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Posts Tagged ‘Jason Clarke’

‘It’s pronounced Pet Seh-MET-a-ree,’ I said.

Olinka tutted and rolled her eyes. ‘No it’s not. It’s Pet Seh-met-AH-ree,’ she said.

I thought about this for a moment. ‘Are you sure it’s not Pet Seh-met-AIR-ee?’

‘Whatever. I think we should just get on and buy the tickets,’ she said.

We both turned and looked at the Odeon staff member responsible for seeing to our requirements. Her eyes seemed to have widened appreciably while we were having our discussion and there appeared to be signs of alarm in them. ‘I think you just pronounce it the usual way,’ she said, in a slightly quavery voice. Oh well: you live and learn, I suppose.

Stephen King has been a famous and successful writer for about forty-five years now, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some of his books are coming to the screen for the second time. The original movie of Pet Sematary came out in 1989, and all I remember about it is one UK reviewer complaining he couldn’t take it seriously because the spooky old man character was played by Fred Gwynne from The Munsters. It’s actually something of a rare pleasure for me to turn up to a movie never having seen the trailer and not knowing much about the plot, so from that point of view I was looking forward to Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s take on the novel (I do like King, but this is one book I’ve never read). Of course, there is also the fabled Curse of King to consider – the fact that no matter how good his books are, they don’t have the greatest track record on the big screen.

Kolsch and Widmeyer’s movie gets underway in time-honoured fashion, with a wholesome young family moving from the ugly stresses of big-city life to an idyllic new home deep in the countryside. Of course, it is an iron law of cinema that whenever anyone does this, it proves to be an extraordinarily bad idea and they are shortly afterwards besieged by killer spiders, misogynistic android replicas, pagan cultists, or what-have-you. Naturally, neither husband and father Louis (Jason Clarke) nor wife and mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) appears to have ever seen a horror movie, and are just looking forward to de-stressing a bit. Their young daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) isn’t stressed at all, to begin with, and is looking forward to playing with her beloved cat in the great outdoors.

Well, everyone settles in and Louis starts his job as a local doctor. Back at home, however, Rachel is a little put out to discover that their new property incorporates the town’s traditional resting place for deceased domestic animals, which is apparently run by members of the remedial spelling class. Ellie bumps into their neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow), who is the area’s Creepy Exposition Yokel, although this early in the story he is only permitted to make vague general statements about not going too deeply into the forest. Well, anyway, the discovery of the animal graveyard occasions an opportunity for Louis and Rachel to have serious conversation with Ellie about life and death and what happens to people (or indeed animals) after they die; on the surface it is all innocuous enough, but your ears don’t have to be that keen in order to detect the sounds of heavy-duty foreshadowing equipment hard at work.

And so it proves; following a tragic accident, Louis is assailed by visions of a reasonably benign spectre who warns him that the boundary between the living and the dead must be respected, which seems quite sensible until Ellie’s cat is run over. It is at this point that Jud reveals that on the other side of the forest is a site of ancient supernatural power (suffice to say that Louis and Rachel have unwittingly entered into a time-share with Ithaqua) with the ability to resurrect the dead bodies of anyone interred there. They don’t come back quite the same as they left, of course, but that’s what you get for mucking about with fundamental cosmic principles. Louis resolves to make use of this unexpected amenity, but only this once, to restore the cat. Yes, definitely just the one time, there’s absolutely nothing that could ever impel him to go there again… is there?

Well, I may not have been familiar with either the book or the 1989 film version of this particular story, but the way this film turned out was in no way a surprise to me: one of the things I quite enjoyed about Pet Sematary was that once the story had properly got going, I was never in any doubt as to how it was going to turn out – in a way, the film is the best kind of predictable, because the characters are introduced, their flaws established, and then they move towards their inevitable dooms, as circumstances compel them into making very bad choices. It also helps that the story itself is also rather familiar – it now seems to me that the Nu-Hammer movie Wake Wood is very substantially derived from Pet Sematary, which itself owes a large debt to W.W. Jacobs’ much-adapted tale The Monkey’s Paw.

Given the character-based nature of this story, the film does well in casting Jason Clarke, a very able and versatile actor, in the lead role. This is a character who goes on a bit of a journey in the course of the story, to put it mildly, and Clarke is never less than totally convincing as he moves from mild-mannered rationalism to unhinged mania. It feels like the script favours Clarke and John Lithgow (also very good in what could have been a deeply hammy part) over Amy Seimetz, but she also gives a fine performance – as, come to that, does Jete Laurence, although given there have been a number of memorable child performances in horror films recently, I’m not sure she does quite enough to stand out.

