Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 42: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where White Men Can’t Jump (1992) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in […] the first thirty minutes of White Men Can’t Jump

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “What the movie knows is how the game is played in the tough urban circles where these guys operate. The director, Ron Shelton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how his characters talk and sound, and how they get into each other’s minds with nonstop taunting and boasting. The language is one of the great joys of this film, not just because of its energy and spirit (most of the characters are gifted verbal improvisers) but because of its originality. The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie.” -from his 1992 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Legendary indie scene auteur Spike Lee is nominated for two major Oscar categories this year, Best Director & Bet Picture, which is a remarkable achievement for a film as formally bizarre & politically angry as BlacKkKlansman. It’s a hype cycle that’s stirred up a lot of memories of other times when Lee was a hot ticket in the industry, not least of all because his latest film’s nomination among Pete Farrelly’s disastrous feel-good race relations drama Green Book feels like a repeat of when Lee’s iconic work Do the Right Thing lost the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. Spike Lee may be an established legend in the industry by now, making his road to Oscar accolades less of an uphill battle, but Hollywood’s relationship with his deliberately divisive, provocative work has always been oddly hot & cold. They’re willing to nominate him for Oscars, but only as a long-shot underdog against more palatable, bullshit-caked films like Driving Miss Daisy & Green Book. There was apparently even a time when Hollywood was willing to emulate Spike Lee’s aesthetic instead of, you know, funding his work directly. 1992’s basketball court gambling drama White Men Can’t Jump feels unmistakably like watching White Studio Execs attempt to reverse-engineer the wide-audience friendly version of a Spike Lee joint in a boardroom, borrowing his fashion & aesthetic, but ditching all of the pesky politics that get in the way of the fun. Usually, Hollywood settles for undervaluing Spike Lee’s work by awarding its more sanitized rivals like Green Book; with White Men Can’t Jump, the industry instead attempted to transform his work into Green Book, which at least takes more chutzpa.

White Men Can’t Jump stars Wesley Snipes (who also starred in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever one year prior) as a low-level basketball hustler & Rosie Perez (who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing three years prior) as an alcoholic trivia addict. Except that it doesn’t star either of those actors at all. Instead, our POV-centering protagonist is a compulsive gambler played by affable white man Woody Harrelson, who profits off the Southern California black community’s underestimation of white boy street cred. His main value as a basketball hustler is that his unsuspecting marks don’t know to fear his skill on the court because of his lily-white skin. He’s occasionally out-hustled himself and much of the drama derives from his crippling gambling addiction, but that does little to soften to blow of this being a film about how white people can be just as good at basketball as anybody else, so you shouldn’t be too prejudiced against their athleticism. Wesley Snipes plays a loud-mouthed schemer who works countless jobs & grifts to help realize his wife’s dream of moving to the safety of the suburbs. Perez plays an alcoholic trivia nerd who aspires to be the world’s foremost Jeopardy champion in what has to be her best, most outlandish character work outside the plane crash PTSD drama Fearless. Yet, we see the film through the eyes of an annoyingly bland white man anti-hero, one whose vocabulary includes such lovely phrases as “negro,” “faggot,” “reverse discrimination,” “Farrakhan disciple son of a bitch,” and the frequently-repeated refrain “Shut the fuck up,” usually directed at his lovely girlfriend. The movie even pauses dead-still for a minute so he can whitesplain Jimi Hendrix to his hustling partner, which 100% would have been a scene in Green Book if it were set ten years later. It’s very frustrating.

