Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) movie poster

director Matt Reeves
viewed: 07/19/2014 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, SF, CA

2011′s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly strong resurgence of a pop culture franchise that seemed quite unlikely.  Three years later, and following turnover in every most every major area a film can have: stars, director, writers (the sort of thing that never bodes well for a film franchise), out leaps Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And like its predecessor, it may well prove out to be one of the best films of this year’s summer.

The one guy who is back isn’t onscreen himself, but plays out in motion-captured avatar as Caesar, the lead chimpanzee, tragic hero of the last film, essentially star of the sequel.  Andy Serkis is the man behind the motion capture acting.  He’s been Gollum and King Kong and he’s joined by a whole team of other ape actors in this film.

What’s interesting to me is how this film is really in many ways very dedicated to its whole narrative.   The story picks up some unclear number of years after Rise, the human race has been decimated by the “simian flu” that the research in the first film gave rise to.  The apes who escaped to Marin County have proliferated, developed their own society, buildings, teachings.  They’ve had no contact with humans.

San Francisco has become one last bastion for humans, those who are immune to the virus, but still struggle to survive due to a lack of electricity and technology.  It is after a hydroelectric dam that they look for in Marin that brings ape and man together again.

Like men, the apes have their good guys and bad guys, though Caesar has touted that no ape should kill another ape.  At odds as they are, each extends a hand to try for a peaceful coexistence, only to have the bad ape, Koba (who remembers man’s brutality all too well) attempt to assassinate Caesar and make it look like the humans who did it.  In the end, all the good will gets washed down in violence and leads to an inevitable war.

A war, which we all know, the apes have to win, since this is leading up to Planet of the Apes (1968) somewhere along the line.  I swear we watched Planet of the Apes at some point but I didn’t write about it for some reason — maybe I didn’t get to watch the whole thing.

The apes are the good guys here.  They’ve been victimized by humans and now have nobility and “humanity”.  It’s hard not to see them a bit like Native Americans in the way that they are portrayed in the film, living off the land with no technology.  Not sure this metaphor works perfectly, intentional or not.

What is interesting is how much the story moves forward throughout.  There is a longer narrative begun in the first film that is pushed along through this sequel.  And the emotional connection that Caesar continues to have to his adoptive father from before manages to strike home more significantly than a lot of other films with all human actors, not animated avatars.  And it makes an inevitability of a following sequel not just seem likely but necessary.

The cynicism of Hollywood in sequels tends to be when a film needs to come about because the first one made money and people want more.  Then a story has to be concocted with action and upping the drama, usually dependent as well on a movie star or two, who are the hook.  The story is often just a latticework of scenes and action, building for some eventual dramatic showdown of action.  This film, at least, felt like a much more cohesive narrative.  Not necessarily a truly great film, but something quite different from the average.

Now, I saw this with the kids, and the film, while rated PG-13 is quite full of action and violence, and the chimps are fairly intimidating.  It’s pretty intense on that front, certainly.  But they both liked the film, though Felix said that he thought that the earlier film was better.  It’s hard for me to say.  It’s been three years and I couldn’t really draw the comparison as well.

I don’t know if they filmed even one scene in San Francisco, but they do a very keen job of making the post-disaster city seem very realistic.  I assume that some folks very familiar with the city did a lot of design work on the film.

It’s been a pretty sorry year for movies so far, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earns its points from me.  One of the few I looked forward to and one of the few that felt worthwhile.  And one of the even fewer that I will look forward to seeing a sequel to when it comes about.

The Frighteners (1996)

The Frighteners (1996) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 07/18/2014 

When Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners came out in 1996, I remembered thinking it was pretty good stuff.  Starring Michael J. Fox as a man who can see ghosts and who uses that ability to employ ghosts to haunt and be exorcised by him fraudulently, it’s a paranormal thriller/comedy cut from a cloth laid out in part by Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988).  It seemed an apt project for Jackson (before he started making hobbit movies) and was produced by Robert Zemeckis a la his own Death Becomes Her (1992).

I’d had it in my Netflix streaming queue in part just because it was available, not something that I was in particular looking for to watch with the kids.  But as we kept skimming over the image, I kept thinking it might be something that they would like, though I did recall it had its scary elements too.

Because along with Fox’s friendly ghosts, there is also the murderous baddie of Jake Busey (what the heck happened to that guy?), a serial killer turned ghost serial killer, inspired by Charlie Starkweather to build a body count to top all body counts.

