Tuesday, July 18, 2017

WAR WELL FOUGHT: "War for the Planet of the Apes" Is A Powerful Conclusion To The Trilogy



The Planet of the Apes franchise is one of Hollywood’s longest and most enduring film properties. Yet, at one time or another it also became one of the most dismissive; especially after Tim Burton’s poorly received Apes remake, which almost served as proof that there was no life left in the concept. It was a pleasant surprise that Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was not only well constructed, but acclaimed both critically and popularly. A change in director was perhaps one of many factors that made its follow up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) better than the original, building a narrative crescendo that peaks to a spectacular climax in War for the Planet of the Apes

In this third outing, taking place two years after the events of Dawn, Ceasar (Andy Sirkis) still leads his band of apes, ever vigilant against humanity’s desire for their extinction. He’s content to keep his people hidden within the confines of their jungle environment, until the military zealot Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) strikes him a devastating blow. With the accepted-reluctantly aid provided by Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) which leads Caesar on a quest to end McCullough and this war once and for all.

One of the brilliant aspects of this series is the creation of an entire mythology through the telling of a singular, personal narrative; specifically, through the life journey of Caesar (Andy Sirkis) from his humble beginnings through his personal conflicts. When taken as a whole, his cinematic journey parallels that of the biblical figure Moses, cast out and taken in by a different people, raised as one of them, only to be cruelly reminded that he is radically different, and finds himself leading his people out of captivity and slavery, searching for a promised land to call their own. It’s this (not so) subtle parallelism that gives the proceedings a greater dramatic weight than even the original 1970s films ever contained (when they were simply dismissed as atomic age allegory). But these parallels aren’t the only things that elevate this film series. Military and (arguably) jingoistic/religious zealotry, coupled with the desire to exterminate an entire race for the sins of a few are sadly relevant today. This makes for a nagging uncomfortable feeling, since the film’s perspective skews decidedly in favor of the apes, whose oppressive victimization is escalated here. Unlike the previous two films, the humans here, epitomized in Harrelson’s surprising and effective turn as the unhinged McCullough, are almost completely unsympathetic. While there is an argument to be made for McCullough’s point of view, it is vaguely defensible at best. The film presents two points of view, and the tragedy that exists and persists when intransigent viewpoints hold. It argues that intransigency lays the foundation to the Apocalypse, and it is a metatextually resonant message.

While it’s difficult to determine with certainty whether there is an intentional political agenda behind this film, there is no argument that this is not only the best film in the series, but a powerful, engaging film in its own right. Matt Reeves, returning as director for the second time, proves his mastery at mood. The action sequences, while impressive, take a back seat to moments. The pacing is that of a thriller (psychological or horror, take your pick), replete silent, maddening tension, ready to explode at a moment’s notice, leaving the viewer anticipating and dreading when it comes, if ever. Michael Giacchino’s score, much like Bernard Hermann, uses his orchestrations to ratchet the moments, and it’s one of the few times his scoring comprises of recognizable, distinct motifs. They stand out on their own and stay with you even as they build the mood of their specific themes. Never would one have thought that an Apes movie would be stylistically considered Hitchockian. Stranger things have happened.

But for all of its possible lofty intentions, the strength of this film likes in its characterization. Frankly, these films in general, and this one in particular, would be nothing without Andy Serkis. His evolution of the Caesar character is this series’ hallmark, giving depth and poignancy to what could have been dismissed as a CGI gimmick. Here, his Ceasar is tired and world weary; yet also resolutely vengeful as he ventures away from his flock to exact personal retribution. His journey is tumultuously emotional even as it is physical, yet filed with dignity and resoluteness. It’s a powerful performance by Serkis. Supporting players Konoval, Notary, and Adamthwaite bolster Serkis’ performance while keeping their own characters dramatically arresting in and of themselves. Newcomer Amiah Miller is precocious as the mute girl the quartet encounter in their journey, and special mention goes to Steve Zahn as “Bad Ape”, a chimp whose ability to speak rivals Caesar’s own proficiency and provides MUCH needed comic relief to this film. But no matter how powerful the performances are, they would have been disserviced if the special effects weren’t top notch. The CGI has advanced to the point that the apes are as natural as anything seen on screen, melding seamlessly with not only their surroundings, but the human playing actors as well. The viewer has no choice but to buy into it.

War of the Planet of the Apes serves as a fitting end to a trilogy, as well as a foundation for future films. It is a powerful and arguably far-too-resonant piece of artistic filmmaking, allegorical not only to the myths of the past but to the possible dangers of the future. What could have once been dismissed as campy escapist absurdism has instead transformed into Shakespearian apologue; a cautionary tale which shines a subversively disturbing, unapologetic light upon humanity, quixotically doing so entertainingly. It's a film to go ape for.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

WELCOME HOME: "SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING" PRESENTS A CHARMED AND TRIUMPHANT THIRD START




Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts (sharing screenwriting credit with five other screenwriters) and starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr., Jon Favreau, Jennifer Connelly, and Marisa Tomei, is the latest hard reboot in the Spider-Man cinematic franchise, and the first to be done under the Marvel Studios umbrella. It is also, without equivocation, the most enjoyable of those films, even as it strays the furthest from its source material. As a title, Homecoming has its tongue firmly planted in cheek; an acknowledgement of the character's returning to the "Marvel fold", so to speak. However, it serves as an evocative declaration that this is a different sort of Spider-Man film, and indeed it is. 

