More human than the humans

Few film franchises have been rebooted as successfully as the Planet of the Apes. When Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrived in 2011, audiences were still smarting from Tim Burton’s bloated and boring remake of the eponymous 1969 film that started the series. No one had very high expectations that a little known director and a screenwriter whose previous film was 1997’s The Relic would have much success. But Rise was a revelation, combining an emotionally rich stories about fathers and sons with CGI so exquisite the apes seemed, well, real. At the end of the film, the research that helped make the apes smart and capable of speech also ended up creating a virus that killed 99.8% of the human population, setting up the ape-ruled world in the future. The movie earned rave reviews, a huge group of new Apes fans, and great anticipation for its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is now out. It’s a great science fiction action film, but despite what some fans are claiming, it’s hardly perfect.

Dawn takes place ten years after the events in Rise, with very few humans left alive and those who survived are isolated and increasingly desperate. The super-smart apes from the first film have settled into the Muir Forest north of San Francisco, where they are led by Rises’ hero Caesar (Andy Serkis, doing motion-capture). The colony has multiplied and thrived, with only the elders remembering the horrible treatment they faced as captive science projects. Caesar’s best friend Koba (Toby Kebbel) is particularly scarred, both literally and psychologically. When his son is shot by a terrified human named Carver (Kirk Acevedo), Koba is the first to demand swift, violent revenge. Instead, Caesar is persuaded by a human named Malcom (Jason Clarke) to allow Malcolm and other survivors from San Francisco to restart a hydroelectric dam in the ape’s territory. Because of Carver’s loathing of apes, who he blames for the plague, and Koba’s loathing of humans, who he sees as dishonest and cruel, the truce between the humans and apes becomes increasing tentative. Finally, after Koba watches the humans, led by a former soldier named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), in San Francisco massing arms for a coming battle, correctly assuming the apes are their target but incorrectly assuming the attack was imminent, he takes a page from Hitler’s early playbook and starts all-out war.

As with Rise, the computer-generated special effects are wondrous, and unlike the Pandorans in Avatar or the various creatures in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, the apes are believable, not only in their physicality but in their emotional depth. They are more sympathetic and, oddly, better actors than the humans. Serkis and his animators created a more interesting – charismatic, wise, and agonizingly moral – character than Clarke, Oldman, or Keri Russell (as Malcolm’s girlfriend) do. Mostly this is because Caesar is a better and better-written character. The humans are a bit dull, and a few of them are written as plot points, annoying ones. Carver is the worst action film trope, the angry, dumb guy with a itchy trigger finger. Russell’s character Ellie, the only female in the film to speak, is walking stereotype, the smart motherly hero.

It’s been a summer of films about future dystopias, and like most science fiction, their plots are commentaries on contemporary anxieties. X-Men: Days of Future Past is about preemptive strikes and the fear of technology, and Snowpiercer is about how climate change will exasperate economic inequalities. Dawn is about war, trusting and mistrusting the Other, and the vicious power of old traumas. It was hard for me not to think about the current war between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, though the film, made last year, is probably not commenting on that. The filmmakers are showing that war seems to be both absurd and inescapable, started by anger and selfishness, and suffered by so, so many innocents. With its utterly fatalistic ending, Dawn depicts the bleakest of this summer’s dystopias. Whether or not this is entertaining is unclear.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell
Extraordinarily violent, yet rated PG-13
Unnecessarily in 3-D

The train to nowhere is the only train

For the last year, much of the discussion of Snowpiercer focused on the public fight between director Joon-ho Bong and Harvey Weinstein, the independent film mogul and owner of the Weinstein Company, which has the distribution rights to the film in the United States. Weinstein wanted the acclaimed version film seen overseas cut and, according to some reports, a voiceover added. This immediately caused ripples among the film community, because it was the added voiceover and happy ending to the original cut of Blade Runner that enraged so many people, particularly its director Ridley Scott. And Snowpiercer, Bong’s first English-language film and full of international stars, is considered by some to be as important a film as Scott’s 1981 masterpiece; time will tell on that end, but those fans are not crazy to make that prediction. Bong, the great Korean director of the modern classics The Host, Mother, and Memories of Murder, prevailed, and Weinstein released the original cut to select theaters. It’s an astonishing film, breathtaking in its visuals, bleak in its plot, and enraging in its refusal to do what most American audiences expect from their science fiction action films.

