War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves; 2017)

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted yet another beloved franchise in the attempt to show us the story of what happened to Earth while the astronauts who feature in the now classic 1968 movie were away on their ill-fated mission.  Most were surprised at just how gripping and intelligent this new take was with a story with themes warning us of the dark road hubris could one day lead the human race down, completely sympathetic and gripping characters despite their hubris, and just the right amount of action to make the film more a blockbuster and less a think piece so it can appeal to a broader audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the new intelligent species of apes, and once again ended up being an intelligent action film giving us both spectacle and commentary on xenophobia and its insidious and far reaching consequences.  Now we have the trilogy’s conclusion, and with Rise, Dawn, and now War for the Planet of the Apes we get to see the truly rare trilogy in which every part  is masterfully crafted both as an individual work and as one third of a larger epic story.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the conclusion of Dawn with Caesar and his clan still hiding in the forests outside San Francisco, but now they are being actively hunted by the remnants of the United States Army who were called in to exterminate the apes by the human colony in San Francisco in Dawn‘s finale.  Caesar has had a new child in the intervening years and his older son has been acting as a scout trying to find a place the apes can relocate to so they can get away from the army without violence.   The news of a new living space reaches Caesar too late, however, as just as the apes are preparing to leave San Francisco they are discovered by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the army stationed in the area who is bent on wiping out the apes.  A skirmish between apes and man ends with the humans being chased off, but the apes’ losses prompt Caesar to decide the Colonel must be killed at all cost and so he leaves his tribe on a suicide mission to confront the Colonel and end his life.

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War for the Planet of the Apes has all the intelligence and empathy of the two films which preceded it.   This time, the major themes on display are ones of survival, revenge, and fear, though not the xenophobia which was the focus of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  This time the fears are very well known, not unfounded, and inescapable.  It’s less about fear of the unknown, and more about how we act when our fears are justified and right in our face.  Caesar and the Colonel are both charismatic leaders and idolized by those who follow them, and Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson bring both of these magnetic personalities to life brilliantly.  As is the case in the best fiction, but particularly in the best action adventure fiction, we are given two characters working against each other who are nearly mirror images and the only reason one is considered a hero and the other villain is due to the lengths the Colonel is willing to go to ensure the survival of the human race and the men in his unit.

As has been the case in the first two films in the trilogy, the special effects on display in War for the Planet of the Apes are remarkable.  There are more animated via motion capture actors than live action in the film, but this does not create any lack of empathy in he audience.  The apes are still quite silent, preferring to rely more on sign language than actual speech, so their communication is done with facial expressions and body language and nothing is lost in translation despite the fact that what we are seeing isn’t real.   The environments also change this time, as we leave San Francisco and its forests behind for more northern climes, and again the shots involving the snow covered mountains are gorgeous.  Also deserving special mention is the lighting in the film.  Much of the action takes place at night, but Reeves and his crew never allow that to interfere with our vision either as mistake nor crutch.  We see everything we need to see while still understanding when the action is taking place, and in a Hollywood in which action scenes are literally getting darker and darker this was a pleasant choice.

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This trilogy does have its problems, and one that seems to be consistent across all three films, and that is that since the characterizations and plotting are so intelligent that when a specific bit of action has to be rushed through due to pacing issues that bit really stands out.  For instance, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes what takes years and years to change Caesar’s brain so he has human level intelligence happens overnight with a little gas for the rest of the apes.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar is brutally fighting for his life with great strength and agility mere days after being shot with a high powered automatic weapon.  Without spoiling anything, War for the Planet of the Apes also has to fall into similar traps to keep the story moving, and that little bit of dumb shoved inside what is otherwise genius really sticks out.

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Final verdict:  War for the Planet of the Apes ends its trilogy wonderfully, putting this apes trilogy up there with The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Nolan Batman films as one of the truly great action trilogies in all of filmdom.  Each part can be enjoyed on its own as a complete work and will still be satisfying, but the experience is amplified by enjoying all three as a continuous work.  Caesar will go down as a legendary Hollywood character, and his story as one of the greats.  I hope Hollywood ends it here and does not give in to the temptation to create more films as a cash grab as this really was the finale the story of Caesar deserves.  None of the films are perfect, War for the Planet of the Apes being no exception, but they are gripping and intelligent action films which deserve your attention.  If you’ve seen the first two, War is a must, but you probably already knew that.  If you haven’t seen the first two, you can still enjoy War for the Planet of the Apes, and I recommend you do, but I recommend even more seeing Rise and Dawn before moving onto this one for a far richer experience.

