War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Directed by Matt Reeves.

Pierre Boule’s (1963) novel La Planète des Singes, first translated as Monkey Planet (1964) and later retitled Planet of the Apes, inspired a genre of sci-fi fantasy films I have discussed elsewhere.

This time the apes are living in a  tribal, low-tech community in the forest. They are under attack by Alpha-Omega, a small human private army bent on capturing them for use as slave labour. Led by Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) they hold off one attack, but in a subsequent attack led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) Caesar’s wife and son are killed, and although the attackers are defeated the Colonel escapes.

Caesar sets off after him, accompanied by two of his lieutenants and his orangoutang consigliere Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along the way they pick up a young human girl, Nova, who has lost the power of speech, and Bad Ape, a small chimpanzee who escaped some time before from a zoo. They also come across some human soldiers who have been executed and one, still alive, who has lost the power of speech. Apparently, a mutated virus that destroys the speech capacity is the spreading amongst the humans, and the Colonel’s public health measures involve shooting anyone who gets infected. Remember that it was a virus-related that drug gave Caesar the power of speech in the first place. Viruses are cool.

Eventually they arrive at the Colonel’s encampment at the border, which is apparently a border between two human territories. A large number of apes are being held prisoner there, forced to labour at building a high wall. The rest of Caesar’s tribe have also been captured and are being held at the wall.

Up to this point there have been thematic parallels with The Searchers. A small group whose leader is bent on revenge pursue a murderous band of Others. On the way they pick up an innocent Other who attaches to a non-vengeful member of the group. When they catch up they discover they must negotiate between two goals of rescue and revenge. A rescue is  effected, but Caesar goes back to have his revenge on the Colonel. At this moment the cavalry arrive in the form of the US Army dressed in winter whites, come to destroy the Colonel’s black-clad renegades. Lots of helicopter gunships and ack-ack, bullets flying and things blowing up, and Caesar scampering through it in search of the Colonel. Finding him, he discovers that the Colonel has been infected by the virus and has lost the capacity to speak. Caesar walks away as the Colonel shoots himself. As bloody resolutions go, it’s OK.

By this time the whites have overcome the blacks and are celebrating; when some of them see Caesar escaping they raise their guns. The only good human is a dumb human, it seems, but at this moment, Nature intervenes.

The humans are finally undone by a natural disaster – the battle has taken place in a snowy valley surrounded by mountains, and it triggers an avalanche which sweeps away the human soldiers and leaves the apes. Is this an ecological metaphor – Gaia striking back? Not quite. The apes escape, and led by a badly wounded Caesar, cross a desert and arrive at a high point from which they can see a beautiful lush valley, a CGI paradise of supersaturated colour, a C. B. DeMille vision of the Promised Land.  Like Moses, Caesar is permitted to see the Promised Land that he cannot enter, and as the apes descend he dies, accompanied only by Maurice. This is pure Old Testament stuff, straight from Exodus, Pharaoh’s army destroyed by an avalanche courtesy not of Gaia, but Jehovah. The underlying themes of Rise and Dawn, anti-colonialist , anti-racist and democratic, have been swamped by something that looks suspiciously theocratic.

I suspect that this movie puts the ape genre to bed. In this it resembles Godfather 3, an adequate movie that rounds out the story, but lacking the inspiration of its predecessors.


A Quiet Passion (2017)

Directed by Terence Davies.

Davies is an inheritor of the poetic realism of the 1930s French cinema. His autobiographical films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) display realist cinema’s traditional concern with the lives of ordinary people, coupled with a quietly compassionate vision that asks us to contemplate the best and worst in people with engagement but without judgement.  He tells stories, but never bends to the conventional demands of plot.

Naturally, such a director has limited commercial success, but the critics love him and he finds a faithful following, and his films stand the test of time.  And now he has filmed a biography of Emily Dickinson.

