Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1957)


4. Paths of Glory

“Paths of Glory” began as a novel, written by Humphrey Cobb. The story was based off a real incident in World War I, where four French soldiers were executed for cowardice. Later, the book was adapted to stage, its anti-war message proving unpopular. As a boy, Kubrick read the novel and it made an impression on him. After “The Killing,” Kirk Douglas expressed an interest in working with Kubrick. Kubrick brought him “Paths of Glory” as a possible project. Douglas admitted the film probably wouldn't make any money but decided the material was too important. He was right. Like the prior stage adaptation, “Paths of Glory” didn't connect with audiences. In time, it would be reevaluated as Stanley Kubrick's first masterpiece.

The year is 1916 and World War I rages on. Blood and death fill the trenches of Europe. In a protected chateau, a pair of generals devise a suicide mission to take “The Anthill,” a much-sought piece of German land. A colonel named Dax is left to carry out the mission. As expected, the mission is a massacre, most of the French soldiers dying in the charge. The remaining soldiers refuse to march to their death. This infuriates the general, who wants to fire on his own men. When this plan is refused, he instead decides to try three men for court marshal, to be put to death if found guilty. Dax argues for the men's innocence, against the stubborn incompetence of his superiors.

“Paths of Glory” is one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. It's been said that it's impossible to make a truly anti-war film, as war is an inherently exciting action to portray. Maybe so but Kubrick comes awfully close. The director emphasizes how terrifying combat is. The soldiers are frequently brave but are always scared. The film's central thesis is laid out in a brief scene of two soldiers, talking in the trenches before falling asleep. One solider outright says that everyone is afraid to die. By focusing so clearly on the humanity of those involved, “Paths of Glory” makes it clear that the very act of war – asking someone to die for any cause – is inhumane.

Inhumane and stupid. Something the film especially criticizes are the generals and military leaders that tell soldiers to march off and die. The film begins, not on the battlefield, but in the comfort of an administrative building. There, generals in uniforms covered with medals, in a relaxed manner, decide to send men to their deaths. Later, they nonchalantly devise a random poll to determine which men will be executed, calmly and without much concern. The film is highly critical of military leaders like this, portraying them as avaricious and ignorant. They are more concerned with maintaining appearances than protecting their soldiers' lives, with projecting childish concepts of “bravery.” This is why they threaten to fire on their own men, why they can't conceive of challenging authority for any reason other than getting a promotion. “Paths of Glory” portrays war as horrible but saves must of its venom for those at the top.

Probably the most effective tool “Paths of Glory” employs in de-glamourizing war is how filthy it makes the battlefield look. The trenches, as they were in real life, are damp. It often rains, making sure the area is even more waterlogged. Characters are often streaked with mud and ash. More than once, the horrible stench is mentioned. The battlefield is always cloudy and overcast. When the soldiers die, they do so with blood on their shocked, unmoving, horrified faces. The surroundings are desolate. Bombs are often hear exploding in the distant. The film goes out of its way to emphasize the reality of trench warfare: Filthy, miserable, and awful.

Kubrick's techniques have continued to evolve over his first three features. “Paths of Glory” is the first of Kubrick's film that feels like it belongs to him one hundred percent. The film features most of the director's most famous trademarks. There's a long tracking shot through the trenches early on, establishing how miserable a location that is. This is in comparison to the scenes set in courts and offices. Kubrick often utilizes wide shots here, looking down on the action like a scrutinizing scientist. Yet close-ups are also featured. “Paths of Glory” contains maybe the first instance of the Kubrick Stare: Kirk Douglas, his face shadowed, looks up from under a heavy brow, infuriated and angered by those around him.

The most impressive visual feat Kubrick pulls off in “Paths of Glory” is the sequence devoted to the charge to the front. The scene cuts between brilliantly executed long shots and closer shots of soldiers dying, tossed by explosions. It's a spellbinding moment, because of the technical expertise on-screen. The scene flows with a powerful sense of motion, drawing the viewer in. Yet it's also a horrifying sequence, as it puts the viewer right in the middle of combat. We feel the shattering power of the blast. Nearly every soldier around Dax is cut down, quickly and without mercy.

“Paths of Glory's” Colonel Dax was an ideal part for Kirk Douglas. Douglas' frequently came across on-screen as the thinking man's hero. His cleft chin and iconic jawline gave him a suitably heroic appearance, seeing him often cast in adventure films. Yet Douglas always brought a compassionate and thoughtful quality to his protagonists. This is especially apparent in Dax. Douglas spends the entire movie, hoping that empathy and common sense will proceed. Up until the end, he attempts to keep hope. After the soldiers are executed, Douglas' unleashes rage on the commanding officers, a deeply cathartic moment. Douglas' Dax is a rare hero, one that stands for his fellow man, for loyalty and reason.

Opposing him is one of the most simpering, infuriating villains in cinema history. General Mireau is played by George Macready. Mireau's establishing character moment occurs early on, when he slaps a shell-shocked soldier, demands the clearly traumatized man's condition doesn't exist, and orders him to be taken away. Every one of Mireau's actions are petty. He demands the cannon operators fire on his own soldier when they start to retreat from the Anthill. Mireau's performance might appear to be over-the-top but the character is so chilling precisely because it's not overdone. Evil like this – mundane evil motivated by greed and ego – is all too real.

The film's cast is excellent, over all. The actors playing the condemned men are especially impressive. Ralph Meeker, sporting a distinctive scar through the film's second half, seems to maintain his composure at first As the days before the execution stretch on, his strength begins to weaken. When faced with a Champlain, he has some choice words for the man. Joe Turkel's Private Arnaud stands before the court, chosen at random to die despite a lauded war record. Turkel's indignation at suffering this fate clear, up until he's even robbed of that by an injury. Lastly, Timothy Carey's performance as Private Ferol is heartbreaking. At first sardonic, Ferol unravels more and more, as the date of the execution draws closer, exposing a raw humanity.

The biggest blow against the concept of a heroic war that “Paths of Glory” makes is the idea that there's any glory, any dignity, in death. Kubrick draws out the execution as long as possible. We see the condemned men walk slowly to the shooting gallery. Carey's Ferol spends the entire walk crying out, weeping, collapsing into an emotional wreck. He faces death like a real human being: Terrified and desperate. He is still weeping when the bullets hit him. There's no pomp or circumstance to the deaths themselves. The rifles cry out and the men collapse. Kubrick portrays the death as senseless and ugly, which is exactly what they are.

“Paths of Glory” is a grim film but not an entirely pessimistic one. The film's final scene is uniquely powerful. Douglas' Dax looks into a rowdy bar, the soldiers yelling at a captured German girl brought out to sing. Yet the girl's beautiful voice eventually silences them. Soon, the men are singing along with her, some of them shedding tears. It's a scene that suggests empathy isn't impossible, that the cruelty of war does not necessarily flatten a sense of compassion. Unlike the tacked on happy ending of “Killer's Kiss,” the slightly hopeful conclusion of “Paths of Glory” is earned and powerful.

