Monday, May 26, 2014

From the Vault: Planet of the Apes

An ingenious, thought-provoking science-fiction film that holds up over 40 years after its initial release, Planet of the Apes is a cinematic experience like none other in film before it. Spurred from the mind of producer Arthur Jacobs with a script by Rod Serling, it’s a classic “new kid in town” story where the “new kid” just so happens to be played by Charlton Heston and the “town” is an alien world controlled by super-intelligent apes.
Heston plays Taylor, an American astronaut who crash lands on an Earth-like planet after years of hibernation during his crew’s journey through space. Joined in the early parts of the film by two fellow astronauts, they eventually come upon some primitive human beings who behave more like cavemen than anything else. Soon they become hunted by several gorilla warriors and Heston is taken captive and held prisoner in Ape City.
Heston gives a particularly interesting performance considering his Hollywood stature at the time. Used to playing capable hero types, this time around he’s treated more or less like an animal in captivity and ends up giving one of his more memorable turns as an actor, marred only by a few “over the top” moments. As good as Heston is, even better are Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as Cornelius and Zira, the chimpanzee scientists who take Taylor under their wing when they find he’s far more advanced than any human they’ve encountered. McDowall and Hunter have a great chemistry together, you really believe that they’ve known and worked together for the longest time, mostly evident during the trial/inquisition scene.
Maurice Evans plays a perfect villain in the form of orangutan scholar Dr. Zaius, bringing a menace to the role that's unsettling at times. Dr. Zaius and his beliefs are also where a lot of the real world issues come in to play, issues that are still relevant in 2014. From separation of church and state, racial and sexual equality, unfair trials and overreaching/controlling governments, all are just as relatable as they were in 1968. I was pleasantly surprised with the realization while watching the film, that I came to sympathize with Hunter’s Zira the most, her being the scientist under religious duress by Zaius.
Modern audiences might be turned off by the lack of action or computer generated effects, but those with a love for the old-school will find a lot to appreciate here. The Oscar winning makeup effects by John Chambers are a sight to behold and are still very effective to the point of having to do a double-take every now and then to make sure that those are really people underneath all that latex. Later make-up artists owe a lot to Chambers’ work on this film and it’s great to see makeup from over 40 years ago still look so damn convincing. On the action side, the few scenes that contain it, specifically the early hunting sequence, are impressively staged and edited together and add quite the amount of thrills to the film.
Planet of the Apes is a definite classic of science-fiction and had it not been for the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a few months later, would have been the crowning achievement for the genre in the 1960’s. For fans, it more than warrants a revisit, if however, you’ve never seen this masterpiece, I urge you to track it down as being disappointed is a hefty challenge.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Top 20 Films of 2013

This article is a long time coming and I apologize for its tardiness. Sometimes life gets in the way and until recently I haven’t had the chance to sit down and compile this list. I saw many films in 2013, so much so that the original idea for a Top 10 had to be expanded to a Top 20. So without further ado, please to enjoy my Top 20 favorite films of 2013.

20. Mud - A great coming of age story from director Jeff Nichols.  Matthew McConaughey rocks the screen as the title character, a drifter with a price on his head who befriends two teenagers. Tye Sheridan gives one of the best performances by a young actor in recent years and one can only hope he stays on this path of choosing roles in great films.

19. Stoker - One of the most intense and strange family dramas I've ever seen. Stoker, the first English language film from Chan-wook Park, is a sight to behold with beautiful cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung that makes this a very rich experience. Mia Wasikowska gives a truly disturbing performance as a young girl meeting her estranged uncle for the first time and Matthew Goode delivers as well as the aforementioned uncle in one of his best roles yet. Oh and Nicole Kidman is pretty great too!

18. Behind The Candelabra - Steven Soderbergh's alleged final film is nothing less than fabulous. The sometimes dark story of Liberace's doomed relationship with Scott Thorson, this is a tale of glitz, glamour, extravagance and not knowing when to stop. Featuring gorgeous cinematography by Soderbergh and one of Michael Douglas's best performances, Behind The Candelabra is a gaudy topper to the director's illustrious career.

17. The Counselor - Director Ridley Scott and novelist Cormac McCarthy teamed up for this marathon of awful situations and the results are maddeningly beautiful. Like a McCarthy novel come to life, the characters wax philosophical on life, the universe and everything with dialogue too wordy to be realistic but just enough to be surreal. This is an absolutely crazy film that needs to be seen at least twice. The Extended Director's Cut is much more fleshed out when it comes to the story and is a more cohesive film overall. Fun turns from Bardem and Cameron Diaz make this a disturbing yet enthralling experience.

16. Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coen Brothers tackle early 60's Greenwich Village and succeed triumphantly. Like other Coen films, Inside Llewyn Davis is filled with awkward characters doing awkward things, yet not to the point of parody but to the point of deep sympathy. The film may not be a perfect representation of the early folk scene in New York but it's definitely the Coen's perfect representation. Solid performances, great music and never ending circle of terrible situations, this is the Coen Brothers doing what they do best.