One of those other recent horror films was Hereditary, which many people still rate quite highly (my opinion hasn’t changed, although Olinka now believes it is less rubbish than she initially did), which also strikes some similar notes to Pet Sematary – both are on some level films about the effect that grief can have on people (and perhaps also the corrosive effects of guilt). Pet Sematary doesn’t have the freakily unsettling atmosphere of the first half of Hereditary, but then it doesn’t turn into absurd cobblers in the second, either, and on the whole I found it a more satisfying and entertaining movie. I should say, though, that while I thought this movie was borderline-nasty good fun, Olinka found parts of it genuinely upsetting to watch, simply because of the subject matter. I expect this is a personal thing, though, and it is interesting that while the film contains both distressing ideas and genuine grisliness, they seldom appear at the same time.

Apparently this adaptation has come in for some stick for being less than entirely faithful to King’s novel (the 1989 version was written by King himself). I have to say the film in its existing form is entirely satisfactory – although, having since checked out the synopsis of the novel, there is at least one moment where the film appears to be playing games with anyone familiar with previous versions of the story, suggesting it’s going to stay faithful to the novel before heading off on a new course. I’m not normally a fan of films getting all meta in this way, but on this occasion it works, feeling justified in terms of the story beats that it allows rather than simply being done as a cheap trick. One thing I would say, though, is that the film very properly takes its time establishing characters and atmosphere, but then seems to feel compelled to rush things to their conclusion within 105 minutes – it’s a very busy, slightly frantic home stretch. Nevertheless, the ending does work, with some very memorable closing images.

This is a mid-budget mainstream horror movie, so it was never going to contain anything too extreme or innovative, but it has style and polish and is very respectful towards Stephen King’s style, if not every detail of his story. I didn’t find it particularly scary or unsettling, but I still enjoyed the ride the film gave me, mainly due to the craft of the script and the performances. Ultimately, this is schlock, but quality schlock.

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  1. British-occupied Germany, late 1945. Possibly a Thursday.

A train arrives in the ruins of Hamburg. Slim and beautiful RACHAEL MORGAN (Keira Knightley) disembarks. Waiting for her is stocky, troubled British army officer LEWIS MORGAN (Jason Clarke).

RACHAEL: Hello darling! It is I, your slim and beautiful wife Rachael Morgan, come to join you in post-war Germany. I am outwardly very happy to see you again.

LEWIS: Hello darling! Yes, I am your stolid, decent husband Lewis, a well-meaning but perhaps somewhat naïve English soldier (although I am played by an American), determined not to be beastly to the defeated German people, and somewhat disgusted by the crude prejudices of some of my colleagues. I am outwardly very happy to see you too.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

RACHAEL: Of course, although we are both outwardly delighted to be back together, we cannot help but reveal the coldness at the heart of our marriage and betray the existence of an issue which is slowly driving us apart.

LEWIS: Mmm, yes. Although we will only let hints and clues as to what this might be trickle out at dramatically appropriate moments.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

How was your trip?

RACHAEL: No sandwiches on the train.

She cannot meet his gaze.

LEWIS: Stiff upper lip, darling.

2. The grounds of a palatial house near Hamburg.

A car pulls up and LEWIS and RACHAEL get out. Waiting to meet them is tall, handsome, sensitive, decent German man STEFAN LUBERT (Alexander Skarsgard).

LEWIS: Herr Lubert! Please meet my wife Rachael.

STEFAN: Hello, Mrs Morgan. Please tell your husband to stop calling me a halibut.

RACHAEL: Hello, Herr Lubert. I am Rachael, the troubled Englishwoman with whom you immediately feel a deep, passionate connection despite yourself. And who might you be?

STEFAN: I am the sensitive, decent German widower (even though I am played by a Swedish actor) whose home has been commandeered by the British occupying forces for you and your husband to live in, while my daughter and I camp out in the attic.

LEWIS: Thus enabling a clumsy and not very subtle metaphor about the British occupation of Germany itself.

RACHAEL: Is this metaphor particularly resonant with the story we will enact?

LEWIS: Not really, no.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

STEFAN: Anyway, I am also the sensitive, decent German man with whom you immediately feel a deep, passionate connection despite yourself, thus allowing you to move beyond your initial prejudices about Germans.

LEWIS: I, of course, am completely oblivious to this. Shall we go inside?

