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Saturday, July 24, 2010

SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM KEN RUSSELL'S LISZTOMANIA (1975)

After recently reading a biography and overview of the works of British director Ken Russell , I was consumed with a longing to once more sit through my favorite of his loony filmic catalogue, the much-maligned LISZTOMANIA (1975), but after some research I found out that it's not available on DVD in the States. Luckily for me I know of a terrific source for "gray market" DVDs, and they had the film, albeit a transfer from a pan-and-scan VHS tape, so I watched it again and laughed my ass off with — and at — its glorious and schoolboy-vulgar excesses.

Playing fast and loose with the life of classical composer Franz Liszt, LISZTOMANIA is a cornucopia of visual insanity and extremely questionable taste featuring a shitload of stuff that will either offend or amuse the moviegoer. I mean, how can you not love something as ludicrous as Ringo Starr playing the Pope?

Or how about Yes keyboardist (and the film's scorer) Rick Wakeman as Wagner's Sigfried in a Marvel Comics Thor getup?

And, speaking of things Wagnerian, how about the buck-nekkid Rhine Maidens worshipping Das Rheingold that happens to looked like a huge, gold-tipped dick?

That's pretty good, but LISZTOMANIA is infamous for a much more outrageous bit of phallic folderol.

During the course of the story, Franz Liszt — played by the donkey-faced frontman for the Who, Roger Daltrey — symbolically sacrifices his womanizing ways for the patronage of Princess Carolyn (Sarah Kesselman). The princess greets him in a room supported by gilded dick-pillars,

and once he agrees to the bargain things go balls-out Russellian and in no time Liszt, in a dress no less, gets sucked up the princess' vagina by wind-tunnel-velocity gusts.


Once inside this titanic pussy, Liszt is assaulted by a chorus line of former lovers, each decked out in goofy burlesque costumes.

The girls tear and claw at Liszt, who whips a harp from out of nowhere and goes into his "Orpheus" schtick, a move that soothes their savage breasts and inspires them to summon out his trouser snake with a sweet siren's song. Their lilting calls yield totally unexpected results as Liszt's member expands and expands,


finally ending up at a length of about ten feet.

As rinky-dinky "pee-anny" music blares on the soundtrack, Liszt cackles like a fucking madman and proudly slaps his monstrous bacon bazooka in time to the music, occasionally treating the stunned audience to the old "fist-up" erection gesture.

He then kindly gives the ladies a ride on the mighty baloney pony,

after which the choreography changes gears and turns into a phallocentric Busby Berkely number wherein Liszt bobs his pecker up and down between the legs of his spread-eagled harem,

before obligingly letting the women dance a merry maypole around his engorged man-root.

But all good things must eventually come to an end, and the girls use the maypole ribbons to drag a loudly-protesting Liszt to a guillotine wherein his kielbasa will be sacrificed, the pillory through which his behemoth boner will be thrust framed by the splayed thighs of a now demonic and bat-winged Princess Carolyn (I particularly like the inverted crucifix pasted to her crotch).

It's a pretty delirious sequence, but it pales in comparison to the film's finale.

By the time the film's nearly over, all sorts of crazy shit has happened, but of greatest importance to the "plot" is how the stylistic influences vampirized from Liszt by Richard Wagner lead to the creation of Nazism, personified by a risen-from-the-grave Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler who not only looks ridiculous but also packs a combination machine gun/electric guitar.

No, you are not going insane: It's Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler!

So as Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler rampages through the streets of Germany,

aided by apple-cheeked Aryan youth in Superman costumes while he blows away klesmer-music-accompanied Jews, Liszt is in heaven, residing in a huge pipe organ with all of the significant women from his earthly existence, even his daughter, Cosima, who was depicted as killing him with a voodoo doll (don't ask).

After Liszt and the ladies play a soothing classical number, their moment of peace is interrupted by all of them noticing Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler's heinous deeds. Liszt figures it's up to him and the ladies to fly to Earth and kick Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler's ass, so we then find out that their pipe organ-cum-love-shack is actually a spaceship with dime-store angel wings,

which Liszt swiftly pilots to a ravaged Germany.

Once there, he sends the ship into a nosedive,

and blows up Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler with rainbow-colored/psychedelic laser beams. Once the day is saved, Liszt pilots his ship into deep space, toward Heaven or who the fuck knows where, or for what purpose. THE END.

Sure there are some slow-moving moments in the flick — it can't all be gigantic cocks, Nazi vampires, Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitlers, and naked chicks with big boobs...or can it? — but now don't you wanna see LISZTOMANIA for yourself? It's not for all tastes, but how can you not give it up for the sheer, glorious insanity that is Frankenstein/Wagner/Hitler? I couldn't have come up with that one even if I were savagely dosed-up on tequila and cheap Mexican cough syrup, and that's saying something!

TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Friday, July 23, 2010

FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY (2003)

No, I haven't lost what little remains of my mind. After five years I'm finally coming clean and admitting to having willingly sat through this infamous feature starring the winner and runner-up from the first season of the ubiquitous AMERICAN IDOL, and I was not bribed into seeing it with the promise of pussy as a reward. No, I did not spend a cent on it during its epochal two-week theatrical run, instead opting to use a free video coupon on it at my now-closed local video store, but I was motivated to see it solely to marvel at what I imagined would be the ultimate example of a crass cash-in flick. Even with that in mind I was tempted to wear a bag over my head as I placed the movie on the rental counter and also considered exiting the store while ringing a hand-held bell, alerting innocent passersby to my wretched presence like that of a medieval leper, the warning sound allowing them to give me a wide berth from which to pelt me with rocks and rotting garbage in an attempt to drive me from town.

Receiving critical brickbats equal to those hurled at GIGLI, FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY was loudly hailed as “worst movie of the year” and consistently showed up ranked among the so-called worst films of all time, so my bad movie curiosity couldn’t help but be piqued. But, much like GIGLI, the film turned out to be merely a piece of perfunctory Hollywood candyfloss that, while definitely awful, turned out to be nowhere near as soul-searingly unwatchable as I had been duped into believing. That’s in no way an endorsement, but I have certainly seen far, far worse.

This cinematic equivalent to a warmed-over Pop Tart clocks in at a lean 81 minutes (there’s also an extended cut that runs for a staggering 90 minutes) and chronicles exactly the same kind of teen summer romance and misunderstandings punctuated by assembly line musical numbers that AIP churned out for years in the 1960’s as the “Beach Party” series, the main differences being a contemporary setting and that this flick stars two soul-free pop tarts who happen not to be Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (aaaaaaaaah, Annette…).



The douche-tastic Justin tries to convince others of his own awesomeness.


Multi-ethnic unthreatening Ken doll and nauseating “mayor” of spring break Justin (Sideshow Bob lookalike Justin Guarini) spends the movie trying (in the fairly chaste way common to this genre) to get into the pants of Kelly (Kelly Clarkson), setting in motion a chain reaction of miscommunication, misunderstandings, et cetera, which keeps getting interrupted by musical numbers of the most generic and uninvolving order. In other words, as previously cited, it’s a modern day Frankie and Annette flick. It’s just as disposable, just as innocent and just as inevitably forgettable, only it doesn’t have Harvey Lembeck’s comedic biker villain, Eric Von Zipper, on hand to give us “the finger” and put us out of our misery (you know what I mean by that if you’ve seen most of the BEACH PARTY opuses).



This looks to me like Kelly was caught micro-seconds away from enjoying a Tootsie Roll.


