Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Brick

Brick (2005) resembles a Dashell Hammet or Raymond Chandler story set in high school. A hard-boiled neo-noir, the film is set in an upper-middle class high school of cliques, rich kids, athletes, nerds, and loners, and it explores the seedy, dangerous underbelly, a place where neither police nor educators nor parents can reach.

But this is not a gritty expose on the dangerous, reckless lives of the youth. It's a postured, stylized homage to the classic film noirs, neither realistic nor credible for any moment of its length, but in this genre, that's not a drawback. Film noir is about style and attitude, a feeling of corruption, isolation, and despair, a sense that the world is a cruel and hopeless place filled only with assorted lowlifes. Glamor, wealth, and happiness are illusions, covers pulled over a seedy underbelly of decay and perversion.

Our protagonist is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a student loner who will stop at nothing when his ex-girlfriend Emily comes to him for help and then winds up dead, face down in a storm sewer drain. That's not much of a surprise. The film opens with Brendan staring helplessly at her corpse and then flashes back for a bit before following his quest to find out who killed her, why, and who to take it out on.

Fans of film noir will recognize the figures he encounters on his search: a femme fatale, a drug lord, a brutish thug, a whacked-out druggie, an authority figure demanding answers, a well-connected informant, and silent goons. Brendan himself is something of a private detective, taking on a case for his personal reasons to find a buried truth, and in the process, he finds his own soul on the line. He's sharp, sardonic, and tough but wounded on the inside and haunted by his past, which we're told includes ratting out a friend and his breakup with Emily.

Brendan doesn't talk like any high schooler I've ever known (nor is he ever seen in class). When confronted by a group of druggies, he tells them, "I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you." When called into the office of the vice principal (Richard Roundtree), he sounds like a cop mouthing off at a superior: "No more of these informal chats! If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me and I'll see you at the parent conference."

Just about everyone in the film talks in that elevated, stylized manner. Rich girl Laura (Nora Zehetner) cuts right to Brendan's heart when she tells him, why she wants to help him: "You think nobody sees you. Eating lunch behind the portables. Loving some girl like she's all there is, anywhere, to you. I've always seen you. Or maybe I liked Emily. Maybe I see what you're trying to do for her, trying to help her, and I don't know anybody who would do that for me." Even in their final scene together, on the football field, Brendan and Laura stand so close, and from the way she stands, tilts her heads, and speaks softly, she reminds me of Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai. Even her name reminds me of the eponymous Gene Tierney character and suits her: a female figure whose character and motivations you can't be sure of.

Another scene reminds me of the part in Miller's Crossing when Gabriel Byrne is led to the woods where the body of someone he was supposed to kill should be, and Byrne knows the guy ain't dead. Here, Brendan is taken to the sewer drain where he knows Emily's body is stashed, and if she's found, the group he's with will believe he killed her. 

Plot wise, I'm still confused by everything that occurs in Brick. Who did what and why is a bit jumbled, but that's not new to the genre either. As I said above, film noir is more atmosphere and feeling rather than narrative details, and writer/director Rian Johnson captures a sense of suburban alienation. Classic film noir used deep shadows and expressionistic lighting, but Brick is not that distorted. Much of the film takes place in gray daylight in empty hallways and street corners. In one scene, Brendan is attacked by a thug with a knife, and Johnson films the subsequent chase in long shots and long takes (without music) that show off the surroundings; it's not a pumped up action scene but a desperate flight, and Johnson's film grammar emphasizes how alone and vulnerable Brendan is. 

The one really expressionistic technique that stands out occurs when Brendan, beaten senseless a number of times by this point, lies in bed. As he looks up at a spinning ceiling fan, we see from his point of view as the fan seems motionless while the room itself is what appears to spin, showing just how physically and mentally off balance Brendan feels. There's also a scene where Brendan, in a dark basement, uses sunlight reflected off a mirror to find an important clue, and the scene is shot so we only clearly see what's directly in the light

Johnson also laces the film with dark, ironic humor. The Pin (Lukas Haas) is the biggest, baddest drug dealer in the film, and he presents himself in dark suits and hushed tones. Yet, he operates out of his mother's basement, and she cheerfully offers breakfast (cereal and apple juice) for her son's criminal associates. Whether she (the only parent we meet) knows what her son does is a question not asked. Brendan also regularly confronts an ex-girlfriend, Kara (Meagan Good), a theater girl who apparently keeps freshmen boys prostrated at her feet (hinting at some perverted, sexual dominance that also is a noir tradition). During her conversations with Brendan, she will suddenly tell someone to go run an errand, and the servant will stand up and leave, revealing he'd been there the whole time just below the frame.

Brick is sort of The Maltese Falcon for the Millennial Generation. The characters of classic film noir, made during the years of World War II and the start of the Cold War, found despair and nihilism by a rapidly changing world that seemed larger, darker, and irrational. Brick updates those archetypes and that style to a modern setting and finds the same alienation and cynicism. Maybe we should be worried the youth of America are growing up much quicker.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Highway to AC/DC

AC/DC was the first band I became fanatic about. Sure, I liked the Beatles, and I recognized Alice Cooper from Wayne's World, but I wasn't well versed in music. My encounters with any group were limited to what my dad played in his car when he drove me to my baseball games - usually a good selection of classic rock plus various stories he had about the shows he'd been to (like the time he went to a concert headlined by Herman's Hermits but stolen by The Who) - or whatever my siblings played, which was usually whatever was popular at the time. Sure, there were a handful of songs I could recognize and say I really liked, but I was more of a movie guy and didn't really pay attention.

