Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spider-Man 3 (2007) 2.5 of 4

** contains spoilers **

I've never been a superhero fan, but then how much do you need to know: he's Spider-Man, he swings from buildings, saves damsels, beats up bad guys.  Does whatever a spider can -- except repulse women.  (And that helps us understand why he's a role model to nerds.)         

In this episode: Peter takes Mary Jane to Central Park, spinning a web so they can lie suspended and look up at the stars, just like young men in love have done for ages after being bitten by a radioactive spider.  You know this can't last, and sure enough, some black goo crawls off a just-landed meteorite and makes its way to Peter, who becomes the superhero equivalent of Jerry Lewis's lothario persona in The Nutty Professor (this represents Peter's already inflated ego: he can't muster empathy when Mary Jane gets her first negative review, then gets canned from her Broadway gig).

This installment's middle-aged supervillain (cinema supervillains are always old enough to be the superhero's Dad) is Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman, who can hide easily because, well, he turns into sand.  This allows some impressive effects scenes.  I expected some kind of redemption for Sandman, whose life of crime started with a need for money for his sick daughter, but the movie seems to lose interest.  There may be a parallel with Obamacare.
Eventually, Spidey reconciles with his frenemy Harry, a.k.a. Green Goblin (James Franco), and together they defeat the bad guys, including sleazy photog Eddie (Topher Grace), who's been zapped by the black goo and is having a great time being his own dark side, a.k.a. Venom.  There's a nice little message to the effect that you always have a choice in life, meteorite or no meteorite.

This is the last Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, and feels like a lark.  With Maguire, Topher Grace, and James Franco, this movie really had its eye on young females, especially the ones who like slight, non-threatening white guys.  As for me, I hope to finally remember that Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are two different people. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) 3 of 4

** this review (especially where noted) has spoilers on the original Planet of the Apes movie-cycle **

In the mid 1980s, I started taking notes on each film viewed.  I have no record of a review of this film, which means I just saw it for the first time in at least 30 years.  It's better than I thought. 

The Planet of the Apes franchise is of course science fiction, so it's all speculative.  Still, this film is clearly offered as a possible future: the characters even discuss whether they can prevent the apocalyptic timeline portrayed in the earlier films.  The story is also framed with a speech by "the Lawgiver" (John Huston), speaking some centuries in the future.  Since the film asserts the possibility of changing the timeline, this frame emphasizes that the characters have choices, that their choices will influence the future, even centuries down the line.   

Battle is the only Apes film in which apes and humans coexist in peace, although that peace doesn't last.  The apes are still led by Caesar (Roddy McDowell), who led the slave revolt in Conquest.  Caesar has created a utopian community of apes and humans, although the apes are dominant.  Although war has killed most of the Earth's population, the idyllic community is sheltered among rolling green hills evocative of Tolkien's Hobbiton, or the legendary Arcadia. 

The premise and setting are inspired, and the film has an eerie charge.  Battle is, I think, significantly better than Conquest, which is just a dutiful recounting of the inevitable ape takeover.  Like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Conquest is an in-between sequel that never establishes it's own identity.  Also, Fox was uncomfortable with the disturbing ending to Conquest (inspired by the Watts riots); they demanded it be softened with Caesar's promise of mercy for the subjugated humans. 

Although the original ending has been restored on the DVD, we should remember that Battle is a sequel to the softened version of Conquest, thus it starts with an uneasy peace between apes and humans. 

Making a high-profile film series that allegorically addressed the racial tensions of the U.S. took its toll on the filmmakers.  Screenwriter Paul Dehn had to quit Battle for health reasons, and his story was altered.  For example, the new scripters excised Dehn's idea that the apes deliberately deprived humans of their ability to speak (thus the mute humans in Planet of the Apes).  Both Dehn and producer Arthur Jacobs, the prime mover behind the franchise, died within three years of Battle's release.   

Like Conquest, Battle was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson spent the 1960s making blockbusters: The Guns of Navarone, Taras Bulba.  In the early 1970s, he sobered up, and was looking for a meaningful challenge, and found it in the Apes franchise.  I suspect Thompson was deeply shaken by the shocked reaction to the violent end of Conquest, evidence his dazed quote  about the changed ending:  "It was a copout, but a copout I was fully in favor of." 

