Thursday, September 07, 2017

A summer of bad box office, plus War for the Planet of the Apes

Apparently like a lot of people, I've felt little interest in seeing films theatrically lately.

I think it was Kong: Skull Island that I last caught in a theatre, back in April. I liked it well enough as a theatrical experience to see it twice - bringing my wife the second time, and our friend Bev, to see a cheapie double bill of that movie with Get Out, which I also saw twice - but I also didn't care about the film much. The colours, sounds, performances and such were all enjoyable enough to hold my attention, but aside from an inspired needle-drop on spinning onscreen vinyl of the Stooges' Fun House - which showed that someone involved in the film not only had good taste in music but understood how LPs work, which frequently is not the case in movies - there was nothing in it to really excite or engage me, and I understood why some of my friends were quite dismissive of it. It's a question of what you need from a movie, really: because being pretty enough to look at is one thing, but it doesn't make a movie actually interesting. The most interesting about the Peter Jackson King Kong had been how it had (apparently inadvertently) foregrounded the deep and intractable racism of the source text; I went to see that film multiple times too, and didn't and don't hate it the way some people do, but the only thing really worth contemplating after it was over was how Jackson, with explicit references to Heart of Darkness and a highly linear trajectory that placed Kong on the far end of a spectrum of savage, degraded tribespeople, ended up making the film about a gigantic black "person's" doomed love for a white woman (and her tragic, un-reciprocatable love for him, of course). That wasn't why I went to see it more than once - I went to see it because it was fun to watch, and because I liked seeing giant worms eating Andy Serkis, and for trivial enjoyments like that - but it was the only thing that was passably intellectually stimulating about the film.

There was nothing intellectually stimulating about Kong: Skull Island whatsoever. It couldn't avoid Heart of Darkness references, since it was duplicating elements of Apocalypse Now, but - despite, say, a lead character named Conrad, it restructured the story sufficiently that it essentially removed racism from the equation, turning it instead into some sort of parable about the Vietnam war; but only on some vague, under-developed level that didn't seem worth delving into (I tried briefly but eventually gave up). There is no point scaling a orchard wall when you can see pretty plainly that there are no fruit on the trees therein. There weren't even any Kong/ Cong jokes in it, as I recall - kind of a missed opportunity, that. It was fun enough to look at - but there was nothing there to think about at all, except maybe the apparent lack of there being anything to think about ("all this spectacle amounting to so little: hm").

There was, of course, lots to think about with Get Out, but it wasn't really that personally significant to me. I enjoyed using it as a pretext to turn an Afro-Canadian couple browsing for black lit (Eldridge Cleaver, stuff from the '60s) onto LeRoi Jones' Dutchman - describing Get Out as being the "second most paranoid" text about black experience after Dutchman, which I think whetted their interest. But I'm not black, and barely know any black people, so the film felt a bit like someone else's party.

In terms of new release movies, there hasn't been very much to attract my attention since then. I could have gone to see The Mummy - but why the hell would I want to see Tom Cruise in a Mummy reboot when I could just stay home and watch Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee? (The negative press didn't really do much to sway me - critics are often off the mark, especially when they dogpile on a film - though the recent memory of seeing Warcraft, an incompetent, inert, hacked-up mess of a movie, fucked with by producers beyond redemption, a few months prior, probably played a role, and it didn't help that the reviews for The Mummy seemed to echo the reviews of that film). Media pundits are pointing to how Baywatch tanked, as evidence that we're in some sort of moviegoing tailspin, perhaps blameable on Rotten Tomatoes, but I was never going to see Baywatch regardless of what critics said. Ditto Guy Ritchie doing a King Arthur movie: it is hard to imagine, on the surface of things, a less appealing prospect for a movie. And ditto the billionth Pirates of the Caribbean film; I didn't enjoy the first one, and haven't bothered with any since. This has nothing to do, by me, with Rotten Tomatoes, and everything to do with the complete lack of desire to see silly films about pirates, kings, or lifeguards. It wouldn't matter if every working movie critic in the English-speaking world was praising these films. (Critics are apparently praising some new Soderbergh film called Logan Lucky, but I don't even know what that's about, and feel like I can safely catch up with it on Netflix or a library DVD, without shelling out limited moolah).

