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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Title: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: January 18th, 2012

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Is it possible that the modern blockbuster is being reinvented right before our eyes? That was the question I had asked myself mid-way through watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes: the first installment of an apparent reboot of the iconic science fiction franchise. At this point, the film carried itself almost exclusively on substance. A commentary on human nature using the species that are one step below on the evolutionary scale. Then the budget poured in. A long sequence of the rise itself in the form of an action setpiece at the Golden Gate Bridge. Then the unwelcome cliche arrived. The female love interest whom we barely know anything about steals a kiss from the likable male hero and then creates a diversion that helps him gain a temporary (and minor) upper hand. In due credit though, at least nobody pretended this person was anything more than a plot device.

I was disappointed to realize that the summer action film hadn't evolved as much as I was lead on to believe. But the same cannot be said for the featured apes who end up growing their intelligence level far greater than the human bystanders ever anticipated. The first of this kind is appropriately named Ceasar (performed by motion capture hall-of-famer Andy Serkis). Like the man who elevated Rome to an empire, this ape is born to lead an advanced species of his own kind to rule a new civilization. And in this case, eventually the entire world. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first official attempt to explain how and why this all happened. The answer is unsettling because of how the original intentions were worthwhile and conducted with so little recklessness. The power that humans take for granted with their position as the most intelligent species on the planet becomes fragile once the apes obtain a comparable level of power. And as the movie's plot wishes to teach, no species is willing to settle for second best.

Caesar is originally a house pet to scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Motivated by his father's struggles with Alzheimer's disease, Will devotes his work to the construction of experimental drugs designed to grow new cells within brains. Caesar inherits an upgraded mind from his mother who was used as one of the earliest test subjects. He is different than other animals and learns enough to understand this fact by adulthood. The key idea is that the drugs never alter the animal patients' natural behavior. They remain as unpredictable as wild animals ever have been. But they grow to become more self aware of their strengths and gain a strong sense of injustice that's done to them by human "caretakers." The only crime these apes commit, at least initially, is simply behaving the way nature intended.

Living up to the lore of protective nature that both fiction and nonfiction attributed to apes, Caesar is imprisoned for defending Will's father from a mild threat that appeared potentially fatal in his eyes. Like what many of society's outcasts face, what should be a place for harmony and negative reinforcement is instead a mere storage facility overseen by beings not fit to run their own lives much less others. During the viewing, my mother commented how certain moments reminded her of The Green Mile. Even in early scenes the human characters behave less human than animals. When confronted over a decision to terminate remaining ape experimentation subjects, the company's head manager rationalizes the decision by explaining that although scientists are there to make history, he is there to make money. All subsequent appearances by this character showcase him staying one step behind in logic. Whoever wrote the script holds a lot of contempt towards business leaders.

The scientists working for Twentieth Century Fox bring the apes to life using computerized motion capture that's not quite state of the art. Realism is sacrificed in exchange for breathtaking tracking shots of the apes at play. Their gracefulness behind traveling through natural environments plus the superior brawn add credibility to the idea of apes one day overtaking humans as the dominant species. What gets hurt is the ability to suspend disbelief over their existence. The computer generated imagery stands out from the real world backdrop like black and white. To curb the distraction, imagine an alternative Earth dimension where apes look a little different than how we accept. It wouldn't even be too far-fetched to assume this story takes place on an entirely different planet altogether; especially considering that's what the author of the original Planet of the Apes novel had in mind.

But the social commentary belongs right here on Earth. The apes rise because they learn to understand human values and how to obtain them. The need to be independent. To have control over personal destiny. To hunt instead of being hunted. And the one that mankind has yet to fully acquire; the ability to defeat death. Popular culture's history insists that particular dream cannot be realized without challenging nature; the most dangerous practice of all. The people behind this film are not shy about showing their staunch belief in that philosophy. 

Rating: 7 

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Conspirator


Title: The Conspirator

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: September 26th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

With a title like The Conspirator, it's easy to prematurely conclude that whatever the depicted events at hand are, it would be explored through hypothetical angles. Oliver Stone has practically made a career out of that very practice. Robert Redford's previous directorial project Lions for Lambs validated his own ability to do the same. But with The Conspirator, Redford opts for a more business style of filmmaking. The infinite urban legends that have ever been hypothesized about the Abraham Lincoln assassination are dismissed entirely; instead favoring a strict fact-based account of the aftermath of Lincoln's death. Alternative angles only exist within the minds of the documented individuals who weigh the possible outcomes and consequences of their important actions. A virtually impossible task given the unique nature of the country's time period.

