Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was much better than expected. Admittedly it got more mileage from its awesome effects than the story, but it entertained while setting up a nascent franchise. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) ups the action and character conflicts, resulting in a satisfying sequel.

Dawn picks up ten years after Rise, when simian flu has decimated humanity. Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his apes, who've crafted a peaceful society in the wilderness. Human survivors gather within San Francisco, under the fanatical Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Tensions arise when Malcolm (Jason Clarke) arrives with several specialists to rebuild an old dam. Caesar and Malcolm negotiate an uneasy truce, and the two leaders befriend each other. Too bad Koba (Tony Kebbell), Caesar's embittered right-hand ape, harbors a deep-seated grudge against humans.

Dawn begins with a breathtaking set-piece: Caesar's tribe hunting elk in the forest. It's a virtuoso set piece, CGI and motion capture used to thrilling effect (underscored by an eerie, 2001-inflected music cue). Director Matt Reeves immerses us in Caesar's world, masterfully visualizing his woodland retreat and showing the apes communicating only in grunts and sign language. Sadly they eventually grow more talkative and bipedal, understandable when dealing with humans but jettisoning the uniqueness. By Dawn's end the apes speak, act and scheme like humans.

Writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver hammer home that apes aren't different than people, which explains Dawn's simian soap opera. Caesar wrestles not only with encroaching humans, but his wayward son (Nick Thurston) and sickly wife (Judy Greer). Meanwhile, bloodthirsty Koba contrives war with a false flag operation worthy of Richard III, or Joseph Goebbels. Somehow it's reassuring that even simian revolutions devolve into violence: that the villain's named Koba is surely no coincidence.

These conflicts are compelling enough, yet Dawn still takes the easy way out. Moral debates disappear in the second half, with a full-scale human-ape battle and Koba enslaving humans and dissident apes alike. I can't criticize that set piece as entertainment, with horse-mounted monkeys double-fisting assault rifles. I can criticize its dramatic convenience. We can't have Caesar misguidedly start a destructive war; a blockbuster demands a villain.

Once again, the apes steal the show. Andy Serkis continues his incredible work, providing Caesar with verisimilitude and genuine emotional depth. (Seriously, can't Serkis at least earn a special Oscar for mo-cap?) Dawn's standout is Maurice (Karin Konoval), a gentle orangutan who befriends human teen Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Combined with more conventional computer effects and action scenes, Dawn proves a visual wonder.

Rise's biggest failing was its human characters: next to Caesar and friends, nobody cared about James Franco and Freida Pinto. Jason Clarke, usually relegated to character roles, carries his end of Dawn with dignity and toughness. And Gary Oldman makes his villain surprisingly likeable: his brief scene scanning family photos humanizes Dreyfuss more than reams of dialogue. Then again, it's easier to sympathize with underdogs of any species.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an above-average summer movie. Whatever my quibbling reservations, it's always nice to see a blockbuster that puts some care into craftsmanship.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Scalphunters

Sydney Pollack's The Scalphunters (1968) is lightweight entertainment. At heart it's a counterfeit Spaghetti Western, retaining the double-crosses and coarse humor but little of the nastiness. Decent action and fun leads keep it afloat.

Fur-trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) reluctantly trades a load of furs to Kiowa Indians for slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis). Bass and Joseph become reluctant partners against a band of scalphunters led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas), who massacre the Kiowas. Howie captures Joseph and plans to sell him, but the slave charms Howie's coarse wife (Shelley Winters) and manipulates Howie. Joe Bass isn't far behind, stalking the caravan in hopes for revenge.

From frame one, The Scalphunters throws out banter and sight gags which inspire even Bass's horse to double-take. Pollack gets great chemistry from his leads, and the movie's best moments come from their. Joe's predictably amoral, but Joseph's a much more interesting character. Endlessly pragmatic, he plays the erudite charmer or subservient Uncle Tom as the occasion suits. Our leads scheme and double-cross each other but there's no bite or malice; Pollack repeatedly assures us everything's a joke.

