The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

Tim Burton revived the series in 2001, with a frankly throwaway film, which restored a version of the original novel’s ending, and just confused the hell out of everyone — adding to my impression that he’s hardly made three decent films since Edward Scissorhands and that Helena Bonham Carter is sufficient reason to skip a movie. It made money, but Fox went a reboot route in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where motion capture and CGI evidently improved on Burton’s make it, but I found the shakeycam somewhat nausea inducing. I skipped out on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and I don’t even know who Dawn was. Now we presumably conclude a trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).

A simian flu seems to have rendered apes intelligent and killed millions of humans or struck them dumb. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is hiding out with other intelligent apes in the woods of the northwest US, trying to build a life, but the military are seeking them out and raid their enclave. The apes are planning a move to the promised land, but there is another raid and Caesar’s wife and eldest son are killed. Caesar sends the apes off, whilst he, with a small party, seeks revenge on Colonel McCullough, the killer.

Oddly, given what is to come, the film begins from the human perspective, following the raid, and we seem to be in Vietnam War movie territory, with the apes as Vietcong or giant Ewoks. McCullough will emerge as a crazed military figure, rather than a sensible defender of humanity, a Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — although technically that is Cambodia rather than Vietnam. We cannot help but be moved by the death of the apes and the mercy Caesar shows.

But with a shift of viewpoint to the apes, we are in revenge western mode. A small party track the colonel across the mountains, picking up a mute human girl and a talking chimpanzee along the way. The posse evade capture initially, but on discovering that the rest of the apes have been captured and turned into slaves, Caesar has no choice but to enter the military base. The second half of the film is the attempt to rescue the apes before the cavalry arrive and the way Caesar’s revenge pans out.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, the film’s allegory — if indeed it is one — is less than clear. Several Black human characters act as an alibi against such a reading, but the treatment of the apes recalls the treatment of slaves in pre-civil war days. A recent reading of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad inevitably set me down that road, too. At the same time, the appearance of an equivalent to the syphilis-infected blankets recalls the white treatment of the Native American, and the apes seem to have a manifest destiny in their land by the lake. The mute girl, meanwhile, seems to be saying #notallhumans.

Several of the ape characters who have turned traitor are able to redeem themselves and Caesar learns that revenge will not bring closure. Or the dead back to life. We are, again, in western territory, with the itinerant outsider leader being able to save the community but not return to it. John Ford’s movies are clearly part of the palette, but he increasingly brought a mythic ambiguity to his films and John Wayne’s heroics are frequently undercut.

Almost inevitably we turn to Moses, who led his people out of bondage and to the edge of the promised land. But Moses died before he got there, of course. And the suspicion that all but two of the apes we have seen are male may make us question how long this community will survive.

The special effects are faultless — Andy Serkis is Caesar, even more than he was Gollum. The fur looks real and solid, and they are definitely in this landscape rather than seeming superimposed. The other apes convince equally. McCullough, Woody Harrelson who has spent a lifetime not being that guy from Cheers, tends to the gurn and his evil nature is meant to be rendered more complex by a long speech explaining his motivations, which brings the film to an shuddering halt and should have been closer to the end rather than a preview to three or four set piece sequences (like most blockbusters, this is a good half hour too long). I can’t help but feel that he is falling into the trap that so many Bond villains fall into — explaining their scheme rather than killing their antagonist.

But obviously spending so much money on a movie leads to a sense of incoherence, even if it better than any other blockbuster I’ve seen since Rogue One. But that is damning with faint praise.

Peter Parker’s Day Off

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)

I can remember standing in a queue for the Spider-Man reboot, worried that it would be rebooted again before I got to see it. And here we are, a new Spider-Man, now part of the Marvel Comics Universe, after what I assume is a cameo in a Captain America movie.

The positive is that they’ve decided they can dispense with yet another origin myth depiction — so many superhero movies are broken back as the first hour is them getting superpowers and then the second hour is them getting their first mission. He gets to tell his best friend Ned about the radioactive spider and here we have him as a fifteen year old, desperate to join the Avengers (the silly American rather than the British version) rather than being a friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man (and dammit that hyphen is beginning to annoy me), in the meantime dealing with the traumas of high school.

So we are in Buffy territory, although in someways John Hughes movies such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are stronger incipits — a clip from the latter even being used in a throwaway line. Parker is part of the school quiz team, headed for a national final at Washington DC, but is looked down on by the other geeks. He attempts coolness by admitting to knowing Spider-Man, but has the Clark Kent/Superman issue of not being able to be in the same room at the same time.

