Avengers: Age of Ultron may only be the second installment in Marvel’s exhaustive series of magna opera, but a certain kind of familiarity has already been established. This is both good and bad. It’s good because the audience know what to expect, and the audience is rarely disappointed by Joss Whedon. But it’s bad because there is no opportunity for amazement beyond the desultory thrills that high-powered, obliterative brawls between CGI creatures engender. What’s the point of watching superheroes save yet another day if there’s no childlike sense of wonderment? I wonder. After all, it’s the same everytime—our ragtag group of heroes usually face down adversaries who, when not slithering through intergalactic portals above Manhattan, more disturbingly emerge from clandestine laboratories (or Tony Stark’s own basement) as perverted brainchilds of overly ambitious people who think they found the ruthless solution to the problems of the world. In Age of Ultron it is the latter, as the eponymous A.I. system designed as a “sentry system” against future extraterrestrial incursions elects instead to play God and usher humanity into a new era of evolution. James Spader, who voices Ultron, lends credibility to a robot with a dark, twisted soul and a wry sense of humor, although the tease of a truly memorable and compelling character unfortunately never fully materializes. It’s frustrating, but not uncommon, as more new characters introduced as the next crop of Avengers also feel sacrificed to the frantic action of the story, where Everything Must Keep Moving Forward No Matter How Silly It Is. Paul Bettany, as a seraphic being with confusing abilities and even more bewildering origins, arrives at the eleventh hour to seemingly save the day but then devolves into a background figure in the final battle, while Elizabeth Olson, as the Scarlett Witch, is saddled with an Eastern European accent, a twin brother called Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and two expressions: bug-eyed alarm, and glowering fury. But who needs them, while we can still enjoy the holy trinity of Robert Downey Jr., perfecting his genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist schtick as Iron Man; Chris Evans as Captain America, whose moral purity remains hilariously irreproachable, even if he has developed a keen sense of self-deprecation; and Chris Hemsworth, as the Norse god Thor, who’s never more likable then when sporting a beaming grin and dismembering robots with his hammer. You also have the perpetually pouty Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo, who develops a romantic attachment with Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow. Unlikely couple? Sure, but some tinges of tenderness amidst the rampant machismo is always appreciated. Keeping with the theme, Jeremy Renner, as Hawkeye, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who accompanies the superheroes on their peacekeeping sorties, is given a backstory, more one-liners, and the honor of infusing the proceedings with a little down-to-earth humanism. It’s a worthy attempt, but even Renner’s best “WTF am I doing here, I’m just a normal dude” impressions fail to ground, or define, Age of Ultron. The film is a never-ending spectacle of noisy razzle-dazzle that could go on for five more hours and have the same amount of emotional impact, or lack of. I think a reason why is that amongst all the irony and the witticisms, Whedon forgot to add moments of real gravitas. Moments that make the audience stop laughing, so that the jokes stand out even more when they start laughing again (because they are pretty good). Powerful moments. There’s a scene where Thor is barely holding off Ultron’s assault, and he responds to an insult with the usual grandiloquence —only to cut his own retort short by quipping, with a shrug, “I’m running out of things to say.” Wham, bam, pow! It plays well, but a bit of seriousness wouldn’t have gone amiss either. B+
For me, the verdict’s still out on whether Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy was a success. It certainly struck a chord with audiences who, as if drawn to the One Ring’s irresistible allure, couldn’t resist returning to Middle Earth for yet another adventure drenched in nostalgia, and I for one stand in full admittance of my gullibility— when it comes to hobbits and elves, forget Gollum, I’ll follow Peter Jackson to Mordor and back again. But as I reminisce on the films, the last of which, “The Battle of the Five Armies”, was released in December 2014, I have to admit: there’s something that really buggers me.
