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Friday, October 21, 2016

PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

Originally part of the Wonders in the Dark top 100 science fiction films list, where it was #16.

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There are two basic gears in Planet of the Apes: adventure and allegory, and it’s stuck fast in both from start to finish. First, its bullet-straight story rarely lets up. Charlton Heston makes sure of that – if the story slows to take a breather, it’s doing it by giving him a paragraph to chew on with those great, headstone teeth of his. The way he grinds through dialogue with his growling staccato is tantamount to a chase scene you can’t look away from. Second, it’s a fit for any reading you want to give it re: human-on-human oppression. Its running time is especially jammed with allusions to the racial tension that was raging across the country upon its release – the same tension that makes the movie relevant still. The first Apes film is an unmistakable parable of America’s racial divide and the persistent social death it metes out, but looking ahead at the sequels that followed, it’s clear producer Arthur P. Jacobs intentionally drew that material ever closer to the top. The last two sequels especially (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) jump headfirst into the fray, moving the series from a mode of mere commentary to outright rallying cry. But equally effective is the movie’s strong punch of religious satire, illustrating how a very human strain of oppressive fundamentalism was inherited into this future ape society completely intact and undimmed by time, wielded to maintain order among the castes and as a progress-bludgeoning dismissal of the possibility of human agency of any kind. The repression of knowledge to maintain this status quo is manifested as a society of apes that can never advance beyond the most rudimentary dwellings or the most primitive, nearly medieval of governmental systems. Yet with all this meaning packed into the narrative, it’s still wall-to-wall fun. The movie is simply one of those titanic science fiction achievements that can stand as a litmus for all stripes of discontent without sacrificing so much as a picked nit of its entertainment value.
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Adapted from Pierre Boulle’s novel, but excised of its future/modern settings in favor of more Fox Ranch-friendly clay huts and bridges, the story’s infused with the sardonic totems of formerly blacklisted writer Michael Wilson’s hard-won perspective – namely a voice-deprived man surrounded by aggressive, narrow-minded accusers in a mock trial – and is sprinkled on top with the most Twilight Zoney of twist endings by, of course, the primogenitor of such elegance, Rod Serling. By closing credits, the movie’s (and much more so the series’) vicious narrative loop becomes the ultimate extrapolation of the old adage “wherever you go, there you are.” Astronaut Taylor (Heston) and his crewmates, including one en-route fatality, crash land on a planet they believe to be in the constellation Orion. Their ship doomed to the alien sea, the three survivors face the harsh, open wilderness, surviving on thin supplies, but nearly succumbing to Taylor’s withering adjudication of their hollow motives for even volunteering for such a mission. “You got what you wanted, Tiger. How does it taste?” Counter to the typical hero’s journey, wherein the goodness of a character’s stock is challenged, here the story is a grinder through which Taylor’s black humor and superiority are tested and found to be particularly suited to the bleak truths he’s about to face.
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Heston’s Taylor is the brawny stand-in for the fed-up, disaffected, late ’60s urbanite: dismissive of intimations of glory (just shy of name-dropping Ozymandius), suspicious of prestige posturing, and openly, laughingly contemptuous of patriotism. He’s the cynic as spaceman, and he never seems so much nonplussed by his stranded circumstance as in a mode of thankful anticipation for some perfect new life awaiting him just beyond the tree line. But soon come the apes on horses – still a gut-punching image – sweeping through the fields, purging it of its human vermin. Throat-shot Taylor (and his even less-lucky brethren) gets taken to Ape City, where his bright eyes help graduate him to favorite specimen for some dutiful chimpanzees – Cornelius the skeptical (Roddy McDowall) and Zira the overly-doting (Kim Hunter). It’s fun to watch Zira fall in love with Taylor over the course of the movie – witness her melting expression when she finds he can write his own name, see her lunge protectively as he’s manhandled by some rough gorillas, hear her fuss jealously over Taylor’s ad-hoc wife, Nova: at the escape site, it’s not “Why did you bring the other one?!” but “I told you not to bring the other one!” And when Taylor wants to give her a kiss goodbye, methinks the ape doth protest too much.