That all changed when I got to college. For the first time since I was little, I wasn't playing a sport (that's a long, unpleasant story), and I was looking to explore new interests. At Ohio Wesleyan, there was in an impov comedy group, the Babbling Bishops (a play on the school mascot, the Battling Bishop), and I auditioned to join the group. It was a lot the fun, the people were really good, and it involved weeks of workshops, games, and even a live show at the end. I didn't get in the group, but it was a good experience. Still, I needed something to do, and that's when I saw the flier.

WSLN 98.7 The Line, Ohio Wesleyan's student-produced radio station was seeking DJs. I figured what the hell and decided to sign up. The show was conducted out of the top floor of old Slocum Hall in what was essentially attic space. I had this half-baked vision of writing sketches and routines for myself, talking about movies, and doing some sort of talk show, but two hours once a week was a lot harder to fill than I realized, especially on my own.  Fortunately, I had a backup plan.

By accident, I had with me at college a black CD storage book filled with dozens of albums my siblings had owned. My brother and sisters were more schooled on digital music and really didn't have a need for the physical CDs anymore, and this little case somehow ended up passed to me for a time. I recognized some of the group names, and when I decided I had run out of things to spew into the radio room microphone, I started putting on music. I played the likes of Led Zepplin, Cream, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Alice Cooper, Queen, and anything I recognized and/or liked, which meant no Brittany Spears or any other pop crap.

One of the albums was AC/DC's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I vaguely remembered hearing the title trek on the radio and at some sporting events but never could understand what the hell the singer was saying. I did like the beat and instrumental part, so when I saw the CD in the booklet, it was something of an epiphany for me because I was like "that's what they're singing!" I played the title track on the radio, plus a few of the other songs on the album, including "Big Balls" because at the time, I recently started following pro wrestling again, and Balls Mahoney had used the song as his entrance theme in ECW. For Christmas that year, I also got my first MP3 player, and Dirty Deeds was one of the albums I put on it.

That was the first step of my AC/DC fandom. The next summer, I worked for my grandfather, doing a lot of physical work like digging holes in his backyard, hauling concrete, and carrying lumber, and every day, I drove my dad's car. My dad often left his CDs in the car, and one of those CDs was Back in Black, and I listened to it almost every single day, playing it as loud as I could. I'd get home from working and have the volume cranked up so loud, the garage shook as I pulled the car in. For my birthday, my parents gave me Highway to Hell, and I was hooked. In 2008, when the group released Black Ice, my older sister bought me tickets to their show at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland that December/January, and I had my first concert experience. I went with my Dad, and afterward, my ears rang for hours.

It's hard to explain why I took to AC/DC so strongly. The music is cool, heavy, at times kind of dangerous sounding, but the lyrics are filled with ridiculous double entendres and a goofy but undying devotion to all things rock n roll. It's catchy, straightforward, loud, driving, and to a degree repetitious, but that hasn't stopped me from owning all their studio albums, even the ones I consider weaker. I can listen to the band when I'm working out, writing, relaxing, driving, and doing just about anything (I'm listening to them as I type this post). Whether it's Bon Scot or Brian Johnson singing, I'm almost always up for AC/DC.

Recently, the band released Rock or Bust and it's something of a miracle album. Founding member Malcolm Young had to leave the band after being diagnosed with dementia (nephew Stevie Young gamely fills his shoes), and drummer Phil Rudd ran into some potentially serious legal trouble, and he's been replaced by Chris Slade, who had a stint in the band in the late 80s and early 90s. And yet, Angus Young, Cliff Williams, and Johnson cut an album that bears all the hallmarks of AC/DC: catchy choruses, driving guitar riffs, pulsing bass, steady drums, and attitude that says they don't care about trends or fads; they just want to rock.

The last few years have been difficult for me, personally and professionally. I was laid off in 2012, and my youngest sister passed away in 2013, which I count as the worst experience of my life. For the first in a long time, though, things are looking up, and I have a strong outlook on the future. I won't say AC/DC dragged me out of the dark place I've been, but it definitely came out at the right time for me. As I'm looking forward, here's another reminder from the group who through thick and thin, ups and downs, challenge after challenge, has emerged strong and true to themselves. I take comfort in that.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

We've reached the end of the original Planet of the Apes series. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is undoubtedly the weakest of the early entries. It's not bad on a Superman IV or Batman & Robin level, but it's a step down in quality from the earlier films.

The problems mostly stem from 20th Century Fox's decision to cut corners and do the movie as cheaply as possible. We get stock footage from two of the earlier movies, costumes are reused (suggesting that ape fashion will not change over two thousand years), many of the ape masks look fake, and some shots seem to be missing entirely, resulting in a lot of confusing and jarring transitions. In one case, we see run Caesar (Roddy McDowell) send his son Cornelius (Bobby Porter) off to play, and then the film jumps to Caesar in his home and his wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy, who, like McDowell, appeared in four of the Apes movies but who has the distinction of having played an ape, a mutant, and a human scientist) tells him to say good night to their son, and there's Cornelius lying in bed.

Most disappointingly, Battle comes off less as the epic capper to a venerable franchise than it does a restricted, television-level affair. The titular battle between the apes and mutants, far from being the titanic clash for control of the world as the title seems to promise, is a rather limited skirmish with a few dozen combatants on each side. The scope is very confined, the action scenes aren't especially memorable, and the world seems very small. The mutants live in a dank basement, and the apes and normal humans mostly mill about outside with only the occasional hut or set.