The effects are early digital effects.  1996 seems to be a typical point in the line for the growth and efficacy of digital effects.  The primary effect is the ghost of Busey, either as a grim reaper figure, or more typically, sliding under the wallpaper at a house.  I recalled this effect seeming cool back in the day, but now it looks, if you pardon the expression, hella cheap.

When Wes Craven used an analog effect to have Freddy Kreuger push through a rubber wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), you’ve got a cool effect that transcends time.  When re-created digitally for its re-make in 2010, the even more advanced digital effect still was less powerful and interesting.  Back in 1996, with a much more elaborate and heavily leaned-on digital effect, who can say?  I tell you that today, it looks crappy.  And yes, hella cheap.

The best effect in the film is John Astin as “the judge”, a rotting corpse with digital and analog effects, but more well-designed than the others.

On the whole, the film is affable enough.  The kids were a bit confused by the story, which shifted in time between the teenage rampage of the killer and the present-day ghost rampage.  And then the film also relies on a stairway to heaven, with a one year limit in opportunity that leaves some ghosts on earth.  This is basically a not very well thought out aspect of the film’s universe.

Neither of the kids loved it nor hated it.  Though as the film wore on, they realized that it was more comic than scary.  It’s funny how the things I think will freak them out are the things that don’t bother them a lick.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013) movie poster

director Alex Gibney
viewed: 07/18/2014

Director Alex Gibney is one of the most prolific and successful documentary film makers out today, with movies about Enron (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)), U.S. policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)),  even Eliot Spitzer (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010)).  His topics are often “ripped from the headlines”, if you will, but the real, big stories of our times, the big crises, the big stories, probably, possibly the ones that will resonate for future generations as emblematic of this era.

Wikileaks, certainly, is up there.  And the story of Julian Assange, the primary man behind the internet reveal of so many secret documents, his place in this story is key.  And Gibney is not alone.  Also in 2013, a non-documentary biography of Assange was also released, The Fifth Estate.  Is the story ready to be told?  I guess they think so.

Gibney does seek a truth in his film about the story: that the “real hero” of the tale is Chelsea “Bradley” Manning, the private first class who actually dug up all the files from the U.S. government computers to which he had rather significant access, that and the personal identity crisis that he was undergoing at the time, his gender identity disorder, that he has since been undergoing change.

Clocking in at over 2 hours, this is a longer film that Gibney’s others, ranging from some of Assange’s first strikes on the internet and some of his personal history.  All this to the launch of Wikileaks and the information that was released in coordination with journalists at The Guardian, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and more.

Personally, I think it’s a tale that is still unfolding.  Manning is still in prison, though I don’t think his trial has still yet been held.  Assange is still living in isolation at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, hasn’t gone to stand for his alleged crimes in Sweden (which the film does give reasonable time and attention to, even interviewing one of the alleged victims).  And the whole of the impact of the Wikileaks revelations, the significance of that specific information, even the true fallout of the digital age of ready information, of surveillance, secrecy, technology, and its ever-available existence.

I wonder how complete Gibney feels this film, this story is.  It breaks into areas of real interest for me, of the state of journalism, the reality of technology, the desire to critically, objectively know what is going on.  I just feel this story has further chapters, maybe significant, maybe not.  Time is the thing that helps hone focus to history, perspective to understanding.  And this one…is still happening.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) movie poster

director Alex Gibney
viewed: 07/1 7/2014

Enron is a great example of why industries do need to be regulated.  Why business shouldn’t just run itself.  Because unchecked greed lures many a soul.  And the fact that a Ponzi scheme of this proportion, of this supposedly fair and open a system is still stunning, shocking, and grotesque.

And yet, only a few years later, the housing crisis was allowed to come to fruition.

Enron is insanity.  It’s a company that made its money with complete falsehoods at its core.  How they managed to get signed-off on by so many major banks and institutions shows just how corrupt and corruptible the systems are.  Their whole financial organization was based on projected profits from “ideas”, when really it was a lot of massively illegal numbers balancing that allowed insiders to rake in huge, huge amounts of money and keep their balance sheets pretty.  And their stock soared.

I lived through this era and specifically through the fake energy crisis that Enron created in the wake of a deregulated energy market in California.  Really, it’s outrageous.  Forget that we are Californians and any Schadenfreude you might have in seeing the people of state get taken for a multibillion dollar ride by shysters of the biggest highest order.