** severe spoilers ahead **

I believe this recent stress caused Battle's greatest flaw, action scenes that pull their punches.  The plot turns on the death of Caesar's son when a gorilla chops the branch the youth is standing on.  Unfortunately, the scene is ridiculous as filmed, as we're asked to believe that a young, healthy chimpanzee would die from a fall of about 15 feet.  It doesn't work at all.  Similar flaws plague the climactic battle.  This attack by a human clan on the ape village looks hokey, with a small number of human soldiers, and the continual re-use of the same exploding treehouse. 

Still, the film holds up well as an unsettling, alternate-reality variation on the Blaxploitation genre.  Although not the best of the series, it retains some potency at a point when most movie-series are scraping bottom.  Then and now, Battle for the Planet of the Apes confronts the viewer, because of course, we are the ones deciding possible futures.   

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Invasion (2007) 2 of 4

** contains increasingly severe spoilers, as noted **

This is the fourth film based on the 1955 Jack Finney novel The Body Snatchers.  The first two (and better two) were both called Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The third was Abel Ferrara's 1992 Body Snatchers, which has its defenders.  I suspect this 2007 version will also become a cult favorite, especially if a director's cut is ever released.

The Invasion is also one of a series of fantasy remakes that fortified Nicole Kidman's bank account (The Stepford Wives, Bewitched).  Kidman plays a D.C. psychiatrist named Carol Bennell.  Her best friend and maybe-boyfriend is Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig).  Much of the drama stems from Carol's efforts to reunite with her son Oliver, who's been taken to Baltimore by his father, Tucker, during a public-health crisis.

The main problem for the filmmakers is the familiarity of the subject matter, which is not confined to the four credited adaptions but encompasses the entire viral-horror subgenre.  The Invasion fails to distinguish itself, but it has a nice, chilly feel, and tries hard to provide the subtext essential to this kind of parable.

** moderate spoilers ahead **

The film shows an America guilty of divisions: just as Carol has split from her ex-husband, and her patient (Veronica Cartwright, also in the 1978 film) has a "volatile" relationship with her husband, so the broader nation is divided: when the space shuttle crashes, the story dominates the various cable news channels, reminding us of a modern U.S. that's united only by crisis.  (Listen closely and you'll hear a theory that the crash was intentional, which suggests that at least one astronaut was trying to save the nation from possession by alien spores.)

There are repeated references to psychiatric medications.  The filmmakers seem to have a grudge against Clonazepam (they carefully avoid the more familiar brand-name, Klonopin), although why Carol grabs an extra supply when she needs to stay awake is unclear.  Carol prescribes freely, even for little Ollie, who's having nightmares.  The suggestion is that we're using stopgap measures such as medications instead of resolving real problems. 

The most outspoken person in the film is a Russian diplomat who declares civilization a lie to distract from our competitive, animal natures.  Gently sparring with Carol, he asks if there's "a pill to make me see the world as you Americans do."  Carol contends that humans are still evolving, referring him to the work of renowned psychologists. 

This is the first of the four versions to be directed by a non-American, but if Oliver Hirschbiegel (he's German) was compensating by including a namesake in the story, it wasn't enough: he was replaced in post-production by the Wachowskis (The Matrix), who added lots of action, making the film into something a 21st century studio could understand.  The real problem here is not the direction or tone, though (or even that it was preceded by the 2005-06 series called Invasion), but that the film doesn't seem to know what it wants to say. 

** severe spoilers ahead **

One of the reasons for the success of the 1978 film by Philip Kaufman was that W.D. Richter's script cannily updated the tale with the trends of hedonism and pop psychology.  Arguably, the U.S. hasn't changed much since 1978, so there's less inspiration for a new film to draw on.  The exception is the increasing death-grip of our political correctness, which The Invasion lacks the nerve to mention.  Like its characters, this film is openly ambivalent about a collectivist world in which strong emotion is outlawed, and where peace breaks out all over (according to featured news reports).