The film is set in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to fix global warming goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet and killing all life. All life except for those who made it onto a long, high-tech train on a constant circumnavigation of the planet. The train was built by a visionary inventor named Wilford, who predicted the environmental calamity and manages the miraculous engine that keeps the train moving and its inhabitants alive. While the train features greenhouses, a fish farm, livestock, a school, restaurants, clubs, these luxuries are available only to the riders in the front of the train.

In the back, the riders live in squalor, surviving on blocks of mysterious, rubbery protein and subject to the violent whims of Wilford’s brutal security forces who steal the riders’ children and freeze the limbs off riders brave enough to fight back. These tail riders are plotting a revolution at the beginning of the film, with Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and the tail riders’ de facto leader Gilliam (John Hurt) trying to find the best moment to push through to the other cars, past the security forces and their absurd, saccharine chief, Mason (Tilda Swinton). When they do, recruiting the drug-addicted engineer Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) to open the doors, things get very bloody, and as they pass through the various cars, very weird. As the film progresses, the critique of caste-like hierarchies and fascistic social manipulation becomes explicit and uncomfortable. Don’t expect a Hollywood resolution, since Bong has always refused happy endings.

While the plot and themes are bleak and get only bleaker, Bong’s trademark mix of humor and horror manage to make the process entertaining. The fights scenes are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, if Bong’s use of slow motion violence is perhaps clichéd at this point, even when filmed with such care and skill. The art direction of the different cars – from concentration camp filth to baroque splendor – is a marvel, and Stefan Kovacik will undoubtedly find himself nominated for various awards at the end of the year. The screenplay that Bong and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) adapted from the graphic novel of the same name is smart and unnerving, but it is not seemless, as the plot holes appear if you think about it for too long. The acting is more consistent. Evans gives a wrenching, horrific speech at the end of the film that towers over anything he’s ever done before, while Song, the star of Memories of Murder, and Go, the heart of The Host, are both thrilling in their confused desperation. Spencer, Bell, and Hurt do great character work; it’s fantastic to see Spencer, an Oscar winner for playing a vengeful maid, as an action hero. Swinton’s performance, however, is the most memorable, not only because of the mannered speech and creepy dentures, but also for her communication of banal, mercenary evil.


Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, and Tilda Swinton
Rated R
At Reading Gaslamp and AMC La Jolla

It’s the end of the world, and I don’t feel fine

Not my idea of a good time. Here’s the LGBT Weekly link.

When I’m under the weather – when I’m home with a cold or just filled with ennui – I like to watch romantic comedies. However, there are a few things I can’t take in a romantic comedy. Don’t bring me down. I don’t want disease, death or injustice. I can take the lovers not ending up together, but I can’t take killing them. Not in acomedy.

So, for Pete’s sake, don’t end the world in a romantic comedy.

But this is the entire premise of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Lorene Scafaria’s new movie starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightly. I’m not sure what would give her the idea to set her movie in the last three weeks before an asteroid arrives and destroys all of humanity; and I’m not sure why she’d set a romantic comedy then; and I’m really not sure why a studio would produce such a movie. Continue…

It took me ten years, but I finally wrote something about September 11th. And then I made a little movie.

I knew I had to do it eventually, and I had to do it by today. When I saw that the VAMP theme for August was “Alternate Endings,” I knew exactly what to do. I wrote it in two hours; it exploded out of me. I’m sure it could be honed here and there, but I like the raw weirdness of it. What follows are my remarks as prepared for delivery. In the video, the last word is “possibility,” and I swallowed it for some reason. Also, I apologize for the sound quality; I don’t really know what I’m doing. Anyway:

When I can’t sleep, when I’m lying in bed hyped from caffeine or excitement or anxiety, instead of counting sheep – which I must admit I’ve tried doing, and it can work, but it’s rather dull, which is probably the point, but still – instead of counting sheep, I list the top ten things I would do if I won or inherited or successfully stole $10 billion dollars, or I list the top ten superpowers I would want if I could manage to become a character in the Marvel Universe, or I list my top ten wishes.

