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

Looking for ourselves in Looking

The afternoon of the day that HBO’s Looking premiered, the influential gay critic Alonso Duralde posted on Facebook, “Tonight is the premiere of LOOKING. The this-doesn’t-reflect-my-specific-queer-experience-so-boo-hoo-the-hell-with-it backlash is already in progress.” The producers and publicists of Looking, a half-hour dramedy about three gay men looking for love and sex in San Francisco, have generated so much hype in the gay press and the gay ghettos of social media that they quickly and unintentionally also generated an anti-hype machine. Almost immediately after hopeful articles appeared suggesting Looking might be as zeitgeist-defining for gay men as Girls was for young, urban women, the backlash began. Before anyone had seen an episode of the show, when all that was offered was thirty-second trailers and billboards in the real-life gay ghettos, people complained that it would too white, too shallow, too tame, not enough like Queer as Folk, too much like Queer as Folk. Praise often generates criticism, if only because contrarians exist and no aesthetic opinion has ever been universal, but I think something more specific is behind the arguments about Looking. Gay men rarely see accurate depictions of themselves reflected outside alternative, independent media, and when something like Looking deigns to represent their lives, gay men argue about what their lives are and what they should be.

Looking is written by the somewhat unknown Michael Lannan but directed by Andrew Haigh, who was responsible for Weekend, one of the most lauded gay films since Brokeback Mountain. Weekend was a naturalistic, emotionally and physically raw examination of modern gay lust and love, and Haigh’s involvement in Looking has a great deal to do with its pre-premier hype. And the first episode of Looking looked and felt like Weekend, complete with slightly jagged hand-held photography, gorgeous and seemingly natural light, and dialogue quick-edited into impressionistic snippets rather than linear conversations. While the opening scene featured both a furtive, aborted hook-up in a wooded park and a much less awkward threesome, the sex in Looking is not as daring or as explicit as it was in Weekend, or for that matter, Queer as Folk.

Otherwise, I could not tell whether the show could be as transformative or as disappointing as hoped or feared. There’s not much characterization or plotting you can do in 29 minutes, especially when tone and atmosphere are as important to Lannan and Haigh as story or backstory. We do know that 29-year-old Patrick (Jonathan Groff, best known for Glee and Spring Awakening) is single and doesn’t want to be and gets nervous and awkward when meeting men. Dom (Murray Bartlett), who is older and chiseled and full of swagger, is a direction-less waiter who until this episode has never been rejected by a man he was interested in. Bearded Augustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) decides to move in with his boyfriend, and then he promptly initiates a threesome with a co-worker. The humor is light and wry, the drama slow and subtle; the emotion comes from what is not said, from glances, expressions, and meaningful silence.
Looking is the anti-Girls, which is all about narcissistic, consciously witty monologues; whereas Girls is lily-white and as stagey as Woody Allen, every moment in the much more racially diverse Looking is meant to be as believable as hidden camera documentary. And unlike Girls, whose protagonist is a completely normal woman who has both typically and atypically pretty friends, Looking features one nearly perfect-looking man after another, men who seem only to be interested in men like themselves.

Herein lies the conflict and contention. I doubt too many viewers would claim that the problems of dating, mating, and monogamy are foreign from the actual gay experience. And I know groups of friends who are strangely, if not uniformly, young and attractive; Patrick, Dom, and Augustín do happen. But most gay men do not experience their lives like the men in Looking. They either aspire to these lives and looks or they are focused on something else completely. The majority do the latter: they’re suburban dads, small city bears, genderqueer kids who can’t and don’t imagine themselves living in the Castro. If there were multiple depictions of gay men on national television, I doubt few people would be angry about Looking. But most gay characters on television are witty sidekicks consciously constructed to play well in Peoria. For example, very little about Mitchell and Cam on Modern Family rings true, even if they’re funny and probably great for the cause.