RACHAEL: Yes, all right.

STEFAN: Please excuse me. I must go up to the attic, there is a subplot waiting for me about my difficult relationship with my teenage daughter, who has a crush on a Nazi loyalist.

3. The kitchen of the palatial house shared by the characters.

RACHAEL and STEFAN enter.

RACHAEL: Time has passed and we have both accepted the powerful sexual chemistry which exists between us.

STEFAN: Yes, I have accepted the powerful sexual chemistry between us, and also feel that by stealing the wife of an American –

RACHAEL: British.

STEFAN: – British colonel, I am striking a blow against the unjustness of the occupation of my country.

RACHAEL: Meanwhile, by yielding to the desire I feel for you, I feel I am punishing my husband for his neglect of me and his behaviour with regard to the dark secret which has killed our marriage. I have also come to value your sensitive decency and feel you are treated badly by the other Brits here, so this is a question of sympathy, not just me being over-sexed.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

STEFAN: Shall we tastefully consummate our illicit desire while your husband is out?

RACHAEL: Yes, why not? We’d better not go to the attic, there’s a subplot up there.

STEFAN: My kitchen table is of solid German construction.

RACHAEL: That should do.

The structural integrity of the kitchen table is put to the test, tastefully.

4. A military prison in Russian-occupied Germany.

LEWIS appears, ready to talk to an IMPRISONED NAZI.

LEWIS: You ought to know I have been sent here to hunt down Nazi hold-outs responsible for attacking the occupying American –

NAZI: British.

LEWIS: – British (thanks) forces, while my absence will conveniently also give my wife the opportunity to deepen her adulterous relationship with the man who lives in the attic. I, of course, am still oblivious to all of this.

NAZI: I am a Nazi, and therefore irredeemably evil. I am here to reinforce the distinction between the majority of decent, sensitive Germans, and the tiny minority who caused such suffering.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

LEWIS: You Nazis are so evil!

NAZI: Yes, we are!

LEWIS: I’m glad we were able to make that so clear.

5. A ball at regimental HQ.

LEWIS and RACHAEL appear in their glad rags.

LEWIS: I am a chastened man, for I am no longer oblivious to what is going on between you and that Swede.

RACHAEL: German.

LEWIS: Oh yes.

RACHAEL: However did you figure it out? Was it the kitchen table?

LEWIS: No. I may generally be characterised as being unaware of the interplay of emotions going on around me, and usually slow off the mark, but when the plot demands it I can be incredibly intuitive.

RACHAEL: Oh dear.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

LEWIS: We should probably have a heated argument in which our emotional reserve finally shatters and we get to the core of the dark secret which has been driving us apart since before the start of the film.

RACHAEL: That’s a good idea. Do you want to do that now?

LEWIS: Hang on a minute, there’s the culmination of that subplot about youthful Nazi resistance to the American –

RACHAEL: British.

LEWIS: – British (thanks) occupation and the tragedy of doomed youth due any moment, and we should probably wait for that.

The subplot passes them. LEWIS runs off after it waving his gun.

6. The palatial house.

RACHAEL, LEWIS and STEFAN stand around looking glum.

LEWIS: Well, we have managed to resolve our various problems in a tasteful and spoiler-free manner.

RACHAEL: Yes, everything has always been so blandly easy on the eye and unlikely to offend anyone, even my nude scene in the second act.

STEFAN: And yet it has all been so terribly inert and predictable and almost totally unengaging.

RACHAEL: I had no idea post-war occupied Germany was so dull.

STEFAN: Do we feel we have learned anything of value from all of this?

LEWIS: I am a good man and the war and its consequences have left me miserable.

STEFAN: I am a good man too, and the war and its consequences have also left me miserable.

RACHAEL: I’m not a man, but I’m also quite miserable because of the consequences of the war.

STEFAN: War is bad.

RACHAEL: War is bad.

LEWIS: War is bad. I’m glad we got that sorted out.

There is a long, meaningless silence.

The Aftermath (dir. James Kent) is in cinemas now, but hopefully not for much longer.

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As I write, a human being has not walked on the Moon in my lifetime – which already constitutes rather more years than I am entirely comfortable with – and it seems to me that the longer that elapses, the greater the incomprehension of our descendants will be. As I’ve said before, I think the most remarkable achievement of our existence on this planet has been the fact that we have left it; I’ve also been known to wonder just why it is that decades have elapsed without the first Apollo landing being the subject of a movie. There have been movies about failed Apollo missions; there has even been a movie about an entirely fictitious Apollo mission. But nothing about the one that everyone knows and perhaps remembers.

