Sunday, July 31, 2011

Primate For Fighting. Battle for Planet of the Apes: Review #146

BATTLE FOR PLANET OF THE APES

This is suppose to be the final chapter of a series that was never intended in the first place...not bad for a one-time film.  Battle for Planet of the Apes doesn't appear to have a big budget, but it does have a logic to it that makes the low resources of the film almost forgettable. 

We begin in 2670 A.D.  The Lawgiver (John Huston), an orangutan, is telling us the tale of man's fall from power (with clips from both Escape From and Conquest of Planet of The Apes), and then we begin our story. 

It is about ten years after the Simian Spring (as I've dubbed the Ape Revolution).  Caesar (Roddy McDowall) is Lord over both Beast & Man, with his wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy) and his son and heir, Cornelius (Bobby Porter).  The Ape City is relatively peaceful, but is an uneasy peace.  General Aldo (Claude Akins), a gorilla, is itching for the extermination of the humans within, while MacDonald (Austin Stoker), Caesar's right-hand human and brother of the MacDonald who aided the Simian Uprising in Conquest, is not happy that humans are a bit below apes in this benevolent dictatorship.  Caesar tells MacDonald "We are not your masters", and MacDonald retorts, "We are not your equals".  MacDonald tells Caesar that the audio and visual tapes of his parents are within the Forbidden City (the one destroyed in the Uprising, not the one in Beijing).  Caesar, MacDonald, and the wise orangutan Virgil (Paul Williams) go to the Forbidden City to find them, but not before getting weapons sealed by Mandemus (Lew Ayres), the keeper of the Armory and Caesar's conscious.

Within the Forbidden City, still affected by the nuclear fallout, there are humans who are slowly turning into the mutants from Beneath Planet of the Apes.  Their leader is Governor Kolp (Severn Darden), who had been the Inspector that had tortured Caesar in Conquest.  Along with his aides Alma (France Nuyen) and Mendez (Paul Stevens), he attempts to rebuild deep within.  However, he becomes aware that two apes and a human have infiltrated the city.  He orders their capture but the humans fail to capture them.  Fearing that this is the final push by his feared and hated nemesis, Kolp decides on a preemptive strike onto Ape City to wipe out the menace once and for all.

Meanwhile, Aldo is planning a coup, with the extinction of the humans as a bonus.  Cornelius overhears this but Aldo cuts the limb from under the child before he has a chance to reveal all.  Corny is not killed outright but is coming close to it.  Caesar, overwhelmed by his son's slow end, is unaware of what either the gorillas or the humans are doing.  Kolp is now within striking distance of the apes, and Aldo declares martial law, locking up all the humans in the corral for fear they will aid the invading humans.  With Cornelius' death, it is Virgil who forces Caesar to look at what Aldo is doing, but before he can take full charge Kolp attacks.  Thus commences the Battle for the Planet of the Apes.  Kolp is routed, but he has given instruction that a doomsday device be used: the Alpha & Omega bomb.  It ultimately isn't, with Mendez urging it be almost venerated.  Aldo, meantime, wants to kill all the humans, even if it means killing Caesar.  However, the first Ape Law is "Ape shall not kill ape".  However, they all discover that ape HAS killed ape; Caesar, filled with rage on learning of how his son died, pursues Aldo into the trees, but Aldo falls trying to attack him. 

We end with The Lawgiver telling us it has been 600 years since Caesar's death, and the children he's been telling the story to, ape and human, ask who knows the future.  The Lawgiver replies, "Perhaps only the dead", and the statue of Caesar, which has been looking over them all, sheds a single tear. 

I think if anything Battle For Planet of the Apes leaves some curious points of logic unanswered.  The main events in the film are suppose to be around ten to twelve years after Conquest of Planet of the Apes, but we then wonder how is it that apes acquired the power of speech so quickly.  If one looks at things even further, the question arises about Mendez.  There was a character named Mendez in Beneath Planet of the Apes, but this obviously couldn't be the same Mendez from Battle (unless radiation has some unknown preservation property).  Finally, it is MacDonald who suspects Corny's death wasn't an accident, so how did Virgil come to know the truth? 

Moreover, there is a strange inconsistency to Caesar.  His goal is to have humans and apes live in harmony, peace, and mutual respect.  However, he doesn't appear fazed that he has kept humans out of the Ape City Council.  In short, he talks a good game of human-simian relations, but while he may more enlightened than Aldo, both believe humans are not at their level.  (It brings to mind someone who believed that apartheid is wrong but accepts the concept of 'separateness' as the natural course of things to where the idea of black or other minority representation in Parliament is just unnatural).   For all intents and purposes Caesar is a less-than-likable character: he is a dictator whose word is law.  The Ape Council (which has no human representation) apparently is called not to discuss things but to hear Caesar's word. 

What John William and Joyce Cooper Corrington do in their script (from Paul Dehn's story) is build on the previous stories while attempting to tie things together.  In this respect, they have done an overall good job.  The weakest part of Battle may be the fact that the framing device of the Lawgiver.  For most of the movie we forget that this is taking place far off into the future.  It could have worked better to my view if we just moved into a short history lesson to bring people up to speed, or maybe this story is told in flashback at Caesar's funeral.  We could even have a story where apes and humans do live separately, but an older Cornelius and MacDonald's brother seek out a peaceful union while both Aldo and Kolp attempt to gain supremacy on the planet.  However, the story we have on the whole works. 

I digress to say that maybe seeing Caesar's statue cry is a touch over-the-top, but it does beg the question: does he cry because he knows the future has not been altered and we will end up in Planet of the Apes, or because he knows humans and apes will be able to live together?   

I also was displeased by two cliches in the script.  First, why is it that humans (or apes) always die before revealing all they know?  Second, one of the mutant warriors was named Sergeant York.  Seriously?  Sergeant York? 

The performances still hold up.  McDowall has now reigned as the intelligent chimp, and seeing the agony his son's agony and death bring are moments of strong acting (especially strong given he is in full ape make-up).  Darden's Kolp is still the slightly removed and imperious Inspector from Conquest, but his villainy is created in part by the fear and hatred the Simian Uprising and the nuclear destruction brought about him.  Of the newer faces, it seems strange that Lew Ayres or John Huston would be so convincing as apes (a credit to the still-impressive make-up work).  Ayres has a small role as Mandimus, but he makes the most of being the conscience of Caesar by guarding the Armory (the only one who could speak truth to power, so to speak).  Huston's role as the Lawgiver is more like a cameo (given he appears only in the beginning and end) but his distinctive voice keeps our attention. 

The main flaws in Battle for Planet of the Apes, again, come from a smaller budget.  You can see this at certain points: the same treehouses are blown up, the forest at one point looks like a set, and seeing a school bus be part of Kolp's army is a little strange (logical, perhaps, but still might elicit chuckles).  However, the battle scenes do have a certain level of excitement (though not as good as one with a really big budget) and we still have a great relevance to the times.  The Ape films have been dominated by the theme of how the fear of "the other" has led to tragedy, and here, the fear that humans and simians have (as well as the hatred for them and the idea of how one is the superior species) continues to have hold.  I also wondered while watching Battle for Planet of the Apes if there wasn't a hint about our military adventure in Vietnam. 

Think on it: a group of humans invade a place that had not attacked them because they feared Simian domination only to find themselves defeated in the forests by subterfuge by the native population. 

I also had a strong feeling that Battle for Planet of the Apes addressed (perhaps wittingly but more than likely not) the issue of Internment and a fear of a Fifth Column.  Now I know I may be giving both the screenwriters and director J. Lee Thompson more credit than they're do, but when Aldo has all the humans locked away in the corral for fear that they would help the humans against the apes, I thought of how (in one of the most shameful chapters in American history) the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration had no qualms about locking up American citizens merely because they were of Japanese ancestry and feared they would (or were) working for the Emperor against the U.S.   

On the whole, Battle for Planet of the Apes suffers from a lack of money (the results of which are on the screen).  However, the story it told keeps our attention and still has something to tell us about the importance of mutual respect for those who are not like us, and the fear that xenophobia can unleash.  On that front, the battle goes on.

