Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Idiot Boxing: The Defenders (2017); Ballers, season 2 (2016)

The Defenders (2017)

One of Netflix's better offerings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), even if it misses the mark in a few areas.

In the first Avengers-style team up of the Netflix Marvel characters, The Defenders brings together the four grittier heroes introduced on the streaming service - Matt Murdock (a.k.a. Daredevil), Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand (a.k.a. the Iron Fist). Each one is a hero is his or her own way, but they all have demons lurking in their closets. All four are residents of New York City, where the nefarious and shadowy organization The Hand has been secretly exerting control for centuries. The four of them, each in their own ways, comes across The Hand's plot to essentially level New York in order to obtain a mysterious, magical substance from beneath the city's surface. Reluctantly, the quartet band together to stop The Hand, including their deadliest weapon - the assassin Black Sky, who happens to be Murdock's former lover, Elektra Natchios.

I found that The Defenders got many of the necessary elements right. The story finally fills in several details about The Hand and their dark plots which had been teased in the Daredevil and Iron Fist series. We finally learn more about the vicious and diminutive Madame Gao, the presumed dead Bakuto, and the other three "Fingers," who together with Gao and Bakuto make up The Hand's leadership. The show also brings to a conclusion story lines which were left dangling at the end of Daredevil's second season and Iron Fist's first. In fact, The Defenders can very much be considered Daredevil season 2.5. Unfortunately, the show also further highlights some major shortcomings in the first season of Iron Fist, making that entire season feel more like a lame, overly long prequel that one could dub The Defenders season 0.5. All the same, the eight episodes of The Defenders move things along at a good pace, bringing in each of the New York heroes in his or her turn and joining them together quite organically. Once this fully happens, in episode 3, the story clicks along at a satisfying pace that has sometimes been lacking in the other 13-episode, single-hero shows.

Another Netflix Marvel show, another hallway full of hench-
men get beat to hell. This was one of several strong action
sequences in the show - something sorely lacking in its
virtual prequel,
Iron Fist.
In addition to the general story and pacing being solid, I found that the characters were handled fairly well. I felt that Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones were written particularly well, feeling very much like the engaging characters who they've been in their solo shows. Oddly, Luke Cage wasn't quite as consistent as I had hoped. He's generally struck me as the deep and silent type, based on the first season of his show earlier this year. While he is often just that in The Defenders, there are moments when he seems a bit more rattled or even unreasonable than he should be. At this point in the MCU, where aliens have attacked several times and other world-threatening forces have arisen and been defeated by god-like superheroes, nobody should be surprised when they are told that organizations like The Hand exist and are trying to exert control over entire megacities. And yet, the writers decided to try and make Luke Cage the skeptic of the group, although he has been shown to be an exceptionally aware and intelligent man in his previous shows. And then there's Danny Rand, the "Immortal" Iron Fist. While he is handled better in The Defenders, he is still by far the least interesting or fleshed out of the quartet. The writers still don't seem to know exactly how to handle him: is he a ferociously angry young man out solely for vengeance? Is he an easy-going, cohesive force who casually throws back Chinese food while the forces of evil gather outside of their hideout? Is he a naive but wise Zen master? They haven't figured this out, though there are some intriguing options for what to do with his character.

The action was some of the best we've seen in the Netflix MCU shows. I can't say it was ever quite on par with some of the best sequences from Daredevil or even a few from Luke Cage, but there are some really fun segments that show off the different abilities and styles of the four heroes. They even worked in a few entertaining "cross-ability" maneuvers, such as Jessica Jones throwing a thug towards Cage, to have him clothesline the poor bastard two feet into the ground.. It was also fun to see Luke Cage simply "tank" hails of oncoming gunfire, while Murdock or Rand literally use his massive frame for shelter before emerging to unleash some vicious martial artistry. Coming on the heels of the woefully tepid fight scenes of Iron Fist, seeing The Defenders get mostly back on track was a relief. I do wish that some of the sequences were better lit and made less use of hyper-quick editing cuts, to let us enjoy the action a bit more, but I found it more than passable.

The Defenders was a success, in my eyes. It juggled several distinct elements and fused them in ways that didn't feel overly forced, and it put together an entertaining tale that was well-suited for an 8-episode series. While it is certainly not terribly accessible to those who haven't seen most or all of the other previous Netflix MCU shows, it should satisfy nearly all fans who have seen and enjoyed them.

Ballers, season 2 (2016)

I had gotten halfway through this season when I grew frustrated and stopped watching for a few months. Fortunately, after I had gone back to it, I found that the show righted the ship fairly well and turned in an enjoyable second season that fans itching for a mature sports show can appreciate.

At the end of the first season, former NFL player-turned-aspiring financial advisor to pro athletes Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and his partner Joe had managed to save a few key clients from slipping away, all while they were seriously considering the risky proposition of setting out to start their own company. Though Spencer's business dealings mostly fall back into line, his health issues continue to be problematic - he dodged one bullet by having a CT scan on his brain turn up negative, but his hip is causing him greater and greater discomfort, leading to higher and more furtive use of prescription painkillers.