The Scalphunters succeeds as light comedy but doesn't quite work as a Western. William W. Norton's script sags in the middle section, falling into repetitious gags and middling action while losing the plot. The action scenes are a mixed bag: set pieces like a horse stampede feel uninspired, but Bass and Joseph's comic wrestling match and a violent Kiowa attack provide an effective climax. Elmer Bernstein's robust score redeems a lot, but The Scalphunters never generates the expected tension.

Burt Lancaster's scruffy stubble can't conceal his winsome charisma. Ossie Davis steals the show, making Joseph an endearing survivor. He quotes Latin, tptes Comanche cure-alls and handily outwits his costars. Telly Savalas and Shelley Winters, on the other hand, are relentlessly irritating; their scenes drag the movie to a crawl. Dabney Coleman gets an unrecognizable early role.

For all its playful self-awareness, The Scalphunters never amounts to much. Paul Bogart and Gordon Douglas's edgier Skin Game (1971) handled a similar story better. Still, as Friday night entertainment you could do worse.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Groggy on Moviepilot: Western Ruminations

Every few months Groggy gets enough stamina to sit down and write something for Moviepilot. Tonight's feature is Where Have All the Westerns Gone?, a brief history of Groggy's favorite genre. I'm no Jim Kitses or Phillip French, but hopefully you'll find it a decent read.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

I confess that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh's charms elude me: Michael Chabon's debut novel is a convoluted coming-of-age story crammed with snotty characters and insufferable prose. Credit Rawson Marshall Thurber for turning an overrated book into a terrible movie.

Mysteries follows Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) drifting through post-grad life. His dad (Nick Nolte) is a Mafia big-shot who's lined up a stockbroking job. Art works at a bookstore, sleeping with his boss Phlox (Mena Suvari), while studying for an economics exam. Then he falls in with Cleveland (Paul Sarsgaard), a charming small-time hood, and his violinist girlfriend Jane (Sienna Miller). The trio become inseparable, Art becoming attracted to both Cleveland and Jane with disastrous consequences.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh starts with a flawed source and amplifies its faults. The characterization confuses weirdness for depth. Cleveland's the kind of existential douchebag beloved by indie fiction, spouting halfwit aphorisms ("We're all doomed, Art. That's the point") as original as they are profound. Phlox's inexplicable transition from merely horny to lovestruck loon completely derails that subplot. These cartoon caricatures might work in a comedy but Mysteries is deadly earnest, convinced its boneheaded epigrams are deep, man.

Thurber's script drifts pointlessly between scenes, generating neither narrative momentum or incidental interest. Our protagonists' activities and outrages (downing whiskey at a punk club, shooting beer cans with BB guns) feel remarkably tame, making Garden State's abyss-shouting feel positively outre. Art's crushingly literal narration doesn't help. After shuffling through tones and moods throughout, Mysteries unaccountably ends with a car chase. What the hell, guys?

Fans of the novel won't like Mysteries either. Thurber rejiggers the narrative and excises one major character (Arthur, Art's lover) entirely. Chabon's exploration of Art's shifting personal/sexual identity devolves into a rote love triangle; here he's a passive blank slate, inexplicably attracted to weirdos. And where Chabon made Pittsburgh integral to his story (what other novel utilizes the Hillman Library?), the film might as well be set in Detroit or L.A. or Podunk for how blandly the city's used.

Jon Foster is a complete nonentity, exhibiting little talent and no charisma. Peter Sarsgaard plays Cleveland as a surly prick, while Sienna Miller is wonderfully vacuous. But Mena Suvari wins the booby prize, handling Phlox's wild personality shifts with mad overacting. Only Nick Nolte emerges unscathed, dialing down his manic persona into focused intensity.