DECISION: B-

Next Planet of the Apes Film: Planet of the Apes (2001)

Friday, July 29, 2011

These Apes Are Revolting. Conquest of Planet of the Apes: A Review

CONQUEST OF PLANET OF THE APES

Of all the films in the Planet of the Apes franchise, the fourth, Conquest of Planet of the Apes, may be the darkest.  As in most of the Ape films, we have allegory to the times it was released in.  However, the social commentary appears to veer dangerously close to calling for violent militancy in overcoming oppression. 

It is North America 1991.  The country has become a police state with military police patrolling the city, making sure the apes do not gather in large groups.  All dogs and cats have died off, and apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) began as pets, but by the time of Conquest of Planet of the Apes, they are slaves.  The human population treats them poorly and the 'masters' hold themselves to be superior while the apes do menial work and carry their purchases, but treat them brutally, abusing them at every opportunity. 

Into this world enters circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) along with his chimp (Roddy McDowall).  They are there to promote Armando's circus, but it is the first time the chimp has ever ventured into this strange new world.  He is appalled at how inhumane the apes are treated.  One act of excessive brutality is too much for him, and he does what he should not have: he speaks.  Armando tries to bluff his way out of the situation by saying it was he, not his ape, that spoke.  However, he isn't believed and is taken into custody.  In the confusion, the chimp escapes.

However, the chimp finds himself as part of a new shipment of apes to be sold at auction.  After quick training of the fine arts of serving man, he is bought by none other than the Governor (Don Murray), head of Ape Management.  When brought to Governor Breck, the chimp picks his own name: Caesar.  Breck suspects that Armando has the legendary talking ape, son of intelligent apes from the future who were killed (all this is chronicled in Escape From Planet of the Apes).  While it was believed that their child was also killed, no one was ever certain.  Breck is certain that this legendary 'talking ape' will lead a revolution against humanity (the simian version of Nat Turner or Toussaint L'Ouverture, if you will).  Therefore, all efforts must be made to find him if he exists and kill him. However, the Governor does not know where this mysterious ape is, and Armando is still being vague in his answers.  When he is placed in the Authenticator (a Truth Machine), rather than confess all, Armando dies (though it's not clear if he jumped or accidentally was pushed out the window).  Upon learning of Armando's death, Caesar loses faith in all humanity and plots revolution.

He soon secretly encourages the apes in civil disobedience (a Chimp Guevara, if you will).  Soon, the apes, under Caesar's watchful eye, start committing small acts of defiance against the humans.  They also start collecting weapons.  Breck and his Chief Aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) suspect something is going on but have no definitive proof.  Caesar may have found love with ape Lisa (Natalie Trundy) but a revolutionary's activities trump romance.  Breck, outraged at the reports of misbehaving apes, orders that brute force be used to stomp out all signs of disobedience against MacDonald's advice to show restraint (he knows that a fierce response will only aggravate the situation).  Eventually, MacDonald comes to realize Caesar is the talking ape, but he cannot turn him over to the Governor's thuggish police (MacDonald, who is black, knows about the high cost of slavery).  Caesar is taken and tortured into speaking.  Breck orders him killed, but MacDonald disables the machine, allowing Caesar to fake his death.  Now, he leads the apes in a violent uprising which overwhelms Ape Management.  In the cataclysmic conclusion, Caesar, now head of the revolt, declares that this action will be seen and imitated by apes around the world, and that it is the beginning of the end for humanity and out of this will rise...a Planet of Apes.

Conquest of Planet of the Apes has at its heart a brilliant idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.  Chief among its flaws is the fact that the lower budget for the film is obvious.  Most of the action takes place in the same location (which looks like an office complex with a central plaza), so there's always a sense that it was done on the cheap.  Also, the script by Paul Dehn (who wrote the screenplay or the story for all the Ape films save the first) leaves some questions unanswered.  For example, how and why did the other apes start obeying Caesar's silent guidance to defy their masters?  We never see Caesar interact with a group of apes except when they bring weapons (most good, some useless) to a secret lair.  Second, with the fall of Ape Management, we never know how Caesar got all the apes to join in this Simian Liberation Army. The romance between Caesar and Lisa is short-changed because we never see a romantic situation.  Instead, we only get hints of it.

One big problem Conquest of Planet of the Apes has is its ending.  Originally, it was going to be more violent, with Caesar calling for the virtual extermination of humanity and mass killing.  However, the final product has an odd ending, where Caesar basically pulls back from taking the full force of the violent revolution and instead leaving the humans alive but with a warning that their time of full domination is coming to an end: either share the planet or face annihilation.  The ending, as I understand it, was reworked because audiences reacted negatively to the orgy of violence the Simian Uprising unleashed.  However, this is where Dehn and director J. Lee Thompson should have either stayed true to their vision or have not written the ending as they had.  Having Caesar turn, if not peaceful at least less filled with vengeance, strikes a false note.  It also is obvious that the ending was altered: if one listens carefully to Caesar's final speech, you can tell the audio is different when expressing an ability to "be humane to humanity" versus when he speaks about mankind's ultimate downfall.  Also, the viewer will note that we never see Caesar give the second part of the speech.  Instead, we just see him from afar or just his eyes.  Both clearly show that the lines were redubbed to fit the new conclusion as opposed to being part of the story.

If the secondary story of Lisa and Caesar had been given more prominence, we could have seen her character be a moderating influence on his radicalism, even to where she makes the case that the apes should not behave so beastly (no pun intended).  However, for whatever reason the production team opted not to do so, and Conquest of Planet of the Apes suffered because of it. 

One thing that is important is how in Conquest of Planet of the Apes we see the importance of race.  MacDonald being black is highly important: beyond the fact that he is the only sympathetic human character (apart from Armando), as an African-American he is more conscious than all the others about the brutality of slavery.  It is clear that the apes have gone beyond being pets and are now used as labor, but who are brutalized by the humans.  At one point, MacDonald and Breck discuss how an ape had killed his "master" (using that very word), but the Governor responds that the ape "deserved it" even with evidence that the ape had been brutalized.  Curiously, this train of thought about apes being enslaved and the immorality of slavery was not pursued in the film.  It might be my imagination, but I kept seeing hints of apartheid in the film in regards to how the humans (almost exclusively white) treated the apes with contempt and thought nothing of denying them even the simplest dignity.  It is when we treat 'the other' as non-human that an oppressed group may react with violence as a way to redress their grievances: a mesage still relevant today.

The performances still continue being strong.  McDowall shows his evolution (no pun intended) from a naive chimp to a violent revolutionary, and with just a look he inspires other apes to disobey their masters.  Rhodes' MacDonald was at heart a good man who appeared troubled by what the apes are going through and ultimately helps Caesar and ends up asking him for mercy.  Murray is a frightful figure as Governor Breck, one who is determined to keep the apes down at all costs (side note: he does remind me of Bashir Al-Assad, whom I call--curiously enough--Monkey-Boy because of his ears and his brain.  Both are uncaring monsters who would kill all who oppose their right to rule as they wish, but now I digress).  Montalban again has a small role as Armando, but in his few scenes he captures the fear he has of having his friend's true identity discovered (though again, his end shows just how limited the budget was). 

It's a curious thing: Conquest of Planet of the Apes, at a mere 88 minutes, is the shortest of the Ape films but it is the one that would have benefited tremendously by being longer.  Scenes jump from one point to another with very little connecting them.  If we had been allowed to know the characters or how they related to each other (say, how the apes came to trust Caesar to be their leader), Conquest of Planet of the Apes would have come close to being a strong picture.   As it stands, the film is entertaining, but too short and frankly too cheap-looking to be among the best of the Ape films. 




In a curious way, Conquest of Planet of the Apes WAS prophetic.  The film takes place in North America, 1991.   In one of those curious turns of history, there was a fierce revolution brought about by the actions of one man, but it was not North America 1991 but instead the Middle East, 2011.  Caesar's final speech about how the uprising of the oppressed apes would be copied by other apes around the world brought to mind the Arab Spring: how an oppressed people in remote and insignificant Tunisia overthrew their dictator while their fellow Arabs watched, and from that the people of Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and even in especially repressive states like Libya and Syria rose up against the tyrants (with varying degrees of success).  Just like the actions of one ape overthrew their human oppressors, the actions of one desperate man unleashed a torrent of revolution (sometimes generally peaceful--Egypt, sometimes extremely brutal--Syria).  Like in Conquest of Planet of the Apes, the Arab Spring is too large to contain and it ended up overwhelming the shocked leaders who believed they would rule in perpetuity. 

