Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn of the planet of the apes


As someone who’s really fond of writing, it would be my first instinct to tell you that a screenplay is the most important part of a film — after all, we only ever come to take any interest in certain images or set pieces because there are complex, interesting characters and an original, compelling narrative behind them. Right? Well, sort of; it is almost universally true that a movie can’t be really great if the screenplay isn’t at least good, and it is very hard for a movie to not be at least good if the screenplay is great. But, though I’d be ready to fight alongside the writers if civil war ever broke out in Tinseltown, I can’t say with a straight face that a screenplay has to be great in order for the movie to be great as well. All of which is to say that, upon finishing watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the first thought that occurred to me was this: not since Avatar has a film’s adherence to well-worn tropes and black-and-white characterization been so completely beside the point.

Because, let’s be honest, this is a movie with well-worn tropes and black-and-white characterization. The plot follows many of the conventional war epic rhythms to a letter, from the confused teenage son (of which there are two, actually) to the gradual approximation between members of the two sides, from the idiot who ruins everything to the token female character whose role in the plot is to take care of everyone’s wounds. With the exception of Gary Oldman’s actually pretty interesting authority figure, everyone who’s good is good and everyone who’s bad is bad, with little room for ethical complexity — this isn’t the sort of movie where we waste much time questioning the hero’s motives. And that’s for the better, all of that is for the better, because Dawn… is so exciting and astonishing on a visceral, purely cinematic level that you can’t fault it for being structurally conventional. Its script is unabashedly old-fashioned, yes, but there’s enough groundbreaking stuff everywhere else to make a great film.

In fact, part of what makes this movie great is exactly the way the director, Matt Reeves of Cloverfield and Let Me In fame, resorts to storytelling customs to maximize the impact of the film’s more novel elements. In taking all the big movie commonplaces, distilling them, and using the remaining space to do things no other movie has ever done so efficiently, Reeves imbues Dawn… with an even more precise iteration of the high-spirited sturdiness that made the first film work so well; here’s a rare high-concept movie that more than does justice to the possibilities of its high concept, be it exploring humans’ unprecedented fear of submission to a different species or speculating which of man’s societal structures a civilization of apes might come to replicate. And so we watch, in the opening minutes, as they viciously hunt down deer with wooden spears, or sit around a wise, literate orangutan to be taught new things, or ride horses to San Francisco to tell those pesky humans to get off their lawn, and all of that is treated very seriously and in a way that makes the simian way of life feel plausible and fascinating.

Which is essential, of course, in a sequel that takes place 10 years after the original, following such big events as a viral apocalypse and the blossoming of an entire community of previously irrational primates. A lesser film would have forced its audience to take the apes’ dexterity for granted (“Just watch the first film and it’ll make sense”); instead, the solid groundwork laid by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is used only as a springboard. You may not understand just how the apes managed to learn how to read and write if you haven’t seen the first installment, but here that bit of information is presented so naturally and skillfully that you just accept is as the truth and let the film move right on to the implications. And there are many, many implications, enough for ten high-profile action movies; as a piece of popular entertainment, Dawn… feels positively literary in its subtext, musing earnestly and eloquently about mankind’s place on Earth, the necessity and/or futility of war, how much of the failure of political systems is linked to a species’s animal nature, and other things you aren’t supposed to think about when you go watch a blockbuster. (This has been a fortunate trend in mass cinema; between this, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the Hunger Games series, it’s like Hollywood is slowly remembering it has a brain. (Ironic, then, that the best popcorn flick of the year has perhaps been the unabashedly escapist Guardians of the Galaxy.)) In that sense, it sets itself apart from other recent movie-movie megahits like Gravity and the aforementioned Avatar because, while its plot elements and characterization are still rather thin, there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

And yet it should be reiterated: with a surface like this, all of that thematic ambition wouldn’t even be necessary for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be a remarkable film. It’s already got enough flair that certain scenes in it — I’m thinking of the not-a-single-human-being-in-sight deer hunt at the beginning, or the arresting physical match between the two principal, rivaling apes — seem poised to become staples of effects-driven film, or even of modern film in general, shot as they are with nearly impressionistic visual panache. That also applies to the climatic battle, which is filmed clearly and atmospherically in a beautifully-designed post-doom San Francisco and induces complete emotional involvement even as it gets partly lost in questionable action mechanics. The motion capture technology, too, is employed to startling effects, making for some of the most expressive digital characters ever committed to film. In a year without Interstellar, the film’s VFX Oscar would be in the bag (on that note, it’s still a bit strange to remember that the first, equally revolutionary chapter lost Effects to Hugo of all films); in a year without such a crowded field, I wouldn’t be that surprised to find it among the actual Best Picture nominees. It’s certainly got the weightiness.