It’s not the acting—Martin Freeman perfectly captured—or rather, created— the mannerisms and character of Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage, though he doesn’t look much like a dwarf, is noble and haunted as Thorin, the leader of the dwarf company who recruits Bilbo to go reclaim their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. I’m probably one of the only people who appreicated the addition of Evangeline Lilly’s character. And it’s not the story—Jackson could have a dozen dwarves traipse around New Zealand for four hours and I’d still watch it. Say, that sounds like a movie called The Hobbit.…
No, what almost ruins the movies for me is quite simple: I don’t believe it. Not because the acting was lousy or the story particularly convoluted, but because it doesn’t look anything like The Lord of the Rings. In those movies, there was more than a mere pretense of reality in the fantasy world of Middle Earth—the landscape is gritty and tough when needed, without any embellishment. In The Hobbit movies, however every pixel of the frame seems to gleam unnaturally, tinged with the luminous residue of CGI; some characters—like Azog the Defiler, the evil Orc—seem to have been born out of this artificiality.
Does this have anything to do with Peter Jackson’s much maligned experimentation with 48 frames per second (in 3D, no less)? I admit to being totally ignorant to that controversial aspect of The Hobbit. But I do know that there’s a problem when the little grassy hills of the Shire, excessively green and lush, seems to come straight out of concept art for Oz the Great and Powerful, or when everyone glows silver during moonlit night scenes. There’s an even bigger problem when you can’t tell if there is actually an actor under the scarred alabaster hide of Azog—and if there is, the finer qualities of his performance seem to have disappeared in post-production. What happened to the wonderfully tangible qualities of, say, the Uruk Hai, the hell-spawned dreadlocked louts over whose vicious features the camera could confidently linger as they bared their yellow teeth and grunted out beauties like “We’ve have nothing but maggoty bread for three stinkin’ days!”
To underscore my point, I’ve taken two screenshots from each of the DVD versions of two films: An Unexpected Journey and The Fellowship of the Ring to compare the visual changes between the two. Does the more vivid colorization serve to represent a younger, more innocent Middle Earth, not yet tainted by the evils of Mordor? Or did the Hobbit movies just go through the same filter process as every other Hollywood blockbuster? I’ll go with the latter.
The first photo is from the beginning of “The Hobbit”, Frodo’s clothes and even the mailbox are gauzy and smooth, like a painting. The light is diffused, the fields yellower. Observe in the second picture, however, taken from the beginning of “The Lord of the Rings”—both scenes actually occur only a few hours apart—how much sunnier it is, the sharpness of the wagon and the hills and the blades of grass. It looks real. It feels real.
These two photos both depict battles that happened a long time ago, in the “dark times,” so to speak., and I also picked them because they are totally fantastical. The first one depicts the Battle of Dagorlad (as seen in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring) and the color palette is murky and dark. We can’t see much in the sweeping shots, which is probably a good thing, because befitting the large scale of the battle and our brief glimpse at it, a lot of CGI is used. It still looks pretty damn good. In contrast, the second photo depicts the Battle of Azanulbizar, as remembered by Balin when Thorin’s hate for Orcs necessitates explaining. Look at the color. It can’t be…it looks like Peter Jackson fell prey to an certain insidious color scheme (teal and orange) much favored by Hollywood but that previously was found in Michael Bay movies, not Middle Earth.
Will movies ever look like The Lord of the Rings again? It was saddening to see digital colorizing, among other things, take hold in The Hobbit, because the beauty of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s universe was that it was real—the wilderness of New Zealand didn’t need much tinkering or manipulation to become the world inhabited by Orcs and Elves. There are some scenes in the Hobbit trilogy that seemed less painted on by the color crew but they were few and far in between. And it seems that indeed, less is more: t’s ironic that the The Battle of Five Armies, which depended so much on CGI wizardry to create the emotional drama of the film, wasn’t even recognized when the Oscar nominations were announced.
