Satellite of the Simians 3: Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn.

Et tu, Brute?

Et tu, Brute?

It is fascinating to watch the goals and underlying social themes shift in the Planet of the Apes series. I’ll come out and say it. I love the series. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starring Charlton Heston is one of my favorite movies. Definitely one of my favorites from the sixties. I just got out of a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the latest incarnation and direct sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Without hesitation, Dawn is the new second best Planet of the Apes movie.

For starters, I should begin by mentioning that I saw it in Korea and, while the dialogue was in English, whenever the apes were signing things the subtitles were all in Korean. At first I was concerned I might be missing crucial plot points, but kudos to the amazing effects team at WETA and the motion-capture performers for making silent ape dialogue wholly understandable. I feel bad for the 5 year old Korean girl who sat next to me and buried her terrified face in her hands for the film’s duration.

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Our story begins where Rise left off. The intellectually enhanced and organized ape revolutionaries had escaped into the forests beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. An infected pilot, unwittingly carrying a deadly virus developed in a lab, embarked on a tragic journey that would effectively spread the disease to every corner of the world, wiping out a majority of Earth’s human population and all semblance of order and civilization. Now, several years later, the humans live in a tribal post-apocalyptic nightmare and are quickly running out of power and means to utilize their limited resources. Meanwhile, ape society is flourishing in the wilds and a developing culture is forming strong social bonds. Caesar is the leader of the apes.

Well, I'd be crapping myself.

Well, I’d be crapping myself.

The troubles in this movie begin when humans stumble into ape territory in search of a lost dam that might help restore power to their ailing ruins of society. A shot is fired and a chimpanzee is hit. Caesar, rather than having his mighty army make short work of the lost search party, shows mercy and banishes them. This introduces the conflict that is firmly seated at this movie’s core: trust and tribal bonds. Caesar has a clear duty to protect his people (and he, and the rest of the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans harbor an understandable fear and hatred of humans—*see previous film) and the humans have a clear duty to themselves to protect their own and get the power back to avoid more violent anarchy. Communication proves difficult for no matter how well-intentioned some peace-seeking individuals on either side of the table are, it only takes a few reckless or wicked individuals to keep tensions high and trust destroyed.

The movie is intelligently written, well acted, and like the previous film features some top-notch computer special effects and spectacular action scenes. I really liked Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but in all honesty Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the superior film. Rise was great, but I had a few problems with it (mainly archetypal cartoony human characters like the evil money-loving bureaucrat, the benevolent scientist, the ape racist who works with apes, the girl, etc.). Thankfully, most of the problems are corrected in Dawn. The strongest chapter of Rise was the ape sanctuary scenes where Caesar, an intellectually superior animal, has to learn real ape society rules and rise to power to become their leader. With almost no dialogue or humans, the film soars to fascinating heights and keeps the tension building in these impressively animated sequences. Dawn plays like an extension of those scenes and centers around the apes cultivating their own society, while the human subplot focuses on mankind desperately trying not to slip back to the dark ages.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing "If I Had Words" to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No.3 in C minor.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing “If I Had Words” to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 in C minor.

Rise, perhaps, put a little too much into the fun fan-service of referencing the 1968 classic. Without knowing what the signed ape dialogue was specifically, I don’t think I saw much evidence of this in this new film. The only reference might be the music which did remind me strongly of the original in places. Dawn still has a weaker human storyline, but their role is vital for the story. Dawn is about establishing peace and trust in a volatile situation. Mankind itself is not the enemy. There are a few cartoonishly dickish humans who muck up the works more than a few times, but they are symbols of the fear and closed-mindedness that is also present in the ape society. Koba, a chimpanzee (or bonobo, who knows?), is the real villainous foil. His fear, anger, and hatred—regardless of how personally justified or rooted in past experiences—stands for the fear, hatred, and self-interest that blocks cultural progress everywhere.

While we're on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

While we’re on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

Questions:

1. Where did the apes get the horses?

2. What are the ape sentiments toward monkeys and tarsiers? Slow lorises?

3. Why no gibbons? Gibbons are apes.

4. Not a question, but we were so close to seeing a bear fight a gorilla in the first 10 minutes! So close! And they blew it by having it fight some chimps.

5. Why aren’t there more orangutans? I love orangutans.

6. Why is it apes versus humans? Humans are technically apes too. The title “Planet of the Apes” is actually not that descriptive. We currently live in the “Planet of the Apes.”

Chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn't make you want to see this nothing will.

Raging chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn’t make you want to see this nothing will.