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Cornelius and Zira are the earnest-meets-snarky soul of the movie, so indelible and popular they got their own sequel (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), the charming glibness of which plays at times like a TV show spinoff from a movie – until it gets as damning and bleak as its predecessors by the final sequences. Here, they mostly stand as the only shield between Taylor’s protestations and sure death by the House Un-Apish Activities Committee, led by the sanctimonious head of science and religion, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). From there it’s an escape, a chase, an iconic epithet that denigrates apes everywhere, not just the damn dirty ones, and another escape before we get to the final showdown at the cave of enlightenment. There, Taylor shaves himself down into Richard D. Zanuck before positing a world where man was there before the ape, and did this cockeyed world better. Moments later, when Cornelius is reading the 29th scroll aloud – essentially a Bible-y rewrite of Taylor’s own angry cynicism at the beginning of the movie – there’s a look on Taylor’s face, torn between flinty outrage and shamed agreement with the apes’ assessment of man’s disposable value, as if he might just side with the apes for once, but might just as easily launch into a defense of his own kind. Armed with this ambivalence – and an ape-fashioned M1 carbine – he at last rides into the sunset, Nova in tow, to find his destiny…and finds it in a pointy metaphor half-buried in the surf. It’s this man’s greatest humbling to find out the world he’s run away from for its myopic self-corruption, but which has become over the span of an ape-oppressive adventure a place he might like to call home again, has actually lived out all its worst self-destructive impulses and then some. Taylor’s surf-pounding profanities at the bitter-black conclusion of the story are the ineffectual condemnations lobbed up to a species already dead-and-gone, empty rejoinders to the ultimate act of destruction rising up unheard into the radioactive ether. It’s a pitch-dark ending challenged in its bleakness only by the ending of its own sequel (the Earth-destroying Beneath the Planet of the Apes).
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The movie’s scope, defined by its intergalactic, centuries-crossing canvas, is illuminated and enhanced by director Franklin Schaffner’s sure wide-screen storytelling. While filling the frame with visceral action, there’s also attention given to the relative sparseness of the world, the near-agoraphobic vulnerability inherent in a tiny ape community from which the empty world extends away forever in every direction and in every variation from desert to sea. There’s an aloneness inherent in the setup, and an anxiety layered in as one sees, from a sardonic god’s-eye view, the numerically insignificant population of this hirsute township organizing itself under the rule of an ape law that requires rigid separation and fanatical obedience to a law set down a millennium before by a mythical-sounding “lawgiver”. Ape City is any subgroup so frightened by its own exposure that it holes up in a word-fort constructed and christened by their vaunted heroes of legalism. It’s fun to think of this Zaius-enforced rule-mongering against Schaffner’s next film,Patton (1970). In their respective films, Zaius and Patton share the mantle of leadership as enforced by their cartoonishly dogmatic adherence to the book of regulations. But whereas Zaius exists in a world of wonky but pure sci-fi satire, where even one with heavy things on its mind can be easily seen for the darkly twisted comedy that it really is, Patton resides in a much more automatically respectable dramatic bio-pic where the nose-thumbing goes on so deep beneath the thick folds of an Army-issued sheepskin B-3, that it’s arguably not there at all. Zaius, as played by Evans, at least displays a modicum of “human”ism – maybe it’s just the charm innate in the old Shakespearean – so that the reasons for his strict dogma come eking through as something less than unmitigated villainy: once we see that final image on the shore, and we know what became of man, and how they “finally really did it”, we can ping back to Zaius’s dug-in heels and think, well, maybe he’s not so wrong being such a buzzkill after all.
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On paper, the movie is essentially a big, silly concept that does everything so right, from the writing to the casting to the music and makeup, that it registers on screen with an air of earned legitimacy. Jerry Goldsmith’s one-of-a-kind score keeps us unsettled and tense across the first half hour’s long wilderness trek, and then leaves us gripped throughout by an otherworldly ambiance up to the near-soundless closing moments of shocked discovery. John Chambers’ inventive makeup effects won him an honorary Oscar, a fact made more astounding in the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stuart Freeborn and Daniel Richter’s more detailed, realistic man-ape work on that film was all but overlooked – perhaps cementing the gap between heady tone poems and outright entertainment, as far as Hollywood is concerned.
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But in more ways than mere accolades, Planet of the Apes will always be the dark flip side of 2001‘s forward-leaning hope for the upward evolutionary leap of mankind. 2001 pulls us into a cosmic mystery that leads to a greater, if still opaque, optimism, whereas Apes can only revel in audience indictment over the truth of an inborn aggression that can never be sated except by global obliteration. And true to this fascination for self-annihilation, the audience kept coming back for more and more – through five movies, the overarching message of which is: no act of kindness or sacrifice can ever jump us out of this endless loop of destruction and despair. It’s a sentiment that cannot be matched by the current iterations’ relatively less philosophically-rooted storytelling, despite current history’s ever-renewable justification for it. And for this reason, it may be that the original and superior Planet of the Apes will never be bested as perhaps the most entertaining downer in movie history.
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Thursday, October 6, 2016

KING KONG (1933)

Originally part of the Wonders in the Dark top 100 science fiction films list, where it was #59.