We may return to the possible reasons for this later, but for the moment we can at least relax in the knowledge that someone has finally done an Apollo 11 movie – well, sort of. The director is Damien Chazelle, who after the success of La La Land could probably have written his own ticket and done anything he had a mind to. He has chosen to make First Man, reuniting with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong.

The film opens in 1961, with Armstrong working as a civilian test pilot for NASA, although his attempts to cope with a family tragedy cause others to doubt his capacity to do the job. When the space programme advertises for astronauts, both Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) see it as a chance for a new start. Armstrong makes it onto the programme, his engineering background standing him in good stead, but the risks of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes prove greater than imagined and place an increasing strain on their relationship. (Various figures who will be familiar to space geeks appear – most prominently Jason Clarke as Ed White.) Eventually, however – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the preparations have been made and Armstrong is selected to command the mission that will put a man on the moon – accompanying him will be fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).

I make the joke about spoilers almost as a matter of course, but it is the case that everybody knows how this particular story turns out – for all the film’s inclusion of scenes in which Janet Armstrong insists her husband explain to his children that he may not return from the lunar surface, and NASA higher-ups sign off on the text that will be released should something unfortunate happen and Armstrong and Aldrin not make it back, there’s never any real doubt in the viewer’s mind that Apollo 11 is going to be a success. Of course, First Man isn’t alone in having this particular problem, as it exists for many true-life dramas based on famous historical events. One way to approach this issue is to play the hell out of the story as a conventional narrative and hope that the audience is swept along sufficiently to forget their existing knowledge – I did once hear about someone so caught up in the romance between Kate and Leo that they were genuinely shocked when the Titanic started sinking. Or, you can just treat the movie as an opportunity to do a grand retelling of famous events and hopefully inform the audience of a few interesting facts that they weren’t previously aware of.

Chazelle, coming off the back of the breezily crowd-pleasing La La Land, could easily have gone for either of those approaches, but instead he has chosen a different path – one that seems almost calculated to be at odds with audience expectations, both of him and this particular story. It’s not a grand, glossy drama, but more of an introspective character piece. This may have cost the film some business – not least because of the decision not to indulge in (literal) flag-waving jingoism, which drew a predictably petty response from the occupant of the White House – but it does seem to me to be justified. Every profile of Neil Armstrong that I’ve ever read emphasised that this was a man who wore his position at the heart of a truly epochal event extremely lightly – he was not a flamboyant or demonstrative man in any way. A film as resolutely ‘quiet’ and unglamourised as First Man is, for much of its duration at least, seems therefore to be entirely fitting.

There are scenes which do a fine job of capturing the essentially dry and pragmatic nature of the man, helped by an excellent performance from Gosling – the previously-mentioned one where he talks to his sons, but does so in a manner more suggestive of a man addressing a press conference than talking to his children. And another, at a genuine press conference, where Armstrong is asked what, if anything, he would like to take to the Moon with him. ‘More fuel,’ comes the response.

That said, however, my only real issue with the film is connected to this – and, what d’you know, it turns out it is possible to spoil First Man after all, so I must be careful. It seems that Chazelle can’t resist inserting some kind of emotional arc into his film, and he does so here. It put me rather in mind of Gravity, appropriately enough – just as that film worked so well because Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was a metaphor for her emotional state, so First Man suggests that Armstrong’s whole demeanour, and indeed his career as an astronaut, was on some level  a coping mechanism for dealing with an emotional trauma he suffered some years earlier. Is there any basis to this, or is it just a convenient conceit about which to build the story? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter.

In any case, this is still an evocative and extremely well-made film, very strong on the claustrophobic hazards of the early days of space flight. For the most part it eschews conventional ‘pretty’ special effects in favour of a more impressionistic approach, the astronauts’ view of what is happening around them – clanks and rattles and roars and judders. Chazelle’s main way of persuading the audience this is the 1960s is to film many of the scenes so they resemble – in picture quality at least – home movie footage from the period. He also evokes the world of the astronauts using many of the images and ideas we have seen in other films set in this milieu – barbecues on Floridian lawns, the men with crew-cuts in buttoned-down shirts, the wives constituting their own exclusive sorority (Claire Foy is very good, but still doesn’t get a huge amount to do). It is wholly convincing in its strange ordinariness, and then when the final mission is in progress, the sudden explosion of the image into pristine 75mm IMAX is breath-taking. The actual Moon landing sequence is exceptionally good (even if I have to report my concerns that I suspect the whole thing was faked in a studio – maybe Chazelle got his hands on Kubrick’s original notes, who knows).