Everything about FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY was coldly calculated to lure tweener girls (and gay tweens, presumably) who followed the two paper doll stars on their AMERICAN IDOL journey out of the mall and straight to the box office and strip them of their allowance money while providing them with the bare minimum of entertainment, and the end result just lays there on the screen like a plaster lawn burro kicked over by bored suburban hooligans. It’s designed to be cute, but displays no personality and can be easily replaced by the next sparkly gewgaw to catch its audience’s eye. In fact it’s so bloody dull that it’s not even as entertaining as the utterly horrid GREASE 2 (1982), a film that at least elicited a venomous reaction from all who saw it (that “Reproduction” number still gives me the douche-chills). FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY elicits nothing save a glassy-eyed stare of boredom, so if you’re looking for a bad movie that you can hoot at, rant about like a madman and maybe even find religion over, this sure as hell won’t satisfy that need. For that I steer you toward CURSE OF BIGFOOT.

Justin leads the gang in the Dance of Nipple Discovery.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (2008)

Note: this piece is originally from November of 2008.

I try to post movie reviews just after I’ve seen a brand new flick, so please forgive the delay in this instance. It’s taken me the better part of a week to seriously mull over my thoughts on this one and see if the reaction I had upon leaving the theater would have mellowed after much contemplation, but it turns out I should have just sat down, written this review and moved on.

Kevin Smith, the writer/director/actor wunderkind behind 1994’s blessedly vulgar CLERKS — one of the funniest films of the 1990’s and critical darling at both Sundance and Cannes — is best known for crafting comedies featuring well-written, prurient and hilarious dialogue for his incredibly sex-obsessed characters, often turning up in front of the camera as the aptly-named Silent Bob, and while his success comes from his raunchy sense of humor jibing with that of millions of like-minded fans, the majority of Smith’s movies display a surprising amount of heart and emotion not usually found in what are unquestionably “guy’s” flicks. His characters often find themselves navigating the confusing and frustrating waters of modern romance, perhaps most notably in CHASING AMY (1997), and Smith, to his credit, is one of the few directors of his generation who can actually generate a palpable sense of what his creations are experiencing when he’s firing on all cylinders. For me his greatest romance was that of Dante and Becky in CLERKS II (by far my favorite of his movies, for the record), a sweet love story that sprouted from a memorable one night stand, resulted in an unplanned pregnancy and sank Dante’s definitely-would-have-sucked-anyway marriage to a seriously boring chick (although, to be fair, it’s tough to beat the numerous charms of real-life comic book geek and NYC homegirl Rosario Dawson). While the rest of that film was pretty goddamned funny — Randall’s not-inaccurate assessment of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies nearly made me piss my pants — I doubt it would have been anything other than a color, larger-budgeted rehash of the original CLERKS if the romance angle were not present. Smith had previously flexed his sentimental side with the disastrous JERSEY GIRL (2004), a movie that basically amounted to his ode to being the father of a beloved little girl, but the film proved to be treacly and unconvincing and ending up both a critical and box office dud. Thus the return to his “View Askewniverse” and its cast of smuttily loquacious regulars for CLERKS II was not only a wise move, but also a scenario in which he finally got his love story right, minus the ludicrous interpersonal gimmickry that marred CHASING AMY (such as that convoluted bullshit involving occasional lesbianism and how Ben Affleck’s character suggests his bisexual girlfriend should sleep with him and his male best friend in order to fix all of their relationship issues was ludicrous, and though Smith was obviously trying to be earnest he clearly doesn’t know the first thing about real-life lesbians).

Which brings me to his latest shot at an emotionally involving rom-com, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO.

Set away from the Jersey-based View Askewniverse, instead transpiring in the wintry climes of Pittsburgh, the story revolves around the perpetually dim financial prospects of coffee shop worker Zack (Seth Rogen, for once not in a Judd Apatow flick) and mall employee Miri (Elizabeth Banks, aka Betty Brant in the SPIDER-MAN movies), two platonic friends who’ve known each other since first grade and share an apartment. As their unpaid bills pile up and their utilities get shut off as a result, the pair attend their high school reunion and find themselves inspired by a chance meeting with the gay porn star boyfriend of their class’ star athlete; the guy fills them in on just how cheap to produce and lucrative DVD porno is, so Zack talks Miri into participating in the production of their own homegrown adult video to solve their money hardships. They decide to shoot a porn STAR WARS parody and hire the usual Smithian assortment of wackos, weirdoes and misfits to handle all areas of the filmmaking for as cheaply as possible and it all goes pretty well until the script requires various stumbling blocks for our heroes to overcome, the chief hitch here being Zack and Miri both be starring in the video and, consequently, having to have sex with each other, something they both claim to be cool with because “it’s just sex.” That's a load of galloping horseshit because the two obviously have very deep and warm feelings for one another, an aspect of their relationship noted by damned near everyone else in the story, but they’re both in the throes of some pretty major denial.

On the set of SWALLOW MY COCKUCHINNO.

So far, so intriguing, right? Well, just like he did in CHASING AMY, Smith blows it by having the characters engage in behavior that simply doesn’t make sense. I know the film is a comedy, but Smith is trying to have us buy into the crazy events of the story taking place in a reality that we all know, understand and can relate to, so to have Zack and Miri realize their love for one another as they have sex for the first time (the first time with each other, that is) on camera just did not seem plausible, no matter how much the facial expressions of Rogen and Banks try to sell it (especially a post-coital Banks). It’s one thing for two strangers to get it on for a porno, but I just could not wrap my head around two lifelong best friends in any way agreeing that it would be a meaningless happenstance for them to physically connect in the most intimate of ways, no matter how broke they were. Both Zack and Miri are likable and intelligent characters, but after getting to know them and their situation as well as we do, their coupling seemed as random and contrived as a little girl picking up her Barbie and Ken dolls and having them simulate the sex act as she understood such things to work, with no thought of actual human feelings being involved. In that sense, Rogen and Banks became plastic playthings in the hands of Kevin Smith, and while there are repercussions from the two lifelong friends having sex for what they thought were purely problem-solving reasons, the film failed to work for me from the moment when the two got it on. It all wraps up in strictly by-the-numbers ways, and considering how heartfelt and engaging it was for most of its running length that’s a damned shame.

I salute Smith for once more wearing his heart on his sleeve and trying to infuse emotion into American raunch humor, but next time I hope he actually sits down and talks to some women about how they would have dealt with whatever situation he’d be placing his female characters into. I know many very open-minded and sexually liberated women, but not one of them would have considered the situation presented in ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO even remotely believable, let alone something they would have participated in themselves. I’m just speaking from my own personal understanding of humans in general and women in particular, and I ain’t buyin’ it, but if any of you out there have a different perspective on this I would love to hear it.

But that’s not to say that I hated ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO. It’s probably Smith’s fluffiest piece since JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001), but it’s certainly entertaining, featuring the expected filthy banter and amusing stories, as well as a gaggle of very funny supporting characters, particularly Smith regular Jason Mewes as a sweet-though-sorta-brain-dead amateur porn actor named Lester (who introduces the audience to the concept of “the Dutch Rudder”), Craig Robinson as the film’s irascible black producer, and Justin Long as gay porn star Brandon (he steals every scene he’s in). Unfortunately, the one cast member I was most enthusiastic to see featured is given shockingly little to do, namely former underage porn-goddess Traci Lords.

Traci Lords as Bubbles: a wasted opportunity.

Lords was somehow talked into participating in this flick as “Bubbles,” a bachelor party performer whose specialty involves blowing bubbles out of her naughty bits, and she’s okay for what she’s given to do (her introduction is priceless), but if you had someone with Lords’ built-in audience (of which I’m one) and publicity value, wouldn’t you give her more than roughly four lines? Ever since ditching porn, she’s proven that she can act and that she’s pretty funny when given something to work with, so why not turn her loose on and let her go apeshit with a part like this since she was obviously willing to do it? I just don’t get it.