It’s really shocking the scale of the lies that all this was based upon.  And while their name has become synonymous with deliberate false accounting, their crimes were not victimless at all.  Investors, people with IRA’s and 401K’s, retirees, hard working people are always the ones who pay for these crimes.  One would only hope that Ken Lay is keeping a very hot seat in hell warm for Jeffrey Skilling and the others at the core of these crimes of hubris and greed.

This film comes from Alex Gibney, one of the most prolific of the bigger name documentary filmmkaers out there today.  It was based on a book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind and does well to capture the zeitgeist and cruel ironies therein.

It’s truly galling.  If only we could learn from the past.

Particle Fever (2013)

Particle Fever (2013) movie poster director Mark Levinson viewed: 07/16/2014 When the scientists and researchers collaborating at and around CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research) announced the discover of the Higgs boson, the “God Particle”, I probably like most people, was like “Huh?  What?” Seriously, Physics has always gone pretty far over my head.  But I really like to understand things, to at least have context for the importance of such a significant discovery in the world.  I’m not stupid.  I’d like to know. The documentary Particle Fever does explain some of that along the way.  The “Higgs particle” was a theoretical particle, not before seen or measured, but hypothesized as being a key element of particle physics’ Standard Model, a puzzle, if you will, in which the Higgs particle plays a key role, holding it all together, making it all work.  And the “weight” of the particle, if and when discovered, would suggest the direction of further theorizing in the field toward the concepts of either a Multiverse of infinite variations and chaos or some supersymmetry. The documentary covers the theoretical scientists and the experimental ones, the ones who finally got this massive particle accelerator built, which is described as a five story Swiss watch with a 17 kilometer diameter tunnel for accelerating those particles to smash them into one another and gather the data to get they’re information about how the universe was formed.  The people are interesting.  They tell us what’s going on, we follow the scope of the project that took 20 years to bring about, untold hours, people, dedication, to this highly unknown end. It’s an amazing thing, for certain.  The setback, when they have a helium leak and it breaks a significant part of the this massive, intricate tool, is hard to even get your head around.  What a huge project this was and is.  In fact, the test that they ran that gave them the data that told them what the Higgs particle was wasn’t even ideal.  It ran at a half speed of their initial intended impact, so another more powerful test is still to come, perhaps with more significant data. I still wish I understood it all better.  And I wish I could unsee that horrible physics rap that played during CERN’s initial launch party for their accelerator.

Bad Meat (2011)

Bad Meat (2011) movie poster

director Lulu Jarmen
viewed: 07/13/2014

At a reform camp for troubled teens run by callous, cruel oddballs, a revenge-seeking cook poisons the food with some “bad meat”.  Lucky(?) for the teens, they’re only served raw potatoes, so it’s their vicious torturers that spew vomit and turn psycho cannibal.

No aspect of the film is particularly well-made, none of the characters rise above the pretty badly conceived cliches that they represent, and the film is edited by a possible narcoleptic, which doesn’t help the film make any sense as a whole.  But it’s also gross-out in crude and weirdly suggestive ways and for all its shortcomings, isn’t actually utterly dire.

Apparently, the film had a lot of troubles through production and the director “Lulu Jarmen” is a pseudonym contrived by a director not wanting to be associated with something so rancid.

It’s also not something I recommend.

Child Bride (1938)

Child Bride (1942) movie poster

director Harry Revier
viewed: 07/13/2014

In the world of Exploitation cinema, there is the notorious and then there is the NOTORIOUS.   Notoriety is absolutely what Exploitation film seeks out.  The whole shock value is really just to get you to see the damn film.  Some Exploitation is almost all in the marketing, the product is virtually secondary.  But then some Exploitation lives up to its promotion, shocking at the core.

To be honest, there is not actually anything shocking at the core of Child Bride.  It’s a low-budget film that actually strives to help turn the public tide against child marriage, which was variant state by state back at the time of the film and apparently still a well-accepted thing among some microcultures.  Men shouldn’t be able to marry 12 year olds, they are children, let them be.

Well, none of that is particularly controversial, probably not even back in 1938 with all reformist sensibilities seeking to outlaw child marriage were probably not finding immense push-back.  What is controversial and would still be to this day is the extending nude sequence featuring the then 12 year old Shirley Mills, stripping down and skinny dipping.

