Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes”


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This is gonna be one easy review to write because it all boils down to this : you really can believe all the hype, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is flat-out fucking awesome, and you need to go out and see this flick immediately.

My job is done, I’m finished, goodnight.

But I guess I do have at least a little bit more to say —

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I wasn’t a big fan of Cloverfield by any means, but I’m turning into a big fan of Matt Reeves. I know it’s heresy to some, but I thought that Let Me In was every bit as good as its Swedish progenitor, and with this latest — and, frankly, best — installment in the venerable Apes franchise,  Reeves has shown himself to be a director who is fully hitting his stride. The bigger and bolder the project, the more he seems to rise to the occasion. I frankly don’t even know how you go about eliciting good performances from actors who are only there for the purpose of having a bunch of hair overlaid onto their faces via computer, but he did it here. Andy Serkis, as ape leader Caesar, and Toby Kebbell, as his primary (and creepily duplicitous) rival, Koba, both turn in Oscar-caliber work on the basis of their facial expressions alone. They’re gonna wow you, folks, no lie.

As for the human actors playing — well, human parts, Jason Clarke is solid as stand-up guy Malcolm, apparent real-life asshole in the extreme Gary Oldman does typically competent (if, to be perfectly fair, unspectacular) work as survivalist head honcho Dreyfus, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is extremely convincing as Malcolm’s teenage son, Alexander (plus, he can be seen reading Charles Burns’ Black Hole, so bonus points for that). About the only weak link comes by way of nominal love interest Keri Russell, whose “concerned as shit” look at all times begins to grate pretty early on. But when you consider the fact that all these people spent pretty much the entire time in front of a blue (or maybe it was green) screen, getting only one subpar performance from the bunch is pretty good. And who knows? Maybe Russell simply can’t help coming off as worried 24/7.

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My only other minor quibble here is with the title — when a film called Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is followed by one called Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, you gotta wonder when the buildup is going to stop and we’re finally gonna get down to the shit. Or maybe we’re looking at a 20-part story here and we’ve still got plenty of stage-setting to go, in which case we’ll be treated to Prelude To The Planet Of The Apes and We’re Still Getting To The Planet Of The Apes next.

Hey, I did say it was a minor quibble, did I not?

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Apart from that, this has everything you’d want in a big-budget summer blockbuster, and quite a bit more than you’d honestly expect : there’s pathos, melodrama, palace (if your palace is a tree) intrigue, cheap scares, high-octane thrills, elaborately-staged battle sequences, and a genuine sense of urgency to the proceedings. Events — and tension — gradually build to the point of inevitability, and the film’s third act actually delivers in terms of its promised payoff.  And for those of you who are tired of James Franco’s ever-evolving shtick — whatever it is — rest assured that he doesn’t even pop up in a flashback sequence.

Ya know what? Let’s not even do Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes the disservice of comparing it to other summer popcorn flicks — this leaves typical blockbuster fare like The Avengers or Star Trek so far back in the dust it’s not even funny. What Reeves has made here is one of the very best films you’ll see all year, even if big-budget sci-fi grandiosity is not your thing. This is eloquent, spectacular, undeniably powerful drama of the highest order. It’s everything and the kitchen sink plus one of those nifty fancy programmable faucets all attached to a fancy-ass 300-pound granite countertop.

Okay, I’m finished with the italics, promise. If you don’t like this, you don’t like movies. My job here really is done.

Embracing the Melodrama #52: The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (dir by Asia Argento)


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Based on a controversial collection of short stories by JT LeRoy (which was a pen name used by the writer Laura Albert), The Heart is Deceitful About All Things covers three years in the life of Jeremiah and his dug addict mother Sarah.  Over the course of the film, Jeremiah is played by thee different actors — Jimmy Bennett at age 7 and, at age 10, Cole and Dylan Sprouse.  Sarah is fearlessly played by the film’s director, Asia Argento.

