Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Movie Review: "Planet of the Apes" (1968) by David Pretty

Contrary to popular belief, Star Wars certainly wasn't the first sci-fi cultural phenomenon. Seven years after Planet of the Apes grossed nearly six times its original budget in theaters back in 1968 it was shown on network television for the first time and people literally, what's the word I'm looking for? Nuts? Crazy? Batshit bonkers? Sorry, I got nuthin'.

Back then merchandisers were slow to capitalize on the film's success but eventually they started cranking out toys, games, bubblegum cards, comic books, magazines, a soundtrack album, lunchboxes, masks, posters, iron-on transfer t-shirts, flashlights (?) and a bunch of other potential landfill. Hell, if you dig around enough you can probably find Planet of the Apes spice racks, shower curtains and little league batting practice helmets.        

Back then product tie-ins weren't even an afterthought but nowadays the merchandising tail has a tendency to wag the creative dog. Major artistic decisions are made in film production based on how "toyetic" a property is, as Kevin Smith famously testified at the 16:36 mark in this clip.

But long before He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was cynically cobbled together to sell a bunch of crappy barely-articulate toys, Planet of the Apes became a genuine grassroots national craze. Given the memorable cast, excellent production values, directorial flair and cheeky social commentary thanks to a clever script by Michael Wilson and Rod "Twilight Zone" Serling, Apes actually deserved to go viral.

Aboard a gloriously retro-looking Sixties-era spacecraft, astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) completes a log entry in which he ponders the mind-bending scientific principal of time dilation, the flawed earth they've left behind and what might be found at the end of their journey. Unfortunately, something goes horribly wrong during their hyper-sleep and, in a genuinely discombobulating and unnerving sequence, their ship crash-lands in the middle of a lake on a desolate planet.

Taylor, along with his fellow G.I. Joe Adventure Team members Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) abandon ship and strike out to explore this strange new world. By shooting on location at Lake Powell, the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, director Schaffner and his cinematographer Leon Shamroy serve up some pretty breathtaking panoramas. Extreme wide angle shots are used to great effect to dwarf the characters and make them seem insignificant amidst these bizarre alien landscapes.

Throughout the film, Heston is positively hypnotic, providing plenty of future grist for Phil Hartman's Simpson's character Troy McClure. Just like that other great sci-fi thespian Bill Shatner, Heston's hammy delivery keeps you engaged even during gouts of dry expository dialogue. The scene in which he mercilessly torments Landon about how much time has elapsed is gleefully asshole-ish. Rarely do the main characters in a sci-fi flick experience any discernible growth but Heston nurtures Taylor's arc from self-absorbed acerbic jackass to future guardian quite nicely.

Assisted by Jerry Goldsmith's weird, dissonant soundtrack which conjures up shades of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, these early scenes are a textbook example of restraint. To keep the viewer off-balance, Schaffner uses an arsenal of creative crane shots, funky angles, hand-held takes and dollies. It results in some tremendous build-up and loads of slow-burn tension, culminating in the discovery of some ultra-creepy Blair Witch-style scarecrows.

We then get a charmingly-innocent scene which, if nothing else, shows just how prudish and Puritanical movies have become over the past forty-odd years. When our H2O-deprived heroes discover a waterfall and a swimming hole, they immediately strip off their clothes and go skinny dipping. Can you imagine a modern film featuring a similar scene and getting a "G" rating? It just wouldn't happen.

It's kinda sad to ponder this but our attitudes towards on-screen nudity were far more progressive and European back in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Movies like Barbarella, Clash of the Titans, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Sheena, Logan's Run and Beastmaster all featured fleeting glimpses of flesh but didn't make big deal out of it. Nowadays the repressed Victorian assholes who run the MPAA automatically frown on such things, all the while rubber-stamping the most appalling scenes of cruelty and violence. Honestly, this makes absolutely no sense to me.

