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Posts Tagged ‘Matt Reeves’

It sometimes feels like people have been talking about ‘the return of cinema’ virtually since the moment that cinema sort-of went away, nearly two years ago. One film after another has been touted as the harbinger for the return of business as usual at the box office – first Tenet, then Black Widow (along with a few others at the start of last summer), James Bond, and finally the most recent Spider-Man. You would have thought the massive take of No Way Home would have put an end to this kind of chatter, but no: apparently the fact Covid restrictions were still in place when it came out means that $1.6 billion-and-counting somehow doesn’t qualify as ‘business as usual’ – and so the baton has been passed on again, this time to Matt Reeves’ The Batman. (We have discussed in the past the rather cute phenomenon where the addition of a definite article apparently elevates a film about someone dressing up as a bat to punch crooks to the status of Serious Drama With Gravitas.)

You know me, I’m never ever cynical, but someone who was might offer the thought that most of the people declaring The Batman to be the First True Post-Pandemic Hit are those with a vested interest in seeing it be a hit of any kind. Certainly this is a big, expensive, rather unwieldy movie, which I’m slightly surprised to see getting a release this early in the year – presumably Warners are wary about putting it up against the Dr Strange sequel, which is likely to dominate the early-summer landscape, although this would be a surprising sign of a lack of confidence given it is, after all, a Batman film.

But, you might ask, what’s another Batman film in a release schedule which already includes outings for Morbius the Living Vampire, Dr Strange, the Flash, Thor, Aquaman, Black Adam and many more? A reasonable question, and a Batman film is, self-evidently, a superhero movie on some level. But I’d argue there’s also a sense in which Batman transcends the superhero genre. People have been making films about Batman for longer than any other costumed hero; the 1989 Tim Burton film practically invented the modern superhero movie template.

When you add in the various TV series and spin-off movies – and DC and Warners’ willingness to exploit this particular property with absurd thoroughness has deservedly been the subject of satire, even in their own projects – you reach a situation which is almost unique. Your average person in the street with minimal knowledge of the lore of even one of the big-name Marvel characters will still likely know the name of Batman’s butler, be able to identify many of his regular opponents, and not need to have things like the Batmobile and the Batcave explained to them. In short, Batman and his world have acquired an almost folkloric status as something complete and resonant in and of themselves; they have become archetypal, something which even extends to comparatively minor characters like the crime boss Falcone (played by Tom Wilkinson in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman movie and John Turturro in the new one).

The great advantage this gives to film-makers is that they have a lot more creative latitude to work with – they don’t have to bother introducing all these characters every time, and because there have been so many different iterations already, they don’t have to worry about creating some kind of mythical ‘definitive’ version of the comics character. The Batman mythos is uniquely open to being adapted to suit the creative vision of anyone working within it.

So what is Matt Reeves’ take on the material? He establishes quite quickly that Batman has only been doing his thing for a couple of years, as you’d expect given the casting of the youthful-looking Robert Pattinson in the role. (Given he routinely goes around introducing himself by growling ‘I am vengeance’, it’s not surprising several characters start calling him Mr Vengeance instead of Batman.) There’s a nice sequence demonstrating that Batman really is intent on a reign of terror against Gotham City’s criminal element, then we’re off into the plot proper: in the middle of an election campaign, Gotham’s mayor is gruesomely murdered by someone who enjoys leaving fiendishly tricky puzzles at the crime scene; Batman and his ally Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) follow the trail, but find themselves uncovering a conspiracy hinting at festering corruption at the heart of the city’s establishment. But what does the killer really want – and what’s a good name for a villain obsessed with riddles, anyway…?

Reeves’ version of Gotham City inclines a bit more towards Nolan’s than Burton’s; it’s certainly light years away from anything in the Joel Schumacher films. The vibe is very much one of Watchmen meeting Seven – the main point of distinction, really, between this and the Nolan trilogy is the pervasive sense of stygian gloom and incipient horror that’s constantly in the air.

This is certainly the bleakest and most nihilistic movie ever to engage in high-profile cross-promotion with a Japanese subcompact crossover SUV and a brand of cream-filled sandwich cookie (you can imagine Matt Reeves groaning and sinking his face into his hands when he heard about this). In many ways the film takes rather an easy and obvious option in this department, presenting Gotham (and by extension the world) as a relentlessly horrible, nightmarish place, where society is riddled with corruption from top to bottom, and Batman himself is engaged on a futile (and perhaps counterproductive) crusade driven more by an urge to violence than any higher motive. There is occasionally the odd grace note of hope, of course.

To work in this kind of setting, the Batman characters are all dialled down to their most naturalistic settings, in the process losing most of the gaudy whimsicality which is surely what made them so memorable – a fat-suited Colin Farrell is unrecognisable as the Penguin, which has a certain symmetry to it as this version of the character is virtually unrecognisable as the top-hatted and umbrella-wielding villain most people will be familiar with. Something similar goes on with Zoe Kravitz’s love-interest burglar, who is a Woman With Cats, but not permitted to be anything more outlandish. Paul Dano is effective enough as the Riddler, but also essentially unrecognisable – he’s a combination of splenetic InCel and online conspiracy-monger.