Or maybe this is the point?  Maybe the non-American actors and director were trying to subvert a cherished text of American subversion?  Fair enough as a goal, but it doesn't seem to work here. 

Carol's ambivalence is signaled not just by her medicating but by her choice of Ben, a smooth Brit who doesn't change all that much once possessed by aliens.  Near the end, an exhausted Carol almost gives in, but continues fighting once the pod-people make clear her son, who's immune, won't be allowed to survive.  Maybe Carol has also seen the earlier films in this franchise, so like the audience, when told not to drop her guard or go to sleep, she's tempted to reply, "What, again?" 


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Jane Eyre (1943) 3 of 4

Cathy and Heathcliff in Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights
** Spoilers ahead **

This is a 65-year-old film that adapts a 165-year-old book, so viewing it by political correctness is like kicking a cripple down a flight of stairs.  Alas, to avoid so doing requires more restraint than I presently have at my disposal.

(I haven't read the book or seen the other films, so this is based on the Orson Welles-Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre.)

For much of the film, brooding Rochester psychologically tortures steadfast Jane, tantalizing her affections without telling her she can ever be more than a servant to him, and repeatedly testing her loyalty.  And I suppose it's true to life -- Rochester is rough with Jane without being an outright bastard -- I hear the ladies like that sort of thing.  Note however that the modern-set parallel that comes to mind is downright sadomasochistic, Secretary.
The racial element comes in via Rochester's locked-away, long-gone-mad wife, Bertha.  In a hushed, horrified tone, Rochester finally explains that when young, Bertha had no "chastity or temperance"; apparently, this means she went on quite the mattress tour of Spanishtown, Jamaica.  To a mid-century, white audience, the implications of this summation would've been unmistakable: she was such a slut that she slept with darkies and went crazy.  And the church said, "Amen." 

(In the book, Bertha is a Creole, half-black and half-European.  I don't think this is mentioned in the film, but even if it is my reading stands.  Rochester's life has been tainted by sexual association with blacks.)

Again, we must remember that this is fiction from long ago.  It makes the film difficult, however, because the plot hinges on the unseen wife, and the fact that her story is almost too terrible to speak aloud.  Back then, marriage really was "til death," and considered sacred; Bertha's behavior was from Hell.  Her very existence threatens to destroy Rochester.

The last line of the film reminds us again of race.  The recovered Rochester is now happily married to Jane, and they have a newborn son, and Rochester can see "the boy had inherited his own eyes as they once were, large, brilliant and black" (Joan Fontaine reads this narration in a tone of swelling  triumph).  I believe the line signifies that the power of blackness is back where it belongs, deep within a white male, under his control.

Jane Austen Society, Brooklyn, 2012

The oddest thing about the film is an extra, "The Men Behind Jane Eyre," in which friends of the director, Robert Stevenson, compare him favorably as a director to Orson Welles, his male lead in this film.  They base their argument on the fact that Stevenson's films, which include lots of Disney live-action like Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, have been seen by far more people than have seen those of Welles. 

Well OK: we all have our favorites, directors we feel deserve more attention.  Still, these testimonials are given with a remarkable mix of guilt, bitterness, and smugness, as if Stevenson had been burned-at-the-stake by some past generation of pretentious cineastes.  I would link this doc with Puff Daddy's self-comparison to Picasso and Steven Spielberg's hamfisted runs at immortality (Falling Skies: most awkward Paley Center panel ever) as signs of the corporate takeover of planet Earth.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) 2.5 of 4

** this post has spoilers on the first four films in the (original) Planet of the Apes series **

I find the first three films in this series easier to watch than the last two.  I've been putting them off, and now that I've seen this one again, I think I know where the series went wrong. 

Of course, the Planet of the Apes cycle turns the social and political tensions of the Vietnam era into  provocative science fiction.  In the first three films, we learn that this ape-planet is Earth of the far future; then we see the planet destroyed; then we see two intelligent apes escape back in time, destined to start the ascendance of the apes in the first place.