We meet young Emily (Emma Bell) as a student in a New England school where a teacher berates her for refusing to declare her faith in a prescribed manner. She is in fact deeply religious, but determinedly resists orthodoxy, a characteristic which is evident in every aspect of her life.  Her family retrieve her and take her home to Amherst, Massachusetts; she remains there, with her family, for the rest of her life.  The family remain together for decades, which Davies shows through a scene in a photographer’s studio where a series of portraits of the family slowly dissolve from the younger images to ones taken twenty years later.

The family now consists of Emily (Cynthia Nixon), her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and their parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon).  It is a happy, loving family, although Emily’s disrespectful attitude to the clergy cases some conflict with her father. She is close to her sister Vinnie, and in company with their determinedly unconventional friend Vryling (Catherine Bailey) Emily displays a cheerful wry sense of humour:


Emily had begun to write poetry.  Her idiosyncratic, uncompromising style made publication difficult, and few of her poems were published in her lifetime.  She withdrew more and more from public life and her previously warm disposition gave way to inward, haunted preoccupations, sharing herself only with her sister, Vinnie.  Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle give remarkable performances; the wrath and depth of the sisterly relationship never strikes a false note, even as Emily’s disappointed withdrawal from the world brings an edge of harshness to her character.

This is a true Davies film, clear-eyed compassion for his characters blended with an unhurried narration and a visual style that is elegant, eloquent and undemonstrative.




Loving (2016)

Directed by Jeff Nichols.

Jeff Nichols was born in Arkansas and his clear-eyed respect for the people of the rural South is evident in all his films. At the same time his protagonists, from Shotgun Stories (2007) through to Midnight Special (2016) are all on the fringe of their communities. His films all get very favourable reviews but only Mud (2013) has been commercially successful. Loving is his first film on the sort of “big” theme that Hollywood loves , but true to himself he plays it low key, small scale and personal.

In the opening sequence of Loving, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his girlfriend Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) are sitting together on a  porch. She tells him she is pregnant and they happily decide to get married.  Richard is white and Mildred is black, and this is the state of Virginia in 1958. They drive to Washington to be married because in Virginia it is illegal for them to marry or even live together. They return home and soon afterwards the local sheriff and his men raid their home in the middle of the night, arrest them and throw them in jail.

This is a true story, and a significant part of American history. The Lovings eventually sued the state of Virginia and the Supreme Court ruled in their favour, declaring Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional. Race relations in America offer temptingly uncontested high ground to the film maker, but Nichols prefers the bottom lands, visually and thematically. He never nudges the audience to indicate a parallel to current contentions about same-sex marriage. The court room scenes are undramatic, and even the final Supreme Court decision is shown in one highly stylised shot. True to its title, the film is entirely centred upon the relationship of two people who love each other.

Richard naively fails to understand the objections to his marriage; the sheriff who arrests him equally fails to understand why Richard is causing trouble.  Sheriff Brooks (Martin Csokas) is no cartoon racist. He is a sincere believer in the segregationist social order and he’s coldly angry at people who selfishly seek to ignore it. He’s just part of the opposition the Lovings face; Richard’s mother warns him against marrying, Mildred’s sister rages against him for taking her sister to Washington and Richard’s black buddies tell him all he has to do to stop the trouble is divorce Mildred.  Everyone is warning them not to buck the system, but the simple, beautiful truth of the movie is that they are not bucking the system -they just love each other.

The supporting cast are all quirkily excellent – Nick Kroll and Jon Bass as the Washington lawyers who take the case to the Supreme Court and Michael Shannon as Grey Villett, the Life photographer whose magazine spread brought them to the world.

Jeff Nichols has written all his films, allowing him to develop a distinct authorial voice. His preferred genre of rural Southern drama is not big box office, but he is reported to be planning a remake of Alien Nation, an unconventional project for an unconventional director.


Short cuts, April 2017

Just some short notes on movies that I’ve seen recently but won’t have time to write up.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), d. George Clooney.