These victories and demons follow Spencer into season two, which jumps forward a little less than a year after the first season. Spencer's roster of athletes is still relatively small, including dynamic and quixotic characters like Ricky Jerret and Vernon Littlefield. Spencer and Joe also roll the dice on a very talented but massively abrasive NFL prospect, Travis Mack. All the while, several nasty skeletons from Spencer's playing days' closet are laid bare when he tries to take down a powerful rival in the pro athlete financial advising business. By the end of the season, Spencer is broken down in several ways, clinging to a few shreds of hope that he can have some sort of post-playing days career.

As stated above, I had actually been worried about this show after the first few episodes, as it seemed like it was turning into little more than a showcase for lifestyles of the fictional rich and famous, and celebrity athlete cameos. However, once I went back to it, I was glad to see that the season's arc went back to the drama surrounding Spencer's pride, his injuries, and his desperate attempts to keep several massive egos in check, including his own. The final episode features a straightforward speech given by a tattered, bedraggled Spencer, which actually has some power to it.

A beaten-down Joe and Spencer take stock after dropping
several of the balls they'd been juggling, then going on a
bender. The show's at its best when these guys fail and end
up showing some vulnerability.
I have enjoyed how this show truly has stuck to the off-the-field aspects of professional sports, rather than going the typical route of building each season around a corresponding sports season. That latter approach always leans heavily on the ready-made drama of a player or team's attempts to succeed at their chosen sport. Ballers, in contrast, looks almost exclusively at how such athletes may succeed or fail in any and every other aspect of their lives, be it personal or financial. No, it doesn't do it with the gravity of a well-made documentary, but it's still a unique blend of fun and drama that scratches the itch of anyone who is into sports and the industries built around them.

I can't say that Ballers is an earth-shattering, must-see show for anyone. It is, however, a fun little foray into a vibrant world, with as charismatic and capable a ring-leader as one could imagine in Dwayne Johnson. It's a great lead-in to the upcoming football season, to be sure. I've already dived right into the current season, the show's third. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

New-ish Releases: The Accountant (2016); John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

The Accountant (2016)

Director: Gavin O'Connor

Sometimes, despite your best instincts, you give a movie a shot. In this case, this roll of the dice was inspired by this article, which I came across a week or so ago, in which the writer explains in fairly humorous ways how he is unable to stop watching this movie. So I gave it a shot. While it's not bad, it's hardly one that I see myself ever going back to, and I can see why many critics and viewers had problems with it.

Describing the plot in any real detail would be an exercise in hilarity and exhaustion, so I'll simplify: Ben Affleck plays an accountant, Christan Wolff, with high-functioning autism, which allows him to do numerical computations at phenomenal speeds, despite his lack of communication or general social skills. Ostensibly, he uses his preternatural skills as a run-of-the-mill accountant in a strip mall. Secretly, however, he does accounting for some of the most powerful, wealthy, and dangerous people on earth. He is also a highly trained martial artist, marksman, and all-around lethal weapon. On one particular accounting job for a large company, he uncovers a highly suspicious discrepancy. This turns out to be the proverbial thread which, once pulled, begins to unravel a massive conspiracy that leads to Wolff being hunted (see what they did there?) by a gang of highly trained mercenaries.

I'm no doctor, but it actually made more than a little sense to
me that a certain type of autism might actually manifest as
world-class sniping ability. But maybe that's just wishful
thinking on my part.
I can best describe this movie only as "watchable." My expectations were fairly low going in, hoping that it might be a "so silly it's great" kind of ride. A lot of it is silly, but not silly enough to warrant any sort of real devotion. There are plenty of plot twists and turns, but most of them can be seen coming from a mile away, and they aren't revealed or presented in any particularly creative ways. The notion of an autistic action hero was somewhat compelling for about half of the movie, but the writers fumbled what could have been far more plausible character development. What they ended up with was sloppy at best and insulting at worst. It didn't help that the script for Wolff and Ben Affleck's performance were uneven. Since it's heartless to even suggest that they make a comedy out of a very real affliction like autism, one can only feel that the creators' best move was to go more dramatic and realistic with the condition. They didn't get this right enough, with the Wolff character too often showing obvious signs of empathy and abilities to interact. This is in stark contrast to the nearly crippling condition which is depicted during the flashback sequences of the film showing Wolff as a child. I'm no doctor, but I'm reasonably certain that severe autism cannot be reduced by such a dramatic amount as the film would have you believe, especially not under the harsh conditions of Wolff's childhood.

But the movie, at least, didn't pretend to be a genuine study of autism. It's an action/suspense movie, and I did actually find many of the action scenes fairly engaging. When Wolff is confronted by a thug armed with an automatic weapon and whips him in the face with his belt, I was on board. The action scenes take several pages out of recent movies like John Wick (see my thoughts on the sequel in the review below), eschewing slow motion, embracing fast-paced, brutal fight scenes, and more than a few face shots. Don't get me wrong, The Accountant is not nearly as well-executed or as relentless as John Wick, but it does emulate that modern classic in the right ways here and there, making for a few fun action sequences.