The suspected conspirator is Mary Surratt portrayed by Robin Wright. Her Confederate soldier son John (Johnny Simmons) is the top-ranking suspect of collaborators to John Wilkes Booth's fateful move. Now under national imprisonment and interrogation, her only hope of defense against the angry mob of the North is Civil War hero turned aspiring lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). The normal courtroom dramas are bridged with Aiken's closed door conversations with Surratt and overseers of the justice department.

Like most situations of extreme despair, there needs be a lightning rod of blame. The prosecutors believe Surratt to be that very thing. The events lead us to question whether they are on the correct track or if the restless thirst for justice is clouding the judgment of legitimacy. Aiken grows skeptical as the case unfolds. The supporting dialogue is complemented by McAvoy's eyes and voice projection growing progressively louder and more desperate. It's natural enough but sometimes noticeably veers into "we're using this for the trailer" territory.

The Conspirator deserves credit for data authenticity but falls short of the optimal grade for mise-en-scene. I'm no historian, but the accuracy is sound as far as I've been able to tell. This is sure to please educators who prefer to add entertainment media into their curriculum's study material. But Redford's straightforward approach compromises the experience for style oriented viewers. Style is by no means everything. But it's fair to wish for more breakaways from a limited number of ideas. A common lighting motif is recognizable early. Interior settings are favored with only a single window allowing the minimum amount of illumination necessary for events to take place. It's an impressive setup that makes room for empathy. The prisoner is shut out from the world literally. The defense is left out of the truth loop. But it's way overdone and becomes irritating far ahead of the climax. The darkness itself isn't the problem. This is the nineteenth century after all. It's the result of lackluster set design.

Costume design is a hit-and-miss endeavour with the misses borderline laughable. Robin Wright has a natural look for the job and probably had a hard-working staff that maintained continuity with the haggard appearance. Justin Long on the other hand needed tweaks. He's a fine actor who I sense has yet to show his full range. But whoever gave him that outrageous mustache should consider submitting a resume to Studio 8H.

Every person decent at heart wants justice to prevail all times. We're inherently brought up to believe that any conviction is a sign of justice taking place. Unpopular acquittals are met with public outcries that shout over any reason-filled counterarguments even if the latter have stronger ground to stand on. The Conspirator is the latest in a long-standing tradition of films that serve to reinforce that unpleasant truth. Setting the conflict during a landmark period in American history keeps it somewhat immune from stale narratives. The technical faults and lack of artistic bravery bring the film down to a level that can be respected if not fully appreciated.

Rating: 5         

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Sandlot


Title: The Sandlot

Year of Release: 1993

Date Viewed: September 23rd, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

The Sandlot conjures up a lot of personal memories every time I watch it. Not all of them are good. Yet the film itself never seemed to become its own memory. The material just faded away for no apparent reason. It wasn't until the most recent viewing that I finally understood why. Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is too much of a relatable character. He's not exactly like me. I never had to move into a new neighborhood and leave my friends behind. In fact, I've lived in my current home since I was four. Nor have I ever had a stepfather. What struck the nerve was Smalls' main wish of simply fitting in somewhere. Belonging to a crowd that appreciated his presence and missed him when absent. Take it from me, it's not easy being the sole introvert in a pack even if the bond is genuine. It's probably no longer necessary, but those memories had to be repressed at the time in order to mentally proceed to the future. Let me clear though. The Sandlot is no somber tale. It's a story of joy with an ultra joyous conclusion. And we get to see something that everyone in a social circle wishes for: a friendship that lasts a long time.

The second strongest parallel is Smalls' fondness for baseball. For me, it's been an on-again off-again interest. But like Smalls, it was the first sport I had hands-on experience with. I didn't have the best field awareness and some of the more technical rules baffled the brain. I was however lucky enough to make some fluke catches and knock a few balls out of the park. And by "out of the park" I mean ground balls that traveled far enough so that the outfielders didn't have enough time to throw them back to home plate. 