Despite all this, the film often bears a surprising resemblance to previous Batman movies – if we’re serious about our thesis that Batman films are their own separate subgenre, then these moments of repetition would be the conventions of the form. The suggestion that Batman has more in common with the villain than he would perhaps be comfortable with gets articulated again, although quite subtly for most of the movie; more prosaically, the unveiling of the new Batmobile is held back until the second act, acting as the prelude to a big action sequence. In the end Gotham City itself – or at least a big chunk of it – faces an existential threat.

It’s a polished, well-mounted and effective movie, that tells a complex tale well, with some strong performances – but I can’t help feeling that the very archetypal quality that enables it to function also keeps it from really being distinctive. The Nolan movies worked so well in part because they were so startlingly different from what had come before them – this film feels more like Batman-as-usual, albeit done to a high standard, and with lashings of extra gloom and oppressiveness. (Michael Giacchino’s score is effective, but his Batman theme is about one modulation away from turning into Darth Vader’s, which I’m sure wasn’t the intention.)

Nevertheless, this is towards the top of the pile of recent DC Comics movies – which means that, the modern world being as it is, two sequels and various TV spin-offs are already in the works. Clearly Warner Brothers are convinced that you can never have too much Batman. I’m not so sure – but a visit to Gotham City now and then has its own special pleasures, many of which The Batman successfully provides.

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I was sitting at my desk the other other day, trying to look busy, as usual, when one of the very senior fellows from where I work sidled up. This in itself is fairly unusual, and at this point in my career I’ll grasp at any straw that floats past, so I sat up straight and braced myself for whatever was coming.

‘Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes film yet?’ To say this came totally out of left field would be a bit of an understatement.

‘Er, not yet. What they’ve done is – stop me if you find your eyes starting to close – you know how they say that nothing succeeds like success? Well, apparently the best way to have a successful film is to have a successful film; I mean, if you have a really good opening weekend, then you can put that in the publicity and it will make people go and see it on the second weekend. So what they’ve done is release it on a Tuesday, because that means they have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday -‘ I believe I may have been counting on my fingers ‘- a six day opening weekend, to guarantee a good total.’

‘That’s just fraud.’ (Amused incredulity.)

‘That’s showbusiness. But all the early showings are in 3D, which I don’t like, so I’m seeing it on Friday.’

‘Really? I like 3D. A Planet of the Apes film in 3D is one of my guilty pleasures.’

I tell you what, you get a better class of afficionado around the Planet of the Apes films, that’s for sure. (All the more dismaying that 20th Century Fox should find it necessary to indulge in such sharp practice when it comes to the release strategy.) Yes, here we are with Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the kind of title to make a cinema give up and list it on the ticket as simply WFTPOTA (with an extra 2D in my case).

The new film continues the story begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. For a couple of years, elements of the surviving human military forces have been attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically-uplifted apes. Caesar has been attempting to make peace overtures, but the human commander, known as the Colonel (last name not Taylor, sadly), is implacable in his hostility and a raid on the ape settlement kills several of Caesar’s loved ones. (The Colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who is on top form.)

Consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, Caesar sets out in search of his enemy, accompanied only by a few of his closest lieutenants. In the wilderness they find evidence of a transformed world – a young girl who has lost the ability to speak (Amiah Miller), and a zoo ape who has risen to intelligence and acquired the power of speech independently of Caesar’s group (Steve Zahn). There are also strange signs that the humans are starting to fight amongst themselves. But all Caesar is interested in is the Colonel, who he learns has made his base in an abandoned military facility. The looming conflict will settle the destiny of the planet forever…

I do wonder sometimes why I’m not more enthusiastic about the new Planet of the Apes series, because these are by any metric highly intelligent, well-made genre movies, that certainly honour the classic Apes series from the 1960s and 70s (those who know their Planet of the Apes will certainly find little touches to reward them here and there in the new film). I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that the new series doesn’t have quite the same epic scope or loopy imagination as the originals, or indeed their willingness, at their best, to tackle big issues – animal and civil rights, the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality of self-protection, and so on. The new films may be technically more proficient and possibly more credible, but they are essentially just superior action-adventure movies, strongly characterised, but rarely very innovative.

The new movie continues this trend, albeit in an even bleaker and more intense vein: this is a dark, brooding film, full of characters driven to do the most terrible things in the name of that which they believe. There’s a very Heart of Darkness-y vibe going on – the Colonel has clearly been inspired by Brando’s performance as Kurtz, and I would have entitled this review Ape-Ocalypse Now had the gag not already been used in the movie itself. It adds up to a pretty full-on experience, with most of the leavening moments of lightness coming from Zahn’s character (who is interesting, but the notion behind his origins doesn’t really go anywhere).