Although I found it a modestly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, I'm not completely sure what the creators of this movie were going for. If they were trying to set up a franchise, I think they'll be bitterly disappointed. If they wanted to create a memorable one-shot, self-contained movie, it still falls a little short.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Director: Chad Stahelski

I actually saw this upon its initial release, but only just realized that I hadn't done a review of it. At any rate, it was a really strong follow-up to the immensely satisfying first chapter, even if it was a bit longer than I felt necessary.

Picking up very, very soon after the events of the first movie, we get Wick doing a bit of mop-up work against a few lingering Russian mafia clowns. At this point, just when Wick is ready to once again bury his profession and reputation as the most dangerous hitman alive, an old debt is called in by young organized crime prince Santino D'Antonio. As much as Wick wants to refuse, the debt is one that can only be repaid with his service or his life, forcing the reluctant assassin to comply. The job is no small feat, being to kill Santino's sister, Gianna, who is the newly anointed leader of their immensely powerful crime syndicate. In addition to accomplishing this arduous task, Wick eventually has to avoid countless other assassins who literally come gunning for him when a massive bounty is placed on his head.

The story is certainly not the stuff of high literature or cinema. But boy, is it fun for anyone itching for a slick, wild shoot-'em-up. The first movie was a surprisingly entertaining introduction into a visually stunning world where organized crime and assassinations are the rule of the day. Chapter 2 builds on this world by following Wick even deeper into the workings of the elaborate system of connections and protocols for the murderers and thieves who work and play in the dark corners of a place that can be deceptively similar to our real world. Really, though, I love how Stahelski and the writers make no bones about offering us what is clearly a dark fantasy world where swords are replaced by high-tech guns and magic is replaced by lethal reputation.

Just one of the many stylish and memorable set pieces in
the movie. Director Chad Stahelski shows off his great eye
for setting and choreography again and again.
A major strength of the first film was the intensity and even artistry with which the action scenes were executed. Chapter 2 does not slack on this in any way. While I do feel that some of the sequenves go on longer than necessary, in general there are enough changes in environment and choreography to keep things engaging for most of the movie's two-hour running time. I am not a person who enjoys most purely action movies (e.g. Fast and the Furious franchise and its ilk), but I've found myself hypnotized by the relentless intensity and kinetic strength of these first two films.

The plot? Don't expect too much, as with the first film. All you really need to know is laid out my my summary above, as it's just an excuse to watch John Wick do what he does best. The story keeps it all rather simple, which is exactly what it should do for this kind of movie.

So I still very much dig what Stahelski and Reeves have going here. I've read that the plan is to do one more film and create a rounded-out trilogy. This feels right, and I now have confidence that they can do it effectively. I wondered just how a sequel to the original would come off, and it really didn't disappoint, despite a few overstuffed elements. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Before I Die #604: The Kid Brother (1927)

This is the 604th movie that I've now watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Harold Lloyd

Mildly amusing slapstick farce from the tail-end of the silent film era. I didn't find it nearly as entertaining as most of the Buster Keaton silent comedies I've seen, though.

Typical of silent film-era comedies, the plot is hardly worth considering, even if a tad more complex that its peers: in the small town of Hickoryville in the western U.S., a traveling medicine show rolls into town. However, the town's most prominent family, the Hickories, are composed of a patriarchal sheriff and his eldest two deputy sons who despise such shows. When the youngest and by far most bungling Hickory boy, Harold (Harold Lloyd), accidentally grants the medicine show permission to perform in the town, two of the show's dastardly members take to conning and robbing the town of its funds to build a new, much-needed dam. Though quirky and diminutive Harold is not the physically-powerful type that his father and brothers are, he uses his craftiness and cunning to track down, outsmart, and eventually capture the pair of thieves in their hideout in an abandoned, sunken ship.

Similar to the films of Chaplin and Keaton, The Kid Brother is heavy on using its mostly deadpan star pulling off a variety of physical gags, often using the environment around him to deceive his various enemies. There are a decent number of amusing visual jokes, though they are geared more around the character Harold's knack for mechanical ingenuity rather than his own physical prowess. This is mostly why I found that I preferred Keaton's films - not only was the great "Stone Face" a much deader deadpan, but the diminutive gymnast's physical strength, agility, and timing have always set him far apart in my eyes. Lloyd's approach was different and respectable, but it simply didn't grab me the way Keaton always has.

I will say that I enjoyed how the story shifted to a rather fantastic setting for its final sequences. The set piece of the tilted, semi-sunken ship made for a great location for the showdown between Harold and the two villainous thieves. Though the pursuit and cat-and-mouse game felt a bit drawn out by its end, it was still one of the most unique segments I've seen in silent era comedies.

