APEOCALYPSE NOW, OR OF APES BOTH NAKED AND HAIRY: Venus in Fur, Life Itself and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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venusThe new movie, Venus in Fur, co-written by bad boy old timer Roman Polanski (who also directed) with relative new comer David Ives, from a play by Ives that was influenced by a book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (yeah, that Sacher-Masoch—oh, no, don’t even try it, you know very well whom I’m talking about, you can’t fool me), begins during a somewhat impressionistic rain storm on a deserted street in France (so I guess the slight touch of impressionism shouldn’t be a surprise) backed by a music score of sublime slyness.
In fact, the score is so sublime, so sly, so clever, so flippant, so wicked, so…well, just so everything that I found myself being driven crazy because I couldn’t place the composer. And then at the end, during the credits, there it is—the name Alexandre Desplat, and all I could think was, of course, who else could it possibly have been.


And it’s a smart way to begin this shaggy dog of a film with a minimalist story set solely inside a legitimate theater in which an actress tries to convince a director to cast her as his lead (or is that really what she is after?). It sets the tone superbly and can’t help but get you in the off kilter mood this film requires.


The director, Thomas, is played by Mathieu Almaric (the bad guy from Quantum of Solace and the good guy from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). The actress, Vanda, is played by Polanski familiar Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic, Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate). Both seem to be having the time of their lives wringing every last bit of comedy, drama and dramedy out of this fun little screenplay in which things may not be quite what they seem.


It’s a wonderful pas de deus and the screenplay is filled with enough wit and subtext to leave one satiated for some time.


And Polanski does an excellent job of keeping things percolating, trapped as he is within the confines of small set, small cast, small conflict. The camera keeps moving and the editing tends to not let things grind to a stop. Polanski won the Cesar Award (the French Oscar) for his direction and one can see how it might be hard to say no to this clever bit of directing legerdemain.


It has its issues. The play within the play, though not uninteresting, is not quite as engrossing as the immediate conflict between the two leads, and one might wish that less time had been spent there and more on the mysteriousness of this crazy, but brilliant, actress who shows up after everyone else is gone.


I mean, there is something going on here. The actress claims to have only glanced through the script (which she should never have had in the first place, only the sides), but she has the whole play memorized. And though her first appearance suggests she’s going to be every casting director’s worst nightmare, she’s good; too good in fact (bringing to mind Margo Channing’s lines about Eve Harrington in All About Eve, and I paraphrase, “a performance doesn’t just create itself”).


But what she is really after is never quite revealed. Normally this wouldn’t bother me. I’m all for ambiguity. But I’m also not sure what Thomas got out of the situation, how the whole experience affected him. It seems like he’s supposed to be different at the end than at the beginning, but I wasn’t sure how.


When Polanski directed another film version of a play, Carnage (based on The God of Carnage by Yasmine Reza), it felt like the story started in the middle of act one and because of that, the story and the characters never made a lot of sense.


Here it’s the opposite. It almost feels like the whole story stops with an act, or at least a scene, to go. Or in the vernacular of the biz, it’s a tad on the anti-climactic side.


But still, there is just something so mesmerizing and satisfying about it at the same time. It’s a weird little film with so much energy that you feel strangely upbeat when it’s over. Why, I’m not sure.


But I think this time I’ll just go with it.


life itselfLife Itself is a documentary about famed film critic Roger Ebert, perhaps the only film critic that could be a subject of a documentary that would have any possibility of gaining much of an audience (I mean, sure, maybe Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were better reviewers, but would you really pay money to see a movie about them?).


It’s directed by one Steve James, who Ebert championed when James released his documentary Hoop Dreams, and has as executive producer one Martin Scorcese, who Ebert also championed with that director’s first feature film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door.


So who can blame them if the result is more a tribute, even a eulogy, than a deep insightful look into Ebert’s life?


The movie is satisfying enough. It’s strongest when it deals with Ebert’s life story: how he became a film critic; his struggle with drinking; his screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; and, of course, the creation of the thumbs up/thumbs down television show At the Movies with fellow critic Gene Siskel (his love/hate relationship with Siskel is so fascinating, that alone could serve as the basis for a documentary in and of itself).


But, truth be told, I felt that when it got off of those subjects, whenever it focused on Ebert’s issues with cancer and the difficulties of his final days, the story tended to stall and lose forward momentum.


I can certainly understand the emphasis placed on this part of Ebert’s life by the filmmaker. It’s a terrible thing that happened to him, painful and difficult.


But I do think it throws the balance of the film off a bit and robs the director of time that could also have been devoted to what happened to the television show after Siskel passed away, as well as a deeper understanding as to what Ebert thought of movies and what influence he had on modern filmmakers (if he had any).


dawn of planet of apesOh, for the days when all monkeys did was masturbate in public and throw shit at one. Yay, verily, I fear those distant days are lost forever, slipping away like sands of time, as have so many other cherished childhood memories.


It’s now been ten years (or ten winters, as the central simian characters in the new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes put it, for some reason) since a pandemic has wiped out the majority of human inhabitants on earth. Caesar, an ape who can speak and has achieved human sentience, has created a tribe of homidae living quietly in Muir Woods in California.


