Monthly Archives: August 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and the Importance of Character

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I have seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that has been resonating strongly with audiences this summer, twice in theaters. More often than not, I will see a movie only once during its theatrical run, for no other reason than the fact that most movies only require one viewing for me to soak everything in. I saw both Expendables movies one time each, not because they are necessarily bad, but because they are movies where everything that the filmmakers are trying to say is pushed to the surface; to put it bluntly, there is not much to them beyond what you see. Sometimes there are exceptions; 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up is similarly shallow, and yet I saw that twice in theaters and own it on DVD because that movie is immensely entertaining and thus has fantastic replay value (whereas the aforementioned Stallone action series is only moderately fun, in my eyes). Besides rare exceptions like that Clive Owen masterpiece of pulp, the only times I will see a movie more than once theatrically is if I think there is more to be found and dissected under the surface. I saw The Dark Knight three times in cinemas to fully appreciate its themes of morality and corruption; I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World twice during its run because of director Edgar Wright’s meticulous attention to detail; just this spring I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past four times because of how taken aback I was by its rich themes of depression, substance abuse, and loneliness. What makes my multiple viewings of Matt Reeves’ sequel to 2011’s Planet of the Apes reboot significant is my reason for doing so.

I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes twice in theaters because I don’t see what everyone else sees in it.

To be fair, I enjoyed it. Both this and its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are fine blockbusters with exciting cinematography, a sense of love and admiration for the original film series, and some of the best motion capture performances I’ve ever seen. But I’d be lying if I said the utter enthusiasm and praise logged at this series doesn’t surprise me, simply because, as a whole, neither of these movies particularly stuck with me. Rise was a decently fun watch to which I never gave a second thought after I left the theater; I was planning to skip Dawn altogether due to lack of interest, until the enthusiastic reviews and audience reactions began to pour in. While I didn’t get a bad movie in any sense of the word, I got more or less the same experience I had with the first movie; moderate fun for 120 minutes without any heavy investment. The difference this time around was that, because of the universal praise it got, I felt as if I missed something on my first viewing. A week later, I went back to my local cinema to see it again, this time with two goals in mind: to see what literally every other moviegoer saw in this one, and to figure out just what exactly was the source of my emotional disconnect with these movies. After this second viewing, I more or less figured out the answer to the first problem, and completely solved the second.

My problem with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that I don’t care about any character besides Caesar. Before I delve into the supporting cast, I will say that I think the element that is the source for this movie’s adoration is, without a doubt, Andy Serkis’ simian protagonist. Caesar is not only an example of how spectacularly performance capture can be used to give humanity to computer generated creatures, but more importantly is an incredibly likable and fleshed out protagonist who reaches that perfect balance of being noble and entertaining. The problem I’ve consistently had with characters like, for example, most interpretations of Superman, is that there’s an enormous emotional detachment for me; Superman is an incredibly noble character with many traits that I would find admirable in any human being, but there is so little charisma or depth beyond his dignity (with a few notable exceptions) that I don’t find him entertaining to watch. Caesar is the perfect response to that character flaw, wherein he shares many of Superman’s nobility and honor, while also having a clearly defined personality and humanity to him. Caesar is, by all accounts, an exceptionable blockbuster protagonist.

What takes away from the film is that literally everyone around him is almost painfully uninteresting. Koba is about as bland as an antagonist can be, with nothing more to him than the anger that lies on his surface; this would be fine if he was a minor character, but as the overall villain, it substantially takes away from what should be an enormous aspect of the film. Imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without the poignant sense of anarchy and irresistible charm, or Hans Landa without the sharp menace softly boiling underneath his charismatic demeanor; if your movie has an uninteresting villain, then the film as a whole suffers considerably. The human element, which is a substantial aspect of Dawn, is given an even more halfhearted treatment. While Koba at least has some recognizable personality traits on his surface, what does Jason Clarke’s character have? Or Kerri Russell? Or Kodi Smit-McPhee? These three characters are the human leads, and yet none of them have any distinct personality. The biggest stretch I can make is that Clarke is…trusting? McPhee is…quiet? This is a two hour movie wherein these characters are given a majority of the screen time, and yet we know next to nothing about them. The only human character with any semblance of actual humanity is Gary Oldman, who makes the most of his criminally limited screen time with a few truly touching moments of emotion and one hell of a speech. If Oldman was the human lead as opposed to Clarke, this movie would have roped me in far more, but as it stands we have one phenomenal ape protagonist surrounded by one dimensional characters whom I couldn’t care less about.