The casting of his classmates is typical of how the film tries to be, but can’t quite be, radical. He seems to be about the only white male pupil — his friend Ned is Filipino-American, the object of his desire is Liz and so on. In too many examples of big city American popular culture, it is as if a cataclysm has wiped out anyone who isn’t white. At the same time, aside from Ned and Liz, the substantial characters — the hero, the villain and all but one of his sidekicks and all the visible Avengers are white. Background colour is fine, but let’s not get too radical. There is a nice line from Liz not wanting to visit the various key Washington building because they are built on the back of slavery, but that is the only explicit nod to ethicity.

Meanwhile, chief villain, Toombs or Vulture, is making his money turning alien technology into weapons. He gets a couple of speeches about the plight of the working man, and how Tony Stark is a weapons dealer too (to middle easterners if I recall). This is a dark side to the hero that I don’t think the films ever quite deal with, which do make them marginally more interesting. Casting Michael Keaton allows a richness to a villain — and we have the baggage of the first two Batman movies and of course Birdman to resonate with the role. Given his techno assistant, he forms a criminal counterpart to Parker and his guy in the chair, Ned. There is a penultimate reel twist I didn’t see coming, that brings us back into teen movie territory.

We have some decent set pieces — a bank robbery, a crisis in the Washington Monument and an attack on the Staten Island Ferry, the Spirit of America — but it still feels a little baggy. The CGI is variable. Admittedly there is fun to be had with Parker learning on the job, and dealing with his impatience. There are some interesting throwaway lines, such as protest being patriotic. And there is a post credits scene that plays with the pointlessness of staying to the end of the credits.

I’m not convinced that the world needs another Spider-Man movie, but I guess boys are these days running out of supposedly non-violent hero role models.

Free Fall

Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2016)

This isn’t a postmodern movie like Reservoir Dogs, the academic introducing this movie reassured us, as Wheatley draws on Michael Mann rather than Quentin Tarantino.

Okay…

I’ve only seen two of Wheatley’s previous films (and his Doctor Who episodes) and I suspect I like one of them more than others and one of them less. One switched genre gears pleasingly into Wicker Man territory, the other was a Kevin Brownlow movie directed by Ken Russell. There was a camp if violent tone to both.

Free Fire cranks up the claustrophobia on both — after a couple of road scenes and a factory exterior in Toronto, we’re then stuck in single space in Brighton, although you could read it as Massachusetts and some point in the 1970s if you want to. On the one hand, there are Irish men looking for machine guns, presumably as part of the terror campaign, on the other hand there is a South African and an ex-Black Panther looking to sell. The inbetweeners are a bearded giant and almost the only woman in the film.

Of course, you know it’s going to go wrong and, whilst the film is a taut ninety minutes, it drags a little until the wrongness starts. One of them asks the woman if she is an FBI plant — just like Mr Orange, you’ll think, or in his mould, but that hasn’t been filmed yet. Later we’re told how long it takes to bleed to death — just as we find out in Reservoir Dogs. One faction will, you know, attempt to rip the other group off — or they’ll rip each other off.

There’s a very heavy handed flagging of a gun over a fireplace, although we’re never told what the gun is and … well, as far as I can tell this is a tease and perhaps the only real nod to originality in the film.

As the bullets fly, you rather quickly lose track of who is dead or dying, or perhaps merely dying, or perhaps they’re stunned… beautiful plumage… You can’t help but feel that as the shot, blown up and penetrated crawl over glass, syringes and rubble that they’d be a little more stunned. For all Wheatley’s plotting out of the action in Minecraft, the spaces don’t feel consistent.

There are some laughs. The guys behind me (I think there was only one woman in the auditorium) found shooting a gun hilarious. They found guns jamming hilarious. They found the need to reload hilarious. I think I missed the joke. Cillian Murphy, Michael Riley and even Sam Riley had good lines. Armie Hammer looks good in a beard, perhaps his one character note and a means of telling him apart from the others. Brie Larson has her moments, and I’d like to see her in Concrete Island if Wheatley fancies more Ballard. And Sharlton Copley has the same comic schtick he brought to District 9 and CHAPPiE, minus the CGI. Rather like Life it’s an endurance test for the audience as much as the characters, and I cared marginally more for them.

But solid back story, motivation and something like an actual plot have been carefully eliminated in the name of … well it used to be postmodern and ironic and it used to make a difference from Merchant-Ivory confection but it’s twenty years since Michael Mann in Heat remade his own LA Takedown from a decade before that. Do we have more than a feature-length sitcom with a body count? It is slick, but too slick.

When googling around on Wheatley, I read the comment that he’s the new Noel Clarke. This may have been a compliment.

To be honest, I’m not sure who should be more insulted.