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Opening note: More so and forever a fantasy-adventure film before it’s a science fiction film, I can still find a way to live with it on this list if I think hard about its theme of modern technology (of the time, gas bombs and biplanes) overtaking the absolute epitome of natural strength – that is, for the movie to be science fiction, it has to be seen as nature’s final bow at the hands of what is the unstoppable wave of the future. But that’s difficult for me. As you’ll see, I’m beyond emotionally ensnared by this film, and as long as the movie’s had its grip around me, I’ve only ever enjoyed it as the greatest of all monster-on-the-loose films, many of which are clearly science fiction, but this one’s not so obvious. I happily invite anyone in the comments to describe the movie’s relation to the genre at hand – I want to learn – but this paragraph will have to count as my only nod to that branch of the discussion.
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King Kong, the debated but still perversely entertaining 1976 remake, is the only movie that I can’t remember not knowing about. Meaning, one of my earliest memories of life is seeing a TV commercial for its theatrical release when I was a little squib of 5 years old. The cracking trees, the writhing woman bound to posts, and the horrible animal scream of the giant gorilla had me so irrevocably hooked on the idea of a giant gorilla that it’s never left my brain. I must’ve thrown a fit, cause my parents actually took me with them to see it. I still have a sort of chest flutter/muscle memory sort of feeling when I think about seeing that huge creature on that huge screen. After that, I drew gorillas incessantly. I imagined I was a gorilla, loping around the house, an action figure in my hand (or maybe my sister’s Barbie). I used to climb on top of fire hydrants and roar while swiping at invisible aircraft. I think I stopped doing that about my sophomore year of college. A year or so after the movie, though unrelated to the movie (so I thought), I bought my first book with “my own money”: Jeff Rovin’s 1977 From the Land Beyond Beyond, detailing all of Willis O’Brien’s work and all of Ray Harryhausen’s stuff up to his then-most-current movie, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (with a quick sentence-long teaser for something in the works called Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head). Of course, I got the book because of the monsters I saw on every page, unaware at first that one of those movies was a very different version of my beloved King Kong. I essentially learned to read so I could read that book. When I finally understood it, over the next few years, I got to love stop-motion with a depth eclipsed by nothing else. 
The book is still in my possession, now in three pieces, and it’s sitting right next to me as I write this. There’s a long and thorough chapter on O’Brien and one on that other King Kong, the original, and I’ve read them a million times. I read all about the original before I’d ever even seen it, which I finally did at some point during those years, probably on the weekly Saturday afternoon monster movie on TV (“Screaming Meemies Flicks”, San Antonio, TX, anyone?), and I was hooked all over again. This original version was something else, though – something that the new one wasn’t. I didn’t have the vocabulary then to describe what it was. It wasn’t just that it was black and white, or that it was airplanes instead of helicopters, or that one famous building was swapped for another. It wasn’t a superficial thing. It had something to do with atmosphere, feelings. Growing up, when they’d play the 1976 on TV, there was something like a harsh, real-movie, real-world quality to the experience. Like I was watching one of my parents’ movies. Real people talking about a real ape and what to do about it. When I’d watch the 1933 – usually on WTBS, as it was called then, and as it was labeled in the TV guide that I’d scour like a scientist for any and all monster movies playing anywhere on the dial that week – it was like watching a dream. I suspect many of you know what I’m talking about. But I’m getting ahead of myself. All I’m driving at is simply: I love this movie, and I don’t really know how to talk about it. It’s like someone told me to write a thousand words about my right arm. It’s so personal, so close, so attached. At the risk of over-sentimentalizing (further), let me just jump in. I think for some semblance of structure, I’ll give a quick run-down of the historical facts that most of us here probably already know by heart, then follow that with some observations on a couple of my favorite scenes.
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King Kong is the perfect creative confluence of two very different visionaries, adventurer-filmmaker Merian C. Cooper and special effects technician Willis O’Brien. In the early ’30s, the world was still a place where rumors of exotic animals and savage tribes wafted in on trade winds, gripping the imaginations of explorers, adventurers, and glory seekers. If a man had the right connections and could wrangle some cash, he could be on his way to Borneo or Sumatra or India, pushing through the unbroken branches of a mysterious virgin world, perhaps returning with first-won evidence of some forgotten or never-before-known animal. This was the air Cooper and future producing partner Ernest Schoedsack breathed. They traveled together, gathering filmed images of what they saw, bringing it back for the lecture circuit and some major bragging rights. And it was amongst these adventures that Cooper, already hooked on gorillas from childhood, first hatched his story idea of capturing a giant one and bringing it back to a disbelieving civilization.
