Friday, December 2, 2011

J. Edgar: Kiss and Make-Up

A week ago yesterday was Thanksgiving. (I'm sorry I didn't mention it sooner. I hope none of you missed it). What a Thanksgiving it was! Jason Witten tackled a cheerleader! President Obama sent this year's pardoned turkey to Disneyland! ("Courage the Turkey, you've just been given a new lease on life! What are you going to do now?!"). And everyone in the U.S. of A. was surrounded by family and friends. Everyone except me, that is. I was across the continent from my loved ones, in a sleazy L.A. motel near Filipinotown (I'm sorry...HISTORIC Filipinotown. Because nothing says "historic" like a Jack-in-the-Box). In lieu of loved ones, I shared my holiday with the couple in the next room. Or more accurately, they shared THEIR holiday with me, generously sending their outrageously faked orgasm moans through the paper-thin wall. They tended to do this most every night, but I think they went the extra mile for Thanksgiving. (Come to think of it, I wish they HAD gone an extra mile, so I wouldn't have had to listen to them). I did buy a can of cranberry sauce, but after opening it I realized I didn't have a spoon. So, I ate it Jell-O shot style out of a plastic cup.

The upshot of all this is that I saw J. EDGAR last Thursday. While enjoyable, it's definitely one of Eastwood's lesser works. I think a large part of the problem is that he let his politics come into play. Eastwood is fairly right-wing, and the film that he made is constructed as a love letter to a complex, flawed, but ultimately good man. It never quite makes Hoover cuddly (DiCaprio's fantastically guarded performance makes sure of that), but the main goal seems to be generating sympathy for the guy.

Generating sympathy CAN be a valid reason for making a film. I'm not really a fan of Oliver Stone, but I love NIXON. That was a movie where Stone put his politics aside and said, "Look. I hate this guy. I think he's trash. But he acted the way he did due to the same feelings of hurt and fear and love that we all experience every day." And he created a three-and-a-half hour portrait of a man, largely fantasy, but haunting and fascinating.

I don't think you can reasonably take that approach with Hoover though. While Nixon always came across as kind of pathetic, Hoover was the most powerful man in America for thirty years. You can't paint him as the underdog. You can't try to make me like him. I may end up liking him, but that shouldn't be the filmmaker's goal. While I'm sure Hoover did a lot of good in his early days with the Bureau, fighting actual threats, he also had more of a hand than anyone else in corrupting the U.S. government. He initiated the wiretapping, the illegal file theft, the planting of evidence, the blackmail. All of this stuff was previously going on in local police precincts, of course, but Hoover brought it to a federal level. Suddenly the President of the United States could be bought and sold. Suddenly a good man couldn't go into politics without making some compromises. If Hoover hadn't gotten this system in motion, someone else undeniably would have. But Hoover did it.

One of the great ironies is that while Hoover amassed files on the everyday movements of every politician and celebrity in the country, very little information exists on his own private life. He was in the perfect position, more than anyone else in the world, to keep his own cards face-down on the table. The result is that Eastwood is given lots of leeway to use his imagination. What he comes up with is, unfortunately, not all that interesting. An overbearing mother to explain his need for control and his withdrawn nature (as well as a touch of Norman Bates syndrome). Repressed homosexuality to explain his obsession with others' sexual deviance. It's all well-executed, but it's so cliche. Hoover was far too complex and divisive for such an obvious approach. He deserves a meatier treatment. Instead, what we get is essentially a fairy tale. (No pun intended). One of the cheesiest scenes is when young Hoover is mocked for having too many nicknames, and told to just "pick a name." He inevitably signs "J. Edgar" with great import, as if this was some life-altering moment. In reality, many men in Hoover's time used the first-initial-middle-name approach--there was nothing unusual about it. The fact that the film puts emphasis on such a silly moment, but doesn't even mention COINTELPRO, says a lot about Eastwood's priorities.

The most effective aspect of the film is the love story. As a filmmaker, Eastwood was sharp enough to see that, and he made that relationship the centerpiece of the film. DiCaprio takes off just enough edge in these scenes. Armie Hammer, who made an impression in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, really blew me away here as Clyde Tolson. The script doesn't give us too good a reason why this attractive, well-adjusted guy would spend more than thirty years of his life in a celibate relationship with Hoover; but Hammer's performance has just the right levels of confidence and fragility to make it clear that for Tolson, this is true love, and there is nothing else out there. The scenes between these guys are the best in the film, and the performances fill in any cracks that might exist in the script.

