Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stephen King's The Stand (1994)

The Stand is a 1994 adaptation of a popular Stephen King novel, directed by Mick Garris (who put together the more recent Masters of Horror series), in the form of a television miniseries consisting of four 90 minute episodes. For many years I had known of The Stand (whether in book or TV format), but it wasn't until just the past couple days that I actually sat down and watched it (yay for Netflix!). Before I get into some of the finer details, let me say that my overarching impression of it was that it was not quite so grim or epic as I had anticipated (in the form of mankind's last stand during the apocalypse), but, if you take into account the inconsistent track record of adaptations of Stephen King's novels, and ground your expectations, I think it's well worth watching.

It starts with a fantastic premise. A viral outbreak in some laboratory in the U.S. releases a way-too-effective super-flu into the general population, ushering in the apocalypse-by-plague. This stage of the story is exciting, but while we've seen it in myriad iterations through the years, this is just the beginning of this particular story. Most of the human race is decimated, but a small percentage is naturally immune to the disease. So the question that's raised is, what happens to the survivors after most of the world's population is eliminated?

You could go in any number of directions at this point, and the direction Stephen King takes us involves a face-off between two very different segments of the surviving population - the good people versus the bad people. But that's not all; in true Stephen King supernatural style, there are biblical underpinnings to the face-off, when a demon shows up to take advantage of the post-apocalyptic wasteland and corral all the bad people, while God chooses a messenger to rally the nicer folk to her cause, all of which occurs largely in prophetic dreams.

So yeah, things get kinda complex, but also very black and white. However, there are some good characters, and the TV series makes use of many familiar actors, including the likes of Molly Ringwald among many others. The series is unfortunately very dated to the early-mid nineties, but I'll say that I really liked the score (presumably composed by W.G. Snuffy Walden), which consists of lots of instrumental rock parts with slide guitars that seem to suit the frequent desert locations. At the end of the day, the series has maybe a bit too much drama, and ends on too saccharine a note. And the biblical angle - while I don't resent the use of the age-old theme of good versus evil, nor the idea of a demonic villain and saintly hero - gets tiresome pretty quickly. But as a dramatic horror television miniseries, it's worth a ride.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013)

When a film like Disney's Frozen gets a lot of hype, I reserve my enthusiasm. But when an international film that couldn't get released in America because they refused to edit it down for dumber audiences starts receiving a whole lot of buzz, I sit up and take notice. Snowpiercer is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia story, and it's really well done. It's smart, it's exciting, and it's engrossing. It's well-written, well-acted, and well-directed. It's one of the best new movies I've seen in years.

Here's the quick and dirty plot synopsis: mankind plunges the planet into a new ice age as the result of a misguided effort to combat global warming. 17 or so years later, the only humans left alive are the passengers on a large train designed to withstand the cold. They now make up a closed and (relatively) sustainable ecosystem, except that the discontent of the lower class passengers relegated to the tail end of the train is brewing into a revolution to take over the engine (the seat of power on the train).

I know the basic set up of a dystopia where you sympathize with the oppressed class is something of a cliche (I'd like to see a movie about a utopia that actually works, but I guess there wouldn't be much drama), but this movie does a fantastic job of humanizing and empathizing with those lower class characters, and then subsequently showing both the excitement of revolution, but also the violence and the real human toll it takes when your friends start dying all around you. And then you have to ask yourself the question, is the cost worth it? Do we continue forward, or fall back and count our losses?

There are several very exciting, and also several very heartwarming scenes scattered throughout the movie, which is as action-packed as it is dramatic. I obviously don't want to spoil too much, but the climax is fantastically engineered, and has much to say about both the nature of humanity, and what it takes to keep a system running, which then begs the question of whether or not the survival of the human race is a noble goal after all. There are shades of the Architect from The Matrix: Reloaded, and also a scene that recalls to me a similar scene from Metal Gear Solid (I say, to tempt you with a little intrigue).

But mostly, I just want to say that this is a fantastic movie. You have to see it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Simply put, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a worthy sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I don't intend to spoil much, but if you're planning to see it, I suggest you do so before reading this review, as there are some things that are just more exciting to discover without knowing too much beforehand - particularly just how advanced along the journey from the Planet of Men to the Planet of the Apes the story currently sits.

I'm gonna gloss over the typical review fodder, like special effects, and actors, and all that, because I found it all to be satisfying in this movie, to focus instead on the things that really interested me - like the dramatic themes and symbolism. The movie kicks off with a demonstration of the apocalyptic impact of the "Simian Flu" that we were introduced to at the end of the last movie, and then follows with an introduction to Caesar's ape community in the California redwoods.

For a while it seems as if maybe there really are no humans left, but then, of course, they show up. And what follows is a tense and evolving standoff between the ape community who simply wants to be left alone, and a human refuge in San Francisco, that needs to get into the forest to repair the dam and get the power back on. Obviously, the apes are distrusting of the humans, considering their treatment at their hands before the Simian flu wiped them out. At the same time, Caesar - an ape of intelligence and honor - remembering the human who raised him, wants to believe that humans can be trusted, and that just maybe, man and ape could live together in harmony.

And this is the central conflict that tears the ape community apart - with Koba, Caesar's right hand ape, more distrusting of humans, and thinking Caesar is being too soft and putting the entire ape community in jeopardy. The brilliance of the movie is that, even though you may not identify with each side, they each feel justified, and so long as you're not entirely sure of the motivations of the opposing players, the suspicion and paranoia and self-doubt is warranted.

And the best part of the movie is the demonstration - as Caesar eventually learns - that man and ape are not so different after all. From the beginning, there is definitely the feeling that Caesar's community could be this experiment in an evolved, utopian sort of community. Apes are, presumably, free from the flaws that made humans betray and fight one another over petty gains. Humans are the ones who cruelly imprisoned and abused apes, and now these apes - given the intelligence to see their plight and understand the humans' failings - are in a position to do better.

But in the end, it proves to be true that apes are just as human as man. It's pretty depressing, when you think about it. But rather than believe that apes are good and men are bad (or vice versa, if you desire) as you have a tendency to want to in this movie, eventually it becomes clear that there are simply good apes and bad apes, just as there are good men and bad men. It seems obvious when stated straightforwardly, yet it is a powerful realization.

So, yeah, it was a good movie. When spoiler spoilered spoiler (you can probably guess what I'm talking about if you've seen the movie), I was actually genuinely shocked - that was a very exciting scene. And at the end, when the last human on screen fades into the darkness of a doorway, yielding to the apes' celebration, it seemed to me powerfully evocative of the transfer of the planet from the humans to the apes.

That having been said, this movie ended with the promise of a rather more immediate sequel than I was expecting. All along, I'm thinking, this is the evolution toward the Planet of the Apes of antiquity. And I guess I was kind of hoping to see the series end in a retelling of that story. But then maybe the point of these movies is not to get there, but merely to show the journey to it. I don't know what the filmmakers have in mind, but I'm a little bit cautious of dragging the story out too long, and catering to fan demands. But I haven't lost faith yet. A lot will depend on how the next movie turns out.