15. Spring Breakers - I've never seen a film from Harmony Korine before Spring Breakers and from what I've heard, I probably shouldn't. This film is an imperfect beast of crime and satire as well as a smart takedown of the youth culture it was marketed towards. James Franco gave one of the strangest and most mesmerizing performances of the year as gangster rapper/drug dealer/pimp/entrepreneur Alien, who takes four party girls under his wing. I was never not entertained by him from the tour of his house to an impromptu performance of 'Everytime' by Britney Spears, his was one of the best supporting performances of the year. Spring break forever, y'all.

14. 12 Years a Slave - Steve McQueen's harrowing third feature film is a powerful reminder of our country's past. I'd like to believe that most people would understand how wretched and disgusting the practice of slavery is, but if for some reason they don't, they should see this film. Ejiofor and Fassbender are great as expected but Lupita Nyongo was the true standout for me, her character, constantly abused and put through torture both physical and psychological was heart-breaking. This film should be seen not just for the powerful story but for the deft screenplay, gorgeous cinematography and pitch-perfect direction.

13. The Grandmaster (Chinese Cut) - It seems that every few years we get a martial arts film that takes the genre to a whole other level, in 2013, Wong-Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster was that film. Telling the story of Ip-Man, the legendary master of Bruce Lee, the movie, while not a typical biopic in any sense, takes the viewer on a journey of beauty and overall darkness as we follow Ip through most of his life. The cinematography on display is mesmerizing and the setting actually brought to mind Ang Lee’s criminally underseen Lust: Caution. Performances are excellent, especially from Tony Leung as Ip-Man and the always beautiful Ziyi Zhang as the daughter of a martial arts master. Zhang might be the best part of the film, with a character that is at times menacing and heartbreaking. I’d highly recommend staying away from the Weinstein/American edit of The Grandmaster, as many important plot points were lost on the cutting room floor and the shorter length greatly decreases the film’s impact.

12. Frances Ha - With Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created a character that could be considered the epitome of a “poor soul” but one that you can’t help but root for. Sure, all of her troubles are basically brought on by selfishness and a false sense of personal worth, but in the end, like all good characters, she finds a perfect middle ground. I first heard about Frances Ha on Twitter where critics were both praising and bashing it in equal measure, and after watching it three times in one weekend I joined the former. This is a film of boundless energy and comedy with characters who truly grow on you as the runtime progresses. Gerwig gave one of the best performances of 2013 and it’s a shame she didn't get more recognition for her work. Frances herself may be eternally “undateable” but the film itself is anything but. Oh and the soundtrack is absolutely lovely.

11. The Conjuring - Director James Wan is no stranger to the horror genre having basically kick-started the “torture-porn” craze of the early 00’s, but The Conjuring, his based on true events tale of paranormal investigators the Warrens is another beast entirely. Perfectly shot by cinematographer John Leonetti, this is a horror film more in sync with 1970’s classics like The Exorcist or The Omen, with characters you actually care about as opposed to the typical victims found in modern genre films. That Wan was able to capture the vibe of the period so faithfully and bring this story to the screen with such clarity is a pure joy. The scares are effective, well earned and never cheap and the duo of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson give the best performances of their respective careers.

10. Pain & Gain - A few years ago, if you had told me that Michael Bay was going to make one of my favorite films of 2013, I would have said you were insane and recommended a mental health professional. Happily, that would have been folly, as Michael Bay has indeed done just that. Based on a true story, I see a theme developing for this Top 20, Pain & Gain goes through the tale of a few muscle-headed dolts who decide to kidnap and rob a rich client for all he’s worth. With an Oscar worthy performance from Dwayne Johnson as well as a fine leading turn from Mark Wahlberg, Pain & Gain brings the laughs and action that are expected from Michael Bay, except in a whole new package. This, unlike most of his other movies, is an actual film, one that entertains and overall is his absolute crowning achievement as a director.

9. The Wind Rises - If it’s true that Hiyao Miyazaki has left us with The Wind Rises as his final film, we should all be happy with the gift. What struck me with this film was that unlike earlier Miyazaki pictures, there was almost no need for this to be animated at all, this could easily have been live-action through and through. A Kurosawa film in everything but name, The Wind Rises tells the captivating story of Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of the Zero Plane which was eventually used as a kamikaze plane during World War II, something that is not at all lost on the man. Hirokoshi, unlike other Miyazaki protagonists, is grounded firmly in reality and with the exception of a few dream sequences, rarely becomes anything larger than life. This is a beautiful film that is truly the best animated feature of 2013, if this really is Miyazaki’s farewell, he has left all of us with something special.

8. Rush - Knowing close to nothing about Formula One racing and the fact that the theatrical trailer seemed to tell the film’s entire story in a tidy three minute package, I figured Rush would be another Ron Howard snoozer. Thankfully, I was dead wrong as Rush turned out to be one of the best films from Howard in a long time. The true story of the 1976 F1 season where Niki Lauda and James Hunt fought to become the best racers in the world, Rush has everything you’d expect from a big Hollywood production and more. It also has something you might not expect, an Oscar worthy turn from Chris Hemsworth. What a delight it was to see him so dedicated to a character and actually showing some human emotions as opposed to hitting monsters with a mystical hammer. That’s not to diminish the performance of Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda, who more so than Hemsworth, embodies his character and gives a dynamite performance. Watching interviews with the real Lauda after watching Rush, I was floored by how well Brühl captured the persona of Lauda. Rush, in my estimation, is one of Ron Howard’s best films next to Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, it’s one that’s almost impossible not to enjoy.