Like many of Kubrick's films, “Paths of Glory” has only grown in esteem over the years. Initially, the film was controversial, some contemporary writers bristling at its obvious anti-war themes. The film was even banned in France, due to its depiction of the country's military. In time, “Paths of Glory” would be recognized as the startling condemnation of war that it is. While sometimes overlooked due to the high place in film history Kubrick's later films occupy, the movie is certainly one worth seeking out. Few other films draw attention to the senselessness of war with such grace and power. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1956)


3. The Killing

Stanley Kubrick's “The Killing” happened almost by accident. The director struck up a friendship with James B. Harris over chess. The two would form a production company together. Legend had it that the team, originally, wanted to adapt “The Snatchers” by Lionel White. However, censorship at the team prevented a film about kidnapping from being made. As a last minute replacement, Kubrick and Harris decided to adapt another White novel, “Clean Break.” Kubrick butted heads with United Artist, the film's distributor, who feared the film was too confusing and didn't star a big enough name. Out of adversity emerges greatness. “The Killing” was the director's breakthrough film.

A quartet of men plan a daring daytime heist. Johnny orchestrates a scheme to steal two million dollars from a race track. It's an inside job, the teller and bartenders helping to carry out the plan. A horse will be shot on the track and a wrestler will start a fight in the bar, helping to distract the cops. One of those cops is also part of the deal. The heist goes off with only a few problems, the thieves grabbing the money and making it out of the race track. However, there are outside factors to consider. The teller's wife becomes privy to the plan, disrupting things. Fate will have its say too.

“Killer's Kiss” was Kubrick's first experiment with film noir. That movie had the look but dialed back on the genre's typically cynical worldview. “The Killer” functions in the other direction. Most of the movie is set in daylight, leaving fewer opportunities for stylish, urban shadows. (Though Kubrick still sneaks in some.) “The Killing's” opinion on humanity, however, is black as pitch. It's a movie about thieves, scoundrels, liars, and killers. The lives of animals or other humans mean little to them. The only reason the men have to trust each other is their mutual greed. Love between husband and wife is no guarantee. Betrayal is commonplace. Violence is intense. When a man attempts to reach out in friendship, he's greeted with a racial slur. In short: The world of “The Killing” is not a nice one.

Throughout his career, Kubrick would often call upon his history as a documentary filmmaker, adding realism to his film. This habit begins in earnest with “The Killing.” A narration was added to the film by the studio, against the director's wishes, in hopes of making the story clearer. However, the narration has the effect of making “The Killing” seem like the record of real events. Adding to this effect is the way the story plays out. “The Killing's” construction is non-linear. The film often cuts to the events as they happen, before cutting back later to portray them from a different perspective. Now imagine a news article that pieces together witness testimonies, giving an impression of something from multiple view points. The effect is the same in “The Killing,” the movie feeling like a beat-for-beat recreation of an actual heist.

Kubrick's visual design, already strong in “Killer's Kiss,” makes another huge leap forward in “The Killing.” The contrast between stillness and movement seen is further emphasized here. There are long scenes in “The Killing” devoted to people having tense conversations. Kubrick will film the talks in a wider take, showing everyone sitting at a table. These stiller moments are broken up with smooth transitional shots, the camera rolling towards the door of an apartment. Another of the director's trademarks – the Kubrick stare – appears in an embryonic form here. We see a dying man, his face spotted with bullet wounds, glare in a shadowy corner of a room. Proceeding that moment is an impressive point-of-view shot, tracking the same injured man as he walks through a room littered with dead bodies. Added to this already impressive visual mix are some noir-ish shadows, a lone lamp punctuating the darkness of a seedy room or a parrot chirping in a shaded nook.

During pre-production, Stanley Kubrick wrote an outline of “The Killing.” He then passed the outline to veteran crime writer Jim Thompson. Thompson fleshed out the characters and the dialogue, further contributing to the film's hard-boiled atmosphere. The film's memorable dialogue is obviously the work of Thompson. There's a number of quotable lines in “The Killing.” When Johnny meets a snooping Sherry, he threatens to put her head in her hands. She counters by saying it would look better “on his shoulder.” A minute later, he tells her she has “a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart.” The dirty cop is called “a funny kind of cop.” The opera “Pagiliacci” is memorably referenced at one point. It's not exactly realistic but the stylized dialogue is undeniably unforgettable.

The title of “The Killing” suggests violence. Fittingly, the film is a pretty violent movie for 1956. At first, Kubrick's approach to physical violence is more subtle. We only hear a woman being slapped in one scene, the actual blow left off-screen. However, as the film goes on, as the situation becomes graver, the action becomes gorier. The hotel room shoot-out explodes into graphic violence. Buckshot is left in a man's face, his cheeks spotted with bloody wounds. The floor is strewn with dead bodies, the camera lingering on their fatal injuries. Life is cheap in “The Killing.” The violence, both realistic and blunt, reflects this.

At least, it does in all but one scene. As part of the set-up, Johnny hires Maurice, a former professional wrestler, to start a bar fight as a distraction. That fight scene is surprisingly theatrical. Maurice knocks people across the bar. Several flips are performed on the security cops, moves that wouldn't look out of place on the wrestling mat. Maurice even gets his shirt ripped off, in a moment that borders the absurd. On one hand, a fist fight this elaborate probably doesn't belong in a grounded, gritty film like “The Killing.” Yet it's such a striking sequence. Kubrick's direction is fierce, getting right into the action as blows are traded and men topple.

Sterling Hayden was the star that United Artist argued wasn't a big enough name to carry “The Killing.” Whatever his box office value, Hayden's performance is an excellent one. He plays Johnny as a hardened man with his eyes on the prize. Hayden brings a fantastic threatening power to several of his scene. Most notably, in the scene where he sticks up the race track tellers, his stern voice coming from behind a rubber hobo mask. Johnny is a hardened crook but the film attempts to humanize the character by giving him a girlfriend. Colleen Gray as Fay gets second billing and is charming enough. Despite this, she only appears in the beginning and ending scene. I honestly forgot about her by the time she reappeared. The character isn't distracting but is unnecessary. Johnny doesn't apologize for his criminal ways and neither should the movie.

The most compelling subplot in the film concerns George and his philandering wife, Sherry. George is played by Elisha Cook Jr. Cook's demeanor is weaselly and nervous. He seems to be the most morally upright member of the gang. He nearly quits the scheme several times before the heist. On the day of, his nervousness is visible. Cook's performance is wide-eyed, his terrified flop-sweat palatable. Playing Sherry is Marie Windsor. Windsor's beauty hides a malicious streak. She only married George becomes she thought he would be rich one day. She's only stays with him after hearing about the heist. Even then, she plots to steal the money with her boyfriend. Sherry is the femme fatale in this noir, a wicked woman only interested in her own neck. Yet Windsor's performance gives her further depth, making her almost seem like a victim of circumstance.

The rest of the cast is solid too. Joe Sawyer plays Mike, the bartender. Mike is a sympathetic character too, caring for a bed-ridden sick wife. He also considers leaving the heist behind, in a scene where he asks Johnny if they should run off together. (Feel free to read into the romantic possibilities of that statement.) Sawyer has an everyman quality, seeming like a normal guy dragged into something frightening. Ted de Corsia as Randy, the dirty cop, is less sympathetic. De Corsia effectively cuts the shape of a scumbag. Kola Kwariani plays the wrestler, which is fitting since Kwariani was a pro-wrestler in real life. Interestingly, Kwariani actually gives off an intellectual vibe in his few scenes. Lastly, Timothy Carey is suitably sleazy as the lying, racist sharpshooter. Having Carey hold a puppy, before marching off to kill a horse, was an interesting choice.