Here is where Conquest of Planet of the Apes maintains its topical nature, a hallmark of almost all the Ape films.  In 1972, the fears would come from groups like the Black Panthers or the various Liberation Armies or the Weather Underground: groups that either called for or were perceived to call for violence to achieve their goals.  The fears of an uprising in America have settled down, but the film still addresses how violence is used to make change if no other recourse is allowed.  In the final analysis, Conquest of Planet of the Apes COULD have been great, but it is only above average, still worth your time but not as revolutionary as it could have been.   

DECISION: C+

Next Planet of the Apes Film: Battle for Planet of the Apes

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Our Chariots Await: Ben-Hur (1959) Review


BEN-HUR (1959)

In an age where epic films were all the rage, few can hold themselves to Ben-Hur's equal. It isn't just in the grandness, the vastness of the film itself. It is also that, unlike other big films, there is a real personal story within Ben-Hur, a human drama that, stripped of its more grand features, is remarkably intimate. While I know today sprawling films like Ben-Hur are distrusted, even dismissed because of their sheer size, when watching the film one is struck at the intelligence behind it, the themes it touches on, and putting the spectacle aside, what a remarkably deep film Ben-Hur actually is.  At heart, Ben-Hur is a story about freedom: physical and spiritual, forgiveness versus vengeance, and the cost of staying true to yourself.  It also has one of the greatest action sequences in film history.

It is around the time of Christ, when the land known as Judea is under Roman occupation.  Messala (Stephen Boyd) is the new Roman commander in Jerusalem.  He is not a stranger to the land, having spent his youth there.  He had an extremely close friend there: a Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston).  Judah is thrilled to see his old friend back, but in the ensuing years their views have altered them: Messala believes in Roman supremacy over the Earth while Judah strongly believes the Jewish people should be free.  Messala wants Judah to collaborate with him and give him the names of Jews opposed to Roman rule.  Judah refuses.  Thus, they that were once the deepest of friends turn into the bitterest of enemies. 

On the arrival of the new Governor of Judea, Judah's sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) accidentally causes tiles from their palace to fall on him.  She, along with Judah and their mother Miriam (Martha Scott) are arrested.  Messala, knowing they are innocent, decides to take revenge by condemning Judah to a slave ship and the women to imprisonment.  Judah attempts escape and nearly kills Messala, but cannot do it.  Thus, it's off to the galleys.

While as a slave, Judah comes into contact with Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a Consul of the Empire.  In an epic battle, Judah saves Arrius' life and both fall overboard.  A Roman ship rescues them, and a grateful Arrius not only sees to Judah's freedom but adopts him as his son.  Judah now is with the cream of Roman society, meeting all kinds of important people, including the new Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring).  Still, Judah seeks vengeance against Messala and a return to his homeland, to his family, and to Esther (Haya Harareet), the beautiful daughter of the Hur family servant Simonides (Sam Jaffe).  Arrius reluctantly allows him leave to return.

One in Judea, he comes across Balthasar (Findlay Currie),  a wise man from the East who is searching for a man whom he once brought gifts to as a child.  Balthasar is staying with Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), a rich Arab whose main ambition is to race his chariot against the greatest charioteer in Judea, one Messala.  Judah's reputation as a charioteer preceeds him, and he sees this as his chance to take revenge (and also sets up one of the most iconic moments in film history).  They race, Judah wins, Messala is crushed (literally), but Judah learns what both Esther and Messala know: Tirzah and Miriam are now in the Valley of Lepers. 

Judah's revenge is still unsatisfied, but Esther has turned to the teachings of a young rabbi, who teaches that one should "love your enemy and do good to those who harm you".  Judah will hear none of this, and he is determined to bring his family out of the Valley.  He does so, with a hope that the young rabbi may cure them.  However, the group arrives in Jerusalem just as Pontius Pilate is condemning the Teacher to death.  Upon the Cross, they look in sorrow.  However, after the storm that strikes Jerusalem upon the Teacher's death, there is healing and ultimately forgiveness in the House of Hur.

In truth, you can reduce all of Ben-Hur to three lines: A Prince who became a Slave, a Slave who became a Charioteer, a Charioteer who defied an Empire. 

Director William Wyler made two jokes about Ben-Hur.  One, that he wanted to see if he could make a Cecil B. DeMille picture, and two, that it took a Jew to make a good film about Jesus.  He wasn't kidding on either count. Wyler kept the film moving so brilliantly that one never notices how long Ben-Hur is: an astonishing three and a half hours long (well, a little longer than that, but let's not get lost in technicalities).  However, nothing in Ben-Hur ever appears gratuitous or unimportant, especially considering how Wyler managed to combine the spectacle with the intimate.   He not only managed to do that, but to connect the story of Judah with that of Christ, almost having them parallel each other.  Wyler had the main story (that of Judah Ben-Hur) as well as that of Christ.  In Wyler's genius, he brought in characters from both their lives in the film to let us know that eventually Judah and Jesus would meet more than once. 

For example, in the prologue we have the Presentation of the Magi to the Christ Child.  Among them is Balthasar.  Once we get to where Judah returns to Judea, we see Balthasar again.  Thus, we know that the story of Christ will keep coming into contact with that of Judah.  We should already know this because from time to time in Ben-Hur, we see the image of Yeshua Ben-Yosef (though we never see His face or hear His voice).  Instead, soft organ music plays when His presence is on screen.  Judah and Christ had already come into contact when the former is being led to the galley ships.  In an unnamed town, Judah is desperate for water but the Romans are under orders to deny him.  In his despair, Judah begs God to help.  At this point, we hear the soft music and a hand that brings him water. 

In this moving scene, it is Wyler's direction that is at the height of its power.  The Roman commands this man to stop giving Judah water and the strange figure rises quickly.  Without seeing the stranger's face, the Roman soon starts to back away, on occasion turning to look at Him with a strange mixture of fear and awe.  We in the audience know the stranger is suppose to be Christ, and thus we can understand the Roman's reaction, but it is Wyler who directs the scene so well.  If one looks at it, there are no strong words, there are no strong actions other than Jesus rising quickly from the ground.  Yet we still feel the emotional impact of this pagan coming into contact with the Christ.

Wyler's direction of people is brilliant throughout Ben-Hur, and is even more impressive given the variety of emotions the film goes through.   There are moments of intense action (the sea battle and the legendary chariot race), but there are also moments of intimacy.  Take the love story between Judah and Esther.  Here, Wyler directs the lovers to be gentle towards each other, even perhaps a bit hesitant.  The same goes for when Miriam and Tirzah go back to their home after their release.  Only Esther knows they are alive, but Wyler does not show the effects of leprosy on the Hur women.  This is all done by suggestion: the lighting (or lack thereof), keeping them in the shadows, the reaction in Esther's face to what she has discovered.  We even have moments of comedy through Sheik Ilderim, a lusty man who loves his horses and is a general bon vivant.

Ben-Hur manages to sweep you into both its grandness and its intimacy, and William Wyler is the central force in that.  He directed all his actors so well, and their performances in the film are some of the best in their careers.  Heston, curiously, was not the first choice to play Judah Ben-Hur, but now it doesn't seem possible that anyone else could have done it.  He is imposing in the action scenes (as he usually is), but in the love scenes between him and Harareet he shows a remarkable tenderness that he isn't known for.  One of his best scenes is actually not the chariot race, but right after.  He comes to a dying Messala and realizes that even while he has defeated his bitter enemy, he still has not found the peace he expected from his revenge.  He goes into the now-empty racetrack, aware of his hollow victory.  It is a beautiful scene.

Credit should also go to Boyd's Messala, a man who we see evolve from a good friend into a bitter enemy.  A good actor understands that a villain never sees himself as a villain, and Messala doesn't see himself as evil but as a Roman on the make.  If it means getting even with a former friend and member of high Judean society to teach the population a lesson, so be it.  Griffith is also a delight as the Sheik who persuades Judah that by running in the chariot race he can stamp the arrogance of the Romans--to be defeated by a Jew is a thought too rich for him to pass up (side note: it is nice to see a film where Arab and Jew work together, and where they show respect to each other).  Even the smaller parts: Jaffe's loyal servant and Currie's Wise Man, add to the great performances.  Harareet perhaps is a bit too gentle as Esther, but her scenes with Heston are done so well that you believe they have loved each other for a long time.