What I feel the screenwriters don’t understand is just how integral the characters are to the central conflict of a story. The heart of the movie is the friction and eventual battle between the apes and the humans, but if one side is comprised entirely of characters that I have absolutely no investment in, and the other side only has one fully fleshed out character, then how am I, as a viewer, supposed to have any interest in any of this? When the characters have rising tension between them, the audience should feel that tension by caring about the characters; if we are given nothing to care about, then why should we feel what the humans and apes onscreen are feeling? There should be great emotional stakes felt by the audience during the finale, as hordes of apes and humans are slaughtering each other; instead, during this sequence I felt an aching sense of boredom. The battle was beautifully shot, but because I did not care about most of the apes or any of the humans, the entire third act of the movie was nothing more than a series of images to me. Compare it to this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy; while the characters are not strictly speaking original, they are given endearing personalities and backstories rich with tragedy and pathos. Because the audience is made to have a connection to them, by default we also have made a connection to the central conflict. Without character, there can be no conflict, and since Dawn is a movie that is entirely about conflict, its lack of interesting characters creates a colossal flaw that is literally impossible to overlook. A two hour movie cannot be sustained on the back of one protagonist; there is a reason why the supporting cast is called a supporting cast.

I did not hate Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, nor did I even dislike it. I was moderately entertained by it, and was able to sit through the two hour run time because of Matt Reeves’ energetic direction, Michael Giacchino’s immensely enjoyable score, and Andy Serkis’ layered performance as Caesar. Because these three elements were executed so expertly, I can see why the movie has resonated with audiences the way it has. But I found it to be lacking in what is arguably the most essential element of a story; character.

Billy Zabka Saves The Universe

This was my final film project for my Literature To Film class, in my senior year of high school. We were assigned to read a short story (in this case, The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Pierce) and adapt it into a short film. My partner-in-crime Bobby Whitehouse and I decided to make it a very loose adaptation, incorporating science fiction and comedic elements as well as changing the names of the characters, and adding in a (rather beautiful) musical number.

Bobby’s performance is a testament to his talent at improvisational comedy, and the amount of injuries her sustained while filming the action scenes showed just how much of a trooper the man is.

Out of all the short films I made during high school, this one was my favorite.

When their beloved teacher is brutally murdered, teenage detective Billy Zabka and his sardonic friend Ralph Macchio attempt to bring his killer to justice amid a web of corruption, seances, and Papa John’s.

The Janitor: A Horror Odyssey Through Time & Space

This was my final film project for my TV Production class in my junior year of high school. We had to make a film about a real experience, and after some liberal fact-smudging, my group produced this very loose adaptation of a somewhat sketchy encounter I had with a school janitor in freshman year. With green screen work and visual effects done at my town’s public access TV studio, the final product ended up looking fairly decent for a no-budget student film shot on handheld cameras (sadly, the heavy-duty Panasonic was taken by another group).

I would also like to say that my friend Freddy’s performance as the titular Janitor gives me chills to this day.

Learn, Don’t Burn: The Lost PSA

This is an old PSA I co-wrote and directed for my 20th Century Film class in my junior year of high school. The assignment was to make a public service announcement about anything – anything at all – so my friend and I decided to make a parody of blatantly homophobic and severely misinformed 1980s propaganda videos such as Rock: It’s Your Decision.

Our teacher’s exact comment was, “Well, that has to be one of the more interesting student films I’ve seen”. We ended up with an A-.

 

Robin Williams: World’s Greatest Dad

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Comedy and Tragedy are the oldest siblings.

