Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I liked it.  I liked it a whole lot.  I smiled as I walked out of the theater and passed by the next audience as they waited their turn, because I knew they were going to see something special.  It wasn’t always that way.  Though the movie begins with a very atmospheric tone and it is full of beauty and wonder, it takes a bit more time than I am used to for the story to arise.  Because of that, my wife walked out early.  I stayed, because– while it was slow to progress– I wasn’t in any kind of a rush and I still felt compelled to keep watching.

In no time my patience was rewarded, because once the plot is set into motion it is absolutely riveting cinema.  I Loved Rise but Dawn has a very distinct Planet of the apes quality.  We spend more time with the apes as they begin their civilization and are able to see crucial actions that seal the planet’s destiny (I was admonished by a reader a few years ago when I revealed that the planet was indeed Earth, so I won’t do that again.  Oops.).

The film is rich in beauty and theatrics.  It was like “Shakespeare in the Forest”  I am impressed with how far the franchise, and indeed sci-fi films in general (if you look to the right examples) have come in terms of clear vision.  Where fantasy once was vague, where panels and cels once had limited illustrations drawn to suggest, or imply a setting, we now have the ability to breath full life into a thing and experience it in a way that feels real and therefore makes more accessible it’s hidden truths.

I think the limitations in the past in adapting a work of science fiction have largely been due to lack of contextual information.  I think we can see this in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.  While Burton is next to none in the imagination department and his designs were wonderful, the film lacked the sense of relevance the most recent films have given.  Could be that the element of mystery involved prior to Rise prohibited too much contextualizing, but the new story arc is all the better because of that shattered barrier.

With absolutely splendid photography and sets, digital effects and a haunting score by the prodigious Michael Giacchino we are given an all access pass to an intriguing and eerily familiar alternate reality and we get to bear witness to history in the making as Caesar and his kind face their greatest trial yet and the fate of the relationship between Man and Ape hangs in the balance.

I think it goes without saying at this point how Andy Serkis’ character work bonds so well to the mo-cap technology and the expressiveness of the apes is awe inspiring.  What may yet go unspoken, or at least not praised highly enough is the performance of Toby Kebbell, a 32 year old actor I’ve never heard of before, but look forward to seeing again as Victor Von Doom in next year’s Fantastic Four.  Toby steals the movie as Koba, a scarred and tortured ape saved by Caesar and ruled by an unforgiving malice toward humanity to the extend that his bond with Caesar is severely tested.  If Sylvester Stallone makes an Expendables 4, it absolutely must include Koba.  Make it happen, Hollywood.

 

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5 Types of Turning Points

One of the best representations of life after death is the turning point.  More than a simple plot twist, a turning point takes the momentum of a movie to an abrupt halt to completely change directions.  You have to kill it before you end it, but it must be organic.  The outcome is the spirit of the film, the soul, and breaks free of the physical trappings of what happens prior to the turning point. Fail to mark this event and you will have predictable and boring results.  Fail tactfully employ this procedure and your ending will seem unjustified and lazy.  If you do your job right, with the end in mind, you will lead the story away from the outcome, until the perfect moment comes to finally guide your characters toward their intended purpose.  Whether it’s a slap or a whisper there are several effective ways to bring your story home by way of the turning point.  Here are some of my favorites (this list contains SPOILERS by its very nature):

From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (the game changer)

More than a mere turning point, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn completely changes genres.  It’s like if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got halfway through and suddenly became The Lost Boys.  The criminal protagonist take a traveling family hostage in order to sneak across the border into Mexico to escape the law.  Once they are home free, the trouble begins when the bar they stop at to meet their correspondent turns out to be a trap run by vampires who aren’t after repeat business.  The switch is fun and very surprising if you don’t already know it’s a vampire movie.  It feels as though the movie is nearly over before the real fight for survival even begins.  Less effective was the much earlier implementation of this tactic in the recently released The World’s End.

Fight Club (reveal reversal)

I call this one the reveal reversal.  The movie itself doesn’t change at all.  it’s only your perception.  You go through with blinders on until you can’t take it anymore and the blindfold is replaced by a mirror to show you where you’ve been before finally showing you where you are in order to finish the story.  In the case of Fight Club it’s the realization that Tyler and… well, let’s call him Jack are actually the same person after Tyler has built up and subsequently destroyed the narrator’s sense of self worth.  The epiphany puts all that has happened previously into perspective, just before Tyler’s master plan is revealed so the stage is set for a massive showdown nobody saw coming.  This method was also used in The Sixth Sense as a twist ending rather than a turning point.

Rocky (the mind changer)

Sylvester Stallone is not known for subtlety, but as Rocky prepares for his match against Apollo, expectations mount in the collective audience.  Sly must have known this and cleverly decided to reshape those expectations and add an extra layer of satisfaction to an already superior ending.  Anyone going into the film for the first time would expect Rocky to beat Apollo, even though it would not make much sense.  If he wins it’s phony and predictable, but if he loses its just sad.  It’s a catch 22 nicely fixed with a small scene where Rock confides in Adrienne that he knows he can’t win and all he wants to do is go the distance– something nobody else has ever done.  Boom!  Surprise!  Perfect ending.  This method was also used but did not work so well in Ghost World.