There is an element in Ben-Hur that I have not mentioned but that without it the film would not be as brilliant as it is.  That is Miklos Rozsa's score: among the greatest ever made for motion pictures.  Again and again, it is Rozsa's score that sells every scene where music is heard: starting from the very beginning where we see the Presentation of the Magi (where the music enhances the gentleness of the birth of the Christ Child as well as reverence for this monumental event) and then to the gigantic opening music where we know THIS will be an epic, right down to the love theme between Judah and Esther, the battle on the sea, the rowing music (which is , the triumphant arrival into Rome, the ghastly horror of Miriam and Tirzah's leprosy and the restoration of the Hur family.  Few scores have captured both the grandness and intimacy of a story, but Miklos Rozsa's music for Ben-Hur does it so well and so consistently that we must marvel at just how one film score can be as powerful and overwhelming as the movie itself.   

Curiously, the one major scene in Ben-Hur that does NOT have music is perhaps the most legendary scene in the film (and one of the most legendary in film history): the epic chariot race.  The film has been building up to this moment, not just in terms of action but in terms of story: the fierce rivals will finally confront each other.  By this time into Ben-Hur, we know everything there is to know about the characters, their motivations, and their goals.  Once we start the race, we get a thrilling sequence that moves (in every sense of the word).  Wyler gets the camera close to the action, and we get brilliant stunt work under the direction of Yakima Canutt.  In those ten minutes or so the race never lets up and the audience is completely caught up in the excitement and terror of this battle between Judah and Messala.  The best compliment that could be given to the chariot race is that it was all done live: no great technical tricks, few stunt doubles, so the scene becomes thoroughly real.

As much as Ben-Hur has great action scenes, it also has a compelling personal story.  It is about ideas: in fact, Messala tells Judah early in the film, "How do you fight an idea?"  The idea of staying true to your principles and to yourself (note that Judah was a secular Jew and later had no problem dressing as a Roman but at heart his loyalty still lay with his people), how truly an occupier and the occupied cannot be friends so long as one holds himself master and the other slave.  We also have the themes of revenge versus redemption, best captured between the two Judean princes (one of the House of Hur, the other of the House of David), of two Jewish freedom fighters (one political, one spiritual), one who wins a Crown of Laurels, the other a Crown of Thorns.  The brilliance of Ben-Hur isn't just with the action (although those in themselves make it brilliant), but also that the film is highly intelligent in how it deals with the ideas of love, revenge, justice, and mercy. 

There are other things to mention.  All the elements in Ben-Hur work: Elizabeth Haffenden's costumes (from the simplicity of Christ's robes through the Roman robes), the sets by Edward Carfagno, William A. Horning, and Hugh Hunt, and Robert L. Surtees' brilliant cinematography.  If there's anything I would object to, it is Griffith's frightful make-up work: not only is it excessively dark, but you can tell where they stopped making him up.  However, that's really a tiny complaint to a brilliant film like Ben-Hur.

Finally, I'd like to address the point of any gay subtext in Ben-Hur.  GORE VIDAL (who did not receive credit for his work on the screenplay) insists that there was a gay subtext between Messala and Judah and that it was Judah's 'rejection' of Messala that turned him into a villain.  After having seen the film, more than once, whatever gay subtext there might be is thoroughly lost on me.  If one wants to read that in the film, they are free to do so.  I did not see it and am puzzled as to why GORE VIDAL insists there is one. 

What Ben-Hur is in the long run is an intimate epic (which is not an oxymoron).  We have the vastness of the story as well as at its core a human story about forgiveness in spite of terrible things.  It is truly an epic film about ideas.  A great film that still thrills, Ben-Hur simply runs away with it.


1960 Best Picture: The Apartment


There are more Best Picture reviews as well as Essentials. 
 


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Long May She Reign


Forgive me, but I am so passionately in love with Dame Helen Mirren.  Yes, she is old enough to be my mother/grandmother, but she still is a remarkably beautiful woman and make no apologies for being totally ga-ga over her. 

Of course, it helps that Dame Helen is also just a damn fine actress who loves to work.  She is like most British actresses (yes, I know she's technically Russian, but by God we love her as a Brit, OK?), trained in Shakespeare.  I will say that her love affair with the Bard continues: one of her most recent films was an adaptation of The Tempest.  Here, she did what few have done: made Prospero into a female.  She can get away with it because her talent is capable of holding an audience captive, even for a part that was written as a man.  I can't say how good or bad the film is, but it would be thrilling to see her live on stage.

In any case, I remember one of the first films I saw her in: Excalibur.  I won't lie: I thought it was junk, and a terrible disappointment.   She was the temptress Morgana, and she was not just beautiful (was--still is) but dangerous as the mistress of evil.  It was a good performance in what I think is a bad movie.

This ability to do good work in bad pictures is best (or worst) captured in GORE VIDAL'S Caligula (yes, I also know it should be just Caligula since GORE VIDAL asked to have his name removed, but there's something endlessly pompous about calling it GORE VIDAL'S Caligula).  I was shocked when I first watched it.  I thought it the most pretentious porn film ever made (incidentally, this is my first experience with a porn film--believe it or not).  She still is proud of her work in Caligula, and I emphasize that she herself was not in any of the hard-core sex scenes inserted into this fiasco of a flop of a film.  I think this is part of her charm: that she can be in a simply awful film and still think it was all good fun.  Sorry dear, in this regard we're going to have to agree to disagree--it was TERRIBLE, so terrible it can't even be camp.

I digress to wonder why Mirren has such a brazen exhibitionist streak.  There she is in Caligula, there she is in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.  It isn't fair to judge a film I haven't seen (that being The Cook, The Thief...) but from what I understand here's another film that is quite explicit (those who have seen it please tell me if I'm wrong).  Perhaps that shows a daring aspect of her nature as an actress, one who doesn't fear provocative material. 

In any case, we see her best work really wasn't on the big screen but on television.  She was and will always be Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennyson in the Prime Suspect series.  Here was a chance to create a whole character: a woman facing up to sexism and battling her own drinking problem.  She was a full-rounded person, with all the flaws and courage that go with it. 

In fact, some of her best work has been on television.  I remember very well her portrayal of Libertarian Icon Ayn Rand in The Passion of Ayn Rand.  Curious that her Russian accent never sounded comical, and at least she was smart enough to know it was necessary (not like say, Brad Pitt's pan-European tones in Troy).  Rand was not a villain but both a cult figure and deeply wounded woman.  Another great performance was as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth I.  

This leads me to her most iconic role: Elizabeth II in The Queen.  It's a sign of her talent that she transcended what was on the page.  The script, from what I understand, was attempting to portray Her Majesty in a negative light.  However, we saw Elizabeth Windsor not as a cold, unfeeling woman, but as someone bound by her role as monarch who finds herself in a strange world and almost overwhelmed by circumstances she barely comprehends.  Never once in The Queen did Her Majesty appear to be a terrible person, and actually her motivations appear totally human: attempting to shield her grandsons from the grisly and excessive coverage of their mother's death. 

One scene in particular stands out.  Her Majesty has found herself stranded in a creek.  Waiting for help to arrive, she appears to finally break down in tears from the barrage she has been facing from all sides: a hostile press, a people in the fits of furious mourning, a government that keeps pushing her to do things she doesn't want to do.  However, we don't see her cry.  Instead, we only hear her as her face is away from the camera.  It's one thing when an actor/actress manages to move us.  It's another when they do so without us being able to see their face.  One is moved to compassion for Her Majesty, who we see is just at a loss to understand what is going on, and end up admiring her strength in facing the mob...and ultimately winning. 

Her career post-The Queen has shown she is not a Grande Dame.  She can do action as well as anyone (example: RED), but she's also made some terrible mistakes.  The remake of Arthur was a mistake from the get-go, and again she takes a part written for a man (Hobson) and suits it for a woman.  Of course, the secret of Dame Helen Mirren is this: do the parts that appeal to her and don't apologize for trying new things.  That's one part of her greatness.  The other: she's just a damn good actress...and also incredibly hot.