Meanwhile, O’Brien was busy perfecting life, 1/24th of a second at a time. He earned his chops making short films with crudely built stop-motion dinosaurs in the lead roles for no one less than Thomas Edison, later teaming with a young sculptor out of Otis College in L.A. named Marcel Delgado with a similar affinity for Charles R. Knight’s beautiful renderings of day-to-day prehistoric life, and made a team effort out of the Arthur Conan Doyle storyThe Lost World. It was a big hit, and O’Brien and Delgado pivoted that success into a new project at RKO called Creation… but it was not to be. A certain explorer-turned-studio money watchdog saw how much of RKO’s cash was dropping into one project, and he put the kibosh on it. That man was Merian C. Cooper. I don’t have the documentation to prove it (someone show me, and I’ll be vindicated!), but I can’t help wondering if he purposely buriedCreation to make room for the giant ape story burrowing into his skull – knowing that O’Brien and company had the magical means to make his own dream come true. In any case, Cooper, now with the backing of RKO and O’Brien’s knockout bag of tricks, had the snare he needed to bring his giant ape home for the world to see.
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Over the next year, these two visionaries colluded on some of the greatest cinematic smoke-and-mirrors the world had ever seen. So many techniques were combined in a new way, or just outright invented, to create the effects desired, the project evolved into a bona fide paradigm shift in what film artists could do and what filmgoers could expect. In this way, I like to think of the Cooper-O’Brien relationship as not unlike what Welles and Toland had onCitizen Kane, constantly asking how to make something work, and then actually achieving a new and exciting look. And like Citizen Kane, there are moments in Citizen Kong – you were thinking it, too – that are so well done and perfect for their moment in the story, despite their surface, trapped-in-1933 markers, that they’ve yet to be bested. And the story they created, with the masterful shaping of a series of gifted writers – Edgar Wallace, James Creelman, and Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose – along with the interweaving of Max Steiner’s groundbreaking music, was a rousingly dense amalgam of popular pulp elements, jungle movies, horror, comedy, pathos, and spectacle, and all framed by a recurring “beauty and the beast” refrain that lent the end product the quality of an unshakable American myth, a story that feels like it’s always been there, at once ancient and vital.
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Instead of rolling out the whole plot, one we all know, allow me to expound a bit on some specific scenes:
THE TYRANNOSAURUS REX FIGHT 
The preamble to this scene is, of course, the log roll. Men scramble to return to safety, crossing a huge fallen log that straddles two cliff-top edges of a deep, dry ravine. Kong expresses a robust simian glee – I’d not call it anger at this point – a kind of pranksterish delight in hefting the log into his grip and gently rolling it. We can see he’s got the strength to simply lift the thing and drop it into the ravine, killing all in a single move, but he chooses to torment the poor sailors. This is our introduction to the dark joy of death lurking in the heart of the beast. With whimsy, he twists and turns the weight of the fallen tree, watching as the men grasp at any protruding knot or twig for their very lives, then observes them falling one-by-one into the craggy pit. The fact that we get a ground-level shot of the men hitting the rocks, with suddenly stifled death screams, their bodies twisting into bent corpses, shows the morbid fun the filmmakers were having, too. Kong’s macabre sense of humor was not the result of an actor’s choice – it was Cooper’s and O’Brien’s. The thudding shock of those men hitting the stone gully must’ve been a new one to most who saw it in 1933.
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After some to-do with Driscoll and a strange, two-legged lizard, Ann’s screams summon Kong back to her side. There’s some hesitation in Kong, a very human male dilemma: can I keep fiddling around with what I’m doing, or should I check on my girl? In any case, he arrives to find an interloper in the midst: an amazingly-crafted and beautifully-articulated Tyrannosaurus Rex sniffing about the jungle floor. While Ann watches from her high vertical perch, Kong protectively engages the dinosaur in an all-out battle of brute strength. I will never get tired of watching this match-up. I’m not the first, and will never be alone in saying that it’s among the greatest special effects scenes ever created. The fact that the creators were starting with nothing – no filmic precedent or effects reference point but O’Brien’s own – is merely the foundation for appreciating what we’re seeing. The easy thing to do would be as few shots as possible, but what O’Brien commits to is a series of progressive angles, each lining up with Ann’s perspective, that taken together drum up as much engaging action and suspense as any live-action fight scene might. We experience several wide shots, still effectively from Ann’s POV, where we see the creatures in full, not just going through the stop-motions, but through a clearly choreographed dance that includes punches, bites, leaps, and flips – these opponents are thinking, taking their time between moves, circling, feeling out the other. Here in these wide shots, we have the visceral breadth of the fight played out through the leafy proscenium of the jungle, in the middle distance between Ann and that deep, decorated background. We’ve lived in that near-3D environment for twenty minutes of story, saw it used so well to enhance the charging ferocity of an oncoming Stegosaurus, but now the world of Skull Island is cinched together by the curdling savagery of its fiercest predators. Interspersed with the wide shots are pop-ins, still behind Ann’s head, but closer, the creatures right in front of her, highlighting just how close and how large they are. But amongst even these, the two shots that sell the reality of it all are 1) the felling of Ann’s perch – Kong’s back bumps the tree and it plummets, the camera fixed on Ann’s screaming terror all the way down, providing the sensation of falling with her into the foliage, and 2) before that, a single, one-second shot from atop Ann’s tree, looking down past her to the ground below, where Kong falls backward with a deep trembling of the earth – he gathers his wits and rises again, and we cut back to a wide shot. The payoff of that extra full day of animating is our yet-deepening realization of Kong’s great size. We know she’s high above the ground, Kong enters, landing on his back, but he still fills the frame. The movement, the thunderous reverberating of the ground, and the framing past the back of Ann’s head, all work to give us the jolt of shocking scale. It’s a moment of genius, a 35-frame glint of extra detail to show us that O’Brien had an understanding of what an audience needs to feel connected, invested, and entertained. But we’re not done yet. Once Ann is ground-level, so are the rest of the shots, retaining the vantage point of our audience surrogate until we’re at last past the moment of the dinosaur’s ultimate bone-cracking demise. I can talk all day about Kong’s playful curiosity re: the lizard’s crushed jaw, but I’d rather point out in the context of all of the above, the quick shot of Ann pulling away from Kong’s reaching hand – it’s a push-in on her face. I’m not encyclopedic on this movie, but is there another push-in anywhere else in the running time? I suppose if there were to be just one, that’s a perfect place for it, and, coming off the thoroughly organized, deeply effective scene that precedes it, it’s only further proof that a genius is manning the animation table.