Each of these films creates its own identity.  Planet of the Apes is an elaborately-produced, groundbreaking, black-humored science fiction parable with an all-time twist at the end.  Beneath the Planet of the Apes is more of a comic-book movie, driven by shock value and visual ideas, including the franchise's apocalypse chic.  Escape from the Planet of the Apes makes the drama more domestic, emphasizing satire and comedy of manners. 

As it becomes a more specific parallel to race relations in the U.S., the series makes the delayed confession it was humanity's own fault they lost control of their planet.   As Conquest opens, we see Caesar (Roddy McDowell), the lone intelligent ape in the near-future, separated from his kind protector (Ricardo Montalban) and left to the cruelty of human slavers.  By the midpoint of Conquest, the viewer fully sympathizes with the apes. 

The humans, led by Governor Breck (Don Taylor), are cowardly, deceitful, and cruel, having made their once-pets into a new slave class.  Even McDonald, Breck's black deputy, ultimately gives up on mitigating extremes and helps Caesar.  As we side with the apes, the air leaks out of the series, because there's no further need for the thorny metaphors of social sci-fi.  The movie may be an accurate depiction of human nature (and white guilt), but now it's just another underdog story about battle tactics.

Given the above, the film still works pretty well, making great use of futuristic, found locations (apparently Century City in L.A.), and night shoots.  The cast does what they can with schematic material; I found myself wishing an Oscar nomination for Roddy McDowall, who all but carries the film, and from behind a mask.  J. Lee Thompson directs well, but missed the mark by not having the apes use their unique abilities in battle: why not find a location with handholds and have the apes descend on the human troops?   And while it's nice to see the original, downbeat ending restored, it still lacks irony, previously the hallmark of the series.

In retrospect, I feel the white creators of Conquest took the easy way out, siding with a fictional slave revolt.  In reality, separatists such as the Black Panthers were soon suppressed by American security, using some of the dirtiest tactics in national history, and the legal system resorted to tortured compromises such as Affirmative Action and school busing.  Race relations bogged down into a tug-of-war, part of the broader struggle known as political polarization.

It's fascinating that this intelligent film series ran out of challenging ideas at the same time Americans settled into their indefinite stalemate. 


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Bank (2001) 2 of 4

It's not every day that you see a movie described as a Capraesque thriller, but that describes this Australian film.  Unfortunately the combined skill on hand isn't enough to mix oil and water. 

David Wenham stars as Jim, a mysterious math genius who goes to work for Anthony Lapaglia's bank.  (Ozy LaPaglia plays an American, proving again that world actors play American  better than the reverse.)  The plot has a speculative element, as tyro Jim has invented a computer program that can predict the stock market.  Jim also dates a beautiful bank employee, and much of the suspense involves who'll blink first, or at all, as they scheme to fill their pockets. 

** spoilers ahead **

This pre-Recession movie seems prescient in its tale of Type-A's feeding off market corrections, and it gets no argument here on its anti-bank agenda.  Some will enjoy the wish-fulfillment, David vs. Goliath aspect.  Unfortunately, instead of letting us guess along, as a good thriller does, the movie is simply coy, withholding information until it wants us to have it (the dull title reflects the same posture).  This script needed better directing than it gets from Robert Connolly, and perhaps better editing. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Vinyan (2008) 1.5 of 4

** this post contains spoilers **

Director-writer Fabrice du Welz is better known for Calvaire, which I haven't seen, but I'm certain it's better than Vinyan

This movie plays like a combination of Don't Look Now and Lord of the Flies, but isn't as interesting as that sounds.  It's a slow burn that never goes much of anywhere, except to show how the loss of a child can be financially ruinous as well as grievous.

Vinyan contains horror elements, namely some hallucinatory shots of wretched orphans of the 2004 tsunami.  It plays more like a drama, but there's little tension: it starts with misery and grief and goes down from there.  It's a pretty-looking wallow in a quagmire.  Emmanuelle Beart remains very easy on the eyes, and some will say the same of Rufus Sewell.   The film is set and filmed in Southeast Asia, in gray and green tones, and the plot gives nods to Apocalypse Now (or at least Tropic Thunder).