The sad, joyful, wonderful movie “Her”, set sometime in the future, is directed by Spike Jonze and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a mustachioed, bespectacled hipster with forlorn eyes and a sweet, shy disposition recovering from a failed marriage, and Scarlett Johannson, who, although she never appears onscreen, makes a a great impact as the infectiously spunky voice of Samantha, an advanced computer system with her own self-perpetuating personality. They fall in love. You could say they get married, and then their love suffers a few setbacks. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s fine with that, except when he’s not. For her part, she longs to be more than just a voice in the dark. Weirdly enough, I can sympathize with Samantha. Trying to imagine possessing a mind without a body brings back memories of waking up in tears during the night, stricken with the terrible feeling of my conscience being isolated in a vast mental labyrinth of sorts, unable to find a way out or even begin trying, with no agency over anything physical, if it even existed, and an immediate realization of immobility and despair, as if I’d been rotting in that place forever. It’s hard to define dreams, just as it’s hard for Samantha to define how exactly she feels in certain moments, how she’s supposed to feel compared to how she does, how to define and explain those existential crises. Samantha’s nightmares are just unfathomably more real and much scarier; the truth of her inability to expand her existence to something real and physical when that existence evolves, stunningly fast, to involve a whole other world keeps her awake at night, I imagine, long after Theodore plucks his earbud out. “Her” is about our tangled relationship with technology, but the twist is that Mr. Jonze and Ms. Johannson have made technology transcend the artificial to become something entirely, messily, achingly human. The film, however, remains a work of beautiful, sophisticated engineering, smartly crafted and smoothly tuned, unplagued by melodrama or cheapness.The Los Angeles where Theodore resides is still smoggy but mostly blindingly sunny, a vaguely defined yet, weirdly, perfectly precise glimpse into a world where there exists, for many people, no social inhibitions regarding an emotions attachment, or even affection, towards technology. It begs the question: Could we ever be so freely open with our lives, share them so intimately with technology in such an tender, loving way? “Her” is fascinating because technology isn’t evil in the world of Mr. Jonze. It doesn’t insidiously corrode your humanity nor attempt to murder you outright. It exists, for all the lonely souls and people who have forgotten how to dream, for the lovers and for the losers. It can liberate you, or you can lose yourself within it. Or both. Just hope that you have a gal like Samantha in your pocket, and in your ear, and in your mind, and in your heart. A
It’s somewhat ironic that Dances With Wolves endures to this day as the first film, at least in my eyes, that successfully brought the heart-wrenchingly sordid undoing of the last free Native Americans at the hands of Manifest Destiny (as enforced by the muskets of the marauding U.S. Army), as an obscene amount of the nearly four-hours-long time is spent with the camera indulgently fixated on Kevin Costner who, when bathed in the golden light of the prairie, whether it be in appropriated Sioux clothing or those tight cavalry trousers, never fails to reveal himself to be a white guy. I would normally be quick to mention that Costner’s involvement, as he not only starred in the picture but directed it as well, is not solely limited to looking pretty, soulful, or pretty soulful as the white guy who saves the day. But when you think about it, isn’t that exactly what Costner should be lauded for—not only onscreen but behind-the-scenes as well?
The Civil War is drawing to a close, and Costner’s John J. Dunbar, having successfully survived every bloody battle despite his best efforts to the contrary, wants to see the Western frontier before train tracks are laid over the bones of buffalo and Indians alike. He’s a Union soldier, a romantic, simple fellow who, when we first meet him, is trying to get killed. His suicide attempt—riding his horse towards the Confederate lines, seeking a bullet and a quick escape from the bloody absurdity of the war—is instead misconstrued as a heroic improvisation, and not only did Dunbar not gain an acquaintance with Death, he was promoted and granted any posting of his choice. He picks Fort Sedgewick—the Army fort farthest out West, all the way Out There. How Dunbar gets there (hitching a ride with a flatulent wagon driver delivering supplies) and his first impressions of the vast prairie (‘Where are all the buffalo?’) is documented with maddening imperturbability. The pace is glacially slow, and yet you are inexorably drawn in due to the likability of Costner, the stunning landscapes, and the promise of peril to come. There’s a scene where Dunbar gets spooked, along with the audience, by the wind rising in the prairie. Is it an Indian crouching in the tall grass, waiting to pounce and scalp? Or is it just the frontier taunting this man who thinks he has found his paradise? Dunbar doesn’t want to know. Off he bolts, whipping his horse away.