White Man Can’t Jump does have flashes of charm, even beyond the stellar character work from Rosie Perez. If nothing else, it’s an excellent 90s fashion lookbook, modeling an extensive line of Spike Lee-inspired athletic wear on the basketball courts of Venice Beach, CA. The film’s attempt to echo Lee’s focus on slang dialogue often leads to a solid one-liner in an insult comedy context, as this is just as much a trash-talking movie as it is a basketball movie. Besides Rosie Perez’s surreal Jeopardy quest, the best sequences of the film are the documentarian portraits of the buskers, hustlers, and weirdos of Venice Beach and the ceremonial trading of “Yo Mama” jokes between basketball sessions. Those are only incidental, mood-setting details in the greater purpose of tracking the ups & downs of one fish-out-of-water white man’s ego, however, a choice in protagonist that kneecaps the movie before it can even get itself running. Workman director Ron Shelton doesn’t even have the decency to rip off the exaggerated Ernest Dickerson flourishes of Spike Lee’s cinematography, settling instead for the same flat sports drama approach he took with Bull Durham, Blue Chips, and Tin Cup, as if it were a one-size-fits-all technique. I want to say White Men Can’t Jump is worthwhile for Rosie Perez’s character work and for the sartorial pleasures of its 90s fashion lookbook, but the film is ultimately too phony, too repetitive, and too politically awkward to enjoy for any five minute stretch without a vicious cringe interrupting your pleasure. And yet, this is the movie that was playing on TV when I was a kid, not Do the Right Thing. And still, Green Book has a much better chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar this weekend than BlacKkKlansman. Go figure.

Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Ikiru (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Sometimes you find yourself in a dark, nearly empty theater screening the newest Star War on a Tuesday afternoon less than a week after its release and you find yourself asking Big Questions. Questions like: Will I never again pass through a calendar year without seeing one of these? Should I stop getting these giant blue raspberry slushes and a hot dog every time I come to the movies, knowing that I’ll spend the next 90-150 minutes regurgitating and swallowing that liquid and solid matter like a cow chewing cud? (I am a human garbage disposal, and like all disposals, sometimes things . . . splash around.) Was Thandie Newton paid as much for this film as Anthony Hopkins? Why aren’t there more people here? Would anyone have really noticed if I got nachos as well, or am I just being paranoid about people’s hatred of fat people like me? (See above, re: being a human garbage disposal.) How many hours long is this Venom trailer, anyway? Wait, there’s a new Jungle Book movie? Wasn’t there another one just, like, two years ago? (The answer to this one is easy: yes. There will be a mere 928 days between the respective premieres of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book and Andy Serkis’s Mowgli.) Is that the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, of Crashing fame and the creator of the recent smash hit Killing Eve, which everyone should be watching? But most importantly: Why does this exist? And, hey is that Warwick Davis? (It is!)

I don’t think anyone in the world was clamoring for this movie to be made. No one asked for Solo: A Star Wars Story, but it’s here now, and we all have to live with that fact, so get used to it.

Solo, naturally, follows the story of lovable (YMMV) rogue Han “I ain’t in this for your revolution” Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as he escapes the hellhole slums of his homeworld, becoming separated from his childhood love Qi’ra (the Khaleesi herself Emilia Clarke) in the process by the cruel vicissitudes of fate, swearing he’ll return to save her one day. After a brief stint in the Imperial Forces, he joins a ragtag team of thieving scoundrels led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), meets up with his future bromance partner Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and has his first fateful meeting with galactic playboy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Lando’s assistant/common law wife/sidekick L3-37 (Waller-Bridge). Along the way, he runs afoul of a gang of outlaws led by Enfys Nest, and is opposed by sophisticated crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, taking over for Michael K. Williams). It’s got everything you ever wanted in a sequel that shouldn’t exist: battles atop trains that traverse icy wildernesses, betrayals, giant tentacled space monsters, sacrifices, Wookiees rarrarr-ing at each other, holograms, monochromatic 2-D displays, hover cars with impractical and impossible physics (when banking left, shouldn’t the vehicle tilt left instead of right, as if it had thrusters and not wheels?), and Paul Bettany somehow simultaneously phoning it in and chewing the scenery. Truly, he is one of the great living actors of our time. Also, hey look everybody, Clint Howard’s here!