With that, we wish a Happy 66th Birthday to Dame Helen Mirren--who lives up to the song "There Ain't Nothing Like A Dame". 


A rather impressive Body of Work, no?


Sunday, July 24, 2011

It's Always Funny Until Someone Dies


AMY WINEHOUSE
(1983-2011)

The sad, sorry, sordid saga of Amy Winehouse was, until July 23, 2011, a cause comique for many people.
The website When Will Amy Winehouse Die offered a free iPod to whomever came the closest to pinpointing the exact time when Miss Winehouse would expire.  In other words, there was a group of people that delighted so much in the unraveling of a person that they were willing to offer prizes for whomever got her death date right. 

Sadly, this is reflective of our society that has so devalued human life that seeing a person disintegrate before our eyes only brings derision rather than pity.  While people taking guesses about someone's death I fear is something that will stay with us for as long as humanity continues, the people who benefited financially from Miss Winehouse are the ones who should question themselves.

I point to her final performance, what was billed as her 'comeback' tour in Europe.  First stop: Belgrade, Serbia.  In this YouTube Age, nothing remains hidden (I personally think this is a double-edged sword, but I digress).  Her performance was nothing short of painful.  She was thoroughly out of it: unaware of the lyrics to her own songs, stumbling on the stage, truly unaware of what was going on, even slightly bored and frustrated.  When Back To Black was being played, she clearly didn't know the words to her own song.  Granted, this can happen to a performer: I think of Frank Sinatra, but the major difference was that Sinatra was already past his prime and plagued by old age when this happened.  Winehouse was not yet thirty.  In the footage, it's clear that SHE was following her backup singers to know the words rather than the other way around. 

It is painful to watch because it is sad to see someone with a great deal of talent make a mess before a large group.  As I watched it, I cringed.  The woman was not in her right state of mind and she certainly was in no condition to appear publicly, let alone attempt to perform before a paying audience.  Granted, we don't know what transpired before she took the stage, but one does wonder why her handlers allowed her to go on when she was not coherent or in full control of  herself. 

Perhaps she just so bullied those around her that it was easier to just relent and let her go on, though no one could possibly have been pleased at the end results.  It might have been that they opted to just let her go out and hope that she could rise to the occasion.  It would have, however, been far better to have cancelled the show, give everyone their money back, and frankly lock the woman up for her own good.

I think of Britney Spears.  She also had a spectacular meltdown which people watched with an odd fascination mixed with derision.  However, the people around her decided that she was so out-of-control that her life was essentially managed by others (specifically her father if memory serves correct).  It might be curious to think that she may be sane enough to record songs and perform onstage but not sane enough to decide her own financial matters.  Still, it did wonders for Brit-Brit: she is performing, has hit songs, and moreover is still alive.

Winehouse did not have any of that.  Instead people around her and around the world slowly and with a mixture of laughter and sorry saw a healthy and happy-looking woman devolve into a rail-thin, snarling, multi-tattooed wreck.  The people around her, to be fair, could only do so much without having to take the issue to court.  No amount of intervention can stop someone who refuses to not just get help but to maintain sobriety.

It is tempting to call Amy Winehouse a cautionary tale, but we have too many cautionary tales already.  It, to my mind, is a puzzle why musicians in particular can get involved with drugs and still expect things to be different.  Too many people, some with true talent, have self-destructed due to drugs and alcohol, despite all the warnings, all the knowledge, all the previous performers who have gone down the same road.  We have Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin through Jim Morrison on down to Kurt Cobain and Sublime's Bradley Nowell to serve as cautionary tales.  With the possible exception of Morrison and the self-inflicted gunshot by Cobain, all were drug-related (though granted, Cobain were also into drugs before his death).  In short, we don't need more 'cautionary tales'.  We need to stop insisting that drugs are necessary to the creative process, stop believing that whatever physical pleasure one may derive from drugs trumps the physical harm they do, and moreover, stop coddling performers by allowing them to get their own way.

It looks like the consensus on Amy Winehouse is "sad but not unexpected".  At the moment of this writing the cause of death is still officially listed as 'unexplained'.  Whatever the results of the autopsy, it doesn't take away from the sheer sadness of it all: a woman with an especially strong voice who could have gone on to more and better things has now died at a young age.  Without an Amy Winehouse there probably would not be an Adele (who has avoided the pitfalls Winehouse fell head-first into and we hope she stays that way).  The whole thing I figure could have been avoided if 1.) the people around her had intervened more, and 2.) Winehouse had pushed herself out of whatever Dark Night of the Soul she appeared to live permanently in.  Even in death there will be no peace for Amy Winehouse: the circumstances of her final days were not happy ones, she runs the risk of being remembered more for the horrid spectacle she provided in 'what NOT to do', and now, at ony age 27, she has indeed gone back to black. 

IN MEMORIAM

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger. A Review


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

First things first.  One: you have in Captain America: The First Avenger, your requisite Stan Lee cameo (even I, a man who is proud to NOT know the difference between DC & Marvel, have to give it up for Stan the Man).  Two: there is something at the end of the credits, but unlike other Marvel films, it isn't a scene--it's a whole TRAILER.  STAY AT THE END FOR THE AVENGERS TRAILER.  Yes, we get a trailer for The Avengers, which from what I got from the audience was the most exciting part.   Those who stayed applauded, much to my disapproval.  Honestly, who applauds at a trailer...except nerds (and this coming from a former Captain of the Academic Decathlon team)?  Yet, I digress.

This season, we've had four, count them FOUR comic book film adaptations, none of which I would call brilliant.  Thor is barely passable (mostly due to the performances of Chris Hemsworth and especially Tom Hiddleston).  X-Men: First Class has been wildly overpraised but acceptable (almost exclusively due to the performances of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender).  Green Lantern was just a mess (made worse by the performances of Ryan Reynolds and...well, just about everyone with Ryan Reynolds).  Now we have Captain America: The First Avenger (henceforth referred simply as Captain America--I love my country, damn it).  As comic book films go, Captain America may not be the best one made (I'd argue for Superman: The Movie as the Citizen Kane of comic book films, with 1989's Batman and perhaps the first Spider-Man as possible contenders) but for this year, it's the most unabashedly entertaining and aware of what it is: just a good time. 

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the prototypical 98-pound weakling.  It's the height of World War II, but because of his physicality (he's short, scrawny, and has had a cacophony of illnesses), he is repeatedly rejected for military service.  That is, until Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) comes across him.  Dr. Erskine, an exile from the Nazi regime, believes that Rogers has the most important substance: a desire to do good and a strong heart (strong as in passionate).  With that, Erskine gets him into the Army, much to the disapproval of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).  Dr. Erskine has developed a new serum that will turn this physically weak man into a muscular, super-strong man (and amplifying all the positive qualities Rogers has).  Alongside Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the experiment is a success.

Col. Phillips still does not have an interest in one man being his secret weapon, especially against Hydra.  Hydra is a super-secret Nazi scientific group whose leader, Johann Schimdt (Hugo Weaving) along with his scientific henchman, Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) wants world domination (and honestly, what self-respecting Nazi DOESN'T want world domination?).  Hydra is so evil they outdo the Nazi salute--they use TWO raised arms rather than the wimpy one-arm version of the National Socialists.  They has taken prisoners of war and killed many more with a super-weapon of its own, while Rogers (now billed as Captain America) is forced to do USO and war bond tours.  Determined to both prove his worth and rescue his lifelong buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), he single-handed raids a HYDRA munitions plant where he outdoes Sergeant York in killing and rescuing the men trapped behind enemy lines. 

Phillips, still a bit leery, and Carter, now a bit smitten with the hunky and dear-hearted Rogers, decide to strike at HYDRA and Schimdt (whom we discover was Erskine's previous subject and also dastardly villain Red Skull--named for rather obvious reasons).  Rogers leads his team on a daring attack at his secret lair (though not without personal costs).  The battle between Red Skull and Captain America ends in a bit of a draw (Red taken to what I presume to be Asgard from Thor and Cap crashing the ship with the bomb bound for New York).  At Captain America's conclusion, he discovers the world of 2011 and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) telling him he's been 'asleep' for nearly 70 years.