Within the filmography of Kevin Smith, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO is about on the same level of slightness as the unjustly maligned MALLRATS (1995), and in my opinion ranks above both JERSEY GIRL and CHASING AMY, my vote for his two weakest efforts. I’m a Smith fan but I’m obviously not in love with everything he does, and though it’s received some decent notices ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO can be enjoyed just as well on cable or as a rental, thereby saving you a hefty first-run theater ticket price; I thought I was playing it smart by attending a matinee, only to find out that the local multiplex had done away with matinee pricing on weekends so I ended up paying eleven bucks anyway. I wasn’t pissed about it, but the flick isn’t worth that kind of scratch. Oh, and don’t walk out when the end credits start!

ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950)

One of the interesting side-effects of the encroaching extinction of video rental/sales shops in the wake of NetFlix and Amazon is that every now and then a store will pop up that sells of loads of brand new but unsold DVDs, presumably stuff that was gathering moss in warehouses someplace, for dirt-cheap prices. While perusing such a place the other day I picked up a boxed set of the old black-and-white Superman serials starring Kirk Alyn (the first live-action Superman on film), specifically SUPERMAN (1948) and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950), for the super-low price of $6.99. It's a four-disc set, two discs per serial, and though the 1948 serial is rather lackluster, even by the standards of its day, its followup is a marked improvement and very entertaining.

Kirk Alyn, the screen's first in-the-flesh Superman.

The original Superman serial relied on the thrill of seeing the Man of Steel in live-action for the first time rather than a solid script full of wonder and amazing feats that were worthy of the then ten-year-old hero, instead pitting him against the pistol-toting fedoraed gunsels common to the serial genre, led by a rather rote criminal mastermind known as the Spider-Lady (who admittedly looked great in a domino mask and slinky dress that fairly screamed "femme fatale," and she also had great taste in decor for her lair, what with its huge electrified spiderweb and all).

Noel Neill, the screen's first and (in my opinion) definitive live-action Lois Lane.

Other than Kirk Alyn — whose Superman/Clark Kent I rank at third place, following George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, who is simply impossible to beat in the roles of Clark or Superman — the 1948 serial is notable for the first live-action depiction of Superman's origin, 1950's ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series regular Noel Neill's debut as Lois Lane — for many, including myself, Neill was the definitive version of the character and a glorious pain in the ass while at it — former OUR GANG regular Tommy Bond as an inappropriately imposing-looking Jimmy Olsen, and the movie debut of Kryptonite, depicted as a huge chunk of glowing translucent rock that I bet would look like the world's largest sour apple Jolly Rancher if seen in color.

As previously stated, SUPERMAN was no great shakes, and the one most oft-cited major flaws that it possesses is its truly awful flying effects. To be fair, flying effects for Superman were rarely done convincingly until the ill-advised SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006), a film whose sole saving grace was its excellent special effects, but the filmmakers in the case of the serials would show Superman about to leap into the air, only to have him turn into a poorly and very obviously animated cartoon figure, a move that quite literally removes the viewer from their willing suspension of disbelief. THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL (1941) predated SUPERMAN by seven years and features vastly superior flying effects involving a very convincing dummy standing in for the Big Red Cheese, and one would think that the technology would have been stepped up a few notches in the years separating the two serials. But perhaps that's an unfair comparison to make, because THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL is simply a better serial in every way and is deservedly hailed as one of the very best that the genre has to offer, an appraisal that the Superman serials only receive from Superman nostalgists. Anyway, now that you know all the pertinent info on the first one, let's get to ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN.

Another cinema first: Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor.

Having had two years to presumably think over the numerous deficiencies of their first go at the Man of Steel, the filmmakers came back with a much better chapter play, bringing audiences the kind of briskly-paced adventure that Superman fans had every right to expect. While the crooks straight from central casting are still on hand, this time around they are in the employ of Superman's arch-enemy, evil scientific genius Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot), aka the bucket-headed "Atom Man," and the bald baddie gives our hero much more of a challenge than Gene Hackman's version ever did. (NOTE: I hate Hackman's Luthor, but I blame the script for that and not his acting skills.) This early Luthor is coldly intelligent and does not come off at all as "mad" per se, but rather as a great mind who doesn't give a fuck about laws or common decency, and as such he's a bad guy I can totally get behind. In fact, it seemed to me like he was enjoying frustrating Superman instead of just robbing stuff and kidnapping people, which only added to the fun. Luthor brings to bear against our hero devices I did not expect to see in a Superman story of this relatively early vintage, among which can be counted a "space transporter" that allows him to teleport his henchmen to safe locations in the blink of an eye just after they've committed some nefarious act, synthetic Kryptonite, a flying saucer, and, most interestingly to fans of the comics, "the Empty Doom," a portal that transports unwilling victims to another dimension where they are rendered non-corporeal and out of Luthor's hair (or lack thereof) until electronically recalled. This concept is basically the same as the Phantom Zone, which later figures prominently in SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1981), and predates its introduction in the comics by eleven years. The only real difference is the absence of a pack of fetish gear-wearing Kryptonian sociopaths residing within its extra-dimensional confines.

I had not seen ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN in around twenty-two years and my memories of it as the better of the Superman series proved sound. In fact, I enjoyed it even more this time around and I urge any who are curious about early/primitive big screen depictions of Superman and his exploits to check it out.

BRUNO (2009)

The gayest man in the known universe, Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen), and his adopted son, O.J.

Maybe it's a sign of me aging, but as I laughed my ass off while watching BRUNO, I actually had to stop and ask myself if I was becoming a PC hypocrite.

At first glace, BRUNO seems to be an uncomfortable and ultra-offensive lampoon of the stereotypical flamboyant gay Euro-fashionista archetype, a cinematic confection designed to make the Joe Sixpacks in the audience laugh at the outrageous and occasionally borderline-pornographic (some would say full-on pornographic) antics of a "faggot." Following the titular character's quest for fame in the wake of his Austrian TV show getting canceled after unintentionally disrupting a high profile fashion show, the film goes on an international odyssey of offense as comedian/actor Sacha Baron Cohen portrays Bruno and unleashes him upon an unsuspecting world that believes he's 100% for real. Cohen's earlier comedic alter-egos, Ali G and Borat, mined comedy gold with their fusion of a fictional character and unwitting real-life people interacting with them and in the process revealing their own off the cuff prejudices and stupidity, and for me the results were often uneven with the joke wearing thin fairly quickly. Not so with Bruno, because if there's one hatred that crosses every cultural barrier, for those who are so inclined, it's the hatred of homosexuals in general and camp gay men in particular, and in many ways homophobia is the last form of prejudice considered generally acceptable. During the course of Bruno's journey, Sacha Baron Cohen throws Bruno's almost impossibly exaggerated gayness into the faces of all who get within range and the real reactions Bruno elicits from some of his targets come dangerously close to turning violent. There were several moments where I honestly feared that Cohen as Bruno would be lynched, stoned to death, shot or torn limb from limb as he provoked the ire of the world's citizenry. Among the film's many, many moments of frighteningly provocative content can be found:
  • Bruno traipsing around an orthodox neighborhood in Israel while dressed in a skimpy caricature of traditional Hassidic garb and getting chased for real by offended orthodox Jewish men.
  • Bruno's appearance on THE RICHARD BAY SHOW as a guest who was allegedly there to discuss the problems of being a single parent. Appearing in front of an all-black audience, Bruno is greeted warmly at first, but the audience soon grows cold and hostile when they realize he's a gay single parent. Then things take a turn for the worse when Bruno brings out his son, an adorable baby boy who he declares, with a completely deadpan face, that he obtained in Africa from a mother who happily swapped the child for an iPod. Then, just when it could not possibly get any more uncomfortable, Bruno announces his respect for African culture by naming his son O.J., a declaration that nearly caused every head in the room to explode. If you've never seen a group of ready-to-kill black folks, this sequence will tell you all you ever need to know.
  • Bruno's sit-down with an actual Jordanian terrorist leader, to whom he describes "your king Osama" as looking like "a homeless Santa Claus." Needless to say, the terrorist was in no way amused.
  • A hunting trip in the deep woods with a pack of shotgun-wielding DELIVERANCE rejects that goes south once the hunters twig to Bruno's status as a Friend of Dorothy.
  • The incredible "Straight Dave's Man-Slammin' Maxout," a live mixed martial arts show staged in Arkansas for a crowd of boozed-up, baseball cap-wearing swastika-tattooed rednecks. Bruno, in the heavily disguised persona of announcer "Straight Dave," works the crowd into a frenzy reminiscent of a neo-Nazi rally, bringing the good ol' boys and gals to their feet, where they proudly raise fists into the air and shout "Straight Pride!!!" without a hint of irony.
I don't know about you, but I'm certainly filled with "Straight Pride," especially as represented by these fine specimens of uber-butch straightness. Note the t-shirt slogan.