Battle also has the most dubious setup in the franchise. Caesar, who led the ape uprising in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in a matter of a few short years has apparently taught all these jungle chimps, gorillas, and orangutans the power of speech and formed a new society in which he is king, humans are second-class citizens (still capable of talking), and the apes have advanced to the point where they make jokes about time travel paradoxes. The film, except for the beginning and the end (which are set in the far future with a bored-sounding John Huston as the Lawgiver), takes place after a nuclear war, but I was unclear whether that was mankind's response to the simian revolt or some other conflict.

Still, if there's one thing to admire in the Planet of the Apes is that they were never short on ideas or imagination. 20th Century Fox may have chipped away at the budgets, but not one of these early films can be described as generic or uninteresting, and that includes Battle. There's still plenty to enjoy and discuss if you're willing to overlook the film's aforementioned weaknesses.

The Planet of the Apes saga was, prior to this entry, dark and pessimistic, a warning for where mankind was heading if humans did not change their ways. Battle is the most hopeful of entries, suggesting cooperation between the two warring sides, ape and man, is achievable; the end of the world, at the hands of Taylor and the atomic bomb, may be avoided if the humans and apes treat each other as equals, and Battle shows Caesar and company's efforts to do just that. Instead of a crumbling Statue of Liberty or a bomb going off, the movie closes with the ape Lawgiver teaching both ape and human children while a statue of Caesar sheds a tear.

Caesar desires to do the right thing, and he heeds advice from trusted advisers, Virgil (Paul Williams), an orangutan scientist, and MacDonald (Austin Stoker), the brother of the human who helped him in Conquest. Another ape, the orangutan Mandemus (Lew Ayres), acts as Caesar's "conscience," guarding the armory and providing guns only when Caesar can explain good reasons for needing them (by contrast, as Virgil points out, humans had no one minding their conscience). Instead of burying the truth or destroying it, Caesar seeks it out, journeying to the wasteland of the Forbidden City for tapes of his parents to learn what will happen if humans and apes don't get along. Instead of constructing a draconian dogma in which one side dominates the other, Battle suggests the key to cooperation is confronting the truth, ugly or otherwise, and working toward a common goal.

In contrast, the mutants, now led by Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), cling to the old ways and seek to reassert their power. Sick, dying, and malformed by nuclear radiation with so much of the world already devastated by conflict, all they can think to do is to inflict more violence and destruction. Kolp has something of a conscience in the form of Mendez (Paul Stevens), who tries every step of the way to talk sense into him, but Kolp disregards him, and when he learns of the ape settlement, he becomes determined to destroy it. The mutant nature is reflected in a neat visual touch: Kolp's armada includes a re-purposed school bus. Instead of transporting children to school, it carries armed mutants to battle, hinting at man's self-destructive tendencies at the expense of the future.

The other area the film succeeds is it characters. I already discussed Caesar, but Kolp is a downright quirky villain. When he sees Caesar, MacDonald, and Virgil on a security monitor, he recognizes Caesar and MacDonald, adding, "I don't think I know the orangutan." Darden plays him a little like Orson Welles, and Kolp is more bored than anything. A war with the apes will give him something to do. Meanwhile, the supporting characters get moments of complexity. MacDonald is the human aide not afraid to speak truth to power, Mendez defies Kolp in a key moment after the battle, Mandemus wants out of his responsibility, and Virgil has brains and good humor.

The other villain of the piece is General Aldo (Claude Aikins), a gorilla who seeks to usurp Caesar and wipe out the humans. Aldo's actions forces Caesar to wrestle with tough moral questions. Ape doctrine commands that "Ape shall never kill ape," and yet, Aldo commits murder by killing Cornelius, cutting a branch the boy is on when he overhears the gorilla's plan, sending Caesar into despair and grief.

When Caesar learns who the murderer is, he in turn kills Aldo, knocking him from a tree, but he asks afterward if one murder can avenge another. The apes are still a new society in Battle and haven't had long to deal with these hard questions. They are somewhat naive, innocent almost. When the first ape murderer is exposed, MacDonald points out "they've finally joined the human race."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Escape from the Planet of the Apes, I wrote, requires a "little effort" to buy its setup. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) requires a lot of effort. That's not to say it's a bad entry in the series. It fits quite well the franchise and offers a plethora of ideas to meditate on. By the end of the film, when ape leader Caesar (Roddy McDowell), the son of the future chimps Zira and Cornelius, delivers a fire-and-brimstone speech declaring the era of man finished and that apes will now rule, it's hard to not be swept up by the passion and excitement of the simian revolution.

Like other entries in the Planet of the Apes saga, Conquest boasts its own look and style. Instead of the epic sci-fi adventure of the original, the subterranean clash of societies and phantasmagoria in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the contemporary comedy and conspiracy thriller of Escape, Conquest boasts a hi-tech, dystopian near-future (1991 to precise) in which the apes are the enslaved underclass while the human government has morphed into a totalitarian, fascist regime. Loud speakers herd the masses, police officers with batons and machine guns violently disperse protesting workers and crack the skulls of disobedient apes, and people who are arrested are subject to torture. The black irony of the original and the charming humor of Escape have been replaced by a cold, autocratic system.