But their tranquility is to be short lived as, after not having seen humans for two years (uh, winters, sorry), a group of human survivors make their way through the forest in the hope of starting up a dam so that San Francisco can get power again.


Shots are fired, old animosities are revisited, misunderstandings are misunderstood, yadda, yadda, yadda, you know the drill. But basically, the leader of the humans, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), and the leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis—who else) manage to broker a very tenuous peace.


Of course, we know in the audience what the result is going to ultimately be. And of course, again, theoretically that shouldn’t matter. Everyone knows the outcome of Hamlet (and if you don’t, Hamlet dies, get over it), but that doesn’t stop Shakespeare’s story from being riveting.


In fact, Dawn…, in many ways, has the same general structure as the classic French play The Trojan War Will Not Take Place by the great writer Jean Giraudoux, in which an heroic Hector tries desperately to broach a peace between Troy and the attacking Greeks. And knowing the ending there doesn’t stop the effectiveness of the story or the enormity of its tragedy (if anything, it increases the tragedy tenfold).


So having a preordained ending by no means means a drama is doomed. At the same time, it does present its own sets of issues. And for me, I don’t believe that screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and director Matt Reeves (Jaffa, Silver and Reeves all worked on Rise of the Planet of the Apes) have really resolved any of them here.


Yes, I’m afraid to say it, but for me, Dawn… is more than a bit of a bore.


After all, if you know the ending, you have to have something other than the plot to entertain you or keep you interested. So while Giraudoux’s play is filled with characters so rich, dialog so vibrant, plotting so clever, Dawn… is, well…not.


Certainly is has some incredible CGI when it comes to the animation of the various apes and monkeys. It is absolutely amazing how realistic (almost too realistic) the various non-human characters feel and how expressive and richly emotional their faces are.


And when you combine such technology with the amazing talent of an Andy Serkis, it’s breathtaking what can result.


At the same time, one of the other results is the Star Wars irony in which the non-human characters, R2D2 and C3PO, are far more interesting and have far more dimension than their mortal counterparts. And true to form, here the humans, led by Clarke, and supported by Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Gary Oldman, never come alive.


In fact, the more one watches them, the more one wishes that Reeves had used some of the leftover CGI on them so they could be as 3D as their simian counterparts.


And because the characters aren’t that interesting, then I started thinking about the story. And in a movie like this, the last thing you really want someone in the audience to do is start thinking about the story. I mean, when that happens, there really is just about no going back.


But I found myself trying to put together the back story here. And the more I tried, the more I couldn’t do it.


According to the movie, a certain number of people have survived the epidemic and are trying to recreate civilization. And it should be the same the world over. The percentage that outlasted the plague everywhere else, from Walla Walla, Washington to Bora Bora Bora, should be the same, should have the same ratio of survivors as it does in San Francisco (if not more, since San Fran was ground zero).


Now, yes, in comparison to the size of the population of ten years previous, the number would be rather small. But if you parse this percentage out worldwide, that’s a relative large number, even a crushing one, especially in comparison to the number of monkeys and apes seen here.


The reason I focus on this is that according to the screenplay, San Francisco has been powered by a nuclear reactor for a number of years now (the reason for the humans seeking out the dam is because the reactor has since stopped working). Yet, in all these years, with all this power, these survivors have never made contact with anyone outside of their immediate area.


And I’m talking almost ten years now.


Even more incredulous is that with the size of the population that should have been left, I find it a bit hard to believe that someone outside of the city hasn’t long since made their way to San Francisco. After all, it’s a major port, a major population center, and it has that nuclear power plant for god’s sake.


In fact, I find it a bit difficult to believe, given the context the writers give us here, that the world hasn’t already made great strides in returning everything to normal. It’s not like they have to recreate civilization. It’s still there. They just have to start it going again. I’m not saying it’s as easy as flipping on a light switch, but really, how hard can it be?


I was even surprised that San Francisco was in such a state of decay. Again, they had a nuclear power plant for god’s sake. It’s hard for me to believe that under those circumstances the city isn’t a bit closer to its pre-epidemic days, just with a smaller number of Franciscans dwelling there.


(All of this also makes me wonder how the apes will ever be able to take over the world without something else intervening. After all, based on the ratio of people surviving, Caesar and his kith and kin are vastly outnumbered and the humans left alive have access to all sorts of military hardware that could wipe out those damned dirty apes in no time at all).


As I said, if I had found the characters more vibrant, more interesting, if I found their conflict dramatized in a much stronger way, if the story had been a bit cleverer, my mind probably wouldn’t have wandered the way it did.


Buy there were also some aspects of the plotting that made me uncomfortable as well. In the end, as trigger happy as some of the humans were, the screenplay puts the majority of the blame on the apes for all the tragedy that happens when one of them, Koba (Toby Kebbell—who does a wicked little minstrel-like, Stepin Fetchit dance number as he pretends to be a stupid monkey, the highlight of the film as far as I’m concerned), goes rogue and tries to assassinate Caesar.


This is followed by another scene that made me equally queasy as the humans, now rounded up by an army of apes, are marched to a makeshift prison—under an American flag. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about this image, and maybe that’s what made me queasy. I’m not sure the filmmakers did either.


But in the end, it guess it was all just a bit too tea party for my comfort.



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