erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Monday August 04, 2014

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Nice casting.

It’s a gritty, gray, dystopian future, right, and we need someone to play the saddled architect of the revolution. So why not the actor who played Winston Smith, the most saddled character from the greatest dystopian story of all, “1984”? Welcome, John Hurt.

And to lead the revolution? Why not Captain America? Nice to see you, Chris Evans.

And as the overconfident, grand manipulator of this mad dreamscape? Why not Ed Harris, the overconfident, grand manipulator of “The Truman Show”?

Welcome, all. And actors? Know your place.

Nice going, scientists
Quick question: What’s the most unthinkable thing that happens in “Snowpiercer”? That we inadvertently cause another Ice Age? SnowpiercerThat the remnants of humanity are forced onto a train that is divided not only into cars but classes, with the majority, dirty faced and Dickensian, stuffed into the tail section without rights, or, for a time, food? So that they are forced to eat the weak? Including babies?

No. The most unthinkable thing that happens in “Snowpiercer” is that somehow humanity gets together and enacts a scientific solution to global warming this year. That’s optimistic. May I introduce Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”) to our do-nothing GOP-led U.S. Congress? Most of those guys don’t even believe in global warming.

But in the movie, sure, we do it. We all get together and seed the clouds with CW-7 to counteract global warming. And ... Oops. Instead of a slight correction we plunge the Earth into a new Ice Age, during which everything on the planet dies. Nice going, scientists. The only ones left are the people on the supertrain. Is it called the Snowpiercer? Either way, it was started by a man named Wilford before the whole CW-7 experiment as a self-sustaining, global train ride, and now, 17 years later, it’s our last, best hope. But of course it’s been turned into an awful, dystopian nightmare: haves and have nots. A metaphor for our time.

We begin in the tail section, where armed cops show up and count off the rabble. Once your row is called you’re supposed to take a knee, but one man doesn’t: Curtis (Evans). He’s not being heroically rebellious but simply counting how long it takes for the traincar doors to close—so how much time they’ll need when they foment their revolution. But now isn’t the time. “When is the time?” Edgar (Jamie Bell), his right-hand man, asks. “Soon,” Curtis replies.

He’s a reluctant leader. He thinks everyone should follow Gilliam (John Hurt) instead. Because he was named for Terry Gilliam? Because Hurt once played Winston Smith? Mostly because Curtis feels unworthy. We’ll get to that later.

First some draconian violence. In the first-class cars, they need a violinist, and a man offers he and his wife. But they only need one, so they take him and break her nose. Because they can. They also need kids, and they take two: one from Tanya (Octavia Spencer), who gets a black eye, and one from Andrew (Ewen Bremner), who, in the struggle, manages to throw a shoe at the departing, yellow-clad official, Claude (Emma Levie). For that, amidst a long, drawn-out metaphor from Mason (a marvelous Tilda Swinton, channeling Margaret Thatcher) on how everything has its place, both shoes and people—“I belong to the front, you belong to the tail”—Andrew’s arm is forced outside the train and into the lifeless cold. Seven minutes later, when it’s brought back, it’s frozen solid. Then the police take turns bashing it off with sledgehammers.

So you see the need for revolution.

It starts sooner than I’d anticipated. Claude calls the guns “useless,” Curtis surmises they no longer have bullets in them, and he proves his theory. Boom. Now the men and Octavia Spencer are moving car to car. What’s in the other cars? First, there’s solitary confinement chamber where they pick up Namgoong Minsoo (celebrated Korean actor, and star of “The Host,” Song Kang-ho), an engineer who knows how to open the train doors. He’s also got a bit of  a drug problem—Krongle, industrial waste—but that’s how the revolutionaries control him. Meanwhile, his daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung), is a bit psychic. She can anticipate what’s behind a door before her father opens it. They don’t take advantage of this talent nearly enough, do they? They should rely on her more.

