Friday, September 25, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

at 3:00 PM
Here we are after seven movies, finally caught up on Planet of the Apes. Since DAWN is only a year old, I figured I'd remind everyone that, as always, this post contains full plot spoilers.

Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver

DAWN OF THE POTA in one sentence:
Yourself: I would guess I'm only the millionth person to say this, but this must be the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the Apes saga.

Golem: A zombie thriller, except instead of zombies they're apes, but I don't mean that people turn into apes.

Here's a story about me and DAWN OF THE POTA:
Yourself: Golem and I took on this series last summer in the run-up to DAWN, then proceeded to never actually go see it. Thankfully it made 8 trillion dollars even without our 26.

Golem: I always mix up the titles to RISE and DAWN. It seems to me this is about the rise of the apes, not about their dawn. It's the RISE OF THE APES OF THE PLANET.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: We could definitely use more development of the ape characters. Caesar and Koba are great, but how come Maurice and Caesar's wife (did she have a name?) don't get more playtime? Maurice connecting with the quiet artsy kid seemed like it could be really interesting... then he never gets another character beat. The scarcity of apersonalities is particularly felt when Koba's betrayal knocks the good guys out of the picture. At that point we're whittled down to Blue Eyes, whose teenage angst finally gets a minute to be interesting before he once again loses center stage.

What's particularly frustrating is that we're in the second film of Planet of the Apes, yet the script is so damned conservative about letting the movie just be about apes. That we have a chimp with teenage angst shows how willing DAWN is to invest in these characters. But for some reason that's offset by a human with teenage angst, and one who lost a wife just like Caesar, and etc, because despite the bleakest reality ever, we need to be literally reminded at every turn that humans deserve another chance. Fucking commit to being a genre movie, DAWN. Mirroring every single ape dynamic with a human feels like the movie doesn't understand metaphors, or doesn't think I do. Or has an extra 40 minutes of running time that it doesn't know what to do with because it's 2014 and that's what blockbusters do.

Golem: To DAWN's credit, it opens with a cool ape hunting scene. Apes swing through forest trees, spear elk (I think they were elk?), and eventually stare down and fell a bear. And even when humans enter the picture, their first encounter is gripping, since both sides are confused and scared. From there, however, things get mired in trivialities: the film goes for deep, long-brewing tension, but instead I come to feel at ease as humans try to fix a dam in ape territory. The whole plot lacks a certain focus or punch to it, and I can't help but feel like Yourself's commentary above (so many characters, so little attention!) results in a movie mired in complexity.

That said, there are sparks of personality on both the human and ape side of things. Apes don't always just listen to whoever screams loudest. Also, the plot structure pulls mean twists at just the right moment. For instance, Caesar's newborn happily plays with the small band of humans. I know something bad is about to happen, but it's still gut-wrenching when the newborn accidentally uncovers a human gun and gets our heroes kicked out.

If someone told me DAWN had an interesting plot, I'd tell them it was boring; if they said the plot was boring, I'd say it was interesting.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Grimdark monkeys. RISE was equally serious, every bit a horror movie except that it wasn't. The villains were cruel and the apes were unpredictably demonic avengers, but it was a jailbreak story with bursts of violence driven by necessity and soothed with righteousness. DAWN spins a far greyer yarn, pitting beleaguered apes against beleaguered humans with extinction at stake. The utter gravity of it all becomes so dire it almost gets back to being funny. But definitely does not.

The weight put into the premise makes me all the more willing to invest in Caesar's fall, but does an action adventure really need to feel this miserable? Even EMPIRE STRIKES BACK has a Frank Oz puppet fighting a robot for a cookie. I desperately needed a splash of comic relief. A splash of comic relief that doesn't end in a dude getting shot in the face.

That was actually tone, not aesthetic, but sometimes I get tired of writing about set colors. Here: the range of background ape tech isn't as insane as what we had to stomach in BATTLE, but there are some (humorously) eyebrow-raising selections. The only thing that actively annoyed me were those surgical masks made out of bone or roots or something, because come on, what the hell is that.

Golem: An overgrown post-apocalypse. If you told me that this was the monkey episode of The Walking Dead, I would believe you.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Before we take on the obvious, let's take on the Gary Oldmanvious. His Dreyfus is basically functional as a charismatic leader just barely holding it together, but with Oldman I was expecting something more aggressive, more of a Governor Kolp. I feel like there's an Oldman character I didn't get to see between that starting point and the finale, when he's suddenly a fragile psycho willing to suicidally martyr himself "for humanity".

The apes are of course amazing. I don't know how to properly express it, but Caesar just has cool expressions. Just seeing him smirk feels like a moment. Koba too. The flick-on/flick-off 'monkey mode' he uses to deceive the armory guards fantastically illuminates just how human the apes have become. Creating such a disconcerting context for a chimp to act like a chimp is well-earned showing off for the animators. Possibly the greatest emotional charge in the movie is when Caesar puts Koba in his place and we get a face of the defeated ape's face, beaten and bloodied, mixing shock, humiliation, and supplication.

The combination of sign language and truncated shouting for ape communication works extremely well; it's stylish, dictates tone, and reinforces the focus on the stunning facial animation.

Golem: Koba makes a fantastic villain. While his mistrust of humans is a serviceable motive, he's truly interesting because he evolves. He starts the film openly defiant of Caesar and visibly frustrated. Eventually, he sneaks away to survey the nearby human camp. It's a subtle deception, but in this moment he is manipulating what Caesar knows. Then, Koba comes into his own when humans find him in their armory. At first you can see his alarm, but in moments, he hides it behind a stereotypical ape facade: playing dumb. It's an outright, self-aware lie. I got a kick out of following ape society in this film, since it's hard to tell how advanced they are. I didn't expect Koba's ability to lie, and neither do the humans in the armory.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: The hunting scene that kicks off the movie post-credits show a really impressive efficiency of direction and writing, establishing everything we need to know about the characters in a quick action sequence almost void of dialogue. (Fun story: I didn't realize the movie had a subtitle track, so it wasn't until ~10 minutes in that I realized the sign language was meant to have subtitles. I almost like the opening better when I was guessing what the signs meant.). We see a form of organization, with a large cadre led by Caesar (the notion of civilization is reinforced when Caesar chastises Blue Eyes for breaking from the group). We see apes have adopted human technology like sign language, weapons, and some kind of war paint. We see they're operating completely in the wilderness. We see Koba is now Caesar's right-hand man, and we see Blue Eyes is a rebellious teen. But the scene also emphasizes its characteristic ape-specific action, right off the bat digging into its unique niche and proving it isn't just an arbitrary conceit.

I was also impressed that they worked in Blue Eyes getting a distinguishing scar. It's a classic monster movie trick, where an individual in a roughly homogeneous species is given a recognizable physical trait to set them apart (for lack of anything better coming to mind, see the grid-alien in AVP). Although, truth be told, I was probably more impressed with myself for immediately picking up on the technique.

Golem: Koba's judgment of Ash showed some camerawork that drew me in. When Koba stops a human in a stairwell, it's played like another moment in the battle. However, he takes this opportunity to test trust - he's intelligent enough to know that just yelling doesn't make apes follow you, and he knows personally how to betray a leader. He commands Ash to bash a human's head in. When Ash refuses, Caesar grips him, lugs him up the stairs, and hurls him off a balcony to the floor below. The camera has a great sense of flow in the scene, following Koba up the stairs, panning to give a shot of Ash flying off the edge, and leaving you to imagine Ash's fatal landing.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Perhaps more than any Apes since the original, DAWN is principally interested in the nature of civilization, the dividing line between man and beast. Caesar balances his kingdom on the virtue of trust: faith that apes will naturally always work together toward good. Ape does not kill ape because apes are innately good. Koba indulges in this illusion as a means of burying his deep-seated anger and hatred: he has faith that Caesar can succeed. Koba's loyalty is set directly against his animal emotions when Caesar asks that the apes trust humans, overwhelming rage ultimately proving that his role in civilization was a facade. That anger unleashed consumes the apes like the fire set to their homes (or the simian flu to mankind), and ultimately Caesar can only vanquish Koba by accepting that there is no absolute trust - that he must be killed. Blind faith in apekind cost Caesar paradise, but sacrificing that value doesn't bring it back.

Golem: The film opens with a hunt, where the division between good and bad is stark. In order to sustain yourself, you kill. The rest of the film pushes its characters to the point where they compromise their values for self-preservation. Carver has no value above self-preservation, and he conceals guns against Malcolm's orders. Koba doesn't either, and he plans to backstab Caesar at the first sign of weakness. On the other hand, Caesar forsakes his "ape shall not kill ape" only when Koba is beyond compromise. Even in Malcolm's last stand, though, he puts himself at risk for his friends. We don't see his breaking point.

Note to future self on watching DAWN OF THE POTA:
Yourself: In a lot of ways I think I reacted to this movie the same way others reacted to 2014's first returning franchise giant, GODZILLA. The good parts are captivating, but there are whole additional plot lines I'll always want to fast-forward through. The humans were boring. The big name actor ended up with a bit part. The headline conceit got shortchanged on time despite an overlong movie. Of course, applied to GODZILLA that reaction was trite and stupid - there the eponymous creature is a plot device meant to precipitate human drama, so extended creature action would be action pornography of the Michael Shitbay caliber. But DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES does a really good job exploring the conflict of an ape hero and an ape villain, so the humans can't help but feel extraneous. Plus, this time I'm the one saying it.

Golem: Conceptually, DAWN is interesting: one society falls as another rises. In practice, I've seen enough about the fall of humanity, and its exploration in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is unremarkable at best. On the other hand, ape society has interesting touches strewn throughout, and it's great to watch them evolve (figuratively).

BONUS! Planet of the Apes final series ranking:
#1: Great and stars Charlton Heston: PLANET OF THE APES
#2: Great but stars James Franco: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
#3: Weirdly too entertaining: BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES
#4: Self-loathing and entertaining: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
#5: Vapidly entertaining: BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
#7: Self-serious retconning crap: CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

#1: Straddles the line between goofy and thoughtful: PLANET OF THE APES
#2: Unoriginal but balls to the wall weird: BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (and such an ending!)
#3: Half the characters are interesting: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
#4: Enough wacky stuff for me to enjoy but not enough to be good: ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES
#5: Should be higher on this list but didn't grab me: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (need a rewatch?)
#6: Kinda weird, kinda thoughtful, and mostly nothing: BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
#7: Made Ricardo Montalban jump out a window: CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of PSYCHOOOOOOOOOO!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen (filler week): GAMERA 2: ATTACK OF LEGION

at 1:00 PM
This is the kinda thing I watch when being sick and working the weekend leaves me too depressed to be interested in PSYCHO.

AKA: Gamera 2: Advent of Legion
Directed by: Shûsuke Kaneko
Written by: Kazunori Itô

GAMERA 2 in one sentence:
Yourself: Daaang son, that was badass.

Here's a story about me and GAMERA 2:
Yourself: Geek note: green skin aside, the Gamera series is closer to ULTRAMAN or PACIFIC RIM than it is to Godzilla, delivering fantastic wrestling matches between good and evil rather than anything resembling science fiction.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: The movie features the same annoying multi-plotting that drags down '90s Godzilla, but Gamera himself is a clear enough hero that it never feels quite as soulless. Ultimately this is a movie where an elementary school teacher explains "symbiosis" to generals and engineers, so the humans are hard to take seriously. Oh no, there goes our best source for details on Gamera!

It is fairly arbitrary in the context of giant space bugs, but I like that Legion generates an electromagnetic field that washes out EM waves near it, shutting down radios, TVs, phones, and all other electronic devices. The creatures' invisible presence permeates the city and projects a lurking tension beyond imminent evisceration. It also means the swarm has a sort of event horizon - as we watch reporters, investigators, and military probe subterranean tunnels and scout the skies, the eventual blackout signals that they are beyond all recourse for help or even reporting back. The effect is lost a little because the script doesn't hide the monsters from the audience as diligently as it does from the characters, but it's still creepy in the same way as watching video feeds cut out in ALIENS.

The aesthetics [of the monsters] are basically:
Yourself: Awesome. Gamera, the jetpants-equipped turtle-x-spinning-top, is a pretty goofy creation, but damn is the revival effective in bringing him to life. Maybe one day I'll be proven wrong, but I don't think you can make quote-unquote realistic action based around a giant bipedal turtle. It doesn't need to double over laughing to be possessed with the blatant anthropomorphism that infects the baby-targeted late-'60s Godzilla performances. Thankfully the camp design (it just now occurs to me that Gamera is Bowser) feels better achieved in LEGION than it was in GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, possibly because the spin-boosts, rocket ship takeoffs, and fire-spitting hardly let up, or possibly because Legion is a far more outlandish counterpart than the saurian Gyaos. Strafing a skyscraper-sized plant pod with fireballs by rocket-skating 180 degrees around it is exactly the kind of sequence we need to capture the comic book energy of Gamera. The fire-breath in particular looks massive and, it pains me to say, much cooler than Godzilla's contemporaneous lazermouth.

Legion is a multi-tiered threat combining swarms of flying bugs with a burrowing queen and explosive plants. It wouldn't so thoroughly demand comparison to 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah were the movie not stocked with the exact same ALIENS-riffing soldiers vs. bugs action, but that isn't meant to be a complaint. Legion pairs the terrifyingly unpredictable life-cycle that made Destoroyah so dynamic with a completely original artistic model. Up close, the pointy cyclopean drones are too '50s B-movie to be menacing (they remind me of Gohma, which sorta makes this a showdown between Nintendo villains), but mostly they exist to be the creepily inescapable swarm cloud that dances through the air and perches on power lines. Their queen is a hyperbole of jagged spindly appendages made more uncanny by its forward-protruding head and bipedal gait, less an alien insect than a forgotten insect god.

I like that there are callbacks to the previous movie, but it does highlight one place the sequel falls short: the visually referenced destruction of the Tokyo Tower by Gyaos was ballsy, impressive, and one of the most memorable images of the daikaiju genre, and ATTACK OF LEGION's attempt to one-up it by replacing Sendai with a smoking crater (seen only in a black-and-white newspaper cutaway) is fairly disappointing. Statistically it's bigger, but dramatically and visually it is not. It doesn't help that the city of Sendai is an utterly blank spot in my cultural consciousness.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: The acting is pretty fun, which is a good enough alternative to the genre standard "pretty boring". Miki Mizuno as Honami has a playful edge as does Mitsuru Fukikoshi as the painfully nerdy Obitsu. A particularly entertaining moment comes when the army men show up to visit Honami and are silently menaced by her father solely for having the nerve to visit a woman at her home.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Gamera's skin-crawling defeat as he's swallowed in a husk of swarming, sparking bugs creates a kind of tension I never imagined I'd see: daikaiju body horror. There is a prolonged sequence of shots of Gamera stumbling blind and helpless under an insectoid horde, shrieking in pain, all to the effect of a more vulnerable, not necessarily humanized but certainly enlivened hero. Legion doesn't just drive off Gamera, it hurts him, and in doing so imbues Gamera with humanity's pain.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: The character who christens the invaders "Legion" does so by explicitly recounting the New Testament exorcism where the name originates. Typically I'd feel unbearably philistine invoking the Bible with regard to giant monsters, but GAMERA 2 went and got its hands dirty all by itself. And, of all things, our giant turtle hero is indeed rather Christ-like, reproducing not only the exorcism of demons but also the Lord's most famous routine, The Resurrection. At their first encounter, Gamera is swarmed by Legion, weighed down by the innumerable abominations to inevitably be purged in the flames of death. The sacrifice is made while literally bearing mankind's woes, a reference to Christ and His Cross as explicit as they come. Gamera's death doesn't extinguish the evil, but it stays destruction long enough that he can be called back amid the vigil of the faithful. The petrified giant miraculously breaks through his ashen burial like Christ casting aside an entombing boulder, in the process severing his psychic link to Asagi and the rest of humanity. Liberated from mortal incarnation, the reborn spirit rockets off to preach life after death - but while Jesus was content to boringly haunt his disciples, Gamera's gospel comes with a significantly larger helping of lazers. His final attack technique, which I won't spoil, is summoned forth from the life-force of the entire planet, a symbolic transcendence to omnipresent all-powerful godliness. Asagi's bloodied hand as she clutches the remains of Gamera's pendant ominously suggests the grave cost of this resurrection, but that's a topic to be addressed in the sequel.

I don't know why GAMERA 2 is a Passion allegory, but there it is.

Note to future self on watching GAMERA 2:
Yourself: I was ready for GAMERA 2 to be a fun watch, but I wasn't expecting to come out hotly anticipating THE REVENGE OF IRIS. That ATTACK OF LEGION pursues a continuing story arc rather than a permutable formula makes the series (or at least the first 2/3 of it) an honest-to-god trilogy, and that's something I can get behind in any franchise.

It looks like being sick and working the weekend was a blessing in disguise, kind of, because I just got word that PSYCHO will be visiting the theater this month (if you've got a local Cinemark, check it out!). To pass the time, Greg will rejoin me next week to take on DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

at 1:00 PM
PSYCHO had to be put on hold due to technical difficulties, so the pickup movie for the week is the finale of the original Planet of the Apes saga. Sigh. No offense intended to Alfred Hitchcock and associates.

Directed by: J. Lee Thompson
Written by: John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington; story by Paul Dehn; characters by Pierre Boulle

BFTPOTA in one sentence:
Yourself: It would seem the poster artist is the only one who figured out we wanted to see apes fighting the actual Army.

Golem: A final climactic battle to decide the fate of mankind, or maybe just have a dopey skirmish.

Here's a story about me and BFTPOTA:
Yourself: This series has been surprisingly interesting. I can't think of another franchise that comes this far afield in five installments or in five years, let alone in five installments in five years.

Golem: While watching BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, I was consistently engaged (if confused). The next day, I had no reflections on it. I can't think of another film that has had so little effect on me.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: It would be senseless to even begin to describe how out-of-continuity this movie is. It adds up with basically nothing we've seen set before or after. Considering how thoroughly CONQUEST mangled the story and knowing that this is the endpoint anyway, it's hard to care. Jesus. I'm still not over the plague of cats and dogs thing.

Unfortunately, the setup is reliant enough on a continuity that doesn't exist that it interferes with the otherwise extremely simple story. There is nothing to lead me to believe we're looking at the final apes and humans on earth except that one character says it, so why is everyone so eager to go to war? I can see Central City being nuked to quell the uprising from last movie, but you're telling me so was every other city and town in the world? What? Why and how? Isn't the story of how we blew it all up more interesting that Caesar's petty saga of hiding in the trees and covering his ears? Correct me if I'm wrong, but the premise of this series is "what if apes were mankind", not "aren't apes way more interesting than humans and don't you wish humans would just die already so we can get ape stories?" While we're at it, why is "Ape City" so sucky? We see that plenty of the old city's technology still works, and even the assumption that apes reject human tech doesn't fit with their use of guns, English, and, apparently, general relativity. Can't they build a proper house or at least work steel? And was Caesar's "revolt" really such a success if, of all the ape slaves in the entire world, only like a hundred survived? That's not really an ape conquest. If I were a human living in Ape City I'd be like hey seriously fuck you guys.

Still, low expectations (and budgets) taken into account the only genuine disappointment in BATTLE is the lack of a series' trademark shockingly dark ending. You might consider humans and apes living in harmony to be shockingly dark, but I'd say it adds to the inconsequential TV-episode feel of the film. And god knows it doesn't provide any closure to our ongoing arc. The happily-ever-after frame is set in 2670 AD, still 1300 years before the events of the first movie. Come on, this is the franchise that blew up the planet in the second installment! Rock the boat a little for Christ's sake.

Golem: Yourself told me that this section isn't literally just for bitching. But then, what else is there to do with BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES? At first, the editing holds together well enough, but after our protagonists escape the Central City ruins, scenes stop sticking together. Are the rude jump cuts there to indicate parallel time? Then why are things so different as we jump back and forth? Does it really take 30 seconds to report intelligence on the ape city? How long does it take Cornelius to die? It's just hard to gather sufficient context sometimes. The film isn't hopeless or broken, just really, really rough around the edges.

(Irrelevant note: I just saw AIRPLANE!, where the presses run off newspapers to report on a plane in crisis mid-flight. That's the sense of time distortion that I got from BATTLE.)

Even then, I don't feel great with the plot elements that do properly flow. An Ape City party travels to Central City to unearth historical tapes from Caesar's parents. The scene is played without any ceremony. We already know what's going to happen, so the important part is Caesar's reaction, which we get disappointingly little of. And hey, why did it take so long for MacDonald to bring those tapes to his attention anyway?

And any roughness in the plot is hard to excuse because so much of it is a toned down, less cool version of BENEATH. The one thing BATTLE has going for it is the inner conflict of Ape City humans and Ape City apes, which sadly gets lost in the complexity of the film.

Maybe the best part is Caesar using a water hose to hold back Central City guards. Crossing the Rubicon, indeed!

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: The rugged, Tarzan-like feel to the ape village comes through much better in interiors and nighttime shots, because the grassy and sparingly forested shooting location looks like my parents' backyard.

The shadowy scenes set beneath the ruins preserve the gunmetal, mechanical, claustrophobic look of the city itself. They are not better or worse than the spacey expansive tunnels of BENEATH, but certainly more appropriate for the new gritty continuity.

Golem: I wondered if the desert shots were supposed to evoke the first film. Aside from the above, the aesthetic is also defined by humanity's declining fashion sense and the increase in unconvincing ape suits.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: It's kinda funny to think that in a franchise called "Planet of the Apes" it's been two full movies since we had an ape civilization or anything resembling a new ape character. So I was pretty darn thrilled just to be watching apes in their natural [future hyper-evolved] habitat. My new favorite would have to be Mandemus, the Yoda-like guardian of the armory who ties up visitors with an endless stream of pointless questions. The new gorilla villain Aldo was a fun blowhard too, even if I can't tell him apart from BENEATH's equivalent.

This is not any one performer's fault, but I found it hilariously bold that the filmmakers would send humans playing apes climbing up trees. Twice. I mean normally I just forget that we're supposed to be seeing apes, but watching a person kinda sorta try to affect a simian manner of climbing calls attention to it in a really bad way.

Golem: Here we have our first ape child. (We skipped over Caesar's childhood, after all.) Caesar's son, Cornelius, plays a pivotal role, fitting well in a cheesy film. His innocent approach to topics such as war come off as genuine, even in a staged kind of way, if that makes any sense. His hapless discovery of Aldo's plot does have a tragic hint to it, making for one of the scenes that did end up gripping me. His pleading is creepy.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: There's a ROAD WARRIOR-esque sequence where the human army and its salvaged machinery trek out of the dead city across the desert. It relies on a matte painting as ridiculous as many we've seen in the series, but I still like the design of the twisted metal hulk birthing this lumbering misfit convoy led by a school bus. It really embodies the mutant nature of the humans clinging to their past existence, clashing with the fresh, idyllic air of Ape City. Sadly, the "army" looks a lot more budget-priced in the battle scenes.

Golem: Tons of shots inside Central City use the ol' dutch angle. Tight corridors make for long shots. The entire sequence builds tension with dramatic irony (you can see the governor order attacks on an unsuspecting Ape City party), and it comes to a head while the Ape City party wanders through a hallway of sickly people. They're all laying down in cramped bunks, and it's hard to tell why. Are they just resting? Are they sick? Why do they just let the intruders through? That last question in particular lingers for a while before a guard leaps out of the mass and assaults the Ape City crew. The layering of "why are things this way?" and "when will they attack already?" really got me.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: This is far removed from anything resembling science fiction, but we're at least back to ape history running a course tragically parallel to man's. We see from the classroom introduction that the tension between Aldo and Caesar ultimately leading to the broach of the Main Ape Rule ("Ape does not kill ape") stems from the treatment of humans. Inequality fucks up their society and Caesar is punished for believing his own noble goals can iron out the wrinkles.

Golem: The urge to kill is inherent to life. Is it better to be Aldo, who lives in perfect awareness of his urges? Or should we be Caesar, who suppresses them and in the process lies to himself?

Note to future self on watching BFTPOTA:
Yourself: It was nice to be reminded of the joy of apekind. That alone raises this above the previous two movies, which felt tonally detached from the gonzo fun where the franchise started. While BATTLE doesn't have the means to reach nearly as high as it wants, it at least has the right spirit.

Golem: I'm not going to put this movie in the gonzo range, but apes are fun to watch. The joy of this movie is almost entirely in watching it. It's fleeting, but good while it lasts.

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of I'm gonna be pissed if it's not PSYCHO.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: BRAINDEAD / DEAD ALIVE

at 1:00 PM
 Aw hell yeah, let's do this thing. But first a bit of pedantry. I am really torn on which to use here: the original New Zealand title, BRAINDEAD, or the (Google-confirmed) twice as popular US branding, DEAD ALIVE. The creator's intentions are certainly more artistically defensible than copyright prohibitions, but do those intentions matter if they never reach the audience? Ultimately the movie is called what you see it as, and we, correctly choosing to be Americans, saw it as DEAD ALIVE. That being the case, I like the BRAINDEAD poster better, so fuck it. Plus, later on I'll have a really amazing point that hinges on the movie being called BRAINDEAD. Warning: links in this post may be NSFW due to hilarious practical gore effects.

AKA: Dead Alive. Didn't you read all that?
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Peter Jackson

BRAINDEAD in one sentence:
Yourself: I'm not sure I should insult the elegance of the title.

Golem: Meet the mother of all zombies.

Here's a story about me and BRAINDEAD:
Yourself: It is a weird galactic irony that the great white hope of '90s horror would serve to elevate a new genre to the mainstream - and that that genre would be fantasy books. LORD OF THE RINGS is fine and all, but I want to live in the world where we're getting nine-figure budgets behind Peter Jackson's YOUR MOTHER ATE MY DOG.

Golem: I heard about this movie for years and still wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Golem: Yourself remarked to me that the movie is so simple that there's not much to write about. And he's got a point. It's just a silly movie that has fun with what it does. It's hard to bitch because it's just a neat showpiece in every scene, even during Lionel's goofy sappy date at the zoo.

Yourself: At the same time the story is surprisingly seamless, considering it borrows from outbreak, monster movie, and siege genres. The tension derives respectively from the struggle to contain the zombie "family", the unknowable [d]evolution of the creatures, and the battle to outlast a seemingly endless horde. The subtle structural shifts keep the pace blazing - as soon as we're comfortable with what the zombies are, they're threatening to break free, as soon as that's under control they're morphing into something more vicious, and before anyone knows how to kill them we're already drowning in creatures.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Cartoon realism or something. The color and consistency strives for anatomical detail but the action is invested with such wild energy that it feels governed by the laws of Looney Toons rather than physics. Arms and legs go flying, chopped up corpses neatly pile up, entire bodies pop like balloons, and a mostly-decapitated lady's head pops open and shut like a Pez-dispenser. Even more so than the pre-title sequence, I think the scene at the zoo sets the tone for the violence, where Lionel's mum stomps the shit out of the oozing rat-monkey's head til its eyes pop out. The freewheeling logic in what can happen to just a natural body retains a sense of grounding but keeps us guessing far more than standard "kills".

Golem: BRAINDEAD is largely defined by its gore, but it's got tons of great little touches, too. Bodily noises will gross you out, and close-ups always come a little off-kilter. In particular, check out that scene where good old Uncle Les takes a piss; the camera rests just above his dick, facing upward over his gut towards his face. It's an audiovisual treat.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Our boy Lionel is what makes the movie so damn fun. He's willing to paste his mother's face together, clean up her squirting pus, and watch her eat her own ear, but the second a pretty girl chats him up, he's stumbling backwards over himself, literally retreating out of a building and across the street just to keep his distance. In fact Lionel's entire first scene, as he clumsily makes a wreck of the grocery, is played so apologetically that it remains one of the funniest in the entire movie. His "whoops" expression is fantastic.

Which makes his transformation all the more satisfying. We first see Lionel really come into his own when he goes on his date with Paquita, starting to unravel his psychosis and emote. Then mum comes back on scene and he's back to the stuttering fool. He makes compromise after compromise in attempt to protect his innocent home life, and when he finally goes over the edge, it isn't pent-up rage that spills out but pent-up joy. Lionel is having a fucking ball mowing down zombies and that's why we're having a ball too. 

Golem: Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) gets the chance to flesh out her transformation from human to zombie. It's a unique role in the movie, since almost everyone else undergoes an immediate and violent transformation. She's pushy and overbearing, and she handles a zombie curse the way I might handle a cold.

After a nasty rat monkey bite, she wakes up under the weather. But, she insists on hosting guests to ensure her spot in the Wellington Ladies' Welfare League. At first, it's slight. Just some flesh ripping off of her face while she applies makeup. From there, we get to watch as she goes from fatigued to downright incoherent, all while she hosts a polite couple for lunch. With each passing line of dialogue, she struggles more and more to form sentences or even stammer any kind of response whatsoever.

The best part comes near the close of her transformation, when her ear falls right off into her custard. Because of her sluggish state, she slowly scoops it up and brings it to her mouth, just to maximize the amount of time we have to cringe.

During the climactic bloodbath, Rita also takes her time transforming, but she has only a small part amidst the chaos of that scene.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: A simple visual gag defines Lionel's strain between dutiful son and cautious suitor. As he painstakingly extracts a dog's tail from his braindead mother's throat, the camera stares transfixed from Paquita's point-of-view. It is extremely nasty and forces the viewer to dwell with her on the dead dog :( When the horrified Paquita screams the classic "Your mother ate my dog!", Lionel tries to look on the bright side as we cut to a wide shot of the blood-smeared room: "Not ALL of it."

Golem: Baby antics are the worst, right? You watch this tiny human get into trouble, and (unless it's that one episode of X-Files) it's predictable, boring humor. Tension rises as the child encounters hazards, and you're supposed to laugh when he/she evades them without a care in the world.

When Lionel adopts a baby zombie, he doesn't lock it up in his basement dungeon. Like any good father, he takes it out on a stroll to the park. But then, he doesn't dare risk spreading the zombie curse, so he keeps it in a stroller behind barbed wire. Already, it's a silly concept; he takes it out for a walk, only to keep it locked up.

And of course he keeps it locked up. That's the key to the scene: the tension is reversed. I wasn't worried the baby would come to harm - I was worried that it would cause harm. Things start off typically enough; the stroller careens down a hill and flings the baby out into a swing set. When it catches sight of normal children, though, it's out for blood. The switch is so swift that I found myself swept up, unsure if the little guy would trigger a zombie outbreak.

The scene releases its tension in keeping with the rest of a comically graphic movie. Lionel traps it in a bag and whacks it against a swing set as hard as he can, all while judgmental mothers watch. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief when the child reaches safety, I breathed a sigh of relief when the child was brutally pummeled.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: I have a hypothesis that the film recreates Hitchcock's PSYCHO as a means to reflect on exploitation and cultural norms of 1960 vs. 1992. Remember what I said about the title being important? PSYCHO? BRAINDEAD? EH? sorry Eh? Where PSYCHO was a twisty shocker that blew your mind by putting you in the corner of a fucked-up dweeb cleaning up after his demanding and psychopathic mother, BRAINDEAD is a fairly less twisty shocker that blew your mind by putting you in the corner of a fucked-up dweeb cleaning up after his demanding and braindead mother. The indicators go well beyond the script: look at Timothy Balme as Lionel compared to Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. If that's accidental I'm Dave Crisco. And check out the way Lionel's house is shot compared to the Bates' house. In fact, the first thing that got me on this trail was Golem questioning why BRAINDEAD would be set in 1957.

Before I jam my foot so far down my throat that you can call me Dave Crisco, I should mention I've never actually seen PSYCHO. I'm working from the not-a-cultural-invalid's knowledge of its significance. As I understand, the famous PSYCHO stabbing and its fallout were considered brazen at the time for glorifying murder and sensationalizing nihilistic violence. Peter Jackson, operating in a world wherein Hitchcock's unbridled violence has become the norm, cranked that to a million, drowning the movie in blood and guts with the same desensitizing glee. The difference in cultural significance makes it difficult to parallel the two historically - PSYCHO was as high-profile as a Hollywood film can be, while BRAINDEAD was a local New Zealand thing that got a limited distribution under a different title. If anything, the fact that the movie had no cultural impact speaks to its reflection on 1992, i.e. "look at how far we've come and how little we care!"

I realize that in this feature I've been repeatedly hitting this cinema-on-cinema angle - I guess it's that old chestnut where you project your subconscious into what you're thinking about. Although the conclusion that analyzing movies had made me think the movies (that I'm analyzing) are also analyzing movies is the kinda thing they used to put you away for.

Golem: Vera owns her son, body and mind. It's not enough that he handles every chore around the mansion, but it's his duty to take pride when his mother earns a coveted spot in the local Ladies' Welfare League. Lionel himself is a bit of a zombie, a husk without his own identity. When he finds something he wants for himself - namely, the love he finds for Paquita - Vera does all she can to take it away. Her transformation into a zombie not only puts a humorous spin on her impositions, it also gives Paquita room to utter something with a little depth: "That thing is not your mother." Vera doesn't nurture or support her son. Instead, she eats away at him.

The spread of the curse mimics Vera's stature in society and Lionel's following subservience.

Note to future self on watching BRAINDEAD:
Yourself: It's been a few years, but I was surprised just how not exhausting this film is on second viewing. It's got so many great tricks up its sleeve and it's hilarious too. And next time I'll have seen PSYCHO, so I can do a proper job of comparing them!

Golem: What you have here is a zombie movie with a rosy ending. The gore is cartoonish, the good guys evade zombification, and all signs of the outbreak are reduced to ashes. A feel-good zombie movie?

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of, well, I guess we better watch PSYCHO since neither one of us has seen it.