Monthly Archives: July 2014

Ape is killing ape

1-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-review-jpg-20140714 You would think that the decline in quality of the original 5 “Apes” movies, each one lower-budget and worse quality than the one that preceded it, would give filmmakers pause, but since 2001 we have endured 3 awful s/prequel/remakes.   And yet these films do well at the box office, and are generally well-reviewed.

If this were the “Transformers” series I would care that much, but the original “Planet of the Apes” is indeed brilliant. Based on Rod Serling’s adaptation of  Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des singes , it was released in 1968, and features zero CGI.  Instead it featured real actors doing “acting” while wearing make-up and simian-looking prosthetics.  These devices were considered advanced at the time, but now appear rather primitive: article-2150936-135482EB000005DC-726_634x455   Still how scary-looking is that?  Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans used their costumes to enhance their performances, to give them an “otherness” that they employed, but also had to overcome in order to create full characters. This is the opposite of what Jack Nicholson said about his role as The Joker in 1989’s “Batman”, essentially to “let the costume do the work”.

The tension between artifice and reality is something CGI erases.  While this makes for more realism, it also seems to infect movies with a slackness when it comes to developing stories and characters.  Critics praise CGI and forget that a realistic wink or tear does not a character make. This was the case for the second remake of King Kong, of which A.O. Scott said:

The sheer audacious novelty of the first “King Kong” is not something that can be replicated, but in throwing every available imaginative and technological resource into the effort, Mr. Jackson comes pretty close.

Novelty and technology can’t sustain a movie for 3 hours, characters and narrative can.  Inexplicably Roger Ebert called Kong II “A stupendous cliffhanger, a glorious adventure, a shameless celebration of every single resource of the blockbuster, told in a film of visual beauty and surprising emotional impact.”   Roger Ebert is a wonderful human being, but I find his writing unmemorable.  A.O. Scott seems to specialize in plot summaries.  Plot summary + apologia that this is a “spirited” movie that isn’t perfect = A.O. Scott review. 

Despite my griping, I too wanted to see chimpanzees on horseback firing machine guns (I’m only human).  I found that it was just not as thrilling as what the original “Apes” movie did for me: imagine a world where humans are no longer the pre-eminent species, where it’s payback time for the creatures we have abused for millenia.   Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie modernist score helped create this sense of unease – so different from the crash, boom, bang of near-constant violence in “Dawn”, which has a strange calming effect on me because it seems to be in almost every movie now, and signifies that the good guy is going to win.  The other parts of the score could have been used in a life insurance commercial.

Speaking of good guys, did Director Matt Reeves have to make ape-leader Caesar into an absolute saint?  Consider the strategy in the original “Apes” franchise.  Caesar is a killer, but you understand his rage as he sees his enslaved ape-brothers stun-gunned, and watches his kindly guardian, played by Ricardo Montalban, die in order to protect him.    I go to movies to see people who are worse than me, not better.

The final visual in “Dawn” is another capitulation to feel-good non-reality: caesarclarke

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recall the harrowing last scene in “Planet of the Apes” with Taylor and Nova about to enter into the Forbidden Zone after seeing the ruined Statue of Liberty: liberty3 Final verdict on “The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”: mqdefault

“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

 

 

 

 

Postscript:   “Planet of the Apes” features one of my favorite opening scenes in movies, Charlton Heston, the spaceship captain is smoking a cigar on the bridge, recording into his log before he goes into suspended animation:

Tell me, though, does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother…keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

charlton_heston                                 Post-postscript: Really getting tired of seeing Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors, trotting out his American accent in these trumped-up, square-spectacled Commissioner-Gordon-type roles.

Not tickled by the magic feather

Charlie-Brown-and-Snoopy-peanuts-34485607-500-371

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the movie “Barfly”:

Jim: “You worked last year?”

Chinaski: “Six months in a toy factory. You don’t know how men suffer for children.”

Recent movies return the favor, according to Luke Epplin in his excellent Atlantic article You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?.   Children’s movies now rely on “magic feather syndrome”: the plotline where a misfit child/toy/anthropomorphized animal ends up triumphing in the end by merely believing in themselves, often utilizing the very “defect” that caused them to be an outcast.

A prime example of this (which he doesn’t mention) is when Rudolph is welcomed back into two-faced Santa’s fold after successfully saving Christmas by guiding the sleigh with his formerly-hideous nose.  Epplin cites many other examples: Dumbo and his ears, a garden snail winning a race in “Turbo”, a rat cooking in “Ratatouille”, a crop-dusting plane in “Planes”.  It goes on an on.

He contrasts these with the 1969 animated film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”, where Charlie LOSES the big spelling bee on the word “beagle” no less.  Charlie returns home and takes to his bed for days.  Linus consoles him by saying that despite losing, the world didn’t come to an end.   Charlie slowly returns to daily life, nobody pays much attention to his failure, and in the final scene he takes a kick at the football Lucy is holding.  In any animated kids movie today he’d kick the ball a mile.  Instead Lucy pulls the ball away, as always, and he ends up flat on his back.   The redemption is in not needing redemption, for this is how LIFE REALLY WORKS, and kids are actually smart enough to appreciate this.

As sleazy as Charlez Schulz has been made out to be in his personal life, “Peanuts” was a gift:  a very sophisticated, humane comic.    I’m reminded also of the”The Muppets”, who also weren’t afraid to make a difficult emotional point (“It’s not easy being green”) but who now have been sold to Disney in order to sell SUV’s and fast food (“It’s not easy being a delicious Subway sandwich in less than 5 minutes!!!!!!!!!”)

Pauline Kael in her review of “The Little Mermaid” makes the point that children don’t need to be spoon-fed,  they thrill to darker elements:

Are we trying to put kids into some sort of moral-aesthetic safe house? Parents seem desperate for harmless family entertainment. Probably they don’t mind this movie’s being vapid, because the whole family can share it, and no one is offended. We’re caught in a culture warp. Our children are flushed with pleasure when we read them ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ or Roald Dahl’s sinister stories. Kids are ecstatic watching videos of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ and ‘The Dark Crystal.’ 

where_the_wild_things_are

The question I’m left with is why are “magic feather” movies so ubiquitous today?   Disney fare from the 30’s and 40’s was significantly more nuanced.   One commentator to the Atlantic article suggests that it’s the stress of a post 9-11 downwardly-mobile world which encourages escapism. For all who feel uniquely stressed, remember that back in the 1960’s the Cold War was going full force and the threat of nuclear war was real. It almost happened with the Cuban Missile Crisis, 7 years before Charlie Brown was shown in theaters.

My guess is that it’s more related to the always-on-yet-emotionally-disconnected nature of e-connected life today.   When you have to be able to respond at any time, you seek refuge, and the only refuge in a competitive world is being the winner.  There is no Charlie Brown in his bed anymore, quietly getting up and putting his clothes on.