What happens next must be seen to be believed, so I'll let you rent the film and witness the horror/hilarity for yourself. All I'll say is that Cohen should be given an award for permanently ruining Celine Dion's odious "My Heart Will Go On" in much the same way that A CLOCKWORK ORANGE forever tainted "Singin' in the Rain" or how PINK FLAMINGOS forever destroyed all hope of listening to "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" without picturing a three-hundred pound drag queen chewing on a real, freshly-laid dog turd.

About as un-PC as a film can possibly hope to be, BRUNO reveals the idiocy of homophobia in a perhaps necessarily transgressive way and upon my first viewing of it I initially was unsure if I felt okay with being amused by this completely unbelievable stereotype writ large. I grew up as one of the handful of blacks in a hostile environment and as a result I understand how other groups get pissed off at depictions that denigrate them, plus I grew up with plenty of kids who knew they were homosexual from an early age and were rightly unashamed about it, so I never had the hatred of gays and lesbians that seems common just about everywhere in this country (to say nothing of the world).

But, if truth be told, I often found outrageous gay characters who were written or portrayed by non-gays to be very funny in their sheer exaggeration, depending on the character, and I lumped such shenanigans with similar media depictions of every other religious and ethnic group since the dawn of mass-market entertainment. While many rail against the frequently offensive treatment of blacks in popular entertainment, I have often laughed my ass off at stuff like Mantan Moreland's characters in films from the 1940's, sassy and corpulent mammies in damned near every antebellum plantation story who all but told their white masters to go fuck themselves, and, my personal favorite, bug-eyed "oogah-boogah" natives in jungle adventure flicks. Those characters are so over-the-top that I find them to be nothing more than the broadest of caricatures and as such I feel no offense at them. And when it came to icons of outright queerness in pop culture, no one stands as high in my estimation as Jonathan Harris as Dr. Zachary Smith (who was never explicitly stated as being gay, but come on), Graham Chapman's various uber-queeny and mincing characters on MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS — my favorite being the flaming announcer who refutes Terry Jones' Viking's claims of all Viking voyages being "dead butch" after of course derisively greeting him with "Hello, sailor" — Charles Nelson Reilly, and the truly incredible living definition of "catty" that was Paul Lynde, one of the most hilariously caustic human beings ever to draw breath. I laughed with those guys and not at them, so when confronted with BRUNO, I was initially not sure if my laughter was with or at the protagonist, and I felt like some asshole who was taking part in a bit of casual fag-bashing.

Then I watched the rest of the film.

The Bruno character is exactly the kind of uber-fruit that sets the teeth of the uber-straight on edge and when Cohen trots him into situations that are likely not to welcome such a character, what happens is the often jaw-dropping exposure of the unwitting victims' intolerance. The things said and done by Cohen's targets are simultaneously hilarious and deeply mortifying, and while the knuckle-dragging is truly appalling to watch, I had to wonder if most of the people whose worlds Bruno shakes up have ever met a real-life gay person. I would say not, because how anyone could believe Bruno was in any way a real guy and not the greatly exaggerated actor-portrayed caricature that he so obviously is defies all logic and common sense. I've known some very flamboyant guys over the years, but a person as extreme as Bruno would most likely severely irk even the most in-your-face screaming queen and his completely obscene antics would absolutely land his ass in jail. He's definitely believable upon first encounter, but Bruno very quickly would be perceived by most average people as a put-on, and those seen in the film who don't twig to that immediately are idiots blinded to the obvious by their fag-hate.

This intimate champagne moment occurs around five minutes into the movie, so you can imagine where things go from here.

I highly recommend BRUNO to anyone who can handle it, but I have to ask how a film so rife with incredibly tasteless comedy and graphic depictions of grossly exaggerated homosexual sex, complete with up close and dangling male genitalia, both of the real and artificial varieties, could be awarded an R-rating by the ever-mercurial MPAA. They've handed out the dreaded NC-17 for far less — for example, John Waters' A DIRTY SHAME (2004) was thus rated due to mere spoken descriptions of questionable sex acts — so I would love to know why BRUNO got off so relatively easily. But whatever the case, BRUNO is a triumph of make-you-think social satire and fucking hilarious tasteless humor and I consider it one of the funniest films I've ever seen. Humor is of course purely subjective, but this shit is a total riot that I do not recommend watching with your parents or your your kids.

And make sure to watch it again with the compelling commentary by Cohen and director Larry Charles.

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (1958)

Having grown up on the lurid (though well-made) fare put out by Britain's venerable Hammer Films, I expected a lot from this black and white tale of the horrors faced by the mostly British captives in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the ass-end of WWII. Over the years I'd heard that it amounted to pretty much an old school exploitation flick that wallowed in the kind of cruelty and human misery one would expect from such a film, but what I got when I finally saw it was an admittedly well-acted but tepid (by today's standards) potboiler that was worth sitting through and then moving on to whatever else the viewer had on their agenda for that day.