The style of Captain America is purely 1940s, which is to its credit.  In fact, if screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had stayed strictly within a WWII setting and left out the present-day opening, the last scene would have been even more effective and perhaps more shocking.  Still, they were wise to ground the film in a style reminiscent of the era it portrays because it puts the origins of Captain America in a stronger context.  I digress to say that if Captain America had been set today--say, with Rogers being desperate to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq--the majority of audiences would have rejected the premise because those wars are not held to the same level as the Second World War.  Nazis are much better villains than jihadists.  With that being the case, Rogers' mad desire to fight is more relate able. 

Credit should also go to Rick Heinrichs' art direction and Anna B. Sheppard's costume design, both of which were instrumental in making Captain America look and feel like something that did come out of a 1940s film.  We even get a big-time, splashy musical number within the film, Star-Spangled Man, wildly reminiscent of something Busby Berkeley would have created for one of his elaborate musical numbers (I'm thinking something from Footlight Parade).   The music and lyrics by Alan Menken and David Zipple respectively are endlessly catchy and peppy, which are perfectly appropriate to Captain America's overall feel as an unapologetic, rah-rah American film.   As a side note, I think Star-Spangled Man has a strong shot of earning a Best Original Song Oscar nomination. 

Granted, I thought the song, while quite jolly and well-done, made Captain America longer than it should have been as was incidental to the overall plot.  While Markus and McFeely got the atmosphere right, I'd argue that we could have found another way to have the song as part of the story (say, a montage of Captain America in action as opposed to wearing his first costume--which while true to the character's original look now appears to have been done in mockery of it).  In fact, the whole "send the Cap on a war bonds tour" subplot didn't add anything to the story except a chance for a big, splashy musical moment.  It would have worked better if Captain Rogers (it should be noted he or anyone else around him never referred to him as 'Captain America') had been allowed to show his worth rather than have him go through another reminder of him being rejected.

I should point out that Captain America didn't set out to reinvent the wheel or the comic book formula.  In truth, Captain America is a rather standard, by-the-numbers story: unappreciated man gains incredible powers, an evil villain wants to take over the world, the gruff superior doesn't think our hero is up to the job, said hero wins the battle and the girl.  The film is smart enough to know what it is and not deviate far from the premise.

Director Joe Johnston is perhaps the perfect director for a film like Captain America--he relishes in capturing the visual world the story takes place, be it from his first feature (The Rocketeer, which is also an unapologetic nostalgia trip full of gee-whiz emotion) right down to the moody, Victorian look of The Wolfman (which I still think was an enjoyable film--not a good one, but enjoyable).  Johnston got the feel of the 40s down quite well, and did a surprisingly good job with the actors.

However, that may do more to the fact that all the actors pretty much understood they were in two projects: Captain America the film and Captain America the long, long trailer for The Avengers (which according to the applause-worthy trailer at the end of this particular trailer will be out May 2012). 

Think on that for a moment.  Captain America tells it own story, but the beginning and end of the film serve as nothing more than a tie-in to this massive mega-franchise-tying film that will throw in characters from other Marvel films (Tony Stark's Iron-Man, Thor's...Thor) and even some from comic books that have never had their own film (unless Jeremy Renner will be the star of a Hawkeye film, which I don't believe will ever be made.  Look for him in what could be a first--a cameo in a trailer--sorry, can't get over that).  At least it will mark the FIRST time the character of Nick Fury will actually be a major part of a film as opposed to just popping up in the post-credit scene (I argue he wasn't a big part in Iron-Man 2, so don't get technical with me).   Yet I digress.

Cooper was clearly channeling Howard Hughes for Howard Stark (right down to his mustache) but he had the charm and cockyness all Starks appear to have (even when their experiments go slightly awry).  Tommy Lee Jones was his eternally gruff but oddly loveable Tommy Lee Jones type, while Weaving was having the time of his life playing Agent Smith...I mean, Red Skull.  Few actors can do menacing as well as Weaving.  Tucci was sadly underused as Dr. Erskine, but he had a lovely Teutonic accent which at least was more believeable than when Weaving or Toby Jones gave their German characters German accents.  However, both Weaving and Toby Jones have a curious and pleasant double-act: one typically deranged and one slightly subservient to his master's will. 

I wasn't too thrilled with the Dirty Dozen the good Cap brings along, not because there was anything wrong with having a multi-ethnic, multi-national team behind Captain America, but because we never got to know any of them (granted, the uber-geeks who know all the nuances of the characters would, but since I never read comics I wouldn't know a Dum-Dum from a Dernier).  I was more interested in Atwell's Carter, though their romance did seem to be more plot-driven than reality-based.  In other words, one didn't understand how their love could grow so fast (especially when she catches our good Cap in a slightly compromising position with another woman--again, something that happens only in movies). 

I'll say the biggest surprise was Chris Evans.  I wrote some time back that he should embrace being an action star and not the actor he longs to be because he's a bit...limited in his range.  In Captain America, I was surprised to see him actually ACT, at least in a few scenes (such as after losing his best friend for example and when he's the scrawny Brooklyn kid).  Once we get the Chris Evans we all know and love (the big, buff, hot guy), we get the Chris Evans we normally see (slightly stilted).  However, there were some good moments.

As a side note, I found it curious that Captain America not only borrowed from other films (when the Captain first rides to HYDRA's secret compound, it was eerily reminicent of when Hans Solo & Princess Leia went after the Empire's post on Endor in Return of the Jedi) but even made references to other films.  Early in Captain America, Schmidt openly states how he's puzzled that the Fuhrer "digs for trinkets in the desert".  Is this a subtle and sly reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark (for which Johnston co-won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects)? 

As I've stated, Captain America knows what it is: both a gleeful homage to 1940s patriotism and a precursor to an even larger film.  It is a nice, enjoyable, pleasant film.  By no means is it a great comic book film and certainly not a great film in general.  However, it knows what it is, embraces it, and as a result makes the entire experience a most pleasant one (even with the song).  It does make one proud to be American.

DECISION: B-

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wait Till Daddy Comes Out. Beginners: A Review

yBEGINNERS 

There is something within me that finds self-consciously quirky films abhorrent.  They're the type of films that know they are a bit offbeat so they embrace their 'uniqueness' in obvious ways--be it through camera angles, the visuals, or those damn voiceovers (longtime readers know I am passionately against most voiceovers with certain exceptions: Sunset Boulevard, Blade Runner).  Beginners has those, but I can forgive most of that due to some good performances and a heartfelt story (though I emphasize I can forgive MOST, not ALL). 

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is in the middle of an early mid-life crisis.  He is dealing with many things.  First, after the death of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) tells Oliver that he's gay.  Hal's alternative lifestyle, alas, lasts only four years before he too dies of cancer.  Throw in a romance with the beautiful French actress Anna (played by the beautiful French actress Melanie Laurent), and poor Olly is not having a good life.  Still, as Beginners jumps from his father's passionate embrace of his gay life (gay in every meaning of the word) and his new-and-much-younger lover Andy (Goran Visnjik) to Oliver and Anna's romance, we see Oliver grow as a person. 

I can't say Beginners is a bad movie.  It isn't.  The film is blessed with two wonderful actor who give rich performances.  The interplay between McGregor and Plummer come off as an extremely affectionate one between father and son.   Beginners, under the direction of Mike Mills, brings great tenderness and affection but also a slight hesitancy to their relationship.  In other words, it's a realistic portrayal of a son who is still a little leery of his father, not because of Dad's newly-embraced gay life.  Instead, it is due to how Oliver perceived his parent's relationship and especially Hal's remoteness from both his mother and himself.  Granted, the gay thing may have played a part in it, but when McGregor and Plummer are together (especially at the end of Hal's time), it is quite tender and moving.

Beginners is quite good, frankly, almost every time Plummer is on screen.  Hal embraces the life he's so yearned for with more than abandon, but with an almost psychotic passion.  He joins gay groups, hosts viewing parties films (especially The Times of Harvey Milk), and gives his son a rainbow flag, telling Oliver it represents gay pride.  Hal is so enthralled with being free of his constraints he is unaware that his son would know what the rainbow flag means, as if Hal has made this discovery on his own and wants to tell the world.

