Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Ambitious science fiction series were not as common in 1970 as they are now. Yet Fox was clearly understood that they had something special with “Planet of the Apes.” Following the first film's success, a sequel was immediately greenlit. Production on “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” was not exactly smooth. Original scripts by Pierre Boulle and Rod Serling were rejected. The budget was slashed to three million. Charlton Heston was disinterested in returning. Despite these issues, the film would still be a success upon release. Looking back on it now, “Beneath” shows the “Apes” series displaying some growing pains during its sophomore effort.

After uncovering the beached Statue of Liberty at the end of the last film, Taylor and Nova ventured further into the Forbidden Zone. After being assaulted by strange visions, Taylor disappears. Another Earthly astronaut, named Brent, follows Taylor to the future planet of apes. He meets Nova, Zira and Cornelius. He also witnesses a gorilla general, named Ursus, convince the ape politicians to launch a military raid into the Forbidden Zone. Brent and Nova, still on Taylor's trail, head into the abandoned area. What they uncover is a bizarre subterranean society and a threat that may mean the true end of the world.

Sequelizing “Planet of the Apes” was probably not an easy task, as the original's ending was fairly definitive. “Beneath” gets around this problem but essentially retreading the first film's story during its beginning half. We have a suspiciously similar substitute for Charlton Heston's Taylor arriving on the planet. He experiences many of the same events, such as journeying through a seemingly barren world, being shocked by the ape society, and getting help from Zira and Cornelius. This not only bores the audience, it slightly insults their intelligence. Brent following Taylor's footsteps exactly, ending up in the same future Earth as him, pushes suspension of disbelief past its breaking point. Combined with some maudlin action scenes, such as an uninspiring fight scene on a carriage, and you get the impression that “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” is nothing but a quickie sequel.

And then the movie takes a charmingly nuts turn. Brent and Nova journey deep into the Forbidden Zone, uncovering the submerged, blasted remains of New York City. They also discover a race of telepathic, scorched skinned, quasi-human mutants. If that wasn't weird enough, the mutants worship a doomsday bomb, with a religious awe bordering on the Pentecostal. These scenes contain some delightfully nutty moments. Like Brent being commanded to kill Nova, fight with Taylor, or overwhelmed with telepathic communications. The image of a church full of skinless weirdos praising a world-killing bomb is unforgettably bizarre. You do feel a bit like you wondered into a totally different film but I can't help but love weird shit like this.

Another problem facing a “Planet of the Apes” sequel is making it mean something, the same way the original's satire and commentary meant something. Director Ted Post – previously of “Hang 'Em High” and later of “Magnum Force” and “The Baby” – decides on an anti-war message. The ape's warmongering is their undoing. They marched into the Forbidden Zone, destroying everything around them with little care for the consequences. In a none-too-subtle reference to Vietnam War protest, they also imprison some hippy ape youths. Yet the film's anti-war message eventually degrades into an ugly nihilism. The apes gun down everyone in ways that push the limits of the PG rating. The mutants die, Brent dies, Taylor dies, even innocent Nova dies. Taylor activates the super-bomb with his dying breath, deciding none of this life is worth living. The sudden conclusion, and curt narration that tops it off, strikes the viewer as careless and sloppy.

Another problem with “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” is how it diminishes the first film's cast. Zira and Cornelius disappear halfway through the film, not appearing again after helping Brent escape. An attempt is made to maintain Dr. Zaius' complexity but he's ultimately too willing to go along with General Ursus' mindless destruction. Ursus, at the very least, is a good villain. James Gregory's hawkish speeches are delivered with a gravelly conviction. He's certainly a lot better than James Franciscus as Brent. Franciscus is a poor imitation of Heston, unconvincing as an action star and generally kind of whiny. You're probably expecting me to complain about David Watson replacing Rodney McDowell as Cornelius. Watson doesn't share the same chemistry with Kim Hunter. It is odd hearing someone else's voice come out of Cornelius' mouth, considering how associated with the series McDowell would become. Otherwise, Watson does okay. Truthfully, the character's role is so small that you'll hardly notice another actor is playing him.

