Film Review: Eros, the Bittersweet–“La La Land (2016)” and the Melancholy of What-Might-Have-Been

Warning: Spoilers follow.

In her remarkable book Eros: The Bittersweet, the classicist and poet Anne Carson eloquently argues that eros is fundamentally built on the power of lack, of the sweetness of being denied the very thing that we so desperately desire to possess. While this may seem antithetical to some–isn’t the whole point of erotic desire fulfillment?–I’ve always found this to be an extraordinarily apt way of describing the process by which we experience the ache of romantic desire, an ache that is all the more pleasurable and painful for its inability to ever truly be fulfilled.

The sense of love being something that is always tainted with the tang of bitterness is what, to me, makes La La Land, one of 2016’s most lauded films, such an extraordinary, and very timely, film. On the surface, it appears just another Hollywood product, something that is full of joy and exuberance and romance. Further, it is also one of those films that Hollywood loves to make, i.e. a film that is about (or at least seems to refer to) the history of Hollywood itself. Beneath the veneer of seeming happiness and saccharine satisfaction, however, there is something more profound at work, however, a painfully pleasurable awareness of the poignancy of thwarted love.

And indeed there is a great deal of exuberance and joy to be found in this film. Produced in CinemaScope–that venerable widescreen process that was such a godsend to the film industry in the 1950s–and shot in truly eye-popping colour, one gets the sense that this film expresses in a profound way the great pleasures that can be found in the transparent expression of feeling. Further, it appears to be a film that is in love with the practice of filmmaking. I don’t mean this to be dismissive, but instead to say that it recognizes both the rich and varied history of Hollywood filmmaking as well as the power of film to call to us and allow us to experience the world in all of its conflicted, contradictory joy and pleasure.

Yet it doesn’t take long for the reality of the world to begin to intrude into the utopian love story that burgeons between the two leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Each of them has their own career aspirations, he to be a successful jazz musician and to open his own club in order to revitalize the dying genre (this opens up a white savior storyline that is, to put it mildly, problematic). She, on the other hand, wants to become an actress. Gradually, they both move toward the fulfillment of their desires, but it sets them on a collision course so that, despite how much they love one another, they know that they cannot be together.

It’s rather hard for me to explain in words how heartrending this realization can be in real life. There’s something…sweetly, terribly pleasant about that moment when you recognize that no matter how much you love someone, you know that the external forces of your life–your career aspirations, your desire to be yourself–preclude you being able to fulfill a future with them. This is something that the film brings to the fore in an intensely visceral way, precisely because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been led to expect from the Hollywood ending.

Indeed, the film ultimately reveals that both characters have attained their professional goals. Sebastian has finally opened his club, and Mia has become a successful actress with a husband and small daughter. Yet, despite the fact that they both have attained everything they want, the film remains haunted by a sweet sense of melancholy, of a love that is true yet unfulfilled. It is precisely because the moments of joy and innocence have been so exuberantly conveyed and expressed that this final moment of renunciation is all the more poignant.

The final montage of the film is one of the most exquisitely, beautifully orchestrated pieces of sound design that I have ever seen. As Seb plays, the camera treats us to a vision of a world that might-have-been, if only things had turned out somewhat differently, if only they each of them had been able to do pursue their dreams while also allowing their love to flourish, if only…If only this were the world as we would like it to be rather than the world as it is. We see Sebastian make one crucially different decision, and we see what their lives would have been like together. We are invited to experience two alternative ideas of time, the what-might-have-been and the what-is, the latter always tinging and limning the former with a despairing awareness that we know, we know, that this joyful life can never be.

While we have come to associate the genres of the musical and the romantic comedy with the sort of happy endings so common in romantic films produced in Hollywood, La La Land denies that element of closure that we have come to expect. They part ways, sharing just one glance, a look far more meaningful than any words could ever be. Yet despite the fact that the two leads do not end up together–and despite the fact that Mia is seemingly happy married and has quietly settled down into her life of fame, fortune, and family, something doesn’t ring quite right. We wonder if she is really as happy as she appears, or whether she will always remain haunted by the question: what if? And for Sebastian, the question is even more acute, as we are led to believe that he is romantically unattached, his heart no doubt still yearning for a woman he cannot have.

If ever there were a film that spoke to the tortured and pained zeitgeist of 2016–a year that saw so many beloved figures and dreams fall into oblivion–a year that saw an eminently qualified woman and a progressive future go down in flames and in its place rise up a terrifying regime seemingly intent on rolling back the last 8 years as if they had never been. Though this is of course a romance, it is also a distillation of the political and cultural milieu in which it was released, a reminder that, though we would like to believe the world is a uncomplicated place where loves are fulfilled and the world becomes a better place, the truth is very much the opposite.

Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

Film Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the Pain of Endings

Spoiler:  Full plot details for the film follow.

As anyone who has read this blog is well-aware, I am a filmgoer who is fascinated by the endings of films. To my mind, the ending of a film can tell us much about not only how the narrative of the drama works (or doesn’t), but also how the film understands the world works (or doesn’t).

Thus, I was particularly compelled by the ending of Rogue One, which tells the story of the group of rebels who undertake the perilous journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. Among them are the young woman Jyn Erso, the Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, the defected pilot Bodhi Rook, the reconfigured droid K-2SO, and Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen, a pair of warriors. While they succeed in beaming the plans to a waiting Rebel fleet–thus enabling the destruction of the Death Star that takes place in A New Hope–the entire brave troop is killed, either in direct battle or by a focused

I have to admit, I was rather stunned–overwhelmed, even–at the ending, in which Jyn and Cassian hold hands as the power of the Death Star is brought to bear, overwhelming them in a cataclysm. How was it possible, I thought, that the two main characters in a Star Wars film would perish? Wasn’t this supposed to be the franchise in which all of the good guys survive? (One would have thought that the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens would have disabused me of this naïveté, but apparently I forgot that valuable lesson).

Further, the atomic overtones of that destruction, with an enormous cloud of debris and fire rising into the sky, are acutely terrifying. This is particularly true in this era of renewed nuclear threats (witness Trump’s tweet about the possibility of a new nuclear arms race). As anyone familiar with the 1950s and 1960s will know, the threat of atomic annihilation is an acute one in the American unconscious, dovetailing as it so often does with America’s penchant for eschatological fantasies and Christian doomsday prophecies. Given this deep history, and Trump’s happy-go-lucky attitude regarding nukes, it’s no surprise that such a bleak and terrifying ending should appear in a Star Wars film.

What are we to make of the fact that the film ends with the death of the entire cast of characters that have grown to love and respect during the course of the film? On the one hand, certainly, it is meant to fill us with a sense of mingled fulfillment and unease, as we recognize the terrible blood price that has been exacted on those who have engaged in the struggle against tyranny. This is, after all, a war with tremendous consequences, with the Rebellion’s success hanging on a knife’s edge, struggling with its own internal dissent and the fact that the Empire has resources–both military and technological–that they lack. After all, if the Death Star can destroy even a sacred space (which it does, obliterating the capital of the moon Jedha), what hope can the members of the Rebellion have if the Empire should bring its full powers to bear upon them?

The ending, therefore, helps us to understand that this is a full-scale war and, like all wars, it exacts a terrible price in bodies and lives. Freedom, to use a cliche, is not in fact free. Furthermore, there is no guarantee, diegetically at least, that the sacrifices made by this (blessedly diverse) cast of heroes is going to actually do anything to bring about the destruction of the Death Star. We, in the audience, presumably know this, but the characters do not (and I would even go so far as to say that we might even be able to suspend our knowledge of this fact at least temporarily). There is something disquieting about this fact, that the characters perish without the knowledge of whether their sacrifices will ultimately bear fruit.

At a deeper level, it’s hard not to read it also as the expression of the ethos of those who have been dealing with the reality of a Trump victory and what that means for the future of the world that they had envisioned. Is their only hope to be as suicidally obstructionist as possible, in the hope that one day their sacrifices will come to fruition in the fullness of time? Must we continue to work and fight, not knowing whether there is to be any reward for what we do?

As Gerry Canavan noted in an exceptionally astute reading of The Force Awakens, the recent spate of Star Wars films are significantly more pessimistic in their view of history than the original trilogy. That is certainly the case here and, in my view at least, this has as much to do with the rise of Trump and his ne0fascist allies as anything else, as those of us who have embraced the ideals of Western secular democracy find ourselves faced with a very real manifestation of the same dark impulses that brought Palpatine to power and allowed him to maintain it.

As such, Rogue One, despite the claims of studio executives to the contrary, cannot but be seen as the natural product of a world in which the forces of “order” (remember that Trump declared himself the “law and order” candidate”) are in the ascendant, threatening to bring about an end to to everything the Obama Era has come to stand for. However, as Rogue One almost makes clear, while the end of one era may give rise to a darker one, there is still an imperative for those of us who value justice to fight on, even when all hope seems to have vanished.