Partially in response to her extremely religious upbringing, Sarah spends most of her time drinking, smoking meth, and moving from man to man, the majority of whom treat both her and her son badly.  It looks like things are going to get better when Sarah marries the seemingly stable Emerson (Jeremy Renner) but, when Sarah suddenly abandons both her husband and her son so that she can go to Atlantic City, Emerson rapes Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is sent to live with his grandfather (Peter Fonda) and grandmother (Ornella Muti) who, it turns out, are members of an ultra-religious cult.  Thought Jeremiah initially manages to bond with his cousin Buddy (Michael Pitt), life in the cult proves to be no safer than life with his mother.  After three years with the cult, Jeremiah is standing on a street corner and yelling that everyone is going to go to Hell unless they repent when he is suddenly approached by Sarah.  Sarah grabs him and carries him over to a nearby truck that is being driven by her current boyfriend.

Sarah now supports herself as a dancer and as a prostitute.  When she realizes that the presence of her son is making men reluctant to pay for her, Sarah grows out Jeremiah’s hair and starts to dress him in her old clothes so that she can pass him off as being her younger sister.

Eventually, Sarah and Jeremiah find themselves living with amiable but slow-witted meth addict Jackson (Marilyn Manson) and that’s when things really start to head down hill…

In some ways, The Heart Is Deceitful About All Things is a difficult film to recommend because it is so extremely dark and depressing.  Much as in her debut film, Scarlet Diva, Asia Argento refuses to compromise on the bleakness of her vision.  She set out to make a realistic portrait of what it’s like to live on the fringes of American society and that’s exactly what she did.  If the end result is depressing…well, the fringes aren’t exactly a happy place.  In the end, you’re actually happy that the film is full of familiar actors like Argento, Michael Pitt, Peter Fonda, and Winona Ryder because you need that reminder that, ultimately, you’re watching a movie and that everyone was able to go home after they finished filming.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things may not be easy to enjoy but it is a film that, as a result of its uncompromising vision,  ultimately wins your respect.

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Embracing the Melodrama #51: Mystic River (dir by Clint Eastwood)


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Much like In The Bedroom, 2003’s Mystic River is a film that deals with guilt, murder, and vengeance in New England.  Whereas In The Bedroom deals with the guilt of just four people, Mystic River deals with the guilt of an entire neighborhood.

Mystic River opens in Boston in 1975.  Three young boys are writing their names in wet cement when a car pulls up beside them.  An angry-looking man (played by the always intimidating John Doman) gets out of the car and announces that he’s a police officer and that the three boys are under arrest.  He orders them to get in the car.  Of the three boys, Jimmy and Sean refuse but meek Dave gets into the car, where he’s greeted by a leering old man.  Jimmy and Sean watch as the car drives away with their friend trapped in the back seat.  Dave is held prisoner and abused by the two men for four days until he finally manages to escape.

Twenty-five years later, the three boys have grown up but are still haunted by what happened.  Sean is now a detective with the Massachusetts State Police.  Jimmy is an ex-con who now owns a local store and who, despite being married to Annabeth (Laura Linney), the daughter of a local gangster, is trying to lead a law-abiding life.  As for Dave (Tim Robbins),  he is married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and manages to hold down a job but he’s also the neighborhood pariah.

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When Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is brutally murdered, Sean and his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned to the case.  The distraught Jimmy, however, starts to investigate the murder himself and, after talking to Celeste, he discovers that, on the night Katie died, Dave came home with blood on his clothes and claiming that he had a fight with a mugger.  That’s all the evidence that Jimmy and his friends need to believe that Dave is the murderer…

I have a lot of friends who will probably never forgive Clint Eastwood for not only endorsing Mitt Romney in 2012 but for also giving the “empty chair” speech at the Republican Convention.  From the way that a lot of them reacted, you would think that Eastwood had filmed himself drowning puppies as opposed to simply expressing his own cantankerous opinions about current events.  (Honestly, do you know any 82 year-olds who weren’t disgruntled in 2012?)  Myself, I thought the empty chair speech was an act of brilliant performance art, one that not only highlighted the fact that most politicians really are just empty chairs but also exposed just how humorless most political activists truly are.  (Admit it — if John Fugelsang had done that same routine at the 2004 Democratic convention and referred to the empty chair as being President Bush, most of the people who went on and on about how terrible it was that Eastwood was being disrespectful to the President would still be using it to create Facebook memes.)