Anyway, back to the action. The titular apes don't make an appearance until the thirty minute mark but their big reveal is a doozy. When Taylor, Landon and Dodge have their clothing and supplies nicked, they track down the thieves who turn out to be a pack of primitive humans dressed in animal skins. Just as our heroes are about to intervene the natives react to the approach of their simian overlords like a pack of skittish deer and try to make a break for it through a cornfield. The resulting round-up and massacre is the stuff of cinema legend.

It's downright unnerving to see humans trussed up like rabbits or piled up in a heap. When some gorilla goons Instagram their successful hunting trip by brandishing their rifles and resting their paws on a mound of dead humans, the social commentary is pretty obvious. Through it all, the ape costumes, carts, weapons and particularly the masks all look pretty durned convincing.

This fine attention to detail carries over to the ape village. Looking like an upscale version of Bedrock from The Flintstones, the courtroom, marketplace, prison, "human museum" and the office of Dr. Zaius all look perfectly authentic. Add in a population of intellectual orangutans, middle-class chimps, grunt gorillas and human slaves and the film's world-building truly comes alive. When you think about the sub-text inherent in this fictional class structure paradigm the mind positively reels.  

We're soon introduced to the main ape characters, including Zira played to perfection by Kim Hunter. Wide-eyed, naive and slightly skittish her pet name for Taylor ("Bright Eyes") immediately reveals just how incredibly sweet and thoroughly nerdy she is. Looking like a cross between Paul Williams and Clyde from Every Which Way But Loose, Maurice Evans is wonderful as the stubborn, bellicose and curmudgeonly Dr. Zaius. Finally, the late, great Roddy McDowell is tremendous as the earnest but apprehensive Cornelius.

The actors really seem to relish the many lines of memorable dialogue. Wilson and Serling's script serves up plenty of great *wink, wink*, *nudge, nudge* moments, but never at the expense of drama:

Minister (during eulogy): He was a model for us all; a gorilla to remember.


Minister (later during eulogy): The dear departed once said to me: 'I never met an ape I didn't like'.


: You know the saying, "Human see, human do."


Taylor: Doctor, I'd like to kiss you goodbye.
Zira: All right...but you're so damned ugly!     
Corny? Perhaps, but it also injects some much-needed levity into an otherwise dark story.

Naturally, since this was the late Sixties, we also get some memorable lines involving Lucius (Lou Wagner), Zira's young, idealistic hippy chimp nephew:

Lucius: You can't trust the older generation.


[after watching Taylor shave]
Lucius: Why did you do that? Scrape off your hair?
Taylor: In my world, when I left it, only kids your age wore beards.

Taylor: [to Lucius] Remember, never trust anybody over thirty!

But it's Heston who serves up the most memorable deliveries. Taylor tries to escape and after a thrilling, breakneck chase sequence he's captured and seized by the the gorilla guards, leading to one of the most indelible moments in cinema history:

Then, when Taylor is thrown into solitary confinement and given a sound PowerWash™ by one of the guards we get this immortal chestnut:


With plenty of gloriously loopy moments like this how could you not like this flick?

But just when you think that the movie is all about cheesy one-liners and copious scenery-chewing, the script surprises. During the hearing scene we're privy to the sort of heavy-issue debate that all good sci-fi concepts should have. Taylor's mere existence as a talking, reasoning human is anathema to the entire social structure of the apes. So poisonous is his testimony, Zaius, Honorius and the President try to bulwark their blind faith by unconsciously miming the old adage of "Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil".

Things get even more interesting when an archeological dig reveals irrefutable proof that a human civilization pre-dates the apes. Even in the face of these hard facts, Zaius remain stubbornly resolute. Indeed, in his character we have the best possible modern argument for the separation of church and state:

Taylor: There's your Minister of Science; honor-bound to expand the frontiers of knowledge...
Zira: Taylor, please!
Taylor: ...except that he's also chief Defender of the Faith! 
But what I love most about the film is that it's ethos isn't wrapped up in a perfectly neat and tidy little bow. In fact, in light of the film's two-by-four-to-the-head ending, the lore contained in the "twenty-ninth scroll, sixth verse" actually justifies Zaius's hardline stance somewhat:

'Beware the beast man, for he is the devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport, or lust or greed. Yes, he will murder his brother to posses his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair: For he is the harbinger of death'.