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VILLAGE RAZING / DOWNTOWN RAMPAGE
The Manhattan rampage gets all the press, but the squashing of the Skull Island village is rightfully terrifying in a way the New York finale isn’t. When Kong arrives to retrieve his stolen love, it’s a somewhat safe leap to assume these villagers may have never seen the monster upset before. We don’t know how old Kong is, but his legend has at least been around long enough for a huge wall to get built and a veritable worship liturgy to be well-established in his honor – what to offer the god, how to present that gift unblemished, what to pray to beckon him to come. I like to think this generation of natives has lived in relative peace by these well-observed rituals, and that the enormous gate latch has been there since before the current chief was a twinkle in the medicine man’s eyes. Why else would they, when Denham announces Kong’s approach, run toward the gate to get a look-see? Their deity’s looming rage was outside their experience. What must those poor villagers have thought moments later as they saw Kong ripping their homes apart? To them, this primal melee is a supernatural event, a righteous rebuke from the lord of the jungle to never let outsiders futz with the legalism, a thunderbolt of wrath for their insipid complacency. Those who survived to assay the damage, while picking through the damage left behind after the departure of the meddling visitors, must have questioned their complicit hearts, must have judged themselves unworthy: not only must they have botched their offering, but their god was stolen away to boot, never to return. Without their wild god to appease, who will protect them from the rampaging prehistoric monsters still slithering through the jungle? One can assume that none of these questions passed through the minds of the New Yorkers witnessing a similar rampage down 5th Avenue. Though they were getting stomped and chewed, too, there’s no mythic dread or spiritual component, no sense that this is something that was brought down upon them by their own sin. If anything, Kong’s presence at all, and certainly his streak of destruction, is a highly unsettling re-penetration of untamed nature into their steel and stone world, their bow-tied palace of self-sufficiency. For the natives, the new absence of a god to worship is a problem; for the New Yorkers, the entire ordeal is a living passion play that ultimately re-asserts the religion of aggressive technology over primitive unruliness. Denham’s final comments over the defeated Kong are said, if you’ll notice, with a bit of a shrug, implying not so much a mournful “God is dead” but perhaps a relieved “finally, noblesse oblige is dead”, and the modern world is safe again to build glass spires unto itself.
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Also, while both the city and village scenes document a creature unhinged, the village scene especially should have wiped away all sympathy for the beast, as his destruction is so wanton, so deliberate, and less justified by fear. The village is Kong tearing through the house looking for his lost set of keys, not Kong tearing through the city, a wounded animal trying to find some familiar respite. The village razing is the first we see of Kong shoving terrified people into his maw. It’s horrifying, and yet… there’s a weird quality in Kong’s demeanor in these moments, almost like he’s doing this for the first time, trying it out, seeing how hard he has to clench his jaw to crack a human back before spitting the person out into the mud. That experimental edge to his behavior lends it a sort of “toddler puts dirty dog toy in mouth” vibe. There’s something innocent about it. I point this out not to prove Kong is guiltless, but that it’s awfully strange and amazing that Cooper and O’Brien (but let’s be honest, mostly O’Brien) created a character that can do such horrible things, like eating people or crushing them into the earth with his feet, and still generate strong feelings of loss once he’s been dispatched by a hail of bullets. When Kong’s in his death throes atop the skyscraper, lashing out, inspecting wounds, holding Ann one final time, I’m never not a roiling mix of sad, impressed, nostalgic, and… bemused – that O’Brien made a puppet move in a way that expresses more about loss and love and sacrifice and death than a thousand “real” actors over a hundred years of cinema.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

FIXED BAYONETS! (1951)


One tightly-bundled and scruffy, rifle-toting soldier approaches another, surrounded high by North Korean snow, and the two trade purple street prose straight out of a '40s dime novel. The tinny patter ("What're you beefin' at, you're gettin' experience, ain't ya?") somehow fits perfectly with the obvious studio sets and the company of stick-figure types that fill out the rest of the cast. It's all a bit like watching the final film project of the most precocious high schooler in your class, and it marches dangerously close to laughably stilted, even by 1951 standards. But before long, and quite against the will, you get caught in the swelling and ebbing tension of hard-bitten director Sam Fuller's rhythm, and eventually connect with his guileless treatment of the men trapped in this iteration of wartime hell. Soon the life and death of characters take on a meaning and depth that transcend the seemingly non-existent budget.