I'm glad that I finally saw a film by Lloyd, and I can see why he has often been mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and Keaton. I must say, though, that while I will continue to take in Keaton's movies and enjoy them, I don't really feel the desire to seek out any more of Lloyd.

That's 604 movies down; only 583 to go before I can die.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Documentary Fest! Lo and Behold (2016); I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Lo and Behold (2016)

Director: Werner Herzog

A fascinating look at the many aspects and implications of the Internet, though not quite as focused as some of its legendary director's other films and many documentaries.

As he's done with many of his documentaries, Herzog found his muse in his own insatiable curiosity. Wanting to get a better feel for the Internet and its many impacts in today's world, he sought out people involved in its creation and uses, both beneficial and damaging. These include some of the men on the original design team who created the very first servers and connections between California and New Jersey, people whose lives have been crippled by the ubiquity of electronics, people who lay out various doomsday scenarios made possible by our modern world's connectivity, and plenty of other interested parties.

While the width of the net that Herzog casts does manage to catch many people and subjects of interest, it also results in a general lack of any single, driving force or question. One can infer several larger, compelling implications from many of the segments, though there are several that seem more like tangential curiosities. For example, the film will have a section on how a single cyber attack or severe malfunction could essentially wipe out a power grid in much or all of entire countries. Then you will get a segment interviewing a single, addled old programmer rambling on about some wild conspiracy theories that seem to have little bearing on the larger picture. Nearly all of the sections of the documentary are of interest, but to such wildly varying degrees and quality that I felt myself wishing for a bit more cohesion from time to time. It does help that Herzog's unique brand of dry, quirky, dark, and sometimes unintentional humor can lighten the mood from time to time and put his novel stamp on this film as with nearly every other documentary I've seen of his.

Given that the Internet is arguably the single most powerful tool created by humans and that it is not going anywhere in our lifetimes, this is certainly a documentary worth checking out. It doesn't have the focus or power of some Herzog docs like Grizzly Man or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but it does allow us to follow the man's ever-inquisitive and refreshingly unflinching trains of thought.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Director: Raoul Peck

Captivating look at genius American author James Baldwin and his views on race relations and what it means to be black in the U.S.

The documentary is focused on Baldwin, a gay African-American man who was one of the more influential authors and civil rights critics for most of his life, primarily between the 1950s and 1970s. While Baldwin achieved high praise for his stories and novels at a relatively young age, he was just as talented and passionate a lecturer and debater - skills which he put to work by befriending and helping such civil rights leaders as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X., Martin Luther King, and others.

I Am Not Your Negro traces all of these major elements of Baldwin's life solely through the man's own writings. Instead of commentary from associates, professors, or the filmmaker himself, the documentary lets its subject speak for himself. This was a wise decision for director Raoul Peck, given just how brilliant, articulate, thoughtful, and poetic James Baldwin was. There is a richness to the man's thoughts and words that demands close attention and multiple exposures. There really was nobody else who could have explained his experience as a black man in this country better than Baldwin himself. Enhancing the narrative are the many photos and video clips of Baldwin on late night talk shows, in college lecture halls, or in public debates over the question of race, racial inequality, and the ugly history of African-American abuse in this country. It's one thing to hear the man's moving and impassioned words read to you by a subdued and solemn Samuel L. Jackson (who did a phenomenal job here), but seeing Baldwin's facial expression and physical postures and movements adds a strength to the man that can be missing from mere text or sound bites.

Further elevating this documentary above many of its ilk is how director Raoul Peck regularly intersperses video from modern times to reflect the ways that many of the social ills which Baldwin witnessed are still present in this country today. A segment focusing on Baldwin's writings on the horrors born of racism has equal modern impact when heard over video clips of African-Americans being beaten or killed in the 21st century, making it all the more clear that we are far from beyond such disturbing problems.

Had it not been for the amazing documentary O.J.: Made in America being released last year, I feel that I Am Not Your Negro would have won the Academy Award for best documentary. It is of the highest caliber, and it is one that everyone should watch at least once. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Retro Duo: Boy (2011); Enemy (2013)

Boy (2011)
The titular Boy, with his flighty but artistic brother Rocky
tagging along. Boy's T-shirt puts on display his love of pop
culture of the 1980s, when the story takes place.

Director: Taika Waititi

A brilliant early feature film from New Zealand native son, Taika Waititi.

I picked this one up on the recommendation of a Kiwi friend of mine, after I had told him just how much my wife and I had enjoyed Waititi's recent film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This friend actually stated that he enjoyed Boy even more, and I can now see why. The movie tells the story of the titular Boy, an 11-year old native Maori growing up in rural New Zealand in 1984. Like most of his family, friends, and those around him, Boy is obsessed with American pop culture, especially Michael Jackson. Such pastimes help him get through a rather tough life taking care of his several siblings, as his mother has long since passed away and his father has been in prison for several years. Boy's life takes a wild change when his father Alamein (Taika Waititi) is released from prison and turns up to resume his role as Boy's father. The problem is that Alamein is essentially a 30-year old adolescent even more obsessed with 1980s pop aesthetic and machismo than the local pre-teens.