And, once again, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, but at the same time it is never irresistibly surprising or thrilling, nor does it fully engage the brain. It is being suggested that this is the concluding entry in this particular incarnation of Planet of the Apes, which is fair enough. However, ever since Rise I’ve kind of felt this series was promising to build up to the big moment of revelation, when we got to see something akin to the actual planet of apes from the original 1968 movie – a dominant, technologically-advanced ape civilisation, feral, speechless humans, and so on. Key plot points in this movie just added to that impression while I was watching it, and got me quite excited about what seemed to be on the way. In the end, though, we’re told about all this but never shown it. I was expecting something along the lines of a fade to black, the caption ‘1950 YEARS LATER’, and then a shot of a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. But no, nothing like that, not even post-credits. So in the end I have to say I feel slightly cheated – this series of films still hasn’t made good on its promises.

Then again, while the end of this movie does have a definite finality about it, apparently plans for at least one further episode are apparently afoot, so we may yet get our shot of a famous landmark, half-buried on a beach somewhere. This is a quality movie, intelligently made and very well performed, and fans of both SF in general and Planet of the Apes in particular should find much here to enjoy. Perhaps my problem is that my own personal expectations are just too high, because by any reasonable standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

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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.

dawn_of_apes_teaser_poster

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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When I’m choosing what to go and see at the cinema – all other things being equal and finances permitting – sometimes it’s based on the track record of the director or star, more often on the story or the genre involved, and most frequently of all it’s a combination of all these things and a few more (good reviews from the right people and a winning trailer can’t hurt). And yet this week I found myself going to the pictures simply because of a brand name.

Whatever else is true of the current operators of Hammer Films, there’s no continuity of personnel with the company’s classic period. The company exists essentially as a marque, and one with a tremendous reputation in the horror and suspense genres. As such one should surely be deeply suspicious of this attempt to purchase the goodwill of long-term horror fans.

Yet, having said that, when the new animated Hammer logo (trading heavily on past glories, but with Raquel Welch rather more prominent than Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee – I am frowning as I type) came up the other night I felt an undeniable frisson. I’ve seen nearly fifty classic Hammers, but none of them in an actual theatre (unforgivably, I missed the chance to catch The Vampire Lovers at the arthouse cinema in Hull in 1995). The film it was showing before was Matt Reeves’ Let Me In.

Set in a wintry New Mexico in the early 1980s, the story revolves around Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely young boy with terrible hair, living a fairly miserable life. His parents are in the process of divorcing and he is savagely bullied at school. The faintest glimmer of hope appears when he starts to befriend Abby (Chloe Moretz), a young girl who’s just moved into the same building. At the same time, however, corpses drained of blood begin to be found in the area, and it quickly becomes clear that in at least one respect this movie has a very strong connection to Hammer’s past – the undead are on the loose!

To say much more would be to spoil the movie for anyone unfamiliar with this story, which would be a great shame as this is a terrifically accomplished film. Reeves is probably best known for Cloverfield, which I thought was technically stunning but narratively rather vacuous – here he scores in every department, creating and sustaining a consistently ominous and unsettling atmosphere, with moments of remarkable tension along the way. He’s not afraid to break out the CGI in places, but oddly enough it’s at these moments that the film is least successful – the action sequences are convincing enough, but so frantic they’re rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Exempt from this is the climax, which manages to be spectacular and understated at the same time.) He gets naturalistic and rather touching performances from the two young lead performers, and handles their relationship with great delicacy – probably quite wisely, given this movie could have been rather provocative if done wrong.

The only very small brick I would throw at the script is that the detective (played by Elias Koteas) investigating the murders seems a little slow on the uptake – if you’re investigating a string of murders where the victims are drained of blood, and someone in the area is bitten in the throat one night, and then said person spectacularly immolates when exposed to sunlight directly in front of you – well, you’d have to be Inspector Clouseau not to start putting two and two together.

‘You’ve got red on you.’

Apart from that, this is a thoughtful and affecting film. To me it seemed to be about the transcendent power of love and things it can make people do – but at the same time it’s deeply ambiguous about this. On the one hand, at the start of the film Owen is in a very grim situation and seems well on the road to some kind of serious mental disorder – but while his relationship with Abby is clearly redemptive and empowering for him, by the end of the film he is arguably in a much worse place. It’s hard to be sure, though: this is a film bereft of comforting moral certainties. Ironically, the only characters presented as wholly bad are the school bullies.

When embarking on the relaunch of a classic brand name, one of the key mistakes people tend to make is to feel they have to slavishly revisit the style of the original. The example I always give is Carry On Columbus, which – rather than trying to make a comedy film of its time, as the original Carry Ons were – spent ninety minutes copying a style twenty years out of date, and meeting with deserved failure as a result. Viewed in terms of how closely it resembles an old-style Hammer horror in content, tone, and style, Let Me In isn’t really recognisable as such. But if all you’re looking for from a Hammer horror is a great story, well told, then it’s a massive success for all concerned, and the best possible start for New Hammer. Horror cinema over the last few years has really suffered from an excess of Saws – if this is a sample of what the company can do, I’m all for seeing a lot more Hammers from now on.

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