Another tantalizing element of “The Killers” is the role luck plays in the story. In any story where a criminal plan is explained to the audience, you expect it to go wrong. It wouldn't make for a very interesting film is everything went according to plan. Yet the monkey wrenches “The Killers” throw around are especially random. Nobody could have prepared for Sherry's treachery in the last act. Bad traffic leads to Johnny arriving a few minutes too late to make a difference. The stolen money is revealed after falling off a cart at the airport, a random act no one could've prepared. Kubrick hints at this early on. A discarded horseshoe becomes a symbol of inverse luck, piercing a tire and leading to a death. This makes bad luck a theme of “The Killing,” showing how even the best laid plans can't compensate for arbitrary chance.

“The Killing” was not a box office success upon release in 1956. Unsure of what to do with the picture, United Artists stuck it on the back-half of a double feature with a forgotten film named “Bandido!” Despite this, “The Killing” would become a critical favorite. The praise attracted the attention of Kurt Douglas, making Kubrick's next two films possible, and effectively birthing the director's career. Unlike his previous two features, Kubrick would not disown “The Killing,” suggesting he was satisfied with the finished product too. By the way, “The Snatchers” would be adapted to screen eventually, in 1969 as “The Night of the Following Day,” a picture that isn't discussed much. Unlike his characters, it seems luck was with Kubrick on this one. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1955)


2. Killer’s Kiss

Following the release of “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick would return to the world of documentary shorts. After making one more of those, he would take a second whack at feature filmmaking. “Killer's Kiss” was shot in a similar fashion as the director's debut. It was made with little money, most of the budget being raised by Kubrick himself. The film was shot in locations the crew sneaked into, as they couldn't afford permits. However, “Killer's Kiss” would be far more widely seen. United Artist would acquire the film, giving it a decent release. Later, Kubrick would also dismiss “Killer's Kiss” as the work of an amateur. Unlike “Fear and Desire,” he allowed the movie to remain in circulation, suggesting he must've thought it wasn't too bad.

Davey Gordon is a boxer but not a very good one. After loosing another fight, he decides to retire. He becomes infatuated with the girl who lives in the building across from his. He learns that her name is Gloria and she works as a taxi dancer in a nightclub. The two begin a whirlwind romance and make plans to get out of New York City. Gloria's boss, a thug named Vincent Rapalla, is also romantically obsessed with the girl. After discovering the two are leaving town, he attempts to have Davey killed. Davey's manager is killed by mistake, forcing the washed-up boxer to take the fight to Rapalla.

With “Fear and Desire,” Kubrick aimed for the art house. This release pattern did not allow the film to be seen by many people. With his second feature, it seems the director decided to make a movie in a popular genre. Broadly, “Killer's Kiss” is a crime film, full of tough guys, thugs, hoods, and floozy dames. The film is also set in the back-alleys and abandoned buildings of New York City. These elements combine to place the film squarely within the film noir genre. The result clearly didn't please the director very much and I have no idea how successful “Killer's Kiss” was at the box office. However, this did earn the filmmaker a deal with United Artist, so I'm going to say this strategy worked out better.

By taking the already precise eye he displayed in “Fear and Desire” and adapting it to the film noir genre, Kubrick creates some truly memorable images. The film is thick with shadows. When the hired thugs corner Gordon's manager, we are treated to a series of shots in an alleyway. The men's shadows are projected against an brick wall which is nearly obscured by shadows itself. A chase across an abandoned building features a masterful shot of the protagonist standing atop the structure, a barely distinct man among a black outline. Kubrick is determined to put the noir in film noir, creating a film characterized by dark corridors and shadowy outcomes.

Kubrick's visual pellucidity is apparent in other ways. The layout in “Killer's Kiss” is almost playful at times. When Davey enters his apartment, Gloria is visible through the window of the neighboring building. His apartment is dark while Gloria's room is brightly lit, which visually illustrates how large the girl looms on the man's mind. In rage, Rapalla throws something at a mirror. The audience is given a POV shot of the mirror shattering, seeing the broken glass fall over the screen. The stand-out moment in “Killer's Kiss” is almost totally divorced from the narrative. Gloria explains her backstory to Davey, talking about a sick father, a dead mother, a ballerina sister, and a sudden windfall of money. While this blatant exposition is laid on the audience, we are treated to the image of the ballerina performing on-stage. Combined with the increasingly grim words and the mounting music, a sense of unease is added to the graceful dancing. It's an intriguing way to subvert typical genre expectations – the exposition might be boring so here's a neat visual – while also establishing the movie's tone of uncertain dread.

While Kubrick's absolute control over his films is already apparent even in his sophomore film, “Killer's Kiss” is also surprisingly loose at times. While Davey waits for Gloria to exit the dance club, there's a scene of him milling about on the streets. I'm sure it was perfectly planned this way but, in practice, this scene comes off as partially improvised. There's this sense of back-and-forth in “Killer's Kiss,” with some scenes being perfectly constructed and others being more natural. The boxing scenes take place in the ring, full of quick cuts and sudden movements. The fight feels both spontaneous and meticulously executed. This contrast is present in the story too, as “Killer's Kiss” takes place in a world of both brutality and gracefulness.

Kubrick manages to put his own spin on a genre film with “Killer's Kiss.” There's only one aspect of the film that the director was clearly not invested in. The film's central love story is not entirely convincing. Davey and Gloria fall in love over the course of two days. They only have two scenes together before the story begins really moving. It's hard to believe that a couple would run off together after such a short time. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that Davey would be willing to kill to protect Gloria after such a short time. In order for the film to work, you just have to swallow certain narrative contrivances.

The film is built around three performances. Jamie Smith stars as Davey Gordon. Smith's only other film role is something called “The Faithful City” from 1952. The rest of his acting career was spent on television  In “Killer's Kiss,” Smith is a reliable lead actor. Smith mostly strikes the viewer as an everyman, a normal guy roped into something way over his head. He also gets a decent character arc. Davey goes from a underachieving boxer to a guy fighting for his life, the film's final scenes of violence contrasting nicely with the earlier boxing match.

Irene Kane co-stars as Gloria. Kane, who would go by Chris Chase later in life, also had a limited career in film. She has four television credits and would appear, years down the line, in “All That Jazz.” Kane plays a classical femme fatale in “Killer's Kiss” and is probably the film's most interesting character. As the story continues, the viewer is left wondering if Gloria actually does having feelings for Davey. Is she just manipulating him, using the naive young man as a way to escape her abusive boss? It's not until the last scene that we know for sure. Kane does a good job of playing this ambiguity.

Frank Silvera returns from “Fear and Desire” as Rapalla, the film's villain. The tough guy image Silvera displayed in Kubrick's previous film is still shown off here. Silvera is, after all, a heavy and plays his character as fittingly thuggish. Yet there's another layer to Rapalla. He's not motivated by greed or anger but love. Granted, it's a twisted, obsessive, and selfish love. Still, that characterizes him as somewhat different from your usual crime movie bad guy. Silvera adds an extra layer of grease and sleaze to his part, drinking too much in a few scenes, making the character extra memorable.