They also go through a kitchen—where their food, black, gelatinous “protein blocks,” are made from insects—a greenhouse, an aquarium, a sushi bar, a meat locker, and a kindergarten. They fight for every other car. They take Mason hostage, and eventually she’s killed. Edgar is killed and Gilliam summarily executed. Apparently they haven’t run out of bullets. Curtis doesn’t stop to consider this. Neither did I. The momentum is forward. It’s all leading to the car with the big “W” on it.

Babies taste best
To be honest, “Snowpiercer” is better and more engaging than I thought it would be. Some of the cars get silly—expensive dining with linen tablecloths, discos for the young—but we get some good heart-to-hearts. Or a heart-to-Hurt? Before he dies, Curtis confesses to Gilliam: “How can I lead if I have two good arms?” Gilliam has only one arm, and a peg leg. I assumed he lost others in the cold, or in battles, and that’s why Curtis feels unworthy. It’s worse than that. On the precipice of the W car, the sacred engine, the sustainer of all life on Earth, Curtis finally, tearfully confesses his crime. He tells Minsoo about when they all first got on the train, how Wilford’s soldiers took everything, and after a month they began to eat the weak.

“You know what I hate about myself?” he says. “I know what people taste like. I know babies taste best.”

That’s not the worst of it, either. Curtis talks about Gilliam’s heroic nature: how, when others were set to eat another baby, Gilliam stepped up, cut off his arm, and gave it to the crowd. Then others did the same with their arms. That’s reason #1 why Curtis feels bad that he has two good arms. Reason #2? He was the guy about to eat the baby. And the baby was Edgar.

Question, and not of the quick variety: Does what we learn inside the “W” car undercut this story? Because of course we get the big confrontation. It’s a movie, after all. Curtis bursts in, the last of the revolutionaries, and it’s just Wilford in there, good ol’ Ed Harris acting all Ed Harris-y, eating steak, drinking wine, complaining about how he’s a prisoner, too. And he has his own story to tell. Seems Gilliam was in on it. The whole thing. He was working with Wilford to cull the herd. The train is a delicate ecosystem and it needs balance, so every few years they have a revolution. Fewer folks, fewer mouths to feed, everyone’s happy. (Well, not everyone.) More, he, Wilford, wants Curtis to take over. It’s a dark, dystopian Willie Wonka moment. It doesn’t help that the missing kids are used to keep the engine running—replacing a small part that can’t otherwise be replaced. So Curtis is understandably torn. He bursts in as a man-of-action but is spun around and stupefied by a man of engineering. Because we all know that happens.

Actually, at this point, it becomes two stories: Curtis’ in the W car and Minsoo’s outside it. While Curtis is losing a hand trying to save Octavia Spencer’s boy, Minsoo and Yona are trying to blow off the door to the outside. Others have tried this in the past and frozen to death within sight of the train. Ah, but Minsoo has a theory. He sees a downed airplane every year, and every year he sees more of it. The world is finally warming up again. So why wait? Why not take drastic action now? He does. And the explosion triggers an avalanche that knocks the train off the tracks and kills everyone but Yona and Octavia Spencer’s boy. They walk out into the snow, in parkas, blinking in the sun. And atop the mountain they see a polar bear. Who runs down and eats them.

No. The polar bear is a sign: life continues. I guess it’s a sign that life has always continued, since I doubt Nature could’ve create a polar bear from scratch after 17 only years. But you get the idea. After all that dirt and dystopia, we get pure snow and ... I guess two people wandering around in it.

Again, “Snowpiercer” is better than I thought it would be, but what’s it all about, Alfie? What’s it saying? Don’t trust scientists? Don’t trust the 1% but don’t trust the revolutionaries, either? (Cf. “The Hunger Games.”) Don’t trust heroes, those baby eaters, but trust polar bears? It’s a fun story that stands on thin ice. Below it, there’s nothing there. 

Posted at 06:45 AM on Aug 04, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday July 30, 2014

Movie Review: Ida (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Ida” is a spare, quiet, beautiful film, photographed in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who discovers a dark secret about her family’s past during World War II.