My issue with Beginners has to do almost exclusively with the other aspects of the film, in particular the romances.  First, the romance between Hal and Andy never was believable.  It wasn't because Andy was old enough to be Hal's son.  Rather, it was because as portrayed by Visnjik, Andy never appeared to be anything other than a parody of a nitwit.  If memory serves correct, at one point, Andy jumps up and down and claps like a child receiving a toy.  His Beatles haircut does not help alleviate the impression that Andy is remarkably dim.  If Andy and Hal did really fall in love, we got very little sense of it.

Even worse was the romance between Oliver and Anna.  Throughout Beginners, their affair was played as something cute: they meet at a costume party where he dresses as Sigmund Freud and she...I think she was Marlene Dietrich (though given she could not speak when they first meet, it was hard to say for sure so I'm going by the fact that she was dressed as a man).  They roller skate down the hotel lobby, he takes her tagging (seriously, two grown men creating graffiti--at least they weren't making gang signs, so that's a plus). 

This I blame more on the script than the directing.  However, the writer was Mike Mills himself.  To my mind, he put in too many things that were a bit too 'cutesy': the 1920s-style music, endless montages of "what the stars looked like, what the President looked like" to emphasize the changing times.  One particular moment did get me: when Oliver hears the doctor found a spot on Hal's lung the size of a quarter, we see a quarter, then five nickles, twenty-five pennies--I'm not a fan of films that draw too much attention to how clever they think they are.  In short, Beginners delights in its own whimsy, but things like that take me out of the story and instead force me to focus on how 'witty' everyone is. 

Beginners has some wonderful performances from McGregor and Plummer, and at its heart a good story.  If Mills had put greater focus on the father/son relationship as opposed to counterpointing it with that between Oliver and Anna (which again, was a little too cute for its own good--how many times can we be told 'this is the kitchen, this is the living room') it might have a been a truly good film.  It isn't bad, and it will certainly have you think of the relationship with one's own parents (straight or gay).  When one thinks of the film, it's not a bad Beginners

DECISION: B-

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Chimp Off the Old Block. Escape From Planet of the Apes: A Review

ESCAPE FROM PLANET OF THE APES

We were left with a curious situation when last we left the Planet of the Apes.  The planet had been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust.  Still, we had to get another movie to capitalize on what can now be called a franchise.  However, the planet was destroyed!  How can you get another sequel when the planet was destroyed

Well, no worries...they merely have to rework a few details and we get Escape From Planet of the Apes, which may be the world's first reboot of a series (reboot in that we have the same characters/story but get to start afresh). 

A spacecraft is spotted off the California coast.  It's recognized as one that was sent a few years earlier.  The military brings it ashore and then is stunned to see it was piloted by apes!  Three specifically, our old chimpanzee friends Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), his loving wife Zira (Kim Hunter), and a new character, Milo (Sal Mineo).  Instantly they are whisked off to the Los Angeles Zoo where Milo is promptly bumped off by a depressed gorilla.  However, this was after two scientist, Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) discovered that the apes can talk.  To uncover the truth, the President (William Windom) creates an Inquiry to find what they are, how they got here, and what their intentions are.

The public is charmed by the "ape-o-nauts" and Zira & Cornelius become the toast of society, giving speeches and discovering the quirks of prehistoric human living (at least pre-historic from their perspective).  All the fun and games come to an abrupt end, however, thanks to the President's Science Advisor, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden). 

He believes the chimps are the harbingers of death for humanity.  His concern and fear grows with three events: first, Zira's drunken admission that they have seen the destruction of the Earth after a war between gorillas and humans, second, hearing from them the story of the rise of the planet of the apes, and third and most dangerous, the fact that Zira is pregnant. 

Hasslein believes the only way to stop the future from being dominated by the apes is to kill the baby and stop Zira and Cornelius from having another.  Later, when an orderly innocently teases Zira by referring to her unborn baby as a "little monkey" (monkey being a derogatory term to them), Cornelius in his anger accidentally kills him and they flee into the night.

Now believing them to be dangerous, the apes become hunted just as Zira goes into labor.  Dixon and Branton believe Cornelius didn't mean to kill the attendant.  They take them Branton's friend, circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban), who not only loves animals but who was helped by Branton in delivering the first chimp ever born in a circus (something that Armando is prone to go on about). 

There, Zira is able to give birth to Milo, named after their fallen comrade.  Hasslein realizes that a chimp in her condition couldn't travel far, so he orders a search of every zoo and circus in the area.  The plans to take Zira, Cornelius, and Milo to Florida and have them hide in the Everglades is scuttled, so they are advised to travel to the port and hide there until they can be smuggled back to the circus.  However, Hasslein in his now-fanatical determination, finds them and ruthlessly exterminates them and is himself exterminated by Cornelius.  We end Escape from Planet of the Apes with a short epilogue where Armando closes his circus and tells a little chimp just how smart his parents were...and the chimp begins to say, "Mama" again and again.



Escape From Planet of the Apes has quite a few things going for it.  First, it has a healthy dose of humor within it, almost all of it gentle.   I point to two moments.  The first is when Zira and Cornelius are brought before the Inquiry.  The members are naturally amazed to hear Zira speak.  One of the members asks if the male can speak.  Cornelius rises and responds dryly, "Only when she lets me".  This brings immediate laughter from the audience, concluding with Zira herself laughing and embracing her wedded husband. 

The second moment of gentle comedy comes in the montage of Cornelius and Zira finding themselves celebrities, with perks like free lodging and wardrobe.  It is good to have light moments where the audience doesn't have to ponder the deeper story about tolerance and fear.  Instead, we can concentrate on a rather humorous situation of apes being just like us and even then, we can see how humans treat each other.  We see this when Zira addresses a Women's Club, urging greater equality in marriage (although one wonders whether in that marriage she, not Cornelius, is the dominant one).

Another strong quality is in the performances.  Zira is the dominant figure in Escape From Planet of the Apes, and Hunter gives a brilliant performance.  Under her, Zira is both strong and naive, mixing the comedic elements along with true heartbreak.  McDowall also has wonderful moments, especially whenever Zira or their child are at risk.  I figure it takes a strong actor to play such an odd premise with a perfectly straight face, but both Trundy and Dillman created sympathetic characters who were friendly towards the chimpanzees.  Montalban had a relatively minor role (only appearing for about ten minutes at the most), but he also in his brief screen time showed a caring individual who knew the chimps were not going to harm them.


Finally, while Jerry Goldsmith's score to Escape From Planet of the Apes isn't as iconic as the one he wrote for Planet of the Apes, he creates music perfectly in tune to the story (no pun intended): providing light music for the more humorous moments but bringing the sadness and tragedy of the ending to the forefront.  Curiously Escape From Planet of the Apes is the first of the Ape films to have closing music; perhaps not important in the great scheme of the series, but still an interesting tidbit. 

One of the qualities Escape From Planet of the Apes has is that it not only works on the basic level of the story shown, but also on a deeper level.  First, you have the spoofing of celebrity culture that I wrote of earlier.  Second, I don't know if it's been commented on, but Cornelius' irritation and anger about being called a "monkey" could be a subtle reference to how humans use terms to demean others, such as those used against African-Americans, Jews, or Hispanics.  By having him react so strongly about being referred to as a "monkey", could it not work as well when "the other" is called a derogatory term?

Another point is the intelligence within Escape From Planet of the Apes.  By having Cornelius and Zira speak from their unique vantage point, they are able to show humanity how inhuman we can be.  When Hasslein is interrogating them, Cornelius tells them the backstory of how apes became the dominant species.  Dogs and cats started dying, and humans craved pets.  They took on the apes, Corny (my own nickname for him) informs Hasslein. "(Man) might kill his brother, but he could not kill his dog".  If the truth of that line doesn't make us ponder how humanity may treat animals better than they treat their brother...

The film also addresses a sadly common human reaction to anyone who is different: fear.  It is this fear of 'the other' and how they will affect humanity that Hasslein's character captures.  Hasslein's paranoia about the chimps that have not harmed anyone, a point made clear to him by The President, will brook no opposition, and in his mad desire to alter history he may have unwittingly aided it.

Paul Dehn's script for Escape From Planet of the Apes may not have been consciously echoing the story of Oedipus, but like in the Greek tragedy, the character's efforts to change the future only bring about both the future they sought to change and their own destruction.  His story is leaps and bounds that of his previous effort in the Apes saga, and it was probably enhanced by the fact that he wasn't as encumbered by the preceding film as he had been before. 