Coda

At an extra-diegetic level, the film also raises some quite unsettling questions about the nature of endings and the life of the actor. There has, of course, been no small amount of consternation about the fact that Grand Moff Tarkin (played in the original film by the late Peter Cushing) has been reanimated through digital technology, with Guy Henry playing the actual part and the rest being added through CGI. There is something (not entirely unpleasantly) uncanny about seeing this re-created Tarkin onscreen, a reminder of both the character from the first film and the actor who played him (both of whom are, it should be remembered, dead for those of us currently sitting in the theater). At a larger level, such a manipulation of both the digital image and the living body of the actor raises significant questions about whether, in fact, any actor’s performance is ever truly dead and passed, since it is now clear that any actor can be resurrected through digital performance.

As it always does, motion-capture continues to raise ethical and aesthetic questions about the role of animation and technology in the way we experience cinema and the world around us.

Queer Classics: “Moonlight” (2016)

After waiting impatiently for several weeks for Moonlight to make its way to Syracuse, it finally arrived, and I have to say:  this is one hell of a film. Though it was not what I expected, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Indeed, it’s probably the best film that I’ve seen this year (as cliché as that sounds).

A meditative and aesthetically sophisticated film such as this one is notoriously difficult to summarize in terms of plot, but in broad strokes it is a coming-of-age story told in three parts. Each segment of the film opens with a simple word:  Little, Chiron, Black, each representing a stage in the main character’s evolution. Throughout, he has to contend with the broken relationships that characterize his life, from his drug-addled mother Paula to his love interest and childhood companion Kevin. Throughout, he seems to struggle with a profound sense of alienation and isolation from the world around him, though he does experience brief moments of genuine human warmth, particularly when he meets Teresa and Juan (Janelle Monáe and the inimitable Mahershala Ali, respectively), who provide him some measure of stability and genuine human caring.

This is a profoundly intimate film, both in terms of its narrative–which remains wedded to Chiron’s perspective throughout–but also in terms of its cinematography. The camera remains sometimes perilously close to its principals, wedding us to their perspective in a sometimes physically unsettling intimacy. It’s not so much that the spectator necessarily feels that they are necessarily there; instead, it’s a feeling of being physically connected to the characters.

Thus, it is precisely this visceral closeness that allows us as viewers to get a sense of how important touch is to Chiron’s sense of himself. It is through his body that Chiron manages to escape his profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The film also pays particular attention to fluid, and there are two scenes in which semen plays a prominent role, and each time the camera pays attention to the contact between the body and the fluid, a surprisingly sensuous (and not prurient) attention to the powerfully erotic pleasures of the flesh.

It is through his body that Chiron–chronically silent and taciturn–manages to express himself. Indeed, it is precisely touch that gives him his one truly meaningful and intense connection with another person, when he and Kevin share an erotic experience on the beach. Unfortunately, the flip side of that dynamic is that Kevin is later manipulated by schoolyard bullies into beating up his erstwhile friend, a bitter experience that deeply scars both young men. However, there is no question that it is Chiron who bears the deepest psychological wounds, scarred both by his friend’s betrayal and by his mother’s obvious homophobia.

As Black, he appears muscle-bound and gruff, and the film makes it clear that this emphasis on increasing his bodily mass and strength are his responses to his troubling youth and to the impotence he felt throughout those formative years. Tormented by those around him for his perceived queerness, he has turned to using his body as a shield against a world that seems determined to crush and beat the “softness” out of him. The camera lingers on his musculature and on his mannerisms, demonstrating again and again that the formerly shy and meek youth who finally broke when betrayed by his friend has transformed into a hardscrabble drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Beneath that, though, one can still see glimmers of Little and of Chiron, a yearning for the intimate human connection that he has all-too-infrequently found in his life.

Though the film is, for the most part, deliberately paced, it is punctuated by moments of emotional release and satisfaction, as when Chiron takes a chair and brutally attacks the bully who incited Kevin’s act of violence. It is an intensely satisfying moment (as evidenced by the woman beside me in the theater, who cheered quite loudly at that particular moment). These moments, like their more tender counterparts, enable a feeling of bodily empathy with Chiron, allowing us to experience a similar moment of embodied empowerment, a reclamation of agency that has been consistently denied him.

The performances, of course, are the emotional heart of the film. As any good student of film knows, casting can either make or break even the most well-written of films, and in this case the actors are uniformly excellent. Though it is easy to despise Chiron’s mother Paula for her by turns brutal and manipulative treatment of her only child, Naomie Harris brings a certain tragic pathos to the role, imbuing the character with alternately frantic energy and depthless despair. While she is not the main focus of the narrative, she does nevertheless show her own development as a character, moving from an absent-minded if loving mother to a gradually more abusive and manipulative drug addict. However, even she is not beyond redemption, and the scene in which Black finally has the chance to offer his mother forgiveness is one of the most wrenching in the film.