To call “Killer's Kiss” an action film is charitable. However, the movie does show the director's approach to violence changing for a more stylized direction. The film's latter half is occupied with a decent chase, Davey being run around the building This leads to the movie's impressive conclusion. Kubrick picked a mannequin factory for the climax, which was an inspired choice. Framing our hero's run around disembodied limbs and faces is effectively eerie. When Davey and Rapalla come to blows, they swing the mannequin parts as bludgeons. The weapons they chose for their final fight is an axe and a harpoon, emphasizing once again the brutality of the movie's world.

We don't know what kind of resolution Kubrick envisioned for “Killer's Kiss” originally. We just know that United Artist insisted he give the movie a happy ending. It's pretty easy to picture what the director had in mind initially. The ending rests on whether Gloria will meet Davey at the train station, whether or not her feelings are true. In the version that was released, she does arrive and the film ends with the lovers embracing. I suspect Gloria's affections were less than genuine in Kubrick's original ending. As it is, the happier ending works okay. After what Davey has been through, it's nice to see him get a positive outcome.

Considering what a deciding perfectionist he was, Stanley Kubrick being dissatisfied with “Killer's Kiss” isn't shocking. The director might have considered the film a disappointing effort but it's actually a sturdy little noir. The themes are standard but the execution is above average, Kubrick already bringing a unique visual and narrative style to his films. It emerges as a somewhat experimental take on the story of a dangerous woman and shaky loyalties, all among the seedy streets of New York City. [Grade: B] 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1953)


As a young film fan, who was just beginning to learn and had so much left to see, Stanley Kubrick was one of the few directors above criticism. This was me purely parroting the words of other writers I respected, as I had only seen a few of the director's movies by that point. Yet, even to my youthful eyes, it was apparent how influential and important Kubrick, a viable candidate for Greatest Director Who Ever Lived, was. The internet probably doesn't need another series dissecting Kubrick's films but there's no way I wasn't going to cover him in time. Stanley Kubrick made some of my favorites and each of his projects are worth exactly as much discussion as his rabid fan base suggests.


1. Fear and Desire

In the early fifties, Stanley Kubrick was not the iconic filmmaker, the auteur's auteur, he is known as today. Instead, his day job was as a photographer for “Look” magazine. He had spun this career into directing two documentary short films. Figuring he had enough experience, he decided to make a feature. “Fear and Desire” was funded by friends and family of Kubrick. It was made with a small crew and an even tinier cast. It was shot without sound, dialogue being dubbed in during post-production. The film was picked up by an art house distributor. It received positive reviews but was seen by few people. Later, Kubrick would pull the film out of distribution himself, “Fear and Desire” becoming a rare object of fascination for the filmmaker's rabid fans.

The film is set in the forest during an unspecified war. A plane has crashed, stranding four soldiers behind enemy lines. It's only a six mile walk back into friendly territory but the woods are spotted with hostile soldiers. Lt. Corby tries to keep the spirits high but is uncertain of his own leadership. Sgt. Mac is more angry about the situation while the stress is getting too Privates Fletcher and Sidney. Soon, the group decide to build a raft and float down river. Along the way, they encounter a foreign woman and a camp occupied by enemy soldiers. As the day goes on, none of them become certain that they'll survive.

“Fear and Desire” is almost self-consciously arty at times. The film begins with a narrator pointing out that this could be any war, the conflict explicitly remaining undefined. We have no idea which country the different soldiers are fighting for. This penchant for narration continues throughout the film's brief one hour run time. Characters' thoughts often fill the soundtrack, expounding on the nature of their situation. The film is loosely plotted, essentially being a series of random encounters between the different characters. The dialogue tends towards the verbose, the themes frequently spelled out. The film was made for the art house, an intentionally vague experience attempting to hint at some deeper meaning.

So what meaning can one grasp from “Fear and Desire?” Kubrick's debut is obviously an anti-war piece. It focuses on the philosophical quandaries the soldiers feel as they face death, both killing and being killed. The weaker among them are driven mad. Even the stronger ones grapple with their own mortality. The film concludes with only two of the boys making it home. They are sent to search for their missing comrades, wondering if any man is made for war. We get it: War is insanity, a cruel act that makes men mad. You can look deeper, the central river becoming a metaphorical River Styx, leading two of the cast members to their graves. Over all, Kubrick's intentions are not subtle.

Even this early in his career, Kubrick had a precise, keen eye for visuals. He creates some striking images throughout “Fear and Desire.” Early on, the quartet of soldiers come upon a cabin, occupied by two enemy men eating a meal. Kubrick films the attack in close angles. He focuses on the faces, of the attackers and the soon-to-be-dead. He repeatedly cuts to a clenched fist, squeezing a loaf of bread apart. Later, the stillness of the dead bodies are emphasized, in a haunting shot of the corpses on the floor. (This is but one scene where Kubrick's past as a photographer becomes apparent.) Later scenes, like the shoulders wandering through the fog or a man standing in the center of a river, are impressive. The use of lighting, the black and white photography, is strong for such a piecemeal production.

For a war film, “Fear and Desire” is short on combat. The director keeps practically all blood off-screen. The approach to violence is nevertheless blunt. A stabbing scene focuses on the unseen impact of the blade, on the twitching eyes of the dying. Later, shots from a rifle throws a man backwards violently. One of the more memorable moments has a dying soldier crawl through a door. After his last breath leaves his body, his head falls to the wooden floor with a thud. Kubrick was clearly attempting to portray how cold, sudden, and senseless the violence of war is without becoming exploitative. He's somewhat successful, as the death scenes are generally effective.

As half of the title suggests, death isn't the only thing on the film's mind. Desire and sex comes up too. There's no discussion of sweethearts back home however. Instead, midway through the film, the gang of four come upon a group of women working in the river. They capture one of the women, tying her to a tree. That image of casual bondage is only the beginning. After being left alone with the girl, Pvt. Sidney begins to romance her. The problem is, he's gone totally around the end by this point. The threat of rape hangs in the air, making the audience increasingly uncomfortable as Sidney's mad ramblings become more violent. Kubrick doesn't go there and the episode ends without much satisfaction. Yet the sequence was obviously inserted into the film to comment on the push and pull between sex and death, creation and destruction, another theme clearly on the movie's mind.

Of the six credited actors in “Fear and Desire,” the film was the debut performance of four of them. Only Frank Silvera and Stephen Coit had prior credits. This was clearly a green cast. The performances are uneven. Silvera, as the hardened Mac, is clearly the stand-out role, coming off as crusty and confident. Virginia Leath, who would later gain cult movie infamy as Jan in a Pan from “The Brain That Wouldn't Die,” appears as the girl tied to a tree. She has little dialogue but Leath's panicked eyes manage to say a lot. The rest of the cast is less certain. Coit and Kenneth Hart have dual roles, also playing enemy soldiers that appear later in the film. Coit and Hart aren't strong enough performers to disguise the change. Hart does alright as the heroic Corby but Coit as Pvt. Fletcher is less well defined. Paul Mazursky, who would later become a notable director, plays Pvt. Sidney. Mazursky's performance is wild-eyed and manic yet also oddly stiff.