It’s also the best road-trip movie I’ve seen in years.

“You’re a funny couple,” says Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young, handsome alto-sax player whom Anna and her aunt Wanda (Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza), pick up hitch-hiking. Ida“My Aunt and me?” Anna responds. “I know.”

They’re funny ha-ha and not. Because they’re searching for unmarked graves. They’re searching for the bodies of Anna’s parents.

No, Eskimos
Road-trip movies are all about tossing together opposites, and “Ida” is no different, but on a deeper level. I think of Wanda as having lived through the middle of the 20th century—Depression, World War II, totalitariansm—and having absorbed its horrible lessons: there is no God, and there is no secular human progress. So what do you do then? What do you cling to? Wanda had communism for a while, and a rise to power in the 1950s, but now she simply distracts herself from the vast, absurd emptiness with booze, sex, and a wicked tongue.

The movie opens in a convent, where Anna, who has a spare, unadorned beauty that fits the film, is cleaning and restoring (one might say resurrecting) a statue of Jesus. She is also preparing to take her vows. Then the nuns tell her that her sole living relative, Wanda, living in Lodz, has finally responded to their queries. She should go see her. She does so, reluctantly, but with open eyes.

At Wanda’s place, the dark family secret is revealed quickly, and it’s less dark than tragic. Anna isn’t Anna but Ida Lebenstein. She and Wanda are the only ones left in their family because they’re Jewish and it’s post-World War II Poland.

At first it’s enough for Wanda to say all this and send her niece back. But she finds herself transfixed by Anna’s resemblance to her own sister, and she heads her off at the train station. She wants to bond with her. Or convert her? But to what? A prosecutor in the Stalinist era and now a judge, Wanda wants to find out what happened to Ida’s parents and bring their bones back, but she warns Anna about going along: “What if you go and discover there is no God?”

At the same time, she enjoys teasing her niece.

Wanda: Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?
Anna: Yes.
Wanda: About carnal matters?
Anna: No.
[Pause]
Wanda: That’s a shame.

They first travel to the isolated farmhouse where the Lebensteins once lived. A Polish family, headed by Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), now lives there, and he’s suspicious of all strangers but Wanda in particular:

Wanda: Did you know the Lebensteins? They lived here before the war.
Feliks: Jews?
Wanda: No, Eskimos.

But they’re respectful to Anna, scarved as a novitiate nun, and for a time I thought that would be the plan: send in beatific Anna, alone, to get the answers, which Wanda, a Jewish prosecutor, could not. Instead they follow Wanda’s lead and visit Feliks’ father, dying in a hospital, and go to a nightclub, where Lis, their alto-sax guy, is playing jazz. Wanda drinks too much, fools around, defends herself to a silent Anna. “This Jesus of yours, he adored people like me,” she says. The closer they get to an answer, the more Wanda seems to unravel.

The search doesn’t go much further than Feliks and his father, because it doesn’t need to. Feliks is responsible. He killed the Lebensteins for their home because he could. In exchange for leaving his dying father alone, he takes Anna and Wanda into the woods and unearths the bodies. There, Anna/Ida learns she had an older brother. “The boy was dark and circumcized,” she’s told. “You were tiny.” Thus she lives; thus he died. It’s that.

And then?
“Ida” is written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (“The Woman in the Fifth”), and photographed by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, who have won awards all over the place for it—including the Spotlight Award from the American Society of Cinematographers. It truly is a gorgeous movie. Several shots stand out, none more than the last. There’s not a frame of the movie I didn’t like.

The road trip is great, but what makes “Ida” one of the best movies of the year is what happens afterwards. At the start, Anna has absolute faith, Wanda has none. So what happens? Anna returns to the convent but her faith isn’t absolute anymore. During a meal, she suddenly bursts out laughing—we don’t know why—and shortly after she speaks with the statue of Jesus. “I’m not ready,” she tells him. “Forgive me.”