The three actors who portray Chiron each deserve accolades, for each brings something distinct to the table, allowing us to see the shifts in his perspective as he grows up. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, is that oh-so-rare gem, a child actor who has genuine depth and complexity. For his part, Ashton Sanders (who plays Chiron’s teenaged self) brings a certain tortured reserve to a youth plagued by his own personal demons, his fledgling desires, and the aimlessly malevolent taunts of many of his classmates.

It is Trevante Rhodes, however, who really steals the show as Black, Chiron’s final iteration. This is, in many ways, the most inscrutable and mysterious of the character’s iterations and for that reason it is the most compelling. All of Chiron’s past traumas seem to roil beneath the surface of clenched exterior. As we learn during his reunion and rapprochement with Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland, who brings a certain frantic, almost desperate, energy to the character), no man (nor anyone else) has touched him since their erotic encounter on the beach. Black is a man who has struggled, and never quite succeeded, in finding a place in an unfeeling world. His eventual physical reunion with Kevin, in which he at last finds physical connection, is a powerful affirmation of his journey to fulfillment.

Moonlight remains a haunting film precisely because it is so piercing in its glimpse into Chiron’s psyche. Growing up a queer of color in America remains a struggle for many, and it is especially acute for men, for whom the burdens of traditional masculinity are sometimes almost too much to bear. Indeed, the screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken eloquently on those burdens, and his acute sensibilities for the particular struggles faced by black men have found their way into the script and the characters that inhabit this world.

What strikes me the most about the queerness of this film, however, is how unspoken it remains. It writhes beneath the surface of the narrative, a key component of Chiron’s identity, yet one which he rarely explicitly expresses. It emerges in some of the most unlikely moments, as when he has his erotic encounter with Kevin, and when he later dreams about him before their fateful reunion that concludes the film. It is a poignant reminder of how queerness–tender, beautiful, sensuous–can provide meaningful connection and intimacy in even the bleakest and most unfriendly of worlds.

Film Review: “Captain Fantastic” (2016)

These days, it somtimes feels like it’s impossible to find a film that doesn’t try to drown you in special effects and just focuses on telling a genuinely good story. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a decent film scene, it is still possible to find that endangered species known as a semi-original film. Fortunately for me, the Syracuse International Film Festival was running this past weekend, and I had the pleasure of seeing Captain Fantastic.

Viggo Mortensen delivers a truly (wait for it) fantastic performance as Ben, a radical who has raised his children in the wild, teaching them how to be self-sufficient and politically radical. However, he soon learns that his wife, who has been suffering from bioplar disorder, has committed suicide and that his in-laws are refusing to honor her wish to be cremated. This precipitates a journey of father and family to civilization, where they have to decide whether to continue on with their way of life or make the switch back to the consumerist world they have left.

Certainly, the dominant strand of the film’s narrative asks us to sympathize with Ben, at least up to a point. All of the points that he makes about the essential corruption and emptiness of contemporary American culture are made manifest when father and company pay a visit to his thoroughly middle-class sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her equally doofy husband Dave (Steve Zahn). They, and their incredibly ignorant and obnoxious sons, are the epitome of everything that the family has steadfastly rejected. Thoroughly immersed in their consumerist world, the sons know nothing of (to take just one example), the Bill of Rights, while Harper and Dave can’t even bring themselves to be honest with their teenage sons about the real cause of their aunt’s death. Their lives are as empty and fatuous as Ben claims, and it’s hard not to see the life he has created for his children as infinitely preferable.

However, Ben is no saint. He can be stubbornly unwilling to budge, and the film contains hints that it is this intrasigence, this inability to see beyond the limits of his own experience and beliefs that may have contributed (however indirectly) to his wife’s death. His father-in-law Jack represents the stolid, traditionally wealthy masculinity, a stifling and demanding atmosphere that, we are led to believe, may have contributed to his daughter’s flight from civilization, while Harper and Dave stand in for the bankrupt emptiness of modern parenting.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective on these things), the film ultimately seems to come down somewhere in the middle. The final sequence shows the family has finally settled down on a peaceful farm, where the children have both the stability they need yet also continue to practice the arts of self-reliance. The last frame may be held just a fraction of a second too long, but it is precisely this protracted stillness that gives it its resonance, allowing us to see that they have at last managed to attain a measure of balance between the competing impulses of their lives. To this viewer, it felt like something of an extended allegory of the abrupt uprising of the American Left during the 2016 election, which has ultimately had to settle for a thoroughly moderate candidate who, all things considered, probably preferable to the alternative(s).