As a loosely plotted film, “Fear and Desire” frequently digresses from its main point. Sometimes, these shifts are more interesting than others. The men eating the cold stew they stole from the soldiers they just murdered is intriguing. As is a brief encounter with a dog, who later runs home to the enemy head-quarters. The canine seems to be another element the film hopes to endow with a deeper, symbolic meaning. The dog is unaware of the lines of combating nation. He only seeks comfort where he can find it. These moments are intriguing, even if they don't quite justify the film's rambling pace.

However, other digressions come off as ponderous and unnecessary. After being reunited with their pooch, the enemy general launches into a long monologue about the nature of war. This is the moment in “Fear and Desire” that most tested my patience. The film is not only hammering home its own point, it's doing so with characters we aren't even invested in. There's other stuff in “Fear and Desire” that probably could've been cut without loosing too much. Like the men leaping back and forth onto a road, seeing if it's occupied. Even the encounter with the girl ends up having little effect on the overall story. This frequently feels like a short that was expanded to feature length.

“Fear and Desire” was obviously put together on a low budget. The film's soundtrack is loud and thundering, at odds with the introspective tone. I doubt this was library music – Gerald Fried, who would score Kubrick's next three movies, is credited with composing the score – but it certainly sounds like it. Most of the scenes take place within the same small stretch of forest. The sets and cast are minimal. You can see the future filmmaker Kubrick would become in a few scenes but “Fear and Desire” is still clearly the work of a beginner, made with limited funds and a small production team.

Considering the perfectionist he would grow into, it's not surprising to read that Kubrick would quickly disown “Fear and Desire.” You can easily imagining him turning his nose up at an occasionally rough first effort like this. The story behind the film's withdraw from circulation is arguably more interesting than the actual movie. The distributor died in an airplane crash a few months after the film's initial release. Afterwards, Kubrick would attempt to buy up every commercially available copy, destroying them personally, determined to bury what he considered an embarrassing debut. For years, the only way to see “Fear and Desire” were via scratchy bootlegs or rare theatrical screenings at the occasional festival. The film had fallen into the public domain by this point but the director still went out of his way to discourage people from seeing it.  In 2011, long after Kubrick's death, a print was restored and “Fear and Desire” was released on DVD and Blu-Ray the next year, for all to see.

The film's present day wide-spread availability – thanks to Youtube, it's just a click away – would probably infuriate Kubrick. Watching “Fear and Desire” after years of speculating about its content, is an interesting experience. Yes, it's something of an amateur effort. However, the film still provides interesting glimpses at the enormous talent to come. This is ultimately the primary reason to see “Fear and Desire,” to witness an embryonic Kubrick, forging his first work as a serious filmmaker. It's not like someone who isn't a Kubrick fan is going to stumble upon this. [Grade: C+]

Monday, July 31, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)


What started as seemingly another cynical attempt to relaunch a long dormant franchise unexpectedly became one of the most beloved modern sci-fi series. The new decade's “Planet of the Apes” series are popular with audiences but have been even better received by critics and serious film fans. Now, as these things tend to, the trilogy seemingly reaches its conclusion. “War for the Planet of the Apes” builds upon the last two films in audacious ways, resulting in a summer blockbuster that is thematically complex and emotionally bracing. The result may be one of the best films of the year.

The war between the humans and the apes have raged for quite some time. Caesar has led his apes into hiding, only fighting back when attacked, making several concessions towards peace. Koba's remaining followers have aligned themselves with an extremist human sect called Alpha-Omega. The group's unbalanced leader, McCullough, leads a strike against Caesar's base, killing his wife and son. Bereaved, Caesar instructs his tribe to leave for greener pastures while he sets off on a mission of revenge. He discovers two things: That the still-lingering virus is transforming humans into mute, unintelligent brutes. And that Alpha-Omega are enslaving apes, running a prison camp, forcing them to build weapons to fight both humans and apes.

Andy Serkis' Caesar continues to be one of the most complex protagonists in modern sci-fi cinema. Motion capture technology has evolved to uncanny heights, as these apes are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. This allows Serkis' already impressive performance more depth. He carries a heavy, world-weary expression on his brow. Furthermore, the film delves deeply into the cost of vengeance. After deciding he has to destroy McCullough, Caesar is haunted by nightmares of Koba. He worries he is becoming a monster himself, loosing his compassion and level-headedness to grief and madness. This is the cost of war in microcosm, showing that the kind of hard decisions combat forces people to make rots away at the soul.

This theme is further explored in the character of Colonel McCullough. First off, Woody Harrelson is terrifying in the part. He delivers an incredibly intense monologue to a captured Caesar, explaining how he murdered his own son to protect his people. His troops revere him with an almost religious awe. They paint their own symbol over the American flag, branding their weapons and slaves with it. Yet the film goes out of it ways to paint parallels between McCullough and Caesar. Both have lost a child to the conflict. Both are motivated by protecting their people. Both have been forced to make hard decision in the heat of battle. The difference is Caesar struggles with his conscious while McCullough has been overtaken by the madness of war.

In fact, director Matt Reeves and his team seem eager to build deeper references into the film. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the second simian-themed film of the year to reference “Apocalypse Now,” which is an interesting trend. Caesar being tormented and stoned by his captors bring the Christ story to mind. The ape freeing his people from oppressors and leading them on a journey through the desert recalls Exodus. It also brings “Spartacus” to mind. Yet recent events seem equally on the film's mind. McCullough fills his speech with an anti-outsider rhetoric. He drapes his camp in the American flag but seems ignorant of its meaning. He's also, it must be noted, is obsessed with building a wall on a border. And he's going to make the apes pay for it. “War for the Planet of the Apes” makes its story of the fall of the human empire more potent with parallels to our current political quagmire.

Whatever lofty ideas “War for the Planet of the Apes” has, it also understands that it is still an action movie. It satisfies on that front too. The film begins with a bracing battle sequence, Reeves' camera placed right in the trenches, walking side-by-side apes and humans. The battle gets chaotic but never becomes difficult to follow. Later, we are treated to a tense horse-back chase. The film's conclusion is packed with giant explosions and gun fights. It's viscerally exciting without ever loosing track of the people (and apes) on the ground.  Mostly, “War for the Planet of the Apes” fills its run time with suspense. As Caesar's allies attempt to free him from the prison camp, the audience is constantly left wandering if someone will be caught, if the cast will successfully navigate this new roadblock.

Naturally, “War for the Planet of the Apes” peppers its plot with homages to the original series. The outside of McCullough's camp is decorated with deceased apes, strung up like the scarecrows in the original film. Most pivotal is a new character, a mute girl that is adopted by the apes. She is later named Nova. That's but one lovable new addition to the cast. Steve Zahn appears as Bad Ape, an eccentric ape whose mind has been slightly scattered by years in isolation. Zahn proves a fantastic source of comic relief. Which is nice, considering “War” is an otherwise very serious affair.

I continue to admire the guts of this series. “War for the Planet of the Apes” continues a pricey sci-fi franchise that features few human characters, tackles heavy themes and has long scenes in subtitled sign language. “War” also presents interesting possibilities for the future. One story arc is concluded but future films have some tantalizing opportunities ahead. The latest film is maybe the most entry in the rebooted series, proving amazingly effective as blockbuster entertainment and smartly executed drama. [9/10]

Sunday, July 30, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)


“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprise hit, insomuch that a big budget reboot of a long-running and beloved film series can be a surprise. Maybe the surprise came from the movie actually being pretty good. A franchise had been reborn. A sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” would arrive in theaters two years later. Director Matt Reeves, previously of “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In,” would take the directorial reins. Reeves delivered a film nearly as thoughtful and action-packed as its predecessor. Though the generic title would be mocked – seriously, they couldn't have called it “Rebellion on the Planet of the Apes” or something? – the second entry in the new “Apes” would prove to be another success, both critically and financially.