I said at the beginning that what I find interesting is how the same series can change its tone and message with the shifting of the cultural tides yet still operate under the same basic rules. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 was about dogmatism versus science and the possibilities of the collapse of human society and the possible future of ape evolution. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) was about making more money. That’s about it. A little bit concerning the dangers of nuclear weapons at the end. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) dealt with how we react to outsiders and how we defend our own self interest at the expense of outsiders (because they be different!). Conquest of the Planet of the Apes(1972) was about racism and revolution. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) was about making money again, but also about how some of the best social rules must sometimes be compromised or broken to keep the peace (hit on again in Dawn—one very appropriate nod the earlier movies). The Tim Burton one (2001) was about “remember these movies?” Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) shifted tone to be about scientific ethics and perhaps ecology, especially in how we treat animals. It asked questions like: Is it okay to treat animals the way we do simply because we don’t perceive them to be on our intellectual level? Are we really the most important species? Could another surpass us? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) focuses much of its energy on the tenuous nature of diplomacy in hostile territory where emotions run high. It basically states that emotion should not rule the roost when it comes to maintaining peace—and that this message rings strongly for both sides. In a sense, Dawn is a critique on the hazards of nationalism and isolationism and how it only takes a few extremists to characterize and demonize an entire social group. It is easy to see how a simple tit for tat exchange can escalate quickly to tragic ends. This is something we witness throughout history and today in human geopolitics and conflicts.

Moral of the story: peace is hard and destruction is easy.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

All in all Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is probably one of the more socially significant blockbusters out there at the moment. It suffers from some less interesting human characters (minus Gary Oldman who manages to be more than the archetype you might expect from the trailers). The effects are mesmerizing to watch and the fight sequences are high octane, high emotion thrill-scapes. If you enjoyed anything about the earlier films this is a welcome treat with a bigger brain than most of the series and what appears to be a genuinely prescient conscience concerning escalating real-world geopolitical tensions. I recommend it.

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Picture references:

http://www.truemovie.com/2014moviedata/DawnofthePlanetoftheApes.htm

http://blogs.indiewire.com/boxofficeinsider/cool-trailers-part-2-robert-downey-jrs-the-judge-kevin-harts-the-wedding-ringer-and-the-final-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-trailer-20140623

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/final-dawn-planet-apes-trailer-premieres-article-1.1836336

http://herocomplex.latimes.com/books/firestorm-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-prequel-novel/#/0

 

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Lone Ranger Sucked: Beating Off a Dead Horse

lone ranger

So The Lone Ranger (2013) sucked and everybody knows it, but where did it go wrong? What was wrong with this throwback to spirited western serials? The good news: it’s kind of sort of better than Wild Wild West (1999).

Problem Number OnePirates of the Caribbean.

This movie is essentially Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Disney trying to make a fantasy cowboy movie that looks and sounds and feels like the The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Why is this bad?

piratesotc

Westerns are not exactly pirate movies. True, outlaws and greed for lost treasure can be crucial elements, but they’re not really the same. While the weird overuse of magic in the Pirates movies is mostly gone, it still relies heavily on physics-defying suspenseless mayhem. The Pirates movies had a lot of problems and most of those problems are not fixed here.

Problem Number two: True Grit, Django Unchained, and Rango.

true grit

1.) Three far superior and very popular western movies have already done it all better. True Grit (2010) was a great straight western. It had a simple story (catch the bad guy who killed the little girl’s dad) and it had great characters that were larger than life, but still very relateable. Add some smart and cynical Coen Brothers sensibilities and you got a great movie.

django-unchained-blue-suit-whip-jamie-foxx

2.) Tarantino already cornered the market on stylized western cartoon violence (but with much more gore). Django Unchained (2012) already answered the call for a bold retooling of classic motifs and managed to be much smarter, more socially significant, and wantonly cathartic. It presented truly sick and evil villains and punished them in satisfying ways. Again, the cast was fantastic.

hidalgo

Django Unchained is about racism and slavery and the vengeful splatter-violence is a righteous re-writing of history and integral to the story. The Lone Ranger is a fun cowboy movie that tacks on the genocide bit to transparently avoid being labeled another white-washed fun cowboy movie that forgets the tragedy of First Nations. Hidalgo did a better job of talking about the injustices done to the Native Americans in just a few short flashbacks. And that movie takes place in Arabia!

rango

3.) True Grit and Django Unchained managed to be sharper and grittier, with minimal to possibly no use of distractingly bloated special effects and CGI. Gore Verbinski’s own Rango (2011) was a totally CG movie, but it looked unlike any other CG family movie. It was smarter, faster, funnier, and the action was actually exciting and thrilling to watch. It even took a lot of chances with how much meta-narrative surrealism a mainstream movie audience could handle.

The classic but grittier western, the hyper stylized western, and the family-friendly western are all fresh in our minds and they’re all great movies. Then comes The Lone Ranger trying to be all three.

Problem number threeJohn Carter and Mad Max.

john carter

1.) Disney already made a big budget flop with John Carter (2012) but didn’t learn anything from it. While I personally feel like John Carter was a far better film, it suffered from stretches of boring bits, an uninteresting and unrelateable protagonist, and unyielding plot convolutions that keep on mounting with little justification and not enough payoff.

2.) Mad Max (1979) is the story of a good and morally conflicted policeman in a dystopic Australia who is beaten down by personal tragedy (the death of his partner, wife, and son) and the relentlessness of the forces of evil (renegade biker gangs) to become the ultimate vigilante. He will be swift, vengeful justice in a world full of corruption and injustice.

mad max

The Lone Ranger is the story of a naive and incompetent district attorney in the wild west who, despite personal tragedy (the grisly murder and heart-consumption of his beloved brother, the kidnapping and possible rape of the woman he loves, and witness to genocide), keeps fighting against justice and actively helps the forces of evil to continue (because of his blind dogmatic faith in due process) until he reluctantly decides to indirectly kill some of the bad guys responsible.

