Sunday, January 25, 2009

Apes Rule!!!

I recently watching the original five Planet of the Apes movies. It is easy for me to see why I loved these as a kid. Although not all of the movies are that good I still consider this series to be a classics of American film. This entry is going to concentrate on the final two movies in the POTA cannon: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Additional musings about Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

After the let down of Beneath and the excitement of Escape I was ready to see what I remembered about Conquest. It was largely how I recalled it although not as much of a 1970’s film as I thought. Which is not to say that it didn’t have any 1970 SF film touches. The humans were still dressed all the same in mono-colored turtle necked fabrics*, authoritarian voices boomed into public spaces to let civilians know what to do, and multi-colored buttons adorned glossy paneled equipment to make it look futuristic. But for some reason I like to remember this movie as resembling a blaxploitation movie with lots of freeze-frames of an angry Caesar gazing through flames. Flames and an angry Caesar are present but not the freeze-frames.

I greatly enjoyed these final two installations and all that they added to the overall Apes mythos. It all came together very well. And we are still left off about a thousand years before Taylor crash lands. Lots can happen and that is one of the quibbles. As Colbinski and I have discussed (during a real conversation and not blogging), these great themes are dealt with in generalities rather than really focusing on them. There are the parallels to the civil rights movement, allusions to animal rights, and taken in today’s poor economic climate a warning about humans who want too much and selfishly mess it up for everyone. And mess it up they did and here came the apes.

Conquest picks up around two decades after Escape left off. A new twist added is that an unheard of disease wipes out dogs and cats and humans turn to replace these pets with monkeys and apes. Soon humans are breeding these animals to be bigger, smarter, and more skilled. Humans then turned these apes into slaves doing al sorts of work and being auctioned off like chattel. Our good pal Caesar**, he borne of Cornelius and Zira and who grew up able to speak in a circus is furious at his fellow apes treatment. And rightly so. So Caesar begins the revolution. All well and good. But Caesar doesn’t want only a Planet of Apes. He envisions a world co-ruled by simian and human.

So after the Conquest the Battle begins. In between these two movies humans send out nuclear bombs to quell the ape revolution, which apparently occurred worldwide. Why nuclear war would help is never really explored. Not too far from a destroyed city that will eventually become the Forbidden Zone (I think) Caesar’s shared utopia is taking bloom but not without problems as Aldo, a gorilla general is causing problems. Mutant humans from below the nuked city appear again and a battle occurs, the apes win, and then Caesar ultimately gets his way over Aldo and we may have everlasting primate peace contrary to the first POTA film.

One aspect that stands out to me is how much I relate to the Apes. I forgot all about the mutant humans appearing in Beneath and Battle. With good reason, I forgot them. They are terrible additions and I wish they weren’t around. Even as a precocious young’un I could even see that. Even when Aldo is chased by Caesar with the other apes chanting “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape!” I felt a twinge of sympathy for Aldo. Interestingly, Also is named as the Ape that wrote the Sacred Scrolls from which Ape Law is given. Battle shows that that is no longer the case. Caesar’s Rules abound and peace and harmony exist some 900 years after his death. As Colbinski has pointed out (again, during a spoken conversation) this brings about the Terminator Paradox***. Caesar needs the events of the first two movies to happen to even be born. His new rules suggest that that may not happen. So how will he be born? This is what I find interesting about the years between the end of Battle and the first Planet. What happens? Does another Aldo come along and upset the harmonic apple cart? Or will Taylor crash land in a world where he will be accepted? Oh, for a few more Apes movies.

*It amazes me that so many SF films made in the 70’s have people wearing the same exact clothing. This was a time when counter-culture and individualism were taking root, when differences were being praised and celebrated. Yet conformity regarding sartorial choices was constantly portrayed. Is this because filmmakers viewed this conformity as part of their vision of some future utopia or just plain laziness and/or lack of imagination?