Like the best Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, Taylor keeps digging for the truth even when the audience knows to leave well enough alone. This leads to one of the most powerful twist endings in movie history. The overarching message is clear: what we don't know won't hurt us, but sometimes we need to be hurt. Given all of the recent revelations about the NSA lately, are we ahead of the game knowing that the government is illegally spying on were we better off blissfully ignorant?

The film does have a few flaws. As amazing as the makeup effects are the actors clearly struggle with their limitations. The mouths on the masks are barely articulated and the "kiss" between Cornelius and Zira / Taylor and Zira (whatta trollop!) comes off as unintentionally funny. Of all the actors, Kim Hunter seems to be the most adept at selling the illusion. It's also fun to watch Roddy McDowell inject a few subtle simian traits in his performance. Regardless, all of the ape actors deserve major plaudits for remaining selflessly anonymous for the sake of this great story.      

Along with the analog space capsule readouts and Taylor's tendency to smoke aboard ship, some good, old-fashioned anachronistic Mad Man-era sexism also lurks just below the surface here. Linda Harrison, easily one of the most gorgeous women to ever grace a sci-fi film, is little more then eye candy as Nova. Even though she does fearful, protective and indignant quite well and the character is clearly integral to Taylor's arc, she's completely mute and doesn't get very much to do except look absolutely freakin' amazing.

Then there's Dianne Stanley as Stewart, the fourth member of the crew and the only female included on the mission. Above and beyond the indignity of being killed off in the first few minutes of the film, this monolog by Taylor to Nova hints at the twisted rational behind Stewart's inclusion on the expedition:

"Did I tell you about Stewart? There was a lovely girl. The most precious cargo we brought along. If human life could survive here, she was to be the new Eve - with out hot and eager help, of course. It's probably just as well she didn't live to see this."           

"Just as well" indeed.

Curiously enough the "hot and eager help" line doesn't appear in any of the shooting scripts so I'm wondering if it was ad-libbed on set to crank up the social commentary and not just some cheap, salacious innuendo. I'd prefer to subscribe to the former and considerably-less-icky former interpretation. After all, Heston mutters this line with distaste and throughout the film he's a pretty vocal critic of the warped society he's left behind.

In spite of its technical limitations or the prevailing social mores of the time, Planet of the Apes is a classic. Even with all of the thrilling action scenes, amazing production design and groundbreaking makeup effects, the movie's best feature it still the bright and calculating brain diligently working away inside its simian skull.

            Tilt: up.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Movie Review: "Flash Gordon" by David Pretty

Fun fact: George Lucas originally wanted to remake the old cliff-hanger serial Flash Gordon but he couldn't secure the rights. "They said they wanted Federico Fellini to direct it," he was later quoted as saying, "And they wanted eighty percent of the gross, so I said forget it. I could never make any kind of studio deal with that."

The rest, as they say, is cinema history.

After Star Wars became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon in 1977, producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to fast-track his own long-gestating Flash Gordon remake. But even as filming began the producers still couldn't nail down the tone they were going for. Instead of playing it straight, as Lucas did with his own space opera, De Laurentiis pushed for a more campy tone. The result was a film that baffled most movie-goers at the time.

The film starts promisingly enough with a theme song by everyone's favorite operatic rock band Queen. I promise if you listen to this just once you'll be walking around for days shouting "FLASH!!! AAAAA-AHHHH!!!!" to anyone within earshot, much to their chagrin.

