Darkest Hour is built like an antique grandfather clock. Each element a carefully placed necessity, working dutifully towards a larger schema; every cog, screw and dial essential to its almost impossibly precise workmanship. Ticking and tocking in a grand manner, Darkest Hour is an expertly paced and admirably assembled sample of good old fashion filmmaking gifted with a lead performance from Gary Oldman that will almost certainly not just be remembered come next year’s award’s season but is sure to be a well-endowed frontrunner. Read More
Too many times, that overused phrase “It made me feel like a kid again” has stood as a defense for liking sub-par movies. But with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a truly magical work that had me giddy, mouth agape in sheer wonder (like a big-mouth bass caught hook, line and sinker) I will happily cloak myself in that tired sentiment. Dawn of the Apes made me feel like a kid again, and it was amazing.
From the very first opening sequence that gently reminds us of the outcome of the first film, director Matt Reeves shows a delicate patience and proclivity for understatement that will go on to define his picture as a whole. A collection of news clips detailing the global calamity that has been termed “Simian Flu” fill in the outline of countries and continents as a spiderweb of the virus’ migration connects the world as if in an Indiana Jones flyover sequence. A solitary piano note rings out as the lights of Earth are slowly extinguished, blip by blip, until darkness reigns. The title card creeps from the inky black with a brown note fanfare: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Chills race up my spine.
From here, Reeves takes us into the world of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his super-simians. These uber-intelligent apes are New Age noble savage; they live harmoniously with the land, hunt in packs, have a cool, Endor-like treetop village and don’t need the extraneous comforts that humans rely so heavily upon, likes beds and fast food and cars and electricity.
Since the events of Rise, Caesar and his Hominidae cohorts have established their own utopia where apes don’t kill apes and a dwindling human population poses little threat to their way of life. Like the phoenix from the ashes, they rule in peace in their hard-won isolation. That is until a band of human travelers wander into the outskirts of their village and happen upon two young apes – one of whom is Caesar’s son, Bright Eyes (a name you may recall from Rise as that of Caesar’s deceased not-quite-super-ape momma). Fearful and jittery, Carver (Kirt Acevedo) plugs a bullet into one, inviting the entire troop of PO’ed apes to come swinging into defense. Our homo-sapien protagonist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) steps up to decry the incident as accidental but when Caesar barks “Go!”, the ragtag band of human survivors realize a. they’ve opened a whole box of Pandora’s boxes and b. holy shit, apes talk now.
This chance encounter leads to rabbling discussions on both sides. Gary Oldman‘s Dreyfus, who seems the de-facto leader of this scrambled human brigade, lays into Malcolm on why they must return to the ape enclosure in hopes of accessing a downed electrical dam. But Malcolm’s already on the same page as him. You see, when the lights went out years back, unspeakable things happened in the darkness. Things he won’t allow his new family to revisit.
Back in the ape world, Caesar is pressured by milky-eyed confidante Koba (Toby Kebbell) into a show of force. They’ve crossed a line in the sand and must be put in their place, Koba roughly signs out in ape sign language. Though weakened, humans possess the power to destroy all that we’ve built and must be put in their place. As the Ape leader with a royal name and his (si)minions march in on horseback, the humans of this blown-out San Fran are as dumbfounded and outraged as Charlton Heston at a Gun Control meet-and-greet. Again, holy shit.
The remainder of Reeve’s film is history. Cowboys and Indians, The Civil Rights Movement (with strong analogies to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), Manifest Destiny, WWI and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. War; what is it good for? Asserting yourself as the dominant species.
As Reeve’s film leaks historical allegories like a zesty geyser, his political astuteness pans to a smart dissection of why we choose war in the first place. War is a side effect of fear, fear a scar of misunderstanding. Koba’s are scars that cannot be healed. Dreyfus won’t stand for Three-Fifths of a vote. Peace is a process. Wars start inevitably. It’s not that these two civilizations could not peace co-habitate, it’s that sometimes a punch in the face seems like a more swift resolution than drawn-out talks. History however says otherwise (look no further than the 11 year War in Iraq for proof of that). Peace isn’t easy but it sure saves on carnage.
