Archive for The Searchers

Ape Crisis Centre

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by dcairns

Sorry for the tacky title, but somebody already reviewed KONG: SKULL ISLAND with the tagline I LOVE THE SMELL OF APE PALM IN THE MORNING, better than which it is impossible to do. It wasn’t the famous Anonymous Wag, it was somebody real with a name, I just can’t recall who and can’t be bothered checking. but well done, Nonymous Wag.

I didn’t see KK:SI but I did see WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, slightly dragged by Fiona, and it has just probably as many APOC NOW refs as the big gorilla one. There’s even a graffita reading APE-POCALYPSE NOW, so I couldn’t use that as my header either. The Vietnam stuff is a little heavy-handed and dumb, though in a war with the apes Americans surely WOULD call their enemy “the Kong” so I have to grant them that one. (They called their enemy that in ‘Nam, too — I know you know that, but did you know it was actually a made-up name? There was no such group as the “Viet Cong,” the US made the name up because they wanted something that sounded cool and sinister. NOTE: see correction in comments section.)

So, I was glad I saw this in the end — we’d seen  films one and two in the trilogy, and this one does its best to actually be a concluding episode, though I’m sure there’ll be pressure to do more — a reboot, or some kind of sequel that also serves as a remake of the original Chuckles Heston apetacular (still the best in the series/serieses).

DIGITALLY RENDER UNTO CAESAR

The first half hour is nicely directed, though the 3D didn’t add as much as I expected — maybe because the sinuously moving camera does all the 3D’s work for it. But I wasn’t really engrossed dramatically. Caesar (Andy Serkis and his army of animators) is quite chatty in this one, despite Noam Chomsky’s firm stance on ape language, but he apparently has never learned to use contractions. So talks like Data from Star Trek, or like a man in a biblical epic. This is obviously as deliberate as the ‘Nam refs, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. (Notice how Data’s robospeak gradually infected the rest of ST:TNG‘s cast as the writers forgot how people talk).

I guess the biblical epic aspect has always been there, from the casting of Heston to all the talk of a “Lawgiver,” echoing Heston’s role as Moses and eventually embodied by John Huston, director of THE BIBLE (and portrayer of Noah, another man who conserved species from an environmental disaster) in BATTLE FOR, the last of the original series. That movie is referenced here just enough (a single teardrop!), and there are lots of other clever harkenings to the earlier films, which the reboot has always been nicely respectful of.

But the first half hour is also terribly uninvolving. No effort is made to remind us of the personalities of the lead apes from the previous installments. One fellow only gets a little character grace note five minutes before being offed, which retroactively makes said grace note seem like a cynical plant. Inexplicably, the film’s baddie, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson as Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz with a side order of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore) shows up out of nowhere to kill some apes and set Caesar on a mission of revenge, then vanishes back to his hideaway — Caesar falls off a waterfall, very dramatically, but in the next scene is back in his (compromised, unsafe) base camp, making plans. It feels muddled, and the emotion is dampened by confusion.

Fiona points out that the film is still afraid of female apes: none of them talk in this film, and they don’t fight, contrary to nature. They don’t have big purple behinds, so the movie resorts to having them wear little hair braids so we know who’s a girl. They make little feminine grunts, the way real apes don’t. I think the rot set in with Tim Burton’s appalling POTA movie, with Helena Bonham Carter and Lisa-Marie as sexy ape-babes. Ugh. That’s the only bit of wrongheadedness from that abomination which has kind of survived and mutated, as if exposed to an experimental gas canister (Burton is getting to resemble an experimental gas canister more and more).

BAD TIME FOR BONZO

There’s also, I would say, a problem with the first half’s post-apocalyptic landscape. Unlike the crumbling cities of DAWN OF, there’s nothing specially evocative about, say, a Snow Cat lying abandoned in a snowy forest. It looks like quite a normal site. I love post-man settings in the same way I love empty set photographs — I’m all about the defining absence, me. So this was disappointing.