The title of my review refers to the two most talked-about aspects of the film. The man-on-man kiss has been discussed in every interview with the two actors, of course, because the idea of same-sex kissing still makes talk show hosts and audiences titter like schoolboys. The make-up has been universally derided as looking caked-on, with some comparing it to "old Biff" in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II. Maybe I'm just oblivious to this kind of thing. I never even noticed how bad the BACK TO THE FUTURE make-up looked until I saw it in high def a few months ago. To me, DiCaprio's make-up looked fine. It was a LOT of make-up, yes. The older Hoover was quite a bit heavier than DiCaprio, so it would have to be a lot. But I could still catch the nuances of the performance. More of an argument could be made against Tolson's make-up, which did look ghoulish in some of the close-ups, but I didn't feel it inhibited Hammer's performance.

The framing device for the film is Hoover in his office, dictating his autobiography to a revolving-door of agent-stenographers. We see the flashbacks as he describes them. Near the end of the film, Tolson accuses him of fabricating large parts of his story, telling him (and us) that an important arrest we watched Hoover make was actually carried out by another agent. Hoover wasn't even at the scene. The "unreliable narrator" is a great underused element in literature. It's tough to pull off on film, although when done right you get some terrifically thought-provoking movies (see: RASHOMON, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, FIGHT CLUB, BIG FISH). In J. EDGAR, it's just kind of aggravating. All of a sudden, at the very end of the movie, the filmmakers decide to tell the audience that everything you've just watched may not have happened even within the reality of the film (never mind actual history). Maybe if a few seeds had been dropped sooner, a couple of conflicting versions of the same scene had been shown, it might have been more interesting. But suddenly dropping that information at the very end of the film feels cheap. I assume Eastwood did it for deniability, so that when people inevitably attack the precarious historicity of the film or his whitewashed portrayal of Hoover, he can point and say, "Well, I told you in the film itself that some of it was made up!"

Despite its flaws, I would recommend watching J. EDGAR, whether or not you have any direct interest in Hoover himself. It's a good piece of filmmaking from one of our great filmmakers, with some terrific performances. Just try not to come out of it thinking you've learned anything.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Pleasant DRIVE Through Familiar Territory

I think DRIVE is overrated. I only just finished watching it for the first time three hours ago, but I feel pretty confident in making this statement.

That's not to denigrate the film in any way. I also think INCEPTION is overrated, but it's still a fantastic film.

The main problem with DRIVE, for me, was the plot--the framework; the foundation. The execution was innovative. I wanted to love the movie so badly, every second that it was onscreen. I saw that it was fighting against mainstream cinema, and in all the right ways. But at its heart, the plot just felt like something I'd seen many, many times before. In fact, it felt like a plot I'd seen two seasons ago on BREAKING BAD.

The presence of Bryan Cranston may have been more of a curse than a blessing. He's a terrific actor, and certainly elevates whatever material he's performing. But in this particular case, the give-and-take-and-then-take-some-more mentor relationship with Gosling's character is really reminiscent of Walt 'n' Jesse, perhaps to the detriment of the film. The fact that Gosling's character is romancing a troubled lower-class gal with a kid (and ties to the Hispanic community and the criminal underworld) makes it feel even more like a retread of BREAKING BAD season 3. The filmmakers obviously wanted me to think of Gosling as the next Clint Eastwood (The Kid with No Name!). Instead, all I could think about was Jesse Pinkman, and the fact that Ryan Gosling, as good as he is, is no Aaron Paul. Paul displayed greater range in one scene of BREAKING BAD this year ("I made you my does THAT feel?") than Gosling musters in the entire film.

I do think Ryan Gosling is talented...but I think his career has been badly mismanaged. He's overexposed, for no good reason. All of a sudden, he's in one out of every six movies. It seems like he's trying to pull a DiCaprio.