While Mortensen deserves a great deal of the credit for the success of the film, no small amount is also due to the supporting cast, both the adults (Frank Langella is particularly unpleasant as Jack), as well as all of the children, each whom brings something unique to the mix. Their responses to their father’s way of life range from celebratory to condemnatory, and each of the young cast brings something unique to the mix. Captain Fantastic is one of those rare (VERY rare, IMO) films that actually manages to make the younger members of the cast as essential as the older ones.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a true gem of a film, in large part because it doesn’t have grand aspirations. It wants to tell a strong, compelling story, and that’s what it does. In today’s blockbuster world, that is no small accomplishment.

Film Review: “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)

Well, we’ve finally made it to the last of my write-ups of the original Planet of the Apes films. Sometimes derided as the worst of the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes occurs some time after the previous installment. Mankind has nearly destroyed itself with a terrible nuclear war, while Caesar has led a group of exiles–comprised of both humans and apes–into a sort of peaceful coexistence.

Not all is as serene as it might appear, however. While the apes have quickly adapted and evolved in their social habits–having already donned their signature suits and attained the use of speech–humans remain a somewhat subservient class. They are not quite reduced to slaves, but it’s clear that Caesar has not forgotten the hard lessons learned during the reign of Governor Breck, and that he is not foolish enough to give them the same power that they possessed before they brought about their own destruction. They are almost, but not quite, equals to their ape companions.

One of the things I’ve always found utterly fascinating about this film was the decision to cast it as basically an extended flashback recounted by the aged Lawgiver several centuries after the events have taken place. It’s a bit of a stroke of brilliance to have John Huston play this venerated ape figure, as he always adds a touch of class and gravitas to the proceedings, and this Lawgiver, at least at this point, embodies the principle of peaceful coexistence that seems to be the film’s endpoint. He is even shown teaching his wisdom to a mixed group of ape and human children. This, at least on the surface, represents a more promising, optimistic future than the one presented in the film that began the series.

Throughout the narrative, the film essentially pits four different groups against one another:  the reasonable apes led by Caesar and his loyal followers such as Virgil, the bellicose gorillas led by the general Aldo, the humans led by MacDonald (the brother of the character of the same name from the previous film), and the mutants that remain in the ruins of the radioactive city (led by a new governor named Kolp, the chief interrogator under Breck). Each of them represents a different vision of the future, whether it will be one of peaceful coexistence of humans and apes or whether it will be one in which the two races remain locked in conflict until one utterly destroys the other.

In that respect, Kolp and his fellow mutants act as some of the most compelling characters. Kolp has clearly been driven mad by his confinement in a world increasingly restricted and poisonous. For their part, the mutants that still dwell in the ruins of their former home are just as disturbing and compelling as any other creations from this film series. Of particular note are Alma, Kolp’s right hand, and Mendez, one of the few mutants who understands the need for a more peaceful world. Indeed, their final scene in the film shows him declaring that they use the doomsday bomb not to bring about the end of the apes–which were Kolp’s last orders before his death–but instead serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come. Clearly, he is meant to be understood as the progenitor of the Mendez cult that will come to rule the mutants in the centuries and millennia to come.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Aldo is the other primary villain in this film. Canny fans will remember that when Caesar told of how apes came to dominate the world, it was an ape named Aldo who first uttered the word “no” and struck the first blow in the revolution. Now, in a timeline in which that revolution has been accelerated by several centuries, Aldo has been reduced to little more than a failed revolutionary, a belligerent, not very intelligent gorilla general who fails in his attempt to mold the future in his own image. The fact that he is portrayed by Claude Akins (known for his portrayal of bluff, belligerent types in many TV shows) heightens the contrast between him and the more cerebral, thoughtful Caesar.

What I really love about this film, however, is how truly ambiguous it remains. Unlike each of the previous installments, which struck a decidedly bleak and despairing tone about not just the future but about human nature itself, this film seems a bit (just a bit, mind you), more optimistic. The final shot of the film, in which a statue of Caesar appears to weep is, by all accounts, a touch from the screenwriters to suggest that the more peaceful vision of the future this film offers ultimately failed. This, of course, leads to all sorts of questions. Does something happen during the lifetime of the Lawgiver that makes him turn against his human pupils? When does the final break between human and ape occur? These are all fascinating questions, and the film (rightly so, IMO), leaves them unanswered.