Not unlike Waititi's later Wilderpeople, Boy does an excellent job of blending the quirky humor endemic to the region with some truly heartfelt examination of relationships between people. Yes, the surface makes many of the characters seem almost cartoonishly goofy at times, but the motivations and impulses behind their buffoonery have a genuine feel. Boy's adulation of his criminally immature father makes all the sense in the world for a motherless kid who is desperate for a father figure. And both his and his father's actions are, while laughably silly at times, do reflect relationship dynamics that feel authentic. In certain ways, there is a similarity to the movies of Wes Anderson, whose meticulous aesthetic and peculiar humor are just window dressing on what are usually touching relationship troubles between family members. Waititi achieves much the same effect, including some of the same humorous tone as Anderson but utilizing a look much more his own and that of his native New Zealand.

This is an easy movie to recommend. Only those with a low tolerance for quirky films would have any great problems with this one. It's a brilliant blend of humor, heart, and region that was a pleasure to watch.

Adam and Anthony's meetings are far from the joyful
"separated at birth" kinds of reunions that one might hope for.
Rather, their dual existences suggests far grander and darker
things about the world around them and their perceptions.
Enemy (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Intense. Menacing. Puzzling. Bizarre in a way that would probably make David Lynch proud. Enemy was not exactly what I expected from the talented director of Sicario and Arrival. But it is quite good.

The movie follows Adam, a college professor who seems to be going through the motions of his life with limited engagement or passion. This includes his job and his sexual relationship with what seems to be a relatively casual girlfriend. One day, Adam is watching a movie and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. Overcome by curiosity, Adam tracks down the actor, Anthony, and tries to make contact with him. Once the two come into contact, things become stranger and stranger for the both of them, and the very question of their being separate people starts coming into question. Sprinkled through the movie in a handful of different scenes are strange sequences involving spiders, sex, or a combination of both. At the story's end, only one of the two "twins" is left alive, although his identity is still in question, as is his perception of the reality around him.

I'm still trying to figure this film out, several weeks after I watched it. The fact that I am still immensely impressed by it and may watch it again, despite its disturbing tale and imagery, speaks to me of a richness that is all too rare in movies. The tale of Adam and Anthony can probably be interpreted in countless ways (and I've already looked up a few very solid, highly fascinating theories), and they are all intellectually stimulating. Some touch on themes of masculinity, while others on the notion of being an unwitting puppet under a totalitarian system. And there are certainly plenty of others. As tricky as it can be to arrive at a clear, definite explanation for the surreal elements of the story, it is quite clear that the writers and director Denis Villeneuve were expressing a fantastic and disturbing vision. It is not unlike certain films of the aforementioned David Lynch, perhaps most notably Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, wherein questions of identity and connection can abound but the sense of a cohesive artistic work still runs through the work.

Now that I've seen several of Villeneuve's movies, I'm all in with him. Like one of my other favorite modern directors, Darren Aronofsky, he tackles movies on vastly different but challenging themes and tones, and he does it with an amazing knack for visual and narrative artistry. I'm immensely excited about his upcoming Bladerunner: 2047, and whatever else he decides to helm after that. As for Enemy, it won't be to everyone's tastes, to be sure, given the dark mood and rather disturbing suggestions about relationships, identity, and society. But for those willing to delve into such places, this is a warped trip worth taking. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

New, spoiler-free, Release! War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Director: Matt Reeves

A very solid ending to an overall strong trilogy, all much to my surprise.

A touch of my history with this series: for most of my life, I had never really known much about the "Apes" series of films, aside from knowing about the classic twist at the end of the original 1968 movie and the fact that there always seemed to be marathons of the first five Apes movies running on television on Sundays during my childhood in the early and mid-1980s. I also didn't bother with the attempted 2001 reboot directed by Tim Burton. I did watch about 5 minutes of it a few years after its release, which was enough to realize that it was certainly not to my tastes. It wasn't until last year, during a big screen showing of the '68 original that I decided to give it a go. My full review is here, but suffice it to say that I found that the movie has not aged well. As much as I love finding worthy movie series to get obsessed over, the original Planet of the Apes did not inspire an urge to seek out the subsequent four movies in the original series.