Perhaps the producers of the “Apes” series would quickly realize they couldn't so closely imitate the first film after this. The sequels would head off in a very different direction. Even with its routine set-up, overly downbeat ending, and weaker leading man, I ultimately can't dislike “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Those bomb-worshiping mutants, man. Who thinks of that stuff? The sequel probably needed more wildly imaginative elements like that but still provided me with enough entertainment value. It's one of the weaker entries in the series but I can still dig it. [7/10]

Monday, July 24, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Planet of the Apes (1968)

It began with a book. Pierre Boulle's novel, known in some parts of the world as “Monkey Planet,” immediately caught the eye of Arthur P. Jacobs, a producer at 20th Century Fox. The adaptation, entitled “Planet of the Apes,” would become a huge success. The film would spawn a series that would, in many ways, be the predecessors to many modern day sci-fi franchises. It was one of the first on-going genre film series to be made with A-budgets and to be heavily merchandised, now standard practices. Nowadays, the original “Planet of the Apes” is an iconic classic, referenced and parodied countless times over the decades.

As an adaptation, “Planet of the Apes” follows the general outline of Boulle's short novel while changing most of the details. In both, the crew crash-land on a strange planet, loose their clothes while swimming in a lake, encounter primitive humans, and eventually get hunted by upright apes. In both, the protagonist impresses a pair of chimp scientists with his speech and bonds with a female human named Nova. As for the differences, Boulle's French astronauts become American, of course. In the book, the ape civilization is as advanced as modern man, with cars, planes and television. This is in stark contrast to the film's more primitive society. Boulle uses the premise for social satire, while the film focuses on rousing adventure. The twist ending is entirely different though clearly inspired by the book's switcharoo conclusion.

I think the reason “Planet of the Apes” most captured the public's imagination is the way it transports the audience to another world. The production and special make-up were groundbreaking at the time. Even today, the ape make-up is charming, expressive, and fantastically assembled. More importantly, the ape society strikes the viewer as fully formed. The apes have their own religion, entertainments, and political divides, just like people. The scientific chimps bristle against the leadership of the orangutans, all of them conservative politicians, while gorillas function as a working class, soldiers and blue collar individuals. The world of the apes works as both an absurdist parody of human civilization, mirroring and subverting our Earth, and a strange sci-fi world that was completely new in 1968.

That satirical element, taken from the original book, is sometimes married to a goofier sense of humor. Images of humans being purged by ape hunters, their dead bodies strung up like freshly killed deer, the hunters posing with their kills, place us in a chilling world where humans are prey and animals rule. A mid-film trial, devoted to determining if the intelligent human has any relation to the resident apes, is obviously a darkly humorous twist on the Scopes trial. There's even an ape hippy, as Zira's teenage nephew is part of a youthful rebellion the includes vegetarianism and questioning authority. Yet, sometimes, “Planet of the Apes” is happy to admit that monkeys are just funny. Such as the simian hoots of the ape guard that sprays Heston with a hose. Or the orangutan politicians imitating the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” image.

Though he'd probably prefer to be remembered for “Ben Hur” or “The Ten Commandments,” “Planet of the Apes” remains the most iconic role of Charlton Heston's great career. Heston's histrionic performance here has largely overshadowed any other acting he's ever done. Of course, Heston's sweaty, shouting, gnarled Tyler is perfect for a slightly over-sized film like this. (And, it must be said, that Heston's quieter moments are equally effecting.) Overall, the cast is entirely iconic. Kim Hunter's Zira is loyal, charming, and unforgettable. Roddy McDowell's Cornelius is funny, thoughtful, and immediately likable. Maurice Evans' Dr. Zaius is an impressive anti-villain, duplicitous and self-interested but for understandable reasons.

“Planet of the Apes” was Franklin J. Schaffner's fifth film. It was also his breakout film, as his first four features have been mostly forgotten while, afterwards, he made popular hits like “Patton,” “Papillon,” and “The Boys from Brazil.” Schaffner's direction is colorful and energetic. He frequently employs a roaming camera or spastic zooms to create a sense of motion and shock. The reveal of the apes' faces or the spaceship crash are oddly kinetic, in a herky-jerky way. The action sequences, like Taylor being chased through the ape village, build upon this movement. I also like the use of color during a scene where Taylor and Zaius talk in his office, bathed in warm oranges and evening purples.