Elle (Verhoeven; 2016)

The first thing we see in Elle is the face of a charcoal colored cat staring straight ahead as we hear sexual noises coming from off screen.  The noises stop and we cut to two people lying on the hardwood floor of a kitchen, the man is wearing all black, including a ski mask, he stands zipping up his pants and runs off as the woman remains lying on the floor in an obvious state of shock.  It occurs to us immediately that what had just happened was a rape, but we don’t witness the rape, we start the story immediately afterward.  This is a brilliant opening as we aren’t focused on the act itself, but rather we get to exist in the aftermath alongside our protagonist Michéle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert).

Isabelle Huppert gives a performance here that can only be described as sublime.  Elle deals with a very sensitive topic in a fashion more nuanced than most people think is possible and the handling of that topic hinges entirely on Huppert’s performance.  Not only does she prove to be up to the task, she gives us a character that can somehow horrify and inspire us at the same time, someone who we have all the sympathy in the world for even as we find her repellent to a nearly equal degree.  It’s rare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors an actor in a non-American film, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding Isabelle Huppert for this year’s ceremony, and well there should be. This is not just a fully formed, well thought out character with a massive amount of depth, but it’s also a performance and a character that has to express mixed and uncomfortable feelings about a nearly untouchable hot topic issue, and she does this as well with grace, maturity, and style without even a hint of apology.1200

Why should there be an apology?  Well, there shouldn’t, but this film deals with its oh=so touchy themes in a manner that nearly everyone could be offended on some level.  It portrays a 50 year-old woman as a still very sexual person, so sexual that her rape is more about her safety at home than about her feeling violated.  She is shown to be a powerful woman, she runs a video game company and the game they are currently working on is one which shows images and scenes which would work feminists angry at the video game industry into an absolute tizzy, and she sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants and thinks nothing of it until her dalliance may ruin a friendship or working relationship somewhere down the road.  In short, she is a woman who acts just like rich men are perceived and portrayed in the media and in culture today.  So the rape doesn’t affect her and isn’t treated in the story in a stereotypical way.  Michéle does feel violated, yes, and she does want to find her attacker, but she is never a victim, and not just due to keeping up a tough outer exterior, she honestly never feels like one.  The thought that must have been put into the character of Michéle really shows as we see her as the most rich, powerful, sexual, and confident person in a world populated almost entirely by men, and that not only gives us many different motives to consider, but also allows for a plot that can flow naturally without the writer and director having to search for coincidences and contrivances to move events along.

The early plot of Elle involves the investigation into who performed the rape, bringing to the forefront many of the possible motivations in the mind of a rapist.  We suspect an ex-husband who feels slighted, an employee who is angry at her for the way she is running the company, a spurned admirer, and the list continues.   More important than the mind of the potential rapists, however, is the mind of Michéle herself.  In exploring the aftermath of a vicious crime there isn’t just one possible response despite what Hollywood often makes us think.  Michéle does not go to the police, she does not change her personal nor professional life much at all except to try and reason out who her attacker could be, she is very casual in her mentioning of the crime to her friends and family.  This is not a Lifetime channel style response to a rape, and this is where a great deal of the shock and heart of Elle lives, in the fact that this movie does not rely on stereotype and expectations but on using the flaws, strengths, quirks, perversions, and humanity of its characters to give us a far more real story than we are used to seeing, particularly when a plot involving a touchy subject is on display.

Past this point, I am going to mention specific plot points of Elle that could lead to your figuring out the central mystery of the movie before it is revealed.  I will not spoil the movie, but I will be giving major clues, so read more at your own risk.

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If it’s the incredibly complex and true characters and their responses that make the plot of Elle what it is, though, the true themes of the film rear their head going into the final third of the film.   Roughly two thirds of the way through the film the identity of the rapist is discovered, and we find that it is a man Michéle has been attracted to all along, and rather than changing her relationship with this man, it just changes her method of seduction, as she now uses the knowledge of the nature of their relationship she has to move the dynamic from coy and playful to something more perverse, dangerous, and reliant on power dynamics.  Michéle is such a powerful woman so in touch with her own sexual nature that all the rape ultimately does is change the way she flirts with her rapist.  It is from here on that we see that the film really isn’t about rape at all, nor really even about sex, but about power.  Michéle is such a powerful person that even something as devastating as a rape can’t take her confidence away from her, it just becomes another tool she uses to get what she wants.

That is the final piece of the puzzle in Elle and what it wants to say.  Once we see that it’s ultimately about power we understand why we have a protagonist who is so unsympathetic in a film that seems like it demands sympathy to work.  Michéle is a seriously flawed person.  She betrays those closest to her, she sabotages others’ lives to get her way or often just because she can, she gives no thought to the feelings and desires of those around her, Michéle is very much a textbook sociopath.  Yet, she is also the victim of the most heinous crime which leaves its victim alive afterward and this naturally makes us sympathetic to her.   If this were any other film which began in any other way Michéle would almost certainly be the villain, but Elle is a film brave enough to go into places so dark in such a well thought out way that we get to experience the life of a sociopath through the eyes of a sociopath, and who ever sees themselves as the villain of their own story?