Pretty soon we're introduced to Sam J. Jones who we immediately recognize as the titular hero mainly because he's wearing a t-shirt that actually says "Flash" on it. For this reason alone the film earns one full star from me. We also meet the gorgeous Melody Anderson as Dale Arden who is alternately winsome, distressed and, as we later discover, inordinately self-reliant. As the two embark on an ill-fated charter flight back from some undisclosed sunny, exotic vacation hot-spot in northern Scotland (?), the chemistry between the two quickly begins to percolate.

In my humble opinion the casting for Flash Gordon is nigh-impeccable. Now, I'm not going to sit here and claim that Jones was the strongest actor for the role, but the dude's got charm and charisma in spades. Earnest, lunk-headed and oddly abetted by a vaguely dweeby re-dub of his own voice, Jones is the sort of white-knight hero that doesn't seem to exist anymore but probably should.

Dale and Flash inadvertently crash land in the lab of mad(ish) scientist Hans Zarkov, played by a sweaty, bug-eyed Chaim Topol who shamelessly mugs and over-acts at every opportunity. At first I thought that this was going to be really distracting, but then everything, and I mean everything else in the movie suddenly gets dialed up to "11". As soon as this happens Topol's over-the-top performance just seems like par for the course.  

At gunpoint, Zarkov insists that his new guests accompany him on a bold counter-attack against the marauding planet of Mongo which is threatening to destroy the earth. The resulting rocket launch showcases some terrific olde-skool model work and special effects. Be warned: the trippy "Imperial vortex" scene alone might induce permanent psychosis if viewed under the influence of even the lowest-grade hallucinogenics.


Just moments after our heroes crash-land on Mongo they're captured by what appears to be a platoon of gay pride stormtroopers. They're brought to the main audience chamber of Ming the Merciless, which looks like a Vegas variety show set co-designed by Liberace and Hunter S. Thompson. Not only are the environs gloriously tasteless, the joint is populated by dozens of brightly-attired denizens wearing frocks that even Cher would be hesitant to don.

Ming himself is played with reptilian relish by a flawlessly-cast Max Von Sydow. Unlike Jones and Anderson this guy's the real deal. Not only does he physically embody this iconic villain he also has the acting chops to back it up. Since the script offers absolutely no insight as to why Ming is such an unrelenting prick (save perhaps self-preservation), finding an actor with the gravitas required to flesh this out is imperative.

This scene gives us many more reasons as to why casting directors Michael McLean and Mary Selway deserve a special nod. First off we have Brian Blessed as Vultan, the leader of the Hawkmen. Resplendent in his metal wings, bikini briefs and hipster beard, Blessed could very well be the most bombastic actor to grace the screen since Oliver Reed. Indeed, his line deliveries are so loud, so hammy and so genuinely off-kilter he makes Topol look like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. There's never a dull moment when he's on-screen bellowing such deathless proclamations as "GORDON'S ALIVE?!?", "IMPETUOUS BOY!!!!" or "D-I-I-I-I-I-VE!!!" in his inimitable, ear-splitting manner.

Also on hand is future James Bond Timothy Dalton, who plays Prince Barin, the leader of the Arborians. If you're wondering what fuck an "Arborian" is, just think elves with neutered ears crossed with Rocket Robin Hood. While shooting Star Wars, George Lucas was adamant that all of his actors play it perfectly straight, no matter how ludicrous the scene might be. Apparently Timothy Dalton was the only member of the Flash Gordon cast to receive a similar memo since he delivers every single line of dialogue with Shakespearean aplomb. His presence in the film adds considerable weight to to all the bizarre proceedings. 