See the difference?

Problem number four: Tone, bad guys, and overstuffed crusts.

1.) This movie truly is tone death. You don’t put fart jokes in Schindler’s List and you don’t put wacky slapstick and cartoon action-adventure next to sick depictions of cannibalism, actual historical genocide, and shameful real-life atrocities. There is a time to shed tears and there is a time to cheer and they do not occur at the same time. The constant tonal shifts make for an uncomfortably awkward cinematic experience where the thrills feel hollow and the horrors feel too flippantly handled.

schindler

3.) The bad guys are boring. There’s a greedy railroad man who kills a tribe of Native Americans to hide silver until he can one day build a railroad back to the silver to become even more rich (bizarre plan). Then there’s a murderous outlaw who eats human flesh for some reason. It’s never really explained and it’s never really convincing or understandable. It just feels gross and inappropriate (especially for a Disney movie). There’s also a cavalry man who might have been a good guy had he not got mixed up with the wrong people. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the far better Mask of Zorro (1998).

zorro

3.) The story is needlessly complex, all over the map, and the action—while occasionally almost fun—is too ridiculous and crammed full of overblown CGI that nothing ever feels grounded enough to be cared about or real enough to be exciting. It’s a flat, joyless experience that insists by simply playing the Lone Ranger theme song at the end, we might be fooled into thinking we are having fun.

Problem number five: The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

1.) I’ll say it. I like Johnny Depp for the most part. He’s even enjoyable in this movie. Maybe the only one who’s actually having any fun. His character doesn’t always work because the writing can’t seem to decide if they want him to be wise, vengeful, or out of his mind. And that he looks like a cartoon character when he’s an old man is really not a good thing. Is his portrayal offensive to Native Americans? I don’t know. Watch Dead Man (1995) after this to cleanse the palate, I guess.

Dead_Man

2.) Armie Hammer is a boring Lone Ranger. Again, I blame the writing and not his performance. Even Tom Wilkinson and Barry Pepper can’t even make their awful characters work. He’s supposed to be in love with his dead brother’s wife, but it’s awkward, uninteresting, and obvious it’s only in the movie because the movie doesn’t really have any female characters and needs a romance—no matter how hackneyed and insipid.

Verdict: Disney’s The Lone Ranger is an exhausting, tone-deaf, mostly boring mess that tries to be a western Pirates of the Caribbean. The writing is sloppy and most of the characters are thin and uninteresting. There’s about 10% of what could have been a really fun and exciting cowboy action movie tucked in the cracks.

wild wild west spider

And I take it back. Wild Wild West at least knows its an asinine cartoon movie with no brain. It might actually be slightly better. At least it’s shorter, has Salma Hayek, and a giant robot spider.

Ultimately I just want to watch the Korean film, The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) again. Now that was a fun action cowboy movie.

good bad weird

 

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on July 18, 2013.

Fairytale Makeover Theater Presents: Blancanieves y Los Siete Matadors Corto

Spain.

The 1920s.

blancanieves 2

Her father was the best toreador alive. His name was Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and he loved a woman who just might qualify as the hottest actress to give birth in a movie. Ever. Seriously Inma Cuesta is a fox. Don’t get too attached though. She dies. Spoilers. Is it a spoiler if it’s in the prologue?

The child survives, but the wealthy and recently paralyzed (emotionally and physically) Antonio is a widower. In swoops the evil step mother. Naturally. Fairy tales never have positive step mother characters. She will make life a living hell for the cuckolded Antonio and his precocious daughter. What is the child’s name you query? ‘Tis the film’s protagonist and namesake, Blancanieves (2012).

That means Snow White in the Spanish.

Blancanieves 3

Blancanieves, directed by Pablo Berger, is a Spanish re-imagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, Snow White. In addition to it being Spanish it is also a silent melodrama. And no, they’re not just cashing in on the success of The Artist (2011). In fact, crafty filmmakers have been making silent pictures all along. From the rebellious Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times) to the innovative Pierre Étaix (Yoyo) to the surreal Guy Maddin (Archangel), great filmmakers have been using the unique language and aesthetic of silent cinema to convey wonderful stories all throughout the sound era.

Also most of the characters for this adaptation are bullfighters. Now far be it from me to perpetuate the stereotype that all Spaniards are matadors. I’m just reporting the facts of the film.

blancanieves 4

I hate to use the cliche of, “if you think you know the story [of Snow White]…think again.” But it totally applies here. This is not Disney. (Although the bullfights are somewhat sanitized and cleansed of blood). This is a tasty tragedy of the freshest variety. Blancanieves, or Carmen as she is called (played by Macarena García as an adult and sadly not as hot as Inma Cuesta), runs away from her evil stepmother (played with delicious malevolence by Maribel Verdú from Pan’s Labyrinth). . . but not until about halfway through the movie. There’s a lot of build up and backstory here.

A band of independent circus dwarfs—who are also matadors. I know!—discover Carmen but she has amnesia and remembers nothing. She joins their happy troupe and becomes a great matador herself. Because it’s in the blood. You may think you know the rest of the story, but there’s enough surprise and intrigue to keep you guessing.