In a nutshell, THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND takes us through the degradations that the prisoners endure at the hands of an uber-sadistic Japanese commandant and his cruel pack of giggling soldiers, while they continually sabotage the camp's radio system. That bit of sabotage prevents the Japanese from finding out what the prisoners have already discovered, specifically that Japan has surrendered and the war is over. It's vital to keep that news from the commandant because he has publicly stated that if the Japanese win the war, the prisoners will be allowed to live and serve the Japanese empire, presumably in a slave labor capacity, but if Japan loses the war, all prisoners, be they man, woman or child, will be horribly put to death and the camp will be burned to the ground, leaving behind no evidence of the atrocities committed. Displaying the stiffest of upper lips, British Col. Lambert (Andre Morell) enforces strict discipline among his men while keeping the news of the end of the war from them, hoping all the while that the Allies will arrive before the camp's commandant is updated on the status of the war. The litany of suffering piles up in both the men's and women's camps, including petty bullying at gunpoint, men ordered to dig their own graves for the amusement of the Japanese and then immediately shot into the freshly-completed holes with machine gun-fire, a female prisoner prostituting herself to the Japanese in exchange for lighter treatment (which earns her the ire of the women imprisoned with her), the burning of the prisoners' long-withheld mail as a punishment, and so on, until an Allied plane is spotted coming down somewhere over the island. American pilot Lt. Peter Bellamy (Phil Brown) survives the crash and is immediately captured by the Japanese, an act that confuses him since the war is over. Before he can inform the Japanese of that fact, he is warned to keep quiet by a just-apprehended escapee, one of Col. Lambert's men, so Bellamy is soon cast among the British prisoners after a severe whipping by the Japanese commandant. With all the players in place, the prisoners realize that it's a matter of perhaps a day or two before the commandant gets wind of the war being over and embarking on the mass slaughter of the prisoners, so Col. Lambert alerts his men to fashion weapons out of whatever they can get their hands on and prepare for the fight of their lives; if they have to die, they'll take as many Japanese with them as possible, giving the bastards a good old-fashioned British "Fuck you, yellow scum." Meanwhile, Bellamy and the crew's Dutch radio expert — imaginatively dubbed "Dutch" — escape from the men's camp and set off to the women's camp in search of the one female prisoner (Barbara Shelley) who can guide them to a transmitter so they can call in the Allies for help. Many of the standard WWII movie tropes are then trotted out and things finally end with the eventual arrival of the Allies, but Col. Lambert is left to consider how many good men he lost due to the cruelties of the Japanese and his own stern demands.

I've never been much of a war movie fan and I have certainly seen far worse films than THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, but this once shocking entry into the genre does not really hold up well today, what with it's moments of contrived "rah rah" heroism and almost laughably stiff British stock characters. This kind of thing has become so ingrained into the culture of cinema that one barely even needs to have seen a British P.O.W. flick to be familiar with the cliches because it's all been done to death, even before this film was made, and has since become fodder for endless parody, as was often the case on MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS. Ever wonder where Graham Chapman and John Cleese's letter-perfect British military officers came from? Look no further than films like this, war films that offer what were meant to be spirit-bolstering archetypes, but instead ended up as caricatures.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that all of the Japanese characters are played by British actors without the benefit of even the most rudimentary makeup attempts at making them look Asian, let alone specifically Japanese. They just affect stereotypical "Die, British pigs!" accents and speech patterns, which also were endlessly parodied by the Pythons, and at times the performances by the "Japanese" bad guys are just plain ridiculous. For those of an easily offended P.C. bent, I would advise giving this film a miss.

For all the stuff I've read over the years, THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND's horrors are relatively mild (although I admit that I would not wish to endure any of them for real), and I was surprised by how relatively easy a time the female prisoners had. Considering that the commandant was recruited to his post on the island because of his reputation for gleeful sadism, I found it very hard to believe that he and his men didn't run roughshod over the girls in the worst ways possible (if you know what I mean, and I know that you do), instead of tolerating levels of insolence from the women that would have instantly earned the men a lead slug right in the face. That aspect may be due to censorship constraints of the time, but such treatment could have been tastefully alluded to without showing any actual nudity or on-camera rape. What happened to British female P.O.W.'s at the hands of the Japanese in real life was certainly no secret, and sacrificing that bit of awfulness greatly diminished film's much-vaunted realism.

Anyway, THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND is worth checking out for Hammer fans who are familiar only with their legendary horror output, as well as for war movie completists, but anyone else may find it merely a passable way to kill eighty-eight minutes.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A WORLD GONE BANANAS: 20th CENTURY FOX'S PLANET OF THE APES SERIES (and its steady decline)

One of the indelible cultural phenomenons during my growing-up years was the wildly popular PLANET OF THE APES movie series from 20th Century Fox. Folks of an age with Yer Bunche all remember just what a juggernaut it was in those pre-STAR WARS days and if I'm not mistaken, it was the first sci-fi series to really go insane with the merchandising (APES tchotchkes was everywhere). Taylor, Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Zaius were household names in much the same way that Luke Skywalker and friends would be a few years later, and even our parents were eager to see the next APES flick when it came out. NYC's local and lamented 4:30 MOVIE used to run PLANET OF THE APES Week to stellar ratings and great appreciation from the kiddies, and from those many viewings was born our love for these movies. Totaling five feature films and two TV series — one live action and the other (badly) animated — it seemed like nothing could stop the PLANET OF THE APES franchise. Nothing, that is, except for budgets that were drastically and visibly reduced with each succeeding installment, coupled with scripts that mostly had no chance of living up to the classic original. So let's hop in the Wayback Machine and take a look at what became a classic series, very much in spite of itself.

Oh, and while I'm willing to bet my left arm that the majority of you have already seen these films, probably many times, I think it's only fair to state that HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. If you have somehow missed it, get off your ass and rent PLANET OF THE APES (1968). It's a fucking classic for many very good reasons and is one of the films you need to see before you shuffle off this mortal coil. And in regard to some of the opinions you're about to read concerning these films, I sat through all of them in their entirety over the past ten days, so I come at them with the details fresh in my head (although a refresher was unnecessary in the case of all but the final film).

PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Not a bad design by any means, but I always found this a strange choice as the first-run theatrical poster for this film.

The original PLANET OF THE APES came from out of nowhere to establish itself as one of the great science-fiction films and is now so much a part of our cultural DNA that there are children still gestating in the womb who already know its plot twists. Loosely based on the 1963 novel LA PLANETE DES SINGES (trans. MONKEY PLANET or PLANET OF THE MONKEYS, depending on who you ask) by French author Pierre Boulle (who also wrote THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI) and re-tooled with an intelligent and sardonic script by TWILIGHT ZONE wunderkind Rod Serling, the film details the sorry fate of a crew of astronauts whose faster-than-light spacecraft accidentally passes through a time warp and crashlands on an unknown world while the crew is in suspended animation. According to what was glimpsed on their instrument panel before their ship sinks, the year is 3978 A.D., meaning our heroes have traveled approximately 2000-plus years into the future. With the sole female member of the team dead due to a malfunction of her sleep tube, the three remaining astronauts wander the planet's barren expanses for lack of any better option. The mission's captain, Taylor (Charlton Heston, in full-on gritted teeth mode), is a cynical sort and a thinker who left for the stars out of a hope that somewhere out there there would be something better than man, while the remaining two astronauts are simply rather non-descript crew members. In short order we witness the astronauts discovering a group of primitive, mute humans who steal most of their clothes, after which the humans are flushed out by unseen hunters on horseback. When revealed, the hunters turn out to be talking man-sized gorillas in leather armor, merrily netting the humans or shooting them dead with rifles. The astronauts get separated and Taylor is shot in the throat, eventually ending up in the lab of Zira (Kim Hunter, aka Stella from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE), a chimpanzee psychiatrist and vivisectionist who specializes in the comparative anatomy of humans and apes.

Taylor, Cornelius and Zira: one of the great trios in science-fiction cinema. I could listen to them converse for hours.

Put in a cage with a tasty piece of primitive local eye-candy dubbed "Nova" (Linda Harrison, who played Wonder Woman in a 1960's TV pilot that thankfully went nowhere), Taylor, mute himself thanks to his throat wound, gets to know Zira, who swiftly twigs to Taylor's obvious intelligence and soon learns that he can express himself through writing. Keeping Taylor's ability to communicate secret from all but her archaeologist husband, Cornelius (my man Roddy McDowall! Show some love!!!), Zira gets to know Taylor and is fascinated by him. But her investigations into Taylor's origins are halted by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, aka Samantha's dad on BEWITCHED), the duly appointed Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith (two positions wildly at odds with one another if you ask me, which I'm guessing was the point) who senses something about Taylor being not quite as is usual for their world's humans, so he orders Taylor gelded.

Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans): villain or hero? When all is revealed, that question is very much open for debate, depending on one's point of view...

Upon getting that piece of news, Taylor escapes and runs amok in Ape City, much to the horror of the residents, and discovers one of his fellow astronauts stuffed in the local museum (complete with glass eyes, and the remaining astronaut is later revealed to have been lobotomized). During his brutal re-capture, Taylor's throat is jostled to the point where he can once more speak, and he utters the famous "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" line. Think about that one for a moment: not only is it shocking enough that a supposedly dumb animal can speak, he also very effectively curses out his tormentors. That would seriously fuck you up if you witnessed that, and it's my favorite moment in the entire completely excellent movie.

Once the cat's out of the bag about Taylor, things take a rapid downward spiral and we go along with him as he once more escapes (with help from Cornelius and Zira) and makes his way to the Forbidden Zone, an archaeological dig that Cornelius had worked the previous year and where he discovered many truths that got him in trouble with his government. The artifacts Cornelius found deliver concrete proof of an intelligent human civilization that predated ape society and Dr. Zaius reveals that he knew this all along; his villainous actions were motivated by the desire to keep his people blissfully ignorant of the planet's true history. As Cornelius and Zira prepare to face trial for scientific and religious heresy, Taylor and Nova ride away on a horse into the unknown for what could be days, only to discover that Taylor's been on Earth all along — the apes speaking and reading perfect colloquial English should have been his first clue, but I'll let that slide — and that the devastation of the planet was due to a man-caused nuclear war. The film's final image of Taylor pretty much having a nervous breakdown when he sees the half-buried and kinda-melted Statue of Liberty has gone down as a pop culture landmark and is so well known that it's been referenced and parodied innumerable times since 1968.

One of the biggest downer endings in cinema history.

Everything about PLANET OF THE APES is a solid winner and the film deserves its lofty place in the annals of sci-fi cinema. Rod Serling's influence on the story is palpable and lends the proceedings the feel of a long-form episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, especially when it comes to the film's none-too-subtle allegorical content. The script touches on issues of religion, racism, animal rights, you name it, and thankfully the long form allows its ideas time to be fleshed out in a way that the half-hour seasons of THE TWILIGHT ZONE never had. All of the performances are outstanding and the level of the actors' commitment is such that the events of the potentially ludicrous story are only funny when they're meant to be, although I personally find uber-hot post-apocalyptic babe Nova to be hilarious due to her being so impossibly toothsome after a lifetime of foraging in the dirt like the animal she is and possibly flinging her own feces at her enemies.

Linda Harrison as Nova: proof that there is an upside to the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Also of note is Jerry Goldsmith's terrific and sometimes bizarre score. I've always thought it was one of the most distinct I've ever heard and every time I see the film I swear I hear something new in the score.

The makeup effects of John Chambers for the apes are classic stuff and revolutionary for their time, so much so that Chambers won the first Oscar awarded for excellence in makeup effects. Each of the three ape types, chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan, are fully expressive and the prosthetics don't get in the way of the actors' performances one bit.

Bottom line: if you only see one PLANET OF THE APES film, the original is all you'll ever need and you will not be disappointed. The same, unfortunately, cannot necessarily be said for some of its sequels.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) Directed by Ted Post and Arthur P. Jacobs (uncredited)

The second APES film was inevitable thanks to the original's box office performance, but this time around there was a noticeable cutback on the budget and the ape makeup suffered somewhat as a consequence. Also, Charlton Heston was not keen on reprising the role of Taylor, but he agreed to do it on the provision that the character be killed at the end so he couldn't possibly be dragged back for another round.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES conveniently has another astronaut, the boring Brent (James Franciscus), go through another time warp and end up almost exactly where the first batch of astronauts found themselves, and upon arrival he encounters Nova, who is wearing Taylor's dog tag. But where is Taylor? Brent is led to Ape City by Nova and once more we find ourselves dealing with Cornelius (played in this outing by David Watson, who conveys little of Roddy McDowell's charm), Zira and Dr. Zaius, with militaristic asshole gorilla General Ursus (James Gregory) added to the mix. Ursus wants to invade the Forbidden Zone and use it for a variety of reasons that make little or no sense, much to the very vocal objections of Dr. Zaius, and so a gaggle of Gorillas is soon deployed into the wastes. Brent has already made his way into the Forbidden Zone and it is at this point when the film comes to life.

Even in the future, man still worships the bomb.

Once below ground, Brent discovers a civilization of telepathic mutants who have formed a religion around a still-working "Omega" bomb, a thermo-nuclear device powerful enough to incinerate the entire world. He also finds Taylor, now a prisoner of the mutants. As the forces of the Apes enter the city and clash with the mutants, Taylor and Brent escape and join in the melee, but both are mortally wounded. As Taylor's life comes to a pitiful end, his hand lands on the bomb's activator and the world perishes in the ultimate nuclear orgasm (which we are told about in narration but not shown, presumably to spare effects costs, but I find the ending more effective with its fade to black).

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES has some interesting ideas but they don't really come to the fore until the film's final third, by which time we've endured enough TV movie-level mediocrity to half lull us into a torpor. The mutants and their culture are fascinating but they're a case of too little too late, and the presence of Taylor is also too small to have much effect other than giving the viewer hope for a better script (and human protagonist) that does not come. In my opinion, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES is a frustrating study in "Sequelitis" that gives the audience more of the same while somehow coming up with less to engage the audience. This one gets my vote as the second worst in the series, despite the mutants.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) Directed by Don Taylor and Arthur P. Jacobs (uncredited)

Considering how the world was destroyed in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, exactly how the fuck do you continue the series from that point? Easy! Since time travel was the MacGuffin that allowed allow this mishegoss to happen in the first place, who's to say that someone couldn't travel backwards in time? Well, that's exactly what happens in this one and if you can swallow genius chimpanzee Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) salvaging Taylor's sunken spaceship, figuring out how it works, and enlisting Cornelius (thankfully played once more by Roddy McDowell) and Zira to take it for a test drive, then you'll have no problem with them turning up on the Pacific Coast of America in 1972.

Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo: strange visitors from another (?) planet.

Taken into custody by the government and held at the Los Angeles Zoo, the simian trio opt not to reveal their intelligence and find themselves in the care of kindly behavioral scientists Lewis (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie (Natalie Trundy), aka "Stevie." Their ruse does not last long as Zira loses patience with being treated like a dumb animal and, needless to say, their observers practically shit a Humvee when they hear them speak and immediately twig to the fact that the apes are not only intelligent, but downright brilliant. Unfortunately, Milo is killed by an agitated gorilla in a neighboring cage, leaving Cornelius and Zira to defend themselves, while chained, to a tribunal of government, military and religious figures. Once freed, thanks to their considerable charm and eloquence, the chimpanzee scientists become media darlings and are given a swanky apartment and whisked on a whirlwind tour of late-20th century American culture in all of its frivolity and horror.

Cornelius: media darling.