Independence Day (the ray of hope)

Possibly the most common and with the most varied success rate, this is a fake out turning point.  It goes where it was always intended to go, but only after creating a false sense of hopelessness and creating a small sliver of a chance for the audience to grab onto.  In ID4 it seems as though Earth is doomed.  David gives up on his “save the world through recycling” philosophy and has absolutely no hope of redeeming the human race by fighting off an alien invasion.  That is until the idea is put into his head that he can give them “a cold” (In this case, a computer virus, but also a clever nod to H.G. Wells)  Suddenly, the plot goes from a stand still with nowhere to go, to a grand climax on board the mother ship.  Minority Report accomplishes this with another slip of the tongue from the film’s antagonist that regenerates the plot motion towards completion, but more commonly it is done intentionally through a mentor.

Back to the future (the turn straight!)

There are the movies that refuse to turn despite the characters’ will.  The outcome is anticipated, yet the protagonist is repeatedly held back from achieving his goal, especially when time is of the essence.  This can be maddening, but is hugely effective, especially in the case of the above listed title.  This is a difficult move to accomplish, resisting an easy answer and drawing out a climax can have audiences on the edge of their seat or, bored to tears.  You have to have some sort of time element involved, even if it’s the slowly sinking Orca at the end of the captivating shark hunt in Jaws.

Influential Directors: Quentin Tarantino

QT image

“I’m all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones.”

When I was a young movie obsessed teen my passion for learning how movies are made continued to push me behind the scenes, even as my love for the spotlight took full bloom.  The thrill of the stage was all I cared about and the prospect of stepping into any number of characters and situations and exploring the possibilities was too exciting for me.  I loved saying things I wouldn’t normally say.  I loved making people believe I was who I said I was.  Mostly though, I loved making people laugh and I was always thinking up ways to squeeze out another reaction from the crowd.  No one had to tell me there are no small parts.  Those were the ones that always intrigued me the most, but the responsibility to carry a show as the lead was also something I thankfully got to have a taste of.  When I wasn’t in reheasals I spent a lot of time on my family’s brand new Gateway computer, playing a game called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair.  I learned so much about the process by experimenting with the game, which lets you make a movie from script writing to production, editing, foley, scoring, and finally screening.  The game was also my very first introduction to an actor whose work in film would change me forever.  He was the funny, charismatic, and brilliant Quentin Tarantino.

I can’t say enough great things about Quentin Tarantino.  I love to hear the man speak.  He is so positive and almost always has something constructive to say.  He is a champion of the art of directing and also of screenwriting.  He has an uplifting and productive attitude about what others are trying to accomplish.  Meanwhile, he can take the most basic formula and elevate it to its most extravagant form.  Tarantino is a man who understands potential and taps into the simplest truths that flow throughout the most complicated compositions.  His work is art, a feat quite difficult in the entertainment industry, especially in regards to such consistency of quality and value.  Quentin Tarantino is an incredibly talented writer and a remarkably skilled director.  His latest film Django Unchained shows seasoning on a filmmaker whose directorial debut Reservoir Dogs helped to begin a revival of independent film, and whose award winning sophomore effort Pulp Fiction became an instant classic.

The man can be a bit awkward.  There is a sense of something sort of alien about him– Like he studied everything about our planet by watching movies– and yet he seems so warm and enthusiastic and has genuinely interesting things to say.  I love to hear Tarantino talk about anything.  Whether he is defending his movie against ignorant, ratings hungry vultures, talking simply about what interests him, or threatening paparazzi, a youtube search always gives me the fix I need.  Tarantino belongs in the spotlight.  He provides terrific interviews and deserves to be a star.  He can do just about any thing he wants and yet has not lost his way as a filmmaker.  Success is a killer.  You either get your way all the time and lose track of what works, or you become paralyzed at the thought of making a false step and do only what you think will be accepted.  Tarantino has shown himself to be neither timid, nor arrogant in his pursuit to make beautiful, smart and enjoyable films.

Even Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense” has his duds.  He’s really only known for about three movies.  If you really like him you know of three more.  Even great film makers who always turn out really good movies, rarely achieve the timelessness and sophistication that Tarantino always brings to the table.  Whether he’s really great at listening to the right people, or just a naturally exceptional self editor.  He manages to always make his movie, the way he wants to see it, and it always comes out a hit.  Lots of names will draw me to a theater, many with high expectations: But not only am I never disappointed with the work Tarantino puts out, I savor it with joy.