Dunbar’s not reassured once he arrives at his destination either. He finds a ramshackle handful of buildings, made even more pathetic by the total absence of humankind. His soldiers deserted, apparently after having underwent some disheartening experiences, Dunbar nevertheless decides to settle in. After all, why not? It’s everything he could possibly wish for—a solitary existence on the plains, his conscience made easy by the possibility of the Army finding him—after all, he knows the wagon trains are coming sooner or later. Might as well enjoy it while he can. Then, however, Dunbar befriends a tribe of Sioux. They find him something of a a curiosity because the first time Dumbar came upon their medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), checking out his horse, Dunbar was stark naked (having just bathed in the river) and yelling loudly in protest—not the usual behavior of U.S. soldiers. Dunbar, however, is eager to scribble in his diary a variation of the phrase: “Met my first Indian today. OMG! 2scary4me.” However he feels at home in the prairie, laying by his campfire under the stars with a big goofy smile on his face, he’s still a tourist, and his first encounter with the local population—certainly not to be trusted—is a jolt to the senses.
Eventually, after a lot of bad starts, the Sioux and Dunbar come to understand one another a little better. Their conversations are facilitated by Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was captured by the Sioux in her childhood and raised as one of them. Dunbar learns that the Sioux are waiting for the buffalo, and is only too happy when, awakened by the thunder of hooves in the night in one of Dances With Wolves’s most hauntingly realized scenes, to rush to his new friends and tell them the news. Despite his misgivings and sense of duty to the Army, as frequently expounded on in Costner’s narration, Dunbar realizes he’s going native. It doesn’t help that he’s falling in love with Stands With A First, nor that the Sioux has wholly embraced him as one of their own. But, there’s a new peril, far greater than the occasional Pawnee attacks, for Dunbar knows something that is nagging at his insides, and it is this: The White Man is coming. The days of the Sioux are counted.
Dances With Wolves is really a remarkable movie. The destruction of the Native Americans’ livelihoods, and the forced displacement of all those who weren’t killed when they resisted the encroachment of settlers and soldiers on their ancestral lands, is a dark, shameful mark in American history. One can certainly argue it was inevitable, and that’s what lends this movie a mournful, heartbreaking quality. It brings the story of the Sioux and and all Native Americans out of the dusty pages of history books and onto the big screen. Bravo, Kevin Costner. But at the same time, I feel strangely uneasy about expressing my love for the movie. I have to wonder whether the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, in showering Dances With Wolves with little golden statuettes, did so because they felt guilty, deep inside (and they loved the fact that Kevin Costner, a handsome Hollywoodian, was the one responsible for it). I have to wonder whether I think Dances With Wolves is a beautiful movie because I feel guilty, deep inside. I most probably do. I do know is that we all have a collective guilt inside of us, regarding the fate of the Native Americans in this country, that will never go away. We all want to see a movie where Native Americans, strong and fierce, hunt the buffalo, whooping and hollering, to admire and gaze at them, to cheer when they beat back the brutish, despicable U.S. soldiers. We want to soberly reflect as the film ends. We want to shake our heads and say, “Wow.” Dances With Wolves makes us all feel a little better inside. But is it for the good reasons?
I have written about this movie before, but have decided that it warrants revisiting and that my thoughts, which I’d like to think have matured since then, also call for a bit of reformulation. There were two Star Wars movies which I specifically remember disliking more than the others when I was younger: The Empire Strikes Back, and The Revenge of the Sith. Once can arguably define these two as the darkest installments of their respective trilogies, and that was certainly the principal reason for my disliking them. It strikes me as funny now to see that The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded among knowledgeable audiences as the superior of all the Star Wars movies, and it is also curious to see that Revenge of the Sith is not mentioned kindly in many places, or at least not as much as I thought it would be.
I can understand The Phantom Menace being much derided, for as soon as the obnoxiously opinionated young Anakin Skywalker first appears the film instantly loses any respectability and credibility that might have come inherent with Liam Neeson. Attack of the Clones, too, is not a very good movie (more on that later). But Revenge of the Sith—in Revenge of the Sith, there are no glaring faults that fatally undermine the solidity of the whole enterprise. It is, by any definition, a perfectly respectable movie which, yes, does not infer that it is beyond reproach. You can poke plenty of holes in it, but doing so would be spiteful, because this is a movie that does not deserve your disparagement. One can only admire at the intricately, tightly woven strands of the story which ties together the moral and ideological corruption of our tormented anti-hero and the toppling of a Republic by a scheming politician, the stunning scope of a story which takes us across worlds and yet brings it all back to a variation of Anakin Skywalker’s line “I won’t lose you the way I lost my mother.”
