Archive for July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.

24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters

July 8, 2017

24x36_5__largeAccording to the documentary 24×36, movie posters have had three distinct eras, two of which overlap. First, the Golden Age, whose posters were often genuine, enduring works of art, though never viewed at the time as anything but marketing tools. This era lasted till about the 1990s, when painted or illustrated posters fell out of favor, replaced by photos manipulated by imaging programs; such posters are noteworthy for their poverty of imagination, and for years at a time, if it was a horror film from Miramax or its sub-shingle Dimension, it had the notorious “floating heads” design. This ugly era, held in disdain by poster cultists, has more or less persisted in the mainstream, while over in fan culture for the last decade or so we’ve been seeing lavish posters for beloved genre films.

This sidebar fan-driven era is presented in 24×36 as a triumph, a journey out of the wilderness for what is, after all, a corporate art form. Hollywood has turned posters into soulless, same-same placards — more overtly advertising, in other words — while the fans who create and buy the fan posters curate and revive a lost art. This is a neat, upbeat narrative for a documentary. It’s also a crock. 24×36 sits down with a few veteran practitioners of the form — Roger Kastel, who designed the iconic Jaws poster; David Byrd, responsible for a good many ‘60s rock posters — but mostly talks to fans, or fan artists. Filmmakers are represented, in one of the movie’s few solid calls, by eternal fan-turned-creator Joe Dante.

There’s a great deal of nostalgia for work — not only movie posters but, say, old comic books and even old movies — that was made not out of any artistic urge but because bills needed to be paid. The majority of movie-poster artists were anonymous, though some of them managed to sneak their signatures into the design somewhere. The poster artist had to answer to the director, to studio executives, to a lot of cooks. The fan artists apparently just do it out of love, and are allowed to do (within reason) what they want. They still get paid, though, maybe more than the old-school artists ever did. The limited-edition Mondo posters, considered by many the epitome of the new fan-service art, routinely sell out within minutes, and sell for tidy sums.

What I dislike about the Mondo aesthetic, apart from the company’s snob-boutique appeal (you, too, can hit refresh on your browser a hundred times for the honor of spending hundreds of dollars on a print!), is that the designs are often way too busy. Often, as in the preternaturally unattractive work of fan favorite Tyler Stout, the goal seems to be cramming as many characters and as much ludicrous detail into a poster as possible. It reflects a non-artist’s assumption of what art should be, a ton of visible work, a spaghetti-splatter of lines and shapes; never mind that the eye literally doesn’t know where to look. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the minimalist posters, which seek to get the whole movie across in one stark, usually silhouetted image. But even these designs are almost ostentatiously simple; they beseech you to coo over their cleverness, but they look like entries in a paperback-cover-design contest.

24×36 never finds anything ironic or chilling in the notion of fans selling the past to each other. (I think of artists like the Mondo artists as fan artists even though they’re professionals, because their art proceeds from their fandom. By the same token, a director like Edgar Wright sometimes veers frighteningly close to being a fan artist.) Do these artists ever do anything that isn’t about paying homage to others’ art? At least the old poster guys did other kinds of things, and the near-abstract style of Bob Peak (Apocalypse Now) or the burnished photorealism of Richard Amsel (Raiders of the Lost Ark) are uniquely their own. (Tyler Stout’s stuff is unique, too, I suppose, inasmuch as one is grateful there isn’t much other stuff like it.) Posters can be art, but they’re accidental art. I imagine Saul Bass thought of his Vertigo or The Shining posters as just gigs, and gigs with a high level of influence by powerful directors at that. But they endure as masterpieces of the form. The culture that produced the masters, however, is gone, and in their place we have eager, sometimes exceptional students genuflecting mainly at fanboy franchises, comics, action, horror, etc. Where are the grown-ups?