The effect of the trip is worse on Wanda. Nothing is restored for her, more is simply lost. Maybe what kept her going all of these years was the mystery, and now even that’s gone. One day she’s cleaning the apartment, listening to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and suddenly she jumps out the open window. The camera stays. The music keeps playing to an empty house.

Ida comes for the funeral and hooks up with Lis. In bed, he talks of the life they’ll live together. They’ll have kids, buy a house, raise a family. “And then?” she keeps saying. “And then?” He’s offering her a good life but before the trip she had an eternal life. Now, not. Now there’s just “And then?” She can’t be on the eternal path but she doesn’t know which path to take. The final shots see her walking a road against the sparse traffic, her path uneven, unstable, the camera suddenly jerky. It’s our path. 

Posted at 07:25 AM on Jul 30, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday July 28, 2014

Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Most mainstream movies don’t think much beyond the current year. Maybe they go back a decade. Ancient history is history before Elvis. The dark ages. I remember when I reviewed “Little Nicky”  in which Adam Sandler played a literal son of Satan who head-banged to heavy metal music, and my immediate thought was, “OK. So what did he listen to for the 3,000 years before heavy metal music?”

Luc Besson’s “Lucy” widens the scope a bit. We see the first cells splitting, and the first human, Lucy, drinking water from a stream. We’re told that matter only exists because of time. We’re told we never really die, which is nice to know. I like the intelligence of it all, the awareness of a time period beyond our own, the encouragement of a thirst for knowledge.

Here’s what I didn’t like. Halfway through, our hero, a modern-day Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), could kill the movie’s main villain, a drug dealer and gangster named Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik of “Oldboy” fame), but she doesn’t bother. Lucy, starring Scarlett JohanssonShe leaves him alive. Three-quarters of the way through she could do the same. By this point, she’s so powerful she can just think somebody dead. Still, she leaves him alive. An argument can be made that he’s so below her now it’s like killing an ant, or an amoeba, but that’s not why he lives. He lives because the primitive monkey brains in the audience, our primitive monkey brains, need the tension. We need the race for the prize, the villain tracking the hero, the gunfight at the OK Corral.

I also wasn’t a fan of how cartoonish Mr. Jang was; and that he was supposed to be Chinese but spoke Korean.

But leaving him alive? That’s some rookie shit. I expect that from someone using 5% of their brain’s capacity, not 50.

Brain brain, what is brain?
It’s a good concept anyway.

Human beings use only about 10% of the brain’s capacity. So if we could tap into the rest? Yowzah.

It’s contemporary times, more or less, and Lucy, last name unknown, is hanging out in Taipei, and going to school there, but somehow doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese. She’s also got a ne’er-do-well, week-long, Aussie-ish boyfriend, Richard (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek of “A Hijacking”), who tries to cajole her into delivering a briefcase to Mr. Jang at a Taipei hotel. No go. So he locks it to her wrist and tells her the key is with Mr. Jang. She’s pissed, sure, but off she goes: to the front desk, up the elevator, and into the private sanctuary of Mr. Jang, who’s busy wiping the blood of his enemies from his face. He also kills Richard en route. Because blood. Plus all of this is intercut with scenes of jaguars on the hunt in the Serengeti. Because Luc Besson.

The briefcase turns out to be carrying blue crystals called CPH4, which is apparently a chemical used in the second or third trimester of pregnancy to create us. This is its synthetic version. It’s a drug. For what purpose? Who knows? But Mr. Jang wants it taken to Rome, Paris, Berlin and New York. The captive mules for these four cities, including Lucy (NYC), have their stomachs cut open and a Ziploc bag of CPH4 inserted. The bad news for Mr. Jang, and the good news for us, is that, before putting Lucy on a flight to NYC, they apparently stash her in a grungy prison, where a skinny Chinese dude tries to fondle her, and when she objects, kicks her repeatedly in the stomach. Of course the bag inside her is broken open. It’s our gamma radiation moment. Her eyes even go all blue. She lucies out.

