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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Release Date: 7-11-2014)

        A funny thing happens when you allow a few days to pass between first viewing a film, and subsequently writing about it. Sure, some flicks stay right where they were, stationed as beloved, loathed, or forgotten in a manner that is largely immovable. More often than not, however, a little reflection time can serve to elevate, diminish, or (most importantly) clarify the story you just absorbed. Then there's that mysterious third category, wherein initial disappointment/revery becomes muddled upon reflection, causing you to wonder where the two hour experience stops, and where your own projections onto the piece begin. That's why I've been scared about writing about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (see what I did there?); the film that plays in my head and the picture that's currently lighting up screens across the world might not be the exact same thing.

        Ten years have passed since the events of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and they have not been kind to Homo Sapiens. The Simian Flu, briefly explained in the last film's conclusion and this one's opening, has wiped out nearly all of earth's human population, leaving enlightened ape Caesar (performed in motion-capture by Andy Serkis) ample opportunity to steer the monkey mob that flanks him into a primitive sort of social structure, with language, ethics, and culture ever-evolving within. These advancements encounter a sudden threat when a couple of apes stumble across a handful of humans on a scouting mission, forcing the newly dominant species to decide just how to deal with their former captors.

        It's pretty heady stuff, all this moral ambiguity and juxtaposition between societal genesis and extinction, especially for a movie that also features CGI chimps double-fisting AK-47s while riding on horseback. Yes, the goofiness of it all occasionally shines through, but just as with the previous chapter, Dawn is far more straight-faced than one would have thought possible with this premise. Credit spousal writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, here paired with Mark Bomback, for maintaining an ideal through-line between this and the script for their surprisingly cerebral initial installment. Then there's director Matt Reeves, who's visual approach to the material is worlds removed from Rise helmer Rupert Wyatt's crisp, clean, glowingly white aesthetic. Reeves is all about rainy jungle terrains that are straight out of Jurassic Park, with an extra pinch of darkness tossed on for good measure (really, another 2014 summer tent-pole is going to reference Gy├Ârgy Ligeti’s Requiem?).

        And this is exactly where my expectations, reflections, and research have undoubtably effected my final analysis. I was HUGE on Rise when it first premiered nearly three years ago, and while subsequent encounters might knock it down a peg, the film is absolutely in my top ten big budget summer flicks of the last five years. I also have a thing for Reeves; I will go to the grave defending his brilliantly creepy Cloverfield, and still think that his remake of Let the Right One In is superior to the original (and yes, I'm fully aware of how many readers I just lost with that last sentence). That's a lot of anticipation to throw onto one movie, the kind of expectations that turn the above-average into the starkly disappointing. To be completely honest, the film, as I sat in my comfy, air-conditioned theater, did not rise up to those otherworldly expectations (see what I did there?). But for whatever reason, being its enthusiastic critical response, its numerous comparisons to Hollywood classics like Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II, or its own organic growth within my brain, I've found myself at a place where I'm worried about over-compensating. The internet sure can warp a brain, can't it?

        This much I know for sure: technology wise, this is one of the most impressive offerings I've ever seen adorn the silver screen. Serkis is worthy of every drop of praise he consistently receives for being the Michael Jordan of motion capture acting, but he's nearly matched by Toby Kebbell as Caesar's untrusting foil Koba, and Karin Konoval as the emotive, I-can't-believe-that's-not-real orangutan Maurice. To be sure, there are moments when the artificial apes aren't perfect, but the way that they're almost seamlessly blended into a non-artificial environment is simply a marvel to behold. The action here, one of the low points of Rise, a film that didn't really seem that interested in blockbusters' normative shock and awe, is equally dazzling and weary-making, an epic that understands both the weight and toll of the violence it displays. I have a few gripes; Kebbell's Koba becomes a tad simplistic by the film's conclusion, and the humans once again come off a bit faceless. But this is undoubtably a strong film, and one that I can't wait to see again in order to gain a greater understanding. As of now, I'm worried about under-rating it because of my gargantuan expectations, or over-rating it because of the degree to which I've talked myself into being a through-and-through advocate for the picture. I'll go with the grade you see below, and remain EXTREMELY open to changing my opinion upon further examination.

Grade: B+

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Release Date: 6-27-2014)

         Say what you will about Martin Scorsese's ability to capture the mental instability of power-hungry males, or Quentin Tarantino's commitment to plunging head-first into his stylized fantasy land, but no American director manages to get as much of his pure psyche up onto a movie screen as Michael Bay. An auteur by each and every single definition of the word, the man's films retain an unmistakably similar world-view from picture to picture, not unlike the killing-yourself-to-live through-line in the work of Darren Aronofsky, or the sense of cosmic futility that remains ever-present in Coen brothers flicks. Bay likes his explosions big, his jokes juvenile, his runtimes elongated, his girls underaged and underdressed, and his guns ever-blazing. This might sound like par for the course in terms of summer action blockbusters, all sound, fury and expensive effects cobbled together by committee, but the Transformers films, Age of Extinction perhaps especially, are nothing of the sort. The problem here isn't too many cooks in the kitchen, but rather one single chef with unimpeachable control over the menu, and a decidedly closed-minded pallet. Ridiculous as it may sound, this series is a deeply personal under-taking, a clumsy, unrelenting eruption of one man's unbridled id and pubescent fantasies, subsidized by a massive pile of cash, and supported by millions the world over.