A decade has past since Caesar led his rebellion of apes. In that time, a virus – called Simian Flu by the public – has ravaged the human population. The apes have built a society in the forest, uncertain if humanity even still survives. Until a chance encounter in the woods with a group of survivors. The human are attempting to reach a near-by dam, so they can power their city. Caesar reluctantly allows them to go about their business. However, the truce infuriates Koba, who still hates human. Soon, the enraged ape attempts to kill Caesar and engineers a war against humankind.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” asks the question if peace between two hostile forces can ever possible. Caesar is now in the role of leader and peacekeeper. At film's beginning, he's a father, having beget two sons with his mate. He has found peace in the woods with his ape brothers. He distrust humanity but doesn't want war either, valuing ape life too much. Yet Koba forces his hand, fate making the decision for him. Andy Serkis' motion-capture performance continues to be highly expressive and thoughtful. You can see the quality that went into the character, from both the writing and the actor. “Dawn” is committed to maintaining the complexity of the protagonist displayed in the previous movie.

The other apes are not as complicated as Caesar but are nevertheless interesting. As in the last film, there are long scenes featuring just apes, dialogue mostly told through subtitled sign language. Maurice the orangutan continues to be a likable presence while Caesar's son, Rocket, gets several key scenes. The second most memorable ape is Koba, rising from supporting character to primary antagonist. Toby Kobell plays the part as someone whose heart has been calcified by hate and abuse. Koba has good reason to hate humans, as shown in a powerful scene where he points to his scars. There's not much more to him than that but his tenacity and viciousness makes him a convincing, threatening villain anyway.

“Dawn” focuses more on action than its predecessors. The film begins with a thrilling hunt, where the apes spear several deer and end up struggling with a bear. The CGI is a little wonky in this first scene – the bear and deer don't look as good as the apes – but it still works. The film really ramps up when Koba begins his assault on the human city. The sight of a crowd of apes racing into the streets, hooting and hollering, is effectively chilling. Chimps firing machine guns and riding horses is an irresistible, pulpy image. Reeves throws in an impressive tracking show, showing Koba throwing the drivers from a tank and manning the gun himself in one continuous take. The final struggle between Caesar and Koba, set inside a crumbling tower, makes use of the ape's acrobatic abilities.

The focus is more on the apes than ever before but “Dawn” still features some token, supporting humans. The most notable is Gary Oldman as Dreyfus. The leader of the human settlement, Dreyfus is some sort of war veteran. Oldman brings a shaky desperation to the part, playing him as a man who has lost much and is uncertain of how strong he is. Jason Clarke, that one actor who kept getting cast in big movies a few years ago for some reason, appears as Malcolm. The man who makes contact with the apes, and becomes an unlikely ally, Clarke is sound if unremarkable. Kodi Smit-McPhee has a nice role as Clarke's teenage son, who lugs around a tattered copy of Charles Burns' “Black Hole.” I wish we saw more of Keri Russell as Ellie, Malcolm's wife, who brings some sturdy emotion to her few scenes.

I'd probably consider “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” the weakest of the new “Apes” trilogy. Caesar's conflict in this film is not as compelling as in the other two. The story hits some expected story beats a little too hard. It's still a quality motion picture. The special effects have improved greatly from the first one. The scope is admirable. Reeves' direction is impressive. The cast, especially the mo-cap performers, are really good. The script is still surprisingly complex, considering the kind of movie this is. This is still a planet worth visiting. [7/10]

Saturday, July 29, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)


Given the “Planet of the Apes” franchise's place in sci-fi cinema history, it was inevitable that Fox would attempt to reboot the series again following Tim Burton's unpopular 2000 attempt. Oddly, the idea seems to have originated outside of the company. Screenwriter-producer Rick Jaffa cooked up an inspired reinvention to the “Apes” series and sold it to the Fox. This new series would be about apes, not humans. After cycling through two titles – the unwieldy “Genesis: Apes” and the too generic “Rise of the Apes” – the project would hit theater screens as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” In an age of excessive spectacle, the film would win praise for putting characters and concepts above action. From the moment it arrived, the new “Apes” series has represented a more intellectual form of summer blockbuster.

The film begins, not in the distant future, but the modern day. Dr. Will Rodman is determined to cure Alzheimer's, a personal mission motivated by his father's illness. He tests the experimental compound on a chimpanzee, which immediately becomes more intelligence. The off-spring of Will's best student shows especially impressive skills. Named Caesar, Will and his recovering father treat the chimp like family. Despite his intelligence, Caesar is separated from his human family and placed in a cruel ape preserve. There, the hyper-capable ape sees the way man abuses his kind and begins to plot an uprising, using the same drug to make the other apes as smart as him.

Seeing as how the apes were always the most memorable characters in the classic series, building a reboot around Caesar is an inspired move. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” also does away with the time travel gimmicktry. There's nothing like the baffling pseudo-twist that concluded Tim Burton's film here. The reboot draws inspiration from  “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” However, by setting the story in our modern day and putting a more grounded spin on the concept, “Rise” becomes a thought provoking post-human blockbuster. His family may treat him kindly but even they see Caesar as less than human, despite his intellect. When faced with the cruelty of the rest of the world, the inevitable revolt seems perfectly justified. “Rise” puts the audience in the shoes – or bare feet, as it were – of animals too often abused by mankind.

It's a deeply empathetic approach and it wouldn't have worked if Caesar wasn't a compelling character. “Rise's” special effects were widely praised upon release. It's been six years and the CGI has aged a little. The eyes and faces aren't quite right. But Caesar and his simian friends are still convincing, expressive creations. The heart of the character is ultimately more important. Andy Serkis' motion capture performance is one for the ages. Caesar's reaction to seeing a dog on a leash, while he himself is leashed, is touching. The audience feels his pain, when he's separated from his human family. When Caesar finally speaks – screaming “NO!,” as foretold in the original series – the emotion is overwhelming. Caesar may be a CGI chimpanzee but he's a fully formed character, beautifully brought to life by Serkis and the effects team.

Filling the movie entirely with apes probably wouldn't have been feasible for a franchise-launcher like this. (Though the movie, admirably, still features long stretches without any humans on-screen.) Luckily, the human cast is pretty good too. James Franco can be a love-it-or-hate-it screen presence. He doesn't bring anything special to the role of Will but he's not unlikable either. His romance with Freida Pinto's nurse isn't much to write about though. Better is John Lithgow as Franco's father. Lithgow makes the character's dementia heartbreaking. His struggles are tear-jerking, Lithgow's performance being especially vulnerable, but never become sappy. Other familiar faces appear as the film's trio of villains. Tom Felton is entertainingly broad as the cruel zookeeper who tortures Caesar. Brian Cox is fittingly callous as the ape center's owner. David Oyelowo is a bit unbelievable as the crooked business executive that unwittingly makes the ape's rebellion possible.