No, there has only been one movie that remotely attracted my attention since Get Out and Kong: Skull Island: that being War for the Planet of the Apes. I finally caught up with it last night, as it nears the apparent end of its first run. I am not actually sure if it is interesting - but it's very, very, very enjoyable, and a film that, unlike Get Out and Kong: Skull Island, I fully intend to pick up on disc when it comes out, to watch again. I read somewhere last night, after seeing it, that the filmmakers spent a lot of time watching old action movies, and you can see it - The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape are two obvious touchpoints. It isn't perfectly realized - there are a few things that don't quite make sense in the film, or are at best under-developed, like references to a wall that is being built, apparently designed as a jab at Trump, that aren't really accompanied by any images of a wall being built, just apes picking up rocks. But the eye of the film is a pleasure to see through; it's highly emotionally satisfying; and there's a terrific "comic relief" character - played by Steve Zahn, who I always find enjoyable - who is up there with Gollum as a great oddball tag-along to our protagonists' quest (though he doesn't have a dark side like Gollum). And I suspect there are actually some things in the film worth thinking about, too, in that there are pretty much no sympathetic human characters in it, and that there's obviously an animal rights subtext to all three of these Apes reboots. It would be a pleasure to be a smart 13 year old, still somewhat fresh to cinema, keen to apply lessons learned from films to the real world, and to be encountering these movies without the weight of a lifetime's film consumption behind me. That seems the ideal audience for all of these Apes movies, and watching it, I was filled with some nostalgia for those more innocent days (or for watching The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV with my dad, for example), when I took cinema so much more seriously than I do today. Of the Apes reboots, this is probably the best of the three, more ambitious in scope than the (admittedly perfectly realized) first film but better developed and more provocative than the second (which I only half-liked, despite two attempts to engage with it). It's probably the only "summer blockbuster" I will see, but I was very glad to have done so.

Meantime, I have an alternate theory as to why summer box office has stunk, that doesn't involve blaming Netflix or home video or Rotten Tomatoes: it involves the state of the world. While blockbusters of the past - the Nolan Batman franchise, say - have actually been bold (or irresponsible, or cynical, or _______ enough) to incorporate real-world anxieties into their texts (terrorism, torture, vigilantism, the Occupy movement and the "darkness" that was enshrouding America when they were released, with Batman as the perfect superhero manifestation of the Bush regimel especially in The Dark Knight), the films that are popping up on screens at present seem far at a remove from what's going on, obvious empty distractions from things people feel far more compelled to pay attention to. There are neo=Nazis marching in the streets of America (and not invisible here in Canada, either). There are anti-fascists intent on punching them, and a lot of scrutiny and dissent on the left as to whether this is fair game. There are people who deny the horrific effects of global warming, who are seeming less and less sane, with superstorms, floods, and fires dominating the lived experience of millions of people at the moment (including us here in the land of the orange sun). And crazy as climate change deniers are, one of them - who is also apparently in league with said neo-Nazis, and possibly intent on posturing his way into nuclear war with North Korea - occupies a position of great political power, in a country very close by. Who the fuck has time for Baywatch in a world like that? Eli Roth's upcoming Death Wish remake may be irresponsible in this present climate, but at least it has the courage to be relevant, to engage with the Zeitgeist (I recently re-visited The Green Inferno and liked it much better the second time through - those CGI ants don't look half as ridiculous on the small screen - so I haven't given up hope that he'll do something great with this, whatever concerns there may reasonably be about it - see the Robin Bougie interview linked below).

Actually, I would have caught Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, too, but it managed to come and go with my barely having registered that it existed. She seemed pretty compromised, politically, with her last couple of films - with The Hurt Locker choosing, of all the stories to tell about the war in Afghanistan, to glorify death's head machismo, and Zero Dark Thirty practically feeling like it was written with CIA help - but hell, I'm still curious.

Otherwise, I really just don't have a lot of time or energy for Hollywood film at the moment, and what I do have is being spent watching movies or original programming on Netflix, or sharing stuff from my collection with my wife. (She hasn't seen either Apocalypse Now or any of the original Apes movies; eventually I am going to have to do something about that!). Maybe I should get off my ass and do something about VIFF, though? There are probably films I'm going to care about there.

Incidentally, I just realized that between Kong: Skull Island and last night's movie, I also saw Wonder Woman theatrically, but it probably says something that I had completely forgotten about it when writing the above. I know, I know - everyone loved it. They're welcome to keep it.

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