This is a compelling change of scenery. Instead of deserts and underground tunnels, the movie gives us a glimpse at a sleek, urban future. The ape slaves all wear colored jumpsuits, and the human authorities, all dressed in black, resemble American Gestapo. Director J. Lee Thompson gives the film a rigid, confining feel: sharp angles, tall metal buildings, and an oppressive atmosphere. Rooms are sleek and sterile, and we frequently get confining images of the apes - between bars, within door frames, through the booted legs of officers, underneath stairwells, cowering below whips - that reinforce that they are the downtrodden species. And there are some amusing throwaway details, such as the striking human waiters who consider apes scabs and the customers who tip ape waiters with sugar cubes.

But Conquest falters heavily in the credibility department. I can buy that thousands of years in the future, apes have evolved to be the dominant species on the planet with the power of speech and size comparable to humans. The apes in Conquest, save for Caesar, are meant to be simians taken right from the jungle, straight out of the wild. I don't buy that when the apes are clearly actors in masks and makeup; that's not to say the makeup effects are bad, but they don't believably resemble real apes of the 20th century. The film also greatly overestimates just how teachable real apes are, showing them capable of comparatively complex tasks and learning.

From a story line perspective, the set up is also questionable. In the last movie, the government learned that after a space virus wiped out dogs and cats, humans took apes as pets and slaves, and eventually, that led to the ape revolution and man's fall. So why in God's name would the government, knowing what apes end up doing, allow them to be made pets and slaves by the thousands and taught how to use tools? Why put them in every home and business? Some of the apes are even allowed to roam free, albeit while running errands for their masters. Even before Caesar arrives in the city and begins stirring things up, the apes, we're told, have started acting disobedient.

The film also hammers home the humans-are-scumbags message very, very thick. It's almost as if the humans are trying to get the apes to revolt because of how bad they treat them; every action villain Governor Breck (Don Murray) takes seems designed to just point how evil he is. When he learns an escaping ape was caught and killed after it attacked its master, he is angered and shocked that a slave would dare harm its master. His aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) points out the ape had bruises all over its body, indicating its master beat it, and Breck replies it must have done something to deserve it. The idea that slaves would want to escape or retaliate is just baffling to Breck, and for a series that's done so well with villains, he just comes off as a mustache-twirling jerk, a bad guy we just want to see brought down because he's such a meanie.

As much of a disappointment the villain is, our hero is a rousing success. McDowell, who played his character's father in previous entries, plays Caesar entirely different from Cornelius. Cornelius was a pacifist, an intellectual devoted to reason and truth; he only took up the gun when his family was threatened. By contrast, Caesar is a revolutionary, one driven to violent action and a charismatic leader of his fellow oppressed apes. He's also quite cunning, listening in Breck's to the governor's plans and using the information to his advantage.

Humans, he tells MacDonald, won't learn to be kind until "we force them to, and we can't do that unless we're free." At the end, when Caesar delivers his sermon declaring the end of man to his army of apes, a fire burns around him. It's intense, frightening, and awe-inspiring, and based on how we've seen man treat ape, it's almost impossible to not agree with him. The series has been decidedly anti-war in its previous three entries and illustrated the cyclical, self-destructive nature of violence, but Conquest is the first to argue that violence, in cases where freedom is denied, can be a solution.  Revolution, Caesar explains, is the "only means left to us."

It all comes back to the theme of man being the engine of his own destruction. Instead of blowing himself up with nuclear weapons in a war driven by conquest and religious dogma, he is undone by his own inhumanity. Oppressing the apes is what drives them to stand up and resist, and in the process, humanity's dominance toppled. A society built on fear, greed, exploitation, and cruelty will crumble when the persecuted rise up, the movie argues.

Conquest proves the most graphically violent of the original series. People and apes are strangled, tortured, and electrocuted; gunshot wounds are messy and bloody; and in the end, the apes stack the bodies of dead humans on top of one another. In one moment, Breck takes a pistol, walks over to a gorilla, and shoots it right in the head. During the ape revolt, one guard holds the apes at bay with a flame-thrower until one ape knocks him down, takes the flamethrower, and incinerates the man, and the film shows him engulfed in flames.

The film has two endings. The theatrical version ends with Caesar staying his hand and allowing the fallen Breck to live. In the original, unrated ending, he goes through with the execution, and Breck is smashed by apes with rifles. The former, thematically, offers the idea of cooperation and coexistence, which is explored more in the next sequel, but it's shoddily done, McDowell's voice is awkwardly dubbed over the footage, and it just takes the viewer out of the moment. The latter is more logical and consistent with the theme of revolution; sorry mankind, you had your chance.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

Well, it's a movie late, but I finally get a Planet of the Apes movie with the chimp couple Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell returning to the series) as the main protagonists. Beneath the Planet of the Apes ended with the destruction of Earth, and while that was done by the filmmakers with the intention of finishing the series, time travel has a way offering a way out of narrative dead ends.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes inverts the paradigm we'd seen in the series so far. Instead of a modern-day human traveling to a future Earth where intelligent simians ruled primitive humans, Escape features a trio of intelligent apes - Zira, Cornelius, and Milo (Sal Mineo) - escaping the planet's destruction by journeying to the past, specifically 20th century Los Angeles, where humans still sit atop the evolutionary food chain.