At best, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh seems the bastard cousin of two much-better films. Specifically Adventureland and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, two Pittsburgh-set coming-of-age dramas with likeable characters, real emotion and good sense of place. Mysteries offers only chintzy dialogue, shots of the Hot Metal Bridge and a character named Phlox. Pass.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Shoes of the Fisherman

Michael Anderson's The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) was an instant fossil: terrible in its day, even worse forty-six years later. Long, sonorous and boring, it mixes the worst elements of religious epics and topical dramas.

Soviet Premier Kamenev (Laurence Olivier) releases Ukrainian Archbishop Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn) from a Siberian gulag. Exiled to the Vatican, Kiril becomes a Cardinal and after the Pope's (John Gielgud) demise, a reluctant pontiff. Kiril struggles in his new office, passing censure on skeptical Father Telemond (Oskar Werner) and negotiating between the USSR and China. When Chairman Peng (Burt Kwouk) rebuffs Kiril's overtures, he takes drastic action to avert conflict.

Based on Morris West's novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman miscalculates on every level. John Patrick and James Kennaway's script is an indigestible loaf of exposition and declarative dialogue. Priests and premiers alike windily describe back stories, motivations and plot developments. Shoes has Kiril recount his harrowing prison experience, rather than showing it; kindly Kamenev shows no trace of the brutal commissar who tormented our hero. For slower viewers, American journalist George Faber (David Janssen) narrates the conclave like a football game.

Besides its leaden dramatics, Shoes completely lacks scale. Evidently, we're supposed to find Father Telemond's musings as momentous as nuclear Armageddon. The Sino-Soviet split's backgrounded until the last half-hour, despite motivating Kiril's release from prison. For that matter, Shoes doesn't even consider how the United States might react to Kiril's detente initiative. Instead, Anderson devotes an unconscionable amount of time to Faber's romantic entanglements and Kiril visiting Rome incognito.

That leaves our monumentally dull hero. Religious leaders make good protagonists when they're conflicted, flawed or at least charismatic. But Kiril is shamelessly immaculate: soft-spoken, humble and principled, solving the world's problems comes easily to him. He's briefly anguished over Telemond's persecution, until the theologian graciously forgives him. The Cardinals' opposition to his peace plan is only a momentary speed bump. What a guy, ending the Cold War by day and paying nocturnal visits to the sick and needy. Kiril makes John Paul II look like Pius XII.
Anthony Quinn can't be faulted; he plays Kiril as written. Unusually subdued, Quinn invests key scenes with emotion, anguish and understated doubt. But for all his skill, he can't overcome a script which makes Kiril too pure to be believable and too boring to be likeable. Quinn's simply filling space, anchoring the movie without any chance of saving it.

Among the impressive cast, Oskar Werner brings vitality to his role, while Leo McKern's conflicted Cardinal salvages a few scenes. Others aren't so lucky. David Janssen shuffles listlessly between exposition, wife Barbara Jefford and mistress Rosemary Dexter. Laurence Olivier woodenly approximates a Russian accent; John Gielgud spends more time as a corpse than Pope; Burt Kwouk's fanatical Chairman barely registers. Vittorio De Sica, Frank Finlay, Isa Miranda and Niall MacGinnis languish in walk-on parts.

With story and characterization DOA, Shoes plays its dubious trump card. Anderson recreates Vatican splendor through intricate sets, Roman location shooting and copious stock footage. Along with the detailed recreations of Papal ceremonies, it provides aesthetic interest. But neither aureate sets or pompous Alex North music can redeem Anderson's pedestrian direction. What use is spectacle in a movie that's all talk - and boring talk, at that?

Aside from Richard Nixon, 1960s viewers avoided The Shoes of the Fisherman like the plague. Indeed it's so dense, humorless and wrongheaded it's impossible to imagine what audience the filmmakers envisioned. Shoes fails as religious drama, political thriller and entertainment: a steaming load of papal bull.