Her first stop is the hospital to remove the rest of the crystals. By this point (20%?) she knows Mandarin Chinese, and with a glance at the X-rays can determine whether the patient on the table will live. He won’t, so she shoots him dead and takes his place. While she’s operated on, she calls her mother. That’s a nice scene. She says I love you. She says she remembers everything. Everything. Petting the cat. “You couldn’t remember that, honey. You were less than one year old.” But she remembers. She remembers the taste of her mother’s milk. She remembers every kiss her mother ever gave her. Johansson is quite good here. Throughout the movie, really. You get the sense that Lucy calls her mother not because she’s about to die but because she calculates human interaction will soon be meaningless to her, and she needs this last moment.

That’s an interesting thought, by the way. In most stories where a character develops massive brain power—think Gary Mitchell in Star Trek’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before”—they become as imperious as Mussolini. They view humans as ants, amoebas. But an argument can be made for the opposite. Mussolini was hardly a Rhodes Scholar, so why is he the model? Shouldn’t their humanity grow with their brain power? Does Lucy’s? A bit. She certainly has a wider perspective. She calculates she has 24 hours left before she reaches 100% brain capacity and then ... Who knows? So what should she do? She asks this of a scientist, Prof. Norman (Morgan Freeman), who has long studied the topic. We’ve even seen some of his lectures intercut with Lucy’s story. He talks about the two ways the cell’s knowledge can continue to live—immortality and reproduction—and urges Lucy to do what human beings have always done with their knowledge: “Pass it on,” he says. I like that. Pass it on.

Since this is Besson, and since international box office, she gathers everyone in Paris—other mules, Prof. Norman—so she can get the rest of the CPH4. She hangs with a good cop with a great face, Pierre del Rio (Amr Waked), who protects her when she’s not busy protecting herself, and Besson keeps reminding us of where she is on the brain capacity meter. At 90%, while gun battles rage all around, she travels through time: New York today, then 100 years ago, then with the Native Americans. Then dinosaurs. Lucy even meets the original Lucy, our ancestor, whom we met at the beginning of the movie.

Pass it on
Some of this isn’t bad. But Besson isn’t interested in straying too far from the thriller genre. He talks smart but executes stupid. So just as a bloodied Mr. Jang, our apelike contemporary, whom Lucy has left alive again and again, closes in on her sitting in a chair surrounded by awestruck scientists and computer banks she’s just digested (or something), she’s reaching 100%. Will she make it? Or will Mr. Jang kill her first?

The tension is unbearable.

No, it’s not. He fires, she disappears. Because she’s everywhere now. That’s the message she leaves him.

And the message Besson leaves us?

The movie opens with Lucy narrating the following: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. This is what we’ve done with it,” and we get shots of, you know, ugly buildings and shit. At the close, she narrates thus: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.”

Well, not really. Still at 10%. Unless you mean the “Pass it on” thing. That I can do. FWIW. 

Posted at 07:27 AM on Jul 28, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday July 22, 2014

Movie Review: God's Pocket (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“God’s Pocket,” written and directed by John Slattery of “Mad Men,” is more fun than I thought it would be.

It’s set in the 1970s in a fictionalized version of a crime-ridden, blue collar section of South Philadelphia, Schuylkill (a.k.a. “Devil’s Pocket”), and focuses on the down-and-out, the scroungers, the made and the marginalized. The people from God’s Pocket, we’re told, rarely leave God’s Pocket, and don’t trust anyone not from God’s Pocket. And if they’re smart, and they are not many of those, they wouldn’t trust anyone from God’s Pocket, either.

The local newspaper has an alcoholic columnist, Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), who likes to wax rhapsodic about the area. He’s its poet laureate, and he’s the kind of poet laureate it deserves. Early, he says, “I’ve been writing the story of this city for 20 years,” and I answered back at the screen, “So you should be better at it,” because he’s lousy. He’s semi-celebrated but 90% inebriated. God's PocketThat’s how you can tell it’s the 1970s: a newspaperman is a local celebrity.