It takes 45 minutes (aka “not quite enough time to sober up”) by bus to get from the bar nearest my office to the Galaxy Highland theater, but those 45 minutes were much better spent than the first three quarters of an hour of this movie. There are jokes in this movie that land and others that don’t, while some do nothing but induce pure cringe. The cringe-inducing ones are peppered throughout, but the bulk of them (the most notable–although not the worst–being how Han gets his surname) appear in these early scenes; there are terrible jokes that come later, of course, but by then they’re spread out enough that you don’t seem to mind. I joked about this on my Facebook, but Solo may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that got better as my sobriety increased, but I was coherent enough throughout to be able to tell that this was because the movie improved over time. After you get through the joyless opening chase scene, the melodramatic and treacly faux-Casablanca separation at the spaceport, and the out-of-place D-Day-esque battle wherein Han meets Beckett for the first time, Han and Chewbacca have their meet-cute and escape together and it’s all pretty fun from there, even if Donald Glover’s performance feels more like Troy Barnes is doing a (very funny) Lando impression than Glover is playing the character outright.

To sidetrack for a minute and revisit Star Wars history, lets talk about Phantom Menace. My issues with the film (and the guy who wrote “As for your issues with the prequels in general, I will let someone else address those because honestly, I don’t know where to begin” – I still think about you and want to know who hurt you, other than George Lucas while grooming you to accept shovelfuls of shit and call it ice cream) aside, there’s a moment in the 1999 film that I thought about a lot while watching The Last Jedi back in December. And no, it wasn’t Anakin’s “Now this is podracing!” line while Finn and Rose rode those stupid CGI chihuahua horses to freedom, although I also couldn’t stop thinking about that. No, it’s this scene, that comes at about hour 14 of Phantom Menace, right around the time you’ve stopped wishing you were dead and started to accept that you already are and that this is hell.

ANAKIN. I had a dream I was a Jedi. I came back here and freed all the slaves… have you come to free us?

QUI-GON : No, I’m afraid not.

And . . . that’s that.The scene moves on quickly to Qui-Gon blah-blah-blahing about Coruscant and trade agreements and then Jar Jar says “Wit no-nutten mula to trade” (no, really, see for yourself, in case you forgot–or are too blinded by the warmth of your childhood nostalgia to realize–that this movie is a crime against humanity). This is something that’s always been a problem with the Star Wars universe: no one really gives a damn about the existence of slavery. First of all, leaving aside the debatable sentience/sapience of droids and thus whether their servitude could be considered “slavery,” (which comes up in Solo and which I’ll get to later), the idea that anyone would be using organic life forms for manual labor when mechanical alternatives are so omnipresent, widespread, and affordable (even Luke’s aunt and uncle can afford one) is absurd. On the other hand, as long as there are backwater planets with little resources and abstinence-only sex education–as I assume Tattooine must, given that Shmi has a virgin birth and doesn’t seem awed by that fact at all (again, from the PM script: SHMI : There was no father, that I know of…I carried him, I gave him birth…I can’t explain what happened.)–there will always be mouths to feed, bills to pay, and Dickensian childhoods that can only be escaped by becoming a Storm Trooper.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But the Rebellion/Resistance is fighting for freedom for all from the Empire/First Order!” you yell at your phone reading this on the toilet at work, frightening an accountant and generating a solid afternoon of work for poor, sweet-faced Devan in HR. Yeah, sure, but slavery was a fact of life on non-Senate worlds during the prequel trilogy, and we never hear bleeding heart Amidala or cartoon rabbit minstrel show Jar Jar arguing for the Senate to intervene on worlds like the one where Anakin was born, not with the carrot or stick, with neither olive branch or lightsaber. In the Orig Trig, perfectly constructed straightforward sci-fantasy that it is, none of that is important. But come The Last Jedi, the audience is expected to be thrilled that our heroes liberated a bunch of racing animals while also leaving behind a not-insignificant number of children, still in the “employ” of slave masters. This would be so easy to do.

ROSE: It’s a pity that our roles in the Resistance and the need to return to the fleet means we have to leave these children behind.