Why This is El Ay, Nor Are We Out of It

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both in suspended animation on board a spaceship on a century long voyage, dreaming of wish fulfilment. I apologise for the spoiler, but I haven’t seen a film this obvious since is-it-meant-be-a-surprise-he’s-dead-what-with-having-been-shot-in-the-chest.

The clue is a traffic jam on an LA freeway, when everyone gets out of their cars and starts a song and dance routine, and no one seems bothered, no one seems angry, no one gets shot and no cops turn up to beat anyone up. This is all the more remarkable given that the drivers are so ethnically diverse and it will be over an hour if not ninety minutes until another person of colour gets to speak.

Mia and Sebastian’s dreams intersect at this point, with one giving the other the finger, although if this is going to be a romantic comedy this is a sign of impending union. She is a wannabe actor, working shifts at a Warner Bros lot coffee shop in hopes of being noticed, going to a hundred pointless auditions in search of a big break. She tries for agency and to set up a one woman show to get herself noticed, and indeed she is picked up for a film that will be based around her.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

Occasionally she breaks into song and she does not seem to find this strange, nor is she that bothered when she finds herself floating around a planetarium — I assume that the gravity has failed on the spaceship. On several occasions she walks across LA in the middle of the night, alone, with not a single sign of a mugger. LA is surely the city where nobody walks. It is the hyperreal.

Meanwhile, Sebastian dreams about being a jazz pianist, wanting to save jazz by creating a club where he can play. In the meantime he refuses to play the set list in restaurants and plays keyboards in covers bands. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when he breaks into song, but there is something delusional about a white person saving jazz, although we can repeatedly point to white singers (Elvis? Slim Shady?) who have become the popular avatars of music of black origin. In perhaps the most offensive scene he becomes the white counterpart to the magical negro who teaches an African American couple to dance.

Sebastian tells us about jazz as a conversation between musicians, a competition of ideas, but when we see him play it is pretty well always alone (aside from the awful bands) on the keyboard. It is playing as self expression.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

In one version of the dream, there is no romcom reconciliation — indeed one of them seems to have started a family within days of their parting. Of course. Their dreams are so self-centred that they cannot find a unified space. In another version of the dream, there is the happily ever after. I give it six months.

Of course, in the process of the film, Hollywood is able to satirise itself, although as is so often the case, it is toothless, because we are seduced by the studio and the inevitable Academy Awards.

And no one seems to wonder why Keith (John Legend) is the only person of colour with substantial dialogue (there’s a casting agent in one scene, too). The dreams both involve an ethnic apocalypse.

During the closing credits, an elderly woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “You must be a jazz fan.”

I think this was an observation rather than an order. And, alas, I don’t think I am beyond the blindingly obvious Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bix Beiderbecke. So I might be wrong when I suspect there was actually very little jazz in this film.

And then I woke up and it was all a dream…

Judgement Day

Trainspotting 2 (Danny Boyle, 2017)

Back in the day there was a Panic, nay, a Right To Do, over Trainspotting the movie. Irvine Welsh was the Scottish flavour of the month for cult writer, but the film version led to Peter Bottomley and other Tory MPs to condemn it as it would turn everyone into junkies, which is an unlikely experience for anyone who actually saw the movie, as indeed Bottomley hadn’t. Will Self called it drugs porn, whatever that meant, presumably because it didn’t match his flavour of smugness.

Cool Britannia was heading for its height — the Oasis vs. Blur conundrum exercising everyone who hadn’t heard Pulp, Mr Tony was already doing his Tory PM in waiting grin and John Major was still the grey man. Family values and all that? Don’t eat the eggs.

Trainspotting was a breath of fresh air as I recall, being neither the chocolate box heritage adaptation nor the mockney gangster, Danny Boyle (and Ewan MacGregor) was hot from Shallow Grave and Robert Carlyle was emerging as a great character actor (Hamish Macbeth? The Full Monty was on its way). John Hodge weaved a series of vignettes into a linear but heavily narrated movie, the stories of junky Renton (MacGregor) and his friends in Edinburgh. The editing and mise en scène was sharp, the pacing assured, transcending various moments of MTV video. A hundred moments stand out — a freeze frame of Renton leaning on a car bonnet, Renton licking his cut finger, Renton wincing at a needle, Spud (Ewan Bremnor) gabbling his way through a job interview, a toilet dream fugue…

Carlyle and MacGregor went onto greater things — the latter fell out with Boyle when he wasn’t cast in The Beach and did Star Wars instead — Bremnor would appear from time to time, Jonny Lee Miller (Sickboy) never quite made star status and seems to have had more success on TV. And Boyle never quite repeated himself, so a return to Trainspotting seemed unlikely even though Welsh had written a sequel Porno.