Blancanieves 5

This movie boasts ravishing cinematography and rich imagery of epic bullfights and ornate upper-crust Spanish living spaces cleverly juxtaposed with ramshackle nomadic circus environs. And the erotic flamenco pulse of speedy guitar strings wound with sex-fire coupled with a pair of manic castanets gives Blancanieves added atmosphere you can almost sink your teeth into. I want to bite this movie is what I’m saying.

I really enjoyed Blancanieves. This is exactly what we should be doing with classic stories. Like Ray Tintori’s Death to the Tinman or The Coen Bros. O, Brother Where Art Thou! While the final moments of this film I found to be beautiful and touching they did leave me wanting a bit emotionally. But with the kooky premise, splendid acting, creative turns, and gorgeous style I can forgive it. I love magic, matadors, midgets, and silent movies so this was pretty good for me.

Go see Blancanieves. It’s a special treat. And now I shall return to scouring the internet for more pictures of Inma Cuesta.

Blancanieves 1

http://cafeteravirtual.blogspot.kr/2012/11/blancanieves-una-tragedia-con-desparpajo.html

http://www.screenrush.co.uk/films/film-196004/photos/detail/?cmediafile=20264057

http://magneticeyes.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/a-cristina-g-rodero-photograp-inspire-for-blancanieves-2012/

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on April 16, 2013.

Best Movies of 2012

I have actually talked about a few pretty solid movies that came out this past year. While some highly anticipated movies may have failed to live up to their immense hype, fear not! for there was cinematic redemption in 2012. I think I shall bequeath to you, dear ones, my own personal Favorite Films of 2012. (I am so sorry I did not see any 2012 documentaries).

1.fly-with-the-crane 2

Rui Jun Li’s Fly With the Crane feels more like a National Geographic documentary, but it is in fact a fictional narrative. This movie throws you into rural China and makes you a fly on the wall to the events as they unfold. Retired coffin-maker Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma) is an old man and his adult children treat him more and more like a bothersome piece of furniture. In addition the government is outlawing burials. How will Lao Ma’s soul fly with the crane if he is cremated and turned into smoke? It might be the most unglamorous movie and unromantic about death. This is a devastating, subtle, and unflinching film. I left the theater feeling uncomfortable at how disturbingly sad and real it all felt. Who was the hero? Did he win? What was won? Perhaps I rate this one highest because it left the biggest impact on me. Months later I’m still thinking about it.

2.once-upon-a-time-in-anatolia-2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (technically made in 2011, but it’s receiving much recognition this year) was a beautiful and enigmatic Turkish police investigation movie. How many other films about boring law enforcement procedures could be this steeped in lush cinematography, subtle existentialism, and dense mustaches? It’s the sort of movie that only moves as much as it has to because it knows a keen observer will be immersed in the story. I was never certain where the plot was heading or what it what it would ultimately say in the end, but that detailed unpredictability made it interesting and every moment was pregnant with possibility. The film feels like real life, but better photographed. Color me captivated.

3.Holy-Motors-2

Possibly the most alienating movie on my list is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Actor Denis Lavant gets into a limousine and goes from place to place donning various inexplicable disguises and acting out even more freakish and varied scenarios. It is a grotesque, bizarre, surreal, episodic, and aimlessly unpredictable movie. It is definitely not for everyone. While I’m certain there are countless interpretations I can only share my own. The man is a performer (whether or not he is a literal actor or a symbolic everyman is up to you). He only knows how to change roles and perform, even if nobody is watching. So who is he really? Who are we? Who are we pretending to be and why and when will we stop? What would we do if we stopped? What would be left?

4.monsieur-lazhar-2

There is a surplus of awkwardly manipulative educator movies. That said, Monsieur Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau’s French-Canadian drama about an Algerian refugee (Mohamed Fellag)—with a concealed past—who becomes a teacher following an unexpected suicide, sidesteps many a cliche. The characters feel real and down to earth and their pain is not overblown for cinematic effect. Emotions are treated with realism and respect. It was refreshing. It’s a humorous and telling examination of the teacher-student relationship. I daresay it is the best teacher movie since Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).

5.moonrise-kingdom-2

Love it or hate it. For all the gripes I might have with sylized filmmaker, Wes Anderson, I can honestly say I have enjoyed most of his movies. Moonrise Kingdom might be up there with Rushmore (1998) for me. If it is a smirk at immature romances or a critical prod at supposed mature ones or a humorous juxtaposition it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful to look at with its creative imagery and very funny in its surreal deadpanned execution. That it achieves its greater intent is just the icing on the cake.

6.chicken with plums 2

From the same mind that penned Persepolis (2007) comes another tale of humor and angst in Iran. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Chicken With Plums is crafted into an expertly visually entertaining film. Satrapi even aids with directing alongside Vincent Paronnaud. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as a musician, father, and husband who simply decides to die. The results feel like Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapting Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It manages to find a comfortable tone betwixt whimsy and anguish. It’s an innovative film that finds clever ways to express some of its more surreal elements. It’s a little film in many ways but it’s everything it needs to be.