This is Clooney’s evocation of the what Lillian Hellman called “Scoundrel Time”, the period of the McCarthy witchhunts.  David Strathairn plays Ed Murrow in this movie about his famous feud with Sen Joseph McCarthy. Strathairn is, as usual, superb and Joseph McCarthy plays Joseph McCarthy as if he were born for the part. The film never leaves the moral high ground, which is unavoidable in a film on this topic.  The description of McCarthy’s lying, bullying methods was quietly topical at the time the film was made, thunderously so now. Robert Elswit’s elegant, moody B&W cinematography perfectly matches the coolly indignant narrative.


Nocturnal Animals (2016), d. Tom Ford.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery director with a gated-community, super fashionable lifestyle and a withering marriage to a handsome, unfaithful husband (Armie Hammer).  The strongest link in the marriage is their shared financial difficulty.  Tom Ford is a successful fashion designer and no doubt enjoyed portraying the extravagance and desiccated humanity of Susan’s milieu.  In the bizarre title sequence of an opening at Susan’s gallery, Ford rightfully and delightfully sinks his teeth into the hand that fed him.

Susan received a package containing the proof of a novel by her ex-husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal). She begins to read and the unfolding film switches between the narrative of the novel and the story of her marriage to Tony. The novel is a violent, suspenseful allegory of the marriage, and confronts Susan with the stability of her present marriage. Michael Shannon is, as usual, riveting in a support role.


Starred Up (2013), d. David Mackenzie.

David Mackenzie followed a breadcrumb path through the woods of independent making for many years, picking up crumbs of appreciation from film festivals and critics but no bread at the box office.  Starred Up marked his passage out of the woods and led onto the broad plains of Texas and commercial success with Hell or High Water.  It’s a prison movie very much in the mould of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.  Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) has been “starred up” – sent from juvenile to adult prison – for persistent violence.  His estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is held in the same prison and their relationship is little testy. There is a strange symbiotic relationship between the two hierarchies of the staff and prisoners, and Eric’s use of violence to make his way often backfires.  Neville is a hard case and his reluctant attempts to help his son are at odds with the Hobbesian culture of the prison.

Jonathan Asser. who wrote the script, based the story on his own experience as a prison therapist, and a therapy group features prominently in the plot. It’s a didactic intrusion into a story that speaks for itself.

Logan (2017)

Directed by James Mangold.

The Marvel superhero movies are now well into a post-heroic phase.  Where the classic superhero movies riffed on Oedipal adolescent fantasies, the genre is now splitting and recombining like channels in a delta, in order to hold on to an audience that is a little older and more knowing.

It’s similar to the evolution of the classic western post war into the adult western, in which greater dramatic complexities were superimposed on the traditional good versus evil trope, or completely superseded it. The form splintered; the revenge westerns of Anthony Mann, the decline of the West (Guns in the Afternoon, The Wild Bunch), picaresque westerns (Butch Cassidy, Cat Ballou), comedies (Support Your Local Sheriff, Blazing Saddles) and even a counterculture Western (Billy Jack).

Similarly the Marvel/DC world has produced parody (Guardians of the Galaxy), the picaresque Deadpool and the super-noir Watchmen. Now Marvel has given us the equivalent of an ageing gunslinger movie, the Wolverine on his last go-round.  James “Logan” Howlett (Hugh Jackman) is old and tired, and it’s getting harder to pop out the claws. He’s making a living driving an Uber limousine, and one night he’s sitting in it getting quietly smashed when a gang of generic thugs decide to steal his wheels. He notices that the car is being jacked up and lurches out to confront the gang. They cut up rough and are roughly cut up.

Old, drunk and ill-tempered; that’ll do me. I settled back to enjoy my kind of movie. Logan lives near the Mexican border in a George Miller junkyard with the last survivors of the mutant X-Men, Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). He is approached by a woman who wants him to escort her and a young girl to a place in North Dakota.

Now the backstory. Bad dudes in Mexico (where else?) have been trying to clone new super-powered mutants with a view to raising a mutant army to gain world domination.  The results are unsatisfactory and head baddie Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) decides to terminate the young mutants and start from scratch with synthetic mutants. The young ones escape, and one of them is the girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) whom Logan has been asked to escort. As it happens, she has been cloned from Logan’s DNA and has a mean disposition and a very nice set of claws to prove it. I should add that the violence in Logan is quite graphic, as the still above attests. It’s reported that Jackman took a pay cut to encourage the producers to make a commercially sensitive R-rated movie. As it turns out Logan is a smash hit.