While some might regard this as the weakest Apes installment, it will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Film Review: “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)

Continuing onward with our exploration of the original Planet of the Apes film series, we come to what has always been one of the most genuinely disturbing and frightening entries in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In this film, Zira’s and Cornelius’s son (originally named Milo by his parents but renamed Caesar by the circus owner Armando), is brought to the (unnamed) city, where he witnesses the horrible treatments that apes endure at the hands of their human masters. In the years since his parents’ death, cats and dogs have been wiped out, replaced by apes who moved quickly from being pets to being servants. In this strange, disturbing space, apes fulfill the menial jobs previously filled by humans. Caesar, as the lone talking ape, is the spark that ignites this smoldering powder-keg of a world.

It does not take long for the film to show us that this is a stark and totalitarian vision of America’s future. The apes have already been degraded to the point where they are dressed according to their species, a key means of ensuring that they remain separated from one another, unable to form the bonds of solidarity that would, any good Marxist leads knows, lead to the revolution and overthrow of the existing power structure. However, even in this early point in the film their latent dissatisfaction is obvious, as it takes a great deal of human-inflicted violence to make them fully quiescent.

Indeed, Armando represents in the film’s imagination one of the few humans who actually possesses a sense of compassion, and his death at the hands of government-sponsored interrogators stands for Caesar as the final piece of evidence that there is nothing remotely redeemable about the world that man has created. Caesar knows that he only has two options:  he can either fulfill his destiny as the harbinger of ape revolution, or he can embrace the death that surely awaits him at the humans’ hands.

Thus, one cannot really blame Caesar for eventually leading the rebellion. Who could not, seeing the tremendous cruelty that humans continue to perpetrate against their ape slaves, ranging from the everyday abuse they suffer at the hands of their human masters to the more extended rigors inflicted at the Ape Management Center? The humans, in their desperate attempt to keep their simian cousins under control, end up producing the very catastrophe they so assiduously sought to avoid. Even at the level of narrative, humankind reminds trapped in a mesh of its own creation.

Formally, this is a tremendously complex and compelling film, and it certainly makes the most of an obviously-decreasing budget. The half-hour or so of the film is shot in very stark lighting, with the austere office buildings and too-bright light showing us that this is a world that has already slipped precipitously into totalitarianism. Humans have gradually abrogated any of their moral superiority, and by the time the night of fire and death arrives, we can’t help but cheer for our own downfall.

Governor Breck, the film’s primary antagonist, may be an absolutely disgusting and terrifying tyrant, but he is an utterly compelling villain. Like his predecessor Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, he recognizes something fundamental that eludes most of the other characters; he knows that part of the reason that humans have enslaved apes is because they recognize in their simian cousins the aspects of human nature that he most wants to abolish and control. Within every human, he knows, lurks the dark, primate doppelgänger just waiting to leap out and wreak havoc. Caesar, for better and worse, is merely the inverted reflection of his archenemy Breck.

Now, there is one thing you should know about this film:  there are actually two very different endings, depending on which version you watch. The one that actually reached theaters was a more hopeful ending, in which Caesar declared a measure of mercy for the humans that he had just overthrown, sparing Governor Breck’s life rather than allowing his fellows to have their vengeance. In this vision, there is hope, however frail, of a rapprochement of sorts between the humans and the apes. It is one of the few moments of optimism in an otherwise quite bleak film series.

The restored ending, however (now available on the Blu-Ray), has Caesar unabashedly proclaim his desire to take the reins of power from the humans who, he knows with certainty, will one day bring about their own destruction. Breck is then beaten to death by the gorillas that have surrounded him.  This version also features a great deal more blood, as well as a scene in which human bodies are heaped on one another in the aftermath of the revolt (a scene eerily reminiscent of the hunt of the very first film). Being the person I am, I actually prefer this version, precisely because it denies us the optimism that so often acts as a opiate, dulling our awareness. If you can, watch this version and embrace its visceral bleakness.

Next up, I’ll cover the last film in the original film series, Battle for Planet of the Apes, in which the future fates of humans and apes will at last be decided.

Film Review: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)

Since I’ve already written reviews of the first two Planet of the Apes films, I thought I would keep things going by jotting down some of my thoughts on the third installment, Escape from Planet of the Apes. In this film, Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) have managed to escape the conflagration that consumed Earth in the previous film, along with the genius chimpanzee scientist Milo (Sal Mineo, in one of his final film roles). They crash land on the Earth of Taylor’s time, and once there they are taken into custody by the U.S. government, setting in motion a chain of events that will have tragic consequences for everyone involved.

For better or worse, Escape from the Planet of the Apes has always been my least favourite of the original Apes films. Part of this has to do with the very comedic element that suffuses the majority of the film. While this has always struck me as somewhat odd (given the somber, even bleak tone of the preceding films), it’s only fair to acknowledge that some of the film is actually quite funny. For example, in a tense scene in a courtroom in which the two apes are being interrogated, Cornelius is asked, obliquely, whether he can speak. With a delivery that could only come from McDowall, he says, “Only when she lets me.” It usefully breaks the tension, but it also sets the stage for the tragedy that gradually unfolds.