If you're going to talk about “Planet of the Apes,” you have to talk about that ending. The twist ending famously came from the pen of Rod Serling, even if most of his draft was rejected. In retrospect, the conclusion that the Planet of the Apes was Earth all along is hardly surprising. The film foreshadows this fact repeatedly, eventually confirming that an advanced human society existed on the planet before apes. Yet the conclusion means something more. It makes the film's earlier satire more bitter. At the film's beginning, Taylor is practically a misanthrope. His interaction with Nova and the apes seems to convince him that humanity must not be so bad... Until he sees the Statue of Liberty on the beach, confirming his belief that mankind is destined to destroy itself.

Nearly fifty years later, “Planet of the Apes” is still a delightfully entertaining film. It's a brisk adventure, full of lovable characters and fascinating details. It's also still has the ability to provoke thought, it's apocalyptic ending still packing a punch even if you know its coming. Even if it hadn't launched a franchise, it's likely the movie would've been remained a classic. I admire its qualities as an eccentric cult classic, intriguing sci-fi, a fantastic piece of design work, and exciting adventure film. [9/10]

Sunday, July 23, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Kill 'Em All (2017)

The year is 2017. Jean-Claude Van Damme's career is probably at its highest point in decades. His super-meta Amazon pilot is going to series. The newly relaunched “Kickboxer” franchise is continuing with him. His status as a cult icon is secure. But low budget action movies must still be made. Which brings us to “Kill 'Em All.” There were some reasons to anticipate this one. The film is the directorial debut of Peter Malota, an Albanian stuntman and actor who has made several films with Van Damme. Stuntmen have proven strong choices to direct action flicks in the past. Meanwhile, the supporting cast was good, including Peter Stormare and Maria Chonchita Alonso. Most of Van Damme's recent work has been pretty solid. Yet, when “Kill 'Em All” hit DVD earlier this year, the reception was muted. Even fans didn't seem to like this one very much.

Nurse Suzanne is interviewed by government agents. The hospital she works at was the sight of a brutal attack. An injured foreign diplomat, along with his bodyguard, Philip, were wheeled into the emergency room. A group of vicious killer followed them, killing anyone who got in their way. Suzanne and Philip did what they could to survive the attack. As she's interviewed, Suzanne learns more about the past of this mysterious Philip. He was a survivor of the Yugoslavia/Serbian war, on a quest to avenge his father's murder. But not everything is as it appears to be.

On paper, “Kill 'Em All” should've been a straight-forward potboiler. It's just two people running through an isolated location, getting into a series of fights. With a few adjustments, it could've been “Die Hard in a Hospital.” Instead, the film's trio of screenwriters had something more elaborate in mind. “Kill 'Em All” constantly jumps around in time. We leap between Suzanne's interrogation, the events in the hospital, the immediate aftermath, and the character's various backstories. This constantly shifting timeline is distracting, an attempt to make a simple story seem more complex by approaching it in a convoluted manner. “Kill 'Em All” only gets more unnecessarily tangled as it goes on. The film has been described as inspired by “The Usual Suspects.” As the story reaches its conclusion, and we discover some identities aren't what they appear to be, “Kill 'Em All” practically becomes a rip-off of Bryan Singer's often imitated crime thriller.

These days, it's pretty easy to tell which projects Jean-Claude Van Damme is genuinely excited for and which ones he's just doing for the paycheck. Compare his lively performance in “Welcome to the Jungle” to his performance here. Jean-Claude seems very tired, his eyelids heavy. Yes, I know his character is recovering from gunshot wounds but the star does too good of a job replicating that fatigued mindset. He delivers his dialogue through an exhausted cloud. He spends most of the film glaring at his enemies. Only during a handful of scenes, such as delivering the killing blow to his archenemies, does he come to life. Truthfully, most of the film revolves around Autumn Reeser's Suzanne. Reeser is okay but her overly sardonic line delivery is sometimes annoying. She's not very believable during her action scenes either.

