Saturday, August 27, 2011
SUMMER'S ALMOST GONE: SUBVERSION, GORILLAS, & WOLF-GORILLAS
In a summer movie season mostly characterized by the phrase “well, that didn't suck,” two pictures really stood out. It wasn't the surreal box-office tallies generated by Pirates of the Caribbean 4 or Harry Potter, or any of the seemingly nine billion fucking Marvel comics movies—I mean, Thor was okay, but I didn't see Captain America or Matthew Vaughn's X-Men/Mad Men slashfic thing with January Jones running around in her underwear and am not exactly sweating blood waiting to Netflix them—or even the mighty juggernaut The Help, the picture that made it safe to not feel like a racist again.
(Actually, before going any further, I do need to address the fact that I still haven't seen The Help. I am not calling it racist, or that it proactively supports a racist view of the world. Some lady got so pissed off at the thing I wrote about not wanting to see The Help that now she won't let my buddy Hudak see a movie in Tampa ever again or something, and even though Hudak was just happy to be notorious and didn't really give a fuck, I just want to be clear, when I bitch about The Help, I'm bitching less about the movie itself—which I haven't seen—than I am the bullshit detente in the discussion about race it provoked. I know the people who like the movie because it was well-crafted and had good performances and all that stuff are defensive at all the people saying it's morally lazy about the issue of racism and liberal auto-fellatio and so forth, but them getting defensive about it is kind of stupid because the movie's making a shitload of money and will probably be nominated for a bunch of Oscars. It's like Christians complaining about being persecuted by the tiny minority of atheists in this country when no one can be elected president without yapping constantly about Jesus. That's the one thing that slightly annoys me about Barack Obama; much as I love the guy and his valiant B-minus first term, I really wish he'd shut the fuck up about Jesus. On the other hand, I like it when Kanye West talks about Jesus because it's funny. But the digression train jumped the track a couple sentences ago, so let's get back on topic.)
The thing about the way The Help completely hijacked seemingly the entire bandwidth of this summer's cinematic discourse is that it, much to my dismay, completely overshadowed two really great movies that had just started generating lots of interest. This wasn't terribly surprising, in that both of the pictures I'm championing here are quite subversive in their own ways, something neither The Help's critics nor its defenders would say of it. The fact that one of them actually was #1 at the box office is a slightly encouraging sign, and the fact that the other has yet to see wide release in the US means we still gotta see about it. So I'm gonna use what influence I have to make sure motherfuckers NEVAR 4GET these two pictures.
First, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Yes, the title is fucking retarded. I cracked on it in my Tor review, saying I wanted each sequel to add another “[verb starting in R] of the” to the beginning of the title, acknowledging how unwieldy it is. And yes, it has James Franco as the top-billed actor, and I admit, even though I defended the cat for as long as I could, his “I'm a performance art philosophy grad student butterfly” act started wearing thin the second it became clear he wasn't going to bother to wake up to host the Oscars. And the Tim Burton movie blew gorillas for quarters and gave back change, no question. I mean, seriously, there are a whole long list of really compelling reasons why this movie should have sucked.
But ho boy lemme tell ya. It doesn't suck at. Fucking. All. It's one of the most exhilarating pieces of studio filmmaking that I've seen in years, bursting at the seams with love for and mastery of cinematic technique, and not in some jerkoff flashy “HEYYYYY LOOK @ ME GUISE I'M AN AUTEURRRRRRR [fart]” kind of way, where the director's all performing for the audience and shit (seriously, only a handful of directors in the history of the medium can get away with that shit and even Jean-Luc H. Christ Godard can be annoying sometimes). Apes director Rupert Wyatt teamed up with Peter Jackson's crew and FX people from the Lord of the Rings (who also were responsible for the only parts of Avatar that didn't suck) to do something people thought wasn't going to be possible until the Singularity (when human consciousness merges with artificial intelligence and Phase 2 begins): abolish the uncanny valley, the ineffable ability the human mind has to determine which is human and which is created.
Actually, I don't know whether Apes so much abolishes the uncanny valley as it does convince the audience to not give a fuck. Protagonist Caesar—played by actor Andy Serkis and chimped out by the FX nerds—doesn't look like a “real” chimp. But whatever he is, you can see him thinking, you can see him feeling, you can see him developing the sense that Western civilization has no place for him, you can see him establishing and developing comradeship with his fellow primates, and you can see him leading La Resistance into motherfucking battle. Seriously, if I ever see anything in a movie as dope as when Caesar charges out of the fucking fog on the Golden Gate Bridge ON FUCKING HORSEBACK, shrieking “down with the pigs” or whatever in chimpspeak, I may faint. The whole climactic battle sequence features something that's literally never been seen before on screen: computer generated characters showing genuine, genuinely massive, organic, balls. It wasn't just special effects, either; we've all seen some fancy special effects these last couple decades. What made the apes so special was that the director and writer(s) had developed them as characters, so that when they went about special effecting it up, the audience actually gave a shit. Friend of the blog RVCBard and I were barely forming words when the movie was over, and after about twenty minutes when we could talk again we both said something like “damn I wish the American Left had Caesar on its side” simultaneously.