The baddies arrive at the junkyard accompanied by a platoon of henchpersons and there is a bloody confrontation which goes badly for the henchpersons. Logan, Xavier and Laura hit the road and head north; the rabbits are running and the hounds are after them, apparently unhindered by the civil authorities (the movie is set in 2029). The hounds catch up in Oklahoma City and are slaughtered again; the northward flight continues.

Here and throughout the movie the main narrative interest is not in the action but the developing relationship between Logan and Laura.  Jackman gives his usual strong performance, but he is matched by the feral intensity Dafne Keen brings to Laura. They may be blood-spattered berserkers, but the bond they form is quite believable.

Logan and his companions help an African American family after a minor traffic accident. They stop for the night at the family’s farmhouse -these are Good People, it’s a little house on the prairie and they even say grace. In the middle of the night they are harassed by local rednecks and Logan helps out:


Logan and the farmer, Will Munson (Eriq La Salle), return to the farm house to find the Munson family slaughtered and Xavier dying. The killer is X24, a mutant cloned from Logan’s blood – in effect, a younger, stronger Wolverine. He and Logan fight, and X24 is getting the upper hand when he is apparently killed by Will, who also dies. The innocent American family under threat is a common enough feature in big budget action movies, but they are usually there to be rescued, not massacred. This effects a significant change in the tonality of the film.

The introduction of X24, also played by Jackman, seems a little gratuitous but is probably necessary. Success in this genre depends on the quality of the antagonist, and thus far Zander and his minions have been unpleasant but largely ineffective. When the slambang climax comes and Logan again faces a rejuvenated X24, all the narrative conventions are meticulously observed and the final victory has an appropriately elegiac quality. To return to the Western parallels, it’s formally identical to the final scene of Peckinpah’s Guns in the Afternoon.

The Salesman (2016)

THESALESMAN_LECLIENT_ASGHARFARHADI_PHOTO5∏Habib_Majidi,SMPSP-0-2000-0-1125-crop.jpgDirected by Asghar Farhadi.

A mild earthquake in Tehran cracks the windows and shakes the foundations of an apartment building.  A tenant couple have to move out, and an acquaintance helps them to find another apartment. It’s been recently vacated by a young woman who hasn’t yet moved out all her things.

The couple, Emad (Shahab Housseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), have lead roles in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman’.  Emad has a day job teaching a class of adolescent boys. One day Rana is waiting for Emad to come home when she hears the buzzer of the street door. She unlocks the door, leaving the apartment door also unlocked, and goes to the bathroom to take a shower. When Emad returns he finds the apartment empty and blood on the floor in the shower. There are bloody footprints on the stairs outside. He finds Rana being treated in a local hospital – she has been attacked.  He learns from the neighbours that the previous tenant was a prostitute, and surmises that the attacker may have been one of her clients.

Farhadi is an expert explorer of the vicissitudes of the married relationship, under pressure in The Salesman, failing in A Separation (2011) or failed in The Past (2013). The couple don’t seem particularly close initially and their responses to the assault are quite divergent, although neither is willing to make a report to the police.  Rana is clearly traumatised; she is rationally afraid of the interrogation she’s likely to receive from the police, expecting them to shame her for leaving the door open. She becomes morose, refuses to bathe and is unable to perform in the play. Emad is quite unable to support her, but instead becomes obsessed with finding the intruder. His anger seems to stem from a sense that his own honour has been infringed, and his deep sense of shame can only be assuaged by finding and punishing the perpetrator..