As far as big budget genre films go, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is pretty low-key. The first hour is almost entirely character based, save for a somewhat extended sequence of Bright Eyes attempting to escape the research compound. There's very little action until the last third, when Caesar escapes and engineers his primate insurrection. The apes seize the bars of their cages, using them as spears, piercing police cars. The film's climax is a spectacular finale on the Golden Gate Bridge. There's plenty of car crashes, eventually leading to an impressive scene where the apes are shot at with a machine gun. Probably the coolest moment involves a gorilla leaping into a flying helicopter, bringing the vehicle down with his brute strength. It's not the biggest summer tent pole action scene I've seen but is thrilling precisely because you care about the characters so much.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is sprinkled with callbacks to the original. Caesar's mother is named Bright Eyes, just like Charlton Heston was on the original “Planet.” A half-completed jigsaw puzzle of the Statue of Liberty puts in a brief appearance. Two of Heston's most notorious lines are quoted, in amusingly hammy ways. The film also looks toward the future, setting up a sequel with a human-hating ape partner of Caesar and a homosapien devastating virus sweeping the globe during the credits. It speaks to the reboot's overall quality that these callbacks and set-ups are neither too cute nor distracting. The film is a very clever reinvention of the series, bolstered by sturdy writing and direction. Yet its greatest success in rooted in its stunning central performance. [8/10]

Friday, July 28, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)


The “Planet of the Apes” franchise had been a reliable money-maker for Fox throughout the early seventies. However, each sequel made less than the film before it. The fifth film was rushed into production, going before cameras without a finished screenplay. Director J. Lee Thompson, returning from “Conquest,” was displeased with what script they had. Maybe the Fox executives were aware of this. By the time “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” hit theater screens, someone had clearly decided that these monkey movies had run their course. The film was sold as the final chapter in the series. At least for now.

In the years since “Conquest's” theatrical ending, a nuclear war has leveled the western world. The cities have been reduced to rumble. Only irradiated subhuman mutants live in the ruins. Caesar has built a society in the country, where humans and apes live in an unsteady peace. Factors within Ape City attempt to undermine Caesar's accomplishments. Aldo, a power-hungry gorilla, hates humans and dreams of overthrowing Caesar. In hopes of finding information about his parents, Caesar enters the mutant's city, provoking their violence. Aldo uses this conflict as a chance to seize power.

It's pretty clear that “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” was a rushed production. The film's story is seemingly comprised of leftover plot points from the previous sequels. The plots concerning the mutants, the lingering conflicts between apes and humans, and Aldo's disloyalty never come together into a satisfying whole. The ape society here is an awkward attempt to fuse what we saw in the first film with “Conquest's” revised ending. The mutants are inspired by “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” but are way more boring. The human/ape tension feels recycled from the last two installments. The pacing is directionless, the movie sloppily trudging from one event to the next. To learn that “Battle” was quickly pushed through production is not surprising at all.

The film's two central conflicts aren't especially compelling either. Aldo is a weak villain. His hatred for humans is vaguely defined. His earlier depiction as blatantly unintelligent doesn't pair well with his treacherous ambitions. The mutants' motivations are also poorly planned. They aren't interested in attacking apes until Caesar randomly shows up in their neighborhood. The film tries to give the mutant's attack some meaning but it doesn't wash. Ultimately, the film uses both story threads to wimp out. Caesar beats the mutants back but doesn't kill any of them, doesn't take prisoners, and allows them to leave. In other words, he sticks to his moral high ground. However, Aldo and his apes then show up to kill the mutants. So the bad guys get punished but the hero is freed of any consequences. Lame.

Despite its obvious weaknesses, I don't entirely dislike “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” The early scenes in Ape City are, honestly, kind of cozy. It's a simple existence, explicitly vegetarian in nature. (Even though the gorillas are clearly wearing leather.) Weapons are carefully guarded and only used as a last resort. Apes and humans, both adults and children, learn in the same schools. This comfy sense of community is mostly thanks to the likable cast. Roddy McDowell continues to be a highly affable presence, even if Caesar has mellowed out to the point of almost being unrecognizable. The relationship between his wife and son are sweet. Paul Williams gets a “introducing” credit despite this being his third film role. He plays Virgil, the town genius who is amusing despite his smarty-pants antics.

Maybe the producers were aware that “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” felt a little thrown together. In hopes of granting the film a mythic quality, a framing device is added. Far in the future, an orangutan Lawgiver tells a mixed audience of humans and apes the film's story. Getting John Huston for this part, his reverberating voice making the narration seem more important, was a good idea. The film concludes on an ambiguous note. After the Lawgiver finishes his story, the camera zooms in on a statue of Caesar. The statue weeps. Which is super cheesy but interesting. Does Caesar's statue cry out of joy, that humans and apes eventually find peace? Or out of sadness, because that peace is ultimately impossible? It's an interesting note to take things out on, at the very least.

“Battle of the Planet of the Apes,” predictably, became the lowest grossing film in the series. It's undeniably a sloppy affair. However, there's enough of the old charm, even in this one, to make it worth seeing. The franchise wouldn't quite end here either. A television show, also starring Roddy McDowell, would air the next year. An animated series would follow the year after that. Both would only run for one season. Despite these setbacks, the “Planet of the Apes” series' place in sci-fi – and cinematic – history is secure. These older films might be slightly cheesy by modern standards but they continue to entertain and provoke thought even today. [6/10]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)


20th Century Fox's band of writers had learned from their mistakes. The totally close-ended conclusion of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” was not repeated for “Escape from the Planet of the Apes.” Instead, a window was left open for a future installment. Zira and Cornelius' child lived on and so did the franchise. Accordingly, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” followed the next year, picking up where the last one left off. Veteran action filmmaker J. Lee Thompson, who nearly directed the first film, would put his stamp on the “Apes” universe with this one. The film would prove to be one of the more controversial entries in the series, being more violent and politically volatile than any of the previous “Apes” adventures.

In the early 1980s, a strange plague has killed off all the cats and dogs in the world. Apes would take their place as the common household pets. Soon afterwards, the population of the world realized apes could be trained to do complex tasks. Some time after that, America is overtaken by a militaristic police state. Now, it's 1991 and Cornelius and Zira's son has come of age. Naming himself Caesar, he is sold into slavery and witnesses, first hand, the cruelty apes face from humans. The time for revolution is at hand. Caesar leads a bloody uprising against the humans, apes rising up to attack their oppressors.

Cornelius was dead but Roddy McDowell's association with the series was far from over. In “Conquest,” McDowell is called upon to play Caesar as well. The son presents different challenges than the father. Caesar is more vulnerable than his dad ever was. He runs and hides, terrified. A fantastic scene occurs when Caesar realizes Armando, the human who raised him, has died. His silent tears rise towards anguished cries. Yet he's more passionate than Cornelius was too. Seeing an ape beaten by a human cause him to cry out in anger. He silently plots a revolution, building an army and an arsenal, planning acts of insurrection. McDowell's performance is impressive. He creates a separate character, finding new expressiveness beneath the make-up, his shouted words of protest leaving a mark on the audience.