** Caesar is named Milo when born in Escape. During the beginning of Conquest he is called Caesar and not Milo by the circus owner. Perhaps this is because Milo was known as one of the Apes from the future and naming a circus ape born around the same time Milo would raise eyebrows. But then in a great scene, Caesar is sold as a slave ape and when given a book to point to name himself he defiantly chooses Caesar. I loved the look in his eyes when he points to the name in the book with a sly certainty.

***The Terminator Paradox is based upon the time traveling within the Terminator movies where John Connor needs SkyNet to exist in order to be born as his father came back from the future and mated with his mother. I’m not exactly sure how the Terminator movies deal with this paradox and I probably haven’t explained it correctly but that’s how I understand it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular

Part VII: Final Round-up

Part I Part II Part III Part IVPart V Part VI

After a short delay from recent movies to write a bit about those old classic Planet of the Apes movies (well, mostly classics) I want to wrap up some other 2008 films that I have watched either in the theatre, on cable or by way of DVD. An update of my 2008 movie list found here.

Grand Torino
Retired crank and racist (retired from working in an automobile plant not retired from crankiness or racism) Walter Kowalski meets up with his teenage immigrant Hmong neighbors. Hilarity ensues. Well, not exactly. Although the racism seems a bit much at times this is still a very good movie that while not surprising does offer some tense moments and keeps you involved throughout. I liked the performances and the interactions between grizzled Clint Eastwood and the young Hmong cast. Recommended.

A moving biopic of the gay rights leader Harvey Milk. Excellent performances all around especially by James Brolin and and James Franco. I thought the intermixing of old footage into scenes was jarring and misplaced until the very end. It shows how far gay rights have come in the past 30 years but also serves as a reminder of how far they still have to go in light of the Prop 8 vote in California this past November. Good/Recommended

Tell No One
A French thriller/suspense film that actually comes together and makes sense as long as you allow the story to wash over you rather than following it fastidiously. I liked the tempo and pacing and certain scenes like a chase across a highway are very well done. Even the predictable ending confession that ties all loose ends together is better than you should expect. Good/Recommended

Not sure I see what the big deal is about this one. Critics were moon-eyed over this story about the last robot on Earth. I was nonplussed. Boring and not terribly moving despite a few amusing scenes. It proves that Hollywood’s fascination with male-female December-May romances can be related to robots. I was actually glad this one was over when it ended as I found myself constantly looking at my watch to see try to predict when it would be over. Disapointing

Wendy and Lucy
A small story concerned about a couple nights in a young woman’s life as she tries to get to Alaska. Like most good small stories it moves you more by what is left out then if everything is explained ad nauseum. I thought one scene in the train yard was unnecessary but I can see why it was left in. It is a well done film about a side of America not always seen or remembered. Recommended

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Great Escape

Dr. Milo went to the shore off the Forbidden Zone. Dr. Milo salvaged Taylor's space craft. Dr. Milo learned "half of it" regarding space flight. Dr. Milo recruits Cornelius and Zira and they enter the space craft as the gorilla led war begins. They watch the destruction of the world as happened at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. All this occurs before their starstruck eyes. The space craft then crash lands in the ocean off of Los Angeles in 1973.

That's all I needed to know. I completely buy that explanation.

Especially as it leads into a smart and plausible story. There's the juxtaposition of Zira and Cornelius first captured by humans with what is remembered of Taylor's time with the apes. An animal rights platform delivered without heavy-handedness. A delightful romp as we watch the apes enjoy themselves in 1973 America. Fantastic character development of Cornelius and Zira as we watch their wonderful relationship. Ricardo Montalban makes an appearance that makes you forget how big a ham Charlton Heston is. Another twist ending that proves these screenwriters had foresight and were looking at the next story.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is as different from the first two as can be. But it manages to build upon the ape world while not taking place within it. Not the classic that the original is but still a classic. This Apes movie was exactly as I remembered it.

Although upon my rewatching I didn't think much of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, I am glad that Beneath begat Escape.

Now on to the Conquest!!!