Anyway he spends a lot of time sentimentalizing God’s Pocket, defining it narrowly, so allow me to try the same. There are two things you need to know about God’s Pocket and “God’s Pocket,” and they are both unexpected and the expected: You never know who’s going to win a fight and everyone is going to try to fuck Christina Hendricks.

Truth won't out
The movie opens with two funerals, spaced a few days apart, so, like in the cold opens of “Six Feet Under,” we wonder who is going to die.

It doesn’t take long to find out the first. Hendricks plays Jeanie Scarpato, first seen with her husband Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) huffing and puffing on top of her in the early morning light. Then she rouses her twentysomething son, Leon (Caleb Landry Jones, trying to channel Heath Ledger), for work. He’s a druggie, thinks he’s a toughie, plays with a pocket razor at the factory. He also thinks he can pick on the one black guy there. Wrong. After putting the razor to his throat, ha ha, the dude clubs him with a lead pipe. Down he goes. Dead, it turns out. But the foreman, Coleman Peets (Glenn Fleshler, who played George Remus on “Boardwalk Empire” and—more memorably—Errol Childress in “True Detective”), tells the cops a crane swung and hit him. All the others agree. Nobody really liked Leon. Or maybe that’s just the way in God’s Pocket.

Jeanie, distraught, knows something else happened—she just knows—so she asks first her husband, then the cops, then Richard Shellburn, to investigate. They all kinda do. Because, well, it’s Christina Hendricks.

At this point you think: Who’s going to find the answer first? But that’s the wrong question. “First” is particularly wrong. Truth doesn’t out in God’s Pocket.

Instead, Mickey asks his connected friend, Arthur (John Turturro), to see if local crime boss Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi, Herc on “The Wire” and Ralph Capone on “Boardwalk Empire”) can’t send some guys down to ask some questions. They do. And Coleman Peets is there all by himself. Uh oh. But no. As I said, you never know who’s going to win a fight in God’s Pocket. Peets sends both men back, and one (Sal’s brother) without an eye. This sends an enraged Sal back at Arthur; but Arthur’s Aunt Sophie (Joyce Van Patten), running the register at their flower shop, takes out a gun, misfires, then kills both Sal and his brother. Then she and Arthur skip town.

Meanwhile, Shellburn’s investigation turns into more of an investigation of Jeanie. Meanwhile, the cops ... Well, they’re cops. They don’t factor.

Mickey is on his own, hapless, downward spiral. At the local bar, the Hollywood, run by McKenna (Peter Gerety, Judge Phelan on “The Wire”), a collection is taken up for Leon’s funeral, but Mickey blows it at the racetrack and then struggles to hide all this from Jeanie and the town. Unfortunately, the local funeral director, Smilin’ Jack (Eddie Moran), doesn’t accept half payments; and after losing a fight to a disappointed Mickey, locks both him and Leon’s corpse out in the rain. Mickey then: 1) loads up Leon in his meat truck; 2) tries to sell the stolen meat to make up the rest of the funeral charges; 3) winds up selling the truck instead, but 4) in the process, the truck is driven away for a testdrive, which Mickey didn’t agree to, and, chasing the truck, he spooks the driver into traffic, and Leon’s corpse winds up an accident victim: dead a second time.

Small pleasures
There are small pleasures in “God’s Pocket,” not least all the alums from the great HBO, etc. shows of the last 10 years. It’s sad watching Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, but his performance still gives off small pleasures. On the phone, the doubtful raise of his eyebrow he gives when he says of Leon, “They say something fell on him.” Mostly, though, I just like his head-shaking disappointment in everything and everybody. Sal unnecessarily decks a guy, a civilian, and Mickey shakes his head. Smilin’ Jack takes a swing at Mickey, Mickey shakes his head. Mickey is the guy not from God’s Pocket, and sometimes folks forget. “Oh right, you’re not from here.” He’s hardly a moral exemplar (gambling, etc.) but in a way he is. When he learns Jeanie is schtupping Richard Shellburn, he’s not enraged; he just sighs. Way of the world. Basically: What a disappointment everyone is turning out to be. In fact, when Shellburn shows up at the local bar, and the patrons object to one of his sappy columns—he describes them as dirty-faced—it’s Mickey who tries to come to his rescue. To no avail. Shellburn is taken outside and beaten to death. The second funeral is his. Someone else will have to write about it.

