Note: Tackling all five Planet of the Apes movies, I opted to watch them in chronological order according to their narratives rather than by their release dates. Not only did this postpone the two best films for last, but the “logical” re-order created some deeply intriguing mind-busters about time travel quirks reminiscent of the French time-conundrum short, La Jetee, or the recent film based on it, Twelve Monkeys. This 5-year franchise also reveals curiosities like Roddy McDowell playing Cornelius, then Cornelius’ son, Caesar, and Natalie Trundy playing a mutant in 3955, but a doctor in 1973, an ape in 1991 and 2001.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971, 98 minutes) Date: 1973. An American space craft lands in Los Angeles and contains talking chimpanzees who claim they are from the future. After being clothed by Giorgio and becoming celebs du jour, they warn that man will blow up earth in 3955, for good, a fate which they’ve narrowly escaped by fleeing in the time-travel spaceship. For their efforts, Cornelius and Zira are executed, but they leave behind a smart baby, Cesar.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972, 87 minutes) Date: 1991. Hail Cesar. Twenty years later, apes are slaves, until Cesar the smart, talking ape organizes the simian underclass to kick some human butt. Odd dsytopian sets make the most of bad 1960s urban architecture.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973, 92 minutes). Date: 2001. The humans had a nuclear war, but the smart apes and some human slaves survive in a rural commune. Unfortunately, the soldier gorillas feel some apes are more equal than others, and worse, a gang of mutant humans turn up, ugly and angry. Endless boring chimp-gorilla-human-mutant battle resolves with a new ape-and-human cooperative civilization being declared. Includes coda from the year 2730 that confirms the success of this arrangement.
The Planet of the Apes (1968, 112 minutes) Date: 3955, sorta. See, according to my records, the protagonists here -- Cornelius and Zira -- got killed in 1973, so technically these next two movies don’t exist. Too bad, they’re the tastiest, filled with sly digs at man, weird sets and a lot of bare-assed Chuck Heston sucking in his gut. “Shocking” conclusion is a memorable cheese moment.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970, 95 minutes) Date 3955. James Franciscus shows up from the past to rescue Chuck. The apes are after them, so are a crew of whacked-out human mutants, who live in the rubble of NYC and worship an atom bomb. The church scenes are pure demented hilarity. Weapons expert Heston pushes the final button, exploding Earth for good ... but evidently not before Cornelius and Zira escape in his ship, zapping themselves back to 1973 and hence, Escape from Planet of the Apes.
Python (2000, 100 minutes). What we got here is 57 feet of very nasty snake (origins unclear). This bad boy rockets around at 60 mph, one whip of its mighty tail can decapitate an adult and it vomits gallons of acid onto its terrified victims. At other times, it seems meek, if huge; a topless woman manages to hold it back with a hair brush. Entertaining enough marauding large creature flick with enough intentional humor for today’s kids -- snake swallows pink-haired punk kid whole. Unintentional guffaws come from Casper Van Dien’s wacky, cracker-accented government secret agent role. Snake is the right mix of impressive special effects and reassuring cheeseball.
Fair Game (1988, 83 minutes): Trudie Styler -- actress or Sting’s wife (guess which credential won the desperately untalented minx this role?) – is trapped in a ’80s loft-from-hell (no interior walls or doors, how trendy!) with a deadly mamba snake, courtesy of her ex-boyfriend. It’s 75 minutes of you, the snake and Trudie-in-underpants who prattles on incessantly about self-esteem and does lots of yoga. You’ll root for the world’s deadliest snake in vain -- there’s no escaping this self-actualized bimbo. Normally, I’d award mitigating points for snake-cam, but this dreck is unwatchable.
Return to Me (2000, 113 minutes). Return to Me is utterly contrived -- a year after his wife’s death, David Duchovny meets a shy, sweet waitress, Minnie Driver, whose life was saved on year ago by a heart transplant. Guess whose heart? Despite the sentimentality of this plot device, director, co-writer and co-star Bonnie Hunt manages scenes in this romantic comedy-melodrama that feel wonderfully natural. That these scenes are less likely to involve the principals (Duchovny doesn’t try hard enough; Driver tries a bit too hard) hardly matters; they occur with enough frequency to keep the main story -- with its foregone conclusion -- buoyant. Despite its high-drama premise (she’s got my dead wife’s heart!), Return to Me plays at a relaxed pace, free from histrionics, a small tale of two lonely people, abetted by their vigorous extended families, tentatively starting over together.