Childhood Memories Smashed

Or How Rewatching Beneath the Planet of the Apes Ruined My Night

I just began to rewatch all the Planet of the Apes movies, excluding the terrible 2001 remake. Other than the classic original I haven’t seen these since I was a young lad when they were shown on the Channel 7 4:30 Movie. (Planet of the Apes Week and Godzilla Week were my favorite weeks.) To start, I watched Planet and Beneath the Planet of the Apes back-to-back. Planet is still great. One of my all-time favorites movies. It sets up a great world and ends with a fantastic payoff.

I finished watching Planet of the Apes, thought of retiring for the night, but excitement took hold of my faculties and I popped in Beneath. If asked which of the Apes movies was my favorite I would have answered Beneath. In fact, I did answer Beneath to that very same question just the other day, which was one of the things that whetted my appetite to watch all these again. This favoritism was based upon my childhood memories. I remember a Taylor look-alike who I thought was cool while fighting apes. He gets shot in the arm and doesn’t make a sound while hiding behind a scrub brush, and then in the finale he ends up getting stood up to a wall in a rain of ape gunfire just before the ape world is destroyed. What a way to go! Until I rewatched this movie I would have placed dying in a hail of ape gunfire while the world blew up to be in my top 3 ways of passing on.

Other than the shooting scene behind the bush nothing about Beneath was as I remembered. In fact, I am saddened to say, the movie really isn’t any good. How can something I imagined for around thirty years to be great become so disappointing? I knew something was wrong when I didn’t se Roddy McDowell’s name in the credits. What is going on here? (I have since read up on wikipedia that Roddy was busy directing another film during Beneath’s making and therefore could not be in it.)

The main problem may be that I watched this and the original together. On rewatching the original I found more subtely added and the ape world more complex. . In a short span the movie sets up the different ape groups: orangutans are smart leaders, gorillas are the police force, brutish and powerful, and chimpanzees the diligent workers. It shows how that world works. We see museums, markets, courts of law, churches, research facilities. The orangutans know about the past human history. This is alluded to in one of the first conversations between Zira and Cornelius as they talk about how chimpanzees have been given new rights but that they both realize they can never really know all that the orangutans do and will never sit on the council. The council ruled by the orangutans want control. Even though they claim their civilization is thousands of years old we wonder why they haven’t advanced as much they probably should have. From some tidbits coming out of the mouth of Dr. Zaius we realize that the orangutans have been purposefully holding back the apes from advancing too soon too fast based upon the folly of humans who had done their best to destroy the world. In themselves they see the capacity for destructive war that humans have mastered and they are trying to prevent that. (The subsequent movies play on other human follies that lead to the ape world. Or at least I think it does, I haven’t gotten around to rewatching them yet.)

What was greatly disappointing about Beneath was that it doesn’t really add further insight into this world. They do add a gorilla army, that is belligerent and bellicose, rather than just a police or hunting force. There is one scene where chimpanzees are at a peace protest against the gorillas but this is never explored further. Dr. Zauis sort of goes with General Ursis and his army but he is really the only orangutan around and in the first one he wasn’t even the most important orangutan. (Dr. Zaius is the Minister of Science and the Leader of the Faith.) It seems that orangutans have given control away to a populist militaristic gorilla movement. It can also be seen in any scene involving more than three apes that they really cheaped out on the production design. In group shots I really do think they juts put some gorilla masks on extras and told them to jump up and down.

Other than these ape insights, Beneath focuses way too much on the humans. Especially the stupid telepathic underground mutants. I understand that circa 1969 telepaths and nuclear war destruction were common SF and fantasy tropes but c’mon! You have a great concept in a world ruled by apes. Why add mutant telepaths who worship a nuclear bomb? Not only were the mutants terrible but, worse, they were unnecessary.