Back in 1998, you couldn't spend ten minutes with any girl under 20 without hearing squeals of "Leo!" Leo, in turn, was despised by the entire male population of the U.S. Five years later, he underwent a tremendous transformation (largely thanks to Martin Scorsese), and today he is one of the most respected dramatic film actors alive. (Deservedly so, I might add.)

Gosling similarly came to prominence in a romantic adolescent melodrama, and in the last year or two has been trying to parlay that into artistic credibility with some daring, interesting roles. The problem is that Gosling hasn't been working with anyone of Scorsese's calibre (with the possible exception of Marc Forster).

The "less is more" approach to acting can be very effective (see Clint Eastwood in the Leone trilogy). But Gosling is leaning on it too heavily. His minimalist performance in LARS & THE REAL GIRL thrilled me for twenty minutes, but then started to bore the shit out of me. His DRIVE character kept my interest a little more. It's a credit to the performance that there could be a thirty-second scene of two characters staring at each other, exchanging only one line of dialogue ("I'm not doing anything this weekend"), and I was on the edge of my seat. I chuckled at the absurdity. I felt the guy's pain. I felt the GIRL's pain. If a moment like that is done right, the audience becomes a worm on a hook, waiting to be devoured by the film. It worked in that moment.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of other moments in the film where Gosling's wide-eyed man-of-few-words goes from intriguing to boring. At a certain point, you need to pull something else out of your bag of tricks. At a certain point, there needs to be some development. "The Kid" never quite seems to get there. He's always just the boy scout with a dark past.

Maybe if the pacing had been better, DRIVE could have disguised its script issues. Instead, it feels like two separate movies welded together. The first half is a tediously slow "forbidden romance"; the second half is an ultraviolent revenge thriller. It's like someone started doing an update of ROMEO & JULIET, and then Sam Peckinpah was brought in midway to take over the production. The Peckinpah-esque stuff is terrific (and much appreciated, being released the same week as the watered-down remake of Sam's classic STRAW DOGS). But the romance just feels belabored and obvious.

Some reviews have compared its dreamy quality to the love scenes in David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DR., probably due to the L.A. setting. But without Lynch's visionary weirdness, we're just left with two people who have a penchant for staring moodily into space. Reviewers often talk about sexual chemistry, but the so-called "sexual chemistry" between actors doesn't actually happen on the set. It's something that's read into the performances after the fact, by the audience. In this film, the first few scenes of Gosling and Carey Mulligan standing silently across from one another, sporadically throwing smouldering glimpses across the room, feel sexy. Really sexy. But after awhile, as human beings, we're supposed to connect. When two people are together for the fifth time and still can only say three words to each other, you start to wonder if maybe they just don't have anything in common. Or maybe they're both slightly retarded.

I think that if some of the violence had been bumped up to the first half of the film, and some of the romance pushed to the second half, we might have been left with a more balanced and less tedious film. The Kid's relationships with Cranston and Albert Brooks were the most intriguing parts of the film for me. I felt like his time with these men was far more important than his slight romantic entanglement with Carey Mulligan; and the ending of the film seems to bear me out on this. Unfortunately, there's a good forty minutes of the film's 100 minute runtime that seems to disagree with me.

To digress momentarily:

I love the Steve McQueen film THE SAND PEBBLES. The only part of the film that doesn't work is the romance with Candice Bergen, which feels completely tacked-on. Fortunately, that romance only takes up about 20 minutes of the film's three-hour runtime. Much more important is McQueen's love affair with the ship's engine ("Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman").

Similarly, I feel that Gosling's love affair with driving (and particularly the stock car, which gets lost in the shuffle) should have received more emphasis. That stock car was the offspring of Gosling, Cranston, and Brooks' characters. The betrayals these three men inflict on one another would have meant so much more if that initial bond had been pushed on the audience a little more. Instead, the filmmakers elected to flesh out in painstaking detail a romance story that we GET almost instantly. It's important to the film, and to the Kid's character...but it doesn't merit the amount of time that's spent on it.

There are several terrific performances in the film, but I'm tempted to give Brooks the edge--if only for his complete defiance of expectations. The performance he gives here is the kind that can redefine a career. These days, Brooks is known for being goofy and intelligent. He's Nemo's dad; he's the author of a well-reviewed work of satirical political fiction; he's one of the funniest celebrities on Twitter. And in DRIVE, he's absolutely chilling. I think there are probably more than a few people who will hesitate to shake his hand after watching this film.