Peter Wyngarde deserves particular praise as the Doctor Doom-like General Klytus. Even though Wyngarde's face is completely obscured by a mask for the entire duration of the film, the actor's famous voice and ominous presence make for one of the most prototypically-villainous performances ever. We're talking melodramatic olde-skool baddie here: the sort of ripe bastard that you feel compelled to hiss at as soon as he appears on screen. He's aided in his machinations by the bloodless General Kala (Mariangela Mela), who comes across as a combination of Juliet Landau's Drusilla from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Meleficent from Sleeping Beauty

No less memorable, but for an entirely different reason, is the impossibly hot Ornella Muti as Ming's hormonal daughter Aura. Slinky, sexy and constantly scheming, every scene she's in is the equivalent of a cat in heat scooting its ass across the floor. When she isn't playing her pops or Prince Barin like cheap fiddles she's using her considerable feminine wiles to protect boy-toy Flash from harm. Muti is such a sultry, alluring presence you almost forget that Melody Anderson exists.

What follows is a series of increasingly-ludicrous yet oddly-charming series of set-pieces. Flash uses his football skills to put up a fight against Ming's intergalactic linebackers. Unfortunately thanks to a dreadful pass from Zarkov he's captured and thrown in a dungeon where he's rendered shirtless and forced to wear a helmet apparently salvaged from a GWAR yard sale. He's then marked for execution in a scene nicely complemented by the Vengelis-like musical stylings of Howard Blake.

The absurdities continue to pile up at an alarming rate. Dale Arden, who started the film with an acute case of pteromerhanophobia, suddenly turns into River Tam during an escape attempt. The action then moves on to Arboria, the set for which looks like it re-purposed three years later for the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi. Flash and Price Barin flagellate one another on a giant spinning, spike-covered hubcap while Vultan bellows "GIVE ME THE REMOTE CONTROL!!!" As a very terrestrial rendition of the wedding match strikes up, the citizens of Mongo are ordered to "make merry under punishment by death" in anticipation of  Ming and Dale's impending nuptials.

Seriously I'm not making any of this shit up.

The whole thing is gloriously loopy. Now, I'm sure that a straight-laced version would have been fine but the original subject matter was pretty dated, even back in 1980. In retrospect I can understand why King Kong remake / Batman T.V. show scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr. was brought on board to deliver a jokey version of the script. Somehow it all manages to work in a "put your brain on idle" kinda way.

Even as things start to veer towards the sublimely ludicrous, director Mike Hodges and production designer Danilo Donati spare no expense when it comes to replicating the sets, color palate, rocket ships and costumes from the original comic strip. With the aid of ace cinematography Gil Taylor, the movie comes across as a refreshing riot of color and a pleasant contrast to today's boring, monochromatic sci-fi color palate. 

Despite its dumb charms, the movie does have more then a few problems. As I already mentioned, some of the performances are pretty uneven. The "lizard men" look like reject background dancers from a 70's-era T.V. variety show. Many of the blue screen matte shots are laughably inept with foreground plates that are nearly washed out in order to cope with the lighter backgrounds. But most importantly, the script is much more concerned with plowing headlong into the next spectacular set-piece versus telling a coherent story or crafting any genuine character arcs.  

Regardless, the film is still a lot of fun to watch.  Keep in mind that there's a clear distinction between Flash Gordon's unique brand of high-end cheddar versus the spaghetti-flavored schlock of something like  Starcrash which was rushed into production two years earlier. You get the distinct impression that the cast and crew actually gave a shit about the movie, as evidenced by the care and craftsmanship up there on the screen.

In many ways, Flash Gordon reminds me of Clash of the Titans which followed one year later. Both films suffered because special effects technology wasn't quite up to par with the highly-ambitious scripts. Even though Star Wars made a compelling case that anything imaginable could be rendered on screen, I think a lot of directors found out the hard way that it wasn't as easy as it looked. It's probably the same reason why the CGI in Jurassic Park (1993) still looks amazing while the digital effects in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) looks like boiled dog ass.

Even though Dino De Laurentiis had the reputation of being a bit of a tool, I think his decision to make the film tongue-in-cheek was essentially a sound one. I'd much prefer a Flash Gordon that's goofy, fun, over-the-top and memorable versus something that could just as easily have been a mediocre and disposable Star Wars rip-off.

           Tilt: up.