I usually feel guilty about wishing things just for myself, so I tend to wish for stuff like a cure for all viral diseases, the end to population growth, completely clean energy, and the ability to go back in time and stop Hitler’s holocaust or Stalin’s purges or Reagan’s inaction on AIDS.

Or stopping September 11.

Because, really, everything bad that has happened in the last ten years is directly or indirectly caused by 9/11.

The wars, the hate, the killing, the Tea Party, Casey Anthony, the Real Housewives; I could even find a way to blame 9/11 for Mondo losing to Gretchen on Project Runway if you give me enough time. Call it Six Degrees of of 9/11.

(Mondo, a gay HIV+ Mexican-American made exuberant clothes that would be worn by the more fabulous character in an Almodovar film. This makes him scary on what, at least five levels. And Gretchen’s ready to be sold at Anthropology, Ladies in the Canyon blandness won because it was more “of the moment” and safe. Bland and brown and non-threatening is the moment, because the national mood is full of fear and ennui and the broken promise of America, and this was created by the recession caused, in part, by Bush’s terrible not-paying-attention to anything but war and stopping gay marriage, which he was allowed to do because he got reelected using Jingoism and lies to win a second term, which never would have worked if not for 9/11. See? It totally works.)

All of the bad things would never have happened if not September 11, and I wouldn’t have the dreams anymore. While it’s not as often as it was, I still have nightmares. I never dream in reality; I don’t relive past events, so I don’t dream about standing on the corner of West 12th and 7th Avenue and watching the tower on the right, red and white ulcer in its side, trying my cell, running to the payphone and calling, in tears, my friend Rachel, who worked downtown who I imagined being crushed by rubble or enveloped in flames.

I don’t dream about crying on the subway, going to work as if it was the right thing to do, then walking home, south from the Time-Life Building, against the masses creeping north, the now-cliched perfect day still totally perfect, 80 and sunny and slightly breezy, perfect except for the billowing white nothingness emanating from the tip of the island, which is what I was walking into, towards.

I don’t dream about buying a sandwich and sitting on a park bench with my friend Matthew, watching roller bladers weaving down Hudson, going the wrong way carelessly down the car-less street, just to gawk at the surviving firemen and tons of rubble. I don’t dream about the nightmares I had for weeks and months and years later. I don’t relive or redream.

I do dream about the smell. My dreams are like documentaries of parallel universes; instead of planes flying into skyscrapers, it’s Imperial Star Destroyers stabbing the streets of the West Village, actual, not CGI-ed explosions eradicating my neighbors and the cars and Two Boots Pizza and the White Horse Tavern and the perfect townhouses owned by Sara Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The dreams are like the more chaotic scenes of Titanic, except a lot less ridiculous and focus-grouped, and I was there, and so were my boyfriend or my brother or my mom or my dad’s dog. The memes, or the themes, whichever: running, falling, fire, crashes, epic, epic crashes, and all through it the distinct feeling of colossal malevolence and doom and that horrible stink, a mix of burning oil, melting plastic, plaster dust, and ineffable sadness of things falling apart.

When I tell myself the story, of the wish, to go back in time and stop 9/11, I can’t just leave it there. It’s not like, Poof! and it didn’t happen. No grief, no missing posters, no smell. No Poof!

There needs to be a logical, or at least narratively logical way for it to happen. For the time travel, I use Dr. Strange-like magic or Star Trek physics to get where I’m going.

Then there are a number of scenarios. Sometimes, I go to each house of all 19 hijackers and I assassinate them one-by-one, sort of like in the last season of Buffy, when the minions of the First Evil offed all of the potential slayers. Except I’d be on the side of the righteous.

But murder, even in the service of saving the world, even in the vision of me as Jason Bourne-like, Jason Statham-like hero, which would be so super-awesome, well, murder would probably be very hard for me. I doubt I could do it.