But the creative team reassembled twenty years on — double the interval of the first two Linklater/Delpy/Hawkes Before movies — and found space for a sequel. Oddly, I had the same sense of fanboy stomach lurch when I saw the trailer for T2 as I did for The Force Awakens, which puts Carlyle somewhat in the Harrison Ford position and suggests that he may well have an emo kid who will be the death of him.

T2 is a darker film, both visually and thematically, even as Edinburgh itself has thrived. Renton, last seen heading for Amsterdam with a hold all full of money, has had a dull career and failed marriage, Spud used the money left for him on more drugs, Sickboy has moved into pimping and blackmail and Begbie (Carlyle) has been in and out of prison. Renton returns to Edinburgh, partly to rebuild his life and to make amends, but not everyone is pleased to see him. Revenge is on the cards.

Of course, we want to see the old team together again, whether it’s the three junkies and Begbie or the crew of the Millennium Falcon, but we know it can’t be the same again. Boyle cleverly plays with the desire from reunion, whilst quoting the earlier film in a parallel way to Abrams with Lucas. Sometimes it’s a matter of music cues — although in different recordings — sometimes it’s equivalent scenes such as chases, fights and Sean Connery impressions. We get the odd filmic flashback, lifting Trainspotting footage, sometimes we get newly shot versions. We even get, finally, the vignette that explains both the film’s title and Begbie’s behaviour, just in case we don’t realise the danger his son faces.

The junky lifestyle seems to be about history repeating itself, always as tragedy, certainly as fuck up, and the four leads always circulate around the possibility of falling back into old ways. There is the Big Scheme, one last scam, that will help them all escape, but you know they are doomed. Judgement Day awaits.

If Trainspotting was Renton’s film, then this is Spud’s, with a curious arc of redemption that almost makes the film eat its own tail. Certainly he is the focus of the stand out visual set pieces. He steals the scenes as Begbie chews and punches and kicks the scenery; Sickboy meanwhile is a minor villain and Renton largely an enabler.

If you remember the original posters for Trainspotting there were five figures in black and white surrounded by orange. The fifth, the only female, was Diane, Renton’s underage conquest, although in a sense he was the one who was conquered in a rather dubious sequence. Diane is back, in cameo, but relegated from poster duties. Two decades of sexual politics leads to a film about four men; the women here are mothers and ex-wives or girlfriends, the common sense of a normal life when the boys have stopped playing.

Danny Boyle would be eighty if we checked in again in twenty years. Is it a cheap metaphor to wonder if we would like another fix? Do we want to see the characters as the old men in the bar, nursing pints and chasers as young men fight each other? I suspect it is. I suspect we do.

so much depends upon a red collar

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Eddie Redmayne was lauded for his problematic performance in The Danish Girl, but it’s not until the closing credits of Paterson that it is revealed that here Marvin the dog  is actually played by Nellie (and has since died).

What are we to make of this? Is it a sign that her human, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is so obsessed by her relentless redecoration of their house in black and white that she hasn’t noticed Marvin’s sex? Or in her world is Marvin a gender neutral name? She is explosively creative — painting the walls, the soft furnishings, the shower curtain, trying to learn the guitar in three days, wanting to make a fortune with cupcakes — and even subjecting Marvin to the indignity of bad paintings. It’s only a wonder she hasn’t painted on Marvin.

Whilst Laura stays at home, hubby Paterson (Adam Driver) drives a bus.

Imagine that. Imagine the version where they’d cast Minnie Driver.

Paterson, living in Paterson, has read Paterson and aspires to be a poet. He writes poetry when he should have been starting on route 23, he writes poetry in his lunch hour and he writes poetry in his den. He writes it in big friendly letters in his Moleskine (gotta love stationery porn) and on the screen, just in case we don’t get it. It is clean and there are no crossings out.

First thot, best thiught.

Obviously it is Paterson-esque because this is Paterson in Paterson. No wonder Marvin’s confused. Is it meant to be any good? Paterson’s let Laura read it, but he’s never performed it and he’s never submitted it anywhere and because he doesn’t do any fucking drafts, the Moleskine is his only copy. So is it any good?

And every night, Marvin is taken for a walk to a bar. Not into the bar — he is made to sit outside, even though it is made clear that dog jackers are about. His life is at risk.

Paterson just sits there nursing a drink, chatting to the locals, in a kind of post-racial utopia where one of the African American patrons can pull a gun and not be gunned down by the law. Everyone can quote Abbott and Costello routines.

Maybe Marvin is better off outside.