FINN: Every life is important. As soon as we get back to the ship, we’ll tell General Organa about this place, and we’ll rend the shackles from every child in this place.

(They could even disagree, with Rose noting that they have to get back to the ship while Finn, with his background of having been a child soldier, would be more resistant to the idea of leaving the kids behind. It would make for a stronger emotional beat than “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love” anyway. Nobody in the Resistance ever even pays lip service to the idea that they have a moral responsibility to fight back against the First Order because slaves need to be liberated. But I digress.)

Solo finally does . . . something with this problem, even if it makes no real definitive statements or even takes a clear moral stance. Although I have no doubt that there will be many who disagree with me and take offense to everything that she says, L3-37 is one of the best characters that this franchise has produced, and she was the highlight of the film for me. We meet L3 for the first time in a wretched hive of scum and villainy (’cause it’s Star Wars) as she pleads with a couple of droids duking it out in a ring, Battle Bots style, to not let themselves be reduced to fighting like dogs for the entertainment of organic onlookers. In a later heist scene on Kessel, she helps create chaos by attempting to instigate a droid rebellion in the film’s best sequence. Waller-Bridge is one of the funniest people on Earth, and her timing and inflection are comedy gold; there’s one scene where she climbs into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and complains of the equivalent of joint pain and tells Lando he’ll “have to do that thing later” while Glover makes the perfect expression, and it’s simply fantastic. Often for better and at times for worse, this is a franchise that has encompassed some truly uncanny inhumanity (whether it be due to bad CGI, weird puppetry, or just wooden acting), and this earnestly human and relatable moment was the point where I thought, “Hey, this movie’s actually all right.” And that’s not even getting into the fact that someone finally remembered to give a shit about ethics with regards to forced servitude here, although I’m never quite sure if the text is mocking L3 just as much as it is agreeing with her.

Alden Ehrenreich, despite all bad press to the contrary, does a good job here. From the first moment I saw him in Hail, Caesar (other than in the Supernatural episode “Wendigo,” but that was a dark period in my life of which I dare not speak), I thought “This guy looks like a movie star.” And here he is, defying the odds (insert “never tell me the odds” joke here) to pull off one of the most well-known characters in the history of Western cinema. Opting to simply play “charming rogue” instead of aping Harrison Ford was a wise choice, which was counterbalanced by Glover’s more self-aware acting choices. Harrelson could have sleepwalked through this role given that it’s not very original, but he showed up, which is more than can be said of most people’s erstwhile father figures in the crime business.

That’s the good, but the bad . . . is bad. On an older Simpsons commentary (I want to say it was “Bart Gets Famous” but don’t quote me on that), the writers joked that they would know they would have gone to the well of ideas until it was dry if they ever did an origin story for Bart’s red hat. The idea is laughable, but that’s also kind of what’s happening here. We get an origin story/explanation for Chewbacca’s nickname, Han’s blaster, how Han was able to make “the Kessel run in 12 parsecs” despite that being a unit of distance and not time, and even Han’s last name. It’s embarrassing and drags the movie to a halt every time the film has to wait for the hypothetical shameless applauders in the audience to sit down and stop providing their children with therapy fodder for decades to come. This dependency upon references to past material (and presumably planting seeds to be reaped in future Star Wars stories, every year from now until you’re dead, so just shut up and give Disney your money already you pathetic fleck of lint) drags this movie down. Although it’s occasionally buoyed back up by strong performances and jokes that actually land, and it somehow manages to stick the landing, there’s just so much here that you’ll want to forget. There’s almost a good film in here, but there’s also definitely a pretty bad one. If you happen to miss the first thirty minutes, you’ll likely have a much better time, but there’s no guarantee.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