This setup takes a little effort to accept. We're to believe these apes, previously amazed by a paper airplane, somehow salvaged Taylor's ship from a lake, repaired it, and used it to escape before the world ended and prior to the start of this movie. Also some of the back story, about how the apes rose to dominance in the future, is ret-conned by Cornelius, who shares a story about how apes revolted against human masters after a plague wiped out dogs and cats and humans took apes as pets. The whole plot of the original was Taylor and Cornelius working to prove humans came before apes, counter to the dogma of the Lawgiver. If the ancient scrolls already revealed humans used to be smart, why did Zaius work so hard to cover that up? Cornelius mentions the scrolls were secret, but when did he learn this when his evidence was based on archeological artifacts?

Maybe if Beneath the Planet of the Apes had been done in the way I suggested, these inconsistencies could have been addressed. No matter, once you get past that suspension of disbelief, Escape from the Planet of the Apes gives the series new life and leaves an open ending allowing for further adventures, albeit after a grim, shocking, and heartbreaking demise for the two chimps we've grown to love over three movies.

But more on that later. Escape can be split up into three parts. The first act addresses the first contact between future apes and modern humans. The simian trio don't know who to trust, and the human scientists don't know what to make of them, and things aren't helped when the group is kept in a cage at the Los Angles Zoo and Milo is killed by a gorilla. This leads to a commission hearing set up by the President of the United States. Like Taylor before Dr. Zaius and the orangutans, Zira and Cornelius are essentially on trial, but unlike Taylor, they win over their human captors, or at least the human audience, with charm and good nature. When the commission chair asks whether the male can speak, Cornelius motions toward Zira and says, "Only when she lets me." Everyone laughs, and the happy couple embraces.

This leads to the second act in which Zira and Cornelius become media sensations, and the film becomes more of a fish-out-of-water comedy as the apes tour the city, check into a hotel, visit a museum, get new wardrobes, and become celebrities. It's pretty silly, but how else would you expect talking apes to received in 1970's Los Angeles? Their personalities shine through with Zira in particularly being, to use the movie's term, "uppity" and Cornelius getting his share of zingers. When the hotel clerk asks for an address, Cornelius shrugs and says, "The zoo."  Zira also speaks to a women's group about marriage while Cornelius attends a boxing match, which he describes as "beastly." The idea that humans make violence entertainment upsets him.

The comedy of the second act is charming and sweet, but most importantly, it doesn't derail the plot. In reality, it makes the third act all the more intense and brutal. Cornelius and Zira are so lovable we don't want anything bad to happen to them, but things change when it's revealed Zira is pregnant. Then, the plot shifts into Terminator mode as the president's science adviser, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), becomes convinced the unborn ape child must not be allowed to live, lest a future dominated by apes unfolds. The chimps go on the run, Zira goes into labor, and it all leads to a date with destiny in a rusted, abandoned shipyard.

The previous entries in the series illustrated the dangers of religious fundamentalism and how dogmatic beliefs can be used to justify wars of conquest. Greed, hunger for power, and hypocrisy were the great sins. Escape focuses on distrust and fear of "the other," people (or in this case apes) who are different. Over these first three movies, apes and humans discover the other is capable of thought, reason, and emotions, but instead of empathizing with each other and finding common ground, they resort to conflict, each fearful the other will prove dominant.

If there's one thing the Apes has been good at, it's its villains, and Dr. Hasslein fits well with the likes of Dr. Zaius and General Ursus in that he believes he is perfectly justified in his actions, and it's not hard to understand why. Knowing where Zira and Cornelius come from, and what that future means to the survival of the human race and the planet, it's understandable he takes extreme action. The future, with humans reduced to brutish animals hunted down and experimented on by apes, is something he tries to stop.

Of course, as Cornelius points out, the bomb that destroys the Earth was made by humans, and it was human abuse and enslavement of the apes that eventually drove them to revolt and overthrow their human masters. Even apes hunting humans is no different from what humans do to animals in the 20th century. Perhaps that dark, destructive future for the planet and both species could have been averted peacefully had man treated his simian counterpart more humanely and not created so many weapons of war. Instead, Hasslein decides the best way to avert this future is through murder. The president compares him to Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, pointing out that Christ lived anyway, and the good doctor notes, "Herod didn't have our facilities." Hasslein makes the comparison of going back in time to assassinate Hitler, and ironically, he's the one who acts more like a Nazi: secret meetings of government commissions deciding draconian policy, forced sterilization, harsh interrogation, drugging the pregnant Zira with sodium pentothal, no due process, and finally murder.

But Hasslein's drastic actions fail. While Cornelius and Zira are killed, their child survives, and as we see in this film's followup, Conquest of the Planet of Apes, that ape-child grows up to lead the very revolution Hasslein tried to prevent, only it happens a couple of centuries earlier than originally foretold. His actions only accelerated the future ape revolt. Violence begets violence.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Imagine if Aliens spent its first hour having Ripley battle a single xenomoprh on a spaceship before introducing the queen and hive, and you can understand why Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) goes wrong.

The first sequel to the seminal Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is equal parts expansion of the story and characters introduced in its predecessor and rehash. The new elements presented here are quite good and help flesh out the world and mythology of the series before arriving at a conclusion of startling finality and pessimism. The regurgitated elements find a new, less interesting main character going through the same beats Charlton Heston did, and the second time around is not as effective.