Even the potentially colorful supporting cast is a bit underutilized. Yes, Peter Stormere gets reams of dialogue to himself, often expounding on the character's histories. Stormere brings some nicely prickly energy to the part, as is expected. However, too often, he's just delivering exposition. Maria Choncita Alonso plays the good cop to Stormere's bad cop, attempting to make friends with Suzanne. Alonso gets an occasional moment of cute humor but, other than that, she's wasted in the part. Van Damme's son, Kris, appears in the film. Weirdly, he isn't cast as a younger version of Jean-Claude's character. (The actor in that part appears to be twelve years old, which makes no sense, since the flashback is set in 1981.) Instead, Kris plays a random thug and shares a pretty cool fight scene with his dad.

To a certain breed of action fan, “Kill 'Em All” is probably most worth seeing because Van Damme and Daniel Bernhardt have a fight scene. Bernhardt starred in the “Bloodsport” sequels and has often been considered Van Damme's lower budget equivalent. Indeed, the fight between the two is a highlight of “Kill 'Em All.” The melee has the pair trading kicks before it explodes through a window and onto a roof top. Bernhardt is a solid villain too, growling and intimidating those around him. Sadly, the rest of the action in “Kill 'Em All” is disappointing. There's some solid combat. A knife fight in a hallway is cool. However, too much of the film is composed of indistinct shoot-outs. Sometimes, Malota's direction is even a little shaky. A fight between Van Damme and a burly henchman would've been cooler if Malota didn't throw in some weird handheld camerawork.

Setting a nasty, disposable little action picture like “Kill 'Em All” against the backdrop of the Bosnian Genocide is probably in questionable taste. (In this context, even the title has unfortunate connotations.) Considering director Malota is from Albania, a country with close connections to the war, perhaps that was a personal decision. Either way, it makes the scenes set during the conflict feel really weird. I can't help but wonder if Van Damme appeared in “Kill 'Em All” as a favor to his friend. He doesn't seem especially invested in the material. If the script had gotten out of its own way more often, this could've been a decent bit of pulp. Instead, it's a convoluted and frustrating experience, not worth the energy the audience will have to put into it. [5/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

Van Damme is keeping busy. In addition to the forthcoming “Kickboxer” sequels and the “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” series, he'll soon be appearing in the film “Black Water.” That movie will re-team him with Dolph Lundgren and Patrick Kilpatrick. Hopefully it'll be good, though I'm not getting my hopes up too high. (There's also the chance that his second directional credit, the completed but yet to be released “Full Love,” will see the light of day eventually. I'm not holding my breath.)

At the beginning of JCVD-A-THON: THE RETURN, I wondered if devoting a marathon to the star's direct-to-video stuff was a good idea or a bad one. Some of the films were as exactly as dire as I feared but a few surprised me. It's interesting to see that Van Damme has been experimenting with his public image for so long. Over all, this was an enjoyable project. I probably don't have enough material for another JCVD-A-THON but I'm sure I'll be talking about the Muscles from Brussels again in the near future. Despite some of his questionable features, I remain a fan.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)

Two of Van Damme's most iconic films, “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer,” both launched franchises. The “Bloodsport” series totaled four films while “Kickboxer” made it all the way to five. Being a soon-to-be superstar at the time, Jean-Claude was not interested in appearing in these sequels. These continuations had to make do with Faux Van Dammes, like Daniel Bernhardt or Sasha Mitchell. Things were a little difference in 2016. When “Kickboxer” was randomly chosen as the next long-dormant franchise to be rebooted, Van Damme was eager to appear. This worked out well for both parties. “Kickboxer: Vengeance” gave the star a chance to reprise one of his best known films. Meanwhile, Van Damme's presence lent the remake more credibility. This tactic seemed to work, as “Kickboxer: Vengeance” was about as well received as a film like this could be.