A Place in the Sun (1951, 120 minutes). Dark, entertaining melodrama of personal failings and class anxieties given full Hollywood treatment. As the hungry, overreaching worker, Montgomery Clift never looked so beautifully tormented; as the rich girl, Elizabeth Taylor (shot in dewy close-ups) so achingly beautiful; and as the discarded nobody, Shelley Winters, so gratingly needy. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy. Poor boy loves rich girl, so pretty to look at -- you can’t believe how badly it all ends.
The Great Gatsby (2000, 100 minutes). Ordinary sort transforms himself into the enigmatic and nouveau riche Jay Gatsby in the pursuit of his old-money love, Daisy Buchanan, with disastrous consequences. Nobody’s had much luck making a decent film out of The Great Gatsby. While there’s juicy plot devices like extra-marital affairs, wild parties and automobile accidents, they never seem to gel into a compelling A-to-B narrative. That’s why the novel is rightfully melancholy and meditative, and the film adaptations are pretty, but dull. This latest, a BBC production, is lovely to look at and has a nice languid air, but is miscast (towering, blowsy Mira Sorvino as the sublime Daisy?!) and suffers from too much voice-over.
Great Expectations (1946, 118 minutes). David Lean’s superb, and often downright creepy, adaptation of Dickens’ tale of the blacksmith’s son, Pip, hopelessly besotted with the haughty Estella, the adopted daughter of the wealthy Miss Havisham. A mysterious benefactor catapults Pip into “gentlemanhood,” but Estella will not be won so easily. Marvelous supporting performances, including young Alec Guinness in his first role as Pip’s jaunty, foppish companion, Pocket. There has never been such a freakish and pitiful Miss Havisham as portrayed here by Martita Hunt, and this mad creature entombed in her own failed wedding party represents the worst results of marriage-as-business-decision.
Stand Up and Cheer (1934, 80 minutes). A cheaply made film whose badness is deeply compelling. The nutty premise: During the Depression, the president (we only see the back of his head, but he looks Rooseveltian) appoints a Secretary of Amusement to cheer up the country. Enter the over-eager Warner Baxter who immediately begins lining up every vaudeville act in the country, undaunted by a gloomy group of businessmen (“bluenoses”) who have a financial interest in prolonging the Depression. Baxter prevails and song-and-dance wins over the nation. (A aide actually dashes into Baxter’s office on cue shouting “The Depression is over! We’re out of the red!”) Scattered throughout the “plot” are various musical and variety numbers that manage to be both dreadful (uninspired singing, clunky dancing, racist) and breathtakingly surreal: a montage of miserable workers singing “I’m Smilin’” through gritted teeth; “Broadway’s Gone Hillbilly” in which rope-twirling cowgirls are lasso-ed by a giant cowboy atop a Manhattan skyscraper; a truly offensive sequence where Stepin Fetchit is browbeat by a Jimmy-Durante-impersonating, fully clothed penguin (so baffling one can’t look away); and a vaudeville team who hurl each other to the floor while quoting bizarre non-sequiturs. Not surprisingly, a talented 4-year-old steals the film – Shirley Temple.
Gabriel over the White House (1933, 86 minutes). Another freaky Depression presidency film. A gladhanding, lightweight president, Walter Houston, is sworn in. He’s controlled by his cabinet and declares unemployment and racketeering to be a “local problems” irrelevant to the executive branch. After suffering a brain injury in an accident, Houston is changed. Now serious and deeply moral, Houston becomes some crazy leftie dictator (he actually convinces Congress to appoint him dictator). Solutions come quickly. The Army of the Unemployed? Government jobs with food and housing. Racketeers? Repeal the 18th Amendment, then hang the hoods. Forego a military for the people’s needs. A real oddity of a film, that obviously owes some debt to the New Deal, but is just too weird to be propaganda.