The Apollo landings have become the stuff of popular culture, maybe even folklore, so it is a commendably unexpected choice for Chazelle to make a movie which isn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of the story, but something with its own style and feel to it, something which perhaps does demand the audience work a little harder than they might expect to. It’s still a beautiful, impressive film, even if it doesn’t have the brilliant accessibility or energy to it which both his previous films possessed.  I suspect First Man is one of those movies which will look better and better as time goes by, even if it isn’t quite a hit on its initial release.

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In the early Autumn of 2008, a bunch of friends and I decided to spend our day hiking up to the Al-Archa glacier, at the top end of a valley in a national park just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The hike itself took several hours, through forests, across rock fields, and up hillsides. Pretty soon we were starting to feel the effects of the altitude and later on fatigue became an issue, too. Eventually we reached the bottom of the last slope before the ascent to the glacier itself. And I said no, I’d wait for the others here: maybe I could’ve made it up there, dignity intact, but getting back down? A different matter. I knew I was on the edge of my limitations, and sometimes wisdom is just knowing when to turn back, or at least stay where you are.

This is probably why a film has never been made of my life (something for which I suspect we should all be very grateful), especially not one like Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest, which teaches us… well, a number of things, I suppose. That the tops of mountains are not places for idle mucking about, that once you make a plan you really ought to stick to it, and that it’s all very well trying to be a nice guy, but…

everest

Based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster (I don’t think that constitutes a spoiler), the film focuses on an expedition led by Kiwi mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced climber famous for getting paying clients up to the summit of the world’s highest mountain and bringing them back down safely – a hand holder, in the slightly dismissive estimation of his friend and business rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a more pragmatic view of the trade. Also on the expedition are various characters with their own reasons for wanting to make this most perilous climb, including tough Texan Beck (Josh Brolin).

The most climbing I usually do is walking up the stairs to the balcony seats at the cinema, so simply learning about what it takes to get up Everest would be an engrossing and enlightening experience for me, and to begin with that’s what Everest the movie is. Clarke gives a slightly ominous speech near the start, reminding everyone that the top of Everest is called the death zone for a reason, but for the most part there are only the slightest hints of what is to come: there may be quite a few competing teams looking to reach the summit at the same time, and the weather reports might look slightly iffy, but there’s nothing really to suggest the horrors that follow.

Everest is being advertised as an adventure film, while my landlady suggested it was a disaster film. I don’t really agree with either of those descriptions: for me this is a horror movie, plain and simple, with the mountain itself in the role of the monster, just as capable of killing and horribly mutilating unsuspecting victims as any less-abstract creation. Or suspecting victims, for that matter: the film takes pains to point out the wealth of experience the people on the mountain take with them, only to find themselves utterly at a loss as the blizzard closes in on them. Apart from the weather, the film suggests that a number of factors were to blame for the tragedy, most of them seemingly innocuous taken in isolation. But what emerges most powerfully is that, on Everest, the most basic human foibles – professional rivalry, administrative cock-ups, poor eyesight, one bad judgement call, even basic compassion and sympathy – these are things that can get you killed.

Climbing calamities are good material for movies, especially the real-life kind, and Everest is up there with the best of the genre – for me the gold standard in this sort of thing is still Touching the Void, and initially I thought that Everest, though interestingly and very competently made, was not to the same standard. But the film executes a slow burn, creeping up on you as it introduces its large cast of characters, until things start going horribly wrong and you find yourself gripped and appalled and yet unable to look away.

Kormakur’s handling of a complex, multi-stranded narrative is the really outstanding thing here, but the visual effects are, needless to say, impeccable, and the director is well-served by what’s pretty much an all-star cast: as well as the people I’ve already mentioned, there is solid work by Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, and several other less-well-known names. Keira Knightley plays Rob Hall’s pregnant wife, back home in New Zealand, which to be honest is a fairly thankless role, but even so she makes a decent job of it. And the film also contains a number of moments and sequences that I think I’ll remember for a long time – there’s a moment where the moment, late on, when the Nepalese air force attempt to send a helicopter up to one of the higher camps on Everest in order to evacuate an injured climber, which initially fails simply because the climbers are higher than the vehicle is physically able to fly. Like nothing else, this brings home the sheer scale of the altitudes and dangers involved.