Certainly, credit has to go to Hayden Christensen, whose dubiously staged scenes of “seduction” with Natalie Portman in Attack of the Clones were so idiotic they destroyed whatever virtues might have been stuck in that film otherwise. But Christensen, who plays Skywalker, is older now, and now that his character is slowly being drawn to the dark side and not merely a petulant, obsessed teenager, Christensen’s weirdly intense—not quite wooden, as each word he pronounces seems to drip with long-smothered emotion, but not quite organic—way of acting somehow makes more sense. You believe his titanic struggle against the pervasive influence of the dark side, as manifested in Ian McDiamird’s Palpatine, all murmured insinuation, but you also understand his boiling discontent with the Jedi Council. It’s not even that the Jedi Masters, including Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu, regard him with barely disguised wariness, but that they do it so infuriatingly coolly, that they come off so unblinkingly passive and even ignorant.
Then again, you take a step back and see that there was really little the Jedi Council could do to prevent the inevitable temptation of Skywalker. He was always fated to fall, and the Jedi Council only precipitated his fall by stoking his simmering frustration. I’m reminded of the TV show Rome and the layers of complexities that lay between Julius Caesar and Brutus before the famous betrayal; both sense the danger hovering in the air, the mutual mistrust and the anger that dares not yet erupt, and yet both are uncertain. Brutus has been tempted, but he is unwilling to commit himself fully to treachery, still clinging to his last vestiges of loyalty and integrity. It might have worked out all right if then the unmindful Caesar—much like the Jedi Council—didn’t elect to err on the side of caution (in Rome, he pointedly appoints Brutus to an insultingly inconsequential governorship, while in Revenge of the Sith, Mace Windu holds off on fully trusting Anakin until it’s too late), providing the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.
I think the ultimate reason why it’s truly fascinating to watch Anakin’s undoing is because it feels and is familiar. His story is a timeless tragedy of biblical, mythological proportions, one that has been traveling down our cultural highways for centuries. And George Lucas’s interpretation isn’t shabby at all. In fact, it’s pretty spectacular.
Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest blockbuster from Marvel and a decidedly different one than what we’re used to, works because it walks, with all the seemingly effortless adroitness of a funambulist, the fine line of not taking itself seriously and taking itself seriously. That’s the most intellectual line I could come up for this film, because it is a mess, but an entertainingly endearing mess, make no mistake. It’s a space opera that is entertainingly madcap at best and barely comprehensible at worst, burdened by a substandard Marvel storyline involving a glowing blue MacGuffin and indistinguishable bad guys but also, weirdly, liberated by it: since the plot is so uninspired, the emphasis devolves onto the characters which, luck would have it, provide a beguiling mix of goofiness and seriousness, and are the best thing about Guardians. You have the newly emergent Chris Pratt, a truly charismatic, enjoyable presence mostly because, I suspect, he wasn’t asked to do things that weren’t already in his wheelhouse. As Peter Quill, A.K.A Starlord, a scruffy thief of little galactic renown (think Han Solo and/or Indiana Jones), he gets to groove to 1970s music and trade quips with the rest of the Guardians: a green-skinned Zoe Saldana, both flinty and vulnerable; an mostly genial talking tree (think Lord of the Rings’s Treebeard) named Groot who says “I am Groot” to everything and is inexplicably played by Dwayne Johnson, somewhere under all that bark; an belligerent anthropomorphized raccoon with issues and a lot of firepower named Rocket, voiced snarlingly by Bradley Cooper; and former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista’s muscled brute out for revenge, Drax, whose defining trait is his literal interpretation of everything (“Nothing goes over my head—my reflexes are too fast”). They’re a silly bunch, and not always funny, but still hilarious enough. Mostly, they’re a lot of fun to watch, and that’s the joy of Guardians of the Galaxy: It’s pure, unfiltered fun. I say “pure” because the humor exists solely to please and not to self-deprecate. Sure, Guardians occasionally pokes fun at the self-serious pseudo-portentousness of many Marvel movies, including itself (most notable during the wonderful opening sequence), but it does so organically, without trying to; there’s no negativity to be seen. It embraces its inherent absurdity and stupidity instead of attempting to be a postmodern or obnoxiously “smart” superhero movie; rather than “We know you’re laughing at this angry little raccoon, but we’re laughing right alongside you! Doesn’t that make it so much better?” it’s “We’re having a lot of fun here. Come laugh with us.” And with that in mind, there becomes very little reason to not give Guardians of the Galaxy the utmost respect it most deserves. A–