I do understand why Brent, the new astronaut, was included. (Because a recalcitrant Charlton Heston did not want much to do with a sequel.) The guy who played Brent was fine if not a bit too much of a “serious” actor. During the scenes when he was attempting to ward off the mutants brain control and refrain from choking Nova I was like “Lighten up man, you’re in an Apes movie.” Intentionally or not, the film does fulfill the promise of modern man as world destroyers as Taylor, the misplaced human, is the one to detonate the “Doomsday bomb” which while small as far as bombs go, apparently packs a humungous punch and was stored in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

The first film packs a wallop at the end with Taylor finding a dilapidated Statue of Liberty. Beneath now imagines an entire ruined NYC that seems misplaced. It does away with time and distance when dealing with the Forbidden Zone. Every cave became an entrance to New York City. And New York after a nuclear war is amazingly easy to get around. Brent went from Queenboro Plaza to the New York Public Library to Grand central Station to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in no time at all.

The movie also starts off with a scene involving Taylor giving Nova his dogtags. Dogtags were never in the first movie. But here is Taylor digging it out of his loincloth and handing over to Nova. How ridiculous. Didn’t anyone watch the first movie? Taylor is completely naked like three times and his only possession is his dirty stinking loin cloth summarily torn off after offending an orangutan’s delicate olfactory senses. It’s not even the broken continuity that bothers me. It’s the sheer laziness. There are a million other ways and reasons for Nova to have Taylor’s name written down somewhere on her person. And dogtags was the best they could come up with. And for more nitpicking, Cornelius and Zira who at the end of Planet were being held in arrest for heresy by Dr. Zaius now appear to be his confidante and living in married bliss. More laziness from the filmmakers.

In addition to the above quibbles I think I was either disappointed in myself or I just found myself questioning the younger me. Did I ever think those mutants were cool or added to the story in any meaningful way? The mutant telepaths were quite lame. I was deflated when I found out that the gorilla General was named Ursis and not Urko. Apparently, Urko was not introduced until the TV series. They were the same rocking helmet, though. The biggest disappointment was the death of Brent which for some reason lasts a lot longer in my memory. I recall a man dying as a hero while being stuffed full of burning lead. The death is quick and untidy and not at all like the image that I have been holding in my mind. Then the voice-over ending concerning a “dead planet” was cheesy and not ominous. And you would think that they would end the series with a destroyed world.

But there is Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The next DVD to be popped in a watched. I remember liking this one quite a bit also. I’m just not going to think about how Cornelius and Zira could have commandeered a spaceship and gotten it off the planet and into a time vortex. It’s not gonna bother me at all.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular

Part VI: A few more movies viewed and more Jason Statham

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V

I've also caught up on a few 2008 movies since my first post. I would throw My Blueberry Nights in the Disappointing column and Gran Torino in the Highly Recommended column. My Blueberry Nights is the first English language movie from Hong Kong director Kar Wai Wong (In the Mood for Love and 2046 being two examples of his best work). My Blueberry Nights just simply disappoints. There really wasn't anything there. It's fluidly shot and well acted (Norah Jones is surprisingly undistracting but no great shakes) but the story is just so much of nothing. There was no sense of place. Perhaps that's to be expected in a movie that has interlocking stories from Manhattan, Memphis and Las Vegas as Norah Jones' Elizabeth embarks on a journey of sorts. But there was no sense that there was no sense of place either. If this was Kar Wai Wong's American journey movie it got a flat tire a few miles on the interstate.

Gran Torino, on the other hand, was a well-oiled machine, much like the eponymous car. Clint Eastwood plays Walter Kowalski, a Korean War vet now retired after 40 years at the local Ford plant. After his wife passes way, he's alone in a changing neighborhood now full of Hmong immigrants. The movies strength comes from Eastwood, both as director and actor. Most write-ups of Gran Torino I've read cite Kowalski as a mash-up of Dirty Harry and Bill Muny from Unforgiven. I see Thomas Highway from Heartbreak Ridge as the true source for Kowalski. It's as if Gunny Highway retired and moved to Detroit he behave and react just as Walt does here. At any rate, Walt begins an unlikely relationship with his Hmong neighbors. Eastwood's ease of pacing as a director carefully choreographs this relationship. What, in others hands, could easily fall prey to sentimental melodrama, exists as true organic moments under Eastwood's steady hand.