That’s how this all began, actually. “God’s Pocket” is based upon the novel of the same name by Pete Dexter, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, who, in 1981, was nearly beaten to death in Schuylkill by locals who objected to one of his recent columns about a drug deal gone wrong. He suffered a concussion and gave up the newspaper business for writing novels. He won the National Book Award for “Paris Trout” in 1988. “God’s Pocket,” from 1983, is his first novel.

Why did it attract Slattery? Who knows? It’s not a great story but at least it surprises now and again. I didn’t walk away from it, as I do with most Hollywood movies, shaking my head. 

Posted at 07:01 AM on Jul 22, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Saturday July 12, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” begins with a map of the world, where thousands of people, represented by red lines, travel between great cities, while newsreports intone about a virus, dubbed “the simian flu,” that’s spreading quickly. This virus is eventually traced to San Francisco (shades of AIDS!) and Patient Zero (again!) and the synthetic drug ALZ-112 and 113, created, in the last movie by Will Rodman (James Franco) to cure Alzheimer’s, although it actually led to a few apes becoming supersmart. Humans? Millions are dying. Then billions. Then, gradually, all of those lights, signifying great cities, go dim, and the newsreports stop.

Way to go, James Franco.

We don’t see him in this movie except on an old video recorder, so we don’t know how he felt about causing the end of civilization as we know it. One imagines badly. Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThank god he didn’t have to act it.

We see about as much of Franco, in fact, as we do of Pres. Obama, who, in news footage culled from some other crisis (2011 flu? 2012 GOP debates?), warns people to protect themselves. It’s interesting seeing Pres. Obama here because I was thinking about him before the movie began. Specifically this question: Is it a coincidence that the first “Planet of the Apes” movies (1967-1973) occurred during the rise of black power, and this one coincides with our first black president? I’d like to think so but I’m a cynical SOB.

An edict introduced in the first act ...
“Dawn of ... ” is the eighth “Planet of the Apes” movie but the second in this series, following 2011’s “Rise of ...” and it leads to a semantic argument. How much further along is “dawn” from “rise”? Isn’t it actually a step back? Don’t you get the dawn before the sunrise?

It starts, anyway, with a few steps forward. Not only are humans decimated, but our first supersmart ape, Caesar, (Andy Serkis, finally getting top billing), leads a village of apes in the Redwood forests of Northern California. They’re basically a primitive tribe. They use spears, ride horseback, and hunt game. They have huts in the trees, the children are educated (mostly by Maurice, the orangutan, played by Karin Konoval), and moral lessons are handed down to the next generation. Chief among these is: Ape shall not kill ape.

Hollywood truism: a moral edict introduced in the first act always gets broken in the third.

Into this idyllic, primitive ape society wanders a doofus, Carver (Kirk Acevedo, Joe Toye from “Band of Brothers”), who, in panic, shoots and wounds an ape, Ash (Laramie Doc Shaw), friend of Caesar’s sad-eyed son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). Angry apes gather. A few humans gather, too, to bargain for Carver’s life, chief among them, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), whose team, part of the remnants of San Francisco society, includes, Ellie, a CDC doctor (Keri Russell), and their adopted son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, all halfway grown-up from “Let Me In”). They’re in the area to try to start a water generator so S.F. will have power. But will the shooting lead to war?

Not right away. First, Caesar looks down imperiously with a sneer. Then he yells “Go!” Then he sends his right-hand man, former science experiment Koba (Toby Kebbell), to follow the humans to see what’s what. To see what’s become of them. Bad move. All the deaths that follow stem from this move.