Looking is the first major American television series to treat gay men like living, breathing human beings. And no human being, no three human beings, can represent an entire community or culture. Haigh recently told The Atlantic, “It never was our intention to be the ultimate gay show about all gay people. We just want to tell the stories of these characters and their lives.” But when there are so few shows with gay characters and only one with believable gay protagonists, that one will seem like it is trying to be that ultimate, and that one will disappoint, even anger the people who don’t identify with its characters. This is not the fault of Lannan, Haigh, or HBO; it’s a problem with the larger heterosexist culture, one that we all have to work to change.

Episode 1: “Looking for Now”
Written by Michael Lannan
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, and Murray Bartlett
Looking airs Sunday nights on HBO, starting January 20.

Destroyed by her own pretensions

Blue-Jasmine_cateI’m not sure why Woody Allen decided to set Blue Jasmine in San Francisco. He can turn a city into a main character of his films; from Manhattan to Vicki Cristina Barcelona to Midnight in Paris. But in Blue Jasmine, the city is neither lovingly shot nor does it really have a role to play other than as place for Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) to escape to after her life and her mind fall apart. It could have been Portland or San Diego or Skokie. And I always wonder how someone can set a story in San Francisco and not even make a casual reference to gay people. Or black people. The only Asian in Blue Jasmine plays a New York lawyer with one line who is passingly referred to as a “dragon lady.” But Woody Allen has never had a wide view of the world; in his more than 40 films, he has depicted an extremely small segment of American society, usually wealthy and upper middle class white people with profoundly neurotic interior lives. And he does this with unparalleled insight and humor and with some of the most interesting female characters in film history. In Blue Jasmine, he has provided Blanchett, arguably the greatest actress of her generation, her greatest role, a woman destroyed by her own pretensions.

Jasmine isn’t even her name; she was named Jeanette by the parents who adopted her and her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). In college, she renamed herself after the night-blooming flower to seem more interesting. She did something right, with her name and with the person she wanted to be seen as. She met Hal (Alex Baldwin) on Martha’s Vineyard when she was still in college, and she dropped out to marry him. He was New York financial mover and shaker, and when we meet Jasmine, it is after Hal has been arrested for massive fraud, after they lost their millions and their houses. Jasmine has moved to San Francisco to start anew, but also because her sister, a grocery store cashier, has agreed to take her in.

Ginger has two pudgy kids, a gruff ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay, no joke), a loud-mouthed mechanic boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), and walk-up in the Mission (that no one working as a cashier could ever afford, but that’s neither here nor there). Jasmine is appalled that her life has come to this, and she has a hard time not expressing it, either in her affected Diane Sawyer accent or with her anxious frowns, or with a Stoli martini, or multiple doses of Xanax. She thinks she will be able to find her way back into the fold of the moneyed and powerful, and when she meets the perfect man (Peter Saarsgard), a diplomat with inexplicably large amounts of her money, she lies through her teeth to get him. Her denial is breathtaking, sometimes funny, but ultimately tragic.

Blue Jasmine is not the witty, literate romp of Midnight in Paris or the love-sex comedy of Vicki Christina Barcelona. Its comedy is in the nervous discomfort of class warfare, the clueless vapidity of the rich and capitalistic. It is Allen shredding New York’s myopic cruelty, both for our amusement and as guilt-free schadenfreude. We giggle, but Jasmine herself is not a comic character, and the lives both she and Ginger lead are not comic. Blanchett’s Jasmine is both reprehensible and sympathetic, while Hawkins’ Ginger is sweet, understanding, and as comfortable in her own skin and her lot in life as Jasmine is not with her own. Blanchett is so good and so flashy in her excellence that it’s easy to not notice how good Hawkins is, too. And it’s also easy not to notice how great, how sly and smart and scathing, Allen’s screenplay is. Despite Allen’s underuse of San Francisco, Blue Jasmine is yet another triumph for him. However, Blanchett is the one who will win the Oscar.

Blue Jasmine
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, and Alex Baldwin
Rated PG-13