Even the worst kids that showed up for those no-cut leagues were two categories ahead of Scotty Smalls. This poor kid was born without an athletic bone in his body and doesn't even know how to catch or throw anything. Living in the same neighborhood is Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez (Mike Vitar): Small's polar opposite. Rodriguez was born to be a baseball player. Major League bound. He has mastered all the field positions and can do everything from base stealing to home run swatting. He even has the ability to hit a ball at any specific point on the field at will. Instead of honing skills with an organized league, he prefers to spend the days at a local rundown sandlot with his gang of fellow misfits. The sandlot is their home away from home. Smalls' first day there is an understated disaster. But Rodriguez selflessly takes him under his wing anyway and actually manages to turn him into a competent ball player. With that, the Sandlot gang comes full circle and a memorable era begins.

I already began talking about memories without even realizing how crucial they are to the movie's heart. For anyone who valued fun in sports over competition, The Sandlot is a walk down memory lane. Even the narrative is point-of-view narration Wonder Years style; of Smalls looking back at a fun era from his youth. The Sandlot gang loves baseball but lives for each other.

It might also remind of a time when the term "political correctness" had no meaning. For a film released in 1993, it's surprising to see what the scriptwriters were able to get away with. Case in point the scene where the more privileged kids of the neighborhood pick a fight with the Sandlot gang. A few childish insults later and one of them suddenly drops a verbal bomb that instigates an unavoidable challenge.

"You play ball like a girl!", he screams.

Oh snap. You can criticize a guy's hitting ability, question his intelligence or imply poor personal hygiene. But never dare compare him to the opposite sex. That's going too far. Speaking of which, I wonder if that thought crossed any of the producers' minds upon realization that a scene called for the characters to experiment with chewing tobacco. (Don't worry, parents. The way it's depicted won't encourage your kids to try it out for themselves.)

In a condensed outline, The Sandlot is a series of random misadventures that occur over the course of a summer season. The final incident is the most dramatic. As a way of staving off the depricating teases from his mates, one of the kids blasts a home run over the outfield wall; a big no-no because beyond the outfield fence lies the The Beast: a demonic dog that swallows anyone and anything that's unfortunate enough to enter its lair. Therefore a home run ball instantly ends the game. Smalls makes the fateful mistake of replacing the game ball with one that belongs to his stepfather. His uneducated baseball mind doesn't realize that is was autographed by the legendary Babe Ruth until after that too enters the Beast's lair. Now with no choice but to retrieve the lost ball before it's permanently digested, the gang invents various gadgets and innovates plain objects into spy equipment in attempts to thwart the Beast and preserve the ball's irreplaceable value. Ever hear the saying that everything is bigger when you're a kid? The film uses that idea as a literal antagonist for the young heroes to battle with. In actuality, the Beast is only a slightly above-average sized English Mastiff that lives under the guardianship of a mild-mannered retiree. A far cry from the oversized monster living under an evil master as the Sandlot legend warned. (The montage behind that story is stand-out amusing.) But the film wisely refrains from insulting anyone's intelligence. Using just the right amount of camera tricks and digital manipulation, the illusion of the Beast's evil aura is kept alive until the crisis is averted. Children might feel some sensations of horror during this sequence while adults are bound to laugh it off and reminisce about how much fun it was being a kid. My only criticism is that the idea is played out a little longer than needed.

The Sandlot is about the childhood era that a person either wished for or once had but now longs to revisit. A liking for baseball certainly enhances enjoyment but is not required because just about any activity can be substituted in its place and the theme would stay equally strong. It's a film worth revisiting even if the initial memory doesn't last for whatever reason. I doubt I'll have that problem again because now there's a Sandlot memory trigger sitting in my room: a Willie Mays autographed baseball passed down from my grandfather. Mays' prime was long before my time yet he is still one of the most talked about players among those who follow the sport. Rather than speculate an explanation, I'll reference a quote from the scene where Rodriguez dreams of a conversation he's having with The Great Bambino. 

"Heroes get remembered. But legends never die."

Rating: 8

Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Title: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Year of Release: 1977

Date Viewed: September 21st, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

It should be easy for schoolteachers to predict which of their students would become the most creative and open-minded adults. They're the ones that spend the most time daydreaming during class sessions. It's not always because of boredom or rebelliousness. Sometimes the mind demands more knowledge than an average school day can satisfy. The funny thing is how the questions that don't have definitive answers also happen to be the most important ones. How did the universe and life begin? How big is the universe? Does it contain living things yet undiscovered? What is morally right? A daydreamer can spend an afternoon pondering these things without reaching conclusions and will enjoy every minute of it. We never learn if Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) was ever a young daydreamer. But a single incident from a single night turns him into the most obsessive kind. The worlds of the known and the unknown cross over and nothing is ever the same again.