Following the events of last year's Captain America: Civil War, fifteen-year-old high school student Peter Parker (Holland) is chomping at the bit for another mission with The Avengers. Hoping to be called to action by Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), he instead finds himself being "nursemaided" by a reluctant, none-too-happy Happy Hogan (Favreau) and being told to keep his feet on the proverbial ground. When Parker stumbles upon a series of tech crimes being perpetrated by a gang led by Adrian Toomes (Keaton) and finds that the adults brush him off, its up to Spider-Man to try to save the day, while he attends high school, suffers indignities at the hands of bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), try to approach his crush Liz (Laura Harrier), and avoid detention. 

From the time the fanfare ushers the film's start, it practically proclaims an entertaining experience to come.  For example, instead of retreading on well-mined material (i.e., the actual origin, Uncle Ben), the story proceeds as if the audience is already familiar with those events. This alone would be refreshing even if it weren't so cleverly presented. The opening montage post-Marvel logo effectively recaps this Spidey's cinematic introduction from a different perspective while effectively establishing the tone, relationships, and conflicts going forward. Much like the opening shot of Robert Zemekis' Back To The Future (1985), it provides a subconscious shorthand that sets one up for what comes next. It's an impressive promise regarding storytelling, one that Watts and co. deliver on the entirety of the film's runtime.

As Marvel Studios expands its cinematic catalogue, there seems to be concerted effort to make each film and character unique in its own sub-world. In this case, Homecoming can be described as super-heroics by way of director John Hughes (indeed, director Watts has publicly stated this was the aesthetic he was going for). First and foremost, it's a coming of age story. It's about a teenager who's struggling with his own adolescence (who just happens to have arachnid abilities), and Watts presents the conflicts in Parker's normal life with as much weight as those inherent in his heroic identity. As such, don't expect the creepy stalker/self-assured possession of Tobey Maguire or the spastic twitching of Andrew Garfield. Here, Holland comes closest to his comic book counterpart's personality, his performance recognizing that Spider-Man's classic devil-may-care banter and bearing, mask Parker's adolescent insecurity. It would not be hyperbole to say that Holland's interpretation is a revelation except for the fact that he makes it seem so damn natural. There's not much suspension of disbelief required to believe he's a high school kid (even if he was 20 years old at the time principal photography concluded). He and his fellow classmates (with special kudos to Jacob Batalon as Peter's BFF/"chair man" Ned, and Zendaya as the snarkily-observant Michelle) are effectively convincing as high schoolers. But it's Holland who truly carries the weight of this film on his shoulders and, unlike the character he plays to a certain degree, he carries that weight effortlessly.

It's not just a coming of age story for Peter Parker. Surprisingly, given the considerable lack of screen time, this also works as one for the once and future Iron Man. The evolution of Stark's character over the course of a decade has seen him transform from an irresponsible man child to a mentor who "sounds like his father". Downey, Jr. plays up that undesired and uncomfortable change within the character in a satisfying turn. It's a change of perspective (one hinted at in Civil War), and inversion of character, that Watts exploits to great effect. Marisa Tomei's Aunt May is no dowager, but a thoroughly modern woman of certain charm, serving as basis for a film-long running gag.

But no hero can become one without a challenging villain. One of the main criticisms against the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the cookie-cutter, non-menacing nature of its villains (including Daniel Bruel's Helmut Zemo, though he was by far the most successful of them). That streak ends here with Michael Keaton, who takes arguably one of the lamest of Spider-Man's foes and makes him the most relatable, yet most effectively menacing and dangerous villains to date. His presence from his opening shot onwards elevates the film to a whole other level. His casting would bring about the requisite "from Batman, to Birdman, to Vulture" jokes, but his performance here is no laughing matter. His Vulture is a mixture of Carter Hayes' madness with Daryl Poynter's angst, Bruce Wayne's drive and Beetlejuice's mania. Yet for all that, it's a rare instance of understanding the motivations of the monster within, empathizing with him, yet still be in fear and awe of what he is capable of. Yet this role also proves how much he has developed as an actor, and how he has mastered the art of subtlety. One scene in particular stands out. Its a quiet one on the surface, but so full of subtext and nuance, it seems to belong more in a suspense thriller than a fantasy actioner. And yet his performance balances out Holland's with a wonderful give-and-take between actors that stands above the scenes that pre-and-proceed it. Rare on this blog are the words tour de force utilized, but this is one performance that merits the honorific. Keaton is nothing short of magnificent. 