The subtitle may give you the impression that “Kickboxer: Vengeance” is more reboot than remake. In actuality, the film directly follows the beats of the original with a few modern updates. Eric Sloan is a champion kickboxer, trained and watched over by his younger brother, Kurt. A shady fight promoter extends a deal to Eric to fight in Thailand. Soon enough, Kurt faces off against Tong Po, the local champion. Po's fighting style is brutal. So brutal that he beats Eric to death on the mat. Eric tracks down Tong Po, eager to seek revenge, but gets arrested by the cops. Released, he seeks out Durand, Eric's trainer, and begins to prepare for a duel to the death with Tong Po.

As I said, “Vengeance” is a direct remake of the original “Kickboxer.” The film takes the story into dark and gritty territories. Instead of just beating Eric into a wheelchair, Tong Po outright murders him. The villain's role gets a general expansion, as he's now the cult-like leader of a Muay Tai training retreat.  Kurt doesn't merely seek to best his rival in the ring but expects to kill him. Similarly, the trainer is given a bigger role, participating more in the action sequences. In some ways, “Vengeance” is much grimmer than the film it's remaking. The drunken dance sequence is replaced with an extended bar room brawl. Yet 2017's “Kickboxer” is funnier than you'd expect. The training scenes are still played for laughs. The film pays off on many of the campy expectations you might have. There's even a halfway decent romance, which is a big improvement over the original.

“Kickboxer: Vengeance” fills its cast with both familiar and new faces. Perhaps hoping to replicate Van Damme's career, the film stars a martial artist attempting to break into acting. Alain Moussi has worked on a number of high-profile projects as a stuntman, including the last two “X-Men” movies. He apparently operates a dojo in his native Ottawa. As an actor, Moussi does okay. He's occasionally a bit stiff but, as the film goes on, he displays a decent sense of humor about himself. As a fighter, he's more than capable. I'm not saying the guy is the next Van Damme but he does alright. He also has surprisingly decent chemistry with Sara Malakul Lane, who is fairly capable in a slightly more complex than usual love interest role. Also appearing in the film is Georges St-Pierre, a Canadian MMA fighter of some renown. St-Pierre's acting is pretty broad but he has a goofy, affable presence that works well in his few scenes.

However, the familiar faces ultimately make more of an impression. Obviously looking to capitalize on Van Damme's presence, the trainer character is elevated to secondary protagonist. Jean-Claude is having a good time, smiling a lot, joking around with his young pupil. At the same time, he brings a renewed physicality to his action scenes, never letting you forget he's a legendary performer. (Though his voice appears to be dubbed by another actor in several scenes, which is a baffling decision.) Dave Batista is also excellent as Tong Po. Batista has successfully expanded beyond his pro-wrestling past, with his unexpectedly strong performances in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. As Tong Po, Batista is physically intimidating. Yet he also brings an odd sense of honor to the part, making him a little more than your standard movie bad guy. Gina Carano also appears but, disappointingly, she doesn't participate in the fighting.

Most importantly, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” features some pretty great action sequences. The fights are more acrobatic than the original. Kurt and one of Tong Po's followers frequently performing spinning leg-locks on their opponents, leaping around the other fighters in an impressively visual way.  The fights tend to alternate between brutal and playful. The bar room brawl involves Kurt getting his ass kicked, smashed across tables and slammed, face-first, into a jukebox. A cool scene involves a tracking shot, Kurt rushing into Tong Po's temple and beating his opponents away. Naturally, the final fight between the hero and villain features lots of bloodshed and savage beatings. On the playful sight, a hilarious scene has Kurt and Durand escaping from a jail. It ends with Van Damme kicking two different guys through two separate sheets of glass. That got a big cheer from me. Director John Stockwell – yes, the dude from “Christine” – has a solid grasp on action direction.