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Final recommendation:  Elle is one of the bravest, no-nonsense films I have ever seen.  I really do not think this film could have been made in Hollywood for a great many reasons.  It has an older female protagonist very much in touch with her sexuality, power, and desires.  It’s a film that shows there is a more fine line between misogyny and feminism than one would ever expect, and I still can’t say with any authority which side of that line this film falls on.  It’s a film that brazenly displays the relationship between sex and power unapologetically.  This is a dark, dark film that is often very funny, often uncomfortable, and always challenging.  If you are not up for a challenge, if you just feel the need for entertainment, then this is not one to watch, but if you want to see something that will make you rethink sexual politics and power, something truly provacative, Elle is an absolute must see.

 

 

 

Silence (Scorsese; 2016)

This story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in order to find out what happened to their former master and bring him back home both literally and spiritually has a long history.  Silence is originally a novel written by Shusaku Endo in 1966 and was given to Scorsese as a gift when he had finished filming The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  One year later Scorsese was asked by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to play Vincent Van Gogh in Dreams, and Scorsese decided to read the novel while he has working in Japan.  The intellectual outsider’s take on the Catholic religion appealed tremendously to Scorcese and he knew he wanted to make a film out of it but other contracts and projects kept getting in the way until he had finished The Wolf of Wall Street.  Now his passion project of close to thirty years is finally getting a general release and the world gets to see a Scorsese piece focusing on his passion other than New York, his Catholic faith.

The reason Scorsese has become such a legend of film making is his incredible eye for setting up intricate camera shots.  He’s a master at setting up both moods and story using methods which are anything but “by the book” while also often incorporating many pieces.  In Silence, Scorsese uses simpler, though no less beautiful, methods than he normally does, eschewing the wonder of intricacy for the starkness of simplicity.  We see more shots from one angle held for a long time than is normal, and with edits spaced far between.  While due to the sets and set pieces no one could ever confuse Silence with a stage play, the visual work on display here has a lot in common with one worrying more about facial expressions and dialogue for extended periods of time than on scenery and action.silence-refer

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play the major roles of the two priests on the mission in Japan, with Andrew Garfield being the true focal character, and both really get a chance to show their acting chops here.  Their characters immediately realize that they may have gotten themselves in far over their heads in a situation where not only is their very existence illegal, but they don’t understand a thing about the people they want to help. Both excellently express their feelings of helplessness, frustration, fear, and bewilderment while still maintaining individual identities.  The rest of the cast aside from Liam Neeson are various Japanese peasants or members of the Japanese Inquisition, and again, the acting on display is phenomenal, possibly even better than that of our main characters.  The Japanese in the film not only have to present complicated relationships to the priests and to the Catholic religion, but they have to do it using a very broken English, but not so broken that it is overly difficult to understand.  Issei Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue gave a particularly impressive performance having to be intimidating, charming, vicious, and ultimately the focus of Silence‘s deep and somewhat astonishing themes about culture and religion, while still having a very thick accent and limited English vocabulary.

In the screenplay which gives us these astonishing themes, we have quite an excellent adaptation, though I can’t speak to how accurate it is since I haven’t read the novel.  The story itself, and this is the one rather large weakness of the film, is very slow paced.  There is little action in Silence‘s 2 hour and 41 minute running time, and even the tension is spread out over long intervals interspersed with conversations on religion and philosophy as well as extended camera shots of the Japanese landscape and its denizens.  I found, in fact, that the majority of the interest and entertainment to be had from Silence is not during the period you are actually watching the film, but in the hours and days afterward when you are letting what you saw play out in your head and you get a chance to interpret and ponder everything contained in the film.  This is a film that demands a second viewing to get from it everything you can, the first viewing really just being little more than a preparation for the true experience.

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As to those themes themselves, I can’t say I am certain I caught everything in one viewing, but Scorsese has a lot to say about the nature of religion in relation to the culture it has permeated.  A Christian in Europe and a Christian in Japan are not only limited in communication, but they can be said to be following an altogether different religion with only the most surface and dogmatic elements of the religion being the same.  How it inspires and affects its followers, and even what the followers perceive themselves to be worshiping can be radically different, and thus the effect the religion has on the culture of a given region can also be radically different.  It’s this observation which gives Silence its power, and which also make it an odd companion piece to Arrival released earlier in the year.  Silence also has strong similarities to the book and television miniseries Shogun in its portrayal of Europeans impacting and causing upheaval in Japanese society.