The highlight of the film is absolutely the pre-credits scene, which is one of the most intelligent and suspenseful car chases shot in the last twenty years. That ten minutes of footage is almost worth the price of admission all on its own, and could have made a terrific short. Maybe the film doomed itself by starting out so strong, when it couldn't possibly sustain that level of awesomeness for 100 minutes.

Would I recommend watching DRIVE? Absolutely; anyone who loves film should do so. However, I hope you won't be quite as amped-up as I was. It's a pleasant "artsy" diversion, but underlying the gloss is a worn-out storyline that needs every bit of polish the filmmakers have at their disposal.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Occasionally, Moore Is Less

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have defeated Fu Man Chu, Professor Moriarty, and a Martian invasion. But can they overcome the greatest challenge of all: the era of copyright protection?

To briefly recap: This is the third volume of the LEAGUE comic. Volumes 1 & 2 took place in 1898, and were universally acclaimed. In fact, Vol. 2 won the 2003 Teen Choice Award for Best Non-Consensual Anal Sex (the category was discontinued in 2004, for rather obvious reasons). The original premise of the series was this: What would happen if one applied the logic of modern superhero team-ups to Victorian-era fictional characters? Since then, the series has kept growing and expanding, to the point that series writer Alan Moore now seems set on incorporating every single book, film, and television series ever made into his world, at least as an elliptical reference. So, what started as a fun, goofy side project from arguably the greatest comic book writer ever, has now become a (still utterly fascinating) act of complete OCD.

It’s worth noting here that the first two volumes of the LEAGUE each contained a backup serialized text piece. In Vol. 2, the backup text was a nearly unreadable piece called the New Traveler’s Almanac. The New Traveler’s Almanac was interesting for the way it expanded League’s world, bringing the story back into the 17th century and forward to the mid-20th. However, in between the few relevant tidbits were 40 pages’ worth of crap. That’s right -- FORTY PAGES of Bible-sized print, that essentially amount to Alan Moore showing off how much shit he’s read. The Almanac reads like an uber-dry, facts-only history lesson, except that it of course never actually happened. It’s a cool academic exercise, but it’s not a very satisfying read.

Okay, so the Almanac was a slight hiccup. But as I said, it served as BACKUP material to the LEAGUE Vol. 2, one of my favorite miniseries in the history of comics. As long as Moore’s giving us comics material as fantastic as this, he can be as indulgent as he likes at the back of the book. Right?

Then came the THE BLACK DOSSIER.

A lot of people hated BLACK DOSSIER and cited that as the moment Moore’s indulgence finally took control of the series. I disagree. Certainly, DOSSIER was a game changer. Unlike previous volumes, where the text piece served as peripheral material, DOSSIER alternated pretty evenly between the main comics story and the “dossier” text pieces, building a world where Orwell meets Orson Welles. It holds together brilliantly -- the idea of Harry Lime from THE THIRD MAN becoming M from the 007 movies is enough to send shivers up any film fan’s spine. While DOSSIER is certainly less engaging than the two 1890s volumes, it makes for solid entertainment, in my opinion.

That brings us to the current volume, CENTURY, which will ultimately contain three issues. Issue 2 just came out last week, and I caught myself up, reading both #1 and 2 for the first time on back-to-back days. #1 takes place in 1910, and #2 is 1969. #3 (which was originally scheduled for release in 2009, and will now come out sometime next year) takes place in 2009.

There seem to be two major running threads in this volume. One is the occult -- Somerset Maugham’s character of Oliver Haddo keeps reincarnating himself into different bodies, working over the course of the titular century toward his goal of creating a “moon child.” This seems obliquely apocalyptic, and will culminate in the 2009 issue. The other running thread is the fact that Moore seems determined to work songs (particularly spoofs of Weill & Brecht’s THREEPENNY OPERA) into all three issues, with the lyrics sometimes running through many pages of the comic as other action goes on. This was okay for me, since I have a passing familiarity with the major songs from THREEPENNY OPERA (especially the famous “Mack the Knife”); but if you don’t know the tunes, it just adds another element of obnoxiousness to the proceedings.