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Unfortunately, I sometimes find myself wondering why Clint Eastwood the director sometimes seem to struggle to be as interesting, innovative, and thought-provoking as the empty chair speech.  It sometimes seems that for every Eastwood film that works, there’s a handful films like Hereafter, Changeling, and Jersey Boys.  These aren’t bad films as much as they’re just uninspired films.  (Well, Hereafter is pretty bad…)  Ultimately, Eastwood is more of a storyteller than a Martin Scorsese-style innovator.  If Eastwood has a good story to tell, the film will work.  If he has a weak story — well, then the film will be weak.

Fortunately, with Mystic River, Eastwood has a good story and the end result is one of the best films of his uneven directorial career.  Eastwood uses a fairly standard murder mystery to explore themes of guilt, redemption, and paranoia.  Jimmy may be looking for revenge and Sean may be doing his job but ultimately, both of them are trying to absolve themselves from the consequences of their childhood decisions.  If Dave is guilty, then Jimmy will justified in having let him get in that car.  If Dave is innocent, Sean can finally step up and save him.

And complicating all of this is the Neighborhood, which is as much a character in this film as Jimmy, Dave, and Sean.  The Neighborhood will never allow anyone to forget or live down the past.  When, towards the end of the film, Jimmy is declared to be the “king of the neighborhood” by Annabeth, there’s little doubt that she’s right.  The question is whether Jimmy’s kingdom is one worth ruling.

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Embracing the Melodrama #50: In the Bedroom (dir by Todd Field)


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If some enterprising young filmmaker were to try to remake Ordinary People as a film noir, he would probably be wasting his time because director Todd Field already beat him to it with the 2001 best picture nominee In The Bedroom.

In the Bedroom takes place in a small town in Maine, the type of idyllic location where almost everyone is a fisherman and, in one way or another, everyone’s future is dependent on the whims of the rich and powerful Strout family.  Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) seem to have the perfect life: a happy marriage and a smart and likable son, Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl).  Frank has just graduated from college and appears to have a great future ahead of him except for one thing.  He’s fallen in love with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), the ex-wife of the abusive Richard Strout (William Mapother).  When Frank announces that he’s thinking about not going to grad school but instead staying in town so he can work as a fisherman and marry Natalie, Ruth is horrified that her son is throwing his life away.  However, Matt argues that Frank is just going through a phase.

The violent and unstable Richard is determined to win Natalie back.  When Frank attempts to protect Natalie during one of Richard’s rampages, Richard kills Frank by shooting him in the eye.  Richard is arrested for the murder but, largely as a result of his family’s influence, he is only convicted of accidental manslaughter and gets off with probation.  Matt and Ruth are left to both work through their grief and guilt and to eventually seek their own violent vengeance on Richard Strout.

In the Bedroom is probably one of the darkest films that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  Not only is the film thematically dark but a good deal of it takes place at night and Todd Field fills the screens with shadows.  In the Bedroom is full of scenes of characters just staring at each other, struggling to find the right words to express their feelings and, far too often, simply giving up and saying nothing.  Field makes good use of the frequent silence though.  When Matt and Ruth yell at each other in the kitchen of their home, it’s both shocking and poignant because it stands in such sharp contrast to their usual silence.  Later. when Matt confronts Richard, the frequent pauses in their strained conversation serves to make the scene all the more ominous and creepy.

However, despite being one of the saddest films ever made, In The Bedroom is worth watching just for the performances of the cast.  You probably know that Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, and Marisa Tomei are all great so instead, I’m going to focus on the two members of the cast who did not receive Oscar nominations.  William Mapother does a really good job playing an unlikable character.  The dangerous yet dorky vibe that made him so menacing when he played Ethan Rohm on Lost is fully present and put to good use here.  Finally, Nick Stahl gives a wonderful performance as poor, doomed Frank.  With limited screen time, Stahl makes Frank into such a believable and sympathetic character that his death becomes a tragedy that the audience feels as well.

Sadly, Nick Stahl has recently been in the new more for his personal troubles than his film careers.  Films like In The Bedroom and Bully show why Nick deserves a chance to make a comeback.

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