Caesar is a believable character. Less so is the world “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” inhabits. America's transformation into a police state is left unexplained. The entire film is set in a sterile city, composed of straight-lined, modern architecture. Jackbooted officers in black leather watch every street. There's odd future technology, like invisible force fields or a glowing light that can force people to tell the truth. The idea that apes would evolve from pets to a disposable workplace within twenty years strains plausibility. Most unbelievable is the film's villain. Governor Breck is a cartoonish evil dictator, all of his dialogue relating to how inferior the apes are. It doesn't help that Don Murray barks every line in an authoritative tizzy. It's odd that the series' version of 1991 seems far less plausible than its version of 3159.

Despite this serious flaw, “Conquest” does work well as the story of a vicious rebellion. The film takes great pains to show how brutal Caesar's revolution is. Mobs shatter windows and set fire. An especially memorable moment has a gorilla setting a guard on fire. Knives and meat cleavers are the apes' primary weapons, stabbing their enemies to death. The unrated version includes even more intense violence. There are graphic close-ups and apes and humans being shot. One especially grim scene shows the apes piling up dead guards, each one with their throat slit. J. Lee Thompson's direction is intense and frenzied, making these sequences feel especially vicious.

The social commentary inherent in the “Apes” franchise reaches a boiling point in “Conquest.” Caesar, along with countless other apes, are sold at auction. They are paraded before a crowd, touted for their obedience. Eventually, someone buys them and puts them to work in their house. Does this remind you of anything? The film runs with this parallel between the oppressed apes with slavery and black revolution. The scenes of apes rioting were directly patterned after the Watts Riots. The guards, who beat protesters with truncheons, also bring the civil rights movement to mind. It's an interesting but uncomfortable choice, due to the tradition of racists comparing black people to apes. That the film casts a black man as one of the humans that help Caesar, but still in a somewhat patronizing manner, makes this barely subtext even more awkward.

After eighty-five minutes of ape revolution, Caesar gives a rousing speech to his troops, promising a world where man is subservient to ape. It's a powerful moment, Roddy McDowell screaming his lines with an unnerving conviction. What happens next depends on which version you're watching. As originally conceived, and as presented on the unrated Blu-Ray, the  apes beat Governor Brock to death and the film ends, continuing the series' tradition of downbeat endings. In the theatrical cut, Caesar gives another speech. He urges ape to rule with compassion, to peacefully co-exist with humans. Even to audiences in 1972, the truth must have been apparent. This second ending was the result of poor test screenings, who demanded a less brutal conclusion, I guess. It was hastily assembled, using-dubbed over dialogue and pre-existing footage. The theatrical ending runs against everything the rest of the film was attempting to accomplish. The original ending, finally restored, is obviously superior.

“Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” is, in some ways, one of the most audacious films in the series. The film's embrace of a racial subtext is daring. It's sequences of brutal violence are bracing. The conclusion, as originally intended, is impressively bleak. Yet other factors hold “Conquest” back. Such as the odd setting, slightly unbelievable story, and preposterous re-cut ending. The result is a decent film that will never be my favorite trip to the Planet of the Apes. [7/10]

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)


“Beneath the Planet of the Apes” seemed to provide a rather definitive conclusion to the franchise. The titular planet and all the apes on it was destroyed. Yet commerce finds a way. The continued popularity of the series meant a new film must be made. “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” came up with a rather clever solution to the previous film's apocalyptic ending. What if the apes reverse-engineered Taylor's ship, went back in time, and landed on Earth in the early 1970s? The resulting film earned the best reviews out of any of the sequels, was another box office hit, and remains popular with fans. It's probably my personal favorite of the series.

A mysterious ship has crashed-landed off the Western Coast of America. It is piloted, not by humans, but apes. Cornelius, Zira, and a new character named Dr. Milo managed to escape their world before the Doomsday Bomb destroyed it, traveling through a time warp into the modern day. At first, the trio of apes hide their intelligence from the scientists. After Milo is killed by a modern day gorilla, their true intellect is revealed. Cornelius and Zira are presented to the public and become media darlings. Yet forces in Washington are concerned about what the apes' presence means for the future of mankind. When Zira reveals that she's pregnant, the apes are forced to go the run.

“Escape from the Planet of the Apes” does a canny switcharoo on the original's premise. Instead of being about the sole intelligent man in a world of apes, the sequel is about a trio of intelligent apes in the world of men. This choice solved the budgetary problems that faced “Beneath,” as it only necessitated three costly ape make-ups. Yet it also, smartly, makes Cornelius and Zira the stars of the show. The two apes were already beloved by fans. Making them the proper protagonists was a natural next step. Giving Rodney McDowell and Kim Hunter lead roles allows both performers to shine. McDowell is hilarious, charming, and sympathetic in the lead part while Hunter also shows off an impressive sense of humor and pathos. I've always really liked both characters and am more than happy to spend a whole film with them.

“Escape” seems to flee the last film's dark tone, at first anyway. After revealing their true character to the public, Cornelius and Zira become something like celebrities. This turns “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” into an diverting, fish-out-of-water comedy. McDowell and Hunter trade snippy but sweet dialogue. The apes grow use to such human amenity as fancy clothes, wine, television, and bubble baths. Zira speaks at a woman's lib meaning while Cornelius is taken to a boxing match, which he watches with bemused horror. There's even a genuinely amusing montage of the two trying on fancy clothes. The material probably wouldn't have worked if McDowell and Hunter weren't such affable actors. In execution, it's goofily charming.

That is until the film takes a deliberate tonal shift. Despite its sunnier first half, “Escape” maintains the franchise's tendency for downbeat endings. It might be the most downbeat ending of them all. Probably the franchise's most popular characters are gunned down in cold blood, cruelly and graphically, including their infant off-spring. What was essentially a children's film up to that point ends with all its main characters dead. Yet “Escape” manages this drastic change in direction nicely as well. The “Apes” series has always traded between humor and tragedy. The film smartly follows its situation out to its natural conclusion. Likewise, the mid-story shift towards becoming a chase picture is effective. (Jerry Goldsmith's zippy, spy-movie score also helps facilitate that feeling.) We care about Zira and Cornelius. Their fates are important to us. The film juggles humor, suspense, and calamity in equal measure.

McDowell and Hunter are excellent in the leads but the supporting humans are pretty good too. Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy are likable as the veterinarians that are Cornelius and Zira's sole confidants. Eric Braeden plays Dr. Otto Hasslein, the film's de-facto villain. Braeden's performance is surprisingly complicated. He does what he must gravely, considering his severe actions as beneficial to the human race. He delivers a rant, comparing the ape problem to pollution and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, other issues that were seemingly out of control in the early seventies. Almost stealing the show is Ricardo Montalban as Armando, the kindly circus owner that takes the chimps in. Montalban's theatricality and humor adds some much needed levity to the film's darker latter half.

The social commentary present in the first two entries takes something of a back-seat in “Escape,” though feel free to read into a minority couple being persecuted by a ham-fisted government. (The film also contains some obvious Biblical references, for those into that kind of thing.) Shining the spotlight on the franchise's most fascinating characters makes “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” the entry I revisit the most. The mixture of light-hearted humor and surprisingly downbeat denouncement adds a tonally eccentric aspect that I also really enjoy. The original is undoubtedly the better film – one flaw this has is a sequence devoted to explaining time travel, which grinds the pace down – but I probably enjoy this one more for strictly selfish reasons. [9/10]