#2 is where I really started to feel that Moore was fingering his nose at us, though. Based on the obscurity of the jokes that I DID get (Doug Piranha from MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS is mentioned as a rival gangster, and Radio Jolly Roger from a DANGERMAN episode pops up in the background), I can’t imagine how many thousand more there must have been that flew right over my head. Apparently Moore hasn’t just read every book ever written; he’s also memorized every television episode ever aired on either side of the Atlantic!

For CENTURY #2, we don’t have much of a story, and we don’t have much of a “League.” We have three heroes: adventurer Allan Quartermain and DRACULA’s Mina Murray from the earlier volumes, who are joined by Orlando, the gender-shifting immortal (who has also granted Allan and Mina immortality). The problem is that none of the protagonists do anything interesting: they just run from place to place collecting clues and making obscure references. Yes, there’s a few acknowledgements of the fact that Mina is getting uncomfortable with immortality, but Allan and Orlando completely tread water character-wise up until the end of the book. In the first couple of volumes, Moore had fun with Allan’s overt racism, but I guess in the more socially-aware ‘60s he had to mellow, leaving him without much of a personality. It’s only in the last three pages, in a black-and-white flash-forward to the punk era, that we see Quartermain start to become an interesting character again.

And the story? It feels like Moore is stretching it out to three issues when it should have been one. #2 feels like a rehash of #1, told in a different era. A decent synopsis of both #1 and #2 would be: The League runs around trying to prevent Oliver Haddo from creating the Moon Child, then realizes that he’s not planning to do that until issue 3. The endless stream of fictional British gangsters made me frequently forget who was who, and feels largely like padding.

Another major problem is how oblique Moore makes his references -- often for copyright reasons, but sometimes seemingly just to mess with the reader. A terrific example of the copyright issue is raised when a certain HARRY POTTER character makes an appearance … except I completely missed it, since I’m not that into HARRY POTTER, and Moore can never really spell out who the guy is. It’ll be interesting to see how that particular thread develops. Moore seems to be setting him up as a major character for #3. But presumably, this unnamed character will have lost his nose by then, and will be pretty distinctly recognizable as a certain copyrighted property. As I said, I don’t care for HARRY POTTER, but I am sort of excited to see how Moore manages to skirt the legal issues.

One of the more successful elements of the story is the use of Mick Jagger’s character from the film PERFORMANCE as a stand-in for Jagger himself, building an alternate-reality Rolling Stones around him. This allows Moore to open the book with a (remarkably timely) re-imagining of “27-Clubber” Brian Jones’ death, and also leads to a cool “Sympathy for the Devil” spoof. Unfortunately, it then leads to a parody of the Stones’ tribute concert to Jones, where Jagger released a bunch of butterflies and read a poem. Moore writes his own morbid take on the poem that Jagger read, leading to more self-indulgence … the poem runs through the action for nine pages! No wonder there’s no character development, if this is where his priorities are!

Another aspect of CENTURY that I’ve found interesting is Andrew Norton, a bald man who pops up for a couple of pages in each issue. Apparently he’s from SLOW CHOCOLATE AUTOPSY, a book by a friend of Moore’s. The character of Norton can move through time at will, but CANNOT move through space. He is perpetually trapped in London, existing through all of history and experiencing it all simultaneously. He pops up to throw very oblique clues at our characters, and also to throw out a HUGE range of seemingly random references. Even more intriguingly, he seems to have a knowledge of our real world. While Moore’s universe replaces the Beatles with Eric Idle’s Rutles, Mr. Norton quotes Mark David Chapman’s request for John Lennon’s autograph. He also refers to Donald Cammell, the director of the aforementioned PERFORMANCE, and even informs the League that he “enjoyed that second volume” (!). Norton’s dialogue is more riddled with Arcanum than any other part of the book, but I find the character really fascinating. I can’t wait to see what Moore does with him in #3.

As with previous volumes, there’s a text piece at the back of the book. For the first time, in issue #2, I think I actually enjoyed the text piece more than the comic. It was actually EASIER for me to catch the references. The text piece is (according to an interview with Moore) an attempt to include EVERY SINGLE REFERENCE TO THE MOON EVER IN FICTION in a single story. Again … OCD much? In theory, that concept says a lot about what’s wrong with Moore’s approach to the recent material. He should let the story evolve, instead of shoe-horning in every esoteric reference he can think of. But actually, in practice, I really like the text piece so far. It primarily involves the “Galley-wag” going on a mission with Mina in 1964.