There are figures in popular culture that we perceive as immortal; they have existed since the time of our birth, and they will be a constant presence in our lives until we meet our demise. People whose works are deemed timeless, whose screen presence proves to be so electric and engaging that they linger in the back of our minds even when we are not consciously thinking about them, whose voice and demeanor (be it in print or onscreen) is immediately recognizable, like the kindly uncle that makes you look forward to every family get-together. Robin Williams was this type of person, for everyone.

Robin Williams was the kindly uncle of every person who experienced the joy of cinema.

I did not expect the news of Williams’ untimely passing, nor did I expect to be as affected by it as I am. Part of it is because I, too, always thought he would be around forever; his performances in The Dead Poets SocietyGood Will HuntingMrs. DoubtfireThe Fisher King, and Death to Smoochy were my earliest introductions to excellent acting in both drama and comedy. Even in a movie as flawed as Hook, his performance as an aged Peter Pan is nothing short of spectacular and deserving of a far better film. He shaped my earliest ideas of what great acting was, and was one of the few people who never failed to make me smile, even during the darkest moments of my childhood where it seemed liked everything was crashing down. From the time I was little, Williams was more than another actor to me; he was a staple of pop culture, a monument to comedy, and a great stone behemoth of entertainment that even the mightiest of storms could not tear down. His death at the age of 63 (only a few years older than my own father) came as such a shock to me because it reminded me, harshly and with great whiplash, that Williams was a human being.

Many people assume that someone as outwardly hilarious as Robin is always of perfectly sound mind, which is why the news that his death is very likely a suicide came as such a shock. But like most comedians, he used the gift of humor to mask a great pain eating away at his insides until, unfortunately, the pain was too much. Williams suffered from Bipolar Disorder, one of the harshest mental illnesses a human being could possibly deal with. I cannot pretend to fully understand or comprehend the specificity of his condition, but I do know this; when you are engulfed by an uncontrollable sadness, it can make you implode emotionally without a proper way to channel it. Many who experience this, be it through Bipolar Disorder or clinical depression or any number of other conditions, will often turn to comedy; oftentimes a comedian’s goal is not only to make the audience laugh, but to take a part of themselves that is missing and fill it with laughter. Williams did just that, bringing the joy of humor to countless audiences for several decades, filling that little part of himself by brightening the lives of those around him. But in the end, this was not enough; at 63 years of age, the pain was too much.

Robin Williams may no longer be with us, but he is not dead; he will live on in color, and sound, and most of all, in laughter. The laughter of those who loved him, and loved his performances, will forever contain a little piece of him. Even in death, Robin Williams will outlive us all.

Your move, chief.

Modern Cinema and Fanbase Entitlement

Premiere Of Paramount Pictures' "Pain & Gain" - Arrivals

An Editorial by Ethan Dunlap

Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape.

Picture this scenario: It is the height of the summer movie season, in any given year in recent memory. A blockbuster, based on a highly popular and beloved cartoon / comic book / video game (most likely from the late 1980’s or early 1990’s), has just been released. Directed by a largely disliked gun-for-hire director (we will call him “Michael Bay” for the sake of this hypothetical scenario), the movie was released to exceptionally high box office fare, but middling-to-scathing reviews. Taking to the internet, hordes of entitled fans, feeling personally betrayed by this less-than-stellar piece of cinema, proceed to unleash a mass verbal beat-down on the film, even going so far as to say it “raped my childhood”.

If this completely hypothetical scenario seems even remotely familiar to you, then congratulations, you have had internet access for the past few years. I would say it seems like an annual event, but that implies that this reaction is only seen once a year, when in fact it is seen almost year-round, like clockwork. An adaptation of some beloved nostalgic property comes out, it turns out to be terrible, cue the “raped my childhood” sentiments.

I understand the disappointment, I really do. I was born in the 90s, and practically raised on cartoons and comic books; I understand the immense letdown one feels when something I loved as a child is adapted into a mediocre Roland Emmerich clone like Dragonball: Evolution, Michael Bay’s Transformers quadrilogy, and this week’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. But can we all collectively stop pretending that the mere existence of these movies somehow destroyed the sanctity of our childhoods? And furthermore, could we stop equating that to the sexual assault of said childhoods?