And of course, in a year without the Academy’s usual grumpy-old-man antics, Andy Serkis would get an acting nomination for his sensational work as Caesar. This is wishful thinking, of course, and will be so for a long time — but honestly, it’s the Oscars’ loss. What Serkis does here is already expectable of someone with his credits, yet somehow it’s doubly impressive if you’re familiar with his work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and triply impressive if you’ve seen the first film. After selling Caesar’s complicated emotional journey in Rise…, Serkis embodies him in this one as a stern, dependable, morally weary hero that wouldn’t be out of place in a Shakespeare production; the only way I can conceive of another actor watching him here and not finding it one of the best performances of the year is if they fooled themselves into thinking it’s all just post-production (it isn’t; there’s a reason Serkis always gets called upon for jobs like this). It’s a singular combination of voice-over, facial expressions, and physical language that would ruin the movie if handed to the wrong actor. Here, once again, it elevates it, as do the turns of his other digitalized castmates, notably Toby Kebbell as devious bonobo Koba.

Good thing, too, because the human cast is almost uniformly bland. This is the one thing the 2011 movie’s got on this one; its Homo sapiens ensemble of James Franco et al. may have been just as generic, but at least its participation amounted to more than “humans being humans”, what with the tender relationship between Caesar and his owner->teacher->staggered friend. Now, as hard as the capable likes of Jason Clarke and Keri Russell try, they can’t really do much for the walking clichés they’re playing. Still, the acting is good enough that I became roundly invested in the humans’ fate, and I believe that will be enough for most audiences. So there you have it, Dawn…‘s most glaring flaw is actually not that much of a nuisance. Not a lot of movies can say that for themselves. Nor do many works of art manage to speak so readily to audiences while still offering them things they’re not accustomed to, and that has been the great blessing cast upon the world by this increasingly surprising Apes reboot series. Should the trend follow, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Batman vs. Superman movie turned out to be a challenging meditation on the subjectivity of justice.

No, actually, Zack Snyder is directing it, isn’t he? So yes, I would still be surprised. But my point stands.


Interstellar (2014)


It’s been several days since I saw Interstellar, and I’m still not sure how I’m going to write about it.

There are certain films, you see, whose impact is so overwhelming that giving them a proper formal assessment becomes all but beside the point; you can’t dissect any piece of art without killing some of its raw strength, and, me being a moviegoer before anything else, I have little interest in sidestepping the personal effect of a movie that manages to truly, unfailingly get to me in order to write a few paragraphs about the quality of its actors and dramatic structure. As of my first viewing, Interstellar firmly appears to be one such movie, and, certain as I am that it’s going to be targeted by any number of ferocious dissidents in the coming weeks, months, years, what have you, I don’t really see a point in distancing myself from it just to add in my two cents. Film criticism is often bitter work in that regard. But I still want to write about this film, because I found it so great and it moved me to such a degree that I feel compelled to acknowledge it in some way — it’s a special thing, one that must not be overlooked, for a movie to elicit such a response from anyone. Be advised, then, that this text is not exactly a film review so much as a film response.

