A primate’s tragedy packs an emotional wallop in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

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Caesar (Andy Serkis), the ape who has pushed for peace between his kind and man, pays a high price for his tolerance even as humans continue to hunt his kind in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Director Matt Reeves and his co-screenwriter Mark Bomback gift Steve Zahn with his most memorable role in years and allow Woody Harrelson, playing a crazed human soldier, to riff on Marlon Brando and Apocalypse Now. But what makes this movie the best of the trio and elevates it to something truly magnificent is Caesar. It should now be apparent to the entire movie-going world that Serkis could easily play King Lear as a motion-capture ape. He has that much gravity.

Caesar’s own good nature is what leads to disaster when he expects kindness shown to humans to be returned. Instead, his actions rain holy hell down on the apes. It is a disaster for the tribe and a personal tragedy for Caesar whose roiling anger leads to both questionable decisions and a looming confrontation with the Colonel (Harrelson), a human dedicated to eradicating apes. With visions of the late, murderous chimpanzee Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his warning about the true nature of man/ape relations dancing in his head, Caesar is a man on a mission. But even as he determines to extract a terrible revenge on his enemies, Caesar’s own true nature can’t help but assert itself, especially when it comes to a little girl (Amiah Miller) who comes to depend on the kindness of primates and Bad Ape (Zahn), a mangy, fearful former zoo animal who has internalized every human insult.

As with the previous chapters in this Apes saga, the line between motion-capture apes and human actors is seamless as Reeves plunges us into a wholly believable world. The nod to Apocalypse Now, which is driven home with a hammer (let’s just say a particular piece of graffiti is wholly unnecessary—we get it), is a bit heavy-handed but still apt. Zahn is terrific, providing some comic relief and also a great deal of poignancy as a frightened creature who discovers reserves of courage he never realized he had. War for the Planet of the Apes’ action scenes pack a wallop, and even relative minor moments are filled with tension. The stakes are the highest for Caesar and the rest of the apes, and the film never loses sight of that.

Then there’s Serkis, proving once more that CGI skin in no way compromises performance. This is an actor at the top of his game and he proves it each time he returns to Caesar. That so far he’s been ignored during awards season is a scandal that ought to be rectified. As a motion-capture actor, as an actor, period, Serkis is second to none and he has never been better than in War for the Planet of the Apes as he fully inhabits Caesar’s huge heart, revealing his grief, rage, pain, and also his valor and love and dedication to his ape family (and those he embraces as extensions of his family). War for the Planet of the Apes packs an emotional wallop and Serkis is a big reason for that. This may be a summer popcorn movie; it is also one of the best films of the year. –Pam Grady

DUNKIRK: Thrills, but no beating heart in Nolan’s WWII epic

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Framed as a World War II epic and a thriller, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is that at first glance. But beyond the derring-do of Royal Navy men, fighter pilots, and civilian sailors as 400,000 men await rescue on a beach after a disastrous battle, is a more intimate drama of courage and cowardice and emotions in between. That is the most intriguing aspect of Nolan’s ambitious film, and the one where it falls down, betrayed by a dearth of real flesh-and-blood characters.

The outcome of the 1940 battle around the northern French village leaves the defeated Allied soldiers stranded a scant 26 miles away from the English coast, or as one officer observes, “You can almost see home.” But with few ships available in the area that, at any rate, can’t land on the beach and with precious little air support to provide cover, the British hit on an outside-the-box solution to the problem. The Navy drafts fishing boats and pleasure craft and their crews, a civilian armada that can go where destroyers can’t.

Nolan fashions a sometimes-discombobulating story that zigzags back and forth between three separate strands. There are the men on the beach. Among them are a group of young infantrymen that include newcomer Fionn Whitehead and One Direction singer Harry Styles (in his acting debut), who are loathe to wait for rescue. They want to go home. Now. In contrast are the officers, including Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who embody courage in the worst-case scenario as they discuss the long odds facing them.

In the air, a small contingent of Spitfires, including pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, engage in dogfights with German Messerschmitts, a desperate skirmish to keep themselves airborne while protecting the ships at sea. On the water, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), the skipper of a yacht heading toward Dunkirk with his 19-year-old son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and 17-year-old family friend George (Barry Keoghan), is the representative of the civilian volunteers.