7.Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a perfect film, but it’s one of those instances where I admire it’s audacity and ambition so much that I forgive it many of its shortcomings. Pint-sized protagonist, Quvenzhané Wallis, gives a wonderfully captivating performance as Hushpuppy in this imaginative examination of Hurricane Katrina as a mythic fable. The music and cinematography really help this film to soar as well. This movie showed me things that I have just never seen in a movie before. Watch Benh Zeitlin’s film for a taste of what else film can be. Was it this year’s Tree of Life? I don’t know about that but it does utilize the medium in some innovative ways.

8.sleepwalk with me 2

I am a fan of comedian Mike Birbiglia so natuarlly I really enjoyed his directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me. It’s a solid indy comedy that manages to feel fresh and personal rather than merely quirky and offbeat. Birbiglia essentially plays a younger version of himself (alter-ego Matt Pandamiglio), a struggling comedian with a stress-related sleeping disorder and some serious concerns regarding his potential future with his girlfriend. It’s a simple and very relateable story. My only complaint is that the comedy album and one man show it is based on is a lot funnier. But translating a series of jokes into a humorous drama film is no easy trick either. Kudos, Mike.

9.skyfall 2

James Bond was back and more satisfying this year with Skyfall. This time we get a glimpse at 007’s destructibility and his inner demons. Director Sam Mendes brings us psychologically closer to the famous spy than ever before. It’s wonderfully shot, has great brainless action, and there are many nods to past elements that made the character such a staple. It actually feels closer to the more classic, grittier British espionage thrillers of the 60’s that weren’t James Bond.

10.In Another Country 2

In Another Country hit me at just the right time. Three French women (all played by Isabelle Huppert) have small relationship-based adventures at the same bed and breakfast. I saw this film just a few months after moving to South Korea. Sang-soo Hong’s character-driven nonlinear vignettes are strange, humorous, and fascinating. Like I said, I am somewhat biased as I really appreciate the clash of western culture against Korean culture. Many of the incidents in the movie were quite familiar to me.   Its a humble and intimate movie, but it’s definitely worth a look.

What the heck? One more.

11.pirogue 2

The Pirogue was another simple but human story. As a movie about desperation at sea in a tiny, vulnerable vessel I am sure it will be upstaged by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation. Moussa Touré’s Senegalese movie follows several men as they attempt a dangerous and illegal sojourn to Europe in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Their tragic fates are shared by many unfortunate real life immigrants. For a film that takes place entirely on a boat it never gets boring. There is always energy and tension. More than just a film for Europe and Africa, this is a film for Arizona too.

And one more extra. Because you are worth it.

12.comedy 2

This last one will definitely divide people. It is not a fun movie. The ironically titled The Comedy is to hipsters what Easy Rider (1969) was to hippies. Perhaps there is more romance and mythos to hippiedom, but that’s just the point. It’s the end of an era and if this newer era of hipsterdom appears vapid and less than enthralling then its conclusion can only be merciful this time around. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’s, Tim Heidecker stars (Eric Wareheim also makes an appearance) as a pathetic and revolting aging hipster whose thinning insulation of irony is steadily revealing that there is just not much too him. Strip away the aversion to sincerity these characters have and they are totally empty. It is an occasionally funny and frequently uncomfortable movie that questions just how far can the hipster’s ironic ideology go before it burns out.

Note: I have since seen Django Unchained and Seven Psychopaths. Had I seen them earlier my list probably would have looked a little different.

Breaking the Hobbit

We were all so stoked to love this one too, weren’t we? And I went with three people who had never read the books or seen any of the movies. Two of them didn’t even speak English.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) is a bad movie, but The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a tough act to follow. There are a few improvements over Peter Jackson’s earlier Tolkien efforts, but there’s quite a bit that seems to be huge steps backward and I’d venture to say that most of what is wrong with The Hobbit is that it is one book as three movies—and three post-Frighteners Peter Jackson length movies at that.

hobbit and gandalf

Let’s take it easy. There are a few things that work really well for The Hobbit so far. One is its levity. Some might see it as a detriment, but that it’s tonally a much lighter tale makes much of the action feel a little fresher. Unfortunately too much buoyancy can make the movie feel somewhat flippant compared to the previous films. The fact of the matter is Tolkien’s first foray into Middle-Earth was written to be a children’s story, but movie audiences are getting a reverse ordered experience…and it doesn’t exactly work that way.

The Lord of the Rings seemed to be structured as a serious story with serious stakes and a few humorous touches and some whimsical comic relief characters—but who could still suffer through terrifying ordeals. There’s a lot of seriousness and foreboding. The Hobbit is much more lighthearted with maybe one sort-of heavy character, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). There’s a dumb vendetta an albino Captain Hook orc has against Thorin, but it never comes off as anything more than a tag-on. You can tell Thorin is supposed to be our Aragorn character, but it feels forced. Even Gandalf is a lot more light this time around (which I actually like a bit better than the overly serious Gandalf the White). I like an imperfect mischievous Gandalf.

What’s Better:

Anyway, let’s just be simple about this thing. What do I think is better about The Hobbit? Well, Gandalf’s a lot more fun but I’d say it’s a tie because his function is a little different in this series than in Lord of the Rings. Yeah, Ian McKellan still rocks, but maybe not harder.