My relationship with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is very similar to an ill-considered, last-call hookup at a dimly lit dive bar. I’ve always caught a grotesquely macho vibe from the advertising for Marin McDonagh pictures that has made me avoid each one no matter how lauded, as I was immediately turned off at first sight. The barrage of negative think pieces picking at McDonagh’s latest film’s mishandling of American race relations made it even more of an unappetizing prospect, something that somewhat validated my initial instinct to avoid it. There’s a kind of desperate, ticking clock effect to Oscar Season, though, an arbitrary deadline that often pressures me into taking chances on movies I’d typically avoid. With the last couple Best Picture nominees I hadn’t yet seen looking like they’d immediately put me to sleep (apologies to diehard fans of Darkest Hour & The Post), the incendiary divisiveness of Three Billboards stated to look a lot more attractive as an Oscars catch-up prospect. Of course, as most desperate last-call hookups go, the experience was exactly the total disaster I expected & should have known better to avoid.

Frances McDormand stars as a grieving mother who lashes out at her local Missouri police force for not thoroughly investigating the rape & murder of her teenage daughter. Much to the frustration of her son (Lucas Hedges), her not-so-secret admirer (Peter Dinklage), the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson), and everyone else in their small, everybody-knows-everybody community, her vengeful rage is largely misplaced & unproductive. The most dangerous sparring partner she finds in her crusade to shame the local police into action (through inflammatory messages advertised on the titular billboards) is a racist, idiot cop with a reputation for “torturing black folks.” Most of Three Billboards’s cultural backlash has focused on this dangerous small-town cop archetype (performed competently enough by so-much-better-than-this Sam Rockwell), whom many critics believe to have been afforded more empathy than deserved, given his violently racist past. Much like with Andrea Arnold’s awkward portrait of American poverty in American Honey, this redemptive arc for an undeserving racist cop is just one symptom of a larger problem the movie suffers: a British outsider estimating an ill-informed view of American race relations. A long-respected playwright, McDonagh attacks this narrative with a tunnel-vision approach that values dialogue & character work over cultural context. To an American audience, it’s absolutely baffling to set a 2010s narrative about a violent, dysfunctional police force near Ferguson, Missouri without directly dealing with lethal, systemic racism in modern American law enforcement. “Black folks” are mentioned by name periodically throughout, but are largely nowhere to be seen, only checking in occasionally to encourage McDormand’s grieving mother with lines like “You go, girl. You go fuck those cops up.” McDonagh gets so caught up in telling a neo-Western revenge story about the meaningless, self-perpetuating nature of violence (a lesson we’ve had explained to us onscreen countless times before) that he doesn’t notice how many thematic cans of worms he’s opening & leaving unattended in the process. The empathetic portrait of the film’s most flagrantly racist cop is just one small part of that cultural-outsider obliviousness.

To be honest, I had soured on Three Billboards’s tone long before its American race politics naivete could fully sink in. Being willfully unfamiliar with McDonagh’s past works, I can’t claim to know if this film is indicative of his usual style, but I found it to be overwritten & under-directed in a consistently frustrating way. It felt like watching libertarian blowhard Bill Maher attempt to bring his Politically Incorrect brand of social commentary to the world of live theatre. When I say I’ve always caught a whiff of grotesque machismo from the look of McDonagh’s works, I should probably specify that it’s a pseudo-intellectual machismo – the kind of darkly comedic, overwritten tone that would appeal to Philosophy-major college freshmen who waste countless hours on Reddit & worship at the altar of The Boondock Saints. Indeed, even while featuring a “strong female” lead, Three Billboards feels like a grotesquely macho echo of the worst aspects of the highly-stylized, post-Tarantino dialogue that poisoned indie cinema for much of the 90s. I’m not fully convinced by the argument that Tarantino writes grimy genre throwbacks specifically to create an excuse to use racial epithets, but that exact criticism nagged me throughout Three Billboards. The performative, in-your-face way the film discusses fat people, “retards,” “midgets,” “wife-beaters,” a few more hateful terms I’d rather not repeat, pedophilic priests, rape, cancer, and suicide in a “transgressively” “humorous” tone was, to put it kindly, exhausting & juvenile. Women are lovingly addressed as “bitch” & “cunt” as pet names in a way that feels initially phony, then gratuitous in repetition. It got to the point where even the inciting incident of a teenage girl being “raped while dying” numbed me into not caring about the objectively horrific act’s revenge, since it was written in such a crassly flashy tone. Given Three Billboards’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture & Best Original Screenplay (among others), I suspect many audiences read this “non-PC” demeanor to be bravely truthful about “how things really are” in the American South. I personally found it to be empty, pseudo-intellectual macho posturing, like watching an #edgy stand-up comedian get off on “triggering snowflakes” in a two hour-long routine that supposedly has something revolutionary to say about life & humanity, but is covertly just a reinforcement of the status quo.