Clocking in at under two hours, Dunkirk, nevertheless, occupies a large canvas. The cinematography, production values, and special effects are breathtaking. The air skirmishes are thrilling, the drama’s overall vibe is tense. The disaster looming at sea, from a small, leaky boat threatening to capsize to destroyers mortally struck by bombs, bucking and listing as they sink into the water, is palpable. Dunkirk may not reinvent the war movie, but it is effective.

What the film lacks is the human element. There are no fully formed characters in the movie. Everyone is a type. Some actors are able to transcend the script’s limitations. Whitehead is especially effective in conveying sheer terror and his character’s commitment to survival. Cillian Murphy is also very good as a shell-shocked soldier reduced to a ball of quivering panic. But most of the cast, including actors of the caliber of Branagh and Rylance are stuck with cliched dialogue to go with their hoary stiff upper lips.

That lack of humanity is costly. For all its thrilling spectacle, Dunkirk has none of the power of an All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli, or Saving Private Ryan. The stakes in Dunkirk are every bit as high as they are in those and countless other war movies. But it is hard to care when there is no beating heart in the movie. That is a flaw that prevents Dunkirk from achieving the greatness to which Christopher Nolan so clearly aspires. –Pam Grady

 

Give My Regards to Broadway: GHOSTBUSTERS reimagines Times Square

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ghostbusters_3My favorite part of the Ghostbusters reboot: Jefferson Sage’s production design during the movie’s climax in which the specters that plague Manhattan are not simply ghosts and goblins but Times Square’s storied and sometimes notorious past. A billboard crawl reports news from the Carter era. A movie theater marquee advertises The Godfather (1972). Bond’s, a men’s clothing store that morphed into a nightclub where The Clash famously played a set of shows in 1981, looks much as it did in postcards dating from the mid-1960s. Woolworth’s lives again. A billboard advertises “Beyond the Fringe,” an English revue starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore that played on Broadway in the early 1960s.

Ghostbusters is far funnier than the dire trailers would lead anyone to believe with some truly outstanding work from Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth, but nothing in it is more inspired than Sage’s recreation of Midtown’s past allure. All those yesterdays merge together into a pretty glorious ghost. —Pam Grady

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First trailer: LOVING

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So looking forward to Jeff Nichols’ latest, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga and acclaimed at Cannes. It’s the flesh-and-blood story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, whose mixed-race marriage made them criminals in the eyes of their home state. This was the case that went to the Supreme Court in 1967 and ended with the ruling that invalidated laws against interracial marriage nationwide. — Pam Grady

Shane Black mines pulp comic gold in THE NICE GUYS

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It’s magic! Guns blaze. They fire and fire and fire, never running out of bullets and with the gunmen never having to stop to reload. Writer/director Shane Black clearly remembers his ‘70s TV when that kind of fantasy gunplay was the standard and it’s just one of the delicious details in his delirious slapstick crime comedy “The Nice Guys.” In revisiting the pulp comic thriller territory of his own Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in this 1977-set movie that marries an Inherent Vice meets Freebie and the Bean vibe, employs a plot so convoluted as to be Chandlerian and casts a droll dream team in stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, Black comes up aces.

The Hollywood sign is in tatters, the introductory notes of The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” plays but just up to the point where the vocals would kick in, and a little boy grabs a nudie magazine from beneath his sleeping parents’ bed. Even before he has introduced any element of his plot, with these opening frames, Black sets the stage for the complicated situation that greets morose private eye Holland March (Gosling) and bull-in-a-china-shop enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe). The two meet not-cute when the young woman who has hired Healy to protect her from men who are stalking her discovers March has been looking for her and doesn’t bother to wait to find out why the detective is on her trail before attempting to throttle him. It’s only when they get down to comparing notes that they realize they are after the same thing and join forces.

The plot expands to pull in determined environmentalists, the seedy porn world, the auto industry, a Justice Department lawyer (Kim Basinger) with a murky agenda, and an ironically named hit man (Matt Bomer), but the story is only an excuse to put Crowe and Gosling through their paces. Crowe, who is beginning to look like his Gladiator costar Oliver Reed in middle age and who clearly relishes playing the tough guy, has his best role in years as a big palooka whose first instinct is always to hit something. Gosling as the sad sack March, an alcoholic widower and guilty father to 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, excellent), is pure genius both in his wry line readings and his gonzo physical comedy. Tis is a man who knows how to make the most of a pratfall.