The Golliwog is both a literary character and a very popular doll from early 20th-century Britain. Appearance-wise, it’s a hideously racist caricature of a natty-haired thick-lipped black male. What possessed Moore to even ATTEMPT to include such a character is a total mystery to me, but he obviously had to be very careful about his portrayal. So, in his own deranged fashion, he decided to make the character a giant alien, made of dark matter, obsessed with two living sex dolls, and talking in the most out-there speech pattern imaginable, so that no one would ever confuse it for a black dialect – or ANY existing dialect. (From THE BLACK DOSSIER: “Bread and tits to you, gilded wasp of Elysium. Let the thrup of us entender withdoors, what cheer?”). Even better, whenever he speaks – in comic OR text – he does so in a bold, italicized font, implying (I guess) that he yells constantly. The voice that I hear for the character in my head as I read his dialogue is so hilarious that I wish he had a bigger role to play in the main story.

The main body of the text story, taking place on the moon, ties together the obelisk from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Prof. Cavor from the first volume of the LEAGUE, and the AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON, amongst many other things. It links the obelisk with the pool that gave Orlando immortality. This honestly feels like a much cooler plot thread than the “Moon Child” storyline, and might have made for a better comic if Moore had made it the focus of CENTURY. Maybe it'll come into play next issue.

Anyway, I’ve babbled enough. Please let me know your thoughts, gentle reader, if you're brave enough to pick up a copy. Maybe I’ll write my next blog entirely in Moore's Galley-wag dialect.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Other Prepositional Phrases

I didn't intend for my first blog to be about a Planet of the Apes movie. No one ever does. At least, I ASSUME no one ever does. It's kind of like setting out to date America Ferrera. She's probably got a lot of money, and she seems like a nice down-to-earth girl. Ultimately, it might not be a bad idea at all. but it's not something to strive for. I don't know anyone who wakes up looking at their framed SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster and says, "Today, my goal is to hook up with America Ferrera."

(Aside: The SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS poster is actually just a giant ass in a pair of blue jeans. I'm not sure whose ass it is. I mean, I assume the actual ass belongs to an ass model, and not to any of the four lead actresses who starred in the film. But even if we're suspending our disbelief, and assuming it belongs to one of the leads, I don't think anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy and physics would think that it belongs to America Ferrera. But then again, we're three degrees beyond hypothetical at this point. I digress.)

Look, I'll admit it: When I was a kid, I liked the original PLANET OF THE APES pentalogy (that means a series of five! -- Word of The Day). I even own a six-DVD set copyrighted in 2000, so I must have had some fascination even at age 16. Don't get me wrong: As a ten-year-old, I KNEW how cheesy the later films were. But I loved the original film, and once my fanboy nature forced me to see the sequels, there were a few things that sucked me in.

One of the main appeals was the Moebius strip of a timeline. For those of you not familiar with the sequels, Cornelius & Zira head into space in the third one, following a nuclear destruction of their futuristic Ape-world at the end of the preceding film. Presumably taking advantage of the same time-dilation effect that brought space traveler Charlton Heston to the future in the first film, the filmmakers plopped the two apes into then-present-day LA when they landed (time travel! Always a favorite of mine). The following two films were mostly concerned with Caesar, their child, played by Roddy McDowall (who had also played the dad Cornelius). Caesar led the ape rebellion that ultimately led to Ape-ocalypse (and yes, I'm planning on trademarking that). To ten-year-old me, there was something undeniably cool about Heston's future actions setting in motion the events that actually led to Ape-ocalypse in his own present-day. There was an element of fatalism about it that I loved.

Another appeal was Roddy McDowall's tour de force performance as Cornelius / Caesar, the Michael Corleone of the simian set, turning from put-upon nice-guy to revolutionary kingpin. Even under super-cheesy monkey makeup, when McDowall set his sights on evil, he could give you chills.