And so it sat until I couldn't ignore the overwhelmingly and consistently positive reviews of this most recent reboot, kicking off with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and continuing in 2014 with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rise was surprisingly good, if not completely flawless. I was impressed with how they handled the background stories plausibly and with some genuine heart. The sequel, Dawn, was a rather different movie directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In). Dawn was an even grimmer tale of a struggle for survival and identity, showing even more narrative and character savvy than its solid predecessor. At that second movie's end, the hyper-intelligent chimp Caesar and his large band of similarly-intelligent primates had defeated two aggressive adversarial factions - one ape and one human - to leave them relatively in peace amidst a world where humans have been nearly wiped out due to a simian-borne virus.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up roughly five years after the events of Dawn, with Caesar and his community under siege from human military forces seeking to wipe them out completely. When a few members of Caesar's immediate family are killed in an assassination attempt on his life, he sends his community away to find a peaceful area farther to the east, while he and a few of his closest confidants attempt to track down and kill the man responsible for Caesar's loss - a military colonel played by Woody Harrelson. Caesar eventually finds the Colonel holed up in a small fortress with a loyal army of soldiers who are willing to kill and die for him in an effort to rid the planet of any remaining form of ape, as a form of perceived self-preservation.

The frozen, worn down shelter where Caesar's crew discovers
"Bad Ape" is one of several stunning and highly memorable
set pieces that grace the picture.
War is similar in tone to director Reeve's previous Apes movie in that it is mostly grim and severe, with only a few moments of levity. However, I never felt that this bogged down the movie, as the themes and questions raised are ones that are well worth pondering. There is also more than a little metaphorical food for thought, as one can easily view the harried apes as representing any one of the many groups of oppressed people throughout history. As one born and raised in the U.S., seeing enslaved apes being whipped, crucified, and eventually raising their fists in acts of defiant power quickly conjures up images of this country's historically brutal treatment of African Americans. It's especially hard to watch a scene in which Caesar, while being whipped, stares directly in the Colonel's eyes, and not see echoes of the similar and famous scene in Glory, with Denzel Washington offering Matthew Broderick's character the same icy glare. However, the apes could easily stand in for any "outsider" group who has been subjected to oppression and torture by those who fear them, whether its Jewish exiles of Biblical history or indigenous groups nearly everywhere in the world, Caesar's apes signify minorities' struggles throughout human history. One could probably get into a heated debate about using primates to represent such oppressed groups, but I felt that the movie handled it deftly enough.

But even such lofty themes can fall flat in films if they are not represented in sympathetic characters. As with Dawn, the film does an outstanding job with this, which is all the more impressive given that the most stirring moments are produced by computer-generated primates. Thanks to cutting-edge digital and motion-capture effects (the detail in Caesar's ever-more-vicious scowl is impeccable), along with some excellent physical acting by Andy Serkis and his "ape" cohort, it is easy to become invested in the plight of Caesar and his band. Enhancing the engagement on the character level is that the set pieces, environments, and other visual aspects of the film are outstanding, creating a cohesive look and feel to the entire movie.

I will say that, though the movie is solid top-to-bottom, it is one that I don't and perhaps won't feel the urge to see again. Despite the strength of virtually every element of the film, its grim tone and relatively unoriginal message (don't judge other groups until you know them) don't inspire repeat viewings for me. That said, I'm certainly glad I saw this final installment on the big screen, and I will be looking forward to future films that director Matt Reeves directs.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Retro Duo: Zodiac (2007); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Zodiac (2007)

Director: David Fincher

I actually saw this movie back in 2007 in the theaters and thought it was excellent. That was, however, the only time I had seen it until it popped up as streamable on Netflix about a month ago. After the mood struck me to fire it up, I was reminded of why I had such a high opinion of it a decade ago.

The movie tracks the investigation into the very real series of murders which took place in San Fransisco and other coastal California cities between the late 1960s and early 1970s. The killer infamously taunted the San Fransisco police department and media by sending letters to the major newspapers, daring them to try and discover his identity. Zodiac studies the years-long manhunt mostly through an unlikely vessel - San Fransisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith. As the Zodiac killer's letters arrive, Graysmith becomes more and more engaged in piecing the clues together to uncover his identity. Despite his many efforts, along with those of several dedicated and skilled police officers, the killer is never actually discovered or captured.

Zodiac is a highly unusual true crime movie, in that is offers none of the tidy satisfaction that many such movies serve up. Firstly, the murders are shown in a completely non-gratuitous way that truly chills one's bones. I greatly admire this approach, which prevents any sort of glamour from being placed on such vicious acts. Secondly, and perhaps most impressively, we do not get the satisfying, step-by-step detective tale that ends with the killer getting his just desserts. The road to identifying and arresting the man responsible is long, leads down many dead ends, and frustrates several good cops and earnest journalists into fits of near-insanity. By the middle of the movie, you can already feel these people's rage and feelings of impotence in the face of a murderer who not only brutally killed innocent people but also took pleasure out of taunting what he saw as the San Francisco establishment.

Telling such a tale in a way that is compelling cannot be an easy task, yet David Fincher pulled it off brilliantly. When I saw it in the theaters, I had a sense that the movie was overly long, though I did find it outstanding. During this second viewing, though, my sense of the movie being long-winded was completely gone. I could now see how each scene has its purpose and serves as its own small chapter in the greater tale. This is thanks to some strong writing and directing, as well as excellent performances all around by reliable actors like Jake Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and plenty of others. It should also come as no surprise that the cinematography and overall visuals are excellent - aspects of filming which Fincher never gives short shrift.