And oh, what a vigorous response does a movie like this merit! I expected as much, really. Christopher Nolan is fairly liable to many of the same qualms as other successful Hollywood artists — he’s got trouble capturing humanity in its distilled form, he’s not quite as smart as he seems to think, he relies heavily on frequently unreliable instincts, he almost never writes women well — but I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him a visionary, and the way he always always always goes big has produced an assortment of what one might call “flawed masterpieces.” Yet Interstellar, in its easy-to-summarize tale of a group of astronauts leaving Earth for an unpredictable amount of time to find a new habitable planet after our own is plagued by environmental disaster, distinguishes itself from past juggernauts like Inception or the Dark Knight trilogy because, while those were feasts to the mind and eyes that used human feeling as their backbone, this ultra-long, ultra-costly space opera is first and foremost a film of emotions, where the tech and the puzzles are, all the way, second to the people on screen. That isn’t surprising of Nolan; if anything, it’s a formidable confirmation of something everyone who’s been following him for a while already saw coming. He was never a heartless director, and now, lo and behold, he is wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Which is why this is going to be his most divisive film yet. I can’t lie to anybody — Interstellar is just as ambitious, strange, confounding and weepy as you’d expect from the premise “Christopher Nolan does hard sci-fi,” and the result will be awe-inspiring to some and insufferable to others. To me, every last minute of it is awe-inspiring, every existential back-and-forth, every unexpected time lapse, every overbearing shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema. This is the modern space flick I and many others have been yearning for since it became clear that we could already portray space in film however we wanted; it’s intelligent, it’s lyrical, it’s philosophical, it’s not afraid to go out on a limb, and, by God, is it good-looking. It makes me even a little sad for Wally Pfister that he declined to work on this to go make Transcendence, because this is the sort of gig that can turn any D.P. into a living legend — something I honestly hope happens to Hoytema, who is overdue for recognition and does sensational work here.

That adjective is somewhat redundant, of course, with respect to Interstellar‘s technical crew. Everybody’s work is sensational; those who wished Gravity would have taken its technical prowess a bit further into space last year will be happy to find in this film set pieces that no one has ever attempted or been able to attempt before, from the inside of a black hole to waves the size of mountain ranges. In the haunting enormity of the unexplored cosmos, Nolan has found the ideal vessel for his obsession with scale — this is, therefore, a picture that must be seen on a large screen, with a theatrical sound system blasting left and right, in order to be duly experienced, which makes it fitting that it’s getting the widest IMAX release of all time. But of course, there were many movies in the past which were technical spectacles, so it would not be fair of me to give this one’s craftsmanship the spotlight when there is so much else going on in it.

This is, after all, a story about mankind. That’s really the whole, explicit, clearly-defined point of this film, and that’s one thing that makes it engrossing from the start — it’s a story about mankind, about its constant struggle to overcome insurmountable obstacles, about its way of forgoing rational thought, about its defining desire to “not go gentle into that good night” (that line from the famous Dylan Thomas villanelle, repeated throughout the film, was originally intended as a clamor against the mortality of one individual, but here it becomes a kind of survivalist motto for the whole of humanity). It’s rare for any big-budget pop extravaganza to have such a firm sense of purpose, and, in Interstellar‘s case, that thematic confidence helps the film carry on through even the most befuddling narrative developments, of which there are many. That’s one major reason why I believe this is poised to stand the test of time and eventually be regarded as the masterpiece it is, even with detractors so very keen on pointing out its rough edges, its inconsistencies, its plot holes: Nolan has aimed high, and I mean high, in the making of this film, both in terms of imagery and ideas, and, although he may not yet possess the formal mastery of cinematic language required to turn such a pharaonic project into a transcendental affair in the mold of 2001, he is still an exceptionally skilled, exceptionally intelligent director, and so Interstellar comes very close to inhabiting the same stratum as Kubrick’s masterwork — and even if they fall short of clearing that absurd bar, Nolan and his team’s efforts are more than enough to lift this movie above the vast majority of its kind, of any kind.

I could go on and on, really, but I guess it would become redundant, after a while, to praise Interstellar‘s visual accomplishment, its commitment to science as a narrative driving force, its courage to prize imagination over knowledge when it’s called for (the third act is so earnestly bonkers it will be the best thing about the movie to some and the worst to others). I could write entire paragraphs, maybe entire pieces, on scenes like the intertwined launch of the spacecraft/final goodbye between a daughter and her father, or the breakdown of a supporting character upon seeing another human being for the first time in years; I could try, and almost inevitably fail, to poke at the film’s metaphysical postulates in a way that did justice to their depth and complexity. But there’s no real reason for me to do any of that when, like I said before, it would probably just diminish the resounding impact of the whole thing. I understand that many people are seeing this movie for the actors, which is why I feel I should mention that they are all excellent, with Chastain and Hathaway as the unexpected standouts for a director whose female characters were never his strong suit, and a wonderful uncredited cameo around the midpoint. (You probably already know who it is by now, but I’m not gonna be the one to ruin anyone’s surprise.) Other than that, well, I think I’ve already complimented it plenty.