Woman on Top (2000, 83 minutes). A beautiful cook (Penelope Cruz) flees her South American fishing village for the surprisingly sterile San Francisco. There she is instantly catapulted to near-stardom on a sexy, Latin American-infused TV cooking show, where she mixes South-of-the-Border sensuality with hot peppers and mangoes. Typical subplots involving the mopey husband, the new boyfriend and the dearest friend drag queen ensue. Food Drool Factor: Low. Cruz is undeniably luscious, but most of the food prep occurs off-screen.
Red Planet (2000, 106 minutes). This film had more mysteries than explosions, and that’s a rare quality in today’s sci-fi romps. In the future, Earth attempts to colonize Mars. First they melt some ice caps and send in algae, to create oxygen. When the O2 levels go south, they send a crew up to check it out. Once on Mars, the situation proves even more mysterious. Our plucky heroes mull around a deserted Mars, pondering, learning. Left behind on the mothership, Carrie Anne Moss functions ably in the Alien-style, tough-smart-female-superior-in-a-fetching-sweaty-tank-top role. Standard plot device about a last-minute rescue played out with satisfying quickness. Pure-action fans may feel a little restless, but I liked the waiting-around-on-Mars feel
Retribution (1999, 99 minutes). A film that manages to be appropriately snappy and a bit gloomy simultaneously, but that’s Scotland for you. Edgy, leftie reporter Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy in Trainspotting) keeps getting tipped off to murders, the victims are all “sworn enemies” of the Left. Soon enough the cops suspect Miller -- but what of his childhood friends, now grown up into problematic adults? Smart, wry thriller with a nice sense of place.
X-Men (2000, 104 minutes). From the wildly popular X-Men comics series comes this big-budget, effects-laden action flick about the near-future and the travails of genetically altered, but highly skilled human mutants. Free from the smirking self-parody that has derailed some other recent comics-to-screen ventures, X-Men successfully strike the right tone between fantastic and dramatic while not dissolving into flat silliness. In this, director Bryan Singer is greatly aided by a coupe of old boards-trodders, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who manage (without giggling) the appropriate gravitas as befits their respective archetypes of Good and Evil. Admittedly, some of the mutants are snazzy eye-candy -- Halle Berry (Storm), Ray Park (The Toad), Rebecca Romijin-Stamos (Mystique) -- but the three most interesting mutants -- Wolverine (a break-out role for Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (McKellen) -- are sketched deeper, characters compromised by doubt and self-loathing.
The Last Supper (1995, 94 minutes). In this satirical black comedy, five bored and too-smugly-smart-for-their-own good leftie graduates students in Iowa share a group home and bizarre weekly ritual. Each Sunday, they invite over a guest whose opinions they despise, and for the good of the world, they poison them (citing the traditional “If you met Hitler when he was a just a young bad watercolorist, would you kill him to spare the future?” argument). The guest spots featuring among others a gay-hating priest, a racist, a Rush-Limbaughish talk show host and a librarian who bans J.D. Salinger are funnier that the moral filler.
The Bride Wore Black (1967, 107 minutes). French director Francois Truffaut’s purest Hitchcock homage (including a score by Bernard Hermann) about a mysterious woman (the perfectly impenetrable Jeanne Moreau) who employs various disguises to track down and kill five men. Why they “deserve” to die is only gradually revealed.
Invaders from Mars (1953, 78 minutes). Low-budget sci-fi semi-classic. Told from a child’s point of view in bright color, Martians come to Earth and turn nice people into evil saboteurs. (Mustn’t forget that Cold War paranoia…) It does have the overall feel of a serial stretched out, but there’s a quirky charm to its hokeyness. The Martians come in two shapes: The leader is a gold-painted head with tentacles; his minions are big oversized lugs in green, fuzzy bodysuits (zipper up the back). A big chunk of the action (that isn’t military stock footage) takes place on one set -- a totally phony looking fence and pit of sand. The sets are so stark from economy, they almost seem Expressionistic. Look for Barbara Billingsley (Mrs. Cleaver) is a small uncredited role.
Death Wish (1974, 92 minutes). A classic modern urban fable (not without elements of black humor) about a mild-mannered liberal (Charles Bronson) who after his wife is killed by thugs hits the mean streets of New York delivering justice with a .32. On one level, it’s an exploitative good-guy-kills-bad-guys crowd pleaser; yet, by the film’s end, it’s unclear how heroic Bronson is. There’s better odds that the city just spawned another violent sicko -- the Bronson vigilante -- making the city the victor and negating his “triumph.” Fascinating anti-urban screed. Look for Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Guest in early roles (a “freak” and a cop, respectively).