It's not a happy crime procedural in the vein of modern "Law and Order" shows, to be sure. But this is arguably one of the very best movies about a serial killer that has ever been made. If the topic itself is not too disturbing for you, I highly recommend setting aside the two-and-a-half hours to take this one in.

Cute little Caesar from the first movie
has learned a few hard lessons from life,
and he wears them in his gaze.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Director: Matt Reeves

The second in the modern "Apes" trilogy, this was another surprisingly well-done follow-up to the equally solid Rise of the Planet of the Apes, released in 2011.

At the end of Rise, the exceptionally intelligent (thanks to genetic engineering) ape Caesar had led a large-scale escape of dozens of apes whom had been subjected to experiments and torture. Unbeknownst to Caesar, he and his brethren were also carrying a virus, known to humans as simian flu, which then began infecting the human population.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after the end of Rise. Most of humanity has been killed by the simian virus. Caesar is the head of a large clan of apes living in an organically-constructed town in the forests outside of San Francisco. Still with him are several of the apes which he initially set free, before the outbreak of simian flu. Most notable are the massive and quiet orangutan Maurice and the still-bitter, tortured, and pugnacious Koba. The apes all live in relative peace, and they haven't even seen a human in two years. That is, until they come across a small group of them nosing around the apes' forests. One human gets spooked and accidentally shoots Caesar's son, Blue Eyes. This sets off a chain of events leading to a fight between an angry contingent of the apes and an enclave of human survivors who have been scraping out a meager existence in the husk of old San Francisco.

As silly as I found the original 1968 Planet of the Apes in many ways, it is extremely difficult to find much that is silly about Dawn. Yes, there are apes running around, riding horses and using guns. On the surface, it can seem completely ridiculous. But the themes of warfare, vengeance, xenophobia, and superiority are all thoroughly relevant, and they are handled with surprising skill here. Thanks in no small part to the stunning visual effects of Weta studios and some amazing motion-capture performances by Andy Serkis and others, even the apes evoke genuine feeling that is often missing from all-human cast, struggle-for-survival dramas. The apes like Caesar and Koba speak in short, simple sentences, but many of their words carry immense weight, given the context, and show thought and emotion with which we can empathize. And since the context is a more primitive world, with very little electricity or advanced technology, the prominence of questions about existence and survival feel completely natural. The resolution blends its action with its drama quite well, with the stakes feeling quite high on both a material and emotional level; this is impressive, given just how much of it involved computer-generated primates.

While I may not feel the need to rewatch Rise or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes again any time soon, I found them both pleasant surprises and very solid films, especially the latter. Perhaps the best praise I can offer is that, while I didn't bother to catch either of the first two in the theaters despite positive reviews, I plan to catch the final installment of the trilogy on the big screen. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

New, spoiler-free, Release! Dunkirk (2017)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Unflinching. Intense. Meticulously filmed. Grim but uplifting. Nolan's latest and most sober film is a sight to behold on the big screen.

Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of the eponymous city in 1940, as Germany was reaching its military apex in World War II. Over a few days in June, hundreds of thousands of English and French troops were cornered into the small Belgian town and awaited some form of rescue from the encroaching German ground and air forces. After several days of these ground troops choking down their fears and waiting along the beaches, British fishermen and boatmen several hours away are enlisted to boat across the channel to bring back as many men as they can. This, in the face of potential attack from some German air force or submarine attacks.

In short, I'll go ahead and say that this is now one of the ten best war movies of all time, due mostly to elements which can only be captured with the medium of film. Thanks to masterful visuals, cinematography, and staging, and meticulous attention to detail, the intensity and sensations of such a harrowing episode are brought to life probably as well as they possibly can be, short of actually being in the middle of the real events depicted. While watching the movie, I almost smelled and felt the damp, salty ocean water that must have taunted those stranded soldiers on the shore. I could feel the overwhelming sense of powerlessness and sometimes desperation as they waited and sometimes even watched certain avenues of escape be literally blown to bits and sunken before their very eyes. I don't know that even the best novels, photographs, or even first-hand accounts could have such an effect.

The standout element for me was the aerial scenes and battles. Curiously (and accurately), there were only a handful of fighter jets and bombers that were engaged on either side. But thanks to filming such as I've never seen and being able to watch the movie on a true 75mm IMAX screen (well worth the extra cost, by the way), I was entranced by having a pilot's eye view of World War II dogfights. As far as this aspect of movies go, Nolan just set the bar extremely high for any similar scenes shot in the future. These aerial sequences were the standout among many excellent large-scale visual segments throughout the movie.