Every detail in The Nice Guys is right, from the largely cheesy soundtrack (America! Andrew Gold! A slightly anachronistic “Pina Colada Song”) to an auto show climax that will make gearheads salivate to the casting of Rice, who recalls, in her intelligence and precocious maturity, the young Jodie Foster. Holly keeps inserting herself into the case in a way that would make today’s helicopter parents blanch, but is just perfect in recreating an era in which every kid was a free-range kid.

Black times every joke, every fight, and every set piece perfectly. Not all of it makes sense and probably isn’t supposed to as the filmmaker concentrates on evoking an era, mood, comic bits, and above all the relationship between his two disparate heroes. He delivers the goods and so do Crowe and Gosling. They aren’t just Nice Guys; they are pure comedy gold. –Pam Grady

Famous photo begets lazy movie in ELVIS & NIXON

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Elvis and Nixon_edWhen future Watergate conspirator Egil Krogh is the most sympathetic character in a movie about the legendary 1970 meeting between then President Richard Nixon and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley, you have a movie that’s dead on arrival. That’s the case with Elvis & Nixon. Neither Michael Shannon (Elvis) nor Kevin Spacey (Nixon)—two of the greatest actors of the present era—emotionally connect with their characters to give more than a shallow impression (and not much of one at than in Shannon’s case) of the men they portray. Not that they have much to work with in this sorry comedy’s lame, lazy script.

The photograph memorializing the Yuletide get together between the leader of the free world and the pioneering rock star is an enduring image, but there is no record of the meeting that Presley asked for hoping to join the war against drugs as a specially appointed law enforcement officer, leaving filmmakers free to fill in the blanks. Elvis & Nixon is not the first time the tales been told. Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) made Elvis Meets Nixon for Showtime in 1997, framing the story as a hybrid between mockumentary and straight narrative with Elvis in the throes of a kind midlife crisis that sends him on a solo excursion to Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip before jetting off to Washington and his date with a hilariously out-of-touch Nixon. The new version spends a lot more time in that meeting with Elvis constantly breaking protocol and yet somehow winning over an initially hostile Nixon.

Spacey nails Nixon’s voice and mannerisms but still comes across as little more than a caricature. (In contrast, watch Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, or even Dan Hedaya in Dick.) But the big disappointment is Shannon who plays a character named Elvis Presley who does not remotely resemble the man named Elvis Presley. The gaunt actor would be a stretch in any case, but Shannon also can’t replicate the voice or the physical grace and he crucially never conveys the man’s charisma and he just plain looks uncomfortable in Presley garish wardrobe.

The most interesting aspect of Elvis & Nixon is the way both men are portrayed in relation to their handlers. Part of the Memphis Mafia, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville, in a sea of bad wigs, he’s stuck with the worst) have their hands full with man-child Elvis, spoiled, impetus, demanding their loyalty and attention to the detriment of their own lives. (In one subplot, Schilling is desperate to get back to Los Angeles in time to meet his girlfriend’s parents.) Nixon aides Krogh (the always reliable Colin Hanks, playing the character as a blend of political opportunist and fanboy) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) similarly manage their boss, here portrayed as a crank more interested in napping than affairs of state. As powerful as they are, both Elvis and Nixon are infants in need of constant minding. Director Liza Johnson and the film’s three screenwriters only skate the surface of these relationships, another missed opportunity.

Maybe the lesson in all this if you don’t have any real affection or feel for the story you’re trying to tell, perhaps it’s not a story you ought to be telling. There is little heart in Elvis & Nixon, and what little there is curiously belongs to Egil Krogh. But that’s all due to Hanks, the one actor who finds a way to transcend the thin material. It might be possible to make a funny, entertaining movie out of the president and Presley’s short conference (Elvis Meets Nixon comes close), but Elvis & Nixon isn’t it.—Pam Grady

Magical moments at SFIFF 2016

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by Pam Grady

The Coen family has taken over the Bay Area in the first half of 2016. First, Frances McDormand, wife of Joel Coen, played to sold out houses with her turn as Lady Macbeth in Berkeley Rep’s production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Now, her husband and his brother Ethan are a star attraction alongside Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus/Criterion when the San Francisco International Film Festival awards its Mel Novikoff Award to Janus Films and The Criterion Collection on Saturday, April 30, at the Castro Theatre. The siblings’ first feature Blood Simple, the tense, bewitching neo-noir in which McDormand made her debut as barkeep Dan Hedaya’s cheating spouse, screens as well in what is sure to be a magical afternoon.