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The effects to bring Gollum to life look better for sure and he is treated just as he should be in this film: he is not an all important cog in the wheel of destiny yet. He is a chance meeting. That is what makes him so interesting. We don’t know much about him when he is first introduced. The Gollum scene is such a treat for fans of the book and fans of special effects that it might be worth seeing the whole movie just for that. Once again Andy Serkis’s performance is solid through and through.

When it comes to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) you do have to take humor into account. Bilbo is a much more relateable character than Frodo was, I think. I like Elijah Wood but he was a little hard to relate to as Frodo. He was so dour, starry eyed, and spacey that a quirky, stammering unlikely hero such as Freeman’s Bilbo is a very welcome change of pace. He feels more like how hobbits are supposed to be. Hobbit’s are supposed be simple isolationist folks who like the familiar.

I think that about covers the improvements. Bilbo’s levity, Gollum’s deranged game of riddles, and Gandalf ties with himself. That means everything else falls short of The Lord of the Rings.

What’s worse:

Character dynamics are lacking.

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The dwarfs are okay, but they are essentially a small army of Merry and Pippins. Thorin is too heavy and stands out to almost comic effect. He’s like Oliver Reed sweatily bellowing lines at Muppets. The rest of the dwarfs are hard to keep straight. There’s so many and all their names rhyme and many are not given more than a syllable to utter onscreen that it’s hard to see them as anything but a band of bearded buffoons. Balin (Ken Stott) stands alone as the most interesting of the dwarfs. He’s old and has seen it all, but he wears his experiences gracefully. He reminded me a little of Takashi Shimura’s character in Seven Samurai.

Then there’s the lean, beardless ‘hot’ dwarf for the ladies. It comes off as a little goofy when the rest of his company is so silly, warped, and grotesque looking.

I miss John Rhys-Davies as Gimli.

The other minor characters aren’t bad, but I feel like we need either more or less of them. Radagast the Brown is a perfect example. Played by ex-Dr. Who, Sylvester McCoy, he’s a lovable, quirky fellow but he comes out of nowhere and just sort of disappears. He’s almost too quirky. I understand he will probably return in the other two movies, but something still feels underdone. Either explain more or give me less and let my imagination fill in the blanks.

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Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, Frodo, and maybe a few others are tossed into the shuffle but the energy is not the same. It feels like fan service more than story, even if they did appear in the book.

The special effects are incredible, but there’s so much of them that many of the battles feel like cartoons, which sucks out a lot of the suspense and the sense of danger you need for this sort of thing.

The conflicts are more isolated and the action is episodic. Halfway through the film it just struck me that we will just be watching these characters run away from different monsters, take a false breath, and then run again. Run-away-from-the-special-effects scenes can work if they develop character, feed the plot, or are not the whole movie. It just gets tedious after awhile and the bottomless bag of Deus ex machinas becomes ridiculous, again sucking suspense out of the excitement.

I did not see the movie in 48 fps and I hesitate to attempt it. I haven’t heard a single positive report about it yet. If it’s anything like the display TVs at Best Buy where everything looks feathery and the motion blur is gone then I’d rather not. It just looks unnatural and distractingly unreal. They say it’s more real, but it just looks weird and fake to me.

The biggest problem with The Hobbit is the three movie stretch. This story does not have the same high stakes or the same rich emotional core or the same balance of drama and comedy that The Lord of the Rings had. I think this stuff wouldn’t bother me if this movie had been made first instead. In addition, Lord of the Rings is a solidly dense set of three books, while The Hobbit is just one. Each Rings film can end on a cliffhanger and still feel satisfying and complete its own story arc. As a film told in three parts, The Hobbit feels like 1/3 of a single story arc and thus is not so satisfying as it is frustrating.

As with Jackson’s King Kong remake he has once again managed to take a simple, efficient story and stretch it and bloat it to unnaturally long durations. But I wonder whether all the added time has brought us any closer to these characters.

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Ultimately:

What is the verdict? The Hobbit ain’t perfect, but it’s not bad. Lord of the Rings ain’t perfect neither, but it was a whole lot closer. I was honestly entertained the whole time. I admired the spectacles. You’d have to have an army of mad geniuses to pull off half the razzle-dazzle tricks this movie goes for. The trouble is sometimes mad geniuses are misguided. Because it’s broken up the way it is it just strikes me as incomplete…because it us. Shoulda been one movie. Maybe two. There just isn’t enough material here for three.

All that being said, I liked the monsters and seeing all the cool scenery. And Bilbo is good too. It’s still Middle-Earth, but it most certainly is not the same bold and rich story we might have hoped for. It’s entertaining (if a bit repetitive), just not as substantive.

The 2012 Busan International Film Festival

We hailed a taxi in Yongin at around 5 in the morning. The buses don’t start running until near 6 in Korea. The taxi deposited us at Suwon station where we boarded the train to Busan. The five hour ride across the quiet and foggy Korean countryside was pleasant and uneventful. Upon arriving in Busan we met our final companion and proceeded to penetrate deep into the world of cinema.