Therein lies the reason why it vanished from popular discourse the second critics and entertainment media had something else to talk about. Engaging with Rise of the Planet of the Apes on its own terms, independent of the baggage of previous Planet of the Apes movies, independent of the James Franco narrative, means engaging with a movie whose protagonists are in direct opposition to Western culture. For good reason. And win. And it's totally a happy ending. The epidemic that wipes out humanity is relegated to one of what the Marvel movies have immortalized as the “Nick Fury shows up” scene in the middle or at the end of the credits, but in Apes instead of Samuel L. Jackson showing up in an eyepatch to recruit Caesar for the Avengers, we see an airline pilot with a nosebleed and then a not-entirely-mournful graphic showing the spread of the epidemic all over the fucking planet. Night guys! Drive home safe! We're all gonna die!
Where Apes, though its action takes place all in the San Francisco area, takes a global view on the question of whether the existing order should, ya know, fuck off, the other picture on my mind takes a more local one. Extremely local.
Second, Attack The Block
Made for a seventh of Apes' budget, this focuses entirely on one housing project. There's more linking the two pictures beyond Apes featuring an impressive gorilla and Attack The Block featuring “wolf-gorilla motherfuckers” (as Pest calls them) that come from outer space and fuck people up. Both feature protagonists held down by society, straining against the roles they've been assigned by the existing power structure.
But Attack The Block has the balls to present its heroes first as villains, as Pest, Dennis, Biggz, Jerome, and Moses set upon and mug a nurse. The mugging is interrupted by an alien landing in the middle of a nearby car, and Sam the nurse escapes while the gang confront and kill the alien, which then leads to a shitload of wolf-gorilla motherfuckers coming down from space to fuck shit up. I covered this one for Tor as well.
The thing about the kids in Attack The Block is . . . they're kids. The media loves portraying project kids who turn to crime as predatory animals who need to be locked up and have the key thrown away. In reality, kids are kids, and if society smiles upon one group of kids, they smoke weed and obsess about girls they're too dorky to talk to at Daddy's beach house. If society doesn't smile on that group of kids, they'll smoke weed and obsess about girls they're too dorky to talk to in some fucked up publicly-funded ugly-ass apartment block. Far as I'm concerned, nature vs. nurture isn't an argument at all. Give a project kid the resources rich kids have and an environment where he isn't made to feel self-conscious, and there will be no discernible difference whatsoever.
My favorite thing about Attack The Block is that it makes the above point in a far less didactic and far more entertaining way. Its mugger protagonists and their victim, Sam, team up and develop a plausible mutual respect through their struggle against a common opponent, the wolf-gorilla motherfuckers. By the end of the picture, Moses is a legit hero and Sam tells the cops so. And I was wiping a tear away, cuz hey. Sometimes you cry tears of triumph.
But back to those wolf-gorilla motherfuckers for a second. Another link between Attack The Block is that they both utilize their resources perfectly, and integrate their special effects into the movie seamlessly. It's a considerably more impressive feat in Attack The Block, considering that it was made for $13 mil US instead of 90. But the wolf-gorilla motherfuckers never look cheap or stupid, a really impressive feat for low(ish)-budget horror or SF. Part of this is because the creature design is very simple: they're balls of black fuzz with glow-in-the-dark teeth their only visible feature. The other, more crucial part is that director Joe Cornish and DP Thomas Townend light the fuckers amazingly well, so that the black of their fuzz is seemingly blacker than any black that exists on earth; it's the black of outer fucking space, my friend.
And, ya know, the kids are all terrific and Jodie Whittaker's great as Sam and Nick Frost plays a weed dealer (“What's Ron's weed room?” “It's a room, filled with weed, and it belongs to Ron.”) And the script is in love with language and pop culture references (but not in the old-fashioned stupid 90s way where it's a dick measuring contest to see who can unsheath the most cringingly fucking kitschy bit of “ironic” pop trivia from the 70s, in this it's a way that actually has a connection to the way actual people actually talk) and a couple of the bangin'-est catchphrases this side of “May the Force be with you.” The way Moses says “allow it” fucking owns. And all the people saying John Boyega is like a young English Denzel are totally on point; if the entertainment business is in any way a meritocracy we're all gonna be working for that kid within the decade.
This brings us to one of the reasons Attack The Block has only grossed about $5 mil worldwide to date, aside from a marketing campaign based more on word of mouth than actual marketing: the hero who saves the day is black, and the white people are either support staff, comic relief, or cops. This isn't the only reason—a bigger P&A budget could have turned Attack The Block into a massive hit and, actually, may still—but it's a big one. A lot of people just can't process a black hero who mugs a white woman and yet is the hero who saves the planet, and not all of those people are overtly racist, they just need to open their minds a bit and be ready to entertain the idea that reality is more complex than initial, stereotype-assisted, impressions. Oh wait, fuck there we go right there, there's your reason why Attack The Block hasn't made back negative costs yet. I forgot, thinking makes people's heads hurt.
So that's your dispatch from the Department of Silver Linings. The summer may have had a bunch of sequels, comic book movies, and remakes I didn't give a fuck about, and the gigantic atomic turd that was Cowboys & Aliens, and it may have culminated in a big ugly argument about whether The Help was racist or whether the people who like it are racist, or whether the people who don't like it are sexists who are only criticizing it because it's not the movie they wanted it to be and blah blah blah boy I really can't wait for the Next Big Thing we're all talkin about to come along because if I never have to read another fucking word about The Help I'll be very happy. But in spite of all that shit, there were two bonafide fucking awesome movies this summer. And one of them was even a remake! Wonders never cease. Long live Caesar and Moses.