This brings to mind another unlikely friendship by another Walt - Richard Jenkin's Walter in The Visitor. Similarly, director Tom McCarthy here also avoids the pitfalls of middle-aged white guy forging new experiences with a different culture in many of the same ways that Eastwood does - rich character development and heartfelt but not corny moments of universal truths. While entirely different movies, how each Walt handles the conflicts involved with their new friends resonates as each deal with a growing sense of powerlessness against outside forces. Each is singularly heartbreaking in their own right.

Now on to some other topics...

1. Nimero has an interesting past list of Best Movies of the Year. Before the blog, these lists were dispersed via e-mail to friends, which I no longer have record of. Nimero's memory is much better than mine as I needed to scan lists of released movies for 2003 and 2004 to determine what my Best was, but to no avail. Here's what I came up with:

2007: No Country for Old Man
2006: The Fountain
2005: King Kong
2004: I have no idea. Nothing jumped out at me.
2003: Maybe Master and Commander, but I think there was something else. But nothing else jumped out at me.

2. My Jason Statham comment was more directed at The Bank Job rather than The Transporter series. But I can't deny that I have been entertained by both Transporter movies even though I yet to see the end of either. Though I know exactly how each ends, thank you very much. The Bank Job is a fun heist movie that has solid characters, is not forcibly self-serious or handcuffed to the being a peroid piece (late 60's England) though it seems to evoke that period very well. It casts Statham as a regular bloke brought in for a can't miss bank robbery when in reality he's a pawn for some rather seedy political play. Of course Statham's regular bloke gets his contractually obligated kick-ass scene. Had no idea his character could do that, but, oddly enough it didn't take away from movie one bit. Such is the screen charisma of Jason Statham. Now to move that Statham movie where he has to keep moving or die to the top of my Netflix queue.

Friday, January 02, 2009

2008 Movies Roundtable Spectacular

Part V: I pick a favorite movie of the year

Part I Part II Part III Part IV

As promised in the Roundtable Spectacular initial post (which thus far, while remaining spectacular, has not been much of a roundtable) I have updated my category list with movies since viewed. At that time, I wasn't quite sure which movie to declare the best (re my favorite) of the year. But I have now decided. Let The Right One In is my favorite and best movie of 2008. Before I get talking about this great film let me recap my favorite movies of previous years. I can go back to 2003 from memory.

2008: Let The Right One In
2007: No Country for Old Men
2006: Pan's Labyrinth
2005: 2046
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2003: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Perhaps listing these favorites will enhance the reader's appreciation of my cinematic likes and dislikes. More likely, no one cares. On to my favorite of 2008.

After seeing Let The Right One In I knew I liked it. I just wasn’t sure how much I liked it. After sussing it over for a few days I am now of the opinion that it is a modern day masterpiece. It doesn’t add anything new to vampire legend but it reveals quite a bit about human nature in general. Vampires still drink blood and have an aversion to sunlight. There is no vampire origin story and there is an interesting twist on how a vampire/human bond comes to exist so strongly than doesn’t involve hypnotism or bloodsharing. The title of the film also subverts the notion of inviting a vampire into one’s abode nicely. Rather this film is about how one vampire lives and how that life is itself extraordinary. It’s not even about vampires, really. It’s about childhood vulnerabilities and how they are exploited by that child’s peers, both friend and foe. The most amazing aspect of this film is how it portrays its two main characters. The relationship between neglected, picked-on Oskar and the vampire Eli seems touching, even hopeful but upon reflection it is anything but. Inside this film is a story about the difficulties of growing up without getting older and the journey of getting older without having to grow up. It’s still a vampire story, though, and that makes it even more remarkable.

Colbinski, yet to see this tremendous film, is currently reading the book by John Ajvhide Lindqvist. I anticipate Colbinski finishing the book and then watching this film as much as I anticipate reading it once he is done. I do not anticipate the inevitiable Hollywood remake slated for 2010 by the director of Cloverfield which I hated.