In keeping with its predecessors in the franchise, the film does ask some troubling philosophical questions. During a heated debate between Dr. Hasslein and the U.S. President,  the latter expresses the belief that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all if apes displaced humans as the dominant species. After all, he points out, humans haven’t done such a great job as stewards of their own planet and besides, perhaps it is beyond the ability of humankind, even the (arguably) most powerful man in the world, to prevent the workings of fate. Hasslein, of course, remains unconvinced and it is his belief–which the film encourages us to understand as sincere–that leads to his unrelenting pursuit of the talking apes who represent, for him, the extinction of the human race and all it holds dear.

There are a number of other things that I always enjoy about this film. One is Armando, portrayed by the inimitable Ricardo Montalban, the owner of a circus that shields Cornelius and Zira from the avenging government agents out to sterilize them and abort their offspring. He also, it turns out, shelters their children, ensuring that the very future Hasslein fears with such panicked intensity will come to pass.

For me, though, the most powerful thing about this film is its tragic ending, in which both Zira and Cornelius are murdered by humans, the final shot of the film taken from overhead, capturing their last embrace. It’s a heart-wrenching end to the film, especially that we have been with these characters through two previous installments. It also serves as a brutal reminder of the cruelties of which man continues to prove himself utterly capable.

Though somewhat marred by its tendency toward silliness and comedy, the third installment in the venerable Apes franchise does, nevertheless, manage to set the stage for the struggle that will eventually lead to man’s self-immolation and his supplanting by the apes that he will ultimately seek to enslave and bend to his will. The irony, of course, is that Hasslein’s relentless pursuit of Zira and Cornelius is itself the manifestation of mankind’s relentless desire to dominate and control both his fellow creatures and his own future, two forces that always seem to find some way to confound those very desires.

Like the other Apes films, Escape suggests that human (and, I would say, ape) agency remains caught up in a double-bind of its own creation. In attempting to prevent the future from happening, the various humans and apes who try to forestall the day of their doom end up hastening its arrival. It’s a rather bleak understanding of the way the world works, but one entirely in keeping with the angsty nuclear age that produced it.

Film Review: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Since I watched Planet of the Apes in theaters recently, I’ve felt the familiar urge to revisit the other entries in the original film series. So, of course, I began with the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which another astronaut, Brent (the absolutely delicious James Franciscus) crash-lands on the titular planet, only to discover (as Taylor did) that he is on Earth. In the process, he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of telepathic mutants inhabiting the ruins of New York City.

While many critics find this one of the weakest entries in the series, I actually think it’s the strongest next to the original. This is due to three factors. One, the continued intractability of Dr. Zaius, who cannot see beyond his own understanding of the world and who thus inadvertently brings about its destruction. Zaius, brought to nuanced live by the late, great Maurice Evans, will always be one of my absolute favourite Apes characters. Two, General Ursus, showcasing the wonderful talents of James Gregory (and who could ever forget the incredible line, “The only good human, is a dead human!) In many ways, he represents the darker strain of ape society, the (dare I say it) almost human drive to conquer and destroy those that are different.  Three, the terrifying vision of the future of humanity amid the radioactive ruins of New York City. While they have some power, they also recognize their own fragility in the face of the brute force that the apes possess.

I always feel a pleasurable thrill of terror when I first see the ruins of New York City, as Brent wanders through its underground remains. There is something, I think, sublime about seeing the remains not only of one of the world’s greatest cities, but specifically of the bastions of man’s economic and enlightened achievements (hence the appearance of both the Stock Exchange and the NYPL). Similarly, it’s hard not to feel a mixture of horror and utter captivation when you realize that the telepaths have taken over St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to offer their adulation to the bomb that could, literally, bring all life on Earth to an end. The fact that they have so thoroughly interwoven the most destructive weapon known to man into their religious life is one of the film’s more brilliant inventions, as is the fact that they only reveal their “inmost selves” to their “god” (though they normally wear masks and wigs to make themselves appear normally human, they reveal their mutated selves during worship).

Of course, it’s rather easy to read the telepaths as being more than slightly ridiculous in their worship of the Alpha/Omega bomb, but I personally find those scenes to be intensely, viscerally disturbing. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in this world the bomb has become indissolubly wedded to the divine, man’s ability to co-opt God’s destructive capabilities is indeed terrifying to contemplate. This is hardly surprising, especially if (as I have) you have studied the period and know that, indeed, there were many who saw in the bomb the incarnation of a divine power. The film tempers this somewhat by allowing Taylor the final triggering of the bomb, though to my eye it remains unclear whether he does it as a final thrust of revenge toward the intractable Zaius or whether it just happens to be where he falls after his fatal shooting (to my eye, it remains ambiguous).

