Monthly Archives: July 2017

Review: Dunkirk

dunkirk-posterThere’s a fundamentally volatile, empathically compelling core about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, more akin to an over-budgeted experiential art film than what might pass as a narrative in the conventional sense, especially for summer blockbusters and their perennial fetish for stories of self-actualization. In Dunkirk, characters are ciphers, stripped of anything resembling backstory. They are defined only by the minutiae of how they react to peril of the moment. Nolan strives not to detail, from above, the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers after the failed British invasion of German-occupied France during WWII. Instead, he works over-time to feverishly emblazon the past in highly subjective, ground-level cinematic strokes.  An experiment in the moment, in an eternal present-tense, Dunkirk is a stark refutation (within blockbuster confines) of the tendentiousness of narrative where moments are primarily valuable for the pay-offs and catharsis they will lead to in a theoretical future. Continue reading

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_posterNow in its third and possibly final film, the 21st century Planet of the Apes series has shuttled audiences from the thickets of armed revolt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to the middle passage of Greek Tragedy (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). With War for the Planet of the Apes, we’ve now descended into an even more classical and essentially mythological register. While Shakespeare was the obvious focal point in Dawn, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Marck Bomback double-down on the Biblical aspirations of the original series with this trilogy-conclusion, rendering War an heir apparent to the Cecil B. Demille Bible epics of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Throughout the early portions of War for the Planet of the Apes, protagonist Caesar (Andy Serkis) leaves his apes to mount a personal mission, but the rest of his colony begins an arduous trek through a desert, a setting and adventure which lays bare the Biblical aspirations and allegorical, metaphysical meditations at stake here. However, while this promises an arid climate, most of War shuttles us with Caesar into the frigid mountains of the Pacific Northwest, where cinematographer Michael Seresin can bombard Caesar and his close friends with a white, frosty holocaust, the tundra of the soul. Caesar’s mission is to hunt and kill the villainous enigma known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), whose abstraction of a name also reminds us that War is, at heart, a mythological allegory. The Colonel, obsessed with killing all of ape-kind, led a midnight raid on Caesar’s home from which not all emerged unscathed, and Caesar and his closest advisors, including sensitive and world-weary orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), are on the proverbial war-path. Continue reading

Progenitors: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

conquest_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_5Among the five original Planet of the Apes pictures, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is undeniably the most obvious forebear to the modern trilogy. A review of this most unheralded picture in honor of the conclusion of the new trilogy.

Human characters run toward the screen with imprisoned apes in tow, and a quavering camera courtesy of cinematographer Bruce Surtees trembles in reverse, as if cowering in fear. This hand-held style already puts us on a different, more unstable footing than the more classically composed delights of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, but we’re in a film that is almost as good. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is also, in some sense, the closest analogue in the classic series to the beginning of the 2010’s series revamp, depicting the “conquest” that would become the “rise” in 2011. If anything, Conquest is even more explicit in its allegorical and essentially revolutionary nature than the modern films. Right in the thick of political disfiguration and social unrest, Conquest has Black Power on the mind and in the eyes, more overtly so than nearly any non-blaxploitation film of the ‘70s. Also suggesting America’s little venture into Vietnam, screenwriter Paul Dehn and director J. Lee Thompson hurtle right into the belly of the beast with guerilla aplomb. So many are wont to call Planet of the Apes “thinking person’s sci-fi” that they overlook how a red-hot screed like Conquest aims right for the gut. Continue reading

Progenitors?: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

ringstrilogyposterI so wanted to write some nonsense about Andy Serkis in War of the Planet of the Apes and in The Lord of the Rings films to make this connection, but really I had these reviews on my computer, and I guess that’s as good a reason as any.

Only fifteen odd years but many Hollywood eons ago, Peter Jackson’s much-vaunted trilogy was the commercial and critical darling of the cinematic world.  It enraptured both fair-weather film attendees and cinephiles alike, and it could seemingly do no wrong. Its reputation hasn’t flagged at all. Although time salves the reptile brain’s immediate magnetic attraction to Jackson’s visual splendor, the trilogy has never truly been framed and squared-off into a museum piece, a taxidermied old classic to rest on the mantle rather than a lively, kicking thing to unsettle your ribs to this day. It isn’t a whirlwind of living and breathing sensations any more, but if the paint has dried, it hasn’t chipped, let’s say. All these years later, why do the films settle so cozily into the imagination while so many other blockbusters of the time are more like skeletons on an abandoned summer-time battlefield of the mind? Continue reading

Aternative WWII: The Big Red One

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The initial conflict begins without any clarity or certainty of agency. The causes do not match the effects, an early primer for director Sam Fuller’s hard-headed humanism and his eye and ear for the absurdism of conflict and a life that doesn’t conform to our rituals. A kind of retrospective parody of the famous D-Day invasion from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – all gung-ho violence and viciously unsentimental grandiose hell-raising – The Big Red One’s opening scene finds a platoon of Americans disappointed that they’re fighting Vichy French (co-collaborators of the Germans, or at least those acquiescent to Nazi might). The Americans rush to a line of barbed wire. A French general orders his men to fire with a machine gun placement. His man disagrees. The general kills him. The general’s underling shoots the general, who falls on the machine gun, setting it off accidentally. A brief skirmish that mounts to nothing starts. It’s over as soon as it starts. Fate, or chance, or whatever, seems to stack the pieces in favor of assault no matter who tries to stop it, as though the universe wanted them to start a conflict and then pitilessly lost interest in the human’s actions immediately. Whether the men are competent or not has nothing to do with it. Continue reading

Alternative WWII: Cross of Iron

cross-of-iron-movie-posterEver since the truly sublime Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch “Salad Days”, Sam Peckinpah has been something of a punchline for critics who reduce him to the rampant Novocaine of violence opiating the masses. His only proper war film, Cross of Iron, is not a full-throated rejoinder to that criticism, but it certainly problematizes the animating cinematic thrill of, say, The Wild Bunch. It’s not an abandonment of violence, though, so much as a rough and rowdy revision, punchy in the typical Peckinpah milieu but more decrepit and alienated from its bloodletting.

The introduction is a little over-baked, but it works as a sort of amuse-bouche for Peckinpah’s exceedingly dry comic sensibility, with a documentary video-reel of Nazi imagery marinated in an overtly condescending, cheeky military march. Great stuff, and it reveals a truly mordant sense of humor underneath Peckinpah’s usually stone-faced cinematic exteriors. Peckinpah also inverts the famous opening credits of The Wild Bunch, where color soldiers unsympathetically flash into still-photo black-and-white as if to trap them in time and enervate them of life-blood. Here, the black and white footage flashes into static blood-red, as if the distanced and denatured imagery of the past is being provocatively reinstated as a bloody present. Continue reading

Alternative WWII: Hell in the Pacific

vlcsnap-2017-07-05-23h56m22s386Ahh, the wonderful world of John Boorman, that perennial cinematic oscillator between the realm of exhausted greatness (Point Break, Deliverance) and spirited atrocity (Zardoz and Exorcist II). The man just eludes categorization, except that all of his films seem to share a pure and unabashed self-centeredness. Yet many of his best films paradoxically stamp themselves in the director’s personality not through baroque visual extravaganzas but through thriller minimalism. His greatest achievements are not screeds radiating shards of discontent or phantasmagorical whirlygusts of excitement. Deliverance and Point Break are white-knuckle, certainly, but they are also thoroughly dog-tired, whipped features, spent forces rather than self-propagating fires of combustion. Continue reading