Escape From Planet of the Apes isn't perfect.  There are many points of logic that are hinted at but never fully addressed.  For example, if the ship the chimps used to go into space was Taylor's from the first film, how did they manage to fish it out of the lake (or for that matter, learn to operate it so quickly)?  The character of Dr. Milo (played by Mineo) dissapears so quickly one wonders why he was there in the first place (I suspect Mineo was not eager for more Ape films, which would make him a silly Sal.  However, I digress).  

One thing that did throw me off was when Hasslein got his just deserts: seeing the blood jump onto the camera itself comes as a shock, making the entire scene more effective in drawing us in.  However, I wonder if it was intended to be graphic and/or startling. 

Escape From Planet of the Apes works primarily because we care about the characters.  We've come to know Zira and Cornelius (maybe even identified with their innocence about human culture and their abiding love for each other).  With that emotional involvement, we want them to make it.  We know Cornelius well enough to know he did not intend to kill anyone, making the plight of everyone even more tragic.

Under normal circumstance I would bemoan the fact that Escape From Planet of the Apes violated one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Film By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.  However, in this case I will cut it a little slack for two reasons.  One: if the film had ended where we thought it had, it would have been as especially heavy ending where we would leave the theater extremely sad and depressed.  Therefore, by putting in that brief epilogue we end with a sense of hope. 

Two: after two films where they had to come up with rather elaborate ways to keep the story going, this was a much better and more logical way to leave that door open than what we've been treated to. 

As it stands, Escape From Planet of the Apes manages to tell an original story while building on what has come before.  It has moments of humor, of tenderness, of tragedy--in short, a remarkably 'human' film.

DECISION: A-

Next Planet of the Apes Film: Conquest of Planet of the Apes

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Better Life: A Review (Review #140)


A BETTER LIFE

I figure I would make a poor cinematic version of a Mexican-American for a variety of reasons.  One: I'm not Catholic.  Two: both my parents are citizens (one native-born, one naturalized before I was born).  Three: I don't know any gang members (at least personally). I knew one that tried to pass for one, but he was the Captain of the Math Club, so his street cred was highly suspect.  Four: I never lived in California.

In short, I would look completely out of place in a film like A Better Life. I listen to bluegrass, not something usually covered by Los Tigres Del Norte. 

Therefore, A Better Life, despite my heritage, is a foreign subject to me.  Not so for director Chris Weitz, who is one-quarter Mexican, and thus A Better Life must somehow resonate with his past, though if I'm allowed a touch of cynicism, I can't imagine how: I doubt he ever had to listen to La Puerta Negra at almost every wedding, quinceaƱera, birthday party, and bar mitzvah he attended, but I digress.  In any case, A Better Life is a better film than most released this year, though far from perfect. 

Carlos (Demian Bichir) is like every Mexican/Mexican-American in America: illegal.  He is a humble gardener in East Los Angeles.  Carlos does his best to stay out of trouble, otherwise he will deported.  Therefore, he just goes to work and comes home exhausted.  His boss/friend Blasco (Joaquin Cosio) offers to sell him his truck/business, but since Carlos doesn't have either the money or the papers, he keeps turning him down.  Fortune, however, smiles his way when Carlos' sister Anita (Dolores Heredia) lends him the amount necessary to get the truck.

Most if not all of this is thoroughly unimportant to Carlos' son Luis (Jose Julian).  His time is spent ditching school, spending time with his best friend, the gangbanger-worshipping Facundo (Bobby Soto), and making it out with his girlfriend Ruthie (Chelsea Rendon), whom I think is the Queen of the Cholas.  In any case, Luis is a sullen, ungrateful child, but Carlos loves him all the same.


Things appear to start out well for Carlos, but then in a shameless rip-off...I mean, an homage to Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, Carlos' truck is stolen (and on his first day too).  Carlos can't go to the police, so he begins the search himself.   This spurs Luis to join his father in the search, and while they find the bicycle thief, I mean, the truck thief, in a short period of time, there is still a divide between father and son. 

Even the actual finding of the truck and its recovery isn't enough to give us a happy ending.  Once father and son get said truck back and appear to start afresh, what should happen? Now with Carlos on his way to a forced exile, Luis must now decide whether to submit to his strict aunt's rule or enter that beautiful world of tattoos and homeboys.

The biggest problem I have with The Troca Thief...I mean, A Better Life, is this: that Eric Eason's screenplay (from a story by Roger Simon) tries for a Bicycle Thief-style story (right down to having the truck Carlos needs to work stolen so quickly after he buys it) without acknowledging it as inspiration.  The second act in the film is the search for the truck but, given how Luis has been up to this moment, we don't know why he suddenly jumps in to help his father.  We don't see Luis showing that he cares that much for him, so this sudden shift in his behavior seems a bit out of character.

I could go on about how A Better Life plays into the idea of Mexicans/Mexican-Americans in film are seen (always poor, always illegal, always East L.A.).  Suffice it to say that I hope A Better Life, along with Under the Same Moon, Goal! The Dream Begins, and From Prada to Nada will not inspire others to accept the images of Mexican-Americans as seen here to be the 'typical' Hispanic life. 


I will say that the positives with the story outweighed the stereotypes A Better Life dealt in large measure.  Chief among them were Bichir's performance.  There's a sequence in A Better Life where we see Carlos drive around with his truck, ending with him staring at it with rapt attention as it is being washed while the other men around him are ogling the scantly-clad women.  His face registers hope and fear and joy all at once.  When he speaks, he commands both warmth and authority.  In short, Carlos as a character is extremely human: eager to move up in life but not willing to sell someone out for it.

I digress to state that while Bichir's performance was excellent as the father who cares for the son that doesn't care much for him, there is a risk of making Carlos too noble, too pure.  This is certainly the case for when he does find the troca thief.  Granted, it's another sign of Bichir's great performance (a mixture of hurt and rage building up and being pushed down), but it is Luis who reacts with genuine anger.  Carlos, despite having had his truck (and livelihood) stolen, doesn't appear to have any real resentment against him.  In fact, he almost appears to understand the troca thief's motives. 

This, again, didn't ring wholly true for me: a character can be good, but rarely does Carlos appear to be much more than a sacrificing saint.  Throughout the film Carlos was never filled with any sense of anger at his situation but accepted things somewhat too calmly, too nobly.  I would have hoped Carlos would have had a bit more conflict within him, but there it is. 

Julian showed Luis to be someone who doesn't hate his father, but who doesn't truly care for him or for the sacrifices Carlos is making for him.  To his credit, he does have his own moment near the end of A Better Life.  Having escaped from his Aunt Anita, he goes back to his house.  There, he hears a phone message from his father informing him that he is going to be deported and how he hopes Luis will see him one last time.  As the truth of how his father did try to give him a better life, we hear Facundo at the door, calling for him.  If he opens the door, more than likely he will be called on to be 'jumped in' to the gang.  This decision, his first truly adult one, is his and his alone.  Will Luis go for a better life himself? 



At its heart, A Better Life isn't all that much about illegal immigration.  It is about fathers and sons, how one pushes the other away and understanding almost too late the sacrifices made to provide "a better life".  It isn't one where they will live in a home featured on MTV's Cribs, but one where they can achieve something better than what they have and what current situations are offering.  Those moments between Bichir and Julian are the best moments in A Better Life, where the son can see what the father has been trying to do for his son.

In the end, I couldn't help think that in a curious way, A Better Life could be a sequel to Under the Same Moon.  Little Carlitos in the latter could have grown to Carlos in the former.  The film doesn't take a strict pro or anti-immigrant stance although there is a quick scene of an illegal immigrant rally while father and son search for the stolen vehicle.  It wasn't overt about taking a stand in either direction and if it did, I missed it. 

A Better Life has some wonderful moments of acting courtesy of Bichir and at its heart, the film is really a story of fathers and sons who are divided by more than a border between countries.  It is about understanding that sacrifices must be made if one wants to rise to a higher and better position in life. 

By making it a human story, A Better Life makes a solid case that a father's love is stronger than any fence built by a government or a child.   

DECISION: B-