Friday, July 18, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014); The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013); Night Zero (premiere episode of 'The Strain,' Guillermo del Toro, 2014)

(WARNING:  plot twists and story of the two movies, one TV show--and in one case an entire franchise--discussed in detail)

Aping The Planet of the Apes 

Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is arguably better than its predecessor, the remake of the third sequel to the original adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel. Where the latter traces the nascent development of human-level intelligence in apes, this--the sequel and remake of the fourth sequel to the original adaptation (pay attention!)--has the full-grown Caesar (an impressively motion-captured Andy Serkis) struggling to lead his band of brothers into an Arcadian paradise. Apes at this point are capable of serious log cabin construction (their spiky spiraling structure could stand proudly beside some of the cruder motte-and-baileys seen in the Game of Thrones series); the words "Ape not kill ape" are scrawled prominently on a teacher's neolithic Smartboard. All that's missing, really, is some seriously decadent vegan cooking to transform this into a particularly esoteric episode on glamping from The Travel Channel.

Then the humans come in. Tense moments follow. Hope for the future is offered--and quickly dashed to the ground, resulting in large-scale digitally rendered, fairly engaging action sequences. The movie ends on the same image it began, with camera tight on Caesar's ominously pensive face--nice little touch, there.

Interesting--where Caesar in the original comes to the realization that apes are no better than humans, here he does a bit of syntactic sidestepping. "You are no ape," he declares, dropping his foe (and himself) down a long slippery slope involving precise etymologies (untermensch, anyone?).

Might add that the apes have not improved their tactics much since the last picture. Where previously they launched a full-on frontal attack against heavily armed troops on a suspension bridge (it's all right, they've got plot armor), here they launch a full-on frontal attack on a fortified city, and only when an armored car is commandeered (by an ape on horseback--see aforementioned story trope) do they actually make any headway. Some of the apes happen to be gorillas; couldn't they have taught their fellow anthropoids an alternate method?

Okay, cheap joke.

The movie's an impassioned plea for interracial/intercultural/interwhateveral co-existence; that much I got. Maybe my biggest problem is that it falls far short of what Boulle's novel was trying to do, what  the best science fiction (as opposed to sci-fi) tries to do: refract real-life issues through the genre's distorting lens, in an attempt at a fresh approach. The key word is distorting: Boulle's novel was satire in the tradition of Swift, with some withering things to say about our pretentions to standing on the top rung of the evolutionary ladder; Reeves (and Wyatt before him) seem to be trying to serve up a deadly earnest drama about yet another socioethnic minority group clawing its way to acceptability. Where Boulle and Franklin J. Schaffner's '68 film presented apes as exaggerated mockeries of the worse humanity has to offer, these two reboots present them as just an evolutionary step upward from what you see in your local zoo, down to the zoologically accurate body language of the motion-captured actors. Despite what today's filmmakers might tell you, realism is not a virtue in satire; a clear view of the target is required, shining through the effects. You miss the dark humor, the comic-horrific sense of ordinary life turned upside-down (Schaffner captured Boulle's satiric thrust best; Burton's, while scattershot shallow, still managed to plant tongue firmly in furred cheek). 

Plus I miss Helena Bonham-Carter's Ari, all ape makeup surrounding a pair of soulful, sensual eyes, the single most subversive element in Burton's remake. Cornelia, Caesar's mate (Judy Greer), is about as sensuous as a hair shirt--you wanted to give her not sympathy but a bottle of industrial-strength tick powder; Bonham-Carter's Ari on the other hand was capable of inspiring a serious erection--she made you want to rethink the arguments against the practice of bestiality.

Stranger in a strange land

James Gray's The Immigrant despite its melodrama despite its flaws is extraordinary, a retelling of Vito Corleone's entry from Sicily into New York, only from the point of view of a woman. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has traveled from war-torn Poland to Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) in tow. Magda's coughing gets her quarantined; Ewa faces a different problem--rumor has it that she's a girl of 'loose morals,' and will probably be deported.

The Godfather analogy is inevitable; Gray seems to be setting himself up as the millennial equivalent of Coppola (even his We Own the Night, which I thought was terrific, openly invites comparison), though not just Coppola--one is reminded of Guiseppe Rotunno's work on Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, and of Miroslav Ondicek's for Milos Forman's Ragtime, the kind of stately amber handsomeness that can be mistaken for White Elephant filmmaking--only Gray adds an emotional obliqueness that belongs more in an Ozu or Naruse film, and in the case of Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno a volatility that recalls--well, recalls Phoenix at his most unhinged. The emotional dynamics also resemble the tortured relationship between pimp and imprisoned prostitute in Kim ki-duk's Bad Guy, only told almost entirely from the prostitute's point of view--Phoenix does not make deadly with a paper dart, alas, but does share Han-ki's relentless, often contradictory obsession with his captive.

Bruno introduces himself gently into the picture, as a courtly well-dressed gentleman willing to take troublesome Ewa off state hands. He takes time in revealing his darker side; when he does it's an explosive outburst that frightens not because it's so violent or sudden, but because it's so indignant: he believes--or has long since talked himself into believing--that he's doing Ewa a huge favor setting her up, that she's being incredibly stupid or irrational or perverse turning him down. 

What sets Bruno apart from most if not all pimps is that he's enthusiastically backed up by his charges. The other girls are all over him, kissing and hugging, cornering him in all kind of sensual clinches. They're so convincing in their ardor and he comes through for them, especially Ewa, so often--sometimes at cost to himself--that you begin to wonder: maybe he's not such a bad guy after all, maybe it's Ewa who's the problem.