That said, boy oh boy does the carnage look good here. Though much of the beginning of the film is occupied by a sense of quiet contemplation and even quieter sign-talking – a bold stance in a blockbuster in and of itself – when things do get heated, the conflagrations rise quickly. A mid-stage set piece involving Koba (who could easily go down as the best villain of 2014) is so masterfully rendered, so perfectly shot, and so breathtakingly epic that I had to collect my jaw from the floor after watching it. And this is where the effects wizards over at WETA, whose anthropomorphic achievements are simply unmatched, should take a bow.
And when I say wizards, I don’t mean it lightly. Dawn is not the work of some pea-brained Hogwarts first years so much as a cloned army of Dumbledores, who’ve worked tirelessly to make CGI characters so picture perfect that sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember that these are not actual talking apes onscreen. Maurice the orangutan in particular is the product of effects on the edge of tomorrow (in addition to being a joy to watch.) The hairs on his body alone boggle the line of what is and isn’t real. While Rise proved that these visual acrobatics were possible, Dawn takes them to the next level, plants them on horses and charges them over flaming barricades while pumping off automatic rifles in both hands. Epic is the only adjective that fits.
Beneath that FX artistry, Serkis shines as much as ever. His Caesar is more confident, more defined in his role as a leader, and all around more stoney than before. But it’s this resolve that makes his oncoming break so much more potent. Assuming the Academy won’t be budging on their ancient rulings anytime in the near future, it’s still worth taking time to note just how much of an avant-garde artist this man is. Props.
But it’s not Serkis alone this time round who furthers the medium of motion capture. Toby Kebbell as Koba is the teeth-baring, power-seeking, fear-totting equivalent of Lion King‘s Scar in that his devious maneuvering are matched only by the penchant for fire-filled battles. A scene when he switches from playful circus monkey to dead-eyed killer ape lets the chills fly fast and loose, reminding us this is not an ape to be f**ked with and that Serkis has taught his co-stars in the art of mo-cap well.
Although the human side doesn’t really have an equal to Dawn‘s simian counterpart, Clarke is a strong lead; wide-eyed, charismatic and caring, even without much of an arc of speak of. At one junction, Caesar calls him a good man and that about sums up his characterization. Malcolm’s small familial unit, including son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and whatever they call a girlfriend after the pretty-much Apocalypse, Ellie (Keri Russell), get even less fleshing out, but still provide just enough to give Clarke’s Malcolm the needed stakes to take big risks. If anything, they’re ample window dressings to move the larger story forward.
For the first time this year, I cannot wait to rush back to the theater and shell out all the money to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on an even bigger screen. Because this is the definitive movie that demands an IMAX screening, even if it does mean wearing those obnoxious 3D glasses. Not only is Dawn the best Apes movie since the 1968 original, it’s one of the finest sci-fi movies to grace the silver screen in decades.
It’s that impossibly rare blockbuster that shimmers with intelligence and has the FX razzle-dazzle to leave you dazed and amused, grinning from ear-to-ear and stunned by it’s impeccably told story. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a follow up tagging close behind (hopefully with Reeves returning) and I’m willing to wager a pretty penny they call it War for the Planet of the Apes. But no need to look too far into the future, just start lining up for this one right about… now.
Directed by José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Zach Grenier
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
RoboCop tries to make communion between global politicking black satire and “ohhhh shiny” skirmishes but winds up not quite able to answer the many questions it raises. Regardless, the fact that this supposed actioner wants to stick its nose into moral territory and sniff around makes for a far more interesting experience than any paint-by-numbers shoot-em-up that I was expecting.
In the oeuvre of action movies, the RoboCop of yore was known for its balls-to-the-walls, blood ‘n’ guts characteristics so you’ll be surprised to hear that this 2014 remake is so light on action sequences that it makes The Lion King look violent (but let’s be honest, The Lion King is pretty violent). There are maybe two instances of what one would consider violence, both blaring shootouts sans a spot of blood, and an exposition-driven explosion of note. Other than that, most of the distressing PG-13 rated stuff takes place in a Clorox-blasted laboratory.