The worst movie experiences are always the comedies that fail to make you laugh. I haven’t felt as isolated in a laughing audience watching Three Billboards since I allowed myself to be culturally pressured into watching the similarly #edgy Deadpool. The only comedic bit that got a chuckle out of me was a brief scene where Frances McDormand talks to her house slippers, which feels like a nice glimpse into a much better screenplay. The discomfort of the film’s failed dark humor is only intensified by its demand to be taken (very) seriously. The suddenness of the brutality and the omnipresent somber country music feel like hallmarks of a dead serious drama, but there’s an awkward stage play sheen to the dialogue that doesn’t allow that tonal sobriety to sit right. References to Oscar Wilde and unprompted questions like “Do birds get cancer?” feel entirely foreign to a film that’s supposed to capture the Ugly Truth of the American South. McDormand gets by relatively unscathed in her central role, but the stage play quality of the dialogue forces most actors in the film into awful, flat performances we already know for a fact they’re better than (talented youngsters Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, and Samara Weaving are especially embarrassing here). Sam Rockwell’s teetering between comedic buffoon & explosive threat is a microcosm of the film’s problems balancing #edgy dark humor with overwritten stage play drama, so it makes sense that his character would draw most of the film’s backlash. He’s just one detail indicative of larger, deep-seated issues, though, a mascot for the film’s many ills.

I’m going to tell you an open secret: we’re unpaid, non-professionals here at Swampflix, so we don’t often see moves we have zero interest in. There’s no one to assign them to us with a monetary reward attached, so there’s really no reason for us to seek out movies we know we aren’t going to like (which helps explain why the vast majority of our reviews are rated three stars or higher). Awards season attention & high critical praise (or at least extensive critical conversation) are among the few factors that can lead us outside our comfort zone, which often means our lowest-rated movies are among the most critically lauded titles of any given year. I’m admitting all this to reiterate that I had no business watching Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. The early advertising convinced me I would dislike it, the second-wave critical backlash confirmed that suspicion, and then I allowed its high profile within the Oscars Conversation to convince me to give it a shot anyway. I can’t honestly say it’s one of the worst films of 2017, because I had the non-professional’s freedom to avoid moves I likely would have found to be worse. I can only report that it was one of my least favorite screenings of a high-profile movie from last year and I owe that experience to last minute desperation, FOMO, and The Academy.

-Brandon Ledet

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes is the second time this year I attempted to put my boredom with cinematic war narratives aside to feed my hunger for eccentric creature features. The results were moderately better on this second go. Matt Reeves’s conclusion to his Apes prequel trilogy felt like a sincerity antidote to Skull Island‘s disingenuous SyFy Channel genre film throwback, which was far more conventional than its What If King Kong Fought In The Vietnam War? premise should have allowed. Not only does War for the Planet of the Apes cover similar territory in a more satisfying way; it also adds shades of World War POW camps, the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr philosophy divide to deepen the context of its Apes vs Humans war for the planet. It takes its wartime primates premise far more seriously than Kong: Skull Island attempts to, yet somehow emerges as a notably better example of summertime blockbuster spectacle, despite the season’s usual penchant for dumb fun. Its superiority to that overpriced B-movie aside, I can’t honestly say much else in praise of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s an interesting film & a welcome excuse to escape the heat in a dark, air-conditioned room for two hours; but its nature as a straightforward war movie & a CG spectacle franchise cornerstone never allows it to amount to anything more substantial than that.