Final recommendation:  Silence is not a film for everyone.  While it is intensely thoughtful and has as deep a message as one can hope for in cinema, it’s plodding pace and nearly meditative style means that the rewards you get from the film are gained after you have left the theater and find yourself thinking about it, not in the moment.  If you are ready for something methodical and philosophical, however, Silence not only delivers on those fronts, but can also be beautiful and has some fantastic acting on display, as well.

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal Animals (Ford; 2016)

Amy Adams is Susan Morrow, an art gallery director living in Los Angeles in Nocturnal Animals.  She is living a life many people think they aspire to with multiple penthouse apartments in multiple cities, a husband with a good career of his own and fashion model looks, admiration from the masses, but she feels empty and knows much of the image she projects is a sham.  One day she gets a package in the mail, and in this package is a book manuscript from her ex-husband (Edward Sheffield played by Jake Gyllenhall) of 20 years earlier with a note asking her to read it and asking for her opinion.  Intrigued and nostalgic for her old life, she does so, and this story within a story along with the way she reacts to it is the crux of Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is a well crafted film.  The book within the movie is the more archetypal story with a narrative that builds and crescendos using the classical elements of drama, but Susan’s story as she reads the manuscript and interacts with her world is what gives the movie its real weight and meaning.  One piece of the film could not exist without the other even though they appear on the surface to be separate stories.  Part of me wonders if this is as much a crutch as a device since neither story really has a lot to offer on its own, it is at least a well concealed and used crutch.

The best part of Nocturnal Animals is most certainly the performances from its excellent cast of actors.  Amy Adams shows time and time again in everything she touches that she is truly a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and unarguably one of the greatest actors working today.  Jake Gyllenhall has to play double duty in two different roles in Nocturnal Animals, and one of those two is the largest role in the film, but Amy Adams gets top billing here despite that not just because she gives the best performance but because without her very sensitive and profound interpretation of the character of Susan this film would most likely fail.  Every performance on display is remarkable, and it is obvious that Ford is truly an “actors’ director”,  but Amy Adams stands out even amongst the other great work on display.

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Just rub it in that most of us in the cast never even got to work with her.

The visuals, and in particular the art direction, in Nocturnal Animals is sumptuous, and the one thing that rivals the acting for quality.  The movie takes place in two very different worlds, those being the wealthiest playgrounds of the Los Angeles elite power players and the poorest most remote areas of West Texas.   From the most lush of penthouses to the trashiest of trailers no detail was left untouched and the framing of each shot was also obviously thought through to most take advantage of the environment.  The director, Tom Ford, is known as much or more as a fashion designer as he is a film director, and his eye for detail is most certainly a heavy influence on his directorial style which very much shows in every visual element of Nocturnal Animals.

The success of Nocturnal Animals ultimately, though, falls on the weight of its themes.  It’s what this movie is all about as it makes so apparent, and in that area I cannot give better than a very mixed review.  Nocturnal Animals is through and through a revenge story, and while I can’t give any details about that revenge without spoiling a great deal, the ultimate message seems to be that all of us out there, no matter how well meaning, are rotten to the core and our rottenness spreads and infects even the most innocent and well intentioned eventually.  This message is wielded like a sledge hammer throughout the film, and particularly in its ending.  It’s a message that even though obvious is well stated, but ultimately, why is it a message worth stating?  First off, even if true, it’s something a great many already feel and don’t need to be told, but more importantly, the film gives no solution or advice, just condemnation and anger.  It’s ultimately a nihilistic, pessimistic piece of work.  It can be used as a form of catharsis for those, which would be nearly all of us, who felt they have been wronged by someone in their past but in a film as dark as this one I prefer at least an offer of some sort of solution or a story told in a way that makes us come to surprise revelations about our own nature rather than one that wields negative emotion as a broad sweeping cudgel.

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Investigating the scene where the broad sweeping cudgel was used.

There is a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, the wonderful performances most of all, but its lovingly detailed visuals and its intricacies of the story are also quite the pleasure to mull over, and almost demand this be a film you view more than once to take everything in.  However, your enjoyment will hinge on whether you can take the themes which are not just dark but downright mean and angry, but nevertheless the most integral part of understanding the story.  I recommend Nocturnal Animals to those who are Oscar junkies, as you will be seeing this movie mentioned in the nominations, and to those who need to vent pent up anger at someone who betrayed you in the past, but if you are a well adjusted casual movie goer, it’s a little harder to determine if this is one you should see.  I guess all I can say is if you find yourself drawn to story within a story plots and don’t worry too much about the positivity nor practicality of a movie’s message, then Nocturnal Animals is a movie for you, otherwise this is one to take in at your own risk.

Rating:  7.2 out of 10