Beneath introduces a new astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), who arrives on the planet looking for Taylor (Heston), who has disappeared into the Forbidden Zone. For the first forty minutes, Brent goes through the same paces Taylor did: encountering the ape society, meeting Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (now played by David Watson, making this the only of the original Apes movies to not feature Roddy McDowell), and escapes into the Forbidden Zone with a mute human, Nova (Linda Harrison), who was Taylor's girlfriend in the first movie. His discovery that he's on Earth occurs on a subway platform.

This first half of the movie plays like a condensed redo of the first movie. It even opens with stock footage showing the Statue of Liberty climax, and stock footage is never a good way to open any movie that aspires to be epic or convincing; it always comes off as cheap and jarring. The film also glosses over a few questions raised by the end of the last movie. When the original ended, Zaius declared Zira and Cornelius were going to be charged for heresy, and yet that's never mentioned in Beneath, and Zaius is comparably friendlier toward the pair of human sympathizers.

The other problem is Brent. Taylor was a sarcastic cynic, and in the first movie, we got to hear his philosophy and sharp wit. Yes, he could be a man of action, but he also had to match minds with Zaius and convince Zira and Cornelius he wasn't "inferior." Because this portion of the story hurries along, Brent doesn't get a chance to be defined more as a character. That's not a knock on Franciscus, but Brent is there to be dragged by the plot as needs arise, a cog in the machine. Taylor was a stand-in for the human race, an archetype who carried our hopes and dreams and embodied our faults.

Most disappointing of all, the sequel limits Zira and Cornelius to only a handful of inconsequential scenes; they could have been easily written out of the film for all they contribute. Previously, their fates became entwined with Taylor's, and the growing trust and friendship among the three was one of the movie's strengths. Here, they give Brent some clothes, and Zira later helps him escape. It's a hollow echo of the same storyline and has none of the same impact.

The one wrinkle in this sequence is the expansion of the caste system among the apes - with the elite orangutans ruling as political and religious figures, the militant gorillas as police and soldiers, and the intellectual chimpanzees as the low rung on the totem poll. All apes are equal, we were told at Taylor's trial, but ape society is clearly segmented and opposition is suppressed. When the gorilla army marches out of the city, several chimpanzees stage a protest, holding signs and chanting for peace, and the gorillas respond by arresting them.

The movie improves significantly once the ape army marches into the Forbidden Zone, and Brent and Nova fall into the clutches of subterranean mutants. Here the movie proves a most worthy sequel. The mutant humans live underground in an abandoned subway system. Not only are they psychics, capable of controlling minds and communicating telepathically, they worship an atomic bomb, complete with ceremonial robes, prayers, and hymns. Their mantra is "Glory to the Bomb and the Holy Fallout," which made them what they are. Planet of the Apes offered commentary on war and the dangers of religious fundamentalism; with the mutant society, Beneath cleverly intertwines those themes by having a group of humans literally worship mankind's most destructive creation. "We are the keepers of the Divine Bomb. It's the only reason for our existence," the mutants pray. The ugly truth is reflected when the mutants reveal their "inner selves," removing the normal-looking masks they wear to show their deformed faces, mutated by radiation, and it's one of the film's most memorable and shocking moments.

Beneath also lays bare the hypocrisy of both apes and the mutants; both sides believe, in the words of the film, they are "God's chosen." The mutants insist the bomb is a weapon of peace, that they do not kill anyone but instead make their enemies kill each other (by subverting their free will). They also torture people, bombarding their minds with pain while sanctimoniously insisting they have superior brains. Meanwhile, the apes launch a campaign of conquest and call it a "holy war" with themselves as "God's chosen servants." Gorilla general Ursus (James Gregory) gives a speech to the assembled apes, calling for the extermination and enslavement of humans. "The only thing that counts in the end is power, pure, merciless force," he declares. The apes believe they have a manifest destiny, which justifies warfare and slaughter.

In the end, when the apes attack the mutants, the mutant plan is to set off the bomb, which would destroy the planet, and Taylor tells Brent, "We should let them all die." In actuality, Taylor, dying from a gunshot wound, is the one who ends it all, activating the bomb with his dying breath. By this point, he's seen Nova murdered, Brent mercilessly gunned down, and his own plea for help from Dr. Zaius scornfully rejected. "You bloody bastard" are his final words. In an instant, Earth is incinerated; everyone dies. Two warring sides, both convinced of their righteousness and blind to the truth, destroy everything.

From a filmmaking standpoint, director Ted Post does an efficient, workman job. On occasion, he matches the epic style Franklin J. Shaffner created in the previous film, most notably in the Forbidden Zone, but the action scenes are disappointingly routine: nothing equals the excitement or intensity of the first movie's hunt or chases. Post does well with conveying the mutant powers, creating massive visions that appear before the gorilla army such as a wall of fire, rows of crucified apes, and a giant statue of the Lawgiver crying blood. They aren't photo-realistic, but since they are illusions created by the mutants to frighten the apes, they're acceptable. When the mutants use their powers to torture and control, the film uses a bunch of rapid-fire cuts between faces to suggest how overwhelming their power can be.

Ultimately, a script rewrite could have solved a lot of the film's problems. Taylor should have been the main character, the person we follow the whole time, and we should have started with his encounters with the mutants. Reportedly, Heston wasn't interested and only agreed to appear in a couple of scenes. In that case, the torch should have been passed to Zira and Cornelius; they should have been the protagonists, and the movie could have focused on their efforts to stop the war and find Taylor. That would eliminated having a relatable human at the center of the story, but I think it could have worked. It would have been the kind of bold decision the first half of the movie really needs.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is an appropriate title. Not only does it accurately convey where the story takes place, it indicates this sequel is a step down in quality from the original.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Planet of the Apes

Among all creatures on Earth, man is surely the species most defined by contradiction. Human beings possess the technology, intelligence, and drive to journey beyond the stars, but they can also be possessed by barbarism, greed, stupidity, and cruelty. Mankind is capable of great things but held back by petty, tribal, and primitive impulses.