And hell, in the fifth movie, you get John Huston in a career-low performance as an ape! Even as a ten-year-old, I knew Huston as the director of some of my favorite Bogart movies (THE MALTESE FALCON, THE AFRICAN QUEEN), and I don't believe I'd ever seen him act prior to that. To see this man who I'd only known in name--only known for creating high art--dressed in a bad Halloween costume and spouting a bunch of badly-written gibberish to six- and seven-year-olds (also in monkey suits) was a real eye-opener. That may have been the moment when I realized maybe Hollywood wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd thought.

So there you have it: My love-hate relationship with the Apes. Yes, the sequels suck; but no more than the thirty-odd FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN sequels that gorehounds idolize and rewatch over and over. SOMEBODY has to be a Monkey Fan. It just fell to ten-year-old me. Sue me, okay?

(And before you ask: Yes, I saw Burton's version in the theater and despised it. The less said, the better.)

So that brings us to present-day, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the rather interesting and surprisingly enjoyable film that you might call a prequel, or a reboot, or a remake.

Before we get there, however, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I loved the homages to the previous series ("IT'S A MADHOUSE!!!"). I loved the fact that there were loooong stretches of film that were just apes gesturing and posturing at each other, with no dialogue at all. It takes balls to attempt that in a major summer blockbuster, and it takes skill to make it interesting enough to watch. The filmmakers here have both, and the glee I felt at their rebellious act reminded me of Pixar's similar risk in WALL-E. Of course, it paid off for Pixar, and I hope it pays off for these guys.

I loved how sympathetic this movie made the apes. It was like a way better version of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, where you start out feeling bad for Caesar, are rooting for him all along against the humans, and then are horrified when he actually succeeds. It takes a lot to get a film audience to root AGAINST humanity, and I think this film largely succeeds. The violent acts are spaced-out so that they keep their impact, and yet the film never feels slow. While the apes can be pretty terrifying, you can't help asking yourself whether you'd do the same thing in their place.

A lot of the credit goes to Lithgow, who proved what a national treasure he is a couple of seasons ago on DEXTER, and is brilliantly cast here. He's really the heart of the movie. Let's face it: It's not easy to make an audience sympathize with a mute CGI ape. And as for James Franco, well ... Let's just say the mute CGI ape might have made a more charismatic Oscar host. But because Lithgow is devoted to both of these characters, we somehow can't help caring about them, even when he's not onscreen.

And the pacing is terrific. I won't say that it's my favorite "big summer" movie of the year, but it is by far the most well-paced. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and SUPER 8 were both phenomenal for the first hour, then lost their way when they started playing to genre cliches. RISE doesn't fall victim to that: everything that happens feels totally natural. What's more, it doesn't force the plot along just to play to audience expectations. It ends at a moment that feels natural to the story, leaving room for a sequel if box office returns allow.

And that brings us to my question: Is this a prequel? A remake? A reboot? RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the preposition-heavy title in question, clearly takes place in a totally separate continuity from Burton's godawful that's entirely off the table. As far as the original pentalogy (something about that word sounds kind of Satanist, doesn't it?) ... I sketched out the basic plot of the original films above, and it clearly doesn't gibe with the story here. While Caesar still leads the rebellion, this Caesar is not the child of time-traveling talking monkeys ... he's a byproduct of science. Theoretically, this film is a prequel to the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES, and if you watch those two films back-to-back you're in for a hell of a viewing experience. And I think it would work, more or less free of continuity errors. Once the DVD / Blu Ray of this film comes out, I'll probably give it a whirl. However, if you're an Apes enthusiast like myself, then you'll recognize that this film is essentially a remake of CONQUEST and BATTLE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. There's no denying that they borrow certain elements, although it's a way better experience.

What all this boils down to is: They can take this franchise ANYWHERE. They can do a direct followup to RISE that shows the next phase in the simian rebellion. They can skip ahead several hundred years and do a far better PLANET OF THE APES remake than Burton did. Or they can do some other, totally original story.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the movie? Am I just far too intrigued by the idea of talking apes? Let me know in the comments section, by all means.

My next blog (maybe tomorrow?) will focus on the latest chapter of the LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN comic, taking place in 1969 and titled "Paint It Black." What happens when Alan Moore takes his brilliantly-conceived mashup out of the Victorian era and into the height of hippie counterculture? Find out soon!