We rejoin the talking ape Caesar, played by eternal mo-cap prisoner Andy Serkis, as he attempts to maintain peace & order among his primate followers through simple credos like “Apes together strong,” and “Ape no kill ape.” Their plans to live peacefully in the woods are disrupted by a human militia headed by Woody Harrelson, who plays a warmonger who’s seen either Platoon or Full Metal Jacket one too many times in his life. This rogue colonel refuses to accept the apes’ peaceful request to be left alone in the wilderness. He slaughters large numbers from their ranks and eventually imprisons the survivors in an isolated stronghold he converts into a primate labor camp. Caesar and the colonel grimace at each other and trade gruff lines about who started/escalated the war and who they’ve both lost along the way for as long as the movie can put off two inevitabilities: an escape plan hatched by the ape prisoners & an all-out fire fight initiated by the humans. Somewhere during this grudge match two new characters introduce themselves to the fold: a mute child who’s clumsily coded as an archetype of Innocence & a Steve Zahn-esque buffoon played by sub-David Arquette buffoon Steve Zahn. As the war rages on, the developing details of the virus engineered in the first film are gradually revealed, opening the door for a kind of decisive finality to the series. The events of the film are tightly contained to a singular conflict, but dialogue hints that the struggle is linked to a more significant global crisis we never get to see.

I’m not sure that if you swapped out the apes with a more plausible rebel group like, say, Anarchists or Socialists, that I would find that same plot all that interesting, given my general aversion to this dour wartime end of cinema. That’s not the only issue making War for the Planet of the Apes feel like a moderate-at-best success, though. The apes look great; they’re believably animated in an eerie, modern CGI rendering that recalls the Disney-funded majesty of last year’s live action Jungle Book remake. The problem is that kind of CG spectacle isn’t all that interesting in the long run. As realistic as the apes look, they’re still just slightly off in a way that’s more distracting than it likely would have been if their image were more stylized. I’m not sure there was any point during the picture where I wasn’t thinking about the quality of the special effects, which isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of cinematic priorities. That kind of summertime special effects showcase typically comes with a long line of normalizing, Major Studio requirements too. There’s an oddly conspicuous Coca-Cola ad placement involving an abandoned 18-wheeler the camera lingers on for an eternity. The movie opens with a labored text scroll that attempts to walk the audience through the plot points & the “Rise/Dawn” title confusion of its two predecessors. It attempts to head off critics’ readymade puns like “Ape-ocalypse Now” & “The Great Esc-Ape” by making those allusions itself, which feels like a Major Studio brand attempting to control the conversation instead of allowing the film to be its own weird self. The whole ordeal just feels meticulously calculated & restrained.

 Without question, the second entry in the Apes trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, remains my favorite film in the franchise. There was something oddly wild & unpredictable about that film, which gifted the world one of my all-time favorite action movie images: the ape on horseback simultaneously operating two machine guns. I’m not sure there’s anything to be found in this follow-up that’s half as exciting as that image. Even Woody Harrelson’s character, who’s clearly supposed to echo Brando’s Colonel Kurtz performance from Apocalypse Now, feels fairly run of the mill for a crazed war movie villain. He nonchalantly shaves his head with a straight razor, wears sunglasses at inappropriate times, and eats apple slices off a combat knife; all of that macho posturing feels cinematically overfamiliar. By the time a Jimi Hendrix needle drop finds him listening to Vietnam War era rock alone at his boozy command station I felt as if I had already met this character a thousand times before. It was a beat that made me roll my eyes just as hard as any of Steve Zahn’s attempts to resurrect Pauly Shore humor or his silent little girl companion’s similarly cliché visual representations of Wartime Innocence (complete with tenderly earnest offers of a single flower). If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that. At least Kong: Skull Island is a fresh-on-the-mind counterpoint signaling that it also could’ve been much worse.