“Kickboxer: Vengeance” functions solidly as a modern day action-fest. Yet it's self-aware enough to conclude with a reprisal of the original's dance sequence. Honestly, I might have liked the remake as much as I did strictly because it gave Van Damme so much to do. Usually, you'd expect the original's star to have a small role in a remake. Instead, he's kicking butt alongside the hero! It's a good thing that the remake turned out so well, because a sequel has already been announced. “Kickboxer: Retaliation” is already in the can, with a planned release date later in the year. A third film is expected to appear after that. Van Damme is on-board for both of those, which gives me hope they'll be equally strong. [7/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[X] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

Friday, July 21, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Pound of Flesh (2015)

My fascination with urban legends is no secret around these parts. Those scary stories and wide-ranging misconceptions are often secret windows into our culture's darkest fears and most shameful concerns. One of the most persistent myths, despite being repeatedly discredited, is the kidney thieves: A tourist in a foreign country falls victim to an international organ smuggling ring, awakening in a bathtub full of ice with a huge cut on their side. That particular story is a solid foundation for any low budget film. “The Harvest” or “Turistas” are just two previous examples. But those movies didn't have Jean-Claude Van Damme in them. “Pound of Flesh” promised to be an action movie twist on the ages old legend, making sure we had plenty of shoot-outs and roundhouse kicks to go with our missing kidneys.

Deacon Lyle, a former kidnapping expert and government agent, is visiting the Philippines. While at a club, he rescues a woman from an attacker. They spend the night together. The next morning, Deacon awakes in a bathtub full of ice. He is dazed, disorientated, and has a long cut down his back. Someone has stolen his kidney. This is especially bad news, as Deacon intended to donate that kidney to his dying niece. Lyle is forced to team up with his hyper-religious brother, whom he has a strained relationship with, to hunt down the people who stole his precious organ. The question is will he be able to find them in time before he collapses?

“Pound of Flesh” has one thing really going for it. The action scenes are very intense. The first fight scene in the film has Van Damme laying a body slam on the late action bit player Darren Shahlavi. The first really impressive sequence occurs when a series of baddies jump Van Damme in a dance club. The most unlikely of weapons, a bible, is utilized to gouge a guy's eye out. That scene also features some cool flips. Jean-Claude's trademark split – we haven't seen one of those in a while! – is deployed in an interesting manner, involving our hero stretching outside a moving vehicle. Shahlavi returns for a decent fight scene at the end, hero and villain wrestling on the floor of a mansion, snapping limbs and beating on each other. It's a good thing that the hand-to-hand battles are pretty cool because the shoot-outs are fairly uninspired.

Sadly, the bone-breaking action only comprises a portion of “Pound of Flesh's” run time. Director Ernie Barbarash, previously of “Six Bullets,” seemingly had higher aspirations for this low budget action flick. Deacon's brother, George, is highly religious. Naturally, that puts a strain on his relationship with his ultraviolent brother. The repeated appearances of bibles and even Deacon's name point towards more religious symbolism. I'm not sure what this has to do with the actual story but it's mildly interesting. That's more than you can say for the film's middle section, which involves characters hiding out in a cabin from the bad guys. Long scenes devoted to the familial melodrama or sleuthing are not especially compelling. Considering “Pound of Flesh” was sold as a hard-hitting action feature, it's surprising that so much of the film is so slow.

Ernie Barbarash's direction is competent, if otherwise unspectacular. Occasionally, he throws in some flashy images of faces appearing suddenly on screen, in somewhat obnoxious scene transition. It's clear that “Pound of Flesh” had a fairly low budget. Several times, some really shitty green screen effects are utilized. You could at least understand why green screen would be utilized during the various car chases, when the characters are sitting in moving vehicle. Why was such obvious green screen used during a simple shot of Van Damme standing in a dance club? Through it all, Jean-Claude Van Damme gives a committed performance. He brings his aged action star gravitas to the part of someone attempting to use what little time he has left to save someone else's life. You can see Van Damme pluming the depths of his soul, to add texture to a character that might appear simple on paper.

