serkis is able to portray an ape because of advances in digital effects, but he is able to portray Caesar because he is a gifted actor, and that is what a complex, flawed, thinking, feeling being such as Caesar requires.

As Caesar wrestles with the internal dilemma of what he is and what he needs to be, his external world begins to crumble. He wishes to allow the humans into ape territory so that they may restore power with the promise of peace. Detractors within his camp see this as Caesar giving in to a long-held desire to be accepted as human rather than the measured actions of someone with a clear view of the future.

Caesar envisions a world in which humans and apes peacefully co-exist, and he sees the sacrifices that must be made on both sides to achieve this aim. But it is the fate of all those capable of seeing both sides of an issue to be accused of lacking conviction and the tragedy of the masses to fall under the spell of the accusers. There is something visceral in righteous indignation that well-reasoned moral centrism cannot match, and thus beings the war.

The last 45 minutes or so of this two-hour-plus movie constitute a well-conceived and admirably executed action picture. The battles are stunning feats of visual construction predicated upon epic acts of city-wide destruction, including one long take with a camera mounted on a tank that is among the best I have ever seen. Yet, the virtuosity of the action would mean nothing without the deeply rooted emotional conflicts at its core.

Here is an action film with more on its mind than violence and nihilism. That alone is an achievement of which it is worth standing up and taking notice. More impressive is that it is able to take those preoccupations and translate them into an entertaining, thought-provoking thriller that achieves a balance of political realism and guarded optimism. The future Caesar longs for may be clouded by the settling dust of war, but it remains in sight, a beacon of a bright, new tomorrow.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New movie review: Godzilla

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as U.S. Navy Lt. Ford Brody, catches his first glimpse of one of the monsters in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.

Ken Watanabe. Bryan Cranston. Juliette Binoche. David Strathairn. Elizabeth Olsen. Sally Hawkins. Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It is an A-list cast up and down the line. One simply wishes it had been given more to do. Instead, Godzilla asks these talented people to look stunned and dispense pseudoscience dialogue that is so ludicrous it almost makes you forget you are watching the latest entry in the “serious blockbuster” canon.

There have been serious blockbusters for as long as there have been blockbusters, but the most recent crop traces its lineage to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. These are morality tales about humankind’s inhumanity or its shabby treatment of nature or any other broadly defined, vaguely threatening concept. Many of these films are very good, laudable for their ability to astound the senses and engage the mind. Godzilla is not of their ilk – failing on the latter front and proving a mixed bag on the former.

One wishes not to be too harsh on this movie because it at least tries to create a knowing dialogue about science and nature, and director Gareth Edwards treats his viewers as intelligent, thinking people, whereas so many of these films ask you to leave your brain with the ticket-taker. These are admirable qualities, but at $12-15 for a movie ticket, more if you are seeing this in IMAX 3D, it does an audience no good to grade on a curve.

Edwards clearly is a talented director with an eye for unique visuals and, in the early going at least, a well-defined sense of authorship. Once the movie gets into its second and third acts, however, he falls into the trap these effects-laden films so often set: an over-reliance on set pieces in place of a story.

Name a world disaster in the last 15 years or so, and there is a good chance you will find an homage to it in this film. The inciting incident is meant as a stand-in for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there is a monster-caused tsunami reminiscent of the devastating Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, and at least once, a plane hits a building behind a character at such an angle as to evoke the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using real-world events to inform your action picture -- and the trope has been well employed throughout the lifespan of cinema – but it would have been nice for Edwards to put a more distinctive directorial stamp on these moments rather than asking historical associations to do the heavy lifting.

Where the enterprise falls apart, though, is on the page. Movie-goers are savvy people. They basically know what to expect from a big-budget monster movie. The Godzilla movies in particular have a rich cultural and political heritage, dating back to the 1954 original. At their best, these movies are almost always about the destruction of nature and more specifically the dangers of a nuclear society.

In the wake of Fukushima, an environmental message about the need for scientific caution and restraint is a welcome one, but when it comes to the science of monster movies, less is more. Instead, screenwriter Max Borenstein bogs down the early scenes by piling on expository dialogue that asks us to believe the creatures depicted are the result of a chain of improbable events and not plot convenience. As a general rule, it is best not to nitpick the science of these movies, and the problem here stems not from the science talk so much as from the time it takes away from building real characters.

Johnson plays Ford Brody, whose name is a possible homage to the protagonists of the Jaws films, and Edwards has stated his portrayal of Godzilla was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the shark. Brody survived a Japanese nuclear plant disaster as a child. His father, who worked at he plant, is played by Cranston, in a yeoman performance. The elder Brody believes the meltdown was the result of something more nefarious than an earthquake.

Watanabe and Hawkins play scientists who are part of an apparently international coalition devoted to covering up what lies at the heart of the disaster and studying it. Watanabe is good, but the material he is given is not. Hawkins is criminally underused, as is Olsen as Johnson’s wife, and Binoche makes little more than a cameo as Cranston’s wife. This shunting of the female characters is problematic and sadly emblematic of the genre, but it might be more troublesome if any of the male characters were given anything much better. They are not.

For much of the second and third act, Brody, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, wanders from one destructive scene to the next in such a way that it seems the monsters may be following him. Scientists and high-ranking military officials try to figure out what to do as one major city after another comes under attack, though San Francisco gets the worst of it. For years, critics have complained New York City was suffering unfairly as the primary target for cinematic destruction, but add this to the new Star Trek and Planet of the Apes films, as well as X-Men: The Last Stand, and San Francisco may be making a comeback as blockbuster whipping boy.