But it was in the midst of the snowy rural stuff where the film is aiming to be THE SEARCHERS with even more sign language that it starts to get good. There’s a quite brilliant scene of Maurice the orang (Karin Kanoval and her animators) and a silent little girl (Amiah Miller) which is LOOONG, wordless, quiet, tender and hypnotic. Really unexpected in a summer blockbuster. And the film starts improving right now.

Next we meet Steve Zahn (and his Zahnimators) as the comedy relief chimp (his “Oh nooo…” sounds very Scottish, somehow). Comedy relief characters are primarily needed by films with no sense of humour, or films afraid that a sense of humour will deflate the pomposity that sustains them. Both certainly factors here — any film with a lead who can’t use contractions must be afraid of humour. Get it safely contained in one character and you’ve quarantined it. But Zahn & co create a rather adorable figure here. So appealing, I worried he was being set up for a moving death scene. But the film doesn’t ALWAYS do what you expect.

EMOTION CAPTURED

Now the movie becomes a prison camp flick, and the Colonel shows semblances of another of his rank, Saito in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. But it’s a wall he’s building. Yes, this feels like the first anti-Trump blockbuster (or the first I’ve seen — I don’t see many). And it will feature an ape swinging from a Stars and Stripes which is also inscribed Alpha Omega and is also on fire. An image for our times. (Also prefigured by John Huston, this time in WINTER KILLS.)

Science fiction films never accurately predict the future (except BRAZIL, which has all come true) but one hopes this does, just so we can have Don Jr. lose the power of speech and his dad shoot him. Oh, come on. It’d be interesting.

But the movie isn’t as dark and vengeful as that, after all. It has a much more nuanced take on vengeance than, say THE REVENANT, which proved remarkably dumb and unsophisticated. And it even redeems the somewhat fascistic ending of RISE DAWN, which had Caesar depriving his enemy of apehood so he could kill him without breaking the “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” rule. That climax, which seemed like it was meant to be just cool and bad-ass, is back-engineered to seem genuinely proto-fascist, something that must be atoned for and which leaves trauma for the perpetrator, or maybe this was always part of their plan (the writers of the first film are execs on this, granting a sense of cohesion and trilogic world-building). Caesar feels guilt for killing Toby Kebbell as Koba the bonobo (I just like writing that) and gets a chance to act differently this time.

APE PLURIBUS UNUM

So maybe because I like apes or because I don’t like concentration camps, this movie got quite emotional for me. I seemed to continually have something in my eye (mayve it was the 3D). It wasn’t profoundly moving, because torturing animals always gets a reaction (my friend Alex makes fun of the bit in RISE OF where Malfoy shows up with girlfriends to abuse apes — “No matter how evil you are, it’s unlikely you’d think that torturing chimps would be a good way to impress the girls,” — but in fact, animal abuse is a staple of entertainment, since drama depends on a good bit of unpleasantness to work its magic). Arguably, it was all too easy. But it worked. And it didn’t become so manipulative and Von Trieresque that I resented its effect.

It’s nice to get a proper trilogy. The middle one is the darkest. The first and third are the best. This is as it should be.

 

Advertisements

Reboot of the Jedi

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2015 by dcairns

xxxx

I was going to be all noble and abstain from seeing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS because I am an adult. I have managed to avoid giving George Lucas any of my money since the first mangling of the original STAR WARS with CGI characters dropped into it at random, though this was partially by luck rather than design — a friend acquired a bootleg of THE PHANTOM MENACE before it came out and I abandoned all ethical principles and said what the hell and watched it and was damned glad I hadn’t thrown my money away on that load of tripe.

xx

But Fiona wanted to see this one, because it has the original actors in it a bit and so it connects more convincingly to any residual fondness one has for the original trilogy… and she had an unexpectedly emotional response to it. Funnily enough, I had just come from a costume fitting with the magnificent thespian Gavin Mitchell, who reported that he saw the movie while rather tired but his girlfriend got really emotional. Same thing. Is this a STAR WARS film that works better for girls? No bad thing, since the first film was so boysie (and so white) as one female fan wrote, ruefully, “One wonders if Princess Leia had anyone to play with when she was small.”