Beckon forth the stuff of Ethics 101. Global tech-giant OmniCorp is hellbent on getting their militant robots into the domestic market but have been blocked on all sides by liberal Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier) and his long-standing bill that outlaws the use of mechs in the land of the stars and stripes. They would feel nothing if they shot a child, Dreyfuss argues. How can we give unadulterated command to something that wouldn’t even feel an ounce of remorse if they blasted a baby in the face? It’s a half decent point you’re onto there Dreyfuss but one that is shied further and further away from as the revenge narrative is ratcheted up.
With the help of marketing fisher Tom Pope (a bearded but still baby-faced Jay Baruchel), Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) employs Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to help push Dreyfuss’s bill into fisticuffs with the introduction of a half-man, half-machine hybrid. Business barons as they are, they’ve found the wishy-washy nooks of the law and let exploitation take birth. But after breezing through a list of candidates, Norton doesn’t believe they have anyone fulfilling the mental balance needed for the job. I wonder who it could be? Let fly, the red herring in all its foreshadowing glory.
Enter incorruptible cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who has just caught the scent of a near untraceable top-tier gunrunner, Anton Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Following up on a lead, Murphy and partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) land themselves in the cacophonous din of a gunfight (and either it was the IMAX screening I attended or the gunfire sound editing has been cranked up to 11 but the blasts were near deafening). With Lewis left hospitalized with a handful of slugs lodged in him, good cop Murphy is all revved up for revenge. But, unbeknownst to him, he’s earned a hefty target on his backs from the watchful eye of the criminal underworld and before he can say “boo”, he’s blown into a limbless coma, becoming a prime candidate for what becomes the RoboCop experiment.
For all the character names scattered through the movie (and this review), screenwriter Joshua Zetumer deserves a hand for actually carving out a foothold for nearly all of them. Abbie Cornish as Murphy/Robocop’s wife is a little uncut but Keaton, Oldman, Williams and the rest of the supporting cast really get some actual characters to dig into. Even the villains of the piece are much more modern baddies, blinded by financial gain but not bogged down with diabolical cackles or announced plans of world domination. They hardly acknowledgement their own villainy, they’re just in it to win it. Unfortunately for them, so is RoboCop.
Each character is firmly engrained in the story and hard to leave out when talking about the piece. It’s a surprisingly ensemble piece for an action film and one that relies just as much on the characterization of the Dr. Frankenstein who created him as it does on the eponymous RoboCop. In such, everyone has their place. Making a world that’s so fleshed out and yet intimate is one of Zetumer’s many skills. Loose ends, on the other hand, are not.
In an age of drone warfare, secretive criminal tribunals and the National Defense Authorization Act (which affords Obama authority to kill a US citizen without due process), Robocop does seem ripe for the reboot. It’s a shame then that we don’t really see him (and by extension filmmaker José Padilha) grapple with the difficulties of dealing with morally gray areas. Rather, we’re given an ethical guide we’re meant to mock in Samuel L. Jackson‘s Pat Novak and a dubious puff of disapprobation in Padilha’s incisive glare.
As far as Robocop the machine-man, more than anything, his existence becomes a pitiable state of affairs; one stripped of choice, mellowed of free will and fine-tuned to acts of force appropriation. Seeing what’s left of the actual Alex Murphy is macabre and visceral (and may turn your popcorn bucket into a barf bag) but watching him drained of his remaining humanity is arguably more lurid.
Gone are the lampooning moments of levity that flowed from the originals, replaced with the likes of Batman-mimicking “Does it come in black?” For those seeking action-packed escapism, look elsewhere as RoboCop is more Frankenstein than Die Hard. Soaked and dripping with questions of determinism, spirituality, executive power, agency and identity that each find a pitfall or reaches the end of a rope, Robocop is a mash of hi-fi philosophy conveniently light on resolution.