So, there are a series of police-tip scenarios: In which I send copies of the 9/11 Commission Report to every police station in the United States in 1999. This probably would end up making me seem like a nut, and the book would just be treated as the Turner Diaries, Part 2. And we all know that warning the authorities didn’t seem to do much good.

Unless, of course, it’s a direct warning. So, another scenario had me calling all the airports that the planes originated from and telling them that, “Dude, there are four guys on United 93 who are carrying exacto knives and box cutters and they’re going to use them to hijack the plane.” A credible-sounding bomb threat could stop an airport from functioning for just long enough ruin those impeccable plans of Mr. Bin Laden.

Then there’s the point where I realize that if I was going to use Dr. Strange-like magic or Star Trekky technology to going back in time, I could probably use said speculative forces to stop the planes, the crashing, and the death, and the smell.

And make it all rather comic book fabulous, like a cross between the X-Men and Planet Unicorn.

Why not start with pulling an army of super-smart apes, a la Planet of the, from a distant dimension and use them to clear the southern tip of Manhattan.

Why not provide some of the apes with the best eye-hand coordination some 29th century fighter planes with super-sonic, even light-speed abilities to chase and catch the hijacked planes in tractor beams, lower them to meadows of sunflowers and where passengers can escape and the hijackers can be cuffed and chained by my simian minions.

And if my chimped-out space ships aren’t fast enough, why don’t I just conjure up a super-spell to turn a plane or two into giant soap bubbles, give the passengers jetpacks, and use a flock of crimson winged unicorns to pop the bubbles and the dreams of the jihadists.
Then there would be rainbows and jelly beans and the world would be saved, the next decade would be saved, and New York would never have stopping smelling like bagels and garbage and dry-cleaning and overpriced everything.

And the world, or rather, just the United States, or maybe just New York, or maybe just me – I would never have stopped feeling the sometimes cuddly, sometimes sexy, sometimes enveloping embrace of possibility.

“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.”

[youtube:]At last! I finally saw “Southland Tales,” Richard Kelly’s much-maligned, barely released, long-awaited follow-up to “Donnie Darko” (which is one of my favorite movies ever). I had been a bit desperate to see the movie, but, alas, it wasn’t even released in San Diego during the week or so that 18 theaters were allowed to show it. So, I spent a weekend or two back in December trying to BitTorrent pirated versions, hoping someone had stuck an Academy screener DVD on the Interweb. But, alas, all that was available was a pretty shitty shot-in-the-theater-with-a-handicam version. (I guess there weren’t any Academy screeners. Natch.) Still, I downloaded it. And watched about 15 minutes. And I couldn’t stand how bad the video quality was. It was like watching a 20-year-old VHS tape during an earthquake. So, I chucked the file and waited. I was wasting some time (procrastinating like a mo-fo) on Netflix, and I saw that the DVD was coming out on the 18th. I had it in my mailbox on the 19th. How many ways I can say that I love Netflix? Anyhoo, after I finally finished writing my first qual paper (Woohoo! And more on that later…) I set about to watch the film that made all of $227,365 and Richard Roeper called “one of the most confusing, ridiculous, pretentious and disastrous cinematic train wrecks I’ve ever seen.” (For more critics trying to out-nasty each other, check out the Rotten Tomatoes site here.)

I think this would be a perfect moment to cite, in a Fisk-y but not really Fisk-y way, the wonderful essay by Joe Queenen in last week’s Guardian about what really makes a truly terrible movie:

To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met.

Agreed. Too many people will simply state, as Queenen complains, that such-and-such is one of the all-time worst movies without thinking deeply about what really makes some awful.

For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck?

Totes! That’s why, say, “Bad Love,” a Jenny McCarthy vehicle for Chrissake, which scored all those Razzies a couple years ago, doesn’t count for me. Neither, really, does “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” which was God-awful, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be any much better than the first movie, which was pretty near-God-awful. But, yes, after making “Donnie Darko,” Richard Kelly was expected to make another truly great film. He had a cast of thousands, and he had a lot of money, and he had heaps and heaps of ambition. It seems as if he wanted to make something like a cross between “Nashville” and “Dr. Strangelove,” which is pretty ambitious.