In many ways, the vision of the world offered by Beneath is even more terrifying than its predecessor. In this world, humans occupy two equally unpalatable positions in this world:  either utterly devoid of the basic patterns of civilization or reduced to dwelling in a ruined city whose wreaked visage matches their own. There is really no hope for redemption, except for the perilous, ultimately fatal one offered by the detonation of the bomb.

Even the ending is, in its own way, bleaker than the original film. While there was at least hope that civilization and the future, even if ruled by apes, would continue (such was Dr. Zaius’ hope when he had the signs of man’s former dominance destroyed) in the first, at the end of this one we know that the entire planet has been effectively rendered a dead wasteland by the Bomb. The dreary intonation at the end, pithy and matter-of-fact, suggests that, in the end, the Earth is but an unimportant part of the universe.

Truly, a terrifying proposition.

Film Review: “Star Trek Beyond” (2016) and the Political Power of Compassion

I am not, as they say, a Trekkie. I have only passing familiarity with the original series, though I did enjoy The Next Generation in my youth. However, I’ve been keeping abreast of the most recent cinematic incarnation of the property and, I have to say, I was very impressed with the most recent installment, Star Trek Beyond.

The film follows the crew of the Enterprise as they enter an unmapped nebula in an attempt to rescue a group of stranded researchers. Unbeknownst to them, this is a ruse by the sinister alien warlord Krall, who is determined to unleash a terrible biological weapon on the Federation and bring about its destruction.

Part of what makes this such a compelling film is that it really showcases the acting talents of its cast in a way that the previous films did not. Chris Pine continues to grow into the role of Captain Kirk, and in this film he struggles with his own sense of self and identity. He wonders, as we all do, whether being the captain of the Enterprise is everything that he had wanted it to be.

The other characters face similar struggles, including Spock, who believes that he may be better suited continuing the work of Ambassador Spock on New Vulcan and has parted ways with Uhura. The emphasis on the personal and the bonds among the characters and their loved ones is, I think, one of the things that grants this film its sense of pleasantness. Extraordinary in this regard is the revelation that Sulu is married to a man, a move which I (unlike George Takei) found touching and a fulfillment of the inclusive, compassionate ethos that has long been a hallmark of the Star Trek brand.

For his part, Krall is a compelling villain, both because of the way in which Idris Elba (who is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors of his generation), portrays him but also because he is the distillation of the bellicose spirit that seems to animate so much of contemporary American political and social life. As reprehensible as his acts are, he is understandable precisely because he was a product of a worldview that seems eerily and uncomfortably close to our own. What can or does a person do when all they have been trained to do is kill? The Federation ethos (with which we are meant to identify) suggests that compassion and cooperation are the bulwarks against chaos and relentless aggression; Krall believes that the world should be returned to that Hobbesian state of primordial anarchy, so that only the strongest will prevail. Ultimately, of course, compassion wins out in terms of the narrative struggle, and that is an important facet of the film’s political project.

This compassionate ethic plays out at both the macro and micro levels of the film’s narrative. On the micro level, such compassion ranges from Bones’ caring for Spock’s injuries to Scotty’s willingness to help out a complete stranger. On the macro, of course, it is the entire Federation that stands opposed to Krall’s vengeful wish to bring about the dismantling of this era of peace and prosperity. The fact that the film satisfactorily resolves these narrative threads and reveals the newly-constructed Enterprise helps us, as viewers, feel similarly sanguine about the political future.

All in all, I found this the strongest of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, in no small part because it manages to deftly handle the various emotional registers that it puts into play. The spirits of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin seem to hover over this film, adding a wistful and rather sad note to the proceedings. Yet they also remind us of the power and the joy of life and of the promise that this particular universe continues to hold out to us.

While it would certainly be going too far to say that Star Trek is an allegory of our contemporary political moment (one can assume it was in production and the script written before it became clear Donald Trump, a real-world Krull if I’ve ever seen one, would become the GOP nominee for president), I do think it would be fair to say that the film can serve as a sort of collective conscience for all of us. At this point, we can either give in to our baser impulses and become the destructive, chaotic forces that Krull represents, or we can surrender to the better angels of our natures and work toward a brighter, more justice, more verdant future for all of us.

And I’ve got to say that I’m with the film on this one. A brighter future for everyone looks mighty fine to me.