Family Plot (1976, 120 minutes). Hitchcock’s last film, a light comedy-mystery. Mostly this tale of lost-heirs, séance scams and diamond heists just doesn’t catch fire. The film is visually uninteresting but for a breathtaking and funny scene where a car hurtles out of control down a windy mountain road.
Big Night (1996, 107 minutes). A superb little film, bittersweet yet warm, about a failing Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey and the two brothers who own it. Stanley Tucci can taste the American dream and is willing to compromise his principles to achieve it; Tony Shalhoub, the cook, would rather fail than relinquish the integrity of his traditional cuisine and values. Food Drool Factor: High. The mountain of rigatoni pie will astound you.
See the Sea (1997, 52 minutes). Deceptively slow-paced and often serene film that barely masks sexual tension, madness, malevolence and danger lurking beneath. A young lonely Englishwoman and her baby, living on a pretty French coastal island, strike up a relationship with a sullen girl who is backpacking through the area. Astonishingly, in these sunny climes, and through the Englishwoman’s simple acts of kindness, director Francois Ozon, with no flashy camera gimmicks or spooky music, creates a palpable sense of suspense and unease.
Like Water for Chocolate (1993, 113 minutes). Semi-magical fable and family melodram about the irrevocably linked powers of cooking and love. In early 20th-century rural Mexico, poor sensual Tita, the family’s natural cook, is denied her true love. She keeps her spirit and romance alive through lovingly prepared food, a spiritual as well as physical restorative. (Avoid the dubbed version. The dubbing actors are just terrible.) Food Drool Factor: Moderate. The persistent sepia filters don’t help; it’s hard to see the dishes’ subtleties through the murk.
Sunset Strip (2000, 90 minutes). Ensemble piece following several Sunset Strip rock ‘n’ roll scene denizens circa 1972 -- clothing designer, photographer, rock stars, wannabe stars and impresarios, writers and waitresses. The individual storyline aren’t very compelling, and while characters cross paths, they don’t really interect in surprising ways, making this 70s retread flick a fairly dull trip. Only actor Jared Zeto seems to have any fun as the slightly stupid, self-absorbed country-rock star.
Meet the Parents (2000, 108 minutes). These are the worst kind of in-laws from hell, the ones that to the untrained eye seem very proper and accommodating while they twist the knife and slam the door. The comic pleasure of this film is the slow and often subtle ways the potential in-laws, the Byrnes, express their reluctance about the hapless prospective son-in-law, Ben Stiller. Daddy (Robert DeNiro), especially, takes gleeful delight in making Stiller feel uncomfortable when he could just as easily do otherwise. Stiller: That’s a lovely vase. DeNiro: Not a vase, an urn containing my mother’s ashes. Tough for Stiller, funny for viewers.
The Guilty (2000, 107 minutes) Minimally budgeted, perfunctory plotted twisty-turny movie about a boozy, sleazy top lawyer, a long-lost son, some petty criminals, a blind crime boss and a couple hot chicks all engaged in blackmail, murder, date rape, car theft and highly coincidental twisty-turny plot things. A paler version of the sort high-gloss, high-sleaze movies Michael Douglas used to make starring Michael-Douglas-Lite, Bill Pullman.
Shanghai Noon (2000, 110 minutes). Hong Kong martial arts superstar Jackie Chan transported to the Old West? Yup, and this rollicking Wild West action-spoof lives up to its funny, absurd premise. Chan is a Chinese imperial guard sent to Nevada to rescue a kidnapped princess. Whatever -- it’s a just a set-up to get Chan out West, pursued by bad guys, and to hook him up with his newfound buddy, the oddball outlaw Owen Wilson. Chan drops his tough-cop persona and really flexes his comic talents (plus his flying feet), creating a looser, goofier (even drunker) action hero, but it’s Wilson with his anachronistic surfer patois and perfect timing that walks away with the film’s funniest moments. Despite its use of racial and sexual stereotypes for quick, dirty laughs, Shanghai Noon is a good-natured romp and a welcome, entertaining rework of both martial arts and western genres.