It's early in the Korean War, and an Army division contrives a sneak exit out of the mountains by leaving behind a small platoon of 48 men to guard the rear. Employing a trope of so many war movies, these unlucky men must make the North Koreans and Chinese believe they're a much larger regiment, lest the tipped-off enemy rout the entire division. While hunkered down in the craggy tundra, the men are cranked through the grinder of Fuller's episodic plot - live mine fields, looming frostbite, surprise enemy infiltration - until we can see the living color of their fear mixed right in with the depth of their valor. If there's a single facet of the film that stands out sharply and consistently through the entire movie, it's Fuller's deep respect for the selfless dedication of men like these. And if the characters initially embody the stock expectations of a dime-a-dozen war movie - and they do that well - they eventually become the bleeding symbols of real wartime sacrifice. The greatest compliment to Fuller is that he doesn't get us there with anything as shallow as flag-waving jingoism, he gets us there by a relentless telescoping of the fear and weakness - the humanity - of the men who fought.

If there's anything here that doesn't resonate with a modern audience, it won't necessarily be the chintzy sets or two-bit dialogue, it'll be the plot's stress on the mandate for killing without a subsequent exploration of the psychological damage that can create. Our main plot is watching these heroic 48 hold off the enemy horde, but we also follow Corporal Denno (Richard Baseheart), a thoughtful man with reservations about shooting the enemy face-to-face, and who's fourth in line to lead the platoon. Almost like a ticking time bomb, upping some kind of perverse suspense, Denno's voiceover clocks the one-by-one deaths of the men above him in rank, until at last he's in charge of ordering the kill shots. A modern war movie might take the opportunity to explore how taking another man's life might change you; this movie takes the hesitation as an emotional block to overcome. Still, in Fuller's hands, it feels less like a callous dismissal of the character's humanness, and more a gut-level understanding of his probable audience - other war vets like himself. Fuller poured his first-hand experiences as an infantryman in World War II into several war movies, including this one, The Steel Helmet (also 1951), and The Big Red One (1980). It's the unique thrill of Fuller's cinema - war films and otherwise - that it can incorporate such a terse, cigar-chomping lack of sentimentality, and yet drive a set of cartoon-thin characters so close to the brink of their own individuality, that we finally feel like they are us. Fuller wields his aggressive tackiness to lure us into greater understanding.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)

Originally part of the Wonders in the Dark top 100 science fiction films list, where it was #75.

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In the wake of yet another new film (released in July) and much scuttlebutt regarding a new TV show reboot, this movie remains the cleanest, clearest reiteration of the ethos of the original show to date. Creator Gene Roddenberry himself may have wanted the show and films to reflect the more sober traits of his original conception – de facto egalitarianism, benevolent imperialism, the headiness of exploration itself, as exemplified in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and the Next Generation series (1987-1994, plus films) and other recombinations of the franchise through the decades, but what he got, and what fans carry deep in their hearts for the entire Star Trek universe, is much closer to what’s captured in the energy, interpersonal dynamics, and downright fun of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
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When the movie was first released, it was without its numerical signifier. The fact makes me think the animating principle behind its making wasn’t too far from the reboot mentality we see so rampant now, including with its own namesake. So divergent is the second film from the first in terms of tone, look, and character, you can practically hear the movie saying “scratch that, how bout this.” But the way the movie was cooked up doesn’t sound like a formula for greatness – in fact, it smells a lot like low self-esteem. Hire a guy, director Nicholas Meyer (a relative newbie, versus the venerable old-school hero-hire of The Motion Picture‘s Robert Wise), who had no previous love for the TV show, marry him to a budget that was a fraction of its predecessor’s, then cobble bits and pieces from five different commissioned scripts into a makeshift spine for a story – an estranged son here, a world-building bomb there, the death of a friend somewhere in the mix. Sounds like a recipe for something lumpy and slapdash.