The first film we saw was probably quite fitting for us. It was a South Korean film about a western woman visiting a small Korean town. It was aptly titled In Another Country (2012). The simple story of a French lady going to a small Korean town might have been entertaining on its own, but director Sang-soo Hong knows how to add layers and interest. It is told three times, with actress Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) becoming a slightly different character (all named Anne, however) each time  the film stops and tells a different story—all with the same locations, supporting characters, and loose tie-ins to the other plots. The story is also vaguely hooded within the context of a girl writing script ideas on a legal pad to cope with her ambiguous home anxiety. And so our elliptical wheel turns. It’s a quiet, modest, nonlinear film whose structural cunning and obscurity compensate for whatever some might deem a low budget. In Another Country reminded me of a sort of cross between Certified Copy (2010) and Run Lola Run (1998)…but I liked it better than those particular films. Among its many charms is Yoo Jun-sang as the mildly awkward but unflappably gregarious lifeguard whom Anne repeatedly has run-ins with. The lifeguard character effortlessly steals every scene he is in. Another shout out goes to the monk dude. I admit my bias when discussing this film as many of the smaller scenarios endured by the central character resemble many of my own since moving to Korea, but I think the average movie goer will probably enjoy this strange little beast all by themselves.

After the film we wandered down to the beach and ate some spicy Korean octopus.

Fly with the Crane (2012) was to be the next film we would view. Directed by Rui Jun Li, this somber and earthy Chinese movie feels more like a dramatization of a National Geographic article than a cinematic fiction. This is not Crouching Tiger, this is a gorgeous, meticulous, and authentic feeling movie about the subtly shifting winds of change. Old Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma)  is a 73 year old retired coffin maker living in rural China with his adult children. His role as a figure to be respected is gone and he is viewed more as a cumbersome relic clinging spitefully to traditional ways. When burials become outlawed in his province in favor of cheaper and faster cremations, the dying wishes of Ma and all the town’s elderly is in crisis. Tradition demands they be buried in the earth so that the white crane can carry them to heaven. Nobody wants to end up as smoke. When the government even begins to dig up Ma’s friends who have had secret burials things become more upsetting. The world around Ma is changing, even if it still seems very under-developed and simple to some, and with the coming of change so perishes the traditions of the old. Fly with the Crane is slow and simple but rich in its humanity. For a movie about a tragic figure trying to plan his own funeral it’s not without some moments of gentle humor and simple humanity. Although it is shot in largely very long takes (Bela Tarr fans will be fine) that let you just steep in the environment, the pace never drags and the music (although its use is sparse) is wonderful and well-placed. I cannot reveal the ending, but let’s just say I don’t know that I was mentally prepared for the final scene.

Following a fitful night’s sleep on a solid wood floor we were up again at 6 to wait in the ticket line. We managed to obtain precisely the tickets we were looking for.

Film three was the only movie I had been aware of back in the states. I had wanted to see it but was afraid I’d be in the wrong country at the time of its release. Ha! Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an American film directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play by Lucy Alibar. While the film unfolds as an immensely gritty American fable and allegory for the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it proves to be also a hardy story about resilience, home, stubbornness, and maybe even the desire for one’s existence to be validated and remembered. Beasts combines elements of the real world but punctuated by an exaggerated logic and a poet’s sensibilities. The cast is great but it is the lead role of Hushpuppy played by six year old Quvenzhané Wallis that makes it all work. As the film itself quips, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” A child actor can make or break a film, and little Quvenzhané really makes it. The story follows the tough little girl, Hushpuppy, as she deals with living in uneducated squalor with her erratic and volatile father on the wrong side of the levy in a dilapidated bayou community called the Bathtub. Things go from bad to worse when the Storm comes and floods their world and then the ice caps melt releasing prehistoric bloodthirsty aurochs that rampage their way to the Bathtub. It is an edifying experience for the imagination and a welcome emotional letter for the soul. Much is dealt with and all from a child’s eye view. Between the amazing score that stirs your very core, the almost Herzogian use of animals, the sumptuous photography, and powerful pint-sized performance this proves to be a special movie indeed. The innovative auroch special effects were done by Death to the Tinman and MGMT music video director, Ray Tintori.

And then ate Vietnamese food alfresco.

So three solid movies in a row. We were doomed for a stinker, right? No so.

The last film we were able to catch before our train was The Pirogue (2012), a Senegalese production directed by Moussa Touré. I had no idea what a “pirogue” was before watching this movie. Apparently it’s not at all like those Polish ravioli things [pirogi]. The story concerns 30 Africans who are attempting to illegally immigrate to Europe via Spain. The trouble is they must face long uncertain days on the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a glorified canoe-type boat called a pirogue. This is a very even-handed drama that does not feel manipulative. Every character is a person with individual hopes and dreams and everyone’s will is eventually tested on their doomed sojourn. Storms at sea are bad, but when your craft is as exposed and vulnerable as theirs it becomes devastating. Soon desperation sets in and they begin to wonder how long their journey will go on. I do not wish to give away too much because the less you know going in, the more powerful the drama will be. This film was inspired by the thousands of Africans who have made similar journeys to Europe and the thousands who perished attempting it. This is not Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Much like Fly with the Crane, The Pirogue feels very authentic, which makes each moment that much more believable and heart-breaking. Arizona law-makers should watch this movie. We, in America, think we’re the only ones with an immigration problem, but it is a cross-cultural occurrence that challenges many nations, and all of those nations might benefit from viewing the phenomenon from the other’s point-of-view. The cast is powerful and despite the bulk of the drama unfolding in one space (a rather crowded boat) it holds your attention because you’re never sure what will happen next.