Farhadi’s camera sticks close to the characters, holding them in medium closeup as it follows them about the confined space of the apartment. In the opening sequence of the earthquake it’s if the camera shares the characters confusion and disorientation.  We’re dragged along with the Emad’s hunt for the attacker, complicit in the search but uneasy about the likely outcome.  Along the way Faradi shows us a cold-eyed vision of gender relations in Iranian society, though he never disengages from his characters and his narrative merely in order to make a point.  He’s an outstanding director in the realist/humanist tradition. Like and follow.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)



Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.

Lonergan made You Can Count On Me in 2000.  For a low budget film, it did quite good business, and the critical reception was overwhelmingly favourable – 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Since then he has worked on the script of Gangs of New York and directed the 2011 film Margaret, which was positively received. Now six years later we have Manchester by the Sea; it’s been a long wait, but as with the elephants’ pregnancy, you can’t expect him to pop one out every year. Lonergan’s movies take gestation.

The title sequence shows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) on a fishing trip with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Joe’s son Patrick.  Lee kids around with Patrick while Joe steers the boat. It’s an affectionate family scene, with a touch of Boston Irish masculine awkwardness. The scene shifts to suburban Boston where a much older Lee is now working as a janitor/handyman.  In a series of slightly comic encounters with the tenants, Lee is revealed as a man just doing his job, unwilling to engage and blankly unresponsive until he flares up and swears at a demanding tenant. He is alone, locked into himself, and when a woman tries to pick him up in a bar he simply doesn’t respond. He’s there for another reason – he abruptly picks a fight with two strangers and gets himself beaten up.

Lee gets a call from his hometown, Manchester-by-the-sea. Joe has had a heart attack, and Lee hurries to see him, but Joe dies before he can get there.  He stays in Joe’s house with Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is now a teenager.  He aims to look after Patrick, who is studiously avoiding his feelings about his father’s death, until Joe’s will is read and he can make arrangements for Patrick’s care.  Elise (Gretchen Mol), Joe’s ex-wife and Patrick’s mother, has remarried and is living in a nearby town. She is an unstable alcoholic and Lee would prefer to have nothing to do with her.

All this, and scenes of Lee’s apparently happy married life, is narrated through a complex set of flashbacks which are intercut with the main plot line. Lonergan seems to have taken a leaf out of Tarantino’s book, allowing the audience to make the connections without any overt signalling.  This technique reaches its height when Joe’s lawyer reads his will to Lee.  We know that Lee was married with kids, he is now alone and something dreadful has happened. We have seen him getting rowdily drunk with his buddies in the basement of his house, until in the early hours of the morning his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) ordered them to leave. Now, at the reading of the will, Lee is distracted by memories and keeps glancing away.

He’s remembering that after his buddies left he went out to buy more beer. As he walks through the dark, Albinoni’s Adagio begins on the soundtrack.  I winced at this, that piece has been used so often in movies, but the story and the music roll on. Intercut with the will reading in which Lee learns that Joe has named him as Patrick’s guardian, we see Lee return to find the house on fire.  Randi is saved, but the children are incinerated. The Adagio continues through all of this and its terrible aftermath.  It’s a narrative gut punch but the music softens our response and allows us to contemplate rather than simply react.

Lee wants to take Patrick back to South Boston, but Patrick’s life is in Manchester and he refuses to go. Different attempts at a solution fail, but in the process the two grow closer together and Patrick begins to understand the depth of Lee’s pain. Lee starts to come out of his despair and we see him walking through the streets of Manchester with the song “I’m Beginning to See the Light” on the soundtrack when suddenly he meets Randi with her new baby.

This is as good as screen acting gets.  Randi tries to reach out to Lee but he is unable to respond and on Affleck’s face we see his fragile recovery collapse.  He turns awkwardly away, goes to a bar and gets himself beaten up.

Patrick and Lee have reforged the bond we saw in the opening scene, but after meeting Randi, Lee knows that life in Manchester would be impossible for him. He confesses brokenly to Patrick,” I can’t beat it.” There is no easy comfort in this ending, although Lee returns to Boston more at peace with himself and he and Patrick continue to spend time together. It’s a subdued but satisfying resolution.

At the Oscars, Affleck won best actor and Lonergan won best original screenplay.  Even the Academy gets some things right.