Princess Leia is STILL small, but she’s now a general. Han Solo is back to smuggling, the marriage thing having not quite worked out. Best of all, there are new characters, who actually have characters, unlike the entire cast of the prequels. John Boyega plays Finn, a disaffected stormtrooper — someone with actual demonstrable integrity, who rejects the politics he’s been raised with — nobody else in the films has such nobility. Daisy Ridley plays Rey (I think that’s short for Reysie Diddly, although it may also be a nod to the maker of another celebrated trilogy). Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, the only one of these kids with a surname, and does a lot well with very little writing to support him. It had been uncertain, looking at his previous performances, whether the brooding O.I. could pull off lightly likeable, but he does it here. Oh, and bad guy Adam Driver, he of the massive face, a co-star of O.I.’s from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, is excellent too. J.J. Abrams has by now made a lot more films than Lucas had when he made the first film in the saga franchise, and has certainly shown a lot more care than Lucas lavished on the prequels. And he has a surer sense of what STAR WARS films need to be like. I swear, when that two-headed sports commentator turned up in PHANTOM MENACE…

xxx

Abrams’ great vice is his tendency to pass off remakes as reboots, so here we get secret plans hidden in a droid, yet another, an even bigger death star, Luke as the lost Jedi master in place of Obi-Wan, and a climax which intercuts a dogfight with a light-sabre duel. Plus a desert planet which might as well be Tatooine but isn’t, and a snowy planet that isn’t Hoth. The sense of deja vu is entirely intentional, but I would certainly have liked to see the filmmakers invent more — there are some striking background characters, but they stay in the background. And the filmmakers’ imaginations seem constrained, as if they can’t really imagine all this stuff they’ve imagined. The new death star is the size of a planet, but when the heroes land there next to one particular building they have to destroy, they quickly bump into the one person they’re looking for. It’s a small world after all.

The relentless compaction extends to time also — take a stop-watch with you and see how long elapses between the terrible news that the death star will be able to destroy everybody in two minutes, and the eventual solution to that narrative problem. We’re very used to this kind of trick in movies — the bomb timer that keeps doubling back on itself — but I swear it’s about fifteen minutes this time.

xxxxx

Things Abrams definitely does better than Lucas:

The dialogue. With the aid of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK co-writer Larry Kasdan and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE guy Michael Arndt, Abrams has written (sparse) dialogue which doesn’t make you want to chew your own jaw off.

No midi-chlorians. Interestingly, midi-chlorians are the reason that, whenever you meet a Jedi knight, they smell like swimming pools.

Action. Lucas has recently tended to equate “excitement” with “shitloads of things buzzing about” whereas Abrams favours coherence, and has a pleasing tendency to make each shot do more than one thing, tying the scene together with images that develop and move, enhancing the sense of context at every turn.

Domnhall Gleeson with his permanent expression of “Ooh, matron!” camp outrage. So nice to find an actor making a bold choice and sticking to it.

Emotion. Even in the first/fourth film (the film that was called STAR WARS), Lucas rather shrank from emotion. John Williams provides a soaring Wagnerian leitmotif when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed, but since there hasn’t been a single hint of human warmth between Luke and his kin, this can only do so much. A comparison with THE SEARCHERS, from which Lucas has borrowed this moment, shows how much is lacking — or avoided. This kind of thing has caused me to equate the word “operatic” with the phenomenon of “gesturing grandly at a supposed emotion without actually making you feel anything” — which I don’t think is the original meaning of the term. In amidst the frenetic running about, Abrams’ characters build up some actual affection — Reysie Diddly and John Bodeya are particularly useful here.

xxxxxx

But the reason Fiona had such a strong emotional response to the movie is that it reminded her of the original, which made her want to make movies at age 11. And maybe it was more the publicity booklet we both owned, which drew shrewd connections to everything from METROPOLIS to SILENT RUNNING, highlighted behind-the-scenes activities, and unpicked the creative process.