A close-up look at one of the few R.A.F. pilots involved in the
evacuation. Along with these intimate shots inside the jets, the
exterior shots and "pilot's eye view" perspectives during the
actual dogfights are absolutely stunning.
My issues with the movie mostly boil down to one thing, which is Christopher Nolan's decision to not tell the story in a chronologically linear fashion. Yes, we all know that he has used circular and flashback narratives to excellent effect in the past, most notably with Memento and The Prestige, but I think it was a poor choice for Dunkirk. When I think about how the movie would have played out in linear fashion, I get the sense that it would have had as much or even more power than it already does. Yes, the non-linear narrative allows us to meet more of the characters earlier than we would have otherwise, such as Mark Rylance's boat captain and Tom Hardy's R.A.F. pilot. But I don't think theirs and others' stories would have lost their power had we met them halfway through the movie as opposed to within the first ten minutes, as the staggered time narrative gives us. It makes me hope that when the film is released on home media that there is actually an option to watch it chronologically, just to see if my hunch is correct.

Despite my slight issues with the narrative structure, and a lack of any specifically memorable individual characters, this is a grand telling of one of World War II's lesser-known episodes (at least here in the U.S., where we often forget that the war had been raging for years before we got involved in 1942). If you have any intention of seeing this movie, I can't recommend enough seeing it on the big screen, and even splurging for the IMAX experience if it's an option for you. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Before I Die #603: Napoleon (1927)

This is the 603rd movie I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Abel Gance

Massive and quite captivating much of the time. This is saying something for a five-and-a-half hour movie.

I'll admit to "cheating" on this one a bit. I didn't watch the entire 320-minute film in one sitting. Rather, I watched it in roughly one-hour segments over six days. This was probably wise, as forcing myself to absorb the whole thing may have done it a great injustice. The movie's title gives you the subject - that titanic force of history, Napoleon Bonaparte. French director Abel Gance, who had created the epic drama La Roue a few years prior, took on arguably the most iconic figure of his country's illustrious history. The movie really covers key moments in the man's earlier life, between Napoleon's boyhood and the moment that he achieves his greatest victories in his Italian campaigns. The movie ends here, not getting into his actual rule of France or his eventual downfall and death in exile on the island of Saint Helena.

The movie is taxing in terms of length, but it is still impressive in many places and in many aspects. The most trying element for modern viewers is likely to be just how overly long some of the sequences extend. Storytelling in film would get far leaner and more efficient over the succeeding few decades, but back in 1927 it was still commonplace for action and battle sequences to go on for five, ten, or even twenty minutes longer than was necessary to make a point or tell a visual picture. Napoleon features many such sequences, which are not helped by the fact that the visuals are not always terribly crisp. Similar to what you find in other large-scale war movies of the time, such as Griffith's Birth of a Nation, certain scenes will be obscured by massive amounts of smoke billowing for long enough to simply frustrate rather than build a sense of place. Certain pursuit scenes also tend to drag in places, in particular a long chase scene in which Corsican government officials pursue a fugitive Bonaparte across the plains of the island. If one were to use modern editing to trim away the fat, this film could probably be a very tight 180 or 210 minutes, rather than the sometimes-bloated 320 in which it clocks.

Like the man he portrays in the film, actor Albert Dieudonne
(left) was small in stature, but could exude an imperious aura
through his posture and steely gaze.
Still, the length aside, I was impressed at many moments in the film. Most obvious was the performance of Albert Dieudonne as the diminutive general. Dieudonne was rather striking as the short but supremely intense, confident, and capable Napoleon, and he often did it with a subtlety rare for starring roles at that time. There are several scenes in which Napoleon shuts down detractors or insolent suboordinates by merely staring them down. This sounds trite, but the scenes actually work, even by today's standards. And while much of movie features Bonaparte carrying himself with the imperious carriage that we associate with the man, there are a handful of scenes and moments when his posture relaxes, typically around his lady love Josephine. The contrast in physical language was essential for the silent era, and Dieudonne did it expertly, without ever overselling it in the way that most of his contemporaries did.

I'm no expert on Napoleon, but I have seen a couple of solid documentaries on the man and read a little bit. This movie was obviously meant to be something of Gance's version of Braveheart for the French - a very rousing, nationalistic look at a powerful and, at certain points, unifying figure in France's history. As such, there are some rather obviously nationalistic elements to the story. Honestly though, now that we're over 200 years past Napoleon and nearly 100 years past this film's release, it is easy to take some simple pleasure out of such scenes. One in particular features Napoleon storming into a regional government office in the island of Corsica, taking the French flag, declaring that the selfish and bickering bureaucrats are not worthy of it, and then using the flag as a sail to flee them and return to the motherland. How do you not get some kind of enjoyment out of such bald-faced patriotism?

Apparently, this movie had languished and been considered somewhat "lost" for many decades, due to there being a lack of a high-quality print. That was recently rememdied when the British Film Institute released a very nice restoration of the entire thing. It is, however, still rather tough to find outside of the U.K. If one is so inclined, though, it is worth seeking out. Fans of film history are bound to appreciate more than a few things about this old epic. Just be ready for a bit of dead weight here and there.

That's 603 movies down. Only 584 to go before I can die.