As well as Touching the Void, Everest is already starting to pick up comparisons with Gravity, another film about struggling to survive in an almost definitively hostile environment. To be honest, I’m not sure they have that much in common, and I don’t think Everest is quite up to the standard of that extraordinary film – but it is brilliantly made and assembled. Entertainment is probably not quite the word for it, but it’s still extremely worthwhile viewing.

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Before we go any further, a brief recap of this blog’s position when it comes to the Terminator franchise: The Terminator is a stone-cold all-time classic, and a practically perfect movie (possibly because it’s the only one in the series not conceived of as a blockbuster), Terminator 2 is very decent in a deafening-overblown-James-Cameron-big-budget-remake sort of way, Rise of the Machines passes the time in a not actively painful manner, and Terminator: Salvation is a pointless and puny waste of money and talent.

Given this general trajectory, the omens are not great for Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys even before we consider the silly title. This is a film the rights to which essentially went to the winners of an auction, so perhaps one’s expectation management should be even more severe than that.

Anyway, the film initially appears to be playing it safe and heading down the route of being a more polished remake of the original film, as, in the year 2029, Kyle Reese (this time: Jai Courtney) prepares to go back in time and save Sarah Connor (this time: Emilia Clarke) from cybernetic assassins. She is a target due to her being destined to give birth to John Connor (this time: Jason Clarke), the man who will lead the human race to victory following a nuclear war sparked by a rogue AI, Skynet. (Does anyone not know the Terminator backstory…? I feel obliged to recap it anyway.)

But when Kyle arrives in 1984, pursuing the Terminator already dispatched back there, he finds that time is out of joint: the Terminator has already been dealt with by another, somewhat wizened machine of the same model (I need not tell you who plays this role, I suspect), who is working with an entirely clued-up Sarah, while Kyle finds himself hunted by a T-1000 Terminator, which likewise shouldn’t be here at all.

What on Earth is going on? Kyle never actually asks this, so far as I recall, but he should clearly be thinking it, as should the audience. Well, to cut a long story short, this film takes the nuclear option when it comes to time travel as a plot device, and sticks anti-matter in its microwave (if that’s not too tortuous a metaphor). Basically, all the major characters end up in an entirely pre-apocalyptic near future, where they find out that Skynet is now an app or a mobile phone or the new version of Windows or something, and the reason this is happening is because…

I have two good reasons for not going any further. One is that it would involve heavy spoilers for the second half of the film, and the other is that I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on. To be fair, Terminator Genisys probably isn’t much more full of blinky-blonky techno-cobblers and suspect determinism than any of the other sequels, but it’s a lot more up-front about it, predicating its plot around some startling narrative developments it never properly bothers to explain: what exactly is going on with the grumpy old T-800 that was apparently sent back to the early 1970s? Not only does the film not bother to explain, it essentially says ‘we’ll get to this in the next sequel’, which I feel is relying rather too much on audience goodwill. (It may be significant that playing a small but important role in this film is one – it says here – “Matthew” Smith, an actor more experienced than most in dealing with byzantine time-travel plots that may not, in the final analysis, properly hang together.)

The first act of the film has fun re-staging and screwing around with sequences from the original Terminator (Bill Paxton doesn’t come back, by the way), and this stuff has a sort of demented energy that serves the film rather well. Once everyone decamps to the future, though, the film becomes rather more predictable and even pedestrian: you’ll never guess what, but they’ve got to stop Skynet being created! Just like in number 2. Oh, and number 3. And, I’ll hazard a guess, number 6, when it’s finally made. Hey ho.

What is perhaps surprising is what a peripheral presence Arnie is in the movie, given I doubt they’d have made it without him. When his CGI double isn’t being chucked through walls in the action scenes, he spends quite a lot of his time just standing around, occasionally waking up to deliver comic relief or bafflegab exposition. He’s still clearly up for it, however, and this is surely his best work since that odd political interlude in his career.

Much of the film is left to Courtney and the Clarkes to carry, and they do a decent enough job, supported by a script which actually manages to find decent moments of emotion and thoughtfulness between all the crash-bang-wallop and tortuous temporal wrangling. J.K. Simmons pops up as – I think – a new character who was supposedly mixed up in the events of 1984, but he’s mainly just there to do exposition and comic relief as well.