But clearly Marvin is building stress and resentment, and, having committed minor acts of vandalism takes a bloody revenge on his humans. Serves them right. He’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I have to say I never quite trusted Paterson. I suspect he’s on the edge of becoming all emo, obsesses over his dead grandfather and is likely to upset his parents.

Meanwhile, Marvin the paranoid canine has good reason to be paranoid, and Nellie is a great loss.

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I’ve tried to make this film review spoiler free, so I’ve been a little circumspect about some of its incipits. I am of course familiar with the Ted Chiang story, but I’m not here considering what has been changed between the two versions.

The last three films I have seen at the cinema have been sf — Passengers was predictably pants and I’m still processing Rogue One. It is one of Gareth Edward’s earlier films, Monsters (2010) that is most relevant here though, in which the US-Mexican border has been “infected” by sublime, incomprehensible aliens and the US is at war. Arrival’s heptapod aliens owe a debt to Edwards’s, as well as, perhaps Spielberg’s “Martians” in his War of the Worlds (2005). Aliens have arrived at twelve seemingly random if strategic points all over the world (which recalled Simak’s Visitors for me, but it must appear elsewhere) in giant, apparently rugby-ball shaped, ships. The race is on to find out why they are here and, more to the point, how we can exploit them. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hero linguist, is called in to help decode the alien language, alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is there for less clear reasons.

The film opens with what appears to be a sidetrack — the birth, life and death of Louise’s daughter. This made me rather nervous — that precursor film Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) features a female protagonist with a dead father, and a tragic loss is an easy character motivation. There’s a certain amount of frustration to the camera angles — odd zones of focus and unfocus, characters offframe or not quite heard, so that we don’t quite get to see what’s going on. There are also a series of shots that for me recall Tarkovsky, although probably Nostalgia (1983) or The Sacrifice (1986) rather than Solaris (1972), although thematically that is in the mix too. In retrospect, it turns out, Villeneuve is playing fair with us but he has a helluva get out of jail free card. But I was a little distracted by the photo that Banks doesn’t have on her desk.

Of course, the bulk of the film is taken up with Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to communicate with the aliens, whom the latter names Abbott and Costello. This is odd, since neither of the heptopod duo engage in slapstick or banter, and it seems a very odd fashioned reference. Why not Laurel and Hardy? Ren and Stimpy? Cannon and Ball? Banks makes progress when she uses a whiteboard and when she recalls her daughter learning to read with picture books. We have a child’s garden of linguistics, as she explains her thinking to Weber (Forrest Whitaker), her military handler. The aliens, who haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), communicate in mandala-like ink blots, characters that seem to be entire sentences rather than symbolic representations of phonemes. Time clearly passes, and you might think they get their Rosetta Stone moment rather too quickly, as Banks begins to forge a relationship with Abbott.

By then there’s a ticking clock — even though we are focused on the American translations the film never forgets that aliens don’t just invade London or New York. The Chinese and the Russians seem the quickest to get to the point of being militaristic, and risks making the film look like old fashioned Cold War propaganda. Banks has to solve the puzzle before the nuke from orbit option is exercised. And it is elements in the US military that she has to fear as much as overseas forces. We teeter on the edge of action adventure when the film is much more interested in sublime tableaux.

The film, largely, trusts us. As the prologue alerts us, we should distrust beginnings, middles and ends, and there is no character who properly sits down and tells us the bigger story that is unfolding. To my taste, there are three missteps: an insert of a post-encounter documentary (which refers to Banks as Louise), the Doctor Who tell-not-show tactic of news bulletins to narrate the story and a line of dialogue that is absolutely predictable and vomit-inducing from the mouth of a major character. But we’re sneakily told what non zero sum games and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is, even if I’m not convinced that being immersed in a society where people only speak a foreign-to-you language is the same as thought being constructed by language. But pay attention or you’ve missed the key to the film. (There’s an early exchange between Banks and Weber, where she asks him to ask a question of another expert. The answer, “a desire for more cows”, presumably meaningful, is lost in the noise.)

Adams, low key, understandably nervous, is utterly convincing throughout. Renner looks somewhat bemused, presumably aware that his job is to be eye candy. Whitaker balances a difficult mix of potential threat and kindly go between. Meanwhile, almost every thing you take to be an idiot move has got a pay off. I don’t think that Solaris is that bad a model to bear in mind, stylistically and thematically. Put Stalker (1979) in the mix, too. This is sf for grown ups rather than frustrated teens, handling its big central idea much better than Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). It almost demands that you watch it again on a loop.

Villeneuve is set to film the sequel to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). As directors of utterly pointless sequels go, the signs are good.