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But Meyer was smart – he hadn’t seen many episodes, so he hunkered down in a Paramount screening room and watched the whole stack of ’em, and came away with three fundamental framing insights. His first takeaway is right there in the first image of the movie: he divined that the first thing springing to mind when fans think of the show, almost at a subconscious level, is Spock’s ears – so he parked one of them front and center in the first shot, as Spock studies a screen on the bridge of the Enterprise. Meyer’s sense that fans of the show had a strong emotional connection to the one character who shows zero emotions became a principle that guides the movie’s emotional through-line right into the end credits. The second insight was the show’s DNA-deep connection to both pirate and submarine fare, that the heart of the premise was “gunboat diplomacy”. So he and writers Harve Bennett (who also produced the movie) and Jack Soward crafted the story into a Sea Hawk or Captain Blood style adventure, with its central figure, Kirk, a 23rd century Horatio Hornblower. The movie eventually focuses on two ships at war that are technologically crippled, banking slow in deep space, and wrecking each other’s broadsides like futuristic textbook plates at West Point, Mars Campus. All of which ultimately strips away the usual reliance (pun partially intended) on technology to save the day and pushes the driving force of the drama instead toward a game of sheer wits. Federation tech school jargon that became endemic in later iterations of the TV show can sometimes disengage the adventure. Here, without it, it’s just this guy in this disabled ship against this guy in this disabled ship, and it’s beautifully simple.
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But the most significant takeaway is the true key to the success of the movie: there’s a central triangle that informs everything else about the show, one formed by the personalities of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Solving a problem supplies these three characters with something to do, but the meat of the movie is really the comfortable camaraderie among them. You know right away they have long backstories together, and that they love each other, a sense you get even if you haven’t seen any of the old episodes. This dynamic puts it in fine company with another favorite, Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks’ movie that famously feels less about the plot than it does about a group of characters, or more accurately a group of actors, getting to hang out together. The loping, genial vibe of that entire movie is built to keep perfect time with John Wayne’s languid gait and drawl. Likewise, Wrath of Khan jettisons the stultified, ponderous, 2001-lite tone of the original movie, and aligns itself more with the rhythms of the key central unit, that at-once meditating, opinionated, action-ready triangle. The new dynamic pulls the fun and friendship angle from the ’60s show and drops it into a movie that is itself a continuation of a story from the ’60s show – it allows the deepest fondness for the past to be the sturdiest foundation of what is to come in the film. The ethical debate after the three view the Genesis video is the heart of the movie in terms of the old show – the fact that they can be friends and still have these angry moments – that they care enough to argue about it at all. In the three years of that original five-year mission that we got to see, that kind of bond was forged to the point it can never be realistically questioned. It just is.
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The movie’s major motif is death/rebirth, “life from lifelessness”, youth/old age – essentially hanging a lantern on the hairpieces. The innately downbeat essence of it all works so well within the otherwise action-anchored frame thanks to how fluidly and humorously those themes are set up in the first part of the movie. The Kobayashi Maru sequence is the perfect short film to give us everything we need to know about what the movie will “say” and how it will say it: failure on the bridge, the simulation of high-profile death, a test of the “no-win situation” once circumvented by the same man who now administers the test, the subtle touch of Kirk’s possession of a book that begins “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Then in the next few scenes we learn it is, of all days, Kirk’s birthday, that he’s been promoted out of his essential calling in life, that he’s feeling useless, that he’s surrounded by a crew that’s less than half his age, that he goes home to an apartment with no mementos of a family life, but is rife with antiques – things harkening back to the past, things which he’s lost or never had – that he’s only on the ship that day as a sort of hood ornament on the showroom’s classiest car, and, of course, that he and the crew soon become embroiled in the rescue of a machine that literally makes newness from death. The movie is so single-minded in its rollout of these mortality-related themes in the first half hour that the rest of the plot is infused and illuminated in ways that help it transcend mere adventure.