-Brandon Ledet

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

“I just had the worst thought. I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Is the world finally realizing that the 90s high school movie was one of the all-time heights of comedy cinema? The last gasp of the genuine Heathers & Clueless lineage might have been Mean Girls in 2004, but we’ve recently seen a few really great throwbacks to the era that repurpose 90s high school movie tropes for a new effect. Cheerleader reinterprets the genre as an abstract art piece. The To Do List transforms it into a raunchy, gender-flipped sex comedy. The DUFF lightly parodies it in a longform homage. The Edge of Seventeen, for its part, follows the basic rules of the 90s high school movie, except it matures the material slightly by portraying its teen girl protagonist as a deeply flawed antihero. Nadine (Hailee Seinfeld) is a mean, self-centered emotional wreck who talks trash a mile a minute as a means to cover up her own anxieties & vulnerabilities. In other words, she’s a realistic portrait of a teenager (or at least how I remember my asshole teenage self). The Edge of Seventeen is a worthy contribution to the high school comedy genre, not least of all because it adds a realistic layer of paradoxical self-loathing narcissism to its young protagonist that taps into a strikingly honest aspect of teen life that isn’t often represented onscreen. Or at least not often enough.

The movie opens with a grizzled history teacher (Woody Harrelson, reprising a less-drunk version of his role in The Hunger Games) shrugging off Nadine’s threat of suicide. She’s in so much pain; you can see it in her eyes as she rattles off a long list of grievances with the world and the details of the way she’d most like to die. Her teacher slowly, methodically deflates her moment of crisis by turning it into a quietly sweet, but deeply mean-spirited joke. This method works in its own weird way as it both slows down Nadine’s panic-mode thought processes, but also matches her own mean-spirited mode of verbally lashing out at people she cares about, but can’t control. Her reasons for being suicidally upset range from legitimate grief over a lost family member to petty anxiety over not being able to dictate the romantic pairings of her best friend, her family, her crush, or the boy who crushes on her. She harshly pushes away anyone who could potentially care about her, yet yearns for genuine interpersonal intimacy. The Edge of Seventeen is an eerily accurate portrait of teenage life that captures both the small details of lazing around watching TV, depending on others for transportation, and puking orange soda mix drinks into your parents’ toilet as well as the larger themes of godlike hubris clashing with soul-crushing self deprecation that makes teens so difficult to deal with, even when you are one. As self-centered as Nadine constantly seems to be, she often breaks down to ask friends questions like “How do you even like me? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even like me.” It’s that exact narcissistic self-conflict and focus on an anxious time where every thing means everything that makes this film so true to one of life’s most unpleasant stretches.

One of the best parts about The Edge of Seventeen is how it accomplishes all this while still feeling like a traditional high school comedy. This isn’t the soul-shattering trauma of The Diary of a Teenage Girl or the indie-minded, slang-loaded melodrama of Juno. In its own muted way, The Edge of Seventeen follows the will-they-won’t-they patterns of any & all high school romcoms and it’s tempting to call the film typical of its genre because of that narrative predictability. Everything outside of the basic plot structure is handled too smartly for me to be that reductive, though. Nadine’s own quest for self-acceptance and friendship is given far more prominence than her romantic machinations. Of all the people she can’t seem to get along with despite herself, she clashes hardest with her mother, yet the two are nearly identical personalities. The movie could’ve made a huge, emotionally cathartic deal out of that tension or out of Nadine’s oddly antagonistic relationship with her favorite teacher. Instead, it lets those relationships exist as they are and allows the audience to catch up with how they’re significant in its own time. It’s also an R-rated teen comedy with a female emotional bully protagonist who’s far less interested in winning people over than she is in protecting herself from yet another damaging blow to her heart & her ego. As much as The Edge of Seventeen feels like a throwback to a genre that saw its heyday two whole decades ago, it also exists as a shining exception of unflinching black comedy & truthful self-examination that doesn’t often touch the teen comedy genre outside an outlier like Election or Strangers With Candy. It’s a rare treat in that way, however bittersweet.

-Brandon Ledet