        Those neither engaged nor made comatose by Extinction's furious bombast (two camps that represent at least a small majority of the film's audience) will find the tale of Bay to be the most interesting aspect of the film. It certainly isn't the plot, a laughably asinine collection of government cover-up cliches and cardboard-cutout characters that serves to steer us from one action set-piece to the next. Laying its scene 5 years after the men in metal completely demolished Chicago, the hilariously entitled black-ops missive Cemetery Wind, spear-headed by the ruthless Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), has hunted down and killed nearly all remaining transformers, Autobots and Decepticons alike. Meanwhile, down-on-his-luck Texas inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, taking over leading man duties from Shia Labeouf), impulsively buys a beat up semi-truck for reasons that never become fully clear. And hey, wouldn't you know; that hunk of junk turns out to be Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), thus throwing Yeager, his teenaged daughter (Nicola Peltz, the new subject of Mike Bay's omnipresent ogling), and her car-racing boyfriend (Jack Reynor) into a narrative upon which they have the utmost minimal effect.

"The urine you discharge during the inevitable p*ss-break is guaranteed to flow better than any dialogue in this near three-hour movie."
        ---Ben Rawson-Jones (Digital Spy)

"Even by the low IQ standards of the three previous Transformers films, Transformers: Age of Extinction is grave and exceptionally stupid, with a plot as bewildering and incoherent as a caffeinated 5-year-old's explanation of the multiverse theory."
        ---Kirk Baird (Toledo Blade)

"Sitting through Transformers: Age of Extinction is like binge-watching the death of the human spirit."
        ---Devin Faraci (Badass Digest)

        These are just a few examples of the bilious reaction critics are having toward Bay's latest, but I personally cannot sum up the raging anger many are leveling against Age of Extinction. Yes, it is a long 165 minutes of mind-numbing stupidity, but the story they tell about this filmmaker, and the audience that netted the picture $100 million in its opening weekend, is a marvel to behold. Many films have a way of making fun of their audience throughout their runtime, but Extinction seems far more focused on insulting the legion of critics who have proven unable to derail the franchise thus far, Bay exacting revenge on all whom have doubted him, assuming his loyal viewers will equally relish in his anti-intellectualism. To boot, endless climactic throw-down is set in Beijing for reasons that feel inescapably cynical (Those holding out hope for a more artistic impetus should consider that A) a transformer literally says 'take the [MacGuffin bomb] to the biggest city' and B) Age is slated to become the highest grossing film in the history of China by the end of the week). Amidst the chaos, a why-did-I-sign-up-to-be-in-this? Stanley Tucci berates Wahlberg for his lack of a plan, at which point the action star asks if the Oscar nominee would like to take the reigns. Tucci cowers, and is told to shut up; one wonders who that message was for...

        That same level of frustration and backlash is felt throughout the film, and while the Transformers saga has always been derided for its spiteful worldview, this one raises the bar significantly. His 'bots seem especially vexed, Prime bellowing his intention kill someone in nearly every single scene, while a pair of his his more-than-meets-the-eye cronies display deplorable levels near-treachory (John DiMaggio) and hateful xenophobia (John Goodman). Then there's the problem with women; where else would we find a director so determined to keep his eye candy under-aged that, instead of finding his studly leading man a 20-something to romance, he's forced to go the daughter route to insure that his camera-violated starlet was born in the year 1995!?!. And who subsequently places her in constant un-fun mortal danger, including being pinned to the ground with a gun pressed hard against her temple? As a matter of fact, only one of the women with any real screen time (Sophia Myles) is over the age of thirty, and she's presented as a cold, calloused heart-breaker. Something tells me Bay hasn't always been too successful with the ladies.

         But here's the thing: I still think that the auteur truly believes that he's being all-encompassing and generous as opposed to displaying bigotry. Like the other three films in the franchise, Extinction is utterly determined to feature a multi-ethnic cast, only to have them play brazenly insulting and racist caricatures (Ken Watanabe continues to troll this summer's American blockbusters by pandering down to the very worst in Asian stereotypes, and going for broke). At one point, Marky Mark, an American flag waving in the background, sings the praises of his daughter to his (unspecified, but probably?) deceased wife by looking into the Texas night sky with a sense of ineffable wonderment plastered across is face. A shooting star slices through the night time. Seriously... a shooting star. Does that sound like a cynic to you?

        Look, by no means am I trying to recommend Transformers: Age of Extinction to you: it's brazenly moronic, subconsciously bitter, and the whole-point-in-even-going action sequences don't feel quite as inspired as in either the first or third installments (this and Revenge of the Fallen are neck-and-neck in the race for 'worst in the group,' with a slight edge going to Fallen). But for me, the joy of laughing at inhuman dialogue and beyond-canned delivery (Wahlberg is among the finest readers of stupid dialogue currently working in American film), paired with a think-piece about a man essentially treating gargantuan blockbusters as therapy sessions, is simultaneously thought-provoking and thought-annihilating. I wanted to think of a perfect closing line to finish this article, but, for my sanity, I need to stop thinking about Transformers, and I need to do it now.

Grade: I don't know... just don't go see it