Before I even appreciated him as a director I was drawn to him as a writer.  The whole idea of Tarantino as this defiant screenwriter out to change the way movies were written didn’t quite match up with my perception.  When I was first studying screenwriting it seemed like everyone around me was determined to learn nothing in an attempt to be original.  When we got an assignment to examine structure in one of our favorite movies I chose Reservoir Dogs, just to show how textbook it was when viewed through the right lens.  Like every other assignment in the course, I passed with flying colors.  It was one of the few situations I found myself in where my odd way of looking at things finally paid off.  I once had a writing teacher, who tried to say Longfellow was wrong to use the metaphor of footprints in sand for A Psalm of Life to symbolize leaving ones mark in history, because sand gets washed away and has no permanence.  I was the quiet kid who (let’s face it) usually wasn’t paying any attention, but I couldn’t let it go uncontested.  I explained “my take” on the poem, to which she quite seriously replied that I had given the author too much credit.  She was the embodiment of the minds over the years that I refused to let shape me.  If Tarantino had taken any college courses in writing, I wonder if he would have been discouraged,  But that defiance, that rebelliousness so readily attributed to a high school drop out serves only to undermine the genius of an artist who has seriously done his homework.  A true student of film from all over the world, Tarantino jeopardized a possible acting career by taking a steady job at Video Archives, a rental store in Manhattan Beach, California.  There his expertise grew and flourished as he soaked up inspiration that would fuel one of the brightest burning talents the film industry would ever know.  It’s also where he met the Co-writer of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avery.

My first introduction to Tarantino as a writer, was From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.  If Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, I strongly believe Tarantino should go down in history as the master of Tension.  It may not go noticed because he has so many strengths in structure, dialogue, visual style… but take key scenes from Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Even if it’s just two people talking, you know something is going to happen.  You may not know what, but something big is about to go down, and Tarantino knows, more than anything else, how to build on that until the perfect moment.  In the first scene of my first movie written by tarantino I was scared.  It’s just a Sherriff chewing the fat with a convenience store clerk, but it’s eerie as hell and before anything even happens you know something is going down.  The prologue to Reservoir Dogs is the same way.  It’s uneasy.  All these guys sitting around the table, they’re bad guys and they don’t really know each other, when Mr. Blonde playfully shoots Mr. White, you get the distinct impression he might actually do it for realsies.  It sets a remarkable tone for the rest of the film.

Prior to his meteoric rise to stardom and international acclaim he penned the scripts for True Romance (which came out the year after Reservoir Dogs with a star studded cast featuring appearances by Christopher Walken, Bradd Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman and Balki from Mypos) and Natural Born Killers.  both were reworked but the first (directed by Tony Scott) was truer to Tarantino’s vision than the latter.

Still an actor at heart, Tarantino wrote the part of Mr. Pink for himself, even warned Buscemi that his audition better be “really good”  In the end, Buscemi is just pasty skinned awesome sauce and Tarantino had to admit defeat, he still got a part, though, and still likes to give himself those little cameos which endears him to me even more than if he had subtle appearances as an extra or withdrew from the stage altogether.  As a director, he is able to effectively translate his own writing for the audience, better than anyone else could.  He pushes boundaries, fuses genres and is very visually dynamic, which compliments his vast content and well defined characters.  His one adaptation, Jackie Brown, came hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction and though it was different from Pulp Fiction in the sense that Unbreakable was different from The Sixth Sense, It is was considered by Elmore Leonard to be the best adaptation of his work out of 26 films.  A fan of Leonard, Tarantino was able to be true to the author’s work and make it undoubtedly his own in the process.

Clearly He has fun at his work and at the same time, takes it seriously and wants it done right.  I don’t know how he strikes that magical balance of whimsy and restraint.  There has been a lot of talk about his retirement, partially, due to the rise of digital projection.  So dedicated is he to film that he bought a building housing the New Beverly Cinema to save it from redevelopment and ensure the theater will continue to use traditional projectors.  He has said he plans to retire from film and become an author after the age of sixty, which would give us ten years and possibly two more films; But he also said he could stop at any time, though he thinks ten films provides a nice aesthetic for his filmography.  He’s very dedicated to his own resume and doesn’t want to make a film that doesn’t belong there.  You have to respect that.  He seems to believe a director ages like wine– in terms of vinegar.   I value that insight, except Django Unchained really showed off the fact that Tarantino has not only still got it, he’s better than ever.  I can see how that sort of diligence and commitment to making an exceptional film would lead someone to thoughts of retirement, especially in interviews immediately following the film’s release.  I know the Kill Bill films were something Quentin kind of thought of as a book and he has been interested in making a Volume 3, though he eventually said another film in the series is unlikely.  Perhaps, when he does make the transition to author it will take the form of a novel.  Since Michael Crichton passed, I have been on the lookout for a new author.  I can’t say I won’t be sorry for the loss as far as film is concerned, but I will always celebrate his contributions with much enthusiasm and I view Quentin Tarantino as the greatest inspiration and his career the height of cinematic achievement.