7. American Hustle - David O. Russell’s American Hustle doesn't have much concern for its story in the long run, being more concerned with the characters and performances. Normally this would be a major turn off for me but when the characters are this interesting, I’m willing to give the film a pass. Until this film, I never thought Christian Bale would be able to top his performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and yet, here we are with the character of Irving Rosenfeld, a two-bit con artist who gets caught up in an FBI scandal. Bale throws himself entirely into the role completely transforming from his usual build and gaining close to 50 pounds, at first glance he’s barely recognizable. Rosenfeld, more than any of his other characters, is one you feel for throughout the entire movie. Russell knows how to work with actors more than he can handle a story these days it seems and I’m fine with that. Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Louis C.K. all give some of the best performances of their respective careers as well. From the excellent characters to the setting and costumes, American Hustle is simply a damn good time. Oh and that soundtrack? One of the best albums I've heard in ages, so many great hits in a small package. Plus, it has Electric Light Orchestra, so that’s always a plus.

6. Gravity - When does a film transcend its definition and become an “experience?” When that film is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. In the making for years, this space adventure shows loneliness in the sparsest of environments. Using state of the art cinematography and visual effects, Gravity is one of the most intense 90 minute rides in all of cinema. Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone gives a performance that’s so good that it completely makes up for her maudlin turn in The Blind Side. The musical score by Steven Price can be a bit too much at times, almost to the point of overwhelming the film, but in the end it does nothing to diminish the power of Cuaron’s vision. Outside of Kubrick’s 2001, I’ve never witnessed a more believable depiction of space, Gravity is an intensely great time that only improves on repeat viewings.

5. All Is Lost - Robert Redford gives one of the best performances of his long and storied career here, holding your attention with nothing but his presence. This is an actor at the top of his game, given a relatively dialogue free screenplay and commanding the screen through sheer talent. You truly feel for Our Man as one terrible situation after another comes his way; from the wayward shipping container that begins his plight to horrific storms and a malfunctioning radio, Redford is constantly overcoming one horrible situation after another. Described by some as Gravity on a boat, All Is Lost is far more effective than Alfonso Cuarón's film mostly because it's more relatable . Very few, if any of us will ever become astronauts but being stranded in the middle of nowhere here on earth is all too real and all too possible. Gravity was a very good film where All Is Lost is a great film, Chandor does more with so much less and the journey is all the more effective for it.

4. Captain Phillips - Paul Greengrass brings his trademark visual flair to Captain Phillips and along with a powerhouse performance from Tom Hanks, delivers one of the best action films in years. Too often, action movies will completely skip over the human drama that makes these conflicts interesting, luckily Phillips has that in spades. Thrilling from beginning to end and culminating in the finest ten minutes of Tom Hanks’s career, Captain Phillips is one of the most gut-wrenching and satisfying films I've seen in ages.

3. Her - This is a film that will make you look back on every failed relationship you've ever been a part of and perhaps even question your current one as well. People do change, we are not constant images. We evolve in our relationships and in life and that's what Jonze shows with brutal accuracy. Her will be dismissed by many as frivolous and hard to understand but I was floored once the credits rolled. This movie turned me into an emotional wreck like few other have in the past. Her is one of the best films of 2013 and one of the best romances you'll ever witness. A film that makes you question yourself almost as much as you question the film. I have a feeling that we are heading in the direction that Her presents and it will be an interesting and ultimately heartbreaking time to be alive.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street - Scorsese knocks it out of the park with his best film in years and his best collaboration with DiCaprio to date. The screenplay is sprawling and all encompassing but never falters. Featuring fantastic performances all around from Jonah Hill showing some great range to DiCaprio in his career best role, this film really has it all. Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long but you'd never know it. Thanks to Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker's deft hand in the editing room this feels like a brisk hour and 45 minutes at the most. I can't stop thinking about this film and I doubt I'll be able to stop for quite a while.

1. Nebraska - My absolute favorite film of 2013 and of course it comes from Alexander Payne. I’ve said this before but Payne’s films always seem to connect with me on a deeply personal level, he makes family films that are anything but typical. These are not your run of the mill Hollywood families that all get along, these are people that are rough around the edges and very true to life. Much like About Schmidt, Nebraska is a road movie concerning an aging father. Where Schmidt tackled the story of a newly retired salesman, here we have a fantastic character in the form of Woody Grant, perfectly portrayed by veteran Bruce Dern. Most people on their first watch won’t realize the subtlety Dern brings to the performance but under closer examination there are so many layers it becomes hard to keep track. Woody is a character that is only strengthened by the presence of his son David, played by Will Forte in a surprisingly effective dramatic turn for the MacGruber actor. Their interplay is the focal point of the film and the love and admiration that eventually surfaces between the two nearly brought me to tears. Nebraska is a beautiful film that everyone should see and it just might be Payne’s best film to date.