All in all I’d say we were blessed to see the diverse and amazing films we did. My big regret was that we only got to see four movies. There were so many other ones we wanted to see, but it was just too difficult and we only had two days. The International Busan Film Festival was an absolute delight and I highly recommend all the magnificent movies I saw.

The following day I was back at work and watched a film of a much different nature. It was a PSA about sexual harassment at work, but it was all in Korean so I’m not sure what I was meant to learn. Is spanking my coworkers a bad thing?

Where East is Wes

Wes Anderson. There. I said it. Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and now Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Some people hate this guy. Others love him seemingly to a fault. I’m a fan. Not rabid, mind you, but I do think he is a pretty solid and unique filmmaker. Are his films smug? Maybe. But maybe some people just do smug better than others. Sir Ian Richardson is like the beast of smugness in House of Cards and it’s awesome.

The setting is a northeastern forest island notorious for occasional rough rain squalls. The year: 1965.

When young, outcast orphan, Sam (Jared Gilman), runs away from the Khaki Scouts the troops assemble under the distraught supervision of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, Fight Club). Their mission: bring Sam back alive. The island police officer (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) is informed and the manhunt is on. What the characters do not know is that Sam is headed for a pre-planned secret rendezvous with his beloved pen-pal, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam had fallen in love with Suzy a year ago at a Noah’s Ark play and they have been corresponding via secret love letters right underneath the noses of the meddling adults in their life. Sam has no family and Suzy hates her painfully distant family. Both are classified as emotionally disturbed. When Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters, and Frances McDormand, Fargo) realize she is gone they call the police and the intimate letters are discovered, but the hunt is now more complicated—the runaways do not want to be found.

Before we reach a rousing conclusion the film takes a borderline Blue Lagoon turn, but handles it far more delicately and with the added human touch of comedy. We also watch as the Khaki Scouts reconsider their role in this adventure; Social Services (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton) threatens to send Sam to a Dickensian orphanage; the Khaki Scout Commander (Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant) forgets his medicine; Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman, I Heart Huckabees) gets paid in nickels; and our omniscient and typically dry narrator (Bob Balaban, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) keeps reminding us of a rapidly approaching violent weather system. The abstract inclusion of an all-knowing narrator who has no interest or stake in the protagonists and instead is totally preoccupied with the trivialities of the elements is a particularly humorous touch.

The lovers prove their unflappable resilience through many a harrowing obstacle. In spite of all the grownup forces coming down on them, they maintain and fight to stay together through thick and thin. The irony is that their simple and immature relationship proves more hardy and meaningful than any of the snuffed romances of the adults in this universe. It’s pretty adorable.

The film is full of softness. Perhaps that is the best way to describe Anderson’s movies. They have a gentle, calculated current flowing through them. There’s also a charming innocence, best manifested in the story of Sam and Suzy running away to live off the land. It’s cute, quirky, and always a pleasure to look at. I’d say the filmmaker that reminds me most of Wes Anderson might actually be the legendary Jacques Tati. Tati had a brilliant knack for clever shot setups, stillness, suspended moments of comedy trapped in time, and softness. Anderson has a similar style (but quite different as well) and he seems to love showing us something that we will never confuse with real life. It’s a movie, so let us delight in what we can do that we cannot have in real life. His worlds are sort of like living cartoon panels. Perhaps why Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a seamless transition into the world of animation.

Moonrise Kingdom might be more of the same, but it also might be something a little different. It’s got the typical dollhouse cross-section layouts and quirky, unnatural mise-en-scène. Then there’s the pleasingly otherworldly color schemes and ornate clothing and details. There’s also deadpan emotional stand-offishness and quiet, amusing line delivery. All the standard Wes Anderson flair is there. It seems to be his first real romantic comedy (the other films have romantic elements and kooky love triangles but it’s rarely the central focus) and it’s also his first movie about camping. I have to mention this because the camp thing (not campy, but actual camp) it sort of is its own genre. There’s stuff like Bushwhacked (1995), Heavyweights (1995), Camp Nowhere (1994), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Meatballs (1979), and Troop Beverly Hills (1989) to name a few (notice not the horror flicks like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp). I daresay, though this list may be on the weak side, some folks still have nostalgic reactions to them. Do we count Space Camp (1986)? All this to say that Moonrise Kingdom is probably the best camp movie. Ever. The romance bit is of note because it is one of the more inventive love plots to come around in a long time. Ignoring that it’s a Wes Anderson movie, it’s a standout camp movie and a standout romantic comedy.

All in all I really enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom. If you like Wes Anderson already then there won’t be a problem. It feels totally refreshingly un-Hollywood (despite the impressive cast) yet unmistakably American. It’s richly textured and wonderfully shot and the music and song choices are great. If you don’t like Wes Anderson, I don’t know that this will convert you, but maybe it will. It might be his sweetest film yet. Possibly his best since The Royal Tenenbaums.