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CRIMINAL review: It’s criminal

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Oh to be a fly on the wall when Criminal was being pitched. In the imagination, it goes something like this: “It’s Awakenings—with guns!” Or maybe, “Remember Flowers for Algernon, that story about slow guy who becomes a genius, except there’s price. Well, this is that story, but with spies and terrorism. You know, a kind of Flowers for Algernon: This Time it’s for Real!” There’s also, in this ridiculous, heavy-handed action movie in which Kevin Costner is a stone-cold psychopath who becomes a CIA lab rat, a little of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the “futuristic” thriller co-penned by her ex James Cameron, about a society where people use a device to relive or share experiences as if they were happening in real time.

Human testing is years away, according to the surgeon/scientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been conducting memory transference experiments with animals. But when agency spook Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is murdered in London, taking with him the location of hacker Jan Stroop (Michael Pitt), a man in possession of some world-threatening software, Pope’s boss, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), is desperate for that information. So Franks—who warns that even if the transplant is successful, its effects are probably temporary—attempts to transfer the memories contained in the remaining electric impulses of Pope’s dying brain into violent convict Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).

But the CIA can’t hold on to its new asset and Jericho soon has both it and terrorists led by Hagbardaka Heimbahl (Jordi Mollà) on his tail. Plus one hell of a migraine, a sudden fluency in French (even if he thinks it’s Spanish), and a growing attachment to Bill Pope’s widow Jill (Gal Gadot) and young daughter Lucy (Lara Decaro). The operation hasn’t made Jericho any less vicious and unpredictable, but it has turned him into a softy.

In 2008, Benedict Cumberbatch started in a UK miniseries, The Last Enemy, about a near-future England where the government conducts full 24/7 surveillance on everyone. Criminal presents that world as fact, only it is not the English government that can track anyone anywhere. It’s the Americans and the terrorists. Surely, MI-6 and Scotland Yard might have a few things to say about all these foreigners on both sides of the law blowing stuff up and holding raging gun battles on the streets of London, but then it’s clear that not much thought was given to the story. It’s all about that Awakenings angle, the degenerate titular criminal who gets a new lease on life, however impermanent.

It is ludicrous. Costner does what he can in playing a character that begins as a lethal Tasmanian Devil and never becomes any less lethal even as he adopts the attitudes and aptitudes of the apparently more affable Bill Pope. The character is a cartoon and so is this ridiculous movie, more brain-dead, by far, than the unfortunate Bill Pope.—Pam Grady

First look: OUR KIND OF TRAITOR

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Stellan Skarsgård is a boisterous Russian who pulls poetry professor Ewan McGregor into his plans to defect in this adaptation of a John le Carré thriller. Looking forward to getting an early peek at it when it makes its international premiere on Sunday, May 1, at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Becoming Hank: Tom Hiddleston and Marc Abraham see the LIGHT

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This is how much Tom Hiddleston got into playing Hank Williams in writer/director Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light. When I tell Abraham that it’s possible I learned the Williams canon in utero, the country legend being a hero of my Arkansas-born father, Hiddleston interrupts. Pulling out his phone, he says he has something to play me.

It’s Williams in a live performance, joking with the audience, “We left the United States and went to Arkansas last year and played for a couple of days.”

“I was listening to that this morning,” he says simply.

Then there’s the matter of the hat. There’s a Stetson sitting on a table in the suite at San Francisco’s Fairmount Hotel that looks suspiciously like the one he wears in the film and on the movie poster. It’s not the real hat, he’s quick to say, just one the Sony Pictures Classics provided for the press tour.

“The actual hat is sitting at home in Belsize Park, the hat I wore in the movie, the special hat,” he says.

I Saw the Light is clearly an exceptional experience to the thoroughly British actor, 35, who utterly transforms himself to play a beloved son of the American South in the movie, and even more so to Abraham, a Louisville, KY native who grew up on country radio.

“Those stations, even though they were playing George Jones and Charley Pride and Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, the DJs always played in the set, a little bit of Hank, because Hank is The Man,” says Abraham. “That’s probably the first time I started hearing Hank. … I loved country music and I never stopped loving it.”