But the good times are short-lived as statements made by the apes during their hearing arouse the suspicions of the reptilian Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden, in a chilling performance), a government-connected futurist who believes the apes to be a threat to the human race. Hasslein's paranoia escalates when Zira announces she's pregnant, so Hasslein gets her drunk and doses her with sodium pentathol, making sure to record all she says in answer to his questions. Zira's revalations are shocking, to say the least, as she outlines man's eventual fall into mute animalistic savagery, a state brought about by apes becoming sentient, developing the power of speech, and violently overthrowing humans worldwide. Armed with such damning evidence, Hasslein rallies the government to have Zira's pregnancy terminated and both she and Cornelius sterilized, but upon finding out his plans the couple escapes from the zoo with the aid of Lewis and Stevie, just as Zira goes into labor. Unfortunately, Cornelius accidentally kills an orderly during the escape, so now the authorities have an excuse to shoot him and Zira on sight. Brought to the traveling circus of the totally sympathetic Armando (Ricardo Montalban), Zira gives birth and names her baby Milo in honor of her dead friend, after which the ape family once more takes flight. It all ends in heart-wrenching tragedy as the couple take refuge on a rusting derelict ship at the local docks, only to be mercilessly blown away by Hasslein and a small army of heavily-armed police. As the dying Zira dumps her baby's corpse into the water, Cornelius shoots and kills Hasslein, only to meet his own horrid end in a hail of gunfire. Zira crawls to her husband's body and expires atop his stone-dead carcass, leaving the authorities to believe it's all over. But, unbeknownst to the government, Zira, with the aid of the kind circus owner, switched her newborn with that of one of Armando's chimps, so the line of super-intelligent apes lives on. The final shot of the baby chimp plaintively repeating "Mama" over and over will tear your heart out and grind it into the dirt with a hobnailed boot heel.

A big departure from the previous films, largely due to further budget cuts, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES eschews all of the previous films' fantastic visual elements except for the talking apes, and as a result the film revels in character. We may have liked Cornelius and Zira from the get-go, but by the time this film is over we have gotten to know and care about them as people (be they apes or not) and as a result we adore them and want to see them somehow overcome odds that are impossible for them to surmount. Theirs is a touching and heartfelt relationship that you cannot help but get caught up in if you have anything resembling a heart, so when the inevitable happens it's just devastating. It is that deep emotional resonance that made this my favorite of the sequels during my youth, but with age comes wisdom and opinions can change...

CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Continuing the history of the ape-dominated future's origins, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is by far the darkest and most bitter film in the series, which is only appropriate since it is an allegory about slavery and what happens when the enslaved finally get it together and say "Fuck this shit."

In 1983, a plague wipes out all of the planet's cats and dogs (as first described by Cornelius in the previous film and leading one to imagine how the world's rat population must have consequently boomed) so of course mankind, unable to live without its pets, decides it would be a good idea to domesticate apes, specifically chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. No explanation is given as to how the apes develop to human-size, but these man-scale simians are soon trained to do household chores and are met with brutal punishment if they blunder or fail in their appointed tasks. By the time CONQUEST starts, it is 1991 and those pet apes are in practically every household, acting as slave labor for their human masters. In the midst of all this, Zira and Cornelius' son, Milo, renamed Caesar (Roddy McDowell, rocking a far more intense ape persona than one would expect), has grown to adulthood and performs as a bareback rider under the sheltering care of kindly circus-owner Armando (a returning Ricardo Montalban), forced to hide his great intelligence and ability to very eloquently speak, as well as being degradingly led around on a chain leash as is common for his species.

Armando (Ricardo Montalban) and the ticking time bomb that is Caesar (Roddy McDowell).

There is much love and respect between Caesar and Armando and for all intents and purposes their relationship is that of father and son, but Caesar must be forever vigilant in keeping up a front of docile obtuseness or else face execution, a state that understandably eats at him like vitriol.

During a circus tour stop in an unnamed major North American city, Caesar finally snaps upon seeing an ape getting beaten and drugged by Nazi-like human enforcers. Blowing his cover by loudly shouting "Lousy human bastards," Caesar comes to the attention of the authorities and local government, but Armando claims it was he who screamed the damning epithet. Knowing watchful eyes are upon them, Armando hides Caesar among a group of newly arrived orangutans from Borneo while he goes to the authorities in an attempt to lie his (and Caesar's) way out of trouble. What Armando didn't plan on was Caesar being trained for slavery, where the innocent chimpanzee beholds all manner of torture, er, "conditioning" (that includes beatings, cranial electro-shock and flame-throwers) which only serves to further offend the intelligent ape and harden his heart against man...

While Caesar endures his unwilling indoctrination and comes to understand cruelty firsthand, Armando is gruelingly interrogated by government officials, led by the sadistic Inspector Kolp (Severn Darden). About to be subjected to a machine that would force him to tell the truth and realizing there's no other way out, Armando throws himself out of the interrogation building's window and plummets to his death. Caesar, meanwhile, is sold into slavery and ends up in the home of Governor Breck (Don Murray), where he is handed an encyclopedia volume and allowed to page through the book in order to provide a name for himself, an activity considered amusing and cute by the Governor. Apparently well-read, Caesar seems to randomly flick through the book, finally indicating his own name in the text (good thing he was handed the "C" volume), with a mildly disturbed Breck noting that he's chosen the name of a king. Also citing Caesar's intelligence and seeming docility, Breck puts the ape to work within the local government's main building under the supervision of MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), Breck's right-hand man and a black dude who sympathizes with the apes, recognizing and being appalled by their obvious state of slavery.

Upon learning of Armando's horrible end and utterly devastated by the loss of his beloved foster parent, Caesar's hatred of man fully ignites and he begins teaching his brethren the basics of revolutionary thought and tactics.

Caesar gets serious.

His status as an anomaly comes to light when the shipment he was in draws suspicion because there are no chimps in Borneo, so Caesar is immediately placed at the top of the Most Wanted list and sanctioned for execution. Though allowed to escape by MacDonald, Caesar is soon apprehended and put though cruel electro-shock torture to make him talk, which he unfortunately does. Having concrete proof of his identity, Breck orders him to be shocked to death, but MacDonald turns off the power to the shock table, allowing Caesar to convincingly fake his death and once more escape. Again on the loose, Caesar wastes no time and organizes the already disgruntled apes of the city into a brutal throng of retribution personified. Taking over the city by violent overthrow, Caesar declares that this is but the first strike against the reign of man and thus sets in motion the downfall of human civilization and the rise of what would become the Planet of the Apes.

While most of the APES series in some way provide commentary on various issues as veiled within a sci-fi context, most of them were quite heavy-handed and groan-inducing with the handling of the allegorical material, but not so with CONQUEST. It's obviously a commentary on the evil of slavery, with Caesar as an anthropoidal Nat Turner, and the allegorical thrust could not be made any more clear if one replaces the word "ape" in the script with "nigger." Despite the film's budget yet again being lowered (with the majority of the ape makeup looking to be pullover masks), CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is very strong meat and now that I've seen it again a few times from an adult perspective, I find it to be hands down the best and most intense of the sequels.

A major point of interest among the many found in this film is that its events call into question the statements about the rise of the apes that were made by Cornelius and Zira in the previous film. In ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, the chimp scientists state that the revolution was started somewhere around what we would reckon as the year 2100 by an ape named Aldo. It is also noted that between the year when the plague wiped out all the dogs and cats and the time of Aldo's revolution, the apes who became pets/slaves had a couple of centuries to physically and mentally develop to near what they became by the time of the first film. It them took another three centuries or so after Aldo's revolution for the new status quo to be firmly established, with no explanation for mankind's descent to a state of mute animalism. So with all of those historical notes and what is seen in CONQUEST, it may be construed that the history known to Cornelius and Zira is full of either significant gaps or outright apocrypha accepted as fact in their time. Just a wee something to think about.