There’s a disturbing trend prevalent on the internet to equate any mundane issue (such as, off the top of my head, disappointing movies) to rape. “This movie raped my childhood” is almost guaranteed to show up in the comments of any discussion about such recent adaptations as the ones I listed above, and much, much more. Normally I don’t mind the use of hyperbole to illustrate frustration, something which I myself have partaken in many times before, and likely will many times in the future. But equating it to rape is simply too far. Rape is an incredibly sensitive topic; in my personal opinion, it is among the worst atrocities human beings can possibly inflict on one another, and I’ve been hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t share that sentiment. Victims of sexual assault suffer from grueling psychological trauma after going through such a heinous act, trauma that they will likely never get over for the rest of their life. In some cases, the mere mention of rape (be it in an actual discussion on sexual assault, the casual dropping of the word, or even through hearing/reading a rape joke) can trigger post-traumatic stress in the victim. To trivialize something as deplorable and psychologically damaging as rape by comparing it to a disappointing movie adaptation is not only incredibly insensitive, but it’s also unbelievably childish.

Furthermore, even if we were to ignore the rather disgusting trivialization of rape, the entire concept that one of these films ruined your childhood makes absolutely no sense. Take Dragonball: Evolution, for example; a movie that, without a single shred of doubt, is one of the most trite exercises in blockbuster filmmaking that I have ever seen. Dragon Ball and Dragonball Z were two of my absolute favorite shows when I was growing up; they (along with Yu Yu Hakashu, Lupin III, and Rurouni Kenshin) were my introductions to anime, and an enormous early inspiration for my art style. When a live action movie adaptation was announced, I went in hoping for nothing more than a fun 90 minutes of Goku being hilarious, Roshi being additionally hilarious, and hopefully a climax which involved screaming blond men punching face with other screaming blond men whilst preferably not wearing shirts. Instead, I was treated (and I use that term as loosely as humanly possible) to 90 minutes of excruciating boredom and visuals that could only be described as “eye feces”.

But, despite how insufferable that viewing experience was, I never thought any aspect of my childhood was ruined. The memories I had of Saturday nights in my bedroom, watching DBZ on Toonami and reenacting the fight scenes with my action figures and trying to color my hair with a yellow highlighter so I could be a Super Saiyan, were still there; the entire original series that I loved was readily available on home media, and no matter how trite the movie was, it did not take that show or those memories away from me. The same goes for the recent TMNT; it was by all means a mediocre blockbuster without half the heart or endearment of any of the three cartoons or 90s movie trilogy (yes, I am including the third movie in there, because that piece of shit is hilarious), but I never felt robbed, or my memories of the TMNT cartoons sullied, by this movie’s existence.

I believe that a large part of this mindset comes from a sense of entitlement that we, as fans, have. “This was my childhood, dammit,” the furious fanboy screeched as he raised a fist to the computer monitor, “And I am owed a good movie!” However, we have to come to the collective realization that, contrary to what we believe, Hollywood does not owe us shit. These movies may be based on properties that we grew up with, but do not think for a second that they are making them for us; they are making them for themselves, to make more money. It is a tired statement, but a universally true one at that. Filmmaking, while mostly an art form, is also a business, and directors like Michael Bay simply do not give a damn about making the fans happy, and more than likely do not give a damn about the properties they are adapting; their entire priority is to make dumb, loud movies that will make inhuman earnings on their opening weekend, which general audiences will proceed to forget about in a month’s time. They should make a good movie, yes; that is common sense. But they do not owe us a good movie.

Adaptations, no matter how unfaithful or insulting, will never ruin our childhoods. Our childhoods are still there, they happened, and they are stored securely in the safe confines of our memory until the day we die (unless you are a soap opera character that recently got amnesia, in which case I offer my deepest condolences). These movies do exist, and I may not like them, but instead I simply push them off to the side and ignore them, where they cannot touch the originals that I loved.