Cotillard is a marvel, and perhaps a measure of her achievement is that you can't quite put a finger on why she's such a marvel. Her Ewa is no pistol-packing take-charge heroine; most of the time she's just awkwardly stumbling into one form of trouble after another, helplessly clutching an iron pick plucked out of a coal bin to defend herself (rather feebly) against potential attackers. 

But--when you think about it--what can Ewa do? She's a woman in 1920's New York, a foreigner at that. If she speaks her mind, she's mannish and arrogant; if she resists she's unreasonable and stubborn; if she surrenders she's a whore. She's defiant after a fashion, but it's a furtive kind of defiance, defined by her strictly straitened circumstances: she has to steal her moments when no one's looking, keep them hidden like treasured jewels, like a secret identity. 

Ewa keeps saying it's all for her sister, and I believe her, or at least believe she is totally invested in  what she says, but at a certain point you wonder if maybe she uses that declaration as a rallying cry, a goal in life, an impossible dream she can look at above the muck she's in, neck-deep. Certainly it's for her sister, but I'd say it's also very much for herself; if she fails to rescue Magda, if her sibling dies before being rescued, she would probably have killed herself in despair.

Sometimes Ewa gives in, perhaps more often than she wants; but--crucial difference--she never gives up. Behind her eyes you sense an unbelievably tough kernel of intelligence watching, waiting for a chance. 

Ewa never gets that chance, at least not the way she would in a conventional drama (or conventional melodrama). Instead (and here I go into the film's climax in considerable detail) Bruno arranges for her to escape, but beforehand declares the true nature of their relationship once and for all. He tells her of how he first saw her, plotted her capture, sabotaged her chances of meeting her family; of how he treated her, abused her, used her worse than any of his women; he tells her her true role in their shared narrative--as a victim of sexual, emotional and spiritual rape for years on end, his plaything and slave, his unforgettable, unforgivable sin. She's his damnation--because of what he's done to her he's reduced to being less than a man; he's nothing.

And then her response. Not the blows she rains on him, a weak pummeling that wouldn't harm a kitten, but her absolute denial of his claim. "You are not nothing!" she declares, and in that simple little statement is a wealth of implication: I am not your victim--or I have been for years, but refuse to be only your victim. I refuse to play a role in your drama any more. I refuse to remain marked by your revelations, no matter how painful. 

I refuse to be your sin--to be the one who weighs you down, drags you to hell. I refuse to play the woman who hates you endlessly. I care for you, in as much as a person can care for someone who has both helped and hurt her so much. 

And I move on. I am free, and intend to live the rest of my life as I see fit.

Would like to take a moment to point out how closely (and rather recklessly of Gray, who I have to assume is a churchgoing member) Ewa's stance seems to hew to the Catholic position on such matters; to 'turn the other cheek' when one is wronged and 'love one another,' and so forth. Call Catholicism a passion or delusion but occasionally it's the evoking of older faiths--of centuries-old words or terms or ideas--that inspires the most potent emotional moments. Either it works for you or doesn't, you're free to respond according to your will (you must be; that's a crucial Catholic requirement for salvation, a defining characteristic of the human soul).

In this Gray joins the small group of fellow American filmmakers who focus on their Catholicism onscreen, or at least on the Catholic concepts of sin and guilt and redemption--Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara and, yes, Francis Coppola--with maybe a crucial difference: where Travis Bickle, The Lieutenant (or Thana, if you like), and Michael Corleone would probably seek retribution if they were in a similar position, Gray's Ewa opts for a more radical reply: not to kill Bruno or punish him but transcend him. She's a victim, but refuses to let that define her life.

In an extraordinary shot Gray slices the screen in two with a mirror and follows Bruno and Ewa as they flee to their respective fates. The moment isn't celebratory--if anything it has a pointedly mournful tone--but it does feel like a stopping point of some kind. Whatever future they have in store for them Gray isn't saying--we can choose one of several alternatives, or choose not to assign one at all; again, we are free to respond accordingly. 


Guillermo del Toro's novel has been adapted for television with the filmmaker himself directing the premiere episode; the results sad to say are, well, not effortlessly achieved or easy to like. 

The contemporary setting directs our attention to the rather wooden characters; the dialogue lacks the kind of wit that enlivened the banter of a Blade or Hellboy (maybe they need to introduce a super-powered character or two, drily commenting on the action). The ostensible protagonist, a CDC officer, has marriage issues and is a control freak. We're basically setting up the story here, and so far the human side of the story is less than engaging. 

That said, it's handsome to look at, even on the small screen. Del Toro lights his huge sets in deep reds and greens, the better to set the tone, and during one of several exceptions--where everything is bathed in a dim steel blue--the impression is so striking it makes you want to shiver from sheer cold. 

That exception is actually a direct steal from the granddaddy of all vampire novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula, only instead of a dead ship we have a dead plane. The device still works, and del Toro still manages to direct an appropriately creepy little sequence, set inside the darkened jetliner. The episode is a study of contrasts, of juxtapositions between the medieval and the 21st century: ancient carved coffin sitting in an industrial warehouse; menacing sycophants in a plush corporate setting; an ancient evil loose in an ultramodern city. Del Toro is retelling the story, this time without the swooning sensuality and twinkling sentimentality; he's telling the story straight, using (to these inexpert ears) authentic epidemiological terminology, the latest CDC can offer. 

Two other sequences stand out: there's something unsettling about video footage depicting something inexplicable--in this case what looks like several hundred pounds of crated dirt suddenly vanishing into thin air. 

And then the morgue sequence: palm, burrowing worm, scalpel. Need I say more? 

I'm giving this one a chance. Hopefully they beef up the characters a little; unlike on the big screen, plot and dialogue matter more in a TV series. Del Toro directs with impressive panache--more than impressive, considering he's working on a TV budget--but he needs some solid writing in his episodes to firm them up for the long haul.

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