The Blue-Ray release of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES includes the more violent director's cut version which ends with zero show of compassion from Caesar, which is the polar opposite of how the theatrically released version ends. I always found his sudden softening of his stance to be a total fucking cop-out, but the darker, more violent version was apparently toned down by the studio and the more familiar and "safe" ending tacked on. I don't own a Blue-Ray player, but I will pick up that version of the disc and invite myself over to the house of a pal with one and someday see this version for myself.

BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) Directed by J. Lee Thompson and Arthur P. Jacobs (uncredited)

Having simultaneously twigged to the facts that kids really dug the APES movies and that the series had more or less come full circle and reached a creative dead end, Fox once again slashed the budget and cranked out one last APES film, only with all of the heavy elements dumbed down or excised to create a straight-up kiddie film.

Opening with an expository prologue delivered by the Lawgiver (John Huston in orangutan makeup) some 600 years after Caesar's death, the story proper takes place twelve years after the events of the previous film and finds Caesar leading an agrarian community of both apes and humans. While dim-witted, power-hungry, human-hating gorilla General Aldo (a pre-SHERIFF LOBO Claude Akins) plots to overthrow Caesar, the ape leader sets off to the irradiated "dead city" in order to view videotpaes of his dead parents that reveal the ultimate fate of the world, tapes he was alerted to by MacDonald (Austin Stoker), his human advisor and brother to the character from the previous film. (No explanation is given as to the fate of the original MacDonald but I bet he was killed during the revolution, sympathetic to the cause or not.)

Caesar (Roddy McDowell), MacDonald (Austin Stoker) and Virgil (Paul Williams).

Taking MacDonald and the brilliant orangutan scholar Virgil (composer Paul Williams) with him, Caesar views the tapes, but the presence of his party is detected by the resident radioactive mutants, the ancestors of the bomb-worshippers from BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, led by Inspector Kulp (a returning Severn Darden), who was surprisingly not executed during the revolution.

Our heroes arrive in the dead city.

Barely escaping from the mutants, the trio returns to Ape City — which looks more like it should be called "Ape Commune" or "Ape Dude Ranch" — and alerts the populace to the possibilty that the mutants, now aware of their existence, may soon come a-knockin'. As Ceasar ponders that inevitabilty and the mutants mobilize a low-budget assault force of beat-up jeeps, convertibles and school buses, Aldo and his equally-rockheaded gorilla soldiers secretly meet and, with Aldo as the agitator, decide to steal all the weapons from the city's armory and "smash" both the humans and Caesar. This plan is overheard by Cornelius (Bobby Porter), Caesar's young son who was obviously named after the beloved character so cruelly murdered two films previous, and so the poor kid is killed by Aldo in direct violation of their society's most sacred law, namely that "Ape shall never kill Ape." MacDonald discovers evidence that the child's death was not an accident and brings his discovery to the attention Virgil, but before anything can be done about it, the radiation-sick mutants pretty much figure, "What the fuck? We're gonna die anyway, so let's take those hairy fucks with us!" and engage the apes in all-out combat. The gorillas, having commandeered the city's guns and such, and the rest of the apes kick much ass ("Now, fight like apes!!!") and rout the mutants, after which Caesar is made aware that his son's death was actually murder, leading to an unexciting to-the-death showdown between the ape king and Aldo in the branches of the tree from which young Cornelius was forced to fall. When all is said and done, Caesar remains king and his integrated ape/human community lives on, while the remaining mutants return to their underground city and establish the cult of the bomb in order to prevent its use and the consequent total destruction of the world.

And from there, there really wasn't anything more to tell, so the film series fizzled out and it would be another two years before Ape-mania finally gave up the ghost with the horrible animated series (1974) and the turgid live action TV series that lasted for a mere fourteen episodes in 1975.

The nadir of Ape-Mania: the 1974 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float, with a musical number!

Come to think of it, around the same time there was a ridiculous APES-based float in the 1974 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, complete with actors in ape costumes and bored-looking local kids in shabby "human" getups that resembled minstrel show leftovers, accompanied by a truly awful song that went something like this:

The is a planet of the aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaapes
Where evolution changed its plaaaaaaaaaan


Yeah, if that wasn't the clear death knell of the franchise, then I don't know what was. Even at the age of nine, I found this embarrassing and knew the tit had run dry. For more on this affront to common decency, including an MP3 of the heinous sing in question (track 13), click here.

Thanks to its dumbed-down kiddie movie flavor, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES can easily be considered the weakest of the lot; it's not flat-out terrible, but considering what came before, it's pretty feeble and its cheapness makes it look and feel like a made-for-TV movie. The re-purposing as kiddie fare gave us a Caesar who was no longer the righteous and violent revolutionary firebrand of CONQUEST and his persona is only slightly less warm than Cornelius as seen in the first three films. He is now a family man, married to Lisa (Natalie Trundy), a minor character first seen in the previous film, and his little community/commune/dude ranch has the aspect of something out of a late-1960's naive stoner fantasy in which man and the animal kingdom live in vegetarian harmony (the humans are forced to cease eating meat). The characters are nearly all the most basic of cardboard cutouts, with little or no shading to their characters, and General Aldo in particular is a laughably lazy piece of character writing. While the gorillas had previously been written as the ape society's military bully boys, they at least had motivations that displayed levels of intelligence. Aldo is portrayed as nothing more than an empty-headed jock-type who has virtually no capacity for sensible thought, and as such he amounts to no more than a rote "baddie," little different than what the kiddie audience knows from the daily arena that is the schoolyard.

I saw this film when it came out and even then I had already seen the previous films and enjoyed how they took a concept that could easily have been laughable and infused it with intelligence and (ironically) humanity, but even at the age of eight I could see what had been done with BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and as a smart kid I felt it was an insult not only to my intelligence, but also to the intelligence of children everywhere.

When it came to the self-proclaimed "most incredible showdown ever filmed," the battle itself looks exactly like what any kid could have accomplished in his backyard in the '70's with an assortment of G.I. Joes ("With life-like hair!"), some random PLANET OF THE APES dolls and disparate toy vehicles that the figures could fit into. I would not have been surprised in the least to have seen the filmmakers stick a handful of mutants into the Partridge Family's Mondrian-looking school bus, or even a replica of the 1960's Batmobile crafted in someone's driveway from fiberglass, chickenwire and Bondo. So pathetic is this melee that it is only slightly better than the reenactment of the Bay of Pigs invasion in the Coleman Francis "epic" RED ZONE CUBA (originally entitled NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNDO FINE, 1966) that featured maybe ten guys in gear culled from the local army surplus outlet. APOCALYPSE NOW this ain't.

To me, the only items in the film worth noting are the following:
  • Forearmed with full knowledge of the future that is to come, Caesar's early efforts appear to be an attempt at fostering a peaceful accord between apes and humans, but those were the early days and who knows what happens to change that state of affairs over the next two-thousand years? Nonetheless, does that foreknowledge establish a new paradoxical timeline, one of eventual harmony that does not witness the complete destruction of the planet?
  • The establishment of the bomb cult, initially established to keep the Omega warhead's use from ever occurring.
  • Paul Williams as Virgil is by far the most interesting and fun character in the film and his erudite brilliance is something I would have liked to see more of. But, alas...
And so ended the run of the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, a fondly-remembered cultural artifact born of the 1960's and fine-tuned in the 1970's. Such is its popularity that it managed to survive Tim Burton's horrendous 2001 "re-imagining" and is currently set for a reboot that does not feature his wankery. The new film will chronicle the rise of the apes beginning with Caesar, who will be played by Andy Sirkis, the gifted actor who so memorably brought Gollum to motion-captured life in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. I have high hopes for that film, but then again it would have to really go out of its way to be anywhere near as bad as Burton's take on things. Anyway, long live the Apes!