I don’t usually post trailers, posters, and other stuff hyping the release of a film here, because attempting to assess the quality of an upcoming movie by its promotional materials usually resorts into rank speculation. It’s especially ludicrous seeing as this nonetheless popular pastime relies on whether a studio’s marketing department is actually doing a good job at what they are paid to do; that is, vigorously whipping up excitement based on a few carefully curated frames or still images, all gussied up and looking nice. That being said, I’ll make an exception for Mad Max: Fury Road’s Comic-Con teaser. Not because I think it’s going to be a spectacular film, per se, but because it is a spectacular trailer and therefore whatever I just said doesn’t apply. All the potentially disappointing bits that will emerge scandalously when the film is released next year have been ruthlessly trimmed away, leaving only the most visually impressive moments. It’s a standalone work of art, if you will, that has absolutely no lasting value besides the fleeting sensory pleasures it provides. Shut off your brain, brace your eyes and ears, and indulge yourself.
ALIENS (James Cameron, 1986)
Mr. Cameron’s film, Aliens, is certainly more galvanizing than its predecessor, Alien: he expanded Ridley Scott’s classic no-frills horror film into a clamorous war film. It’s still perfectly respectable because the minimalism is carefully maintained, to a certain degree, but elevated accordingly with the stakes. Instead of one alien versus seven increasingly hapless people trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic spaceship, it’s a hive of aliens versus a dozen decreasingly cocksure Colonial marines and a few civilians trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic compound. The badinage and brashness of the soldiers, all decked out with cool weaponry, only makes it more gleefully tragic when they all inevitably succumb, one by one, to the resourceful aliens. Mr. Cameron, helpfully, actualizes Ellen Ripley’s motherly instincts (and brings out Ms. Weaver’s ferocious warmth) by replacing her cat with a little girl, Newt, whose welfare becomes so primordial to Ripley that by the end of the film she is bawling “Get away from her you bitch!” to the Alien Queen while wielding the full strength of an exoskeletal power-loader. It’s the most satisfying scene of the film, mostly because it solidifies Ms. Weaver’s character as unequivocally badass. Like most of Mr. Cameron’s movies, Aliens isn’t subtle, but as a complement to Alien’s conscientiously measured terror, its excitability is welcome. A–
ALIEN³ (David Fincher, 1992)
By no means perfectly respectable, at least when regarded as the third Alien movie, Alien³ however possesses certain charms that might even be considered redeemable, were the viewer in a charitable mood. Ripley crash-lands in a off-world penal colony full of God-fearing lunatics whose self-established monastic society is quickly upended by this unwelcome temptation. Their hostility is not unwarranted however because tagging along with Ripley is, unsurprisingly, an alien who has already, surprisingly, killed Newt and placed an embryo inside of Ripley. Good heavens, what gall! Now Ms. Weaver, with shaved head but a magnetic presence as always, has lost her only child and gained an unborn demon. Mr. Fincher is at the helm and he takes great delight in, when not ruthlessly destroying any gratification gleaned from Aliens’s conclusion, swooping his camera down endless underground tunnels with dizzying stylistic abandon while the alien, skittering around obligingly, pursues the wailing damned. Alien³ is a shabby, seemingly low-budget production that produces chills and thrills, mostly due to the inherent, inspired spookiness of the prison setting and its inhabitants. But alien fatigue is setting in, and the rampaging extraterrestrial, so central to the film, no longer inspires the same raw fear in the audience. As Ripley says, “You’ve been in my life for so long, I hardly remember anything else.” B–
ALIEN: RESURRECTION (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)