Another complaint levied against this film from its inception is how far it strays from the source material. Given the behind-the-scenes back and forth regarding studio rights of the character, this is to be expected. For example, a justifiable argument is that having Spider-Man's suit be comprised of Stark tech minimizes the Peter Parker character's genius. Watts and the screenwriters both acknowledge and invalidate said argument organically in story. In other words, the trick is in the presentation...and this presentation separates it from its predecessors by inverting those films' formula: less angst, more fun. This film is FUN, plain and simple. So much so, that it stands apart from the other Marvel Studios' films even as this film firmly entrenches the character in it. A viewer would be cynically jaded not to be caught up in Holland's enthusiasm as the character. The stunts and the CGI are flying on all cylinders, and the humor is organic and unforced (including an unexpected cameo used to comedic effect). Easter eggs for the initiated abound. Michael Giacchino's score is evocatively rousing as it pays a pleasing homage to the past. The story contains no filler, moving at a pace which keeps the character moments as engaging as the action sequences, and the requisite "Chekov's Gun" is present, though among the most subtly presented in these series of films; so much so that it's a genuine surprise to those not looking for it. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming is an amazing film presented in spectacular fashion. Easily the best of the Marvel tales presented in the last few years, and, though this reviewer finds it slightly irksome that each stand-alone film is turning into a Marvel team-up, Homecoming is a stand-out film in its own right. Though it strays the most from the source material, with apologies (and thanks for setting the template) to Sam Raimi and Mark Webb, it's the best of Web-Head's cinematic adventures to date.  It entertains from first frame to last. Instead of groaning "another one", you'll demand "when's the next one".

"DESPICABLE ME 3" IS GRU-VY TO WATCH



I was speaking to a friend the other day around the time Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was released, when I mentioned that film was next on my review slate, said person stated the question that invariably pops up anytime the next entry in a line of sequels come out: "Ugh, do we really need another one?"

One may as well ask: Do we really need any film? Or any work of art? Films on their own are not necessary on a practical level, so they don't qualify as a "need" or "necessity". The industry, let 's not forget, was predicated by, and built for entertainment. It's ability to instruct and inform can be argued to be completely ancillary; a side effect, as opposed to it's raison d'etre

But for many others, some films do "need" to exist for a particular viewer or set of viewers. Some of those cinematic franchises touch people in ways others do not. Your milage as to their value may vary. However, there are some films that, despite the perceived onset of franchise fatigue, do need to be made.

Despicable Me 3 is one of those.

You might think I've taken leave of my senses, and you're probably right. After being fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing yet again to capture the 80's obsessed villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, South Park), Gru (Steve Carrell) suffers an identity crisis funk until he is approached by the long lost brother he never knew, Dru (Carrell again, pulling double duty) and offered an opportunity to return to his villainous ways, even as Lucy (Kristen Wigg) suffers an identity crisis of her own, from both being unemployed and not knowing if she could ever act as mother to Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (newcomer to the series Nev Scharrel). All this compounded by a Minion Mutiny, led by Minion Mel (Pierre Coffin). It would be difficult to keep things fresh in a three film series (four, if you count The Minions), but at least directors Peter Coffin, Kyle Balda, and Eric Guillon do their best, even if the results is mixed. The compare and contrast between Gru and Dru, for example, is an interesting take, evoking Mad's "Spy v. Spy" aesthetic without aping their characterizations, with their relationship serving to show Gru in a different light. The push and pull between Lucy and the girls aren't given the type of conflict one would expect, and this is also a good thing, even as it feels like the undermining of story potential. Trey Parker's "Bratt" lives up to his name and, while it's not a vocal performance that could be deemed revelatory, he services his character well, even if annoying vocal call backs to Randy Marsh pop up now and then. The musical choices of Heitor Pereira and Pharrell Williams are interesting and, in a couple of cases, inspired, enhancing the zany shenanigans.

As always, the animation is top notch, with the characters, their actions, and movements exaggerated for great effect. In this film more than most, the story, such as it is, follows suit. What I mean to say is that the story is not as structured as the previous entries, and thus more random gonzo "squirrel" moments take place. Needless to say, the Minions' antics remain highly amusing, but the directors have learned that "less is more", and credit them to find a way to minimize their involvement that fits within the narrative. The humor is hit and miss, but much more the former than the latter this time around.

Given the above, it does seem like there's very little that makes this film stand out from the current staple of summer '17 films. Of course, that's me speaking as an adult critic...one that takes into account the audience he sat with. The target audience were enraptured, completely caught up in the film, laughing where they should, feeling apprehensive when the film called for same, and cheering at the climax. Manipulative? Absolutely. Name one of the competition's animated staple that isn't. The point here is that in a world that seems more bleak and uncertain than ever, and one that is reflected more so in entertainment, a film that allows itself to be silly and corny, and revels in it, is one that is "needed" more than ever. Despicable Me 3 is escapist, silly fun. That's no pork about that.