Like all the other sequels, this knows the audience it’s pitching to and sticks in all the appropriate explosions and jokes and lingering shots of heavy weaponry, as well as enough references to the original film to gratify the fanbase (though Brad Fiedel’s theme is saved for the closing credits), although I would be really very hesitant about taking anyone to see this who wasn’t already familiar with the first film (at least).

If it doesn’t have the raw energy, inventiveness, and dramatic charge of The Terminator – well, hardly anything does, and at least it’s more fun to watch than Terminators 3 or 4 (in places, certainly). But the prospect of yet more, even more convoluted sequels, kind of makes my heart sink a bit. Blowing up the existing timeline and letting the bits fall where they may is what powers this movie, but it’s not exactly a long term strategy, and I can’t imagine them managing to drag the story back to a place where it actually makes sense any more. On its own terms, this is a rather unsatisfying film, narratively at least – but I still think that any further sequels will find the law of diminishing returns biting them very hard and very fast. Enough, Arnie, enough.

 

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Not quite 13 years ago, Tim Burton released his reimagined version of Planet of the Apes. I watched it, thought I had some things to say about it that people might be interested in, and persuaded someone to put my opinion on their website.

626 more film reviews later, here we all are: the website is a different one, but everything else is pretty much the same, including on this occasion the film under consideration – Matt Reeve’s reimagined version of a certain franchise, in the form of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt did a sterling job of restarting the series three years ago in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and his replacement by Reeves (best known for the so-so Cloverfield and the underrated Let Me In) was taken by many as an ill omen. Which just goes to show that sometimes nobody knows anything.

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Maintaining unprecedentedly good continuity with the previous film, Dawn opens with virally-uplifted chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading his colony of similar simians in the forests of northern California. The apes are enjoying a rather idyllic existence, and some of them are beginning to believe that the humans who once tormented them have done everyone a favour by dying out in the plague which was just getting underway at the end of the last installment.

There’d be no movie in that, of course, and a remnant of human survivors are indeed ensconced in what’s left of San Francisco, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, who’s not in the film as much as you might expect). The humans are running desperately low on fuel and other resources, and Dreyfus despatches his lieutenant Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to look into the possibility of reactivating the hydroelectric generators attached to a dam in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the dam is squarely in ape territory.

Relations between apes and humans do not get off to a good start, but the best efforts of Caesar and Malcolm result in a wary truce between the two groups. However, the history of mutual suspicion and prejudice between man and ape means that open conflict may only be a matter of time…

The consensus last time round was that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, on some level, a superior rethinking of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (look, just to save wear on my keyboard, I’m going to start referring to these films by the first couple of words of their title, okay?). Logic therefore dictates that this sequel should be drawing on 1973’s Battle for… Doing a really good remake of Conquest is a neat trick but nothing particularly remarkable, as that was a movie with a strong central idea, undone by the exiguencies of running time and budget. Making a good version of Battle, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish, as that film is the closest thing to a complete waste of time this side of Helena Bonham Carter.

And yet that is arguably just what Reeves has managed to do. In terms of actual plotting, Battle and Dawn have about in much as common as Conquest and Rise (which is to say, not very much at all), but when it comes to theme and characterisation the two films are very much on the same page: a clash between human and ape communities, with entrenched zealots on both sides, and an oddly tragic moral awakening amongst the apes themselves. Indeed, I would even suggest it’s as if Reeves and the films’ writers have got their hands on a copy of Paul Dehn’s original unmade script for Battle, which concerned itself with the apes’ fall from grace and the overthrow of Caesar by less emollient forces.

These ideas are present in Dawn, too, along with a distinct focus on the ape characters rather than the humans. It’s a tribute to the astonishing work of the VFX team, not to mention Reeves’ own storytelling skills, that a story primarily set amongst a non-human community, with largely mute characters, is as compelling as it is. Reeves’ first storytelling coup is to create an opening sequence which is thoroughly engrossing despite not featuring a single word of spoken dialogue, and his second is to make the unexpected appearance of a common-or-garden human being feel like a viscerally jarring shock.

Tellingly, it’s only at this point that the apes begin speaking, and it seems to me that this ties into the underlying message of the film: prior to meeting the humans, it’s strongly implied that the apes have lived in peace and harmony for years, and there’s nothing to suggest that the same is not true of the humans. Yet, within days of their first encounter, bloody conflict has broken out between the two – perhaps inevitably. Humans and apes have more in common than either side wants to admit, and perhaps this explains why they seem almost predestined to fight each other to the death.