Where to begin with Alien: Resurrection? It’s impossible to treat seriously, and is generally a fiasco from the beginning to the end. An elaboration of the plot would be a misuse of everyone’s time. I was expecting strange things from Mr. Jeunet and was not disappointed, but the greatest surprise came from the screenwriter, who is none other than Joss Whedon. You see, I really like Firefly, and therefore it’s striking to note that apparently five years before that brilliant show began its regrettably short-lived television run, Mr. Whedon was already toying with the concept of a motley crew of space smugglers in a remarkably similar tone. The shadows of familiar characters are beginning to surface, particularly the ones of the uncommonly perceptive, peculiarly gifted young girl (here played by Winona Ryder, and in Firefly, Summer Glau) and the gung-ho, thuggish moron (Ron Perlman, and later Adam Baldwin). So it’s somewhat disconcerting to recognize Mr. Whedon’s distinctively grounded touch among all the more outlandish aspects of Alien: Resurrection: the re-imagining of Ripley as a simultaneously predacious and aching superwoman infused with alien DNA; Ms. Ryder’s vexingly melodramatic performance; the violent debut of yet another new and evolved anthropomorphized alien; all that superfluously garish blood and gore. You’d be better off just watching Firefly. C
RIDLEY SCOTT’S directorial debut, 1977’s The Duellists, is a phenomenal paragon of narrative purity. It is the story of two perpetually quarreling French soldiers in the era of Napoleon, one played by Keith Carradine and the other by Harvey Keitel, who encounter one another every few years and recommence their oft-interrupted duels. What begun, and prolongs the life of, these reckless dances with death? To find the wellspring of their dogged discontent with one another, you must understand their characters, for whatever little strife it was that spurred the initial demands for satisfaction eventually becomes consigned to oblivion. Continue reading
THERE’S NO MONKEYING around in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The title may indicate only an incremental advancement in the global conquest of our favorite rampaging simians, if any, from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes—how many more synonymously monikered installments must we be compelled to watch before the thesaurus is milked dry, I wonder?—but make no mistake, James Franco and the sunshine of San Francisco is long gone. This plot of this spectacularly grim and surprisingly violent movie ultimately culminates in ideologically extremist apes orchestrating the death of the wise, pacifist Caesar (played once again brilliantly by Andy Serkis), who has led a thriving isolationist community in the Muir Woods, in order to instigate unmitigated warfare against one of the last remaining bastions of human civilization. If you’re think to yourself, “These bad apes sound liked they learned a few tricks from us humans,” congratulations, for you have seized upon the theme of the movie. And that’s even before you’ve seen a scarred, snarling ape, consumed by bloodlust, riding into battle on horseback while firing assault rifles willy-nilly. All the simian scheming and warfare makes for compelling drama, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Perhaps the somewhat hackneyed unfolding of the story, derived from countless literary and historical sources, was intentionally made to reflect the humanization of the apes. Perhaps it serves to reinforce, subtly and pervasively, the disheartening realization of Caesar’s that his apes are not so unlike the humans they are pitted against, that they go through the same struggles, the same joy, the same heartbreak, the same fraternal bloodletting and betrayal. If this is what the filmmakers intended, then they should have figured out that you don’t need apes acting out lackluster melodrama in order to effectively convey their humanism. Anyhow, I suspect something else: laziness. Not that it matters—the audience, for now, doesn’t notice the banality because they are still struck by the relative novelty of seeing emotionally identifiable apes, thanks to the virtuosity of the special effects and the marvelous acting efforts of Serkis and the rest of the cast. But that laziness, if preserved, has the potential to rear its ugly head to much more inauspicious consequences. As is seen in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the human elements of the story are slowly diminishing in importance, which opens the door to, among other things, an all-ape cast. We certainly don’t want a bunch of talented actors hooting and hollering away under motion-capture suits in an uninspired all-ape interpretation of, say, Coriolanus. Or do we? B