Truth be told, Interstellar isn’t immaculate, and it’s relatively easy to take issue with certain things in it. There are some scenes taking place on Earth toward the climax that feel rather superfluous, the inside of the spaceships where a great deal of the action takes place is visually bureaucratic, the cast is way too white for a film with such universal themes, the ending evokes an uncanny feeling of sequel hook, some of the dialogue is pretty clunky, and I’d be lying if I said there aren’t any muddy areas in the plot’s grand structure — one is likely to spend a good deal of the third act trying to make sense of what’s even going on. To put it briefly, it’s the sort of unselfconscious endeavor that our relentlessly ironic contemporary culture so readily ravages these days, because how dare a work of art have faith in its own worth, etc.. What’s more, I’d say the majority of the film’s malfunctioning parts could have been fixed pretty easily if the filmmakers were up for it. But I think Nolan has made the right call to release this movie exactly as it is, because, in its current state, Interstellar looks and feels like something distinctly personal, distinctly his, and that has to be more artistically significant than the ability to cater to this or that audience’s preexisting dramatic sensibilities. I think, for example, that, though the film would still be great without Anne Hathaway’s much-ridiculed “Love is the only thing that transcends time and space” line, that bit of dialogue is irreproachable and should stay right where it is; it’s an easy line to mock, but it contains deeper truths about the nature and significance of human subjectivity that those eager to apply a detached cynic’s eye to the film’s workings may find themselves overlooking.

The same goes for much of this unabashedly sentimental film; honestly, you have to be really finicky to complain about, say, the amount of onscreen crying while ignoring what a miracle it is that such a huge production has even dared to be so emotionally charged in the first place. And you have to be really finicky to dismiss Interstellar over plot issue x or overwritten conversation y when it is such a massive cinematic accomplishment on so many other levels. In the end, I think it’s a classic: it takes a risk, and does it with style. And substance, for that matter.

A brief introduction

I’m a 16-year-old Brazilian male, which means my cultural standpoint when I talk about movies is extremely limited. (Because I’m 16, not because I’m Brazilian or male.) Yet here I am, starting this WordPress blog, much as I’m aware that it’s probably never going to attract a whole lot of readers. Why? Well, firstly, it’s 8 PM on a Sunday, I’m bored, and I might as well. Secondly, as a member of the grossly misrepresented group of 16-year-old Brazilian males, I feel that I should try to show the world, even if through a very small window, that, our broken English and our obsession with “The Big Bang Theory” notwithstanding, we are people too. In fact, thanks to the miracle of informatization, we are now consumers of a lot of the same culture as anyone reading this text, and therefore just as capable of formulating our own humble opinions regarding that culture — some of us, you’ll learn quickly from my texts, can even be rather pedantic about it.

Thirdly and most importantly, I really like movies. And while common sense would have it that maybe I should be out there making them, that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds, and I believe a WordPress blog may be a healthy vehicle for my thoughts and observations on film until that gets sorted out. I know perfectly well, however, that there are hundreds upon hundreds, possibly thousands upon thousands of people out there writing about movies on WordPress blogs, which is why the title and central premise of this one is “Cheese Buns in the Dark.” Cheese buns, take note, are a popular Brazilian snack consisting of small, round buns that sort of taste like cheese but not really; they are as delicious as they are difficult to describe, and an aspect of my culture I take pride in. What outsiders may find interesting about that, though, is that some movie theater chains have begun selling them at retail counters as an alternative to popcorn, and, wouldn’t you know it, cheese buns and darkened screening rooms are actually a pretty fine match.

That doesn’t mean I intend to stop eating popcorn when I go to the movies — I’m not clinically insane — but it does mean that I have found in Brazilian multiplexes something that symbolizes very well the specificity of the moviegoing experience down here in Carnival Land, which is my selling point. Or, well, maybe it doesn’t symbolize jack and I’ve just found something that separates me from the thousands upon thousands — one way or another, I think it’s a good title and I’ll try to make this a good blog, or at least one worth reading. If you intend to stick with it, I love you and you may expect to find reviews, analyses, and occasional resentful rants about things such as why I don’t think Frozen was all that progressive. (You’ll notice I’m not very business-savvy, either — it’s been three paragraphs and I’ve already badmouthed Frozen.) I can’t promise you specifics about my identity, but I’m completely open to communication through comments and messages (can you leave messages here? I’m not really familiar with WordPress). Lastly, if you ever need to address me by name, feel free to call me Mr. Knoll. It’s not my actual surname; I’ll explain later.

I believe that’s it for the moment.