And that's what so magnificent about the original Planet of the Apes (1968). It could have been a cheap, gimmicky hack job or a mindless, noisy spectacle, but the movie is more than that. Not only is it a stirring, visionary work of science fiction and adventure, it is also a barbed and pointed commentary on the human condition. By holding us up side by side with a simian counterpart, the filmmakers - director Franklin J. Schaffner and screenwriters Rod Serling and Michael Wilson (going off a novel by Pierre Boulle) - reflect some dark truths about who we are and we're headed if we don't change our ways.

Forty-plus years after its release, the story of Planet of the Apes is well known: Taylor (Charlton Heston) is a time-warped astronaut who crashes on a future planet ruled by intelligent apes while humans have descended into mute beasts that are hunted, locked in cages, experimented upon, and in all ways viewed as no more than dumb animals. At the end, Taylor discovers he's been on Earth the whole time when he finds the remains of the Statue of Liberty, rusted and half-destroyed on a beach, and as twist endings go, it remains one of the most potent and iconic.

Around that plot skeleton, Planet of the Apes builds a number of points. On its most basic level, the movie accomplishes what good sci-fi movies set out to do: take us to a far away place and convince us it's real. In the days before CGI and blue screen filming, Planet of the Apes is filmed on location in practical settings that have an other worldliness to them: the scorched desert and jagged rocks and cliffs of the Forbidden Zone, the fields where apes hunt the humans who are stealing crops, and the ape city, made up of stone buildings with such institutions as a zoo, museum, market, stadium, bridges, and other features that make it feel like a place a society actually lives in. The makeup on the apes, while dated to a degree, are still impressive and believable, and the performances, especially Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell as sympathetic chimp scientists Zira and Cornelius, give them personalities and individuality.

It's more than thirty minutes before we see any apes. Before that, we follow Taylor and his fellow astronauts as they make their way through the desert, try to figure out how they're going to survive, and philosophize a little. The apes' first appearance is an excellent example of buildup and reveal. The sequence is fragmented. First, we hear what sounds like a roar or a horn, followed by the site of dozens of feral humans running in fear. Then, we get little visual clues: the tall sticks stretching above the high grass, the horse feet, gun barrels be fired, long shots of dark figures on horseback as the humans run past the camera in the foreground, and finally, close shots of several apes, armed and on horseback, as they ride into frame and the camera halts for them. Schaffner, who would go on to direct Patton, keeps his camera on the move constantly. There are number of chases, and the camera often follows Taylor, swept up in the urgency and rush. Schaffner also gives the film a wide, epic feel, particularly in the Forbidden Zone, where against the massive rocks, man and ape look very small.

There are memorable images that demonstrate the inverted social structure of the ape society. Ape hunters pose for photographs next to their human quarry, which is strung upside down like meat on a hook; the museum is filled with stuffed humans on display; and the surviving men and women are kept in cages on straw floors and regularly blasted with a hose. In a wince-inducing scene, Taylor, wounded in the throat, is strapped to a table and operated on with no anesthesia.

Other images and scenes are more clever and comical and help keep the movie from becoming too dark. During an attempted escape, Taylor runs into the museum where humans are on display; meanwhile, a mother ape and her child are visiting the museum and are quite aghast to run into a live human. Near the end, Taylor tells Zira he wants to kiss her goodbye, and she relents but only after noting he's "so damned ugly."

Some of it's a bit goofy or far fetched. The movie is set some 2,000 years into future, and it's rather convenient the apes speak twentieth century English. The apes also have a habit of taking common human idioms and replacing the word man with ape, such as "I never met an ape I didn't like." They also substitute man for monkey in other phrases, i.e. "Human see, human do." A key moment during a trial to decide Taylor's fate is somewhat undermined by the sight of the three orangutan judges doing the "see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" gestures.

But the serious points raised by the film overcome these flaws, and the character who demonstrates this the best is Dr. Zaius. Played by Maurice Evans, Zaius is an orangutan who is both Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith. Despite evidence to the contrary, he devoutly holds to his beliefs and the teachings of the "greatest ape of all, our Lawgiver," who decreed man was a beast, a pestilence that should be exterminated. Those who seek the truth or question the Ancient Scrolls are branded heretics and traitors, and evidence counter to these teachings, including Taylor, must be destroyed. The truth, Zaius argues, could destroy the future. Here, the film shows the dangers of religious fundamentalism, how devotion to dogma can blind one to the truth. At one point, Zaius utters the phrase "scientific heresy," an odd notion because science seeks truth; if something is wrong, it shouldn't be heresy to point it out or demonstrate why it's false, but Zaius claims, "There is no contradiction between faith and science." Yet, when science contradicts his faith, he resorts to arresting innocents on trumped up charges, blowing up artifacts, and cutting out men's brains.