This is a bleak, dark, strange theme for a big studio SF movie, but exactly what you’d expect from a proper Apes movie, and the various action sequences are brilliantly realised. It doesn’t have quite the same degree of social commentary as the films in the original cycle, but then that’s the state of SF movies these days, I suppose. Dawn certainly feels very confident in its own identity: it contains nothing like the same number of references and in-jokes as Rise (although the score does sound very familiar at certain points).

And, accomplished as it is, this is a film with every right to a certain swagger. It works very well as both an action blockbuster and a dark, intelligent SF movie, and extremely well as a Planet of the Apes film. I am just forced to wonder where this revitalised series is going to go next: having run out of original-cycle films to reinterpret, the only options left are either more of the same, or to take a really radical step of some kind. I’ve no idea which way Reeves will take the series next: but at the moment everything on the planet of the apes is rosy, in a grim and twisted sort of way.

 

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I don’t think there are any directors whose work I will avoid on principle (though these days Quentin Tarantino comes close – ironic, given he was just about the first director I really became aware of as a personality), but there are a few whose films I will go to see just on the strength of their name. These days I find Kathryn Bigelow to be one of them, which is why I trundled along to see Zero Dark Thirty.

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I must confess that my liking for Bigelow stems mainly from the superior genre movies she was making in the 1980s and 90s – Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, and so on. This century, however, Bigelow seems to have become a purveyor of serious dramas based on historical events – although the events in question seem to be becoming increasingly contemporary: following 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, set in the 1950s, we had 2009’s The Hurt Locker, set in 2003, and now Zero Dark Thirty, filmed within a year of the events depicted in its climax. At this rate Bigelow’s next film will be a rugged prediction of the near future, which should be interesting.

Anyway: Zero Dark Thirty, which is apparently armyspeak for half-past midnight. This is a somewhat fictionalised account of the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Central to the story is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who has basically devoted her entire career to tracking down the al-Qaeda leadership. This involves much painstaking research, use of electronic and human intelligence, and a degree of persuading prisoners to tell her things against their will.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a movie that depicts representatives of the US government torturing captives. Most of the first twenty minutes of the film are devoted to the routine interrogation of a prisoner by Maya’s colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), who their captive describes as ‘an animal’, possibly with some justification. However, to simply describe this as ‘the CIA torture movie’ is to be overly simplistic.

It’s just one element of a long and intimidatingly dense narrative, chopped up into a number of chapters, and set in several different countries. The studio are apparently marketing this as an action thriller but it contains few of the incidental moments of suspense and violence that you’d expect from that kind of film. Nor does it really have a familiar narrative structure for one to latch onto, which may be a case of a film staying close to the truth at the expense of its storytelling – there’s one brief sequence concerning a character played by Jennifer Ehle which does stay much closer to the standard playbook, and which for me had somewhat more suspense than the rest of it. On the other hand, the film commendably avoids a sensationalist approach and triumphalism.

Either way, it’s helped by Bigelow’s typically accomplished direction and a script which ensures you can always follow the melody of the story even when not all the lyrics are completely clear. And it’s filled with good performances, from Chastain, Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, and others. Better known names pop up as more senior establishment figures – hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong pops up as, basically, the CIA’s head of assassinations, while Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini also appear. All well and good, but rather more unexpected and distracting is a brief cameo from John Barrowman as some sort of analyst. Couldn’t get a part in Les Mis, John?

Despite all this good stuff, I still found this quite a hard film to properly engage with, and this was largely due to the approach taken by the script. Zero Dark Thirty has drawn a lot of flak for endorsing torture as an intelligence-gathering technique, but to me it seemed that the film simply doesn’t take a position on this – it reports the CIA use of torture as a fact, nothing more. The US administration’s move away from the use of these kind of methods is reflected in the script, but again without any kind of moral judgement being made. And this is a theme which continues throughout the film, as it is framed in such a way as to avoid looking at the wider issues raised by the story. Did the CIA’s eventual killing of Bin Laden have any measurable effect on terrorist activity around the world? If not, what was the point of it? What, for that matter, was the justification for the shoot-to-kill protocol adopted by the members of the assault team?

To be fair, the film does imply that both Maya and the USA have, in their own ways, developed a fixation on Bin Laden verging on the obsessive. But this is the softest of grace notes in the overall film. As a historical document the film is interesting and involving, but it’s not necessarily a comfortable one or satisfying one. This is a big, important story, but most of the time the film refuses to engage with it on any level beyond that simply of the events unfolding. According to its own rules of engagement, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive film – but those rules are much more limited than they surely needed to be.

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