Really, again, it’s not lurid.  It’s a twelve year old girl naked and then swimming.

It’s the irony and the context that make it sleazy.  During the scene, she talks innocently with her pal Freddie about how she has come to learn that now that they are changing (entering puberty), they shouldn’t go swimming nakedly together anymore.  Freddie is bummed out, innocently, while the evil, lascivious Jake Bolby looks on at the young girl getting thoughts into his head to take her as a child bride.

So the film is notorious for featuring a naked 12 year old girl, in long, contemplative shots, while preaching about how young girls should not be lusted after and forced into marriage.  The further irony to my mind is simply that while the contrast is puerile, the actual scenes are sort of natural, sort of chaste, and innocent.  I guess it’s only how one reacts to a naked 12 year old girl, I suppose that makes it potentially sleazy.

I was brought to mind of the sweet scene in My Life as a Dog (1985) where the young Melinda Kinnaman, who has been pretending to be a boy, shows her bare chest to her friend Ingmar.  It’s not exploitative in the least.  And it made me wonder about European attitudes towards nudity versus the more puritanical American attitudes.  It actually also made me wonder about other films that feature underage nudity, where exactly lines are crossed from art into true exploitation.  And I was also brought to mind of Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), which notoriously featured a nude 12 year old Brooke Shields.  Exploitation.  Or art?

Well, Child Bride is definitely an Exploitation film.  It ran the Exploitation circuits for years and cashed in on its “lurid” content despite its ironical message.

The film itself is not so godawful as one might assume.  Shirley Mills is actually very good in her role as Jennie Colton, child bride.  Mills went on to a reasonable career in cinema including a role in John Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath.  I kind of liked the parts of the film shot around the small country people, this caricature hillbilly culture.

It’s strange how contemplative an Exploitation film can make one.

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) movie poster

director Sam Newfield
viewed: 07/13/2014

We each have our own cultural Hajjs.  Mine of late has been to see or to re-see some of the worst films of all time, or at least films that have long held that reputation.  Though The Terror of Tiny Town isn’t actually on the current Wikipedia list, it did make the Michael Medved original list of 50 worst films of all time.  While a number of films on Medved’s list seem dubious for such a classification (Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976)?), they deed winnow out some of the true classics of bad.

The Terror of Tiny Town always fascinated some part of me, at least until I saw it as a young teen (or however old I was when I finally saw it).  It’s famous for being the one all-midget Western Musical.  In which the midget cast rides Shetland ponies and rope calves in an otherwise semi-straightforward Western yarn.

It’s the kind of Exploitation film that the Hays Code didn’t apparently have any issue with.

For whatever reason, this film has drifted further into obscurity.  It’s such a strange cultural artifact.  It’s made me think a little more about “dwarfsploitation”, frankly.  Whereas The Terror of Tiny Town is exactly what it sets out to be, comic in the framing of little people is the Western scenario, modern films that employ casts of little people seem to not be particularly evolved away from this.  I’m thinking presently of Willow (1988) when I write this.

I mentioned the film when I was watching Werner Herzog’s bizarre Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), which indeed would be an ideal pairing with this film in study of contrasts and strangenesses.  But I was also called to mind of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), much closer in time to this film.  And I was also brought to mind of the 1982 film Under the Rainbow, which doesn’t seem available presently.

I’m sure in the circles of the Little People of America, these topics and films are probably notorious and even possibly well-studied.  But for your average cinephile who maybe doesn’t spend much time considering the portrayal of “little people” through time, maybe such a study is more wanting.  Anyhow, it all came to mind.

For me, I had only seen the film once before.  As a tween or teen, the film didn’t exactly have the hysterical laughs that I was expecting from the likes of a Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  In fact, I think I found it a bit dull.  Though it did fulfill my having seen the film, which, as I’ve suggested, is one that I rarely find anyone who has ever heard of the darn thing.

This time through, I had to appreciate some of the gags in the saloon.  The make-up on the extras and costuming was actually pretty good, meeting the popular conventions of the Western genre at the time.  It’s not a mean-spirited affair, though obviously demeaning in a plethora of jokes and its entire conception.  I mean, it’s the only all-midget Western Musical.  There were no sequels or attempted re-makes.

It’s part of the appeal of Exploitation cinema sort of crystallized.  Whether in modern terms, it’s “inappropriate” or offensive or politically incorrect, it’s utterly unique.  I think at the time, demonstrations of little people were still common to carnivals, expos, even the World’s Fair, so in some ways it was not as unique in its day.   But it is a vision of something completely strange, outside of an norms of cinema and pop culture, and yet a real significant artifact of American culture and perception of its time.