Meeting these characters again could be glibly compared to meeting people you grew up with, but really they haven’t grown up. It’s like meeting someone from your childhood and finding they haven’t matured at all. It’s cheering, in a nostalgic way, for a little while (135 minutes may be pushing it), to meet people incapable of growth or development, whose world doesn’t change. I don’t know why it should be so, but whenever friends meet Fiona & I after a while apart, they assure us that it is.

The Oater Limits

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 13, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-09-13-11h09m58s161

OK, so now I know I mustn’t call ULZANA’S RAID an oater. It’s an Indian wars western that’s seen as a Viet Nam allegory, written by Alan Sharp and directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Burt Lancaster and a nubile Bruce Davison.

I always felt Sharp’s writing was a good deal more pleasing and to-the-point than Aldrich’s filmmaking on this one — I first saw it on 35mm at Edinburgh Film Festival as part of a Sharp retrospective, many moons ago. I think what was screened was the European cut, supervised by Burt, whereas the version I just saw was the US release, the director’s cut — there’s about ten minutes of differing material, it seems. I recall a bit where two men, trained not to make a sound even at the point of death, fall from a cliff in stoic silence. Unfortunately, this is represented by the usual rubber-limbed dummies tossed into the void, and without screams dubbed on, a farcical special effect becomes even more laughable. I support Aldrich’s decision to delete this material, if his decision it was. I can see Lancaster including it because it’s conceptually quite strong, and only let down by the filmmaking.

vlcsnap-2013-09-13-11h07m29s190

But Aldrich does let the side down fairly often. His composer, Frank DeVol, assembles a tuneless concatenation of cliches — cut to watchful Indians, cue sinister flute. The film seems to have none of the grace notes of seventies filmmaking — it isn’t visually lyrical or particularly dynamic, though its choppy abruption gives it a vaguely robust quality. There IS a good night scene, notable mainly for avoiding all the half-hearted approaches to desert night — no blue moonlight, no impenetrable darkness, just a good dim greyness. But otherwise it lacks the elegance of golden age cinema without gaining anything from modernity except flashes of violence (I do quite like the way Aldrich makes little of the bloodshed — a good thing too, since the makeup “by Cinematique” consists of crimson paint liberally daubed over cavalry jackets). The direct cutting is often a bit confusing, cutting to one of those watchful Indians and then to his POV, bringing us up short as we realize it’s a new scene and he’s not looking at the preceding action after all. The dissolve-as-scene-change can be useful after all.

But the script is very strong — Sharp was unapologetic about showing Apache atrocities — but he also shows the unenviable plight of those Indians who try to get along with the white settlers and are robbed and mistreated for their troubles. Asked if it would be more powerful to leave the horrors offscreen as in THE SEARCHERS, he said that such an approach could be powerful, but he had rather wanted to show a dead man with his dog’s tail in his mouth. He had a strange wistful expression as he said it. As Lancaster says in the film, “Indian’s got a sense of humour. Just not one you’d recognize.”

vlcsnap-2013-09-13-11h09m05s132

Fiona’s reaction to this horror: “WHAT am I looking at?”

It’s not just the pithy dialogue — Sharp also writes strong situations, crucibles for striking behaviour. The key one is the early scene where a cavalryman rides back for a woman about to be captured by Apaches — and shoots her in the head. Unsaddled by his enemies, he then blows his own brains out. The Apaches are about to chop the dead woman’s fingers off to get her wedding ring, when her young son, whom they disregard (since killing a boy will not impart “power”) rushes up, sucks her finger to lubricate it, and slips the ring off and hands it to the brave, thus sparing her post-mortem mutilation. It’s powerful, upsetting stuff — and imaginative, in a horrible way.

War makes barbarians of everybody, which can certainly be a comment on Viet Nam if you like, but I’m not sure how far the analogy stretches. The mass colonisation of America probably made the Indian Wars inevitable, whereas the “police action” in Viet Nam was a misguided exercise in realpolitik which was wholly avoidable. The indigenous people got it in the neck both times, but Aldrich and Sharp presumably didn’t know that the outcome for the USA was going to be different this time round.

vlcsnap-2013-09-13-11h08m18s177