“Pound of Flesh” was released among much hype, at least within the world of gritty, indie action flicks. I guess the punchy log line of “Jean-Claude Van Damme Wants His Kidney Back!” was irresistible. The actual film doesn't live up to that fun exploitation premise, as the end result is actually rather dour. However, there are some stand-out fight scenes and Van Damme gives a fine performance. However, “Pound of Flesh” is a mostly forgettable, fairly cheap direct-to-video action flick. Hopefully, Ernie Barbarash and Jean-Claude's next collaboration is a little better. [5/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick


Thursday, July 20, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Welcome to the Jungle (2013)

Jean-Claude Van Damme's comeback tour has had its ups and downs. He's won new fans and critical respect. Most of his recent films have still gone straight to video, many of them being undistinguished action flicks. Stuff like “Six Bullets” and “Dragon Eyes” hasn't allowed for much range, even if “JCVD” showed off that the star can do more than just kick high. Comedy is definitely something Van Damme has become interested in exploring. Before “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” there was “Welcome to the Jungle.” Reviews were mixed but Van Damme's performance was regularly signaled out as a highlight. The movie even played in some theaters!

Chris works at an advertising firm but isn't very happy. He has an unrequited crush on Lisa, a sexy co-worker. His stoner best friend, Jared, doesn't provide much in the way of advice. Worst, an asshole superior named Phil keeps stealing his ideas. The entire office is flown to an island for a team building exercise. Storm Rothchild, a supposed ex-military man and survivalist expert, is leading the expedition. After arriving on the island, their pilot dies. Rothchild quickly proves himself incompetent and is then attacked by a tiger. All remnants of polite society quickly crumble, Phil building a “Lord of the Flies”-style community that worships him as a god. If Chris is going to survive this, he has to learn to stand up to the office bully turned mad god.

“Welcome to the Jungle” is pretty uneven as a comedy. However, one thing is for sure. Jean-Claude Van Damme fucking owns this movie. From the moment he swaggers on-screen, Van Damme is goofing on his own image. His brochures are decorated with images of his screaming face. Later, we get an extended sequence of Van Damme yelling, a hilarious callback to “Bloodsport.” Throughout most of the film, the action star plays it totally straight. He delivers absurdist dialogue – about “Pinocchio” or fighting tigers – with heroic conviction. As the story goes on, Van Damme gets to play things weirder. This springboards off his pre-existing eccentric qualities, making sequences where he acts like a scared rabbit or sits in a wheelbarrow work really well. Whenever Van Damme is on-screen, “Welcome to the Jungle” similarly leaps to life.

Van Damme steals the show but the rest of the cast is pretty good too. Kristen Schaal is notable as a gonzo co-worker. Obsessed with bunny rabbits, her cutesy demeanor shatters to pieces throughout the film, especially during a scene where the talking stick is stolen from her. When she starts screaming profanely about shitting, Schaal produces some decent laughs. Rob Huebel plays the asshole Phil. Huebel's smarmy shenanigans are amusing, while establishing that he's a total jerk. When he's calling himself “Orko,” covered in warpaint, and being worshiped like a god, Huebel maintains that layer of fratboy assholery. Adam Brody has the thankless task of being the straight man but he is pretty fun, especially when going on tangents about his erotic fantasy novel.

Mostly, the cast is the reason “Welcome to the Jungle” is funny at all. The film has some amusing ideas. A team building exercise devolving almost immediately into drug-fueled orgies, threats of cannibalism, and a savage society is an amusing premise. Instead of building on this starting point for more absurdity, “Welcome to the Jungle” is mostly content to let it ride. Occasionally, there's a flash of goofiness. Like Huebel demanding his followers build a statue in his honor or the stoner growing edgier without his pot. Or how about Dennis “The Allstate Guy” Haysbert rambling about how he invented the BLT? The ideas are strong but the execution is usually half-baked. “Welcome to the Jungle's” absurdity is too shaggy and unformed.

Still, the film is absolutely worth seeing for Van Damme's performance. If he was in every scene, “Welcome to the Jungle” would probably be an instant comedy classic. Instead, the action star can only salvage about half of the film. The rest of “Welcome to the Jungle” is a shambling exercise in ungroomed, overly crass comedy. Considering the amount of times I laughed really hard, I guess I still got my money's worth. Mostly, I left the film hoping Van Damme gets another chance to stretch his comedy muscles soon. [6/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick