Kubo and the Two Strings

I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. From Harryhausen to the Brothers Quay, I have a fascination with the weird incremental dance of the puppets. There’s a tactile intensity and homespun charm in it that other mediums cannot convey.

Laika Studios‘ latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is an impressive visual treat and wild technical marvel. The story is about stories and perhaps how the telling of stories is integral to humanity—in the film’s universe it is a crucial element that separates humans from the realm of immortal gods and spirits.

Young orphan Kubo (Art Parkinson) is thrust into the midst of an adventure story that was started by his parents long before he was born. He has some magical skill to manipulate origami figures with his shamisen, a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument, but he will need much help and guidance to control his powers and obtain the magical armor that can protect him from his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his strange grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), the Moon King. To teach him on his quest are two teacher companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

It’s a wonderful adventure full of magic and samurai action that is anchored by some genuinely compelling characters. The relationship between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is the true heartbeat of the film. Which is kind of the point. All the fantastical spectacle in the world would be totally weightless without character or consequence. And the writers (Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle) know this. The characters have a natural chemistry and the dynamics between them are what can make a huge epic fantasy like this also feel quite intimate. And the subtly expressive animation conveys that intimacy wonderfully well.

I haven’t seen a movie mix genuinely exciting action with strong themes of family love since Pixar’s The Incredibles.

Like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), the worlds created for Kubo are wholly unique and sumptuously detailed. They also all favor a slightly darker edge than some of their competition. While all the Laika films can’t seem to help but end with a showdown with a big monster, their solutions are often a bit more novel than simply kill the bad guy. Perhaps not quite Studio Ghibli, but we’ll take it.

I may gripe that finding the armor pieces felt like arbitrary video game McGuffins (Coraline had this problem too), but the overall experience overshadowed these elements. The story isn’t really about the armor anyway. It’s about Kubo discovering his identity and how to end the story his mother and father began. The warmth of the characters and the respect for the audience is what stuck out to me most.

One more weird note. For a movie set in Japan, it may be a little odd that all of the Japanese voice actors are relegated to background extras. Sorry, George Takei.

https://i1.wp.com/static.srcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/kubo-cover.jpg

I definitely recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, especially on a big screen. The whole family can enjoy this one. A lot of talent went into this project and it shows. And since music is also such an important feature throughout the movie, it seems only fitting that George Harrison’s “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” (covered by Regina Spektor) should play as the credits roll for this somber tale.

Advertisements

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIV – Fury World

Ordered by my increasing opinion of them.

Walk Away:

Incidentally, I think the black rhino just went extinct this year.

Robin Williams (Hook), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), and Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) star in Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy (2002). How you could make a black comedy about the seedy underbelly of children’s entertainment so bafflingly unfunny is anyone’s guess. You would think the jokes would write themselves. I remember wanting to see this when it first came out, hearing it was terrible, then hearing it had a cult following and wasn’t that bad. I thought maybe it would be like Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, reviled for being so dark but discovering reports of its suckitude were greatly exaggerated upon my own personal viewing. Nope. This is a garish groaner that thinks it’s wackier than it really is. Stick with Matilda or War of the Roses.

Meh/Misguided:

Terry might be the most comically evil character in cinema history.

OK. OK. OK. The Karate Kid, Part III (1989) is in no way anything less than a ludicrous mess of nonsensical garbage piled upon a plate made of lunacy. It’s messages are contradictory. It’s thrills are awkward, comically contrived, and unearned. It’s lead actor (Ralph Macchio) is clearly coked out of his mind. It’s motivations are embarrassingly childish. Yet, all these truly ugly miscalculations make it humorous in the same way we enjoy Troll 2 and The Room.

Get it? It’s eating “Jaws”. It’s a metaphor. You know, symbolism? Darn it all, we are clever bastards. …On another note, how many sharks must they go through a day to feed this thing. Great whites can’t be cheap.

I wanted to like this one. Dinosaur movies are something of a rarity and I was excited to go back to the park. Alas, Jurassic World (2015) is a joyless, candy-painted shot of novacane. It looks colorful, but I felt nothing the whole film. The original Jurassic Park (1993) is a cherished classic, yes, and two of the in-between sequels are sort of okay to varying degrees, but this latest entry feels even more geared toward children and the Marvel superhero audiences. It isn’t the overuse of CGI, either. For me it lacked character, discovery, tension, or genuine thrills (you need character for thrills to register). The best, most highly rendered special-effects in the business can’t save a foundering script or a lack of charisma. Ironically, the film’s central satirical parable of the necessity of upping the ante to awaken jaded audiences produces the blandest entry in this ever diminishing franchise. It’s faster, hammier, cheesier, lazier, stupider, less challenging, and ultimately has trouble forcing the fun. The first Jurassic Park was a milestone of cinema at the time and it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. In Jurassic World‘s failed attempts to infuse steroids into the series, its creators have fashioned a movie that looks exactly like all the other sterile, terrible kiddie action movies of the last several years. Instead of being happy it’s less insulting than the Transformers movies, we should be asking for better movies. At least dinosaurs fight each other in it.

Guilty Pleasures:

“I Love Lucy”? Oh, so your parents were talented. I see, Desi, Jr.

Horror legends Vincent Price (House of Wax), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man), and John Carradine (House of Dracula) star in the creaky comedy-horror B-flick The House of Long Shadows (1983). The actors’ ages are showing and you’re worried for their joints every time they lift a pewter goblet and, truth be told, the story is dopey and the script, for the most part, fails at being either comedic or horrific. However, if you’re a fan of the withering cinematic warlocks listed above, you’ll probably enjoy watching them effortlessly outshine both the silly script and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

I’m gonna hijack the Declaration of Independence.

Con Air (1997) is of historical significance if only because it may be the first film Nicolas Cage’s zaniness broke free of its previously Oscar-winning tethers. Donning the worst mullet, worst Southern accent, and worst back-story, Cage and a stuffed bunny board a prison plane full of psycho mutinying inmates (John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and others make up the airborne cast). It’s dumb, loud, and a mostly unintentionally hilarious blast in the spirit of Face/Off. It’s nonstop nuttiness in the guise of a serious action thriller. Also features John Cusack (1408) and Colm Meaney (Get Him to the Greek).

Interestinger and Interestinger:

ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

Right after I heard the news of Christopher Lee’s passing I watched Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Hammer vixen, Barbara Shelley (Village of the Damned), co-stars in this loose biography of the bizarre Russian mystic who weaseled his way into the last Czarina’s good graces. It may not be the most memorable movie, but it’s got some good moments and Lee gives a fun performance as the titular hypnotizing wacko. Tom Baker (Dr. Who) is still my favorite Rasputin though.

God…all the plaid.

Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) puts some gorgeous black and white photography to good use in Nebraska (2013). Bruce Dern (Silent Running) and Will Forte (SNL) star as an alcoholic, dementia-addled old man and his good-natured, long-suffering son respectively. Woody Grant (Dern) believes he’s won some prize and demands to go to Omaha to retrieve his cash (everyone else knows it’s all a scam). Reluctantly, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him—if only to ensure the stubborn patriarch’s safety. When Woody starts telling family and locals of his dubious earnings before he’s even collected the nonexistent dough, the small town drama begins…but not without some comical Midwestern moments. It’s pleasant, humorous, and ultimately a tender little film.

They’re just reading about the Rachel Dolezal thing.

This film is timely, intriguing, and—while somewhat high on its own cleverness—raises a lot of good points…if in a smug and sort of pretentious manner. Justin Simien and Adriana Serrano’s Dear White People (2014) is the closest thing we have to a Do the Right Thing for generation-blog. Black, white, and mixed race ivy league students verbally spar over racial privilege and politics. It’s wonderfully cast and hits its points efficiently and does a good job of leaving enough ambiguity for audiences to mull over. And it delivers its messages in a genuinely funny and entertaining way. For a movie dealing with so many hot button issues it’s a wonderfully watchable film.

Beyond Our Borders:

Me and my shadow…

Set in a weird Iranian town called Bad City, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a sumptuously photographed off-beat vampire flick that feels like a slowly creeping dream. It’s dark, doleful, deliberately paced and, while it most assuredly won’t be for everyone, it’s a rich example of inventive horror that explores vampire tropes in ways that rival Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive. You’ll never look at the ghostly specter of a flowing black burka atop an aimless skateboard the same way again…if you’ve ever seen that before to begin with. Like a lot of offbeat neo-vampire fair, it’s a wry but sexy slow-burn.

Ever see Hogan’s Heroes?

La Grande Illusion (1937) is a classic jailbreak POW movie directed by Jean Renoir (La bête humaine). The story concerns French officers and soldiers being held captive by the Germans during World War I. What sets La Grande Illusion apart is its daringly human portrayal of the enemy. People are people and just happen to be French or German. For a classic war movie, it is almost refreshingly absent of nationalism. It’s rightfully ranked alongside The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and The Bridge On the River Kwai.

Finding Our Way Through the Shadows:

Yup. Looks like traffic court.

Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) adapted a story by Franz Kafka with Anthony Perkins (Psycho) in The Trial  (1962). Shot in Europe, the story unfolds like a subtle nightmare. A man is put on trial, but is never told the charges and he becomes entangled in the fuzzy dream logic of this world’s chaotic legal system. It feels like a trip down the rabbit hole and the cinematography and gritty interiors and landscapes add such strange beauty and texture to this peculiar project that was apparently, like many of Welles’ films, under-appreciated at the time of its release.

The mummy strikes!

Here’s a challenge readily embraced by director Delmer Daves: can you hide your protagonist’s face for the first half of your movie? Better yet, film most of it in POV. Somehow Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) and Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), nails it and, rather than it coming off as a cheap gimmick, really utilizes the unfamiliar technique for solid narrative effect. It’s a classic mystery noir about a man who escaped from prison (convicted for the murder of his wife). While there are many brilliant scenes in the movie and clever camera angles, my favorite bits might be the conversation with the taxi driver and subsequent meeting with the plastic surgeon. The POV really pulls you into the story in a surprising and effective way.

Admittedly, I’ve only seen Bullitt on a plane, but I liked this better than Bullitt.

A quiet getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) is trying to avoid being set up by an obsessed police detective (Bruce Dern). That’s really all you need to know for Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). Not to be bogged down with too much dialogue or too complicated a plot, The Driver is all gorgeous 70s style and fantastic car chases. The film exudes coolness. Isabella Adjani (The Possession) also co-stars. Watch it. It’s great.

Really, a Tough Call:

That honestly can’t be good for the rabbit.

Fans of the Coen Bros.’ Fargo may be familiar with the oft reported case of a Japanese woman who, believing the film to be a true story, went searching for where Steve Buscemi buried the suitcase full of money in the snow. The Zellner Bros.’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) is a fictionalized version of how that woman came to America in search of that money. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) gives a heart-breaking and deeply internalized performance as Kumiko, a sad misfit obsessed with treasure hunting. Her journey from the alienating officetels of Tokyo to the isolating snowdrifts of Minnesota is weird, awkwardly comical, and touchingly disconsolate. This movie comes highly recommended. It’s a quiet and vaguely surreal film that sits with you hours after watching it.

Maybe even more enjoyable than The Road Warrior.

Everyone saw it. Everyone loved it. And, truly, I get it. Mad scientist George Miller’s fourth installment of his Australian cult series, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), really is a masterpiece of dystopic action and brutal but balletic car carnage. There’s an adrenaline that doesn’t quit and a score that pulses aggressively forward and an explosion-filled chase crammed with Frankenstein vehicles that doesn’t let up. It’s got a lot typical Miller quirk and visual inventiveness. Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Charlize Theron (Prometheus) stoically lead the way through a stark, unforgiving desert, but it is Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who gradually becomes the real emotional core of the film. Motorcycle grannies, bungee guitar mutants, muscle cars souped up with spikes and tank treads, and chainsaw-wielding gas-mask guys atop 50 foot pendulums swinging over erupting furnaces of vehicular devastation not your thing? You may not enjoy this, if that be the case. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the Mad Max series or a newcomer, this is gleeful, calculated, visceral mayhem. It ought to be a crime to be this bonkers and badass.

Satellite of the Simians 3: Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn.

Et tu, Brute?

Et tu, Brute?

It is fascinating to watch the goals and underlying social themes shift in the Planet of the Apes series. I’ll come out and say it. I love the series. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starring Charlton Heston is one of my favorite movies. Definitely one of my favorites from the sixties. I just got out of a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the latest incarnation and direct sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Without hesitation, Dawn is the new second best Planet of the Apes movie.

For starters, I should begin by mentioning that I saw it in Korea and, while the dialogue was in English, whenever the apes were signing things the subtitles were all in Korean. At first I was concerned I might be missing crucial plot points, but kudos to the amazing effects team at WETA and the motion-capture performers for making silent ape dialogue wholly understandable. I feel bad for the 5 year old Korean girl who sat next to me and buried her terrified face in her hands for the film’s duration.

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

Our story begins where Rise left off. The intellectually enhanced and organized ape revolutionaries had escaped into the forests beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. An infected pilot, unwittingly carrying a deadly virus developed in a lab, embarked on a tragic journey that would effectively spread the disease to every corner of the world, wiping out a majority of Earth’s human population and all semblance of order and civilization. Now, several years later, the humans live in a tribal post-apocalyptic nightmare and are quickly running out of power and means to utilize their limited resources. Meanwhile, ape society is flourishing in the wilds and a developing culture is forming strong social bonds. Caesar is the leader of the apes.

Well, I'd be crapping myself.

Well, I’d be crapping myself.

The troubles in this movie begin when humans stumble into ape territory in search of a lost dam that might help restore power to their ailing ruins of society. A shot is fired and a chimpanzee is hit. Caesar, rather than having his mighty army make short work of the lost search party, shows mercy and banishes them. This introduces the conflict that is firmly seated at this movie’s core: trust and tribal bonds. Caesar has a clear duty to protect his people (and he, and the rest of the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans harbor an understandable fear and hatred of humans—*see previous film) and the humans have a clear duty to themselves to protect their own and get the power back to avoid more violent anarchy. Communication proves difficult for no matter how well-intentioned some peace-seeking individuals on either side of the table are, it only takes a few reckless or wicked individuals to keep tensions high and trust destroyed.

The movie is intelligently written, well acted, and like the previous film features some top-notch computer special effects and spectacular action scenes. I really liked Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but in all honesty Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the superior film. Rise was great, but I had a few problems with it (mainly archetypal cartoony human characters like the evil money-loving bureaucrat, the benevolent scientist, the ape racist who works with apes, the girl, etc.). Thankfully, most of the problems are corrected in Dawn. The strongest chapter of Rise was the ape sanctuary scenes where Caesar, an intellectually superior animal, has to learn real ape society rules and rise to power to become their leader. With almost no dialogue or humans, the film soars to fascinating heights and keeps the tension building in these impressively animated sequences. Dawn plays like an extension of those scenes and centers around the apes cultivating their own society, while the human subplot focuses on mankind desperately trying not to slip back to the dark ages.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing "If I Had Words" to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No.3 in C minor.

And then all the dogs and cats in the hotel sing “If I Had Words” to the tune of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 in C minor.

Rise, perhaps, put a little too much into the fun fan-service of referencing the 1968 classic. Without knowing what the signed ape dialogue was specifically, I don’t think I saw much evidence of this in this new film. The only reference might be the music which did remind me strongly of the original in places. Dawn still has a weaker human storyline, but their role is vital for the story. Dawn is about establishing peace and trust in a volatile situation. Mankind itself is not the enemy. There are a few cartoonishly dickish humans who muck up the works more than a few times, but they are symbols of the fear and closed-mindedness that is also present in the ape society. Koba, a chimpanzee (or bonobo, who knows?), is the real villainous foil. His fear, anger, and hatred—regardless of how personally justified or rooted in past experiences—stands for the fear, hatred, and self-interest that blocks cultural progress everywhere.

While we're on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

While we’re on the subject, Dracula vs. Planet of the Apes? Eh?

Questions:

1. Where did the apes get the horses?

2. What are the ape sentiments toward monkeys and tarsiers? Slow lorises?

3. Why no gibbons? Gibbons are apes.

4. Not a question, but we were so close to seeing a bear fight a gorilla in the first 10 minutes! So close! And they blew it by having it fight some chimps.

5. Why aren’t there more orangutans? I love orangutans.

6. Why is it apes versus humans? Humans are technically apes too. The title “Planet of the Apes” is actually not that descriptive. We currently live in the “Planet of the Apes.”

Chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn't make you want to see this nothing will.

Raging chimpanzee firing two machine guns while riding a horse. If that doesn’t make you want to see this nothing will.

I said at the beginning that what I find interesting is how the same series can change its tone and message with the shifting of the cultural tides yet still operate under the same basic rules. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 was about dogmatism versus science and the possibilities of the collapse of human society and the possible future of ape evolution. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) was about making more money. That’s about it. A little bit concerning the dangers of nuclear weapons at the end. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) dealt with how we react to outsiders and how we defend our own self interest at the expense of outsiders (because they be different!). Conquest of the Planet of the Apes(1972) was about racism and revolution. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) was about making money again, but also about how some of the best social rules must sometimes be compromised or broken to keep the peace (hit on again in Dawn—one very appropriate nod the earlier movies). The Tim Burton one (2001) was about “remember these movies?” Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) shifted tone to be about scientific ethics and perhaps ecology, especially in how we treat animals. It asked questions like: Is it okay to treat animals the way we do simply because we don’t perceive them to be on our intellectual level? Are we really the most important species? Could another surpass us? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) focuses much of its energy on the tenuous nature of diplomacy in hostile territory where emotions run high. It basically states that emotion should not rule the roost when it comes to maintaining peace—and that this message rings strongly for both sides. In a sense, Dawn is a critique on the hazards of nationalism and isolationism and how it only takes a few extremists to characterize and demonize an entire social group. It is easy to see how a simple tit for tat exchange can escalate quickly to tragic ends. This is something we witness throughout history and today in human geopolitics and conflicts.

Moral of the story: peace is hard and destruction is easy.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

Peace: difficult but not impossible.

All in all Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is probably one of the more socially significant blockbusters out there at the moment. It suffers from some less interesting human characters (minus Gary Oldman who manages to be more than the archetype you might expect from the trailers). The effects are mesmerizing to watch and the fight sequences are high octane, high emotion thrill-scapes. If you enjoyed anything about the earlier films this is a welcome treat with a bigger brain than most of the series and what appears to be a genuinely prescient conscience concerning escalating real-world geopolitical tensions. I recommend it.

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Seriously. Where are the damn gibbons?

Picture references:

http://www.truemovie.com/2014moviedata/DawnofthePlanetoftheApes.htm

http://blogs.indiewire.com/boxofficeinsider/cool-trailers-part-2-robert-downey-jrs-the-judge-kevin-harts-the-wedding-ringer-and-the-final-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-trailer-20140623

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/final-dawn-planet-apes-trailer-premieres-article-1.1836336

http://herocomplex.latimes.com/books/firestorm-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-prequel-novel/#/0

 

It’s STILL Alive…

For anyone who hasn’t been meticulously following my reviews in the past, I am a fan of classic horror. One of my favorites, nay, dare I say two of my favorites (“yes”, quipped he to himself, “let us be greedy today and make it two”) are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

Whale also directed Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933), which was based on the classic H. G. Wells novel (easily one of Wells’ best), to great effect, as well as the winking Old Dark House (1932), but it is his adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous work that remains the more shocking and spectacular—in the humble opinion of this reviewer.

Even people who have never seen a movie that was made prior to 1990 know exactly what the Frankenstein monster looks like (Dracula too, but that will be the subject for another article). All the popular caricatures are based off of Jack Pierce’s amazing makeup from James Whale’s films. When asked to recall a film incarnation, most people—who have not even seen the movie—will have no trouble recalling Boris Karloff in grim makeup. So why am I talking about another movie everybody already knows about? Because I don’t think everyone has seen it, and I wish to change that.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has locked himself away in an old, spooky, castle-like laboratory in the hills (the perfect haunt for any mad scientist). He and his wild-eyed, hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (the ubiquitous Dwight Frye), are hard at work on something Henry was warned about by his professors long ago: playing in God’s domain. In his mad quest to create life, he stitches together bits and pieces of fresh corpses to manufacture a living man. The result is the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff): a physically powerful being with a criminal’s brain, limited communication skills, a longing for love, a short temper, and no understanding of his place in the world. The stitched together corpses of several dead men operating under the consciousness of one villainous but infantile brain realizes all too soon that there is no place for him in this world, and when his creator and father, Dr. Frankenstein, is repulsed by his creation and shuns him in disgust and embarrassment the Monster escapes and roams the countryside looking for human connection…he winds up murdering several people accidentally, obliviously, or purposefully before he decides to punish the real cause of his torment: Dr. Frankenstein.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

The doctor, however, has decided to forget about his creation and return to his family and marry Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The Monster eventually finds his creator and his lovely fiancée. The terrified townsfolk band together with pitchforks and torches to go on a monster hunt. The whole night culminates in the grand finale of Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster of his own making battling in a burning windmill.

frankenstein10

Every inch of this film is steeped in classic elements of horror. Expressionistic angles, cock-eyed tombstones, stark skies, tight little village streets, funerals, castles, evil machinery, lightning storms, chases, hunchbacks, dead bodies dangling from gallows, murder, and macabre humor. The infamous scene where the Monster accidentally murders a little girl even inspired a great Spanish art-house film decades later, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). This film has got it all…but, wait, there’s more.

The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is one of the best sequels in movie history. Picking up where the original left off—but not before Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and Lord Byron can summarize the events of the previous film—the angry mob of villagers dwindle down to just one poor, victimized couple waiting by the smoldering ashes of the windmill’s remains…their tragic fate gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As the wounded Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is rushed home with Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson), trouble has already begun to brew. Surprise! The Monster’s not dead. Not only that, another truly evil mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), comes to call on the good doctor with a proposition. The gaunt and sinister Dr. Pretorius wants Dr. Frankenstein to join him and perfect the creation of a man-made monster. You guessed it: it’s a woman this time. Frankenstein wants nothing to do with this quack, but this quack doesn’t always play fair.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James. We get it.

The Monster (Boris Karloff) meanwhile wanders the countryside once more in search of love and understanding. This time around the film shows him a little more compassion. All of his murders are either accidental or in self-defense. He just wants a friend, but when you look like he does and have the reputation he does, people tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

See no evil, speak no evil.

See no evil, speak no evil.

Drawn to the sad melody of a blind man’s violin the Monster stumbles upon a cabin in the woods. The blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) takes him in without pause or prejudice. We learn that the blind hermit has been praying for a friend and that he believes the Monster to be an answer to prayer. The Monster and the blind hermit do indeed become friends. They share food, smokes, music, and then the blind hermit teaches the Monster how to speak. We learn more about who the Monster really is from these few brief scenes than we might have expected and we learn to really love him and understand him beyond pity or grotesque curiosity. Too bad it doesn’t last because soon enough two hunters (who see with whom the hermit has been hanging out with), take the hermit away and burn down his cabin in the hopes of killing the Monster. (One hunter is played by John Carradine).

Truly broken, forlorn, and alone after coming so close to being truly alive, the Monster, in light of this freshly witnessed cruelty, develops a new outlook: he knows he is dead and hates all things living. Enter the wicked Dr. Pretorius who divulges his plan to create a woman friend like him. So enchanted by this idea, the Monster agrees to kidnap Elizabeth so Pretorius can blackmail Frankenstein into aiding in his evil experiment. The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester again) is born, but she doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot with Frankenstein’s Monster…that means it’s time for an explosive finale.

Kinky.

Kinky.

Bride has a sharper wit and some kinda surreal special effects, but its horror is no less potent. In many ways Bride is a bit of a parody of its predecessor and it works on multiple levels. Karloff didn’t get to do much in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and the loopy expressionistic sets are the real stars of the third film, but it’s such a step down after Bride. After Son Karloff stopped playing the Frankenstein Monster and actors like Lon Chaney, Jr. (meh), Glenn Strange (awful), Christopher Lee (pretty good), and Robert De Niro (disappointing) took on the character and some say the Monster lives on today.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

The mad scientist sub-genre of horror doesn’t get any better than this. Monstrous men made from dead bodies creating havoc while competing ideologies of what the limits of science should be, all wrapped up in a twisted morality tale of what it means to be human begging questions of humanities’ relation to the divine? Who could ask for anything more? Boris Karloff is really good as the iconic Monster and the rest of the cast does a great job as well. Character actress Una O’Connor makes an appearance in Bride and Thesiger’s Pretorius is one of the most fiendishly memorable mad scientist villains of the silver screen.

Do yourself a favor and host a double feature of these two solid classics. They just don’t make ’em like this no more. Don’t miss horror at it’s finest this Halloween. Hey, you might even understand just what makes Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) is so funny after watching these puppies. See Karloff in the original The Mummy (1932) too while you’re at it. For people interested in James Whale the man, Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf!) played him wonderfully well in Gods and Monsters (1998).

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 13, 2009

Satellite of the Simians 2: Return to the Mad House

Sooooooooo if you recall I had a few things to say regarding The Planet of the Apes series from a previous article. Well, as it so happens I realized the other day that I had to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes for sheer completeness’s sake. So I saw it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was seen by me. For my immediate thoughts on the film kindly enjoy the following paragraphs.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt in this year of our Lord 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an effective redux of the original’s third sequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) which deals with the ape revolution. It is also quite easily the best Apes movie since the first Planet of the Apes in 1968. Rise features some impressive special effects, compelling characters, exhilarating action, and some truly fascinating motion capture performances (the main character of Caesar being performed by Andy Serkis who is definitely going to start getting a reputation for this sort of thing after Gollum and King Kong). Rise, however, is by no means a perfect movie.

My main beef with Rise comes from the cold simple fact that the filmmakers are so preoccupied with conveying a believable and complex ape plot that they forget about the humans. I go into a movie like this not expecting to buy every pseudo-scientific detail spewed at me, but I would have liked it better had a little more care been placed into the human storyline. James Franco (Pineapple Express) does an OK job as the stereotypical good scientist with ambition who winds up taking care of Caesar, but the role never calls for much and we lose track of him and what his goals actually are before the halfway point. John Lithgow (Third Rock From the Sun) is back on the screen as Franco’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father, but again not much is given to him. The gorgeous Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is the biggest loss. She is essentially a wasted character entirely. She provides nothing to the story except its basic need for a female character. Literally nothing she says or does is important in this movie (BECHDEL TEST). She is so woefully underwritten that it makes me very sad indeed. Brian Cox (25th Hour) has the most interesting human character as the ambiguous “monkey jail warden,” but he’s given very little screen-time and most of it comes down to what he can do with very little. His animal-hating son is played by Draco Malfoy himself, and I certainly hope that he gets better work in American films after this. David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland) plays the final piece to this cliche-wrought puzzle: the greedy rich guy who controls the apparent progress of science. I found all of these fine actors wasted here. It begs the question of why you would cast big names for stock roles that could be played by anybody? I think had they spent a little more time developing the human world (and maybe casting it a bit more along the lines of District 9) it could have saved much for me.