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Then, at last, these thematic elements get fire-tested when the plot proper kicks in and Kirk gets a rude visit by the loose cannon result of his own mistakes, a situation ingeniously unspooling out of the final moments of the original series episode Space Seed. It was fifteen years prior, and the Enterprise had stumbled on a derelict basket in the reeds, the Botany Bay, holding the sleep-chambered remnants of a genetically-enhanced breed of human from the 1990s, ├╝ber-humans, led by a hulking dynamo of wily charisma, Khan, played by… a hulking dynamo of wily charisma, Ricardo Montalban. Once awakened, so commences Khan’s takeover of the ship, the ensuing battle of brawn and brain, and the eventual banishing of Khan and his followers onto a remote planet to fend for themselves. We see from the film’s re-introduction of that hearty band that the titular wrath of Khan is fairly well justified: the planet has turned on its axis, has become an uninhabitable wasteland, and many have died, including his beloved wife. The Khan that results, and the vengeance he swears on Kirk, is indeed what has “sprung from the seed” Kirk planted those years ago. Khan feels forsaken, abandoned by Kirk, and fully justified in meting out his fury – visceral stakes that play parallel to the emotional stakes infused in the revelation of a son Kirk has also effectively abandoned. Khan swipes a Federation ship, the Reliant, and confronts Kirk in his own living room, the bridge of the Enterprise. When Kirk rises into frame, seeing the figure on the screen, we see the look on his face and we can practically watch the entirety of Space Seed play across his eyes in fast forward. He’s positively wobbly-kneed. Meyer, et al, have allowed Kirk, maybe truly for the first time, to be, in these initial Khan scenes, more than a little unsure of himself. On the show, we rarely had doubt that he knew his way out of any situation. Here, his character is shown to be more last-minute and desperate in moments of crisis than ever before. There’s a keen trace of the previous summer’s Indiana Jones in Kirk’s expression when he turns from the first encounter with Khan and says he “just got caught with his britches down.” I wonder if some of that film’s embracing of a character “just making it up as he’s going” didn’t rub off on the writers of this film. So it’s the head-to-head of two alpha figures, one a juggernaut amalgam of Ahab, Lear, and Lucifer, and near-one-dimensionally bent on revenge, and one a hero shot through with age-driven self-doubt. It’s a thrill to watch Kirk stumble. A movie with a nemesis strong enough that, for even five minutes, the audience is thrown into doubt about the hero’s ability to win, is a great feat rarely seen in most modern action movies.
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One of the things that keeps the movie lovable is its undeniable cheese factor, most colorfully embodied in the dueling hamminess of Shatner and Montalban. Shatner is restrained for the most part – Meyer admits he went for more takes than usual with him, not because Shatner wasn’t being acceptably Kirk, but because he knew he’d get a more real performance from Shatner only after he got bored with the lines. Meanwhile, Meyer allows Montalban to fully embrace the cheese that is the beating heart of Khan. There are many great moments of Khan seething out his lines, a villainous whisper, but even those moments are infused with a bigness that cannot be contained. Montalban’s performance as Khan in the Space Seed episode is almost at times too over-the-top to watch – it’s not a bad performance, just one that wants to spill outside confines of a mere TV production. These sorts of broad strokes will always fit better in a movie. But his performance, above and beyond anything else in the movie, is what ultimately makes it as fun as it is on repeat viewings. Shatner’s performance is tamped down in The Motion Picture as well, but so is that entire movie – there’s no real sense of fun, Wise bringing his best Andromeda Strain game face to the proceedings, stealing it almost entirely away from the adventure category. But in Khan, Kirk is tamped down in a way that allows there to be balance against the unstoppable energy of Montalban’s performance. The biggest exception is perhaps the most famous pop-culture moment from the movie: Kirk shouting “Khaaan!!” It’s become a cultural catch-all for any argument brandished against Shatner’s acting. But allow me to posit a defense for this notably ridiculed moment: it’s not Shatner going over the top, it’s Kirk. He, in that moment, already knows he’s going to be rescued, he’s already set it up with Spock to beam them out in two hours. But he has to convince Khan that he actually believes he’s doomed along with the rest inside the center of a dead planet, so Kirk goes over the top to communicate with Khan at the only pitch he knows Khan will hear – big. You can’t blame Kirk if he goes over the top: he’s not an actor, Jim, he’s a starship admiral. In any case, there’s probably a justification at the ready for any “blemish” called out from a fan’s beloved movie. I’m willing to enjoy moments like this in any of the original crew films (yes, even Star Trek V!), not for the budget-forced or ego-excessive flaws they’re perceived as, but for the fun they’re supposed to inspire, hamminess and all.
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By way of conclusion, a bit of perhaps sentimental testimony: I was eleven, sitting in the movie theater, watching these characters that’d become my friends in the old TV reruns, now giant, now loud, now in real, exploding, one hundred percent danger instead of just TV danger. I’m still stunned when Spock takes that short moment to let his salvation plan get 3D in his brain, then leaps up to make it happen. I want to tell him to stop! – but somehow I know this is how it’s got to be. And the palm-to-palm farewell. I admit I still get choked up. Today, it’s not just that a friend is gone; I know full well there’sStar Trek III and beyond. Today, it’s that my age makes me relate less to Spock’s singular act of sacrifice, and more the deep-down-in-the-screenplay meditation on the pangs of getting older, and the changes that hit that don’t have automatically built-in sequels. What moves me most now is watching Shatner’s humbled Kirk, God bless ‘im, pondering his own regrets, coming face to face with old mistakes, and embracing the opportunities that come so rarely to renew an old lost love. For me, and apparently many others, the movie, for all its audience-friendly action and its fairly simple black hat/white hat set-ups, is deeply philosophical, mature and completely satisfying.