At one point, a scientist offers this solution: Let the monsters fight it out themselves. It sounds like fanboy service as defense strategy, and as the buildings tumble, the movie collapses under the weight of its own unsustainable premise. If you want big action and big monsters, that is what you are going to get. If you want an intelligent, fully immersive e+xperience, look elsewhere.

See it? No.

Monday, July 7, 2014

New movie review: Life Itself

At 22, I landed my first professional newspaper job. Just six weeks out of college, I was hired to write sports and community news for a mid-size daily newspaper in a secluded Northern California county. It was a dream job, the vocation for which I had studied, for which I had strived, and toward which I had been pointed more or less my entire life. I was going to be a professional writer.

Still, classrooms, books, and teachers can only prepare you so much and cannot prepare you for what it is like to put yourself out in the public sphere, to be vulnerable, and to open yourself to the world. That is when the phone calls and emails started – vitriol directed at me because at whom else would it be directed. I was the man at the desk.

My editor, who had taken a chance in hiring me and to whom I remain grateful to this day, assured me it was nothing I had done. He urged me not to take it personally and to remember this is just the way it is. He had been the man on the Sports desk for 10 years before I got there, so he knew a thing or two about being the target of unchanneled rage.

But he had nearly two decades in the business on me. I was still green and less capable of accepting this as part of the job. It must have been me and something I had done. I had only been there three months, and already, I was wondering if I was in the right profession. Had I made a terrible mistake?

It was around this time, May 2011, that Roger Ebert wrote about Thor. Ebert would, on numerous occasions since he dove head first into the Internet, write something that stuck in people’s craw. He wrote about everything – gun violence, religion, evolution, etc., all topics bound to generate intelligent debate and childish name-calling in equal measure.

What Ebert wrote about best, however, were movies, and on this occasion, his review of Thor had so riled the fanboys he felt the need to write a blog post in response. On May 15, 2011, he posted “My mighty hammering over ‘Thor.’” With his usual sharp wit and deadly logic, he addressed his critics head on while still providing a forum for their criticisms – the comments section. Ebert was famous on his blog for personally vetting each comment, publishing it to the site, and responding when he felt it was warranted.

This confluence of events – the criticisms lobbed at him over Thor and my new-found since of dread every time the phone at my desk rang – led me to post a comment. I am not, by nature, a commenter. I read. I consider. I prefer discussion. But in this instance, I felt a need to comment. If you scroll down at that link I provided, you can see my comment. It is essentially what I have explained above, but it was also a thank you to Ebert.

I wanted to thank him for continuing to put himself out there, and I wanted to say to him, from one journalist at the beginning of his career to another approaching what would prove to be the tail end of his, I appreciated his work and the platform for discussion he provided. Ebert published the comment with this addendum:

“Ebert: If they always like you, you’re doing something wrong.”

He had responded to me. Nine words, and I felt as though I had won the lottery. Such was the impact of Ebert, and that power is what lies at the heart of Steve James’ wonderful new documentary, Life Itself.

Based in large part on Ebert’s 2012 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of an old-school newspaperman who became one of the most influential voices the medium had ever known. A Pulitzer Prize winner who proved serious film criticism is also serious journalism, he used all the media at his disposal to bring real, thought-provoking discussion into as many homes as he could, starting with newspapers, through his television show with Gene Siskel, and eventually on the Internet.

James is the director of such Ebert-championed documentaries as The Interrupters and the masterpiece Hoop Dreams, and as his filmography suggests, he has a knack for taking broad, all-encompassing topics and breaking them down in a digestible fashion without pandering or selling his subjects short.

Here, he has the unenviable task of doing the same with the whole of one man’s fascinating life. James handles the assignment with aplomb, structuring the film around the four phases of Ebert’s private and professional life – his early career at the Daily Illini and the Chicago Sun-Times, his and Siskel’s television show, his life with wife Chaz Ebert, and his death.

Each section is revealing of a different aspect of who Ebert was. He was a brilliant storyteller who was often the life of the party. He was a prideful and ornery co-worker who butted heads with his equally strident and intelligent co-host. He was a generous family man who discovered later in life that love truly could be a guiding force. And he was a cancer survivor and eventually victim who took his disease and turned it into what he called “the third act” of his life.

The film paints stunning portraits of each of these men and shows how they were all derived from the same complex, flawed, and brilliant individual.

There are interviews with his fellow journalists, his old bar chums, and the filmmakers he critiqued and sometimes befriended. These are fascinating documents and will appeal to anyone passionate about film, journalism, or the journeys we all take in life. But the real hero of this piece is Chaz Ebert.

She comes across as a strong-willed, patient, caring, beautiful, and smart woman who knows one thing above all else: She loves this man. And he loved her. Ebert wrote at length about the joy his wife brought him, that without her, the loneliness and darkness would have consumed him. When Chaz Ebert speaks, you see in full the woman who could have that effect.

Most of all, it is seen in the couple’s interactions as the disease chips away at who Ebert was – a man of voracious appetites who could no longer eat or drink; a gifted storyteller who could no longer speak; a grandfather whose walks with his grandchildren brought immense pleasure into a once-empty life who could no longer ascend the stairs of his home. She is by his side every moment. She is the lighthouse guiding him safely into harbor and into whatever lies ahead.

Their great fortune and ours is that his mind remained sharp and his passion for writing endured until his final hours. In his last years, after the cancer had come and gone and come again, he produced more than many of us will in our entire lives. His life was a joyous one, and the sadness is ours that he will produce no more, that we live in a world in which Roger Ebert has written his last words.

See it? Yes.