Koba, you see, wants war. “From humans,” Caesar says, “Koba learned hate and nothing else.” But Caesar allows the humans, even the doofus Carver, to return, to try to start the generator. They do. Koba, though, knows that the humans, huddled together in their decrepit buildings, have an arsenal in preparation for a potential war with the apes—or simply because they’re scared to death. After pleading with Caesar, then losing a fight to Caesar, Koba infiltrates the target practice of two rednecks (including Kevin Rankin, making a career out of rednecking: see “White House Down” and “Breaking Bad”), who, oddly, are the only ones taking target practice. They freak at his presence, so Koba plays the clown to get close. Then he steals their semi-automatic. Then they dead. Then Koba have gun.

What does he do with it? He shoots Caesar, blames the humans, and leads the apes into battle against same. It’s a war based on false pretenses. Imagine.

After the war, won by the apes, humans, as well as potential allies of Caesar, are forced into cages. Koba is the new leader and he’s not exactly benevolent. At one point, he tells Ash to kill a human but Ash can’t do it. He says Caesar wouldn’t have wanted it. Koba nods. He understands. He puts his arm around Ash’s shoulder. Then he pushes him down, drags him up the stairs by the top of his head, and throws him over the City Hall balcony. Ape shall not kill ape? No, without cause. Remember?

False dawn
It’s not a bad scene—I got a whiff of “Animal Farm”—and there are other not-bad scenes as well. But the movie doesn’t have particularly memorable scenes, either. And by this point, what’s the tension?

The tension is whether the truth will out. Will the other apes find out that Koba led them falsely into war? That he accused his victims of his own crime?

There’s a chance because Caesar lives. He’s found by Malcolm and company; but he’s weak and bleeding and Ellie needs supplies to save his life. So they drive to San Francisco.

At this point, the tension is: Can Caesar live long enough to tell the truth about the shooting?

Except, at Caesar’s directive, they go to the house he grew up in, Will Rodman’s house, with the circular window in the attic; and from there Malcolm is sent out to search for supplies so Caesar can be operated on.

Really? That’s a bit of a gamble, isn’t it? Why not drive, with Caesar, to find the supplies, so that if apes find you he can talk to tell them? He can call off the war? “They didn’t shoot me. Koba shot me. Stop it already.”

The short answer, the movie’s answer, is that apes care less about truth than strength, and right now Caesar is weak. It’s not a bad answer—we don’t care about truth, either, particularly in the wake of victory—but the real reason we go back to Will’s house is we need the pause, the moment of reflection, and the moment of bonding between Caesar and estranged son, before the final big battle between Caesar and Koba at the top of City Hall. Which Caesar wins. He has a chance to save Koba, too. You know the bit: Koba hanging by his fingertips, asking for help, Caesar reaching down, Koba reminding him of the first edict of ape society: “Ape not kill ape.” Caesar, with his imperial sneer, decides: “You ... not ape,” and lets him go. Seriously, Hollywood has to stop giving us this scene. It’s boring no matter which way the hero chooses.

More, we’re hardly getting to a planet of the apes, are we? I mean, if this is a dawn it’s a false dawn. It’s actually “One Step Back from the Planet of the Apes.” It begins with a village of apes and humans decimated. It ends after a costly war and ape society fractured. Plus they’re still one small village on a large planet in which humans are still plentiful; and the remaining ones seem immune to simian flu; and they still have guns.

Matt Reeves (“Felicity,” “Let Me In”) directed this one, taking over from Rupert Wyatt, and we get good performances not only from Serkis but from Clarke and Gary Oldman as a shaky leader. Reeves is supposedly directing the next one, too, as yet untitled. Votes? So far we’ve had “Beneath the ...” “Escape from ...” “Conquest of ...” “Battle for ...” “Rise of ...” and now “Dawn of ...” Maybe “Midmorning of ...”? “Tea Time on ...”? “Lazy Sunday Before ...”? I’m a fan, anyway, of a new preposition. Of has just been done to death.

Posted at 08:05 AM on Jul 12, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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