Williams’ music and the tragic story of a brilliant, tortured songwriter who didn’t live to see 30 stayed with Abraham as he embarked on a career first as a television scriptwriter and then as a producer on such films as The Commitments, Spy Game, and Children of Men. Then several years ago, he heard that plans were in the works for a Hank Williams movie, and Abraham, who made his directing debut with the 2009 drama Flash of Genius, knew he had get moving on his own. The project was on track when he went to see Steven Spielberg’s 2011 WWI drama War Horse and spied Hiddleston in the role of Capt. Nicholls.

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘That guy looks like Hank Williams.’ She said, ‘Shut up and watched the movie,” Abraham laughs.

The filmmaker sent Hiddleston the script and Skype conversations about it turned into phone calls and eventually into discussing the movie over dinner. The actor’s star was rapidly rising with unforgettable roles in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, and as the mesmerizing villain Loki in Thor, but that didn’t mean he automatically had the part.  Abraham had promised his casting director that he wouldn’t offer it to anyone without an audition first, since it is a technically difficult role. But then one night over a meal, caught up in the enthusiasm of their conversation, Abraham couldn’t help himself.

“We kept talking about it,” Hiddleston says. “We kept having interesting conversations about the story, up until the point where we were sitting in an Italian restaurant and Marc just kind of popped the question, basically.”

“He was really enthusiastic about it,” Abraham says. “He said to me, ‘I really love this. I really think I could do it, but just promise me one thing. Promise me you’ll allow me the time to prepare before I do a reading.’ Just very generous, and assuming, of course, there would be a reading, because that’s the natural thing.

“He didn’t put on an accent. He didn’t sing a song. He didn’t do anything like that. He just said, ‘I get it. I get it. I know what it’s going to take and I’m the kind of person—I’ll get it.’”

Hiddleston admits he was only familiar with a handful of Williams’ songs before I Saw the Light came into his life, but he found the man he got to know initially through Abraham’s script fascinating. He wanted to tell that story.

“I found the suggestion in Marc’s screenplay that the genius in his songwriting came from the turbulence of his intimate relationships a very incisive thesis, a very brilliant reading of his work,” Hiddleston says.

“It was my job as an actor to really roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty on that subject, to investigate the volatility of his relationships, especially with women, and his personal pain and his demons and his addiction to alcohol and mix all of that into a cocktail of this astonishing and charismatic performer.”

It was also Hiddleston’s job to learn to sing like Hank Williams, right down to the yodeling that was his signature. Abraham likens the process of mastering Williams’ technique not to climbing Mount Everest, but to scaling the even more daunting K2. To help Hiddleston channel a genius, another was called in, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who took Hiddleston into his Nashville home for several months to work on the actor’s vocal chops and record I Saw the Light’s soundtrack.

‘Rodney’s extraordinarily patient and wise, and we really sweated over it,” Hiddleston says. “We learned a lot about ourselves and each other. It was hard work, but it was joyful work. It was an extraordinary thing when we finished it, saying goodbye to each other, because we became very close. You do when you make music with people.

“I still yodel all the time,” he says.  “It’s funny. I play the guitar a lot more than I used to. I always played. I just play it for myself and I always find there’s no moment I haven’t picked up the guitar and done a little bit of ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ or ‘Move It Over’ or something—the yodeling songs, bizarrely enough, even though they were the most challenging, they were my K2s—they’re the ones I go back to. It was such an extraordinary and unique experience, really unlike anything I’ve ever done and very special for a lot of reasons.”

When he was a kid, Hiddleston would stay through the end credits to find out who had made the music he loved in a movie. Then he would run out to HMV to buy the record. He remembers discovering The Ronettes that way when he heard “Be My Baby” at the beginning of Dirty Dancing. Now, for the first time, it’s his own name he sees.

“When we stay to watch the credits of this film and I see all those songs come up and it says, ‘Performed by Tom Hiddleston,’ I’m like, ‘Wait a second!’” he says. “I can’t believe it, because I’m so used to that being performed by Elvis Presley, performed by Bob Dylan, performed by The Byrds, or whoever it is.”

“He can’t quite get used it,” says Abraham. “It’s sweet … He really gets joy out of it and it’s kind of amazing.” –Pam Grady