Although Close Encounters of the Third Kind keeps the main focus on Neary's quest for answers, we see how visiting alien life forms or the "third kind" are affecting areas and cultures from all around Earth. Military vehicles that disappeared reappear years later with no sign of age or even use. Residents of India begin chanting a cryptic five-note melody that they believe originated from "somewhere above." There could very well have been hundreds of similar non-explainable incidents across the globe but to show them all would require a tenth X-files season.

Director and main writer Steven Spielberg begins Roy Neary's story with his trademark dysfunctional family plot device. Roy barely gives his wife and children any time of day and is unconventionally eager to accept an emergency call-in from the electric company that employs him.

En route to the supposed origin of his town's blackout, a direct encounter with an unidentified flying object leaves Roy with a physical mark and a psychological mark. The physical mark is a sunburn caused by the aircraft's blinding lights. Even though the incident took place at night and left Roy looking like Two-Face, the family responds with mild fascination but mostly skepticism. The psychological mark is a mental image subliminally branded into the brain: the oddly-shaped mountain mountain known as Devil's Tower. Roy sees it as a recurring vision ever since that fateful night. The luring power is so strong that glimpses of the mountain appear everywhere from dreams to a plate of mashed potatoes. When Roy's resistance and sanity finally breaks, he leaves behind and bets everything for the chance to see Devil's Tower in person and learn its significance.

His traveling companion is fellow UFO witness Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon). After the third kind visitors abduct her son, she joins Roy in demanding answers from the national leaders. As typical with pictures about extra-terrestrials, the government denies having anything to hide despite the film's early sequences allowing us to know better. But the greatest thing about Close Encounters is that neither the audience nor any characters ever learn answers to the big questions. At least not until after the credits start rolling. It doesn't result in frustration. It's rather a stimulant for the imagination.

Knowing that curiosity and obsession are often interrelated, the film's second act explores the latter theme in both tragic and humorous fashion. At one point, Roy commits a bizarre act of transferring seemingly random objects from the backyard into the house. The scene plays out for a longer time than expected which makes for an amusing depiction of his declining sanity. But it also creates sympathy for Roy's family who does not share his curse (or is it a gift?) and can only stand by in disbelief. It all becomes too much for them to bare and there's no blaming them. Roy is left alone with confusion until he meets the equally confused Julian again. From there it's a quest of self-fulfillment and a journey to locate the real Devil's Tower.

Although never truly tested, patience is a true virtue when watching Close Encounters. There's an early whetting of the appetite for answers that's often satisfied but always leads to more questions. Roy's declining sanity is eventually revealed to actually be an enlightenment. It's a long running time and long road for the spectator but the payoff is more than worthwhile.

Roy and Julian's journey to the real Devil's Tower leads to the film's climax and the closest thing to a definitive answer that's ever offered. And it's undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sequences of Spielberg's career. Earth's residents attempt to directly communicate with the third kind for the first time. The only common ground between the two races is a limited set of musical notes. Likely a variation of Morse code. It's simple to describe on paper but virtually impossible for me to explain why there is such joy here. But I'll try anyway. There are several gradual shifts as far as how we're expected to respond during the scene. Genuine fear, cautious fear, confusion and then finally there's no fear at all. The reason for fear disappears despite no obvious reasons. There's the feeling of witnessing history despite it being a work of pure fiction. In a way, that's exactly what it is. After a long cinematic and illustrated history of humans doing battle against aliens from outer space that they don't understand, here is a moment where both sides make a conscious effort to understand everything possible to know about each other before skipping to conclusions. It's the way real world history should have been had there been enough rational people around to make it happen. A much needed glimmer of hope within a gloomy world track record. By the film's final moments, there is not a single soul to feel sorrow for except maybe Roy's family who will probably forever wonder exactly what made him jump into the deep end.

A perfectionist after my own heart, Spielberg never seems one hundred percent satisfied with Close Encounters despite having every reason to be. He expressed regret over having Roy leave his family behind but I would argue that reversing that direction would retract everything the movie stands for; notably the theme of answering the ultimate calling. Some editions offer an expanded ending with bigger clues about what awaits Roy at the end of his journey. I hope that never gets stretched out any further because Close Encounters is one of the best representations of a rare cinematic experience: witnessing the unknown happen before one's eyes without the lingering sense of restlessness. It won't however quell the urge to daydream.

Rating: 8