All this aside, the only real reason anyone is going to see this movie is for the apes. This department delivers. With almost no dialogue the CG apes provide an incredibly emotional and nuanced narrative that is hard not to be sucked into. Caesar (the name obviously a nod to Cornelius and Zira’s son from Conquest and Battle) is a chimpanzee physically, but science run amok has sculpted his brain to be far more advanced and so he has an identity crisis of sorts. He can recognize injustice and he has a look in his eye that says he knows there is more that he does not yet understand. When he violently defends John Lithgow from the mean next-door neighbor the courts order James Franco put Caesar is a sanctuary for old apes. Once inside “monkey jail” the film really picks up. Up until now there have only been startling moments of realization and intrigue, here is where we get the lower primate retelling of Escape From Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, and maybe Hunger. No longer protected by his human father, Caesar learns what it means to be an animal in a human’s world…also what it means to be an animal in an animal’s world. You feel his frustration and you really follow his logic and learning. If you know anything about this movie you know they stage a huge ape revolt. No room for passive resistance or nonviolent civil disobedience when your main thought is regarding your own feces and exactly where to throw it and how hard. I won’t spoil all the details, but I will say that it is this chapter of the film—where we really learn who Caesar is and who he can become—where it really soars.

The revolt inevitably leads to action. The action is a lot of fun and I had a good time watching the dumb, dopey humans being consistently surprised by the wily ape strategies. My problem again was that all of the human characters are dumb, dopey cardboard cutouts, but it was enjoyable watching them get pummeled by Caesar’s army. The film ends well and I was surprised that I found myself actually hoping for a sequel. That almost never happens to me! I would like to see more of these apes in action.

In addition to the splendid tale of science gone haywire and the subsequent ape revolution, there are several in-jokes and references for Planet of the Apes geeks. Caesar’s mother is called “Bright Eyes” by the scientists, which is the same name given to Taylor (Charlton Heston) by his ape captors in the first Planet of the Apes. The name Caesar derives from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Mr. Malfoy’s character is named Dodge Landon (which I didn’t catch until the credits) and Dodge and Landon were the names of Taylor’s shipmates in the original movie. James Franco sort of plays a cross between the good human scientists in Conquest and Ricardo Montalban’s kindly circus proprietor from Conquest and Battle. To keep it pure, not just chimpanzees are present, but gorillas and orangutans as well. In possibly another nod to Montalban, one orangutan signs that he was from the circus. The humans have also named this orangutan  Maurice which I presume to be a reference to Maurice Evans who played the dogmatic orangutan, Dr. Zaius, in the original 1968 film. Since he is a good orangutan I also take it as reference to Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Also the gorilla in the movie is named Buck which is another reference to the original film because the gorilla named Julius was played by Buck Kartalian. Charlton Heston can be seen on the television a couple of times as well. One ape is referred to in passing by the name of Cornelia (the feminine form of Roddy McDowell’s chimpanzee character, Cornelius?). The lines, “It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!” as well as “Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” are both spoken. I’m sure there’s some I missed, but you get the idea and sometimes it’s good to know things were made by fans.

Things are also kept safe for the Apes timeline because it depicts the original revolution and not the second one that was instigated by the now second Caesar (the offspring of Cornelius and Zira when they went back in time following the destruction of the earth in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). So Escape from the Planet of the Apes can still take place and set up the revised timeline where Lawgiver presides over both ape and man harmoniously and essentially undoing all of the previous and future movies. Don’t worry.

I am sufficiently nerded out. I liked the movie quite a bit despite its many shortcomings. It’s not great, but it’s pretty darn satisfying. And you know what else? I have completed my mission. I have seen all seven Planet of the Apes movies now. If you loved the first movie with Charlton Heston and were let down by some of the sequels and remake then maybe this will give you hope. Apes ain’t dead yet.

http://www.beyondhollywood.com/category/conquest-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-remake-movie/

http://www.poptower.com/rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-pictures.htm

http://moviecarpet.com/2011/06/04/first-tv-spot-for-rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-and-new-photos/rise_of_the_planet_of_the_apes-09/