However, it would be unwise to dismiss Zaius as just a hypocrite. He knows the truth about man and what he's capable of. The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise before man made a desert of it, he tells Taylor. Humans, according to the Ancient Scrolls, kill for lust, greed, and sport, and will "murder his brother to possess his brother's land." The final image of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of hope and freedom, laid to waste by (presumably) nuclear war only serves as confirmation that Zaius is right to think of man as a destructive breed. And Taylor knows this from the start, even before he lands on the planet of the apes. As he records his final mission log, Taylor asks whether "man still makes war against his brother? Keeps his neighbor's children starving?" At one point, Taylor tells fellow astronaut Landon that he seeks something "better" than man. Zaius isn't the only hypocrite.

Early on in Planet of the Apes, Taylor laughs at Landon when the latter plants a tiny American flag near the lake where their ship crashes, and it's funny but also quite sobering. Everywhere he goes, man tries to stake a claim, even when he has little or nothing to back it up. How much blood has been spilled, how many wars have been waged on behalf of countries that won't be around in 2,000 years? What was worth fighting and dying for today will be erased by the flow of time, reduced to relics of a forgotten age no one will appreciate the significance of in the future. From the flag to the Statue of Liberty, Planet of the Apes is a wakeup call.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Whiplash

At what point does a tough teacher demanding the best from a pupil cross the line into abuse and humiliation? That question is at the heart of Whiplash (2014), the story of a young man determined to be an accomplished jazz drummer and his tyrannical and some might say deranged instructor. When does a quest to be the best mutate into a harmful obsession?

The movies are filled with many teachers and mentors who have guided countless heroes on their journeys in a variety of genres: Mickey from the Rocky movies, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, and Jamie Escalante from Stand and Deliver are just a few examples. Sure, they could be tough and give harsh truths, but they also offered wisdom and advice worth heeding, even if you didn't always agree with their methods, and usually, they mix in encouragement or have moments when you can tell they're proud of their charges. None of the mentor figures I can think of are as terrifying or as cruel as Terrance Fletcher.

Played by J.K. Simmons in an Oscar-winning performance, Fletcher is a character that I both had a strong, visceral reaction to and feel conflicted about. There are things he does and things he says to his students, the people who are there to learn from him, that I find wholly repugnant and just plain unacceptable, and I found myself wondering if he's s simply a power-mad, petty taskmaster who enjoys hurting people. But, in his quieter moments, when he has something resembling a heart-to-heart talk with our main character, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), when he explains his philosophy and why he does what he does, I find myself thinking, hmm, he's got a point; I can see some method to his madness. Then I remember how he mocks Andrew because his mother left his family when he was little and kicks him out of the band because Andrew arrives late to a competition and plays poorly because he was almost killed in a car accident. And by almost killed, I mean he's covered in blood, more than likely concussed and suffering internal injuries, and has what appears to be a broken hand (he can't even hold the drum stick).

Andrew, a 19-year-old freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York, desires more than anything else to become a great jazz drummer like Buddy Rich. He gets recruited by Fletcher into the school's studio band, where Fletcher acts more like a drill instructor than a conductor. He swears at the players, makes Andrew and others cry, throws chairs, keeps them practicing long into the night, pits the leads against alternates, and accepts no excuses or complaints. He gets in their faces, forces them to admit their weaknesses, and even slaps Andrew. He mind-rapes these students.

Because he wants to be the best, Andrew puts up with Fletcher, much to the concern of his father Jim (Paul Reiser). Andrew commits fully to jazz drumming, devoting all his free time to studying and practicing, even breaking up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), so as not have any distractions. Yet, it's never enough for Fletcher; he just keeps pushing and pushing, and eventually, there's a breaking point, mentally, emotionally, and physically. 

What is the true cost of greatness? That seems to be a succinct way of the summing up the movie's theme. To achieve his greatness, Andrew essentially gives up his humanity. He finds himself isolated, alienated from friends and family, despondent, and enraged. He doesn't play the drums for fun or to express himself; he does so to achieve a pathological level of perfection. His hands bleed, and between sets, he dunks them in pitchers of ice water. The first time we see Andrew, he's sitting in alone in a room at a drum kit and looking very small framed in the door way at the end of a long, dark hallway. That's commitment, and by the end of the movie, Andrew seems poised to achieve the greatness he seeks and the begrudging respect of Fletcher, but has it been worth it?

In Fletcher's mind, the great musicians, the ones who will be remembered, are the ones who endure, the ones that never give up, the ones with the drive to achieve perfection, and he will not let anyone settle. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good Job'," he tells Andrew at one point. Pushing people beyond what's expected of them, he adds, is an "absolute necessity." 

Convincing words, but they don't justify physical abuse, emotional manipulation, threats, personal insults that don't pertain to musical performance, or petty revenge; surely, there are more constructive ways to push and challenge people without destroying their spirits. In the end, Fletcher knows jazz, knows what he's talking about, and knows what he's doing, but he's also a monster, and he tries to turn Andrew into one. Whiplash isn't a horror movie nor is it even a thriller, but it's one of the most palpably tense, emotionally wringing movies I've seen in recent years.

The musical performances are edited in a frantic way, a lot of quick cuts from closeups of Andrew's tired, sweat-drenched face; Fletcher's stern, disapproving stare; the drumsticks banging against the skins; Andew's blooded hands shaking; the sheets of music; and the booming of the bass. It's disorienting and unsettling. Musical performances, especially in movies, often project a feeling of serenity, peace, fun, togetherness, and harmony, but Whiplash films them in a way that keeps the audience off balance and nervous. These performances feel so tense, you're anticipating something, or someone, is going to explode.