Strangely, it was sort of fulfilling to see it again, this far odd little film.  The more odd and outre the better.

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) movie poster

director Don Siegel
viewed: 07/12/2014

However you divide your pantheons, Don Siegel’s 1956 science fiction thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic of American cinema.  The 1950′s science fiction was a great pop cultural phenomenon in American movies, and no one film embodies this than this creepy, insidious film.   The film maintains an eerieness to this day, which Siegel evokes masterfully with limited but still very odd effects.

It’s one of those storylines that feels like it doesn’t really need to be spelled out for you, it’s such an iconic concept and pervasive scenario, much less a film that has been re-made several times, most recently as The Invasion (2007) with Nicole Kidman.  For all the qualities of later versions, you cannot cannot cannot beat the original film about the invasion of alien pods that put out human replicas, replacing the American small town with bland, easy-going drones.  All they want is your body!

Kevin McCarthy is great as Miles, the doctor who returns to his small California community of Santa Mira to find a strange psychosis to have overtaken the town wherein many people think that their friends and loved ones have been replaced with exact replicas.

The best scenes include the body on the pool table, yet unspecific, but quickly becoming one of the local men.  The pods themselves aren’t so menacing, but there are some nice effects in the black and white darkness of the pods opening, and dumping out ambiguous shapes that become the humans they plan to replace.

Whether it’s read as a critique of McCarthyism or its converse, a Communist infiltration of America, or even a more subtle critique of 1950′s American ideals and social conformity, the paranoia is palpable and multifaceted.  And it’s open enough to adopt any of those readings.  Spiritually, or thematically perhaps at least, it is the ultimate 1950′s science fiction film, one in which whatever the infiltrating enemy may represent, he is us, Americans, already under its sway.

I watched it with the kids with little preamble and introduction, though they were familiar with the concept of the story from other pop cultural effluvia.  They were quite spooked through the early going in particular, the creepiness, the uncertainty, the dark paranoia.  The both appreciated it.

It’s been so long that I’d forgotten that the film doesn’t end with Kevin McCarthy on the road, uncovering truck after truck of pods.  I guess that was how Siegel intended the film to end, but it actually ends with a less impactful shot of McCarthy nervously hoping after the authorities suddenly begin to believe his story and mobilize.

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

The Secret of NIMH (1982) movie poster

director Don Bluth
viewed: 07/11/2014

The Secret of NIMH, animator Don Bluth’s first feature film as director, first feature film for his Don Bluth Productions, is certainly one of the best animated features of the 1980′s, a beautifully rendered and crafted piece of traditional cel animation.

It really says something about Walt Disney Studios at the time, the late 1970′s to early 1980′s, whose own products, with the rare exception perhaps of The Rescuers (1977), were a dwindling shadow of the once great studio.  That some of its top animators, including Bluth, struck out on their own to actually go back to traditional techniques and qualities, where the major studio had been trying to cut corners and costs. That The Secret of NIMH is the great animated feature that it is says a great deal about Bluth and his team.

I saw the film in 1982 on its original release and have liked the film a great deal ever since.  But it had been a long time since I had seen it, can’t even recall when I’d last seen it to be honest.  But it’s lovely.

Adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, it’s the story of a widowed field mouse and her brood, who need to seek help when the plowing time has come and the mouse, Mrs. Frisby (Brisby in the film), has a child sick with pneumonia who cannot be moved.  She is driven to consult an aged owl and then a collective of super-intelligent rats, former subjects of vivisection and experimentation by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

I don’t know that there has been as good an American cel animated feature until The Iron Giant (1999) nearly fifteen years later.  For all of the “Disney renaissance” as it’s known, nothing they’ve done measures up in my estimation.

For all that, I don’t know how many other Don Bluth movies I ever saw.  An American Tail (1986) didn’t interest me, The Land Before Time (1988) and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) came at a time that I wasn’t as keen on all animated features and probable prejudices, right or wrong, put me off.   I do recall seeing his film Anastasia (1997) back in the day.

Well, great animating auteur or not, The Secret of NIMH is a triumph for Bluth and for traditional cel animated features.  And it may open the door for us to watch more of his films.  Felix crashed out through the film.  But Clara liked it.